Friday, January 31, 2014

Letter to my students and parents

After the incident at AHS on 12/13, I wrote the following letter to my students and their parents. I wanted to share it with you:
Over break, I received the above story from one of our parents.  I wanted to share it all with you with an additional note as well as some news about finals. Please pass this along to your students.

In WWII during the German air raids of London, a church in the city had a large stained glass window that it wanted to protect. They removed the glass pieces, left the metal skeleton intact, and church and community members each took a piece of glass to care for until the war ended. Afterward, they put the window back together. Some pieces were cracked or chipped, some intact, others did not return.  The skeleton of the window did survive though.  The post war window did not look exactly like it did prior to the bombing, but the character of the returned pieces with their chips and cracks was beautiful in a new way as the light reflected differently, and it was the love and care of those who took care of their little parts of the whole window that made the entire piece have new meaning.
We left Arapahoe on Friday as our individual pieces of glass taken home to be cared for and watched over this break by those we trust.  The Warrior structure remains ready for us to reclaim through taking back our classrooms, our spaces, and most importantly, our lives and our school.  And even if some of us return a little different, maybe somewhat chipped or broken, I am certain that we will make a more beautiful window when we return in January.  We are here to change the world, and I know no better people to take on this challenge than MY Warriors.
Many of you are concerned about finals. Rest assured, you only need to take a final if YOU want.  I’m not kidding. I will have grades updated today in all my classes.
With my English Lit classes, if you need to complete the final discussion on our semester long question, we can do so on Wednesday, January 8. Let me know ahead of time if you would like to do so. 
English 9 (Da’ Boys) and English 9 Honors: if you want to deliver your speech for your final, you can do so on Wednesday, January 8 or Thursday, January 9.  You do not need to deliver your “This I Believe” speech unless YOU want to. Some of you might find delivering your speech a great way to take control over closing the semester the way you want to rather than letting someone else determining the end. If you want to change your speech based upon the tragic events of 12/13, please do so. If you need help preparing, let me know. Also, some of you might just want to deliver your speech because you have worked so hard on it. You can also deliver your speech either of our class days. I won’t even grade it if you so choose.  Let me know what you are interested in doing.
I have shared the following Marianne Williamson words in my Honors’ class before, and I will share it with all of you now. I am not trying to spread any message through it, other than the message of hope:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Warriors, I am so proud of each and every one of you. I believe in you. I believe in the power of us together to shine a new light making Arapahoe more bright and beautiful than it was ever before.
Love, Smith

Powerful Message for a Friday

It has been over 6 weeks since the shooting at AHS. I am posting the letter I wrote to my students and parents later on today. Somehow, I seem to not have time to get everything done, or I forget about getting things done. Everyone assures me this is normal. I also wanted to share a picture I took today from the hallway of AHS. When we returned to the building at the beginning of January, on each locker, a student had written a personal sticky note and there was a small poster from our alumni. It has been 4 weeks since the kids have returned to school and started second semester. The posters and sticky notes are still on almost every locker.

Yesterday, I received an email from my cousin Kristy with a link to the following article. In the aftermath of everything that happened on 12/13 at Arapahoe, I think we are all looking for ways to help our kids connect and prosper. This article spoke volumes to me... A few weeks ago, I went into Chase’s class for tutoring. I’d emailed Chase’s teacher one evening and said, “Chase keeps telling me that this stuff you’re sending home is math – but I’m not sure I believe him. Help, please.” She emailed right back and said, “No problem! I can tutor Chase after school anytime.” And I said, “No, not him. Me. He gets it. Help me.” And that’s how I ended up standing at a chalkboard in an empty fifth grade classroom staring at rows of shapes that Chase’s teacher kept referring to as “numbers.” I stood a little shakily at the chalkboard while Chase’s teacher sat behind me, perched on her desk, using a soothing voice to try to help me understand the “new way we teach long division.” Luckily for me, I didn’t have to unlearn much because I never really understood the “old way we taught long division.” It took me a solid hour to complete one problem, but l could tell that Chase’s teacher liked me anyway. She used to be a NASA scientist (true story) so obviously we have a whole lot in common. Afterwards, we sat for a few minutes and talked about teaching children and what a sacred trust and responsibility it is. We agreed that subjects like math and reading are the least important things that are learned in a classroom. We talked about shaping little hearts to become contributors to a larger community – and we discussed our mutual dream that those communities might be made up of individuals who are Kind and Brave above all. And then she told me this. Every Friday afternoon Chase’s teacher asks her students to take out a piece of paper and write down the names of four children with whom they’d like to sit the following week. The children know that these requests may or may not be honored. She also asks the students to nominate one student whom they believe has been an exceptional classroom citizen that week. All ballots are privately submitted to her. And every single Friday afternoon, after the students go home, Chase’s teacher takes out those slips of paper, places them in front of her and studies them. She looks for patterns. Who is not getting requested by anyone else? Who doesn’t even know who to request? Who never gets noticed enough to be nominated? Who had a million friends last week and none this week? You see, Chase’s teacher is not looking for a new seating chart or “exceptional citizens.” Chase’s teacher is looking for lonely children. She’s looking for children who are struggling to connect with other children. She’s identifying the little ones who are falling through the cracks of the class’s social life. She is discovering whose gifts are going unnoticed by their peers. And she’s pinning down- right away- who’s being bullied and who is doing the bullying. As a teacher, parent, and lover of all children – I think that this is the most brilliant Love Ninja strategy I have ever encountered. It’s like taking an X-ray of a classroom to see beneath the surface of things and into the hearts of students. It is like mining for gold – the gold being those little ones who need a little help – who need adults to step in and TEACH them how to make friends, how to ask others to play, how to join a group, or how to share their gifts with others. And it’s a bully deterrent because every teacher knows that bullying usually happens outside of her eyeshot – and that often kids being bullied are too intimidated to share. But as she said – the truth comes out on those safe, private, little sheets of paper. As Chase’s teacher explained this simple, ingenious idea – I stared at her with my mouth hanging open. “How long have you been using this system?” I said. Ever since Columbine, she said. Every single Friday afternoon since Columbine. Good Lord. This brilliant woman watched Columbine knowing that ALL VIOLENCE BEGINS WITH DISCONNECTION. All outward violence begins as inner loneliness. She watched that tragedy KNOWING that children who aren’t being noticed will eventually resort to being noticed by any means necessary. And so she decided to start fighting violence early and often, and with the world within her reach. What Chase’s teacher is doing when she sits in her empty classroom studying those lists written with shaky 11 year old hands - is SAVING LIVES. I am convinced of it. She is saving lives. And what this former NASA scientist and mathematician has learned while using this system is something she really already knew: that everything – even love, even belonging – has a pattern to it. And she finds those patterns through those lists – she breaks the codes of disconnection. And then she gets lonely kids the help they need. It’s math to her. It’s MATH. All is love- even math. Amazing. Chase’s teacher retires this year – after decades of saving lives. What a way to spend a life: looking for patterns of love and loneliness. Stepping in, every single day- and altering the trajectory of our world. TEACH ON, WARRIORS. You are the first responders, the front line, the disconnection detectives, and the best and ONLY hope we’ve got for a better world. What you do in those classrooms when no one is watching- it’s our best hope. Teachers- you’ve got a million parents behind you whispering together: “We don’t care about the damn standardized tests. We only care that you teach our children to be Brave and Kind. And we thank you. We thank you for saving lives.”

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture: Part 4

Newkirk closes his book discussing humor as well as reiterating his arguments regarding the need for us in education to reconsider what and how we teach reading and writing.  Humor in my own family varies from person to person.  My kids have a great sense of humor, but often times borders on what Newkirk would call bodily or sarcastic humor, where as my husband and I have more of an adult sense of humor. Neither is bad in Newkirk’s view, but often kids are told their sense of humor regarding their bodies or their mocking forms of humor against those in position of power are inappropriate. I know I have uttered those words MANY times.  

Newkirk explains the history behind males sense of humor, “ deals with the body in ways that are designed to make adults uncomfortable- that’s part of the point. It flaunts the code of embarrassment or shame; it directly attacks the social conventions that says which body aprts must be covered, which bodily acts must be hidden from public view, and which bodily noises must be silenced.”  Newkirk argues that teachers should allow these forms of humor to enter the classroom because of the energy that accompanies it.  These forms of humor create community amongst students.  

This is especially important in middle schools when kids find their bodies changing all the time. Having them suppress their bodies rather than bring in their insecurities only sends the message that our bodies aren’t ok and the things your body is doing isn’t ok as well.  Bodies can be the greater leveler amongst all- from cool kids to nerdy kids, teachers and students, kings and queens- we all have bodies!

Newkirk supports helping kids find control or power over their position in society. He argues that one way to do so is by allowing kids to use parody in their writing.  Boys can find their own place in this world by distancing themselves from aligning with the perfect model of the various groups they belong to, “Boys are often in the difficult position of maintaining their standing as sons and students while at the same time distancing themselves from ‘sincere’ behaviors and language that they see as threatening and ‘overidentifying.’ Parody is one way of meeting both these demands. “ I see this in my oldest. He often finds schoolwork laborious and unmotivating. This past year, he was assigned the task of writing a series of poems. Something he really didn’t want to do. He ran out of ideas, and asked me about writing slam poems. I have a few students who have been successful in writing their own and told him some of their techniques. He took his frustration with the parapros on recess duty and turned it into a slam poem. I was impressed. Of course, he was worried about the grade he would receive on it as a result of its negative look at their overprotectiveness, but I stressed that the teacher would support him because he was completing the assigned task. He was able to parody something he was a part of and let out frustrations as a result of the open endedness of the poetry work.

Newkirk addresses concerns that some have over the mocking nature of such high interest books such as Captain Underpants.  He says, “ Boys will read Captain Underpants, but not to find real-life models to imitate any more than my generation wanted to literally imitate The Little Rascals.  The attraction of this form of parody comes out of a sense of power imbalance: Even in the most benign school, students are controlled by adults. Time, space, speaking rights, choice of activities-all are ultimately controlled by those in power. And sometimes this control is not so benign.  To be completely compliant is psychologically dangerous, for in overidentification we lose a sense of self; we become the institution. Mockery is a necessary form of underlife, a way of resisting the full embrace of the institution, even if we are fundamentally loyal to that institution.”  We need to find a place for our students to use parody, humor and mockery in ways that allow them to feel as though they are building their own self. Maybe kids can look at all the aspects of their lives that are part of their identification and not only parody those, but parody themselves at the same time. I feel as though this would create a much better classroom environment because they are putting themselves on the line as much as the idea they are making fun of.  

By rethinking what schools look like for boys and girls, and rethinking how we teach reading and writing, we can change our children’s perception of school. Newkirk explains, “ in the end, a broadening of the literacy spectrum will not only benefit boys; it will benefit any student whose primary affiliation is to the ‘low status’ popular narratives of television, movies, comics, humor, sports pages, and plot driven fiction.”  We need to move past including only the thematically heavy forms of literature that, “features introspection and the expression of feeling, that engages readers with significant moral issues and that helps promote a tolerance for diversity” and pair them with others forms of fiction to including works that connect with our students that are engaging and high interest. Works that give our kids choice. Newkirk isn’t arguing about abandoning the old canon but finding a place for both within the curriculum.  Spend time exploring the other sources.  

Additionally, Newkirk discusses the importance of boys being able to visually tell their stories either through storyboards, cartoons or telling board where kids can animate their words. This is especially important with boys to allow them to visually show their learning.  

Newkirk closes discussing once again the importance of allowing kids to bring violence into their learning.  Violence should be redefined or defined together as a class to set acceptable limits. He revisits his claims:
  • Writing that causes teachers or classmates to feel threatened or belittled is inappropriate.
  • Violence in the media-and its effects on us-should be a topic of discussion
  • Is it violence or comedy young writers are after- or both. Action writing that is most successful with peers is that which successfully employs humor in the form of slapstick, parody, exaggeration, or comedic exchanges among main characters
  • Action writing is a channel for male activity
    • this form of fiction becomes a ways of assuming freedoms, powers, and competencies that the writer doesn’t possess in real life
    • the pace of the narrative is quick
    • the writing works to celebrate and solidify friendship groups
    • the writing often moves to the exaggerated, extreme, and absurdl the slapstick; even the silly
Newkirk also cautions teachers regarding limiting students’ obsessiveness over writing over and over again on the same topic. He stresses that ” in many cases teachers do not share any affection for the models these students are working from, so it is hard to imagine the pleasure of the genre itself, let alone the pleasure of repeating a story type dozens of times.”  He comes to their defense:
  • obsessive writers rarely create exact reproductions of the visual models they enjoy- they are transforming them and mixing them with our cultural worlds often involving their friends
  • they are rarely exactly repeating themselves, although the innovations may not always seem significant to the adult reader
  • what seems like obsessive repetition to the outsider does that feel that way to the child absorbed

Newkirk also cautions against the standardization of our curriculums,” the reform movement at work in US schools clearly sees standardization and uniformity as central to the goal of ‘not leaving any child behind....writing instruction comes to resemble test taking- a prompt-and-rubric approach, tightly times and lacking in any social interaction...the reliance on rubrics also can short-circuit the task of response to the point where it seems that no human response is going on at all.”

Newkirk closes quoting from Quintilian, a legendary Roman writing teacher:

Let that age be daring, invent much and delight in what it invents, thought it be often not sufficiently severe and correct. The remedy for exuberance is easy: barrenness is incurable by any labor. That temper in boys will afford me little hope in which mental effort is prematurely restrained by judgement. I like what is produced to be extremely copious, profuse beyond the limits of propriety.

Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture: Part 3

Newkirk opens chapter five defining violence and coming to the most challenging arguments for me in his book.  He defines violence as “ the intentional infliction of pain (emotional or physical) on a living creature, obviously most serious when it is on another human being.”  Given this definition, he argues that “writing would be a violent act if it caused pain to others; if for example, it caused readers to feel threatened or humiliated”.  I can agree with his definition, but am wondering where does the line between Newkirk’s definition and what is my past perception of violent writing lie?  How can I justify, even in humorous ways, kids harming other kids in their writing?  He asks these same questions, “where does legitimate humor end and humiliation begin?  What constitutes a legitimate threat? But I believe there is a distinction between writing that actually harms others and writing that harms others and writing that represents harm coming to fictional characters.”   Can kids differentiate between the two? I know my sons know that movies aren’t real, but in many ways, don’t kids try to emulate what they see on screen? So, why wouldn’t kids emulate what they themselves write and create in terms of violent acts?  Newkrik sees this argument as well in children’s inability to distinguish between fact and fiction, between fantasy and reality.  

Newkirk also points out that many are OK with violence in literature that is classical in nature and seen as appropriate. Take for example the fighting scenes in Romeo and Juliet, the beheading in Macbeth, the death of Piggy and Simon in Lord of the Flies. Truly violent and gruesome scenes, but all seen as appropriate because they are classic pieces of literature.  Why then, “when the same violent content in more popular media is seen as provocative and dangerous?...the nonelite group that choose to watch the more popular versions of violence is perceived as more susceptible to suggestion, less capable of keeping the proper distance, more volatile. All of which leads to the question, Is the issue really about violence or is it about the social class and age group the violence appeals to?”  To me, this struck me as a huge similarity between reading and writing. Kids are censored from reading because of its violent nature and now we too censor their writing because of its violent nature. Aren’t school supposed to be places of learning where we learn even if we do make mistakes? We can rectify mistakes and make up for errors made, but if we never give kids the chances to make mistakes or to learn from them, then are we letting our kids grow?

Newkirk brings up the example of Japan, “Those who make the case for imitative violence have to deal with the example of Japan, where children’s programming is typically more violent than it is in the United States...the newer imported cartoons, called anime, feature almost non-stop fighting...according to the ‘effects’ research, if this is the standard fare for Japanese children, one would expect that there would be a major problem of violence in Japanese society- yet the crime rate is one of the world’s lowest, most likely due to stable social structures and lack of access to guns.”  Newkirk points out that there are many issues with the research on violence, but that many shows that contain violence are not just about violence. They are also about, “ teamwork, loyalty, perseverance, ingenuity, problem solving, stoicism, athletic fitness, courage and frequently patriotism....If 200,00 exposures to violence cause a person to be violent, does the same number of exposures to teamwork create an ethic of cooperation?”  

Newkirk stresses the importance of kids perception of violence; he says, “they make distinctions about the gradation of violence, types of violence, degrees of receptivity to violence. They explain what they see as the necessity of violence in some genres of writing that rely on suspense. What struck me most about the kids I interviewed was their willingness to accept limits, including their own” This leads me to wonder though, as I see with my own kids and students, their willingness to justify things that are taboo in order to do them or to do things that adults do?  

Newkirk explains that kids will add the violence to their writings but make them safe by “removing it from human pain, by withholding some of its graphic consequences, by interspersing it with humor and by using it in the service of a good cause like saving the planet.

Most kids seemed to recognize that it was important in their stories to have violence in order to create suspense or believability.  But when asked about the connection between their violent writings and their behavior, the kids dismissed the connection. These kids must see the difference between reality and fiction.  Kids need to be able to write authentically about the world they are a part of in order to deal with the violence that they experience- and this violence does not mean violence done to them, but that they see or hear about. They are integrated into a world full of insecurities and writing brings those insecurities to light. Rather than shaming their emotions and fears by not allowing them to write, we should encourage them and use these as vehicles of conversation towards the emotions that allowed them to surface. Kids need the power that Newkirk suggests by writing about moments that they feel unsafe or uncertain. This gives them the power to control the situations and outcomes. It allows for them to be the hero in the fight between good and evil. When kids can write about violence, they assume a state of power according to Newkirk- they are able to demonstrate their control and make themselves feel safe.  

In no way is Newkirk supporting threatening behavior or disturbing behavior in writing, but I think he is asking the same thing of teachers and educators regarding writing as he did with reading-we need to rethink what is appropriate and what we can allow kids to do in order to reach out to the struggling readers and writers who are turned off from school as a result of their choices being restricted because pieces are seen as “violent.”  Often in order to create a more believable story, suspense is used to create the anticipation. This is a marvelous writing technique that appeals to boys.  

Even when boys are using their friends in their stories, Newkirk explains that this is a demonstration of friendship and camaraderie possibly even competition to show their friends in there very boy way, what they mean to one another.  Boys can also use each other or girls in their stories as a way of creating readership. They want to include people they know everyone likes.  If parents are too overprotective, kids won’t be able to show their friends how they feel about them in a way that is meaningful to boys and protective of their boyhood.  

Newkirk sees the same issue with writing and reading violent pieces that parents have with video games. However, he adds research and evidence from Smith and Wilhelm regarding the quality learning environment video games provide children:
  • sense of control and competence
  • challenge that requires an appropriate skill level
  • clear goals and feedback
  • focus on immediate feedback

And as Newkirk argued earlier, if the video games provide a source of writing inspiration to struggling writers, why deny them this inspiration?

Friday, June 14, 2013

Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture: Part 2

Newkirk opens chapter 3 discussing why kids feel resistant towards reading, “ Too often the argument for reading is made by those who have spent their lives as insiders; the pleasures of solitary reading are so obvious, the value of reading so self-evident , that we fail to appreciate how utterly strange reading is to the outsider.”  This is a perspective I often forget. For me, reading is an escape, a source of enjoyment and pleasure. I have loved reading since I can remember being taught phonics. I am a devourer of books.  However, I am an “insider” as Newkirk explains. I need to consider that for many kids, especially my daughter, reading is a constant struggle and a source of punishment rather than pleasure. Newkirk continues to support this position explaining that reading is such a solitary activity. For those who struggle, they are placed away from others they could learn from, understand with, and work collaboratively together to construct meaning. But that is not how reading is taught. Each student is expected to read a book, question, interpret, connect and do it all by himself.  

Newkirk educates his reader on the work on Smith and Wilhelm  who ”stress the centrality of friendship groups in literacy development; boys read books recommended by friends and are more likely to attend to print stories that can be shared.”  So if boys read better with visuals, with action, comedy, parody and wit, and read better with others, why do we ask them to read in isolation?  I have found more of my struggling readers prefer to read in a collaborative group setting where we read and annotate out loud dissecting the text as we make our way through. I know some of my more proficient readers feel as though reading out loud slows the pace down, but I wonder if I reduced the quantity of what is assigned, if they would feel more concerned about their understandings and connections and less about completion.  Newkirk supports my concerns and offers a new direction to think about, “...reading instruction should be embedded in practical social activity and not treated as a subject of instruction...true verbal skill...must be grounded on experience, on activity in physical/social/political world..learning comes primarily from encounters with ‘things’ not ‘words.’”  How can we get reading in our classrooms more about interacting with the text, especially with my all boys class, and less with a lack of interaction? How can we create more active rather than passive readers?

Newkirk brings to light that our idea of what well functioning classrooms will look like if we change how and what kids read.  Kids might not be in rows, completing worksheets, raising their hands, but rather there might be small groups all around the room, some kids in desks some on the floors, some in hallways. Kids could be reading and writing on a wide variety of materials. And there would be constant discussion. As a teacher, I wonder how I can “control” that learning environment?  I think expectations created collaboratively would work best, but would our school administration or district see the same thing I do?  Newkirk explains, “... one agenda of schooling is disciplining the body- teaching the students to assume the behavioral characteristics of students. To sit like students, raise hands like students, pay attention like students, work steadily and industriously like students.”  Do teachers and administrators need to change the conversation about classroom management in order to give kids the freedom to explore reading on their own terms rather than the traditional terms of a traditional classroom.  This makes me think about where I work. It is often noisy, I can hear people typing, talking, joking, laughing, kids yelling in the hallway. But when I go home to read, I have a comfortable chair, a good beverage, and quiet. When I try to concentrate at work on something I really need to focus on, I often have trouble depending on the environment. It isn’t comfortable and I can’t think. But yet that is what I ask of the students in my class when they have to read. They have to sit and endure because it has to be done now and on my terms, “The sad, or perhaps not so sad, fact about human nature is that we all have difficulty persisting in activity that gives us little pleasure, no matter how ‘good for us’ this activity might be.”  So no wonder our kids don’t like to read!  Newkirk offers this advice, “ ...unless we can persuade students that reading is a form of deep, sustained pleasure, they will not choose to read; and because they will not choose to read, they will not develop skills to make them good readers.”  I so agree!!!

Wilhelm talks about boys creating more “dramatic and artistic opportunities for students to make public the envisioned story space they inhabit as readers.”  This could be one way to engage our readers. Also, I think making reading a more collaborative process and giving kids the freedom to choose texts that are appealing might also engage those reluctant readers.

Let’s talk about the freedom of boys to choose texts, “Boys traditional favorites-information books, humor, science fiction, and action stories- are often treated as subliterature, something that a reader should move beyond as he moves towards realistic fiction with thematic weight.”  and Wilhelm argues that “in fact, many students who classify themselves as non-readers read quite a lot; they see themselves as non-readers because they don’t read extended works of fiction.”  In many cases, I don’t see boys advocating for themselves as readers or as students.  I see them complacent to not excel at reading or writing. But, I wonder, if I changed the type of material boys read in class, would that make a difference. Would doing away with the old canon of literature, books that I read when I was in school make boys want to read. I have to say in my own defense, I have tried more modern texts with my students. My boys read Into the Wild, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and we watch a lot of modern videos to accent what we are reading. But could it be the sheer length of the material is too overwhelming?  I can’t imagine giving up reading in class, but maybe I need to rethink what and how we are reading?  What if boys in class are reading The Simpsons to learn about satire? What if I have them read Calvin and Hobbes to look at examples of illusion, parody, and humor?  What if we read box scores from the paper to learn how to read various forms of charts and graphs?  

Newkirk makes this same assertion, “I am challenging the claims made for this literature and the implicit (or explicit) moral hierarchy that sets this type of reading above more popular forms of literary activity.”  This isn’t to say that we should give boys in our classrooms free reign. In fact, “‘Choice’ implies a form of freedom to go outside the range of the conventional and appropriate; yet, the ‘good’ reins it in, establishing a boundary within which choices must be made in order to qualify as ‘good’.”  Newkirk quotes from Graves who indicates that kids should “be encouraged to search their lives and interests for compelling topics”- I agree but I often find this is where trouble arises. Kids don’t know what they like. They know what they don’t like and will let you know, but often times, because of a number of factors, kids don’t know where to turn to find books that will inspire them or light the fire within. Is it because they have never recieved choice before so they aren’t sure what is appropriate or ok? Or is it because they haven’t been expose d enough of life to know what their passions are?  I agree with the sentiment, I just think it is a great thought not grounded in practicality. And so this is also where my struggle lies. I want kids to have the choice, but I often have to help them find something they are passionate about because they say they don’t have passions or interests. Or if they do, there is nothing to read about it.  

This same lack of passion in their reading can also be applicable to their writing.  Kids struggle at finding topics that interest them, that spark a thought to write about. Instead, they often end up confused at what to put down to complete the assignment.  Newkirk discusses Lucy Calkins work with memoirs indicating the importance of kids writing what they know, “in effect teachers can help children claim a childhood through the act of writing, through shaping and reliving experiences with grandparents, siblings, hobbies, and pets.”  TV also offers a plentitude of ideas for kids to write about but many dismiss TV or “discount the potential value..the end result may cut them off from the most powerful and pervasive narrative forms the know.”  Maybe dissecting plots on well written shows (West Wing) or even humorously satirical pieces such as the Simpsons. But can TV be seen as literacy?  I would argue yes given the correct instructions for its use in the classroom. We aren’t asking kids to just watch TV but asking them to think critically about it, to find inspiration in its shows and construction, to examine each program for its writing forms and content.

Even comic books have enormous potential as a learning tool. To understand Gary Paulsen’s Far Side or Calvin and Hobbes’ rants in strip form, one must understand the humor of their creators.  We can use them to understand characterization or form.

And using these different forms of writing, kids can learn to write more authentically and passionately. Newkirk warns of limiting our students to only realistic fiction which is typical in classrooms, “teachers prefer realism for at least two reasons. First, students are moving towards kids of writing we voluntarily read (we don’t have to pretend). Second, realistic fiction depends on the intense observation of lived experience, attention to relationships, language, physical appearance, and personal reactions and judgements.”  Boys are able to transcend their existence and give themselves power that they obviously don’t hold as kids. They can even mock the power that is held over them in their own lives .

Newkirk hopes at the end of these chapters to have argued successfully for his reader to think about “the place of literary realism and moral sensitivity as the ultimate goal of instruction. This preference reflects the literary taste of an educated elite, and with its focus on nontechnological experience, it helps allay fears that children are missing out on “an authentic childhood” amidst the clutter of consumer goods and media seductions...Maybe the best we can do is to recognize the fact that we are located and limited, and that our views of literacy are not inevitable, but connected to social-class tastes (and distates) and desires and anxieties.”

I am left thinking at the end, how can we have boys read and write more authentic pieces? How can we help them develop the skills of parody and mocking? Can they write satirical pieces that still fit the common core standards? can they create arguments with research while still maintaining a sense of humor?  and will they find issues that are meaningful and connected to them and their passions?

Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture: Part 1

Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture
Thomas Newkirk in his book, Misreading Masculinity hopes to helps schools and teachers re-examine their practices in assigning literature and writing tasks to students. Newkirk hopes to shed light throughout his arguments on the detriment teachers are doing to students, specifically more male students, by limiting our definitions of literacy.  Newkirk argues throughout his book about the power of visuals, pop media, and violence in young people’s lives and how teachers steer children away from those types of literacies because they are afraid of the negativity and low culture these texts employ.

Newkirk argues, “...that too many of our schools are failing too many of our boys, particularly in the area of reading and writing. By defining, teaching and evaluating literacy in narrow ways-even under the banner of choice and a student centered curriculum- we have failed to support or even allow in our literacy programs the tastes, values, and learning style of many boys. More specifically, we have discouraged, devalued and even prohibited the genres of reading and writing that are most popular with many boys, stories that include violence, parody, and bodily humor.”  Newkirk argues heavily on the side of allowing boys to include violence in their reading and writing because “ there is no logical line connecting reading and writing about violence with acting violently.” He goes on to say that “ boys almost never simply reproduce in their writing what they have seen in movies or on TV- they transform it, recombine story lines from various media, and regularly place themselves and their friends as heroes.”

Newkirk’s arguments hit home for me. Growing up with three brothers, a couple of whom were not engaged readers, I could see their draw to stories of good and evil in movies such as Star Wars or Louis La’Mour westerns or re-enacting stories they would see from cartoons in our play outside.  Additionally, I saw with my brothers dislike with reading grow as they were asked to read what the teacher wanted the entire class to read or write about prompts the teacher assigned.  Even today in my own classes, I rarely give my all boys class a chance to read about whatever they want except for our weekly PLNs. I often see them struggling when they are given free choice to know what they want to read. Is that because they have been without a choice for so long that they don;t know what they like anymore.  And with writing, often there are prompts that I have them write towards rather than allowing them to write whatever they want.  Why?> Because my state, district and national curriculums tell us what kinds of writing they need to master and I want my students to be successful mastering those curriculums.

Also, I agree with Newkirk’s argument about kids not simply reproducing what they have seen into their own writing. I think that is one of the amazing parts of being a 21st century learner. All learning is a mashable event combining the text, audio, media, visuals from a wide variety of sources into a new view or understanding. So as I read Newkirk’s words, I am left wondering: do I agree with what he is saying? is his argument about violence in literature true? should I bring in more visuals and free choice to my students?  what if they won’t pick appropriately challenging texts or prompts to write or read about?  Newkirk asks his reader to question as well “ what counts as literacy? how can we learn about, appreciate and make use of the narrative affiliations of potentially alienated boys? How can we tap the interests that exist on the other side of the partition?

Chapter one explores the crisis of boyhood that all parents and educators worry about: “How do we balance the social appropriateness and boys’ attractions to fantasies of conflict and violence?  And who is to decide what is appropriate? on what criteria?” I think about growing up with G.I.Joe, Star Wars, HEMEN and my parents recollections of old westerns with cowboys and indians, cops and robbers, etc... If there were times that these rights and wrongs, good and evil of society were deemed acceptable, why do we now think these battles are too violent and inappropriate for our kids?  Watching Little Rascals with its racially segregated characters, or Bad News Bears with its inappropriate language in today’s standards, can these be seen as classics, but the violence of Marilyn Manson, rap lyrics of Eminem seen as not? I clearly don’t have the answers to any of the questions I am posing, but I know Newkirk’s work really made me think as a teacher and parent of two boys.  

Chapter one left me thinking about how I can allow my students to write, read or see more violent pieces? How can I justify what I am doing in light of a post-Columbine era vigilance towards eliminating violence in our student’s learning?  Everything I read from Dr. Meg Meeker’s work on Boys Should Be Boys as well as the work from Raising Cain and The Wonder of Boys seems to point to giving kids positive role models in their viewing and reading.  So, how are we supposed to balance the two? We need to give the kids the outlet to express their emotions, and hold them accountable when they have crossed a line to inappropriateness.  Can we do that? Would I rather err on the side of getting kids to read and write with material that isn’t as challenging in hopes that they would one day self-select more classic and challenging pieces? Or would they be like my own voracious reader son who only selects mysteries and balks at any attempt to get him to read something of more literary merit, but when given a text such as Sherman Alexi’s Absolutely True Story of a Part Time Indian, loves it and wants to read more.  Why? He loves the language and inappropriateness. Can there be a pairing of the two? Can we find a place or better yet the time in our classrooms to inspire kids to pull from “high culture” pieces and connect them to their reading of low culture pieces? Or is it like Tovani suggests in her books about reading that we need to be reading shorter pieces to engage our struggling readers?  

Newkirk of course argues that we need to feed kids’ desires. We need to pull kids into reading and writing what they love.  Otherwise, we are in no better place, and probably worse than we are now considering the great disparity between boys and girls standardized reading and writing scores. If we can’t engage boys in the first part with just getting them to read and write, how are we ever going to get them engaged with reading and writing when they will need it for exams, papers, college entrance essays, reports for work, etc...

Chapter two focuses on the gap between boys and girls in their learning. Newkirk speaks about how boys struggle in school is often misinterpreted. Girls are just better at following school rules and doing school.  Newkirk argues against the kind of attention given to boys at school in comparison to the kind of attention given to girls. He puts forth the argument that boys are given often behavioral attention whereas girls are getting attention in regards to learning issues.  New kirk even argues that, “Even more positive attention (e.g. calling on boys more often than girls) may not be the great advantage it has been made out to be, because success in school (and, one might add, in the workplace) is dependent on other traits- perseverance, goal setting, enjoyment of reading and writing, ability to collaborate, and attention to detail- none of which are really fostered in discussions where students bid for the teacher’s attention.” So knowing all of this, as well as knowing how far the boys are behind the girls in my own school in terms of reading and writing, I realize something has to change to close this gap. How can we get boys reading and writing more in order to move the boys along?  

Newkirk also spends time discussing the self-esteem issue associated with boys and girls in school. I found this portion especially interesting considering my own daughter and sons perceptions of school. Newkirk articulates, “Females reported better behavior in class; they rated themselves as more conscientious and harder workers than the boys did. They received higher grades than the boys. Yet the boys claimed to be more satisfied than the girls with how smart they were. The adolescent girls in the study did not reap the self satisfaction their achievement would seem to merit, while boys took satisfaction that was not firmly grounded in real achievement.”  In my house, Jackson, my oldest, is a gifted learner but often doesn’t work hard at school since learning comes easily to him. Whereas Emma, our daughter, continues to struggle in school day after day spending many recesses inside getting questions answered or seeking additional clarification. Her perception of school even when she does succeed is very different than Jackson. She will work her butt off for a 3 on an assignment whereas Jackson could care less about the grade, unless he doesn’t get a grade he feels he deserves than he is upset. But he is much more satisfied with working less.  Newkirk sums this up by saying, this delcine amtters more for girls because school matters more to them. It matters less to boys because school matters less to them.” This leads me to thinking, “How can we get school to matter more to boys?” Is it even possible in order to close the gap?  

Newkirk states at the end of chapter two, “this male cynicism about schooling may come from a powerful residual sense of male entitlement-an unarticulated belief that the traits of traditional masculinity (aggressiveness, competitiveness, physical strength, gregariousness, an outgoing personality) will more than compensate for any educational deficiency. These after all are the real traits valued in the real world. Males are more likely to view schooling in general (and specifically literacy) as artificial, even unmanly.” This leads me to think we need more male role models in school connecting boys with their love of reading and writing.  How can I find more males to inspire my students to read and write?  

Friday, June 07, 2013

Do I Really Have to Teaching Reading: Part 4

Tovani instructs her students to be selfish about their reading and learning. They should ask of each text, “What’s in it for me?” She wants her students to realize that the class is an ongoing learning process where they will be continually assessed. The measurements of their learning will be ongoing not a one time only deal.  The assessment of their learning through the aforementioned ways, will fuel Tovani’s teaching and direction.  Tovani spends much of chapter 8 discussing the purpose of assessment, “It’s important that my assessments be ongoing and purposeful, useful to students as well as to me. I should be able to tell students what they are doing well and what they need to improve upon with each assessment. This means I give students multiple opportunities to demonstrate thinking. I don’t want a student’s final attempt at a task to be a failure. Rarely do I give students a poor grade if they are willing to try again. I want kids to take risks and try again, because that’s the only way they are going to get better at reading and writing.”

Tovani stresses to her reader that it takes time for students to develop good comprehension skills as well as apply their learning to their classes. Teachers who model this process receive better results from their students. All of this learning takes time.  Tovani flashes back to the beginning of the semester where she has her students set goals for themselves:
Activation of Background Knowledge:
  • Can students access existing information to make connections between new and known information? Is there evidence that making connections helps students to
    • relate to the subject matter in a way that enhances interest and deepens understanding?
    • visualize in a way that helps students remember what is being read?
    • visualize in a way that helps student remember what is being read?
    • ask questions that can lead to a deeper understanding?
    • use background knowledge to interpret textual evidence?
    • draw inferences based on personal experience and knowledge?
    • determine importance based on personal experience and knowledge?
    • clear confusion and repair meaning by connecting new information to the known?
Student Questioning of the Text:
  • Can students ask useful and authentic questions about the text in a way that enhances understanding and encourages deeper understanding? Is there evidence that asking questions helps students
    • build background knowledge about an unknown topic?
    • answer questions by drawing conclusions beyond the unseen text?
    • isolate confusion by asking a specific question of someone who is more knowledgeable?
    • read on to quell curiosity?
Drawing Conclusions and Making Inferences:
  • Can students combine their background knowledge with textual evidence to draw logical conclusions? Is there evidence that drawing conclusions helps students to
    • think beyond the literal meaning to the unseen text?
    • use existing knowledge and textual clues to support inferential thinking?
Monitoring Comprehension and Using Fix Up Strategies:
  • Can students recognize signals that indicate they are confused? Do students have strategies that repair meaning? Is there evidence that monitoring comprehension and using fix-up strategies helps students to
    • identify confusion?
    • recognize that several strategies can be used to repair meaning?
    • apply appropriate strategies to repair meaning?
    • recognize that rereading with a different purpose in mind can improve comprehension?
    • adapt strategies to meet the demands of the text and the purpose of the reading?
    • recognize that subsequent read yields deeper levels of comprehension?
Determining Importance in Text:
  • Can students identify different purposes for reading? Do students recognize unique features of texts, author styles, and similarities in topic information to distinguish important ideas from interesting details? Do students recognize that purpose determines what is important? Is there evidence that determining importance in text helps students to
    • recognize that purpose is used to sift and sort important information?
    • isolate important ideas from lesser details?
    • recognize organizational features in text to aid comprehension?
    • recognize unique features of an author’s style?
    • use background knowledge to interpret importance?
    • ask questions to build background knowledge so importance can be established?
Student can generate their own goals with their teacher from the above list. Tovani suggests reviewing these goals every few weeks as well as having an areas of growth chart from the teacher listing the skills the students are acquiring each week.  This way the students are aware of past strategies learned and how to build upon those strategies with new ones.  

Conversation  calendars are another strategy suggested by Tovani to open the dialogue between students and teacher,  “ in the small box in the right hand corner, students give themselves points. They can leave comments about class and Tovani write back to them each day.   Tovani emphasizes the overwhelming nature of calendars but explains the benefits:
  • have a tray in the room where the calendars go each day- what a great progress check for learning from the students.
  • respond daily back to the students
  • make the calendar worth doing- by giving the student the opportunity to earn points for participating, I am honoring their attempts at working hard.  
  • Consider who will use the calendar?
  • How do you manage lost calendars?
  • Experiment and vary the use of the calendar.

As another form of assessment, Tovani asks her students to use reading response logs. IN these lofs, she asks for them to read 25 pages a week. They are to read something they enjoy and honor their time for reading by making the assignment manageable. Students must summarize their reading in four to six sentences.  Then students respond to the reading in 12-15 sentences.  Students should recognize the emphasis is on the response. The response, “ may make a personal connection to the piece or ask a questions that ,makes them want to read on. I encourage them to pull lines from the reading that intrigue them and then ask them to write why the line strikes them. I often see conclusions students draw about characters or plot.  Tovani suggests that she really wants her kids to react not just respond to the text.  .  Tovani also articulates that “ the only way students get better at reading, writing, and thinking is if they actually read, write and think.”

She summarizes about assessment, “ Without assessments that can guide us, we have to guess where to go next in our teaching. It’s so much easier if we can get students to share their thinking. That happens only when we tie their grades to the effort they put into getting that thinking about reading into written form and into class discussion.”

Tovani doesn’t allow her students growth to end their. She says she continues to read and research about reading and instructional practices.  She notes, “I can serve my students well only by reading, writing and talking with colleagues.” She also suggests as she travels and speaks more and more, “Listen to teacher’s questions. Don’t dismiss them as unimportant. And never forget what it is like to be a teacher.”