Friday, January 30, 2015

Einstein Read Fairy Tales

"You've got to kiss a lot of frogs in order to find your prince."
"Sometimes, an ugly duckling turns into a beautiful swan."
"He's a regular Pied Piper with those kids!"

     Fairy tales are tightly woven into the fabric of American culture, but fewer and fewer kids read them.  In fact, if it weren't for the Walt Disney movies, a lot of kids would be completely unacquainted with those timeless tales.  What a shame!  Fortunately, though, savvy authors of children's and YA lit are spinning those yarns into literary gold -- and luring young readers back into the Grimm world of make-believe.
Click here to read Chapter One
of Fairest, Marissa Meyers' latest fairy tale rewrite.
But wait!  There's more!

     The following lesson plan sprinkles a trail of bread crumbs back to the enchanted forest.  
Our tour guide?  Rumpelstiltskin.

Day One:  

     As the students read along with Kathleen Turner's wonderful performance for Rabbit Ears Audio, they sharpened their character analysis skills by seeking out text evidence to support inferences about the King:

     Because they are middle school students, we also discussed all sorts of outrageous "wonders" about the plot:

     "If he can spin straw into gold, why does he want her ring and her necklace?"
     "What does he want the baby for?"  (((EW!!!!)))
     "What IS Rumpelstiltskin?"

Day Two:  
     We got out our composition books for a creative writing activity stolen straight from a review of Gary D. Schmidt's Straw into Gold:

"What would have happened if the queen had failed to guess Rumpelstiltskin's name and the odd little man had taken her child? Why did he want the young prince?"  Fast forward ten years into the future and tell the story of the prince who was taken by Rumpelstiltskin.

     The students had a blast entertaining each other with their scary, hilarious, and outright ridiculous visions of the boy's future while I was able to interject questions and observations about setting, point of view, foreshadowing, hyperbole, etc, without their even realizing we were reviewing elements of literature -- (kind of an educational equivalent to slipping the dog's heartworm pill into a Snausage).

     After abundant time to enjoy each other's stories, I sent the students to "Rumpelstiltskin Rewrites," a list of books in which Rumplestiltskin and other fairy tales have been reimagined as YA fiction. 

     This lesson plan works . . . well, like magic with sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students. During SSR the following week, students were spotted reading Adam Gidwtiz' A Tale Dark & Grimm, Marissa Meyer's Cinder and Fairest, and a collection of Grimm's Fairy Tales.

For a description of a dream class come true, see An LA Teacher's Dream Come True

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Print and Post

     Have you noticed that technology policies meant to protect our students can sometimes cut them off from really good info?  Here's how I smuggle an occasional tidbit past the Educational Cone of Silence:

Tweet of the Week!

     While I have no desire to be "tweeps" with my middle school students, they definitely need to hear what many of my contacts have to say, SO . . .

Tweet of the Week!

I snap a screenshot off my phone, print an 8 "X 10" of the image, and post it as the Tweet of the Week! in my classroom.  (For instructions on taking screenshots on your Smartphone, consult the nearest teenager.)  Not only do students hear new voices recommending great books, Twitter users can "follow" wonderful new resources for "books to read" -- +Fierce Reads, @colbysharp, @nerdybookclub, etc.

      Since few things are more motivating to middle school students than the prospect of being "first" with anything -- fashion, technology, and, yes, books -- Twitter is also my favorite resource for "Coming Soon to a Bookstore Near You!"

Step 1:  Print and post covers of soon to be released titles.  

Step 2:  Mention the books in class.  

Step 3:  Fan the flames of anticipation.

Step 4:  Chuckle diabolically.

Step 5:  When the book arrives, display it on a whiteboard tray with the note "It's FINALLY 
              here!" written directly above it.

     One last thing, teachers (and this is a tip that can save you time and money):  Because I was spending the last week before school moving 24 years of teaching materials into my new classroom, I ran out of time to craft one of those glorious displays of yesteryear.  Panicked and feeling more than a little lame, I just started tacking interesting stuff onto a pristine corkboard.  (I didn't even cover it with blue butcher paper.  The horror!)

My students LOOK AT IT, probably because my shame stopped me from making A Big Honkin' Deal of it.  Also, it's constantly changing.  They sometimes refer to the quotes and comix during our class discussions.  Now, I do, too.  While theme-free bulletin boards are probably illegal in most elementary schools, you middle school wranglers might want to give this a try.

Once upon a time, kids read fairy talesThe Sustained Reader explains why they should be reading them still:  Once Upon a Time, Kids Read Fairy Tales .

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Cultivating Life-Long Readers

As an educator, your reading habits were set long ago.  It’s been ages since your last homework assignment, yet you’re currently embroiled in a great read, and the next one is already chosen.  (In fact, it’s queued up in your Kindle or in a pile by your side of the bed.)  For you, reading isn't just fun; it's a way of life. Over time, certain reading behaviors permanently claimed their spots in your daily, weekly, and monthly routines.  

    This, I think, is how we make life-long readers of our students:  We don’t assign them materials to read.  So often, they’re not ready for or just not interested in the books we teachers require. Don't take it personally.  Let them read what they want, but integrate the behaviors and attitudes of life-long readers into their daily routines.

Step One of this process is for you, the Language Arts teacher, to borrow or buy The Book Whisperer, a real career-changing read.  In just one weekend, Donalyn Miller convinced me that self-selected reading is the only way to go with my LA students, a conviction that continues to grow.  Self-selected reading is a much more authentic reading experience, and -- even better -- getting the right book into every students' hands becomes their responsibility! 

If The Book Whisperer doesn't persuade you, then take a peek at Scholastic's Kids and Family Reading Report 2015. As far as I'm concerned, this is the most important finding in the survey:

Ninety-one percent of children ages 6-17 say "my favorite books are the ones that I have picked out myself."

Step Two, one that involves a great deal of time and effort, is teaching your students a variety of ways to make successful independent reading choices.  (See "So Many Books, So Little Time" for a list of preliminary ideas.) This step, for some students, will take the entire school year.  You cannot give up on their learning this skill, though, and you cannot let even one student give up.  

Step Three:  Keep Silent Sustained Reading (SSR) at the heart of your LA curriculum. Make reading, and writing about reading, and talking about reading the number one priority in your lesson plans. Even after four years of structuring my lessons around SSR, I'll find myself "borrowing" time for less important activities. But it doesn't take long for the kids to snap me back in line.

"SSR? Yay!" 

One never tires of hearing this instead of [groan] "We have to read today?" 

Step Four: Litter your classroom with books: Fill up shelves, line whiteboard trays and window sills, snag an unused book cart - find any way you can to display books. Because students are more likely to investigate a book when they see its cover, I've invested in a bunch of those plastic book stands you see in your school library. Eventually, I'd like to have one classroom wall covered with book display ledges:

Unbelievably, every online image I found for this idea is shown in nurseries, or it features books for elementary-age kids.  Why?  Middle school kids would love this!

     Step Five:  Think like a grocer and move your product around.  You know the psychology behind that practice -- it works with books, too.  Every month I feature a different genre of books on the rolling cart.  We research the genre.  We watch trailers about books from the genre.  I buy new books from the genre and display them at the front of the room on the whiteboard tray.  One year, in the crazy two weeks before Christmas vacation, I neglected to make that change.  Kids started asking me why.

     Step Six:  You want students to borrow your books?  Ask if you can borrow theirs.  Then recommend the good ones to your classes.

     Step Seven:  Convince your colleagues to keep a bookshelf of nonfiction books and magazines about their content area as an option for students who complete assignments quickly.   Students shouldn't associate reading with Language Arts alone.  Content materials should be displayed in every classroom!
      Step Eight is one I'm currently trying to negotiate for our middle school hallway.  In the years before my arrival, a huge bulletin board has been exclusively used for PTO projects, but the current display has been up there for at least three months!  What better place for an ever-changing display of colorful student and teacher book recommendations?

Step Nine?  I bet you've already thought of it as you've been reading this list.  Put it into action this week -- and don't forget to Tweet it to me @paula1mchale.

Are your school's technology restriction's "protecting" your students from valuable input?  Here's how to circumvent the problem:   Print and Post

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Judging a Book by Its Cover

     About six years ago, my school librarian enthusiastically recommended a "great book" she thought I'd love.  Because of her amazing skill as a literary matchmaker, I took the novel from her hands and examined the cover -- Ewwwww!  The only image on a completely black background appeared to be some sort of abstract pulley system, and -- where were the people, for gosh sakes?  In homage to her glorious suggestions from days past, though, I felt bound to pretend I might read this book as well.

     Look over book jacket.  Count to five.  Look inside.  Count to five.  Assume expression of regret that I'd already made my decision for today.

     Smiling, I thanked her for the recommendation and handed back the text, promising to pick it up "next time," much in the way people vow to "get together for coffee sometime."

     Yep.  For a full year, I successfully avoided the 'mind-numbing drudgery' of reading The Hunger Games, all because I'd judged a book by its cover.

     My students eat that story up, mainly because I come across as such a nincompoop.  But when the hooting and jeering dies down, I ask who has made the same mistake.  Nobody?  Back before the movie let the cat out of the bag, I would hold up a copy of The Invention of Hugo Cabaret by Brian Selznick.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

     "Really?  How many of you would choose this book?"

     [chirping crickets]

     "Why not?" 

     "It's too LONG!"  Obviously -- until I showed them the inside:  white space, chapters that are one paragraph long, page after page of illustrations.  Before long, multiple copies graced our library shelves, the result of supply and demand.

      At the opposite end of this "judgy" spectrum is the Rabbit Ears version of Rudyard Kipling's How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin.  My closest brush ever with full-blown mutiny transpired the day I pulled out that book for seventh and eighth grade students.  While Jack Nicholson's performance was sure to delight them -- not to mention the music and sound effects by Bobby McFerrin -- the illustrations were an utter affront to their adolescent dignity. 

How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin (Rabbit Ears edition) by Rudyard Kipling

     "Wait -- no way!  That's a BABY BOOK!"  Sigh.

     Fortunately, I had forearmed myself with the story's Lexile level -- 1030, well within the range expected both of seventh and eighth grade readers.  Projecting Googled evidence onto the screen -- (because if it's on Google, it's GOT to be true) -- the students dismounted their high horses and settled in for a perfectly enjoyable read with more than one vocabulary word to leave them scratching their heads.  Kids.

     While I've long been aware how important a book's appearance is to kids, Jeff Kinney -- that sly rascal -- has spun the knowledge into literary gold with the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.   In my opinion, Jeff Kinney is one of the most brilliant minds in children's literature, not because of his appealing stories and clever illustrations, but because of this one simple realization:  lots of middle school kids don't read because they just aren't ready for tiny print, little white space, and zero illustrations.   From that understanding, Greg Heffley was born, and reluctant readers everywhere found their hero.  (I still occasionally sob into my pillow at night for not having the idea first.)

     Don't judge a book by its cover.  We've all heard and probably repeated that timeworn adage, yet adults and schoolkids persist.  Knowing that can help us lead students to books they'd never choose for themselves.
Author's note:  This blog is dedicated to Sally Odenwald, librarian and literary matchmaker 

Language Arts teachers want their students to become life-long readers, but do we really have the power to effect that outcome?  Click here for The Sustained Reader's take on Cultivating Life-Long Readers.