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?

What you believe – do (through choice, delightfulness, and email signatures)

A dry erase board sits atop a cabinet in our office. I reads, “This office believes in: choices, delightfulness, and email signatures.”

It’s been up there since I and two other team members started in the office and we sat down for a few days as a whole team to discuss what and whom we wanted to be as a group.

It’s in my poor chicken scratch penmanship, but this board has had a beautiful effect on my thinking as I’ve been moving through the district and doing the work from day to day.

When you know the ideals about which you care, you tend to orient your actions toward those ideals.

Why these three?


We don’t know the best way to do anything. We know several good ways to do most everything. More importantly, as guests in schools and classrooms around the district, we have only snapshots of the day-to-day, moment-to-moment work being done by the adults and children we serve.

So, we provide choices based on what we see and what we want to do and then present them to people with the offer of conversation to help them curate their choices toward desired ends.

Some might think of choice and imagine a tabla rasa of options, which allow teachers any myriad courses of action without consideration of official district goals and efforts.

It’s not that broad. Instead, we look at what is to be done, what we say we want to do, and the data we gather through conversations and visits. From there, we design choices that align with existing efforts while pushing thinking forward and opening up possibilities of what can be created and produced as artifacts of learning and teaching.

The choices we work to provide live in the realm of the district’s established identity. When we started building the Professional Learning Modules for our Learning Technology Plan, we made certain that each module clearly connected with RtI Tier I Interventions as well as the Colorado Teaching and Learning Cycle. With the implementation of a new state teacher evaluation system, we added language to explain how completion of modules would help teachers improve their proficiency regarding Colorado Teacher Quality Standards.

Choice with a mission.


You could just as easily call this the Mary Poppins Principle. Whatever else we do, our team asks teachers to learn new things. For many teachers, this can feel like a daunting task when taken as anotehr component of the demands on their time.

Delightfulness, and a mind toward including it in all we do means finding the spoonful of sugar and trying our hardest to make the job as close to a game as possible.

This is all based on the presupposition that people enter into education because somewhere in the acts of learning and teaching they found joy. We believe that joy should live on well past their initial entrance.

If ever you were to come to our office for a meeting, you’d find baskets of LEGOs on the conference table, multiple dry erase surfaces (boards and tables) for doodling on, light sabres, and the odd viewing of a funny youtube video. We want to experience delightfulness so we can remember why it is important to provide it to those we serve.

Email signatures?

We serve. It might look like troubleshooting. It might look like lesson planning. It might look like coaching. It might look like eternal meetings. When you get right down to it, we serve the adults and children in our care.

When people email us, then, from any of the dozens of schools in our district, it is difficult to serve effectively when we are without the most basic context of who sent the email and from where.

An email signature with a teacher’s site, subject, grade level, and any other information can help us to understand a bit about whom of the thousands of teachers we’re working with.

It’s become boilerplate language in classes and presentations. For me, it often sounds like this:

I want to help you however I can and as best as I can. So, we’re going to take 3 minutes now to open our email and make sure you are telling a clearer story of who you are when you send an email. After I leave, your job is to make sure three other people who aren’t in this room right now have email signatures.

It’s a slow battle, but it’s worth fighting. I can’t help thinking it’s also made a difference when those teachers have sent emails to people in other offices in the district. Now, perhaps they have clearer pictures of whom they’re serving.

They are three simple things. They could easily have been any three other things. Somehow though, knowing we are about choice, delightfulness, and email signatures gives the office a sense of commonality and helps me to ask if what I’m doing aligns with what we have espoused as our beliefs.

Professional Learning for Everyone (No, Really)

Some Things

  • Our district has started moving to a 1:1 device-to-student/teacher ration in secondary schools.
  • Our elementary schools will also be getting a sizable influx of devices.
  • There are only 6 instructional technology coordinators (ITC) in the district.
  • Realizing our capacity and teachers’ and students’ needs weren’t quite aligned, we started to design a new system.

Since not long after I started at the district, this project has been my baby. A few weeks ago, it started hitting its stride.

The basic idea is to create a range of 1-2 hour online self-paced modules in our district MOODLE install where teachers, students (anyone, really) can log in and  work through their learning whenever they’d like.


Each module follows a simple structure:

Overview – This offers a description of the main ideas within the module, the driving objectives, and the essential questions.

Investigation – Here is a curated pathway for learning about your module’s topics complete with explanations, links and ideas for learning.

Application & Discussions – In this section, you’ll complete a specific activity related to the module topic that asks you to put your learning into action, and a link to posting and sharing your learning for deeper discussion.

Further Investigation – If the initial Investigation was dipping your toe in the learning, this section gives you a chance to dive in, explore things more deeply, and provide yourself with an archive of resources for shifting your practice.

Wherever possible, the application gives participants a choice of tasks that both speak to the learning of the module and remain open enough to fit participants’ needs.

Realizing that 1-2 hours only scratches the surface on many topics, the Further Investigation section holds all the resources we identified as valuable, but not necessary. The hope is that participants will follow their curiosity.


Anyone can look through a module. There’s no need to complete the application if you drop in and find what you were looking for, we’re happy you stopped by.

If you’re looking for something more, we’ve built that too. The fine folks in Professional Development have included module completion in the PD Course Listings. Participants can sign up to complete 4 modules (including application and discussion) for .5 hours of course/salary credit.

What’s more, any face-to-face course we teach has an accompanying, abbreviated module. This way, a teacher completing a course can answer a principal’s request for sharing what was learned in a faculty meeting can reply, “Sure, I’ll walk them through the module.”

Finally, modules de-centralize the knowledge. Whereas there might have been one of us in the office who was equipped to lead a training on classroom workflow or any other topic, modules mean we can all own the landscape of any course. It’s not a script, it’s a container, a bag of tricks.


When we started planning, we didn’t want these modules to be “another thing” for teachers. This made it important to align each module with other district instructional initiatives. Each connects with Tier 1 instructional practices, the teaching and learning cycle, and the newly-adopted Colorado Teacher Quality Standards.


Everyone is building these modules. It’s part of the beauty of starting from a basic structure. ITCs, curriculum coordinators, teacher librarians, classroom teachers, and contracted instructional designers have helped us bring 17 modules to life with the goal of having around 50 completed by the end of the school year.


When a module has been created by someone in the school district, that person remains the teacher within the course. They are notified when assignments and forum posts have been submitted, and jump in for conversation and comments.

When a contracted instructional designer has built the module, I fill the role of teacher.

Participants completing 4 modules for credit complete this form when they’ve finished their work, I confirm completion, and sign off on the work for OPD.


One piece that’s different for our MOODLE courses is the location of the discussions. While each module includes a discussion portion, those discussions all live in a single course here. This allows all curious folks interested in discussing a topic to find the forums in one place. It meant an interesting course architecture dilemma, but we’ve got it working.

Open to All

Perhaps a unique aspect of our MOODLE install is that anyone anywhere around the world with an Internet connection can sign up for a user account. Thus, anyone with an account, no matter their district affiliation can work through a module.

We also started the project with an eye on openness and sharing. Each module has been Creative Commons licensed for attribution, non-commercial sharing and uploaded to moodle.net, the hub for sharing MOODLE courses. If you’ve got MOODLE, you can install these modules and tweak them to your edu-landscape.

21/365 Name the Metaphor

In between presentations at IETA today, I was parched. I haven’t had to speak for 3 hours straight in quite a while.

Wandering the hallways of Boise State University’s Student Union, I found the fountain pictured below.Dual Fountain

It struck me that this could fit any number of metaphors for American education. The one I stuck with:

We’ve designed a system that will allow you to get what you need and take it with you to last for a long time before needing to refuel. It’s better on the system and more sustainable. That system also has a component that requires you to be present to take advantage of it, wastes resources as you use it and can be a breeding ground for the opposite effects of its intent. Rather than working to push the system to evolve toward the former purpose, we’re throwing all of our resources into supporting both approaches at the same time, never fully committing to requiring users to do the better thing.

What metaphor does the image inspire in you?

1/365: How Letterpress Uses Funds of Knowledge

Along with all the tedium of life (classes, laundry, work), I’ve been focusing quite a bit lately on an important issue. Letterpress.
If you haven’t downloaded this word game for iPhone and iPad, take a break from reading this and then come back. At the least, make note that you intend to check it out when you’re done reading.
A word-based game, the objective is to spell words given a random assortment of letter tiles. Spell and submit a word and those tiles turn your color. Your opponent then attempts to spell some other word and turn the tiles his color. The game is over when all tiles have been claimed, and the winner is the player with the most tiles of his color.
It’s Words with Friends meets Othello.
I’m not obsessed with the game. Dedicated is the word I choose.
Here’s the thing, it’s a new game and the developer is constantly updating the dictionary the app uses to determine whether a submitted word is, in fact, a word.
This is oftentimes frustrating. It’s not complete. The app doesn’t know all words.
Jew = Word
Jewish = Not a Word
There are other examples.
I’m no word genius, but I know some things, and so this incomplete dictionary has frustrated me on more than one occasion. At least twice, in the throes of a fantastic game, I’ve put my phone down and walked away in frustration saying, “It is too a word!”
The whole experience has me thinking of Moll et al’s theory of funds of knowledge.
At its simplest, Moll proposes taking teachers as researchers into the homes of their students and asking the question, “What is the knowledge that’s created, valued, and used in this space?”
From there, these teacher anthropologists take what they’ve learned and draw on those funds of knowledge in crafting their lesson plans and shaping their teaching practice.
If the parallels here aren’t jumping out, let me be more direct.
Letterpress is operating like a traditional classroom. It presents the possible tools for making sense and succeeding. Within those boundaries, it allows players to construct meaning and submit those constructions for approval. This is what teachers do on a regular basis.
What also happens on a regular basis, though, is the construction of new ways of organizing and implementing tools to make meaning. Not yet realizing there’s a way of learning things, students may accidentally take risks and imagine new possibilities. Oftentimes, because of a rubric or the learning objective of the task at hand, those risks and that imagination are re-directed toward the intended goal – either frustrating the child or shutting down those paths to future learning.
Letterpress and traditional teaching depart in their approaches to the idea of upgrading. For Letterpress, developers realize they need to improve the user experience to make that experience worthwhile. Find the expectations and funds of knowledge of the user and make the game more inclusive.
For classrooms, the goal is often to upgrade the user or student. Keep the game the same and get students to develop a better understanding of the rules.
The difference?
When I put down Letterpress in frustration, I come back because there is the promise the experience will improve.
When students turn away from education and schools in frustration, we can’t say the same thing.

Things I Know 317 of 365: Tomorrow, I read for me

Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms.

– Angela Carter

Just because I’m not in classes at the moment doesn’t mean I’m not reading. It does mean I’m not reading anything that anyone has assigned to me.

It also means I’m sneaking some fiction into my brain. Tomorrow, I’ll pick up Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. Some of my favorite students gushed over the book, but I never took the time to read it while I was in the classroom. Somehow, picking it up without the title of “Teacher” attached to my actions makes the reading seem more pure. I’m not reading it to teach in the next few months. No unit or lesson plans will rely on what I get from the experience. I’m reading it to be entertained.

One of the more frequent state standards (and now a Common Core standard) is identifying author’s purpose. (There’s a whole philosophical argument I could make against this, but that’s another post.)

As I anticipate delving into Card’s imagined dystopia tomorrow, I’ve started to think about the importance of asking students to identify reader’s purpose.

If a student is reading a non-fiction text in class, the answer to the question should be, “Because I’m curious,” or “Because it’s interesting.” Some off shoot thereof makes the most sense.

Reader’s purpose in school is most often, “I’m reading this because my teacher said,” or “It was assigned.”

That shifts the experience considerably. I’m looking forward to losing myself in the imagination of tomorrow’s reading, to meeting new characters and trying to figure out how pieces of the narrative puzzle fit together.

Most importantly, I’ll be shifting my purpose from word to word, chapter to chapter. The journey through the book will inform what I want out of it and what I expect.

Were I reading for someone else because the book had been assigned me, the journey would be emptier. I’d be reading to run someone else’s literary errands, hoping to keep the change when all was said and done.

A balanced reading diet is important. Compelling others to read what they are told is forcing them to eat their vegetables. It’s a great way to get people to hate their vegetables.

Things I Know 88 of 365: We’re about to have some great discussions

There is creative reading as well as creative writing.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the second half of the semester, I open my storytelling class to greater student choice and control. This could be intensely dangerous considering the class is populated with students with eyes fixed firmly on graduation.

I operate under the assumption greater choice and control will help make our class relevant.

The guiding questions for the assignment I rolled out today are simple:

  • What is a text you connect with strongly?
  • What causes that connection?
  • How can you help the class understand that connection?

I suppose anyone else in a class about story would collect a set of stories from the Western Literary Canon and proceed with the indoctrination.

They’ll have college for that.

My goal is more to work toward the type of deeply curious conversations about texts that will equip them with the tactics to pull apart those dusty canonical behemoths later on.

The assignment is simple:

  • Pick a text that means something to you. Prep a whole-class discussion that will help us all learn more about the text.
  • For the purposes of the assignment, I put myself in the role of Mr. Chase as English student rather than Mr. Chase as English teacher.

Students are responsible for preparing copies, online materials or video clips as necessary. They must also prepare pre- and during-reading activities to prep their peers (and me) for at least 30 minutes discussion.

Last year’s initial launch of this assignment brought some amazing moments.

For almost an entire class period we debated the appropriateness, theme, and intended audience of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.

In another discussion, the debate over the narrative structure of OneRepublic’s “Say (All I Need)”.

Aside from checking in with students to make certain they’re finding texts and offering suggestions for planning their discussions, I stay out of things as much as possible.

I know the texts, but I haven’t read many of them.

There’s an element of trust there, I suppose.

It’s why I ask that the texts be important to the students sharing them.

“If you bring in something you don’t care about, it’s more likely that we won’t either.”

This is likely why I have such trouble teaching The Great Gatsby.

Some early possibilities this year include an excerpt from the film version of For Colored Girls, a cross-medium analysis of a quotation from The Kite Runner, deconstruction of Hamlet’s most famous of soliloquies and a Rage Against the Machine song.

Aside from Hamlet, these will be texts with which I am largely unfamiliar. While this adds an air of novelty to the process, the greater benefit is my not having a preconceived notion of how a discussion should play out. I’m learning along with the rest of the class.

This year’s iteration of the assignment includes one major adjustment. Aside from the 30-minute minimum, the students and I are building the assessment criteria for the discussions together.

Before they’ve built anything, we work to answer the questions, “What should a great version of these discussions look like? What should we expect as help in our thinking? What is the role of the discussion leader?”

Before they graduate from high school, I want them to graduate to owning class and their thinking.

Things I Know 52 of 365: My classroom should be as democratic as twitter

A great democracy must be progressive, or it will soon cease to be a great democracy.

– President Theodore Roosevelt

Teachers dig Facebook. They like ning and twitter and youtube and social networking. I mean, they really really like ’em.

A TON of teachers who like these online affordances also like to build the case for their inclusion in classrooms and education.

Of the Ton,I get the feeling many, if not most, of them work in schools or districts where those online affordances are blocked, banned, outlawed and censored.

I’m not sure many of those teachers really want the access or understand the shift in pedagogy that use would imply.

I’ve been reading Sam Chaltain’s American Schools: The art of creating a democratic learning community. You should too.

Chaltain holds that American schools should be places of democracy, but are not. No whiner, he then works to outline what he sees to be the keys of democratizing classrooms.

Before I picked up the text, I had been reflecting on the role democracy plays in my own teaching. While I’d wager it’s greater than many, I still struggle moving from compliance to choice.

Most recently, I’ve struggled with accepting the idea that saying, “Pick one of these three options,” isn’t the same thing as choice – not true choice.

Chaltain quotes Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick:

[I]f the world takes our ideas and changes them – or accepts some and discards others – all we need to decide is whether the mutated versions are still core. If they are, then we should humbly accept the audiences judgement.

When the Ton trumpet the use of the aforementioned online affordances in learning, they invariably speak of students’ abilities to choose, create, re-arrange, remix and “like” in the spaces they can inhabit online. In essence, they like that those online spaces would give their students the chance to do what the Heaths say sticky ideas do.

This leads me to question what’s been limiting those options in the physical spaces of their classrooms in the first place.

I know what’s been holding it back in my classroom – me.

No pedagogical prude, I attempt to take learning styles, intelligences and modalities into account as often as possible. I differentiate and modify and accommodate. In the end, I’m realizing much of the work in my classroom is still closer to conformity than I’d like. And perhaps, that’s limiting the contribution of those voices from whom I’m most waiting to hear.

“We should evoke contribution through freedom, not conformity,” Chaltain writes.

I agree.

To the extent that I work within a system that expects certain outcomes from my students, I agree. To the extent that I have a picture in my head of what my students can do once they leave my classroom, I agree.

It might be fear that leads me to the caveats above, but I don’t think it is.

There are pieces of being able to read and write that I know will prove detrimental if they are not within my students’ abilities when they leave my care. The democratic classroom I envision isn’t one without goals. It’s chock full o’ goals. Those goals are also balanced with choice.

When I write about improving choice in my classroom, I do not mean to imply the abdication of structure or goals. I mean to say I need to give greater and truer choices to my students in how they journey to those goals.

And to the Ton, I want to reference something Jerrid Kruse brought up tonight on twitter. He referenced his frustration with online ed discussions veering toward the tech and not the teaching. I don’t yet know if I agree with his claim that this happens in the majority of online conversations. I do know that it’s complicated my thinking.

If you’re clamoring for these online affordances backed by the argument of the democracy they bring to learning, have you done the hard, uncomfortable work of making your classrooms democratic so your students are better citizens when the tools show up (or don’t)?

Things I Know 21 of 365: It’s good to be apart of something

I’m going to mother’s, and I’m keeping the ring.

Dot Warner, The Animaniacs

Five-year-old me had a blue record player. It was the type that looked like a plastic suitcase when closed.

From time to time, I would announce to my mother that I was running away.

As I had no actual luggage, I settled for the best approximation and left our apartment toting my record player as clear evidence I meant business.

My students do this from time to time.

“This is stupid,” they say. “I’m not going to do this.”

And then they look at me.

“What are you going to do with that?” their eyes challenge me.

Unfortunately they do not know my mother.

When I declared my independence and walked out the door, slamming it shut behind me, I would stand waiting at the other side.

Each time, I was certain my mother would throw open the door and rush out to find me, desperate at the thought of losing me.

She never did.

Eventually, I would slowly open open the door and slink back in – my mother reading a book or cleaning carrots as if nothing had happened.

It infuriated me, but I never considered turning around to leave.

And so, when met with, “This is stupid!” or “I’m not going to do this!” I reply, “Okay,” and walk away.

They are testing the limits of community the way I was testing the limits of family. I must know enough in those moments to know their commitment to being a part is stronger than their commitment to being apart.

This scenario plays itself out in the adult world as well. Sometimes, we call it circling the wagons and shooting in. Others, we call it taking our toys and going home. Whatever the euphemism, the true test is not to opening the door and not to argue the assignment’s relative stupidity.

In those moments, the true test is acknowledging the right of the other to choose being a part or being apart.

Things I Know 14 of 365: I need to give students choice

“It is our choices that show who we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

– J.K. Rowling

Not every job moves you to embrace hitting your head against the wall. Teaching is a concusive experience.

My students have been exploring science fiction for the last few weeks. From 24 available titles, they researched and selected 6 they wouldn’t mind reading. From there, I worked my teacherly magic to fit them into groups of 4-5.

They set reading schedules, engaged in book talks and wrote discussion reflections to focus their thinking and investigation of a much-maligned though historically significant genre.

After 5 weeks, I was in a familiar spot of moving from group to group trying to convince them they liked their books. Strong was the temptation to label their reading as lazy and surface. It beat the alternative of acknowledging they might just dislike the books.

“If the Reader’s Bill of Rights tells us we can stop reading any time we want, Mr. Chase. Why do we still have to read this book?”
Stupid student choice combined with empowerment.

“Because sometimes people will make you read things you don’t like, and I’ve decided to help you grow a lifelong love of reading by highlighting some of the most regrettable parts of the act,” seemed a poor reply.

Last week, we studied James Gunn’s “A Worldview of Science Fiction.” The kids played cat’s cradle with the ideas so intently that our discussion carried over to this week.

They were starting to see science fiction could include ideas other than those at work in their respective texts.

I was starting to see, again, students’ thinking about what they read grows anemic when they’re forced to read something they don’t like.

In Thursday’s class, I opened by having the students learn all they could about Battlestar Galactica. We collected notes, I fielded questions, and I queued up episode 1 of season 1 “33.”

At the opening credits, I paused and answered questions about details of the cold opening.

When the show hit the tail end of the unusually slow download and the class let out a collective, “No!” I knew I had them.

Today, we welcomed the former head of PR for the SyFy Channel who now works at SLA’s partner organization The Franklin Institute. A lifelong reader of science fiction and English major in college, she talked about what it took to sell science fiction on contemporary television, the creative process behind shows like Battlestar and Farscape and how she made choices as a reader.

The students talked about what they liked about the previous day’s partial episode and what they wanted when they picked up science fiction.

When Andre, who has been railing against his book for two weeks, raised his hand and asked, “How do you come back after reading a bad sci-fi book?” I knew we were making progress.

The progress came when I remembered what I believe to be true:

  1. Give kids choices.
  2. Show real-world models.
  3. Connect them with passionate adults who know what they’re talking about.

Forcing them to read books they didn’t care about that hadn’t been organically recommended and that they didn’t much care for was really more a test of our rapport than their abilities.

Next time I decided to run repeatedly into walls, I’l try to see the dents I’ve left this time and take them as reminders.