Can We Please Stop Grading Independent Reading?

“But how do you grade their independent reading?”

I am asked this question while presenting on how to create passionate readers.

I am stumped for a moment for an answer.  Not because I don’t know, but because we don’t.  Why would we?  And yet, it is a question I am asked often enough to warrant a decent response.

My middle school does not issue a grade for how many books a child has read.  For how many minutes they have read.  For how far they have gotten on their book challenge goals.

And there is a big reason for this.

How many books you read does not tell me what you can do as a reader.  How long you can sustain attention to a book may tell me clues about your relationship with reading but it will not tell me where you fall within your reading skills.  Actual skill assessment will do that.  Explorations where you do something with the reading you do will tell me this.  The amount of books you have read will not tell me what you are still struggling with or what you have accomplished.  Instead it will tell me of the practice you do with the skills that I teach you.  With how you feel about reading in front of me and when I am not around.  About the habits you have established as you figure out your very own reading identity.  These habits are just that; skills you practice until something clicks and it becomes part of who you are.   Those are not gradeable skills but instead a child practicing habits to figure out how to get better at reading.  A child figuring out where books and reading fits into their life.

So just like we would never grade a child for how many math problems they choose to solve on their own, how many science magazines they browsed or how many historical documents they perused, we should not grade how many books a child chooses to read.  We should not tie pages read with a grade, nor an assessment beyond an exploration into how they can strengthen their reading habits.  Number of books read, minutes spent, or pages turned will never tell us the full story.  Instead it ends up being yet another way we can chastise the kids that need us to be their biggest reading cheerleaders.

So when we look to grade a child on how they are as a reader we need to make sure that the assessments we provide actually provide us with the answers we need.  Not an arbitrary number that again rewards those who already have established solid reading habits and punish those that are still developing.  And if you are asked to grade independent reading, ask questions; what is it you are trying to measure and is it really providing you with a true answer?  Are you measuring habits or skills?  Are the grades accurate?  If not, why not?  And if not, then what?

PS:  And for those wondering what we do assess in our reading, here is a link to our English standards.  

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like to infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.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.

 

The Reading Identity Challenge

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At the beginning of the year, I asked my students to tell me how they felt about reading.  I do this every year as it offers me a baseline, a glimpse into their reading truths.  I was not surprised at the results, 25% told me they loved it, 50% told me they didn’t mind it, and the final 25%?  They told me they hated it.  Perhaps slightly higher than normal, but nevertheless, teaching 7th graders, I was not worried.  After all, every year it seems this happens and every year, children change their minds.

This year, though, some have proven to be stubborn.  Those kids that hate reading, they still were fighting me every step of the way.  Abandoning books, which we do embrace, every single day.  Refusing to book shop even.  Flipping pages aimlessly day in and day out.  Not having any desire to change their hatred, content with being part of the statistics of kids that don’t read.

So I created the Student Reading Identity Challenge.  Not just for the kids who still hated reading, but for those that needed a spark, those that needed to stretch their reading legs a little.  For myself to challenge my own reading life, nervously glancing at Hatchet and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry as two books I had no desire to read but knew I should.

A reading challenge for us all, so we all could get better, whatever better meant to us.  The concept is simple; over the course of three weeks or so students would select one aspect of their personal reading life and challenge themselves to make it better or change it.  Much like a personal goal; there was no right challenge, instead, it was based on the individual’s needs, the hopes for the future.   There was no limit to what they could work on and they would be given around twenty minutes every day to read, rather than our usual ten.

We started with this five-page survey; yes, five pages.  I needed students in all their stages of reading relationship to uncover new truths about themselves.  It needed to go beyond whether they liked to read or not and into their actual reading habits.  Where are they reading, what are they reading, why are they not reading more?  Where are their book gaps?  Where do they get book recommendations from?  All those little things that play into who they are as a reader.  It took the kids almost two days to fill it out because I asked them to please slow down, please really think about it, and then show your goal to me.

The goals varied; I want to enjoy reading again, I want to try a new genre, I want to read every day.  Some couldn’t think of one until we looked through all of their answers and something jumped out at us.  Whatever the goal was there was a reason, a personal one, that this was the one thing they felt would help them become a better reader.  Some kids even chose a read aloud with another teacher so they could have a shared experience around a book, trying to help them actually like reading more.  For every goal there was a story; a story of reading blossomed or reading gone wrong.  For every goal there was either excitement or reprehension; how would this actually change anything?  Once all the goals were in place, I asked the kids to somehow keep track – how will you know you are working on your goal?  Some chose a calendar to write down minutes or rank their reading of the day, some chose a peer to speak about their reading.  This is the one component I am still working on, I did not want it to be a writing experience, one where the students would have to jot down their thoughts every day, but instead, an organic process for them that helped them have a great experience, not one more thing to do.

So we began; some kids book shopped the first few days, having to find a great book as part of their goal as well,  others dove right in.  I taught a mini-lesson every day and then the rest of the time was for them to read.  I pulled small groups, conferred with students, and otherwise watched.  Were they actually reading?  Was this actually working…

One child told me she was so confused in her fantasy book and this was exactly why she never read fantasy because “It doesn’t make any sense!” and yet because of the challenge she read on, declaring at the end of the book that she couldn’t wait for the sequel. Another told me she was stuck in the boring part and this was always when she abandoned a book, but now because of the challenge, she read on.  A child who has yet to read a single book this year, no matter my support, is on page 60 of Hatchet, telling me yesterday that he read 20 pages in one day.

Whatever their goal, I saw it gradually start to happen; kids finding a way to make reading better for themselves.  Kids realizing more deeply who they are as readers, where they are on their reading journey.  For some, it has proven to be a huge revelation, for others just a small one.  But for most, it has changed something in them as a reader.  For most, there is a deeper urge to make reading enjoyable, no matter what they are reading.

So yesterday, I taught my first two classes, followed my lesson plan to the tee.  But in my 5th hour, the students asked if they could please read for ten minutes today, knowing I had only allocated ten.  Of course, I said.  When the fifteen were up, they asked for five more minutes.  Of course, I said.  When the five were up they asked if they could please just read the rest of the class.  As twenty-five students stared at me, seemingly holding their breath, I said, “Of course.”  And then watched the thickest of silences fall over the room as they each retreated into their books.  Even the ones who tell me they hate reading.  Even the ones who used to flip pages.  I did the same for the rest of my classes, and it didn’t change; silence, except for the pages being turned, and one child telling me triumphantly that they had read fifteen pages today – more than they read all of last week.

The reading identity challenge is not the end all be all, but it is another step in helping students uncover another aspect of who they are as readers.  It is another tool to help them become empowered in their own reading journey.  It is another step to tell all of my students that reading matters and that they control so much of their relationship with reading.  That new genres await, that it is possible for reading to be fun, that they can make it through the boring parts, that they can go deeper in their text.  That reading should be a part of who they are and therefore also should be something they mold and shape as they develop further.

As for me?  It turns out that Hatchet and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry were amazing books.  That I have realized that perhaps I should be looking at other classic children’s book gaps to make sure I am able to recommend them to kids.  That even though I love reading, I still have things to work on.  Just like my students, just like we all do.

PS:  Here is the reflection sheet I had them fill out at the end.  The standard referenced is one that measures providing evidence for their thoughts.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  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.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 .   Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

 

Three Keys to Creating Successful Reading Experiences

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It’s January.  In the perfect world all of my students would love reading by now.  All of my students would bring their self-chosen book to class, eager to dive in, begging for more reading time.  In a perfect world, every child would have a goal they were working toward, every child would be eager to book talk their books, to browse our library, to read outside of class.  I don’t teach in the perfect world, I don’t think anyone does.

Instead, by now here in January, I have kids that still show up with no books.  That still tell me they hate reading.  That still would rather flip the pages and not actually read anything.  I still have kids who don’t read outside of class, who have no goals, who would rather do everything they can to avoid having a reading check in with me.  Not a lot, the numbers have dwindled, but they are still there, they are still prominent, and I still lose sleep over how to help them have a better relationship with reading (or writing, or speaking, or English, or even just school…)

We all have these kids in our classrooms, in our learning communities.  These kids that seem to defy the odds of every well-meaning intention we may have.  Who do not fall under our spell or the spell of a great book.  Who actively resists not so much because they want to but because they feel they have to.  And so our initial thoughts are often to tighten the reins.  To tell them which book to read.  To hand them a reading log so that you can see when don’t read.  To tie in rewards to motivate or even consequences to punish.  We create lesson plans with more structure, less choice, less freedom overall thinking that if we just force them into a reading experience, perhaps then it will click for them.

We must fight our urges when it comes to the regimented reading experiences.  What these kids need is usually not less freedom, more force.  What these kids need is not more to do when it comes to their reading.  What these kids need is not the carefully crafted worksheet packet with its myriad of questions that will finally make them read the book.

What they need is patience.  Repetition.  Perseverance.  I am not in a fight with these kids.  I am not here to punish them into reading.  I am not here to reward them into reading either.  I am here to be the one that doesn’t give up, even if they have themselves.  I am here to be the one that continues to put a pile of books in front of them and say “Try these…”  I am the one that will repeat myself every day when I say, ‘Read…” and then walk away.  Who will crouch down next to them and ask them how they feel and listen to their words, even if I have heard them a million times before.

We look to external systems and plans because they entice us with their short-term promises.  We fall under the spell of programs, of removing choice from those who have not earned it, in an effort to get these kids there faster.  Yet, what I have learned from my students is that every one is on a different path.  That every child is on the journey  and while their pace may be excruciatingly slow, they are still moving forward.

So our classroom is not perfect, and neither am I.  I cannot force my students to read but I can create an ongoing opportunity where they might want to.  And so that is what I will do, every day, up until the last day, hoping to reach every single one, even if I have not reached them yet.

I am currently working on a new literacy book.  The book, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum.    So until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my 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.

We Have Already Grown

I realized today as my students sat quietly reading that if a stranger were to walk into our classroom, it would all look so effortless.  As if the kids had always quietly settled in with their books and this hush had fallen over us.  As if the kids had always read when I asked them to.  As if they had always known just what to do and when to do so.  Yet, that is not the true story.  Ask any teacher and they will tell you; creating a space for independent reading time is not easy, nor does it just happen.  It is hard work.  It takes effort.  It takes planning, and boy, does it take a lot of patience.  It takes great books.  It takes dedication.  And it takes a community, takes trust, takes respect, and takes conversations.

We build our communities in small pieces.  We plant the seeds on the very first day when we welcome our new kids into our lives and into our classrooms.  When we say this is your room, these are your books, and we mean it.

We build it when we ask them to pick up the books.  To read a few pages.  To talk to one another and to share their truths.  We build it when we accept their truths about why reading does not matter and promise that we will try to help them change their minds.
Every day as we plan our lessons and build our communities, we give them the reading pieces to place into the puzzle of their identities and hope they will see the value.  And we do it one day at a time.  One conversation at a time.  One book at a time.

It may be almost December, we have so much time still left, and yet I cannot help but marvel at how far so many have come.  How many actually will read, not because I ask them to but because it is their habit.  How many of them will casually abandon a book because they know they can find a better one.  How many of them will recommend a book because they want to,  because they need to share it, because someone else deserves to have the same experience with this book that they just had.

This is work.  This is love.  This is what we do.  And we do it in such small steps that sometimes we forget to look back at just how far we have come.  So as I sit tonight, exhausted, thinking back to all of the moments we shared today, I also realize that while we are not all there yet, we have come a long way.  We have already grown.  We have become better readers, even if if for a second I may have forgotten that.

 

I am currently working on a new literacy book.  The book, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out January, 2017 called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum.    So until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my 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.

 

If Not Us, Then Who?

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When I was 17 years old, my history teacher pulled me aside and told me tone it down.  “It” being my opinion in case it intimidated others.  “It” being speaking my mind because sometimes I would come across so forceful that others did not want to engage.  So I stopped speaking in his class.  I stopped jumping in, afraid that I was going to rock the boat or upset the other students.  I knew I had opinions, but I didn’t want to be known as someone who did not make room for others.

A long time ago I decided that staying quiet would not get me anywhere.  That hoping that someone would understand what I needed without me actually speaking up was a delusion.  That I could no longer wait until someone spoke the words that burned within me so I could quote them and pretend I hadn’t thought the exact same thing.  I started writing, speaking, and teaching as the whole me, rather than the 17 year old girl who had been told to tone it down.  It has been quite a journey since then.

As educators we speak up all of the time.  We speak up for ourselves when changes need to be made in our schools.  We speak up for our students when they need us to advocate.  We speak up for our own needs and hopefully for the needs of our students.  We speak up when we see injustices that need to be righted, when our teacher stares are not enough.

So I think it is time for us to speak up and let our voices be heard because when I look at my classroom library, when I really study the books I am able to put in the hands of my students, I cannot help but wonder; where are the books from non-white authors?  Where are the picture books that center around kids that are going about their every day life that look like some of my students?  Where are the holiday books, the birthday books, the first day of school books, the books that share small slices of life that have characters that are not white?

While I buy the ones that I know of thanks to blogs like Reading While White, We Need Diverse Books, and the Nerdy Book Club, I am constantly reminded of how few there are out there for us to purchase.    When I receive a package of books I am constantly reminded of how often the kids in the books look just like my own kids in all of their whiteness.  How my kids must take it for granted that, of course, the books they read have people in them that look like them.  That I do not have to scour the internet to find books that remind them of themselves because those are the majority of books out there.   That in book upon book being white as a character is the standard not the exception.

We need diverse books.  We need own voices books.  We need more than what is out there and so we need to raise our voices.  There will be no change if we do not say loudly; “This is not enough.  This is not ok.”

So as educators we can speak up.  We can reach out and demand better.  We can spend our precious budgets on books that do not just offer up more white narratives, but actually mirror the diversity that we are surrounded by.  We can tell publishers that we need books that show all of the kids we teach.  We need books about Native American written by Native American, or other #OwnVoices authors.  We need books that go beyond the standard stories being shared so that when all of my students open up a book they can find a character that looks like them.  Or when my own white children read a book, they will see a character that does not look like them and understand that that too is the norm.

For too many years we have waited for publishers to notice the major gap that has been created, and while changes are under way, the process won’t speed up until we speak up.  So use your voice, use your connections, use your money to show the world that when we echo that “We need diverse books!” it is not just because it is a catchy phrase, but is the truth.

I am currently working on a new literacy book.  While the task is daunting and intimidating, it is incredible to once again get to share the phenomenal words of my students as they push me to be a better teacher.  The book, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  So until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my 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.

It Was Never for the Adults

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On the very first day of book shopping this year, with the piles of brand new books waiting on the tables.  Sharpened pencils ready, to-be-read lists in hand.  Time set aside to meander.  Books displayed and discussed.  On the very first day of book shopping, two kids refused to even look.  One sat in a corner, hood up, eyes down.  Another child, more than an hour later, but this time at a table, arms crossed, no to-be-read list, no pencil, not even a word.

I approached both with caution, sometimes children who so actively refuse to even pick a book remind me of a wounded animal.  They are someone who clearly has not had a good experience with books.  Someone who must be treated with the gentlest of hands, because otherwise, it will just become another power struggle and one that I will never win.

As always, I asked quietly; What is wrong?  How may I help?  Then wait, hold my breath, and soon the refusal.  Soon the dismissal, “Leave me alone, I don’t like books, I don’t like reading.”  Whatever the words, the stories always so familiar.  The emotions raw, the conversation careful, and yet unexpected.  It happens every year.  So after a few gentle moments, I pull out my secret weapons; my graphic novels and my picture books.  I grab a pile of those perpetual favorites or some brand new ones, I place them in front of the child and I walk away.

It happens without fail, a few moments later, a page being turned, a book being read, the angry stance in the shoulders gradually fading away.  Books change minds.  The right books change lives.

Yet if I were to take the advice of some.  If I were to listen to the words of those who say they know better.  If I were to be a “real” teacher of English, those books would not have a place in my classroom.  No more Captain Underpants, Where Is My Hat, or Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  No more Tales from the Crypt, the graphic novelization.  No more rows of picture books waiting to be read and shared.  Those books that many of my students think they are too old to read.  Those books that some might think are not appropriate for a student to read.  Those books that some deem too easy, not enough, not real reading.  Those become the books that capture my hardest students.  Those become the portal that lead them back into believing that they too can be readers.  That reading can be for them.  That reading is something that matters.

So when I see a call for censorship, for teachers telling students what they exactly need to read.  When I see a call for parents to study our classroom libraries to make sure that the books we have are not inappropriate, too emotional, or lord forbid too fun.  When we are once again told that something that is too easy for our kids, not challenging enough, not enough of whatever the right thing is.  That is when I am reminded of who I serve.  That is when I am reminded of who my library is for.  Because it was never for the adults of those children I teach.  It was always for the kids.  And those kids need all of the great books we can hand them.

I am currently working on a new literacy book.  While the task is daunting and intimidating, it is incredible to once again get to share the phenomenal words of my students as they push me to be a better teacher.  The book, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  So until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my 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.