Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Choice, Doors and Reading Journals

Thank you to StaceyBetsyDanaTaraBeth, Anna, Kathleen & Deb for creating 
community and valuing voice. Join us at Two Writing Teachers
Slide by the Slice of Life buffet for seconds or link up to serve your own slice of life.

Yesterday a student stopped by to use my printer. She's an upperclassman now. I asked her how her year is going. She said her class has completed two books, Jane Eyre and The Great Gatsby in and that they write analysis every day. She pulled up the file she needed to print from her USB drive, leaned in and said,  "You know what really helped me, Mrs. Spillane? All the writing we did in our reading journals. Are you still doing those with your classes?"

Indeed I am.  

My practice around independent reading and shifts subtly year by year, but this year students still choose the books they read and I still ask them to write about their independent reading once a week. 
I've written about our reading journals here, and here and elsewhere; lasts year's quarter one journals are described here

Homework in my English class is to read thirty minutes a day, five days a week. I follow Penny Kittle's lead and ask students to set page goals; this year, we are going to adjust our goals for each book students read. We'll see if we can keep up with that.

Kids then practice writing analysis in their reading journal each week. The left side of the page is for a passage from the book (or my feedback). And kids write about one of the prompts each week on the right-hand side of the page. 

This student glued it a large passage from Philbrick's The Last Book in the Universe.
After reading and marking the text, she practices analyzing the setting on the right.
My feedback is aimed at showing her the difference between summary of plot and analysis of the setting.
 I keep the reading journal right along with them--that way I can better troubleshoot and problem solve. Today, for instance, I know we need to talk about how to embed evidence and how to stay focused on analysis (and not plot summary) based on my own practice.  We will use one paragraph from my own analysis of Walls' The Silver Star and to examine evidence (summary, paraphrase or direct quotations).

Modeling moves my practice formward and when I'm conferring having a model to show  and to speak from makes a difference. 

At the beginning of the year, I need to confer with each reader-writer. I have to spend that time to make sure each child understands the process and the weekly writing. I use that time to give students feedback. During the first two weeks we wrote entries together in class. This week and last,  kids started their entries with me in class on Monday and then finished them for homework if they didn't finish them in class. On Tuesday, while students are reading and engaged in another task, I work the room, meeting for two to five minutes with each child.

If I spend five minutes with each child, I am spending 125 minutes conferring (or three days, three class periods). That is not feasible in my high school classroom. Nor is it realistic in terms of students' needs. Every conference is not five minutes. We won't confer about every written entry nor about every book they read. Just as nature varies, so too the typical high school classroom. Kids have different needs.

Some kids need me to affirm that they are on the right track. They have set up their journals correctly , they are focused on analysis (and not summary or response) and they are doing well citing evidence in a variety of ways from the text. Other kids need more feedback or more support from me.

If kids are unsure or have questions, I need to take the time to listen to and answer clearly. They may be writing response or long summaries instead of finding ways to focus their analysis. They need individual coaching. Some, need  a quick re-teach to show them how to refocus their writing on analysis or to show them how to paragraph even.

Like Linda Rief, I give journal entries a quality grade and a quantity or process grade . For most of this quarter, I will focus more on quantity. As students become better at analysis, I will shift to giving them a grade for the quality of their analysis. As I start to give more students more independence and time, I will confer with just half the class each week.  I am grading writing standards five (the writing process standards) and  eventually will grade writing standard two ( informative or analytical writing). As students learn to analyze, their writing about their reading improves, so I drop lower grades from their earlier attempts.

This is what Tuesday's conferring class period looked liked.
Students and I worked side by side at different tasks. 
I love the individual time I get to take with each child, but it can't happen if the rest of the room is not engaged. I know that I have to have systems in place that keep the class engaged while I am working and talking with individuals. Kids have to trust that I will indeed get to them and give them the same kind of attention they hear me giving to him, and her and her and him.

The tasks I give the class while I confer vary. Sometimes that task will be a discussion, or a strategy practice or work time on a project or independent reading.  It all depends on how much time I need-- and how well my community has come together.

Other times that task will be reading and marking a text that to prepare for discussion.   That is what students did this week--they marked up a short story, "The Wife's Story" by Usula Le Guin that we are going to discuss during Thursday's Socratic circle. I had students working in ten to twelve minute segments. They would read and mark (while I conferred) and then they would come together in their small, table groups and talk. Sometimes, to my delight, it happened spontaneously as they read the story.

Managing reading journals--the writing practice,  the reading practice, and the feedback loop or response time that goes into such an assignment--is time consuming.

It is, I admit it. But you know what?

It varies. It's heavier now than it will be in a month. In a month it will feel routine. In a month, students will be celebrating their successes (I will too!). No matter, the time. It's worth it.

Reading and writing opens doors. Kids who are skilled readers and writers have more doors they can choose to walk through: doors to college choices, doors to writing contests or scholarships, doors that lead to rich service or work experiences. Choice, in books to read and in future opportunities, is a good thing.

I want my kids to have every advantage. I want their futures to be filled with choices. Imagine all the doors as wide open.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

It Takes Time

Thank you to StaceyBetsyDanaTaraBeth, Anna, Kathleen & Deb for creating 
community and valuing voice. Join us at Two Writing Teachers
Slide by the Slice of Life buffet for seconds or link up to serve your own slice of life.

It is day 11 of the school year. I am still in teaching the routines mode. Routines take time to get established.

Today was our day to begin writing about our independent reading in our reading journals. We do such writing once a week. I believe, as does Linda Rief, that it is good practice for readers and writers. Week one we previewed many books in the class. Daily, I talk titles and share books. Last week I reminded students to have their chosen independent reading book with them. I encouraged them to read if they finished activities quickly and had down time in classes.

Today was the day we took out our independent reading books and began in our reading journals. Guess how many students, on average, in each class period had not yet chosen a book to read? 

You might be right. 

The number is always bigger than I want it to be. It is always bigger than I remember it being the year before. 

But it is not January (yet). 

Getting reading workshop going and going smoothly takes time. I haven't  added students as editors to our shared Reading Record on Google Drive. I haven't blocked off a chunk of guaranteed time each class period to read.  The beginning of the year eats time: schedules, the code of conduct, getting the roster right, assessing summer assignments--there is a lot to do at the beginning of the year.

Setting up routines take time. It takes time to gather email addresses and input students into the Classroom Organizer app. It takes time to assess students' interests and target them during daily book talks. 

Today was day eleven. 

We are still establishing routines. You can see it in my lesson plans online.

Somewhere around fourth or sixth period, I pulled out my reflection journal while students were gluing directions in their reading journals (handouts below). I quickly wrote about taking my time and remembering how long it takes to get a workshop established and running smoothly. I dumped it on the page, took a deep breath and set that thinking aside.

Every class is different. Every student is an individual thinker and reader. The good news is that more
I change this "form" each year and add pictures of current
Florida Teen Reads and award winners like the
Amelia Walden Award  to the margins.
than half of the students in every class had a book with them to read. The other good news is that the rest of the kids quickly consulted their Book Pass preview pages and checked a book out from our classroom library. 

I wonder if anyone has thought gamefully about these first weeks of school?

Would Classroom DoJo help my students remember the minutiae or is it just a way to punish kids with rewards?

On my way home today one of my heroes, Jane McGonigal,  was on National Public Radio's Marketplace talking about Super Better and gameful thinking. Gameful thinking is goal oriented and flexible; it views challenges as overcome-able.  I do too.

That's why I stayed at school doing what needs to be done to input initial assessments and set up systems until long past the duty day. Marketplace comes on our National Public Radio station at six after all.

I over came a few challenges and made progress toward many goals. It helps that my son is now a freshman and has band practice on Tuesdays. I can use the afternoon and not rush.

It takes time. 

I know the book lovers (and yet to be book lovers) in my classroom will find titles that will ignite their passions and capture their hearts. I know that come January, kids will have ten or more books to talk and write about. Now is the time to put the routines in place that will enable that to happen. 

Patience young grasshopper. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Making Magic

I spent a cool summer week near the Poconos at the Highlights Foundation camp in Pennsylvania (I won the workshop during a commenting challenge last March). Spending time at Highlights changes a writer.

I have loved Highlights since I was a child. My mom was a dental hygienist for more than thirty years and she would clean the family's teeth on Saturdays. We would be the only folks in the waiting room, taking turns in Mom's chair. Highlights kept me entertained and with every article, I felt smarter. I dreamed about writing for them.

During the Writing from the Heart writing camp I went to, the talented Suzanne Bloom led us through an experience in magic making. We experienced the magic of making something up out of nothing. I wrote about it here.

As soon as I got home, I went on several thrift store dates with my husband. We gathered magic boxes. I found a vintage Samsonite train case in a thrift store in Clermont. Than I filled the boxes with magical items and packed them into the make up case.  Today I unpacked that magic in class.

We began with an exercise in creative thinking. I asked students to draw five squares (or frames) on a page in their Academic Journals. They draw--quick sketches--images from their imagination in and or around the frames. What students draw shows me how they think. Who thinks outside of the box? Who is bounded by perfection using a straight edge and stalling the sketch? Who completes the creative practice and is open to divergent thinking? It's a quick bell work exercise, just six minutes.

Then we move on to the magic. I showed students the train case and took out the first warm up item (a yard of sequined fabric I once wore as a cape for a Super Teacher costume). I asked them, like Suzanne asked us this summer, who owned this magical item and how did the object transform them?

We run through two, whole-class practices. One with the cape and one with a miniature maraca. I show kids the item and give them a couple of minutes to talk in their small groups about what it might figuratively, magically  be. Breaking free of the literal is difficult for some teens. It's difficult for some adults.

After we share the warm up stories,  I put boxes on each small group's table. I aimed for dramatic. I told students not to touch the boxes until I said so. I took my time. I smiled. I used big arm motions.

It was so fun. Oh, how they wanted to snatch the boxes up and dig in. I just loved seeing the anticipation on students' faces. They waited. So patient and polite.

I explained that they would talk through a story--a summary of a story. I showed them how to use five Ws and an H to generate ideas and summarize the story their group created. They wrote the ideas in their Academic Journals. Then the magic happened. I told them to open the boxes and examine the magical objects.

Kids handled the objects like props. As they touched the items; they talked and told stories. The buttons pictured above enabled characters to time travel, come alive or even change shape! Kids made up characters, plots--whole worlds amazed me. 


I'd stocked one box with a lace handkerchief. I wore the handkerchief home from the hospital after I was born and then carried it on my wedding day. My mom used to make handkerchief bonnets for family and friends' babies. I didn't tell the kids that story (yet), but I sure loved watching them handle the handkerchief and make up stories with it. Some students went so far as to write what Peter Elbow would call a zero draft of the story. Here's one: 

 Another group held a glass bead I bought many years ago but don't wear any more. They were amazed at all of the details in the bead. "There are gardens in here!" One group said.

My favorite story created with the bead today reminded me of A.S. King's Glory O'Brien's History of the Future. Kids decided that with the bead, a king could look through the center hole and see the past  and then flip the bead and look through the other side to see the future (that story is not the one pictured though) .

I had such a great time today listening to the stories students created. Today was about talking and thinking and imagining. Building our community with story.

Tomorrow students will get to choose, the same box or a different one, and they will write their own stories.

I can't wait to see what they create.
Happy New School Year! 

Here's the sequence, in case you want to try it:

  1. Drawing frames (five squares on a page, six minutes to sketch).
  2. Magic warm up. Use two items and ask kids who owned it? How did it magically transform its owner?
  3. Make Up Case: 
  4. Group students in triads.
  5. Give each triad a "magic" box filled with magical items (feathers, shells, buttons, beads, tickets, etc.)
  6. Encourage students to exercise their imaginations and break free from the literal.
  7. Have students talk through a story using a summary tool like 5 Ws and an H for 10-12 minutes.
  8. Ask each group to share out and tell the story they discussed.
  9. Day Two: individuals write the stories--the ones they rehearsed with their groups or stories they thought of themselves. 

Thank you to StaceyBetsyDanaTaraBeth, Anna, Kathleen & Deb for creating community and valuing voice. Join us at Two Writing TeachersSlide by the Slice of Life buffet for seconds or link up to serve your own slice of life.