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.