Friday, October 30, 2009

Anticipation Guides

I've used anticipation guides for two of the texts I teach. One is Arthur Miller's The Crucible. I chose to use an anticipation guide before reading and acting out this play with students because I wanted them to have some common ground with the characters in the play. Because this play is set so far in the past, I wanted to make sure that its basic issues and themes did not get lost in the translation from the world of the Puritans to our modern American culture. I used this strategy in conjunction with a Think-Pair-Share. This pairing worked quite well and prompted good conversation. We looked at these questions later in our reading and answered the same questions again from the point of view of the main characters. It was valuable to hear students' reflections on the similarities and differences between their opinions and the choices and opinions of the main characters.

I used this same strategy to lead into Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. I decided on this activity to start the book because there are several controversial issues presented in the text and I wanted students to be prepared. I used this strategy with senior students, and their discussion was so heated during our first conversation that I decided to revise my plan and break our discussion into more than one class. Luckily, a weekend and an outdoor discussion activity cooled the opinions of the more upset students.

Monday, October 26, 2009

National Day of Listening

One of the hardest areas of literacy to assess, in my opinion, is listening. How can an instructor tell when students are lacking or excelling in this area of literacy? Over the years, I have tried to incorporate opportunities for students to flex their listening muscles. This year, I'm going to ask my students (and myself) to participate in the National Day of Listening, which will be held on November 28th, 2009.

At first, I was dismayed that this day falls during our Thanksgiving break. After some thought about how I would ask students to choose and record an interview, though, I feel like this is the best possible time of the year to ask for an interview. Traditionally, this is a time when families come together and talk. There is no other holiday like Thanksgiving that allows for talking and listening. Even students whose families do not have a Thanksgiving celebration will have a few days off from school to seek out a potential interviewee.

As for material, there are some stock questions available at the National Day of Listening site. There are also some sample interviews and some powerful photos to go along with the stories. This site is powerful in its simplicity. I am totally inspired to hear the interviews students bring in and to listen to the people who surround my students' lives. I am also excited to use this assignment as an opportunity to record one of the most influential people in my life, my grandmother. Check back after Thanksgiving to see how this exercise in listening worked out in my classroom.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Think-Pair-Share Poetry

I've been doing a lot with poetry this year. I have made a commitment to myself and my students that we will engage with poetry on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. I have always used poetry in my classrooms, but never to the extent that I have this year.

One literacy or thinking strategy that seems to work well with poetry is the Think-Pair-Share. I like this model because students still have some alone time with a poem, we still read it aloud and silently, they get to work in pairs, and we talk about the poem as a whole group. With this model, students can talk about the poem in a variety of ways and hear about others' interpretations and interactions with poem.

I recently tried this strategy with freshmen. I read the poem aloud for the group. As I read, they were responsible for highlighting the interesting structural and word choices they found. After this, they had a few silent minutes to explain why they highlighted those sections/ words/ lines in the margins of the paper. After this, students broke into pairs and explained their choices to their peers. In the end, I heard from all students and created a larger web of their comments on the whiteboard.

I feel like today's poem analysis activity was a success. Students sometimes had a hard time listening to one another, but this is something that we need to work on anyway. I will definitely try this strategy again with other students and with this same group. I liked the way that this strategy allowed for a variety of interactions over a single poem. We did not quite finish our work in one class period, but we can always pick up where we left off!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

At this year's Model Schools Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, I was lucky enough to listen to a presentation by Dr. Susan Szachowicz, principal of Brockton High School. I attended this session because I'd heard from others that this school has triumphed despite some serious obstacles and that everyone who left the session did so with tears in their eyes.

I, too, left with some tears, but also with a whole new courage to go back to my school and persuade coworkers, students, parents, and the community that it they can do it, so can we. I was reminded of this resolve when I read a recent Boston Globe article touting the successes that have been achieved at Brockton High. This article focuses on the amazing turnaround in MCAS standardized test scores of Brockton High's students and the intense focus on literacy at Brockton High.

When I saw Dr. Szachowicz, I was impressed with her "Boxer" attitude. (The school mascot is a boxer.) She came off as a no-nonsense, hard-lined professional who cares immensely about creating an environment where students feel supported and encouraged to overcome the poverty and hopelessness that surrounds their community. In our session, she described her vision for her school and how she drove out negative teachers who refused to work with her to achieve the high goals she set for her students and her staff. If a teacher disagreed with her about including direct literacy instruction in their classes, they were going to be looking for another job. If a staff member did not believe that Brockton High students could and should achieve high standards, they needed to go elsewhere.

This attitude may seem extreme, but it has turned a "failing" school into one of the greatest success stories in Massachusetts. Dr, Szachowicz really made me think about those colleagues and students I've heard who do not believe that our rural population is capable or willing to reach for high standards and to make literacy a priority in our community. We have to drive out these negative thoughts and feelings. If Brockton High, with a population of over 4,5oo students, can work together to create a small-campus vibe, then surely we can work to instill that same feeling of community and positivity in our rural population.

Kudos to the teachers, administration, students, and community of Brockton, Massachusetts, for exemplifying what is possible, rather than perpetuating a downward spiral of impossible.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Is a Down Economy Good for Literacy?

Though the article and interview entitled "The Triumph of Readers" with author Anne Patchett is a bit dated, it raises some interesting connections between the downturn in the economy and the upturn in those who're choosing to read more often. Patchett is the author of several novels and also serves on the board of her local library in Nashville. According to her article, readership and library use is on the raise. Could this be related to the fact that entertainment has become so expensive? Maybe it's because we're looking to escape the realities of a declining economy?

Whatever the reason, it's important to remember to encourage donations of money and books to our local literacy organizations and libraries. We cannot use this time of financial distress to leave our most precious and precarious institutions to crumble. If we want our communities to thrive despite the lack of resources they normally enjoy, we need to do our part to help out. I know that our school library has already spent their entire budget for the year. They have new books, but will not have any more titles until next fall. Any of the new, exciting titles that may entice a reluctant reader to spend time reading will have to wait. This is a sad fact.

I know that I have seen a rise in the amount of reading that my students are doing. I have been so thrilled to see them enjoying SSR time and choosing a huge variety of reading material. I know that I need to keep them going with fresh, current reads and am willing to sacrifice the cost of a couple of Young Adult titles per month to maintain this pro-reading trend. Plus, there's nothing more exciting for me than to know that my students have a whole range of titles and genres to choose from.

Sadly, I have read more bad news than good in the last year or so. Thanks to Anne Patchett for this fresh look at the potential benefits to this horrible economy!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Using Manipulatives in Critical Thinking Exercises

It seems that the more I want to learn "best practice" for teaching high school, the more I know I need to look back and see what elementary teachers are doing on a regular basis. The tried-and-true high school methods I've been using for the past few years are beginning to feel a bit tired. I need to implement some new, fresh ways of getting to what my students are really thinking.

Enter manipulatives. After listening to a colleague gush about a Lego workshop she attended while we were in Atlanta, I knew that I needed some Legos for my high school English classroom. Fast. What she was saying about young students and critical thinking made total sense. When children create abstract or even representative art, they need to explain it for an audience. Too often, we think that older students cannot or should not perform the tasks that younger kids participate in on a regular basis. We feel like kids will laugh at us if we suggest that they use Legos to express their thoughts or feelings. Well, we are wrong. There is something eternally hip and deep about using abstract objects and shapes to express thoughts and emotions.

Now, I have yet to use actual Legos with students. I do have them, though. I plan to incorporate the use of these Legos into some of our work around poetry. Out of sheer curiosity, I did, though, break out some M&M's the other day and ask my sophomores to rate their experiences with SSR. A lot of students shaped their candies into smiley faces, but some made some pretty abstract representations of how they're feeling about SSR. The beauty of this activity is that students needed to be able to explain their thought process behind their creation, whether it was abstract or not. I feel like we had a deeper conversation than if I had just asked them their thoughts and feelings about SSR.

I plan to go bigger and deeper with this type of manipulative activity. My sophomore students definitely showed me that there is nothing childish about taking some representational objects and using them to express yourself, especially if you get to eat the final product!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Book Review: A Surge of Language

During my student teaching, I was lucky enough to work with Baron Wormser for a couple of weeks. He had been invited to come and hold poetry writing workshops and I signed my classes up for every single one of them. Truly, it was an invaluable experience. I learned so much about poetry and about bringing poems out of students in those sessions.

I have read some of Wormser's poetry and a book on teaching poetry before, but I have never read a book like A Surge of Language: Teaching Poetry Day By Day. For this book, Baron Wormser and David Cappella created a fictional teacher, Mr. P. This book is written as if it were Mr. P.'s teaching journal. He reflects about how is day went, what poems were read in class, which students responded to the words and lines of the poems, and what he learned from his day.

The main message that I received from this captivating read is that poetry needs to have a place of importance in our curricula. We cannot include a poem here and there or "do" that poetry unit once per year and call it good. Because of this book, I've started a new practice of having students copy a poem down from dictation every Friday. I call this new practice Poetry Fridays.

At first, I did not think that students would be at all enthusiastic about copying down a poem from dictation. I did not anticipate that they would engage in this process, but I was completely wrong. Certainly, some students groan when I remind them that every Friday is Poetry Friday. This is not a cure-all for normal teen behavior, but it is a way to get students talking about words, word choice, punctuation, structure, imagery, and a whole variety of poets.

One way that my new practice differs from A Surge of Langauge is that I am choosing poems based on what we're already reading and talking about in class. I want students to make leaps in their thinking by connecting the words of a poet like Anne Sexton to Ophelia's situation Hamlet or relating the reclusive life of Emily Dickinson to the main character in Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak. I do not want to interrupt their engagement with our main text by stuffing in poems that have no relationship with the literature we're reading in class. I want to deepen their critical thinking skills and have lots of conversations where we make connections between seemingly disconnected writings.

I highly recommend this book for any teacher who's interested in making language a priority in the classroom. There are many, many more ideas contained in this book than I've listed here. This is a highly engaging and thought-filled read. I look forward to reading more selections from these talented authors.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Connecting With Nonfiction Presentation

Though I had some conflicting commitments and could not listen to the live version of this webcast, I had some extra time this morning to hear the entire broadcast of the School Library Journal's Connecting with Nonfiction: Techniques and Title Tips for Young Readers and Teens.

In this hour-long presentation, I learned of a variety of new nonfiction titles. This webcast included some pictures of book covers as they were being presented. A couple of the presenters collected a variety of sound resources about a single topic or figure (space exploration and Abraham Lincoln are two examples) and other books were presented alone. I love that the presenters included a variety of children's books, but did not see a lot that older teens would be interested in reading. At the end, the main presenter did say that they were planning a segment for teens. I'll be the first in line for that one!

The reason I'm posting about this webcast is that it there are a variety of informative presentations such as these available for teachers use. This presentation was only an hour long, but at the end I was able to download a certificate of attendance. I could easily use this experience toward CEU's or certification in my district. Also, I learned a lot in short period of time, all while sitting on my couch and drinking my morning coffee!

Here are some of the books I wish-listed as a result of this presentation:

Thanks to the School Library Journal for this opportunity!

Saturday, October 3, 2009


A couple of weeks ago, a friend mentioned that she was planning to attend some training sessions to become a Literacy Volunteer. I've always wanted to become more involved in the Literacy Volunteers, so I tagged along. I've just finished my second session (of three) of training and am loving the experience. I've learned so much about working with adults and teen who are not functionally literate.

I guess that I've never really thought about what it would mean to be completely illiterate. A woman who led some parts of my training today spoke with great emotion about the process she undertook in learning to read and write. She was very crafty before she learned to read. She would almost trick people into helping her so that she would not have to admit that she couldn't perform tasks that most of us take for granted every day.

In one powerful demonstration, she asked us to pretend that we could not read. She then took a bottle of yellow household cleaner and placed it next to a container of cooking oil. The bottles clearly resembled each other. How would a person who could not read tell the difference between the two when shopping? After this lesson, I realized that the entire world would become a confusing and stress-inducing place. How would you take a trip to a place you've never been if you couldn't read street signs? How would you pick out a birthday card for your child? How would you fill out the forms at the doctor's office? Questions like these have been queuing in my brain every night since beginning this training. I am amazed at the strength and courage of those who cannot read and write fluently.

Though this training has taken away from some free time that I might have otherwise spent doing a whole host of other activities, I feel like none of this time has been wasted. If you'd like more information about this international organization, check out the ProLiteracy site.
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