Search Results For be ver quiet were reading

January weather forecast? Frigid.
Blogger forecast? Sunshine.
Specifically, “Sunshine Awards.”
Nominating or receiving a Sunshine Award is a way for bloggers to get to know each other. There are unlimited winners to this award because this operates much like the chain letters of old. Get an award from a fellow blogger, and then nominate 11 other bloggers to participate. I suspect that sooner or later, every blogger in the world will be nominated proving the blogging universe has no degrees of separation blogger to blogger.
That said, I was delighted to get a mention….really!!
The Sunshine award does give other bloggers an opportunity to learn about each other, although I am not sure any of the following random facts on me will be useful.
There are five “official” rules (in green):

RULE #1 Acknowledge the nominating blogger:

For me, that was Vicki Vinton of To Make a Prairie “A blog about reading, writing, teaching and the joys of a literate life.” Her blog is an amazing combination of education application and literature tie-ins. Her blog looks so organized and engaging. I know if I am thinking that something might be possible, Vicki proves that what I am thinking is doable. I will reread her posts before I write on a topic (ex: Cautionary Tale Close Reading).You owe it to yourself to visit her blog.

RULE #2 Share 11 random facts about yourself.
Okay…..11 random facts about me:

a. I have 31 nieces and nephews (no twins) from my eight younger brothers and sisters.

b. I made my prom dress in high school; I thought pink calico was adorable!

c. The famous clown Emmett Kelly, Jr. patted me on the head when I was a toddler; I am terrified of clowns.

d. I learned to drive a stick shift on my family’s white 68 VW bus that we called “Moby Dick”; consequently, I also know how to jump start a car with a stick shift.

e. I have one “attached” ear lobe and one “unattached” earlobe which is not the genetic abnormality  you might think.

Kindergarten

Kindergarten narrator

f. I was the “lead”narrator in my kindergarten play which surprised my mother and father. NOTE: I am still comfortable onstage.

g. I can recite Marc Anthony’s speech from Julius Caesar III.i.253-275(“O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth…”) because my high school teacher made me memorize a soliloquy.

DSCN0868

Lock on the Pont L’Archevêché in Paris

h. My husband and I (married 32 years) left a lock on a bridge fence in Paris near Notre Dame in 2011.

i. I tear up at at flash-mob videos. Example? (USAirForce Band at Air & Space Museum)

j. I buy white cars because I want to be seen at night. Paradoxically, these cars always look cleaner than black cars.

Haunted House

My Halloween Haunted House

k. For many years,I had a haunted house for Halloween in my barn while my two sons were young. Now, I shut off all the lights on October 31st and pretend I am not home.

RULE #3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.

(Yikes….11 more facts? Aren’t you tired of all this?)

1. What book would you want with you if you were stranded on a deserted island?
How to Build a Ship and Navigate if You Are Ever Stuck on a Desert Island. The more romantic answer, however, would be James Joyce’s Ulysses or Ulysses S. Grant’s letters. Both are on a “to do” list that would require hours of uninterrupted reading time (the connection to Ulysses trying to get back home should not overlooked either…)

2. What did you learn from your mother?
I learned how to cook for a family of eleven; food was plentiful at our dinner table. Cooking is a great skill, but this early training resulted proportion miscalculations and substantial weight gain for my husband. I just cannot get used to cooking for two.

3. Where do you write?
There is a small table in my kitchen where I do much of my writing, but when the weather is nice, I will write on my back patio table. I imagine if I was driving by, I would think, “Oh! I would like to be writing there!”

4. Where do I find joy in my classroom or my work?
When I hear a student correct another student by saying, “a lot is two words.”

5. What do I do to recharge?
I watch movies. I am a movie addict which is not surprising given my addiction to stories.

6. What was my favorite book as a child and why did I love it?
Without question, my favorite book as a child was Little Women. I am the first born, the practical Meg, but in my heart, I am the second born Jo March.

7. If you could have dinner (or coffee or drinks) with anyone living or dead, who would it be and what would you want to ask him or her?
Sister Ella, my first grade school teacher who taught me to read. I want to know if she predicted my interest in reading. She was incredibly -almost frighteningly- tall, and I could never tell if she was smiling or not.

8. Do you have a quote that you keep (in your mind, a notebook, a pocket, your desk, etc.) that captures something that seems important to you? If so, what is it?
The most recent is by Carl Sagan, “What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you.” That’s impressive.

9. How do you feel about the age you are currently in?
Emotionally, I am fine with being 57. I have come to terms with things I will never accomplish (play piano, hike the Appalachian Trail) and still hopeful on other things I want to accomplish (PhD in English, speak French). Physically, I am surprised at how often I need to get up from reading or writing so I don’t get stiff and cramp up. Mentally, I am surprised that 57 sounds old, but 58 sounds wise.

10. What are you afraid of?
I do not like turning off the lights downstairs. To this day, I will race up the stairs as if something is chasing me.

11. If you could go back to one moment in time, when & where would that be & why?
In Our Town Thornton Wilder cautions against revisiting the past; the character Emily finds it too painful. Therefore, I would choose to relieve something I did as a child but not go as myself. I would go back to the 1964-65 World’s Fair in NYC and spend the day with all the exhibits that “predicted” our future.

Now for the fun part:

RULE #4. List 11 bloggers. They should be bloggers you believe deserve some recognition and a little blogging love!

NOTE: Should any of the following bloggers want to accept this award WITHOUT the chain letter-like activities, they have my permission. I have no demands for their participation in what could be a Ponzi-scheme of blogging. These bloggers represent a cross-section of  Bloggers and Tweeters that I read regularly.

 HOWEVER, readers who visit these blogs will benefit. I learn so much from all of these writer/educators…I feel their “love”:

1. First and foremost, my dear friend Catherine Flynn blogged so often in 2013 on Reading to the Core that I could not keep up. I walk with Catherine on the weekends (and I can hardly keep up!), so I am always interested in how our conversations show up in a post. She is a literacy specialist…and a specialist in keeping me focused on the real issues in literacy.

2. I love Bryan Crandall, Connecticut Writing Project (CWP) Director at Fairfield University. He supervised my CWP experience in 2012. His blog this year is Creative Crandall and his entry for January 1st, 2014, reads: “I will spend the next 365 pontificating what creativity means to my world, the people I love, the students I work with, and the teachers that need desperate rejuvenation. The goal is to counter the dreary, maddening, and absolutely criminal doings of governmental leaders and corporate partners who are undoing public schools.” Love that.

3.  Another amazing Connecticut Writing Project Director is Jason Courtmanche at the University of Connecticut. His blog is The Write Space. His posts on Facebook/Twitter alert me to any gem I might overlook in the news that is tied to literature/education. He has worked very hard to outline the transitions of Common Core State Standards to the Early College Experience at UCONN for hundreds of high school teachers.

4.  I met Kate Baker of Baker’s B.Y.O.D.– Bring Your Own Device, Dog, & Deconstruction of Literature in person at the Council of English Leadership (#CEL13) this fall. I had seen many of her posts/tweets. The meeting was kismet…in minutes we had covered The Odyssey, Moby Dick, and other classics. She gave a dynamite presentation of Stop Bleeding Red Ink! at the conference. (FYI: Kate already has posted 11 random facts about herself on her blog!)

5. My mom is in Idaho…and so is Glenda Funk at Evolving English Teacher. I first read her entries on the English Companion Ning; then, I stalked her at the National Conference of English Teachers in 2011.  I LOVED her post about the impact of high school sports on academics: “What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Ed Reform in the U.S.A.” In that post she discusses the everyday impact of sports from practice schedules to concussions. Very informative.

6. I read Judy Artz at her blog  Intergrating Learning and Technology-“Here you will find ideas for promoting literacy through the use of technology.” I met her in person also at Council of English Leadership (#CEL13) where I greeted her as an old friend. That is because she tweets (@JudyArtz) at a rapid fire pace, and sometimes mentions me!

7. I also met Daniel Weinstein of The Creativity Core at the National Conference of Teachers of English (@NCTE13) this November. I have used his ideas in my classroom, especially the semantic mapping, with enormous success. The blog is gorgeous with student work as exemplars.

8. Guilty pleasure? The observations of the Anonymous Blogger @ English Teacher Confessions. Entry “This book made me vomit” about Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God is an intriguing homage to McCarthy’s genius as well as a warning. Reading this post will give you an appreciation for this blog writer’s style…who is no slouch herself!

9. Buffy Hamilton, former high school English Teacher and current school librarian, writes at The Unquiet Librarian. She provides interesting and very practical ways to engage students in literacy (Writing Around Texts) through this dual lens. I am more appreciative of advice from educators who have actually been in a classroom.

10. I have participated in the “Slice of Life” challenge series originated by Ruth & Stacey:Two Writing Teachers this year. I admit, I do not always follow the rules (responding to others?!?), but I appreciate their tireless support of teacher writing. I have found that writing my blog (and slices) are the most educational experience I can have. They are to be congratulated for pushing teachers to engage in writing regularly.

11. Not sure where to start? Try The Reading Zone, Sarah Mulhern Gross who writes, “My blog focuses on reading, with a lot of writing and writing workshop thrown in. I also talk about my classroom and classroom projects.” What makes her blog even more legit? She is a regular contributor to The New York Times Learning Network Blog, my “go-to” spot for literacy in content area classrooms. (See how I snuck in two blogs on one entry?)

RULE #5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. You cannot nominate the blogger who nominated you.

Here are Vicki’s 11 questions to me, and they are as good as anything I could design. I am plagiarizing them:

  1. What book would you want with you if you were stranded on a deserted island?
  2. What did you learn from your mother?
  3. Where do you write?
  4. Where do you find joy in your classroom or work?
  5. What do you do to recharge?
  6. What was your favorite book as a child and why did you love it?
  7. If you could have dinner (or coffee or drinks) with anyone living or dead, who would it be and what would you want to ask him or her?
  8. Do you have a quote that you keep (in your mind, a notebook, a pocket, your desk, etc.) that captures something that seems important to you? If so, what is it?
  9. What are you afraid of?
  10. How do you feel about being the age you currently are?
  11. If you could go back to one moment in time, when & where would that be & why?

So, dear selected Sunshine Award recipient, here is YOUR choice. You can answer any or all of the 11 questions listed above OR (and I am breaking the rules here) answer this ONE important question….

1. Why write on a blog?

Thanks again, Vicki of To Make a Prairie….this was fun to do on a bitterly cold winter afternoon!

Go Away. I’m Reading.

December 30, 2012 — 2 Comments

Perhaps you received a book this past holiday, or perhaps you had some time to catch up on book you have been waiting to read. You might need one of these signs:

Why might you need a “Go Away. I’m Reading” sign? Because reading is often interrupted by people. The sign could stop those interruptions by others that inevitably occur at a critical moment in a book or article. You would use the sign to ward off those who are blind to the obvious and ask, “What are you doing?” You might even use the sign to stymie those who intrude to ask, “What are you reading?” But you would most certainly wave the sign to stop those who interrupt to ask, “Is what you’re doing so important?”

Reading is a very quiet, sedentary activity, an activity that requires concentration. You cannot multi-task reading. An interruption in that concentration disrupts comprehension, and there are studies that look to measure the effects of interruptions on comprehension. There was the 2002 study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill titled, “The Effect of Interruption on Working Memory During Discourse Processing ” by Kerry Ledoux and Peter C. Gordon.

Ledoux and Gordon conducted separate experiments using the same narrative and expository passages, but they varied who read the narrative and who read the narrative and expository passages. They gathered evidence to prove that comprehension of similar (narrative) passages was more disrupted by interruption in the first experiment, and than with dissimilar (narrative/expository) passages  in the second experiment:

This supports the notion that the maintenance of text information in working memory is affected by interruption. Second, we found that the initial reading of the second passage in a pair is disrupted more if the first passage in the pair is of a similar type than if it is of a dissimilar type.

Their two experiments looked directly at the systems of language processing necessary for comprehension:

 Our results support the view of the role of working memory in language processing as a system whose function comprises the creation and maintenance of an elaborate, semantic representation of a text and the efficient retrieval of this representation from long-term memory.

They determined that interruptions had an adverse impact on the role of working memory, but could not determine the magnitude of these interruptions because of differences in texts.

Another more recent study concluded that visual clues are helpful to resume reading after an interruption. An abstract from the 2012 study by JE Cane, F Couchard, and UW Weger from the University of Kent, UK titled, “The Time-Course of Recovery from Interruption During Reading: Eye Movement Evidence for the Role of Interruption Lag and Spatial Memory” centered on the impotence of visual cues. Locating where one stopped reading is important to recovering comprehension:

Two experiments examined how interruptions impact reading and how interruption lags and the reader’s spatial memory affect the recovery from such interruptions. Participants read paragraphs of text and were interrupted unpredictably by a spoken news story while their eye movements were monitored. Time made available for consolidation prior to responding to the interruption did not aid reading resumption. However, providing readers with a visual cue that indicated the interruption location did aid task resumption substantially.

Predictably, cuing the place where the interruption took place is helpful to comprehension, but there is also considerably conversation about the amount of time it takes a reader to return to a full involvement with a text. Consider that research in the business communities has determined that many interruptions are costly and hurt business productivity. A 2005 NYTimes Magazine article by Clive Thompson titled Meet the Life Hackers  described a study by Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California at Irvine. Mark looked at interruptions in the average 21st Century office worker. She developed a series of timed tasks that mimic work in the business day. Her research was organized so that,

 Each employee spent only 11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted and whisked off to do something else. What’s more, each 11-minute project was itself fragmented into even shorter three-minute tasks, like answering e-mail messages, reading a Web page or working on a spreadsheet. And each time a worker was distracted from a task, it would take, on average, 25 minutes to return to that task.

Although 25 minutes may not be the same amount of time required for the average reader to return to a text, Mark’s research does demonstrate the serious loss of time interruptions cause to work productivity. If one of these activities involved reading, then reading productivity was adversely effected.

One other interesting view on uninterrupted reading has been offered by the Telecommunications Information Networking Architecture Consortium (TINAC). In 1988, they published a “manifesto” on writing hypertext, those texts that feature embedded links for the reader. What is surprising is how they began the “manifesto” by focusing not on the writing of such texts starting from the reading of such texts.  Their first statement:

I) No interruptions.

Reading should be a seamless and uninterrupted experience. Its choices proceed from the expression of possibilities as a narrative medium and depend upon the complicity of the reader in the creation of a narrative. Reading is design enacted.

Reading is “design enacted”, meaning that even the distractions in hypertexts are meant to be done in a sitting without distractions, without interruption.

Ultimately, conveying the importance of uninterrupted reading may be necessary. But if the little sign, “Go Away. I’m Reading.” doesn’t work, you might want to try other strategies. A quick survey on the Internet reveals available like-minded products.

There are plans for free “Go Away. I’m Reading” Book Covers in several different styles. There are also “Go Away. I’m Reading” coffee mugs handy for uninterrupted newspaper reading in the morning.

However, the ultimate solution may still be the most simple: find a quiet spot in the house, and lock the door.

As the first semester begins to draw to a close, I need to check in and see what progress the 9th grade students are making with Silent Sustained Reading (SSR). Our school’s move to a block schedule (A/B) days of 83 minute classes has given us the opportunity to provide students with 10-20 minutes of SSR every English class period. I try very hard not to put any restriction on what students read, although I still urge them to try and “read up” to more complicated texts. I wrote about the rationale for this program in a previous post, “Be Vewy, Vewy Quiet…We’re Reading”.

To facilitate the SSR program, there are two carts in the room with books I have purchased through the secondary market, mostly thrift stores and public library book sales (hence the title of the blog “Used Books in Class”). Each cart holds about 150 books; at $1-$2 a book, I have spent about $500 on the 300 books available for SSR.

A wide selection

A wide selection

The most popular titles in circulation these past few months have been:

Lauren Myracle’s TTFN and TTYL
John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice (any one in the series)
Catherine Gilbert Murdock ‘s Dairy Queen
Gabrielle Zevin’s Elsewhere
Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones
Patricia McCormack’s Cut
Carl Deuker’s Gym Candy
S. A. Bodeen’s The Compound
Sarah Dressen’s  Dreamland
Nicholas Sparks’s Dear John
Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games Trilogy (pick any one of these; they are on EVERYONE’S shelf)

The students are keeping their responses to the books they read on the Shelfari website this year. This is a commercial site tied to the retail giant Amazon, but there are ways to lock down the private groups we have established for each class. Last year, we used Blogger, but there were some glitches with Internet Explorer and Blogger; unless we used a browser like Firefox, the pages kept jumping and commenting was impossible. When students are on the Shelfari site, they can see what other students in the class are reading, and posting titles they have read or plan on reading is really easy. In addition, there are already reviews of the books, so students are forced to add something original to a review of the book. They can read recommendations (for and against the text) and they can participate in a discussion.

This morning I posted the following discussion prompt on Shelfari:

Hello,
You have had 16 weeks of SSR in class-most of the time with your choice of reading materials.
Tell me how you are progressing as a reader. Are you finding enough materials to read? Have you read at least ONE good book? Are you a better reader now that you were in September? Why or why not?

Some of the responses made my teacher’s heart pound proudly:

Over the past 16 weeks of SSR, I’ve probably read 5 or 6 books. Some of them were short, but some were a reasonable length. I’ve really been enjoying the SSR time we’ve been getting because the quiet period of time we get is really beneficial to my reading skills.

I am progressing in my reading. So far I have read three books this year. I am finding plenty to read. I have found many good books, including “Prom & Prejudice” and “Awkward”. I feel I am a better reader than I was in September because I am reading more difficult books than I was before and in September.

Yes I am better reader because last year I read even slower than I do now and I understand more because of the vocabulary words. I am finding enough materials to read. A good book I read this year was Miracle on 49th Street, this was good because it was a very suspenseful book.

But then, there are the honest appraisals that make me concerned about how students select books and a student’s ability to stay focused in a class for 10-20 minutes:

I’m an average speed reader, but I tend to get distracted. I’ve read a lot of good books, but they were in a lot of different genres. It’s hard for me to find books that interest me lately. I feel that my reading skills have changed a little, I’ve been able to understand things a little more.

During the past 16 weeks of SSR I haven’t really improved very much with my reading. I have only finished one book and I am working on another the first was a pretty good length and didn’t take long to read and the other is pretty long. I am a slow reader and I also just never find the time to sit down and read my book. Also, I get distracted while reading my book sometimes, so I haven’t progressed very much in the weeks of SSR.

And then, there are the even more painfully honest appraisals:

I’m a really really slow reader, and tend to get very distracted while reading, so I have a hard time making lots of progress in books. Books that are available to me don’t interest me. There was only one book that I’ve read and liked in my whole life; but there are no sequels. No I’m not a better reader, my reading skills never change, I’m always a slow and easily distracted reader.

The quiet time in SSR may not be “quiet” enough for some students, so I need to think about the physical space being more reader friendly. Apparently, I also need to have some students develop an understanding of what they like to read, and see how I can get those books onto my book carts.

Success with SSR is monitored through student self-appraisal, so I will be checking back in a few months to see if students note any changes in how they are reading. If nothing else, I know that there is power in the shared quiet reading experience we have twice or three times a week. When their heads are bent down in a book, I can feel them read.

Be vewy, vewy quiet….we’re reading!

Our new block schedule at Wamogo High School has made the school much quieter. We have alternating days, four periods of 85 minute classes; the traffic in the hallway is less, and, thankfully, so are the announcements. This quiet provides an excellent environment for us to continue our practice of silent sustained reading (SSR) at all grade levels, 7-12. We embarked on our SSR program two years ago, and we have noted both the anecdotal success with the program through participant surveys and the reading scores on the CMT/CAPT (State of CT mandated tests).

There are a number of texts on the incorporation of an SSR program in a language arts classrooms. Janice Pilgreen’s book (2000) The SSR HandbookHow to Organize and Manage a Sustained Silent Reading Program has an eight point checklist for successfully implementing SSR.

Using Pilgreen’s checklist (her suggestions in red), here is an explanation of how Wamogo is implementing the SSR program this year:

  • “Students need to be flooded with reading materials.”Our classroom libraries of whole class reads and independent reads are full. We have several carts that we can roll into classrooms of independent reading materials. Some carts are dedicated to specific grade levels or classes. For example, our Memoir class have a cart full of memoirs of all reading levels that students can select. Our school library is one of the few in the state to offer Overdrive® to all of its schools. Region 6 students and staff can easily download ebooks to a variety of devices from our Overdrive® catalog with over 15,000 titles. Students and staff can borrow free ebooks and read them on their iPod, iPad, laptop, Kindle or Nook. Creating a flood of reading materials is discussed also in Kelly Gallagher’s book Readicide. 
  • Appeal: The reading materials should be geared toward the interests of the students who are reading them.” We are sensitive to the wide variety of interests in our school. Many of our students are vocational agriculture students who are interested in non-fiction selections. We include all genres: manuals, graphic novels, historical non-fiction, fiction (YA titles) in trying to find books that interest our students.
  • Conducive Environment: The physical setting should be quiet and comfortable.” The new block schedule has benefitted the SSR program in an welcomed level of quiet in the school day. We do have the students read at their desks; we do not have “comfy chairs”.
  • Encouragement: Students need supportive adult role models who can offer assistance in locating reading material.” Our English Department teachers read with the students. We read the books during SSR so that we can make recommendations and discuss books with our students. Our amazing library media specialist comes in and gives book talks. She has also successfully incorporated popular author booktalks, in person or on SKYPE, with popular writers such as Neil Schusterman, Gordan Korman,and  Laurie Halse Anderson. (I am hoping for a Jon Szeiska interview one day *hint-hint*)
  • Staff Training: SSR doesn’t just happen; the staff of a school should be well versed in the goals and procedures used at the school.” Our department has seen the benefits of the SSR program, and we support each other with strategies to make the program work for us. There are teachers who use SSR time to confer with students, however, we found conferencing  distracted other readers. We also discuss the best times to implement an SSR activity in a block period, and how to measure results. 
  • Non-accountability: This is perhaps the most controversial factor. Pilgreen found that students read more, and had more positive attitudes toward reading, when book reports and such were not required.” In today’s data driven classrooms, this is a difficult, even risky, decision. In 9th grade, we do require one book review per quarter to be placed on a shared class blog, and we do require students to read more than one book per quarter. I also record the start page and the end page (students provide this number) as a way of keeping track of their progress. But, there are no other assessments of their independent reading.
  • “Follow-up Activities: Pilgreen found that follow-up activities such as conversations about books read by students or the teacher encouraged other to try them out.” We do spontaneous book talks. “Anyone reading a good book?” I will ask, “Any recommendations?” Students will share their reactions to a book when asked.
  •  “Distributed Time to Read: A common error made by schools new to SSR is that they have one long SSR period a week, rather than shorter periods that occur daily. Pilgreen found that successful programs have students read for fifteen to twenty minutes daily.” We have found that 15-20 minutes of reading time is ideal. On an alternating block schedule, this gives our students 30-60 minutes a week of quality reading time.

A classroom book cart in Grade 9 with high interest titles

Robert Marzano’s book Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement, ASCD, (2004) references Pilgreen’s eight steps; he  suggests a 5-Step Process for implementing SSR:

Step 1: Students identify topics of interest to them.
Step 2: Students identify reading material.
Step 3: Students are provided with uninterrupted time to read.
Step 4: Students write about or represent the information in their notebooks.
Step 5: Students interact with the information.

The major difference between Pilgreen and Marzano is the use of a notebook (step 4) for recording which we may incorporate this year in having students respond to prompt. These prompts are centered on story elements (“What similarities do you notice between your character and the archetypal character we study who is on a journey?”) . Our students are using writing notebooks for free-writes (front to back) and notes/vocabulary/grammar (back to front). Their first assignment was to “decorate” the notebooks, and already there are some enthusiastic participants for both decorating and free-writes!Finally Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey make a case for including SSR as a means to acquire content vocabulary in their book  Word Wise and Content Rich, Grades 7-12: Five Essential Steps to Teaching Academic Vocabulary, Fisher and Frey consider SSR as a means to contribute to gains in both background knowledge and vocabulary.

One more reason to implement SSR? The world is noisy. Students have their individual soundtracks plugged into their ears wherever they go; all venues from public transportation to shopping to sporting events have soundtracks; phone ring tones abound. There is a cacophony of sound in a student’s brain during the waking, perhaps even the sleeping, hours.The daily 15-20 minutes we offer students to read may be the only 15-20 minutes in a day where they are forced to be quiet. SSR allows them to absorb information without distraction. Ultimately, SSR at every grade level provides the opportunity for students to shut out the noise of school; SSR teaches our students to be vewy, vewy quiet. They’re reading.

The cold in “Ethan Frome” might be what we need in the long hot summer!

It’s 103 degrees here today in Connecticut during one of the numerous heat waves we have had so far this season. Tomorrow’s forecast bodes no better news. The garden has been drying up; even the most stalwart perennials are buckling under the sun’s intensity. Leaving an air-conditioned home or car means hitting a wall of humidity; my glasses fog over and I am temporarily blinded. A headline on the Reuters website reads, “Heat Wave and Drought Besiege Already Deteriorated US Crops” (July 18, 2012). Suddenly, I have a new appreciation for the heat of Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl in The Grapes of Wrath:

  • People in flight along 66. And the concrete road shone like a mirror under the sun, and in the distance the heat made it seem that there were pools of water in the road. (Ch 12)
  • They were tired and dusty and hot. Granma had convulsions from the heat, and she was weak when they stopped. (Ch 16)
  • The sun sank low in the afternoon, but the heat did not seem to decrease. Tom awakened under his willow, and his mouth was parched and his body was wet with sweat, and his head was dissatisfied with his rest. (Ch 18)
  • While the sun was up, it was a beating, flailing heat, but now the heat came from below, from the earth itself, and the heat was thick and muffling. (Ch 18)

I believe that where a reader has lived or visited contributes to an understanding of a novel’s setting. This does not mean that a reader cannot appreciate the descriptions of Mars in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles or Panem’s District 12 in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins or on the battlefields on the plains of Troy in Homer’s Iliad or the Congo River in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Indeed, the only way for the reader to “visit” and remember these locations is through the vivid descriptions the author writes. However, there is an advantage for a reader in being familiar with the setting of a particular story, especially where setting is a dominant character. Say, for example, the town of Starkfield in Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome.

In the introduction, the narrator of the story explains how his employment has brought him to the aptly named Starkfield-“the least habitable spot”, where he “chafed at first, and then, under the hypnotising effect of routine, gradually began to find a grim satisfaction in the life”. Grim satisfaction indeed, as the winter weather in Western Massachusetts, where Wharton sets her ficticious Starkfield, can be mind-numbingly bleak.

“When I had been there a little longer, and had seen this phase of [December] crystal clearness followed by long stretches of sunless cold; when the storms of February had pitched their white tents about the. devoted village and the wild cavalry of March winds had charged down to their support; I began to understand why Starkfield emerged from its six months’ siege like a starved garrison capitulating without quarter.”

My most memorable image of the town was Wharton’s description of the graveyard that Ethan and Mattie pass on the night of the dance:

“They turned in at the gate and passed under the shaded knoll where, enclosed in a low fence, the Frome grave-stones slanted at crazy angles through the snow. Ethan looked at them curiously. For years that quiet company had mocked his restlessness, his desire for change and freedom. ‘We never got away- how should you?’ seemed to be written on every headstone…”(Ch 2)

This closing sentiment to this passage addresses the way I feel every winter when the dismal drizzle of freezing rain turns every trip in the car into heart-pounding sliding near-misses or when crusted mounds of filthy snow makes walking outdoors a life-threatening experience. My mantra becomes, “I’ve got to get out of this place.”

So how does a reader from Southern California really understand Starkfield? Yes, Wharton is genius at explanation, but that visceral understanding of January in New England is limited if the reader is reading her novel poolside on a sunny day, 78 degrees with a light wind blowing. Wharton can only stimulate the reader’s imagination to understand the kind of wet grey cold that chills to the bone until June. The memory of physically freezing in Western Massachusetts is an entirely different experience.

Conversely, a case can be made for other authors. How can the Wharton’s New England reader really understand the physical and cultural landscape for the characters of Faulkner’s  Yoknapatawpha County ? How does a student from the plains and mesas of Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop comprehend the mansions on Fitzgerald’s East Egg Long Island?  There are so many elements in creating the setting: the temperature and the angle of sunlight during the day, the architecture of the houses or buildings, the landscape and the vegetation, the dialect of the locals, the smell of the foods, and the sounds of the evenings. Each locale has identifying qualities that a great author captures in order to make a setting understandable to a reader. The author’s descriptions will resonate even more with a reader who has a first-hand experience in that setting.

Of course, reading Wharton’s novel in the in the middle of summer anywhere in the United States might be a form of mental air-conditioning. The mind can be a powerful tool into tricking the readers to feel cooler. Imagine the book display: “Feeling hot? Read Ethan Frome!”

Shhhhh….We’ve been very, very quiet in grade 9 this year with our Silent Sustained Reading (SSR) academic experiment in the college prep 9th grade class. 77 students were asked to read a minimum of eight (8)  independent reading books of their choice as part of the curriculum, and to facilitate reading, students were provided 20 minutes twice a week (40 mins total/week) of SSR.  Responses to the independent books were recorded later on blogs or presented in class.

The inclusion of independent student choice texts with the time made available for SSR meant a reduction in the number of whole class reads; four texts remained in the curriculum: Romeo and Juliet, Of Mice and Men, Speak, and selections from The Odyssey. Classroom libraries were augmented with high interest texts (used books in class) with support from the school library and Overdrive software to allow for a wide selection by students.

So, what were the results? At the beginning of the school year, students took a survey based on questions suggested in Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide. This week, (June 2012) the same students retook the same survey. In order to account for percentage differences in attendance and enrollments, results were also checked using a t-test calculator to determine statistical significance. While there was only little change in students viewing reading as “fun” or “easy,” 57% to 59% or a 2% increase in the affirmative, the other data gathered from the survey indicates a positive shift in the attitude of our students towards themselves as better readers coupled with an increase in time spent reading  outside of class.

According to our September survey, 39% of our students rated themselves as “good” readers, 42% rated themselves as “average” readers, and 21% rated themselves as “poor” readers. The difference in June was very statistically significant (t-test) with 66% of students rating themselves as good readers; 30% of students rating themselves as average readers, and only 8% of students rating themselves as poor readers.

Responding to the prompt “I read independently every day and look forward to my reading time” in September;  9% of students responded “usually”, 35 % of students responded “sometimes”, and 56% of students responded “rarely”. However, by June, the difference in student attitudes her was also very statistically significant (t-test) with 19% of students responding “usually” (up 10%),  53% of students responding “sometimes” (up 21%), and 33% responding “rarely” (down 23%).

Finally, not only did the SSR program did increase the number of books read  by students for class, students indicated (very statistically significant) that they increased the number of additional independent books they read over the course of the year. Students reading no addditional books dropped from 32% to 11% while students reading 1-2 books increased from 52% to 58%, students reading  3-4 books increased from 13% to 22%, and students reading over 4 books increased from 3% to 8%.  These numbers complemented the finding of students who increased their overall “not for school reading/reading for pleasure” for 60 minutes or more (5%), for 30-60 minutes (17%) , and for 30 minutes or less (17%). The number of students who admitted to doing no additional reading dropped from 22% to 15%.

So what are the implications of this data? There are numerous studies that support independent reading for academic achievement. Students who read independently may also have an advantage as adults in the workplace. Author Stephen D. Krashen writes in The Power of Reading:

What the research tells me [about SSR] is that when children or less literate adults start reading for pleasure… good things will happen. Their reading comprehension will improve, and they will find difficult, academic-style texts easier to read. Their writing style will improve, and they will be better able to write prose in a style that is acceptable to schools, business, and the scientific community. Their vocabulary will improve, and their spelling and control of grammar will improve.

Additionally, high school is not too late to start an SSR program. Author  Steven Gardiner defended the practice when he  responded to questions about his book Building Student Literacy Through Sustained Silent Reading and discussed the use of SSR at the high school level:

On more than one occasion, I’ve started class by simply reading aloud. I didn’t explain what I was doing or why, I just started reading. They may be 15 or 17 years old, but they quickly get quiet and listen, trying to understand what is going to happen next, just like youngsters in story hour. They aren’t too old for reading aloud, and they aren’t too old for SSR. Most students are grateful for the time. When I look at changes in modern society, I understand why.

So do I. Our students occupy a digitally distracting universe: tweeting, texting, tethered to some instant communication that generates a almost compulsive nervous response. Carving out time, 10-20 minutes a class, for quiet SSR is necessary for students who need to focus when they read. Sadly, this may be the only time during a day when students read.

The significance of our efforts to increase our students’ independent and voluntary reading is addressed in the 2007 NEA report To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence:

Voluntary reading involves personal choice, reading widely from a variety of sources, and choosing what one reads. Aliterates, people who have the ability toread but choose not to, miss just as much as those who cannot read at all. Individuals read to live life to its fullest, to earn a living, to understand what is going on in the world, and to benefit from the accumulated knowledge of civilization. Even the benefits of democracy, and the capacity to govern ourselves successfully, depend on reading.

Our practice of  good reading habits,  SSR provided twice weekly with student selected texts, can lead to improved attitudes towards reading, and we now have the data to prove that one academic year of SSR has improved our 9th grade student attitudes towards reading. SSR will be included as an important part of our literacy efforts at other grade levels as well.

Current efforts to improve our students’ love of reading is allowing them the opportunity to choose what they want to read.  Since the amount of time available to teachers in a school year is finite, the inclusion of independent choice reading materials in a curriculum means that some things, usually whole class novels, have to go. In the case of our 9th grade students, the curriculum has been reduced to  three whole class reads: Romeo and Juliet, Speak, and Of Mice and Men. The remainder of the year is devoted to student choice, fiction and non-fiction. In other words, I am running a blended reading curriculum of student choice with whole class novels. I am convinced my students need this balanced approached to literacy.

Balancing between whole class novels and independent reading

Those who advocate student choice in the classroom make some excellent points. Last fall (2011), Kelly Gallagher (Readicide) in an audio interview with Mike McQueen on the Reading on the Run website said,

” I want to know does my child’s school have expectation that my child will read recreationally? Do they support that by giving kids time to read? Do they support that by giving kids interesting books to read not just academic books to read? Those are kind of questions that I would ask in looking at my child’s school.”

Gallagher’s most recent tweets on his KellyGtogo@Twitter demonstrate his continued campaign against language arts curriculum that are limited to whole class readings:

  • gr. 4-12: half the books our students read should be recreational in nature. We don’t want to raise test takers; we want to raise readers. 
  • more books = more reading = better reading. nothing happens without books.
  • Dear Common Core, where are recreational reading expectations? 

Yet, Gallagher still recognizes the importance of the whole class novel stating, “I am a proponent of academic reading, I do believe that kids should read you know, rich academic text. You know, I want my 9th graders to read Romeo and Juliet or my 12th graders to read Hamlet.”

There are, however, some educators who have eliminated whole class reading in an attempt to either engage students with choice only or as a differentiated approach to addressing reading levels in a class. In an article in Education Week  (7/2011) titled, Against the Whole Class Novel, Pam Allyn takes the position that whole class novels do not encourage reading and instead lead to alienation and isolation. She writes, “We have now reached a point at which teaching with neither the whole-class novel nor the basal reader, in which the whole class reads a selection together, is viable. We must end these practices. They are not benefiting our students.” She illustrates her position with the story of Sam who struggled with To Kill a Mockingbird saying, “…no way was this book a refuge for him, or an inspiration. It did not help him learn to read, nor did it help him to become a lifelong lover of text.”

Instead, Allyn suggests,

“If a student has found 16 blogs about boats, let him read those in school. And maybe that student will follow one of those blogs to a newspaper series about a regatta, or to Dove, Robin Lee Graham’s personal account of sailing around the world as a teenager. In these ways, our students will be exposed to a wider variety of genres than the whole-class novel ever allowed, and they will be more compelled to think critically across genres, as the common-core standards will require of them.”

While I agree with Allyn that not every book will make a student a lifelong reader, I believe she is clouding the issue of whole class reading with bad teaching of a whole class novel.Yes, it is true that some books are very difficult for reluctant or low level readers, so it is surprising that she suggests a student may choose Graham’s Dove  (RL 6.6) given her earlier reference the isolation a low level reader may have with to To Kill a Mockingbird (RL 5.6)  Regardless, a low level reader will struggle with a high level text unless there is some instruction or support. And while I agree that her suggestion of more inclusive reading materials (blogs, magazines, non-fiction) is important,  I also believe the communal experience that occurs in the reading of a whole class novel is equally important.

I am not suggesting the unit that beats a novel to death for week upon week, or what I refer to as the “it takes as long to read The Hobbit as it did Bilbo to get to his confrontation with the dragon, Smaug”. I am promoting the whole class novel experience where students work collaboratively to decode a text, share opinions, make comparisons, or criticize plot points. I promote the whole class novel with support for the low level readers and supplemental activities for the less engaged students. Reading levels should not limit student accessibility to a text when there is support available, for example, an audiobook. Please note: I did not say vocabulary and worksheets are supplemental activities.

Ideally, I advocate the whole class novel to capitalize on contexts or issues in other subject areas. Students can read All Quiet on the Western Front while they are studying World War I in Modern World History classes. Students can read Silent Spring as a companion piece to an enviormental studies course. Students can share the stories in Warriors Don’t Cry or Mississippi 1951 when they are studying a Civil Right’s unit. Whenever possible, I advocate a interdisciplinary read as a whole class novel.

I see great benefit in asking students to recall the themes, characters, settings or plot points with something they read earlier in their lives, particularly with the more complex texts at the middle or high school level. I will ask about the dystopia of The Giver when we read Brave New World, or the societies represented by animals in Charlotte’s Web when we read Animal Farm. A shared understanding of a previous reading experience with others provides immeasurable insights into a new reading experience.

Another argument for whole class reading comes from educator, Mrs_Laf in her blog post Confessions of an English Teacher who recently admitted that while, “I am the first person to champion individual and small group reading and used to be the first to decry the whole-class novel…I’m teaching a whole-class novel.”

She explains that her immersion into choice only reading resulted in many students selecting reading that did not challenge them. Students chose “fun books”, which she compared to beach reads noting that her students were not reading as closely as she wanted. In other words, “not all reading is the same.”  She decided that many students still needed to be taught to read a novel, just the same as students are taught to read a poem or short story. Her solution? Well, first she picks high interest books (The Hunger Games) which students purchase for annotation. Students make notes in the margin, put question marks next to the text they find confusing. In using this approach, “The trick is to get them to be patient with it.  This is a different kind of reading and we are reading for a different purpose.” Her point is a good one. Many students may need to be taught to read a more challenging text if all they read is what interests them.

I see reading as a community for my students as both academic and social.  I need to prepare students for the rigors of college and the real world since there is an expectation of cultural literacy  in our society. Students will encounter references to texts that compare relationships to the doomed Romeo and Juliet or the awkward Holden Caufield or the fair-minded  Atticus Finch or the the skin-flint Ebenezer Scrooge; they should understand those references. Teaching complex texts that students would not select independently ensures they can be included in conversations that extend beyond the classroom.

Teaching a whole class novel can be successful if, like any subject matter, students can be engaged. Language arts teachers need to seek a balance in in allowing for student choice while still teaching students how to read a challenging text. Every wave of innovation in teaching such as the recent calls for independent choice has an opposite one, such as traditional whole class novel instruction. Maintaining balance with these waves is what makes education successful. Balance means emotional stability; calmness of mind; harmony in the parts of a whole. Providing for independent choice plus whole class reading equals a balanced student.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, Story Corps, “an independent nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives”, organized a National Day of Listening.   Story Corps, whose stories are heard on National Public Radio (NPR) suggested that everyone reach out to their favorite teacher or mentor to say “Thank you for changing my life.”

Everyone has at least one favorite teacher. I have two.

I loved my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Rowland, who made every task in class seem effortless. She was the Mary Poppins of my educational career who embodied the lyric, “in every task that must be done, there is an element of fun..” I was devastated when I had to leave her class midway through a school year to move to Connecticut. She was the teacher who impressed me in that short period of time as someone who visibly cared for each and every one of her students. My memories of the class are of a happy mixture of camaraderie and learning.

Sister Ella-1st Grade Teacher at Resurrection Elementary School in Rye NY, 1963

In contrast, my other favorite teacher, although I did not know this at the time, was the towering and imposing Sister Ella from first grade at Resurrection Elementary School in Rye, NY.

Sister Ella’s height was exaggerated by the dark pleated habit worn by the Sisters of Charity; yards of black fabric draped from her imposing shoulders to a breadth of an inch off the floor. Soaring atop this living obelisk was the commanding bonnet that framed a stern face and a set of steely black eyes. There was no hyperbole in seeing her as a Colossus; our small statures exaggerated her presence, but she could peer down on terrified parents as well. One glance from her could stop a speeding train, or more usefully, 33 six-year-olds lining up for recess…I am not exaggerating.

Sister Ella taught my classmates and me how to read. She accomplished this amazing feat with what I know now was an unsurpassed instinct for child psychology. At the beginning of the school year, she strategically placed the most challenging and difficult books, which I speculated by default must be the most interesting, well out of reach. We were allowed to access these treasures only by proving our reading prowess. The competitive streak in me was ignited at the onset of the school year, and so I speedily consumed the “easy readers” on the lower shelves as fast as I could. I poured through The Whales Go By, Sam the Firefly, and Go, Dog, Go. I plowed through the Dick and Jane series. I chugged through The Biggest Bear, Andy and the Lion and a multitude of Madeline stories. Determined to get to the prized collection ahead of the others, I lugged piles of books home to return them completed the following day.

Not all reading instruction was enjoyable. There was the tedious work in SRA workbooks which required a student read a nonfiction passage and answer multiple choice questions. Every student started at level purple, an infuriatingly slow level with terribly dull passages. Level Gold, the top level, was impossibly far away. Several months into SRA practice, I figured how to cheat by slipping the multiple choice answer keys from the next level into my workbook for easy access. Sister Ella caught on quickly, a terrifying moment in my nascent educational career. I was trembling when she silently moved me several levels ahead. In crossing out levels purple, blue, and green, she had acknowledged my frustration. I was promoted to level Aqua! I was skipped to the middle of the SRA series, my cheating days behind me.

By midyear, I had proved my reading was up to her exacting standards, and I was allowed to read the books from the top of the shelves while others students worked in more intermediate reading groups. She had correctly assessed my competitive nature and allowed me the freedom to read from the top shelf those books that I wanted. There were copies of  The Boxcar Children and the Bobbsey Twins series, Ginger Pye, and a copy of Charlotte’s Web.

By the end of the school year, the other students in class had joined me. Reading time was respected in 1st grade. We would read daily-quietly in groups or in read-alouds.  The Weekly Reader was introduced that year, I learned to appreciate reading the news as well.

Sister Ella had absolutely none of the warm characteristics that usually denote a first grade teacher, however, in retrospect, I came to recognize that her ability to stimulate intellectual curiosity in her students was above par. Her gift of reading has sustained me in all of my life’s activities. To foster a love of reading is the greatest gift a teacher can give. So, thank you Sister Ella.  I hope to do the same.

Next week, English II students will begin reading All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque in tandem with the World War I unit on taught in social studies classes. This collaboration is a great opportunity to have the context of a WWI novel explained from another point of view. The social studies classes cover the causes of WWI, many of the battles, and the results of WWI on Europe and American foreign policy while the English classes follow the lives of a few soldiers engaged in the conflict. Social studies can cover the macrocosm setting, the geography of WWI, while we can cover the microcosms of the novel-the intimate settings   of Paul and Kat feasting on a goose they caught or Paul visiting the bedside of Franz Kemmerich, his mortally wounded companion.

The older edition cover; copies are always found in the YA section of a book sale

Our copies of the book are fairly old, so I am always looking for additional books to replace those who have become too worn for use in class. The e-book (through Questia) is only available as a free trial. There are always copies of the novel in used book sales including the more recent edition, and the book is almost always located in the young adult section rather than on a table or section dedicated to military history or adult fiction. This placement could be attributed  to the popularity of this novel in curriculum around the country; obviously, the person placing the book on the YA table read the book in high school.  The popularity of the book in schools defies many conventions. First, the novel is a translation from German, which distinguishes it from the multitude of British and American titles that crowd middle school and high school reading lists. Second, the point of view is from an enemy combatant; the French, English and American troops are the enemy. Including this novel acknowledges Remarque’s universal message that the consequence of war is devastation, a message that may be even more important for a nation that has been at war for over 10 years.

The new edition cover

Many technological advances made WWI a brutal war: aerial combat, machine guns, mustard gas. Last year, we were reading one of the passages that described a mustard gas attack,  looking for language that described how lethal this weapon was for the foot soldiers.  Suddenly a startled look came across the face of a  student. His hand shot up as he blurted,  “Ms. P told us that the more technology that’s used in war, the further a soldier gets away from the enemy in combat.”  There was a pause-other students had heard the same in class, and the consequence of increasingly sophisticated weaponry used against Paul and his companions was suddenly very real. His point hung there until another student chimed in, “And now we use drones.”  Suddenly, the WWI novel was not dated. The students understood that military drones currently used in combat would certainly have targeted Paul and his companions if they had been available to Allied forces in 1917.

There are several activities that we pair with reading the text, but the most powerful for students is the NY Times Magazine photo essay (Ashley Gilbertson)  of soldier’s bedrooms titled “The Shrine Down the Hall” (there is a video clip as well) In the novel, Paul returns for a visit home. Instead of being a sanctuary, however, the bedroom is a painful reminder of the innocence he has lost after months of combat of the Western Front. Our assignment is to compare the elements of Paul’s bedroom (items, his feelings, his memories) to the elements in the photos of the bedrooms of American soldiers who had been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. This photo essay brings the impact of war’s devastation to an intense personal level. Many of the students have bedrooms with the same posters, layouts, or furniture, and they note these similarities in their responses.

A photo from Ashley Gilbertson's "The Shrine Down the Hall" photo essay in the NY Times Magazine section

Students are instructed to choose one of the soldier’s bedrooms from the photo essay, and make a connection with text from Chapter 7 (Paul’s visit home) by answering the following questions:

  • How are the text of the novel and the photo alike?
  • How do the text and the photo differ?
  • What is the photographer’s message? What is Remarque’s message? How are they the same? How do they differ?

The students’ responses included:

I chose picture 15, of Matthew J. Emerson’s bedroom. His room is just waiting for him to come home but it never happens. The room also has pictures cut out on the wall, from what appears high school sports, as well as trophies on the shelf. Paul gets to return home one last time, unlike the soldier who was killed in Iraq who returned in a casket with an American Flag on it. Paul feels like a stranger in his own room. War changes people; you can’t go blasting heads off for 2 years and come home and live the normal everyday life again.They come home, changed, forever.

I choose photo 17. The man who died was Sergeant Gilbert who was killed in 2006.  The photographers message is saying that an ordinary young person, even a teenager, can go to war and be killed. The photographer expresses the loneliness, silence, and emptiness that the room has. Remarque’s message is saying that the average soldier has a very hard time coming back because he or she has to make decisions that don’t involve killing, that don’t involve defusing a bomb. These two messages are the same because they both describe the difficulty of coming back home, but they are different because these two messages are set in different times with different technology of warfare.

When I see picture #3 I think of Paul the most. Here are a bunch of pictures everywhere on the walls of all different kinds of things, like “Then below are periodicals, papers, and letters all jammed together with drawings and rough sketches.” When I read this it makes me think of a cluster of a bunch of different things, also when I look at room #3 I see a cutter of a bunch of posters, hats, books, and many other things. I think the picture and Remarque’s  are both saying that life is not the same when you get home and many of the soldiers cannot come home and have everything be the same as when they left.

I chose photo 14 because it is surprisingly similar to the book. The text talks about Paul’s book shelf and his school books all thumbed through. the room has a book shelf and other references to school. What looks like a degree is hanging on his desk. This room however has a poster of the marines in the background which shows that this boy was obviously thinking of joining the military before hand. Paul has no mention to wanting to join the army before Kantorek takes them down to the recruiting office. I think the photographer’s message is to show how innocent the soldier was before.

He was on a sports team and appeared to be quite good, he won a trophy. Remarque’s message is very similar. The soldier is changed after war, he cannot go home and just drink some beers and pretend everything is all right. It’s not.

I chose picture 14. This room was occupied by Nathanial D. Windsor who died on March 11, 2007. He was only 20 years old (about the same age as Paul). T. The photographer said was trying to portray a lonely room that is not occupied anymore. Remarque’s trying to portray that Paul’s room is lonely too. They are both alike because they are lonely.

Christopher Scherer’s room reminded me of when Paul went home. Paul had a nice life before the war he felt at home, when he returned from the war he felt like he was looking through a veil. He tried on his clothes, his civilian clothes, that made him feel like he had nothing. After the two years of war he cannot have that connection to his home, he relates everything back to the war. The war has given him the thought of death and destruction, Paul is no longer himself, he cannot connect to his home, where he is supposed to be.

In the picture a bookshelf was not full which could mean that the soldier was as Paul was did, collecting them gradually.  The solider also has a clear view of the outside that he can sit and watch, just as Paul has in the story. Remarque and the photographer have different views. Remarque tries to display that after the soldiers return home they are never the same people and their rooms do not represent them. While the photographer’s message is that all the pieces of  soldiers’ lives are preserved in their rooms and are now gone forever because they have died.

Remarque’s novel transcends time perhaps because of the intensity the reader feels for one soldier caught up in a conflict beyond his control.  While the social studies classes are required to cover the history of World War I, the English classes are free to cover Paul and “his”-story.

You need to know the rules before you can break the rules.

But do you?

The teachers in my district have been using an approach to grammar around suggested by Jeff Anderson in his Patterns of Power book and lessons. In this approach:

“…students study authentic texts and come to recognize these “patterns of power“—the essential grammar conventions that readers and writers require to make meaning.”

This means that instead of worksheets, students talk about a sentence or two in texts they are reading. They discuss the parts of speech and punctuation. They imitate the sentence(s) and share what they have written.

The use of model sentences from mentor texts is not a new practice. A meta-analysis conducted over 35 years ago (1984)  by George Hillocks, Jr. titled “What Works in Teaching Composition: A Meta-Analysis of Experimental Treatment Studies,” confirmed the use of models as 22% more effective than grammar worksheets in isolation:

“This research indicates that emphasis on the presentation of good pieces of writing as models is significantly more useful in the study of grammar” (162).

There is a problem, however.  Teaching grammar rules using model sentences from a mentor text is complicated. That is because authors, many of the authors we want students to read, do not follow some of the grammar rules.

You know the rules:

  • Never start a sentence with “And”, “But”, or “So.” 

  • Use complete sentences only.

    But, one does not have to look long to find examples of rule-breaking in many of the grade-level texts.

Coordinating Conjunctions: And, But,  So

Looking for mentor texts in the upper elementary grade? The first chapter of Kate DiCamillo’s The Tiger Rising provides multiple examples of rule-breaking with sentences that begin the trifecta of coordinating conjunctions: 

“But only for a minute; he was afraid to look at the tiger for too long, afraid that the tiger would disappear.”

“And he did not think about his mother.”

So as he waited for the bus under the Kentucky Star sign, and as the first drops of rain fell from the sullen sky, Rob imagined the tiger on top of his suitcase, blinking his golden eyes, sitting proud and strong, unaffected by all the not-thoughts inside straining to come out.”

DiCamillo’s style can prove inconvenient for teachers in 3rd and 4th who are charged with teaching the use of coordinating conjunctions with dependent and independent clauses. How to explain such flagrant violations to students who are held to a different standard?

These teachers must either avoid the subject entirely or find other mentor texts.

The same disdain for a convention is seen in Madeleine L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time when the character of Calvin explains:

 “When I get this feeling, this compulsion, I always do what it tells me. I can’t explain where it comes from or how I get it, and it doesn’t happen very often. But I obey it. And this afternoon I had a feeling that I must come over to the haunted house” (Ch 2).

The English author/poet Thomas Hardy is equally culpable. His Return of the Native might be offered to high school students in an Advanced Placement Literature class. They might need to defend how Hardy intentionally broke this convention in describing the setting of Egdon Heath:

“But celestial imperiousness, love, wrath, and fervour had proven to be somewhat thrown away on netherward Egdon” (Ch 1).

And Charles Dickens used a ‘So’ to start a sentence in his timeless classic, A Christmas Carol. In this passage, Scrooge waits for the visits that were promised by Jacob Marley.

“When Scrooge awoke, it was so dark, that looking out of bed, he could scarcely distinguish the transparent window from the opaque walls of his chamber. He was endeavouring to pierce the darkness with his ferret eyes, when the chimes of a neighbouring church struck the four quarters. So he listened for the hour” (Ch 3).

The flouting of conjunction rules is not limited to fiction. There are examples in literary nonfiction such as Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring. In the New Yorker essay, a prequel to her book, Carlson employed began sentences with conjunctions, such as:

“There had been several sudden and unexplained deaths, not only among the adults but also among the children, who would be stricken while they were at play, and would die within a few hours. And there was a strange stillness.”

Even Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, a document reviewed and voted upon by a committee breaks the rule. Of the 61 ‘and’s (roughly 4% of the text) in the Declaration, the placement of the last conjunction is what packs the punch:

“— And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

Yes, yes. I know each of these authors broke the “and/but/so” convention to make a point. To contradict. To stress an idea. To break a reader’s rhythm. To startle.

They knew about the rule, and they broke it. Intentionally.

Then why are students not allowed the same choice?
Why might teachers doubt the intent of students as authors?

Use complete sentences only.

Students will also encounter another example of rule-breaking, incomplete sentences or sentence fragments. Incomplete sentences or rhetorical fragments can be found in texts at every grade level that students read in every genre.

The deliberate use of such sentence fragments could be a rhetorical device, such as an Anapodoton: “in which a stand-alone subordinate clause suggests or implies a subject.”

For young readers, Tammi Sauer (Author), Scott Magoon (Illustrator) the picture book Mostly Monsterly (2010) contains both sentence fragments…as well as sentences beginning with “And”:

“She liked to pick flowers. And pet kittens. And bake” (4-5)

Intermediate grade students may encounter sentence fragments in Jerry Spinelli’s award-winning (John Newbery Medal) novel Maniac Magee:

“It was the day of the worms. That first almost-warm, after-the-rainy-night day in April, when you bolt from your house to find yourself in a world of worms. They were as numerous here in the East End as they had been in the West. The sidewalks, the streets. The very places where they didn’t belong. Forlorn, marooned on concrete and asphalt, no place to burrow, April’s orphans” (143).

As for those familiar texts in high school? In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee fragmented a critical sentence in Atticus Finch’s closing speech:

“She did something that in our society is unspeakable: she kissed a black man. Not an old Uncle, but a strong young Negro man” (Ch 20).

F. Scott Fitzgerald also closes The Great Gatsby with an incomplete thought, a fragmented ellipsis, as Nick recalls:

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.…And one fine morning—So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past“ (180).

There are examples of incomplete sentences used in nonfiction writing as well.

For example, the picture book Moonshot-the Flight of Apollo 11 (grades 2-5) by Brian Floca celebrates the 1969 historic moon landing telling the story in verse. In this text, the sentence fragments contain information in a poetic style:

“Here below
there are men and women
plotting new paths and drawing new plans.

They are sewing suits, assembling ships,
and writing code for computers.

Nuts and bolts, needles and thread,
and numbers, numbers, numbers.

Thousands of people for,
millions of parts” (6).

For older students, Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night could be read during a study of the Holocaust. In Chapter Three, Wiesel painfully summarizes the last moment he saw his mother and sisters alive in the Auschwitz camp in a sentence fragment:

“Men to the left! Women to the right!” Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight simple, short words.”

Advanced Placement Language and Composition students might note the liberal use of sentence fragments in essays, like the ones in the opening of award-winning sports columnist Rick Reilly’s article Sis! Boom! Bah! Humbug!  published in Sports Illustrated (10/18/1999)

“Every Friday night on America’s high school football fields,
it’s the same old story. Broken bones. Senseless violence.
Clashing egos.

Not the players. The cheerleaders.”

Okay. Again? Yes. I know.

A writer gets to break the rules. But when is that permission given to our student writers?

The English Journal: NCTE

Of course, teachers want to have students express themselves and develop a voice. An article Edgar H. Schuster wrote for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) English Journal A Fresh Look at Sentence Fragments (5/2006) argues that some rules, such as no incomplete sentences, may discourage students from developing their voice or taking risks in their writing style. His research led him to counter grammar rules by saying:

  • Native speakers of English have “intuitive knowledge” of what makes a sentence.
  • Students often break the rules before they learn them; breaking rules may be a stage in learning them.
  • How do teachers understand how a student knows “the rules”…or not?

Schuster cites another researcher, Rei R. Noguchi, who suggested that the kinds of fragments students write reveal that they understand syntax.

For example, Schuster offers a reflection by an eleventh-grader who opened her essay,

“Sweet sixteen. Ahhh . . . driver’s license, car, new found freedom and independence,”

According to Schuster, this student writer “was thinking in terms of effectiveness rather than grammar.”

He further argues that if such an example of a fragment is rhetorically effective, then how can the teacher applaud or rate some students—those who “know the rules”—and then penalize others?

Reliable Grammar rules

Instead of a list of ‘Don’ts’, the discussions teachers have with students in writing conferences about grammar rules may be more effective.  This is what can happen when teachers use the mentor sentences and the format of Anderson’s Patterns of Power. At every grade level, students can identify the grammatical concept (ex: use of conjunctions), compare that concept, and then imitate that concept. They may imitate by starting a sentence with a conjunction or by creating a sentence fragment.

These discussions also allow students the chance to explain how an author’s choice impacts the reader’s understanding. In short, the goal is for more discussion about an author’s grammatical choices rather than a stack of worksheets that reinforce grammar rules that real authors do not follow.

So these rules? Not necessary.

In fact, writer-editor William Brohaugh (Everything in English is Wrong) once declared that the only reliable rule in writing is “Never start a sentence with a comma.”

 (¡But be aware, there are sentences in Spanish that start with an upside-down exclamation point!)