Crossing over

The first week back to school after winter break is usually a tough one. Take for instance, my homeroom. One would have thought they had walked into a busy 20-something bar (minus the alcohol), with all the varying conversations, yelling over each other, and water bottles flipping so hard that they resembled hard-core bass being spun by a stocking-hat wearing D.J.

I was never a fan clubs in my 20s. In my mid-thirties, I have less patience for noise, especially at 7:55 a.m. on a Tuesday. But, I get it. Students needed to hug their friends, gossip about all that had happened in the 10 days since they last saw each other, and generally, be a kid. So, for 25 minutes, Club322 was open for business, that is until breakfast was over and we reverted back to Room 322, Literacy Class.

Engaging students after a break can, flip or flop (HGTV fans, get it?!). My goal – flip students from their vacation brains back to their engaged, critical-thinking school brains. Easy, right?!

Of course, nothing is easy when it comes to middle school students! I knew I had to “hook” them and I had just the tool – Kwame Alexander‘s fantastic novel, The Crossover. Seriously, if you have not read this one, I encourage beg you to do so.

Reasons why I love The Crossover (and why your students will too!)

  • It’s written in poems. Most students (and some teachers, including myself) struggle with writing poetry. Thus, teaching it usually makes me utter things like, “Ughhhhhhhh” – let me just say, the struggle has always been real. Until now.  The Crossover allows students the opportunity to read various types of poems, which obviously lends itself to teaching poetry – it’s a win-win for teachers! My students are so engaged in this book and I’m even learning that my spoken word is pretty on point (a student told me this, so it’s clearly true). I mean, just look at this poem and tell me you’re not dying to read more…img_6593
  • Sports. If you’re a middle schooler, chances are, you’re hype about some kind of sport. If you’re a middle school boy, that sport is probably basketball. The Crossover is about basketball, which will already appeal to many students. But of course, there are those who sit at their desks and glare at me, thinking, I hate sports, therefore I will hate this book. This is where I say, “Not so fast, because aside from basketball, this book also has…”
  • Drama!!!! Lots of drama. Back-stabbing friend/family drama. Girl/boy drama. Sports drama. Rivalry. Okay, now most (if not all) of my students are engaged.
  • Creative opportunities. I assigned a Poetry Book as an ongoing assignment while we read the novel. Alexander does a great job incorporating a variety of poems in this book, so why not use it as a teaching tool?! img_6592
  • Annotating text. My students have annotated and close read text this year, so poetry is a great way for them to practice utilizing those skills. I’m sure they’ll come in handy on some state-wide assessment later this spring, so this is my way of “teaching to the test” without “teaching to the test.”img_6594

I’m using Socratic Seminars with this novel – more about that in another blog post. So far, I’m pleased with how engaged my students are and I’m even more excited that my school got me a class set of Alexander’s novel, Booked! Some of my students spied this in the back of my room and can’t wait to get their hands on it. Now that’s what I call motivation!

How do you engage students after a long break?

 

 

 

What my students are reading

One thing I’m super proud about this year is my classroom library and the fact that I allow students to read whatever they want from my library. Student choice is super important, especially for pre-teens.

I recently ordered some more books for my library and during book talks one day, I mentioned this to my students. They immediately began calling “dibs” on specific books. Each morning, they came in asking if the books had arrived. When the books finally did arrive one day after school, I walked into a colleague’s classroom (which is also used to house homework detention), Amazon box in hand. “Are those the books?!” a student shouted excitedly. I opened the box more quickly than a kid unwrapping Christmas presents. My students looked on with suspense and amazement and launched themselves at the box’s contents. Usually, I do not allow books to leave my classroom. However, I made an exception for these few detention-goers who wanted to read during detention. I didn’t think the detention monitor would mind (and I was over-the-moon thinking to myself, This is the reading culture I have created!)

So what are my students so excited about reading these days?

1.) The Baby-Sitters Club Graphics I recently bought numbers 3&4 to complete my Baby-Sitters Club graphic collection (they only make 1-4 in graphics). My students are now begging me to get the “original” books because after reading the graphic novels, they want to know what happens next! While many teachers have qualms about graphic novels, I see them as a gateway to more difficult texts.

babysitters

2.) Dork Diaries I only have books 1-3 (just ordered 4), and my students (especially girls) LOVE these books. I think the content really speaks students about life as a pre-teen.

3.) Mike Lupica My boys especially enjoy Lupica’s books, which have themes centered around sports, friendships and difficult decisions teens face.

Recently, I made a “Book Wish List” on my whiteboard. Students add books they want me to get for the classroom. Aside from the ones listed above, a student wrote “More LGBT books.” At the beginning of the school year, many students did not know what LGBT was. Now, they want to read more stories with protagonists who are LGBT.

This year, my students are curious and excited about reading. No matter what state test data says, this is a win in my book.

 

Lumping it together with Humanities

When I obtained my first job as a ninth grade teacher, I signed on to teach a class called “Humanities,” which weaves together literature, social studies and writing. In theory, this seems like a great idea. After all, most history lends itself to literature. And writing? Well, you can infuse writing into anything!

I wish I could tell you that my year teaching Humanities was a success. The harsh reality was that it was a hot mess. I felt overwhelmed with content. I was the jack of all trades and the master of none.

Luckily, the school scratched Humanities the following year and replaced it with separate writing, literature and history classes. From that point forward, I was able to focus solely on my literature and writing sections. Students were gaining more meaning from texts and learning the principles of writing.

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Recently, I learned that my current school is moving to a Humanities model for middle school students. I tried thinking of this is a positive light and came up with the following:

  • Modules that lend themselves to project-based learning are readily available for use. I’ve used these modules before and they are jam-packed with great lessons, handouts, texts, etc. This saves a lot of planning time creating lessons. However, they obviously need to be tweaked depending on each class, which can add to planning time.
  • The history portion lends itself to a lot of place-based writing opportunities. I facilitate a summer writing program where place-based writing is the focal point. I strongly believe that students take away more from experiences if they are immersed in them.

While Humanities classes offer some valuable learning opportunities, I still have concerns:

  • Where does formal writing instruction fit in? Writing is an area where my students need explicit instruction on the basics (how to write a sentence, sentence structure/variety, etc.) In a humanities curriculum, it is very difficult to teach the basics alongside everything else that comes along with “Humanities.”
  • Book choices are limited. I love choosing class novels based on student interest. However, now all of my novels have to contain a history component. This leaves little room for high-interest novels.
  • I’m not SuperTeacher. I can’t do it all – rolling three subjects into one and giving me a module with all the materials you think I need is not only demeaning my expertise, but it’s a disservice to my students.

As it stands, my cry for a separate writing course will likely not come to fruition for my current students in years to come thanks to budget woes. I have considered scrapping reading instruction for the rest of this year and only focusing on writing. I want them to be prepared for whatever next year brings and I’m willing to make difficult sacrifices.

My students struggle with writing. I can’t do it all, but I can give them what I know they need.

Do you teach a Humanities course? If so, I’d love your input!

 

Library Battles

I’m two weeks into the school year and so far, it’s pretty great. For the first time ever, it feels as if I have my sh*t together. This is likely because I began planning and working on my classroom in late July. People who think teachers spend their summers relaxing should know that a teacher’s idea of “relaxing” is organizing his/her library for the upcoming school year. And laminating. Definitely laminating.

One of my goals this year was to have a library that looked and felt inviting. To accomplish this, I did a few things:

1.) Labeled my books by genre/theme. Looking for books has never been easier when I have theme-coded bins. All of my Goosebumps books are in one place and if students want to read books about Middle School, there’s a bin for that. I recently added a LGBT book bin and plan to add a Scary Stories/Halloween in the coming week.

2.) Comfy Chairs. I acquired a gently used rug, a few bean-bags, a moon chair and a funky, multi-colored lamp. I have a rotation of students who read in the library daily so everyone gets a turn. Students are not only excited about the books they are reading, but they learn that reading is a pleasurable act.

While my Type-A library organizing has completely changed the vibe of silent reading time in my classes, I also attribute that to allowing students to read books regardless of book levels. In the past, my students were so focused on their book level and would be scared to stray from it. This meant they were possibly not reading the books they wanted to read, all because the book was not exactly a DRA 40, for instance.

When I told my students they could read books based on their interest, some of them actually cheered. I explained that sometimes they may be interested in a book that, once they begin reading, they find is too difficult. At that point, they can make a mature decision to choose another book. I highlighted the fact that I sometimes have to change my book after reading the first few chapters because it doesn’t hold my interest or it’s too difficult. Some real-life advice and the power of choice with middle schoolers is key.

Of course, I also step-in if I see a student who needs some guidance in this area, but for the most part, my students are really enjoying reading silently. In fact, many of them will ask me to get their books so they can read during times that are not SR times. If you’re a teacher, you know how HUGE this is (and when they ask, I of course, say “Yes,” while beaming a smile ear-to-ear!)

Speaking of books of interest, as stated above, I recently created a LGBT book bin. I read along with my students and was reading George. I gave a quick book talk about it (we also do this every day – more to come in a later post) and students were immediately calling “dibs” on the book when I finished. So I went home that night and ordered a good amount of LGBT books from Amazon. When they arrived a few days later, students were literally running to the LGBT book bin and proclaiming the book they wanted to read when they finished their current book. One student spied a book in the bin she desperately wanted to read, so she told me that she made a goal to finish her current book by Friday. Friday afternoon, she bounced up to me and proclaimed, “I’m finished!” Can I get a new book?”

So what are these books my students are fighting over? Here’s a list of few:

1.) George by: Alex Gino

A book about a fifth grade boy, George, who identifies as a girl.

george-book

2.) Being Jazz by: Jazz Jennings

My students saw this book and immediately knew who Jazz was. Little did I know, she has a television show! This is a great high-interest non-fiction read.

being-jazz-my-life-as-a-transgender-teen-hardcover-book_1000

 

3.) Totally Joe by: James Howe

Joe comes to grips with his sexuality and questions gender roles in this middle grades book about being gay.

 

joe

What books have your students fighting battles in the library? Share in the comments!

*Many of my library’s books and furniture were generously donated through DonorsChoose projects.

Up next on the blog: Pictures of my library and how I’m using bookmarks to help students track their reading.

  • Book talks and reading logs

 

 

How did I live without TpT?

TeachrsPayTeachers is perhaps the most brilliant idea ever. Until I discovered this gem, I constantly re-invented the wheel each year. I created all of my own handouts. I worked furiously from the time I arrived home from school until about 10:00pm getting lessons prepared for the next day.

Obviously, this cycle led to burn-out come November and the bulk of my paycheck going toward nightly purchases of wine (because lesson planning without wine is just absurd).

'I need five weekly lesson plan books. Not only do I tend to overplan, but I feel more comfortable with contingency plans.'

Because I value my work-life balance each more with every passing year, I end up spending a good amount of money on TpT. I also wonder how the teachers who create the items on TpT have time to do so…

When I first started using TpT, I felt like a cheater. Was I taking the easy way out, not making my own materials? Did this make me “less-than,” the fact that I just clicked “purchase” and had my next day’s lessons downloaded in an instant?

Clearly, I got over those feelings rather quickly. I also realized that while many of the items on TpT do not need to be modified, most do. So while I still spend a good portion of my time tweaking my purchases, it’s way less than the amount of time I used to spend. And that is everything.

Here are some of my favorite TpT purchases. What are yours?

1.) Peer Editing Stations and Rotations. I have tried a myriad of peer editing tools, most of which are confusing and mediocre at best. I love this station idea and I plan to use it this year.

2.) Writing No-Prep Printables. I use these as mini-lessons and then give quizzes over the skills. Since I teach reading, writing, vocabulary, etc., these practice and assess handouts correlate nicely with whatever writing piece students are working on. Also, I just love Lovin’ Lit’s TpT store – check it out!

3.) Back to School ToolKit. This download is filled with lots of great stuff. I use the classroom sign-out sheet all year and the textbook tracker is a great way to keep track of those class novels. Lots of great first week activities that the kids really get into!

Let me know your favorites in the comments!

 

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?

female-_reader

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!

 

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!

nine-ten-a-september-11-story-9781442485068_lg

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.