On Limiting Choice

Whenever I speak of choice and letting kids choose their own books, I am always met with skepticism from some.  Surely you mean choice for those who know how to select a book?  Or those who are at a certain reading level?  Or those who I know are reading?  I fear I disappoint people when I tell them no, when I say choice, I mean choice for all.

For the kids who do not know how to choose…yet

For the kids who do not know how to read well…yet

For the kids who are in intervention.

For the kids who may try to choose not to read.

For the kids who seem to always choose wrong.

They all need choice.

If we constantly limit choice in reading because we need kids to always be reading a just right book as determined by us, how will kids ever learn to self-select a book? As Greg McKeown writes; When we remove choice, we learn to be helpless.” We are teaching our kids to be helpless and always search for the adult, the level, the lexile, the whatever artificial thing to help them choose a book when we need them to start to trust themselves.

So I ask you this; when is it right for a child to choose their own book?

Is it when they are just beginning and they are just discovering the magic of reading?

Is it when they can actually decode and can, therefore, read words out loud?

Is it when they finally read chapter books, even if it is slow-moving?

Is it when they have finally reached their grade level as determined by a reading comprehension test?

When do we offer them choice?

Because I will tell you, if we do not offer choice until they have reached their grade level reading level, then we will have lost so many readers before then.

So we offer choice and we offer our support.  We help them figure out how to book shop and we use tools, such as reading data as PART of the support.  But we don’t tell them that they can only choose from a certain bin, or shelf, or letter level.  We don’t tell them that this is the only section for them.

Part of growing up is making mistakes.  It’s fighting through something.  It is figuring out what you need.  It is using the tools and resources that surround us so we can make our own decisions.

If we constantly limit choice because we believe we are doing kids a favor, we are limiting their chance to grow in the long-run.  So when I say choice, yes, I mean, make no mistake about it.

 

 

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A Call for Common Sense Reading Instruction

It appears that in our quest to make sure students can comprehend what they read that we have lost our common sense.  That we have started listening much more to programs, politicians, and shoddy research than the very kids who the programs are happening to.  That we have pushed the ideas of teachers aside, of best practices, and solid pedagogy, and gotten so lost in the process that we turn to more experts to tell us what we used to know.

So it is time for a little reminder of what we know about best reading practices; those same ideas that my students have been reminding me of for years.  Those same ideas that the godfathers and godmothers of reading have been shouting loudly for years.

Choice matters.

And choice for all matters.  Not just for the kids who already know how to read well.  Not just for the kids that seem to be able to pick the right book almost every time.  Not just for the kids who already feel like readers.  Choice for the vulnerable, for the strugglers, for the resistant, for the kids who don’t think they will ever like reading, for whatever we deem to label a child that just not has blossomed as a reader just yet.  And real choice, not the pretend you have choice when I ask you to select from this one stack of books.

Time matters.

And not the time to do more stuff about reading, but actually read in class.  To plant the seeds of further reading as Allington discusses in his research.  To actually give them time to read within our school day before we make them do more with their reading.  How can we say that reading a great book is vital and then deny them the chance to do it right in our very own classrooms?  How do we find time to have them read in class, we, educators, stop speaking so much in class.

Perception matters.

How we view the abilities of our students directly influence the instructional choices we make.  When we perceive them as high-achieving and capable we give them freedom, more chances of creativity, and have better relationships.  When we are afraid that they will not be able to handle something, we restrict them, we tighten our control, we have them read less, do less meaningful work, and also have a more strained relationship with them.  Do you see all of your students as capable readers or just some of them?

Access matters.

We know children should be surrounded by books, and yet how much money is spent on other resources rather than books.  When I see 1 on 1 programs rolled out or other major tech initiatives, I always wonder if the same amount has been spent on books?  Not because I don’t support the technology, but because books aren’t often seen as investments.  I always wonder if there is a classroom library in every room.  Yes, we need fully staffed school libraries with certified librarians for all kids AND we also need classroom libraries in every single classroom.  In fact, research shows that students read 50-60 % more in classrooms that have libraries than in those without.

Representation matters.

And those classroom libraries need to represent the diverse society we live in.  We need to critically evaluate what we bring into our students’ reading lives, not because it always has to be classical reading but because we need great books for many readers.  That means we say yes to graphic novels, audio, comic books and other amazing formats of books.  That means that we search out and specifically purchase stories featuring a diversity of characters from #OwnVoices authors.  That means that we not just aware of who is represented, but also how they are represented.  And we constantly assess who is not represented in our classroom library.  We start small with our library collections and build them every month.

Reflection matters.

When we finish a book, what do most of us do?  I can tell you what most people don’t do – write about it.  And yet, what is one of the most common practices we have students do in our classrooms?  Those little jots, reflection pieces, reviews, and logs are making the very act of reading a chore.  Not for all but for some.  So why make all kids reflect after they have finished a book?  Why not give them choice?  Perhaps they want to do nothing, perhaps they want to book talk it, perhaps they want to share the book on social media, perhaps they want to write.  Let them discover what their reading identity tells them to do rather than follow a blanket rule.

Our knowledge of children’s literature matters.

If we are teaching readers then we should be reading their books.  Every time we read a children’s book we are able to speak another language with our students.  The books we recommend get read more, which also means that the book gaps we have (books we do not tend to read) dictate what we don’t recommend.  So read widely and proudly.  Read children’s literature as much as possible so that you can become a proper reading role model, not just because you said you are, but because you are able to speak books with the very kids you teach.

Trust matters.

When a child tells me that they read at home, I trust them.  Much like I trust them to work on reading outside of our class.  If I hand them a reading log to have parents sign, I am telling them that I don’t trust them when they share their reading decisions with me to quote Jessica Lifshitz.  For some that may take all year to achieve, for some, the habit never fully solidifies.  But we try every day as we offer up reminders of why reading more than just what is accomplished in class matters.

Personalization matters.

When we purchase the programs, when we make blanket decisions, when we force the same procedures on every child, we are telling them that we are too busy to get to know them.  That their unique reading identity needs to fit within this one box, no matter where they are on their journey.  That we would rather trust a program than trust the very kids we teach.  So use the program but keep your students in mind, detour when needed, and administrators, please tell your teachers to trust their experience rather than just follow a program to fidelity.  Give them time to wrestle with new ideas, new challenges, and new curriculum.  Trust those that are ready and support those that need it.  So much can depend on one great administrator.

You matter.

And so you must find the courage to speak up when you see instructional decisions harm the love of reading that our students carry.  You must start conversations within your own district, your own buildings, and you must reflect on your own decisions.  Ask your students how you can be a better teacher for them.  Ask them what makes reading amazing and what makes it awful.  Question your own practices and admit when you need to grow.  We are only as good as our last decision to change.

So we can purchase the programs, we can get caught up in test scores and test prep.  We can continue to search for the next big thing or we can go back to the things we know work for all kids; time to read, choice in what they read, access to books, and a community to grow with.  Don’t lose touch with your own common sense.

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.

 

Recapturing the Magic of Stories – Practical Ideas for Better Creative Writing

“Do we have to write?”  He looks at me and awaits my answer.  I know he wants me to say no, but instead, I nod.  Every day.  Just try.  It’ll get better.  “But I hate writing…” and the kids around him nod.  So many kids not considering themselves writers.  So many kids who write simply because school tells them to.  And I see it every time I assign a story project.  I see it when they write summaries of stories rather than an actual story.  I see it when they fiddle with their papers, break their pencils or write one line.  We hate writing, and there is nothing you can do about it.

And yet….writing is stories.  Writing is our past and our future.  Writing has the power to break us apart or put us together.  So when our students tell us that they hate writing, it is usually not the writing itself they hate, it is everything attached to it.  All of the tasks we add in with writing to make sure they know how to write.  To make sure they can write.  And I wonder, once again, in our eagerness to create students who can write are we, instead, producing students who won’t?

So what can we do within our writing instruction to reignite or protect the writer that lingers within each child?  What are ways we can help them see that writing is something we need as human beings, and not just because the teacher told us to?

We hear their truths.

Much like we must uncover what protects or demolishes their love of reading, we must ask the hard questions about writing too.  Why do you think you are not a writer?  When is writing hard?  When is writing amazing?  How can I be a better teacher of writing for you?  And then we take those truths with us, we unpack them and then we reflect on our teaching practices; what have we done that have done damage?  How can we navigate all of our requirements without doing irreparable harm?

We make it a priority.

I know we do a lot of writing but how much of that is process writing; summarizing, essays, analysis, informational writing.  Where is the creative writing?  I know when I taught 5th grade it was the final unit of the year.  If we got to it, that is.  Why not start with them finding their writer’s voice.  Tell them to write a story, either real or fictional.  and reconnect them with their storytelling skills.  Begin the year with free writing and maintain it throughout the year.  Don’t save it until the end of the year when we can have done so much damage already.

We give them time.

We cannot create writing opportunities in our classrooms without dedicated time.  And I don’t mean the writing instruction slot where they are working on their assigned project, but free writing time, where they are encouraged to write whatever they want.  Free writing time every day so that they get in the habit.  Free writing time so they can work through what it means to be a writer and start to see the small success that will carry them forward.  Whether it is ten solid minutes like it is in my Informational Studies class or even just four minutes like it was last year for me.  Time should be dedicated to free writing every single day, even if you only have 45-minute classes.

We give them freedom.

Every day we tell our kids to write something in their writer’s notebook.  We offer up a prompt but we also tell them they don’t have to use it.  And then we step back, encourage them to write, but nothing else.  This is about them, not us.

We tell stories.

Great writing starts with stories, so we tell our own stories and model what it means to capture an audience.  We have them share their own stories as they practice how to hold an audience captive.  We do speeches so they can see what grabs people’s attention and what doesn’t.  Through the stories we tell we encourage them to write someday, to find ideas for writing.

We withhold judgment.

Every few weeks I look through their writer’s notebooks just to get to know them.  I don’t assess, I don’t correct.  Instead, I write comments, genuine reactions to what they have written so they know I am reading.  But I do not tell them how to be a writer, not here, not now.  That writer’s journal is exactly that; a journal, not an assignment.  And so some write comics, others journal, some writ lengthy stories.  Poetry, scribbling, moments of their lives burst at me from their pages and I hope that within all of their ideas they start to see what writing really is; an extension of self, of who we are and an exploration of how we fit in.

We bring authors in.

Many of my students are under the impression that “real” writers knew they were writers from a young age.  That story ideas just come to them.  that they sit down and a whole book just flows from their fingers.  But that’s often not the case at all.  how do I know?  Because “real” writers have been speaking to my students via Skype for the last few years.  And they dispel their writing myths one at a time.  It turns out there is no one right writing process.  There is not a right way to write.  Inspiration comes from many places.  And it also turns out that writing is hard work.  That getting the idea is often the smallest part but the actual revising and cutting out and making better is where the work comes in.  They don’t believe me when I say these things always but when authors do, they start to.

We are real writers.

How many of us teach writing but don’t write ourselves?  How many of us create our modeled texts at home because we know it will be hard to do it on the spot in front of the kids?  How many of us would never consider ourselves writers but then expect our students to be?  Be a writer yourself, it doesn’t have to be published, but go through the process and do it authentically.  Share how hard writing is for you, share your bad habits of writing, give them a real role model of what writers are so they don’t think that it is something that just happens.

We ask them who they are as writers.

And we come back to the question throughout the year.  We ask them to explore what writing means to them.  We ask them what their writing process is and we share our own.  We ask them to find some sort of value in writing, not because they have to love it but because they should be at peace with it.

We have them lead the conversations.

Less checklists.  Less pre-determined goals only set by the teacher.  Less specific feedback that teaches them that this is the only thing they need to work on because that is all the teacher told them to work on.  More student reflection, more student questions, more student ownership over how they need to grow.  When we confer they should do most of the talking.  When we confer they should start to find out what they need our help with, not vice versa.  In the beginning, it is hard but it will never get easier if we don’t start the conversations and hand over the reigns.

We don’t give up.

Every day we write.  Every day we share stories.  Every day we create something.  Every day we become more than what we were.  And we don’t give up.  We hear their truths as we gently encourage them forward.  We showcase many kinds of writing.  We give them freedom, trust, and a safe space to share.  We tell them to share when they can and not when they don’t want to.  We tell them to use our space as writers would; get comfortable, listen to music, discover your writing process.  Find your writing peers so you have people you trust that will give you honest feedback.

For too long creative writing has taken a backseat to task writing and while I know we need to be able to write things that fulfill purposes, we cannot lose sight of the bigger picture here.  We have to give our students opportunities to have a relationship with writing that goes beyond what the teacher told them to do.  And that starts with the very decisions we make every day in our classrooms.  That starts right now.

 

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.

And Yet…

On the morning of the kickoff to the largest Global Read Aloud yet.  On the morning of what should have been a happy Monday,  One where more than 2 million students would connect through the invisible threads of a read aloud.  One where a global project kicked off that is focused on perspective, understanding, acceptance, kindness, empathy, and everything that is good about our world, we are instead faced with the news of another mass shooting.

Once again the largest in newer US history.  And I spend my day in front of my computer not checking in on the Global Read Aloud, but instead seeing the death toll rise higher, the injured numbers climb, and the desperate pleas for someone to do something.

And we do; we send our thoughts and prayers,  We donate our blood, and then we say to not make it political.  That now is not the time for action out of respect for the tragedy.

And yet, tomorrow I will send my children to school knowing that they have to do active shooter drills in their classrooms so that they can be prepared for the worst.

And yet, I will ask my son about these drills and he will tell me that he did a great job being quiet mom, so the “bad guy can’t get me…”  And I will smile and tell him good job but inside I will rage and tremble.  This is my child, these are my most precious, and they are being taught to sit silently, hoping to not become victims.

And yet, I will go through training in my own district for what I can do to try to protect the very kids I teach. I will be told I have an option to fight or to hide, and that no one will fault me for making the wrong decision.

And I will tell my friends, who sit in my home nation of Denmark, that I am afraid again.  That I am not sure this country is really sane anymore.  That I am not sure I am really able to protect anyone because all it takes is one person with a weapon.

And yet, this is not the time to be political.  So when is it?  Because I am ready, because I am afraid, and I don’t want my children to have to wonder what will happen when they go to school, or a movie theater, or a mall, or a concert, or on a plane, or walk down the street.

 

 

What the Test Didn’t Care About

Dear Theadora,

Today you told me you were stupid.  That you couldn’t even read the stupid test.  That you knew you failed and so you gave up.  That you will never be a reader.  Again.

And I looked at you and I asked if you needed a hug.  As you crept into my arms, there was so much I wanted to tell you and like your bumbling mother I tried.

I told you to remember that you are not a stupid test.

That you are not a correct answer.  Or an incorrect one for that matter.

That you are not just a level, a piece of data, an insignificant number determined by a profit-making entity.  You will never be just a J.

That you are not stupid.

That you are not failing.

But that you are smart.

That you are brave.

That you are a reader.

Because what the test didn’t care about is that we see you read.  We see you listen.  We see you choose a book and make your way through the pages, even when the words don’t make sense.

We see you ask to go to the library and please can I have one more book?

We see you read to your siblings, to ask for just one more page, to tell me everything that has happened in the Lightning Thief since I last drove the car.

We see you try, We see you fight for the words at times, and other times, they come so easily.

What the test doesn’t care about is how far you have come.  How you know all of the strategies but when you know you are getting the answers wrong it doesn’t matter what you were taught because all you can think about is how you know you are wrong and now the rest of the world knows it too.  How does anyone face that as a child?

What the test doesn’t care about is how much you love reading.  How much your teachers work hard to protect it.  How much being a reader, one that reads chapter books, means to you.  Which is why you keep trying every single day, every single time.

So when we look at the data, dear Thea, I wish it told the full story.  That it actually showed us what we needed to know.  Not just a level.  Not just a score.  Not just the incorrect or the time spent struggling.  Not just the suggested lessons or the gaps in your skills.

I wish it knew you.  No test ever will.  That is why we are so thankful for your teachers.

But I can tell you now, and you have to believe this loudly.  You have to believe this proudly.  You have always been a reader.  You will always be a reader.  Nothing will change that if you don’t let it.  So don’t let it.

Love,

Mommy

 

 

On Creating Reading Experiences

They groan when I tell them about the Signposts.

“Another thing to write about, Mrs. Ripp?”

“Do we have to?”

“Why can’t we just read?”

Their post-its hang behind me, reminding me of all they have said about what kills their love of reading.

And I get it, we, meaning educators, have written reading to death.  With every post-it, every jot, every stop and think, every time we ask them to do more work and forget about the virtues of aesthetic reading as discussed by Louise Rosenblatt, we make them dislike it more.  In our eagerness to help kids become better readers, we have made the kids drown in their post-it notes.  We have broken meaningful stories into such small tasks so that the very meaning that made the story worth our time is gone.  We have forgotten about the purpose of all this instruction it seems; to create literate human beings that can grow from what they read, both intellectually, but also on a heart level.

Yes, we need to teach skills, of course, we do.  But we also have to let the kids use those skills in meaningful ways.  We have to let them practice too without telling them to use post-its, without telling them to write down, without telling them to look for specific things, because if we don’t, we don’t know if they will ever be able to do it without our prompts, our scaffolds, our tasks.  We have to remind them, and ourselves, that when we read it is not just to complete a task attached to it.  That the task is just a practice for the real deal; for when we read and we have an experience with the text.

So I tell them not to worry.  The signposts, or any other skills we review or learn are just tools.  Tools to use when it makes sense.  Tools to use so they can complete the tasks that we do need to do at times.  Practice them so they become habit when we need them but that it is also okay to just read and let the movie flow in our heads to the point where the rest of the world falls away and all we can focus on is how close we are getting to the end of the book.

So let your students experience meaningful words, not just more reading tasks.  Let them experience what it means to read and then feel something.  Let them experience what it means to read and sit in silence.  Let them read and get to the end and then discuss what the text made them think of, not just a few skills you have just taught, not just the repertoire of tools they may have.  Balance is needed in all of our classrooms for the purposes of reading, our students are telling us this loudly if we will only listen.

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.