Sunday, September 14, 2014

"...I contain multitudes."

On the best days, teaching is all about hearing children sing their own songs. Some may need a little tune up, but all of the songs are reflections of who they are. I'm not talking about those kids who cling to the five-paragraph essays until they sweat the structure to the point of echoing an educator or text, stifling their voices in the details.

But maybe I am talking about those kids. Maybe on the field, in first chair, with a brush, writing code, tending gardens, pulling crab pots. Maybe at some point in the day their authentic selves shine through with confidence. Maybe.

How do we bring that same confidence to sharpening their literacy skills when they are so, so far behind? We don't play the blame game. Who knows where those children were functioning when last year's teacher met them? They may have already fought hard to gain the ground that we are see as shaky at best. Let's assume that their parents may be doing the best they can. Blame wastes your mental energy and precious time. Teachers know those are resources we must protect.

Meet kids where they are. There will be times in class when they just have to tackle a text that is out of their ZPDs, or reading comfort zone. As teachers, it's important that we know when that happens, so we can offer support. Read-alouds, modeling, think-alouds, active reading strategies, fix-up strategies...the list is long. Get comfortable with techniques that work for you as you help your students engage with the text. Engagement is key, and engaged students are far more fun to teach. Right?

Sometimes a story may be so far out of their independent reading ability that all of the strategies in the world won't build that scaffold strong and high enough. So is it important that they read that selection, or is it important that they get the story? 

If it's about story, is there another way to get it? Would clips of a film with subtitles turned on make the story more accessible? If the story is a classic, chances are that it has been illustrated by now. I'm not talking about the random art that can show up in the literature book. I'm talking about an illustrator who has read the text. Has it been turned into a graphic novel? Would reading this be a springboard for attacking the original story? Is there a Reader's Theater version of the tale? Scope magazine publishes a script in each edition of their magazine. (I have "The Tell-Tale Heart" ready to go for my collaborative class tomorrow.) And after you have given them this story, can you find a comparable tale that they can read with confidence that allows them to sharpen their independent reading skills?

Is there time set aside for kids to have some choice over their reading within their ZPD? If we were struggling readers, what would it feel like to sit through a double block class with materials that were three or more reading levels beyond our comfort zone? How will they be able to use literature to gain skills that rest on understanding the subtleties of authors' craft when all of the material is out of their mental grasp? And what if their reading class is at the end of the day? For a "third grade reader" in eighth grade, I'm just thankful that they didn't run home screaming before they got to me. (Luckily, I work with great people who do their best to make their curriculum accessible to all learners; I hope you do too.)

No matter how low children are, they can grow. It's never okay for us to tell ourselves that a child cannot. It's also not okay for us to be thankful the troublemakers have their heads down today. And we cannot say to ourselves that a child just is not a reader and take comfort in the fact that they excel in another field in order to quiet our conscience.

Reading is a pathway to community. It's not the only way, but it's a way marked with richness and diversity. 

Libraries are for everyone. Tell a friend. Tell your students. Some will not believe you. You will have to show them the truth.

Some books in the library aren't for everyone, but faced with seemingly infinite possibilities-- there just has to be something in there that fits. We have to help struggling readers use the library. We can still provide choices, but libraries are overwhelming to fledgling readers of all ages. What if we decoded language at such a painful pace, just browsing the shelves caused us to break into a sweat? Teachers and librarians who know the collection can guide the student and provide a few options based on student interest and independent reading level. So many books are out there these days designed to look "on level" while containing vocabulary and style for a "below level" reader. 

And thank goodness for the boom in graphic literature. Bless those writers and artists with swift fingers and fluid lines. Keep at it. One characteristic of some struggling readers is that they do not picture what they read, which is what good readers do. Graphic literature can bridge that gap. If you know an educator who still turns his/her nose up to this style, there is lots of research out there to support your love of these illustrated texts.

So back to Uncle Walt, Mr. Humanity, who contains multitudes. So do we. So do our kids. Walt was talking about all of us. Children aren't one-dimensional beings, although sometimes they like to think they are. 

"I don't need to read. I'm going to work on my dad's boat."

"I don't need to read. I'm an athlete."

"I don't need to read. I'm a musician."

"I don't need to read. I'm going to work on cars."

Students may actually say these words to us. I know. It hurts. We are the adults. Do not expect a child to have the foresight and understanding of the ways that literacy opens and closes doors in the blink of an eye. We can try to explain that, but only some of our message will not land. 

Often in education we have to carry the dreams we have for our students when they can't dream for themselves. That's okay. 

We can flash forward to the miles of forms that it takes to be an adult, the speed that it takes to find the answer to a question on the internet and choose the most accurate response, the times they may have to shuttle children and grandchildren to the library and read to them at night, the dinner table studying sessions when their children may need help, the employment they may seek that requires the ability to communicate through e-mail in a timely manner, the scanning of the newspaper for coupons in order to stretch their family's budget. 

We see all of this. We live it. No one has to remind us.

Every child is a reader. If we can help them believe this between September and June, we have given them a gift that they will not even begin to understand until they are adults. (So don't hold your breath for a thank you!)

This post sounds a little like a Sunday sermon, and maybe it is. This week there were two specific moments that fired me up all over again. 

First, the talented artist and teacher, Clayton Singleton, spoke at Norfolk Public Schools' convocation. Mr. Singleton made a lot of salient points, but something he said at 28:34 spoke to me. Watch the entire presentation, if you want to get lifted. Just perk up at 28:34 and pay close attention when he talks about "the black dude." I want you to hear it for yourself. Again, that child also contains multitudes. Let's not forget it!

Second, CBS Sunday Morning made me cry. They let me see that struggling reader take control of his reading life and find joy, community, pride and self-respect through literacy

Teachers, keep on teaching! 
We'll never get to see the true impact of the time we spend with children, but keep moving forward anyway. 

Here's to your best year yet!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Ain't No Thang Like a Chicken Wing

In today's episode of The Diet Starts Tomorrow, I attended a funeral that featured the recurring themes of family, music, compassion and fried chicken. KFC chicken wings, to be exact.

I could go on and on about the amazing life of Rev. Don Ambrose, but perhaps you did not have the pleasure of knowing him.  If so, it would only make you feel like you missed out on a singular sensation. What I want to share with you is simple. It's something we need to hear at the end of a school year, the start of a school year and all the days in between.

One person can make a difference.

Rev. Ambrose was the church's minister of music during my childhood. And he was pure joy. Mr. Ambrose could tickle those ivories like we were shaking our tail feathers at a juke joint. And the ridiculous songs we'd sing! We'd sing about Jesus as well, but I think the missing Beatitude may have something to do with joyful noisemakers being blessed too. It was likely inconvenient considering both time and space to shoulder even a wheeled upright pianny to the tip top of the Mount.

His joy and approachability marked a lifetime of drawing people together. In spite of every pew being filled today for his homegoing service, it was only a teensy tiny fraction of those people Mr. Ambrose has touched with his kindness.

Whatever your spiritual beliefs, many of us feel that we have been called to teach. And that we have been called to teach compassion along with delivering academic instruction. That's what I want to take away from being present for the celebration of Mr. Ambrose's life.

And about that chicken. Mr. Ambrose had a favorite treat that remained unaltered over time. There was a reception following the graveside gathering. Inside the fellowship hall were buckets of KFC chicken! I had every intention of chowing down on a wing, but I needed to hop in my dad's truck and get back to work. (Insert a side-eye to my father here.)

All of the sudden I had x-ray vision. As I was increasing the distance between me and the buckets, I could just picture them standing at attention on the long tables covered with food so common to the Southern Baptist culinary experience. I know it's just a missed wing, but I love ceremony and remembering people through food; I was all aboard that train.

After work, I picked up some FC of my own. (The KFC left my neighborhood.)

The bill totaled $6.66, but the cashier was with me when I got to the window of the drive-thru and asked if we could throw some apple pies on the order to make it better. Done and done.

Blessed are the extra adults I remember from childhood 
who helped grow my heart by sharing theirs with me. 

I am no Rev. Ambrose, but I hope that I can pay forward some of that compassion that he had for the world.

If you were unable to make the service and want to know today's closing hymn, here it is. The page number in your hymnal may differ.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Gotta Go Back in Time

Poetry Month has arrived again. 
My poster came in the mail today. Thanks, Penguin.

This year I asked my friends and colleagues 
to consider this question:

I know what Ponyboy Curtis would choose. 

So far, I have posted the following answers in our hallway:

"The Bagel" from Grace

"And Your Soul Shall Dance" from Susan

"The Girl Who Loved the Sky" from Susan

"The Swing" from Julie & "No Man is an Island" from Michele

Beth and I both like "Forever Young." It was on the first final exam I ever gave.

"You've Got A Friend" from Trish; "I Can See Clearly Now" from Jeff.
"Child of the Wild Blue Yonder" from Jennifer' "You Can Do Magic" from Heather.
"Phenomenal Woman" from Kate; "Alone" from Anne.

Everyone wants to to enjoy 24 hours of "Happy."
"Daffodils" from Susan; "To Live is to Fly" from Rob.

"It Don't Come Easy" from Donna; "Just A Girl" from Lori.

"One of These Things First" from Chris; "Eyes of the World" from Beth.

"The Road Not Taken" from Ruth, Alice & Laura.

"You Can't Hurry Love" from Joyce.

"Wasted on the Way" from Nat

We still have room for you!
If you would like to replicate this display, all you need are manilla folders, a glue stick, a stapler, scrapbook paper, multicolor printer paper, scissors, a photocopier, a printer and a few pals.
You can make QR codes here.
The ones I used here connect to performances of the songs on YouTube.
We have compiled a Spotify playlist for you to listen to here.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Namaste, Y'all. For Real!

I just twisted the head off of a bunny, a hollow Godiva chocolate bunny. Last week our school, which contains all 8th graders for the county and no other children, took our state writing tests. I don't know about the kids, but I'm still recovering. Mercy. That was something else.

While I just read that tequila helps with weight loss, it's Miette's Bedtime Stories that I want to share with you here. Priorities, people!

Who is this Miette? Who can say? All that you need to know right now is that she has spent hours speaking into a microphone for the good of humankind. And her voice. Her voice is as gentle as that well-worn favorite blanket of your childhood, the one that casts its calming spell and lulls you to sleep with all of its softness.

You can listen to her stories right now from your computer. Visit the iTunes store and download them there. Do you have Apple TV? Yep. Miette's podcasts are waiting for you and your remote. (Can someone please invent a television that allows us to darken our screens with the flip of a switch, so we can listen in peace?)

There are so many wee stories to choose from. Where does one start? You can peruse the recordings by author's name. If you are one of those English major types, you will recognize some of those lovely classics that often nestle themselves in anthology after anthology. There are many surprises as well, the B sides of short story masters.

My own go-to tale for dozing off is William Faulkner's gem, "A Rose for Emily." I know, but it is so familiar that the nightmares must be too distant in my brain to register now. Faulkner's writing style coupled with Miette's voice swirl  smooth placid circles within my brain until the night is no longer and the alarm announces the new day. There are no sheep needed, just Count No-Count.

The only time I would recommend driving to her podcasts is when she features a guest reader. One of my favorites is a massive collaboration of folks performing Cornell Woolrich's classic, "Murder Was the Case." Some of you may be wondering why you haven't heard of this story. It's the basis for the Alfred Hitchcock film, Rear Window. 

Over the years, Miette's recording equipment has improved, so you may want to browse available stories starting with her most recent offering.

I could go on, but I'm just getting in between you and your new tasting menu. 

If you ever see this dear Miette, please give her our thanks and a word of encouragement. It's nice to know that kind folks are laboring without fanfare to do what they love and share it with others. Doesn't it make you wonder what other treasures are out there hidden amongst the ephemera of the web just waiting to be discovered?

And if you came here to look for my cat's Pick 4 numbers, 
Gracie just walked across the keyboard to the tune of...


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Spring Sprang Sprung

It's snowing as I type this, but spring did arrive last week. In a rare turn of events, it was also sunny that day. If you are reading this from pretty much anywhere in the South, you know how wacky our weather has been.

On February 25th, I was getting a hankering to see something besides all of this's in my hair, it's the color of my cat, it's in the sky, it's the carpet and walls of our classroom. Enough already.

Having not yet figured out my get rich quick scheme, my thoughts quickly turned to paint chips, yellow and orange ones. As my 2A class was enjoying their independent reading time, I got an idea. 

What if we write out the lyrics to "Here Comes the Sun" on paint chips and hang them somewhere in time for spring's arrival? I researched the lyrics to make sure that George Harrison was the only songwriter to credit. Guess what? February 25th was Mr. H's birthday. Well, that settled it. No turning back now.

When the kids were done with their 20 minutes of reading, I said, "I have this idea, and I think we should go through with it."

"Okay," said one male voice. The others listened enthusiastically...I think. I explained the whole alignment of the universe with the March 25 coinkydink, and they were on board. I split the song into lines. They wrote the lyrics on the paint chips. Our dear Mrs. Lassiter, also a George fan, laminated them for us. We punched holes and waited for the day.

Someone who looks a lot like me misremembered the solstice kick-off, but the display was up on the school's wheelchair ramp for the first full day of spring as the students arrived for another day of state testing. Ten bucks at Dollar Tree also got me a fistful of pinwheels, Elton John sunglasses for our tiny potted tree and three smiley face balloons. I know for a fact that at least two kids appreciated the effort, so it was all worth it.

We have packed up our paint chips and are ready to mail them to any location in the continental United States. You will need ribbon or yarn and a place to display them. We'd love to send them to you. 

Just ask. 

After all, who doesn't love this gem of a tune?

Thursday, March 13, 2014

In Support of Strasburg High School's Young Adult Literature Elective (and John Green)

March 13, 2014

Dear Members of the Strasburg School Board,

I am writing in support of the materials chosen for Strasburg High School's proposed elective in young adult literature. I am also posting this letter on my personal blog as censorship is a topic that I am currently exploring in a Longwood University class. The book I chose to re-read, research and discuss for class is on the syllabus for the SHS elective.

Although I have not read all of the books on the list, I recognize a lot of the titles as I have been an eighth grade language arts teacher since 1999 and a partner in helping make selections for our middle school library. We use sources like School Library Journal and Titlewave to search for positive critical reviews before adding to our collection of young adult novels; I have seen these books supported there.

This is an exciting time to guide students in a critical study of young adult literature; I can't deny relishing the idea of teaching such a course myself. Part of my curriculum for advanced students includes a September study of S.E. Hinton's novel, The Outsiders, as one of the first realistic problem novels written for teens. Hinton was in high school when she began writing this 1968 classic, all because she could not find books that contained believable characters. In addition to realistic characters, young adult fiction would sometimes follow another element of this novel. Often fictional teens would have to solve their own problems in the absence of adults. Pony's parents were killed before page one. Darry is trying to raise his younger brothers after just graduating high school. Johnny's parents are abusive. How I loved that book as a middle school student, but as realistic as the characters were, the lack of a parental safety net was not part of my world.

I realize that The Outsiders is not on the proposed reading list in question, but I mention it in order to explain one of the many reasons that I love John Green and count myself as a 40 year-old Nerdfighter. Like me, Miles Halter of Looking for Alaska and Gus Waters and Hazel Grace of The Fault in Our Stars have loving, supportive and present parents. I think that is what most book challenges are about too, right? Supportive parents are trying to make the best choices for their children. 

From what I understand about the current challenge, some parents are trying to make decisions about what other parents' children read though. And that's not okay. The Strasburg School Board Policies have a plan in place for public concerns and complaints about instructional resources in section KEC of the manual. If someone wants to lodge an official complaint, he or she can fill out the appropriate forms and anticipate that the procedures for reevaluating a book will be followed. Before filling out that form, I hope that the complainant would read the novel in its entirety. As you are well aware, the policy you have in place is respectful of teachers, parents, students and books. It is clear that parents are completely in control of asking a teacher to substitute another book, if the class selection is not in line with what parents feel is developmentally appropriate for their children. It does not empower anyone to censor books for other peoples' children.

Brothers John and Hank Green have a powerful web presence. I hope that you spend some time watching their Crash Course videos on YouTube. John also hosts a series for Mental Floss. Be prepared though; he's a big nerd. He's passionate about learning...and thinking critically about the world. If we are among the true educators, he's exactly the way we hope our students turn out to be when they leave our classrooms. He's a lifelong learner who can think for himself.

I have a signed first edition of Looking for Alaska, and it's the title that I chose to research for my coursework towards becoming a school librarian. Sure I cringed as the sheltered Miles Halter went away to boarding school and joined right in with some of those behaviors we like to think that teenagers would resist, but who finished reading the book? Everything in that novel is there for a reason. Green says that he wrote that book to explore the nature of suffering, and the second part of the book brings all of those ideas together. When Miles is left asking all of those big questions after the sudden and mysterious death of a close friend, we see a grieving teen trying to make sense of it all. Teens need those books. They do. Many of use remember the death of a classmate in high school. How did we make sense of it then? Parents can help, but so can books. Books can certainly show you people and characters that we want to emulate, but they also show us behaviors that we want to avoid...for now or forever.

Yes, there are a couple of scenes that teachers would not want to spend time discussing in class, but I am guessing that this teacher has chosen this book because of the sum of its parts. On his website, Green has written, "There are a few explicit scenes, but all of them are pretty nakedly arguments against vapid, emotionless sexual encounters...we are discussing perhaps 800 words in a 70,000 word novel." Looking for Alaska is in no way "criminal and vile, crass and crude" as the wording on the petition states. 

Here is what John Green had to say about a time when Looking for Alaska faced potential censorship in another state:

I had the pleasure of being one of the oldest people in the room when John and Hank Green were invited to speak by Newport News Public Libraries at, get this, my old high school. I wish you had been in the auditorium too. Like most expansive rooms full of teenagers, it was electric. The gathered crowd was pulsing with excitement...about READING! They were also there to hear the words of someone who cherished them for the people they are and the people they are becoming. That is the voice that I want speaking to my students, a voice of compassion, acceptance and celebration.

Since I am an English teacher, I could go on and on about books, but I also could have written a one sentence response too. Why are parents so adamant about challenging books in an elective course? Their children will not have to take this course as a requirement for graduation. 

Thank you for taking the time to consider my letter in preparation for your April 9th meeting. Please contact me, if you have any questions about what I have written here. I would like to close by including a link to the American Library Association's Freedom to Read Statement and listing the awards earned by John Green's Looking for Alaska.

Winner, 2006 Michael L. Printz Award

Finalist, 2005 Los Angeles Times Book Prize
2006 Top 10 Best Book for Young Adults
2006 Teens’ Top 10 Award
2006 Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers
A New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age
A Booklist Editor’s Choice Pick
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection
Borders Original Voices Selection

Back in November of 2008, I got my copy of Looking for Alaska signed. I stood in line behind all of the teenagers because that was their night, not mine. But John Green had kind words for teachers that evening too and the same advice that he gives his young Nerdfighters, "Don't Forget to be Awesome." 

I pass the same advice on to you. Thank you for your service to the students of Strasburg. Having read your policy manual, I feel confident that this teacher will find support for her thoughtful curriculum.


Michelle Davis

Monday, March 10, 2014

YOU get a car!

As you already know, Ollie's is a great place to buy discounted books. 
You can find your nearest location here.

The last time I was cruising through, I found one lonely Hot Wheels car from the 1940s. I walked by it the first time, but I backtracked once I decided that I really did need that $1.99 toy.

We're wrapping up The Diary of Anne Frank in my advanced language arts classes. Each child is completing a reading guide in order to get the big picture of Anne's diary without reading the entire work. As an incentive, I offered this brand new car to the first child to pass the optional open book Accelerated Reader test on the entire diary.

Here's LG with her sparkling new ride!

If you want to see my collection of online resources related to this unit of study, 
including the reading guide, click here. 

Borrow away!