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This month’s display in the library is inspired by the Cheshire Cat and zany mix of characters in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland .
We’re all mad here.
The weeks leading up to and following Spring Break often feel like madness. But, in the library, we’re mad about books, especially books with mind-bending adventures!
Here are a few books featured this month where readers can expect a wacky, adrenaline packed, adventure with unexpected twists and turns. Many genres are represented in this month’s display as adventures.
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“She sank to her knees and lifted her head. She had become so accustomed to the rippling blue tides closing her in, pressing down on her, but this sky was open . . . this night was infinite.
She felt like she might fall upward forever, drifting into space. Floating across the stars. Sable had spoken of embers scattered across the roof of the universe. It was a good description.”
I find myself getting out of bed a little more quickly, leaving my house sooner, and taking the longer route to work in the mornings to get in just a few more minutes with my good friends Perry, Aria, and their merry band of misfits. I picked up Veronica Rossi’s first installment in the trilogy, Under the Never Sky, a little late in the game about a month ago. I have a tendency to hold off on a trilogy when I know that the last installment is releasing soon–I loathe the wait in between installments.
With a little less than an hour to go until the end of the series, I’m feeling that pang of nostalgia already, knowing that I’ll soon be saying farewell to the ether-torn world and those who are perpetually seeking “the still blue” and all the freedom to love and live that it promises.
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The Traditional Book Report Vs. Book Review
After a very successful day with students introducing them to nonfiction titles the stage was set.
Students were on their way to making their nonfiction book selections following the book speed-dating activity that I facilitated in the library.
The next question was, how can students demonstrate their experience and reactions to the book for their teacher and their classmates in a way that is both authentic and academic? The teacher who was collaborating with me on this adventure had been using a reading log as the primary tool for students to track and report their reading goals.
She was dissatisfied with the reading log as an assessment for a number of reasons:
1) It was easy to fake.
2) Not all books were created equal–in length. One 200 page book might be much more complex than a 400 page book. How were tracking page numbers an accurate reflection of the student’s reading experience?
3) The log did little to capture those magical moments that happen between a reader and the text. In fact, it did nothing.
4) The reading log didn’t feel “on-grade level” for the English I pre-AP teacher who strives to ensure that her assessments contained an appropriate amount of rigor.
To these I added a few of my own qualms after having used the reading log religiously for six years with my own classes:
1) The log imposed an artificial reading goal on students–a number of pages to be read.
2) It did nothing to foster and inspire a reading community.
3) I hated assigning grades to quantitative reading goals that I had imposed upon students.
It was decided; the reading log would be set aside for the purpose of our nonfiction experiment (*190 English I students collectively cheer, “hoorah!”).
When I brought up the idea of writing reviews, I could tell that the teacher had some hesitation. I sensed that, in her experience, reviews and reports brought back a certain amount of reading sentimentality. Sure, it was nice to hear how students felt about a book–if they liked it and so on– but like many of us my colleague was not interested in reading her students’ summaries of the books they had read. How could a simple book review adequately demonstrate their experience as readers?
How do we balance reader response and analytic writing?
We went to the standards to see if we could find a student expectation that captured the level of thinking as readers and writers we wanted to see in students. Sure enough, there it was:
Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills
15 (C) write an interpretative response to an expository or a literary text (e.g., essay or review) that:
(i) extends beyond a summary and literal analysis;
(ii) addresses the writing skills for an analytical essay and provides evidence from the text using embedded quotations; and
(iii) analyzes the aesthetic effects of an author’s use of stylistic or rhetorical devices
As a consummate consumer of reviews from blogs, websites, and journals, I’ve read wonderful reviews from passionate readers that balance authentic reading response and critical analysis.
Students came back to the library so that we could read and deconstruct these real-world reviews in order to craft them ourselves.
How do readers share with one another?
After a brief discussion on the difference between a book report and book review, we began by simply reading nonfiction book reviews posted on websites like Goodreads and Amazon. To engage them in the task of deconstructing a book review, I posed a very simple question to students: What sticks with you?
When we use mentor texts for writing, we begin by inviting students to identify the patterns in the text. As we identified something new in the review, I color-coded details. With my guidance, students created an anchor chart that identified four key concepts that they needed to understand about writing nonfiction reviews.
Our (not so pretty) anchor chart uses the mentor texts we analyzed and four key concepts to remember that coordinated with our color-coding. Not only did students have a visual reminder in their classroom of the writing task they were preparing for, but the teacher had a ready-made rubric to assess students’ writing.
Students would now go forth and read their books…but wait, what was going to happen between the this eye-opening day in the library and when they came back to write the reviews?
How could we intentionally scaffold and support students’ responses and reactions to their selected books in order to prepare them to write reflectively and critically?
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Setting the Stage
When a veteran English teacher came to me to share her thoughts and seek inspiration on getting her students excited about nonfiction, my heart went pitter-patter. Over the last decade at my campus, I’ve seen a tremendous shift to emphasizing recreational reading and seeing our students as readers. More teachers bring their classes to the library to be introduced to new books, maintain a classroom library, talk to their students about their reading habits, and provide students with the time and space to read in class–but the primary recipient of all of this love has been fiction.
In my graduate library courses, we were encouraged to read all genres widely. When we reached the nonfiction module, I sighed and told myself I’d get through it. I wasn’t that kind of reader, I thought. But, then I was introduced to books like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Bomb: The Race to Build and Steal the World’s Deadliest Weapon, and How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous and realized that I was, in fact, a nonfiction reader! Suddenly, I remembered such favorites from my reading life as Devil in the White City, Diary of Anne Frank, and An Unfinished Life: A Memoir by Lillian Hellman.
When and why had these reading experiences taken backseat to their fiction counterparts?
I was excited to embark on an journey with this teacher’s freshman English students that would allow me to promote nonfiction and learn more about the nonfiction reading habits of teens all while re-kindling my own flame for nonfiction reads
To set the stage, we decided to adapt a strategy that is a staple in the library and in classrooms: the book pass.
I first found the book pass as a budding Reading Specialist while reading Janet Allen’s Yellow Brick Roads: Shared and Guided Paths to Independent Reading. When cultivating reading lives of students–especially teen readers–choice is paramount.
The Book Pass quickly (and messily) allows students to explore multiple titles, recording their thoughts, observations, and wonderings, and then passing them along. It’s safe because students don’t have to commit to anything they don’t like. It’s effective because out of 200 books that are scattered around 8 or more tables, each student is bound to find something that he or she can “date.”
Book passes in our classes served to get students looking at a variety of books, making their own judgments on the interest and readability of the books, and finding books they were willing to seek out…(Allen, 2000, p. 103)
When I entered the library and brought my book pass with me, I made a few adaptations here and there. These days, I set the activity up like a speed-dating experience. We talk about how dating a book is like dating a person–you judge it by the outside, but have to remember to listen to what it has to say before you make up your mind about it. I find that teens latch on to this idea of reading relationships.
My book passes have also been organized by theme, topic, or genre–depending on the class and teacher’s needs.
While preparing for my first nonfiction speed-date activity, I had to ask myself, how do teens select nonfiction books? Probably the same way most of us do–by topic. So, I came up with 8 broad topics to create tables.
Beating the Odds
Youth in Conflict
Now, the nonfiction speed date was much more difficult for me to facilitate because the nonfiction section is the weakest part of my collection. It was an eye-opening experience to see the gaps in selection. And, due to limited availability, I had to break my own cardinal rule and NOT allow students to check out the books they previewed right then and there like I do with my fiction book passes. We had wait lists dozens deep for books like The Blind Side and Steve Jobs.
Most students walked away with several books on their to-read lists and many options for their nonfiction reading assignment.
The next step was to begin to support their actual reading experiences so that they could share their books through book reviews.
In the next post, Real-World Readers Write Reviews, I’ll share a process that I use for any type of writing that allows students to deconstruct a mentor text-in this case a nonfiction book review. Stay tuned!
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Inquiry involves a process of problem-posing and problem-solving as learners develop a critical lens on the word and the world in order to take action for social change (Short, 2012)
Inquiry is the driving force in a writing workshop classroom. Students and teachers, alike, use questions and questioning strategies to become active learners and participants in the community. Whether we are writers, readers, researchers, digital citizens, the impetus of our collective and individual learning is curiosity.
When was the last time your students were truly curious? If they are like mine, my students tell me that they stopped feeling curious about what they learn in upper elementary school as they moved into content specific classrooms and faced looming standardized tests. Young children learn about the world around them by asking questions, being curious, and exploring.
Many of us can quickly paint a picture of how inquiry works in the context of research. I-Search projects and social action research have become more and more prevalent. But, inquiry doesn’t just live in the context of research; its pulse frames all learning in the workshop community.
Looking to rekindle that curious spirit? Try these steps to tap into that natural curiosity in relation to your beliefs about student writing. Then, go one step further and try this strategy with your students!
“Maybe you’re naturally curious, a holdover from childhood when you were always asking, “Why?” Or maybe your curiosity paled as you got older, and you forgot that being curious is the best reason for wanting to learn things. Whatever condition it’s in, your curiosity must be the driving force…” (Ballenger, 2009, p. 27)
Forming a Burning Question
What are your beliefs about student writing?
What absolutes, values, norms, and principles do you hold near and dear when it comes to facilitating a writing community with your students? I invite you to spend a few moments writing about what you believe, in whatever format works best for you.
How do you know this to be true?
Take a couple of minutes thinking about how you have come to hold those beliefs. Are there stories or students from your own classrooms that have led you to forming these beliefs? Do you have professional mentors, authors, and teachers who have guided you in understanding these beliefs? What research, facts, theories, etc all demonstrate your belief to be true?
So what do I wonder?
Give yourself five, ten, even fifteen minutes to just brainstorm questions. What do you wonder about your students as writers or the writing community you share with them? Write as many questions as you can think of.
Share your questions with a peer or even your students. Ask them to show you which questions they feel most curious about. Do they have any questions they could add to the list to expand or narrow your questions?
Take a minute to consider the questions your peers marked as most interesting and any new questions they might have added. Do you see a pattern? Is there a question that seems to stand out more in your mind? Is it possible to write a new question that encompasses these questions?
What happens now that you’ve formed your own burning question? Is there a resource or strategy that you might integrate into your classroom to strengthen the writing community? Can you find a network of professionals and teachers to reach out to in order to further explore your question? What ways could you engage your students in exploring the question…or better yet, in creating their own questions.
This strategy lends itself well to research, of course. But, what I found is that this strategy became much, much more for our community than just a springboard into research. We began to utilize the same process to respond to what we read, respond to one another’s writing, and even develop new norms, policies, and community “rules.” When our we adopted curious minds and allowed ourselves the freedom to “wonder,” that’s when magic started.
What adaptations and applications can you imagine for this strategy? What is your burning question? How could you use this process to engage your campus or department in considering their individual and collective beliefs in order to transform instruction?
(Adapted from Bruce Ballenger (2009) “Finding the Questions” and “Finding the Focusing Questions” The Curious Researcher)
This post accompanies the presentation Writing Teachers (Re)Inventing Literacy Instruction by Following the North Star for NCTE 2013 in Boston, MA–Please message me for more information regarding this session or visit the North Star of Texas Writing Project’s Facebook page.