Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Helping Readers See Themselves in a Text

Every week during summer vacation, mom used to load us into the car and drive us to the library. While my sisters and brother were racing around with picture books and whatever toys they could get their hands on, I snuck off to a quieter corner of the library where the children’s biographies were shelved.

I plopped myself on the floor and ran my finger over the spines, looking for just the right one. I read the names to myself: “George Washington. Thomas Edison. Another Washington. Ben Franklin. Patrick Henry. Daniel Boone."

It would have been so much easier if the books had been arranged by the subject, rather than the author. There were dozens and dozens of people I didn’t want to read about. Eventually though, I’d find one that was perfect: “YES! Dolly Madison!”

I’d pull the book off the shelf and begin reading immediately. My favorite books were ones that began when the person was close to my own age. Even though we might have lived decades or even centuries apart, we had things in common—whether it was trying to learn how to cook or fussing over school work.

When we finally loaded back into the car, everyone else had colorful books about cartoon people or lovable animals. My arms were filled with stories of Eleanor Roosevelt, Martha Washington, Juliette Low, and Dolly Madison. Before the week was out, I would read them cover to cover and beg to go back to the library to find more.

Occasionally I’d put a book about George Washington or Daniel Boone on the top of my reading pile, but they felt like text books from history or social studies class. I’d make myself read them, but they were always like bitter medicine you suffered through so you could get the spoonful of sugar afterward.

It all seems slightly funny now. I was doing what any reader wants to: I was looking for stories that reflected by own experiences. I wanted stories about young girls, about their accomplishments as women, and about the journeys they took from child to adult.

Don’t bother me with stories of boys becoming apprentices, men fighting battles, or chopping their way through forests. Show me people who are like me. Show me people who are like the person I want to become.

In my own way, I guess I have been celebrating El día de los niños/El día de los libros (Children’s Day/Book Day) every day, from the moment I started demanding to see myself in the texts that I read. At its heart, Día is about making that kind of connection between readers and what they read. It’s about connecting with readers, in their own languages and with texts that they can identify with.

Every reader should have the experience of looking at a text and making connections based on their experiences, culture, and heritage. With ever-increasing class sizes and the rich diversity of our classrooms, finding the right text for each student is quite a challenge. Better is the goal of equipping students to find these texts themselves.

If I had waited for someone else to find books for me on those trips to the library, who knows if I would have found the right books. Somewhere, however, I picked up the skill to search through the stacks till I found the texts that I connected with. That’s the skill I hope to teach students. My ReadWriteThink lesson plan “Assessing Cultural Relevance: Exploring Personal Connections to a Text” demonstrates one technique I’ve tried.

In the lesson, students work as a class to evaluate a nonfiction or realistic fiction text for its cultural relevance to themselves and as a group. After completing this full-class activity, students search for additional, relevant texts. By the end of the lesson, students have found a book and written a review about its relevance to themselves and their cultural background.

The books they find help them see themselves in what they read, but more importantly, they practice and refine techniques for finding and selecting books that they connect with. With that knowledge, they too can make every day El día de los niños/El día de los libros (Children’s Day/Book Day).


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Everything I Know about Differentiation I Learned from William Shakespeare

In Act 2 of King Lear, the Duke of Cornwall addresses Goneril’s servant, Oswald, by asking him, “What is your difference?”

When we teach a challenging text such as a scene from a Shakespearean drama, we know that students will have the best chance of understanding it if we approach it with an intentional awareness of the differences among our students in terms of readiness, interests, and learning styles. If only determining those differences among students were as easy (and less abusive) as Cornwall makes it sound.

What if, in some significant ways, it is as easy as asking students, “What is your difference?” This article from Educational Leadership in which students share their answers to the question “What helps you learn?” is a compelling reminder that students themselves are often the best (and most underutilized) resource for learning about the variations in our classrooms.

The students in the article attend a school with a focus on individualized student learning, so don’t be surprised to see their level of articulateness and self awareness is well beyond what you’d get from your students at first. They likely didn’t all start that way, and you certainly don’t always need such fine grained information to begin responding to student needs.

There are ways, though, to help students build the capacity for self-awareness about their learning strengths and needs. (Cornwall gets Oswald to talk by commanding him to “Speak!” This follow-up prompt is not recommended for classroom use).

Instead, try modeling reflective talk after a learning experience. Explaining what helped you learn a specific concept or skill can be a powerful way to get students to think about the way their needs and preferences influence their learning. Repeated reflective writing—before, during, and after a learning experience—is another effective way to generate student metacognitive awareness, while you reap the benefit of knowing more about their learning styles.

The real art of teaching begins once students share that information with us and we begin responding intentionally to it. I know that when I taught King Lear to seniors in AP English, I failed to take the time to ask questions such as “What helps you learn?” My students and I missed out on this rich opportunity partly because I didn’t think it mattered in a “rigorous course” (wrong) and partly because I wouldn’t have known what to do with the information I got (maybe wrong).

Even if, like me, you’re not sure what you would do with knowledge of your students’ differences, consider using these remaining weeks of school to gather as much information you can about your current students’ learning styles. In the luxury of summer, then, take some time to think about how your current units and learning and assessment activities might be varied in light of what you’ve uncovered. Use some of the ideas from the ReadWriteThink.org Strategy Guide on Differentiating Instruction to help fuel your thinking.

It may seem odd to plan for a group of students you already had and won't have again, but differentiation is something teachers do, not something teachers get done. Thinking about differentiating by specific student needs will be useful work whether or not you see similar patterns in your students in the fall. You’ll be ready to start responding when students walk through the doors next year, ready to start speaking their differences to you.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Inspiring Writers with Student Poetry

It’s National Poetry Month, so teachers everywhere are sharing poetry and experimenting with poetry writing in the classroom. The challenge is that those two activities are sometimes at cross purposes. Reading poetry by the literary greats can silence the muse of even the most imaginative student.

Sharing poems written by students alongside those in the literature textbooks can be the solution. The process simultaneously tells students that their poetry is just as important as any other poets and provides students with level-appropriate models for their own writing.

National Gallery of WritingThe National Gallery of Writing is the ultimate resource for student poetry examples. Not only will you find hundreds of poems written by students from all over the United States, but you also can show students that their work is just as worthy of publication as those Shakespearean sonnets they’ve been reading.

The process is simple. Go to the The National Gallery of Writing, find some poems you like and share them with students. You might also send students to several specific galleries and let them find something they like.

You can search the Gallery for the keyword “poetry” in the description field. Narrow your search further by state and country, if you’d like to find local or regional student work.

Here are some collections that have a number of wonderful, classroom-ready poems. Note that some galleries also include fiction, memoirs, and other student writing.

After students write their own poems, you can invite them to add their work to an open gallery. The NCTE-CEE Commission on the Teaching of Poetry Writing, for instance, is open to all poets. You may find a specific gallery for your geographical area that is open for submissions as well. Additionally, you can still start a local gallery for students in your class or at your school if you like.