Monday, October 25, 2010

You are What You Read

On Friday, October 29th, Scholastic is launching You Are What You Read, an initiative for people to think about and reflect on which five books have shaped their lives. When I first read about this, I was intrigued. I found myself thinking back over many, many years trying to figure out which books have molded me into the person that I am. My memories of childhood reading are somewhat limited because I was a sporadic reader. When I’d finished Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume by fourth and fifth grade, I didn’t read again till eighth grade when I discovered V.C. Andrews. After that, I didn’t read again until I was a sophomore. At that time I got into The Clan of the Cave Bear (Amazon Affiliate Link) series and fell in love with Ayla and all things Neanderthal (maybe that explains my high school boyfriend?)

But shaped me as a person? Certainly these books entertained me, but they didn’t leave me in a state of pensive reflection. In fact, I can’t help but think that as a child, reading was a bit passive for me. When I finished a book, I slammed the cover shut and when outside to play. It has only been in adulthood that I have discovered the lingering effects of reading. Now, it seems that everything I pick up moves me and changes me in both small and big ways. Now, narrowing it down to five is difficult. However, after much thought, these are the five titles that make me who I am:

Who Moved my Cheese by Dr. Spencer Johnson
Who Moved My Cheese (Amazon Affiliate Link) came into my life at exactly the time I needed it to. A few years back, my career felt at a crossroads. My children were reaching school age and I wondered if I wanted to go back into the classroom or continue working as a staff developer. As a staff developer, I felt I had been talking the same game for five years and what I had to offer was getting stale. Who Moved My Cheese gave me a new way to look at and think about making change and helped me to realize that my block of cheese was whittling away and the time had come to find new cheese. Reading this book unleashed in me an intense quest for new “cheese” that I am hoping never ends…

What Really Matters for Struggling Readers  (Amazon Affiliate Link) by Richard Allington
On my quest for new cheese, I found this book. Never has one book ever clarified in such simple terms what needs to change and happen in order to help children on the path to greater reading proficiency. In this book, Richard Allington spells out what children need to become more proficient: Books that match their ability level, practice (lots of it), and expert guidance. As far as books go, for me, this one was transformational. Now, every lesson I teach mirrors these tenets.

Outliers (Amazon Affilate Link) by Malcom Gladwell
Richard Allington told me that practice is really important if we want to help children become more proficient readers, but in Outliers, Malcom Gladwell sealed the deal. I have always felt a bit envious of the super talented and the super successful. Why not me, I’d wonder and shake my head at picking the short straw in the “gifts” department. Nothing has ever compelled me more or helped me to reach new understandings about how the cards fall more than Outliers. Malcom Gladwell helped me to realize that talent and success are more the result of hard work and proximity than they are luck of the draw.

A Whole New Mind (Amazon Affiliate Link) by Daniel Pink
In the way that Malcom Gladwell helped me to think differently about success, Daniel Pink helped me think differently about everything. As I read this book, I felt a call to action. While I think Daniel Pink meant to speak to a wide audience of service providers and business people, I couldn’t help but wonder what we need to do differently in education “to think outside of the box.” Daniel Pink showed me what can happen when we think and do things differently. The results can be transformational. I embrace reform because of this book.

Hey World, Here I Am (Amazon Affiliate Link) by Jean Little
In the spirit of looking with “a whole new mind,” this is the book that never ceases to surprise me of its potential. Of all the books I have listed here, this is the one I have known the longest. It has been a text that I have used since the inception of my career. It is filled with stories that I keep going back to for the purpose of demonstrating absolutely everything and anything I need to. Every time I read these little vignettes, I see new possibilities. I love it because I couldn’t teach without it.

So, these are the titles that have shaped me. Now I want to know, which titles have molded you?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Rome wasn’t built in a day…

The Literacy Builders community has been thinking a lot about classroom environment and its impact and effect on teaching and learning.  At the beginning of the school year, we heard from Kathy Merlino, a second grade teacher from Islip, New York about her travails and triumphs with going deskless.  This week, Cara Newman, a fourth grade teacher from Plainedge, New York, shares her “hybrid” approach to the “deskless” classroom. 

I’ve been a teacher for 8 years now and one aspect of teaching that I have always struggled with is classroom setup. Every year I enter my classroom over the summer, set the desks up in tables of 4-8 desks, put the teacher desk off to the corner somewhere and then wait for the students to come in, in order to see if the classroom set up works.  It wouldn’t be long until I stayed after school and re-arranged the classroom again, this time hoping it would work. Through all of this re-arranging I wanted to achieve a “homier” feeling but that wasn’t going to work with a minimum of 22 desks taking up the classroom space and current fire codes.

At the end of last year I asked my principal if I could get rid of all desks and set up my classroom with just tables. I had a dream classroom in my mind and I couldn’t wait to set it up. Unfortunately, the answer was “no”. My husband and I then went into my classroom at the end of the summer to set up and while moving each desk into tables I was so upset that once again my classroom would be mediocre and not have the “homey” feeling I was craving. I left knowing this set up wouldn’t last all year but didn’t know how I could fix it with the desks in the way. The classrooms that I read about over the summer, in books such as Classroom Management In Photographs (Amazon Affiliate Link) by Maria L. Chang and Spaces & Places: Designing Classrooms for Literacy (Amazon Affiliate Link) by Debbie Diller seemed so unachievable.

As the school year began I launched Daily Five, Math Workshop, Science and Enrichment. My kids are allowed to move anywhere in the classroom when they are working and very often the desks would be empty. Something had to be changed! The desks couldn’t take up the prime real estate in the classroom when they weren’t being used 75% of the time. Keeping my principals “no” in my head I had to think of a creative way where each kid would still have their own desk, although may not be where they sit all the time.

With the help of the math teacher, who was also looking for a more manageable way to do Math Workshop, we sat down and drew out a floor plan. Together after school we moved the furniture in the classroom and came up with a plan that I think may work. Half of the desks in the classroom were moved to the outside parameters and now half of the children are sitting at tables while the other half is still at desks. I have 11 desks, 1 hexagon table of 6, and two circle tables of 4. The children sitting at the tables have two places where they can put their materials. Since their desks are arranged on the outside of the classroom flat against the wall, open side facing out, they are still available for storage. Also, each table has a crate for materials. We use a "tool book" basically a big binder with everything in it and this is the only item they need for the day. The children at the tables have also taken it upon themselves to put pencils in a common supply box, along with stacking their independent reading books in various areas. I love how every time I look at the tables the kids have come up with a new idea.

In order to avoid parent or student complaints we talked a lot about "good fit" spots and how they can try both the tables and desks to see what they like better. We spoke about how trying different things is good and sometimes change is for the better. No child has to sit at either a desk or table. I am glad I didn't get rid of the desks because now the option is still there for the children who want them. Some kids came in the first day very upset when they saw the new arrangement and were like "I don't want to sit at table!" I made sure they knew they didn't have to. I also had a child who was agonizing over the decision of whether or not he wanted to sit at a table. I told him not to worry about it and try the table for a day. He said he would next week. At the end of the day I looked at his desk and found a post it with a note on it that he wrote to himself, “Next week I will try a table”. When I questioned him about the note he said he didn’t want to forget that he wanted to try the table when he walked into school on Tuesday. A lot of Daily Five is about student choice and I think because they are being given the choice and opportunity to be a part of the classroom set up, they are more opt to respect their area, the classroom, materials, and the new arrangement.

Some of the positive aspects of this change are: the classroom is bigger, there is more room for everyone to move around, children's seats are no longer bumping into each other, children have personal space, kids sitting at the tables are not worrying about the next step (taking out a book before I say so), I've taught more lessons where kids are on the carpet, I have a common area for group work and we now have only one meeting area instead of two. I've also found the classroom to quieter. This is all in only one week.

Things I need to still work on... some of the children at desks can not see the Smartboard from their seat, if more kids want to sit at the table and/or desks there is not enough room, switches need to be made but that may not be an option, and I need to get use to all of the movement with kids getting up to get materials (I am thinking about putting tennis balls on the legs of the chairs). We also need to work on our transitions.

It has been an interesting week one and I look forward to improving the classroom set up as we move forward. As my dad once reminded me when I moved into my college dorm and wanted everything to be set up at once, “Rome was not built in a day” and neither are our classrooms.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Rescuing Picture Books from Extinction

On October 7th The New York Times ran an article titled Picture Books No Longer Staple for Children. When I saw this article, my eyes bugged out of my head. I had to look twice. Could it be? On the very day that people were banding together to read the Ezra Jack Keats’s classic The Snowy Day (Amazon Affiliate Link) to break the record for the most people reading the same book in a day, was this article to imply that picture books are at risk of becoming an endangered species?

After reading the article, I am disappointed to report that yes, indeed, this was an article reporting sluggish sales of this beloved genre. Good journalists don’t leave out the why and The Times cited some reasons for the decline: “Parents have begun pressing their kindergarteners and first graders to leave behind the picture book and move to more text heavy chapter books….Publishers cite pressures from parents who are mindful of increasingly rigorous standardized testing in schools.”

I nearly cried. Picture books a casualty of our test crazed culture? This is a crime against literacy that can only be exonerated through an unyielding crusade to educate the masses of the formidable value of picture books in children’s reading growth and development.

So, as a self-appointed ambassador in this crusade, I want to share the following anecdote.

When my son entered third grade, he was a proficient, but reluctant, Level M reader. As his mom, I felt it was my duty to “challenge” him. For at-home independent reading, I laid out my collection of Magic Tree House books and said, “Pick one.” Dutifully he did and retired to the den to do his “homework” that required him to read for 20 minutes. I peeked in on him as he read and saw that he had sprawled himself out on the floor. He was rolling around and every five minutes or so, he’d yell, “Am I done yet?” He flipped through the pages and counted the chapters and clearly, he was disengaged.

A few days later, he sauntered into my office while I was busy working. I looked up from my desk to see that he had picked up a book. I watched as he flipped through the pages studying the pictures and then…heaven and bliss, he began to read. When it was time for him to go, he walked out of my office with his nose still in the book…reading.

I couldn’t believe it. Two days before I was engaged in the interminable struggle of forcing reading on my son and now he was reading…voluntarily? What had prompted the change?

The book my son chose to read on this occasion was a Berenstain Bears picture book. He loved the brightly colored illustrations and he loved that he could sit down and finish the book in one sitting. When I offered him my entire collection and informed him that it would be just fine for him to read these books for homework, I had an eager reader.

Some parents would argue that I had done a disservice to my son because he was, well, capable of more than babyish picture book reading. You can imagine their surprise when I tell them that The Berenstain Bear book that my son was reading was a level M, the very same level as those Magic Tree House books I was pushing. And what’s more, my son was experiencing success and joy as a reader. THAT’S what makes children into readers. When kids want to read, they read lots. When they read lots, they get better. Chapter books don’t make them better. Reading makes them better.

This week, my question looms large. What will you do to protect picture books from being a victim of standardized testing? How will you spread the word that picture books are important and valuable in the development of strong, eager, and proficient readers?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Importance of Talk and Collaboration

Tired and weak from a sleepless night of coughing and waking to blow my nose to achieve five minute increments of clear breathing, I spent this past Saturday in an unusual way—idle.  I sipped tea, sucked lozenges, and burrowed under the covers…with my computer on my lap.  I spent the day surfing the web and mining little gems here and there. 

One “find” that I came across was a podcast by Jennifer Allen, a literacy coach from Maine and Franki Sibberson, a library media specialist from Ohio.  These are two of my favorite educators and I jumped at the chance to listen to them talk together.  In this brief interview, Franki queried Jenn about her work as a coach, specifically the job of helping veteran teachers outgrow their best ideas.  It was interesting to hear her ideas about working with teachers to perfect their craft after so many years and if you’re interested in hearing what she had to say, you can listen to the podcast or read that transcript at  What stuck with me, however, was the notion that Jenn shared that in order to refine their practice, the thing that veteran teachers crave most is “collaboration and talk.” 

Hours after first listening to this intriguing conversation, I found myself watching an interesting TED video featuring Dr. Sugata Mitra from India.  As an educational researcher, Dr. Mitra has done some ground-breaking work about how people learn and people’s motivation for learning.  He’s famous for putting computers with internet access in slum walls and rigging up video cameras to watch what poor, undereducated children do with this technology with little to no instruction. Fascinatingly, these children played with it until they figured it out.  Dr. Mitra discovered that once one gets it, he shares with others.  How did these children learn?  Through collaboration and talk. 

For me, a theme was clearly emerging.  People, not just veteran teachers, crave collaboration and talk.  When we talk to others, we merge our thinking in ways that leads us to important “a-has”  that inevitably expand our minds.  As our minds expand, we refine our thinking which leads us to be more productive—no matter our practice or trade.

As a staff developer, I work with a lot of teachers who crave the opportunity to collaborate and talk with others.  It is a common lament that there simply isn’t enough time to sit down to share ideas.  And the bottom line is, they’re right. 

That said, that’s not an excuse not to talk and collaborate.  Technology has given us the tools we need to extend our conversations beyond the walls of our classrooms..  Any teacher wanting to engage thought-provoking conversation can log on to the internet and venture into the world of educational chats and discussion boards to engage in amazing collaboration and talk.    If you don’t know where to go, I suggest starting at the Literacy Builders Discussion Boards.  Our boards are ready and waiting for you to share your thinking.  This week I added an “issues in reading workshop” thread that I hope you will log on and contribute to.  While you’re there, check out the other threads as well and become part of collaborative community that wants to help all of us feed our innate desire to talk in order to “outgrow our best ideas.”