Room 313

adventures in teaching creative writing

Archive for the category “Reading”

Go Poems

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When I taught Pre-AP and on-level English 2, I devoted the start of each Thursday’s class to a poem. Nothing intimidating. Just some quick reading and discussion. Maybe a tiny bit of analysis. Once a nine weeks, I might invite students to imitate the poem through writing. Too many students (and teachers!) are intimidated by poetry, and I love discovering what poetry can do through only a couple of lines. I relied a lot on American Life in Poetry and The Writer’s Almanac for beautiful, accessible poems for my students.

My teacher buddy Brett Vogelsinger from Pennsylvania is a rock star. He starts every English class with a poem. He’s also currently in the midst of a special event blog, called Go Poems. Brett explains:

To celebrate National Poetry Month in April 2017, this event blog will present a poem and a “springboard” into a discussion, activity, or lesson plan each day.  These poems can be used at the beginning of class to essentially say “go!” to close reading, creativity, and critical thinking. Hence the title of this blog: Go Poems. 

Brett asked me to write a post for Go Poems. I ended up writing two. Today, Brett features my first post about a reversible poem by Brian Bilston called “Refugees.” Check it out!

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Having a Summah

Tomorrow I report back to Deer Creek, my district since 2005 when I entered the teaching profession. I’m starting my new role as the secondary curriculum instructional technology integration specialist. I know, it’s a mouthful. The acrostic is SCITIS, which my funny friend Debbie says sounds like a back problem. In this new position I’ll be helping teachers at the high school and middle school levels improve their craft. Once students return, I’ll just be SCITIS in the morning, and then I’ll still teach for three hours in the afternoon: student council and 2 sections of creative writing. I’m happy to still be in the classroom with students. They are why I got into this teaching gig to begin with. It will be strange not teaching English, but I’m embracing this new opportunity. Since I won’t be in the classroom for the full day, I have to move out of room 136, which has been the name of my blog. I suppose I should change it now. I’ll have to think about that. I’m hoping this week I can move a lot of my things (including my classroom library) into my new classroom. I will also have an office in DCHS library, so I also need to get settled in there.

I’ve made the most of my summer, or summah, as Howard Kramer pronounces it on the Who Charted? podcast, which I started listening to this summer. My hobby of listening to podcasts continues to grow. I’ve also added Invisibilia, More Perfect, Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People, Revisionist History, The Sporkful, Freakonomics Radio, and Criminal to my list of go-to pods. It’s kind of ridiculous how many podcasts I listen to, but they help me pass the time on my walks and doing chores around the house. If I’m being completely honest with myself, podcasts also feed my need for conversation in the summer. As a single man, I get information and entertainment from podcasts as well as some companionship. As an English teacher, I feel a bit guilty for not reading more books in the summer and listening to so many podcasts instead. I tell myself this is okay, though, because by listening to podcasts, I am learning more about our world, which can in turn lead to writing prompts and lesson ideas for my creative writing class.

And I have read two books this summer (as well as various articles from The New Yorker). We started a teacher book club and met in June to discuss All the Light We Cannot See (New York Times‘ review), and we met this month to chat about The Serpent King (Kirkus Reviews’ review). Both of these books were excellent, and I’m glad to have emerged a bit from my reading rut. I find it all too easy to watch shows on Netflix and Hulu or play Fire Emblem on my 3DS while listening to podcasts. They are fun ways to unwind, but I know I should be reading a little bit more. I actually did read the play The Humans after it got so much buzz at the Tony Awards. I’m sure seeing the play is way better than reading it, which did not impress me a whole lot.

I’ve continued to meet with my writing group this summer as well. We started back in the fall at the start of the 2015-2016 school year, committing to meet every month to share a meal and share some writing for honest and critical feedback. This summer I’ve written some on a young adult novel about Oklahoma’s panhandle being sold off to a mysterious investor who will eventually open it up to all the anti-vaxxers in the nation. I’ve barely started, but it’s been fun to write it.

Speaking of writing, my summer would not be complete without some involvement with the Oklahoma Writing Project. I went through their summer institute in 2009, and I’ve been faithfully involved ever since. This summer I got to present two different workshops to the SI, speak at their learning symposium, and create their anthology for the summer institute. The final draft is now complete. These are good summer side-gigs to have. I also got to work with Norman teachers on two of the new English language arts standards, and I also recently attended the OWP stakeholders meeting.

On top of education-related things, I got to go on two trips. I traveled to Houston for my friend Liz’s wedding, which was lovely. It was good to be together with our crew of friends. I also fulfilled a tiny dream of visiting my grandpa’s hometown of Kirksville, Missouri. I initially planned to road trip alone, but then quickly decided to invite my mom since it would be her daddy’s hometown. Plus, she just works on Mondays, so it would be easy for her to get away. My dad decided he wanted to come too, so it became a family affair. We made sure to drive through Kansas City on drive there, so we could hit up some barbecue places like Jack Stack and Q39, both excellent. I had ribs at both places. I liked the meat more at Q39 and the sides more at Jack’s Stack. (Cheesy corn, you are bad but also very, very good.)

The Kirksville trip allowed me to explore my roots. We found the 1930 census records on microfiche at the Kirksville Public Library, and I set to work reading the cursive entries at a 90 degree angle. As luck would have it, I found my great-great-grandma fairly quickly. After a little more searching, I also found my grandpa and his family’s entry as well. This was all on our first day in town, and we’d already hit the jackpot. (I was only about 15-20% of the way through the microfiche at this point.) The next step was to look for the addresses of the homes listed on the census. Only one remained and was now a frat house for one of the local colleges. The other house (my grandpa’s rent house, which his family paid something like $16 per month for rent) was now gone, a parking lot for the college. Later on, we discovered the old high school where my grandpa attended as well as the gravestones for my great-great-grandma and my great-grandparents. We also visited the historical society to find out more about the shoe factory where my great-grandpa worked as a man and my grandpa worked as a boy. One of the final significant places we found was the old theater my grandpa used to attend as a boy, which was now an antique mall. The fancy tile work in the lobby still stood as well as the flash ceiling decorations.

With one day left of our trip and everything checked off our list, we drove the hour or so to Hannibal, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi River–the boyhood home of Mark Twain. It was a fun but hot day of exploring and visiting historic places, including Twain’s boyhood home. As an English teacher, I was grateful we got to see some sites. My parents were not up for exploring one of the Tom Sawyer caves, but we still got to see a lot. The town of Hannibal is very charming.

I guess this blog post is here to say that teachers need time to unwind and recharge in the summer but also time to learn. It’s a balance, and I feel pretty good about how I’ve spent my time. So teachers, how do you spend your summers? Anything you’re proud to have already accomplished? What’s on your summer list of things to do? Have you even allowed yourself to start thinking about school yet?

 

Oklahoma’s English Standards Ready for Classrooms

The newspaper I grew up reading is hostile to my profession of teaching. In an editorial today about the new state standards, The Daily Oklahoman urges lawmakers to reject them for revision based on inexpert opinion and little research.

Let me be up front and say that I served on the committee that wrote the English standards. I have taught for eleven years in seventh through twelfth grades. I have my master’s degree in English, and I’m a past president of the Oklahoma Council of Teachers of English. As an Oklahoma Writing Project teacher consultant, I’ve presented numerous workshops to teachers around the state.

Now, as to The Oklahoman’s critique of the standards:

Jenni White, a critic of public education, admits that has not read the new English standards. She has no authority on this issue. Her organization, ROPE, feels public education is not worth restoring. White’s children do not attend a public school. She has no horse in this race. Why listen to her?

Tara Huddleston, a teacher worried about the standards’ lack of substance, is not clear in what needs to be improved. What is so vague about the English standards?

As to the lack of exemplars which Huddleston claims are needed, they are not standards. Standards are clear learning targets. Exemplars are student samples that demonstrate levels of mastery of the standards. Oklahoma has not yet implemented the new English standards, so how can we have authentic student samples of work based on standards that have not yet been passed, let alone implemented? The Common Core State Standards included exemplars, but our state kicked out Common Core. Teacher can locate exemplars because they are professionals. If it is deemed important enough, I’m sure the State Department of Education could eventually release a supplemental document of exemplars, but the standards themselves should still be passed.

Dr. Stotsky, a critic of Oklahoma’s English standards who wanted to be paid to write our standards for us, is from Arkansas. Why are we listening to an out-of-state expert when there are already plenty of organizations and individuals supporting the new Oklahoma standards? The Oklahoma Council of Teachers of English and the Oklahoma Writing Projects are just two of dozens of organizations that support the new standards.

There are eight main English language arts standards with a reading and writing strand within each standard. The eighth standard is independent reading and writing, a lofty idea that I admit is not testable. But what is worthy and important is not always testable. Developing students into lifelong readers and writers can only create a better Oklahoma.

The exact language of the reading strand of standard 8 is “Students will select appropriate (emphasis added) texts for specific purposes and read independently for extended periods of time.” This language is the same for grades 5-12. Dr. Stotsky claims there is “nothing to suggest an increasing level of reading difficulty” in this standard, but isn’t an “appropriate” text (book) different for a fifth grader than a senior in high school?

Additionally, on page 12 of the final draft of the standards, it is explicitly stated that English language arts are recursive and thus will be repeatedly taught, grade after grade, with the idea that “the skills are repeated with an implied expectation that they are attributed to increasingly more complex (emphasis added) texts.” Therefore, reading material will become more challenging as students progress through school, according to Oklahoma’s new standards.

Even so, if one of my on-level sophomore students wants to read a book written at a fifth grade reading level (Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, a book that I did not read until I was a senior in high school), I am not going to discourage this young man. Sometimes readers need a challenge, but sometimes they just want to get lost in a story, a fine step in becoming a lifelong reader.

The Oklahoma English language arts standards are ready for the classroom. Our legislature should pass them, plain and simple.

Book Pass: Day One

Student arrive in the classroom the first day of school eager to make a good impression. We teachers want to bring our A-grade, too. Earlier this August, I had my tenth first day of school as a teacher. I had arranged my 31 desks into pods of 3 and 4 and piled books in the center of each pod for a book pass.

Book stacks waiting for my students at each group of desks.

A post shared by Jason Stephenson (@teacherman82) on

On the very first day of school, my students would sample books, finding titles to read in the coming months. This activity would set the tone and environment for the year. In this classroom, we read. We share books with one another. We are a community of readers.photo 1

I wondered how many books my students would be able to check out in a 50-minute class period. I aimed for 10. Each pod had around 6 books in its stack, and there were 8 pods of desks total. After quickly taking roll, I told my students that would be doing a book pass. I’ve heard this activity called speed dating with books. One of my colleagues on Twitter suggested I turn down the lights and play some romantic music, but I couldn’t do that on the first day of school. It would seem too silly to my sophomores. At least most of them, I think. This sampling of books could easily be called a book buffet as well. I had done this activity with librarians in the past, and I used to do it when I taught the reading for fun elective at our high school.

photo 2

In her guide “Tools for Teaching Content Literacy,” Janet Allen calls this activity a Book Pass. She recommends that students use a chart with these three columns: Title, Author, & Comment. For my purposes, I tweaked the columns and used Title, Notes, & Rating. I told students not to worry about taking a lot of notes on the book–just enough to remember something important about it. They would not be graded on how detailed their notes were. These notes were for them, not me. For rating, students used a scale from 1-5, with 1 meaning the students had no interest at all in the book and the 5 meaning they couldn’t wait to read it. Instead of running copies to create these charts, I had students fold notebook paper twice vertically to create three columns. Even on the first day of school, almost all of my students had notebook paper and writing utensils for this activity. I was pleasantly surprised!

photo 3

Students gravitated to their friends when they originally sat in their pods. I gave 2 or 3 minutes with their first book, and then had students grab a second book from the pile. Now that they had sampled 2 books, it was time for my students to get up and move to a new pod. So that they could meet other people in class, I asked them to sit at a new table group with at least one person of the opposite gender. We sampled two more books in the same manner, and then moved to a new pod with people who had similar eye color. Students scanned two more books, and then we established which months fell in each season. Spring birthday students would sit together next at a new table, summer together, and fall and winter. That rotation was a little complicated, but it didn’t take as long as I thought it would. Books 7 & 8, and then students rotated to their final pod where they could sit with anyone from a common elective–a sport, band, choir, drama, media production, foreign language, etc. We finished up books 9 & 10 with only a few minutes to spare. I had my students put a star by the best book they found and smiley faces next to any books they would consider reading.

book pass chart

I had students turn in their charts, so I could see what sort of ratings they gave to the books I selected. I gave them back a day or two later, suggesting that they hold onto their charts, to remind them of good books they could read this school year. I have already had a few students browsing my classroom library while holding their charts. It occurs to me now that I should have had students label which tub their favorite books were from, so they could easily find the books later. I was very pleased wit how this first-day activity went, and I plan on doing it again at the start of next semester, if not before.

book pass chart 2

Classroom Organizer Breakthrough

When your classroom library has over 500 titles, how are you supposed to keep track of them? For eight long years, I used a handwritten chart. Students wrote their name, book title, book tub number, date checked out, and eventually, the date checked in. It worked well enough, but it wasted paper, and it was hard to determine who had checked out books for an extended period of time.

A few years back, I came across Booksource on Twitter. They were offering a promotion for a free copy of Brian Selznick’s Wonder Struck. I entered the competition, and for about the second time in my life, I won a contest! (I also won $100 during blackout bingo at after-prom my senior year of high school.) I began to follow the Booksource, and soon discovered they had a free program called the Classroom Organizer for teachers to use to check out books to students. In fact, some teachers were letting students check out books to themselves the program was so easy.

In January 2013, I was hesitant to change from my chart to the Classroom Organizer in the middle of the school year, so I waited. I learned how the program works and began importing my classroom titles into my Booksource account by scanning ISBNs. At the time, I didn’t have a smart phone, so I tried using an iPad the school had given me. The camera quality was not nearly as good as an iPhone, I soon discovered. Books that wouldn’t scan for me would easily scan on my students’ iPhones. I enlisted a small army of students to help me scan titles. All they had to do was download the free Classroom Organizer app, and then I entered my account’s information. Eventually, I bought an iPhone, and one of the first apps I downloaded was the Classroom Organizer. (I get such a kick out of adding a book to my library by scanning it. My brain receptors probably fire off the same way for when I get a text message or a Twitter notification! Ha!) I couldn’t wait to start the 2013-2014 school year using a 21st century system.

Looking back on this past school year, I’m very happy with how the app worked. Many of my students were impressed with the capabilities of the Classroom Organizer app. I was happy with its weekly email feature that told me when students had overdue books. That made it so much easier to keep track of who was hoarding books. On the few days that my iPhone was dead or forgotten at home, I just told students to take books, and we would scan them the next day. This didn’t always happen, so I would sometimes revert to writing titles down on paper along with the students who had them. The app probably crashed once or twice a week, but it was fairly reliable, and it’s FREE, so I can’t complain.  Since I do not have a classroom computer, I check out the books on my iPhone. Part of me who wants to control everything wonders if all high schoolers would remember to check out books if they were given that chance. I have an extra iPad the school gave me, so maybe I could try using that this coming school year.

As I prepared for a new round of students earlier today, I needed to load students into my Classroom Organizer account. This feature is not available on the app, so you have to log in to the website, and as I clicked into my account, a sense of dread came over me. I remembered last year having to painstakingly copy each student’s name from my PowerTeacher account into the spreadsheet Booksource requires. An aside: elementary teachers could maybe type each name into the online spreadsheet, but I have 130 students, so I would much rather use the Excel spreadsheet option. The required columns are Last Name and First Name, but my grade book presents students’ names as Last Name, First Name, e.g., Farrand, Sam.

The comma was causing problems. If only there were a way to have Excel automatically separate the names into the two columns and eliminate the comma! My gut told me this was possible. Why hadn’t I googled this last year? Sure enough, Microsoft explained how to do this. What relief! What would have taken over an hour only took a few seconds. And now my students are loaded and ready to go for this coming Wednesday. I wonder how many books I can check out on the first day of school.

Classroom Library Reboot

Yesterday I made some of the final touches in preparing my classroom library for another year of use for my Pre-AP English 2 and creative writing students. I have had a classroom library since my first year of teaching back in 2005 when I taught 7th and 8th grade literature. I still have a few books in my library that my middle school students bought for me at our school’s book fair. I know because I saw the donation sticker when I was sorting. My library was much smaller then, and I have grown it over the years in a number of ways:

  1. buying used books online for pennies (the $3.99 shipping is what costs)
  2. buying books at the Friends of the Library sale for super cheap (maybe your state has something similar)
  3. using Barnes & Noble gift cards to stock my shelves
  4. books gifted to me by students
  5. Scholastic Warehouse sales
  6. spending my hard-earned cash on hardcovers I can’t wait for (titles have recently included Winger by Andrew Smith and We Were Liars by e. lockhart)

Back to the revisions that I made to my library. I have my books divided by genres into tubs, which something I saw firsthand in a classroom of my colleague Kari Steele when we taught middle school together. Until this summer I had tubs devoted to Chick Lit, but I decided this was unfair because I discovered I had guy students who enjoyed the occasional romance story. Chick Lit tubs became Romance tubs.

romance

In my efforts to weed my library, I discovered some duplicate titles, but I didn’t want to get rid of all of them. In fact, I thought I would create a tub called “Read with a Friend,” an idea I remembered reading about in this Franki Sibberson article. Now, I realize I teach high school, not elementary, but I think my teens will enjoy this tub. I’ll have to keep you posted on how it goes. If you look at the picture closely, you’ll notice there’s currently only one copy of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, but that’s because I have the other copy at home for a presentation next month.

friend front viewfriend side view

I already had tubs dedicated to nonfiction and memoir, and I think it was just this past year that I decided to organize my memoir tubs a little more. Subcategories included men, women, intense, humor, war and adventure, and classics. I realized my copy of Bossypants was missing when I looked through my tubs yesterday. This happens, and I usually replace books when I can.

memoir war intensememoir women menmemoir classics humor

My nonfiction books, on the other hand, were scattered across four tubs with little rhyme or reason. They needed the same treatment as my memoir books, so I came up with war and crime, American history, sociology, and science. My goal is to add another tub or two of nonfiction this coming year, but I’m not sure yet what those will be. Maybe a psychology tub?

nonfiction sociology science nonfiction war history

My final change was to expand my singular Oklahoma author and setting tub into two distinct ones. This past school year I required my students to read either a book set in Oklahoma or written by a current or former Oklahoman. In order to make the books easier to find, they got a tub, but as I increased my search of these books, they no longer fit into one tub. Voila!

Oklahoma author setting

In all, I have 66 tubs in my classroom library, and it took nine years to get to this point. I’m sure I will make other tweaks and changes in the future, but what will not change is my dedication to giving my students an opportunity to become lifelong readers.

Blackout Poets Week in Review

A lot of planning went into Blackout Poets week, and I give Lesley Mosher credit for coming up with the initial idea. It never would have crossed my mind to host a week of blackout poetry on Twitter and Instagram. It seems like such a daunting task! In 2014, it’s very possible, though, with two hard-working teachers, collaborating through the power of the Internet.

We began our work with a series of emails, which morphed into an ever-growing Google Document. Along the way, we dreamed big and tried to get Austin Kleon to host an #engchat Twitter chat on blackout poetry. Austin was gracious enough to respond to my email request, but he was in the midst of touring with his newest book and couldn’t make any promises. Fortunately, Lesley and I were offered the #engchat hosting gig for March 17, and we are grateful to Meenoo Rami for the opportunity to talk poetry with passionate educators. If you missed the chat, it’s available online in the #engchat archives.

Lesley and I spread the word of #blackoutpoets week through social media and our respective blogs, and we waited. Would students and teachers post? Would we end up featuring only our own students’ work?

As you saw throughout last week,  students and teachers of various grades and subjects turned into blackout poets. You can see the highlighted poets in these blog posts:

A big thank you to everyone who participated. Lesley and I have already agreed to host this week again next year. We hope if you participated this year that you’ll do so again in 2015. And in case you missed your chance, please join us next year.

The spring can get very busy, so if you’d rather do some blackout poetry earlier on in the year, that’s great. Just remember to share some of the poems during #blackoutpoets week. The tentative date is April 6-10, 2015. Until then, keep writing and reading!

Wednesday’s Blackout Poems

It’s the middle of the week, and we still have teachers and students sharing their blackout poems on Twitter. This special #blackoutpoets week is a project between Lesley Mosher and me. Check out her blog for Tuesday’s featured blackout poems. We’re taking turns selecting some standout poems. To participate, all you have to do is tag your post with #blackoutpoets on Twitter. We also suggested Instagram, but we haven’t had any takers yet.

blackoutpoetofthedayWithout further ado, our first poem today comes from the Hawthorne Village sixth grade class, @HAWPS6 on Twitter. This student created a poem about gratitude, and even used four different words to create the new word must. Good job!

You Must Be Honest poem

Our next poem is by high school student J. Hoffmann who goes by @Jhoffnn on Twitter. He mined a passage from Jon Krakauer‘s Into the Wild to create a poem about the power of opportunity along with its occasional perils. It reads: “the tenure of joy that begins A doorway is stitched over gaping holes.”

Hoffmann poem

Our teacher poem is by Tim Pollock (@Mr_Pollock), who used Cormac McCarthy’s modern classic The Road to create some ominous verse. The tone in the poem matches the tone in the overall passage, which sometimes happens in blackout poetry. I like how Tim showcased which page he used from the novel by not marking it out.

Pollock poem

Finally, I could not end this post without highlighting the tremendous bulletin board that @HAWPS6 put together of all the students’ blackout poems from today. Check out their Twitter account to see pictures of their students in action, composing their poems outside in the nice spring weather.

Hawthorne bulletin board

Monday’s Blackout Poems

It’s the first day of #blackout poets week on Twitter and Instagram. Lesley Mosher and I will be posting some standout poems each day from those who are participating. Today we’re featuring blackout poems from a middle school student, a high school student, and a teacher. Congrats to everyone!

blackoutpoetofthedayLeah, a student in Michael Billotti‘s class, is our middle school blackout poet of the day. Here’s her poem:

Billotti MS blackout

Our high school blackout poet comes from Jenn Wofle‘s classroom. The poem is based on Lois Lowry’s book The Giver.

wolfe HS blackout

Our teacher blackout poet is Joy Kirr, who even blogged about her process of creating the poem.

kirr teacher blackout

Wanted: Blackout Poets

Blackout Poetry Week
April 7-11, 2014
Use #blackoutpoets on Twitter and Instagram

blackout poets logo

Fellow teacher and poetry enthusiast Lesley Mosher and I  invite all educators, students, and authors to help celebrate poetry in the classroom by participating in a worldwide blackout poetry event on Twitter and Instagram. Remember to tag all your posts with #blackoutpoets. You can find more information about how cool blackout poetry is by reading blog posts by Lesley and me. We also created some special examples based on the literature for the grades we teach. Lesley created this poem from A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd.

Middle Grade Example

Lesley

I made a blackout poem from Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley.

YA Example

Jason

We’d love for you and your students to create blackout poems from your favorite novels, newspaper articles, or any piece of writing lying around your home. Students from all over the world will be participating and sharing their love of words. See you on Twitter and Instagram!

Please contact @blackoutpoets, @lesleymosher, or me for more information.

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