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.

3 Things I Learned by Doing My Own Signpost Assignment

My most recent experience doing my own assignment is recording Notice and Note Signposts from the book Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading while reading 11/22/63 by Stephen King.  I bought 11/22/63 soon after it was released, in November of 2011, with the failed intention of having a 2-person book club with my husband. My husband read the book, but I ditched it. I tried reading it a couple more times over the next few years, but I always abandoned the book in the first 50 pages.

The Miniseries Made Me Do It

Tacky truth: A few weeks ago, when my hubby told me that the miniseries was soon to start on Hulu, I got the urge to read 11/22/63 again! It was like the stars had aligned: My students had learned the definitions of each signpost. I’d already modeled my thinking, we’d found signposts together, and I’d supported groups as they worked together to find them.  Just after I gave students the task of using signposts on their own, I attempted 11/22/63 again.


My Very Own Aha! Moment

The signposts made it possible for me to stick with 11/22/63!  The signposts and guiding questions slowed me down, of course, but in slowing me down, they engaged me.

3 things I learned by doing this assignment:

  1. I learned the signposts inside and out. (This didn’t really surprise me; we learn by doing.)

  2. I learned that signposts can be difficult to notice sometimes because readers just want to keep reading!  (This didn’t really surprise me; I’m naturally intense.  Pausing to be mindful is something I had to learn to do.)

  3. Looking for several signposts at once helped me understand and “get deeply into” the book quickly. (This surprised me; I read a lot.  I love to read.  I hadn’t even noticed that I’d been missing something which would help me be a better, more interested reader until I practiced these signposts with my own novel.)

I learned a ton by completing this assignment: I had to think critically about the characters and plot just as students had to, and that made it possible for me to teach them the thinking moves I’d made as I identified the signposts and asked myself the guiding questions.  I’d practiced signposts with picture books and videos, but using them in a novel helped me understand them on a deeper level. There were times I found myself having to stop every page or two to read the signpost definitions and think about whether I’d missed one.  Initially, this felt counterproductive, but once I began valuing the guiding questions, it felt natural.

The Big Debate:  Teach Signposts Individually or at Once?

I also realized that teaching all of the signposts at once is the way to go because different readers will connect to different signposts, initially.  This connection is key to the “buy-in” struggling readers need.  If readers have taken a week or two to learn each signpost, but after several weeks, haven’t connected with one that reveals big value, then every subsequent signpost has already lost its meaning.

Teaching all of the signposts within seven school days allows readers to build a signpost onebook-signpostsstockpile with which to attempt reading.  Signpost stock is invaluable in tackling a book. (For me, it was a book I really wanted to read, but couldn’t seem to finish. For many of our readers, this is any book because they haven’t learned the thinking skills to engage them for an entire novel.)

I worried that teaching the signposts all at once would be a double-edged sword for my struggling readers.  Typically, they are the readers in grave need of learning how to stick with a book, and they are the readers who cannot manage learning a lot at once.  I found that learning signposts all at once was best, and then offering differentiated assignments so students could choose ways to use signposts was the natural next step. Once students were comfortable using signposts at their own pace, they were really excited to attempt finding all of them each week.

Now What?

We can’t complete every assignment we give kids; but it should happen when we think they need it (or as in my case, when the stars align). It should be visible to students. It should be reflected upon.  We need students to see the mistakes we make and the smart moves we learn.

I’d love to hear which of your assignments you’ve completed and what you learned from doing them.  Why do you find this practice valuable?  How often do you manage it?

Featured Image Photo credit: ginnerobot via / CC BY-SA
Photo credit: Kim Klassen via / CC BY-NC

Teaching Thinking Strategies- Synthesis

What is Synthesis… really?

Synthesis is one of the most difficult thinking strategies for students. In the past, readers have been expected to be able to synthesize at the word and text level.  The Public Education Business Coalition (PEBC), explains this type of synthesis:

Synthesizing Information at a text level, readers…

  • continually monitor overall meaning, important concepts and themes while reading
  • recognize ways in which text elements fit together to create larger meaning
  • create new and personal meaning
  • develop holistic and/or thematic statements which encapsulate the overall meaning of the text
  • capitalize on opportunities to share, recommend and criticize books
  • attend to the evolution of their thoughts across time while reading a text, and while reading many texts

Synthesizing information at a word level, readers…

  • select specific vocabulary from the text(s) to include in their synthesis because they know that specific language is highly meaning-laden
  • know when certain vocabulary is critical to the text’s overall meaning, and therefore, must be understood if comprehension is to be achieved

Recently, with Common Core State Standards, students are expected use these synthesis skills across multiple texts of different genres and formats.

Synthesizing information across multiple texts and genres…

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6.7Integrate information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words to develop a coherent understanding of a topic or issue.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6.9Compare and contrast one author’s presentation of events with that of another (e.g., a memoir written by and a biography on the same person).

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.6.7Compare and contrast the experience of reading a story, drama, or poem to listening to or viewing an audio, video, or live version of the text, including contrasting what they “see” and “hear” when reading the text to what they perceive when they listen or watch.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.6.9Compare and contrast texts in different forms or genres (e.g., stories and poems; historical novels and fantasy stories) in terms of their approaches to similar themes and topics.

Synthesizing Multiple Texts

In order to synthesize multiple genres, students need a multitude of experiencesIMG_0521 reading different genres.  The students who synthesized texts for these lessons had read nonfiction articles, blog posts, memoirs, biographies, novels, short stories and picture books of various genres, and etc…, on different topics, daily for five months before I even attempted to ask them to synthesize across texts and genres.

Wait, keep reading!

If you’re realizing that this isn’t the case in your classroom yet, don’t worry: It can still happen.  In short, start asking students to read and annotate a nonfiction piece at least once a week, along with the group readings and independent reading students do daily. Soon, I’ll post my 60 Books in 6th Grade Reading Challenge which was inspired by a true book whisperer, Donalyn Miller.  I’ll also post the most effective thinking strategies I’ve learned in my thirteen years of teaching (I know, still a newbie, but I study wicked hard.) Both of these made it possible for students to synthesize across genres.

After students had read, annotated, and discussed many texts, with differing messages, but on the same topic (Gender Stereotypes), students voted on which texts we should synthesize.  We did this by a quick show of hands, and it was remarkably clear which texts this age wanted to analyze further:

  1. “Everything Will Be Okay” by James Howe
  2. Why I’m Raising My Sons Like Daughters” by Sarah Stewart Holland (blog post at
  3. Various Disney film clips

Our next step was to list the major ideas we learned from each text.  The photo below shows students’ exact wording.  The three circles with bullets are the major ideas kids learned from each text.  I really should have taken a picture after that point (But who is going to interrupt thinking to take a photo?)  The middle section is the next step in synthesis.IMG_0522

After listing the major ideas we learned from each text, we turned and talked about what we could read between the lines and infer that these authors believe, and we looked for beliefs they have in common.  After discussing ideas as a class, we decided upon three BIG IDEAS the authors share:

  1. We learn gender stereotypes from society. (We acknowledged that family, teachers, media, books, friends, and ourselves are “society”.  Major aha! for kiddos- all with my asking the simple question, “Who is society?”  Lights went on in each of their eyes as they realized that they can contribute to or challenge stereotypes.  LOVED that moment.)
  2. Be who YOU want to be.
  3. Challenging gender stereotypes is a way to break stereotypes.

Next, we listed these BIG IDEAS on this chart, or graphic organizer, so that we could begin collecting text evidence to support these inferences.  We did this step by gradually releasing students so that by the time they worked individually, they’d work with confidence.  Students began by watching me think aloud as I read “Everything will be Okay”, looking for text evidence to support the BIG IDEAS we’d inferred.  Next, students worked with their partners to find text evidence in “Why I’m Raising My Sons Like Daughters.”  Finally, students who were ready, worked individually to record evidence from class discussions and their personal interpretation of the Disney film clips we viewed.

Next Steps

Our next step in synthesis, will be to learn the reasons gender stereotypes exist, and why society upholds these stereotypes.  We’ll ask:  What purpose do these serve?  Once students have access to both sides of this issue, they’ll write an argument that synthesizes multiple texts and supports their belief about whether gender stereotypes should be upheld or challenged.

I’d love to have a conversation on ways you’ve taught students to synthesize across genres and texts? What’s been successful or challenging?  What questions to do have about our process?

Are You Asking, “Why Gender Stereotypes?”

I recognize how very challenging this topic is for adults, let alone middle school kids. Recognizing how we’ve contributed to stereotypes, or limited ourselves because of them, requires a firm sense of self.  Here is why I ask students to analyze this topic: there has never been one student, out of over 250 kids who’ve studied this topic with me, who didn’t recognize how limiting gender stereotypes feel to them every single day on the playground, in PE, in the hallway, in the classroom… EVERYWHERE.

I also acknowledge my personal beliefs, having grown up in a Free to Be, You and Me household.  No kidding; it feels like the record played daily. As well, my sister, Amanda Diekman, studies gender and society as a professor at Miami of Ohio.  In my home now, my daughter’s favorite sports to play are basketball and football.  Her favorite clothes are athletic anything!  She also loves crafts, doing her hair (for special occasions), playing baseball, reading, glitter, inventing, doing science experiments, writing, riding her bike, organizing and decorating her bedroom, hiking, wrestling… My two sons, ages two and four, love Legos, superheros, stuffed animals, cooking in their kitchen and with us, crafts, snuggling, reading, nursery rhymes, music, riding bikes, baby dolls…  I do share these tidbits of my daily life with students at times.

I also let students know that our purpose is to figure out what we each personally want for ourselves; we need to know that gender stereotypes exist in order to identify them when we are confronted with them, stop and think about our personal opinions and beliefs, and decide to either challenge the stereotype or to recognize the characteristic or behavior as something we truly feel is our own.

More on this topic later.  Too important to ignore.