by Jean Prokott
The sophomores have spent December writing creative nonfiction, short vignettes that allow them to rummage around for the metaphors hiding in their lives. I’ve been teaching personal essay for the last decade, so I often predict the topics students will choose (failing a test, church mission trip, sports injury) and the symbols they will find (butterflies, water, clouds) and preemptively direct them away from those clichés. The best part is to tell them what not to write. They have to keep rummaging.
Every once in a while, a kid finds a perfect peach of a topic and writes about it in a way that unties me. I want to share with you the story of “nonnie” so you see what I mean.*
That comma splice in the last line alone.
That structure with time, to start and end with death, to bring nonnie to life in the middle.
Her metaphor is one we all know. There's a defining moment in our lives when we learn about death. nonnie represents the literal of this coming-of-age, but also her struggle up the hill represents how my student felt when she lost nonnie.
It was a gift to read this piece. I wrote tomes of feedback in purple pen—mostly stars and wut and this is powerful over and over to the point where she probably thought I’d been living as a recluse for the last decade with only episodes of trash TV to keep me company. (Although to be fair, I think I just described last year and most of this one.)
One would have to be a callous car crash of a person if they didn’t feel their heart explode when they learned about nonnie’s fate and the effect she'd had on my student, and the day I read this, the time of year I read this, that this had been the 80th out of 95 essays I’d read—nonnie’s story was literally the saddest thing I’d ever heard in my whole sad life and I would spend the rest of my days mourning nonnie and my student’s loss.
After I read about nonnie, I had a flashback to an experience I’d had on my grandparents’ dairy farm and a cow named Flopsy, who’d been born with a messed-up leg. The end of that story is predictable: while eating hamburgers one evening, my father brought it up.
That wasn’t the impetus of my response, however.
Because it is quite clear we are all nonnie.
Her tragedy was that she’d wanted to climb a hill. There are so many hills this year. nonnie drowned “all because she faced an incline and couldn't get up. Such a simple action.” nonnie had spent her life free and sassy and getting under fences. She “liked potatoes.” I like potatoes, too, I’d thought. I like potatoes, too.
Since the assignment was not one short scene, but three, when I conferenced with my student this week, I reviewed more rough drafts. One was about a horse named Iago (and I’m sorry, but find a more perfect name for a horse). An excerpt:
Is Iago still alive? I asked. Yes, Ms. Prokott, Iago is still alive.
The third scene was about a chicken.
I read this, I looked up, I said: Why are you doing this? Why are you trying to kill me?
What also kills me is how humble she is. I think I might spend the rest of the year convincing her that, yes, it is that good. I know I will spend the next decade using her essay as a model for the assignment. And I just now realize this random IKEA print of a cow I have hanging in my classroom will never look the same.
My reaction to this powerful piece was not only reader-response, of course—this student has mastered empathy and control of language and voice and happy accidents and every possible technique to make me react the way I did. But I don’t want to talk about how she got there, don’t care to list which activities we did in the classroom, don’t want to get my nails dirty in pedagogy. This was all her. I simply want to share this victory. Her victory to write such a heart wrenching piece, to have the maturity to revisit grief and make it beautiful.
While we’re all nonnies this year, struggling up the hill (and praying we don’t meet her fate) maybe we can also be my student. It’s been a year of loss, so let’s talk about it. Maybe find the metaphors. Learn from our students.
And the next time you have a glass of milk, please pour one out for nonnie.
* The student has given me permission to share.
by Amit Sood (with a frame by the Third Eye Education writing team)
No question, this school year has started off like no other. On Third Eye Education alone, these last few months have been fodder for a handful articles rooted in frustration (see: You Have Learned Something/You Have Lost Something, Finding Our Portals to Transcendence, and We Are the Leaders We Seek). Add in the fact that many entered this year thinking it would be a ‘return to normal,’ and it can be a very hard pill to swallow.
When stuck in a situation (or a series of situations, to be honest) that is disquieting, it can be easy to dwell on the on the negative. When drowning in a glass that’s half empty, it’s hard to acknowledge that it’s also half full.
Which is why here we lean on Amit Sood, who we’ve collaborated with before, to highlight (1) a way we can reengage students and (2) a way we can reengage ourselves.
1 | Reengage Students with Voice
In January of 2021, Sood noted the following in his Dear Friend column, first published in the Rochester Post Bulletin:
To transfer this to the classroom, might it be possible to increase student engagement by increasing opportunities for students to use “I”?
It doesn’t mean we can’t still push deeply into content:
2 | Reengage Ourselves with Antidotes
In March of 2021, also in his Dear Friend column, Sood noted:
To transfer this to our educator selves, might it be possible to “Crowd [our] space with the antidotes — gratitude, compassion and forgiveness?
Perhaps we can use Amit Sood’s ideas as our life raft: two tools that might help us dry out and float. Once safely on a raft, our clothes no longer waterlogged, it may just be easier to see that the glass we’re floating in is also half full.
by Heather M. F. Lyke
We all know reading is important. I mean, just take a look at this infographic (aka: my attempt to summarize all the layers of importance).
Since reading is such an essential skill, it’s not surprising that the questions I receive most in my role as Teaching and Learning Director for Dover-Eyota schools revolve around reading.
Simply put, there is a lot of passion out there for helping our youth become strong readers.
Plus, ‘tis the season of holiday sales, gift giving, vacation days, and new year’s resolutions…
Combine these truths, and this becomes a perfect time for finding and sharing books, for having extra time to enjoy literature, and for setting new reading goals.
So, what can we do to support young readers and to foster within them a desire to read that lasts a lifetime?
Here are three sets of ideas:
Model It --
Read aloud to your child.
According to Scholastic (2019), a powerful predictor of kids’ reading frequency is having a parent [or other adult] who personally reads aloud to/with the child 5-7 days a week. Commonly, this is something we do with younger children, but recent studies have shown that even middle-school-aged youth love to be read to.
Read around your child.
Show the children in your life that you, too, are a reader. “Children who see adults reading and enjoying it,” according to Pearson Education (2021), “are much more likely to want to read themselves.” Maria Russo and Pamela Paul, authors of How to Raise a Reader, note that “when I’m sitting there on my couch, reading a book, and my kids are doing their own thing, I like to think, I’m parenting right now—they can see me reading this book”—conversely, if “right after dinner, the first thing you do is scroll through your phone, open up your laptop, or watch TV, kids are likely to take note.”
Listen to audiobooks together.
Audiobooks support literacy skills in ways that physical books sometimes can’t. The web resource Reading Rockets (2003) shares that audiobooks model strong interpretive reading, make difficult vocabulary words or dialects more accessible, and enhance listening skills among other things.
Tip: there are a lot of ways to access free audiobooks. Visit the website LibriVox or try the app Libby (you just need a public library card!).
Remove Barriers --
Keep literature in reach.
Pearson Education (2021) shares a few tips: at home, have books on accessible shelves and coffee tables; when traveling, toss a few books in the car or suitcase; and when headed to an appointment, have a book at the ready should there be time spent in the waiting room. Personally, I’m currently reading 4 books: an audiobook, a bedside-table book, a living-room book, and one waiting-in-line book (which I actually access electronically on my phone).
Embrace whatever text they choose.
From nonfiction to fiction, from poetry to graphic novels, from magazines to thick novels, from comic strips to junk-mail…anything with text is an opportunity to build vocabulary, to increase interest, and grow reading stamina. Additionally, each genre has its own unique trends when it comes to plot structures, character development, and literary techniques: reading widely exposes one to all the trends, making it easier to navigate future works of the same genre.
Look past levels.
Once a reader is able to decode basic words, according to the School Library Journal (2020), which is typically around first grade, students should be encouraged to “read a wide range of texts…they should read easy books to things that kick their butt. The variation of difficulty does matter.” Simpler texts can build fluency, enjoyment, and stamina; while a text outside of one’s comfort level can introduce a reader to new vocabulary and increase understanding of what skills they’ve yet to master.
Encourage Interests --
Reading teachers and authors Karen Szymusiak and Franki Sibberson (2007) share the tip that adults should “…talk about the books they [the students] are reading” by having conversations rooted in “open-ended questions they can use in discussing their reading.” They suggest questions that fit each of three layers:
Leverage hook books.
Reading a book series, going on author binges, rereading a favorite book—these sometimes get bad reps. Yet, they are integral to creating lifelong readers. Author Devon Corneal shared on Read Brightly (2021) that rereading helps learners develop strong word recognition, notice patterns, enhance fluency, strengthen comprehension, and foster confidence. Similarly, a reader who is hooked on a series deepens their connections with characters, increases comprehension, spends more time reading, and quickens the process of finding what book to read next, according to Edutopia (2016): likewise, reading multiple books by the same author can have similar impacts.
Celebrate books and reading.
Make literacy a reward. Make going to the library, visiting the bookmobile, or browsing at a bookstore a regular and joyful event. Combine reading with what your learner enjoys. For me, that was lunch with my father at Wong’s in downtown Rochester after spending a summer morning with my mom at the library. For my third-grade niece and nephew, it’s being allowed time to read uninterrupted in their small, end-of-bunkbed nooks they created with their father last year—simple plywood nests filled with blankets, pillows, and a few favorite reads. Lifelong reading is fostered by the memories of contentment we nurture now.
If you ever want to dig more deeply into reading, I’d love to connect! Until then, I hope you and the youth in your life find a great piece of literature to cuddle up with and enjoy this holiday season.
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.