Students Create Instagram of Hamlet – #MaximumShakespeare

The New York Times sponsored a Hamlet Instagram contest (a 15 second video using lines from Hamlet) this fall.  An ELA colleague of mine at Seymour Community High School had her College Credit seniors enter the contest.  Authentic, 21st Century, editing, revising, and publishing learning opportunity!  Indeed, a fantastic example of best practice in education.

One of the student groups was recently declared a finalist and the video and an interview appeared in The New York Times.  Ryan Krahn, Clayton Skogman (in the pool as Ophelia) and Phil Michaelson are mentioned in the article and Ryan is quoted!

I am honored and blessed to work with amazing, compassionate educators and driven, creative students.

Take a look at the 15 second video and, if you feel so inclined, leave a comment on their Instagram.

Young Souls Portray the Wit of ‘Hamlet’, With Brevity, NYTimes-December 20, 2013

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The Lightning Thief As Difficult As The Odyssey…#Truth

Conducted an interesting experiment in my advance English 9 class recently.

We are currently reading The Odyssey, Robert Fagles translation.  When asked after the first eight books of the epic, The most confusing part of The Odyssey so far is ______ because _______, the most common response is the vocabulary is too difficult and/or the names are impossible.

Okay.

As part of a 1-minute read I was doing in class one day, I used Rick Riordan’s Lighting Thief.  Middle school and high school students have been highly engaged in Riordan’s books, The Lightning Thief being Book One of the Percy Jackson and The Olympians series.  I read the first page and a half.  As I was reading, I suddenly wondered, What about this book attracts so many young adult readers?  Why is this text so much more approachable than Fagles’ translation of The Odyssey?

Finally, I asked these questions out loud to my group of ninth graders.  One student said he liked Riordan’s first person narrative.  Another student said the idea of a ‘half-blood’ hooked her.  Finally, another student said the vocabulary in Riordan’s book was much easier to understand and more recognizable.

Interesting.

So, I fired up the doc camera and we examined the first 193 words of The Lightning Thief and the first 201 words of Book Eight of The Odyssey.  First, we looked at Riordan’s novel.  We went word for word to identify which words, if any, caused confusion and which words were recognizable.  Of the first 193 words of this book, we identified six unrecognizable words.  Therefore, we understood 97% of the words we read.  This should result in deeper reading and comprehension.

We then did the same examination with The Odyssey.  Of the first 201 words of Book Eight, we identified 11 unrecognizable words or names.  Therefore, we understood 95% of the words we read.  Whoa…only 2% less than The Lightning Thief.  This should result in deeper reading and comprehension.

However, the students still felt more attracted to The Lightning Thief rather than The Odyssey.  We did acknowledge that word order and more sophisticated literary elements used in The Odyssey has a strong impact on student engagement and comfort level.

Because of this little examination, I do believe students may not so readily say the most confusing part of The Odyssey is the vocabulary.  They may say word choice, line structure, or use of extended metaphors cause them confusion, but at least now my students have a better idea of how to articulate what exactly causes discomfort as they read The Odyssey and other complex texts.

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Disciplinary Literacy

Disciplinary Literacy was a focus of a recent staff development in our district.  The high school English-Language Arts team partnered with two members of our middle school ELA team to model reading strategies for our colleagues in disciplines outside ELA.  Teaming up with my colleagues to prepare and then teaching alongside them, teaching our peers in our own school district, was a rich learning experience.

Our presentation was driven by thinking strategies and reading purposes as outlined by Cris Tovani, a reading specialist and high school English teacher.  We added a few reading strategies used in our classrooms from Kelly Gallagher’s book Deeper Reading and we created an engaging presentation.

We broke up into three different groups, presenters and learners.  My colleague and I presented to our colleagues from the Science department.  We modeled several different learning strategies in a variety of situations.

First, we modeled how we utilize the strategies as teachers.  Next, we gave our learners the opportunity to apply reading strategies to a short excerpt from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations; we modeled how to use multiple draft reads, sharpening focus with each read.  Finally, my colleague took on the role of student and modeled what it would look like for a reader of an unfamiliar text — in this case a section of a Biology textbook — to apply the reading strategies we had been modeling.

Our colleagues from the Science department were intrigued by the reading strategies and recognized the significance of Disciplinary Literacy.  Every member of the high school Science department agreed to try a reading strategy and invited my colleague and I in to observe and provide feedback.  The department leader went so far as to get permission from administration to have substitutes available for my colleague and I so we would be free for an entire school day to observe and follow-up with feed back.

This was a tremendous learning experience for me.  The first time in 18 years of teaching where I have spent engaging, educational time in a classroom of another discipline.  The observation and follow-up conversations were eye opening for everyone and we all benefited deeply.

My ELA colleagues and I have invited our science colleagues into our classrooms to observe us, how we apply reading strategies, and provide feedback to us.  A few have taken us up on this so far and I have a feeling it will happen again.

Our district Curriculum Coordinator provided the encouragement, time, and space to make this happen.  As I told one of the science teachers, if other disciplines can spend 10 minutes a class period on a reading strategy, four times a week, what a difference this would make in school-wide literacy.  Just think of the confidence and competence our students would be equipped with as they left our high schools for work or further education.

I admire my colleagues and am grateful to work with many educators who are driven to do what’s best for kids.  We continue to find ways to give all of our students the best opportunities to be successful now and tomorrow.

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A Reading List for Engaged Educators

I participated in my first Twitter #Sunchat on Sunday November 10, 2013.  I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to participate in this one-hour chat. I have gained a list of 20 titles I would have otherwise not been exposed to without the generous sharing of so many educators via Twitter.

Here is the list of titles for professional development:

  1. Literacy with an Attitude, by Patrick J. Finn
  2. Book Love, by Penny Kittle
  3. The Trouble with Black Boys and other Reflections on Race, Equity, and the Future of Public Education, by Pedro Noguera
  4. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweckreading in the wild
  5. Change by Design, by Tim Brown
  6. Strengthsfinder, by Tom Rath
  7. Embedded Formative Assessment, by Dylan Wiliam
  8. Reading in the Wild, by Donalyn Miller
  9. The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell
  10. Good to Great, by Jim Collins
  11. Quiet, by Susan Cain
  12. Teach Like a Pirate, by Steve Burgess

For Entertainment Purposes (Potential SHS Faculty/Staff Book Club Books):

  1. The Help, by Katheryn Stockett
  2. Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
  3. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee BenderMs. Peregrines School for Peculiar Children1
  4. Come Back to Me, by Melissa Foster
  5. Still Alice, by Lisa Genova
  6. The Reason I Jump, by Naoki Higashida
  7. Ms. Peregrines School for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs
  8. I am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai

Happy Reading !!

#Sunchat happens every Sunday morning @ 8am CST.

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Pi, A Modern Day Odysseus?

Okay, so I was completely immersed in The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, that is, the life of life of piPiscine Molitor Patel, until I drifted into ‘Part Three: Benito Judrez Infirmary, Tomatlan, Mexico’.  To say this story-or, shall I say, stories-is a modern day epic is not a complete reach, however the ending (Part Three) was, paradoxically, arid in comparison to the supple, densely saturated, life-sustaining narrative.  This is where Martel failed to put this eloquently crafted novel in the neighborhood of great, must-read literature.  For nearly 286 pages I was ready to baptize Pi (I really have no authority to do this other than being an avid reader of a plethora of literature, both modern and classic) as a modern day Odysseus.

If we were to investigate this novel for epic characteristics they would be sparse.  For example, in its purest artistic form The Life of Pi is a novel not a poem, there is figurative language used but it would be a stretch to label similes as extended or epic, there is a natural beginning but, I suppose arguable, the novel does not begin in medias res, and there is no invocation of a Muse.

Upon further investigation we do find echoes of epic characteristics.  The novel addresses a serious topic, one of self-discovery and survival under the weight of extreme natural forces and battles of wit with varying species.  Pi’s family-his father, mother, brother, and Pi-are pushed out of India due to a concern over politics-or, as in epics, the fate of their nation, and pulled to Canada.  The novel holds a large, expansive setting from India, to the middle of the Pacific ocean, to Mexico, and finally Canada.  In Homer’s epics, we are bombarded with the intervention of gods and goddesses. Certainly, Pi is helped by his belief in God and his practicing of three separate faiths.  Depending upon the impression of heroic qualities and based on which of Pi’s stories is most reliable, one might argue that Piscine Molitor Patel is a larger than life hero.

I was hooked by the lure of spirituality.  Believing in one God while practicing Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity made sense.

waveA wave of emotions washed over me as I read.  First, when Pi’s father decided to shut down the family zoo and move out of India, next as I realized Pi’s father, mother, and brother drowned as the Tsimtsum sank to the depths of the Pacific ocean, then as Pi struggled to survive as he drifted aimlessly on the ocean in a lifeboat with a Royal Bengal tiger as his first-mate, and, finally, his miraculous rescue, on the shoresroyal bengal tiger of Mexico, when he barely had strength to stand on his own two feet, struggling to even trust the ground underneath him.

Early on Pi claims this story is one that will make you believe in God.  The story comes full circle, the circumference made up of a long voyage, the radius of struggle after struggle on the Pacific, and the diameter of a spiritual connection that aided in Pi’s survival.  At the end, when he asks the Japanese interviewers whether they liked his story with or without animals, Mr. Okamoto replied as Mr. Chiba agreed,  “The story with animals is the better story.”  Pi responds, “And so it goes with God.”

Did this story make me believe in God?  No more than I already do.  Was this story full of symbolism of human nature and our pursuit of understanding our purpose?  Yes, absolutely.  Is Pi a modern day Odysseus?  Maybe, but, because of an ending that leads to more confusion, disillusionment, and a white-washing of the first 300 pages,  Yann Martel is not a modern day Homer, not that he wants to be.  He has hit upon something significant in The Life of Pi.  Namely, the possibility of a peaceful coexistence of three faiths based on enduring, sustaining, unconditional love.  If nothing else, that is worthwhile and valuable in our age.

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Favoring The Home Team

Trying to avoid filling my blog with unsolicited sports fandom commentary, I rarely broach the topic of sports.  Based on what I am currently reading, I am compelled to share what I have learned about referee bias and home field advantage.

I am stepping over the line with this post…slightly.

In a few weeks I will begin teaching a course for high school seniors, Sports Literature.  As I have been preparing, I have been reading the books I will share with my students.  The book with which I will be kicking off the semester has me fascinated.

SCORECASTING: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played And Games scorecastingAre Won written by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim is an in-depth study of the subtle biases that influence sports, particularly professional sports.  One the eve of the NFL Divisional Round Playoffs commencing and my beloved Green Bay Packers preparing to battle the San Francisco 49ers, I couldn’t help but share some engaging insight this book offers.

The chapter that has caught my attention most, no doubt because the Packers are traveling TO San Francisco for their playoff game, “What IS Driving the Home Field Advantage”, asserts that there is a single factor in home field advantage.  One might think it is the crowd.  Another might think travel and time differences might be the advantage for the home team.  Even further, one might suppose that professional athletes play differently (effectively or ineffectively) on the road versus at home.

refereesIn fact, Maskowitz and Wertheim claim the “leading cause of the home field advantage is…referee bias” (p. 165).

Yep. That’s right.  For all you sports fans who declare your team got screwed from the officials, there just maybe some truth in that sentiment.  And Maskowitz and Wertheim have plenty of evidence to back it up!

With volumes of statistical data and psychological research, Maskowitz and Wertheim launch out on a mission to show, among other things, referee bias.  What they found was astounding.  “When humans are faced with enormous pressure–say, making a crucial call with a rabid crowd yelling, taunting and chanting a few feet away–it is natural to want to alleviate that pressure.  By making snap-judgment calls in favor of the home team, referees, whether they consciously appreciate it or not, are relieving some of that stress” (p. 159).

Some might think this obvious, but there is a correlation with the crowd size and home field advantage.  Despite what you might believe is causing that advantage, like the Seattle Seahawks 12th MAN or the DAWG POUND in Cleveland driving their home team heroesdawg pound to extraordinary levels,  the fact is the referees are more affected than the athletes.

“Even in the NFL, in which most games are sold out, the home-away discrepancies in penalties and turnovers increase with crowd size.  With virtually every discretionary official’s call–in virtually every sport–the home advantage is significantly larger when the crowd is bigger” (p. 162).  The appropriate conclusion is “(h)ome team favoritism…should be greater the larger and more relevant the crowd and the more ambiguous the situation.  They may also be taking a cue from the crowd when trying to make the right call, especially in an uncertain situations” (p. 160).

In 2007 the Italian government forced professional soccer teams who did not have sufficient security at their stadiums to play home games without spectators.  Upon analyzing the data from these ‘spectator-less’ games, it was found that the behavior of the athletes, namely their level of play, did not change.  What did change, however, was the officiating.  “The same referee overseeing the same two teams in the same stadium behaved dramatically differently when spectators were present versus when no one was watching” (p. 164).

This got me reflecting on the game earlier in the year when the Packers traveled TO Seattle to play the Seahawks on Monday Night Football.  As has been well documented, fail marythe Seahawks won the game on a much argued completed Hail Mary pass from quarterback Russell Wilson (a Wisconsin favorite, by the way) to wide receiver Golden Tate.  It appeared as though Packers defensive back M.D. Jennings had intercepted and gained control of the ball before Tate muscled his way to, what was moments later decided, simultaneous possession.  The NFL rules indicate that simultaneous possession results in awarding the offense possession of the football.  In this case, the ball was caught (possessed) in the end zone, resulting in a touchdown, giving the Seahawks enough points to win the game.

Arguably, CenturyLink Field is THE loudest stadium in professional sports.  In the video and photographs of the miraculous simultaneous possession reception that followed, the backdrop often included Seahawk fans–who are seemingly closer to the field than in other NFL stadiums–screaming, ranting, and pounding on the stadium walls for the referees to make the favorable decision for the home team.

The officials obliged, relieved the pressure, and ruled in favor of the home team.  “…(T)he closer officials are to the crowd, the more likely they are to favor the home team” (p. 167).

In reading SCORECASTING, I am reassured that players most often dictate the outcome of a game.  I am hopeful that Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, and company will out-execute and out-perform their counterparts from San Francisco.  I know the 49er fans will be ready for some football on Saturday night by showing rabid support for their team.  I suppose, if they were smart, they would direct all their attention and energy to the referees rather than the players.  That is counter intuitive and goes against conventional fan wisdom, if there is such a thing.

Moskowitz and Wertheim aptly assert that when fans scream players  (for or against), the outcome is not affected.  On the other hand, when they scream at officials (against, I suppose), “well…that’s another story entirely” (p. 167).

 

 

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Literacy Stamina and Social Media

I use social media in assorted formats and diverse purposes.  As a high school ELA teacher,facebook I aspire to immerse students in literacy: lots of opportunities to read and write every day.  As time has passed, there has always been a certain population of students who are reluctant readers and insecure writers.  Today’s culture, and its flood of social media, has created, to some degree, more reluctant readers and minimalist writers.

I have brought my personal library of books into my classroom, placing several (nearly book stack100 different titles) on display in my classroom.  I invite students to check out my books any time; if it doesn’t fit for them, I propose they put it back and try another one.  Sometimes, I will even suggest certain titles to certain students, based on their interest, from my personal library.

I encourage students to read books: long ones, short ones, and anything in between.  I require students to read non-fiction, magazine articles, newspaper articles, and longer memoirs.

In various forms, my students write nearly every day.  Some writing is quick and to the point, other writing is extensive and in-depth.

I model writing for my students as often as I can, even so far as placing the two books I have authored on display, inviting my students to read them.  This blog is another option for my students to sample my writing (and, yes, be critical of it too): style, tone, structure, and interest.  Writing in front of them, with them, is a powerful way to teach the writing process.

While I attempt to lure students into literacy, I feel defeated when some st

udents don’t find the appeal of reading and writing and, sooner than
Social media is trending.  Use of multiple forms of technology to communicate is shrinking our world.  Our students are utilizing technology to connect, cooperate, and, ultimately, textingcoexist.later, give up.  In observing students behavior, both socially and academically, I have noticed their keen interest in social media, namely Facebook, Twitter, and texting.  I began to reflect on the effect the “140-Characters-or-Less” era has on our students’ willingness to embrace literacy.

My hypothesis is students don’t have the stamina to sustain long periods of reading and/ortwitter writing because our culture is begging for concise summations in ‘140-Characters-or-Less’.  The effects are numerous, the most obvious being a growing reluctance to read and a shape shift as to what ‘good’ writing looks like.

As a high school ELA teacher, I have embraced technology and social media as a tool in my classroom, an efficient way to connect with my students and move from a traditional classroom to a more blended experience.  However, my concern is balancing the literacy immersion with the concise status updates our culture has encouraged us to compose and read.

There is a place in our world for deep literacy and ’20 second updates’.  We just have to find the right blend for our students to understand, appreciate, and utilize both.  We must promote the relevance of technology and social media in today’s culture and how it might drive deeper reading and in-depth writing.

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Self-Discovery: Cheryl Strayed’s Most Compelling Message in WILD

I have been using Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail in my Outdoor and Survival Literature class.  I’m not completely convinced ofwild the aesthetic value, but it’s message(s) is noble, engaging, and worthwhile.

The universe in which our emotions gather and play never settled into a predictable pattern for Strayed.  “I was as searching as I was skeptical…’you’re a seeker,’ my mother had said to me when she was in her last week, lying in bed in the hospital, ‘like me’”(p.134).  Strayed finds herself hiking PCT signthe Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in an effort to lose herself, that is, somehow lose the lasting effects of a detached father, being a witness to her emotionally numb mother’s harrowing battle with cancer at age 45 ending in a morphine-laced passing “over the river”, and her own failed relationships, especially with that of her ex-husband Paul.

“I’d come, I realized, to stare that fear down, to stare everything down, really — all that I had done to myself and all that had been done to me”(p. 122).  As she hiked the PCT, Strayed went so far as to catalog the pain, anger, shame, and resentment she experienced as a child (p. 265-267).

I hope my students  never have to experience the depth of darkness Strayed did prior to her PCT hike, but the reality is, for some (too many, really), the darkness too often dims the light.

Prior to the age of six, Strayed had witnessed her father smashing dinner plates full of food against the wall and threatening to throw all of them, her mother and her two siblings, onto the street naked.  Strayed began to understand the need to be “in the driver’s seat” of her own life, as her mother admittedly failed to achieve.  Trying to fill a whole in her heart, presumably a wound from her father, Strayed attempted to fill it with the security of a man, any man; when she found someone who loved her and she loved equally, she felt unworthy and the relationship ended in divorce.  “I had problems a therapist couldn’t solve; grief that no man in a room could ameliorate”(p.134).

Strayed attempted to eradicate her past through various means like heroin and multiple physical relationships with men.  After noticing a guidebook to the PCT at a local store, herpctbook1 interest was piqued; she felt a calling to reach the depths of her guarded soul by hiking some 11,000 miles in the wilderness alone.  In many ways Strayed yearned to be alone, a place where she felt she could truly be herself.  Being alone on the PCT was different though, she “was alone in (the) world , occupying it in a way (she) never had before…the world (felt) both bigger and smaller…until now, (she) hadn’t truly understood the world’s vastness…until each mile was beheld at walking speed”(p. 119).

By being alone in the world, occupying it in way she had never done before, Strayed discovered a deeper understanding of who she is and the worthiness of her existence.  “There were so many other amazing things in this world.  They opened up inside of me like a river…I laughed with the joy of it, and the next moment I was crying…I was crying because I was full.  Of those fifty-some hard days on the trail and of the 9,760 days that had come before them too”(p.234).

The physical demand and suffering she experienced of hiking the PCT helped Strayed realize that all she “needed to survive could be carried on (her) back.  “And, most surprising of all, that (she) could carry it…That (her) complicated life could be made so simple was astounding” (p. 92).

Strayed is more spiritual than she claims.  Certainly in order for any of us to achieve a spiritual balance we have to die to ourselves and be resurrected, which is arguably what occurred in Strayed’s experience on the PCT.  I suppose that is a completely different post.

For now, however, the most poignant point of this book for readers, especially young readers, is to achieve self-discovery.  As Strayed aptly illustrates through her memoir, self-discovery is cleansing, liberating, and empowering.  Isn’t it true that part of my job description as an educator is to help students discover their strengths and limitations?  In turn, won’t this discovery illuminate the path for each of them as they move forward on the trail of their lives?

I hope I can help my students appreciate that life doesn’t always have to be so complicated and get them to laugh at joys they have never experienced, joys that will help them feel complete as they discover their self-worth and who they were meant to be.

Wild is an extraordinary complex web of  emotional and physical struggle which evolves into a beautiful tapestry of emotional and physical triumph.

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Embracing Complex Texts: 2nd Draft Reading

With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards and the research validating the need for children to read, read more, and read again, I have  been doing some teacher soul-searching in recent years.  I am in the midst of a series of blog posts regarding my book stackexperiences in helping and supporting high school ELA students embrace complex texts.

I have adapted Kelly Gallagher’s complex text approach to the demographics of our students as well as my own strengths and weaknesses as an educator.  The first step in the process is to Access and/or Build Background Knowledge.   The next step, as Gallagher identifies, is First-Draft Reading.  As in the writing process, we ask our students to pre-plan, craft a rough draft, edit, revise, and complete a final draft for publishing, it is just as important for ELA teachers to demand something similar while reading.

As Gallagher proposes, and I advocate for because I have witnessed its efficacy, 2nd Draft Reading is quintessential in comprehending and applying the depths of complex texts.  This is a fun and engaging level of embracing complex texts.

When I was coaching football and basketball, I would utilize practice drills or ‘games’ that would stealthily include conditioning.  Rather than lining players up on a line, asking them to sprint to one end of the floor, and repeat, I would do my best to ‘hide’ the conditioning in drills athletes found to be fun or competitive.  The same concept holds true in 2nd Draft Reading.  Students don’t need to necessarily read the entire text again (although that might be ideal, time is certainly a constraint), they do need to dive into the text to retrieve deeper meaning and understanding using some of the following strategies.

  1. Search for Figurative Language and/or Literary Devices:  This can be done in multiple ways.  I encourage you to utilize your creativity in asking students to find figurative language and/or literary devices (use of metaphor, simile, personification, symbolism etc.) in portions of the text they have completed reading.  I always have students record page numbers of where they find the examples.  This way, when writing a reflection or for simple class discussion, students have a reference point for defending their claims.
  2. Multi-Layered Time Lines:  I love this activity.  The multi-layered time line is a  living organism throughout reading a complex text.  We don’t begin this activity until well into the text or at its completion.  The multiple layers can include just about anything you or your students desire to track.  For example, one layer may be the events of the plot.  Another layer may then be a specific character who influenced or was influenced by the event.  A third layer then might show how the event was contributing to a conflict or its resolution.  Identifying a minor character’s contribution to the event may be a fourth layer.  As you can see, the list of possible layers is long and can go in several directions.  Again, I have students record page numbers of where they find the examples providing a reference point for defending their claims..
  3. Character Charts w/ Multiple Categories:  Character charts are effective in understanding human nature and comprehending beyond the surface of the text.  As with the multi-layered time lines, character charts can have many different layers as well.  Categories might include all or a few of these: strength of character, weakness of character, role in conflict(s), defining moment, symbol representing character, physical description, relationship to main character, connection to reader, and the list goes on.
  4. Tracking Emerging Themes and Tracking Emerging Conflicts:  While these two concepts are two separate searches, the process is nearly the same.  So, I will be writing about these two as one, but please note these are two different 2nd draft reading techniques.  Identifying theme or conflict in literature is not always simple.  There are implied messages and inferences where readers must learn to read between the lines, beyond the surface.  After beginning a complex text, we might spend a portion of a class period discussing themes and conflicts that might be emerging.  I ask students to form theme statements and conflict statements, simply a sentence or two identifying an emerging theme or conflict.  Then, as we continue reading, students are asked to track that theme or conflict.  As a class, we will come back to the emerging theme chart or the emerging conflict chart once or twice a week to reflect on how the reading has either further developed an identified theme/conflict or has completely dissolved what was initially thought of as an emerging theme/conflict.  Maybe it pans out, maybe it doesn’t.  Great tool to discovery.  However it plays out, students are to record page numbers and even passages to help support their claim of a developing theme.
  5. What Does the Text NOT Tell Us?:  I usually T-Chart this.  On one side of the T-Chart I have students write down everything we know about the reading.  On the other side of the T-Chart, I ask students to brainstorm what details the author doesn’t give us.  Then, I ask them to analyze those details we are not privy to and try to wrap their minds around the author’s purpose of leaving this information out.
  6. Analyzing Plot, Structure, Setting,  and Character w/ Graphic Organizers:  I have a tendency to create my own graphic rural snow globeorganizers; my mind is always adapting to the needs of my students, day-to-day and year-to-year.  Also, as I read about what other educators are doing, I borrow (steal) their stuff too that I might apply in my classroom :)  I love the idea of using a completely different, foreign if you will, platform to analyze literature.  For example, I have used a graphic organizer in the form of a fishing boat to analyze character (the character is in the boat and ‘catches’ stuff (strengths, weaknesses, minor characters, conflicts, etc.) to put in his/her boat.  I have used the concept of a snow globe to analyze setting.  There are multiple graphic organizers that can be created for a plethora of topics.

We can create similar activities with different names or different focus points.  To avoid predictability and over indulgence, we must remember to use all of these judiciously.  I highly recommend Gallagher’s book, Deeper Readingfor further exploration on embracing complex texts. I know, firsthand, using these strategies have increased reading interest, comprehension, understanding, relevancy, and real-life application of complex texts.

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Embracing Complex Texts: Supporting First Reads

Often, in the midst of blogging,  there’s a voice inside my head, a writer’s voice I suppose,  haunting me, “For Blog’s sake John, get to the flippin’ point!  Folks want to learn in 140 characters or less…stop getting lost in the words, the semantics, the parallel structure, the bold ‘new’ ideas…you are not writing a PhD Dissertation.”

I just heard the voice….

With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards and the research validating the need for children to read, read more, and read again, I have really been doing some teacher soul-searching in recent years.  I am in the midst of a series of blog posts regarding my experiences in helping and supporting high school ELA students embrace complex texts.

I have adapted Kelly Gallagher’s complex text approach to the demographics of our students as well as my own strengths and weaknesses as an educator.  The first step in the process is to Access and/or Build Background Knowledge.   The next step, as Gallagher identifies, is First-Draft Reading.

Here are a few strategies that I have found working best to support our students in first-draft reading,  some are directly connected to Gallagher’s theories while others I have adopted and adapted through trial and error:

  1. Post-It Notes:  Because the books are owned by our school district, my students are not allowed to annotate in the margins of the text.  As an alternative, I hand out small packets of post-it notes to all students.  I invite students to mark their confusion and show close reading by asking questions and/or commenting on the reading bu using the post-it notes.  Some students have multiple notes per page and, when turning the book in, take 10 minutes just to remove their post-its.  I keep a supply of small post-it notes in my room at all times; students will consistently request more sticky notes as we progress through the text.  As part of small group or large group discussion in class, I will have students share their confusion and questions to gain clarity on the reading.
  2. Reading Journal:  I have my students utilize their reading journals for various close reading strategies.  One way is to use their reading journal, or notebook, as an alternative to the post-it-notes.  Another option is to have students create T-Charts for selected sections, chapters, stanzas, and/or Acts of the reading.  On the left hand side of the t-chart are questions raised from the reading; on the right side, students will answer their questions or resolve their confusion as they read or through in-class discussion.  While reading complex texts I have my students complete quick-writes.  In a normal five-day week my students have three quick-writes.  The prompts are both text specific (for comprehension and understanding) and reaction specific (for connection and reflection).
  3. 20 Questions:  The majority of this activity is taken directly from Gallagher.  Students are asked to write 20 open-ended (not yes/no) questions for a given reading assignment.  In small groups, I invite students to share and attempt to resolve their questions.  Each small group is then asked to categorize and articulate in a short statement the nature of their remaining unanswered questions.  I record these categorical statements to revisit in our second-draft reads.
  4. Focus Groups:  Another great strategy from Gallagher…. Specifically design small groups based on strengths and weaknesses of students.  I usually create seven to ten groups of no more than three students in a group.  I provide each group with a specific focus (i.e, [for The Odyssey] extended simile, the journey of Telemachus, the journey of Odysseus, Penelope’s emotional state, various characters influencing Odysseus, etc.).  This is designed to help students focus as they read as well as makes them accountable to their peers.  Once or twice a week each group will conference with me then share their findings with the rest of the class.  The entire class is responsible for the information shared by each small group.
  5. Daily Quick-Writes:  Three days a week (typically Tuesday-Thursday) during a unit where we are using a complex text, I have my students complete a quick-write in their writing journals.  These are timed and limited to five minutes.  I post on the white board either a text specific question (open ended) or a general reaction/connection-type prompt (again, open ended).  I read each quick write at the end of each day and attach a small point value.  At the end of the week, I ask students to choose one of the three quick-writes for the week to complete a Quick-Write-Rewrite.  This QWRW will be edited and polished and read (by me) with a higher level of expectation and increased point value.

Okay…I just heard the voice again…five first-draft reading strategies are enough for now….

All of us can create similar activities with different names or different focus points.  We must remember to use these judiciously as well to avoid predictability and staleness.  I highly recommend Gallagher’s book, Deeper Readingfor further exploration on embracing complex texts. I know, firsthand, using these strategies have increased reading interest, comprehension, understanding, relevancy, and real-life application of complex texts.

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