Starting the Year: What a Reader Needs

14199744_1574821089491351_505723474697662016_nI like it when my friend, Dr. Mary Howard, fires off a social media rant on a literary or professional grumbling.
It’s like watching a great comic demolish a hapless heckler.
Well, today, I’m going to take up the sword and step up on the soapbox and start mixing metaphors until I get my point across.
I belong to a couple of social media book clubs, and this time of year– summer before the start of school– I see this post a few time a day, “I’m going to teach [insert grade level] for the first time, and I want some suggestions for what books to teach.”
The implication here is that the unnamed teacher is planning a year of teaching whole class novels. Now, I could write a book about teaching whole class novels. Then I could turn around and write another one about why you shouldn’t teach whole class novels. It’s a tough issue… I’m going to leave it alone, right now.
Instead, I am going to suggest that the question, “What books should I teach?” is the wrong question to ask when assigned a new grade level.
Instead, the question should be, “What do I need to know about [insert grade level] readers?” As in: “I’m going to teach sixth grade this year. What do I need to know about sixth-grade graders.”
Yes, that question calls for sizable generalizations. So what? The purpose of the question is just to get your instruction started off on the right foot. As the school year gets started, you should want to gain as much specific, individual information about every reader as you can. But before you get started, you need a starting point.
Let me take a minute to separate two important issues:
Readers have developmental learning needs. Primary grade leaders need to learn letters and sounds and so forth. Those needs are relatively easy to anticipate.
However, even in kindergarten there is more to reading than learning sounds and phonics and fluency.
Reading at every age is about curiosity. It is imperative for the reader to be curious to know what’s going to happen between the covers of the book.
That, after all, is what makes a genuine, authentic, real-life, honest-to-goodness reader, the desire to read the book.
If you can capture that desire with your students, by golly you’ll have a bunch of readers.
A reader, you see, is much more than someone who can read the words. A reader is someone with a passion for story. A reader is someone with a thirst for information and the inclination to get that information from books.
Yes, in the early years we must meet the developmental needs of readers. Students have to form the words and connect them coherently into sentences. That’s essential for reading, but it isn’t why we read.
If you can motivate your students to want to read, the mechanics of reading become easier. A young child with a passion for dinosaurs will pick up any book on the subject and attempt it. I remember my son, in third grade, with little experience with chapter books, tackling Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone solo.
Readers want to read.
By the upper elementary grades, the teachers’ main focus must be on how students build meaning from the text, and how they fix comprehension when their initial efforts fail.
The child’s social and emotional development plays a key role in comprehension. As children progress into the upper elementary grade and middle school grades, social and emotional development varies widely, particularly in classrooms with wide cultural and economic diversity. By about the fifth grade, finding one book that fits all readers is a challenging task.
And yet, as students get older, we grow increasingly concerned with identifying the novels from the literary canon that “every student must read once.”
I wonder if we are trying to grow readers or pass on culture and tradition. Not hardly the same thing. (Just a thought: when choosing a whole class novel, ask your self: “How will reading this book help all my students become better readers?” That’s a heavy load for one book, but there are novels up to the challenge.”)
I have taught To Kill a Mockingbird to sixth grade gifted and talented students and to high school self-contained special education students and a variety of levels in between. When I use it in different classes, it’s not the same type of novel. Sometimes its a young girl’s coming of age book. Sometimes its a novel about the relationship between children and their fathers. Sometimes it’s a novel about social justice. In a seventh or eighth grade classroom, it can be any one of the three… or something else entirely.
As a teacher, I don’t determine how I’m going to teach TKAM. My students do that. Their needs as readers set the direction for instruction.
Mockingbird is a rare book that allows for that type of instructional flexibility. But as much as I love to work with the Harper Lee classic, the fact is, the sentence structure, the vocabulary, the nuanced point of view, make it less accessible to some readers, even readers with the background knowledge to appreciate thematic aspects of the book.
I’m digressing a little bit here. While there are books that can serve as whole class novels at almost every grade level, picking books isn’t the place instruction should begin.
Reading instruction should start with the reader, not the book.
Yes, that may mean throwing out artificial constructs of text complexity at the beginning of the school year. Text complexity is a meaningless idea until you know the reader you are working with.
While we’re throwing things out, let’s talk about reading levels. Okay, hold on for a second. I’m not saying throw out reading levels. What I am suggesting is this: knowing a reading level is not knowing the student as a reader. It’s not. Readers are not letters or numbers. Readers are people. You know nothing about the readers in your class until you start talking to them. Conferences are essential. In fact, what you learn from conferencing with your students, that’s what drives your instruction. Not scores. Not curriculum guides. Not textbooks.
So, let’s consider a two-step process:
Step one: get a general understanding of the readers you will be teaching. Know what’s popular. Get a general idea of what they will want to read. Start your year by showing your students that you are in touch with their likes and dislikes. Hold some book talks modeling your interest in what your kids want to read.
Step two: get books into the hands of your students. Do book shopping activities with your classroom library. Offer choice. When students pick books, have them reflect on why they choose the book. Have students write recommendations for books they finish. Keep them on file, perhaps in binders. Not only will those recommendations help other readers, they’ll help you understand what your readers want.

Adding to Your Summer Classroom Budget

14199744_1574821089491351_505723474697662016_nExcuse me. Mind if I look at your Target receipts?

Been ordering a lot too, am I right? Amazon, Oriental Trading…

Have you ever asked a clerk if you would get a bigger discount if you worked summers at the teacher store?

Do you have separate store credit cards for Michaels, AC Moore and Hobby Lobby?

It’s an odd phenomenon I’m describing here. Teachers, on tight summer budgets, routinely spend more than we can afford to fix up our classrooms for the coming year.

I don’t care where you work, old building or new, all classroom design is basically the same. The model is 1950s Soviet gulag. Cinderblock walls, green linoleum floor, asbestos tiles holding back the mold in the ceiling and windows  that only open a crack when it’s 90 degrees indoors..

Naturally you would want to spruce that up.

Who could learn in a room that designed for interrogating Julius and Ethel Rosenberg?

You probably get most of your decorating tips from Pinterest, am I right?

How do you get rewarded for these efforts? A 3 on a Danielson form and $250 back on your income tax.

America sure knows how to celebrate teachers.

Well, I could rail on and on about the financial plight of teachers. The struggle is real, but not today’s topic.

Instead, today I am going to recommend spending more money, probably $20 to $40 at a bookstore.

I want you to buy one professional development book this summer. I want you to become an expert on that book. When school starts I want you to make a daily goal out of applying the lessons from the book to your teaching.

Find a book that is highly didactic in nature. There are too many steps in turning theory into practice. Instead, choose a book that you already agree with philosophically and follow someone else advice for putting theory into practice. 

This is a simple remedy for always making sure you upgrade your teaching skills. You don’t have to constantly reinvent yourself. But, like your phone and your computer, you need to install updates.

I find this one-book-a-year approach a very simple tool for improving my teaching practice. Last year, I worked on adapting lessons from Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Robert Propst  Some of it worked. Some of the didn’t. I will use the lessons again, and I will make some necessary revisions. 

This year, I want to re-engage with one of my favorite staff development writers, Jeff Anderson. My kids struggle with all aspects of writing as writing instruction seems to be a lost art in the days of the common core.  I’m going to play around with adapting Patterns of Power, a book written for grades 1-5 into lessons for 9th and 10th basic skills students. 

If I do it right, my students will have a blast and they will write like no one ever thought possible. I’ve never failed pulling Jeff’s stuff into my classroom.

If you’re looking for something to try yourself, I cant’ think of a better place to start than 180 Days:  Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents by Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher. I hang on every word these two say and write. I’ve diligently applied their ideas to my classroom for years.  Reader choice, quick writes and side-by-side writing are but a few ideas I’ve stolen from Kelly and Penny. Robbery is the greatest form of flattery in the teaching profession.

Now, yes, you are going to be handed some professional development priorities from your district administration and they may even conflict with your summer PD book. To this I say… So what?

Toe the line when you have. Apply what you know as best you can. This is not a game of perfect. Good teachers are always an amalgam of styles and philosophies.

Plan effective instruction every day around your district policies and using the best practice you learned from your reading.
it will all work out. 

Do as much good teaching as you can and forget the rest. It’s a simple philosophy. 

Today you will use a little Cris Tovani and annotate a passage. Tomorrow you’ll dive into you Jeff Anderson by noticing and imitating the grammar and voice from a mentor sentence. The next day, push the desks together, assign roles and have some structured group discussions. There’s room for all of it. 

You have a strict district pacing guide and don’t have time to experiment with “best practice”? Okay, that’s a little tough. Make good choices about what you spend class time working on. Look at you objectives and decide which ones will really make a difference.

The one PD book-a-year approach works incredibly well. You become an expert on a group of strategics built around a consistent philosophy. You students get used to a certain pattern of activities. They adjust to the expectations. Kids are more comfortable when they know how class is going to work every.

Now let me throw this out there: Should you apply information from from your PD book with fidelity? Meaning: do everything and do it exactly as it’s in the book. 

Well, that’s up to you. 

Personally, I always look to read and apply. That means figure out ways to make new ideas my own and work them seamlessly into my teaching.

That’s just my style. My kids tend to know when I’m playing at something, and then lessons don’t work as well. 

Also, I hate scripted teaching. Hate it. I’m not going to take scripts and I am not going to start scripting myself.

What do you do if you don’t like the book?

Don’t read another word. Don’t try it.

Do something else.

It won’t all work. Sometimes great ideas flop. They flop because the execution failed, or they flopped because they weren’t great ideas to begin with. Let it go.

A sign of teacher flexibility is to recognize when a lesson is going badly and to make adjustments. It says that somewhere in the Danielson rubric.

I suggest you set some standards for your self by which you judge whether a new lesson is successful.

Look at factors like student engagement, achievement and student feedback (yes, there is nothing wrong with asking, “Hey kids, did you like that?” Don’t ask it exactly that way if it strikes you as too informal. Instead, try: “On an exit slip, name two things that went well with this activity and two things that could have been better.” Something like that. Actual wording may vary.) 

Other tips that will make your staff development plans more successful:

Start a small book club at school. Work on the application together. You might get Domain 4 points if you follow a Danielson evaluation rubric. 

Find an online book club. I belong to a few. I run one. Great sources of information.

Find supporting material. Look on line for tools other teachers have made, listen to author podcasts, stuff like that. 

Talk to an instructional coach or department supervisors who knows the book, or is willing to learn. 

Nothing in this little plan is rocket science. You could have learned it all on your own. 

The problem is, I find too few teachers read professional texts religiously. Not like members of other professions who are obliged to update their practice. As teachers, we tend to set up our classrooms in a way that works for us and then we don’t mess with success. Reluctantly, we update textbooks or add technology to our tightly controlled routines.

The challenge is to find simple ways to make yourself a little better every year. In the book Good to Great Jim Collins says something like, “As soon as you think you are good enough, you take the first step toward mediocrity.”

Mediocrity is not a satisfying location. You can have a mediocre day. You can even have worse than that. But you always need to strive for better. A great day here or there can be a tremendous source of pride and motivation. Just don’t expect them all to be great. 

So, what’s you poison:

180 Days by Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher? There aren’t two individuals anywhere who know writing better than Kittle and Gallagher.

Patterns of Power by Jeff Anderson

Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Robert Propst.

Assess your strengths and weaknesses as a teacher and the needs of your students based on experience. Find the right text and go to town. 

Let us know your choices and your experiences. 

The Why, or “How I’ve Screwed Up Reading Instruction for a Generation.”

My friend is a successful business coach. When working with a client seeking to make a change, he first asks them this question, “What’s your why?”
He wants clients to think about why they want to change. He wants them to consider long-term goals and the potential benefits of making a change. Knowing the why helps them stick to the plan.
As literacy teachers, we should be familiar with “What’s you why?” For us, however, the question has a different purpose. We have known for a long time that readers need to have a why, which we call “a purpose for reading.”
Purpose provides focus. Focus improves comprehension.
Students might have all sorts of purposes for reading. They may be reading to discover character traits or to locate symbols and infer their meaning for example.
Find the example of figurative language.
Draw conclusions about the characters based on text evidence.
Make text to self connections.
Oh, and please annotate the text as you go so I can see your thinking. Use sticky notes if you can’t write in your book. (This last direction is very important).
Now, I’m here to tell you that if you give these sorts of instructions to readers (or if you let your readers choose a similar type of “Why”) then your readers don’t have an authentic purpose reading.
I’ve been doing that for reasons.
Which means I’ve been teaching reading wrong for years.
Let me state that again clearly.
I have been teaching reading wrong. To a generation of readers. Actually two generations, because I’m now teaching the children of students I had 25 years ago.
Well… I haven’t gotten it all wrong.
Drawing conclusions and making connections, those thinking strategies are important for readers to use.
They aren’t purposes for reading, however. They look great in your lesson plans, of course. You want those terms on the board and on anchor charts when your supervisor walks in.
But they aren’t reasons to read.
I came across this line last night in a Heinemann blog promoting Literacy Coaching by Stephanie Affinito: “We do not read to practice our reading skills, but to be changed by what we read.”
Instinctively, I’ve always known this to be true. When I help students find the right books, that’s kind of, sort of, a little bit what I’m doing and every now and then I get it right and those are probably the kids who become readers and the rest play too many computer games.
Find books, stories, and poems that will change you. That will deepen your empathy. That will fortify your courage. That will challenge your thinking.
We should teach that as the readers primary mission
Find books, stories, and poems with characters and situations that you can relate to. Or, find books stories and poems with characters and situations that you can’t relate too so you can grow by exploring an unknown world.
Teach that every single day.
How often do we hand students a piece because “It’s a complex text, the kind of thing you need to read to do well on the test.”?
Well, that’s a whole lot of bull muffins.
We read to be changed by what we read.
That we should do daily not only with intention but with passion. Teach that to students. Celebrate it. Foster it. Nurture it.
Here’s why Harry Potter has worked for almost a generation of kids. It’s not because JK Rowling is a magnificently creative writer who puts clever images on every page. She does, and that’s great and it may be a big part of what we like about the books. But it isn’t why we read.
We read Harry Potter because it’s the story of a kid who lives in terrible circumstances, in a cupboard on the stairs, with a family that has no time for him. He’s neglected, and in that neglect, he’s abused. But Harry finds escape in a wizarding school and he finds adventure, which is all great.
But Harry also finds friends and a place where he’s feels important.
And that’s what we want. All of us. Adult and child. Friends and place where we feel important.
Harry Potter gives us hope that no matter how meager and beleaguered our circumstances we can find a place filled with friends where we feel important. That’s a basic human need, taken straight off Maslow’s chart. It’s called esteem.
We read Harry Potter so we can feel hope and carry that hope into our lives.
We need to teach this to our kids. No…not that specific lesson about Harry Potter. They need to discover that for themselves.
We need to teach them how reading will change their life. We need to model it and think it aloud so that we think it into life.
Most importantly, we need to live it ourselves, so we can then pass it on.
You want a class full of avid readers who don’t want to put down books? Show them how to find hope and courage in a book. Teach them that reading will help them understand love and heartbreak because when you’re young heartbreak is inevitable with love and how you handle it is how you grow from it.
Kathy Collins wrote a great book called Growing Readers. Read it if you haven’t.
But remember, we aren’t just growing readers, we’re growing people.
Show your students how to read with a purpose by asking them to reflect on this question: How is this book going to change my life?
As for me. I’m going to write that question on poster board, get it laminated and stick it front and center in my classroom.
Because I need to get this right.

A Grumpy Reader

Every now and then, I get grumpy.
Like the early late ‘90s and early 2000s.
That was a grumpy period for me.
I’m grumpy now, as a matter of fact. You know what makes me grumpy? Hearing the same jargonized nonsense proposed as educational practice.
I’d like to shoot a few holes in some of today’s common thinking. Where your safety glasses before reading. My aim isn’t too good, and I might put an eye out.

“We’re going one-to-one. It’s going to be great.”
Grrrrrrrr. Sure, there are a ton of fun apps out there for kids to play with. I like one called Storyboard That. I’ve done some good work with Newsela.
There’s nothing wrong with computers. They can be fun… I guess.
On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with pencils and paper either.
Here’s the thing: Your students come to school every day one-to-one. They don’t need an electronic tablet or notebook computer. They have a brain. They take it everywhere they go. And it’s always switched on, although it may seem tuned to the wrong channel. Learning to use that brain to think, to create and to problem solve is all that really matters.
If you can think, create and problem solve without any tools, or the most basic tools, that thinking will transfer to when you have a computer in your hand. If you can’t think, create and problem solve, an electronic device probably won’t help.
I see you are not convinced.
Consider this classic problem: give a group of students some plastic wheels, wooden dowel rods, rubber bands, tape and a mouse trap. Ask them to construct a vehicle that will move across the classroom powered by the mousetrap.
They can solve that problem in two seconds with an electronic device. Go to Youtube and look it up.
Without a device, they have a problem. They will need to get creative. They will learn to think.
Creativity and problem-solving trump everything.
Yes, computers are still important. Today’s students are digital natives. Yadda yadda yadda.
A computer is a sharp tool. But a sharp tool is always more effective in the hands of a sharp mind.
Sharpen the mind first.
The devices will find their place.

“A good reading program is worth the investment.”
No, it’s not.
There are no valid reasons to purchase reading programs.
There. I said it.
Reading is a form of thinking. Thinking that is stimulated by decoding and processing written language. Reading is a thinking process. It is not a collection of skills that can be taught together or isolation. While the words do matter, reading is way more than just vocabulary. Problem-solving strategies may help, but you really can’t teach reading by teaching isolated strategies any more than you can teach reading through isolated skills.
The thinking process we call reading must be passed on from an experienced mentor reader to a novice reader through authentic.
We call that modeling and thinking aloud.
Me do. We do together. You do on your own.
Then we talk about it and report.
A simple algorithm. Workbooks, worksheets, canned questions, computer programs, etc. not required.
So 86 Read 180. Dump it.
Reading is an unforgettable journey. A Journeys text not required. Toss it out the window.

The Teacher Has to Know the Book to Judge a Student’s Comprehension
This is an often cited argument against choice books and reading workshop.
It’s asinine.
For reading instruction to work, readers have to behave like readers. They have to pick books because that’s what readers do.
Of course, there’s no way for a teacher to know every book. Not every book in the classroom library or the school library or the cannons of children’s and young adult literature.
And that’s okay.
Measuring the accuracy of a readers comprehension is only one part of reading instruction, and it isn’t something that can or should be judged anyway.
I read. In chapter three I might have one understanding of characters or conflicts in a book. In chapter ten, I might have another. In chapter fifteen, I might not be thinking about characters or conflicts at all anymore. I might be looking for bigger ideas.
A conferencing about comprehension is one type of conversation a teacher might have with a student. Or a student might have with another student.
“What’s happening in the book?” Is a good question.
But it’s no more important than “Why are you reading this book?” Or “What do you want to read next.”
Those are authentic conversations readers have.
A reading classroom must be rooted in such authentic conversations.
If it is, students will learn to read and be readers.

Create an Argument Based on Text Evidence.
Who does this? Outside of a literature classroom or law school, when does this happen? Is it an authentic response to reading.
I don’t really think so…
I read something, and I react to it. That reaction might be based on logic. But it might be based on emotion.
It might be based on personal experience.
Logic, emotion, experience. These are valid responses to reading.
Not one has more validity, more value, or more usefulness than the other.
What the text says has only one value: to make you think or feel or remember. The words on the page are a launch code that can take your brain in many directions.
A reader should be free to explore all those reactions. Examining the evidence contained in the words themselves is merely one direction and a very limited one at that.
We can’t build readers designed to fit into nice little pre-made boxes.
We must build readers whose minds can fill the expanse of the universe. That’s a little more than text evidence can do.







Post-Election 2016: What Should We Read?

I was recently drafting a blog about the consequences of taking a behaviorist approach to literacy curricula and the need for more constructivist thinking, particularly when crafting assessments.
After the presidential election, I decided to put that piece on hold.
That blog didn’t seem, as they say, worthy of the moment.
I’m not the only literacy blogger who has taken this approach, of course. You may probably feel fatigued with election reaction and analysis.
It’s too late to discuss whether Donald J. Trump should or should not be the next president. I’ll leave speculation about his education policy to more qualified individuals.
The question I want to deal with is this: What should we read now?
Literature is, after all, often the best tool for making sense of the world. And today, for many of us, and for many of the children we teach, the world doesn’t make sense.
A few years ago, I was sorting through my classroom library and ran across a copy of Madeline L’Engle’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time. I recalled teaching it as a whole class novel before our school adopted a reading workshop approach. For a generation or more, A Wrinkle in Time had been a favorite read for many kids, but I couldn’t remember anyone picking it from the library in a long time. I didn’t use it for read alouds. I didn’t even consider it. I wondered if we had reached a time when warnings against conformity had lost their importance. It seemed that no one worried about the danger of losing freedom of thought. Our self-determination seemed assured.
In retrospect, that may have been an illusion. Possibly a mistake.
We live now more than ever in a time when our individuality and freedom of thought are in danger. In the 1960s, the advertising masterminds of Madison Avenue determined that they could convince us to buy almost anything. They could brainwash us into believing our self-worth was attached to our laundry detergent and ring around the collar threatened human social progress.
The golden age of advertising bore the Black Thing that robbed of us our free will. (For those of you who miss the allusion, the Black Thing is the evil entity that controls human thought and action in A Wrinkle in Time. Explaining an allusion sometimes spoils it, I know. But it seemed necessary at the time. )
Today election cycles market presidential candidates with the same tactics once used to sell breakfast cereal. A few weeks before the election, I re-read some of Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign speeches. His prose was elaborate and erudite, steeped in allusion to the classical thinkers of Athens and Rome. Today, candidates speak in 30 second sound bites.
I fear that we have become a people more controlled by media messages than by our ability to think as free individuals for ourselves.
Journalism is no longer about reportage. It’s another vehicle for manipulating how we think, reinforcing our fears, stoking our emotions. You can tune into one network and listen to purely conservative messages. Tune in a separate network for liberal messages. Choose your poison. No need to think for yourself. Let the media do it for you.
I’m not going to champion the cause of liberalism or conservatism. Political and personal philosophies are potentially dangerous things and should exist only as the product of a world closely examined through meditation and self-interrogation. We shouldn’t stumble into a way of thinking. We shouldn’t be lead to one. Curiosity and inquiry should be our only guides.
I believe we should take care not to allow labels to define us. Democrat or Republican. Liberal or conservative. Revolutionary or reactionary. Buying into an entire political philosophy is just another way avoid free, individual thought. We must not allow ourselves or our children to be so easily categorized.
So, I started out with the question, what should we read now? A Wrinkle in Time isn’t a bad place to start. We need to be wary of The Black Things that do our thinking for us.
Animal Farm and Watership Down are allegorical novels with warnings against tyranny and totalitarianism. Let’s not forget 1984. Big Brother is, after all, everywhere. I once thought that, like A Wrinkle in Time, these novels had become dated. I was wrong. We should never lower our defenses against the rise of tyrannical governments and leaders. It takes little to snuff out the flame of liberty.
There’s a temptation to say, “Let’s a read a bunch of dystopias because that’s where we’re heading.” Well… First, it isn’t our place to scare our students, or to suggest that the result of this election will lead to A Clockwork Orange. Again, I don’t wish to promote the cause of any party or candidate. My thesis remains: we need to direct our students to literature that promotes free and critical thinking about all the messages that surround us. We should be reading Feed by MT Anderson. We may not have media connections implanted into our brains yet, but we need to examine how electronic devices like cell phones control our lives.
We should still be reading The Hunger Games to discuss how media may be used to placate and manipulate the masses. Reading the Divergent series can lead to discussions about self-determination in the modern world. Allie Condie’s Matched series can also prompt discussions of how much control of our lives we hand over to the institutions who would rule over society.
Of course, 500 years ago, William Shakespeare warned us against politicians motivated by the forces of pride and ambition. The actions of such leaders produce tragic consequences for those around them. War and death abound in Richard III, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar. Tragedies are defined by their unhappy endings. We should genuinely fear those with a driving ambition for power and keep such individuals in check.
Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau wrote the essays and treatises that defined an American philosophy that emphasized self-reliance and marching to the beat of own drummers. “Whomsoever would be a man, must be a nonconformist,” Emerson wrote. That’s an idea worth exploring in our high school classes.
Thirty years ago I started out as a newspaper reporter, a career I sometimes miss. Not always. Sometimes. Like most young journalists of my generation, I was inspired by Woodward and Bernstein. Kids, high school students, juniors and seniors, should take a class in journalism and one in the influence of the mass media. They should read All the President’s Men when they do.
We should teach students to look at the world critically and even a little skeptically. Our children should learn to doubt the message until the see the evidence. We need to teach the logic of everyday reason, the ability to recognize falsehoods and fallacies.
It is not our place as teachers to indoctrinate our students in any way of thinking, political or otherwise. It is our place as educators to teach our students to defend themselves against unwilling or unwitting indoctrination.
We hear so much today about college and career ready. We take for granted that those are goals children should aspire to through the education we provide.
We’re wrong.
College and career readiness is not the purpose of public education. Those may be beneficial side effects, but the purpose is to prepare our children to participate in something that resembles a democratic form of government. We’ve lost sight of that. We’ve become too obsessed with testing and standards, distractions from the real purpose of our schools.
In 1779, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Diffusion of Knowledge Bill, a cornerstone in the creation of public education. Jefferson wrote, “The most effectual means of preventing [the perversion of power into tyranny are] to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts which history exhibits, that possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes.”
The power in society should rightly reside with its people, not its government, Jefferson believed. We empower students to take their role in society through education.
We must direct students toward the literature that will not only stimulate their thinking but equip them with the intellectual defenses against those forces that would control their thinking.
Otherwise, the Black Thing flourishes.

Readers Read

To: Tim Shannahan

RE: Readers read

Let’s all take a minute to thank Tim Shannahan.

Over the last few weeks, a new fire kindled beneath the Great Silent Reading Controversy and flames erupted.

On behalf of literacy bloggers everywhere, let me say, “Thanks for lighting the match, Tim.”

Shannahan has argued over the last couple of decades that research doesn’t the independent reading practice known as sustained silent reading (SSR) or drop everything and read (DEAR).

I won’t argue research with Shannahan. He’s far more qualified than I am.

I’m going to take up this argument on my own with a slightly different approach– the logic of everyday reasoning.

First, I need to disclose a couple facts about myself. I’ve read The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild. I love Book Love. I’ve met Penny Kittle. Penny has a great Youtube video that celebrates how much she gets students to read in her class. Penny breaks the fake reading epidemic. I like that most about her.

Therefore, as you have probably guessed, I’m biased on the silent reading issue.

Full disclosure complete.

Now, on to argument.

Sometimes answers are just this simple: kids should read silently and independently because reading is what readers do.

That simple.

Readers read.

You can circle your arms over your head for hours while kicking your feet furiously and never become a better swimmer.

In fact,you won’t become a better swimmer until you get in the pool and swim.

Swimmers swim.

Sometimes I feel like we do a lot of things that are called, perhaps euphemistically, reading instruction but don’t actually add up to reading. Those might include reading from a basal, working in a vocabulary workbook or a website, practicing skills like cause and effect and compare and contrast with worksheets.

Those things might… maybe, maybe, maybe… might help a child read better. But they aren’t reading.

Readers read.

They pick up books.

They get comfortable.

They get lost in a story.

If you are looking for the best justification for independent, sustained, silent reading, there it is.

Readers read.

Independent reading is authentic. I’m a huge believer in doing what Ron Ritchhart calls for in Making Thinking Visible. That is, closing the gap between what happens in the classroom and what happens in the real world.

Readers read.

In our classrooms, reading should not be just a tool for school (thank you for that phrase, Cris Tovani). Our goal should be to develop successful readers who will become lifelong readers. I don’t think many literacy-minded folks would disagree. To develop successful and lifelong readers,  teachers must model reading as a real world, lifetime habit of the mind.

I’ve always loved Nancie Atwell’s analogy from In the Middle. She compares reading workshop to sitting around a dining room table talking about books. That’s real world. Our classrooms should have a dining room atmosphere when it comes to reading discussions. Minus that one kid throwing mashed potatoes, of course.

Readers love to talk about what they read.

But mostly…readers read.

So thank you, Tim Shannahan.

You are wrong, I believe, but you ignited an important discussion about how we should handle reading in our classrooms.

It may not look the same in every room, but we all need to agree on one thing:

Readers Read.

Remembering Donald Murray

When I received this assignment from a few years ago, I could not have been more proud. Donald Murray is one of my heroes. Like Murray, I have been a journalist and an educator and I am proud of my work in both fields.
In the age of the Common Core, in a time when misguided ideas of literacy circulate faster than best practice, it’s good to remember the principles for writing instruction that men like Murray and Donald Grave set forth.
If there ever was a golden age of literacy instruction, Murray and Graves were two of it’s giants.
I hope to write more about Donald Murray in the coming weeks, including a close look at what we can still learn from A Writer Teaches Writing. In the meantime, please take a look at the is synopsis of “Teach Writing as a Process, not a Product.”