Monday, 22 January 2018

Reflecting on Grade 9 English (ENG1D)

This semester I taught Grade 9 English, and I was instructed to make some changes in the course. Unfortunately, our literacy test results went down, and there is concern that Grade 9 English wasn't sufficiently preparing students for the test. (And, no, I don't think the purpose of school to teach students to take a test. ) I had (have) reservations about "teaching to the test", but the reality is that students need to meet the literacy requirement in order to graduate. I do have fears about this, as my final marks (minus the portfolio interview) seem "high", and I wonder about my expectations. What if my expectations are out of line and my students fail the literacy test?

Our first unit was "Literacy Bootcamp", and I dreaded it. Fortunately, it turned out to be fine. I didn't use any of the pre-packaged literacy prep, but rather looked for current texts. My co-teacher and I selected texts that focussed on technology and social media, and it was easy to keep my eye open for news reports, editorials, and videos that fit these topics. We did direct teaching of reading strategies, answering six-line responses, news reports, and series of paragraphs. Our summative task was a test where students had to read an editorial, answer some multiple choice questions and answer two six-line open responses. In addition, students had to write a news report similar to the literacy test. They also had to write a series of paragraphs. Overall, the summatives accomplished what I wanted them to. That said, I am contemplating changing the placement of the "Literacy Bootcamp". I think I want to do it as the last unit. My rationale for this is that I want to see how much direct teaching I will need to with regards to reading strategies, quotation integrations, paragraph organization, and their readiness to complete a full persuasive essay.

Our second unit of study was short stories. It was fairly typical of English--learn some literary devices and analyze how authors use literacy devices to communicate their themes. We also focussed on turning our observations into ideas, and supporting their ideas in well-organized paragraphs. There were two summatives: a test that assessed their knowledge of short story terms, as well as the ability to write an analytical paragraph in response to a prompt. Additionally, students were given a sight short story to read and write an analytical paragraph based on their independent reading. In hindsight, this seems repetitive, and I think that reading the sight short story and writing an analytical paragraph would be sufficient.

The third unit was the study of the novel The Book Thief. I have taught this novel four times, and I love it. The majority of my students enjoy reading the novel, but the length can be overwhelming. I am going to try a new novel this coming semester: Flawed. I really liked the topics that we explore in The Book Thief, and those topics map over well to Flawed. The summatives for the unit were literature circles and an extended paragraph. I really liked the extended paragraph, as students wrote three paragraphs over the unit, then selected their best paragraph and polished it for assessment. On the other hand, the literature circles were a FAIL. I need to do some more work on structuring the literature circles this coming semester. I am thinking that the circles will only be done twice-weekly, and I will assign specific roles in an attempt help students facilitate their discussions.

I have some thoughts on the exam, and I am betting on having some thoughts about the portfolio interviews, so I will reflect on those at a later date.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Thinking about Reading, Part 2

Since returning after winter break, I'm pretty sure I said out loud, at least four times, "I've been doing some thinking about reading." And finally, people decided to talk about reading with me! Discussions with various people have helped to shape and clarify (and complicate) my thoughts, and I am hopeful that people will have additional ideas to share with me. (Hint.)

I have been pondering various questions, in an attempt to clarify my thinking about reading.

What is my overall goal?

Students who read because they WANT to, not because they have to.

Why do I want students to read for pleasure?
  • Reading frequently improves reading skills.
  • Reading frequently improves writing skills.
  • Reading allows students an opportunity to escape into another world.
  • Reading allows students to build empathy for others' experiences.
  • Reading allows students to build community and connection with other readers.
  • Reading allows students to understand themselves.

How can I force students to read for pleasure?

This is tricky. It is hard to get some students to read for assignments or marks, so why would they read for pleasure? But I think that is part of the problem. There is pressure to do something, often artificial or contrived, with the book. Students have to prove that they read the book. It takes the joy out of reading. I know that we try to give students a choice in their reading, via the ISU, but students still often don't enjoy reading their chosen book, plus we put a bunch of parameters on what they are allowed to read. It is just a hoop they have to jump through..."get through these books then I never have to read again."

I know some schools have enforced reading time, such as STAR (Stop Talking and Read) or DEAR (Drop Everything and Read). In my limited experience, these programs haven't been very successful. But this also tells me that maybe my thoughts about enforcing (encouraging?) reading in my classroom are unrealistic. Except that Pernille Ripp, a grade 7 teacher in the United States, has great success in rekindling reading in her students. (Obviously things would need to be adapted to fit the high school context.) Ripp shares that to get students to read for pleasure we need to give them time, we need to give them access to lots of books, we need to demonstrate ourselves as readers, we need to let them abandon books, and we need to let them book shop.

What am I envisioning?

If I want students to read, I need to give them class time to read. If it is something I value, then it deserves to be part of my valuable class time. I want a reading and talking about books classroom. Additionally, I'm not going to force them to do something with their reading. The success comes from them reading. I will see them reading. I will have conversations with them about their reading or lack thereof. That's my proof.

So how am I going to work towards creating a reading classroom?
  • 15 minutes every day of reading
  • Discuss my journey as a reader
  • Allow book abandoning
  • Have tons* of books available in my classroom
  • Create book buzz 
  • Have opportunities to book shop
  • Do a reading challenge 
Creating a reading class room is my new preoccupation, and to be honest, I am feeling a lot of discomfort about actually implementing this. 


*To be honest, I'll probably only have 100 or so books...I'm relying on bringing in my own library and what I can scavenge from the book room. I know this is's what Mrs. Le likes to read, but I'm going to work on expanding it. (I can be pretty resourceful.)

Friday, 5 January 2018

Thinking about Reading

Full disclosure: I contribute to students not wanting to read. Hating to read even. I don't intend to do this, but I do. I do because I always make them do something (Ripp) with their reading. They never just get the opportunity to read.

I want my students to read for pleasure. To enjoy reading. To read because they want to, not because they have to.  I want them to read for the reasons beautifully expressed in the tweet below:

But how do you get high school students back into reading?

As an English teacher, I am always thinking about reading, but it hasn't been until recently that I have been thinking more deeply about reading. I think this is because my oldest two children are embarking on some independent reading. Ever since Marisa and Madeline were babies, my husband and I would read to them. Six years later, we still read to them (and now little Nora) every single day, with few exceptions.

Towards the end of junior kindergarten, the girls started bringing home levelled readers. Those readers are painful and boring. We would plod through them. (And full confession, we would only do them once or twice a week.) It was the same in senior kindergarten, although Marisa was more enthusiastic, so she would read two or three times a week, and Maddy, maybe once or twice. My goal is to have my daughters LIKE reading, and I was afraid that this homework reading was turning them off. Fortunately, Marisa and Madeline had excellent kindergarten teachers, who were supportive of my refusal to do the levelled readers every night, especially when they weren't "feeling" it. This support was great, because they're experts in teaching reading, and another full confession, despite being an English teacher, I don't know how to teach the basics of learning how to read. As a high school teacher, I'm supposed (?) to get students who have already mastered reading.

Now that the girls are in Grade 1, they are much more interested in reading, and often enjoy reading their levelled readers every night. More importantly, they are also interested in whatever I am reading and just words in general. When I am reading to them, they choose to read sentences here and there, and they like pointing out the words as we go along. My goal is for them to be like me: someone who likes reading, so much that as a child, my consequences for not doing my chores was having my books taken away.

This brings me to reading in high school. When do students, who loved or at least liked, reading, stop reading? And I don't mean for school. I mean, for pleasure.

How do I get high school students--those who don't see the point in, or pleasure of, reading--to read?

I have been thinking about reading, especially in the context of the independent study unit, a lot lately. Many English courses have an ISU component, where students are required to read a book independently, then do something with it. (Often an essay or a presentation or both.) I'm not a huge fan of ISUs in the traditional sense. While I still did a traditional ISU with Grade 10 Academic English, in Grade 11 College-Preparation English (ENG3C), I did not do one, and in the Grade 11 University-Preparation English course, students did an independent blog. Next semester, I am teaching two classes of ENG3C at my new school, and I thought that I could do a traditional ISU with my classes. In fact, I said, "I'll do anything once." But I'm not so sure. In general, students in ENG3C do NOT read for school unless it is in the classroom and forced upon them. Reading for pleasure is not happening, for the most part. So what do I do?

As I was pondering my questions about reading, I came across, "How to Stop Killing the Love of Reading" by Jennifer Gonzalez, based on her interview with Pernille Ripp, author of Passionate Readers. This ignited a spark in me. It has made me more resistant to the traditional ISU and is forcing me to re-envision my daily teaching. I am currently reading Ripp's blog to help me figure out how I can help students become readers. And this is where I will leave off. I'm working on finding answers to get me started for February, and I am thankful that I came across Matt Haig, Jennifer Gonzalez, and Pernille Ripp.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Becoming a student...

In the role of teacher, I often forget that learning new skills can be scary for students. I forget that it can be overwhelming to be introduced to new essay-writing styles, quotation integrations, and research methods. The human fear of appearing stupid is strong.

Currently, I am on parental leave, and I have decided to learn how to skate. I am once again the student. Skating is a sport that scares me; terrifies might not be too strong of a word. My first lesson was three weeks ago, and I almost backed out. It would have been easy; my husband accidentally took both sets of car keys to work. It would have been the perfect excuse. I persisted. I finally made it to the arena, and my next opportunity to back out presented itself: I had difficulty getting my skates and helmet on. I persisted. My desire to challenge myself forced me forward, but my skating instructor smoothed the path. She reminded me of all the characteristics I want to embody as a teacher. For example:

  1. She welcomes. She greeted me at the entrance to the ice, and held my arm to guide me to the centre. Right away I felt physically and mentally safe.
  2. She differentiates. Our small class has five skaters, at varying levels. She works with each of us individually to develop skills at our own pace.
  3. She has high expectations. Apparently, I will be skating backwards by the end of my lessons.
  4. She encourages. She lets us know how to improve in a positive manner, and she celebrates our successes, no matter how small.
Essentially, becoming a student has reminded "teacher me" to be sensitive to students' trepidations. For some students, showing up to learn the unfamiliar is a success in itself. I need to welcome, differentiate, set high (but achievable) expectations, encourage, and celebrate...both my students' successes and my own.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Marking Wrongful Conviction Day at ODSS

View of the display upon entering the Learning
Commons. The bright colours seem to contradict
the gravity of the injustice, but there is also a
level of happiness about being
In Grade 11 College Preparation English (ENG3C), we do a unit about the wrongfully convicted. Traditionally, the viewing of the film Conviction culminates in the writing of a letter to the Innocence Project in the United States. Students are responsible for researching a person who was wrongfully convicted, and writing a letter of gratitude to the Innocence Project.

Taylor's poster
Three semesters ago I did some research and discovered that there was a Canadian equivalent to the Innocence Project: The Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted (AIDWYC). I decided that students would learn about Canadians who were wrongfully convicted and AIDWYC helped to exonerate. Some of the exonerees include Steven Truscott, David Milgaard, and Guy Paul Morin.

Students in both my classes last year wrote letters of gratitude to AIDWYC. One of the best parts of this activity was AIDWYC's personalized response. I was pretty excited when AIDWYC wrote me a letter acknowledging my class's work.

Then things got weird.

Alex's poster
I noticed that my students were being called down to the office. I couldn't figure out why until one student informed me that they were getting letters from AIDWYC. The wonderful people at AIDWYC found the time to write PERSONALIZED letters to each of my students. They also shared my students' work with the exonerees. I was amazed.

This year, instead of writing letters of gratitude, my class put together a display to mark Wrongful Conviction Day, which is October 2, 2015. Students still completed research, but instead of writing a letter, they had to make a poster to educate the ODSS community about the exonerees and to raise awareness about the grave injustices that unfortunately occur in the Canadian legal system.

I am grateful that AIDWYC exists to protect the rights of Canadians and to play a role in bringing the outside world into the classroom.

Friday, 18 September 2015

The Importance of Sharing

Over the last few weeks, I have been thinking about the role of sharing in education, and how the act of sharing is important in developing better teachers and improving student learning.

To me, sharing is a mix of practical and emotional. There is the electronic and physical sharing of resources; the informal discussions of particular content and skills; the sharing, as appropriate, of pertinent student information; and the sharing of emotions.

In the last three semesters, I have benefited greatly from the ease of sharing resources via UGCloud. I have taught three new courses, and for all three courses I have had EIGHT colleagues share their folders with me. This helps to lessen the anxiety of teaching a new course and it prevents the need to "recreate the wheel". I especially benefit because I get to see what other people are doing in their courses and then shape the course to fit my teaching style and the needs of my students.

Additionally, sharing doesn't just take place on the cloud. Sharing also happens in informal ways as department members drink their morning coffees or eat lunch together. I have added excellent resources to my repertoire, such as handouts about effective presentations, deconstructing visual texts to make meaning, or using transitional words.

Sharing isn't just the electronic or physical exchange of course content and skills. It is important to share information about students on a "need-to-know" basis. This is especially true at the start of a new semester. It is nice to have students' former teachers tell me the techniques they used to best help a student or what warning signs to be aware of.

There is also the sharing of emotions. Oftentimes, teaching can seem like an individual job. It is possible to simply close the classroom door and teach. But I think that the sharing of our ups and downs about our experiences creates a realistic picture of what being a teacher means. It is buoying for me to hear teachers talk about their successes, and it is helpful to be able to share perceived and actual failures and challenges. This allows me to realize that I'm not alone and that all teachers have their wins and their losses.

Now this isn't to say that sharing is easy. I'm sure that there are many reasons why sharing is hard. For some, they may not share their resources. And I bet this isn't because they don't want to; it may because they lack confidence in what they're creating. I think this may also play a role in sharing emotions. No one wants to come across as a braggart when talking about the impact he or she has had on a student or recounting an awesome lesson. Additionally, it is hard to talk about the fact that all teachers fail. Some lessons flop. Some classroom management decisions backfire. But we need to share this and learn from each other.

Essentially, I am thankful that I have colleagues who are willing to share and are eager to support. I think this goes a long way in making me a better teacher, which in turns helps me improve learning for my students.

Thank you.

Monday, 7 September 2015

The first day of school...the plans have changed

The Syrian refugee crisis has shaken me. I look at the faces of Syrians still in Syria, those who have made it to Europe, and those who have gotten to Canada. I can't imagine taking such risks, and this drives home the fact that, for Syrians fleeing their homes, the risks outweigh staying.

I want to do something, and the first thing I wanted to do was sponsor a Syrian family. This seems especially fitting for me, as my husband was one of the 68,000 Vietnamese refugees to make it to Canada as a result of the nation's sponsorship program. Obviously, this is a big step, and we're not quite ready to make a commitment.  But I still want to do something. 

This led me to make the decision to delay my first week plans for school. Instead of jumping right into short stories and plays, two of my classes are going to complete guided research about Syria and the Syrian refugee crisis. The ultimate goal is for students to write letters to Hon. Chris Alexander (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) and MP David Tilson (our local representative). Fortunately, I am able to delay getting into the regularly scheduled program, which is already full, because I have a department head who encourages us to try new and different things, and a principal who is more interested in deep learning than content coverage.

I have struggled to figure out how I can bring this topic to my students. Fortunately, I am connected on Facebook and Twitter to a great number of educators who have been sharing articles and their experiences. My rough outline of what I think I am going to do is here.

A colleague and I were talking about images, specifically the horrifying image of Alan Kurdi drowned on a beach in Greece. We also brainstormed some quotations, but the one that really stuck out to me was Joseph Stalin's quotation “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic”. I decided against using the image of Kurdi drowned, which has spurred the increased interest in helping Syrian refugees, as his aunt has requested that people remember her nephew as he was: smiling and happy. I decided that I am going to have students look at an image of refugees in Germany and an image of Alan Kurdi in happier times.

I am hoping that these images and what they represent will bring encourage discussion and interest, before students are tasked with doing some research. Because it will only be the first day of school, I have found the research for the students. They will have access to a variety of articles, images, and videos to help them (and me) understand the crisis and what Canada is (or isn't) doing.

To be honest, I am rather uncomfortable with my new first day plans, as I am taking three risks:
1. students will engage and discuss on Day 1 (what if they don't?)
2. my clear goal, but vague "travel map" will get us to the letter (what if the goal is only clear to me? what if we get lost?)
3. the technology will work (please don't fail me!) 

Hopefully, by the end of the week, the students and I have powerful letters to send and strengthened empathy for the Syrians forced from their home.