Write (and Read) What You Know
This year, I am starting a few new things.
One is a new setup for my chairs. Last year they were a big U-shape around the outside walls of the room. Many of last year’s students (miss you guys!) have said that the U-shape was a little squeezed – que l’on était serrés comme des sardines. I was in Mike Peto’s room this summer and it inspired me to have four boxes with nine students in each box.
So far, this setup seems to give middle school bodies more wiggle room and a bigger personal bubble. Also, the kids are closer to me and I can move more freely about the room. Further, a space for acting opened up in the back now, so when we begin stories we will have a spot for Locations 2 and 3 in the back there.
Another new practice for me this year is using Interpersonal Communication as the basis for the entire class grade. This prioritizes students’ comprehension in class. I teach 4 first-semester classes and one second-semester class. At the Novice level, the work is listening, comprehending, and responding to show comprehension using one-word or memorized-phrase answers. Of course, many students taught with comprehension-based teaching can create sentence-level discourse in the first year or two. But the job of a Novice, overall, is comprehension. From that, everything else grows. In the past, the Interpersonal Communication Rubric has been 65% of the course grade, but this year it is 100%. (Thanks to Ben Slavic and his amazing PLC for this tool which I have adapted somewhat)
A final new practice is ditching whole-class novels. I do not honestly know why this took so long for me to come around to. It’s just that I never stopped to think about it, I guess. In Language Arts, I would never teach a whole-class novel unless it was as a read-out-loud text that we just used as a class for shared enjoyment and as a mentor text – a text that we could use as an example for reading and writing moves we want to practice. I have never assigned one single whole-class novel in any English Language Arts class I have ever taught over the eight years I worked in ELA. They are not differentiated enough to serve the needs of all the readers in the classroom. The reading abilities in any seventh-grade classroom I have ever been in span second grade (or even pre-primer in some cases) up through post high school levels. How can one novel reach them all? In world language, even though the kids are (supposedly) all around the same level…except for heritage kids, and dual immersion kids, and kids who lived abroad…and kids who are gifted in literacy, and kids with LD in the area of reading or decoding, and kids with emotional or behavioral challenges, and kids who find it hard to focus on the page. Wait, who is left? The mythical magical middle seems to be shrinking away. So who are we supposed to select the whole-class novel for? Also, this article by Mike Peto suggests that reading novels as a class makes students like the novels less.
I might do some read-out-louds this year, but more likely they will resemble Kindergarten Day and we will do shared readings of a kiddie book I might do a novel in second-semester French, but I am still not sure. Many of my students LOVE reading in English – and my current student population contains many, many more of these book-devouring, super-active readers than my previous school. (Seriously, Battle of the Books is a THING at West Sylvan.) So I was surprised to find out that the TPRS readers were not better-loved by these super avid readers. I can only surmise that the books are either too hard for them to comprehend enjoyably and fluently (in ELA we say that 5% unknown words -just five on a page – is enough to make the book a putter-downer and not a keeper) or not compelling enough, or both. So, no more novels.
Whatever shall we read, then? Class-created stories! Thanks again to Ben Slavic for his incredible list of 21 Reading Options, formerly known as Reading Option A or ROA.
Ben uses texts based on stories or images the kids create, but I myself like writing them with my kids. It is less work for me outside of class time and it is also a nice activity that provides good opportunities for input. We generally review the artists’ work, then do what I would only be able to call Write and Discuss. I ask them through the writing process, clarifying the details of the story, maybe adding or embellishing as we go. Of course, from time to time, I also like to write up the stories on the computer during prep, because that way I can embed new details and new vocabulary (up to about 5-10% new words is the goal – not too much or the reading takes on a heavy feeling as conscious minds kick in and affective filters go up.).
Here is my French 1 class writing up a One Word Image of a giant hot pink nose named Steve. Here is my Spanish 1 class writing up a OWI of a giant multicolored spork named Frarky. The Spanish class is the whole period but the review of the artists’ work that leads to the writing work starts at about 12 minutes in. The readings are below, along with a French 2 reading on a béret named Tyrone and a Spanish 1 reading on a pair of glasses named Phil and Felicia.