Letter to Parents

Over the course of my not-that-old-as-of-yet career, I have had the opportunity to curate a fairly impressive classroom library. We have close to 1,000 titles available for my high school students. As there is often some concern from parents and other educators when students are given that many choices, I decided to be proactive and send a letter home to my students’ parents addressing this concern.

When I decided to send a letter, though, I didn’t know where to start. Fortunately, Kate Messner and Penny Kittle have posted their letters online, and those both gave me great starting points (you’ll notice a lot of similarities between their letters and mine, with mine occasionally using the same phrases — THANK YOU Kate and Penny!). Beth Shaum shared her letter, and that gave me some of the oomph I needed to figure out how to incorporate the Catholic school angle into the letter, as both she and I teach at Catholic schools.

The only feedback I have received has been positive. One of my favorite responses: “We’re pleased to see that we are being thoroughly supported in your approach to [our child’s] education.” What parent wouldn’t want to know they have their teacher’s support in choices regarding their child? I highly encourage to you write a similar letter and send it home. It’s a great way to open communication with your students’ parents at the start of the year as well as addressing some concerns and potentially heading off challenges before they arise.

What follows is the complete text of what I sent home.

Dear Amazing Parent of one of Mr Wyzlic’s Fantastic Students:

I call you amazing because you are. You have brought up and raised a child to high school age. This is not an easy task, and you have done a wonderful job. You have survived the middle school years with your son or daughter! Not an accomplishment to be taken lightly. You have also made the decision and found the resources to send your child to Cardinal Mooney Catholic. I assure you, this is a decision you will be glad of for years to come. I welcome you and your child to my classroom for the 2015-2016 school year. I hope you are all excited as I am.

This classroom serves ninth graders as young as thirteen years old and twelfth graders as old as eighteen. Five years is a big gap, and those are no ordinary five years. The difference between thirteen and eighteen is the difference between Disney Channel and A&E. The difference between first school dances and senior prom. The difference between playing war and being sent to war. The difference between emerging young adult and nearly adult.

These kids are not only different ages, but they arrive at school with different reading levels, different backgrounds, and different experiences that have shaped their lives in both positive and negative ways. They have different needs when it comes to reading.

The book that is perfect for your wide-eyed ninth grade girl isn’t likely to be a good fit for a seventeen-year-old boy. The book that twelfth grader will read and love is probably not one that would be right for your tenth grader right now. But as teachers, we have a responsibility to serve all of the kids who come to us. We have a responsibility to offer literature choices that speak to all of them and meet all of their diverse needs.

Cardinal Mooney is a college preparatory environment. We know that colleges and universities are asking their students to read 200 to 600 pages a week from the start of freshman year (Kittle). Even if your child is only a freshman right now, we need to work their reading capacity up to this level by their senior year. We also know that access to books can be one of the most important factors in reading level, fluency, and volume (Shin). Of course, as with many things, teenagers are going to gravitate towards what they like and work up to what they need. While we have diverse readers, everyone needs to become a reader before they leave our halls. For this reason, I have spent 9 years cultivating and curating a classroom library of nearly 1000 diverse books. I am constantly adding and removing titles based on the needs of my students.

With a library of this size, it is impossible for me to be intimately familiar with every book I have available for the students. I do my best to read widely so I can make as honest a suggestion as I can to our students when they are looking for books. When I haven’t read a book, I read the dust jacket, I look at what the publisher recommends, and I seek out trusted colleagues who have read the book for their thoughts. This helps me maintain a library that can meet the needs of all the students who need the books.

While I do my best to make good recommendations, it is important to keep in mind that kids, in general, do a fantastic job self-selecting books. When they find they’ve picked up something they’re not ready for, they’re usually quick to put it down and ask for help choosing something else. As your child’s teacher, I’ll offer recommendations and steer kids toward books that are age-appropriate, and I encourage you to talk about books with your kids. I have multiple copies of many titles in the classroom library. Let me know if you’d like to check out two copies of a book so you can read together. And if you find that your child has chosen a book that you think might not be the right book for him or her right now, talk about that, too.

I respect your right to help your own child choose reading material, and I ask that you respect the rights of other parents to do the same. I am keenly aware, as I hope you are, that you as the parent are “first responsible for the education of [your] children” (Catholic Church 2223). That places me, as their school teacher, as second responsible at best. If you object to your child reading a particular book, send it back to my library, and I’ll help your child find another selection. I’ll put the first book back on the shelf because even though you don’t feel it’s the right book for your child right now, it may be the perfect book for someone else’s. I would not want to limit the choices available to your family because it’s not the right fit for another family.

One thing I love about teaching at Cardinal Mooney is we don’t have to pretend that our academics are separate from our faith. The two are constantly intertwined. Book choices are, therefore, also intertwined with our faith. For some families, this means something like not reading material that contains plot elements of witchcraft. For others, this means no restrictions on reading materials, but having a discussion about it when there is conflict between what happens in the book and what we believe to be true as Catholics. Most families are somewhere in between these two places. Regardless of your family’s approach, I encourage you to have conversations with your child about the faith and how we can be strong Catholics in a world that sometimes has some rough stuff in it. Sometimes we experience that rough stuff through our life experiences. Sometimes, though, we merely experience it through a book, and that can help prepare us for the bigger, wider world that awaits us.

The thing is, as important as books are to the academic success of our youth, they are equally as important to the emotional well-being of our youth. Books not only develop our empathy for each other, but they also help us find acceptance for ourselves. They can be a comfort in ways few other media can. Video games can be cold and distant. Movies are not as intimate. Books will give the heart a hug. Our teenagers need this in their lives. So I will do everything in my power to help every student who passes through my doorway develop a love of reading. Having a wealth of books to choose from is a crucial part of this. If I can ever be of help to you in recommending titles for your family, please don’t hesitate to ask.

I look forward to a wonderful year of reading, growing, and learning. Thank you for choosing Cardinal Mooney, and for granting me the opportunity to be a part of the education of your child.

In Peace,
Mr. Brian Wyzlic

Works Cited
Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Vatican: Libraria Editrice Vaticana, 2000.
Kittle, Penny. Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2013.
Shin, Fay H., and Stephen D. Krashen. Summer Reading: Program and Evidence. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2008.

Last Night’s Dream

I had a dream last night.

It wasn’t MLK-worthy. So maybe it’s not okay to paraphrase his most famous speech. But I actually had this dream (and maybe he actually had his, too — perhaps I’ll ask him if I get to heaven someday).

In this dream, I was teaching. But it wasn’t a school — more of a big house, and a large community feel. I had one student who was having a really difficult time writing. Eventually, he found something important to write about, and he got to it.

I don’t remember what. I don’t think it was important to me — it was important to him.

Then, we were looking in a mirror together. The only thing of him that was reflected was his head. And he was fascinated by it, practically giggling.

You see, before he had found the drive to write, he had no reflection. He saw nothing of himself.

Once he began to write, he began to find himself. For the first time in his life, he was able to see himself reflected back at him. And he did this through his writing.

The metaphor is so strong here that it’s barely a metaphor at all. Are we giving our students opportunities to find themselves in their writing? Are we helping them see themselves in a new way through their writing?

If not: what are we waiting for?

Week 1 Community Building

I know that there are really two lasting things I want to do in my classroom: 1) help every student become a life-long reader, and 2) help my students build a community. With my freshmen especially, I really work on this second one. There are only a couple teachers they all have, and I’m fortunate enough to be one of them. They also are going to be with each other for 4 years, so they should work from the outset at making those 4 years fantastic.

So for the first week, I have them sit somewhere new each day, helping them just get to know each other a little bit. I put their directions on the screen for when they walk into the room.

Day one: “Without talking, seat yourselves in alphabetical order.” I don’t tell them if I mean by first name or last name. I don’t tell them where to start (my room is in table groups, so this is a hurdle to them). I don’t tell them how to communicate. I also don’t remind them that all of their names are inside their agenda books which they received the day before at orientation and are required to bring to every class.

Because we have students come from many different schools (of our 28 freshman, the largest number from any one school is 6), they have to find ways to communicate. Something pretty cool happens when their voices are taken away. They don’t just go to those whom they know. They’re all in this together, immediately.

Day two: “Sit with the person you got to know for HW. Didn’t get to know someone? You have until the bell rings.” Their HW at the end of day one is to find someone they didn’t go to school with last year and find out 4 things: their name, where they went to school in 8th grade, their favorite book of all-time, and the last book they read and enjoyed. I purposely don’t give them class time for this. It’s up to them to find someone and talk with them in the halls, at lunch, or exchange e-mail addresses or phone numbers.

Our students live far apart (up to 50 miles away from each other), but they also are going to be friends and study partners for the next 4 years. They have to find ways to make this work. Also, when we then do quick introductions the next day, I get the information I want: what books do they like, and have they read any good ones recently? The student who says their favorite book is one that came out in the past year is a reader. The one who says their favorite book is The Very Hungry Caterpillar is either testing me about picture books, the class clown, or hasn’t read a book in years. Perhaps all three. Regardless, this is good for me to know, and also helps them connect as a class.

Day 3: “Sit with someone who’s read your favorite book or whose favorite book you have read.” This gets them thinking back to the previous day and the favorite book conversation. It forces them to talk, and to connect about books. One of my classes even went so far as to move tables together so they could all sit together, as they found they had so many books in common already. Yet in no class had they all read any single student’s favorite book.

This also ties into the grammar instruction I like to sneak in for the first couple weeks: apostrophes and possessives. Pronouns get weird with these concepts, and I want to help my students avoid who’s/whose and it’s/its confusions in their writing.

Day 4 this week was different. Every quarter, my school does what’s called “Stop and Drop.” “Stop and Drop” is a half day for the students where they focus on test prep. We do things like take practice ACT/SAT, have a couple classes about specific skills for those tests, or anything else that doesn’t fit into our normal curricula. For the freshmen, they had quick lessons on note taking, test taking, and stress reduction techniques.

We had a few extra minutes in one of my sessions with them, so I asked them what they liked about our school so far. One of their answers made me wonder if all the community-building I put into our first week was really worth it:
“I like how when we got on the bus on the first day, we didn’t just sit there in silence because we didn’t know each other. Whenever people got on, everyone said ‘hi’ and smiled and we all got to know each other.”

I asked if that was the case on the other bus (we have two buses). They said yes, it was.

These kids get it. It’s going to be a great year :-)

On Presenting

Last week, my school had their week of professional development before the start of classes. I was privileged enough to present two short sessions: one with a coworker on positive relationships, and one on Google Drive to our entire staff.

It was thrilling.

It was just what I needed to prepare for the school year — getting in front of a room of people, and helping them learn a thing.

Of course, it was also quite different from what I do with students. In my stats class, for example, I work with 24 students who come from different backgrounds, who are entering different professions, and who have varying interest and abilities in statistics. I work with them one on one to help each of them find success.

In presenting to my faculty, I have several teachers who come from different backgrounds, but all in the same profession, with similar interest in if not the same ability level in teaching. The presentation style is markedly different.

Not to mention they’re adults.

But it was a lot of fun. And I can’t wait for the chance to do it again.

Year 2; Year 9

Tomorrow is a pretty awesome day, and I’m incredibly excited. At my school, we offer what we call Summer Boot Camp. This is a chance for any student who would like to to come in for a couple hours a day for three days for some focused instruction on any specific areas. So if a student wants to get a little more attention in math, for example, before the school year starts, they can do that. It helps any student who would like it have an extra push before the school year starts.

I’m teaching the English boot camp, and it begins tomorrow. This is the first official teaching capacity I will have with our new students.

It’s here. My second year at this school. My ninth year teaching. It’s upon us. I am both ready and completely not ready — as is always the case, it seems.

But beyond anything, I am excited. HERE WE GO!

Student Interview with Jeff Anderson

Today on the blog, I am glad to share with you a 5-question interview between Joe — one of my 9th graders last year —  and Jeff Anderson, the author of the upcoming Zack Delacruz: Me and My Big Mouth. Joe read a copy of Zack Delacruz back in March, and was excited about it from page one.

He immediately wanted to get in touch with the author. Fortunately, Jeff Anderson is basically made of Awesome, and agreed to answer a few questions of Joe’s.

Check out that amazing cover!

Check out that amazing cover!

Jeff: Hey Joe,
I was happy to hear from one of my first readers. Pretty great how Mr. Wyzlic has lots of books. For me choice really mattered. I struggled as a reader for most of my life. Around your age I started being in plays and had to memorize lines. All that rereading made something click and I read better after that, but it wasn’t really till after college — as a teacher that I fell in love with books and started to want to write one. I always liked to write — for me.

Joe: What inspired you to be an author?
Jeff: To tell you the truth, my childhood wasn’t an entirely happy one. That was one of the reasons I became a teacher — in hopes of making life better for kids by being positive with them. I loved reading aloud to my fourth and fifth graders — actually any of the grades I taught through 8th — and I felt like I had a story to tell. And the particular book was inspired in part by my life, but also the students in my life in San Antonio.

Joe: What inspired you to write Zack Delacruz?
Jeff: I wanted a book my students would want to read. You know, cut out the boring parts. Have a fast pace. I am easily bored as a reader and I wanted something that was fast-paced and funny. I also wanted to see my hispanic and black kids represented in books where they just had normal everyday problems.

Joe: What is your favorite book that you didn’t write?
Jeff: That changes depending on when you ask me. But probably my all time favorite was The Liar’s Club by Mary Carr. It just spoke to my childhood. It was set in the same place I grew up in my early years, so it just resonated with me. I also love Chuck Palahnuik. Sometimes I like nonfiction. Really enjoyed Lawrence Wright’s book about Scientology: Getting Clear.

Joe: Who is your favorite author, other than yourself?
Jeff: See above, but once I was so struck by Cynthia Rylant it’s hard not to think of her when you ask your question.

Joe: Who are your favorite NBA players?
Jeff: Here I am going to fail you, Joe. I could pretend that I care about The Spurs because I live in San Antonio, but as life goes we focus only on what interests us, and I don’t follow basketball at all. If you do, there’s lots out there to read about it though.
Thanks again for the questions, Joe. I hope high school goes great for you.

A big thanks for Joe and Jeff for sharing their conversation with all of us. I love Joe’s subtle humor in his questions (“other than yourself”) and Jeff’s honesty in his answers. Be sure to swing by The Nerdy Book Club, where Jeff Anderson is today’s guest writer. When you’re done with that, be sure to head over to your local bookstore and grab a copy of Zack Delacruz: Me and My Big Mouth, out today!

The Beauty of August

Today is August 1st. For the past couple years, this meant that I would be creating and uploading my first #VEDA video (Vlog Every Day in August). I’m not doing VEDA this year, but August still brings some important things with it:

The nitty-gritty prep work for school
I don’t know if I’ll admit this if you corner me, but I really like prepping for school. I love putting together lessons that I hope will reach my students in new and exciting ways. I love thinking of the books we’ll be sharing that the writing that we’ll be doing. I love thinking up or finding new units to do throughout the year, or new ways of approaching certain concepts.

That’s largely July’s work, though. August is when the rubber meets the road. Maybe in July I thought of a new letter I want to send home with parents. Well, August is when I have to make sure I write and revise that letter. Maybe in July I thought of doing more play-acting or pantomime in the classroom for a softer transition into formal speeches. August is the time to put that together. In July this year, I was spending a lot of time doing big idea planning for a new course I’m teaching, Contemporary Literature & Writing. August is the time when I’ll create the rubrics and the unit overviews and the syllabus.

August is also the time to figure out what I’m going to do with my desk this year (I envy those who go deskless, but haven’t been able to figure out how to make that work with my lack of classroom storage space). Also: how are my student desks going to be arranged? Will the TV be a focal point, or more periphery? How much will I use my whiteboards this year? What will go on the bulletin boards?

I love asking these questions in July, but I love even more answering them in August.

Staff/State/National PD
This year, I’ve been asked to lead a PD for my coworkers on two topics: Google Drive and positive relationships with students. I spent July putting together some outlines, but August is the time to finalize and actually give those presentations. It’s also a time to think about proposals for the Michigan Reading Association conference (proposals due September 30) and begin crafting my NCTE presentation (for November).

The Students!
This year, my school is starting on August 24. Prior to that, I’ll be teaching a summer “boot camp” for those who want a little warm-up to school. This is my absolute favorite time of year. Everyone is refreshed from summer, and I am reminded of why I love my job so much: I get to interact with teenagers on a daily basis. I get to see their smiles and their frustrations and watch them grow into young men and women. It’s an absolute blessing. As much as I need the summer to recharge for the school year, I need the school year to recharge for life.

I can’t wait.

What are you looking forward to in August?

Rabbit, Rabbit.