being a student, discussion, Literacy, Reading, Reading Identity, student driven

Questions to Ask When the Kids Aren’t Reading

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 post from 2015.

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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.

If you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.. If you like what you read here, consider reading my latest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  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.     

being me, discussion

Can We Discuss the Title “Lead Learners” for A Moment?

Those who know me may know how long I have been mulling over this post.  How long these thoughts have been percolating, simply based on how many times I have brought it up in conversation.  You see, it’s been bugging me for a while, yet I know so many amazing principals that call themselves “Lead learner” that I have been afraid to say anything because I am not here to hurt, nor here to make others feel bad.  But the whole lead learner title, can we discuss it for a moment?  And perhaps rethink the use of it?

Before people get upset or chalk it up to me not understanding, hear me out.  I know what the title “lead learner” is supposed to signify, I have had many conversations with people who have explained their intent, and for that I am grateful, because those conversations have helped me understand the title more.    What I have found is that most who use the title use it to show that they are role models of learning within their community.  They use the title to show staff that they are still learning, that their job is to lead the learning, that the learning doesn’t stop just because someone becomes a principal.  They call themselves the lead learner so that others can see how serious they take the position and the enormous task it is to be an incredible principal.  There, though, lies my problem.

You see when we give ourselves titles, and let’s be honest, the title of “lead learner” is usually bestowed upon a person by themselves, we shut others out.  When we say that we are in the lead, whether it be in learning or other ventures, then others can never lead for more than a short period of time  When we say that we are the ones that lead the learning, then we have fully cemented the power structure within a school; the principal is completely in the lead and everyone else follows behind.  Teachers will never be leaders within their learning, because that position has already been taken.  Yet that power structure is what so many of us are hoping to change so that we can have empowered schools; learning community where everyone’s voice matters and it doesn’t matter what title someone holds, their words still hold power.

So when someone calls themselves a lead learner that message of wanting an empowered staff gets muddled, and I don’t think that is the intent.  In fact, I would ask anyone who uses this title to ask their staff and anyone else what that title signifies to them.  I asked my husband tonight, who is not in education, and his response was eye opening; a lead learner is someone who makes the final decision and brings the learning back for others to then pursue.  His interpretation is not what I think most principals want to be viewed as.  So although, I may know why someone has chosen to call themselves the “Lead learner”  I wonder if others that haven’t asked the meaning behind it do?  I don’t see an asterisk next to the title nor an explanation every time it is used.  So those deeper intentions of a symbolic title do not come across as meaningful, they seem to come across as limiting or in the very least unnecessary, which I know is not the intention.

As always though, don’t take my word for it.  I am, after all, just one teacher with one opinion.  Ask your staff; ask them how they feel about the title.  Ask them what it means to them that you are the lead learner.  I told you what it means to me, but I may be wrong, that has happened many times before. Know though, that when an email signature states someone as the lead learner within a school, a Twitter profile, or whichever public platform being used, that it may say things about that person that are not intentional and not always for the better.  We live within a society that thrives on titles and their meanings, so when we give ourselves titles that cannot be shared with others, then we are in fact creating ranks within our schools and telling the world about it.

While I don’t have a better title that would symbolize what it means to be a principal,  I am not so sure we even need one.  I think that title “principal”, within itself, holds so many connotations of what it means to be a great leader that I don’t think more are needed. Or perhaps just drop the “lead,” just be a learner, just like the rest of us.  Doesn’t being a learner mean that you know when to take the lead and when to let others?  What do you think?

I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA,  who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade.  Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day.  First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” can be purchased now.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press.  Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

assessment, being a teacher, discussion, word choice

Let’s Discuss Your Weaknesses and Watch You Soar

As someone who doesn’t hand out grades but rather assesses and has feedback discussions with students, I shudder at the word “weakness.”  I shudder at the thought of sharing a child’s weaknesses with them based on a test.  I shudder at the thought of pointing anything out as a weakness.  Now, don’t call me sentimental or foolhardy, but hear me out.  I know that all of us have weaknesses, I know that we all have things that need work and time and dedication.  And yet, how many of us soar to the challenge of overcoming a weakness when we are told those words exactly; this is a weakness for you?

Weakness tends to connotate something set in stone, a character trait that cannot be manipulated or changed.  Weakness means that a child fails in an area, that this is their achilles heel that can slay the rest of their results.  Weakness is everything opposite of strength.  You tell a cild multiple times that math is their weakness and yes they will believe you.  They will leave your classroom having resigned themselves to the fact that math is something they will never master, that it is a weakness, and totally out of their hands.

Why not flip the word on its head and tell them it is a challenge?  Why not discuss with students how they are still developing in some areas and they should focus on conquering those?  Why not be realistic but not demolish their learning?  We all have things we need to focus on.  We all have things/ideas/concepts that are not our strengths.  And yet, when we choose to call them weaknesses we accept them as such.  We are done fighting to change them and instead can hold up our badge of weakness and shrug, oh well, it is just my weakness.

Words have power, we know that, and the word “weakness” has so much power it can effectively slay a person.  Let’s use our words to build, to challenge, to be realistic but make it attainable.  Let’s not stop a child in their tracks.

assessment, being a teacher, discussion, No grades

Throwing Out Grades Doesn’t Mean Throwing Out Expectations

I used to be the queen of the “F.”  If a student wasn’t handing in their homework, I whipped out the calculator and quickly showed them what would happen to their percentage if they kept getting zeroes.  If a student wasn’t paying attention, I would show them how they would probably not do well on the test and boy that would lead to an F as well.  And what if they didn’t behave, well somehow, the threat of an F could be used even then because I couldn’t have a child who was being disrespectful get a good grade.  They simply didn’t deserve the good grades if they couldn’t sit down, listen and be good students.  So that 60% nipped them in their heels, waiting to swallow them up if they ever slowed down in our academic race.  We had things to do, papers to complete, and projects to hand in.  Get on it or that F is coming for you.

Now I don’t worry about the F because in my 5th grade room a child cannot get it as a grade.  And before you throw me in the fires of being an unrealistic teacher who isn’t teaching their students what the “real” world is like, let me explain.  The students I get to teach are all learning.  Some faster than others, some more deeply than others, but even a child that hands in a mediocre project at best has learned something.  They have garnered some sort of knowledge and that to me means they have not failed.  That F is removed from the equation because it ends up being meaningless when grades are not used throughout the year.  It loses its strength, its threat, and frankly I don’t miss it.

Instead we discuss strengths and goals.  We conference on where the child wants to go with their learning and then hatch up a plan.  I don’t talk about their weaknesses but rather what they still need to focus on, where they need to go, and then the students set their goals.  I don’t.  Because it is not my goal to own.  I am there to participate in the conversation, to hopefully ask the right questions, but I am not there to make the final decision of which path they need to travel.  I am not there to talk as much as I am there to listen.  

So as I get ready to write the year end report card that I have to write, I am also getting ready to have the conversations with my kids.  I am ready to ask them if 5th grade was what they hoped it would be, if they feel they have learned as much as they wanted to, if they feel ready for the next year.  I even ask them if they are smart.  Why?  Because their answers reveal more about their coming learning journey than a grade ever could.  Because to a kid being “smart” is something an adult tells you whether you are or not, and that ties directly to self-confidence and how they will tackle challenges.  And when the last kid leaves on the last day of school I take all of their answers with me, wanting to become a better teacher for the next group.  Wanting to serve the next set of kids even more, help them take control of their learning as much as a 5th grader can, help them set goals and then attain them.  I want them to come in as learners and stay that way.  Not because I threatened them into it, but because they took ownership.  No F’s in this room, there simply isn’t the need for them

discussion, no homework

We Don’t Need Any More" How To Cope With Homework Lists" – What We Need Is a Debate!

Summer is coming and with that an onslaught of parenting magazines on how we can help our children cope with homework.  Cope – what an interesting word when combined with homework.  I know when I assigned homework regularly I thought I was adding to my students’ educational experience.  I thought I was deepening their thinking, to perhaps help them, teach them, deepen their knowledge.  Instead, it appears, I was merely helping them develop coping with a necessary evil. I was setting them up for whatever adult job that requires homework, I am still looking for this one,.

So, parenting magazine, how about an article on why homework should be revisited, why the whole merit of homework is diminishing and why homework really doesn’t need to be assigned.  How about giving parents a resource to start the conversation, the discussion that should be happening at all schools, particularly primary ones, about why homework can be outlawed.  How we can still teach students time management, perseverance, and study skills without homework?  Who will publish that article?

alfie kohn, classroom management, discussion, no homework

But How Do You Really Get Rid of Homework and Still Know Where Students Are At?

Image from here

One great thing about blogging about what happens in our classroom and to me as a teacher is that I am often asked to clarify how all of this works.  So after my latest post “My Kid iS Drowning in Homework” I received an email from Mr. Feltman asking me some questions.  I figured my answer back might be helpful to others as well, so with his permission here is our communication.

Mr. Feltman wrote;
If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask a few questions, that would assist us in this endeavor.

Do you have research or articles backing this up?

What percentage of tests and other activities make up the students grades? (another way to ask is when you switched to “no homework” how was your class grading scale affected?)

How do you assess their mastery of learning (especially poor test takers)?

And here is my answer (emphasis added by me);
I do have research and articles!  A big push for me came from Alfie Kohn’s book “The Homework Myth” in which he collects a lot of research about it, and other sources which I have some of here
http://www.diigo.com/list/pgreens/nohomework

I did want to do my research as well so that my principal would back me.

Along with the no homework I am opposed to letter grades, however, my district is not.  So the compromise I have figured out in my room is that students only get letter grades on their trimester report cards, and those  are decided through discussion with me after we have decided as a class what each letter grade means.  The limited homework that does go home is therefore not used to determine grades but rather to determine instruction needs.  So my grading scale was affected in a positive way since students know that if they do work in class and hand it in, we discuss and dissect it and then figure out their needs from there.  There is no final letter-grade assigned to it but rather a common conclusion is given and we determine the path from there.

Tests are part of my formative assessment and students are mostly given a chance to revise and rethink their answers.  I do not want a snapshot of that kid at that time, I want to gauge their overall understanding.  Because the pressure of letter grades (and the finality aspect of a test) has been removed, students also tend to work through assessments much more calmly because they know I am looking for their depth of understanding rather than the pressure to perform right then and there.  This has provided me with a much more comprehensive view of the child’s abilities, which in turn I communicate to parents through feedback and observations.

Mastery of learning is shown in many ways.  I always think of what the large goal is or the skill and through conversation or even in-class work I can figure out if they have mastered that skill.  Math tends to be the only area where there is daily work (class time is given for this) but other than that most students are involved in longer projects covering a range of goals from the common core and district standards.

I know giving up homework can seem daunting but once you take the plunge it really isn’t that scary.  Sure you will have some parents that do not understand it but if you communicate your intentions clearly; mine are to keep school at school as long as the students work hard, then parents seem to come on board.  Getting rid of homework means I have to be much more on top of class time and what we need to get done with a focus on the larger goals rather than small worksheets where the students just regurgitate information or daily work that could be covered in a long-term project.  

Thank you for the email Mr. Feltman and good luck!