Surfing Lessons and Jungle Hikes – Getting rid of the podium.

When we lived in the States, spring break was often a time for slow-paced days at home, sleeping late, organizing the kids’ closets, and taking care of some outside chores. We might have gone to visit friends or family for a weekend, or even braved the Oregon Coast, where unpredictable weather forecasts forced us to pack our suitcases for all seasons.

Now that we are living and teaching abroad, spring break is a whole new experience, that quite frankly, I had never even dared to imagine. Sri Lanka for spring break? No problem! We decided to split our week between the jungle and the beach, we exercised and we relaxed, and we learned about ourselves and the world around us.

Below is a map I saw at a local Sri Lankan school:

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At the tender ages of ten and fourteen, my boys still love to travel with their parents and each other. They willingly and enthusiastically embarked on a 21 kilometer jungle hike, during which time the temperature and the humidity agreed on a number: about 90. The UV index was around 12, but because we were below the forest canopy, we didn’t worry about getting sunburned as much as we had to constantly check our shoes and socks for invading leeches.

The boys didn’t complain when we arrived at our destination: no roads, no electricity, no beds. Just delicious jungle food (including wild pineapple!), a cozy campfire, heat lightning that might rival the Northern Lights, and the magic of fireflies. Here’s where we slept that night:

My boys were open to new experiences, were willing to hike up slippery leech laden trails, and sleep on concrete right along side us.

And I think that’s the key. We, their parents, mentors, leaders, the adults in the room, were willing to do all of the things that we asked the children to do, right next to them. Sometimes offering a balancing hand, an encouraging word, or help with a pack, but always next to them, working on the same tasks. Taking the same journey together.

I couldn’t help but see this hike as an analogy for teaching. As an educator, I must be willing to work and learn right along side my students. To be uncomfortable, to struggle, to pick myself up from missteps, and especially to celebrate successes while I’m next to the kiddos. I can’t lecture them about what to do from a podium at the front of the room and then expect them to find success in an authentic task. I have to talk, demonstrate, model, teach, and learn with them.

And that’s when teaching and learning are especially rewarding. Continue reading “Surfing Lessons and Jungle Hikes – Getting rid of the podium.”

Encouraging Independent Readers – I can’t confer with them forever.

The whole point of this reader’s workshop adventure is to encourage and foster independent readers. Readers who pick up Ready, Player One rather than a wii controller. Readers who speculate about what crazy new events will happen to Shy in The Hunted, Matt De La Peña’s action-packed sequel to The Living (both of which, by the way, my own two boys recently devoured), rather than watching the latest youtube channels.

I wish for my students to feel the same excitement and confidence for YA novels that they did when they were littles for The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and to feel that they are confident and capable enough to tackle memoirs like The Glass Castle any day of the week if they want to.

That’s the thing: when my 9th graders made reader’s timelines, there was a buzz in the room. They were excited and confident in their talk about the books they remembered from toddlerhood and childhood. They beamed when they talked about Curious George and Clifford, the Big Red Dog with a fondness I hadn’t heard from them en masse until that day.

I’m not sure they will all have that same buzz about books again until they are fully independent readers, so I’m making it my business to help get them there.

One of the things about the workshop model is that through offering challenge and choice, students can develop their own tastes and habits which lead them to being grown-up readers.

And arguably one of the most essential aspects of the workshop model is conferring with the teacher.

With the teacher.

But I want my students to be independent, healthy readers. So I have to teach them to remove me from the equation. But I have to confer with them to teach them.

Quite a dilemma. Continue reading “Encouraging Independent Readers – I can’t confer with them forever.”

Unlearning old pedagogy in order to be a better teacher.

I taught secondary English Language Arts in the same wonderful school district in Oregon for fifteen years before I moved to Amman. For most of those years I used a six trait scoring guide for writing put out by the state education department for scoring student essays.

I wish I had an image of those scoring guides. They included traits like Ideas and Content, Organization, Word Choice, Sentence Fluency, Voice, and Conventions. These are all important elements of a well-written essay, and I didn’t spend much time questioning what the state required. I used the scoring guides without fail and without question, to be honest.

I left the state and left those scoring guides behind. I moved on, borrowed and created new scoring guides and rubrics, and didn’t think about the one from Oregon until last week.

Let me provide some context.

For the last two years I have had the opportunity and privilege to learn from workshop expert Stevi Quate. She will continue to partner with our school next year, and I have learned a ton with her.

I had an aha moment when she led our group to better understanding of the power of conferring as a strategy for teaching students to be great, confident writers.

That’s a goal-post shift right there: in Oregon, it often felt like “passing the writing so the students can graduate” was the main goal instead of supporting the students to be better, confident, and prepared writers. (To be honest, I can’t fault just Oregon for this – it was happening nationwide, and I think it was the trend of the times not too long ago.)

Back to conferring: Stevi reminded our group that it’s okay to not read a student paper in its entirety, or to even simply have a conversation about where a student is feeling stuck, especially proud, and to not read a line at all.

That was a shift from what I had done for the first fifteen years of my career. I had been a copy-editor, dutifully noting where students had singular-plural errors, underlining countless run-on sentences, and reminding students not to refer to themselves or their readers.

Ugh.

Stevi helped us to understand that our job in conferring is to offer a sounding board, to offer feedback, and to remind students that they have original ideas that are worth exploring and writing about.

We didn’t talk about rubrics or mechanical errors. We talked about writer’s craft, and we talked about the writer. The student.

We talked about organizing ideas, using mentor texts every day, and the craft and process of writing words that beg to be read.

We didn’t talk about essays and scoring guides.

That’s when I realized that I was recovering from fifteen years of my own learning that needed to be unlearned.

I had a scoring guide hangover. Continue reading “Unlearning old pedagogy in order to be a better teacher.”

Students are changing the world because they read.

On a cold day in February, I started class the way I always seem to do these days: with a themed book talk. I included a variety of genres and forms in this collection of books that centers around the big idea of poverty: YA, nonfiction, written in verse, novel, and memoir to name a few.poverty

Included in this collection was Banker to the Poor, a memoir about the birth of microcredit and microlending.

Below an excerpt from the official Banker to the Poor website which I think helps explain what a microloan is and how the idea came to be:

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One of my grade eleven girls quickly keyed in on this particular title, which came as no surprise. She has been a nonfiction-junkie this year, and the topic is right up her alley.

Time passed, we periodically conferred about her book, and then something happened.

Last week she insisted that she confer with me first, before any other students. She announced to me, “Mrs. Swinehart! I have big news that I think you’ll want to know about!”

She was right.

She went on to explain that she had received some money as a gift for her recent birthday.  Her big news was that because she was inspired by the book she was reading, she would use some of her birthday money to help fund a microloan.

What an empowering connection between the real world and the text she was reading.

Talk about proud teacher moment.

What if she hadn’t had the freedom of choice in her reading life? If she had been in a class that required her to read a shared text – perhaps a classic like The Scarlet Letter, which I’ve taught several times and has always been one of my favorites – but in a class that didn’t offer her choice? Or if the whole class had been required to read her choice of text? The magic would have been gone. Continue reading “Students are changing the world because they read.”

Virtual Travel with Authors- Creating a Reading Community with a Short Research Project

It’s not easy to come up with a short, creative, engaging research prompt that every student is interested in responding to, given that they are all reading different books (save for the three eleventh grade girls who chose to read The Kite Runner together).

It’s important to assign tasks that challenge students who are often looking to take things to the nth level, but that will also provide an opportunity for scaffolding and success with the students who sometimes struggle with research, reading, and writing assignments.

That’s why, when I saw this article about literary journeys on CNN.com today, I realized that I had found some virtual classroom gold.

The travel article 23 literary journeys with the world’s great writers is a list. It’s a list of authors, books, places, and potential adventures. And it’s the perfect mentor text for an in-class, community-building, short-and-sweet piece of mini-research writing.

Continue reading “Virtual Travel with Authors- Creating a Reading Community with a Short Research Project”

Team Debate as a Pre-Writing Activity

I spent most of my weekend with over 200 middle and high school students at the World Scholar’s Cup Amman Round. It’s a fun event that has students participate in trivia and academic knowledge quizzes, a team writing competition, and a team debate competition.

There was a talent show after the competitive events and before the awards ceremony, when they gave out more medals and trophies than I ever thought was possible. You can imagine the energy was loud and high.

I accompanied five smarty-pants high school boys. It was a first for me and the students; I had read about it online, but had never experienced what it looks and feels like in an up-close and personal way.

I love that all of these students were so enthused about writing and debating that they spent most of their weekend (it went until 11pm on Thursday and all day Friday) competing individually and as teams.

The boys found success in different ways and in different events, and look forward to competing again. They all agreed that the team debate competition was fun and different from what they had done before, and that their anxiety level was raised just enough to keep them interested but not terrified.

Perfect.

So let me bring it around to teaching with the workshop model. Yes, the students were writing and debating this weekend and that’s not new or news. But the writing and the debating were especially cool because they were doing some heavy-duty thinking, and they were thinking and communicating as teams.

Here’s how the team debate works:

Students are split into teams of three. Teams are randomly assigned either the affirmative or negative side. Then they are given the motion, at which point they have 15 minutes to prepare. After the preparation is complete, each team member is given four minutes to argue his point, and the teams alternate back and forth. It’s a lovely example of respectful dialogue and persuasive speaking.

After the debate, before the winning team is announced, students are required to provide feedback to the opposing team. I love this part!

As judges, we were given scoring criteria and a script, so adjudicating was a simple task, and I was able to pay attention to what they students thought about some hypothetical situations, like whether or not Jordan should send a manned mission to Mars. With a topic like that, students had to look up some real-world information, process, synthesize, and argue their points in a very finite period of time. It was an opportunity for students to demonstrate their thinking and practice some organized speaking and listening.

I think this activity has a ton of potential, because I can modify the team debate event for classroom use, and then have a window into some complex student thinking.

I can see it used with some topics that are relevant to what students have been studying recently.

For instance, eleventh grade students can debate whether they think transcendentalism is still relevant in the 21st century. They have a depth of knowledge about the topic that they didn’t have before we started studying it together, and this would be an authentic way to assign group work while still being able to see the individual students’ skill and thought process.

Continue reading “Team Debate as a Pre-Writing Activity”

A Healthy Reading Life for All

It occurred to me that maybe my students don’t really understand why we talk about books all of the time, or what it looks like to be a mature reader. That while I’ve focused on the fact that they should read, set goals, and have a next reads list, maybe we haven’t discussed what all of those pieces add up to be. That all of our goals, conferences, independent reading time, and book talks should help support, encourage, and result in each student having a healthy reading life.

So we talked about it.

Last week, the grade nines brainstormed answers to the question What does a healthy reading life look like?

 

 

They came up with what I think is a well-rounded picture of what a mature reader does.

They recognized that a healthy reader should be able to pick out a book independently, but also ask for and welcome recommendations from others.

They noticed that a mature reader should put in effort, but enjoy the process.

They talked about setting aside time to read, or making a plan, but also reading in a more impromptu setting as well.

They realized that it’s important to be able to have thoughtful discourse about a book, but also to form their own opinions and not automatically agree with the author or other readers and reviewers.

These grade nines had insightful ideas about what it means to be a healthy reader. Continue reading “A Healthy Reading Life for All”