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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Poetry. Yuck!

This post is a response to "Chapter 4: Poetry for Children" in Sylvia Vardell's Children's Literature in Action that I am reading for a graduate children's and young adult literature course.


Poetry. Yuck! That’s my first reaction when I think about poetry, but I honestly do not know where that comes from. As I was reading this chapter, I was a bit flabbergasted by how much of a role poetry has played in my life and my teaching. 

As I was reading about Mother Goose, something clicked in my brain. I have a closet in my house that is used solely for book storage (it’s one of many places). I had to stop reading the chapter about poetr and go hunting to find something I thought was there:


These three books are all from my childhood (I’m almost 44, so they have been around a long time). All were read more times than I can remember. All are attached to some very positive memories of my mother and maternal grandparents, and just finding them and seeing my grandmother’s handwriting brought me to tears, so much so that I had to stop reading about poetry and contact my mother and sister. That is the power of literature right there. 

When I did get back to the chapter, as I read J. Patrick Lewis’ interview, I remembered that my fifth grade writing project was all poetry. I can recall sitting in class, writing limericks and haikus, editing and revising over and over again in an attempt to create the best possible work. There were two other girls in class who were also writers, and we were very competitive. For as long as I can remember, it was my intention to be the best writer. 

I continued to write a great deal of poetry throughout my childhood. I have literary magazines from high school in which my poetry is published. I also filled personal journals with teen angst-filled poetry.

I have never simply shared poetry with my classes. In teaching STAAR-tested poetry, the goal has always been to make sure students understand it enough to answer questions to be able to pass the test and move on to ninth grade. Now that I am not in a STAAR-tested class, I do have the ability to actually share poetry. 

I don’t like to teach poetry for reading, but I like to teach writing poetry. When I was at the AVID conference last week, one of the writing strategies presented was a two-voice poem (page 139). This is not new information to me. I have taught this format before, but I have not used it in quite some time. I have already added it to my list of beginning lessons for August. My eighth grade classes will be a half-and-half mix of students I taught last year in seventh grade and students who are new to AVID for eighth grade. I am going to use the two-voice poem as a get-to-know you activity between my former students and my new students. 

I have also taught other types of poems in my class, such as diamante and acrostic, but one of my favorite poems to teach is a “Where I’m From” poem that I first learned about through AVID. The poem is based on a piece by George Ella Lyon. In the classroom, it provides an opportunity for students to explore their family backgrounds. I have also used the “I Am” poem that I first learned about through AVID. 

Ironically, despite thinking I do not like poetry at all, I have been a big proponent of spoken-word poetry. I purchased Wham! It’s a Poetry Jam in an attempt to try to build a poetry slam on my campus, but it never found it’s footing. I used a few of the poems with my students, but I was discouraged and gave up. It might be time to pull that book back out. 

This chapter also made me wonder what poetry is available in my school library. Silverstein and Prelutsky are staples, and I know exactly where they are on the bookshelf. I pulled up our online library catalog to see what other poets we have available for checkout. There are 228 titles categorized under poetry, including The Poetry Friday Anthology by Sylvia Vardell (I have debated about buying that book for years; I had no idea we had a copy at school). We also have titles from Paul Janeczko, Lee Bennett Hopkins (I didn’t know he was a big deal until reading this chapter), Carl Sandburg, and Pat Moon, to name a few. I honestly do not think I have ever seen a student walking around with a book of poems, however, unless it has been a requirement for an English class project. 

Based on my very informal analysis of titles, it does not look like our collection addressed the diversity of our school campus. Many of the books are about holidays or are compilations of silly poems. My campus has a new librarian coming in this year, and this is probably something I can discuss with her. 

This class continues to surprise me as I continue to discover how different genres of literature have shaped me. When I say I cannot remember not reading, I really know why. When you look back on the role of literature in your own life, what role did/does poetry play?

Thursday, June 15, 2017

What I am learning about picture books

One of the classes I am enrolled in this summer is a library sciences children's and young adult literature course. In that class, I am reading Children's Literature in Action: A Librarian's Guide by Sylvia M. Vardell (and I just found out yesterday that until recently, she has been teaching the class), in addition to picture books and novels galore. This week's assignment was to read a chapter about picture books and read three picture books (choose from a particular list) for which we had to write reviews.

Even though I am a middle school teacher, I use picture/trade books in my classroom as often as I possibly can. In regard to these books, Vardell writes, "many are...not afraid to tackle challenging topics" (46). This past spring, my seventh and eighth grade AVID classes examined and analyzed controversial/banned children's books for an inquiry lesson. My students and I were able to engage in some difficult conversations involving gender, sexuality, and immigration, for example, all from picture books. I had never done this before and had no idea how young teenagers would react, but it turned out to be pretty remarkable.

As I was reading the chapter, I was checking off all of the picture books I have read, and I was pretty impressed that I have read a significant number, aside from alphabet books. Part of this is due to my participation in the #bookaday on Twitter, created by Donalyn Miller. Through this process, I discovered that many picture books are not really written for young children and that there is a lot that can be learned from these reads. I believe there are stereotypes about all picture books being elementary in nature, but many are rich in vocabulary, complex sentence structures, and information.

There were a few surprises for me within the reading:
  • One topic addressed in the chapter is awards for picture books. I had no idea that the Caldecott award had been around since the 1930s (39). The first book I shared with my students for the above mentioned lesson was Strega Nona, a Caldecott winner from 1976. I thought the award from 1976 was a long time ago - and I was alive at that time. I do not think I have ever really considered that children's books have been around for quite some time now.  
  • Vardell writes, "that no one artistic style is preferred by kids, and that judgment is rather individual" (40). This is simply something I have never thought about, but it struck me as funny. I started imagining a toddler running around the library, looking at books, grimacing, "No, not that one, Mother. The artistry is not to my liking."  
  • Most picture books are 32-pages in length (45). I was so intrigued by this that I tweeted about it and started counting the pages in some of the books I have sitting in my house right now. 32 pages, indeed! 
  • Children's picture books do not have to have a theme or lesson . Having taught middle school English for so long and theme being such a challenging TEK, this made me feel better about sharing picture books with my students for reasons other than an overall "moral of the story". The controversial books I used certainly have messages to convey, but like Vardell says, "Deeper meanings are gleaned subtly, implicitly, through understanding how the world words, how people behave, and how stories reveal those truths" (60). My students worked collaboratively to delve into those deeper meanings without my having to spoon-feed any information.
If you stop by the library or the bookstore, check out some of the children's books. There are treasures galore if you look. 


Some of my favorite picture books:

Monday, June 12, 2017

NCTE Reads: YA Pedagogy Element 1 - Classroom Community

This week for NCTE Reads, we are delving into the development of pedagogy that addresses young adult literature in the classroom. Element 1 focuses on classroom community. 

Many years ago, I learned that it is pointless to discuss rules and procedures on the first day of school. Students are tired and adjusting to being back on a schedule. They are excited to see their friends and what teachers they have but not to learn anything, especially on day one. So I switched gears and started focusing on classroom community from the first day of school. If we are going to be a family for 178 days, we need to be comfortable with one another. I have no issues with building community within the first two days of schools. But how to I extend this community into teaching young adult literature?


Which quality do I try to focus on?

 Quality #1: Belief that the work is important

Buehler discusses that teachers must treat young adult literature in the same capacity as they do classic literature. My classroom library consists of mostly young adult literature and a few pieces from the canon. Although I do not teach young adult literature in my AVID class, the selections for middle school English in my district are mostly young adult titles. Books I have taught in my fourteen years of teaching include:

In regard to classic literature, I did teach Treasure Island one time (and it was one time for a reason), and I taught Tom Sawyer one time. I would rather not discuss how those went over.

I have to say that I think I have treated these works seriously. Except for that one time when I made fun of A Wrinkle in Time profusely for everyone being saved by love (not my favorite story). Ok, I also expressed a few negative thoughts about the end of The Giver. But aside from that, I swear I have treated these books with the utmost respect.

I do read everything I can from my  own classroom library, and I have done my best to make sure I have books that represent all of my students, and some of those titles have to be treated with care (ex. Fat Angie, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the World, Tomboy).  When I have one-on-one conversations with students about the books they choose, I always treat the chosen story as the greatest novel ever written. 


I would have to say that the rest of the qualities are all challenges for me in the AVID classroom, as the class itself is not a literature class. The previous coordinator did tell me that there have been years when the classes examine a shared text, but not in the traditional sense of what we teach in English language arts. They have read We Beat the Streets to share and discuss how they can overcome the odds against them. 

I suppose this text could meet the Quality #4: Collective investment in a shared experience.  I have read the book myself, and it certainly invites discussion and debate. I do not think, however,  that this book represents enough of my students for them all to discover deep meaning. Quality #3: A sense of being known and valued focuses on choice as "an element of YA pedagogy" (84). In order to address both of these qualities, I believe I would have to introduce more titles into my classroom, whether fiction or nonfiction, about teens overcoming odds.

In teaching English, I feel confident I could address all four of these qualities and have probably touched on them all at some point in time. Bringing this pedagogy into the AVID classroom is not impossible, but it will take some work on my part. My overall goal is always to show my students that they have value that is important and recognized, so if I have to work a little bit harder for them, so be it. 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

NCTE Reads: Teaching Reading with YA Literature (chapter 1)

It's summer vacation, so I am sitting around doing absolutely nothing - said no teacher ever. I am tired just thinking about everything I am doing this summer - two graduate classes, two technology certifications, and an NCTE book study, to name a few.

For the book study, we are reading Teaching Reading with YA Literature: Complex Texts, Complex Lives by Jennifer Buehler. Now, I just finished up school yesterday (we had Saturday checkout), and our activities for the book study start today. Why no break? Because I am a teacher. And I strive to be the best possible teacher I can be. I don't need no stinkin' break! And of course, I will be sharing on my blog, as well.




Week 1: MAKE

This week we’re going to create a curated list of YA novels with rationales for why they are complex texts. These lists may prove useful if you choose to use any of these novels in your class and are asked to justify your selection. Please share the title, author, and a few sentences explaining why a YA text of your choosing should be considered complex.

My response: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas - Initially, I was not going to list this book, but I reconsidered. This book addresses topics and themes that are relevant to today’s youth. A young African American male is murdered by a police officer, an event witnessed by the story’s protagonist. The content invites natural discussion and real-world connections.

Week 1: TALK
How do you use YA literature in the classroom, and where does it fit in the larger context of all we’re meant to do in ELA?

My response: 

Due to a change in teaching assignments this past year, my focus on YA lit was put on the backburner. I moved from teaching eighth grade English to seventh and eighth grade AVID. Although AVID still incorporates reading and writing, I spent this year figuring out how to teach the class and bond with students who lost a beloved teacher to another position on another campus, some of whom resented me for coming in and leaving my classes and students behind. 

Personally, I did not discover young adult literature until sometime around 2007 or 2008. I know that most of the Twilight series had been published. I was teaching seventh grade at the time, and my girls were devouring the series. They wanted to talk to me about constantly, so I borrowed the set from a student to be able to reciprocate their discussions. 

I hate Twilight. Despise. Loathe. I found Belle to be a repugnant role model for young girls. To this day, I am quite vocal about my grievances with the series. It did, however, set me on a path of reading young adult literature in search of something worthy to share with my students. 

I abused my library card and read everything I could get my hands on. I recommended reads to my students, many of whom would go to the local library to find a book our school library did not carry. I started building a classroom library, thanks to a state literacy grant. 

I tend to showcase books in a display and talk about what I am reading, encouraging students to use my classroom library. This has been pretty successful, but I have not been able to reach every student in this manner.

During practice state testing situations, I will watch kids and try to determine what they might like to read. When they finish, I will bring them books from my shelves and see if I have hit on anything they might enjoy (I often do, which really surprises me).

Our middle school canon consists of young adult books. I have taught The Outsiders, The Westing Game, The Giver, Homecoming, Redwall, The Watsons Go to Birmingham, and A Wrinkle in Time. In reflection, my book and my mood probably had more to do with my students enjoying any of these books than my lessons did. For example, I dislike A Wrinkle in Time (a little less than I despite Twilight). I openly shared my frustration with my students regarding plot points, which may have been more entertaining for my kids than the story itself. 

For next year, I am considering having my AVID kids participate in independent reading activities with novels. As part of their college-readiness skills, I think they should know how to actively read novels in a particular time frame. I am in the early stages of this thinking and am not quite sure what to have my students do with those readings yet. I am hoping that throughout this book study and its discussions, I can create a meaningful reading environment for my students that carries over into their personal lives.