He may be right; I may be crazy

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He is late again today. In fact, despite my repeated warnings, he’s been coming to class later and later as the semester nears its end: 30 seconds after the bell rings has become 1 minute, 2 minutes… today it is closer to 5. He tries to slip into his seat when I’m not looking – as if I won’t notice with only ten kids in the class. Then, like most days, a few minutes later he casually saunters up and asks to use the washroom during our reading time. He’s driving me crazy.

The EAs I’ve worked with over the years have told me that I am too slow to respond to these minor transgressions, that I should send kids to the office earlier and more often. I need to be more strict. I hear this. I hear, too, what these kids are asking “How far can I go? What can I get away with? How much does she care?” I care a lot. And I should be strict, but I want to know the why behind the transgression. I’m a sucker for the why.

“I’m worried about you,” I tell him.
“Don’t be,” he shrugs. “It’s not like I miss anything at the beginning of class, anyway.”
I bite my tongue and wait.
“What’d I miss?”
I raise my eyebrows.

See, the truth is, he’s kind of right: he doesn’t miss much content in that first minute, though I pretty much always start on time. We use the beginning of class to connect, to set the tone, to share, and, of course, to talk about books. But he’s not interested in being part of the class, and he doesn’t want me to know him. If he’s late, he doesn’t have to learn about his classmates and he can stay disconnected.

“Why do you care so much about 2 minutes?” He eyes me warily.

I have to think about this. I mean, I knew the answer before he asked, but now I need to answer for him. Why do I care so much about him being in class on time?

“Well…” I hesitate, and my voice trails off. “I’m worried.” Hmm. I already said that. I’m not making a good case for myself. His chin juts forward and up, but his eyes go down. I take a deep breath and the truth tumbles out.

“I know you’re bored. But you’ve got a good brain. And I think you might be bored because you’re not engaged in the work we’re doing, or in school, really. I see you skimming around the edges, cutting corners, breaking little rules to show that you don’t have to do this. That you’re not involved. And I’m worried. Because I want you to be interested in something. I want your brain and your heart, and you’re not sharing either. You think it’s about a few minutes; I think it’s about you learning.”

He’s not impressed. I’ve said shorter versions of this before.
“What are you even talking about? I was, like 2 minutes…”
“5 minutes,” I really can’t help interrupting.
“Ok, 5 minutes late. Like 5 minutes.” He’s shaking his head.
“Today. And yesterday. And last week. And what about tomorrow? And you don’t put your phone away when I ask. And you do the writing I ask for, but you don’t share it. And you read when we’re talking and go to the washroom when we’re reading. You have a lot of ways of making it clear that you are not following the rules, that you aren’t one of us.”

He is quiet. I may be right, but he thinks I’m crazy. I’m asking for something way beyond just following the rules. I’m interested in more than just his compliance, and he knows it. We both wait.

“Do I have to stay after class?” His question is a whisper.
I know how much lunch means to him. I know how he needs his friends, how he needs to move. I know I should be stricter earlier with these minor transgressions. I know that punishment rarely leads to engagement. We appraise each other. I see such potential in him, such possibility. I wonder what he sees in me?


Finally, I sigh. “I guess I don’t know anymore. Can I think about it?”
“Yeah,” he says. And then, as he’s turning around, “Thanks.”

It’s the “thanks” that gets me. I don’t keep him in at lunch. And I hope he’ll be on time tomorrow, but he probably won’t be. He may be right: I may be crazy.

Update, Wednesday morning: And… he was late again today. But he was in a good mood, and he sat down to read without complaint. Baby steps?

 

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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.)

I know everything, apparently

How do dolphins have sex? How do fireworks work? How come the fireworks echo like that? How do stingray tails sting? How are stingrays related to sharks? How do you know if you’re in love?

My one little word for 2019 is “listen,” but we are nine hours and fifteen minutes into the year – and let’s be clear that I was asleep for most of those hours – and I have already yelled (just a little). We are on vacation. I am sitting on the couch trying to write, listening to the gentle creak of the hammock behind me, the not-so-gentle rise and fall of the children’s voices as they talk their way through some version of tennis on the beach (raquets, a ball, and nothing else), the heavy footfalls on the stairs as the adults try to get ready for the day.

The sounds paint a lovely picture, and I am listening, but I have already been asked approximately 304 questions this morning. Can we go to that abandoned house you found? Can I take home a seashell? Why not? Can I use your phone to take pictures? Can I have more for breakfast? Can starfish swim? Can you read to me when you’re done writing? Can we go swimming? Can we go now?

The metallic thud and clank of the screen door warns me that I am about to be joined again. The boys know that I need some space when I’m writing, but somehow quiet space is hard to find in this tropical paradise. Our senses are alight with novelty, and experiences blossom around every corner. No one is getting quite enough sleep because every minute – even the quiet ones – is full of something.

What’s the name of this bug? What is cassava? What makes bioluminescence? Can we keep it in a jar? Why not? What are you writing? What time is it? What’s for lunch?

So, this one little word thing, this “listen”, this may be a challenge for me. I guess I already knew that. But now – literally as I am writing – the sounds have come together and, astonishingly, I have found the quiet in the centre of the noise. And what I hear behind the tennis negotiations, the breeze, the hammock and all of those questions, is security, admiration, love. There will come a day when these boys will know that I do not, in fact, know everything – or even all that much. There will come a day when they will think I know nothing at all, in fact. These questions show me what a central role I play in their lives right now. Right now, I know everything, apparently.

So here is my blessing for myself today: May I hold onto the revelation that questions are love in wrapped up in words during the 4,537 questions that are yet to be asked today. May I listen and may I hear. May I not lose my temper. (And may I forgive myself when, at question 4,538, I do.)

Why do the birds follow some people and not others? Why do stores close on holidays? Why do we have to go home? Are you done writing? Can you come play yet?

Yes, yes I can. I’ll be there in a minute, my loves.

 

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Listen

We’re working on sharing our opinion in grade 10 English. Wait, I’ll be more precise: we’re working on politely sharing our opinion. That’s a little harder.

Last year, I learned that sharing opinions can be a little easier if we start with oral work and move towards written work. Not that group discussions are easy. How

penny for your thoughts

many times have I witnessed “discussions” where three kids dominate while two fall asleep and everyone else says one thing and is done? Sigh. Over the years, I’ve developed a few ways to support kids when they’re just getting used to group discussions. We pretty much always do a penny discussion (everyone has to put their two cents’ worth in before anyone can talk a third time – I use actual pennies, and students have to pay to talk) and a

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visible web (twine goes between students as they speak – in the end we have a physical map of the discussion). The kids mostly hate the artificial confines of these discussions; the magic is in the debrief. As it turns out, the best discussions involve everyone, but not everyone needs to talk equally.

Once we’ve laid the groundwork for talking, we start using conversation cards that I made up last year. These cards have sentence starters to help students politely agree, disagree, ask questions and state opinions. I developed them because last year’s crew was having trouble using, um, “academic” words. They laughed their heads off when I suggested that “I hear what you’re saying, nevertheless…” could replace, “What the *#$! are you talking about?” It was slow progress, but we got there.

Last week, the students chose to discuss: “What Advice Would You Give to Your Mom, Dad or Guardian on How to Be a Better Parent?” (I love this 

NYTimes list of 1,000 writing prompts for studentsEach one links to an introduction and an article that provides some background. Careful though, the Times has a limit of 10 articles per month if you’re not a subscriber.) They were excited at first, ready to dish about their horrible parents, but once the discussion got going, the kids came quickly to the conclusion that their parents and guardians are doing the best that they can because they generally want the best for their children. The kids responded to each other, (using those cards!) and by the end they agreed that they really wished that adults would listen to them. In fact, as the conversation shifted to advice they would give to teachers, they talked their way to the same conclusion: they know that we want what’s best for them, but they really want us to listen.

I know that I’m just a kid, but sometimes I have good ideas. But adults interrupt and they talk over me and they don’t even want to know why I did something. I just want them to listen to me, to take me seriously.

That was Thursday. Since then, I keep hearing the same thing: listen. On the web somewhere, someone said, “Listen for the request in the complaint.” My son asked me to snuggle at bedtime and listen to the things that had happened during the day. I thanked my husband for listening to me as I worked through a sticky problem. My friend called and asked, “do you have time to listen to something that [my child] did?”

Listen. Just listen.

It’s a straightforward request, powerful and important. I value this, yet it’s not something I’m always good at. By the end of Thursday’s discussion, my students decided that if they could give their parents and teachers advice, if they could make a New Year’s Resolution for us, it would be “Listen.”

Well, I’m listening. For 2019, my resolution, my one little word is listen.

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Share your slice of life!

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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Six six-word stories

A few weeks ago Stacey Shubitz posted a six-word story as her Slice of Life. (She, in turn, had been inspired by Jennifer Floyd’s six-word story post.) I’ve toyed with these before, but I’ve never shared any because, well, I’m never quite content with my own. (“I’m never quite content with my own” = seven words) Story of my life. (= four words)

That said, I can’t quite shake the idea, and I keep writing them. So, without too many more words, in no particular order, here are six of my six-word stories:

His tiny naked body snuggles mine.

Found my love at their wedding.

I constantly wonder what students learn.

Started presents early; still not done.

I forsook politeness to pursue learning.

One more page, then I’ll sleep.

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