Category Archives: Literacy

How Penny Kittle Made My Day (for the second time)

I’m featured in the Teacher Learning Sessions Podcast chatting with Penny Kittle (OMG!!!) about how to get young people reading. Please listen (it’s less than a half hour) and send some coins to the Book Love Foundation. Teachers need books and Penny Kittle is, essentially, the fairy book mother by giving teachers classroom libraries. She is a gem and my kids are better readers because I received one of these grants. All the money raised goes to teachers to buy books. If anyone has ever purchased books for you or for your students, it’s time to pay it forward. Book love is contagious!booklovelogov2020416

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#kal Kids Are Loving #2: Books My Students Are Currently Reading & Loving

Welcome to another Kids Are Loving (#kal), where I offer up texts my students are reading and loving. In case you missed KAL #1, you can catch up here. These texts are ones young people choose to read. [Note: My classes are comprised of mostly underserved young people (i.e., students of color, ones with learning challenges, boys, etc.) who usually have not had enough positive experiences with reading before starting my class.] Kids are currently reading, chatting up, and passing around a lot of nonfiction. Enjoy!

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Image from Amazon.com

Nonfiction

Columbine, Dave Cullen: none of my students were alive when this school shooting happened on April 20, 1999. Cullen’s account of the shooters, the environment, and the aftermath holds them spellbound through the entire account. Plus, Cullen’s writing is riveting and makes for great modeling about powerful writing.

Laughing at My Nightmare, Shane Burcaw: Burcaw is a 21-year-old living with spinal muscular atrophy. It’s Burcaw’s use of humor that students love as they read about his triumphs and travails. What kids realize is that having a challenge doesn’t mean someone is so different after all.

Lost Girls:An Unsolved American Mystery, Robert Kolker: I picked this book up after reading a review in the New York Times. Essentially, this book attempts to find out what happened to four murdered women whose bodies were found in New York. That these young women were, essentially, forgotten because they lived lives of survival makes their fates and the inattention paid them, even more troubling. This book has resonated with many students and has topped a number of Best Of lists for them.

Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America, Nathan McCall: Nathan McCall came to my college when I was a sophomore (I vaguely remember). At that time, his book had just been published. I remember him as being warm, strident, and of having my peers note that they felt he was talking about their own experiences. Now, nearly 20 decades later, that same feeling of personal address by McCall continues to resonate with readers, particularly ones of color, but McCall’s message holds true for any young person going through difficult times and encouraging them to keep pushin.

Fiction

The Coldest Winter Ever, Sister Souljah: I can’t keep this book in my library and have multiple copies. This is a fast-paced, drama-filled story of a young woman who navigates elements of urban life. Winter is street smart, in love with a bad boy, has a complicated relationship with her father…kids love it (and so do I). There are two sequels, BTW.

Spanking Shakespeare, Jake Wizner: A senior in high school has to write his memoirs as part of a graduation requirement. As you might imagine, the details are hilarious. This book has been popular with boys who want to laugh. A lot.

What are your kids loving lately? Share their faves (and yours) in the comments!

 

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#kal Kids Are Loving #1: Books My Students Are Currently Reading & Loving

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Boy21 image from Matthew Quick’s website

Welcome to what I hope is a regular series I’m calling “Kids Are Loving” #kal. Here, I’m aiming to note what is popular with my teenage readers in hopes of having a record for future recommendations, to also serve as suggestions for those of us working with young people, and to remember what they enjoyed at that particular moment. These books are all ones students selected on their own and read as part of their independent reading lives.

Boy 21, Matthew Quick: boys love this book! I can’t keep our multiple copies in the library. From Matthew Quick’s website: Basketball has always been an escape for Finley. He lives in broken-down Bellmont, a town ruled by the Irish mob, drugs, violence, and racially charged rivalries. At home, his dad works nights and Finley is left alone to take care of his disabled grandfather. He’s always dreamed of somehow getting out, but until he can, putting on that number 21 jersey makes everything seem okay…

Rule of the Bone, Russell Banks: another one that is always checked out. Review here from the New York Times.

Monster, Graphic Novel, adapted by Guy Sims from original by Walter Dean Myers: a graphic novel of the popular story of WDM’s Steve. Tackles timely questions in a gripping, accessible way. Students who loved the original Monster also like this version.  More info here. 

Redefining Realness, Janet Mock: another popular selection that is informative and inspirational as well as a great example of how literacy can save us. Plus, Mock has a fantastic online presence that encourages follow-up and further reading.

The Death of Bees, Lisa O’Donnell: a student explained why she loved this book: alternating narrators and a mystery that isn’t resolved until the last few pages. Great for kids who love mysteries, young adults as protagonists (and I found them portrayed accurately, though it took me a moment to get used to the narrators because they talk just like…well, like teenagers!), and a well-told, sentimental story. (The link takes you to an NPR story about the book).

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Rereading My High School Classics: Killing Mr. Griffin

I received this amazing grant from Penny Kittle’s Book Love Foundation, allowing me to stock my classroom library with an awe-inspiring number of books my kids will actually enjoy reading. While perusing the catalogue, I noticed that Lois Duncan’s Killing Mr. Griffin was among the options. KMG is one of those books that evokes an instant reaction for me: flashback to early high school (or maybe late middle school). I was a binge reader, so I probably was in the process of reading every book Duncan had ever written by that point. I was most likely splayed out on my bed while my grandmother was most likely telling me to do something (most likely to wash the dishes or pour the food up after dinner) and I was unable to tear myself away from the book. I passed much of my youth like that.

During this particular time of year, when life threatens to speed up and have its way with me, I start to read for comfort as a way to reorient

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Killing Mr. Griffin: Nearly As Good Now as It Was Then

myself. This type of reading is my self-care, I reckon. I might reread a book or two that I’ve enjoyed (cue Tiny, Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed), a lot of young adult literature, some poetry…I don’t want to veer too far outside of the familiar because I need a place to stand (or read, if you will), that is comforting. That’s why I wanted to reread KMG. Would time stand still the same way? Would I feel those little creepy thrills at the mystery? Would I be as enmeshed with a text in the ways I was when I was a teenager?

Essentially, yes. The quick premise of the book: Mr. Griffin is a high school English teacher who pushes his students to be excellent. He doesn’t take late work, doesn’t accept mediocrity, insists that students think critically. Wait. Am I Mr. Griffin?! I hope not, because four particular students decide to play a prank on him and scare Mr. Griffin into becoming a nicer teacher. Of course, given that Duncan wrote I Know What You Did Last Summer, this intention was going to go awry, and it did. The kids kill Mr. Griffin.

I’m relatively sure that when I read it as a teenager, I would have been all caught up in the social structure of the killer kids: they lure in a nerdy junior (the majority of them are seniors), they make her feel that she belongs, they complain about the teacher being too demanding. I would have totally gotten behind their cause (well, up to a point), allowing myself to get caught up with the momentum of the story. I would not have paid any attention to Duncan’s attempts at Mr. Griffin’s backstory, choosing instead to consume myself with how Murder Inc. was going to either hold or fold as more people began to find out what they’d done. I did feel some anxiety at moments around the actions of the one kid at the center who orchestrated everything. But, yeah. I would have spent all night reading it, going back to wherever I got that book the next day (be that the public library if it were a Saturday or the Thrifty Bookworm if I could get a ride there to trade it in) to keep reading something along those lines.

Fast forward to nearly 25 years later. Here’s what I noticed reading KMG this time:

  • Lois Duncan had some great lines of prose, particularly when it came to description. A line I wrote down to use as a mentor sentence: Susan turned to see David Ruggles running toward her, the slightness and delicacy of his bone structure giving him the framework of a kite with his blue Windbreaker billowing out beneath his arms, the wind seeming to lift and carry him (3).
  • All I could think about this time was how similar my teaching philosophy was to Mr. Griffin and how, IRL, if you’re a tough teacher, you’re often not considered a “good” teacher by students until years down the road. I also thought it was so sad that he truly loved his students and working with them and all they were concerned about was their grades. So, they killed him. Yipes. And he and his wife were expecting a baby?! NOPE.
  • I was less forgiving of plot holes. Characters came and went, then reappeared (or didn’t) with little rhyme or reason. Again, I notice this now but then? Such discrepancies wouldn’t have bothered me much. I was also not satisfied with the (relatively) tidy ending.
  • There are some fantastic allusions to Macbeth (the Murder Inc. kids make a reference to the line about the old man “having so much blood in him”) and there are several to Hamlet. The English teacher in me cheered.

In sum: Grade then: A; Grade now: B+

Reading one of my classics was a delightful experience. While I’m sad about how things ended for Mr. Griffin, I do think the experience of reading the book was as positive now as it was then. I also have had a series of great conversations with colleagues about rereading the books that mattered to them as young people and if they held up to our grown up eyes. Wouldn’t that be a wonder to share with our students? But, oh, it was simply joyful to sit in a restaurant this afternoon and read, and read, and read and not care what time it was, or who needed me. For those moments, it was me and my book. And that was all that mattered.

 

 

 

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Update on Taking the Diverse Books Pledge: Harder to Reach 100 Than I Thought (sigh)

I pledged to read at least 100 books written by diverse authors this year. I make my kids keep a chart where they list the number of books read (goal: 40 by year’s end). In keeping with do as I say and also what I do, I thought I should check in to note my progress and make some final plans as the year ends.

I keep too many lists in too many different places. Plus, I read a variety of texts, to my bio kid, with my other kids (students) and a bunch in between. Some recent favorites for the boypie:

For my students:

For Me:

Some In-Progress Reflections: There are not many books that feature kids of color just being kids of color, doing normal kid things. The closest I can find are the John Steptoe, Angela Johnson and Spike Lee board books. In the Johnson books, Joshua goes to the ocean, walks in the rain and looks at birds. There’s nothing didactic about them, and, I’m realizing, those are the books I want to read with my son. I don’t want to always feel like there’s a lesson beyond: hey, it’s fun to wear rain boots and splash in the puddles. Why does it always need to be deeper than that? We need more of THOSE stories! Thus, I’ve found us reading more books about other topics of interest: trucks, Wolfie the Bunny, Find it books because they are FUN, essentially. What is disappointing there, though, is that when these books feature actual people, few, if any, are people of color. UGH.

I do not like when my reading time is compromised. I rarely read at school because I’m (hopefully) having reading conferences with students. I had been reading on our morning commutes, but my toddler now wants to use that time to read together, and I love that special time. That means, though, that I have to carve out time to read, which is fine, but that time is inconsistent of late. I am most settled and happy when I know I’m going to read for a particular amount of time every single day. Since I seem to have insomnia of late, I have been reading for about a half hour or so in the early hours of the morning. I totally get what my students say when they complain about finding time to read. Thing is, though, once you have the time as habit, then it’s much harder to give it up.

I set out to read only diverse books, but my interests take me everywhere. I read a bunch of parenting books. Okay, actually I read only one that made sense to me, so I stopped there (Peaceful Parent, Happy Kid) because I knew that if I didn’t watch out, I was going to parent as I was parented and I didn’t really like that, and others on Family Traditions and another one on Failure. All are ones I highly recommend, but none are written by diverse authors.

I’m going to ball park my current progress and say I’m at about 50 books, give or take a picture book here or there. With one month to go and midterms, a national conference (woot!), and teacher-related stuff, who knows if I’ll make it to 100, but I’m going to try my hardest. I’ll also share my progress with my students tomorrow as a way of modeling the need to reflect and re-evaluate and, as having a growth mindset suggests, continuing with deliberate practice to meet my goal.

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What Happened When We Asked Students to Think: Conclusions

Reading student reflections is always my favorite part of anything I plan. There, if we’ve done it at all well, they will reveal what they really think, what they learned (or didn’t), and offer any suggestions for future instruction. This process of asking for feedback and reflection is amazingly useful and quite humbling. It’s also thrilling. Thus, when I sat down to read through the student reflections of what they’d learned through the messy process of growth mindset (part one is described here and part two is described here) and design thinking, here are some snippets of what they said:

Question: Why do you think this assignment asked you to think of a problem and design a solution?

They said: “Maybe because people want to know what kind of ideas we might have.” “To tell people nothing is impossible, there’s a solution for every problem.” “…there are always problems in this world and to design a solution can help us learn to think of a problem then solve it.” “…because Dr. Parker wanted to know/see what we’re capable of.” “Because we as students might want a change in the high school.”

Question: What risks did you take to move your project forward? What did you try that you weren’t certain about at first? What were the results?

They said:”We repealed our skit in order to move forward”…”We took a risk when we started designing our prototype. We weren’t certain about the drawing of the brain. The result of the drawing turned out to be good.” “The biggest risk was changing of topics because if we did that we’d have to start back at square one again with the very little time we had left. But it turned out all right in the end.” “I wasn’t sure that this idea will work because it seems a bit too far fetched. Like not many teachers and staff in the school may agree with the idea of naptime.” “We tried to use a soft poster, like a thin one and it got destroyed and it resulted to us having a really good poster board.” [Note: ALL students remarked that their results were satisfactory because they made changes. That’s a big deal!]

Question: What did you learn about yourself through this activity?

They said: “I learned that I need to have a positive growth mindset at all time and not everything that’s impossible unless you actually try.” “I can be creative if I want to be and I want to be able to use my creativity through everything I do.” “I like solving problems.” “I can have a lot of potential if I focus more.” “I learned how to manage my time.”

As I look at these responses a few months after the project, I’m gently reminded that, while I felt this project was disorganized and I was one step ahead of my students, they learned a tremendous amount. Specifically, they learned how to collaborate, how to think of something that mattered to them and try to change it, how to take pride in their work, how to present their ideas to an authentic audience.

Since that project, we’ve moved on to other pursuits, but we keep the throughlines of the growth mindset work with us. [Note: it’s important, too, to consider what Carol Dweck has said about how the growth mindset understandings can be used incorrectly with young people. She’s right. We are all combinations of growth and fixed mindsets. It’s situation-dependent. We are all works in progress, and that is not a bad thing.] Students will occasionally challenge each other to “GROW!” which I find hilarious, especially as those words come when we are doing something hard. Kids want more of this type of work, work that matters, work that is real, work that encourages them to push against their own boundaries and, indeed, to grow. 

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Every Now and Then: When Students Write for Us

I’m trying to write a grant for more books for my classroom library. The application asks for two references. For awards like this, where the grantors are actual educators, I try to have actual students write those letters. I am never, ever disappointed. I asked a current student and one I had a couple of years ago. They complied instantly.

Some excerpts from the current student. This first one is a bit long, but it is so, so good:

On the first day of class, Dr. Parker told us to answer a question: “What does it mean to read powerfully for you?” Never before had I critically thought about what it meant to read powerfully. To me, reading was just reading. Nevertheless, as I thought more and more about it, I was able to develop an answer. Reading powerfully involves an equilibrium of two different things, the heart and the brain. The passion and the imagination. The emotion and the understanding. For me, I am not able to read powerfully if I do not use both my heart and my brain. I can read with just my brain, and absorb the information but not actually feel or make any valid connections with the text. As a result, I tend to not really remember or walk away with much. I can also read with just my heart, and feel the text but not actually understand it on another level. As a result, I tend to never remember the text and walk away emotional. However, when I read to both feel and to understand, then I walk away with a much more interactive experience with the text, with more knowledge. I walk away as a powerful reader. To be completely honest, I wouldn’t have learned any of that if it were not for Dr. Parker asking the tough questions and getting our reader juices flowing. It was at this moment that I learned that my reading habits would be challenged (since she asked a challenging question) and that I would finally develop into becoming a better reader and consequently, writer.

And her conclusion:

Nevertheless, I think that what could make me and the rest of the community better readers is access to more books. When I was younger, I’d always ask my parents for books rather than clothes or anything else. The reasoning behind my thinking was that a book contains everlasting knowledge. A book is a trip you pay for once, but can always go back again free of cost. Books are what allow those who are underprivileged the opportunity to catch up to those who are.  Books are the keys to a gateway of knowledge. When you get young people to read, you give them everlasting knowledge. You allow them to travel the world (and elsewhere) and gain a variety of different perspectives. Not only that, but books allow young people to engage in conversations with adults and bridge a gap that exists between us and them. One thing that I appreciate about Dr. Parker is that she uses books as a way to help us jump start conversations among ourselves and with her. Furthermore, when we are challenged to read books that are well written and difficult, the knowledge we gain influences our writing. Dr. Parker tends to remind us that one of the only ways we can become better writers is if we become better readers. So, if we have more books to read, than we can read more, and if we read more, we probably will become better at reading (practice makes permanent). If we result in better readers, than our writing will be out of this world. Not only that, but as we read, we grow (or at least I do). When we grow and read more books that vary and gain different perspectives, we learn to be more loving of one another (at the very least, accepting). Books create a community of love and knowledge. I know that Dr. Parker has already started doing this in our class, but with more books, she will expand this community of love and knowledge. The beauty of this expansion is whether we realize it or not, is that we all end up falling in love with reading. And a world of powerful readers is better than a world without readers, is it not?

[Note: my first reaction to this beautifully written letter was to cry. At my desk. In front of the kids. Since having a baby, I’m not afraid to be vulnerable. Seriously? To write like this and to be only a sophomore?…]

Letters like this are why we need to ask students to write letters of recommendation for us every now and then. Because when they have the opportunity to articulate what we do every day, what seems so abstract suddenly comes into focus. Often I work with young people and I hope that they know how much reading matters, how much literacy matters, how much I need it to matter. Then, when they write, I know for sure.

Who knows if I’ll get the grant. Doesn’t seem like that’s the most important part of this project anymore. What makes it matter right now is that for this young person, I have made my classroom a space where literacy has created some wonderful experiences. Where reading can humanize us. That reading can make us more loving is perhaps the greatest sentence ever written. I think she is on to something.

Simply because I asked her to write for me.

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