Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Day My Class Fell in Love with Close Reading (Or at Least Had Fun with It!)

With the current emphasis on close reading, I have been looking for opportunities to have my third graders reread texts to answer questions using text evidence.  Ever since reading Falling in Love with Close Reading by Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts, I have been trying to do more than just have students point to a place in the book where they found the answers to questions I ask.  I was really struck by the idea that students should look at texts through particular "lenses," examine the details they find for patterns, and use those patterns to create understanding.  On several occasions, I have had students work together to find evidence that would help them to answer questions that they themselves had formulated about characters, plot, and author's craft.  Sometimes we were successful, sometimes not so much.

A couple of weeks ago, we read The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, written by Chris Van Allsburg.  It is one of the few stories in our basal that I truly like and feel lends itself to rich discussion.  One of the things I love about this book is that it requires students to pay close attention to the details to decide whether Gasazi, a retired magician, actually turned Fritz the dog into a duck or if it was all just a trick.  It seemed like the perfect opportunity to put our close reading skills to work.

My students already had read the story and had pretty much decided what they thought had happened.  I began by asking them to stand on one side of the room if they thought Gasazi had actually turned Fritz into a duck or stand on the opposite side if they thought it was just a joke Gasazi had played on Alan.  My class this year surprised me.  In previous years, most students believed that Fritz was really turned into a duck.  The majority of this class, however,  believed that it had been a trick.  (My class is pretty respectful of authority, so I suspect when Miss Hester told Alan it had been a trick, they simply accepted it as fact.)

I told my students that they needed to prove that they were right by finding text evidence that supported their point of view.  What could be more motivating than proving you're right? Students partnered up and immediately began rereading the story and writing down details.
Not long after they got started digging for evidence, two of my girls rushed up to me and excitedly inquired if they could switch to the other side of the room.  They explained that they had found evidence that convinced them that Fritz had indeed been transformed into a duck.  I quickly assured them that they could change their position.  They happily sat down and continued their work, while I celebrated in my head that their closer examination of the text had led to new understanding.  All around the room, students were working diligently searching for proof that they were right.  I listened in as partners discussed what they had found, what it meant, and if it supported their position or not.  Not once did I have to redirect a student who had gotten off-task. 

Once students had had enough time to gather evidence, I called everyone together and had them share out their findings, which I recorded on a chart.
After looking at the evidence, we evaluated the quality of each argument.  Even those who did not agree that Fritz was ever really a duck could see that there was plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise.  In the end, the class decided  the author had not made it clear on purpose.  When I asked my students why they thought that was, one student offered that he thought the author wanted us to go back and reread the story to figure it out.  And although everyone still did not agree whether it had been a trick or not, there was consensus that it was an entertaining, well-written story, and one worth looking at more closely.

Perhaps even more importantly, what my class I and learned together was that with the right story and the right motivation, close reading not only serves a purpose but can actually be fun!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Red Paseo

A funny thing happened yesterday.  I was talking to my mom on the phone, as I try to do every weekend.  (No, that's not the funny part.)   Halfway through our conversation, I heard my dad in the background telling my mom something, but I couldn't make out the words.  When she relayed to me that he said I should blog about buying my first car, I was stunned.  I couldn't possibly have heard her correctly.  First of all, I didn't know my 86 year-old dad knew I had a blog.  Hell, I didn't know he even knew what a blog was!  But stranger still was the fact that last summer I had written about that very topic, although I had never shared it.  What on earth had made him think of that?  And why now?

This last month has been a difficult one for me, one in which giving up has appeared to be the only viable option.  Unknowingly, with his out-of-the-blue suggestion that sent me back to this piece of writing, my dad gave me just the encouragement I needed to keep on going.  So, Dad, this one's for you.


I was 25 when I bought my first new car. It was kind of a strange time in my life.  I had graduated from college but still didn't know what I wanted to do with my life.  (To be honest, I still am not entirely sure about that one.) I had fallen hopelessly in love right before graduation, which had probably convoluted the whole what-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-life scenario.  But alas, the relationship had fallen apart, I was working for a financial consulting firm, and I was living alone in a tiny, run-down studio apartment in an iffy neighborhood hundreds of miles away from family.

What does this have to do with my car?  Perhaps nothing.  Perhaps everything.  I was at that proverbial crossroads and seeking to gain control of a life I was beginning to suspect I had little control over.  What better way to convince yourself that you are master of your universe than to spend several thousand dollars you don't have?

The car I settled on was a 1992 Toyota Paseo.  Medium red pearl was the color.  (Funny the things you remember.) She was a beauty, and the closest I was going to get to a sports car on my budget.  I absolutely loved that car and still get misty whenever I see one to this day.  There was just one little problem with my beloved car.  It had a manual transmission.  And I had never driven a stick-shift in my life.
Now, I could have bought one with an automatic transmission, but that didn't fit my "vision." If I was going to drive a sporty car, then by God, it was going to be a stick!  The salesman actually gave me a quick lesson, I signed the paperwork, handed over what little money I had, and the deal was done.  By some miracle I was able to drive it back to my parents' house.  When I jerked my shiny new car to a stop in their driveway, they must have thought I was the biggest idiot ever to buy a car I couldn't drive.  I give them props for not saying anything to that fact.  At least not to me anyway.
I spent the next few hours practicing driving around the neighborhood.  It wasn't pretty.  For some reason, I just could not get the hang of it.  Seeing as how I am not the most coordinated person in the world, this should not have come as a surprise.  But to me it did.  In school, learning new things hadn't been hard for me.  They weren't always easy (especially math), but I was able to get through--no, be successful--without too much strain.  Now I was in a situation where I was on the hook for thousands of dollars for the next five years, and if I couldn't get the hang of this "ease up on the gas, put in the clutch, shift, ease up on on the clutch, and smoothly accelerate" dance, I was screwed.
I'd like to say that I mastered it that weekend, but I can't.  It seemed hopeless. To make matters worse, I had to be at work Monday, and work was in Santa Barbara, a 5-hour drive away.  So, there was only one thing to do.  My dad had to drive me.  So much for independence and mastering my universe.
For the next week, a friend drove me to and from work, while my boyfriend (new guy, not the one I fell hopelessly in love with) gave me driving lessons at night.  Slowly, I got the hang of it until I finally acquired enough ability to get from point A to point B.  It still felt awkward, though, and took tremendous amounts of concentration and effort.  In short, driving my new lovely car wasn't so lovely.
I am not sure how long this went on.  I do remember one humiliating occasion of being unable to get my car in the right gear in the parking lot at work while a coworker waited impatiently behind me.  But mostly I remember the day I was driving home from work, and coming off the freeway, it all seemed to click into place.  I didn't think to check the rear view mirror, but if I had, I'm pretty sure I would have seen a light bulb over my head.  What hadn't made sense before, made sense.  What hadn't worked, worked.  It was like my mind and my body had finally decided to work together and stop fighting each other. Thinking about it even now, I am pretty sure I can hear angels singing.  It was the most sublime a-ha moment of my life.
There are a few lessons I am sure can be learned from this experience.  Everyone has things they are good at and learning comes easily, and everyone has things that are difficult for them.  When learning something new, you sometimes are going to have to persevere through the struggle before you get it.  Everyone learns at their own pace.  These are important lessons, ones I need to keep in mind as I help my students learn and as I watch my own children grow through the experiences of their lives.  These are important lessons.  My take-away, however, is a little different and a little more personal.
When I think about this particular event in my life, I marvel at the shear gumption I displayed.  I knew what I wanted and I wasn't about to let anything, not even lack of skill, stand in my way.  I fought hard to make it happen.  And I triumphed.  That moment sticks in my head when so many other memories have faded from view.  Why?  Not just because it was a moment of success, but because it was a moment of success following failure.  I refused to be beaten and took control.  Some would say it was a stupid move to buy that car.  I say it was bold.  And a move that led to one of my proudest moments.

Thank you, Dad, for always being there for me even when it meant great sacrifice on your part, for believing in me, and for giving me the courage to believe in myself.