Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Breaking down the Door. . . .

I love reading about how different books shape people's reading lives.  A couple of my favorite literacy autobiographies are Anna Quindlen's book, How Reading Changed My Life and Sherman Alexie's powerful essay, "Superman and Me,".  Currently, I'm reading Pat Conroy's, My Reading Life. At the end of the year my sixth graders write literacy autobiographies that document their life in books so far.  This year has been different, though, because of a few students who claim they truly hate books and try to be quite vocal about it. 

At Nerdcamp last summer, honing our door-knocking skills.
I can hear these kids now. "Whatever. My literacy autobiography? It's a BLANK PAGE."

I continue to build my classroom library and offer self-selected, independent reading time. I share my own love of the printed word, do book talks/commercials and continue to hone the skill of powerful conferring. We've had a few successes, which is wonderful, and I have some theories about the failures. Considering where I've gone wrong is humbling and necessary. Accepting that I can't reach everyone is humbling, and necessary. 

It is, of course, important to give focus to the successes. There's the girl who still talks about how much she loved The Night Gardener she read last October.  There's the girl who couldn't stick with a book at all until she read The One and Only Ivan and discovered animal books and verse are her go to (Will someone please write more animal books in verse?).  There's the boy who exited special education in December who has continued to improve his reading ability all year. Yay! 

When a student doesn't know what kind of books they like I usually ask what television programs and movies and video games they enjoy. This has prompted the opening up of the literacy autobiography assignment.  I've decided to make it a more inclusive media autobiography about stories my students have experienced as a film watcher, gamer, viewer of YouTubes etc. Hopefully this will lead more students to a mention of a book or two that meant something to them, too. And even if it doesn't, the exercise might finally connect story to their lives in a way they had not previously imagined.

So now I have an assignment that everyone can do, and that should make me feel better. But I can't get Sherman Alexie's essay out of my mind. It's about him being a young Indian reservation boy and reading, literally, to save his life. Now, he visits schools and teaches writing to Native American kids.  Many are eager to learn from him, and others are similar to quite a few of my students this year. He writes, "They carry neither pencil nor pen. They stare out the window. They refuse and resist. 'Books,' I say to them. 'Books,' I say. I throw my weight against their locked doors. The door holds. . .I am trying to save our lives." (Alexie, 1998)  

The school year isn't over yet, but there are still too many doors holding tight. I will continue to throw my weight against them until June, and admit to hoping next year's are a little more saloon swinging, a little less Fort Knox bolted. In the meantime, I open my own door wider still, and throw open every window. Miracles can happen, even in the waning days of May. 

What is your secret to staying positive during the last leg of the school year?  

Alexie, S. (1998, April 19). Superman and Me. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved March 19, 2015, from http://articles.latimes.com/1998/apr/19/books/bk-42979/2

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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Plugging into Things that Matter

My Happiness Coach
Recently I watched a Ted Talk on "positive psychology" and it caused me to reflect on the role of happiness in my classroom. I told my students about it and put the following quote on the board, "People with many interests live, not only longest, but happiest." by George Matthew Allen.

I told them how Shawn Achor, the psychologist presenting the talk, explained that when someone is experiencing happiness, all of their learning centers essentially open wide for business. I said, "This made me wonder if the most important teaching I can do is make sure I show you the ways to be happiest, for life and for your learning.  This quote is our first lesson. People with many interests are happier than people with few to none.  So, let's write about what interests us."  I modeled my own first and then let them go.

I found we needed to discuss the difference between an "interest" and a "preference." (tacos=preference;  cooking, Mexican cuisine, nutrition, history of the taco=interest) I teach social studies to four groups of students throughout the day and did this exercise with all of them.  Many are not aware of their own interests, to the point they don't really know what an interest is.  Eye-opening. Not surprisingly, the students who had no trouble identifying their many and varied interests are some of my best students and among the happiest kids I know. They also mostly have home lives that allow for them to have interests beyond survival

A new curriculum is born: Happiness 101. That day I realized lessons in joy must continue, and maybe the most essential question of all is, "How can we be happy right now in this learning?" Happiness is hard won, in sixth grade and everywhere. In a time where negativity travels faster than you can say TTYL, it seems only natural that my first job is to connect kids back into contentment somehow.  Here's to plugging into things that matter.
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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Prose Poem for Poetry Month


I've never loved the water but I step in and the river rises until I am a half-girl, gliding across the surface.  Leaning back, the water closes a window over my face and I don't know what I want. A spirit guide? A wide awakening? I've read about these things. Through the window I see broken sunshine and imagine it's my own enlightenment. The window shatters, river runs off my body, and I look around wondering about the work of the trees and the calling of water. The sun does its job of drying my skin and I'm thinking maybe this river is Holy, or just warm, or perhaps it's the ghost of Moses reassuring me of his mastery of the Water Arts because I swear the river parts like a book opening. A page turns in my mind. I had never thought of it like that.  This book. I leap in and make myself busy with the current, behave like the swimmer I'm not.  Limb over limb I decide to keep going because the current is a teacher, and maybe I will be able to read this rocky river bottom with my feet. Some things require learning to read all over again. Some things you can't learn from a book.

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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Because it's Poetry Month

Painting by Ruth McNally Barshaw
Her baby hands burst open like spring buds.

You invited me to that movie in college where
I put my head on your shoulder
and you took my hand,
roots penetrated, surrounded,
fed us.

She studies both sides
and the introduction is awkward.

We leafed in the darkened theater
in the light of the projector.
You took my hand and
I thought I would never be lonely again.

It seems almost accidental when it finally happens:
Hands find each other,
Neurons fire.
She lights the room
and squeals at this sparkling thing.

We held onto each other,
opened like flowers;

Hemispheres converge
and we watch it all
from half a world away
until time collapses
in a refulgence of light and longing
to capture a childhood, a love.

I think I've accepted it, 
tangled roots and all,
until she turns, smiling
and reaches
for us.
Outside snow piles.

Inside it is spring.

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