Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year!

So, it's been an up and down year.  I'm really happy about a lot of it, and I wanted to stop for a minute, before I start to make lists and goals for 2014, about what I'm thankful for.

Happiness and gratitude.  I figure, why not stop and be grateful?

There's a TED talk about this connection, if you haven't thought about it:

I was watching this with my daughter - who is 5, but who is also very thankful.  She complained that she couldn't understand his accent.

There's a lot to be thankful for, just in that statement.  We're blessed to have access to so much learning.  The Internet is full of biased, misleading garbage.  And some things that are just amazing.  It's a wonderful place for so many things.  (Don't get me started on Kid President.  I love that kid.)  But having my own wonderful children.  And my wife.  And my health.  And the chance to spend time with them, right now.  It wasn't that long ago that I was working in retail.  That's the worst place to be during the holidays.  Not only are you working during the holidays, but you're working hard, for long hours.  It's terrible.

When I'm shopping at times like these, I work hard to be extra nice to the frazzled retail employees who help.  Secretly, though, I'm infinitely grateful that I'm not in that place anymore.

This is the year that I experienced EdCamp for the first time.  That was a wonderful experience, and something that I want to experience again.  I'm excited about a chance to participate online, though my expectations have been tempered somewhat.  I prefer the face-to-face, though it's nice to be comfortable in my own home.

I've had many opportunities to develop as a leader and collaborator online and through organizations like the Illinois Writing Project.  That has been a wonderful blessing.

I've learned a great deal in 2013, and I've grown more in that year than I have in almost any other year.  I credit that to my increased participation in Twitter and Google Plus.  And I also need to thank anyone who is reading this.  It's one thing to write a blog that no one reads.  It's another to write something that people are looking at.  That's an enormous thing for me, and it has translated into some important things for me.

So, I'm thankful for many things.  I'm also thankful that I'm not done growing and learning, and that I have so many chances to continue to learn and grow.

(Now it's time to start working on 2014.)

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Books about Grit or Resilience

I thought it might be nice to help myself prepare for tonight's #TitleTalk book chat by posting something about books where characters show grit or resilience. 

I should begin by pointing out that this connects nicely with discussions about mindsets and the resilience that students/people need to be successful when they show the growth mindset.  I think it's also important to think about grit and learning in general.  Too many kids give up when they make mistakes, instead of adjusting and learning (and growing). 

So, this is important.  Just as some of us have discussed how wide reading helps readers develop empathy, an incredibly valuable result, we also need to think about how reading can help us develop grit. 

Books where characters show grit? 

My kids were just watching Harry Potter tonight.  I think he shows remarkable grit, especially in the last book/last two movies. 

What about Frodo Baggins?  That's a great example.  And Sam, of course. 

But also Speak and Melinda.  She kind of learns grit, doesn't she? 

There are a lot of books about bullying that include characters who show resilience/grit.  I'm a big fan of Wonder, as well as Stargirl (there's a great example of resilience!), Ship Breaker and Drowned Cities (both are great), Cinder (and the sequel, Scarlet), just about anything by Jordan Sonnenblick, and lots more. 

That's all I have time for - the chat is starting.  I'll try to come back and update this when everyone reminds me of the 97 other titles I forgot. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

My personal reading challenge

So, I set a goal for each of my students for our second grading period, based on what I've learned about their reading habits and readiness.  All of them have a goal of between 3 and 40 books to read before March 1st (the end of the current grading period).  I'm planning to ask them to share what they read through some kind of written journal, and I decided that I should model what I ask of them.  So, I'm going to post what I've read here - or elsewhere - and point this out to them.

I just posted a review of Eleanor and Park.  I hope to post many more.  My goal is 45 books by March 1st.  That's a pretty ambitious goal for me, during the school year.  I'll have to work pretty hard to get there.  But I think I can.

Reading ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell

I started this book as an audiobook in the car a few weeks ago.  It started slow, and it felt like a typical high-school romance at first.  At some point it morphed into something else.  It's a little more than just a high-school love story.

I should say a few things about this book before I try to write through this inarticulate confusion.

  • The book is YA Realistic.  There's some language, and some PG-13 stuff.  It's not too graphic, in my opinion.  But it's not MG.
  • It takes place in the 80's, with lots of comments about bands, TV shows, and 80's culture - like big hair, bangs, and the walkman.  
  • It's mostly friendly to teachers.  It's not a book about how awesome teachers are.  It's also not a book about how evil they are.  There are some cool teachers, and some semi-cool teachers, but no horrible, nasty kid-torturers.  
All of this adds up to a reasonable claim that maybe the book might be YA that was written for teachers?  I'm not sure that's entirely fair.  It's a good book, and I think kids would like it.  There are several brilliant passages, and I think most kids can feel that when they read it.  But it still feels like this book would be really special for older readers, and only pretty good for younger ones.  I don't know - I might be wrong about this.  

So, what am I trying to say about this book?

I didn't really like the ending.  I don't want to spoil it, but it wasn't enough.  It didn't feel like the story was really over when it ended.  

I should also say that the audiobook was a little disappointing.  I enjoyed the audio, but when I wanted to finish the last part of the book, and I finally had access to a paper copy, I found that the printed version of the book was much better than the audio.  Rowell's written voice was much richer and fit my imagination much better than the two voices from the audio.  

The back-and-forth first-person narration of the book works well when your brain is imagining the voices, I think.  I think we can conjure an appropriate-sounding voice for Eleanor, for instance.  Then, when Park is narrating what Eleanor is saying, we can use the correct voice, not the Park narrator trying to sound like Eleanor.  

Maybe that was the problem.  The audio, with two narrators, made the characters feel inconsistent.  When the actor reading Park did his voice for Park's father, for instance, it sounded very different from when the actress playing Eleanor tried to do it.  (And when Eleanor tried to explain what Park was saying, it sounded fake, and vice versa.)

Perhaps I should re-read this, in print.  

So, what did I mean when I said this was "more than a high-school love story"?  I think the back-and-forth voices were a cool technique.  I think it made the two perspectives more distinct and the narrative richer.  I also liked that the characters weren't typical "diamond in the rough" kids - they weren't just popular kids in need of a makeover.  Park is half-Korean, and Eleanor is a "big girl."  

I also really like Park's parents.  They both make terrible, even cruel mistakes with their kids.  But then they both end up surprisingly trusting, open, and reasonable.  They aren't too good to be true - because both of them have their jerk moments - but both of them more than make up for these things. In some ways, I like Park's father more than Park.  

(This feels like a bad rough draft of a review.  I'm going to publish this anyway, as a lesson to myself and my students.  Hope you enjoyed my unfocused, disorganized, and off-topic meanderings.)

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

I don't know why I love this scene from POLLYANNA so much, but . . . .

I found this clip from the old Disney movie, Pollyanna, on YouTube today, and it surprises me how moving this is for me.  Check it out:

It's kind of a cheesy scene, and a little melodramatic.  But it's a turning point in the movie, and a turning point for the minister, a major character in the film.

If you aren't familiar, it's about a small town with a powerful, wealthy woman (Pollyanna's Aunt Polly) running a large part of the town's business, including telling the minister what he should preach about.  Pollyanna shows up and makes a sad town into a happy town.  (It is a Disney movie, of course.)

My parents bought us a VHS copy of this when we were little, and we watched it quite a few times.  We didn't have cable, so we watched movies like this a lot.  I think I've seen this movie 20 times.  (I remember trying to destroy the movie because I hated it so much.  I'm glad, now, that I failed.)

So, who cares about an old Disney movie?

I suppose the point of all of this isn't religious conversion.  It isn't really a religious message.  It's the Abraham Lincoln quote:

If you look for the bad in mankind and expect to find it, you surely will.

I think this is a really useful way of cultivating positive relationships with students.  It's sometimes easy to see the "bad" in students.  I think we can all tell stories about students who struggled in school.  It's much more useful, and much more effective, to look for the good.  If your goal is to be an effective teacher, noticing and focusing on the "bad" can make you seem negative, pessimistic, and adversarial.  Focusing on the positive can help the student like you more, help you like the student more, and help you develop the kind of relationship that can turn into the leverage you need to manage a challenging situation or control a classroom.  

I'm not advocating a false sense of positivity.  Teachers need to be realistic when they reflect and assess their own teaching.  But they also need to be leaders and managers of people.  And I think people respond better when you are trying to like them - not trying to find reasons to dislike them.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Engagement and Learning

So, I'm planning to start posting more about my Professional Growth plan here.  I'm going to do some research (reading and studying, as well as "action-research") about engagement and its links to learning.

I hope the links are obvious.  What I'm after are the specific ways that I can promote engagement for my students - who are, of course, specific people.

The reading list is long and somewhat difficult.  I'm planning to include the challenging theoretical research on engagement as well.  I'd like to really make this count, and I think a superficial reading based on secondary interpretation of research findings will not suffice.  I enjoy the challenge of reading difficult theoretical text.  I'm finding more and more that I'm reading "beneath" myself.  Which, of course, can be a lot of fun.  But I don't want my overdeveloped literacy skills (from years of grad school) to lapse.  And I might as well use them for something useful.

So here's an initial list of sources on engagement.  For this list, I'm focusing on books.  And I'm not going to include full bibliographical information yet.  I don't think it's necessary in this context.  And, at this point, it's supposed to be a weird list.  My goal isn't reading what's "expected" (or only that), but to read as widely as I can.

  • Schlechty, Philip.  Engaging Students.
  • Bugess, Dave.  Teach Like a Pirate.
  • Marzano, Robert et al.  The Highly Engaged Classroom.
  • McGonigal, Jane.  Reality is Broken.
  • Stager and Martinez.  Invent to Learn.
  • Zhao, Yong.  World-Class Learners.
  • Schmoker, Mike.  Focus.
  • Pink, Daniel.  Drive and To Sell is Human.
  • Darling-Hammond, Linda et al.  Powerful Learning.
  • Keene, Ellen Oliver.  To Understand.
  • Beers and Probst.  Notice and Note.
  • Lehrer, Jonah.  Imagine.
  • Wagner, Tony.  Creating Innovators.
  • Robinson, Ken.  The Element.
  • Maiers, Angela.  Passion-Driven Classroom.
  • Ferlazzo, Larry.  Self-Driven Learning.
  • Hattie, Doug.  Visible Learning for Teachers.
  • Lemov, Doug.  Teach like a Champion.
  • Vygotsky, L.S.  Mind in Society.
  • Loomans.  The Laughing Classroom.
  • Willis.  Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student learning.
  • Stronge.  Qualities of Effective Teachers.
  • Archer.  Explicit Instruction.
  • Whitaker.  What Great Teachers Do Differently.
  • Bomer.  Time for Meaning.
  • Wilhelm.  You Gotta Be the Book.
  • Hillocks.  Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice.  
  • Gambrell et al.  Best Practices in Literacy Instruction.
  • Calkins et al.  Pathways to the Common Core.
  • Gardner.  The Unschooled Mind.
  • Himmele and Himmele.  Total Participation Techniques.  
  • Layne.  Igniting a Passion for Reading.  
  • Kittle.  Book Love.
  • Tovani.  So What do they Really Know?
  • Dewey.  How We Think.
  • National Research Council.  How People Learn.
  • Wilhelm.  Engaging Readers and Writers with Inquiry.
  • Anderson.  10 things Every Writer Needs to Know.
  • Echevarria.  Making Content Comprehensible for English Learners.
  • Miller.  The Book Whisperer.
  • Wormeli.  Fair Isn't Always Equal and Summarization in Any Subject.
  • Wilhelm.  Action Strategies for Deepening Comprehension.
  • Diller.  Practice with Purpose.
  • Farr.  Teaching as Leadership.
  • Copeland.  Socratic Circles.
  • Erickson.  Concept-Based Curriculum.
  • Winebrenner.  Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom.
  • Kingore.  Differentiation.
  • Kagan.  Kagan Cooperative Learning.
  • Saphier and Gower.  The Skillful Teacher.  
I won't promise that I'm reading everything on the list.  I hope to consult many or most of these, and then some.  I'm hoping that I'm researching widely and deeply.  And some of these I've already read and already used.  But I think going back through my shelves and digging up books that I used to think about more often is a good habit, and will help me try many different things and think critically about their effectiveness.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Invent to Learn by Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez - Some Key Points

The TMI (Think-Make-Improve) Robot 
I read - and loved - this book early in the summer, then loaned it to a colleague, who didn't look at it too closely.  It's a fat-looking book, and to many teachers, that represents yet another heavy task.  Many teachers - often myself included - shy away from tasks such as this, especially in the summer, even when they get a strong recommendation from a colleague they trust and respect.  So I won't fault this person for not digging in and falling in love.  But I did want to share some of the more important and insightful ideas from this great book.

The book is almost worth purchasing just for the resources it recommends for various maker movement sites, programming education links, and so on.  There's a ton.

I should also say that both authors maintain a vigorous web presence, through Twitter (@garystager and @smartinez), their sites (http://blog.genyes.org/ and http://www.stager.org/news.html, and Gary's blog at http://stager.tv/blog/), and lots of Maker sites (like http://makezine.com/) and book-related links (like http://www.inventtolearn.com/).  All of these are worth investigating.

Here are some of the big ideas from the book, for me:

  1. Constructionism (slightly different from constructivism) - learning happens most reliably "when the learner is engaged in a personally meaningful activity outside of their head that makes the learning real and shareable" (32).  "The power of making something comes from a question or impulse that the learner has, and is not imposed from the outside. . . "  A personal impulse is much stronger and much more meaningful if it comes from the learner and not from a teacher, parent, or friend.  "We seek to liberate learners from their dependency on being taught."    
  2. Making, Tinkering, and Engineering - Making is "about the act of creation with new and familiar materials" (33).  It's about expressing your intellect through building things, and taking ownership of the products of that experience, something the book calls the "Ikea effect" - when people value their creations, even when they are flawed, over perfect creations built by experts.  (This makes me think of Karl Marx and the way that the worker identifies with the product of his/her own labor.)  Tinkering is a playful, unstructured approach to authentic problem-solving.  "When you tinker, there are no instructions - but there are also no failures, no right or wrong ways of doing things.  It's about figuring out how things work and reworking them.  Contraptions, machines, wildly mismatched objects working in harmony - this is the stuff of tinkering.  Tinkering is, at its most basic, a process that marries play and inquiry" (38).  Engineering is "the application of scientific principles to design, build, and invent" (39).  
  3. Iterative Spiral Design Model from Boehm, 2000
  4. Spiral Design Model - a model of the design process based on the way that software is typically designed, tested, published, redesigned, tested, re-published, and so on.  The goal of a design model like this (instead of a simple create-publish design, or the simplified, heavily-structured model of the writing process) is "to make constant forward progress through a series of gradually improving prototypes" (49).  This iterative design process encourages more creative play with materials - because if you build it and it doesn't work, you can still fix it and make it better.  In fact, this model is closer to the imaginative play of young children (create, share, adjust, re-share, and so on).  
  5. Less Us, More Them as a "Teaching Mantra" - Let the kids be more in charge in the classroom.  "To start making your classroom more student-centered, demonstrate a concept and then ask students to do something" (70).  Stager and Martinez mention a study where two groups of children were given a toy.  One group was taught how to play with the toy, the other was not.  Both groups were able to play with the toy appropriately, but the second group - which was not provided instruction about how to use it - discovered a wider range of uses for the toy than the first group.  The moral: kids are more creative when they are given more freedom to discover for themselves.  
  6. Creation is the heart of creativity.  They have to make things if they are going to learn to be creative.
There is a lot of material besides these big ideas - these are just my big takeaways.  And I'm sure that I'll notice more as I revisit the book this fall to plan my computer programming lessons (which I'm doing because of this book).  

After these sections, Stager and Martinez talk about three big ideas that they call the "game changers": fabrication (as in 3-D printing), physical computing (as in building robots or painted circuits), and computer programming.  I don't want to try to talk about all of these things in this post, but I do want to come back and say more about the latter- computer programming.  My students will be receiving Chromebooks later this fall, and I hope to teach them how to write programs with them.  I haven't decided all of the specifics yet, but I'm committed.  

There are a lot of good things in this book, even apart from the resources related to the three "game changers."  I definitely think that it's worth looking at.  

Here's a great video about Sylvia, an 11-year-old Maker, and her "Super-Awesome Mini Maker Show":

New Posting Schedule

Well, I've been so fired up about the new school year, I haven't been responsible for posting here regularly.  So, I plan to post about once a week, or about four times a month.  I'd like to post less often than I was in June, but with more carefully crafted content.  For a while there, while I was trying to post daily, the quality slipped a little.  Sorry about that.  I hope for less frequent but more thoughtful posts.

Thanks for reading!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Question Types, and why I don't like QAR

I learned about QAR first through a colleague.  Then, I taught a series of lessons using the QAR framework to help students understand question types.  It came up in my Reading program a few times, and I read an article and some of Taffy Raphael's book about the subject.  So, I don't think I'm "dumb" about QAR.  Yet, when teaching it for the first time, I couldn't help but get the four question types mixed up.  And if I was doing it, you can believe that my students were doing it.  In my frustration, I asked myself, "Do they really need to know the differences among so many different question types?  Is this worth the teaching and re-teaching that it takes to clarify all of these differences?"

I think the answer is no.

Briefly, in QAR, there are four question types:
  1. In the book, "Right there" questions - These are questions that you can point to in the text.  They are factual, short-answer questions.
  2. In the book, "Think and Search" questions - These questions require connecting separate parts of text, making inferences across texts, or otherwise require more "searching" than "Right There" questions.
  3. In my head, "On My Own" questions - These questions are prior knowledge, what you know before you read questions.
  4. In my head, "Author and Me" questions - These questions connect what you already know to the author, or to bigger things (?).
I have a hard time explaining this because it doesn't feel logically consistent for me.  I don't think the distinction works or makes sense.  You are reading the book - you can't make connections without referring to the text and yourself.  The whole "Author and Me" question type makes no sense.  How do you connect without talking about the text?  When I explain this to students, I feel forced to make such incomprehensible statements as, "With Author and Me, you're talking about the text in general, not specifically, like you are in Right There and Think and Search."  But what about inferential questions about a character?  Is that Think and Search, or Author and Me if you are making broader inferences based on connections to other characters or real people?  It doesn't feel like it holds water to me.  

I don't like these fuzzy and artificial distinctions, but I like teaching the difference between "right there" and other question types.  I want my students to recognize and employ the difference.  So, the next step for me was teaching the difference between fact-based and more idea-based or more "out there" question types.  I tried teaching students to recognize fact-based questions, just as a general test-taking and comprehension strategy.  The problem with that approach was the fuzziness of the "out there," non-factual questions.  There are just too many things that fall under that umbrella, some of which are useful, and some of which are not.  

Enter the three question types.  I don't remember where I found this idea, but I think one of the clearest articulations of it comes from Tompkins.  Here's a passage from her book, Language Arts:
Questions can be divided into three levels: literal, inferential, and critical.  Literal or "on the page" questions have a single factual answer and can usually be answered with a few words or "yes" or "no."  When the questions refer to a story or other book that students are reading, the answers are directly stated in the text.  The second level of questions is inferential or "between the lines."  To answer these questions, students synthesize information and form interpretations using both their background knowledge and clues in the text.  The answers are implicitly stated in the text.  The third, most complex level of questioning is critical or "beyond the page."  These questions are open-ended.  They require students to go beyond the text and think creatively and abstractly about global ideas, issues, and concerns.  At this level, students apply information, make connections, evaluate and value the text, and express opinions.  (p. 349)
I think these three question levels do everything that distinctions among question types should.  There are clear and important differences among all three question types, and understanding the differences is much easier and much more valuable.  I want students to be able to answer factual questions, but I also want them to see these as less valuable than either of the other two.  And I would like them to be using the third question type to be thinking about how they can use what they read, or how adults use what they read.  

This three-level question framework also more easily lends itself to analogy and graphic organizers.  I've seen some good tree organizers - factual questions are the roots, inferential questions are the trunk and branches, and critical questions are the leaves.  

Let me try some examples with my old standby, Harry Potter:

Literal - What are the names of Harry's parents?

Inferential - Why is Hogwarts the only school of magic in Great Britain?

Critical - What message does the series try to support about discrimination and prejudice?

I think this approach is much more useful and much clearer for students, and I think it also establishes a clear hierarchy of complexity and difficulty.  I think we want students to work toward critical questions, and I think teaching them this framework helps them see that as a useful goal.  

Friday, July 12, 2013

WRITE BESIDE THEM and Middle School Writing

I started reading this book a year or two ago (I can't honestly remember) when several teachers recommended it to me - several of whom were fellow participants in the Summer Leadership Institute for the Illinois Writing Project (a fantastic opportunity, and something I recommend to everyone, by the way).  So, I ran out and picked up a copy.  I read through the first 70 pages in a day or two.  The next 100 pages took more than a year.  This summer, I've finished the book - mostly because I bought another book by Penny Kittle (BOOK LOVE) and felt the need to finish one before starting the other.

So, comments about my weird reading history aside, the material in the book is pretty fantastic.  I envy some of the details of Kittle's teaching assignment (teaching a writing class? awesome!), and I know that her kids are different from mine.  So, I'd like to kind of "think aloud" about how to use this in middle school.

I've posted about the details of my teaching assignment before, and I don't want to go into too much detail.  Briefly, I teach in a suburban Title 1 middle school that uses a "teaming" concept (two or three teachers share a group of students and teach various subjects to the same group of kids, so that students have fewer teachers and teachers can collaborate better) and block scheduling.  Unfortunately, I only have one block (60 minutes) to teach both reading and writing (which are assigned separate grades, by me).  It's hard to teach a writing workshop when it means that you have to surrender all of your literacy time to writing.  I've done it, and it's worked really well almost all of the time (partly because I'm so passionate and motivated when it comes to teaching writing), but lately I've been trying other strategies that allow me to better emphasize both reading and writing at the same time.  So, a modified workshop, or a workshop built around "units of study" - genre-based study of texts, including close reading/analysis and then production/imitation of a text that fits that genre.

Anyway, what does this have to do with WRITE BESIDE THEM?

Let's start with a numbered list:

  1. I really like her discussion of writing notebooks, something I use almost every day, and something that Kittle uses every day, too.  It's a place for "all of that bad writing that is essential to uncover good writing" (26) and a tool for helping students find their voice (27).  
  2. I use her model of "quick writing" (Chapter 5), which has three important rules:
    1. Write the entire time
    2. Write quickly without letting the critic in your head censor you
    3. Relax, have fun, play
  3. She writes along with her students during these quick writes, and she shares her messy drafts so that they see her thinking on paper, and they see a writer making choices and revising.  
  4. Heart Maps - Kittle got this idea from Georgia Heard, and it's a great way to get kids thinking about their "writing territories," something you can come back to later in the year when they say they don't have anything to write about.  
  5. I love how she models re-reading of the quick writes - if kids are just writing and tossing the material, there's not much point in doing journals.  It's when they see value in the notebooks and are using what they come up with that these things are important and worthwhile.
  6. Her overall flexibility and her willingness to adjust her teaching (and her expectations) to help kids.  Chapter 9, "Seeking Balance," should be required reading for anyone teaching writing to any person over age 10.  In a nutshell, Kittle argues that kids don't learn to write well when they are given writing assignments that they will never revise.  And many of the writing assignments given in English classes are first-draft, write-and-forget assignments.  She encourages letting go of some of the demands of literary analysis: not everything a kid writes in an English class in high school has to be about a literary classic.  Students don't learn effective writing when they have to write about something that doesn't matter to them.  True, that's not ALWAYS the case, and yes, students should be expected to do some literary analysis.  But writing a five-paragraph essay about THE SCARLET LETTER doesn't teach them very much about good writing.  They will probably learn about literary analysis, but that's not teaching writing.  
  7. I like her discussion of conventions (grammar and mechanics), but I don't love it.  I don't think Kittle is the best voice on this subject (I prefer Jeff Anderson for this), but I think that she's developed a system for helping kids learn how to get better at conventions.  It's not the focus of what she does, but she addresses it.  Not everyone does, and not everyone who does manages to help kids retain and use better conventions.
  8. Her discussion of feedback.  I loved the example she gave of the different ways that she was given feedback on something she wrote, and how that made her feel.  I think that we've all been there, as teachers and students, when we were given destructive or hurtful feedback on something we wrote that seemed to miss the goal we were striving for.  It's an excuse for the writer to ignore the feedback.  I really liked her discussion of it, and I think that it makes the point about how writers often feel about what they've written - how there's an element of trust involved in that exchange of written products - and how aggressive, insensitive comments can destroy any hope of helping the writer.  If you stomp on their fledgling ideas, they aren't going to share any more with you - or at least not any that matter to them.  And, if you manage the opposite, if you can sift through the messiest draft and find the nuggets of meaning, the funny part, the briefest glimmer of insight, and point that out to a student, then you've built trust.  You have a disciple.  Students identify with what they write, and they want you to find the gold in what they write, just like they want people to find the value in them.  It's a delicate thing, and it can be enormously positive and powerful if you become a skilled treasure-hunter.  
  9. The craft of the book overall.  I've read books by teachers that were better written, but this is close to the top.  There were a couple of chapters and passages that really stood out to me.  Clearly, her writing matters to her, and she wants to convey her meaning appropriately and aptly.
I think I have more to say about this book, but I'm going to step away and think a bit more.  

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Top Twenty Fantasy Series . . .

So, with all of this talk about fantasy, I'm going to finally try to nail down my top ten series.  (What's the plural of "series"?)
  1. Harry Potter/JK Rowling - a classic witch and wizard fantasy.  MG, lots of fun.  If you haven't read this series, you should.  
  2. Lord of the Rings/JRR Tolkien - another classic.  Longer and more challenging than Harry, but richer and darker in some ways.  Written by a scholar of medieval literature.  So many brilliant details.  Movies are classics as well, but the books are still better (and that's saying something!).
  3. Narnia/CS Lewis - yet another classic.  Fast and easy to read, and just plain good storytelling.  Lots of surprises and strange twists.  Some of the later books are bizarre.
  4. His Dark Materials/Philip Pullman - takes place in a strange alternate universe with some bizarre twists.  Some people think it's anti-Christian because of the negative depiction of some of the angels later in the series.  Still a good story.
  5. Abhorsen/Garth Nix - brilliant and dark, with some really scary depictions of the world of the dead.  About a series of heroes who can walk into the land of the dead.  Feels more real than many other fantasies, mostly because death is real.  
  6. Fablehaven/Brandon Mull - the characters are lots of fun, and there are a ton of imaginative surprises.  Two kids find out that grandma and grandpa run a kind of nature preserve for magical creatures.  And they feel obliged to protect ALL of the magical creatures, even the bad ones.  Book 4 has one of my favorite surprises of any book that I've ever read.  Don't want to give it away, but it was worth reading four books to get there.  
  7. Lightning Thief/Rick Riordan - the movie almost ruined this series for me, but it's a fun fantasy based on the Greek gods and goddesses.  Lots of cool applications of mythology.  The hero, Percy Jackson, is the son of Poseidon and a mortal, and he's sent on several quests.  I enjoyed all seven books.  
  8. False Prince/Jennifer Nielsen - No magic needed here.  More like medieval adventure.  It's about a plot to take over a kingdom using a fake prince.  I've read both of the two books that have come out, and both were really good.  The main character is a pleasant blend of pragmatic rule-breaking and naive virtue.  Looking forward to the third book.
  9. Sea of Trolls/Nancy Farmer - Farmer is an incredible storyteller.  She has a gift for carefully crafting character and orchestrating believable adventures.  Lots of terrible evil monsters, and Farmer does a good job turning characters around, making them seem really bad, then really good, then really bad, as the story progresses.
  10. Bartimaeus/Jonathan Stroud - In this series, wizards run Great Britain by summoning demons and making them do their bidding.  They really have very little power without them.  Bartimaeus, who narrates, is a demon, talking about demons and wizards.  It's an original approach, and Stroud makes it funny and interesting.  
  11. Curse Workers/Holly Black - A nice blend of mafia narrative, alternate reality, and magic.  Some people have the ability to work magic through their hands, and it takes place in an alternate present, with an alternate American history that includes concentration "camps" for these magic people, discriminatory laws, and a whole subculture of criminal magic workers.  The main character is a shady curse worker with power he doesn't quite understand.  Lots of mystery and fun.
  12. Resurrection of Magic/Kathleen Duey - This series is strange and dark, and I'm excited about the third book in the series.  It's two overlapping stories, one about a young woman who's a natural adept with magic, and a young man who is sent to a magic school to learn magic - only the school swallows up children and often refuses to spit them out as wizards.  I really like the way that the story develops about where magic comes from, and the twisted way in which it is taught at the strange school.  There's a lot of mystery and evil here.  It's good.
  13. Earthsea/Ursula Le Guin - The rules of magic are strange in this series, and people can lose their magic ability if they do too much.  Magic is based on a language, which happens to be the language of dragons, and there's a lot of work and study involved.  I like that kind of twist.  The series of books includes some strange stories, and Le Guin's imagination is vast.  I enjoyed the tension in this series a lot.  
  14. Chronicles of Prydain/William Alexander - This series is kind of young, but it's fun, with some old-fashioned storytelling structure thrown in.  It feels like an "old" tale, like Tolkien, though it's not quite as dark, and perhaps not quite as detailed.  But it's a good series of tales.  
  15. Graceling/Kristin Cashore - This is a quirky, character-driven fantasy story about a super-strong female fighter who faces an evil king.  There are some twists and turns, but she tells a really good story with some fun fight scenes.
  16. Finnikin of the Rock/Melina Marchetta - Marchetta is a gifted writer, and her Jellicoe Road is a great story and a Printz Honor book.  This is YA fantasy much like Abhorsen, with the story told from the point of view of someone who doesn't really know magic, but who fears it.  It's dark, and there are a lot of scary things in this fantasy universe.  I enjoyed it a lot.  
  17. Shadow and Bone/Leigh Bardugo - This is a relatively new entry here, and it's a weird premise.  There are people with special types of magical power, called Grisha, and the main character discovers that she has one of the magical powers.  But there's an evil dark cloud that is spreading over part of the country, destroying land and people, and strange monsters are breeding inside the darkness.  The main character is asked to help fight the darkness, only the person asking her to fight it is not such a nice guy, really.  It's really dark, and really cool.
  18. Ranger's Apprentice/John Flanagan - This is a cool series about a kid who becomes a Ranger, one of the king's special forces, so to speak, who help lead his army, maintain peace and order, and serve the interests of the king.  There are several different villains throughout the series, but the Ranger himself doesn't really have his own magic.  It's a fun story (at least it was fun for the first five books) about a kid with no prospects becoming a powerful leader.  
  19. Chronicles of Ancient Darkness/Michelle Paver - This is a strange story about a kid whose father is killed by a "demon," and who spends several books fighting for revenge against the demon.  The kid lives in the woods in a hunter-gatherer society, with some clans and villages that he has relationships with.  It's cooler than it sounds, and full of action.
  20. Amulet/Kazu Kibuishi - This is the only graphic novel series on the list, but it's a great story about a magic amulet that falls into the hands of a girl who isn't sure if she can trust it.  Apparently, the amulet could be both a blessing and a curse.  She enters a different universe through the basement of her new house, and she sets out on a quest to help the people of this universe.  It's a good story with some fantastic art, and it has several mind-blowing moments.  
I tried to stick to series where I read more than one book, though I haven't quite finished the second book in the Grisha series (Shadow and Bone).  And there's a lot of diversity on this list.  Most people would consider the Chronicles of Narnia as an elementary-level fantasy (perhaps even a thinly veiled Christian allegory).  Several other titles on the list would be better described as YA or high-school fantasy.  Resurrection of Magic is dark and disturbing in places (I've called it the meanest depiction of teaching I've ever read, where the teachers of magic force the students to learn magic to eat or starve to death trying.)  I'm also fairly certain that there are a lot of great fantasy series out there that I haven't read.  (I would love to hear about those!)  I've said elsewhere (on Twitter, I think) that I don't often read series anymore.  It's becoming less common, though it still happens.  An example of this would be Ranger's Apprentice.  I read the first five books and enjoyed them.  I'm not sure why I never really got into the sixth book.  Now there are twelve books, and a spinoff series.  I might never read those (although the first book in the new series, the Brotherband Chronicles, recently made it to the Caudill list.  I might read it just because of that, though I'm dragging my feet a little.)

Why read fantasy fiction?

I know that not everyone likes to read fantasy, and I understand a lot of the stereotypes.  I've heard more than my share of jokes about Frodo and hobbits.  But I think that the purpose of fantasy fiction (at least for me) goes a lot deeper - or perhaps wider - than just escapism.

When I was younger, I wasn't a big reader of fantasy.  I read a lot of science fiction and "classics."  Later, when I became a graduate student in English, reading became work, and I only read books that were related to my research interests or assigned.  What changed my reading habits?  Harry Potter.

I've talked about and written about Harry before, and I'm sure that we've all developed our own relationships with the Boy Who Lived.  For me, it was a little display at Borders (ouch!) with the three books that were out at the time.  There was a sign that made me think these books were popular.  I decided to check out the first book.  I read the whole thing in a day.  It was easy to read, short (at least the first book was), and fun.  I ended up reading the entire series, re-reading all of the books every time another installment came out, and even standing in line at Borders (again!) the night the final book came out.

Since then, I've become a middle school literacy teacher, so reading YA fantasy can be considered "work" again, but it's much more fun work than trying to wade through yet another book about William Faulkner (which was my unfinished dissertation topic).  I've also become something of a specialist in YA fantasy and science fiction.  It seems like these two subgenres are my "comfort zone." Much of what I read for fun falls into either of these categories.  Here's a partial list of fantasy books/series that I've read:

Harry Potter (of course)
Lightning Thief
Lord of the Rings
Books of Pellinor
Resurrection of Magic
Keys to the Kingdom
Curse Workers
Demon's Lexicon
Daughter of Smoke and Bone
Chronicles of Ancient Darkness
Faerie Wars
His Dark Materials
Tuck Everlasting
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Raven Boys
Girl of Fire and Thorns
Chronicles of Prydain
Sea of Trolls
Peter and the Starcatchers
False Prince
Shadow and Bone
Marbury Lens
Finnikin of the Rock
Hold Me Closer, Necromancer
Dragon Slippers
Magic Thief
Lord Loss
Last Apprentice
Warrior Heir
Chronicles of Prydain
Glass Houses
Artemis Fowl
Forest of Hands and Teeth
Eighth Grade Bites
Vampire Diaries
Merchant of Death
Midnight for Charlie Bone
If I Stay
Before I Fall
Ranger's Apprentice
Mortal Instruments
Great and Terrible Beauty
Iron King
Graveyard Book
Red Pyramid
Lost Hero
Septimus Heap

I didn't include any science fiction (except where it wasn't clearly only science fiction or fantasy.  For example, Artemis Fowl is kind of a mix of science fiction and fantasy).  I also didn't include any grown-up fantasy (like the Dresden files or Terry Pratchet's Discworld books).

So, what's so great about "fantasy" that doesn't apply to other kinds of YA fiction?

  1. Fantasy tends to be weirder, with stranger characters and unusual situations.  For example, the Curse Workers series by Holly Black takes place in a universe with a section of the population that can do magic with their hands.  One of the main characters' relatives, for example, can kill people just by touching them.  As a result, everyone wears gloves, and it's considered indecent to show people your naked hands.  Isn't that weird?  
  2. Fantasy tends to be much longer, often stretched over several books, giving a much fuller sense of fictional reality, character, and story development.  Harry Potter's books span seven years, and the Harry who fights Voldemort in the seventh book is very different from the little kid who sleeps under the stairs at the Dursley's.  Sometimes this can be a fault. (I'm thinking of books that just ramble on and on, as if trying to fill pages, or that end strangely, to encourage readers to pick up the sequels.)
  3. Fantasy isn't afraid to be epic, to have delusions of grandeur, and to talk about the struggle between good and evil or the end of the world.  It doesn't have to be - and this is perhaps the most often lampooned characteristic of the subgenre - but it often is.  This is probably my favorite thing about fantasy.  There are usually "bad guys," and they are usually really bad.  Voldemort is a sociopath who kills and tortures because he enjoys it.  Increasingly, there are more ambiguously good heroes.  Curse Workers is a nice example - Cassel Sharpe, the main character, is connected to a powerful crime family, and commits several crimes throughout the books.  Sage/Jaron, the main character in The False Prince/Runaway King, is a thief.  
I think a lot of these things are also true of science fiction.  I also think that some of the lines between the two subgenres are blurring.  Interworld is a good example of this - it's about the struggle between a magic-based society and a science-based society, and maintaining a balance between the two.  

I would never say that fantasy is the only kind of "good book" out there.  I've read a lot of other books that were awesome.  And there are a lot of "grown-up" fantasies that are fantastic and popular.  I know we've all heard of Game of Thrones, but The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a really good fantasy that hasn't yet become a movie or HBO series (though it would make a great film).  And we all also know that turning something into a movie doesn't mean that the book was awesome (Twilight comes to mind) or that the movie/series will be great (Dresden Files comes to mind).  

Anyway, I've been planning a top ten list for some time.  I'll be working on that next.  

Monday, June 24, 2013

My first YouTube video

So I finally finished this video - 

This was kind of a daunting undertaking for me.  I took several hours to do this, not counting the time spent taking the film.  

I only used my iPhone 3G and my MacBook (3 years old).  It wasn't challenging, really.  Just time-consuming.  I'm also not that great at editing for length.  I needed to make some deeper cuts - not all of this needs to be here.  It could have easily been 5 minutes long.  

I like some of the features of using iMovie (the Mac application that I used to edit the film clips from my phone).  But sometimes it feels like all videos made with iMovie look the same.  So, I'll be looking for other tools I can use, perhaps on my home PC.  

As far as the story itself goes, I've been frustrated by the fact that these rabbits (I don't know for sure how many there are) are attacking my plants.  I thought that telling this story - with the gross smells, some of the more vivid and violent details, and the variety of visual details for analysis - would be an interesting and useful text for classroom use.  

I don't know how much money these bunnies have cost me over the past two years, but I know that several of my trees and other plants have been damaged.  I planted the two Hawthorne trees on either side of the house hoping that they would blossom in a few years.  Now, they're ugly little sticks.  And it seems like every time they grow, the bunnies swoop down like some kind of bully and break them down to little sticks again.  

Anyway, it was fun to make the video.  My son enjoyed being the cameraman.  My daughter wanted to play a bigger role in the video, but I wasn't able to work that in.  Maybe next time.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Being a Connected Educator

I've been on a few Twitter chats about this topic, such as #21stedchat, and I think that the topic is relevant here - on a blog - and to most teachers.  I think there is increasing pressure to become "connected" to other teachers because there are so many benefits.

Before we go any further, I need to point out that no one really thinks that teachers cannot be effective if they aren't connected.  I think that there are too many ways to be effective to believe that a teacher couldn't find a way to be a good teacher without it.  And, of course, there were many good teachers before there were connected teachers.  Yet there are so many good ideas - and good people - to connect to, it's much easier to be effective when you can connect and collaborate with others.

I've tweeted about this before - there are several examples, from my own teaching, of how I've made use of ideas from other people on Twitter.  The more I think about it, though, the more I think it matters exactly who you connect to.  Because Twitter is simply a meeting place.  If you aren't meeting enough good people, or don't know where to look, it's like going to a party where you don't know anyone and you're too afraid to introduce yourself to new people.

So where am I getting the best ideas?

I've posted about the #tlap community before, and I think this is a great place to listen and share ideas about teaching.  I created a Google doc with some ideas about my favorite Twitter chats for a department meeting a while ago.  This is a little dated, but also emphasizes a couple of key chats (not including #TLAP, which I discovered more recently).  The master list of Twitter chats - the biggest list of educational Twitter chats I know about - is this one, compiled by Jerry Blumengarten (aka @cybraryman1).  It's huge - it's a nice indicator of exactly how many cool things are going on there.

That takes me to the next point.  Obviously, there are a ton of different Twitter chats and different ways to connect with other educators.  I think that Twitter is the fastest and easiest way for teachers to interact with other teachers.  That's how I've become connected.  But I don't want to merely provide a list of teachers to follow and tell people that they must follow these people.

Why not?  Well, I think that Twitter is a different experience for a lot of people.  One of the reasons that I had so much fun with it from the very beginning was because of two positive experiences I had.  First, I followed Seymour Simon, a moderately well-known children's nonfiction author.  Not only did he follow me back within 24 hours, but he sent me a welcoming message expressing his respect and admiration for teachers.  I've read - and used - much of his work, and that was a big deal for me.  I bragged about that quite a bit, in fact.  The other really positive experience was when Donalyn Miller replied to a few tweets of mine, and followed me.  That was enormously gratifying.  Since then, because of Twitter and #engchat, I have been included in Troy Hicks' most recent book. (Crafting Digital Writing, pages 144 and 145.  I'm also in the index!)

A lot depends on what times you are looking at your Twitter stream.  It depends on who you follow (and I recommend following a LOT at first.  You can follow up to 2000 people from the beginning.)  It also depends on who you know.  I would bet that many teachers already know someone on Twitter, and it makes sense to follow that person and check out who that person follows, especially if they have similar interests and goals.  But some of my strongest relationships on Twitter come from the back and forth that occurs during the chats, and I've been given several opportunities to collaborate with teachers on Twitter to create and share resources.  I've shared some of the successes and failures of my teaching experience, and I've received helpful feedback on some of those.  I've offered feedback on other people's ideas, and I've learned a great deal about other people's great ideas and tried some of them.  Here are a few examples of things that I've used in my classroom or personal life because of Twitter:

  • Genius Hour (passion-based learning, where students pursue their own passions during part of the school day or week)
  • the book Wonder
  • Twitter itself, in several different ways
  • Wonderopolis
I'm planning to use more.  Much of the learning and change has occurred in subtle but important ways.  I already removed my "big desk" from my classroom and planned some major changes for next year because of several conversations about Genius Hour and different attitudes toward classroom space.  I'm working on a few more YouTube videos so that I can use a slightly flipped class (a tilted class?).  I was blessed with a chance to write for the Nerdy Book Club (again, because of Twitter), and I'd like to do more like that - and share more like that.  I'm working on a class newsletter, and I have many ways to share that with parents and the world.  

It's really kind of overwhelming when you think about it.  

Saturday, June 22, 2013

What makes a good fantasy series?

I just finished reading the Beyonders series with Chasing the Prophecy, the third book.  I've also been reading the Harry Potter series to my son for the past few years, and we just started the final book, The Deathly Hallows.  So, I've been thinking a lot about what makes a good fantasy series.

I should point out that I mostly focus on YA and MG fantasy - I do read some grown-up (I don't want to say "adult") fantasy, but not as often.

I've posted elsewhere about the importance of a good "bad guy."  A fantasy series really needs a good villain, more so than most other story types that I can think of.  Voldemort is a good example - he kills anyone and everyone, and he's cruel to his own minions.  He has no friends and doesn't care.  He tortures the other orphans in the orphanage and enjoys it.  He even tries to bully Dumbledore, when Dumbledore shows up to find out if he should be invited to Hogwarts.  And what about Snape?  He really had no reason to kill him except a vague theory.  It was kind of like an experiment - maybe killing Snape would give him mastery of the elder wand, maybe not.

One of the reasons that I enjoy Harry Potter so much, I think, is because Voldemort is so thoroughly and convincingly bad.  Lord of the Rings is a really good fantasy series for a similar reason - Sauron is so overwhelmingly powerful.

Does it work the other way?  Sure - to take a really bad horror movie example, one of the reasons that the movie Squirm is so ridiculous is because evil worms (not even turned into giant monster worms!) are killing people in ridiculous "accidents."

I suppose there are no universal and permanent rules when it comes to something like this.  And I'm thinking about a couple of different series where the evil seems embedded in the "world."  Like Holly Black's Curse Workers series, where the main character is not exactly a nice guy.

There's a lot more to say here - but I need to re-focus and come at this again in a different way.  

Monday, June 17, 2013

Teaching LIke a Pirate

So, a few months ago, I started hearing a lot about this book - Teach like a Pirate - on Twitter.  I decided to check it out, and I got my hands on a copy.  Two days later, I finished reading it.  

This was unprecedented for me.  I had never read a "teacher" book in only two days before.  Usually, it takes at least a week, even during the summer.  Sometimes much longer.  But I found this book to be both readable and short.  Mr. Burgess isn't as engaging and quirky as someone like Tom Romano or Barry Lane, but I still finished his book much faster than those other guys.  

Another surprise?  It was useful.  And not just in a theoretical way.  I know that I enjoy reading books that help me understand instruction or engagement better, but this provided helpful tools for planning engaging instruction that I could use the following day.  

This is starting to feel too much like a paid endorsement, so let me summarize what I don't like about the book:
  • Many of the strategies suggested focus on delivery of lectures or content.  It often feels like "sage on the stage" paradigm stuff.  
  • Not enough of the book seems to focus on ways to get the students taking control and responsibility.  
  • It sometimes feels like a "one size fits all," "all my kids are the same," "let's teach everyone the same way" thing.  Not always.  
Perhaps these are my biases coming through, as a middle school teacher reading a book written by a high school content-area teacher (Burgess teaches history).  Perhaps these things are there and I'm not seeing or remembering them.  And perhaps these things are not the point of the book, really, so it might not be fair to fault the book for not including everything about everyone.  After all, the book focuses on engagement, and apart from the above, it does so quite well.  

Perhaps the most valuable section, for me, was his discussion of how he encourages his own creative ideas.  I learned a lot from reading about this, and I continued that study beyond the book.  

Some time after reading and enjoying the book, I found the #tlap hashtag and book discussions.  I also found the author participating in these book discussions (as @burgessdave).  I met a lot of great people as I continued to show up for these chats, and I really learned to look forward to this hour of discussion of engaged, passionate teaching with a growing group of dedicated, connected teachers.  

I just finished participating in a very large (hundreds of teachers from all over the country), very productive (almost 2,000 tweets in one hour) chat centered around a book study of this book.  Chicago-area teacher Paul Solarz is moderating this chat - (http://psolarz.weebly.com/tlap.html), and I'm looking forward to participating more.  

I think it's one of the best educational Twitter chats out there, and I encourage everyone who is interested to participate.  

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Integrating Disciplines in Middle School

Hmmm . . . I thought it was time to post something about how to "cross the line" between subjects in my classroom(s).  This is something that I've wanted to do since I started teaching middle school, and something that I have done in medium-sized and small ways over the years.  I'd like to start planning/playing with ways to do this in larger, more meaningful, and more useful ways next year.  

After all, as I have been telling people, your seventh year of teaching is supposed to be your best year.  And this is going to be my seventh year.

So, I'm going to talk a little about how our school day is set up, and then talk about what I've done to integrate disciplines, and then talk about some other ways to integrate (I hope).

My school is a 6-8 middle school with "teams," in the sense that students are assigned to a small group of teachers from whom they receive all of their "core" instruction in reading, math, science, and social studies.  For example, my 7th graders attend my reading class, my teammate's math class, and then either my social studies class or my teammate's science class.  (We trade science/social studies groups every six weeks.)  There are 20 minutes of "flex" time at the end of the last block class that we use variously for intervention, extended instruction, silent reading, or other related activities.  Then, at the end of the day, students have a "home base" period of forty minutes with a "home base" teacher - usually a core teacher, like me.  

Of course, the students don't spend the entire day with their "team."  The first three periods of the day - in the case of seventh graders - are "exploratories."  All students have gym class during one of those periods.  They attend two other classes that change every trimester (12 weeks).  So, a student might have Technology, Gym, and Art for the first three periods of the day before they come to Reading, Math, and science/social studies.  

This is the gist of the schedule - there are a lot of complications for bilingual or IEP students.  

So, I'm sure you can see where we throw in the "integration."  Typically, we experiment with cross-disciplinary learning in "flex" or "home base" time.  There are two problems with this.  First, all of our bilingual students are in extended bilingual reading/communications class during flex time, so any instruction given during this time will exclude them.  Second, many of our optional music programs (band, orchestra, chorus, and the various offerings within each of these) pull kids out of home base two or sometimes three times a week for practice.  So, often we are missing several members of class during home base.  And those days vary - some students miss four out of five days a week of home base, because they are in band and chorus, for example.  So, no matter how awesome the activity is that we offer, we will not be able to reach all students, except on Friday.  And that's not a very effective amount of instructional time - 40 minutes a week, at the end of the day on Friday.  

We've done a lot of "study skills"-type lessons, and some "learning how to learn" lessons on things like concept-based learning (big ideas, essential questions, facts vs. concepts, etc.).  We've done some technology lessons to help familiarize students with the tools (Garage Band, iMovie, Keynote).  We've also done some basic literacy skills practice with things like summarizing.  We also talk about current events (most often via CNN Student News).  But we tend to shy away from rigorous instruction because so many students are pulled out, and because it sometimes can be perceived as "punishing" students for participating in activities like band, something that I really believe in and want to support.  

So far, the best use of this time has often been some kind of "study hall," where teachers have the flexibility to work with students who need a little extra help.  We've also experimented a little with peer tutoring during this time, though the pull-out programs often limit our human resources and have limited our effectiveness with this program.  This is something that we really want to develop more, regardless of other initiatives.  It's a really cool idea, and many students have expressed an interest in being tutors.  (Though often very few seem interested in being tutored.)

So, what are some ways that we can combine disciplines better?

We've started teaching reading strategies in science and social studies classes.  For example, I teach annotating strategies and assign annotation in social studies class.  It helps students deal with the abstract ideas in our economics curriculum, and it helps me see their thinking more clearly as they are trying to make sense out of the text.  This often slows us down, but I think we are getting better results from a slower, more methodical approach with unfamiliar, abstract ideas like the "invisible hand."  (I try not to call it that - with so many language learners, metaphorical terms can really be misleading.  There is no giant hand that directs markets.)

Two (related) big ideas that seem appropriate here are project-based learning and genius hour or 20% time (also called Google time).  The former focuses on larger, multi-disciplinary projects through which students are learning as they work, and applying the learning to a larger context, as they would in a real project outside of school.  The latter is based on a business practice at Google, where employees are given a significant chunk of their work time to pursue their own "pet projects" that they care about, then present those projects to managers.  The idea is that students will be much more engaged - and learn much more - if they choose the topic and are given adequate time, tools, and support to learn about it.  

I've pledged to try Genius Hour again this year, and I hope to work on several projects over the course of the year.  I'd also like to give students much more time and more opportunity to share and collaborate on these projects.  

Are there other, medium-sized ways to work across disciplines?

I think the "academic" or "study skills" approach is valid, but that it shouldn't be merely limited to the "home base" or "flex" time we have at the end of the day.  We have common academic vocabulary lessons, focusing on words like "specific" that are useful in almost all disciplines.  This is a good way of synergizing, and helpful for students and teachers.  Looking for opportunities like this can really be helpful.  I taught a lesson on brainstorming, for example, during home base.  This type of thing can really be helpful in several classes.  Research skills can really help, as can note-taking.  

So, I think the answer is to look for medium and large-scale chances to integrate.  

Friday, June 14, 2013

Using verse novels in the classroom

I don't know how much attention these things are getting anymore.  I think the trend has slowed a bit, but it doesn't seem like it was that long ago that YA/MG novels in verse, like Crank by Ellen Hopkins or Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, were getting a lot of attention from teachers and students alike.  (And of course, Love that Dog is a classic of this type, though it's probably young for most of my seventh graders.)

I enjoy books written in verse, and not just because they are often quick reads (although that is a major selling point).  I enjoy poetry, of course, and reading a verse novel is a nice blend of two of my favorite things (though I could probably read a bit more poetry these days).  

This format also fits novels about emotional struggle and loss very well, and many of the best verse novels I've read are about trauma.  Shark Girl, probably the first YA novel that I read that was written in verse, is about a young woman whose arm is bitten off by a shark.  This is traumatic enough, but she is also an accomplished young artist who doesn't think she can pursue her dream anymore.  That combination - physical suffering and potential loss of identity - became a resonant, emotionally-dense narrative that I was able to read in less than two hours.  

I haven't read every verse novel that I've heard of.  I read Crank and was disappointed.  It wasn't as searing as I had hoped, and felt predictable.  Here's a short list of my favorite verse novels:

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanha Lai
Shark Girl by Kelley Bingham
All the Lovely Pieces by Ann E. Burg
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
True Believer by Virginia Euwer Wolff
Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy
By the River by Steven Herrick

There are a lot of other great titles on a list I found here, in case you want to look for more.  The titles above I have read and enjoyed.

The best part about novels in verse is that they can be very motivating for struggling readers.  I've had success using Shark Girl, Out of the Dust, and All the Broken Pieces in the classroom.  Kids might be tempted to read them too quickly, though, so they have to be reminded to pay attention and listen for things that don't sound right, or that might be misleading or confusing.  

I'm also surprised to find several lists of "verse novels" include House on Mango Street.  I love this book, and I love teaching this book, but I suppose I never thought of it as a "verse novel."  It's very poetic, but I'm not sure that I buy into that - it's hard to "see" the poetry here, and opening that door makes the distinction much harder to make.  

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Some notes from Larry Ferlazzo's SELF-DRIVEN LEARNING

I picked up a copy of this book not too long ago, and I've been slowly making my way through it.  It seems like Mr. Ferlazzo has done a lot of homework on motivation and engagement, and he has a lot of psychology research to support his explanations of how to motivate kids.

Some of what he talks about is familiar to me, but here are some things (and the interesting names for them) that I've already learned:

- the Progress Principle - people are very motivated by seeing themselves grow or make progress toward a goal.

- the Zeigarnik Effect - once people start something, they tend to want to finish it.

- the Hawthorne Effect - people do better and work harder when they think they are being watched, and also that people will work hard to do better at something if they feel they are an important part of something (and not hard at all when they don't think they are an important part)

- the Losada line - positive feelings have a big impact on learning and retention, but criticism/negative feedback, though necessary, can counteract positive feelings.  The Losada Line is the optimum balance of positive comments and negative feedback or criticism - about three positive comments or interactions for every one criticism.

Those are some of the most interesting for me.  I was also surprised at how much of a positive effect that "gratitude letters" - letters about what students are thankful for - can have on so many things.  (Something I'm going to try next year.)

I like correlating this book with Dweck's MINDSET, so I'll try to keep updating and looking for connections.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Carol Dweck's MINDSET - So Far . . .

Several people at my school are reading this book this summer, and I was given a copy by an administrator to look through over the summer.  So, I decided to read through it a bit. 

I should also point out that I hope to participate in Justin Staub's Mindset summer book study.  You can find out more on his blog here.  I don't remember what Twitter chat this spark came from, but I jumped on it.  I love book groups, especially book groups with cool smart people conducted via Twitter so I don't have to leave the couch to contribute.  And, of course, it doesn't hurt that I already have a copy of the book and planned to read it already.  

I just spent some time reading through the first several chapters, and I'm kind of ambiguous at this point.  I thought I would work through some of these mixed-up reactions in this post.  

I suppose I'm having two simultaneous reactions to Dweck's brilliant and powerful ideas:
  1. Oh my goodness, this book is about me!  I'm the recovering (I hope) Fixed Mindset dude!
  2. This book is organized poorly.  I feel like I'm reading the same thing over and over again, like I didn't understand it the first time.  
I don't mean to try to take anything away from Dweck.  This is great stuff - I had already heard of the distinction and made the personal connection, but her examples so often reference details that seem to apply to me (like, for example, being extremely competitive and frustrated in a chemistry class in college as a pre-med major).  And, of course, that distinction (between the "growth" mindset and the "fixed" mindset) is so powerful and so relevant to teaching - and the fixed mindset is so dangerously common - that this is a very important book.  

But I struggled through several of the chapters, asking myself, "Didn't she already explain this?  Didn't I already read this?"  It feels like she's repeating herself.  (It feels like she's repeating herself.  It feels . .)

I'll keep reading - I finally made it to the chapter about sports and the fixed/growth mindset, something that I think is really interesting.  I hope it doesn't feel quite so redundant.  

Monday, June 10, 2013

Video and Literacy (and Shakespeare!)

Hmm . . .

So I thought I would post some questions for further reflection.  I've been thinking a lot about the best way to use video to support traditional literacy instruction in my 7th grade classroom.  I suppose the short answer is kind of a dodge - "it depends on what your instructional goals are, and who your kids are."  I don't want to dodge an important question like that, because I firmly believe that video has an important place in literacy instruction today.  But I know that most students will not learn everything they need to learn if they just watch video, even with excellent instruction to go with it.  

To dig a little deeper into this, I thought I would talk a little more about my current summer teaching assignment.  I'm teaching a "summer school" for students who are currently part of our bilingual program.  I'm not teaching students who speak only Spanish or another language.  Most of my students will (hopefully) soon be transitioning to "mainstream" instruction entirely in English, and are in the later stages of our "tiered" program.  So, while they might speak Spanish at home with parents, they can converse in English and are moderately capable in academic English in all four of the language domains.  But there are often "gaps" - gaps in background knowledge, or often a struggle to use an appropriate word to express a specific idea.  Typical struggles of English language learners.  

(I'm not doing this justice, I know.  I don't want to spend a lot of time describing things that many other people know better than me.  Let's just acknowledge that these students are not 100% comfortable in academic English and move on.)

Since these students lack background knowledge in a lot of academic areas, video is a nice way to "frontload" the learning - to help students develop an understanding of a topic based on images and audio, so that they can apply the language they already know and be better able to understand.  For example, showing students a video that illustrates Newton's laws can help them understand the principles involved, but also can help prepare them to explain them.  

My district has asked us to teach Shakespeare.  Yes, that's right - Shakespeare.  It's not as bad as it sounds.  Actually, for a Shakespeare nut like me, it's a good thing.  With a narrow focus, modified texts, and lots of support, it can actually be pretty cool.  Many of Shakespeare's stories are familiar to students, and there are tons of resources available about topics as diverse as Elizabethan views on medicine to graphic novel biographies to picture book adaptations of almost all of the major plays.  It's quite possible to spend three or four weeks teaching only a single play, using multiple versions, and to still not quite cover everything that could be covered.  

That finally brings us to the question I have.  What's the best way to tie this to video?  I'll put a link to the BBC animated version of the play that I've decided to focus on.

It's a pretty cool version.  It's short, the puppets are creepy and interesting at the same time, the voices are fairly clear and professional-sounding, there is a narrator but enough chunks of actual text to make it both challenging and accessible - it's a great video.  

With my middle-school language-learners, should they see this video before they read a shortened, simplified version of the play?  Or should they watch it after they read it?  Or should it be something in between - watch a little, read a little, or perhaps read one version, watch this, then read another version?  

My initial thoughts are that students might even need a little help understanding this version of the story, and some pre-teaching of characters and an overview of the basic plot would help.  I think, though, that returning to the text after watching the video will help them get more from the text.  The experience of reading the text - even the simplified text - will be easier and more fruitful if it occurs when students have already seen this video.  

But then what about this video?

Or what about something like this?

Hmm. . . the fact that there is a recent, big-budget adaptation with big stars and a world-class lead, further complicates this issue.  Should I be teaching this version?  Perhaps in chunks?

Which, among other reasons, is why I'm talking about questions and not answers.  

Sunday, June 9, 2013

My Summer Reading Goals

I've been thinking about some kind of "process" post about what I'm doing as a summer reader - I'm a firm believer in writing about process, since I don't think I'll ever have a "finished" statement about things like teaching writing or conducting effective research (or teaching others to do so).  So, in that spirit, I thought I would write about my thinking about my summer reading goals, as they stand, right now.  Instead of waiting for them to be "finished."  Because even the goals are being revised, as we speak.  

So, here are some of my personal summer reading objectives:
  1. Read around several key professional (education) topics, such as 
    1. Engagement, when and why it occurs, how to improve/increase it in the classroom
    2. Teaching writing
    3. Teaching reading
    4. Non-traditional or "outside-the-box" teaching methods that encourage engagement and learning
    5. Best practice or most-effective methods of teaching 
  2. Read 50 "kid" books (YA and MG)
  3. Blog usefully about most of what I read
  4. Tweet about all of the above
  5. Synthesize/synergize all of the above as much as possible
I'm only three books toward Goal 2, but I've never read that many.  My highest achievement thus far has been 32, and that was with a little "cheating" (like reading a lot of Babymouse books).  I hope that my blogs have been useful so far, but not many posts lately have been about my summer reading.  I hope to work on that.  I am trying to average about one post a day, though, and that's a lot of fun.  

I think the only goal that needs further explanation, really, is Goal 5.  I hope that it's clear that many of  the topics under Goal 1 overlap (teaching reading in an engaging and effective way, for example).  Regardless of the actual overlap among the books, though, I remain one person, with one classroom.  I'm developing plans to use Genius Hour, for example, which fits 1-4, 1-1, and 1-5 without too much stretching.  It might take some careful design to apply this strategy to 1-2 and 1-3.  Can Genius Hour be used to effectively teach reading and writing?  I think so.  I hope to try, anyway.  

Perhaps I should also clarify "read around."  I don't think that I need to read an entire 500-page book about brain science to learn something from that book, or to use what I learn.  I know from experience that persisting through a difficult and time-consuming book doesn't automatically make that book more useful.  Don't get me wrong - I finish a lot of books - but I no longer feel obliged to finish every book I start, especially when the book is dull, not especially useful, redundant, or covers something I think I already know.  

So the first part of "read around" is not feeling required to finish every book I start reading.  The second part is to start/skim/peruse as many different books about the topic as I can.  Let me give you an example.  Related to the topic of engagement, I am currently reading Self-Driven Learning by Larry Ferlazzo, Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann, Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal, and The Anti-Education Era by James Paul Gee.  I recently finished Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess and Visible Learning for Teachers by Doug Hattie, and I have copies of Teach Like a Champion, Book Love, Crafting Digital Writing, Notice and Note, The Book Whisperer, and Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning.  I am picking up a copy of Invent to Learn, as well.  

There's no way I'm going to read all of these.  I probably wouldn't want to.  I might finish two or three of these titles this summer.  Finishing 10 professional books in a summer would be an ambitious goal for me.  Pulling chunks from half or more of these books is reasonable.  In fact, I think that reading a little of one book, then a little of another with related ideas, can be more interesting and more useful.  Since I'm the boss of my own learning with this, and since I think this is the best strategy for what I need, based on what resources are available, that's the way I'm going to do it.  

I hope to share some of these weird idea webs soon.  

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Teacher Blogs for Summer Reading

Recently, someone suggested during a Twitter chat that we should be spending time reading teacher blogs over the summer, instead of just focusing on books.  I agreed, and I thought it might help if we started talking about blogs we like.  So, here's a list of some blogs that I've either read or discovered and would like to read more often.

Here are some lists and awards for teacher blogs:

Edublog Awards - http://edublogawards.com/2012awards/best-teacher-blog-of-2012/

Scholastic's Top 20 Teacher Blogs - http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/top-20-teacher-blogs

We Are Teachers Blog Awards - http://www.weareteachers.com/community/blogs/weareteachersblog/blog-wat/2013/01/30/best-teacher-blogger-awards-2012

Edudemic - 50 Best Teacher Blogs - http://www.edudemic.com/2011/12/teacher-blogs/

Planbookedu.com - 10 Great Teacher Blogs - http://blog.planbookedu.com/blog/archives/10-great-teacher-blogs

Bachelor of Education dot org - Top 30 Teacher Blogs - http://www.bachelor-of-education.org/top-30-blogs-for-teachers-2012/

Teacher Certification Degrees Dot Com - Top 50 Elementary Teacher Blogs - http://www.teachercertificationdegrees.com/top-blogs/elementary-teacher/

Here are some links to individual blogs.  This is a big mix of "famous" faces, and not-so-famous faces, but I think that all of these are worth a read:

Edweek - Teacher Blogs - http://www.edweek.org/tm/section/blogs/

Edutopia - Blogs - http://www.edutopia.org/blogs

Larry Ferlazzo's Blog - http://larryferlazzo.edublogs.org/

Angela Maier's Blog - http://www.angelamaiers.com/blog

Nicholas Provenzano's Blog - http://www.thenerdyteacher.com/

George Couros's Blog - http://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/tag/george-couros

Will Richardon's Blog - http://willrichardson.com/

Nerdy Book Club - http://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com/

Donalyn Miller's Blog - http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/book_whisperer/

Chris Lehman's Blog - http://christopherlehman.wordpress.com/

Sir Ken Robinson's Blog - http://sirkenrobinson.com/?page_id=11

Gary Stager's Blog - http://stager.tv/blog/

Shannon Miller's blog - http://vanmeterlibraryvoice.blogspot.com/

Troy Hicks's blog - http://hickstro.org/

Sara Mulhern Gross's Blog - http://thereadingzone.wordpress.com/

John Schu's blog - http://mrschureads.blogspot.com/

Colby Sharp's blog - http://sharpread.wordpress.com/author/colbysharp/

Judy Arzt's blog - http://judyarztblog.blogspot.com/

Paul Oh's blog - http://dcomposing.com/

Tom Whitby's blog - http://tomwhitby.wordpress.com/

Maria Selke's blog - http://www.mariaselke.com/

Maureen Devlin's blog - http://teachwellnow.blogspot.com/

Bernice Homel's blog - http://booksinthemiddle.wordpress.com/

Franki Sibberson's blog - http://www.readingyear.blogspot.com/

Teach Mentor Texts blog - http://www.teachmentortexts.com/#axzz2Vg5t5NDW

Mindi Rench's Blog - http://nextbestbook.blogspot.com/

Wesley Fryer's blog - http://www.speedofcreativity.org/

I'd love to hear more recommendations.  I can't pretend that I read all of these blogs regularly - many of these I discovered for the first time today.  But I'm hoping to spend some time this summer reading as many of these as I can, and looking for more.