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.

IMG_0282

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 spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.