Performance in ELA: Haunted by Hamlet and Performing Poetry

PART 1— “Though this be madness, yet there [should be] method in’t.”

The end of the semester was in sight— a mere two and a half weeks away, when a randomly scheduled PLC made me catch my breath. I came out of the library and headed down the hall to my classroom, my head spinning. How in the world can I teach Hamlet in two and a half weeks?!

I momentarily let the feeling of panic and anticipated exhaustion overwhelm me as I staggered down the hall, seeing double. While the other teachers on my grade level had been teaching Shakespeare’s longest play for the past 2 weeks and were about halfway into it, I had somehow missed the memo about this shared text. I had been reassured in the PLC that it was ok, I could take a little bit longer, that the shared CFA that was already in place could be pushed back a little bit. So after dwelling— or perhaps, moping—  for what felt like an appropriate amount of time on why, exactly, I should be teaching Hamlet during the junior year with the focus on American literature, I was able to come up with a few ideas.

This shouldn’t sound, even at this point, like a victory story— because it’s not. There were a few things that went well and most everything else was rushed or completely flopped. As I encourage my students to do, reflecting on this brief experience with the Prince of Denmark and about 237 eleventh graders has pushed my thinking about teaching plays in the Language Arts classroom to places it hasn’t gone before.

First, why should we teach Shakespeare? I’ve found this discussion to be very helpful in thinking about this— one of my favorite English ed bloggers, Brian Sztabnik, looks at both sides of the issue. From my experience with students and Shakespeare, I believe he accurately identifies the “aura of luxury and ostentation” that often surrounds Shakespeare in classrooms. He dips into this debate that notably occurred in The Washington Postwhich points out that the time for a Eurocentric focus on texts is long over, and that we should challenge the notion that we should do something because it’s something that has always been done. There is a lot of value in challenging this notion, and in looking closely at the texts we teach through the lens of these views. Ultimately though, I— along with Brian— believe in teaching Shakespeare for many of the same reasons that he lists; among others, it is rich in content and is rigorous, and because I believe there is value in posing the same question to students that I asked myself: Why Shakespeare? Brian also links to a Harvard professor who teaches a whole course on this— it’s worth a look.

However, I also believed that Hamlet, being a play, could be a way to get students out of their seats— reading parts and doing something different.

This part didn’t actually turn out so great.

We started out pretty well— with Brian’s Shakespeare Musical Chairs activity, which I’ve effectively used before with other plays. Students get to interact with short pieces of the text and start working with the language in small, manageable parts. It’s also fun, and is something that comes up again as we read the play— so it’s great for building background knowledge and prior experience.

This was followed by a few stunning performances of some scenes from Hamlet in class— I don’t think anyone in my first period A day class will forget Luke’s flawless British accent employed in his ironic, desperate interpretation of Hamlet.  But, overwhelmingly the students’ interactions with the play, performing it and otherwise, were disengaged and distanced. They weren’t required to memorize their lines, or to do too much by way of performance— it was kept minimal and was really more of a way to get through the reading of Hamlet in a more interactive way.

As I reflect on why my attempts to teach performance in the classroom didn’t work, I’d also like to suggest some things that would work much better. I came to these improved ideas on teaching performance in a Language Arts classroom after Hamlet didn’t play out so well, prompting my own investigation into how performance could be used in the classroom in successful ways.

Honestly, I was about to give up. I have no theater training or experience, and aside from reading some plays in my undergraduate English classes, I haven’t had any structured way to approach this. So, I’d like to ask not necessarily, Why Shakespeare? but rather, Why performance in a Language Arts classroom? And how?

Some of my initial approaches to performance with Hamlet were setting us up to not be successful. But could it be successful? How could I view performance in Language Arts differently? Michael LoMonico, in an article about performance in the English Language Arts classroom, explains, “I have a theory about why educators talk with such enthusiasm about teaching literature through performance: It works. Performance works because it gets students excited about literature. It works because it helps students truly understand the literature. It works because students cannot get enough of it” (p. 116). While this isn’t how performance worked in my classroom, I’m still willing to believe that it does do these things. However, LoMonico goes on, discussing in a more fundamental way why it works by discussing what it is, or is not: “Perhaps the best way to define teaching through performance is to say what it is not: It is not the students sitting at their desks reading assigned parts of a play out loud.” (p. 116).

Ooops.

So if students aren’t sitting at their desks reading it out loud from the book, and they’re not standing in front of the class reading it out loud from the book, what is performance? LoMonico conceives of it in a way that can be immensely helpful: as “Close reading on your feet.” He continues to explain that, “There are innumerable ways to incorporate performance methods into an English language arts class, and those methods are all variations of close reading on one’s feet. Performance happens when students look closely at a piece of text and use their voices and bodies to explore the subtleties of the author’s words” (p. 116). This implies a much more active process than merely sitting or standing and reading the text in front of the class. Students are exploring what in the text evokes emotion or movement and trying to express that. While students ultimately make the text their own as they embody the character or the speaker, they are also closely examining the text in this process.

A few ways to incorporate this “close reading on your feet” with Hamlet— instead of having students simply read the play out loud— could be instead to focus on smaller sections of the text to promote this deeper, closer reading and possible performance. Students could focus in on a soliloquy or chunk of text of their choice and work with that text in a variety of different ways, like writing character objectives, rewriting the text using your own language, and also “Crafting the Moment Before— ” writing that students do that describe what the character was doing, thinking, and feeling in the moments before they gave their speech.  

Another conception of performance in the Language Arts classroom can help to extend beyond the student and what they are embodying to the social and cultural contexts that they live in. Allison Downey’s discussion on drama in the English language arts classroom brings another dimension that I had not previously considered: that of social change and critical inquiry.

She begins by making an important point that I feel is so necessary I have to long-form quote it:

One of the great difficulties in teaching about horrific periods of history, the underbelly of human experience, is addressing how to help students comprehend the incomprehensible . . . One of my goals then, has been to sensitize students to the realities of injustice. I am not suggesting that students dramatize someone else’s hell. Nor do I assert that in doing so they will understand “what it’s like to be a slave,” for example. I do not believe that we can ever understand the horror of the Holocaust by representing the events through drama. Rather, the intent is to use drama as a tool to explore the general themes and serve as a catalyst for critical inquiry (p. 33).

This is a critical distinction— that students won’t know “what it’s like to be someone else,” something I think that could lead to stereotyping in a classroom of secondary students, rather they will explore the text and use drama to make the often challenging move into critical inquiry.

In this process, students first read a text and then represent the major events in tableau. Then,  reflecting on the tableau can happen in a variety of ways— Downey focuses on asking questions of the observers and participants of the tableau. This can be extended through written response to prompts, and developing characters that the students embodied more fully by answering questions from the audience, by making a different choice in how to represent that character in the tableau, and more.

The critical move comes when Downey describes taking advantage of the moment in the classroom to move students to identify “the moments when different actions could be taken that would result in a more positive outcome” than the text originally had. The teacher would then ask questions about the choices students had made. This resulted in the students, “becom[ing] agents of change. They better recognize the complexity of the issues, the challenges and dangers of actively addressing injustice head-on, and the necessity to do so. Once they have developed this sensitivity, they are better equipped to face historical and current social injustices” (p. 38). After this, moving into other texts is a natural extension in which students could extend this model of learning. In fact, Downey states that, “I believe that students were so motivated to learn about the actual historical events because of their initial exploration of the themes through poetry and drama” (p. 38).

There are many ways to use performance in the classroom. Another particularly notable way is the focus of Ann Frkovich and Annie Thomas’ article, “The Monologue Project for Creating Vital Drama in Secondary Schools.” They discuss a project in which students interview members of the community and write monologues focused on specific issues. They go through multiple drafts, peer reviews, examining samples, and work through rehearsals and performance options. The results are powerful monologues written by students that represent the collective voices of a community, one in which stories are shared and students participate in “an exercise bearing witness.”

Thinking of performance in the Language Arts classroom as close reading, as a way to explore social change and critical inquiry, and as a way to generate writing and a voice for others in the community are all powerful ways to think of performance that in and of themselves, are ways how and reasons why performance should be used.

 

PART 2— “Madness in great ones must not unwatched go”

As the above ways of approaching drama in the classroom show, performance in the Language Arts classroom doesn’t always have to be centered around a play. Poetry is a natural fit.

In an article, Steven Athanases explains why poetry can be a good choice: “For performance activity in full language arts curricula, I typically select poetry. Because poems often are short, they enable the student to go deep in a single work while gaining broad exposure to many works in class workshops. Also, a poem invites the student to assume the role of a single speaker, without needing to perform multiple characters” (p. 88).

Additionally, Athanases discusses a poetry performance unit and the effect it had on students— “His experience and that of his peers provided further evidence for what I have found about performance of literature: Students report that they learn more from intensified study, rehearsal, and class performance of a piece of literature, even a single poem, than they learn from months of more conventional literature study” (p. 88).

As poems themselves are this intensified use of language, it makes sense that the study and performance of a poem would also yield a deep, intensified learning experience.

Athanses details a workshop based approach. Student choice of the poem is vital, as is rehearsal and reflection. He describes this process:

Central to this model of literature study through performance is viewing the rehearsal process as a site for discoveries and learning. Rehearsals and performances are accompanied by reflection, generally in written and spoken journal entries. This model differs from those that treat performance as a fun, add-on activity by viewing performance as a creative but deliberate process interwoven with other literacy events. Close reading and writing precede the act of performing, which, in turn, prompts further writing (p. 88-89).

As these activities show, there is more than just performance involved. Rather, multiple “literacy events” occur throughout the process that work to improve the quality of the performance and the learning.

One of these literacy events is rehearsal, which Athanases describes in a way that is very similar to aesthetic and literary theory, “These are evocations of the literary work— a series of texts created and lived through” (p. 93). Each evocation, he notes, “provides students with rich data for reflection,” which in turn informs following performances.

But, poetry can be difficult, can’t it? Working through performance can be a natural way to work through the difficulties of the language. In any case, as Athanases notes, “Even if students at first do not grasp the language of their selected poems, planning and rehearsing make it more difficult for the reader to ignore lines and phrases with seemingly cryptic meanings” (p. 95). Students must confront these unknown parts of the text as they work in performance— a process that the teacher can help support when needed.

Part of the failure of my approach to performance with Hamlet was that it was performance just to perform. However, this workshop approach seems to get away from that, instead promoting a higher concentration on the part of the performer— more of a commitment to the poem than there would have been without performance” (Athanases, 2005, p. 95).

Finally, there is an aspect to the performance of poetry that might make some teachers nervous— memorization. I must admit, I am fascinated with the idea of memorizing poetry. People have been memorizing poems for centuries— it’s a practice that is not frequently done in schools today, though. Do we avoid doing this because it is hard? Memorizing can be very difficult for some students, but there are many reasons that it can also be worthwhile. Memorizing poetry can be good for you in many ways, Not just because you might be stuck on a stopped subway train, but because it is a challenge, and because it is also expressive, among other reasons. A poem, once memorized, is something that you can carry with you throughout life.

There are many resources that can help teachers with the memorization and performance of poetry in the classroom. Poetry Out Loud is a great place for this— it includes some excellent videos of students performing poems they have memorized.

Finally, in an NPR interview with Caroline Kennedy, she explains,  

‘By rote’ has sort of a negative connotation. I don’t even know why. But I think what you’re really doing is you’re just sort of absorbing these feelings, these emotions, these experiences of someone else’s and being able to understand them because they become part of you. And you realize that these are universal feelings and we may all put them into words in different ways. But sometimes … you have a poem that you feel captures exactly what you’re feeling, but you haven’t been able to put it into the words that the poet has, and so I think that that’s what makes it so … that … it becomes part of you in a way.

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8 Habits of Dialogical Teachers

 

 

“A dialogical classroom is one in which literacy is used to immerse teacher and students in an ongoing reflective conversation with the texts of their lives.” -Bob Fecho

Because a dialogical classroom is #goals. Dialogical, Dialogic, Dialogue: Conversation.

  1. Answer each question with a question.
  2. Read lots and lots of theory. Because there is nothing more practical than good theory*. Vygotsky, Bakhtin, Csikszentmihayl, Rosenblatt, Dewey, etc., etc.
  3. Read lots of other books too.
  4. Structure class activities to allow for plenty of discussion and talking.  You know that the sound of students talking about ideas is the sound of learning.
  5. Teach students how to question validity and sources behind texts. Because you are teaching critical thinking through questioning, like a boss.
  6. Teach students to question pretty much everything.
  7. Have an essential question. The kind that can’t be answered in a day. You don’t already know the answer to this question, either.
  8. Don’t just teach one way of doing things. Dialogue with students on what works best for them & try different ways.
*Quote Attribution: Bob Fecho. 

Beginnings & Engaging with Works of Art: My Week with Lincoln Center Education & Teachers College, Columbia University

Beginnings & Engaging with Works of Art

I cannot even begin to unpack all the things I learned in my week with Lincoln Center Education—my first week this summer in the MA English Education program at Teachers College. Each day after class I would go home to the small apartment I rented with a few other girls from the program, and just collapse from mental exhaustion. To write about everything I learned would take a novel-like production! So, instead I just want to touch on a few big ideas that I took away from the brilliant program and teachers they have there at LCE: engaging with ideas of a work of art, line of inquiry, questioning, some activities, and the Capacities for Imaginative Thinking. Really, I’m just glossing over the information, but talking about even the basic idea of these concepts allows me to remember, and might spark someone else’s interest and possible investigation of these truly brilliant instructional approaches.

With classes at Juilliard, the Met, Central Park, and of course historic Teachers College, there was no shortage of wonder. My grad school classmates & I saw an unforgettable performance by Urban Bush Women, and closely examined the music of Coltrane, some classical sculpture, modern painting, and Mid-Eastern architecture. LCE partners with schools and educators so that students can have the kind of experiences and “encounters with art” that we were able to have. Of course, none of our students will go into these encounters having actually studied art, literary, and pedagogy theory. Early on LCE realized that the encounters with art were not having the kind of indelible impression on students, nor were they able to produce and sustain a depth of discussion that was needed or that an encounter with a work of art deserves. Their next move was to incorporate into the curriculum a series of lessons where students would engage with parts of the idea or ideas surrounding the work of art before they encountered it.

I wondered, how many times as English teachers do we just jump into concepts and ideas? Or jumping right into a work of art (text) without engaging students in any of the ideas that surround that particular piece? And, how much better would our instruction and student engagement be if we got students involved and interested in the ideas before hitting them with the key text?

Why This Approach?

To do understand this approach better as learners as well as teachers, we were led through some LCE workshops in which we engaged with ideas and concepts surrounding the work of art before, during, and after we actually encountered it. As I mentioned before, one of the effects of this was that by the time we came to the central work of art—painting, poem, essay, novel, music, dance, etc.— we were much more engaged and even excited to discuss and examine the ideas, artist’s choices and craft, and implications of the work of art. Discussions following the experience were also much richer, had greater depth, and not anything we will soon forget.

We also developed lasting knowledge and critical thinking because of our engagement with the central ideas. This is a huge plus, because engagement with these ideas can lead students to be more thoughtful people, more involved citizens, and lifelong learners.

Here’s an example: in a series of lessons we created, students would—through various activities—engage with the idea of borders and boundaries before their encounter with Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, Making a Fist, in which physical and abstract borders play a central role. They had the opportunity to examine and develop critical thinking skills about borders— how they work in society and their personal relationship to borders. This experience can then refine and inform their future actions and thoughts as they engage with literal or abstract borders they encounter.

As an English teacher, this is what I’m after! Critical thinking and engaging with ideas to help students become active citizens and thoughtful people. Additionally, lessons that involve different modes of learning, activities, or art often appeal to a wider range of students and can be an entry into the ideas and work of art being studied.

How to Do It
Line of Inquiry
So what are the practicalities of accomplishing this? How do we plan lessons to this result? One essential element to lesson planning—the essential question— is not unfamiliar to most teachers, but LCE has a slightly different take on it. Called the “line of inquiry”, it is a question specific to a work of art, but that addresses ideas that can be examined outside of the context of that particular work. It spawns other questions that can be used on a more daily basis in class. For me, the biggest realization of using a line of inquiry (or essential question) is that the teacher should not have an overwhelming sense of the answer. This is good for a number of reasons, but primarily because it allows for student directed learning— authentic learning— and for students to have more ownership over what they are learning.

Here is an example of the line of inquiry—developed with a group of teachers in the LCE workshop—based on the poem mentioned above by Naomi Shihab Nye: How does Naomi Shihab Nye in “Making a Fist” use motifs of movement and location in time and space to explore the idea of borders?

A lot of time could be spent analyzing and discussing what makes a good line of inquiry, but for the sake of brevity, this and other good lines of inquiry are specific to a work of art, address writer’s craft and choices, doesn’t lead to a specific interpretation, and allows for students to arrive at the “So What” by themselves; all important things to consider when designing an essential question.

Importance of Questioning
When ready to move past the starting point of choosing a work of art and designing a line of inquiry, consider the instructional strategies you use in encountering the work and working with the line of inquiry. Perhaps the most crucial strategy that I learned about in greater depth with LCE and at Teachers College, was questioning— it’s absolutely vital! Teachers should use questioning in every capacity: as an instructional strategy, for discussion, and as an affective goal for your students to turn into critical thinkers by questioning what they see, read, and experience. Questioning and dialogue have an essential place in teaching. So, when examining a work of art, having a discussion, doing an activity, etc., use questions to help students notice, explore, and analyze a work of art.


Some Activities
Still on the practical side of things, I was introduced to some activities— maybe some teachers already use these— that are conducive to engaging with ideas and encountering works of art. There are of course many more activities that allow students to engage with ideas of a work of art, but these are a few of my favorites:
activities-engaging-ideas-work-art
TABLEAU
 Students in groups create a frozen scene that depicts a concept, idea, character, or anything else the teacher thinks is something that needs to be explored. Students are given time to figure out how they are going to embody that idea and why, after which they perform for a class (and hold that position) while others observe, ask questions, and analyze. It can be useful to first analyze as a class before asking the participants of the tableau what they did and why. Check out this video from Teaching Channel that shows this activity, along with a few other good ones, “Wall of Silence” and a small group discussion: https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/increase-engagement-and-understanding

GALLERY  WALK
Teacher hangs pictures around the room that illustrate an idea, concept, etc.; could be abstract or more concrete visualizations of the idea. Students then walk around the room and take time at each picture to look, notice, and write down something that stands out to them about that picture. They write this on a sticky note or a piece of paper/poster hanging next to the picture. Allow students the chance to view most or all of the pictures before beginning a discussion about what they noticed. Often students will begin to connect the content of the individual pictures to a larger concept, but teachers can prompt students to do this as well with questions like, “What do these have in common?” The gallery walk is a great way for students to be introduced to ideas in a work of art before they encounter it; they can also start to think critically about those ideas.

MAKING  ART
Using a variety of mediums to make art that illustrates a central idea or concept is a great way for students to begin engaging in that idea and thinking critically about it. Students can create drawings with crayons, markers, pastels, scissors and paper, and more. After students are done creating is the time to begin questioning and examining what they created. If the teacher wants to take that a step further, changing the art by combining it in some way, for example a collage, then examining that can help students to come up with new observations or ways to think about the idea.

GOLDEN  LINES

There are a variety of ways to do this, but the basic idea is that students share a sentence or two— either from a text or from their own writing in response to a work of art— and then share it out loud. It can be done “Quaker Meeting” style, where one person starts and everyone shares at the time that they feel like they want to, or going around in a circle, in small groups, etc. Doing this allows students to think about ideas and artist’s craft as they are entering discussion or preparing to encounter another work of art. Noticing commonalities or often repeated ideas or lines is a good place to begin discussion.
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At The Core of LCE: The Capacities for Imaginative Thinking
Finally, when talking about Lincoln Center Education, I have to mention the Capacities for Imaginative Thinking, the core of LCE’s approach to aesthetic education. Each capacity, and the accompanying questions, help students approach and encounter a work of art with greater critical thinking, perception, and understanding. Using these capacities as I think about how to plan lessons where students transact with a work of art has been transformational to my teaching. See also a printable PDF of the capacities.
Thinking About . . .
I plan to think and write more about what I learned at LCE and in my first year at Teachers College. Specifically, questioning and the role it plays in learning and instruction. Also, imagination— as described by Maxine Greene, the founder of LCE— and the dynamic between student choice, empowerment, imagination, literature and other text. I am an English teacher after all, and the power of literature when seen through the lens of imagination and empowerment underlies just about everything we do in the Language Arts classroom and in aesthetic education.

One Year Teaching in Desperation

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I’m sure we all have moments where we collapse at the end of the day, feeling like we’ve been run over in a stampede. I question myself — did that make even the slightest difference today? Are they learning anything?

That was me almost every day this year. Now that we’re reaching the end of the year, I feel like I’m emerging from the wreckage and can mostly see things through the smoke, although I don’t know if it will ever be totally clear. In the spirit of confidence, adventure, (and perhaps some well-appointed stereotypically millenial sense of difference-making or idealism), this year I accepted a job to teach reading intervention classes at a middle school that is incredibly diverse and–often heartbreakingly–disadvantaged in many ways. I’ve learned how to listen to students, understand why they act the way they do, develop personal relationships with them, and see what wonderful, resilient people they can be.  The faculty and staff here is full of amazing people, whose dedication shines through in their optimism and hard work–something that I’m grateful for because I know that not all schools with a population like ours have this.

Teaching here has been the biggest professional challenge of my life so far, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that it has also been one of the more significant personal and intellectual challenges also. I’ve worked desperately to make even the smallest difference–in their reading skills, in their lives. Also, I thought I was bringing my classroom management A-game before, but this experience makes me think otherwise. I have stretched and grown in so many ways. And such growing pains!

WHAT I DID
Wilderness survival specialists have a short list of things that help them make it through, right? Here are mine:
-Remembering that personal relationships make a huge difference, especially with the key players in any particular class.
-Being clear and consistent with rules and escalation of consequences.
-Routines can save you
-Attempts to engage and appeal to students and their culture and interests are often rewarded. (Diverse books are a must! Week in Rap, etc.)

WHAT WE NEED TO DO
Since working with these students I’ve been thinking a lot more about education and the current role it plays in a lot of students’ lives compared with the role it should be playing. I’ve become a little obsessed with this topic–particularly as it applies to the many millions of our students here in America that are not getting what they need from school–the kids in the lower percentages, the portion that is steadily and scarily growing. I often think (especially on tough days) about how students are affected the most by their home life, how they bring what happens at home to school and it has a great impact on their learning. I’ve read several articles that have offered interesting perspectives and sometimes understanding on the subject: How Can High-Poverty Schools Connect with Students? from Edutopia (read the whole series!), this Op-Ed from the NY Times, and The Terror from Junot Diaz & the NY Times.

BOOKS TO READ
I can’t really talk about my experience in the classroom this year without also talking about books that have allowed me to commiserate or that have cast further light into my or my student’s situation.
The Battle for Room 314: My Year of Hope and Despair in a New York City High School by Ed Boland was so realistic, sometimes I couldn’t handle the double dose of teaching and reading this book in one day. He has some incredible insights, in addition to just telling it like it is.
Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert D. Putnam was another critical text for me. This book gives voice to thoughts and questions that, as a teacher and a person, I’ve had for a while. Why does the past and its abundance of opportunity seem so golden compared with now? And why does it seem so hard to overcome some of these obstacles that I see students and others face? Identifying some of the factors and causes of these things was insightful for me as a teacher, but also in recognizing what opportunities I’ve had and what others around me are likely to have, and subsequently, how much we can help in turn. A few thoughts I liked: “…schools, though not a big part of the problem, might be a big part of the solution”, and that the “advantaged” have a greater political voice and such greater power that it “undermines political equality and thus democratic legitimacy.” This made me think of a quote from Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, “We in ancient countries have our past–we obsess over the past. They, the Americans, have a dream: they feel nostalgia about the promise of the future.” I felt such conflict over the fact that the American dream, and the role of education in it, seemed so unclear for my students.
Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives by David Denby is a good reminder and discussion that, albeit with a much more select sample and less diverse student population than mine, it is possible for many if not all teachers to help students to read and make meaning from literature–and that it still holds a critical place in our curriculum. I loved the examples of the passionate teachers in this book– passionate about literature and about teaching.

READING RESOURCES
These are some of the resources that have deepened my understanding of literacy instruction, for students anywhere on the range of levels–from barely below grade level to significantly below grade level:
The research base from Columbia’s Teachers College’s Reading and Writing Project (this is a great support–although maybe I’m a little biased since I’m at TC for my Masters); The Importance of Real Reading for Resistant Readers from Education Week; How I Turned My Kid into A Reader from Dinner: A Love Story; What Reading Does for The Mind from Cunningham & Stanovich, Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy from Scientific American; my school district used LETRS literacy training this year, and I really got a lot from it (professional development win)!
While my students desperately need phonics and comprehension strategies, the reading workshop is also a critical part of literacy curriculum, IMHO. And, Building Relationships with Students Through Books from Cult of Pedagogy.

Only a few more weeks until summer break! We got this.

For My Friend & Mentor

After being on a bit of maternity leave, then moving away for a while so my husband could complete his JD/MBA, I was back home and ran into a teaching colleague from my first couple of years teaching at a middle school. We spent a few minutes catching up, and toward the end of our conversation I was shocked to learn that a close teaching friend had passed away peacefully while I had been gone and busy with my life in other places. I can’t stop thinking about her. It’s been a bit of a shock. Especially, I think, because as a young(ish) teacher (in my mid-twenties), I don’t really think of those kinds of things happening. I am so focused on learning and growing and teaching right now, at the beginning of what I hope is a long career in education, that I don’t think much about the path that continues after teaching. My dear friend had retired shortly after I had left that school on maternity leave, and had had a long and wonderful teaching career. My thoughts lately have been largely about her–so much so that I had to write them down:

I remember how I felt my first years of teaching–who doesn’t remember the blur of disillusionment and hopefulness and exhaustion and revelation? But I vividly remember how you made me feel. They say you were a mentor to many, and I am one of that many. Countless teachers in their first years often find themselves in survival mode, but you made me feel like I was thriving. I was pushed to grow through the meetings I led and committees I served on, and above and beyond all I was pushed by my students to be the best I could be, to be innovative and revolutionary. I would talk with you about these things, about research I’d read, strategies I was trying, successes, failures, and frustrations, and you were always so impressed with me. You can’t imagine how this made me feel–that beyond just the success I felt with my students, you noticed me and my efforts and knew without a doubt that I stood out, that I could make a real difference. Doesn’t every teacher want to make a difference? I do. And you did, not just to your students but to me.

We laughed as co-conspirators over silly teacher humor and you helped me get through the day with your homemade treats. I was a little in awe of you as a teacher because you had so much experience and wisdom, but also as a person because you were someone who was always curious, always learning. Sitting by you at the faculty room lunch table always led to a new revelation about the way the world worked, or about something worth reading. You showed me what it meant to be interested in the world and people around you, and how to share that with your students and your peers. I like to think that you helped me develop that love of learning even more as you encouraged me and cheered for me.

I grew to have a confidence in myself because you showed me how great I was and how great I could be. Recognizing those things in others is one thing, but you always expressed them too. The kind, quiet, but passionate way you approached learning and teaching was such an example for me. You showed me friendship and love, and I’ll never forget it.

Nonfiction Book Picks from This School Year

Now that we’re partway into summer, I’ve been able to curate a short list of some nonfiction reading I’ve done this past school year–and these are the standout titles. Make some room on your summer reading list!

20170991The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession
As a younger teacher, it was really eye-opening for me to learn about the major ideas and thinkers that have shaped American education into what it is today. Things make a little more sense now. I also feel like I have a clearer vision of where I’d like to see things go with the future of teaching and education.

22571757It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love And War
A pretty incredible account of Lynsey Addario’s life as a war photographer, including life-defining moments such as being kidnapped, working with local people to get photographs, and more. Reading this gives me so much more understanding of what goes into a photograph taken in/of a conflict zone, and how much meaning and effort is behind it all. This memoir is fascinating, inspirational, and even suspenseful.

22609334Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis
Another eye-opener. This book gives voice to thoughts and questions that, as a teacher and a person, I’ve had for a while. Why does the past and its abundance of opportunity seem so golden compared with now? And why does it seem do hard to overcome some of these obstacles that I see students and others face? Identifying some of the factors and causes of these things was insightful for me as a teacher, but also in recognizing what opportunities I’ve had and what others around me are likely to have, and subsequently, how much we can help in turn. A thought I liked:
“…schools, though not a big part of the problem, might be a big part of the solution.”

8520610Quiet: The Power of Introverts in A World That Can’t Stop Talking
This has been getting a lot of attention lately, for good reason! (See her TED talk here.)I’m sure that this book, or parts of it at least, will speak to introverts everywhere–it’s pretty reaffirming. In the beginning I felt at times her tone was a little defiant, but as I settled into the book I started to really like the examples and the people whose stories she shared, particularly those of highly successful and innovative people that you wouldn’t otherwise think of as introverts–top business leaders, influential teachers, etc. the ideas that we should help everyone learn and succeed in their own way, as well as how to better handle group dynamics were enlightening… Particularly if you’re a parent or teacher, or an introvert yourself.

23158207How Google Works
I’ve talked about this book before. The short story: My mind is spinning with all the ways this could apply to teaching/education. Loved the parts on the “smart creative”, passion, and the “learning animal”. Really fascinating to learn about Google, too. Funny and reflective.

18377959Building A Better Teacher: How Teaching Works
The idea that teachers are made rather than born is an extremely important one. Especially in light of teacher evaluations, changing and new policies, and all the other things going in in education right now. This book concentrates on some big names in education that have worked or contributed in some way to showing that you can teach teachers how to teach–like Magdalene Lampert, Deborah Ball, Pam Grossman, Doug Lemov, etc. Some I’ve heard of and some I haven’t, but now am interested in work they’ve done. Plenty of great takeaways for teachers (I liked the ideas behind community “lesson study” from Japan, Instructional Activities, and the approach to academic rigor), but it also provides an overarching view of teacher education–where it has been and the direction it’s headed.

12743473The Storytelling Animal
A wonderful perspective on the role story plays in our lives. I enjoyed the ideas behind the evolutionary aspect of stories. It might be a little ironic that I didn’t really enjoy how the book was written–I would have liked less pictures with captioning that tended to go off on tangents and more of the research. But the points he makes about stories are really fascinating, and his “simulator” theory of storytelling is well worth the read.

13259960The Smartest Kids in The World And How They Got That Way
Teachers, Administrators, Parents, Anyone Who Cares About Education: read this! I really liked this book even though I’ve seen a lot of the research and articles before. It’s fairly common knowledge that the US is struggling with learning, especially when measured against other countries. While the facts were familiar, the insight that Ripley provided into not just our education system but other successful education systems worldwide was revelatory and sometimes unsettling. She does acknowledge that what works in other countries may not work in the US; we have more diversity and a different kind of government–but excuses like these are not going to be enough to stand on. In the end, Ripley has done some great storytelling and analyzing of the facts and ideas, and come up with something that is hopeful and informative. I’ve seen the bored students, the students who could do more but don’t feel that any more is expected of them, and I agree, things are at a turning point. This book adds something valuable and worthwhile to that discussion.

You can follow me on Goodreads here. Also, a few books on my radar (anyone else read these yet?):
25590449From Master Teacher to Master Learner by Will Richardson
From Goodreads: Seamlessly adapt to an ever-changing culture. Educators must continually adjust to the present world and its digital technologies to create effective classrooms. Investigate the qualities and roles you should adopt to grow into a master learner, and explore the tools and techniques necessary to coach students in gaining the skills and literacies they need to become successful learners.25072947

The New Teacher Revolution
From Goodreads: Today’s classroom demands teacher innovation and rejection of outdated practices, especially when someone tells you it’s “always been done” a certain way. In this book, Josh Stumpenhorst details his methods for improving student outcomes with unorthodox thinking. Content includes: Building relationships built on trust and respect, not fear and punishment. Why you need to rethink homework and letter grades, which—in their current forms—are harming learning, and how to leverage technology by not treating it as a “shiny toy”, but rather fully understanding their power as tools for massive progress.

How Google Works (and how it can work for teaching)

Do you ever read books, not entirely or even not at all related to education, and your mind just spins with the possibilities and implications it has for teaching? It’s one of the reasons I love to read nonfiction, especially from disciplines other than my own. It broadens your perspectives and gives you fresh ideas that revitalize your approach to teaching (in addition to being entertaining). My husband is in the business world, and once I sampled a little of this book about the successful ideologies of Google written by the people behind Google, I stole it away to finish–and was thrilled at multiple points with thinking how it could relate so well to teaching . . .

From How Google Works by Eric Schmidt & Jonathan Rosenberg:

One of the concepts that most resonated with me was the idea of the “smart creative”. Isn’t this really what a teacher must be? Isn’t it what we want to be–autonomous and highly effective in our own classrooms? Their description of a smart creative brings new ideas on how a teacher can function effectively in this day and age of education. In order to not violate fair trade guidelines by quoting entire chapters of this book to you, I’ll settle for summarizing and listing just a few of the things they say about smart creatives:

  • Have a deep technical knowledge
  • Comfortable with data, understanding “its fallacies and is wary of endless analysis. Let data decide, she believes, but don’t let it take over.”
  • Innovative, and not always just during the hours they are being paid for
  • a “power user” who “understands her product from the user or consumer’s perspective.”
  • a “firehose of new ideas” who has her own perspective but can see things from other perspectives too
  • “always questioning, never satisfied with the status quo . . .”
  • an “open creative” who collaborates and “judges ideas and analyses on their merits and not their provenance”
  • “communicative creative”–communicates with flair and possibly charisma to diverse  audiences

The authors are fair in also mentioning how not every smart creative possesses all of the characteristics that they discuss. Smart creatives are diverse but can also be found in all places. They are “the ambitious ones of all ages who are eager (and able) to use the tools of technology to do a lot more. Their common characteristic is that they work hard and are willing to question the status quo and attack things differently. This is why they can have such an impact.” (page 18-20)

Isn’t it exciting to think of teachers as smart creatives? People with deep subject knowledge, who are innovative and curious? It almost goes without saying that teachers are hard working–doing the work even beyond the normal hours. A “smart creative” teacher can combine those things with technology and the many digital and other literacies demanded by students these days and achieve amazing results. As a teacher, do you think of yourself like this–as a smart creative?

And a word on passion (cause obviously we’re not in it for the money):
“Passionate people don’t wear their passion on their sleeves; they have it in their hearts. They live it. Passion is more than resume-deep, because it’s hallmarks–persistance, grit, seriousness, all-encompassing absorption–cannot be gauged from a checklist. “ (page 101)

I can’t think of a better way to describe a teacher. Deeply passionate about what they do, of course. But also possessing those things that we are coming to realize make a big difference for students when they are young and in our classrooms, and also when they are people out there in the real world: persistence, grit.

Lastly, I thought these ideas on the “learning animal” are particularly prescient for the teaching profession:
We know plenty of very bright people who, when faced with the roller coaster of change, will choose the familiar spinning-teacups ride instead. They would rather avoid all those gut-wrenching lurches; in other words, reality. Henry Ford said that “anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” Our ideal candidates are the ones who prefer roller coasters, the ones who keep learning. These “learning animals” have the smarts to handle massive change and the character to love it.” (page 102-103)

As educators, we know that this business is a roller coaster ride. From changes in policy and curriculum to the changing dynamics of the students that come in and out of our classrooms, change is something we must accept. But embracing it, and even taking it a step further; as teachers we must always be learning and growing, particularly in this time of widely available information and technology. Keep up with the times and teach your students the things that will help them be successful for the world today. How can we expect our students to be lifelong learners if we don’t make the effort to learn and grow with the times we live in? It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, sure, but that doesn’t make it any less important. I love thinking of teachers as intelligent people who make the best of the change they are constantly faced with.