Excellent Debut Fiction about Detroit

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

american streetWhat’s more fun than reading a book set in a place with which you are intimately familiar? To read about restaurants, buildings, and even street names that you know personally is a small thrill.

Reading a book set in Detroit, my closest “big city,” adds an additional layer of excitement. I’ve lived within half an hour of Detroit for my entire life. I attended graduate school there, and I visit frequently. I have a certain amount of suburban pride for all that the city has to offer–despite never having lived within city limits.

I recently read a fantastic debut YA novel called American Street, which is about a Haitian immigrant who settles in Detroit. It offered recognizable street names and locations that connect me to the city, while showcasing the realities of a daily life that I have never actually experienced.

The Plot

Fabiola and her mother have been planning to leave Haiti for years. But when they finally make the trip, her mother is detained at the U.S. border.

Fabiola is forced to navigate her way to Detroit, and to live with family she has only known over the phone. Her aunt is mysterious and often ill, disappearing into her room for days at a time. Her cousins are legendary. Known around their school as the 3Bs, they strike fear into the hearts of anyone who crosses them.

Fabiola feels most at home with this side of her family, but she also fails to understand the complicated world in which they live. She wants to stay in the U.S. But she also misses Haiti and her mother, about whom no one else seems to share her concern. She’s living at the crossroads of Joy Road and American Street, and she has reached the crossroads in her life as well. Where does she belong?

Why It’s Worth Reading

Fabiola is a sympathetic character, and it’s so easy to relate to her consistent inner conflict. She wants to connect with her family and make new friends, but she can’t help but feel like she’s on the outside, looking in. As a reader, one’s own circumstances may be different, but everyone certainly knows the feeling of being pulled between two strong forces.

Plus, Fabiola opens up the city of Detroit in an entirely new way. She sees it through the eyes of strangers, navigating places familiar to me, but foreign to her. Her perspective of the city is fascinating. While she recognizes that it has many flaws, she draws direct comparisons to her hometown of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, an area which has also seen some struggles and setbacks. Author Ibi Zoboi, through Fabiola, is able to assess the community very matter-of-factly, without melodramatic judgment or the overwhelming historical perspective (a fall from greatness, or rejuvenation after that fall) that is often represented in books about Detroit.

And I have not even mentioned the incredible writing! The language is poetic. Hints of magical realism in the plot evoke a mystical mood. And tons of beautiful metaphors, most particularly with the street intersection of American and Joy, make it clear that this book is something special.

Book Details:
Title: American Street
Author: Ibi Zoboi
ISBN: 9780062473042
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Publication Date: February 14, 2017
Awards and Accolades: five starred reviews before release!
Source: Advanced Reader’s Copy (full disclosure: I received a free galley in exchange for my honest opinion)

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.

When to Pull Back Writing Support

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_426591961James was spread out on one of the counters, with all his papers and materials circling his laptop. He smiled as I approached.

“So I heard you are starting over,” I said.

“Yeah. I found stronger evidence for this prompt,” James said. (The student’s name has been changed for the sake of this post.)

“That’s really thoughtful of you. Great writing move!”

We talked through his planning ideas and how he was going to use his evidence, and he shared with me some specific examples of how in his bioethics essay he would defend the use of GMOs.

After we were ready to wrap up our conference, I remarked, “You know, I don’t think you really are going to need our support much this semester.”

Moving Beyond Support

As an MTSS interventionist, it can be challenging to know when a writer is ready to move past support. This year, I was hired by my district to coordinate academic interventions for students whose data reveal that they have a skills deficit. In particular, I work closely with Tier Two and Tier Three students to develop content literacy skills. I began working with James a month into the school year, coordinating support in his U.S. History class, then his Biology class.

With James, I observed his growing independence when he showed me that he was thinking carefully about his writing. When writers are given opportunity to talk about their writing, it allows for us to assess what they need most to move forward. And since I only see my students periodically for support in and out of their classes, it’s these conversations that drive everything I do to support a developing writer.

So what do I look for most in a writer when I am deciding to pull back support? Intentional thought and active engagement. Does it mean that students won’t need an occasional conference to lead them to clearer drafts or prompt them to consider new ideas? Absolutely not. But when writers can explain their process, explain their thinking, and explain why their choices matter, it’s time to let go. The best writing lessons are born out of risk, and students won’t take those risks if they are waiting for our stamp of approval.

Letting go can be scary, but it need not be abrupt. Building an instructional practice around dialogue allows for gradual reduction of support. Conversation is vital because it helps teachers to identify what kind of support an underperforming writer still needs. Moreover, conversation sniffs out a mismatch between perception and skill, leading the way to targeted feedback and more.

Intentional Positioning

When I told him he didn’t need me, James looked surprised.

“Really?”

A big smile stretched across his face, followed by his quickly agreeing. James knew he was ready too, but he needed an affirmation.

Years ago when I first began working with resistant and underperforming writers, I came across a theory on positioning. Positioning theory supports the idea that social interactions create identities, and these identities are fluid. As a result, educators have the power to reposition a student’s identity in negative or positive ways.

When I sat down with James to conference about his biology paper, I saw how his posture changed the moment I remarked that he wouldn’t be needing my support much longer. Our conversation revealed to James that there was a mismatch between how he felt as a writer and his actual skill level. Changing a student’s perception about himself alone can raise achievement in an underperforming student, and intentional positioning is the final and arguably most important phase of the intervention process. Students have to accept the good we see in them.

The final proof that James was ready to move beyond my support occurred when James’ English teacher told me how she watched him independently and proficiently compose a response to Fahrenheit 451. When I told James that his teacher had positive feedback on his writing, he proceeded to tell me his thoughts on Fahrenheit 451, his assigned novel for English 9. We had a brief but rich conversation about Montag’s dysfunctional relationship with his wife, and just how timely the classic dystopian novel is for 2017. Here, giving his voice value positioned James to fully take on the behaviors of a strong reader and writer.

Without prompting, James was independently making meaning and composing on his own. He knew enough to quit an essay that didn’t yield compelling evidence. His genuine responses about a complex text reflected his growth and development as a reader and writer.

And our conversation made clear that it was time for me to let go. So I did.

laurenLauren Nizol (@CoachNizol) is an MTSS Student Support Coach and Interventionist at Novi High School. She has eleven years of classroom experience, teaching English, IB Theory of Knowledge and English Lab. Lauren completed her undergraduate degree in History, English and Secondary Education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and her Masters from Eastern Michigan University in English Education. She is a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant with the Eastern Michigan Writing Project and an advocate for underperforming students and literacy interventions.  

Historical Fiction—Hot off the Press

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

51UN6ZK2TYL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_-1I love historical fiction. Strangely, the reason I seem to love it most is that I find it humbling in two ways.

First, the characters of historical fiction are almost always experiencing horrendous events or struggling against impossible odds that I have never had to face. Second, though I consider myself to be reasonably well versed in U.S. and world history, historical fiction routinely smacks me in the face with some historical event, time period, or consequence that I somehow completely missed. How, before I read Orphan Traindid I never know about the organized movement of thousands of young children into middle America during the Great Depression?

And how was I naively unaware of the largest maritime disaster in history before I read Ruta Sepetys’ new novel, Salt to the Sea?

The Plot

This brand-new piece of historical fiction follows four narrators during World War II: three teenage Prussian (now the area containing countries like Latvia and Lithuania) refugees and one young German sailor. Each carries a troubling secret that he or she has never told anyone. The three refugees meet on the road, each coming from a very different background and set of circumstances. They are all headed for the Baltic Sea, hoping to escape an encroaching Russian army by boarding a German ship headed toward relative safety. Unfortunately, it seems that safety does not always come as advertised.

Why It’s Worth Reading

There is so much to this book and its characters that make it fascinating and exciting. But it is also a well-researched fictional account of what may have occurred leading up to and during the worst maritime disaster in history. We’re talking about nearly six times as many deaths as the Titanic, and yet I had never before heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff or its epic demise.

I initially picked up this book because I am a huge fan of the author, Michigan native Ruta Sepetys, and her works Between Shades of Grey and Out of the Easy. This book did not disappoint. I was immediately captured by the fascinating and mysterious cast of characters: a talented art restorationist mixed up in the Nazi art-thievery plot; a nurse-in-training who is compelled to step in as local doctor wherever she goes; a naive and self-important German boy, bound and determined to serve the Reich in any way that will garner praise. How can one not be drawn in by these varied tales that come together so seamlessly?

The fast, short chapters, which each character tells in succession, added a sense of suspense and action that really kept me turning pages as well. I regularly hear from history teachers that they are always on the lookout for World War II novels that aren’t necessarily focused on the Holocaust, and this one is sure to be a hit, particularly because of its high-interest content but relatively low reading level. It’s a great classroom-connection novel and a fantastic find for historical fiction lovers everywhere!

Book Details

Reading Levels: AR = unknown , Lexile = HL560L
ISBN: 9780399160301
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Philomel Books
Publication Date: February 2, 2016
Awards: None yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it received some eventually. It’s only been out for 3 weeks and it’s already got 4 starred reviews!
Source: NetGalley (I received an advanced copy in exchange for my honest review.)

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and is the recent recipient of the 2015 School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.

The Great Graphic Novel Project

Notes from the Classroom Research & Theory

51D+o50FXIL._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_The Great Graphic Novel Experiment is in full swing in my classroom. In fact, it has become the focal point of my passions this year. I’ve been so vocal about it that my wife and kids actually bought me a couple graphic novels for my birthday. I’m “all in,” as Matt Damon says in the film Rounders.

But since we aren’t sitting across from each other at a poker table, I want you to be all in too. So today I’d like to offer you some pleasure reading—and some (less-pleasurable, I’d imagine) research reading—so that you can share a graphic-novel reading experience with your students, too.

More Than Heroes

The first step toward embracing graphic novels is to recognize that they have been broadly misrepresented in pop culture. Even my own previous article featured a superhero image to accompany it.

Most of the best graphic novels, though, are not about superheroes. While my students have been busy reading the selections I brought in from home, I’ve been busy racing through every graphic novel my media center owns, in order to find more titles to add to the list. I haven’t come across a superhero yet, but I have come across an incredibly beautiful story about high school relationships and the difficulties of family life (Blankets), a modern account of life in Iran (Zahra’s Paradise), and even a touching story about how young people deal with the horrifying transition to adulthood (This One Summer).

nimonaI could go on, but I think the broader point is more important: these are stories that will speak to any reader. I passed along two of the aforementioned titles to other people in my department, who sent back rave reviews—and then sent along new titles of their own! Nimona, a work of fantasy, and the graphic novelization of Mrs. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children are now in my queue.

Imagine that, visual storytelling that appeals even to adults! I’ve found that to win people over to graphic novels, one needs to break them from the idea that graphic novels are inherently sophomoric—great until perhaps 9th grade, but then, really, not on par with “real” reading.

Aside from my low-level readers’ growing list of completed books, the most rewarding part of this experience has involved meaningful book talks with fellow teachers and other adults. You might be startled (as I was) to see how many graphic novels are authored by writers who have also penned more traditional works, from novels to screenplays (Neil Gaiman, anyone?).

The Cold Hard Facts

But, of course, if I’m going to ask you to dedicate your class’s attention to such an endeavor, I need more than an impassioned appeal. Lucky for me, the emerging field of research about graphic novels is robust. Besides being high in interest, most graphic novels also offer tangible benefits, especially for students still building their reading skills.

Meryl Jaffe, an instructor at Johns Hopkins University, claims that such novels are excellent for weak readers because they provide “concise text,” paired with images that help readers “decode and comprehend the text.” For a high school student who still reads at a 4th grade level, scaffolding that sort of success, while also providing a pleasurable reading experience, is something like discovering a mythological beast suddenly rendered into flesh!

UBB-MarathonbyBoazYakinAnd what’s more, other research hints that such visual reading may also maximize a reader’s ability to retain information. That might not seem like a key merit for pleasure reading. But consider how many graphic novels have been written about historical events and culturally relevant topics: Marathon, about the Greek tale of that famous run; Templar, about what became of that famous secret society; and Americus, about censorship in literature. They’re all fiction, but still dense with contextual facts that the research suggests students will retain.

It’s doubtful these texts will replace traditional instruction. But how enriching this is—for struggling students to discover that they are suddenly and significantly more informed about a real-world topic.

Some Resources

I’m hopeful that I’ve made the case for graphic novels as a new part of your recommendation list. If choice is your concern, recognize that there are dozens of resources out there to help you find what’s best for your kids. I’ve listed a few sites below that I found to have interesting selections, as well as additional resources that address the benefits of visual reading. Or email me! I’m happy to help you find a selection.

The resources:

Michael Ziegler

Michael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

Book Review: Notice & Note

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

51rafqDiIDL._SX396_BO1,204,203,200_Over the summer, I learned I would be teaching a class of struggling 6th grade readers. They would have me for regular ELA, but they would also travel together to a reading support class right after mine. I did not have experience teaching a class solely of struggling learners, so I reached out to a colleague on the west side of the state, Megan Perrault (@megankperreault), and asked her for recommendations about how I might approach this challenge.  

Megan is an amazing reading teacher, and she recommended Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst’s Notice & Note: Strategies of Close Reading. This book had been on my “to read” list and was quickly moved up in the queue based on Megan’s recommendation.

Notice & Note initially impressed me with the thoroughness with which Beers and Probst researched and tracked common elements within young adult novels. I also appreciated how they piloted and revised their work based on the experiences of real teachers in real classrooms.  

The premise of Notice & Note is this: the majority of YA novels have six common elements, which Beers and Probst call “signposts.” If students can notice and think about why these signposts are showing up, they are doing the work of close reading and are understanding the text better. Each signpost has one question that readers can ask themselves, to help them think deeply about why that particular signpost is showing up. This really helps to focus students’ thinking.  

The Signposts

In a nutshell, the signposts are as follows:

  • Contrasts & Contradictions—When the character does something out of character
  • Words of the Wiser—When an older, wiser character gives serious advice
  • Again & Again—Something that keeps showing up
  • Aha Moment—When the character suddenly realizes something
  • Memory Moment—When the story is interrupted to tell the reader a memory
  • Tough Questions—When the character asks himself/herself really difficult questions

I was originally planning to only introduce the signposts to my 6th grade class, but once I saw the power they held, I also began using them with my 8th grade readers. Both grade levels are engaged with the signposts and are thinking deeply about the texts they are reading. Maybe the best testament to the power of noticing the signposts is when students get that look of discovery on their face and call me over because they have noticed a signpost on their own.

Anchor chart for the signpost, Words of the Wiser

Anchor chart for the signpost, Words of the Wiser

After I had read Notice & Note, Megan and I were at professional development together, and she mentioned the Notice & Note Facebook group. Now, if you know me, you know I’m all about Twitter when it comes to anything related to teaching.

But this Facebook community is amazing! The group has a very active 8,600+ members, and I navigate the page often. As someone who is teaching the signposts for the first time, the resources on this page have been invaluable. Members have shared tons of files and their experiences with the signposts. And for each signpost, I have found either a picture book or video clip to help introduce the concept. These have been a big hit with students and have helped them understand the concepts prior to working with them in their novels.

Just this past fall, Beers and Probst published Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies. Stay tuned for a review!

Screenshot 2014-09-26 at 12.44.07 PMJianna Taylor (@JiannaTaylor) is an ELA and Title 1 teacher at Orchard Lake Middle School in West Bloomfield.  She is a member of the AVID Site Team and Continuous School Improvement Team at her school, among other things.  She is also a MiELA Network Summer Institute facilitator and member of the OWP Core Leadership Team.  Jianna earned her bachelor’s degree from Oakland University and her master’s degree from the University of Michigan.  She also writes reviews of children’s books and young adult novels for the magazine Library Media Connection.

Making Reading Interventions Relevant

AARI Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_163383446As a teacher who works with struggling readers, my favorite time of year is the end of the semester. It’s then that I assess students’ progress. When I give them their results, some can’t believe it. Some want to call their parents to share the good news. And some even cry. They all beam with pride.

What’s not to love?

The time of year that is a close second, though, is the just-past-halfway-point. Yes, I know that this is when students and teachers tend to count down toward the next break, with nothing but survival on their minds. But in the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Initiative, or AARI, things are starting to get exciting.

AARI is a program that quickly brings struggling students up to grade level, using a variety of research-supported techniques. During the first few weeks of AARI, we learn a lot about an author’s purpose. We also learn how authors achieve their purposes through the organization of their texts. We focus heavily on text structures and “mapping” a text’s organization, which shows the relationships between facts and information.

It’s at this point in the year, this just-past-halfway-point, when my students start to recognize text structures in their books—on their own. I love this because it shows me that they’re ready for more. They’re ready to start transitioning to grade-level texts.

The Real-World Connection

There are other signs that they’re ready. Sometimes a student will burst into the room at the beginning of the period and exclaim, “You’ll never believe what we’re doing in Chemistry! The teacher gave us a chart, and he didn’t even realize it was a matrix!”

Seeing kids make these connections to their learning is what makes my work so vital. It’s why even as I’m launching the first weeks of the class, my focus is always on my endpoint: helping students use their intervention in relevant, real-world applications.Sequence Word Bank

This real-world focus starts early. Toward the beginning of the semester, we start talking about our text structures in the “real world.” I start this discussion by asking students what clues readers have in other, more difficult texts.

Together, we make anchor charts of “clue” words and phrases that writers use to signal that they are using a particular text structure to organize their thoughts. We post these in the room and add to them as we encounter more. Having these word banks arms students with tools to start recognizing text structures when the texts aren’t so easy.

Starting Small

Once students have these tools in their tool belt, I start introducing higher-level texts. They’re gaining proficiency, but they are still struggling readers, and they’re not ready for the full independence of working with long texts on their own.

So I start to give them a little taste: an appetizer, if you will. To do this and to make the reading relevant to them, I get my texts snippets from their content area textbooks.

I bring these “appetizers” in to class and “serve” them at the beginning of class as our warm-up. To scaffold their reading, I give them a focused purpose. They may have to answer a question about the author’s purpose, or they may have to identify a text structure. It helps them to see that their practice work with the easier texts is helping them to approach the more daunting texts they see in their classes all the time.

Lessons for ELA Classrooms

Finding this balance is crucial not only in intervention classes like AARI, but in all reading. We know our students have some pretty high expectations set by the Common Core State Standards and assessments like the redesigned SAT. Teachers want students to be able to access their texts, but they also know the value of exposing them to more challenging options. To help achieve this balance, I’ve found that these steps are key:

  • Arm students with tools to help them bridge the gap between accessible and challenging texts. Word banks are a great start.
  • Introduce more difficult texts slowly and in small chunks.
  • Gradually build to a combination of high-level, high-skill texts that require more stamina.

MKortlandt2Megan Kortlandt is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches AARI and literacy intervention classes at Waterford Mott High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Additionally, Megan works with Oakland Schools as an instructional coach for AARI. She has presented at various conferences including the Michigan Council for Teachers of English and Michigan Reading Association annual conferences.

Graphic Novels Not Called “Maus”

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_215485291A real conversation, repeated yearly:

“I really wish we could find a way to reach these struggling readers.”

“You know what might work really well? Graphic novels.” (That’s me, in a very hopeful tone.)

“Oh, good idea—we have all those copies of Maus!”

“Well, yeah…” (That’s me again, giving up the gun, so to speak.)

I’ve previously argued that being too tied to the classics alienates a lot of our fledgling readers. But in some ways, the tunnel vision about worthy graphic novels is an extension of that classics-oriented mindset.

Maus is a tragic, intelligent, powerful story told with heart-tugging visuals. Teachers who use it in their classrooms are rightly proud. They are exploring an important fictional work, in a historical context that students should understand deeply. At the same time, they are teaching students about a new genre of literature that most of them otherwise might never be exposed to.

But Maus is also heavy and sort of depressing. It’s a book that demands stone-faced seriousness.

That’s all to say, Maus’s visual nature doesn’t necessarily make it an appealing alternative to a traditional novel.

A Successful Experiment

After years of mumbling about graphic novels at department meetings, I finally decided to put my money where my mouth is. A few weeks ago I brought into class my collection of Flight graphic novels, my copy of Batman: The Long Halloween, and the award-winning Concrete graphic novel.

On the first day, a girl forgot her Kindle at home and asked to borrow the Batman book. “I just need something for today,” she said insistently.

She conveniently forgot her Kindle for the rest of the week and finished the book.

A couple days later, a student in my 6th hour selected the same graphic novel, tore through it in two days (graphic novels are quick reads), and then exchanged it for Concrete, which he took home and finished in a single night. In both cases, I ended up enjoying extensive conversations with the kids about literature. An English teacher’s dream, if ever there was one!

Graphic Novels as Success Stories

The best part of this experiment, though, has been the reaction from my co-departmental class. These are students who collectively read at around a 4th-grade level.

Mark (name changed) was the first student to borrow the Batman novel. Mark is a well-intentioned reader who would spend his entire 15 minutes of independent reading time slogging through perhaps three pages of a traditional novel. He would then chat with me afterward, mostly to check his understanding of the strange scientific concepts that inhabit Michael Crichton’s works.

shutterstock_274167122It was inspiring and tragic to watch him try to tackle a book that matched his interests, but which was simply beating him down in terms of comprehension. I wasn’t about to tell him to quit; he’d come too far for me to do that to him.

Turned out, I didn’t have to. Batman saved him, and suddenly our conversations were two-way streets. He’d confidently tell me about the story elements that he loved, instead of asking whether he had the details right. He has since moved on to his second Flight story collection and chats with me practically every other day about the pleasures in them.

And it’s a good thing he moved on to another graphic novel, because the moment he set down Batman, his friend Daniel (name also changed) picked it up and plowed through it. Daniel had been reading the third book in the A Child Called It series, which seems like too much heavy-handed literature for any reader to take on before graduating high school. But Daniel has embraced the graphic novel format, and it’s gratifying for both of us to experience his actually turning pages when he reads.

Start Simple

My personal collection clearly isn’t going to meet the demand. And so I plan to apply for a grant for graphic novels to add to my classroom collection. But if you’re only curious to try this out, start simple. Besides the titles I mentioned above, there are countless great titles in the genre. Persepolis and American Born Chinese are both fantastic reads featuring minority voices.

More mature readers might even appreciate the political complexities of Alan Moore’s cult-classics Watchmen and V for Vendetta. They pair just as well with Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 as they do with an ice cold Coke and a bag of potato chips. In other words, hand your students some graphic novels and see what it leads them to!

Michael Ziegler

Michael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

Shared Experiences for Struggling Readers

AARI Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_183163214Even if your group of struggling readers is blossoming, it’s important to consider how your community can continue to grow and thrive. That’s especially true for classrooms organized around the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Initiative, or AARI, which brings students quickly to grade level.

Several steps can help build a set of shared experiences, which in turn can enhance your classroom’s community:

Promote a book-club atmosphere. First and foremost, remember that by reading a book together, you have shared an experience together. When you question and ultimately critique the author with your students, you are empowering your students within a book-club community.

Use extension activities to excite students. Challenge students to find YouTube videos that relate to your book’s topic, and that you can watch in the last few minutes of class. Nothing builds community like watching documentary science videos of scary eight-legged creatures if you are reading A Look at Spiders. Just remember not to get carried away, and always bring students back to the text.

Take to the open road with a field trip. Field trips can be expensive, and if you have a small group of students, they may not be realistic. But don’t rule them out! Maybe your district has access to a ropes course. You could head off to a local bookstore. Or maybe you could go to the local retirement community or elementary school, in order to read aloud the books you have gone through. Anything that builds bonds and positions students for success can be beneficial.

Institute a game day. Sometimes being silly together is just the experience needed to solidify a community. Here are some of my favorite board games to play with students. And remember to actually play with your students!

shutterstock_184237007Break bread together. One Friday a month, my classes would have what came to be known as “Food Fridays.” It usually started with my bringing in some snacks (think Costco/Sam’s Club granola bars or crackers). Some years, it took on a life of its own. Students would initiate elaborate sign-up sheets, and they would bake brownies and frost cupcakes. Other years, the kids were just happy to have a little something to eat while we worked.

Consider sports. Maybe instead of food, bond over sports. One year, we had a monthly “Fun Friday,” in which I would take students to the auxiliary gym for the last 20 minutes of class, and we would shoot hoops.

Check out some community-building websites. There are a bunch listed on the AARI Moodle. But if you don’t think the activity is fun, don’t do it! Building community is about building authentic relationships with students—so if you aren’t willing to participate, pick something else.

Repeat and revisit fun times together. Try returning to favorite activities or games throughout the year. This maintains your bonds and steps away from the hard academic work you will be accomplishing together.

You, the teacher, are the reason a community is created! Don’t forget this. Know that it takes work to maintain a community. Know that you have to become a part of that community. Some days you might plan to do an activity unrelated to AARI; other days, your community building will be embedded in your questions or text mapping.

Regardless, community building is not something to do only once in the fall, only to check it off a to-do list. It is an ongoing, ever-evolving process that needs adequate attention in your daily lesson planning throughout the year.

 

Caroline Thompson

Caroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for 12 years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She lives in Berkley with her husband and their 2 year old daughter.

Instructional Strategies & Protocols…a means to an end, not an end to themselves!

Consultants' Corner

I have a son in high school who is, by all measures, a skilled reader and a dedicated student.   When he reads for school, much to his chagrin, I tend to bug him by asking him lots of annoying questions. I do this in part because I am a concerned parent who wants to stay in touch with my son’s education. However, I also do it because I’m a literacy researcher at heart and I want to see what and how he is thinking when engaged in school-related reading.

student testingIn the course of my meddlesome investigations, I noticed an interesting pattern across his assigned reading of three different novels. For all of his novel reading, he was expected to use the FIDDS protocol, in which he was directed to analyze Figurative language, Imagery, Diction, Details, and Syntax. This protocol (often used in AP English and IB ELA classes) is intended to help students focus on elements an author uses to develop tone or express style. Students are then supposed to consider how style or tone contributes to the larger themes, purposes, or meanings of the text. In my son’s case however (and likely for many other students), the use of the protocol became the end for him, and not the means through which he understood the text.

As I understand the task he was assigned, he was expected to identify a minimum number of FIDDS examples and connect them to identified themes of the books in the process of a writing a literary analysis. For example, for one book he looked for examples of imagery and figurative language used by the author to develop the idea that love can both heal and hurt.   With this task laid out before him, his reading then focused on finding and explaining the examples… he wasn’t really engaged with the larger narrative of the novel or the human problem it was exploring, nor was he focused on developing a cohesive analysis of the book’s theme. When I asked about the larger conflict of the novel and why this novel was worth reading, he replied that his assignment didn’t require him to think about that; he just had “to find these examples and write a short paragraph about each one.” The benefit to this was that he learned about literary devices and had the opportunity to consider them in use. The drawback was that he lost an opportunity to consider the larger value of the book as he read; he wasn’t reading with important questions in mind, just the task.  In fact, once he identified a sufficient number of examples and satisfied the requirements of the protocol as assigned, he felt that this part of his work was done, and he no longer seemed to actively consider how the theme continued to be developed by the author.  Reviewing his work and the book, I found quotes and sections that would have better served his analysis, but he felt that he didn’t need to use them because he already had examples for those particular FIDDS elements.  He explained to me again, patiently but on the verge of annoyance, that he was completing the FIDDS task as directed, and that what I was asking for (a thematic analysis of the book supported by multiple examples) was not what he was supposed to do.  I’m quite certain, however, that the goal of using FIDDS is to develop effective literary analyses, but in this case, finding examples of FIDDS had become the goal itself.

Teacher Helping Male Pupil Studying At Desk In ClassroomWe educators love our strategies, routines, and protocols though, especially with respect to reading. Indeed, much of the professional learning that I do with teachers involves, to varying degrees, strategies and routines. So my purpose here is not to say that protocols or strategies are inherently problematic, but rather I want to argue that we run the risk of minimizing the value of strategies if we use them in isolation, overuse them, use them when they don’t really fit, or use them without processing or connecting them to larger themes/concepts.

The challenge of effectively using learning strategies for reading isn’t just a problem in ELA classrooms either. I’ve seen similar issues in many social studies classes. Reading protocols like APPARTS and SOAPSTone present the same problems. APPARTS stands for: Author, Place and time, Prior Knowledge, Audience, Reason, The main idea, and Significance; it is meant to be used when students analyze primary documents. SOAPSTone is similar and asks students to identify, for any document they read, the Speaker, the Occasion, the Audience, the Purpose, the Subject, and the Tone. These approaches stem from the idea that historians question the contexts and sources of documents as a part of their disciplinary practices. What sometimes gets left out for students, however, is WHY historians approach reading this way.  Historians consider these textual elements as they gather and analyze evidence from documents in the process of trying to resolve an historical problem. For historians, the source and context of a document shape its larger meaning and value as evidence. Absent a good driving, historical question to focus these approaches, such protocols become decontextualized lists of steps for students to complete. This is particularly true when students are asked to use such a routine for every single document they read. When the use of the protocol or strategy becomes the outcome, students miss out on the important process of considering why to use such a tool in the first place. In other words, if students are asked to use these routines but are never engaged in thinking about how this information (source, context, etc.) actually matters in an historical investigation, the work becomes just another  routine task.

I want to clearly state that I’m not criticizing my son’s teacher, or any teacher, for using these kinds of tools.  I use them myself when I teach.  Rather, I want us to honestly reflect on how we currently use such strategies and then  talk about how we can use them more effectively! The following questions are constantly on my mind now as I think about this problem:

  • How helpful are some of the strategies or protocols that we use, and when do they get in the way?
  • How can we best teach students multiple strategies and then help them learn to use the tools that work best for them to engage in deep learning, not just task completion?
  • How do we set meaningful, authentic purposes for reading that drive the use of strategies and lead to students’ construction of new knowledge, not repetition of known facts?
  • Who is driving the conversation around strategies, and what can we do to make sure that stakeholders understand that strategies are a means to an end, and not an end unto themselves?

There are no simple answers to these questions, by the way, and that’s okay. We just need to ask ourselves these questions as we teach and constantly seek to get better at what we do. Even so, I think that the last question above is particularly important and merits a bit of unpacking. I carried out professional development in one district where everyone had been trained in Thinking Maps, and the teachers were required to use Thinking Maps at regular intervals. In this context, instructional planning began to revolve around the strategy and was no longer driven by students’ needs and content learning goals. Administrators would visit classrooms looking for Thinking Maps instead of looking and listening for evidence of student learning. Teachers collected data on their use of Thinking Maps, not on students’ learning of new concepts and skills.  The completion of the Thinking Maps became the goal of teaching, and the learning of content was backgrounded. Now, I’m sure that students learned content at some point in this process, but no one ever stopped to ask if Thinking Maps were the most appropriate strategy for each given lesson in which they were used (especially after the district invested lots of money in materials and training!). In this situation, most teachers did what many students do: they completed the task without ever really thinking about the tools or considering alternatives.

Now, I get why this happens. Administrators are under pressure to show “best practices” in their buildings, and there is certainly value in developing common language across classrooms with shared approaches. Requiring everyone to use the same strategy might make some sense as a first step, but never going beyond that and introducing a range of malleable, alternative practices seems very problematic to me. Even more problematic is the use of strategies for reading that is NOT driven by interesting, content-rich questions.

imsis591-033So what is the solution?  How, for example, would I adapt my son’s assignment?  I think I would have backgrounded FIDDS for starters, asking students instead to read with a larger question in mind.  I would have asked students to read the novel as a means of engaging with a range of big, important questions connected to possible themes in the book.  I would then have students track the development of this theme and develop claims about the author’s perspective on our driving questions, perhaps focusing in on key chapters (depending upon the book).  I would ask students to identify multiple examples of how the theme surfaced in the novel and then discuss how these examples might suggest the perspective of the author.  I would then have students make claims about how the author integrated her perspective on the theme into the book, and then review their reading notes to select the best evidence to support their claims (after having worked with them around standards of evidence for literary analysis).  At this point, students could use FIDDS to help them analyze their evidence and consider the types of evidence they had found, and perhaps go back into the book to look for other types of evidence.  In this scenario, students would use FIDDS to serve the larger purpose of reading, FIDDS would not be the purpose itself.

Reading with no clear purpose just becomes an exercise in task completion, and if many of our students operate in this mode, it is because they have learned to do so in our schools. If we want students to think deeply as they read, then we need to anchor our instruction in big, conceptual problems that connect to the texts they are reading. This requires us to foreground disciplinary thinking and problem solving in which questions come first and tools are adapted or shaped depending upon the context. Of course, teaching in this way is not easy work. It requires lots of time and constant reflection, and students are not likely to appreciate more complex tasks in the beginning! Nevertheless, if we want our students to go deeper in their learning and reading, then we have to design and scaffold instructional activities that move them in this direction. Reading protocols and strategies can be of great help in this work, but only when they are processed and used carefully as the means to an end, and not as the end in and of themselves.

 

Darin-StockdillDarin Stockdill is the Content Area Literacy Consultant at Oakland Schools.  He joined the Learning Services team here in 2011 after completing his doctorate in the area of Literacy, Language, and Culture at the University of Michigan’s School of Education.  At Michigan, he taught content area literacy methods courses to pre-service teachers (and was named a School of Education Outstanding Instructor in 2010) and researched adolescent literacy, with a focus on the connections (or lack thereof at times) between youths’ academic and non-academic literacy practices.  Before this stint in academia, Darin was a classroom Social Studies and English teacher in Detroit for 10 years, working with both middle and high school students, and he also took on curriculum leadership roles in his school.  Before teaching at the secondary level, he worked as a substance abuse and violence prevention specialist with youth in Detroit, and also taught literacy and ESL to adults in Chicago.

 

Supporting Struggling Readers, Grades 6-12

REGISTRATION COMING SOON!

Winter 2017 (February 28, March 8 & 15)

Grade Level(s):  6-1278753306

Description: This three-day workshop will help general and special educators at the grade 6-12 level understand struggling readers in content area texts in new, dynamic ways and give them better tools to support these students. Participants will explore reader identities, critical methods of questioning, text map analysis, and more with content area text. Teachers will learn strategies to use immediately in their classrooms and they will have the opportunity to practice those strategies with their colleagues and in their content during the workshop. Educator teams from schools and districts are welcome.

SCECHs: Pending (15 SCECHs)

Intended Audience: Grade 6-12 Teachers of Social Studies, Science, and ELA

Event Date:  This 3-day series will be offered February 28, March 8 & 15.

Presenters: Jill Jessen-Maneice

Location:  Oakland Schools,  2111 Pontiac Lake Road, Waterford, MI  48328

Event Contact:  Kim Adragna