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Friday, February 26, 2010

The Case for Slow Reading

I recently participated in a dialogue with fellow middle school teachers from an adjoining district, and naturally the conversation came around to novels. When we compared the number of novels taught in each school, our colleagues were teaching nine to ten a year versus our four! While I admit that four seems too few, that number also allows us time to read many other types of reading: picture books, drama, articles, periodicals, online material, and our own writing. Ten books a year? That's like roller skating through the Louvre and contending that you had "learned art."

My twitter colleague Kevin D. Washburn (kdwashburn) shared a recent Educational Leadership article titled The Case for Slow Reading. Author Thomas Newkirk, Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, is also the author of Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones: Six Literacy Principles Worth Fighting For.

Newkirk provides some background in how we've come to accept what he calls the The High-Speed Reading Blur, and then offers some simple ways that teachers can slow down the process to increase the effectiveness of reading, while more personally and meaningfully engaging the learner.

One aspect of careful reading he mentions, for example, is attending to beginnings. Newkirk explains:
Writers often struggle with their beginnings because they are making so many commitments; they are establishing a voice, narrator, and point of view that are right for what will follow. These openings often suggest a conflict. They raise a question, pose a problem, create an "itch to be scratched." Readers need to be just as deliberate and not rush through these carefully constructed beginnings. As teachers, we can model this slowness.
In other words, if we're to assist our students in their own writing (which is often begun so poorly it can only end that way), then we must help them use excellent literature as writing models, or mentor texts.

Consider the beginning of this children's classic:
      “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

      “Out to the hoghouse,” replied her mother. “Some pigs were born last night.”
The author plunges us into the action. No character introductions, no scene dressing; instead, we're left to piece that together for ourselves. Instead, we wonder along with Fern, Where is Papa going with the ax? (And ten points off if you can't name that book!).

Or consider the beginning of Avi's The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle:
“Not every thirteen-year-old girl is accused of murder, brought to trial, and found guilty. But I was such a girl, and my story is worth relating even if it did happen years ago.”
My boys, who typically wouldn't be caught dead reading, and caring about, a female protagonist, are instantly riveted. Who'd she kill? Why'd she do it? What happened to her? Later writing attempts often incorporate a form of this direct address to the reader, which helps students cut to the chase of why should the reader care about what happens to the character in this story?

A third example of a story beginning I often share as a writer's model in Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli:
“They say (he) was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box and his heart was a sofa spring. They say he kept an eight-inch cockroach on a leash and that rats stood guard over him while he slept…They say.”
That novel's beginning echoes the boasts of the tall tale tradition, and instantly alerts the reader that this Maniac Magee is a "larger than life" character. More importantly, this beginning cautions the reader that not all of what is shared is to be taken as truth. Again, once writers are shown the craft behind story beginnings, their own writing improves almost immediately, as they force themselves to think of the heart of the story.

I highly recommend you check out the article and apply Newkirk's suggestions to your own instruction. Need more ideas? Get your hands on Newkirk's Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones: Six Literacy Principles Worth Fighting For, published by Heinemann. Lots of practical ideas to put theory and research into action.

I also recommend that you visit Kevin D, Washburn's excellent Clerestory Learning site. Lots of great resources to be found there (I particularly like his explanations of how the brain works). Washburn's own Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain (coming out soon!) looks like another must-read as well.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Alternative Assessments

This is one of those posts where I simply point and say, "I saw something cool! Let's go get it."

A friend at Twitter (PageTurnersBlog, well worth following) retweeted that a post at Novel Novice features one YA Lit teacher's alternative assessments as a download. A couple cool ideas I hadn't thought of!

It's nice to share good stuff!

Banned Books Beg to Be Read!

September 25−October 2, 2010 is Banned Books Week. No, my calendar isn't broken, but I figure, what wait?

In my opinion, there's no time like the present to thumb your nose at someone else's supposed authority over your intellectual freedoms. Check out Amazon's helpful compilation of banned books. You'll be surprised what's there! It's actually a pretty decent list of must-reads.

Pretty amazing how easily some people can be led to self-righteous, passionate outrage over literary expression. I guess they don't get out much.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Grammar Book Give-Away

I saw some interest in my post a week ago on Maupin House's Giggles in the Middle: Caught Ya! Grammar with a Giggle for Middle School. Seems a lot of teachers have been struggling with the "how to teach grammar" and even the "should I teach grammar?" issues.

Maupin House just announced that they'll give a copy of Giggles in the Middle: Caught Ya! Grammar with a Giggle for Middle School to one lucky winner. Just visit their site to see how to enter (so many ways to win!).

But Keith, I already bought the book! You said to! Well, in that case, Maupin House has generously agreed to let the winner choose any other book from their wide array of original titles for teachers. I'm thinking of grabbing a copy of Amazing Hands-on Literature Projects for Secondary Students and Razzle Dazzle Writing for myself .

All entries must be entered by Thursday, February 25th at 11:59 pm EST.

Good luck, folks!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

YA Book Trailers

Arapahoe Libraries has posted a nice collection of YA (young adult) book trailers. I've posted on trailers before, describing how they can get students excited about new book titles in the same way that movie trailers get us psyched about new films.

Some of my faves featured there? The Book Thief by by Markus Zusak, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy by Barry Lyga, Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, and The Batboy by Mike Lupica.

Check out the trailers, read the books, bring them into the classroom!

If you need some additional ideas for how to use book trailers, check out my suggestions in the latter half of this post from my Teach with Picture Books blog.

If you're seeking a terrific book extension project for students, have them create their own trailers. Whether live action or still image, putting pictures to words requires a number of critical thinking skills. Need a platform for that? Check out the Fifty Digital Storytelling Tools listed at CogDogRoo.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Grammar Instruction Made Easier

Want to start a fist fight among middle and high school teachers? Ask them how you should teach grammar. Don't believe me? That was the topic of a recent conversation at the English Companion Ning. It runs for over five pages! Even after reading what so many experienced and intelligent educators had to say, I have to admit, I'm still confused.

But I did chime in. The first paragraph of my response read as follows:
Most recently I've taught grammar in context of real literature, but then I began to realize that not only was I missing some key concepts, but some students by their learning natures were not seeing connections. I really needed a program that was more systematic, recursive, and explicit. Wow. I didn't realize that was what I needed until I just typed it. (Lesson to be learned: writing can create thinking, as well as vice versa).
A colleague warned me that I should be careful what I wished for, since I probably didn't want a program that was systematic, recursive, and explicit. But, oddly enough, that's what I do want, and that's what I feel is needed.

Unlike reading, which is open to many interpretations, grammar actually functions by certain rules. Some of those rules must be understood before others (hence my emphasis upon systematic). I also know from years when I looped (from third to fourth), and more recently when I taught my former fourth graders as sixth graders, grammar rules are often forgotten, or need to be retaught in context of more difficult literary contexts (hence the recursiveness). And yes, I feel that grammar needs to be explicit. In the same way that mathematicians share a universally understood vocabulary, so should readers and writers. When discussing a piece of writing, for example, even a third grader should know what is meant by "the writer's use of specific adverbs."

So how can we teach grammar in a way that is not only systematic, recursive, and explicit, but also creative and engaging? Jane Bell Kiester seems to offer one solution in her Giggles in the Middle: Caught Ya! Grammar with a Giggle for Middle School. Using daily correction exercises, middle school students can dramatically improve their knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, and writing structure.

But how are these daily exercises different from other types of daily corrections? First of all, Giggles in the Middle is one continuous story, which helps to increase student engagement while providing meaningful context. Secondly, the exercises focus not only on grammar but also vocabulary development. A third difference is that this program integrates creative, original writing, with a new Writing Idea offered every three to four days.

In the Caught Ya approach Kiester offers a lot of teaching tips, having used and tweaked this program in her own class for many years. She also discusses a number of variations to the approach which teachers might want to adopt, depending upon their individual preferences and student populations. In all cases, however, emphasis is upon students understanding not only what is wrong, but why (see this sample student Caught Ya).

The book includes enough Caught Yas for sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. Each day's passage is presented with errors, corrections, and explanations of those corrections. Teachers with limited knowledge of grammar will find all the information they need to teach the lesson with confidence. The books also includes "almost midterm" and final exam tests, should a teacher choose to conduct summative assessments.

What I like best of all is that all exercises are included on an enclosed CD. For teachers who routinely use interactive whiteboards, or for those who need to print out exercises for absent or special needs students, the CD is a real timesaver.

If you're looking for a grammar solution that delivers results, I suggest you check out Giggles in the Middle: Caught Ya! Grammar with a Giggle for Middle School or, for the high school crowd, Chortling Bard: Caught'ya! Grammar with a Giggle for High School. Need more convincing? Read more about the Caught Yas and also see what students and teachers have to say over at Maupin House.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Web 2.0 Classroom Conversations

If your students are anything like mine, they love getting into heated conversations over ideas from their novels and related readings. Being typical sixth graders, all students have an opinion to express and a story to share. What I wanted to find was a way for that conversation to continue beyond the classroom; many times I needed to cut it short when students were just getting started!

Having had a lot of experience with Ning, I thought that would be the perfect vehicle. The problem is, Ning, like Facebook, requires that users be 13 years old. I couldn't knowingly ignore this. So after searching around for a similar online experience, I finally chose Edmodo.

Edmodo is a closed, private community which looks and acts like a Facebook/Twitter hybrid. It allows for threaded discussions, polls, video uploading, and discussion groups. It totally fit the bill. Read more about why I chose Edmodo (over at my Teaching that Sticks blog) and find out how I felt about the choice after five days. Then decide for yourself is this tool is right for your class.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

How to Teach a Novel

You may have previously visited How to Teach a Novel hosted at While my Teach with Picture Books and Teaching that Sticks blogs are hosted here at Blogger, I decided to give the Wordpress platform a test drive for my third blog.

News is, I am not really happy with Wordpress, and I'm presently transferring all my old posts to here. I'm bummed, though, since I'm losing all my comments (and my Google page rank) in the process, but I guess that can be built up again.

If you're a really kind person with just five minutes to spare, I'd really appreciate it if you would read some random post (they're all brilliant) and leave a comment. This will help bring my page back to the top, so that teachers who search for these resources will be able to find them.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

How to Teach a Novel: The Workshop

If you're in Central New Jersey in late February with absolutely nothing to do, you might consider joining me for my How to Teach a Novel Workshop.

This free workshop, sponsored by New Jersey ASCD, will be held from 4:00 to 5:30 at Bedminster School in Bedminster, NJ. More details are available via this brochure.

In addition to being free, the event will include refreshments and door prizes, plus credit hours to those who need them. Come join us for a great time!

See a list of my other public events for the remainder of this school year.

Note: Donut pictured here is for illustrative purposes only. Your refreshment experience may vary.