Thursday, October 29, 2009

Unwrapping the Gift of Understanding

This week, I began a conversation with a fourth grade reader with, “So tell me what you know about the main character.” He said, “Well, she has a friend named Justin and has a mean girl named Hannah in her class.”

Do you notice? These are peripheral details about the character in his book.

So I probed further. He went on to tell me about what happens in her class and her teacher’s name and then after I prompted a third time “anything else you can tell me about her?” the floodgates opened. He told me that his main character is forgetful (like him, he said), she thinks she’s mature (which she’s really not, according to him), and she’s the kind of character who’s always getting into trouble.

For me, the lesson in all of this is that it took time to get this reader to a level of understanding that got him excited. I had to ask him three times to think about his character. With each probe, he thought about the character more. Slowly but surely, he arrived at new and deeper understandings about his character.

When I shared this experience with a group of colleagues, one teacher observed how this reader’s thinking unfolded in layers, “like opening a gift,” she said. Ever since she said that, I can’t stop picturing this in my head. Presents get better and better as you unwrap them. We’re eager to open the box and tear the pretty paper but once we see what’s inside, that’s when we really get excited. Understanding is a lot like that. It doesn’t always happen in teacher time with the first question we ask. Sometimes, we have to keep going.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

You Can’t Hurry Book Choice

Today I worked closely with a reader who was trying to choose a book. When I approached him, I sensed that he was somewhat reluctant. He struck me as the kind of child who would spend his entire reading time choosing a book if it meant he could avoid actually reading. My instinct was to take the “Hurry up, get a book, get back to your seat, and get busy reading approach.”

Then it occurred to me.

Reluctant readers very often don’t know what to choose because they don’t know what’s out there. Sure, I could rush Billy, but to what end? What will I have taught him about book choice? About stamina? About good readership?

So, I decided to invest the time to carefully guide Billy’s book choice. We scoured the classroom library together. As we thumbed through books, I told him about titles and authors that we encountered, eliminating things that weren’t of interest as we went along. Before long, we had narrowed his choices down to a small stack of possibilities.

As it turned out, Billy did avoid the entire reading period making his book selection. However, he now has a book he is excited about reading. In fact, he chose two books that he is excited about reading. Had I hurried him, he might have chosen something to placate me and I’d be happy for now, but he wouldn’t. And he’d be back in the classroom library tomorrow.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Simplifying Book Choice

At this time of the year, I am privy to a lot of conversations about book choice. Helping match readers to books is one four guiding principles of good reading instruction closely linked to two of the other tenets: read more often, read more pages. It seems so simple: The sooner we empower children to make good choices, the quicker we send them on their way to greater reading proficiency…

If only it were that easy.

In reality, book choice is layered with perplexing issues. From book shopping to abandoning books to figuring out what interests you as a reader, it is a topic that needs to be visited and revisited.

Recently a group of teachers presented me with a logistical problem centering on book choice: When is the best time for students to go book shopping? Do I send them all at once or should I send them in small groups?

In the third grade classroom that I visited today, the children normally shop for books on Monday (the day of my visit). Instead of worrying about managing a class full of students mulling around the library all at once, I brought two strips of poster board with me. One was labeled “still reading,” the other was titled “need new now.” As I entered the classroom, I invited the children to jot their name down on an index card and passed around my poster board strips and asked them to clip their name to whichever title best applied to their needs as a reader. In less than two minutes I knew that Evan and Kirana needed to shop for books and the rest of the class was comfortably settled with what they were reading. We got busy with our mini lesson and our workshop went off without a hitch.

In response to those teachers who ask, “When is the best time to go book shopping?” I respond, “whenever they need new books.” When it becomes an issue that children are without books or always in need of a new book, those are the layers I eluded to before—we address them as the need arises.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Guiding Principles of Good Reading Instruction

How do we help children become better readers? This question drives many of the conversations that we have during the course of the year. Inasmuch as it is a national discussion, it is also a district, building, and parent discussion. Everybody wants to know: how can we help children to read better?

As long as we have children who struggle, there will always be ongoing research to fine tune our understanding of how children learn to read. In the meantime, there is already a great deal of research that addresses this very important issue. When I think about how to help children become better readers, I think in terms of four guiding principles:
1. Create opportunities for children to read more often
2. Encourage children to read more pages
3. Help match books to readers
4. Provide expert instruction

If you find yourself questioning how to help children become better readers, consider planning instruction according to these principles. The first two tenets speak to reading volume. As you plan reading lessons, ask: Do I provide time for practice? How much are my students actually reading? Couple that with “Are my children reading books that are too hard?” and you have addressed three quarters of the reading puzzle.

Broken down like this, teaching everybody to read doesn’t seem like such an insurmountable task.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Good vs. Great Instruction

This week when I visited a teacher to do a demonstration lesson in reading workshop, the teacher said, “I love it when you come in because it gives me time to watch my students. When you teach, I notice things about how they respond and how they think that I never noticed before.”

This conversation continued and we talked about how those noticings influence our teaching decisions. Who needs to learn what? How should I group them? Who’s getting it? Who needs follow-up?

Our jobs as teachers demand a lot from us. At the end of each day, we are all worn pretty thin from teaching seven different lessons, managing behavior, and ushering students to and from the far corners of the buildings we work in. There barely seems to be enough time to get through the plans we made for our immediate day let alone making time to reflect on them.

But I can’t help but remember what my colleague said, “I notice things about how they respond and think.” These revelations help us to plan instruction that makes a difference in children’s learning. Granted, it is easier to turn to the teacher manual and deliver the lesson that comes up next in the program but can we neglect to factor in what our observations and experiences tell us about what children need to know?

Teaching is a frenetic business and while I hate to add one more thing to an already full plate of things to do, I ask you to think about making time to reflect. What we learn might be the difference between good and great instruction.

Our lives as teachers are busy. Very busy. We know that good instruction relies on us reflecting on what our students need as readers and writers; however, when do we do that? On our prep? During lunch? In the car on the way to and from school? It seems like everything needs to fit into the cracks if it is going to get a check on the list of things to do.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Teaching Revisions

During the past few weeks, I have been helping to launch the writer’s workshop in several classrooms. We are up to choosing seeds. For years, I have been fielding questions like “what do you mean I have to write more about an idea?” and “I know which idea I like best, but once I choose it, what do I do with it?” I enter into this knowing this is a difficult move for young writers; so this year, I resolved to approach it differently.

My first change will be to develop this concept over several days. I began today by having children reread their notebooks. As they reread, they wrote one to two words that summed up the content of each entry on post-its. When they completed that, I asked the children to think about whether each idea felt “worth mentioning” or “worth discussing.” This was a new step for me and I was amazed at the result.

By adding this new layer, children began to talk about which ideas felt “done” and which ones they knew they could talk more about. Some kids didn’t have any ideas worth discussing. They knew without me telling them that they would need to write more entries. Others narrowed down their many ideas to two or three worth discussing. Those writers are getting closer to choosing an idea that will become something bigger and different.

I have been teaching seed choice for sixteen years and today, I feel like I discovered a new path to what is at the heart of this concept. Sixteen years feels like a long time to get it right, but what I am realizing is that teaching is a lot like writing. Getting it “right” isn’t the ultimate goal. It’s about seeing bigger possibilities and making it better.