Do you think that the books read in school are boring? Are parents really worried about what their kids are reading in school? I can imagine that some parents don’t want their kids reading certain books because of language, or inappropriate scenes. How often does that happen? How often do teachers push their own agenda in the classroom? I don’t think it happens in elementary school or middle school. It might happen in high school, and more than likely happens at university. However, by the time our kids get to be adults attending college, shouldn’t they be capable of analyzing what others say, and deciding for themselves?

My Experience

I’ve worked in two different school districts, both of which are populated by fairly conservative families. When teachers talk about what they’re teaching, they’re limited to a list of books approved for a specific grade, or lexile level. The books that are available to use in class aren’t always physically available in the school. So, as they say, beggars can’t be choosers. In most cases, teachers teach from books that are approved, and that have been purchased by a teacher and administration consensus.

When I write, “books that are approved”, I mean books that have been submitted for review by a teacher who would like to use it. A committee of teachers, librarians, and community members read the book and decide if it has literary value, anything that might be seen as inappropriate, and if it fits the grade level of the students being taught.

In my experience, most books are classics. They’re older and have some historic and cultural value. Books that will probably be around forever like To Kill a Mockingbird, Huck Finn, and nearly everything by William Shakespeare.

My Philosophy

Obviously young kids shouldn’t be exposed to books that have foul language, or excessive violence. Sometimes adult books will have kids versions that are significantly modified. I think that’s fine, but there are so many things to read that it isn’t necessary. I don’t know how it happens exactly, but kids get to middle school, and they start to hate school. They might like to read, but then they’re told what to read and when to finish and it becomes a chore. I would much rather have kids read something they like on their own time, or even during class time so they don’t lose that interest.

When I taught 8th grade we read Ender’s Game in class. Ender’s Game is one of my favorite books. It’s interesting, it’s unusual, it’s violent, has some foul language, and is on the approved list. When reading out loud, I usually replace the words to something silly, which helps kids keep reading along. They giggle when I change something which causes the bored kids to wonder what’s up. We can talk about cause and effect. We can talk about what they would do if they were there. We can identify what is appropriate according to our cultural norms, and what is inappropriate. It is a great community learning experience.

What about Shakespeare. When was the last time you read Shakespeare? High school? College? Did you really read it, or did your teacher simplify things for you? Go back to the famous “love story” Romeo and Juliet. It’s not really about love. It’s a story of infatuation between two teens over a three day period. The opening scene between Gregory and Sampson is typical of Shakespeare’s punning; talking about maidenhead and salted fish. Seriously, parents complain about things, but not Shakespeare. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Shakespeare. I think he was the most clever writer of drama in the English language. Do parents remember reading Shakespeare? Do they really care what their students are reading, or does Shakespeare get a pass just because his writing is old and everyone reads it?

Why Read Together In Class?

When everyone in class has experienced the same story at the same time, it’s easy to have a conversation. It’s easy to address social or environmental concerns. Kids can ask questions and hear what multiple people have to say about it. As a teacher, I can guide the conversation. I can act like I don’t understand what students are talking about, forcing them to think about what they really think and explain more specifically. I can put kids into pairs or groups to help those who are shy or timid communicate in a less stressful environment. I can then provide other whole class experiences that force the kids to band together.

Standing Up For Who We Are

When we read about Anne Frank and World War Two, students had a hard time understanding why it was so difficult for Jews to stand up for themselves. They didn’t understand the community pressure to report traitors to the German government. I tried to give students a feeling of this during class. I started class in a very stern, almost angry way. I told students that we had a lot of things to do during class, and that we didn’t have a lot of time to waste. I divided students into groups to read picture books about The Holocaust, but I didn’t give them enough time to do it. I had them switch to the next book before they could finish. Students started to complain that they weren’t finished, so I sent them to the hall. The first few students to complain were really scared. Usually they were the on task students who never got into trouble. They couldn’t understand why I was in such a bad mood. Eventually six or seven kids were sent out into the hall, and kids still in class were totally silent, totally on task.

Time To Process

After 10 minutes or so, I called the students in the hall back to class. Everyone was silent. I asked them what they experienced as they tried to read the assigned picture books. I had them take out a piece of paper to write down their experiences, thoughts, feelings, and anything else they thought about the activity. Their eyes got bigger, and some smiled as they started to understand the connection. They wrote about their fear and frustration. Eventually, we could talk about why it was so difficult to stand up against Hitler’s government. They were much more sympathetic to the situation and realized how easy it can be to give someone else power.

Reading can be a powerful experience whether individually, or in a class of 30 other people. Sometimes we read to escape, and sometimes we read to understand others. Teachers try to choose books that they are confident will help students. Teachers try to help students become thoughtful, sympathetic, empathetic, caring, and patient.

I don’t know how, but I missed reading a lot of books that others read in middle and high school. I’ve read many of them as an adult, and for the most part loved the experience each book offered. Some are still not great, but that’s a matter of personal opinion and I’m OK with that.

What did you read in middle school or high school? How did those stories change your perspective on life?

 

Read on!

-Dave

Kelly Gallagher’s books were first suggested to me as a first year teacher. I’ve only had the chance to really spend time with one, Deeper Reading. It is subtitled “Comprehending Challenging Texts, 4-12. It’s an amazing resource to help students discover the practice of close reading by focusing on the students’ skills.

Inside Deeper Reading

It’s a relatively short book at just over 200 pages, but so much is covered. There are chapters on focusing the reader, first-draft reading, second-draft reading, meaningful reflection, and teaching versus assigning. Some subjects can be taught cold, meaning students don’t know what’s going on, and eventually they pick up the things they need to remember. They might gain understanding through context and hands on experience. That might be okay for subjects like science or history, but even then students always learn more if they are given a key or guide to what is coming.

For example, if I were to give a copy of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to the average high school freshman, they would already have an idea of the story. Romeo and Juliet has become fairly popular and elements have been adopted by movies, sitcoms, and kids animated movies. Students would be thrown off by Shakespeare’s language, but they would get the ideas in the story.

How much more would they understand if they were introduced to the physical location of the story? How much more would they absorb if they understood the conflict between Montague and Capulet and how it drives Romeo to pursue Juliet? What details would they understand better if they knew the basics of common language in Shakespeare’s plays? The more we help, the more students will understand.

Students need guidance when tackling challenging texts. Gallagher points out in chapter 10, that there’s a difference between teaching and assigning. The book addresses the process of teaching reading as a community effort. Teaching through the first read through might require conversations about what is happening. Students may pick up on different details that others miss.

Students often challenge a second read through, but if they’re truly going to understand what they have read, they might need to read it more than once. If students are going to be expected to develop deeper reading strategies, they are going to have to see the text from different perspectives.

There’s much more to this book. I really recommend it. It’s an academic read, but I think it’s very accessible. If I were to get into the business of giving stars, it’s easily 5 out of 5 for value, and the volume of useable activities in class or one on one with an individual.

 

Have you read anything else by Kelly Gallagher? What do you think?

Read on!

-Dave

 

When I tell my students that we’re starting a poetry unit, I give them thirty seconds to groan and complain and make disgusted faces. I actually tell them to get ready to complain, and boy do they!

I understand why most people have a hard time with poetry. The language that writers used a hundred years ago, or more can be difficult to understand. It makes sense that we could be feeling the same things about love, or sadness, or death. We just don’t use the same words and metaphors to communicate those feelings and ideas.

The funny thing is, that when we understand the words, we understand the poetry and we like it. If we take the time to get into Shakespeare, we understand the insults, even if we don’t understand some of the words. We become accustomed to the language.

That’s why I don’t spend a lot of time on older poetry. Kids don’t have the attention span to spend days filtering meaning out of those dusty pages.

Don’t get me wrong, we still read Shakespeare. But only as much as we watch. His plays were meant to be watched.

Back to poetry. Introducing, Slam Poetry!

Kids seem to get Slam Poetry. It’s real, it’s raw, it’s emotional, it’s performed. It can be sad, thought provoking, or funny, and it doesn’t have to rhyme. Some still feel like they have to make it rhyme. That’s okay with me, it’s their creation.

I give my students themes. I try to guide their thinking so they can naturally start writing about the thing they love, or the thing that they’re good at. They struggle for a while, but eventually they dig deep enough that they start to write about how they really feel.

The thing I’ve discovered about poetry is that not everyone has had the same experiences. When a 16 year old guy reads a poem that describes being in love as being bathed in the warmth of sunlight, he shrugs and has solidified his belief that poetry is stupid.

However, when that same 16 year old watches a slam poem about love and OCD, the performance, emotion, word choice, and delivery show him how it feels to be in love, and how it feels to have that feeling shattered. He gets it. And that makes reading more intriguing. Reading to understand, not just reading because someone told them to.

Expressing emotion, being vulnerable, and daring to just write can produce amazing poetry. It takes encouragement. Anyone can do it. It also demands trust and respect. The students have to know that you’re on their side, and that what they write, and who they are is important.

So if your kiddo is struggling with reading, maybe take a break and try to write some poetry. Don’t make it rhyme. Don’t force it. Just write. Express feelings, use metaphors, similes, describe the details as if in slow motion. I think you’ll be surprised and amazed at what they write.

I know I am. Sometimes it gives me chills.

Until next week,

Write on, Read on.

-Dave

I’ve listed some slam poems that I love. Some I show in class. Some I can’t because of language. Some have cleaner versions that I do show in class.

Let me know what you think of poetry.

Neil Hilborn – “OCD” One *F* word. Makes me cry every time.

Neil Hilborn – Ted Talk – Agents of Changeand “OCD” Clean

Adam Gottlieb – “Poet Breathe Now” Inspiring

Miriam & Rhiannon – “Cat Poem” Hilarious 🙂

I think about reading all of the time. I try to think of ways to encourage my students to read more. I spent the first few years of my teaching career teaching whole class novels probably like every other ELA teacher. I was excited to share Bilbo’s journey through Mirkwood. I took a risk by singing the dwarves’ story about the Misty Mountains. I like making kids uncomfortable, ok? I love comparing Bilbo’s choices and character growth to our lives, and I like to think the kids in 8th grade got it.

When I think about the whole process in a big picture sort of way, I can see why so many kids start to despise reading. We start the chapter, then stop to ask questions. Then they get a worksheet or vocabulary, then we finish the chapter. It doesn’t flow. I don’t read that way, and you probably don’t either.

Too often when we read a whole novel together as a class, we ask students questions that they probably aren’t capable of answering yet. Most of them haven’t read all the way through The Hobbit (the movie doesn’t count!). How do they know if he’s a hero yet, or not? They don’t understand the history of the Tooks and Bagginses, and how that personal baggage has an impact on Bilbo’s decisions from The Last Homely House to Smaug’s Lonely Mountain. They barely even notice how regularly he whines about wanting to be home by his fire with a nice cup of tea.

What are we to do, then? Do we really need to pack every kid at every imaginable reading level along for the ride? Not if we’re going to stop and analyze every plot point and every characters action. We’ve lost them before we’ve begun.

I had a great conversation with a friend one recent Saturday. She talked of an experience she had in a high school English class. The teacher tried something for the first time that year. He had the class read The Old Man and the Sea all the way through before beginning to close read and ask questions. No extra assignments for comprehension. They just read. Then they came back and started the book again. But now with an understanding of who’s who, and where they are. She talked about how she actually understood the plot, and character motive, and the big picture of what the story is really about. That is amazing to me!

This is my first year teaching at a high school. I teach sophomores, and I’m trying something new. I get the feeling that they understand what they read better than when they were in 7th and 8th grade. Hopefully that’s true, they’ve been practicing for a few years. I don’t know exactly how I will do it, but I have until January to figure that out. We will be reading Macbeth, and I want to give them access to the characters and story all the way through once before I start to ask the why’s, who’s, when’s and what-if’s. I want them to understand the puns, and how the phrases turn. I want them to appreciate some aspect of Shakespeare’s genius. Sure we’ll read it twice, and at least watch a version of it once, but I’m hoping they love it like we expect everyone to love Shakespeare. Does watching one of Shakespeare’s plays count as reading? Is that cheating?

I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for every possible trick to help my students succeed with and love Shakespeare.

Donalyn Miller has a point. If they’re reading ability or reading enjoyment doesn’t improve, then why are we making them read?

Keep reading!

-Dave