Tag Archives: Reading

Summer Reading, part one

Ah, summer. That magical time when teachers get to sit by the pool sipping drinks in tall glasses filled to the brim with ice and muse on…

… all the things they want to do differently next year.

And in my case, that musing needs to start with an excellent book I finished months ago, Whole Novels for the Whole Class by Ariel Sacks. It’s the sort of book where your respect for the author deepens with every chapter, where you want to highlight far more than the 25% you know is recommended, where you want to run right out and start implementing what the author suggests – and where you know you and your students will be far better off if you wait and take your time and do it right. Late June and early July is the perfect time to read this book, when you can pause and reflect at will, pool or no pool, and so here I am returning to it.

At its simplest, the whole novel approach is a way of enabling students to optimally benefit from the books that they share together as a class in part by holding off on discussions until they have finished reading. Ms. Sacks recognizes the fundamentally important role that independent, self-selected reading can play in a good reading program, citing in particular the excellent work of Donalyn Miller (The Book Whisperer). She notes the additional importance of a shared experience both in building skllls and in building community. And she urges that we rethink how we approach teaching novels so that the experience no longer resembles being caught in stop and go traffic but rather feels like looking back and reflecting on a just-completed trip. Her methods, developed along with Madeleine Ray of Bank Street College of Education, are deeply grounded in research and experience.

Chapter by chapter, we see her make a case for the practice and then talk about selecting books, teaching note-taking, holding discussions, and connecting the book to writing. In the second part, she talks about how to prepare students for whole novel study and set expectations, develop their critical reading and comprehension skills, ensure you are accounting for the full range of diversity in your classroom, and analyzing the results to make changes in the future. As I read, I tried to imagine how my students would react to whole novel studies.

And I’ll be honest – I think their first reaction would be to resist the approach because they truly adore talking to each other. But I can envision myself telling them that they are already read to every day and so already get to talk about books every day. I can point out we would still be doing group activities as we build to the days we discuss the book. I can quote some of Ms. Sacks’s own ideas in making the case. And I am 99.999% sure I can get them excited about note-taking.

Yes, you read that right. Ms. Sacks works with her students to teach them about literal thinking vs. inferential thinking vs. critical thinking, and uses notetaking as a vehicle not just to help them think about the book itself and prepare for discussions but also to think about their own thinking. My kids love having their thinking stretched, understanding how their minds work, and being able to clearly see progress they are making; by following Ms. Sacks’s example, I would be able to facilitate all of this for them. I think they would also appreciate having additional lenses through which to self-reflect, as we frequently ask them to do.

When you consider this is just one short section of the book, you begin to get the sense of how comprehensive it is and why I see this as a resource that all secondary-level reading teachers should have. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to my (non-existent) pool with my (also non-existent) (for the moment) drink to keep thinking about how I might integrate these ideas into my own students’ learning next year.

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Filed under On Education, The Faculty Perspective

You Are What You Read.

Don’t tell my students, but we’re two days from the start of school and I just finished my last summer reading book for IB English. It’s not that I’ve been lazy— in fact, the only thing I have accomplished this summer is reading books. All my usual ambitious projects— cleaning the attic, weeding through the outgrown baby toys and clothes, painting the fence— remain unfinished. I spent the summer chasing my kids, and reading. Usually I grabbed my chance for focused quiet during naptime and nighttime, but I have also become a master at reading over the sound of screeching or the “Dora” theme song (I figure if I’m going to ignore my kids at least they will see me reading a book, which sort of counteracts the television they’re watching, right?).

I grew up in a household of readers. Downtime on family vacations was spent in separate corners of rented houses, everyone getting lost in their own books, together. As a mother, among the things I frequently feel grateful for (My kids ate a green vegetable today! They are healthy and happy! No one snuck into my bed tonight!) is the fact that my children love books. At four and two, neither of them can read yet, but they each recite their favorite books, word for word, from memory. This is the earliest version of the intimate ways we absorb the books we love.

There’s a lot of research and writing about the effects on young people over the course of a summer spent reading or not reading. The simplified finding is that reading, like many other things, is a practice that students should continually cultivate, both in and out of school. I mean, it doesn’t take a PhD and a research lab to understand this concept: don’t exercise for three months and it will be really hard to run three miles on the first day of soccer practice; don’t practice math or French or reading over a long period of time and…you get the picture. And even more research is being done about the ways that on-line reading is affecting and changing students’ learning. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, was my faculty summer reading book. Much of his research and discussion focuses on the in-depth learning that happens when you read a printed book from cover to cover. Reading an on-line text, he argues, often leads to shallow and distracted learning, largely due to our personal habits when sitting in front of a screen, and to the hyper-links that invite us further and further down the rabbit-hole and away from our original task.

One of the books I re-read this summer is Beloved, by Toni Morrison. I hadn’t read it since high school, and I was thinking about teaching it in my senior IB English class this spring. Now, I last read this book twenty years ago. I could have told you it was a good book; I could even have told you, at the most basic level, what it’s about: a former slave and her ghost baby. But that’s all I remembered. I still had my book from high school, so that’s the copy I began to read. Here’s what happened: as soon as I entered the book, I realized that I did remember it. But not remember it like I could recite the plot to you— not that kind of remember. Remember like a world I had once inhabited; a world that I used to know very well— from a distance it seems fuzzy, but once you step in, you realize, “I’ve been here before.” Morrison’s language— her descriptions of the forest and river and haunted house and the shed where her baby died (Dear God, the shed!)— it all felt like it was mine again. Of course it helped that all my underlining and margin notes and vocabulary definitions were still there (and my notes were good! No wonder I became an English teacher!). I don’t remember the class, I don’t remember the teacher, I don’t remember if I was forced to do all that notation, or if I did it on my own; but I do remember the book. This is what happens when you really read and absorb a book that you love: it becomes a part of you, forever.

I don’t need any amount of published research validating my work as an English teacher. You won’t find ebooks or hyper-linked texts in my classroom. All my students need is a book, a pencil, and an engaged brain. When they read a text from start to finish they learn how to follow a sustained argument or narrative; they learn how to find threads and make connections across 300 pages; they learn syntax and grammar and vocabulary; they learn, with in-depth study, that less truly is more; they learn to quiet their brains in this world that clatters so loudly around us. Not every student loves to read; but every student will learn from reading, whether she likes the books or not. My hope for all of them is that they discover those books— whether in or out of class—  that truly catch them; books that they don’t just read, but absorb, as I did, so many years ago with Beloved.

As I walk the long halls of our school, sometimes I catch myself marching in rhythm with my two-year-old daughter Willa’s voice in my head. “Each peach, pear, plum,” she chants. “…I spy Tom Thumb. Tom Thumb in the cupboard, I spy Mother Hubbard. Mother Hubbard on the stairs, I spy…”

I am a grateful mother indeed.

-Shawn Durrett, English Department Chair

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Filed under In the Classroom, On Education, On Parenting, The Faculty Perspective

Multiple Depths

Sitting with the 8th graders during a recent study hall, I looked up from my computer to see one of my students from last year’s Humanities 7 class approaching. Imagining she had a question about her homework or perhaps wanted to run to the library, I set my face in what I hoped was a welcoming, open, perhaps slightly quizzical expression. As she sat down on the floor with me, she began to tell me about books she had read through the summer and to ask me about what I had been reading. As the conversation lengthened and took us to more and more places, I realized she wasn’t just talking about books. She was also talking about her awareness, and her family’s awareness, of how she was growing up, able to think about and learn from an ever-greater variety of experiences, in the process exploring aspects of human nature she had thus far been fortunate enough never to have encountered. And she was perhaps also testing me to see if, now that she wasn’t in my class any more, I would still be open to talking at length with her about what she thought and what she was learning. I hope and trust I passed the test. I do know she promised to hand her current book over to me when she finished it, convinced I would love it as she did.

We are certainly a community of readers at Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School. The girls are read to in Humanities 7, Humanities 8 and ESL Reading/Writing Workshop, and moreover the houseparents have also begun reading aloud to the boarding students at night. Through our independent reading programs and group novels chosen in support of different units, students have ample opportunity to just curl up with a good book and lose themselves in the story. Often when one student makes a “text-to-text connection” and explains how one book makes her think of another (one of the strategies used by good readers to help their comprehension), she will provoke an outpouring of similar connections until I eventually decide it’s time to redirect the class back to the original, central discussion.

So it was recently when I was reading Rabbit-Proof Fence to the Humanities 7 class. As they returned to the discussion, a girl from Africa raised her hand. Beginning to make a text-self connection (another of the strategies of good readers), she spoke with a touch of hesitation about how she believed it possible that the white settlers believed the Australian aboriginals were inferior to them because of the color of their skin. I held her gaze and nodded slightly, and she continued with a firmer, louder voice to talk incredulously and with a hint of anger about the time when someone asked her if when she was home she wore grass skirts and lived in trees, looking around the class as she spoke to see the other students’ reactions. A girl from Mexico threw up her hand to tell about the time someone asked her why, if she was Mexican, she wasn’t wearing her sombrero. Murmurs of outrage coalesced into analyses of how people sometimes act and why, and declarations of how they should be acting and why. Almost unnoticed, I sat and absorbed it all, ready to act quickly if need be but hoping they would continue to manage the conversation all on their own. They did so, and as the conversation began to wind down one of the youngest 7th graders commented with excitement and pride, “Who would ever have believed that little middle schoolers could have this kind of conversation?” Knowing the question was rhetorical, I nonetheless answered it: “I would.”

I would never call this group of 7th graders “little middle schoolers” any more than I would have described previous classes in the same way. At the same time, I am well aware that, for all their brilliance and insight, all their well-developed and uninhibited voices, they are still quite new to this school and less than four months ago, many of them were still going out to the playground for recess. Just this morning in homeroom, I asked them if they were ready for me to stop going over the sequence of the upcoming day period by period. Four shouted “No!”s and six sets of terrified eyes (and not a single “Yes”) told me they still wanted and needed this support. Fortunately, they were comfortable enough to let me know this, and as I began “From here, you’ll go to math and then science…” I watched relief and a sense of well-being replace terror.

These moments form a microcosm of what it means to be a middle schooler – on the one hand, bringing increasing sophistication and insight to their growing awareness of the world around them, and on the other hand, remaining achingly in touch with the child within. This may look and feel different to parents than it does to teachers and advisors – after all, you are the ones who protected them from birth, and preparing to leave that protection may be just as scary for them as it may be for you (perhaps even more so). They are trying to prove they can make it on their own, yet all too aware that sometimes they need to reach out for help, and not always certain as to what the best balance is. As we work together to help them maintain and develop their voices as they transition from childhood to adulthood, part of our job will be to track and help them navigate this transition. For us adults, too, it is a delicate balance and one that will require continual adjustment. But if we care for and support them and trust them to do their best, they will respond in kind.

And perhaps next year, I will once again look up from my computer to see a former student heading my way, and I will know that the cycle continues…

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Filed under In the Classroom, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School