Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

Because Writing Matters was full of information, however, it did not flow as easily as other books I have read during this Institute. I enjoyed reading about how much the NWP is helping teachers and students as writers. Many of the ideas presented in this book made me feel validated. “Learning to write requires frequent, supportive practice. Evidence shows that writing performance improves when a student writes often and across the content areas” (p. 12). This simple fact sometimes feels so hard to justify to administration, of whom I still view as believing that if you are not in front of the room directly instructing the class, then they are not learning. Worry sets in when an administrator walks in my room when my students, and myself, are quietly writing (or reading for that matter). But the research and evidence is in this book if they ever question my practice. One section of this book that I found particularly helpful was the part discussing what makes an effective writing assignment. “An effective writing assignment does more than ask students to write about what they have read or experienced. It engages students in a series of cognitive processes, such as reflection, analysis, and synthesis, so that they are required to transform the information from the reading material in order to complete the writing assignment” (p. 47). Keeping this in mind as I further develop my unit plans and assessments will help to improve my assignments. I tend to focus more on reflection than anything else, so I need to include more comparisons and analyzing.  Modeling these tasks for my students first will be they key.

I was floored by the vignette about the principal who has his staff write during staff meetings! So awesome! Many of my colleagues who truly are good teachers, do not value the importance of writing. This is something I hope to try, slowly, to change. Another idea mentioned in Because Writing Matters that struck a cord with me are the importance of portfolios and how they improve student writing scores. I really did not do a good job with my students’ portfolios this year. I started folders of their work, and then forgot about it until the end of the year. This is something I plan on doing a better job at next school year. My favorite quote in this book is “writing is never learned once and for all” (p.14). This is how I have always felt about writing, but have never quite known how to articulate it to others, even though it is so simple. Teachers and students need to embrace this idea and be patient with ourselves in order to become successful writers. It is a process and it is hard work to finish the product.


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Because I skimmed the last part of Teaching for Joy and Justice, I decided to also read an article on the same topic. This article, later turned into a book, was suggested to me by Sara Gregory. “To claim that literature on its own is going to change reality would be an act of madness or arrogance. It seems to me no less foolish to deny that it can aid in making this change” (Singer & Ruth, p. 318 as cited by E. Galeano, in Espada, 2000, p. 9). This quote sums it up for me. Why can’t reading and writing change the social injustices of our world? How can I open my students’ eyes to the world around them? These were my guiding questions as I continued on my quest for critical literacy. I again had to take this article with a grain of salt and remember that I will not be able to implement all of the ideas. However, I did discover some wonderful things I am going to try to incorporate into my classroom next school year. Singer’s students read a variety of texts on global literature around the theme of social activism. Her students read autobiographies and memoirs about groups of people that are traditionally marginalized such as Melba Beal’s Warriors Don’t Cry. Singer’s students also choose their own activist to study, read, and write an essay about which then leads up to a social activism project at the end of the year. The projects could be any media the students chose, they had to share their issue with others and offer ideas to make change. Singer and Shagoury’s article included several book lists about social issues and activists that are suitable for adolescents.

How am I going to use this article in my classroom? First, I am going to get my hands on a few of these books, read them myself, and then share them with my students. Second, I would like to have my students choose their own issue or activist to study as a research project. I will probably have my students write a traditional expository essay/research paper to meet some of my objectives. However, I would also encourage them to use other forms of media to show their passion for a particular social issue and come up with ways to make change. This may end up being a collaborative assignment; I will have to see how it goes. I also would like to get the entire book of Singer’s, Stirring Up Justice. As I read both this article and Christensen’s book, Teaching for Joy and Justice, I was knocked over with how many wonderful ways there are for students to examine the social injustices of the world that they are passionate about. Even if all I end up doing is exposing them to some of these books and activists, and they end up using these injustices as a catalyst for their writing, I will be satisfied. It will take some time for me to create a well-developed social justice curriculum, so I need to take baby steps.

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I began reading Teaching for Joy and Justice in search of more ideas to promote critical literacy in my classroom, and those I did find.  This book is a Rethinking Schools publication.  I became aware of Rethinking Schools during the graduate class that turned me on to critical literacy so the connection just made sense.  I also subscribe to the Rethinking Schools magazine so I was pretty confident I would enjoy this book.  That being said, I had to also remember that sometimes the authors seem to live or talk about an ideal world, and I cannot always truly connect with them.  Linda Christensen describes in detail  her units that address inequalities and injustices in the world.  She discusses how she does this through units of poetry, essays, narratives, history through literature, and the power of language.  She even includes the pieces she used to teach her students and some of the pieces they wrote.  It is clear that Christensen is passionate about showing students how enjoyable and powerful reading and writing can be, and she gives several helpful ideas of how we too can study social issues through reading and writing.  However, Christensen is clear to point out that this endeavor, teaching for joy and justice, cannot be a solo one.

As I was reading this book, I realized how true her statement is.  I cannot use all of her units because I do not have access to most of the literature she references, so I was relieved that she acknowledged this daunting task of teaching social issues and justice in a classroom.  Christensen suggests that there must be a curriculum shift to truly teach a joy and justice pedagogy in a classroom.  Although I will not be able to completely change my curriculum, I can include social issue themed texts or writing assignments to meet the mandatory objectives.  There are a few ideas of hers that I plan on adapting for use in my classroom.  Christensen uses poetry to build relationships and community with her students.  She uses a poem called “Raised by Women” by Kelly Norman Ellis that asks students to look at their family and/or environment to show their classmates who they are.   She also uses the poem “For My People” by Margaret Walker to have them look deeper into their race, ethnicity, and/or ancestry to further express themselves.  This is a great way to create a trusting and safe atmosphere in a classroom.  Rather than doing the usual, ‘All About Me Essay’, I think I will try starting the year with poetry, and using it throughout the year, instead of just having my end of year poetry unit.  Speaking of essays, Christensen also offers a great idea on how ease students into essay writing by creating a profile essay.  Students choose someone to write a profile about choosing a thesis and using anecdotes and details to support their thesis.  This would be an interesting way of working on choosing and supporting a thesis with my students.  Christensen suggests using sports articles and obituaries as places to find profiles; she also provided several  of her students’ essays in her book that I could use in my classroom.

I ended up skimming the remaining chapters of this book as I began to realize I cannot do all of this.  To keep myself sane, I am going to pick and choose focusing on Christensen’s poetry and essay units.  Teaching for Joy and Justice is a book I could read several times and learn something new every time.  It is packed full of wonderful ideas of how to incorporate social issues in your classroom, but it can also become very overwhelming.  I need to take it for what it is, a great resource from which I can glean a few ideas and lessons.

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I have felt a kinship to this book ever since I started it.  Until today that is.  Before I reached chapter 3, I felt my fist pumping in the air and shouting, “Yes!” as I was reading.  Yes!  Students should be flooded with good books!  Yes!  We, as educators, should not be teaching to the test.  Yes!  We need to allow time for students to read in school, what the hell ever happened to SSR anyway?  And then….chapter 3, “Avoiding the Tsunami,” the overteaching of books, the chop-chop syndrome, too much analyzing and reflecting on a book can also cause readicide.   Oh crap.  I definitely fall into this category.  My heart sank as I realized I, too, am part of the problem.

I almost stopped reading right then and there, but I told myself to forge ahead.  And I am glad I did because I learned that there is a balance to recreational reading and academic reading.  I knew this of course, but as I was reading about the horrors of sticky notes, reflections, and journaling, I lost sight of it.  Becoming aware that I may be killing my students enjoyment of reading made me feel like I was socked in the gut.  Me?  An avid reader?  I am causing readicide in my own classroom?  And I truthfully, I probably have.  And that sucks.  I must remember, however, that the answer is balance, and I think I provide that, mostly.  Nonetheless, it does give me something to strive for, to be better at.

I will continue pumping my fist in the air as I finish this wonderful, to the point book.

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It was interesting to read Bird by Bird because I’ve never completely considered myself a writer, and she talked to her audience as true writers.  It made me feel more official for lack of a better word.  I’ve always loved to write, I teach 8th grade Language Arts, and as often as I can I write with my students.   I’ve always felt in my heart that I am a writer, but it is a scary thing to say out loud. 

As I continued reading, I began to hear a little voice in my head.  “Well, look at that, you really are a writer.  And maybe you actually know a thing or two about writing.”  Many of Anne Lamott’s thoughts on writing are things that I already do during my own personal writing process, yet, I always considered them incorrect when teaching my students.   I NEVER know where my stories are heading and rarely focus on plot.   What about all those story maps we are supposed to have our students fill out?  I LOVE creating characters, and sometimes that is all I do when I write, create a new character.   Don’t forget to fill out those character sketches before you begin writing!  I could just cringe with what I’ve had my students do in the past all in the name of the writing process. 

Just this year I began admitting to my students that when I write I have no idea where I am heading, I just write and see what happens.  And I encourage them to write this way too.  I am a bit annoyed that it took me 10 years to come to an understanding that is part of my writing process and it is okay.  I love her ideas of small assignments, looking through a 1-inch picture frame, and to not worry about all those shitty first drafts.  Just write.  One of the ideas of Lamott’s, a writing ritual, is something I am going to try to really put into practice in my own life.  Generally, I write when my students write and that is it, but I want to do even more writing.  Lamott suggested writing at the same time everyday and coming up with some sort of ritual, maybe a cup of coffee or some sort of meditative breathing or whatnot.  It will trigger your mind and/or your subconscious to get into the writing zone so to speak.  As I think of how this will realistically fit into my life, well, I am not really sure, but I’d like it to be. 

Another part of Lamott’s perspective of writing that I thought was intriguing was to write about your truths, your deepest convictions and beliefs.  These will give passion to your writing, it will keep you going, and quite possibly enlighten your readers in some way.  I also found it interesting how she keeps notecards all over the place and in her pocket at all times.  While I love the idea of writing down things that trigger memories or things that I notice, I can’t get past how messy all of those notecards would be.   They would end up on my kitchen table where everything and its brother ends up.  They would be made into paper balls or airplanes by my kids and then batted around the house by my cats.  And then I’d walk around bitching about how messy the house is as I am picking them up.  I would just end up throwing them all out.  I think instead I will try keeping a notebook in my purse, diaper bag, car, and work bag and see where that takes me.

There were a few aspects of her book that I could not completely connect with:  Jealousy and Publication.  I am not a professional writer by any means or have any desire to make a living from writing.  So caring about getting published (which of course, secretly, I’d love to be published) and being jealous of other writers did not necessarily ring true for me.  However, most of Lamott’s book felt as if she were speaking directly to me, as if she looked directly into my heart and soul.  She said, “Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation.  They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life:  they feed the soul.” 

And that is exactly why I read and I write.  I want to share this love, this spirituality, with everyone and anyone who will listen.

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