After a tumultuous semester battling pneumonia and the recurrence of my mother’s cancerous tumor, I packed up my Hope College memorabilia and returned to my hometown, parental rules, and the familiar pink shag carpet my eleven-year-old self had loved. I wasn’t really bitter about my homecoming, as one might think. I was plagued with confusion: about life, myself, and the future–and not necessarily in that order. After a semester internship back at a middle school near Hope College, I had doubts on whether teaching was the right career path for me. During my observation days in the classroom, I barely stayed awake. I couldn’t imagine doing this every day, let alone the rest of my life. To complicate matters, my mother was not getting any better. The latest oncology report detailed something about metastasized cells and radiation with chemotherapy. I was uncertain what it all meant, but the fragile lines on my dad’s face told me it was as serious as the words sounded. By the time the snow fell in December, the beautiful Hope College campus with its lakeshore view no longer held any allure. I came home at the semester end with a big sigh, hoping to exhale the deeper emotions of uncertainty and ambivalence. Home felt like a reprieve from the disorder of my life.
Aquinas College is located in my hometown, so it made sense to resume my junior year there. My first course was taught by a middle-aged woman with bleach blonde hair, a love for the Cardinals (the baseball team–not the bird), and a fake bake that would have shamed any native Floridian. Her name was Merri Warren, and she was a past president of the Michigan Reading Association (MRA). Because of her MRA association, I was recruited during the semester to work at the annual conference as a student volunteer. Even now, I can recall the impressive scope and scale of the conference with flocks of teachers converging around the registration area. I was electrified by their chatter of books and speakers and ideas and possibilities. Their anticipation was intoxicating as I eavesdropped on folks waiting for badges and bags. Never before had I been among so many whose love for books paralleled my own. As the throngs dispersed to their speakers and sessions, I felt a stirring toward the classroom once again. There was a kindred exhilaration in the air, and I felt inspired that these people might just be my people too. For the first time, I felt the “calling” that many describe when becoming a teacher. I had found my way amidst the crowded concourse of conferees, and I was excited about all the possibilities–all thanks to Merri Warren and the Michigan Reading Association.Continue reading Passions Are Powerful Conductors of the Future→
My Writing Project colleague, Sharon Murchie, wrote about taking a risk in sharing her writing with her students on the CRWP Teachers as Writers Blog. Her post got me thinking about how I do the same in my own classroom.
I am feeling nervous, insecure, and uncertain as my ninth graders start to file into class today. We just started the new trimester a week ago, and about half of my students are still new to me — having come from a different English teacher first term. I remind myself that I am the adult; I am the teacher. Nothing to worry about, right? What’s the worst that can happen?
You see, I am about to give a book talk and admit to my students that I have no clue what the book I am reading is about. Truly. I just don’t get it. The book is a title I was eager to read — The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro — but I am 30 pages from the end of the novel and I don’t know what the real story is. In fact, all I really know is that an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, have undertaken a journey to reunite with their son. As Axl and Beatrice travel across the countryside, they meet knights, Saxons, river boatmen, and frightened citizens, but all have one thing in common: they cannot seem to remember much. Axl and Beatrice worry that the loss of their memories will be their undoing: “But then again I wonder if what we feel in our hearts today isn’t like these raindrops still falling on us from the soaked leaves above, even though the sky itself long stopped raining. I’m wondering if, without our memories, there’s nothing for it but our love to fade and die.” The mist of this memory loss has the effect on me as a reader of clouding the truth in the story. In short, I find myself uncertain about what is real for the characters and what is fantasy.
I am about to reveal to these students that I don’t understand this book.
I don’t have the answers.
I don’t have a profound interpretation.
I am lost.
How will they respond?
The room settles in as I grab the book from my desk and turn to face them.
My students didn’t consider themselves readers until I began using audiobooks. Before audiobooks, nothing was more difficult for my students than sitting down with a book and trying to make the letters into words and the words into sentences that meant something to them. All of my students have disabilities and many are bilingual (but not biliterate). Though they can readily blend in with their general education peers in social situations, reading is an entirely different matter. When it comes to simple decoding of words on a page, my students are stumped, but it’s exacerbated by their complete and total lack of interest in books. They come to me downtrodden and disappointed with the written word. They say they “hate” reading and that they’ve never been “good” at reading. When we first meet, students usually identify reading as an area they want to improve in, but they say it because they assume it’s what I want to hear and not because they really want to read.
I immediately saw that my students weren’t interested in the books at their lexile level because intellectually they were beyond Junie B. Jones and Captain Underpants. The problem was they weren’t able to read something like The Hunger Games without a read-aloud provided by a fluent reader (which in my room was solely me). I stumbled upon audiobooks as a solution partly out of desperation to manage the limited time I had with my students. I quickly signed up for an Audible account, loaded my iPod with the books my students’ homeroom classes were reading, and stocked up on headphones and a headphone splitter. It’s embarrassing, but my primary goal in introducing audio books was to free up myself to teach a mini lesson while another group was reading a chapter. I did not expect the kind of results I got. My students were transformed into readers once they were provided with high interest books and quality literature. They felt good about reading the same books as the rest of their classmates and took pride in the assignments we completed. That winter break, one student even asked if she could borrow the iPod and some books. Naturally, I agreed and sent her home with several books, their audio counterparts loaded onto my iPod. I was hopeful that she’d return after the break having read maybe just one of the books, but she returned in January and proudly announced that she’d read them all, except The Outsiders because she couldn’t “get into it.” This was a student who had claimed she couldn’t ever “get into” any books. I was stunned and thrilled. Continue reading In Defense of Audio Books→
In celebration of their union, “Close Reading” and “Critical Reading” will now be addressed as simply “Critical Reading.” Please update your planbook accordingly.
In my first post of this series, I discussed and defined a problem that I see: that my colleagues and I are all using the term “Close Reading,” but we all have a different interpretation of what this means, and what it looks like in our classrooms. What is it that we are actually doing when we say we are doing “Close Reading”—and is it enough? In my second post, I read articles advocating for “Close Reading” and articles criticising it. As I read, I realized quickly that even the experts don’t agree on what “Close Reading” is and what it should look like in the K-12 classroom. In some cases (I’m looking at you, David Coleman), the experts seemed to disagree with even themselves.
Of course, the true issue is not what we call what we are teaching students to do when they are reading; the real issue is what we are teaching students to do when they are reading in our classrooms and in the world.
I truly believe that we must teach students to read closely for evidence, as well as to read critically, for inferences and ideologies—it is as important to read between the lines and to read for what is not being said as it is to read the words on the page. I believe that context and reader response are as important as the artistry of the words (and the claims and supporting evidence). I believe that “Close Reading” is simply not enough—and that “Critical Reading” cannot occur if students are not reading closely. We cannot simply “do Close Reading” if we want to truly teach our students how to read their world.Continue reading Naming the Elephant: An Announcement→
In my first post of this series, I unpacked the problem I saw with the term “Close Reading.” This buzzword seems to have many different interpretations. Everyone I’ve talked with is “doing Close Reading” withour students, but none of us is doing the same thing. I need to get to the bottom of this definition issue, so that I can try to determine what it is that I, personally, am teaching, and what it should be called.
I remember attending Common Core training in 2011 and getting irrationally angry as David Coleman talked down to his audience and then played supreme interpreter of all things text in his modeling of his close reading of “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” With explicit instruction to avoid teaching pre-reading strategies, giving context or background knowledge, or asking students to make connections, Coleman instead insists we focus on the text and the text alone to glean the author’s meaning. In his more widely watched EngageNY tutorial, Coleman contradicts himself, by asking students to determine what is NOT in the letter, i.e. what the author is pushing back against. This is confusing. How can students infer if they are not supposed to access their own background knowledge? However, a bigger mistake is that he does not seem to be aware of who the audience of classroom instruction is: high school students cannot spend his recommended “6-8 days” being steered to insightful realizations about the text and its meaning by expertly constructed teacher-directed questions; this is “readicide,” as Kelly Gallagher would argue, simultaneously killing the text and the students’ interest in reading. Students need to be actively engaged, using multiple strategies and making connections with the text and with their understanding both of the context of the piece of writing and of their current world. But Coleman insists, “We cannot hear King if we jump too quickly to ‘What do you think?’ . . . It’s so tempting to go beyond the letter, but first we must honor and revere the letter.” Continue reading What Experts Say About the Elephant: What is Close Reading? And why do we do it?→