Encouraging Independent Reflective Readers

This year, I have a group of students who are “readers,” and I imagine much of the credit for that is with their parents (thank you) and their former teachers (double thank you). There are signs of this all over the place: the books they bring into class and the number of students who signed up for our library’s Book Club elective (triple thank you to our librarian, Pati). Not every year is as strong a crop of readers as this one, which is a great pleasure to see and to experience as a teacher.

We’re still doing a mix of class novels and independent reading in my classroom, with a slow but steady shift towards more independent reading that will be aligned along the lines of our Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment work (we’re only in our second year of collecting data and I, for one, am just getting more comfortable with the assessments. Now, I need to get more PD on how to use the data.)

For the next few weeks, my students are all choosing their own books to read for class. We spent the first part of the year reading class novels (Flush, Tuck Everlasting, Regarding the Fountain, etc.) so that the framework for being reflective readers and writers should be in place (should be). The other day, we had a discussion about how to choose a good book.

Some of the elements of our class discussions:

  • Choose a book that has high interest for you. Don’t choose something that you know from the outset is going to bore you. Get comfortable with a book.
  • It’s OK to abandon a book that seems to start strong and then fades away. I let them know that this is what readers do: we make judgments about the books and either continue because we’re interested or abandon if we’re not.
  • Be an active reader. Since this is the classroom, I will be forcing some of that reflection on them through the use of reading journals, one-to-one conversations and some reflective open response writing. And this is as much to instill good reading habits as it is to assess them, I think.
  • Recommend books for others to read. Since we are a reading community, I want students to be highlighting the books they are in love with and passing that love on to others. I am still considering the best system for this (online or on-walls of the classroom, or both?).
  • Challenge yourself as a reader. It’s OK to pick a book that interests you but is a bit easy for you as a reader. Just don’t get locked down into the easy mode. We talked about making sure that you follow up an easy read with one that may be a bit more challenging. The beauty of this shift is that the more challenging books are often also the more interesting, as writers take you off in different directions.
  • Pay attention to the craft of writing as you read. Since my students are writing most of the time, I want them to notice the techniques and approaches of the novelists they are reading. (By the way, one of the components of the Benchmark Assessment that I really like is the comprehension element, where one part of the questions deals with ‘beyond the text’ and all of the writing approaches).

To demonstrate some of my own reflective practice, I shared this Prezi that I made last year when I read the novel, Powerless. I found it helped students to see my own thinking as a reader, and made their own responses in their reading journals more reflective, too.

Peace (in the reading),

Boulder/Rock/Mountain: A Podcast Poem

During some freewriting with my students yesterday (I always write with them — do you?), I started to write this poem about a huge boulder that I remembered from my neighborhood. It was always this odd thing — something left over from the Ice Age that became an eerie play structure for us as kids. There was this deep crevasse or split in the rock, too, which was sort of scary because of the creatures and insects that lived in it. Of course, we couldn’t resist going down into it.


Who could say
where it had come from:
Perhaps it had been dragged there by ice
or regurgitated by roaming dinosaurs
or tossed aside by giants.
It was so much older than us
with stories all of its own
that it had no intention of ever revealing.

All we knew was:
it was there:
a boulder, a rock, a mountain
almost the size of a small house
plunked down into the grove of trees of our neighborhood
as unexpected as ice cream for breakfast.

With sharp footholds for ladders
and soft moss for seats
and a deep crevasse that had been cut by time itself
which seemed to descend down forever into darkness,
the Boulder/Rock/Mountain was our immovable treehouse
and dungeon,
luring us in with shadows and spiders and the unknown
down into a place that kept more secrets than I would ever know.

Thick maple and pine and oak trees loomed overhead,
casting a green curtain that kept us cool
in the insufferable months of August
and dry in the rainy Aprils
but never quite safe.

Awake before the others, always,
I’d climb the top of the sentry post
to scan the world
before heading down into the depths of the rips in the seam
toward the unknown,
plunging into my imagination for adventure.

Peace (in the poems),

From Digital to Paper: A Folding Story Activity

folding story
Some you know that I have been having some fun over at Folding Story, a collaborative story site in which ten pieces of a story as put together but the writer only sees the prior “fold” — not the whole story.

I wanted to bring the idea into the classroom, but the site itself is not appropriate for my students. (The crew there says they might be adding “private writing rooms” in the future for educational purposes. We’ll see.)  So, I went the old-fashioned way yesterday: with paper. My students created and contributed to a five-fold story on paper, and mostly, it was very successful in terms of sparking creativity.

The hardest part, believe it or not, was showing them how to fold the paper in such a way so that as the story progressed, the writer would only see the previous fold. In seconds, you could see which kids have some spacial IQ and which don’t. But we got them through it and began. (Essentially, we folded an 8×10 paper into half, and then into half again, and then flipped one of the folds. This gave us five spaces for writing. I had then number the folds, too, so that we knew where we were. An easier way would be to keep it to four folds, but it seemed to me that five was a magic number in terms of a story developing farther enough away from the original.)

After they wrote on a fold, I would collect and redistribute, and they would write the next part while only reading the fold before them. When we got to the last fold, they could open it up and read where the story had begun. We shared a few out with the class. Then, they all got their own original stories back to see where their story had gone.

You should have heard the chatting, and felt the creative energy in the room, as we were doing this activity, which took about 25 minutes. They were very excited to be writing this way, in collaboration with some unknown others in the room. They all were trying to figure out whose story they had and where their original story had gone.  I only had one story during the day that was a bit inappropriate (it included a joke about a butt — no doubt, written by a boy) and after I repeated directions about writing for the classroom, things were fine.

As with the site, there is the potential for inappropriate writing, since the writing is being done with anonymity. I suppose I could have changed that — had them add their initials, or read every contribution as I was collecting them for redistribution. (What I did was I read ones where I wanted to send a message to the writer. I’d stand next to them as I collected their writing and very dramatically read it silently to myself.)

Peace (in the folds),

Puppet Plays as Radio Plays

As our collaborative puppet play writing groups are finishing up scripts, I have been teaching them how to use Audacity to record their plays as “radio shows” that are then posted at our class blog site. This recording has a few objectives:

  • They get to learn Audacity;
  • They keep practicing their plays;
  • They are making revisions to the scripts as they “hear” themselves;
  • They get to publish their plays before they perform them;
  • A few of the groups are realizing that they can add sound effects as they record;
  • Others realize that their play is visual and an isolated audio file doesn’t do their story justice;
  • All four classes get to hear what friends in other classes have been up to with their plays.

One of the best purchases I have made are a hand of  little headphone jacks, which allow two headphones to connect to one computer. We’ve been stringing them together like Christmas lights so that groups of four can all huddle around a single computer and record, and listen.

Here is one of the plays, along with the beginning of the script.
Listen to Mucho Taco Day.

Mucho Taco Day

Peace (in the plays),

Teacher Effectiveness, Defined by NCTE

I was reading through my regular email newsletter from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and my eye caught on this definition that NCTE has for effective teaching practice (This is part of a longer package of stances and legislative platform issues put forth by NCTE for 2011 that touches on issues such  as ELL instruction, school district literacy agendas and advice for how to use assessment in schools):

NCTE defines teacher effectiveness as professional practice that:

  • Applies deep content knowledge
  • Uses pedagogical strategies and assessment strategies to enable diverse students to meet learning goals
  • Is characterized by continuous engagement in and application of professional learning
  • Includes participation in teacher learning communities to plan, assess, and improve instruction
  • Connects students’ in-school and out-of-school learning
  • Incorporates current technologies in learning and teaching
  • Engages parents and community members as partners in educating students
  • Uses evidence about student learning to improve instruction

This covers a lot of good ground — from expecting teacher’s own curriculum knowledge development, to engaging of student interests by connecting learning in and out of school, to using evidence/data assessment to inform instruction.

Peace (in the listing),

Autotune Saturation Point

I just finished Jay-Z’s Decoded the other day. Although I can’t say that I sit around and listen to Jay-Z, I certainly have heard some of his work and certainly know of him. The book itself is pretty cool, as he works through the thinking behind lyrics and offers up some background on his days growing up in the projects of New York City.

Towards the end of the book, he starts to make a stand on the importance of hip-hip music as it stands now, with a somewhat negative outlook on its very commercialized bent (while celebrating hip-hop’s ability to take over the music world, which it surely has). Jay-Z takes particular aim at Aut0-Tune, which has filtered into just about every song that I hear on the pop stations that my sons listen to in our car. Seriously, I hear it everywhere, and I point it out to my sons, too. (Auto-tune is a computer effect that takes a voice and situates the pitch of the voice perfectly. It also can alter the timbre and tone of the voice. That’s that slight robotic effect you hear.)

Jay-Z sees the Auto-tune effect as having a potentially devastating impact on hip-hop music. While he acknowledges that some artists (Kanye West) have used Auto-tune to their advantage as a medium of musical expression,  the problem is that it is now overused to cover up blemishes — slightly out-of-tune voices.  This glossing over rips something special from music, he insists, and he notes that an Auto-tuned track “…gives you a sudden sugar high and then disappears without a trace.”

This quote says it all: “Instead of aspiring to explore their humanity — their brains and hearts and guts — these rappers were aspiring to sound like machines.”

And Jay-Z notes that it reminds him of something similar — the Hair Bands that took an idea and a sound, and pounded its audience into submission, to the point where it took Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, and a slew of others, to come along and dethrone the Hair Bands (Poison, Motley Crue, etc.).

Jay-Z notes: “Musical genres have been known to die, mostly because they lose their signature and their vitality ..”

Which makes me wonder what style of music or what kind of bands/artists are waiting in the wings, with Auto-Tune clearly in their sights, ready to take it down ….. I’m sure they are already there.

Here are some more quotes from Jay-Z that I was sharing on Twitter as I was reading. I was looking mostly for his thoughts on writing and making music.

“That gave me freedom to be myself, which is the secret to any long-term success, but that’s hard to see when you’re young …” (p95)

“I’m a music head, so I listen to everything.” (p128)

“….I also make choices in technique and style to make sure that it can touch as many people as possible without it losing its basic integrity.” (p129)

“Knowing how to complicate a simple song without losing its basic appeal is one of the keys to good songwriting.” (p130) #JayZsez

“…whoever said that artists shouldn’t pay attention to their business was probably someone with their hand in some artist’s pocket.” (p131)

“There’s unquestionably magic involved in great music, songwriting and performances …. but there’s also work.” (p141)

“So I created little corners in my head where I stored rhymes …. it’s the only way I know.” (p144)

“Hip-hop, of course, was hugely influential in finally making our slice of America visible through our own lens …” (p156)

“The entire world was plugged into the stories that came out of the specific struggles and creative explosion of our generation.” (p159)

“It’s one of the great shifts that’s happened over my lifetime, that popular culture has managed to shake free of the constraints that still limit us in so many other parts of life.” (p163)

Playing at the rock concern “…was one of those moments that taught me that there really is no limit to what hip-hop could do, no place that was closed to its power.” (p163)

“Hip-hop gave a generation a common ground that didn’t require either race to lose anything; everyone gained.” (p180)
“I’ve never been a purely linear thinker … my mind is always jumping around, restless, making connections, mixing and matching ideas, rather than marching in a straight line.” (p180)

“My life has been more poetry than prose, more about unpredictable leaps and links than simple steady movement …” (p191)

“Great rappers … distinguish themselves by looking closely at the world around them and describing it in a clever, artful way.” (p203)

“Artists can have greater access to reality; they can see patterns and details and connections that other people … miss.” (p205)
“… hip-hop lyrics — not just my lyrics, but those of every great MC — are poetry if you look at them closely enough.” (p235)

“Rap is built to handle contradictions.” (p239)

“Hip-hop has created a space where all kinds of music could meet, without contradiction.” (p240)

“… when I started writing about my life … the rhymes helped me twist some sense out of those stories.” (p245)

“Musical genres have been known to die, mostly because they lose their signature and their vitality ..” (p251)

“I remember the music making me feel good, bringing my family together …” (p254)

“I think for hip-hop to grow to its potential … we have to keep pushing deeper … and (do it) with real honesty.” (p279)

“My songs are my stories but they take on their own life in the minds of people listening.” (p297)

Peace (in my blemished voice),

Words That Move Us Into 2011

ianthology 2011 wordle
This weekend, as our regular writing prompt for the iAnthology writing space, I used AnswerGarden as a way to get our folks to write a word or short phrase that captures their feelings about the new year. By late afternoon, there were almost two dozen submissions into the Garden. A nice feature of AnswerGarden is that you can take the submissions and move them into Wordle.

Look at how big the word “Optimistic” is here! (The larger the word, the more times it was submitted).

Peace (in the words),

1 Minute 18 Seconds: An Analysis of My Blog

(From December 2010)

I don’t put a whole lot of weight into all of the sites that can analyze your blogs (because I am not a business selling ads) but I figured it was the start of the new year and why not take a look at my site through the lens of some data? This is a bit of a narcissistic post, then. A bit of navel gazing.

I first went to my own blog dashboard to get some overall basics.

First of all, I have been blogging here for almost six years (wow – has it been that long?) I started during a Tech Matters week with the National Writing Project, at the urging of a friend, and never looked back. This blog has really become the centerpiece of my online writing. I go to other places, and do other things, but this blog is where all of my connections and reflections begin.

In that time, I have pressed that “publish button” almost 1,800 times, and approved more than 3,000 comments. Meanwhile, my spam filter has been awfully busy, catching and deleting 27,000 errant comments. (Take that, you spammers! You won’t be using my writing to sell your sneakers!)

Second, I plugged my site’s domain (which is hosted by Edublogs, by the way, which has served me well over the years. Sure, there are periodic bumps in the road, but mostly, James Farmer and Sue Waters at Edublogs have been responsive, helpful and forward-looking when it comes to developing Edublogs) into The Website Grader. This analysis site let me know that:

  • the readibility level of my blog is secondary/high school level, which is a fine mix of where I want it to be;
  • that I have “too many images” which might bog down the load time for viewers;
  • that I have 259 sites that are now linking to my blog. I’m not sure who they are or what they doing with me, which is a bit unsettling and yet I feel strangely appreciative for being noticed enough to be linked;
  • my site has been bookmarked 100 times on Delicious;
  • my “traffic rank” is a measly 0.02 % — not sure what that means, except it uses the Alexa system to rank my blog in the midst of every website out there.

Next, I turned to my Feeburner, which tracks direct RSS subscriptions activated right at my blog, to what it has been finding out for me. It tells me that:

  • I have an average of 49 daily RSS subscribers;
  • I have an average daily “reach” of 7, which is the number of folks who click through to go deeper into my content.

And then, I was off to my Google Analytics for another view of my visitors. Here, I found out that:

  • in the month of December 2010, I had about 1,800 visitors to my blog;
  • 75 percent of those visitors were deemed “new” to my site (probably a result of the Edublogs Awards);
  • The average reader spent about 1 minute 18 seconds at my site (speed readers?);
  • Visitors arrived from 77 different countries, although mostly from North America;
  • 38 percent of my visitors used Firefox compared to 27 percent who used Internet Explorer. I couldn’t help but notice that Chrome is making a good dent, though. I wonder if 2011 will be the year of Google Chrome?

Isn’t it amazing how detailed information you can now get from turning your website inside out? With Google Analytics, the data gets broken down even further than what I have shared here and while it is more useful for a business (again, ads), I found it interesting to get a sense of who comes here to hang out with me.

That would be you, right? Thank you and I hope you can stay for your 1 minute and 18 seconds of reading time. Feel free to add a comment, too.

Peace (in the information),

Some other Beginning’s End

There’s a great line in the song “Closing Time” by Semisonic that always seems to capture the end of the old year combined with the start of the new year.

Closing Time
every new beginning comes from
some other beginning’s end

So, farewell 2010, and welcome 2011.

To anyone who is reading my blog on a regular basis, or even periodically stumbling across my words, I want to wish you a Happy New Year and one that is full of love, laughter and exploration. Thank you for coming along on this blogging journey with me. I appreciate that you are there, even if I don’t always know it.

Peace (in the year ahead),

Ten Albums I (Really) Liked in 2010

I was inspired by a post over at Popgun Chaos to think about the albums I bought this year (the first full No-CD Year for me, ever, I think. Everything was downloaded). I won’t say how much music I bought this year. Suffice it to say that my iPod is loaded and on most of the time I am around the house (much to the sadness of my family.)

So, here, in alphabetical order, are ten albums (that’s not even a term anymore, is it?) that I kept listening to long after the download had gone cold and which came out in 2010:

1. American Slang, by The Gaslight Anthem.

I really liked their last album — That ’59 Sound — but it was the pure energy bolt that I get from listening to this band that I love so much. (I’d love to see them in concert but they haven’t come to my neck of the woods yet). Sure, there’s more than a bit of refurbished Bruce and others in their sound, style  and lyrics, but I find The Gaslight Anthem as a band that is propelling itself forward in an interesting way.

2. Contra, by Vampire Weekend.

There’s something about these guys that is just too … fake, and yet, I like the off-kilter groove they have going on some songs. Like The Gaslight Anthem, Vampire Weekend has a chance to make some creative strides in the future. Or they might just keep sounding the same. It’s a crap shoot on that one. I was playing this album the other day and my son checked out the title. I thought it was because he liked the song, but he said “that’s the song I keep hearing on that commercial.” Already, Vampire Weekend?

3. Croweology by The Black Crowes.

Many years ago, some friends and I went to go see ZZ Top in concert (yep, many many many years ago) and this scruffy band took the stage as the opening act and blew the audience away. It was The Black Crowes, right on the edge of releasing their first CD (or was it vinyl?). I haven’t always kept up with the band over the years, but this double CD of mostly in-studio acoustic songs is a real keeper, capturing the vitality of Southern blues and rock in a real way. The mix also allowed me time to hear the lyrics and realize, these guys were the real deal (“were” because this is supposed to be their last album before the final break-up, although with brothers, you never know.)

4. Heaven is Whenever, by The Hold Steady.

I’d heard about The Hold Steady for years but never got to listen to them. I finally did, downloading a few of their albums at once, and found the raw energy was just right for me (not for my family, though). They come across like a garage band that has been steeped in both rock and roll, and literature. I like that kind of mix.

5. Infinite Arms, by Band of Horses.

This is one of those critically-acclaimed bands that I took a chance on. At first, I wasn’t all that impressed. But (this seems to be happening more and more), when I plugged in my headphones to listen (as opposed to speakers in the house), I suddenly was transfixed by the aural elements of the songs, and the soaring range of the voice. I had missed that when it was just ambient sound. Up close, the music and lyrics really touched me.

6. The Pursuit by Jamie Cullum

I came to Jamie Cullum when I heard a pop song of his on the radio that caught my attention. What I didn’t quite expect (since I didn’t know anything about him) was his jazz background, and suddenly, this whole mix of fusing pop and jazz opened up to me. (And made me wonder: why don’t more bands do that?) He has a wonderfully rich voice, and his piano chops are great. He’s another one of those young artists on my radar screen for the future.

7. Record Collection by Mark Ronson and the Business International

Ronson was the Producer of the Moment a few years ago, and still has his hand in a lot of European pop and soul. He fuses that old Stax/Memphis/Motown sound with dance beats. That has the potential to be ridiculous, but it’s not. Ronson has some amazing ears and the ability to recruit some amazing talent. This album is sort of like a disco mix, revisited. That sound worse than it is. What it is is an album that will get your butt shaking. It deserves a spin tonight (New Year’s) in your dance mix.

8. Soulsville by Huey Lewis and the News

I know. I know. Huey Lewis? And the News? They’re still around? Yep, and this album of soul songs is a classic. The band has never sounded tighter, and Huey’s voice has held up nicely over the years. Even the originals here sound like classics, as if there had been some time warp into Detroit or Memphis in the 196o’s.

9. Symphonicities by Sting.

I closed my eyes and hoped for the best when I bought this one, since I had not heard any of it. I was doing a purchased based on a music review, which is always an iffy proposition. Here, Sting reworked his and the Police songs into symphonic pop. And you know, it doesn’t always work as well as it should (strings can do that to you) but mostly, the orchestral arrangements give another layer of depth to some old familiar songs. Of course, there is a part of me that remembers listening to The Police back when it was sort of underground and snarked at (in my neighborhood, where the Beatles and Led Zep were kings of the musical heap). That part me — that kid who used to groove on the offbeat drummings, firework guitar and amazing bass –  sort of recoils at this purchase. Still, maybe my old tired ears need some soothing sounds now and then. (ha)

10. Wake Up, by John Legend and the Roots.

I haven’t had time to completely digest this one, since I only recently bought it. But … wow … what a partnership between Legend and the Roots, as they tackle some classic protest soul songs in their own way.

There you go. Some albums of mine. What about you?

Peace (in the songs),