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.

The Book Group We’ve Been Waiting For

#wellrED logo

You and anyone you care to invite are invited to join the new book group on GoodReads – #wellrED.

Jose Vilson and I have started the group, and our first book study will start March 19 when we dive into Lisa Delpit’s inaugural work Other People’s Children. The book is scheduled to last 5 weeks, with a second book starting not long after that.

I anticipate online discussion forums, hangouts, and twitter chats will be on the schedule as we move forward.

More than all that, though, is my excitement over the conversations we’ll be having. For me, it’s been a jarring experience heading to Colorado after being on the East Coast for 5 years. Here, there is little-to-no practical conversation about race, class, privilege, and all of the other difficult conversations that should come up when we consider what it means for people of all backgrounds to come together for a joint educational enterprise.

I’ll let Jose explain his hopes for the group, and I’d like to think this is a continuation of his EduCon conversation with Audrey Watters – “The Privileged Voices in Education.”

I don’t expect the conversations to be easy. I expect some folks will be uncomfortable. That’s how growth and change usually work. I also expect that it’s an important conversation we’re not having enough of in our schools, in our district’s, and in our country.

Join us.

Looking for Advanced Group Work

I’ve just finished the penultimate chapter of Jim Knight’s Unmistakable Impact as part of a book study with other district leaders. Below are my thoughts on the chapter, “Intensive Learning Teams.”


It’s not that I don’t appreciate Knight’s thinking throughout this book, it’s that a better title might have been, Put Some Structure in Your Schools.

Each chapter thus far has been filled with interesting and helpful information gussied up in terms like Chapter 6’s “intensive learning teams.” I don’t deny the effectiveness of getting a group of people together to build curriculum, courses, or even schools. I do worry that some of Knight’s branding might get in the way of doing the work or readers feeling as though they can step out of bounds of the processes he describes in order to do what is best for their schools or districts.

Ch. 6 is built around Peter Senge‘s assertion that, “on average [a group] will consistently come up with a better answer than any individual could provide.”

Knight proceeds to pull together his own work and the work of others to build the case and the process for creating effective group work. In describing Intensive Learning Teams (ILTs) specifically, “ILTs bring together groups of teachers from across a district for short, intensive collaborative meetings to refine or reinvent the course or grade that they share responsibility for teaching.”

From there, he outlines how each of the “partnership principles” from earlier in the book can be embodied in the practice of ILTs. Again, this has happened throughout each chapter of the book. While I appreciate the parallel structure and the transparency of values, I found myself wishing Knight would highlight the core principles most involved in the content of this chapter. Giving each equal weight throughout has been a bit difficult.

For the content of the chapter, I found myself wishing Knight would point to George Lakey’s Facilitating Group Learning. Knight’s focus was largely on making things as easy as possible and reducing the friction of a team as they went through their work.

In practice, the work is more complex. At least it should be. Lakey devotes an entire chapter to “Diversity and Conflict Styles,” alerting his readers to the need to lean in to the conflict and embrace the struggle of finding common ground. Knight not only ignores conflict, he architects ways to avoid it.

Lakey writes:

And yet the trainers’ intuition back in the day, that conflict is necessary, is correct. In direct education our alternative to inciting conflict is using activities and interventions to elicit the conflicts present in the group.

Granted, Lakey is writing largely about diversity work, and I’d argue that all education work is diversity work. Often, we search for the team meeting protocol, the agenda structure or the facilitation style that avoids contentious issues as much as possible. If we do this, if we steer clear of friction as often as possible, we’ll be ignoring the important work of building a community of education as often as possible as well.

Perhaps this is my greatest qualm with Knight’s work. While I agree with much of what he offers in the way of structures, I worry that this text is the 101 version of doing the work, and leaves those who follow its suggestions unprepared or willfully ignorant of the conversations we’ve been ignoring for generations – class, race, culture, gender, sexuality, location, etc.

62/365 Investigating Chs. 14-17 of ‘Losing Ground’ by Charles A. Murray

This week’s reading takes us back to Losing Ground by Charles Murray. While the opening chapters bordered on the ridiculous in their cherry picking of facts, avoidance of sources and generally fallacious arguments, these final chapters were particularly frustrating. Surely conservative thinkers have a stronger argument to make than Murray’sRather than devote any more posts to this book, I’ve decided to sum up the last three chapters here.

Murray’s argument completes its break from reality. “Part of the genius of the system in the United States,” he writes, “is that status is not immutable. Those on the bottom at any given time can see themselves as just passing through on the way up…” (p. 179). Given Murray’s earlier refusal to see poverty as a systemic problem, his belief in the upward mobility possible for anyone willing to do the work should not be surprising. It leads one to question why more people haven’t decided to muster the willpower and grit to leave poverty behind. Murray’s answer, of course, is that the federal government has made poverty too enticing and comfortable. Beginning with Harold and Phyllis, Murray implies welfare payments, food stamps, etc. provide recipients with a standard of living too resplendent to inspire anyone to want or try for better.

Not only is such a living attractive, but government programs have worked to bring a sense of pride to being poor and eliminated any stratification that may have existed among the poor as well, according to Murray who offers no empirical evidence of his claims. Leading to his proposal for what is to be done, Murray’s argument rests on the following premises:

  • Poverty was institutionalized by federal fiat in the mid-to-late 60s (and had not been systemic previously).
  • Federal programs to remove the stigma of receiving welfare benefits homogenized the culture of poverty ( and other socio-economic statues were not similarly affected).
  • This homogenization destroyed the differentiation between those who could be poor and proud and those who should be poor and ashamed.

Moving into his conclusion, Murray focuses on transfers and finds them, on the whole, lacking in logic. He returns to education and gives us the example of the good student who must make a transfer to the disinterested student by means of a diminished school experience when both students are placed in the same classroom. This example, and the theory in general, strikes me as inconsistent with Murray’s larger belief that poor people can lift themselves out of poverty if policymakers would get out of the way. It is unclear why the presence of a less dedicated student should prevent the good student from reaching his bootstraps. Another alternative is that Murray is arguing the good student will still improve his status but not as much as he would without the disinterested distraction. If this is true, Murray fails to make this point clearly or to outline why some factors are insurmountable in escaping poverty, but others can be overcome through sheer hard work.

As Murray concludes the text by outlining a proposal for the dismantling of all welfare programs, this is the question that sticks in my mind. People in poverty would prefer not to be poor, he argues, and they were making progress toward that goal prior to the instatement of federal welfare policies. What though, is it about poverty with these policies (government-made poverty) that is impossible to overcome in Murray’s eyes? Assuming this is answered, what is it about natural poverty that makes it easier to overcome than a federal policy? Where is the line of poverty that can be escaped and poverty that is inescapable? I’m not certain Murray has the answer or is aware he’s inspired such a question.