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Independent Reading: Weekly Reading Tracker

As we all know, independent reading doesn’t quite flow like a traditional get-through-the-book curriculum. Since everybody’s working through their own text, what matters is the regularity of checkpoints, instead of a day-by-day sequence. The joy of the unit — students pursuing their own reading, at their own pace — can also be a nightmare for a classroom teacher, especially if you have to give quantitative feedback, aka grades. How can you best keep track of what everybody’s up to without stifling their freedom?

The best tool I have for this so far is a “Reading Tracker” which students fill out once a week during class.

Reading Tracker sample

The “Prompted Response” section is where I can tailor the activity to the needs of the students. Here’s the sequence of prompts that I used last year:

Week 1:
Is your book a “holiday,” a “just right,” or a “challenge” title? How do you know, and why did you pick this level of difficulty?

Week 2:
Did you get to your reading happy place this past week? If yes, describe how and why. If no, what do you need to do differently this week? (Rough guideline — I usually assign 75 pgs a week when we’re reading an all-class book, so if you’re not moving at at least that pace, you need to re-think your strategy.)

Week 3:
Find one of these literary devices in your book and describe what effect it has on you, the reader:
Alternate challenge: Have students go onto and pick their own item — or a few! — to work with.

Week 4:
What is a major theme in your book? What actions or ideas in the book are showing this theme to the reader?
(The theme is a main idea that should be shorter than a thesis statement, but more than a single word or something cliche like “love is eternal.”)

Week 5:
Who is a main character in your book, and can you relate to them? Give some specific examples of why you do or do not connect with them (maybe some of both). How does this affect your relationship with the book?

Week 6:
Compare two different books you’ve read — how has your EXPERIENCE of reading them been different? If one was easier to read than the other, why? Really think about it to describe how it felt to read each title.

“Notes from Pahomov” is where I comment on how kids are doing, sometimes asking questions, sometimes encouraging them to break up with their book, and sometimes HW credit for reading outside of class.

I’m always tinkering with this process, trying to find the right balance of accountability (“I need to know how they’re doing”) and joy (“any page counts or accountability kills the reading spirit!”). I would love to hear other strategies on how to strike this balance when it comes to managing independent reading on an individual basis.

Check out a write-up of the complete unit here.

Truth and Storytelling: Two Final Essays

My example of a journal brainstorm: "Draw the relationship between the self and the changing world."

My example of a journal brainstorm: “Draw the relationship between the self and the changing world.”

I started this series two months ago, but here’s the final project that goes with the Things They Carried: Truth and Storytelling Unit.

Your benchmark task is to answer the essential question:

What is the relationship between the self and the changing world?

(Sub questions: How does the self react to and deal with change? How does the world in turn react when a person changes? How does this cycle work? What is notable about it?)

You will do this by writing an essay that is both analytical and narrative.

The analytical portion of you essay will identify a major lesson O’Brien gives us about the self in the changing world. You must analyze how he conveys this message in his book. Once this formal analysis is complete, you must then apply your understanding from the book it to your own beliefs and experiences, and then write a personal essay around that theme. (This section can resemble one of the stories in the book.)

The analytical section really just reinforces the writing skills we’ve been working on all quarter with the 2Fers — and students see this. The narrative assignment, though, really blows things wide open. I emphasize that, while you can focus on death or trauma (and many students do), there are so many lessons embedded in the book about the self in the face of x y or z change. I also rely on lessons from Peter Elbow to get these ideas really flowing from students — not always easy after a few months of mostly analytical composition.

Students write about the acute anxiety of transferring schools, or refusing to watch a loved one die in the hospital; to be intensely attached to every item in a care package sent to summer camp, or to have an anger that they bank down inside them, only to have it seep out at unexpected moments.

I love this project, and it’s a fitting end to a unit where we have explored the purpose of storytelling in their lives. (At this point they usually get over the fact that Tim O’Brien was “lying” with his book of fiction.)

Storytelling on the sly.

Ah, the conundrum: what to do the last day before break? You’re all kind of spent, the kids are hopped up on sugar, but you don’t want to do nothing.

At times like these, I break out my semi-secret weapon: exquisite corpse.

“All you need is a piece of paper and writing utensil,” I say. “We’re going to play a game.”


I don’t bother explaining that we’re all creating surrealist works of art — students are too busy spinning tales around my prompts like “Your story must include a student in this class, in a place outside of Philadelphia.” Or “An SLA teacher, in a fictional place.” Three minutes and then pass clockwise. Three minutes more, do it again. Fold your paper back so only what you wrote is visible. Make the story work as best you can. Or don’t even try — the weirder, the better.

I’m strict about unfolding the papers — we have to wait and have everybody do it at once. The laughter trickles in — snickers, hand-over-mouth giggles, oh-my-gawd-they-did-NOT-write that expressions, straight-up howls of delight.Image


After five minutes of reading and passing at tables, everybody wants to share. This year, we had students playing music for penguins, teachers wandering into their own imaginations, and I turned into a pony at least once.

We do a solid hour of storytelling, get hand cramps from all the writing, have a good laugh, and then throw the papers away. Happy holidays!

From Chicago to Philadelphia?

I was one of four members of the SLA Community who had the pleasure of presenting at this year’s Coalition of Essential Schools Fall Forum at The Met School in Providence, RI. I have more ideas swirling around in my head than can reasonably be summarized in this post, but I’m going to attempt a couple of them here.

First off, it was really eye-opening to visit another school that embodies many of the same principals as SLA. We didn’t have a chance to see classes in session, but just exploring the physical building gave us lots of clues about what’s going on and what we could steal. From what I explored, the schools rely more heavily on the advisory system than SLA, and have whole rooms devoted specifically to advisory groups, complete with their own names and cubby systems and tons of individualized support notes on the white boards. The place felt like home.

The sessions that really got me thinking, though, were all about Chicago.

I am a card-carrying member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and on the whole I’m grateful for the work that they do. However, I don’t feel particularly connected to my union. And I don’t think that’s my fault — they don’t work to connect teachers around Philadelphia, beyond the occasional rally. Though I appreciate their protecting my benefits, I also crave networking. What are the other people out there doing? What are their needs, their struggles, their skills and triumphs?

This is a part of what was so interesting about the story of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, shared so eloquently by Xian Barrett at the conference.

Their movement, he said, started with an interested group of twelve people — folks who knew each other from the blogging world, or ran into each other at the annual conference hosted by Teaching For Social Justice, the progressive teacher organization in Chicago.

Over four years, they went from this seed of a group to nearly sweeping all elected positions in the Chicago Teachers Union. Their caucus also continues to organize and publicize as an organization independent of the CTU, and therefore free of some of the gag rules that are enforced around contract negotiations.

How did they do it?

First by listening, he said. Going to every possibly community meeting about educating, asking people what they needed, and acknowledging those needs.

(How did they find the time for this? By working a somewhat inhuman number of hours, including taking personal days and no-pay days to fit it all in.)

Then they found union members — we’re talking actual teachers — who were willing to run for the elected positions within the CTU. Virtually all of them running on the CORE slate were elected.

These folks recognized that they were disenfranchised from a massive behemoth of a system, and they took it over from the inside. Now, of course, they’re struggling with trying not to become the establishment they unseated. Still, they did it.

Could such a thing happen in Philadelphia?

I don’t know. But for the first time, I am seriously asking the question. I hope you will ask it with me.

Ed Note: If you’re in Philadelphia, you should definitely be at next Saturday’s Chicago Teachers Union Panel Discussion. Check it out on the Teacher Action Group website or RSVP via Facebook.

Truth and Storytelling: What Do You Carry? Letters

This is one of a few “Performance Tasks” from my The Things They Carried UbD that I wanted to highlight. It corresponds with the title story of the book, which is the first chapter. It’s also a truncated version of a longer lesson plan I found on ReadWriteThink a few years ago.

Before reading the story, I ask students to brainstorm a list: What do you carry? They handwrite their own short lists, and then we collect a class list on the board. Here’s one list from this year:

Grudges, hatred, sharp metal objects, fear, hope, money, pants, phone, laptop, ipod, a need to change things, food, electronics, emotions, knowledge, secrets, my cat, lies, friendships, stress, enemies, trust, the world, self-control, love, rejection, mental stability, rejection, what ifs, thoughts, purses, masks, mental instability, inspiration, self-doubt, chocolate, perfume, liquid, keys, MYSELF. Clothes, imaginary friends, conscience (good and bad).

We then read a few pages of the story and discuss what the soldiers are carrying and what the value or figurative importance of those items are.
After they’ve finished reading the chapter, we revisit the class list and they are given the following task, to be shared on a class forum:

This is your place to write a letter about what you carry.

Things to consider:

– Write the letter to somebody who cares about what you carry. It could be to that thing or person, or it could be to someone who made you carry it.

– It could be positive (thanking them) negative (complaining) or a mix. Or maybe you need to apologize to that person or thing.

– If you want to go funny, you could write about a physical object. If you want to go serious, what do you carry in your heart or mind that you have to tell us about?

– Don’t just write to the general public, pick someone specific.

One key aspect of this activity is that the peers will read their letter. Many students write to a specific person, sometimes thanking them, sometimes yelling at them. Often the person they are writing to remains anonymous. Other students write to their laptop or their book bag — these are funny, or angsty, or somewhere in between. A couple of years ago, one student wrote to Kanye West:

The thing that I carry is my ego. Now you see Mr. West, the ego I carry around is the greatest ego of all time, but there’s been a rumor going around that you carry around the greatest ego of all time. Now, I’m not one for competition of “ego,” but bring it on homey. 

Once they post, students have time to read and respond to each other. They also have a chance to nominate students to read their letters out loud.

This is an early empathy-building activity of the unit. It’s also the first time students are asked to tell a story in a mode similar to the book.


What do you value? Put it at the top of the page.

I consider myself fortunate that I don’t have to pack up every inch of my classroom at the end of each school year — I come back in the fall and things are (more or less) where I left them.

Of course, this can be dangerous as well. I have learned the hard way what happens when bad layout or design hits your classroom. Two years ago I was constantly reaching behind a short cabinet to get to my ethernet jacks, when I finally realized I could just shift the cabinet over. Duh.

Here are a few design choices I make in my room, and how I intend for it to influence its use:

    • The schedule for Lit Lab Tutors goes on the inside of my door — that way as I catch kids leaving class, I can quickly point them towards a Lit Lab appointment and say who will be expecting them.
    • The vocabulary list goes right next to the clock. Hopefully student eyes don’t ignore it.
    • The blank front wall to the right of my whiteboard has become the Advisory gallery. Two years ago I tried posting essential questions for each unit there, and often forgot to update them. Hopefully the advisees are getting a prime spot???
    • School posters are squeezed into narrow space — they’re visible, but they’re not hogging wide wall space that could be used to display student work.
    • The journal instructions are posted on the outside *and* inside of the cabinet door — because I realized that that door is usually open as kids retrieve and return their journals.

This year, I’m also making a major change in how I organize my courses online. Last year, the top of each Moodle page looked roughly like this:



A few key links up top, but then so many “Not available” sections I had closed to students! Ouch.

This year, each class brainstormed some expectations on the first day — something that could easily end up a dusty corner poster. This year, I decided to make their ideas live as straight text at the top of their Moodle page. Behold:

I don’t know if this will actually lead to more awareness on the part of the students — and I recognize the list is not comprehensive. However, at the very least I think it displays what I value — and that’s their thoughts. These expectations were all brainstormed on paper, and then students picked the top 3-4 from each prompt.

The policies and procedures? That’s there too, but you have to click through. There’s only so much that fits on the first screen. I am thinking hard about what kids should see first and what message that sends.

Staff planning, or: how we build it ourselves.

SLA is still in the midst of its planning week, so I thought I would describe the structure that informs our faculty work groups.

With a tiny administration (principal, secretary, and a few killer assistants), planning and organizing has always been an all-hands-on-deck affair. Since we became a full-sized school, these tasks were formalized as committees, although sometimes we avoid that term for the less bureaucratic “working groups.” Each group has a couple of rotating leaders and a short list of members. Everybody is in at least one working group, and at least half of staff are committee chairs.

I know that many schools spend their professional development days “handing down” content — whether it’s curriculum, discipline plans, trust falls, or something else. I also know that this makes a lot of people want to poke their eyes out. In contrast, virtually all of our our PD is teacher-led — and these groups have already been meeting and planning in advance of presenting to the larger group.

A couple of examples from this week:

– The Attendance group shared their reflections on last year’s attendance issues, and presented a revised proposal for dealing with student lateness.

– The Diversity committee led a workshop on working styles.

– Our Technology Coordinator (who is also our art teacher) gave us a tour of some new interfaces we will be trying out this year, in addition to Moodle and our old favorites.

– The new Curriculum committee will be guiding some unit plan improvement workshops.

– The Advisory committee will be rolling out a new program designed to help beautify and care for school spaces.

I am not going to pretend that PD is always a joy for us — but there is a sense of investment that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. We pull from all kinds of plans and structures that exist elsewhere, but ultimately what we are creating is uniquely SLA. We’re not buying wholesale into a pre-packaged plan; if there’s something that’s not working so well, we can tinker and reorganize instead of looking for a complete replacement. And we have two hours a week of staff time all year long, so people have a chance keep talking.

I know that many schools are not built for this kind of collaboration — and as a result, teachers are never asked to own anything beyond their own classrooms. The policies are rigid, and if students are hitting their heads against them, tough.

Can this change? In Philadelphia, there’s recently been a move towards more autonomy at the high school level. A part of this is the financial reality of the district; other changes, like the move away from zero tolerance and rampant suspensions, is a conscious decision on the part of the board. Response from schools was positive. Hopefully people are willing to shoulder the extra responsibility in exchange for the results.

#Engchat Reflection: Icebreakers vs. Foundations

One of the things I both love and hate about Engchat is how quickly it flies by! At the end of a session my brain is stuffed with ideas. Here are my thoughts on today’s chat, sorted out:

It goes without saying that the first days of class set the tone for the year. Whatever you value most comes through loud and clear.

Of course, the first days are *also* full of some superficial-but-necessary administrative tasks. There are schedules to confirm, and policies and procedures to introduce, and forms that need to be signed, plus a lot of names to learn.

Once wise piece of advice I’ve gotten at SLA is to never let the administrative stuff crowd out the soul of your first day(s). One way to avoid this is to make space for a purely creative activity, be it visual, verbal, or kinetic.

These days, I’m also thinking about how to turn those administrative tasks into something that also impart deeper meaning, or provide an opportunity to build community. Here are some upgrades I have made in the last few years, and what I hope they communicate:

  • To learn names, I ask students to “tell the story behind your name.” You get great biographical details as well as some hooks to remember the name. I want their whole story, not just the surface details. I’ve done this in a private survey, but it could also be a group activity, or something that gets drawn on a name card.
  • To review policies and procedures, I give kids time to read it, and then have them pair off for a “pop quiz” where I ask them theoretical questions about their conduct in the class — things like “What happens if…” or “If I forget my homework…” At the end, I reveal that this quiz was NOT for credit. Why? Because I care about the learning, not the grades. Sometimes we ceremoniously rip up the little papers.
  • I try to put off any tasks are just plain grunt work, like setting up Google Docs or other online accounts. The boring stuff gets bottom billing.

Here are some new (to me) things I am thinking about for this year:

  • Via @sriii2000 – Sharing some of my own academic hardships and failures, before asking them to share and reflect on their own. Failure should be embraced so we can learn from it.
  • Asking students to brainstorm what a successful classroom looks like — we already have school-wide guidelines, but examples of what they know should happen. Students don’t have to be told what makes a classroom work.

The last piece is making sure that these points of emphasis continue on through the school year. My one gripe with “icebreakers” is that they can be fluff when you could have substance. Or worse yet, they are substantive, but then nothing fun or community-building like that happens again, ever. I try to make sure every activity is something that could be repeated for a cumulative effect, or collects info that can be revisited by me. It’s not so much the icebreaker as it is the underwater foundations for our class structure.

This post was inspired in part by John T. Spencer’s post on “Hidden curriculum.” Looking forward to composing my own list soon.

Summer Institute at SLA.

Pic courtesy of Meenoo Rami’s Twitter feed.

Today wraps up SLA’s annual Summer Institute, where our incoming freshmen spend a few days getting to know each other and the basics of how SLA works. They go out in Expedition Groups to as questions and explore sites near the school, and then have to collaborate on a presentation for their fellow freshmen on the last day. (Sound like SLA’s core values? Good, you’ve been paying attention.)

Here are some reasons the week is special, for them and for me:

– Freshmen are still adorably astonished at how friendly, relaxed, and empowering the environment is here. Upperclassmen volunteer in droves, teachers play roles in their skits, and laughter is an explicit goal.

– We help them unlearn some of their ingrained “schooliness” — when we explore the city, there is no “right” answer; the goal is ask questions that lead somewhere interesting.

– They begin to rely on each other, not the teacher. While working on their presentations, freshmen would sometimes leave their groups and come to me seeking approval on a idea. I would send them right back.

– They bring us new energy. This is my fifth year teaching full-time, and also my fifth year at SLA. Last year, my first advisory group graduated, and the door is open for some “I’ve seen it all before” mentality. That is the opposite of true. My new kids are a whole new world to discover, and this week I had time to learn that they keep chickens, and hate candy, and speak Urdu at home. We’ll drown in paperwork next week, but for now we just have each other.

What do you do to help freshmen feel comfortable? How do you avoid making it all paperwork and procedure?

Test prep, part 3: pick the right language.

The last big idea I want to share about test prep at SLA does not relate to a specific lesson plan, but to a more general approach I take when working through test prep.

A few weeks ago I got a strong response in class when I told them, “I don’t love that this stuff exists, but I love that I get to show you how it works.” Along those lines there is a lot of language that allows me to do a silly dance around the testing material, the kind which pokes a bit of fun but also makes you perk up and pay attention. Tactics include, but are not limited to:

– Talking about “killing off” answers during process of elimination made one student comment that she felt like a “test assassin” — and the class ran with it. Alternately, making them “test pirates” and having them throw wrong answer overboard.

– Reading sample questions and answer possibilities in my extra-special game show television announcer voice.

– When students are analyzing question types and building their own, describing the process as “getting into the mind of the criminal,” like a detective. “Don’t think about the right answer! How would the test writer come up with the best answer?”

The flip side of this language is how I address the students themselves. (Thanks to Bud for pushing my thinking on how to explain this.)

A few years ago, it was actually an old roommate who busted out the line “you are a unique snowflake!” when I was talking about something or related to motivation and education.

On a whim, I busted it out during my first year of PSSA proctoring at SLA. It stuck immediately. The kids were writing it on the dry erase board at the end of each session by the time we were done.

My full line has now become, “I love you! You are a unique snowflake.”

I use this as a necessary antidote to any moment that threatens to destroy a student’s confidence, stamina, or general interest level. It gets mentioned in class before testing, tacked on to the end of instructions during exams, and is also my response any time a student asks me a substantive question during the test which (they know) I can’t answer.  It’s the buoy that kids can latch onto as their energy wanes, or the salve I can offer them when they frustration is about to bubble over.

There’s a longer post in me about the words “I love you” in school, and how important they are. In this particular situation, it’s the strongest weapon I have against an infrastructure that, intentionally or unintentionally, has greatly restricted my ability to care for my students.

So, to answer Bud’s question, if I can’t find a way to put care in the infrastructure, I give my students love in the face of the system.