aha moment, Be the change, ideas, Reading, students

On Slow Readers and What It Means for Student Reading Identity


I am ready to hang a banner in our classroom to loudly display the following words, “Being a slow reader does not make you a bad reader!” and then point to it every time a child tells me with a downward glance that they are slow readers.  The shame of the designation oozing from them.

Since when did taking your time as you read become something to be ashamed of?

And yet, they continue to tell me they are slow as they share their true reading lives.  They tell me that being a slow reader means they hate reading, that they cannot find any books, that there is no way they will ever read enough books in 7th grade and that there is nothing to be done about it.  They have given up because of speed.  They have given up because of everything they have attached to the word “slow.”

And with our emphasis on getting things done, including books, in our schools I cannot blame them.

So I tell them instead that they are not “slow,” they are simply taking their time.  That yes, increasing reading speed can become a goal for them but that it should not be the only goal.  That I understand that when you read at a slower pace (notice the difference in word choice) that you sometimes lose meaning so we need to find a pace that works for them.  Because you see, being a fast reader does not make you a great reader.  In fact, I struggle publicly with my own fast reading and have as one of my goals that I need to slow down.

Yet, they do not believe me.  Not yet anyway.  And how can they?  When the standardized tests they take to measure their worth as readers are timed?  When the countdown clock appears urging them to hurry up and answer or else it will count against them?  When I give them all a book challenge of reading 25 books or more and they automatically feel that is a mountain they cannot conquer?  When they see their friends whizzing through books and cannot help but compare themselves?

We create environments where fast = good and slow = bad.

So as Thomas Newkirk says, “There is no ideal speed in reading.”  Instead it depends on the purpose, the time, the book they are reading.  And that is what we should be teaching toward.  That students need to find a reading pace that works for them and then make sure that the reading environment we create supports that.  We have to remove the stigma of the word “slow.”  We have to help our students find success as readers, to redefine their own reading identity so that that very identity does not become a stranglehold or the reason they give up before they even begin.

So we hand them books they can conquer successfully to build up the confidence they lack.  And I don’t mean books designated by levels, but books that they want to read based on interest.  We hand them graphic novels.  We hand them page turners where they will want to read on.  And then we hand them time.  We remove the “get it done” pace that seems to surround us as we teach.  And every time they say they are slow readers and mean it as a bad thing, we tell them they are mistaken.  We change the very language we use so that they can find a new way to identify themselves.  So that they can feel proud of the time they take when they read, rather than see it as yet another deficit.

We decide what being a slow reader means.  That change comes from us.  Our job is to make sure students know it.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) just came out!

books, Literacy, Passion, picture books, students

Great Picture Books to Spark Imagination

Whether it is to become less lonely, to find a friend, or to simply create – imagination is a huge theme of many amazing picture books at the moment. Behold some of my new, and not so new, favorites for inspiring students to use their imagination.  Beware; these tend to spark great conversations.


What to Do With a Box by Jane Yolen and Chris Sheban is excellent in its simplicity.  Think of all of the things we can do with just a cardboard box.

Frida and Bear Play the Shape Game by Hanne Bartholin is sure to inspire doodlers and anyone else who just wants to draw.  I loved how my own daughter right away wanted to do exactly what the characters in the book did.

An Artist’s Alphabet by Norman Messenger is stunning.  I would love to see what types of letters kids would create after reading this book.


I don’t know how I could have left off Peter Reynolds’ Creatrilogy from this list.  The godfathers of all creativity books these are must haves in your classroom library.

Box by Min Flyte and illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw is a fun read with its fold out and flaps.  Yet the message is powerful, again, think of all of the things we can do with just a few items and out imagination.

Poppy Pickle: A Little Girl with a Big Imagination by Emma Yartlett is such a fun ride.  I love poring over the pictures to see all of the mischief that happens.  What a great way to talk about what we can imagine.

It Came in the Mail by Ben Clanton is another great mentor text.  I wonder what students would have come in the mail if they could and what the consequences would be.

Ideas Are All Around by Philip C. Stead is a beautiful example of what happens when we are trying to write a story but seem so very stuck.  What a great book to share when we discuss writing process, how to find inspiration, and how to look for stories.

Imaginary Fred by Eoin Colfer and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers packs quite the punch on the theme of friendship, loneliness, and also what the power of finding a friend can be.  I love how it also shows what can happen with determination and once we feel we find our place in the world.  I love how it is not just the “real” people that can use their imagination to fit in.

A common theme of many of these picture books is how visually stunning they are.  Beyond the Pond by Joseph Kuefler speaks of a boy and what happens when he explores beyond the pond.  I love the vastness of the book and the journey he goes on.

I almost wrote a picture book post on powerful books about loneliness because I wanted to share the beauty of this book Lenny and Lucy written by Philip C. Stead and illustrated by Erin E. Stead somehow.  While that post will be written at some point, I also think this picture book fits quite nicely here.  Lenny and Lucy is about using your imagination to conquer your problems, and that is a powerful message indeed.  On a side note; Erin E. Stead is a contender for the Global Read Aloud 2016 picture book study!

Again the power of an imaginary friend and how having someone no one else can see cam become a problem.  I love the book We Forgot Brock by Carter Goodrich because of the friendship it portrays.

the illustrations in Imagine A World by Rob Gonsalves are astounding.  I loved reading this with my own children as well as with my 7th graders because of their reactions.  This definitely sparks ideas in students!

I love Mr. Cornell’s Dream Boxes by Jeanette Winter for how it can inspire children to use their imagination when it comes to making and creating.  By taking seemingly simple things and turning them into works of art, Mr. Cornell changed the world of art.


Draw! by Raul Colon is a masterpiece when it comes to explaining how an artist mind works.  I love seeing the reaction when students get to the final page and discover what the meaning behind the book is.

Papa’s Mechanical Fish by Candace Fleming and illustrated by Boris Kulikov is a book I turn to for many things; theme, perseverance, conflict, and also imagination, because it si only with imagination that the father of the book solves his problem.

How can your imagination save the most boring story?  I love the message of Battle Bunny written by Jon Sciezka and Mac Barnett, illustrated by Matthew Myers.  And I also love the students’ reaction when they first start to read it, someone always comes to report that the book has been defaced.

Only their imagination can save the kids in Chalk by Bill Thomson.  Another great wordless picture book to add to your collection.

Both Journey and Quest by Aaron Becker speak to the power of a girl’s imagination and the adventure that can unfold.  I also love how these books challenge my students’ imagination as they try to decipher what is really going on.

There are a few of our favorite books to spark imagination.  Please add those I missed in the comments.

To see the lists of other favorite books and picture books, please see the collection here.

advice, aha moment, being a teacher, being me, Passion, students

Who It’s Really For


I could say that I am an amazing teacher.  That what I do is not something others could do.  That the way I connect with kids is a special talent that only I have developed, and that if you buy my book you could perhaps learn how to teach just like me, that some of my amazing “me-ness” will surely go your way.  I could say that I have discovered the one way to be great and all you have to do is try to be more like me.

But I would be lying. (And making a fool out of myself in the process).

Because there are days when I am not so great.  There are children that I do not connect with.  There are moments when no matter what I try it all falls apart and one of my teammates steps in and saves the day.  Saves the lesson.  Saves the student.  I am a better teacher because of those I teach with.  I am a better teacher because of the students that teach me.

You see, being a teacher is not about us.  It is not about the great things that we can do.  It is not about all of the things that we will teach.  It is not about what will work best for us, nor how we will change the world.  It is about the kids.

It is about what they will do.  What they will learn.  How they will change our world.  How I get to be a part of the process but I am only as great as my students.

And we seem to forget that at times.  We seem to forget it when we share the stories that do not highlight what our students are doing, but instead what we have done.  When we advocate not what is best for children, but what is best for ourselves and hope that children may benefit as well.  When we teach the way we would like to learn, and forget to ask the students what they need.

It is a balance and it is hard to keep at times.  I know I am guilty like so many others.  Yet, in this public way, I renew my promise to keep it about the kids.  To keep it about what they need, what they want, and what they dream for.

I am not the greatest teacher, I have so much to learn, and I cannot forget that.  We must remember what we are doing all of this for, because it is not for us, it is for them.  And that is how it should always be.  May we never forget that.  May I never forget that.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) just came out!

Be the change, being a teacher, being me, students

Do We Forget What We Are Asking Students to Do All Day?


Yesterday I was in Michigan, surrounded by passionate educators, trying to make a change in the way they teach.  I was lucky enough to give the keynote at Googlefest and after I was done speaking, my job was to listen.  And so I did.  With every inch of me I listened to their stories, tried to answer their questions, and soak in the knowledge that I was being given.  What a gift it was.

It was exhausting.

By the time I reached the airport, my brain called out for sleep and food.  No more computers.  No more work.  By the time I sat down, I couldn’t fathom doing anything productive although my to-do list screamed out for attention.  My brain was full.  My brain was so tired.  And there was nothing I could do to trick it into thinking anything smart or productive.  Thank goodness I did not have a looming deadline.  So that’s when it struck me…

This is what happens to our students every single day.  

We ask them to give us their full attention.  For them to be on high alert all day as they learn. Ask any student and they will tell you they mostly listen throughout the day, interjecting knowledge throughout, yet their brain is constantly processing.  Constantly working to make sure they are fulfilling what we demand students do:  pay attention, be ready, learn.  And be ready to prove it to us, no slacking allowed, whenever we feel like calling on them.

As adults we forget how tiring that must be.  How not only are they asked to pay attention, but they are also asked to sit still, take notes, and be ready to answer any question we throw their way.  We expect them to care about what we are doing and give us their very best, every minute, every day.

So today as I plan for the learning to come, I cannot help but think of how I need to make sure my students are moving.  How I need to make sure they are talking and discussing.  How I need to make sure we are doing something with the knowledge that we are working with, so they are not just paying attention, not just getting more information.  And how I also need to be more understanding when they tell me they are tired.

We ask so much of our students because so much was asked of us when we went to school, yet we forget how hard it can be to live up to our standards.  Do you have room for students brains to take a break?  Do you plan for engagement and not just listening?  Do you ask the students what they need so they are not exhausted by the end of the day?  No wonder, students ask us to rethink  homework, when all their brain is asking for is to take a break.  I hope this is a lesson I don’t forget.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) just came out!

being a teacher, books, community, Literacy, Passion, students

A Powerful Lesson in Book Choice and Discovery

image from icanread

I felt so guilty this morning planning final details of my lesson.  After all, we are three weeks into the quarter and there is so much to do already.  Three weeks and what have we really done?  And yet, the books had been piling up.  I had seen the students book hopping, abandoning at a rapid pace.  And I knew there were so many great books to share.  If only we did not have to do these other things.  If only we had the time.

So this morning, I realized that we needed to find the time.  That book shopping was not a luxury I could hope to get to but instead was a necessity.  And not in a hurried, five minutes at the start of class kind of way either.  Not in a “let’s fit it in quick so we can get to this other thing” kind of way.  No, we had the need to make book shopping THE thing to do today.  No matter what else we should have been doing.

They came in and immediately saw the piles of books; my favorite reads from the summer, brand new books that I haven’t even read, and some older favorites that I know they need to discover.  Right away, the questions started.  “What’s this?  Did you see this?”  As the students grabbed their readers’ notebooks, I interrupted their conversation.  “Come on over.”  And they did, surrounding me in the rocking chair as I read aloud the inspiring It’s A Book by Lane Smith.  I love reading this book aloud to older students because they always giggle and then look to me to see if I got it too.  And I do and I giggle too, and we marvel at the wonders of simply reading a book.

I asked them how they find new books to read and we brainstormed a list together.  Nothing extraordinary but a simple reminder to indulge in the art of looking for a book.  To take the time to truly go through the books and not just cast a glance at the cover and then make a decision.

They were itching to go. The books calling out for them and yet, I held them back for another few minutes as I book talked a select few books in each pile.  Already the students were writing down titles.

“I know Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan looks like a giant book, but the pages will fly by as you read.”

“You think that The False Prince is a good book, but then you get to page 88 and it becomes a book you have to read as quickly as you can to see what happens next. And did you know the same author wrote A Night Divided?

“In my hand I am holding the best book I have read so far this year.  Yes, Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt is really that good.”

Finally, I told them to take their time, that I would give them the whole class period if they wanted it.  And off they went.  Their papers clutched tightly and their hands reaching out for all the books.

I stood back, observed, and smiled.  Everywhere students were reading pages, sharing books, offering recommendations and scribbling down titles.  Questions floating through the air as students told each other why they had to read this one, or how they couldn’t wait to read this other one.  One child proudly showed me they had already found 10 titles to read and they knew they would find more.

As I walked around, the students came to me and offered up book recommendations, asking me to please write it down because they knew that so and so would love the book.  They asked me if they could book shop our regular shelves or if I knew of a book that was like this other one they loved?

As I stood there and observed, I realized that it was not merely book shopping that was happening in front of us.  It was the beginning of a community of readers.  Of students that want to talk about their books, that want to share the stories they love with others, and that cannot wait to read a book.  Not all of them, but many, and the others I will continue to work with.

We may not have gotten to that other lesson I thought we needed.  We may not have gotten all the work time we need for the first speech we are giving.  We may not even have had our independent reading time that we so ferociously protect.  Instead through the discovery of books, we really discovered each other.  I cannot wait to see where these communities will go next.

PS:  If you are wondering which books I book talked, many of them can be found right here.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) comes out September 22nd from Routledge, but rumor has it that it is out on Kindle already!

achievement, advice, assumptions, authentic learning, Be the change, being a student, being a teacher, reflection, Student-centered, students

Some Ideas for Re-Engaging Students


For the past few days student engagement has been at the forefront of my mind.  Well, who am I kidding, it is always on my mind.  As I gave a workshop on student engagement, I was asked for quick tips on how to re-engage in class.  While these aren’t just simple ideas, I hope they can help you work through engagement lulls in your own classroom.

You can have an honest conversation with students.  If the same class is off-task or the same group, please pull the whole class or group together to discuss.  Do not judge, simply ask what is going on and then ask them to help you solve it.  Often students will blame being bored so then ask them how they can make it more exciting.  Part of creating classrooms where students are engaged is that students are expected to take control of their learning journey meaning you should not be trying to solve everything.

You can change it up.  Too often we fall in love with a routine like the workshop model and then forget that too much predictability can be a bore.  While I am not advocating for a zany show, I think it is important to be tuned into whether the routine is working at its optimal level or not, then tweak and change as needed.

You can turn on some music.  I have found that using music that has the opposite tempo of my students’ mood is great for refocusing them.  So if they are slow and lethargic, I play upbeat music while they work, if they are very energetic, I bring out the mellow tunes.

You can practice mindfulness.  I started using some short breathing or yoga videos after assemblies with my students because there was no way they would settle in on their own.  Once my 7th graders get past their giggles, they also benefit from 3 minutes of focused breathing.

You can stop a train-wreck.  When a lesson was going poorly, I used to ride it out to the end hoping that by then they would get it.  Now I know to stop, ask why they are not understanding, and then fix.  I also have the luxury of completely revamping it throughout the day since I teach the same class five times in a row (one of the only positive things about that).

You can move location or just move.  Sometimes my students have simply been sitting too long.  Past elementary level we sometimes do not realize how much time students spend sitting since we only see our slice of the day.  A natural restlessness is therefore bound to occur.  So we move around in the classroom either by sharing with peers, doing short book recommendations, or showing off our work, or we pick up and move altogether.  We can head to the library, outside, or into our team area.

You can affirm and replace.  This is a technique I adapted from the awesome book Awakened by Angela Watson.  When my students seems bogged down as a class, we spend a few minutes speaking about what is going on and then I try to help them replace those thoughts by shifting the focus to something else. It is important for students to feel validated in their thinking but then also for them to move beyond it.

You can find a different way for them to show off their knowledge.  We use turn-and-talk quite a bit, but I also ask students to act answers out, draw things out without speaking and any other way that will get different areas of their brains to light up.  This is not something I do the entire class period, but it is vital that we have students show knowledge in a variety of ways, rather than just one way.

You can make it personal.  Yes, personalized learning is a major buzzword right now, but I am talking about the personal connections that students can have to the learning and how we can tap into that.  A lot of disengagement comes from students being bored with the content, so we do need to re-evaluate the content we are focusing on, as well as what the students are doing with it.  Students may want to engage with the content in different ways but we won’t know that without knowing our students.

You can use technology.  We integrate technology throughout the year but sometimes introducing a new tool like Kahoot does fire students up in a new way.  However, with any new ideas, moderation is key because this does not address the problem in the long-term but simply changes the pace at that moment.

In the end, student engagement is just about the quick fixes we can make, but about the instrumental changes we need to have in our teaching philosophy.  It is too easy to just blame the students, although they do carry responsibility in all of this, so we must reevaluate whether what we are doing in our classrooms is truly worth being engaged in.  The bottom line is; we have to believe in what we are doing and show that passion every single day, because if we don’t, we have no right asking students to.

PS:  This is part of a three part series on student engagement.  The first post discussed the truths my students shared with me on why they are disengaged, the second post discussed the three areas we must re-evaluate.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) comes out September 22nd from Routledge, but rumor has it that it is out on Kindle already!