Sunday, May 17, 2015

My Secret Summer Book Society

     Somehow, after a quarter century in teaching, I've turned into a risk-taker.  Not exactly sure how that happened; maybe after years and years of telling my students to do that very thing, I accidentally overheard myself.  At any rate, I'm pretty excited about my latest plan that may or may not work, and it all began with this question:  "How am I going to keep my students reading this summer?"

     Plan A was to buy a few acres of lakefront property here in Austin and suspend a couple dozen of these babies over the water.  Then I remembered, "Wait!  I'm a teacher . . ." -- and quickly moved on to Plan B.

     Knowing that my students' best resource for recommendations is other kids, I had to find a way, an easy way -- an easy, fun way -- for them to stay in touch with each other.  Facebook was out. (Those pesky child predators have a way of ruining everything.)  But was there something similar we could use?  Fortunately, my Twitter technology "go to" guy, @chrismayoh, had the answer: Edmodo.

     Here's what I know today about Edmodo.  First of all, it's free!  Plus, you will be asked to verify that you are a classroom teacher which, for me, lends a level of credibility to the company's claim of online security: "Edmodo makes a teacher’s daily life easier by providing a safe and easy way for teachers and students to engage and collaborate for free, anytime, anywhere. "  Upon verification, you can create a page that looks something like this --

-- after which you will be given a code that must be used to gain access to the site, further assuring the expectation of privacy for your students.

     From this point forward, the sky's the limit.  I'm pretty sure there are a billion different ways to use Edmodo, but so far, this is what I'm come up with for Mrs. McHale's Secret Summer Book Society:
  • I've posted a link to Common Sense Media's Best Book Series list.  As the summer progresses, I intend to add more book recommendation lists, a practice that will be continued into the fall. This past school year, I had a certain degree of success using Google Drive for that purpose, but I think Edmodo will be even better.
  • The website calendar shows book signing events throughout the months of June, July, and August.  Eventually, it will also feature book release dates -- such as the May 18th release of Maximum Ride Forever, the newest in a popular series by James Patterson -- as well as the premiere dates of any movies made from books the kids have read or might want to read.  For example, James Dashner's The Scorch Trials is set to debut in movie form on September 18.  ("Movie books" are another effective way to spark reading among your students.  For more on that topic, see Reeling in Student Readers with Movies and How Hollywood Made My Students Read.)
  • Using Edmodo's "Assignment" feature, the students will receive, on June 1, a request to post a picture of their "Book Pile" on June 30.  This will let them know to hang on to the books that they've finished.
Example of a June 30 "book pile."  (Hey, a teacher can dream, can't she?)

  • Students will be encouraged to share great books they've enjoyed as well as to post pictures of themselves reading, especially if they're on vacation in some exciting place!  (There is NOTHING that middle schoolers love more than looking at pictures of themselves doing whatever.) 
  • At least one social gathering will be announced via Edmodo.  Our school librarian is toying with the idea of opening the the library one day this summer for that purpose.  Other ideas include meeting at a local bookstore, most likely on a book signing date, or even just a book share/picnic on the school grounds.

          I hope, by summer's end, to know a lot more about Edmodo's capabilities, but I wanted to pass Plan B along to a few close friends in case you wanted to try it out, too. Just don't tell anyone else, okay?  It's a secret!

     Have you encountered parents with an irrational hatred of their child's beloved Diary of a Wimpy Kid books?

Find out why parents -- especially parents of reluctant readers -- need to learn to love Greg Heffley:  "Greg Heffley: Super Villain?"

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Feasting at the Poetry Buffet

     It's fourth period on a Friday afternoon, and twenty 8th graders are in various stages of wrapping up their poetry projects.  Some of them are sampling selections from the "Poetry Buffet," an extensive hodge podge of laminated poems I've collected over the years;  some are writing personal responses to poems they finished reading.  Other students are creating original "found" poetry on Read.Write.Think.'s Word Mover App.  (You've got to check it out;  they loved it!)

By student request, we are listening to Bach's Prelude in D Minor on guitar.  The only two disruptions in the lesson occur when students announce "I feel a poem coming on!" at which point, we must all stop to hear their dramatic readings of "I, Too, Sing America," by Langston Hughes, and "About the Teeth of Sharks," by John Ciardi.  Not only are the presentations vastly entertaining, some students feel inspired to look for one or both of those poems to add to their "buffet" collection.

     In other words, it was one of those perfect days that just kind of happens.

     For the first time in my teaching career, I decided to use National Poetry Month as an opportunity to immerse my sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students in poetry.  Their primary activity, the "Poetry Buffet," had students roaming from desk to desk, reading the poems that caught their fancy and writing a brief personal response to each.  Occasionally, we would gather as a class to enjoy such professional recordings as Christopher Lee reciting "The Raven."  Structured analysis took the form of two "Examine the Elements" assignments in which the students looked for examples of the sound devices and figurative language we'd studied the first semester.  It was all very low key.

     Throughout the month, students were offered extra credit for interacting with poetry in various ways.  In addition to the spontaneous recitations mentioned above, they were encouraged to send me "Poetweets" via Twitter --

-- or to submit original creations like this gem:
     Not only was the overall student response to the unit unexpectedly positive -- enthusiastic, even -- but a number of parents also felt compelled to chime in with their own fond memories of poetry "back in the day" . . .

especially when I sent out the announcement about our participation in National Poem in Your Pocket Day:

Turns out this mom's treasured memory was of William Carlos Williams' "This is Just to Say":

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

     Time and again, I was surprised by the poems that spoke to the children and to their parents.  Time and again, the children were surprised that poetry spoke to them at all, something I learned from the culminating essay, a reflection on insights and discoveries they'd had about poetry throughout the month.  Other insights?

     "I used to think poetry always had to rhyme."

     "I was surprised how much fun it is to write poetry!"

     "I learned that I really enjoy reading poetry aloud."

     "I couldn't believe how many different forms of poetry there are."

     The poems taught the students more about poetry.  Their poetry taught me more about them.  We read.  We wrote.  We recited.  Everyone grew from the experience.  Not a bad way to spend the month of April.

     (If you are interested in compiling your own "Poetry Buffet," Poetry Speaks to Children is a magnificent resource, beautifully illustrated and filled with an incredibly diverse collection of poems.)