Sunday, October 27, 2013

Memory Moments

Last week I announced to my students that we were going to learn the final comprehension strategy from Notice and Note:Strategies for Close Reading (Beers and Probst, 2013). From the back row, came a sardonic response, "Now that's a real shame." God bless the middle school teacher who learns to dance in the valley of sarcasm.  Glancing back at the young man who was smiling harmlessly, I acknowledged his "heartache" and told him that it was indeed a sad day in Literature 8.

The "Memory Moment" is a time in a text when the action or narrative is interrupted to revisit a memory. It looks a lot like the flashback often used in film and literature. In fact, having learned that my students speak in the language of media, I showed an example of a memory moment from a Harry Potter movie when Hagrid is telling Harry about his parents and why he (Harry) is so well known at Hogwarts. Using these clips seems to give the students a solid idea of what we are looking for. From there, we read an excerpt from" Hatchet" by Gary Paulsen that is in their literature books. In the story, the memory helps the character survive in the wilderness. We shared examples of memory moments from our own lives and from the books the students are currently reading.

This weekend I had a chance to revisit memories myself as I was a co-presenter at the Mothering Mennonite Symposium on Literature, Liturgy and Life: From Mother to Daughter. My mother, age 85 and reader of some 70 books a year was my partner in this presentation. In the evening, I was a participant in the 25th anniversary of Eighth Day Books, a local independent bookstore my father frequented with love and devotion during the last 12 years or so of his life. Both experience provided lots of time to reflect on memories about reading and the love of all things literary.

I remember:
  • many dusty bookstores with wooden floors and pale sunlight that glanced off hardcover volumes
  • my dad always talking with the bookshop owners while I perched somewhere nearby and leafed through more books
  • lots of library cards, glued on library pockets and dates scattered askew on the lines of the date due pages
  • being freshly scrubbed, pajama clad, and seated on the couch anticipating the nightly Winnie the Pooh chapter
  • hearing my parents talk in the language of books at the table, from the pulpit, in the easy chairs with their feet up
  • birthdays, Christmas, coming home from a trip occasions always meant a tell-tale package wrapped undisguised so the only mystery left, "Which book is it?"
  • Papa Small, Nine Magic Wishes, Little House on the Prairie, The Secret Garden
  • the smell of print and wonder
  • Coffee tables,  shelves and table tops as holding places for books
  • Reading my parents' parenting books so I could recognize their newest attempts at communicating with us, their offspring
  • Loving the sound of new words
  • Imagining characters and settings from the words on the pages
  • Thinking that Cat in the Hat was silly and pointless
  • Reading and rereading my favorites
  • The creak of wooden doors as bookcases were opened and closed to select a treasured collection of poems or essays
  • My mother's soft frame, my father's aftershave as I snuggled next to them and heard the familiar cadence of  their voices and watched their steady hands turn the pages
Richly blessed,

~ Ellen~

Sunday, October 20, 2013


Vocabulary Graffiti Assignment
These were handed in by a couple of my students. The instructions: Demonstrate understanding of a vocabulary word by showing 3 synonyms and 3 visual images illustrating the word. These students showed  colorful understanding of the word "desist" and "passive."  Their work shows creativity and my hope is that they won't soon forget these terms. I tell my students that building their vocabulary is like putting "money in the bank" and while I am not sure they believe me they humor me and attempt to use their new words in interesting ways. I am always on the lookout for inventive strategies to teach new words.


Sunday, October 13, 2013

Words of the Wiser

This week my students will be looking at Words of the Wiser in several short stories. This strategy comes from Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading (Beers& Probst, 2013) and is a continuation of the curriculum I have been using with my 8th grade Literature class. Oddly enough, I am finding these strategies helpful in my own reading. I read for pleasure, for knowledge, and to get closer to God. Most often, I read "to know I am not alone." I am indebted to C.S. Lewis for that particular insight. At any rate, having these strategies in my mind as I prepare to teach keeps me looking for them in the material I read. Turns out they are everywhere, these morsels of wisdom, quotable quotes to keep us learning.

Although I am going reluctantly into this world of technology and I have been far more comfortable with sticky notes and chart paper than computers and smart boards, I recognize that my students are not. They need visual images, a little music, and some connections to movies and movement. So, because I am teaching students and not curriculum, I am working to implement video footage and connections to their world into my lessons. This week, I have a video I made on Animoto (I highly recommend this resource)  that depicts characters from familiar books and movies and their wise words. That will begin our discussion as I ask the students to make connections to how these wide words lead the characters to change their actions and help us to discern the theme of the story. I have noticed that my students are more likely to understand these new strategies when I begin with digital images and examples, then lead them gently to the text material.

Among the quotes:
'We've all got light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That's who we really are." Sirius Black to Harry Potter

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it's not." The Lorax

"Remember who you are."   Mufasa to Simba in the Lion King

"The truth has a way of changing your plans. "    Insurgent

" Stand up and go; your faith has saved you." Jesus in the Gospel of Luke

Today's gospel from Luke 17 tells the story of the ten lepers. One returned to say thank you to Jesus and Jesus says, "Stand up and go; your faith has saved you." Words of the wiser. Nine times out of ten, we neglect to give  thanks for the healing that Jesus bestows on us. We worry, we fret, we are healed. We cry and mourn, we are healed. We feel jealous and small-minded, we are healed. We hunger for everything but righteousness, we are healed. We feel lonely and unloved, we are healed. We scream, "Help me" at the top of our lungs when we don't know what to do and we are healed.

And so, the words of the gospel pierce my stubborn heart and lead me to greater understanding.


Sunday, October 6, 2013

Tough Questions:A Few Answers

Progressing along with the Notice and Note strategies, this week my class visited the "Tough Questions" strategy for comprehension. Tough questions are observed in stories when a character stops to wrestle with a situation. These questions, voiced by a character, often reveal an inner struggle, leading the reader to understand the story's conflict.

We began class by talking about some tough questions and not so tough questions. "What will I wear to school?" (my uniform) and "What will I have for dinner?"( whatever my parents give me) are not such tough questions for these eighth graders but there are a few life situations they have had to wonder about: What do I do if everyone around me is doing the wrong thing but I know the right thing? How do I survive a death or divorce in my family? Why was I born with dyslexia?

The authors of Notice and Note (Beers and Probst, 2013) always suggest a passage for the guided practice on this strategy and provide a copy of the text in the appendix. Another reason to buy this great book! The students caught on quickly to the tough questions in the excerpts from "A Long Walk to Water" the story of a young boy forced out of his Sudanese village. To follow up, we read the story By Gish Jen, "The White Umbrella." The questions in this text are subtle but do point to the conflict experienced by a young Chinese girl struggling to fit into American society. The story has an ending that the students love to hate and we had our own tough question at the end. Why, after four pages of obsessing over this white umbrella, did she throw it in the sewer?

After this story had ended, one young man announced that the story was pointless and that "those weren't tough questions". However, when given an assignment to create some visual images that represented the story, he added a picture of a Chinese flag and an American flag in the midst of a whirling conflict. So, I guess he did get the point after all!

As teachers we face tough questions everyday and sometimes they can overwhelm us. How do we answer the call to "rigor" (common core buzz word) and not lose our struggling students? How do we integrate technology with limited computers available? How do we get kids to read books when the their iphones have so much more appeal? How do we help them persevere in problem solving when the average attentions span steadily decreases? How do we challenge the brightest, support the most struggling and let them be creative when we have the threat of assessments always looming ahead? How do we keep going when it seems what we do has little impact and nobody ever stops to notice what we are doing right?

As usual, when I lift up mine eyes, help usually comes forth. Today's gospel from Luke asks a pretty tough question," Who among you would say to your servant who has just plowed the field, "Come here immediately and take your place at the table? .... Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, "We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do."

At church, Father Terry peered over his glasses at the faithful flock and said to us, "You do what you are supposed to do, take care of who is in front of you and don't worry if you get anything back." Our students may not rise up to call us blessed when we give them tough assignments, challenge them to higher level thinking, slow them down, speed them up or ask them to persevere. The state department of education will never stop changing things,, the local governing board will always have new ideas for professional development and just when we think we can rest on our laurels, a challenging new student bounces off the wall and into the front seat in our classroom to stretch us to new levels of patience. We do this and we ask as the apostles did long ago, "Lord, increase our faith."

May our faith be increased as we do the work we are called to do.