Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Reading Anthology

Sometime in August, I went to Dubuque, IA, to conduct an inservice session on Conversation Circles. During the inservice, I mentioned a project that I used to do with my seniors at Woodham High School in Pensacola. I've mentioned this project, The Reading Anthology, in several presentations/inservices, but no one has ever asked me for instructions. Three middle school teachers in Dubuque wanted to know how to do the project. The following is a pretty much lame attempt to inform them. This may not be very interesting reading if you're not an English teacher, so don't feel obligated . . .

How I wish that I had kept the disk that had all of the instructions on it! I’ll try to reconstruct what I did a dozen years ago. Here’s a little background first:

One evening in 1990 (or thereabouts), I decided to look through old issues of The English Journal, my favorite “teacher” book, but one that I had neglected for several months because of the mounds of papers that needed grading. The EJ had always been my source for new ideas, ideas that I usually tweaked to make my own. Because of my “borrowing” from this periodical so much, I would later refer to myself as a copycat teacher. Very true!

As I sat cross-legged on the floor of my office, I happened upon one particular EJ that changed my teaching life forever. I had always thought that students should have a definite say in what they read. A teacher never gave me that opportunity, and I wanted my students to be able to choose. But I was at a loss as to how they could do that and still have the kids read quality literature. I hope that somewhere in boxes out in our storage building I still have that particular issue, but I doubt it. Anyway, as I thumbed through the issue (probably somewhere between 1988 and 1990), one article almost literally jumped out at me. It was by Anne McCrary Sullivan, a teacher in Texas, and was titled “The Reading Anthology,” or something similar to that.

I fell in love with the assignment immediately because Anne had opted to give her students literature types to read, but she let the students choose the specific titles. Why couldn’t I have thought of that? I’m no dummy. Maybe I didn’t think of it because the Lord meant for me to meet Anne in person. My detective skills kicked in, and I found her. It wasn’t easy, but I did it, and I think it was in 1992 that she and I finally got together at NCTE. There’s quite a story in our meeting, but what you want to know is how to do the assignment.

Now to the instructions. I’m going to give them to you in bulleted format, just suggesting some things that you might want to do. Before beginning, however, let me remind you that I taught high school seniors, and I required of them much more than you’ll want to require of middle school students. The assignment can be done with any grade level and any ability level, as long as the number of selections and the depth of writing are adjusted.

• Before assigning The Reading Anthology (through the years, my assignment came to be known as The Dreaded Anthology, mainly because seniors like to gripe), write the assignment in an enthusiastic manner so that students see that they’re in control and that the assignment can be fun and meaningful. They’ve never been able to choose their own literature before. This may be a problem for some of them, but you’ll encourage them and make them see that they can do this. If the three of you are working on this together and can get together to agree on what to assign in the way of types of lit, I think you’ll enjoy the project more. I was a “voice crying in the wilderness,” and many times I wished for a companion teacher just to bounce ideas off; however, I’m pretty much a loner in most teaching, so I did fine. Good instructions are a must! You may have to adjust the assignment as you progress the first time, but the students will like that because most of the time, your adjustments will make the assignment easier for them. Seniors are probably more devious than middle school students, so you may not have this particular problem: three of my boys decided to sabotage my beautiful assignment by twisting my words to mean something other than what they meant to me. I have to admit that they were successful to some degree; however, I found ways to lower their grades because of their mis-interpretations. They didn’t really win, but I re-worded instructions the next year.
• The following are the categories and number of selections that they had to read: Southern novel (1), British novel (1), Southern short stories (3), British short stories (3), poems (10) [the second year, I changed this to (5) for my survival], young adult novel (1), children’s story (1), cartoons (5), magazine article (1) . . . I think there were other categories, but I’m drawing a blank right now. Remember that my students were seniors; be sure to adjust the types of literature and the numbers of selections that they have to read. Don’t make an assignment that will suffocate them. Give them plenty of time to read and write.
• And now to the writing: My students had specific instructions for the essays that they’d write about each type of literature. The essays that they wrote were definitely personal, very much informal, but with definite guidelines. I’m sure you have your own instructions for writing about fiction and nonfiction. Just be sure that the instructions are not onerous. You want the students to enjoy writing about the selections that they’ve chosen. Don’t make the assignments too long because YOU must read and evaluate them.

Here are a couple of other things that I had my students do:

• Every Thursday after I made the assignment, they had to turn in a memo to me. I just had them use a regular memo form. The first paragraph was a summary of the kinds of reading that they had done during the week. The second was a comment on what they liked and/or didn’t like in their reading. And the third was a projection as to what they’d do during the next week. Frequently, a student would come to me bemoaning the fact that he or she didn’t like his or her selections for the anthology. My reply? ABANDON! Do not read something that you wouldn’t want to include in a book that you’re putting together! Occasionally, a student would bound into the room announcing, “I’ve abandoned that short story, Mrs. Young!” And we’d all cheer!
• I also had the students do double-entry journals for novels and short stories. You’ve probably done this before, maybe using a different title for the assignment. The students had to quote sections of the selections and comment on them . . . sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing, often questioning the passages. This was always one of my favorite assignments in the classroom. I can’t remember how many I required, maybe seven or so from a novel and three to five from a short story. Frequently their comments were a page or so long.

I’m sure you’re wondering how I evaluated an assignment of such magnitude. Believe me, I made it fairly easy for myself by creating a good rubric beforehand. The students had a copy of this. The main ingredient that I looked for in the assignment was their real reaction to the literature. I also evaluated them on how well they followed my instructions and whether or not they read and wrote about the full number of required readings. You’ll have to determine all of this for yourselves, though. Make this YOUR assignment!

I never marked anything on their finished product because it’s an assignment that they’ll be proud of and will want to keep. I made copies of the rubric and wrote on that for each student, mentioning page numbers in their “books.” Grammar, punctuation, capitalization, etc., were important but not the deciding factor on the excellence of their anthologies.

I gave extra credit to students who made a copy of their anthologies for me to keep to show students the next year. Don’t let them give you their original because you’ll want them to keep them. Their parents will want them to keep them, too. Will it be a problem for middle school students to use computers for their final copies? I doubt it.

Have I told you enough? Have I overwhelmed you? I do hope that each of you will make The Reading Anthology an assignment that both you and your students can enjoy. Please be sure to let me know whether or not you choose to do this and how everything turns out. I’m eager to hear!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Every Day Is Saturday

As of Friday, October 10, every day is Saturday to me. Yep . . . I received my “walking papers” from dear old Holt McDougal on that day. I should say that I received my “sitting papers.” Sandy won’t be traveling until January, if then.

The pitiful economy has caught up with the publishing companies, at least with the publishing company for which I work. Ask me if I’m sad. The answer: a resounding NO! The only thing that makes me sad is that I won’t be earning any money while I sit at home. Since I still haven’t been paid for the first week in August, all I can say is “So what’s new?” My constant theme song is “Maybe a check will come today!”

Enough sarcastic comments! I enjoy my job and hope to get back to work in January. In the meantime, I have plans. Nothing’s definite yet, but the following are some projects that I’m considering, some that I’m looking forward to and some that I’d rather skip:

• The number one project that I don’t want to do is some much-needed housecleaning. I have “glory holes” galore (these are cluttered areas like drawers and closets, according to my mother-in-law, Elsa Young) that are much in need of attention. Baseboards are crying for cleaning, and the mice have chewed their way into countless bags of dry foods in the pantry, so I could spend days in that closet just finding more things to throw away. We’ve gotten rid of the mice, but evidence of their busy-ness is still around. I had to make cornbread from scratch today because they’d been nibbling on my Marie Calendar’s mix. Now, that’s a shame!

• Years ago, when I first started my career in the publishing business, Frank took over almost all the cooking. I’d call him every evening, mouth watering, just waiting for his description of what he’d had for dinner. He’s a fantastic cook! But I fear that a project that will fall on my shoulders virtually every day is thinking up the meals and preparing them. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate this project; I just don’t look forward to tackling it every day. I think my sweetheart will pull his weight from time to time, especially when he wants something really scrumptious and/or exotic. I’m a “meat and potatoes” cook. Frank will help with cooking more than I’ll help with building the garage, I assure you.

• Getting away from the negativity, I’ll address the positives . . . the projects that I look forward to. Almost at the moment that Scott, the rep for whom I work, gave me the news about my job, I said to myself, “Well, this gives me time to write! And who knows, maybe the Lord is telling the old lady that it’s time to hang up the van keys permanently.”

• So what kinds of writing to I want to do? Well, here I am writing on my blog for the first time since July, when I wrote about Jay. On January 1, 2008, I wrote that I might do some scribbling every day in 2008. Obviously, I’ve missed the mark, but I can get back to writing every once in a while since I don’t have to be on the road, in schools, making presentations, conducting inservices. I look forward to “talking” on my computer.

• One of my good friends, Grace Hollen, is encouraging me to look into editing as a new profession. I’m investigating the possibilities; however, I’m not sure that grading papers for thirty-two years will qualify me for anything. People usually want proof of experience before hiring anyone for editing. I’m afraid my resume isn’t very impressive. But I may try this!

• I just found a Writing Workshop through Writer’s Digest that sounds very interesting to me, and I may sign up for it: Scrapbook Journaling. I doubt that I’d get anything published with this workshop, but publication isn’t really my goal. I just like to write!

• Here’s one that doesn’t pertain to writing or cleaning house: getting together with my Cerrillos girlfriends whenever I want to. Sigh! It’ll be so nice to be able to say “Yes” every time one of them wants to get together for lunch. Even nicer will be my ability to invite them to my house whenever I want to. Frank and I have such great friends out here in our hills. My never knowing for sure that I’ll be at home when something’s going on has been a heartbreak for me. Now my heart can mend.

• Several months ago, my cousin, Nancy Posey, gave me all sorts of suggestions for starting a book club. I just may investigate to see if friends in our neighborhood might be interested in forming one. Another check that I may do is to see if anyone is interested in writing his or her autobiography. The autobiography project is one that I’d like to do at Rodeo Road Baptist Church, too.

• A big project that’s coming up is one that we do every year but one which is difficult to get going and to complete because of my being out of town so much: our Christmas Open House. I can start baking as soon as I want to this year!

• The last “project” that I’ll mention right now is one that always thrills my heart: having Jackson at our house for a day every once in a while. I have no desire to be the every day babysitter for our precious little grandson; however, I love to be able to step in to help Todd when he gets really pushed in completing a job. Jackson makes us smile!

Anyone reading this post will know not to feel sorry for me for my having been “fired.” During the almost fifty years that I have been either teaching, “repping,” or working per diem, Saturdays have been the days when I could do just what I wanted to do. I know I’ll enjoy all these Saturdays that I have now!