Choice is a beautiful thing. With students choosing their own titles in my class, there’s so. much. beauty. There’s beauty in watching Reluctant Readers realize that reading is enjoyable–maybe just not how we‘ve been assigning it. These students become Authentic Readers and grow as a result.
And there’s beauty in the Closet Readers and the Only Read What Is Assigned Readers, as they’re able to read more of what they enjoy while also growing as readers.
But risk comes along for the ride, too.
There’s risk in losing control of what our students are reading. There’s risk in helping our students meet the standards when everyone is reading something different. And there’s risk in our students entering a state of Reading Arrested Development, opting for, say, John Green titles all year long. John Green is an engaging YA author, but if our students don’t eventually challenge themselves with more rigorous texts, too, that’s a college-and-career-readiness problem. The latter is my greatest fear and, thankfully, one that teacher-author Teri Lesesne has already solved. More on that in a minute.
As a teacher, I identify with Jessica Seinfeld (Jerry’s wife), who became a household name for her Deceptively Delicious cookbooks. She hides chickpeas in her cookies, cauliflower in her burgers, and spinach in her brownies. The best part? Her kids don’t suspect a thing, and they are healthier because of it.
There are plenty of ways to do this, but there are three that have proven successful in our classroom: 1) Using Reading Ladders; 2) Teaching whole-class texts when students are ready; and 3) Teaching portions of texts rather than texts in their entirety.
In her book Reading Ladders: Leading Students from Where They Are to Where We’d Like Them to Be, Lesesne introduces the concept of “Reading Ladders.” The goal is for the teacher to “connect students to book after book–each a little more complex than the last.” The graphic below is an example of a Reading Ladder for a mystery/thriller lover. A student might begin with Kate Medina’s Burn Baby Burn and then be guided toward more rigorous texts like Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. When they’re ready. The students are still reading because they’re interested in what they’re reading, and they’re becoming stronger readers in the process. Often without even knowing it.
Spinach. Filled. Brownies.
Another way I work rigor into the mix is by timing my whole-class reads carefully. I used to open the year with The Great Gatsby before students had completely bought into my For the Love of Reading program. Colossal mistake. The students who Fake-Read the year before did the same thing with me in the fall. (It was, of course, exacerbated when That Kid blurted, “I heard the movie is just like the book!”) While Old Me might have thrown my hands up and said, “Those darn cell phones!,” New Me knows that my students simply weren’t ready to tackle something as rigorous as Fitzgerald. Not yet. Were they capable? Of course. But were they ready? Not a chance. And “[a] book isn’t rigorous if students aren’t reading it” (Penny Kittle in Book Love).
Once I moved The Great Gatsby to the spring, the experience truly became, er, Great. Students were authentically reading a text that had been Fake-Read by all but a handful of students in years past.
And it never hurts to dangle the carrot of watching Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation at the end of the unit. I’ve found that not only are my students more willing to grapple with the text, fewer watch the movie ahead of time, since we‘ll be watching it together in class. Plus, Leo is, like, wicked dreamy.
Spinach. Filled. Brownies.
“[her] task as a language arts teacher is to provide texts that are not so difficult that [her] students shut down in frustration and not so easy that [her] students don’t push their thinking.”
To do this, Hill Campbell exposes her students to portions of numerous, challenging texts, rather than reading only a few full-length ones. Accordingly, her students become familiar with far more authors and more writing styles and more genres and more worlds than they would have in reading a few full-length books throughout the year. (Her students read full-length novels, too, of course.)
Her research reveals that less really is more: The students closely read these rigorous texts and remain engaged throughout the entire process–rather than starting out strong, losing interest, and then phoning it in for the remainder of the unit. If a particular text doesn’t appeal to them, students know that if they can just hang on, another one is coming in a matter of days. Contrast that with a student spending a month (or more with vacations?) discussing, assessing, and writing about a book that doesn’t appeal to them. My students used to either Fake-Read (throwing “American Dream” into the conversation here and there) or disengage altogether. And were even upfront about it: “Ms. Hughes, I hate this book, but I promise I’ll try to read the next one.”
So, here’s an example of how I followed Hill Campbell’s lead.
Our final sophomore unit centers around society’s thirst for more. And what character is a more power-hungry, insatiable glutton than Macbeth? However, rather than read Macbeth in its entirety (which is done in some of our senior-level classrooms), I was given permission to explore just one act.
Rather than spend five weeks on a Shakespearean play, we explored a portion of Macbeth together and then students examined a scene (of their choosing) from another Shakespearean play, as well as teach it to small groups of classmates.
Like all books—especially ones we explore in part, context is critical. We first discussed Shakespeare’s unique language (to prevent any roadblocks), and then we discussed some background (to provide a context).
After our whole-class exploration, the training wheels came off. Students became experts in a scene (of their choice) from one of Shakespeare’s 36 other plays and taught it to a small group.
And the best part? My students remained engaged throughout the entire unit. Of Shakespeare. (In fact, many of them circled back to read the rest of Macbeth and their self-selected plays on their own.)
Spinach. Filled. Brownies.
We are currently in COVID, which prevented me from doing that again this spring; however, I’m excited to try this with many more grade-level texts in the fall.
(As soon as we figure out what school in the fall will look like.)
There’s been lots of talk about finding the Silver Linings in the midst of our current COVID storm. At publishing time, we’ve been quarantined here in New England for ten weeks, and schools are closed indefinitely. However, despite all of the anxiety and unrest, our students are still learning (because we teachers are still teaching), we haven’t run out of toilet paper, and we haven’t
sold our kids on eBay driven each other mad.
But it’s a lot.
And if we’re not careful, the What Ifs can absolutely capsize us.
To help reset my own perspective (which I find myself doing on the daily), I‘ve been doing what many of you are doing: looking for the Good that has come out of all of this.
Of course, this is nothing new. Mr. Rogers urged us to see the Good, C. S. Lewis encouraged it, Mother Teresa—and probably just about all of our parents as they endured our adolescence. If you haven’t seen British YouTuber Probably Tomfoolery’s The Great Realisation [sic], it’s a must-watch that explores all of the Good that has come from our time in
So, without further adieu, here’s my own list—in no particular order—of the Good I’ve seen come from what my students are affectionately calling “Coronacation.” (#worstcationever)
I can no longer blame Never Being Home or Lack of Time or The Kids’ Crazy Schedule as a reason not to move. We’re home. We have sneakers. We’ve got nice weather. And we now have the time. So, we’re doing something every day to get our endorphins going—which helps with our emotional state, too.
Now, if I could just stop eating my feelings…
Remember all of those To Do Lists that resurface every vacation? Me, too. Except mine come out, taunt me all week, and then get shoved back into a Drawer of Shame. Quarantine, however, has allowed me to organize cabinets and drawers and closets and even entire rooms. Take that, Marie Kondo!
I love board games, but no one wants to play them with me. Unless it’s my birthday. Being stuck at home—and bored—has forced my kids to cave. And while it’s infrequent and often leads to fighting, those first 15 minutes of Forced Family Game Time are glorious.
Because our interests are so varied, we rarely watch the same thing in our casa. But since you can only watch so many episodes of The Tiger King or The Office, we’re watching more as a family. And in the same room.
And because you can only watch for so long (see above), our mornings typically have slower starts. Which I love. Prior to this, it had been eons since sleepy kids stumbled out of their rooms—hair askew—and just rambled while still waking up. I’m usually grabbing my coffee and my school bag and jetting out the door before they sometimes are even awake. I didn’t realize how much I missed the morning time. I love this part.
With sports and other activities, there was a lot of eating-in-shifts going on. So, to all be eating at least one meal at the same time—and together? Priceless. Now if all of us could eat the same thing at the same time, that would be a true COVID Miracle.
Let the record show that I don’t care about TikTok or Fortnite or the 97th season of Grey’s Anatomy. At all. However, it has been enlightening–and even a little interesting–to get a closer look into the things that interest my kids. Ironically, I talk a lot about the importance of reading the room and teaching the students in the seats in front of me. However, prior to this, I don’t think I practiced what I preached a whole lot at home.
However, please don’t misunderstand.
There’s definitely more fighting and #familydistancing in the Hughes homestead than there was, say, ten weeks ago. We’re not learning the guitar together or making our own hand sanitizer or building a shed in the backyard or baking our way through grandmother’s recipes. On the contrary, we’re still getting takeout quite a bit–under the guise of being “locavores who are supporting small business.” My laptop’s weekly screen time averages are nauseating, and that struggle-is-real work-home balance is realer than it ever was.
Plus, our kids are sick of quarantining, and their parents are, too. The kids miss being able to just hang out with their friends, and their parents do, too. And one person in our house especially misses being able to teach in front of real humans and eat in a place where she can pay the bill and leave the dishes to someone else. (Getting her roots “did” wouldn’t be too bad either. #firstworldproblems)
As of next week, our state will be reopening slowly. While it won’t look the same for a while, there are definitely Silver Linings in all of this. Matthew Quick’s novel The Silver Linings Playbook reminds us that “[l]ife is not a PG feel-good movie. Real life often ends badly. Literature tries to document this reality, while showing us it is still possible for us to endure nobly.”
But endure this we will–and hopefully, we’ll learn a thing or two in the process.
Endure nobly, everyone.
And stay well.
Photo Credit: Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris
This is our students’ 9/11. Their JFK Assassination. Their Uphill-Both-Ways-in-the-Snow walks to school. This is their “I-Remember-When…,” the story they’ll be telling and retelling the next generation.
This is also a breeding ground for anxiety. And the instant access to the news–complete with its statistics, daily briefings, and predictions–probably doesn’t help.
So, as we all do our best to flatten the curve, educators are doing their best to flatten student anxiety as well.
While keeping their own anxiety in check.
And connecting with their students in real-time.
And creating meaningful, non-busywork assignments.
And providing feedback on what students have submitted.
And reaching out to those who haven’t engaged with their class.
And helping their own children with their school work.
And keeping their cupboards stocked when the supermarket shelves might not be.
And… And… And…
Teaching 100+ students–while trying to just survive the current “unprecedented time”–is a lot.
So, to add some levity to this otherwise heavy time (especially now that many of us have loved ones who are sick), my students answer a Quarantine Question of the Week. (I answer it, too.) And their willingness to play along–and their sense of humor–has I think helped us both. Below are some of the Greatest Hits from these last few weeks.
WEEK 1: MY QUARANTINE IN SIX WORDS
Describe your Quarantine in exactly 6 words. No more. No less. No explaining.
(inspired by Jimmy Fallon’s Hashtag Challenge)
WEEK 2: LOTTERY LOOT
What’s the first thing you’d buy if you won the lottery?
WEEK 3: LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION.
If you could quarantine anywhere else, where would it be?
WEEK 4: “QUIET ON THE SET!”
Congratulations! Your life is going to be made into a movie. Who would you want to play you?
And quite possibly the best response…
I always tell my students that Life trumps School. I don’t want them worrying about a reading assignment or writing deadline when they should be caring for a post-op mom or sitting with a sick grandparent. Life is precious, our time together is limited, and our relationships with each other will always eclipse English class. Life trumps School.
Then Dad died, and all bets were off.
That wisdom I’d doled out to my students? Completely lost on me. (It was also lost on me when, at Week 37, my water broke and I was writing lesson plans.)
Unfortunately, there’s no grad class for how to grieve in a job that requires you to be “on” every minute of every day. With other jobs, you can hold your father’s hand in hospice, plan his funeral, and take the necessary time to grieve. In education, you can’t move Tuesday’s meetings to Wednesday and call it a day. Tuesday’s clients still need to learn. As proof, I remember squeezing myself into the corner of Dad’s hospice room, writing lesson plans. And his eulogy.
Today is the one year anniversary of Dad’s passing–and the first time I could write about it.
These last 12 months have brought with them many emotions and even more realizations. Here’s a list of some of what I’ve learned about death and teaching.
1) Ugly-crying in the parking lot is a thing. Crying the entire way to work was a given. It was a good day if I had left myself enough time to check myself in the rear-view mirror before heading in to the building. But most of the time, it was a mad scramble to pull my “shtuff” together as I dashed to the door. Homeroom waits for no (wo)man.
2) The show
must go on has already started. Dad died the Saturday before midyear exams. If you’re not in education, midyears are to teachers what tax season is to accountants. We’re writing tests, giving tests, grading tests–all while wrapping up term grades and assessing late work and offering extra help and fielding questions from parents and answering last-minute emails from students.
And gone are the days when your sub can distribute the 200-question, multiple choice exam you wrote the week (year?) before. I assess student learning differently now, so loss or no loss, I had to leave my grief at the door (at least for those exam blocks) and get ‘er done.
They don’t teach you how to do that in grad school.
3) Funeral-planning is a beast. I don’t know how my Jewish friends pull it together in a 24- to 48-hour window. My siblings and I had a week to prepare—along with the support of Dad’s church family and the ability to divide and conquer. And it was still a full-time job. While we were trying to work our actual full-time jobs. The obituary and the order of service and the eulogy and the slideshow and the music and the meal afterwards and the constant checking in on Mom…it was just so much. There’s no education class for that.
4) It’s okay to be vulnerable. I did my best to hide my grief–or at least remain professional while ensconced in it. However, when the gashes were fresh, the students knew that, at any point, I might need to stop teaching and just take a beat. Even now, sometimes my throat will catch when talking about Dad. And while I don’t advocate becoming a blubbering mess on the daily
like me in the parking lot, I think it’s good for our students to see us being human. I told them about Dad’s surgeries and about the magnitude of hitting the 1-year-cancer-free milestone. With both parents. They knew when he coded on the operating table and how, minutes later, Mom signed his DNR (i.e., the Do Not Resuscitate paperwork). They walked with me when Dad was on life support and when he was moved to hospice. And they showed grace–so much grace–when he went Home. Part of my transparency was to explain why I was absent and why their essays weren’t graded yet. The other part was because I needed their grace. As Brené Brown has taught us, there is power in vulnerability. And that power was palpable.
5) Our students love us. I was positively overwhelmed with the outpouring of kindness when Dad died. Because I allowed my students to be part of my journey, they seemed to almost grieve with me–or at least for me. I received more emails, cards, and hugs from my students than I did from adults—not because my students cared more than my peers did. Perhaps it was because teens haven’t mastered the awkwardness we adults sometimes feel around death and dying. Should I ask how he is? Has too much time passed to offer my condolences? Did she get my card? (As an aside, here’s the one thing we should never say to our grieving friends; here’s the rest of the list. And here’s what our grieving friends really need from us.) As a teacher wading through loss, it only reinforced what I already knew about my students: They’re pretty fabulous.
6) Their parents care, too. I get grunts on a good day from my own teens, so I wasn’t sure if my students’ parents knew about Dad. They did, and I was taken aback by the barrage of parent cards, emails, gifts, and baked goods we received. The common thread seemed to be how much they “appreciated my dedication” to their children in the midst of it all. I felt like a fraud. Honestly, teaching is far easier than writing sub plans for someone else
who may or may not even follow them. So, for me, during those early, foggy days, it was more Path of Least Resistance than High Road of Dedication. Nevertheless, grieving as an educator meant receiving support from these amazing parents as well.
7) This is what sick days are for. I initially felt guilty missing school to be with my parents on Surgery Day, for important doctors’ appointments, during ICU stints, etc. However, my sister’s colleague reminded us that sick days exist for such a time as this. I had accrued so many over the years, rarely taking them for myself. (No heroics; I just loathe spending more time planning to be out than I would’ve spent had I just gone in!) But as one of my parents’ caregivers for the last few years, I’ve needed each and every Family Sick Day. I remember actually debating whether or not to use yet another sick day when Dad was in hospice. For all we knew, he could’ve lingered for weeks, months even. Thankfully, I shut off my inner censor and spent the day holding his hand while quietly swapping Dad Stories with my siblings. Hours later, Dad went “gentle into that good night.” This is exactly what sick days are for.
8) Grief lasts a lot longer than sympathy. One of the (many) injustices of loss is isolation. Once the services are over and the proverbial waitstaff is vacuuming around the table, that restaurant is a pretty lonely place to be. It feels like everyone else has moved on, leaving us in the wake of their sprint to life’s Next Big Event. They haven’t moved on, of course, but for the grief-stricken, it absolutely feels like it. Long after the cards and the meals and the condolences stop coming, we’re just beginning to sift through the debris of our grief. Often alone. That’s a tough–and lonely–place to exist. Especially when we have to be “on” every day.
There are a slew of other things I’ve learned in the last year, but I’ll save that for my book. I’ll simply close with this: I miss Dad something awful. But Elizabeth Kübler-Ross had it right.
“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.”
Our family’s Faith assures us that the night Dad left us, he fell–on two strong knees–before His God. No cane. No hearing aids. No pain. No cancer. Just completely Whole. And he heard his Heavenly Father say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
We’re one year down with a lifetime to go. And I trust there will be many more lessons to learn—and to teach—along the way.
A few years ago, during Thanksgiving week, I began what I affectionately call “The Gratitude Project.” (You can read read more about it HERE and HERE.) Essentially, I forced my students–and myself–to carve out some time to reflect on the Good in our lives in the midst of all of the bad. We were inspired by Kid President, we looked at an experiment that the Science of Happiness conducted, writing similar letters to the influential people in our own lives, and we saw how gratitude is being expressed in ongoing global projects such as the 365 Grateful Project and Thnx4. I shared my own musings–in the midst of aging parents–both of whom have battled cancer and defeated the ICU in the last year alone. (My father was actually in the hospital while we were working on last year’s Gratitude Project and lost his battle to the cancer that had unknowingly returned fewer than than two months later.)
In addition to wanting my students to have a positive digital footprint (hence our Passion Blog Project and our use of Goodreads–among other 21st century learning opportunities), I wanted my students’ parents–and the world!–to see the fabulousness these students show me on a regular basis.
The result was a community slide deck where students expressed reasons for which they are thankful this year. Some contributions were light, others were heartfelt, but all reflected the diverse mix of grateful thinkers in Room 1227. Take a look below to see what these fabulous adolescents shared. (Click on the slide deck itself to advance to the next one.)
High schoolers aren’t reading like they used to.
However, most students remember a time when they enjoyed reading, going to the library, having a book read to them. But something happened, and reading was placed on the back burner. (For my readers, that Something tends to be middle school–when choice often goes down and requirements go up.) Addressing the part schools play in this decline, Kelly Gallagher (in his book Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It), asks:
“Shouldn’t schools be the place where students interact with interesting books? Shouldn’t the faculty have an ongoing laser-like commitment to put good books in our students’ hands? Shouldn’t this be a front-burner issue at all times?”
My answer, of course, is yes, a thousand times yes!
Thankfully, my students are readers. The students I had ten years ago? Not so much. But now–with far more distractions in the midst (e.g., Netflix, cell phones, gaming), my students are actually reading again.
And when I’m asked what has changed, the answer is simple: me.
A mid-career crisis–fueled, in part, by the non-readers sitting in my classroom–forced me to upend everything I had done in my English classroom. And I saw firsthand what the research had been saying for decades: Choice for the win. The video below (which I share with my students and parents in September) articulates The Why behind the For the Love of Reading (#ftlor) Program.
While choice reading looks different in every classroom, here’s what has worked in Room 1227–after over five years of research, professional development, trial-and-error, and student and parent feedback. My For the Love of Reading program includes four steps: 1) Start with a plan; 2) Devote part of every class to reading; 3) Hold students accountable; and 4) Help them grow.
Our department requires students to read one full-length text per quarter. However, in order to build the stamina necessary for college (where they’ll be assigned up to 600 pages of reading per week!), I require my students to read one book per month. Many students end up far exceeding this, but most confess to thinking in September that Teacher-Lady was certifiable (which is probably the case) and that they’d simply Fake Read again all year.
Since many of my students wouldn’t be able to name ten books they’d like to read without consulting Google, they first complete a reading planner. (I’ve allowed students complete choice and controlled choice within monthly genres. Both work well, but I’ve found that the latter exposes my students to a variety of readings. We spend a few days in September exploring genres in groups–again genres that the students select, and each month starts with a group sharing their research in a slide deck like this one on the genre we’ll be exploring.) My learners are given class time to play in the Literary Sandbox, perusing sites like Amazon, Goodreads, Barnes & Noble, our school and town library database, and our classroom library database (of 2,600+ books!) through Booksource to find titles that interest them. Students who don’t know where to start are pointed toward sites like this 2019 Reading Challenge or this timeless Bingo-style one.
Having a plan in place means students always know what they’ll be reading next–which keeps the momentum going. And that’s half the battle. However, the beauty of the reading planner is its fluidity, as students’ tastes and skills change as the year progresses.
Since many of my students are still recovering from painful break-ups with reading, they often don’t know where to start. I encourage them to have an open mind and get themselves back out there.
I stress the importance of “dating” a book before fully committing to one, exploring titles within their potential careers, sampling the first book in a series, or trying a new-to-them genre.
But they are the captain of the ship, and this is what keeps them from getting stranded in the Sea of Fake Reading.
My students and I read for 10 minutes at the beginning of every 54-minute block and for 15 minutes at the beginning of every 74-minute long block. Every. Class.
All of the literacy experts agree: If we want students to read, we need to create time for it in class. How else do we demonstrate that reading is critical? In addition, students In her post “I’ve Got Research. Yes, I Do. I’ve Got Research. How About You?,” Donalyn Miller asks (immediately before unloading a slew of research on her readers), “Why must English teachers constantly defend the need for students to practice reading and writing in a class dedicated to reading and writing?” As tempting as it is to use those 10-15 minutes to take attendance or return papers, it’s important for our students to see us reading, too. And even more important? If we’re telling our students that lifelong reading is important, we need to model it. This is especially critical to help close the achievement gap between male and female learners.
So that I know students are making progress, the students and I update our reading every week on Goodreads. (See how I infuse Goodreads into my classroom here.)
And at the end of every month, students publish a book review (not summary) following these guidelines for a real-world audience of 90 million readers. That’s a whole lot more authentic than writing for Teacher-Lady.
I’m often asked, “What if students only read, say, John Green and Sarah Dessen?” I used to respond–as non-flippantly as possible, “So what?” They are reading. Study after study shows that I could distribute Macbeth in September, which is unarguably more challenging than, say, The Fault in Our Stars, but the same five students that read everything assigned will read Macbeth. The rest will fake-read. Whereas, 100% of the students that choose to read Green’s text will actually read it.
And rigorous or not, “a book isn’t rigorous if students aren’t reading it” (Penny Kittle in Book Love).
Like a toddler who, after being given full-range of the snack drawer, eventually begins to crave healthier food, my students–especially the ones I’ve had for two years–eventually move on from Green and Dessen to more rigorous texts. As Teri Lesesne champions in her book Reading Ladders: Leading Students from Where They Are to Where We’d Like Them To Be, I facilitate the process from the beginning to the end.
But most of my students couldn’t start with Macbeth. Which is how I used to kick off the year.
In addition to all of this choice, we still read whole-class novels, too; however, it’s all about the timing. My sophomores who might have abandoned The Great Gatsby in September are able to embrace it in May. Because they’ve increased their reading stamina. Because they are ready.
Students can’t be reduced to a number. They can’t be defined by their results on common assessment, reduced to where they fall on a state test, nor limited by their SAT/ACT scores.
However, sometimes numbers don’t lie.
With a towering goal of helping students fall back (or, for a select few, remain) in love with reading–while building their stamina to endure the 600-pages-per-week of reading they’ll be asked to do in college, I need numbers. They help validate what I do in the classroom (e.g., allowing students to choose the majority of their texts, beginning every class with 10 minutes of reading, using Goodreads for goal-setting, tracking, and review-publishing, maintaining a classroom library).
So, at the end of every year, I ask students to tally how many books they read–cover-to-cover during our time together and compare it to what they read the year before.
The. Results. Are. Glorious.
In a world of SparkNotes, Fake Reading, and Beating the System, check out the growth of these amazing, authentic (and hopefully lifelong) readers! It’ll warm your soul.
And just imagine the effect this much reading has had on their writing skills!
DISCLAIMER: These are all honors sophomores. However, I have done my reading experiment-turned-way-of-life for the last 6 years, and the results with my college preparatory students have always been equally astounding.
It’s that time of year again…The snow is beginning to melt (ish). The days are feeling a bit longer. Daylight is sticking around for dinner.
And statewide exams are lurking around the corner.
In Massachusetts, sophomores must pass the MCAS exam (in ELA, math, & science) in order to graduate. So, naturally, I’ve shared strategies and sample test questions with them, and we’ve taken practice tests. Or test. Singular. (Since this year’s MCAS is the first overhaul since 1993, there’s only one practice test available. For the entire state.)
I’ve also shared with my sophomores
and a bit more loudly that, while the MCAS is important, it in no way defines them. It’s one test. Assessing where these 15- and 16-year-olds are on those two particular days. And after seven months together, I can attest that they are so much more than whatever they end up scoring on the MCAS.
In their heads, I think they know that. However, I’m not sure knowing that necessarily assuages their anxiety.
So, to put the MCAS (or SAT or ACT or Midyear Exam or Final Exam or…) back into perspective, I share the video below by teacher-author Kumar Sathy. (It’s also a great way to expose them to spoken word poetry.)
I also share with my students the letter-read-’round-the-world, penned by an Indiana teacher before their state exams (pictured below). This letter practically broke the internet after a student’s parent shared it on Instagram. And you can see why.
For the record, my students are just as fabulous as hers. And if you work with students, I’m willing to bet that yours are, too.
Are our students anxious about these state-wide assessments? Uh, yeah.
Will they try their best on these tests? Most definitely.
But will their scores define them? Not a chance.
Last year, a few days before Thanksgiving, I began what I affectionately call “The Gratitude Project.” (You can read read more about it HERE and HERE.) Essentially, I forced my students–and myself–to carve out some time to reflect on the Good in our lives. We were inspired by Kid President, we looked at an experiment that the Science of Happiness conducted, and we saw how gratitude is being expressed in ongoing global projects such as the 365 Grateful Project and Thnx4. I shared my own musings–in the midst of aging parents–both of whom have battled cancer and defeated the ICU in the last year alone.
In addition to wanting my students to have a positive digital footprint (hence our Passion Blog Project and our use of Goodreads–among other 21st century learning opportunities), I wanted my students’ parents–and the world!–to see the fabulousness these students show me on a regular basis.
The result was a community slide deck where students expressed reasons for which they are thankful this year. Some contributions were light, others were heartfelt, but all reflected the diverse mix of thinkers in Room 1227. Take a look at what they shared below!
Penny Kittle wrote, “A book isn’t rigorous if students aren’t reading it.” This single statement has shaped my teaching career more than just about anything else. And for my first fifteen years, my students (and, chances are, probably yours, too) simply weren’t reading.
I was beyond frustrated.
So, I decided to teach the students in front of me, rather than teach how I had been taught. I decided to teach the students in front of me, rather than reuse the resources I had feverishly created the years before. I decided to teach the students in front of me, even though it required me to turn what I do in the classroom on its side and allow the students–who were fake reading, at best–to choose what books they would read. Part of my rationale was to help my readers build the stamina they’ll need to tackle the 600-pages-per-week of assigned college reading AND the other part was to help them fall back in love with reading.
Study after study has shown that the more students read, the better they will be at reading, writing, grammar, spelling, and even the unavoidable test-taking.
What study after study has NOT shown is that students have to curl up with the Complete Works of the Bard or anything Dickens or even–dare I say it?–Harper Lee. Nope. The studies simply show that students need to be reading. Period. And my students weren’t.
Lest you think your cherubs would never fake-read (which Much-Younger-Me thought), check out the video below. (I show it to my students every September.) It features a group of Penny Kittle’s seniors–all of whom earned good English grades despiterarely cracking a book.
My favorite comment? The Everyman who confesses (at 1:23) to snowing his teachers with, “‘Well, this really gets back to the American Dream’… and then you just make a bunch of stuff up.” That was literally every literature circle in my class prior to allowing choice.
Mind you, this was in spite of my high expectations and my years of facilitating seminar discussions and my feverish crafting of higher-order-thinking questions that couldn’t be found online. (ASIDE: Even now, I generate my own questions so students can’t allow someone online to do the thinking for them. For example, the use of color in The Great Gatsby? I’ll bet few students could ignore the Siren Song of the 52.8 million (!) hits Google just generated for me. In 0.56 seconds.)
Even still, my students weren’t authentically reading. Their writing was formulaic and lacked depth and/or free-thought. Their discussion contributions were superficial and redundant. And both forms of communication merely parroted back what the students thought Teacher-Lady wanted to hear. Or what we had already discussed in class. Shockingly, they fake-read in my class just as much as they had the year before. Even though they supposedly
liked tolerated Teacher-Lady.
However, that all changed once students were allowed to choose what books they were going to read.
I’ll be posting how I have made Choice work in my classroom and the importance of a blended approach separately. In the meantime, if you’re uneasy with allowing your students to direct their own learning, know that I was, too. It’s terrifying. After all, who’s the one with the literature degree in the room, the one who knows which standards have to be met? However, choice in no way means that Teacher-Lady works less or avoids steering students toward rich titles or withholds her vast knowledge about all-things-ELA. On the contrary, it means that in a Choice Classroom, “students assume responsibility and self-direct their own learning.” Which is one of our district’s 21st Century Learning Expectations.
But for Choice to work, there needs to be some ground rules.
1) DON’T JUDGE WHAT THE STUDENTS ARE READING. We can’t assume that because our students are young and inexperienced and don’t hold a literature degree, they are reading “garbage” or “bubble gum” literature. But some of them are. And that’s okay. We can’t shame these lighter-fare choices. After all, when was the last time we went to the library or Amazon.com and left with only Faulkner, Joyce, and Rand? Or we logged in to Netflix and only watched film adaptations of The Bard’s plays? We read–and watch–for different reasons. And if we’re trying to create lifelong readers–or at least readers who will be able to survive the 600+ per week they’ll be assigned in college, we can’t judge what they choose to read.
Plus, it’s about moderation. Those lighter-fare reads are the very Gateway Titles our reluctant readers need to come back into the fold. Rest assured: My sophomores authentically read–and enjoy!–The Great Gatsby. In the spring. When they’re ready. But many of them confessed to fake-reading it when I used to assign it in September. Same level of readers. Same Choice Reading Program. Just students who weren’t yet ready.
2) DON’T ASSUME IT’S QUANTITY OVER QUALITY. And we can’t tell our students that reading should be about quality over quantity. Says who? We don’t always know what our students are reading. We don’t always see the students who struggled through The Hunger Games in September now poring over Vonnegut and Orwell and Heller and Shakespeare in February.
Further, why are they even mutually exclusive? Why not hold students to a higher reading standard, quantity-wise, while helping them climb Teri Lesesne’s “Reading Ladder” toward more complex books? Ironically, I only require my students to read one Choice Book each month–a number so low it would make both Penny Kittle and Donalyn Miller guffaw. However, because my students quickly realize they enjoy reading (they just don’t love what we teachers have done to it), students read upwards of 80+ books during our 10 months together. After reading zero the year before.
3) DON’T JUDGE WHAT GOES ON IN OTHER CLASSROOMS. This is a good rule for all of us. We shouldn’t judge what our colleagues are doing in their classrooms–especially if we’re not current in what the research says. Until we read a professional development book about literacy or attend a workshop or take a graduate class or do something else to professionally develop, have we really earned the right to cross our proverbial arms and assume that what our colleagues are doing (with results) is lesser than whatever we’re doing? Conversely, Choice Embracers can’t judge what goes on in a traditional classroom either. Students need to be exposed to all types of teaching.
4) DON’T ASSUME, IN GENERAL. What if we just put a moratorium on assumptions altogether? We can’t assume that Choice Embracers don’t teach whole-class novels as well. Or dig in to texts with close-reading. Or assign works from the Canon. Or adhere to the one-size-fits-all curriculum that was purchased for us on top of all of the rich work we do with Choice Texts. Choice Embracers do all of that–and then some.
For Choice to work, we need to put our book-shaming and judgment and assumptions aside. Can we disagree? Absolutely. We teach our students that respectful discourse helps us understand other points of view. And isn’t that one of the reasons we read? However, we also need to consider the students in front of us. And teach them.
And, of course, you know where I stand: Let them
eat cake choose books!