While it seems as though the year has just started and yet there is so much still to do, I am also ready to take on more ideas as I try to reach all of the students that have been placed in my care. I am ready to think about my instruction, come up with new things to try or ideas for tweaking what I am already doing. And I don’t think I am alone. When I asked the educators in our Passionate Readers Facebook group what ideas they are currently working on, every person who answered had some sort of professional learning they wanted to do.
So in order to start a conversation. In order to help each other grow. In order to renew, refresh, and reinvigorate, I invite you to join us for an informal four-week book club centered around Passionate Readers starting in January 2019. We will discuss teacher reading identity, student reading identity, classroom libraries and of course, share must-read, must-add titles for you to consider adding to your classroom. I know it is early for me to post this, but I wanted to make sure no one missed out on this opportunity to join an already thriving community of passionate educators who are sharing great ideas.
The book club is free, all you need is your own copy of Passionate Readers and to join our Facebook group where the questions and discussion will happen. For those who do not want to do on Facebook, there is a Google classroom to join instead. The code to join is tnsqsz
Also: Please sign up here so that I can email you the study guide and a reminder.
Once a week on Sunday’s, I will do a Facebook live conversation where I can answer questions, highlight books, and share ideas. Throughout the week I then post questions related to the chapters, you can answer them either in the Facebook group or privately in the Google Classroom. Anyone can also share resources, questions, or ideas that they have that relate to the chapters.
The book club will kick off January 6th and run for four weeks wrapping up February 2nd.
1st-week focus – Teacher reading identity and how our habits influence our teaching.
2nd-week focus – Classroom library and must add book titles for the year.
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.
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, Lunch Lady, Baby Mouse, Bad Guys, Cleopatra in Space, Lowriders in Space, and any graphic novel that comes her way. But she also loves Wishtree, The One and Only Ivan, Aru Shah and the End of Time, George 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?
While I am lucky in the sense that I don’t have canonical texts I am forced to explore with my 7th graders, I have realized that habit and ease had gotten me stuck in certain texts, that sure, seemed to work for students, but didn’t do much for their exposure to other points of view, nor did it represent all of the lives of the students I teach. Thus a mission for the year began – disrupt the texts I use with students, pay attention to my own selection process, and ultimately create a broader experience for all kids in order for them to have more critical exposure to many perspectives.
So what does that look like for me? Well, it began with two questions; why am I selecting the texts that I am and how can I select others? As I looked at my lists of short stories, read alouds, picture books, and even book talks, I quickly saw a pattern. While my own reading life is fairly inclusive, my academic usage was not. The same texts were used year after year and many of them were predominantly created by white, cisgendered, heteronormative people. Even though I had been trying to purposefully select more inclusive texts! While there were units where the scope had broadened, there was still this dominance, a thread, of the same type of texts used and highlighted.
So for the past few months, I have spent a lot of time on text selection within a few areas. By auditing my habits and my patterns, I found plenty of opportunities to disrupt my own “canon” and also help others find better texts. Here are the areas that I have focused on:
Picture books. Reading a picture book aloud is something sacred to us, and while I have a fairly inclusive picture book collection, I was not really keeping track of which I was choosing and sharing. By having a visual representation of the picture books outside our room I am reminded to look for a broader scope and to include many different perspectives. (To get ideas for great books to read or share, follow my Instagram where I do “live” recommendations as I discover books.)
Read alouds. I have always mostly selected our read alouds based on the merit of the story. Is it a story that will elicit interest and conversation? Will my students be changed after this read aloud? And yet, I did not pay much attention to the author and the identity they represented. Now, the two go hand-in-hand. Questions I use to assess whether a book should be read aloud are many, but a few are: How is this author’s identity represented within the text? How is it different than what my students have already been exposed to? How is the main character different than the last main character we got to know?
Book talks. Once again, random selection was the way I did book talks. Sometimes it was a book I had just finished, other times an old favorite. This meant that I didn’t always remember which books I had book talked and surely did not pay attention to whose stories I was book talking. Now, my system is twofold – I write down the books I plan on book talking and also keep a written poster in our classroom, which I fill in after a book talk. While the poster will need to be replaced soon, it allows me to see the bigger picture of what I am blessing through book talks. Just looking at it today, I realized that I had not book talked any books featuring characters from within the LGBTQ community, which is something I plan on rectifying.
Short stories and text excerpts. This is where I needed the most disruption. I had some great short stories that captured the interest of students, but most were by white authors. I simply had not paid attention to this part of the selection process and had instead just grabbed stories others had recommended or stories that I knew. And this is part of the problem I think for many of us; we recommend the same stories over and over, we remember the same stories being used and somehow they then receive more merit as legitimate texts than they really deserve. Now, my selection is focused on the author’s identity, the main character’s identity, as well as whether the story fits our purpose. By using fantastic short story collections such as Funny Girl, (Don’t) Call Me Crazy, and Hope Nation, as well as first chapters from great #ownvoices books I am ensuring that my students are meeting new fantastic authors and stories that will hopefully not only better represent their own experiences and identity, but also the identities of others whom they may not know.
So what can you do if you want to start disrupting your text choices as well? The first would be to follow the work the movement #DisruptTexts and the women behind it do, but then also audit yourself. What are you reading? Book talking? Sharing? And using with your students? Whose identities and experiences are being represented as the norm? Whose voices are left out?
Read more inclusive texts and start a document to track texts you may potentially use with students and their purpose. We have a shared mentor text document as a team where we can drop text in as we find them. Create visuals that show you just what you are blessing and share and take the vow to do better, to notice your own patterns and change the texts you use. While I still have a long way to go, I am already feeling better with the intentionality of the texts I am exploring with students, as well as the opportunities we still have to do better.
Today was the second day of school. the second day of trying to get to know these incredible kids that have been gifted to us. The second day of trying to establish the seeds for the habits that will carry us through the year, hopefully leading us to a year where they leave feeling like this year was worth their time, that this year made a difference.
Today was the day of one of our big fundamental lessons; when reading is trash or magic. I shared my past reading mistakes in teaching, we shared when reading sucks or when it is lit (student choice of words). As the post-its crowded the whiteboard, the questions and statements inevitable came. Will we have to read books you choose for us? Will we have to write every time we read? Will we have to do post-it notes? All things that in the past, I would have answered yes to but now the answers are different. You always choose your books, even in book clubs, you will have plenty of choices. You will not always write after you read, sometimes you will, and because of the work of teachers before me, you will be better at it than ever before. And post-its? Sometimes, when it makes sense, but not every time and not at home. Only here because at home I just want you to work on your relationship with reading, the skills teaching that will happen in class.
As we finished our conversation we merged into what their reading rights are this year. the things that I will not take away. The rights they have as individuals on a reading journey. This is not my idea, nor something new, but once again the work of others who have paved the way for my better understanding of what developing student reading identity really looks like. As we discussed what rights they would have and what they meant, I wrote an anchor chart, a reminder that will hang all year so we don’t forget just what we can do together. What choices we may have. As we went down the list, the relief was palpable, the excitement grew. Even some of the kids who had not so gently told me how much they hated reading right away, looked less scared, less set in stone as we talked about what this year would like.
And so this is where we stand tonight… Our very first anchor chart to remind us of what it means to be a reader that is honored within our community. What it means to be a reader that already has a reading identity, that we will continue to develop together, honoring everyone wherever they are on their journey, rather than forcing our well-intended decisions down over the top of kids. Perhaps, once again, this year kids will develop a better relationship with reading, will grow as readers, will grow as human beings. What more could we hope for when it comes to teaching?