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.