Rural Legends

Urban legends are tales that are passed down through communities. They can be cautionary tales, creepy stories, or even jokes. When I mention urban legends to my students, they can name off several. In fact, this can insight quite the conversation!

One of my favorite writing projects of the year is asking students to write a urban  rural legend. This is a quick creative writing exercise in which students create short stories that are set in their own communities. Sometimes students elaborate on legends they have heard before, but often they create something entirely new. We follow our writing timewith an open mic where students can share their work and I also save these stories for the next year’s students to read. In this way, rural students are contributing to the narratives and myths surrounding their own communities and environments.

           

Click here to download a simple slideshow that walks students through how to write a rural legend.

Reading, Writing, and Thinking Rural

When I graduated from the University of Iowa, I was thrilled to go out into the world and pursue my dream of teaching and making a difference in the lives of young people. I took a teaching job at a rural school a couple hours north of my beloved Iowa City. This meant that I would be living in a small town for the first time in my life and the opportunity to do so has already taught me a lot. I have learned that teaching in a school nestled among corn fields is  different than my student teaching experience in a large city school. The more I observe these differences, the more I realize that rural education needs to be a pedagogy of its own.

I have been well acquainted with research and writing about the teaching of urban students. In fact, this type of study made up most of my learning about teaching in my teacher education program. However, standing in front of my students from towns of populations of 1,600 or less, I can see that they are different than the students I read about in many of my books and articles. And I want to find out how and why. This is part of my mission this year as an educator of rural students.

As this new school year begins, I think about the opportunity I have to explore rural teaching. In addition to my efforts of delivering high quality educational experiences, I will work this year to investigate how the rural context of my school can inform those best practices I already aim for in my curriculum. My two guiding questions that I will keep in mind as I plan and reflect throughout the year will be:

How can I bring rural student voices to the forefront using writing projects?

How can I empower rural students by asking them to analyze representations of rural life in literature?

I am committed to providing empowering curriculum to Iowa students. I am honored to teach in the state I love best and excited to continue in this exploration of how to engage rural students on this rigorous and critical level. I will be using my blog as well as my presentation at the National Council of Teachers of English conference to document and share my experiences and learning this year.

Wild Card Engagement Challenge

Tired of students dragging their feet to your classroom? Tired of hearing complaints about boredom? So were we. In hopes of exploring ways to enliven the atmosphere of our school, our teacher book club decided to give Hope and Wade King’s new book, Wild Card: 7 Steps to an Educator’s Creative Breakthrough, a try.

 This book was published in January  and has already made a big splash in the world of education. And I think we are all glad we took the time to read about these innovative educators. Their message is two-fold in that it asks teachers to reach into their own creativity and enthusiasm so that they may spark excitement for learning in their students. 

The book encourages teachers to think of their lessons as learning experiences that engage students (King & King xv). One of the greatest takeaways  is the purpose of the title: students cannot control the hand they are dealt, but teachers can be the “wild card” that makes the difference in their lives (King & King xii). We REALLY want to make that difference. Many of our discussions around this book had to do with wanting to see joy in our students eyes every day. Too often we see students trudging into school,dreading the day ahead. We want to see our students excited about coming to class and we want to feel that same joy while planning lessons. 

Our club’s goal was not only to read and gain ideas from the book, but also enact their suggestions for creatively boosting our instruction. So, we created and embarked on the #wildcardengagementchallenge. Inspired by this book, our challenge was this: Update a space in your classroom, add movement to a lesson, add music to a lesson, OR transform your classroom for a lesson. Overall, our challenge was a big success.

As I reflect on these last few weeks, they have been a lot of fun and I am excited to use these methods to engage my students even more next year! Here are a couple of the things I did to meet our challenge:

After my creative writing class worked on scary story writing, I created a classroom campsite with tarps, lanterns, cricket sounds, and s’mores Poptarts. I loaded a video of a campfire for us to gather around and share our spooky stories.

Reading scary stories around the “fire.”

Eighth graders in Language Arts threw a wedding for Romeo and Juliet. The wedding is skipped over in the play, so students wrote their own vows for Romeo and Juliet and even dressed up for the occasion.

We planned and acted out a wedding. Complete with guests and a reception!

I can attest that actually making these ideas happen is A LOT of work, but it was really worth it. I saw students happy and eager to be in class and engage with the environment that I had created. I will definitely continue to make these ideas a bigger part of my curriculum next year. So, stay tuned for more ideas!

The Case for SSR: Why My Students Read Choice Books Daily

Why do I begin every class period with ten minutes of SSR (silent sustained reading)? Here’s my top five reasons:

5. Soothing Start

Let’s face it, being in school can make for a really hectic day. Students are required to physically and mentally jump from class to class for hours while being asked to remember and apply information and complete work promptly. English class is absolutely no exception to this; we have a lot to cover: reading, writing, grammar, speaking, listening, critical thinking… the list could really go on! Starting class with SSR helps us squeeze in a little bit of reading while also slowing everyone down in their busy day.

During SSR, students can sit anywhere they choose, so long as they are reading. My comfy seating is often used during this time, but some students like to sit on the floor or just move by a friend. By the time my timer goes off, indicating the end of SSR, there is a relaxing atmosphere in the room. It’s easy to transition into our lesson after that calming ten minutes.

4. Quick Connections

A few times a week during SSR, I like to walk around the room with a clipboard and write down the titles of the books each student is reading. I ask what page they are on, what’s happening in the book, and if they are enjoying their book. As a teacher, the opportunity to connect with every student within the first ten minutes of class is invaluable. I also love to stay updated on what students are reading so I can recommend books to other students.

3. Modeling

Any of my students will tell you, I’m wild about reading. I don’t need too much arm twisting to sit down and read at any point during the day, so I ADORE that I can read with my students during SSR. It is important that students see adults modeling healthy learning habits. When I sit down and read my book in front of everyone, I get to be that positive model. It’s a lot easier to convince students to read when they see I enjoy it myself.

2. Community Building

English class is a wonderful place to start building communities around literacy.  We talk about books frequently in my classroom and students know I take these conversations seriously. I like to ask students if they would recommend the book they are reading to anyone else or just if

anyone is in a really good spot on their book. When I get a new book for my library, I like to “introduce” the book to the class and ask if anyone has read a book by the writer in the past. Getting students talking about books is one way to sustain a culture of literacy because students participate meaningfully in these conversations.

I have also had some success in tracking reading as a class and setting reading goals. My eighth graders this year were especially prolific in their reading; they read 120 books as a group by the end of trimester one!

1. Student Choice

Throughout the school day, there may not be a multitude of opportunities for students to choose what they study. Integrating plenty of student choice is a difficult task, but letting students choose their own SSR books is one way I can do this every single day.

I was fortunate to attend the NCTE conference last year in St. Louis. It was an incredible three days of English teacher paradise and I came back to Iowa with resources, ideas, and inspiration galore; however, the greatest take away by far, was the repeated case for teachers to let students choose books and give them time to read at school. Taking this teaching advise has been the most game-changing decision I have made in my classroom and has brought a lasting sense of community to my class. It all reminds me that sharing in the joy of reading is the privilege and purpose of my work!

 

Want to read more about the importance of teen reading? Check out my post about promoting reading at school.

Literary Theory for Youth, About Youth

As an English major in college, I learned about literary theory and it not only became my favorite way to analyze a novel, but my go-to for analyzing any text or art I encountered. As a reader, it was rewarding to think deeply about how a work perpetuated societal expectations of women, represented race, or glorified specific social classes. However reading with lenses remains an ambitious skill to teach because it is different from reading comprehension: it is teaching critical thinking. Asking students to read with a critical lens requires them to first, deconstruct and extrapolate stereotypes that exist around groups of people, second, identify if and when those stereotypes occur in the literary work, and lastly, decide if the text supports or challenges those stereotypes. For many reasons, I see this type of critical thinking as the most important skill I teach. Of course, I acknowledge that comprehension is the foundation of all reading activity, but to stop discussion of a text at comprehension and character analysis denies students the opportunity to explore and evaluate the relationship between the text and their world.

The reality of having a passionate belief in teaching critical thinking is that I spend a ton of time reading, wondering, and talking about how to do it well. I knew before I went into a teaching program that figuring this out would be a personal mission of mine and my investigations of this were mostly theoretical. It wasn’t until a course I took on reading and teaching Young Adult Literature that the lightbulb turned on about how I would actually put it into practice in a classroom. In their article, “The Youth Lens: Analyzing Adolescence/ts in Literary Texts,” Lewis, Petrone, and Sarigianides (2014) describe the teaching of a Youth Lens, which readers use to examine the stereotypes of young people. These researchers argue that a “universal” experience of youth does not exist, meaning all people have been young, but their experiences and selves during that time are not cut from one adolescent pattern. Their article asks readers to scrutinize representations of youth in texts (Lewis, Petrone, Sarigianides, 2014). There it is, I realized; I could start my students’ critical thinking about texts by examining how they are represented in the text. It works because the experience of being young is shared among all students in the classroom.

Two years after learning about the Youth Lens, I was fortunate enough to student teach in a classroom with a teacher who wa and still is on the front lines of putting this theory into practice in her classroom. I was amazed to hear what seventh grade students had to say about representations of youth in The Outsiders during my student teaching experience and I was eager to bring the Youth Lens to my own classroom.

So, here I am, at my first year anniversary of my first English teaching job and I am teaching Youth Lens to eighth grade students. I get so excited about teaching Youth Lens because I see the empowerment at work in my students as they speak up about how they are more complex and less predictable than they are portrayed in the media.

I begin our study by asking students to make a list of character traits that describe themselves. A few days later, I ask students to compile a list of words the describe junior high students in general. We move from individual to small group lists to a whole class list. These lists are usually made up of words that are predominantly negative.

Student-created list of words that describe junior high students.

I remind students of the list of words they made about themselves, which is usually more positive, or at least, more varied in either direction, than the list describing junior high students. I ask them, “How are these lists so different? How do you see yourselves so differently than the way you see the group you belong to?” This is how we begin discussing stereotypes: centered around the idea that teens are stereotyped. While reading The Giver, I ask students to annotate the text when they see a stereotype about teens reinforced OR broken. As a final project, I ask students to write a short essay answering the question: Does The Giver support or challenge stereotypes about young people? 

What I love about this unit is that it truly challenges all students to think and use the text to support their thinking in writing. My students are currently working on writing their essays and I am ecstatic to read what they have to say.

Thanks for reading! I would LOVE to hear what you’re doing to teach critical lenses at any level, so please share! Stay critical, my friends!

Classroom with a Purpose

It is not uncommon for my students to enter my classroom and find that something has been added, changed, or rearranged, but recently I over-hauled my entire classroom set up and I want to share my purpose for this big change in my room.

Firstly, I have been thinking a lot about the way academic spaces feel for the people that work in them. Growing up a zealous reader meant spending a lot  of time in libraries from a young age and spaces like those became my go-to for any studying, writing, or reading throughout my academic studies. The space of a library, surrounded by the knowledge and stillness of books, just seemed like the right place to engage myself in learning. I had a big realization a couple months ago when I walked into my mentor’s classroom. I saw the periodic table, the lab counters, the microscopes, and I thought it really looks like science happens here. I went back to my own classroom and asked myself, does it really look like reading and writing happens here? Could this room be confused with a math room, a social studies room, a business studies room? I found the answer to my question was, yes, it could.

The purpose of my redesign is to address the need for the academic work I expect students to perform to be reflected in the space itself. My first area to tackle was reading. What can I do to make it look like reading happens in my classroom? I created a reading area with all my comfy seating to encourage students to get cozy and read. I believe we engage more fully in tasks when our bodies are comfortable. And what is better than a comfy chair and good book? (In this English teacher’s opinion, it doesn’t get much better than that!)

Reading area of my classroom.

Next, I thought about writing. What does a writing environment look like? I used this guiding question to design the main seating and lesson area of my room. This question is a little more difficult and forced me to tap into my beliefs about teaching and learning. As a constructivist, I believe students learn best when they socialize over their learning. I have long abandoned the idea that writing is an act of solitude and complete independence. Good writing is regularly reflected upon by a number of readers. For my classroom, this meant goodbye, desks. And SO LONG! I have never been a fan of desks and the switch to tables added a spirit of community to the room immediately. Now, juniors are arranged into “writing teams” with their table-mates, which has been the perfect marriage of environment and teaching philosophy.

Goodbye, desks!

Another important change I made was to make more materials accessible to my students. I believe that one step in ownership of learning is a feeling of freedom and accessibility in the classroom. I moved all my shelving closer to the center of the room. When students enter the space, they can find their own bellringer activities, SSR books, notebooks, and other items they might need in one central location in the room.

Shelving where students can access materials for class.

I am absolutely loving my new classroom arrangement. It feels good to have my space match my intention: the teaching and learning of reading and writing. What a wonderful space to do the work I love.

View from the back corner of the room.

Reading Rebels

The importance of reading every day does not end with elementary school. Junior high and high school students still need regular reading. In fact, a recent study conducted by the University of London’s Institute of Education found that the behavior of reading for pleasure in teens was a major factor in socioeconomic mobility (Sullivan & Brown, 2013). This study also reported reading’s powerful impact on cognitive development in children that read for fun. So, teens that read for the joy of reading may have a better chance at improving the socioeconomic status they were born into and meeting their cognitive potential (Wilhelm, 2017). Reading is truly FUNdamental!

I’m on a mission to promote Rebels reading outside of class time. Over the coming weeks, I will be working hard to encourage and support a culture of reading at GR. Some initiatives I have already started are as follows: SSR (silent sustained reading) of choice books every day during eighth grade Language Arts, setting goals for finishing SSR books (pictured below), “catching” readers around the school and featuring their picture on my teacher Instagram account (@MsAngieIowa), and asking students to talk about the reading they do for fun during class time. I absolutely love talking about reading with students as well as giving and taking book recommendations.I believe there is something for everyone to read and I am determined to find that something for every student. I’m excited to continue to build a reading community at our school! Keep reading, #readingrebels!

Eighth grade readers tracking reading goal progress.

      #caughtyoureading

 

                                                     Works Cited

Brown, M., & Sullivan, A. (2013). Social inequalities in cognitive scores at age 16: The role of reading. Centre for Longitudinal Studies.

Wilhelm, J. D. (2017, October 30). The Benefits of Reading for Pleasure. Retrieved November 06, 2017, from https://www.edutopia.org/article/benefits-reading-pleasure

 

Making it Happen!

I’m so proud of GR students this week as they worked towards making our school even better! Two weeks ago, Mr. McQuillen challenged everyone at GR to think about how we can each contribute to making our school district greater each day. That week in class we brainstormed big and small projects that could improve our school. Students posted their ideas, which included expressing gratitude to those who work in our school, making efforts to be more punctual and hardworking students, and acting as honorable role models for younger students and siblings. Last week in class we talked about how we can make our ideas happen. Students chose an idea to work on throughout the week and shared their successes on the board. Thank you to those who participated and worked toward making our school even better! We are truly GR8!