My 7th graders are wrapping up our short poetry unit with a poetry analysis paper over a poem of their choosing. This is their first time writing a formal analysis textual support and citations. They were allowed to pick a poem from the poetry foundation.org website and we worked on annotating for close reading. I tell my students to consider five main things when annotating (although all thoughts during a piece can/should be annotated): questions they have, words they don't know, parts that are confusing, connections to their lives, and parts that they love for some reason.
We annotate "The Road Not Taken" together. I project it from the document camera, and we take it slow. I "reveal" a line at a time, and students "question bomb" EVERYTHING while I try to keep up by marking the annotations on the text. I don't guide the questions or add my own. This is hard sometimes, but I really have to evaluate when I'm unintentionally leading my students in a certain direction instead of giving them control over their own learning. It's not making a discovery if I'm the one forcing it on them, so I keep my mouth shut. The only comments I really make during this process are to ask clarification questions to make sure I'm writing what they want me to write. As always, it's fun to see where classes cross over and where they don't.
I always tell them that when we're analyzing poetry (or any text, for that matter) that they're not looking for the one, true right answer, but instead looking for what it means to them. If they can back it up with proof from the text, then the analysis is valid. This really confuses kids sometimes, because they're used to everything having a right answer, especially in the world of standardized reading tests.
It's fun to see their annotations and what stands out to them, even just looking through these examples from each class. There are so many times when a student's analysis of a poem is something I never dreamed of or noticed, and I love that aspect of it. It's one of the ways they keep teaching me. I love to see the process of their questions over a piece of literature turning into creating answers for themselves based on the text in front of them.
It's hard not to turn into a control freak, and tell them, "No! This is what the poem means!" I have to restrain myself. I think in my earlier years of teaching I did a lot of that without even thinking. I would point out the important parts for them, not realizing that it's the reader who decides what is important, and that it's not something I should dictate as a teacher. If I forced them to annotate certain parts of the poem because I viewed them as important, I would be taking the learning away from them. They decide what's important; they make meaning for themselves. My role is to help them see if they've successfully supported their reasoning with the quotes they've chosen and explained work to support their analysis, or not.
Student annotation example:
After they've annotated and decided what the poem is telling them, then they start to put it in analysis format. This is the beginning of my student's first draft. In 7th grade, quotes and citing are new, so I really work a lot with combating "quote-dropping." They tend to think they've done their job just by adding the quote, and most don't want to have to explain the quote and show how it supports their thesis. It's a battle every time, but it only gets easier the more they encounter it.
These drafts will all be rough, and I tend to think of 7th grade as a practice year for many different writing skills and genres. Since I have all the same students again in 8th grade, that's where we refine and build on skills (isn't that what we do for every year of school?). I have to remind myself not to get too frustrated with my 7th graders, especially at this time of year. Writing more frequently makes better writers, and it's a waste of time and energy to dwell on what they don't know or can't do. The more they encounter chances to quote and cite, the better they'll be able to do it in each subsequent paper.
Beginning of analysis:
For now, my role is to try my hardest to not interfere too much with their learning. It's their analysis, not mine, and I'm here to support them. More learning always happens when I give up control. I need to ask honest questions, drawing attention to where they might need to direct more focus, and see what they can do without taking over.
An incident from this morning has left a bad taste in my mouth all day. It's my fault, or I am at least an equal partner in bearing the shame. I was not professional with another staff member this morning. I lost it.
The tension had been building for weeks. A study hall supervisor was not allowing students to leave and get help from teachers, even though our planning periods are specifically scheduled during study hall time for this to happen. This is also the period of the day when I'm able to do a lot of writing conferences, so I have a lot of kids in and out of my room.
I started getting dozens of emails: "I can't make it to my writing conference. Mrs. _____ says it's not important." "I'm not being allowed to leave even though I have a pass." "Mrs. ____ says we're lying to try to go to your room." Kids were being sent to the office crying, begging to switch study halls since they were being punished for small offenses (nodding at another student, whispering) and forced to do push-ups or other activities. They were also completely on lockdown, even though our study halls have always had an open policy for students to seek out teacher help. I was furious. There is no reason my students should not be allowed to come see me.
I've sent out many emails, notes, and personally spoken with the supervisor in question regarding my students, and that they should always be allowed to come see me during study hall, but this morning was even worse. I tried to get my principal involved but he was out of the office, so I went down myself. I should have known better.
I could not control the anger, the shaking in my limbs as my voice rose and I snapped that my students are always allowed to come see me, and that it was wrong for them to be held hostage. No response. Just staring from the supervisor and dead silence from the students in the room.
I was still shaking when I got back to my classroom. A few former hostages trickled in, allowed to come see me now that my outburst had freed them. One boy shook my hand, looked me in the eye and said, "Thank you. You are my hero. No one has stood up for us like that before."
I wish I could feel better about it, knowing that the kids are grateful, but I don't. I shouldn't have raised my voice; I shouldn't have felt like I had to. I allowed my anger and frustration to turn me into the bad guy, the unprofessional teacher who loses her s*#+ in front of kids, and that's so not cool (regardless of what the kids themselves think). Other adults overheard, and without knowing the backstory, I'm positive I am the one who looks bad here.
Most of my attention during the day (and on this blog) is directed toward my language arts classes, but I also teach an exploratory class at the end of the day. This class has varied from speech to research paper writing (worst nightmare: teaching formal research writing to 7th graders at the end of a long day). For the past two years, a beloved coworker and I have team-taught a publishing/technology class that creates Clargold Weekly, a website featuring content chosen and created by our 7th grade exploratory students.
After seeing the amazing Kevin Honeycutt speak to our district back in August, I was inspired to add a weekly show to our site. Students in my class would write the script and provide acting, while students in Mr. McGurk's class would film, edit, and direct each episode. Clargold Chronicles can range from real-life to fantasy, with students choosing the genre and topic each week. It's been a lot of fun so far, and other kids at school are excited when the new episodes come out on Mondays. The other teachers love to use their acting skills, and it gives our students the chance to create something and immediately gauge audience reaction.
One of the script writers for this week was the daughter of our gym teacher (Mr. Klaver), and she wondered why her dad and I have always had a rivalry when it comes to school games and competitions. "The KlaverSteen Rivalry" was born as our very own sports documentary in her attempts to get to the bottom of the situation. It was ridiculously fun to be a major part of the episode this week, since my usual role as script supervisor/deadline enforcer is much less glamorous. This thing became so much fun that we even enlisted the help of some former students (high school seniors) to make appearances.
And in the middle of all this ridiculousness, what lessons were learned? Students had to write a script, and also allow for ad-libbing from their ornery teachers. They had to interview people their age, older teenagers they look up to, and the adults who teach them every day. They had to edit video and choose between multiple camera angles for the best shots. They had to learn the consequences of throwing out great interviews because they covered the microphone and couldn't re-interview. But I think the most important thing is that they saw us, their teachers, having fun with each other. They saw us teasing each other and being genuinely silly in a way that's not always possible during a more structured class. They saw our enthusiasm because both Mr. Klaver and I were genuinely having a ball and thrilled to be part of these shenanigans for a week. Most teachers are isolated from other adults for the majority of the day, and this gave the kids a chance to see us having a blast together.
If you read this, please take the time to watch the episode. For better or worse, YouTube views mean a lot to this generation of students, and I would love to see the looks on their faces when they realize that more people are checking out the show.
*I wrote this today in response to an email from Dr. Jim Davis about Richard Ingersoll's research on retention data for teachers, and how it relates to his teacher-ed prep students who are on the verge of entering the profession. I'm still not really sure how to get more teachers to stay, unless we keep making it so hard that only those of us who are rabidly obsessed (and somewhat masochistic) are left.
You would be crazy not to question entering the teaching profession, based on all you hear about it in the news, classrooms, and coffee shops. I don’t think a day goes by where I don’t hear something disparaging about teachers or the public education system in general. Just this morning it was news of Time Magazine’s “bad teachers” cover story. I haven’t read it yet, but I know it will create another news cycle of voices crying out about the terrible teachers we have and listing their own experiences with ghosts of teachers past. The negative rhetoric surrounding education is enough to make anyone want to quit.
I’m not here to say those things don’t hurt. I know how much I care about teaching. I love my content and I love my students. Every year I think I can’t love them more than I loved the last group, and then it starts all over again. The amount of love I have is what makes those comments hurt so much. If I was working a desk job, would I be as offended when some outsider criticized my work? I don’t know. Maybe I’m just a sensitive person. But with teaching you put everything on the line. Your heart, your intelligence, your very personality are out there for others to judge freely, and most of them judge without ever seeing you actually teach.
Conditions in schools are far from perfect. I look at Richard Ingersoll’s list of “Sources of Dissatisfaction for Outgoing Teachers” and there are parts of it that could read as a checklist of my daily life. I would be lying to say I’ve never considered leaving. “Companies who hire teachers” has showed up in my Google search history more than once, many times because of the factors on this list.
1.Too little prep time. I have one 45-minute prep period at the beginning of the day. However, that prep period is scheduled at the same time when most of my students have study hall, so they often come to me for help. Three girls sought refuge just this morning from a tyrannical study hall monitor. If I am leaving actual prep work to complete during this time, it is a mad dash that I will not necessarily accomplish.
2.Teaching load too heavy. I have 137 students this year. I teach writing, and they write every day, sharing a piece every week. That means I respond to at least 137 pieces of writing every week, outside of class time. Do other jobs require employees to meet with 137 clients every day? Does that sound overwhelming? It is.
3. Poor salary/benefits. This is an area I do not complain about. I have summers off; my pay is adequate. Do other professionals with a master’s degree make more money in their fields? Maybe. But I make enough money for the life I lead.
4. Class sizes too large. I am the only language arts teacher for 7th and 8th grade in my district. Yes, you read that right. So yes, my class sizes are too large because rural schools have had to cut positions to bare bones in order to survive.
5. Student behavioral problems. I’m in my ninth year of teaching, and this is not as big of a concern as it was in my early years, but that is not to say it ever goes away. My mantra for management since that first horrendous year has been “what you allow is what will continue” and that guides how I treat behavior in my room. I started the year with a boy who spouted abuse at me every day because he hates women. It’s the end of October, and I seem to have won him over. For now. Classroom teaching is not a job for those who cannot set boundaries and enforce them with love and consistency.
6. Lack of faculty influence. It is infuriating to be in charge of your classroom while also being completely powerless over everything else surrounding education and where it could be headed. I don’t know how to explain this to someone who isn’t already a teacher and who hasn’t felt that powerlessness.
7. Too little parent support. The main thing I wish I could express to parents in this situation is to proceed calmly before confronting a teacher. You are working together, with the same goals. You are not enemies. I know you love your child, but please think back to what you were like at that specific age. I teach middle school, and I am amazed that some parents still think their children are 100% perfect, honest angels at this age. Puberty messes with your head. Your children are so emotional and sensitive right now, that their perspective on a situation could be pretty far from reality. I know you want to defend them (and should), but please also allow them to grow as human beings and realize that part of growing means testing boundaries, getting in trouble, and facing consequences.
8. No opportunities for professional advancement. You could take the administration path. Some people are made for this. You could also leave to work for an AEA or other education-related group. Most of these options mean that you leave the classroom, at least part-time. But when I think about what I love about teaching, it always comes down to how much I cherish talking with kids. The daily conversations I have with 13-14-year-olds are more interesting than half of the adult social situations I find myself in.
9. Too little collaboration time. We don’t have time to prep for our own classes, how could we possibly have time to collaborate meaningfully with others. Granted, a certain amount of time when we are given it always leads back to complaining about how little time we’re given. Time, in any context, is always an issue for teachers.
There are other things I could add to this list to scare you away from teaching. Do you like being able to choose when you go to the bathroom based on when you actually have to use the facilities? Not in my world. I know exactly what time windows I have, and if I miss them, then it’s another two-hour wait. But I don’t want to scare you anymore. Teaching is amazing, and it’s worth it.
I stand in front of the future every day and get to know them. I see moments of brilliance and humor, I see kids struggling to get by, and I see them full of opportunity before life has had the chance to defeat them. I have the attention of an audience, and while I can be uncomfortable in social situations, I know how to turn on the energy and command a room with charm and humor. I do not know what will happen each day when I go to work: it is always different, and it is never boring. I do a job that requires me to be fully present in body, mind, and spirit, and when I do it well, I know I am making a difference. There is no other job in the world that provides for you what teaching can, but it will never be perfect, and it will never be easy.
As I mentioned last week, I'm in the middle of a small poetry unit with my 7th graders. For the past two days, we've been playing around with a poetry format that I'm not sure is even a real format. I called them chain poems, but when I Googled chain poems, it didn't seem like it's the same thing. So maybe I invented a new type of poetry and pretended like it was a real thing. I guess that happens sometimes, right? Or maybe this is definitely a type of poetry that actually exists and I just don't know what it's called. Whatever. It's fun and we had a blast.
First, I labeled 1-8 going down on the board. Didn't tell the kids what we were doing, and asked a volunteer for a word. Any word. Just had to be something common that everyone knew. Then another word from another kid, and so on until we had a full list of eight. The rules for this type of poem: write an 8-line poem, using the word in the correct line, and have a clear focus (not just random listing to try to squeeze the words in). Then we share, to see how completely different our poems can be, using the same words.
As you can imagine, the 7th grade words lists were interesting:
Period 2 played it pretty safe. They knew their key to success was picking a few simple words that wouldn't be too difficult to wrangle into a poem.
Period 6 wanted none of that easy nonsense:
I mean, those guys even wanted to dictate the context of "orange" as a color and not a fruit. When the girl for number eight said dragon, you could hear the collective head explosion around the room.
Period 4 might have had my favorite combination ever, though:
I mean, isn't "gold teeth truck chicken" just kind of the best image on its own? It doesn't really even need a poem.
Here's a student poem written by a girl in fourth period. The underlined words were the list they were working on for that round:
A dish of pineapple lay on a table
By the bed.
A tank of fish bubbled softly.
This man had money
With his fancy bowties,
With information galore,
and his thick, round glasses.
We did these poems as kind of a speed game, too. The first person to finish with something that made sense and stayed focused while using all words won a "prize" from my mysterious prop cupboard (have I ever mentioned that I have a borderline hoarding problem?). Prizes yesterday included a snowman stuffed animal, a miniature clay flowerpot, a Rapunzel hand puppet, and a faux fur arm cuff. The winners were all delighted, let me tell you.
For the next few days, we're moving on to something a little more serious. I like to expose my students to as many literature analysis opportunities as possible, even though they're young and this is just scratching the surface most of the time. We'll work on annotating a poem and how to use questioning to create meaning on a complex text (more on that in a few days).
It's the National Day on Writing, so my students and I are interrupting our regularly scheduled units to celebrate the writing nerd holiday! We started by brainstorming all of the communities, large and small, that we consider ourselves to be a part of, then did a Warrior II pose exercise that our school counselor told me about from a Yoga Calm class she took. Basically, as you stand in Warrior II pose, your back hand represents the negative and your front arm represents the positive. Bring the back to the front, creating a physical representation of turning the negative energy into something positive. I asked students today to do this, to think about both positive and negative aspects of their chosen communities, and how they belong as a part of the balance between both.
I belong to a community of runners. While I run my miles day in and out by myself, I know there are many out there like me and I take comfort in that. Some of us are slower than others, but we share the same passion. I see my community on race days, sometimes 10,000 of us, sometimes 75, pacing and bouncing and stretching during the "Star-Spangled Banner" as we wait for the start. Sometimes I let myself down, by taking this community for granted. I am motivated by selfish desires and forget to enjoy the support and love that comes from being a part of something that is better than just me.
Link to Period 2 student writings
Readers are a passionate community. We all take different paths to find this love: maybe it came from our parents, teachers, or maybe it's something we stumbled across on our own. Whatever originally drew us to reading, it's something that will never leave. I have joined and left many communities in my lifetime, but I have never stopped being a reader. I can't even imagine it. Honestly, one of the biggest slaps in my face as an adult was when I realized that many people actively choose to not read. I've heard it a million times at Parent/Teacher Conferences: "We don't read, so we don't like to force him to," when discussing a student's habits. How can people not like to read? How could you not want to live other lives and daydream and escape whenever you pick up a new book?
Link to Period 3 student writings
My teaching community can either be the most frustrating or energizing part of my career. I want to scream when a teacher meeting devolves into an opportunity to complain about "kids today" or attitudes and behaviors that are insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But when I'm with other teachers who share similar passions or feelings that I have, I am renewed and fall in love with my content and the people who teach it. In any community, the impact of the energy we bring to the group is felt by everyone. I strive to be more positive (and frequently fail) because there is too much negativity surrounding our schools and teachers already. I love that the teaching community is full of so many unique, individual voices because it allows us to reach so many more students than we would if all teachers were the same.
Link to Period 4 student writings
I live on a farm in the country, so for the past few years I sometimes feel like I don't have an actual town community that I belong to. My address is Clarion, and I lived in an apartment there before moving in with my then-boyfriend (now husband) to a farm about five miles outside of town. I belong on the farm more than I ever did in the actual town, and even though I teach and have an active role in the community, I still don't necessarily feel like I am a part of it. Or maybe I feel like Clarion itself doesn't want me to be a part of it. I moved here in 2006, fresh out of college for a teaching job. I had never lived in such a small town, and I didn't understand how different social structure is in a community this size. I could list the negative stereotypes of small-town life that I have found to be true, but in an effort to focus on the positive, I won't. We make our own happiness after all, and I can't blame a town for not being the community I want it to be. Yes, I am stuck here because my husband is a farmer and farmland doesn't move, but I do not have to choose to be miserable because of where I live. I can have a positive influence on this community in the ways I choose, and ignore the aspects of this place that do not add to my own happiness.
Link to Period 5 student writings
My classroom is one of the most important communities in my life. A million different communities have formed here over the past nine years. Each individual class is its own community. Not only is each year different, but each period within each day can vary drastically. I think most teachers would identify this as one of the best parts of our job: you never know what will happen from hour to hour depending on the group of kids. Just looking at the links from my classes today you would see different patterns from group to group. When I think back on previous classes of students, I remember how each group made me feel as a teacher, rather than specific things about each individual student. The kids who are sophomores were notorious for bad behavior, but they were constantly fun and entertaining. The kids who are freshmen now were competitive in sports and academics, and loved lessons that gave them opportunities to compete. Each community takes on its own identity in my mind, and my place in it is as the leader of this room. To some groups, I am a fun member of their community, another part of the madness. To some groups I have had to take on the role of strict dictator. My role makes me an outsider once they leave: they move on, and my community changes for the younger classes.
Link to Period 6 student writings
The world community is something that I never realized I was a part of until I began traveling in my late 20s. I mean, I knew I was part of the world (obviously) but I didn't think about my particular place on this planet in relation to others. It's easy for us to do as humans. Our communities become so insular and our focus is so often turned inward, that we forget how small a part of the world we really are. Traveling to other countries and continents opens up that world in so many ways. I wish everyone was a part of the world-traveler community: I think it would make us treat each other better. It's easy to sit in the U.S. and judge other countries when we've never been there, just as it's easy for others to stereotype us based on our worst examples. But we're all humans, we're all part of this world. If we spent a little more time opening ourselves up to that wider community, I think we'd find more common ground, or at least more respect for each others' differences. It's harder to be judgmental when you get to know other cultures on a person-to-person level.
Link to Period 7 student writings
Whew... Okay, today was exhausting. Writing with my students (a different community for each class period), plus organizing their responses in a shared doc to post on Twitter, in addition to posting excerpts and pictures on Twitter = one tired teacher lady. It's worth it, though. I've shared my students' raw, unedited and uncensored writing with the world, and I gave them a break from our regularly scheduled activities to write about a common topic. It's also been eye-opening for me to have a direct comparison between my 7th and 8th graders: I never have both grades working on the same type of writing at the same time (in order to give myself variety) so it was crazy to read their responses today. I could see the growth between the two grades instantly, and I felt a sense of pride that as the only writing teacher for both grades, I'm part of that growth. This was a fun, hectic day, and I'm glad I interrupted everything to take part and share our words with the world.
My school has a notoriously strict content filter. This isn't surprising, considering I teach in rural, conservative northern Iowa. I've complained about the filter in the past, but that usually tends to fall on deaf ears. We can't allow kids access to a wide range of websites- there's too much dangerous stuff out there! Don't get me wrong: I know there are plenty of things that I don't want our students to see, or that is potentially harmful to them on many levels, but I feel like a strict content filter is our way of avoiding some responsibility as educators. It takes the "teachable moment" away by pretending it doesn't exist. There are major problems with that.
First, you can't block everything that's bad on the Internet. It's an impossible task. When my students research Venus (the planet) during my science fiction unit, someone, at some time, is going to run into something referencing the Roman goddess of love, which also appears to be a pretty popular name for companies and sites that sell sexy bathing suits for women. Do I shut down and ignore that? Do I wave my arms in front of their impressionable young faces or slap their iPad cases shut, thus guaranteeing that they will look up "Venus" later to find out what was so "bad"? No. I use it as an opportunity to teach them about successfully attempting to narrow down a search so that you are getting responses related to your actual topic. A "planet Venus" Google search brings up an entirely different list than just "Venus". This requires some trial and error, and it means teachers need to be prepared for possibilities that may arise. We need to be prepared to teach kids right from wrong on the Internet as much as we do when they're in the hallways or on the playground.
One of the biggest ways a strict content filter infuriates me on a daily basis is for lesson planning purposes. I constantly use the Web to search for lesson ideas and resources. While most major education websites are open to me (teachers have the same filter in my district as students), quite a few useful sites are blocked. This ranges anywhere from some news websites to almost all blogs and social networks (Twitter is currently open, and I'm so shocked that I'm keeping my mouth shut in hopes that it can continue to slip through the cracks). I keep track of things to look at when I get home, but honestly, there are times when I give up on a certain aspect of a lesson because it shouldn't be this difficult to access information as an adult professional at work in the digital age. Not to mention the feeling of frustration that as an adult I am on the same level of filter as my students. Only secretaries and administrators in my building have "open" access. What does this say about how we view teacher professionalism? Teachers need resources to plan: it's what we do, and as respected professionals we should have a certain amount of trust from our districts. Yes, in my district teachers can ask permission and justify why we need certain sites unblocked for our use, but really? Should I have to? Shouldn't I just be trusted unless I've shown that I can't be?
I'm not the only person in my building to complain about these things, and at the beginning of the year our Tech Coordinator came to speak to us about CIPA and why we have to be so strict. I admit I'm ignorant here: I know very little about CIPA because I'm too busy worrying about the million other outside rules and regulations that impact my classroom on a daily basis. Basically, the talk at the beginning of the year scared me into not complaining anymore at the risk of breaking the rules under CIPA. So when I saw this article on Twitter the other day ("Straight from the DOE: Dispelling Myths About Blocked Sites") I loved it. It reinforced many of the topics I'd been thinking about in regards to our content filter, and the trust we place in educators to do their jobs.
For me, strict Internet filters are guided out of fear. And when schools are afraid to teach kids, then we have a major problem. They are online at home and in public, and if no one is teaching them how to navigate this new world, then it is very much our responsibility as educators to face down fear and do our jobs without unnecessary restriction holding us back.
In case I haven't already established it clearly: I am not a poet. For someone who can love and find pleasure in nearly any form of reading and writing, I never felt comfortable with poetry. Yes, I loved Shel Silverstein and other children's poems when I was little, but I never bridged the gap into the grown up stuff. I don't even remember encountering poetry much in middle or high school unless it was epics or Shakespeare, and moving from Shel to Shakespeare is a little like hopping off a tricycle and onto a Vincent Black Lightning (props to any Richard Thompson lovers who know the phenomenal song attached to that particular bike, but I digress). Not only was I not prepared for poetry, but I simply didn't interact with it often enough to gain any kind of appreciation for the form.
I still taught poetry anyway. I recognized its importance even if I didn't have a passion for it, but I can't say that I did anything impressive with it those first few years, and I definitely know I didn't do enough to create any poetry love for my students. Kids can tell when you care about something, and that makes them care more. If the person standing in front of them doesn't even care, why should they?
It really wasn't until summer of 2013 that I took a Contemporary Poetry class at UNI with Dr. Jeremy Schraffenberger that I found poetry I could love. It's hard to explain what he was able to do for me in just two weeks' time, but it changed everything about how I read and teach poetry. I'm still not a confident poetry writer, but now I try. I've found poems that I really do love, and I know how to interact with poetry as a reader, instead of someone who's completely stumped with trying to figure out what it all means!
So naturally, being the good teacher that I am, I steal ideas from those who I view as the best teachers. Dr. Schraffenberger was the best poetry ambassador I've ever had, so I restructured the way I teach poetry to emulate a fraction of what he does. It's been pretty successful the past two years, and I'm delighted that I'm starting to find poets in unlikely places. One activity that I first encountered in Jeremy's class was the idea of writing an "imitative" poem. Simply put, pick a poem you like, and then follow the structure and some basic parts to create your new, "you" version. It's so accessible for 7th graders, some of who are writing poetry for the first time. Once they've had success with this format, it makes them slightly more willing to dive into writing their own, completely original poems later in the unit.
Yesterday, one of my 7th grade boys wrote an imitation version of "Motto" by Langston Hughes. (Side note: rural, mostly white and Hispanic middle school kids freaking love Langston Hughes. EVERY YEAR.) Maximus (yes, I have a student name Maximus, born in 2001: Gladiator fans, anyone?) does not usually like to write anything. So imagine my surprise when he was one of the first ones finished with his rewrite, and for a 7th grader's first poem, it's pretty good. I asked his permission to share it here, and he beamed; it might have been the first time a teacher has ever asked to use his writing as an example.
by Langston Hughes
I play it cool
And dig all jive
That's the reason
I stay alive
As I live and learn
Dig And Be Dug
by Maximus P.
I live it to the fullest
I play to win
That's the reason
Why I play sports
My motto is
As I play football
I say to myself
If you fall get right back
up and don't quit!
Poetry is a great form for struggling writers because it circumvents most of what they hate about formal writing. It gives them freedom to express themselves without worrying about punctuation and complete sentences and everything else. I'm excited to see more from my 7th graders as we go through the next few weeks, finding any poets that might be hiding in my room, waiting to be discovered.
My students all had to take their fall NWEA language test today. That means seven straight class periods of me, sitting in the back of the room working on stuff while they silently answer questions on their iPad screens. A testing proctor comes in to get them logged in and monitor that everything is working fine, and I'm there to... Actually, I don't know why I'm there. I wish I wasn't. I wish I could stay away from school on days like this.
I know other teachers in my building really care about NWEA scores, and I'm not going to say that's wrong. I know quite a few people who think it's wrong that I actively don't give a %+*^ about those same scores, and that's their right. We teach in a society that's constantly demanding teacher and school accountability, and standardized tests are the way in which schools are judged. Some might say it's irresponsible for me not to care.
Here's the thing, though: my students don't just take these tests once a year. This is fall NWEA, and they'll take them again in the spring to chart growth (or lack of). They'll also take the Iowa Assessments in February, just in case enough data hasn't been collected yet. I don't use these scores for anything in my classroom, and luckily I don't have to (yet). Many teachers use NWEA reading scores to determine a student's reading lexile, and then only allow students to read within that lexile range (there's a reason spell check wants to change "lexile" to "exile"). I think the whole lexile business does more to kill love of reading than anything I've ever encountered. I don't limit my reading to books at a certain level, so I certainly don't want to force that on kids. I'm not the reading teacher, though, so I don't have a say and should probably keep my mouth shut.
My students are confused to say the least. They take NWEA in the other classrooms where they are told they will retake if they rush through and don't put in enough effort. Their scores are meticulously recorded the second they finish and tracked against the previous years'. I don't do any of this. I tell them to free read when they're finished and that I don't need to see their scores. I can check them online later when I have to for data reporting.
I was going to give them a pep-talk today. I rehearsed it in my head on the drive to school: something about how they are more than just numbers, and whatever pops on the screen does not tell me anything about how skilled they are as writers and people. I was going to tell them that when they are older, these numbers will have been for nothing. Their future employers, friends, and coworkers will have no idea how "smart" a for-profit testing company once told them they were or weren't. I wanted to tell them to try their best, but to not worry or base any kind of self worth on the results. But I couldn't.
The testing proctor was there, telling them to get started, scolding them for going too fast, worrying about who looked tired, who didn't finish, and who wasn't focused. And she was equally frustrated by the teacher who sat in the back of the room, observing and writing, but not placing the any importance on the test, setting a poor example for the test-takers.
I start class every single day by reading out loud to my students for 5-10 minutes. Some of them are antsy about it when they first come in to 7th grade. Every day? They have to sit and be quiet and have a teacher read to them? Is there a test? Is it a trick? Yes, every day. Yes, quiet. But no tests, no tricks; just reading and experiencing the same book together.
Sometimes I get nervous when my principal does walk-throughs and I'm still reading. I glance at the clock and realize that he probably thinks I'm wasting time, that something more important should be happening. Sometimes it's the first time I notice how long I've been reading, that we're caught up in such a good part that I can't find a good stopping point and the kids are begging for more. What English-lover could tell kids "no" when they beg for more of a book they love? I'm not a monster, for chrissakes. I know that reading aloud is important for kids, and my principal does too, but sometimes it feels hard to justify, like I have to defend my practice. Teachers are expected to constantly be doing something, and simply reading often doesn't seem like it's enough. I've had some adults come right out and tell me that they think I'm doing the kids a disservice, that 7th and 8th grade is too old for this activity. It doesn't matter that in my low-income school, our building can be one of the only places where kids are ever read to. It doesn't matter that when high school kids come back to say hi, they often mention the read-alouds, and how much they miss them now that they're older.
When I make plans for substitutes, I don't usually include the read-aloud. I've had subs complain about it in the past, that it was cumbersome in some way and so I decided to stop fighting it. The kids probably didn't behave as well, and I can see how it would be a classroom management issue for a sub. So my kids were dying for read-aloud on Monday this week since I'd been gone both Thursday and Friday. One of the few notes the sub had left me (other than who was absent): "They really missed being read to. They said it calms them and helps them focus." I was giddy. They love it as much as I do.
I always start 7th graders off with The Giver. This is partially a nod to nostalgia: I read this book for the first time when I was in seventh grade language arts class, and if we can consider YA lit "classics", then I firmly believe that this is one from my lifetime. And it's one that my students often miss when choosing books for themselves. The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner: these are the flashy dystopias that kids are drawn to now. Why would they pick the slim black book with the creepy old man on the cover compared to these current, flashy favorites? So I choose it for them. Some of them are impatient at first. The Giver doesn't contain the high-octane action that they're used to, but their interest builds as they discover what Jonas's world is really like based on the new memories he receives. They want to talk about why a future society would get rid of certain things: why colors and love need to be banned alongside war and hunger.
And then Lois Lowry drops the bomb. We read chapter 19 today. Chapter 19 is when Jonas finds out what "release" really is (Do I need to give an Internet spoiler alert for a book published in 1993?) when he watches the footage of his father releasing a newborn twin. The pacing is so smooth, even as a reader when you start to realize what's happening before Jonas does, you still have the same stunned shock. Every year it's almost the same: my students are silent at first, still trying to wrap their head around what has just happened. "You mean...they KILL babies..and old people...and people who break the rules three times?!" someone always blurts out eventually. The silence is immediately replaced by every 7th grader scrambling to put in his or her two cents at once: "I knew it! I knew there was something weird about release!" "I can't believe his dad was still talking in that creepy baby voice the whole time!" "Don't they have religion? Don't they realize it's wrong to kill people?" All of these questions happen at once, and I have to scold them to keep one at a time. Then I ask my questions: why? Why does release help make the "perfect" society? Why did they think this was necessary to solve problems in society? And then we talk.
This book is not something they will ever be quizzed on or forced to know. Read-alouds are strictly for pleasure, for the shared experience of enjoying a story as a group with no consequences, without dissecting it or tearing it apart. It's okay to forget details and need reminding; it's okay to not understand and ask for clarification. It's okay to simply love a book and love talking about it with other people.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.