Thursday, May 28, 2009

I'm in love with a guy named TED

Okay, it's not a guy, but love is not too strong a word to describe the way I feel about the website TED, which stands for Technology/Entertainment/Design, is an audiovisual collection of talks and presentations by the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers. At an annual conference, they present the talk of their lives in under 18 minutes. Over 400 lectures are available at the TED site. All free.

There are so many that have gotten my attention, but one that I plan to show in class today is a performance by a beatbox group called Naturally 7, who assembles an orchestra's worth of sounds as they perform their cool single "Fly Baby." What does this have to do with reading? Not that much, I suppose, in terms of things like decoding and fluency. I don't necessarily plan to weave in a reading or writing lesson to this particular TED piece, but I want to expose my students to a wide range of ideas and culture, so that we can simply engage in discussion, expand their thinking, and perhaps even sow a few seeds for future dreams. I like the sound of that.

I'd love to hear what others think of TED. Check it out! What are your favorite talks?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

the new literacies

Happy Memorial Day Weekend, everyone. Here in the Northeast, it looks to be a rainy start, so I'm not that disappointed that I have to wait for my car to be serviced before taking off for the Cape. I thought I'd post my latest Clink-related musings, while I've got a moment or two to spare.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about "the new literacies," those newer, more technology-oriented types of reading that include podcasts, blogs, wikis, Kindle, and other web-based texts and resources. There are more avenues to reading now than ever before. To keep my students up to speed with these new literary paths, I've been giving some of them a road test in my classroom. I've managed to sell a few tickets to the young men I teach, and I've been pleased to see them buy 'em up and come back for more.

For Domenic, whose main goal is preparing for the GED test, we've been using baseball and the New York Yankees as an inroad. In addition to reading The Yankee Years (see previous post), I've introduced the Bats blog on to Domenic's reading rotation. On a daily basis, Domenic starts his first-period class with ten minutes or so of reading Bats, which provides in-depth coverage of the Yankees and Mets. He reads both the posts made by the writers (Tyler Kepner, Jack Curry, Joe Lapointe, and others) as well as the comments posted by readers. It's a great daily lesson in language mechanics, grammar, punctuation, topic development, and more. One of Domenic's mini goals is to compose and post his own comment on Bats. Not only would he be refining his writing skills, but he would get the huge ego boost and satisfaction of seeing his words, his voice out there in the real world. To me, I see this as a vital part of the plan to reconnect Domenic to the world and transcend the incarcerated existence he's known for many of his developmental years.

I've also taken a liking to a little vocabulary-related podcast called Hot For Words, produced by a very attractive woman named Marina. Hot For Words podcasts are a series of educational short films that explore the meanings and origins of words and phrases. I've been able to use Hot For Words as a means of pre-teaching vocabulary words prior to reading other articles or texts, so that the kids can ultimately gain greater comprehension of what they read. Put simply, they love it. They can't take their eyes off the screen (which is pretty small, given that they watch it on my IPhone). After watching a podcast, which lasts anywhere from 60-90 seconds, we discuss the word and its meaning, write it, speak it, and use it in sentences. It's a great word-attack strategy and vocabulary-building tool. I do need to be judicious in which podcasts I allow the boys to watch (for example, I elected not to show the podcasts titled "Pull A Boner" and "Peeping Tom." I'm sure I don't have to explain my reasoning here). But Marina's podcast for the term "Kangaroo Court" was a great scaffold for the Bats post that described the mock court used in the Yankees' clubhouse as a way of cultivating a lighter team atmosphere. Check out Hot For Words and see what you think. Am I using sex to sell reading? Maybe. But I see it like this: I'm meeting these boys where they're at, and I'm using this platform responsibly to teach a few simple words and concepts that they can then build upon for further learning.

The new literacies could never be a replacement for real books. But as a teacher, I believe it is my responsibility to prepare my students for the real world and offer tools they can use to engage safely and productively with their surroundings. I hope I can make a difference.

Friday, May 15, 2009

the man who walked between the towers

For some time now, I've been fascinated by the story of Philippe Petit and his historic, astonishing wire walk between the north and south towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Earlier this year, in an effort to bring more picture books into my students' lives, I grabbed a copy of Mordicai Gerstein's The Man Who Walked Between The Towers off my younger son's bedroom bookshelf and placed it on display in my classroom. I've read it a few times to some of my students, and they always fire off question after question at the book's conclusion: Yo, did that dude fall? How'd he do that? Was he crazy? Is he still alive? I've realized that the themes in this story are particularly meaningful to the population I work with: having a dream, safety, right vs. wrong, crime and punishment, radical self-expression.

I recently got a new student, a 14 year old kid who has been in the system for too many years of his young life. I was warned before I got him: "Watch this one. Started a lot of trouble in the last program he was in. Tough kid." When She'Vaughn saw the book on display on my shelf for the first time, I couldn't help but notice the changes on his face. His eyes got wide, his lower jaw went a little slack, and--he smiled. "Yo, I remember this book. Read it when I was in 4th grade. This book's ill."

"She'Vaughn, I love this book. We'll read it here, if you'd like to."


Today we read it, and talked more about the story. I loved watching She'Vaughn hold the book, flip through the pages, feel the raised Caldecott stamp on the cover with his fingers. I asked him to imagine himself as Philippe at the moment he stepped out onto the wire and describe how he felt, what he saw, and what he heard. Here is what he wrote in his writer's journal:

The Man Who Walked Between The Towers

If I was him, I would see, a huge city! A lot of cars.
I see me up high. Watching the statue of Liberty. Saying hi
to it. Hearing birds chirping, asking me why am I so high
in the sky? I say I'm livin the dream I always dreamed. Feeling
free away from all of the Bad and the Good. Relax! Having fun,
feeling amazed of what I'm doin here. Praying I don't fall.
Screaming I'm on top of the world!!....Being told nothing.
Feeling what the towers feel. Knowing I'm making history,
knowing that no one could stop me until I feel like I had a nuff
of the day. Looking at New York harbor, saying I'm free as a bird.

My eyes got glassy. I told him I loved what he wrote.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Beavis and Butthead Do Reading Assessments

Butthead: Hey Beavis, check out this stupid reading assessment.

Beavis: Yeah, heh heh. It’s like, really stupid.

Butthead: Why do stupid teachers spend so much time giving us these dumbass assessments? It’s not like they show everything.

Beavis: Yeah, heh heh, heh heh. That’s why it says ASS at the beginning of ASSESSMENT! Heh heh.

Butthead: No, you moron, you don’t pronounce it that way! And besides, assessments do show some stuff…like how much you get what you’re reading, and how many words you know…

Beavis: Yeah, but does it help you figure out how to get CHICKS? Heh heh…

Butthead: Shut up, Beavis! This is about reading assessments, and how teachers just hafta know that they can’t tell everything about a reader using just a bunch of stupid tests. Teachers are stupid.

Beavis: Yeah, heh heh, they're really stupid...

I’m sure that after I administer a series of reading assessments to my young teenage male students, they may have a dialogue sort of like this one going on in their heads. Mind you, I do not think teachers as a whole are stupid, but sometimes, to be smart at our game, we need to consider what our reading assessments don’t tell us as much as what they do. Sometimes teachers (and administrators, and districts) focus too much on assessment, effectively inundating students with redundancy and repetition without considering how much value lies in the result, and to what extent the result will be used to inform instruction. Teachers need to be aware of the inherent limitations of assessment results.

Different reading tests measure different skills. That must be why I have a forest’s worth of reading assessment materials on multiple bookshelves in my classroom. Being new to the gig of “reading specialist/Title I Teacher,” I have taken my boss’ instructions to heart to focus significantly on the DAR (Diagnostic Assessment of Reading) as one of my primary assessment tools. The DAR offers data on student performance in the following areas: print concepts, phonological awareness, letters and sounds, word recognition, word analysis, oral reading, silent reading comprehension, spelling, word meaning, and fluency.

Results of DAR tests have given me good jumping-off points for instruction. I have used them to create lessons and activities that my students seem genuinely interested in. All of my students have made steady progress on periodic testing using the DAR. Then again, wouldn’t we expect fluency scores to increase the more a student reads and rereads the same 100-word passage over time? I’d imagine pretty much every kid would get at least somewhat more familiar with and read with more accuracy the passages by sight and by sound. I’ve also wondered to myself: what do I do with these fluency scores, aside from placing them on each student’s IRP form and showing it to my boss when she comes to observe me? Not that much at all.

Except for this: the one useful thing I use these fluency scores for is motivation, which is not an aspect of reading ability I can measure using DAR or any other kind of test, yet we educators know that this is the biggest key to reading success. I make it a point to show these scores to my students in an effort to point out to them that they’re making great progress, and they don’t have to take my word for it. They can see it in black and white. I’ve seen kids sit up straighter, strut around the room, even brag openly to their peers about how they’ve made great strides in K-Bizzle’s reading workshop. They take more pride in their reading and they’re generally more invested in the learning process.

The DAR, as well as other similar assessments, might not always bring out the best effort in a student. And in this setting, plenty of my kids have an automatic bias against anything that smells like a test. In order for them to buy into what I’m trying to sell, many of my kids have to have a genuine interest in the material in front of them. The DAR doesn’t necessarily bring out everyone’s A-game. So will my results be reliable?

While the DAR and other reading assessments offer a lens through which to “see” our readers, we teachers have to keep it all in perspective and not let assessments cloud our view of the big picture. The overarching theme I try to promote in my classroom is that reading brings joy, so I try to toss at least a little joy into the lesson every day. My students – and thank God they’re not as challenging as Beavis and Butthead – all tell me they like reading more now than they used to. Wow. And they had to come to jail to realize it.

Monday, May 11, 2009

team-teaching with the yankees

I've used basketball to sell reading with Matt de la Pena's book Ball Don't Lie, and I've succeeded in getting the attention of several reluctant readers. Recently I acquired a new student and, in the course of discussion during our reading interview (in which I gauge a new student's interests, academic strengths and challenges, and so forth) it became clear that I have a baseball fan on my hands. Not just an everyday baseball fan, who can tell you the difference between a ball and a strike but not the difference between a batting average and a slugging percentage, nor the distinction between Joe and Dom DiMaggio. No, this young man is of a different ilk. He is a Yankee fan. Upon realizing this, I thought to myself: HAH. Little does he know his reading teacher is a life long, bona fide, jock lady Yankee Fan who, if left to her own devices, could easily spend a day reading the New York Post sports section and listening to WFAN radio as she could showing up for a day of work.

We've got ourselves some common ground, I thought. Until I heard him say, "I don't read." What? Sorry? Come again? "Miss, I just don't like to read. I don't read on my's not something I do."


"You say you like the Yankees, right, Domenic?"
"Have you read the new Joe Torre book?"

Domenic looks at me with a stare that could win all staring contests. "I've heard of it," he finally says, still eyeing me with part curiosity, part shock.

"Let's go shopping. Come here." I motion for him to move his chair a little closer to where I'm sitting at my computer, and I pull up the Amazon website. In a flash, I have the order placed. "I should have this by the end of this week. I've been dying to read it, too. This will be fun."

Well, fun it has been, but it's taken some scaffolding to get the party started. Domenic's assessed reading level is roughly 5th-6th grade; The Yankee Years, by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci, is written at about a 12th grade level. Ah, the learning curve of the first year reading teacher. Whoops. But, I figure, that's okay. We'll read it together in class, out loud, together, whatever. This kid needs to read something that he has genuine interest in, something that's current and relevant. Domenic started reading TYY a few weeks ago. He (we) are on page 49. Pace is not something that concerns me. Steady progress is. Discussing this book with Domenic, making connections to his experiences, using it to create writing lessons - this is where the real value of The Yankee Years lies.

Recently, after the Red Sox took their fifth win in a row from the Yanks this season, I asked Domenic what he thought of the Yankees' hopes for playoff contention. He gave a thoughtful response and pointed to many angles, from the pitching staff to production at the plate to managerial issues. "They've made some mistakes, sure," Domenic said. "But if you look at the whole picture, they're made of good stuff. They have hope."

Kind of like you, Domenic, I thought. No. Just like you.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

the joy of fishing

I've been fishing again. Okay, still. The kind of fishing I do in my classroom, where I toss out my bait (cool books) and wait for a tug on the line, brings a similar kind of joy and satisfaction to that of real fishing, which I also happen to enjoy. I try to load my tackle box with all the stuff I think my fishies will like: realistic fiction, non-fiction, sports themes, urban literature. They don't always bite, but sometimes the reward comes from just knowing they're considering getting caught.

My latest catch comes using Matt de la Pena's Ball Don't Lie, a story about a hardscrabble inner city kid who devotes his life to playing basketball. Sticky is a young man who makes his home in a variety of foster settings but lives primarily at Lincoln Rec, the gritty L.A. gym where he has found a family among the serious players, mostly black men. Told in the rhythmic, hip-hop language of the street, Sticky’s is a riveting story about a young man’s struggle to attain a college basketball scholarship and deepen his relationship with his girlfriend. Some readers may be thrown off by the disjointed narrative, which loops between past and present. Others see the nonlinear storyline as a reflection of Sticky's own internal struggles as he comes to terms with violent childhood tragedies, numbed emotions, and his sometimes-compulsive behavior (he repeats certain actions such as shoe-tying until they feel right). Teens are strongly affected by the unforgettable, distinctly teen male voice; the thrilling, realistic basketball action; and the questions about race, identity, self-worth, and what it means to build a life without advantages.

Ball Don’t Lie seems to capture both the angst as well as the attention of many young men in the DYS secure treatment program. Kids gravitate toward this book because they can see themselves in it. It’s been particularly rewarding to see kids open themselves to this story – kids who would have previously described themselves as either non-readers or not lovers of reading. BDL is something of a pivot point for many DYS kids; this appears to be a book with the potential to change a young person’s mind about reading. I see it as a great, engaging story that holds keys to further doors into the world of literature.