Our Perfectly Average Child

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I have shared the story of our youngest daughter Augustine’s much too early arrival several times on this blog.  It is a story I share gladly as we think of what our students sometimes live through before they come to us.  It is a story I share to remind myself of how far we have come.  And yet, whenever I look at her I cannot help but marvel at just how far she has come.

How much she is versus what she was.

How far she has grown from how little she was.

The odds she has overcome to be given the best title in the world; perfectly average.

Average; meaning in the middle of a set of numbers, meaning typical, meaning the usual.

A perfectly average child who has fought her way to carry that label.

It is within her story that I am reminded of just how far “average” can be for a child.

How much our students sometimes overcome to simply reach it.

How far our students go to simply be typical.  To reach the usual.  To reach the middle of others.

How we sometimes forget just how much of a victory reaching average can be.

Of course, we should push our students to be more than what they were but don’t ever discount the average.  Don’t ever dismiss the journey of a child who happens to land right there, for we don’t know how far that journey has been.

As I look at Augustine run after her siblings I see a perfectly average child and I know that she will be okay.  That we will be okay.  And that average is right where she is supposed to be.

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A Call for Common Sense Reading Instruction

It appears that in our quest to make sure students can comprehend what they read that we have lost our common sense.  That we have started listening much more to programs, politicians, and shoddy research than the very kids who the programs are happening to.  That we have pushed the ideas of teachers aside, of best practices, and solid pedagogy, and gotten so lost in the process that we turn to more experts to tell us what we used to know.

So it is time for a little reminder of what we know about best reading practices; those same ideas that my students have been reminding me of for years.  Those same ideas that the godfathers and godmothers of reading have been shouting loudly for years.

Choice matters.

And choice for all matters.  Not just for the kids who already know how to read well.  Not just for the kids that seem to be able to pick the right book almost every time.  Not just for the kids who already feel like readers.  Choice for the vulnerable, for the strugglers, for the resistant, for the kids who don’t think they will ever like reading, for whatever we deem to label a child that just not has blossomed as a reader just yet.  And real choice, not the pretend you have choice when I ask you to select from this one stack of books.

Time matters.

And not the time to do more stuff about reading, but actually read in class.  To plant the seeds of further reading as Allington discusses in his research.  To actually give them time to read within our school day before we make them do more with their reading.  How can we say that reading a great book is vital and then deny them the chance to do it right in our very own classrooms?  How do we find time to have them read in class, we, educators, stop speaking so much in class.

Perception matters.

How we view the abilities of our students directly influence the instructional choices we make.  When we perceive them as high-achieving and capable we give them freedom, more chances of creativity, and have better relationships.  When we are afraid that they will not be able to handle something, we restrict them, we tighten our control, we have them read less, do less meaningful work, and also have a more strained relationship with them.  Do you see all of your students as capable readers or just some of them?

Access matters.

We know children should be surrounded by books, and yet how much money is spent on other resources rather than books.  When I see 1 on 1 programs rolled out or other major tech initiatives, I always wonder if the same amount has been spent on books?  Not because I don’t support the technology, but because books aren’t often seen as investments.  I always wonder if there is a classroom library in every room.  Yes, we need fully staffed school libraries with certified librarians for all kids AND we also need classroom libraries in every single classroom.  In fact, research shows that students read 50-60 % more in classrooms that have libraries than in those without.

Representation matters.

And those classroom libraries need to represent the diverse society we live in.  We need to critically evaluate what we bring into our students’ reading lives, not because it always has to be classical reading but because we need great books for many readers.  That means we say yes to graphic novels, audio, comic books and other amazing formats of books.  That means that we search out and specifically purchase stories featuring a diversity of characters from #OwnVoices authors.  That means that we not just aware of who is represented, but also how they are represented.  And we constantly assess who is not represented in our classroom library.  We start small with our library collections and build them every month.

Reflection matters.

When we finish a book, what do most of us do?  I can tell you what most people don’t do – write about it.  And yet, what is one of the most common practices we have students do in our classrooms?  Those little jots, reflection pieces, reviews, and logs are making the very act of reading a chore.  Not for all but for some.  So why make all kids reflect after they have finished a book?  Why not give them choice?  Perhaps they want to do nothing, perhaps they want to book talk it, perhaps they want to share the book on social media, perhaps they want to write.  Let them discover what their reading identity tells them to do rather than follow a blanket rule.

Our knowledge of children’s literature matters.

If we are teaching readers then we should be reading their books.  Every time we read a children’s book we are able to speak another language with our students.  The books we recommend get read more, which also means that the book gaps we have (books we do not tend to read) dictate what we don’t recommend.  So read widely and proudly.  Read children’s literature as much as possible so that you can become a proper reading role model, not just because you said you are, but because you are able to speak books with the very kids you teach.

Trust matters.

When a child tells me that they read at home, I trust them.  Much like I trust them to work on reading outside of our class.  If I hand them a reading log to have parents sign, I am telling them that I don’t trust them when they share their reading decisions with me to quote Jessica Lifshitz.  For some that may take all year to achieve, for some, the habit never fully solidifies.  But we try every day as we offer up reminders of why reading more than just what is accomplished in class matters.

Personalization matters.

When we purchase the programs, when we make blanket decisions, when we force the same procedures on every child, we are telling them that we are too busy to get to know them.  That their unique reading identity needs to fit within this one box, no matter where they are on their journey.  That we would rather trust a program than trust the very kids we teach.  So use the program but keep your students in mind, detour when needed, and administrators, please tell your teachers to trust their experience rather than just follow a program to fidelity.  Give them time to wrestle with new ideas, new challenges, and new curriculum.  Trust those that are ready and support those that need it.  So much can depend on one great administrator.

You matter.

And so you must find the courage to speak up when you see instructional decisions harm the love of reading that our students carry.  You must start conversations within your own district, your own buildings, and you must reflect on your own decisions.  Ask your students how you can be a better teacher for them.  Ask them what makes reading amazing and what makes it awful.  Question your own practices and admit when you need to grow.  We are only as good as our last decision to change.

So we can purchase the programs, we can get caught up in test scores and test prep.  We can continue to search for the next big thing or we can go back to the things we know work for all kids; time to read, choice in what they read, access to books, and a community to grow with.  Don’t lose touch with your own common sense.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

What the Test Didn’t Care About

Dear Theadora,

Today you told me you were stupid.  That you couldn’t even read the stupid test.  That you knew you failed and so you gave up.  That you will never be a reader.  Again.

And I looked at you and I asked if you needed a hug.  As you crept into my arms, there was so much I wanted to tell you and like your bumbling mother I tried.

I told you to remember that you are not a stupid test.

That you are not a correct answer.  Or an incorrect one for that matter.

That you are not just a level, a piece of data, an insignificant number determined by a profit-making entity.  You will never be just a J.

That you are not stupid.

That you are not failing.

But that you are smart.

That you are brave.

That you are a reader.

Because what the test didn’t care about is that we see you read.  We see you listen.  We see you choose a book and make your way through the pages, even when the words don’t make sense.

We see you ask to go to the library and please can I have one more book?

We see you read to your siblings, to ask for just one more page, to tell me everything that has happened in the Lightning Thief since I last drove the car.

We see you try, We see you fight for the words at times, and other times, they come so easily.

What the test doesn’t care about is how far you have come.  How you know all of the strategies but when you know you are getting the answers wrong it doesn’t matter what you were taught because all you can think about is how you know you are wrong and now the rest of the world knows it too.  How does anyone face that as a child?

What the test doesn’t care about is how much you love reading.  How much your teachers work hard to protect it.  How much being a reader, one that reads chapter books, means to you.  Which is why you keep trying every single day, every single time.

So when we look at the data, dear Thea, I wish it told the full story.  That it actually showed us what we needed to know.  Not just a level.  Not just a score.  Not just the incorrect or the time spent struggling.  Not just the suggested lessons or the gaps in your skills.

I wish it knew you.  No test ever will.  That is why we are so thankful for your teachers.

But I can tell you now, and you have to believe this loudly.  You have to believe this proudly.  You have always been a reader.  You will always be a reader.  Nothing will change that if you don’t let it.  So don’t let it.

Love,

Mommy

 

 

On Creating Reading Experiences

They groan when I tell them about the Signposts.

“Another thing to write about, Mrs. Ripp?”

“Do we have to?”

“Why can’t we just read?”

Their post-its hang behind me, reminding me of all they have said about what kills their love of reading.

And I get it, we, meaning educators, have written reading to death.  With every post-it, every jot, every stop and think, every time we ask them to do more work and forget about the virtues of aesthetic reading as discussed by Louise Rosenblatt, we make them dislike it more.  In our eagerness to help kids become better readers, we have made the kids drown in their post-it notes.  We have broken meaningful stories into such small tasks so that the very meaning that made the story worth our time is gone.  We have forgotten about the purpose of all this instruction it seems; to create literate human beings that can grow from what they read, both intellectually, but also on a heart level.

Yes, we need to teach skills, of course, we do.  But we also have to let the kids use those skills in meaningful ways.  We have to let them practice too without telling them to use post-its, without telling them to write down, without telling them to look for specific things, because if we don’t, we don’t know if they will ever be able to do it without our prompts, our scaffolds, our tasks.  We have to remind them, and ourselves, that when we read it is not just to complete a task attached to it.  That the task is just a practice for the real deal; for when we read and we have an experience with the text.

So I tell them not to worry.  The signposts, or any other skills we review or learn are just tools.  Tools to use when it makes sense.  Tools to use so they can complete the tasks that we do need to do at times.  Practice them so they become habit when we need them but that it is also okay to just read and let the movie flow in our heads to the point where the rest of the world falls away and all we can focus on is how close we are getting to the end of the book.

So let your students experience meaningful words, not just more reading tasks.  Let them experience what it means to read and then feel something.  Let them experience what it means to read and sit in silence.  Let them read and get to the end and then discuss what the text made them think of, not just a few skills you have just taught, not just the repertoire of tools they may have.  Balance is needed in all of our classrooms for the purposes of reading, our students are telling us this loudly if we will only listen.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

 

When Reading is Trash or Magic

A couple of years ago I asked my students to tell me why reading was amazing.  When Jack whispered to Michael that “Reading sucks…” the rest, they say, is history.  Inspired by Jack’s words of truth, I have asked students for years now to tell me their reading truths and not hold back.  I cannot be the kind of teacher I would like to be if I don’t get to know them.  The real them.  Not the school-primed, sanitized version.  Not the kid that knows how to play the game.  Not the kid that says whatever they think we want to hear so they start off on a good foot.

So on the third day of school this year, I told the story of Jack. Of how I had been doing that lesson where I talk about the magic of reading.  How he had dared to whisper those words.  Some of the students laughed, they remember the lesson I was referring to, as they have also head about how amazing reading is for years.  And then they got quiet as I asked them so when is reading not magical?  And when is it?

I wrote in big bold letters “Reading is magical” and then asked them what to write on the other side.  “Reading is trash!” they said as they chuckled, not quite sure, I am sure, of what to make of all of this.

They grabbed as many post-its as they could and then started to write their reasons.  Please tell me when reading is amazing.  Please tell me when reading is trash.  Tape your post-its to the board so they stay up.  Sign your name if you want.  And then step back, read the post-its.  What do you notice?

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Over and over their words joined together to form the same patterns I see year after year.  The same things I have done to kids through the years.  The same things many of us educators are told to do every year by well-meaning administrators who are led by an expert curriculum that someone told them to purchase to raise test scores.

No choice!

Boring books!

Too much writing!

Tests!

Forced reflections!

Sitting still!

Their words glared at us.

 

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But wait?  When is reading magical?  Again a pattern that we all know.

When I find the right book!

When I am given time to read!

When I find a great series or author!

When it is quiet!

When I am allowed to just read!

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Their words have carried us into our beginning reading conversations, into our analysis, into our very community.  They have guided us as we start to figure out where reading fits into our lives and whether we can protect or promote a strong and personal relationship with reading.  They have guided us as they have mentioned the amazing experiences they have had with their previous teachers, and the ones they wish that had not had.

We fret so much over what curriculum we should use, how we should teach, and how we should grade, yet sometimes the biggest impact we can have with kids is simply when we stop and ask them for their truths.  Do you know what your students would say?

PS:  This lesson and the others that surround it are all discussed in my new book, Passionate Readers.  Passionate Readers.  

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

When We Make a Child a Level

Pardon my passion for a moment, but a few things need to be said.

When we make a child a level we diminish the entire child. Levels tell a child that they are not worth us getting to know them.  That we don’t have time to take the time we need to help them better.  That their entire reading identity is the same as every other child that is at that level.

When we make a child a level, a letter, or a number, we are telling them that that is all they need to know.  That that is all we need to know.  That they do not know how to shop for books, that they can rely only on outsiders who have determined what is best for them.  Thet their level speaks for them and that our conversations need to be about comprehension and skills, rather than who they are as readers.

When we make a child a level, we can teach more.  We can do more.  We can match kids up more easily.  We can rely on others to do the hard work of getting to know the very child that is in front of us and help them discover who they are as readers, as human beings.  And we can go home, lulling ourselves into thinking that we actually helped that child by telling them to only pick from certain levels of books because that is what the research told us to do.

But that is not what our reading instruction is only about.  It was never JUST about matching kids to text.  It was never JUST about finding the right fit book.  It was never JUST about 99% comprehension rates, good fit books, or the five finger rule.  It was never just about the quick solution or the short-term fix.  In our obsession with getting things done, we have forgotten that it takes time to develop a reader, it takes time to become a reader, it talkes trial and error, and it takes discovery.  Levels can take that away from us all.

It is about discovering why reading matters.  Why reading makes us better human beings.  Why they should leave our classrooms, our schools, and find more books so that they can continue to wonder, to search, and to feel something.

So when we make a child a level, ask yourself this; who is that level really helping because it sure isn’t the child in the long run.

PS:  I was quoted today in a discussion piece in School LIbrary Journal, about how leveling disempowers children, other smarter people are quoted as well.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.