When Reading is Trash or Magic

A couple of years ago I asked my students to tell me why reading was amazing.  When Jack whispered to Michael that “Reading sucks…” the rest, they say, is history.  Inspired by Jack’s words of truth, I have asked students for years now to tell me their reading truths and not hold back.  I cannot be the kind of teacher I would like to be if I don’t get to know them.  The real them.  Not the school-primed, sanitized version.  Not the kid that knows how to play the game.  Not the kid that says whatever they think we want to hear so they start off on a good foot.

So on the third day of school this year, I told the story of Jack. Of how I had been doing that lesson where I talk about the magic of reading.  How he had dared to whisper those words.  Some of the students laughed, they remember the lesson I was referring to, as they have also head about how amazing reading is for years.  And then they got quiet as I asked them so when is reading not magical?  And when is it?

I wrote in big bold letters “Reading is magical” and then asked them what to write on the other side.  “Reading is trash!” they said as they chuckled, not quite sure, I am sure, of what to make of all of this.

They grabbed as many post-its as they could and then started to write their reasons.  Please tell me when reading is amazing.  Please tell me when reading is trash.  Tape your post-its to the board so they stay up.  Sign your name if you want.  And then step back, read the post-its.  What do you notice?

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Over and over their words joined together to form the same patterns I see year after year.  The same things I have done to kids through the years.  The same things many of us educators are told to do every year by well-meaning administrators who are led by an expert curriculum that someone told them to purchase to raise test scores.

No choice!

Boring books!

Too much writing!

Tests!

Forced reflections!

Sitting still!

Their words glared at us.

 

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But wait?  When is reading magical?  Again a pattern that we all know.

When I find the right book!

When I am given time to read!

When I find a great series or author!

When it is quiet!

When I am allowed to just read!

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Their words have carried us into our beginning reading conversations, into our analysis, into our very community.  They have guided us as we start to figure out where reading fits into our lives and whether we can protect or promote a strong and personal relationship with reading.  They have guided us as they have mentioned the amazing experiences they have had with their previous teachers, and the ones they wish that had not had.

We fret so much over what curriculum we should use, how we should teach, and how we should grade, yet sometimes the biggest impact we can have with kids is simply when we stop and ask them for their truths.  Do you know what your students would say?

PS:  This lesson and the others that surround it are all discussed in my new book, Passionate Readers.  Passionate Readers.  

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

On Authentic Reading Goals and Conversations

The silence envelops us a few minutes into class.  I look around and see one of my favorite sights in the world; kids reading.  Quietly I walk up to the first kid, grab a chair, sit next to them and ask; what is your goal for the year? And for the next few minutes, I get to know this child a little more, not just as a reader, but also as a human being.

Last week, I wrote about our the changes to our 7th- grade reading challenge and how this year we had decided to move away from just quantity to make it more authentic for students.  I was excited to roll it out but not sure how the students would react.  Were they even up for a challenge or would it just be another thing to get done just so the teacher would stop bugging them?  Only one way to find out; ask them.

This week, as I started my quick reading check-ins, asking about their goal, has been the main topic of conversation.  With a simple question, we are off and I am starting to get a feel for these kids and who they are as readers.

So what have I noticed?

That no goal fits all.  As an elementary teacher, I often provided my students with a specific goal for them to work on and while instructionally this makes sense, after all, I can see what they need to work on, there often was very little buy-in.  When students reflect on their own needs and set a goal, they immediately see the reason for it. Those goals that I also see for them?  We will work on them together in a small group.

That when we ask kids to really think about what they need to work on the answers are very varied.  This also means that the years I have pushed for more of a quality goal or other single-minded goals, that many kids have not bought into it because the goal has not mattered to them.  Some kids immediately had something come to mind, while others needed more support.  Most kids though have created a goal that is specific to not just their reading identities, but also their reading lives.

Those individual goals encourage more honesty.  I always operate under a policy of total honesty when it comes to reading and ask my students to also do so.  By starting our reading conversations early in the year and asking for them to tell me the good and the bad as far as their reading experiences, that judgment-free reading discussion follows us into their goal setting.  When I ask students why they chose that goal, many discuss how or when they read or when they don’t and why they need to change that.  Some kids also discuss how even with this goal they don’t think they will be successful because of various obstacles.  Rather than hiding these thoughts, they are willing to share them which means I can now note it and try to do something about it.

That they do most of the talking.  While I start the conversation and also offer up follow-up conversations, I need to make sure that it is their response that guides the path.  Too often I have overtaken a conversation out of my own helpfulness, but now I try to listen and then respond to get them to elaborate.

Those relationships are built in small pieces.  One of the best benefits of these reading check-ins simply has to do with relationship building.  Every time I am able to devote a few minutes to just one child that is one child I know better.  While this might be a “Well duh” moment, I often think of how many conversations we don’t make time for especially in middle school and high school.  How often do we feel like we don’t have time for that check-in or small group because we have so much to cover?  The reading check-in is a foundation of my further instruction and I need to remember that when I feel like I am pulled in a different direction.

That quantity goals often mean that the child does not know themselves well as a reader.  While quantity goals used to be our norm, I have found in my conversations that often when a child now sets the minimum quantity goal it is often because they do not know what else to work on.  Our reading check-in then centers around what else they could focus on.  When they are not sure then that tells me a lot about their reading identity.

That reading check-ins offer me a chance to remind.  Those first few days of school are such a blur for all of us and I shudder to think of all of the information that these students have been presented within all of our classes.  So while I offer reminders in the beginning of class, I am also reminding them of reading rights as we speak.  It is important that kids know that they can book shop anytime they want, that they can abandon any book they need to, and that they need to plan for reading throughout their day.  How many times do we say things in those first few days that kids never hear?

That I write very little down.  Too often we get caught up in our conferring notes, rather than in the conversation itself.  I am intentionally limiting my notes just so I can focus on the child, so I can look them in the eye, react to what they are saying and then jot a few things down that can spark the next conversation.  (To see the form I use, go to our Facebook group).

As I think ahead to the coming week, I am excited.  Excited to have more conversations.  Excited to move further in our instruction.  Excited to learn more about these kids that have been entrusted to me every day.  All through one little goal and a few minutes of conversation.

PS:  If you would like to have more reading conversations or you have questions, come join our Passionate Readers Facebook group, 

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

Finding Our Voices Again

It has been six full school days.

Six days of remembering names and sometimes still getting it wrong.

Six days of questions. Of answers.  Of repeated directions and pointing to the right place.  Of saying yes more than no, of smiling wide to make sure they all see it.

It has been six days of feeling like everything is taking a long time.  Of not getting enough done. Of not having any assessments yet and feeling like already I am behind.

And yet…

In those six days, we have read our own books, perhaps even abandoned a few.

We have discussed why reading is trash or magic.

We have set goals that matter to us and fit our needs.

We have started our reading check ins as we figure each other out.

And we have talked.  A lot.

I have withstood the urge to have them write their answers and instead just talk it out.

I have withstood the need for silence and seen where the conversation will take us.

I have withstood my own imposed pressure of having them produce something in order for me to say; look I taught them something.

Every day instead of finding our pencils, we have instead found our voices and shared with each other.  We have pondered.  We have sighed.  We have even been shocked.

The writing will happen.  The assessment will too.  But for now, we are speaking up instead of writing down as we figure out how this learning community is going to work.  We are finding ourselves in the cacophony of thoughts and we are finding each other as well.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

 

But Not For the Kid

We say we believe in choice for all but it appears that all doesn’t really mean all.  That our stipulations get in the way.  That we fill our choice with “but’s…” and then wonder why kids tune out, disengage, and cannot wait for school to be over.

So we say we believe in choice for all

…but not for the kid who didn’t read last night.

…but not for the kid who doesn’t understand what they are reading.

…but not for the kid who doesn’t know how to select the right book.

…but not for the kid who keeps abandoning the books they choose, clearly they are not ready.

We say we believe in choice for all

….but not for the kid who needs intervention.

…but not for the kid whose words cannot be trusted.

…but not for the kid who hasn’t earned it.

…but not for the kid who keeps reading the same thing.

…but not for the kid that won’t read unless we sit right next to them, reminding them to keep their eyes on the page.

We say we believe in choice for all, but do we really?  Or do our “but’s” get in the way?

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

On Reading Tasks

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

 

 

 

Ten Tools for Changing the Grading Conversation

While I have tried to move away from giving grades over the last seven years, I have been a failure at it.  Those pesky numbers or letters keep popping up in our classroom, whether I want them to or not.  That seems to be what happens when you work within a public school system that has made the grading decision for you.  For the past seven years, I have written about how to move away from grades, but what if that is not an option?  What if grades are a part of your duties and you have to give them no matter what?  And let’s face it; assessing students through grades is easy; put a number/letter on it and it tells the whole story for you, or so we think.  Put a number/letter on it and surely a child, or a parent, will know exactly what we are communicating and how they are doing.  And yet, that is not what happens within most traditional grading; kids don’t know why they get what they get, they feel they have no control, and parents aren’t aware of the full story.

I have to come realize that while I can pine for a gradeless system, where we do not place children into such boxes, in the meantime I can work within the confinement currently presented and change the conversation itself.  So rather than focus on trying to remove grades completely, I can make sure that the ones I am in charge of giving are actually meaningful, as well as controlled by the students, providing us with another tool for giving the learning back to the students.

We start by breaking down our learning targets whenever possible, and while this sounds incredibly formal, it is more of a pointed conversation.  What are we learning and why are we learning it are questions that students should be able to answer, even if the answer to why is to be better human beings.  Students have a hard time taking ownership over their learning process if they have no clue where they are headed.

We then discuss ways to get there.  As often as possible, students need have to different pathways to reach their learning goals.  While full personalization of product would be lovely, I am not able to provide that for my students at all times.  We then look to the five tenets of choice as ways to incorporate more personalization.

Students must know themselves.  We have two central questions we pursue as an English class all year; who am I as a reader and who am I as a writer?  Both of these lead to the self-reflection and discovery that students undertake.  After all, I need each child to know themselves well enough to know how they actually need to grow and also to find the motivation to become better.  That will not happen if I make the same goal for each child. It is also telling that many of my most resistant learners do not know who they are as learners.  How can we expect them to grow if they don’t even know who they are?

We know what the end assessment will be.  We have to discuss with students and help them understand what our grade level work reads like or presents itself as, otherwise we are asking students to shoot their learning into the dark and hope it sticks somewhere.  So actual student examples, modeling, and shared conversations have to be present during our learning as guides to the students.  Make it accessible without your direction so they can access it at any time.

We change our language.  Two years ago I adopted the “Best draft” terminology from Kelly Gallagher and have not looked back.  Often students will hand in their “best draft” rather than their final product.  Final product means exactly that; final, no need to revise, revisit, or rethink.  But “best draft” means that it is unfinished, that there is still work to be done, that even if the assessment is attached to it, it is preliminary at best and can be molded by their own efforts to change their learning product.

Students assess themselves first.  For big projects, (and I need to do it more) I will not assess it unless a child has first.  Otherwise, my voice is what they will conform to rather than their own reflection on where they are on the learning journey.  I need them to do the hard thinking work of breaking down their own skills and then seeing what their strengths are and how they need to grow further.  They, therefore, need to understand the rubric, the terminology used, as well as how they CAN grow.

They come up with a next step.  While I focus my feedback on the one next step, they also need to focus on what they are working on next and how else they will grow.  It is not enough for them to place themselves into an assessment category and then do nothing about it.  Every child needs to set the next step goal for themselves and then come up with a tangible plan to pursue it.  This will be a major focus for me next year as I am still trying to figure out how to do this best with teaching 130+ students.

They direct their learning.  Part of our learning journey is figuring out how they learn best within the confinements of our time, our environment, and the curriculum we do need to explore.  So who do they work best and where in the room do they work best are parts of their self-assessments, not just a number or a letter grade.

They take ownership over their assessment.  While the number (we are standards based) is not the description of them as a learner, it becomes part of our conversation.  We must go beyond handing out numbers or letters so that students can understand what it means to create work that is at a “2” or a “3” and then move beyond that even.  Making the number or letter something that is in control of the students changes their own classification.  No child is a “2” in our classroom, the specific work may be at a “2” level; there is a big difference there.

They want more.  My students know that their score, which is often selected by themselves, is just a part of their assessment because they are consistently provided with feedback either through a rubric, written out, or a conversation.  Very rarely, except for on our spelling packets, are they just given a score with no further explanation.  That means that they know that the number is merely a symbol of something larger and not the only designator.  They know that there is more to the story.  In fact, they get so used to this that if feedback or reflection opportunity is not provided that they ask for further clarification.  This is an indicator, in my eyes, that they see how little the actual number/letter symbolizes and need more information.

The thing is with grades, they are a tool like any other.  It is when we let them dominate our conversation when they become the only thing we discuss that we lose kids in the process.  Grades were not meant to be easy, they are meant to be a conversation starter and so it is up to us to start having those conversations if we want students to truly have ownership over their own learning journey.

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.