Saturday, March 31, 2012

In Which Our Heroes Search for Answers

Conducting research is really only meaningful when you have an interest in a topic, and that might mean a ratio of one topic per student.   That's difficult to manage.   As I was brainstorming a way to add student choice to the activity while still maintaining some control over the process, something happened in Sandford, Florida that captured all of America's attention.   George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin.

Whatever our feelings are on an issue, I feel that a teacher's role is to allow our students access to enough information for them to make up their own minds.   The opportunity to think critically is one of the best gifts that we can give teenagers.   Although I was anxious to start talking about this issue right away, I guesstimated an approximate time that enough information would be available to us and booked one of our rolling computer labs.   Also, I decided to create a list of questions to guide their research, so they would get to investigate as many sides as possible.   All answers were to be paired with their source and the date of publication.   Of course, there was also space and time for them to seek out answers to their own questions and express their own opinions.   Students were also asked to read Toure's response to Trayvon's death, "How to Stay Alive While Being Black."    

I didn't give a lecture regarding what happened, although I could have.   Being a sage on the stage when you're trying to get children to think for themselves is counterproductive.   I kept quiet for most of the time, but I did ask a few questions out loud after about a half hour of research, so students who wanted to speak up could.  

And you would have been impressed to see the seriousness with which they took on a detective's task and the intelligence with which they discussed the issues surrounding the incident.   No one ever lost sight of the tragedy of a teen's death and the fact that we wouldn't be able to sort everything out in 70 minutes of inquiry.  This was one of the quietest activities I've ever witnessed.   I gave my second block a five minute chat break, but most of them just continued to dig deeper.  

If you've ever looked at a teenager and presumed anything about their lack of passion for learning, or anything else for that know where I'm going with this.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Status Update

Bids for Page's demolition were due on March 20th.   The areas with the heaviest tornado damage were already removed from the site.   Today some of the past and present faculty gathered to dig up some daffodil goodbye to the building.  
No news on when the rest of the walls will come tumbling down.

The best part of the afternoon was when the high school (we only have one, y'all) buses drove by with some of our former students, and we got to wave at some smiling faces.

Perhaps last year's 8th graders didn't get as much credit as they deserved.
We were all so busy filling out claim forms, sorting through boxes, telescoping lesson plans and keeping one anothers' heads on straight that I don't know if we were able to express how grateful we were to the kids and families who shifted around their schedules and came to school with joyful, resilient spirits.   People were so good to us, and our children were truly overwhelmed and touched by the generosity of our neighbors.   The students, staff and faculty of Peasley Middle School could not have been more gracious hosts.

Since I'm still feeling lucky that I wasn't in a dark hallway trying to keep 25 kids safe from the storm, I bought a few Mega Millions lottery tickets.

I know the odds, but somebody's got to win it, right?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Where Malik's From

Not so long ago I told you about a poetry exercise called Where I'm From.   I found it in Nancie Atwell's book Naming the World: A Year of Poems and Lessons.   I have to tell you that it is my favorite writing activity that I have ever done with my students...ever.  

Why?   The students dug deep.   They thought about themselves.   They talked to their families.   They revised.   They edited.   Many even allowed me to make copies of their poems to put in a binder to share with classmates and teachers.   Some were asked to publish their work in the school literary magazine.   I wanted to publish one here for you to enjoy as well.

A big part of what I like about Atwell's book is the fact that she has published student samples alongside the bona-fide, gen-u-ine poem that inspired the lesson.   The poem I chose to share with you, with his mother's permission, is written by a young man who has a natural ear for language.  At the same time, he would agree with Thomas Mann's statement, "A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people."  

Malik is about the craft.   His poem was a process.   Believe it.   I was there.   His first draft was flat but intriguing.   I know when he's "in the zone."   But I hadn't seen it yet with this activity.   It took having the poem knocking around in his brain for a day for the pieces to start falling into the right places.   He opened with a general line about slavery and moved quickly to the next subject.   I had a feeling that there was more there, but he wasn't able to come up with it until he had a chance to talk with family.   He did.   The poem really opened up after that.   See what you think.

“where i’m from”

i’m from slaves working in the hot fields of gloucester
to whites only and piles of found jewelry.
i’m from farming crops and hard work to
“when will we be free from this misery?”
i’m from families being torn apart
to  wondering if relatives will be found,
dead or alive.

i’m from newport news to a family of 5
i’m from "that’s dope" and billy jean,
to the greatest love of all.
i’m from the the jeffersons and moving to the eastside,
to finally getting a piece of the pie.
i’m from the sweet taste of butterfingers
to playing with barbies and kens.
i’m from the witches and mysteries
to playing softball in the warm dusty summer of ’90.
i’m from stacks of poems and books,
to barking dogs and purple soda.
i’m from a ripping eye and pain,
to doctors working to fix it.

i’m from a lost boy living in hawaii
to a military woman with no children.
i’m from that boy found and loved
to that woman who’s now a mom.
i’m from a calm, peaceful place
to the concrete jungle of new york.
i’m from winters spent in maine
to the sunny city of los angeles.
i’m from the flow and rhyme of a
lonely soul,
to slick rick reading
fairy tale.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Bunny Surprise


Sure, reviews say that this is for the early elementary set, but 8th graders love it.
There's a bunny.
The bunny checks out a library book...a book about wolves.  
He's good reader, so he visualizes what he's reading.  
And his imagination is powerful.  
It's not too long before..yep...CHOMP.  

Sorry about that spoiler.  

Kids never see that coming because the slim picture books still seem pretty harmless.  

But wait, there's more.   Readers have the option of a happy ending.

Let this curious bunny help you illustrate What Good Readers Do.

See Emily Gravett explain how rabbits are born.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

It's systematic.

Let it go.
This too shall pass.

Be kind to Virginia's 8th grade teachers as we wrap up our state writing assessments...
and switch gears to prepare for the reading assessments.

March feels like a pressure cooker sometimes.
Okay.  Every March since 2000 has felt like a pressure cooker to me.

Let it go.
This too shall pass.

I'm not saying that you should bring a lawn chair and a cold drink and set up spa camp in your classroom while your students do what students are wont to do when left unattended.
I'm just talking perspective here.

If you know that you are teaching the curriculum with a wee bit of passion,
your students will take the tests seriously.

Let your mind find ease in OK Go's elegant chain of events.
It's a smooth nod to Rube Goldberg.

Let it go.
This too shall pass.

If you want something a little quieter, check out this guy.   He can't go to sleep without his nightlight, but his folks insist that he turn the light out before he nods off.  
What's a pig to do?  
You'll marvel at his amazing contraption.   Some pig.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Anne Lamott's Back Pocket

There are so many reasons I heart Anne Lamott.   Inspirational. Conspiratorial. Practical. Comical. Spiritual. Commiserational.   Is that last one a real word?  Well, you know what I mean.

Bird  by Bird by Anne Lamott

All of her books are worth your time, but I want to focus on one chapter from Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.   "Index cards."

Isn't it fun to find out how particular writers practice their craft?   Ms. L. uses index cards to capture ideas from everyday life that sometimes evaporate if you don't have a pen and scrap of paper with which to capture them.   She keeps index cards in a flock all around her house and her car, but it's the one in her back pocket that interests me most as a writing teacher.

For those moments that you take your students to a band or chorus concert, a speaker, a play, a field trip or even to the cafeteria, the index card in the back pocket can be a fun way to capture writing outside your classroom.

In my dreams, especially now that I am teaching inside a trailer, I can hitch my classroom to a truck and drive my writers to a creative hot spot, teeming with the energy of everyday life.  

In reality, the closest place full of vibrant, teen power is the cafeteria.   The index card provides a great tool for quick, observational writing without intruding too much into their free time.   I have a class that is split by lunch, so it's a great opportunity to try out this technique.   The assignment was to create a two-sentence observation of a food item...using the old show, don't tell technique.  And no one complained.   Hmm.   A few crafty souls even worked in some figurative language into their work.   It was fun to display their work after lunch and get such a thorough, varied report from a familiar location.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Eastern Virginia Writing Project 2012

Stop the presses.   A friend of mine just told me that the EVWP sponsored by the College of William and Mary received funding for its 2012 Invitational Summer Institute.   Start the application process today!   Classes run from June 25- July 26.   Books are provided.   If you are accepted into the program $800 of the $1642 tuition is also covered.   Completing the coursework will earn you 6 hours of academic graduate credit.   The best reward is spending time with the amazing staff.

I would have told you earlier, but I just found out a few minutes ago.   Funding for programs connected to the National Writing Project has been in jeopardy, and it looks like there is good news to share.   Please pass this link on to any interested friends and coworkers.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Heart of Rock and Roll

This one's on my bucket list for later, but maybe you want to get to it sooner.   Every summer the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum invites teachers to Cleveland for a week to learn how to use popular music to enhance their lessons.  
You are responsible for paying for the class as well as food, lodging and transportation.   You can also earn graduate credit through Ashland University...for a fee.   If you're a local, maybe you just want to hang out at their library and enjoy the archives.   Explore the previous years' institutes to see what a typical week involves before you fork over your funds.  

Too busy (broke) to travel this summer? Dress in pleather, play your own music collection and peruse some pre-made lesson plans.  

Maybe you want to donate your stage costume from your world can do that too.   You've really made the grade.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Wake Up, Chuck

My principal sent out this article to our faculty via e-mail.   It's a list of 10 ways you can keep your students awake.   These suggestions are from Wisconsin middle school teacher Michelle Doman.

I've tried #5 before, but don't miss #7.   Here's a kinder, gentler clue to technique #7 below.  

I wonder if Chuck Norris can tame a class full of middle school students.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Where I'm From

I've yet to even scratch the surface of the beauty that is Nancie Atwell's Naming the World: A Year of Poems and Lessons.   Today I continued an exercise from the "Your Life" section of the book.  

Ms. Atwell provides a copy of poet George Ella Lyon's poem, "Where I'm From," as well as two poems written by inspired middle schoolers.   We read all three poems last Friday, and I sent students home with the intergenerational questionnaire.   Because of the nature of eighth graders and weekends, many people did not have the interviews done by Monday, so it took until Tuesday until we could really get down to the business of writing.   And, no, everyone had not completed their interviews by Tuesday either.

Today I shared the poem that I wrote based on Lyon's original.   You already know that it's good to make yourself vulnerable to your students by sharing your own writing.   They generally respond with kindness and respect; it also gets them into their poets' groove.  
Please understand that the intent of the lesson is to borrow Lyon's riff, to mimic her style and to mirror her repetition.   This is not a lesson in how to plagiarize.   Make sure you click the above link to Lyon's poem, so you can see her patterns in my draft below.  

I am from Sundays after church,
from sweet tea and Formica tables
enchanted by my grandmother’s blessings.
I am from the vinyl records inside the garage.
(Silent, waiting,
they held secret spells.)
I am from the tulip tree,
the summer garden
whose crusty, baked soil  between rows of corn
crumbles gently under bare feet. 

I’m from Number, please  and  Promenade.  
I’m from dusty circuses and shimmering skylines
from tobacco leaves in barn rafters
from flowing rivers near textile mills.
I’m from both Carolinas
     from limestone and sisterhoods. 

I’m from dipped snuff and tinned sardines,
jets of sawdust that tickle noses.
I’m from wires pulsing with electricity
   stretching across the South. 

From the body bag of the local boy
     my father escorted home from Vietnam.
I’m from a hand to hold and shirts off backs,
from promises kept
rooted in both love and duty.
Some students will need your help to mine for information.   I grew up minutes away from all four of my grandparents and was a curious child.   It was easy for me to tap into all of those years of informal "research" that I completed before writing this poem.  
I drew a simple family tree on the board, and many writers used that as a way to brainstorm.   Although their homework was to interview one person using the questionnaire, their poem should include anyone from their family line.   Steps, adoption, doesn't matter.   Your students can decide who is or is not family to them.
Please be aware that some of your students have only painfully dark memories of their families.   Some will be ready to write, some won't.   Encourage children who make an attempt to tackle such a raw topic.   Give an alternative assignment for those students who just can't face or make sense of their family relationships yet. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012


If you already know what I'm talking about, you must be a fellow Nerdfighter.   If not, it's simple to explain.   Don't forget to be awesome.   Is there a better motto out there?   Probably not.   Being awesome just about covers it.   Benevolent brothers John and Hank Green reign supreme in the sparkling Nerdfighter universe.

You may already know John Green from his young adult novels.   A few years back I had the great pleasure of being inside a metaphor, thanks to the Green brothers and their merry band of Nerdfighters.   My own high school was a stop on their Nerdfighting tour.   To be an adult back inside Menchville High's auditorium with a bunch of teens being their awesome nerdy selves was a delicious moment in time.   And you know how much English teachers like metaphors.   Which brings me to...

Product Details

In short, this book is about two teens whose day-to-day dealings with mortality insist that they make awesomeness a requirement.   Hazel and Gus will make you  blush and give you goosebumps for all the right reasons.   You will get a little misty.   I did.   It happened during a round of applause at the Anne Frank House.   Anne Frank is one of the strongest cases for never forgetting to be awesome.   This metaphor is the main reason I got the sniffles when Mr. Green took this dear reader into the world famous hiding place.   I could go on and on, but so many others already have.

Here's the thing about John Green.   He's on my secret list of truly lovely people on this earth.   Mr. Green inspires teens to be who they are and share this sweet feeling of self-acceptance with others.   His fictional characters are bright, witty, sly and deep...a task best undertaken by writers with the same qualities.

As I stood at the back of a long line of teenagers waiting to get my first edition of Looking for Alaska signed, I recalled my classmates from Menchville and thought about the young people in front of me.  How many of them got the "awesome" message from the people in their lives?   Who cherished them for who they were and are?   And here's how cool John Green is.   When I finally got to the front of the line, I opened my copy of Alaska and placed it in front of him to sign and he told me that his signature would bring the value of the book down.   As if I would ever sell it.   I asked him to sign it anyway.   He did.  


Saturday, March 10, 2012

Getting Away With Murder

This could be the title for so many books about the Civil Rights Movement, but this time it's referring to The True Story of the Emmett Till Case, a book by Chris Crowe.   I had requested this book for our library years ago, but I actively avoided reading it.   I already knew young Emmett's story; I discovered it when I was nearly as old as he was when he drew his last breath.

I don't mind telling you that I was not a stellar student in middle school.   In 8th grade, I do remember charting facts about the Vietnam War and being fascinated by the Tinker v. DesMoines Supreme Court Case.   And then there was the quarterly poetry memorization requirement.   25 lines per quarter in 7th grade, 50 in 8th.   Oh, the dread with which I went to school those days in anticipation of standing before my peers, drawing a blank and perhaps fainting on the spot.   This medieval expectation was responsible for some of the most visceral memories of conducting research I've ever experienced.   I'm pretty certain that my English teacher did not plan for my new obsession, nor did she ever know about it.

Yes, we are getting to Emmett Till, but it started with the four little girls.   I was researching poet Dudley Randall in preparation for presenting "The Ballad of Birmingham."   The poem galloped along in a sing-song rhyme while recounting truly horrific circumstances.   These were the days of microfilm and microfiche, trips to the public and local college libraries and getting taxied around by my dad.   I don't remember talking to him about what I was sifting though.   When something of such great magnitude weighs on my mind, I usually get quiet and look for more information.   That meant Medgar Evers, Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney.   Next was Emmett Till.

A black teen down from Chicago after his 8th grade year was visiting relatives near Money, Mississippi.   In what seems to be a case of teenage boy bravado, he took up a challenge from friends and tried to flirt with a young white woman working behind a store counter.   Till was later taken from his relatives' home in the middle of the night, tortured and murdered.  

Days after his disappearance a white teen found Till's body in the Tallahatchie River.   This is the image that I remember as I scanned the pages of Jet magazine.   Till's grieving mother, Mamie, made a chilling decision on behalf of a nation.   She insisted on an open casket funeral and allowed Jet to publish the photographs.   This was no ordinary open-casket.   Her child was nearly unrecognizable.   His body was almost doubled in size due to being under water for so long; his face was distorted from the vicious beating as well.   This was her child, and she wanted everyone to see him.  

Young Till is called "the boy who triggered the civil rights movement."   He predated Rosa Parks's act of civil disobedience, and it was Medgar Evers who assisted in finding witnesses for the case against Till's murderers.   Years later Evers would be shot on his front doorstep after arriving home from work while his children raced to the other side of the door to greet their father.  

Show me an 8th grader, and I'll show you someone who is very interested in justice.   These lessons came to me when I was ready to hear them, but as an adult, I didn't want to read about the case all over again.

If you read my earlier post about the summer seminar I've applied for, you'll remember that the course centers on Clarkesdale, Mississippi.   One of the required books is Getting Away With Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case.   No, I haven't been selected yet, but I thought it was time that I faced that book.   It arrived a couple of weeks ago, but I still wasn't ready.   I wrapped it in a favorite flannel pillowcase and placed a heart milagro on top of it and slid it in a wooden drawer.   This may seem strange to you; it seemed strange to me too.   I got the book out today and read it quickly.   Yes, that photograph is in there, but I feel that the complex story was handled in a way that would reach most teens without frightening them away first.   The book is just over 120 pages and keeps a narrow focus.   Photographs add even more gravitas to Till's story.  

Like I said before, I already knew this story, but here's something that I did not know.   At the time of jury selection, "Mississippi state law required that only registered male voters who were at least twenty-one years old and could read and write were eligible for jury duty.   Even though 63 percent of the residents of Tallahatchie County were Black, the pool of prospective jurors contained only white men because Tallahatchie County has no Black registered voters" (79).   Although I had studied the events surrounding the Voting Rights Act, I never made the connection that the right to vote also impacts jury selection in a very basic way.

Now that our 8th grade social studies is civics, not world geography, I look forward to compiling a unit on the Civil Rights Movement.   The way that so many young people affected widespread social change should be inspirational for most teens.   As adults, we already know that social justice starts with just one person "being the change."   It's good to introduce this idea to teenagers while they are hungry and idealistic.   Sure, some of the battles they may take on will seem to lack "great social import," but they are advocates in training.   This will be the foundation of thought for the defining moments in their future when they will have to choose a side that represents their idea of integrity.

Chris Crowe's non-fiction book I mentioned was actually a collection of his research for writing Mississippi Trial, 1955, a piece of historical fiction.   I have not read it yet as I prefer my history to be as factual as possible, but it comes highly recommended by a self-proclaimed reluctant teen reader.   Okay, sometimes she says she "hates" reading, but I prefer to assume that's hyperbolic.

And don't miss A Wreath for Emmett Till.   It's a spellbinding masterpiece.
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Now Put a Little Soul in it

On August 4, 2006 NPR's All Things Considered featured a story on the Kashmere Stage Band.   These talented Houston musicians were at their peak during the late 60s and early 70s.   Everything was on time and outta sight.   And they were a high school band.   Yep.   Can ya dig it?   I knew that you could.

I'm not going to spend too much time here telling their whole story.   You need to hear it for yourself!   Check them out on iTunes.   Or you could get started with the trailer from Jamie Foxx's 2010 documentary.

Do you see how long I've been waiting for this film?   Can you do the math?   And you know it did not come to a theater or kiosk near me.   Thanks to Amazon and a recent shopping binge, I got my own copy of the DVD in the mail this week.

Truth be told, I can't play a lick.   And, yes, I'm an English teacher with important classwork for students to master, but oh how I treasure their time with the arts.   If I could, I would be a music, art, reading and writing teacher all at the same time.   These are all subjects in which students can find a voice and a vehicle for self-expression.  
The best days in the classroom are when children can engage, participate and share.   Please don't put your head down.   If you're sick, please go to the nurse.   The classroom is a community of learners.   Your contribution is valuable.   It's not the same when you're not with us.  

Sometimes it's a struggle keeping everyone on board, but in many ways it must be similar to looking out over a sea of band students.   When there's a "man down" in band, you notice.   Band doesn't work that way.   I think that's part of why I admire great band teachers so much.   Everyone gets to play; everyone has to play.   Who shows up to band thinking they are going to get away with doing next to nothing?

No matter what you teach, don't let band a chorus be the only classes that students are taught the value of song.   Need a little help with that?   Here are some free lesson plans from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

If you get a chance to watch Thunder Soul, please do.   It's a love song to a great man, Mr. Conrad Johnson.   In a time when Rev. Jesse Jackson had to school the nation that black Americans are somebody, the KSB was one of the only all-black competitive high school bands.   And they played soul, many of Mr. Johnson's original compositions.  

This film is a testament to the lasting effects of a great teacher and the confidence and joy that playing music brings.   It's about seeing an instructor pass the responsibility of learning on to his students and letting them feel the power of owning their education.   It's about revisiting some of the sweetest moments of our lives and honoring those who were by our sides.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Never Judge a Book By Its Cover

Do you remember when you first heard this cliche?   If you're like me, you probably wondered how the saying got started.   Your elementary school self probably wondered where are all of these ugly books were.   I never saw any.   And then I saw this...

Really?   This is the best you can do?

Ug.   I'm pretty sure I was the chump who put in a request for this book for our school library.   The reviews were spectacular.   So what's with the long face?

Even so, I grabbed the book and took it home yesterday.   Once I started, I was about 3/4 of the way through before I could stop.     This. Book. IS. Spectacular.  

The young man who narrates the story is full of pluck, humor, tenderness and goodwill.   In spite of some very hefty baggage, 14 year-old Doug Swieteck keeps getting back up and giving people second chances.   He is charming, even when he's not.   His character is often allowed to do the equivalent of a film actor looking right into the camera with a wink.   His voice doesn't give you a chance to disengage from the text.   Doug's not perfect; he'll tell you that.   It's through his imperfections that author Gary D. Schmidt creates a compelling character.

I read the book reviews and was perplexed about how Mr. Schmidt could integrate some of John J. Audubon's bird art into a young adult novel, but he does.   Perfectly.   You'll see.   There's a bit of Jane Eyre and Our Town...and a merciless gym teacher.   There's baseball, horseshoes and Coca-Cola in bottles.   There's a library, a girl and hope.

And there's a moment when you, dear reader, will hold your breath for a few pages.   The scene unfolds in slow motion.   Somehow Schmidt shifts your reading speed into first gear and harnesses the passing of time.   That's how great this story is.

Now that I sit down to write this, I am truly sad that Doug is a work of fiction.   On the other hand, who's to say that he's not?   We've all marveled at the resilience of children in spite of just about anything.  

In short, the goofy, superficial picture you see masks the captivating depth of this story.   The mood evoked by that image does not appear in the text.   That's not Doug.   But you've been preparing for this moment all of your life.   Don't judge this book by its cover.   Doug insists.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Radical Notions & This Dark Endeavor

Dear Mr. Oppel,

Aren't you clever?   This Dark Endeavor was totally YA.   Early Victor Frankenstein all wrapped up in raging hormones, demanding quests and daring feats of great strength.   Teens love that.   Being a Nancy Drew girl myself, you had me at secret passage.   And all of those little English major bits you hid from the plain sight!   The tiresome folks who always insist on laughing loudest when watching films of Shakespeare's comedies to make it very, very clear that they get all of the jokes (especially the ones that aren't particularly funny) will be all over that. 

The best part was your timing.   Or was it my timing?   This book was a welcome break from last weekend's breaking news.   You know that guy who gets paid to talk incessantly and anger women?   No.   The other one.   Yeah, him.   He was really pushing my buttons.   And I know that your book is fiction-- but your Margaret was top rate.   After all, if you're putting together a prequel worthy of Mary Shelley, daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, you have to be serious about that undertaking.   Margaret was neck and neck with Victor and Konrad, even besting them on occasion.   After all, isn't that what we want teens to know about life?   We're all strong and weak, brave and afraid, AND passionate about being who we are, boys and girls alike.

And that scene when Margaret volunteers to be the one that--   You know what I'm talking about.   I couldn't stop thinking about it while I was gnawing on some slow roasted pork ribs that same night.   I did have the manners to keep that plot point to myself until my dinner companion was done for approximately two seconds.  

Thanks, Mr. Oppel, for being thoughtful in creating characters that run the spectrum of what being human is.   I'm glad for all of our students that this book now lives in our school library...and that there's a prequel sequel about to hit the shelves.

Truth sure was stranger than fiction last weekend.   I'm glad I had a good book to carry me through.   Thankfully art can keep one's soul afloat in times of truly dark endeavors.  

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Real Anne Frank/ Part 2

After teaching "Anne Frank" for 13 years, I finally feel like I'm getting into my groove.   What's that?   Slow learner?   Well, maybe.   In the case of teaching real life stories that are enveloped in so many complexities, there's always room for improvement.  

If you read the first edition of The Real Anne Frank, you will remember my frustration with the Goodrich/Hackett and Kesselman texts.   In short, that which makes Anne of the real diary so compelling never seems to surface.   You'll also remember my excitement over the BBC miniseries.

This year I decided to mesh the two and add in a bit from the 1959 play.   This should work for you in classes where students read at or above grade level.   You will need to simplify it further for students who are are struggling readers.

In short, I introduced Anne by way of the BBC.   We watched the miniseries up to the point of the bathing scene.   I chose 10 of Anne's early diary entries for students to read, focusing on identifying conflict.   Students wrote a friendly letter to Anne offering advice on navigating her personal relationships with her family and the VanPels.   10 more entries were selected for a vocabulary exercise.   Each entry also represented an important plot point.   Students then used our laptop lab to visit the Secret Annex.  

We read the play from the cake scene to the date scene, because it's middle school.   Kids love the big date.   Okay, maybe I love it more.   That awkward first kiss is exactly the type of romance that some teenagers need to see, so they can relax a little.   This is the moment in the play when students really see themselves and their friends.   After this scene, writers draft a journal entry that Peter could have created to sum up the evening's experiences.

You may have also read the two sentence journal blog entry.   That's what we did with the last 10 teacher-selected diary entries.   Again, I chose 10 diary entries with important plot points.   The students stepped into Anne's point of view, determined the most important topic of the entry and condensed it into two sentences, capturing Anne's voice.

We then returned to the end of the play.   Students read Anne's real last diary entry.   I read aloud from  Miep Gies's account of the capture and the return of Mr. Otto Frank to the Annex.

Students spent a second session with laptops to Google questions that still lingered.   I also provided a list of 20 names, places and events related to World War II and the Holocaust for additional research.

For the duration, I kept a variety of books on related topics in the room for students to peruse during independent reading time.   Sneetches, Yertle the Turtle, Maus, and this year I added Andrew Clements's A Million Dots.   No, it's not really about the Holocaust, but you've probably figured out where I'm going with this.   By the end of Clement's picture book, you will have seen, yes, a million dots.   Imagine that each dot is a person's life.   Multiply the dots by at least six.   It helps quantify the incomprehensible.

A Million Dots

Throughout our Anne Frank unit, students read M.E. Kerr's Gentlehands independently.   When they were finished, they wrote a paper in which they argued whether Grandpa Trenker was a static or dynamic character using support from the text.  
 Gentlehands (Harper Keypoint Book)

Soon we will most likely watch Paper Clips for another perspective, but that's probably another blog entry.

Friday, March 2, 2012

This Middle School Life

One of the worst parts about winter is that I miss cutting the grass and keeping up with Ira Glass.   Time on my riding lawn mower is like a Zen meditation for me, and I frequently listen to an episode of This American Life on my iPod while I work.   I never feel like my day job is done until my 8th graders become 9th graders.   Mowing the lawn while enjoying a podcast provides a clearer finish line.

While I prefer my pod and yard time to be an escape, I couldn't help wanting to share Middle School with you.   The radio show anyway.   I'll admit that I didn't learn anything new, but the last act contains one of the most important life lessons of all.   We never know all of the challenges other people are dealing with, and this includes middle schoolers.   To me, this falls under the "love one another" umbrella.   Do you remember when you learned this lesson in your own life?   The moment when it comes home for us usually involves a hefty dose of humility.

Yes, middle school students love to put a lot of drama out there for anyone to see.    Yes, sometimes we can guess which children are struggling socially, academically and physically.   No, we will never be able to know everyone's burdens.   It's not realistic in either our teaching lives or our other lives.   For this reason alone, we should all remember compassion.   It's always the right choice when dealing with children.

I'm not talking about excuses, just empathy.   Middle schoolers have little control over many of the circumstances in their lives.   Offering strategies for success while they are at school can help them make good choices that impact their peace of mind while they are with you.

This is also not a time for moral judgment.   Not knowing other people's challenges also extends to what you  may or may not know about their parents.   Let me be clear.   If you suspect that a child is in danger, you should report it.   If you are merely falling victim to the blame game, it's another story.   You may be sure that the child is being poorly parented.   Don't waste any of your time thinking or talking about that.   What can you do as a professional teacher, not a parent,  to help usher that child toward success during the school day?  That's where your time is better spent.   That's where you have some control and expertise.

With respect to your subject area, what needs to happen between the school year's start and finish lines in an effort to send a more knowledgeable student on to the next grade?   Your curriculum should be a cornerstone, but it's also going to take a lot of flexibility, creativity and heart from both sides of the desk.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Get Caught Reading

You've probably seen "Get Caught Reading" celebrity posters before.   
Teachers and librarians can get them free here --> The Association of American Publishers

They also feature a few "Get Caught Listening" posters.  
Please enjoy the following image of Mr. L.L. Cool J.

You're welcome.

They ask that we limit ourselves to 12 posters each and chip in $5 for shipping.   
Enough said.