Building Reflection through One-Pagers in AP Lang (and letting kids be kids)

The end of the semester is stressful for teachers and students alike. Students have essays, projects, presentations, and other summative assessments due, and teachers have to assign and grade them.

This semester in AP Lang, I decided to assign an assessment that wasn’t overly-stressful. These are eleventh graders, after all. This is the toughest year of school they’ve had: their semester was full of PSAT, SAT tests, more AP classes than they’ve taken before, and generally harder classes than they’ve seen before. Plus, the stress of growing up is looming. Their senior friends are applying and hopefully getting into college. They can’t deny it anymore. They will be adults so soon.

Meanwhile, they are still kids. They are kids who are taking AP Lang and learning about structure and rhetorical devices; it’s no longer about what they think the message of the text is, like when they were in the lower grades. It’s somehow different. Their brains are full and sometimes fried.

That’s not to say that we don’t have fun in our class. We laugh, we discuss issues, and we learn. We also independently read together.

Our focus on independent reading gives them some autonomy that they don’t necessarily get in other classes. It also means they have a responsibility to pick books, drop books, and read books. A lot of them.

Which brings me back to the last assessment of the first semester. I assigned a one-pager which included reflection, facts, rhetorical analysis, and art. Eleventh grade students don’t usually create art in an AP level assessment (unless it’s an art class, yes), and they loved it. LOVED IT.

I know some AP teachers are all about teaching their students about the “real world” and I get it. Yes, the world is big and tough and sometimes mean. When they are adults, deadlines will matter a lot and sometimes no one will care about an individual’s opinion, and certainly crayons and colored pencils likely won’t be part of their college career or actual career.

But you know what? My students are still in high school. They aren’t adults. They still like to color and draw. (And don’t many adults in the real world like to do this, too?)

I sometimes allow my students soft deadlines – because let’s be “real” – the adult world has soft deadlines, too. For example, this post was supposed to be ready back in December! But real life happened, and the wonderful women who are in charge of this blog gave me a pass, which was necessary and for which I am grateful. I’m okay with teaching my students that the “real world” is like that, too.

Back to the summative assessment: My students brought their semester reading to class: actual copies of books, readers/writers notebooks with lists of what they had read, dropped, and loved. They brought their markers and colored pencils. And they brought their positive energy. It was one of the most fun days of a summative assessment I’ve ever experienced.

We posted our one-pagers in the hall so all of our secondary students can browse them when it’s convenient.

The final one-pagers were fun to make, fun to read, fun to grade, and now that they are publicly posted, they are a great way for students to talk about who reads what and how much. It helps with the development of our reading community, not just with our eleventh grade students, but with all of our secondary students.

I’ve posted about this topic before, but I think it’s worth mentioning again. It’s a nice wrap-up to the semester and it encourages students to celebrate their reading successes, which leads right into deliberate and informed semester two reading goal-setting, which we are working on now. (Stay tuned!)

Please don’t misunderstand. My students write essays and take tests and do research. But I don’t believe that all of those types of assessments are necessary at the end of a semester or school year (there are other times for that). This individualized reflection coupled with the group “going public” by posting in the hallway is powerful. Students see their growth and can celebrate it, but they can also see where others are and maybe set their sights even higher than if they’d stayed private with their goals.

How have you wrapped up your first semester, AP or otherwise? I’d love to learn some new strategies and ideas.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for more than twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school years in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

This post was originally published on Three Teachers Talk

Organizing Classroom Libraries — One Teacher’s Answers

My job as an English teacher is to empower my students to discover, identify, locate, rediscover, find, and fall in love with the books that speak to their souls and their hearts.

In order to make that happen, I have to have a dynamic classroom library. A year and a half ago, I didn’t have anything on my shelves in my classroom, but because my school, my family, and my colleagues are on board with the vision of robust classroom libraries, my library looks a whole lot better than it did then.

We’ve raided the school book room, collected our main library’s discards, purchased books off of facebook and other “garage” sale type of venues, and we bring back hundreds of pounds of second hand books in our suitcases at every opportunity. (I live in Nicaragua, which complicates the book buying at times.) We spent our entire English department budget on classroom libraries last year, so this fall we felt like kids in a candy store when we were setting up our new classroom libraries.

Each time we are blessed a new influx of books, we have to think about storage, and more importantly, organization. It’s essential that we store and organize our books so that students will be drawn to the shelves and compelled to read new books.

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I haven’t had any experience that tells me that labeling and micro-leveling books is what makes my students want to read. Quite the opposite. What I read also tells me that labels aren’t for public display on the spines of books or on the front of organizational book baskets. They are tools for teachers to use, which may help them with a cursory understanding of texts before they can get to know them better.

My job as an English teacher is to empower my students to discover, identify, locate, rediscover, find, and fall in love with the books that speak to their souls and their hearts.

My experience and observations tell me that organizing my books by general level and genre is what works best for my classroom library. That rotating book displays pique student interest in titles they might not have noticed or cared about in the past. That topic, passion, and enthusiasm can sell a book to a student a whole lot more convincingly than a level or a label can.

My classroom library is split into four basic sections:

  1. middle school fiction
  2. young adult fiction
  3. contemporary fiction
  4. nonfiction

I do this out of necessity: I teach three sections of seventh grade English and two sections of AP Language and Composition. It’s important to have some distinct sections for these students so they at least have a starting place when they browse for books. They do tend to meet each other in the young adult fiction shelves, and there isn’t much that stops them from “shopping” on all of the shelves.

Within those four sections I have subsections, however.

I have grouped some middle school fiction into some general categories: magic/fantasy, mystery/scary, realistic fiction, historical fiction, books in a series, sports, and shorter/easy reads.

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In the young adult fiction section I caved to a student who really wanted a romance section (why not? I thought). I’ve also grouped some of these books into a “books in a series” section, a mystery/horror section, dystopian, and a sci-fi/fantasy section. The section on World War Two shelf was created because I have a number of students who are gravitating towards that topic right now. It’s not comprehensive, and it mixes middle level, young adult, contemporary fiction, and nonfiction, but it is what’s working for my students right now, so it will stay for at least a while.

That’s the whole point. Our classroom library organization is based on what works for my students. It wasn’t prescribed by any “experts” or mandated by anyone outside of my classroom. It’s authentic, preserves student emotions and privacy, and the shelves are open to whomever would like to browse them.

There is a tiny bit of leveling – three levels plus nonfiction, but this leveling is more about maturity and content than text leveling.  It’s certainly not the microlevels of Lexiles, A-Z, or AR that some libraries employ. It’s helpful rather than restrictive.

Because the books are organized into these smaller topic or genre sections, students have a helpful place to start looking that isn’t rigid. I feel like it’s the best of both worlds because it gives students a direction and a guide, but not rules or rails they have to live between.

Simply because of the space and shelves that I have in my room, I’ve added a subgroup of poetry, plays, and picture books section in the nonfiction corner.

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This is a corner that needs some work. As I add titles to my classroom library, I will deliberately look for poetry and drama, as well as relevant picture books to add to these shelves.

While I have these semi-permanent organizational ideas, I also have some rotating book displays.

Right now, my AP Lang class is starting a research project. One of their sources needs to be a book with either endnotes or footnotes, so I’ve collected many of my classroom library books that meet that requirement and put them on display.

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This display changes about every week or so, sometime with deliberate purpose like this one, and other times it’s just whatever comes to mind. Some recent displays have been around the topics of time travel, aviation, The Great Depression, and sports. Anything goes when it comes to displaying a collection of books.

Another way of displaying and organizing books is by what is popular with students, what the teacher is currently reading, and what’s been book talked in the last day or so.

These are all examples of rotating book displays, and they rotate between every other day, and every couple of weeks. It’s a matter of doing what makes sense for the type of display it is, and what the current needs of the classes are.

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So once the books are organized and on display, students actually start to look at them! It’s a miracle, and a wonderful feeling when they get interested and excited when they haven’t been in the past.

At that point, a check out and return system becomes key.

Mine is old-fashioned and easy to navigate. It’s a spiral bound notebook and a pen. Pretty simple.

Just because it’s low-tech doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. Quite the opposite. Students know to check out books and put them in the return basket when they are done. Sometimes they cross out the original entry of their  returned book, but mostly all they have to do is put the book in the return basket and I’ll find their name and cross it off and then re-shelve the book.

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The return basket is right next to the check out notebook and this sign which reminds students that the honor system is what makes this whole thing work.

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The classroom libraries in our hall are open to all of our students, so often students from other classes wander in to my classroom looking for books. The system is the same for them as it is for the students I currently have in my classes. All of the students at our school are our students; all of the students have access to all of our classroom libraries.

If some students have books out for a long time, and we don’t see those students on the regular because they aren’t in our own classes, we rely on each other to ask those students about those titles, which means we often get books returned promptly with that simple system. Our department has a shared google doc and we list the students’ names and titles that are checked out, so we all have that information at our fingertips.

Our organizational and check-out systems are thoughtful and simple, and can be adopted by almost anyone. There may be other better, different, or more complicated ideas and systems out there that work for people, but I wanted to share ours because of its simplicity and effectiveness.

How do you organize your classroom library, and what philosophical beliefs to you hold that are behind these practices? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for more than twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon,  four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school years in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

AP Lang: Writing a Rhetorical Analysis Thesis Statement After Discovering the Tone in “Unique” Texts

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After our last round of practice rhetorical analysis essays, I realized that my students need more instruction and practice with writing robust, specific, defensible thesis statements.

My students see the value in well-written and thoughtful thesis statements; they realize that when the thesis statement is solid, the essay can almost write itself. The problem is in writing the thesis statement itself.

They were also having trouble identifying tone and what builds it, even though I thought I had taught these things. We had practiced with texts released by the College Board, and while those are robust and important, they don’t always have the “fun factor.” After several formative essays and a summative essay, we all agreed that we needed some sort of break, but we still needed to be learning.

So, I tried to get creative about how to teach my students more about tone and thesis statements.

I gathered several unique texts, mostly available in my classroom library. These texts will likely never be on the AP Lang exam, but they have unique tone and purpose, and are accessible and important to my students. The skills my students learn through reading and analyzing these texts are transferable, and that’s important.

 

In one of my classes we started by discussing two texts: Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teenagers and Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents. Because this is a particularly small class, we were able to have a discussion that didn’t require too many formal directions. I asked the students to read the texts one at a time, and then try to write a thesis statement based on tone. I was there to prompt and direct their conversation, but they did most of the thinking, which mean they did most of the learning. They came up with the beginning of a thesis statement for each text, and I liked what they did.

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The next day, with my larger class, I took the discussion we had had the previous day and organized it with step-by-step directions.

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The texts they had available, in addition to the two listed above, were as follows:

First they read the text with a partner. Then, using a half-sheet of chart paper, they recorded their thinking. When finished with the first six steps, they followed a formula for a thesis statement.

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I know that formulaic writing isn’t the goal, but I want to scaffold them to a place where they feel confident to get creative. They need to internalize the important elements that build a robust thesis statement so they can deviate from it later.

 

The results were encouraging, but I thought they needed more practice. After they wrote their first thesis statements, I rotated the texts from one partnership to the next, and they tried again. By this time, we were on our second day of this activity.

This time, the results were spectacular. While we aren’t “perfect,” we have made a ton of progress, and the thinking process, including multiple draft readings, is evident on their papers. It was messy, but that’s where the magic, the learning, happens.

As I rotated around the room, I overheard and participated in some deep conversations about rhetorical devices, how tone is built, and what makes a defensible thesis statement. By the end of the second class, we were high-fiving for a job well done as they exited the class. It felt good.

(If you don’t want to decipher the handwriting, you can find the students’ thesis statements are typed in the photo captions.)

 

Next, we will try writing thesis statements with more robust texts, but for now, I think they “get it” and can see that a defensible thesis statement includes audience, purpose, and rhetorical decisions made by the author. A defensible thesis statement is specific and can help to structure the rest of the essay.

They’ve got confidence now, and I can’t wait to see how they transfer this new learning to more robust texts. We have another rhetorical analysis essay practice next week, and I fully expect that all of my students’ scores will go up from the last one based on this activity.

How do you instruct your students when they are writing robust and defensible thesis statements? What would you add or change to this activity? I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas in the comments.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon,  four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school years in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Layering Notice and Note Signposts over the Plot Triangle

Teaching seventh grade is both a challenge and a joy. Students are inquisitive, silly, maturing . . . and in the seventh grade. Until last year, I hadn’t taught this grade for about eighteen years, and I wasn’t expecting to. But, life can be unpredictable, and in a strange and wonderful turn of events, I have found myself teaching seventh grade students.

I couldn’t be happier.

Recently, because of some standardized testing they were involved in, the concept of the plot triangle was raised. My students, for the most part, stared at me blankly, not understanding what it was. I realized that the plot triangle is a simple diagram, but can be a difficult concept.

It was really perfect timing because we were starting to read some short stories together as a class, and we needed some common language for when we discuss and write about them.

I created a chart I and posted it on our classroom wall.

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As the students digested the ideas in the plot diagram, I was peppered with eager questions.

Why is the climax so close to the resolution? 

What is the falling action? 

How many events belong in the rising action? 

We talked it through, and students started to feel more comfortable with the ideas, but the next question was one that made me smile. Why does the plot triangle matter?

Fair question. Why? is always a fair question in my classroom, and I had a proud teacher moment.

In trying to explain why the plot triangle matters, I tried to share that a visual representation of a story helps us to understand more deeply.

We made the connection that the fiction signposts also help us to more deeply understand a story. Since we’ve been studying the signposts as we study short stories and narratives, it was a great connection to make.

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So, after class I annotated our wall chart with the fiction signposts. It took some thinking, and I’m hoping I got it right.

I didn’t want to limit anyone’s thinking by suggesting that a signpost might only be found in one part of the story, but I did want to let them know where they might start noticing them.

They started to create plot triangles with some of the stories we had recently read together, and then layering some of the signposts into the plot triangle.

  1. Charles by Shirley Jackson
  2. Thank You, M’am by Langston Hughes
  3. The Medicine Bag by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve
  4. Fourteen by Alice Gerstenberg

Here are some examples of what they did right at first:

My students aren’t done creating their plot triangles, and they aren’t done thinking about how the layering of the plot diagram and the signposts complement one another, but so far their thinking is going in the right direction.

They are asking questions and making connections. They are talking to each other and challenging each others’ thinking. They care more deeply about the stories and the characters they are reading about.

I’ll call it a win.

Update: I had another “aha moment” and asked my husband to help add another layer to the wall chart. What do you think?

plot triangle w tape

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon,  four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school year in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

This post was originally published on Three Teachers Talk

Scaffolding an Authentic Reading Community with Multiple Copies in our Classroom Libraries

As the school year gets off to a great start, I am thinking about how I am going to build an authentic community of readers. My goal is that my students will be as independent and engaged as possible, which means I have to step out of the way and make room for them to do their thing. I’ll scaffold along the way, but I am hoping that they take ownership and come up with their own ideas.

Building an authentic reading community is our goal. I had a few students last year who decided to read books in a partnership, and they ended up having a great time. They read, talked, laughed, and ended up enjoying their books, I think more than if they had been reading alone. It’s always more fun with a friend.

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This memory of last year got me thinking about how to encourage this type of partnership without requiring it.

I realized that I purchased lots of multiple copies of the same titles for my classroom library, and I can simply make the suggestion. Students have asked for multiple copies of the same book before, so if I place them in my classroom library strategically, maybe they will take the bait…

So I rearranged a few books and remain hopeful…

I reorganized a few of the books in our contemporary fiction section and went from there…

Many of the doubles (and triples, etc) that are in the classroom library have already been checked out, but the ones that are left I shelved together with the suggestion that students might pick them up with a friend.

Last week our department invited all students to tour each others’ libraries, and as a result of that activity, three of my students decided to read Butter together. These books were all in different classrooms, but these students decided to read the same book anyway. It gives me hope that when I intentionally place books next to the suggestion of reading with a friend, they will start to read together.

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I’m looking forward to seeing how my students decide to move forward with this suggestion, and I’m hopeful because I’ve seen it happen before.

How do you encourage your readers to read together?

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon,  four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school year in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

This post was originally published on Three Teachers Talk.

Summer Reading Recommendations : what to read and how to go public

 

As summer winds down and I am heading back to school, I am taking time to reflect on my own summer reading.

Summer is always busy: our family travels from our home in Nicaragua back to our home in Oregon to visit family and friends, and we don’t really have a “home base” throughout the summer. We are always so happy to spend this precious time with our loved ones, and we end up visiting late into the night quite often. This means I’m not reading as much before bedtime, and in the afternoons when I might normally be reading, I’m visiting and playing and participating in summer activities.

But just because I’m not reading on my regular schedule doesn’t mean I don’t value reading and books like I always do, and when my students return to school in a couple of weeks I want to be able to demonstrate to them that it’s important for me and for them to all have healthy reading habits.

I’ve written before about how important it is to be public with our students regarding our reading habits and values. I just don’t think it can be said enough — showing our students how much we value and appreciate reading is perhaps more important than telling them. But the questions is how… so I have come up with a few more ideas this summer about how to share with my new students in the fall.

  1. First of all, I will show them my own list of books I’ve read over the summer.IMG_5385IMG_5386I’ve kept track in the Notes app on my phone, and it’s super easy to keep track this way. I could have added how many pages were in each book, genre, authors, etc, but those are easy things to look up later, so I just included the titles in my own list.

I’ll share this list with my students, and then talk with them about the diversity of the list — books in verse, graphic novels, nonfiction, middle school level, young adult, etc. My reading life isn’t just about reading “on level” books; it’s about reading what I like, reading to learn, and reading for fun. I want to both model this and be explicit with my students about this fact.

2. Secondly, I’ll share with my students that I’ve been public all summer long. I’ve shared many of my current reads on twitter and instagram, and while I don’t have a huge following on either of these platforms, I have gotten good feedback from others, and it feels good to have a conversation starter about books.

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A screenshot of one of my posts on Instagram this summer. Not only am I sharing what I’m reading, but I’m sharing that I read and it’s important to me. This leads to conversations that happen face to face!

 

 

My students can share their current reads in many ways – they don’t necessarily need social media, but they do need to see that a willingness to start a conversation about books and about reading is beneficial in creating a community of readers.

As an aside, I can heartily recommend all eight of the books pictured above. Actually, I can recommend all of the books on my list above — it was such a great summer of reading! 

3. Thirdly, I’ll share with my students that while I wasn’t reading, I was often shopping for books for our classroom library. I shopped our local thrift shop, the Goodwills in my area, the St. Vincent de Paul, and some other local new/used bookstores. I even found a few copies in some little free libraries around town. I found treasures without having to spend too much money. Most of my book purchases were fifty cents apiece, and I made it a rule not to go over three dollars a book unless it was something I had to have. Even then I only went over the three dollar mark about three times, and most of my books were under a dollar.

I purchased multiple copies of the same titles so I could organize book clubs and book partnership units and activities, and so some of my students can organically decide to read the same titles together. (I was so happy to find about ten copies of Seabiscuit, for example, and I didn’t pay more than two dollars per copy.)

I understand that it’s not feasible for every teacher to purchase books, but that’s not the point. The point is that I want my students to see that I value reading, books, and their access to books. As teachers, we can demonstrate that priority in countless ways. In fact, last year, I built my classroom library from scratch with no money out of pocket at all. I just needed to make sure that I could immediately put books into the hands of my students, and I’ll keep doing what I can to make that happen.

I wonder how other educators will model their values as they get to know their students this fall? Please share in the comments, as I know there are some really good ideas out there, and I oh-so-selfishly want to hear them!

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon,  four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school year in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

This post was originally published on Three Teachers Talk.

Three Ways to Go Public with Your Reading Life

We all know that part of building a community of readers in our classrooms and in our schools requires modeling the behaviors and habits we are trying to promote.

The question for me, though, has been how? How do we model our reading lives at school when we do most of our reading at home, on vacation, or while in the waiting room during our own kids’ orthodontist appointments? Our students certainly don’t have access to those moments, so modeling a healthy reading life can be a challenge.

Of course, we do read at school sometimes. But school is busy, and while our students are reading we are submitting our attendance records, welcoming in the occasional tardy students, and conferring. It’s difficult to model the behavior we want to see in our students because of all of the tasks teachers do.

This past school year, our school tried three different easy strategies for sharing our reading lives and habits with our students. They aren’t revolutionary, new, or difficult, but they worked, and I think they are worth sharing.

  1. We put laminated signs on everyone’s classroom doors. Sticky notes and scraps of paper were used for posting our current titles, and students regularly noticed and commented on different titles throughout the year. 65535402_2081290802172377_7501378884630216704_n2. After finishing our books, we took the sticky notes and scraps of paper and posted them in the secondary office of our school. This is a place where students and teachers are in and out every day, and it was on a highly noticeable wall. This bulletin board was a great place to get “next reads” suggestions, and sparked conversation between students, teachers, and other staff. 65977219_652574388573414_1805783836705947648_n3. Some teachers kept a list posted in their classrooms. I kept mine on my classroom door right next to my current reads sign so that when I changed out the titles, I could easily add it to my list.

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One of the benefits of going public with our reading lives like this is it has motivated me to read through many of the books in my classroom library and in our school library. As I read through my classroom library, I got to know the books better, and I was more deliberate about book talks and about recommending titles to individual students.

While posting titles isn’t exactly the same as modeling the reading behaviors and habits we are trying to instill in our students, it’s close. It’s a visual reminder to our students that we read. It’s a way to show students that we aren’t asking them to do anything we aren’t willing to do ourselves, and it’s a great conversation starter when it comes to building next reads lists and encouraging independent reading habits.

Next year I will use these same strategies, and in addition I might try to get my students involved in the same type of board — a “What are the students reading?” bulletin board in our classroom where students can share titles and recommendations with each other.

How do you model a healthy reading life to your students? I’d love to learn about more strategies and ideas!

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon,  four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school year in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

This post was originally published on Three Teachers Talk.