To Help Students Read, Be a Reader (23/365)

child reading a book while surrounded by books on a bed

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

At a community event for our school district, a parent raises her hand. She has a question.

“What can we do to know what our kids are supposed to be learning in their classes and help at home?”
The answer in the room is about lessons and unit plans. It includes talking to your child’s teacher about what’s happening in class and taking a look at online profiles.
I raise my hand. I have an answer.
“Please read and talk about what you read with your child.”
From PISA scores and surveys we have evidence that students who come from homes where parents read for pleasure are likely to be better readers than their peers coming from homes where parents don’t read for pleasure. What’s more, there’s some evidence of a positive correlation between students seeing their parents hold books and reading scores.
In the conversation about reading and the reading profiles of our students, we sometimes miss the conversation about reading identities. In my dreams, all students are asked to complete a survey at the beginning of a school year. It would have only two questions:
On a scale of 1-5, how much do you agree with each of the following statements:
  • I am a reader.
  • I like reading.
(I have a few other questions such as whether students read in their spare time, their favorite kinds of books, etc., but I won’t be greedy.)
Midway through the year and at the year’s end, we ask these same questions and we track students’ dispositions as important indicators of their trajectories as both lifelong readers and learners. Simply stated, students are unlikely to keep doing a thing they don’t enjoy and that does not fit with how they see themselves.
We know what this looks like because we have friends and family who say things like, “I’m not a big reader,” or “I don’t really read.” These are not people who say they cannot read, they are saying they do not. Teachers along the course of their educational tenures made sure these people were functionally literate without paying attention to whether they would be literately functioning when they left school.
Yes, comprehension skills are important, and yes, accessing complex texts and tasks is key to preparing students to be engaged and active citizens. We miss the opportunity, though, when we prioritize these and the myriad other standards and skills of reading instructions and leave out considerations of what it means to be a reader and why such an identity is important.
So, when a parent asks what can be done to support students at home, my answer is reading – everyone in the family reading and discussion what they’ve read. To do less than this is to signal reading as something done in school, and given up after.

The One Question I Ask Everyone (4/365)

question marks painted on tree trunks in a forest

Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

Just before I started my new job last year, I tried to think about what kind of signature I might want to add to conversations. I was about to meet many more teachers in our district than I’d ever had the chance to interact with before, and I wanted to be conscious of the impression I was making – using it to someone start to shift culture.

The question I settled on, “What are you reading?” As a language arts coordinator, it made sense.

When I would meet with grade-level teams, start a professional development workshop, engage in a coaching conversation it was the same question. From k to 12 I’d ask the room, “What are you reading?”

A few days after a meeting with a team of elementary teachers whom I’d worked with several times across the year, their principal told me one of the teachers had confided he was upset following our time together. I was understandably worried. Not only do I take my job to support teachers seriously, I’m a Midwesterner. “No, no,” the principal said, “He thought the conversation and work were great. He was upset because he made sure he had an answer for when you asked what he was reading and then you didn’t ask.”

I hadn’t.

It was the end of the year, I was working with a team of teachers with whom I’d established a rapport, and I hadn’t felt a need to break the ice. What had initially been meant as a seemingly innocuous question that could start to chip away at culture had been repositioned in my mind as a convenient ice breaker. The thing was, this exchange was evidence the culture was changing. The same teacher who was upset I hadn’t asked was one of the many many many teachers throughout the year who had needed to take a beat on my first asking of the question.

“I’m not really a reader,” many teachers would say before we dove into the work of helping students build identities as lifelong readers. To a person, though, they were able to list several texts when I would push, “So you didn’t read anything yesterday?”

“Well, not a book,” they’d say, and I’d point out that I hadn’t asked what book they were reading. From there, teachers would talk about magazines, news sites, blogs, and any other medium you can think of. By the end of the conversation, I’d usually jotted down a few new places I was interested in reading.

Then, I would point out, “If this is the longest conversation you’ve ever had in this building about yourself as a reader, then we’re missing an amazing opportunity to connect with our students.” If the kids in our care only see us as people who make them read the things you’re “supposed” to read in school, and not actual daily readers ourselves, then we’re missing myriad opportunities to be powerful role models of literacy.

After this conversation at one of our middle schools, the school’s librarian polled the faculty on their favorite books and then took pictures of each person holding the book. She pulled the titles from the library shelves and displayed them alongside the pictures at the top of the stacks. Within days, each of the teacher-preferred titles was checked out.

Another teacher of elementary students took to posting a printed photo of the cover of whatever book she was currently reading outside her door. Alongside it was a paragraph explaining what the text was about and another recounting how she had come to choose the book.

One principal posted photos of what she was reading on her office door – a teacher book and a juvenile title. When students found themselves in the office as a result of a poor choice, situations were diffused when conversations started with questions of whether they’d ever heard of either of the titles.

In my own office, where only adults ever come to visit me, I have two printed pictures hanging, the book I’m reading as part of professional learning and the book I’m staying up too late each night reading (Chris Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, respectively).

The folks I meet with know me pretty well now or know what I do in the district before we sit down. As a result, I’ve shirked asking the question. I plan to bring it back. I miss the expectation of it. I miss the positive assumption that the people with whom I work, people charged with fostering learning daily, are readers. I also missed the sometimes overwhelming lists of recommendations the question elicited like when I asked the question in a meeting of librarians and we ran dangerously close of scrapping the whole meeting agenda while we shared our newest favorites. You know what, though, we captured every title and everyone in the room asked if we would share the list in the meeting notes. Building an expectation of reading means building a culture of reading. And that means giving people space to talk about their reading.

What are you reading?

What If Students Read More Books? (3/365)

Photo by Eli Francis on UnsplashI struggle mightily every day not to scream, “Stop making everyone read the same damned book!”

Yes, there is a beauty in a shared reading and examining of a text, but there is a perverse ugliness in the shared pretending to read and examine a text.

Yes, strive to have democratic classrooms honoring all voices, but do not pretend texts assigned by edict or the false choice of 4 titles equals democracy.

Yes, helping students gain the keys they’ll need to unlock cultural doors through understanding the ideas of canonical literature gives a leg up, but the leg up means little if that canon leads to a belief those are the only stories worth reading and telling.

Yes, Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, To Kill a Mockingbird, and their ilk are masterfully written, but we were having conversations about humanity’s darkness, political inequality, and race in America long before each was written (and perhaps we’ve gotten better at it since).

There is an oppression in forcing someone to read a book long after they’ve realized they hate it. What might the effects of that oppression be on how students think about reading after they’ve left our care?

There is a disrespect in only asking students to read a single novel in a quarter or semester when conservative estimates put the number of new books each year at 600,000. What stories will they never see or see themselves in?

There is a shutting of our minds when we say, “These are the books I teach. What might we learn if realize we teach students and help them learn from as many texts as possible?

There is an hypocrisy in decrying the effects of text-impoverished homes on students’ literacy and then pretending we support and frame our school libraries as spaces students own. What if we allowed student access to these spaces in the same way we access bookstores, coffee shops, and the kindle store?

If literacy is key to democracy, if one in four American adults hadn’t read a book in whole or part in 2016, and if more than 90% of those adults were products of American public schools; then maybe we should stop making everyone ready the same damned book.

As a literate adult, how did you come to read the last book you read?

How Do We Begin to Create a Culture of Reading and Writing?

Boy reading book on the floor of a book store.“Do me a favor,” I say, “and close your eyes. I’m going to ask you to visualize something. If I told you you’re visiting a school with a healthy culture of reading and writing, I want to you visit it in your imagination. Start with the lobby or entryway. Notice everything you see and hear as you walk through.”

The exercise goes on for about thirty seconds. I ask the assembled room of teachers to walk the halls, look in on classrooms, listen in on the conversations in common spaces and between the folks they pass in hallways.

I ask them to pay attention to the adults and to the students equally. “Everyone is responsible for creating and sustaining culture, so make sure to observe and listen in on everyone.”

When each teacher has finished their tour, it’s tie to write. “Take five minutes and put it all out in writing. Capture as much of the detail as possible. If you draw a blank, keep writing, ‘and, and, and, and,’ until your brain fills in the holes. Trust that it will.” And, the room takes five minutes to write.

Next, I ask them to share with someone else in the room, not reading the writing verbatim, but distilling to key ideas. I limit the time to talk because conversations at this point are fully-fed and reproducing like tribbles.

The final step, jumping into a shared and open google doc where they answer one question as many times as they can, “What would it take to create the kind of culture you envisioned in your school?”

Again, the activity is timed. Most of the time, I’m having this conversation as a drop-in to a larger meeting. There are other atomized conversations about literacy on the agenda.

I’ve run this conversation several times in the last few months. As the language arts coordinator, it’s one of my favorites. The creativity and joy it elicits each time can be unfamiliar for your average professional meeting.

All of that said, we need to be having this conversation or some variant thereof as much as possible in schools of every level. From pK to 12, we need a picture of the kind of culture of reading and writing we’re hoping to inspire and establish if we want the people in our care to see themselves as readers and writers who aspire to ask and answer better questions.

Here are a few things I’ve noticed in each iteration of this conversation:

  • No one – no matter their subject area – has ever said, “I don’t know” at any point of the process.
  • No one has argued with the assumption what they’re being asked to envision is not important, worth their time, helpful to students, or a better version of what learning and teaching can be.
  • Once they get started with the writing and the talking and the coming up with ideas of how to make it work, the conversations are difficult to curtail or contain.
  • Almost every single idea these teachers generate for how to shift the culture of their schools is free to implement. When it’s not free, it’s low-cost or an idea any PTO would be thrilled to help realize these ideas.

So, let’s do it. Let us build a context around the atomized skills we’re all-too-clear our students need help building and then make it the norm that every person in our care instinctually knows our schools are places where our implied shared identity is one of curious readers and writers.

No, You’re On Grade Level!

level

Are you doing particle physics at grade level? How about your saxophone playing? Is it on par with your age group? Your ballet? Chemistry? Calculus?

My best guess is your answer to most, if not all, of these question was somewhere between “huh?” and “nope.” That’s to be expected.

Let me take one from my own learning – particle physics. First, look at your thumbnail. Turn it so you’re looking along its ridge. If all of space is what is known about particle physics, then one percent of the width of your thumbnail represents what I know about the subject.

That isn’t to say I know nothing about particle physics. I have certain facts and concepts catalogued in my brain and connected to the rest of the knowledge and experiences I’ve got up there. A secret? I’ve never taken a class on particle physics. Heck, I’ve never even taken a class on physics.

Yet, there’s the knowledge – one thumbnail deep. I learned it because I was curious. Something I’d run up against in the world inspired a question, and I was motivated to learn.

Given all of this, would you say my knowledge of particle physics is on grade level?

My answer would be yes. My ability to speak to the topic is aligned with any intrinsic needs I have to understand it better to accomplish any external goals I might feel. It has nothing to do with my age or how many years I have or have not been in school.

Somehow, though, we let the phrase “on grade level” determine not only the value we place on a child’s learning in a given subject, but the approach we take to helping that child advance his learning in that subject.

Reading is the most frustrating example in this conversation (with math not lagging too far behind). When a measure of a student’s ability to read is not commensurate with his “born on date” (to borrow from Sir Ken), we react as though all brains develop at exactly the same speed and that reading is intrinsically-driven by a person’s genetics. I say this as an English teacher and one who decided to spend four years of college reading and talking about it, there is nothing about reading that is biologically inherent to the human experience.

I learned to read because I was curious, and thank goodness I did. It meant I was dubbed on-level from the beginning and thus allowed free choice in the books I selected inside and outside of school. I knew how to read, and according to my teachers, this meant I was allowed to read.

My classmates who weren’t grade-level curious or weren’t interested in reading early enough were not so lucky. Because they were destined to wonder too late, they were also destined to be forced into (s)lower reading groups. We all knew it. Whether coded by bird species or color, my classmates and I knew that some of us were welcome to pick up whatever book we wanted and others were relegated to only specific shelves.

Walk into most reading classes today and things have gone further south. Students can tell you their reading level by reciting a number to you attached to nothing other than their knowledge that the bigger the number, the more worth they have as a reader. Reading capitalism.

I’ve taught these students when they’ve arrived at middle and high school. “I don’t read,” the tell me early in the school year. When I ask why, they tell me they aren’t good at it. That makes me sad. Delving more deeply into their histories of being schooled into reading, they explain they never liked the books their teachers made them read in earlier grades. Many of them simply didn’t read and figured out how to passably appear as though they had.

This realization is what convinced me of the need to open my classroom to student choice. I didn’t care what students were reading so long as they always were and could show consistent growth in their ability to talk and write about it. Sure, we read some shared texts so I could understand students’ progress at grasping key concepts of the discipline. When it came to grade-level reading, though, all I was working toward was disabusing my students of the idea that reading was something people did so they could reach a certain level for a certain grade.

What I’d like to see, and what holding tightly to the idea of “on grade level” prevents, is not students who see their worth as readers, scientists, mathematicians, or musicians, but who see worth in those activities and are members of communities that foster their curiosity to know and do more.

A History of a Thing I Lost

Light Reading

Are there books you can read more than once? I’m talking outside of the fervor with which you approached Harold and the Purple Crayon or Dr. Seuss as a child. Are there books that keep bringing you back to their pages for more?

For me, the list is incredibly few. At its top sits The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. I won’t pretend that an 18th Century book by Samuel Johnson first published in serial form fits my go-to profile for favorite books. This one, though, is an example of the right book at the right time.

Rasselas and I first became acquainted during Fall semester of freshman year in college. The prof who taught my required Foundations of Inquiry course was also an 18th Century Brit Lit scholar, and he used a quotation from Rasselas at the top of his syllabus.

Our discussion of that quotation on the first day of class influenced a line of thinking for me that was something like, “College. Okay, yeah. I see how I could like it here.” And, I did.

I found Rasselas on the shelves of the local used book store and devoured it over winter break (a tradition I kept for many years after). The book became my gift of choice when friends faced major life choices and changes. I have no knowledge of whether or not any of them read the book, but handing it to them was an act of saying, “This was a flashlight when I needed it. I hope it can be the same for you.”

While I compulsively searched every used bookstore I encountered for more copies to add to my stock, one version, a small, light green edition stayed on my shelves with my notes in the margins. While not the, this was my first edition. We’d been on the journey together. We’d conversed about the importance of making your choice and being content.

Then, I gave it away. At a moment of realizing someone else needed it more than I did, I handed that edition off, hoping the combination of Johnson’s words and my margin notes might offer more than a clean copy could.

I miss that book. Since handing it over, I’ve not found another edition of Rasselas. We haven’t spent this much time apart since we met in college. Until we meet again, I’m trying my best to remember the lessons we learned together.


This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

Dana Boyd proves ‘It’s Complicated’

Dana Boyd’s It’s Complicated has been on my Kindle for longer than a book of its quality should have to wait in digital limbo before a person gets around to reading it.

Complicated is Boyd’s distilling and examination of years of exploration of the online lives of the American teen. Making the title apt, the text shows that teens’ relationship to online spaces is complicated and best summed up for me in the closing pages:

As teens work through the various issues that emerge around networked publics, they must struggle with what it means both to be public and to be in public.

I tried, as I made my way through the book, to figure out where I was agreeing with Boyd because she was making points I’ve made in public before and where I was agreeing with her because she’d masterfully unveiled a new line of thinking. In the end, I tipped my hat to Boyd because she’d made points that had never occurred to me and woven them together with what I realized were my own simple ways of thinking.

Explaining Complicated to a friend the other day, I explained, were I designing a syllabus that included the book, I’d follow it quickly with Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American City.

Because that’s what Boyd does here, she pounds the digital concrete of modern American cities and attempts to understand how teens are hanging out there the way they used to do on stoops and in malls across the country.

Additionally, she works to understand adults’ fears that have driven teens to these spaces and adults’ fears now that they’re there. Boyd writes, “[S]ocial media services like Facebook and Twitter are providing teens with new opportunities to participate in public life, and this, more than anything else, is what concerns many anxious adults.”

I read the book with a constant refrain in my mind, “What kind of adults are we forcing these teens to become?”

For adults to make their way through that fear, Boyd later adds, “For adults to hear the voices of youth, they must let go of their nostalgia and suspend their fears.”

Perhaps this idea is where Complicated hits its highest note. In helping readers to pull apart the fear from the fact, Boyd sets the stage for a measured, informed conversation of how we create and monitor online and physical spaces for our teens.

I read the book with a constant refrain in my mind, “What kind of adults are we forcing these teens to become?”

If you’re looking for something more informed to say than, “Kids these days!” then it’s time to pick up Dana Boyd’s It’s Complicated.


 

You can find a full list of Kindle notes and highlights from the book here.

Stocking our libraries with students

Brooklyn Art Library

“Harry — I think I’ve just understood something! I’ve got to go to the library!”
And she sprinted away, up the stairs.
What does she understand?” said Harry distractedly, still looking around, trying to tell where the voice had come from.
“Loads more than I do,” said Ron, shaking his head.
“But why’s she got to go to the library?”
“Because that’s what Hermione does,” said Ron, shrugging. “When in doubt, go to the library.” 
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

If we are to truly have conversations about students as publishers and have them consider copyright and what rights they want on the works they create, then there are other questions of infrastructure.

The main question, where can we put these things so that they will live on? Sometimes we think that they will be okay if they are put “online” as though the world is standing at their browsers waiting for a new student-produced video to watch.

It is not that we do not value student-produced content on the whole, but that we do not go seeking the fifth-grade research report about bees from four states or two districts away.

We have places for these things and the chance to imbue them with greater worth and an audience relevant to the places in which they were created – libraries.

One of the first questions I ask of potential digital content management systems is, “Can we catalog and feature student work in your system?” If not, move along.

As teachers increase the number of authentic learning experiences to which they introduce students, it’s going to be important that we not only capture that learning and reflection, but that we have a way of sharing it and cataloging it as well.

I work with middle and elementary schools where the younger students feed directly from the lower school to the upper school. As I work with teachers, I ask how their students are building resources and content for those who will come next.

This is obvious in Language Arts classrooms where students can write stories and create picture books for their elementary counterparts to be logged in the catalog systems of each school and accessible to students.

Less obvious might be the science report, the biography of locally-relevant historical figures, histories of businesses or farms within the city or town.

One of my favorite components of Howard Gardner’s definition of intelligence is the ability to create something of use or value to the culture to which a person belongs. Imagine a library with limited budget that can be stocked by the creations of students. Imagine the one student who has been tinkering on a novel or novella secretly who is given the chance to showcase his work across his school or an entire district.

If, as I’ve argued we ask students to consider how they want to copyright work they’ve released into the wild, then we should also create wild spaces where those works can graze and circulate widely.

#wellrED Week 2

José, Larissa, Scott, and I got together Thursday night in an on-air google hangout to discuss Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children for the second week running. While the schedule said we’d be talking about “Part 1” of the book, our conversation focused only on “The Silenced Dialogue.”

It was a thought-provoking hour of conversation that I’m still mulling over, and likely will be until next week’s conversation. You can read about the catalyst for the reading group here, and join the group here.

As for my part, I’m enjoying having a space to look forward to each week where race, ethnicity, culture, privilege, equity, power, and other critical issues that are easily overlooked in education is the set focus.

Last week, I switched from the print to Kindle version of the book. You can track highlights and comments here.

More importantly, consider joining in the reading. The book is a collection of essays, so you can easily jump in mid-book. Next week, we’ll be talking about pgs. 48-69. Join the hangout or the twitter chat. Maybe just post to the discussion board. Either way, let’s elevate the conversation and critical thinking around these important issues of practice.

It’s about time to show we’re #wellrED

#wellrED logoEarly February, I announced that Jose Vilson and I were starting a book group through GoodReads for folks whose lives are entangled with education. We saw a general lack of conversation around the tough issues we face in districts, schools, and classrooms, and thought maybe there was something we could do about that.

A little over a month later, and we’ve got about 50 members of the #wellrED group, and are about to start our conversations around Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children. Just looking at the group members, I know this is going to include some great dialogue. Folks from all over the US have signed on to think deeply and listen to understand other people’s thoughts around the book.

You should too.

Pick up a copy of Children today. You’ve got plenty of time to read the introduction and forward by the time we post this week’s questions Wednesday. Then, join us Thursday from 7:30-8:30 EST for an on-air Google hangout discussion of what we’ve read and/or join us for a twitter chat at the same time with the hashtag #wellrED.

Being connected gives us a chance to create the type of professional learning we’ve been looking for. Hopefully, this discussion is something you’ve been hoping for.

If you have any questions about any of the above information, leave a comment below, and I’ll be happy to help you get connected.