Thursday, 25 February 2016

I Read... Jane, the Fox & Me

I wasn't kidding when I said that I was on a graphic novel kick.  Jane, the Fox & Me has been on my bookshelf for over a year.  I picked it up because it was beautiful - I hadn't heard anything about it, and I had no idea what it was about.  All I knew was that I liked everything about the look of the book - from the use of colour to the art to the feel of the paper.  It is absolutely gorgeous.  In this case, I definitely judged a book by its cover.  Luckily for me, it paid off in a wonderful way.

Like many of the graphic novels that I have read, this one is about that awkward adolescent phase.  It seems as though the graphic form is a wonderful medium for allowing characters to explore identity.  Helene is a girl who has been shunned by her group of girlfriends.  She doesn't want to burden her busy mother with her problems.  Does this sound like a familiar story?  I think that all of us have a little Helene in us.  Every part of Helene drips with insecurity.

Luckily Helene has literature to disappear into.  She falls in love with Jane Eyre, which I can definitely relate to.  Jane's story is a perfect reflection of Helene.  She sees Jane as someone that she can at once relate to and aspire to be like.  Everyone who has felt like Helene needs a world to escape into, and I could feel Helene escaping into Jane's world.

Helene seems content to live in her private world, but then she is confronted with the reality of a camping trip with her whole class.  There won't be anywhere to hide.  An almost magical interaction with a fox and meeting a group of misfits slowly changes Helene and she starts to understand where she fits into the world.

What stood out to me the most in this book was the way that the combination of text and image made Helene's pain palpable.  The "mean girls" weren't just mean - they were cruel.  Helene wasn't just lonely - she was alone.  If you are looking for a text to explore the topics of identity, bullying, alienation, being an outsider or growing up, this is a fantastic resource to pick up.

Food for Thought... which characters in literature do you find to be the most relatable?  Why?

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Carousel Brainstorming That Encourages Inquiry

Earlier this month, all of the teachers in our city gathered for our annual two-day teacher's convention.  I was lucky enough to present on reading strategies for secondary students.  As I closed the doors to the full house that I presented in (yikes!), I commented that I was surprised to have so many people attending my session as it was bright and early on a Friday morning.  The participants told me that the word "secondary" is what brought them in- they find that there is a lot of support available for younger students who struggle to read, but not much for the older students.  As a result, teachers often feel alone and stuck.  They want to help their older struggling readers, but they just don't know how.  

The first strategy that we used in the session was carousel brainstorming.  This certainly isn't a revolutionary idea, and I'm sure that many of the teachers in the room had already done some form of carousel brainstorming.  I took the work of Dr. Jeffrey Wilhelm, who has done a lot of work on using inquiry to support struggling readers, to make the carousel brainstorming more meaningful. Dr. Wilhelm did a study on boys to find out why they under-perform girls in every area of literacy.  While I am over-simplifying his findings here, one thing that stood out was that boys needed to see the point or purpose of the activity, and to think that the purpose was worthwhile, in order to buy in and seek out mastery.  This partially explains why boys tend to prefer non-fiction to fiction.  If I want to learn how to fix the motherboard of my computer, I will find a non-fiction piece on that subject. At the end of the reading, I will have the knowledge that I was looking for.  I understand the purpose, I buy in to the purpose, therefore I engage fully in the activity.  It is often more difficult for boys to find a similar purpose in fiction.

So how can I take this research and use it to improve my teaching?  I used it to improve my ordinary carousel activity.  I took the reading that I used in my PD session, and I looked for some juicy (or what Dr. Wilhelm called "sexy") questions that I could get students to buy into.  I used an article on factory farming and food animals to demonstrate that these strategies were not "English Language Arts" strategies, but could be used across content areas.  Some of the framing questions that I came up with were:
  • Why do some people choose to be vegetarians?
  • Why do some people choose to eat meat?
  • What are some reasons to eat fast food?
  • What are some reasons to avoid fast food?
  • Do you care how the cow who produces your milk is treated?     

I tried to create a variety of questions that students in a secondary classroom would relate to and would have an opinion on.  If I were in a classroom, I might ask the kids to help me to craft better questions before engaging in the carousel activity.  In the case of this group of participants, they were definitely most interested in the questions related to fast food. 

Once you have good "juicy" questions, it is time to get the kids up and moving, engaging with the questions.  The carousel activity allows kids to make predictions, make connections, and engage prior knowledge, all skills that strong readers use. 

Food for Thought... do you use framing questions in your teaching?  What are some of the most successful questions that you have used to engage your students?

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Shakespeare or 90s Rap?

One of my favourite ways to start off a study of poetry is to ask students to finish the sentence, "Poetry is...".  I always get a dichotomy of responses- students who love poetry and think that it is the most pure form of expression and students who think that  poetry is stupid and wish that the poet would just say what they mean.  To both sides, I present the following: Shakespeare or 90s rap?  Quiz your students to see who they think spat out the following sick rhymes (answers given below):

1. "I'll teach you how to flow."
2. "United we stand, yes, divided we fall. Together we can stand tall."
3. "He speaks plain cannon fire, and smoke and bounce."
4. "I exist in the depths of solitude pondering my true goal." 
5. "That's an ill phrase."
6. "Holla, holla!"
7. "You know very well who you are. Don't let them hold you down, reach for the stars."
8. "I am the dog: no, the dog is himself, and I am the dog - Oh! the dog is me and I am myself."
9. "To destroy the beauty from which one came."
10. "The most benevolent king communicates through your dreams."
11. "You knights of Tyre are excellent in making ladies trip."
12. "What is life? Life is a big obstacle put in front of your optical to slow you down."
13. "Just as high as my heart."
14. "This style is terror, drastic."
15. "Thou art raw."
16. "Our tongue is rough, coz, and my condition is not smooth."
17. "I act on what I feel and never deal with emotions."
18. "Our cake's dough on both sides."
19. "Trip no further, pretty sweeting."
20. "Look, when I serve him so, he takes it ill."

If your students like the idea of making connections between Shakespeare and hip hop, be sure to share this Ted Talk video with them!

(The Tempest, Public Enemy, King John, Tupac, Hamlet, King Lear, Notorious BIG, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Jay-Z, Wu Tang Clan, Pericles, Eminem, As You Like It, Nas, As You Like It, Henry V, Dr. Dre, The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, The Comedy of Errors)

Food for Thought... how do you engage your kids in difficult subject matter?

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

I Read... Thirteen Reasons Why

I was looking at my bookshelf to see what I should write a review for, and I couldn't believe that I haven't written one for Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher yet.  I am often looking for a modern YA book that I can teach in my high school class, and this has been on the top of several suggested lists that I have come across online.  While I personally wouldn't feel comfortable teaching this novel, I would definitely encourage teachers to have it on their bookshelves as I think that a lot of students would benefit from reading this novel.

Chances are good that you have heard of Thirteen Reasons Why - Hannah has committed suicide and leaves behind clues for her friend Clay that outline the thirteen reasons that contributed to this.  As Clay listens to the clues unfold, the reader learns that we really don't know what kind of footprint we leave on those around us - Clay certainly didn't know how he impacted Hannah's life.  As Hannah says, "no one knows for certain how much impact they have on lives of other people. Oftentimes, we have no clue. Yet we push it just the same".  When you start to realize this, you rethink how you treat others and what you are putting out into the world.  Will others be glad that they have come across me in some way?  Or will they be harmed for meeting me?

The reason that I would hesitate to teach the novel is that suicide can be such a devastating topic for so many.  I fear that I would not have the knowledge to present the subject matter in a way that would fully respect the wide range of emotions and reactions that students might have.  The reason that I think students would like the book, however, is that it gives us insight into the mind of a suicidal teen.  When someone is lost to suicide, those who are left behind often feel lost.  They wonder why this person thought that suicide was the only way out or what they could have done to help.  While Hannah's story is not the story of everyone lost to suicide, it is one story.  By hearing, in her own words, what led her to this decision, we can start to understand how mental illness can cloud our judgement and why someone might be led to believe that death is the best answer.

To end, I will quote Jenny Lawson from her blog post "Depression Lies":

     Stay real. Stay alive. Stay vigilant against a**holes who make you question yourself. We already        get enough of that from the doubting voices in our heads and the lies depression tells us. Listen to      my voice, now. You are real. You are worthwhile. You are so important both in ways you will            discover, and in ways you'll never see. You send out needed ripples of greatness and kindness in  
     unexpected and accidental ways.
     You won't always see wonderful ways in which you shift the world. They may be invisible to you.      But I promise you they are real.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Good Readers Make Predictions

How many times have you had the parent of a struggling reader ask you what their child can do to improve?  How do you answer that question?  Have you said, "he should read more often"?  Is that really going to help that child?

I don't think that anyone can argue that reading more will benefit children.  However, if a student is struggling to read, is an inefficient reader, is a frustrated reader, will continuing that trend really help him or her?  Perhaps we should tell students and parents about the strategies that good readers use and suggest that they practice those as they read.

One of the strategies that good readers use is that they make predictions as they read.  If a struggling reader is not making predictions, perhaps it would help to point this out to his or her parent.  Suggest that as they read together, the parent stop and ask probing questions to encourage their child to make predictions.  If the child reads independently, perhaps that parent can ask them what they think will happen next.

Here are some basic question/sentence starters for students who need support in making predictions:

  • Reading __________ makes me think _______________ is about to happen.
  • Maybe this means...
  • I wonder if...
  • This allows me to assume...
  • What do you think the character will do next?
  • I predict/bet/think/guess that __________ because...
  • Since ___________ happened, I think that ________________ will happen next
Encourage your students to annotate their texts with their predictions.  If they need further support, consider using film to help them to make predictions.  You can choose a short film (Pixar's shorts are a great option) and press pause just before a turning point or major event in the plot.  Ask students to predict what is about to happen.  What evidence leads them to believe that?  Struggling students can use the visual cues from film to help them in developing the skill of making predictions, and eventually they can transfer this to their reading.

Food for thought... how do you help your students to make predictions?

Monday, 8 February 2016

I Read... Sunny Side Up

Lately I have been on the hunt for awesome graphic novels to use in a secondary classroom.  Graphic novels are so fantastic for building literacy, especially when you have a lot of struggling readers or ELL students in your class.  Allowing students to build visual literacy skills will improve their reading.  They learn to use the skills that good readers use (i.e.- making predictions, making connections, visualizing, etc.) with a text that is less intimidating.  As they practice these skills, they can learn how to transfer them to increasingly complex texts.

I was in the bookstore with my son last weekend and I let him pick out a book to take home.  While he was browsing, I saw one lone copy of Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm, a brother-sister writing team.  The book looks inviting, and the description on the back drew me in.  I added it to our basket, and devoured it as soon as we got home.  Another good thing about graphic novels- I can finish them in no time, so I feel like I have accomplished something when I read one in 30 minutes!

Sunny Side Up is high on my list of favourite graphic novels, especially for middle school aged readers.  Sunny goes to visit her grandfather in Florida for the summer.  She expects beaches and Disney World, but instead she gets a retirement village.  As the story unfolds, Sunny goes between present day in Florida and the past school year back home in Pennsylvania.  The reader soon learns that the family sent Sunny to Florida so that they could deal with an issue at home.  The issue, which observant readers will catch on to pretty quickly, is a huge turning point in Sunny's life.  The way that she deals with her family issue will resonate with many students.  Even if they don't have the same problem that Sunny's family has, we can all relate to the idea of the family secret.

I especially loved that Sunny Side Up explores relationships in a very realistic way.  I could empathize with Sunny as she felt the boredom of the summer that seems like it will never end (I wish I had that problem as an adult!), the pain of learning that exciting plans you had with your best friend have been cancelled, the loneliness of being sent away from your family wen you need them the most, the excitement of a new friendship, and the relief of learning that you are not alone.

Food for Thought... what are your favourite graphic novels? 

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Characterization - Different Points of View

As English teachers, we work with characterization all the time.  I often say that we call the course is in the Humanities because it is the study of what makes us human.  If that is the case, how could we not look at the evolution of human characters in literature?

When you have students look at characters again and again, it can be difficult to come up with an approach that feels fresh.  How about asking students to look at one character from several points of view?  Here is an easy prompt: Describe your character so that the reader will fall in love with him or her.  Then, describe the same character so that the reader will hate him or her.  This is a simple approach that will demonstrate all of the character traits that the student understands about the character.  A student who struggles with comprehension will be successful with this assignment at his or her own level.  They may choose traits that are more obvious, but they will be able to complete the task.  A student who has a deeper understanding of the text will be able to show that.  This student will be able to demonstrate sophistication and complexity through how they describe the character.  Rather than just describing things that the character has said or done, they may make indirect inferences, make connections to themselves or other texts, or they may consider what other characters say or think about this person.

Food for Thought... how do you teach characterization?