A River Runs Through It: a fresh walk outside for students staying at home

The movie adaptation (at left) is just that: an adaptation. It follows the book with a few minor changes. In the middle is a mass market paperback I’ve had forever; at right is the class set hardcover my students are reading.

My Novels class is reading this over the break

My Novels class is currently reading (or supposed to be reading — wink wink) this classic novel by Norman Maclean. I’m reading it again alongside them and this morning I arrived at page forty. It’s only 110 pages long, so it’s a quick read.

If you haven’t read this novella, do; it’s a breath of fresh air in this time of social distancing. (And sidenote: If you’re not into fly-fishing, push through the long, tedious paragraphs about casting, fish psychology and other specific aspects of the sport; however, don’t dismiss these purposeful passages either. Maclean uses fly-fishing metaphorically to tell his story.)

Based between Helena and Missoula, Montana, much of the action takes place on the Big Blackfoot and the smaller Elkhorn. The story shows the struggles of a young Montanan named Paul Maclean through the eyes of his older brother, Norman. The brothers share idyllic childhoods as the sons of a Presbyterian minister. In telling about his brother’s adult life that revolves around journalism, betting, alcohol, and fly-fishing, Norman shares his own struggle to take care of those we love but don’t ever quite understand.

Don’t miss the 1992 PG-rated movie adaptation. It’s also an escape into the great outdoors and the depths of family compassion. Directed by Robert Redford (read my post on Robert Redford Dessert here), the 1992 movie stars Craig Scheffer as Norman Maclean, a very young Brad Pitt in the role of Paul, Tom Skerritt as the boys’ father, and Brenda Blethyn, as their mother.

That’s all I’ll say for now, but know that this novel takes you out on great northern rivers, along Montana roads, into dark and dusty speak-easies, and into Presbyterian church pews where a message of love and forgiveness is extolled.


Thanks for reading! Leave a comment if you’ve taught this book before.

Friday Eve Photo: A Beowulf Hero’s Journey

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After completing their Beowulf unit, seniors charted the epic poem onto a Hero’s Journey poster. Following these posters, students chose a story (novel, short story, movie) to chart in a similar way, but this time using Google Slide Presentations.  With college and careers on the horizon, this project was quite likely the last time they would break out the markers and glue sticks to show their learning. That’s kinda sad, honestly.

New Year, New Units: Beowulf and The Old Man and the Sea

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The British Lit textbook my school uses alongside Hemingway’s book.

Lots of planning comin’ up!

Now that the new year has started, I thought I would write a short post about the units I’m starting with my juniors and seniors next week.

My junior classes will begin Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea on Wednesday  and my senior classes will start Beowulf on the same day. (In addition, my Composition class will begin brainstorming ideas for their I-Search papers on the same day, while my Novels classes begin their independent reading books.)

 

These lit units are the first ones of the school year for both grades. Last fall, we wrote memoirs, poetry, short story analysis essays, and a variety of pieces for Writer’s Workshop.  We also wrote poetry and entered writing contests, such as the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.

Of course, we also read. Between nonfiction articles for Article of the Week assignments and various books we “tasted” on First Chapter Fridays, we did expose ourselves to new reading. Still, in-depth and extended study of selected literature was not on the menu.

Until now.

I’m excited to experience these literature studies with my students. I’ve read The Old Man and the Sea before, but not Beowulf. And to be honest, I’m a little embarrassed that I haven’t read this foundational text before. In fact, I’m not sure how I missed reading it until now.

I’m fairly well prepared to get started with these new units, but at the same time, I know that teaching them will be challenging and probably dominate my planning time.

For me, tackling anything new in teaching requires patience, planning, and an expectation that for these first attempts, I’ll be learning right alongside my students. I’ll be…

  • exploring new vocabulary
  • answering study questions
  • designing writing projects
  • creating summative assessments, and
  • planning cumulative activities.

It’s quite a handful to create daily lessons for two new texts. Compound that with the fact that at my small rural high school, I’m the only English teacher for juniors and seniors.  That has its positives (I have autonomy and choice when planning), but it also has its negatives. For example, while I do have a general curriculum to follow, I do not have unit specific materials beyond the textbooks and novels.

As such, I’ll be creating and designing lessons as I go. Thank goodness for ready-made unit plans, which provide me a basic framework that I can tweak and adjust for the future.

I’ll update you on how these new units progress in some future posts.


Thanks for reading again this week! What are you gearing up for now that the holidays are over? Feel free to leave a comment and follow my blog to catch those follow-up posts.

 

When students don’t “follow along” in the book

“Following along” may not work for every student

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Yeah, there are a few misspelled words. Oh, well. He was paying attention and that’s a big deal. 

I’ve been reading Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James Swanson to my seventh-graders and we just finished it on Friday.

About every two chapters or so, they’ve written a response to a question I’ve posed to help them comprehend the text as well as think critically about some of the questions and topics it raises.

Because our students have plenty of independent reading time in their Humanities class, I have chosen to read-aloud this book. I also think it’s important to model reading, so from cover to cover, the students follow along while I read. Well, nearly all of them.

About a week ago, I noticed that whenever I glanced up from reading to check the class, one boy who sits at the back of the room was quietly looking back at me as I read.  Apparently, he was listening. He was also making connections. The next day his father gave him permission to bring some actual Confederate States of America bills to school. Arranging the money on my desk for the photo below, there was no doubt that he had been paying attention even though he wasn’t “following along.”

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This is the Confederate money a student brought. He wasn’t following along in the traditional sense, but he was paying attention!

Another student—I’ll call him Joe– was drawing on a sheet of copy paper as I read during the course of three or four class periods. Early on, I asked him to follow along once or twice, and finally decided that I wouldn’t ask again, especially when I looked at the drawing that Joe dropped into the seventh-grade basket at the end of class each day.

He was working on a portrait of John Wilkes Booth from a photo in the book. He surrounded the portrait with words posed as questions. It was interesting and thought-provoking and showed that he was indeed paying attention during the reading. He may not have been  “following along,” but he was definitely engaged.

So just because a student isn’t following along, don’t assume they aren’t paying attention and learning. In fact, Joe and his drawing has caused me to consider how other kids may better show their understanding (and misunderstanding, too–let’s be real) through drawing or sketching. Recording their thoughts and thinking must not always equate to producing a written response, after all. 


Thanks for reading! Our next step in the unit is to watch a movie called The Conspirator, which focuses on the trial of Booth’s conspirators, including Mary Surratt, the owner of the boarding house where the assassination was purportedly planned. The end result?  An essay that argues Surratt’s innocence or guilt. Follow my blog for more posts about middle school ELA.

 

Headline poetry is so much fun!

It’s already my favorite back-to-school activity

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A few lines from a headline poem created by one of my seventh-grade students.

For the first week of school, my seventh- and eighth-graders created poetry made up of words and phrases found in newspapers and magazines. I found the idea on NCTE’s website, which offers lesson plan ideas. I also accessed this site where I found this beautiful quote that captures, for me anyway, the nature of headline poetry.

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This is a picture of the words I used to make my own headline poem, which I used to show my students what a headline poem looked like. Showing kids an example of what they are making is important. I guess you could call this a “mentor headline poem.” 

Finding words and then limiting yourself to using those words in your poetry creates spontaneous word choices, unexpected metaphors, and other surprising experimentation with language. My students fully enjoyed this project. I actually had a few students rushing into class, wanting to dive right back into the project, picking up where they left off the previous day.

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Students need to use a variety of publications in which to find words. My school’s librarian gave me several copies of Motor Trend, Field & Stream, Dirt Bike magazine, Boys’ Life, and Sports Illustrated to add to the collection of women’s magazines (Vogue, Vanity Fair, Better Homes & Gardens, etc.) that I brought from home.  Variety is key.

One thing I especially liked about the project is that it capitalizes on the first few days of school. Kids naturally want to talk and visit with each other after summer break. During the first two class periods of the project, they were allowed to do just that as they searched for and cut out 75-100 words and phrases.

Then, after most of them had their words cut out, it was time to settle down a bit and start to concentrate on their poems, arranging and rearranging the pieces of paper on their desks or tables. It was truly “playtime with words,” which is a nice way to ease back into the school routine. I am definitely going to do this activity again next year.

Here’s the basic plan I used from a handout I made for students:

The Process
A headline poem uses words or phrases from newspaper and magazine headlines to craft a poem. There are several steps:

  • Make an envelope with construction paper and tape. Put your name on it. Keep your clippings in it.
  • Select some newspapers and magazines, leaf through them, and cut out interesting words and phrases from headlines. Avoid small print words because they’re too hard to keep track of and glue down later. Collect between 75 and 100 words and phrases from different sections of newspapers and magazines to gather a range of vocabulary, as well as selections of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.
  • Don’t forget to cut out basic words such as the, a, an, and, and prepositions such as into, over, beyond, and through.
  • Use a variety of publication subject matter; don’t just use fashion magazines. For example, use fashion magazines, hunting magazines, the local paper, and a recipe magazine.
  • Scatter the words and phrases on a desk, table or the floor, and look for themes, synonyms and rhyming words. Play with the words and how they sound.
  • After you have your 75 words, avoid the temptation to go back to the magazines to search for specific words; use your clippings. Let the “found” words direct your poem; the spontaneity of headline poetry is what we’re after.
  • Arrange and rearrange the words and phrases on a page and read them aloud to check for fluency and impression. Because there is a visual quality to headline poetry, the placement of text can contribute to the presentation of ideas and meaning.
  • You may see a theme or a topic emerge as you play with words. Go with it!
  • When the desired order and placement of text is achieved, glue the words onto a blank sheet of 11″ x 17″ construction paper with a glue stick.
  • Work neatly and slow down when you’re gluing. Don’t let the project “fall apart” because you rushed.
  • Don’t forget a title. Your first line may work well as the title.
  • When you are totally finished with your poem, write your name on the back and turn it in. When we display these in the hall, I will give you a nameplate to fill out that will be placed on the front.

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Fun project!

Some of the poems are incredible with interesting word combinations and definitely higher order thinking.

When students were limited to using the words and phrases they “found,” it required that they take risks with their word choice. It required that they experiment with words.

For example, in the example at the top of this article… who would have ever described a sunset as pure iced tea?

That’s the excitement and fun of headline poetry. I definitely recommend it. Try it sometime!


Follow my blog to get an email when I post pictures of my students’ headline poems displayed in the hallway. You’ll see the variety of how kids adapted to this project. Obviously, some were comfortable experimenting with words and some weren’t. In any case, I think most, if not all, enjoyed the hands-on nature of the project. Thanks for reading! 

Save time. Always be planning.

I started this Triangle Fire bulletin board in May. I’m not usually that organized.

 

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I finished this bulletin board today. I started planning it before school released in May. 

At the end of the school year last May, my seventh-graders started our Triangle Fire unit, a study of the 1911 tragedy in New York City that killed 146 young, mostly female immigrants. The fire had unknown origins, but rickety fire escapes, locked doors, and empty water buckets resulted in the worst workplace disaster by fire in our nation’s history until 9/11.  The owners of the factory were eventually exonerated.

 

The positive of this horrible tragedy? The New York Factory Investigating Committee, which was established to enforce regulations throughout the metropolis.

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 Here’s a full straight-on shot of the bulletin board. I wrote the students’ summary words on pink sticky notes and placed them randomly among the photos and pictures.

We study this unit at the beginning of my students’ eighth-grade year and then transition into a study of 9/11… its own workplace fire tragedy. Even though the catalyst for 9/11 was terrorism, it’s arguable that some lives that were lost could have been saved if Triangle Fire-era building codes had not been relaxed during the planning stages and design of the towers.

Last spring, my seventh-graders (now my incoming eighth-graders) watched portions of New York: The Documentary that dealt with the era of first wave immigration, the early 1900s. Watching this doc set the stage for the study we will continue in a couple of weeks.

As we watched the documentary in May, I asked the students to choose one word to summarize the excerpt we viewed. While we discussed their words, and as students defended their word choices, it occurred to me that I should keep track of these words for fall. I quickly started jotting the words down on a sheet of notebook paper.

Hallelujah! For once, I had my act together!

In addition, I knew I had some previously printed photos of New York immigrants, which were primarily of Eastern and Southern European descent.  I had printed and saved these photos from the DAR American History essay contest of 2015.

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I photocopied our textbook’s cover and decided the black-and-white copies made more sense for this bulletin board than if I had printed them in color.

I also knew I had a packet of postcards that my daughter had purchased for me when she toured Ellis Island a few years ago with a group from college.

I compiled the list of words, the printed photos, and the postcards and placed them in a folder and left it on top of the pile of binders and books in my closet over the summer. I wanted to leave it someplace where I would easily find it this week, which I did (score!).

I also had made a mental note in May to order some kind of New York City street map poster. I found this subway map that looks vintage, but actually shows the current layout of today. This poster was purchased for around $6 on Amazon. I love it!

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I stapled some of the pictures and posters so they extended beyond the edges. I like how the twinkle lights, which are actually behind the NYC poster, make it glow!

So over the past few days, I assembled all these pieces together and designed the board as I went, adding in some black paper positioned diagonally as a background. Just this morning, I decided to photocopy the front and back covers of two texts that we use during the unit, as well as an article, and a poster of pre-9/11 NYC that I already owned. I arranged all the pieces together and then encircled the board with white lights.

I think it turned out pretty good. It’s a lot to look at, a lot to take in. That’s probably my only concern, but overall, I think it tells a story AND builds on my students’ knowledge from May.

I also like using the very last days of the school year to build prior knowledge for fall. It sends the message to students that even though school’s almost out for the summer, they’re still going to learn and I’m still going to “always be planning.”

It saves so much time during the hectic days before school begins to know how I’ll decorate the first thing students see when they enter my classroom.


Thanks for reading! Follow my blog for more articles about teaching middle school ELA.

Past to Present: How Triangle Fire Connects to 9/11

History won’t be boring if we show how it affects students’ lives today

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Photo: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

 

Reading and writing about the Triangle Waist Co. factory fire allows middle school language arts students to make connections between events from more than one hundred years ago to more recent events. This is the unit my 8th-graders will be starting the new school year with next month. Read here for how we start building knowledge for this unit in May and then continue it during the first days of school.

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Find this on Amazon.com.

These connections to present-day events are made explicitly when we read a book review written by Gregory Stein entitled, “Doomed to Re-Repeat History: The Triangle Fire, the World Trade Center Attack, and the Importance of Strong Building Codes.”

This review analyzes the book Triangle: The Fire that Changed America by David Von Drehle and a book called 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers.  

In doing so, Stein draws upon memory and the human tendency to forget the lessons we learn as we progress (or fail to progress).

 

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Photo: Pixabay

Stein specifically focuses on building code changes instituted following Triangle Fire that were later modified (and by modified, I mean relaxed) during the preliminary planning for the building of the World Trade Center towers in the late 1960s.

Here is an important passage from Stein that shows how he draws connections between the two tragedies:

Now imagine this: “Roughly sixty years have gone by (since the Triangle fire), and there have been no major building disasters since 2001. The building industry argues, with decades of recent history to back it up, that buildings are excessively safe and that the number of tragedies in which the excess safety has mattered has proved to be low, and perhaps zero. Spirited dissent from the few remaining old fogies who have personal recollections of 2001 sounds as antiquated as memories of Pearl Harbor do to most of us alive today. It has not happened in so long, it probably will not happen again. That, more or less, is what happened in New York in 1968. Fifty-seven years after the Triangle Waist Company fire, in which 146 people trapped in the upper floors of an unsafe building burned, jumped, or fell from a collapsed fire escape to their deaths, New York City relaxed its safety rules for high-rise buildings. Technology had changed. Firefighting skills had improved. High-rise fires could be restricted to a few stories, and in most cases people could move a floor or two away from the danger and wait safely for emergency responders to complete their jobs.”

This powerful paragraph powerfully engages my students and shows them how studying something buried in the past like Triangle Fire can indeed have ramifications upon contemporary times. This book review is an incredibly important part of my Triangle Fire and 9/11 unit. I am so grateful I stumbled upon it while researching online.

Another important passage: “The towers, like many lesser high-rises, were built under the assumption that there would never be an occasion in which all occupants would need to vacate at once.”

When I read the following paragraph, I am amazed at the leniencies given to the WTC developers.

And still another: “The Empire State Building, completed in 1931 under the more demanding standards required by an earlier code, has nine stairwells at its broad base and six that run the entire height of the building, one of which serves as an air-locked fire tower that is supposed to be more impervious to smoke. Each of the 1,350-foot tall World Trade Center towers, with slightly greater height, nearly double the rentable square footage, and the capacity for about 33% more occupants, had only three stairwells throughout-the same number as would have been required for a seventy-five-foot building-and no fire tower. All three of these stairwells were bunched together in the least rentable space in the core of the building. Two of the three stairwells in each building went only as far down as the mezzanine, a feature that one fire chief had described as ‘a major building design flaw”‘ in a report commissioned after the 1993 bombing.”

As we make connections between Triangle Fire and the World Trade Center attacks, I make it clear to students that I do not intend to place fault on the WTC engineers and architects for any part of the 9/11 atrocity.  After all, Stein’s review and this World Trade Center evacuation study notes that 87 percent of the people in the towers evacuated safely within two hours. The remaining 13 percent, however, causes me to grieve when I know that it’s possible that some shortcuts (and other factors out of the control of builders) may have contributed in some way to their inability to escape. See the evacuation study for more on this.

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Photo: Unsplash

It’s important that we link events from the distant past to those of the present, relatively speaking. History won’t be boring if we show how it affects students’ lives today and then ask students to reflect upon those effects through writing.


Thanks for reading! Tune in tomorrow when I discuss an assignment about Triangle Fire that finds its way into a culminating project known as the 8th-grade human rights dissertation.