Literature Circles – a follow-up

Well friends, I don’t know about you but the last three weeks of school are difficult for me.  The students seem to feel that it is summer already and with the heat this week, I’m just about with them.

(books not pictured:  “13 Reasons Why” – Jay Asher and “Tex” – S.E. Hinton)

I wanted to write a quick post to follow up on the literature groups I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.  I successfully pulled off the “Book Tasting” and assigned literature circles (2-5 students per group). The discussion groups went better than I originally hoped, though I still have not fully figured out how to engage the students in more in depth discussion than their original planned out answers.  Any ideas here?

What do I mean?  I mean that I scaffold-ed the discussion meetings by providing worksheets which assigned each member of the group a particular job for the meeting and had them “prepare” by completing the tasks on the sheet.

Ie: Discussion director had to come up with 3 questions to ask group and be ready to answer him/her self; Literary Luminary had to find 2 quotes they thought were important to the plot or interesting, or funny, etc…; Connector had to come up with ways the particular sections of the novel being discussed connected with the outside world and/or other literature or film… – You get the idea.



When the students came to the groups, they mostly read off of their sheets and did no further discussion beyond one sentence answers.

I attempted multiple mediums of observing the groups and therefore keeping them on task – None were flawless, but I learned A LOT.

The first meeting was somewhat floppy because I assumed the voice to text option in Google docs would be a great tool for recording and transcribing their conversations. However, I did not count on the fact that the students would be so very enthralled with the text being absolutely perfect, that their insistence on editing after speaking halted discussion.  For the following meeting, I had the students place an ipad or cell phone in the middle of the group and voice record the conversation – later uploading this to google classroom or emailing me the recording.  This worked the best.

The third meeting was conducted via google classroom in individualized discussion groups to which group members only had access to their assigned group.  This was a flop of a discussion because while they are not so comfortable discussing verbally, they seem even less comfortable posting and following a conversation via discussion comments.  This actually surprised me, I had supposed that because of the students’ constant social media presence, they might be rather versed in online comment centered discussion, but I think because it was focused on literature, they were at a loss of how to continue conversations.

The fourth meeting (there were 5 total), I had the class sit in a circle around a group as the group in the center discussed so that we could all observe different group dynamics and perhaps give advice/glean ideas.  Each group took a turn in the middle. This was fun for me – I had the students in the circle keep a running tab of how many times each group member spoke and at the end of the group discussion each student around the circle had to give a piece advice or say something they liked about what the group did.  If I could do this weekly or twice weekly, I think it could be a great learning experience; but only once, I feel like we just worked through a lot of kinks in understanding individual roles and keeping the flow of conversation was particularly more difficult for my already soft-spoken and shy students. Next year, I hope to do this more often, with more than just literature circles, I know that students benefit from observing the learning process of their peers as much as I benefit from understanding and learning from that process as well.

The fifth meeting, we returned to the groups recording and submitting discussions while I walked the room and contributed/prompted where necessary or fun.

Final projects in the literature circle needed to reflect each individual student’s understand of the novel read, therefore, each student was responsible for a onepager about their book.  I provided a list of items needed in the one pager, along with a rubric for how I would grade the onepager – we took an entire day to go through the directions for this during the first week of reading (we read the books for 3 weeks).  I think doing this first, was a bad idea – students for the most part did not pay enough attention to the instructions because they knew the project was at least two weeks off, and I had to repeat and re-reference directions multiple times during the last week.

Some turned out beautifully though, and I really do like the onepager as a summative assessment which shows how each individual understood, resonated with, or could synthesize the stories.

Overall, I am glad I attempted the literature circle. It was a great way to work through the issue of having class scheduling be a little wonky during SBAC testing, and having a timeline of 3 weeks really allowed me to focus the instruction and the students to be accountable not only to the timeline I had set, but the timeline each group set individually when given the planning calendar.  I have learned much and know that I will need to do more practice discussions before setting a class free to separated literature group discussion, whether that means that for an entire novel we discuss with a group at the center and make whole class observations, or if that means we read multiple short stories and practice the various roles and language that might be used in a book group – only time and planning shall tell.

This week we are finishing Robin Hood and relearning why parts of speech are important to understand when using vocabulary  – it’s going pretty well and while the language initially threw them, the students are now (at the last chapter) engrossed in Robin Hood of Sherwood Forrest. Whew!

How is the last push to the end going for you?



Wind and Webs – Trajectory and Tradition

Each year in my town, the spider webs let go and the citizens experience the somewhat horrifying tradition of removing spider webs from every outside surface.  Cars, clothing, outside furniture – you get the picture.   We are not quite there yet, but the crazy amount of warm wind we have been having inspired a little writing.  Therefore – to the muse of wind and webs, I dedicate this somewhat random post.  Enjoy.


My only goal was to get away.  To move somewhere with more culture; somewhere with opportunity – a bigger population and shiny shop windows. Theaters and sidewalks and people that never sleep, I had assumed life would just take off from there.  A jet plane ascending into cotton candy clouds, outlining my name in the steam trail.

Not until I was solidly on that plane did I realize there was no landing gear –  No seat belts, no clearly mapped out trajectory; only endless clouds and the need to avoid the flocks of geese who might take the whole crazy mission down.

Reflecting now, I think I’ve been trying in one way or another to turn this plane around for years.  Not the time or age, but perhaps place and culture. Because – when I close my eyes I expect to hear the deafening roar of crickets accompanied by the occasional bullfrog.  I expect to hear the wind and let my mind drift casually along with it’s steady swish.  To dream under the stars.

Instead I battle the pollen filled, hot breeze which blows so incessantly that it drowns out all sense.  Santa-Ana-ish, anything-could-happen, and it seems to as the days get longer and patience feels strained.  Everything but grace splutters and spits from ever passenger.

A spider web of sanity built structurally strong is jostled and jumbled into a mess of knots – tossed so constantly that I give up and just hold on for the ride.

Ears ringing, I close my eyes and instead of crickets, the metallic hum of the neighbor’s air conditioning overwhelms my ears – punctuated only by the high clip of the dogs down the street.

However, in moments of practiced peace, when I close my eyes I still imagine I see those stars and the mountains silhouetted.  Practice peace hard enough and the smell of dusty earth with a hint of spring water seems to play around my nostrils, reminding me that the pollen filled, anything-could-happen-and-does wind, might be the same that will pass through the mountains in my memory.

Lord, give me the strength to have patience.  To forgive the winds of crazy – literal and metaphorical – and to be grateful for each cloudy opportunity.  After all, that wind may be the only thing filling the space beneath this jet plane’s wings.

At least I’ve got a front row seat; and for sure the world is round.

Thank God for good company in this journey.

Goodnight and Amen.

Continuing to Classroom

2 days down….36 to go?

Tomorrow, in my classroom I will be hosting a book tasting. The purpose of this is so that the students can give a ranking to four books that they will ‘taste’ during the class period which will help me to organize them into literature circles.  I’m choosing to do literature circles during the two weeks of testing so that the various class times will not effect any individual class too much more than any other. The set up took nearly an hour today because I’m a little crazy about the organization of space (just ask the students, I move the tables around all the time).

Stealing ideas from multiple teacher/bloggers as well as from a few of the teaching books that I have shelved, I have set up my classroom to look like a restaurant and I will seat the students as they walk in.

The tables are set and I have their groups picked out so that when the students arrive at the door, I will play waiter/hostess and show them to their tables.  On the tables, there are menus which outline the plan for the day and also list the book possibilities along with the author.  I’m attaching a picture below.

I hope the students will have fun.  It’s a little difficult this time of year to know how to actually engage their confused adolescent minds which are so focused on anything besides what is happening in class.

Fun final picture – current classroom set-up and semi-update of varied/height – less formal seating:

My original plan to let students always choose their seats worked well until they really got to know each other; this took about 3 months. While this means I usually have assigned seating in my classroom, allowing them to choose originally gave me some good insight into where students were comfortable sitting and working, and with whom they seem to work the best.  I do allow them to choose seats occasionally (such as when I decide to move the classroom around right before they walk in and do not have time to make a seating chart) – and they have become accustomed to ‘treasuring’ those times and attempting to prolong them by becoming ultra engaged in posture if not attention so that they might glean a few extra days of chosen seating.  Maybe next year my capacity for chatter and attempt to become even more facilitator teacher will be more defined and students will be able to choose seating for longer.  We shall see….

This teaching thing is quite the work in progress.


He is Risen!

Again Lent has come to an end and I have been less intentional than planned.

I have no excuses.

The constant nagging at the back of my mind and heart – a nagging which seems to be a reminder to remember Jesus’ journey – has replaced all of my plans.  Sometimes I feel these naggings and feel guilty for my seeming inability to act upon them, but perhaps if I give myself a little grace, these reminders might actually be recognized as intention – a subconscious focus pushing through to my day to day. Reminders to journey with Jesus, to be like Him, and to live in constant thankfulness that I do not have to complete the journey toward death without resurrection because Jesus completed it first.

Instead of choosing some overarching focus and intentional practice this season of Lent, my practices and reminders (those nagging feelings) have becoming part of the small things I experience constantly in my day to day life.  Reminders to be thankful right alongside a deluge of struggle to practice a life of grace – to reach out in peace before walls of misunderstanding rise up, to cry for the sorrows of others, for the misdirection of nations, and the hopelessness of a world torn by avarice and war.

Following the journey of Jesus into the final days of Lent reminds me of the long-term and ever present reality that is human brokenness – of our inability to recognize perfection let alone achieve it  – of the repetitive nature of human greed.  And yet, I try to focus on the thankfulness – grateful for Love and Mercy and Grace – a hard earned Truth nearly always ignored or willfully unidentifiable.

Lenten and Ordinary small wonders – my reminders – Peace breaking Grace and vice-versa:

  • rain on the metal roof of the overhang out our window
  • warm clothes to keep out the cold
  • running shoes
  • bike paths
  • friends who love and support and cheer even when I’m running in circles to complete a marathon whose finish is unknown and ever moving – whose finish might be just another start
  • new, very old books
  • the sound of typing fingers
  • headphones and the click of the keyboard – and a voice that can’t stop humming along with the tune
  • squeaky violin strings
  • lost in the music and forgetting to strum the strings
  • pitch pipes
  • thoughtfulness and hard questions
  • community within community within community
  • an inability to separate life in sectors
  • baptism
  • roses
  • new and old lives
  • new notebooks
  • old notebooks
  • roses in the yard and on the table

and a thousand more reminders.

Risen Indeed.

And I feel fine……

I was going to title this post “It’s the End of the World as We Know It…” – however, I second guessed myself and figured that with the political climate what it is and the obsession with Apocalypse in which our culture is currently immersed, my meaning would be misconstrued.  Also, maybe people are not as familiar with this song as I assume?  In any case, the lyrics keep flitting through my mind as I grade opinion based mini-essay-introductions written by my 7th graders.

…..Perhaps this requires explanation (unless, perhaps you work with 7th graders)

Here is the backstory:

We began this week, our first week back from winter break, by reading Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” (and watching a short narrated cartoon version of it to help with comprehension).  I know this is a rough place to start for 7th graders just because of the style of the writing, and for my students the language is difficult as well.  However, I have been wanting to read this with them since the beginning of the year when I read a teacher’s back to school blog post about how she begins each year by reading the allegory out loud with her class and then discussing what the classroom will look like (I loved many things about this post, and even printed her thoughtful pledge…).  I loved this idea, but felt that at the beginning of this year, with brand new middle school students, I needed to get to know the students and their abilities a little before throwing Plato into their lives.

While planning this week, I stumbled upon a TED.Ed which also covered the Allegory, and re-purposed this writing prompt for my class:

Using 2 examples, at least one of which should come from Allegory of the Cave, write a mini-Essay which answers this question:

“If people have developed a way of understanding the world that makes them comfortable, does it matter if it’s false? Is there some higher moral duty to expose them to the truth regardless of their own preferences?”

I did not just throw this at them and ask them to write, but gave examples of what this could look like in their own lives, how it related to the allegory and then after a 10 minute quick write/brainstorm, we began to write out an introductory paragraph as a class.

I also created a graphic organizer on which the first box gives room for a “Quick Yes/No, because… ‘ answer, and all of this backstory leads up to the moment that I am reading through these quick answers.

Now, I had expected varied responses from my students:  I had expected that some would not feel that it was their moral duty* to correct false understandings, and I had expected some would feel it was.  I had expected that some students would say yes and no and have varied ideas about situations in which they would feel responsible, and others in which they would not.  I did not expect that the majority of my students would not focus so much on the False vs. True understandings, but instead focus upon the comfort of the people in question.  The majority of my students said they would not feel morally obligated to correct false understandings of the world with a truth known to themselves because the people preferred to believe false ideas and were comfortable and why would they want to make someone uncomfortable?  surely they would want no one to make them uncomfortable so these 7th graders have decided that they will not mess with anyone else’s understandings.  Cue R.E.M here….

These scholar’s complete lack of thought about moral obligations surrounding true or false or even varied understandings of the world, scares me. Part of the reason I teach is to help these students begins to see beyond themselves – to experience a classroom space which allows people from diverse backgrounds to come together, share their stories – listen to other stories and to begin thinking about their place in this large world which requires so much analysis of thought and expression.  I want to help them to become willing listeners who participate in grand discussions about the meaning of life and friendship and school – to engage in politics and community building – to care about others and respect opinions which they do not share.  I forgot how young they are and I often forget how VERY different their 7th grade year is than was my own.  Their understanding of the world is jaded by pictures available to them in little screens.  They focus their goals on individual successes which require little to no effort and can be completed in short time frames.

I understand that part of my student’s ability to feel that it is their job to be truth tellers or not stems from the fact that they are only 12 and 13 and in reality do not feel that they hold much authority over any given people.  They are not yet ready to rock the boat and change anyone’s mind, but I hope by the end of this year they will begin to question their own comfort…

Today I challenged them to think a little deeper.  I returned their introductory paragraphs with some side questions and before going through my general comments about their writing (don’t forget to introduce where your examples come from…..only summarize the part of the story that relates to your opinion, no need to tell the entire Allegory….please please please check your homophones…… and for the 500th time cuz is not an acceptable word in an essay…..), I introduced a poem.  It is poetry Thursday after all and during our WWD time on Thursdays, we discuss/write about poetry.  I introduced a poem written in 1945 by a man who had once supported Hitler, and when he opposed him was placed in a concentration camp:

First They Came For The Jews / Martin Niemöller

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

Before asking them to write about the poem, we discussed what it meant to be a bystander and whether that required any thought about false vs. true understandings of the world. I challenged them to rewrite the poem using people groups that might apply to their own lives – at home, in the community, or out on the blacktop and to write about how bystanders are still in existence and what that might mean to each of them individually. There were a few light bulbs, and if nothing else, they had another example to include in their writing today.

Teaching is exhausting, but I think maybe it’s weeks like this that will end up my favorite.  Challenging unwilling students to become curious scholars – to approach the world from an interested and open-minded perspective and to slowly see them expand their understanding (and I mean s…l….o…w…l…y) of at very least the vastness of culture and thought – is pretty neat.

Maybe it is the end of the world as we know it…..and maybe it’s not quite true that I feel fine, but I’ll keep holding out hope. All of us had to start somewhere.

* (side note: never use the word duty in a writing prompt, I should know better)


A New Year

Happy Holidays and New Year to you all.  It has been a lovely, and much needed, break from school and work for my family and I hope that whatever this season has held for you, that it has been somewhat wonderful.  It’s so easy to be distracted and disappointed in our daily slog – so easy to wish for something different and to jealously browse our friend’s perfectly projected lives and believe they live a more enchanted and fulfilling life than our own. I challenge you to instead be grateful in your own life this year as I attempt to be grateful in mine. We can hold each other accountable, ok? I know that I personally find it much easier to complain about the little things in my daily life rather than be thankful and happy about the other little and often big things. It feels like insecurity – as though I should not be happy for it would be an apathetic and immodest emotion to convey lest I be speaking to someone who does not share in my excitement of life.  Shall we attempt to be comfortable in our own skin as a resolution?

I resolve to be like Eustace (of Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader), to allow the dragon hide to be peeled away and to become comfortable in my own skin. Brave even and ready to redirect my understanding of self in order to better understand the world and the people with whom I live.

Things I will remember:

  • Eustace was a dragon for a good long time before he came to recognize his strengths and weaknesses and to face them rather than hide or become defensive.  I will not be too hard on myself when I fall back into old patterns, but attempt to simply pick up again and move toward thankfulness.
  • It takes practice to become good at anything – practice to improve, to learn, to grow.  I love what my 8 year old always says (sayings which I give full credit to her teacher, but may steal for my own classroom): “Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes Progress” – that is all I can hope for I think – progress toward what I hope to be, what I hope to become.
  • Peeling away skin – especially dragon skin – was not possible without the help of a divine Lion. I am not an island unto myself – I must be willing to seek support  of friends, family, and to look for guidance and grace from God in order to change anything in my daily habits.

What does it look like, in daily action, to be resolutely comfortable in my own skin?  To me, I think it just means actively looking for things for which to be thankful and happy rather than complaining.  It means that I stop apologizing for being me, for having my thoughts and feelings; and instead I choose to just be me.

Perhaps you already are comfortable in your own skin, perhaps you are more often happy and thankful than complaining and wishing to be different – tell me your secrets!

GK Chesterton, in his book Orthodoxy, claims that “the modern revolutionist, being an infinite skeptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. Taken semi out of context, but meaningful nonetheless, I think that I have become this “modern revolutionist”, an infinite skeptic who constantly questions my own choices, my life in general.  By doing this, I undermine my own good intentions and create a space in which I no longer feel that I’ve done any good and have furthermore highlighted for all of my peers the insecurities I recognize and perhaps they too will now call in to question my intentions.  I want to attempt to bury the skeptic in happiness, so much so that any real call for skepticism will first be perceived with a loving heart and a willingness to negotiate..

I realize that this post has possibly a more casual tone, but I’d like to recognize that by typing to the world at large through this digital voice that I know I am being received by other people.  Real people, in their homes, or jobs, or on their cell phones in their cars. I tend to read blog posts and consider the author a detached voice – someone far superior to little-old-me the reader, and I’d just like to say, that in this case (and probably if you’re reading this, you already know it), there is no superiority no writer/reader hierarchy- we all carry the condition of humanity and all the brokenness and beauty it entails.

What are your resolutions?


When Stories Collide

Remembering long forgotten lanes;

Reliving a lunatic past.

The streets are the same, and the soft summer breeze

Carries memories mean to last.

Drowning in darkness

The world falls

Muffled in black velvet and glittering stars

Barely visible in the electronic glow.

A doomed future

A prophesied apocalypse – human folly.

Time stands still.

Tires keep turning, street lamps flicker –

Logically light saving, energy efficient bulbs illuminate a chunk of pavement.


Lamps lit by stilt walkers whose long extended legs assist kerosene fire

While children and dogs find

The familiar oddities intriguing enough

To attempt a playful assault:

Swing around, run around

Will he fall over?

And the wooden poles move slowly – intentionally –

Still stands Time.

bump,bump – bump, bump

The earthquake safe structure

Headlights glaring –

And once again the darkness is held off,

These lights – imposing their fluorescent glow –

All meant to illuminate the world;

To ward off portents and fill the daily darkness with unnatural light.

These will now suffice

Until the Sun forgets to shine

and Time stands still.