Monday, March 2, 2015

It's Read Across America Day. Do you know what many kids are doing in school today? Not celebrating reading.

I was perusing NCTE's Facebook feed last night when I came across a post asking teachers what their students would be doing for Read Across America Day. Do you know what many of them said?

Taking standardized tests.

I weep for children in school today who have to endure this horrible climate of testing that is robbing them of the joys of learning. I can only pray that the tide is beginning to turn.

In honor of Read Across America Day, I'd like to leave you with this thought:

"Reading is one of the most radical things you can do. It is no surprise that autocrats, from the destroyers of the Library at Alexandria to the Nazis and the Taliban, make a habit of burning books. Books give us access to knowledge, opinion, and debate. They open up all the possibilities that those who wish to control and oppress would deny us." - Peter Whittaker 

Students might think they're "sticking it to the man" by not reading, but history has shown, and what I'd like to show them is if you really want to "stick it to the man," read books.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

I got what I deserved: why revision matters

I've been feeling off my game as a teacher lately. That was made painfully obvious to me when I graded my students' recent essays and they were, quite frankly, abysmal. But they were abysmal because I failed to give them some critical scaffolding in order to help them be successful.

Not only that, but I also failed them in another way. I promised myself that I would give students feedback on a draft prior to turning in their final draft and I didn't do that with this essay. So as a result, they gave me what I deserved.

So I made sure to fix the problem. The past two days we worked on the critical piece that they missed (i.e., the piece I failed to scaffold), and I gave them time to revise their essays. As a result, both I and my students were on our game today. Kids were asking questions and there was an air of collegiality in the room. As I worked with individual students and saw that the reinforcing of what they missed the first time around was finally starting to stick, I realized, once again, how important it is that we give our students more time on a piece of writing than we think is needed. Unfortunately in the race to cover as much material as possible, what students lose out on is the opportunity to really wrestle with a piece of writing. I'm glad this assignment reminded me to slow down and take our time.

Slice of Life is brought to you by Two Writing Teachers

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Finding Inspiration in the Classroom: Matching Your Passion to Resources

30 - With Cathy BlacklerCathy Blackler is a wonderful friend of mine from Southern California. We first met, as I have with so many of my teacher friends, via Twitter, and have since shared many meals and stories together at NCTE.

At NCTE this past November, Cathy told me a phenomenal story about a way she was trying to fund a music program at her school. It was a story, as are so many of Cathy's stories, that was legendary. And on Thursday, it became more than just the stuff of legends. It became a reality. When Cathy posted this story, I asked if  I could also post it here because I didn't want her words to get lost in the ephemera of Facebook. I especially love that I can hear Cathy's joyful voice telling this story as I read her words

Thank you Cathy for your beautiful spirit and your passion for your students! I am honored to call you my friend. The first time I read this on Thursday I got all teary and did once again as I was putting this post together. 

Cathy's story is just another reminder of why teachers matter.


I definitely found the joy today. Today was epic. It may very well have been the High Point of my Teaching Year. Let me tell you a story:

In September I took my husband on a date to a benefit concert for Jail Guitar Doors, founded here in the US by Motor City 5 member Wayne Kramer. I could not help but notice the similarities between Wayne's mission, to help prisoners find their voice through music, and the mission of our alternative high school and its music program. As we were in desperate need of new instruments for our program I figured I would contact Wayne, via Twitter, to see if he had any advice on how to acquire instruments. He graciously replied and we spoke on the phone, bonding over our passion for the populations we serve. While Wayne could not help me directly, he gave me a contact: Matt Sorum, former drummer of Guns N' Roses, Velvet Revolver, The Cult, and current drummer and founder of the Supergroup, Kings of Chaos. Matt has founded a non-profit called Adopt the Arts. Their mission is to fund music programs in schools where said programs have been cut completely or where funding has dried up.

 So, of course, I penned an email and hit send, never imagining in my wildest dreams what would come of it. Two days later, I received a reply.

 Hi Cathy, How are you?

A rhetorical question, no doubt. How am I? Seriously, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee Matt Sorum just asked me that question. Better yet, he replied that he would love to be involved with our program, AND could I take a phone call.

Why yes. Yes I can. A few phone calls, lots of emails, and a face-to-face meeting at The Adopt the Arts benefit last month eventually led us to today. Matt, along with Paul Ill (who served as his official photographer) arrived at our school along with a van full of instruments. A new bass, three new guitars, a new drum kit, keyboard, mics and amps were presented to our student body, along with a heartfelt message from Matt about the importance of music as a social equalizer. He also informed our kids that his "adoption" comes with a 5 year commitment from him.

 I tell my students every day that they have the power to change their circumstance. Hearing it from someone like Matt is something few of them will forget.

 And it gets better.

After listening to them perform two songs, one of which was an original, Matt sat in on the drums as the group played "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."

Seriously. This happened.

 I feel pretty bad-ass today.

I will be forever grateful to Matt for his generosity, his graciousness, and his genuine concern for our students and their future.

 Did I mention I love my job?
Cathy's pic3

Cathy's pic1

Cathy's pic2
Photos courtesy of Cathy Blackler and Matt Sorum's Facebook page

Celebrate This Week was established by Ruth Ayres

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Students and social media: let's get our heads out of the sand

Yesterday was one of those days as a teacher when I'm reminded that I couldn't care less if my students can rattle off the 8 parts of speech or the 6 traits of writing after they leave my class, but instead have I helped them on their journey through life.

After reading and writing about it on Tuesday, yesterday we actually sat down and discussed our article of the week, which was:
One bad tweet can be costly to a student athlete

From this article, we talked and thought about:
  •  the fairness of judging people based on their social media presence.  
  • whether there are currently posts on their social media accounts right now that could result in a lost opportunity such as college admission, scholarship, or future job.
  • what your social media postings as a whole (rather than just scrutinizing individual posts) say about you as a person -- and not just what you think it says about you as a person, but also what others could perceive about you.
  • how adults admonish every generation in some way. Social media is this generation's way of adults shaking their heads and saying "kids these days." 
  • because social media opens our lives to public scrutiny, unfortunately, mistakes in this day and age can often have bigger consequences
  • how adults should not be forbidding kids from social media activity or ignoring the fact that they're using it (taking the ostrich approach if you will), but rather should be a model of good digital citizenship.
  • how it's not just kids making mistakes on social media.
  • that the adults in the article had some good policies and made some good points, but there are a few places where they are being extremely judgmental, and even crotchety. One of my students even used the phrase "Get off my lawn" in discussion, which I thought was pretty hilarious and rather insightful.
  • whether what you do on social media is "right" or "wrong," as it says in the end of the article, "Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences." 

I'm hoping there will be lots of conversations with friends and dinner table discussions after yesterday's class. I also hope that more teachers will choose to have discussions with their students about these issues rather than just give them lectures and tell them cautionary tales. Let's be proactive rather than reactive. We're all navigating this brave new world together. Let's swim alongside them at a tranquil beach rather than throw them in a roiling, shark-infested ocean to fend for themselves.

Kids are smart. They know what's up. At the same time, they're also impulsive and learning to manage their emotions. We were that way too as adolescents. We just had the benefit of not being that way for all the world to see. Let's give them some compassion and empathy rather than our disapproval and judgy shakes of the head. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Write Beside Them

At the beginning of the year I told students that one thing I could promise them this year was that I would write with them.

Today I had a student say to me, "Mrs. Shaum, remember when you said at the beginning of the year to call you out if you weren't writing with us? Did you do the article of the week that you assigned us today?"

Oh, you mean this article of the week?
I have been a scattered mess of a teacher this year. I'm ill-prepared, unorganized, and impulsive. But I have remained consistent with one thing and that is that I write with my students. And I am better for it.

I recently read a wonderful blog post by Pernille Ripp called "Before You Assign That Homework - What Students Wish You Knew" and everything in that post is what I practice as a teacher - particularly doing the assignments I dish out to my students. Do you know how you show your students that the work you assign them is valuable? You do it with them.

Slice of Life is brought to you by Two Writing Teachers

Sunday, February 15, 2015

How should literacy learning be assessed? Have your voice heard in the conversation.

A group of passionate, vocal teachers from EMU's Teacher Advocacy Workshop
I am so grateful to the experiences I have had as a grad student in the English Studies for Teachers program at Eastern Michigan University. This graduate program has really allowed me to see the need for teacher leaders, rather than the typical story in education which is that you are only viewed as a leader in this field if you are an administrator. Don't get me wrong, good administrators in education are EXTREMELY important. But in a profession where there is very little upward mobility, going from teacher to administrator is really the only way to move up in the field of education. Which is why my experience in the English Studies MA program has been game-changing for me. It has allowed me to see that I can be a leader in my field and make a difference being "just a teacher." (Picture me using air quotes and rolling my eyes here.)

In addition to my graduate studies, another game-changer in my career has been my membership in the National Council of Teachers of English. As a young teacher, NCTE was an organization I was proud to join and happily paid my yearly membership. It is the oldest literacy organization in the country, but that does not imply that their beliefs and positions are old and dated. NCTE's stances on issues of diversity, social justice, assessment, and literacy instruction have paved the way for theory and practice in English classrooms since 1911 and have always been groundbreaking and forward-thinking.

Even if you're not an English teacher, NCTE's stances on the aforementioned issues make them an organization I believe every teacher should be a member of, or at the very least, be aware of their position statements and policy research.

We are at a moment in our nation's history where the people furthest removed from classroom instruction have the loudest voices and biggest stake in the decisions being made in and for schools. NCTE wants teachers to have their voices heard amongst the din of educational policymakers who don't know what it's like to spend an entire day in a classroom full of students and who are bereft of knowledge in best practices and research by experienced educators.

If you're a teacher and you'd like to be included in on the conversation, I invite you to take 10 minutes to answer this 5-question survey about how you think literacy learning should be assessed. We all deserve to have our voices heard. Not just the people with the most money and clout in Washington.

Also, don't forget to participate in tonight's #nctechat on Twitter. If you're reading this post after February 15th at 8 PM ET, check out the Storify archive.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Celebrate Ambiguous Endings

Since Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen is a book that totally perplexed me, and given that it just won a Caldecott honor, I decided to read it to my 8th graders this week. This is a book that spurred much discussion and perplexity in my classroom. I was delighted at the thinking and questioning it sparked.

In addition to reading the story as a class, my students read about some of Travis Jonker's theories (they particularly liked the Jesus theory) and came up with some of their own, my favorite being that the book starts at Dave's house and ends at Sam's house. When I told Travis about this theory on Facebook, it led to quite a spirited discussion by teachers, librarians authors, and the like, particularly the idea of whether or not Sam and Dave were brothers or cousins (there's a line in the story that mentions their grandfather, meaning they shared a grandparent). If they were cousins, then beginning at one house and ending at another would be plausible, but not so much if they were brothers.

My students asked if I would tweet Jon and Mac to ask them what they think happens at the end of the story. I doubt very much that they would reveal that information, and even if they would, I don't know if I want the answer. The whole reason people love this book is because it spurs so much discussion. So as tempting as it is to tweet Jon and Mac and ask, "So what is your take on what happened at the end of your crazy book?" I think I will pass. Then again, they do give a little clue as to what they think happens at the end in this interview:

Still, I think I'm just going to embrace the uncertainty and let this story spontaneously insert itself into class discussions for the rest of the year. For instance, "Well, what about Sam and Dave Dig a Hole? That book doesn't have a denouement." (Denouement is their new favorite word to use in class discussions).

For those people who don't think picture books should be read to students past 3rd grade, I have just added another book to the pile that cements my argument as to why they are for ALL AGES, not just primary grades. This book is full of complexity and makes a case for the importance of visual literacy (Explain the reasoning behind wanting to show a full spread of the house, the pets, and the tree without Sam and Dave at the end of the book. What is this trying to tell us here?). I have to admit, I missed a lot of the visual cues I was supposed to notice my first (and second!) read-throughs. It was only until students began to point them out that I started to make those connections. So again, please, I beg of you, do not assume that because a book is only 32 pages and has pictures that it is overly simplistic. I can assure you, there are many picture books that can teach literary elements just as well, if not better, than novels.

Celebrate This Week was established by Ruth Ayres

Note: This was crossposted to my book blog, A Foodie Bibliophile in Wanderlust