Friday, February 18, 2011

Popcorn Reading

Back in 1992, all movie theaters cooked their popcorn in coconut oil. As movie goers, we devoured it by the bag—buckets even—unaware that as we ate, we ingested 37 grams of saturated fat.

Did you catch that? I said thirty-seven grams of fat.

If you ate eggs and bacon for breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and topped it off with a steak with a side of baked potato with butter and sour cream, you’d ingest slightly less than 37 grams of fat. So, you see, thirty-seven grams of fat is bad. Really bad. And when people began realizing HOW bad bad was, there was public outrage. Movie theaters had no choice. They had to abandon the coconut oil and switch to something better.

You might be wondering why I am telling you this story and the reason is simple. Literacy has a “popcorn” problem: You might recognize it from your own education…or possibly, even from your own teaching. It looks a lot like this:

“Boys and girls, today we are going to read from our Social Studies textbook about World War II. Please open your book to page 56. Who would like to begin reading aloud? …Great job, Billy. Thomas, were you paying attention? I want you to continue reading. Kathy get ready, you’re next.”

Sound familiar? This practice has many variations but the bottom line is this: whether you popcorn around the room or pick sticks out of a jar, it’s all round robin reading. And like popcorn cooked in coconut oil, there are alarming problems inherent in this practice. It puts children on the spot, asks them to perform without practicing, it can be demeaning and demoralizing, but most of all, it severely limits the amount of practice kids get ACTUALLY reading. Oral reading rates are by nature slower than silent reading rates which means that when a text is read aloud, you are not going to read as much in the same amount of time as you would if you read it silently in your head. During round robin reading, the average turn lasts about one minute and between the time a child reads aloud and attentively reads along with the other children as they take their turns, they read for about six minutes. Six measly minutes.

So, like popcorn cooked in coconut oil, round robin reading is bad. Really bad. We need to feel the same public outrage and demand something better.

The question this leaves us with is this: When we want our students to come together around a text, what are our options? What other choices do teachers have besides taking turns listening to children read sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Answer to a Well Balanced Reading Diet: Guided Reading Blog # 5 in the Guided Reading Series

Balanced-DietNew York State has a standard that requires students to read at least 25 books a year. Before I left my third grade classroom to become a staff developer, I made the goal to read 25 books front and center. In addition to number of books, I was also concerned about type of books. I wanted my students to have a varied reading diet so in my classroom, the requirement to read 25 books came with a caveat: five had to be realistic fiction, five had to be poetry, five had to be picture books, five had to be non-fiction, and five could be whatever the student chose. (and then there was the hope that they’d read many books beyond the 25 required…)

Fast forward ten years. Since leaving the classroom, I have continued to advocate for varied reading diets and recently my opinionated (and exasperated) fifth grade son said to me, “I hate it when teachers tell me what I HAVE to read. Why does it matter? Why can’t I always read what I want to read?”

So, he got me thinking. Why does it matter that children have varied reading diets? In my mind, it comes back to this: A varied reading diet introduces children to a wide range of vocabulary, it develops background knowledge, and calls upon a wide range of reading strategies. As teachers, we want students to be armed with well-packed toolboxes and if the only thing they ever read is, say, Magic Tree House, the reading process will become so automatic (inherently good) that they won’t need to practice the skills and strategies they will need for the next series or genre they feel ready for.

Basically, I felt that if I didn’t nudge my students to stretch themselves, they’d never have the tools they’d need to be good readers.

Enter guided reading.

By definition, guided reading is the time when children read instructional level texts with the support and guidance of a teacher. The purpose of these small group lessons is to accomplish exactly what I alluded to before: toolbox packing. It’s the time when I think about my students and their needs as readers. What do they need to know? What can I do to help them know this better?

One of the things they may need is guidance about new reading genres. Maybe they don’t pick up biographies because they don’t have the tools they need to navigate the text. Maybe the intersection of facts with make-believe is too complicated for a reader picking up historical fiction for the first time. Guided reading gives us the opportunity to support readers as they venture into new genres. In hindsight, my students might have groaned as much as my son at my “varied reading diet” requirement because as I have confessed before, I didn’t do guided reading. I didn’t say to them, “these are the things that you will need to be able to read these texts,” and in return they might have been saying things like, “Do I have to? I hate mystery.” Loosely translated, what that might have really been saying is, “Do I have to? I have no idea how to read that genre.”

In this series, I have questioned guided reading as a viable intermediate structure and wondered if it is more suited to primary aged children who have so much to learn about learning to read. However, when I think in terms of varied reading diet and packing reading toolboxes with the skills and strategies needed to handle a wide variety of texts, I realize even when children have a large stash of sight words and can decode new words in milliseconds, they are still learning to read. When I ask the question, “Does guided reading have a place in the intermediate classroom?” The answer is simple and indisputable: YES.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Handprint on the Sidewalk

handprintDo you know what “active” teaching is? If I told you “it’s the kind of teaching that makes learning palpable,” would that clarify things? If you’re thinking, “no, not really,” you’re not alone. “Active” teaching is an abstract concept. In order for it to make sense, we need to shift to the concrete.

Today, my task was to teach a group of eighth graders how to write good beginnings for literary essays. Having been down this road before, I could anticipate the pitfalls:
  • Too short
  • Too detailed
  • Summarizes everything into first paragraph
In the past, when students have fallen short of the goal of writing a “good” introductory paragraph, I’ve said things like, “Make sure it has a thesis statement,” or “You need to write more than this.” Like those of us confused by the term “active” teaching defined as “palpable learning,” feedback like this suffers the same fate. It means nothing because it is too abstract.

So instead of vague teaching, I focused on being concrete. In my mini lesson, I listed the criteria for a good beginning: Title of story, author, position being presented, at least 3-5 sentences, catchy. I showed them models of good beginnings and bad beginnings. Then I asked students to work together in small groups to craft a beginning for a response to a piece that we had recently read together.
And then the wrestle with words began.

One group’s first attempt went like this:

In the story In Your Hat by Ellen Conford, Dennis asked his crush, Ariel for help with his book report that was due the next day.

When I stopped by to confer with the group, I could see immediately that this group had slipped into the familiar routine of summarizing what had happened. Instead of saying, “This has too much summary, we walked to the front of the classroom where the models still sat and we studied them together. We puzzled through how what they had written compared to how the models were written and they noticed that the model began with a more general statement and then moved to the more specific thesis statement. They set back to work and their second attempt read like this:

In life, you get pranked. Either you get your underwear put up the flagpole or you get called for a fake order of Uggs from the 99 cent store. Neither are nice. You can either get back at the prankster or let it go. In Ellen Conford’s In Your Hat, Ariel, who had been pranked by Dennis, decided to get him back. And when she did, she went way too far.

This is a dramatic change that speaks volumes about the learning that transpired. In fact, one of the girls in the group even said, “Why did nobody ever tell me this before? I’ve been doing this the wrong way all these years and I never understood why.”

Little did she know, her teachers have been telling her, but in explaining how to do it better what they’ve really been saying is “active teaching is palpable learning.” If we want to reach students, we have to ask ourselves, “How can I teach this in a way that will reach my students?” The answer is in the handprint on the sidewalk: be concrete.