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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

SLICE OF LIFE

Sometimes a book just hits a little too close to home. That's what's happened to me this week. I've been reading THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas. If you follow adolescent literature at all, you probably know that the book has gotten all kinds of accolades. Some people even think it will win the Newbery. I think it could. It's really well-written. And I had a really hard time reading it.

THE HATE U GIVE is the story of Starr, a 16-year-old African American girl, who lives with her family in her rough neighborhood. Her father owns a grocery store, her mother is a nurse, and somehow they have arranged for Starr to attend an exclusive, mostly white school in a much more affluent part of town. Starr is basically two different people living in one body. By day, she takes on the persona of her upper class Anglo friends, and at night she returns to her family and neighborhood.

The wall has built between her two worlds comes crashing down one night when Starr is at a party in her neighborhood. She runs into Khalil, who is one of her closest friends, but but who she hasn't seen in a long time. When shots are fired, Khalil and Starr escape to his car. The car is pulled over, and somehow, even though he has done absolutely nothing wrong, Khalil is shot and killed by the police. Starr is the only witness, and throughout the rest of the book, the reader follows her as she gives a statement to police detectives, appears on television and testifies before the grand jury.

The book is riveting, and I had a really hard time getting through it.

To some degree, that book is about my life, as the mother of two African American sons. No, I don't live in that rough a neighborhood. And no, I didn't send my boys to an affluent white prep school. But Starr's friend, Khalil, could easily be my boys, laying dead in the middle of the street. And because of that, I am terrified every single time those six-foot chocolate-skinned bodies walk out of the house.

I hate it most at night. Often the boys are doing something totally innocent, just running to the grocery store or to see a cousin that lives nearby.  Even so, I imagine the scenario- the police pulling them over, my sons being nervous and making a misstep, the police unnerved by my sons' size and physique, a gun fired, a bleeding body, the dreaded phone call.

Yep. I would really rather they just stayed at home. All the time. Where I know they are safe.

And yet I know I can't be like that. They are almost grown men. They need to be free. And so I try to act casual. Look up from my computer. Ask where they are going. When they will be home. Remind them to be careful. Drive safely. No pot or alcohol in the car. Tell them I love them.

Then I spend the next hour or two or five worrying about where they might be and whether they are safe. If it they are gone too long, or it gets too late, and they aren't home, we have a deal. I text, "Are you safe?" and they have to respond, even just by texting back "Yes," within five minutes. They don't have to tell me where they are, but they have to respond, so I know they are ok.

And I talk to them, over and over again, about how to behave if they are pulled over by the police. Hands on the wheel. No sudden moves. Tell the policeman what you are doing, "I need to get my registration, sir. It's in my glove compartment." Don't get out of the car unless the police tell you to do that. If they do, move slowly. Follow their directions. Don't give anyone any lip.  I hope my boys are prepared in the event that they do get themselves into a tough situation.

And still I am terrified every time they go out of the house. Sometimes a book just hits a little too close to home.

CYBER PD- CHAPTERS 5 AND 6



Yikes! Everyone else has moved on to Week 3 and I haven't responded to the Week 2 readings yet, even though I finished the actual reading last Wednesday. I'm teaching a summer class, and responding to their work is taking most of my writing time.

I have continued to think about DYNAMIC TEACHING. This week, I think my reading around a "Problem-Based Approach" really deepened, partly because at the same time as I am reading DYNAMIC TEACHING, I'm also reading Ruta Sepetys newest novel, SALT TO THE SEA. SALT TO THE SEA,  so far  is a really hard read. The novel is set in Germany, during World War II. It's based on an actual event involving a ship, but it's an event I had never heard of. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, three of whom, as far as I can tell now, are trying to reach the ship in order to escape Russian-occupied Germany, and one who is a Nazi soldier- I can't tell yet if he is a good guy or a bad guy.  The early chapters are all structurally linked-- each chapter starts with a similar sentence and ends with the word bang. The bang I think, is connected to two of the four soldiers, a young Polish girl and the Nazi soldier, but I'm not positive

As a reader, I'm paying super close attention. I'm making connections-- so far the structure of this book reminds me of Anthony Doerr's, ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, and I'm trying to remember how Doerr used the image of "light" over and over in that book. I'm having to read and reread, trying to remember each of the different characters. I'm paying careful attention to the details, knowing that at some point, but maybe not for quite a while, I will I know how all of theses pieces fit together. I know that there is a lot I don't know. 

Sepetys definitely puts readers in a state of "in media res." My current state fits with what I'm understanding of Vicki Vinton's "problem-based approach. "A problem-based approach… wants students to feel the  confusion and discomfort a text can spark, so they can also feel the sense of accomplishment and pleasure that comes from working their way out of it" (72). I'm wanting to keep reading. I want to understand the story. I want to know more about the actual historical event. I want to understand how these characters are connected. I know that if I hang in there, things will eventually sort themselves out.

I also know that I am more than a little confused. I'm having a hard time keeping the characters straight. I keep having to go back and reread, to remember exactly who is who, and what I know about them. I have even thought about jotting some notes in the front of the book, which I sometimes do for my book club reads. Vinton says, "Readers have to know they are confused or don't know something, and students who continue reading without actively connecting details or being aware of what they don't know often wind up being lost in books that are supposedly just right for them" (62).

I also know that I have strategies that I have learned from other books. Two or three years ago, I read Antony Doerr's, ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE. I loved this book, and loved how Doerr structured the chapters, alternating between each of his two main characters. I recommended it to everyone I knew. Interestingly, though, I didn't really pay that much attention to the images of light, at least not until Linda Baie said something about that being a part of the book she had especially appreciated, then I had to go back and reread. Now, as I read SALT TO THE SEA, I'm paying more attention to the images and phrases that repeat. This seems to fit with Vinton's comment, "The intention of any problem solving session is not just for students to get the text, but to give them a chance to build up the muscle to deal with problems that texts pose" (79), and also, "The important thing about a problem is not its solution, but the strength we gain in finding the solution" (81).

SALT TO THE SEA is also really pushing me to think about myself as a teacher. I've been thinking about Vicki's overarching goal for her readers (page 18). I shared it last week:
Readers bring their minds and their hearts to a text,
and as a teacher of reading,
that means I want students to be able to
analyze and interpret, reason and imagine,
critique texts objectively and  respond to them personally.
And I want them to do this with
real independence
and a strong sense of agency and identity as readers,
in ways that support
academic success and a love of reading. 
With that goal in mind, I have also been thinking about these two questions that were in the previous reading: 
  • What is this text really about?
  • What might the author be trying to show us about what it means to be human in this complex world of ours? (p. 12)

Vinton's chapter 5, about the "basics" seems to fit with the first question, "What is this text really about?"  I'm intrigued, and still thinking about how I could structure each  mini-lesson, or at least many mini-lessons around what writers do AND how readers respond. I wonder, could I create some kind of sentence stem, or graphic organizer or use colors that would help kids use and internalize this framework."

I'm also struggling with the reversal of gradual release of responsibility- you, we, I. Vinton says, "You can always jump in and offer more support if you see students really flailing, but you can't retract support once you have given it. So think about how much modeling you will offer as you plan, rather than just providing it as a matter of course, knowing you can't always see what students can do if you don't give them enough space to show you" (73). I teach mostly English Language Learners and a great deal of our reading work is done in pre-reading, primarily in the area of building background language and vocabulary, and I wonder what would happen if we didn't do that work. 

Vinton also caused me to think more about teaching as noticing and naming. "Noticing and naming is thus, a form of feedback-- and a powerful one at that. It helps build students' sense of agency and identity as readers, makes the invisible work of reading more visible, and by employing generalized language, turns one student's thinking into a strategy that both he and other students can use in other texts" (73, 74). I think I'm really good at doing this in writing, not so much in reading. 

Vinton's Chapter 6 linked really well with the second question from page 12, "What might the author be trying to show us about what it means to be human in this complex world of ours?" I want my intermediate grade teachers to read this chapter, because I think it would help us do a much better job with theme. I've used some variation of Vinton's know/wonder charts, but I wonder why I haven't done more with these. And I wonder how I can help myself and my teachers ask better questions and respond in ways that will help students grow. 

So much to think about!!!

Friday, July 14, 2017

POETRY FRIDAY


Tabatha Yeatts is hosting Poetry Friday today. About a week ago, she sent out an email reminding Poetry Friday participants that today is National Macaroni and Cheese Day. Mmmmmm! I love mac and cheese, and that blue Kraft box is one of my favorite comfort foods.

As I thought about the topic this week, however, I kept envisioning two totally different snapshots. One had to do with how much I loved mac and cheese as a child, and how glad I was to be a "lunch at home" kid, because my mom often made box macaroni and cheese on cold days. Another image had to do with my sons, who I adopted at 7 and 9. At some point in their early years, they had evidently been exposed to real, homemade macaroni and cheese, which I don't think I had ever even seen. The first time I told them we were having mac and cheese, they were bitterly disappointed by my lack of culinary expertise. Somehow, those two images worked their way into this poem.

"Mother Love"

on cold winter days
I dash down Chelton Road
at lunchtime
knowing that my stay-at-home mom
will love us with blue box macaroni and cheese
and warm canned applesauce
mixed with cinnamon

i spoon applesauce
over fluorescent macaroni
then string gold orange tubes
onto the tines of my fork
and eat them one by one
while my mother fusses at me
not to play with my food
and reminds me
that I need to change into pants
for the afternoon's PE class

three decades later
stuck in rush hour traffic
i announce to my newly adopted sons
that we are having
mac and cheese for dinner
my boys draw threads
of some long held memory
and envision a steaming casserole dish
of stringy cheesy goodness
the likes of which I have never seen

later they wrinkle their noses
at my counterfeit chemical concoction
"This is not macaroni and cheese,"
they announce disdainfully
and for the millionth time
I wonder whether they believe
our cobbled, fatherless,
make-do family
is as artificial
as the blue box macaroni and cheese
of my childhood

(C) Carol Wilcox, 2017

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

SLICE OF LIFE

I am an on-time kind of gal.

What can I say? I am the daughter of a salesman. My father ingrained in me, from the time I was a very little girl, that you show people that you respect them by being on time. That it's rude to be late. That it's disrespectful of others. His watch was always set ten minutes fast. As far as I know, no one ever waited for him.

When we went places as a family, my father would tell us what time we were leaving, and then he would be in the car fifteen minutes before that. He'd give us about five minutes, maybe honk the horn once, and then he would leave us. We learned early on never to be late.

I guess I have continued that habit even as a adult. I never thought it was a big deal. I always have a book, and if I get somewhere before everyone else, I sit and read. It works perfectly for me.

What can I say? I am an on-time kind of gal.

I didn't know other people paid that much attention, until a few weeks ago. I was meeting my friend, Laura, for lunch. That was the week that a father from my school died. I was trying to coordinate things between a lot of different groups- teachers, our PTA, and a district budget person. I got a phone call right as I was walking out the door, and ended up being about five minutes late. Not that big a deal, but totally out of character for me. So out of character that three minutes after I was supposed to be there, Laura called, wanting to know if she was at the right place. "You are always early," she said.

And I had to agree. I am an on-time kind of gal.

About a week after that, I was teaching a class on a Saturday morning. I guess I have a reputation there too. When I teach, I make a point of arriving an hour ahead of time. I like to make sure the computer is going to talk to the projector or SMART board, set out my handouts, review the agenda, etc., before anyone else gets there. I don't mind if I'm ready half an hour early.  I'd rather stand around for 15 or 20 minutes than be rushing around at the last minutes. I'm an on-time kind of gal.

That particular Saturday, though, I only got there about 50 minutes ahead of time. I've been going to Weight Watchers on Saturday mornings. I figured out that if was at WW when the door opened, I could weigh-in, and still make it across town to teach in plenty of time. I wasn't worried, but evidently everyone else was. When I got to class, 50 minutes early, the coordinator met me at the door.

"Are you ok?" she asked.

"I'm fine. Why?"

"Because you are never this late," she said.

What can I say?

I am an on-time kind of gal.

Monday, July 10, 2017

CYBER PD- WEEK #1


I have a confession to make.

I've been teaching for over thirty years. And for at least half of my career, I have built my teaching around the idea that teachers need to look at reading instruction in terms of three strands- attitudes, strategies, and fluency. Kids need to view reading as worthwhile, do-able, and enjoyable. They need to learn and internalize strategies to approach all different kids of texts. And they need to use those strategies quickly, accurately, and appropriately. All of this needs to occur within the context of a community that is safe, warm, caring, and joyful.

Despite what I think is a strong philosophical and theoretical framework, I don't feel very good about my last couple of years of teaching. I feel like, in many ways, I have really caved to the pressure of standards and high stakes tests.

I think I have "spoonfed" kids texts that were way too hard, just because other people have told me that those "complex" texts are what kids should be reading. And because I knew those were the kinds of texts that they would find on the high stakes tests they took each spring.

I think I'm guilty of asking kids to extract meaning from text, rather than transact with texts (Newkirk, as quoted in Vinton, p. 17).

I think I am doing too much of the work for the kids. I think I am asking way too many text based questions, rather than helping kids learn to ask their own questions.

I think I have focused way too much on isolated skills, or what Vinton describes as "skillification."

Yes, I continually buy books and read them  and bring them to school, and pass them off to kids, and ask kids what they are reading. Yes, I regularly read aloud to kids from ages 4 to 14. And yes, I try to make my own authentic practices as a reader form the basis of my reading instruction, ad talk to teachers about strategy instruction. I even have cool high top book tennis shoes that my students, even the middle schoolers, love.

And yet, I think I'm failing teachers and kids.

I know what I want for my students. Vicki Vinton defines it beautifully on page 18 of DYNAMIC TEACHING.
Readers bring their minds and their hearts to a text,
and as a teacher of reading,
that means I want students to be able to
analyze and interpret,reason and imagine,
critique texts objectively and  respond to them personally.
And I want them to do this with
real independence
and a strong sense of agency and identity as readers,
in ways that support
academic success and a love of reading. 
I want kids to understand that "Reading is an education of the heart (that) enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world (Susan Sontag, 1995, as quoted in Vinton, p. 17). Or as Paul Kalinithi said so eloquently in his memoir, WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR, "Books became my closest confidants, finely ground lenses providing new views of the world" (27).

And I love what Barack Obama says about how novels have informed his life. "When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I've learned, I think I've learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there's still truth there to be found, and you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it's possible to connect with someone else even though they're very different from you" Barack Obama (as quoted in Vinton, 17-18)

As a teacher, I want my ultimate goal for my readers to be "depth of thinking, text understanding, independence, and a love of reading" (p. 39).

I want my students to read "at the literal, inferential, figurative, and thematic levels" (p. 37.)

I want them to be constantly asking themselves:
  • What is this text really about?
  • What might the author be trying to show us about what it means to be human in this complex world of ours? (p. 12)
I want students to be creative thinkers "people who imagine, explore, synthesize, connect, discover, invent and adapt" (Sternberg and Williams, 1996, p. 3, as quoted in Vinton, p. 33)

And I want to be a teacher who provides students with "texts that are relatively accessible at the word and knowledge levels, but offer readers lots of problems to solve at the meaning levels."

I want to enter conferences with these three questions in mind:

  • What kind of problems is this reader facing
  • What kind of text does thie reader need?
  • How can we help this reader develop a more complex vision of reading  (25)
I know, as Vinton suggests, that "Students build their identify and sense of agency as readers when they're the ones doing the work, and as students have more positive and agentive reading experiences, they become more competent and confident" (23).

I just haven't been doing a very good job living it the last couple of years. I'm looking forward to reading Part Two of DYNAMIC TEACHING FOR DEEPER READING, with hopes that it will give me some ideas for making significant changes in my practices this year.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

SLICE OF LIFE- ANOTHER GOODBYE


Last Thursday, I attended my second funeral this month. Twila Norman, my boss from 1995-2000, suffered a massive stroke and died about ten days ago. I hadn't seen her in about five years. Every time I get together with my friend, Deb, which is about once a month, we talk about how we should call Twila and invite her along some time. Somehow, the two of us never got around to it. And now it's too late. And I feel really, really sad about it…

Twila was perhaps the finest example of leadership that I have ever known. She taught me so, so, so many lessons:

1) Twila carried herself with dignity
When I think about Twila, the first word I think of is "dignity." Twila carried herself with dignity. She attended everything from board meetings, to neighborhood protests, to professional development, to custodial picnics. Whatever the situation, when she entered a room, (usually sliding unobtrusively into the back),  people sat up and paid attention. She wasn't ever haughty, or prideful, she just carried herself with such dignity, that she inspired that in others as well. When I talk to kids about behavior, I picture Twila, and tell them to carry themselves with dignity.

2) Twila demanded excellence of herself and those around her.
Twila never settled for less than her best, and she demanded excellence of those around her as well. And somehow, because she lived it, and because she asked for it, the people who worked under her, pulled off pretty much anything she asked. I remember one time when she asked me to create a one page visual for an instructional model we were asking schools to implement. When she asked, I just looked at her, because the task sounded so big and so impossible, but then, because I knew she expected it, I played around and came back with a draft the next day. She suggested one major modification and then it was done. And we used that visual for the next five years.

3) Twila always kept her head in the schools and put children and teachers first.
Twila rarely got to the office before 9:30 or 10:00. That wasn't because she was lazing or lollygagging at home; instead,  Twila started every single day with a visit to a school. She would show up, mostly unannounced, stop in the office, talk to secretaries, teachers, and parents, and do a walk through with the principal. She understood, better than anyone I have ever known, what was going on in the schools- what was going well, what needed to be fixed or adjusted, what stresses people were under.

4) Twila did what was right for teachers and kids, whether or not it was popular. 
Twila guarded her schools carefully. She watched and counted and coordinated the number of things of that were being asked of her principals and teacher. To be included on an elementary principal meeting agenda, or start an initiative, you had to first meet with Twila, explain exactly what you wanted to do, why it was necessary, and what time commitment it would entail for those involved. Twila wasn't afraid to say "No", or "That's too much," or, "Not now." That was not always popular with the masses, but it allowed schools to focus on what was important, and kept the workload manageable and the stress load down, at least a little, for principals and teachers.

5) Twila laughed a lot. 
When I remember Twila, I remember laughter. Twila, and her assistant Rick, laughed pretty much every day, and I'm not talking about giggles, I'm talking about the kind of belly laughter that made tears run down your face or caused your stomach muscles to hurt. When I first moved into my office next to theirs, I was a little surprised by how much they laughed, despite how full and challenging their days. At one point, I must have said something about it, because I remember Twila telling me, "Carol, this work we do is very, very hard. It has to be fun also, or we couldn't do it." I have never forgotten that.

6) Twila let me be who I was.
When I was hired by the district, in 1995, I was on a five person team, who went out to schools and did professional development, demonstration lessons, and met with principals and teachers. A year later, Twila asked me to take on a new title, elementary literacy specialist, for the entire district. As such, I would report directly to her, help with decisions about curriculum, plan PD, and head the Standards Team. I was more than a little hesitant, because I knew that was an office job, and I loved schools and kids. I told her I didn't think I was the right person for her job. She still thought I was. I told her I couldn't be in an office, that my work was fed by the work I did in schools. She told me I could still do that work, but that she would give me a pager. I could be out in schools as much as I wanted, but that she would page me if she needed me. If she paged me, I needed to call her as soon as I could. I agreed to try it. That system worked for us for three years, until she retired.

6) Twila knew how to maximize people's strengths.
Twila hired a secretary for me. That sounds like a silly thing, but it really wasn't. As literacy specialist, I was responsible not only for designing curriculum and professional development, but also for communicating with more than eighty principals and the teachers in their schools, for organizing workshops, including making the copies and ordering the coffee. That was in the days before email, and I spent hours and hours and hours making labels and stuffing envelopes, and managing registration for classes. Usually, I did that part of the job after hours, or took it home, but Twila didn't think that was a good use of my time, so she hired a part-time secretary, someone who had retired from the district several years before. My secretary answered the phone, stuffed envelopes, filed, and just generally freed me up, in both physical and mental hours, to do the work I loved, and the work I had been hired to do.

7) Twila called me out when I needed to be called out.
Twila loved me, but she also called me out when I needed to be called out. I vividly remember one notable situation. Twila and I were in her office, talking about a situation with my team. She and I disagreed, and the conflict got heated. I remember raising my voice to her, and then leaving the room, and returning to my office. A few minutes later, Twila followed me. "Carol," she said more than a little firmly, "I am 62 years old. I am your boss. You will not talk to me like that." And then she turned on her heel and left. A few minutes later, I apologized. I don't remember her ever having to call me down like that again.

8) Twila taught me how to handle conflict and difference of opinion
I started working for Twila when I was in my early thirties. I had a little over a decade of experience in the classroom and as a literacy coach.  I had strong opinions about my craft. Sometimes, if I thought people were wrong, I felt compelled to let them know. One day, I was in a meeting with Twila and some other people. I don't even remember the topic of the meeting, but I remember announcing to the group that something that was said was a stupid idea. Afterwards, Twila called me on it. "You don't tell people their ideas are stupid, Carol. You can't say that and hope to accomplish anything. You have to bring people along."

That "bringing people along" was something Twila did really, really well. It didn't matter whether it was the most obstinate principal, the most militant special interest group, or the angriest parent, Twila would bring them along. She would say, "Help me understand," and then she'd fold her hands and sit back and listen. By the end of the conversation, people would be nodding and laughing and agreeing. I still use that phrase, "Help me understand…" today.

10) Twila loved her husband and sons deeply.
Twila worked a lot, a lot, a lot of hours, probably easily 60 or 70 a week. Even so, I always knew that her family was her first priority. One day, I remember her leaving work at 4:00, which was almost unheard of for her. Her husband was sick; she said that hardly ever happened and she wanted to be there for him. Fred, who she had married shortly after college, was her best friend, her dancing partner, her travel companion. I have thought about him so much in the last two weeks, wondering how he is doing without her after 57 years of marriage. Her two sons were out of their home by the time I met her, but her face lit up whenever she talked about them. She was so proud of their accomplishments, their wives, their families.

So on Thursday, I said goodbye to Twila's physical body. Her influence, though, will live in my life forever. She taught me so much. She lived and loved so well…