On Reading Tasks

 

I used to ask students to write in their reader’s notebook for a few minutes every day after they finished reading.  Some days they could write about whatever, other days I had a specific prompt.  Just four minutes because four always seems less daunting than five.  Just four minutes to give me a feel for what you are thinking.  Just four minutes to let me know if you are reading.

The protests started quickly.  Slow steps to get their reader’s notebooks, lengthy pencil sharpening sessions, bathroom breaks and long stretches.  Kids who needed to read just one more page even though it cut into their writing time.  Then louder, more vocal, “Do we have to, Mrs.  Ripp?”  “I don’t know what to write…”  “What’s the prompt again?”  I even had a child tell me that they thought it was stupid.  But I knew best, so we soldiered on.

Their responses were mediocre at best.  Short burst of thinking.  Not a lot of depth.  Surface level understanding, connections, and even writing.  I was baffled at how poorly they did., had they really misunderstood all of my instruction?  Did they really not understand theme?

On the end of the year survey, I asked them, “What is the one thing you wish Mrs. Ripp would never do again?”  Their response was resounding; our reader’s responses.  “Please don’t put other kids through that, Mrs. Ripp!” one child wrote in the margin.  “It made me hate reading!” another child confided.  I knew they disliked it, but the sheer quantity of kids that, without consulting each other, had put this four minute part of our class on the survey was astounding.  I had known all along, but still…surely this little check for understanding was just that; little.  Insignificant, and yet the damage it was doing to a child’s reading life was anything but.

This happens all the time in our reading classrooms; small ideas, insignificant extra tasks, minor routines that end up doing major damage.  We assume that kids will be okay, they are resilient, but we forget that for many their reading identities are not well formed yet.  That it doesn’t take much to knock them off course.  That it is not just because they dislike reading because they never found the right book, but because we have created reading classrooms where there sometimes is very little reading, but very many tasks.  Yes, kids need to process their reading.  Yes, kids should grow from their reading, but that doesn’t mean always writing.  That doesn’t mean always producing something.  That doesn’t mean that we squeeze in a short response thinking it will help them in the long run, no matter the damage it does now.

We forget that just reading is work.  That for some kids it takes incredible mental prowess to figure out the words, to visualize the story, to comprehend what is going on.  They are tired after they read.  We forget that reading can be solitary.  That as adults we often sit in silence after we have read or we think of who we would like to share this book with.  How we would like to proceed.  I know very few adults that write a summary every time they read or even write down their pages.  So why do our reading decisions look so different in our classrooms?

So what tasks do you have attached to reading?  What are you asking kids to do when they are reading?  Do they get stretches of uninterrupted time to just read?  Do they get to choose what to do when they do read or when they are done?  Have you asked students what they would like to do or what you need to change?

Most days, my students “just” read.  Sometimes I ask them to speak to a peer about their book, sometimes I do ask them to answer a question, sometimes I ask them to reflect on their reading, either out loud or on paper, sometimes I ask them to just think.  The key here is “Sometimes…” not always or often.  Not every day, not always in writing.  I tell them that when I ask them to do something, it matters, and because we do it so rarely, to most it does.  They take their time, they do the work because they know that this is a rarity rather than an everyday occurrence.

I wish I would have stopped our four minutes earlier.  I wish I would have listened to the students, rather than thought I knew best.  I wish I would have asked them sooner, what would you like to do when you finish reading and then listened to their answers.  I wonder if they would have answered much like Thea, our eight-year-old, did when I asked her, “When you finish a book, what would you like to do?”

She looked at me confused, “What do you mean?”

“What kind of thing would you like to do when you have finished a book?”

She looked me right in the eye and said, “Start another book…” and she walked away.

So let them read, not for the sake of producing, but for the sake of reading itself.

PS:  Join the conversation in our Passionate Readers Book Club on Facebook.

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.

 

 

 

 

On Hard Conversations and Having Courage

I am so white I am like a caricature of whiteness.  You see me coming; blonde, blue eyes, tall, my Viking heritage directly responsible for the four blonde children that cruise around with me in our mini-van while we bungle the words to Despacito.  I was born white, it is who I am, but I am on a journey to use my innate privilege to be something more.  Not just an ally, but a fighter.  Someone who doesn’t just shut the door when the going gets tough but leaves it wide open.

We live in a neighborhood that does not mirror us.  It is through circumstance we came to it but by choice that we stayed.   Living among other cultures, races and identities have brought many questions to our dining room table.  Questions that were hard for us to navigate with our young children, questions who pushed our own thinking.  I shudder to think whether these questions would have been posed by my children if we did not live here.  And so I think of the choices we, as white people, make as a privileged society to keep our lives homogenous.  How we live in neighborhoods where people look like us, we send our kids to schools where they float in a sea of whiteness, we not only elect people whose values mirror our own but so do their faces.  I can choose to step away from racism.  I can choose to step away from inequity discussions.  I can choose to step away from anything that may be upsetting, dangerous, or demoralizing.

I am privileged because I get to be afraid of the type of reaction my teaching may cause if I continue to discuss inequity.  If I continue to discuss racism. If I continue to discuss what it means to be privileged in my classroom.  I get to be afraid for my job and I get to choose whether to have these hard conversations or not.  But the truth is, there should be no choice.  We, as teachers, are on the front lines of changing the future narrative of this country.  Ugliness and all.  We are the bastions of truth, so what truth are we bringing into our classrooms?

I saw this tweet from ILA

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and it has kept me up at night.  Where are the white allies?  Where have I been?  Have I done enough?  Where is our courage when it comes to being a part of dismantling a racist and prejudiced system?  It is not enough to have diverse books in our classrooms if we are too afraid to discuss diversity and what the lack of humanity for others does to our democracy.  It is not enough to say “You matter” and then do nothing to change the world that we live in.  Or to celebrate diversity and then not accept a child for who they truly are, differences and all.  It is not enough to say we are an ally if our actions don’t match our words.   I don’t need 100 clones of me, I need to create more opportunities for the students to do the hard work.   To offer them an opportunity to decide.   To create an environment where they can discover their own opinion.  Where they can explore the world, even when it is ugly so that they can decide which side of history they want to fall on.

So this year I am planning for even harder conversations.  I am planning on being an ally, for being a fighter, even when I get scared.  We say we teach all children, but do we teach all stories?  Do we teach the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or just the sanitized version that will not ruffle any feathers?  I am so white, I am like a caricature of whiteness, but perhaps even this white person can make a difference by not being so afraid.  By listening, by asking questions, and by doing more than just saying that this world is filled with wrongness.

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.

Join the Passionate Readers Facebook Group

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For the past two years I have been working on a heart book; a book that has my whole heart in it.  One of those books that are so hard to write and yet the voices of my students urged me onward.  One of those books that I hope will help others become better teachers of reading.  One of those books I hope will matter.

With just one month until the release of my newest book, Passionate Readers: The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, I wanted to create a place where educators could gather to ask questions, share ideas, and hopefully be inspired.  Where better to do this than on Facebook?

I, therefore, invite you to join our Passionate Readers book club on Facebook.  Share your ideas, get excited, and find other people who are also trying to create passionate reading communities.  I am always in awe of what I can learn from others. And while the book is not out yet, you can start to use the community now.  What are you reading?  What are you excited about?  What is the worst thing you have done as a teacher of reading?  Come join the conversation and the collaboration.

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.

On the Need to Plan for Reading Enjoyment

A question I receive often is what do you teach?  Meaning what reading skills do I get to explore with my 7th graders in our English block?  And how do I cover it all?  I get it, teaching English Language Arts in the forty-five-minute block is daunting.  We feel like we are behind on the second day of school.    (Incidentally, this is what prompted me to write Passionate Readers because I figured I could not be alone in trying to deal with the madness).  And yet, while I gladly share what we do as I try to help my students become better readers, there seems to be a missing part in this curriculum conversation; the need to plan for reading enjoyment.

Why does this matter?   Because our assumptions about what we can do to kids’ reading lives through our well-meaning intentions are wrong.  We have assumed for too long that kids will just like reading, no matter what we do to them in class.  No matter the task we assign them.  No matter how we teach and what we discuss.  And yet, the numbers don’t lie… As kids get older, reading for fun decreases and with it outside reading.  We all know where this goes, by the time kids leave our classrooms and become the adults we have hoped to shape, many of them; 26% to be exact, choose to not read a single book for the next twelve months.  And we know this, we see it in our classrooms every single year; those kids that come in and sigh, that pick up a random book, that look us in the eyes and tell us proudly that they will never like reading no matter what we do.  It seems, in our eagerness to create amazing readers, we have lost sight of the end game; people who actually want to read once they leave our schools.

The decisions we make today, as we plan for the year ahead, or for the next day’s lesson, matters more than we know.  Yes, kids need reading skills, of course, but we also must plan specifically for protecting the hope of reading.  For protecting the positive reading identities that are already present in our school communities, for investigating and hopefully changing the negative reading identities.

But this won’t happen just by happenstance. Joyful reading experiences don’t just happen magically even if we provide choice, time, and plenty of great books.  We must strive to make it fun.  To create meaningful opportunities to interact with others through the books we read.  To abandon the books that do not work for us, even the ones we rank a seven or an eight.  To read picture books aloud not just for teaching the skill but for creating a community, for laughing together.  For speaking books with one another.  For reading aloud.  For finding time to slow down so we can savor what we read, rather than just to get through it.

And don’t take my word for it, here is just some of the research of the benefits of focusing on reading enjoyment from The National Literacy Trust.

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We may lament the amount of time we have in our classrooms.  We may worry that we will never get “it” done.  That we are not enough or that what we are doing is not the right thing.  But we must not forget how much we do control in our limited time with students; how many decisions we do get to make.  One of those has to be what we are going to do to protect the love of reading.  How will we make reading fun again and then stand proudly behind our decisions?  So next time you plan a lesson or have a curriculum discussion, ask yourself this; will there be enjoyment in this?  Will the very students we are teaching find this fun?  And if not, why not?  What can you do to change?  Our classrooms were never meant to be the place where reading came to die, they were meant to be places filled with reading explorations.  What will we do to change the very experience we have with our students?

Our classrooms were never meant to be the place where reading came to die, they were meant to be places filled with reading explorations.  What will we do to change the very experience we have with our students?

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.

On This New Country of Mine

Brandon stood outside the door, ready to congratulate me.  My best friend, my better half, took one look and asked why I was crying.  It was hard to find the right words…

I came here in 1998 with the idea of staying one year.  I had said my goodbyes but they felt like so longs and yet as the years progressed, my home, Denmark, slipped further and further away.  Once I married Brandon and Denmark changed its immigration laws, I realized that this country was probably my home, because no longer could the man I loved come with me.  It hit me like a ton of bricks because in this country, as an immigrant, I was not seen as a full person with equal rights.  And yet, I stayed, believing in this nation and the work that we do in education for the future of us all.

But I’ll tell you; the past eight months, as an immigrant to this nation, have not been easy.  Every time I have left, I have wondered whether I would be allowed back in.  When I have discussed my political opinions, I have wondered if my name would show up on a  list somewhere.   I have worried that this country which has been my home for 19 years and is the birth-nation of my husband and children, was no longer a safe place for me or anyone who does not fit this version of what it takes to make America great again. I have been reminded of my own white privilege and then also been reminded that just like that, what I take for granted, could be taken away.

It wears on you when day in and day out, you don’t know if this is the place you belong.  I cannot imagine what it must feel like for those who feel this way every day, with no end in sight.

So when I took the oath today, I cried.  Not just because I am proud to become a part of the glorious mess that is the American experience.  Not just because I can now travel without worry.  Not just because I get to vote, but because I feel this sense of relief.  Like my rights cannot be so easily dismissed or taken away.  Like I now matter to this nation, as if I am fully human here now, and not just someone with pseudo rights that can be easily tossed out.

When you are born with these privileges you may not know what it means to be handed them.  This is the closest I will ever come to feeling marginalized and that is something worth remembering.

So I cried my tears and then I registered to vote and in my heart, I said yes.

Yes to seeing the greatness that already exists.

Yes to being a part of the change that we need.

Yes to fighting for the things I believe in.  And fighting loudly.

Yes to seeing the flaws.

Yes to realizing that my voice matters now more than ever.

Yes to taking responsibility and also being in awe of that.

I am now a citizen of the United States of America and I am ready to work for change.

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Essentialism for the Overworked Teacher

I have been sick for the past two months.  Not just cold sick, but several attempts with antibiotics, various diagnoses, including pneumonia, and an ever persistent exhaustion no matter the sleep I got, kind of sick.  What started as a virus has become something I can’t fight.  And I am well aware I have done this to myself.  Between teaching full-time, speaking, writing, being a mother and a wife, and selling our house, I have forgotten what it means to do nothing.  Forgotten what it means to relax and not feel so guilty about it.  Even reading has become a chore and so I realized last Thursday, that in my attempt to make the world better I have forgotten about myself.

Why share this?  It is not for sympathy, but instead to highlight something so common in education; the overworked teacher.  We have all been there, in fact, many of us exist constantly at this stage it seems, where we get so absorbed into our classrooms that we forget about our own mental health and then wonder why we feel burnt out.   We know we should do less but worry about the consequences and so we push on and dream of vacation and doing little, yet never make the time for it.  I have been reading the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown in an effort to make sense of my own decisions, of this exhaustion I am working through, and as I read I cannot help but transfer this knowledge into the classroom.  How much of the discipline of Essentialism can help us, as overworked teachers, and steer us away from burn out before it even begins?

One of the central tenets of the book is the idea of doing less better.  We seem to forget that in education as we constantly pursue new ideas to add into our classroom in order to create more authentic experiences for our students.  We plan, we teach, we juggle one hundred things and add in extra whenever we see a need, and then come back and do the same the next day.  Yet, we know this is not sustainable, so what can we do?

Discover your essentials.

What do you hold most sacred within your teaching?  You can decide either in your subject area or in your whole educational philosophy.  List the three most essential goals for your year and then plan lessons according to these, eliminating things that do not tie in with your goals.

So for example, one of my essential goals for the year is to help my 7th graders become better human beings.  While a lofty goal, it steers me when I plan lessons as I ask; is there a bigger purpose to this learning or is it just a small assignment to “get through?”  If I want my students to become better human beings we must work within learning that matters and that gives them a chance to interact with others.

Say no more.

We tend to volunteer ourselves whenever an opportunity arises.  But as Greg McKeown discusses, saying “Yes” is the easy way out, we don’t have to deal with the guilt that comes with saying no or not volunteering.  However, when we live in a cycle of yes, we take on more than we can truly handle.  Therefore, evaluate what is most essential to you and to your classroom.  If something is not in line with your goals, and you are not excited at the prospect of doing the work, then politely decline. Others will almost certainly take the spot meant for you or the work will be approached in a different way.

Eliminate the clutter.

Just like we need to say no, we also need to stop creating extra work for ourselves.  I find myself distracted when my classroom or especially my workspace is cluttered and using the extra time to find something or put something away becomes one more thing to do in our busy teaching days.  While I don’t mean, “Get rid of everything,” look at the piles that you constantly move.  Why do they not have a home?  Do they need a home?  If everything has a specific place in your classroom, then you know where to return something to once you have used it.  That method will help you eliminate all of the extra time spent simply shuffling things around.

Plan for no plans.

We tend to plan every minute of our day so that we can get the most use out of our precious time, yet we know that throughout the day, extra items will get added and all of a sudden we did not get to the things we meant to get to.  So leave gaps in your prep time or in your before or after school routine for the extra things that have popped up or the major item that still needs to get done.  That way you are not trying to squeeze extra things in when you really have accounted for how every minute will be spent already.

 

Slow down your decisions

So often, in order to be efficient, we make a snap decision without really thinking the decision through.  This can lead to more stress, more thing to get done, and also less happiness.  In the past year, I have learned to hit pause before I reply to that request and really consider whether this is something I want to dedicate myself to and whether I will enjoy it.  If I cannot answer emphatically yes to those two things then I politely decline, however, I cannot answer those two questions if I do not take the time to think about it first.  If a request comes up in conversation, it is okay to tell someone that you will get back to them with an answer as soon as you can.

Choose your yes’

My 2017 word of the year has been “Enjoy.”  I chose this word as a reminder to myself that when I do say yes to something, I need to enjoy what I am doing.  That doesn’t mean that my life is filled with fun and exciting things at all times, but it does mean that when I choose to do something I try to be mindful of the fact that I chose to do it.  This has been a great reminder of why choosing my yes’ with care is so important.  If I am in, then I want to be all in.

Remember you have a choice.

Greg McKeown wrote, “When we forget our ability to choose, we learn to be helpless.” How often is this the case not just for our students when they come to us believing school is just something to get through, but also when we forget about our own power of choice?  While being educators means that there are many things we do not have power over, there are many things we do, and so remembering that we do have a choice is important for us all.

 

Create your own priority.

I was really struck by the discussion of how the plural version of the word “Priority” was not invented until the 1900’s when mass production and multitasking became the thing to strive for.  How many priorities do we juggle in a day as educators?  Look no further than the vision statements of our schools; I have yet to find one that lists one single thing, rather than many.  Yet, when we have multiple priorities we are, in essence, not working on any of them by spreading ourselves too thin.  So much like you should discover your essentials, discover your one priority.  What is the one thing that you want to focus on?  It can be a larger goal that encompasses many small things, however, limit yourself to one and then dedicate yourself to it.  This goes for the work our students do as well.

Plan for play.

Much like I have embraced doing nothing the last few days, I have also tried to join in the play with my children.  I have been more at peace, had more fun, and also had an incredible surge in brainpower while pretending to be a stealthy ninja or trying to beat them all at Sorry.  Play often feels like an indulgence and something that we, as adults, should grow out of, yet reintroducing the concept of play, and also of boredom, has been incredibly revitalizing.  So plan for play next year, whether by creating challenges for your students, taking the time to draw, playing jokes on colleagues, or doing something else that seems off topic and even frivolous.  Plan for play before strenuous tasks or when stress levels seem high.  I cannot wait to see what our brains will do after.

Stop the guilt.

We are awfully good at feeling guilty as educators.  Whether it is guilt from feeling like we didn’t do enough, like we didn’t teach well, or because we didn’t volunteer, didn’t go the extra mile, didn’t write enough feedback, or insert whatever teacher related item here; guilt seems to be our constant companion.  But think of the weight of guilt and how it consumes our subconscious.  Why do we let it?  In the past six months, I have started saying no more and I can tell you, I feel guilty every time, but as it has become more of a habit, the guilt has lessened and the weight I feel lifted is palpable.  So turn the guilt around; rather than feel guilty for saying no, congratulate yourself.  Celebrate the fact that you know when to protect yourself and your energy.  Celebrate the extra time you just gave yourself and then don’t plan extra work for that time.

Dedicate yourself to yourself.

We spend so much time thinking of our students, their needs, and their goals, that we forget about ourselves.  So as you plan lessons for your students, plan lessons for yourself as well.  How will you grow as a human being or as a practitioner today?  How do you want to feel at the end of the day?  There is nothing selfish about focusing some of our energy on ourselves as we go through the day trying to create great learning experiences for our students.

As I slowly gain my health back, as I slowly feel less exhausted, as I slowly start to clear my mind, I start to remember what it feels like to not work all of the time.  To have vacation.  To take the time to step away so that when we come back, we feel so excited.  The truth is; work is not the only thing I want to consume me.  I want my family to consume me.  My love for my husband.  I want to find joy in reading books with a cup of tea next to me.  To play stupid computer games.  In baking.  In laughing with my kids rather than telling them to hurry up.  I want my legacy to be more than being a good teacher.  And I cannot do that if I don’t change my life a bit.  The first step was to realize that things had to change, that came courtesy of my exhausted body, now it is up to me to continue on this journey.   Reading Essentialism has provided me with a path.