Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Year in Review: Best of 2010

With the final days of the first decade of the new millennium ticking away, it felt like the perfect time to reflect on the past year. As I reread my weekly posts from 2010, I was glad to find certain posts safely buried in the eternal depths of cyberspace but others, I realized, ignited the feeling I get when I see an old friend—excited at the opportunity to reconnect.

Of the 51 Literacy Builders’ blog posts during 2010, the following rank on my list of top ten favorites for the year. If you’ve been busy and haven’t read them, take a moment and share your thoughts. If you’ve read them and are like me, needing a “boost” to energize the beginning of 2011, enjoy the reread!

10. Rescuing Picture Books from Extinction: Nothing was more appalling to me than the thought that the next casualty of standardized testing could be something as sacred as the picture book.

9. Magic? Or Just Reflective Teaching? Lessons from a Nine Year Old: I learn a lot from observing my own children play. In this particular post, my older son, Matthew, recognized when his own teaching wasn’t working and revised his approach to make it better.

8. Teach them Well: When learning fails, who’s responsible? This is a big question that I find I revisit often.

7. What Would Harry Potter Do?: More lessons from my fifth grade son and Harry Potter. A post about using literature as “imaginative rehearsal” for real life. Is there a better reason for reading?

6. Rethinking Curriculum Refuse: First of all, I like the title but more than that, if you are feeling overwhelmed, this post is great for putting things into perspective.

5. Forgiveness for Going Off the Diet: And as you continue to deal with the overwhelmed feeling brought on by the overflowing plate of Balanced Literacy, this post will help focus the lens to give you still a clearer perspective.

4. Better than the Best: What do Tiger Woods and teaching have in common? This post urges teachers to reflect on their practices and think about what we could do to be better. With resolutions being a big part of the new year, a great piece for jumpstarting conversations about change.

3. How do YOU Peel a Banana?: A favorite because it was the most controversial post on the site this year. Also great for rethinking things that we do “just because.”

2. Education’s Greatest Foe: Complacency: The title says it best, but what I really like about this post is that it ends with questions to help us reflect on and rethink the things we see as best practice.

1. The Reading Checklist Manifesto: It surprises me that this is the post that I selected as my favorite. The beginning is a little bogged down with scholarly quotes from Dr. Atul Gawande, but his whole idea of creating checklists prompted me to come up with a checklist for daily reading instruction that I really like. It’s comprehensive and research-based. In my mind, it sums up what good reading instruction is all about and that is why it earned the title of Best Literacy Builders Blog Post 2010!

In honor of this year’s Best of 2010 post, I created a replica of the checklist to be downloaded and pinned to your bulletin board as a daily reminder to be the best reading teacher you can be! Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Reader + Long Book = Good Reader?

Do you know this scenario?
You have a student who struggles a bit as a reader. When she heads to the classroom library, she picks the longest book that she can find. When you try to steer her towards something a little less daunting, she insists that THIS is the book that she wants to read.

What about this scenario?
You have a student who is a proficient grade level reader. Mom and dad are very proud and want to continue to “challenge” this reader so they take him to the bookstore and find the thickest book in the children’s department, buy it, send him off to school, and insist that this is the reading that this child not only wants to be doing but SHOULD be doing.

While these scenarios are different, they have a thread of similarity running through them: they share the notion that good reading is synonymous with book length.

When I think about how this notion was born, I realize it’s pretty transparent. As emergent and early readers, we look at our reading role models (parents, teachers, older siblings). We notice that their reading is infinitely longer than the Dick and Jane books that we are reading. It seems like those readers, the ones we want to be like, are toting around much bigger books—they are longer, they are thicker, they have more words, the print is tinier. Those readers are way better than us, so therefore, when we are able to read stuff that looks like that, that must mean we, too, are good readers.

In the same way that good spellers almost automatically earn the title of good writer, people carrying around long, thick books earn the title of good reader, regardless of whether it’s deserved. What the girl who struggles in the first scenario and the parent who insists on the long text in the second scenario are failing to realize, however, is that good readers choose books for many reasons, and length is but one factor. Who Moved My Cheese by Dr. Spencer Johnson (amazon affiliate link) is a really short book. I can read it in less than 45 minutes. Most Harlequin romances are much longer than Who Moved My Cheese but I can assure you, Who Moved My Cheese is a far more taxing read in that I ask myself a lot of questions, infer, and use it as a mirror for looking at my own life. It’s the thinking and skills that a text demands that determine whether a book is a good fit for a reader or not. And it’s all those factors combined that add up to what makes a reader a good reader.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Forgiveness for Going off the Diet

Have you ever noticed how appealing everything looks on a holiday table? The turkey, cooked to a beautiful golden brown, sits as a centerpiece of perfection. The green beans with a hint of garlic and balsamic are served on a silver platter. The breads are placed in lovely woven baskets lined with a festive towel. There is cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes and squash and every dish looks more appetizing than the next. Eagerly we fill our plates with a little of everything and when we sit down, we glance at the plate. It seems a bit full, slightly daunting. But we don’t care. It’s the holidays. On the holidays, we feast.

Afterwards, we unbutton our pants and begin to feel a little remorse. It all looked so good on the table, but when the table is cleared, we take Zantac and promise to start the diet again tomorrow.

As I meet and talk with teachers about better reading and writing instruction, I realize that balanced literacy is perceived a lot like the holiday feast. Mini lessons. Guided reading. Shared reading. Choral reading. Reading conferences. Read aloud. Strategy Groups. Word Study. Interactive writing. You name it. It’s all beautifully packaged and presented at conferences, workshops, faculty meetings, and books by renowned and respected experts. As educators, we take bits and pieces of these ideas and put them on our teaching plate and attempt to clean up every morsel. However, at the end of the teaching day, we are often left with something akin to the indigestion we feel at the end of the feast, only now, we don’t have a fasting plan that will restore us to our previous level of comfort in a relatively short amount of time. The dissonance creates feelings of exasperation and worse, inadequacy. We wonder, how is this all do-able?

I have met countless teachers ready to throw in the towel and quit balanced literacy. They are ready to go back to the basal and traditional reading groups and when this happens, I remind them that nobody gets it all right on the first day out. Even Vincent Van Gogh, master painter, said, “I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it.” And that’s what we have to do, too. Yes, it is true, the people selling balanced literacy present it on silver platters, but that is only because they have had lots of time to practice serving it up on paper plates. Like Van Gogh, they kept at it. They sought out whatever information they could: they read, they planned, they practiced, and they talked to whoever they could about it.

Contrary to how it may feel at times, balanced literacy is not a feast. It is the meant to be a steady diet of solid reading and writing instruction. And like any good diet, it needs to be learned in moderation with the knowledge that from time to time, we’ll mess up. When that happens, we call it a day, and start new tomorrow, knowing that it won’t be long before we, too, will be ready for the fine china.