Responding to the Reading with Writing

Whenever my class reads their assigned section of the class novel, they can expect to be responding by writing. That is why I make sure they are so very diligent with their annotations.

IMG_0177Thankfully, as discussed in my previous post regarding Notice and Note Signposts, it is much easier for them to identify the concrete details or examples to cite from the book to insert into their literary responses. One of my group of readers is reading Uprising by Margaret Haddix. After reading through about half of the book, I have them STOP and think about one of the protagonists. They have a choice between Bella, Yetta or Jane. Once they pick one, they are to characterize her. In other words, how would they describe her in a “two-chunk” Schaffer paragraph. This is just an approximately 11-sentence paragraph which utilizes 2 direct examples from their reading. They must make commentary about each example and include a topic sentence and concluding sentence. It may be structured as assigned, but they have become masterful about embedding text into their paragraphs seamlessly. They must make it flow with proper transitions.

Now, this is where they can scour their annotations (they focus on the C & C mainly) and find some examples that would support their chosen character which they can see changing and growing in the book.

Here are a few samples from my 8th graders from this book:
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The other book going in the class parallels this with history regarding Ellis Island entry and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, Ashes of Roses by Mary Jane Auch

Here are a few writing samples from this book:

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This is only the start. I plan on introducing the next signpost (Tough Questions) when I feel they have mastered AHA and C & C. In the meantime, they are mastering the literary responses thanks to the ease of annotating as they read.


Talking to the book; noticing and noting one signpost at at time

Becoming a close reader is the first step in interacting with a text critically. The next piece involves pulling out and citing evidence to support a paragraph dealing with character, plot, conflict etc. The annotation process makes this so much easier if evidence is found while one reads.

Trying to teach students what to mark and how to mark has been a career-long battle. It is easy for me to say, “Just talk to your book and read with your pencil.” For me, it is intuitive. Often, I have to read the book as if I was a 7th or 8th grader with this lens trying to figure out what to mark.

This summer it all became clear when I picked up Notice and Note by Probst and Beers. The reader can now pay close attention to the text with a purpose. The six signposts lessons are designed to encourage close reading.

Since close reading is subjective, the rigor lies in the transaction between the reader and the text. In other words, “The essence of rigor is engagement and commitment.” (23) This eases my fears of students not working at their given level because I know now that I can differentiate instruction by using perhaps a simpler text. Furthermore, I can have higher expectations of interaction from the higher reader to question deeper and more critically. Also, when the reader is asking the questions, the power lies in the student. This empowers the students to be the owner of the thoughts and not me; I am merely their facilitator. When I ask the questions, I know the answers. When students ask questions, they almost never already know the answer but will have to think about how to answer their thoughtful question.

I began the year with the lesson “Contrasts and Contradictions” using their scripted “Thank You Ma’am” lesson. The students understood this lesson and then practiced by taking home “The Lamb and the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl to read and annotate with C and Cs. The next day, we discussed their annotations as a class. The theory behind this is that the reader will come to a point in a text where a character’s actions or thoughts clearly contradict previous patterns or contrast with the patterns the reader would normally expect. This gives the reader new insights into the character or in other words, the reader might say, “This surprised me.” At this time, the reader should STOP (NOTICE) and then mark (NOTE) this in the margin. I have the students put “C & C” and then the anchor question, “Why is the character doing that?” They may abbreviate this question, but they must write this in the margin along with a prediction or two. This habit of writing the anchor question must be established because it will eventually become innate. They will soon start to just be able to mark it with C & C and move on, knowing that this passage will be a key in the character’s development. When they are asked to write a paragraph (I use the Jane Schaffer method) about the character changing in some way, the student will be able to cite this passage in MLA language and interpret it with a strong topic sentence and conclusion. Now we have a complete package of annotation and literary response.

Instead of teaching the six signposts up front, I decided to teach them as we proceed through the first quarter. It made more sense to dive into their class novels (Uprising by Haddix and Ashes of Roses by Mary Auch) and have them start to annotate for C & C and AHA (which I taught next). Then we can cumulatively add them as they become more comfortable marking for each. Having an anchor question on their bookmark helps simplify this immensely.

side1 side2Every other week, we write a response paragraph. Then at the end, they will write a larger essay. Mastering the response paragraph with a topic sentence, concrete details or examples, explanations or commentary and a strong concluding sentence is my initial goal before worrying about perfecting the essay format.

The students came to class with books filled with marks of multiple C & C recognitions. They felt so enlightened and confident by having a specific anchor question that it helped them understand the book and began rich discussions. We do a weekly Lit Circle called Book Buds. With that, students come to the group with their annotated book and a completed Reading Notebook assignment. In their Book Buds, they are asked to write down two examples of C & Cs they found in their reading on two separate post it notes. (And AHA’s which I also covered) As a group, they discuss their post-it note findings then vote on three to post on the large post-it paper on the board. They then come up to present them to the class. This helped the slower kids see what they could have marked, and this gave a chance for the higher kids to develop some rich discussions with each other.

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I foresee this building through the year with each signpost. Moreover, this will enable the students to see themes, conflicts, character changes and plot developments more clearly. I cannot wait for the year to unfold and students to become closer more involved readers.

At this point, they look forward to NOTICING and NOTING in their book.


Pub Club Passion

This Friday, my little group of Pubbers met. Not only was it well attended, but they truly embraced reading poetry, writing, and the idea of germinating their minds with creativity. Even one of my former students attended to show her passion and to share her insights. IMG_3154

We read “Litany” by Billy Collins, and then they penned their own versions of metaphor poems.

It is not about the club, but more about being real and enthusiastic. Students this year seem to be more engaged and excited to learn. Perhaps it is due to me being different in that I’m filled to capacity with love (for my family/Tatum). Whatever the reason, teaching has become more about life-sharing, contagious enthusiasm for what they are to know, and setting purposeful intentions to everything I do with them.

Basically, when I am at work, I am 100% there. I have to be now that I have Tatum. This has forced me to be more organized, efficient, yet effective in the moment.

I hope to inspire these students (and my others) to follow their dreams, to work hard persevering, and to become life-long lovers of learning.


Reading and the Joy of Discovery!

I am on a roll! One of the joys of my job is I get to “test” books for my curriculum. So far, I’ve read quite a few. For 8th, I’d like to add (to what they currently read) To Kill a Mockingbird, The Old Man and the Sea, and The Pearl. For 7th, I’ll add The Breadwinner, Johnny Tremain, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Stand Tall, Bad Boy, and the Story of Helen Keller.


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As I read with Tatum, and hopefully modeling this obsession, mom bought her Pat the Bunny. Coti is of course taking it all in.


After this..she discovers cups! Putting one inside another is definitely a puzzle she is discovering


Maybe she will figure out how to get the bell out of the cube?


When she goes down….

IMG_2830And after I have played with her and fed her……IMG_2797I work.

What is it about my job that keeps me completely enthralled? Is English Language Arts all that exciting? I will argue, YES it is. Reading books, analyzing lesson plans, researching ideas, reading English blogs, perusing texts…it all excites me. What is wrong with me? I do this in my free time. Most people go to the news or the latest Hollywood gossip as their sites du jour, but me? I go to or.. TED talks or… some other writing blog. My never-ending question: How can I engage my students? How can I teach them to THINK? How can I insert the needed skills in their head by connecting all the reading/writing/speaking/listening modes simultaneously? AND of course….they need grammar grammar grammar. What new ways can they get it?

The questions persist and they drive me to continue seeking best practices.


Tot time on the mat + Reading!

I’m so enjoying my summer. First, it involves lots of Tot Time!
With this, I tend to be horizontal on her mat as she inserts all of her toys in her mouth. Her latest obsession is my iPhone. However, the other day, she decided to grab the book I was reading to see what it was about.


IMG_2720This book is a grabber…I must admit! It’s the third book I’ve read this summer. The first one, To Kill a Mockingbird (assigned to my rising 8th graders) was probably the best book I’ve read in ages. Scout’s wisdom and her sassiness makes me want to meet Atticus! On the other hand, I picked up The Breadwinner (since I assigned it to my rising 7th graders for summer reading), and it made me appreciate good writing. How do some of these books get published?

The Fault in Our Stars‘ dialogue among Hazel and Gus cannot be described; it’s wit beyond words. John Greene makes these characters so addicting, one just wants to reach in the book and have coffee with them. How can he do this while characters in a book like Mango Shaped Space fall flat?

So, now, I just started reading Stand Tall by Joan Bauer, and part of me feels like I’m betraying Hazel and Gus from Fault. Isn’t that funny? It’s like you’re married to the characters and you don’t want to leave them!

As I read today, Tot and Coti hang out with me.

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