This year, Star Lab visited our school. Unfortunately, it came during the holiday season, and with everything else going on (and already being in the middle of another unit), I didn’t have the time to devote four or five classes to an introduction to astronomy. Even so, I still wanted to utilize the resource and give my fifth graders the opportunity to see the “night sky” in school. I ended up creating the activity below as a fun way to end the week, while still giving the students a little dose of starry skies.
I started the lesson by asking my students to imagine they lived a long time ago. Every night the sun disappeared, and millions of tiny sparkly dots filled the sky. Not really understanding what these tiny dots were, they created myths to explain their presence. That was what we were going to be doing today.
Students then picked a constellation at random from the pile. I had printed the constellation picture, star information, and legend from the Star Lab website. They provide curriculum for the different “layers” you can use (which is not limited to astronomy — they have shells for plate tectonics, the cell, and weather too!). I cut the constellations into strips and folded them so that only the picture was visible. I then stapled the folded paper shut, so no one would cheat during the activity. After our activity, I encouraged them to pull out the staple and read the real myth associated with their constellation.
We then entered the Lab, and I asked students to take a few minutes to silently look at the stars, find their constellation, and construct a myth based on their impressions. After a few minutes (they actually did a great job during this reflection time!), one by one, students shared the myths they had created.
Looking back, I wish I had recorded them. While many students simply told stories about the star (it looks like a waiter at a coffee shop, it looks like a dog…), a few of my students really got the idea of this myth-making. According to one boy, one constellation depicted an ax that had been taken away from the people by God after they had destroyed the environment by overharvesting their resources…. Another depicted a one-armed man (Lucky Lefty) who had lost his arm and life in a fight with Right Hand Rick, but instead of death, God placed him in the stars in honor of his bravery, or something along those lines… They not only had neat story lines, but they had a real knack for storytelling. I was impressed!
After we left the Lab, I listened to them telling each other the Greek myth associated with their constellation, as they finally unstapled their papers and found the information inside. Even though it wasn’t particularly “sciencey,” the kids had a good time, and it had definitely piqued their interest in stars and myths.
is a short story by Ernest Hemingway, perhaps written to settle a bar bet or perhaps written as a challenge, but either way, it’s a complete work of fiction. It’s a piece of writing I think about a lot, and it’s one of my favorites. It’s evocative, powerful and clocking in at six words, it proves that it’s not necessary to blather on endlessly to tell a good story.
The Hemingway story is an extreme example of one of my favorite types of writing — flash fiction. Flash, also known as micro, sudden, short-short, postcard, minute, quick, furious, and skinny, is a type of story that has a limited number of words (definitely under 1,000, but in many cases, under 500). Typically, it has a traditional beginning-middle-end story arc, though of course it happens in an ultra-condensed form. In my experience as someone who very rarely went beyond 500 words with pieces of fiction, I found that I’d often run into people (usually other writers) with the opinion that short-short fiction is okay, but it’s not the real thing, and I think that is an unfair way of looking at flash. Though I definitely make no claims of genius, I absolutely believe that when done by a master, it’s an incredibly fast read that lingers indefinitely. Like quick-moving shadows thrown on a late-night wall by cars passing on the street outside, it often takes a lot of thinking to understand what you think you saw, and with each analysis, its shape shifts and you find something different. Take the story “Little Things” by Raymond Carver (text here), which, at 498 words, is a brilliant example of flash fiction.
Even before I did 70% of all of my reading on a computer screen, I had no patience for unnecessarily long works of fiction. I suppose this is why I became (and remain) a fan of the ultra-short flash fiction. (And probably also why I can’t be bothered to finish Anna Karenina.) Flash is perfectly suited for online reading, and there are quite a few places that deal entirely (or almost entirely) in flash fiction. Flashquake, Smokelong Quarterly, Vestal Review, and Pindeldyboz are just a few places online where you can get your flash fix.
In honor of the subject at hand, I feel that I should keep this post short, so I’ll close by mentioning that Action Poetry is a great place to make every word count by trying some flash fiction.
Summer Reading Flowchart: What Should You Read On Your Break?
Summer is right around the corner, which means most schools will be letting out and students will be busy with family vacations, summer camp and a myriad of other activities. With research finding that children who do not read over the summer may lose up to three months of reading progress, it’s important to encourage your students to pick up a few books during the hot months ahead.
To help encourage high school students to find a book of their choice, we’ve compiled a list of 101 books to kick off your learners’ summer reading. Interested in finding fiction vs. non-fiction books? Would you like to find classical or contemporary fiction? Intrigued by survival books? Tales of war? We have them all and many more to choose from! Follow our chart of top picks and peruse the different categories until you find something that’s a perfect fi
In my early explorations of my predecessor’s desk this past year (he left in rather a hurry), I came across the summer reading assignment he had used the previous year. While I don’t remember the exact details at present, he asked students to complete “author studies” using classic novels. Students had to read two classics and write some sort of essay, due at the start of school.
As summer rolled around this May, I had to come up with a summer reading program for my rising seventh and eighth graders. To be honest, I can’t remember what “summer reading” entailed in middle school. The first year that I actually recall my summer reading assignment was the year I entered high school, 2001. We had to select a book from a list provided–I chose to read Emma by Jane Austen. I am guessing I recognized Jane Austen’s name as the author of Pride and Prejudice, which I assume I recognized as a romance. And who doesn’t like a good romance?
Apparently, me. Or at least, the rising ninth-grade version of myself. That book dragged on. I, who can consume a book in a day, who used to play hooky just so I could stay home and read all day, hated reading that book. I just couldn’t get into it. The characters confused me; the comedy was lost on me. I couldn’t tell Jane Fairfax from Frank Churchill. (That may be an exaggeration. I am pretty sure I was aware of gender differences at the very least.) The point is: I wasn’t ready for it.
I have come to believe that you can’t appreciate a book until you are ready for it. There have been numerous occasions in my own life that I have purchased a book, which has then sat on my bookshelf for weeks, months, sometimes even years. Then, one day, for whatever reason, it catches my attention. When I read it, it speaks to me. It connects to my life, it offers some sort of wisdom. Simply put, I am ready for it.
Leaving middle school, I was not ready for Emma. Though an avid reader (literally, I consumed printed material), I just wasn’t ready to read that novel on my own, and I hated it. I can’t even tell you what it was about, except that Jane Fairfax was a pain in the ass and Harriet was an idiot. (And that’s only what I recall after Googling the names of Emma’s characters.) And it wasn’t just Austen’s style. Just one year later, a sophomore in high school, I picked up the novel Pride and Prejudice, and I LOVED it. I loved the witty humor, the romance. I’m pretty sure I read it twice. That year, I also really enjoyed reading Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities andHomer’s The Odyssey. Not exactly the lightest of reading. But that didn’t matter, because I was ready for it. And even if I hadn’t been, it was a class venture–we had classmates and a teacher to rely on, to help interpret what we were reading. There were supports for those who needed it.
Summer reading doesn’t really work that way. You’re on your own. More than that, you’re on your own when you’re supposed to be done with school! Most kids don’t want to read A Tale of Two Cities over the summer. Frankly, most simply won’t. They’ll use SparkNotes to get whatever information they need for whatever silly report you’ve assigned, and they’ll BS their way through it. It’s not only a waste of their time, but a waste of YOUR time when you have to read all those essays! And really, do YOU want to do that during YOUR summer break? I would think not.
At least, I think not. So this year for summer reading, I decided to do something different. They can read whatever I tell them to read next school year. This summer, I just want them to read, PERIOD. So I instituted the following Summer Reading Program:
So far, I’ve had some positive responses! I’ve had a student email me, two or three parents respond, AND one even called the principal with praises! Considering MMS is cutting a middle school position, we have a new principal unfamiliar with our work, and I was the last hired, any praise I can get is a good thing right now!! (Though I have to admit it’s my multiple certifications that are keeping me around, commendations can’t hurt.)
Anyway, I don’t know if it’s the “right” thing to do, letting the students select their own books this summer. Maybe I’m expecting too little of them. I know I run the risk of students selecting novels below their reading level, opting for the “easy” way out. Then again, I doubt assigning a weak reader a book way above their reading level without the supports available during the school year is any better. I guess it’s my hope that the students will select the books they’re ready for, whatever subject and level that may be. They can read a little, write a little, and enjoy their summer. We can worry about the classics next fall.
For those of you who haven’t read my highly engaging Who Am I and Why Should You Care? page, I am a 24 year old Language Arts teacher at a private school in Pennsylvania. I received my bachelor’s degree in History (with a minor in Environmental Science) and went on to earn my teacher certification (Social Studies concentration) and M.Ed. in Middle and Secondary Instruction. As a result of the competitive job market in Pennsylvania and my own broad range of academic interests, I added certifications in 7-9 Science, K-12 Environmental Ed, and 7-12 English. The way it worked out, I landed my first real teaching job in a middle school Language Arts classroom.
While English was not my first choice of certifications, it has proven to be my favorite. I LOVE teaching Language Arts. The thought of teaching Social Studies (which I may have to do next year in addition to Language Arts as a result of budget cuts) or Science (though I enjoyed it during my field experience) are rather distressing to me now. I would be happy teaching nothing but Language Arts forever. Well, maybe not forever. I have strong intentions to apply for doctoral programs in Literacy/English Education in the near future — but that kind of makes my point anyway. I love Language Arts/English Education – reading about instructional practices, student learning, reading, writing, literature, multiple literacies, “new literacies,” “critical literacies” — basically, find anything you can attach the word literacy to, and I’m interested. I actually READ all those articles NCTE sends out in their emails, or in Voices from the Middle (great journal, by the way). Considering I barely perused the NCSS bulletins and journals, I feel it is a good indication I am meant to be a Langauge Arts teacher. I think I may have actually found my calling (or at least, the field of my calling — I have ambitions, you know).
Anyway, I think you get the idea by now – I ❤ Language Arts.
And Now To The Main Idea: The Overwhelming Nature of Language Arts
The more I read and learn about all the awesome things teachers are doing in Language Arts classrooms across the country, the more overwhelmed I feel. I have the next two and a half months to plan for a year’s worth of curriculum for my 7th and 8th grade classes – I have literature units to develop, grammar to incorporate, writing to teach… not to mention things like literary elements and figurative language and poetry and public speaking and vocabulary and diagramming… The list goes on. This is to some extent the drawback to working at MMS (My Middle School).
SOME BACKGROUND: About the time I joined the team, there were some major changes in administration. Unfortunately, there hadn’t been a lot of structure before I arrived, and the emergency team they pulled together (though performing admirably in light of the circumstances) didn’t have time to worry too much about curriculum. While the new principal has made it clear he plans to address this issue this summer, I am still left with lots to plan with little guidance.
Sure, I have the PA State Standards and (what I prefer) the Common Core State Standards. Trust me, I have become incredibly familiar with both of those documents. That said, Language Arts is still incredibly broad–something I have come to love about the subject, and something that has begun to fill me with a terrible anxiety.
When I completed my field experience, the school district in which I was placed had a very clearly defined curriculum for the seventh grade Life Science course. It provided teachers with not only Essential Questions and Understandings, but even activities, projects and assessment tools. We had a textbook to follow and specific content to cover. It was very neat and tidy. While it allowed for some creativity in the means of instruction, the bones of the course were packaged to-go.
Similarly, when I student-taught in middle and high school Social Studies classrooms, though not provided with such a detailed curriculum, I could work from the textbook, selecting chapters to meet various standards (like in Government and Economics) or working chronologically through U.S. history as in the Advanced Placement course. There was an inherent structure to the system that made it much easier to keep afloat.
Language Arts at MMS? No such luck. Now, I don’t know if this is a shortcoming of MMS or a challenge presented by the subject itself. As I don’t have experience with Language Arts outside of MMS, I don’t know if the situation I have found myself in is normal. (You tell me — is it?) Without a school board-stamped document telling me what I’m supposed to teach, I can, in theory, teach anything I want any way I want. While right now I bear that freedom as a heavy curse, I’m trying to think of it more as a blessing. I am not curtailed by board designed and enforced curriculums, by standardized and high-stakes testing. I have the freedom to explore new ways of understanding literature and texts, of responding to readings and other forms of media in new and creative ways, of incorporating multiple disciplines and practical literacies. I very literally have a blank slate before me, 180 empty days, and it is completely up to me to fill them with meaningful and engaging activities. (As I started that sentence, it sounded really great; as I finished it, the anxiety again set in).
William Kist pointed out in “Middle Schools and New Literacies: Looking Back and Moving Forward” (Voices from the Middle 19, no. 4) innovative teaching and “new literacies” classrooms “seem to flourish at the middle school level,” and he provides a variety of reasons for this phenomenon: teachers of this age group are more willing to explore, the structure of these schools is more conducive to interdisciplinary work, and middle school kids just require that extra motivation that innovation brings. Middle school is the place to be trying new approaches and rethinking traditional English education. Middle school is, simply, the place to be. And for me, working in a private middle school without the need to worry about PSSAs and Keystone Exams, there is literally nothing stopping me from experimenting with the new techniques I’ve been getting so excited about.
So if I overlook the pennies in my piggy bank (or lack thereof) and the daunting task of planning ahead, perhaps teaching Language Arts next year at MMS is better luck than I’d first imagined.