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

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.