It’s hard to believe that we have already had 31 days with this incredible new batch of kids. 31 days of laughing, of learning (hopefully), of working to somehow create a community that will matter to all of us. I think we are finally starting to get into the groove of who we are and what we need to do.
As I prepared for this week, it was therefore natural for me to wonder how the students felt. Are they also feeling like we are doing worthwhile work? Are they feeling respected? How can we change our teaching to make it work for them?
Rather than assume, I did what I have done for many years and what I tell others to do all of the time; I asked. On a simple 30-day survey, we asked them a few questions about the class, about themselves, and also about how we have been doing.
As the responses came in, I was startled at their kindness. How many kids said that they wouldn’t change the class, that they like what we are doing, and most importantly they feel respected by us. In fact, after giving the survey I had kind of a let down – this what it? All they had to say? And yet, again I am reminded that it is not always what they say but that they have a chance to speak in the first place. I tell our students to be honest, that I have thick skin, that we cannot grow if we don’t know what we need to work on from their perspective. And so whether students tell us hard truths or give us amicable reassurances, it is not always what they say but instead that we asked. That we listened. that we did something about the words that they gave us.
So now, we will read more. I will try to speak less (always something I am working on), and I will try to notice the things they have asked me to notice. We are so quick to assume what our students may think or feel, instead just ask them. Whenever you can and whatever you can. I promise you will learn something.
I get asked a few times a week where I will be speaking next or whether I do a certain type of work with educators. While most of my time is spent in room 235d, Oregon Middle School, with my incredibly funny and also rightfully demanding 7th graders, I am on the road once or twice a month, sometimes more. Summers I am on the road a lot. I love this work with other educators, it is one of the biggest honors and challenges that I have, and yes, I am always interested in working with districts. Being with educators and brainstorming with them is an incredible adventure and I walk away with more knowledge every single time.
So just in case, you are wondering what type of work I do and where I will be, check here.
If you are wondering what types of session I lead, check here.
NCTE is coming up soon and besides NerdCamp it is my favorite conference of the year. Not only do I get to present alongside incredible people, but I also get to learn so much. So if you will be at NCTE, here is where I will be for sure. (Other times I will be in the exhibit hall browsing books or sitting in sessions – don’t be afraid to say hi if you want).
Amplify!: Strategies for Elevating Student Voice in the Classroom and Beyond
Thursday, November 15, 2018 1:00-2:15 p.m.
Presenting alongside: Valeria Brown, Matthew Homrich-Knieling, Julie Jee, Christie Nold and José Luis Vilson
Cultivating Students’ Voices in the Reading/Writing Workshop
Friday, November 16, 2018 12:30-1:45 p.m.
Leading roundtables with: Nancy Akhavan, Pam Allyn, Gretchen Bernabei, Jim Burke, Rose Cappelli, Harvey Daniels, Dr. Lynne Dorfman, Gravity Goldberg,Renee Houser,Mary Howard, Ellin Keene, Brian Kissel, Dr. Lester Laminack, Patty McGee, Donalyn Miller, James Nageldinger, Linda Rief, Pernille Ripp, Evan Robb, Laura Robb andNancy Steineke.
Creating Passionate Reading Communities: Practical Tools to Engage Every Child, Every Day
Friday, November 16, 2018 3:30-4:45 p.m. Presenting alongside: Penny Kittle and Donalyn Miller
Saturday: Breaking Down Stereotypes and Stigmas One Book at a Time
Saturday, November 17, 2018 4:15-5:30 p.m.
Presenting alongside: Leah Henderson, K.A. Holt, Laura Shovan, and Elly Swartz
CEL Keynote – Passionate Readers
I hope our paths cross.
Our oldest daughter, Thea, has been in intense reading intervention since she was in Kindergarten. This creative, vivacious, book-loving child just could not seem to find the right words when she looked at the letters. And yet she persisted through it all, continually going back to books even if the words proved to be elusive. Like many parents whose children do not come naturally to reading, we have seemingly tried it all. More read aloud, more quiet reading, more strategies, more conversation, more intervention, more of anything we could think of and yet, I will never forget that day in 2nd grade when Thea came home and declared, “Mom, I don’t think I am a reader because reading is just too hard….”
I think you could have heard my heart break a mile away.
Because here was a child who had grown up surrounded by books. A child who had grown up being read to. A child who had grown up being surrounded by readers. A child who had seemingly been given every opportunity to be a reader and yet, the foundational skills of reading, the decoding of actual letters to form words, that seemed like it would never happen for her.
So we did the only thing we knew how; we handed her more books, more reading for pleasure, less pressure, more time. And so did her teachers.
A few months later, Thea once again had a declaration to make. “Mom, I’m a reader because I can read this book!” I came to the front door where she stood clutching a book to her chest. She said, “I can’t read all the words but the pictures help me figure it out. I have to go read it now to Ida and Oskar…” and she did, and they sat together huddled around this book that had shown my daughter that she was a reader despite her struggles, and she repeated her reading, and she carried that book hugging it to her chest. She placed that under her pillow at night, every day checking to see if it was still there so she could read it one more time. Carried it back and forth to school as she got braver and found more books just like it that also made her believe she was a reader. We still have that book; it is Dogman by Dav Pilkey. Her teacher recommended it to her and our daughter’s reading life has never been the same since then.
So when I hear teacher’s tell students that graphic novels are too easy. That comic books are not real reading. That it is time to pick a “real” book. That they can read books like that for fun but not for learning, I tend to get a bit upset. You see, comics are what kept me reading long into the night as a child when books seemed like too much work. Graphic novels are what make my students who declare they hate reading actually give it a try. Dog Man and all of the other books by Dav Pilkey are what made Thea believe she was a reader. How can we just dismiss that?
You think graphic novels are easy? Read March by Senator John Lewis. You think comics are just for fun? Read Black Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates. You think graphic novels don’t have substance? Read Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka. And then tell me that graphic novels don’t belong in our classrooms. That they don’t count as real books. That they are just dessert books, or filler, or vacation books or whatever other terms we use to tell kids that that book they just selected is simply “too easy” for them despite their obvious excitement.
Because when you tell a child that the book they have chosen is too easy you may be dismissing the first book they have ever connected with.
You may be dismissing the first book they have ever actually enjoyed.
You may be dismissing the first book they have ever seen themselves in.
You may be dismissing the first book that made them finally believe that they, too, are a reader.
Because you see when we tell kids that a book is too easy we are dismissing their entire reading journey. We are dismissing who they are as readers and just how much work it may have been to get there. We are telling them that their reading journey only has value if they read books that we deem appropriate and that is never okay. Have we gotten so lost in our reading instruction that we cannot see the harm we can do?
So it is time for us all to realize that while comic books, graphic novels, or any other medium that has pictures in it may seem “easy” at first glance, I think the word we are really looking for is enticing, not easy. Is inviting, not fluff. Gives courage, not a cop out of reading. And that these masterful pieces of literature are, indeed, full-fledged members of the book family. Are, indeed, full-fledged literary components that deserve not just to be placed into the hands of our students, but also taught alongside other books. To be held up as shining examples of literary greatness that we should appreciate, promote, and celebrate alongside all of the other books we have.
Thea is still a reader and she still loves Dog Man. She loves Captain Underpants – Tralala! She loves Bad Kitty, Smile, Drama, Lunch Lady, Baby Mouse, Bad Guys, and any graphic novel that comes her way. But she also loves Wishtree, The One and Only Ivan, The Tale of Despereaux, and all of the other books she has read since then. Books she would have never had the courage or gumption to try if she had not found Dog Man. If Dav Pilkey had not had the heart and courage to continue to write books that kids would love even if the adults didn’t. I owe our daughter’s reading life to him and to her teacher that saw a child who desperately needed to feel like a reader and was smart enough to hand her a graphic novel. Not because she thought it would be easy for her, but because she thought that it was just what Thea needed. And boy, was she ever right.
If you need more information or ideas of why graphic novels and comics belong in our libraries and schools, here are just a few resources shared with me:
I forgot yesterday was a Monday. As I drove home, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around why the day did not seem to have gone as planned. Why I had just taken away all yoga balls in our classroom. Why the energy seemed so off, no matter what I did. And then it dawned on me; it was a Monday, and every Monday I leave thinking that I need to change the way I teach. That what we are doing is not working. That surely I should not be writing about the way I teach because if you had been in our classroom, you would have been just a little bit surprised, after all, aren’t we supposed to have it all figured out by now?
This morning as I got ready for another day, a child walked in and declared, “Monday’s turn me into Garfield…” and I remembered once again, that sometimes Monday’s are hard. Sometimes the final class of the day is loud. Sometimes the kid we thought we had helped feel comfortable still does hurtful things. Sometimes I am more tired then I thought I was. Sometimes things happen outside of our classroom that influences our classroom in ways we couldn’t foresee, and while all of these may seem like excuses o why the day didn’t go as planned, they are not. They are reminders.
Reminders that we are human. Reminders that teaching is never perfect. Reminders that sometimes despite what we plan, despite what we intend, despite what we think a day will be like, it just isn’t.
And they are reminders to see the small wins, the small successes that will ultimately shape this year together. Like the kid who agreed to give an audiobook a try despite how much they hate reading. Or the kid who asked for help and never has before. The kid who started yelling but then realized what he did and apologized. The kid who couldn’t wait to tell me about the book they finished. The kid who took the time to tell me that no matter what I always seem to be smiling. That no matter what, the 7th grade teachers are all pretty nice.
Those are the reminders we all need but seem to forget as we focus on the things that seem to not work. So I wonder; have you given yourself a moment to realize how much good there has happened? How far we have actually come?
Because if you look you will see the growth. You will see those small changes as these kids figure out how to be more than what they came as. You will see them try. You will see them stretch themselves, even if it doesn’t seem apparent on the surface. But you won’t if you don’t look closely, it is so easy to miss in all of the things that have not yet been figured out.
So if you had been in our classroom yesterday, you may have thought it was a rougher day, and yet, I would have told you; it’s just Monday. Tomorrow will be better because that’s just how it goes. And you know what, today was a pretty good day, just like yesterday. How about yours?
“….well, I didn’t finish any books last year…”She turns to me and smiles.
“What do you mean?” I ask, not sure I have heard her correctly, after all, I know what amazing work they do in 6th grade.
“….I just stopped reading them, I didn’t finish them. I got bored…”
She puts the book down that she is abandoning and starts to look for a new one.
I love book abandonment. It is something I preach should be a taught skill to all kids, a right even. If you don’t like the book, don’t read it, it’s as simple as that when it comes to building a love of reading. And yet, this year, we have been exposed to a new level of book abandonment. A whole group of kids who never, according to their own recollection, finished a book of their own choosing last year. Not one, not two kids, but many. And they really don’t like reading.
Perhaps you have a group like this as well?
So how do you protect or create the joy of reading, when you really need students to experience a whole book from start to finish?
In conferring with many of my students, the obvious place to start is their book selection process. When I ask them how they find their next read, many of them confess to only doing a few things, mainly look at the cover and then start it. They haven’t taken the book for a test run, haven’t considered the length of the book, they don’t really know their likes and dislikes and so when the book turns out to be other than what they expected, they abandon it.
So reading identity is once again where we start. How well do they know themselves as readers? What do they like to read? What is their reading rate? What do they abandon? Is there a pattern? Are they aware of their own habits at all? I start by interviewing them and taking notes, then I also have them reflect on themselves as readers and we track this information. I also check in with them more, how are they doing with the book? How are they liking it?
Book selection comes next. What are their book shopping habits? We refer to the lesson we did at the beginning of the year and help them book shop. Who are their book people? How do they find books to read? What are their preferences? What is on their to-be-read list already? Thinking of all of this can help them with their next selection.
Track their abandonment. While all students are expected to write down finished or abandoned titles, we are finding that many of our serial abandoners do not, so we will help them do that. This is so they can start to see their own patterns; when did they abandon a book, why did they abandon it? How far were they? What type of book was it? What strategies did they use before they abandoned it? They will track this on this form. This is only something we will do with these serial abandoners, not students who abandon a book once in a while. What can they discover about themselves as they look at this information? I also know that some of our serial book abandoners are not on our radar yet, so this survey will help us identify them so we can help.
Teach them stamina strategies. Many of our students give up on books the minute they slow down or “get boring” as they would say. They don’t see the need for slower parts to keep the story going. They also, often, miss the nuances of these “slower” parts and don’t see the importance of them. So a few stamina strategies we will teach are asking why the story is slowing down and paying attention to what they have just figured out about the characters. Another is to skim the “boring” parts for now so they can get back to the story. While this is a not a long-term solution, it does help keep them in the book and hopefully also helps them see that the book does pick up again. They can also switch the way they interact with the text, perhaps they can read these sections aloud, or listen to an audio version for those parts.
Realize we are in this for the long haul. Too often our gut reaction is to restrict. To select books for the students to read no matter what. To set up rules where they are not allowed to abandon the next book they select, and yet, I worry about the longevity of these solutions. What are they really teaching? So instead, we dedicate the time and patience it takes to truly change these habits. We surround students with incredible books, we book talk recommendations, we give them time to read, and we give them our attention. We continue to let them choose even if we are questioning their abilities to choose the correct book. Becoming a reader who reads for pleasure, or who at least can get through a book and not hate it, does not always happen quickly. We have to remember this as we try to help students fundamentally change their habits with books. Restricting them in order to help them stick with a book can end up doing more damage than good as students don’t get to experience the incredible satisfaction of having selected a book and then actually finishing it.
I know that this year, I will once again be transformed as a teacher. That these kids that I am lucky enough to teach will push me in ways I haven’t been pushed before. My hope, what I really hope happens, is for every child to walk out of room 235d thinking; perhaps reading is not so bad after all. Perhaps there are books in the world for me. A small hope, but a necessary one.
Ask our students what makes them hate reading and many of them will say the work that comes after. The reading logs, the essays, the taking notes when reading, the post-its, the to-do’s. Not the act of reading itself. They share their truths year after year and year after year, I wonder how I am going to see whether they really are understanding and learning without making them drown in assignments that make them hate reading. It is a hard balance to find, especially if your students like ours have reading abilities that range from years above grade level to years below.
While the students will be working on other skills with their reading, right now, we are working on increasing stamina and enjoying their books, a skill that some of our students need a lot of work on. When we introduce too much to them to do, that is when they end up not really working on their reading but rather hunting the text for their answer. This is when they start to dislike reading. While being able to disseminate a text and do the heavy work with text analysis is important, I cannot have them do that all of the time, not every time they read. After all, how many adults do that every time they read?
This year, my colleague, Reidun offered up a great idea; the simple notecard. The notecard is unassuming. It is limited in its scope based on its size and it also does not take much time. Rather than writing anything long, which we only do once in a while, when students have been introduced to a teaching point such as writers using emotive language, we then ask them to return to their own self-selected text and look for an example. As they read they find a sentence or two, write it down and hand it to us.
When I have a moment, I am able to quickly scan through to see who got it and who didn’t, make a note of it and then figure out who needs to be in one of our small groups. Who gets it, who doesn’t. The kids spend most of their time reading, rather than taking notes, and I get a chance to peek into their thought process.
As the year progresses, our skill focus will change, our questions will deepen, and yet, offering students time to “simply” read is something that we will continue to protect every single day. The notecard allows me to peek at skills, to inform my instruction, and to collect data. All without causing a major interruption in their time with the text.