Monday Reads: A Man Called Ove

I just finished A Man Called Ove and can’t stop telling everyone I know about it. I’m sure I’m late to the game, since the book has been made into a film that already showed in our second-run theatre, but I just fell in love with the story!

Rachelle and I were texting about the book last week, because she loves it as much as I do. According to Rachelle, the “similes, metaphors, and analogies are uncanny and as far from cliche as possible.” One of her students told her, after reading Ove, that the author “seems to say things you’ve thought about your whole life, but were unaware of having thoughts about.”

I am drawn to books with vivid characterization. Plot and setting are important, but I have to care about the characters to be willing to finish an entire book.

I cared about Ove. I wanted him to be my neighbor. I wanted to invite him over for dinner just so he could frown at the way I do things at my house. I imagine that he would huff and puff and then fix the hole in the wall in our hallway (don’t ask, it will just get my husband fired up if I tell the story). I think he would tell me off, and then repair the cupboard door that has a crack in it. I imagine that he would frown at my cat, but then he would let her follow him around, hoping he would deign to pet her.

Man Called OveAside from being a book that MUST go on your “Books I Want to Read” list, Frederick Backman has given us a mentor text for teaching students about indirect characterization.

Ove is, on the surface, a grouchy old man. But he is also lonely and sad after the death of his wife. He contemplates committing suicide, but wants to do it “properly”, leaving little mess behind for anyone. As his attempts are continually interrupted by his neighbor, Parvaneh, along with her family, the reader wants him to see the joy that surrounds him in neighbors that care about him.

Ove is a man who has never had children. His discomfort with them is apparent in the indirect characterization in a scene where he has given Parvaneh and her children a ride to the hospital. Then Parvaneh leaves the kids with Ove for a moment while she goes to a patient’s room. The three-year-old asks him to read a book to her:

“Read!” she orders him in an excitable manner, holding up a book with her arms stretched out so far that she almost loses her balance.

Ove looks at the book more or less as if it just sent him a chain letter insisting that the book was really a Nigerian prince who had a ‘very lucrative investment opportunity’ for Ove and now only needed Ove’s account number ‘to sort something out.”

Students can consider what information the second paragraph gives us about Ove. The letter from Nigeria is so ubiquitous that most readers can relate to how “icky” they are. But they are also almost laughable – something that few people with any common sense will get tricked by today. So comparing the children’s book to the letter shows the level of discomfort Ove feels about being asked to read to the child. If he actually reads to her, in his mind he will be succumbing to a ruse being implemented by a swindler of grand proportions.

There are any number of incidents of indirect characterization like this, showing Ove’s thoughts about something, revealing his true feelings about a person or task. With 5 or 6 different examples, small groups could analyze what the indirect characterization reveals about Ove and consider how the author uses the internal thoughts to reveal aspects of his personality.

Regardless of whether you teach, or what age you teach, this book is now one of my absolute favorites. And I leave you with this thought:

You. Must. Read. It!


Monday Reads: Airborn – A Student Recommendation

In this guest post, written by one of Cyndi’s students, sixth-grader Cassie shares her thoughts about one of her favorite reads from this year:

The book Airborn by Kenneth Oppel is an absolutely amazing book. My teacher, Mrs. Faircloth, recommended this book to my class and I with a booktalk, and to me it sounded interesting.

airebornAirborn is a fiction book about Matt Cruise, a cabin boy aboard the airship Aurora, and a rich girl named Kate de Vries, and the two of them go on this adventure filled with pirates, magical sky creatures, and much more.

In the very beginning of the book Matt spots a small air balloon with an unconscious explorer inside. The explorer is the grandfather of Kate, and without his death the story would have never happened because of his journal…but you will have read the book to learn more about him.

My favorite part is when they get shipwrecked, an important part. Why? Read it to find out!

My favorite quote was, “Beautiful creatures. They. Were. Beautiful.” This was spoken by the explorer as he died, being almost saved by Matt.

I recommend this book to you because it is an amazing one, and I really enjoyed it. And also, if you enjoy reading this book, there are two more books after this one.

You better get reading!

Rollercoaster Ride to Summer

I had a moment of real anticipation last week. Followed by a moment of near panic.

The anticipation felt a bit like that moment at the top of a roller coaster, right before the train of cars starts swooping downward at intense speed. You know what I mean – the moment before the part of the ride that you know will include people screaming, some waving their hands in the air,  some gripping the safety bar so tightly that they are white knuckled.

IMG_3357It was the moment that I realized we had only 10 weeks of school left. (Reminder that I teach middle school, so I probably WILL see kids waving hands in the air, screaming, and gripping their pencil and planner tightly because they are terrified about change, or that the person sitting next to them will notice them, or that the teacher will call on them and they won’t know the answer…but that aspect of the metaphorical rollercoaster is probably another blog post)

It was the moment when I remembered how the 10 weeks (now 9) will fly by. I remembered that there will be weeks given over to state assessments and time will be lost to kids being pulled from class for their testing windows. Teachers have to plan flexible activities for those weeks, because many kids are tired, stressed, and/or overwhelmed by change and the interruption in routine can be really difficult.

It was the moment when I remembered that many of our sixth graders will be at Science camp for a week.

And then there is the last week of school which, for all practical purposes, won’t include much new material. We will focus on wrapping up projects, giving kids time to finish missed work, and doing all the end-of-year things that have to happen: cleaning lockers, turning in library books, music performances, finding missing classroom books, turning in PE clothes, awards ceremonies….the list goes on. All of those things are important in their own way, it just changes classroom planning.

And they take time.

Those weeks will go quickly. I started breaking down our research unit from the final product into pieces in my head:

  • Typing and editing final drafts (3 days)
  • Revising drafts (2 days)
  • Writing intermediate drafts (1 day)
  • Researching (2-3 days)
  • Writing first drafts (1-2 days)
  • Researching (4-6 days)

With a four-day week, this amounts to about 4 weeks worth of learning – but this is for one assignment, and they are supposed to write two more informational pieces so I’m potentially a week short of the time needed to do it twice.

Because, of the 10 remaining weeks, we will have serious engagement for about 7 of them. Which, all of a sudden, made me really excited (Yay! Spring! Sunshine! Summer is almost here!), and then panicked (as I processed the list above), about the approach of summer.

(I’m not the only teacher to notice the problems that Spring Fever brings. Amber Chandler shares some ideas for addressing this in a blog post. Though we disagree about metaphors – because she feels that time stops for her students, rather than speeding up!)

We’ll figure it out – somehow we always do. But my thought that “I have 3 months till the end of school” became “Oh wait! We don’t really get to count June because we finish right at the beginning and, oh yeah, what about testing…and Science Camp…and end-of-the-year…Rats!”

This isn’t an unfamiliar feeling; I think I feel the “rollercoaster effect” every year.

Just when we are hitting our stride – kids really know the classroom routines (even the kids who have been distracted have finally figured out that the bell activity is written out on the slide at the front of the room) – I realize that it’s time to start winding down the year.

We’ve slogged slowly (metaphorically) up the hill on the rollercoaster of the school year, creaking and listening to the machinery clack (like the rattling heater in my room…am I carrying this metaphor too far here?) and now we realize that it is a downhill race to the end of the year.

IMG_3360It stresses me out, but it is also part of why I love my job. So many things go smoothly because kids are demonstrating mastery of things (well, many of them are). But time also goes by quickly because we are busy and (mostly) having fun. That routine and the anticipation of summer break brings happy smiles more often than not.

Despite the rollercoaster, I really love being a teacher. Or, maybe, it’s actually because of it.

Class Size Matters

The assistant principal met with one of my students before class today. He called to let me know that the student was coming in late, and then emailed me with the student’s request that I not “give him any more attention than the other students.” Apparently, the student is feeling overwhelmed and singled out.

Funny, I was actually thinking that I might not have paid enough attention to him last quarter.

He didn’t do well, having missed turning in a lot of assignments. But then, he also missed a number of classes.

Based on my past experience with students who had 504 plans or a diagnosis related to anxiety, I was thinking that he might be struggling with that. I’m not a counselor or doctor, so who knows for sure, but as most teachers can attest: we often recognize patterns in student behavior that make us part of the first line of defense in student mental health. (That’s why schools have procedures for teachers to make referrals to the counselor as a ‘heads up’ – but that’s another blog post…)

An article in The Atlantic cites a study that reported : 

There has been a significant increase in anxiety and depression from 1950 to present day in teens and young adults and…. five to eight times as many children and college students reported clinically significant depression or anxiety than 50 years ago.

The article reports that a similar trend is true fanxiety-quoteor 14 to 16 year olds between 1948 to 1989.

That’s scary. Because the article goes on to discuss the increase in suicide for teens and young adults. Connected? The article seems to suggest this.

I often hear adults commenting about how “busy life is” and how “things are different” from when they were kids. The Atlantic article focuses on how over-scheduled children are today, so they miss out on many chances to play. Kindergarten teachers can tell you how important play is for students to practice social skills and to make friends.

I don’t know the background of my student and what causes him to be so anxious in class, but I have seen other students who have similar behaviors:

  • regular stomach aches in class whenever we start a new assignment
  • a “surface smile” (while they tell me that they are almost done with a missing assignment)
  • Almost every grade spot in the gradebook is empty behind their name
  • Regular absences
  • Kind, giving personalities that demonstrate that they want to make others happy
  • Often (but not always), there are family stressors happening at home

This is an example of one of those areas of societal health and social behaviors that schools can influence but not fix. Teachers are often part of the touchstone for whether a student is doing ok or not.

Please don’t mistake me: Parents are definitely the first line of defense. But teachers often have some perspective that parents don’t. We see dozens of students for extended periods of time every day. That helps us notice when a student is acting in way that doesn’t fit the age group.

When teachers and parents work together, we can catch students who are at-risk at a much earlier point. Early interventions in student health may be a factor in how they respond to treatments.

class-sizeThis is one reason that class size matters so much in education. When the class is a manageable size, it allows a teacher time to work one-on-one with more students or with small groups. We get to know individual students better, are able to intervene and differentiate as needed, and we can note when those strategies don’t work and work with parents to develop new ones and engage outside help, as needed, to help the student.

In this age of over-scheduling and busy families, it seems even more important to focus on schools and how we can support the student.



Matchbook Summaries

My brilliant teaching partner, Paige, came up with this idea for our students. She calls them “matchbook summaries” and we’ve used them in several ways this year.

Most recently, we were teaching students about plot and how each chapter should move a story forward. In the classic novel, The Cay, each chapter has a mini-conflict that moves the story toward the ultimate climax. Sometimes the mini-conflict is resolved, sometimes it isn’t.

We wanted to see how students understood this concept, and asked them to create a matchbook summary as a formative assessment.

The process to create the format is easy:

  1. Give each student a 3×5 index card.
  2. They turn it sideways and fold it almost in half, leaving a ¼ inch or so at the top.
  3. Fold over this last little bit, so the final product looks a bit like a matchbook.

matchbook-summary-how-toWhen they finished, we asked students to choose a chapter from the previous day’s readings. They labeled the ¼ inch flap with the chapter number, and then drew an illustration of the major conflict in that chapter. (Note – my students are 6th graders, so the artistic ability tended heavily toward the stick figure).

Then, inside the matchbook cover, they had to write out:

  • matchbook-summary-product

    Examples of matchbook summaries from my Fall 2016 students.

    What they thought the major conflict was in the chapter

  • Whether it was man v. man, man v. nature, man v. society, or man v. self
  • Whether they thought it was resolved within that chapter and
  • If “yes”, they said how the resolution happened; if “no”, they made a prediction about how it would be resolved later.

This could be used as a formative assessment in other ways too:

  • Write a claim to answer a text-based question on the outside and list three pieces of evidence on the inside.
  • Identify a key character and draw a picture with details from the text on the outside, include a key quote from the character on the inside, along with an explanation of why that quote is significant.
  • Make a prediction about a story on the outside, along with evidence from the story and reasoning for the prediction on the inside.

The format is simple, allows for a creative output from students, but lets the teacher require text-based answers to a specific learning target.

When we did this for The Cay the first time, it felt like a trick. Students were actually excited about the task, were looking for details in their chapter – rereading and thinking more deeply about what they had read. While the products weren’t brilliant pieces of artwork that will be hung in the Louvre, most demonstrated critical thinking about the concept of conflict, and an understanding of how the plot in the novel was developing.

What ideas have you used for formative assessment that incorporates drawing or another non-written product?

Mission Impossible? Bringing Back the Letter

I have a plan. Well, I’m starting to plan, because I have a mission.

We need to write more letters.

I read an article by Malcolm Jones in Newsweek years ago, that made the point that historians rely on a written record to have something to study. According to Jones,

“The decline in letter writing constitutes a cultural shift so vast that in the future, historians may divide time not between B.C. and A.D. but between the eras when people wrote letters and when they did not. Historians depend on the written record. Perhaps a better way of saying that is that they are at the mercy of that record.”

With the advent of email (and, the article posits, even the advent of the telegraph bears some blame) we are losing records of daily activities that historians study.

Since I was teaching History and Government at the time, this was something that really made me say, “Hmmm….”

So, I’m going to have my students write letters. This may be in their journals, or maybe as an assignment where they write a letter to the editor with an argument, or even a letter to someone that they know. I’ve set a goal that students will write at least three letters of some form by the end of the year.

A few years after that Newsweek article, Charlotte Higgins wrote about “The Lost Art of Letter-Writing” and noted that she had recently received a letter from a friend who had authored a book about letter writing. She described it:

Last week I received a letter from him….It was a wonderful letter: thanking me for dinner, yes, but also giving me some advice on a tricky work question, and in general showing that he’d thought about the conversations we’d had that night.

Such a simple thing – for a letter writer to show that they were thinking about someone else. (Sounds like a lesson in empathy for my students. Perhaps a letter as the final task for that lesson?) A letter is a chance for the writer to show not only that they are thinking about someone else, but also to share a part of their day with someone.

It doesn’t have to be something momentous. The details shared in a letter connect two people – the author and the recipient. My sister in law is the best letter writer I know. And part of what I love about her missives, is that she sometimes writes them over an entire day – or two. She will tell me what she did that day – gardening, laundry, canning, home repairs – and will describe how long it took her, or how she felt when she finished, or why she had put the tasks off for so long. Those small details are interesting to me. They help me picture her, in her red and white kitchen, filled with Coca-Cola memorabilia, taking a few minutes to think about me and share something about her day.

It’s better than a phone call. Because I can save it, reread it, and return to it over and over when I’m missing her. Her letters bring me joy.

I want to share that experience with my students somehow. Jones points out how important the written record is to historians:

…to the historian, nothing written is trivial, because it all contributes to the picture we have of the past. In the last century or so, as historians have turned away from their fixation on the doings of the great and included the lives of average people in their study, the letters those people left behind are invaluable evidence of how life was once lived. We know what our ancestors ate, how they dressed, what they dreamed about love and what they thought about warfare, all from their letters. Without that correspondence, the guesswork mounts.

But on a personal level, handwritten letters are also important for the connection between people. Higgins pointed that she admired the elegant handwriting of her friend in his letter. I was thinking about that when I went back through the cards from our wedding recently. My grandmother died a few years ago, and I had a moment of melancholy when I saw the card she had given us, written in her crabbed script by her gnarled-by-arthritis hands.

It was an even more poignant moment when I found a little note, written by my cousin Dena, in her neat-as-a-pin print. The message wouldn’t make sense to anyone but me…and even the context for it is fading in my memory. Dena drowned when she was in her early 20s–a loss that I think about regularly. But her handwriting was so distinctive that I was really struck by it in that moment – rereading her last note. Anyone watching me would have seen a visible pause in my movements.

I’ve heard friends say that they type emails because their “handwriting is so bad.” We need to get over that handwriting issue – imagine a child who can’t recognize their parent’s handwriting, or their grandparent. (Or their cousin, in my case) What a loss! If students don’t practice letter writing when they’re young, how will they develop the habit as an adult?



My friend Shelley has had the same handwriting since we met in 7th grade. Even without my name on this letter, I would probably have known it was from her.

Aside from handwriting, letter writing is usually more informal and a place where someone’s “voice” appears. For students, it’s a chance to write and share their style, their thinking, details about their life. I think I will challenge them to choose a moment in their day and share it. They can practice writing description, including specific detail, and organizing their thoughts to include relevant information and give context to their thinking – all targeted standards for my subject and grade.


Yep. I have a mission.

I’m working on a plan. Students in my little corner of the world will hear about why letters are important. They will practice what to include in a letter. They will send a letter – and hopefully they will receive a response so they begin to learn the joy that a correspondence brings.


Pushing the “birds” out of the nest…

One of the ways Common Core has changed my teaching is the idea of leading students to mastery. It’s not really new; I remember learning about the idea of “I do, we do, they do” at some meeting or another over the years.

And I tried to do that. But it can be so hard to “push the babies out of the nest”, so to speak. Visions of the babies (metaphorically) dropping straight to the ground and conking their heads (or otherwise injuring their psyches) abounded when it was time for students to turn in an assignment.

But, as I learn more and more about teaching in a Common Core aligned way, I know that I really wasn’t letting “they do” happen to the extent that I should. It’s a little scary,  you know? We know that students don’t always understand what we teach the first time (at least I don’t think that I’m alone in that). And often, not the second time. And really, sometimes not even the third. It can feel like I’m failing as a teacher, and it can be depressing for a student when they try something, fail, and have to move on to the next task that they aren’t confident about.

I mostly saw this in writing, with my ELA classes, but it was also true with research assignments or written assignments in my Social Studies classes.

I asked students to do things but I didn’t really always give them room to “fail” at the task. I would scaffold and scaffold and scaffold without gradually removing the supports. Or, to be exact, I wouldn’t remove all of the scaffolds because I didn’t want my kids to do poorly. They didn’t always get to try things independently.

Part of that comes from feeling like I needed to move on to the next lesson or book or unit, and we didn’t have time for students to “fail” at something. I just figured they would get better at the task (writing an analytical essay for example) the next time they encountered it.

Not always true.

Or, at least, students didn’t show as much growth from task to task as I wished. And yet, I’m learning that failing can be a great lesson.

The key to turning failure into a learning opportunity is to let students revise or redo a lesson. Finding and fixing errors is the way humans learn. I need to remember that when I worry about those babies falling on their metaphorical heads.

As I’ve started to embrace “they do” more fully, I’ve seen the benefit of redos. I’m talking about redos required by me, not just allowed if someone wanted to do it. (We all know that most of the time, the student who will redo the paper is the one wanting to go from a B+ to an A, rather than the one wanting to go from a D to a C, or even a B. Rarely do those students find themselves motivated to do more work that they feel likely to fail at.)

So I’ve started building revision into my class where I can. Sometimes that means giving up a unit or a book or a lesson, and replacing it with more time for writing.

After I give back an assignment with my own checklist or rubric and the grade, I ask students to remove it. Then I have students look at each other’s work, and use a blank rubric or checklist on their writing partner’s essay. They point out what went well (especially if they can note where they see that a student applied one of our mini-lessons), and they make suggestions for the two most important things to work on for the next draft.

Note – we usually do this before they turn in an essay, but many times students are so worried about the due date, that they don’t take revision seriously. (Am I alone in this?) They’re getting better about it, but it feels like I’m battling some ingrained habits, especially for students who don’t like to write.

Somehow, having the actual grade and being asked to “fix” their paper has produced more effort. Maybe because they know where they are at, and that any improvements can only make it better. (I think there’s a graduate thesis in there somewhere if anyone is looking for a topic: “The Psychology of Failing and Fixing”; Personally, I’ve been there, done that, and don’t need another Master’s Degree.)


One student’s goal page for writing a Personal Narrative.

I also ask students to make notes on their “Goals” page in their Thinking Notebook. What did they learn from their partner’s writing? What can they set as a goal for their own paper when they get it back? Sometimes they learn a strategy to try. Sometimes they use something that wasn’t going well in the other essay to set a revision goal of their own.

Admittedly, I may only schedule time for one redo in class. But the chance to learn from each other and see other model texts (both good and bad) changes the focus from “one and done” to “How can I learn from this?”

With the most recent assignment, I was able to ask students (before turning in the initial final draft for grading) to use the goals sheet from previous assignments to see if they had worked on those tasks already. We agreed that I should expect them to try to work on those goals each time, if it fit the writing task before them.

And it shows them that they should learn from their earlier work.

Its making it easier for me to imagine pushing the baby birds from the nest…and hoping they will not flop straight to the ground. Maybe this mama bird thing isn’t so bad…


It’s That Time of Year

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write a blog explaining my absence from writing for the past 6 weeks.

It all seems to come back to: It’s That Time of Year.

Does anyone else find themselves using that phrase a lot right now?

For me, it reminds me of that episode of Seinfeld where they talk about how useful “yadda yadda” is as a phrase. I use It’s that time of the year to explain many things, in school and at home – usually those are ultimately related to time management.

It’s That Time of Year…it was that weird three weeks between Thanksgiving Break and Winter Break. Planning is tough for teachers: do we start a big unit, knowing that kids will be taking a hiatus soon? Kids are wound up: snow started in our region and wistful thinking about snow days was evident in conversations throughout the day. (Just try getting a sixth grader to write for more than 10 minutes when it is snowing outside – even if they wrote for 30 last week! Changing activities every 15 minutes is about SURVIVAL during this time of year people! Not just holding student attention!)

ITToY…Teachers are tired. Why are those three weeks so hard? I’m not sure, but I suspect it is something like: [Holiday prep at home + lots to do at school x 100 student assignments to give feedback on = TIRED]

ITToY…that group of students who just haven’t turned in the big assignments all quarter start to panic. They want to do 6 weeks worth of work in one half-hour after school…because they’re about to be home with the adults in their life for two weeks and they know there will be questions about why they aren’t passing class.

(I spent two afternoons after school with students before Winter Break, reminding them of the lessons that led up to big assignments. Lots of tears…I started to feel like I was giving a therapy session…or maybe that was me wanting a therapy session. It’s a bit of a blur now…)

Then, finally. it arrives: Winter Break. Ahhhhhh! Mid-December I wasn’t sure there were any more magical words in the English language!

I had energy the first couple of days. I was out of bed early, shoveling the sidewalk right away (have I mentioned that it started snowing around here?). I made big breakfasts (because who has time to cook on school mornings?) and it was so nice to have time to bake…or cook bacon! I wrote all my Christmas cards, cleaned the whole house, and wrapped all my gifts. We went out for some kind of event every night leading up to Christmas Eve.

THEN…I ran out of steam.

ITToY… being an introvert, I retreated to the couch to recharge my batteries. After all the holiday gatherings (Staff breakfast, Bunco group Christmas Party, dinner with friends, Christmas party, another dinner with friends, Solstice party, Christmas with the fam…) I was burned out.


For the last week of my Break, I knitted and binge-watched Prison Break. I read the Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan. I knitted. My car sat in the driveway for days. The snow piled up until my husband got home – I had no more energy for shoveling. (Have I mentioned that it started snowing here?)

When school started again, it was a bit of a shock. (What? I need to teach something? Oh yeah, I did make a plan back in December…)

And, all of that explains my poor time management and lack of a blog post since November. (Note I said explains not excuses)

A new semester starts on Monday. I’m getting the hang of this sixth grade thing. And my grades are almost ready to submit. I can do this. I’m back to writing. I have thoughts about something besides surviving until the next break from school.

It’s the start of the downhill slide to the end of the school year – and I’m excited to get to work!

It’s that time of year


Pulling an Audible


For most of the Fall, I have enough time to 50% just about everything in my life but there’s never time for reading. To save my sanity I have shared my husband’s Audible account for the last five years. It’s a fair trade. He pays for Audible and I pay for our insurance. Win-win. People debate if it’s actual reading if the eyes don’t do the heavy lifting, but a book is a book and I almost feel more immersed in the audible experience, surrounded by the world and its characters.

I often recommend using an audiobook to students I know work or have full schedules. Students have little time to complete the reading work assigned to them on a four-day schedule, because school days take large chunks of the day with sports chewing up a large remainder. The student gets the leftovers of the day to work and complete six classes worth of homework. Some students respond well to the suggestion while others profess an allergy to reading of any kind, especially to listening to books. Their claims usually follow along the lines of, “I can’t follow along.”; “I have no idea what’s happening!”; “I get distracted….” Have our students lost some of their ability to follow along with reading and is it a skill we should continue to teach?

Jim Trelease discusses the necessity of maintaining the exercise of reading aloud to students at older ages because the act advertises and exposes students to books.  Mr. Trelease continues by pointing out that students must listen in addition to reading skills of building vocabulary, stitching plot, keeping track of characters, etc (“Reading Aloud: Are Students EVER Too Old”). I couldn’t help but think, Yes! More things checked off the Common Core!!! Regardless, it is a fun interaction between teacher and student and that inspired my progression to a new resolution for reading in the classroom.

Reading Aloud: Are Students EVER Too Old?”

My students write for ten minutes at the beginning of every class. Previously, I would let them write, give them space to think and create, and take care of business; now, I’m planning on pulling an audible and reading aloud for those ten minutes while they write. I haven’t decided if I’ll read a book with the intention of completing it or if I will read excerpts to advertise different types of books each day. I can’t wait to read Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice to the male population and The Martian and William Shakespeare’s Star Wars to the girls. Maybe I will provide them with literature to challenge their expectations and ideologies; maybe I will give them unpredictable literature they will love; maybe I will be the only person in the room enjoying the exercise at all. But from an advertising stand point, I will be successful if one decides to buy in. From a teaching stand point, I will be successful if they develop two skills in the space of ten minutes. It may seem immature to read aloud to high schoolers, but I think it’s worth a shot.



Poem of the Week: Practicing Literary Analysis

Poetry sometimes gets the “short end of the stick” when ELA teachers are choosing texts to practice close reading skills. Until I took a poetry class from the brilliant (teacher and poet) Joy Passanante, I was intimidated by poetry and unsure of how to approach it. I was never confident with it as a reader, or as a text to teach.

Now, it is one of my favorite things to share with students. For the last several years, we have celebrated “Poem of the Week” in my classes, and a number of students show as much enthusiasm as I do when the lesson rolls around.

The weekly focus on poetry helps the students internalize a process for approaching the text. I’m also using it to teach a basic literary analysis format to my 6th graders.

We started out by reviewing a handout with the process I use. Students referred to that as we went through the poems during the first three weeks of the lesson. We spend 20-30 minutes reading and discussing each poem, with me modeling how I annotate and “have a conversation with” the poem. I print the poem in a handout, with lots of white space surrounding it so students can make notes and record their thinking.

At the bottom of each poem, I asked students to write out what they thought the “author’s purpose” was for the poem. This idea – asking what the author wanted the reader to take away from the poem, therefore what the author’s purpose was in writing the poem – was my way of having the students identify a theme. After the third week, we instead started using the term “theme” to refer to this idea when they wrote it on the bottom of the poem handout.

slide2In week 4, after students seemed to have the hang of our process and the idea of identifying a theme for the poem, I asked them to start defending their theme with evidence from the poem. They use a graphic organizer to record the theme, and 3-4 things from the poem that support their claim about the them.

slide3I gave them a handout with sentence frames to use as they write a paragraph about the poem’s theme. The first sentence of each response has to be a sentence that identifies the poem, author, and theme. Then they alternate between sentence frames about the evidence and sentence frames about their reasoning.

Admittedly, the first couple were pretty generic, with some awkward phrasing as students didn’t adjust the frames to flow smoothly. But we focused on how the rhetoric sounds in a big picture the third time they wrote a response. I had them draft the response as they had with the first two, then go back and reread it to see if it flowed smoothly. I modeled how the sentence frames might change depending on what order they use them.

I tell the students that this is a beginning and they will develop their ideas more as they become stronger writers, but the students are really getting the hang of writing a poem response and I can see their confidence building each week as they approach the poems with smiles and energy.

I know I enjoy poetry now – and the for “Poem of the Week” is my favorite day in class!

Note – here are a couple of books that I have found helpful in teaching poetry – with poems, ideas for analysis, and prompts for writing:

Practice of Poetry by Robin Behn

Writing Poems by Michelle Boisseau, Hadara Bar-Nadav and Robert Wallace