The Right Book at the Right Time

On Friday, we unboxed the books. Brand new, hardcover books.

“These are for us?” asked one boy, incredulous.
“Yes!” I laughed, “but you have to give them back.” He made a funny face and shook his head a little, dismissive of my excitement. Why would he keep a book?

“Can I use the stamp?”
“Can I choose the number for mine?”
“Yes!” I said yes over and over. Yes, these are for you. Yes, they are new. Yes, you can stamp them. Yes, you take them home.

“This book sure has won a lot of awards,” marveled a boy near the front.
“How’d you even get these, Miss?” asked another student, turning his brand new book over in his hands.
I laughed again, “I begged, borrowed and stole!”
His face got serious. “You didn’t steal, Miss. Don’t say that.”
I took it back. I should know better than to joke about stealing.

IMG_4832.jpgOn Friday, we started reading Jason Reynolds’ novel in verse, Long Way Down. I had offered the class several options for reading – book clubs, individual choice, whole class – and they told me flat out that they would never read a book on their own. “No point in that,” muttered M.

We’ve been reading all semester, but always short pieces. In general, my students are a little wary of my ways, but they were willing to try poetry with me last month, so I knew we were making progress. Still, they were nervous about reading a book, like maybe I’d gone a bridge too far – a whole book. Some of them are enthusiastic readers, but many of them haven’t read a book for years. When I told them that I would NOT read the entire book out loud, one boy looked down at his desk, shook his head and made a loud “tsk” sound. “That is NOT gonna work.”

And then came Jason Reynolds. Actually, first came the discussion about a shooting death in the neighbourhood. I was shocked to learn that gun violence is a part of so many of my students’ lives, then I was surprised by my own shock. (That’s a reflection for another post altogether.) Then I got upset because I realized how little support these students were receiving for their reality (also a reflection for another time). I had a long talk with the (amazing) EA who works in my classroom who insisted, “That book you’ve been telling me about is the right book for this class.” And she issued a challenge: “If anyone can get them that book, it’s you.”

So I begged. I told the principal I would buy half with my own money. I talked about the awards, the subject matter, the poetry. I told him about our progress, the growth, the learning. I found other pots of money. Finally, I said, “I have to teach these kids this book right now. I just have to.” Hats off to my principal and our Student Success teacher: they bought the books.

That’s their handwriting – and page numbers!

On Thursday I gave the students photocopies of the first few pages. “AW! It’s more poetry,” groaned one kid. But they tried it. We used the same technique we used with Nikki Giovanni’s kidnap poem a few weeks ago: students wrote back to the text right on the paper. They asked questions, made comments and generally had their say. When we shared, they had made lots of inferences and had plenty of evidence to back them up.

Friday was the new books. After everyone had one, I explained that they could take a few minutes just to read. No set goal, no required number of pages, no plan – just read to see what’s there. My goal was 15 minutes. Boy did I underestimate them.


They would not stop reading. T looked up after ten minutes and said, “Can we read as far as we want?” I nodded, he gulped some air and dove back into the book. S turned around and said, “Did you get to the part where he took the gun yet?” H nodded and kept reading. Silence. No phones. No sleeping. Eventually, one student lost focus, and I decided to stop them before the magic spell broke: “Hey, let’s take a break and see what we’ve discovered so far.”

They took a break, talked about the book, started to do the activity… and then I noticed that one, two, three kids had snuck back to their books. Then another. I asked if they wanted to just go back to their seats and read. “YES!” So we did.

As class came to an end, I found two kids surreptitiously trying to slide the book into their backpack. “You’re allowed to take it home if you want,” I said.
“For real?!”

One book went right into the backpack, but T hesitated. Finally, he put it back, “I want to make it last a little longer, Miss.”

I have a feeling that, for some of them, this will last for a long time.


Miss, this poem is trying to kill us!

My Grade 10 students are, generally, a suspicious lot when it comes to English class. If they’re having fun, they pretty much want to know when the other shoe is going to drop. As I mentioned in my last post, this stream of English is called “Applied”; I try to take that descriptor seriously. How will we use this? What do we get out of this? Why bother? These are guiding questions in the classroom.

And we had the *best* poetry class today. A while ago I found an article by Prof Toby Emert on The Poetry Foundation website. In it, he talks about “exploratory methods for interacting with poems” and details a workshop he designed to “help students respond to poetry in ways that encourage them to love the poems and to enhance the skill set they need to engage in deep readings of texts.”

Well, I happen to know a few students whose skill set for deep reading is, ahem, not well developed. And I have been reading about why poetry can be a good entry for reluctant readers, so I was committed to trying this out.

Background: We’ve already spent five periods on poetry, mostly just playing around. We’ve read mentor texts and tried out blackout poems, list poems, book spine poetry; we’ve rotated through stations of haiku, cinquain, skinny and concrete poetry; we’ve listened to spoken word poetry, and we’ve even collected words. We’re ready to go deeper.

Ok, ok, ok… but you want to know what we did today. Well, we did what Prof Emert suggested – and it worked.

I photocopied Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins, Poetry by Pablo Neruda and Ars Poetica by Archibald MacLeish onto the biggest paper I could find. I think any three poems on a similar topic but with varying tones would do the trick here, but Emert suggested these, so I followed.

These poems are *way* beyond what my students would normally access. Not only is the vocabulary hard (palpable, palpitating, casement, etc.) but their length and metaphoric thinking was more than we had approached as a class. That was important. I wanted them to be in over their heads a little, to react to the poem at a level beyond literal comprehension. I wanted them to do what Emert suggests: be willing to climb inside a poem and sit awhile.

I posted each poem on the chalkboard, spaced well apart. Next to each poem I wrote two sentence stems. I told the students that we don’t always understand a poem right away – and that’s ok. (I was rewarded with a dramatic eye roll.) I told them that sometimes poems just sit with us, we just feel them. Sometimes we hate them and walk away; sometimes we’re intrigued; sometimes they grow on us. I reassured them that, while they might not *get* a poem, they could still react to it. (I admit it: I talked about Gertrude Stein.)

The students, in groups of three, read the poems then used sticky notes to complete the sentence stems in response to the poem.

If I were sitting next to this poem, waiting for the bus, it would say…

If I went on a date with this poem, we would…

If this poem could fly, it would…

In this poem’s pockets are…

If this poem were a burrito, it would…

This poem is hiding…

The students started slowly. They kept looking to me for permission. I kept insisting that they should write what came to mind. “Poems aren’t burritos…” one muttered. “Why would I date a poem? That doesn’t even make sense,” grumbled another.

I tried to overhear beginning responses and encourage them.
“If it were a burrito, it would… be cheesy?” ventured one boy.
“YES!” said the extremely enthusiastic teacher behind him (ok, ok, that was me). “Write that down!” He looked doubtful, but he did it.

Once they got the hang of it, they moved quickly. The sentence stems were so outrageous that the kids felt free to be silly. Each group spent 3-5 minutes with each poem (more time earlier on, but then they got going).

“Did you understand these poems?”
NO! Not really… a little… maybe… no… they were defiant, sheepish.
“Remember that you don’t HAVE to understand it. And anyway, I think you *did* get them.”

I asked which poem was the funny one, the most beautiful, the most serious. They absolutely knew. I told them that they had identified tone. They were impressed. We read their responses out loud and, lo and behold, they (mostly) matched the poems’ varying tones. (I’ve included some of their responses at the end in case you want to see.)

Next, I distributed a copy of Nikki Giovanni’s kidnap poem to each group. I asked them to “have a little conversation” with the poem by asking a question of each line. Again, we had a slow start here, but this time, they decided to humour my odd request, especially once I encouraged them to start with any line they wanted; within a few minutes, each group was writing questions after every line.

Soon, giggles and guffaws filled the room. I heard one student say, “Ask her what lyre means” and another reply, “no, no ask the poem.” Everywhere, heads bent over Giovanni’s work. Pencils and pens marked up the lines. Shh! Don’t tell anyone that these kids were annotating a complex poem, line by line. Any group that finished took their notebooks to collect words and phrases from the posted poems.

The final magic happened when everyone was finished with the questions. Each group chose two people (future reference: I might do this whole exercise in pairs) to read the poem out loud like a dialogue: line of poetry/question. This valued their voices as equal partners to the author’s voice and moved us gently in the direction of reading poems aloud. Their questions, their reactions became part of the poem itself.

The first group read & everyone listened. Their honest and sometimes aggressive or bewildered questions were funny. Everyone laughed and applauded at the end. Groups volunteered to read next. Each dialogue was better than the last. Another teacher walked into the room, talking, and my students shushed him. The bell rang just after we finished.

Today’s exit question was “summarize today’s class in one word.” Their responses?
fun, hilarious, funny, fast, creative, effervescent(!), energetic, good.

I am not exaggerating when I say that not one of them used a negative or even a neutral word to describe their study of four complex poems. It was magic.





Here are some of the responses to the sentence stems I used. (I’ve put some of the less effective responses are in parentheses because I want to be clear that this exercise was imperfect. In class I read all the responses but highlighted responses that seemed sensitive to tone. I wanted the students to feel success as a group.)

Billy Collins =>
If I were sitting next to this poem, waiting for the bus, it would say…s’up dude, what’s popping?; hey, wanna fight?; Boo! (bye, Felicia; Where are you going?; seal)

If I went on a date with this poem, we would… go on a game show and find a new date, make an excuse to leave, be scared go skydiving and then go swimming (go to the cinema, kiss, stop talking)

Neruda =>
In this poem’s pockets are… figures of speech, la poesie, (empty, key lime pie, memes, a Rolex)

If this poem could fly, it would… fly with broken wings, glide beautifully, be a dove (go to Ikea, fall)

MacLeish =>
If this poem were a burrito, it would…be a stuffed burrito; be too cheesy; not last long; have too much hot sauce; have guacamole

This poem is hiding… a message, sadness, its soulmate, the truth, in a Disneyland ride (seals; something; words)

Reading & Writing & ‘Rithmetic

As I type, my darling children are using an app called Reflex Math. They are also whining. A lot. Reflex Math is designed to help them learn math facts through the 10s. First addition & subtraction, then multiplication & division. It looks like fun to me: instead of just practicing facts with flashcards, they choose games to play, earn points for playing, and “buy” things from the online store. They can check their progress to see which facts they’ve mastered and they only need to play about 10 minutes a day to progress well. So… choice? Check. Rewards? Check. Autonomy? Check.

They hate it.

Me? I’m conflicted. I hated hated hated learning my facts when I was in elementary school. I failed one timed test after another and eventually decided that I was no good at math. I was wrong, but it took me years to realize this. I do not want my kids to have the same experience. Luckily, the current curriculum in our province includes lots of deep understanding. The kids know how addition and multiplication work. They can explain, re-group, skip count – the whole nine yards. I’m really pleased about that, and I know that this is better, harder, and more important work than the memorization I did when I was young.

On the other hand, their current teachers have not emphasized actually *knowing* these facts – you know, just being able to say 6×4=24 without hesitating. And it seems to me that when push comes to shove, you need to know the answer. I used to believe that, with practice, they would just sort of pick up the facts over time. I no longer believe this: as a Special Education teacher, I do educational testing for our high school students, and I regularly see students – some of whom are taking courses as complex as Calculus – struggling to do the testing because it must be done without a calculator. It’s not just that the work is harder to complete without the technology; they often have little number sense. They quite literally cannot add and subtract. They are hamstrung in their complex thinking because they don’t know the basics. I don’t want this for my kids. So they’re memorizing – in a fun, non-judgmental way, I swear.

And yet… today, I had a conversation with my English department that was more complicated than I had anticipated. At its heart, I think the discussion was about how best we can help the students understand the complexities of literature. Is it more important to develop readers first or is our priority to teach analysis (as if this needs to be a dichotomy – sigh)? Can we trust the students to get what they need out of books that they choose? How much direction must we provide in order for them to develop complex thinking about and understanding of the written word? We found ourselves in different places along a continuum of thinking. I was very firmly in the “trust the kids; they’ll learn it (with good guidance)” camp.

On reflection, I see this discussion as the inverse mirror of my math facts concern. I’m asking my own children to memorize their math facts completely devoid of context. Apparently I think this is important. But, if pressed, I would argue something quite different about reading. I believe that my students need to *read* before they can really dig into the depths of literature. And to get them to read, I need to talk about books, provide books, value reading of all kinds, and offer lots of choice for their reading. Then, as we read, we will begin to talk figurative language and etc. (This is an oversimplification of the process, but you get the picture. Elisabeth Ellington’s post hits at some of what I mean – and she kindly sent me on to a post by Donalyn Miller which says more of what I’m talking about but much more eloquently. ) Some of my colleagues think differently: given that the students don’t read much, we must directly teach various literary devices, methods of development, etc. The paucity of the students’ reading experience means that memorization is required. Only then will they be able to understand literature. I bet they make their kids memorize math facts, too.

Hmm… the kids have long since finished their math game, but here I sit, writing, deleting, pondering, writing again. I have to stop, but I have a lot more to say about this. For now, here’s my take away: It’s easy for me to feel strongly about how to teach reading and writing – trust the kids, let them read; it’s easy enough for me to think that the old school way is, frankly, less effective. But I don’t seem to believe that about math facts, now do I? So, first, where’s the mismatch? And, second, I’d better not be too quick to judge.



Slice of Life Day 29, March 2018

Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for this wonderful month of inspiration.