Book Review: Scar Night by Alan Campbell

One of my students recommended this book to me. He is what we call a “reluctant reader” so I was excited to read it. I don’t know how to tell him that I did not really like it much. The fact that it took me ten days to read is a testament to how I had to drag myself through it. He kept on telling me that it would get better, but I never found that the case.

The world of Deepgate is a dark one. I’m all for dystopian societies. Usually they are the settings for my favorite books. The description of the city was detailed to start out. There are chains everywhere, supporting buildings over the Abyss. I never quite figured out what was holding the chains up, but maybe it was because I didn’t read closely enough. I really didn’t care. The problem that I found with the explicit detail is that it felt like a broken record to me. Just as the story started revving up, there was a description of the horrible living environment. It was more distracting than helpful.

Campbell jumps right in to the story without much exposition. Normally I like that, too. However, he also jumped in with a completely different vocabulary with no explanation of what the world-words meant. I guess it is a good exercise in contextual reading. I spent the first few chapters trying to figure out exactly what was going on and why it was going on. Characters were tossed in as if the author expected us to already know who they were. I kept on checking to see if this was a book 2 of a series.

The main characters were superficial. There was no depth to them. Campbell kept hinting at a deeper story, but never told it. I know that this is a method to increase anticipation and interest in a novel. The thing is, you’ve got to stop being a tease and give the information.

The first book in a series should make you want to read the second book. I just let out a sigh of relief when I was done, ready to move on to a more interesting book and forget that I ever read Scar Night.

I gave it 2/5 stars on Goodreads.

Teach Like a Champion and Positive Framing

My summer professional development included two book studies. My favorite book out of the two was definitely Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov. The book contains techniques that master teachers use on a daily basis to help students succeed. Each technique is broken down into a key idea, rules/methods, and examples. The book not only details the steps for each technique, but it also includes a DVD that shows video of master teachers modeling them in a real classroom. It is a book that you can read in little pieces, something that I really appreciate being a mom.

As I was reading the book, I kept on seeing things that I do without thinking. I realized that the ways I reacted were not the most conducive to encouraging student achievement. The techniques given were fixes that were logical. In fact, Lemov’s suggestions are easy and, if done consistently, become good habits. 
One of the techniques that really stood out to me was number 43 called “Positive Framing.” The key idea behind Positive Framing is: “Make corrections consistently and positively. Narrate the world you want your students to see even while you are relentlessly improving it” (p. 205). The essence of this technique is to live in the now and be positive about what you are asking the students to do. It does not mean that you only talk about the positive things that students do. It means that you focus on interventions for behavior, but you do so in a positive manner. You have the expectation that students will behave a certain way and you use reminders instead of guilt/punishment to maintain the direction that you want the class to go in.

I was really struck by the rule “assume the best” (p. 205). According to Lemov, it is important to not “attribute to ill intention what could be the result of lack of distraction, lack of practice, or genuine misunderstanding.” Now, I feel that I am positive when it comes to my classroom manner. My students enjoy my class and generally feel good about themselves when they leave. However, when I ask my students to do something, I realize that I often frame it negatively.

Lemov, D (2010). Teach like a champion: 49 
techniques that put students on the path to 
college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (p. 109)

For example, when I have a student that isn’t on task, I sometimes say,  “If you don’t get on task, I am going to have to start requiring you to stay after school to make up time.” Lemov points out that, by stating it this way, I am assuming that the student will not stay on task. The solution is to say “Show me your best SLANT” and walk away “as if you couldn’t imagine a world in which (the student) wouldn’t do it” (p. 206). Of course, you may have to go back a couple of times to make sure that the student knows exactly what is expected, but it tells the student EXACTLY what you want him or her to do.

Imagine what it would be like if you started this at the beginning of the year? Off-task behavior would still be there, of course, but I bet it would be much easier to get the whole class back on track if you reacted positively by stating high expectations and standards. The entire book is like that. I kept on having “aha” moments as I worked through it. If are looking for a book that will improve your classroom management almost instantaneously, this is definitely a book to check out!

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Have you read a book this summer that really made you think? Leave me a comment because I’d love to check it out!

7 Ways to Increase Comprehension in Struggling Readers

If you have never had an opportunity to go to one of Dr. Archer’s conferences and you are even remotely interested in literacy, you need to figure out a way to go to one. Beg your administrators, save up your change, have multiple yard sales, ANYTHING to help you make it. Dr. Archer is charismatic, entertaining, and generous. To top it all off, the strategies that she presents are research-based as well as practical. She focuses so much on active participation that it is easy to see why her methods are so effective.

My top 7 Take-Aways from the Conference

1. Don’t commit assum-icide. Sometimes we, as teachers, forget that our students don’t come pre-packaged with the information that want them to know. Because we assume, we generate gaps in our students’ knowledge. These gaps interfere with comprehension to a great extent. It seems logical, but I know that I have been guilty of assum-icide.

2. One of the best things you can do for struggling students is to *teach* them. I know this seems like a no-brainer, but, if you really think about it, how much time to do we actually get to do this? It is the explicit instruction that really helps the struggling readers. Discovery learning definitely has its place, but if the students have no knowledge base, there is little chance that they are going to discover on their own.

3. Teaching reading should not just happen in the Language Arts and English classes. Every subject area has an incredible opportunity to teach reading strategies to help their students become fluent readers. Content area teachers need to get out there and share information with their students while teaching them HOW to read it. 

4. Without automaticity, comprehension is inhibited. With fluency comes comprehension. If a student’s cognitive energy is being put into decoding, there is no energy left for comprehension. It is essential to give students the skills they need in order to be fluent readers. 

5. Practice, practice, practice. I know that I am very good at initial instruction. I can get my kids rip-roaring ready to go. The units that we work on are (usually) successful, and the students demonstrate mastery at the end. Dr. Archer asked us what would happen if we tested our students two units down the road. Would they demonstrate the same amount of mastery?I realized that my students might not. Practice is key. Working in cumulative review into my lessons will help prevent my students from losing what they’ve  learned.

6. Teach vocabulary explicitly. Pick the words that you want your students to really own. They need to be unknown words, abstract in nature, and applicable. Boutique words (words that students will never see in their real lives) aren’t ones that should be focused on. This made me think of the short story “The Gift of the Magi,” by O. Henry. One of the vocabulary words that the teacher edition suggested for explicit instruction was mendency squad. Would that be a vocabulary word that is worth spending the time teaching? I am going to start asking myself that question more often, now.

7. Get an English Language Learner dictionary. These dictionaries give student friendly definitions. When you teach vocabulary, you need to provide your students with definitions that they can understand. Anyone who has checked out a dictionary lately probably has noticed that the definitions aren’t readily accessible to your average adolescent reader. The definitions in these dictionaries take the work out of creating denotations that are understandable.



Final Thoughts
There was so much more that I learned from the conference. The three days were not in vain. I just know that I am excited to see how the new practices and procedures increase the success of my struggling readers. For those of you who have heard Dr. Archer, I have one final thought. Woo-woo. 🙂

Chasing the Whale

The Great Whale

I suppose every literate person at one point in time decides that he or she should read the wonderous tale of great Captain Ahab. Well, this winter break, I have decided that it is my goal to finish Moby Dick.

I have made it farther than I ever thought possible. I made it through the chapters about cetology and learned more about the whale than I ever wanted to know. I do have to admit, however, that I did skim it a bit. Does that make me a bad person? I have to say, no. I have decided that it makes me an efficient reader. I made it through the chapter glorifying the color white, effectively ignoring the statement that all things white (including people) are superior to all things dark. I accepted that because of the historical time period in which the book was written.

Now I am almost 300 pages in and I have hit a lull. There is a part of me that thinks I should just give up. The other part, however, says that I should soldier on. My fear is that I will become obsessed with finishing, much like Captain Ahab has done.

On a lighter note, I do love me some Queequeg! There is something very inspiring about the pagan cannibal. He gives me joy. Maybe I will finish itjust to find out what happens to him.

Wish me luck in my pursuit! Off I go to harpoon myself a book!