This I Know: On Becoming a Reader

Next year, I’ll begin a new role in our school as a Literacy Specialist.  Initially, this position entailed teaching one class of partially-proficient readers at each grade level (the readers we know as “bubble kids” because they are right at the edge of being proficient).  When I use this term, I always picture being able to fill that sweet “bubble kid” up- with enough enthusiasm, skill, and inertia- to let them pop to the other side of the chasm which is cut between partially-proficient and proficient readers. My principal, assistant principal and I had planned on having the rest of my time spent in classrooms working with small groups and with teachers.  Sounds perfect, right? It’s my dream job. It always has been.

But it didn’t feel right.

If the bubble kids float over the chasm with my help, what do the other kids do? Sit and watch. Stare. Ignore us? Cope? Yep. They do all of those things as they realize they’re being left behind. We hadn’t planned on leaving them behind.  We have interventions in place and we have skilled teachers who individualize and differentiate as students need, but it still didn’t feel right. The need is too high.

Luckily, my assistant principal and I both felt this “not right” feeling at just about the exact right moment, so there was no time wasted trying to convince the other person of what we needed to do: We’d fill my time with our kiddos who are hanging out on the wrong side of the chasm.

That felt right.  But then I panicked!

I do not just want to try to help these kids.  I will not just help them. I will make them readers. Period. End of story, as my dad always said.

That’s really not that hard of a task with most of our non-readers, right? A good classroom library, book talks, targeted instruction, conferring, goals, progress monitoring, teacher enthusiasm… In 13 years, I can’t think of a kid who didn’t have that aha moment we all had when we realized that we love reading.  I still remember my own aha when I was in seventh grade and read The Outsiders with my teacher’s guidance. Then I went on to read And Then There Were None and Lord of the Flies the same year. My reading enthusiasm fluctuated for years until I was in college, when reading became a staple. I know that all my non-readers leave me with a newly uncovered appreciation for books, and many realize they actually love books. I know that that love either dies or flies as their lives change. I’m good with that. But until next year, the majority of my kids have come to me reading at the 25th percentile and higher. Next year, the game is changing.

I’ll need to instill a love of reading with these kiddos who can’t even see the chasm from were they stand.  If the chasm is halfway between here and there, these kids have only seen others attempt the crossing and assumed that they aren’t up to the challenge.  These kiddos have spent all of elementary school not being able to read. Many of them have come to hate reading because they can’t read- it’s not fun, it’s too hard, it’s embarrassing. It breaks my heart, and I won’t have it. So, we’re going to try something different.

This is what I know about becoming a reader:

  1. We learn to love reading on the laps of those we love.  Picture yourself reading as a child. What is the lighting like?  Where are you sitting?  Who is with you, and how do you feel with them?  Is there soft music in the background?  Is someone cooking
    Dad and Brady reading
    My dad and Brady (at 11 months) reading

    dinner? Humans associate. We can’t help it.  It is our nature. I know that I need to recreate this safe, comfortable, exploratory environment for my very lowest readers. What will I do? I’ll take my alternative seating further.  My classroom will look like a family room. I talked with my principal today about ordering rocking chairs. You have to love this: His only question was, “We can do that. I mean, it’s not like you want thirty, right?  Just a few?”  I also talked with him about having a large, round table (much like the kitchen table we all grew up around) for our book groups to meet. I’ve never had a typical classroom setting, but next year, I’m giving it my all. I will do everything I can to help these kiddos correlate learning to read with comfort, kindness, safety, and companionship.

  2. We learn to love reading because someone let us pick books ourselves. Picture yourself reading as a child. Where were books displayed?  Who was in charge of
    Ryder Reading
    Ryder (at 1) choosing books

    taking care of the books? Who was in charge of buying books? When I was growing up, we had books everywhere. There were books on shelves, in piles, under our beds, on my parents’ bedroom shelves. We got to choose what was read to us each night, and as we began reading ourselves, we got to choose which books we read. As a teacher, this has always been nonnegotiable for me. Kids will choose their own books. I read a ton of YA LIT so that, if needed, I can match books to readers in terms of interest, level, or etc. But they’ll choose their own books. Period. End of story.

  3. We learn to love reading because someone showed us reading is loved.  I vividly remember trips to our library with our dad: My dad is shuffling through each of our library cards, with the librarian grimacing, because we have too many books OUT and
    Brady books sleeping
    Brady (at age 3)

    LATE on this card or that card! My dad, my siblings and I parade out the sliding doors with armloads of books. I also remember my Grandma Phyllis reading to us the nights we spent at her house. Grandma Phyllis cherished books. Ah! The way she read, her interest in spending time on each page of a picture book, letting us each share one detail we noticed… Period. End of story.

These moments! Picking our own books, keeping books far past their due dates, books piling and spilling and left under our beds! These showed me that books are important.  I really don’t remember my dad ever telling me books were important.  I remember him reading.  I remember my mom, my dad, and my grandma reading to us.  I remember my older sister reading, reading, and then continuing to read more.  I remember worrying that I was “not a reader” until seventh grade when I found chapter books I loved. I remember wondering “am I really a reader” until I went to college, when I had the ability to reflect, slow down, and remember all of my reading moments.

I’m not panicking anymore- at least not at the same level.  Now, when I meet my kiddos who can’t see the edge of that chasm, I know what I need to do to help them build their bubble. And I know what I won’t do: I won’t start with formative assessments so that I can determine where they are and what they are lacking.  I won’t show them all of our books and ask them to find one they like. I won’t put them through the awkward “get to know you” games. I won’t even tell them how incredible books really are. Nope.

I will welcome them to our space. I will ask them to come sit so I can read to them.  And I’ll smile a lot. Read and smile. And when they come back the next day, I’ll read and smile. And read and smile and talk. And guess what? About three or four days in, someone will look over at our bookshelves. Someone will ask about our books. Someone will wonder if they can look at them. And then we’ll have our reader beginning.  Just like I did. Just like you did. They’ll discover books.

P.S. Once they’ve done that, I’ll formative assess their little hearts out.  I’ll show them books.  I’ll ask them to find ones they like!  I’ll tell them how incredible books are!  But only after they’ve had a new reader beginning. Period. End of story.

Are you interested in reflecting on your own reading evolution in the effort to help students understand theirs? These reflection questions will help you begin:

  1. What are your earliest memories of reading? Do you remember reading before you could read words? Who read with you? How often?
  2. Did anyone in your family or close circle read often? What did they read? What did you learn from watching them?
  3. Think back to when you began school. What was reading instruction like? How did you feel about it?
  4. What reading experiences stand out as important to you? Positive or negative, these will give you insight into what students might need.
  5. What did you need from a teacher when you were a K-12 reader? If you were ahead of the class, what did you wish your teacher would do for you? If you were behind, what did you need? If you right in the middle, what were you wanting?

I’d love to hear from you as your think through these questions. Let’s keep this conversation going.

Design Matters: Creating a Place for Thinkers

Three Truths and a Leap of Faith

TRUTH:  I get a lot of flack from friends and colleagues about the time I spend designing, arranging, decorating, and rearranging my classroom.

TRUTH: The flack is well deserved. I should be more efficient; but efficiency is not one of my strengths, and I have far too many other inadequacies that I should improve first!

TRUTH: The time I spend figuring out what types of spaces will best promote reading, writing, and thinking for my students really pays off.

The Leap:  We need to give our kids a glimpse of these professional lives by letting them see, act, and feel these lives for part of their school days.

  • If we want kids to be writers, we must create authentic writing spaces.
  • If we want kids to be scientists, let’s create authentic science labs.
  • Mathematicians?  Let’s consider mathematical sciences careers, and redesign our classrooms.

After all, don’t our kids get that authenticity when visiting the art room, band room, gymnasium, and STEM room each day?

Planning Classroom Design

As I began planning my classroom design this school year, I thought about the types of places and spaces that contribute to my creativity:

Which places in my home foster deep discussion? I pictured growing up around our kitchen table, and then my mind flashed to my own family around our kitchen island, with my kiddos in their spots and my husband and I leaning in and chatting.

Where do I go to write? I’m usually at our kitchen island with my laptop- my feet elevated on another chair or sitting “crisscross-applesauce” in my chair.

Which place is my favorite reading spot? I get comfy in my reclining chair that sits next to my grandmother’s end table.  There is sure to be no overhead light; just the soft light from the table lamp.

I began to look at my classroom with the same lens.  I began to design spaces that authentically fostered thinking, creativity, reading, writing, and discussion.

And I did a lot of Googling.  I searched “alternative classroom seating” and found Setting Up for Second which reminded me of how we all love to gather around a good, old coffee table to chat, so I decided to lower two of the trapezoid tables I already had.  I also researched types of seating for students who need movement for focus and found Stabili-T-Stools.  I combined these ideas with my experiences about spaces that work for me as a thinker, and this is the plan I designed:

  • Students would work in groups of 3.  These would be learning groups that could potentially last for 8-9 weeks or longer (If the group and I felt that they worked well together, then they could last as long as the relationship was productive.  If it was not a good working relationship, we would try new strategies and readjust if needed.)  This would allow students to form working relationships with each other. Productive relationships (both personal and work-related) are founded on experience and time with each other, mutual dependence, and successes earned together.  I wanted to give students time to earn that, even if the relationships were rocky or uncomfortable in the beginning.
  • We would have a mix of seating options with the goal of students trying different options and reflecting on what might work best for their personal learning styles and the type of work being done (independent reading, group discussion, and etc).
  • We would group kids based on reading level with the intention of placing readers with others who can discuss the same book choices they make and various texts from class (Reading is the crux of the language arts curriculum in my classroom, and it is crucial for students to be able to have the time to think and to create understanding with peers at like reading levels.)

I scrounged for, gathered, begged for (Seriously, I posted on my neighborhood FB page, to which I had ZERO replies!) and bought the following items: traditional classroom desks and tables, short tables with beans bags, camp chairs with lap desks, cubes, Stabili-T-Stools, and mats.

Take a look:

 

Upon Reflection:  Three Truths and a Leap

Different, isn’t it?  A colleague who taught for me one day, when my own children were sick, teased, “She has NO desks!”

TRUTH: I’m not encouraging teachers to throw out the furniture and follow this lead.

TRUTH:  I do want us to think about our classroom designs.

TRUTH:  I asked myself what I  wanted my students to feel when they were in my classroom. I asked myself what settings promoted reading, writing, thinking, and discussion.  I wondered what students needed.  I examined my personal comfort levels.

THE LEAP:  About halfway through the school year, I asked students to complete a brief survey about the alternative seating in our room.  One-hundred percent of students liked having alternative seating options and believed that it helped them focus on reading and writing and contributed to discussions.  Ninety-five percent of students liked their current seats. Here are some student comments from the survey:

I like these types of seating because it kind of makes you feel a bit more independent. Sometimes the lack of space is too little if kids are at traditional student desks. I think kids should have a bit more space.

IMG Discussion 2
Memory foam mats are a quick and easy way to offer alternative seating.

I like this seating because there are various ways you can arrange. It helps me learn because when I can get comfortable in different positions, then I can focus better.

IMG_campchairs
Camp chairs are great in the classroom.  They’re comfortable, lightweight, and easy to move anywhere in the room.

This seating is very comfortable. I think the more comfortable I am, the better I can learn and pay attention because I will not be fidgeting and trying to get more comfortable

IMG_0149

This seating style has helped me learn because I like to move around more than just sitting, so the stability stools allow me to do that.

The comments and reflections from students on this survey, and from my observations and conferences in class, will keep me on this alternative seating path. Finally, another truth? At the end of the survey, I’d asked students if there was anything else they’d like to let me know about our classroom seating.  A few students suggested bicycle chairs, ball chairs, and bungee cord chairs (I’ll propose those ideas to my administrator.)  A couple of other students suggested we switch partners more often (I’ll figure out what’s not working on Monday.)  And one student suggested we add more windows to our classroom (I’ll let the student figure out the fundraising needed for that endeavor.)

What classroom designs work for you?  What spaces and places increase student thinking?  I’d love to get this conversation going.