November 28, 2015

Giving Thanks

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“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is  ‘Thank You,’ it will be enough.”

                                                                                                                                      ~Meister Eckhart



A few nights ago, while we sat chatting on the phone after busy days of work, Kim said to Jan, “Did I ever tell you how I ended up studying reading?” Curiosity piqued, Jan said, “No. Please tell me.” Kim shared this story:

Shortly after I finished undergrad, I was a finalist for a third grade teaching position in a small town smack dab in the center of New York State.  I really, really wanted this job and was one of three people who had been recommended to meet with the superintendent. The meeting went really well until the superintendent asked me what I thought my greatest weakness was as  a teacher. Of course, having never taught before, I figured I had a lot of weaknesses, but I looked him in the eye and said, “I’m worried that I don’t know how to teach children to read.”

Not surprisingly, Kim did not get that job. However, this moment of truth set her on a path to begin learning what she did not know.  Within a year, she had enrolled in a master’s program in reading at the University of New Hampshire.

Reminiscing about this story reminded us both of our journey as educators and made us think about the many, many people who have lent their expertise in ways that help us to  understand literacy more deeply and influence our practice and thinking. During this season of giving thanks, we would like to pay a small tribute to some of these people by sharing what we  consider to be some of their most inspiring words.


Ellin Oliver Keene (@ellinkeene): “We must propel our teaching forward, from good to great, from effective to artistic.  We must do what may be hardest of all–rethink what we believe is already working.” (p. 57 To Understand)


Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton (@Dorobarn and @VickiVintonTMAP) : “…our ultimate task is to remain teachers of thinking, not conveyors of thoughts.” (p. 66 What Readers Really Do)   


Peter Johnston: “If nothing else, children should leave school with a sense that if they act, and act strategically, they can accomplish their goals.” (p.29 Choice Words)


Nancie Atwell (@NancieAtwell): “Learning is more likely to happen when students like what they are doing. Learning is also more likely when students can be involved and active and when they can learn from and with other students.” (p. 69 In the Middle)


Brenda Power (@brendapower/@choiceliteracy): “The truth is, we do know what we’re doing, and our expertise is hard won.  Yet it’s a gentle touch that wins colleagues and community members over, and a heavy hand that leads to stalemates. In the end, how would you prefer to be remembered–as someone who was always right, or always kind?” (The Big Fresh, 1/3/2009)


Chris Tovani (@ctovani): “Teachers have a choice.  We can choose to cover the curriculum or we can choose to teach students to inquire.  If we choose to cover the curriculum, our students will fail.  If we teach our students to inquire, we will have a well of information from which to teach and our students will have a purpose for learning.  It is our obligation to renew our students’ curiosity and guide them toward inquiry.” (p.93 I Read It, But I Don’t Get It)


Dorothy Barnhouse(@dorobarn): “I can only begin to know what that student is thinking by shifting my attitude from the teacher who is supposed to know to the teacher who is supposed to discover.” (p. 13 Readers Front and Center)


Kylene Beers (@KyleneBeers): “…remember that anyone can struggle given the right text. The struggle isn’t the issue; the issue is what the reader does when the text gets tough.” (p. 15 When Kids Can’t Read What Teachers Can Do)


Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts (@iChrisLehman and @teachkate): “Love brings us in close, leads us to study the details of a thing, and asks us to return again and again.” (p. 2 Falling in Love with Close Reading)


Franki Sibberson and Karen Szymusiak (@FrankiSibberson and @KarenSzymusiak): “If we don’t teach our students to stop before they reread and think about how the second or third reading will be different from the first, they may never find success in rereading.  The power of rereading is in reading differently. (p. 71 Still Learning to Read)


Kelly Gallagher (@KellyGToGo): “Rarely does half-hearted effort produce deep pride.  While it’s true that not everyone can become a star baseball player, we must believe that all our students, give the right motivation, teaching, and reading materials can make meaning from hard text.” (p. 23 Reading Reasons)


Fountas and Pinnell (@fountaspinnell): “You don’t first learn about reading and then read.  You learn how to read as you read.” (p. 43 Guiding Readers and Writers)


Richard Allington: “Our schools create more students who can read than students who do read…Interest in voluntary reading begins to fall in the upper-elementary grades, declines steeply in middle school and continues to fall across high school.  We seem to be producing readers who can read more difficult texts but who elect not to read even easy texts on their own time. (p. 10 What Really Matters for Struggling Readers)


Steven Layne (@StevenLayne): “…if research is being given careful consideration, how are we missing the fact that our aliteracy rate has surpassed our illiteracy rate?…we have more readers who can read and don’t than we do readers who can’t read at all! Yet our focus as a nation remains almost exclusively on reading skills.” (p.8 Igniting a Passion for Reading)


Steph Harvey and Anne Goudvis (@StephHarvey49 and @annegoudvis): “Comprehension instruction is not about teaching strategies for strategies’ sake.  Nor is about making sure that kids “master” the strategies. It is about teaching kids to use strategies purposefully to read any text for any reason, and to generate still more learning.” (p. 33 Strategies that Work)


Sharon Taberski (@staberski): “When I ask children to respond to books, it’s never just to keep them busy.  It’s to push their thinking, help them clarify what they’re reading, and promote their appreciation of books.” (p. 12 On Solid Ground)


Penny Kittle (@pennykittle): “Because knowing the gist is not going to lead students to deeper reading and empathy for people in our world or prepare them for independent reading in college or the workplace.” (p. 4 Book Love)


Jenn Serravallo (@JSerravallo): “Without engagement during reading, this ‘time spent reading’  doesn’t count.” (p.20 Teaching Reading in Small Groups)  


Thomas Newkirk (@Tom_Newkirk): “We need to put away the stopwatches and say in every way possible–This is not a race. Take your time.  Pay attention. Touch the words and tell me how they touch you.” ( p. 197 The Art of Slow Reading)


Tanny McGregor (@TannyMcG): “To promote deep thinking in our classrooms, we must build in time for talk.” (p. 6 Comprehension Connections)


Teri Lesesne (@ProfessorNana): “We need to make time daily for reading so that we can share our passion for books with our students…Kids simply want us to tell them about books they might find interesting.” (p. 38 Making the Match)


Donalyn Miller (@donalynbooks): “Anyone who calls him or herself a reader can tell you that it starts with encountering great books, heartfelt recommendations, and a community of readers who share this passion.” (p. 4 The Book Whisperer)


Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan (@clareandtammy): “Our readers need to know that we are listening, watching, and expecting them to grow, learn, make errors, set goals, and reflect on the entire process.  They need to know that we view learning in a dynamic framework.” (p. 103 Assessment in Perspective)


Mary Howard (@DrMaryHoward): “Effective assessment includes evaluation.  Assessment in the process of gathering information from a wide range of sources; evaluation is the process of placing value on that information.” (p. 45 RTI From All Sides)


Joan Moser and Gail Boushey (@gailandjoan): “The change came when we realized that the reason our students were unable to stay engaged was the fact that we were asking them to do unauthentic activities and had never explicitly taught them how to engage in meaningful reading and writing. (p. 22 The Daily Five)


Marie Clay: “As children search for meaning in print are able to notice new things about words or print or messages, constructively linking these things to other things they know. There are ways of instructing or learning which foster such responses and other ways of instructing or learning which limit opportunities to do these things. (p. 319 Becoming Literate)   


Mem Fox (@therealmemfox): “Children develop language through interaction, not action. They learn to talk by talking to someone who responds. They must therefore learn to write by writing to some who responds.” (p. 22 Radical Reflections)


Ralph Fletcher (@FletcherRalph): You don’t learn to write by going through a series of preset writing exercises.   You learn to write by grappling with a real subject that truly matters to you.” (p. 4 What a Writer Needs)


Lucy Calkins: “We cannot write well if we are afraid to let our individual voice stand out from other voices.” (p. 143 The Art of Teaching Writing)


Katie Wood Ray (@KatieWoodRay): “When students are taught to see how writing is done, this way of seeing opens up to them huge warehouses of possibilities for how to make their writing good writing. (p. 11 Wondrous Words)


Georgia Heard (@GeorgiaHeard1): “Together you need to listen as carefully as you can and trust the integrity of your own voices when it’s time to speak.” (p. 35 For the Good of the Earth and the Sun)


Katherine Bomer (@KatherineBomer): “…we should give the same amount of time, respect, and attitude of inquiry into the mystery of our students’ writing that we would give to a published novel, poem, or feature article.” (p. 135 Hidden Gems)


To all of these people and the many, many others who work tirelessly to promote the great cause of literacy, thank you.

What is Your Banana? Rethinking Common Literacy Practices

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Most of us have peeled a banana the same way for our whole lives, having learned from our parents, who likely peeled bananas from the top. In this video, which has been viewed more than 11 million times, we see a demonstration of the way monkeys actually peel a banana.

So here’s the magic question: Will you peel your next banana the way you always have or will you try it a new way? In the responses below the video, it is interesting to see how strongly people feel about the “right ” way to peel a banana. If peeling a banana invites so much contention and so many emphatic responses, how might we respond to suggestions that we try something new in our literacy practices.

Here are places you might try peeling your literacy banana differently:

  • Teach a guided reading lesson without an introduction to the text. Just give it to the students and ask them what they think the group should do to get started with the reading?
  • Read aloud a book for the sheer joy of the experience, vs. to teach a comprehension strategy or a reading skill.
  • Rather than pre-teach vocabulary, encourage students to notice and name words that they don’t understand.
  • Group kids for small group instruction based on their reading process rather than their level.
  • Encourage children to venture out of their “reading level” and support them in thinking through the experiment.

We are by no means suggesting that these practices are bad or wrong. We are suggesting, however, that it is often worthwhile to interrogate our habits. Many of the suggestions above relate to instructional habits that can limit student agency rather than develop it, so shifting some of them some of the time may nudge students to do more of the work across your literacy instruction.

What instructional banana can you peel differently?

Level Mania: What are we really saying to kids?

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Recently, we wrote a lead for the Choice Literacy newsletter, The Big Fresh, in which we told the story of Daisy, a little girl whose efforts to self-select a text that appeals to her are thwarted by her teacher’s loving, albeit misguided, focus on text level. You can read the Daisy story here. First of all, we sometimes advise students that texts are too hard for them “right now,” and we are not suggesting that all conversations about levels are wrong or bad. We are suggesting, however, that we need to look closely at our language and at the underlying messages the hyper-focus on levels (which seems pervasive these days) may communicate.

Beyond the teacher’s literal statement to Daisy, here are messages Daisy may have been inferring:

  • I think of you as a reader almost exclusively in terms of your level.
  • I trust reading levels absolutely and generally don’t consider the nuances of your reading process, the text, or your motivation to read.
  • While you thought you knew how to select a book for yourself, you really don’t.
  • You are not as good at selecting books for yourself as the others standing in line around you.
  • That confidence you have in yourself is misguided.
  • Don’t get excited about the books you want to read until you check with me.
  • I’m in charge of your “independent” reading.

We suggest, however, that Daisy is exactly the reader we want to see en masse in schools. Think about all that she practices as a reader:

  • She chooses to read books that require her to work hard.
  • She reads for meaning, even when she reads a book that is difficult for her.
  • She knows that her effort in a book should be productive (lead to meaning and ideas).
  • She stops to work on words when she has trouble decoding them.
  • She chunks long, unknown words into more manageable parts.
  • After figuring out an unknown word, she rereads to make sense.
  • She is an avid reader.
  • She is selective in what she reads and has particular tastes in books and authors.
  • She likes to read books with characters that remind her of herself.
  • She knows how to preview the book by looking at the cover and reading a bit.
  • She knows that medals on book jackets mean that other people who have read the book thought it was very good.
  • She is very intentional in her book selection.
  • Once she has chosen a book, she gets very excited about it.
  • When she is excited about a book, she looks forward to telling her teacher about it.
  • She sees herself as a reader.

Daisy’s skill, her interest, her knowledge of books and of herself as a reader all epitomize our goals for students, and could translate into her enjoying an agentive identity as a reader across her lifetime. Daisy’s current independence, interest, and willingness to work hard are the end that we have in mind—the end of the gradual release of responsibility, that is—and should be the natural, independent reading bi-product of thoughtful read aloud, shared reading, and guided reading.

However, while Daisy’s reading enthusiasm and proficiency are our goal for all readers, too often we see, hear about, and read about work in read aloud, shared reading, and guided  reading that does not mirror the work we see Daisy doing during the independent reading experience described in the opening story. Rather than teaching children to preview texts, we take on the introduction. Rather than teaching them to wonder and notice, we ask them text-dependent questions. Rather than allowing students to truly choose books for themselves, we retain control–we confine readers to narrow reading level parameters and place excessive demands for book logs, reading goals, and written reflection. We are not saying that we should never introduce a text, ask text-dependent questions, set reading goals, give students guidelines for selecting texts during independent reading, or assign reading logs. We are saying, however, that it seems that in many classrooms, these practices have reached an extreme, and they are increasingly getting in the way of student independence.

Accompanying all instructional choices are many subtle messages to students. 
Unfortunately, Daisy’s well–meaning teacher is short-sighted and doesn’t recognize the beauty in Daisy’s independent reading choice. Though she cares about Daisy and does not mean to thwart her sense of agency, Ms. Wright is blinded by levels and Daisy’s upward movement through them. Consequently, Ms. Wright’s instruction in read aloud, shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading hinge too much on levels which, too often, actually stands in the way of learning.