Saturday, August 25, 2012

My Internal Conflict: R4P Boosts Test Scores

School has started again, and I've met my students. I love having new students who don't know me or a thing about the class. They come in, look at the book shelves literally groaning with books, and wonder what they've gotten themselves into. I love having students who've taken the class before 'come home' for another semester of reading. They help me create a supportive climate for reading and writing and thinking from the first day. This semester, two boys have returned for their fourth semester! We laugh and say they're majoring in R4P.

I always talk about all the reasons to take my class and I watch heads nod in agreement. Some kids are avid readers like me and love the idea of getting credit for what they'd do anyway. Some students used to love reading and are willing to try again. Some are preparing themselves for the added demands of college reading. Some are forced to take the class, our only option for students who really need a remedial class...special education students (this semester I have between 6 and 10 special needs students in each section) whose teachers schedule them into the class; remedial readers who need more practice but there's no remedial classes offered; English-language learners who need to interact with print; foreign exchange students who want to learn more about American books and work on their English. I also know I'll have kids who don't like to read whose parents have seen the class in the course catalog and think it'll be 'good' for their children. Then there's the random student who, for no reason, finds himself in my class.

It's a real mixed bag. 155+ students, probably that many motivations for being in class.

A few years after I created the class, I learned some kids took it for a reason I SHOULD have guessed and didn't. They needed to improve their ACT scores for college. Instinctively they knew a class where they'd read and write every day would be helpful. They couldn't articulate why, but they knew it would help.

I'll admit, there's that part of me as an educator who hates the fact I'm using test scores as a way to sell my class. I know standardized tests have their place, but they also have limitations. And the fact that so many tests, ACT included, are high stakes -- deciding students' futures -- makes me cringe.

Then I step back and remind myself I'm NOT contributing to the huge testing industry. I'm not selling ACT prep books or courses or modules. I'm not hawking my wares to desperate students and their parents. I'm making a space in their day to read books they choose, and I'm giving them an authentic audience for their thoughts about books. I'm giving them books. I'm getting to know them well enough so I can match their interests and abilities to books. I'm sharing books and asking them to share.

The work we do in F4P contributes to their development as people, not test takers. If they improve their test scores, that's a lovely side benefit, but not the reason.

I told my new students my story yesterday. I told them IF they do intend to raise their ACT scores, I think I know how it'll happen. We acknowledge the fact that the reading and social studies and science sections of the test have long passages to read. Sometimes students can't focus on these passages, sometimes their attention spans are too short, their confidence levels are low. Sometimes they can't read fast enough to finish the selections. All these difficulties have nothing to do with their reading comprehension. And all these behaviors are ones students will work on through the course of our semester together. We sit for increasingly-longer amounts of time and read. Students who can't sit still at the beginning of the semester learn to be quiet and focused for longer and longer amounts of time. They discover their reading zone because they are truly motivated to read the books they've chosen. There is an inherent interest in their books and a real reason to read. I use the word 'stamina' to describe this ability...they're building reading stamina just as a long-distance runner would build her stamina.

The other reason I believe my class contributes to higher test scores is reading speed. Daily practice helps students read faster. Most of my students want to read faster when they set semester goals...they believe they read too slowly. That would be huge handicap on timed tests like the ACT. Students often speak of their anxiety trying to finish before time is called. Reading more quickly will hep all students when faced with those long passages.

So, I have tried to come to peace with telling students my class can help their test-taking abilities. I justify my stance by telling myself and them that I'm NOT changing my curriculum to practice for tests, not cutting something from my class to practice and prep. I'm giving time and space and books to readers.I'm providing authentic practice for tests and for life.

Tests are an ugly reality in my students' lives. They'll decide if my students are accepted into college, how much scholarship money they'll earn...I didn't make this world. No one consulted me. IF they had, I'd've told them what I think of their tests. BUT no one asked.

Here's what my students told me about how my class helped them in the nasty world of standardized testing.

  • After taking this class, my ACT reading score went up 5 points!
  • After my last semester in R4P, my ACT score when up 4 point in reading and 2 points overall from 24 to 26. My mom wants me to keep taking the class because as far as she’s concerned, if it raises my ACT score, it’s making me money.
  • Helped me on my ACT after learning the patience required to sit still and read. My English and reading scores improved
  • My ACT reading went up 4 points
  • R4P has helped me to be able to focus for long periods of time and stay attentive. It has helped tremendously with the ACT
  • R4P has increased my ability to read faster and my comprehension when I do, helping me on my AP test and even when I forgot to do my Astronomy homework and needed to highlight fast.
  • Reading used to mean squat to me. Now I absolutely LOVE to read! Since starting this class, I’ve increased my ACT reading score, which got me an academic scholarship, and I can actually pay attention in English class when we read
  • The class really helped me with AP English readings…and to read faster for the ACT and AP tests
  • The last time I took the ACT I got 31 on English and 33 on Reading!
  • The most compelling reason to take this class, I think would be that it improves your English and reading, not only for school, but also for the ACT more importantly
  • There is so much to read on the AP Stats and AP English test that it is sometimes hard to finish in the allotted amount of time. Because of R4P. I was able to finish reading all the passages and answering all the questions way before time was up and was actually able to go through and check my answers.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

We Read for Pleasure, but We Accidentally Learn

From the first day of my Reading for Pleasure class (initially called 'Appreciating Literature' since I was afraid to call the class what it really is), I have been blessed with administrators who understood what I was doing, or at least trusted me to understand what I was doing. No one has ever suggested I do pre-and post-tests, proving students are better readers at the end of the semester. No one has insisted that I show 'results', demand that all students read the same number of books, or the same number of pages. At the beginning, I just wanted to show that a class where students were giving the freedom to choose which books to read would impact their attitudes about reading and their own perception of themselves as readers.

I've given reading tests for 30 years, and I know most students don't understand the results. What, exactly, does the number 8.6 tell us about their reading? They DO understand if they read more slowly than the other students in class, or if they realize in discussions their understanding of the book is incomplete. They know if they can read all the words in the assigned texts -- and if they can't, they go into panic mode, spending their energies on trying to hide their inadequacies from their classmates and their teachers. They know reading can trip them up all through their day. These are the students I hoped will come away with a new perception of their strengths and their developing capabilities.

I didn't intend for my class to impact students' work outside my walls, but from listening, asking the right questions, and trusting my students to ask questions they want to answer, I've learned much. The benefits of my 'little' elective are far-reaching inside Norman North High School and beyond, in colleges and universities. I help students become 'life long readers' and 'life long learners.' I always wondered what those terms meant -- I now see the transformation begin.

On their final last semester, students wrote a question that addressed impact on other classes. "How has R4P helped you in your other classes? Explain." It wasn't one of the required questions, but many students did choose to speak to the changes they've seen in their work at school because of our class.

The biggest impact students notice is their ability to focus, sit still and pay attention for longer and longer, their willingness to be quiet and be with a book. We don't begin our semester reading for 45 minutes a day. I know many of my students cannot sit that long and focus. This is one of the many ways my students vary wildly in their abilities. Some are used to sitting for hours and reading. Others literally can't focus for five minutes. I talk to them about building their stamina slowly. We break up the class period with other activities, but we read every day. I've had extreme cases where students, usually because of learning difficulties and attention deficits, feel trapped by the quiet in our room. Most of them trust me and work with me. I learned a wonderful strategy to use with such kids and am eager to try. I watched a teacher literally time a student reading for two minutes, giving him a break, and then asking for another two minutes. It was done respectfully and the young man was eager to extend his attention. It doesn't take long for those kids to surface in the classroom, and now I have a new idea to help them extend their stamina.

Most of the students don't use the word 'stamina' but that's what we're a runner, like a swimmer. We need to practice extending the time we can read and focus. Nearly every student who enrolls in the class with a stamina challenge has found the discipline to be quiet and to attend to his or her book for longer and longer amounts of time.

Students also point to increased father just told me that his nieces and nephews noticed how many more 'big words' his son used in conversations now...a year of R4P exposes students to millions of words, many of them new and many of them big!

As a Teacher Consultant for Oklahoma Writing Project, I understand the connection between reading and writing is important and one I stress. We read and we write. They write to me; I provide an authentic audience who responds. Often I'll have students who already know they want to write as professionals. They know, before I ever tell them that reading makes us better writers. I've had students keep journals of the strong writing they encounter in class. But most students are surprised to discover extensive reading strengthens their writing. It doesn't take them long to make that observation and to attribute it to the reading they do in this class.

I didn't set out to change the culture of our school, but the 300 students who take my class each year go out into their other classes armed with new skills, new strengths, and most of all, new confidences. Can't get any better than that.

But it doesn't end at North. Many students have told me they're taking my class to help prepare them for the rigors of college reading and writing. They know they'll have to be self-directed in reading their assignments, and they'll need that stamina we build. Students return from college to tell me the practice in our class did just that -- helped them sustain their independent work through college.

Through social media, I stay in contact with hundreds of my former students. Yesterday, I had a long exchange with a former student about Hunger Games -- book vs. novel. It's not unusual for former students to ask for book recommendations, or recommend books to me. They send me pictures of their children reading. What we started together in R4P extends into their adult lives.

I've had students who've been inspired to continue their passions for reading and writing, and they've chosen majors in Classics, Literature, Creative Writing, and that makes me proud. I've had other students who tell me as parents they read every day to their children. In some ways, that makes me prouder...we are changing our school and the world with this class.

As usual, I am excited to share my brilliant students' reflections.

  • In English class we read the ‘classic’ novels and every time a book comes around no one in the class likes it and that discourages the students from reading because they think all books are going to be that boring and uninteresting if they are regular readers. But in this class we get to choose what books to read and we can find that there are books that we actually like instead of classics…in response to “We shouldn’t teach great books; we should teach a love of reading” ~B.F. Skinner (and yet the student said Angela’s Ashes was the most inspiring.).
  • APUSH AP US History)  requires a great deal of discipline in order to read 30 pages of a long, dull, and ultimately torturous text book. R4P helped me improve my reading time, so I could actually read my text in the time I was given.
  • By taking this class I am now confident in reading in front of others and so proud of reading so many books.
  • I think every student should take this class before they go off to college. I know that I am now more prepared than ever to start college because I can tackle those long hours of just reading
  • I’m convinced that reading thoughtfully and consistently in R4P has improved my writing and my overall creativity
  • I’m more able to concentrate in other books
  • I’ve learned to look out for symbols and figure out their meaning. This has helped with poetry and especially in my AP English class.
  • In English we have to read aloud a lot and when I spend 30-50 minutes in 1st hour listening to characters in my head it can seriously help.
  • In other classes I can now read through long tedious passages. I get to relax and enjoy myself when I read.
  • Our generation never reads anymore and [the administration] wants to keep us reading
  • R4P develops reading/writing skills along with creativity. It also allows students to express themselves through reading
  • R4P has definitely helped me in my early enrollment English classes, just improving my reading and English skills. R4P has shown me that I can really enjoy reading if I have the right book.
  • R4P has helped in other classes by expanding my vocabulary. I actually enjoy reading now.
  • R4P has helped me expand my vocabulary when I’m writing papers for my college composition class
  • R4P has helped me in History because I used to not be able to just sit down and read from cover to cover. Now I can calm down and read for longer periods of time. It has helped in English because we have to do the logs, so now I think more about what the characters are thinking and how their actions are going to affect the future of the story
  • R4P has helped me in my AP European Hisory class because I have been able to read documents faster. R4P has shown me that I am a very good reader. I find that reading is very relaxing and it helps to just sit down and read instead of doing something that stresses me out.
  • R4P has helped me in other classes because I do some sort of reading in every class…I’m able to focus better now. I can pay attention to something that I’m reading for a longer period of time now.
  • R4P has helped me in other classes because now I can come up with a fairly good response over any reading material. It has also shown me that I read A LOT, which is something I’m very proud of. I get extreme entertainment out of reading
  • R4P has helped me in other classes by making me focus and take the time to understand what I am reading or learning about
  • R4P has helped me in other classes by teaching me to try new things even if I don’t like the topic
  • R4P has helped me pay closer attention to directions especially in English. There is always room to improve as a reader and I can make time to read.
  • R4P has helped me stay focused better in my English class and also outside of school when I’m reading things like instructions and what not
  • R4P has increased my reading ability so much that it has impacted my grades. This class has given me the ability to read for a long period of time and comprehend what I’m reading. I now get a great joy from curling up with a good book in the evenings
  • R4P has made me feel smarter in all my classes. It gave me new habits. It made my life feel different like I’m in my books doing crazy adventurous and fun things.
  • R4P helped in my AP English class because I was able to read the passages on the test faster
  • S R4P helped me bear English…I feel like I’m fairly cultured in literature, and that just wouldn’t be true without this class. I feel like I’ve reaped academic rewards from reading and I know it had a large role in how I think and act as a person.
  • R4P honestly helps me to not get bored in my other classes. I’ll finish my work and know that I have something fun to do afterwards
  • R4P isn’t a core class but it truly has helped in every single one of my core classes.
  • Reading makes people smarter->smarter means  more  AP tests, AP classes and higher ACT, SAT, and AP scores-> higher scores reflect well on our school -> good reflection on the school means better reflection on us all and more school funding
  • Reading my chemistry book became easier and faster as the year sent on and that’s the best that I could’ve asked for
  • Spending an entire semester reading will drastically improve your reading speed, and writing the Logs reflecting on what you’ve read increases your writing ability and reading comprehension at the same time. Not to mention your critical thinking skills!
  • The administration…would probably have a riot the size of the state if they did away with R4P
  • This class has been one of the biggest impacts on my life in the four years I have been at NNHS

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Reading Growth Through My Students' Eyes

As I continue to reflect on my students' final exams, and learn from them, I come to the question that I wasn't sure about when the kids wrote it: What does reading mean and has that changed? If I can predict what they'll say, I worry about the value of the question, and I knew the definition would be positive, and for some students, that would show a change...But as I read, and as I thought back on the changes in their attitudes in just 18 weeks, I'm glad the question is there. This question wasn't for me -- it was for them. They wanted to think about and talk about what reading means to them now.

I've said before, my class is not made up of omnivorous readers, although I do have some avid book-enhalers. My class is a true mixed bag, and I think that's part of the strength. Kids have remarked about how many different students take my class...trouble-makers, perfect students, ELL students, good kids who never give teachers trouble. They're all here. Kids who haven't read a book ever, haven't read since elementary. Kids who have fake-read their way through high school, buying Cliffs Notes and calling it good. They're all here.

One boy wrote me a note about his plans for class: he was going to find a friend to join him in making merry -- disrupting class, talking, kicking back and visiting. He was shocked and dismayed to discover, as he sat pretending to read, that everyone else was engaged in his or her book. He couldn't catch eyes with anyone. He told me he reluctantly started to read his own book and never looked back.

Another girl explained she loved my class because of the democratic nature of it. Other electives self-select students so kids don't get a chance to be with different kinds of students. Here, I've had a tough guy who, when he slapped The Contender closed for the last time, announced with pride that was the first book he'd ever read. It's not too often that he's in a class with National Merit Scholars, cheers and poms, foreign exchange students, college-bound students...all together, all supportive, but all independently pursuing goals, independently reading and writing.The common task of reading gives us all a sense of community and we all respect the differences in our identities at North.

Students are able to take the class more than one time, and some kids try to minor in R4P.  We pitched this change because in a second or third semester, students will be reading new books, facing new comprehension challenges. Since the curriculum is set by students' choices of books and my responding to them, taking the class over is highly beneficial. It is to the climate of my class, too. The returning students know the drill...they act as role models, almost co-teachers in many ways. Their leadership helps us coalesce as a class much faster..

Students do define reading very differently at the beginning of the semester and the end. Words I've heard at the beginning of the semester are: boring, a chore, required, something they're forced to do, hard...I could go on, but the picture is clear These are NOT the eager children they were in their first grade classes, knowing their job was to learn to read. Some have become distracted by other activities, but some have become so beaten down...they've lost hope that there's a book out there for them.

Many kids come to my class assuming it's going to be one more way for the school to prove to them they're not strong, not good enough.They're afraid I'm going to show their weaknesses to the world.  I try to encourage with words, but it's got to be the books that change their minds, about their own strengths and attitudes, and about books. Every book they read, they're stronger readers and more confident readers.

So, as their attitudes, experiences, abilities are so different, their definitions of reading are as well. But a semester of positive, successful encounters with books does make its mark. They have grown as readers, and they can articulate that fact. They're eager to talk about their growth. We can see it in their answer to the question:  What does reading mean to you? How has that changed this semester?

  • Reading actually means a lot to me now. I read when I’m stressed and I need to cool down. I read for entertainment, I read for information. I read to enrich my vocabulary. The list just keeps going
  • Reading has always been a core, but now it’s a hobby that I love I will now be a reader for life!
  • Reading is a glimpse into the collective human consciousness
  • Reading is a way for me to learn about people and subject I am interested in, as well as to be entertained every once in a while
  • Reading is a way to go on an adventure.
  • Reading is an escape for me. I love watching what an author can pull together to make a story.
  • Reading makes me feel like I’m in a whole new other world, looking at something from a different perspective.
  • Reading means a lot to me because it helps us escape the problems we’re dealing with and find pleasure.
  • Reading means exploring the unknown to me.
  • Reading means I can step out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary. Explore what would happen if, for instance, a clown jumped from the ferris wheel over a shark-infested ocean and become friends with the sharks, learned their habits and mated with one!
  • Reading means learning about others without even talking to them because you can relate to them; it means I can go to Africa while in the bath tub. It means I can hear how someone else dealt with what I’m going through. Reading means I can share knowledge with others and I love that.
  • Reading means learning to me. Reading used to be boring but now I have found good books. I can do whatever I set my mind to
  • Reading means more to me now than it did before I had this class.
  • Reading means the key to knowledge for me because you learn so much from one book
  • Reading means to be in a huge fictional world
  • Reading means to me that I’ve accomplished something. I read better and understand things in class
  • Reading to me is a new-found glory.
  • Reading to me is a way to inhabit worlds and fantasies where anything is possible. Where magic is rea and the good guy always wins.
  • Reading to me is educational, inspiring, distracting, comforting, fun and entertaining. Not only do I read faster, but I understand more. I get more emotionally attached
  • Reading to me is like meditation. All of your worries in life are swept away by a new world. I get a sort of meditating sensation out of reading
  • Reading used to be something that was forced upon me at times and something that was dreaded. Now reading is something that is fun and that I do as my choice instead of ‘having’ to read
  • Reading used to just be something for me to do. Now, it has grown to be an escape, a way to cope, a way to find answers to life’s questions or whatever I need ti to be
  • To me reading is a gateway to another world
  • To me reading means escaping this world to enter a new one. At the beginning of the semester, all reading meant to me was opening a book and reading the words. 


Monday, August 13, 2012

The Three Best Reasons to be a Teacher?

I once got a gift from a beloved student -- a mug with "The three best reasons to be a teacher: June, July, August." At first I was hurt, and then offended. Is that what people really think? Do they have any idea how intense teaching is? Do they really think those 'vacation' days are for our convenience? Do they think WE'RE the reason for summer breaks?

I remember at the time my response was, "Those are the only reasons I can come back to the job -- I do have some down time." While students are only required to attend school 180 days a year, I knew teachers packed in more than 8 hours a day into those 180 days...more, counting the professional days we're expected to be at school.

I knew I spent a lot of time during the school year, at home, working on school. I grade at home, make all my parent calls at home. Now, with online grade books, I can easily record papers at home and have them ready to turn back to students. I also spend time at school, outside my contract day, planning, in meetings (no, I don't count any part of meetings that occur between 8:30 and 4:30), answering emails from parents and colleagues, attending to paperwork. Neither did I count any work I did during my planning or lunch. I utilized those time within my contract day as part of my job.

I know of colleagues who have worked LONGER hours than I have, and some who work fewer. The point of my essay here, is all teachers work beyond the contract day in order for our time with students to be efficient. That is the professional thing to do, and we do it.

So, last year, in the heat of teacher bashing, I decided to commit myself to logging all the extra time I spent: days at school before and after my contract days and hours, time I spent grading and recording papers...all that. I found an app for my iPhone, TimeTracker, and after some consulting with the designer (a very helpful fellow), I carefully kept track every day of my time. Anyone who knows me knows that was not easy for me...

I had several conversations with friends about my motive for doing this...was I trying to sustain anger at my 'mistreatment'? Was I trying to prove myself to be a martyr to my profession? The answer to both questions was a resounding 'no'. I approached the year as a researcher. I knew teachers' jobs are not a matter of leave the room, lock the door, and don't think about the job until the next morning when you unlock the door. I knew every teacher invests time off contract-hours doing the work of an educator. I don't know a teacher who ONLY spends his or her eight hours a day. But, in order to prove my observation, I needed data. I needed numbers. Have I sometimes resented that stack of papers to grade? Of course. But I know in order to do the job the way I need to, I'll be spending time at home, and at school before and after my 'official' hours.

I have discovered I can't filter my hours into the different tasks, so I'll probably email the designer again and ask how to look at the way my time was allotted. But the tasks I tracked are: grading, meetings, paperwork, planning, reading professional literature (ended up NOT counting that -- I read lots of books about education!), responding to parents or students online, email communication (colleagues, other professionals), subbing (during my plan), and Teen Volunteers (the club I co-sponsor).

I know I spend more time grading and responding to students' papers than other teachers. I've written about that before. I've come to peace with my decision, because I learn so much about my students when I carefully read and respond. It's the price of doing business the way I need to.

What did I learn? In the school year from August 16, 2011 to June 11, 2012, I invested 479.25 hours of my own time in my classroom practice. The number seems overwhelming, but I have friends who worked even more.

What does that mean? Bear with me, and please don't hesitate to correct my math...but...

Norman Public Schools had 21 'vacation' days last school year. I repeat, these are not in the calendar for my sake, but for the sake of the district's clients -- our students and their parents. I have no choice to teach those days. I am forced to take them off. Twenty-one days of eight hours equals 168 hours. So I deducted them from my total of 479.25 and divided by the eight hours. That gave me, after my contract dates. August 17 to May 29, nearly 39 eight-hour days extra of free work...almost two months...

So, now...I worked from August 17 to May 29, with no breaks, and another eight weeks. That takes us to July 29 or so. With just over two weeks left before the beginning of the 2012-13 school year.

I worked nearly a 50-week schedule, but in just over 9 months. I told you teaching was intense. Teachers jam 50 weeks of work into 36 or 37 weeks. We work evenings, weekends. We work those vacation days the public envies us for.

Another way to look at it is to calculate the actual number of hours I worked, during the school year. That 479.25 hours averages out to nearly 13 hours per week, figuring a 37-week year. So, for the school year, I averaged 53 hours a week teaching and preparing to teach.

No wonder I'm tired all school year. No wonder I collapse in June. I've done fifty weeks of work in thirty-six.

I've paid for those June, July, and August days. I paid with the 479.25 hours I donated to the school...

Now, if I'm really working 50 weeks, let's talk about my pitiful, full-time salary. TimeTracker 'gave' me $10 per hour for each hour I logged. I would have loved seeing that $4,793 added to my salary.

Not holding my breath.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

What the Heck is Reading for Pleasure??

My school district changed configurations nearly 15 years ago, from a mid-high, high school configuration to a four-year high school one. We changed from two mid-highs serving 9th and 10th graders and a high school for our 11th and 12th graders to two four-year high schools. Both high schools would work on an A-B Block schedule, meaning in a two day span students would take eight-90 minute classes, and teachers taught six in the same span. We knew we would need more elective choices for kids, and we needed to balance the demands of those electives while offering valuable content.

I 'invented' a dream class: Reading for Pleasure, except we couldn't call it THAT. We called it 'Appreciating Literature.' Well, it languished in the course catalog for three years. My principal was not convinced of its academic merit, and he gave other, more familiar electives their chance to grow. But, as happens, one year there weren't enough electives for students to choose among, and at the very last minute something needed to be added. Since I was such a nag, they gave me a chance. I had two sections that first year, one each semester.

I knew I would need to prove the class immediately or risk losing it, so I found ways to conduct a small research project. My question was: "In what ways does Appreciating Literature change students' reading habits and attitudes about reading?" We did surveys, we kept track of pages read, and I asked students at the end of the year to tell me ways their habits and attitudes changed. And change they did.

I had to prove it wasn't a blow-off class, or a glorified study hall. I had to prove real learning, maybe a different kind of learning, was happening in my class. I had to sell the class to my administration, and I had to sell it to my students and their parents. I worked and recruited. My students convinced me to change the name of the class to Reading for Pleasure, R4P. We still get calls from universities checking the transcripts of prospective students, asking if this is a basketweaving class, and the counselors are quick to explain the class.

We grew slowly from those two sections, and now Norman North offers 12 sections a year. I teach R4P full time, and a colleague teaches one more section a semester. When I told one of my former students I would be teaching R4P full time, he wryly observed, "So, you've figured out how to get them to pay you to read full time!" And, yes I have.

I believe there are several important factors to our success: I read with my students. I read every day. I read the books they recommend to me. Occasionally other teachers will teach a single section, and unless they read with the students, they don't have my success. It's tempting to use that time to grade, or record work, or research on the internet, but what message does that send to the students in front of me when I tell them THEY must read, but I'm going to do this other task instead? If I value reading for them, I'd better be doing it myself also.

I also require students to read books -- not magazines. Real comprehension can't occur reading short magazine least the kind of comprehension I'm aiming for. We must wrestle with the text, being confused sometimes, but reading on to make sense. I'm open to any book, fiction or nonfiction, they'd like to read, but we deal in books.

Choice is vital. I give my students freedom to choose any book they want to read, and to abandon any book that's not working. I suggest they revisit books they read in middle school to find the beauty in the books they missed. I recommend Young Adult literature to my students, and have really worked hard over the years to expand my knowledge of YA books for boys. I recommend adult contemporary literature and classics. I recommend biographies and other nonfiction. Students are likely to hear about 20 to 30 books a week between my book shares and their classmates' book shares.

Getting to know students quickly helps me focus my recommendations to them. I learn their relative reading level and can match books within their comfort zone. I know their interests, I remember what they have read before and know other books like those.

I have probably 2000 books in my room, books I've collected over the years. I buy many new books, but I also haunt thrift shops, used books, and I copy an idea from Kelly Gallagher and ask graduating seniors to consider donating a book to my collection. That helps students because we can browse and 'shop' right in my room. My librarians are highly supportive of the class and are valuable resources to kids who just need someone besides me to talk to.

Another element is the way I respond to their work. We read and we write. Students must write about their books. I absolutely understand 'fake reading.' I know most high school students are masters of the art and craft of fake reading...of being able to talk around the book without doing more than skimming. So, my Reading Logs are the heart of our work. They write about their questions, their predictions, their opinions. I ask them to connect their books to their lives. I have them find important quotes from the books and write about them.

But the real magic of the class happens as I read their Logs...I read every word. And I respond to every entry. I ask questions, I drop hints, I agree with observations...I respond the way readers respond to each other. I model the conversations we have. I make suggestions, I ask clarifying questions. I model predicting and connecting.

I love to return graded papers to my students. They put their books down and pick up their papers to see what I've said to them! They get disappointed if I don't have their papers back the next day because they value our conversations as much as I do. One former student told me how important my role as his audience was to his development as a reader and writer. I was grateful he noticed my hard work...and it is hard.

On the Spring '12 final students, students wrote the questions and I chose some as required questions to answer and others that were optional. One of the optional questions was: What would be the most compelling reason for other students to take this class? R4P isn’t a core class…why do you think the administration wants R4P in the course catalog? 

Here are their answers...I am so proud of my students' reflections!

  • The reason I chose this class initially was because it featured something I was already good at. And I know for a fact this class attracts lots of nerdy bookworms. It also attracts students who heard it was a blow-off class. Granted , it is easy. It was designed to be easy. But it’s not a blow-off. I think this is a good class to take because it gives students autonomy, at least for an hour. As you say, students get few choices in their education, so why pass up a choice when it is presented?
  • R4P is a good reminder that learning can be fun and more meaningful if it’s more about a focus on the students as individuals than number and tests scores. We could read what we wanted and write about what popped out to us and share what moved us, even if it wasn’t some classic that teens can’t relate to anymore…We aren’t really reading it [classics assigned in class], just waiting for the teacher to stop and explain or show us the movie.
  • In R4P we get to relax and read and discuss our thoughts
  • At the beginning of the semester I could barely read 15 pages a day because I could barely focus. Now I can sit and read for an hour. R4P has helped me in English class because it has raised my focus level
  • Considering I rarely ever read before I took this class, I’d say I expanded my reading a lot by just learning how to love reading
  • Going to classes throughout the day that drain you mentally sometimes runs you down. R4P is a class where you can still be stimulating your mind but you are doing it in a way where you are relaxed and enjoying what you are doing.
  • Honestly before R4P I did not think I would ever appreciate a novel of any kind. I now walk away from class with an entirely new perspective on novels
  • I can now focus much longer while reading without becoming distracted or zoning out. This class has helped me to learn to like reading. Before this class I never read for pleasure, nor ever had the desire to read at all
  • I have read 17 books in ONE class during ONE semester. If I wasn’t a good reader, that wouldn’t have been possible
  • I think others should take R4P because you can express yourself and you’re not forced to read any certain book
  • I think students take this class because they get to choose what they read. There’s no requirements, and therefore, more freedoms.
  • I used to hate reading, but I actually read at home now. I’m proud to say even as much as I have never thought I would be, I am a reader
  • I would suggest this class for kids who don’t like reading, but once they get in the class and find a good book their lives will be changed.
  • I’m proud…I have made a complete 180 turn as a reader in every way
  • If you love reading, R4P is already perfect for you because it offers you time to do what you love. If you don’t like reading, R4P teaches you to love reading a lot.
  • In R4P I took chances with books I would have never given a second glance before and I actually do like them.
  • In R4P if you don’t enjoy reading, you learn why you don’t and most likely, you’ll overcome that and discover your inner reader
  • In R4P you jump into the books and get to experience things you never thought possible
  • It doesn’t feel like mandatory reading in here.
  • More time to read…sharpens critical thinking, vocabulary, writing and analysis skills
  • R4P allowed me to relax. Before this class, I was always stressed with work and other classes. R4P was a miracle for me and I don’t know where I would be without it.
  • R4P has helped me most with reading comprehension. As a reader, I find myself more confident in my ability to comprehend literature. I get a sense of pride from R4P
  • R4P has helped me stay more focused and also helped with speaking in front of people. It has shown me that if I open myself up to something new I might actually like it and learn something.
  • R4P has helped me to become a more efficient, faster and careful reader when it comes to school work. It has shown me the progress I’ve made in my reading speed and examining skills…When I go back and read my journals, I feel very accomplished and proud of my writing skills.
  • R4P has helped me to become more mature. I’m more ready to open up and try new things. I’m still as picky as ever, but at least I can get through a boring book. Is that stamina? I suppose.
  • R4P has helped me to stay focused and engaged in other classes when I really didn’t want to.
  • R4P has shown me I can read anything if I put my mind to it.
  • R4P has shown me I can read however I want and I need to throw away the excuses. I get clarity out of reading when my thoughts are jumbled, I can see the silver lining with books.
  • R4P has shown me that I can understand more than one genre, and reminded me of my love for reading…you get to learn your favorite genre of book, learn how to respond to the books and see where you’re at as a reader.
  • R4P has shown me that I’m actually a pretty good reader. I’m better than I thought I was
  • R4P has taught me to give every book a chance.
  • R4P helped me in other classes, especially History, because it got easier for me to read through the information and it got easier to comprehend what’s going in, so I did better in that class.
  • R4P helps people get better in reading and in R4P you almost never have homework so it’s helpful and easy…it can’t get much better than that.
  • R4P helps you read faster, take notes faster, and generally get your work done in time.
  • R4P is a class with more than one teacher because if students keep reading diligently they may find that they are learning twenty different lessons from twenty different teachers, as opposed to one subject by a single teacher.
  • R4P is a good reminder that learning can be fun and more meaningful if it’s more about a focus on students as individuals than number and test scores.
  • R4P is such a peaceful, happy part of my day
  • R4P not only gives you time to read it makes you feel like you’re in a different universe
  • R4P showed me that I CAN sit and read a book for an hour and love it. I get enjoyment out of reading. I also gain knowledge and extend my vocabulary by reading books with words I have not learned
  • R4P’s a great class to just sit back, crack open a book you want to read and just reeellaax. I man any book you might want to read. Boom! Come here, sit down, and read.
  • Students should take this class to build speed and stamina
  • Taking R4P will help you stay put and be able to read, which will help you when you have to read textbooks and things
  • The most compelling reason for students to take R4P is the freedom
  • The most compelling reason for students to take this class is that you get to read and discuss books in school that you want to read. Talking to someone else about a book that you really like is one of the best feelings ever. And for that person to be a teacher that has a degree in what she’s talking about, can only improve your thoughts about a book.
  • The most compelling reason for taking this class is that you get a grade for reading and you never get called [out] for reading while the teacher is lecturing
  • The most compelling reason to take R4P is that it truly is for everyone. There’s a book for EVERYONE no matter who you are.
  • This class offers so much like the opportunity to discover who you are in reading, a fun atmosphere…it is a class to grow as an individual and become confident in your reading ability
  • This class shows kids that gook books to exist. This class forces kids to find something they like in a book
  • This class teaches you something necessary for college and life, to read…and to enjoy reading
  • We could read what we wanted and write about what popped out to us and share what moved us, even if it wasn’t some classic that teens can’t relate to anymore
  • We have the freedom to choose what we learn about in R4P
  • Writing my thoughts and how I feel about what I’m reading made me connect more to the characters. I’m not just reading to get my assignment done
  • You take in knowledge of your choice in a relaxed environment

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Learning to Talk About Books

I spend considerable time at the beginning of each semester helping students learn to talk and write about their books as readers, not as students. They're always surprised when I tell them I want them to write in first person, to use "I" in their Reading Logs. Some find this exciting, some are hesitant to step out of the comfortable box they're in...

I use a form of Reader Response for our Logs, personal responses, connections, questions and predictions based on what students read. I want to know their opinions. They're used to summarizing and analyzing in their English classes, so I have to show them another way to write about books. In every class I will have students who are taking the class for a second...or third...or fourth time. They are co-teachers in this shift. They've figured out how to write personal responses, to engage in a true dialogue.

The dialogue piece of the writing, I believe, is as vital as the personal responses to books. I promise my students I will read every word they write in their Logs, and I will respond to every entry. Skeptical faces greet that statement; new students are always skeptical. They've had too many teachers who didn't or couldn't take the time to read and respond in a meaningful way. It usually takes a few weeks to convince them, but convince them I do. At the beginning of the semester, I gently redirect summarizers by asking questions, by requesting predictions, opinions. Many students see, through my modeling and responses, how much fun it is to engage in a real dialogue about books...

I ask questions, agree with an assessment of a character, warn students of a surprise awaiting them. I show the kind of interest readers do when talking to other readers about books. Often students in their final reflections of the class point to the interaction on their Logs as one of the strengths of the class...that conversation convinces them that reading is a social endeavor. For all of us, reading is especially enjoyable when there's someone who cares about what we have to say. I provide that audience as I build our community of readers.

Even though most of our class time is taken with reading, conversations begin to pop up as books are recommended. I believe that students are rehearsing these conversations in their Logs, trying out honest opinions, giving reasons, asking questions. Students also are required to share a power point book share during the semester. They must incorporate images, quotes or reviews, and links to book trailers or authors' websites. As I also model these book shares before asking students to do their own, and since my 'repeaters' have already done book shares in a previous semester, these shares also show students how enjoyable it is to share, to listen, to talk about books.

By the end of the semester, my point is made: true reading is a very social activity.

On the final exam last semester, students wrote several questions that encouraged their classmates to talk about books: they asked about books that inspired, characters a reader would want to be, what books should be made into films, what books they will share with their own children. Their questions truly reflected the value we had all put on talking about books and writing about them. As you read, remember some of these students were non-readers 18 weeks before, some had never talked about books with anyone before.

In no particular order, here are some of my favorite selections of my students talking about books and characters, and what they mean. I've tried to capture students' voices without editing.

  • This semester I’ve gone through a lot that has been hard to deal with at times. I have attended two funerals that ended courageous battles with cancer and learned of the diagnosis of a friend with ALS. I was stuck with those things I couldn’t change or make go away. These circumstances have provoked many questions about pain and why we feel it…and why we’re even here. Tuesdays with Morrie helped me cope with everything. It also answered a few of my questions, but really, by reading it I ended up asking more. I was Mitch. I was watching helplessly as lives that still held so much potential slipped away. I want to live like Morrie. Time is finite. We don’t choose our hardships. How we spend that time and how we respond, however, is our choice. And it’s when we see that and live that and truly believe that, it’s then that we see maybe we aren't so stuck after all.

  • I would be Arthur Radley from TKAM. He’s a quiet kind of guy. He doesn’t like getting much attention from other people. I don’t’ want a lot of attention around me either. The only think I don’t do that Arthur does is look out the window and watch people like a creeper. I like how the kids thought he was a criminal and evil and whatnot. Then in the end, when Scout and Jem were being attacked, Arthur comes and saves him.

  • If I had to be one character from a book, that would be miserable. Bad things tend to happen to the people in the books I read. Pi gets stranded on a boat with a tiger! Several of my favorite characters live in insane asylums. And at least half of the books I’ve read involve a protagonist having some sort of existential crisis that I’d rather just avoid. If I had to pick one, though, I guess I wouldn’t’ really mind being Ed Kennedy, of I am the Messenger. He definitely has to go through trials by flame, but I feel he came out on top, feeling whole again.

  • They say that when you close a book, you lose a very dear friend. I have never experienced this until I met the young wizard, Harry Potter. I had spent so much time with him that he became a part of me. For I was there when he discovered he was a wizard, and a famous one at that. I was there when Harry faced Voldemort for the first time while he searched for the Sorcerer’s Stone. I was there in the Chamber of Secrets when he risked his life for Ginny. I was there when he found out that he had a godfather who truly loved him. I was there when his wand connected to Voldemort’s, then clung to Cedric’s dead body. I was there when Sirius died. I was there when Dumbledore fell of f the tower because of the killing curse. I was there to realize that Snape loved Lily Potter. I was there when Harry got rid of Voldemort for good. When the book closed I thought, “I WAS there.” It hit me that there would be no more adventures with Harry, Ron, and Hermione. His story is over, and his time spent in my heart is gone. I departed with a good friend, but I know that as long as his story continues on, other people will be filled with the warmth that is Harry Potter.

  • A lot can be determined about the books people tend to share. Sharing a book means that one is passionate about the book they’ve experienced and they want others to know about it. By sharing, it is interesting to see who loves chick books, thrillers or inspiring books

  • Ok, strictly speaking, my favorite character is Lupin from Harry Potter. He deeply appeals to me. Scariest antagonist is Bellatrix, but I think only because we don’t know her background. Voldemort was almost a sympathetic character at some points, but she never was. Character I most identify with is probably Ginny. I grew up with all brothers and always had a crush on Harry.

  • Tuesdays with Morrie has made me realize that I should not let time, or not-so-very important things get in the way of the things that matter most. Perks of Being a Wallflower has made me realize that I should try and talk to anyone, because I may not know that I could be able to help change someone’s life. We Were Here has taught me to love the ones I love and to night fight for stupid things, which I have done.
  • After reading Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice I feel very accomplished and I feel like a more scholarly reader.

  • At first I only wanted to read ‘good books’ but now I’ve realized that’s for me to decipher what good books are and to discover them through actually reading them.
  • Books cause us to reevaluate our own difficult situations and learn a way to cope or change them. Books will never fate or go out of style because they are tangible, lasting ideas that will be passed on from generation to generation

  • Ender’s Game—besides being a really good book to stimulate the imagination, it’s a good manual for how to be a human being.

  • Every book I read by Vonnegut changes my views on particular things so slightly that readers of Vonnegut will acquire a ‘method of thinking.’

  • Fight Club encapsulated the frustrations of a generation that was told they could be whatever they wanted to be…the ideal would become corrupted by personal greed if attempted in the real world.

  • Grendel impacted my though process more but One Hundred Years of Solitude impacted my perception of books more

  • I didn’t particularly like 13 Reasons Why, but it helped to show me that a friendly smile or a sweet compliment could really save some one

  • I love how a book like Clockwork Orange can help me spiritually. That’s so cool to me.
  • I love scary movies, but scary books freak me out. Books to me are way more intimate and I get way more involved than I probably should

  • I don’t think I would want to be a character in any of the books I read, because I tend to read about characters who face extraordinary challenges and I’ve already got my hands full with regular life.

  • I would be Phineas in A Separate Peace. My great friend in 8th grade told me I was like him, and looking back, that’s the best compliment I’ve ever gotten. Fin is one of the most beautiful and pure characters ever.
  • If I could be inside a book, I would be in Eragon. I would be Murtaugh, Eragon’s half-brother. I could relate to why he is angry, because I often feel the same way.

  • If I could make one book into a movie, it would be…Fault in Our Stars. Of course, I would play Hazel
  • Jane Eyre—I followed Jane through all the trials and tribulations that she underwent. That was tiring but also inspiring.

  • Never would have guessed a book would do that for me [Outsiders]

  • Runner inspired me the most because it was the first book I finished on my own

  • The Alchemist is great spiritually, emotionally, ambitiously, courageously, and it’s a great spark of inspiration
  • The Catcher in the Rye changed my life

  • The Great Gatsby is one of the truest stories I have ever read

  • The Road has a big lesson about commitment and fatherly love

  • You just can’t let go of some books

Sunday, August 5, 2012

No, my Class is NOT Filled with Book Lovers -- at the Beginning of the Semester

I tell my students on our first day I'm aware that not everyone here loves to read. I know there are lots of reasons they're enrolled in my class, and then I tick off some of those reasons: they love to read and want to get credit for what they love; they remember loving to read as a child and would like to find some new books; they're heading off to college, and they know they'll be required to read much more, much faster; they want to practice reading so they can improve their test scores; a friend told them it was an easy class. Many times students who are learning English or are foreign exchange students enroll in my class. All legitimate reasons. Then there's the dreaded ones: their counselor or special education teacher told them to take it; their mother saw it in the course catalog and thought it would be good for them; they haven't a clue -- they were 'dumped' here. Those kids come to my class with a chip on their shoulder that I try to respectfully hand back to them for another day.

I don't promise to change their attitudes about books, but I do steadfastly promise I will help them find ONE book they will like. That's all. In the nearly 15 years I've taught this class, I can only think of one student who only read one book...all the other (300 a year for the past six years) find many more.

I acknowledge the different reasons right up front. There's no sense in ignoring it. Some kids are happy to be in my room, some are frightened and resentful. They're afraid I'm going to hold them up to ridicule because they can't read as fluently or as fast as their friends. They're afraid I'm going to require them to read out loud and expose their secret fear of reading.They're afraid I will display their weaknesses to the world. I know I have a lot of negative baggage to help them shed before we can get down to the business of reading for PLEASURE.

My first step is to talk about book one has to read the same book here, unless you want to. No one will tell you this book is too easy -- or too hard -- for you. No one's going to tell you it's too young or too old. I have a disclaimer in my syllabus that explains I will not censor books. I leave that up to their parents. I might check with a parent to make sure she knows what her student is reading (have only done it once), but the job of censoring books in my class is the parents' responsibility. My room has probably 2000 books randomly stuffed in the shelves, so it's hard for any student to tell me he can't find a book. But the right book? That's going to take some time.

I share books I've read over the summer, and I share some of the 'old reliables.' Within a week, most students have settled into a book -- maybe not THE book, but a book. Habits are forming. They're sitting still and focusing on their books. They're thinking about new books and hearing about new books. They're surrounded every day by books. That begins to set the tone, to create our climate.

In that time, I begin to learn more about my students. I'm at my best when I know my kids, know their tastes and abilities. I give them lots of surveys, I begin to require them to write about their books, I watch what they choose, what they abandon. I don't just suggest one book when they ask; I suggest three at least.  I give them the freedom to sample, choose, un-choose. But every day we DO read, and we DO write. I get to know my students best by reading what they think about books. I teach them how to write personal reflections, not dry summaries. I begin to cultivate that community of readers by being an audience for their thoughts about books.

For some who brought a book to class the first day, my job is to give them the freedom to read and someone with whom to bounce ideas back and forth. For others, I start at the beginning, trying to find that first easy book to invite them into the community of readers. For others, I have to endure lots of pickiness, which isn't so much pickiness as it is anxiety about failing again.I'm patient. I know about thousands of books. I'm great friends with our librarians who know even more books. I work with the special education teachers to differentiate for my disabled students. We use headphones and books on tape. We use books written at very elementary levels; we do whatever it takes.

I ask my students to write about their books and I provide an authentic, supportive audience for their thoughts. Some are dumbfounded that I actually will read every word and respond to every entry. But that's my job! I must show them reading is not the solitary, anti-social activity many people believe. Reading is very social...when we find a great book we must share it. I know kids 'get it' when I have to shush them from talking about their books, sharing with each other.

The writing, as the reading, is easy to individualize for all my students. We all write for five minutes. I have had students who could only write one sentence in that time, and others who can write half-a-page. Everyone who does write for the five minutes earns his or her grade for the assignment. And, as they become stronger readers by reading, so they become stronger writers by writing.

Every student finds a book to love. Every student improves. Every student leaves, if he or she has given me an honest effort, a stronger student.

I want to end my thoughts by sharing three reflections from the final exam from last spring. Give students the respect to choose their own books, the expectation they have something profound to say about their books, and a teacher who loves to read their work, and you can get this!

Books can help you find yourself. Due to having a certain number of classes and requirements, one can’t learn from every teacher. But in R4P there are thousands of teachers in every book willing to teach lessons of life. When one starts doing that, they will see they’ve been teaching themselves all along, which is a huge step to becoming the individual they want to be.

Reading means everything. It’s how we communicate to the past and future. There’s a reason why it’s still alive…I love stories, I just never loved books. I’ve always been a slow readier and I know I’ve improved, but I still like to read slow because in reality, why rush? I like to read, not to have read.

Reading has and always will mean the world to me. As a writer, reading is just as important as writing. I have gained a new respect for all books this semester, and I’m always improving my attention to detail. I did improve my reading speed slightly, which is always exciting for me.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

My Students Know Their Books

I'm combining several ideas this week, and hopefully longer. I've accepted Laurie Halse Anderson's challenge to write 15 minutes every day...whatever I want. And, what I want, is to put my work with my class into perspective as I head into my last year of teaching. I want this year to be the very best one, and I want to commit myself to learning as much as I can, to be the teacher my students need me to be. That means studying. Reading. Thinking, Researching. Lucky for me I love all of that.

Last semester, I experimented with my final exam and had students write questions. It was a stunning success! This was the most interesting final I've ever read. I knew kids' questions would be very similar to ones I've written in the past, but sitting back and watching them write and prioritize questions was fascinating.

I reread all the finals and collected responses. I was able to make some broad categories of answers and now have interesting data to ponder.

One question that was non-negotiable was the one that asks students to tell me how many books they've read this semester. They know it's coming. I've asked them to keep track of their books and pages since the beginning of the semester...but all does not go according to plan. I never get complete data.

For last semester, I have statistics for 124 students. They read a total of 1582.5 books, for 472,415 pages. That's nearly half-a-million pages in 18 weeks. Now, my students don't all love books and reading the day they enter my classroom. Many are reluctant readers, fake readers, out-of-practice readers, indifferent readers. Some have never finished a book on their own. Some haven't read regularly since elementary school. So every page is a stunning success for these kids, and I'm so proud of their work.

Today, I want to present my students' list of books I gleaned from several of the questions. Kids wanted to write about the books they plan to share with their own children. They wanted to talk about the books that inspired them. I compiled titles into one list.

When I do presentations, skeptics always ask me two questions. The first is what do I do if students don't read. It shocked me the first time someone asked. I thought back, and everyone reads. I don't have kids who don't read. I will write about this question later, because I think I've found the answer.

But the second question I get is, 'Well, if you LET them read WHATEVER they want, won't they read trash?' Boy, do I have the answer to that. So, friends, I present the list of books my students were inspired by, or the books they love so much they will share them with their own children when they become parents. You will notice there's NO trash here!

100 Years of Solitude
13 Reasons Why
A  Million Miles in a Thousand Years
A Child Called “It”
A Game of Thrones
A Kiss in Time
A Monster Calls
A Northern Light
A Piece of Cake
A Teenager’s Journey
Artemis Fowl
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
Book of Mormon
Burn Journals
Catching Fire
Chasing Brooklyn
City of Thieves
Diary of Anne Frank
Ender’s Game
Falling Leaves
Fault in Our Stars
Game of Thrones
Go Ask Alice
Great Expectations
Handmaid’s Tale
Harry Potter – all of them
Heaven is for Real
Hunger Games
I am Number Four
I am the Messenger
If I Stay
Jane Eyre
Jurassic Park
Just Another Girl
Killing Brittney
Life of Pi
Looking for Alaska
Looking Glass Wars
Lord of the Flies
Marked by Fire
Maximum Ride
My Sister’s Keeper
Of Mice and Men
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Peace Like a River
Plain Truth
Pride and Prejudice
Princess Bride
Rich, Thin, Pretty
Secret Life of Bees
Sister Carrie
The Alchemist
The Art of Racing in the Rain
The Book Thief
The Catcher in the Rye
The Color Purple
The Five People You Meet in Heaven
The Great Book of Amber
The Great Gatsby
The Help
The Kite Runner
The Lucky One
The Maltese Falcon
The Notebook
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The Shack
The Sound and the Fury
The Things They Carried
Their Eyes were Watching God
Three Little Words
To Kill a Mockingbird
Tuesdays with Morrie
Waiting for Godot

I've said it before, I have the best job in the world...

Friday, August 3, 2012

My Students are Geniuses...and I Can't Wait to Meet my New Ones!

I teach a class called Reading for Pleasure...based loosely on a readers workshop approach with everyone reading self-selected books every day. It's a semester elective at my high school, Norman North High School. Because I'm a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant, we also write every day. That's it.We read. We write. Sometimes we talk to each other about our books and listen to new book recommendations. It takes a huge leap of faith to believe a room full of high school students WILL sit quietly and read, and then write. I never doubted they could, but we had lots of critics who have called the class a glorified study hall, or a blow-off, or a wasted elective.

So, I often ask my students to reflect (a result of my own National Board Certification) on their own learning. My final exam is all essay...long answers get the best grades, and self-reflection is required. I read all these answers and collect the responses.

This spring, I copied some of the more interesting comments and will be sharing them here...I always tell my students one of my missions in life is to prove to the world how brilliant they are. So, today I'm sharing the responses that address students' changes in their attitudes about reading, and their insights into skills enhancement.

Disclaimer...I didn't change minor grammatical differences...I wanted the flavor of my students' writing to shine.

  • A few things I’ve gotten out or reading is that you can learn life lessons before you even have to go through them. If a situation comes up you will already know how to go about it.
  • Before I took this class I thought I hated reading in general and thought it was stupid, as most kids do. But…I have actually read the books we have to read in English and am now willing to give books a chance.
  • Before I took this class reading literally meant nothing to me. This semester has changed my reading. This class basically taught me to like reading…if I can find the right book
  • Before R4P I only read when I was required to read, or when I was grounded. But now, I read every chance I get especially when I’m stressed, because I feel able to let everything go and fully engage in my book.
  • Books create a new, different world for readers. Reading distracts us from reality
  • Each book I’ve read has [a]ffected me in a different way, but each has left its mark
  • Every time I would read I would never look at the clock, never drifting off into space, and I would never want to stop reading. It is safe to say I got lost in these books. Sometimes I would forget I was in class because I could visualize everything that was happening in the books
  • Everything I’ve read has pushed me to be a better reader and better student this semester
  • I am a stronger and more confident reader than I ever was. There is so much I feel like I have accomplished.
  • I am much more of a reader than I used to be
  • I am really proud of myself because I would‘ve never thought I would like to read or read this many books
  • I believe all books stick with you to some degree. That’s the beauty of it all.
  • I believe R4P will and has changed so many kids’ outlooks on reading
  • I can actually do anything I set my mind to
  • I can love to read if I find the right books.
  • I can now sit longer and read for a long period of time. I get spelling and grammar a lot better because of reading
  • I can read faster and like bigger, more intense books
  • I can sit down and read for much longer. I’ve become a stronger reader
  • I could read faster and after I’m done reading I could tell you word from word what the book was about.
  • I do slow down and actually read…and I question more than I used to
  • I even found myself searching for deeper meaning when I watched Wall-E in Statistics today. It’s actually amazing how many allusions to literature that movie made.
  • I feel accomplished that I got to read books that after I read them I felt like it was a good thing I read them
  • I feel I can be whatever I want to, just like Cupcake Brown
  • I feel like I’m actually in the story and sometimes it’s hard to focus back on real life
  • I finished two books per month. Now when I get bored, I always pull out a book and start reading.
  • I found a new relaxation in reading, which I think adapts to us all as we get older
  • I get a lot more out of reading now and I realized I’m not a terrible reader like I originally thought
  • I get a mini-movie playing in my head and enjoyment that I can be doing something interesting.
  • I get an incredible sense of self through reading. By analyzing foreign characters and situations I see more and more of myself
  • I hated reading, it bored me. I was never comfortable. I didn’t think I was a good reader. But taking this class really helped me oversee how I really was and look at how I am now
  • I have been paying attention to the stories not myself
  • I have grown to expand my horizon in reading and let others influence what I read….it’s good to pick out your own books..but I love someone else giving you a book and sharing what they got from it.
  • I have improved as a reader by being able to stick with books when at first they seem boring to me.
  • I have learned to read different kinds of book and longer books
  • I have slowed down when reading and am more willing to ask questions
  • I have stepped out of my comfort zone by reading harder and longer books with bigger words.
  • I like reading books and like writing about what I have read.
  • I love being pulled into stories and getting to feel love and pain and friendship and lust and all of the other emotions in life. They let me enter another reality over and over again
  • I love reading about other people’s lives and struggles and accomplishments.
  • I LOVE to read now, and every book is a good book. I’ve encouraged my friends to read and even recommended books, which is something I’ve never done
  • I never gave reading the time of day…
  • I never thought I liked reading and never read (even for school…bad I know) but after this class I have discovered I do love reading I just needed to know what to read
  • I now take the time to think about a character’s decision, and why an even happened in a book
  • I read faster and it is easier for me to comprehend books and characters and also it has gotten me smarter in class.
  • I read faster now. I read some books I’ve wanted to read a long time
  • I read faster, more, and I feel I can comprehend better as well.
  • I really like reading. I just had to find that book I REALLY like to be able to read it
  • I really need to focus when I read; not just speed through a book to get to the end. I tend to really get a life-lesson out of the books I read then the books for entertainment
  • I reestablished my relationship with words in this class, and that has improved my writing as well. I am proud that my time in here has helped me grow as a person
  • I started out with it taking me about two weeks to finish Dear John, but by the second month I had read two books in one week!
  • I stepped out of my comfort zone by reading classics. It was hard to get into them at first but now I can’t read modern novels without thinking how casual the writing sounds
  • I stepped out of my comfort zone in reading by reading when I’m at home, telling people about the books I’ve read or am reading, and by making my friends read a book I think is good
  • I think about the books I read as I read them and I reflect more on them
  • I think everybody needs to be a reader
  • I used to barely read, now I read constantly
  • I’ll continue to read as long as I have the thirst to learn and be entertained by stories.
  • I’m going to practice keeping a personal reading log this summer! My friend can call me a dork. I don’t care.
  • I’m proud of being a bookworm!
  • I’m proud of myself for embracing reading and branching out to new genres.
  • I’m proud that I’ve read more books this semester than in the last 2-1/2 years put together
  • I’m so happy I’ve become a better and faster reader. Reading is so peaceful. It calms me down a lot. Reading this semester has made me want me read more during college next year and this summer.
  • I’ve become a faster and more aware reader. I consider characters more carefully and find ways to relate to them.
  • I’ve become more tolerant of books I don’t enjoy. I’ve started reflecting more thoroughly and more often. My reading and writing skills have both improved
  • I’ve certainly appreciated the extra hour a day for reading
  • I’ve gotten more attached to reading and love having a new book
  • I’ve learned that I need a fair amount of action or constant change in a book to stay really engaged.
  • I’ve read more books this semester than compared to the rest of my high school career.
  • I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone simply by reading.
  • If someone has asked me six months ago what reading meant to me I would have honestly said nothing. But now I can sea to me reading is so much fun.
  • If you are a person like I was and did not like to read, you NEED this class. This class was so much help for me as a person and a student.
  • If…I wasn’t forced to read a certain book, but just ANY book, then I think I would have started reading a long time ago
  • My favorite genre to discover this year was the character-driven books
  • My habits as a reader have gone from picky and proud to free and relaxed
  • My reading habits have changed from zero books a year to 15 in 18 weeks, so that ‘s a pretty good difference.
  • Now each book I’ve read, I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone
  • Now I have started reading at home more.
  • Now I look forward to reading every day.
  • Now that I’ve taken R4P I have an excuse to read. And it drives my mother nuts when I neglect my part of chores for a book. But that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.
  • R4P has given me the ability to read longer and absorb more from the books at the same time. It has shown me how much I actually do get distracted when I read and helped me learn to keep myself focused.  It gives readers more endurance
  • R4P has helped me pay attention in class reading books more easily. This class helped me realize that it’s not about how fast you read, It’s about what you learned about your books.
  • R4P has helped me with my disability in reading in so many ways. I know I can read out loud better, read faster and comprehend things better than I used to.
  • R4P has showed me I am capable of being a good, fast reader
  • R4P has shown me I’m a distracted reader. My mind wanders and I read without thinking, if that makes sense. Reading makes me think more, though.
  • R4P has shown me that the more pages I read, the better of a reader I am
  • R4P helped my vocabulary…I really do love to read and it opens my creativity. I get to explore my mind with reading
  • R4P showed me reading isn’t boring, I was simply choosing the wrong books such as ones I judged by the cover, by the length, etc. So R4P has taught me to ask about a book
  • R4P…[taught] me to be still, well-seated for a long period of time. Even when I’m seated I’m not still, I rock myself for some reason or I bounce my legs. R4P has also helped me by keeping focused. I’ve expanded my horizon
  • Reading and writing your logs helps you out so you can talk and understand your books
  • Reading gave me good advice and life lessons. It helps my reading comprehension and writing
  • Reading gives me pleasure, makes me smarter and more sophisticated , develops and informs my life philosophy and broadens my horizons                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        
  • Reading is what keeps me going. It sustains me much more so than pedantic lectures or monoliths from text books
  • Reading to me is a big priority. I never was much of a reader but [R4P] has now opened my eyes to reading and going outside my box. I regret not taking this class sooner.
  • Reading used to be something I “had” to do. After taking this class I can say I enjoy reading a lot more than I did
  • Since R4P, my concentration level when it comes to reading has greatly increased. I am able to pay more attention and actually soak in what I read or hear
  • Sometimes I’ll just sit and think about my books for a while, what twists could be coming up, how this will end…
  • Thanks for turning me on to a great book. The most important class I ever took in high school
  • The more poetry I read the more I like it and the better I get at staying focused on it for longer periods of time
  • The way I relate to books is through emotion, trying to put myself in the book so I can try to see what they are going through…
  • This class forced me to take an interest in literature and it has become the kickstart to a career of reading
  • This class has made me love reading again. I have my summer booklist and I cannot wait to start them
  • This class has showed me that I love reading and hopefully I will always have a book with me from now on
  • This class has shown me I can be a very good reader if you give me a good book to read
  • This class has shown me that I am a real reader because I have bought books and looked for books to read next
  • This class has shown me writing style means a lot to me. I get knowledge and entertainment out of reading. It takes me away.
  • When I need to get away from reality, I can go into the world of my book. Get away from pain and be  a character in the book; sometimes it is easier to go through their problems than my own.
  • With reading I get sent to new places, meet new people and learn valuable life lessons
  • You can accomplish anything if you try hard enough
Now you know why I'm so proud of them!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Frog in the Pot, Canary in the Mine, or Rats from the Ship?

Recently I held a twitter conversation with one of my heroes, Diane Ravitch about why teachers seem to be so quiet during this reform crisis. We wondered then if teachers were like the frog who will stay in a pot of water that is slowly heated to the boiling point, eventually killing the frog. Are we staying compliant, quiet, swimming around? Do we notice it’s a little hot in here, but adjust…to the water that’s a  little hotter, and a little hotter?

Or are we the canary in the mine? Chirping frantically, choking on toxic air? Desperately trying to get the attention of someone who can do something?

Today, when I posted this blog post from Ravitch, one of my friends said a teacher she knows has characterized us as rats leaving a sinking ship. Man, this one hurts. Are we skulking out of a profession most of us committed to for life? Are some of us breathing a sigh as we wave ‘bye-bye?’

I only know my own story, and here it is.

I’ve taught for 37 years. My father, grandfather, grandmother, mother-in-law, husband, sister, sister and brother-in-law, cousin, niece, son and daughter-in-law…all teachers. This is the family business. We have committed ourselves to thousands of young people. When I first became a teacher in the 60’s, I didn’t have a clue what I was really doing, but I stuck with it. I learned my craft. I got degrees, I pursued National Board Certification. I participated in National Writing Project. I sought out professional learning opportunities and I found ways to bring that learning back into my classroom.

I took everything I learned and I ‘invented’ an English elective that combines my passion for English Language Arts, reading education, library and media services: Reading for Pleasure. I am fierce in my pursuit of excellence in and out of the classroom.

I raised a family and volunteered in my community. I worked hard to balance my life and had little time to become an active, vocal teacher.

But am I a frog or a canary or a rat?

For years I smiled and complied with mandates and directives. I trusted policymakers to have the welfare of my students in mind. I taught.  I stayed in my classroom and worked with my students. I stayed out of the teachers’ lounge, ate in my room, and graded papers at night. I attended workshops and participated in my profession. I raised my children, worked in my community.

One of the first times I felt policymakers truly showed me how little they invested in public education was during the OBE debacle. Outcomes-based Education was going to save us…we all geared up to adjust our learning and our teaching. Then, oops! OBE is evil! Forget it!! They imposed and removed their mandates impulsively with no regard for kids or classrooms. They were just responding to the political climate.
We saw more testing, and with NCLB, now testing was going to become high stakes…every child in America would become an on-level reader, just because we said so. But I went along. Things were a little hotter, but I loved my kids, I loved my job, and things weren’t that bad. I could adjust.

These changes began my shift from frog to canary…I had heated conversations with my colleagues about the idiocy of demanding perfection from elementary students. Oklahoma began instituting more testing…not high stakes yet, but give us time! More requirements. More laws. More mandates. Less support.
I wasn’t especially vocal, because I didn’t think I had a voice, but I saw what was happening. I started attending more workshops and conferences, looking for ways to stay true to my students and still deliver results demanded of the non-educator meddlers.  I continued to learn.

Standardized testing became more and more high-stakes. I had learned how irrelevant standardized tests were to students’ learning, and I despaired for children who would be forced to take these tests and perform at arbitrary levels, or risk not being promoted, or not graduating.

The last year was a watershed..It seemed as if the stars aligned in a way to show me I had to do more than just chirp…I had to squawk as loudly as I could. Now teachers would be evaluated by test scores, schools would be graded by them, 3rd graders would be flunked because of them, and high school seniors have been denied diplomas. Everything I knew about testing and the data they provide tells me this is harmful, and just plain wrong. That’s when I started speaking up. The more I squawked, the more I learned. Now the focus of my learning was not to take back to my classroom, but to save my classroom.

Forces have aligned, with different ultimate motives, that are putting unsustainable force onto our public education system. TFA, Broad Academies, Gates Foundation, ALEC…precious few career educators in the lot, but a ton of ideas, unproven, to ‘fix’ a problem that does not exist. Some are here to raid the public money that sustains education, some are here with motives that may be more pure. But none of these ‘reformers’ are willing to listen to the three groups who are most knowledgeable about public education: the students, the parents and the teachers. One of my former superintendents often said everyone has an opinion about public schools because we’d all attended them, so even without training, everyone is an expert.

In Oklahoma, a group of teachers formed a facebook group to stay in touch with issues that affect us statewide and nationwide. That group, EFFORT-SOS, ‘Educators For Fairness, Openness, Responsibility and Truth; Save Our Schools,’ currently has nearly 1500 members. We ARE talking to each other. Members post, discuss, agree and disagree. We are starting to have these conversations. But is it too late?
Whereas my father was held in great esteem, and my grandfather was warmly remembered by former students 60 years after he taught them, now my family business is seen as an inconvenient problem, an expensive impediment to making more money with testing, with Common Core, with expensive technology and textbooks. Here at the end of my long career, my profession is held in low esteem by ‘reformers’ who were educated by teachers just like me, teachers they are betraying.

This will be my last year to teach…so am I the rat leaving the ship? I hope not.  But I know I’m tired of being ignored by policymakers, of being held up as the problem in public education, being belittled and marginalized by people who couldn’t last a week in my classroom. 

I’m tired, but I think I have a few more squawks in me.