Sunday, August 5, 2018

Louisiana Schools to Pilot New Testing Program

I have a friend that refers to the endless cycle of education initiatives as "Stalin's five-year plan."

We've all seen them - from Kagan to Harry Wong to Whole Brain, one after the other meant to revolutionize and improve education and student performance.  Districts invest time and money in the programs, spend countless dollars on inservice, training, and materials, then the plan is abandoned for the next shiny thing that comes.  Repeat cycle.

That's why when I ranted and railed about the newest curriculum implementation, the Louisiana version of Common Core, my friend smiled sweetly and said, "Just remember.  Stalin's five-year plan."

And thus things keep changing.

At least nothing stays stagnant this way, right?

Last month, the Louisiana Department of Education's proposal for a new kind of testing was approved by the U.S. Department of Education:

This new pilot measuring students' knowledge of specific books, rather than texts they have not read before, the test aspires to build knowledge of facts and texts in students. "Research shows students need deep knowledge of a subject in order to effectively read about it," said State Superintendent John White.

This just seems like common sense, right?

Louisiana has five years to develop and pilot this assessment and it will be rolled out in five districts: Ouachita Parish, St. John the Baptist Parish, and St. Tammany Parish, as well as KIPP Public Charter Schools and Collegiate Academies in Orleans Parish.

Key points of this new program will include:
Combining English and social studies tests to streamline state testing;  
Measuring what students have learned via passages from books that students have read, rather than passages that they have not read as part of the curriculum;  
Assessing students through several brief assessments throughout the year, rather than one longer test at the end of the year;  
Preserving local control as to which books and which assessments their students will take.

I am cautiously interested.

The district in which I teach is on block schedule. Last year, first semester, which ran from August to December, we had minimum fourteen days of standardized testing.  Second semester, we backed off of that to about ten days.  This year, it looks like about seven days.  That's an estimate.  Are we starting to see the error of our testing ways?

The tests students currently take are supposedly aligned to the the standards students cover in the classroom, not necessarily the content.  Theoretically, if you can identify and analyze a main idea in one text, you can do it in any other.

My complaint with the current curriculum has been, in part,  that it strips fiction to bare bones and focuses heavily on some very dry non-fiction.  We don't read whole novels at all, ever.  The problem with that is not in the non-fiction necessarily, but think of what's lost with the loss of fiction!  We need both fiction and non-fiction because both serve to build background knowledge.

In my own reading this summer I went to the land of Inkheart and learned a little bit about book restoration and how valuable books are; I visited fantastic realms and looked at things from other perspectives. I read The 57 Bus and gained knowledge I did not previously have about people who identify as agender and about hate crimes. The lessons of tolerance and acceptance were reinforced. I read Boy21 and saw how friends can help each other through trying times.  I read The Other Wes Moore and learned a lot about how environment shapes character and how the most impulsive decisions can change lives.  I read The Book Whisperer and Teach Like a Pirate to expand my professional development and learned valuable lessons from both.  We gain background knowledge from both fiction and non-fiction.

Do you think the majority of my students spent the summer reading and expanding their own background knowledge?

This new system of assessment recognizes the knowledge gap that many students have.  This is something that the Six Way Paragraphs program also recognizes, which I have used in my lower level classes to build background knowledge and raise reading comprehension skills.

From the Louisiana Department of Education's proposal:

Being a literate member of society necessitates not only strong reading skills but also knowledge of the world and how it works. Adults comprehend and evaluate news articles, workplace documents, novels, web pages, and social media posts not just because they know what individual words mean, but because they know something about the topic each text contains. Likewise, it is widely known that students with large amounts of background knowledge read at more advanced levels. Yet states have built reading and writing tests that do not always value the background knowledge students bring to them, including students’ deep understanding of books and texts they have studied previously. Instead, state tests preference reading and writing skills over the content that renders them rich and meaningful.

Read that last line again:  "...states preference reading and writing skills over the content that renders them rich and meaningful."

We've been teaching skills over content and content is not meaningful unless it is relevant and makes a connection.

Nobody knows this better than the teacher in the room with the student, and my student may not engage with the same subject matter as your student.  I need the power to make that decision.

More from the Louisiana proposal: (emphasis mine)

Though improved dramatically in the past three years, the Louisiana Assessment of Education Progress (LEAP) continues to measure the ELA standards, including specific skills such as summarizing passages and locating main ideas, but it does not go above that to measure whether students have developed a base of knowledge. Consequently, in many schools a focus on discrete reading skills predominates the English classroom, with minimal attention paid to knowledge.

Again, we are measuring standards, not knowledge.  They are not the same thing.  One produces test competence, the other functioning, well-rounded human beings.

Under this new pilot program, Louisiana proposes to still focus on standards but also content:  "drawing on students’ deep knowledge of content and books from their daily classroom experiences—rather than a random assortment of texts, as are typically used on large-scale assessments."

Currently, when students get to the LEAP at the end of the year, what they read on that test is nothing like what they read in class and only serves to make those tests frustrating to students and raises anxiety to terrible levels.  Additionally, this format shakes confidence in what these high-stakes tests actually measure.

It's even possible, under this as yet undeveloped program, that the test students take in one school or one district may vary from one another:
By developing the new format in a way that is standards-aligned, valid, reliable, high-quality, and comparable to the current, content agnostic LEAP ELA test, Louisiana districts will have the flexibility to choose the LEAP format that best matches their curricular program. In this way, the IADA will make assessments more relevant and connected to the classroom for Louisiana teachers and students, while still providing valid, reliable, and transparent data on student achievement and growth.
I've got to say it: I love this term: "content agnostic LEAP ELA test."  I need that on a sign.

Students would be tested during the year on what they've covered in class and then a shorter, less horrific, summative assessment at the end of the year.

Clearly this new assessment program hasn't been written yet and so there is still much that remains to be seen.  I am all for getting rid of all these interim tests and three days of EOC testing.

Most of all, I hope that some flexibility is returned to the classroom and some sort of recognition that the teacher is a trained professional who does not need a script or canned slides.  I hope that the state returns some autonomy to the teacher who can best judge what the students before him need to read and how to engage them.

Students will read when they have choice, and when they are engaged with a subject, and a student that reads is a student that develops knowledge.  A student forced to read Carrie Chapman Catt's suffrage speech will more than likely tune out and learn nothing, (no disrespect intended to Carrie Chapman Catt).

Relevance matters.

I am cautiously optimistic that perhaps the Louisiana DOE is beginning to see the faults in the Guidebooks and to hear the cries of frustrated teachers across the state.

But again, maybe it's just part of Stalin's five-year plan.

Further Reading:
A New Vision for Assessment in Louisiana (Louisiana DOE)
Louisiana's New Pilot Offers New Way to Assess Student Achievement (BR Proud)
Louisiana First to Have Innovative Assessments Approved (Education Dive)
Betsy DeVoss Oks Louisiana Pitch to Use Innovative Tests (Education Week)
Louisiana LEAP Scores Show Reasonable Improvement but not Extraordinary Growth (NOLA)

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Classroom Library Project: Look What You Did!!!

Where I live nine months of the year.
While the calendar says summer is still here, my school calendar says it isn't, and so back to work I go.

I've spent several days at school already working to get my room back together for year twenty-four, and I think for the most part I am ready.

Really what I want to do here is to thank everyone who has sent or donated books to our new Classroom Library, and I want to show you where they have gone.

I'm still loading books onto shelves so they aren't all in these photos yet, but you'll get the idea, I'm sure.

My goal was to get 500 books by August 6, which is when our year starts.  As of right now, I have 246 books and 224 of those are unique titles; I have some duplicates but that is absolutely fine.  People have been so generous in sending books, it has revived my jaded spirit!

Almost every day there are books in the mail from the Amazon Wish List (it's still being updated if you want to jump in on this!).

I came home from vacation and found two huge boxes of books that some generous people shipped to me.  In my school mailbox I got a beautiful, hardback copy of Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See; it was carefully packed in a nice box with styrofoam peanuts.  I will treasure it.

I've had friends hand me cash money to buy books and another friend just handed me his credit card and said, "Get a couple of books!"  It's so gratifying that people support this project.

On my own, I've raided Goodwill and The Thrifty Peanut almost weekly loading up on books!  We have two Little Free Libraries in my neighborhood and I've pulled a few books from those (always leaving another book in its place!)

And I've ordered books from my own Wish List just to be sure we get them.

I've submitted a couple of grants and hope at least one comes through, but I know that's a long shot.  I've got a Donor's Choose project up and sometimes some great philanthropist will come through and fund a bunch of projects before school starts - I'm hoping someone funds mine!

So, I'm not finished gathering books, but I did want you generous folks who have helped me to see my progress.

This is my fiction shelf:

My fiction shelf

That's A-Z, all fiction, and as you can see, it's about to fill up.

This is my non-fiction shelf - it needs some books so that's where I've been concentrating my Wish List lately.  I came through and added a bunch of non-fiction to the list and people started sending those!  This shelf holds biography/memoir (that's the full shelf), informational books, poetry, and I have a shelf going for the Chicken Soup books that I've picked up.  There's room to grow.

I've got to fill that one up!

I have two more shelves in my room; one is built in and currently holds class sets of textbooks that we no longer use (but I can't let go of them), and the other just holds our Common Core Guidebooks and Student Readers.  I have boxes with all the copies of things we have to read there.  All that can be moved if I need to use that shelf for actual books.

My non-fiction shelf is the one that I covered with pages from To Kill a Mockingbird.  I love it.

In this shot you can see the fiction shelf on the far right and on the left is the built in shelf with textbooks and dictionaries:

And the non-fiction shelf can be seen in this one:

And in this photo you can see the shelf that holds our copies of Common Core material.

(It's no secret how I feel about Common Core and this new curriculum but I'm not going to revisit that here.)

It's not a big room at all, but it's home for 180 + days for me and for my students.  (And dig those gorgeous parquet floors!)

I am super excited about the great reading that will be happening inside this room and once again want to really thank everyone who helped us fill these shelves!  And of course as we progress through the year I'm going to keep you posted!

Previously on SIGIS:
Building a Classroom Library: Help!  (May 7, 2018)
There's a Sad, Empty Bookshelf in M205 (May 11, 2018)
M205 Library Update: You Guy's ROCK! (May 14, 2018)
We Are Up to 73 Books!  (May 22, 2018)
M205 Classroom Library: The Shelf Project (May 31, 2018)
"Can I Read This?" A Teacher's Dream Comes True (June 21, 2018)

Further Reading:
Every Child, Every Day  (ASCD, March 2012)
Statement on Classroom Libraries (NCTE, May 31, 2017)
Building Relationships With Students Through Books (Cult of Pedagogy, May 8, 2016)
The Importance of a Classroom Library (Edutopia, April 16, 2009)
How to Stop Killing the Love of Reading (Cult of Pedagogy, December 3, 2017)
The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller (Amazon)
Readicide by Kelly Gallagher (Amazon)

The Amazon Wish List

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Take a Weekend Trip to New Iberia

Bayou Teche, New Iberia
As my summer vacation comes to a close and the hectic school-year calendar approaches, Steve and I made one more trip to south Louisiana before we become consumed by school schedules, his Masters studies, and my book events.  In this sort of calm before the storm, we threw ourselves into the Jeep and headed south.

After our first visit to New Iberia in April to attend the Books Along the Teche Literary Festival, we fell in love with the city and with the people.  I am simply enchanted with all of it: the hospitality, the natural beauty, the lyrical Cajun accents, and the complete joie de vivre that we found there.  And because the weekend of the literary festival was so fun and so full of activities, we didn't get a chance to see and do everything we wanted to, so a return trip was more than needed.

The attractions around Iberia parish are epic.  When we were there in April we did a quick tour of the Tabasco factory (because it was Sunday they were not in production that day), and Jungle Gardens on Avery Island. Both were amazing and call for a return trip.  I want to see Tabasco when they are in production and Jungle Gardens is beautiful and deserves more than the quick couple of hours that we were able to give to it before going home.

For this trip we wanted to visit New Iberia again, catch up with some friends we made in April, and tour Jefferson Island.

When we arrived, my friend Wendy asked if we were up for going with them to the Cajun French Music Association dinner and dance with them and so we tagged along for that which was big fun.  We danced a bit and learned a couple of Cajun dance steps.

Cajun French Music Association dinner and dance.

The evening ended at Clementine on Main where we had a couple of drinks and the most divine bread pudding on the planet.  After listening to our New Iberian friends, I decided I need to brush up on my French!  If I lived in New Iberia, I'd go to the French breakfast at Victor's Cafeteria on Thursday mornings and learn a few things!

The next day, our only full day this trip, was dedicated for Jefferson Island.  We stopped in Delcambre on the way and looked at the boats which was pretty cool.

Somebody please throw me on a boat and take me out into the Gulf!

Shrimp boat at Delcambre.

You have to see Jefferson Island to believe it.  I took lots of pictures and not a single one does it justice.  Driving into the parking lot, we had to go really slow to avoid hitting peacocks.

Peacock on Jefferson Island.

The island isn't actually an island, but a rise from a salt dome, just as Avery Island is.  In November, 1980, a Texaco drilling rig on Lake Peigneur pierced the salt mine which cause the huge lake to drain into the mine, backed up water from the Delcambre canal and the Gulf of Mexico rushed into the mine and lake bed, and remarkably, none of the mine workers were injured, although much damage was done and property lost.  You can easily see the chimney from a home which is all that remains.  The litigation dragged out for years.

Here's an eight minute video of that disaster:

Joseph Jefferson died in 1905 and his beautiful home and island were sold:

After his death in 1905, Jefferson's heirs sold Jefferson Island and the 2,000 acre plantation in 1917 to a partnership of John Lyle Bayless, Sr. of Anchorage, Kentucky; Paul Jones, bourbon distiller of Louisville, Kentucky; and E. A. McIlhenny of Avery Island, maker of TABASCO® Sauce. John Lyle Bayless, Jr. affectionately called Jack, developed Rip Van Winkle Gardens around the historic home in the late 1950's after selling the salt mine that tunnels under the island and lake. Bayless donated the home and 800 acres to a private operating foundation which he formed to assure its continued operation far beyond his lifetime to share with everyone, the place he so loved and enjoyed.
The house was amazing:

Joseph Jefferson home.

We spent the entire day in this paradise; the gardens are gorgeous.

Rip Van Winkle Gardens on Jefferson Island.

There are many oriental influences in the gardens including these gates:

Rip Van Winkle Gardens on Jefferson Island.

I was mesmerized by the lotus garden and took a million photos here.

The Lotus Garden.
The flowers were so delicate and beautiful.

Lotus flower.
Here's another:

I took another million pictures and videos of peacocks.  I really wanted to capture their calls on video but wasn't able to do that.

We spend a long time just sitting on one bench or another, listening to the sprinklers, watching butterflies, raccoons, peacocks, and squirrels, or just watching the lake.

There is the chimney - all that remains of the house.

For lunch we went to the Jefferson Island cafe which offered air conditioning (yay!) and a beautiful view of the lake.  I imagine in cooler weather (that is, not over a hundred degrees...), people dine outside because there's a nice cooling breeze coming off the lake, fanned by the Spanish moss, and through the trees.

I had a pastrami and Swiss cheese sandwich and Steve had an eggplant dish that he raved over.

We spent a couple more hours in the garden after lunch then went back to the hotel to shower and change for dinner.

We got to Main Street a couple of hours before our dinner reservation so that we would have time to shop.  We stopped at Books Along the Teche and visited with Howard and Loraine Kingston for a while and purchased a couple of books.  Loraine told me that Burke has a new Robicheaux book coming out in January called New Iberia Blues.  I can't wait!  Anything James Lee Burke related, Howard and Loraine know.

Books Along the Teche.

It was still too early for our dinner reservation so we walked Main Street, visited with some locals, and finally stepped into Bourbon Hall for a cold beer and a couple of quick games of pool.  We went to this sports bar when we visited in April and because the service was fast and friendly, we went back.  I lost three games of pool, but hey, I'm out of practice.

On to dinner.

Our dinner choice was Clementine on Main.  Clementine originally opened in 1980, closed for two years, and recently reopened under new owners.  They describe themselves as "southern casual fine dining" and I can attest to that.  The beautiful, old, tiger oak bar is stunning.

Tiger Oak bar at Clementine.

The restaurant was busy when we got there; a lot of the locals were having an early dinner before the Iberia Performing Arts League production of Annie.

We both opted for the flat-iron steak which was divine.  Perfectly seasoned, perfectly cooked, and tender as it could be.  Steve had a sweet potato/sausage hash and grilled, smoked vegetables for his sides and I had fries and wilted spinach which had just the right touch of fresh garlic.

Flat-iron steak, sweet potato hash, wilted spinach.

Our appetizer was Avocado Tartar which was described as a "deconstructed guacamole" and this raised the level of guacamole to new heights.  Let's just say that I ran out today to buy avocados and Tabasco's Sriracha sauce so I can try to recreate this.

Avocado Tartar at Clementine

At the end of the meal I sent a text to my friend Wendy confessing that I was eating the bread pudding once again - I couldn't stop myself.

Fabulous bread pudding at Clementine.
After dinner we walked around downtown a little and then walked through St. Peter's cemetery right before dusk; it was serenely beautiful.

There is a lot of history in the cemetery and the city does cemetery tours each year with residents playing the parts of various people and telling their stories.

One more pass through downtown to see Church Alley alight:

and we called it a night.

Our final morning in New Iberia consisted of a tour of Konriko, the Conrad Rice Mill, which is the longest operating rice mill in the country.


Our tour guide was adorable, full of personality, and told us the story of the mill, showed us how everything worked, gave us samples of their signature Wild Pecan Rice (yes, I bought a bag - it's amazing!)

The mill is on the National Register and so they are a little limited as to what modernization they can do, but with over a dozen employees, they still produce a quality product and the thing I loved most: they waste nothing.  Nothing!  They either sell or donate hulls and broken rice and other by-products to farmers for feed, or breweries for their production needs.

The mill store is a relatively modern structure but a great deal of it was built with salvaged lumber and other items.  It was well worth the stop, plus we got to meet the mill cats who we are assured control any rodent problems!

We took one more pass through downtown and hit Highway 31 heading toward St. Martinville.

It is a stunningly beautiful drive with sugar cane fields everywhere and the two-lane highway is lined with towering oaks draped with Spanish moss.

In St. Martinville we toured the Acadian museum and memorial.

The full sized mural that greets you inside the museum is simply gorgeous.  It is 12 x 30 and was painted by Robert Dafford.

There is an audio that lasts for about twenty minutes as some of the people depicted tell you their stories.  I expect that this is a terrific place to come do research if your family has Acadian ancestry.

We saw the Evangeline statue which was pretty awesome.


And the Evangeline Oak:

And we ate (again) at St. John Restaurant which was delicious.  I had alligator au gratin and Steve had another eggplant dish.  Both were excellent and we had a cool view of Bayou Teche while we ate.

We stayed on Highway 31 through Breaux Bridge and on to Arnaudville where we stopped for a cold beer.

Bayou Teche Brewing.

A cajun band was playing outside,

a mobile cigar lounge was parked under the trees...

and a BBQ food truck was there.  I could have stayed all day but I filled a growler, listened to a couple of songs, and came on home.

We've been to New Iberia twice now and each time I love it more.  And there is still more to see.  I want to return to some of the places we saw the first time, like the Bayou Teche Museum.  We haven't been to Loreauville or to the Jeanerette Museum.  I could spend an entire week on Jefferson Island and Avery Island.  I still haven't made it to Cypremort Point, I haven't done a swamp tour on the Bayou, and there are lots of restaurants I still need to try (although you may never get me away from Clementine).  And this weekend is the Iberia Film Festival!  The Cajun French Music Association has dinner and dancing once a month and there is always some festival or another either in New Iberia or nearby.

I'm so impressed with how these people love their community and work so hard to make it a lovely place for both locals and tourists.  New Iberia has recently reinstated their own police force, too, and this has instilled a lot of pride and excitement in the town which saw some spike in crime after Hurricane Katrina.

I love Iberia parish and I hope they'll let me be an honorary Cajun because I'm brushing up my French and plan on coming back really soon!

The SIGIS Take a Trip Series:
Take a Trip to the 2012 Defenders of Liberty Air Show at BAFB
Take a Springtime Trip to Second Hand Rose Antiques in Minden, LA
Take a Trip to Logansport, Louisiana
Take a Trip to the Lock and Dam on Red River
Take a Trip to the 2012 Barkus and Meoux Parade
Take a Christmas Shopping Trip to Second Hand Rose in Minden
Take a Trip to the Fourth Annual Barksdale AFB Oktoberfest 
Take a Trip to Grand Cane's Fifth Annual Pioneer Trade Day
Take a Trip to the 2011 Highland Jazz & Blues Festival
Take an Autumn Trip to Jefferson, Texas
Take a Fall Trip to Second Hand Rose Antiques in Minden
Take a Trip to the 8th Air Force Museum at Barksdale Air Force Base
Take a Summertime Trip to Grand Cane
Take a Trip to Desoto Parish
Take a Summer Trip to Second Hand Rose Antiques in Minden
Take a Trip to Natchitoches and Melrose Plantation 
Take a Trip to Ed Lester Farms and a Random Antique Stop
Take a Trip to the Norton Art Gallery and the Masters of Cuban Art Exhibit
Take a Trip to Natchitoches to See the Christmas Lights
Take a Trip to the Third Annual BAFB Oktoberfest 
Take a Trip to Natchitoches and Oakland Plantation

Monday, July 16, 2018

Amazon Prime Day

It's Amazon Prime Day!

As an Amazon affiliate blog, if you go shopping through my links I get a few pennies in return at no extra cost to you, so go shopping and help a girl out!

Prime day deals include the Fire Stick:

and the Amazon Echo:

We love our Alexa.

There are lots of other deals so check it out!

And thanks!

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Book Whisperer: a Review

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller
We have just returned from our annual vacation to the Midwest and after a day or two catching up on laundry and restocking the pantry, I'm beginning to get back into my routine.

We had a wonderful time: Iowa is a beautiful place everyone is so friendly.  We caught two baseball games (one in Frisco, TX and one in Des Moines), we visited the Iowa state capital (it is magnificent), we traveled Route 66 from Oklahoma City to Joplin, Missouri (I love it), we toured Fort Smith, Arkansas, and we spent a lot of time with family.

It was a good trip and now that I'm home I realize that I report back to school in about three weeks.

Where has my summer gone?!

I've spent the entire summer working to get books for my new classroom library, for one thing.  People have been so generous in sending and donating books.  Donations have contributed nearly 100 books for my classroom from my Amazon Wish List.  I have purchased probably two dozen from my own list, and I've rounded up several large stacks from thrift stores.  My library now has about 140 books, which is far short of my 500 books by August 6 goal, but certainly large enough to get us started.

I have just finished reading Donalyn Miller's highly recommended The Book Whisperer (2009); Miller is an advocate of free reading.  In her sixth grade classroom she has a library of 2,000 books (her room must be bigger than mine!), and from Day 1 she has her students reading from the library.  Their requirement is forty books in the school year and she establishes a certain number of books from all genres.  Miller says that all of her lessons come back to what her students are reading and notes that her test scores at the end of the year are on par or above everyone else's; the added bonus for her is that she knows her students will be lifelong readers.

I'm not going to be able to follow Miller's prescription for reading success exactly because we are on a canned, scripted curriculum.  I have to read from annotated teacher notes and slides made by someone else.  But I can adapt her practices into my classroom and given the stifling, mind-numbing curriculum, I think that free-reading will be welcome.

In other words, there is no better time for me to begin this project.

Miller writes: "The institutional focus on testing and the canned programs drains every ounce of joy from reading that students have or will have in the future.  We have turned reading into a list of 'have to's,' losing sight of the reality that students and adults are more motivated by 'want to's.'"

That is so true.  Every lesson, every task, is geared to the test.  There is absolutely zero reading for the pure pleasure of it.  Zero.  In fact, what my students are required to read is dry enough to turn them off of reading forever.

As I've stated before, morally, that's just wrong to me as a teacher.  I can't spend the entirety of my career putting nothing but dry, "informational texts" in front of my students and directing them to highlight them in various colors.

I'll cover what I'm required to cover but my students are also going to read for fun.

The research that supports independent reading is massive.  MASSIVE.  How can we ignore this?  But that's exactly what these scripted curriculum programs do.  Miller points out that readers are better at writing, have "richer vocabularies, and increased background knowledge in social studies and science."

Miller is not a fan of the whole class novel, and I can see the merit in this.  After teaching certain novels whole class, it is true that your readers are going to read through the novel, finish it and be bored long before the struggling readers do.  This results in wasted time for those faster readers; even worse: they are rewarded by being assigned extra busy work just because they finished quickly.   The goal of the whole class novel becomes just to finish it and complete the worksheets and projects that go with it.

Yes, there are things everyone should read: I fully believe that every student should read To Kill a Mockingbird, but I no longer believe it must be done whole class or on the same schedule.  We don't read that way in the real world, so why should we do it that way in school?

Miller's book was an eye-opening read; much of what she wrote I already knew but had not articulated in my mind.  She has used free reading in her class for years and her program works for her.  My plan is to make it work for me and for my students.

I am anxious to get back into my classroom and get this library set up!

Next on my summer reading list is Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess.  Since I only have three weeks I better get after it!

If you'd like to send a book for our classroom library, here is the Wish List link!

Thursday, June 21, 2018

"Can I Read This?": A Teacher's Dream Comes True

Today is the official first day of summer but technically I am about halfway through my summer vacation!  We report back to work on August 6; I'm not quite ready to think about that yet, but what I'm really thinking about a lot is my classroom library project.

After twenty-three years of teaching, I'm starting a classroom library.  I've written about it on this blog here, here, and hereI've done a lot of reading and research about this and while we have an excellent school library, research also shows that having a classroom library sends a message of literacy and a love of reading to students.

From the National Council of Teachers of English statement on Classroom Libraries:

Classroom libraries—physical or virtual—play a key role in providing access to books and promoting literacy; they have the potential to increase student motivation, engagement, and achievement and help students become critical thinkers, analytical readers, and informed citizens As English language arts educators, we know that no book is right for every student, and classroom libraries offer ongoing opportunities for teachers to work with students as individuals to find books that will ignite their love for learning, calm their fears, answer their questions, and improve their lives in any of the multiple ways that only literature can.  
 For these reasons, we support student access to classroom libraries that 1) offer a wide range of materials to appeal to and support the needs of students with different interests and abilities; 2) provide access to multiple resources that reflect diverse perspectives and social identities; and 3) open up opportunities for students, teachers, and school librarians to collaborate on the selections available for student choice and reading.
Read the entire statement here.

I've always had a bookshelf in my room with old paperbacks on it, but one day in March one of my reader-students was peering at the shelves longingly.  She found a Stieg Larsson book that wasn't too beat up and pulled it out, asking if she could read it.

"Of course you can!"  I said.

She beamed at me with a radiant smile and stayed after class to talk about books she had read that she really liked and every book she had read, I had not.  That's when I realized I needed to up my Young Adult (YA) reading game.

How had I been so clueless?  So focused on tests and curriculum that I had missed for all these years this very obvious way to connect with my students?

That student read the Stieg Larsson book, brought it back, but didn't find another in my old, beat up mass-market paperbacks with their crumbling, yellowing pages that interested her.  Why would she?  Those books were years out of date, in poor condition, and of subject matter that did not connect with young people today.  They were cast-offs nobody wanted.

I started culling books and what I ended up with to retain was pathetic.

The Classroom Library Project was born.

I started researching.  And reading.  And begging.

And just from my readers of this blog and from my personal friends, we have collected about 125 brand new or very gently used books that will totally engage almost all of my students!  I've been amazed at the response!

"Amazed" isn't the right word.  I've been brought to tears by it, really.

Books donated for the Library!  Love!

This project has obsessed my thoughts; I stay awake at night thinking, "I really need to get those soccer books; those boys would read those," or "Do I have enough graphic novels?  I think I only have one or two?" (Note to self:  add some Spanish language books!)

I've spent two weeks in my classroom after the end of the school year doing a decoupage project on a
Pages from To Kill a Mockingbird cover this shelf.
donated bookshelf, and painting another donated bookshelf, so I can properly display these books in a way that will encourage my students to read them.  I've laminated hardback book covers to protect them, and covered softback books with clear Contact paper for protection.  I've entered every book in a database and I've put book pockets and cards in the back of every book.

And I keep updating my Amazon Wish List weekly so I can be certain that I'm covering every subject, every topic, every level of reader, because even though I get new students each semester, I know my kids and I know what they want to read.  I also know what I need on those shelves to pull in the kid that has not read a book since elementary school.

Let me share with you a conversation with one of my classes which took place about three days before the end of the school year.

I'd been gathering books, covering them, and stowing them in crates until the new school year.  One of the books on my desk was one I was reading because I'd heard so much about it on social media in my ELA Teachers Group; the book is The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

The book is amazing.  Now, I'll admit, I'm ah avid reader but I've never read much YA lit.  But this book?  Wow.  The basic plot as described on Amazon is this:

After Starr and her childhood friend Khalil, both black, leave a party together, they are pulled over by a white police officer, who kills Khalil. The sole witness to the homicide, Starr must testify before a grand jury that will decide whether to indict the cop, and she's terrified, especially as emotions run high. By turns frightened, discouraged, enraged, and impassioned, Starr is authentically adolescent in her reactions. Inhabiting two vastly different spheres—her poor, predominantly black neighborhood, Garden Heights, where gangs are a fact of life, and her rich, mostly white private school—causes strain, and Thomas perceptively illustrates how the personal is political: Starr is disturbed by the racism of her white friend Hailey, who writes Khalil off as a drug dealer, and Starr's father is torn between his desire to support Garden Heights and his need to move his family to a safer environment. The first-person, present-tense narrative is immediate and intense, and the pacing is strong, with Thomas balancing dramatic scenes of violence and protest with moments of reflection.

True Confession here:  I avoided reading the book for a while thinking, things like "that's not what
The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
kids need to read about..." or "that will only encourage and incite divisive thinking...".  Boy was I wrong.  I could not have been more wrong.  And I can't tell you how hard it is to admit that I thought that way.

So, back to that classroom conversation. I was about halfway through the book when one of my girls saw it on my desk and asked me about it.

"What is that book?" she asked, based on the cover.

I stopped whatever material I was covering and picked it up.  I paged through it a moment and then turned the cover to the class and asked, "Have y'all read this?  Have y'all heard about this book?"

Not one had.



I said, "Oh my gosh, y'all have GOT to read this book!  It's amazing!"

I started to tell them about the characters, about the story.  I talked about how Starr is a black girl but her parents send her to a white school that is safer and provided a better education.  I tell them about how her friend Khalil gets shot even though he did nothing wrong.  I tell her about Starr's friends and their parents who won't let them spend the night at Starr's house because she still lives in 'the bad part of town'.

As I talked, every kid was listening.  Everyone that had been staring at a phone, tuning out my discussion of Macbeth, looked up at me.  They asked questions.  Some wanted to hold the book and look at it.  They wanted to read it.

They wanted to read it.

Is the book Macbeth?  Of course not.  But a classroom library with a diverse selection of books enables every kid's voice to be heard and enables those conversations to be held in the security of the classroom.  I'm stocking my library with their voices and their stories. It gives us a chance to have these very important conversations with kids.

I'm stocking this library with everything from urban fiction to classic literature.  I want there to be something on those shelves for every single kid.

Consider this statement on the diversity of your classroom library from Education Week (emphasis mine):

Literature should be a window into possibilities beyond our own experiences. But it should also be a clear and vibrant mirror. As things are, a talking rabbit stands a better chance of seeing herself reflected in children’s literature than a child of color does. Roughly 73 percent of the characters in children’s books published in 2015 were white, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Cooperative Children’s Book Center. This appalling statistic should make every one of us angry.  
 What can we do about that profound problem? First, we need to find books that reflect the identities and experiences of our African-American, Latino and Latina, Asian-American, and Native American students. There aren’t enough of those books being published by the industry, but they do exist. 
If you have even one student of color in your class, she needs to see herself reflected in the books you put in her hands. White students need to read books about characters of color, too—in a world where neighborhoods, churches, and schools tend to be largely segregated, books can be a portal into the experiences of children whose lives are very different from those of the reader.

And scripted curriculum or not, I'm going to find a way to make certain that we have time to read in class, for pleasure, for fun. It's that important.

So here at this halfway point in my summer, I'm not quite halfway to my goal of 500 books by August 6, when school starts.  I have a really great start on it, but I'm not stopping until I get there.

I'm not stopping.

I'll be hitting thrift stores, garage sales, and shopping Amazon sales.  I'm applying for grants, entering contests,begging for donations, and sharing my Amazon Wish List every chance I get.  And I'll be spending a lot of my own money.

I hope some generous philanthropist will see it somewhere on social media and say, "Hey, let me help this lady! This is a great cause!" and will buy up everything on that Wish List!  (Hey, I can dream...).

Anyone know a generous philanthropist you can share this with?

Really, I do want to thank all of you who have sent books!  You're making my dream come true and you are helping kids that you don't even know and it doesn't get any better than that.  It's about kids, really.

And I'll be sharing their love of these books with you once school begins.

Read on!

Further Reading:
Four Steps to a Magnificent Classroom Library (Education Week, June 2018)
The Hate U Give Enters the Ranks of Great YA Novels (The Atlantic, March 2017)
There's a Sad, Empty Bookshelf in M205 (SIGIS 5/11/18)