Book magic

Elisabeth recommended it, and Catherine had a copy. I committed to exploring graphic novels this year, so I read it. I liked Hey, Kiddo a lot – well enough to recommend it – but it didn’t knock my socks off. Still, I decided to book talk it in my class because many of my readers are either artists or are reading lots of graphic novels right now: It seemed like a good fit.

Hey, Kiddo

Some books get immediate love in my class – two or three sets of hands reach for them as I finish talking, and the kids have to work out who gets to read first; others languish – I set them near their intended target, but the book stays firmly closed; this book snuck away from me – a student picked it up when I wasn’t looking, and I had to glance around the room to see where it was.

I wish I could say that I was thinking of this student specifically when I gave the book talk, but truthfully, I had a few kids in mind. Only after I saw J caress the cover as he slipped the book into his backpack did it occur to me that this book might be the right book.

He savoured it over the next few days, lingering over some of the images, writing about it during a free write, rereading certain sections. The book was clearly speaking to him. At the end of the week, I swapped out my friend’s copy for a copy I’d picked up from the public library. After all, I needed to return the book to my friend. J was fine with this so long as he could keep reading.

This weekend, as I was returning the book, I told my friend Catherine – who is also a teacher – how much J loved the book. I told her about the journal and the careful attention. Her response was immediate: “Give it to him.” I was startled – graphic novels aren’t cheap – but Catherine insisted, “If it’s changing his life, he should have it. It’s too mature for my students anyway.”

I gave J the book today. Busses had been cancelled because of freezing rain so only three students made it to class. J was astonished when I told him it was his, “Really? For me?” He held the book tightly for a moment before slipping it carefully into his backpack. And then, he told us his story. Just us, in a small circle in our little room in the library, drinking tea and sharing truths because of a book that made someone feel a little less alone in the world. One magic book.

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They, um, sort of understand #SOL19 25/31

Paula Borque over at litcoachlady has been offering a wonderful list of ways to spark writing all month long. I’ve been tucking some away, trying some myself and sharing some with my students. On day 18, Paula shared an idea about using sketchnoting to synthesize our reading.  Since I’ve been actively trying to incorporate sketchnoting in my classes, I was instantly intrigued.

My students are in Grade 10 and many (though not all) arrive in my class without a strong reading base. They will admit to reading few or no books for several years, to fake reading, to avoiding writing and more. I’ve been using choice reading with conferencing to assess their understanding and development as readers, but all of this is mediated through words. I wondered what would happen if I used Paula’s spark and asked my students to sketch something from their reading after our independent reading time. The results were fascinating.

Some students clearly understand what they are reading. Below, I can see this student’s focus on character relationships, plot and even some emerging theme in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.img_8421

The next student is reading HP Lovecraft (!) and his sketchnote highlights his focus on sentence structure and diction. He chose to sketch a two-sentence paragraph that he found hard to understand because of its diction and complex structure. Afterwards, he said that sketching helped him figure out what it meant.img_8428

Another fascinating moment was this one, where a student who is really a novice reader tried sketching a moment from Monster. He originally thought that Mr. Harmon was the judge, but as he drew, he realized something didn’t fit. We spoke briefly, looked at the text, and learned that Mr. Harmon was the father not the judge. He was talking to his son in the visiting area of the prison. This sketchnote helped him clarify his understanding and helped me see his gaps.

The next day, that same student picked up far more details as he read:

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Finally, one of my English Language Learners spends her independent reading time working with our (amazing, generous, talented) librarian on language development. Right now we’re specifically working on English vocabulary for everyday words in her home, since her family doesn’t speak English. Rather than sketch her understanding of a book, she sketched a room in her house and labeled as many items as she could. Then I was able to sit with her and identify some errors and add a few new words. This was incredibly effective. I was able to see that she hears/says “belw” for “pillow” and “cheer” for “chair.” Her pronunciation of those words improved almost immediately once we recognized this. Moving from “rog” to “rug” was harder. We also added “dresser” “sheets” and “bedspread” to her lexicon. Baby steps.

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To be clear, I didn’t just walk into class and say, “Hey guys, draw today.” First, I sketchnoted my own reading – the graphic novel 7 Generations – alongside my students. We talked about my choices in terms of plot, character, important ideas and images. I’m never going to win any awards for my art, but I think the students felt better knowing that I really wasn’t looking for perfection.

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Then, we did it three days in a row so that they had a chance to really “get it.” Some students moved quickly back to writing – no drawing for them, thank you very much –  but others stuck with sketchnotes. In the end, I think that sketchnoting our understanding of our reading expanded the way some students could express themselves and let them show me what they know in a way that isn’t exclusively mediated by words. Sketchnoting let me see some of the processes of student comprehension. It feels like this is another tool in my toolkit to help develop proficient readers. Thanks, Paula.

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It’s Monday, What Are You Reading? #SOL10 11/31

imwayr2b2015Elisabeth Ellington over at The Dirigible Plum introduced me to “It’s Monday, What Are You Reading” or #IMWAYR. The idea is that people share the children’s and young adult books that they are reading right now and include a short review or reaction. I followed it for a while but eventually had to stop for my own mental health. Seriously, these people read SO MUCH that I started to feel a little badly about myself; I could not keep up at all – which is crazy because I read more than anyone else I know in my day-to-day life. If I read more than Elisabeth’s post every week, my “to read” list and my hold list at the library get a *little* out of control. (Ok, truth: even if I read only Elisabeth every week my hold list gets a little out of control. Also, it may be true that I max out my monthly acquisitions recommendations to my public library every month. I was a little embarrassed by this until a librarian friend told me how much she loved it. Whew.) And finally, I teach high school and, many of the books sounded amazing but were not ideas I could pass on. (That said, I’ve kept my dyslexic 8-year-old knee deep in graphic novels because of the recommendations, and I’m convinced that this is the support he needs as he moves into more word-based chapter books.)

All of that to say, I love the idea of #IMWAYR, though I rarely participate. Last year I even incorporated it into a grade 9 class I inherited part way through the semester. Every Monday we started class by talking about what we were reading. This discussion became almost mini book-talks and morphed into some writing. Eventually one student participated in a CBC (Canadian equivalent of NPR) book contest, defending I’ll Give You the Sun as a book that all students should read. (That, by the way, was all about her. I’ll acknowledge providing the initial platform, but she found the contest, prepared, entered and did the whole thing by herself.) Clearly, #IMWAYR has some legs!

And today I cannot resist: I just have to tell someone about the book we just finished reading out loud in our house and some of the other amazing books in my life right now. Guess what, dear reader? You win! You’re the one!

First, The Great Brain Does It Again by John D. Fitzgerald

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If you don’t know The Great Brain, you are in for a good time. I like to think of him as kin to Tom Sawyer with a money-loving heart and an observant little brother. This book is number 7 in the series (originally the last book, but one more was published posthumously from the author’s notes). You can read the books in any order and each chapter stands more or less alone.

The stories are narrated by JD, the Great Brain’s little brother, and they all take place in a small town in Utah at the end of the 19th century. JD’s older brother, Tom D (or TD), is constantly plotting ways to get rich, mostly by swindling kids out of their money and then convincing them that what he did was acceptable. What I love the most is that while we are laughing at yet another swindle (JD will acknowledge that he has literally never won a bet with Tom even as he shakes his hand on one more sure thing), the books don’t shy away from complex issues like poverty, religion (the family is Catholic in a majority-Mormon area – but no insults here, just acknowledgements), Indigenous peoples (respected!), and even depression (in an earlier book) . This particular book includes lots of belly laughs along with a chapter that brought tears to both my eyes and my 10-year-old’s. We talked about family expectations, chores, who has responsibility for their actions, why Indigenous people were placed on reservations… You get the picture.

We’ve been reading the books out of order (because I couldn’t find them all), so we’ve got two or three left, and we can’t wait to get to the rest of them. Also, we are clearly going to love Tom Sawyer when we get there.

I also just finished Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson

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There is much to love about this coming of age novel. First, the language is gorgeous. But my favourite thing is the narration by Jared, the protagonist. He is gentle and thoughtful and narrates his life without self-pity. His voice is so strong that it took me a while to see him as others must: a druggie, alkie, Indigenous kid who is going nowhere. He does not see himself that way – who does? – and his actions make complete sense when we are inside his head. In fact, what I love about this book is that as I read, I believed that Jared’s responses were the only real response available to the world around him. This is first person narration at its best.

I have two reservations about this book, and neither is enough to prevent me from highly recommending it. First, the trickster stuff really picks up right at the end. This is the first book of a trilogy, but I would have like more trickster earlier from a plot perspective. Second, I’d have to think about various reactions if I were to teach this book. Though the violence, drugs and alcohol are all filtered through Jared’s narration, there’s not really any repudiation of these things. So, in terms of *teaching* the novel, I’d want to be thoughtful. In terms of reading it, I’d say “have at it!”

And finally, a mini plug for Ben Clanton’s books Rot, The Cutest in the World and It Came in the Mail.

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We found these because my kids wanted more Narwhal books. We’ve finished the Narwhal books (to date) but we found Ben Clanton. Both of my boys – ages 8 & 10 – giggled their way through these and the older declared that It Came In the Mail was “a really good book” even though he’s supposedly done with picture books.

Currently reading:
Read aloud: Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
YA: Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart
PD: Book Love by Penny Kittle
Just for me: Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine by Alan Lightman

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I might have a problem #SOL19 7/31

This is on my bedside table

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I just finished Son of a Trickster last night, and I really enjoyed the way that that Indigenous narrator’s voice makes sense of his actions, which from the outside definitely look like those of a druggie kid failing out of school, and reveals the motives behind the appearance. It’s the first of a trilogy, and it felt like it – much of the real action doesn’t come until right at the end and it feels a little unfinished.

That book is sitting on top of these two. A Velocity of Being was a gift, and it is perfect in

img_8230many ways: it’s beautiful and has amazing illustrations, it has a nice heft to it and is a bit oversized without being as unwieldy as a coffee table book, and it comprises letters from all sorts of amazing writers. I am nibbling away at it steadily. Near that is Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine. I was about halfway through this lyrical, thoughtful contemplation of the intersection between science and religion, our desire for permanence and our experience of change, when I had to return it to the library because someone else had it on hold (sigh). Now I have it back, but I feel like I need a bit of a slower pace in order to really appreciate Lightman’s prose. I have it until the 15th and March break starts tomorrow afternoon, so I should be good.

The thing is, that those three are sitting next to theseimg_8231

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

which looks like this up close
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So now you see the problem. I’ve kind of written off the ones in the right hand picture because they are holding up my alarm clock – so I’ve decided that they are more furniture than actual choice at the moment. And I’ve read almost all of the book on dyslexia; I just like to have it nearby in case I start freaking out about my child and many of my students having dyslexia, which I do on occasion. Four of the ones on top of that have been borrowed and I really need to give them back (sorry Tara, Debbie & Anthony) but I also really want to read them first. Anyway, they’re furniture now, so they have to wait.

Five of those in the left hand picture are library books. The EA who works in my classroom says that I am not allowed to check out any more books until I work my way through these. This makes perfect sense (which is one of the many reasons she is amazing), but my library hold list is pretty long, and I didn’t dare tell her that another one has already arrived at my local branch. Plus, they all look so good. And they come recommended. And they are so different! How am I supposed to choose which one to read next? Sometimes I nibble at a few and make a choice, other times I just pick up the one that looks right and dive in. Right now, I’m a little overwhelmed. I might have a problem.

The overwhelm is why my nightstand rarely gets this full. Usually the guilt overcomes me and I have to clear the decks. I get to feeling bad for the books sitting there forlornly, begging to be read, and I have to start returning them, whispering promises that someone else will come for them, someone will open them, turn their pages, love them. Sometimes I put them right back on my hold list, promising that I will take them back when the time is right.  But today this is my nightstand – any suggestions for which book I should start with tonight?

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New Year Reading Blues

Coming back to school after Winter Break is always tough for me. It’s not that I don’t want to see my students & colleagues – I do! – but, frankly, Ottawa in January is cold and dark. I would be just as happy to spend most of the month curled up under a bunch of warm blankets drinking tea and reading books. My students, I fear, would choose to spend their free time differently.

Before break, we were on a reading roll. My little class of 11 (now ten – long story) had read 55 books as of  December 4. We were up to 63 right before break, and I was seeing great signs of what I thought was an emerging literary life, at least, if you count Diary of a Wimpy Kid as literary – which I do. Some of my students had plans for their next book. Some were recommending books to others. Rupi Kaur’s poetry was getting passed around – and not only because it is a little racy. When we left for winter break, I was really pleased.

I had a great break. As it started, my own children and I finished our read-aloud of Cornelia Funke’s Dragon Rider. (An incredible read-aloud, although be prepared to encounter lots of complex pronunciation.) On my own, that first weekend, I tore through Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s All American Boys. As our family headed off on vacation I read Debris Line by Matthew Fitzsimmons (a former colleague who’s written a fantastic series of action-packed thrillers), then Ami McKay’s fun new novella Half Spent Was the Night and finally Bill Bryson’s slim biography of Shakespeare. And, we finished our read-aloud of Funke’s follow-up to Dragon Rider, The Griffin’s Feather. So, um, yeah, that’s six books in two weeks. But one really was a novella and Bill Bryson’s book is full of information but it’s not really super-long… and we were on a plane…

I am not actually a crazy person. I really didn’t expect that my students would read much over break. The class I keep writing about this semester is not the “Academic” track and most of them do not identify as readers. But maybe I am crazier than I seem, because yesterday, as we were talking about our break, I realized that I was kind of hoping that they would have read *something.* So I was disappointed when only three of nine students said they had read anything other than social media over the holidays. That’s only 1/3. Even my student who most identifies as a reader didn’t read. The only silver lining is that one student was absent, and I’m betting he read something, so that’s four of ten. 2/5 – ever so slightly better than 1/3.

I really really really really (that’s four “really”s, if you’re counting) want them to be readers. And I deeply believe that a) they need to read more to learn to read well and b) that reading well – and even enjoying reading – is important. (To paraphrase Donalyn Miller, I’ve got the research. Here’s hers and there’s plenty more: like this, and this, and this…)

And guys, I did not want to write this blog post. Because there are only 12 more teaching days before exams. 12 days x 20 minutes of independent reading + me cheering them on. No matter how I do the math, I just don’t think that’s enough time to help them see that they can be readers, that they are readers. I just don’t know if one semester was enough. And some of them are *so close.* I feel like if we could just keep reading…

But we can’t. And I kind of feel like I failed them. I’m bucking myself up by reminding myself that this is the first semester I really went all in with choice reading, that I’m getting better and better at reading conferences, that I’m building my classroom library (and making extensive use of the school & public libraries when my own library isn’t enough), that the reading survey I did at the beginning of the semester suggested that many of the students hadn’t read a single book in the last year. We have made real, tangible progress.

I just don’t know if it’s enough.

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(I asked my husband to read over this blog post before I published it.  He reminded me that I’m not supposed to approach teaching like a major league baseball player looking to maintain a high batting average. Instead, I help my students get a little better every time they step up to the plate, and by that measure each one of them is better off today than they were at the beginning of my class. I hate it when he’s right, and when he uses baseball metaphors.  He also reminded me that everything looks a little darker in January when you live in Ottawa but grew up in the Southern US: both a figurative and literal truth. He’s also right about that.)

55!

On Oct 9 I published a blog post about my 11 Grade 10 students having finished 10 books. We were so excited that I ordered everyone pizza. They could not believe that they had finished ten books in just over four weeks. I was excited and a little relieved that my crazy “read what you want” book experiment with “lower track” students appeared to be working. (Once again, Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s work has really inspired me on this road.)

Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, today I bring you (drumroll…): FIFTY FIVE!

Just take a peek into our classroom:

And look at the readers:

And check out these reader behaviours:

  • Students are recommending books to each other. As of now, 3/4 of the class has read Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down and one student just convinced another that she “has to” read Carlos Luis Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind.
  • Students are reading at home. One girl lost phone privileges over the weekend and finished a book!
  • Students have their next book ready to go. They are developing lists of books they want to read.

Finally, let me tell you what we are reading right now because the sheer variety of levels and topics reminds me of why choice is so important as a motivator for these readers.

Nancy Drew, Amulet, Long Way Down, In Cold Blood, Shadow of the Wind, Tupac’s poetry, The Hate U Give, The Crossover, Skellig, a hockey memoir (forgot the title), The Lovely Bones

They’ve also read Trump’s Art of the Deal, Hatchet, Crabbe, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, 39 Clues, Rupi Kaur’s poetry, another one by Kwame Alexander, One of Us is Lying… and so many more.

So, four-ish more weeks of class, two weeks of Winter Break… We’ll keep reading – and I’m pretty sure that, in the end, we’ll have some readers.

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Author love

My 10-year-old just wandered downstairs to get a book. Specifically, he came for Calvin and Hobbes. I can always tell when he’s reading Calvin and Hobbes because his giggles infuse the house; it’s not necessarily ideal bedtime reading. 

I have no doubt that he wanted the book, but I think he also wanted to know what I was up to because I had refused to read one more chapter tonight even though the title of the next chapter is “The Basilisk” and even though we are pretty sure the dragon has unwittingly settled down for sleep in the basilisk’s cave. (Dragon Rider, Cornelia Funke, in case you’re wondering.) Normally I’m a pushover for “one more chapter,” so he really needed to know what had called me away. What could be more important than reading?

“You’re writing,” he observed nonchalantly, reading over my shoulder. “What do you write about?” I explained the idea of a slice of life and confessed that I was stuck tonight. He had a few suggestions for topics, including favourite books. His faves include the Spy School series and, he thinks, probably the Dog Man series because “even though they’re easy to read they are really funny.” But his favourite of all is The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill. It took us a while to read that one aloud, but both of my children were rapt throughout. As he recalled the story, he remarked that he also really loves Witch’s Boy and Iron-Hearted Violet, also by Barnhill. In fact, I think Kelly Barnhill is the first author he has fallen for. He likes his series, but he loves Barnhill for her style and storytelling.

On a whim, we looked up her website – perfect activity for a parent procrastinating writing and a kid avoiding bed. Her tagline reads, “Author, teacher, mom. Newbery medalist. Terrible gardener. Maker of pie.”

“Mom!” he practically shouted, “you’re a teacher and a mom, too. Maybe you could write a book.” He paused, then mused under his breath, “And she makes pies. That’s really good. Grandma makes pies. That’s good.” He leaned in towards my computer and we began to peruse Barnhill’s site.

“She’s writing MORE books! I hope they come soon. I wonder what they’ll be about. I like the titles.” He was so wiggly with excitement that he did a kind of tap dance around the kitchen table. (He will be unhappy if he reads this. He will say he did NOT dance. Twirled around my chair? Moved his whole body with excitement in a little circle?)  He stopped,  suddenly serious. “Is she a New York Times bestseller? She must be a New York Times bestseller. Can you look?” I asked him why this mattered. “Because that means that so many people like her books. They know about her.” His eyes were starry with the idea that others might have experienced the magic that he knows.

I was about to suggest that we could write to her when I realized that his head might explode at the mere thought. And it was past his bedtime. So tonight I will hold the brimming potential of his excitement in my heart; tomorrow, together, we will write.

Ah, Kelly Barnhill, and all the writers out there, thrilling the hearts of readers, thanks for the magic.

 

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