Close and Critical Reading

Because one of my district’s School Improvement Goals is literacy-based, we developed an assessment called Close and Critical Reading (CCR). I know what you’re thinking…aw jeez, another assessment.

Hear me out.

Teaching CCR skills helps students not just understand what they read better, but it helps them to intelligently talk about the features of the text, the inferences they can make, and the connections they see. Students are given a text appropriate to the content of the class they are in (we do this across the curriculum so students can build their skills in all sorts of texts, not just fiction in the English class). Then they are given four questions:

  1. What does the text say? (summarize)
  2. How does the text say it? (discuss genre, features, and language)
  3. Why does the text say it? (inference of theme, lesson, or slice of life)
  4. So what? (making connections both with self and society)

We give the test as a summative assessment four times a year (once per marking period), but we do formative assessments of these skills almost daily–at least in the English Language Arts classes.

I have been doing CCR-type lessons with my high school students for year, but now that I am a junior high teacher, I need to remember that these students need the basics before they can refine the skills.

This led me to create my very first anchor charts!
2014-11-25 15.29.20

You can see that I do not have the neatness and creativity of a seasoned anchor chart maker, but I did my best.
2014-11-25 15.28.55
and as we move on, you can tell I lost my patience with trying to write neatly…
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and instead of starting over when there were boo boos, I just fudged it.

2014-11-25 15.29.10

In order to teach these skills, we also teach active reading, but that is another post.

It’s funny because if you tell the students they are learning CCR skills, they get all groany. But if you just have them do the skills without labeling, they do it with {almost} no whining.

Couple this with all the “free” silent reading we do in class in our own books means we are building much better readers…and kids who actually like to read!

Blame the Common Core!

 

Since school has started, I have seen all the usual complaints on Facebook about the evils of the Common Core.

I don’t get the math!  Blame the Common Core!

My kid takes test every other minute!  Blame the Common Core!

My kid has too much homework! Blame the Common Core!

I heard that cursive no longer needs to be taught! Blame the Common Core!

Teachers are given scripts to read; they aren’t teaching anymore! Blame the Common Core!

It snowed in November causing a snow day! Blame the Common Core!

Ok, maybe I didn’t hear that last one, but at this point I wouldn’t be surprised if I did. Lately all the ails of education are being firmly blamed on the Common Core State Standards. As a teacher, this gets tiring to hear/read.

First of all, I didn’t create the Common Core, I just follow the standards. Secondly, I am not opposed to the Common Core. In fact, I sort of like them. I have enjoyed creating projects and lessons more in the past couple years than I have in the decade before. I personally feel more freedom to just be a GOOD teacher.  Let me break it down for you:

Math is hard.

I’m not a math teacher, so it’s hard for me to explain this part to you. I wrote about the math standards last year. Now that I have a son in Kindergarten, I have been following the math standards more closely. I am pleased that not only is he meeting each standard, but I see evidence of how he is learning it through the work that comes home in his folder. The math, so far, seems like it is doing a better job teaching students what numbers mean and how math actually works rather than having them do rote memorization. I think this video explains the math better than I can.

So many tests!

I’m not sure if this is a state thing or a district thing, but I am not seeing it in my district in Michigan. When parents (and even teachers) complain that assessments are taking over their instruction time, I’m not entirely sure if they mean mandated testing (by the state, district, etc) or if they mean assessments their department has put into place.

I give assessments, but they have nothing to do with the fact that I am following common core and everything to do with it being an end of a unit (in vocab or grammar). Papers and projects also count as assessments. And technically I am assessing my students’ understanding daily whether I put it in the gradebook as an official summative assessment or not.

The only assessments that my students HAVE to take outside of my class curriculum are the SRI (Scholastic Reading Inventory) Test (4 times a year) and the SMI (scholastic math inventory) Test (4 times a year). They also take the state test once a year (in April).

Too much homework!

I don’t know what to tell you here. Homework is not anywhere in the Common Core Standards. In fact, I assign almost no homework.

Homework is an implementation thing. So if you feel your child has too much, you should be talking with the teacher and/or administration.

No more cursive???

Ok, it’s true. Cursive is not included in the Common Core State Standards. But neither is Tuesdays with Morrie and I’m teaching that to my 8th graders. The Common Core are standards that every child in that grade should achieve. That doesn’t mean teachers can’t go beyond the standards. Just because cursive isn’t required in the standards, doesn’t mean teachers aren’t teaching it.

Teacher Scripts.

I’ve heard of this happening. Or at least I’ve heard of districts telling teachers what and how to teach. That is not happening in my district. In fact, I think it’s happening in districts that are panicked about the Common Core and how they can “teach to the test” given in their state.

The teachers in our district (and others across Michigan) have worked hours and hours to actually make learning more student-centered; to create project-based, inquiry-based, and authentic learning for their students.  Since adopting the Common Core in our district years ago (when it was first mentioned in the state), we have actually made more room for good teachers to do good teaching.

If you feel the teachers in your district are being told how to teach–and it’s not good teaching–speak up! No where in the Common Core does it say HOW to teach, only what standards to teach.

Snow Day in November??

This happened here because of a foot of snow. Not the fault of the common core.

Are there issues with the Common Core? Yes. They have become very political, money has ruled (the way it does everything else in this country), and it’s being implemented poorly in some areas.

However, as a teacher in the trenches of it all, dealing with matching what I do with these “new” standards, I like it. I block out much of the politics and bickering about testing and I just do what I do: teach the best I can.

I really believe that is what the majority of teachers are doing. I know my son’s Kindergarten teacher is doing a fabulous job…not because of the common core nor in spite of them, but because he is an amazing teacher.

*************

I am a part of the Michigan Education Association’s (MEA) Common Core Cadre that works to inform and aid districts across Michigan on best practice of implementing the Common Core State Standards. I’ve also been published in the Language Arts Journal of Michigan on the subject.

*************

The best way to be a great student no matter what the standards is to be a great reader!  Don’t forget to enter my giveaway for the children’s book Stand Up!

some parting words

Dear seniors of Sluiter Nation,

Or should I say, “Ok guys, a few things…” since that is how I start every single class, every single day for the past nine months with you.

Tomorrow (Friday) is your last day. I’ve been back and forth and kept awake at night about these last couple days with you. I want our year to end just right. I want to say just the right things to you.  But here is the deal, I can’t.

I can’t do it.

For one, if I say the things in my heart out loud, it will come out all wrong. I will make one of my faces because I will feel uncomfortable and you will all laugh. Or, and this is my bigger fear, I will cry.

Plus I would have to say all this four times since there are four classes of you guys.

So I am going to write my parting words for you (and the rest of the interwebs, I guess) to read. So here it goes…

I’m going to miss you weirdos.

I am not exaggerating when I say this has been my best year of teaching in at LEAST five years.  I have never not liked my job, but this year I loved it again.  That was because of you guys.

I can’t remember the last time I was so exhausted at the end of the school year…but in a good way. In a way that felt like I was tired because I had put forth so much of my heart and soul into good things. You guys are those good things.

And I will miss you.

First hour, I will miss the way we eased into our mornings together. School started at 7:30am, but we were never a full class until at BEST 7:45 (Ok, I won’t miss that, ya slackers!), but I do appreciate that you guys could hang out on those days of terrible weather that  made me late. I never had to worry about you guys acting like fools while I wasn’t there. I could concentrate on getting to school safely.

I’ll miss the way that even though you seemed sort of asleep, you were consistently the class who heard all the directions–even if you were always the last to get every single assignment in from each person.

I’ll miss the guys, and I’ll miss all the ladies who tolerated the guys and joined me in the eye-rolling about the guys.

Petey and Tyler, may you continue to always find a funny on a Friday even after you’re not in room 47 anymore. And Logan, I’m sorry I almost got you fired for getting you addicted to hashtags. #sorrynotsorry

Fourth hour, I will miss your great greetings.  Each of you were so good at saying, “Hey Mrs. Sluiter!” or “Good morning, Mrs. Sluiter!”  You all came in so happy each day.

And you kicked ACE at English.  You did. You amazed me on the daily. This class consistently blew me out of the water with the level of awesome that you achieved on stuff I assigned.

Whether we were talking about Beowulf, Macbeth, or you were talking in your book clubs, the stuff you came up with was awesome and so uniquely YOU.

Oh and Cody? #merica

Sixth hour, Thank you for being my after lunch class. You guys won as the class who, hands down, had the best class discussions.  You also laughed the hardest at my stories and jokes, which means you win.

I will miss your ridiculous randomness, your tireless effort to get out of work, and how shocked you all were when you realized that you could do amazing things (like write really well and read a whole book and love it).

I will miss how great you could make me feel even though it was the afternoon and I wanted to be tired.

I do give side-eye to all of you who brought in delicious-looking snacks and never shared with me. #justsayin’

Although thanks for not leaving a mess because messes = mice and bugs. Mice and bugs = GROSS.

Seventh hour, Thanks for being, by far, the chillest last hour of the day I have ever had in thirteen years in the teaching business. I know anyone who walked in my room did a double take because they couldn’t believe you all were working so hard and so quietly. I like to say I am such a BA teacher that I made you that way, but you are all just that cool.

Instead of being wild banshees at the end of the day, you guys knew to get your shiz done and get on with it. I like that.

Well, except you, Nick. You were totally out of control. #sarcasmfont

All of you…

I know you’re giggling as I get sappy here because you know there were times you did nothing in my class. I know that too. I mean, it wasn’t perfect.

There were things that I could have done differently to make you all more successful, and there were definitely things some of you could have done differently to have a better ending to this school year.

But what it came down to was this: you guys made me want to be a better teacher each day. You made me want to try new things that would help more students. And you LET me try those things–like the book clubs–without too much complaint, and even with a whole lot of encouragement.

You were honest with me.

You were fun.

You were serious.

You were ridiculous.

You were totally weird.

You were random.

You were you.

And I am going to miss each and every one of you (yes, even you).

Because I know you think teachers taking selfies is hilarious.

Because I know you think teachers taking selfies is hilarious.

I want you to know I am proud of each of you. EACH OF YOU has something from my class to be proud of. I have been praying for each of you this entire school year.

I am so happy to have been a tiny part of each of your lives.

Thank you.

~Mrs. Sluiter

“You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So… get on your way!” 

(Oh, The Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss)

way leading on to way

I’ve been listening to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ album, The Heist, a lot lately.

I’m not sure if that is either here nor there or if it has to do with anything. It’s just been my thinking music lately.

Anyway, I’m feeling…I don’t know what. Frustrated? Disappointed?  Sad. I’m feeling sad.

Last week I wrote about why the Common Core Standards are not evil. Of course, after that, I ended up seeing about fifty posts about why they are basically the anti-Christ.

I lost sleep over those posts.

I cried.

Why can’t they understand? Why can’t *I* make them understand?

Friday night, after midnight, I finally closed my Chromebook, and took my upset, worry-filled tummy to bed.  And tossed and turned all night.  I fretted all day Saturday.

I was encouraged to write another piece.

I don’t know.

Lately I feel like I am standing next to a huge…giant…ENORMOUS mountain.  If I squint, I can see the top through the fog and clouds. At the top I see a spot that I would totally look good on. I would be comfortable there. And I know, I KNOW I would rock that spot on the top of the mountain.

But then I let me eyes travel down from that spot on the top. Down the side, over the cliffs and crags, over and under the dangers and perils, until I get to my own two feet at the bottom of the mountain.

I look around me a the rather large hills that I climb each day. Some times I run up them and stand at the top with my arms raised.  Other times I pull myself up by sheer will power.

Other days I don’t quite make it to any of the tops of those hills.

And then I look back up that mountain.

I am so small.

I am just one person.

The internet is not my job. It’s not even my full-time hobby or passion.

Over the past six+ years, I have accumulated a small audience. A community I love. People out there who support my writing and push me forward in this thing called life with love and words.

But we are a small speck of the internet.

I’ve always been Ok with that because it’s never been my intent to leave teaching for writing. It’s never been my dream or goal to write a book. I have no intention of leaving this space behind, but I don’t have any plans to make a drastic life change either. I love to teach.

Let me say it again: I love to teach.

The Common Core is not my passion; teaching students is my passion.

I have a lot…a LOT…I could say in response to the outrage and rants out there on the internet by people who are not currently in education and who are basing their opinion of the Common Core on implementation strategies and procedures they are seeing in their schools or have “heard about”.

But the internet–and all those looking for a scandal and another reason to hate public schools–are not going to listen to me, a small blogger who happens to be a teacher.

No one cares about my credentials (over a decade of teaching experience, BA in English, MA with an emphasis on teaching English, member of the National Writing Project via the Third Coast Writing Project, member of the National Council of Teachers of English, high school English teacher, and adjunct English instructor at our local community college).

The fact is I am not going to write the next viral post on education.

Because posts that tell people about the good stuff that is going on due to a government-mandated change rarely go viral. Those posts get ten or so pat-on-the-back comments from people who already read that blog (which I love, by the way) and then the internet moves on to what it can be outraged about next.

If I could, I would take the internet into my district, into my school, and into my classroom. I would show you my students and their writing. I would introduce you to the families and the community.  I would let you see our brutal reality, but show you how we do such SUCH positive things every single day while following the Common Core. I would invite you to a department meeting, a staff meeting, a student meeting.

Shoot, forget about the Common Core. I don’t even care about it. What I care about is public education. I care about changing the perspective. I care about fixing the system.

I care about teaching kids. I care about making their future better.

I could climb that mountain and I could get to the top and I could be loud and proud up there.

But it’s just a big mountain.

And I’m so small.

So I will turn away from that mountain and leave it for another day.  Although, as my man Robert Frost said in a poem that is sort of famous, I know how “way leads on to way” and that I will probably  never come back.

I’d look good on top of that mountain.  I would.

But I can’t abandon the hills for the cause–or pride- of climbing a mountain.

*************

On a totally different note, my friend Jennifer P. Williams is at the tail end of her 31 days of cookies series and yesterday she posted a recipe I sent her for Chocolate Chip Meringue Cookies.

crippling expectations

A few weeks ago I bought a beautiful purple mum. I placed it on our stoop next to our front door under a fall wreath that I had created a couple years ago. Every time I pulled into our driveway, I smiled at the pretty pop of color it gave the house as all the rest of the plants had started to wither and brown.

Yesterday as I turned into our driveway, I noticed that my mums were all dried up and brown.

I had forgotten to water them.

Something was bound to give, I suppose. This is the paradox of this school year for me, and I was feeling it on Sunday.  The brown mums were the last straw, I guess you could say.

I love each and every opportunity and responsibility I have taken on this fall.

Having four sections of twelfth grade English has been so fun and such a great challenge. I love the immense responsibility of helping our school get it’s graduation rate up because it’s not just a number to me, it’s the 100 faces that show up in my classroom each day. For some of these kids it means they will be the first in their family to graduate.  That isn’t a statistic to me, it’s personal.

Last year I took on the volunteer task of doing Students of the Month at my school.  Each month I send out a survey to staff gathering nominations. Then I get to announce the winning students in each grade (one boy and one girl, so a total of six kids each month). But I don’t have it end there. I track down each student, have each fill out a profile questionnaire, and then pose for a photo. Then I ask their teachers to give me a sentence or two about the student. I take all that, combine it with their photos and post it on a bulletin board in the hall. I also submit it for the monthly school newsletter.

It’s a lot of work for no pay, but I adore it. The kids get such a proud smile when they find out they are chosen. And reading what their teachers say about them almost make me tear up. But my favorite part is watching students look at the bulletin board. It’s such a huge affirmation to our kids here.

Being back in the Community College classroom has been positive for me too.  I absolutely love teaching a class that is focused on writing. I love the discussion and the higher level of maturity I get with college students. I feel like I am able to stretch my teaching muscles in new ways through teaching this class.

On top of all that I am trying to keep up with freelance writing. I love the challenge of expository writing and researching content that I may not otherwise read about. I like practicing what I preach. I spend so much time teaching students to do good informational writing, but recently I haven’t done much of it myself. Unfortunately, when things get busy, this is the first thing I have to say no too.  And of course it’s the only one bringing me in some spending money for Christmas gifts, but I would rather give that up than give up time with my family.

This past weekend things caught up with me.

I have been diligently sticking to my time management plan, but  when 130 essays get turned in at once, things get squished.

Sunday I felt like I was failing everyone. I couldn’t grade fast enough. It consumed my entire day and evening. I wasn’t seeing my family, I wasn’t going fast enough to get the papers back to my students in a timely way.

I texted Cortney from where I sat in Starbucks armpit-deep in essays. I was crying and I told him I felt useless and horrible. He assured me I was neither and to just work through it one essay at a time.

Later when I complained that I was such a slow reader and commenter, he said, “no, you’re just really thorough. You want to give your students the tools to succeed. That is not a bad thing.”

He is right, but it makes me feel so awful.

I never feel good enough.

I have such high expectations of myself. I have such lofty goals.

I want 100% of my seniors to graduate this year.

I want 100% of my college students to get better at writing and start to like it a little bit.

I want to have a quick turn back rate so students (and parents) can understand where they are in terms of mastering my content.

I hate that it takes me weeks to get essays back.

I hate that it I can’t keep up with calling/meeting with students who are in danger of not graduating–that I run out of time to check on ALL their grades and touch base.

I wish I could give up sleep…or have an extra 12 hours added to each day just for sleeping, so the other 24 can be for other stuff. I don’t want to give up on my family or my students.

But sometimes it feels like I am failing people if I let myself sleep or watch TV or stare at Pinterest. Like I should be grading or writing or planning or doing something for someone else.  If there are items on my To Do List it seems that I am a waste if I am not working on them.

I know I have to put myself first or no one will get the best of me. I know this.

And yet…when I let myself go to bed after grading only one paper or I let myself play Words With Friends on my phone or I write this blog post instead of filing writing samples…I feel guilt.

Stupid guilt.

I take my jobs–all of them–very seriously. Very personally.

When I don’t meet my own expectations that I place on myself, I feel like I let everyone down.

pile-of-paperAm I putting too much pressure on myself? Should my expectations of myself be lower? Am I crippling myself with my expectations?

This is what I know: I can’t have high expectations of my kids–both my own and my students–if I don’t also have high expectations of myself…right?

 

a homecoming to remember

I remember a lot of things in fairly vivid detail, but recently Cort and I were trying to remember going to football games when we were in high school and there wasn’t much we remembered.

He didn’t usually go to many since our friends were all on the field and his girlfriend lived in another district. He spent time with her instead.

I went to every home game because I was in the band.  I remember marching and sitting in the bleachers until  halftime, but I can’t remember much else. I can’t remember if I changed and stayed for the game after halftime or not. I had a boyfriend who was not in band, but was two years older, so maybe my freshman and sophomore year I did? I really can’t remember.

And I remember almost nothing of homecoming. I know we had pep assemblies. I remember voting for King and Queen, but I don’t remember much from the game. As for the dance, ours was after the game in the school cafeteria and it wasn’t formal. We just showed up in our jeans and over-sized flannels and Doc Martins and pretended to know what we were doing when OPP by Naughty By Nature was played. The Homecoming court were the only ones wearing fancy clothes.

Looking back, it was all sorts of awkward.

I’ve written before about Homecoming. For a couple years, I was the adviser for Student Council. I was in charge of the pep assembly and the dance. Never again. It is so much work and it’s not my thing AT ALL.

After that I was senior class adviser for about five years. I really enjoyed that. I was in charge of the Homecoming Court/halftime of the game. I loved working with the seniors because they were so excited. That job also included planning graduation though, and I had to give up the position when I was pregnant with Charlie since my maternity leave would have me off at the end of the school year.

It’s been a huge relief to not be in charge of anything during homecoming for the past couple years; I’ve been able to attend what I want and just enjoy it.

The cheerleaders getting peppy at the pep assembly.

The cheerleaders getting peppy at the pep assembly.

This year for Homecoming, we nixed the parade and had a mini-carnival instead. I think this is the best idea we’ve had in a long time. Not only did my kids LOVE it, but so did the community.  TONS of families and kids came out…and then stayed for the game.

It was standing room only!

After the carnival and about 3 minutes of the game, Cort took Charlie home, but I stayed with Eddie until after halftime.

I knew he would have a great time, but didn’t take into account the swelling my heart would do.

{aside: seriously, I should be prepared for this by now. Whenever Eddie is involved, he sucker punches me to the heart with pride}

It all started with the carnival.

Can you find the Sluiter Kid?

Can you find the Sluiter Kid?

Eddie was so excited about the carnival! If I am honest, I thought the long lines for the games and activities would bring out a pouty face and some whining.  The boys had been up since 6:30am, after all, and Eddie had school that day too.  But my Big Guy was a great listener and waited patiently for his turn.

Two dudes eatin' wieners.

Two dudes eatin’ wieners.

After the games, we found a spot on the grass to eat our complimentary hot dog dinner. I was impressed again with how nice he sat and ate his whole dinner.  I had Charlie in the Ergo and if we weren’t walking around (ie waiting in lines) he got a little antsy, but he did a good job of eating what Cort handed to him for dinner too.

I have a Bird on my back, yo.

I have a Bird on my back, yo.

After the carnival, it was time for the football game. Cort and Charlie hung out for a little while, but since the game started at 7pm and Charlie’s bedtime is usually 7:30pm, they didn’t stay long.  Eddie was being way good though, so I stayed behind with him for the first half of the game.

He was so good. SO GOOD.

First we had to get some popcorn. He waited patiently in line and ordered our popcorns for us all by himself.

“Two popcorns, please.  Thank you.”

I smiled so big.  What a gentleman!

He was wary of all the “big kid students” who kept coming up and saying hi to us. “Them are ALL your students? That’s a LOT of students, mom.”

I think he thought every kid there was in my class. He doesn’t quite get that I have five classes, but I know a lot more kids than who are on my rosters. By the end he would hear, “HEY, MRS. SLUITER!” come from somewhere and just put his hand up to wave and yell “HI!” to no one in particular.

He adjusts to fame quickly.

Poppin' Corn, yo.

Poppin’ Corn, yo.

Armed with popcorn, Eddie really wanted to go back into the bleachers…to the TOP of the bleachers to be exact. As we made our way through the crowds, I noticed all the kids standing in their groups having drama or laughing or checking out other groups of kids.

I do remember this, I thought.

Kids there to see and be seen.  Not much has changed in the past 20 years in that respect, I guess.

It felt different to be there as a mom instead of finding my little huddle of peeps and sharing in the gossip and jokes. It’s way better as a parent.

When we got to our spots at the top of the bleachers, I fielded questions about the scoreboard, the numbers on the field, cheerleaders, and the kids behind us speaking Spanish.

“Mom. Them kids are speaking Spanish. People speak that. Did you know that?”

I had to explain to him that he shouldn’t stare because staring at them wasn’t going to make him understand them since the only words he knows are “hola” and “boca”.

“But you speak Spanish, mom. Hey. Why are their numbers on the field?”

It was like that. One subject to the next.

And it was awesome.

homecoming

At halftime we watched “them pretty princess girls and boys” ride on the “fancy cars” to see who would be “picked to be famous.”

We made our way down to the fence to be in the front row.  Eddie accurately (an nonchalantly, I might add)  predicted who would get “picked” impressing all the kids around us.

He wanted to go then, so we started making our from the far side of the bleachers back to the concession area where the gate was. That’s when the band took the field.

Future Band Nerd like his mother?

Future Band Nerd like his mother?

“Mom! Stop!”

We had to stop and watch the high school band perform. Eddie was mesmerized by the drums and the marching and the flags. It made my band nerd heart so happy.

After that he announced he was tired and could we please go home.

It was after 8:30pm–and hour after bedtime–and I knew it was time.

On our way out, we were stopped a few times by students. Once we finally made it to the parking lot, Eddie took my hand–something he never does on his own–and kissed the top.

“You are my best Mommy, Mom. I love you. Thank you for having this football game and carnival at your school.”

I stopped, squatted down, kissed the top of his hand and said, “You are my best Eddie. Thank you for being you and coming with me.”

He almost fell asleep on the way home.

I might not remember much about football games and homecoming from when I was a teenager, but I will never forget the football games and homecomings from now, when I am a parent.

It’s Personal

Friday I did something that I wasn’t sure was a good idea, but that I felt I needed to do. I made a snap decision to be vulnerable with my seniors.

I read them my post about depression.

Having never read any of my own personal writing out loud before, and certainly not in front of a bunch of teenagers, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But they all listened intently. In fact, I could feel their listening, if that makes sense.

I was nervous, had no idea what to say to introduce the piece, and knew less what to say or do after I finished. One hour was super quiet. One hour gave me a huge round of applause. One student hugged me. Once I cried.

Why in the world did I do this?

I am trying to teach them to write personal narratives.

writingpersonalnarratives

The Common Core Standards (which we use) say that the students will, “write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.”  Under that main standard there are five sub-standards based on structure and technique and language.

Pretty generic, but I am Ok with that. It leaves it up to the department/teachers how they want to teach the standard.

We decided to start the year with personal narratives and the prompts we give the kids to choose from are ones that are common on college applications: about important experiences, people who impacted them, the communities they are part of, etc.  The idea is that they are not just writing for a teacher, but for a more “real” audience.

That aside, I want these narratives to be good.

I want my students to dig deep in their souls and pull out something meaningful and powerful. I want them to bleed onto the page. I want them to be so good that I scramble to figure out how to have some sort of public presentation for them to read and share their awesomeness.

I dream big when I dream of my students’ success.

But first we have to start at the beginning.  The blank sheet. The empty document. The blinking cursor.

I started by giving them real examples of student essays–ones we found through a website devoted to helping students write quality entrance essays.  Learn by example before doing, right?

They read them, we talked about what we noticed, but I didn’t feel that they really knew what I was asking. Sure they could tell me that “showing not telling” was important and that the great essays they read did more showing that telling, but I wanted them to do that in their writing too.

I knew they recognized good writing, but could they do it?  I believed so.

But they needed to hear something by someone they knew and could relate to personally. They had to know the person behind the writing.

They  needed to be inspired.

Since this is my first year teaching seniors, I don’t have samples to draw from past years; and besides, it’s always more powerful to have someone you know read their work.

I could tell on Friday that while my students accepted that their first paper assignment was this personal narrative, they were not planning to dig deeply for it.

So I walked over to my computer, loaded up the blog, printed my post, and stood before my students.

And I read my story.

As far as form goes, it was not the best example of what they needed to write. But it was exactly what I wanted them to do with vulnerability and voice.

After I read it, I asked if they understood what I meant by choosing something personal. Not something private, but personal. They nodded, but to find out, I had them each brainstorm ideas for each prompt on their list using lists. The next day, I had them choose one of the ideas they had from one of the prompts and fastwrite about it for 7 minutes.

I asked them to look at their fastwrite and underline/highlight/circle things they liked: ideas, words, phrases, sentence structure.  Look just for the “lovely” (to borrow a phrase from her) in their “bad” writing.

The next day we mapped. Our district teaches all students how to use eight different thinking maps.  The hang in my room on a wall and I routinely see students staring at them deciding which one will best help them manage their thoughts on a subject.

I gave them examples of how they could use a variety of the maps to plan their narrative.

Today they are writing.

Writing and writing.

I’ve looked over shoulders and held netbooks with drafts hammered out on them. Some are bad. Some are Ok. Some have that thing…that shimmer of potential of greatness.

Some students are focused. I see them stare off biting a nail, earbuds in while they think of the next thing they will type. Some are distracted and discussing what happened at lunch.  Drafts are due to me by Friday.

I am going to do everything in my power to look at each. To come up with a good plan for revision. To teach my students to help each other.

But that is another post.

For now, they are writing narratives.

Narratives that I hope they will want to read and be applauded for in front of their peers.

the first signs of fall

This summer I walked hand-in-hand with Eddie into the building that used to be my high school.  The cafeteria housed his gymnastics class, and it was the first time I had walked into the building since graduation in the spring of 1996.

After I graduated, the school turned into a second middle school for the district, housing all ninth graders in the second level.  A new high school was built on the north side of town. Cortney had his senior year in that new high school.

Since then, the building I knew as high school but is now a middle school evacuated the ninth grade into the two high schools that now make up our district.  Things have definitely changed in 17 years.

However, as I held my four-year old’s hand into this building I had entered thousands of times, I was knocked back to the mid-nineties by the smell of chlorine from the pools and whatever universal thing they clean schools with to make them all smell like teenage years.

I had to fight the old habit to turn left and head to the band room. That is the power of smells, isn’t it?

I am starting my eleventh year of teaching high school in just a few weeks, but I have started the pilgrimage back to my classroom a few weeks ago.

As I walked into the halls, each and every time, the smells of teaching and learning come back to me. When I open the door to my classroom I smell the cleanser and my muted vanilla scent along with that smell of school.

When I’ve been away from the smell, coming back to it gives me a sense of purpose, of renewal.

2013-08-12 15.17.08

It seems like every fall is a new adventure. Ever since my first year I could never predict what I would be teaching, where I would be, or what my student load would look like. Shoot, some years I didn’t even know if I would have a job because of all the budget cuts.

In all the years of teaching, I have never been able to answer the question of “so what will you be teaching this year?” with a confident answer. Nor could I just say, “same as usual”. There really hasn’t ever been a “usual”.

This year is no exception.

Over the weekend Eddie spotted the first red leaves on the trees by our house.

2013-08-09 11.24.00There it is.

The first signs of the changes that are coming.

Fall.

This year I am teaching 12th grade English for the first time along with 11th grade English. I am also teaching a semester elective called Mass Media for the first time.

On top of that, I am continuing to take two online classes toward the 30 credits beyond my Masters degree.

AND I just took on teaching an evening writing class at the local community college two nights a week.

In order to do all these things, something had to give. Unfortunately I had to take a step back from my weekly posts at Borderless News and Views. This was hard for me since I love to write about my views–especially on the subject of education. But I also couldn’t let opportunities for me to make a difference in education pass me by either. Eventually I will be back, and in the meantime they are letting me sporadically post there. So watch for me!

Oh. And there’s one more thing.

2013-08-09 11.38.27

This guy is starting preschool in September.

All the other craziness aside, this is what is the hardest for me to wrap my brain around.

He and I are both SUPER excited and just a little bit nervous. But we have been talking about it. He likes the idea of going to school because to him, school is awesome. The big kids get to go to school. His mom works at a school. His mom and dad both have gone to school in his lifetime.  And now he gets to do that too.

This year we will start some new Back To School traditions, and as much as it hurts my heart to watch summer slip away, I am excited for the change that is peeking at us through the trees and blowing around in the wind.

 

 

 

Summer Learnin’

“Mom, when you get done teaching those kids in your school how to read and to write, can you teach me?  You know, when your school is done and it’s summer?”

This is the question Eddie asked me a couple weeks before school let out in May.

I think any momma’s heart would flutter with pride knowing her almost four-year-old wanted to learn to read, but my English Teacher Momma Heart almost burst.

“OF COURSE!” I told him.

Because of course.

summerschool

It was then that I took to the Pinterest, the Facebook, the Twitter, and hounding asking my friends who do daycare or are active with their kids’ schools/education to give me some pointers.  I mean, if he asked me to read and discuss anything from Hemingway’s writing catalog, we would be all set, but I don’t usually teach reading from square one.

Actually, the VERY first thing I did was send an email to my awesome sister-in-law, MacKenzie because she is a first grade teacher and she is amazing and I knew she could give me some pointers.

She did not let me down. She sent me a pdf of sight words already all ready to print, cut, and use.

My next step was to talk to one of my friend, Trisha, who decided to do some summer school stuff with her two boys (5 and 7). She told me how she lesson plans out their hour and talked about all the cool ways she found to incorporate math, science, reading, and writing along with art projects into their daily hour of “school”.

People.  I am a lesson planner by nature and she blew me away.

I also decided that Eddie and I needed to not be that strict about “school” since he was just four.

So armed with all the advice, I headed to Barnes and Noble for some workbooks on basic PreSchool/Kinder skills.

It was then that I started pinning ideas for crafts and experiments and other “learning” things that I knew he would be interested in.

I decided this summer, my objectives are this:

  1. Eddie will know the days of the week.
  2. Eddie will count to 100.
  3. Eddie will be able to do some very simple adding and subtracting.
  4. Eddie will be able to draw basic shapes.
  5. Eddie will be able to read some sight words.
  6. Eddie will understand how plants grow.
  7. Eddie will learn about how weather works.
  8. Eddie will write his name on his own.

How we are working toward these objectives:

1. The first thing I did was use some printables I found on Pinterest for the Days of the Week.  We put them on the slider door with an arrow for what day it is.  He recognizes most of the days by sight at this point (about four weeks in).  We also put what we are looking forward to each day of the week on Post-it’s after each day.  Eddie likes checking this out at each meal (his seat is right by the slider door) and talking about what we will do each day.

2. We have been counting since he was born. He can count to 30 already, and if pushed, can go higher.  Thirty has been as high as we have gone so far because that is how far we count when we put a temporary tattoo on.  But we have been baking and I tell him certain things need 60 stirs, so we count those together too.  He already recognizes numerals to 100.

3. So far, we do more subtracting than adding, and he’s getting pretty good at it without having to count what is left. We do this mostly at dinner. He counts how many bites of something he starts with and then I’ll ask how many he will have if he puts two bites in his mouth. He used to have to count what was left, but he can do it by sight now.

4. Eddie has known his shapes since he was very small (his first real word was “octagon”.  Not momma. OCTAGON. Sigh), but he has always had an aversion to writing.  Part of one of the workbooks I got him has him tracing and writing straight up-and-down lines, diagonal lines, horizontal lines, etc. I can tell he is getting more confident with them, because he will randomly practice his lines when he has “free draw” time in his notebook. Eventually I hope to help him make complete shapes (and numbers and letters, but shapes I think will be easy to start with).

5. I started by printing about 25 of the sight words MacKenzie sent me. So far he has eight down pat and we are working on six more.  We do them for about a week or more…until I am confident he can read them out of context of being on the wall…and then I add more. We hang the sight words on the slider door as well.  He loves reading them for everyone who comes over. When I announce it’s “Test Time” for words, he gets an m&m for each one he doesn’t need any help with.  I didn’t set a number of sight words I want him to learn because I honestly don’t know. I want to go at his pace.

6. Eddie really wanted to have a garden this summer, and so because he has been so interested in it, we are not just growing one, but talking about HOW it grows. We talked about the seeds and how they sprout, and then a couple weeks ago he asked me how plants drink. Of course we did the celery in food-colored water trick. But this was our conversation before he put the celery in the water:

Me: Eddie, take a drink of your apple juice. (he does). How did you drink?

Eddie: Through my mouth and down my throat and into my tummy.  Oh! And later it will come out my penis.

Me: Right. So um, look at this celery. It’s a plant, right?

Eddie: Right!

Me: Does it have a mouth?

Eddie:  (giggling at me) No, mom.

Me: Does it have a throat or a tummy?

Eddie: NO! And it SURE doesn’t have a penis!

Me: Right. So how does the water get in?

Eddie: Maybe through a tube?

Me: Feel the celery. What does it feel like?

Eddie: It has bumps.

Me: What do you think those bumps are? Think about how you said it might drink.

Eddie: bumpy tubes?

Me: Shall we see?  Put the celery in the blue water and we will check back tomorrow.

Obviously the celery “drank” the water through the tubes and we talked about how our plants in the garden have roots and when it rains or when we water the garden, it sucks it up through the roots and into the tubes (stems) to get the water. We also read a book about worms from the library and how they make the tunnels for the water to get to the plant roots.

7. Eddie is obsessed with weather right now, so that is going to be our next science/art project stuff.

8. Home Sluice totally laid this awesomeness on me yesterday:

2013-07-08 16.36.59

Of course we are also doing lots of reading; we hit the library about once a week for 10 more new books. Eddie’s thirst for reading is insatiable. It’s awesome.

I’m really just going with Eddie’s pace right now.  We don’t do “school” every day, just when he wants to (and when Charlie is sleeping because that child wants to crawl ON THE TABLE).  When we do school, though, Eddie calls me “Teacher” even when I told him he can just call me Mom.  He said he likes it.

Silly kid.

I do love his love of learning though.

He’s definitely my favorite student of all time.

*************

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Seeing the Great Gatsby

I have a personal relationship with the novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  That book defines my love of American Literature in a way no other novel does.  But let me back up.

I first read the book as a junior in high school.  I don’t remember much of that experience.

I read it again as an undergrad at Western Michigan University in an American Lit class.  And that is where I fell in love. Hard.

With the Roaring Twenties. With the cynical outlook on The American Dream. With the emptiness of wealth.  With the debauchery and moral-less actions of the characters.  With disliking characters but LOVING the novel.

I went on to teach it every year except one during the past 12 years.  One of those years I had five sections of American Lit meaning I read through the novel five times that year.

I have watched both the 1974 and the 2000 film adaptations of the novel, despising both for a variety of things.  I tend to show the 2000 (by director Robert Markowitz) to my juniors for the sheer ridiculousness of it and because the 1974 version (with Robert Redford, directed by Jack Clayton and with Francis Ford Coppola as a writer) is so boring I would rather watch paint dry.

I think the thing that was most disappointing about both of those films was that I didn’t walk away feeling like I had actually seen the Great Gatsby.  Yes it was a retelling (mostly) of the plot, but the plot is not even primary to the novel.  The plot is not what The Great Gatsby is about.

Both films portrayed a love story…almost a glorified soap opera.  That was not Fitzgerald’s intent at all.  He did not write a story about people loving each other. At all.

When I heard that Baz Luhrmann was working on a screenplay of the novel, I had hopes.  High hopes.

I adore his modern music meets Elizabethan iambic pentameter in Romeo and Juliet and his over-the-top cinematography of Moulin Rouge!  Going in to the movie theater on Sunday, I expected a combination of both.

I was right.

I must also admit to stalking the movie trailers and predictions for months before the film came out.  I waited a week to see it and in that time drove myself batty reading all the fun satires and the scathing reviews.  The critique that I kept hearing over and over was “it doesn’t stick to the time period. It’s not the 20’s.”

Even though I had not yet seen the film I couldn’t help but silently cry out, “You’re wrong. I KNOW you’re wrong.”

Because The Great Gatsby is not a novel about the 20’s.  Although Fitzgerald put as much pop culture in the book as he possibly could.  He was a fan of the boisterous, the loud, the showy…look at his lifestyle and his wife for proof of that.

Fitzgerald was the one to coin the term “The Jazz Age” and use jazz music and the “black movement” in his novel…even though the people around him told him not to do it.  The warned him that it was a passing fad and that it would make his book unrelateable and out of fashion quickly.

Guess who was right?

The choice to have Jay-Z do the score–and include a contemporary “black/street” music injection to the movie–was not just genius, it was exactly up Fitzgerald’s alley.  It was totally Gatsby of Luhramm to do.

Hip hop is not a passing fad, just like jazz wasn’t.

The music also tied the novel to 2013 by showing how much has not changed about greed in America.  We are shown a 20’s setting with music of today and it fits. The 1920’s, especially in The Great Gatsby, were full of debauchery and greed.  How is that different from today?

But it wasn’t just the music I liked, I also liked the casting.

The men were the best cast. Leonardo DiCaprio is a “great” Gatsby.  He has all the created polish and manners that Jay Gatsby worked so hard to pretend to have in the novel.  Tobey Maguire is a good fit for Nick with his wide-eyed worried nature.  Joel Edgerton is by far the best cast Tom of all three movies.  He is aggressive an actually carries himself in the “hulking” way Daisy describes him as.  And Jason Clarke is a perfect George Wilson from his build to his hair to his bright blue eyes.

I was not as impressed with the female character casting. Carey Mulligan is an Ok Daisy. I’m not sure any actress can portray the Daisy Fitzgerald creates with his words.  There is always something lacking, and in this case Mulligan lacked The Voice.  She was too… likable.  I actually found myself feeling sorry for her, which I never EVER do when I read the novel.

Isla Fisher plays the voluptuous Myrtle, and does it well.  Luhramm has made her into the brightest, most gaudy spot in the desolate Valley of Ashes, just as Fitzgerald does in the novel.

Of all the film versions, Luhramm gives the best impression of actually having read and analyzed the novel.  He gets all the tiny details right: the way Catherine’s bracelets jingle on her wrist in the apartment party, the way the phone book drops to the floor in the hotel room, and the way the clock tips and falls at Nick’s house.

Speaking of Nick’s house, my favorite scene in the novel is when he has Daisy over for tea and Gatsby “drops by,” so when the scene was approaching in the film, I sat forward with my elbows on my knees.

(By the way, this is also where I started to look like a weirdo being e alone in the theater and saying the lines along with the characters.)

Luhramm gets this perfect.  From the way Gatsby is totally distracted, almost angry as he waits with Nick in a room that is packed with white flowers to how tense it is when Gatsby stands against the mantel (and the clock) looking down and Nick and Daisy with unease.

It is exactly…exactly…how I picture it when I read.  In fact, I found myself laughing at Gatsby standing in the rain at the front door the same way my students do when I read that section out loud.

For all the criticism the film is getting–when you do an adaptation of the Great American Novel, you sort of open yourself to it–I think Fitzgerald would have been happy with the outcome.

Of course there are things I didn’t like.  While I like the frame that Nick is writing this story down after the fact (that is true to the novel, by the way.  Nick actually says to the readers, “as I glance over all I have written so far…”), I can’t get behind Nick writing the story from the inside of a sanitarium.

I don’t believe Nick “cracked up” at the end of the novel.

I don’t believe he was an alcoholic, let alone a recovering one.

Nick is one of the most infamous unreliable narrator of all time, but I do not believe he was a boozer or insane.

There were also things Luhramm left out of the movie, and things he added that sort of held the hand of the viewer the way you don’t get when you read the book, but after rolling it all over in my mind, I think it’s Ok.

For instance, I think it’s Ok we don’t get the scene with Gatsby’s dad or the scene of Gatsby’s funeral.  Those points were made in other scenes in other ways and to add these would be redundant to the film.

I was bothered that Jordan’s dishonesty was all but left out instead leaving her as just an aloof, jaded character.  I did like that everyone in the book is a careless driver, and that you only understand the symbolism of that you read the book.

I was also bothered that Gatsby didn’t meet Pammy the way he does in the novel. I think seeing her brings a different kind of twist in his “perfect” plan that Luhramm leaves out almost completely in the film.  He has Nick mention her, but only so Daisy can say the “little fool” line.

In the end, as I repeated those final lines of the novel along with Nick, I realized I didn’t have the same sense of empty delusion that I have when I read the book.

In fact, I sort of liked all the characters in the movie. I don’t think that is supposed to happen.

But maybe it’s because I was so pleased with how they portrayed the characters from the novel.

What I do know is that actually seeing The Great Gatsby is a different medium than reading it.  Images affect me differently than words do.

So I don’t think anyone will ever get a version that is just right.  Because you can’t do in images what you can do in words.  Oh, it’s beautiful and it’s wonderful and it’s a grand movie, but you almost can’t compare it aesthetically to the novel because to do so, you would be discounting something important and special from each medium.

The message of social class difference comes through in both though.  And of carelessness.

And of Gatsby symbolizing a great hope that might very well be pointless.

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And one fine morning–
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

 

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