Though we are entering the third year of a pandemic, this is our second year of what we have developed as an annual tradition at the Chippewa River Writing Project (CRWP). In 2020 and 2021, members of our site filled out a Google Form giving a book type selection and their address. I randomly matched them up and the participants mailed each other books we loved or thought our random recipient would love in our $35 budget. Participants were also given the chance to share their book with the other members of the book exchange to help continue to expand our reading lists. You will find the list of 2021 and 2020 at the end of this blog, and you can read about last year’s book exchange here.
At the time I am writing this, the one-year anniversary of March 13, 2020, is looming large upon me like this dark unknown specter. It’s almost like an unseen barrier that we are all holding our breath until we get across, because who knows what is on the other side? To say I don’t recognize the world I live or teach in since that fateful date last year is an understatement. First, we were told that schools are not safe and we need to go home and stay home, then many of us were being told we were selfish and lazy for not wanting to go back and teach without being assured proper protocols were in place. Then some of us did go back and now teach both in front of a screen and a group of masked kids spaced far apart in our rooms. And sometimes, we flip-flop between some of the kids being with us to all of them being behind a screen. Normalcy and routines are something we cling to now more than ever, accepting this new reality we live in with numb reluctance.
One of the reasons I became an English teacher was because I loved to read. I’m not picky either. I’ll read just about anything as long as it allows me to escape the world for a bit, teaches me to look at the world differently, makes me experience some cognitive dissonance, or because I simply like the cover of the book (yes, I judge books by covers).
I had no trouble keeping up with my reading during the pandemic. It was about the only thing that made sense to me at the time. Though I know many other book lovers and educators struggled to read anything serious during this time because of just how difficult these last 12 months have been, I was determined when I went back in August to share my love of books with my students again. I’ve shared this love of books with my students every year I’ve been in the classroom, and COVID wasn’t going to change that about my teaching. Continue reading
On September 15, 2020, Dan Martin (a professor at Central Washington University) ironically tweeted that “Academia is reading a book & then forgetting that book ever existed. Regardless of what prompted this tweet, I’m guessing that most CRWP blog readers (myself included) would tend to disagree. Nevertheless, I have recently been writing a reading memoir, which reminded me of all my forgotten books.
To jar my memory I’ve been constructing a list of every book I’ve ever read using the Goodreads platform. After two months of compiling books, I stand at 1125 books read and 90% forgotten.
While a book’s fate may be bleak, as Dan Martin’s tweet implies, I see forgotten books as a place for joyful or insightful re-discovery and the Goodreads platform has afforded me this place. My adult leisure reading of primarily mysteries and thrillers with a splash of science fiction/fantasy has a now vividly-recalled childhood base with every Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Trixie Belden book read with a passion. Likewise, I see my adult interest in gaming has its foundations in childhood science fiction fantasy books, such as the Witch Mountain series, Tuck Everlasting, Gulliver’s Travels, and Rats of NIMH.
Interestingly, the Goodreads list has forced me to confront eight boxes that have been sitting in the garage for nineteen years. I had thought these boxes contained books from when I taught in Japan. In truth, I had avoided the boxes for nearly two decades because a few (filled not with books but with my grandparents’ vinyl records from the 1940s and 1950s) had been stolen during a 2001 move from Arizona to Michigan. I was in such grief, no longer having my grandparents’ beloved WWII-era keepsakes (along with some of my own vinyl records from the 1970s and 80s), that I pretended the remaining boxes simply did not exist.
In her first blog post in this series, Megan Kowalski talked about the power of using templates with her middle school students to help them build confidence as writers. Drawing from They Say / I Say by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, Megan taught her students first to use templates and then noticed over time that they began to move away from the templates and make their own choices.
When I reflect on what happened in that process, I’d like to consider what I really did was address something called decision fatigue, which I will address in more detail below. In providing them with a template to create a strong first draft, I’d removed a lot of the little choices they’d need to make along the way to generate text. This freed up their mental energy so they could focus it more fully on developing their ideas in response to the prompt. Instead of spending energy choosing between two words, students were able to spend energy exploring their own ideas and deciding how best to defend and explain those ideas.
Teachers make a lot of decisions during a typical day. Some of these decisions are relatively minor (what shoes will I be most comfortable in today?) while others are pretty important (how am I going to address a student’s recent trauma?). Students also make a lot of minute-by-minute decisions that feel huge to them, especially as they enter adolescence. While teachers may be especially prone to decision fatigue, our adolescents are likely even more prone to this feeling because every decision they make feels equally important– in short, every decision matters an awful lot to them. In really considering the idea of decision fatigue in my students, I realized that it might greatly impact their writing and that there might be a way for me to address their decision fatigue through templates. Continue reading
I teach in an inner-city school and work with students who have a variety of disabilities including specific learning disabilities, autism, behavior disorders, and many other labels. My students are smart and capable, but they’re not always able to display these traits without some accommodations. Two years ago, I was assigned a caseload of 13 amazing, funny, and energetic students. I had worked with many of the students for at least one school year and very much looked forward to working with all of them again.
The hitch was that I was assigned to teach English Language Arts to this group of 11 14-year-olds spanning three grade levels and testing between kindergarten and fourth-grade reading levels in a 60 minute period, without being provided a curriculum source we could share. Many of the things I liked most about these students (their big personalities, decisive natures, and an unending supply of energy and enthusiasm) also made them very demanding members of a class.
I had spent the previous time we had worked together in much smaller groups spanning two or fewer grade levels and usually six or fewer students. I had tried before to work in centers doing short mini-lessons and sending students off to work independently, but it just didn’t work well for students who wanted and needed my full attention. In my previous writing assignments, I spent a lot of time consulting with students one-on-one, conferencing frequently, and helping them edit and revise every sentence until they produced a draft that satisfied them and me. There was no way I would have time for this kind of one-on-one attention in my writing assignments this year. Besides, many of my biggest personalities in the group would often capitalize quickly on my divided attention to joke around or otherwise stall to keep from working. This kind of behavior was especially frequent on my most difficult assignments, suggesting that students were likely to misbehave when they didn’t feel confident enough to complete an assignment on their own. Continue reading