We Just Have to Keep Trying

September. The boy walks into my classroom and anxiously looks around. Bright colors surround him. Books are displayed on every flat surface. Friends wave him over. Everything should look so inviting, but it’s not enough. His frown says everything. He’s been in English classrooms before. He knows what’s coming: the reading, the writing, and the analysis. He’s going to have play it cool for now.

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October. He’s gotten to know me, his teacher, a bit now. I’m loud but don’t yell, and I smile a lot. He likes me, but doesn’t trust me yet. Anyone can be nice, he whispers to his partner. He watches as the more vocal partner calls me over to get some help. When I ask both of them a question about their books, only the partner answers. He just stares. When I direct my next question to him, the partner speaks when he won’t. The bell rings, but I ask him to stay to chat a bit longer. He turns away, gets up, and leaves. He doesn’t want me to know him.

Outside of class, I ask his former teachers about him. I learn that reading has always been a struggle for him. He avoids anything that’s difficult. That’s okay, I think. I’ve met students like him before.

November. Quickwrites are a favorite of many, but not the boy. I give him space at times, but when I do stop over to assist, he says he’s done. When I give him questions to think about, he says I have nothing to add. He writes a line or two, if anything at all. Book clubs begin, and I start to see him smile more. His group members are the ones asking the questions and sharing their thoughts. From across the room, I hear him share a few of his own ideas. I like Filthy McNasty. He loves sports as much as I do. When he sees me watching, his mouth snaps shut and refuses to open again.

Outside of class, I try calling home again and again. No response. I try email. No response. I meet with my school’s Student Support Team. I can’t let him fall down the cracks.

NOTE: I’m unexpectedly out of the classroom for all of December and January. 

February. Not much has changed in two months, but anger has surfaced. When I finally do get him to speak with me privately, he yells, Why are you back? It was so much easier when you were gone. When I ask why, he states, We listened to the book as a class and did questions together. I was doing well, and now I won’t. I share that I believe he can do well, but he states matter-of-factly,  Nope. You’ll make me try on my own. That’s when I take out my notebook. He watches me as I share my struggles, mistakes, and frustrations. Writing on our own can be difficult, I say, but that’s how we learn and grow.

Outside of class, I try contacting home again. Nothing. I ask the boy to stay after with me to work one-on-one. On the day he shows up, another classmate is quietly working in the back of the room. Before I can say anything, he walks out the door.

March. Our research unit begins. Some skills are reviewed, and others are introduced, including how to use new databases. As the boy looks through the myriad research articles, his frustration becomes palpable. The librarian tries to assist, even finding him an article, but a few minutes after attempting to read it, he crinkles it up and tosses it. Have you heard of podcasts? I ask him. When he shakes his head no, I show him how to find some. I show him some note-taking techniques, as well as transcripts for the audio. Progress begins.

Outside of class, he stays after with me a few times. He loves his topic about the importance of sports in schools. He shares with me that he is starting track soon.

April. We finish research and move into a whole-class novel unit using Romeo & Juliet. Immediately, all the growth disintegrates. The boy brings nothing to class. Each IR book is “lost” after the first day. He refuses to write quickwrites, even when they aren’t connected to the play. He won’t pay attention when we read the play aloud or act it out.

Outside of class, my own nightly reflections revolve around him, but no new ideas work. My frustrations are palpable. I go to a track meet. He doesn’t hear me cheer when he comes in first twice, but I congratulate him the next day. He looks at me in shock, then smiles and thanks me.

May. In preparation for exams, a timed essay test is given about Romeo & Juliet. Students have known the questions for weeks, and have been planning. When the boy comes in on test day, he has nothing with him. When everyone receives the test questions and requirements are gone over, he immediately blurts out, Test?! What test? While the rest of the class begins, he is still talking. He gets louder and louder, trying to get himself kicked out. He becomes such a distraction that it eventually works. I quietly ask him to leave.

Outside of class, I hopefully wait for him after school but he doesn’t show that first day, or the next day. On the third day I’m about to leave when he peaks into my room. Can I stay hear to work on biology? he asks. When I agree, he sits down, but takes nothing out. Then he looks at me. I’m sorry Mrs. K. That test was just so hard. I didn’t know what to do. I went over to him, took out my notebook, and showed him my planning for the essay. We discussed the importance of planning together, and then he got started on his own. I stayed right there though, just in case.

June. It’s the last month of the school year. We begin to reflect and prepare for final exams. As the exam date approaches, the boy’s nerves get the best of him. He misses a few classes, and then on the first day of the exam he tries to get himself kicked out again. I was ready this time though. I found a comfy corner for him to sit in, and I was right there beside him. He asked questions, when needed, and I answered. I was there.

Outside of class, I begin to read the final “advice” students have for next year’s 9th graders. (Below is the boy’s.) I also reflect on my teaching, wondering where I’ve failed and where I’ve grown. When it comes to the boy, I do feel like I’ve failed him. It breaks my heart that he didn’t pass my class. Next year is a new year though. Even though I won’t have him as a student, I can still be there for him and offer support. I will keep trying.

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My Students’ Favorite Books of the Year

Today was the last day of classes, so I took the time to ask my students how the year went. I always value their feedback so much, for it helps me plan for the following year. This year, I had four classes of 9th graders, and one class of 11th graders. I didn’t divide up their feedback, since I asked all classes the same questions. Here are some of their responses:

 

The novel that received the most votes was Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, which came in first place for the second year in a row. Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt and The Crossover by Kwame Alexander tied for second pace.

Below is the list of all of my students’ favorites (organized by the author’s last name). Enjoy looking over this year’s titles that my students fell in love with!

  • The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (2X)
  • With the Fire On High by Elizabeth Acevedo (2X)
  • The Crossover by Kwame Alexander (5X)
  • Internment by Samira Ahmed
  • Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Far from the Tree by Robin Benway
  • Unbound by Ann E. Burg
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • Fault Line by C. Desir
  • Swagger by Carl Deuker
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
  • Good Dog by Dan Gemeinhart
  • The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart
  • The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart
  • Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart (2X)
  • Code of Honor by Alan Gratz
  • Grenade by Alan Gratz
  • No One Else Can Have You by Kathleen Hale
  • To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han (2X)
  • House Arrest by K. A. Holt
  • Let Me Hear a Rhyme by Tiffany Jackson
  • Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany Jackson (3X)
  • Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur
  • The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  • Skulduggery Pleasant series by Derek Landy
  • Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen
  • When We Collided by Emery Lord
  • Lorien Legacies series by Pittacus Lore
  • I Hunt Killers series by Barry Lyga
  •  A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas
  • Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
  • The Truth About Alice by Jennifer Mathieu
  • Renegades by Marissa Meyer
  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
  • Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven
  • Anger Is a Gift by Mark Oshiro (2X)
  • Bloom by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau
  • All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely (3X)
  • Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds (6X)
  • The Track series (Ghost, Patina, Sunny, and Lu) by Jason Reynolds
  • Opposite of Always by Justin A. Reynolds
  • The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
  • The Reckoners series by Brandon Sanderson
  • Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt (5X)
  • Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
  • Dry by Neal Shusterman
  • Scythe by Neal Shusterman (2X)
  • Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman (2X)
  • Unwind by Neal Shusterman
  • Stick by Andrew Smith
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson
  • Dear Martin by Nic Stone
  • Sadie by Courtney Summers
  • This Cruel Design by Emily Suvada
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (4X)
  • On the Come Up by Angie Thomas
  • On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden (2X)
  • The Martian by Andy Weir

We Can’t Be Helicopter Teachers

This week is my Spring Break, so technically I should be taking a well deserved break from any and all things “teaching” right now. Today, however, my Honors class has drafts of their literary analysis essays due. I am reminded of this because I am getting Remind messages from students:

“How do you want me to organize this again?”

“I don’t know what to write about. Can you help me?”

“How do you want me to start this?”

Instead of sharing other comments like this, let me explain what we did before the actual drafting of our essays began.

We just spent two weeks studying the various types of literary analysis essays that show up in popular journals and magazines. We had a “Literary Analysis Flood” where we read a wide variety of pieces. We noted writing techniques that we saw the authors use. We shared ways authors opened their pieces, and we discussed the methods they used to close up at the end. We noted effective “writing moves” that they wove within their paragraphs.

When it came time for us to start planning, I began by letting students pick their own book they’d want to analyze. I introduced that I would be using Internment by Samira Ahmed, since I was currently reading it, and it would be fresh in my mind. Some students decided to do the same thing, and others chose a favorite from their past.

Once we had our books, we had to start figuring out what aspect of them we wanted to analyze. This is where I explained what literary analysis could be, for there is not just one way to do it. The proof was in the flood of reading we did in the previous week. I showed them my notebook, so my students could see that there isn’t just one way to plan.

Even with my examples, I still had two students ask me, “Do you have a graphic organizer I could use?” I thought I had prevented this, so I calmly explained that they didn’t need one. Instead, they just needed to start getting their ideas down. I had them think about questions like, What stood out to them in their books? and What do you think your author wanted you to notice? This helped, and pretty soon they had their own planning page started. One planning page looked like a list, and the other had boxes. I was pleased to see that they could get their ideas down on their own.

The next step was to begin their drafts. I shared my draft with students, which, at the time, was only a few sentences, and then I wrote more in front of them. I added the yellow note (see below) to show them how I remind myself that I may need more of an introduction, but at that point I thought it was okay the way it was. I modeled my thinking, and showed students how to begin writing using their planning page. I showed them that most of my planning ideas would be helpful, but some I may not use, and that’s okay. I showed them how I found the author’s note and acknowledgements after the story, and shared how I thought they would be helpful to me. Students asked questions, and they shared ideas to help me make progress. I thought the lesson went well.

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The start of my literary analysis draft.

Last week, however, I noticed more frustration. I missed one day of school, which was a “draft day” for my students, so I expected to see at least a few paragraphs from each of them when I returned. Many students didn’t even have one paragraph though. When I asked why, I received responses like, I didn’t know how to start! and I wasn’t sure what to do. This shocked me, for I thought I had shown them.

That day I decided to introduce to them what a “helicopter teacher” is, and that I did not plan to be one of them. I asked them how they would feel if every book had the same predictable structure. They didn’t say anything, but I could tell they were thinking about it. I explained that they didn’t need me to tell them how to start, for there are many ways. I suggested that they go back through the literary analysis pieces they read for ideas. They also had my draft to look at. These suggestions helped many of them, but others still wanted me to tell them how to write. I refused to do that. Instead of answering every question, I frustrated a few students by responding with a question. I was trying to get them to think for themselves.

Today, as I look over the drafts, I can see that some students have reverted back to the five paragraph essays they are used to writing. They want to be great writers, but they are scared to take risks. I know they are frustrated, but I must continue to push their thinking. Only then will they begin to see the type of writers they can truly become.

How do YOU push your students’ thinking? Please share below.

 

#SOL19 Day 31 – I Made It

I’m spending a little time today being proud of myself. 31 straight days of writing, and I did it! My life seems to be so chaotic lately, but I found the time. That’s because I made the time. I made writing a priority in my life, and it was so worth it.

So what comes next? Well, next March I know I’m going to have my seniors and freshmen do a version of this. I can share how I did it; I can be that model for them just like so many of you out there in the #sol19 community were for me.

More than anything else, I want to continue to write. It’s calming. It’s relaxing. It’s therapeutic. And, it’s so much fun!

Thank you Two Writing Teachers, and to every single one of you that left comments. You helped me more than you know. On to April!

#SOL19 Day 30 – The Most Important Discussion

Recently, I read an article on Kelly Gallagher’s website (for his article of the week) called “The Most Important Question of Your Life.” Basically, the piece reminds readers that we need to ask ourselves if we are willing to go through pain in order to accomplish something. The piece had such a profound impact on me that I knew I had to share it with my students to see what they thought. So I did.

My juniors read the piece first. I only have ten students in that class, and all but one loved it! They immediately wanted to share their thoughts about the text, as well as how it connected to the way they have been living their lives. Our discussion took almost the whole hour-long period, and it could have gone much longer. This discussion took place about four weeks ago, and a ince then I’ve noticed an obvious, positive change in two of those ten students. Could it have been because of the discussion we had? I’d like to think so.

My Journalism students read the article next, which was this past Thursday. They also agreed with the content, and it prompted some of them to share their feelings about my elective (this class), as well as other electives in our school. It was a completely different reaction, but, because of our discussion, I learned so much about them. One student planned to write about it for our next issue of the school newspaper. Another student said she wanted to bring the article home to show her family. Wow!

Those two discussions were ones I will never forget. I watched students bond with a text they connected with. I saw students who normally don’t say much open up. I noticed positive characteristics in my students that I didn’t know they had. And this was all through talking with one another. Most importantly, I felt like these discussions allowed me to bond with my students. We all connected with the piece in some way. Sometimes those in-class discussions teach us more than a written response ever could.

Now, I need to share this piece with my freshmen, who may need into read it the most. I can’t wait to see how they react to it.

#SOL19 Day 29 – A Nice Surprise

After a long day, I grabbed my bags, headed out the door, and went home. It wasn’t until after I unpacked my belongings and began planning dinner that I finally checked my phone. I found this waiting for me:

After the shock wore off, and a few tears were shed, I send a Remind message back to thank Connor*, that same student from yesterday’s post.

I don’t expect messages like that, for teaching is my job, and I love what I do. Still, what a nice surprise.

#SOL19 Day 28 – Helicopter Teacher?

I hear the term “helicopter parent” all the time these days, but is there such a thing as a “helicopter teacher”? You know what I mean. Those teachers that some say do too much for their students.

In my opinion, no.

Reason #1: Time – Most parents live with their children. I see my students about one hour for a class that meets four times in a six-day cycle. That’s, at the most, four hours per week! Quite a difference! I find myself scrambling for any time I can get with them, and often that’s before school, after school, or during study halls. There’s just never enough.

Reason #2: Amount of Kids – I teach six classes, which is a total of 93 students. I have yet to meet a parent with ten kids, let alone 93! Even elementary teachers have around 20. That means I have 93 different learners. I often cannot get to every kid in class, even though I try my best. So, I often send out Reminds about upcoming deadlines. I seek them out in their study halls to catch up with them. I ask them to see me in Homeroom.

Reason #3: School Years End – Parents are (should) be parents for life. In June, I have to say goodbye to my kiddos that I’ve only known since September. That’s 10 measly months! I can only hope that I’ll see them again in the halls, or they’ll stop in to check out a book. Then they move on to the next grade, and the bonding starts again.

So, if a child, who rarely sees me feels comfortable enough to ask me for help, I’m going to help them! Yes I know that kids need to learn responsibility, and yes I know that they should have been doing their work all along, but they are seeking out help. So, I’m going to help! I’m not going to do the work for the child, but I may need to reteach a skill.

Take my conversation with Connor* today. He was a student of mine as a freshman and is now a senior in danger of not graduating. He comes late to school almost every day, and he often appears tired and dejected. Today, he sent me this Remind message: “Ms. K, I need your help. I only have a few months left and it’s not good. Can you talk to my teachers like you said?” (I had mentioned earlier in the week that I’d speak to his teachers and get missing work if he promised to come to school on time, and come to my Homeroom to work on the assignments.) He knows he needs help, so he asked me. So, I am helping. No questions asked. That’s what teachers do, and that’s who I am.

*Student’s name was changed to protect his privacy.