I had the awesome opportunity to attend NCTE for the second time this year. At the time of the conference in 2013, I was in the earliest stages of pregnancy, and the flight to Boston was both miserable and exhilarating. I had never been to the annual conference: it was awesome to see so many people in our field together, passionate and motivated to get new ideas and do their best for students around the nation. This year, I was fortunate that it was in DC, which is close enough for my family to drive up for the weekend as well. Balancing professional responsibilities with raising an infant can be quite the challenge; having her close by during the conference was a big relief.
The NCTE annual conference is such an amazing, invigorating experience. I also found that when teachers really pushed to attend, we were able to get not only approval but also some funding to help cover the costs of the trip. Go ahead and start planning NOW for the conference next year! It's well worth the time it takes, and you might be surprised to find more financial and professional support than you might have anticipated.
Here are some tips for first-timers at NCTE:
Here are some of the ideas I took away from NCTE in 2013 and from the conference this past November:
Exploration of identity issues:
o Give kids a way to explore their “brand”
o Kids need space to figure out their identities through reading and writing
o Kids have the power to take things that could be negatives and to make them into positives
o Romance novels sometimes let kids explore their own identities (Ex: Elizabeth Eulberg)
o Students MUST have a reflection of themselves (Something that really resonated with me: Matt de la Peña quoted Junot Diaz, who said, “The quickest way to create monsters in our cities is to never give them a reflection of themselves in the mirror.”)
o Students need to read to imagine and practice for issues that might come up in their lives (ex: romance novels, horror novels)
o The power of story is that students can imagine worlds and people who are different; they can begin to relate and empathize with situations different their own
o This issue came up as part of the defense of story (why we can’t just teach informational texts)
So what? Question:
o de la Peña: Genre books are not just about that genre or subject; they are books that include those subjects to draw readers who can then explore the larger issues in the text (and in the world)
o Gallagher: You’re not just teaching the topic; you’re teaching about larger issues and connections to the world today
o Revision must be built into the writing process
o Feedback needs to be meaningful and needs to go both ways (student to teacher as well as teacher to student)
o Feedback must be TIMELY or it is ineffective.
o Students must have choice in their writing, and they must have an audience bigger than the teacher.
o Lower level readers/ students do NOT need lower level questions. They just need a text that they can read.
o Use dialogic questions to make discussion meaningful and to keep conversation going.
o Texts that are too difficult (ex: giving someone a 200 pound weight to lift) are NOT rigorous. They are impossible to reach.
o Bob Probst: “Rigor doesn’t reside in the text but in the quality of our attention to it and the way we engage to it.”
The MAIN thing that I took away from NCTE these past two years was the simple affirmation that I'm doing what matters most to help kids: I'm helping them become better readers, writers and critical thinkers. Rather than talking about test scores, percentages, and AYPs, all discussions focused on how to best reach students and how to make them better readers and writers. That is, after all, why I went into this business, and it was inspiring to get ideas about how to do that more effectively.
May we be the teachers who make this statement by Laurie Halse Anderson (I MUST write a book review for her soon--love her works!) true: "English class is not the study of literature. English class is where you get the tools you need to survive."
This is the husband back for week two (I must've done okay last week, or the wife is just really desperate...). This week I’m stepping in for Ashley while she participates in the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE) Conference in Boston. I am sure that a future post of hers will reflect on her weekend there. Stay tuned.
Last week I wrote about Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya. We wrapped up our discussion of it this week and I asked my students for feedback. They were pretty positive about the book, and even the ones who did not enjoy it had some very insightful comments about it.
This week I thought I would look at my experience teaching Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982). This book is a memoir, and I had no idea how my students would respond to it. I feared the worst — complete apathy — but once again I learned that I underestimated my students... even when they did not “like” the book, they still took it seriously and reflected critically on its value and message. So, I was pleasantly surprised and plan to teach the book again in the future.
For some background, Richard Rodriguez is the son of Mexican immigrants, and he was born and raised in the U.S. He grew up in California, studied at Stanford (undergraduate), Columbia (MA), and UC Berkeley where he was a PhD candidate until he stepped away from academia to devote himself to writing. He is most well known as a (somewhat controversial) Chicano intellectual and essayist, the controversy stemming from his opposition to Affirmative Action and bilingual education. He has written several memoirs and essay collections, among them Hunger of Memory, Days of Obligation: An Argument with my Mexican Father (1992), and Brown: The Last Discovery of America (2002). He was a finalist for the Pulitzer for Days of Obligation and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Brown. I find his prose to be deeply moving, raw, and beautiful, and even when I find myself disagreeing with what he says, I am moved by the way he says it.
Hunger of Memory is an excellent book for exploring questions of identity, community, and personal reflection. Rodriguez breaks the memoir into chapters that examine the different “spheres” of his life: public and private (family and school), language (Spanish vs. English), race, religion, social class, profession… With my class, this served the dual purpose of 1) providing an insight into the life experiences of someone growing up in an immigrant, bilingual household, and 2) helping us to reflect on how our own lives are divided between a multitude of spheres and influence. While my students might not have personal experience with being a linguistic minority, the memoir does lead to conversations about linguistic register in informal (private) and formal (public) settings, and it even led to some fascinating discussion on how we (should) present ourselves on social media platforms (that space where public and private get all mixed up!). Also, since my class is made up of many first-generation college students, they could easily relate to Rodriguez’s story.
Our reading and discussion of the book built up to a five page reflective essay. These have been beautifully personal works, and this is an assignment that I will repeat again in the future. I have posted the prompt for this essay below.
In short, if you are looking for a memoir to teach, then I would definitely recommend Hunger of Memory. I think that it would work best with older high school students (juniors or seniors). I believe that it is an excellent text for college students. It is approachable, beautifully written, and organized in a way that lends itself well to class discussion. As a teaser sample, I offer this quote from the book in closing. It expresses a sentiment I'm sure many of us can relate to...
"Despite my best efforts, however, there seemed to be more and more books that I needed to read. At the library I would literally tremble as I came upon whole shelves of books I hadn't read." (65)
Ah, the first day of school. In the case of my school, and many high schools around the nation, there are actually 2 first days, since it takes two days of block classes to get through one entire cycle of classes. At our school, we've been back four days, two full rotations. Things have gone wonderfully so far! It's always exciting to get back to work and to meet new students. Still, I often struggle with what to do on the first day. No one wants to spend ninety minutes on the syllabus, but some things have to be covered right away. Additionally, you want to set the right tone for the year. You want your students to understand right away that you will all work hard, but that you will also do that work together, and that you will look out for one another. You want to set clear guidelines but simultaneously let them know that you are there to support them, and that you will never give up on them. The list of things that you need to accomplish in that first day can seem astronomically long, especially to new teachers who are told things like "don't smile until after Thanksgiving." Here are a few rules I always follow on the first day:
Okay, so that was a long explanation about some of the factors that I consider that first day. Still, even after establishing those things as part of my first day procedures, I have continued to struggle with what to do for the rest of that day. Last year, we started the year with Veronica Roth's Divergent in English 9, so I jumped right into predictions and inferences, and we analyzed the front cover and read Chapter 1 together. (For more information on teaching Divergent, check out this post.) However, this year, I am beginning the year with Romeo and Juliet, and I couldn't quite bring myself to begin the year with "Two households, both alike in dignity," so I continued debating what to do instead.
The words of the freshmen from last year kept echoing in my head. They were proud of the letters that they wrote at the end of the year, and they had thought long and hard about what things they wish they had known about high school. (For information about the original assignment, see this post. The entire assignment was inspired by the awesome book The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door by Karen Finnyfrock, which addresses how difficult ninth grade can be for students.) Students asked, "Are you going to show them our letters? Are they going to read what I wrote?" (Some of the freshmen said more demanding things like, "You should MAKE them read EVERY ONE of these letters because we spent A LOT OF TIME writing them." Ah, the irony of those kinds of statements...). I wanted a way to share that advice with the new students.
I finally settled on a four part plan for the advice/goal setting part of the first day. First, I had students write three questions and/or concerns that they had about the upcoming year. (I'm glad I did this because I've had a chance to respond to their questions and concerns after they turned in their work.) Then I passed out enough letters for each student to have one to read. They read the letter and selected at least one piece of advice from it to record and reflect on. Once they were finished with the letter, they switched with someone else. They switched until they had read at least four letters. They pulled advice from each one of them, using both paraphrasing and direct quotes from the letters to record the advice.
After they had reviewed the letters and found advice, they shared out some of the things that they read with the class. We then transitioned into goal setting. The students reflected on their strengths and weaknesses in English class. Then, they set three specific goals for English class this year, and they established the steps that they would take to reach those goals.
Finally, as their exit slip, students wrote a paragraph about the connections between the goals that they set and the advice that they were given. They wrote about how following the advice could help them have a more successful freshman year. Many of them said that the advice letters gave them more confidence and made them feel that they were not alone. They also said that the advice impacted them and made them reconsider what was important (such as studying and doing homework, which some of them didn't do much of in middle school).
I wasn't sure how that assignment would go--I was especially worried that because I didn't know them yet, they would be dismissive or see it as a waste of time. Despite my initial uncertainty, I was quite pleased with the results and wound up being glad that I took the risk. What they wrote has given me insight into their worries and their perspective, and the activity made them feel more connected to the school community. The goals that they set were targeted and clear, and they give each student a particular focus as s/he moves forward into the first unit. They also gave me some insight into where the students are coming from and how I can help them.
Overall, I'm always amazed at how much students have to offer and at how much they can teach one another. Many of the things that the freshmen read were bits of advice I would never think to tell them, nor would it be as powerful coming from me. I'm glad that they started off the year learning from their older peers, and I look forward to seeing the ways that they grow this year and what advice they have to share by the end of it. Best wishes to all of my fellow educators who are currently settling into a new school year. May this be the best one yet!
As I made coffee this morning, I watched the Keurig flash "NOT READY" across its bright blue screen, and I thought me, either. I'm not quite ready to get back to it yet; I'm not quite ready for the summer to be over. Didn't it only just begin? I have one more glorious week of vacation left, and I intend to pack it full of fun. During that time, I will NOT berate myself for all of the things that I didn't accomplish this summer (if I say that, does it make it true?) and I WILL enjoy the time I have left (I kept trying to think of a less bleak way to say that--it's not as if the world is ending--but that pretty well sums up how it feels for most teachers as summer draws to a close). (NOTE: the wordle above comes from this wordpress blog post by Jeremy Butterfield, who has an excellent piece for National Grammar Day.)
Anyway, as I contemplate the coming school year, I'm considering what I will keep and what I will change. One thing that I will keep for the freshmen is the use of Everyday Edits. Provided by Education World, these grammar exercises are single paragraphs (2 copies per page, provided electronically and as a PDF) that contain 10 grammar mistakes. The mistakes generally address comma rules, capitalization, spelling, end punctuation, apostrophe usage, and occasionally run-on sentences.
The truth is that when I reflect on my units, grammar and vocabulary development are two areas in which I need work. I've read lots of research demonstrating that teaching either one in isolation is ineffective, which makes sense to me. However, incorporating them (especially grammatical concepts) in meaningful, authentic ways can be such a challenge that it results in doing nothing. Everyday Edits are not a fool-proof system and they certainly are not all-encompassing, but I find that they are a way to remind me (and the students) on a routine basis of the relevance and importance of understanding and utilizing good grammar. They also help students learn to become better editors, and help them learn how to look for grammatical and mechanical issues within their own writing. (Although I believe improving content is far more important in the revision process and that many students are too preoccupied with grammatical/mechanical errors, but that is a post for another day.)
This is the way that I use Everyday Edits in class:
I do use other bell ringers at the beginning of class (see poetry incorporation for another one that I use frequently), but this is one of my favorites because students love it (though I'm not entirely sure why) and they can do a large part of it prior to the beginning of class. It gives students who dread the time in between bells something constructive to do, while it doesn't penalize students who want to socialize until the bell rings. They can work at their own pace. I also like that it gives me a chance to quickly call on 10 different students for answers. We focus on making progress and we celebrate improvement. It can also transfer into the same kind of exercise with revising their own writing.
What do you do to incorporate grammar into your lessons? What kinds of activities do you do at the beginning of class? I hope this helps, and I'd love to know what kinds of activities you use.
IMPORTANT UPDATE: Thank you so much for all of the emails and comments regarding this post and the materials I created. As of 9/4/14, the materials are now available on TeachersPayTeachers at my (newly created) store, Teaching the Apocalypse. Please check it out and download the materials from there (you'll have to create an account to download the materials). If they are useful to you, please RATE THEM on this page, and leave comments. You can FOLLOW ME on TpT, where I will soon post more materials and activities.
"We believe in ordinary acts of bravery, in the courage that drives one person to stand up for another."
As you are likely aware, Divergent by Veronica Roth is a young adult dystopian novel that was first released in April of 2011. The second in the series, Insurgent, was released in May of 2012. According to my students, the next book, Allegiant, will be released in October of this year. The first novel, which is what I will focus on in this post, revolves around the choices that a teenage girl must make as she moves toward adulthood. It is set in a dystopian futuristic Chicago where the society is divided into factions based on which attribute they most value (bravery, truth, peace, knowledge, or selflessness). At the beginning of the book, the main character must choose her faction, and once she makes that choice, she must learn to live with the impact of that decision. Meanwhile, the world around her is rapidly changing and deteriorating in ways she only begins to discover. For more information about the book series, you can see Veronica Roth's page. Here's the trailer for the movie to be released in March 2014.
Above all else, I judge teen lit by how much excitement it generates in my students. We read Divergent in August, and I still had students talking about the movie and showing me images of the new book cover as late as May. I had three copies of Insurgent for the classroom, and they were constantly in demand and read (voluntarily) by almost half of my students. This book series resonates with the students and generates a tremendous amount of interest and excitement in reading. It is exciting and dares students to consider their own bravery, but it is also the story of a teenage girl discovering love and romance, which the students enjoy as much as they do the intensity of the action.
Last year, I began the year for English 9 with Divergent. The unit revolved around active engagement and how to make choices in the classroom and in the community. One of the things I loved about beginning the year that way was that students used Divergent during our SSR (sustained silent reading) time. That made it easier for them to adjust to SSR, and it was also nice because it allowed students who flew through the reading to move on to other books while giving students who took longer to read the support and time that they needed to get through the novel.
The novel focuses on choice--the fact that above all else, the choices that we make determine what happens in our lives. It also highlights the interrelationship between choices and the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Because it was the beginning of the year and the beginning of my students' high school careers, we focused on parallels between choices in the novel and choices that they were making in their own lives and as citizens within the school community. I used nonfiction and poetry supplements to enhance the novel and highlight the skills that we were developing.
The unit revolved around three essential questions:
As far as skills are concerned, I focused on point-of-view, characterization, tone, inference and close reading skills (including annotation). As we moved toward the end of the novel, we focused on theme and finding textual support to prove theme statements. The students completed plot questions and double entry journals for homework (I've attached a sample of that assignment below). For assessment, I used quick reading quizzes and daily formative skills checks. We had discussions and practiced the skills with supplemental readings. As far as major assessments, I used two skills assessments. The first was an excerpt from a major scene in the novel and the second was a cold reading passage. We also had a Socratic discussion at the end of the novel for which the students prepared, and the students wrote responses to some guided questions on Schoology prior to the discussion. For more information about Socratic discussions, see my previous post.
The document below includes the way that I broke up the reading, a description of their homework and a model of the double-entry journal. It also includes the homework for chapters 1-4. In the journals, the students moved from practicing inferences to tone and finally to theme statements. If you like this activity and are interested in having more of the packet, please feel free to contact me directly. These journal entries could certainly be modified to use in class as a way to reflect on and respond to the reading.
The final project required students to create their own factions. It was a research project and it included a group presentation. The students had to come up with the faction characteristics and create a name with a complex meaning. They had to find a possible representative from real life of that faction and research the person's life as an illustration of how that person demonstrated the traits of the faction, and they had to make connections to the novel with passages from the book. Here is a PDF of the assignment sheet, the rubric for the projects, the audience participation guide, and the peer and self-evaluation that I created last year.
Phew! That just about sums it up, I guess. I do have more materials and activities that went with the unit (in case you're interested), but I tried to include the major assignments and the general approach. As far as changes for this coming year, I will likely NOT teach tone as one of the main skills with this novel. I discovered that because the novel has so much dialogue, many students became confused between characterization and tone. They would focus on a character's specific tone in his/her words instead of finding the tone of the passage, and it was challenging to explain the nuances of the difference. They found clarity as we looked at descriptive passages, but it was perhaps an unnecessary confusion. I might also drop the double entry journal entries down from two entries to one (or have them do one at home and one in class). The length of the novel was overwhelming for some students, so I will do more next year to help them with modifications as needed. We have a couple of copies of the audio of the novel, and one of our ELL teachers created chapter summaries of the novel that we'll use for struggling students. I'm also considering teaching Romeo and Juliet first this coming year so that students can take a field trip to see the play at the amazing Staunton replica of the Blackfriar Playhouse before it leaves in November, so I will likely introduce some of the concepts such as inference and close reading skills at an earlier time.
As a final thought, I'd like to encourage teachers considering teaching YA lit in the classroom to take the plunge. At my school, many people are very supportive--in fact, this last year, we purchased Divergent and the whole school read it at some point during the year. I know that may not be the case everywhere, but I find that we as educators can continue discovering the balance between classical, canonical texts and contemporary texts written for teens. Many students (both boys and girls) told me that Divergent was the first book that they had honestly read from cover to cover, and that paved the way to a much more prosperous year as far as silent reading and setting individual reading goals. What I love most about YA lit is the way that the stories address complex issues (such as why wars happen and how to make difficult choices and face your fears) in ways that are accessible and appealing to teens. I've read SO MANY amazing YA books that would work well in the classroom. The Infernal Devices series by Cassandra Clare is amazing, as is the Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion (how do I not have a post on that novel yet? Coming soon...) would be an awesome novel to teach, and it would work nicely as an exploration of text-to-text comparisons with a focus on audience since the film and novel are quite different. I also love the idea of teaching the first book in a series because that gives students a great jumping off point for their own reading. As far as realistic fiction, I just read Hold Still by Nina LaCour, which addresses the impact of suicide on a community, and our department discussed teaching John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, which includes teen romance, the role of fate, and illness.
Have you taught (or are you considering teaching) any YA lit novels in your class? Please share your comments and ideas! I look forward to learning what others are doing with this amazing genre.
K. Ashley Dickson-Ellison is a former high school English teacher (who is now an instructional technology teacher) interested in exploring the integration of trending young adult literature into the English classroom experience. Ashley is also a member of the podcast Unabridged; check out the podcast site below.
Please note: All ideas and opinions are my own and do not represent my current or past employers.
© K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All thoughts and ideas are the author's and do not represent any employer.