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

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

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.