Keeping a Record of the Reading Life

This post is written by member Molly Sutton Kiefer.

When I was young, I’d ask my father, a literature and composition professor, to give me reading challenges. As an upper elementary student, I spent one summer day plowing through 100 picture books. On Thanksgiving break from college, I brought a sack of books, which he balked at, and I said, “Challenge me to read one a day—you pick which ones—and if I make it, you can buy me a book.” I jokingly asked for the OED (Oxford-English Dictionary) I had my eye on in the bookstore where I worked.

I started keeping a record of my reading on my birthday in 2001. It was through these cream-colored journals that I began counting books for each year. 256. 211. When Good Reads came along, I went digital, logging each book, tracking little unformed thoughts, which became the foundation for professional book reviews. I kept marginalia in a conversation I was having with the future-self who loved re-reading.

I started teaching mostly high school freshmen, hoards of freshmen with puppy energy and stumbling prose. On Mondays, we read. The whole period. There were forms all freshmen teachers had in their rooms, little book reportish things on colored paper with rote questions. They’d staple the batch together, and earn fakeable points each semester.

The requirement set out by department was 600 pages a semester. Most students would reach that line and duly toe it. I made attempts at revealing my own reading self, at challenging my already-readers in the room, by keeping a tally of my own pages on the board. Some years, other children would step up and write their own name and the tallies would edge up. Another boy was too shy to participate, but at the end of the semester, I heard him mutter to his seatmate, “Only two thousand eight hundred sixty-three pages? I had over three thousand, easy.”

The thing was, the kids who loved to read would read. They didn’t need to fill in a chart to tell me this. The kids who didn’t, wouldn’t. They’d spin it, or refuse to turn in the sheets and those points would drop away from an already low-slung grade. We weren’t spreading the romance of reading in this way.

And I had begun to dull my own love for reading in my manic acquisition of pages, of book numbers. Good Reads began its own challenge: select a number of books you will read for the year! My log-in page would tell me where I was lining up. I would scurry to surge ahead and suddenly I wondered where my stopwatch was, why I wasn’t wearing cleats, and just where did the true love of reading go, anyway? The accomplishment of the goal had eclipsed the deliciousness of language, the breathless admiration of a muscular text. I had forgotten how to slow down.

Worse, I was perpetuating the habit with my students.

As educators, as parents, we model. To raise readers, we model reading. It’s a beautiful excuse for me to flounce onto the couch or, in the summer, the hammock and declare to my partner, “I am parenting right now.” And then get lost in the thick of the novel.

I began to model active reading with my own students. As part of my greet-at-the-door, I’d stand in the hallway with a book of poetry in hand. When my students silently read, rather than grade frantically, I’d perch on a stool in the front of the room, reading with a pen in hand, modeling the pleasure of marginalia. I told them about the books I kept with my friends from my MFA days, where we’d read the same book together and write notes in the margins specifically for a fellow reader—like writing letters as we read.

This summer, I began to keep a paper reading journal. I’m using a gorgeous herringbone Moleskine—we writers are particular about our materials—to show my students how valuable this book is to me. In it, I still jot down the small details side of things: dates, genres, name, author. I still keep data, and I’ll still keep data on my students. I have a binder that was once folders that was once loose sheets—reading logs that became carrots for some, daunting tasks for others. Two of my carrot-boys decided to make an informal book club and keep their own log of what they read together. I need the lists, because I need to know where to go from last month, the month before.

This year, I’m giving my students blank books to keep as their reading logs, and I’ll give them many examples of ways they can log. Some will stick with the lists because it works. Some will be like me and begin to copy quotes, write responses, fill it with words of their own. Others, like my carrot-boys, who also fill their days drawing elaborate scenes in the margins of their work—bows and arrows and robots and planets—I envision their turning this into a graphic log. Some will write skits, creating dialog between characters with unresolved issues, characters from other books climbing over the marginalia and into the pages of other books. Some will paint in watercolor and paste collages, words clipped from their mother’s discarded magazines, pasted along the curve of a mountain representing the plot line. Some will break out of the book-logs and rip out pieces of butcher paper and create enormous and intricate maps, scenes, lists. I had my creative writing students collect words and put them on paper, transfer them when they entered my classroom onto that paper and braced myself for observation days when the principal might stare at best-loved and most-hated words of teenagers.

This summer, I learned this: marginalia need not stop in the margins. Reading logs need not exist between parallel lines.

Molly Sutton Kiefer is the author of the full-length lyric essay Nestuary and three poetry chapbooks. She is publisher at Tinderbox Editions, and her work appears in Orion, The Rumpus, and Women’s Studies Quarterly, among others. She lives and teaches in Minnesota

National Day on Writing: A Seed of Extravagant Potential

This post is written by member Caroline Brewer.

I was thinking a National Day on Writing project would be a fun and highly effective way for students to improve as readers and writers and identify as capable learners. I was thinking the day would give our school the opportunity to sow a seed of extravagant potential for each student.

In the fall of 2016, I was the Reading Resource Teacher for Concord Elementary, a PreK—sixth grade school of 400 students in District Heights, MD, just across the DC border. I proposed we recognize the National Day on Writing with thank-yous—to President and Mrs. Obama.

I would instruct my 250 once-a-week reading class students and asked the other teachers to work with students I didn’t teach to contribute letters. I assembled YouTube videos on the Obamas, handouts listing their accomplishments and facts about the presidency, large news photos of the First Couple, and two children’s books about the president.

Teachers were enthusiastic. Students exhaled happiness. “Will he really read our letters?” “Will they write us back?” “Ooooh, I want them to come to our school!”

I distributed an outline of a thank-you letter to students and shared my sample letter, which included the fact that I celebrated the night Obama won by partying in the streets. Some of the kids appropriated that story for their letters—temporarily, of course! Other students were not so ambitious. They stopped cold. Complained. Talked out of turn. Threw paper wads. When the classes were over, I had mostly bits and pieces of correspondence from the upper grades. The lower grades finished their brilliant class letters in one session.

Second and third drafts dribbled in over the next month.

WHAT was I thinking?

We lost time, momentum, and organization to heretofore precious weekday breaks. I misplaced some drafts. I had never handled that many student papers at once. And why paper? Some computers were in a lab not yet operational. Others were on a cart shared by as many as three classrooms. And when we tried computers, I discovered most students had never used one to write. Microsoft Word became a black hole.

WHAT was I thinking?

The winter break was near. The Obamas would be leaving office soon. Students inquired daily whether their heartfelt messages were en route to the First Family. I felt like I was walking in quicksand. Classroom teachers, beautiful as they all were, came to the rescue.

January 9, I mailed the Obamas a school-wide batch of thoughtful, silly, and sentimental expressions.

“I want to thank you for making speeches telling people to be brothers and sisters, to be friends and help each other.”

“Can you stop the bad people from hurting people?”

“I hope you eat spaghetti.”

I prayed students would receive a reply.

Meantime, it dawned on me that since the National Day on Writing, students who had refused to write—including those designated for SPED services—were making their pencils, pens, and words move with authority and poignancy. They volunteered to read works aloud. They crawled out of Word’s black hole and learned to compose with the darn thing. By January, every student I taught was much more comfortable writing. Not one rejected it.

“Thank you for all of the justice and hope.”

 “I loved the wonderful days of you being president.”

 “When you move, I want to see your new house. If you invite me, can I bring my mother and my family with me? I want to come. I really want to come.”

“Thank you for my toys… Thank you for my teachers.”

 “Can you buy me a puppy?”

WHAT was I thinking now?

I’d promised the students we could make a book out of their charming expressions of gratitude. We’d need $8,000 to cover design and printing costs so all students could receive free copies. Since we were a Title I school, we couldn’t ask the parents for help, and the PTA had recently lost its president.

Adjoa Burrowes, illustrator of twelve children’s books and author of three, and a phenomenal literacy and art teacher and graphic designer, answered our book designer prayer. Alicia Lazaris, the sixth-grade language arts teacher, graciously said yes to our need for a school-based coordinator.

By mid-May, Adjoa was ready for me to proof the book we titled, For the Obamas: A Big Book of Thank Yous. About ten pages in, it occurred to me that I had never proofed a book with 200-some letters. School would be out in three weeks and we needed at least ten days for our printer to print and deliver the copies. Doubts started crawling over me like an army of red ants.

We worked six to eight hours a night. We knew the book could be that seed of infinite potential that would inspire students to accomplish what we couldn’t imagine. We had to keep going. So we took deep breaths, said our prayers, and worked.

We delivered the precious Big Book of Thank Yous to Concord the day before the last day of school.

We learned just weeks ago that President Obama had written the students, thanking them for their letters. His letter is in the latest edition of our big book of gratitude. And so is our deepest appreciation to him and Concord’s new principal, Dr. Dana Doggett, for being on the planting team of the National Day on Writing, that precious seed of both extravagant and infinite potential.

The National Day on Writing bore delicious fruit. It was my joy to have labored with our teachers and students to help sow it. How can you use the National Day on Writing to sow seeds of success?

Believe in your teachers and students—and magic.

Applaud every little progressive step students take.

Ask for help.

Use computers.

Bend, shake, rattle, and roll.

Laugh, and keep going.

Caroline Brewer is an author, teacher, literacy consultant, and communications professional. Follow her on Twitter @BrewerCaroline and Facebook at www.facebook.com/happyteachertraining

Becoming Strategic Writers—and Teachers of Strategic Writing

This post is written by member Deborah Dean.

“What do you do when you need to write something and don’t know how to start?”

“What do you do when you are writing and get stuck, don’t know where to go next?”

Students who have not been taught a strategic approach to writing have a difficult time answering these questions. If they answer at all, they give a fairly uniform answer: “I ask someone.”

On the other hand, students who have been taught a strategic approach to writing have a variety of answers to these questions: they make a list, they look at a mentor text, and they talk. One student even said she sometimes takes a short break, sits on her roof, and listens to music for a few minutes to clear her mind. Strategic writers learn that there are many strategies possible for writers to use as they move through their writing projects. They understand that writers adapt strategies to their individual needs and the writing task at hand. They learn that they can develop their own strategies for dealing with challenges during writing.

Harvard’s Project Zero has been working on thinking protocols that help develop students into independent, lifelong learners. Many of these principles are evident in a strategic writing approach: thinking about what we do when we write, what we might do, and how those choices help us all develop independent writers who can adapt their writing abilities across genres and situations. As Project Zero notes about their purpose: “We are trying to demystify the process of thinking by making it visible” (Schwartz, 2016). A strategic writing approach makes the writing process—including the thinking and processes involved in writing—visible to students. By making the process visible, students have control over it and can use it for their own purposes instead of seeing it as steps they follow for an English class. Instead of a fake process that students tell me they often see as artifacts without meaning—a web, a messy copy, a neat copy—the writing process itself becomes a tool for strategic writers. When do I really need to prewrite? When does revision matter? If I do need to write before I draft, is a web the best way to make sense of my ideas? Or is a storyboard better? That is the thinking outcome of strategic writing.

So what constitutes a strategic writing approach in a classroom? Not a list of strategies to learn and memorize. Not worksheets. Not whole classes using the same strategies each time they write. Instead, a strategic writing approach involves thinking about what might help a writer through a specific writing project. Do teachers present strategies in mini-lessons? Yes. Do all students try them out? I ask students to try a strategy at least once, just to see how it works for them, and to consider whether they can adapt it in a way that might work for this or another writing task. As they use a variety of strategies, students begin to develop their own—individualized—list of strategies, ones that work best for them. Trying out new strategies, even ones they might not use again, means they also have strategies in reserve that might work on occasion when the regular ones are not doing what they need.

In a class that teaches writing strategies, students write for a variety of purposes and in a variety of genres: formal and informal, digital and traditional, personal and public. As writers move among purposes and types of writing, they begin to see how strategies are useful in different ways and how strategies differ from user to user and even from task to task for the same user.

Beyond regular writing, an essential aspect of strategic writing instruction is reflection. Students need to think about their thinking, about their processes, about how and why a strategy works for them or not. Reflection is essential, and, as Pianko notes,”the difference between able and not so able writers from their initial writing experience onward” (qtd. in Yancey, p. 4). By reflecting on the strategies they use as they write, students bring to conscious levels the answers to the questions listed at the beginning of this post. They know what they do, what they can do. They do not have to be stuck. They are ready to be independent, life-long writers of more genres than we can possibly imagine because they have the tools to know how to do just that.

Strategic Writing, second edition, provides teachers with more strategies for all stages of the writing process along with the teaching plans to help students become strategic writers. The revised book clarifies the differences between strategies and activities and shares student responses to a strategic writing approach to writing instruction.

Deborah Dean is a former secondary teacher who now teaches preservice teachers at Brigham Young University. @debbied1204

 

 

References

Schwartz, K. (2016, 31 Mar.) When kids have structure for thinking, better learning emerges. KQED News, Mind/Shift. Retrieved from https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2016/03/31/when-kids-have-structure-for-thinking-better-learning-emerges/

Yancey, K. B. (1998). Reflection in the writing classroom. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

A Book Ban Like No Other

A few weeks ago a newspaper editor from the Panhandle of Florida contacted the Intellectual Freedom Center with a challenge. Following the September school board meeting, the superintendent of the Dixie District Schools issued an Administrative Directive to all the district school directors and principals. The directive stated,

“As of September 8, 2017, no instructional materials (textbooks, library books, classroom novels, etc.) purchased and/or used by the school district shall contain any profanity, cursing, or inappropriate subject matter. This directive reflects the values of the Superintendent, School Board, and the community. However, I do realize that AP and Dual Enrollment classes may have set reading requirements that requirements that contain questionable materials that the local district does not have control over. These will be the only materials allowed to be used in our district, provided they do not substantially violate community standards.”

I’ve never seen such a comprehensive book banning!

As I understand it, a parental complaint about Ernest J. Gaines A Lesson Before Dying may have been what instigated such a ridiculous directive, one  that flies in the face of three existing district policies on curriculum development, selection of texts, and reconsideration of texts.

NCTE wrote the superintendent and school board a letter standing up for The Students’ Right to Read, pointing out flaws in the directive, and noting that the action, which didn’t follow three school board policies, thereby undermined all the school board’s policies that could, it seems, be ignored at the will of the superintendent and school board. Many other letters were sent, by the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCTE signed on this one), the Office of Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association, and the Florida Library Association. At the October 10 School Board Meeting, students spoke against the ban and the high school English department chair and teacher’s union president, Lindsey Whittington, made a strong plea for the Board to rescind the directive.

Despite all this, one member of the board replied, “We’ll take this stuff into consideration.”

While they’re considering, the Facebook page of the Dixie County Advocate is aflame with comments from members of the community whose views the directive does not represent. Golly, what an authentic purpose for writing!

Here are a few comment from the page:

“Banning books only makes kids want to read them even more. So I guess we should thank these jerks for encouraging our young people to read instead of being upset about them working so hard to dumb down our children. My grandchildren will be able to read whatever they want because I will buy them those forbidden books.”—Penny Williams

“As a high school student it angered me when they read the email to us. What HIGH SCHOOL student doesn’t know about ‘profanity, curiosity or inappropriate subject matter’? Please name one. I would understand if his was elementary students but high school come on. We are gonna learn about it one way or another!”

“This is insanity! My child loves to read and I often buy her books that are not available at school or the local library. I remember having to get her an ‘adult’ library card because she wanted to read books with more substance when she little. This is a slap in the face to parents who want their children to be literate and educated rather than locked in a box!”—Melanie Amrell

“Banning or restricting access to ‘challenged’ or ‘explicit’ material is such a deviation from the philosophy of American education and even of the Dixie County School Board, see link. The students of Dixie District Schools deserve equal access to instructional material approved by federal and state guidelines and not be subjected to the censorship of a few local officials hoping to reinforce their personal/moral agenda. If a directive like this is allowed then the district has no hope of producing truly competitive, well rounded individuals.”—Dylan

Well, you get the idea.

There has been no resolution as of this writing.

Why We Write

This post is written by members Amy Miller and Meghan Jones.

“Writing can be my best friend.”

“Writing to me is the tool for creating a world that otherwise could not exist.”

“I want to be a writer who can write about things that are important not just in school. But world things.”

“Writing can bring life back to you when life is the worst it could possibly be.”

“Writing reminds me that the best is yet to come.”

After navigating our first year of heterogeneously grouped classes, the English 100H team, a group of teachers responsible for the ninth-grade classes, realized the need for a dramatic change for our first unit—we had to start the year off with a stronger push to rope all kids into what really matters in English class.

We wanted to cultivate in students the skills necessary to be successful learners and begin to instill in them the importance of being active, engaged readers and thoughtful writers. We worked backward with the idea of a summative assignment for which students reflected on who they are as writers, and we built a unit that provided students multiple opportunities to reflect on their own writing, engage with mentor texts, learn from their peers’ writing, and make choices about their learning along the way.

Here’s an overview of the two-to-three week process:

As a culture builder, a lesson in active listening, and a brainstorming activity, we began with peer interviews. Students asked each other questions about their memories of learning to write and the role of writing in their lives today. They recorded key words or phrases from their peers’ responses. Students then used the interview content to flash-draft responses to the question, Who I am as a writer?

Students explored mentor texts of published writers reflecting on why they write or read and identified strategies to then apply to their own writing. The idea of “reading like a writer” came from Rebekah O’Dell and Allison Marchetti of Moving Writers in their book Writing with Mentors. In a mini-lesson, we modeled the process of noticing and then naming strategies in our own words with a class model from short, accessible reflections by well-known authors. Students then explored other mentors in small groups, adding to our growing class list of strategies.

Students then personalized their learning by independently exploring an amassed list of mentors, including writers’ reflections, podcasts, TED Talks, and interviews with well-known writers and musicians. We continued to expand and refine our strategy list. After each successive round of exploring mentor texts, students returned to their own writing and tried a mentor strategy to revise what they had written. To ensure that students were meeting learning targets, we utilized exit passes as formative checks for understanding.

As the drafts took shape, teachers shared their own “Why I Write” drafts and had students locate strategies and offer feedback. Students then offered each other peer feedback on which strategies were working and which needed further attention.

Eventually, we turned to writing conferences during which students identified areas of revision and generated questions for the conference using a writer’s checklist. During the conferences, students took their own notes. Literacy specialists pushed into classes to help confer with students and ensure that each student received meaningful formative feedback.

On the day their writing was due, we held a celebration of writing. NCTE’s #WhyIWrite site reminded us that collectively, telling why we write “gives voice to who you are and enables you to give voice to the things that matter to you.” So we decided to frame our celebration around “raising the volume”. In a gallery walk, students perused each other’s writing, located memorable lines, and quoted each other to build a collage of words on the whiteboard under #WhyIWrite. Placing the markers in students’ hands compelled them to appreciate each other’s words and to call out the student who uses writing to cope with reality, the friend whose journals capture everyday musings, and the peer whose written words create rich, imaginative worlds.

The written products were genuine in their self-reflection, rich with strategies gleaned from the mentor texts, authentic in voice and expression. We read stories of academic triumphs, sacred family reading times, private chronicles of the intimacies of their daily lives, and beaming elementary teachers who inspired our students to see themselves as writers for the very first time. Most importantly, students expressed that their love of writing dramatically waned as they advanced through the grades. Their pieces echoed a resounding desire to regain the love of writing that they once had as younger students. This not only validated our work but reinforces the enormity of the task we face as English teachers. It is our responsibility to teach all students at all levels that writing matters. Our students are writers with stories to tell—stories that deserve to be heard. Hopefully, we have brought them one step closer to gaining the tools and confidence needed to believe in themselves once again as writers who can change the world.

Amy Miller (Twitter @FHSEnglishCT) is the English department leader and Meghan Jones (Twitter @FHSliteracy) is a literacy specialist and instructional coach at Farmington High School in Farmington, CT.