Leaning into Crisis as an Administrator

Guest post by Jane Core Yatzek

As I write this post many schools are still welcoming students for the first nine weeks of school and establishing routines and procedures.  Children are still learning classmates’ names and nuances, the new bus stop routes, and may even still have a few unsharpened pencils in their school supplies.  Everyone is enjoying the newness and hope that infuses the beginning of the school year.  This is a beautiful time in each school year; until abruptly, one day it is not.

Inevitably someone in your classes, on your staff, or in your school community will experience a crisis this year.  It will cause ripples across your school much like a stone thrown into a calm pool.  Crisis takes an infinite number of forms; it is the death of a parent, the house fire that displaces a family, the tragic accident that injures students in your community or on a national stage, or a staff member diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.  The crises may have different causes and names but they bring out the same fear, hurt, and vulnerability in our school families.  There will be similar symptoms too – tears, withdrawal, anger, acting out, and confusion.

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Our response is what can be unique.  What if instead of just tissues, time, and “soldiering on” we encouraged our students, staff members, and school communities to share our raw feelings and lean into the crisis?  What if we talked openly about the fears and hurt, aware and kind to our own vulnerability and that of others?  What if we acknowledged our self-perceived weaknesses and defined the questions we have as we try to figure out if and how we move forward?  Could we model for our students how to not be paralyzed by our worry?  Would we find that we are almost always more supported than we ever thought possible just by sharing our crises with our trusted school friends, colleagues, and community?

There are many resources for administrators wanting to create a culture of trust for their staff and for helping teachers create a culture of trust in their classrooms.  One idea is to utilize the structures we use for inquiry to support our questions that arise in times of tragedy (Daniels, 2016).  Another idea is to work on building safe spaces to be open to our fearful or anxiety-ridden experiences (Brown, 2016).  Still another idea is to build upon our natural compassion for those feeling distress and reach out to folks within and beyond our circle when they express their uncertainty or discomfort, building a deeper and wider net of compassion and active listening. Finally, offering debriefing time and professional support for all school community members impacted initially or peripherally by crisis is important for physical and mental well-being (UCLA-SMHP, 2016).

Whatever the method, it is universally reassuring to know we are not alone when facing the situations that leave us struggling with hard emotions or feeling exposed.  It helps people to know that others care for them even when their emotions make them feel that they are unlovable. Crisis will happen this year, and when it does, let’s take time discover the growth that can occur in us as individuals and within our school communities when we grapple with the reality that our collective power may reside in our shared weaknesses.

Jane Core Yatzeck is a doctoral student in Curriculum Leadership at William & Mary School of Education.  She has 20 years of experience in education; first as a special education and general education elementary school teacher, and then as a school administrator at the middle and elementary levels.  She can be reached at jacor2@email.wm.edu or on Twitter @jcoreyatzeck.

Resources:

Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead.  Gotham Books:  New York, New York.

Daniels, H. (2017) The curious classroom. Heinemann: Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Lichstein, R., Schonfield, D.J. & Kilne, M. (1994). School crisis response: Expecting the  unexpected.  Educational Leadership 52, 3, p. 79-83 Retrieved from:  http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/nov94/vol52/num03/School-Crisis-Response@-Expecting-the-Unexpected.aspx

University of California Los Angeles Mental Health in Schools Project (2016).  Responding to a crisis at school: A resource aid.  Retrieved from: http://smhp.psych.ucla.edu/pdfdocs/crisis/crisis.pdf

Nurturing Curiosity in Our Students and Our Teachers

By Sarah P. Hylton, M.Ed., SURN

We all want students who are inquisitive and engaged, and the 6th annual Joy of Children’s Literacy & Literature Conference on October 5 provided a multitude of ideas and strategies for creating classrooms that capitalize on students’ natural wonder, passion, and curiosity. Breakout sessions on using inquiry learning, teaching with images and dialectical journals, creating games and text sets, and engaging with poetry every day were bookended by keynote speakers Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and Georgia Heard.

Pictured left to right: Associate Dean of Teacher Education and Community Engagement, Dr. Denise Johnson; SURN Director, Dr. Amy Colley; and Keynote Speakers Georgia Heard and Harvey “Smokey” Daniels.

Pictured left to right: Associate Dean of Teacher Education and Community Engagement, Dr. Denise Johnson; SURN Director, Dr. Amy Colley; and Keynote Speakers Georgia Heard and Harvey “Smokey” Daniels.

Smokey Daniels, author of The Curious Classroom, contends that our students are already curious; in fact, they come to us that way. Our task is to tap the power of their amazing and interesting questions by creating classrooms that honor this curiosity. Citing the research on curiosity, creativity, project-based learning, persistence, and genius hour, Daniels offers a “ladder” of ten key strategies for creating a culture of student-directed inquiry:

  1. Demonstrate your own curiosity
  2. Investigate ourselves and our classmates
  3. Capture and honor kids’ questions
  4. Begin the day with soft starts
  5. Check your news feed
  6. Hang out with an expert
  7. Pursue kids’ own questions with mini-inquiries
  8. Address curricular units with mini-inquiries
  9. Lean into a crisis
  10. Learn with partners and pioneers

Although Daniels’s ideas can certainly foster classrooms that engage primarily in inquiry learning, he encourages teachers to start with small commitments of time. Many of his ideas take fewer than fifteen minutes to implement, allowing teachers to start small and to continue as they see the positive results of engaging students in seeking answers to their own (and each other’s) questions.

Daniels also focuses on using images to spark student inquiry, reminding us that “text” can be interpreted broadly. He invites us to move beyond the narrow definition of text as printed words on a page and to understand that in addition to the written word, student wonder can be also be engaged by working with photographs, artwork, cartoons, diagrams, charts, and music.

If Daniels invites students to explore their curiosity by opening their minds, Georgia Heard invites them to do so by opening their hearts. Heard, author of Writing Toward Home, Awakening the Heart, Heart Maps and others, relayed her passion for helping students explore their innate sense of wonder through writing. Working from a simple heart drawn on the page, Heard urges students to explore those people, memories, places, and ideas about which they feel passionate by drawing and doodling images, supplemented by words and phrases for clarification or expansion, that resonate with them. The opportunity to slow down, to ponder their beliefs and ideas, and to commit them to paper creates the foundation upon which students build pieces of writing based on their own natural sense of wonder.

Although Daniels and Heard’s ideas center primarily on creating deeper student learning and engagement, savvy instructional leaders may well consider how to adapt Daniels and Heard’s ideas to promote a learning culture among their faculty.  Given that “today’s students urgently need to see as many thoughtful, curious, resourceful, and critical adults as they can” (Daniels, 2018, p. iii), it is incumbent upon school leaders to promote a school culture where faculty can develop their own curiosity and use it for school improvement. Design Thinking for School Leaders by Gallagher and Thordarson (2018) urges leaders to cultivate wonder intentionally by building empathy through curiosity, by routinely posing questions to all stakeholders, by honoring their creative ideas, and by designing opportunities to challenge the status quo.

Many of Daniels’s suggestions for how to honor and pursue students’ questions can easily be adapted to foster adult learning among faculty. Modeling curiosity, building relationships, honoring everyone’s ideas and questions, providing outside expertise, and engaging in research to satisfy our curiosity all promote a learning culture within our schools. Heard’s ideas, too, find a place in such leadership by inviting faculty to explore what they feel passionate about when it comes to students and teaching and learning.

Learning Leaders: Find Your Joy in Leisure Reading

By Jamon H. Flowers, M.Ed., SURN

The famous Charles Dickens quote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” refers to both the French Revolution and my first year as a Ph.D. student at William and Mary. This year provided me with meaningful personal and professional growth that I never anticipated.  The first anxiety-filled day of each class was saturated with requirements, explanations of assignments, and seemingly impossible reading lists. I felt like I had been thrown into an extremely difficult culture that provided no time to become acclimated. Despite the initial impossibility of each class assignment list, each semester becomes easier to manage. In a word, Ph.D. means “sacrifice.” It demands late nights and less and less time with friends and family to survive. My initial frustration and self-doubt morphed into self-growth, and all the sacrifice was worth it at the end.

Summer is finally here, and I am no longer committed to a schedule that consumes my time with academia. What will I do with my free time? I will read; I will read for pleasure. This epiphany came to me when I realized I had read the entire May 2018 edition of Educational Leadership in one sitting. I was not compelled by guidelines of an assignment, therefore, I lost track of time while reading each article. Sure, I annotated sections that were thought-provoking, but it was what I chose to do. I became reacquainted with a familiar stranger. For the past nine months, required reading coupled with completing written and oral-speaking assignments temporarily halted my reading for pleasure. Now, I have the opportunity to resume this passion, and I am excited.

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As administrators pleasure reading is often not a routine. We become bombarded with pouring ourselves into our students, staff, and community, and we tend to neglect feeding our appetite for personal and professional growth. Our blazing fire of motivation extinguishes as the school year progresses. However, a great way to rekindle our drive is to read. Reading helps to replenish and to stimulate, setting the stage for novelty and ingenuity. For example, as I read the latest edition of Educational Leadership titled, Bolstering the Teacher Pipeline, Herrmann’s article, Rethinking Teacher Recruitment, triggered in me a “wonder,” a “want,” and a “will.”

  • I wondered how might innovative practices, such as “schools offering internships through which younger college students could shadow teachers, work closely with K-12 students, and support enrichment activities” (p. 21), be implemented in more school divisions, with the hopes of attracting a wider range of candidates.
  • I wanted to learn more about hiring and retaining millennial teachers. Abrams’ article, What Matters to Millennial Teachers: A guide to inspiring, supporting, and retaining the newest generation of educators, provided 6 principles that all administrators would find helpful as they enter the recruiting season.
  • I will share the article, To Diversify the Teacher Workforce, Start Early, with peers in human resources and high school principals. This piece presented by Goings, Brandehoff, and Bianco discusses the power in grow-your-own model and 6 guiding principles to recruiting underrepresented community members into education.

Needless to say, reading something I chose to read for less than an hour resulted in an abundance of learning and pragmatic approaches to improvement. (By the way, I strongly recommend reading this month’s edition!)

The end is near for another school year. I am sure you are exhausted and in need of a well-deserved vacation. As part of self-care, I encourage you to read. Reading literature that piques your interest. If you are like me, you start books but never finish them due a long list of demands. However, this summer I have committed 30 minutes a day to reading. For some of us this time will be the only professional development we receive, so let’s do it! Practice what we encourage our students and staff to do. Reading is a magical portal.

May books always be with you.

On my shelf this summer:

  1. The Principal 50: Critical Leadership for Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence

Author: Barati Kafele

  1. Closing the Attitude Gap

Author Barati Kafele

Igniting the Joy of Leisure Reading

Guest post by Blanqui Valledor, York County School Division

In my dream classroom, my students would instantly gravitate to and acknowledge the brilliance of the piece of literature I assigned them to read. We would have in-depth discussions, and they would beg for more insightful pieces of text.  That was the dream, not the reality.

It is a struggle to get students to read and get excited over texts when we are constantly competing with short synopses of text found on the web.  “This is boring. Why are there so many words? Why do I need to read this?” became chanting mantras in my classroom.  I quickly realized that no matter how creatively or enthusiastically I explained the importance of reading and discussion, they could not empathize with the positive power I experienced whenever I read.

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Enter leisure reading.  In 2014, the International Reading Association published a study on the importance of leisure reading, also known as self-selected, independent reading. According to the 2014 study, “leisure reading enhances students’ reading comprehension, language, vocabulary development, general knowledge, and empathy for others, as well as their self-confidence as readers, motivation to read throughout their lives, and positive attitudes toward reading” (International Reading Association). Out of my need to share my love of reading, I incorporated leisure reading into my curriculum. I had nothing to lose.

At first, leisure reading was met with resistance: “What if I don’t like the book, do I have to continue reading it?” “No,” was always my answer; “I don’t finish books that I don’t like, why should I force you?” I stocked my classroom with a variety of text – young adult, non-fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and best sellers. I read while they read in class.  I shared what I was reading and questions I had, and soon after others began sharing their experiences with the books.  From their interests, we discussed topics presented in the text which evolved into creating text sets as our mode of research.  The chanting mantras I heard for years began to fade and were replaced with ‘You have to read this book!’

Incorporating leisure reading into my curriculum was the best pedagogical decision I have ever made.  By allowing my students to select their text, I have been able to understand my students better.  They have introduced me to new worlds outside the traditional literary canon, and I have reciprocated their enthusiasm by introducing them to “classics” based on their interests. By the end of the school year, the majority of my students have read anywhere from eight to ten different books – more than I could ever accomplish with them in class.

Student Testimonials:

Lisa Nelson – Seeing Big Ideas in Color

By Sarah P. Hylton, M.Ed. 

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 “It’s not what you look at that matters; it’s what you see.”

                Lisa Nelson, founder and CEO of See in Colors, claims this quote from Henry David Thoreau as her favorite, so it’s no surprise that her work as a visual strategist embodies this message. A graphic recorder, Nelson captures presentations in real time by visually recording the essential ideas and critical concepts being presented, creating something akin to a mural of the presentation or conversation. Using essential text, bright colors, and simple graphics such as drawings, shapes, and lines, Nelson’s hand-drawn sketches bring to life the underlying components of a speaker’s message, providing all participants with a means of, quite literally, seeing the big picture. Nelson’s sketch-noting engages participants and invites them to make their own visual connections to the material being presented. Nelson’s visual capturing of our 2017 SURN Leadership Conference can be seen here.

We are excited to welcome Lisa Nelson again this year for our 22nd annual SURN Leadership Conference on June 18-19, 2018 at the William and Mary School of Education Professional Development Center. Nelson will be sketch-noting in real time the presentations by our keynote speakers, Michael Fullan and Jennifer Abrams, as well as offering a break-out session in how to start sketching your own notes and ideas. Come learn how to be more creative and how to communicate your ideas clearly. Drawing skill is not required, and basic supplies will be provided, but space is limited for the session and requires advance registration. For more information on registration and the conference, please visit the Leadership Conference page on our website.

 

Communication: The beginning and ending of leadership

by Jamon H. Flowers, M. Ed., SURN

As a principal, what is your vision? Do staff members know what needs to be done to reach that goal? Do they know how you expect them to reach that goal? More importantly, do they know why this goal is vital to meet? And once they understand the “what,” “how,” and “why,” do you provide them with enough autonomy to get the job done in an effective and timely manner? These are pragmatic issues that principals encounter. Here are a few thoughts I have on how to more effectively address these issues and reach set goals in an authentic and enduring manner.

Collaborative vs. Solitary

Before anything else, engaging stakeholders, such as teachers, parents and community members, in conversations about where we are and why we are there, where we need to go and why we need to go there, and how we are going to get there and why we are traveling the path(s) to get there are pivotal. Notice why is included in each question. Although these conversations may be uncomfortable, the fact that you are seeking and valuing their perceptions increases their commitment and confidence which reduces resistance when it is time to implement. This collection of perspectives helps to pinpoint what needs to be done (the what), action steps needed to deliver (the how), and the reasons for doing it (the why) helps to keep everyone focused.

Telling Your Why

Principals have the best intentions but need to remember that people are not mind readers. That’s why it is important to share your why. Tell your staff and communities why you choose to lead your school, your vision for the school and how you will get it done. Often, principals, especially those new to their school buildings, are met with more resistance due to the lack of communication. People do not give support for what they do not understand or fear. In this case the fear of the unknown. State and live your commitments on a daily basis. You are being watched by all to determine if your why is at the forefront of your actions.

Give Them Space

Early in my administrative career, I discovered that my message of the importance of teachers having autonomy was not demonstrated in my actions. I was dictating the paths to achieve set goals. Staff and teachers became more concerned about meeting my expectations versus completing their work in a quality way.

The lesson I learned was that being too rigid compromises an individual’s ability to perform. There is nothing wrong with giving teachers the flexibility and freedom to interpret change so that they can get the job done in a way that works for them and the school. Remember, when we ask for change teachers are on the front lines. They have the skills and capability of executing in the moment, so let them do it and provide them with resources and support. Doing this gives them a sense of ownership, pride, and a boost in their morale.

 Celebrate

One of the simplest acts of showing gratitude is to celebrate. Celebrate those who contribute to the success. Leaders cannot change an organization alone as it takes an entire team to achieve this goal. When implementing change it is inevitable that we will experience setbacks. However, it remains crucial to celebrate whether it is a big or small victory.

As a principal, I celebrated my staff frequently, especially during testing season. During this intense period, I made sure staff was showered with gifts, food, and other incentives. For example, community partners provided faculty and staff lunch for an entire week. Additionally, the parent-teacher association (PTA) supplied teachers with baskets full of snacks and inspirational quotes. At the end of each school year, awards and trophies were distributed to those individuals who exceeded expectations. Teacher morale, their sense of efficacy, and their commitment strengthened. I was told on many occasions they felt appreciated and valued- two emotions that are sometimes absent in the education system. Let us be honest with ourselves: we all want to experience those feelings on a regular basis and when we do, we are motivated to do more for a cause. Remember to celebrate students and community members, too.

Final Thoughts

If we are not careful, visions and declarations are merely promises. As a leader, your job is to translate those promises into practical, on-the-ground performance through a complex sequence of interactions, on a daily day. It is crucial that you use each interaction as an opportunity to practice the elements listed above. Aim for improvement with each interaction. Commit to developing ever greater clarity and capabilities so that you may become ever more helpful in the moment. So, say what you care about, make it clear what you intend to do, and remain accountable.

 

The 5 Cs across the Disciplines

By Sarah P. Hylton, SURN

The Profile of a Virginia Graduate is a framework aimed at preparing our students to be life ready citizens. Positioned as part of the VDOE’s Standards of Accreditation, the Profile is the response to an essential question: “What knowledge, skills, and dispositions should a Virginia high school graduate possess?”

Focused on the four pillars of Content Knowledge, Workplace Skills, Community Engagement/Civic Responsibility, and Career Exploration, the Profile insists that creative thinking, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and citizenship – which we commonly refer to as the 5Cs – be incorporated into learning experiences in every classroom, pre-K through 12.

The 5Cs are not the purview of secondary teachers only (a common misconception given the reference to graduation in the name), nor are they intended to reside primarily in one discipline or another. Rather, this focus on the 5 Cs obliges all teachers to develop a common understanding of these skills and attributes and to understand how the 5 Cs exist across the standards and goals of the various academic disciplines.

Creating opportunities to build teachers’ capacity to incorporate these skills is the work of all school leaders. As each division considers how it will begin to implement the Profile, consider having teachers review the strands and/or goals of the various disciplines to determine where the 5Cs are mentioned in the standards of their own discipline as well as in others. Such a task should provide a good starting point for teachers to develop operational definitions of this language and will give them insight into how they are working in tandem with their colleagues to ensure that all students are developing these critical skills. Because reading, discussing, and writing with purpose in every discipline is fundamental to developing the 5Cs, further faculty conversations might center on how to offer instruction rich in these opportunities.

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EPPL Goes to Washington

By Sarah P. Hylton, SURN

EPPL students take part in a policy field trip to Washington, D.C.

EPPL students take part in a policy field trip to Washington, D.C.

At SURN’s Board Meeting on Wednesday, Dr. Mike DiPaola promoted William and Mary’s EPPL cohort and its goal to develop capable school leaders. The EPPL acronym stands for educational policy, planning, and leadership, and students in the program take courses in each of these areas, ultimately synthesizing those classroom experiences during comprehensive examinations. The natural extension, of course, is how these areas will interact in their professional lives as school leaders. Students in the program are reminded often of the necessity of leaders being conscious of the policy process in order to be able to engage positively and intentionally in that process.

Students currently doing policy coursework, including SURN Graduate Assistants Jamon Flowers and Sarah Hylton, took part in a policy field trip to Washington, D.C. on October 27, 2017. The trip, organized by Dr. Pamela Eddy, provided us with the opportunity to meet with K12 and higher education interest groups and with congressional education legislative aids and staff. We were reminded of how critical it is for school leaders to envision themselves as policy actors and to foster relationships with a broad swath of individuals and organizations. Those we spoke to urged us as school leaders to know our own narrative and to use it to shape our policy goals and aspirations. Faithful commitment to the organization’s best interests framed consistently and positively serves schools leaders well as they navigate policy issues at the local, state, and even federal levels.

SURN ESL Workshop Featured in School of Education News Release

SURN Workshop Featured in School of Education News Release:

by Julie Tucker | March 8, 2017

“The faloopious scaringas tringled quaransically to the barton.” This sentence, projected on a conference room screen, welcomed 65 middle- and high-school teachers from across Virginia to “ESL101,” a workshop at the William & Mary School of Education last week.

The group of educators, led by Katherine Barko-Alva, clinical assistant professor of TESOL, puzzled out possible meanings by analyzing the sentence structure and using the visual cue offered by an accompanying photograph. A consensus quickly emerged about a grumpy cat holding tight to a treat he did not want to share.

“Every sentence has layers upon layers of meanings,” said Barko-Alva. “The beauty of ESL is when you bring content and academic language together for the purpose of classroom instruction.”

The workshop, offered through the William & Mary School-University Research Network (SURN), was geared toward teachers with English language learners in their classrooms and offered strategies to help them meet the needs of those students.

The need for this type of training for teachers is huge. “When I ask superintendents what kind of professional development opportunities they need for their teachers, ESL training is almost always at the top of the list,” said Amy Colley, executive director of SURN.

Luckily for Colley, the William & Mary School of Education brought Barko-Alva onto the faculty last fall, and she enthusiastically agreed to collaborate on a series of workshops for elementary and secondary public school teachers from across the state.

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Dr. Katherine Barko-Alva speaks to an attentive group of teachers at the ESL 101 Workshop.

For Barko-Alva, teaching ESL is a passion born from personal experience. She arrived in the United States from Peru with her family at age 15. And though well-prepared by her schools in Peru and ready for college study, she spoke only a smattering of English.

She recounted one memorable experience in a pre-calculus class when she was given a math problem about baseball. “I knew how to do the math, but the language of baseball — bases, runs, strikes, walks — was totally foreign to me.” Language, she added, depends entirely on context, and every content area has its own specific register. The challenge for the ESL teacher is to navigate the disconnects between content and academic language.

It takes anywhere from one to three years to gain the language skills needed for day-to-day social interactions. Cognitive academic language proficiency — the ability to read, write, analyze and evaluate subject-area academic content — can take up to 10 years.

A year and a half after arriving in the U.S., Barko-Alva enrolled as a freshman at the University of Florida. She’s now a leading voice in ESL education, advocating for students like her who arrive in this country with little or no English but who deserve a full and engaging education.

Public schools in Virginia serve somewhere around 100,000 English learner students. And while these students are guaranteed equal access to grade-level materials and content under federal law, the resources, structures and policies supporting these students vary greatly among districts and schools.

“Our focus for the workshop was to offer specific strategies that teachers could take back to their classrooms and put to use right away,” said Colley. “These are techniques that every teacher can use, regardless of how much experience they have working with ELLs.”

The workshop was co-facilitated by Joy Martin ’02, M.Ed. ’08, who is a reading intervention teacher for Norfolk Public Schools and adjunct faculty member at W&M. For the past six years, Martin has led W&M’s Summer ESL Institute, which allows students to add an ESL endorsement to their teaching degree. Students who pursue the ESL-dual endorsement program graduate prepared to teach English language learners as content-area teachers and as ESL teachers. “And that is what our ELLs need to acquire English and succeed in school — teachers with the knowledge and skills to teach academic language and literacy,” said Martin.

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Joy Martin directs teachers at the ESL 101 Workshop.

Working within the limitations of a one-day workshop, participants at ESL101 got a primer on ESL foundations, but the main focus was on actionable techniques for the classroom.

Martin and Barko-Alva led the group through interactive exercises to conquer oral language production, such as the “jigsaw,” a group activity in which each student becomes an expert in one aspect of a topic and then teaches fellow group members. Another, “think-pair-share,” allows ELLs to practice language with a native speaker before being asked to speak in front of the class. These strategies also ensure that all students have equal opportunities for producing language in the classroom.

Kathy Smartwood, a kindergarten teacher from Yorktown, VA who attended one of the workshops, recognizes the value of having English-language learners in her classroom — to her, it’s a unique opportunity for cross-cultural exchange, rather than an obstruction to learning. “All of my students, regardless of their ability to speak English, should feel confident socially and academically.”

140 teachers from 29 school divisions and the Department of Juvenile Justice participated in the workshops, representing seven of the eight regions in Virginia. “It was a great opportunity to reach out to content-area teachers, who are the front line of support for English language learners,” said Barko-Alva. “We have a lot of work to do to improve outcomes for these students in Virginia, but we have amazing teachers.”

Thinking about Text Sets: Considering Time and Place

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Thinking about Text Sets: Considering Time and Place

by: Kerrigan Mahoney

If you ever dutifully memorized the definition of the setting of a novel as the time and place where the story happens, and never much thought about it again, well … you have much to look forward to! Setting is the smell of chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven, the eerie chirps of crickets at twilight, the sensation of a pat on the back for a job well done; the sound of hope, the smell of fear, the chills of desperation. Time and place shape identity, experiences, and social and cultural norms: both for our students and in our books. Considering how time and place impact identity and shape actions can be a powerful bridge between students’ own lives and experiences and those of the characters in a book. Centuries can become seconds when you can stand next to your character and empathize with her.

These three books put time and place, front and center:

Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick, the Michael Printz Award winning novel for excellence in young adult literature, links together seven vignettes that unfold on the same Scandinavian island over the course of millennia. The sensory experience of the island itself, along with the mythology and peoples tied to this place bring together each vignette in captivating and visceral storytelling. This genre-defying book will provoke discussion on the nature of time and the congruency of the human experience among students and adults alike.

“Open Mike Fridays” in Mr. Ward’s English class bring together the students of Bronx Masquerade, Nikki Grimes much beloved Coretta Scott King Award winning novel. The first year copies of this book showed up in my classroom shelves I heard: when can I read that book? Hey, that looks like a book I actually want to read! My internal celebratory dance and accompanying whisper/shouting was immense, but I played it cool – and my students certainly took the bait. Each chapter in this story is told from the point of view of a different student in Mr. Ward’s English class along with accompanying poem shared at “Open Mike Friday.” The importance of classroom space itself and its power to help students learn through shared experiences in a positive and supportive environment cannot be undersold – in this book or your classroom.

“Where the best and brightest strive and shine and stairways lead right to cloud nine.” Sugar Hill: Harlem’s Historic Neighborhood by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie is a celebratory picture book for all ages. The reader can dance, sing, stroll, study, and play through the masterful use of language and compelling illustrations that take us on a journey in Sugar Hill. An excellent book to think about how literary devices and figurative language can help to captivate readers; it also could be an excellent mentor text for students to write about their own neighborhood, school, classroom, time, or place that is important to them.

 

Questions to consider when thinking about setting:

  • How does the setting impact the plot, characters, or conflict?
  • In what ways does the setting evoke a sensory response?
  • How does a change in setting (or lack thereof) help to propel the story?
  • How does the combination of words and images shape your experience of the story?
  • How does the setting in this story relate to places you have been or settings you have experienced in other stories? How does this impact your understanding of the setting in this story?

 

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