Room 313

adventures in teaching creative writing

Archive for the tag “English”

Listen Up!

The first day of my summer break, I attended an English teacher conference in Texas with Gena, one of my besties. We drove down the night before, so we would be ready for a full day at the North Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts (NTCTELA) conference, keynoted by two of my teacher heroes Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher. The topic of the day was speaking and listening, two important ELA skills that are often overlooked because they are difficult to assess. (And don’t we need to teach one more novel or write one more essay?! Why make time to speak and listen?) But if we want our students to grow in their thinking, in their reading and writing, we have to create a space in our classrooms where students can also speak and listen.

For years now I have assessed my students’ reading by simply talking with them about the books they choose to read. I call these book talks, and I’ve blogged about them before. If we are really going to get to know our students and their interests, we must talk to them, and we must also listen. Penny and Kelly reminded us of this in their opening keynote.

In her session “Teaching Poetry to Transform Thinking About Writing,” Penny showed us a spoken word poem by Ethan Smith called “Letter to the Girl I Used to Be.” Give it a watch:

I was moved by this poem by a trans young man. I’ve taught spoken word poetry to my Creative Writing 2 students, and I’ve written an article about spoken word poetry for the Oklahoma Humanities magazine. (Look for “The Poet Has Spoken.”) I know spoken word poetry, but I hadn’t seen this poem before, and I was a fan. I began to think how I could use in CW2 in the fall.

We made it to the lunch break, and I saw I had a Twitter notification. I had been tweeting about the conference, and I had been getting some likes and retweets throughout the morning. When I opened the app, though, I noticed I had a direct message. I opened it, and saw it was from a former student, now finished with freshman year of college.

Hey Stevo! This might seem super out of the blue, but I just want to thank you. Your presence in my high school career was so helpful to me, and I can’t thank you enough. You were always so positive and fun while still teaching me so much.

If you haven’t been able to tell yet, I’m a trans guy and I’m finally coming out and transitioning (starting June 21!! woah!!) and the whole shebang.

You’d always been such a positive influence overall, and I just couldn’t stop thinking about how, my sophomore year, we had a book talk in which I complained about straight people always getting what they want. You replied, “yeah! that’s so dumb. stupid straight people,” and for the first time, an adult was affirming to my identity, and it was so important to me after hearing years of youth pastors and parents saying otherwise. (Also, having a cool democrat as a teacher was always so refreshing).

So I’m going to school to be a teacher because I want to be there for the weird kids like me who need someone on their side. Anyway, all this to say, I can’t thank you enough for being such a great teacher and inspiring me to be one too.

I wept like a baby. I was filled with so many emotions: pride, humility, love, gratitude. It was like what I had heard that morning about listening to students and validating them, plus the video about the trans boy, had now combined full circle into my life’s reality. It was incredible. Neither the student nor I could remember what book we were discussing. And actually, I don’t even remember making that offhand comment to my student. It just goes to show that our students are always listening to us teachers, and that what we say matters.

I wrote back to my student, and shared how I proud I was of him and how I honored I was that he was would trust me with his story. On the off chance that he had not yet watched the spoken word poem “Letter to the Girl I Used to Be,” I sent it to him. He hadn’t seen it, so he watched it and told me sobbed and loved it.

I have more to write about the NTCTELA conference and what I learned, but I’ll save that for another post.

Teachers, how do you honor and embrace speaking and listening in your classrooms? What purposeful strategies do you use? How do you know your students are better speakers and listeners at the end of the semester? the school year?

 

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Venn Diagram Poems

Without Twitter, I would not have discovered the concept of a Venn diagram poem. A couple nights ago before bed, I noticed that Joyce Carol Oates had retweeted what appeared to be a Venn diagram by Brian Bilston. Upon closer examination, it turned out to be a poem, which could be read three different ways:

At the Intersection

  1. him circle
  2. her circle
  3. the overlap

I knew immediately that I could challenge my Creative Writing 2 students with this writing task. I showed it to them on my SmartBoard and explained how it worked. Then I got a girl and a guy to come up and read the two different parts. They concluded by reading the overlapping section together.

To write their own Venn diagram poem, I told students to think about two characters who have something in common. This idea would go in the small overlapping section. From there, it was a matter of building off into two different characters. It seemed easier to me to write the right circle first and then write the one on the left. I cut students loose to begin their Venn diagram poem drafts.

Some struggled at first.

Squiggles

But then they started to get the hang of it. I really liked this poem about two friends, one of whom is about to move away.

Best Friends

One student captured the dynamic between a mother and daughter.

Mom Daughter

Even I got into the spirit of things and wrote a poem about school. I was having a bit of an Eeyore moment, and it felt good to write through my feelings–in Venn diagram form to boot!

Teacher Student

In order to type it up, I used PowerPoint, which has a circle maker. I wondered if I could just type the words and center them and add spaces, but my lines weren’t equally balanced between the circles, so I had to just space bar everything. It turned out pretty well.

Screenshot (106)

How will you use Venn diagram poetry in your classroom?

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.

PRESLM 2013 Results: Pie-Charted

One of the most challenging and rewarding times of the school year as a creative writing teacher is overseeing the production of our annual student anthology of art, writing, and photography. After a few years of undertaking this project, I decided to submit our ninth volume of The Red Line to NCTE’s 2013 PRESLM contest.  We were delighted to receive a Superior ranking. On top of this, we were nominated for the highest award, which is only given to a handful of magazines. As you can see on the PRESLM website, 373 magazines were submitted and only 26 of them received the highest award, one of which was Eyrie from Edison Preparatory in Tulsa. Huzzah, you guys!

I wanted more data than this, though, and it crossed my mind in the flurry of the spring semester to sit down and tabulate the results. I never got around to this until today. After finishing my binge-watching of Scandal, I felt the need to do something a little productive, so I clicked on each state’s results on the PRESLM page and started making tally marks. My results are not completely accurate because I only got 372 entries, not the 373 that NCTE had. I’ve got to be pretty close, though.

  • State participation: 42
  • Highest Award: 26
  • Nominated for Highest Award: 106
  • Superior: 43
  • Excellent: 153
  • Above Average: 41
  • Average / Unranked: 3

PRESLM 2013 chart

In order to be nominated for the highest award, magazines must receive a superior ranking. In essence, 175 magazines achieved a superior ranking. The pie chart could be reworked to reflect this.

PRESLM 2013 chart 2

If you would like to submit your school’s literary magazine, the deadline for the 2014 PRESLM contest is July 2. You have time! We at Deer Creek High School have already submitted our tenth volume of The Red Line. If you’d like to preview or purchase a copy, check out our magazine on Lulu.com. It sells for $27, but our students only had to pay $10 because we sold ads and held a few fundraisers. I could save all that for another post.

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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