Things I Know 317 of 365: Tomorrow, I read for me

Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms.

– Angela Carter

Just because I’m not in classes at the moment doesn’t mean I’m not reading. It does mean I’m not reading anything that anyone has assigned to me.

It also means I’m sneaking some fiction into my brain. Tomorrow, I’ll pick up Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. Some of my favorite students gushed over the book, but I never took the time to read it while I was in the classroom. Somehow, picking it up without the title of “Teacher” attached to my actions makes the reading seem more pure. I’m not reading it to teach in the next few months. No unit or lesson plans will rely on what I get from the experience. I’m reading it to be entertained.

One of the more frequent state standards (and now a Common Core standard) is identifying author’s purpose. (There’s a whole philosophical argument I could make against this, but that’s another post.)

As I anticipate delving into Card’s imagined dystopia tomorrow, I’ve started to think about the importance of asking students to identify reader’s purpose.

If a student is reading a non-fiction text in class, the answer to the question should be, “Because I’m curious,” or “Because it’s interesting.” Some off shoot thereof makes the most sense.

Reader’s purpose in school is most often, “I’m reading this because my teacher said,” or “It was assigned.”

That shifts the experience considerably. I’m looking forward to losing myself in the imagination of tomorrow’s reading, to meeting new characters and trying to figure out how pieces of the narrative puzzle fit together.

Most importantly, I’ll be shifting my purpose from word to word, chapter to chapter. The journey through the book will inform what I want out of it and what I expect.

Were I reading for someone else because the book had been assigned me, the journey would be emptier. I’d be reading to run someone else’s literary errands, hoping to keep the change when all was said and done.

A balanced reading diet is important. Compelling others to read what they are told is forcing them to eat their vegetables. It’s a great way to get people to hate their vegetables.

Things I Know 88 of 365: We’re about to have some great discussions

There is creative reading as well as creative writing.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the second half of the semester, I open my storytelling class to greater student choice and control. This could be intensely dangerous considering the class is populated with students with eyes fixed firmly on graduation.

I operate under the assumption greater choice and control will help make our class relevant.

The guiding questions for the assignment I rolled out today are simple:

  • What is a text you connect with strongly?
  • What causes that connection?
  • How can you help the class understand that connection?

I suppose anyone else in a class about story would collect a set of stories from the Western Literary Canon and proceed with the indoctrination.

They’ll have college for that.

My goal is more to work toward the type of deeply curious conversations about texts that will equip them with the tactics to pull apart those dusty canonical behemoths later on.

The assignment is simple:

  • Pick a text that means something to you. Prep a whole-class discussion that will help us all learn more about the text.
  • For the purposes of the assignment, I put myself in the role of Mr. Chase as English student rather than Mr. Chase as English teacher.

Students are responsible for preparing copies, online materials or video clips as necessary. They must also prepare pre- and during-reading activities to prep their peers (and me) for at least 30 minutes discussion.

Last year’s initial launch of this assignment brought some amazing moments.

For almost an entire class period we debated the appropriateness, theme, and intended audience of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.

In another discussion, the debate over the narrative structure of OneRepublic’s “Say (All I Need)”.

Aside from checking in with students to make certain they’re finding texts and offering suggestions for planning their discussions, I stay out of things as much as possible.

I know the texts, but I haven’t read many of them.

There’s an element of trust there, I suppose.

It’s why I ask that the texts be important to the students sharing them.

“If you bring in something you don’t care about, it’s more likely that we won’t either.”

This is likely why I have such trouble teaching The Great Gatsby.

Some early possibilities this year include an excerpt from the film version of For Colored Girls, a cross-medium analysis of a quotation from The Kite Runner, deconstruction of Hamlet’s most famous of soliloquies and a Rage Against the Machine song.

Aside from Hamlet, these will be texts with which I am largely unfamiliar. While this adds an air of novelty to the process, the greater benefit is my not having a preconceived notion of how a discussion should play out. I’m learning along with the rest of the class.

This year’s iteration of the assignment includes one major adjustment. Aside from the 30-minute minimum, the students and I are building the assessment criteria for the discussions together.

Before they’ve built anything, we work to answer the questions, “What should a great version of these discussions look like? What should we expect as help in our thinking? What is the role of the discussion leader?”

Before they graduate from high school, I want them to graduate to owning class and their thinking.

Things I Know 52 of 365: My classroom should be as democratic as twitter

A great democracy must be progressive, or it will soon cease to be a great democracy.

– President Theodore Roosevelt

Teachers dig Facebook. They like ning and twitter and youtube and social networking. I mean, they really really like ’em.

A TON of teachers who like these online affordances also like to build the case for their inclusion in classrooms and education.

Of the Ton,I get the feeling many, if not most, of them work in schools or districts where those online affordances are blocked, banned, outlawed and censored.

I’m not sure many of those teachers really want the access or understand the shift in pedagogy that use would imply.

I’ve been reading Sam Chaltain’s American Schools: The art of creating a democratic learning community. You should too.

Chaltain holds that American schools should be places of democracy, but are not. No whiner, he then works to outline what he sees to be the keys of democratizing classrooms.

Before I picked up the text, I had been reflecting on the role democracy plays in my own teaching. While I’d wager it’s greater than many, I still struggle moving from compliance to choice.

Most recently, I’ve struggled with accepting the idea that saying, “Pick one of these three options,” isn’t the same thing as choice – not true choice.

Chaltain quotes Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick:

[I]f the world takes our ideas and changes them – or accepts some and discards others – all we need to decide is whether the mutated versions are still core. If they are, then we should humbly accept the audiences judgement.

When the Ton trumpet the use of the aforementioned online affordances in learning, they invariably speak of students’ abilities to choose, create, re-arrange, remix and “like” in the spaces they can inhabit online. In essence, they like that those online spaces would give their students the chance to do what the Heaths say sticky ideas do.

This leads me to question what’s been limiting those options in the physical spaces of their classrooms in the first place.

I know what’s been holding it back in my classroom – me.

No pedagogical prude, I attempt to take learning styles, intelligences and modalities into account as often as possible. I differentiate and modify and accommodate. In the end, I’m realizing much of the work in my classroom is still closer to conformity than I’d like. And perhaps, that’s limiting the contribution of those voices from whom I’m most waiting to hear.

“We should evoke contribution through freedom, not conformity,” Chaltain writes.

I agree.

To the extent that I work within a system that expects certain outcomes from my students, I agree. To the extent that I have a picture in my head of what my students can do once they leave my classroom, I agree.

It might be fear that leads me to the caveats above, but I don’t think it is.

There are pieces of being able to read and write that I know will prove detrimental if they are not within my students’ abilities when they leave my care. The democratic classroom I envision isn’t one without goals. It’s chock full o’ goals. Those goals are also balanced with choice.

When I write about improving choice in my classroom, I do not mean to imply the abdication of structure or goals. I mean to say I need to give greater and truer choices to my students in how they journey to those goals.

And to the Ton, I want to reference something Jerrid Kruse brought up tonight on twitter. He referenced his frustration with online ed discussions veering toward the tech and not the teaching. I don’t yet know if I agree with his claim that this happens in the majority of online conversations. I do know that it’s complicated my thinking.

If you’re clamoring for these online affordances backed by the argument of the democracy they bring to learning, have you done the hard, uncomfortable work of making your classrooms democratic so your students are better citizens when the tools show up (or don’t)?

Things I Know 21 of 365: It’s good to be apart of something

I’m going to mother’s, and I’m keeping the ring.

Dot Warner, The Animaniacs

Five-year-old me had a blue record player. It was the type that looked like a plastic suitcase when closed.

From time to time, I would announce to my mother that I was running away.

As I had no actual luggage, I settled for the best approximation and left our apartment toting my record player as clear evidence I meant business.

My students do this from time to time.

“This is stupid,” they say. “I’m not going to do this.”

And then they look at me.

“What are you going to do with that?” their eyes challenge me.

Unfortunately they do not know my mother.

When I declared my independence and walked out the door, slamming it shut behind me, I would stand waiting at the other side.

Each time, I was certain my mother would throw open the door and rush out to find me, desperate at the thought of losing me.

She never did.

Eventually, I would slowly open open the door and slink back in – my mother reading a book or cleaning carrots as if nothing had happened.

It infuriated me, but I never considered turning around to leave.

And so, when met with, “This is stupid!” or “I’m not going to do this!” I reply, “Okay,” and walk away.

They are testing the limits of community the way I was testing the limits of family. I must know enough in those moments to know their commitment to being a part is stronger than their commitment to being apart.

This scenario plays itself out in the adult world as well. Sometimes, we call it circling the wagons and shooting in. Others, we call it taking our toys and going home. Whatever the euphemism, the true test is not to opening the door and not to argue the assignment’s relative stupidity.

In those moments, the true test is acknowledging the right of the other to choose being a part or being apart.

Things I Know 14 of 365: I need to give students choice

“It is our choices that show who we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

– J.K. Rowling

Not every job moves you to embrace hitting your head against the wall. Teaching is a concusive experience.

My students have been exploring science fiction for the last few weeks. From 24 available titles, they researched and selected 6 they wouldn’t mind reading. From there, I worked my teacherly magic to fit them into groups of 4-5.

They set reading schedules, engaged in book talks and wrote discussion reflections to focus their thinking and investigation of a much-maligned though historically significant genre.

After 5 weeks, I was in a familiar spot of moving from group to group trying to convince them they liked their books. Strong was the temptation to label their reading as lazy and surface. It beat the alternative of acknowledging they might just dislike the books.

“If the Reader’s Bill of Rights tells us we can stop reading any time we want, Mr. Chase. Why do we still have to read this book?”
Stupid student choice combined with empowerment.

“Because sometimes people will make you read things you don’t like, and I’ve decided to help you grow a lifelong love of reading by highlighting some of the most regrettable parts of the act,” seemed a poor reply.

Last week, we studied James Gunn’s “A Worldview of Science Fiction.” The kids played cat’s cradle with the ideas so intently that our discussion carried over to this week.

They were starting to see science fiction could include ideas other than those at work in their respective texts.

I was starting to see, again, students’ thinking about what they read grows anemic when they’re forced to read something they don’t like.

In Thursday’s class, I opened by having the students learn all they could about Battlestar Galactica. We collected notes, I fielded questions, and I queued up episode 1 of season 1 “33.”

At the opening credits, I paused and answered questions about details of the cold opening.

When the show hit the tail end of the unusually slow download and the class let out a collective, “No!” I knew I had them.

Today, we welcomed the former head of PR for the SyFy Channel who now works at SLA’s partner organization The Franklin Institute. A lifelong reader of science fiction and English major in college, she talked about what it took to sell science fiction on contemporary television, the creative process behind shows like Battlestar and Farscape and how she made choices as a reader.

The students talked about what they liked about the previous day’s partial episode and what they wanted when they picked up science fiction.

When Andre, who has been railing against his book for two weeks, raised his hand and asked, “How do you come back after reading a bad sci-fi book?” I knew we were making progress.

The progress came when I remembered what I believe to be true:

  1. Give kids choices.
  2. Show real-world models.
  3. Connect them with passionate adults who know what they’re talking about.

Forcing them to read books they didn’t care about that hadn’t been organically recommended and that they didn’t much care for was really more a test of our rapport than their abilities.

Next time I decided to run repeatedly into walls, I’l try to see the dents I’ve left this time and take them as reminders.

Classy: Journaling with choice

Having kids write is important.
Shocking, right?
According to a April 2008 report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, “Eighty-six percent of teens believe good writing is important to success in life — some 56% describe it as essential and another 30% describe it as important.”
It’s nice when the kids are on our side.
Parents are on our side as well –  “Eighty-six percent of teens believe good writing is important to success in life — some 56% describe it as essential and another 30% describe it as important.”
Unfortunately, the kids say our writing instruction is not alright.
“Overall, 82% of teens feel that additional in-class writing time would improve their writing abilities and 78% feel the same way about their teachers using computer-based writing tools.”
I’m trying to work on this.
Aside from the various “bigger” writing projects I ask of students, I’m a huge proponent of journaling.
My journaling practice has evolved over time. It started as I was taught to journal by Mrs. Haake; a prompt was on the board and they responded to it.
Turns out, the tools at my disposal give me more options.
Here are the frequent options:

  • Use the picture for inspiration (always an image pulled from creative commons-licensed flickr archives).
  • Listen to the song on repeat for inspiration (generally connected, at least tacitly, to whatever we’re reading or discussing in class).
  • Watch this video (a few times) and respond.
  • Respond to this quotation.
  • Free write.

Variations, of course, exist.
The last option is universally on the table. My students come to me from somewhere. It’s easy to forget.
Allowing freewriting allows them to unpack whatever they carry with them into the room.
Journaling can be drawing, journaling can be poetry, journaling can be lists.
The rules:

  1. Write.
  2. Don’t think.
  3. Write.

I don’t read the journals. Scratch that, I don’t make sharing journal entries compulsory. If a student wants to, he or she leaves his journal in a designated location and I read only the last entry. I promise them that’s all I’ll read. If they trust me, they’ll share. If they don’t, they won’t. If they don’t, I work harder.
Here is today’s prompt:

One final finding:

Teens who enjoy their school writing more are more likely to engage in creative writing at school compared with teens who report very little enjoyment of school writing (81% vs. 69%). In our focus groups, teens report being motivated to write by relevant, interesting, self-selected topics, and attention and feedback from engaged adults who challenged them.

So, choice, relevance and discussion. Shocking, right?

Classy: Long-form journalism, writing in digital margins and class discussion

A few months ago, my friend Max and another friend of his launched a site called

A week ago, Ben tweeted out a link to

I noted each site in the cache of my mind as something that could be useful in class.

I like the cache because it’s a place where ideas can marinate. (Pardon the mixed metaphor.)

My G11 students are completing a benchmark project right now. It’s one of those pieces where they have a bunch to work on, and we hand over class time to that collaboration. Doing only that can be monotonous.

To break the monotony this week, we’re playing with and

Last week, I ask each team of kids (they sit in tables of four) to head to longform an find a piece of journalism they thought would hold the class’ attention and produce thoughtful conversation.

The directions were simple:

  1. Work with your team to come to unanimous approval of the article you’d like to lead discussion on.
  2. Tell me.
  3. Using, read the article and draft discussion points and questions.
  4. Prepare to lead discussion for 35 minutes of one class period.

That’s it.

The discussions and debates about which articles to select were as interesting as the comments that started showing up in the digital margins. One team of all girls made it halfway through an article they agreed was highly interesting, but too mature for some of their classmates. I’d made the same judgment when they told me what they’d selected, but they needed to come to that conclusion on their own. Choice means realizing when you’ve made a bad one. They shifted and all is well.

Over the next two weeks, we’ll have a shared reading experience of some amazingly diverse and high-quality long-form journalism. The students will collaborate on how they interpret and question what they’re reading. The class will build their abilities to converse about a given text and build comprehension, analysis and intertextual reading.

My role will be that of a reader and thinker.

When I showed the class the first time, all I did was give them time to play and told them we’d be sharing our first impressions at the end of play time. Several times, their evaluation danced around the idea that they could see it as possibly useful if they had a clear purpose for using it. Its existence wasn’t inherently useful.

That’s what cache marinading is for.

I won’t be telling them what to think

The Gist:

  • My G11 students are reading The Great Gatsby.
  • After the choice afforded them in the last quarter, I can’t be every other English teacher.
  • We’re challenging the Academy and having numerous books vie for the title of Great American Novel.

The Whole Story:

Monday, I tweeted out the link to a simple questionnaire. It contains two statements: 1) What is the Great American Novel? 2) If you’d like to make your case, do it below.

My G11 students also received their copies of our latest class novel Monday. Maybe you’ve heard of a little book called The Great Gatsby? Apparently, it’s quite popular. In fact, many argue it qualifies as the GAN.

Narrowing down the results of the questionnaire, my classes will be pitting 8 contenders against one another. The final contender will face off against Gatsby.

I’ve written about this before. The original idea was to put Gatsby on trial for libel and slander against other novels. After consulting with many people whose thoughtfulness and opinions I greatly value, I was left with a sort of literary March Madness.

I won’t be walking my students through Gatsby. I won’t be indoctrinating them to the symbolism of that light at the end of that dock. I won’t be talking about the American dream or gender roles and the power of adhering to them.

Instead, I’ve given my students some simple instructions:

Read this book with the idea that you will either have to argue against its status as the GAN

or defend its standing as the GAN.

If the American dream and gender roles and symbolism are really key and keen in the text, they should pick up on them. If something else is there, they’ll pick up on that. Is the symbolism important because my teachers told me it was there or because it’s important? I want to start clean.

We’ve talked about some strategies for tracking their thinking. They can use the tried and true sticky notes. They can make a bookmark for each chapter where they track positives on one side and negatives on the other. They can take notes in a notebook. Turns out I don’t care.

They’ve until April 5 to finish.

During classes, they’ll frequently have time to read, about 20 minutes. Tomorrow, I’ll help them decide how to schedule their reading. They’ve 180 pages of 9 chapters and either 12 or 7 days depending on if they want to read over Spring Break. Their pace and rate are up to them.

During the remaining 2/3 of class, we’ll be debating and deciding the qualifiers of the GAN as well as practicing discreet reading and writing skills using other texts.

April 5, they’ll compile their notes, hand in their copies of Gatsby and find out which text they’ll be reading over the next two weeks. This will, be the text on whose behalf they’ll be arguing.

Rather than discussing qualifiers of the GAN, we’ll be using non-reading class time to examine literary lenses they can use to make their cases – Feminist, Marxist, Reader-Response, Postcolonial, Deconstructionist, New Criticism. Throw in some more discreet skills, and you’ve got a hopping time.

The results coming in on the questionnaire are backing my decision to head this direction with things. Largely, the texts suggested line up as canonical standards. It seems dead white guys were really in touch with how to write in a way that resonated with the American spirit.

My goal for this is not to have my students look at any of these texts as the GAN, but to look at these texts and ask why they hold the status they hold and then ask whether or not they deserve that status.

I’m curious to see what they think.

You’re probably asking, “Wow, Zac, that’s great. But, what can I do to help?”

Great question, you.

If you haven’t already, take about 2 minutes to complete the questionnaire and nominate your contender for GAN.

Starting Friday, we’ll be seeding the top 8, check back then to help fill out our brackets.

Oh, one other thing, talk about your nominee with someone. The conversations I’ve had in the last two days have definitely enriched my appreciation for literature. If nothing else, twitter’s seemed less monocultural for a day or two.

Putting a Great American (novel) to the Test

The Gist:

  • My G11 students will start reading The Great Gatsby soon.
  • I’m not the biggest fan.
  • I’m thinking about putting the book on trial for slander / libel against other books.
  • I’m looking for suggestions.

The Whole Story:

One of the things I noted at the end of my last post was the importance of nailing my approach when I have my students reading a common text again. That will get underway come March. One of the anchor texts in our G11 English curriculum is The Great Gatsby. The theme for the G11 year is Change, so Gatsby certainly works. The thing is, I’m not a huge fan. Truly.

In all honesty, I made it through high school without encountering what many people (English teachers especially) count as the pinnacle of American letters. Not until my first unit whilst student teaching did I come into contact with Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. In subsequent readings, I’ve found value in the book, but it doesn’t make me feel weak in the knees.

I see overlap and relevance in the text, but I’m hesitant to be another English teacher unpacking this book and making my students understand the symbolism of all those damned shirts.

Here’s the thinking:

  • Every student in the class reads Gatsby.
  • In small groups, the majority of the students (minus a Gatsby group), read one other text per group.
  • Each of the other groups build a case for how their text is equal to or better than Gatsby, thereby proving claims of Gatsby’s place as the ultimate American novel as slanderous and libelous.
  • The Gatsby group is given a heads up by the other groups as they read on what passages of the other books will be important in making the case against Gatsby and the Gatsby group reads those passages.

This all culminates with a trial or debate which I’m envisioning as something similar to a class action suit.

Here are my trepidations / questions:

  • Is a trial / debate played out?
  • Should the other texts have a common theme such as “the American dream?”
  • Do I select other texts from across all time periods?
  • Does this pass the authentic learning muster?

I’ve been mulling this one over for quite some time. I’m writing about it here, before the fact, because I’m looking to cast a wider brainstorming net.


New Old Reading (and it’s working)

The Gist:

  • I’ve been frustrated for years with trying to force books on kids.
  • This Fall I got an indirect nod to try something new.
  • My kids are reading whatever they like.
  • It has changed reading in my classroom.

The Whole Story:

I taught Cam when he was in 9th grade.

Cam is a story you’ve heard before. He’s crazy bright, enlivens class discussions and does a lot of nothing on the assignments front. This made Cam incredibly frustrating as a student.

Cam is back in my class as a G11 student this year. I watched him trudge piece meal through

The Things They Carried and The Taming of the Shrew. In the end, I’m not sure how much he actually read of those texts.

Six weeks since we’ve been back in school, Cam is reading his second book of the year, Our Boys Speak after burning through A Long Way Gone.

Coming back from Winter Break, I changed the way we do things in my classroom. I’ve always moved from activity to activity to mix things up and keep things interesting.

Now, though, at least three times a week, my students are reading whatever they like for 20

minutes. I intend no hyperbole when I say it’s amazing to watch.

I’ve wanted to try this since I started teaching. The seed got planted earlier this Fall when this New York Times article reminded me of the reading workshop popularized by Nancie Atwell.

At the time, I found the reaction to the article quite humorous. It’s not a new idea.

I’m not running things according to Atwell’s program. Well, not on purpose.

In trying to describe what’s going on to people, the most frequent question is “How do you hold them accountable for what they’re reading?”

At once, this question seems logical and sad.

The answer is two-fold.

Students are required to write a review of any book they read and post it two places. If the book they’ve read is available in our school library catalog, they are to post their review online via Koha. Without exception, they must also post their reviews somewhere public like,,, etc. and then send me the link to their published review.

This has led to some great discussions of writing for a specific audience. To gear up for the task, we spent time reading reviews from the NYTimes and read this post from UK freelance journalist Johnathan Deamer on the secrets to writing good reviews.

The general consensus was that the NYTimes writers use too many words.

The second bit of accountability is just coming online now. Through a partnership with UPenn’s Reading, Writing and Literacy Master’s program, I’m fortunate enough to have Hannah interning in G11 classes this semester.

Using information she gathered through a Google Form we pushed out to the kids, Hannah is breaking the class into genre groups and sitting down with them to discuss what they’re finding in their books, what they like and dislike and what they’ll be looking for in their next text.

Though Hannah won’t be with me forever, I’m planning on picking up where she leaves off when her time with us is done.

Some things I’ve noticed:

  • They’re going to the library.
  • They’re seeing our library in a new light.
  • We’ve had to review Daniel Pennac’s “Reader’s Bill of Rights” – specifically #2.
  • When I next ask them to read a common text, I’m going to have to totally rethink my approach.

Cam’s mom helped out with EduCon this year. We struck up one of those informal parent-teacher conferences as she was helping to clean up after Saturday’s dinner.

“Is Cam supposed to be reading every night for class?” she asked.

“Not as a requirement,” I said.

“Well, he is. Whatever you’re doing, it’s working.”

I hope so.