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I’ve seen school lotteries on television. Often, videos show large crowds in front of a bingo-like machine. The person behind a counter pulls names, and this determines whether the students are admitted into the schools. As a teacher, I watched these lotteries with amazement. Children’s futures were determined by these random drawings. When I moved to a city, I didn’t consider that this kind of a lottery had the potential to become my reality. I need to be fair in this statement. The schools in my district are very different from each other (they are branded in different ways and have different educational priorities), but they are all good schools.

Some of the lotteries that I watched on television were for schools with drastically different funding. The children in the crowd talked in interviews about the differences in educational outcomes and college admittances between their home schools and these schools with the lotteries. The lottery schools were fully funded, beautiful buildings with great technology. The home schools reported not having funding for paper. I’ve worked in a low-funded school. I know that the students and teachers in low-funded schools are incredible. But money matters (to a small degree), and I would be sitting in the crowd right alongside these parents.

When we bought a house, we looked at the elementary schools. We decided to hold off on the middle and high schools. I was seeking an elementary school that reflected my educational philosophies. This meant that I actually didn’t go with the schools that were ranked highest on the “School Digger”-like websites. Instead, I read about the schools and learned more about how they operated. Most of the schools that are highest “ranked” in our city are core knowledge schools. I am not a big believer in this paradigm (thank goodness, because the cost of the houses exceeded our means). There were many schools we were interested in that were school-choice only. In other words, it didn’t matter where I lived in town. These schools were lottery-based. The bilingual immersion school I was eyeing had a 7-12% acceptance rate each year. So I tried to manage my expectations. There were several schools that fit my priorities as a parent, and we looked for houses in these areas. I recognize that this is a huge privilege to be able to select houses based on schools. Surprisingly, I was looking at many schools that may have been low on others’ priority list. As an educator, I have strong opinions about how an elementary school should operate. For me, the school branding was actually more important to me than the right house. Also, the cost of houses pushed us out of certain elementary school zones, and I was okay with that.

We bought a house in the school zone of a small, well-regarded elementary school. It is not the name that comes up often in conversations (it isn’t a core knowledge school, for example). Also, it is much smaller than the others. The kindergarten classrooms feature two full-day classes and one half-day class. This is much smaller to other schools which may have seven or more kindergarten classrooms. I liked it because I felt like the small size would help benefit my kids and help me know the teachers better. The only drawback was that the diversity of the school was lower than I wanted (a huge issue in our city). But we spend significant time with our community, and our kids have diverse friend groups. We also decided we would try to choice into the bilingual immersion schools.

A year before I enrolled my son into kindergarten, I learned that our school had a lottery for kindergarten. To be fair, the children are all guaranteed a first grade spot. Driving him to a different kindergarten school would not be a huge deal. So we filled out choice applications in case he didn’t get into the school by the lottery. We talked with other neighbors and lamented that they wouldn’t be together if some of them didn’t get into the school by lottery. In the end, our school had low enrollment, so every neighborhood kid got into the school. In fact, I don’t believe any of the schools in town needed to host a lottery this year. The “school choice” system didn’t offer much choice. Many parents I know put five schools down and didn’t get into any of the schools that they desired. It seems that moving into the neighborhood of the school is the only almost-guarantee that you might get into the school (pending lottery).

All of this background is to share the reality that parents can try to do everything possible, but they still cannot choose a school for their children. In our case, again, it wasn’t a big deal if he didn’t get into the school we preferred. There were other good options. This isn’t the case for all children, though. Most notably, our city is a wealthier city. Any school is going to be a fine choice. Yet, for other students in other districts, these lotteries are incredibly significant and entail vastly different class sizes and funding levels. I wonder how we can live in a country that audibly promotes education but doesn’t allow parents to choose what kind of education they want for their children. I’d love to eliminate the need for school lotteries, but I recognize that I might just be dreaming.

 
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A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks
Author: Alice Faye Duncan
Illustrator: Xia Gordon
Published January 1st, 2019 by Sterling Children’s Books

Summary: “The combination of biography and Brooks’ own poems makes for a strong, useful, and beautiful text . . . A solid introduction to a brilliant writer”—Kirkus.

Acclaimed writer Alice Faye Duncan tells the story of poet Gwendolyn Brooks, the first Black author to win the Pulitzer Prize.

SING a song for Gwendolyn Brooks.
Sing it loud—a Chicago blues.

With a voice both wise and witty, Gwendolyn Brooks crafted poems that captured the urban Black experience and the role of women in society. She grew up on the South Side of Chicago, reading and writing constantly from a young age, her talent lovingly nurtured by her parents. Brooks ultimately published 20 books of poetry, two autobiographies, and one novel. Alice Faye Duncan has created her own song to celebrate Gwendolyn’s life and work, illuminating the tireless struggle of revision and the sweet reward of success.

A Message from Alice Faye Duncan: 

“Dear Teachers and Librarians:

Welcome to my FIRST virtual book signing. In this media presentation you will see AND hear me read my new book A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks. It is the poet’s biography told in 9 short poems. Gwendolyn Brooks and her pursuit of words is lesson in audacity, tenacity and victory.  Her life is a journey that young readers can use to navigate this trying world.”

About Alice Faye Duncan: Alice Faye Duncan writes books for young readers and adults. HONEY BABY SUGAR CHILD is a mother’s love song to her baby. The lyrical text sings and swings just like music. One must read it aloud with LOVE, JOY and SOUL!

MEMPHIS, MARTIN AND THE MOUNTAINTOP (The 1968 Sanitation Strike) is a lyrical combination of poetry and prose that explores Dr. King’s assassination and his last stand for economic justice in the city of Memphis. The illustrator is Caldecott Honor recipient, Gregory Christie.

12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS IN TENNESSEE is a child’s travel guide across the Volunteer State (GO VOLS!). Two cousins in ugly holiday sweaters visit important landmarks throughout the state, while traveling in a mini-van called the “Reindeer Express.” The illustrator is Mary Uhles.

A SONG FOR GWENDOLYN BROOKS will debut in January 2019. This is the first picture book biography to explore the life and times of Chicago poet–Gwendolyn Brooks. In 1950, Miss Brooks was the first African American writer to receive a Pulitzer Prize.

Have you heard the name, “Pinkney?” Alice’s book–JUST LIKE A MAMA will make its debut on Mother’s Day (2019). The illustrator is Charnelle Pinkney Barlow. Her grand father is Caldecott illustrator, Jerry Pinkney. Charnelle is a master artist too. Get ready to be charmed with impressive images and a lyrical text.

Thank you so much to Alice Faye Duncan for sharing this amazing reading with us! The Virtual Book Signing, more about Alice and her books, and FREE LESSON PLANS for her books can all be found on her website: https://alicefayeduncan.com/.

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I was thrilled to join Leigh Hall, Professor at the University of Wyoming on her blog for Literacy teachers this week. If you haven’t checked out the videos on her blog, I recommend them highly. They are invigorated and inspiring!

 

 
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Just so we all have the same definition of close reading, I wanted to share how I define it:
The process of close reading is reading a short, worthy text more than once to get deeper into its meaning.
(See “A Secret About Close Reading” for more information.)

Here is a fun close reading activity I did with my reading classes a couple of weeks ago.

Standards for this lesson: RL.1 & RI.1 (Inference & text evidence), RL.2 (Theme), RI.2 (Central Idea), RL.3 (Narrative elements interact)

Tacky the Penguin by Helen Lester is a much more complex text than it first seems, so I really wanted to take this fun text and push my students’ thinking to realize that Tacky teaches us more than they first thought.

First read: For the first read of Tacky the Penguin, I just had my students enjoy the story. I love watching kids see this book for the first time because he is such a ridiculous yet awesome penguin.

Second read: When we read the story again, this time I chunked the text and had them take notes about a different characters’ emotions for each section. They then went on our Canvas discussion board and made an inference about how the character was feeling based on their notes and included evidence.

“The other penguins are much more accepting of Tacky at the end. In the text it shows that all the penguins hugged Tacky since his oddness had scared the hunters away and saved them. This action showed that even though they might disagree on how to do things they were still thankful of him.” -EX, 8th grade

“I think that the other penguins, Goodly, Lovely, Angel, Neatly and Perfect are happy that Tacky is around. In the story it is showing all the penguins celebrating that the hunters were gone. Usually when you are celebrating it is because someone has accomplished something and you feel happy for them. So, you can conclude that the other penguins are happy that Tacky is around because he got rid of the hunters and without Tacky they might’ve died.” -JK, 6th grade

For the final section of the text, I asked them to think about the theme of the story, and they answered their inferred theme with evidence on the discussion board.

“I think the theme of Tacky the penguin is that differences can be good. I think that because at first the other penguins didn’t like Tacky because he was very different in the way he acted. They thought he was annoying and didn’t really include him in their group. At the end, they appreciate him because he saved them from the hunters, so his differences were good.” -AN, 8th grade

“The theme is to treat everyone fairly. Because in the beginning the other penguins treated Tacky badly, by excluding him, being annoyed at his greets, singing, and diving. But when Tacky acted like a hero they all appreciated him like they should of in the beginning.” -AK, 8th grade

“I think the theme of TACKY THE PENGUIN is to always be yourself. In the beginning of the story, the other penguins didn’t seem to really like Tacky because he did things so differently from them. However, as the middle towards end of the story, Tacky uses that to his advantage to scare away the hunters. So really, because Tacky was himself, he saved the day!” -DV, 7th grade

As we know, there are many themes that can be taken from a story, and most of the themes I received were spot on and focused primarily on how Tacky may seem odd but that doesn’t mean being different is bad. But there was one theme that I didn’t have any students pick up on, and I felt it was a big one. So, for the third read, I added in another text.

Third read: For the third read, I had my students read an Aesop Fable to connect with Tacky. “The Lion and the Three Bullocks” has the theme “In Unity is Strength” because the bulls survive the predator because they work together. The students did a wonderful job realizing that this theme connected to Tacky because it was only when all the of the penguins worked together that they were able to ward off the hunters.

“The theme “Unity is Strength” works for both books because together they defeated the enemy(ies). In Tacky the Penguin it says, “ Tacky began to sing, and from behind the block of ice came the voices of his companions, all singing as loudly and dreadfully as they could.” This shows that together the penguins can work together to be strong. The next page says “The hunters could not stand the horrible singing” This evidence illustrates that together as a team they can do anything. In Aesop For Children (Three Bullocks and a Lion), it says that a hungry lion is looking for his next meal. He was only sitting and watching because all of them were together so he would lose. In a little bit the bullocks separated and it was the lion’s time to strike (He ate them). This shows that when you are together you can be even stronger then when you were alone.” -EN, 7th grade

At this point, I was so proud of the connections my students were making, but it was still on a level where they were not connecting it to life–they saw it as a penguin and bullocks lesson mostly. This meant that I added in another text that I had them close read:

Scila Elworthy’s TED Talk is titled “Fighting with Nonviolence” and shares how fighting violence with violence is not successful while using nonviolence has been successful. I love TED Talks because you have the video and the transcript! What a great text for the classroom! (And thank you Jennifer Shettel for pointing me in this direction!)

First read: We watched the first 5 minutes and 11 seconds of the TED talk, and I gave each student a Post-It note. I asked them to write down words that stuck out to them. We then shared the words and defined any words they didn’t know.

Second read: For their second read of the text, they went to the transcript and were to focus on the central idea of this section of the text. Each person wrote down their own central idea.

Then I did a variety on one of the discussion ideas that Ricki shared in her Engaging Classroom Discussion Techniques post. Kind of like in Facts of Five, I had students then go into groups of three and come up with a consensus of a central idea together. They then wrote these on sentences strips to display in the room. We also discussed each one and talked about the supporting evidence for each central idea. I called it “Most Important Point.”

“As a group for the “most important point activity” we came up with the point that “solving a problem with violence only ever causes more violence”. Toward the end of the ted talk the speaker gives an example of when her ‘heroine’ was faced with guns during a protest and solved it by walking up to them and getting them to put their guns down. Had she not solved that problem this way it can be assumed that the soldiers would have shot them. By solving a situation with non violence she avoided the problem all together. We concluded from this, and the other points she made in ted talk including Nelson Mandela and her own personal anecdote about non violence, that that was the central point.” -KA, 8th grade

Third read: For the culminating task for all of these texts, I added in one more text to truly make all of this connect to reality. I knew I wanted to pick an image from the Civil Rights Movement because it is a true example of this idea at work. I introduced my students to sit-ins.

I then asked, “Why did we watch this TED Talk and why did I share the Sit-In images after reading Tacky the Penguin and the Aesop Fable? How do they all connect? Write a short paragraph explaining the connection, and remember to Restate, Answer, have Text evidence, and Explain/elaborate.”

All of these connect because they all show them going against things together. In “Tacky the Penguin” all of the penguins started singing in the end together, driving them away. If it was only Tacky singing, the hunters might not have gone away if the other penguins had not shown up.  In “Three Bullocks and a Lion”, the lion would not attack them when they were together because he knew he was no match for all three of them combined. In the Sit- In photo, there are four people sitting at a counter, and in the other photo, it shows them getting drinks poured on them from other people in the restaurant. If there was only one person sitting at the counter, the point would not have been proven as well as it would if there were four. All of them show that when they are together, they are stronger.” -MA, 7th grade

The Ted Talk, Sit-in images, Tacky the Penguin, and Aesop Fable connect because they show how if we stick together and try to solve conflict in nonviolent ways, we will not have to resolve problems with more fighting.  The Ted Talk says that bullies use violence to intimidate, terrorize, and undermine, but “only very rarely in few cases does it work to use more violence.” This just makes people more and more violent. An example is when the “Students who participated in sit-ins refused to become violent” even when people were not treating them fair by not serving them or even pouring a drink on them. Tacky the Penguin helped save all the penguins from being taken away by hunters because he had the attitude that people should be friendly and kind to each other and because he acted like this, it scared the hunters and they ran away. In the Aesop Fable, the bulls were able to keep the lion from eating them by staying close and being strong together. When they began to argue and separated from each other, they were not strong enough alone to keep from being attacked. “It was now an easy matter for the lion to attack them one at a time, and this he proceeded to do with the greatest satisfaction and relish.” This shows that we need each other to be strong and reach our goals and when we begin to fight, we lose our strength against enemies. We can control all of this, like she says, “It’s my response, my attitude, to oppression that I’ve got control over, and that I can do something about.” -DA, 6th grade

I was so impressed with my students’ deep thinking, connections, inferences, and elaboration! And overall they truly loved the activity, and I think that it truly shows that a text to analyze can be more than the canon!

 

 

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Native November is coming. This means that the Natives are (sometimes) celebrated as living people instead of people of the past. November is a good month in that it recognizes the cultures as alive and well. Like Black History month and other months, it is great that schools dedicate a month to consider the cultures. But Native Americans live every day, so it shouldn’t be relegated to just one month.

November is a scary month for parents of little ones. It comes with the risk that your child might have to participate in a Thanksgiving play with paper/fluorescent feathers. They will be asked to run across the stage doing the “Indian call” by chanting and hitting their mouth with a flat hand. The pilgrims will walk with grace across the stage (with no sign that they intend to steal the Natives’ land, of course). They will sit down to a nice feast, and everyone will feel happy about that nice time in history when they go to eat their Thanksgiving dinners. (Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy eating on Thanksgiving as much as the next guy, but I recognize the holiday for what it is. Cultural genocide is a real thing.)

As November approaches, we should think carefully about the ways in which we honor Natives all year long. I always get anxious as November approaches because it brings difficult memories of my own schooling. We should think about representation and whether we willingly cheer on a team that uses a Native slur as its team name or a cartoonish representation of a Native person. We should think about the literature we teach and the ideologies we value. What are your thoughts about Native November?

 

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One of the goals in my advanced reading classroom is to help my students become close readers of the world, including when it comes to vocabulary. Through my own time in the classroom and my early teaching years, I learned very quickly that teaching vocabulary out of context does not work. There is only memorization, no retention. Teaching vocabulary in context can work, but only if the word is revisited often which doesn’t always happen with new vocabulary words. It wasn’t until I decided to start teaching word parts that I felt that my vocabulary instruction was something that was long-lasting.

I begin each year with a word part unit. Students really buy in because we have a great conversation about the inconsistencies of vocabulary education in their (and my) past. I then show them what word parts are, the different types of affixes, and how they can give the reader a clue to the meaning of a word.

 

The first step is to build up knowledge of some regularly used word parts. I’ve been building up our word part list over years now. Since I have some of the same students every year, I don’t want to start over for them, so I just keep adding, and you would be surprised how quickly students grab onto these word parts. This year, we started with 77. In my classes that had students who already knew them, I paired them up with new students and gave them a section of the 77 to go over with the new student. In my new 6th grade class, I gave each group a section and they used their brains and resources (the internet) to learn. During this initial introduction, I do have them go over the definition, but more importantly, they were to find words that are in their vocabulary that would help them remember what the word part meant. Then I grouped together different groups that reviewed different sections and teach what they learned to each other.

 

I also use Quizlet as a way for students to learn the word parts. Quizlet is a great website for flashcards and also has this super fun collaborative game called Quizlet Live where students, in groups of 3-4, get definitions and have to match them to words and each member of the group has different words to choose from. Here is a link to my Quizlet profile if you want to check out our word parts!

This year, one of the initiatives at our school is academic vocabulary and interactive word walls, but as you see above, I do not have a lot of wall space in my room because of the book shelves, so with the help of an awesome science teacher in my hallway, we came up with the idea of making a word hallway instead of wall. Each student was given 2 word parts to make a mini-poster about with the type of word part, definition, and examples. During this activity, so that everyone was able to complete two, 19 new word parts were added. We then laminated the mini-posters and strung them into banners then hung them on the lockers that aren’t used in our hallway.

Now that they have a basic knowledge of types of word parts and different common word parts, we start breaking apart words using brace maps into word parts knowledge to define the words. I start with words that they already know, like subway and unbelievable, to show how word parts work. We then start breaking apart words they may not know, like intangible and junction, to show how it can help them when encountering unknown vocabulary.

Now, when the unit ends, our time with word parts don’t stop. First, we have word part flashcards at the door almost every day. I also revisit the unit throughout the year and point out whenever a word part comes across in our lessons. We’ll also do a mini-unit in January also where we’ll add more word parts.

This unit is one of the most mentioned units when I ask students the most useful things they learned in my class AND also their favorite unit. Here are some responses when I asked students how the word part lessons helped them:

  • I can define most words without having to look in the dictionary! My vocab has expanded a lot!
  • They help me because now that I’m in high school, I can understand new words faster.
  • When there are words I do not know, I use my knowledge of word parts to break it apart and find the definition.
  • The words parts help us by giving clues on what a word means in a book or article that we are reading.
  • The word part lessons from Advanced Reading have helped me SO MUCH in my high school English. We constantly have new vocabulary and knowing affixes has really helped me figure out their definitions.

I say that that, along with the success I see in vocabulary acquisition after learning about word parts, shows the success of this take on vocabulary instruction.

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This week is Banned Books Week (hooray!). Banned Books Week is one of my favorites. I always find it helpful to talk first about how books are classically banned. This video from ALA is great:

This often leads well into a question and answer period where we talk through why certain topics appear often on banned books lists. Next, I show the following infographics, which I find helpful. The first one is a bit dated, but it is beautifully done.

For more banned books infographics and fun graphics, in general, click here!

We had a great discussion today about where politics belong in the classroom. Students offered some phenomenal comments about how they could be fair in their presentation of politics but also show they didn’t support hateful speech. In past years, I’ve had students read popular banned picture books to talk through how and why books are banned. This has proven very effective as well.

We always end by talking through the many resources available to teachers. These include those available on NCTE’s Intellectual Freedom Center. If you haven’t checked this out (or ILA’s comparable resource center), I recommend these resources highly.

Happy reading! Let’s celebrate our FREEDOM TO READ!

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