November 26, 2014

The Whole is Greater Than The Sum of the Parts: Creating Synergy at NCTE 2014

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Oh, sweet Washington, DC.  That was a great conference.

While the sessions and the learning were inspiring, most inspiring of all were the connections.

NCTE Vicki's Workshop Crew


On Friday, To Make a Prairie blogger and co-author of What Readers Really Do, Vicki Vinton, gathered together some of our favorite teachers/thinkers/fellow bloggers to present a session titled It’s Not Just for The Kids: Stories of What Can Happen When Teachers Embrace Curiosity, Openness, Creativity, and Wonder in the Teaching of Reading.  This was hands-down our favorite session not only because it was a privilege to listen to the stories of teaching and learning told by such gifted and dedicated teachers, but also because the way it exemplified synergy was sublime.  Stephen Covey says that “if you put two pieces of wood together, they will hold much more than the total of the weight held by each separately.  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” We are all better when we come together to learn and this session was a humbling reminder of this important point.  If you don’t know the blogs written by Steve Peterson, Fran McVeigh, Julianne Harmatz, and Mary Lee Hahn, and of course, Vicki Vinton, you should.  These are outstanding thinkers!

NCTE 14 drinks with friends

The synergy continued on Friday night with AMAZING impromptu, one-on-one conversations with other bloggers, authors, and educators in the lounge at the Aloft Hotel.  We honestly find these conversations as stimulating (if not more so) than planned conference sessions. We are so grateful to our community and feel honored to have had the chance to meet so many of you!

NCTE Chris Lehman and Carol

As is the case with all busy conferences, we weren’t able to “synergize” as much as we would have liked with everyone, however, we are grateful to our friend Chris Lehman for organizing a professional book exchange.  We’re as excited to read the notes in the margins of the books we took home as we are to read the books themselves!

NCTE Picture With Barry Lane

And in the spirit of saving the best for last, a very special thank you to Barry Lane who happened by the Stenhouse booth while we were signing copies of Reading Wellness. His songs and jokes and joie de vivre reminded us that learning feels best when complemented with heaping piles of joy!



Sending Children Off to Do “Big Things”

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We’ve been reading and studying Time journalist Amanda Ripley’s fascinating book The Smartest Kids in the World and How they Got that Way.  In this book, Ripley investigates schooling in three educationally high performing nations: Finland, Korea, and Poland.  In addition to carefully parsing apart the data revealed by the Program for International Student Achievement (PISA), which measures advanced thinking and communication skills, the author follows three American, foreign exchange students in these countries to obtain an insider perspective into what it’s like to attend schools in these nations. While we could talk ad infinitum about this book, today we want to focus our thinking on Chapter 7, titled “The Metamorphosis.”

In this chapter, Ripley closely examines education in Poland, a nation with child poverty levels greater than the United States, and attempts to figure out what happened there to catapult this country from the educational doldrums to educational excellence. Ripley explains that the transformation began in 1997 with Miroslaw Handke, a chemist selected to become Poland’s minister of education. Handke’s solution focused on injecting the Polish educational system with renewed rigor. By 2012, fifteen years after the initiative began, Poland “officially joined the ranks of the world’s education superpowers. That year, its teenagers performed at the same level on PISA as kids in Finland and Canada.” (p. 136)

Wanting to better understand what contributed to this grand transformation, Ripley sought insight from a high school student from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania who studied abroad in Wroclaw, Poland. When asked what he believed to be the fundamental difference in American and Polish education, he said his school in the United States “is not that concerned with sending people off to do big things.”

Reading that sentiment stopped us dead in our tracks. As teachers, we are propelled by idealistic notions of helping children to become lifelong learners.  In our hearts, we want nothing more than for the children that fill our classrooms to go off and do “big things.”  Yet, we fear that this posture–not concerned with sending people off to do big things–is all too common, and much of our work has long been around helping schools adopt instructional mindsets that support long range visions for children as doers of big things.

In chapter one of Reading Wellness, we explore this idea by looking at Jane Goodall ,who read “not because others set goals for her,” but rather “because she was driven by her passions.  Her reading was connected to the things she loved.” In addition, because she read, Jane Goodall imagined a future of moving to Africa to live with and study animals. When students read multiple biographies, looking to see the connection between a person’s passion, mindset, and effort (Heart, Head, Hands and Feet), they begin to imagine new possibilities for their own futures which instills a natural motivation to read more informational texts. We get giddy when we see the ways this kind of reading inspires children to imagine the “big things” they want to do.

Student HHHF


For those of you attending NCTE, on Sunday, November 23 at 12:00 we are facilitating a session titled “They Grew Up Reading and Writing: Using Picture Book Biographies to Support Authentic Explorations of Informational Text.” We’d love to see you there, however, if you’ve got other commitments and will be unable to make it to our session, plan to stop by the Stenhouse booth at 9:00 Sunday morning where we will be hanging out and signing books. We would love to meet you and hear about how you are preparing your students to do “big things!”

Challenging Instructional Dogma

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When the Common Core Standards were released, “close reading” was a nebulous term that left many not only seeking to better understand what it was and how it served children, but also wondering what it looked like in the classroom. Because discussions of the Common Core Standards placed such emphasis on close reading and most educators felt they knew so little about it, they scrambled to learn what they could. For many, this exploration began with this EngageNY video of David Coleman discussing how to closely read Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  In this video, Coleman discusses the importance of allowing the text to set the reading agenda and suggests a protocol for reading closely that involves asking students to read a short text with little to no scaffolding, followed by a teacher read aloud of the same selection, followed by a discussion anchored by text-based questions prepared by the teacher in advance.

At the beginning of this video, David Coleman clearly states that this protocol is “one model of instruction in alignment with the core standards of literacy. There can and should be several others.” However, in spite of Coleman’s words of caution, many understand it as the way to teach children to read closely and carefully, which inadvertently has elevated something that began as an instructional suggestion to instructional canon.

This relatively recent development makes us think a lot about some of the rules that govern how we approach literacy instruction that include things such as:

  • Children should read books at their level.
  • Always pre-teach new vocabulary and difficult-to-decode words.
  • Be sure to fill in gaps in background knowledge prior to reading.

While these ideas are rooted in important research about how children become increasingly proficient readers, we have to look closely at the ways in which we implement them and continually ask, “How are these rules serving children?”

For example, we have visited countless classrooms honoring the matching books to reader rule.  The classroom libraries are leveled and students only pick from the bin containing books “on their level.” However, when we ask, “how is this serving children?” we worry that this practice might do more harm than good as we repeatedly encounter children who shy away from reading challenges because “that book isn’t on my level.” Like David Coleman’s approach to teaching children to read closely and carefully, matching books to readers is a well-intended idea. There are many situations when it will serve an important role in helping to improve children’s reading skills, however, when it stops serving children, we can’t soldier on “just because.” Just because David Coleman or some other notable figure popularized a way of teaching children to read or write. We must remember that in education, we are always trying to outgrow our best ideas and that over time, even the best ideas evolve.

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