Teaching

Reuniting with The Outsiders

 

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Some books become part of our lives.

The first time I read The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton was in 1990, when I was in the seventh grade. I checked it out of the library for a book report. I don’t remember why I picked that novel. I wasn’t a big reader at the time, so maybe someone recommended it to me, or maybe it was on a list of options, and I chose it based on the title. I don’t know. I don’t even actually remember reading it, though I know I did and liked it. Honestly, only two things stand out about the experience: the movie and the cover of my book report.

imagesI remember renting the movie on VHS and watching it with my parents. I can vividly picture laying on the living room floor in front of the television, watching the rumble scene. My mom had told me there were a lot of famous actors in it, including Tom Cruise. I had a big crush on him at the time (I was obsessed with Top Gun) so I couldn’t wait to see it. I remember liking the movie but being extremely disappointed with Tom Cruise’s role.

I have no idea what I wrote in my book report, but I remember the cover. I drew a big, pretty house with lots of windows and curtains, and in front of it, I drew a tall wooden fence. My English teacher, Coach Day, took off points for my cover, writing something like, “What does this have to do with the book?” in his comments. I was embarrassed that he didn’t get it and too shy at the time to explain myself. I guess he was expecting greasers and switchblades, but I drew my cover from the point of view of the main characters. They were outside the fence, separated from the big nice house. I loved Coach Day, but my symbolism was apparently lost on him.

Nine years passed before I came across Ponyboy and his gang again. I had just graduated from college and was about to start my teaching career, so I was brushing up on the novels I’d be reading with my seventh graders. The Outsiders was one of them. I bought a copy and read it again.

Over the course of the next thirteen years, I would read The Outsiders forty-one more times.

I read it aloud to three classes a day for twelve years and then five classes a day for one more year. I read it until I had entire sections of the book memorized. I read it until, during the last class of the day, I could stare creepily at an off task student while reading without missing a single word. I read it—the same paperback copy every single year—until every page was marked and highlighted, the paper soft as velvet against my skin. I explained slang terms like “cooler” (jail) and “heater” (gun) to almost a thousand students. I watched their jaws drop when I told them the book was written by a teenager. I perfected my “We’ll just have to wait and see” when the kids asked if Johnny would be okay and cherished the silence in the room when he told Ponyboy to “Stay gold.”

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At the beginning of my teaching career, when we taught a different class novel every six weeks, I always read The Outsiders first. It was the only book every student loved, and it taught them to trust me. As the years went on and education changed and the focus shifted from guided reading to independent reading, the number of class novels dwindled to two. But one of them was always The Outsiders. Every year.

And then I quit teaching.

In my post about why I left the classroom, I wrote, “Although part of me still can’t believe it, after forty-three readings of The Outsiders, I have survived my final rumble with the Socs, seen Dally crumple under the streetlight with a look of ‘grim triumph’ for the last time, and will tell Ponyboy to ‘stay gold’ no more.” Saying goodbye to the gang really was one of the hardest parts of leaving.

Four years passed. Then, last summer, I found out that a new 50th Anniversary Edition of the book was being published on November 1, 2016, the day after my 40th birthday. I marked the date on my calendar and added the book to my wish list, but I was a little sad. Sad that such a big milestone was coming, and I had no students to share it with.

By the time my birthday and the novel’s anniversary arrived, I’d gone back to teaching. Seventh grade. My new school only reads one class novel a year, and guess what it is?

Today, I introduce Ponyboy Curtis to a whole new group of seventh graders. I can’t wait to see him again.

Keeps Typing

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Creeeeeeeeak.

[Sticks one arm tentatively inside. Feels spider webs. Flips out. Does hippity-hoppity screechy octopus-style dance move until all spider webs are off.

[Reaches in with broom and clears entryway of cobwebs.]

[Lights match. Sees angry homeless spiders. Drops match. Screams. Runs. Screams some more.]

[Eventually comes back to make sure has not started fire by dropping match. Match is out. Spiders are gone. Soft bluish glow emanates from rectangular device in corner of room. Device beckons.]

[Tiptoes toward light. Sits down on slightly familiar wheeled object. Wiggles until feels more comfy.]

[Blows dust off tray of clicky things. Coughs. Sneezes. Looks for tissue. Finds none. Wipes nose on sleeve. Looks around. Pretends did not just wipe nose on sleeve.]

[Pops knuckles. Pops wrists. Pops neck. Pops knuckles again. Takes deep breath.]

[Types.]

[Smiles. Types some more. Backspaces to fix typos. Curses. Types again.]

[Checks Facebook. Goes back to typing.]

[Keeps typing.]

This is all just to say… I know. It’s been a really long time since I’ve posted anything to my blog. It’s been so long that WordPress is sending me emails like, “We recommend you post at least once a month!” and “It’s been a while since you posted,” and “Hey, you still have a blog, right?” Even my adoring fans* have started asking when I’m going to post something again.

* Ok, mainly just my dad.

So, here I am. I’ve clawed my way out of the piles of student papers and located my cute little office with my cute little computer with its cute little keyboard, and now that I’ve dusted off the cobwebs and sent the spiders scurrying, I plan to visit more often. I’ve missed it.

WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?

At school mainly. And at home grading papers. And at coffee shops grading papers. And sitting in my backyard grading papers. I graded, among other things, 174 expository essays, which took me roughly… hang on… carry the one… subtract the sleeping… FOREVER.

It wasn’t all bad though. Some of the essays were quite good, and others were funny. One student wrote in her introduction to an essay about benefits of learning from your mistakes, “Why does failing feel like climbing up a giant mountain, but when you get to the top, the view is nothing but bricks and bones?”

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Nothing but bricks and bones? That’s some creepy stuff from a seventh grader. I may have to borrow that image for a short story.

My students also learned about procedural texts by writing how-to manuals. They had to write the step-by-step procedure for any simple task that could be done in less than fifteen minutes in the classroom. When they were finished, they brought all the necessary supplies for their task, swapped booklets at random, and proceeded to follow the instructions. That was a very amusing day. There were students making origami, braiding hair, doing push-ups, eating cereal, drawing penguins, and learning to throw a softball all at the same time.

The most unique manuals were:

  • How to Clean Your Teeth (complete with toothbrush, paste, floss, and mouthwash)
  • How to Make Cookie Dough (This involved a LOT of supplies and other students kept having to be shooed away from it, like flies.)
  • How to Do a Perfect Plié (This involved extremely detailed instructions about “squeezing your butt” so it didn’t stick out.)
  • How to Reverse Dab (described as “the move that took the world by storm”)
  • How to Play the Cello (yes, she really brought her cello)
  • How to Tell Time in a Room with No Clock (This manual gave step-by-step instructions for raising your hand, asking to go to the restroom, and then using the break to check the time on the clock in the hall.)
  • How to Get a Girlfriend (which was adorable)
  • How to Annoy a Teacher (This one was well-researched, thorough, and expertly executed. My “favorite” step was #3: “Raise your hand. When called on, pretend to think about a question for about 6 seconds, then say, ‘I forgot.’ Repeat this step 3-5 times.”)

[Note: This lesson was not my idea. I got it from one of my awesome coworkers.]

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How to Make a Clay Dog; How to Do a Perfect Plié; How to Make a Ninja Star; How to Make Space Buns (still not sure why she only brought in the Barbie’s HEAD to use as a model); How to Draw a Ninja; How to Make Cookie Dough

However, it hasn’t all been red pens and progress reports. Last week, for spring break, my hubby and I spent a few days at a cabin in Montana with no TV, no internet, no papers to grade, and no SCHOOL! Er… sort of. Actually the cabin was renovated from an old one-room schoolhouse, so it did have a chalk board, and some of the original desks, and pictures of the students, and several vocabulary flashcards. Yeah, now that I think about it, that was a strange choice of spring break getaway. But it was beautiful and severely lacking in stress. We saw lots of elk and bison, and I read a lot of books and made my first snowman. It was wonderful.

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ANY WRITING NEWS?

A little. Back in January, I forgot to share the link to my story “Reap,” which was published at Daily Science Fiction just after the new year. You can read it for free here.

And last month, the nonfiction beginning reader I wrote about octopuses and squids came out through the Scholastic Reading Club. If you have a kindergartner or first grader who’s interested in the ocean, you should check out the Smart Words Beginning Reader Pack #6: Ocean Animals in the April Seesaw catalogue because it includes my book and four others!

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There it is! Right next to Pete the Cat!

IMG_20170315_144204ANYTHING ELSE WE SHOULD KNOW?

Um… Staedtler Triplus Fineliners make excellent grading pens. And lukewarm coffee is better than no coffee at all, especially when a student is following detailed instructions about how to annoy you. And you should always stay on the path at Mammoth Hot Springs so you don’t accidentally get boiled alive. And the next time I blog, I’ll try to be a little more focused and a little less covered in dust and cobwebs.

Anyway, I promise to keep typing.

Advice From a Teacher, Part 2: The Spiral

On Wednesday, I told my seventh graders we’d be starting our expository writing unit, and they groaned accordingly. I then proceeded to pretend that they were whining for no reason and that writing expository essays wasn’t really that bad and might actually be kind of fun.

On Thursday, I put an outline of the expository essay structure on the screen* and my students did not whine. They simply gazed back at me with glassy-eyed stares. That’s when I realized three things:

  1. They had all seen this outline before.
  2. They obviously needed to see this outline again because their benchmark expository essays first semester were terrible.
  3. I had to find a way to make them not hate me for teaching them expository writing or they would never learn expository writing.

So, I dropped the act.

* I don’t actually have a screen for my projector. In November, while I was out of the classroom to grade the students’ benchmark expository essays, my sweet little substitute accidentally broke my screen when it got stuck while she was teaching and she tried to unstick it. For about a week, I didn’t have a screen at all. Then, when I remembered that I work in education and probably wouldn’t be getting a new screen anytime soon, I improvised. My “screen” is a bed sheet.

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Exhibit A

I told my students that I knew they had heard all this before. They nodded. I told them I knew they’d written expository essays before. They nodded again. I told them I didn’t want them to think that I thought I was telling them something new and exciting that they’d never heard before. I said, “I know you’ve learned expository writing before. You’ve also written personal narratives before and read short stories before and analyzed poems before.” (More nodding.) I said, “If it feels like you do the same thing in Language Arts every year, it’s because you do.”

They seemed sort of shocked at this, like they didn’t know I knew it or at least never expected me to admit it. That’s when I told them that Language Arts is different than their other classes. “It’s not linear,” I said, making things up on the spot and trying to sound intelligent. I explained how math is linear. “You have to learn how to add and subtract before you learn how to multiply and divide. Everything builds on everything else, and eventually you’re doing complex equations, and you have to know how to add and subtract to do them, but you’re not still being taught how to add and subtract.” I talked about how in science, you study different topics each year. “But Language Arts isn’t like that,” I said. “Language Arts is a spiral.” I talked about how reading and writing are skills you learn over and over again, only with new material. I said, “The skills may not change, but the complexity does. You’re still reading short stories, but they’re longer, more advanced short stories. You’re still analyzing poetry, but it’s higher level poetry. You’re still writing narratives and essays, but they should be higher quality, more mature narratives and essays.”

Then I drew this elaborate diagram to illustrate what I meant and projected it on my sheet.

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Exhibit B

The kids** actually seemed to listen to what I was saying. They seemed to get it. And for the rest of the period, as we took notes (again) on thesis statements and body paragraphs and conclusions and color-coded an example of an expository essay, no one groaned or whined or said, “We’ve done this before.” They were quiet and attentive and on task and maybe, just maybe, seeing the lesson in a new way. It was nice.

** When I say “the kids” I’m lumping all 129 of my students together, but in reality, I teach ELA five times a day to classes that range in size from 16 to 31, and no class is ever exactly the same. Here’s how this little teachable moment actually broke down:

  • 1st period: I had no epiphanies first period and made no grand speeches about the spiral of Language Arts. First period is always known as my “guinea pig class.” It’s where I test out my lesson and see if it works. This year it’s even worse than usual because my conference periods are 2nd and 3rd, so I can totally revamp things if necessary before more students come in, and I often do. I often console myself by reminding myself that there are only 16 students in my first period, so if the lesson doesn’t go well, I’m only damaging 8% of my students, but then I remind myself that I really should try to give them a kick-butt lesson someday to make up for it, or at least some candy.
  • 4th period: I had the epiphany about the repetitive nature of ELA and improvised a short speech about the spiral but used no visuals.
  • 5th period: I gave a decent speech about the spiral and actually drew a small spiral on the board.
  • 7th period: I gave a good speech and illustrated it with the elaborate and impressive diagram you saw above.
  • 8th period: I drew the same illustration as above but more neatly and with a purple marker, while giving a moving speech about the spiral that ended with me saying, “So, Language Arts doesn’t change, but—I’m about to blow your minds—you change,” and the students let out a collective “whoa” of appreciation.***

*** I’m not kidding.

Then on Friday, we took a break from expository writing to start our nonfiction book clubs, and my classes were all ridiculously loud and squirrely and unfocused, and I ended up threatening, “If I have to tell you to get quiet again, you’re doing book clubs by yourself!” which makes no sense. But I blame the _______________ [Choose your adjective: excitement/horror/bewilderment] of Trump’s presidential inauguration for that. ****

**** In case my actual teaching advice got lost in the writing of this post, here it is:

  1. Be honest with your students. They will respect you for it.
  2. Once in a while, try to wow your guinea pig class with a great lesson. Or, failing that, give them candy.
  3. In a pinch, bed sheets can be used as projection screens. Also, broken desk arms can be used as crowbars, but that’s a whole different story.

 

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Exhibit C