Friday, May 29, 2009

For the Love of Learning

I cannot teach anybody anything.
I can only make them think.

A few weeks ago I saw Peter Johnston, an Education professor at SUNY Albany and author of a great little book called Choice Words, speak at a conference I attended. On that day, he said many profound things that I am still thinking about including this, “Who cares if kids love books? I want them to love what books can do for them.”

This makes me think a lot about my own reading life. I love books. There is no question about this. My favorite way to spend a Saturday is browsing Barnes and Noble. I can lose myself for hours meandering from section to section, cracking spines and skimming backs of books.

That said, I don’t just love books. I love what is inside of books. Last week I finished A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink. After reading this book, I couldn’t stop thinking about right brain thinking. I started collecting metaphors. I wanted to run to Avalon in Stony Brook so I could walk the labyrinth chanting a word like hope or faith to see what creative things might come from me. Over vacation I read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and met my all-time favorite book character—Hans Hubermann. How I wish that man were real! What a kind and gentle soul. He made me think hard about humanity and circumstance.

Peter Johnston was right. Inasmuch as I love books, I love what books do for me. They make me think. They make me wonder. They make me question my world. I love anything that makes me do those things. Talking with my colleagues makes me think and wonder and question. Seeing people like Peter Johnston makes me think and wonder and question.

Learning is pervasive and never ending. Teachers know this better than anybody. How are you planning to think and learn over the upcoming summer? Are there books that you are excited to read? Are you planning to take a course? If you’re not sure, know that there will be lots of thinking going on in August at Literacy Builders’ summer workshops and everybody is invited to join! For information, visit

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Book Emergencies

My third grade son was very into the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series a couple of months ago. He started the first book on a Friday night and stayed up late reading. That Saturday, we had some errands to run, one of which included the bookstore. He read in the car and was more than halfway through book one when we arrived at Barnes and Noble. As we shopped, he made a beeline for the Jeff Kinney display and came back with books two and three in hand. He insisted we buy them both because he would be done soon and what if we didn’t have them? Heaven and bliss, we had a book emergency.

Sadly, Matthew has long since finished the Wimpy Kid series. He occasionally picks up his do-it-yourself book and makes an entry, but that burning hot desire to read has cooled. I watched him staring at the pages of his book last night. He’d glance out the window then back at the page. After twenty minutes, he’d read six pages—clearly his Night at the Museum book didn’t warrant the undivided attention that Greg Heffley got. As a mom and a reading teacher, I am longing for more book emergencies.

What is it that really ignites passion in young readers? This is a question that I am asked all the time but struggle with myself. I do know that the more children know about what’s out there to read, the more inclined they are to read it. So perhaps, the secret lies in talking more about books. Is there a book or series that went “viral” in your classroom this year? Let me know because summer is right around the corner and I am hoping to refuel a reading fervor.

Friday, May 15, 2009

CAN’T They?

The cold air ____________________my neck. How would you fill in the blank?

I’ve been working with a group of first grade poets and I posed the same question to them. In my head, I considered the words “blew on” and “breathes on.” My first grade friends came up with those words too but they also came up with “kisses,” “tickles,” and “stings.” When I brought this question to these young writers, I had preselected “breathes on” as the best choice for what I was trying to say. After talking to them, they made me reconsider. “Sting” was, by far, the BEST word for the image I was trying to create. I planned to teach these first graders something new about word choice and walked away having learned more than I could have ever taught them.

A colleague recently shared a story of a college professor who postulated in a graduate school class that first graders weren’t really capable of writing poetry. When she shared that story, all I could think about were these first graders. They write things like “the snake slithers like a worm” and “my guinea pig, my own little prairie dog, he’s so fast like lightening!” By virtue of being a child, they find poetry in everything. They are awed by things that stopped being beautiful to adults a long time ago. First graders can’t write poetry? Only if we grown-ups tell them they can’t. Otherwise, their words capture the poetry of the world perfectly.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Creatures of Habit

Today is Mother’s Day. I had grandiose visions of sleeping in till 9:00 and eating breakfast in bed off a tray filled with flowers and adoring letters from my children. But, here I sit at 6:30 AM dressed in my sweats and sneakers ready for my morning walk—why? Because that is my routine. That is what I do every day.

I visited a kindergarten this week. I taught a brief lesson on what to do when you are stuck and don’t know what to write. After my lesson, I took a risk and simply said, “Now, I’d like you to go get started on your own writing.” In a classroom of five and six year old writers, you might have expected chaos—a mad dash to the folders, confusion until everybody found something to write with, but no, that is not what happened. It was quiet and orderly. The children quickly gathered their materials and sat down to write. As I began to confer with them about their work, they talked to me about their “drafts,” “stretching out words,” and “brainstorming their planning pages.” They easily sustained twenty minutes of independent writing and could have gone longer except for the fact that I stopped them because I was leaving and wanted time to share.

Such language, organization, and stamina during writing workshop. How is this possible? I wondered. And then I realized. In this classroom, writing is valued by the teacher. Every day since the first day of school, they have had writing workshop. Their language is so impressive because the teacher uses this language when she teaches them. The transition from mini lesson to independent writing time is so smooth because each day for the 150 odd days that they have come to this classroom the teacher has set expectations for how to gather their materials and get started in order to make the most out of the time they are given. They can sustain long periods of writing because they have practiced and because they have been taught that their words matter. They know that they have important things to say. Writing Workshop is an integral part of their day. It is a routine is ingrained into their being—just like me and my sneakers.