Thursday, December 15, 2011

Reading: The Home-School Connection

One day last spring, I listened with my jaw dropped as one of my closest colleagues shared how the parents in her district were complaining about the amount of reading she expected that students complete each night and over the weekends.  Didn’t she know that these children play sports, attend dance class, go to religion and have a myriad of other after school obligations that occupy those precious post-school hours? And did I fail to mention that the teachers in the following year’s grade don’t require nearly as much reading as she, so really, what’s the point of so much this year?

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago when I sat in the office of a district administrator in my children’s school pleading that they do more to increase my son’s current reading volume.  I explained that I do my part as a parent to make sure that he cracks a book each night but when the teacher only requires twenty minutes, four nights a week, it’s hard for me to convince him to do more.  From my son I get, “What’s the matter?  I’m doing what I’m supposed to.” And from the administrator I get, “I appreciate your concern, Mrs. Yaris, but for every parent who wants more for their child, we get ten complaining that it’s too much.”  

And all I can do is wonder. Are those the same parents that complain when their children don’t do well on the ELA?  Are they the ones who point their fingers at the school and say, “You’re not doing your job.  You don’t deserve what you are paid,”? Because the way I see it, raising a literate child is the not just the school’s responsibility, it is society’s, beginning first and foremost with parents.

Children who are read to from birth till the time they begin kindergarten start school with a significant vocabulary and sight word advantage.  If every parent did their part to ensure that children were read to daily and valued reading for homework the same way that they value soccer practice, it is conceivable that the gap we’re looking to close would be considerably smaller. 

In my mind, disregarding a teacher’s advice to read twenty or thirty or forty minutes a night is akin to saying “No thanks” to the doctor who just prescribed a rigorous course of antibiotics for a bacterial infection.  When patients make the decision to refuse the medication, they can’t blame the doctor when they don’t get better.  Nightly reading homework is part of the prescription for bolstering reading skills.  If parents continue to refuse the treatment, they have to assume the consequences of the decision. 

And the consequences are dire. Two thirds of our nation’s schoolchildren read at or below basic reading proficiency.  Our national reading test scores haven’t budged in thirty-five years.  We live in the age of a global economy.  Competition for jobs is fierce and if we’re going to maintain an advantage, then we need children who know how to communicate, collaborate, and think critically and creatively.  These are the skills possessed by literate individuals.  How do we become literate?  We read.  How do we read better?  We practice.  If our students aren’t making the progress we expect that they should, then we need to look carefully at reading volume and ask: How much time do these children read and what can we do to make sure they practice more?    

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Time Quote Mash-Up

Wherever I go, I listen as teachers share their frustrations about time.

“I know I have to teach reading AND writing, but I don’t have TIME for both.”

“I know I have to teach small groups, but I have so many pull-outs, I don’t have TIME.”

“I know kids need to do more independent reading, but I only have a forty minute period, I don’t have TIME to do everything!”

In Star Trek Generations. Jean-Luc Picard says “Someone once told me that time is a predator that stalks us all our lives.” And as a busy teacher-educator, I can’t help but think, “he’s got that right.”

However, bear this in mind: Time pressures and constraints are not a condition unique to teaching.  My husband works in social media and he races the clock to complete projects and meet deadlines. My mom stays at home and cooks and cares for the house and she complains there isn’t enough time to water her flowers or walk along the trail after the first snowfall.  Jean-Luc was the captain of the Starship Enterprise in approximately 2371 and what was he lamenting? Time.  While it seems like education is wrought with an unfair share of time pressures and constraints, not having enough time is not unique to any one job or profession, it is simply a part of being human.

Each and every day is comprised of twenty-four hours and as Randy Bomer once said at a workshop I attended long ago,  “There’s only time, no more or less, and we have to decide how to use what time there is.”   When he says it like that, it seems simple but it is true. As people and educators, we have important decisions to make about how we will spend our time because like Katie Wood Ray once shared,   “If we fail to set aside time for getting the work of [writing] done, we send the message that we don’t value the work.”

As we sit amid the holiday frenzy and listen to more bad press about teaching and learning, we need to be asking ourselves what is it that we value?  We need to prioritize and think hard about what we aim to achieve because after Jean-Luc Picard personified time as a predator, he went on to say “but I rather believe that time is a companion who goes with us on the journey and reminds us to cherish every moment because they'll never come again. What we leave behind is not as important as how we've lived.”

And on that note, I ask you, how do you choose to live?  What part of your journey will you cherish?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Defending the Reading Workshop in the Common Core Era

No matter where you go, conversations about the Common Core dominate.  While educators are at all levels of understanding the Common Core, there seems to be one question that everybody is asking: What will it mean to my instruction? 

Some doomsayers have declared the end of the Reading Workshop asserting that the goals of the Common Core do not align with this approach.  I would argue that nothing could be further from the truth.  As a document, the Common Core dictates “what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach.”  And as a way of teaching, I believe that the components and practices inherent in the reading workshop are not only a well-founded methodology for approaching implementation of the Common Core, but probably our best option for effective implementation of the new standards.

To illustrate why this is true, let’s look at the first anchor standard for reading: 
Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions from the text.  Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions from the text. 

When I look at a standard like that and ask myself, what will I need to do to be in compliance, I can see that children will require an understanding of inferential thinking.  They will need to understand how to go back into the text and find evidence to support their thinking.  How will I help students unpack these heady concepts?  By providing explicit, focused instruction.  What is the best way I know to provide this kind of instruction? Mini lessons.

While mini lessons are the cornerstone of the reading workshop, they are but one aspect of the reading workshop.  The standard goes on to specify that students cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions from the text. This implies that our instruction build in opportunities to write in response to reading.  The reading response journal is another key ingredient of the reading workshop.  Very often, we have students “Stop and jot” so that they can experience what it means to respond and have an opinion about text.  On other occasions, we have them write extended responses as a way of developing and defending their positions.  Both offer students opportunities to practice drawing conclusions, using evidence from the text, and afford us the rare glimpse into children’s thinking processes that enable us to respond to where they are as learners and plan instruction that meets their needs as readers.

In addition, this standard asks for students to be able to defend their position when speaking.  This implies that students will require ample opportunity to speak with their peers to develop their ideas.  How do we do this in reading workshop?  Through partnerships where students turn and talk and eventually, when students learn to talk effectively, we release children into literature circles and allow them to develop theories and ideas that will shape and change their thinking about text, and subsequently, the world.

Another thing that I want to point out about reading workshop and the common core is this: The Common Core calls for all students “to be able to read grade level complex text.”  I have encountered many teachers who have latched onto “close reading” as the means for making children increasingly capable of reading grade level complex text. While I agree that we do need to instill a value for rereading, I whole-heartedly disagree with how some teachers have proposed meeting this challenge:  Handing out a short passage on Monday, reading it, talking about it, putting it away and taking it out again on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday for the purpose of rereading it and getting something new out of it. The goal of close reading is deep understanding and careful analysis.  That is achieved through purposeful rereading and accountable conversation.  Once again, these components are built into the reading workshop. 

People who are “college and career ready” have been described as being able to do the following four things:
  • Think critically
  • Communicate effectively
  • Collaborate
  • Create and innovate

I fear that loose interpretations of the Common Core will lead to people embracing bad practices which will do nothing to help our cause of helping children become more proficient readers so that they are college and career ready.

However, if we are thoughtful about what needs to happen so that children can read increasingly complex text and gain the knowledge that helps them to solve complex problems in the workplace, we will see that children will need to read widely, they will need to read a lot, they will require explicit, expert instruction in whole groups, small groups, and one-on-one, they will need to talk and write about their ideas and where do all of these things happen?  In a reading workshop. 

In my opinion, reading workshop should be on the radar in every school district across the United States. Not only does it provide a good possibility for meeting the standards of the Common Core, it offers the best possibility of being successful.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Assigning Reading Comprehension vs. Teaching Reading Comprehension

When it comes to comprehension instruction, we have data that says that we spend as little as 2% of our instructional time teaching children how to make meaning.   (Lanning, 11) What we tend to do instead is give students a passage like this:

Some fire is a natural part of the life of a forest.  Fire cleans out dead brush by burning it to ash.  Then animals that live in the forest can find food more easily.  New plants and trees have more room and sunlight to grow.
(From Fires and Floods by Kate Waters, p 11)

And ask questions like:
What is this passage mostly about:
  1. How fires destroy forests
  2. How fires can be helpful
  3. How fires help animals
  4. How fires clear away dead brush

And when children respond anything but answer 2, we conclude that this student does not understand main idea. 

However, foregone conclusions like this are not particularly helpful in helping us make decisions about how to correct the problem.  We are left wringing our hands, wrought with worry over what will happen come April when these students take the ELA.  We know we need to fix the problem but we are all left wondering the same thing: How?

The sample question that you see above actually came from a group of six fourth grade students working together to figure out the main idea of the paragraph about fire.  This group of children had received explicit instruction on what a main idea is and how identifying main idea helps readers monitor text for meaning.  Next they took a look at this paragraph and worked with partners to figure out what it was mostly about.  As they did that, the teacher listened closely and took notes about what they said and discovered that sometimes children were too broad and general when identifying the main idea.  In other cases, she recognized that  students were too specific and pulled details from the story and dubbed them “the main idea.”  And in yet other instances, children relied solely on their background knowledge about the topic to identify the main idea.

The small group structure allowed the teacher a rare glimpse into the otherwise invisible process of making meaning.  In returning to the original dilemma of knowing that there’s a problem but feeling stuck knowing what to do about it, this glimpse provided the answer to the original question of HOW to fix the main idea problem: Responsive small group strategy instruction. If we are to effectively raise children’s reading proficiency, creating situations where children are active participants in their learning is imperative.  We must listen closely to clues they provide about their learning processes and then work with the diligence of Sherlock Holmes to solve the mystery of what is standing in the way of growth.  In the end, good assignments don’t make children better readers but good teaching…wow!  What a difference that can make!

Lanning, Lois A. 4 Powerful Strategies for StrugglingReaders, Grades 3-8: Small Group Instruction That Improves Comprehension. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2009. Print. (Amazon affiliate link)

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Blame Game

Yesterday I checked in to the Hilton in Rye Brook, New York for the New York State Reading Association’s annual conference.  When I arrived, I checked in at the front desk and then proceeded to lug a duffle filled with clothes, a suitcase of AV equipment, and a couple of errant bags through the elevator and maze of hallways to finally arrive at my room.  Ready to lighten my load, I eagerly took out my key card and stuck it in the door. 

The yellow light in the middle lit up. 

Desperate for a green light that signaled entrée into my room, I took the card out, and put it in again. 

Again, a yellow light. So I tried a third time. 

While famous for my technological ineptitude, I figured after three failed tries, the problem wasn’t me.  So I loaded up all my stuff and headed back down the hall to find a phone to call the front desk. 

A short while later, a man in official looking hotel attire showed up to let me into my room.  We exchanged niceties and viola, I was in!  Let the conference begin!

After trolling the exhibit hall and greeting colleagues whom I haven’t seen in a long while, I returned once again to my room to freshen up for dinner.  When I arrived, I put my key in the door and guess what?

Yellow light. 

Fortunately this time my roommate was there to let me in.  She had two keys that seemed to work so I took one and once again, my key issue seemed to be resolved. 

I left the room, checked to make sure that the key would let me back in and joined friends and colleagues for a lovely dinner with the folks from Scholastic.  When I returned at nearly 11:00 PM, I put my key in the door and need I even say?

Yellow light. 

I trekked down the hall once again to the community phone and called the front desk and this time they sent security.  When the hotel representative arrived, he took my key and looked at it, then he looked at me, and then he tried sticking it in the door.  Yellow light.

At that point, he turned to me and said, “When you left the room, did you slam the door?”

I couldn’t believe it.  Was he insinuating that it was my fault the door didn’t work?  I explained that this was the third time today that this had happened and that generally I don’t slam doors when I leave rooms. 

Then he inserted his specially programmed, ultra powerful, get into any room key card and unlocked my door.   He jiggled the lock on the other side and said, “See, this wasn’t all the way over, that’s why you couldn’t unlock the door.”

As I got to thinking about this incident, it made me think a lot about teaching.  My son told me last week that he asked a teacher a question and was told, “You should have been paying attention.” In the same way that the security man made me feel responsible for the problem, my son’s teacher made him feel the same way.  When children have questions, it could be because they weren’t paying attention but it could also be that the directions weren’t clear or the child is not an auditory learner and can’t picture what the teacher is talking about. No matter what the case, if there is a problem, we need to quickly assess and evaluate and troubleshoot to solve it.  To take the extra step to blame or pass the buck is just that: an extra step.  It is neither efficient nor EFFECTIVE.

I’m old enough and experienced enough to know that if I have another problem with my door, I will continue to seek the help I need to fix it.  But I wonder about my son.  The next time he has a question, will he ask it? Or, will he blame himself and stay stuck?  

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Deeply Reading a Diorama

On Sunday, I took my children to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  As we wandered the halls of the Asian Peoples exhibit, my eight year old son stopped to peer at a diorama of an ancient group of Syberian people.  As I looked over his shoulder at tiny little figures pulling a whale on a handcrafted sleigh and another group of men pointing swords at a wolf, he exclaimed, “That’s cool!”  I was excited that he was excited but I wanted to know more, I wanted him to know more, so I asked him, “What is this about?”

I can bet any amount of money that you know what he said when I asked this question because his response was the knee jerk answer to probing questions that we hear from children on a daily basis: “I don’t know.”

I prompted him to look again and this time, to look closely at the diorama in small chunks.  He began by peering at the whale being hauled on the sleigh.  His first musing was that the whale was hurt but after some consideration, he decided that the men had gone hunting and that this would be their food.  He guessed that the whale was very, very heavy because there were five men pulling it.  He guessed, too, that it must be very cold there because the men were wearing heavy parkas and boots.  

After looking at this section of the diorama he moved on to the wolf.  I wondered out loud if the wolf was a religious symbol in this culture because in the center of the diorama was a large pole with two wolves hanging.  My son quickly discounted this theory because of the way in which the men had gathered around another wolf with swords, ready to kill.  His thought was that because this was such a cold place, they needed to gather every bit of food that they could.  He hypothesized that the other wolves were hung so high on the stick so that other animals and predators wouldn’t come in to the village and steal their food.

As I think about this learning experience, I realize how at the beginning of this exchange, my son was looking closely but not thinking critically about what he saw.  On the heels of a symposium on the Common Core in Baltimore, I can’t help but think this is exactly what the Common Core aims to change.  In the same way that my son got very little from his first encounter with this diorama, children get very little from their first encounter with difficult text. It requires looking at text in small chunks and close reading and re-readings that force children to actively engage and think about what is at work with literature.  When we take the time to do this, we realize that what makes something “cool” is not simply the words on the page, but the meaning implied and derived from those experiences.  Close reading is about active, critical thinking and until we train children to manage complex text, their response to the question “What is this about?” will always be the same: “I don’t know.”

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Teachers: What Kind of Cook are You?

When the weather begins to cool and the leaves begin to change, I find I become a different kind of cook. I bring my big pots and pans out of storage and carefully select ingredients that will make a delicious soup or stew and fill my house with the aroma of warmth and comfort.   I pluck the last of the basil from the garden and instead of mixing it with oil and vinegar to marinade chicken breast that I will cook on the grill, I stir it into a pot of ripe red tomatoes and mix in oregano and garlic and watch carefully as bubbles begin to erupt on the surface. As I stir and watch my creations simmer on the stovetop, I begin to think: cooking and teaching have a lot in common.

As a cook, I have choices about the way in which I will deliver my food.  Will I mass produce it and slop it onto a paper plate? If I do this, people may accept this meal and politely push their food around to make it look like they ate but they will leave the table dissatisfied. And I can’t be surprised when I meet the eater who rejects this food altogether.  Who wants something prepared with so little care?  If I can’t be bothered, why should they?

That’s why I try not to cook like this.  I want each meal to be an unforgettable experience so I begin by considering my diners.  Who will I be cooking for tonight?  What ingredients will tantalize and awaken their palates?  How will I prepare this meal so that each bite is delectable and savored like a culinary masterpiece that keeps them thinking about this food long after the last morsel has been eaten?  What special ingredient can I add to not only make them want to eat, but crave this food with insatiable desire?

Cooking is rooted in eating. It is about nurturing a basic human need.  It is about feeding people and like teaching, it can be done in a way that merely gets the job done or it can be done in a way that is unforgettable.  The only question left to consider is this: What kind of cook are you? 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

I Can See Clearly Now

In a teacher training focused on teaching children how to comprehend, an exasperated first grade teacher said to me, “I know visualizing is an important strategy to teach but my students just don’t get what I mean by it!”

As she spoke these words, I had a flashback to a third grade reader I met last year who, after listening to me harangue on and on about seeing pictures when you read, looked at me quizzically and asked, “Yeah, but how do you do that, see pictures in your mind?”

And then fast forward to the afternoon when I gathered another group of teachers to read “Beautiful and Cruel” from Sandra Cisnero’s House on Mango Street in an effort to reflect on their own meaning making processes.  As we shared what we did as readers to make this piece make sense, one teacher declared that as she read, she visualized.   When she said this, I thought about the frustrated first grade teacher and the confused third grader and seized the opportunity to do some research so I asked her, “What do you see?” 

When I asked her this question, I caught her off guard.  She realized that this process was really automatic for her and while the image of a teenage girl was etched in her mind, she couldn’t speak with great detail about the picture that she saw.

This stopped me in my tracks.  Visualization is one of those strategies that everybody knows.  When I talk to kids (and adults) about the habits and practices of good readers, everybody notes “making movies in their minds” as something that they do when they read but what I am beginning to realize is that while it may be widely known and talked about, perhaps, in practice, it’s not as easy as we think to do.

When I talk to students about visualizing, very often what I will do is have them close their eyes and imagine.  I model by giving them a detailed verbal description about what I see when the words wash over me.  After reading a text like “Beautiful and Cruel” I will talk about a girl with jet black, frizzy hair that hangs below her shoulders and looks wild and untamed.  I describe her nose as wide and her eyes as deep brown, set closely together.  I tell them how I see in my picture a girl who is slightly overweight and she wears her shorts too short and her top too tight. 

Did you catch that? 

When I teach visualizing, I tell them what I see.

Perhaps herein lies the problem.  I am using sound, or the sense of hearing, to convey the sense of sight.  No wonder so much is lost in translation!  I am thinking that if “picture” and “movie” are the metaphors that extend our understanding of visualization, then what might work better in my mini lessons are sketches or Google images that I might flash up on a screen to serve as a backdrop to those verbal descriptions that I share with students to help them see what it means “to see” when you read.    

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Sitting for the Test

As a prospective doctoral student, I’ve recently learned that universities require the GRE as a “gatekeeping” measure.  Despite my begging and whining about such an exam not being a reflection of anything I am professionally, my application will not be complete without it, so yesterday I took it for the second time in my life. I vaguely remember taking it the first time—it was a cold, Saturday morning in November, 1992.  I sharpened about five number two pencils and hopped the T to Roxbury, MA. The memory is fuzzy after that. I suspect, however,  yesterday’s experience will never suffer the same fuzzy fate. Taking a standardized exam in the age of high stakes testing dialed my empathy barometer way up and gave me a lot to think about going forward. 

I waltzed into the exam with a very cavalier attitude.  No way was I studying for this—I’m far too busy doing the important work of living than to have to spend time relearning algebraic equations and arcane vocabulary that might help me score a few points higher.  I went in thinking that my quantitative scores would be what they would be and I’d rock the verbal reasoning segment.

It turns out that I hadn’t forgotten as much math as I originally thought and I rather enjoyed puzzling through the problems that made sense to me.  The reality check came when I worked on the verbal reasoning segments, the ones I was so confident I’d ace, and found passages that flat out stopped me in my tracks. 

One passage read like it came straight from the Journal of Paleontology.  The article was a scholarly analysis chocked full of content specific archeological terms peppered with all sorts of erudite, multi-syllabic scientific jargon.  To put it mildly, I didn’t get it.  And what was worse, I didn’t get what the questions were asking me either—and there were three questions on this one passage!

I started to sweat a little when I got to this section of the test.  I read and reread that passage.  I heard my inner voice assuring me that I had all of the skills and strategies I needed to be able to do this successfully.  But try as I might, I couldn’t make it make sense and in thinking about why, the reason came blinking into my psyche like an alarm sounding in the middle of the night: BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE.  My boys skipped the dinosaur fascination and I never had one of my own.  I have zero interest in archeology and paleontology and know less than nothing about these topics.  I couldn’t make this make sense because I didn’t know a thing about what I was reading about. 

And that’s when I realized I had a choice to make.  I could sit there and invest all sorts of intellectual energy and time in these three questions and run the risk of still getting them wrong or I could start filling in bubbles and move on to questions that I felt more confident about answering correctly.  In the end, it was a no brainer.  Upward and onward.

But as I soldiered on, I couldn’t help but think about the masses of children taking the ELA.  How often are they faced with the same angst that I felt?  How much does strategizing impact the outcome of the test?  Would more students do better if they knew when to give up the battle and when to put up a fight?  And exactly what role does background knowledge play in the overall achievement results reported on these exams?  Is the real issue effective readership or is it an issue of cultural literacy?  Might students do better if they had a more well rounded knowledge of the world?

In spite of the fact that I provided ETS with all sorts of answers, the experience of taking the GRE raised more questions than could be answered in a four hour sitting.  But the biggest questions of all are these: How important are the answers?  Can we improve our schools without them?   

Thursday, September 15, 2011

You Talk the Talk but Do You Walk the Walk?

Over the past week I harnessed my resolve to do some serious writing and dove head first into what may (or may not) one day become my contribution to the literacy community. I first began by cataloging all of my old blogs.  I spent a lot of time reading and rereading the thoughts I have been collecting for the last three years. 

Once I finished that, I realized that my musings naturally fit into a variety of categories related to literacy.  I created a binder and decided that the category that I am most “on about” at the moment is book choice.  Maybe because it’s September and book choice is always a hot topic at the beginning of the year or maybe because my sixth grade son went through four different books in three days, I found myself thinking a lot about what we, as teachers, can do to support children on their quest to find good fit books and launch them on the path that makes them avid, voracious readers. 

Once I settled on my topic, I set to work organizing my ideas.  When I sat down to do this, I started with my binder of old blogs and a pen.  It didn’t take me long to realize that I needed more “stuff” in order to do the work of envisioning.  I found myself running around the house gathering supplies.  By the time I was really ready to start my project, these are the supplies I had collected:

As you can see, I needed post-its—in four different colors, highlighters, scissors, tape, markers, a white board, and space—lots of space because after all, these were big ideas I was dealing with.  I needed room to spread them out and move them around. 

From there I began the process of writing notes on post-its and identifying big categories of ideas and questions that I want to think more about.  I managed to tease out a skeleton outline of what I want to write and I am proud to report, that I have finally begun a draft.

As I have wrestled with this process, I have found myself thinking a lot about writing instruction. For years, I have been teaching the merits of the writing workshop and have guided scores of teachers and hundreds of children through the process of collecting, gathering, drafting, revising, and editing.  I have talked about paper choice and tools for drafting and editing but until this week, I don’t know that I owned any of this teaching. “Choosing a seed” and beginning a project has forced me to walk the walk and the journey has been eye opening. Writing doesn’t just happen because we decorate a notebook and jot down a few ideas. Writing is a meandering process that requires time—time to question and research and think and finally, commit words to paper.  

I know that my journey is just beginning but one thing I can say for certain is this: Being a writer has changed me as a writing teacher. Writing requires an emotional investment that vacillates between exhilaration and angst and this insight will help me to be more patient when working with young learners. The act of writing has removed me from the periphery and placed me on the field with my students and my learning curve is huge and that is why, once again I urge you to join me on the field.  Try doing some writing this week.  What do you learn about your process that will influence what you teach children about theirs? 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

In the Face of Fear

Today, I’ve been working on organizing and outlining some of the ideas that I have for what I dream will one day become a book for teachers about teaching literacy.  Broad topic, I know.  But right now, I’m in the gathering and envisioning stage of my writing process.  I’m relishing going back through the volumes that I have been collecting over the years and reacquainting with my old thoughts and experiences as a teacher.  I find myself making notes in the margins and asking myself questions.  My questions prompt me to want to write more and when I do, I find myself thinking about things that surprise me.  Writing more leads me to new a-has and I get excited…and then worried because I wonder, where does this process end?  How could I possibly write an entire book if my thinking keeps changing and growing as I springboard from one idea to the next?  In some ways, the process is exhilarating and liberating but in other ways, it’s absolutely paralyzing.    I’m so scared, I want to put away my notebook and binder and pen and start scrubbing toilets.  Anything has got to be better than this, I think as I turn my head toward the bulletin board next to my desk and read the quote from Eleanor Roosevelt glaring at me from the center:
Do something every day that scares you.
As those words wash over me, I recognize the feeling in the pit of my stomach: fear.  I’m trying all sorts of new things this year webinars, videos, writing a book.  All of these things cause my body to surge with anxiety because they’re new and quite frankly, I don’t know if I’ll be good at any of them.  But when I hear the echoing voice of negativity, the trite old saying, “nothing ventured, nothing gained” pops into my head and I soldier on.  I am dedicating this year to dissonance and discomfort.  I am going to try these things that scare me.  My question for you is this: Will you join me? What will you do this year that scares you? 

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Reading that Counts

I read. I read a lot.  In fact, I resolved in 2011 to keep track of just how much I read.  I have three categories of books that I keep track of, the first being “Personal/Leisure Reading.” These are the books that I read to feed my own need for personal growth and enjoyment and include titles like How to Hug a Porcupine and The Gift of an Ordinary Day. Since January 1, I have read 15 books in this category.

The second category that I keep track of is “Professional Reading.” This is the stuff I read to become better at my job.  My most recent finishes include titles like Deeper Reading by Kelly Gallagher and Brain Rules by John Medina (amazon affiliate links).  So far this year, I’ve completed 12 of these kinds of books.

And the third category of reading that I keep track of is “Children’s Books.” In the same way that professional books keep me at the top of my game, so too do picture books, young adult novels, and everything that qualifies for the juvenile section of the public library.  These books don’t usually take that long to read and so far this year, I have read 80 different titles.     

When I add up all of this reading, I have read 105 books…but what this doesn’t reflect is the hours I have spent reading my favorite magazine (People!), and reading the newspaper, and visiting my favorite blogs and reading articles online.  I didn’t know how to quantify that reading, therefore didn’t “count” it on the list I’ve been keeping, but I wonder now: because I didn’t “count” it, does it not “count”?

I ask this question for a reason.  The New York Times recently published an interesting essay by Robert Lipsyte titled Boys and Reading: Is There any Hope? In this article, Lipsyte explored what turns boys into readers and began to question curriculums that favor fiction over non-fiction.  As a mother of boys, one of whom is a very reluctant reader, I thought hard about this and conversed over Facebook  with other parents and colleagues who deal with reluctant boy readers all the time and as I talked about this, I had a disturbing revelation: I suffer from an affliction that prevents me from giving fair value to online reading. 

Let me explain.  When I add up what my son Matthew has read over the summer, the tally includes The Tales of Beetle and Bard and the first 350 pages of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, both by JK Rowling.  Keeping him reading, or I should say, keeping him reading books, has felt like a full-time job.   But if I were to count the hours he has spent surfing the net, stopping by his favorite spots like Poptropica, Club Penguin, and Lego to read blogs and product reviews and descriptions, I wouldn’t be expressing such frustration, because he’s actually done quite a lot of that kind of reading. 

But in the same way I didn’t count my online reading on my own list, I find myself devaluing his Internet endeavors as well. When I talk to him about his summer reading, I speak as if reading Harry Potter is more important and more “real” than that blog that talked about Kre-O overtaking Lego in the brick building market.    

So my question to you is this: as you sit here reading this blog, are you really reading? Or do you consider it “fake” reading?  Is my son really reading when he’s hanging out online? In your measures of reading volume, will you “count” Internet reading? And if you will, how will you honor and keep track of this category of reading unique to the modern age?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Times They Are A-Changin’

Over the course of the last week, I began to notice the days have been getting shorter.  The mornings are cooler.  And the shelves of Target are stocked with boxes of Crayola crayons on sale for forty cents.  I don’t know when all of this happened but I realized with summer fading into the horizon, I better get out there and enjoy its final days before it completely disappears.  So, yesterday, I rallied my family, packed towels and sunscreen into an oversized beach bag, and headed to a local water park.

During the thirty minute car ride to the park, I unconsciously placed my hand on my stomach and began to rub.  I had this feeling…not like I was sick…no, nothing like that, this feeling was…that uncomfortable feeling that you get when something doesn’t seem quite right…this was…anxiety.  A bright, sunny, summer day, my boys in the back seat, my husband at the helm of the car, the promise of a day of fun in the sun—why should I be nervous?

As I gazed out the window, my mind wandered to the day before as I sat around a table catching up with my study group colleagues.  People shared stories of weddings and new homes and babies.  The conversation then turned to new principals, new technology, and the new standards in education.  We pondered and postulated what this year would bring with the Common Core and APPR and then we spoke but one word:


It was overwhelming to consider all of these possibilities and all of these unknowns.  There was speculation and worry…and some optimistic, eager anticipation. And then it occurred to me.  That was exactly what I was feeling at that very moment. The root of this feeling in the pit of my stomach was change.  Taking a day off from work in the middle of the week is not something I do often.  I had phone calls to make and email to respond to and I still hadn’t written this week’s blog post.  But I thought: eager anticipation.  Carpe diem.  Enjoy the day with your family.

And so I did.  I splashed down things called the Dragon Den and Mammoth Mountain.  I shivered in line and cheered as my husband dropped eight stories in three seconds down something called Cliff Diver and at the end of the day, I felt happy.  My agitation was long gone and my phone calls and email had waited for me.  I returned to my desk this morning to write my blog and what wouldn’t flow in the brief thirty minutes I had yesterday before we loaded into the car, just poured out onto the page today.  In spite of all of my gut wrenching and worry, it all turned out okay.  As it always does. 

Deb Hannaberry, a new study group colleague said, “Change isn’t bad. Change is just change and we need to embrace it.” As we begin this school year, I pass this wisdom along to you and ask, what’s giving you that anxious feeling in the pit of your stomach?  And what will you do to embrace it?

Thursday, August 18, 2011


Yesterday afternoon, I watched a series of videos produced by PBS and the New York State Education Department aimed at helping educators understand the Common Core Standards. I watched intently as David Coleman, one of the Core’s contributing authors and John B. King, commissioner of Education in New York, outlined the six primary instructional shifts the core seeks to influence in classrooms:

  1. Balancing informational text with literature
  2. Building knowledge in the disciplines
  3. Staircase of complexity of text in the classroom
  4. Text-based answers
  5. Writing from sources
  6.  Academic vocabulary

As I listened, I found myself, at times, nodding in enthusiastic agreement and at other times, I found my jaw opened wide staring in confused disbelief.  At first I thought my real objection was to the way in which they laid out the expectations of the fourth shift, “text-based answers” but in learning more, what I am having the biggest problem understanding is the third shift, “Staircase of complexity.” 

As Mr. Coleman and Mr. King spoke about this shift, they expressed the sentiment that schools have “over-corrected” for students who are not on grade level by giving them easier texts.  They spoke about the need for close reading and rereading as a way of grappling with increasingly difficult text. They talked about creating the kind of dissonance that allows children to be frustrated without allowing “confusion and despair to overwhelm” them.

On the one hand, it sounds like what they are describing is exactly what we do in guided reading.  We give children books that we know will require support and scaffolding in order to read successfully.  We encourage close and careful reading and rereading in order to help children think deeply and make meaning as they read the text; but on the other hand, the words “over-corrected” followed by a comment that we “shoot too low because we see kids are finding text too hard to grapple with” makes me wonder if this is an attack on the practice of guided reading and matching books to readers…or an attack on the way in which this has been misconstrued and misinterpreted and thereby, wrongly implemented in schools?

In their discussion, there was a push for educators to present children with increasingly difficult text and allow them opportunity to read it sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph and cultivate “a world of disorientation” albeit in a scaffolded environment.  As I digest this idea, I feel tormented because yes, I do believe that we need to give students the tools they need to read complex text.  I want children to engage in rich discussions about books and the important texts of our time. In fact, this is exactly what Kelly Gallagher advocates for in his book Deeper Reading but that book is written for teachers of grades 4-12.  It makes me wonder about the foundation work that needs to happen in order to allow for that possibility.  At what point do we begin creating this dissonance?  If we begin too early will it serve only as a reminder to some children that reading is hard, too hard, in fact, there’s no point working to get better at it?  How do we determine when it is developmentally appropriate to present text that will create discord and have to be worked at to be understood?  Should third graders be unpacking Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech? Or is that too soon?  Where does the research that says that children need texts that match their ability level fit into this picture? How do we reconcile the call for a “staircase of complexity” with the need for good-fit books that encourage students to read widely and get the practice they need—the very practice that allows them to open their minds to reading these “increasingly complex texts” that in turn puts them on the “trajectory of college and career” readiness that Mr. King calls for?  

Dissonance is important to learning.  That said, when it comes to implementing the standards that affect the shift in text complexity in our classrooms, I’ve got some dissonance of my own to grapple with.    

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Lego Block

In my basement, we have an old dresser.  If you were to open any one of the six drawers of this dresser you would have to tug a little because each drawer is filled to the brim and overflowing with Lego.  But that’s not the only place you’ll find Lego in my house.  Bins of Lego can be found tucked behind chairs and stacked neatly (and not-so-neatly) on bookshelves in every room.  And of course, if you look in the heaters and other small crevices of my home, you will find errant pieces and casualties of epic battles that occurred at one point or another. Why so much Lego?  Because I am the mother of a ten year old son who is an absolute fanatic.  He plays with them all the time. 

Except lately. 

Lately he has been digging about in other bins in search of other toys to entertain him. One day, as he busily worked at creating a Smurf village complete with construction paper gardens and domino fences, he glanced up from his play and said, “In case you’re wondering why I’m not playing Lego like I usually do, it’s because I have Lego block. I can’t really think of what I want to build right now so I’m hoping that by playing other things, it will give me a new idea of something to build.”

Lego block. Pardon the pun, but my son has Lego block. Like writing, the act of building a rocket ship or army tank or fighter jet is a creative process which encounters an occasional bout of gridlock.  And like writers who cook or clean or read or recite a poem or take a walk to help clear away the congestion interfering with the creative process, my son recognized that he, too, needed to do something to release him from the claw of “Lego block.” He knew that playing with other toys and trying out different games would help stimulate his creativity and help him find the inspiration he needs to create a new masterpiece.  But what’s more, like a tortured artist committed to his craft, he was so guilt ridden about turning his attention away from his work that he felt the need to justify his behavior. 

The gratification of creating a masterpiece can be exhilarating, but it can also be frustrating and that frustration can be paralyzing.  The feeling caused by not knowing what to create next or how to move a piece forward is the source of great angst.  And that angst is a feeling shared by all artists.  Anybody who has ever created anything knows it.  The trick is knowing what to do when it happens.  Do you sit there until the beads of sweat turn to blood or do you take a break and do something productive until the mental rotary in your brain releases you onto an open highway of creativity?  If you have writer’s block or painter’s block or Lego block, take a break and remember, short departures from our work require no justification.   

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

When the Cup Runneth Over

On Friday, it rained on Long Island.  It didn’t just rain, it poured.  It was a torrential, tropical kind of rain that could fill a bucket within seconds.  I watched from the window as the water hit the ground thinking, “Wow, we really need this.  It’s been so dry.” But as I watched, I noticed that the water was coming at such a force that it just didn’t have time to seep in.  Those precious raindrops falling from the sky simply puddled and ran down the driveway into the sewer.  Instead of giving the ground the long drink it’s been thirsting for, it received a sip and left the plants aching for an all day rain, the kind that allows time for the water to sink deep into the ground and nurture the roots so they can grow strong and tall.

This week marks Literacy Builders’ fourth annual Start September Strong Summer Workshop Series.  As I’ve tied up loose ends in preparation for the events that we have planned this week, it occurred to me that teacher professional development is a lot like the downpour that I experienced on Friday.  Teachers show up thirsty for knowledge and we, in our attempt to deliver, fill their buckets with information.  But information comes in a downpour and those buckets quickly fill. 

I have two questions that will drive all of the work that I do with teachers this week: What is the current state of your game?  What can you improve?  As I think about these questions, I find myself thinking a lot about how I deliver information to teachers.  As I’ve worked with my colleagues to design our workshops, we have wrestled with the question of how people learn best.  How can we provide information like a steady, falling rain instead of dumping buckets of information that our minds can’t digest? Our answer to this question was time to think so we designed our workshops to allow for collaboration and reflection.  But in a lot of ways, this is just an experiment and I won’t know until the week is over whether it was successful.

If you’re joining us, please visit this blog at the end of the week and share if we succeeded in inspiring your thinking and making you feel like you were watered by a slow, steady rain.  And if you’re far away or unable to come, please help me continue to improve my game by sharing the type of professional development that helps you learn best.  

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Dogs Shouldn’t Poop On Other People’s Lawns

This past spring, I attended a presentation on how assessments drive instruction given by the Sisters, Gail Moser and Joan Bushey.  As they shared tidbits and the wisdom garnered from more than forty years of combined classroom experience, they snuck in a story about meeting Donald Graves a few years ago while in line for a drink at a water fountain.  Gail and Joan shared that when they realized who they were standing next to, they exchanged knowing glances and were at first too starstruck to say anything.  Determined not to miss their opportunity to rub elbows with greatness, Gail finally said, “Hi Don, I’m Gail and this is my sister Joan.  We love your books.  What are you on about these days?”

Gail shared that that question launched a thoughtful conversation and she recommended that if ever you come face to face with your idol, “what are you on about” is a great conversation starter because passionate people are always thinking about something. 

Now, granted, I’ve got nothing on Donald Graves, God rest his soul,  but one thing I can say is that I am passionate about literacy and the thing I’ve been “on about” lately is interpretation.  I am intensely curious about how people make meaning when they read.  I want to know and understand what we do as readers to push ourselves past the surface and emerge from our reading with new ideas.  In an earlier post, I shared Kelly  Gallagher’s suggestion of presenting children with short texts like, “Three out of four people released from prison return within three years” and asking them to think about what it says, what it means, and why it matters.  I find myself searching everywhere for these kinds of texts.  I recently added these examples to my collection:

“The man died.  Six months later, his wife died.”
“I just got a puppy.  My landlord isn’t very happy.”
“If fish were to become scientists, the last thing they might discover would be water.”

As I looked back on these, it occurred to me that I could have a lot of fun sharing these examples with older children but what about younger children?  While they have the ability to interpret, it is important to ensure that what they are interpreting falls roughly within their life experience.  And lo and behold, that is when I stumbled upon this gem as I wandered the bucolic streets of Fire Island:

I laughed out loud when I saw it and turned to my eight year old son and said, “what do you think that’s all about?” He replied by saying, “It says they killed the last dog that pooped on their lawn, but I know it’s fake.” I pushed him to say more, to think about why it matters and he cocked his head like he was deep in thought and said, “I think it matters because that they don’t want people to let their dogs poop on their lawn!”

As I continue my quest to understand how readers make meaning, I realize meaning making is intentional.  When we push ourselves to question what it means and why it matters, all of sudden what just “was” evolves into something funny or something sad or, if you’re really lucky, something inspirational that leads to a new idea.

My question to you is this: How do you make meaning?  What matters to you? 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

“Even Though You Love Books, I Don’t”

Today is my birthday. At 8:00 this morning, my eight year old son ambled down the stairs and handed me this homemade card.

Sweet, right? When I opened it up, this is what I saw:

For those of you having difficulty seeing beyond the purple highlights, let me make sure you know what it says:

Dear Ma,
Even though you love books, I don’t. I love you. Happy birthday!

I laughed out loud when I saw these words because while I get his point—he loves me more than he loves books—it also kind of sounds like my son is saying he doesn’t love books (which, as I established last week, is fine so long as he loves what books do for him).

All kidding aside, kids who don’t love books are not a unique breed. These are our reluctant readers and they pose a particular threat to literacy because as Mark Twain says, “The man (woman, child) who does not read, has no advantage over the one who cannot read.”

If you work with reluctant readers, here a few quick tips to help them over the hump and help them fall in love with what books can do for them:
  • Don’t expect them to read things that are too hard.
  • Let them choose what THEY want to read!
  • Talk to them about books—let them know what’s out there to read.
  • Get them interested in a series or popular author.
  • Read aloud and remind them of the pleasure of stories!
On that note, I’m going to going to get Jon Scieszka’s Knuckleheads from my bedside night table and do some reading triage with Nathan just to make sure that I interpreted his words correctly and he wasn’t really saying, “I don’t like books…”

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Loving What Books Do For You

Ahhhh summer.  I have been immersed in all those things that patiently wait for the freedom of time and good weather—walks on the beach, water parks, reading in the hammock.  I love this time of year because slowing down gives me time to look back and reflect.  One of the things I did recently was reread some old notebooks where I had taken notes at conferences and I came upon a gem that I wrote down two years ago as I listened to Peter Johnston, author of one of my favorite professional books, Choice Words.  He said, “I don’t want children to love books.  I want children to love what books can do for them.”

As I thought about Peter’s statement, I realized how the simple juxtaposition of words makes a huge difference in meaning.  Reading is about ideas.  While we may love the feel and smell of books, the book alone is not why we read.  We read for the inspiration and thinking that happens as a result of cracking the spine and letting the words wash over us. 

As I mulled that idea over, days passed and another idea from one of my notebooks resurfaced.  This past spring, I listened as Kelly Gallagher spoke about the importance of interpretation.  He shared how he gives his ninth graders a short passage or sentence and asks them to think about what it means.  The example he shared with us was this: Three out of four people released from jail return within three years. 

I was eager to try this idea out and shared it with my fifth grade son.  When I asked him what it meant, he paraphrased and said, “It means that people get out of jail and then go back to jail.” I pushed him further.  “Yes, but what does it mean?”  He thought about it and said, “I guess it’s saying that jail isn’t really doing a good job.  It’s kind of like Bellatrix LaStrange in Harry Potter. She was bad before they sent her to Azkaban.  But when she got out…she was wicked!”

In this exchange, Matthew began to interpret the text laid out before him and I think Kelly Gallagher would be proud. However, what I didn’t know is that Peter Johnston’s idea was at work as well. 

Yesterday, my younger son was having a momentary lapse of behavior that landed him a cool off stint in his bedroom.  Truth be told, he’s had a few of these lapses lately and is becoming more and more familiar with the four walls of his room. Disturbed by the familial disruption, my older son came to me and said, “Do you remember that thing you told me about jail and going back? Do you think that maybe sending Nay to his room is kind of like that?  It doesn’t really seem to be working.”

I looked at him and was awed both by his sensitivity and keen observation.  As I digested this comment, I realized that books and reading have become Matthew’s dress rehearsal for life and because he reads, he understands his own life better.  As a reading teacher mom, I love that this has happened, but what’s more, Matthew loves it and I think that’s what Peter Johnston was getting at.  Matthew sees value in reading and THAT will keep him coming back to books for his entire life.   

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Losing the Stanley Cup: A Lesson for Teachers

Last night, the Vancouver Canucks lost the last game of the Stanley Cup finals to the Boston Bruins.  Following this devastating 4-0 loss, disappointed fans took to the streets of Vancouver and began rioting.  Usually I am not too excited by hockey or sports in general, but images of angry, drunken Canadians behaving badly were all over the news this morning, so I couldn’t help but notice.  In a casual conversation with my husband, I mentioned, “Boy, Vancouver took losing the Stanley Cup really hard, huh?”  An avid hockey fan, he told me that Canadians take their hockey very seriously and jokingly added, “There’ll be a public lynching of the coach later this afternoon.” 

At first, I wanted to respond to this statement with a flip, “Why? The coach didn’t lose the game.  The players did.”  But before I spoke these words out loud, I found myself thinking about the coach’s role and his responsibility to his team. In any type of sports match, players act and react to the heat of the moment.  Their decisions and moves reflect an immediate interpretation of the game.  A coach, watching from the sidelines, sees the game from a completely different perspective.  It is his responsibility to read and interpret what’s going on all over the field, or in this case, the ice. That information, coupled with the sum total of mental data he has collected about his team through countless practices and games throughout the season, saddles him with the responsibility of calling the shots. It’s up to him to think about what he knows about these players—their strengths and weaknesses and make the decisions that will affect a more favorable outcome. 

As I thought about the coach’s responsibility to his team, I found myself thinking about teachers in the classroom.  So often we want to blame students for their failings: they don’t pay attention, they don’t do their homework, they’re not trying hard enough, they misbehave. But as teachers, we have to look at our students as if they were these hockey players.  Vancouver has never won a Stanley Cup and to be that close to the top prize in hockey, you know they WANTED to win.  They WANTED to be successful. Perhaps they played badly, but they didn’t lose because they are bad players.

I suspect that Alain Vigneault, head coach of the Vancouver Canucks will spend his summer watching video replays of last night’s game over and over.  He is going to want to know what went wrong.  Why did his team fail?  What could he have done differently to help them capture the coveted prize? As a coach, he basks in the glory of winning but he also shares the pain of defeat. 
And as educators, so too, must we.

Our classrooms are spotted with students who are struggling but we need to remember that they are not failing because they are bad kids.  They WANT to be successful.  As teachers, it is up to us to assess and reassess the big picture and call the shots that lead to more favorable outcomes.   When students fail, we must share the pain of defeat and closely examine its cause. And when they succeed, we can bask in the intoxicating glory of success because after all, when it comes to learning, teachers and students are in the game together.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Smoothie at the Zoo

In Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From The Natural History of Innovation, (Amazon affiliate link) he tells the story of a nineteenth century French obstetrician, Stephane Tarnier, who noticed a chicken incubator on a visit to the Paris Zoo.  As he watched the chickens toddle around in the warmth of the device, he thought about the number of babies he delivered that had died.  Those babies had been born too soon and as he watched, he wondered if an incubator was the answer to this problem.  With the help of the local zookeeper, Tarnier set to work creating the first incubator for babies and as a result of this collaborative mindstorm, Tarnier succeeded at cutting the infant mortality rate at his hospital in half.  Incubators revolutionized maternity wards and are so successful at nurturing the life of premature babies that they are used to this day in hospital NICUs the world over.

Why am I telling you this story?  Well, this morning I happened upon a blog by Dr. Todd Kashdan at Psychology Today titled “Ways to Be Insanely Creative Dissecting the Worlds’ Greatest Maverick Scientist.”  With a title like that, who could resist? I was fascinated to learn about John Lilly but what really stuck with me was Kashdan’s commentary about what we can learn from Lilly’s life.   He wrote, “The quickest route to creativity is the blending of ideas from multiple topics and disciplines,” and it dawned on me: that’s exactly what happened when Dr. Tarnier went to the zoo. And it’s exactly what happened when Donald Graves started to think about how we teach children to become better writers.  Once upon a time, we “assigned” writing. It was a task that was completed in a minimal amount of time and handed in for a grade.  We lamented the poor spelling, lack of grammar, and overall quality of the writing, gave it a C, and handed it back.  Like Tarnier who was at odds with an uncomfortable reality, Graves walked into the proverbial zoo with this problem on his mind.  If kids are to be better writers, he reasoned, we need to look closer at the people who publish books. How do they do it? How can our classrooms mimic the process that authors use to produce successful writing? 

Kashdan calls this blending of ideas “intellectual smoothies.” I love smoothies and I can think of no better time for a “smoothie” than the summer.  Education is ripe with paradoxes and problems in need of creative solutions.  My question is this: what will you be mulling over on your trips to the zoo?  

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A High Octane Year

It’s June and in June, it feels only natural to reflect.  In my travels from school to school, I have participated in many end-of-year conversations. I have laughed about Dylan, who talked incessantly during read aloud and about Gia, who refused to write a word in her notebook until January.  In thinking back, my colleagues and I have celebrated our triumphs and lamented our failings and wondered out loud if students mull the year over in the same way we do.  We quickly dismissed that notion as highly unlikely but after an insightful late afternoon stroll with my ten year old son, I learned that student reflection may well happen more often than we think. 

As Matthew and I walked, he began to talk about his school year.  This is his last year of elementary school and he was feeling nostalgic and sad that this chapter is coming to a close.  As he reminisced, he turned to me and said, “I wish this year had been better.  I was really on the wrong track for awhile.”

I listened intently as he told his version of a tough September, October, and November.  Those months were characterized by a blasé attitude and a commitment to doing the bare minimum.  School was very low on my son’s priority list and by mid-year, the problem had worsened to the point that my husband, my son’s teacher, the school principal, and I decided that it was time to intervene.  We formed a united front and devised a plan dedicated to rekindling Matthew’s  passion for learning. 

We knew that getting Matthew back on track would require regrouping, reorganizing, and something to pique his interest enough to motivate him to crave learning. Our plan was vast and intense--it included a new notebook system, a new reading log, some one-on-one learning time, and an independent study project. At the time, it felt like a leap of faith, but as it turns out, it was exactly what Matthew needed.

On this late afternoon stroll, Matthew thought hard about all that had transpired and revealed this, “You know, mom, I realized this year, I’m kind of like a car.  If you don’t give a car the right fuel, it won’t go.  I think I was getting the wrong fuel at the beginning of the year.  I needed my Lego stop motion project to make me interested in school again.  It helped a lot that my teacher took time to help me get organized on Tuesday mornings.  The second half of the year was way better than the first.”

He took his analogy further and went on to say that he wished that other kids could be “refueled” the same way he was. He thought that one boy in his class needed “technology” fuel and would behave better and do better in school if he had more opportunities to respond via a computer or ipad.  As he chatted, I took intent mental notes of his insights and thought hard about this idea of “learning fuel.” 

As teachers, we don’t get to pick our students.  Some struggle.  Some don’t care.  Some care but feel like their efforts are futile.  Some work hard.  Some work hard…most of the time.  Some do it perfectly.  Some never seem to get it right.  In spite of the “ya never know what you’re gonna get,” nature of our business, as teachers, we can know what we’re going to give: learning fuel.  Some need regular, some need high octane, some need diesel.  Fill the tank right and they’re all gonna go…and some might even sit around in June and say, “Thank you teacher, I had a great year.”