Friday, February 26, 2010

Learning for Free

Early this week, I attended the best professional development I’ve been to in a long time. During this particular gathering, I wrote furiously. I jotted down book titles and mini lesson ideas. I left eager to get back to the classroom to try out these new ideas.

Now, you’re probably wondering where I was. If you are thinking that I was at Teacher’s College listening to Lucy Calkins or one of her cohorts, guess again. I was in the basement of my own home gathered with a group of colleagues who love literacy.

This week we focused on teaching with picture books. After talking with my colleagues, I can’t wait to go out and buy Car Wash by Sandra Steen so that I, too, can use it with young children to teach visualization and interesting word choice. I am looking differently at my own copy of Roller Coaster by Marla Frazee. Before, I always saw it as a great text for teaching noisy words, now I see its potential for teaching young writers about small moments. We looked at several of Charlotte Zolotow’s books and I learned about Say It, a book with a great ending, a crafting strategy I’ve been researching how to teach better. I teach a comprehension monitoring strategy called “Does it make you go EW” and I learned about a title written by Jennifer Rapp called Misery is a Smell in Your Backpack. This book will be another great text to use to model this strategy to growing readers.

As you can see, this was a productive and engaging conversation—exactly what I expect from good professional development. I very often encounter teachers who lament that there is not enough money in their school budgets to attend workshops or to do the learning that helps them become better teachers. When you’re feeling that way, remember that good PD doesn’t have to cost a lot. Assemble some like-minded colleagues around a table with a pile of picture books and go through them one-by-one. Take turns talking about how you use different books in your classroom. You’ll walk away with lots of new ideas and the only thing it will cost you is time.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Under the Radar

I sometimes worry over vacation weeks that I won’t have anything to blog about because my link to teachers and students is cut. Silly me. I forget that this is the age of technology and while I may not be in schools and classrooms, access to great teaching minds is only a click away.

The International Reading Association has launched a new radio broadcast feature that invites renowned thinkers in the area of literacy to speak briefly on an important topic related to the teaching of reading or writing. This month, Kathy Hsu, former president of the IRA spoke about culturally responsive education. At first, I was scared. It sounded like an ivory tower topic. I wasn’t sure how relevant it would be to my work. Boy, was I pleasantly surprised!

Kathy Hsu got me thinking a lot about share time during reading and writing workshop. We all know those students who can’t say enough when we pose questions to the class or ask them to reflect on their learning. But there are others, you know them, too, the ones who prefer to fly under the radar. Left to their own devices, these children would never say anything and we leave the lesson unsure if they understood any of the points we were talking about.

In this brief, ten minute talk, Kathy Hsu highlighted very practical suggestions about share time. She talked about “pair share” and “quick share” and clearly explained what these approaches would look like. I’ve always been a big fan of “turn and talk” but her ideas will help me to shore up the way I implement this in the classroom. After listening, I was so inspired, I felt like I had to write immediately to coax all of you to check it out too. When you have a few moments, go to and listen to what Kathy has to say. Let me know if she will influence the way you ask children to share too!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Book Labs

Exhausted from nearly two hours of snowball fights and fort building, my six year old son and his six year old friend settled into my basement for some quiet time. Nathan and Emily are in the same class with a teacher who LOVES Mo Willems. These two children have fallen in love with Pigeon and Elephant and Piggie. In fact, they love these characters so well, their coveted day off became a time to write their own “Mo Willems” stories. For nearly three hours, they toiled at the work of writing. They borrowed Pigeon and Elephant and Piggie as characters for their own books. They introduced these beloved friends to Icey, a character from their own imaginations and crafted storylines and plots about friendship that Mo Willems might want to borrow.

As they wrote, they babbled to each other about this and that, and shamelessly, I eavesdropped. Emily talked about how “Pigeon really changed in her story.” Nathan talked about how he wasn’t sure how to spell words like “talk” and “sacrifice” but he was “saying them slowly” and “writing them the best he could.” Their books included blurbs on the back inviting readers to “read more to find out” and dedication pages. They wrote notes to each other responding to what they thought about each others’ books.

And at some point during this flurry of creation, a sign appeared on the entryway to my basement. It read: Book Lab.

Laboratories are places that value experimentation. In laboratories, questions are investigated and techniques refined. It is a place that has all of the tools that inquisitive minds need in order to follow their inquiries and take their learning to new heights.

I think Emily and Nathan coined a new phrase that embodies the heart of writing workshop: Book Lab. I think we could all benefit by learning from these young writers and create environments that invite the same curiosity, observation, and inquiry about writing.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Whole Class Novel: A Worthwhile Trade?

I am still thinking about the fourth grade class that I recently visited that was struggling with book choice. You might remember that I told you that “I dusted off an old, whole class set of Shiloh tucked on a shelf.” For this lesson, it was convenient that these books were lying around. When the children shared why the book interested them and why it didn’t, each student was able to relate and contribute to the conversation. Looking at the same book unified our discussion. Like I said, very convenient.

But, after this lesson ended, I couldn’t stop thinking about this class set of books. Once upon a time, these books were used as “the whole class novel.” The teacher passed them out, the students took turns reading aloud or read assigned chapters silently to themselves. On occasion, the teacher would read aloud. The class talked about the book and sometimes, they completed packets with comprehension questions and activities—Shiloh word finds and Shiloh vocabulary crossword puzzles.

Most of the teachers I know have wisely abandoned this practice, but some fiercely defend it. “We have great conversations,” I am told. “How else will students know what to notice in their books,” I am asked.

I don’t mean to be disparaging because I have experienced great conversations spawned from a shared text. However, I have a question to the whole class novel die-hards: What becomes of the eight students in my fourth grade class who felt for a number of reasons that Shiloh was not right for them? Several of these readers think it is too hard…and they are right. They are struggling readers. What message do I send when I say, “sorry, you have to read it anyway?”

I’ll tell you what these kids are thinking: I’m stupid. I hate reading. Reading is boring.

In What Really Matters for Struggling Readers Richard Allington writes, “ I know of no evidence that suggests that any curriculum plan that had all children working in the same books…ever produced high achievement in children.” With no research to support the whole class novel, it is difficult to condone a practice that might have a detrimental impact on a student’s passion for reading. In my mind, encouraging reluctance and perpetuating failure isn’t worth the few periods of teacher dominated conversation.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Perfect Match

Without fail, each time I visit a school, I encounter teachers exasperated by chronic book abandoners, students insistent upon reading books that are too hard, and kids whining that reading is boring. These complaints stem back to the same central issue: book choice. Good teachers know that when books don’t fit, readers can’t do what they need most in order to improve: read more pages, more often. It’s no wonder teachers are exasperated! This is just too important to ignore!

So, what are we to do?

My answer has been to remain vigilant about teaching children how to choose books. This week (and mind you, this is FEBRUARY), I revisited the importance of previewing a book with a group of fourth graders. I modeled how to think about the front cover, the back cover, and reminded them to look inside. For guided practice, I dusted off a whole class set of Shiloh tucked on a shelf and asked the group to think about whether this would be a just right book for them.

I was amazed by what happened next.

Not one student—not one—finished previewing that book in under seven minutes. I watched as they touched the front cover and turned the book over. They looked inside and read a few pages. When we were done, eight students concluded that this book would not be good for them and cited reasons like “there’s so much I already don’t understand” and “I think it will take too long for me to read.” These are valid reasons not to read a book. And these are things that can’t be determined in the thirty seconds that I typically see students take to choose books.

For those of you among the ranks of the exasperated, I urge you to keep chipping away at the book choice stone. Know that just because you taught it in September and again in October, what children need to know about how to choose wisely cannot be taught in a few finite lessons. If we want children who read with passion and intention, we must stress the importance of knowing how to find the perfect match.

If you want to try this lesson, too, feel free to download my Lesson Plan, “Ways to know what a book holds in store for you by previewing it.”

Monday, February 1, 2010

Learning Season

For me, learning doesn’t have a season. So long as I am living and breathing, I am learning. And I am always seeking opportunities to learn.

Every three weeks I gather with my study group colleagues, a mix of five classroom teachers, a reading specialist, and myself, a consultant, to share ideas and talk “shop.” Through our conversations, we sift through problems and synthesize new information into new ideas. It’s so stimulating that I always leave thinking “EVERYBODY should do this!”

As fate will have it, for those interested, we will be sharing the result of some of our thinking at Eastern Suffolk BOCES’ upcoming Literacy and Learning Institute on March 19 and 20. Danielle Erardy and Kim Mielenhausen have prepared a thoughtful presentation on helping readers delve deeper for intermediate and middle school teachers. Leah Weissinger will talk to primary grade teachers with her colleague Anne Morris about teaching comprehension to our youngest readers. And I will be presenting a series of mini lessons appropriate for upper elementary and middle school classrooms on comprehension monitoring. We are all so excited and hope that you will join us.

In addition, I wanted to let everybody know that in conjunction with Western Suffolk and Nassau BOCES, I will be presenting all-day workshops on the following:

• THAT’S Understanding! They’re Reading But do They Get It? Strategies for Helping Children Monitor their Reading for Understanding
February 26: Western Suffolk BOCES
March 15: Nassau BOCES

• Structures that Support Strong Reading Workshops: Planning Effective Mini Lessons, Conferences, and Small Group Instruction
March 22: Western Suffolk BOCES

The titles are long and scary, but I promise, these days are fun and invigorating! I hope to see you all soon!