Tag Archives: Teaching Readers

Book Review: 4 Essential Studies by Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher

What are the core units of study that you teach in your English Language Arts class? Essays, Literature, Poetry, maybe argumentative writing? In Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s newest book 4 Essential Studies: Beliefs and Practices to Reclaim Student Agency (Heinemann, 2021), there is a deep dive into teaching essay writing, poetry, book clubs, and digital composition.

Now for a disclaimer, I am a HUGE!!!!! Kittle and Gallagher fan. Ever since I participated in a workshop 18 years ago with Kelly Gallagher at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York I was hooked. I have read every one of his books, adopted Article of the Week in my middle school classroom, and even use many of his texts in the college classes that I teach. If I am at NCTE or ILA, I will go to a Gallagher and Kittle workshop because I know that the information they provide is practical and timely. So, this book was something that I was eager to dive in. Let me highlight the key points presented in each section.

The Essay

How do we as teachers bring students’ voices to the forefront of essays. So much of essay writing that is taught in school is bland, rote, and formatted in a constricting five paragraph essay. But that is not the types of essays that we read outside of school. Check out Sam Anderson’s essay in The New York Times, “I Recommend Eating Chips.” or John Green’s collection of essays in The Anthropocene Reviewed. These writers write compelling and insightful essays that make readers pay attention to the insight, perspective, and point of view. Teachers want to provide opportunity for students to write meaningful essays that honor and amplify their voice and agency. We might need to experiment with form — while throwing out the five paragraph essay template to write authentic essays that blend forms and hone in on craft and structure.

Some teaching moves one can make to help students with their essay writing include providing lots of model and mentor texts and have students complete a WRITE AROUND to notice and name the writing craft moves. Additionally, providing students with lots of TIME TO WRITE and low stakes opportunities to develop their writing and voice. Kittle and Gallagher write, “A volume of ungraded practice gives them opportunities to play with their ideas – some which they will develop into polished essays using craft moves they learn in this study. We know that the quantity of writing will move more writers towards proficiency.” (page 13) Teachers must MODEL THE WRITING PROCESS for students and write along side students. Have students read, analyze, and IMITATE WRITING PASSAGES, Kittle and Gallagher call this writing activity, “kidnap the structure and style”. Don’t forget to allow time for students to conference, work in writing groups, and opportunities to revise, reflect, and evaluate their own essays.

Book Clubs

Similar to writing, volume is key when teaching reading and readers. Kittle and Gallagher write, “Book clubs motivate us to read. They deepen our understanding of not only the book but how others read and interpret the same text. Books stretch out thinking, and they expose us to books and authors we may not have otherwise missed.” (Page 45) Students practice the habits of life long readers when they engage in book club conversations, books encourage readers to talk about the topics addressed in these texts. More importantly, “rigor is not in the book itself, but in the work students to understand it.” (pg. 47) It requires teachers to choose books that are relevant and provide opportunities for students to reflect and by writing daily in their Reader’s Notebooks.

Excerpt from Penny Kittle’s Notebook in response to reading. There are so many more beautiful notebook excerpts from student’s notebooks pages 65-72.

Poetry

“Professor Thomas C Foster notes, poetry “offers a window into the human experience.” (page 80). Kittle and Gallagher call poetry, “little mysteries.” There needs to be a balance in poetry analysis and poetry writing. Inviting students to create and write their own poems and “start with playing, wondering, free writing, reading and listening to poems, creating notebook lists and phrases, and imitating. ” (page 82) Again, volume is key when teaching poetry. For poetry lists you can find more on Penny Kittle’s website.

Here are two poetry writing exercises to try out with students and lots more in the book:

Spine Poems – students collect books from the classroom library or their own personal library and stack in combinations so that the titles on the spines make poems.

Crowd Source Poetry: Using a Google Form, a teacher can crowd source poetry lines to build a community driven poem about an event, person, theme, or central idea.

Additional poetry lessons and activities include teaching figurative language, having students emulate a poetry form, host a poetry tournament to immerse students in a poetry study by theme or genre. Host a poet of the day – I actually do something similar to this with my poetry playlists providing students with a menu of poets, poems, and poetry forms.

In terms of assessment, Kittle and Gallagher created an “Excellence in Poetry” Grading Menu where poems are not graded individually but students are provided with choices and each student turns in a poem for inclusion in a classroom anthology. There were also six different poetry analysis assignments/exams.

Digital Composition

We live in a digital and visual saturated culture and to think that literacy and texts does not blend digital media. Kittle and Gallagher state, “Digital composition is not just engaging, it is necessary.” (page 117) Let’s put our students interest first and support them as content creators and creative communicators while practicing digital citizenship. Possible digital composition assignments include: designing public service announcements (PSAs), create a movie from a notebook entry, make a podcast, and analyze digital texts.

If you are looking for practical ideas to implement in your English Language Arts classroom tomorrow than Kittle and Gallagher’s book with give you four unit of study that support deep students learning and at the same time help students to practice essential skills needed to be critical thinkers and consumers of information while at the same time honoring student voice, choice, agency, and creativity.

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X-Ray Reading

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Roy Peter Clark’s X-Ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing is a must read for teachers. Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, has taught for more than 30 years and authored or edited 18 books. In this X-Ray Reading he encourages his readers to “put on their x-ray reading glasses” along with him and undress the text. This experience leads to deeper reading knowledge and deeper writing knowledge. Beginning with The Great Gatsby and working his way through contemporary literature, Clark spends time with the fine details and its literacy effects. He writes, “writing is a game of language connection and meaning.” Let’s play.

George Orwell said, “Good writing is like a window pane, a frame for seeing the world, a boundary that is hardly noticeable.”

What should we stop, notice, and note?  Here are some places to pay special attention:

The Opening Passage & Treasured Endings- These foreshadow the rest of the story. Great beginnings arc and hint at great endings with foreshadowing details. Clark utilizes The Great Gatsby to illustrate the strategic treasures of powerful endings and beginnings.

Lyrical sentences – “Long sentences that take us on a journey” (pg 46) whereas short sentences are the “gospel of truth.”

Intentional elaboration and Cliffhangers that propel the reader.

Symbolism –  Geography, names (“names are a tool to project and overview character”), and common objects with deeper meaning and or religious references. There is so much religious symbolism in literature and Clark tells all his readers to read the Bible to notice and note the religious symbolism.

Repetition or the “echo effect” – Not redundancy, but purposeful repetition and the variation of a word, object, and idea. Clark mentions language clubs and word associations to help be creative with repetition. Similarly, tropes and motifs that show up again and again are significant. Think of the powerful image of the green light in The Great Gatsby that emerges throughout the story with its literal meaning and connotations.

Word Choice, Punctuation, & Diction – “Structural, architectural concerns – the ways in which the patterns of language and imagery create the backbone of a narrative” (pg 22). Then look at “the feel and the effect of the writer’s vocabulary as a whole.” Clark references  American Scholar’s 10 Best Sentences in Literature as a place to begin studying the master craft of authors. The difference between “just the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

Nature, Setting, and Landscape – Places in the text where authors harmonize nature with narrative action and emotion and then places where nature is indifferent. Weather is part of the setting of the story and can be used symbolically. Weather is a character and metaphor that provides tension with the plot. His example of Zora Neale Hurston’s passage under the pear tree in Their Eyes Were Watching God transforms language and images of nature into symbolically rich passages.

Characterization – Clark says that it is important to torture your main character and make them suffer. He gives permission to his writing students to kill someone at the end. Details reveal the complexities of a character’s inner life. What characters are not doing is important, often more than their direction actions. Referring to Kurt Vonnegut’s advice  on the relationship between plot and character in narrative writing, “Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for, every character should want something, and be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them” (pg 126). Harry Potter is one example of this test of character.

Time – Stories are about time in motion but there are moments when time seems to stop. As a writer you can freeze time or slow down time as with To Kill a Mockingbird during the court room scene and again with Atticus shooting the rabid dog. Look for places where the readers is eased into the complex because the author’s purpose is to make us see.

Titles – Clark cites as the most important element of stories

Clark wants us to OVER READ. He writes, “literature is about movie making with your notebook and choreographing a dance.” He is all for reading like a writer. He states, “To grow as a write, you should read the words of the writers you admire and look for ways to imitate that work” (pg. 184). Plus, incorporate the “reading of poetry to examine the beautiful compression of language, meaning, and emotion.”

There are specific chapters in the book that I will be sharing with my students to help them undress and close read the text. His chapter on Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is great to read in conjunction with the short story and when my students begin reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I will share Clark’s x-ray chapter with them. If we expect students to read like writers then we must give them models what that looks like. They need opportunities to trace symbols across a text and see how writers play with words. Starting small with sentences, poems, and then short stories can help students crack open the masterful elements writers design.

Want more? Check out this podcast with Roy Peter Clark on Book Titans

 

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Let’s Get Ready to Battle . . . Battle of the Books

For the past three months my fourth grader has been engrossed in Battle of the Books. This annual events kicks off the beginning of March with a book party and students receiving a special package of story maps, books, and a book list. The 100 fourth graders are sent off on a mission to read as many books as possible for the battle that occurs the end of May. Each class battles against the other to obtain the title of “Book Champion” by answering questions identifying the books and authors for the 80 titles in a spelling bee – like event that parents are invited to attend with a celebration at the end.

The day of the battle, the entire fourth grade had read more than 1,400 books in that time frame and my daughter’s class of 17 students was the top class to read 509 books. For three months she was determined to read 40 books. Every night we would read an hour before bed and talk through the characters and stories. She was on a mission and the night before the final count, at 37 books she came home from school to powerhouse through three books to meet her personal reading goal. The books ranged from picture books to chapter books. I suggested reading the easiest books first (those with the fewest pages) before getting to Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons and C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It was intense the last week of the battle.

Amazed by the excitement in the air among the fourth graders the day of the battle, I thought how can I do this in my own classroom and make the Battle of the Books relevant in middle school. Already gamifying my classroom, why not add another layer with a school year long battle of the texts.

Battle of the Books

Click on the Image to view the entire book list for the Epic Book Battle

My list contains 100 titles – some still to be determined. The books are in order of the reading and writing units we have throughout the year. You will notice that I have included poems, books, essays, TED Talks, and even podcasts. Why not include a variety of texts for students to read and engage with. My students will have a notebook specifically for their reading notes and sketch notes. The directions for the notebook are below. I am using the directions from English teacher and podcaster, Brian Sztabnik Summer Reading Assignment for his students.

For every book you read you will keep two (or more) pages of notes/sketchnoting to organize your thinking about the text.  “How you organize those three pages is up to you. I know that this is vague and undefined, but look at it another way. I am empowering you to do what you feel is right. You have the freedom to do what you want. You can create whatever you want. All I’m asking you to do is create three interesting pages of notes about your reading experience. When there are little to no rules, the possibilities are endless. It is up to you to make it awesome!”

I am planning the last Friday of each quarter to hold a battle – of sorts. In Classcraft teams students will be asked questions related to the books. The team with the most questions answered correctly will earn treasure to use in class. The 4th Quarter the entire 8th grade class will battle all their classmates. The winning team of the epic battle will earn an even bigger advantage on your final exam.

For every 5, 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 books read and notes completed, students gain XP and various prizes to be utilized in class for their benefit. The student that reads all 100 books . . .  well you will have to wait to collect your fortune! — As for my daughter’s class, there was one student who read all 80 books and won a $100 Amazon gift card. 

The energy and excitement during the battle among the fourth graders was contagious. I was amazed how many books the students read and their collaboration to work together during the battle supporting one another. This is something that I want to recreate with my students in the upcoming school year.

 

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