Category Archives: In the Classroom
As part of a year-long exploration of immigration, I’m currently teaching a unit on African Immigration at the time of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. And thanks to Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos’s Sugar Changed the World, I’m much more informed about sugar’s place in all of this, notably in the West Indies, today better known as the Caribbean. Thus, my wary interest in “On the Caribbean Rum Trail” in today’s Travel Section of the New York Times. At first there seemed to be next to nothing about the hideous history behind rum’s creation in this part of the world, but then as the article goes on, the reporter shifts gears, focusing more on history.
Nearby Saint-James [a Martinique distillery], the biggest, was overrun by French tourists lining up for rides through the cane fields on a Disneyesque “sugar train.” In its museum in a 19th-century Creole house, I pondered rum’s iconography: old ads depicting happy plantations with cheerful slaves, women with madras headwraps and seductive smiles.
My musings led to a dialogue with Michel Fayad, distillery manager and former history teacher. “Our whole history is wrapped up in this alcohol,” he said. “But what is it? Depends who you ask, yes? For the European visitors, it’s holiday. To the bekes” — white Martinicans, colonial descendants who still run the bulk of the island’s economy and all but one of its distilleries — “rum is pride. To blacks, locals, it’s also colonialism, slavery, alcoholism, sadness. We drink Champagne at weddings. Rum is for funerals.”
And powerfully ends it with this:
But during an audio tour that thoroughly covered rum history and production — maps, diagrams, photo exhibits, French-accented voice-overs — I decided that here lay the educational apex of distillery-hopping. I wandered through the plantation’s sculpture garden and, reflecting on the legacy of the liquid I’d been trailing, spotted something remarkable: blood on the leaves. A massive red statue of the word “Blood,” poised before a picture-perfect cane field. It evoked, of course, the Billie Holiday song “Strange Fruit,” about lynchings in a pastoral Southern landscape: “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,” she sang. This scene, stunning yet haunted by perennial pain, struck me as perfect homage: Behold a spirit whose legacy contains all the paradoxes and complexity of the wistfully beautiful region that gave birth to it so long ago.
As a teacher in a private school I am not currently required to follow the Common Core State Standards. That said, because I am a teacher, I am following closely the discussion about them, their implementation, issues, and so forth. One resource I’ve come across is the Achieve the Core website created by Student Achievement Partners, who describe themselves as “….a non-profit organization working to support teachers across the country in their efforts to realize the promise of the Common Core State Standards for all students.” As for the site, they state the following:
This website is full of free content designed to help educators understand and implement the Common Core State Standards. It includes practical tools designed to help students and teachers see their hard work deliver results. achievethecore.org was created in the spirit of collaboration. Please steal these tools and share them with others.
So I decided to check out a few of the ELA/Literacy “Common Core-aligned sample lessons with explanations and supporting resources.” And the ones I looked at were so full of problems that it made me wonder who is vetting them as worthy of teacher use.
One that I looked at particularly closely is on Charlotte’s Web. (I came across it by looking through their lessons for fourth grade. I can’t link to it directly, I’m afraid, as it takes you to a word document of the lesson.) Because I feel I’m pretty expert at the teaching of Charlotte’s Web, I was curious about the lesson they had on the book. And I found it very problematic. The questions seem to suggest it is a play version of the book, but no reference for it is cited. No edition of the book or play is given although there are page numbers given for various questions. The level of questioning is simplistic, surprising given the desire of the Common Core creators to make experiences with reading more complex and rigorous. Since I feel White’s book is a wonderful one to use with children as an entry into close reading, the lack of it and very low-level engagement recommended in this particular lesson was something I found despiriting. It looked similar to the many poor lessons about the book I have seen over the years.
The final task is to “Write an essay explaining what makes Charlotte ‘no ordinary spider’. How do these special qualities help Wilbur? Use evidence from the story to support your answer.” That makes me so sad — there is so much more to this book. The major themes of the book (say that of life and death) that fourth graders are completely capable of discussing are completely missing from this incredibly muddled lesson plan.
I then also looked at a lesson focused on a single chapter from the book, “Escape.” It is evidently to be taught in five sessions over five days, 45 minutes each. I can only say that I’d curl up and die if I had to spend that much time with that particular chapter. Sure, it is a fun one, but it barely even gets to the serious themes of the book. While I could perhaps see spending more than a period on “The Cool of the Evening,” or “The Last Day,” even then I couldn’t see spending five periods on them or on any one chapter of any book. Further, in these five lessons there is little about the wonderful opening that was White’s original beginning of the book or anything much on the glorious writing itself, say White’s extraordinary use of language to convey sensory details. Now THAT I could and do spend quite a bit of time on (but still probably not a full period, much less five).
At the end, students are asked “Describe what lesson(s) Wilbur learns at the end of the story. What in the text helps you to know this?” The answer provided is:
Wilbur learns that sometimes we aren’t ready to accept the consequences for our actions/decisions. He also found out that he was too young to go out into the world alone.
Hmm…I don’t think that the first sentence is the point of the chapter at all. (I’m guessing it is more likely something the writer of the lesson wanted to emphasize for his or her own reasons.) The second is closer to what I think White had in mind, relating it more to the theme of growing-up that runs through the book. Yet to take five days to study this one chapter in isolation from the whole book — I can’t even imagine it.
Then there is the culminating task that is again about the moral lesson:
Wilbur has second thoughts about his choice to escape. First, describe what it means to have second thoughts about something. Then, use evidence from the text to explain how Wilbur’s second thoughts show that sometimes we are not ready to accept the consequences of our actions.
Nothing against moral lessons, but again, I don’t believe that is the main point White wanted to make.
I looked at a few more lessons and none of them seemed any better. So just be wary, folks, of some of the lessons being touted for Common Core.
I’ve been curious about the attention now being paid to the skill of close reading, something I began doing with my 4th graders decades ago. Judiciously. By that, I mean I only do it enough for the children to see how much pleasure they can take in the experience, but not enough for it to become a chore. Frankly, some of the current suggestions I see for close reading concern me because they seem utilitarian in the extreme and leave out the joy that the experience can be.
Joy? Yes indeed. Many years ago I was fortunate enough to spend a summer studying children’s literature in a scholarly manner and one of my favorite aspects of it was doing some close readings of parts of the books we were exploring. I wanted to see if I could help my 4th graders have the same experience and so returned to my classroom that fall and gave it a try with E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. It turned out to be a fantastic experience, one I now do every fall. I’ve written about it in books and articles, talked about it in presentations, and have been thrilled that other teachers have taken the idea and run with it. Now with close reading being so on everyone’s radar I hope some do read about how I do it and perhaps use some of those methods in their own classrooms.
Here are some posts about my teaching of close reading with Charlotte’s Web:
- Reading Charlotte’s Web
- In the Classroom: Annotating Charlotte’s Web
- In the Classroom: 4th Grade Scholars
- Charlotte’s Web Redux
I also do it with a few pages of Mourt’s Relation, a primary source of the Pilgrims and have written about that lesson as well in articles, books and in various posts including this one:
My 4th graders enjoyed my reading aloud Kathi Appelt’s latest, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp (my take on it is here) and so when some of them were at loose ends, having finished a big project their peers were still working on, I suggested they make a mural of the book. (I love making book murals! See the one we did of The Graveyard Book and this one of When You Reach Me.) After talking through a few ideas, I left them to it. After a… er…redolent day when they used undiluted mod podge to create a swampy background, they drew and cut and researched (old cars) and just had fun sticking in their favorite elements of the book. For a bit more about it and Kathi’s visit to our classroom, check out this post on our public 4th grade project blog.
There are many books out these days written by adults about social aggression — novels for children and teens and others, often nonfiction, for concerned adults. And sometimes there are firsthand accounts from children and teens themselves. Say by a former student of mine, Natasha Lerner, who has just started high school. She is a blogger at Huffington Post Teen and has just written a remarkably insightful blog post about her just-completed and often painful middle school years: “Middle School.” Highly recommended.
Two teachers in recent blog posts had some interesting points to make about meeting authors.
In “Fangirl” Donalyn Miller writes about often feeling starstruck when coming into contact with her favorite book creators.
Meeting authors isn’t like meeting Cameron Diaz to me—it’s like meeting Picasso. Writing is an art. Authors are artists—painting images with words, sculpting worlds to explore, evoking emotions that make me feel more alive. When you are a fan, reading is art appreciation.
In “Authors Demystified” Katherine Sokolowski writes movingly about how and why her meetings with Katherine Paterson were so special and distinctive from meeting other authors.
I think that when I was a kid authors were removed from us. I never for one moment believed that I could be one – that was something revered and special reserved for a chosen few. I didn’t know how you got to be that lucky, but knew that would never be in the cards for me.I didn’t know any authors. None ever came to the cornfields of Illinois so I assumed authors lived in magical worlds – or at least not rural towns like mine.
My entire goal as a teacher is to change this for my students. I want them to know authors, and illustrators, as I do. To demystify this profession. To make them cherish their words – and beautiful illustrations, but also see them as people.
Like Katherine I too did not meet any authors growing up. But I have to say I wasn’t interested in them, just in their books. Say Madeleine L’Engle. In 5th grade I desperately wanted my own copy of her now-rather-forgotten And Both Were Young. I was besotted with this teen novel which involved a Swiss boarding school (I’d spent time in European schools), a shy protagonist in a new school (I so identified with her having moved a lot), and a sweet romance. And so, after taking the book out of the library over and over, wanting to own it I started copying it out into a notebook, giving up after three chapters. (I don’t believe there was a bookstore in East Lansing with children’s books at that time, certainly the idea of buying it never occurred to me.) Yet for all my love of the book I never thought about its creator. Not once. Never thought to write a fan letter or find out anything about her.
Things are different and the same today. Different in that the Internet has made virtual connections between readers and book creators much more likely. As a result of my online connections I’ve met a number of book creators in real life and consider many of them friends. And so while I admire what they do I also think of them as regular people who have ups and downs in life as we all do. I want my own students who have access to information about authors in a way I never did to appreciate them as artists in the way Donalyn describes, but also to know that they are just real people as Katherine notes.
But what makes me happiest is what is still the same for my students — falling as deeply in love with a particular book as I did at their age. While they can easily get a copy and don’t have to resort to my crazy attempt to have my own, they still love books to tattered shreds, read them over and over just as I did. Sometimes I’ll suggest to such a kid that they might want to write to the author, but generally they aren’t interested. They just care about the book.
This past February, after reading an article by an extroverted teacher who felt it was important to grade her introverted students in class participation, I wrote a post providing my own perspective as an introverted teacher. It was seen by a reporter at the UK educational journal TES who contacted me for an interview and now you can read her article, “How introverts can thrive as teachers.”
To clarify and extend some of what I said in the article I wrote the following comment:
Lovely to see this. I do just want to clarify that I scheduled the interview for when my class was out of the room. (The article suggests that my class sat silently throughout the conversation which would have been very strange!) But we were still speaking when they returned and I let them know I was finishing up an interview with someone in England. They then politely and quietly played with their Slinkies (which they’d just gotten from their science teacher) until we had finished. I would certainly not have done the whole thing with them there listening!
The comments about noticing the children in distress or not interested really resonated. Too often I worry about the success of a lesson based on the one or two kids who I sensed were disconnected and have to remind myself of the majority who were loving the lesson. I was interested to learn that extroverts focus more on the latter while we introverts focus more on the former.
I should also say that what I hate about the evening events (and these are where I have to do presentations to large groups of parents not just do small talk) is the timing — if they were first thing in the morning, before a full day of school, I wouldn’t mind them nearly so much. (In the article I say over and over how much I hate doing this which is quite true, but I wanted to make it clear it is because of exhaustion after a long day at school and not social anxiety.) And while I feel my best form of communication is by writing (as here) and prefer it for small problems, I do prefer face-to-face for anything serious. I think the problem for me with phone conversations is that I can’t see the person’s response and that may be more about me being more visual than auditory than being introverted. (I certainly don’t communicate really bad stuff via email — that would be awful.)
Anyway, very glad to see this and know I’m not alone.
Donalyn Miller’s post “Let My People Read,” is about the sad reality of assigned summer reading that so many kids get. I’m with her 100% on the need to leave kids alone to read whatever they want over the summer. In fact, I’m happy to see more media attention given to the research indicating that the best way to keep kids reading over the summer is to give them books. Next week is our last of the year and I’ve got a book handpicked for each of my students to read (or not as they chose) over the summer. Where Donalyn and I appear to differ is on the idea of reading a book together as a class during the school year.
Don and I expressed dismay that another slew of great works will be slowly destroyed for our daughter during months-long novel studies next year.
Sigh. Now I understand the hatred many have for this approach to books and literature in school because it is often done badly. Billy Collins’ poem “Introduction to Poetry” makes me wince every time I read it. For I think that exploring a piece of great literature together can be wonderful, that it can be as fabulous a way to enjoy a poem as any other, that it is celebrating the work, not torturing it. Certainly I had my share of boring novel studies throughout my schooling, but I also had some amazing ones. I remember the excitement of reading The Iliad and Odyssey together with my 8th grade English teacher and an incredible college class where we delved into Goethe’s Faust. And so I feel strongly that we teachers should do the occasional novel unit — one where the class becomes a community, helping each other in an exploration of a particular work of literature.
Turn the class into a book club like the ones we participate in as adults. The kids can then experience the book together, responding to it in real time, exclaiming, becoming choked up, being surprised when someone he/she doesn’t know has the same response to a particular moment, gaining insight from another peer, and so forth. Reading the same book for school is, to my mind, a social experience not one done in solitude. I do this with the books I read aloud, but I also do it with books the kids read. This year we started the year reading Charlotte’s Web together and ended in literature circles with The One and Only Ivan. Loving each book by itself, finding wonderful images and pieces of writing, seeing connections between the two — all of this and more made both experiences exhilarating ones.
I believe in giving kids ample choice in what they read, but I also believe in the power of shared literary explorations. To me close reading, whole class book study, and so forth can be a joy not a horror.
The title of Simon Horobin’s book poses what, at first blush, seems a banal question. I imagine most readers would answer “Yes, spelling matters”, perhaps adding “though not as much as some believe”. Yet if the question of how words should be written is not uppermost in many people’s minds, its nagging everyday presence is nonetheless evident in the existence of spell-checkers and school spelling tests, as well as in mnemonics designed to help us with spellings, such as the venerable “i before e except after c”.
So begins Henry Hitchings’ very interesting Guardian review of Simon Horobin’s book Does Spelling Matter? As one of those highly challenged when it comes to spelling, this is always of great interest to me. In fact, I feel one of the many ways computers turned me into a writer were their non-judgmental spell checkers — I could get a ton of errors and no one besides me and my little computer would ever know.
Next week I will be doing one of my favorite lessons with my fourth grade class — having them “translate” a few pages of Mourt’s Relation, the 1620 publication of the Pilgrims, in its original form which means unconventional spelling. Understandably, fourth graders love it!
As a teacher I think spelling matters because we all want to be able to read what the other writes and some sort of standard spelling makes that possible. I tell my students that they should want their readers to notice what they have to say and not be distracted by spelling errors. Being a poor speller myself and a professional writer I’m able to help them understand the importance of being able to independently correct spelling without feeling a shame about it.
We still use an old-fashioned spelling workbook in my classroom with a weekly spelling test. I feel it isn’t so much about learning spelling rules as much as it is study skills — becoming adept at figuring out written directions in the book as they will have to do in standardized tests, having to memorize a bunch of words as they will when they begin foreign language in 5th grade, and so forth. (Of course, we also do a lot of work separately with their writing and proofreading.) I’m curious — do other classroom teachers out there still use such programs? If not, how do you teach spelling?