must reads

Circulating about the web is a list entitled ‘1001 books to read before you die.’ I’m not going to include the link, as there seems to be some concern about the site harboring spyware. It’s a good list of fiction, though despite the large number, there are many worthy exclusions. The site provides a spreadsheet to download, hence the spyware warning, upon which you can notate the books that you’ve read, and the spreadsheet keeps a running percentage. It also calculates how many of the books you would have to read in order to complete the list in your lifetime, given your age and demographics.

I had fun comparing my reading with this list, and I enjoyed finding out my personal percentage. However, my most palpable reaction to the spreadsheet was to fulfill an urge to read more books from the list in order to increase my percentage. It’s the gaming aspect, I suppose, similar to what keeps teenagers glued to their video games: just one more ‘level’ before tackling the homework!

While this particular list of books is perhaps appropriate for our more mature students, I’m beginning to put together a list of ‘must reads,’ with this tentative title: books to read before you leave high school. I require my students to free read for homework, and we have free silent-reading days for a whole class period every few months—-which they love, surprisingly—-so, I’ve amassed quite a list of their favorite books. Of course, I’ll ask for their input, too, in a Google form: List 3 books you would recommend as essential for every high school student to read. These results would be collected into a one-stop spot for me to compile a list.

Education 2.0 is all about providing fun challenges that students will internalize, to encourage them to get their game on, while learning something in the process.

For more about teen reading lists see:

book ’em


2-for-1 learning

In a previous post I wrote about how visuals improve learning. The theory of multiple intelligences tells us that some of us learn better using differing methods: verbally, hands-on doing, seeing, and so forth. We all learn by repetition, so incorporating more than one modality into a lesson is guaranteed to improve learning. When we include an exercise where students search for visuals to accompany their word definitions, even for words that aren’t things, they get a 2-for-1 learning experience, increasing the chances that they will succeed on a vocabulary test.

In that post I wrote that every single student got 100%, truly a learning experience for me.

The vocabulary words in that assignment came from a magical short story by Ray Bradbury, April Witch. The words were ermine, musky, black kite, crocus, praying mantis, amoeba, rig, wild mustard.

My tenth graders worked in the computer lab, so I was able to immediately see what they were or were not understanding. First, I informally asked them if they already knew the words. Not a single student knew what a crocus was. Or ermine. Or wild mustard. Not even a guess. They thought they knew what a black kite was, and a rig, but they were wrong, even though their guesses about those two terms had nothing to do with the context of the story.

And that’s the point; they were not comprehending what they were reading. It’s not that knowing what a crocus is will change their lives in any meaningful way. It’s that they cannot build upon what they don’t comprehend. When neurons are not connecting, no learning takes place.

They were instructed to look up definitions for the words as well as images (we used Wicktionary and Google images), in any order they wished. Sometimes, the word definition helped, as with the word musky. When they learned that it was ‘the smell of musk,’ they looked up ‘musk’ and found perfumes and soaps to help them associate the definition.

The word ‘kite’ proved a particular challenge. The story mentions a black kite flying at night. They were content to imagine a kite the color of black being flown by someone after dark. When I pointed out the incongruence of that image, they came up with the idea to look up a ‘black kite,’ resulting in this image:

The word ‘rig’ was my favorite for its teaching moment. They were coming up with images like this:

Or, this:

There was absolutely no mention of anything having to do with oil or trucks in the story. One of the sentences using the word read: “A tall man rode up in a rig, holding the reins high with his monstrous arms . . . “. I let them flounder about for a bit, allowing the tension for comprehension to build. Finally, one student entered into the image search box: horse rig, coming up with this:

And, we were off and running!

Be forewarned: As we all know, when our students access the internet they access the world, and some of it is unseemly. Have your administrator set the Google images at ‘strict filtering.’

More about lesson plans and reading:

tale of two learning theories

taking the tough route

book ’em

throw out the textbooks!

Provocative title, isn’t it? The New York Times has an article from last week bemoaning the “outrage” parents and college students feel about the rising costs of textbooks.

Schools and districts and college students are fed up with the unreasonable costs of books. I say unreasonable because, at least in language arts classes, most of what is printed in the text is freely available dozens of places on the web–open source materials between proprietary covers. Somebody is making huge profits, and it’s not students or schools.

Maybe it’s time for a change. Consider this classroom scenario:

You’re in the computer lab with your students reading passages from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, only there is not a book in sight; your students are reading off of their computer screens. OK, you are thinking, this does away with the books, but really you’re just replacing a cheap paperback with an expensive computer. You could do this for all of your English class readings, and then you might be saving some money, but are you and your students gaining much more than cost savings?

Education 2.0 is all about learning through interactivity with each other and the world. With that in mind, let’s read Frankenstein with the addition of Diigo, a web annotator. You might want to refresh your memory with what I’ve written before about this versatile online application.

One way to approach a new pedagogical platform is to think of extending your analog habits to digital. Look at your teacher’s copy of Frankenstein, or any other text. As you thumb through it, you’ll undoubtedly find your highlights and notes in the margins, and maybe some stickies sticking out for reminders and placeholders. You’ve probably developed a list of vocabulary words from the text that you want your students to define. You may have color-coded thematic passages.

Your own teacher’s text copy is truly a wonderful teaching tool, though perhaps a bit messy. However, it only benefits you. Of course, you will try to convey all that information to your students, but the fact remains that only you will actually use this valuable learning tool. I’d argue that the very reason you became an expert about this text is not because you studied it in some class years ago, but because over the years you have added various pieces of further understanding to your teacher’s copy.

What if you could put this resource in a place where all your students could see it and benefit from it, and even add to it? They will have at their fingertips all the layers of your learning, as well as add their own.

If you have a Diigo account and have the toolbar installed, you are welcome to take a look at a few Frankenstein pages that I’ve started in Diigo to give you an idea of what you can do. Allow the cursor to flyover the comment bubbles and highlights to see some notes from my instruction copy.

There is so much we can do with this new reading paradigm. You and your students will create beautiful monsters together.

book ’em

The one consistent in my high school teachings is that students read for homework. Everyday. It’s required. At the beginnings of school years it’s quite common for students and parents to ask me: “Read what?”

“Any book at grade level or higher. Any book approved by parents. Any book.”

“Where do I find these books?”

“School library. Community library. Bookshelf at home, my classroom, Grandma’s house . . . etc. Bookstore.”

I always find these questions to be disheartening. It’s not as though I’m asking anyone to unearth quaint archeological artifacts. Just books. But students and parents are truly puzzled: Where in the world can they find books that a high school student will actually read from cover-to-cover? I know from experience that once you get a teenager on a roll for reading, they’re hooked. Many of them love reading. They talk enthusiastically about their books. They argue about which books are better. You can’t get some of their noses out of the books they’ve chosen.

So, in honor of National Library Week April 13-19, I’ve come up with lists that have satisfied even the most reluctant of readers.

Not surprisingly, girls’ and guys’ reading habits differ. Here are some gender-specific sites I’ve found:

  • From the now-defunct TV series Gilmore Girls, comes a list of Rory’s faves. This is truly an outstanding list.
  • One of my favorite sites for guys: Guys Read. Take time to visit. It’s a treat.

A British online newspaper, The Telegraph, just came out with a list of 110 best books that make up the perfect library, books that have changed the world. Hyperbole aside, these are great suggestions.

What are your favorite booklists? Please leave your suggestions in the comments.

And while we’re on the subject, here’s a book I ran across that I think might be an interesting read for students and teachers alike: My So-Called Digital Life: 2,000 Teenagers, 300 Cameras, and 30 Days to Document Their World by Bob Pletka. Here’s an excerpt from the blurb:

Grouped into categories, the powerful student essays and photos address the trip to and from school, learning and the ways students play after school. The intimate images reach far beyond the headlines and hype about teen trends and emphasize the enormous pressures students face, beginning with their grueling schedules–many pictures show the predawn commute to school. Equally affecting are the students’ frank critiques of the “dull, lifeless” teaching methods and the joy they find in dynamic classrooms. Adults and teens will come away stirred and enlightened by this raw, impressive student collaboration and by Pletka’s moving introduction, which challenges administrators to rethink how school is taught.

Fair use–what it really means

Joyce Valenza at School Library Journal has a confession to make. Her recommendations regarding use of copyrighted materials for teaching had been too prohibitive:

I was reluctant to use, or bless the use, of copyrighted materials–movies, television, advertising, popular music, etc.–in teaching and student projects, especially those that were broadcast or published online. To avoid danger, I guided teachers and learners to the use of copyright-friendly materials. As wonderful as these growing collections are, sometimes what you really need to use is commercial or more conservatively licensed materials.

Most teachers are aware that their use of copyright materials is protected under fair use, but most schools and districts are uncomfortable with uncertainties about how the laws may be interpreted, and tend to warn teachers–emphatically–to stay away from questionable uses. Valenza attended a conference where the distinctions for using copyrighted works were finally clarified:

Fair use is a doctrine within copyright law that allows use of copyrighted material for educational purposes without permission from the the owners or creators. It is designed to balance rights of users with the rights of owners by encouraging widespread and flexible use of cultural products for the purposes of education and the advancement of knowledge.

Her understanding has now completely turned around, and she now encourages creative use of all types of materials for teachers to make the world more relevant to their students:

I learned . . . that the critical test for fairness in terms of educational use of media is transformative use. When a user of copyrighted materials adds value to, or repurposes materials for a use different from that for which it was originally intended, it will likely be considered transformative use; it will also likely be considered fair use. Fair use embraces the modifying of existing media content, placing it in new context.

Like Valenza, I always felt guilty about my use of current commerically-sold writings in the classroom. I’ll make my own confession. One semester I copied out a chapter of The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. It’s that wonderful chapter about the two boys who are still young and innocent of the evils of war, cruelty and betrayal, and are about to enter a kite running competition. I was excited to see how my tenth grade students would react to these two scrappy Afghan boys. I made enough copies for classroom use only, and I made certain the title of the book and the author’s name were displayed on each page. Still, I was not kidding myself that this was ‘legal.’

I developed study questions which the students answered in groups once we finished the reading, and I ended the lesson with a freewrite: How did your reading of The Kite Runner change your perceptions of the Afghan people? I learned that although they were aware that the United States had invaded Afghanistan in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks in the US, they had huge misconceptions about the people. Many students reported that they weren’t aware that the Afghans lived in houses or drove cars. They were surprised that they were educated and actually used computers. They were amazed by the idea of ‘mortal’ combat with kites lined with glass (to cut down other kites). Most importantly, however, these boys represented real flesh-and-blood people who were surprisingly much like them when they were younger. This realization quickly led them to questions about how the lives of Afghan children changed after the wars with Russia and the US. Their responses were lengthy, focussed, concerned, and strong.

Was this misuse of copyrighted materials? Did I hurt the author or publisher? I can’t possibly imagine how this exposure could have hurt either. I know for a fact that a few of the students went out and bought the book. Others looked for it in the school and public libraries. There was more excitement when it was announced that there would be a movie based on the book.

This was one of those lessons that make you want to shout from the rooftops about how great it is to be a teacher–definitely transformative.

spark in the artist-reader

When Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was published in 1955 it was both reviled and praised as a great work of literature. What was it that made Nabokov want to write about an educated middle-aged man who becomes obsessed with a beautiful twelve-year-old girl? the reviewer asks. Nabokov replies that he was reminded of a news story he read in which a caged chimpanzee was given drawing utensils that he used to produce the bars of his cage on paper. He likened the cage to Humbart’s obsession for Lolita. Nabokov claims that he had no thought of affecting the emotions of a reader, not even the mind, but rather that he wished to cause a “spark in the artist-reader.” Literary critic Lionel Trilling agrees that he was indeed shocked, but that the book also struck his emotions quite forcefully.

The artist-reader: I like that. It implies that we readers have a duty, a responsibility, to rise to the occasion while reading, to read as artists. It has an elitist tone that would not go over well amongst the politically-correct, but I like it anyway.

Openculture hosts the video, which you can watch here: