Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Remembering Joan

The Slice of Life Story Challenge is hosted by the talented team at Two Writing Teachers.
Link up your slice on Tuesdays all year. Thanks, Stacey, TaraDanaBetsyAnna and Beth.

It was late at night the phone rang. Maybe it was four-thirty in the morning. I don't remember which of the mavens called me. It could have been Rosalie or Zirot or Cathy, even Mary though she taught French and not English.  We sometimes shared a cup of black coffee and a cigarette back when we all smoked. It could have been any of the smokers who called even the Russian teacher could have, would have. It doesn't matter now who, but that the caller was kind, gentle.

"We lost Joan last night, Lee Ann."

Lost her? My first thought a literal sucker punch. How do you lose a person? She might be a veteran teacher, but she's old enough to just wander off.

Turns out the caller knew right where Joan was. Her husband had found her late that evening at the bottom of their pool felled by a heart attack while no one was home. Joan was my first mentor, my supervising teacher during my senior internship.

The students I taught during my internship while under Joan's supervision were so smart I felt I needed to go back to school to be able to keep up with them (and her) --so I did. I didn't start teaching until I finished my master's degree in literature and had started on a doctorate. When Joan died, I was a third-year teacher. 

I can still remember the grim catalog I made of the contents of her desk drawers: pens, pencils, post-its, wrinkled gum wrappers, an abandoned prescription, pages ripped from magazines, underthings. I remember boxing her books--tucking a few aside to keep. I still catch glimpses of her, sharp in the margins of Hamlet or Tess. I remember cleaning out her classroom's cabinets--counting out boxes of chalk and packages of pencils, pens, paper, glue--academic ephemera. 

I don't know where we sent her students after she died. I don't remember. I remember the packing and the gathering at her home and our friends and the Tiramisu, her favorite dessert.

Recently a teacher new to our school passed away unexpectedly. We learned of his passing one Monday morning. How difficult. How terrible and wonderful this short life we live. I did not know him. Our faculty numbers above 150 teachers, our campus more than 95 acres--those sound like excuses to me now. Our collegial circles have grown smaller as departments are divided into PLCS. Teachers seem to have less contact across content areas and grade levels. I didn't know him thoughI feel for his family, his friends, his students. I didn't know him, but his passing brought me right back to Joan.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

What Gets in the Way of Pleasure Reading?

We know that two keys to lifelong reading are planning and goal setting. Reading plans may take the form of a bedside book stack, a shelfie, a wishlist, or a virtual to be read list, or a collection of holds in the Overdrive app used by the public library. Anasia has maybe seven books on hold. She is number twelve in line for The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer (Michelle Hodkin's Mara Dyer series is getting a lot of action in my class this semester!).

Reading plans and reading goals walk hand in hand. If you have a stack of books or a list of titles you want to read next, you have goals.

We are early in our fourth quarter and we are reflecting on where we have been as readers and looking to where we want to go next.

Clara's  reflection.
Today, I am most interested in what is getting in the way of students reading. A handful of students are still not carry a book with them. Instead, they sample books during each reading workshop session. They stand in front of the classroom bookshelves and stare at book spines, browsing for something to read during reading workshop. It reminds me of the after-school refrigerator stare; bored, you open the fridge, feel the cool air and stare at the shelves hoping for a treat. Less than ten percent of my current students are still staring into the book fridge--they are picky consumers, but I haven't given up on them yet.

The remaining students, the majority, are off and reading and have been since Dec/Jan. I can barely keep them feed. Their reading appetites are well developed and they are hungry for books. Even though, students self-report reading anywhere from eight to eighty titles this year, some weeks they seem to read less than others. So I asked them what gets in the way of reading?

Students know. They talked about it at their tables and wrote about it on a quick sheet I gave them. The sheet is half-sized so that students can glue it into their reading journals. I asked students to:  set reading goals, assess themselves as readers using our independent reading learning progression (formerly known as a learning scale) and to discuss what gets in the way of pleasure reading.

Independent reading learning progression; entry level begins at the bottom of the page.
Marks show my use of the progression for whole-class reflection and to share my big picture assessment of  the group . 
 They've read an incredible amount this year.

By the Numbers: Books Read by Table and Class Period. Two to four students sit at each table. 

We talk about many of the books they read but not all of them and likely not more than once per book. My goal is to speak with each reader at least once a week. Students can confer more if they need to, but it is impractical and unrealistic of me to think I can see every student multiple times as they read a single book. My readers read too fast for that. Do yours? 

My own thinking is often confirmed by what students say and write. One said it was more an issue of priorities and time management. Another student said, "it's not what gets in the way--it's more like what takes the place of reading." Ah, "takes the place of" that's what's happening as students mature. I have been watching that happen at home in my son's reading life, so I am not surprised that students experience a shift in their own reading habits too. There are only so many hours in a day, so many minutes in class.

For that student and many others in my tenth grade Pre-International Baccalaureate classes, homework, tests and the sheer volume of content knowledge that must be learned, keeps students from reading for pleasure. These students take chemistry, pre-calculus, German or Spanish, Advanced Placement psychology, Advanced Placement World History as well as debate, computer networking, information technology or a host of other electives.

I get it.


I remember my own pleasure reading taking a back seat to course requirements, but I am reader. I always found a way to read.  I know my readers do too.

The Slice of Life Story Challenge is hosted by the talented team at Two Writing Teachers.
Link up your slice on Tuesdays all year. Thanks, Stacey, Tara, Dana, Betsy, Anna and Beth.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Art Engagements

The Slice of Life Story Challenge is hosted by the talented team at Two Writing Teachers.
 Link up your slice on Tuesdays all year.
 Thanks Stacey, TaraDanaBetsyAnna and Beth.

Students marked their places in the books they are reading. They folded page corners and tapped screens, some slide a photograph or a sticky note between book pages as book marks. I gave them a minute to finish a paragraph or find their stopping point,then I asked them to turn and talk to their table groups about the books they were currently reading.

The conversation was hard to contain for some. As her table talk came to an end, Maya spotted Yvonne reading The Evolution of Mara Dyer . She skipped over to Yvonne's table to compare notes about the book. She may have even jumped over a chair to get there quicker.

I. Love. That.

I love that students get excited about the books they are reading. I love that once hooked on a title, students become walking book commercials. Maya convinced me to read the Maya Dyer series earlier in the year and they have become touchstone texts for us.

After reading students went on an art explore to investigate the next Modern Art movement we are using as a lens to interpret and examine poetry for our Art of Analysis pieces. For today's explore I set students up by sharing Susan Rubin's gorgeous picture book, Andy Warhol Pop Art Painter. I talked about Warhol for a few minutes and did a picture walk through the book using the document camera. I pointed out the Lichtenstein image in the book and told students how Pop Artists took commercial products or images from popular culture and made them into art. Then I sent them off to explore with the direction to note five Pop Art artists and five facts about Pop Art in their academic journals.

Clicking, screen tapping, screen sharing, pens scratching and whispers ensued. They discover more Lichtenstein, and Johns, Rauschenberg, Keith Herring, and Romero Britto and more. They discovered that pop artists, especially in the United States: were young and sometimes considered brash and aggressive; created iconic images that commented on manufacturing and commercialism; used primary colors and blurred the lines between high and low art. Oh, we had such a good share and discussion once they'd explored.

Two boys had come into my classroom to make up a common assessment that was given by teachers in my PLC last week. The assessment reviews the standards the teachers have taught by asking students to read Walker's "Flowers" story and answer sixteen or so multiple-choice questions. The boys were quiet and focused on their passage during our reading time; they were nearly finished when I shared the Warhol book.  I told them they could return to their teacher if they were finished and one responded with, "I'm going over my answers."

"Okay," I replied as I continued to walk the room.

By the time I gathered students back from their explore the boys were clearly done.Yet they lingered in the room. I thought they were listening in and sure enough, I got an email from the teacher:

Sent: Tuesday, April 14, 2015 11:27 AM
To: Spillane-Larke, Lee
Subject: 3rd period student

One of the kids I sent to you came back and said “That class is so much more interesting than this class, they talk about art and stuff as a whole class… What does she teach?”

Made my day that quick note--high praise from a fifteen-year-old that remark. I commiserated over email with the teacher. She is a fantastic teacher and while the boy's comment made my day it may not have made hers.

I could have reminded her that things always look better on the other side of the fence, especially to teenagers. The grass is always greener or at least it looks that way sometimes--we  teachers know it isn't.

The comment reminded me that students will engage, even when they're not supposed to, if the content is interesting and they get a little time to dig out the details on their own. Interest and independence matter.