Tag Archives: reading

Morgan Freeman, Memorization, and My Mutt

29 May

Vintage Simon SaysSometimes, I am a crazy person walking the street. I have a reactive dog, and recently I’ve been trying something new. When another dog is near us, and Finn is about to turn into a whirling dervish of spastic barking, I recite poetry from memory. This week I’ve memorized the prologue to Romeo & Juliet. Next up is “Ocean” by Mary Oliver.

I am sure my neighbors think I am a nutter (especially the German ones), but the dog seems to like this practice. She’s getting calmer every month, and I am archiving some wonderful verse. Memorizing poetry is an utterly “old school” act, but it has real value. I am asking my grade 7 students to memorize a poem of at least ten lines as one of the closing activities of the year.

I proposed the idea after discussing Nelson Mandela and his recitation of “Invictus” during his darkest hours of imprisonment. I was describing the poem to my students, and then I thought, why don’t I just look for a recitation online? It turns out, Morgan Freeman explains the power of memorized verse much more powerfully than I do:

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What to Read Next? Reading Recommendation Platforms

22 Dec

bless my sponge bathThe good folks at goodreads.com sent me a not-so-good year-in-review email this week. They congratulated me on reading seven books in 2013. I’m not sure why, but they have it wrong. I read 31.

I looked up my actual number in the good-old-fashioned-analog book journal I have been keeping for about four years now. And, like every year, these books have varied in topic, genre, and style…to a degree. I typically read a smattering of non-fiction and poetry; try on the most recent Pulitzer and a few other major works of fiction; and wash this down with a healthy chug of fantasy/sci-fi.

Increasingly, I am drawn to piles and piles of YA. Technically, I need to read this writing for my job. I take pride in staying up-to-date on recommendations for the young adults I teach. But, I will also admit that I love the stuff. I take no shame, ladies and gentleman, in sharing similar tastes with thirteen-year-old girls. OK. I feel some shame when writing that line. Amendment: I take no shame in sharing similar tastes with bookish thirteen-year-old girls who know Twilight is rubbish and turn away in a huff from any book with glitter on its cover.

Of course, not everyone shares my reading tastes, and isn’t that a wonderful thing? There are plenty of books for every reader out there. In the classroom, I—like you—give students recommendations, and they—like yours—regularly suggest titles to one another. However, I also use some online resources to help students find books they want to read next:

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An Alternative to Traditional Summer Reading

5 Jun

Our Head of School hates summer reading. He has banned it.

Before you think ill of him, he’s a former English teacher who cares deeply about engendering a love of reading in all students. His position? Assigned summer reading does more harm than good.

Our students, then, are required to read the equivalent to at least three novels over the summer. They decide what they read. They can even read magazines, blogs, or other genres as long as this reading approximates the length of three books.

We want our students to read habitually, and we want them use summer reading time to explore their passions. When they return from summer break, we spend some time talking about their summer reading (and I have them write about it). We do not, however, quiz them or assign major projects. The program is largely run on an honor system.

Now, I KNOW some students fail to complete any summer reading. Yet, far fewer students slack off than one would think. The majority of the students choose appropriate, engaging work, and as a result, many more students enjoy summer reading.

It’s important to note, too, that the majority of the students I teach do NOT consider themselves natural readers or writers. Many of my students have language-based learning issues that require some form of accommodation. A choice-based system, especially for this population of reluctant readers, makes even more sense.

Over the three years we have used this summer reading policy, I consistently receive feedback from struggling readers about how it has helped them. I have also found that all students are more likely to continue to have a positive attitude toward our choice reading throughout the school year because they have been given the chance to develop their own reading habits.

Betty writes: “At the end of every school year, there’s only one thing I actually dread that’s upcoming in the summer, and that’s summer reading. Some of the books that I’ve had to read in middle school were absolutely dire, probably the most uninteresting stories I’ve ever had to sit through. The fact that I’m not an avid reader and that I don’t enjoy it in general makes it all the worse. The Beaver summer reading policy helped me as a reader in many ways, mostly by letting me be engaged in the texts that I got to choose on my own.”

Jackson writes, “In most cases when I read an assigned book over the summer, I only read it because I have to. I tend not to be very engaged and just read to finish the book. In addition, I usually take the lazy way out while reading an assigned book. I might end up skipping parts of the book, which does not happen if I am reading a book that interests me. When I read a good book, tt usually makes me want to read more books and expand my knowledge. I think this goes for a lot of kids out there that are in the same boat as me.”

Carl writes, “I have never liked to read very much, but the summer reading policy allowed me to be interested and actually like what I was reading. Beyond that, it also made me want to read…I read the book American Fencer, and I was very interested in this book because he was going through a process of international and Olympic fencing, which I would like to do someday.  I think that I am the only one in the class that would be interested in the book, so it would not get assigned by any teacher.  Because I was able to read a book that I was interested in, there were times during the summer that I wanted to pick up a book and read instead of doing something like play video games.  If we were assigned books I would have tried to procrastinate and avoid reading as much as possible.”

These three students (changed their names, of course) grew so much this year, and they are representative of the type of student I love to teach…an interesting, independent student who just doesn’t really “get” English class without some help. While each of them is still not likely to consider himself or herself a “reader,” each approaches reading with far less dread than one year ago. I know that my work in the classroom has helped shaped their improved attitude toward reading, and I’m happy that our summer reading policy nurtures this enthusiasm instead of squashing it.

It really is impossible to choose the perfect summer reading book to assign every student, so I think we should stop trying. Instead, set a total book (or page) goal, and let the students choose their own texts. We can tackle the dense stuff during the school year. Such an approach will do more to engender a love of reading that lasts well beyond our time with each individual student.

The Great Gatsby Resources

4 May

gatsby bannerThe very first website I ever visited was for Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. I instantly fell in love with the movie and the power of the Internet. Needless to say, I am hoping for similar magic from his adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Of course, I’ve seen Australia, so I’m not getting too hopeful.

My colleague and I will take an eager group of students to see the film, so I thought I would share a quick post on some of my favorite Gatsby resources:

 

The Roaring Twenties On-line Game from McCord Museum (a great way to introduce some cultural context before reading the novel)

 

Daisy’s Lullaby (my favorite Gatsby YouTube video)

A Series of Links I use to generate discussions on wealth distribution in the U.S. Today:

How Is Wealth Divided in the U.S.?
Graphic Information on America’s Distribution of Wealth
How the Rich Get Richer
How the Poor Get Poorer
NYT Interactive Class Calculator

Was Gatsby Great? Asks John Green at Crash Course Literature:

Go Gatsbify Yourself

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Spanking Shakespeare: My Blind Date

16 Feb

pileofbookmarksWe do not have a library at my school. We do, however, have the BiblioTECH. The unusual name is purposeful, indicating our school’s focus on the intersection between books and information technology. Before you groan too loudly, don’t despair. Our BiblioTECH is still a place firmly dedicated to enticing young readers to fall in love with the printed word.

As part of a clever marketing campaign, our un-Librarian (yes…her official title) urged us to take a book on a blind date in February. She wrapped 30+ titles in brown paper and displayed them at the entrance. Anyone could pick a book at random, unwrap it at home, and agree to read it within two weeks. Of course, I couldn’t resist (nor could several of my students).

I’m pleased to report this blind date was a memorable one, an instant attraction filled with easy laughs and serendipitous connections. I was lucky enough to meet Jake Wizner’s Spanking Shakespeare.

spank_shakespeare_new_cvrShakespeare Shapiro, a witty and neurotic high school senior, longs to win his school’s memoir contest and lose his virginity. Naturally, in the course of his misadventures he learns a bit about his friends, his family, and himself. A very funny YA read that cleverly sidesteps a pat ending, this first-time novel was a delightful surprise.

I feel lucky to work with fellow passionate readers who are committed to enticing young people into the tribe. I hope you will consider setting up Blind Dates for the readers in your life. Some will be disasters, and others will just be “meh.” Yet, more often than we would expect, there’s magic in these chance encounters.

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T.V. as Text: Secret Millionaire Essay

8 Dec

Livro ou TV?I will not shock fellow English teachers when I write that most of my students watch television more often than they read. I’m not complaining. I actually think the current generation of teenagers reads more often than the previous one…thank you, Ms. Rowling.

I have, however, been thinking about how I can use my students’ love of T.V. to make them more critical, artistic writers. If I can help them become more empathetic human beings in the process, then maybe I will finally get into Gryffindor.

In recent years I have asked my students to write about ABC’s show Secret Millionaire. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, a millionaire goes undercover for the week, posing as a regular person who happens to be making a documentary about volunteerism. The millionaire visits an impoverished neighborhood and volunteers at charitable organizations within the community. At the end of the week, the millionaire returns to the organizations, reveals his or her identity, and leaves a fat check.

As a way to help students develop skills of persuasion, organization, and communication, I assign this essay. They write to their fellow students, and I ask the most successful writers to submit their pieces to our school newspaper and other online sources like teenink.com.

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My Mustache Was Made in China

28 Nov

This most excellent fake mustache was made were most everything seems to be made…China. I, like you, buy things without ever really thinking about their origins. In this case, I just thought it might be useful to have a stash of fake ‘staches in the classroom. Of course, they’ve proven to be invaluable in so many ways.

In this case, the mustache was just another item I used to illustrate our global supply chain. Allow me to explain.

A “Made in China” Scavenger Hunt has been one of the most successful “go to” lessons I’ve created in recent years. The idea is fairly simple:

  1. Divide the class into teams of 2-4.
  2. Give the teams five minutes to search anywhere in the room for a “Made in China” label.
  3. Bribe them with a wonderful and mysterious prize for the team who finds the most items. (I keep a “Bag ‘O Mystery” on hand filled with odd flea market and garage sale finds. I gave away a Chewbacca bobble-head the other day that was particularly coveted.)
  4. Step back and watch them go.

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Low Prep #Reading Quizzes that Are Quick to Grade

20 Oct

As an English teacher I must sometimes act as a gatekeeper. I care deeply about engendering a love of reading in my students, and I work diligently toward that end…but I also create situations where I just try to determine a very basic answer to a very basic question, “Did you read it or not?”

This step seems obvious, but many teachers leave this fundamental question to chance. They believe their students will read because they were told to read, but I argue that this kind of trust is actually a disservice to the learners in our classrooms. I am a very optimistic man who believes in second chances and basic human decency, but as an English teacher I am also a crusty, pragmatic troll guarding a bridge. If you didn’t read the book, you’re not getting by me. Let me explain…

I always give a reading quiz the day before I want to discuss the book. This simple step allows me time to determine who has read, and it gives unprepared students a bit of time to catch up. With these quizzes I check for basic reading completion one of three ways:

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