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.