Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Adult Literacy Experience in the High School Classroom

When I say adult literacy, I guess I could also be talking about college level literacy, because often times, the literature used is more on the adult edge than anything else (although I encountered a number of books that I now consider to be young adult literature in undergraduate level courses).

The most enjoyable college literature courses for me were always the special topics courses. The way I believe it works at NMSU is there is a course called ENGL 211, which is basically books across a topic chosen by the instructor. When I took it, we read science fiction by female authors (you know, Frankenstein and stuff like that). I like the idea of forming a class around a genre, or a very specific topic, and moving forward from there.

For example, I have been a fan of dystopia (the opposite of utopia) themed literature. Books like 1984, A Brave New World, and even down into children's books like The Giver and The City of Ember. Imagine in a high school lit/comp class, instead of reading books like Wuthering Heights and Lord of the Flies (both classics in their own rights, but ultimately books I never felt a connection with as a 17 year old high school student), surveying the class (or even making the decision yourself, as a teacher), and reading books across that specific theme that's chosen. I would have been reading day and night if my senior English class was themed around zombie literature (OK, too much of a stretch?) or even historic fiction out of a certain period, say the Civil War or World War II.

Basically, look at it this way. As a teacher, what are your interests? You'd be surprised how just showing what you're interested in, letting your passion for that subject come to the surface, and sharing your knowledge can change the way students think about that topic. I'm quite interested in World War II and am passionate about some of the books I choose to read to my 5th graders, and many, if not most of my students end up sharing that passion and interest. It's just a continuing step in taking back the field of education, throwing down the test preparation materials, and doing what we should have been doing all along, teaching with passion and interest, teaching students to really learn about the world instead of teaching them to fill in bubbles on a test sheet.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Choose Your Own Adventure Books: Practical Classroom Resources

If you're anywhere near my age (I'm in my mid-to-late 20's), then you probably remember the Choose Your Own Adventure series of books that started gaining in popularity in the early 1990's. This series has sold over 250 million copies, so that means there's a ton of these things floating around. I've found some at used book stores here in town, in bulk on Ebay, and have had some donated to me by people around the community.

Now, the Choose Your Own Adventure books aren't really what you want to do a classroom read aloud, although it might be neat to throw one in at some point just to see how it goes. I've done that, but that's not really the point here, I wanted to briefly discuss how these books are practical in the classroom.

First of all, most kids, even today's more tech savvy kids, seem to enjoy these little blasts from the past. They're usually quick reads, they can last anywhere from 5 minutes to 20 minutes depending on the speed and interest of the reader. I have about 25 of them sitting on my classroom bookshelf, with the understanding that kids can check them out for enjoyment, but won't be able to do a book report or score points on them. I still had these books checked out over 100 times this past year, which is pretty good among 21 students.

I did use CYOA books a few times in instruction. What I did was, I had students partner up, I gave them a copy, and told them to take turns reading orally. They had to make decisions together, and try to get to the best scenario ending of their story, or the worst scenario, their choice. The lesson went over really well, and was especially a hit with struggling readers, who felt a sense of accomplishment in finishing a book in one sitting.

If you run across these books on the cheap, they're definitely a good addition to your classroom library if you teach anything from 3rd grade right on up through probably 7th or 8th grade (after that, students will probably begin to lose interest). They're fun, they're quick, and there's 250 million of them out there.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Persespolis: A Graphic Novel Review

Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, is one of the great graphic novels of recent years. I was drawn to it after reading Art Spiegelman's Maus, the biography of his father's experiences as a Jewish Holocaust survivor. When I picked up Persepolis, I was first captivated by the simple yet effective graphics in the book itself, as well as the topic. This series, originally published in two parts, but now available as one book, is the autobiography of Satrapi, growing up in the Islamic Republic of Iran in the '70s and '80s, and living in Europe to escape the tyranny of the extremist government.

The story itself chronicles the downward spiral of hope for Iranian citizens at this time as the fundamentalist government came into power and persecuted them. This book is a clear representation of what happens when religion is allowed to rule theocratically, and isn't just a political statement, but a personal account of what DID happen, not what CAN happen.

As far as its relevance in the classroom, this book could consider adults its main audience. BUT, I do see relevance in the high school literature/composition classroom, but nothing with student much younger than 16 or 17 years old. The book does openly talk about executions, sex, and the personal journey of a teenager. Now, I'm not one for censorship, so I personally think it's great that this book touches on these things, and think it's appropriate for the 16 and up age set, because these are issues that are alive in their minds, and the political issues are things they need to know about.

Now, I'm going to step away from the book to end this and make a personal statement of opinion. As I said in the previous paragraph, I do have major issues with censorship. I don't think it should be up to the moral majority to decide what is censored. It should be up to parents to decide what is appropriate for their children, not ALL children. Also, teachers need to be aware of age appropriateness, and not just pull a book off the shelf and have the class start reading it without either reading it or researching it themselves.

By the age of 16, students should be exposed to more of the realities of the world. If we expect teenagers to be able to vote at the age of 18, they need to understand the intricacies of the world, and the difference that exist out there. I have met some narrow minded people in my life, and most of them are sticklers on the issue of censorship (they're all for it, and seek to censor those around them). We don't live in 1925, we can't think locally, and about only ourselves anymore in this world. Persepolis is a great book, because it puts a real human face on the citizens of Iran, who have been persecuted for a long time, and demonized in the eyes of many Americans.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Why I've Decided That the DRA Just Isn't Good

Maybe the title of this post could have been differently worded, but it's not. I think that the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA), compared to other diagnostics, is decent (not worth something like $250 per kit), but is ultimately just another stupid diagnostic. Why have I come to this decision? It's rather simple actually.

I like to read. Reading is great, there is nothing better than a good book. I don't really care if it's a popular book, a bargain bin book, a book for kids, whatever, it's all good. Some I'll hate, but most are at least somewhat enjoyable.

Now, what the DRA is all about is this little books that are at reading levels. You have this box full of these 16 page books for students to read and respond to. The DRA instructions basically say that for the teacher to fully understand the results, that they should have read the book as well.

16 pages don't sound like much, but trust me, it's beyond brutal. I've always maintained more than a touch of selective ADD, when stuff doesn't interest me, I just shut down. I can't read these DRA books, it's impossible. I honestly don't know how my students get through them. They're poorly written, there's little to no attention to actual, you know, story telling.

So when your school district adopts the DRA, and hands you your first kit, try to read those books. You are truly a champion if you can pull it off, because they're not good. It goes against everything I believe about literacy instruction, basically, that it should be interesting to read. Think about it.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The City of Ember: A Good Book For School?

As far as children's literature goes, I'm learning quite a bit, and am pretty well read. I had heard of The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau, but had never picked up a copy. A few weeks ago, I took my kids to see Kung Fu Panda, and saw a preview for the movie adaptation, and got all jazzed up and decided to read it and stick it on the book shelf for my students.

Sooooo, I thought The City of Ember was really good, I was pleasantly surprised. This book wasn't as well written as, say, The Giver by Lois Lowry, but followed a similar path. It's a dystopia themed future, with mystery shrouding this isolated group of people. And it's all up to kids to save the day. So yeah, I obviously compared it a lot to The Giver. I also found myself drawing comparisons to Zion, the underground city in The Matrix series.

I don't want to go into too much detail here and give the book away, but for a book that carries a reading level of 5.3 (5th grade, 3rd month), I have to say that I pretty much agree. I do want to read this book with my class (which I won't even meet until August 11th), and I want to read it before the movie opens on October 10th.

If you want to know a little more, then I'll go into a little more depth for you. This book doesn't have any bad language at all in it. The characters are very well written, so there's a lot of possibilities there. The letter that is hidden in the capsule, which is fragmented, could make for an interesting ongoing lesson you could do with your students as you read the book. The political corruption in the book will surely play a role in my classroom discussions as we tie in text to world schema (yeah, buzz words!). I also enjoy how the DuPrau doesn't explain the history and why they're living in this dark city, she lets the story explain the past. This book stands in contrast to many others, and would make for a good literature study in how the plot unfolds and the background is presented throughout the text itself.

That's just some thoughts. I do think this is a good book, I will be reading it to my class. I was also so pleased with the book that I'll be reading the other two in the series.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Enjoy That Summer, YOU Earned It (So Did I)

A lot of my summer posts have taken on a bit of summer flair. Instead of getting down to business, I've been keeping things pretty level and on the surface as far as issues in the field of literacy goes as well as literature reviews themselves. That will be changing soon, because I finally have felt rejuvenated enough to start reading again. I should have a few new reviews very soon.

But you know, it's ok to "veg out" during the summer months if you're a teacher, don't feel guilty about it. Don't pay attention to those people around you working long hours during the dog days of summer, you earned your vacation, now enjoy it.

I know that a lot of times, I'll go to get together with some family, or friends, or friends of family (which sometimes isn't as fun as it sounds) here in the area that I live, and a lot of times, the conversation goes something like this:

ME: So, how's life?

OTHER PERSON: Oh, you know, just working 60 hours a week. I got caught in a traffic jam yesterday and didn't get home until 8:00. My boss made me work on Saturday, and I need to go to the doctor because of stress, you?

ME: Well I've been on vacation since late May, so I've just been hanging out.

OTHER PERSON: That's really nice (at this point, other person is hiding secret contempt for me, and the conversation is ruined).

So yeah, I get it why a lot of people loathe teachers for the vacations we get. Yes, I do get it, but that doesn't mean we don't deserve it. Our job is more difficult than almost any other job you can imagine, and our job is nearly impossible to do year around without a break in the middle, it's too hard on us and the students. So the next time other person starts problems with you, just remember that your job is harder than theirs, then go home, set up the Slip 'N Slide, and break your arm!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Time To Put the Dinosaurs To Rest

I remember getting in trouble a few times in high school because I was simply bored. My dad was a teacher at the high school, so sometimes he'd let me take some of those daily attendance pads. Well, I'd sit in the back of my boring social studies or literature class and turn the pad into a stick man animation. I'll tell you, it was the best of times. I'd draw epic cartoons on the corners of those pads and pass them around the classroom for everyone to see. I never told my dad this, but I would sometimes sell those for a few bucks so I could tell the teacher I was going to the restroom and go buy a coke at one of the coke machines on campus.

The point here is, school can really suck. Most of my memories of school aren't necessarily positive ones. I have many extended memories of being bored and disconnected in the classroom, where teachers knew nothing more than showing films and doing the textbooks chapter by chapter. Even when we would go beyond the textbook, nine times out of ten, it would be to do a project that was tedious and ultimately lame.

I graduated high school in 1999. That doesn't sound like a long time does it? Well let me tell you, it's an eternity. The year I graduated high school, iPods hadn't been invented yet, the internet was still 99% dial up connections, and cell phones were just beginning to enter wide use. Internet 2.0 hadn't really started up yet, because blogging wasn't mainstream, Google didn't exist, and internet video was still a pipe dream.

I will have my 10 year class reunion next year. Still doesn't sound like a very long time does it? Well, if you were teaching then, and are still teaching now, if you're still doing the same things, your students are as bored as I was to the tenth power. It's true. I grew up playing Nintendo (yes, THE Nintendo). I grew up with a DOS computer (pre-Windows), got the internet when I was in 8th grade, got a satellite dish in the house when I was in 8th grade, and used a cell phone for the first time when I was in 8th grade. I remember when the internet first hit, it's a strong memory of mine.

Students today take these things for granted. They don't really know what Nintendo was, they live in a world of instant information, photo realistic gaming, cell phones for the masses, and computers that are small enough to fit in your ear. It's time to change, that's for sure.

What does this have to do with literacy? EVERYTHING. Watch this video and decide if you are an effective teacher.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Doing A Disservice To the Profession: Put Down Those Textbooks

What is the most important subject in a student's elementary education (and no, I'm not talking about their ability to test)? What I mean is, which single subject is most important to that child's development as a lifelong learner, with the ultimate goal of them graduating high school and either landing a nice job or going off to college?

Different schools of though obviously exist, but there seem to be two sides primarily to this. On one side, we have the math/science, and on the other, liberal arts (social studies mostly)/literacy (reading/writing). Now, I know that these subjects can all be seamlessly interwoven by the master teacher, but I'm obviously not quite there yet, so I do see these two sides of the coin.

From what I have seen, I have to believe that literacy is primary at an early age. Yes, math is important, but without those reading and writing skills, students will struggle all around, with math too. The weak math student can be a good reader, heck, that basically sums me up, I've learned the math that I need to know (which is increasing now that I'm pushing myself into the upper realms of my own education), but it never came naturally to me.

So there's my side of things, which in part explains why this blog exists. I work in a department (grade level) that has four teachers. I teach one of the general ed classrooms, along with two other teachers, and we also have a bilingual teacher that has a dual language classroom. My general education counterparts are both very new to the elementary classroom, one just completed their first year of teaching, and the other their first year at the elementary level.

It was very encouraging, what I saw from the new teacher. This person underwent a similar undergraduate education that I did, although at a different university. This person understands student choice, critical thinking through authentic literacy, and the importance of teacher read aloud, student read aloud, and silent reading all taken together.

The other teacher, the one with prior experience, but none at elementary, showcases a problem to me. This teacher went to college around 15 years ago, and teaches basically from textbooks all day every day. In fact, I gave this teacher each and every one of my reading textbooks, because I stay as far away as I possibly can from them. Textbooks symbolize a crutch to me in many ways. The material is there, just follow it, and you'll be fine.

That may largely be true, but are you truly doing your students justice by following a basal series? It was quite obvious that in the case of this teacher, no. Not only did various diagnostic data show much slower growth from that class as compared to mine, it was severely low in comparison, and I had the group of 'lower' readers.

I think I could go on for hours here, because I'm very passionate about what I do and have spoken out against the practices of my colleague and others who also teach this way. It's cheapening to the profession, if we wanted everyone to teach from textbooks, we could just hire some schmo from off the street and tell them to follow the script. I'm going to stop now, and just be happy that I got this out there.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

What Accelerated Reader Had Right

Reading programs are being used all across the country. My school district currently is using three programs (yeah, that's it right, only three?), the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA), which is more of a diagnostic, Guided Reading, which is the foundational model of our reading program, and some schools use Accelerated Reader (AR), a student driven read/test/reward computer based program that I have used in my school. The decision to use AR was up to individual schools, and those schools used either Title I money or other money to purchase the software and set up the school library.

AR does take a lot of work at the onset if you want to do it right. Our school library had to be set up around AR, so all the books in the library were labeled with the grade level, which reads showing the grade level, a decimal point, and then the month in that grade level the book would be considered "most appropriate." (example: 5.4 means 5th grade 4th month)

Students take books, read them, then get on the computer and take the test for that book, and get points. They then use the points to get prizes. Of course, that end of it is more teacher driven, the teacher would have to fill out the prize request and give it to the Title I lab in the building, at least in my building.

So to make a long story short, my school is finally doing away with AR, and as I explained in yesterday's post, this has caused me to invent my own student choice reading program, which is a good step. AR had some things right, but there's always room for improvement.

I have always had my students take the AR test, do reading journals (not daily, I have them do at minimum 2 for every 100 pages read), and a book report. This year, I'm going to push that more, and include technology (more on that later this summer).

For now, I just want to focus on what AR had right. I like the book levels that AR utilized. Students had a basic understanding of a book, either if it was going to be too easy or too difficult before sitting down with it. I will be using AR book leveling in my new made up program.

I also like the reward component of AR. Yes, students SHOULD read for fun, and should enjoy the process. I have found that in starting my own classroom library that more students are enjoying reading, and have found that to be a reward in itself. There is good in having them set goals and get rewarded when they meet them. This gives room for students who normally wouldn't read to take part, and for those awesome readers to get some validation, so I will be using a reward component as well.

Finally, AR encouraged students to read a wide variety of books across a wide variety of levels. I will encourage this also. AR is a good program that is still out there. If you have the time and the support of your entire building, I'd go for it, if not, there are pieces of it that you can use on your own.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Starting A Reading Program From Scratch

I just recently finished cataloging my classroom library, a job that took longer than it should have because I'm a little lazier here on my summer vacation. My school, in the past, has used Accelerated Reader to help keep kids motivated about reading. I enjoyed using AR, and my students were motivated by it. I don't necessarily focus on the quantity of books read, but at the end of the year, when some students saw that they had read 30 or even 40 books during the school year, it was a big moment.

Well, my school won't be using AR this year, so it's up to me to come up with my own program. I don't want to start throwing fragments out now, so I'm going to wait until I have it pieced together, then I'll share it here in this blog for others who want to borrow pieces of it or the entire thing. Of course, I'll also give the websites of places I borrowed ideas from as well.

For now, I am going to provide my classroom library list for anyone who wants to see it. I typed the books into a spreadsheet document, with fields for title, author name, book reading level (an AR level of grade level and grade month), my grade for that book (which will be a part of my program, which I will explain when I'm done), if it's won awards, and finally, any special topics or things to remember about that book.

If you want to see that list, you can view that document in Google (no Microsoft Excel needed) by following this link: TheBuss Classroom Library.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Taking A Break From the Game

My lack of posts lately has coincided directly with the beginning of summer vacation. That's right, 12 straight weeks of no work and no grad school, and it's a nice break, I personally just got back from Southern California with my family, and now we're just trying to get the house clean so we can rest and feel relaxed.

In any case, what I've been going through, the early recovery stages of summer, is common among most teachers. The school year is so long and hard, that the first two or three weeks of summer are just spent gathering yourself, then the rest of summer can be fully enjoyed. I'm just now getting to the 'fully enjoyed' stages of summer vacation.

I do plan on keeping on top of this blog all summer, but I know that the depth may not be there to an extent that it would be in, say, October, when I'm in the middle of the school year, my research, and my own studies. This weekend, I'm going to be looking through boxes of books I brought home to catalog, so some of my posts will be related to that.