Getting Smart with the Whole-Class Novel: 5 Do’s and 5 Don’ts

This post is part of the 3 Truths & a Leap series: I’ll share 3 problematic truths based on my teaching experiences and research, and then I’ll describe the leap I took in an attempt to fix the issues. If your students struggle with reading the whole-class novel, read on.

Truth: The whole-class novel means a whole-class level.

Truth: Students have different ability levels- from reading to thinking to writing to speaking to typing to social comfort to…

Truth: When we are given tasks that far exceed our abilities, we shut down.  Yet we thrive when we are given the chance to learn at levels just above our abilities.

The Leap: When we read one text with all students, we need to personalize learning (if we expect all of our students to learn).

5 Do’s for Whole-Class Novels

  1. Offer different ways students can read the novel: read aloud by the teacher, another adult, a recording, with a partner, a small group, or individually. Teach students to figure out and value the method that works best for them: listen as the teacher reads, share reading with another adult (a volunteer or parent), a recording, with a partner, a small group, or individually.
  2. Encourage students to read at a pace that is right for them– meaning they can understand it, discuss it, and practice thinking skills with it. Our goal is that students understand the author’s meaning and intent and internalize both to the extent that they draw on the experience of reading the novel later in their lives. Help students figure out how many pages per night is reasonable for them.
  3. Allow students to use the materials they find most accessible and effective for organizing their thinking. Students can record thinking in a variety of ways. In my classes, some kids use tiny notebooks that fit inside their novels, others use post-its, bookmarks, or handouts created by me, and others have made their own Google Docs to record their thinking.
  4. Group students based on fluctuating, current needs and teach mini-lessons based on each group’s need. One group might need to preview the text and activate or build background knowledge, another group might need additional practice annotating text, and another group might read and understand the text quickly and will need to extend their knowledge by finding additional information to synthesize with the assigned text.
  5. Offer open-ended, thinking-based questions. When our focus is student thinking, differentiation is natural, and we gather data for what students understand about content. Switch the focus to their thinking because then differentiation is natural, and we can gather data on what they can do with and glean from a text. Thinking-based questions sound like this: Our main character has changed a lot since the start of the novel. Explain at least two ways you have noticed that she’s different, and give evidence from the text to support your ideas. Students will notice different ways the character changed, and if they provide evidence from the text, they’re right. If students provide reasoning and evidence that don’t coincide, they’ve shown us what they need in their next mini-lessons.

5 Don’ts

  1. Don’t expect every student to read it the same way. When we ask all kids to follow along as we read aloud, listen to a recording of the text, or follow as classmates read, we stifle their ability, desire, or thinking. 
  2. Do not expect all students to read the same pages within the same time frame. When we require kids to stick to a certain number of pages per night, we need to accept that some students are not going to read and others will get bored with the book if they can’t read ahead. whole-class novels
  3. Do not ask students to show their understanding in the same exact way.  Teach students to figure out which methods they find most accessible and effective for organizing their thinking. If we assign one way for students to show their thinking, we can bet that we’re meeting the needs of about 1/3 of our students. The others will be bored because our method was either too difficult or too easy.
  4. Do not stick to the same standards for all students. If we assume all students need instruction at grade level standards (for plot, characterization, symbolism, or etc…) we’re going to meet the needs of the middle. Only the middle. Some students might need to analyze plot at the grade level you teach, but others will need to analyze at levels above or below that.
  5. Do not offer “end of chapter” or “did you really read this” type questions. Our students know this game, and they will beat us every time by finding the simple answers and “proving” they read the assigned pages.

Reading a shared text can and should be life-changing for all of us. It certainly has been for me, beginning in seventh grade when I read And Then There Were None alongside my English teacher and continuing to now as I read in book clubs in my neighborhood or with colleagues. But guess what? Even though we decide on the pages to read, not everyone reads them, not everyone attends each meeting, and not everyone reads with the same level of understanding. That’s life, and that’s okay. Yet during our meetings, not everyone is comfortable differentiating based on our needs.

If this crazy, forced mixture of readers makes adults feel uncomfortable to discuss ideas about a text, imagine how it makes kids feel. Let’s take a cue from our own reading habits, and design shared reading so that it meets everyone’s needs.

If you’re interested in reflecting on your own reading life in the effort to engage students in theirs, read This I Know: On Becoming a Reader.

 

 

 

 

 

A Passion for Thinking: 9 Ways to Keep Students Motivated and Thinking

If you are interested in having a thinking-centered classroom, get ready to step out of your comfort zone! First and foremost, know your students and state and national standards well, and track progress like a ninja. I say this because when student-thinking drives instruction, the big picture and students’ whole selves are on the table as we plan instruction, teach lessons, tweak our plans, confer with kiddos, and generally interact. It’s an on-going fluctuation of growth, goal, and whole child.

9 Ways to Keep Students Motivated and Thinking

  1. Make motivation and mindset a Monday morning ritual. This can happen in a number of ways and can easily incorporate curricular goals. View a motivational animated short, TedTalk, or other media and practice thinking skills to determine
    fullsizerender-6
    A student reflects on why she chose a particular quote to motivate her.

    the theme or main idea. Each week is a new focus. Some focuses have been on our impact on others, growth mindset, empathy, and providing support to others.

  2. Make Friday reflections a regular thing. Reflecting is an integral part of learning because it helps us recognize what works and what doesn’t. Friday reflections should relate to weekly motivation, but they also should include specific behaviors we’ve noticed kids need to reflect on and plan for in the week to come. You can see our reflections by clicking on the above links for motivational lessons.
  3. List a daily agenda and/or goals that is dependent on student need. This year, my kiddos want
    ind-anchor-charts
    Individual anchor charts remind students of the information from our lessons or conferences.

    the basics: what are we doing. Their learning goals are far more flexible than one standard or even one step of a standard. I’ve learned to keep our agenda to a minimum and to keep our big picture goals on our walls (as anchor charts), in mini-notebooks (literally rubber-banded into their novels), and their individual goals in mini-anchor charts written on post-its in their novels.

  4. Resist negativity from students, parents, and even beloved colleagues. It’s not easy. Everyone needs to vent. Yet, when students vent about teachers, I put the onus back on students, and we look into what they need to do to fix things. When I vent, my cohorts gently put the onus back on me, and we problem-solve to fix the situation!
  5. Be their person. We all need “our person.” Adults seek personal connection at work, and kids crave that connection even more. When kids call us mom or dad by mistake, it’s music to our ears because they’ve connected to us. And when we notice a child who is struggling, we need to pool resources and find their person. My most recent experience is with a kiddo who wouldn’t engage. My classes are very small, and it allows all students to find inspiration, respond to the close instruction, and bond. He hadn’t. His language arts teacher and I would talk about him often, and she focused on him, tried different strategies and ideas, and eventually made the difference. On Friday, he finished his first novel in her class and ran into my class to tell me the news! On Friday, he thoughtfully completed his first weekly reflection! His language arts teacher was his advocate. She’d figured out what he needed, helped him get it, and he responded!
  6. Make it a group effort. Our goals are hanging on our door, written in their journals,
    vision-board
    One student’s vision board. Each week, a new image, quote or idea is added.

    pictured on their vision boards, and discussed daily. These are our goals. Students know that I’m invested in them, and they know the steps I’ve taken to help them succeed. Together, we made vision boards at the start of this semester. We think about these daily. We add to our boards and reflect on our goals weekly.

  7. Be kind, always. How we respond to students impacts whether they’ll shut down or think and process. We are bound to feel frustrated at times, but we need to explain that frustration in healthy ways, so that even when we’re discussing misbehavior or something else a student needs to improve, we do it from a place of care and concern for the child. When two students earned detention this week, we discussed the misbehavior in a meaningful way and students filled in their detention forms having thought about the impact of what they’d done. In addition, our school detentions are opportunities for students to reflect once more on the reasons for the misbehavior, learn strategies for mindfulness, and a chance to bond with another great teacher in our school. The effects are incredible. We have students who choose to go to a mindfulness class once a week after school because they loved what they’d learned about mindfulness during detention!
  8. Teach, preach, and show the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. This is an ongoing conversation. The easy way? Extrinsic. The harder, farther-reaching and farther-satisfying way? Intrinsic. This can feel impossible when working with kids who’ve never experienced intrinsic motivation, but its not. Giving students ownership of learning, scaffolding and differentiating so students grow and can celebrate successes, and creating a sense of connectedness and community all help students be intrinsically motivated.
  9. Belly laugh with students. Laughter bonds. In fact, yesterday was one of the best laughs yet! It was Honor Role Assembly Day, and although my kiddos had worked hard to learn to read, we’d only recently begun to transfer reading skills to other classes. So, only one of the 13 in our group was being honored. We were writing Friday Reflections when a gifted-comedian and strong-willed student blurted, “I’m bringin’ hot Cheetos to the assembly today. I’m puttin’ them in my pocket and I’m eatin’ them while they all walk up there…” I cannot begin to tell you the laughter! She had perfect execution. We’d been through such incredible transformations: We’d grown grade levels and RITs and lexiles and emotions and outside-our-boxes and finding-our-persons. We’d faltered and reflected and tried and we’d even let other students see us try- and that’s not easy when you’re 13 and comfortable with not trying! Then we talked about their growth and how much growth matters. We talked about the fact that reading and thinking matter most, and that once they’d begun reading at higher levels (most of them at grade level now), they were finally ready to follow my lead on grades, homework, and studying. The belly laughs were therapeutic.

Real learning only happens when students are thinking. And thinking is messy! It changes, grows, learns to maneuver, and empathize. It’s exciting and passionate! Thinking isn’t linear, nor should our teaching of it be.

Friday Reflection: Be the Change We Need

This week’s reflection asks students to think about school and classroom climate and to consider what they can do to create an accepting, helpful and kind learning atmosphere. When I originally wrote this piece, it was spurred by a study published in the Review of Educational Research showing that positive school climates can narrow achievement gaps, especially for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Yet, our civil unrest in the week following this election brought new meaning to this weekly reflection.

Not What I Planned, but it Happened

On Monday, I showed the short film and we discussed what the main character does and his effect on others. Kids loved it; they thought parts were funny and inspiring. We began a discussion of theme, and noticed other literary elements that help us construct understanding. Kids were prepared to carry the positive message into the week. Tuesday, my kids were shell-shocked. I listened. I told them they were safe. I explained checks and balances… and as much as I had prepared, I was not prepared.

On Wednesday, we watched Donald Trump’s acceptance speech and Hillary Clinton’s concession speech. We looked for their main messages, the language used to portray that message, and who their intended audiences were. I did this because it matters. I have never been the kind of parent and teacher to protect children from the truth. I am the kind of parent and teacher who will explain the truth in age-appropriate ways.

As the week wore on, we began discussing the protests and and acts of racism they’d been seeing in the news. We read articles about positive things other kids were doing to help their communities. My students were shaken- many have parents who are illegal immigrants. One student worried his family would have to break up. Others wondered what would happen to their health insurance. Others said that they have gay family members and they couldn’t understand why people were so upset by that. These questions told me that my students’ parents had been worrying all week too. This short film and our theme anchored us for the week; I’m thanking my lucky stars because it was by a miracle I’d happened to use it. It is light enough to provide hope in a trying time and serious enough to matter. And the characters are Thai. In subtle and direct ways this short video showed exactly what we needed it to show this week.

By Friday, after days of discussing, reading, writing, and discussing more, my kiddos had figured out which social issues matter most to them and which one issue they want to research and discuss in-depth next week. As I’ve said before, I teach very small classes of kids who were reading anywhere from 2-7 years below grade level when we began our work this year. Our work together this week grew them years in terms of their thinking. The fact that they’re so interested in fixing the social injustices they see- that they’ll read and discuss and act on what they learn? That will grow them years in terms of their reading. And the human rights lessons we will teach each other and others along the way… insurmountable. Uncountable. Undeniably life changing for them and for me.

I hope that your students find comfort and can see themselves in this short film. I hope your discussions fill them with a sense of “I can do this too” and “This is the world we want.”

I hope.

Friday Reflection

Each Friday includes a theme, media, reflection prompts, and a brief class discussion with compliments for individual students or for us a group. The entire process takes 20 minutes or less once students get the hang of it, and provides huge dividends when done consistently.

Weekly Theme

“You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

-Mahatma Gandhi

Media

In this weekly reflection, we use two types of media. First, is a short film on being the change you wish to see in the world. Next is an NPR interview with Natalie Hampton, a high school student who created the ‘Sit with Us’ app so students can find someone to eat lunch with rather than eating alone. Another example of kindness I plan to share with students is this story of  student, Amanda Moore, who used Google translate to ask a new classmate to sit with her at lunch.

One of my students showed me the video for this reflection! How could I pass that up? The short video follows a man on his daily route through the city. Without fail and always with a positive spirit, this man helps others, shares anything he has with those in need, and looks at problems with the mindset to solve them!

(I know this is a given, but be sure to view the video before playing it for students. It is appropriate for all levels, but please view it before showing it to them.)

*My students will watch this video once before we reflect on Friday. As we view it, we’ll make note of the Notice and Note Signposts to analyze character motivation, predict plot, and uncover themes. We’ve been using the signposts for several weeks now, so students will be able to recognize the signposts and ask and answer the questions quickly with this film. (For more information about teaching the Signposts, see “Three Things I Learned by Doing My Own Signpost Assignment” and “Evolving Understandings: Dig Deep with Signposts“)

Reflection Prompts

  • If you could make one change in our school right now, what would it be? Describe
    why you would change it. What ideas do you have on how to change it?
  • What kind actions can we do for each other in class and others in our school on a daily basis?

Discussion

  • Discuss what you noticed the man doing each day. How did those actions affect the others in the video? How did they begin acting differently following his kindness and generosity?
  • Discuss how things would have been different if the man in our video would have been annoyed with the woman and her child begging for money, or not even noticed the woman who needed help with her cart. What would the effects have been then?
  • Any compliments for anyone? (This question is intentionally left open-ended because kids will surprise you once they’re comfortable enough to share. I ask the question regardless of the stage my class is in and share my own compliments if students aren’t ready to be open with each other yet.)

Reflecting on our learning, behavior, and feelings and making plans for our next steps accelerates growth in all areas. In our classroom, students reflect often. We do this at preset points in the process, and we do it naturally when one of us realizes it’s time to take a minute to look at what we’ve been struggling with or accomplished. Without fail, we take time every Friday because it provides closure for the week and sets the stage for Mondays when we set weekly goals. What types of reflections do you do with students? Share what’s been most effective or pieces of the reflection process you and your students are struggling with. The more we share, the more we grow.

I’d love to hear what you’ve done with your students to help them feel safe, understand what is happening, and work on social justice issues. Feel free to comment below or send a message. Thank you.

A Friday Reflection in the Spirit of Halloween: On Gut Feelings & Questionable Decisions

Why Take Time to Reflect?

Reflecting on learning and making plans for success accelerates growth. In our classroom, students reflect on their learning often. We do this at preset points in the process, and we do it naturally when one of us realizes it’s time to take a minute to look at what we’ve been struggling with or accomplished. We also do it every Friday because it provides closure for the week and sets the stage for Mondays when we set weekly goals.

Friday Reflection

Each Friday includes a theme relating to one of the characteristics we need in order to overcome adversity, media of some kind, reflection prompts, and a brief class discussion with compliments for us as a group or for individual students. The entire process takes 20 minutes or less once students get the hang of it, and provides huge dividends when done consistently.

Weekly Theme

“When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this: You Haven’t”

-Thomas Edison

Media

Animated short “Francis” directed by Richard Hickey, and written by Dave Eggers. From production company CGI Brothers: The story of ‘Francis’ came about interestingly from the famed radio show ‘This American Life’. Broadcaster Ira Glass asked 6 American writers to create a short story about Adventure. One of these stories, written by novelist & screenwriter Dave Eggers, was read on the show to much acclaim and praise. Richard worked with producer Kevin Batten & a team to turn the words into this short film. The film has been shown at Cannes Film Festival and Raindance.

(I know this is a given, but be sure to view the video before playing it for students. It is appropriate for seventh and eighth graders and high school, but please view it before showing it to them; it’s creepy. I will choose another video for my sixth graders when we do this reflection.)

*My students will watch this video once before our reflection on its themes and how they apply to our lives. We always use the  Notice and Note Signposts to analyze character motivation, predict plot, and uncover themes. We are several weeks deep on practicing the signposts, so students will be able to recognize the signposts and ask and answer the signpost questions quickly with this film. (For more information about teaching the Signposts, see “Three Things I Learned by Doing My Own Signpost Assignment” and “Evolving Understandings: Dig Deep with Signposts“)

Reflection Prompt

  • Francis is a bit of a rebel and lives according to her own terms. The night of her “accident,” there were several points that she should have had, and even might have had but ignored, the gut feeling that she was doing something wrong and possibly dangerous. Eventually, she made too many wrong decisions, gave up, and… well, you know what happened in the end. Why do you think she didn’t listen to her instincts? What do you think she should she have done differently? 
  • We are not in the middle of a lake with no one around to help us get back to shore, but it is a good metaphor for some of the things we struggle with.Think of a time when you struggled to learn something new or with having to do something that seemed so hard that you wanted to give up. What did you do: Give up? Avoid the difficult things? Find a way to keep trying hard? Did you stop to think about what people who care about you would want you to do? Did your “gut” tell you what to do?
  • How can we use the themes in “Francis” in our lives? 

Discussion

  • We’ve inferred that Francis didn’t like listening to the advice of the adults in her life (She was a rebel. She sneaked out of her tent in the middle of the night. She smoked cigarettes- yuck!) Sometimes kids decide not to listen to their parents’ advice, and rely on their friends. If you were giving advice to people in this class on how to become better readers, what would you say?
  • What compliments do you have for each other? (This question is intentionally left open-ended because kids will surprise you once they’re comfortable enough to share. I ask the question regardless of the stage my class is in and share my own compliments if students aren’t ready to be open with each other yet.)

 

What types of reflections do you do with students? The more we share, the more we learn!

Friday Reflection: What Can We Do to Support Each Other So That We All Reach Our REAL Potential?

Why Take Time to Reflect?

Reflecting on learning and making plans for success accelerates growth. In our classroom, students reflect on their learning often. We do this at preset points in the process, and we do it naturally when one of us realizes it’s time to take a minute to look at what we’ve been struggling with or accomplished. We also do it every Friday because it provides closure for the week and sets the stage for Mondays when we set weekly goals.

Friday Reflection

Each Friday includes a theme relating to one of the characteristics we need in order to overcome adversity, media of some kind, reflection prompts, and a brief class discussion with compliments for us as a group or for individual students. The entire process takes 20 minutes or less once students get the hang of it, and provides huge dividends when done consistently.

Weekly Theme

“Nothing is impossible. The word itself says ‘I’m possible.’” -Audrey Hepburn

Media

Animated short Zero directed by Christopher Kezelos. The producer, Zealous Creative, describes the film: In a world that judges people by their number, Zero faces constant prejudice and persecution. He walks a lonely path until a chance encounter changes his life forever: he meets a female zero. Together they prove that through determination, courage, and love, nothing can be truly something.

This film is incredible- it captivated my daughter when she watched it, my students when they watched it, and my colleagues when they watched it! Even if you do not think you’ll use this reflection, I recommend watching Zero!

(I know this is a given, but be sure to view the video before playing it for students. It is appropriate for middle school and high school, but please view it through your students’ lenses before showing it to them; it addresses sensitive social issues. This reflection does not go into depth on these issues, but as students study stereotypes and discrimination the next several weeks, we will use this video as means to recognize the stereotyping and discrimination in our society.)

For younger students, substitute the movie with a book with a similar theme. Oneby Kathryn Otoshi, is a story about accepting each other’s differences.

*My students watched this video twice this week as we discussed the Notice and Note Signposts. We use signposts to uncover the themes the video presents. (For more information about teaching the Signposts, see “Three Things I Learned by Doing My Own Signpost Assignment” and “Evolving Understandings: Dig Deep with Signposts“)

Reflection Prompt

Zero is born into his place in society and not allowed to break out of it. Eventually, he does bust out because he and his friend believe they are something, they have courage, and they have love.  Looking back on our first 9 weeks of this school year, what have you achieved that seemed impossible in August? Which people in your life and what behaviors and mindsets helped you achieve it? (Consider all of your family members, friends, and teachers.)

Discussion

  • Think about the time we’ve spent together since August, and consider how you’ve grown more comfortable each week. Think about Zero and the challenges he was able to overcome once he met his friend who accepted him. Use your experiences in this class and Zero’s experiences in overcoming his challenges to answer this question: What do people need in order to feel safe enough to learn? *I will ask students if they think it would be valuable to list these things on an anchor chart so that we can see them and think about them daily. Most will think it’s a good idea, and then we’ll have a good part of our learning about how to learn from 1st Quarter right there for us to use during 2nd Quarter.
  • What compliments do you have for each other? (This question is intentionally left open-ended because kids will surprise you once they’re comfortable enough to share. I ask the question regardless of the stage my class is in and share my own compliments if students aren’t ready to be open with each other yet.)

 

What types of reflections do you do with students at the end of the quarter or semester? The more we share, the more we learn!

Notice the Tiny Triumphs

We need to celebrate the little things. These little bits of triumph are setting the course for the individual goals, benchmarks,  leaps, and bounds students need to make in order to be real thinkers and readers and doers and changers.

My Top 5 Tiny Triumphs of this School Year:

  1. A student who has hardly spoken until this week, who shook with fear during his first assessment, and who fake-read for a good three weeks (despite all I knew to do to make him comfortable), came to me and said that he thought his book was too easy for him. He wanted to try something harder. HE WANTED TO TRY SOMETHING HARDER.
  2. A kiddo who has made it his school-life’s goal to goof off and avoid all work has repeatedly run into my classroom because he cannot wait to find out what will happen next in our read aloud. I wait to hear that door open every single day. I cannot wait. His enthusiasm is matched by the others
    in his class. I love hearing their loud footsteps down the hallway.
  3. That same kiddo also told a knock-down, drag-out, perfect retelling of our read-aloud to another student who’d been absent… ARE YOU SERIOUS? That was better than I could do! He was my language arts student last year. This year, he’s in a class of 5 reading-intervention students. He is a completely different learner. Frankly, I’m very much the same teacher. What made the difference? *Too much to tackle in one writing.
  4. A student who has a really difficult time forming coherent thoughts, asked this question as we ended our study of schema, “So, is it like if you learn something new, then a new web is made in your brain? Then when you learn another thing new that connects to it, it can stick to make another web?” YES! YES! YES! And now when this kiddo is confronted with new material, he might not turn away. He’ll have an opening to it.
  5. One of my eighth grade classes, filled with kids who weeks ago wouldn’t speak directly to anyone but me and spoke in mumbled whispers for at least the first week of class… who’d also thought liking books and actually reading books was not for them, asked if they could Facetime their absent classmate to show her the two books they’d decided on for our read aloud and ask her which book she wanted to choose. Unfortunately, its against school policy to use Facetime, so I had to say no. WHAT? Not. A. Chance. They Facetimed. Truth be told, I would have looked up her number and handed them my cellphone if one of them hadn’t had her number.

Not Without Worry

I could go on with triumphs, but I won’t. Our triumphs are not without worries and failures. One night this week, I stood in our school book room talking with my friend about the issues I noticed with my eighth graders. Another night, a friend and I talked about our seventh graders. She said that she knows when kids are struggling that she needs to hold up a mirror and figure out what she’s doing wrong. And I joked that sometimes I want to pound the mirror against my forehead a few hundred times. In another meeting, I laughed and laughed with someone who only came to our school this year, but who thinks about kids and struggles with ideas, and asks for thought like all of the rest of us. We all struggle, every single one of us reading this, and we all have moments we can celebrate. In fact, I was just stopped in the hallway by a friend who told me that a kiddo we share (Kiddo from #1 T.T.) went from 2/20 on a vocabulary quiz last week to 11/20 this week. Is there still work to do? Yes. Approaches to figure out? Yes. Should we even celebrate growth that still amounts to an F? Yes. Yes. Yes.

Focus on Growth

I also want every teacher to know that the fact that I could have gone on with positives is most certainly the result of a decision I made long ago. At that point in my life, I needed to look for positives. It had nothing to do with teaching, and everything to do with the very most important part of life: family. When I was much, much younger than I am now, and my family would talk about positive mindset and focusing on the good, I thought that that mindset was “living in fairy tale” and unrealistic. But years later, I needed that mindset, and it worked. In about a thousand positive ways, it worked.

The five little bits of happiness listed above are not the end-all. I have not grown lifelong readers yet. But we have planted seeds. And if I focus my energy on the growth, then they’ll focus their energy there too.

 

 

 

 

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.

60 Books in 6th Grade

This year I decided to do something kind of crazy:  I asked my 6th graders to attempt to read 60 Books in 6th Grade!  I based the idea on Donalyn Miller‘s work in her book The Book Whisperer. I liked the seemingly insurmountable challenge Miller described,  but I wanted more kids to be able to access the varying genres without being frozen with fear by book length.  I co-teach LSS (learning support services) and ELL (English-language learner) classes, and I have many kids who enter sixth grade with reading scores below grade level. I needed to make Miller’s challenge appear a bit more accessible, so I lowered the number of chapter books and increased the number of overall books!

Miller is adamant that teachers not change the book challenge in ways that negate its original purpose; she writes about this in a blog post titled The 40 Book Challenge Revisited. I read her book ages ago, and I’d felt like I’d found my kin.  The reason I’d connected to Miller’s ideas was her main message: Find what you love to read. Read a lot. Those aren’t Miller’s words, but that’s what I gather from her work, and it was just what I needed to hear since I’d struggled with “being a reader” until I was in college.

Another way to illustrate the purpose of Miller’s work is this: This year, I did the 60 Books in 6th Grade Challenge along with my students. Guess what? I did not read 60 books, although some students did. What did I do? I read more than any other year of my life. I found a lot of new authors I like. I realized I like science fiction. That’s HUGE!  And it was huge for my readers to see me grow with them.

Believe Me- This is not as crazy as it sounds!

In today’s high-stakes testing environment, many companies have developed computer-based reading programs that promise to increase test scores.  Yet we all know what students really need to do to improve reading skills: They need to read.  And read.  And read.   Students need access to a variety of books, they need targeted instruction, and they need time to read.

That idea alone is what makes 60 Books attainable.  Students spend a lot of time reading in 60 books quote 2my classes.  The 60 Books log helps them track which genres they read most, it is a record of author’s they prefer, it asks them to step out of their comfort zone and try new genres, but does so by including picture books as an introduction to the various genres.

Believe Me- They’re all reading more!

Some teachers have asked how I make sure students don’t lie and just fill in book titles. The truth is, there is no reason for them to lie.  This assignment isn’t worth points.  We talk a lot about the fact that it really doesn’t matter whether you get to 25, 40, or 60.  What 60 books class photomatters is that this year we are reading more than any other year of our lives! Students feel really good about that! Challenge by choice is a perfect term to describe this assignment- Students are given the task of reading 60 books of various genres and lengths. Students decide how far to take it! The only “requirement” is that students go further than they ever have before!

And you know what?  They are reading more!  We all have students who are shocked because they suddenly realized that they love to read.  When the appropriate structures are in place, students do unearth a love for books.  Yet, 60 Books was a game changer in my teaching and in student growth.  Students have noticed themselves changing as their book logs got longer and longer, and now they realize that attempting to accomplish something that seems really overwhelming and out of their league, can actually happen.  They just need support, time, materials, perseverance, and a plan to get it done.  Intrigued? I hope so.

5 Tips to Help:

  1. Designate independent reading time every day.  Period.  Don’t get rid of it when time is short and you feel like something has to give.  Time to read is exactly the one thing we can’t give up.
  2. Schedule extended reading time once or twice a month. This time should be set aside just for 60 Books!  (Our school has shortened class periods about once a month BeFunky Collagedue to PLC meetings, so we used these days to celebrate our successes and look into what we still had to accomplish on our 60 Book logs.)
  3. Talk about the 60 Books log often.  As soon as a student says they’ve finished a book, celebrate, and ask if they’ve added it to 60 Books.  When a student is looking for a new book to read, ask them to open their 60 Books log and help them narrow down which genre they want to try next.
  4. Talk about effort and honesty often. All year long, discuss that getting to 60 is not exactly the point. The purpose is to read more than ever before, to discover new genres, and to learn about and reflect on reading habits.
  5. Do 60 Books along with your students. This is a huge challenge- there is no way around it. Even when we focus on growth, even with all of the support we give students, this is a big challenge! So, I did my own 60 Books log. I shared my reading challenges- like having to read science-fiction!  I shared my choices- books I knew they’d love too. Seeing me attempt this task alongside them, helped make it real.

If 60 Books in 6th grade (or 40 Books in 4th grade…) seems like a challenge worth your time, please let me know how it goes!  If you run into trouble, I’d be happy to troubleshoot with you.  I can say with all honesty, this task was worth every minute we spent on it.  Kids are really proud of how far they’ve come!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cognitive Closings

Time is of the Essence

Teachers and students never have enough time in a class period, school day or even a school year!  We are always pressed for time, and taking a few minutes at the end of class for closure seems somewhat counterproductive to the idea of saving time.  I promise that it is not.

The closing is a crucial part of each day File_000because students label what they learn and this helps them commit it to memory.  Closure also shows students how each lesson connects to yesterday’s and tomorrow’s.   Eventually, this practice saves time because students begin to connect the dots between days and reflect on their learning without being prompted!

Learn from My Mistakes

File_002 (1)MISTAKE #1:  Giving all of the closings to students at once, without modeling.

At first, it’s best to choose one closing at a time for the entire class.  Model it, and then have kids try it. Once they’ve practiced using all of them, they can begin choosing which one they want to use at the end of each class.

MISTAKE #2:  Not being specific about how specific students need to be.

Make them be specific.  If students learned the scientific method, they need to list the parts of the scientific method, and not just say, “We learned about the scientific method.”

MISTAKE #3:  Thinking students must always write their closings.

I do want students to write these closings several times a week, but students can also turn and talk to share ideas or discuss them as a whole class when we are really crunched for time.  If we skip the closing when we are pressed for time, we show students that it really isn’t a crucial piece of learning.

 

John Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.” People need this opportunity to reflect in order to process what they’ve experienced… whether it was confusion in math class, or a current event in humanities, or a character’s decision in language arts… I think of all of the reflecting adults do daily when we’re talking with friends, exercising, or posting on Twitter and Facebook. It’s our responsibility to show kids how to do this with matters of substance so they can choose their paths, make their plans, and be the people they’re most capable of being.

Try the prompts here, and let me know what you think. I’d love to help in any way and to learn from you too.

Cognitive Closing Prompts

List one thing you learned today, and explain how it connects to other parts of your life- other classes, family, friends, hobbies, or sports…

Share one opinion you have about what we read, saw, or heard.  Explain why you feel that way.

Connect today’s learning to something we learned before or to another class. Explain how the two connect.

List questions that linger from today’s lesson.  Where can you find answers to those questions?

Describe or draw images which illustrate today’s thinking and learning.  Add a short caption.

Explain how your thinking about our current topic has grown or changed since we began it. What/who changed your thinking?

Explain why what we learned today matters to you, your family, people your age, our community, our country, or humankind.

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 Foter.com / CC BY-SA
Photo credit: Kim Klassen via Foter.com / CC BY-NC