Who cares about a blizzard?  It certainly didn’t stop Ms. Brown and Ms. Sullivan’s 20 students and their culminating publishing party. They were ready!

Imagine students seated around tables pushed together in a large rectangle. Above the white board is a large word cloud emblazoned, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Another banner says, “Who has power in the U.S. and why?” A painted kimono hangs from the ceiling not far from student made t-shirts from a unit on Darfur, Sudan. The room is chock full of posters, student work, displays, teacher desks and a small electric keyboard. (The classroom is also used for a music theory class.)

Since time is so pressured by another impeding blizzard, Ms. Brown explains that everyone should share part of their written review… either the intro, the summary, or their evaluation of the book. Some students sigh despondently that they can’t share their entire report. Emphasis on literacy initiatives and reading programs is strong at BAA. Our measurement data shows that, on average, one-third of every freshman class entering BAA reads at least one grade level below the norm. Ms. Brown’s class is just one example of that emphasis.

The amazing Ms. Brown teaching ninth-grade Seminar students

Today’s activity is the culmination of a unit in which students have the opportunity to select their own book to read and then uninterrupted class time to read it. The curriculum is taken from the work of educator and author, Nancie Atwell, whose area of expertise is reading and writing. Ms. Brown, a skilled Humanities teacher, has been researching whether students’ academic skills would increase by being given lots of choice in what they read. She transitions to the activity of the day.

“We are practicing gratitude today for one another,” Ms. Brown begins in earnest.  “Ms. Sullivan [co-teacher for seminar] will pass out cups with two sugar cubes and then pour water for your tea. You don’t need to make any comments. Remember we are focusing on the publishing part of today, not the party part.”

Ms. Sullivan moves gracefully and quietly around the room as Ms. Brown speaks. Students are immediately engaged by the rattling sound of the two sugar cubes. Gabe begins turning the cup upside down. Natalie quietly uses the cubes as dice. Mark grins at his cubes and blurts out happily, “I’ve never had sugar cubes before.”  Again Ms. Brown reminds the class that the focus is their work and not the cubes or the hot water being poured for tea.

Ms. Brown and Ms. Sullivan’s Seminar students work on a writing assignment

“Some names are on the board of who is going first,” Ms. Brown continues as she holds up an envelope. “After those students share then other names will be picked from this envelope until everyone has shared. We have lost a lot of time to snow storms so we are trying to get through everyone.” Students shift in their seats with excitement. Mr. Sullivan moves around with a large woven straw basket filled with different teas. Students select their flavor and the tea-seeping begins.  While students dab their tea-bags up and down watching the water change color, Ms. Brown asks, “Why are some people very nervous about sharing and have a hard time volunteering?”

“I sometimes stammer,” Angie says, holding on to her Styrofoam cup of tea, “and that makes me very nervous.” She takes a gulp. Ms. Brown nods. “Yes, that would make someone nervous. I understand. What can the rest of you do to help students who are nervous?” Kitty looks up from her tea. “You can pay attention.” Jaevon adds on quickly, “And you can focus on the positive and not give a negative critique.”  “That’s right,” says Ms. Brown just as Niela frowns at the piece of pie that Ms. Sullivan has just placed in front of her.

Devin, on the other side of the table, practically leaps of his chair to receive his pie. “I love this kind. It’s pumpkin, right?” Ms. Brown smiles at Devin and speaks to the whole class. “I’m reminding you again that we are focusing on the publishing part of the party, not the tea-drinking or pie-eating part.  I’m glad so many of you like the sweet potato pie I made, but if you don’t like the pie, don’t worry, just don’t say anything. Leave it on the side.  No forks today; just use your napkins.” Ms. Sullivan keeps passing out the pie. Molly and others can barely contain their joy at the sight of fresh-baked sweet potato pie. Others, like Niela and Venessa, look like they will throw up, but Ms. Brown catches Vanessa’s eyes. “I brought you cookies, don’t worry,” she says. Vanessa’s face relaxes.

Students keep drinking their tea and some have started on their pie. Again, Niela looks like she will disrupt the entire class. “I don’t have a fork,” she says curtly. Without changing her tone or becoming agitated, Ms. Brown repeats, “No forks, Niela. Use your napkin or leave it on the side. We are here for the joy of the publishing and the party part is an extra. Remember that.”

With that final comment on refreshments, Ms. Brown looks away from Niela, sits down slowly and straightens her back, growing in stature.  She begins to speak more quietly and very clearly. “Now we are going to start sharing our reviews.” Her voice becomes almost hushed. Students lean forward.  “Remember to give positive critiques and to raise your hands and the reader will call on you. Who is first?”

Ms. Sullivan (second from right) with some members of “The Reading Zone”

Jaevon jumps up and introduces himself. “I’m Jaevon and I read Th1rteen R3asons Why.”  In a resonant and confident voice he reads his introduction. When he finishes students break into applause. Ms. Brown reminds them to clap quietly by waving their hands, which is our form of BAA applause.  Deaf students appreciate seeing the applause.

Devin is next. He bounces off his seat and begins to read his paper on Down These Mean Streets.  Quickly and clearly he gets through the introduction, summary and evaluation. “I really liked this book and think everyone should read it. It is an amazing book.” The majority of his classmates have listened in rapt attention, but some girls have been suppressing giggles. I have the sense that they are uncomfortable with the intensity of feeling that Devin communicates about his book.  “Nice work, Devin,” Ms. Brown congratulates him. “Do you want to call on anyone to ask you a question?”

Of course, I cannot control myself. I raise my hand. Devin is nice enough to call on me. I share how much I, too, enjoyed this book. I suggest that he would also like Malcolm X.

Michelle reads next about her book, My Sister’s Keeper. Some discussion involves the movie, and Michelle insists that the book is better because the movie “Hollywood-ized” the ending. “You have to read the book.” Ms. Brown cuts the discussion short. “I’m so happy that everyone wants to participate, but we have such limited time. You are all doing a great job. Michael is next.”
He begins to read his report and a student calls out. “Wait, you are telling the ending.” Ms. Brown stops him and asks him to re-read his report without giving away the revealing parts. Molly reads about Lovely Bones, and then it’s time to pull names from the envelope. RJ’s name goes up on the board. He looks uncomfortable, but with an encouraging look from Ms. Brown, he begins to read his book about Marvin Gaye.

Alina reads her paper about A Child Called It, and everyone focuses on her comments. This has obviously been a favorite book. Another student reads about Coraline. Ayla reads about The Hunger Games, and Mark can’t control his enthusiasm. “She is so smart. I just love her and what she says.”

A student writes about her book choice from the Reading Zone

I feel more sadness than the students when this wonderful publishing party ends. I’ve loved every minute, including the tea and pie. To see 20 students so completely engaged in their books, and in the sharing, is just a treat. The name of this unit is “The Reading Zone,” and it has clearly taken hold here.

Linda Nathan
February 2011