By Kate Harpel
Have students ever asked you why they have to learn a specific skill or told you that they don’t need your class for their future career? Do you ever feel that students have lost their desire to learn? These questions plagued me every school year until I discovered 20% Projects.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, 20% Projects refers to Google’s commitment to giving their workers 20 percent of their work time to work on personal projects that might benefit Google. Since the concept was released to the public, there has been some debate regarding the existence of the management model, but the idea behind 20% Projects--also known as Genius Hour--still resonates in the classroom.
Intrinsic motivation in the classroom--can you imagine?Students working independently on their own passion projects, stopping occasionally to share something new that they learned. It almost sounds too good to be true.
But to varying degrees, it turned out just as good as it sounds. Last year, I introduced 20Time Projects to my freshmen. With some guidance, students pitched unique project ideas to their classmates such as learning how to make handmade fish bait and tackle to becoming a balloon animal master. Administration would walk into my room and find students coding, creating 3D models using 3D printer software, learning chords, crocheting, and painting along with Bob Ross. It was amazing to behold.
To encourage my students, I participated in my own 20% Project. I attempted to learn American Sign Language (ASL) so that I could better communicate with my new student, and I am happy to share that by the end of the project I was able to get by in simple conversation without the aid of the interpreter! I even practiced with a few students who also chose to learn ASL; half a year later, we still sign when we see each other in the hallway!
Note: Do not use this edition of this book. As I was horrified to learn, it is terribly outdated. If you are looking to learn ASL, consider Dr. Bill Vicars’ website and YouTube channel. He’s hilarious.
This year I plan to adapt 20% Projects into a community/service learning project for my college-readiness seniors. Over the summer they perused articles, podcasts, and TEDtalks about a subject of their choice, and my hope is that they will use what they learned for good. Perhaps the girl who researched the history of makeup and hair will organize a free makeup and hair salon pop up for girls in need before Homecoming/Prom. The possibilities are endless!
If you’d like to give 20% Projects a shot, consider checking out Laura Randazzo’s free materials or 20Time’s website, which boasts a variety of videos regarding student successes. Your students will thank you.
What 20% Project would you take on in your classroom? What amazing projects have your students completed? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
Kate Harpel teaches English and Mythology at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County. She is a West Virginia native, a graduate of the Benedum Collaborative 5-Year Teacher Education Program at West Virginia University, and has been teaching for the past four years. A full time mother to a one-year-old, a full-time wife, and a full-time teacher, Kate spends her elusive free-time in the company of mochas, YA literature, and Netflix.
By: Jeni Gearhart
Dear Teacher on the First Day of School,
Deep breath, this is going to be good. You were born for this.
To the brand-new teacher on your very first day, you can do this.
To the seasoned teacher on your 10th, 25th, or 30th first day, you can do this.
To the burnt-out teacher who barely made it to May last year, you can do this.
To the new mom trying to figure out how to be both Supermom and Rockstar Teacher, you can do this.
To all of us as we pack our lunchboxes and brush the dust off our teacher shoes, we’ve got this.
Every year is different. Every kid is different. The standards change, the tests change, the expectations change—but the heart of this job is the same. The reasons why we got up at 5 AM this morning are sitting in the desks in front of you. The kids matter more than anything else.
Remember the kid who said last year “Miss, this is the first book I’ve liked since 5th grade. Do you got any more like that?”
Remember when that same kid started begging for a few extra minutes of reading time because he needed to find out how the chapter ended.
Remember the kid who wrote the beautiful essay that made you cry—that was the kid who could not write in paragraphs in September.
Remember the kid who calls you “mom” and says it intentionally.
Remember the kid who broke your heart when you found out that he had been abused for years.
Remember the kid who stopped showing up to your class because she was transferred when she was finally moved to a safer home.
Remember why you are here.
To the new teacher, you are probably feeling a rollercoaster of emotions right now.
Last week, you thought you were completely ready to walk into that classroom and solve all of the problems of education. This morning you felt so nauseous you couldn’t eat breakfast and you cried on the way home. Don’t worry. That’s normal. And you will probably feel that every year.
New teacher, these next words are for you. You have signed up for one of the hardest jobs in the world, but you are going to be great. You are not, however, going to be perfect. You are going to mess up hundreds of times this year. That’s ok. Learn from your mistakes, try new things, and ask for advice.
To the seasoned teacher, remember why you entered this profession. Look through that box of thank you notes from past students. Try something new this year. Remember your excitement when you first started. Find that again. Encourage new teachers. They need you.
To the teacher who barely made it to May last year, take care of yourself this year. Find people who give you joy. Read a book or two for you this year, bake some cookies this weekend, or get back in the habit of going to the gym. It is okay that last year wasn’t perfect. This year is a new year. You’ll be great.
To the new mom struggling to figure out a new balance, you can do it. You don’t have to be perfect in either job to still make an impact. Your family knows you love them, and your students do too. Be present.
Teacher, you matter.
This job weighs on our souls. The essays come home with us every night, and the burdens of our students come home too.
Remember the stories of triumph. Remember that for every kid who you can’t reach, there are 15 who will remember your name forever.
Politicians don’t get it, and often the higher ups have forgotten what it is to be in the trenches. Don’t let that keep you from trying to do the impossible.
Teacher, you matter more than the test scores and the school grades. Your students know that even if the newspapers do not.
Teacher, your heart is huge and it breaks easily. When it feels impossible, remember that you are doing something important.
Teacher, take a deep breath. Take those new supplies into the classroom, pack your teacher bag, and walk in with a smile. You’ve got this.
It’s a new year, and it is going to be a good one.
This job matters. You matter.
By Shana Karnes
It’s back to school time! I’m so excited!
I love it. I can’t help it. Every year, I am just overflowing with optimism, excitement, ideas, and a huge cart full of school supplies. I’m usually armed with paint for my classroom, wall decals, new Expo markers, and of course, a truck full of books. Even this year, when I don’t get a classroom of my own to decorate and overflow, I showed up in my friends’ classrooms to help them paint, sort, organize, and plan.
The beginning of every school year is fun for me because it is so full of hope. Hope that this year, this time, will be the one where it all comes together for me, where I feel like a great teacher, where every single student comes to fall in love with reading and writing, where everything is perfect.
Of course, reality and my teacher dreams are two totally different things, but August affords me hope for the possibility that those dreams can come true.
As for my students, I know that despite all of their eye-rolling, stand-offish, sarcastic banter, they are just kids who want to be happy and purposeful and successful. They all have hope every August, too, no matter how goofy they might act. I know this from reading their notebooks, writing conferences, and mid-September lunch conversations, in which I hear how they hope this English class is different, this school year is better, this fall isn’t full of drama and stress and failure.
So, why would I dash all of that hope, on the part of every learner in my classroom, by setting any tone other than one of optimism on the first days of school? Why would we ever want to start a year the same old, same old way, with stacks of syllabi, xerox copies of interest inventories, the distribution of dusty textbooks, and a traditional teacher-centered dynamic in which I say what we’re going to be doing and the students all sit back and listen?
It took me a few years to realize the disconnect between my summer idealism and the traditional structure of my first few days of class. No high school student is ever anxious to receive their syllabus, textbook, or homework--so I don’t really need to deal with that on the first day.
When I began to wonder what kind of tone I was setting by sticking with the traditional first day activities, those activities went out the window. Instead, I tried to consider what might set the tone for a year of student-centered, inquiry-based reading, writing, talking, and thinking.
Instead of passing out textbooks, we explored my classroom library. I had stacks of books sitting on desks around the room and we practiced “speed dating” with them. We shared which books we’d already read, would like to read, or had heard were good or bad.
Instead of an ice-breaking get to know you activity that I’d likely forget after a week, we set up writer’s notebooks, explored funny writings and writing prompts from former years’ students, or wrote funny tweets about our summers on the whiteboard.
Instead of passing out the syllabus, we talked about our learning goals in partners and small groups. I shared my own learning goals for myself as a model, then asked students to consider very specific goals in terms of their growth in reading, writing, speaking, and listening. We had wonderful conversations about which kinds of reading and writing interested us, which helped guide my planning.
Instead of emphasizing the rules and expectations I had for students, I listened to what they were saying and jotted ideas in my writer’s notebook pertaining to what would keep them engaged. Hot topics in the news or media could be mentor texts. Interesting new social media apps could be writing products. The best new movie was likely based on a book I could talk up.
This year, at the college level, I’ll consider what tone I’m setting with our first day’s activities. We’re going to do some yoga before we read a little from Pose, Wobble, Flow. We’ll personalize our writer’s notebooks and start the year by noting how our passions center us, and how those passions can inspire our teaching. We’ll craft parts of our syllabus together on Google Docs, negotiating deadlines, feedback protocols, and reading options.
In these activities, we’ll practice reading, writing, talking, listening, and thinking creatively, critically, and individualistically--which is exactly the tone I want to set for this year, a year that is full of promise and hope and wonder that it really will be the best year ever.
What will you be doing with students on your first day of school? WVCTE wants to know! Please tell us by commenting on this post, sharing on our Facebook page, or letting us know on Twitter!
Shana Karnes teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University. She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life. Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or find more of her writing about secondary readers-writers workshop at Three Teachers Talk.
By Connie Colvin
I love books! For us as English teachers, books are probably a huge part of why we do what we do. This summer I tore through more than 20 books and enjoyed every page: everything from great thrillers like The Girl on the Train, YA books like 13 Reasons Why, fun mysteries like the Flavia de Luce series, and even a few professional books like Notice and Note. This summer my 11th-grade son tore through exactly one book and only because he was forced to for AP Summer Reading. I’m sure he isn’t alone. With school starting back for most of us any day, this is our chance to get good books back in the hands of our students, many of them reluctant readers. That’s where our classroom libraries come in.
Whether it’s just a small collection of high interest novels you’ve gathered for SSR or an entire wall filled with exciting fiction and non-fiction organized by genre, classroom libraries are so important for offering kids easy, instant, daily access to quality books. Yes, most of our schools have a library, but the school library can be intimidating, inconvenient, or inaccessible for kids for a multitude of reasons. We love to read. We want them to love to read. Share your love by sharing books!
When I started my job at the end of the 2014-15 school year, I inherited a tall tan bookshelf full of a very odd collection of male action hero novels and non-fiction coffee table books like The Making of Thriller. I took what I had and over the summer started building a collection that has become my favorite feature in my classroom. I love to add to it, I love to share what’s in it. These are some tips I’ve learned along the way.
I had this huge, ugly shelf to fill, only a few salvageable books, a few months, and a budget. How to find cheap and free books my kids would be interested in reading? The first thing I did was put a plea out on Facebook asking for donations from friends with teenage kids. I had two high school girls clean out their rooms and quickly scored two big boxes of books! One of those girls, now in college, recently contacted me and told me she’s bringing me another box! Once my students found out I will put a sticker inside the book telling them who donated it to my library, I had several current students donate as well. One student gave me a complete, barely touched set of the Chronicles of Narnia last year he didn’t want anymore!
Next I kept an eye out for church and library book sales, which happen several times a year in my town. Get there early for the best selection and enjoy! I do love book sales. Goodwill and the Salvation Army thrift stores sell books cheaply, as well. I hit my local Goodwill every couple of months and always find popular paper and hardbacks that are always wearing out like Harry Potter, the Twilight Series, The Hunger Games, Nicholas Sparks books and more. At $1.50 for hardbacks and $1 for paperbacks, it’s a goldmine. For SSR time during our homeroom advisory period, I like to have comic books on hand, as well. Our local comic shop will donate boxes of old comics to teachers for their classrooms, yours may well do the same or at least give them to you very cheaply.
Finally, when I know what I want to buy (and I’ve usually always got a list going!), I go to ThriftBooks.com. Thrift Books sells used paper and hardback books starting at $3.79. You get free shipping with a $10 purchase, and every $50 you spend earns you $5 off your next order. They carry such a volume of most books, my colleagues and I have bought classroom sets of used novels at a great price.
I quickly learned that 9th and 10th graders are hard on paperback books. They get dropped, shoved, crammed, and mauled in every which way. I’ve even had kids find them in the school bathroom. This is where putting your last name on the bottom edge of the book (and inside the front cover!) comes in great handy. I also found an online tutorial on how to cover paperbacks with clear contact paper, and I put my student assistant to work. If you want to save wear and tear on your books and not have to keep buying new copies, it’s definitely worth the effort. Read here how you can cover a book with clear plastic film, or if you prefer video, check this one out.
Now you’ve got some great books and you’ve got them protected. How do you keep track of them? I have been happy doing it the old-fashioned way using a checkout binder that sits in a magnetic file organizer stuck to the side of my shelf. When my students want to check out a book, they write down the title, their name, the date, and their class period. I give students three weeks or so before I start checking up on them. While students are working independently in class, I will go around and ask about their progress in their books and chat with them about it. It’s a great chance for one on one conversations and sharing the book love. As long as they’re making progress, I let them keep the book out. Checking in with them also helps remind them to bring books back when they’re done, when they just enter the date they brought it back. Because I’m not militant about my book checkout, I find I do lose some books at the end of the year, especially the most popular titles. But I’m okay with that. Many of my students have very little access to books at home. I will happily donate a cheap book or five and I like to think someone is out there enjoying them.
If you want to be more tech savvy, however, my colleague started using an online classroom library circulation app last year called Book Retriever and she has been very happy with it. She scanned all of her book barcodes in with her phone, then uses her phone during class to check out and receive returned books. The free app also allows her to track student reading habits and offers book leveling information. Because of the volume of books I have on my shelves and extras stashed in my closet, I haven’t taken the techno plunge yet. Something new I just discovered that I might add this year, however: color-coded genre stickers.
Once you’re ready to circulate your books, you need to get your students interested in checking them out. We talk about books a lot in my classroom. When kids hear what other kids are enjoying reading and the book is right in front of them, chances are good they are going to pick it up. I use book passes, book talks (both formal and informal), student-made book posters and interactive bulletin boards to drum up interest in my library. When I get new books, I show them off before I put them on the shelves. If we’re reading survival themed stories, I grab a stack of related novels and give impromptu book reviews. I’ll never forget the year-long argument one of my classes had over whether The Alchemist was a decent read or not. Every time a student finished it, those who had read it would ambush the newbie and demand answers. I’ve never had more book buzz than when I posted my 10th grade Honors students’ posters for the banned books they had chosen for their 3rd term independent reading novels. My 9th graders were fascinated with the concept of a banned book. It makes me excited just thinking about students getting excited about books!
As I get back to work next week, I know my reading rate is going to plummet, but I’m hoping the opposite will be true for my students. I’m hoping I can excite a new group this year and hear them ask each other “what are you reading?” However you choose to get (and keep) good books back in front of your kids this fall, remember how you feel about reading and remember to share the book love.
WVCTE is wondering what your classroom library looks like!
What tips do you have for teachers just beginning to build their libraries? Which books fly off your classroom library shelves? How does independent reading play a role in your classroom?
Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
After being a stay-at-home mom for 14 years, Connie Colvin finally fulfilled her dream of becoming a high school English teacher in 2015 at the age of 40. She is beginning her third full year of teaching 9th and 10th grade English at Parkersburg High School. When she’s not teaching, Connie can be found long distance walking (while listening to an audiobook!) or knitting, crocheting, or sewing. She is thrilled to say having her eldest son in class (or, as he called it, Mom World) last year was a wonderful experience for both of them, and she hopes to have her youngest in class in 2018. She is working to gather a Wood County group of WVCTE’ers this fall.
By Dr. Renee Peterson
The blank page, the blinking cursor, the brand-new plan book, the new school year - these are things that haunt us: the writers, the teachers, and worse, the teachers of writing. I spent twenty years teaching young people the craft of writing well, and for quite some time I approached each new school year wondering how to capture their attention and help them to find a reason to write and a desire to write well.
I believed that becoming a good writer needed to start with two pre-writing requirements: reading good writing and thinking interesting thoughts. One who writes must know what good writing looks like and must have something to say about something. As you teach, you collect those gems that you consider your “go to” passages, lessons, activities that always seem to resonate with the students. Years ago, I found an interesting piece by Paul Auster entitled “Why Write?” This selection is brief and interesting, and it can lead to many first discussions or assignments as you begin to discover your students. No matter what objective I wanted my students to accomplish, this little essay did its job. “Why Write?” became a gem of mine.
The following is section 5 from Auster’s essay printed in The New Yorker’s final edition of 1995.
Before beginning a discussion of text, have your students number the paragraphs if that task hasn’t already been completed. Then during the discussion, the speaker has a way to refer to the mentioned passage.
In your preparation for the lesson, choose the skills or ideas that you want your students to learn and have a plan to get them there. Although a discussion of a text can rabbit-trail in many directions, as the instructor/facilitator, you need to be ready to lead them with a purpose. The following are examples of ideas I wanted my students to take away from this passage, you may think of so many more!
To understand a writer, the reader should make a connection with him/her, however, students tend to focus on those things that are foreign to them. To help my students to grasp this concept, I told them to circle any word/phrase/idea that was unfamiliar. They typically began with names, the players listed in the first paragraph, anything having to do with baseball, then unfamiliar vocabulary such as brusque in paragraph 5. They may use this as their argument for why they cannot find common ground with this writer or make any connection to the text. Move the discussion to the things that they like, music, sports, film – anything with celebrities to idolize. They will soon realize that there is a familiar concept here: the excitement of meeting a celebrity that you idolize. Huzzah! Connection made. This connection may grow into empathy for 8-year-old Auster lamenting the autograph he could have had… if only. Conversely, when it is time for your students to write, encourage them to think of placing the details of a new event or idea within a familiar frame. Good writers never need to say, “you had to be there”; a good writer takes you there.
Writing prompt: Using the familiar frame of a journey, describe a journey you have recently experienced – remember it must have a beginning, a middle, and an end!
One text can have various levels of meaning. I approach this concept in different ways depending upon the current ability of the students. For my AP students, we may discuss this concept as the supposed thesis and the actual thesis. For my freshmen, we may discuss “what the piece is about” and “what the piece is REALLY about.” Other times we may simply discuss the thing and the other thing. In Auster’s text, what is the thing, the supposed thesis, what the piece is about? If the students have been conditioned to find the thesis in the position of the final sentence in the opening paragraph, then they will quickly find the thing: the hero-worship of ball-player-celebrity Willie Mays. But is that what the text is really about? As you encourage the discussion as a class or in partners or in groups, you will find some of them heading to the idea that Auster is sharing his story of how he became a writer (par. 10) or why he is always prepared.
Writing prompt: Tell a story about something that happened to you with a lesson that could apply to anyone.
Repetition with a purpose is a powerful rhetorical tool. Auster’s text opens with the statement, “I was eight years old.” Very declarative, matter-of-fact, attention given to the audience in the fact that we all can relate to being eight years old. He immediately takes us back to a time in which the immediate is paramount, and one simple event can send us into convulsions of anguish. We get it. We understand the childish idolatry of a celebrity. Age teaches us that celebrities are merely human beings, just like us. In paragraph 8 Auster repeats the clause, “I was eight years old,” but it’s different this time. The first time, we understand that he is differentiating himself from adults, he was only eight. Later when struggling to fight the tears of frustration and loss, he is desperate to differentiate himself from babies: he was a “big kid” and should not cry over such silly, childish things! They may have been the identical words, but the meaning is very different.
Writing challenge with an open prompt: write a simple clause. Use that clause as the first sentence in your essay, then again later in an essay with a very different meaning.
Failure can be a more powerful, life-altering experience than success. Depending upon your group of students, this may be the only lesson needed from this text. Too often our students see failure as something that is horrible instead of viewing it as a springboard to something new. Even the most literal students seem to be able to make the inference that Auster’s failure to get the Mays autograph led to his carrying a pencil always, which in turn, helped him on his way to becoming a writer. Journal entry or quick write: share a failure you experienced and explain what you learned from it.
Titles have significance…usually. From time to time an editor will throw a title on a text simply from the necessity of having one, but when a writer chooses a title for a text that he has written, he has a reason for it. Why is the title “Why Write?” rather than “Why I Write?” What is the difference in meaning? If you have been discussing several aspects of this text, the students should be running away with ideas here, if not, you may lead them with yours. With advanced students, I have paired this text with two essays entitled, “Why I Write?” by George Orwell and Joan Didion. Adding paired texts gives more opportunity for making connections, drawing conclusions, and having thoughts that prompt writing. Writing prompt 1: Explain the significance of the title of the essay. Writing prompt 2: Compare/contrast Auster’s essay to either Didion’s or Orwell’s essay. Be sure to address the similarities/differences in the titles and the significance of such.
Be prepared! Recently I was reading Twyla Tharp’s 2003 book, The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life, and in chapter 2, “Rituals of Preparation” she mentions this very essay by Paul Auster. She uses it to encourage her readers to be ready to be creative: “What is your pencil” she writes, “What is the one tool that feeds your creativity and is so essential that without it you feel naked and unprepared?... Pick your ‘pencil’ and don’t leave home without it” (Tharp, 2003, 30). What a wonderful way to begin the school year – encouraging your students to be prepared to learn, to read, to write, to think every day. Quick write or journal entry: Choose your “pencil.” What is the tool you need every day to be ready to be an excellent, productive learner?
READ, THINK, WRITE… then we talk. If I had a nickel for every time I have given this instruction to my students in the past twenty-some years, I could retire already. Get them reading, thinking, writing, and discussing… our little gems can get that started!
WVCTE is wondering....
How do you get students reading, thinking, writing, and discussing?
Auster, Paul. (1995) Why Write? The New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1995/12/25/why-write.
Tharp, Twila. (2003) The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Dr. Renee Peterson is the theatre instructor, the International Thespian Society Troupe 8066 director, the Cardinal Players director, and the Drama Club advisor for Spring Mills HS in Martinsburg, WV. Renee spent 21 years as a teacher of English in public and private schools, for grades 7-12, with students of all levels in three states before changing her role to theatre director. She reared two wonderful children to adulthood while earning two master's degrees and a doctorate. Second only to teaching her own students, Renee finds joy in encouraging young teachers because "They are the future of our profession, and our students need them to be awesome teachers!" she says. Renee and her husband Tom enjoy their empty nest that is perched on 50 acres on the top of a ridge in Southern Berkeley County, West Virginia. To read her musings and missives, follow her blog at www.thelearningdoctor.me and her Twitter posts @renpetwv. To keep posted on the shows and activities of The Cardinal Players, follow them on Facebook or Twitter @smhsplayers.
By TONI POLING
As the number of squares on the calendar between summer vacation and the first day of school dwindle, my back-to-school dreams have started. I’m sure you know the ones I’m talking about: dreams where my projector bulb blows in the middle of first period; dreams where I find myself in my Harry Potter t-shirt and ripped jeans instead of my more professional attire; dreams where my students walk in with their math book instead of the novel we’re discussing; dreams where I RUN OUT OF COFFEE! Every summer the dreams come and I know that it’s time to get serious about planning for the coming year.
For the coming school year, I will be taking over as department chair for the English department at my school. With retirements and turn over, I know that I will have at least three new or novice teachers in the department and I know the importance of making sure that new teachers have support and guidance to help them get through the first years in their own classrooms. As I was putting together a little back-to-school gift for the department, I decided to include something extra for each of the new teachers coming in: a box of pencils and a pencil sharpener.
It’s no surprise to any teaching veteran that classroom management can be a struggle, but if I could offer one piece of advice it would be this:
“Give the kid a pencil.”
Every year I see teachers and pre-service teachers devising complicated classroom management plans that involve everything from trading a shoe for a borrowed pencil to completing a discipline referral for unpreparedness. I am certainly not here to say that my method is the right method, but for me it’s certainly the kinder method.
The way I look at this is simple: I don’t know what that child has been through that morning. I can’t know if he’s simply irresponsible or if he doesn’t have pencils available at home. What I can know is that my simple act of providing a pencil when it’s needed tells my kids that I will always provide what they need when I can.
I will support them. I will help them. I will not criticize or belittle them. I will make sure they have what they need to learn. And I say it all with a pencil.
We know that students learn best and perform better in a student-centered psychologically safe environment where respect and trust have been both earned and reciprocated. How we as teachers respond to our students has everything to do with how they feel about themselves in our classrooms. In all situations, our students should be treated with the dignity and respect that we ourselves wish to be treated. Even when infractions take place and disciplinary action is needed, it should be handled with dignity, respect, and trust. We are the adults in the room and we must set the example. When I attend a meeting and forget a pen, someone always loans me one without shame or recriminations.
When a hand goes up in my classroom and a student asks if he can have a pencil, my response is, “Always.”
WVCTE is wondering...
How do you encourage compassion in your classroom?
BY: LIZ KEIPER
I’m a big fan of Kwame Alexander’s book The Crossover.
I’ll admit—at first I was a bit skeptical. When we received word last school year that Berkeley County high schools were going to be reading The Crossover as a county One Book event, I was not immediately sold.
“So, it’s one of those poetry-novels. Teen angst and basketball…” I mean, I’ll try anything once, but I was not ready for how powerful that book was.
It’s about basketball… but it’s about so much more. The big ideas forming the story are incredible—family, sacrifice, love, acceptance, jealousy, revenge, (spoiler alert!) death. The poetry is rhetorically rich. There are motifs and symbolism galore, and also Biblical allusions… There are two brothers, one of whom is jealous of the other and wounds the other out of jealousy. (Cain and Abel, much?) Also, the two brothers happen to be named Joshua and Jordan, and at the end of the story, Joshua crosses over Jordan in a basketball move (eerily similar to Joshua crossing over the Jordan River into the Promised Land).
For many students, basketball was the hook or initial interest point, but there was so much more that they got from the text.
I remember telling a friend, “The Crossover isn’t just a popular poetry-novel; it’s LITERATURE!”
And Solo is no exception to that.
It is the newest book written co-written by Kwame Alexander and Mary Rand Hess. The story is about a boy named Blade who is the son of a formerly famous, now drug addicted, rock star. Blade goes on a journey in search of his past, and ultimately himself. He is an avid classic rock fan, so rock songs and references to them are woven throughout.
But of course, it’s about far more than just classic rock. Solo is also rife with symbolism, themes, allusions, powerful rhetoric, interesting poetic structure, and just about every archetype under the sun. However, I’m not going to give away too much more before you read it. ☺
I think that several activities that I used in my classroom with The Crossover would also work well with Solo (or any other novel told through poetry) because of the structure of the text.
During reading with The Crossover, I had my students analyze poems of their choosing from the book. Below are my instructions and here's a copy of the document.
We analyzed the first poem “Dribbling” as a class, and the rest were their free choice.
For me, this helped me not go “overkill” on the book during reading. This held the students responsible for deep thinking but also let them enjoy the flow of the story as well.
The Crossover is also a phenomenal mentor text for poetry writing. During reading, I had students write a Found poem modeled after the newspaper-story-turned-poem “Article #1 in the Daily News (December 14),” a List poem modeled after “Five Reasons I Have Locks,” and a Definition poem modeled after “ca-lam-i-ty.”
For each of these types of poems, we read and analyzed a model poem from The Crossover as a class, I showed them an example that I had written based on the model, and then I gave them the remaining time in class to write their own. They then decorated their favorite poem that they had written for display.
As an after-reading activity, I identified three main motifs that I found significant in the book: Flight/Flying, Stars, and the word Crossover. I split the students into groups and assigned each group a motif. I gave each group six different instances of that motif in the story and had them look up all those instances. Then as a group, they had to decide what the recurring symbol seemed to represent and why. Here's the motifs handout that accompanied the task.
Along with meshing well with the above-mentioned techniques, the new book Solo is also a fabulous example of the classical quest and the concept of The Hero’s Journey. Here’s a cool tie-in video for your kids to explain The Hero’s Journey and why it’s important.
In Solo, (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it!) the main character Blade has a recurring dream in which he hears a call to “wake up and face the spider.” Throughout the story, he develops many theories as to who or what the “spider” is or what this means. He then proceeds to go on a quest in which he gains much more than he expected and deciphers the nature of the “spider.” All of this is part of his Hero’s Journey.
A few years ago, I taught English 12, and after reading Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I showed my students the above Hero’s Journey Ted Ed video, and they identified the elements of the journey for both Beowulf and Sir Gawain. Then, that gave us a chance to make text-to-self connections—what is your Grendel? What is your Green Knight?
Or, in the case of Solo, what is your Spider? What is a fear or obstacle that is keeping you from your goals—your destination?
One of the deepest powers of story is how it can impact and teach. And you can definitely get to that level with your students and Solo.
So, whether you just decide to read it as a last-hurrah of summer, whether this inspires you to try to write a grant to get a classroom set, or whether you pick up a copy for your classroom library and wait for that kid with the Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin t-shirt to walk into your classroom during the first month of school and you use it to hook them on a good book… I hope that you and your students get a taste of this book.
And may you wake up and face your Spider.
WVCTE is wondering…
1) Have you read or taught The Crossover? What other engaging activities do you suggest with the text?
2) With what other quest/Hero’s Journey stories would the Ted Ed video be useful?
Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
by: Dustin Hixenbaugh
Once a father and mother took their son to a preacher with the hope that this man who had baptized their children with his own hands would provide a cure for their son’s unimaginable impulses—for his attraction to men. After hearing the parents out, the preacher replied that he had known the young man his entire life, that he had developed a great faith in his character, and that he could not condemn him for following his heart. In his view, it was the parents, not the son, who needed “curing,” for it was they who had allowed the fear of the unknown to come between them and one of their children.
This is a story that I read a long time ago in one of the issues of The Reader’s Digest or Guideposts that my own parents stacked in their bathroom. But I found myself retelling it a couple of weeks ago in front of a crowd of teachers in a presentation on “Supporting LGBTQIA+ Students” at the University of Houston. Of course, a lot has changed since I read the story in the late 1990s, and arguably gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens are better represented today in popular culture and more accepted by family members, teachers, and peers, than they ever have been. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for teens who are, or who may be perceived as, transgender—a term that distinguishes people who claim a gender identity that does not correspond to the gender they were assigned at birth. Trans children, who are bullied at school and smeared on social media, are in desperate need of adults who will stand up for them the way the preacher stood up for that young member of his congregation.
At this point, I should clarify that my intention in this post is not to convince you that trans children exist or that you should “approve” of them. The former is a demonstrable fact—1.04% of West Virginians between the ages of 13 and 17 identify as transgender, according to a study by UCLA’s Williams Institute—and the latter, your approval, is beside the point. As far as I’m concerned, a teacher’s job is not to tell students who they are, but rather to make space for students to discover who they are and to develop the skills and mindsets they need to be their best selves. Moreover, trans students’ unique needs require that teachers do more than turn a blind eye and wish them the best. Research suggests that trans students feel unsafe in schools and earn lower GPAs than their cisgender peers unless school personnel take deliberate steps to help them feel welcome and secure.
So, what can you do to foster a welcoming environment for the trans students you will almost certainly teach? Here are five fairly easy suggestions:
1. Let students introduce themselves. It’s the first day of school and you’re gazing upon a sea of unfamiliar faces. Do you take attendance by calling names off a roster? Or do you ask students to give their names to you? For many teachers, this is a six-of-one-half-a-dozen-of-the-other decision, but for students who are transitioning between genders and who may be using names that are different from the ones printed on their official school records, it can be a source of anxiety and embarrassment. My advice? Ask students to introduce themselves to the class using the names they prefer, and if you can’t match a student’s preferred name to the one that appears on your roster, ask them about it privately. Better to screw up attendance on the first day of school than set a student up for humiliation for the entire year.
2. Embrace gender-inclusive language. On the one hand, this means avoiding phrases like “you guys” and “ladies and gentlemen,” which assume that the people you’re addressing identify with the gender(s) implied in your words. I spent ten years in Texas and have grown to appreciate “y’all” as an inclusive alternative, but you may find another phrase (“folks,” “friends,” and so forth) that you like better.
On the other hand, embracing gender-inclusive language also means accepting “plural” pronouns (they, them, their) in the place of gender-specific “singular” pronouns (he, him, his; she, her, hers). If you’re a grammar stickler, you may be loathe to allow a student to write a sentence like, “My friend Mary invited me over to their house.” But English thrives as a world language because it is constantly evolving, and, if you think about it, the sentence is entirely accurate if your friend Mary is trans or gender non-conforming.
3. Educate yourself. Make an effort to learn about the lives trans teens lead in- and outside of the schoolhouse. You can start by tuning into the TLC reality series I Am Jazz, about a young trans woman who is navigating high school and looking forward to gender reassignment surgery. You can also track legislative efforts to protect/curtail trans rights. Lately, battles over trans rights have centered around state and local “bathroom bills” that would require individuals to use public bathrooms that correspond to the sex on their birth certificates, disregarding the damage such policies inflict upon trans people. West Virginia does not offer any statewide protections for trans people, and although some cities have passed their own protections, others, like Parkersburg, have given in to opposition from anti-trans activists.
4. Educate your students. Even if you never teach a trans student, you will teach plenty of students who will interact with trans people in college, on the job, etc., and don’t you want them to handle those interactions well? Consider integrating into your curriculum and classroom library texts that affirm the humanity of trans people and give some context to the challenges they face. My favorite book is Susan Kuklin’s Lambda award-winning Beyond Magenta, which features the personal stories of a culturally diverse group of teens as well as a stunning collection of photos. But you have many options. Alex Gino’s George and Jacqueline Woodsen’s “Trev” (anthologized in How Beautiful the Ordinary) are appropriate for middle schoolers, while Julie Anne Peters’ Luna, Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish, Cris Beam’s I Am J, David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing, and Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl appeal to the YA crowd.
5. Have your trans students’ backs. Someday, you might find yourself sitting down at a table with parents who oppose their child’s desire to wear different clothes or adopt different pronouns. Even if you regret these parents’ circumstances, I beg you not to join an effort to redirect a child’s gender expression. Rather, please put yourself in the position of advocate, like the preacher I described at the top of this post.
“I can see that your family is under a lot of pressure right now,” you might say to these parents. “And while I cannot tell you how to parent your child, I can assure you that kids who identify as transgender do grow up to be great human beings and productive members of society. More importantly, I know your child well, have great faith in their character, and know that they would not do anything to hurt you. I encourage you to approach your child with an open heart and mind.”
In a world where 30% of trans kids attempt suicide, words such as these, spoken with love from a teacher, have the power to save lives.
WVCTE is wondering...
How does your school or district support LGBTQ+ students? What are some ways schools and teachers in West Virginia can provide better support for trans students? How can schools help teachers to better understand the needs of LGBTQ+ students?
Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with on Facebook!
By Jeni Gearhart
16.1 million adults (6.7% of the population) have had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.
Last year, I was one of those 16.1 million.
I have gone through four distinct depressions in my life. My first year of college, my first year after graduating college, my first year of teaching, and last spring/summer. You don’t need to know my entire history to realize that it is a factor that has affected my life as an adult.
It has not, however, defined my life.
Depression has made me a better teacher. That is the story I want to tell.
Depression has made me more empathetic, more compassionate, and more passionate about my calling as a teacher. Truthfully, though I absolutely hate those periods of my life when I experience depression, those “lows” make me far more appreciative of the joy felt outside of it.
Being prone to depression can make teaching difficult. When you barely feel able to get out of bed, the idea of being “on” for 8+ hours, let alone energetic and happy in front of 30 teenagers can feel insurmountable. Planning an engaging, thoughtful lesson can be incredibly difficult when simply making decisions on what to pack for lunch is nearly impossible.
And yet, teaching keeps me afloat when I feel at my worst. My students give me joy. Pretending to be happy for them makes me feel just a little bit happier for myself. Teaching gives me purpose. My students get me out of bed on those days.
Last summer, when I experienced my worst depression in ten years, teaching pulled me out of it. Well, teaching, a support system of caring confidants, and antidepressants.
I cannot oversimplify this story. This depression is the one that changed my narrative. At the encouragement of close friends, I sought medical help and was prescribed antidepressants for the first time. I was afraid to take them. The stigma of depression made me fear what it meant to be “medicated”. In my depressed state, I feared that I would be judged. I judged myself, even. Why couldn’t I beat this on my own? I chose to take the medication, and it was one of the best decisions for my overall health and wellbeing.
As of August 1 of this year, I have been on antidepressants for one full year. I’m so glad that I forced past both the stigma and my personal fear and made this decision.
As I mentioned before, this depression changed my narrative. I’ve experienced depression in the past, but not until this year have I recognized how essential it is that we normalize the conversation about mental health. Mental health is as important as physical health.
As teachers, we need to be reminded of this fact. We already don’t take care of ourselves. By default, most of us are overinvolved. We have our school responsibilities, extracurriculars, and community commitments. There is more paperwork every year, and less time to do it. The needs of our students (physical, emotional, intellectual) are overwhelming. We feel underprepared and unable to take care of all their needs.
And, I would surmise that most of us got into this field because we have a big heart, and we feel deeply for our students. I would take a guess that the percentage of teachers who struggle with anxiety and depression is probably above the average for the general population (Health.com ranks us at #7 in their top 12 careers with high rates of depression).
We need to talk about our mental health. It is very easy as teachers to put on a show and hide what is going on beneath the surface. The expectation is that teachers are super humans. We have no first name, no opinions, and no personal life struggles.
Now, that does not mean that I should ever let my personal struggle interfere with my ability to do my job well. My students are not my counselors, nor do they need to know the specifics of my struggles. But, I do think that it is perfectly appropriate to tell students that I have dealt with depression and anxiety in the past. Does this matter for all of my students? No. But it starts to normalize the issue. It makes it OK for them to talk to their friends, me, a guidance counselor, or other trusted adults.
I am thankful to be a teacher who has experienced depression. When a student is struggling with depression, I get it. I recognize it, and I have a different level of compassion for them. Do I lower my expectations for them in my class? No. But, I give them grace and point them in the direction of those who can offer more help. I remind them that they are strong. They are capable. They are worthy. They are loved.
We talk about mental health in my English classroom. When we discuss characters who we would otherwise label “insane” (AKA: Lady Macbeth), I make it known that we are labeling their actions for a thematic purpose, but that there is far more beneath the surface that we are not told. When we discuss Hamlet, we also discuss Hamlet’s depression. And, of course, YA lit is full of these struggles.
A few years back, I got a sweet note from a student. A student who never talked to me specifically about her experience with depression. She thanked me for how I discussed mental health (offhandedly, I don’t think it was the purpose of my lesson). She said “Thank you for treating depression like it is something ‘real’, not something that just happens to ‘those other people’. You made my experience real. You made me ok.”
Teaching is hard. Life is hard. Both are so beautiful.
I’m so thankful to be a teacher who has experienced depression.
WVCTE is wondering...
As teachers, what conversations about mental illness should we be having? How do we maintain our mental health in an emotionally demanding profession?
Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
By Shana Karnes
I love to spend big chunks of my summer planning ways to revise and improve my practice. The season is always so full of hope, with opportunities to reframe my thinking and help my students be more successful.
But when the school year actually begins, it can be overwhelming to attempt anything from a major overhaul of your teaching to a few key shifts in practice. Every year, I read books, take classes, and obsessively jot ideas that never see the light of day when I’m faced with the reality of a fall full of fresh faces, administrative initiatives, and new courses to teach.
This summer, though, I’m working with a group of amazing teachers in Pipestem, WV during a National Writing Project summer institute. As we read and write and think and plan about argument writing, we’ve come across two key changes we can make that will withstand the crush of the reality of our profession.
Embrace the Wobble
One of our central texts for the institute is Pose, Wobble, Flow by Antero Garcia and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen. This text makes lots of wonderful arguments for teachers to inhabit “poses” as more thoughtful, authentic practitioners through the metaphor of yoga. The idea is that when we try new things as teachers, we are trying to get into a pose. We inevitably wobble as we try to master this new stance, but eventually attain the flow characterized by doing this pose without thinking.
GODA (as one of our teachers refers to Garcia and O’Donnell-Allen)’s key argument is that the wobble part of this process is not only a necessary part of becoming a better teacher, but a desirable one--we must live in the gray area, a zone of proximal development, disequilibrium, or whatever else we might call it. “The P/W/F model is not about an endpoint,” GODA vehemently asserts; “it is a framework to help acknowledge how one’s practice changes over time and requires constant adaptation” (4). It’s only by being uncomfortable, by trying new things day or week or year in and out, that we can improve as teachers.
What this looks like in terms of our current theme of teaching argument writing is revising the way we think about the writing process to start from an inquiry-based place of research, then claim development, then argument articulation. This new mindset is requiring all of us to “wobble” as we try to conceive of it, and we’re wobbling in even our understandings of its many moving parts--what revision is, or what an argument can look like, or how we can use argument as a genre for developing our opinionated writing voices. As we’re flooded with unconventional ideas, mentor texts, thought processes, and assessment measures, we’re all wobbling with the confidence we’ll eventually reach flow.
But once we do--some time during the school year when things are going smoothly and planning and teaching are underway--we’ll need to yank ourselves out of our newly-found comfort zones and get back into a new pose, embracing the wobble of new learning once more.
This constant revision of our teaching is a simple way we can always strive to be better teachers--just embrace the wobble of continuous improvement.
Become a Writer
The second simple way we’ve discovered to guarantee an improvement in our teaching is to help shift our identities from mere teachers to that of teacher-writers. GODA strongly advocate for the many student-centered benefits of writing beside our learners, but there are so many benefits beyond the classroom that become possible when we simply write.
Outside the classroom, GODA suggest that teachers might become more engaged in improvement by:
Taking one or more of these eminently doable steps can help teachers “enact agency and make an impact on the profession” (27). I highly encourage anyone reading this to write for WVCTE, join us for a region-specific #wvedchat on Twitter, comment on this or other blogs, or join us for local workshops like our state conference in April. These simple activities will not only expose you to ideas to keep you in the “wobble,” but they’ll let you meet and engage with like-minded colleagues as interested in improvement as you.
Within your classroom, becoming a writer is equally valuable. If you read nothing else of Pose Wobble Flow, I encourage you to read the chapter on “Embracing Your Inner Writer: What It Means to Teach as a Writer.” These pages are chock full of suggestions for not only reasons to write, but ways to do it. From a survey designed to help you find your identity as a writer, to practical methods for joining writing communities on Twitter, Facebook, and even NaNoWriMo, to the ways the act of writing beside our students changes our teaching, this chapter is awesome.
Because “the changes that come about within our classrooms and with our students start with ourselves,” (80), writing is a necessary first step to becoming a better teacher. I hope, like me, you’ll begin keeping a writer’s notebook, blogging regularly, and writing beside your students every time you see them in class. Beginning to inhabit the pose of a writer--although I experience wobble within this identity almost daily--is doubtless the most helpful thing I’ve done to improve my practice as a teacher.
Whether you start with wobbling or writing this school year, I wish you a wonderful end of the summer and all the joy and optimism the fall always brings as we work to become better teachers every day!
What simple ways have you improved your teaching? Please share with us in the comments, on our Facebook page, or via Twitter!
Shana Karnes teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University. She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life. Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or find more of her writing about secondary readers-writers workshop at Three Teachers Talk.