Moving to America at the age of 18, gave me a whole new education. An education in privilege, in control, in power, and how to know your place. To pursue your dreams but only if others see you as worthy of that dream.
Becoming a teacher in the American public school system has been one of my greatest joys but also one of my biggest frustrations, my biggest moments of failure, of regret. The power handed those of us with teaching degrees is immeasurable; I can continue the systemic inequities of the structures we work within, or I can learn, listen, question, dismantle, disturb, and create an education that is truly for all kids. I didn’t know that when I started as an educator, my own privilege awarded me blinders and ear muffs. But 10 years ago I started to wake up, a little at a time, although not fast enough, and I recognized that how I used control as a way to ascertain my power in the classroom meant that not all kids could thrive, that not all kids were cared for. That my classroom might have said “Welcome” but those were shallow words. And it was echoed in the curriculum we did and how I helped students grow, how I used choice, how I used rewards and punishment.
And so I started to change the way I taught, the way I thought of education, of my own power within the classroom. I immersed myself in the expertise and wisdom of others who have been on this journey so much longer than I have, I started to ask my students questions I should have been asking from the start and I started writing this blog; sharing my thoughts out loud, inviting others on the journey as I stumbled through and tried to create an education that might work for all kids. A shared experience that would center on the identity of each child rather than the curriculum. It is the work I continue to do and will for a long time. I continue to stumble through on this journey, I continue to share on here, I continue to learn and grow from others while offering my own journey up and now I have been invited by CUE and Microsoft to share through their channels as well as a way to invite you into the journey.
And so I invite you into a conversation surrounding the writing we do in our classrooms with students and how we can use storytelling not just as a way to teach standards but to help students examine and find power within their own identity and story. To come along with me as I share the questions we discuss in our community, the writing we do, and also the resources I have learned from so perhaps you can learn from them as well. So if you have space in your life or a desire to go on this journey with me, please go here to register
The Masterclass will be three parts much like the other masterclass I have done this summer, you can join live or access the recording when it is posted here. I will also be finishing up Embedding Authentic Choice and Voice. part 3 this week, on Thursday at 11 AM PST.
Posting this today, I also know that not everyone is in a place for PD or perhaps that this is not the type of PD you want to immerse yourself in, this is okay. The world is rightfully continuing to need our attention and perhaps you are putting in your energy elsewhere or fully taking a break. I know I have been taking many breaks the last few weeks as I plan for actions in the fall and right now, but for those of you who want to learn with and from me, please know that there will be several offerings all the way through summer.
Live office hours will start up next week – my first drop in one is on the 22nd at 8 AM PST. This is a great opportunity for you to bring problems of practice and we can brainstorm together for an hour or so. If you participate in the Global Read Aloud, you can also use the office hours to brainstorm with me or just ask questions.
All of these sessions are free and the sessions are recorded (office hours are not) so even if you can’t or don’t want to be there live, you can access them later.
The schedule for the rest of the summer’s free PD from me looks like so:
6/17 7 AM PST – Masterclass: Passionate Writers Pt1
6/18 10:30 AM PST – Choice and Voice Pt 3
6/24 7 AM PST – Masterclass: Passionate Writers Pt 2
8/13 7 PM PST – Repeat Masterclass: Embedding Authentic Choice and Voice as we get ready for a new year Pt 1
8/20 7 PM PST – Repeat Masterclass: Embedding Authentic Choice and Voice as we get ready for a new year Pt 2
8/27 7 PM PST – Repeat Masterclass: Embedding Authentic Choice and Voice as we get ready for a new year Pt 3
6/22 – 8 AM PST
6/28 – 8 AM PST
7/2 – 7 PM PST
7/5 – 8 AM PST
7/12 – 8 AM PST
7/19 – 8 AM PST
7/26 – 8 AM PST
7/29 – 7 PM PST
8/7 – 8 AM PST
8/15 – 8 AM PST
8/16 – 8 AM PST
8/23 – 8 AM PST
I hope I can be of service through these sessions. I hope to see some of you there.
If you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page. I offer up workshops and presentations both live and virtually that are based on the work I do with my own students as we pursue engaging, personalized, and independent learning opportunities.I also write more about the design of my classroom and how to give control of their learning back to students in my first book, Passionate Learners.
One of many things I love when on break is the chance to simply reconnect with amazing people, and when said amazing people are fellow educators, you can bet that it doesn’t take long for the conversation to turn to how to make the educational experience better for all kids.
After dinner, I was left thinking about how often we get so caught up in all that we need to do that so many of those grand ideas, the ideals we dreamt up this summer or whenever we have room to be inspired seem to be forgotten as the year starts and the pressure resumes. That while we implement many things, tweak many others, there are many notions and ideas that simply don’t happen. And who can blame us? There are so many days that I am just keeping my head afloat trying to stay a few steps ahead of the students in order to create and sustain relevant educational experiences.
Last night, the conversation turned to joy and play. How little there seems to be purposefully implemented throughout especially older students’ daily routines in school. How the minute they come to us in the upper years there are few opportunities for infusing joy and allowing more creative approaches to learning. And while both of those concepts are foundations of learning I hold dear, I also look back at my own curricular choices for the year and see how easily those two tenets of learning get siphoned away as I feel the need to do more, dig deeper, and make sure that the learning is “serious.” However, the siphoning itself relies on a untruth – joy and creative choice does not equate easier learning and is serious business, in fact, often purposefully creating moments for joy and creative choice requires a broader commitment and self-reliance within the learning happening. So with this in mind, I have done some restructuring of a few upcoming units and also rededicated efforts in other places, so what might that look like coming up in room 203?
The main questions I focused on in my reflection is: how might this spark joy and engagement and how do students have creative choice?
Re-committing to picture books. I usually read a lot of picture books aloud to my 7th graders and also use them in a variety of ways throughout our curriculum and yet, this year, I feel like with the busyness of it all, picture books have been less of a central tenet to us. It’s time to change that. In a little more than a week we kick off our Mock Caldecott unit for the year, a two week investigation into twelve incredible picture books for the year that will lead into a persuasive speech in which students will try to sway others to their choice of winner of the Caldecott. Reading picture books together is something that we already see as joyful and doing it in small groups will hopefully bolster that. Creative choice comes in how students want to persuade their peers – how will they deliver a message that is persuasive in nature and which tools will they use?
Bringing back our immersion project. Two years ago, I did an extended genius hour project in which students got to pick something to learn for themselves in order to teach others about it through a mini-lesson. This consisted of identifying an area to immerse themselves in and then spending time figuring out how to create an enticing lesson for others to learn from them. The topics were broad: How to do a card trick properly, what integration methods are necessary to integrate any function and how are they used, how do you play guitar and so on? These were all catered to student interests and were very broad on purpose. We then infused note-taking skills, how to find sources to teach them how to do the skills, and how to engage an audience in order to help them understand a concept, as well as created a speech rubric in order to practice public speaking. This year, I will finetune it with a few more scaffolds for those who are not sure what they would like to teach, as well as opportunities to tandem-research. This project sparked a lot of joy the first time we did it because students got to self-select their learning, immerse themselves into something they found relevant, as well as show off their knowledge in a fun way. There was a lot of natural choice embedded throughout.
Re-thinking our TED talk unit. Every year, the students get an opportunity to create a TED talk on a chosen topic and then give it to the class, and while the unit itself is solid, I want to spend more time helping students choose topics that they are invested in already. This year many of our students have expressed a deep interest and commitment to social justice work, as well as the overlooked history we have explored. This will, therefore, be my starting point in reminding students of what they already know and which questions they may have to push their thinking further. So often we push students into new learning without realizing how much work it is to research and then synthesize and process all of the information into a brilliant short speech. With the re-introduction of our immersion project, I want to implement more time for students to dive into their identity and what they are already interested in so that their TED talk work can be more focused on filling in knowledge gaps, rather than starting all over with research. This will also be an opportunity to jump into persuasion, how advertisement plays on our biases, and how we are influenced by social media. Choice plays into topic, as well as the angle they want to take in their talk.
Asking for more student input and taking the proper time for it. In the Enriched English class I teach, we have 6 vocabulary lessons consisting of 25 vocabulary words each that we need to somehow process, understand, and implement into our vocabulary. While I have gamified it in the past and also allowed for choice in how students show mastery, I have never really loved what we did. The words seem like a chore no matter how I spin it This year, I plan on showing students the vocabulary and then having them come up with opportunities for how we can learn it together. While there will undoubtedly be traditional methods for students to choose from such as rote memorization with a quiz, I also want to give them the opportunity to come up with other methods for learning that they will be able to choose from as we move into the vocabulary. While I already try to get as much student input as possible, I feel it often gets rushed, so this is a reminder for me to slow down and let it take the time it takes, and this goes for all classes, not just the Enriched English class.
Re-committing to free writing. We have been dabbling with free-writing throughout the year but due to book clubs in December, we changed our process. While students continued to write on their own, the community piece was lacking and so as we enter into January, I want to bring back the prompts and self-selected choice and the time to then share the creations we have. I also want to bring back the notion of playing with writing that so often gets lost as we write. Students so often fear that they have to write great pieces every single time which is an incredibly damaging notion for anyone trying to work through the emotions of writing and so I want to model my own not-so-great writing that tends to happen when we do a free-write. Students don’t need perfect role models, they need real ones.
Skyping with authors. Talking with actual authors is magical at any age and the advent of World Read Aloud Day reminded me to sign up to bring authors into our classrooms more. This is something I used to do a lot but once again seem to have gotten away from. I cannot wait for students to hear from Kevin Sylvester, Juana Martinez-Neal and Ishta Mercurio as they discuss their writing process.
Participating in Global School Play Day again. I love this initiative created by Scott and Tim Bedley with the idea to infuse more play into schools again. I have done this day before with 7th graders and while I am not able to do it the day it is scheduled for this year, I will do it instead on February 7th where students will get all of English to simply play with each other. You should sign up as well.
While this is not an exhaustive list, I am glad to be bringing this lens back to our work together this year to hopefully create experiences where it is not just students learning from me, but more from each other. Where there is more cooperative problem solving, more relevance, and more choice. Where maybe, just maybe, students can think of English class as a class that is meaningful to them beyond developing a love of reading and writing and helping them find themselves. Who knows, but I will keep trying.
I posted the following question on Twitter last night and the responses are definitely worth checking out – so many great ideas for infusing more play and creativity into our work.
And now I ask you as well; how will you restructure or continue to reinforce the notion of play and creative choice in your class these upcoming months?
Note: This is a continuation of the blog series I am doing detailing the work I am doing with students in an inquiry project into how to research better. The first post detailing the set-up and our first module, How to Write an Inquiry Question, can be found here.
Module 3 was a big one for us, spread over two days, not so much for the tips on how to use Google Search better although they were helpful, but more because we wanted our students to think about the types of sources they were finding, as well as whose voice was missing from their sources, so they could consider the impact of those missing voices.
This question; whose voices are missing, is a question we center our work around all year. Throughout the year, I have been actively trying to expand students’ historical knowledge of the world using an “overlooked history” segment every Friday for discussion and reflection, as well as spending a lot of time selecting the media that our students will be immersed in, in order for them to experience as many voices as we can. So we knew that searching for reliable sources to use would be a brilliant opportunity to put this more into their hands as our students don’t automatically consider whose voices they are using an dhow that will impact the knowledge they gain and the direction they take.
There are so many tips for how to use Google Search better, many can be Googled, so we wanted to introduce just a few that would potentially limit their results and bring them more specific results. We watched a video together that discussed some of the limiters, I didn’t love it and will probably search for a better video for next year. The students continued to practice their note-taking skills along with the video and then I walked them through a search so they could see how my results changed.
The limiters we decided to focus on were:
Using quotation marks for an exact phrase
Using boolean operators.
Eliminating unnecessary words.
Including year range.
and using specific sites to limit their search – this one we just showed but didn’t expect them to use.
Then they started their work in their student slides (note, there are duplicate slides in here because I was out with sick kids and so they worked through slides I would have taught otherwise). We wanted them to specifically consider:
What they actually were searching for, so to clarify their inquiry question.
Which types of sources they would search for, we reminded them that video, infographics, and podcasts can also make for excellent resources.
We discussed the difference between primary and secondary sources in order for them to think of whose voices they should be listening to.
Then led a specific conversation about whose voices they would search for urging them to think of how someone’s perspective is going to change based on many factors such as their economic situation.
Once they had found the sources they wanted to use, they needed to consider whose voices were being represented so they could think of whose voices were missing. You could see a lot of aha moments here as students considered their sources and how they were incomplete. Then they had to consider whose voices they needed to add as well as the the impact those missing voices would have on their research. Honestly, this is the largest point I wanted students to walk away; getting to think about whose voice holds power and who is not represented. My teaching slides for day two had introduced this concept more fully and many students were spot on in theirintial analysis of whose voices were missing and why they needed to find better sources.
For my 2nd day of teaching, I had specific discussion points about changing perspective and why it is so vital we recognize our limitations of what we know and then try to learn more. This was a great discussion supported by the teaching slides and set them up for further work within their own slides.
I am still pondering what I need to change as there were many things I liked and some I didn’t. Like I said, I need to find a better video for them to take notes on. We also had our small groups work together on one inquiry question and find sources together for that question, but I don’t love how that limits their choice when it comes to what they are pursuing. Some of the limiters were not particularly helpful and actually increased their results rather than decreased them. But the conversation about perspective, missing voices, and the impact it will have on our knowledge were powerful and will be continued throughout the year because the few days of work we did around it here is simply not enough. It was a taste and something I am still actively working through as an adult.
The one area I want to work on through discussion is why we should be worried about whose voices are given authority and how power is given to certain voices and not others. While I touched on it, it was not enough (I am not sure what “enough” would look like), so I am mulling over how this can be added further.
Note: The unit after this was a lesson on how to use databases led by our librarian so I will not be sharing those slides as they are not mine to share.
After that came another big one: How to check reliability using the CRAAP method.
Last year, after we finished our first read aloud, we released our kids into their first inquiry project. While we had scaffolds in place, there was plenty of choice, and also specific lessons targeting research skills, my special ed teacher, Kelly, and I still stood back and felt like what we were doing was simply not enough. Or perhaps that it was too much. That somehow we were simply pushing kids through research and yet there were so many executive functioning skills and also simple research skills that we were assuming kids already had a handle of. And yet, they didn’t not all of the kids, despite the wonderful teaching that had happened before 7th grade. We saw it fall apart a bit when kids were really worried about the end product but not focused on what they were learning throughout the unit and they weren’t fully grasping the research skill lessons we were teaching because there was this larger pressure to produce a speech answering their inquiry question.
So this year, we knew we had to do something different. Rather than have students do a full inquiry project into a topic tied in with The Bridge Home, our read aloud, we wanted to create an inquiry project into the art of research itself, not worrying about a final product but instead walk students through specific research skills in separate modules. Sounds great, right? Yet what we quickly were reminded of was that the art of research itself is vast, which we knew, so we had decisions to make; which 7 or 8 research skills did we really want to focus on as a baseline for the kids as we introduced 7th grade inquiry skills.
Knowing that this was a great chance to cross-collaborate between other subject areas , we did just that; surveyed other teachers to see what they thought was important to establish a baseline in, as well as brought it up as a problem of practice in our consultancies with colleagues. The results were clear, we would love 7th graders to be able to have an initial understanding of:
How to write an inquiry question
How to take notes using the Cornell Method of notetaking
How to cite their sources using Easybib – MLA
How to avoid plagiarism and understanding what plagiarism was
How to use Google Search better
How to use our databases
How to potentially revise their inquiry question
How to use the C.R.A.A.P method to check for reliability
How to check for bias in their sources
How to find the main idea and supporting details
How to synthesize their information into original thought – a primer
How to evaluate whose voices are missing and how do those missing voices impact the validity of the research
But that’s a lot so how do we do all that without losing kids in the process? Enter in discussion with my new wonderful colleague, Chris, my fabulous literacy coach, Andrea, and also our incredible librarian, Christine. With the help of them I was able to synthesize some of the thoughts we had about what kids would be able to do as, well as look at which standards this would even cover because we would also need to find a way to assess what kids were doing. After looking at all 9 standards for the year, we pulled the following standards out:
Standard 2: Draw and cite evidence from texts to support written analysis.
Standard 3: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.
Standard 5: Evaluate claims in a text; assess and express the soundness and relevance of reasoning.
Knowing this led us to creating 8 different modules for students to work on throughout the month of November. We knew we wanted choice throughout and also for students to feel supported and not feel ashamed if they wanted to work in a small group with the teacher and instead embrace the knowledge that they knew what they needed at that time to be successful.
So the final modules with their standards assessed became:
Module 1: How to formulate an inquiry question – Standard 3
Module 2: What is Plagiarism and How to Do Citations – Standard 3
Module 3: How to use Google Search better – Standard 3 and 2
Module 4: How to use our databases (taught by our librarian) – Standard 2 and 3
Module 5: How to assess the credibility of a source – CRAAP method ALSO Do you need to revise your inquiry question Reg – Standard 5, Enriched Standard 2
Module 6: How to recognize bias – Standard 2 and 5
Module 7: How to pull out a main idea and supporting details that tie in with your inquiry question – Standard 3
Module 8: How to synthesize information without plagiarizing – Standard 3
We launched the inquiry unit while still immersed in our read aloud, The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman. While we did a lot of reading work, we also kept an I wonder page that we would visit now and again. We wrote down large questions we had about society as it tied in with the story we were listening to and moved away from predictions.
Sample wonderings included:
What do parents do when their children run away?
How does being homeless affect your mental health?
Who started the idea of landfills?
How can we reduce our waste as a family?
Which types of diseases affects children living on the streets of India?
Then it was time to launch our very first unit and what better way than to use a picture book?
Bringing us together with our readers’ notebooks we laughed at the whimsy within the pages and then I asked; what do you wonder about within the pages of our read aloud? As students shared, I encouraged others to write down the questions they also had as potential inquiry questions. I love when students nodded and agreed that they had questions about something similar. This also afforded me an opportunity to reiterate that their inquiry question should somehow be connected to the read aloud but should not be answered by the book, but that they instead needed to do research in order to come up with their own answer. We also stressed the importance of this being of interest to them, and while we had potential inquiry questions ready for those who refused or found it hard, we have found we haven’t needed them. This discussion then planted the seed for how to come up with a proper inquiry question.
Our next component of the day was taking notes on a video using a modified version of the Cornell notetaking method. We wanted to introduce kids to a way of taking notes that they can easily use in other classes and also encourage them to make them their own. Rather than do a stand alone lesson, my colleague, Chris, suggested having students take notes throughout as an integrated part of the units which is what we did. This has worked really well and much better than if I had done a separate unit on just note-taking. I explained how to set up their notebook and we watched the first video, How to Develop an Inquiry Question, uploaded to Youtube by Kansas State Libraries. The video was a good introduction to why developing a strong inquiry question was important before kids went any further with their work. We took some notes throughout as I paused the video and then introduced the final component; the reflection questions.
One of the things we discussed in our planning was that a major reason for this unit was for students to understand the transfer of these skills to other subject areas, and also to life outside of school. However, this doesn’t always happen without the proper time and reflection. Therefore, our students have four questions to answer every time they finish a module. They are collected in a packet that I hold on to for ease:
What do you think you will remember learning from this module?
How is this skill useful to you in life?
How is this skill you useful to you in school?
How could you use what you have learned in this module in geography/STEAM/or science when you have to do a research project?
After this, we released students into their student module 1 – note this was over the course of two days with 90 minute blocks of English and each student was given a copy of the slides to fill in. The student module 1 allowed them to watch another video that discussed the levels of inquiry questions, look at examples of inquiry questions, and then write different levels of inquiry questions. At the end, I asked them to please come up with a potential level 3 inquiry question that they would be interested in pursuing the next few weeks and then submit it to me. And then I held my breath, how would it go?
After my first ELA block, I tweaked the student slides to make them easier for them to use and took out some unnecessary steps. There was general confusion between level 2 and 3, which I had suspected would happen and so we discussed as needed and I stressed that as long as they were out of “level 1” territory then I was happy. Some kids created much too broad or much too narrow questions and so I left them feedback or had conversations as needed, however, this is also something that will be assessed more in module 5.
One major thing we are still working on is overall time management, some kids are using all of their time well and thus working through everything with time to spare while others are not. Starting tomorrow, I will be asking students to join me in the small group to do the slides together in order for them to stay on track and not fall further behind.
I also tweaked my teaching slides, in order to get to their work time faster and not have so much talking from me.
The next module is Module 2 – What is Plagiarism and How to Do Citations – a one day module, hopefully.
I will continue to share as I work through all of this, the sharing helps me reflect on what I am missing and at times others share great resources as well, so feel free to ask questions or share resources.
You may have noticed that this blog is slowing down a bit, while life continue to churn, I am slowly starting to work on a new book potentially. This means that there may be less brand-new writing on here and instead a mix of from the archives and new. The wonderful thing with continuing to be a teacher is that our teaching, hopefully, evolves as does our understanding of the work we do. With that I present to you a reworking of an older postfrom 2015.
I met my first book abandoner my very first year of teaching. Yet, he was not your average run of the mill book abandoner. No, he was the “look you straight in the eye and ask you what you are going to do about it” kind of abandoner. So I did what I knew best; forced him to read the book and not allow him to abandon it. And he did what he knew best; fake read for a good amount of time, skimmed a few pages, and failed the book report as well as the presentation. Repeat with every book. I don’t think he ever read anything beside “Diary of A Wimpy Kid” that year, and that was to spite me more than anything as I forced him into my choice of book time and time again. because I figured that when he couldn’t pick a book it was up to me to do it. When he couldn’t pick a book it was up to me to create accountability.
Everyone has these types of readers. The ones that abandon book after book because they hate to read, always have, always will. The ones that abandon book after book because they cannot find a great book, or perhaps they found one once, or perhaps they never have. The ones that abandon book after book because they get bored easily and while a book may have started great, now it is just meh. Some years we have a lot, others not so many.
Often for every child that abandons a book, there is a conversation missing, one that we need to engage them in in order to break the cycle. One that centers on one of the true goals of reading which is that the children we teach should be able to leave us being able to find a book that they are wanting to try on their own, without relying on artificial supports such as their level, their Lexile, or their teacher because they inherently know themselves better as readers.
This conversation takes time, it takes patience, and it takes diving into all of the many components that centers around the giving up a book. While often it may be seen as a rash decision made from an overall disinterest in reading, one that we dismiss when we hand a child another book to try, it is important that we dive into the nuances surrounding book abandonment in order for a child to know themselves more every time they abandon one. Make the act of abandonment one of internal reflection so that it no longer becomes automatic but instead becomes a choice that they can use to further investigate who they are as a reader.
This, therefore, means that there are questions we should be asking of our programming as well as the children that choose to leave yet another failed read in their wake. These questions shape the future decisions they make as well as their overall journey into their own reading identity.
Do they have choice? Because if they don’t, then that is the very first place we start. And not limited choice based on levels, Lexiles, or AR scores, but real honest-to-goodness choice where they get to pick their reading materials out of all the reading materials we have. This includes choosing the format and how to access it. Even as they abandon book after book, that choice needs to be protected at all costs, because while we may think that limiting choice will help them in the short-term, that’s exactly the problem with this approach, it helps in the short-term but does not push them further in their own understanding of book selection that works. So even when it seems like the list of abandoned books is too long to bear, let them continue to choose as there are other perimeters to consider.
Do they have time to actually book shop? Often we ask kids to quickly select a book and then wonder why they seem to not be invested in the choice they make, yet, if we study our own adult reading habits we know that leisurely browsing through selections is a pillar of how we choose books. So what are the time constraint placed on students? Do they have time to look through books, try a few pages, sit with a book for a while before they fully commit? Do they have time to speak to their peers about potential titles? Book shopping should be a social endeavor not one done in solitude if they don’t want to, so what are the conversations that need to happen as they browse?
Do they have time to read? If little time is given to reading then we are expecting them to do something they may not like only outside of school. That is foolish and also malpractice when it comes to the use of our time. Every child, every day, should be engaged in supported independent reading. So when can they read in class and try on the book? When can they be under the guidance of a trained adult that can help them navigate difficult concepts or words?
Do they have access? We know that students need great books in their hands. We know students need great libraries coupled with a librarian, but they also need books in our classrooms. And not old, worn out books, but new, enticing, high-interest books that they can check out easily. So when are they surrounded by books to choose from, what are those choices? Can they check the books out and bring them home or do they have to be kept in class? Yes, I lose books every year, but it is worth it to me if it helps a child read.
Are they overwhelmed? One student I taught told me 6 months into the year that our classroom library was simply overwhelming to browse in. That he didn’t know where to start despite my labels and bins. It took that long for him to tell me because he didn’t trust me with the information, afraid that I would think it silly or stupid, and yet, I didn’t think anything like that. What a way to know oneself! Once he had told me, we were able to create a way for him to browse specific sections of the library that he liked and able to pull out books from large stacks that I would pull for him. As he gradually got more comfortable, I was able to pull back my support.
Do they see themselves in the books? We discuss students needing windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors in their reading lives as crafted by Dr. Rudine Simms Bishop, but do we also evaluate the stories we have? Are we making sure that we are not just crafting a new cannon of sorts that continues to misrepresent marginalized populations or only share one aspect of someone’s journey? What reading choices are the students surrounded by? Is it culturally responsive such as how Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings discusses? Will it further a perhaps damaging narrative that they already have about others, or will it break down misconceptions, stereotypes, and harmful thinking?
Do they have people? Is it cool to not be a reader in their friend group? Who do they have to talk books to? Do they have reading role models that extend beyond the teacher? Who are the people that have similar tastes as them, that they can speak books with? Many of my students tell me that they don’t have many others to get recommendations from despite being in book-rich environments for years and teachers working specifically on this. So how else can we increase the natural book conversations, students are having in order for them to make connections with the reading tastes of others? I often invite kids to book shop together so that they can find books together, we also use book talks for this as students discover others with similar tastes as them. Also, who are the adults that can speak books to them? It should never be just the classroom teacher, invite your librarian in, create a rich reading community so that students can see many readers int heir day, and many opportunities to speak books.
Do they have reason to read? And by that, I don’t mean because of a prize or a reward. Do they see any kind of gain from reading? Is anything positive connected to the art of reading? Will it actually make their lives better or is it just one more thing to do? Many of my students who abandon books repeatedly do it because they see no point and until we start to help them see a point of reading that goes beyond “the adults make me do it” then it is going to be hard to break any kind of habits. So how can we stress the importance of reading, what is it they want to accomplish in their lives where reading plays a central role? Is is that they want to understand others? Understand the world? Or is it much smaller than that?
Do they have different ways to read? Reading is not just done with our eyes but also with our ears, so if a child is constantly abandoning books get them hooked on an incredible audio book. This has changed the reading path of several of my students in a profound way. Sometimes getting them into text is what makes a difference, especially if they would like to read a book that may be difficult for them to decode independently, why not use audio books as a way to help them become invested in a text? Then we can work on the decoding separately.
Are they hiding gaps? I have taught several students that could ace their reading assessment, mostly because it had been given to them so many times, and yet had a large gap in their skills. So is their book abandonment masking a larger problem such as not actually understanding what they are reading or not having developed the stamina to stay with the story? Is reading seen as something emotionally draining because it is incredibly difficult? We cannot dismiss the emotions that are attached with reading for many kids, especially our vulnerable readers, and so we must work on developing their understanding of themselves as readers along with the skills of reading. This requires trust.
Are we making them do things that kill their love of reading? When students abandon books a lot, it is a sure sign that we need to reflect on our own practices. And not just skim over that reflection and pretend that everything must be ok. Are reading logs killing their love of reading? Are programs liked Accelerated Reader or LLI? Are we constantly asking them to do things with their reading rather than “just” read? What else is attached to our reading that may make a child abandon rather than finish a book?
Have we asked them? This is the biggest component needed because too often we try to figure out why a child is abandoning books and we never ask them why. Not beyond the “What didn’t you like about it?” So instead we must give the students a chance to discuss or reflect and really start to study their own habits. What patterns do they see? What types of books might they like to read? What can they do to change their habits? Students need to feel empowered in their self-reflection because otherwise, their pattern won’t change. They also need to set goals and then be able to honestly assess their own progress. This is part of the much larger work that must be centered in who they are as readers and how they want to take control of their reading identity.
Do they trust you? Trust is often something that is taken for granted in our classrooms, as if by simply being together, we build trust, and yet that is not true. Often we have to work hard to earn the trust of students, particularly those whose school experiences have not been safe or those whose lives are different than the ones we lead. Trust takes many things; choosing to be vulnerable, creating a calm and safe space, acknowledging our own limitations as a teacher and adult, recognizing our own limited experience of the world, and also being genuinely invested in the success of every child no matter where they are in their journey. We earn trust, plain and simple, and we do it by showing up, asking questions, actively listening, and passing no judgment. By investing into the lives of each child, by partnering with those at home, and by removing shame as a tool in our learning environments. By expanding our tools as a teacher, and more importantly our knowledge so that we can do better. Often students tell me much later in the year why they really hate reading or why they abandon book after book but it takes time for them to feel that I deserve the truth. Sometimes they are not sure why until much later. Until they do, I engage them in conversation both planned in our reading conferences and casual, I congratulate them on the accomplishments they do have, and I continue to provide them with the tools I can think of to help them be successful. It takes time, it takes patience, and it takes trusting your students even if they don’t trust you.
Abandoning books is often seen as an irritating habit that we must break quickly at all costs when it comes to students, but what if it instead is viewed as a starting point for a deep and nuanced exploration into the reading journey that a child is on? Think of the conversations we can have.
A conversation I find myself having often with other educators is just what to do next for curriculum. How do we get everyone on the same page? How do we ensure that what we do is actually happening in different classrooms with different teachers? How do we ensure that the very kids we are entrusted with have somewhat similar experiences within our classrooms all while protecting the art of teaching?
You may think that textbooks with daily lessons are the answer, and for many it appears to be, but it doesn’t have to be that way. As Dr. Allington reminds us, “…no research existed then, or exists now, to suggest that maintaining fidelity to a core reading program will provide effective reading lessons.” (What Really Matters When Working With STruggling Readers, 2013) . Yet, fidelity has become a major selling point as we see many programs being touted to schools who are unsure what to do next. Fidelity has become a point of judgment; how closely aligned are we? Do we use the same texts? The same worksheets? The same words in order to ensure the same experience for all? I was once told by a well-meaning but ill-advised administrator that “I better be on the very same page of the textbook as my colleague next door” as he passed from classroom to classroom.
And yet if there is one thing I know about teaching, it is that our kids are not the same. From class to class, from year to year, the kids have needed different things. Have needed educators that are adept at adapting, that are unafraid to try something new, that know their research, but also know to seek out others for more ideas. Who know their own areas of growth so that they can provide better and better experiences year after year. Sure, use a program to start you off, but don’t forget about the very art of teaching that asks to be responsive to the very kids we teach, that require us to be disruptors of inequitable practices that have shaped the educational experience of so many.
I teach in a district that puts an incredible amount of trust in their teachers and fellow staff who support our students. Whose very core of teaching is autonomy, responsibility, and professional development. Who believes in developing teacher craft so that students can be vested in classroom experiences that speak to them personally and not just whatever the pacing or curriculum guide has told them to care about. Who believes in disrupting inequitable education experiences and providing the room to do so, supporting each teacher on their journey. But how do you then ensure that students aren’t unknowing members of an educational lottery where their growth is based on the experience and know-how of a single teacher? How can you create room for your teachers to personalize while still ensuring that certain experiences are in place?
The foundational idea is deceptively simple; create student rights together. A living breathing document that shows which experiences every child should have in every room, no matter the teacher. Live by it. Work by it. Discuss and change as needed.
But in practicality, how do you get there?
The first step is to have time to discuss what the experiences of students should be. What do we, as the practitioners, believe every child should have as rights in their English (Or whichever curricular area) educational experience? Reading books they like, having a librarian and time in the library, abandoning books, picking writing topics, a teacher that will confer with them, discussing relevant topics. Brainstorm as many things as you can. Group them to see patterns. And then step back.
What is missing? This isn’t something that is done quickly, after all, this will be a guiding document. Do research on best practices within your curricular area. What do you not know about? What do people like Dr. Rudine Simms Bishop, Dr. Richard Allington, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, Zaretta Hammond, or Dr. Louise Rosenblatt say about the experiences students deserve?
Then group all of the post-its or thoughts together. What are the clusters? What clearly speaks to all of you as a team? Try to come up with words that can tie it all together. Which patterns do you see? The right to read, to speak to one another, to have texts and materials that reflect their experience and the experience of others? The rights to connect with others? To free write? To skillful instruction? Again, pay attention to your own gap areas, which parts of instruction are you not thinking about? Do these potential rights mirror an entire experience or only parts of one?
Then translate the goals into actual experiences, such as if your team believes in student choice in reading, what will that actually look like? When will there be guaranteed time for that? How often do they get to choose? How will you support their choice? Who else will support it?
Then it may look something like this…
If students need…Empowerment – then we will commit to giving them choice throughout their time with us.
How: Choice in their independent reading book, choice in their topic of writing when possible, choice in who they work with, choice in who they share with, choice in how they work through learning. Space to reflect on their experience, speak up about it, and shape the teaching that happens.
If students need to read and write every day, then we will commit to giving them dedicated independent reading time every day and writing time every day.
How: Start with 20 minutes of independent reading focused on developing their relationship to reading and reading identity. An emphasis on free writing when not otherwise steeped in their own writing. Planning reading and writing experiences every day.
It may end up looking something like this then.
Go through each foundational right as a team and then commit to it as a team. Bring it up throughout the year to see whether you are actually living it. What are the opportunities for the students throughout the year? What is missing and needs to be added?
Having a foundational understanding of what the experiences should be for every child provides us with a guide of which direction to go while also being able to see our own gap areas. Where do we need to grow as practitioners? What are we not yet providing for students and how is that impacting them? How do our choices in our learning tie in with these rights?
So often we look at curriculum and think that is where to start with any changes when really what we need to do is step back and look at the foundational beliefs and rights that support and determine the curricular choices we make. Because those beliefs are what shape every single experience kids have with us. Because those beliefs sometimes hurt the very endeavors we are trying to accomplish. While I know our documents and guiding beliefs are not perfect, nothing ever is, it gives us a place to start when we discuss what we are working on, what kids need, and the disruptions that need to continue happening for all of our students. Perhaps these guidelines can help others as well.