“May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor”

My students used to love reading. Like, really, really  love reading. And then  X changed all of that. (Insert the variable of your choice: school, extracurriculars, dating, gaming, etc.)  In an effort to change that (and after reading the four most powerful books on the market–Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide, Penny Kittle’s Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers, and Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild), Chris and I set out to reintroduce our students to a love of reading: “Students, books. Books, students.”  It has been a year of growth, learning, exhaustion, and, at times, pure euphoria.
Like this morning. (More on that in a minute.)
It’s college recommendation time, which my students affectionately call “Ms. Hughes’ Hunger Games.” Because I have trouble saying “no” to doe-eyed students, a few years ago I agreed to write 58 recommendations. At two to three hours a piece, it was a horrible recommendation-writing season. (I’m convinced there’s a book out there, pointing recommendation-seekers toward their English teachers. But that’s another post.) Because of that awful summer (the effects of which will resurface in my children’s future therapy sessions), I now reserve fifteen spots and require applicants to reflect on a series of prompts. Beyond that, “may the odds be ever in [their] favor.”
So, this morning, before tackling yet another set of essays, I quickly glanced at a student’s reflection:

Ms.Hughes has seen my work ethic improve over the past year and knows how important it is to me. She is always helping me with my projects and papers or anything I need help with which makes me feel like I have someone I can actually rely on. Ms.Hughes is always helping me to improve my work. Recently she gave me a book recommendation for the mystery/thriller choice book project and I really enjoyed the book a lot. She helped me find my love for reading all over again which I have absolutely missed since I was a kid. I used to always love reading then was never a big fan of it and this year she has opened me up to so many book options that I began to love reading. I have noticed my work has improved greatly over the past year due to the help of reading more and this will especially help me in my future. Overall, Ms.Hughes has spread her love of reading on to me which has made me fall in love all over again with reading.

While the work Chris and I are doing is by no means finished–and while this is only one student, this was the perfect energy drink I needed to sustain me for the month-long marathon that is June.

Happy reading, and “may the odds be ever in your favor”!

Book love


Every spring, my littluns’ school holds a book swap, and every spring, I help my children select pre-loved books to trade during said swap. Picture a Zen-filled moment, complete with classical music frolicking in the background, as two avid readers relive their favorite titles with their teacher-mother. Because I’m sure in one of the houses in town, that’s happening. In our house, however, the moment is often a teensy bit stress-filled, as Mommy usually isn’t told about the swap until thirty minutes past bedtime. The night before. And even then, the only background noise is the bickering of two exhausted children.

But I digress.

This year, as we were combing through shelves, on hands and knees (which, as it turns out, is a position from which I can’t as readily rebound as I once could), I started thinking: If our goal is to foster a love of reading in our students, why do book swaps end just because elementary school does? How much more real-world can we get than creating opportunities for our middle and high school students to peruse, interact with, discuss, and get excited about free, new-to-them titles? If students are done with their (Sarah) Dessen, have finished their (F. Scott) Fitzgerald, and/or are contented with their (Tom) Clancy, why can’t they trade them in for something new–and free?

And so there, on my aching hands and throbbing knees, an idea was born: Room 1227’s First-Ever Book Swap! And it’s happening in all of my high school classes next week. The students (and teacher) are pretty excited about it.

Even the ones who are too cool for school.

Emulation 201: Crafting a Narrative

Thanks to Beth’s (cough, Penny’s) fantastic teaching strategy known as emulation, I’ve officially become hooked on the idea of guiding my students to actively apply best practices in writing so that their own writing can be enhanced.

My personal choice book right now is the beautiful written Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. The dynamic and lyrical narrator, Cal, shares with us her unique life story in a way that I’ve never seen before. Below is a quotation:

“And so now, having been born, I’m going to rewind the film, so that my pink blanket flies off, my crib scoots across the floor as my umbilical cord reattaches, and I cry out as I’m sucked back between my mother’s legs. She gets really fat again. Then back some more as a spoon stops swinging and a thermometer goes back into its velvet case. Sputnik chases its rocket trail back to the launching pad and polio stalks the land. There’s a quick shot of my father as a twenty-year-old clarinetist, playing an Artie Shaw number into the phone, and then he’s in church, age eight, being scandalized by the price of candles; and next my grandfather is untaping his first U.S. dollar bill over a cash register in 1931. Then we’re out of America completely; we’re in the middle of the ocean, the sound track sounding funny in reverse. A steamship appears, and up on a deck a lifeboat is curiously rocking; but then the boat docks, stern first, and we’re up on dry land again, where the film unspools, back at the beginning…”

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

A little background info: right now, students are writing a narrative piece about their childhood. We’ve emulated Lee’s writing in To Kill a Mockingbird a few times, and it has helped the students uncover the “lyrical” (second time I’ve used that word!) nature of a well-constructed personal memoir/narrative piece. They are in the drafting phase of the writing assignment now.

Back to Middlesex.

I took this passage and shared it with my students, and asked for them first to create a timeline on the board. It looked like this:


Then, we had a discussion about whether or not the passage would have been more effective if Eugenides had written it in chronological order. (At this point, one could engage the students in a sidebar on authorial intention/”what does ‘effective’ really mean?” type conversation here, but we only had forty-five minutes left. Too bad, so sad.)

At this point in the lesson, students started to figure out what Eugenides is doing in the passage and why it is so effective: the use of the film spool as a metaphor for the narrator’s recalling of her complex past/family history, resulting in a reverse timeline summary of the events of the first thirty-five pages of the text.

I challenged the students to write out a few events (three to five) from their own personal narrative in bullet form, and then we emulated! As expected, most students borrowed the film spool references to get started, but some creatively shifted the metaphor to an audio tape and even a Facebook feed (“scrolling down from the top, you see the first post…”)

It was a fun way to start a Monday morning!

Emulation 101: For the Love of Writing?

        In her book Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers, the fabulous Ms. Penny Kittle discusses the importance of using mentor texts to guide student writing. In addition to escaping into an intoxicating other-world, students learn to appreciate craft as they read–as well as take their own writing to the next level as they compose. (It goes without saying that the exploration of authorial craft permeates the ELA Common Core State Standards.) As they read, it encourages students to pay attention to diction, syntax, and deliberateness.
       In that vein, I recently asked my high school students to create an Emulation 101 journal to house prompts (both teacher- and self-selected) and student emulations of said prompts. I provided my students with the first prompt, which I excerpted from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird:
Summer was on the way; Jem and I awaited it with impatience. Summer was our best season: it was sleeping on the back screened porch in cots, or trying to sleep in the tree house; summer was everything good to eat; it was a thousand colors in a parched landscape; but most of all, summer was Dill. (Lee 34)

I then shared my own emulation as a model (which I do for each entry–partly to see what they will have to do and partly to gauge how long it might take for my lesson planning).

My attempt at emulating the untouchable Ms. Lee (with borrowed Lee-isms in caps):

Autumn WAS ON THE WAY; Amy AND I AWAITED IT WITH IMPATIENCE. Autumn WAS OUR BEST SEASON; IT WAS “helping” Dad rake the leaf-carpeted yard, OR worrying about whether or not my new teacher would like me; autumn WAS the intoxicating baby-doll smell of new plastic binders; IT WAS A THOUSAND fiery crimsons and bursting oranges in the boasting trees; BUT MOST OF ALL, autumn WAS my annual Do-Over.

     I was thrilled with what the students produced, four of which are represented below:  

       Summer was on the way; Josh and I awaited the beaches with impatience. Summer was by far our best season: it was letting sunshine and volleyball dictate our days, and trying to find songs everyone can sing around the fire; it was the very best of the hot and the very refreshing of the cold; it was the ocean breeze and new sunglasses and smiles of new friends in a kaleidoscope of aqua and gold; but mostly, it was the renewed hope that change and excitement was right around the corner.
       Summer was on the way; Matthew, Mia, and I awaited it restlessly. Summer was our best season: it was sleeping on the porch in Maine, or imploring our parents to put the air conditioner in; summer was endless days stretched out in front of us; it was the silhouette of the Rocky Mountains from the window; but most of all, summer was growing up.

       Winter was on the way, and Nolan and I awaited it with impatience. Winter was our best season. The trees were bare of leaves, and any day now snow would cover the town, making it unrecognizable from its former self. Winter was the holiday season and we’d be stuck inside for days on end, but most of all, winter was a time of celebration for holidays and a new year,

        Summer was on the way; my brothers and I awaited it with impatience. Summer was our favorite season together: it was going down the Cape, or running on the beach at sunrise; summer was a plethora of ice cream to eat; it was a thousand people together encompassed in the Cape Cod elbow; but most of all, summer was precious time spent with the family.

Remember: These are English students, not Creative Writing ones. So, without regular practice, they might not otherwise include sophisticated techniques like repetition and metaphor in their narratives. And while they may not hereafter, it’s a start–and one of the very reasons we read.

Finally, a Reading Challenge for the Rest of Us!

Since the beginning of time the year, there have been a slew of reading challenges circulating. However, most of them made me (Beth) feel like a complete failure as a reader. “Tackle a book a day!” (Which I assumed was a joke, since I’m lucky to read through everything my kids schlep home from school each day.) “Enjoy a book a week!” (More humor, as I am often trapped under piles of student essays each week.) While I absolutely love reading, most of my pleasure reading happens during summer vacation–which is the same for many of my busy students. (That is, until the fabulous, book-whispering Donalyn Miller challenged what I did in the classroom–which now includes setting aside ten minutes in the beginning of each class to read for pleasure.) Until recently, no reading challenge had felt attainable.

Enter book-loving blogger Modern Mrs. Darcy.

Her 2015 Reading Challenge calls for devouring twelve books in twelve months. Finally, a reading challenge for the rest of us! In fact, it was so feasible that I turned it into a class activity to promote a love of literacy. I recreated her list in chart form, asking my high school students to select a title that fulfilled each category. (And dang it, her categories are fun!) The next step required my students to log into their Goodreads accounts (which we set up earlier this year), create a new bookshelf entitled “2015 Reading Challenge,” and then add these twelve new titles to their shelves. The catch? They will cull their next few independent reading assignments from this list. (Next year, I will have my students create a similar version in September and independently enjoy one book a month–regardless of what we are studying together in class. I’m still ironing out the details; however, I know that reading conferences and the standards will play a role.)

Assignments like this are what I call “Literary Sandbox” activities: quick, real-world tasks in which my students get to “play.” Often technology is involved, as it is here, but only when it fits. (And fit it did right before the holidays, when my students created their own Amazon Wish Lists called “What-to-get-for-the-adolescent-who-has-everything.”) These Literary Sandbox activities promote and foster a love of reading–the professional goal Chris and I have committed to this year–and the reason many bibliophiles pursue a career in teaching in the first place.

Feel free to beg, steal, borrow, modify, or ignore the assignment.

Happy reading!