Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Who is Going to #IRA14 in New Orleans?

We are!
About 50 seconds in.
So cool!


HMMS families are All In!

Targeting a new demographic - parents!
Not to brag (okay, totally to brag), but the Crazy Reading Ladies are pretty darn good at this whole gettin'-'em-to-read gig.  Engaging content? Check.  Attention getting visual displays? Check. Positive peer pressure, admin support, catchy theme music? Triple check.  Still, as all good teachers do, we often stop to reflect and brainstorm ways to become better.  So how does one improve upon 500 early adolescents cheering for a book as it if were a new member of One Direction? How about including Mom and Dad.

Wait, what?

You heard us.  On Monday, November 18, the CRL added one more dimension to our realm of literary insanity. Grown-ups.

For the very first time, we invited parents and community members to join us on our adventure.  We partnered with the local library and hosted an activity night for the first ten chapters of DIVERGENT.

It's a logical next step, really.  We already know that All In! is a family affair.  We've reveled in the stories of parents and siblings reading together.  The more the merrier, right?  Absolutely.  And while I'm sure the world is brimming with stories of middle school kids who make their parents drop them off around the corner lest they be seen together, we know that stereotype falls woefully short of capturing the true spirit of our students.  In the words of one 7th grader:   "So if my mom reads the book, she can come, too?  That's awesome!"

While the concept was conceived months in advance, vetted and approved weeks and weeks ahead of time, and formal plans were set several days early, the CRL still found themselves juggling details at the last minute. (Seriously, how does that happen?)  Tables and chairs were arranged and rearranged; table tents and trifolds and refreshments were manhandled.  And as we fussed, we fretted.   How many people would come?   We would consider the event to be a success if we got 15 people.  We conservatively hoped for 10. Just as long as it wasn't the two of us, our administrators, and Mary's daughter.    

Our adorable Amity kids
On each table was an agenda and list of objectives. We won't bore you with them all, but allow a brief sample: 

Objective #1 - Have fun!
Objective #3 - begin to analyze how complex characters develop over the course of the story (CCR.RL.3). 
Yes, we did tie the objectives to MA Frameworks.  We joke about doing it just to show off, but really we wanted to take the opportunity to make the point that while these kids are squealing about books and characters and movies, they are also engaged in some serious academic work.  These kids are having fun, and they just happen to be learning, too.  We also encouraged attendees to tweet their thoughts during the event.  Our principal and assistant principal took up the challenge and we were highly amused to read the tweets later that evening. We'll paste a few at the end of the blog for your viewing pleasure.

As children and parents arrived, we invited them to take the Faction quizzes generously donated by the Bellingham Barnes and Noble bookstore.  Once they identified with a Faction, we invited them to seat themselves accordingly.  

We ended up with: 
  • a ton of Erudite...HMMS is full of smarty-pants
  • a parent-heavy group of Abnegation
  • fairly equal numbers of Dauntless and Candor
  • four lonely Amity (and boy, those four were super sweet.)
Abnegation Moms and Dads...
and one 6th grade boy.
Our first activity was a relatively simple characterization exercise.  Each group received and envelope with six names: Tris, Four, Christina, Al, Tori, and Eric.  For each person were examples of characterization: a physical description, something they said, something they did.  We did not provide directions, just handed over the envelopes and asked people to make sense of the materials inside.  After a minute puzzling over content, each group sorted the information into categories.  After a super-brief lesson on the methods of characterization, groups were tasked with identifying a character trait to best describe each character at the beginning of the story with the promise that we would meet again to discuss their growth over the course of the novel. HMMS decided that, at least in the beginning, Tris is inconsistent, Four is fearless, Christina is honest, Eric is hostile, Tori is protective, and Al is insecure. 

We then moved onto an interactive visual timeline.  The CRL came up with this when we were reviewing the content of chapters 1-10.  We chose a total of twenty visuals - the apple slices Beatrice gave to the factionless man, bowls from the Choosing Ceremony, that sort of thing - and scattered them among the tables. As we chronologically reviewed the book, teams held up a picture to declare the next event and place it on the large poster board. Although Erin's clip art selections left a lot to be desired ("How did I miss Caleb's laser eye surgery?" Hey. That is clearly an Erudite eye. You can barely see the laser on the pupil) the activity proved to be lively way to review content, provide commentary for particular plot points, and keep events organized. And an unexpected bonus: kids were quick to open their books and select supporting textual evidence ("No, they rank them after they fight.  It's on page…) It was beautiful.

Look how organized the Erudite are.
When we glanced at the clock, we realized we had fewer than ten minutes remaining in our Divergent discussion group.  We opened it up to our guests to ask questions or bring theories before the group.  The content of the ensuing conversation was so rich and wonderful, we wished we had another hour.  So, the CRL learned a lesson: we had been too concerned with having activities to fill the evening and had forgotten about the benefits of an open discussion.  Next time, we promise to leave more time to chat about the book.  We almost got emotional listening to parents talk to their kids, or offer opinions about character choices in the book, or how this reminds them of a current political situation.  It was everything we wanted, and more.

Yes, there will definitely be a next time.  We are hoping to choose a different weekday evening in order to accommodate as many families as possible, but we will absolutely do this again.  

Our numbers?  We had been so worried about sitting around with Mary's daughter and our two administrators…and nearly forty people came.  And laughed and learned and shared a wonderful evening.  Never underestimate the power of a good book.


Parental Guidance Suggested

When we selected DIVERGENT, we knew it was a choice that needed to be paired with a certain amount of tact.  While the pros of the novel far outweigh the cons, it is a book that involves violence.  Is DIVERGENT more violent than THE HUNGER GAMES or THE HOBBIT?  Perhaps not.  But while Katniss shoots a bow and Bilbo wields a sword, Tris shoots a revolver. 

Guns make people nervous.  We get that.  Guns make US nervous.  Still, at its heart DIVERGENT is a book about a young woman who is raised to believe that being a part of a community is so much more important than being an individual that she would rather die than be factionless.  I don't think it's a stretch to say most middle school students feel similarly about fitting in.  To a typical early adolescent, there are few fates worse than sitting alone at lunch.  And so the story of Tris - her evolution from a girl who seeks to belong to a young woman who must leverage her individuality to save her world - is a story worth putting in the hands of kids.  However, as Tris journeys from a meek Abnegation child to a determined Divergent, she carries a gun in her hand.  And she fires it.  And that's something we didn't feel we could put in front of kids without involving parents. 

 (Retrospective side-note by Mary, mom to the blonde 6th grader in the photo on the left: I wonder if we may have over-reacted.  I'll admit, I was nervous about the guns.  I have a sweet 11 year old daughter who leads a fairly sheltered life.  She hides under a blanket when previews of popular crime/zombie/police TV interrupts her viewing of America's Funniest Videos.  She had nightmares after our school's Rachel's Challenge assembly.  She's...sensitive.  Yet she read DIVERGENT in a weekend, only ever expressing concern after a certain scene involving a butter knife, and even then it was to comment that it was "gross," not scary.  I didn't quite understand the difference between the novel and the assembly; how could one be so terrifying and the other so entertaining? Mrs. D, veteran teacher and mom to teenagers, helped me figure it out.  One is real, one is fiction, and she's old enough to know the difference.  Perhaps my worry was born from me not giving my daughter enough credit.  ~Sigh~ I guess she's gonna keep growing up.)

Step one in parental involvement: send a flyer home with each student at the end of the reveal assembly.  Said flyer acknowledges the gun violence of the novel, and it also identifies the redemptive concepts that are explored, including courage, belonging, and strength. Now, we Crazy Reading Ladies haven't taught middle schoolers for a collective 15 years without learning a thing or two about the habits of our cherubs.  We had very, very little faith that more than 5% of those flyers would make it all the way out of the auditorium, into a backpack or folder, and into the hands of parents.  So we made use of our school's ConnectEd messaging service and we sent the flyer into the email inbox of every parent in the school.  (Try to turn *that* into a paper airplane, kids!)

Step Two: invite the parents to participate in the fun.  The invitation itself isn't anything new.  We've had parents read along with us before.  Some of our favorite stories of years past involve children reading books with their father, brother, mother.  One story moved us so much we tried to get approval for an 18 year old brother to be a movie chaperone.  (It didn't work, but we did manage to save him a T-Shirt.)  Parents have always been invited to read along with us.  This year, to raise the bar, we invited the parents to take part in some of the activities.  

Our first parent-friendly activity was held Monday, Nov. 18th. You can read all about it in the blog post titled "HMMS families are All In!"  In order to make the activity accessible, we partnered with our local public library and held our first book group meeting 6:30-7:30pm.  Our fabulous PCC arrived to help with set-up and to provide refreshments.  (Mary's Rule #1 - All Meetings Will Have Food.)

That's as far as Operation Mom and Dad has gone thus far.  We do have plans to involve parents further.  As always, we'll ask for parent chaperones to the movie.  We've planned at least two more evening events at the library, and we're hoping to host a weekend games activity in which parents can participate.  

As for the potentially upsetting content of DIVERGENT, we hope that by involving parents, any risky behavior addressed in the book will spur conversations  - important conversations - between parents and their kids.  Reading together not only helps parents bridge the generation gap and give them a common experience to share and process with their kids, it's also a great excuse to spend some time together.


Monday, November 11, 2013

Reveal Day

An Absolutely Perfect Day - a timeline

After months of planning and weeks of teasing, The Book was revealed at approximately 10:15am on Friday, November 1st.  We have lots of video footage and encourage you to watch it all.  Below you'll find a timeline of events and the corresponding videos.  But the real story isn't in what was captured by cameras, but in the little moments that happened off screen.  This week, we'll share those
with you and spend just a few more moments reveling in the miraculous, wonderful, marvelous, serendipitous perfection. 

Reveal Day:
  • We smile at each other across the parking lot; our first words are not of excitement or anticipation but of nausea "I'm feeling sick."  "Me too!  Why are we so nervous?" 
  • Twenty-six balloons (spectacle) are pulled from vehicle as gusts of hurricane-strength wind whip us forward.  Okay, it wasn't a hurricane, but it was really, really windy on Friday.
  • Still suffering from nausea, we decide not to talk about gastric ailments anymore.
  • CATCHING FIRE and DIVERGENT - the final two books - are retrieved.
  • Three crazy reading ladies head up to the VideoTeam news studio.
  • In-the-know Principal wishes us well as kids enter school "Oh my gosh this is it!  You're going to tell us right now! I can't wait!" Gaggle of tweens misses sarcasm.
  • Over-caffeinated VideoTeam news kids greet us: "Is today the day?!"  "You're gonna reveal it right now?"  "We'll be the first to know!"
  • Erin is concerned about her acting skills paling in comparison to Theatre Major Mary's.  The argument is practiced.  Again. 

  • Crazy Reading Ladies storm out of news studio.  On the library stairs, our breathing returns to normal; smiles appear on faces.  "I think we pulled it off!"
  • Kids in News studio ask, "Wait, are they coming back?"
  • On the way to our classrooms, kids catch up to us in the hallway (those little buggers are fast.) Mary secures sanctuary in guidance office.  Erin continues to fuel drama.
  • "Did that really just happen?" "Are you and Ms. Cotillo in a fight?"
  • Principal goes on PA system and announces a surprise assembly at 10:00am.  He keeps up the act by saying "I have no further information at this time."  
The element of surprise was absolutely essential to the magic of Reveal Day, and it was preserved by our phenomenal staff.  Days earlier, a "spoiler" email was sent out giving play-by-play details of the morning.  Everything except the title itself was revealed in that email.  To our delight, many teachers decided they didn't want to know what was happening and never opened the email; they wanted to experience the thrill with the kids.  The 6th grade teacher who burned our iMovie to a DVD the day before refused to watch it in advance.  How cool is that?
  • Principal assists in readying equipment in auditorium.  Crazy Reading Ladies do not have much patience for technical difficulties.  DVD works fine.  Audio CD does not; it is ditched.
  • CRL notice Principal wearing his Hobbit shirt for the occasion. "I gotta represent."
  • Auditorium is properly blinged out.  Balloons are moved no fewer than four times.  (We love our students, but excited kids and helium are a dangerous combination.)
  • Charade is maintained during hall monitoring between classes.  CRL continue to argue and roll eyes in each other's presence.   Mary baits Erin by smugly reassuring kids that CATCHING FIRE is *the* book, because "You know I'm gonna get my way."  
  •  Concerned children become emotionally unglued.  We have messed with them an awful lot this week.
  • Mary puts her theater degree to work when she faces her first class of the day.  "I don't even know."  and "I *thought* we'd agreed; I guess not."  and "We'll try to have a decision on Monday" become standard replies to impatient questions.
  • Parent notices are copied and collated and the memory is deleted from the RISO machine.  You know what they say: Loose lips sink book reveal assemblies.
  • Emmett arrives. We hug him.  We are reminded of how awesome he is and how dearly we miss him.  The charade is briefly busted when Erin escorts Emmett to Mary's room.  It's hard not to smile watching them embrace.  He decides to visit a few of his middle school teachers before hiding out and practicing his speech.
  • Yes, his speech.  When we invited Emmett to be part of our master plan, we knew we wanted to present his award and give him the honor of revealing the book.  He asked if he could write a speech.  No, you can't have him.
  • We run through the assembly in Erin's classroom.  Erin hears Emmett's speech for the first time and is blown away.  The term "occipital cortex" put us over the edge, but his sincerity and heart made us weep.  Mary will hear it along with the school thirty-some minutes later.  One of the best parts of the video is seeing Mary react to the testimony from her former student.
  • Lights go down and we are on.  Kids scream and clap as we approach the podium.  

  • As we stand behind Our Boy, we are overcome with emotion.  Perhaps it was seeing Emmett at the podium, or watching the standing ovation he earned from 497 middle schoolers.  Maybe it was feeling the energy in that room, the palpable anticipation and excitement...about a book.  Maybe it was the three of us standing next to each other, and hearing the unspoken words float between us: "This couldn't possibly have been any better."
Rule #1 of teaching is: Never do something the students can do for you.  Well this takes the cake.  No matter how many degrees, years of teaching experience, or administrative clout we put behind that podium, no one, absolutely NO ONE could have motivated those students the way our superlative freshman did.  Emmett not only did something we could not, he did it better than anyone ever could.  It was humbling to be in that room and simply bear witness.

  • "And the book is DIVERGENT!" 
  • Room positively erupts in book-generated euphoria and the following CRL creation is aired. 

  •  During the video, the CRL distribute fliers to students and teachers in the pitch-dark auditorium (in heels, thankyouverymuch.)
  • Somehow, we were able to find each other and watch the last few minutes together.  The reaction to the video was surreal.  Of course, our cherubs sang along to "the Hobbit song" (in case you were wondering, Pavlov was dead-on) but when Eminem filled the air, they gasped and echoed his words perfectly in sync to the music.  The CRL cried.  Again.
Since last year taught us the importance of music, we spent a considerable amount of time deciding on an anthem for this year's book.  Although we knew this song would be perfect, we were taking a chance with Eminem.  Yes, we were only using the chorus, but...it's Eminem.  We wanted something to grab their attention and perk the boys' ears.  The song was chosen long before the reveal was even planned, and the students' reaction told us we had a winner.  

Despite our promises that it would be worthy of an article, a reporter never came to Reveal Day; however, the local paper did send a photographer to capture the event.  And he had some questions for Emmett and the CRL after the assembly was over. 

"What was that?" he asked.  "Who are these kids?  Are they all going to the movies - like, did they win something?"

No, we explained.  This was the student body.  They just found out the title of the book that we'd be reading this year.

The man shook his head and said "I've never seen anything like that.  What did you do to these kids?"

1:50 pm 
  • Four hours after the assembly, Erin was waiting for dismissal with a group of her seventh-grade girls.  In chatting about the reveal, one of them said, "You know, last year I didn't do The Hobbit.  I mean, I tried, I started it...but I just couldn't get into it, so I stopped.  And you guys had so much fun.  I'm really disappointed in myself.  I'm not letting that happen again.  I don't care what it takes.  I'm going all in this year."
Without even knowing it, she gave the CRL the cherry on top of their dystopian sundae.  Not only was she motivated to participate, it was also the first time we heard "all in" from a student.

It's official.  We're All In!

Mary @mzcotillo and Erin @allinoleary


Tuesday, October 29, 2013


Through situations far beyond our control, this past week we had the privilege of seeing just how powerful a little tease can be for a middle school.
"Who is messing with my board?
I didn't change it!"

THE BOOK has been decided for months.  About eight people on the planet know the title, including five within the walls of our school.  Miraculously, it has remained at five.  When we put up the bulletin board this summer in preparation for the first day of school, a part of our collective CRL conscience worried, "Is it too soon?"  We knew we wouldn't be revealing for at least ten weeks.  Are the kids going to get frustrated and just not care?

Since August 30th, the 2014 "title" has read ??? 
On Monday, October 21st, it changed to 9.  Students and staff admitted to Googling "9", which evidently is a book title, but not even close to middle school appropriate.

On Tuesday, it became 8.

This post is about the power of the tease, so just to be clear we never admitted to changing the numbers...it was more fun that way!  We acted just as befuddled as the students (and added a little dose of huffiness too.) 

When a 7 greeted them on Wednesday morning, they knew: the countdown had begun.

Then life intervened and things turned ugly in our little corner of the world.  The principal rallied the troops.  He called in the school psychologist, the adjustment counselor, and...the crazy reading ladies??

"I need a favor, and it has to be fast.  We have to fight negativity with positivity.  Remind the kids why they love coming to school." 

Since we work with the most wonderful faculty in the business, it wasn't difficult to film our epic reveal teaser the very same day.  It was ready for its world premiere on Thursday's VideoTeam News.

As soon as it aired, a mob of news crew students poured into Ms. Cotillo's room positively pleading to know the title.

Mary's daughter is a 6th grader at our school.  At the end of the day, she flounced into her mother's room, flung her bag into a chair, and in her best pre-adolescent voice said, "Thanks, Mom."  Apparently she'd spent the day being grilled, too.  And not just by students!  

(Don't you worry.  The Crazy Reading Ladies have high security standards.  When planning meetings were held, dear daughter was locked in the basement.  Don't look at me that way.  She had food.  Sheesh.)  

Just like that, THE BOOK was all the kids could talk about.  The "book talk" in our hallways went from chatter to pandemonium in under four minutes.

Middle School Tactic #2: Tell them they can't have something. 
which is almost as powerful as
Middle School Tactic #1: Tell them they can't do something.

Messing with middle school minds
To top it off, a fellow faculty member posted QR codes around the building on Friday. Since we have not revealed the title to the faculty, he was not privvy to inside information, which made his "clues" all the more delicious (one went to the public library.) Our poor principal just happened to be scanning one posted outside the cafeteria when sixth-grade lunch was dismissed. He was treated for minor cuts, abrasions, and other injuries sustained from trampling and returned to work several hours later. 

When we left on Friday afternoon, there were students camped out by the bulletin board, waiting to see if we were going to change the number ("Do weekends count?") and then we heard it: 

"I think this is the first weekend I want to go by really fast so I can get to school on Monday!"

"But what does it meeeeean?!?"
I think we may need to retire now.  I don't think you can do better than that.  

Monday morning came and the tension was palpable.  Students compared notes, discussed movie release dates, appeals of different genres.  One boy confessed that he'd created a notebook in which to keep all of his research and predictions.  

On the morning news we made a pretty big announcement.  We narrowed down the pool of potential books from all the titles in the Franklin Public Library to six: Ender's Game, Catching Fire, Divergent, The Book Thief, The Maze Runner, and Romeo and Juliet.  

A super-excited 6th grade teacher (who may or may not have been badgering Mary's daughter) was presented with an envelope.  She opened it on-air and accounced that the 2013-2014 book is....

NOT Ender's Game.  

We were a little worried there might be a riot.  

We have big plans for Friday's reveal, so here's hoping we can keep our heads down low and survive the interrogation tactics for another three days.  We've loved every second of this; it has already been worth it.  On Friday evening we received an email from an eighth-grade boy who couldn't get into his weekend groove because he was so obsessed.  Amid analysis of clues and unadulterated glee, he thanked us for making this happen.

Thankfully, we are literacy soul-mates and can read each other's minds because for moments like this, there really are no words.  We'll just catch the other's eye and shake our heads...and probably have a little cry.

- Mary @mzcotillo and Erin @allinoleary

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Just for Fun

Sometimes, despite our best planning, we end up with a few minutes at the end of class that need to be filled.  Maybe the kids "got it" sooner than anticipated, or a large percentage are absent, or we sense their frustration level is getting too high to make further pushing productive.  In moments like this, it's helpful to have a few fun activities up your sleeve.   Here are a few of our go-to games.

Akinator:  You can download the app for your smartphone, or you can visit www.akinator.com.  The idea is that you think of a character, and, through a series of yes or no questions, a genie tries to guess your character.  The goal is to stump the genie, and it's really hard to do.  When I use this game in class, I steer the kids away from the SpongeBob Squarepants characters they are wont to suggest, and I nudge them towards literary characters in the stories or novels we've been reading.  I work the controls, read out the questions, and the kids shout out the appropriate answer.  It's pretty much a choral response when the questions are "Does your character wear shoes?"  But when the questions become more subjective, interesting debates arise.  Is Atticus Finch a warrior?  Does Buck fight evil?  Choose obscure characters for your best chance at stumping the genie.  (Akinator got Atticus Finch in about 10 questions, but never did manage to guess Sergeant Major Morris from "The Monkey's Paw.")  The kids love it, and a few have downloaded the app on their own devices.

Black Out Poetry:  Personally, this is my favorite.  You can use it for a whole class period or to keep kids engaged for the last ten minutes before dismissal.  Here's what you need:  old books, highlighters, and black sharpies or markers.  Tear or cut pages out of the books, and have students highlight words or short phrases that can be strung together to paint a picture or tell a story.  Then use the black marker to black out the rest of the page.  What's revealed is the poem.  I have just started playing with color: highlighting words with the same mood in one color, contrasting mood words in another, that kind of thing.  Kids can illustrate or decorate their finished product, or not.  My students love this activity, and they'll often ask to take book pages home so they can make more poems.

Pyramid: Remember Dick Clark and the $25,000 Pyramid?  When teaching the concept of main idea and details, I stumbled upon this activity.  The kids absolutely love it!  Simply generate a few dozen topics (i.e. state capitals, things that are white, things with an alarm, Disney movies) and offer three clues.  A quick tour of YouTube clips will yield all the topics you need.  Not only does this game help with sorting, but I've found that it also develops their visualization skills.  I had given "cement floor, boxes of Christmas decorations, and a furnace" and they couldn't get it.  Once I told them to close their eyes and picture it, they got it.  Yep, things in a basement!

You have five minutes left in class, so go ahead and tell us.  What are the games you play?

Mary @mzcotillo and Erin @allinoleary

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Summer Reading Celebration

Any day we get to wear our blingy reading shirts is a great day.  Give us two hundred middle school readers, a BINGO cage, and some flying glitter?  Now you understand why we have the best jobs in the world.

Our Summer Reading Celebration is held annually for all students who exceed expectations and read over 1500 pages during summer vacation.  They are the future crazy reading ladies and gentlemen of America, and we shall treat them well.  

Prize Table Numero Uno
In my four years as Reading Specialist, we've had three incarnations of the celebration.  I came into the position to a previously scheduled folk singer ('nuff said), then moved to an ice cream sundae party.  Though it was both budget-friendly and a big hit, we knew it was not the best message to be sending our kids.  As an ELA department, we (and a new federal mandate) decided we needed to celebrate accomplishments without hot fudge and Oreo cookie crumbles.

Book BINGO was born.

We've always had an issue with the name - Summer Reading Celebration is "meh" at best, and Book BINGO sounds downright lame.  We're working on it.

Here's how the Crazy Reading Ladies spent the $500 budget:

$100 on piddly prizes - sunglasses, fancy pens, clipboards, and all manifestations of yellow rubber duck
$400 on books - Scholastic Teacher Store has class sets on sale in early September, and I'm not afraid to pick up "looks like new" used books at libraries or on Freecycle throughout the year to add to my stash 
$35ish on decor - as many balloons as possible, dollar store tablecloths, glitter, centerpieces, etc.

I know.  First of all, you're not reading about the Crazy Math Ladies.  Second of all, you know we need spectacle.  So if we have to dig deep for some extra reading bling, we're going all in.

Besides, once you have a BINGO set, the only cost is the cards themselves - which are dirt cheap.  I think 500 paper cards cost $3.99.

The loud, the proud: the 6th graders
Our Principal is apparently a closet BINGO player and he let me purchase the Cadillac of Cages this year, which kind of makes up for the taunts he yelled my way, leading the kids in jeers of: "Those aren't real numbers!" and "NO ONE HAS THAT!"
Sure, they look sweet and innocent

The parade of 80-something sixth graders invaded the cafeteria first, followed by seventh and eighth.  Brave parent volunteers were a bit taken aback by how quickly the air in the room changed.  Some collapsed into their chairs when the last child left.  Middle schoolers will do that to you.
Representing over 50 books 
read this summer!
If you think tween readers are the quiet, sedentary, non-competitive type, you've never been to Book BINGO.
Within minutes, I had to give The Look to a table of screaming boys who were bashing each other with mylar balloons.

It's about to get crazy.
I didn't help matters by announcing to the packed cafeteria that THE BOOK was in the room.  Kids gasped and pushed themselves out of their seats for a look at the wrapped box.  For twenty-two days straight, we have been asked to reveal our selection.  The kids are desperate.  There has been wailing and gnashing of teeth.  I've been followed into the parking lot twice by a gaggle of girls promising they won't tell anyone.

Isn't that awesome?!

The entire festivus took just over an hour.  We played five raucous rounds of BINGO.  As winners pranced to the prize table, their names were cross-checked with an attendance sheet (you'd better believe it) and they selected both a novelty prize and a brand-new book.  On their way out, they took chalk and signed a banner proclaiming the best book they read this summer.

And then they could visit THE  BOOK.
Not yet...

After they exited the cafeteria, students could approach the table and record their guess on video (one brave, well-protected mother was on paparazzi duty.)  As I called BINGO numbers, I couldn't resist peeking over my shoulder to watch the line of kids waiting to guess the selection.  Some shook the box, others stroked it.  One student believed it all a farce - there was no way we'd have the box out in the open - and declared it a bag of flour.  Some were certain they knew, others were at a loss for words.  After reviewing the footage, we have about five clear "favorites" along with a smattering of other titles.

The Crazy Reading Ladies aren't revealing quite yet.  Watch for that first snow fall...and then, be ready for anything. 

Mary @mzcotillo and Erin @allinoleary
Survivors of Book BINGO 2013

How do you celebrate your students' accomplishments?  Share your incentive ideas in the comments!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

If You Give a Tween a Twitter...

If you give a tween a twitter, he'll probably want a hashtag to go with it.  But he won't know what a hashtag is.  Or what to tweet.  So you'll give him a prompt.

If you give him a prompt, he'll probably want to to tweet an answer, so he'll jump right in and start writing.  But if you give a tween a twitter, he only has 140 characters.  So he has to slow down.  And think.  And decide which words are best.  And he's not sure which words are best.  So he'll probably ask a friend.

Tweet tonight's homework.
Dogs haven't eaten any of my students' computers...yet.
If he asks the friend, the friend might not know.  So they'll ask another friend.  And maybe even someone they aren't friends with.  They might start a conversation with the new girl they just met two days ago.  And they might laugh a little at the funny words they're using.  And that new girl might make a friend.

If a tween makes a friend, she just might feel a little better about starting middle school, a little more willing to come to school each day, a little more courageous in answering questions and raising her hand and putting herself out there.  If a tween makes a friend, she will probably feel happy.

If a tween feels happy, and has a friend, and you ask her to tweet, she'll probably do it.  And later she'll want to see if anyone has followed her.  So she'll log in from home.  And she'll see other students' answers to prompts.  And she'll reconsider her original position.  And even if she's nervous about raising her hand in class, she'll probably feel okay about replying online.  And she'll retweet someone.  And someone will reply to her.  And retweet her.  And she'll have an virtual discussion with her peers about schoolwork, without even realizing that she's learning.

If you give a tween a twitter, they'll probably think about your class after they leave the room.  If you give a tween a twitter, he'll and work with friends and reflect on word choice.  If you give a tween a twitter, she'll actually want to do the assignment because it's FUN.

The 21st century educator:
Hooked in and unhinged
If you give a teacher a twitter, she will probably want a glass of wine to go with it.

The teacher will probably think of a news story in which a stupid teacher did a stupid thing and social media was involved.  And they'll think, "Isn't social media BAD?" and "Won't I get in TROUBLE?" and "Hashtag?  That sounds illegal."  And they'll probably long for the good ol' days of mimeograph machines and overheads, a time when life was simple and "tweet" was an example of onomatopoeia.

If you give a teacher a twitter, it will probably take a while for them to feel comfortable.  But if the teacher gives twitter a try, they'll probably get hooked.  They'll probably start by following their colleagues and tweeting about weekend plans.  Then they'll probably click on a link to a video or a infographic or a picture.  And they'll think, "that's really smart."  And they'll find something they can use.  And they post something insightful that gets retweeted.  And maybe they'll catch the attention of someone who knows what they're doing, and they'll have a, "Oh my god!  @RickWormeli just replied to my tweet!" moment, and then there's no going back.
@allinoleary @mzcotillo ... Just sayin'.

If you give a teacher a twitter, they'll probably realize that there is a vast online community of passionate, engaged, and not at all creepy or unprofessional teachers who are "out there" sharing ideas and best practices and focused on what's in the best interests of students.  And teachers will probably find it inspiring, and exciting, and empowering.  And they'll probably start counting their followers and comparing their total with their colleagues in a bizarre sort of competition of who is dorkier and cooler at the same time.  

This blog has spread primarily through Facebook and Twitter.  So now we ask our cool and dorky readers - how are you using social media to your advantage?  Comment below - we won't make you stick to 140 characters. #CRL 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

#ILD13 - Invent Your Future!

The Crazy Reading Ladies are coming at you in stereo today!  We share a brain; why not a voice?

International Literacy Day was Monday, September 9th.  To celebrate, we decided to focus on the International Reading Association's theme: Invent Your Future.   Our middle school students were encouraged to participate by writing their future headlines.  What better way to set goals and look forward than by imagining one's accomplishments being lauded on the front page of The New York Times?

As several "helpful" colleagues were clever enough to point out, we are unlikely to actually HAVE print news in twenty years, but we stuck with the idea of writing a headline.  Mary gets all her news from online sources, and all her sites have lead stories with larger font and subheadings, so she says the format still works.

In pursuing the concept of headlines in general, we knew we needed to provide examples for our students.  During our search for famous newspaper headlines, Mary brilliantly commented, "We only want achievements.  We don't need students declaring war.  Let's show them some of our greatest accomplishments."

We relied on Erin's iMovie skills to introduce the idea.  Students received instruction via the school video news Friday morning.

On every table in the cafeteria
We provided students with headline models and a template at lunch on Friday.  We left papers on the tables themselves so teachers didn't have to remember to pass anything out and students didn't have to remember to go somewhere to pick something up.  If you want participation, you gotta make it easy.  We've been teaching middle school long enough to know not to expect the mountain to come to Mohammad.

Due date flyers posted on the cafeteria doors were coupled with strategically placed extra templates as students entered the building.  Mary reminded her students on Instagram and provided incentive in the form of extra credit.  (See previous mountain/Mohammad comment.) 

The "BEFORE" picture
"AFTER" a little lunch-time nudge
On Monday, Erin risked life, limb, and an unsafe driving citation to deliver a plethora of balloons and other shiny decorations.  The Crazy Reading Ladies believe in spectacle.  Go big or go home.  If you're not willing to festoon the lobby with ten foot banners, confetti, balloons, and cellophane centerpieces, then get out of the way because you just may be stampeded by overzealous teachers in blingy reading shirts. 

Mary's a "Reading Diva." Erin says "Reading Rocks!"
There are a lot of future Oscar winners in 7th grade
Perhaps not unexpectedly, boxes in the lobby and collections in various academic classes yielded only a handful of headlines.  So we did what any crazy reading ladies would do: we set up camp during lunch and invaded the cafeteria.  We circulated among tables shouting, "Write your headlines!  Grab a friend!  I have extras!  I have markers!  GO!  GO!  GO!!" That did it.  We've always believed that aggression has its place in encouraging young adult literacy.  

There's something, too, about mob mentality.  We've said it before, and we'll say it again: there is safety in numbers.  Ask one thirteen year-old boy to write a headline, and he'll mumble and shrug and avoid your gaze.  Have a peer command them to write a headline, and they'll engulf your festively decorated table en masse and develop cures for thyroid disease. 

By the end of the day, we had about seventy headlines which are now proudly displayed in the HMMS lobby.  Should this visual spur any student to complete a headline after today, we'll happily accept it and display it along with the others.

 Teachers in our building put their own spin on the idea of helping students invent their futures.  One eighth grade social studies teacher showed an inspirational YouTube video about high school students who are changing the world with their ideas.  A seventh-grade social studies teacher read a UN article talking about literacy's role in preventing poverty.  His seventh grade counterpart and our administrators tweeted their headlines. 

One teacher commented that she appreciated the opportunity to engage in conversation with students.  It's one thing to ask, "what do you want to be when you grown up," but it's quite another to inquire about the legacy they want to leave behind.  How do they want to be remembered?  These conversations build relationships and allow teachers to connect with students in a meaningful way.  Helping a student realize that they can channel their current hobby into a meaningful career is, simply, really cool. 

And so are the headlines we received.  Most students used their full names in their headlines, so we don't have too many to show you.  The ones we can share are below.  

We challenge you to write your future headline.  It's not easy!  Write your future in the comments below or tweet us! @allinoleary @mzcotillo  #CRL #ILD13

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


Our Principal has been known to show some pretty rockin' videos at staff meetings and they typically fall into one of two categories:

a) hysterically funny 
b) inspiring. 
Our guiding mantra.

At the occasion of our first gathering of the school year, he unveiled one of the latter and we watched teachers around the globe talk about the benefits of forming a solid foundation of trust and communication with their students.  

And then he issued a challenge: Don't teach any content during the first five days of school.

Thought #1 - Crap.
Thought #2 - This could be really, really awesome.

With less than twelve hours until students walked into my room, I resisted the urge to scour the internet for fantabulously creative activities.  Thankfully, sanity won out.  I chose a good night's sleep and just kind of trusted that the kids would show me what they needed, and I prayed that I was up to the challenge.

My team decided to pick up our principal's thrown gauntlet, and we embarked on a three-day team-building quest.  We began with an in-depth look at the HMMS 6 Pillars of Character: Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring, Citizenship.  Each content area teacher, special ed teacher, and the school adjustment counselor took one pillar and created a short presentation.  We worked independently, so one adult didn't know what the others would be presenting.  Some simply stood before the students and spoke passionately.  Others engaged the students in hands-on activities, or showed You Tube videos and PowerPoint presentations.  By the end of the short assembly, the students had not only experienced a refresher on the Pillars, but an introduction to the teachers.  

"No One Gets Left Behind"
Somewhat reluctantly we set aside our old team name, The Dream Catchers, and agreed to let our current students name themselves.  The kids worked in groups in homeroom to create meaningful names, logos, and mottoes.  Within homerooms the suggestions were narrowed down to two, and the final eight presented and justified their creations to the whole team in the auditorium.  The students rated each presentation on:
1. how well the name reflected our core values
2. how well the logo captured the spirit of the team
3. the appropriateness of the motto.  

Once the points are tallied (I'll update in comments!), we'll have a new team identity. And each student had a hand in building it.

Over the course of the First Five Days, I wrote open-ended questions on the surface of a beach ball and threw it at my children.  And we stood on chairs and called each other dorks.  And we wore each other's shoes.

I found out what they feared, what they considered to be their greatest accomplishments, the worst thing a teacher could do, and how they'd spend one million dollars.  I'm somewhat ashamed to admit that I found out new information about students who've sat in my room for two years.

Another activity (impulsively named Four Card Draw) gave them two minutes to reflect on each of four topics.  For three of the prompts, they only shared what they cared to, but for the fourth "I expect good teachers to..." I made them read aloud to the class and I sat down with a pencil.  

At your service!
"Wait, you're writing this down?" 

"Of course.  I want to know what you need from me and I'm going to do the best I can to do exactly that."

Turns out, their requests were remarkably simple.  One even said "Have a smile on your face," but the light in my students' eyes told me they felt respected - honored that I simply asked their input.  Just like that, we were on the same page.  And we were bonded.

By the time our last activity rolled around, I knew this had worked because I had the kind of goosebumps moment about which teachers only dream. 

My first day with my new cherubs, I passed around a roll of toilet paper and told the kids to take what they thought they would need, but I kept mum about exactly why they would need it.  Once everyone had some squares to spare, I asked them to share tidbits of information about themselves - one tidbit per square.  I soon became privy (see what I did there...?) to the fact that I was sharing my classroom with artists, dancers, football players, musicians, BBQ lovers, poets, readers, gamers, equestriennes, baseball fanatics, actors and actresses, and one kindred Shakespeare devotee. I learned that three students have hermit crabs for pets, but only one of those kids bothered to name their crustacean ("Crabby").  I learned that students had traveled to St. John's and St. Thomas over the summer, that others have never left the country. 

I took squares, too.  Before I volunteered information, I asked if there was anything they wanted to know.  It struck me as bitter sweet that their questions were so basic.  What is my first name?  Do I have children?  It requires so little to build the foundations of a relationship!  They now know that my full name is Mary Beth Varney Cotillo, the names and ages of my kids, that my favorite ice cream flavor is Ben and Jerry's Chocolate Therapy, but if I had to choose one dessert for the rest of my life I'd have to go with chocolate layer cake.  Oh, and if an 8th grader asks, I'm 29.  (Help a girl out, would you?)

Not only did I notice that our kids bonded with their 29 year-old teachers, but they quickly attached to each other.  During one class' run at Four Card Draw, an eighth-grade boy got stuck.  He couldn't think of anything that made him unique.  I have to be honest, he was the only child that struggled with this.  It was unfathomable to me to leave him with a blank yellow card and thankfully, heaven intervened.  When another student piped up a question, that young man answered and I said "There you go!  You just inspired him.  Did you see?  You gave him an idea!"  His eyes lit up and he began to write.
You are unique.  You are inspiring.

And so there, on a bright yellow card, is the word "inspiring."

For my final activity I staged a scavenger hunt.  After stealing all of Mary's clipboards, I hid "I am" prompts around the room and let my kids loose with paper and a pencil, instructing them to spend no more than 60 seconds at each one.  

Now, if I told them they were going to write a poem, I would have had a mass exodus to the bathroom, or the nurse, or the Army recruiting office...anywhere.  I may have even seen tears.  See, I work with struggling learners for whom reading and writing do not come easily.  Mine is a replacement class where students receive specialized instruction in literacy skills.   Yet in just fifty-three minutes - one class period - every single student had completed an eighteen-line poem.  I've never experienced anything like it.

After one student printed her final version, I read in response to "I understand" she had written, "I understand C1".  It took me a moment to figure out what that meant.  Then it hit me: C1.  That was my class.  On day three of school, this young lady felt like she belonged.  How does it possibly get any better than that?

I'm not going to lie, these team building activities were exhausting.  Teachers threw together pillar presentations overnight.  We sacrificed every second of our planning time to conceiving, creating, and distributing materials to facilitate our re-branding.  We wrangled summer-antsy kids back into group work in a fairly unstructured setting.  It was messy.  It was loud.  Honestly, it would have been a LOT easier to just jump into literature terms and start my short story unit.

But there is no question that the investment of time and energy paid huge dividends.  On Friday afternoon, on her way out the door, one young lady observed, "I love our new team. I think this year is going to be fun."  And I can't ask for more than that.   

So, what's your take on the #1st5days?  Please comment or tweet your thoughts #CRL  

Mary @mzcotillo
Erin @allinoleary