Article: Motivating Readers through Voice and Choice

“Keeping students motivated to read and write throughout the school year can be a challenge for any classroom teacher.”

This is the opening line of an interesting (and short article) by Wendy Ranck-Buhr from NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English (in the U.S.), that I just read titled “Motivating Readers Through Voice and Choice.”

https://habitsofeffectivewritingteachers.wikispaces.com/file/view/Student2Student_Column.pdf 


After this relatable opening, the author then goes on to wonder:

“Sometimes it is not the reading or writing itself that drains motivation from middle school students but the ways we ask students to demonstrate what they know.”

The rest of this short article goes on to provide suggestions for how to engage students in writing and reading throughout the school year. Although technically aimed at middle school teachers and students, I imagine the strategies are applicable to high school English classes and students as well. 

For example:

  1. Blogs: teachers can use blogs to communicate with both students and parents, and students can use blogs to showcase work.
  2. Literary café: the teacher can host a book chat or book sharing session once in a while in their classroom along with beverages on tables covered in cloths. 
  3. Showcase: providing an audience beyond the classroom can be a great motivator for students and their writing. Teachers can showcase writing on the Internet, for example, or or in literary publications.

The author concludes by wondering:

“What would it take to make every student in your class a self-motivated reader and writer?”

Article: Peer Influences on Young Teen Readers

Peer Influences on Young Teen Readers

What motivates teen readers (age 12 – 15)?

Two key elements jumped out at me from this article by Vivian Howard:  http://yalsa.ala.org/yals/yalsarchive/volume8/8n2_winter2010.pdf

One: The importance of relationships to teens: that is to say, teens will rely on peers as information sources OR as a guide for where to get information in place of getting information from a book.

The findings of this study illuminate the central role played by people as information links and providers. Students relied upon a broad spectrum of people when seeking information. In fact, the interpersonal networks of students appear to determine the framework in which all information seeking takes place, therefore emphasizing the role of interpersonal interactions in gathering information as a critical component in the instruction process.

Howard goes on to report on one teen respondent’s insight about why a ‘live person’ is considered a much more valuable resource:

“One teen respondent explained her preference for human information sources in this way: ‘When asking people, I consider their expertise. If you don’t understand what a person is saying, you can ask them [sic] to explain it a little further. You can’t ask a book to explain what it means right now. I go to people because of their interactive nature.'”

img_0725

 

Two: Avid readers read for pleasure in the a “social context”, but to different degrees:

“…many young teen readers systematically described how their pleasure reading takes place in a social context, as an effective strategy to cement peer friendships. These teens actively sought to read the same materials as their closest friends and used reading (talking about reading, exchanging reading material, following the same series) as a form of social bonding…” while for others “…reading has always been and continues to be something they do for pleasure, but in isolation, and it is not a habit to be shared with either friends or family.”

So, this perhaps begs the question about what role might a teacher play in getting teens to read?

“Librarians (and teachers) can promote themselves as accessible and valuable information resources. They can also integrate themselves into students’ interpersonal networks, working with parents, teachers and others to develop and market programmes that focus on students’ needs and the interpersonal aspects of information-seeking behavior.”

But, this makes me wonder about that the teacher:

  1. needs to therefore strive to be seen as a friendly adult (not necessarily a ‘friend’, per se), a safe harbour, so to speak.
  2. must know their students: as a student, as a person, but also as a reader (likes / dislikes, abilities and challenges as a reader, etc.)
  3. could function as ‘reading mentor‘, as it were, providing reluctant students with coaching for the critical skill of book selection as well as how to find out about new books and then to what degree a reader wants to connect with other readers. (Howard includes a very interesting exploration of a ‘Taxonomy of Teen Readers’ regarding how much connection and influence peers exert on teens’ reading.)

2016-12-07-11_08_34-8n2_winter2010-pdf

 

Recognizing a Reluctant Writer in the Mirror

Last Monday brought the launch of a new professional learning series entitled Inspiring Reluctant Writers with a group of 30 grade 6, 7, and 8 educators.  Before the day arrived, I admit I fought a…

Source: Recognizing a Reluctant Writer in the Mirror

Reading: Using all the clues?

In Catching Readers Before They Fall, Pat Johnson and Katie Keier explain on page 52 that “when proficient readers solve words, they do not depend solely on phonetics.” Instead, they use a combination of information sources:

“Meaning: Knowledge that includes any background knowledge, information gained from pictures in the text, or ideas gathered from the context of the sentence or story. Readers think about what makes sense.

Structure: Knowledge that comes from being familiar with spoken language, English structure, and how it sounds. Readers choose words that sound right.

Visual: Any letter/sound correspondence knowledge a person has. Readers check to see if the word looks right.” (53)

The authors go on to say: “When students are just beginning to learn to read, they are often unable to use all three sources of information simultaneously…” These early readers “need teachers who can… Show them how to integrate and balance meaning, structure, and visual information.” (53)

I was struck that this would seem to parallel the idea of strategic reading for comprehension: that proficient readers use a number of strategies, including looking at pictures, colour, font size, font colour, shapes, icons and clip art in order to make meaning.

 

Can this parallel be drawn: whether it is decoding or comprehending, real reading involves drawing meaning from a number of different sources?

Reading is a complex, multi-faceted process that requires a number of learned skills to operate simultaneously, nimbly and quickly, starting at the word level and working up to comprehension and beyond.

What implications does this have for my teaching?

If I put a text in front of a student, Johnson and Keier would seem to reinforce  the idea that powerful learning happens when a teacher explicitly explains what is happening in a text as well as what strategy to use; models how they would navigate this text; and then gives students time to practice this type of reading to increase proficiency.

In one of her DVDs, Cris Tovani relates a story of when she informed one of her high school teachers that she wasn’t understanding a text, the teacher responded by saying “Well, just read harder” or “Read between the lines.” Being unfamiliar with the text as well as reading strategies, Tovani says she went back and looked between the lines of print and discovered that this white space yielded no meaning. It would appear, however, that it is incumbent upon me, as the teacher, to make learning visible by showing students reading strategies, including how to navigate a text.

 

David Bowie’s Top Songs? According to…?

With the surprising passing of David Bowie just a few days ago, I have come across a number of tweets from websites and publications proclaiming “The 24 Best David Bowie Songs” or something similar.

While I understand that these lists are the opinion of the publication or of a David Bowie fan, I find that this ‘these are his best songs’ reaction resonates for me as a high school English teacher because of the nature of ‘English class’ in high school.

Allow me to back track a little: how could there ever be a list of ‘David Bowie’s best songs’ — or any other artist, for that matter — when music is so very personal? For me, as a teen in the 1980’s, I was surrounded by David Bowie’s music, and while I liked some of his songs to a certain degree, it never really spoke to me in my gut (or soul or heart or whatever that place is when a song explodes inside you.) At that time, the music that made my cells thrum was Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, The Grateful Dead, and Santana to name a few.

The amazing group of friends I had in high school were a group for reasons other than our music tastes, which included my 60’s / Deadhead list, while others listened to death metal, ska, punk, new wave and indie rock. I can remember wishing that David Bowie spoke to me in my gut / soul because I sensed that he was an ‘important musician’, but for whatever reason, whatever my mixture of genes, background knowledge, upbringing, emotional sensibility, teen headspace, etc., David just never found a place in my heart. And that is okay.

And so, when I read about ‘David Bowie’s 24 Best Songs’ today, I remember that wishing his music spoke to me and then remember that it’s okay for not everyone to love his music.

How does this connect to high school English? I wonder what effect limiting students to reading only what have been deemed ‘the best or important novels’ will have on them? Kelly Gallagher, in his book Readicide, explores the idea that we, as teachers, should remember that while these core texts in English may be important, creating lifelong readers is more important.  Neither Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Nancie Atwell nor other promoters of reading would suggest that we ignore these important texts, but Gallagher fears that force-feeding ‘classic’ texts that only speak to some (if not only a few) students will undermine or even kill a students’ desire to read for the rest of their lives. Woah.

If I, as an English teacher, am worried about students being exposed to proper syntax and grammar, as well as building their vocabulary, Stephen Krashen’s seminal meta-study, The Power of Reading, submits that free-voluntary reading is the most efficient and powerful way to build those elements of language arts. After having read these amazing works by respected authors and thinkers, I confess it has given me much to think about.

(To go one step further, Jim Trelease and Dr. Stephen Layne also write about how reading aloud to students at all levels (including PhD students) is also a very powerful tool for exposing students to the beautiful intricacies of the English language. But that is perhaps for another post…)

Penny Kittle  echoes Gallagher’s idea and worries that if students are only exposed to academic reading in a boot-camp setting, they will turn off reading, and that is a much
greater problem than whether or not they were exposed to the ‘right’ or classic texts.

David Bowie’s music never took up a place inside my soul. That is okay — even though he is ‘one of the most important musicians of all time’. How would I feel, I wonder, if I had been forced to listen to his music, to dissect it, to analyze it, to discuss it, for weeks at a time, over multiple years?

Is it more important that I be able to critically analyze any piece of music or just David Bowie’s?

Kittle goes on to wonder whether we can balance students’ interests and needs with our responsibilities and goals.

 

Part II: I love comics — but is this one safe for class?

Just because something is created in the comics (aka sequential art) medium, does that change the gravitas of the content? Would a serious topic be diminished presented in comics format? 

Sometimes, comics versions of stories are seen as lesser or substandard. For example, many ‘classic’ novels have been presented as graphic novels, such as: Macbeth, Hamlet, The Odyssey, Frankenstein and Beowulf.

  

And many fine original stories have appeared as graphic novels, such as: I, Witness, A Bag of Marbles and The Outside Circle, to name a few I have recently read. But again, they are considered less than traditional novels. 

But the following comic got me wondering about what degree the comics medium might diminish or inappropriately intensify a topic.

Consider the following comic from fusion.net: a victim of rape and her story as told to Jen Sorensen by Anonymous entitled “The phone rang. It was my college rapist”.

(Note: some may find this content disturbing.)

   
      
          

  

  
  
  
  
  
  
  

Should I have included the disclaimer “some may find this content disturbing”? Isn’t that the point? I asked a number of women colleagues to read this comic along with the question of “Is this comic ‘too much’ for high school students?

My colleague, Angie, who works in the field of guidance counseling, suggested that this comic is a reality for some high school girls already. And that the topic of sexual assault needs to come out of the shadows and into the forefront of conversation. But, as my colleague Annette and I spoke, I had the feeling of ‘but they are still young adults’. 

Where is the line?

Macbeth, as a contrast, explores murder (of a leader, of a male best friend, of women and children, of innocent civilians) as well as mental illness and suicide, and this text is part of the fabric of high school English courses. 

I wonder if a concern might be whether the offending or disturbing act is overtly depicted versus merely suggested. Lady Macbeth, for example, dies offstage as does Lady Macduff and her entire household; the rape and subsequent phone call of this comic are depicted more directly by the artist.

But violence is shown quite clearly and in brutal fashion in such war films as Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List. 

Is war violence somehow safer than sexual violence for classroom discussion? 

And yet in Canada, it goes without saying that a woman must face the possibility of sexual assault throughout their lives (1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted in North America — www.sexualassault.ca

So, as a dad to three young girls, do I want them addressing difficult  topics such as those found in this comic in high school even if it makes them uncomfortable.

If it will forewarn them of very real dangers, I say “Absolutely.”

I love comics – but is this one safe for class?

I love graphic novels and comics. 

While I admit to being a lifelong fan of comic book heroes and their adventures, I am always on the lookout for comics and GNs that tell non-superhero stories –particularly ones aimed at young adults. I do this because I want to find new reading material for my high school students — but am also looking to change the minds of teacher colleagues who may think that comics and GNs are only about Batman, Superman or The Hulk – not that those are bad! 

I digress.

Two excellent examples of recent non-superhero graphic novels that I have read (and tweeted about as @mistercooke on Twitter) include: 

  • The Outside Circle by Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings: after being sent to jail for murder, a young First Nations man strives for redemption through an exploration of his own culture.
  • A Bag of Marbles by Joseph Joffo, Kris, and Vincent Bailly:  a Jewish family living in Paris must make the heart-breaking decision to send their children away as the Nazis rise to power.

   

I would love to get both of these books into the hands of students and teachers to show that powerful, disturbing, beautiful, humane, transcendent stories can also be told through the medium of comics. Or as comics guru Scott McCloud says “sequential art”.

I have discovered, in my own practice, GNs can be light reading, entry point reading, a gateway to other reading or a challenging reach book, depending on the reader, as there is a literacy unique to comics that some are more familiar with than others. 

Indeed, I love comics and graphic novels because the visual nature of comics adds both an immediacy and a new layer of complexity that both invites me in and challenges me as a reader.

But could this immediacy be dangerous?

I discovered a longer comic today that presented a difficult conundrum for me as a teacher: can this visual nature of comics and GNs be too immediate? Should some subject matter be left to the reader’s imagination? 

What is that comic, the content of which vexed me so? It shall appear in my next post, posted post-haste.