“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other” (JFK)

Leadership [lee-der-ship] – n—the act or ability to lead, guide, or direct a group

I recently finished An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. The novel, at least for me, was a page-turner. I found myself engaged in the protagonists, Laia and Elias. Tahir crafts rich, full, round characters. Their development makes sense. Their choices, while difficult, make sense because of the people they are becoming. I found myself rooting for them and cringing when I thought they were making a bad decision. While not always likeable, they are believable.

The novel has strong plotting as well, which is the second attribute needed to be a page-turner. I found myself so completely immersed in the action of the plot that, at times, it was difficult to return to reality. This was quite clear when I had to put the book down (during scene that was a battle to the death) to meet friends for Sunday brunch. I had to remember that fighting for my space in line at the omelet station wasn’t quite the same thing that Elias was dealing with in the book sitting in my family room on my coffee table. While the novel is far more complex than this with multiple plot lines, I am going to reduce it to its simplest form. Elias, a Mask, has been named as a competitor in the Trials. The winner of the Trials will be crowned Emperor. The second will be the Emperor’s Blood Shrike. The losers will be killed. The tasks at the trials focus on courage, cunning, strength, and loyalty. One trait is the focus of each trial. These traits are important for leading the empire.

Concurrent with reading An Ember in the Ashes, I was part of the Book Love Summer Study Session discussion group about leadership and ways that teachers are and can be leaders within their school community. It seems like leadership was my word for the week. As I thought about leadership, I thought about adult leadership as well as student leadership.

I often provide feedback to parents that sound like this: [Insert your child’s name here] is emerging as a leader within the class. Or [Insert your child’s name here] is a leader within our classroom. Until this week, examining teacher leadership as well as the character’s leadership from the novel, that I never stopped to parse out what being a student being a leader in my classroom means, how it is modeled, and how it is received.

When I think about leadership within my ELA classroom, I find it takes many forms since we work in many different ways in class. Sometimes students work individually, sometimes in small groups, and sometimes as a whole class. This means that first and foremost students need to learn how to advocate for themselves. What do they need? How can I (or the class) provide them with what they need? How do I create an environment where they feel comfortable advocating for themselves?

It also means that students need to be able to take risks. Those risks might be working with a student or students they don’t know very well. It might be speaking up in a small group or guiding a group discussion. It may be speaking up during a whole class discussion (even one time) or it may be creating the discussion questions for the whole class discussion. Unless a child is a natural leader, students can’t take risks if they don’t know how to or feel comfortable advocating for themselves. Guess what? Teachers won’t take risks if they don’t feel comfortable advocating for themselves. It just that simple if people feel they have agency they will come forward to lead.

So what do we do to help kids learn how to advocate for themselves and perhaps have a sense of agency in the classroom? Typically, modeling is the answer. However, our kids don’t sit in department meetings with us or pitch a seemingly “crazy” idea to our principals or other administrators. They are not privy to the myriad emails that fly back and forth between colleagues over the course of a week. They are not with us when we’re sitting in a graduate class or professional development or conferences. Most of them don’t think of us outside of the four walls of the classroom or perhaps the school. One student, a young man I taught in both seventh and eighth-grade, and I were having a conversation during a tutorial period this past spring. In the middle of the conversation, he stopped. Just stopped dead and stared at me. This was unsettling for many reasons, one being that he was never shy about expressing himself and was quite gregarious. His eyes got really wide, and he said, “Wait, Dr. Schmidt, you had to go to school to get your doctorate right?” I replied that I did have to go to class. To which he wanted to know when I went to classes. I shared that I left school drove from school to the university (an hour away), took my classes, and then returned home. This led to more questions. How many nights did I do this? When did I do my homework? When did I write my dissertation? How did I get all of this done and provide feedback on all the work the students turned in? After I gave him my answers (one-two nights a week, weekends-all weekend, 4:30 – 6:00 AM weekdays and weekends, school and after school). He looked at me with wide eyes and said, “You must not have had time to do anything else except school. That means this was really important to you.” My simple “Yeah” was probably an understatement. But it elucidates two points: 1) Our students have no idea what goes into our job and 2) they have no idea what we’re willing to do to excel in our fields.

And now you’re saying, but you haven’t answered the question – what do we do to help them? I think we lead by example. I think they need to hear things about our professional writing. It might be a statement that begins a mini-lesson by saying something like, “When I write, I have trouble concluding my work, and it starts to ramble.” It might be writing beside them. It might be sharing a fear of public speaking before you head off to present at a conference or lead a workshop. We can’t take them with us in every facet of our professional lives, but I think there are aspects of leadership in professional lives that we can share with our students, provided it connects to what we’re teaching.

I think our students learn to advocate for themselves by doing it. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to create communities of learners where ideas are valued. We need to learn to listen to our students. Who’s doing most of the talking? Listening to recordings of lessons and conferences as I transcribed them for dissertation data was eye-opening. Letting students lead conferences makes them take the lead in the conversation. Lucy Calkins’ “How’s it going?” is usually my lead. However, I’ve found that as students make the shift from receiver of knowledge to creator of the knowledge, they begin the conferences. They tell me exactly what they need need from me. Those conferences, whether reading or writing, tells students their words, their thoughts, their questions matter. It’s probably the single biggest reason I make my students sit down with me and talk about their writing. They don’t get the choice of sharing their google doc with me and having me read it and leave comments on it. They have to figure out what they need help with and sit down and talk to me. The conversation often leads from one question to a clarifying question to a “Try it and come back. I’ll take a look at it.” As they find their voice, I find them leading others.

I also think the books they read help them with their leadership. This week after Chelsea Clinton mentioned A Wrinkle in Time at the DNC, I’ve seen more than a few articles pop up about the book. However, one “The Girls Who Read Madeline L’Engle” focused on Meg Murray as a strong female protagonist and lessons she taught girls. Meg popped up in our brunch conversation today. One of my male friends at the table shared how he embraced Meg’s strong character, her bravery, her smarts. I’ve also found that (at least this past year) my boys have embraced L’Engle much more than my girls. Strong characters and leadership brings me back to An Ember in the Ashes. When the book began Laia and Elias had no idea who they were. Elias is getting ready to dessert Blackcliff Academy, and Laia is watching her family die in a raid conducted by Masks. They are adrift and alone. Throughout the course of the novel and because of the situations they find themselves in, they realize they do have the strength, talent, and intelligence to get themselves (and others) out of the life threatening situations they are in.

As teachers we have an obligation to lead by example and to put books with strong characters (my bias says strong female characters especially strong female characters of color) in our kids’ hands. The message these books send to kids tells them even though leadership may be scary, they can do it. Ultimately, we have an obligation to listen to our students. An Ember in the Ashes focuses not only on a strong female protagonist, but it also explicitly focuses on the characteristics of good leadership.

How did I learn about An Ember in the Ashes? Two of my boys recommended the book to me. One recommendation took place in a reading conference. Instead of waiting for my questions, he sat down and told me that I had to read this book and then preceded to tell me all the reasons I would love it, many of those reasons connected with other books he knew I read and liked. Even though I finished the book over the summer, he will get an email from me telling him how much I liked the book and thanking him for his recommendation. When our students learn their voices have power, there’s nothing they can’t achieve. Part of being a leader is being secure enough with oneself to give others a chance to lead. Isn’t that what we all should be doing?

Posted in Dystopian Fiction, Independent Reading/SSR/Reader's Workshop, Read the World | Tagged as: , ,

Escape in a World of Mirrors

I have two broad goals for my ELA classes: 1) I want my students to become life-long readers and 2) I want them to be able to communicate clearly in writing. In order to try to achieve goal 1, I model what it means to be a reader. I read with them, talk books with them, recommend books to them, take their book recommendations, and talk about my reading life. I think it’s important that kids know that Readers read for a variety of purposes—one of those might be for escape. I read for entertainment, as well, but in my mind escape is different from entertainment. Reading for escape happens when life gets too intense or causes too much stress or anxiety. I use books that I can fall into as my coping mechanism. These escapist reads might have strong setting, strong plot, strong characters or any combination of those three. If I struggle to get into the book in the first 10 pages, it is put aside until my brain is quiet enough to return to it.

The last ten days has caused me to do more escape reading than normal. The current political environment is stressing me out. In order to get away from fact-checking outrageous (and often hate-fueled) comments and the tone (yelling) in which these statements are delivered, I need something that allows me to unplug. This week’s YA reading found me finishing the Delirium trilogy by Lauren Oliver, Like No Other by Una Lamarche, and Theodore Boone: The Abduction by John Grisham. While I really enjoyed all of the books, I would not recommend dystopian fiction as a genre to read during this presidential election.

While dystopian fiction has had strong appeal with YA, this year, I noticed a curious trend in my classroom. My students were more attracted to realistic fiction a la John Green and mystery/suspense. I thought this was really interesting since dystopian fiction was HUGE through the end of the 2014-2015 school year, and then suddenly it wasn’t. I was over dystopian writing long before the students were, so in a way, I was happy to see my students branching out with their reading choices. I didn’t think too much of it. I thought dystopian writing, like books about vampires, was a fad, and the fad was over. Students found The Fault in Our Stars and moved on. Case closed.

Then I started reading through the backlogged YA titles on my office floor. I had Pandemonium and Requiem (the second and third book of the Delirium trilogy) to read for my class library. I wasn’t a fan of Delirium, so these books sat (for a long time) waiting to be read and brought to school. I was completely surprised to find myself enjoying Pandemonium. There was a lot of action and the characters had much more depth than I found in Delirium. I read Pandemonium in a day shortly after school got out. This week I found myself reading Requiem. While I enjoyed it as much, if not more, than Pandemonium, I found myself reading in short bursts, then putting the book down to do something else. I couldn’t figure out why until I got to the last page and read this:
“Take down the walls.
That is, after all, the whole point. You do not know what will happen if you take down the walls; you cannot see through to the other side, don’t know whether it will bring freedom or ruin, resolution or chaos. It might be paradise, or destruction.
Take down the walls.
Otherwise you must live closely, in fear, building barricades against the unknown, saying prayers against the darkness, speaking verse of terror and tightness.
Otherwise you may never know hell, but you will not find heaven, either. You will not know fresh air and flying.
All of you, wherever you are: in your spiny cities or your one-bump towns. Find it, the hard stuff, the links of metal and chink, the fragments of stone filling your stomach. And pull, and pull, and pull.
I will make a pact with you: I will do it if you will do it always and forever.
Take down the walls” (Oliver, 2013, p. 391).

Yes, the reference to building walls is quite closely linked to the current promise by Trump to build a wall between the US and Mexico. It also links to his idea to ban Muslims. And while the idea of breaking down the literal and metaphoric walls between us gives a spark of hope, the reason for the walls in the trilogy were eerily similar to the walls discussed so far throughout this presidential election.

In Oliver’s trilogy, walls are built around cities to keep the Invalids (those who would not accept the cure for love) out. To protect citizens from being “infected” by those who are “unclean.” But what happens if love isn’t some terrible disease? What happens if the “cure” is simply a way for the government to control its citizens? What then?

The difficulties I had reading Requiem had nothing to do with the novel. It had everything to do with my purpose for reading. I was reading to escape. I couldn’t because the central themes and conflict of this novel were in striking similarity to debates happening in the US right now. Acknowledging this has helped me gain an appreciation for the novel. And once again, I’m seeing literature as a mirror.

But it also brings up a question I don’t have an answer for.

What happens when an assigned text creates an unintended mirror for a student? What happens if the text mirrors a difficult (personal) situation for the student?

Pondering this question brings up more questions: What if the student is averse to the text but doesn’t know why? What if the student knows why but isn’t in a position to process it? What do we do to help the student process emotions created by the text? How do we handle a book a student doesn’t want to read but doesn’t explain why?

I don’t think I’ll ever have a clear, one-size-fits-all answer to this. However, I think it will present interesting conversations about the power of reading, why we read, and why we like (or are averse to) certain books.

Posted in Dystopian Fiction, Independent Reading/SSR/Reader's Workshop, Read the World, Series, Window or Mirror | Tagged as: , ,

Building Empathy

The events of the past week (or let’s really be honest, the rhetoric spewed since 2015 when the Presidential election race began) have left me at a loss for words. I know that racism never really went away; it just became fashionable (or politically correct) to not share racist beliefs publicly. However, we, as a society, can find plenty of examples where (institutional) racism exists—whether through the literary canon taught or the films watched. As educators and scholars, we discuss how to include a more accurate picture of our society in the texts we teach and the books available in our classroom libraries. I’ve found, with the exception of balancing male and female protagonists, we haven’t really moved beyond discussion. Over the course of this week, as my husband and I watch the news, we’ve had conversations about what can be done to combat racism if it is what is taught at home. How much of an impact does one person have, does one text have, does pedagogy have, or does one class have?

And I’m left without answers. It is my hope that the inquiry stance I take in my classroom and the inquiry stance I ask my students to take have an impact on the way they view the world. It is my hope that as my students learn to read the world, they also learn to question the world. But that is only hope. I don’t have a definitive outcome or answer such as teach x and y will happen.

This feeling of helplessness causes me to soothe my soul in the pages of novels. Fiction for escape. Of course my escape is found in the pages of YA books. The last few YA books I’ve read have also given me a cause to pause. Focusing on the last three or four books I’ve read, while gender is fairly equitable, the authors are white, the characters are white, and for the most part the characters are from middle-class American families.

Suffice it to say even these “mainstream” books can then take a turn. In Kids of Appetite by David Arnold, the protagonist, Vic, has Moebius Syndrome, which leaves him unable to smile (or make any facial expressions) or close his eyes. There will be more about this novel in a later post. As a result people stare at him, people think he is below average intelligence, people bully him. Vic develops a persona to shield him from others. He tries to be invisible. He sees himself as invisible, thus making it difficult for people to truly see him for who he is. After the reader begins to gain an understanding of Vic, Arnold switches POV, and the reader not only experiences the world through Vic’s eyes and through Vic’s friend Mad’s eyes. Mad has her own persona too, but that is a story for another day. As Mad gets to know Vic, she has to confront her assumptions about him based on his appearance. In fact, Arnold even writes a harsh scene at the beginning of the novel when Mad and the other KOAs meet Vic in Foodville. Their interaction is typical of those Vic has experienced before but made all the more heartbreaking because he has a crush on Mad. Seeing Vic through Mad’s eyes forces the reader to break down his persona, and I would venture to say also force the reader to explore how they would react to Vic.

Additionally, I read Holding Smoke by Elle Cosimano I found myself confronting my construct of the prison system. John “Smoke” Conlan is in a juvenile facility, convicted of killing his English teacher. Like Vic and Mad, Smoke is a deeply complex character. The book opens with Smoke causing a fight in the exercise yard, which lands him in solitary confinement. The opening pages of the book confirmed my views and understanding of juvenile offenders. However, as the novel unfolds, I realize the characters view Smoke based on the story they have constructed about him. To survive in prison, he constructs a persona so he is left alone by the others; however, this persona simply reaffirms what the guards believe about all offenders. But the reader is put in the position the warden finds himself in—this persona is exactly that, a persona and not the person Smoke is. Ultimately, as I read more and more, I find myself realizing that Smoke is not all good nor is he all bad. His experience cannot be blamed on his upbringing and family situation, even though his experience also is part of his upbringing and family situation.

Well-developed, complex characters act as a mirror to our world. We, as a society, are not all one thing or all another. Our lives are not dichotomies. Instead we function on a spectrum. For example, who I am in my classroom is simply a slice of who I am. My students leave my class knowing that I am passionate about three things: literacy, my dog, and my cat. If I am teaching them to question the world, is it appropriate for them to know my political views or my religious views? No. Is it appropriate for me to present as much of any given story as possible and guide them to an answer? Yes. This is one of the reasons we use multiple texts when teaching a novel or teaching a unit on argument.

This leads me to a renewed understanding about being a life-long reader and points me to the studies about readers being more empathetic. One year in my classroom may not be enough to fully grasp how to read the word and the world. However, helping my students become lifelong readers, helping my students learn to read widely (and deeply), helping my students to find text as a mirror as well as a window may just make them realize the world is far more complex than the dichotomy people want it to be. It may just help them learn to embrace those who may appear different from the way they look.

Posted in Empathy, Read the World | Tagged as: , , , ,

Beautiful Series?

This week I’ve dedicated my posts to series – why I’m burned out on them and why my students can’t get enough.

I might need to revise my post from Tuesday, April 24. I’m not burned out on series. I repeat – the series lives!

As a middle school teacher, I reserve the right to change my mind. I’ve changed my mind. Looking for the May Schmidt’s Pick, I grabbed Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl off a pile of books in my office. I had just finished Fear by Michael Grant and wasn’t too keen on starting another series – especially a series that a) hasn’t been finished yet and b) consists of 500+ page books. But I knew this isn’t really about me, it’s about my students and providing them with access to books they’ll actually read so they may actually beat the odds and read more than 1 book after high school. Literacy is important to me. That’s no shock to anyone who knows me, so if I have to “take one for the team” to keep the kids reading, I’ll do it.

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Serial Romance

Earlier this week I wrote about my love/hate relationship with series. I found myself, once again, stuck in the doldrums of YA series. There was nothing fresh about my reading because all I did was read one book after another that continued a series I had already started. I’m happy to report that I have sailed out of the doldrums, but more about that in a later post.

For now, I want to talk about my students. On Wednesday after we finished round three of state tests, I had the opportunity to just sit and have a conversation with my students. I haven’t had this opportunity in quite some time since I’ve been hosting a student teacher. On Wednesday afternoon, I found myself alone with my seventh graders for the first time in 3 months. Furthermore, they were a bit spent from testing all morning. So when they came into the classroom, I had them sit down, pull out their independent books, and start reading. They read for only a few minutes. I just wanted them to center themselves more than anything. At the end of their reading session, I had them discuss their books with their friends. Pretty standard stuff.

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This week my school is mired in state tests. It’s a tough week for teachers and students. So for obvious reasons I needed to share the following exchange:

I was signing out my test materials this morning when a colleague/friend/parent said to me, “You’re the reason my eighth grader goes to bed with a book every night.”

And as I carted my test supplies back to my room, I realizes that it just doesn’t matter what the tests show since the tests don’t measure a love of reading or a desire to be a lifelong reader. If my students have (re)discovered a love of reading than not only am I an effective teacher, but they are advanced-proficient in my book.

Until next time … See YA

Posted in Random Musings, Uncategorized | Tagged as: , , , ,

Serial Killer

As much as I love young adult fiction, a steady diet of one thing is bad, and so I’ve found myself reading a lot of adult fiction during the late winter and spring. At first I told myself that it was because I had “homework” for Booktopia 2012, which I recently attended in Manchester, VT. Me being me, I did feel compelled to read the latest books by all of the authors in attendance, and I did start some of the back catalogue as well. However, as I look at my nightstand, desk, coffee table, and pretty much any flat surface that holds books in my house, I realize that I’m still grabbing adult fiction. This is not Booktopia’s fault. I recently read Marisa de los Santos’ newest book and A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve – neither author attended Booktopia.  So why am I grabbing adult and leaving YA to sit collecting dust?

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Posted in Schmidt's Pick, Series | Tagged as: , , , , , , ,

Should I Cover Up My Opinion?

As many of you know, I have pages on my blog, which get updated regularly – even if my blog doesn’t. One of the pages is a listing of my reviews of YA books. These reviews in their simplest form are simply one reader’s thoughts about a book. I recently finished and reviewed Cover-up by John Feinstein. I didn’t like the book. There were many reasons why I didn’t like it. This is my opinion and my opinion only. I gave the book one star. After I finished reviewing the book on Goodreads, the review posted to my Twitter account and the blog. And I went about my day.

I didn’t think twice about the review as I had seemingly more important things on my mind (like getting much needed highlights in my hair and what book I was going to read next). Later that day, I popped open my laptop cover to check in with my various social networking sites and maybe play some Angry Birds. Imagine my surprise when I had a response to my review. Who knew that people actually paid attention? However, that wasn’t as shocking as what followed.

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Posted in Random Musings, Reluctant Reader | Tagged as: , , , , ,

On E-Reading

My passion is literacy. This is no surprise to any of you who know me in the real world or in the virtual one. However, if I were to give a definition to this passion, I would have to say that my real passion is adolescent literacy – what do kids read, write, view, listen to, and speak about and more importantly what will get them to read (more), write (more), view things differently and even critically, listen critically, and express themselves clearly.  I’ve spent 19 years in the classroom observing young adolescents and literacy and honing my pedagogy to help them become lifelong readers, writers, and consumers of knowledge. I’ve sought graduate degrees in this field, and I’m currently writing my dissertation about this topic. You may say I’m an expert, but I’m not the only one… (to badly paraphrase John Lennon), and John Lennon and the rest of the Beatles is where I want to begin today.

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Posted in Independent Reading/SSR/Reader's Workshop, Reluctant Reader | Tagged as: , , , , ,

Mentor or Teacher?

Monday will start my first full day sitting and watching someone else teach my class. I’m not sure how I feel about this. In theory, I’m pretty excited because I get to shape the next generation of teacher. In theory, I can use my 19 years of experience, my knowledge of young adolescents, my knowledge of literacy – both best practices and theory – to help mold this young teacher-to-be. That thought alone is pretty awe-inspiring. So what could be wrong with that?

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