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?

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.

92/365 Teachers Should Probably be Readers

The same way that we must want for adults what we want for students, we must do as adults what we would like students to do.

Particularly – reading.

In the schools we need, teachers not only encourage literacy and learning, but they participate in it themselves as well.

Every school has one teacher who can point to the filing cabinet drawer when you walk into her room. “That drawer,” she will tell you, “has eighth grade in it.” Pointing to the other drawers, she will explain that the lesson plans and overheads for other years are all stocked away in the even that she be moved to teach another grade the next year.

Sadly, many schools have many versions of this teacher.

The high-tech version of this teacher can point to the flash drives with text files and powerpoints archived across grade levels.

Teachers must seek and engage in reading for the same reason we want our students to read – to find new ideas, challenge old ideas, and build on what they already know.

Admittedly, given the papers that need grading, the lessons that need planning, and the resources that need creating, picking up a book about teaching is not the sexiest of out-of-school activities. The right books, though, could mean finding new practices that alleviate the load of traditional teaching.

While toolkit books that preach this or that newest “best practice” can be helpful for a quick top-off when teachers are struggling to figure out how to make their next units of study interesting, they aren’t the best reading. These books are the paperback romance novels of the education world. They offer quick escapes from the problems of practice and don’t ask their audiences to think too much about what’s happening or why.

The education books worth the time it takes to read them, engage teachers in thinking about why and how they do what they do in their classrooms or other learning spaces. Like the best literature, they are complex, thought-provoking, and devoid of easy answers. Readers must also do the work. Dewey, Friere, Lawrence-Lightfoot, Holt, Dweck and many more present ideas about education and schools that ask us to evaluate our preconceptions and remain open to the new worlds they would have us create through out practice.

Admittedly, the time crunch mentioned above is a barrier to teacher reading in the same way the hyper-scheduled student struggles to find time to read anything other than the chapters assigned by his teachers.

Schools can help here:

  • Interested faculty can organize a reading group that meets regularly over a common planning period, after school, or during lunch.
  • In spaces where common interest cannot be mustered, teachers can turn to online spaces like for communities of readers, book suggestions, and conversations about what they read.
  • School leaders who understand the value of common language in building culture can ask faculties to study texts they’ve selected as speaking to the mission, values, and goals of a school in order for all concerned to build an understanding of the common vision of the space.
  • Ten minutes of every faculty meeting could be opened up to faculty members sharing pieces of something they’ve read in the interim since the last time everyone got together.

If we want schools to be temples built to the exchange of ideas, we must create the spaces necessary for those exchanges and we must be constantly working to access, synthesize, and consider new ideas. Reading, though not the only way to access these ideas, can be a strong gateway drug for learning.

Some thoughts on re-mediation in the teaching of literacy

For one of my grad courses, I signed up to read and start discussion on the class blog about the article “A Socio-Historical Approach to Re-Mediation” by Mike Cole and Peg Griffin. Catchy title, right?

The blog is  walled off, but I was so taken with Cole and Griffin’s ideas, that I’m reposting my post here. 

Some things that caught my attention:

…I dig this, and it  throws into question the simplification of teaching and learning as they are traditionally presented in schools – “Here’s a piece. Here’s a piece. Here’s a piece. If you stick with it long enough, you might just get to the whole.”

…Cole, Griffin and I get into a disagreement here.  Then, I reminded myself they were writing in 1978, so the kind of computer re-mediation they were talking about had more to do with the basics of phonetic, piece-meal instruction than with what current computers are able to do.

Still, if you look at computer use in literacy instruction in most classrooms, you’ll find pre-packaged software that is simply an electronic version of the instruction Cole and Griffin describe.

Something to think about, though, is what those on the bleeding edge of how computers can re-mediate learning across and within disciplines, change is coming. Unfortunately, it’s also messy, so that’s going to slow down adoption.

…Yes, let’s do this…more.

…This piece hit closest to home with me. It’s part project-based learning, part funds of knowledge, part situated cognition, part Making Learning Whole.

The Questions

What do you think about the excerpts above?
What factors at various systemic levels support or prevent Cole and Griffin’s theory from being more widely implemented?
If you’re interested in reading the full article, you can find it here.

Things I Know 352 of 365: I support the National Writing Project, and you should too

Every day, in every state, we make a difference in the lives of students of all ages — breaking new ground and preparing students for success in school, college, the workplace, and in life.

– National Writing Project

As I’ve written before, the national education budget was extremely shortsighted and ended direct federal funding for the National Writing Project and programs like it. This was despite the fact the NWP continually met or exceeded federal benchmarks for program success in improving writing and writing instruction in classrooms around the country.

Proving ever-nimble and adaptive, the NWP is not going gently into that good night. In fact, it has no plans of leaving. As of this Fall, the NWP has begun a capital campaign to shore up support for the NWP and its regional sites around the country.

Contributions to local sites will be used to help fund the sites while contributions to the NWP “will be used for areas of greatest need, infrastructure, research and cross-site programs, and new sites,” according to the NWP.

I made room in my budget to make a small donation a few moments ago. You should too.

Once grad school’s behind me and I’m back among the land of the employed I plan on contributing to the NWP the way some people contribute to their alma maters. That’s how much I believe in the work they do.

Please, do the same.

When completing my donation, I was given the choice of donating in honor of someone. I chose Dr. Justice, one of my mentor professors in undergrad. The effects of her tutelage on living and breathing the written word have had innumerable echoes in my life as a writer and teacher.

When you donate, I encourage you to think about the writer or writing teacher in your life who inspired your voice and donate in their honor or memory.

While I’m saddened that the NWP has been forced to dedicated resources to fundraising that could otherwise be turned to improving teaching and learning, I’m happy to know it is an organization of impassioned professionals dedicated to continuing their mission, no matter the obstacles.

Please, help.

Things I Know 251 of 365: Writing differently lets the words say more

Our research suggests that the lack of education related to literacy is problematic, and the situation is exacerbated in the field of education.

– Barbara R. Jones-Kavalier and Suzanne L. Flannigan

My last post was a bit of an experiment.

I had an idea of what I wanted to say. When I’d written out the text, though, it didn’t say enough.

I tried adding more words, but that turned out making the text say less.

I tried changing the words, but it turned out they were working pretty hard to say what I wanted them to say.

It occurred to me that pictures might help. From time to time, images have helped communicate what I’m trying to say in a post.

I looked around Creative Commons, but couldn’t quite find what I needed.

This led me to the drawing option in Google Apps. I was able to create rudimentary versions of the images my words couldn’t stretch themselves to cover.

When I tried to embed the images, they didn’t quite fit. The post still seemed flat. I wanted it to say more.

I needed to write in video. I needed image, sound and words to work together to say more than what I was able to say in text alone.

This has me thinking about the kind of message creation called for in classrooms. The as I’ve been thinking about recently, the essay is the coin of the realm. Should it be?

In attempting to make images, texts and audio work together, I needed to pull together understandings of message and meaning well beyond putting sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into some sort of cogent narrative.

What’s more, I still needed that narrative to make it all work. I still wrote the post. Even more importantly, what I put together wasn’t very good. It did what I asked it to do, but it could be so much better. The room for revision in fifty different directions makes me want to jump back in and try. When I was in my online program last year, I couldn’t figure out why this kind of composition wasn’t a part of the courses. We were people learning together who would never be in the same physical space. The easiest thing to do would be to construct an environment that allowed us to be people with each other and build learning artifacts that actually spoke to who we were.

This is the type of writing we should be teaching. Not forsaking traditional texts, but folding them, extending them, and reconnoitering them into what they can be.

Students’ writings want to say more. We should let them.

Things I Know 124 of 365: Literacy brings democracy

I read this piece aloud to one of my G11 classes this afternoon.

We all sat in a sort of oval on the floor and I read it from start to finish. The students had only one direction: Mark anything you have a question about.

In case you didn’t click the link, some things you should know: the article was about Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Russian literature, Russia’s role in the Russo-Turkish War and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky’s disagreement over whether or not Russia should have stepped in. Oh, also, it is about Libya and the possible negative economic consequences of American participation in the military humanitarian aid mission in Libya.

A little light reading.

My interest in examining the article wasn’t that my students have a deep understanding of the Russo-Turkish War, nor was I particularly worried they did or did not see its relevance to contemporary history.

I wanted my students to see the text because it was dense and difficult. In two sentences, we saw three words that had appeared on our vocabulary quizzes during the year.

In a moment of frustration, one student commented she thought the article was “the stupidest thing ever.”

I replied she should research Crystal Clear Pepsi before she made that statement, and asked her why she thought what she thought.

“He just writes it so it’s too hard and boring to understand.”

James Warner does some interesting and slippery things in his writing of the piece. These are techniques of linguistic subterfuge that disguise some of his deeper points and play off of the psychology of his readers.

In a text inspired by and commenting on US intervention in Libya, Warner mentions the country only once and never brings up President Obama. Warner does reference the Iraq War twice and directly refers to President Bush once.

“What kind of connections is he drawing by bringing up Libya, Iraq and President Bush, but leaving out President Obama?” I asked.

A few students’ faces flashed with the “hmmmmmm” moment.

I asked how many students had seen any James Bond movies. Several hands went up. “Where are Bond villains often from?” I asked.

“Russia!” they answered.

“So what’s the implication of saying the United States is acting like Russia?”

More “hmmmmmm” moments.

They might not know about the Cold War, but 007 has taught them Russia’s not to be trusted.

For those of my students who struggle the most with reading, my job is to help them read the lines on the page and to find more pages with more lines they might be interested in reading when they believe the world doesn’t have any of those.

For all of my students, my job is to help them detect semantic snake oil salesmen and read between the lines on the page. They are growing up in a world of The Magic Bullet, FOX News, challenges to collective bargaining, and Michael Moore. They need to read smarter.

One student commented the article sounded intelligent because of all the expensive vocabulary.


I want to help each of them build the linguistic haggling skills to determine if the price of understanding is equal to the value of what is being said.

Each time they step up to a piece of writing unprepared to read it, they’re left out of the democratic process a little more.

Things I Know 103 of 365: Students should teach one another

The secret is to gang up on the problem, rather than each other.

– Thomas Stallkamp

Matt and I looked at each other halfway through the class period and asked each other why we hadn’t tried this until the end of the third quarter.

In the last class of the last day before Spring Break, our students were working together, collaborating and mentoring one another all the way to the end of the period.

My original plan had been for my G11 students to visit Matt’s G9 class and share the vignettes they’d crafted and then discuss their writing process. I saw it as a chance for the upperclassmen to mentor the freshmen in reading and writing.

Surely, the younger students would be enamored of stories from their elder peers’ lives as readers. Well, probably not, now that I type that. The point is, we’ll never know.

As in the best learning experiences, very little went as planned.

Matt’s class had been disrupted earlier in the week by a field trip that had only taken a portion of the kids our of the room. Some students were working on making up the day, others were revising their own memoir projects and still more were working on a smothering of other smaller assignments.

As shocking as it was, I came to terms with the fact that these kids weren’t clamoring to hear vignettes detailing my students’ lives as readers.

Instead, we did something much less contrived. We had the older students pair up and work with the younger students.

They sat around Matt’s room. They occupied tables in the hall. They migrated to my room for more space.

The conversations were real and earnest.

“Mr. Chase,” one student said, “I don’t know who needs help.”

“Walk around and introduce yourself. Then, ask how you can help,” I told him.

He did.

I looked to one side of Matt’s room and saw one of my students who is most frequently off-task completely focused on helping one of Matt’s students improve his writing.

I would be lying if I told you I hadn’t been struggling daily to find ways to motivate this student to engage in class. Turns out she wasn’t waiting for my help, she was waiting to help.

After I’d heard a student advise, “You’ve got the outline of a paper here; now you need to fill it with what you want to say,” another one of my students approached me asking what he should do now that he’d helped two students with their papers.

“Go back to the one you helped first,” I said, “And see if she’s made any progress. It’s something I do as a teacher all the time to help students focus.”

He looked at me as though I’d just given him secret teacher knowledge.

In reality, the whole process was a reminder of my general lack of teacher knowledge.

While I’m keen to point out teaching’s general lack of willingness to utilize the wisdom of the elders of the profession, I should also be looking to the wisdom of our older students.

My students have walked this way before. They’ve known what it is to stare confoundedly at a laptop screen trying to piece an argument together. They’ve also felt alone in the effort to be better writers.

Every one of my students, no matter their level of proficiency, was an expert today to someone who benefited from that expertise.

I can and should attempt this type of cross-pollination more frequently. Failing to do so ignores the resources of the school and reinforces the artificial boundaries adolescence creates in the presence of a difference of two years.

Sidenote: Published with Diana Laufenberg in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy

I suppose the title of the post says it all. Diana Laufenberg and I wrote column published in the latest issue of the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy about the inherent squishiness of digital literacy. Here’s the abstract:

The thing about digital literacy is its inherent squishiness. Educators argue whether the tool or the purpose matters most. They debate whether something being “electronic” constitutes “digital.” Does it need a screen? A keyboard? More than that, teachers must decide what it means to read and write digitally and how to assess those skills. Just as teachers were working to conclusively define literacy, digital literacy arrived on the scene and the discussion started again. In fact, the most solid of ground to be found in the debate surrounding digital literacy is the agreement that, whatever it is, it is important to the success of our students. Even then, not everyone is in agreement.

Abstract from Chase, Z., & Laufenberg, D. (2011, April). Embracing the Squishiness of Digital Literacy. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 54(7), 535–537. doi: 10.1598/JAAL.54.7.7

Classy: Modeling Marking Texts

As the Grade 11 students are reading books of choice for the most part this year, I’ve been working to incorporate types of texts outside of novels into our reading. This has taken the form of long form journalism pieces, op-eds, short stories or anything else. Part of what we’re working toward is endurance in reading. Part of what we’re working toward is reading as a social experience.

I’ve known about the Think Aloud as a reading strategy for a few years. I’ve tried to stay away from it for the sheer boredom of it. It doesn’t ask much of my strongest readers and can feel as though I’m patronizing those students reading at lower levels.

I decided to take my voice out of it. Here’s how it worked:

  1. I posted the link to this article on moodle along with four questions:
    1. What is the purpose of this article?
    2. What is the evidence the author uses to support his claims?
    3. What do you think the future of paper as a medium for transmitting writing is?
    4. How does this article shape your understanding of the world?
  2. Students had time in class to begin reading and thinking. What they didn’t finish became homework.
  3. When they entered class the next day, I handed them printed copies of the piece with the notes that came to mind as I was reading.
  4. The students had approximately 7 minutes to mark up the text with any thinking they had and wanted to add to my notes.
  5. We gathered in a circle where I set ground rules such as, “If we get off topic, ask a question,” “Tie it to the text,” and “Challenge thoughts you don’t understand or agree with.”
  6. Conversation began with each speaker calling on the next.

What happened was a great reminder of the kind of conversation our students are capable of. It’s what they were hoping for when we went to the Town Hall Meeting. At one point, it occurred to me we could benefit from adding our school librarian’s voice to the mix. I called and invited him.

Matt, a grad student completing some observations in our class, commented afterward on how the students had kept the conversation moving even when I was on the phone. I’m hoping it’s because they owned the conversation and I didn’t. In fact, the rules within discussion are that I too must raise my hand and wait to be called on when I want to contribute.

That was classy. What do you think?