Five Books to Jump Start 2017

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With so many books and so little time to read, our AP Lit Help team offers reviews of their favorite professional reads from last year. Happy reading and learning in 2017!

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Writing with Mentors – How to Reach Every Writer in the Room, Using Current, Engaging Mentor Texts by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell                                                                                                                                                   Review by Jori Krulder

Writing with Mentors is one of those books with ideas so straightforward and obviously useful that you ask yourself “Why didn’t I think of this years ago?” It is based on the simple premise that the best way to create engaged and independent writers is by teaching them to find and use current texts as models for writing. Students read and analyze the text and use what they learn to write their own texts. In addition to providing step-by-step ways to build units of study tailored to the needs of your students, this book offers several resources for finding the real world texts that will help students to see the possibilities out there when it comes to writing. Once I learn the process for finding a mentor text to fit the needs and interests in my classroom and using it to guide students in creating their own writing, I was given limitless possibilities for instruction. And once students learn the process, they’re also able to apply it to future writing endeavors. This book empowers both students and teachers with one of the most important gifts of learning: independence.

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Who’s Doing the Work? By Jan Burkins                                                                                                                                       Review by Elizabeth Metheny

I read Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris’ new book, Who’s Doing the Work?, at the start of this school year. It was a perfect shot-in-the-arm to help me reflect upon my role in student learning. I’ve taught high school English for ten years and have worked with all skill levels from struggling freshmen to Advanced Placement seniors. As I read through the book I saw myself in many of their examples. When students struggle, teachers often feel responsible to do more. Check! When teachers define, scaffold, or summarize for students, the student becomes dependent upon the teacher. Check! When students are assigned a complex text, they rarely use the strategies teachers have taught them. Check!  Burkins and Yaris argue that reading and English Language Arts teachers must take a step back and allow their students to grapple with material. Additionally, they explain how teachers can make easy adjustments to facilitate authentic learning and how those adjustments can help students become more independent and capable of transferring their learning.

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Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning by John Hattie                                                       Review by Roy F. Smith

What started out as required reading for a professional development session, John Hattie’s book Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning turned out to be an essential addition to my professional library.  Hattie’s work is grounded in data and effectively argues for a visible “practice of teaching.”  While most teachers work to assist their students in becoming more knowledgeable, Hattie focuses on those teachers who are “expert teachers” in their disciplines.  Hattie argues that these expert teachers are not only content experts, but they are also “passionate and inspired teachers.” Visible Learning leads teachers and administrators to an understanding of the strategies and techniques these knowledgeable and passionate teachers practice every day.  Hattie’s work is not a “theory only” lecture. The heart of his book develops the key stages of the expert teacher’s daily lessons. He delineates a framework that includes chapters on preparing lessons, starting lessons, the flow of lessons, feedback, and the end of the lesson.  Evaluating expert teachers’ strategies to make learning “visible” for all students, and putting these strategies under rigorous scientific measures, helps all teachers practice these strategies in their own classrooms.  Hattie sums up his book’s goal when he claims that “My point is that teachers’ beliefs and commitments are the greatest influence on student achievement over which we have some control – and this book outlines those beliefs and commitments.”      

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In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom by Kelly Gallagher                         Review by Susan Barber

Seeing Kelly Gallagher’s name with “the best interest of students” on a book left me no choice but to buy, and this book did not disappoint. Gallagher honestly reviews Common Core standards and argues that teachers need to stay true to teaching reading and writing rather than a set of standards. This book provides practical and theoretical content, old and new ideas, and teacher and student insight. In a world where many educators seem to either be highly outspoken against the standards or all in with them, Gallagher walks the line between the two putting best practices and students at the forefront of the book rather than engaging in an argument about standards, the current state of education, or the despair of literacy in today’s society. Some of the book is common sense which in my opinion is what is missing from many of today’s classrooms. Other parts of the book fights for student choice and engagement pushing educators to stay current with research and continue to grow as an educator.  My copy is already earmarked and worn from use already, and I have no doubt yours will be as well.

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The Art of X-Ray Reading by Roy Peter Clark                                                                                                                       Review by Susan Barber             

I read a lot. I grade a lot. I confer a lot. So when I find a book with lessons ready to roll out in my classes, I have found a gem. The Art of X-Ray Reading is a gem. From Fitzgerald to Shakespeare to Homer to Joyce to Morrison, Clark provides a lesson for a section of a text focusing on close reading. Do not confuse the term “close reading” here with a fad of filling out a worksheet on a passage but rather a serious study of a section. Students wade through syntax, determine diction and connotation, and tie the small to the big picture of the work. Clark turns the texts into mentor texts for writing and labs for teaching reading skills. His lessons are meaty, thorough, and engaging. Though only providing lessons for twenty-five works, teachers apply the principles of these lessons to any and every work taught in their classrooms. 

Best Lesson Series (Concept 1e)

I would be amiss if I failed to remind you of the Talks with Teachers book The Best Lesson Series: Literature written by teachers for teachers. If you have not read this, you are missing out!

What was the best professional book you read last year?

On Embracing Discourse

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When I took on the challenge of becoming a National Board Certified teacher in 2000, I videotaped myself for the “Whole Class Discussion” portfolio entry.

It was a dismal affair.  It featured a teacher pitching vague questions that went nowhere, followed by some that were enthusiastically answered by the two or three extroverts in the room. The rest of the students busied themselves picking lint off their clothing.

Luckily, board certification is primarily reflective.  My reflection indicated that this was an area where I needed help—fast.

That was 16 years ago, but correcting this one problem lead to a continual search for strategies that let students lead their own learning. It has been well worth the journey. … KEEP READING

Writing the Group Essay

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About three years ago, we were coming up on the end of the semester. There was so much to do between finishing up Romeo and Juliet with my 9th graders and grading. I wanted to finish the unit with something meaningful, but I also needed to be practical in terms of evaluating and inputting grades and closing out the semester. On my drive home, it occurred to me that I could have the students work in groups to write an essay in response to Shakespeare’s play. I went home and thought very carefully about how to structure the assignment so the students would be successful and so the essays would hang together and make some kind of sense.

As I walked around the next day listening to the student conversation around the play, themes, characters, and how to put their ideas all together, I realized that I had accidentally stumbled upon something very powerful. … KEEP READING

Why Impromptu Speeches Work

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I have a confession to make.

Up until this year, I’ve avoided public speaking activities in my classroom like the plague. It’s not that I don’t think students need it – apart from playing a pivotal role in the Common Core Speaking and Listening strand — being able to express ideas in a clear and concise way is a crucial skill for success in the adult world. It’s not that I never have students speak in front of the class. We have a few projects throughout the year in which groups get up and present a PowerPoint and discussion plays an essential part of instruction in my daily lessons.

But it is a very rare occasion that I have students stand up and autonomously give a speech to the class and that is for one reason and one reason only: they fight it tooth and nail. Sure, there are one or two hams that love to get up and bask in the spotlight, but they are few and far between, and until now, this wasn’t a hill I was willing to die on.  … KEEP READING

Engaging Students with Editorials

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Relevancy. Rigor. Authenticity.  These are buzzwords in education.  Pundits overuse these terms, which makes teachers ignore their meanings.  We may avoid confronting these terms because we know, deep down, that these concepts are difficult to achieve in the classroom.

It’s difficult to make a curriculum relevant to the lives of 25 teenagers,  meeting all of their needs and wants.

It’s difficult to scaffold lessons, pushing students to the edge of their zones of proximal development.

It’s difficult to create a classroom  where students read and write authentically, not just “playing school” for extrinsic rewards. … KEEP READING

Why I Do Not Teach Classical Literature

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There are many reasons why I do not teach Classic literature, so why bother talking about them? There is no point in discussing the enhanced vocabulary of someone who reads Cicero and Shakespeare. Likewise, there is little purpose in pointing out the countless references that even contemporary literature and culture make to the foundational stories of the Greeks and Romans. For the same reason, I will not talk about turns of a phrase that have passed into our vernacular from the giants of British literature and the value of understanding them in their original contexts. I am certainly not going to comment on the fact that the previous three sentences form a tricolon crescens, a grouping of three ideas, each of which is expressed with greater complexity. There is also the fact that this entire paragraph is an example of praeteritio, a device by which an author draws attention to something by claiming to do no such thing, despite that both devices have their origins in the literature of Classical antiquity and continue to be powerful literary and rhetorical tools today. I do, however, teach Classic, specifically Classical, literature, and if these benefits and their like are not the reasons, then what is? … KEEP READING

Gimme More Rules So I Can Be Free!

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“The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit… the arbitrariness of the constraint only serves to obtain precision of execution.” — Igor Stravinsky

Students often want to know why an author did not say something in a more straightforward way. Why didn’t Shakespeare just say the girl was hot? Why did he have to get all “shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” about it? Yet when we turn the question around and ask our students to write descriptively about, well, anything, they often hit the blank white paper wall. … KEEP READING

Advertising Fallacies: Snowboarding Cars and Other Fine Things

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If there ever is a perfect time to teach visual analysis, appeals, and SOAPSTone, now is the time. You can’t look anywhere without being bombarded by pressure—to be the best, to have the best. The message everywhere is BUY.

In today’s media-driven society, teens are immersed in advertising. In most cases, because it is so ubiquitous, they don’t even notice. They tune out the bar on the Facebook Wall, the popups in their favorite phone games, and can even fast-forward through commercials with their DVR. This, however, doesn’t mean that they are immune to the subtle effects. Now, more than ever, we need to teach them to read these things for what they are—ploys to make money. … KEEP READING