I was reminded again this past summer that Michigan is truly one of the most beautiful places on this planet …
At the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year, a unique opportunity was presented to my science colleague Jeremy Winsor and me to apply for a week-long science literacy professional development at the Central Michigan University Biological Center located on Beaver Island, Michigan. The event was led by the Center for Excellence in STEM Education and the Chippewa River Writing Project. Several schools from the middle of the state were represented by a team of teachers looking to improve the relationship between science and literacy within their school districts. It was a week promising instruction on how to implement reading and writing strategies into the already complex subject of science.
Fast forward several months to August, and my colleague and I were watching the waves crash on the side of the Beaver Island Ferry while we crossed Lake Michigan along with colleagues from other schools. Schools included: Fulton, Central Montcalm, St. Louis, Carlton, Saginaw Township, and Bridgeport. Though all of us had a basic idea of what we were about to do for the week, we weren’t prepared to begin what would be one of the best professional development experiences of our teaching careers.Continue reading The Beaver Island Institute 2016→
As a second grade teacher, I always started out the year reading the book, Call Me Marianne by Jen Bryant. In this book, a young boy named Jonathan notices an eccentric woman, Marianne, dressed in black cape and tri-cornered felt hat, carrying a notebook, and studying a newspaper article written about the new lizard exhibit at the zoo. When he returns her lost hat, she is “scribbling” in her notebook at the Reptile House. Intrigued, he asks her if she is a scientist. She replies that she is a poet, “watching and noticing details that other people miss,” recording those details through sketches and phrases in her notebook. She hands Jonathan his own notebook so he can sketch, record, and write about details he notices that other people might miss. When the story ends, I take that moment to be like Marianne, passing out brand new writer’s notebooks for us to begin our noticing of daily details that others might not take note of: the smells from the cafeteria, the sounds on the playground or how body language reveals feelings. I teach mini lessons on where to find ideas for personal writing. When read alouds spark memories, we write about it in our writer’s notebooks. We discuss our favorite authors and what their inspiration might have been for their books so that we too might find writing inspiration from our lives.
A few days later, I hand out another new notebook and introduce reader’s notebooks. This is our spot to explore stories, informational articles, and our thinking about reading: a place where we draw and write about characters and their connection to other characters, text-to-text connections, responses to what we read, as well as a plethora of other entries. That is where the confusion begins. Even though the notebooks are different colors and are clearly labeled WRITER’S NOTEBOOK or READER’S NOTEBOOK, someone always comes to the meeting area with the wrong notebook, even after I clearly said, “Your reader’s notebook, the green one,” multiple times. Because of this and my new role as an elementary instructional coach, I wonder is there a need for different notebooks, a writer’s notebook to collect ideas and play with mini lessons about writing craft, a reader’s notebook to notice author’s craft and to respond to reading, a science journal to observe, hypothesize and write lab reports, or could the same notebook be used for these different genres of writing? Continue reading Writer’s Notebooks: A tool that is as individual as the writer→
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→
“Your room has a really different feel to it this year,” my principal said the other day with a smile on her face. In reflecting upon that statement, I have to admit that it’s true.
My digital journey started about four years ago when I converted a classroom closet into a makeshift “studio,” brought in an old tripod, and dusted off my five-millimeter camcorder. I had no idea how it would work, but I wanted my students to write in various genres about their independent reading books and then use their imaginations to perform what they wrote. I knew there were better ways of accomplishing my goal of integrating technology, student imagination, and the writing process, but I frankly didn’t know how to go about it. I quickly realized, though, that students knew more about integrating technology than I did. On their own, my 6th graders began to bring in videos they had made at home on iPads, iPods, digital cameras, and phones. They knew how to use the technology and were happy to share their knowledge with each other and me. Soon, I discarded my outdated camera equipment and encouraged my students to make their videos at home using their own devices as both the technical quality and student effort were so much greater. Continue reading From Teacher to Digital Facilitator→
For all of us who expose our secondary classrooms to Shakespeare, the Folger Shakespeare Library sessions are an excellent source of inspiration. The session I attended demonstrated one way to introduce a play to students totally unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s language. In this live demonstration typical 9th graders from a local Washington DC high school read a short Shakespeare text four times. The teaching takeaway is to have students read aloud a short section of uncomplicated script several times, emphasizing a different element with each read-through. Students change characters, with every student having the opportunity to read at least once. When emphasizing unfamiliar vocabulary, students circle words as they encounter them and a discussion of meanings takes place afterward. This is especially helpful when encountering the many references to Greek mythology having archaic spelling, which Shakespeare often employs. Reading to the punctuation is always insightful to students. When the demonstration group was asked afterwards about their experience, many said that Shakespeare was easier to understand than they had expected. That response is certainly what any teacher of Shakespeare’s plays desires. This year, I have been contemplating how best to elucidate Hamlet to my 10th grade class which has a larger-than-normal population of academically challenged students. Using this technique of re-reading a short, uncomplicated passage and Folger’s 15-Minute Hamlettext, I believe all of my students will have a successful Shakespeare experience.
Another session that I found challenging to my presuppositions, “Blurred Lines: Landscapes of Truth and Fiction,” involved using information from fictional as well as nonfiction texts as evidence when writing an argument. While I knew about photoshopping, I had not thought about the “blurred line” that photoshopping is visual fiction. Nor had I contemplated teaching my students that maps can be political tools and/or informational fiction. I do instruct my students that some information found on the Internet today is fake, but I don’t know whether they employ this knowledge beyond the classroom. By setting the purpose to search for argument evidence while reading a variety of fiction and nonfiction texts, students are naturally motivated to read closely. Texts used during the demonstration included Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, (looking for evidence about who’s to blame) Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass, and multigenre text sets including Voices of the Holocaust and Broken Glass, Broken Lives by Arnold Geier (“What impact did Kristallnacht have on the Jewish population of Europe at the beginning of WWII?”). The pre-reading question, “Is Dickens still relevant in the 21st century?,” was posed before students read A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist. Textual evidence from both fictional and nonfiction sources was employed as support for the students’ arguments. I can readily agree that reading with the purpose of developing an argument using fiction, as well as nonfiction texts, can expose students to a wide range of well written literature, assist students in making connections between fiction and nonfiction genres, and help students create a well-supported argument.
A round table discussion about a Place-Based Advanced Institute was thought-provoking and, I believe, particularly relevant to the CRWP and its proposed Advanced Institute at Beaver Island in 2015. The Rhode Island Writing Project held their first place-based Advanced Institute on three islands off the shores of Rhode Island. The goals for the RIWP event included developing a self-sustaining yearly institute not dependent on grant funds and building leadership capacity for their WP. While they used island-based poetry, quotes, and excerpts from fictional texts as writing prompts for their focus on personal refreshment and renewal, the cross-curricular applications for a STEM-focused institute are clearly visible. The RIWP invited speakers from the local historical society and island ecologists to present during their three-day institute, used non-motorized travel on the islands, and posed an essential question (“What does it mean to be a Rhode Islander?”) as the focus for writing prompts. The RIWP round-table handouts included planning meeting notes, projected costs, a packing list, a daily agenda, various writing prompts, and even an RIWP bookmark. I think these resources will be very helpful to the planning team for the proposed CRWP Advanced Institute if the grant proposal is accepted.
Again, with “Story as the Landscapes of Knowing” as the theme for the 2014 national conference, I was reminded of the power of narratives in our lives. Since I truly believe that fiction should not take a back seat to nonfiction, unlike what is emphasized in the CCSS, I was pleased to see the focus on fiction narratives in many of the NWP and NCTE sessions. The three sessions outlined above offered perspectives through an innovative lens that I could take back to my classroom and implement this year, as well as resources for the CRWP. Talk about refreshment and renewal! This pair of conferences offers both to the intrepid Language Arts teacher, providing me with many stories about teaching that I can take back to my own students and colleagues.
Deborah Meister is a high school language arts teacher at Fellowship Baptist Academy in Carson City, MI, and a Teacher Consultant at the Chippewa River Writing Project. She has co-directed the CRWP Middle School Writing and Technology Camp for the past three summers at Central Michigan University with author Jeremy Hyler.