03 Jonathan Zawada, Big Mouth Zine

Creative Commons License Will via Compfight

One time I heard one of my third grade teachers telling one of my classmates that he was loquacious. (This was the same teacher who threw her giant textbook as hard as she could on the ground in response to her frustration with this same student, so I tended to pay attention to all of their interactions. It was one of the juiciest teacher-student relationships I had ever witnessed.) I didn’t know what loquacious meant, and I was certain it was something horrible so I looked it up. As it turns out, it means “talkative.” Not so horrible, and I remember thinking, “Well, I am NOT loquacious (in school).” I think of that teacher and that classmate every time I happen upon that word, which up until very recently was not a frequent occurrence. However, all of that changed this semester, when the word loquacious showed up as a vocabulary word for my 10th graders. I guess this is one example of why you SHOULD use big words with your own children (and students). Most students don’t want to be left in the dust, so if they don’t understand what a word means, they will ask you, or even the quiet ones (like me) will find out meaning on their own. Even if they don’t immediately, at least they will have a layer of context to work with the next time they hear the word used again.

On The Danger of Books That Have Been Made Into Movies (and Potential Flim-Flammery)

Brookland Theatre

Bill Dickinson via Compfight

The title of this blog post is a bit alarmist, especially since I was specifically speaking from an academic standpoint. Some teachers fear that students who have been assigned to read books that have been made into movies will not read and will just watch the movies instead, presumably working under the assumption that the movie is exactly the same as the book. Alarmist indeed, especially since I don’t think there is any danger in this situation, even academically speaking.

If your student hasn’t read the book, you will know. After all, you can’t flim-flam a flim-flammer … eh? I mean we were high-schoolers once. We went to college! We know all about tomfoolery, malarkey,  funny business, and shenanigans. (I would’ve used another better-known saying at the beginning of this paragraph, but I like to keep this blog family-friendly … ish.) If your student hasn’t read the book, but watched the movie (or for that matter listened attentively during lectures or class discussions), s/he might be able to answer very basic content questions, but it will be nearly impossible for him/her to analyze or evaluate without being vague. This is when you can pull out your questions that pertain to the movie but not the book or vice versa … and BAM! you know you have a flim-flammer on your hands. Proceed according to your classroom policies regarding students who don’t do their work (which hopefully includes trying to get to the bottom of WHY the student is avoiding the work). Will there be the rare exception of the student who is so skilled in the art of bull-skooting that s/he will be able to dazzle her/his way through an assessment over a book s/he has not legitimately read? YES, but you don’t have supernatural powers, so there is nothing you can do about it, so let it go. As long as the student isn’t doing something to hurt her/his classmates, school property or you … for good gravy’s sake, let it go.

CONFESSION: I used to be one of those teachers who lived in fear of students poppycocking their way through a literary unit armed with only their cinematic knowledge of a piece of literature. What if they don’t read? What if they lie to me? What if they trick meeeee? What will my colleagues think of me? What will my principal think of me? Why am I so worried about me? Me? Me? Meeee? Why am I worrying about things that haven’t even happened yet and might not ever happen? Why don’t I trust kids? Why am I such a control freak? The older I get, the more I realize that, except for what I do and feel, I cannot control much else, which allows me to live in fear no more.  A conversation I overheard during a lit circle discussion a day or so ago helped to solidify this and I will tell you about it, but first, a digression:

In my Contemporary Literature class, one of my goals (which is-dare I admit this publicly?–NOT ATTACHED to a state standard—GASPPPPpppp!) is to take each of my students’ stance on reading and move it closer to LOVE.

Allow me to expound visually …

I'm just below considering Reading as marriage material.

Where do you fall on the Reading (the feels) Spectrum? I’m just west of considering reading as marriage material.


In other words, no matter where the a student is on the Reading (the feels) Spectrum, I want that student to be closer to LOVE when s/he walks out of my class at the end of the semester. Most kids walk into my class with a basic MERPitude toward reading. They don’t outright hate it, but it’s not something they crave. Some kids walk in somewhere between MERP and HATE. Even fewer walk in somewhere between MERP and LOVE. It is a rarity that a student is already in LOVE with reading when they walk in, but it does happen. In fact, every so often I have a student take Contemporary Literature because s/he wants to, even though s/he is already enrolled in another English class and doesn’t need the extra credit to graduate. When that happens it is a true compliment to English Language Arts–probably one of the highest.

In Contemporary Literature, (which originally was created for students who did not plan to attend a four-year college, but now has been overflowing with students of every post-high school intention imaginable … !!!) I use the following things to help move student closer to LOVE:

A. high-interest books: I do not pay attention to reading level or text-complexity. I look for well-written, interesting, books with relatable characters and topics that affect modern students. I don’t give a flying fig if it appears on some elite College Board or ACT list. I don’t care if scholars think it’s trashy, or simple, or cheesy. If it hooks a reluctant reader’s interest, I’ll take it.

B. self and group regulated activities: –like literary circles, for example. Activities like lit circles gives the students choice and independence–something that EVERYONE needs to thrive, whether they are 2 or 100. These are also elements that are too often left out of the classroom, sadly.

C. alternative texts: We dive into graphic novels, science fiction, articles from the web, podcasts, and movies. YES: Movies ARE a -visual- text.

And now back to my original topic … Sometimes books inspire students to watch movies. On the other hand, sometimes movies are the gateway drug to books. Yes indeedy: Movies can lead students to books! Sometimes a kid likes a movie so much that s/he decides to read the book. And, sometimes a kid is assigned a book that has been made into a movie, and even though the movie isn’t exactly like the book, it still helps the kid understand the book–either before the student reads or retroactively. Those are positive things!

Personally, I prefer to read a book THEN watch a movie. However, other people have different preferences. Just because that’s the way I like to do it DOESN’T MEAN EVERYONE HAS TO LIKE IT THAT WAY. (That’s hard for some teachers to grasp, I’ve noticed.) For me, once I’ve seen a movie, it’s hard for me to NOT picture the actor who played each character as I read, and I don’t like that, but not everyone has those issues. They are either able to block the actors’ images from their minds or they enjoy having a visual upon which to rest the mind’s eye.

sunny windless days

Read everywhere!


If you choose a book to teach (or allow students to choose a book to read) that has been made into a movie, will you have a percentage of kids who will watch the movie in lieu of reading? ALWAYS. Just like you will always have a percentage of kids who “replace” reading with Wikipedia or Sparknotes or LitCharts or the next newfandangled thang that comes along under the guise of helping people understand literature but which actually serves as a means for kids (and adults) to cheat on content-level tests (and book club meetings). (In fairness to the aforementioned entities, I will say that when used with integrity, they do serve as a resource for helping people understand literature–at a surface level.) That being said, if a kid is able to pass an assessment without reading the book, are you asking the right questions? (That is for another blog post, methinks.)

Now back to that conversation I mentioned earlier in the post. During lit circles the other day, I overheard students discussion the book, The Fault In Our Stars by John Green, which is not only a popular book, but also a popular movie. The group members had all seen the movie. They were comparing the book to the movie and making note of all of the differences. They were also evaluating the movie based on the book–what they liked about the book and what they thought the movie did better. They were also qualifying WHY they felt that way. This was a grown-up conversation, and they were doing this without my guidance and without micro-management of any sort. The lit circle provides a flexible structure for the students. They build outward from that structure. It is always an honor to lead a class in discussion, but it is an even more rewarding to listen to young people do it on their own. And guess what? They held each other accountable for reading. Based on my experience, students are more motivated to be prepared when they know their peers will be upset with them than they are when they just know that the teacher might be upset. And it is one thing to attempt to bamboozle a teacher. It is another thing to attempt to hornswoggle a group of your peers. They will call you out–publicly. And they will determine whether or not you read or just watched the movie and said you read. They will ask the trick questions outright!

The movie version of The Fault in Our Stars served as another point of dialogue for the students. It did not detract from the conversation. It did not demotivate them. They still read the book. They held one another responsible. They got into higher levels of thinking (analysis, evaluation) BECAUSE they watched the movie AND read the book.

Outside of lit circles, there will be kids whose interest is sparked enough by a movie that they will read the books that inspired the movies  … and they might even like reading those books … maybe even a little bit more than they enjoyed their last reading experiences.  As a result, they move a little closer to LOVE!

That is a good thing. That is what teaching is all about.

Custom Summer Reading List

One of my students, who graduated this year, asked me to come up with a summer reading list for her. Keep in mind that this list is for a student whom I know well, (and I know her family well also), and who is heading off to college next year. This list probably wouldn’t work for every student. There’s some pretty edgy titles here, but I thought I would share, in case you’re looking for that sort of list. Click on the link to travel to the SMORE where I’m housing this list.


The Last Day of the World

My Contemporary Literature class has been reading some of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. Today, they will responding to the following prompt:

In light of the supposed Mayan prediction that December 21, 2012 is when the world will come to an end, if you knew with utmost certainty that tomorrow was the LAST DAY OF THE WORLD, what would you do? In narrative form, (between 3 and 5 paragraphs) describe what your day would look like. When you are done with your DETAILED description, add one more paragraph in which you explain WHY you would do what you say you would do and then compare your response to the response of the couple in “The Last Night of the World”. I challenge you, dear students, to go beyond the obvious: I’m going to party it up! Think about it before you put in on paper. Think about the people for whom you care most. Think about what TRULY matters to you. Tell a story. Make this a reflection of who you are and what it most important to you.

I’m looking forward to reading and responding to their writings.

Learning is just awkward sometimes … or, if you’re me … ALWAYS.

I’ve fumbled. Twice this week.  And it’s only Tuesday.

Bumbling Fumble 1:  I assumed (I know!  I know! Anyone who was in Mrs. Pickrel’s English class ought to know what evil the act of assuming leads to …) that because I was able to read my Doodle from MY Macbook Air and from my iPad that the students would be ablt to as well. In my Contemporary Literature and Writing class, we are using the Zite and Flipboard apps–both digitally customizable personalized social magazines–on our iPads. I chose this as a way for my students to access FREE high-interest non-fiction writing. The assigned part of it is that they have to share two articles per quarter with the rest of the class. They’ll do this in person (by verbally  summarizing, analyzing, evaluating the chosen article in class) as well as by sharing the link to the article with classmates via email and/or Twitter.

So, I sent them an email with a link to a Doodle I set up.  (Doodle is a site, which also has an app–of course–in which you can create and send out potential meeting times to a group of people and they can all respond with times that work best for them. It helps to alleviate the inevitable flurry of emails or phone calls that often ensue, when a group of busy people try to set up a meeting time that works for all of them. I wanted to use it in this situation to have students select two days in which they would present their articles. Essentially, I wanted to use it as a digital sign-up sheet. I like to think of it as a creative alternative to the “traditional” Doodle.)

They ALL received my email (which is a modern miracle in and of itself — no typos!) with the link to the Doodle; they all clicked on the link and then everyone–and I mean EVERYONE–one by one–then two by two–then as an entire group–began informing me, in a cacophony of outrage: “THE LINK DOESN’T WORK!” “DEAD LINK!” “IT SAYS IT DOES NOT EXIST!”

It was the browser again. The same stinkin’ browser that garbles my pdfs. The same one that makes scrambled eggs of my Pages docs. The same browser that is the ONLY one the students are currently authorized to use on their school-issued iPads.  The same browser that is … going away tomorrow. (HOORAY!)

I told the students that we would wait to use the Doodle tomorrow. Then we listened to a podcast introducing the novel Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks through AppleTV (which is my favorite favorite favorite thing right now for sound and audio). Then, I read the first chapter of the book aloud, which is probably one of the most low-tech things I could’ve done at that point, and, frankly, it felt gooooooooooooood.

Though the assumption I made during Bumbling Fumble 1 was a classic human error, Bumbling Fumble 2 was even more of a Fumbling Bumble on MY part and less related to a lack of app or website compatibility or technology failure in general. It was a rookie error really. After twelve years in this game, I should really have known better. I wanted to use Socrative in Contemporary Lit yesterday, but instead of setting it up ahead of time, I had it in my head that it was so very easy and user-friendly that I could set it up on the fly. This is never a good approach in any arena. Don’t get me wrong, Socrative IS easy. It IS user-friendly. It does NOT take long to set up at all.  That is, unless you haven’t used it since the summer, and you’ve forgotten the basics, which describes me perfectly in this situation.

So, lesson (re-)learned: Flying by the seat of one’s pants is best saved for vacations and date nights. But, then again, failing in front of the students isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It shows my hu–manity, for goodness sakes! OH THE HUMANITYYYYY! It shows that I’m taking risks (a careless risk maybe, but nevertheless a human risk) and I didn’t let it fluster me, as I might have in my earlier years. We just broke out the dry erase markers and scratch paper and kicked it old-school for a minute.

No doubt we (students, teachers, administrators, parents) are all curving along the learning continuum this year, as we matriculate in this new digi-rich environment. I am learning something new every single day thus far, and maybe it’s just me, but true learning always includes fumbling and bumbling. For me, true learning is always delightfully awkward.

Sustained Silent Angry Birds

On Fridays in my English classes, (and in the English classes of all of my PHS Language Arts colleagues), we partake in sustained silent reading (SSR).  The students are required to walk through the door with a book in hand and to read that book for the duration of our time together. It’s a simple way to give students a consistent opportunity to read and it demonstrates how much our department values reading. Every year, since I’ve been at PHS, we have had talks about removing SSR in favor of other things, but we always come to the same conclusion: We value reading SO MUCH that SSR MUST stay.

So, my question this year is not, “Should we continue our SSR tradition on Fridays?” but rather, “Where do the iPads fit into all of this … or do they?” My answer thus far is, “We’re going to try to work it in where it makes sense for students.” There are plenty of e-reading options for the iPad and I’d like to give my students the choice to use them in lieu of the traditional book.

I LOVE books …the way they look … the book smell (you know what I’m talkin’ ’bout) … the feel of the pages against my fingertips … the sound of the spine cracking … that old familiar book taste (kidding).  If I own the book I’m reading, you better believe I’m going to be dog-earing that sucker, and chances are high that my writing will be scrawled in the margins OR especially lovely passages, sentences, or single words will be underlined.  But, I’m also in love with experimentation — my own and the fostering of it in others. I’m also in love with the idea of engaging students in reading. If that means handing over the traditional book in favor of a book served up digitally, so be it.

My top concern is that I will allow my students this option and they will make a show of opening their e-reader app at the beginning of class, but the minute I’m not looking, SSR will turn into SSAB (sustained silent Angry Birds). I don’t know how I will monitor this. (Please, if you have suggestions, give them to me.) I like to read or play catch up during SSR myself, but it would be negligent of me to believe that every student will have such a brilliant desire to read that they will be able to withstand the many temptations that iPads present. For Pete’s sake, while composing this post, I’ve checked my Twitter feed and email two or three times each, so I know how distracting (and wonderful) technology can be. For now, I think I will offer the students a TWO STRIKE and you’re out system. The first strike will require that you sit at your table with the iPad flat an in plain sight.  The second strike will mean that you have to go back to the old-fashioned means of reading — with a book.

Everyone will start with the option of downloading an e-reader app, and they will keep that privilege and my trust as long as they stay on task.  I will be duly diligent in monitoring them during SSR, which, I acknowledge, will be a challenge! I am only one woman with limited super powers. (All teachers have super powers, but I cannot reveal mine at this time.)

I’m hoping that at least a few students will take me up on this offer of reading mode variety and that different students will try out different e-reader apps, so I can report back on which ones work best for us. Of course, students will have the choice to just read a regular lovely old book. In fact, we’re going to the library TODAY for those who are traditional book-lickers like myself (Again … the book tasting is just a joke; but seriously … I ♥ books.)

If you have experience with e-reader apps and wouldn’t mind sharing, please do so in the comments OR tweet me: @morgetron.