Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The House of the Scorpion: A Borderland Critique

I have lived in southern New Mexico my entire life. In 2000, I moved to Las Cruces to attend New Mexico State University, and have lived here ever since. That means that I am fairly aware of border politics, border culture, and some of the intricacies of living near the United States / Mexico border.

The House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer, is a great book that has so many interesting layers to it. It works as a critique of politics, cloning, caste systems, and slavery, among many others. One of the most glaring layers is its references to border politics and actions. The book goes in to pretty glaring detail to explain how the land lying between Aztlán (formerly known as Mexico in the book) and the United States became its own country, called Opium.

The way this reads out almost sounds like it could be true. The wealth and power of influential drug lords in the border region leads to them basically usurping power and causing a rift between the United States and Mexico, in the guise of 'helping' them take care of their drug problems by dealing overseas instead.

The book never directly says it, but knowing the importance of the relationship between Mexico and the United States, who are almost equally dependent on one another, helps explain Mexico collapsing and America losing its super power status in the book.

It's an interesting read with so many different views, and offers some of the greatest dystopic critique for children I've seen. This book goes up on my shelf next to the likes of 1984, A Brave New World, Anthem, and Fahrenheit 451.

Monday, April 28, 2008

How They Determine the Reading Level of A Book

The readability of a certain text has always been one of the first things that teachers and decision makers look at when choosing books to either fit their curriculum or add to their classroom library. Readability, often referred to as 'grade level,' can be given in a variety of ways. The most popular of these include:

  • Fountas & Pinnell (Guided Reading): Books are leveled from A-Z, with A being kindergarten up to, well, you get the idea.
  • Basal: Simply expressed as 'Grade 1,' 'Grade 2,' etc.
  • Lexile: The standard score used in the DRA (Developmental Reading Assessment). It's expressed from 100's up into the 1000's, and isn't the easiest to understand without a conversion chart.

I could go on here, because there's many more, but you can go to the Reading-Grade Level Comparison Chart .pdf document to see it all laid out for you. The readability of a text is determined by a lot of things in a lot of ways. Either a survey can be conducted, with normed tests, or a formula can be applied (the most common of these is the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Formula).

I came across a very interesting tool to check the readability of blogs, just in case you are utilizing them in the classroom. I am definitely all for the use of varying texts beyond books and *gulp* basals, and *double gulp* textbooks.

So check it out, it's the Blog Readability Test. Here's how this blog did:

blog readability test

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Attack of Summer Vacation

Summer vacation has been an American tradition for over 100 years now. Students look forward to it, and to an even greater extent, teachers look forward to it. I'm only talking to those of you who are teachers right now, because what I'm going to say is often criticized by those outside the field.

Teaching is a very difficult job, and a very intense one. After going from August to May (or September to June, depending on where you live), that 10-13 week break is well deserved and well taken. Yes, other people don't think it's fair that we get this vacation, but we don't listen to those people, because they just don't understand.

Then the questions start coming. Isn't it true that students don't retain a lot of what they learned the prior year during the summer? Isn't it true that students come back to school and actually have lost reading skill since the end of the prior school year? And isn't it true that parents often complain that they have trouble keeping their kids active with productive things to do during the summer, and that the rates of kids getting in trouble rise?

The answer is yes, to all, but let's analyze:

Student learning retention rates: This one seems pretty obvious. If you're not using it, you're losing it. Many students aren't actively learning during the summer vacation, and they will forget quite a bit of what they were taught. But some of this is the teachers fault. If we're teaching them through traditional methods, lecture and textbook, studies have shown that students can and will forget anywhere between 60-80% of what they were taught. As their learning becomes more engaged, they retain more. In fact, if it's things they learned out of an authentic literary experience (a book, you know, novel or chapter book) that they were actively engaged in, the retention rates can be much higher. I've seen this personally, and studies have shown a variance from anywhere between 70-95% of the material being retained, and not lost as the previous numbers showed.

Reading skill being lost: I've said it to my students a million times, the only way to become a better reader is to read. It's the old 'practice makes perfect' thing, and it's very true, especially as it comes to reading skill. If a student goes the entire summer without reading a book, of course they're going to lose some skill, both fluency and comprehension. If you're in a position like I am where you know your students for next year before the end of the previous year, you can have a summer reading club to keep them going. If you don't know who your students will be, you have to count on parents to keep them reading, and we all know that this isn't going to happen in large numbers. I survey my students at the beginning of the school year, and over the last three years have found that out of 62 students, 11 responded by saying that they read consistently over the summer vacation, that's 18%. This one is obvious to me.

Parents have trouble with their kids over summer: This one isn't really something we should worry about. You mean parents actually will have to spend time with their kids? GASP! This actually becomes more of a problem as it relates to students that have apathetic or uninvolved parents, which, sadly, is too many of them. There are things you can do as a teacher, including giving your parents lists of summer camps and activities, both free and pay, that students can participate in over summer. Also, I tell students and parents that I do have a large library of books that I relocate from my classroom to my home over summer, and they're welcome to drop by and choose some. Teachers can do our part to help, but the real fact is, most of us have our own families to worry about during the summer. This one is really up to the individual parent, if they're going to let their kids run wild or give them some guidelines to follow.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Night, by Elie Wiesel: A Book Review

Night, by Elie Wiesel, is one brutal book to read. Wiesel is the critically acclaimed author of various stories centered around Jewish issues and the Holocaust. Wiesel is himself a survivor of both Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buckenweld concentration camps, and is the 1986 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Night is only about 120 pages long, and that's in hard back. The book is short, but packs a big punch. When I read this book, I could really feel Wiesel's sense of despair, confusion, and fear as his family was torn apart, and as he watched his father waste away. He presents the reader with an intimate look at what evil is, how it tears individuals to shreds, and the lingering effects of such horrible events.

This book can be used in the classroom, even in the younger grade levels. If you have a progressive principal, and/or are dedicated to showing your students a true perspective of the Holocaust (forget all that textbook nonsense), then this is a great book to read. Bear in mind that classically this book is used in high school, but it has been on my bookshelf this school year and has been read twice, and has led those two students to find more books on the Holocaust and learn more, so I've seen this book open doors to learning.

I recommend this book for kids and adults alike, I have this book at home, and am currently writing a research paper comparing this book to the graphical elements in Art Spiegelman's Mausand in the movie The Pianist. It is powerful, it will stay with you, and is a lifetime learning opportunity for your students, whether they're 11 years old or 18.

Friday, April 25, 2008

When You've Got To Slow Down

Here we are, late April, finally. The end is near, here in New Mexico, it's now less than four weeks away. That means a few things. First of all, it means that we're running out of time, but it also probably means that students are having a little difficulty staying focused, most teachers are starting to drag a little bit, and administration is still breathing down everyone's neck, does that sound about right?

Well, if your state is anything like New Mexico, you might have some lag time between your standardized testing and the end of the year. We take it to extremes here, taking the test over 10 school weeks before the end of the year, yes 10. That means that the pressure is in full gear up until the last week of February. The testing then takes place for two weeks, and the last 10 weeks, most of March (with Spring Break mixed in there), April, and May coming after the storm.

For me, this is a golden opportunity to do some actual teaching and let my kids actually learn (let's stop it with all this essential learning, back to basics nonsense, I'm talking about those 'nice to know' things that all teachers wish they had time to teach).

In terms of literacy, this means more self selection, more multimedia tie ins, more long discussions, and more chances to take risks on some new and untested books.

We've lost touch with our students so much that it sickens me. School has been reduced to numbers, students nothing but test scores and labels of advanced, proficient, nearing proficient, or beginning step. It's ridiculous, we need to stop patting ourselves on the back every time a kid goes up two percentage points on the test, and start patting ourselves on the back when a kid pulls a book off the shelf for fun or because they're interested, that's what it's all about, everything else is nonsense.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Fun Learning Is Fun

The real challenge in American education right now is in making education interesting, relevant, and dare I say, FUN. I know that has become such taboo these days, we're so focused on getting ready for the test, that school should never be fun, right?

Well, if we're going to reach kids, and if we're going to teach them consistently for six hours a day, 170 days a year (that's 1,020 hours just in case you were curious), we need that educational experience to be enjoyable in order to sustain it.

Can literacy be fun? YES, in fact, it should be. They should learn through it, they should be challenged by it, it should force their way of thinking about the world to change, but it should be enjoyable. When I say fun, I mean enjoyable, not just like run around in circles until you fall down, save that for recess.

There's no book review this time, I'm not going to throw ideas out there, I just wanted to talk about this idea, that learning can be enjoyable. I see this huge focus on testing, on what it does to teachers, and on how it burns students out on the learning process at a young age, and it has to stop. Be looking for posts that have the label "fun learning" in the future for more on this topic. Or, if you have fun and interesting ways you've reached your students, please share.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Zombie Fiction: A Real Literary Experience

In my personal time, I read voraciously (hey, there's a nice vocabulary word for the day), I love books, and I have actually come to prefer them over movies. No, I'm not just saying that, it's true. The interesting thing is that I definitely go through phases where I'll read tons of stuff out of one genre. For awhile, I was really in to spy thriller stuff, then, I got really into dystopia stuff, like 1984, A Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, Ayn Rand's books, and tons of others.

Right now, my genre obsession is zombie fiction. That's right, I'm a sucker for a good zombie fiction. And you know, it's really gotten me thinking, what are the redeeming cultural values of zombie fiction? There is actually a whole world of fascinating stories out there, and a growing pool of research about zombie fiction (nothing I'm going to mention now, but maybe in the future).

When I think of these great books, they're first of all, horrifying, but second of all, fascinating. Zombie fiction has taken on a growing form since 9/11, which is something I've read about in the research of others and have also read about in zombie discussion forums. One of the main recurring themes behind zombie stories is that you see the frustration and fear of America at large, and the continuing ignorance of the American government play out in these stories.

Max Brooks provides some of the best zombie fiction I've ever read in his anthology of the Great Zombie War, titled World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. This is easily one of my favorite books of all time, I am currently reading it for the third time, it's just amazing. It's a telling of short stories by survivors of the war that swept the world and practically wiped out 90% of the population of the entire world.

Brooks is just a start, he's also well known for The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead, which is also a very interesting read. I've recently also read some other books, that I'll provide in a list at the end of this posting.

The thing is, I really got to thinking about the possibilities for using zombie fiction as an educational experience. My next post will be on this, because this one is already getting pretty long, I'll put a link for it here when I write that post. For now, I'm going to end this post by listing the zombie fiction books I've read so far. I really want to read more, and will, but this is where I am right now.

  • World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War- by Max Brooks: This book, as mentioned above, is simply the best zombie book I've read, I can't get enough.
  • The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead- by Max Brooks: This book is pretty much as advertised. It's a survival guide, what kind of weapons to use, how to kill a zombie, how to get out of reach of a zombie, it's just so imaginative and so serious that you almost start believing it.
  • Monster Island, Monster Nation and Monster Planet- by David Wellington: I included these three books as one, because they're pretty much one long story. These books were unique to the zombie genre because you actually go inside the head of zombies, and see what they're seeing and experiencing. There's some interesting twists here, but they're very entertaining.
  • Day by Day Armageddon- by J.L. Bourne: This book is a total throwback in to the world of George Romero (you know, the Dawn of the Dead guy). This book is a journal of survivors fighting zombies as they're holed up in a small town outside of Austin, Texas. In this book, the zombies are mindless, flesh eating dead, no tricks, no smart ones, nothing like that. It's a really good, really well told book.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

How To Get Rich While Making School Lame

OK, so this isn't a 'get rich quick' post with a how-to, the title was just a ruse to suck you in, and now you're here, so you should probably just read this post, because it probably will make sense to you.

Most school districts are alike, and as a rule, the bigger the district (student and city population wise that is), the more banal some of the ideas that come out of the leadership can be, that's just the way it is. I've seen so many programs come in and out of my school district that I can't remember all of them, and the crazy thing is, this is only my third year as a teacher. I'm not exaggerating, I've seen a lot in that short period of time, since 2005.

I've seen reading programs, writing programs, math programs, science programs, social studies programs, and even different approaches to Title I programs. Some of the programs come from the big textbook companies, you know, the Scott Foresman, Houghton Mifflin bunch, but I've also gone through programs invented by one person.

I've seen Math Investigations, Nancy Fetzer, Response to Intervention, Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA), Baldridge, New Science Science Kits, and the Scott Foresman basal reading series, just to name a few. Now sure, most of the examples I gave are companies, but there are those programs that come from individual people.

Of course, they're not all bad, and most are crafted by someone who really believes in their program, and they bring it out there for the world to see, and possibly bank a few million dollars while they're at it selling it to big and small districts alike.

The problem I have is that when schools jump so hard and deep in to a program for every single subject, meant to take up every single minute of the day, they're all but assuming that teachers, the professionals in this great field of education, those on the front line, are incompetent and incapable of doing the work themselves.

I don't mind having math textbooks, they actually make my job a little easier, but I don't want to have to teach, day by day, out of a scripted program. Sure, the reading basal may have a nice story here or there, but by no means do students need to have a literacy experience, for years at a time, that are almost solely based around textbooks, this just isn't' right.

If I wanted to get rich quick, I'd think up of a new way to bring test scores up, and sell it off. I would go around the country doing trainings, peddling my materials, and then sit back and drive a Bentley around while students continue to push further and further away from education and teachers continue to leave the field in droves because they feel insulted, but who cares, I'd be rich.

As this blog evolves (or if you read my other blog, The Buss), you will see that I'm definitely a teacher to the core. I support teachers, I support them as professionals, as the leaders and innovators in the field, and as the trailblazers that will actually save education. It's not about some innovator with that great idea, I'm sure it worked for them, but I need to have the right, as a teacher, to pick and choose what works and doesn't work for my students. Anything else is idiotic.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Maus I: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History, by Art Spiegelman

Maus I: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History has had a reputation since the late 1970's as being one of the hardest hitting graphic novels ever written. Art Spiegelman wrote Maus as a biography of his father, Vladek Spiegelman, and did it through very straightforward but well drawn and written metaphor.

The metaphors I'm talking about are Spiegelman's portrayal of the Jewish as mice, the Nazi's as dangerous looking cats, of Russians as noble looking dogs, and of the Polish as pigs. Spiegelman himself described this metaphor as stupid but necessary, which you can see by watching the 1 minute and 5 second clip at the end of this review.

You have to be cautious when teaching this book in class, cautious to make sure you approach it correctly. Right now, I am using this book in my 5th grade class, and feel that my students are getting quite a lot out of it. We're using the book as a discussion on the holocaust, something that we studied in depth a little over a month ago, and we're also using it as a discussion on literary and visual devices, and how they work together to make a graphic novel. Students are working on their own autobiographical graphic novel as well, attempting to use the same visual cell types and word play used in Maus.

Graphic novels are still considered fringe in terms of their value in the classroom. Many teachers, parents, and literacy experts argue that graphic novels do nothing more than give students something they want (comic books) other than something they need (a valuable, learning literacy experience). I have found graphic novels to be valuable, when considering that, on top of the words on the page, students have to understand the immediate connection between words and pictures.

Maus is a great story, it's one of my all-time favorite reads, and considering that I didn't read it for the first time until earlier this year, that means that, as an adult, it's one of my favorite reads. I am currently doing research on the book, and am teaching it in my class. I will provide updates on both of those things as they move along over the next few weeks. But for now, I would consider reading Maus I (and II), and seeing if you think it would be a valuable classroom experience.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Pleasure Reading and My Boring Research

I'm doing some classroom based research for a graduate course right now, actually I'm putting the finishing touches on the study, but the point of it is to try to better understand how No Child Left Behind and the political pressures have affected the pleasure of reading for students and how they perceive themselves as successful learners.

It's been real interesting, and oddly enough, I'm not totally surprised by the findings. I'm looking at things from a few different angles, including socio-economic status and how it unfolds regarding literary success, and how reading level influences the enjoyment one gets from reading.

Of course, there's millions of teachers out there who know the answer to those questions, but I am tying them further in to No Child Left Behind. One of the more telling articles I came across was actually in The Washington Post and is nearly three years old. That article is titled Odds Stacked Against Pleasure Reading and in it, high school students talk about how much they enjoy reading and how much they hate 'reading class' at school. It's so true, and it's something I think about everyday.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Why Is Oral Reading Important?

This is actually more of a rhetorical question than anything else. Growing up, I never really minded oral reading, because I was always a strong reader, but I never preferred it either. I'm not talking about teacher read aloud, I'm talking about oral reading from a student perspective.

The reason a lot of students read orally is so the teacher can hear how well they are reading. Unfortunately, there is often a disconnect between oral reading skill and silent reading skill. I know this because it happens with me. Yes, I can read well orally, but I can read extremely quickly silently, and feel like I retain more.

For a lot of students, once that metacognitive awareness is in place (which for some starts to happen around the age of 11 or 12), maybe oral reading won't be as important as far as it relates to trying to assess student reading.

I'm not an expert by any means on this, I'm just throwing it out there. If you read this and have anything you want to add to the discussion, please, comment.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Redefining Classic Children's Literature

One thing we are all familiar of in the world of literature are the classics. I'm sure we all read them when we were in school, and many of us probably have some of them collecting dusts on the book shelves around our homes or offices. It's one thing for adults to keep classics around and actually read them, for whatever reason, either because they actually enjoy it or because they think they're supposed to enjoy it.

These same rules do not apply to children's and young adult literature however. I am young enough (I'm in my late 20's) to remember sitting bored out of my mind in school trudging through 'classics' of children's and ya literature like Little House on the Prairie and Wuthering Heights. These are books I was supposed to read, right? They're rites of passage or something, that's all I could assume, because they certainly didn't connect with me in any way, and actually led me to despise reading for much of my K-12 experience.

Youth literature is quite unique, because many of the students are just beginning to experience literature, to test it, and to decide whether or not it is an experience they enjoy. As a teacher, it is our job to make your students become more proficient and effective readers, but it is also our job to develop a love of reading and students who are aware, on a person and metacognitive level, of what makes them a good reader, how they read, and what they enjoy.

Therefore, children's literature classics are in fact becoming largely irrelevant in the 21st century classroom. I actually had an entire boxed set of Little House sitting on my book shelf, given to me by a parent who no longer wanted them. The books sat there for months and months, and were never touched. I ended up trading them off at the used book store for books that my students would enjoy more.

Yes, the classics are there, and they're there for a reason. They've sold millions of copies, have been made into movies, and have been read in the classroom for decades. I believe it's time for many of the classics to be put to rest. Students need to read books that are relevant to the world around them, books they connect to in some way, and books that keep them wanting more. What do you think?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Censored Literature and You: How to Stand Up For Your Rights When the Book Censors Attack

I'm going to start discussing this complex topic by telling a personal story, something that happened to me earlier this school year. If you want to skip right past my story to what you can do when challenged on a book, CLICK HERE to jump down to that portion of this post. Someone who works in my department came in to my school new this year, and has worn their christian religion like a badge of honor all year, even to the point that eventually others began speaking out against this persons preaching at their students and telling other teachers what to do.

If you've read either of my blogs a few times, you probably know that I have major issues with being censored. So, anyways, it was time to read a new chapter book, and I pulled the Lois Lowry classic The Giver off the shelf and started reading it. In a very odd fashion, this teacher came in to my classroom one day and asked if she could borrow a copy of the The Giver. I let her, and didn't really think much about it, until about two weeks later, when the principal sided with the teacher and decided we shouldn't be reading this book to our students.

I quickly fought back, and asked for the reasons as to why this book was being censored in the school. The letter I was given cited concerns over euthanasia, 'sexual themes,' and the books treatment of religion. That was my tipping point. I then asked to have the specific passages given, and of course, this teacher gave them. I was able to cite examples in other literature that is used very often in elementary school that deals with similar issues, and saved the religion thing for last.

Teachers aren't allowed to push religion in the classroom, it's a law. Teachers are only allowed to teach the differing cultural values of religions. In this case, I debated, this teacher was literally shoving her religious views down the throats of both me and my students.

To make a long story short, my supervisor decided this was not a battle worth fighting, and after sitting down and looking at some legal precedents (some of which went way over my head), overruled the censoring of this book. The cool thing was, three other teachers in my building also decided to use this book in their classrooms, so triumph felt good, and my students were able to partake in a valuable literary experience.

Here are some recommendations about how to 'cover your bases' if you decide to proceed with a book that has potential to be challenged, has been challenged in the past, or is a frequently banned book (a list of frequently banned books will be at the end of this post as well).

  • Keep your parents and principal(s) informed from the start: I always send home, in my bi-weekly newsletter, a rundown of the activities we're doing, including the content of the current literature we are using. I always leave contact information at the bottom of the newsletter and tell parents to contact me with any concerns. I pass a copy of this on to the principal so that my bases are covered in this way.
  • Be ready to explain yourself: Explain in words your principal (and other co-workers who have challenged you) will understand why you have chosen this book. Be able to go into the multicultural and subversive aspects of the book, but also how it will meet content standards and benchmarks, literacy guidelines, and how you will assess 'literacy learning' as well. Of course, most of this is total bull, but it makes people happy.
  • Understand beforehand: Don't pick a book BECAUSE it is banned or has been challenged, then you're asking for trouble. In my case, this was a book that I enjoyed very much, and was ready to step up for what I believed in. Know why you picked the book, why you believe in it, and be ready to explain yourself every step of the way.

Personally, the issue I have with censored books is that a lot of times the reasons aren't very good. Of course I'm not going to pull something horribly inappropriate and start reading it to young children. Books are frequently challenged because they offend a persons religion, and we need to remember that this is not a reason to ban a book. Once the doors are open to book censorship, how far is too far? Herein lies the issue with censorship, it can be interpreted to the point that we're banning Dr. Seuss because the characters worship false gods.

Know your rights, and understand that just because you're in the classroom, you haven't lost your freedom of expression rights.

Now, finally, before I stop here, I wanted to give a short list of some frequently challenged books in public schools lately:

Good luck if you have any issues arising with book censorship. Please, share your stories, both triumphs and setbacks, and remember, no one (other than an objectionable parent, which you must always work to accommodate), has the right to push you around and censor you, fight back!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Letting Students Choose Their Own Books Effectively

Popular literature among students isn't always what you, the teacher, thinks is the best choice to read. On my bookshelf, I haven't been keeping statistics, although I will be next year, in order to get some data on what books are being read. However, I do pay attention, and I can tell you that just because I keep all those Newberry Award winners up front, and all those books that I think are just great, it doesn't always mean they're being read the most.

Some of the more popular books among my collection are a series of Star Wars books I got through Scholastic, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, any graphic novel (I haven't been able to keep American Born Chinese on the shelf for more than a few minutes without someone grabbing it up), the Choose Your Own Adventure books (they're small books where kids pick the page they want to go to next), and of course, Goosebumps by R.L. Stine, of which I have probably 30 on the shelf.

Of course, anything students read can be a valuable opportunity. I can look back, and remember telling kids to put away their comic books or something along those lines in order to read a book I wanted them to read. Yes, teacher chosen literature is very important, if it wasn't, I wouldn't be constantly giving recommendations through this blog, but students should have some choice.

What I did this year was set some guidelines so students weren't only reading comics all year. It's been an interesting experience setting this up, but I've found that in my class of 20+ students, over 350 books have been completed so far this year, an average of over 16 books per student, which is actually very high. Although my goal this year was to pick quality books and focus on them instead of having each student read for quantity, this high number of books shows that students were reading all year, from one to the next, and that was another goal of mine, constant reading.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Sold, by Patricia McCormick

Sold, by Patricia McCormick is one of the most brutally real books I've ever read. It's the story of a poor girl from Nepal who is sold into prostitution in Calcutta, India, and yes, it's young adult literature.

I consider this book to be the teenagers version of A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini, with one notable twist, the girl is sold into unwilling prostitution, and this is based on what actually happens.

The story broke my heart, it troubled me in many ways, and actually drove me to take action as much as a white middle class man living in New Mexico can, by donating to the cause of saving these girls from their doom.

If you tried to read this book with an elementary class, you'd probably lose your job, and I would seriously question using it with any class younger than maybe 10th or even 11th grade. But, once the students are that age, and have engaged in discussions about the hatred and evil that is alive in the world, this book could be a life altering experience for them.

The story itself focuses on Lakshmi, a 13-year-old girl living in the high mountains of Nepal. She is the daughter of a step-father who gambles and eventually loses everything, both by being a lazy jerk, and by their home and crops being washed away in the monsoon. Lakshmi is sold into what the family believes is maid service in India, but when she arrives, she is thrown head first into a horrible brothel.

The story is told through the experience of Lakshmi, you feel her confusion, rage, how scared she is, and how horrible the adults around her truly are. I was disgusted, I was shocked, I was saddened, and finally I was angered by what I read, angered not by the book itself, but by the fact that there are human beings capable of such horrible things.

If you can read this book, as an adult, I would recommend it for so many reasons. It's truly a book that I will never forget, and if you approach it correctly, with a heavy sense of what the topic is about and how serious it is, you will teach your students a lesson in the evils of the human spirit that they will never forget. This book will sit on my shelf forever as a reminder of this.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Teaching a Unit on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

First off, let's get one thing pretty straight. Teaching your students about Martin Luther King Jr. is more than something you do in January when his birthday is near. Of course, it's a great thing that we have a day set aside to commemorate the life of Dr. King, but he's more than just a day of coloring pages and a quick read aloud.

Many of us spend weeks and weeks teaching about presidents, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson. Marting Luther King Jr. is easily one of the most important figures in American history that we can teach our students. The man stood for so many good things, he stood for pride, peace, justice, equality, and respect for everyone.

I actually teach a civil rights unit, with the impetus of the entire thing being the life and teachings of Dr. King. There are many ways to approach such a unit, so I'll simply provide the example of what I do, and some of the resources I use when teaching about King, and hopefully some of it will be helpful for you. Just remember, making the decision to focus an extended period of teaching on men of integrity like King is the right decision, don't question it.

I always start my civil rights unit with a letter home to parents asking them for permission to teach their students through visual means. What I mean by this is that I do show them images of the struggle of civil rights, they hear and read accounts of the struggle, of the blood, the humiliation, and the death. It's important not to shock students, but to make the reality shine clearly. Civil rights was not simply a list of non-violent struggles to help African Americans gain equal rights, it was a bloody time. They were humiliated, beaten, and killed, and while we must be careful with what we show our students, we must also focus on the truth and the reality.

My school always shows the one-hour-long cartoon Our Friend, Martinright before the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in January. This video is appropriate for kindergartners to watch, but even the older students, as old as 8th or 9th grade, sit and watch this video and always seem to retain quite a bit of what is presented, the life and historical importance of Reverend King. I recommend this video as an introduction to your unit if you can get ahold of it.

From there, we move into some literature on King, and begin the unit itself. First, let me explain some of the activities, and then I'll end by providing a list of some good picture, chapter, and reference books about Dr. King.

One overall activity that I have my students do is a biography of King. Each student is responsible for making a timeline of his life, and a list of the important events of his life. We do a bulletin board in the hallway with the letters KING in the middle, with short blurbs about King's life and importance around the name on the bulletin board. The students make the short blurbs from their biographies.

Obviously there are many approaches to the unit, I just gave a brief overview of a quick idea how to begin. You could also have your class make a video, which is something I'm doing right now with my class. Students will each record a 2 minute video where they discuss why King is important to them, and then, by mixing their clips with pictures, audio, and clips of King, make a video to show to the school. These are just a few ideas, now for the literature:

Here are some great picture books to use in your unit:

And here's some great chapter books and reference style books to add to your library or read with your class:

  • King: A Comics Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (The Complete Edition), by Ho Che Anderson - This 228 page graphic comic book is a masterpiece among masterpieces. It's a stunning visual and written account of the life of King. I don't know that I could recommend this book for students younger than say 7th or 8th grade, but as far as books about Dr. King goes, this one is stunning in every way.
  • Children of the Dream: Our Own Stories Growing Up Black in America by Laurel Holliday - This 450 page book presents individual stories, diary excerpts, and essays of African Americans during and after King's "I Have A Dream" speech. It's a good book, you can definitely use bits and pieces of it, although probably not the whole thing.
  • My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. by Coretta Scott King - This book is unique because it's partly a retelling of King's own autobiography, but also shows you the extraordinary life of Dr. King's wife.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer

The House of the Scorpionis one of those rare books that can be enjoyed fully by 12-year-olds and professors of literature alike, with everything in between. The story is so complete, the characters are told so well, that you can't help but feel like part of the story.

The questions this book brings up involve cloning, the pros and cons, as well as ethnics and morality, behind the use of embryos and living cells of damaged humans to better the lives of the living. It also brings up issues involving governmental corruption, the dichotomy of good and evil, and the intended good but overall evils of communism.
This book is long (380 pages in paperback), but it simply stunning. I recommend this book for many reasons, such as the questions and issues I just mentioned.

I would really enjoy being part of a discussion on this book, with other adults, I was entranced by the issues, and found myself questioning ideals I've held for a long time. So do me a favor, read this amazing book and we can talk about it.

I would recommend this book for use in classroom at ages 14 and up, but I have had students as young as 11 read it and enjoy it fully. A few years ago, one of my struggling readers picked this book up in the library and read it. It took him some time to get through it, but he was very happy with the story and said he understood it well, and did after our subsequent discussions and writings on the book. Let me know if you have any success with this one, it is truly deserving of the awards it has received.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

How to Make Sure Your Students Will Hate Reading

OK, now you have your first teaching job, or you've been teaching forever and are looking for new ideas. The whole point of this post is to tell a few of the things that teachers can do that will totally turn their students off on reading. When you're teaching literacy, the main question you should ask yourself is why you're doing it. What do you want the students to get out of it? When I ask myself this question, the answer is always 'I teach reading because I want my students to enjoy reading and gain reading skill.' When I say 'gain reading skill,' I don't mean 'answer test questions.'

So there, that's a start. Now, if you want your students to hate reading, your answer to that questions should go something like; 'I teach reading so my students will score better on the test.' There are variations on this, but it comes down to a focus on skills and strategies.

Here's some great things to do in your classroom if you really want to cultivate their hatred of reading:

  • Never let them choose what they read.
  • Use textbooks, 100% all the time.
  • Use test practice materials as much as you possibly can. Yell at them if they don't do well.
  • 3 words: basal, basal, basal
  • Use worksheets constantly. Especially those great language arts ones, where they diagram sentences and find the verbs. You'd be surprised how quickly your students will not only hate reading but writing as well, you can kill two birds with one stone in this manner.
  • When you do read alouds, make sure the books are in no way connected to their lives or interests, just pick books because you've used them before and you have a lot of materials (like worksheets) to give them.
  • When students work in groups, make them do the same tasks every single time.
  • Never, NEVER read silently to yourself while your students read silently. The last thing they need is a good model of how to read independently.
  • Taking the previous example one step further, never stop while reading to the class to interject something, and never purposefully make a mistake that students can catch and correct.

This is a start. If you can do at least a few of these things, then you'll very quickly have a class full of non-readers. Good luck!

Friday, April 4, 2008

Starting A Classroom Book Library

Starting a classroom library isn't as daunting as it seems. For a new teacher heading in to the classroom for the first time, most of the time, you're heading in with nothing. You're surrounded by teachers who have built resources over their careers, and you walk in with nothing, but you have to start somewhere.

The first thing you can do, and it can work even in a more economically disadvantaged school, is ask parents if they have any unwanted, age appropriate books that they can send. I sent out a letter like this near the beginning of the year, and got over 150 books from parents, many of them great, some of them the types of books that no student would ever choose to read on their own (those Sweet Valley High books from the 80s and stuff like that).

So from there, I took the unwanted books, and headed down to the local used bookstore. Here in Las Cruces, we have a used bookstore called Coas, where you can trade in used books for credit towards buying other used books from their huge collection. I got a lot of stuff this way.

Finally, and probably the most popular way for teachers to get books is to sign up for Scholastic Book Clubs. No, I don't work for them or anything like that. CLICK HERE to go to their page where you can request their catalogs. A Scholastic catalog comes with all the fliers to send home for students. Students who want to buy either send a check, or cash, which you take and write a check in place for.

Scholastic constantly offers special deals on bonus points, and you get bonus points depending on how much your class buys. You use the bonus points to buy books for the class, and a lot of times they have big sets and things like that, so you can build your library rather quickly. I work in an economically disadvantaged school, but students still order a book here and there, it's nice to give them the choice.

So over the course of a year or two, you can easily build a library of over 300 books just by putting a little work in to it. I started my library this year, in August, and now, only 8 months later, I have almost 400 books in my library. With a class of 20 students, this is a ratio of 20 books to every student, which gives them sufficient choice and the fact that nobody will read the entire collection.

Of course, also think of age appropriate books. I teach 5th grade, so I have books that cover the range from 1st to a high school level. Good luck, remember, the only way to become a better reader is to read.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief,by Markus Zusak is quite simply one of the greatest books I've ever read, regardless of what age group it was written for. This book may be a little long to read as a read aloud, clocking in at over 500 pages, but it is a fantastic book. The book takes place during the Jewish Holocaust, but it takes places in Nazi Germany, at the home of a young foster girl and her adopted family.

The story is narrarated by the character of Death, and follows the struggles of the Holocaust, the horors of war, and the bickering that went on behind the lines of the Nazi party in Germany itself.
The book does have a difficult theme, some adult situations (more in terms of fighting and killing), and, of course, death. I would personally not have students younger than probably 13-years-old attempt to read it, although one of my 12-year-old students wanted to attempt it, and has so far managed to read 300 pages of it. As I mentioned before, it is a very long book, so if you're attempting to read it aloud, you're my hero, because it would probably take a few months.
This is a must own for any classroom book library, especially in middle school. I have only one copy, I came across it in a graduate literacy course, and will be ordering a few more to have on the shelf in my classroom. GET THIS BOOK!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Pluses of Homogeneous Grouping

Homogeneous (pronounced either ha-mah-ga-nus or homo-genius, depending on who you are) grouping involves putting students of a similar skill level together, either in a group setting within a class, or in a class setting. Some teachers, a lot of times those who are self-contained (don't send their students out for any subjects), are faced with the choice of whether or not to ability group their students. If you work in a larger school, with many classrooms per grade level, you may have been faced with the possibility of grouping students for a subject by level and sending them, by those levels, to a certain classroom (this is also sometimes referred to as departmentalizing).

Homogeneous grouping can cause some issues, especially if you somehow become the teacher who is asked to take the 'low' group every time, but there are pluses. If you have a large class like me, and you are self-contained, like me, then you have to either teach whole group, small group, or a combination of both.

Since this blog is focused mainly around literacy, let's look at it from there. I've posted previously on how I run my reading class, and some suggestions on how to set up a reading class (that post was titled Reading Instruction: The Basics), but basically, I do some whole group stuff with the class, read aloud and the discussion that usually follows, as well as the activities that go with that book. I do that with all students, regardless of level, this could either be referred to as whole group or even heterogeneous grouping, although a more appropriate definition of heterogeneous grouping would involve their application in smaller groups. Then, they split off into their ability, or homogeneous, groups, and have work to do there.

The most obvious advantage of similarly skilled students working together is that you can focus them on texts that are appropriate for their ability. Why put the student reading on a 10th grade level in small group with the student reading on a 2nd grade level? Well, there are pluses for doing that, including having good modeling and a reciprocal relationship in the group, but there is also pluses of keeping them apart in small group.

A lot of it comes down to book choice. I would want to challenge my advanced student, and not frustrate my struggling student, so homogeneous grouping would be appropriate to steer clear of this conflict.

This blog is still rather new at this point, but I do have some long-term goals, especially as I gain readers, which has been happening very slowly so far, as I'm still getting embedded into Google and teacher blog sites, and things like that. However, I will be posting more on this topic, as well as its counterpart, both pros and cons. But for now, this is a good starting point.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Giver, by Lois Lowry

The Giverby Lois Lowry - The Giver is definitely one of my easy top 5 books of all time for the 9-12 age set. Of course, it's not without its controversies, but it's a great read all around. If you're a 5th grade teacher, I would recommend doing it as a read aloud, because some of your more struggling readers will definitely struggle with this one, but wow, it's an amazing story.

One great activity to do at the start of this book is have students take black and white photos. I got this idea from a website (so I can't take total credit), but threw my own spin on it by not explaining what was going on at all. In fact, I told students to go outside and find the most beautiful non-human subject they could, and take a picture of it with the digital camera. The next day, I gave everyone their photo, without color, and asked them to explain the colors of their photo, how much the color adds to it, and what taking the color away did to the mood and style of the photo.

This was a great lead-in to the story, which is the story of Jonas, a 12-year-old living in a perfect utopia, or so it seems. The story introduces us to a joyless, chance less life where decisions are made for you and people don't experience the joys and pains of life. Jonas is given a very special job that will allow him to become the holder of memories in the community. However, as Jonas begins to experience the world, his outlook begins to change, and we begin to see the sadness and danger of a life without danger, love, and chance.

I'm not going to post a synopsis here, because if you want to read the book, you'll do it, just note that there are challenges. When I first read this book, I was challenged by a religious zealot in my building (don't we all love those?). I ultimately prevailed, but it does happen. I read the book back in September with my class, and yesterday, we did a list of all the books we've read together this year, which are quite a lot, because my reading block time is set aside for novels and other authentic literary choices, and asked them to rank them in order of preference. The Giver ranked either first or second on every single list, that is how much they enjoyed this book.

This post is simply a starter guide for it, letting you know that it is appropriate for 5th graders, no matter what you've been told. There will surely be more on this book here in this blog in the future. If you need any help with it, any ideas, or anything like that, let me know, I'd be more than happy to help.