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?

 

 

 

Advertisements

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.

 

Spruce up your classroom library

Last year, my classroom library was anything but a library. It consisted of one bookshelf and lots of leveled book bins. The bookshelf was always in disarray and the leveled book bins were never accurate. Students did not respect the books because, why would anyone respect a trashy space?!

As I’ve stated in a previous post, this year, I sought out to make my library an inviting place for students. A place they would never dream tossing books onto shelves hap-hazardly. Just the other day, a student noticed dust on top of my bookshelves and asked if she could clean it. I thought to myself, students are taking pride in books!

This year, my library is an organized, cozy haven for tweens. Each day, I allow three students to sit on fancy chairs during silent reading. I rotate through every student before starting over. All students should have a chance to read comfortably, so I do not use the flexible seating as a reward or incentive. Keeping track of who goes on what day has been difficult for me, so in the future, I intend to put that in the hands of students (who always remind me whose turn it is anyway!)

Book bins by genre
Book bins by genre
Cozy seating
Cozy seating

What does your classroom library look like?

 

 

 

Sharing Writing Publicly

Perhaps the most important aspect of writing is when your work is shared publicly. I’m most proud of my writing pieces that have been published in print and online, mostly because it means people besides myself have access to it. Students get the same excitement and pride when their work is shared publicly.

Making time and space for students to share their work is just as important as the work itself. Teaching students how to critique work and how to accept criticism is a life skill they will certainly utilize as they transform into adulthood. In middle school, a time when character development is critical, it is especially meaningful when teachers offer guidance and activities that allow students to become well-rounded individuals.

I’ve used Linda Christensen’s “Read-Around” activity for years (from this book, which is like my teaching bible) and it’s always proven to be a success with students. While I tailor it to my students’ needs each year, I find that with consistent implementation, students, 1.) Find more pleasure in writing; 2.) Learn how to give meaningful feedback; 3.) Learn how to accept feedback that is critical of their work.

A student reading her work during a read-around
A student reading her work during a read-around

My current class had their first read-around last week. I always have students move the desks and put chairs in a circle. This promotes positive classroom community and also ensures that the speaker and audience can see/hear everyone.

I create a rubric so that students are able to critique their peers’ work. It also holds them accountable for actively participating and listening. Since this was our first read-around, the rubric was rather basic, asking students to list one “glow” (something the author did well) and one “grow” (something the author could improve).

Students give feedback on a rubric
Students give feedback on a rubric

Prior to the read-around, we discussed examples of exemplar and non-exemplar “glows” and “grows.” For instance, saying a paper is “good” is not very helpful to the writer; saying their use of statistics helps to persuade readers is a better and more specific “glow.”

Since this was our first read-around, I had students volunteer to read their essays – no pressure! I tell students that my expectation is that everyone reads out loud in a read-around this year. I realize that for some students, public speaking is scary, so I never force them to read aloud at a given time, but I continue to enforce my expectation that they do it at least once and they always rise to meet it. What I’ve found is that with consistent implementation of read-arounds, these students will eventually become comfortable and feel that the space is safe enough for them to face their fear without pressure.

How do you allow students to share their work?

You have to attend to be present

“Being present is what you experience when you are completely focused on this very moment.” This is a popular definition of present, especially given all of the research on mindfulness. However, while being mentally present is something everyone could work on in their daily lives, some students have difficulty being physically present at school.

NPR’s recent article, “What One District’s Data Mining Did For Chronic Absence” got me thinking about my students – past and present – and their attendance. It also made me reflect on school attendance policies, which, surprisingly, can vary from district to district and oftentimes, school to school.

absent

The article makes a few salient points, one being that it’s difficult to teach students when they are not in school. Sure, missing a day or two here and there will not put a student behind. However, chronic absences can (and do). But what is a chronic absence?

I’ve looked this up and it varies. Some schools consider 3 unexcused absences a year chronic. Others state that 10 absences without a doctor’s note are unexcused and chronic. As a teacher, I have often wondered why attendance rules are so murky in some schools and strict at others.

As a high school student growing up in the Midwest, it was considered an excused absence if you chose to go hunting during a designated week in the fall. Clearly, the attendance rules need to be tailored to the ways of life and norms of the community in which the school resides; however, when chronic absences are left alone, the only one who suffers is the student.

In many urban communities, students neglect to come to school due to circumstances beyond their control: family trauma, transportation and working parents are often major factors in whether or not a student shows up in a classroom. Over the years, I’ve had more students miss school who actually did not want to miss school. However, circumstances out of their control forced them to stay at home. An early bus. A lost transit pass. A parent who overslept. The list is endless.

While some of my students would (and still do) email me for missing assignments when they are absent, these usually are not the students who are chronically absent for days at a time. They are also not the students who struggle the most. The students who sporadically come to school are the ones who find it difficult to keep their heads above water in their classes. This leads to frustration, anxiety and a myriad of other feelings because they have so much work to make-up and have missed a great deal of instruction.

For a teacher, this chronic absence problem is also frustrating. We spend our prep time re-teaching lessons to students, gathering make-up work and trying to get students caught up, only to have them be absent the next day. And the cycle continues.

Perhaps the city of Grand Rapids was onto something. Involving parents and holding them accountable, not by blaming them, but by educating them. Students will follow their parents’ lead. My parents were always of the mindset that “early is on time.” I’m usually super early to everything. But late? Never. This is not something I learned in a classroom, but something I witnessed at home.

More districts and schools need to reach out to the people in the community in order to improve attendance. Letters and phone calls home about chronic absences is impersonal and probably makes parents feel ashamed. Perhaps the solution to the attendance issue is schools and communities working together.