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Archive for April, 2010

Saying Yes

As I reach the end of my third year of teaching, I find myself silently, implicitly saying yes to my students more and more. Often the types of questions they ask are simple: “May I get a book? May I read the trivia questions? Can we play that game?”
What does it take to get to the point where you can say yes to your students? I remember my first job, which was a short-lived disaster at a charter school, one of the students nicknamed me “Ms. No.” What changed between then and now that my students are asking more questions that I am likely to say yes to?

So many people have said it before me, but I am amazed to see it working with my kids. Expectations, expectations, expectations. Our school also has a strict externalized discipline system I wish I could take credit for. Our students get a weekly passport they must carry with them. For minor infractions (uniform, homework, class rule, tardy) they get one mark. They can get two marks per week with no consequences. Three marks is an administrative lunch detention. Four marks, a second detention. Five marks is an office referral. We do write a lot of referrals but our administration supports our system, and the kids know it. There are a lot of other rules for contingencies I can go into if anyone is interested in this system. It works very well for our small urban junior high of about 120 kids.

But within my classroom, I do think that I have gotten better at pacing and at providing them things they want to do when they are finished with an assignment. My classroom library is probably the biggest draw, and of course I’d like to turn every kid into a reader. But I also have some trivia games and tangrams. I do have mandatory silent reading time, but this week, while we are doing standardized tests, my kids have been drawing, doing tangrams, reading, and helping organize the bookshelf.

It’s not just early finisher activities that I’ve started saying yes to. I think that in assignments, which I like to structure with a lot of rules to produce complex enough results, I often say “yes” when a student suggests a change. I had carefully picked which scenes in Midsummer Night’s Dream I wanted my students to rewrite and perform. I had figured out number roles, lines, etc. But a group of girls wanted to change it to Lysandria and Demetria fight over Heleno. For some reason, my first instinct was no. I caught myself a second later. I know about the crossdressing days of Shakespeare like everyone else, I taught them that. So why not? This is just one example of many.

Providing a variety of activities also seems to help. I was talking to my colleagues about planning lessons on the fly when needed. I shared with them that often I don’t even need to do the mental work. The kids will see an opportunity and suggest something we have done before. “Can we use the ball to share our wonder questions about the Giver?” Sure, that’s a great idea. It’s obviously an activity that they like and remember, so why not?

Maybe it is all about contingencies. I often get asked if they can retake a test. I have a 100% yes you may always retake policy. Most students who ask don’t then remember to retake the test, but it feels good to say yes to them, for them to know that they have that back-up plan always. (Particularly easy for me because I now only do online tests, so students can manage finding their own retakes as long as I provide the access.)

Saying yes to students feels great. It fosters understanding, it makes you feel like they get what is appropriate and what is not.

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There are a lot of things to like about this book, but they’re not the things I like. You could like Levithan’s exploration of teen depression, relationships, and internet boyfriends. You could like Green’s continual mastery of the supporting character. You could like the even-odd X-shaped narrative, and the clever little nods to it. You could like the idea of two authors sharing a character. You surely could like Tiny Cooper and Will Grayson, Will Grayson. You could like the humor, though it seems less organic here than in a usual John Green book.
But what I like about this book is that it’s about boys and friendship. So few books really are. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a better exploration of male adolescent friendship, or one at all, really. Female friendship has been yaya-ed and traveled-pants to death. It bites us with its truth, girls can be nasty, clingy, moist and weepy. Girls tangle tight with each others’ drama.
What Levithan and Green have done is show is some of the closing off, quietness, isolation, and revelation of male friendship. That is really interesting, sweet, and pure. Bravo. Will seek out more from Levithan after this.

Funny I ended up at a live show Green did on the official WG, WG preorder day and totally did, I had no idea how important pre-orders are to authors. I was also disheartened to hear that ebooks do not guarantee more money for the author. If production cost goes down, and the price doesn’t by that much, I think more should be going to the author and their agents, editors and other workhorses.

I haven’t decided if I will give this book to the John Green fans among my older students. Probably, if they ask for it, but I won’t put it out on the shelf. Plus, it’s mine! Can’t I have a book for myself, children? 🙂

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When I started this blog a few months ago, with the intention of having my own stretch-your-legs space on the internet, at least professionally, I labeled myself as a “literature teacher.” Now I’m rethinking, I’ve gotten involved in the whole class vs. workshop reading debate (at least in my head.) Saving most of my professional TBR pile for summer, I decided to order Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer mainly because she is so amazingly nice. 🙂

I am lucky I have a great writing teacher who does grammar with my students, also that I freaking love teaching vocabulary more than anything (expect maybe Shakespeare). So what I am left with is to teach informational, persuasive, functional and literary text. But like most teachers I spend a majority of my time on literary text, because that is traditional and because functional and informational text are boring to teach and boring to learn and I think that they get enough of that elsewhere.

But what I really love is when my students who aren’t readers become readers. And I also love the huge project of building and rebuilding and getting donations and Goodwill Half off weekend for my classroom library. And I think my classroom library makes my kids readers. And I love book talking books I read to my kids, and I bet I’m going to love it when they have to do their own.

Does a middle school “literature” teacher love all that stuff? Or is it only a reading teacher? And for next year, if I cut down to only one (much speedier!) class novel, and give my kids tons of reading time, and still teach mini-lessons every day… will that work?

So funny, in this crazy manic time of year, I just think….(huge tangle of thoughts for next year)…will that work?

Less than a month until the readingest class goes to see Richard III! I desperately need to find a summary for us.

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