Teaching the class novel

As a teacher of literacy, I have always enjoyed teaching whole-class novels. With novels, one can teach skills, vocabulary, writing, history – the list goes on and on! When the school year begins and students see the class novels lined up on my bookshelves, they ask me daily, “When are we going to get our books?” For me (and I would like to presume, many of my students) having a physical book to call their own is something magical; a feeling of ownership; a relationship with text.

However, choosing to teach the class novel brings up a myriad of questions for me:

  • Is “teaching” even the correct word to use when using a whole-class text? Shouldn’t students read it organically and have rich discussions about the book’s themes, characters, etc.?
  • How do I select books that everyone in the class will enjoy?
  • When do I use novels as anchor texts or for close reading
  • In a perfect world, each novel would correlate with a larger, interdisciplinary unit, but when will I have time to plan with my colleagues?

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Thankfully, I am currently in a situation where I am able to create my own curriculum. I consider myself extremely lucky, especially because in the past, I have not had as much autonomy with what I teach.

Designing my own curriculum is fun – don’t get me wrong. I honestly enjoy it, especially since I can tweak it from year to year and class to class. However, I’m a perfectionist, so I’m constantly wondering how I can make things better.

One year, I used curriculum on Engage New York. Everything is laid out in modules and all of the resources are done for you. Day-by-day lessons are organized so all you have to do is review and print! The convenience of Engage NY is great, especially for new teachers. However, I often found that I was modifying the lessons extensively to meet the needs of my students. I also found that not all of the units were appealing to me or my students (The Lightning Thief is one of the novels used and this is quite a difficult text for nearly all of my sixth grade students).

There were pros and cons to Engage NY and I like that I can pull resources from there to supplement my teacher-created curriculum. (My students loved reading Steve Job’s commencement speech, which is a great resource for teaching students how to provide evidence to support claims.)

So will I teach novels this year? Definitely. However, the way in which I do so changes with every text and every class. I’ve had to scrap some of the novels I taught last year due to lack of student interest or reading levels.

Here’s a look at novels I used last year:

Here’s a list of novels I am contemplating for this year:

Some of the books listed will be in literature circles, so students will have a choice as to what they prefer to read. I enjoy starting off the year with Freak the Mighty because it’s high interest (and there’s a movie!) This year, I want to offer more of a variety in the types of stories my students are reading. The Red Pencil, a story about a young Sudanese girl, Amira, who struggles with her village being attacked and the journey to a refugee camp, will hopefully lead to rich discussions about worldly events.

While I’m still in the planning stages of the upcoming school year, I like to think that each year is better and that through novels, my students not only learn skills (theme, character development, etc.), but I also hope that they come to appreciate the stories that are being told. And maybe, learn something about the world or themselves along the way.

What are your favorite novels to teach? Tell me in the comments!

 

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YA Book Review: Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story

This week I went into school to set up my classroom library. I wanted to get a head start on my room this year so that when I actually go back (August 15!), I can focus on other things and not spend hours laminating, decorating and freaking out about bulletin boards.

One of my goals with my library this year is to organize my books by genre and content, one of those categories being 9/11.

I stated in a previous blogpost how I really want books to do the talking when it comes to the topic of 9/11. I honestly did not know how many children’s books there were on the subject!

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In Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story Baskin does something unique in that she describes the days and hours leading up to 9/11. This is done from the viewpoints of a few characters (none of whom ever interact with each other). There’s the family in Shanksville, PA which details the story of the demise of Flight 93; the boy in Brooklyn who can see the destruction from his classroom window; the Muslim family in Columbus, Ohio; and a girl in California whose mother is scheduled to have a business meeting in the towers.

All of these stories give background into what life was life for many Americans prior to 9/11. Then, the reader witnesses what each character goes through during the time of the tragedy. I especially liked the varying points of views, which show students that people all process tragedy differently.

This is definitely one to add to your classroom library or read aloud and have discussions about how people dealt with the events during and after. What were there motivations? Do people still act this way today?

You might be surprised at what your students think.

 

How students learn vs. how schools teach

If you ask a teacher how students learn, chances are, their responses will not include what is typically seen in schools across the nation.

While the majority of my school learning was done seated in rows, taking copious notes and memorizing said notes for upcoming tests, (most of which I would quickly forget) as an educator I now realize what my schooling lacked – inquiry.

Instead of asking questions during class, students are often instructed to locate answers to questions that teachers, textbooks or worksheets propose. They are forced to learn calculus instead of more practical, real-world math, such as balancing a checkbook.

If I had received some practical instruction in my formative high school years that was both tailored to my interests and pertinent to my future as a working class adult, I suspect that my credit card debt would be lower and my vocabulary far superior than it is now. For, instead of spending hours trying to decipher what x equals, I would have been reading. I was a voracious reader as a young adolescent, but once I entered high school, I typically only read what was required for class, mostly because any free time I had involved sitting at the kitchen table with my dad trying to explain my math homework to me, all the while wondering, When am I ever going to use this in real-life?!

Even back then, an angst-ridden teen, I realized what I excelled in (analyzing everything/everyone) and what I loathed (numbers, the periodic table, the Macarena). So why then, nearly two decades later, are schools still fixated on educating students in a way that is not effective?

As an educator, I see the disconnect between common sense teaching and what schools consider teaching. Will Richardson’s TedX talk has many salient points, but this one stood out to me.

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In my mind, the “common sense” list is a no-brainer and is a truthful snapshot of how students learn. However, I often find myself adhering to many of the items on the “????” side because they are mandated by schools, districts, administration.

If you’re not a teacher, I’m sure this is difficult to grasp. You’re probably wondering, “Why don’t teachers take a stand? Let their voices be heard to their administration/school districts and boards of education? Couldn’t they just teach the way they know best behind closed doors?”

The truth is, I’ve done all of the above. I’ve taught social justice in secret and seen my students engaged, curious and pondering over real-world questions. I’ve spoken up when my views were not popular, despite pushback from colleagues and administration. I’ve held my tongue (to the point where it bleeds) because despite what I know is right, what I think doesn’t always matter. Also, I have student loans to pay, bills and need health insurance.

Common sense is not necessarily common, especially to those with power.

Richardson’s talk is convincing, but it’s nothing that teachers have not heard before or seen with their own eyes. As a former teacher himself, I am sure he understands the stress, pressure, and ridiculous amount of work that teachers put forth in order to ensure their students are learning in an organic, fun, inquiry-based setting.

However, the debate about how students learn best versus how school has been taught for decades is one that will continue until actual teachers are respected and given autonomy by states, government and politicians.

Until then, teachers try to squeeze as much “common sense” beliefs about teaching into the “????” side of teaching and learning. If this means we turn a blind eye to the “????” of teaching, then so be it.

YA Book Review: The Crossover

Do yourself a favor and pick up Kwame Alexander’s book, The Crossover, ASAP!

I ordered a class set of this novel (without having read it prior) because I heard it was phenomenal. When it’s the end of the school year and book lists are due (along with report cards, supply lists, etc.) I do not always have time to devote to selecting the next year’s novels.

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I am beyond happy that my students will have the pleasure of reading this book, and for a few reasons:

1.) It’s written as a series of poems that tell a story. This makes the task of reading a book less daunting for those reluctant readers.

2.) It’s broken up into three parts. Again, this makes the entire book seem less of a chore for students, but it also provides a pre-determined reading guide if you like to assign sections to students.

3.) It’s about basketball. How many of your middle school students aspire to be NBA players?! This book not only appeals to sports fanatics, but has sub-plots (love, jealousy, etc.) that any teen can relate to.

4.) Boys will love it. Boys are usually a tough crowd when it comes to books. Not only are the main characters boys in Crossover, but the book is centered around family and friend relationships that boys can closely relate to.

This is my first time reading anything by Kwame Alexander and I’m definitely excited to read other works by him. Whenever I do a unit on poetry, students moan and groan. Perhaps this school year they will hum a different tune.

The Grammar Files

Growing up, grammar was something that was explicitly taught. I specifically recall my ninth grade English class when it comes to grammar instruction. While we read literature (Great Expectations comes to mind), the teacher devoted a good portion of class time to grammar instruction. After ninth grade, we were apparently supposed to know everything we needed to know about grammar because it disappeared from my English courses.

I thought I had a pretty good understanding of grammar – until college where I was forced to take a class called “Grammar and Usage.” It was the only “C” I ever earned in college. But now I am able to diagram sentences! Wait – when do I ever do that?!

Never. I never diagram sentences. Nor am I ever asked to point out the gerund, preposition, or infinitive.

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Grammar is something I’m passionate about, but just how much of it do today’s students need to know in order to be avid readers and writers?

I’ve worked at four schools over the course of 12 years and none of them incorporated grammar into the curriculum. When I tried to teach the basic parts of speech, I found that student knowledge was all over the place. Some of my students’ previous teachers clearly thought grammar was important, but others did not. So half of my class knew what I meant when I said, “Add adjectives to your writing,” while others stared at me blankly.

I have always struggled with teaching grammar  – what do I teach? How do I differentiate instruction when student knowledge is so varied?

I have tried mini-lessons, but sometimes those are more than mini in that they often take longer than 10 minutes due to students having questions. For some, if it’s the first time being exposed to the material, I have to back-up and teach the basics. Before I know it, class is over and all we did was silent read and practice how to find verbs in sentences.

I’ve also assigned grammar as homework. However, the students who already know the skills end up completing it in record time while the students who are confused copy the work on the bus to school.

Is grammar important? Yes and no. I believe that students can organically learn much of what they need to know about sentence structure, parts of speech, comma placement, etc. by reading. But of course, not all students are wild about reading. (Those who are, I find, are typically the best writers in the class. But that’s another post!)

So this year, I’m trashing my mini-lessons. I’m revamping my curriculum and teaching grammar that matters. I’m asking myself questions, such as, What grammar skills will help my students become better writers? How can I infuse grammar instruction with the teaching of literature?

So while learning the parts of speech is something I likely won’t be spending time on this coming school year, you can bet my students will learn how to liven up their writing by using adjectives. You can also bet your bottom dollar that they will not be reading sentences and underlining adjectives; instead, they will create the sentences themselves. Grammar instruction should be meaningful and useful.

No one diagrams sentences these days. Perhaps that’s the most important lesson I learned from my college grammar class.

Throughout the year I’ll post “The Grammar Files,” which will discuss my triumphs (hopefully) and tribulations with grammar instruction. I welcome your feedback!

Do you teach grammar? I’d love to hear your ideas!

 

YA Book Review – Towers Falling

Each year I struggle with a way to teach 9/11. While some school districts have made a place for it in the curriculum, many have not. I was surprised last year when some of my students did not know what 9/11 was. But then I thought, Wait…these kids were born after 9/11. Them not knowing makes sense – this is history we’re dealing with.

Teaching in Philadelphia, a city so close to New York, one may assume that students are more familiar with this monumental event in history. However, that is not the case, as my sixth graders quickly informed me last year. While some knew the basics of 9/11 and others knew quite a bit, many had questions. I soon found myself abandoning the day’s original lesson and Googling lesson plans appropriate for my students. Teaching 9/11 “off-the-cuff” is not ideal and I didn’t feel like it was something I should just wing.

So this year, I wanted to be prepared and work 9/11 into my curriculum. And not just for one day either. While there are a myriad of lesson plans out there, as a literacy teacher, I’m all about novels and working them into my curriculum in any way possible. So I was stoked when I heard that author Jewell Parker Rhodes penned a novel about 9/11 that is geared specifically toward middle school students.

Towers Falling, describes how Deja, a homeless girl living in Brooklyn, learns about 9/11. In the book, she befriends Ben and Sabeen, whose knowledge of 9/11 surpasses Deja’s unintentional ignorance of the subject. The story follows Deja and her friends as they work together on school projects about 9/11 in which their teachers encourage them to think critically. Along the way, the three children learn about history and that even though they are all different, they are also the same.

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I love this book for many reasons – the diversity, how relatable it is for inner-city students and the realness  the aftermath 9/11 still has on many people.

While I will always remember exactly what I was doing the moment I learned about the towers falling, I recognize that my students came into this world post-9/11. If this part of America’s history is not in your curriculum, I encourage you to check out this book and at the very least, read it aloud or share it with your students.

How do you teach 9/11 to your students? I’d love to hear about it!

Unperfect

The female group, TLC, coined the term “Unpretty” in a song with the same title in 1999. I was a senior in high school that year. The song was authentic and relatable because as a teenager, I often felt inadequate – not smart/pretty/outgoing enough. Some may say these are normal teenage emotions. But perhaps I felt (and honestly, still sometimes feel) this way because society conditioned in me that being imperfect and “unpretty” is not the status quo for girls.

“We’re raising our girls to be perfect and we’re raising our boys to be brave.”

Reshma Saujani, an education activist, gave a TED talk where she made some salient points, including the aformentioned quote.

Then Saujani hit me with another point -“most girls are taught to avoid risk and failure;they’re taught to smile pretty. play it safe. get all A’s. Boys on the other hand, are taught to play rough, swing high, crawl to the top of the monkey bars and just jump off. Head first. And by the time they’re adults…they’re habituated to take risk after risk. They’re rewarded for it.”

In today’s society, it seems that many girls are socialized to believe that perfection will reap them rewards, while risks are scary and should be avoided whenever possible.

I should know – I was (am?) one of those girls. How many times have I smiled pretty instead of standing up for myself when a strange man shouts obscene cat-calls in my direction? Play it safe, look the other way.

Despite my desire to be perfect, I will say that I consider myself rather brave. After college I moved from Ohio to North Carolina on my own. I did not know a single soul in North Carolina, but it seemed like a good idea. And it was.

But I bet you there are other women who have similar stories of taking risks. However, these are not the stories being broadcast on magazines while I wait in the check-out line at the nearest grocery store. Headlines such as “How to get your exact dream job” and “The easiest 5 lbs. you ever lost” brainwash girls into thinking perfection is key. Sure, your dream job exists, but you’ll likely have to work a few non-dreamy jobs before you get there. And you’ll likely have to take risks. Because oftentimes, jobs can be comfortable and offer a sense of stability.

How, as an educator, can I instill risk-taking in my female students when the image flawless girls is everywhere? How can girls become comfortable with imperfection?