acheivement, being a teacher, Literacy, Reading, Reading Identity

But What Happens to Our Readers – On the Unintended Impacts Computerized Reading Programs Can Have on the Development of Readers

what does it matter if a child can Design

I have never worked through so many changes in my educational model as I have for the past year. COVID teaching has pushed us all to the max, not just with what we are expected to do but also in how we are supposed to adapt to whatever ideas, programs, and decisions that come our way. It has been thrilling some days to invent and re-think at such a rapid pace, but many other days it has been exhausting. I have felt like a fraud on more days than I can count, a terrible teacher too. And yet, a year into this COVID teaching, I can also start to look back and ponder what the long-term effects are going to be on our instructional model. What will stick around from all of our innovations and what will disappear?

One of the components I worry about is the increase in the use of computerized programs to teach children especially in teaching reading. I have seen these programs play out in our kids’ lives as our 7- and 8-year-olds all spend more than an hour and a half a day in a variety of computer programs; Lexia, Dreambox, Smarty Ants, Raz Kids all expected to be done every day. The programs are woven in throughout their curricular day, used as a way for their teachers to do small group lessons and other supported work, and yet despite our best explanations, our own kids don’t care. They beg us to let them skip the programs, asking us if they can please just read a book instead, do a math workbook. “I will do whatever you say, mom, just please not that… ” is an often heard refrain in our house.

My kids are not alone in the change of their programming, in many districts around the US at least, teachers have been asked to implement new self-paced computerized teaching programs in order to close the opportunity gap, to stop “learning loss,” and to continue to engage all learners no matter our proximity. I can see the appeal of these programs easily; it allows us to place kids at their prescribed level and the computer does all the work as far as which lessons they should be invested in.  It provides us with more data and hopefully allows our students to develop further skills that they may otherwise not have mastered yet.  It is one more tool as we work on the opportunity gap for all of our kids. It is one more way to engage kids and to keep them learning, even when a global pandemic stopped us from sitting right next to them, stopped us from so many educational opportunities.

And yet, as always, I wonder about the unintended consequences of our new implementation of so many programs, many of them focused on developing reading skills. How will these computer programs affect the reading identities that we are so carefully developing with our kids? How will a computer care for them as human beings and not just participants in a program, (hint; it often won’t)? Because I see it play out in my own house, as well as with my own students. I hear it from teachers who wish they would have funding for books but are told there is none and yet are asked to use these programs which we know all come with a hefty price tag. I see it when my own kids would rather lie to me about whether or not they have done their Lexia minutes, knowing I will get a report from their teachers when they haven’t, than actually do it.

And so I wonder if we are checking in with the children who are asked to use these programs and how these programs are affecting their already tenuous relationship to reading and to being a reader.  I cannot speak about any other kids than the ones I teach and the ones I raise but the impact of reading-focused computerized programs have been deeply felt by many of them; they often hate them, they fight every step of the way when asked to do them, they see no purpose for the programs other than to punish them. To remind them that they are lesser readers than their peers. They are exhausted by the screen and by the questions so much so that when I ask them to please find a book, they don’t want to. That they would rather put their head down, leave the room, or argue than actually invest into the work we do with reading outside of the computer. So these curricular choices are making the work that we are trying to do with them as far as wanting to pick up a book on their own, wanting to invest into an emotionally fraught reading journey and change their relationship to reading to something more positive, even harder.  And that cannot be dismissed as a trivial side effect.

If we look at the research that surrounds reading enjoyment and motivation, we see a direct correlation between the effects of reading intervention programs and how kids feel about themselves as readers.  They can do so much good but they can also do a lot of damage.  Richard Allington and others remind us of the incredible impact the reading curriculum decisions have on our most vulnerable readers.  That “the design of reading lessons differs for good and poor readers in that poor readers get more work on skills in isolation, whereas good readers get assigned more reading activity.” That our most vulnerable readers are “often placed into computer programs or taught by paras rather than placed in front of reading specialists. That their experience is fundamentally shaped around their perceived gaps rather than their full person. So how does that play out year after year when a child is not placed in front of a trained and caring reading specialist but instead of a computer that cares nothing about their reading identity or how hard they are working? How will it play out when kids only see their reading value in the points they get, the levels they pass, and the scores they receive? Not books read, not experiences created, not background knowledge developed, or small accomplishments celebrated.

These pandemic choices will have long-term impacts, and not always positive ones, on the kids affected, especially if we don’t revisit the choices we made in the past year. What may have worked while deep in pandemic teaching may no longer work when we are back with students and again able to hand them books, teach them in small groups, and center our reading work not just on the skills they need to develop, but also who they are as readers. We must make space for both explorations within our curriculum.

I am not saying for these programs to never be used, at least not some of them, but I believe that we need to include the voices of the children who are being asked to use the program and to consider the unintended consequences that this program may be having for some of them. And also ask their families, if the school of my children school asked us, we would have plenty to say. As it stands, they haven’t, but we may just be speaking up anyway.

So what are the conversations we need to have? We need to move past the data and ask our students how our chosen programs affect them, whether they see them helping or hurting them, how we can make their experience better? How could we use a program without doing harm? How much time would they be willing to invest into a program if needed, what else we should do in our reading experiences. And we should ask the home adults and the teachers the impact they see the program having, negative or positive. And then we should listen, and then we should do something with what we are told.

All this to say, that as always, we need to speak up and make space for the voices we may have excluded. That it is easy to roll our eyes and vent behind closed doors, but that we must also find the courage to question the programs and decisions being made within our districts and within the lives of our own children. That while computerized reading programs may seem like the solution so many of us have been looking for when it comes to filling in knowledge gaps, that they may actually move us further from our goal of bolstering children who see themselves as readers outside of what school makes them do. We must remember that what may be viewed as a short-term gain may have unintentional long-lasting negative effects on the very kids we are supposed to be nurturing. After all, what does it matter if a child can read better but chooses to never read again due to their hatred of the tools we used to get them there? As Kamil reminds us, “Motivation and engagement are critical for adolescent readers. If students are not motivated to read, research shows that they will simply not benefit from reading instruction.” So how are we protecting and caring for their motivation and engagement? Because I don’t see many computerized reading programs doing that.

I am excited to be heading out on the road again to be with other educators in-district or at conferences, while continuing my virtual consulting and speaking as well. If you would like me to be a part of your professional development, please reach out. I am here to help.

being a teacher, books, Reading

Some Favorite Graphic Novels to Add to Your Middle School Collection

If you follow me on any social media platform, you hopefully know how much I love to share amazing book titles. For many years now, I have used this blog and other places to give recommendations, create book sets and lists and just in general share the love for all of the amazing books that are out there in the world. Doing this means that a lot of other educators ask me to share ideas for when they are filling their own classroom collections. This week, I was asked to share some of our favorite graphic novels for middle school, a format of books that my students and I love to read and thus have a lot of, so here you are. This list is by no means all of them, there are too many to share, but instead a snapshot of some of the most popular titles being read.

Some of the titles shared here are more mature reads for my 7th graders so as always read the books that you wonder about before placing them in your collection. Many of the ones shown here are books in a series and I would recommend the whole series.

Amazon.com: They Called Us Enemy (9781603094504): Takei, George, Eisinger,  Justin, Scott, Steven, Becker, Harmony: Books
Real Friends (Friends, 1): Hale, Shannon, Pham, LeUyen: 9781626727854:  Amazon.com: Books
Science Comics: The Digestive System: A Tour Through Your Guts: Viola,  Jason, Ristaino, Andy: 9781250204059: Amazon.com: Books
Displacement | Kiku Hughes | Macmillan
The City of Ember: The Graphic Novel: Middaugh, Dallas, DuPrau, Jeanne,  Asker, Niklas: 9780375867934: Amazon.com: Books
The Crossover (Graphic Novel) (The Crossover Series): Alexander, Kwame,  Anyabwile, Dawud: 9781328960016: Amazon.com: Books
Long Way Down: The Graphic Novel by Jason Reynolds, Danica Novgorodoff,  Hardcover | Barnes & Noble®
Amazon.com: Hey, Kiddo (National Book Award Finalist) (9780545902489):  Krosoczka, Jarrett J.: BooksAmazon.com: Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty (9781584302674): G.  Neri, Randy Duburke: BooksI Survived The Sinking of the Titanic, 1912 (I Survived Graphic Novels):  Tarshis, Lauren, Haus Studio: 9781338120912: Amazon.com: BooksSuper Indian Volume One: Arigon Starr, Janet Miner, Arigon Starr:  9789870985952: Amazon.com: BooksAmazon.com: The Pact (Volume 4) (7 Generations) (9781553792307): Robertson,  David A., Henderson, Scott B.: BooksDavid A. Robertson | CBC BooksDavid A. Robertson | CBC BooksAmazon.com: Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal (Ms. Marvel Series) eBook: Wilson,  G. Willow, Pichelli, Sara, Alphona, Adrian: Kindle StoreTeen Titans: Raven by Kami Garcia, Gabriel Picolo, Paperback | Barnes &  Noble®March: Book One: John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell: 9781603093002:  Amazon.com: Books
best graphic novels for middle schoolbest middle-grade graphic novelsHilo Book 1: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth: Winick, Judd: 9780385386173:  Amazon.com: BooksAmazon.com: Last Pick (9781626728905): Walz, Jason: Booksbest graphic novels for middle school
best graphic novels for middle school
best graphic novels for middle schoolbest graphic novels for middle schoolreal friends - shannon hale - best middle-grade graphic novels
best Middle-grade Graphic Novels
best graphic novels for middle schoolbest graphic novels for middle schoolbest middle-grade graphic novels
best graphic novels for middle school
best middle-grade graphic novelsbest graphic novels for middle schoolsmile - raina telgemeier - best graphic novels for tweens
GO WITH THE FLOW
TWINS
ALL TOGETHER NOW
WHEN STARS ARE SCATTERED
Witches of Brooklyn: Escabasse, Sophie: 9780593119273: Amazon.com: BooksBabymouse #19: Bad Babysitter by Jennifer L. Holm, Matthew Holm:  9780307931627 | PenguinRandomHouse.com: BooksThe Witch Boy: Ostertag, Molly Knox: 9781338089516: Amazon.com: BooksGreen Lantern: Legacy: Le, Minh, Tong, Andie: 9781401283551: Amazon.com:  BooksAmazon.com: Miles Morales: Ultimate Spider-Man Ultimate Collection Book 1  (Ultimate Spider-Man (Graphic Novels)) (9780785197782): Bendis, Brian  Michael, Pichelli, Sara, Samnee, Chris, Marquez, David: BooksThe Stonekeeper (Amulet #1) (1): Kibuishi, Kazu, Kibuishi, Kazu:  0000439846811: Amazon.com: Books

For ease, I have also gathered a shopping list on Bookshop.org – a great website that funnels its orders through independent bookstores.

I hope you discovered some new or not so new graphic novels to add to your collection because remember, graphic novels are indeed real books and should be given the same respect as other books. And while I will gladly offer up suggestions for more, and will continue to share daily recommendations on Instagram, I will also give a few more tips…

  1. Always ask your students what books they wish you had. I have gaps in my classroom collection that I am not aware of because it is not a genre I prefer to read, thus asking my students helps me create a collection of books they would love to read helps me create better reading experiences for all of them.
  2. Read your own library collection. I can speak books with my students because I read a lot of the same books. I am continually in awe over the incredible books created in the world.
  3. Know and use resources that post critical reviews of childrens’ books. I am eternally grateful for the hard work of so many such as the staff at the CCBC, the people who run Latinx in Kidlit, or The Brown Book Shelf, or those who run We Need Diverse Books, and the amazing creators behind American Indians in Children’s Literature to name just a few.

I am excited to be heading out on the road again to be with other educators in-district or at conferences, while continuing my virtual consulting and speaking as well. If you would like me to be a part of your professional development, please reach out. I am here to help.

being a teacher, books, Reading, Reading Identity

On “Easy” Books…Again

When we tell a child that a book is Design

I have been thinking a lot about easy books. About our adult urges to steer kids into “better” books, harder books, away from all those easy books. Away from books with pictures, graphic novels, or topics we deem immature.

I have been thinking a lot about our well-meaning intentions and how they sometimes do damage that we are not even around to see because the real consequences of our gentle guidance actually steers a child away from reading altogether.

I have been thinking a lot about the collections of books we build, where our money is used, because often it is not so much into the books that kids actually want to read but the ones we hope they read. And how we then sometimes wonder why no one seems to want to read the books we have.

Why is it that we, the adults, who have the ability to shape the reading lives of our students into beautiful things sometimes get so lost in thinking of the future of our readers that we lose sight of the present? Don’t get me wrong, I want to do the best I can to create rich reading opportunities for all of my students but that also means that they need to want to read right now.

As so perhaps this reminder is more for myself as I feel the pressure to help these children grow as readers, perhaps this post is really just a re-commitment to the words I have spoken for so many years. Perhaps it is a reminder to the universe of what our gatekeeping of books can do for the lives of the readers we are entrusted with. Perhaps this is a reminder that when we decide that a child is reading too “easy” of books we are really dismissing the reading journey they are on. That in our quest to challenge our readers we sometimes lose sight of what they may need from their reading experiences right now, and that that perhaps is not harder vocabulary or more complex storylines but instead a chance to truly melt into a world and escape a little bit from the craziness of this one.

It is a question I am asked a lot when I coach and train other teachers; what about the kids who read books that are much too easy, how will we challenge them?  The problem is implied; easy books don’t offer up real growth opportunities.  Easy books don’t develop their skills.  Easy books don’t push them forward in the ever-present journey toward becoming a better reader. Easy books means that they will never perform in a way that our standardized tests want them to do. And I hear the worry, the concern for their readerly lives, I see that the question is not asked out of an urge for censorship but instead from a place of care.

But it seems as if, in our well-meaning intentions, that we have forgotten what a better reader really is.  A better reader is not just someone who can just tackle complex texts, who can comprehend at a deep level, who can answer the questions on the test to back up what we already knew.  While those are aspects, they are not the only thing that makes a child a better reader.

A better reader is someone who sees reading as valuable.  Who recognizes the need to read because they will feel less than if they don’t.  Who sees reading as a necessity to learning, for themselves and not just for others.  Who sees reading as a journey to be on, something worth investing in.  That a better reader is someone who will continue to come back to reading when they can, finding value within whatever materials they read in order to make their lives better in some way. A better reader is not just a child who reads hard texts, always pushing their skills, but also someone who commits to the very act of reading. And so I wonder; when we tell children not to read “easy” books, how much of their individual reading identity journey have we dismissed? And what becomes of the reader?

“Easy” books, whether they be graphic novels, illustrated books, books about “silly” topics, books below their actual comprehension skills, free verse, audio books, or even picture books, can get such a bad reputation in our schools.  As if those books are only allowed in the brief moment of time when they fit your exact level, whatever level means.  As if those books are only meant to be discovered when you have nothing else to read, when you actually are allowed to read for fun, rather than for skill.  As if those books are only relegated to a certain age, a certain stage in your readerly journey. and after that they should be put away, never to be revisited again.

Yet so often the books that others may judge as “too easy” for us are the books that make us readers. The ones where we finally feel comfortable, where reading is not hard work but something that we can do successfully. Are the books that keep us loving or liking reading.  That keeps us coming back.  Those books that we devour in one sitting because we must find out what happens next, aren’t those “easy” books for all of us?

So do we tell our students to embrace easy reading whenever they want to keep them loving reading?  Or do we push them so hard to develop their skills that their connection to reading breaks and then we wonder why reading becomes something just to do for school and tasks?

And yes, I teach that child that reads Diary of a Wimpy Kid every day, who is not sure of what else he can read that will make him love reading as much.  My job is not to tell him, “No, you cannot read that,” but instead to urge him to read more books in the series and to celebrate the reading that is happening. To recognize that this child has discovered a part of himself where he finds a purpose within the pages of this book and to help him find books that will offer up similar experiences.  Not to take away, but to recommend, while also protecting the fierce commitment that exists between a child and a favorite book.  To explore why that child loves this book so much and then help discover others like it.  To acknowledge the reading relationship that already exists and to build on that rather than breaking it apart at all costs because I know better.

Don’t all kids deserve to have their reading choices celebrated and held up as valuable choices no matter where they are on their journey?

I am not dismissing the need to challenge kids to read more, to read longer, to read more complex text, but we must be careful with how we present their reading choices, how we judge their reading choices.  We must make reading for enjoyment, whatever that means for a child, a central part of our teaching so that children can understand that reading for enjoyment is just as, if not more, important than reading for a skill.  And we must honor the choices that kids make to further this part of their journey. The research agrees, “…it was shown that those who graduate from programs that encourage self-selected reading, do not avoid literature of high quality…Children in a print-rich environment in which they are free to select their own reading do not stay with easy books.  They not only read more as they mature, but they also select, on their own, books that are harder to read and have more complicated plots.”(Krashen, Lee, and Lao – Comprehensible and Compelling, 2018).  So are we making room to embrace those books that happen to make our children, and adults, love reading?  Or do we only focus on those texts that will continue to challenge them in the ways we have deemed acceptable, to move their skills, unfocused on the other damage it may do?

Because when we tell a child that a book is too easy for them we are dismissing the very reading journey they are on. That book we called too easy may have been the first book they have ever wanted to read, it may be the first series they have wanted to complete, it may be a book that offers them an escape, it may be the first book they have connected with, that they have seen themselves in, or even one that they can fully read on their own.

While our job, as educators, is to develop children who can read, our job is also to support and develop children who want to read.  The two are not always taught together, or even considered, so it is up to us to make sure that when we plan for our reading experiences that “easy” books and anything else that may keep a child’s love of reading intact is not only welcomed but encouraged in our classrooms.  We must ensure that when we plan for reading instruction, that we plan for the protection of the love of reading. And that we stop calling books easy when what we really mean is enticing.

I am excited to be heading out on the road again to be with other educators in-district or at conferences, while continuing my virtual consulting and speaking as well. If you would like me to be a part of your professional development, please reach out. I am here to help.

being a student, being a teacher, books, Reading, Reading Identity

When They Abandon Book After Book After Book

When a child abandons one book after Design

“….well, I didn’t finish any books last year…”She turns to me and smiles.

“What do you mean?”  I ask, not sure I have heard her correctly, after all, I know what amazing work they do in 6th grade.

“….I just stopped reading them, I didn’t finish them.  I got bored…”

She puts the book down that she is abandoning and starts to look for a new one.

I love book abandonment.  It is something I preach should be a taught skill to all kids, a right even.  If you don’t like the book, don’t read it, it’s as simple as that when it comes to building a love of reading.  And yet, this year, we have been exposed to a new level of book abandonment.  A whole group of kids who never, according to their own recollection, finished a book of their own choosing last year.  Not one, not two kids, but many.  And they really don’t like reading. And the pandemic shutdown didn’t help their habits in any way.

Perhaps you have a group like this as well?

And it is not for lack of trying. Many of my students will pick up a book to try, some gladly, some more reluctantly, but many simply don’t find that right book. That book that transports them further into the pages than they have ever been. And I see it in my own reading habits that seem to have been altered by the pandemic. My attention span is shortened, my stamina for making it through slower part is nonexistent at times. I look at my own shelves and see more work rather than adventures waiting to happen. Books are no longer calling my name as loudly as my TV or gaming console.

So how do you re-establish, protect or create the joy of reading, when you really need students to experience a whole book from start to finish? When you know that somehow our readers need to stick with a book but you don’t want it to be out of force because that typically doesn’t change habits long-term but instead just cements the pre-existing tenuous relationship to reading?

In conferring with many of my students, the obvious place to start is their book selection process.  When I ask them how they find their next read, many of them confess to only doing a few things, mainly look at the cover and then start it.  They grab and go, often a new book every day or every couple of days. They go into it thinking that as long as they grab a book then that is all they need to do right now or that is all the have space for right now. And yet, in this hurried book shopping, often with pressure from the teachers in the room giving limited time comes one of our missed opportunities. When book shopping is not given enough time, the conversations that need to happen with our serial book abandoners have no room to take hold and grow. It doesn’t allow them to leisurely browse, to flip through the pages, to consider things like the length of the book, the font, the text size, whether it is a stand alone or a series. They haven’t reflected much on their likes or dislikes and what draws them into stay for longer periods of time. And so when their book shopping results in yet another less than stellar book, it just adds further proof to the notion that all books are boring, that reading sucks.

So reading identity is once again where we start.  How well do they know themselves as readers?  What do they like to read?  What is their reading pace?  What do they abandon?  Is there a pattern?  Are they aware of their own habits at all?  Have they had pleasurable reading experiences at any point? If yes, what was it? If no, why not? I start by interviewing them and taking notes, then I also have them reflect on themselves as readers and we track this information.  I also check in with them more, how are they doing with the book?  How are they liking it? Getting kids to recognize that book selection carries many components starts with a reflection of self and where they are on their journey.

Book selection comes next.  What are their book shopping habits?  We refer to the lesson we did at the beginning of the year and help them book shop.  Who are their book people?  How do they find books to read?  What are their preferences?  What is on their to-be-read list already?  How do they browse a book to try it on? Thinking of all of this can help them with their next selection. COVID has added an additional layer of complication to this and so we have been browsing books by me pulling them out and acting as concierge of sorts, spreading opened books out in the room so they can read the blurbs, see the font and text size, helping them glance without touching. Opening up our room to more book discussion and recognizing where everyone is on their journey. Slowing down and making space for all of this may seem like wasted time but it is exactly what needs to happen.

Track their abandonment.  While all students are expected to write down finished or abandoned titles, we are finding that many of our serial abandoners do not, so we will help them do that.  This is so they can start to see their own patterns; when did they abandon a book, why did they abandon it?  How far were they?  What type of book was it?  What strategies did they use before they abandoned it?   They can track this on this form or we can simply discuss when we have our reading conferences,  This is only something we will do with these serial abandoners, not students who abandon a book once in a while.  What can they discover about themselves as they look at this information?  I also know that some of our serial book abandoners are not on our radar yet, so this survey will help us identify them so we can help. We often then set goals together, if they are in a pattern to only give a book 20 pages then how long do they want to try this one. Looking at their own patterns and habits help them discover where they can tweak and try new things.

Teach them stamina strategies.  Many of our students give up on books the minute they slow down or “get boring” as they would say.  They don’t see the need for slower parts to keep the story going.  They also, often, miss the nuances of these “slower” parts and don’t see the importance of them.  So a few stamina strategies we will teach are asking why the story is slowing down and paying attention to what they have just figured out about the characters.  Another is to skim the “boring” parts for now so they can get back to the story.  While this is a not a long-term solution, it does help keep them in the book and hopefully also helps them see that the book does pick up again.  They can also switch the way they interact with the text, perhaps they can read these sections aloud, or listen to an audio version for those parts. I have also had kids successfully read two books at the same time, declaring that when one book got boring they simply switched to the other one. This ping-pong between books may seem counterproductive but for some of my most set in their ways abandoners, it changed their reading.

Realize we are in this for the long haul.  Too often our gut reaction is to restrict.  To select books for the students to read no matter what.  To set up rules where they are not allowed to abandon the next book they select or determine how many pages they mus read, and yet, I worry about the longevity of these solutions.  What are they really teaching?  So instead, we must dedicate the time and patience it takes to truly change these habits.  We surround students with incredible books, we book talk recommendations, we give them time to read, and we give them our attention.  We continue to let them choose even if we are wondering how developed their abilities to choose the correct book are.  Becoming a reader who reads for pleasure, or who at least can get through a book and not hate it, does not always happen quickly.  We have to remember this as we try to help students fundamentally change their habits with books.  Restricting them in order to help them stick with a book can end up doing more damage than good as students don’t get to experience the incredible satisfaction of having selected a book and then actually finishing it. And so realizing too that we may not see the fruits of the labor we invest into our students’ reading lives come to fruition is also part of the journey we need to be on. Because recognizing that when a child abandons book after book after book is not a weakness but rather an opportunity to study and reflect further on their journey as readers invites us into this work more delicately. It reminds us at the core that we all carry emotions within us when we read or not read and that for many what may seem as an easy decision or a cop out is instead a way to shield themselves from more negative experiences.

I know that this year, I will once again be transformed as a teacher, I already have been.  That these kids that I am lucky enough to teach will push me in ways I haven’t been pushed before.  My hope, what I really hope happens, is for every child to walk out of room 203 thinking; perhaps reading is not so bad after all.  Perhaps there are books in the world for me.  A small hope, but a necessary one.

I am excited to be heading out on the road again to be with other educators in-district or at conferences, while continuing my virtual consulting and speaking as well. If you would like me to be a part of your professional development, please reach out. I am here to help.

being a teacher, Dream, Literacy, promises, Reading, Reading Identity

The Promises We Make to Our Readers

2020 was a year I didn’t read much. The normal escape and joy I find within the pages slid out of my grasp as the world sent us constant reminders of our its cruelty and our own mortality. Reading was no longer an escape but rather a dreaded task, one more thing to do on an ever growing to-do list. One more thing I was supposed to fit in as my teaching life and outside life shifted on its head and somehow, some way, we were once again just supposed to make it all work.

I was reminded of how far I had slipped from reading as I spoke to one of my students in a private reading conference in December. His honesty was appreciated as he told me he didn’t really read much anymore, that reading wasn’t his thing and had never really been, and now it just seemed kind of pointless. I don’t know what he expected me to say but rather than fall into tropelike patterns exalting the validity of reading, I instead leveled with him and spoke from the heart, “I hear you, reading does feel kind of pointless right now. It feels like a lot of work. Not pleasurable. Not something that pulls and holds my attention. But what if we both make a commitment to read more? What if I start to read as well, so that we can work on it together?” I am not sure if he believed me, or if that promise even held a lot of meaning, but it was what I needed to kick start my own reading life again. After all, I implore my students on a daily or weekly basis to find space in their lives for reading so why not my own?

There are many promises I make my students every year. Deeply rooted ones that aspire to help them feel safe, valued, seen, and heard within our community, within our curriculum, and within our learning. Closely held ones that push me to grow as an educator and to always reflect on what I am doing, to try to do no harm but instead recognize my own shortcomings in order to be better than I was. There are many promises I repeat throughout the year, some small, others major. And yet some of the ones that are nearest to the work we do center themselves within our reading journeys. Promises that I don’t think just my students deserve to have made to them, but all kids really, in order to create learning communities that not just focus on the content we must cover but the human development we get to be a part of it. But sometimes those promises can get lost, pushed off the table as we are faced with yet another set of commitments thrust upon us, forgotten as we swim in our survival modes trying to simply make it through the day and yet, these promises, these rights really are at the center of the transformative literacy experiences students should be a part of, so what may these promises be?

I promise to read. While I am often asked how I find time to read the books my students read, there is no easy answer because I don’t find the time. I make the time, and much like every other person in the world, I don’t have a lot of it. Yet I do know that every day, I can read a few pages. Every week, I can read a chapter book, read some picture books and constantly expand my knowledge of the books available to be placed in the hands of kids and recommended to fellow teachers. I read because I ask my students to read, it is as simple as that.

I promise to stay current in my reading. I remember laughing alongside my niece when we compared our 9th grade English class required reading lists because while we span 22 years in age difference, our lists were nearly identical. In 22 years, no new books had been added, in 22 years nothing had apparently risen to the top of what deserved to be explored by students across many high schools in America. What a loss this is. Because I can tell you that every year, books that will someday be considered a classic text are published, just waiting to be discovered by those of us who choose books. Every year, there are books that will transform the lives of readers, just like many classic texts have done for some. Every year, there are new works that beg us to ponder deeply about the human condition, even at the elementary level. But we cannot know this if we don’t stay current in our own reading. So I pursue the new, not in a dismissal of the old but in the rampant belief that new books deserve to be taught, to be discussed, to be brought into our learning alongside those that have occupied the space for many years.

I promise to read broadly. If my reading life was only for myself, I would never read a sports book, I would never read books about dogs, or mermaids, or a lot of historical fiction. I would focus simply on the texts that I crave and leave it at that but since I know that my students look to me for reading recommendations and ultimately search the collection of books I curate in our classroom to find their next read then I need to ensure that what they encounter shows a broad and inclusive lens of the world. That means setting my own reading desires aside at times and reading wildly in order for my students to have the opportunity to do the same. I need to recommend all sorts of books. I need to know all sorts of books. I need to purchase all sorts of books. And I need to recognize the gaps that may exist within our experiences and whose stories are centered in order to be able to actively work on filling them. It doesn’t matter that I teach a very homogeneous population because the world is not homogenous, so neither should our book collection be.

I promise to remove harmful or outdated books. I am grateful to have access to many people who read with a different lens than I do, that read with a lot more knowledge than I bring, and that share so graciously of their expertise in order for all of us to grow. My promise, therefore, is to listen and to act. If a book that I have in my classroom collection is problematic, even if I didn’t see it at first, then the least I can do is pull it. If a unit is centered too much on the story of only one type of journey, then my promise is to expand it to, to seek out sources that can help me expand the unit or question the unit altogether. In this day and age, there are so many people willing to share their expertise, such as Dr. Deb Reese and Dr. Jean Mendoza, Dr. Laura M. Jimenez, Dr. Kim Parker, Julia E. Torres, Tricia Ebarvia and Lorena Germán of #DisruptTexts and the incredible group of thinkers from We Need Diverse Books founded by Ellen Oh, all we have to do is tune in and listen and to not take it personally when a book we may have loved or grew up with fond memories of, or even one we have recently discovered and loved, is given a critical review. Open up our ears, listen in and do the right thing instead of clinging to our notions of perhaps we can make it work, or maybe it is not so bad after all.

I promise to pre-read. While I used to love discovering a new read aloud alongside my students, I now see the exploration I cut myself out of by not reading it first on my own. I now see the shortsightedness of not sitting down with a book and truly pondering how it would weave into the tapestry of our year together, to truly wonder whether this singular text deserves to be at the center of the work we will do for several weeks. When we don’t pre-read our texts, we may not see the potential hard conversations that we need to prepare for in order to successfully navigate them alongside kids. The extra wrapping we need to provide for the texts, the images and other venues of exploration that should be taught alongside it. Yes, the thrill of a new discovery is something I miss, but I would much rather be fully prepared to unpack a read aloud by pre-reading the text.

I promise to be honest about my reading. I have said before that kids don’t need perfect reading role models, they need us, the flawed ones, that are readers even when we don’t read but that share about the struggles that we sometimes face when it comes to staying connected to reading. My students don’t need to know me as a perfect reader, instead they need to know that I too, sometimes, don’t have the energy, that I too, sometimes, have a hard time finding a book, that my attention wanes, that I get bored, that I get frustrated, that I sometimes binge-watch TV instead of picking up a book even though I know what is better for me. That my reading life ebbs and flows but that the one constant I do have is that I always come back to it. That I still give myself the gift of considering myself as a reader even if I am not actively reading.

I promise to afford my students the same rights that I hold dear as a reader. I have written much, and spoken at length, about the rights of readers. About how our students every year create their rights and it is then my job to honor and protect them. And so those same rights come down to the same promises I make every year to myself as a reader and to my students. I can abandon books, I can choose to not read a book even if everyone tells me to read it, I can choose to speak about books or not, to recommend or not, to forget about a book or not. I can choose freely and widely, and I can get access to books to those where access does not come easy.

It is easy to get lost in our reading when the world tugs at our fingertips, when our piles of work seem insurmountable, when even taking care of ourselves seems like too much work. I know I have gotten lost but only for a little while, the path is still there, we are still readers even if we step off of it. Our students deserve to be in rich literary driven classrooms and curriculum that is not centered around the voice of one, but instead the voice of many. Our students deserve to have their stories told in the pages of our books, and they deserve to see the stories of others unlike them. Not to have their reading journey shaped by only one voice, or only one way, but instead a reflection of the many paths that lead us into reading and keep us there for years to come.

There are many promises to make, the question is, how will we honor them?

I am excited to get to work with other colleagues around the world doing virtual and in-person coaching collaboration, and consulting right now. If your district or organization would like more information, please see this blog post.

Book Clubs, Literacy, Reading, Virtual Learning

Virtual Book Clubs in Middle School

Tomorrow, our very first virtual book clubs kick off. The project has been an immense puzzle and also quite a time consumer, and yet, I am excited to see these hopefully take off and help the students not only discuss amazing books but also just be together. We have been apart for more than 8 months physically, I hope that this will be a social boost for many and also a meaningful learning opportunity. I am also excited to jump into this inquiry unit as its focus is whether we already live in a dystopian society? I cannot wait to see what the students come up with and how they will expand their questions and answers as the unit progresses.

As we first started to plan for these virtual book clubs back in October, we quickly realized that unlike previous years, there were a lot more moving pieces to consider and that the orchestration would be a lot more immense. After all, we are fully virtual, kids do not come to school, so how would we pull this off?

So I am sharing everything I have here in this blog post in case you find yourself wanting to do virtual book clubs as well but it feels a little unwieldy. Perhaps the behind the scenes work we have done can help you start with them or perhaps you have some amazing ideas of your own to share. Either way, here you, you can make a copy of everything if you want to edit, just give credit. To see what I have done in previous years when we are in regular learning mode, go here.

To select their books – 4 weeks prior.

We knew that selecting and then distributing their books would be the first major hurdle but once again our incredible librarian team were prepared. They already have a safe weekly pick up for books, what we needed to make sure is that they had enough time to pull the books and prepare them for the pick up.

A slide from their book club choices

I introduced very briefly the unit in early November and then assigned students this slideshow to go through and select their top 5 books. They were asked to please select a book they hadn’t read before and also pick one that would feel manageable to them. Once students had looked through the slideshow, then then filled in this form so that I could start puzzling them together. And puzzle them I did. It took a while to get all of the students into manageable groups (less than five kids) and also to make sure that we had enough books. Our librarian had given us total number of books available for each title and a colleague had taken the time to breakdown how many books each of us would get. We revealed them in class the following week and kids then could email me if for some reason they had ended up with a book they actually didn’t want or if there was another group they would rather be a part of. Only one student did.

New this year is the short story option, we have a few students who are really trying but life is just a lot right now. We wanted to make sure they could also find success and not feel even more overwhelmed with the proposect of reading a long book. We pulled three short stories (The Pedestrian, Harrison Bergeron, and The Perfect Match), one for each week, and then distributed those to students. We will meet on Wednesday’s (our fully asynchronous day) and discuss the stories. I am excited to see if this will work and how the participation will work out.

The following week, students then picked up their books during our three pick up times. If a students was not able to pick up their book, they would get it delivered right to their mailbox. This was a massive undertaking but it worked, I am so grateful to all of the people who made physical book copies possible for the students to have.

Setting Up their Reading Schedules – One week before

Now that students had their books they needed to create reading plans and also set up discussion norms. In class, we had them work through three tasks: 1. Set up their reading plan, 2. Sign up for their discussion time with me, 3. Discuss and add to their norms. This took about 30-40 minutes, a lot longer than it would in class, but that seems to be the normal pace for virtual learning.

Their reading plan document is housed in the Hyperdoc we have created for the students with resources. This is their one stop shop for everything related to their book clubs such as teaching points, rubric, discussion help, meeting times, and reading plan. While it is available to the students, I honestly don’t know how much they will use it and yet having a shared collection of everything they need can only help.

To figure out their reading plan, they all went to this shared document and broke down their book. We reiterated that they shouldn’t finish their book more than two days ahead of the last day and if they wanted a bigger challenge they could read more than one book. This was hard for some students and easy for others so I jumped around from breakout group to breakout group to assist where needed. One group I am still assisting and will pick up the pieces with them tomorrow.

For their meeting times, I am hoping to have 2 groups discuss in front of me live during our 70 minute block. That means that only one or two groups a class have to discuss outside of their class time. I am also grateful to the support staff I have embedded within our class that are also observing and assessing discussions with us. They know the kids and the curriculum as well as I do. Kids signed up on a first come-first serve basis as it then served as a motivator to get their reading plan completed. They can see the meeting times document at any time, but I have also sent Google Calendar invitations to all of them with the link to our Google Meet for when we discuss.

For the discussion of their norms, we used Jamboard. I have had mixed results with it, but this time I was fairly pleased with how it turned out. You can see what it looked like here. Kids had decent discussions about accountability and also how they wanted this experience to run.

While all of the students have done book clubs multiple times before, 7th grade tends to be the first time they have to decide what they will be discussing and prepare accordingly, rather than the teacher telling them what to track. So we have a “cheat sheet” which really is just scaffolds in order to help them be successful. Some of these discussion points are learning targets from the Teachers College Dystopian Unit which we use as a foundational guidance and others are once we have discovered with book clubs throughout the years. Choice reigns supreme and it is important for us that students can steer their discussions ina natural way, they do not have to stick to these but this is a starting point.

Actual Book Clubs – Three Weeks

So how will all of these moving pieces work? Well, I am hoping (because I am writing this before I have kicked it off tomorrow) that our next three weeks will offer students a chance to work independently, as well as not feel overwhelmed. So in order to make that happen, I wanted to offer them up some self-paced learning opportunities using Peardeck, as well as short mini-lessons using our mentor text Ponies by Kij Johnson, and then give them time to read and discuss as much as possible in class much like we would if this were regular book clubs.

In class time will be spent on a mini-lesson – learning targets again are pulled from the Dystopian Unit created by Teachers College. I will be reading aloud our mentor text so we can refer back to it throughout the next three weeks, as well as any of the mentor short films they will be watching asynchronously. I will also have them go into breakout groups for 5 minutes in order to decide what they want to focus on discussing in their groups this week, before my listening on their discussion I ask them what they focused on and I listen for anything attached to that. They can use the “cheat sheet” linked previously in order to help them. Since tomorrow is the first day, I am thinking it may take a little bit longer to get them started but I need to wrap it up within 35 minutes in order to leave them 35 minutes to read, discuss, and work.

So during their in-class learning time and outside learning time, they will have a few things to work through. 1. They need to read their chapters and be ready to discuss. 2. They need to write down any ideas for discussion as well as find evidence. 3. They need to discuss in front of me. 4. They need to work through two learning opportunities in order to expand their knowledge. They will have all week to do this.

So for their discussion, students will be assessed live. I have yet to create a good electronic version of my rubric so I may just do what I normally do, which is print a ton of these rubrics as I like to write directly on them while they speak, as well as tally how much they say and any page numbers they use. I will then either scan and email it to them after their discussion, or transfer it to a markable rubric that will be posted in Google Classroom under their assignments so that each child has one ( I have it posted right now as an assignment for me to fill in).

For their Peardeck self-paced work, they will focus on two learning targets. The first one is simply diving into a book club discussion and understanding better what it is we are looking for. We normally do this during class time but due to virtual time constraints, it is moved into independent work. The Peardeck looks like this, it is short and sweet and to the point because this is not meant to feel like just one more thing to do but rather an exposure, example, and then a quick check for understanding. For the second learning opportunity of the week, they will learn more about utopia, dystopian characteristics and then compare and contrast their book to these definitions. They will also watch a dystopian short film and then write about the rules and how it links to our current society. This Peardeck looks like this. The students will be assessed on the analysis and evidence they use to draw their conclusions. Normally they would also be doing this in class but these are not normal times.

The next two weeks will follow the same format, I have not created the self-paced learning opportunities yet but you can certainly reach out to me if you would like to see what they look like. We will be focusing on our inquiry question; do we already live in a dystopian society and so the learning opportunities will center around that.

So there you have it, so many moving parts but I am excited and I think the students are too. I hope this was helpful to you, let me know if you have any ideas or questions.

Update:

Here are the self-paced lessons students worked through. They went pretty well, it was a great way to fill in more world knowledge and get kids thinking about the world we live in.

Week 3 – Are We Living in a Dystopia Already?

Week 4 – Who Has Equal Rights?