Be the change, behavior, being a student, being a teacher, being me

Is School Really Safe for All?

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I have been thinking a lot about belonging. About how we assume that school is seen as a safe place by all who experience it. How we assume that we are all doing enough to help these kids, these children whose lives don’t often mirror our own, these kids who someone, somewhere have made feel as if they do not belong.

I have been thinking a lot about feeling seen. About how we assume that in our schools we do enough to let every child know that we see them. That we do enough to let the adults know that they belong too. That they matter. That they are an indispensable part of our community, a community that thrives on embracing all, on love, on acceptance.

We write fancy vision statements where we tell the world that this is a safe place, one filled with opportunities for all who enter to learn, to become something more. We ask our staff to live this vision, even as they feel unsafe themselves. We have assemblies and events celebrating our accomplishments. We hand out awards and accolades. Praise and positive notes. We remind each other not to count down to the break, to the weekend, to the end of the year because for some kids home is not a safe place.

And yet, we forget that for some school isn’t safe either.

For some school is everything they fear.

For some school is only a mirror of the society who also refuses to acknowledge them as full citizens. As full human beings who deserve to be embraced, loved, accepted.

We fail at times.

Sometimes purposefully when we refuse to acknowledge that those who do not fit into our moral view of what it means to be righteous are still deserving of love. Purposefully when we suspend entire groups of children more than others. Purposefully when we enact dress codes that are only a condemnation of those whose choices we don’t agree with. Purposefully when we offer no protections for those who need it. When we let children fail at extraordinary rates because of the circumstances they face. When we continue to say that “Boys will be boys…”When we fail to stop the adults in charge from targeting each other and creating toxic work environments. When we fail to see that in our own silence, that within our own fear of rocking the boat, we are actively telling some that this, this place, is not one where they should ever let their guard down.

And sometimes we don’t even see our own failure. How when we leave certain books out of our libraries we are telling children whose stories are mirrored in those pages that their lives do not belong in our schools. That their lives are too mature, immoral, or indecent. When we tell kids to cut their hair, to change their clothing, when we display pictures of our district but they fail to show all of the people who are a part of it. When we don’t translate our news so all can read it. When we only set up events during school hours and fail to see that not everyone can change their schedule. When our texts, our videos, our learning materials fail to showcase all types of lives. When we assume that everything is a learning experience and surely those are experiencing it just need to work a little harder to find success. That we have done all we can.

And then we wonder why not every child finds success. Why educators quit. We have so much work to do.

We can do more and it starts with acknowledging those we do not see. Those whose lives are not currently valued. And I don’t mean silently valued, I mean embraced through our language, our decorations, our instructional decisions. Embraced out loud as we continually realize that there is more work to do. Making space for their voices so we can use them as a compass for how we can grow. Reflecting on our own choices and actions so we can see how we too can do more. We can ask questions through surveys and conversations and then act when people tell us that it is not safe. That they do not belong, instead of dismissing it as a fluke, only the opinion of a few. As the mother of a child who was viciously bullied, who begged us not to send her to school because it was not safe, I will tell you this, being heard is where the change begins.

The other day I overheard a child tell others about what it meant to come to our school. She said, “When I came to this school and saw the rainbow stickers, I was shook, it finally felt like I belonged.” She felt like she belonged because of a sticker. How many others do not? We assume all kids feel seen and safe at our schools, but do they really? The only way to find out is to start asking questions. Who will ask the first one?

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

conferences, Literacy, Reading, Reading Identity

Who Wants to Read it Next?

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As they sit and read, every day for ten or fifteen minutes as we get ready for the day, I sit next to a student and ask them a seemingly simple question; What are you working on as a reader? As we discuss their reading life, their habits, and their goals, I always end with another question. One that seems to give many of our students’ pause, “How can we support you?” This question shouldn’t be a hard one, after all, these kids are surrounded by adults who are here to help them grow and yet for many, it takes them a moment to realize what they need, or even what they can ask for.

But one answer comes up again and again. Recommend me books. Book recommendations! Keep doing those book talks. The little talks that we do as a community almost every single day are making one of the largest differences.

I can recommend books to our students because most of the books I read are meant to be read by children. While I sometimes do stare longingly at some of my Danish crime stories that I haven’t yet read, I know that one of the biggest gifts I can give our students is a passport into the library, both the one in our classroom and the one that sits in the middle of our school. And that happens through a book talk, demystifying all of the books staring at them and making them look like journeys waiting to happen rather than insurmountable mountains.

By recommending books I have read, by other adults in the building recommending books, by students recommending books in our 30-second book talks, we are laying the foundation for a community that discusses their reading life openly. We are strengthening the notion that reading is something we all need. Something we all believe in as a way to build community. We are chipping away at the notion that some middle schoolers carry that reading is not cool or a waste of time. Instead through every recommendation, through every book held high over our heads, through every title suggested, we are laying the foundation for a readerly life. One that will hopefully expand beyond our years together, beyond this building.

And it is making a difference. Kids model the way we talk about books. Kids write down titles and then speak books to one another. Their to-be-read lists grow sometimes to delightfully impossible lengths.

So when a child reminds me once again that what they need from me is more book recommendations, it is a task I will gladly carry out. And one that I will gladly share with others. After all, they need as many books in their life as possible. They need as many book people as in their life as possible. They need as many happy reading moments as possible. And all of this can start with a simple book recommendation, a short book talk, and then another question; who wants to read it next?

To see what I am reading and recommending, follow me on Instagram

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

Be the change, being a student, Literacy, Student dreams

Disrupting the Narrative in Small Ways

I had the chance to sit with a few of my brilliant colleagues this week to plan our upcoming units together. Count this as another reason of why I love working for Oregon School District; the chance to get a sub so that we can collaborate and actually have time together to share ideas, push our learning, and try to craft meaningful experiences.

One thing that struck me among many was the careful selection of the types of materials we were using to illustrate teaching points. As an example, in our upcoming TED talk unit, where we hope students will not only deepen their passion for something but also be able to share that passion with others, we searched for TED talks that not only illustrate the teaching point such as engaging openings or illustrating a certain type of through-line but also spoke to potential social issues that our students are aware of in different levels, meaning some live it and some are not even aware it is an issue.

This purposeful selection of the materials we use to teach something is a big attempt for us to not just teach kids the “standards” but also expand their understanding of the world around them and hopefully find something to become invested in, to disrupt the privileged narrative that many of us live in. Yes, our students need opportunities to grow as students of reading, writing, speaking, and everything else that is involved in their education, but they also need so much more than that; to become (more) aware of the issues that face us all.

And so when I think of disrupting the narrative, of increasing social awareness within the classroom, it certainly is in the large units we plan, how we treat kids, and also the educational framework we place them in. But it is also in the day-to-day, the videos we show of speakers, the read alouds we use, the mentor texts we share, the images, and the quotes we use. Whose stories are we constantly framing our learning in? Whose experiences are the dominant narrative? Are we embracing the small opportunities that naturally present themselves within our classroom to question, to push thinking, to urge students to inform themselves so that they can formulate (better educated) opinions? And more importantly, are we asking students to take on the hard work of noticing? Of questioning? Of changing the world that they function in? Are we giving them the opportunity to explore the perimeters they work within in order to question that very same framework?

When we plan our lessons, we have so many opportunities to make the work bigger than the learning target we are trying to reach. We need to be aware though of our choices and then push ourselves to expand those choices. Whose stories are we upholding? Whose stories are forgotten?

PS: I wrote about the text selections disruption process we use more purposefully here.

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

achievement, Be the change, students choice, students teach me

Helping Students Set Better Reading Goals

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An often asked question I receive is, “How do you help kids set a reading goal?” And while the answer really could be an entire book, I promised the Passionate Readers Facebook group that I would write a little bit about my process here. After all, perhaps something I am doing as I try to figure this out myself can help someone else, or perhaps, and this is often the case, somebody else has great ideas that they can share in the comments.

In the past, I used to set the reading goals for all of my students, after all, as the adult in the room I thought it was part of my job to set attainable goals for all students in order for them to read more, comprehend more, be more. And yet, whenever I sat with a student and we discussed these goals that I had pre-determined based on what I saw as their needs, unsurprisingly there wasn’t always full buy-in. Sure, some kids were onboard and appreciated the goals, some even took them to heart and really worked on them, but some also (sometimes many) forgot everything about the goal the minute our conversation ended. This then began a chain of reminders, notes, and post-its for their notebooks as I tried to somehow get them all to not just remember their goals but actually invest in them. Perhaps you have been in this situation as well?

It took me a few years to realize that part of the reason these goals failed was that they had little student input. The goals were, mostly, determined by me, and while many of them were sound and based on best practice within reading instruction, they offered students little chance for ownership or engagement with the goal. This meant there was no skin in the game for our students and the goals were easy to dismiss. There was also a distinct lack of conversation surrounding the goal, sure, we conferred, but it often followed a “script” in a way and didn’t allow for a lot of natural conversation to occur. While I liked having a format as a newer teacher, it stopped me at times from really listening and reacting to what they were saying.

Realizing these two things was a huge step and yet it still didn’t solve my problem; how do we create goals that students may actually want to invest in? Well for me the answer was student reading identity. Not the goal itself, but instead students (re)discovering who they are as a reader because without any kind of realization of this, they won’t do well setting goals.

Knowing this, we start every year with a survey, a reflection, and a discussion of who they are as a reader. The survey changes every year, as it should, but it still creates the foundation of our very first discussion the first time we meet. It allows me a small peek into how they view themselves as readers as we get to know each other. And so the very first goal is typically many-pronged. Many of our students need to increase their reading and so for many that is part of their goal, and yet, that in itself is not a great goal for many. There are many of our students who should be reading more but they have habits that need to be changed first before they can even accomplish that goal. Our conversation may then center around the following items:

Desire – to increase reading stamina, success, and better relationship with books.

Barriers – Doesn’t know how to select a great book, doesn’t take books home, doesn’t have “book people,” and doesn’t actually read outside of class, in fact, some days doesn’t even read in class.

Old goal: I would have asked the student to increase their reading outside of school without realizing which and how many barriers they may be facing.

Potential new goal: Figure out which books they like to read. OR add more titles to their to-be-read list. OR…. (this is where the conversation comes into play – what makes sense for them in order to challenge themselves as readers?)

Questions I (may) use when discussing whether a goal make sense:

  • Is this a goal that will actually work for you?
  • How will this goal challenge you?
  • What barriers are in place for you to reach this goal?
  • Which habits do you need to change in order to reach this goal?
  • What is your next step toward this goal?
  • How can I support you in reaching this goal/What would you like me to do?

The thing is, we need to give students more opportunities to discuss what they know about themselves as learners. And when some students inevitably tell us that they don’t know who they are as readers then that is where we start our conversations. We become detectives trying to help them recognize and then further their own reading identity, this then leads to them discussing and then choosing potential goals, even if for some it is a reluctant goal. The one they set for themselves is recorded and then discussed whenever we meet. This goal may be a goal that some of our students work on all year and while this may seem disheartening, I don’t think it is, in a way it makes sense; after all students sometimes have well-established habits that can take years of great experiences to undo – don’t we all?

What I have learned in goal-setting with students is simple yet has once again transformed how I treat our year together. Conversation and uncovering/rediscovering their reading identity and then basing everything on that is what will fuel our goal setting. The students have taught me that everyone needs a unique goal. That the best goals start with reflection, conversation, and then are set. That goals only mean something if students are part of the conversation. That goals can change. That we should not set the goal for them if we can help it because this transfers the ownership. (Note: I have goals I set for kids privately but that is to inform my teaching and not part of our conversation.) That goals need to mean something.

So as I sit with kids every day discussing what they are working on as readers, I am always amazed at the conversations we have. On how they reflect on themselves and what they need to do. On how more are realizing why this goal setting is actually worth their time. On how proud they are for reaching goals that matter to them. And while I am proud of all of our readers, I cannot help but smile the widest when a child discovers just how much they have grown. Not because a test told them so but because they realized it by thinking about themselves and their progress. Isn’t that how it always should be?

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

being me, Literacy, Reading, Reading Identity

On Book Quantity and the Damage It Can (Sometimes) Do

Note: This post is a personal reflection with more questions than answers. In no way is this post meant to be used as a way to to argue for lowering expectations for kids when it comes to increasing reading quantity. The research shows us again and again that access to great books and the time to read them in both supported and unsupported ways is what creates reading success. Both of these are also privileges and not something that all kids, still, despite the numerous years of research have access to as Donalyn Miller reminded me of. What this post is meant to highlight and discuss is when we teach kids who have access to books and set incredibly high goals that then destroy their reading experience. That change their reading experience into one that chases only books as a point, a notch, or a number, rather than helps support their development as readers who experience books.

Today our students did a midyear reading goal reflection, a quick check to see whether or not their reading goal for the year should change. A quick check for them to take the pulse of their own reading life. It is always interesting to listen in as kids discover that they are either reading a lot more than they thought or need to step it up a bit to make their challenge goal of reading at least 25 books in 7th grade. For some 25 books is not a big deal, for others it is a mountain that they are steadily climbing, slowly putting one foot in front of the other as they find yet another book to hook them to a readerly life. They know there is no punishment for not meeting their goal. They know it is meant as a motivator for them to increase their reading. It has taken several years and different iterations for us to reach a reading challenge that seems to be successful for nearly all. And today, was a day to check in on that challenge.

As I meander by the students, a girl asks me how I am doing with my reading goal; 105 books? They like to check in now and then to see if I am staying on track, even if it is just to marvel at the goal itself. 105 books?! Who in the world can read that many books? She is trying to keep up with me but she is only at 30. I quickly tell her that one of the things I am also working on is slowing down when I read and yet the look she offers me tells me of her disbelief. After all, if my goal is to slow down then how come I am trying to read so many books?

Today, that look really hit me. I usually shrug it off, it is not the first time a student stares at me in disbelief, but today amidst the slowness of the day it gave me pause. Why is my goal so high? Why am I trying to read so many books? I don’t need to impress anyone. I am not in competition with anyone. Sure I love to recommend books but I am not the only one capable of doing so. What started as 80 books a year five years ago only keeps growing and to what end? Why the need for the high number, when 70 or even 50 would suffice?

And so I sit tonight realizing the danger of my own reading goal. Of setting it as a quantity one rather than one that calls for me to challenge myself. With this goal of 105 chapter books for the school year, I am falling into the same old habits as our students do when we focus on speed versus quality; picking shorter books, skimming texts, forcing myself to read even though my heart is not in it. With the increase in quantity comes a seemingly decrease in enjoyment. Reading is now a task in order to reach my goal, rather than something I do to relax. My to-be-read bookshelf is now work waiting for me to complete rather than adventures beckoning me to join them.

I see this happen with students too who for some reason believe that high quantities of books mean that they are automatically stronger readers. For some of my kids who set goals of hundreds of books in a year who seem to be missing most of what they are reading. Now, don’t get me wrong, research, of course, shows the positive correlation between reading large quantities of texts and being a better reader, but at what point for some kids and even for some adults does it become detrimental rather than good? At what point does the hurried race after too high of a goal in order to impress encourage students to skim read, to skip pages, to develop poor reading habits rather than lose themselves in the experience? Instead of setting a goal that challenges them in a new way? How do we balance the need for students to read more, which many need, but also to read well?

There is a balance, of course, that sometimes gets lost in the school shuffle where kids’ reading lives are made into contests through public book challenge displays, leaderboards, and reading scores. Where it often matters more how much you read versus what you read and what you get out of it. Where students are celebrated for reading quickly, even if they didn’t fully get the chance to actually appreciate what they read. Yes, quantity, and increasing quantity and access to great reading material matters for all of us, but so does slowing down, savoring text, and actually enjoying the experience. This is how we help students become or remain the types of people who cannot wait to read for fun. Where is the balance?

So today as the students did their midyear goals, I changed my own. I don’t want to read 105 books this year. I want to read 80. 80 amazing books that I cannot wait to finish. 80 books that I cannot wait to share. 80 books that allow me to fall back in love with reading and see it for the great gift it is, not for the job it has become. And who knows, perhaps I will read more, but I am allowing myself to slow down. To sit with the books. And I cannot wait.

PS: It is not too late to join the winter book club study for Passionate Readers – it starts this Sunday. Come join the conversation with hundreds of other educators as we try to create reading experiences for all of the kids we have. Also, I am currently planning my summer speaking schedule, see this page for more information if you would like me to help reach your vision for creating a school experience where students are empowered and engaged.

being me, new year

A Word to End the Year

Image from I Wish You More by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

The house is clean, my exercise goal met, lagkagen stands at the ready – Happy birthday, sweet Theadora – and as 2018 runs slowly out, I think of the year to come. A year where I will turn 39. A year where Augustine will enter kindergarten. Where we will travel as far away as Taiwan to teach and learn. Where perhaps another book will be written. A year that beckons for a word to describe it. And so like in the past, I choose a word to help me focus as the year opens up and daily life returns.

More.

More love, even when it is snuck in small moments and through small gestures.

More relaxation. Augi already asks me if we will go to the pool every day this summer.

More moments to sit quietly.

More moments to feel good.

More “I love you’s” and ” I like you’s.”

More thank you’s.

More laughs.

More books.

More sleep.

More walks.

And even more vegetables.

More opportunities to say yes to and if no is said it is because it stood in the way of another more.

But also knowing that more does not mean all. That more does not mean unlimited. That more does not mean sacrificing my family to be more for others. But the type of more that comes with paying attention. With care. With a positive outlook that allows us to look back and realize that we already have so much and that what we really need to do is to realize it.

To give more when it matters. To know when to say no, more. To know when others should have the chance to be more, to be an ally more.

More for the good of others.

And so I wish you more, to quote the incredible Amy Krouse Rosenthal. More of what you need, not what you don’t.

Thank you for giving me more.