Beyond Classroom Walls: Encouraging Independent Reading and Engaging the Community

Too often, students, at least those in middle school, maintain and apply the skills  and habits we seek to build in our English classroom struggle once they walk out of our doors.  Of particular interest to me today is how we build up students to read for pleasure.  There are many great classroom practices, such as free-choice book units and independent reading time built into the school days.  One of our hopes in these practices is that students will find an appreciation for reading within the school day that they will eventually pursue on their own.  For many students, though, even if they enjoy the practice of selecting their own titles and reading independently at school, it becomes more of a task in the real, often chaotic worlds they live in outside our walls.  Lately the question of turning a reading practice into a reading habit follows me everywhere I go.

Star Wars ShakespeareOne thing I think is key to creating independent readers among young teens, especially, is showing them that they are  surrounded by independent readers and that those independent readers are not only their peers.  I try to keep a book I am reading for pleasure on my desk at school at all times.  It usually takes me a long time to finish these titles since there is not much time for pleasure-reading in my day, but it’s presence and the slow progress of its book mark is still valuable.  Right now, you will find Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope by Ian Doescher presiding over my desk.  Despite my significant lack of Star Wars knowledge, it is clever, funny, and surprisingly well done, but I will provide a review when I finish in a few weeks.  My hope is that they will see that not all reading is assigned and that there is a surprising amount of variety out there.  Star Wars written in the style of Shakespeare? Who would have thought!?!

A screenshot of outrteacher book collage from my class website.

A screenshot of outrteacher book collage from my class website.

Still, I am their English teacher, and of all the adults they know, my students expect me to be one who reads for pleasure.  I needed to expand the picture for them.  I reached out to my fellow 8th grade teachers and asked them what they were reading for pleasure that would also be appropriate for our students.  The response was great!  I created a collage/slideshow on my class website (see screenshot to the right) to illustrate for students that reading for pleasure is not reserved for English teachers alone.  Math teachers read! Science teachers read! History teachers read! And, they read things you may be interested in!  I also wanted to provide these teachers with a new avenue for reaching out to their students by showing the kids what their teachers are reading and hopefully inspiring some new conversations and connections.

So, now students know that there are adults out there who read for pleasure, but you may have noticed by now, that one critical element is missing.  Parents.  Teachers are a unique subset of adults in the minds of teens, and what applies to teachers does not always apply to the world around them.  Teens need to see adults in the world outside their school, and their parents in particular, reading – maybe even reading to them!  On numerous occasions, I have had eighth grade parents share with me that their children used to be readers, but that their enthusiasm has drop as they progressed through middle school.  Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon pattern as students go through dramatic changes that seem to consume their thoughts and more demands are placed on their time.  Just because it is a pattern, though, does not mean it needs to persist.  In communication with parents, I usually give three pieces of common, research-based practices in encouraging a student’s at-home reading practice.  Feel free to share with the parents of your own students:

  • As a family, make sure that reading for pleasure is a visible act from time to time.  If reading for fun is modeled, it will become a more normalized activity that teens are more likely to pursue on their own. 
  • Have casual conversations about what your teen is reading.  These conversations should not feel like work or a quiz.  For instance, I know that [insert student’s name] just started a book for independent reading titled [insert title and author].  This title could be a great jumping off point for some dinner table conversations.
  • When appropriate, recommend something you have read to your teen, or read a book you may both be interested together. 

Hopefully,at least some of these practices are already a part of a family’s environment, but even when they are, I remind parents that being a little more intentional in them can make a difference.

How do you move beyond reading logs and book reviews to help students turn reading independently into a valuable habit?

My Latest Tech Tool Experiment: Piktochart and the Value of Infographics

When time allows, and sometimes even when it doesn’t, I like trying out new technology tools for the classroom.  I am the type of technology user I have deemed the tech-experimenter.  I learn through trial-and-error; I work backwards, forwards, and backwards again; I push all the buttons (only occasionally to the dismay of our tech department).

Recently, at the NCTE National Convention back in November, I heard Penny Kittle speak on the importance of adding infographics into our students’ critical reading repertoire, and perhaps even their writing repertoire.  In response, I decided to try my hand at infographic creation and made it the focus of my next tech-experiment.

Romeo and Juliet Characters InfographicAfter looking around at my options, I selected Piktochart as my tool and Romeo and Juliet characters as my subject.  Piktochart has a great drag-and-drop format, plenty of examples, and a great pre-loaded library of templates, backgrounds, fonts, graphics, etc.  It took me about thirty-forty minutes to make the infographic to my left, but I’m sure I will become a little quicker and creative with repeated use.

Next came integrating the graphic into our lesson.  I did not spend forty minutes creating the image just to have them file it away in their notebooks for future reference.  It was a great chance to practice some close reading of a visual.  Inspired by Kittle’s talk, we asked ourselves the following about the infographic:

Why do the following matter:

  1. Color choice (consider backgrounds, text, and graphics)?
  2. Icon/image selection and placement?
  3. Order in which information is presented and arranged?

These questions can be applied to just about any infographic and really help students engage with this unique form of presenting information.  Can you think of any other general questions you might add to my list?  Eventually, I would like students to be able to create their own infographics.  Perhaps in conjunction with a research project?

Also, feel free to save and use my graphic if it suits your needs, but please do not claim it as your own (See Creative Commons note in footer).  Thanks!

Book Review: I’m Glad I Did by Cynthia Weil

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Cynthia Weil’s story of the music industry in the 1960’s is a quick and enjoyable read.  J.J. Green has just graduated from high school and dreams of making it as a songwriter in the music industry despite the fact the it is practically a house rule that all Green children become lawyers. J.J. Has one short summer to prove to her family that she has enough talent to follow her dream.  After securing a summer job in New York’s music district’s historic Brill Building, the teen protagonist is taken on a wild ride including meeting and working with her musical icon, reconnecting with an estranged uncle, falling in love for the first time, and even helping to solve a murder mystery.

It is clear that Weil knows her way around the music business and her insight helps to create a colorful and engaging setting for the book. Key events from the civil rights movement are referenced throughout; however, the book seems to lack the sense of electric tension those events generated. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed this book that, more than anything, is about family and forgiveness.  Additionally, I find it refreshing to come across a novel for teens that is not laced with swear words and suggestive scenes yet that I also think will still be enjoyed by a wide range of young adults.

Advanced Review Copy provided by the publisher through Netgalley.

And Then, Sometimes, They Get It.

There have been moments where I have told my students that they cannot silently out-stare me.  “When I ask a question,” I say, “you cannot stare me down to the point that I feel awkward, give in, and spill the beans on the answer.”  They try any way.  Among our students there seems to be a growing pattern of passivity.  They would rather be told than find out; they would rather get than build.  On a recent survey of my students, one in particular complained about the fact that I don’t just tell them answers but instead make them look it up and discuss possibilities with their peers.  The tone was negative, but I smiled slightly at the comment.  It meant I was doing something right.

As teachers however, we do not only want students to learn how to learn and think critically.  We also want students to learn to enjoy the process and make it a habit for how they approach and interact with the world around them – even if it’s hard.  As middle school students, the ideas and suggestions of adults are often dead-on-arrival.  What do grown-ups know anyway?  Still, we are planting seeds and hope that students will recognize the value of these days in the days to come.

Every now and again, though, they get it in real-time.  Some will share there revelation with you; others will try to hide it, but I bet you catch it anyway.  For my classroom, these moments most often come during my Romeo and Juliet unit.  There is much digging in of the heels and protesting at the start. “He wrote in Old English!” they cry.  “False,” I calmly reply. “Stomp your feet all you want. It’s okay. We will agree in a few weeks.”  Then, I get to catch them having fun.  It is the best kind of I-told-you-so.  Last week, I had a student verbalize this moment for the class.  We had spent several days writing our own sonnets.  On Friday, students were given the opportunity to share their sonnets if they wish, and a surprising number of students signed up.  Towards the end of one class period, one student shared with the class that she had been frustrated for most of the writing process and didn’t really understand why we had to do it.  “Today, though,” She said. “I’m so glad that we did!” Yes!  I wanted to plant her in each of my classes so they could hear her, as well.

Feel free to share your own “They get it!” moments in the comments.

Return to Blogging

I have decided to end my blogging hiatus and return to TeacherNextDoor.  Thank you for your patience.  I hope that you are ready to return, as well!  If you are a teacher and have ever changed schools, especially if you have moved to a school that operates quite differently from your previous one, you may have some idea of why my break from blogging was so extended.  At first it was just a whirlwind.  Then, when the dust settled, it turned out that it was a whirlwind that deposited me in a territory that required a change in my general operating mode.  That new mode did not include blogging, but now that it is no longer new and I feel like I have my feet under me a little bit more, I am ready to return.

For a while, I don’t think that I realized that I missed this place.  I knew something was missing, but I didn’t know that I had left it behind here.  Firstly, I need the consistency it brings to my reflection practice and my writing practice.  A line from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (also found in the right-hand column of this page) embodies some of my intentions for starting and now continuing this work: “I talk half the time to find out my own thoughts, as a school-boy turns his pockets inside out to see what is in them. One brings to light all sorts of personal property he had forgotten in his inventory.” On top of a reflective writing practice, though, I also desire the community that comes with it.  I have begun a slow return to Goodreads and hope that my return to the blog will also help me return to the education-based professional development on twitter.  Perhaps you will join me?

I would like you to know that I have actually written you many, perhaps even hundreds, of posts in these years where the blog has lain fallow.  Unfortunately, they were composed entirely in my head driving to and from work, in the shower, trying to fall asleep at night, and so forth.  I do not remember them, but I am pretty sure they were insightful, well-written, practical, actionable, and everything else you would want out of a post. 🙂 For now, I am excited to share what I have learned and what I am learning as we move forward together once again.

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