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.”

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Secret Society for Selecting Stories

This week, the “Social Times” segment of the NY Times posed this question to its Facebook fans: “While writing about the First Book Marketplace for fixes, I got to thinking about books that make children fall in love with reading. I just read Roald Dahl’s book The BFG with my son and he was enraptured.  What book did you—or a child you know—fall in love with?" Naturally, I responded because I have such vivid memories of my second grade teacher reading aloud Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary and my third grade teacher reading aloud Tales of the Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume.  When they read, I hung on to every word.  I begged for more when they closed the books.  And when they finished reading, I went to the library for more books by these authors.  When the Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary phase of my reading life ended and it was left to me to select my own books, I never picked ones that were as good as the ones my teachers read.   I came to believe that choosing great books was the result of belonging to some sort of secret society.  My teachers knew stuff that I didn’t and try as I might, I couldn’t replicate their success so I quit trying.  Eventually I stumbled upon Nancy Drew and that passion lasted for awhile but when fifth grade came around, I embarked on a reading dry spell that sadly lasted well into high school.  I read occasionally, but my reading habit went into a long period of hibernation.

As teachers, we are responsible for the reading growth and development of our students.  If we want our students to achieve increasing levels of proficiency, “long periods of hibernation” are simply unacceptable.  We are charged with the responsibility of cajoling and nudging and doing whatever it takes to ensure that children read.  This can be a particularly challenging charge; however, with reading proficiency so intimately linked to reading volume, it is probably our greatest responsibility as teachers.  But the question is how?  How do we get kids to want to read?

The answer is really not as complex as it seems. When my teachers introduced me to great authors through reading aloud, I was a reader.  When my teachers told me about books that I’d find on the shelves of my school library, I was a reader.  I only stopped when I could no longer find great authors and titles.  I stopped when that information became “secret.” When we ask, “How do we get kids to want to read,” the answer is simple: Invite them into the Secret Society for Selecting Stories by reading aloud and advertising books with the marketing zeal of McDonald’s. Every day pick up no less than five books and tell students something about the title or author or genre or series.  Let them know what’s out there!

The NY Times’ Facebook question yielded 144 responses.  People spoke fondly and  passionately about the books that turned them into readers.  The list was vast and varied and as I read through the titles it occurred to me that this list needed to be made public in a big way.  The more teachers know about books, specifically books that turn kids into readers, the better able we are to inform students.  If you’ve got students who look at reading as drudgery, be sure to check out the titles that people recommended. http://www.facebook.com/#!/permalink.php?story_fbid=184828184899541&id=147881585260868  

But let this be only a beginner list!  Share with us the book that turned you into a reader!  And your children?  And your students? 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

An Evolution of Change in our Reading Diet

One night last week, my second grade son Nathan stayed up late reading Mary Pope Osborne’s Dragon of the Red Dawn from the Merlin Mission installments of The Magic Tree House series.  I was very pleased to see this because Nathan has always been my eager reader but second grade brought about a bit of a change.  He became a “take it or leave it” reader—devouring books that captured his fancy and being perfunctory at all other times.  It was good to see him feeling hungry for his old friends Jack and Annie.

The next morning, he came into my room with the book in hand and said, “Mom, mom, you’ve got to hear this!” The passage he read aloud went like this:

Below the tree house was a beautiful garden filled with cherry trees and long-leafed willows.  A waterfall tumbled into a sparkling green pool.

He went on to say, “Can’t you picture that mom?  Isn’t that beautiful?  You know, I like the Merlin Missions so much better than the “original” Magic Tree House.  I have to read these books slower and I like them so much better because they don’t take me just a day to finish like the other ones.”


When I talk to teachers about book choice, I often encourage them to allow children to choose “easy” reads.  I implore teachers to bless magazines and picture books and comics as valid reading but teachers are skeptical.  I am often questioned about this idea of “challenging” young readers.  If students are capable of reading a chapter book, why shouldn’t they? If they are always reading things that are too easy, how will they grow as readers? 

I think these concerns have real merit, but my response always begins like this: If our students do not embrace reading, hard or easy, it won’t matter because they won’t be doing much of either.  And the second thing I always say is that nobody stays in the same place as a reader forever.  Nathan is living proof.  Once upon a time, Dinosaurs Before Dark and Afternoon on the Amazon satisfied him as a reader.  Now, he craves longer books.  He craves books with richer description and that is why the Merlin Missions, with their familiar characters, but slightly more complex language, have rekindled a fire. 

When I was in high school, I loved VC Andrews and Danielle Steel.  Once I got married and settled into my grown up life, romance novels no longer had the appeal they once did.  I moved on to Belva Plain and then read everything by Jodi Piccoult.  I eventually tired of them and began a steady and exclusive diet of non-fiction.  Now I love Malcom Gladwell and Chip and Dan Heath, and of course, all books about literacy and learning.  If anybody would have told me that VC Andrews was not challenging enough and suggested that I try out something more my “speed,” I wouldn’t have.  I wanted to read what I wanted to read.  And when I was done, I moved on to the next thing that I wanted to read.  Like I said before, nobody stays in the same place as a reader forever.  If you doubt me, think about your own reading life.  Do you read the same stuff you read in high school?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Literacy Gospel Unhinged

As a literacy coach, I travel from school to school. I don’t have a home base and therefore, often work in classrooms that don’t look even a smidge like what my own classroom used to look like. Sometimes desks are organized in rows and it’s difficult to move about the room. Sometimes there’s no meeting area. Sometimes there’s no easel or markers or paper. Sometimes the classroom library is nothing more than books crammed onto a shelf in the back corner of the room. I work within the parameters I am given and have to think on my feet about how to adjust to mediate my vision for good literacy instruction.

One day, while visiting a second grade classroom, I gathered the students on the carpet and taught a mini lesson. At the end of the lesson, I released the students to read independently. Generally speaking, it is my practice to invite children to find their comfy nook around the room and cozy up with their book, but in this classroom, the desks were butted up against one another in three long rows. It wasn’t clear to me where the students would comfortably and safely go, so on this day, I simply instructed the students to return to their seats and do their independent reading there. It all seemed relatively straightforward until a couple of weeks later when I was having a casual conversation with one of the teachers who observed this lesson. She and I rapped about some of the things she was doing differently and she shared that she had stopped having her students read around the room and had them now reading at their desks. I was surprised when she told me this so I asked her why. “Well, Kim, when I watched you, that’s what you did.”

This particular teacher had nurtured her classroom environment all year and had made sweeping changes. She had a well-stocked, well-organized classroom library and her students had book baggies that they were reading from religiously every day. It surprised me that she did not question me before shifting to a practice that seemed so counterintuitive to the work she had been doing. But I was her expert. She saw me do something and therefore, it was so.

At first, this shocked me but as I thought about it, it occurred to me that I do the same thing. I once heard Dick Allington discuss the “five pillars” of reading instruction: phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. When he said this, I took frantic, thorough, copious notes. I memorized them so that I could recite them backwards and forward. And I have repeated his words on countless occasions—in spite of the fact that I had the hardest time explaining the difference between phonics and phonemic awareness instruction in the classroom. Aren’t they kind of one in the same when you’re teaching? I wondered. Dick Allington is one of my experts. He said it, therefore, it was so. I didn’t trust that I would be worthy of questioning the gospel spoken by one held in such high esteem.

When it comes to great literacy instruction, it isn’t enough that Lucy or Dick or Irene said it. Inquiry and reflection help us hone our skill and practice as educators. If we are going to make lasting changes, we cannot heed everything we read and see and hear as the literacy gospel. Change is rooted in understanding and the path to understanding is paved with questions. When you’re confused or uncertain, stop at nothing to find answers to the things that do not make sense.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Boy Friendly Classrooms

My family and I recently returned from a memory-filled vacation at Disney. While there, my fifth grade son Matthew had the foresight to think about how he would preserve these memories and asked if I would purchase a photo album so that he could make a scrapbook commemorating the highlights of our trip. Both touched and thrilled at this suggestion, I overpaid for a Mickey themed album, brought it home, developed our photos, and Matthew went to work. I sat beside him as he busied himself with sliding the pictures into the plastic sleeves and wrote catchy captions to describe the events of our vacation. I watched intently as he worked. He misspelled words and scribbled them out and rewrote them. His handwriting was messy. There was none of the meticulousness that I remembered applying to similar projects in my childhood.

As he worked, I thought a lot about what I had read that morning. In Pam Allyn's Best Books for Boys: How to Engage Boys in Reading in Ways That Will Change Their Lives (amazon affiliate link), she quoted Harvard psychologist William Pollack who says, “More boys than girls are in special education classes. More boys than girls are prescribed mood-managing drugs. This suggests that today’s schools are built for girls, and boys are becoming misfits.” And it was these words that forced me to muster every ounce of self control in me and refrain from chastising his work. I wanted to say, “Can’t you do that a little neater? Don’t you think it would be better if you were more thoughtful?” But I didn’t because I realized that what I wanted was to cloud his vision with what I perceived to be a more correct vision. I wanted him to do it my way. My female way.

This got me thinking about how often we do this in schools. Are children, particularly boys, doing things “wrong” as often as we think they are? When they write, is it really not that good or is it that it doesn’t match a preconceived notion of what they should have written? Are they really misbehaving or is it that they are not behaving in the way that we would have? Is their artwork messy because they didn’t color in the lines or is it that they intended to add action in ways that we could not conceive of?

Most school faculties are comprised of a female majority. School activities and classroom management and expectations of how children comply are driven by the female psyche. Could it really be that the female way of thinking is different enough from males that we create environments that alienate half of the learning population? On this one occasion I stopped short of committing the crime of imposing hearts and borders on my son’s scrapbook but I have to wonder, how many times did I not? I am willing to stand among the convicted when it comes to admitting guilt of making boys feel like misfits. But I am repenting. I am thinking hard about what I will do differently to embrace gender differences and create learning environments that cater to the unique needs of boy learners.

To start, I will no longer insist that children write or read sitting down. If they need to stand and shift from side to side, so be it. I will no longer insist that reading time be uninterrupted by bathroom breaks or short periods of gazing out the window. If they need to let their minds wander or to think more about what they are reading, so be it. But past this, I’m not sure what else I should change and that is why I am appealing to you, my readership, to share your suggestions for modifying common practices to make boys feel more at home in the classroom. What else can we do in schools to close the gender gap?