Finding Faith

“To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all miseries of life.” W. Somerset Maugham

“So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?” – from All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

She sauntered into my class on the first day of school, scanning the room for familiar faces.  I was standing to the side of the room greeting students when my eyes locked with hers, and arbitrarily, she chose a seat in a group of desks at the front of the room.  The way she moved quickly, averting her gaze, alerted my teacher brain, and I moved from the side of the room to the front where I could keep a closer watch on her.  In her hands she held a drawstring bag, one that she clutched, holding it as one would a security blanket, and she was still peering around the room and eyeing the door for someone.  When a friend of hers walked into the room, her face illuminated with joy, and probably a little relief, knowing that she would not have to endure class alone.  Immediately, she engaged her friend in a conversation that included lots of giggles and furtive glances in my direction.  She slid items of interest across her desk to her friend who slipped them into her bookbag, checking to see if I had noticed.  When she saw that I had, she rolled her eyes and slouched in her seat.  She caught my gaze again, and within her eyes were fires that danced with determination, daring me to say something.   This is my 9th year of teaching, and I am well aware of the adjustments that students have to make at the beginning of a school year,  their minds settling into the idea of a new grade level.  They must become acquainted with a new teacher.  For me, the first day is about establishing connections and relationships, and I try not to form opinions based on the first day I meet them. Something about this young lady, however, captured my attention.  Her eyes and body language were offering a challenge, almost as if she were willing me to provoke an argument.  I held the stare until, in response, she rolled her eyes and put her head down, turning so I was out of her view.  

I walked to her desk in an attempt to mitigate any animosity that I might have created, especially at this point in the year.  When I approached her desk, she sensed me standing there and sat up.  “I’m sorry if I upset you,” I said, trying to smooth what appeared to be a possibly precarious situation.

“It’s ok,” she said, but her tone didn’t convince me.

“I’m Mr. Crowder. What’s your name?”

“Faith,” she said.  After the monosyllabic word, she put her head down again, her social cue that the conversation was finished.  I went back to my desk and called roll. When I called her name, she didn’t say anything. Her head remained on her desk.

Homeroom seamlessly segued to first period, and when it started, Faith came into class with a notebook, labeled English/Language Arts.  She slid back into her seat, still clinging to the drawstring bag from earlier.  Her spirits seemed better at this point, but I was cautiously optimistic, nervous that I would recreate the scene from earlier that morning.  I passed out the class syllabus, and as usual, asked my students to highlight parts of the document that were important.  Faith acquiesced, highlighting portions with precision, even broadening certain lines so that she made a perfect square around paragraphs of information.  As a class, we discussed their required independent reading, and although I was nervous about her reaction, she didn’t seem phased by the voluminous expectation delineated in the syllabus.  I felt hopeful, but my hopes were premature as I was to learn the following day.                 

We wasted no time getting to the media center on the second day of school.  I had spent time booktalking numerous novels in my classroom, hoping to spark some form of interest as my students began establishing reading lives.  A large number of them chose books from my classroom library, but there was a significant number that needed to visit the library.  So off we went.  I was the last to arrive in the media center and students were all over browsing books.  Faith stood off to the side with her friend, ignoring the shelves of books that surrounded her.  I approached her, stubborn enough to believe I could help.

“Have you selected a book?” I asked.

“I don’t like reading,” she said.  Provocation, I thought.

“Well, unfortunately for you, you don’t have a choice.  Would you like me to help you select something?”

“No, I’ll just get something.”

“I’ll be happy to…”  Before I could finish, she had taken a book from a nearby shelf and joined her friend at one of the tables in the media center.  She sat there for the rest of class, laying her head on one of her arms while a hand steadied the book on the tabletop.  She fake read for the rest of class.     

For the next month, Faith continued to read this book, one arm supporting her head while she tried to focus on the narrative.  Sometimes, her fingers would trace the sentences, and she would mouth the words, one by one, trying to negotiate the text. During reading conferences, she had little to say about the characters or plot, sharing only a modicum of information with me.  I could tell she was bored with the storyline, but she resisted any other reading suggestions I gave.  I start each year with a reading interest inventory to determine students’ ideas and opinions about reading and as a means to guide them to literature that will engage them as independent readers. Her reading inventory proffered little help about her interests.  Conversation with her yielded the same results, and I was beginning to think this student would slip through the cracks.  Defeat seemed imminent when I saw her skip the last 50 pages of the book before proclaiming to her friend, and ultimately me, that she had completed the novel.  It was impossible to read and write with fluency if these were the academic habits she was establishing.  I would say I felt hopeless, but the word hardly captures the feelings I experienced.

We stayed in the media center for class that day, transitioning to writing workshop after our independent reading time.  I was scheduled to conference with Faith about the memoir she was writing, and when I sat down beside her, she barely acknowledged I was there.  Instead, she was diligently typing another paragraph for the first draft.  I asked her how the writing assignment was going, and although she had struggled a bit with some sentence structure, she felt confident about this draft.  I read over her shoulder as she typed and was appalled at her story.  The first page was infused with themes of neglect, abandonment, verbal abuse, and death.  Her memoir unearthed her troublesome past, justifying the actions she willingly displayed in class.  Faith knew transience at such a young age, moving from place to place, person to person, environment to environment.  Through each test of her resilience, she had somehow found resolve.  She had chosen a book in which she could not see herself; no wonder she had no interest in the story.  

I went to the shelf in the media center and chose Dark Song by Gail Giles, a gritty novel about a teenage girl whose strength and resilience enable her to overcome her fears.  I took it to Faith as class was ending and talked about it briefly.  “Just try it,” I said.  “If you don’t like it, we’ll try something else.”  When she returned to class the following day, she opened to the first page and started reading.  Within five minutes, her posture had changed.  Within fifteen minutes, she was squinting her eyes, indicative of the negotiations she was making with the text, the characters, and story.  Her familiarity with the characters and situations yielded deeper conversations during reading conferences, and I could sense her negative view of reading beginning to change.  One day, I looked over, and her drawstring bag was in a pile beside her desk; she was lost in her book.  Success!

Since then, Faith has read eleven books.  Her interests have ranged from Forged by Fire by Sharon Draper, to A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.  Currently, she is reading The Memory of Light by Francisco Stork, a novel about people who find redemption as they resolve the tenuous relationships and issues of their pasts.  If you ask her about it, she’ll give you a thorough analysis of the characters and their situations.  I often share this story with co-workers and friends because I believe in the power of books.  I believe that once students find the right book, they’ll be hooked forever.  One of my favorite writers, thinkers, and mentors is Penny Kittle.  I have often heard her say that “the difference between a reader and non-reader is that a reader has a plan.”  Once we help students develop reading plans, they learn to sustain their reading lives.  This experience taught me a valuable lesson about the rich experience reading brings. Students walk into my room every year, convinced that reading is not for them.  Their opinions about reading are framed by the worksheets, multiple-choice tests, and vapid discussion that has surrounded books, articles, and poetry.  Considering that this is their context for any instruction surrounding literature, I can’t blame them.  I continue to believe that they can become enraptured by a narrative, and that it is never too late to develop a reading life.  I continue to believe that a story can come to life in their minds and build a world full of light, a fortress of illumination that opposes the darkness and misery of our world.  I just have to have faith that the right book is out there.  
T          

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Of Books and Humanity

“What we need is a curriculum that invites students to answer the essential questions we all ask, one that is a transformative experience, and allows students to become storytellers, philosophers, historians, anthropologists, reporters, critics, designers, and travelers.” -Jim Burke

“Empathy, stronger than sympathy, connects to the reader at a deep emotional level. Something in the book has happened to the reader as well; thus, a relationship is made, one that can be sustained book by book.” -Teri Lesesne

I have read widely and passionately for most of my life and as a result, I speak, think, teach, and write in terms of books.  The narratives echo deep within me, and for every situation, there is a character or quote that comes to mind.  These artifacts of ink and paper are more than stories, and any reader who has spent time dwelling in the world of a book knows its power. When I discuss books with my students, I reference themes that connect them to the stories and the characters. I hope they will see each book as a microcosm of the world, containing the lessons that will prepare them for life.  But sometimes I forget that the lessons in books are for adults, too.                    

Rage emanated from all sides during the turbulence of the national election.  Like all Americans, I was bombarded with toxic language on a daily basis, encountering words that had no other purpose than to destroy.  To counteract the negativity, I focused on The Underground Railroad, a novel by Colson Whitehead that is nothing short of masterful.  Whitehead uses the Underground Railroad as a metaphor, taking us on a journey with Cora, the protagonist, as she struggles to find her way north.  Her adventure is breathtaking, yet heartrending; as an African-American woman, she chances capture from her owner, but her resilience leads her onward.  Upon finishing the novel, I turned to my notebook, and as I wrote, I found myself thinking and writing in terms of humanity, of shared experiences.  Historical events have shaped who we are, how we think, and how we will affect change now and in the future.  The pieces of our past are threads that weave us together, as citizens, into the fabric of the world.  I read and wrote about Cora’s journey, and I celebrated her resilience in the face of adversity; but, I failed to exhibit the same qualities I so happily applauded.  Whitehead’s microcosm was a world I wanted to disappear into, but the wisdom of the narrative taught me a lesson in spite of the fictional escape I so desperately wanted.        

As a teacher, I am responsible for expanding the minds of my students.  These are the individuals whose future tasks will include participation in civic duties, such as voting and engaging in global conversations.  The toxic language used at the national level, including the voices that raised in support of narrow mindedness, revealed an overall absence of empathy, a hallmark of an unhealthy reading life.  The National Assessment for Adult Literacy, in 2003, found that 11 million Americans lacked basic literacy.  In 2015, the Pew Research Center found that in a 12-month span, 27 percent of adults reported that they had not read a single book.  The United States Census Bureau claims that 318.9 million people currently inhabit our country, meaning that in 2015, 86.1 million people did not read a single book. I find those statistics frightening, and I fear future reports where the population of readers becomes marginalized by growing numbers of non-readers in our country.  Paltry reading diets deny us journeys through time, adventures through distant lands, and chance encounters with gorgeous cultures and different faces.  The 27 percent of people who did not read denied themselves any exposure to our heterogeneous world.  For 12 months, they declined opportunities to see the world differently, to resolve their questions or uncertainties about life, and they relegated themselves to a single viewpoint of life.   

As an English teacher, I am responsible for representing the beautiful threads of diversity through literature, writing, and conversation.  Ignoring the hateful language that children are exposed to through news sources and social media does them no favors, and it is hypocritical of me to suggest they seek to understand humanity if I am not responding with counteractions against the vile language at the national level. Books are resonating, powerful things, and right now, at this exact moment in our teaching lives, our students need to read to develop a sense of humanity.  I’m not asking them to read just so they can understand another culture.  More than anything, I want them to realize that their lens is just a fragment of the larger world.  Our curriculum, guiding questions, and goals must all be linked to giving students opportunities to function cognitively as inquirers.  They should always be asking questions about the world in which they live, and the books they read should help them answer those questions. The more we read, the more connected we are to the rest of the world and we begin to see how similar we really are.  Limiting our reading experiences to one story of humanity, one viewpoint, limits our scope and forces us into cognitive confinement.  I would not have applauded Cora if my idea of the world was formed from a single story of humanity.  My empathy, gleaned from a healthy reading life, enabled me to celebrate her resilience and fear for her life.  If we do not read widely and passionately, we will fail to defend democracy and to condemn the pure acid of hate speeches and racial epithets. Ignorance will isolate us from the exquisite community that comes from passionate reading.          

I have started a Voices for Humanity board in my classroom.  Anytime a student notices a sentence, phrase, or passage that reflects a different culture, idea, or way of thinking, I ask them to write it on the board.  This gives students a visual representation of the diversity and humanity that exists within the books they are reading, connecting them to the larger community of our world.  My students seek justice and they celebrate the resilience of characters they meet in their books; they want to see good triumph in the end.  As they journey through school, developing a book love that extends far beyond this year, I hope they will remember the Voices for Humanity board in my classroom and remember the words that were written across it.  I hope they remember that I filled my classroom with books that reflected as much of humanity as possible, that in my library lived thousands of people who represented life beyond our school, that my class transformed their ideas about reading, and books gave them opportunities to be historians, travelers, thinkers, and philosophers, that each book was a mighty heartbeat of the world, and that they had a chance to hear that heartbeat before they left my class.

I know there are other teachers out there who believe in the power of good books.  There is a distinct joy that comes from a voluminous, healthy reading life, one that counteracts the hostility that is present in our world.  I believe we teachers, the ones who understand the potent quality of books, can impact change in our world by inviting our students into a sustained reading life that is rich with perspectives and experiences.  Let us use books to counteract the ignominious deeds and words of those around us.  Let us lead our students to a love of reading by bringing them to literature that reflects truth.  I am confident that our passion for reading will inspire our students to experience books with the ardent intensity that we do.  

Give them books.

Show them humanity.

And in the end, good with triumph.

T

Teaching with Memoir

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories.” -Anne Lamott

“Our job as teachers is to help students tap into their wants and also help them realize that writing can be a solution.” -Donald Graves

“Our pasts belong to us.  They are the fires that drive us, that consume us, that illuminate who we are.  They are the inaudible voices that guide our decisions and expose truth when we are afraid to.” Stephen Crowder

It isn’t great, but it’s part of my story. I hope you enjoy.

Change Can Be Difficult: A Brief Memoir by Travis Crowder

As you read the following memoir, identify:

  1. places where the author uses poetic language;
  2. power words;
  3. and how the author creates tone (the attitude/feeling toward the issue or content).

When I reflect on my past, vivid, colorful memories flood my mind.  My parents built a home full of warmth and love.  Both of them were hard workers and they instilled in me a drive to achieve greatness. My father bruised his hands from hours of hard labor, and he was willing to sacrifice comfort for the sake of our family.  Although rough and callused from work, his hands were gentle.  They wiped away tears, helped me with homework, patted my back before bedtime. Like all children, my vision of the world was not a realistic one; it was clouded by the spirit of love I felt when I was safely ensconced in our house. Home was a haven, a protection from the ugliness of the outside world. At that point in my life, my imagination was not tamed by the terrible reality of our financial situation. In truth, money was almost nonexistent and my parents struggled to make ends meet; I never understood the hardship because they protected me from it. They cast this protection like it was a charm, but unfortunately, it was short-lived.    

By the time I was in 8th grade, I was well aware of the financial burden that had crept over our family. My father worked diligently, but the income was a pittance, never fully providing the funds we needed. On school mornings, he would always ask if I had money for lunch. I often felt guilty for taking money from him because I was beginning to understand the issue with finances. Several times he would give me the last few dollars in his wallet, and even when I refused, worried he would have nothing to buy his lunch with, he forced me to take it.  

One morning, I asked him for two dollars for lunch. He opened his wallet, and it was empty except for some receipts.  He sighed, and I knew his mind was plagued with worry.  “Hang on,” he said.  He walked to the kitchen cabinet where our family kept a cannister with spare change. He pulled it down from the cabinet, twisted off the lid, and brought out four penny rolls. “Will they let you pay with this?” he asked.  

“I think so,” I said.

“Well if they don’t, ask them if you can charge it.  I’ll pay it as soon as I can,” he said, turning away from me. I’m certain he had tears in his eyes.

In the moments leading up to lunch, I began worrying. If I took the penny rolls out of my pocket and they didn’t accept them, I would look like a fool. If they did accept them, and classmates saw me paying with an embarrassing form of payment, I feared I would be ridiculed.  Knowing I had charged my lunch in previous weeks, I feared suffering the condescension of the cafeteria cashiers. They were known to be acerbic, and I wasn’t sure I could handle their rudeness that day.

To save myself from as much embarrassment as possible, I decided to ask a cashier about the penny rolls before going through the line. If they wouldn’t take them, I wouldn’t go through the line. I’d just eat when I returned home. I approached the least busy cashier and asked rather quietly, “Can I pay for my lunch with penny rolls?”  I assumed she didn’t understand how embarrassed I was (it’s hard to believe she was just too rude not to care) because she said back, rather loudly, “I don’t know if we take penny rolls. You’ll have to ask our manager. She’s over there!” she said, as she pointed to the front of the cafeteria. The students in the lunch line were looking at me, and I could tell they were amused at the incident. I was dismissed to the cafeteria’s overseer, a harsh woman who was anything but pleasant, and as I approached her, I took into account that she was talking to another adult. I waited. I waited some more.  She never acknowledged I was standing there, even though I did small things, like moving into her line of sight or clearing my throat to make my presence known.

The lunch line was starting to diminish, and I was still standing there waiting for her to acknowledge me. I was frustrated and embarrassed, and I could see some kids whispering, wondering what I was doing. It fueled my anger and I was ready to burst into tears.  

Right before tears slipped from my eyes, one of the kinder cafeteria ladies approached me. “Honey, what do you need?” Her words were comforting and I was grateful.

“Can I pay for my lunch with penny rolls?” I asked.

“You sure can,” she said. I’ve never forgotten her soft smile, how she welcomed me into the lunch line, accepted my money and gave me back my change without question or a sign of ridicule.  I’ve also never forgotten the words of the other cashier, who said, “Guess you can pay with those things,” as I walked to my table with my tray of food.  

That day I realized the supreme importance of kind words and acceptance. It was the first time I had experienced judgment because of money.  I had been protected from such hateful attitudes, but as I ate my lunch, I began to understand the rudeness my parents had to endure.  I had enough money to pay for my food, but my method of payment was different.  How could paying with change be so difficult? Maya Angelou, one of my favorite poets, said people will forget things about you, but they will never forget how you made them feel.  Emotions are fragile things; when they are destroyed, we never forget the people who destroyed them. My attitude toward people changed that day because I saw how rude they can be.  I was hurt, and even now, when I remember this part of my past, I cringe at the memory.  Sure, I eventually healed, but I have never forgotten.

Change can be difficult.  

The Professional Reading Lives of Teachers

“The point, I tell them and you, is to be in the game, to be at the table, to be a part of the conversation, to contribute what is yours to give to help all those who come along behind you – to not just be part of the story but to be one who helps write that story.” -Jim Burke, The English Teacher’s Companion

“The best teachers are the ones whose professional lives are as big as their teaching lives.” -Kelly Gallagher to me at NCTE 2015

The scope of education is broad. From grades K-12, students are immersed into worlds of literature, languages, history, mathematics, sciences, humanities, physical education, and the arts.  Students spend thirteen years of their lives studying content to cultivate their minds.  Each content area gives students another lens through which to see the world. Our classrooms should be places of conversation, writing, critical thinking, and collaboration; together with students, we should discuss the larger issues in our world, using each content area as a lens to view those issues.  Unless we, as teachers, devote time to establishing and maintaining a professional reading life, the impact we make will be limited. 

I truly believe that teachers want to challenge their students. As a neophyte in the teaching world, I was adamant that my students read rigorous literature.  I created multiple forms of assessments and handouts to distribute, certain that such activity would stimulate thought and provide a challenging learning experience for all my students.  I am continuing to grow as an educator and reflective practitioner; I see the error of my former practices and I’ve learned that more does not always equal better.  Giving students more information or more pieces to remember isn’t challenge, it’s an exercise in memory. We do have a responsibility to help students develop their memory skills, but that alone does not broaden the mind. Going over content in class, then providing a chance to work problems in notebooks or complete more of the same ideas in groups is not bad teaching, but when that comprises the preponderance of a teacher’s instructional practice, little is gained as far as mind cultivation goes. And students lose a year of true critical thinking.

The teacher provides the heartbeat for the classroom. Our decisions and talents guide our instruction, and if we expect a lot from our students, we must expect even more from ourselves. Last November, I traveled to the NCTE conference in Minneapolis, MN. My dear friend, Martha, and I waited in line to get autographs and speak briefly with Kelly Gallagher, one of the strong thinkers in English education. I had a copy of his newest book, In the Best Interest of Students, tucked under my arm, eagerly waiting for the moment he would sign it. When my turn came, I approached his table; he smiled as I walked up.  We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries; then I handed him my book. “How many years have you taught, Travis?” he asked as he inscribed the front page. “This is my 8th year,” I said. He smiled again, handed me my book, and said, “Well, Travis, I’m glad you’re here.  I’ve found that the best teachers are the ones whose professional lives are as big as their teaching lives.”  

Although we spoke briefly, his words left an indelible mark, one that haunts me as I write this blog post. Our professional lives are the significant force behind our students’ success. The words and voices of these professional writers linger in my mind long after each school day. As I wade through stacks of papers, consider novels for book talks, think about my students’ interests and how I can direct them to a more intense book love, the professional reading I have done provides a touchstone to direct my thinking.  At the foundation of every content area is literature that explains and extends the tenets of the subject. I know that we want what is best for our students, and in their best interest, it is important that we know the literature of our content areas and seek out other readings that will enhance what we already know.  

Our greatest professional obligation is to our students. All teachers are responsible for providing sound instruction and continuing their education.  I’ve often heard teachers say that their lessons have worked for years; why would they change? I hear their point, but I also hear an excuse for stagnation.  The professional reading life of a teacher requires responsibility, and it goes beyond an internet search for lesson plans and information about content. The internet is one of my larger resources, but it is not the only resource that informs my instruction.  At this point in my career, my lesson plans and instruction are formed by the professional voices I have read, my experience, and the content I know, as well as the process I use to deliver that instruction to my students.  There is so much talent among teachers, and I am confident that this talent can be further developed by reading the writing of professionals in our fields.     

My suggestion: find the strong voices and thinkers for your content area. Read the newest research about teaching your subject. Seek out conferences that will supply you with a deeper sense of your curriculum and renew your passion for teaching.  We prioritize what we value, and when we do not value reading or learning, it shows. Our instruction is a mixture of what we have read, and when our reading lives are shallow, so is our teaching.  It isn’t an insult; it’s the truth.

Our professional reading lives should be a light to others in our field, and together, we should build a community of thinkers, readers, and teachers to illuminate a path of understanding for our students. Should, in this case, is a saddening word, because when used, it indicates something that is probable, not what is happening.  We don’t need probability; we need responsibility. I challenge each teacher to begin a professional reading life, finding content-area literature that will enhance your teaching process.  As reflective practitioners, we must seek out the best resources to cultivate ourselves and our students.  If we aren’t strong readers, we won’t produce critical thinkers.  Competency on an end-of-grade test is not proof that we have produced strong students, it just proves that our students can take tests.

I realize that as teachers, we are pushed beyond reasonable limits at times.  We are responsible for lesson plans, paperwork, assessments, grades, meetings, committees, differentiation, and bringing rigor to our classrooms.  On top of that, we are parents, husbands, wives, children, community members, and leisure readers.  Asking you to pull professional reading into a life that is overflowing with responsibility is, I’m sure, another burden.  But if I didn’t believe it would work, I wouldn’t suggest it.  Finding time to peruse websites and books related to your content area, will make a significant difference in your teaching life and the success of your students.  No one appreciates the hard work of educators more than I do. I see the dedication of teachers, the meticulous lesson planning, the hope that each student will succeed.  Carving out time to read professional material can be challenging; I know from experience.  Finding even the smallest amounts of time, however, will enhance the great things you are already doing.  I have found the following suggestions to be helpful when looking to bring professional material into my reading life.

  1. Set aside time one day each week to read professional materials on websites, especially the national sites that have links to standards, lesson plans, and professional development. The information is free and it uses technology that most teachers already have in their classrooms.
  2. Find a professional book that correlates with a topic in your content area that you are passionate about. Determine how long it will take you to read it and set a personal goal for finishing.
  3. Reflect on your lesson plans and determine the type of professional material that would make your teaching even better.  Write those ideas on your lesson plans so you have a goal.
  4. Seek out a reading community in your school. Even if it’s just you and another teacher, it’s better than being alone. Read the book together and discuss how it can be used to inform your teaching.  
  5. Establish time for independent reading in your classroom. Read along with your students!

I have seen the benefit of my professional reading life in my classroom, and I am confident that you will see it in yours.  I want nothing more than to support what is already happening in our classes.  We are in this together and I know we are working toward the same goal.  So what do you say? Will you help me write the story of success for our students and for everyone else who comes along? I’d love it if you would.   

T

 

I have started a spreadsheet of professional reading. Currently, it includes books and websites.  These are professional resources.  You will not find books full of lesson plans, ready-to-go arts and crafts, or printables.  You will, however, find a wealth of knowledge from writers and thinkers from different disciplines. This is not a comprehensive list. As I continue reading and learning about different professional development books or websites, I’ll update the spreadsheet.  Just check back periodically to see if anything new has been added!

Professional Reading for Content Area Teachers

The Writer’s Workshop: Creating Community and Helping Students Find Their Voices

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” -Maya Angelou

“…let that page come out of you–/Then, it will be true.” -from Theme for English B, by Langston Hughes

One of my fondest memories of childhood is the burning desire I had to tell stories, writing them on old notebook paper I found in my father’s plumbing shop.  The blue lines had faded into blurs, but it was on these pages that I began developing my craft as a writer.  I always felt that there was a story inside of me that I needed to tell, and as a 9th grader, I wrote my first book entitled The Silver Box. It was terrible. If memory serves, there was a woman whose husband died from some malady or unfortunate circumstance, which, I suppose, is the cause of every death recorded in the history of humankind.  Whatever the cause, one I can’t recall at this moment, my protagonist was distraught. She developed depression and angst until a cliched hero seduced her right out of her depression, and she wrote a beautiful poem that garnered such acclaim that she not only attained celebrity but also the power to overcome the death of her husband.

One thing is certain: I was compelled to write, and although it turned out to be horrible prose, I had to get the story out on paper.  We only begin to get better as writers when we write something down and when we have the tenacity to accept feedback that will help us grow.  I’ve written multiple stories, poems, novel attempts, and blog posts since 9th grade, and with each one, my writing skills and voice have strengthened.  I still cringe when I ask someone to critique and edit my work, but if it stays in my hands, it will stagnate. Trying my hand at different genres of writing, including blogs, poetry, and prose, has increased my awareness of my own skills, my strengths and limitations as a writer. This awareness lends itself beautifully to the teaching of writing.

Students come into my classroom with varying gifts, ones that I have to utilize if I am going to help hone their skills as writers. I don’t want inane essays from them. I want vibrant, complex writing that has voice, and I want them to ache with caring about what they write. I have been guilty of asking students to write from their hearts, but not giving them a chance to develop their unique writing voices by writing about things that matter to them.  When writing comes from the heart, it becomes personal. I want students to write with feeling and conviction, but I know that a workshop environment includes a certain amount of risk: students have to feel comfortable sharing their ideas with their classmates and with me. This year, I knew I had to start differently. They needed to begin writing on day one, learning the language of writers and beginning to understand how to draft a piece of writing for an intended audience.  Together, we comprise the audience, the ones who will give them feedback and help strengthen their writing. We have to be a community.  To develop this feeling of community and demonstrate the risk I want them to take, I decided to share my own writing with the class, a daunting, yet necessary action to set the tone for a successful writing class.    

I took my cue from Penny Kittle, a writer and teacher who has inspired the preponderance of my methodology. She suggests using I’m From poems, a type of poetry that encourages students to think about where they come from, the things that make them who they are.  In the days leading up to class, I began crafting my poem, pulling from distant memories, heartache, joy, and hope. My goal was for them to begin establishing voice in their writing by selecting tones appropriate to their topics. Never before have I shared such an intimate work with my students, and I experienced the near palpable fear that comes from opening yourself up to new people, new students. I was confident, however, that this would help establish the environment conducive to writing and revising. It was a risk I was willing to take. (A copy of my poem can be found at the bottom of this post.)

Students were asked to access my poem on our class website. I read it aloud to them because I wanted them to hear the fluency of poetry. As a group we discussed tone and purpose. Embedded within my own poem were sections of grief and heartache, hope and resilience. I asked them where they noticed these tones in my writing, then asked them to prove their argument. We spent time conversing about the positive moments in my stanzas and the places where love and hope converge.  They noticed my voice in the poem, and although the conversation could have lasted longer, I wanted them to practice with writing their own poetry, finding their own unique writing voices.  

I only gave them ten minutes to write, but in those moments of quick writing, they found a voice; they found what mattered to them. One student wrote about her father, a man who wants nothing to do with her, but she was hopeful that they would cross paths again. Another student explained her frustration with her family, promising to make better choices as she learned to navigate the “ropes of life.” One young man explained how school was frustrating to him because he always seemed one step behind, but he stated that he was “from never giving up.” At this point in the year, building community is crucial.  I need students to see me as a fellow writer, as someone who is still working to cultivate his writing abilities.  My willingness to share personal work and invite them into my writing life creates community where students feel free to share their own stories and find their voices.

It has been a week since that poetry assignment, and since then we have started studying memoir, looking for the stories that we want to share. Students must find their writing voices in our classes, but if we fail to create a sense of community, they will not be willing to take risks.

We all have stories inside of us that we want to tell, and through writing, revision, more writing and more revision, I know each student will create a powerful narrative. Essays about symbolism, characterization, theme, and syntax are important; students will encounter such assignments as high school and college students. I am convinced, though, that unless we help them find their own stories, find the things that matter to them, they will not develop as writers.  

For students to become decent writers, they have to be given varying types of writing assignments; otherwise, they have no chance of finding their voices. If we fail to create a community of writers in our classes, students will write, but only because we’ve asked them to.  Their essays, papers, and responses will lack vision and voice. As your students write this year, give them opportunities to explore who they are. Give them space and time to find the right word, to check with a friend, to build a sentence, to craft a paragraph.  Give them the chance to see you as a developing writer, still honing your skills as you write your heart out.  Let them see you as unafraid to take risks with your own writing, and your willingness to share drafts of your work.  Listen to their suggestions.  Make them a part of your writing community.  If they see you as a part of the community you have built, they’ll be more willing to take risks with and without you.  They’ll write their hearts out, too.  And they’ll find those voices that are yearning for freedom and purpose, those voices waiting for us to show them a way out.

T

I’m From by Mr. C

I’m from Hiddenite, a small place nestled in the hills of North Carolina,

Where old streets crumble and crack from years of use.

I’m from loving parents,

From ones who raised me to be my very best.

My preacher father,

And Sunday School mother

Built a home

That held what was sacred.

It was full of life, family, and love.

 

I’m from music and song,

The instruments and voices blending,

In church

Or a front porch,

And the hatred I had for music lessons and practice.

From sarcasm and wit,

And having my mouth smacked when I was smarter than my parents.

 

I’m from the outdoors, from travel.

Camping and fishing for days

In a beautiful wilderness,

Removed from civilization, with nothing but time

To enjoy family and the beauty of the woods.

 

I’m from an alcoholic grandfather

Who hardly knew I existed,

Who preferred verbal abuse instead of knowing

And understanding his family.

He was a man I never really knew.

 

I’m from teaching and learning,

Always determined to share the value of an educated mind.

I’m from wisdom and experience,

Of knowing that nothing is lost in despair

Unless you allow it to be.

 

But most of all…

 

I’m from books and reading,

From a solid belief that books are windows and doors

Into gorgeous worlds of imagination.

That through reading we will grow to understand

The world around us,

And the colors and differences that make up the faces

Of the human race,

Will be our strength, our story, our glory.

Fiction Does Not Mean Fake!

“That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.” -Tim O’Brien, President’s Lecture, 1999

In March of this year, I presented at the North Carolina Association for the Gifted and Talented Conference in Winston-Salem, NC.  The conference is one of the highlights of my year, and if I can make it to that point, I know I will receive the rejuvenation I need to finish out the school year.  I co-presented with my dear friend, Cristi, on teaching Shakespeare.  At the end of the session, I was asked by an attendee how I would respond to an administrator if told I could not teach fiction.  I was speechless, but the attendee continued by stating that he was told by his administrator that students could get the skills necessary by reading nonfiction only.  Additionally, he stated that the principal was adamant that students read nonfiction to participate in real reading. I noted the implication: the principal viewed fiction as fake reading, implying that the imaginative storylines and characters were of no value in our assessment-obsessed culture. I know how this implication came into existence because I’ve misdefined fiction before. During my first year of teaching, I came up with a mnemonic device for remembering the definition: “Fiction,” I would say, “is fake. Nonfiction is not fake.”  It sounds ridiculous because these terms are multi-layered and complex, and they encompass more than fake and not fake. I eventually realized my own shortcomings, but there are still teachers and administrators who misunderstand the nature of fiction and nonfiction; they’re misrepresenting the study of literature and the humanities to the students in their classrooms.  The resonating power of good books is mitigated by misinformed ideas about what fiction has to offer, and as a result, the students lose opportunities to explore fiction as a reflection of the world.     

Further conversation with the attendee unearthed the sordid underbelly of this anti-fiction climate: common core standards and the fear of standardized assessment.  The obsession with testing can overtake a school if the leadership, both teachers and administrators, do not understand the influential power of reading fiction.  Informational texts comprise more than half of the 8th grade end-of-grade assessment, and by 12th grade, informational texts are expected to comprise 70% of students’ reading lives. (Reading framework for the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress).  Those percentages are significant and overwhelming, and the burden of instruction falls on the language arts teachers.  A 2012 article in The Washington Post entitled The Common Core’s 70 percent nonfiction standards and the end of reading? mourned the loss of fiction reading in our nation’s classrooms, stating that this was the best way to “make the kids who like reading hate reading.” With high percentages and the weight of standardized assessment, no wonder people see it as an invalid genre worthy of study.  No wonder it appears fake.      

Personally, I feel that fiction reflects more truth than nonfiction because experience emanates from narrative writing. When authors create setting, characters, and plot, they are building bridges between their imagination and reality.  In Readicide, Kelly Gallagher (2009) alludes to Kenneth Burke, the philosopher who states that reading provides students with imaginative rehearsals for life (p. 66).  In other words, reading gives us a chance to experience part of life before we encounter it personally. For instance, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird gives a reader a chance to see life through the eyes of a child, and although precocious, that child shows us how racism can destroy innocence. When reading Gary Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter, a student learns to understand brokenness and abuse.  When reading Hamlet, young adults begin to understand existential angst, a concept they will encounter time and time again.  I agree that nonfiction is an important part of an English class, but reading only nonfiction gives our students a limited view of the world.     

I mentioned earlier my first year of teaching and the abysmal mnemonic device I created to help students differentiate fiction and nonfiction. In retrospect, I hindered their understanding by identifying the terms as opposites. For three more years, I continued to use this same device, becoming more confident in the definition I created.  I understood the nuances of fiction, the biases of nonfiction; however, I was not conveying this to my students, and my failure was illuminated as I read Michael Clay Thompson’s Classics in the Classroom. “Some of history’s greatest and most evil fictions have appeared in nonfiction works (Hitler’s Mein Kempf is an example), some of humanity’s truths have appeared in works of fiction, such as Oedipus Rex, Moby Dick, or Les Miserables” (pp. 33-34) writes Thompson (1995) of these vast domains we try to simplify by using specious definitions.  I wasn’t only simplifying; I was destroying the beauty of truth that fiction possesses.  I was teaching my students that there are no lessons, no connections to be made with the books they read.  I didn’t mean to misrepresent the word, but my definition told a different story, and without any intention, I was contributing to the belief that fiction was not a real reading experience.  We must carefully avoid such mistakes.       

I return to Tim O’Brien’s philosophy about fiction often. Through a narrative, authors can convey truths by speaking about the struggles of being human. I believe in the power of good books. I believe that these imaginative rehearsals are what guide students through the toughest times in life.  By nature, people love stories, and if you have a great story to tell, people will listen. These stories include characters whose emotions reflect reality; they are the touchstones by which readers measure their actions and the actions of other people.  We are already connected to the characters in books before we pick them up because these stories are about people who are dealing with problems just like we are.  These books have the power to answer our questions, to assuage our fears, to offer us insight, to show us friendship, to repair the fragmented and broken pieces of ourselves. Our children are seeking answers; I want them to find quality answers to those questions. What better way but through fiction?   

Students need authenticity, and reading good books gives them the exposure to universal truths, to authentic interactions and feelings of people. I want the children in my classes to think in terms of literature, and as they grow into adults, I want that literature to develop and enhance their sense of humanity. I want them to develop empathy and love with their whole heart. Isn’t that what really matters? In The Book Whisperer, Donalyn Miller (2009) stated that “reading is a university course in life…Through reading, we can witness all that is noble, beautiful, or horrifying about other human beings” (p. 151). Her words echo my feelings about the humanities, and after each novel, I now ask students what their books have taught them about the world and the people in it.  These books illuminate our world and expose truth, but students will only discover the beauty that books hold if they are allowed to read fiction.              

Fiction is not fake.

It’s real.

 

References

Gallagher, K. (2009). Readicide: How schools are killing reading and what you can do about it. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse.

Miller, D. (2009). The book whisperer: Awakening the inner reader in every child. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

National Assessment Governing Board, W. D. (2008). Reading Framework for the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress. National Assessment Governing Board.

O’Brien, T. (1999). Writing vietnam . Retrieved from http://cds.library.brown.edu/projects/WritingVietnam/obrien.html
Thompson, M.C. (1995). Classics in the classroom (2nd ed.). Unionville, NY: Royal Fireworks Press.   

Classroom Libraries: Sources of Instruction and Inspiration

“A good library will never be too neat or too dusty because somebody will always be in it taking books off the shelves and staying up late reading them.” -Lemony Snicket

“To build a library is to create a life. It’s never just a random collection of books.”-Carlos Maria Dominguez

There is something beautiful about a classroom library, especially if it is well-used. Books are meticulously stacked with the best of intentions, but once students begin browsing the contents of the shelves, everything is moved out of place. I don’t mind because this is a tell-tale sign of the traffic my classroom library receives.  Anyone who comes into my classroom, into anyone’s classroom, can tell if students are using the library, and how often.  Neat rows and dust particles tell the stories; we don’t have to.

I always consult my library for mentor texts, the examples of great writing I want students to utilize as they develop their own writing craft and unique writing voice. When reading a book that I may add to my classroom library, I not only consider interest level, but also the paragraphs and passages that students could use as guides to inform their writing, to strengthen their developing abilities.  If I want students to fall in love with reading and develop great writing skills, my library must be filled with exceptional books.  

My classroom library is more than a showpiece. It is more than an accessory or an afterthought, more than a simple system of borrow and return.  My library is an anchor of instruction because it builds reference and context for conversation with students and other teachers.  It is a major source for book talks, reading suggestions, and mentor texts. Additionally, it is always askew, and each afternoon, in the quietude of my classroom, I straighten rows and reshelve books if necessary.  My library is personal because I have built it myself; I have identified (and continue to identify) books that I know will weave their way into the hearts of kids.  If I am responsible for cultivating the minds of my students, I have to build and cultivate a powerful classroom library and be knowledgeable of its contents.  When we know, and I mean really know, the books in our libraries, we have the power to transform student attitudes, a realization I came to last year.   

It is not pretense when I say that last school year was one of the most challenging of my career.  The students were apathetic and frustrating, and my greatest attempts to educate were fought against with an almost impregnable force.  At the start of the fourth nine weeks, I decided to give a reading and writing workshop a try; the results were phenomenal.  I spent hours curating my classroom library, and although many books were eliminated, I kept the ones that would have the most influence in students’ reading lives. Large gaps were left on the shelves, but I wasn’t curating my library to please an aesthetic; I knew time would close the gaps.  I took an assessment of the genres represented by the stacks of books on the countertops and floor and spent an entire afternoon reshelving the books and adding genre labels to each row.  The following day, students noticed the bookshelf first, and I gave them time to browse and select books if they wanted something other than the books they had gotten from the school library.  I worked like a fiend to add new books because this library meant something to me.  I had read Nancie Atwell’s In The Middle and Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer, and their seminal writings confirmed what I knew to be true about the power of student reading choices, as well as the paramount importance of a voluminous classroom library. Personally, I wanted the books of the library to comprise the preponderance of mentor texts I used for instruction.  I wanted students to see that conversations about character, plot, literary devices, and writing style were relevant to young adult fiction, the books that would appeal to their developing readership. We teach students to see literary conversation in limited contexts because we often discuss it when we are textbook-ing novels.  I wanted students to see that the literary conversations were transferrable, and the conversations they had about timeless characters, such as Guy Montag and Clarisse, in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 could be transferred to Ryan Dean West of Winger, Andrew Smith’s beautiful coming-of-age novel. The conversations about plot in Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Hamlet, could be transferred to conversations about plot in I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. As I added to my classroom library, I kept in mind the conversations I would have with students to demonstrate how conversations about books can continue beyond the boundaries many English teachers create.

The day I introduced the reading and writing workshop approach, I talked with students about the power of reading, and how I was certain they would discover a love for books they did not know existed.  I drew their attention to the recently-curated bookshelf, and pointed out the different genres available in the library, as well as recent additions.  In my lesson plans, I reserved time for weekly book talks, and I made sure the books I chose to advertise were well-written and diverse. My students didn’t quite know what to make of the workshop approach at first, but after a week, they fell in love with the routine, and when asked to discuss their books, they had an unlimited supply of conversation. Between classes, students would congregate at the bookshelf to browse and recommend, and the number of students around the bookshelf grew.  Even the more reluctant readers were compelled by the atmosphere. Like grown-up readers, exciting conversation about a book sparked their interest, and wait-lists for popular books grew.  My greatest intentions could only reach so far, though.  One student, we’ll call him Logan, found the approach cumbersome, and his caustic comments, which had been brutal over the course of the year, peaked again at the mention of independent reading.

The irony was that independent reading was not a foreign concept to him. He was academically gifted, and I had required him to read challenging texts all year, as well as read one book independently each grading period.  We had studied Hamlet and Fahrenheit 451 intensively, and during class we would discuss the passages they read at home.  The difference, however, was in the expectation: the burden of reading was his responsibility, a stark contrast to the passivity of in-class discussion that many students rely on in school. Logan’s book selections were from the school library where he could find a shorter, simplistic books that were written for developing readers. I didn’t stop him, but I did observe.  The plot lines bored him. There were few ideas to ponder. His body language and facial expressions told the story of his interest in these books. In The Book Whisperer,  Miller mentioned the whispers she looked for in student reading inventories, the stories students were telling or trying to tell with the answers they provided. Logan’s reading inventory gave little information, and I quickly realized that the inventory was a reflection of his limited reading life: he didn’t know what books were out there because he didn’t read. He was so turned off to reading that book talks about some of the most exciting YA fiction were white noise to him. From conversation with him, I knew that the only reading he did was what was expected in class, and considering he was still not a reader after eight years of school, something was amiss.

I kept his reading interest inventory on my desk and would catch glimpses of the section about books and reading. His answer echoed the mini-manifestoes he had uttered in class, and I felt lost in my attempts to guide him to good books and a love of reading.  Maybe I was too late.  I looked again at the books he listed on the inventory as favorites: Night by Elie Wiesel and The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. These books were gritty, truthful, and enlightening in their own right. He had turned down other books by these authors, but the way he wrote about them let me know he had read them. How could I reach him? I decided to do what Hermione, the intellectual hero of The Harry Potter series, habitually suggested: I went to the (classroom) library!

I scanned the shelves, especially the realistic fiction and nonfiction* sections, but nothing “spoke” to me. I spied Neal Shusterman’s Unwind in the dystopian section, and even though neither of Logan’s “favorites” were of that genre, I felt it would be a great choice. It was gritty, ethically challenging, and I felt it had truth to it that he would appreciate. If I handed it to him, I was certain he would flip through it and place it back on the shelf. The following day, I was teaching a mini-lesson on narrative beginnings, and I had already copied the resources I planned to use, but as I looked at the beginning of Unwind, I noticed the masterful beginning, especially Shusterman’s narrative hooks. It might not work, but if I could place the book in his hands as an assignment, he might make a deeper investment.    

I photocopied the first three pages of the book, and after independent reading the next day, I handed the beginning of Unwind to each student. I dreaded handing Logan his page because his facial expression and attitude would deflate the rest of the class. True to form, he looked at the handout with disgust, but I walked to the front of the room to deliver the instructions. In Book Love, Penny Kittle explained how she would ask her students to read a mentor text and mark their noticings, such as interesting words, transitions, sentences structures, and figurative language; then, these would be pulled into group and class conversation. I modeled this activity after her instructions, and after I explained the assignment to the students, I gave them space and time to work. Logan stared at the page for a moment, peered around the room at busy classmates, then sighed and began reading the text. As he read, I noticed that he sat up in his desk, leaning closer to the page in front of him. He underlined and wrote in the margins multiple times. During group discussions, he offered more insight about the beginning than anyone in his group, and when I visited his group to track the progress of their conversation, he asked me if I had a copy of the book. He wanted to read it! I made sure he had the only copy in the classroom library before he left.  When he came into class each day, I could see the amount of reading he had completed at home based on the placement of his bookmark. During his conferences, he managed the conversation; I didn’t have to pull information out of him. It wasn’t long until he asked me for the second book, and before the end of the year, he had read all four books of the series.

A classroom library has the power to transform. It has to be more than a collection of books students can read if they finish their assignments early or if they have spare time. Class time is the best time to read! As I choose texts to illustrate concepts or help students practice skills, I always look to my classroom library for inspiration because I want students to see reading skills come to life beyond the textbook and class sets of books I may provide. I am not against novel studies or textbooks, but I see the bigger value in a classroom library that informs instructional practice. Mentor texts are powerful tools if we use them to their fullest capacity. I wanted students to see how Neal Shusterman began Unwind and to practice writing using his sentence structure, characterization, and dialogue. In the end, I learned a beautiful lesson about mentor texts: they not only enhance writing skills, but they have the potential to engage students as they are seeking good books to read.

We are the ones responsible for cultivating our classroom libraries.  When I walk into a classroom, I immediately look for the library. If it is dusty and neat, I understand the story of reading in that class.  A well-used library is unmistakable. My friend and mentor, Michael Clay Thompson, spoke eloquently in regards to reading and the responsibility of the educator. His books, especially Classics in the Classroom and The Heart of the Mind, have affected my teaching practice, and I continue to use classic literature in my classroom because of his persuasive prose. During one of his presentations I had the privilege of attending, he mentioned the enormous responsibility of teaching, and explained that if his students left his class and did not enjoy reading, he felt as though he had failed. We earn our stripes, he continued, by reaching the most difficult students. His words resonate in my mind constantly. I am the one responsible for building a love of reading in my students. I am the one responsible for giving them access to good books. I am the one responsible.

If not me, then who?

Classroom Bookshelf

*Nonfiction, I am aware, is a broad genre, and within it exist beautiful subgenres that should indeed have their own section in my library.  Unfortunately, the nonfiction section of my classroom library is very small, and as I have worked arduously to collect books of diverse genres, nonfiction seems to be one of the hardest to gather.  Please note that I am working to build a sufficient nonfiction section in my classroom.