Oh ye Gods and Godesses of YA Non-fiction and all Classroom Library Aficionados

I teach 9th grade English and I’ve been working on building my classroom library this spring. I have a hefty amount of fictional works, but my non-fiction collection still requires some beefing up. It will get there eventually. I’d love to hear any suggestions you might have as far as non-fiction books that would appeal to 13-15-year-old students.

I’m wondering what tips and tricks you all might have found for keeping a classroom library. What words of wisdom do you have?


The Great Wind Down

As my school year begins to wind down, I find myself reflecting on a hard fought year. I could whine about the negatives of my job, but instead I’m making an active effort to focus on the things (in this case, mostly students) that I will miss. I will miss how this group of students has gotten to know me and have come to accept my quirky disposition and fluctuations of temperament. Each year I must initiate a new group of students to my sarcastic and at times macabre sense of humor. I must answer the question, “Why do all our stories have to do with someone dying?”

I will miss how this group of students has gotten to know me and have come to accept my quirky disposition and fluctuations of temperament. Each year I must initiate a new group of students to my sarcastic and at times macabre sense of humor. I will also have to get to know a whole new set of personalities, quirks, and behavioral issues. I must answer the question, “Why do all our stories have to do with someone dying?”

I must answer the ludicrous questions, “Do we have to read in here?” “Why do we have to write an essay?” “Can’t you just read it to me?” And I must answer the question, “Why do all our stories have to do with someone dying?”

“Because that is life, my child; that is life.” Or better yet, “We all die someday, dear, some sooner than others.” All said with a ghoulish look and an air of insanity. Muahahaha. (In all actuality it has nothing to do with me, it’s just the curriculum. But why spoil the fun?)

Anyway, I digress, there are actual students that I will miss and there are classes I will miss. I know that I’ll likely never have the same exact combination of individual personalities in one place again. I will miss the verbal banter of those who truly “get me,” the intellectual discussions of the bookish, the life lessons conversations with those in turmoil. I enjoy teaching English, but I usually enjoy the interactions I have with other humans more. Discussing ideas, literature, means of self-expression and communication hits the sweet spot for me because these activities involve other people – my students.

Reflection: What It Means to Teach

Teaching Philosophy

I believe that teaching is a noble profession. What we do as teachers is important and it affects not only our students, but also our local communities and our world. I enjoy being able to touch students’ lives positively by encouraging their intellectual development, critical thinking skills, personal growth through self-reflection, and natural curiosity. I enjoy getting to know my students as individuals, watching them learn and grow, cheering on their successes and guiding them past their failures. I feel a sense of pride when I see one of my students overcome an obstacle through perseverance, take a stand for what they know is right, accept a challenge head on, or step outside their comfort zone in order to demonstrate their knowledge and skills. It is important to me that my students all feel that they are welcome in my classroom and that I create an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding.

For the past nine years, I’ve taught freshmen; in my mind teenagers embody the essence of humanity. They’re just starting to figure out who they are, what they believe, and where they belong. It’s a tough time, but it is also an exciting time. They are bound to make mistakes and stumble on the way, but that is what we, as members of their adult support team, are here for – to guide them through the bumps and hiccups of adolescence. This is where my teaching style has its strengths. I am at heart a facilitator, a guide, a coach. I believe that students learn best when they are allowed to interact with each other, discuss concepts and strategies for understanding, and engage in questioning and supporting their claims with detailed evidence in order to demonstrate their knowledge. In order for these things to occur, it is often necessary for teachers to scaffold their approach and materials, model skills and metacognitive thinking strategies, and differentiate instruction for individual learners.

Literacy isn’t just part of what I teach, it is something I’m passionate about. Literacy has many different facets and is one of the cornerstones of success – in academics and in life in general. It is a skill and knowledge base that directly affects the quality of one’s life. Today’s students must be able to read and write effectively, speak articulately, and be good listeners to get ahead; however, there are other facets of literacy which are becoming more and more important in today’s global economy. It a world where we are surrounded by digital media, digital literacy is just as important as being able to read and write. Students must not only be able to locate information and read or interpret it, but also evaluate its relevance, accuracy, and reliability. It is essential for students to be able to think critically about what they read and view.

When it comes to methodology, I often favor a combination of class discussion, group work, and mini-lessons to keep students engaged and scaffold instruction for students who require more support. I use formative assessments to gauge my students comfort with new concepts and skills and to allow for review as needed. Summative assessments in my classes often include differentiated projects, essays, tests, and quizzes. Differentiated projects allow me to provide a challenge for students who are capable of digging deeper into content or are interested in demonstrating their knowledge via more creative means. It is also important to provide appropriate accommodations for students with special needs; it is essential to keep an open line of communication with special education teachers, guidance counselors, and parents in order to ensure the success of all students.

Reflection is the foundation of growth for me as a teacher. Taking the time to jot down little notes after a lesson or in the margins of a novel in order to improve my instruction or delivery the next time I teach a unit or a specific concept allows me to learn and grow as an educator. I appreciate student, parent, and administrative feedback because we all have our blind spots and they may see and bring to my attention something I haven’t noticed.  Afterall, we don’t stop learning just because we’ve graduated, earned a degree, or become a teacher. There are always new recipes to try, new books to read, new trails to hike, new hobbies to discover, and classes I’d love to take. Learning is an ongoing process throughout life and I’m a naturally curious individual. I’m a life-long learner and I hope to instill that desire in the students I teach.

Memory Lane with a Poem in Hand

This week my students and I have been exploring poetry. Since the beginning of the unit I’ve looked forward to handing them “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke; I just knew it would engage them in debate and get them to think critically and use textual support for their claims. Yesterday I excitedly handed them copies of the poem. I had them partner up and directed them to work through the reading process (set a purpose, preview, plan, read with a purpose, connect, pause and reflect, summarize) and analyze the poem. As they read and discussed with their partners, I traveled around the room and eavesdropped on their conversations. After three class periods of this I got the overwhelming sense that most, if not all of my students, felt the poem was about an abusive father. As I sat reflecting over my lunch break I found myself disappointed. I’d hoped for more diverse views. I wondered what this said about the lives of my students and their own personal experiences. I was proud that they’d come to their conclusions through logical means and could provide textual support to back them up, but felt sad that they’d completely missed the ambiguity of the poem and could only see one possible interpretation. However, I would not allow my enthusiasm for the poem to be diminished. I decided Papa wasn’t going down without a fight.

Today I walked into class armed with…a story. A personal story. I’d decided that to counteract what was shaping up to be a one-sided debate, I’d spin my own personal narrative.

My story:

       When I was a little girl, my father had a huge collection of records. Yes, actual 45s that you put the needle on and they’d spin round and round and play music. (I know, a foreign concept to many of my students.) Two of my favorite records were The Monkees and Don McLean’s album American Pie of which my favorite song was “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night).” At this time in my life, I was my dad’s shadow. We’d go hunting, fishing, and camping together; I’d help him change the oil in his truck and follow him around as he did yard work and chopped wood. I was daddy’s little girl. 

      My father worked in a carpet mill as maintenance personnel. He worked with his hands. When he came home from work he was often dirty. He wore big heavy work boots. My dad was rough around the edges, but he sure loved me and always made time for me in the evenings. He often spent time reading to me in the evenings before bed and every now and then we’d dance. 

      My dad would put on one of his records, often my favorite, and he’d stand me up barefooted on top of his work boots and dance me around our dining room. Sometimes my mom would join us and I’d be sandwiched in between the two of them clinging to my father’s waist for dear life. Sometimes he’d pick me up and carry me around dancing to the music. I loved this time with my dad and still cherish those memories today.  

 After telling this story, I asked my students to get out their copies of the poem from the previous class period and spend a few minutes reading through it one more time. I gave them time and then posed the question. So, what is this poem about?

It worked! I got two different answers. I may have changed some minds, I may have misjudged the previous day, but I got two distinct answers. I had the class divide up into two corners depending on their interpretation and discuss the evidence that supported their claim. Both sides then presented their evidence and I was able to show them that, yes, it was possible to have two very different interpretations of the same poem and neither interpretation was “better” than the other as long as they could provide the textual support for their interpretation.

Is it cheating?

Is it cheating? Generally when one asks such a question they already know the answer; they’re just looking for validation of some sort. The fact that they’re even asking the question often indicates that they’re feeling at least a little uneasy about whatever “it” is.

As an educator, I have an aversion to anything that even remotely resembles academic dishonesty, so you might be surprised by my take on this issue. The “it” I am referring to here happens to be listening to the audiobook versus reading the same book via hard copy or ebook format.

One could argue that it isn’t technically “reading” if you use the audio format; however, I’m not entirely certain that is enough to relegate audiobooks as “cheating.” My views on this topic have changed over time. I have always loved the look, the feel, the smell of a good book. When e-books came along, I was willing to test the waters, but quickly found that I much prefer paper to plastic. There’s just something about curling up with pages to be turned and a nice cup of coffee that draws me to literature like nothing else can.

I grew up in a book-loving house. My parents both voracious readers; my father of the crime, mystery, and history genres and my mother of romance, crime, and mystery. My parents both read to me regularly as a child; a time I relished with great joy, not only for the stories, but for the time spent with my parents. I grew up loving books the way I wish every child could.

However, more recently I’ve rediscovered a deep rooted love of storytelling through story slams and podcasts. An oral history of sorts. As a child, I always enjoyed spending time with my grandparents and great grandparents. Much of this time was spent with them telling stories of their lives to entertain and instill in me a sense of belonging, rooting me in family values and traditions and in so doing also passing down appreciation of a well-told story.

This, coupled with my experiences as a teacher, have given me a different perspective on audiobooks. In the classroom, I’ve discovered that students who struggle with focus and reading fluency benefit from hearing a novel read aloud. It allows them to pick up on subtle nuances of tone. More clearly understand characters’ feelings and motivations. It allows them to step into the world the author has created.

My biggest argument in favor of audiobooks is one of accessibility. Audiobooks make a wide range of literature more accessible to individuals who would otherwise not have such access. For my students, it allows them to experience literature as something to be enjoyed instead of an overwhelming chore.

As for me, though I still prefer the flutter and turn of the page and the smell of adventure found in a good book, my busy schedule doesn’t always allow me the luxury of curling up on the couch with my coffee mug and the freshly cracked spine of a newly found gem. I have discovered that through the use of audiobooks my commute to and from work offers an excellent opportunity to keep my fingers, or in this case my ears, on the pulse of the literary community. And there’s definitely something to be said for hearing a novel read aloud, particularly by its own author. So call it “cheating” if you want, but who doesn’t enjoy story time?

Deep breath. And. GO!

Lately, I have spent a great deal of time reading others’ writings about education, books, and writing. I’ve been hanging out with all sorts of creatives and enjoying their company. With this blog, I hope to join these conversations and share them with those who might be interested. I hope to hone my own craft as I wade into the deep waters of this new journey. Perhaps I’ll even learn to swim.

My hope is to give you a brief glimpse into my disheveled and chaotic mind and perhaps find something worth gleaning; a spark, an idea, or just something to ponder. My interests are varied so my best guess would be to expect a bit of randomness, silliness, and probably even some thoughtful commentary. My hope is that this blog will allow me to connect with other creative minds. Perhaps we can inspire each other or just give each other a rose to smell in an otherwise hectic world.