Be the change, books, kids, Reading, Reading Identity

A High Five For All Of Us

I’m on the road again. February seems to have been a long list of travel. Of packing up the suitcase and saying goodbye to those at home, to the kids in my classroom. Sometimes that is the reality of what I do. It is hard, but worth it.

This week has been one filled with the worry that you get when one of your own children is sick. When they are up for hours at night with a fever so high you think your thermometer is broken as you call the doctor in the middle of the night. Sleep deprivation and the end of February in Wisconsin is a bundle not for the weak.

So I packed a book for my flight tonight, after all, the stack of to-be-reads is overflowing. A new book by my friend, Phil Bildner, that even though it definitely was about baseball and I still don’t understand baseball despite my 21 years in America, looked like it would offer me a world that I could sit in for a while and forget about the now two sick children at home, nestled securely in the care of my husband.

And I read, and then I finished the last page, and then tears came, because this book, A High Five for Glenn Burke, is yet another book we have so desperately needed. That our students so desperately need. They they deserve. That I fear will be ghosted by some educators or school districts because it is about a boy who loves baseball above everything else but is also finding the courage to share what he has known for while; that he is gay and he worries how the world will handle his truth and his heart as he bares it all. And this book is written for our middle grade kids. The kids that so often do not get to see themselves represented in our books because a long time ago someone deemed that anything that has to do with sexual identity or gender is “too mature” for ten-year-olds or younger.

I had tears for the kids who tell me their parents don’t understand. And I worry for the kids who tell me that their libraries don’t carry these books because they go against their “values.” And I get angry at the adults who stand in the way on purpose of these books being placed in the hands of children. Children who so deserve to be seen and heard and loved and protected because the world is already cruel enough.

So I write this post to not just highlight the incredible masterpiece that is Phil Bildner’s new book, but for us, the adults, in the lives of these children to understand just how much it matters for our kids to be seen. How much they hope to be represented in our libraries, in our classrooms, in our curriculum, in our teaching staff. That some kids don’t get to be accepted at home so they hope that school is the place where they will be. That some kids face hatred before they come into our rooms and hope that with us they will be accepted for whoever they are, wherever they are on their journey. And they hope but it doesn’t always happen and soon they learn to hide that part of themselves, because it is safer to live half-hidden than be known for all that they are.

So we can say that we value all kids. That our school strives for success for all. That we have high expectations and support for all. But it is a lie when we gatekeep our libraries. When we don’t ban outright but simply never purchase. When we shield ourselves behind doctrines that do not follow one of the biggest doctrines of them all; love others as you love yourself.

Sometimes love comes in the words that we share. Sometimes in the treats. The smiles. The opportunities that we provide after we plan lessons long past our bedtime. But love also comes in the books that we place on our shelves. The ones we talk about. The ones we make a part of our curriculum and ask all of the kids to read, to hear, so that they too can know about each other and so that every child, no matter who they are, will know that with you they are safe because you showed them a book that was about them.

Because your actions will always speak louder than your words.

You should buy, read, and share Phil Bildner’s A High Five for Glenn Burke and many more LGBTQIA+ books, it’s the least we can do.

If you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page. 

Be the change, books, global read aloud, Literacy, Passionate Readers, Reading Identity

Auditing Your Read Aloud – A Whole School Conversation

In 2010, I created a project called The Global Read Aloud, for the past 11 years I have been the driving force behind this global literacy initiative. For 11 years, I have asked educators to recommend books for us to read aloud on a global scale. To suggest books they feel would make for an incredible connection around the world. That will inspire students to learn more about others. That will inspire students to learn more about themselves. That will generate connections that maybe were not possible before.

You could say that for the past 11 years, I have seemingly had a front row seat to the most recommended read aloud books in America. And I am here to tell you something; they are almost all by White authors featuring White kids.

Probably not a shock to many, but still something to sit with for all.

I used to not notice. That’s what happens when White privileges blinds you to seemingly obvious things. I would gladly go with the suggestions not thinking about skin color or ethnic heritage as the read alouds were selected. Not thinking past the book and into the life off the author, after all, a read aloud is separate from the person who creates it, right? And these books were great. These books would generate conversations. These books had merit. These books had endured and would guarantee a beautiful read aloud experience for all of us. And they did.

And yet, a few years in, someone kindly asked; when will the “Global” part of the name come true? When will you pick a book that isn’t set in America, that isn’t written by a White author? I felt so dumb when the comment came my way. How could I have not noticed? How could I have forgotten to think deeper about what the project recommended?

Now looking back at the years of recommendations, patterns emerge quickly. Despite asking for #OwnVoices authors and stories set outside of the White dominant culture, these books continue to be the most often recommended. The same authors keep popping up. The same titles even. Even when they have been chosen in previous years, I am told that they would make for a great read aloud again because surely nothing can beat the experience we already had. Even if the books have been deemed problematic, they are still recommended.

This is not a trend limited to the Global Read Aloud. I see it play out on social media all of the time. Someone asks for a recommendation for a read aloud and in that list are the same White books. The same books that we, White educators, have loved for years and years and continue to read aloud because to us they mean something more. The same authors but with new titles. The same situations. The similar story of yet another White child overcoming obstacles. And of course, we need these stories too, however, we do not need them as much as we are using them right now. With a teaching profession in America that is dominated by 80% White people, it shouldn’t be a surprise, and yet, it should be something that we, as a profession, recognize and see the harm in.

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, of course, reminded and continues to remind us of the power of seeing yourself in books. We Need Diverse Books started from yet another moment of exclusion in a White dominated conference field. The CCBC continues to remind us how White children’s books are. Lee and Low reminds of how White the publishing industry is. But that doesn’t mean our read alouds need to be. In fact, quite the opposite. This is the once again urgent reminder to all of us, White educators, and those who choose the books that we hold up and venerate enough to make a part of our curriculum, of our experience, that we need to audit our read alouds.

That we need to look past the books we have loved for a long time and see what else is out there.

That we need to start recommending #OwnVoices books. Books written by people who are marginalized within our society.

That we need to expand our loyalties. Our lists should contain numerous names of BIPOC authors who are writing incredible stories.

That we need to start reading more widely ourselves in order to discover the new authors who are creating stories that we so desperately need in the hands of our children.

That we need to stay current.

That we need to audit across grade-levels so that we can see what the read alouds are from one year to the next and disrupt the pattern of White dominance that inevitably occurs within most schools because an audit is not done.

That we look around and ask ourselves; what is the story told of kids of color? What is the story told of White kids? And how often is the story told? How does my read aloud cement or disrupt the dominant culture and how we view others?

Whose story is highlighted? Whose story becomes a part of the community we weave together? Whose stories hold power for all of us?

We need to think of the patterns we continue to perpetuate when we fail to see how much power a read aloud holds. Especially if we teach in White majority schools or in schools with White majority teaching staff. Our kids deserve stories about kids whose lives may not mirror their own, but who are still living incredible lives.

Because that’s what a great read aloud does; it creates connections, it leads to revelations, it it binds us together in deeper sense because we have lived through the story of another.

So we need to keep asking; whose stories are we living through? And how does that impact the students we teach? Because it is, and it does, and it is up to us to do something about it.

PS: I would be remiss to not thank those who have pushed my thinking on this. I am so grateful for the work done by the #DiversityJedi #DisruptTexts Chad Everett, Sara Ahmed, #WeNeedDiverseBooks, Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and countless others

If you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page. 

being a teacher, being me, conferences, Literacy, Reading, Reading Identity

What’s Important in Your World – A Small Question to Boost Conferring

I have been having small conversations with students. Isn’t that what teaching is in so many ways? Much like we live life in the moments in between the big, we teach in the moments in between the big as well, the big assignment, the best draft, the presentation. We go throughout our day using our voice to connect, our bodies to show our listening, our eyes to show we care. We seek out those moments in between hello’s and goodbye’s to make sure that with us, these kids, our kids, feel seen, challenged, and cared for.

So in thinking about how I could structure more conversation to build trust, I have been starting each reading conference with a simple yet meaningful question. Inspired by Sara Ahmed’s work in Being the Change, after I have asked them how their night was, how their day is going, I then ask, “What is important to you in your world right now?” It took some finessing with the question, in some conversations it flows seamlessly and the students latch onto it and take it in the direction they need it to go. Others ask for clarification which I typically bumble through, but what it shows me each time, is that continued need to connect that drives everything we do in room 203.

That there is still much to be done.

That all of the community we think we have built is still not enough. That each child is still carrying so much within them that ties in with their day, their mood, their thoughts, their actions, their dreams. From the worries about homework as the end of the quarter nears, to friendship issues they are navigating. From coming to terms with sports ending and figuring out what else to use their time on, to not quite knowing what to do with something they know, these kids take that question and allow us one more glimpse into their lives. One more way to build a way for them to trust us with the emotions that are tied into the work we are doing.

Because I can start a conversation asking just about their book.

Because I can start a conversation getting right to the skill.

Because I can start the conversation by asking what they are working on as a reader.

Because I can start the conversations moving into the work as quickly as possible.

But what that will never do is build the kind of trust we need to have with each other when kids tell me how they really want to grow. Why they worry about reading. Why they worry about writing. Why they worry about being in a community where some seemingly don’t understand them. Why they worry about grades, about the future, about the news.

So for now our conferences are taking a little bit longer. So for now, I am not quite sure how the conversation will go. I am not sure when we will get to the work they are doing as readers. But we will and we do.

But before then. Before that.

I get a tiny glimpse into their world and isn’t that what teaching is also about in so many ways? A tiny glimpse so we can help them capture the world the way they want to.

It is for me.

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

Be the change, being a teacher, Literacy, Reading, Reading Identity

What Does Student Independent Reading Look Like? A Whole District Audit

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For a long time, I felt like an oddity within my reading beliefs: provide students with independent reading time every single day, provide a fully-stocked culturally relevant collection of books, remove all of the reading projects that stood in the way of reading joy, focus on reading identity at all turns. But then I discovered others who shared those same beliefs, who had held those beliefs long before I had reached them, who had pioneered the work spreading the word around the globe. The relief and power that finding others provided is one that cannot be underestimated. The strength that comes with working for a district that shares these beliefs is a blessing.

And yet, I know there are many others that have felt and do feel like the oddities in their school. Who constantly have to defend why self-selected independent reading is a cornerstone of their work. Who have to explain why they continue to spend their own money, ask for money, write grants and do anything they can to purchase more books. Who spend so much time trying to keep up with new books, who weed and discard books that do not have a place in their collection. Who feel alone but might not be.

An incredible honor for me is when I am asked to work with a district or school who is on a journey of trying to reach their readers in a more significant way. Who knows they have work to do and who are ready to take the next step. Who are not afraid to reflect and change even when change is hard. When I am asked to do this work, I always have many questions; what does reading look like now? Which experiences are each reader guaranteed as they go through their journey? What are the rights of your readers when it comes to book choice, independent reading, and reading identity? These questions lead to many discussions, many aha moments, and provide a road map for change. Much like we need to give students the space to create their rights a readers within our community, we need to also create our expectations and rights as a district. What are the experiences that each reader is guaranteed at each level of their schooling beyond the curriculum we use? How can we then make curricular and business (because let’s face it part of schools’ direction is determined by the business aspect) decisions that protect and further these rights? How can we offer training and funding to support these rights? Hw can we invite the community into this conversation? How can we embrace antiracist principles and establish an emphasis on the individual’s rights and needs?

In the spirit of this pursuit, I offer up several questions that should be asked at a district level or at the very least, school level, in order for student reading rights to be protected. After all, if our goal is for students to leave our care not only being able to read well but also find an inherent human value within reading then we need to create experiences that safeguard that.

So please start asking…

How much time is each child guaranteed for self-selected independent reading time each day?

Too often we see independent reading get cut due to fewer instructional minutes, particularly as students get older and we bring in more whole class novels or book clubs. We also see it limited for students who are in intervention or have other needs. Yet, if students are not offered up time to independently ready every single day, how can we then support them in their reading?

What are students “allowed” to read?

While the answer should be “anything they want” this is often not the case as choice is often limited due to well-meaning intentions. Students who read below grade level are often given the least amount of choices, in order to help them have more successful reading experiences, yet within the helpful intent of that we can end up doing real damage. Can you imagine always being told what to read and never being able to work through a book of your choosing? What we should be focusing our energy on is how to help students navigate the choices they make as well as develop better book selection habits.

Where and how can students access books?

A well-developed school library with a librarian should be a right for every child, as should a well-stocked culturally relevant classroom collection curated by a teacher who reads. We need books to entice every reader at all turns, so asking this question can open up discussions of inequitable access, culturally insensitive books, gaps in collections, as well as the need for teachers who teach reading to be readers themselves. How is funding appropriated for books? How are collections developed? How are books placed in the hands of kids?

What are students expected to do once they finish a book?

So often, and in my own experiences, we have a lot of work lined up for kids once they finish a book all in the name of accountability. Whether it be forced book talks, book reports, summaries or readers’ responses, reading logs or other tools that involve counting minutes and needing signatures, or having to take a quiz on a computer, we are so busy policing the experience of reading that we forget to look at what we, as adults, want to do when we read a book. These accountability practices can do a lot of damage, particularly if students are exposed and expected to do them year after year. By asking this question, we can start to look at long-term experiences and how that may be impacting reading identity throughout our years together.

What does reading “homework” look like?

While currently in my own classroom, students are expected to try to read at least 2 hours outside of English class every week, this is not how it used to be. I had packets and worksheets lined up for their reading, as well as small summaries, and book talks with friendly adults who had not read the book. This question goes hand in hand with the previous one as it looks at the components we attach to reading, as well as potential inequities within our practices. What are we tying in with the homework being completed or not? Not all kids are in a position to read outside of school, not all kids have access to what they need or are in a place in their journey where they see enough value to dedicate outside class time to reading.

Who are kids expected to read?

While this is a question that speaks to a much larger issue surrounding the canon and who we, as educators, constantly expose students to as literary masterminds, it is also important that we locally audit across grade levels to see who is being shared and more importantly who isn’t. Often we base our read alouds, book clubs, and text selections on our own favorites with little thought to what has come before and what will come after for our students, but since publishing skews heavily white, cisgendered, and heteronormative, this tends to become the reading experience for many students as well, particularly those within white majority districts or taught by mostly white educators. Diving into this questions can and should fundamentally change the canon we present to students year after year.

While there are many other questions to ask, the few shared here will offer up a path way to further investigation into the reading practices embedded within a district. It is definitely a conversation that is needed and should be pursued on an ongoing basis. After all, if we don’t ask the questions and reflect on the journey we place students on, how will we ever change?

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

achievement, being me, Reading, Reading Identity

My Daughter Will Not Be Left Behind

Our daughter’s annual IEP meeting is coming up. It’s a big one, she is headed to middle school next year and this is the document that is meant to wrap her in protection. To make sure that she still gets the services that her numerous teachers have offered her through the years as we have watched her grow from barely reading to where she is now. It has been a long process, I have documented it on this blog, and yet the growth has been there because of the people who have seen her for more than a reading score. For more than a reading level. Who have sat with her, countless hours, and asked her to read, to explain, to try, and taught her new ways to look at the pages and find meaning. Who have seen her whole process as a reader as something to pay attention to, and not just her comprehension. Here as a human being. We owe so much to the teachers that have had her in their care. Who, like us, know and believe that the best we can do for kids who are vulnerable in their learning is to put highly qualified professionals in front of them in order to see the child and not just the disability, the lack of, the less than. To keep their dignity and humanity at the center of all of our work.

So imagine our surprise when we were told that in middle school her reading growth would be measured using Lexile. A computer test will test her throughout the year and progress will be reported to us this way. After we made sure we heard correctly, we told them that that would not be acceptable. We know our rights as parents when it comes to an IEP. Her meeting is next week, I know we will come to a solution with her team because that’s how they are.

And yet, what about all those kids who do not have someone fighting for them? Who do have people fighting but no one listens? Whose parents or caregivers are not even invited into those conversations because our assumptions about them have shut the door? Whose parents or caregivers do not know why Lexile is problematic? Why trusting a computer to spit out a test score is problematic? Why basing a child’s reading instruction which inevitably becomes part of their (reading) identity on what a computer test tells you is problematic? Why, once again, removing experts, trained professional, from the equation is problematic? Why reducing a child to a score is problematic?

And it keeps happening to our most vulnerable kids. The kids we worry about and then have no problem putting in front of a computer who will not understand the nuances of their thinking, the way they reached an answer, or even give them enough time to think about it. But sits there, waiting for an algorithm to be complete, in order to supposedly tell us everything we need to know. And we base our instruction on this? And we base our assumptions on this?

We are in the business of human beings and yet how often do we, educators, say yes, or are forced into, instructional components that have nothing to do with valuing children as people. Education says yes to the easy. Education says yes to the packaged. Education says yes to the computer. To the limitations. To the less-than-equal instruction, because it might save us time, it will make us more efficient, it will make us all achieve, but it doesn’t. Because the kids who continue to strive are left behind while we pour our human resources into the kids that can.

My daughter will not be left behind. She will not be left behind a computer screen. Or behind layers of inequity that would rather dehumanize her than provide equity in the deepest way we can; human power, human potential. Because we will fight. But it’s not enough for me as a parent to just fight for her. Because this is a story that plays out loudly in so many places. How else can we mobilize and try to break the cycle of inequity that has always been a part of our system? That has always been based on creating further inequalities and separating the kids who can from the kids who can’t. A system that continues to protect those whose circumstances allow them access to more opportunities, better opportunities, and offer nothing but band-aids to the kids who need so much more than that. And I am supposed to be okay with that.

On Monday, we meet and while I will gladly pull out research and offer alternatives, I also know that it won’t be a hard fight, not for me, because of my privilege as a white, college-educated, middle-class woman. Because of the quality of educators our daughter is surrounded by. But it shouldn’t have to be that way. I shouldn’t be able to game the system because of what I know. I shouldn’t have to raise red flags when those flags should have been raised before the program was even purchased. Before the first child was placed in front of that test. We owe to all our kids to do better. To fight and break the continued systems of oppression who function alive and well within our educational system. Which have created a system that can predict who will succeed before they even show up.

Right now, it’s my daughter who’s on the line, my miracle, but it could just as easily be any other child.They all deserve better.

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

Literacy, Reading, Reading Identity

On Book Recommendations and Whose Voices We Give Power to

I get asked for a lot of book recommendations, it is part of the life of someone who reads voraciously and publicly. I share a lot of book recommendations in real life every day with my students as I do a 1-minute booktalk, with colleagues as we swap books, on this blog where I compile the books I use for various units, on Instagram where I share the ones I have loved, in my Facebook group for my book, Passionate Readers. I don’t mind handing over recommendations, after all, I am so grateful for those who recommend books to me and have throughout the years.

And yet, I am also reminded of why I can recommend so many books. I read a lot. Sometimes more than at other times. I try to read widely. Broadly. I try to keep up with new books and those that I missed the first time. I try to follow the recommendations of others who discover books that I have not yet come across. Whose passion in reading is a gap of mine. I try to fill my gaps and find more knowledge when it comes to the books that I can potentially place in the hands of the readers I am entrusted with because being asked for recommendations by the very students I teach fuels me to read more. Fuels me to think of the kid that is in front of me and potential books that may help them re-connect or stay connected with reading. I have seen what being able to recommend the right book can do. I have seen certain books help them out of slumps. But I also know that recommending books can be a slippery slope. That if I continue to be the only one recommending then the voices of my students are not heard and the identities of them as readers, and, indeed, as human beings, will never be fully independent. Yes, I can recommend, but it is so much more powerful when a child is able to recommend to their peers or when they can successfully find books to their liking by themselves. And so it is a fine line between recommendation and discovery. Between asking students to study their own patterns and discovering their own gaps in order to help them read more broadly and see other people’s experiences that perhaps do not mirror their own.

I see this play out too when we, educators, turn to each other for specific book recommendations for that child we cannot seem to find a great book for. That often we educators, who teach future readers, are not keeping up ourselves with reading. Are not aware of what is out there now in these years when it comes to the incredible books that beckon our readers, and that is a problem. Because too often I see the same authors recommended, a new canon of books exclusively by white authors touted as the must reads. I see the same books recommended time and time again, I see the same titles used as read alouds, as novel studies, as book clubs. I see books that certainly have been worth our time never be replaced because we, the adults, deciding the books, haven’t kept up with our own reading. And I am not sure what to do about it other than discuss this pattern and recommend more books.

This is not to say that we cannot turn to each other for recommendations, but it is to say that we, as a profession, need to read more broadly and more overall in order to serve the kids we teach. In order to change our own understanding of what quality literature is and also what the gaps are in our curriculum. In order to see that the canon, whether traditionally established or not, needs to be questioned, disrupted, and that we also produce our own canon year after year. That when we are asked for book recommendations we audit ourselves and think of whose work we highlight. Whose books we hold up as the best. Whose voices we give more power to when we pass the recommendation on.

I try to see the children who come to me for recommendations as the invitations into reading that they are; see it as an invitation to read more. To pick up another book in the hopes that I can pass it on. To study my own gaps; what am I not reading and why not? Why is it hard for me to think of a title for this kid? For this particular reader? I treat my book gaps and lack of recommendations as a research project; which are the books that should be read? Which are the books I can use in class? Pass on? Recommend? I dedicate my limited time to reading as many books as I can in order to better my practice and become more than I was.

And so while I will continue to recommend books, I will also remind myself that I have much more work to do. That recommending a book isn’t the only step in the journey. That I should track what I recommend so I can see what I don’t. That I should continue to listen to the voices of those who spend so much time helping me see my own book gaps. That I have so many more ways to grow. That before I ask others, I will look at my own reading habits and make a plan so I can continue to grow myself. After all, my students are not the only ones who are still figuring out who they are.

To see who I turn to for recommendations, please go here

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