First Person

How sticky notes help my students read novels independently

Last month, my eighth graders read “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie — the whole book, start to finish.

Their experience was unusual. Most of the time, when an entire class focuses on the same work of literature, students are asked to read only excerpts or answer a series of questions at the end of each chapter. I ask my students to read every word — and to wait until everyone has finished before discussing the book in a formal way.

I’ve enthusiastically adopted the “whole novels approach” into my middle school classroom because of its oddly radical notion that in order to fall in love with reading and engage in high-level analytical work with texts, students need to first experience a work in its entirety. I first learned about the practice of teaching whole novels from Madeleine Ray, my mentor at Bank Street College over 10 years ago, and I’ve been developing practical methods to make it a reality for my students ever since.

In my book, “Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach,” I share many practices I use to help my diverse group of students fully access the texts and to hold them accountable for the reading. Here, I’ll discuss just one of them: the way that I ask students to record their thinking as they read on sticky notes.

This practice helps me set clear expectations for students and allows me to assess and support their progress along the way. By engaging in freeform annotation of the text as they go, my students learn to distinguish among their own literal, inferential, and critical thinking and strive for a balance of these three kinds of responses. (The sticky notes also provide one answer to a question that other teachers often raise when I discuss the whole novels strategy: How do you make sure students read the book?)

I’m always skating the line between offering structure and allowing students freedom as they read. I navigate this tension in part by talking openly with students about it: During the reading stage of the novel study, I hold regular whole-class meetings. Some of them focus on the content and experience of reading the story itself. Others focus more on process, and I ask students to openly share their various reading processes. This sends a message that these differences are interesting and worthy of our attention. I emphasize to the class that we each have our own process for reading and responding, and I help them guide each other towards effective approaches.

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Here’s an example of one of our informal discussions, as I describe it in my book, that dealt with students’ varying approaches to annotating with sticky notes. It took place last winter, when my eighth-grade students at Brooklyn Prospect Charter School were in the throes of reading an unusual novel, “Nobody’s Family Is Going To Change,” by Louise Fitzhugh. I recreated the conversation from my memory that evening at my computer.

Some students like to write lots of stickies. “I’ve been writing, like, a sticky on every page,” says Yvonne in meeting.

“Wow,” I say, encouraging the conversation. “What makes you do that?”

“They help me understand and remember,” she says.

Three hands go up and wave passionately. I call on Jake, who tells us, “I don’t like to write them at all. I just wanna read and read. When I have to stop and write a note, I lose that feeling of reading. Then I don’t want to read.”

“Oh, no!” I respond. “Does anyone have any advice for Jake? How could he work this out?”

“Well, what I do,” a student offers, “is I read as much as I want that night, and when I read, I put a note where I find something interesting. But I don’t write anything. I go back another time to write the notes.”

“That’s pretty cool! Do you think that might help Jake keep the feeling of enjoyment?” I ask.

“Yeah, because you can read as much as you want and not worry about notes, but also you don’t forget the interesting parts. I usually do the actual notes in class,” the student offers.

Another student adds, “I read a chapter. At the end of the chapter, I stop and go back and find a few things to write about.”

Another hand goes up. “I read really fast. I read this whole book in two days. I couldn’t stop. So now I’m just going back and rereading it and doing the notes.”

I ask, “Do you get anything new from this second reading? Or is it just a drag?”

“At first I thought it was a drag, but now I’m finding more and more to write,” the student answers.

“When I’m home reading,” Choron says, “I feel like there’s this dude sitting on my shoulder whispering in my ear telling me not to write the sticky notes, like, ‘Don’t do it!’ And I sometimes listen to the little dude.” We have a laugh.

Another student chimes in, “I feel like it’s the opposite! I feel like the little dude is telling me to stop and write a note! At first I didn’t listen. Then about halfway through the book, I started listening to the little dude. I wrote one note, and then I just couldn’t stop writing them! I had so much to say!”

“What I do,” Logan shares, “is I read in school and at home. Then during class, I work on the notes. I have to write notes for another class I’m in, too, so I have time to write there. That’s how I get it all done and keep on schedule.” Logan is talking about the intensive reading class he takes in addition to English class. He’s been assigned to the class because his reading skills have been significantly below grade level. The fact that he was comfortable sharing this part of his process with his classmates showed me that he saw diversity as a normal and valuable part of our learning community.

My goal is for each student to become aware of his or her own process and discovers what works for him or her, finding the balance between the pleasure of experiencing the story and the satisfaction of critical reading.  (Check out this video to hear my students talk about where sticky notes fit into this balance.)

Sometimes in the springtime, based on students’ requests, I switch up the format, allowing them to write journal entries on the book instead.  Or for students who have demonstrated mastery of the text annotation process, I lessen or even drop the required responses and make them voluntary.

I have to say, although I’ve come up with many answers for how to support students in studying whole novels, I’m still searching for the right balance between offering structure and freedom when it comes to students’ responses while reading.  Every student has slightly different needs, and though this variation fascinates and compels me as a teacher, I may always struggle a bit internally with how much to require.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.