Journeying into Historical Fiction

We started our unit on historical fiction today.  In the past, I had students discover the time, setting, and major events, through reading the texts. But this year, I decided to give students a chance to read a few informational articles that might help them discern the setting, and the possible challenges characters might face within various historical contexts.

To demonstrate and practice what students were to do, I started out by reading aloud a few paragraphs on Westward Expansion.

The Oregon Trail was a major route that people took when migrating to the western part of the United States. Between 1841 and 1869, hundreds of thousands of people traveled westward on the trail. Many of them traveled in large wagon trains using covered wagons to carry their belongings.

The Oregon Trail began in Independence, Missouri and ended in Oregon City, Oregon. It stretched for around 2,000 miles and through six different states including Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon. Along the way, travelers had to cross all sorts of rough terrain such as the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

From this, students sketched in their notebooks what they thought the trail might look like and speculated as to the challenges a character might face in this world, including wild animals, natural disasters, disease, food shortages, and bad weather. With these few paragraphs, they predicted many of the challenges our character will face in our read-aloud Some Kind of Courage.

I sent them off to read articles from other periods, including The Great Depression, the Holocaust, Japanese Internment, the Civil Rights Movement,  Hurricane Katrina, and the 9-11 attacks. Handing them these dark moments in our nation’s history wasn’t easy. Many of my young students are unaware of these events. As always, they astounded me with their thoughts and questions.

“This says that civil rights are guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence. But that happened in 1776. The Civil Rights Movement was in the 1960s. That doesn’t make sense.”

“How did the Germans know who the Jews were?

” This is sad. Why did they do this?”

“That’s messed up.”

It didn’t take much to get my students thinking and connecting.  Wondering. The fact that they could readily take in information and put it into context was impressive. In the next few days, students will decide what historical period they want to choose for historical fiction reading.

I’m glad we are spending time setting the stage.

I’m curious about what periods they will choose and excited about their upcoming journey into historical fiction

 

 

 

 

One Little Word for 2020

Peel:
remove the outer covering or skin;
separate a thin cover or part
from the outside or surface of something

The skin came away in a neat spiral. Most fruits cling to their coat. Refusing to let go without a bit of digging and tugging, mangling of the skin, and sometimes the fruit within.
Looking at the coiled skin on my plate, I thought of what I’d been reading. Bit by bit, I was learning what was unseen, unknown to me. The process of reading was one of deconstruction, chapter by chapter, sentence by sentence, and then piecing it together to understand the whole.
Seeing the core, the history of people, places, and ideas fascinate me. It feels necessary. Rather than discarding the differences that exist on the surface, judging too quickly, consider what is beneath the skin. Understanding the composition of the whole provides understanding.
And as much as I like to look outside to understand, ultimately, I need to look inward. What is my history? Peeling away my experiences, what makes me whole, is necessary to process my place in this world. And I realize and am grateful for the privilege to learn.
Learning and teaching is a part of what makes me whole. To do this well, it requires peeling away to see what is underneath. What foundations are present? What is missing? What teaching tools to I have, and what tools do I need to procure to grow this learner?

 

Most people don’t peel their skin in a neat spiral. Most of us present a resistant exterior that protects our inner workings.   Peeling away the surface to get to what makes up the person, the place, the idea, myself will be my way to see this new year.

Is it off task?

After several weeks of reading and taking notes on natural disasters,  I told students that they would have the choice between teaching what they had learned with a game board or game show. The magical word game (thank you, Shana Frazin) got 100% buy-in. Engagement skyrocketed as students wrote the dialogue for their game show or designed their board, cards, and playing pieces.

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And on the day of the gameplay, all had a great time.

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But, was it learning? How much of the work was off task?

After the games were cleaned up, I asked the students to write me a brief note sharing what they had learned. And to be honest. I told them this was for me to know if this was an effective way to learn. I asked them to be specific. What did they learn, either from another team or from the creation of their game?

The majority mentioned specific content learning, and few said what they learned about working with others.

S–‘s comment was one that I thought captured the essence of group work and talk that can seem silly at times. 

Our group did get a little off-task because of finding out who was the youngest, but that was kind of it. I think this was a good way of learning because we students look forward to it.

Students looked forward to it. And they found out who was the youngest. While the latter might not be “on-task” as S– commented, is that talk a bad thing? Isn’t getting to know each other what makes for beautiful partnerships and teams? My own experience in group work has led me to believe that some of the best collaborative thinking is done when trust and friendship are high. How many times have I laughed about something silly with my grade-level colleagues and then gotten right back to reading student work or planning a unit of study? Having a safe and welcoming group of partners makes for excellent working conditions. Our kiddos have the same needs.

 

Yes, I still love it

A visiting educator stopped by my classroom today. He walked around, looked at charts. He talked to my students; asked some pointed questions. And then he said, “After all these years, you still love teaching.”

At that moment, we were simply doing what we do, but what he said threw me. He named how I felt. And apparently, at the moment, it was evident.

That is not to say there aren’t painful times.

Times that I go home questioning myself, upset about something that did not go well. Times when my next step is unclear. Times when something crops up that I can not control or figure out stops learning cold. Times when the stumbling blocks of learning keep me from sleep. These times describe a large part of teaching.  Even so, the puzzle and the possibility keep me coming back to the classroom, And every day, I’m met by students.

Being able to step into what is hard about learning and figure it out with students is a great gift. Yes, after all these years, I still love it. 

That One Kid

Last week my kiddos entered the library. Many had a mission. Some had no idea what they wanted. All* were eager as they sat on the steps of the tiny read aloud amphitheater. They waited, listening to the always repeated instructions to be quiet because of students being tutored in nooks and crannies. Slowly. Step by step, they were released.

D– grabs a Baby Mouse book.
K– is clutching a Rick Riordan graphic novel (who knew).
V– opens a book about India as D– asks, is that really how it looks?
M– has already checked out her book and is engrossed on the steps of the amphitheater.
S– rocks in the rocking chair with Harry Potter.
M– sits at the table reading a cookbook.
A– is looking for a book on Cinderella. Not a Cinderella book, a book on Cinderella. 

This could be a post on how wonderful this tiny slice of my day felt. Or about the importance of library space and time. It could be about allowing choice. Or about what real readers look like. But this post is about one kiddo.

T– sits without a book on the step. I wander over to him. “I don’t want a book,” he replies matter-a-factly, to my query.  I follow up with the usual round of questions. Nothing inspires him to try. He is my worry. He is sweet and smart. He has lots of friends, but he’s an outlier. In our daily community circle, we have a generalized question that most can respond to. Something like what’s your favorite color, food, movie, game, etc. He most often responds sweetly with “I don’t know.”  I have yet to get his parent in to talk about his work. I am flummoxed. And every time I sit and reflect on student work, I see him as barely meeting expectations.

Recently, I sat with T– to talk about his writing. The two paragraphs, six lines, 65 words, were good. Right on track. This was the product of two weeks of nudging and coaching.  I complimented him on what he did and what he could do next. He smiled. But he was done. He had no desire to continue on.

As I write this, I don’t have a solution. T– is the kid that haunts me because I know how this goes.  Coaching him through a process moves him a little.  With each nudge, he takes the requested step. But without the next nudge, there’s no movement.  And I’m not always there for that push. I can’t be, and I shouldn’t be. It is so easy to give up. And I am sure that is what has happened over the years.

I will continue to nudge, offer another book, ask him another question, and judging by his behavior so far, he will continue to comply just enough to barely meet the expectation.  I know the minute I walk away, he will drift off into another space.

In the end, it comes down to our relationship. I am T’s teacher, and he is doing what he has always done with teachers.  But each day offers another opportunity for me. T– has a line in my plan book, making me accountable to his needs.  A plan that consists of conversation and choice. And hopefully, he will bring me a little closer to what might inspire him to become a learner.

 

NCTE19: Seeing Student Thinking

I remember when my oldest was in fifth grade and was ready to give up on a science project, I said, “You can’t! I’ve worked too hard on this!” I think of that time when I am working really hard to teach something, and I make myself stop.

Learning is done by students. I can’t force learning.  For so many reasons. I need reminders to listen and look for what the student is doing in their context, not my lesson. What they are doing makes sense to them. Most likely, what I intended to teach them won’t unless I can understand their understanding. It’s my job to see their thinking.

This message I heard, again and again, at NCTE19. 

Shift the paradigm of teaching from what is in our heads to what is in the student’s head.– Vicki Vinton

The teacher should not be the protagonist. — Carl Anderson

We need to let go of our thinking and listen to theirs. — Maria Nichols

Don’t rush the reseach. Don’t interpret. Just take notes. — Dan Feigelson

Learning is consensual. — Cornelius Minor

My NCTE notebook is full of wise words from master teachers and writers. And while I have many ideas to plumb around action research, informational writing, revision, poetry, and the teaching of reading, all are deeply impacted by the need to become, as the Minor/Anderson/Feigelson Sunday session called it, a radical listener. To be able to hear the process by which students are attempting to tackle their learning, one must listen for what they are doing with nudges to say more or show me. All moves to engage the learner in doing so that the next challenge might be revealed to me. Setting my teach aside is necessary to be able to see what students might be ready to learn.

This is not to say I haven’t shown a math strategy, suggested a transitional phrase to help a writer, or told a student the meaning of a word.  But, when I do, I try to remember that science project. I was the learner, not my son, and it wasn’t about science.

 

 

Out of Nowhere

Last Friday, K– asked, “Why do we have homework?”

“K –,”  I said, “Why do you ask? All we do is read.”

“I know. We read more at home, so we can grow. I just want to know why homework exists.”

“What made you think of this?”

“I don’t know.”

Exactly where the best questions come from, I think.

So I give him a super-short version of a topic that too many have said too much about.

“Well…the amount of homework has to do with the amount of academic progress you need to make and the amount of it you can do in the classroom.” I look at him. He’s looking at me. This is a kiddo who usually plays tag all the way into class.  What the heck? “Does that make sense?” I ask.

“Yeah.”

Alrighty. With that, check-in, I continue. “When you are young, you do most of your learning in class. You are asked to read in elementary school because the amount of reading you must do to grow a grade level can’t be done in the time we have in class.”

I check again to see if he is with me. He’s listening as are two of his friends. “As you age, ” I continue, “you can handle more learning on your own, and the amount of learning you must do increases. ”

They are still looking at me. So I continue, building the scenario up to college, where one hour of class time requires three hours of study time. And then I stop.

I look at K– and his friends and ask, “Does that make sense?”

“Yes.”

Glad I solved that one.

Slice of Life: Read Aloud Windows and Mirrors

My unwavering goal as a teacher is to make sure my students leave my classroom knowing that it’s possible to love a book. Every day we read aloud.

Most recently, we have been reading picture books with the lens of windows and mirrors. My students never cease to surprise me and teach me.

We read Drum Dream Girl by Margarita Engle. This beautiful picture book poem tells the tale of a Cuban-Chinese girl living in 1930s-Cuba. She wants to play the drums but is not allowed because she is a girl. I expected this to be a mirror for girls who saw this as unfair. Yet it was boys who saw this as a mirror. “My parents say only girls can make slime, not boys, so I can’t,” A– said.  The girls saw this story as a window. “That was how it was, but now girls can do anything,” said K–.

Interesting.

While it’s progress, girls have accepted their right to do, I know these same girls know women aren’t being paid equally. Many of the girls who sat on the carpet saying Drum Dream Girl is not a mirror have written about the inequities of women’s soccer player pay. So while it might look like gender inequity solved, it isn’t.  It’s a subtle change. This generation of girls is growing up, knowing they have the right to do. That’s the past. They are a part of the next step, equal acknowledgment for what they do.

The strict gender expectations of how boys must operate in the world saddened me.  Boys doing something girls do is not ok. An unchanged scenario. This seems a much smaller step than girls crossing cultural and work domains. But apparently, even a hint of a boy doing something a girl might choose to do is not allowed. Insulting and limiting.

Interesting.

Tomorrow we will read Sparkle Boy by Leslea Newman. I can’t wait to see what type of reflections and viewpoints this will bring.

 

 

Slice of Life: Handwritten Letters a Reason to Write

As I thought about the possible things my students could do to celebrate national #whyIwrite day, I kept coming back to the handwritten letter. The rapid decline in letter writing is understandable. Emails, texts, direct messages are expedient and effective ways to conduct business. But what of human relationships? Are they a thing of the past?

Reading the letters saved by my mother makes me believe in the continued importance of letter writing. I had no idea these letters existed or how much these slips of paper would mean to me. Not just for the content, but for the way they were treasured. Wrapped in ribbons and rubber bands. The correspondence saved in postmarked envelopes. The paper, the script, the pen used all create dimension and context. 

I shared some of the letters with my students and invited them to write their own to people who would value them; save them for the future. They wrote to parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, friends.  Sweet letters with rainbows and hearts. There were letters addressed to authors, YouTubers, and boy bands all signed, sincerely from your number one fan. These tangible objects sealed in an envelope, carry weight giving everyone a reason to write.

Literary essay: obvious but unnoticed

My fourth-graders read with giggles and gasps and oh nos. They stop with urgency and reach for their notebooks to write something they must hold on to and then race back to their book. They ask for books by title and author. And when I hand them a new book, they jump and squeal. This is how they read.

Many students take notebooks and pads of paper to recess to create comics and stories. They ping pong off each other’s characters and ideas. There are often cheers when writing workshop starts and groans when it ends.  This is how they write.

This is why I struggle with the idea of literary essays. To ask nine-year-olds to take their developing love of story and turn it into something to be sliced and diced.  Analyzed. Schoolified. Why just when reading and writing are becoming something they enjoy, must we make it something they don’t?  Every year I wrestle with the why.  Some years I’ve simply refused to do the standard work. Having students write their opinions about issues that matter to them; finding relevant support for their ideas is an authentic way to approach opinion writing. The only justification I can manage for writing literary essays at nine is to teach a structure and discipline of thinking about opinion writing.

This year I decided to start it off writing about stories they have heard since kindergarten: Poppleton by Cynthia Rylant and Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel.

At first, they were beside themselves, mimicking the yoo-hoo’s of Cherry Sue. But once they settled into the idea, they got into spirited discussions as to whether Cherry Sue was annoying or thoughtful.  Students came to their ideas with ease: Poppleton is lazy; Toad is caring.

The tricky part has become the process of writing their explanation of their beliefs.  At nine, students can reason verbally in sophisticated ways, however, putting those ideas on paper is a big step. And, this holds true across subject matter. And it makes sense. That’s why the most accessible texts and that give rise to simplistic ideas work. The writing becomes all about the reasoning.

In the past, I’ve asked students to write about Those Shoes by Maribeth Bolts or Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson or Taco Head by Viola Canales.  These are stories students understood and connected to. But they were too much. Students focused on the evidence, not their reasoning. The evidence was the explanation. Also, students held the same beliefs about characters. There was no difference in interpretation. With Poppleton and Frog and Toad, the text is limited. The same evidence resulted in differing opinions, and that required explanation.

I started out this unit unhappily. Wondering why. Wonderfully, I have relearned something fundamental. I knew simple texts pushed bigger thinking in reading, but I failed to implement this understanding in writing. Obvious, but unnoticed.

I wonder and hope my students learn half as much as I do.