Thursday, July 28, 2011

Wanted: Reading Teachers Who Love Books

Do you teach reading in a public school? Do you feel the pressure of federal, state, and local system mandates to turn out "factory readers?" Are you worried about spending more time teaching to the reading test than spreading the love of reading to your students?

If you answered "yes" to any of the above questions, there's a book we'd like to recommend to you: The Book Whisperer, by Donalyn Miller.

The Lit Lady introduced me to this book. She said it would change my life. And she was right.

This book has done more than change my life; it has revolutionized the way I teach reading. It has also dramatically altered the way our students view books.

I had been teaching reading the same way for several years. It was mostly effective, I thought, so it was okay. However, one thing was consistently bugging me. The kids who didn't do well on the state tests continued to perform poorly on those tests - even though I was teaching my heart out, even though they went to extra reading classes, even though I went to countless meetings to learn new ways to help these struggling readers.

I felt discouraged. I felt like a bad teacher. I didn't know what else to do for these students who truly needed an exceptional reading teacher. And I honestly didn't feel like I was the person they deserved. I needed a change. For my classroom, for myself, and - most importantly - for the students.

The change I needed came in the form of the whispered secrets from Donalyn Miller's book. I want to share a short passage from this book with you. See if it resonates with you the way it did with me. Then keep reading to see how I started the change in my own reading classroom.

"Why do developing readers continue to struggle in spite of every intervention effort?  Well, the key might be in the amount of reading these students actually do. Reading policy expert Richard Allington explains in What Really Matters for Struggling Readers that when he examined the reading requirements of Title I and special education programs, he discovered that students in remedial settings read roughly 75 percent less than their peers in regular reading classes. No matter how much instruction students receive in how to decode vocabulary, improve comprehension, or increase fluency, if they seldom apply what they have learned in the context of real reading experiences, they will fail to improve as much as they could.
     The fact that students in remedial programs don't read much has serious consequences for developing readers. Students who do not read regularly become weaker readers with each subsequent year.(Miller, p.24-25)

This passage was the lightbulb moment I needed! Donalyn's struggles were my struggles. Her ideas made sense. It was time to do something with the knowledge she shared.

I read this book in January of this past school year. I devoured it, as a matter of fact. I went on to read other books that the author recommended. I immediately made changes to my classroom. I remember the first day of the "new regime" very well. Prior to reading The Book Whisperer, I had photocopied ahead of time several weeks' worth of reading skill practice sheets. I passed out the copies for all of the students, per usual as part of our Monday morning routine. Then I did something that was NOT routine. I asked the students to rip their papers in half. And then to rip them again.

All of the students were shocked. Some of them just stared; others whispered to their neighbors, "Do you think she's serious?" It was a glorious moment!

After a few moments of stunned silence, a brave soul ripped her paper in half. When I smiled, the other students followed suit. When the ripping was done and the fruits of our labor placed in the recycling bin, I instructed the students to pull out their book of choice - if they didn't have a self-selected book to read, then they were to choose one - and read. Just read. Enjoy your reading class.

Students who hadn't already selected a book to read of their own choice followed me to the bookshelf, and I sat in the floor and started making recommendations. After a bit, all of the students were reading books they chose for themselves in corners, on pillows, and under desks. It is a "lesson" I will savor forever.

I remember receiving phone calls from parents that evening. The kids were thrilled! The parents were impressed, but a little worried. "Just reading?" they asked. I asked them to trust me, and to give it time. I assured them that I didn't stop teaching reading (for heaven's sake, of course not!), but that the basis of a reading class should be READING. I'm really glad everyone agreed, because it was the best change I have ever made in my classroom.

While I still teach the reading standards, teach a mini-lesson to the whole group, conduct small reading groups based on skill needs, and conduct reading conferences, the basis of my reading program is self-selected reading for every child.

Admittedly, it is hard to find time for students who leave the room every day for extra reading instruction to have daily independent reading, but it is something I encourage every reading teacher to find time for in his or her schedule. Independent reading time for books the students choose for themselves is crucial.

If you are looking for a reading class transformation, read this book. It is amazing. You will love it - I know I did.

For more information on the amazing Donalyn Miller and The Book Whisperer, visit her blog: You can also follow her on Twitter: @donalynbooks

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Embrace Your Inner Geek Day

My new school organization stuff - woot!
So, I'm sitting in one of my summer Gifted Endorsement classes 20 minutes early. Not because I'm a geek, though; my child is at the beach with my aunt and uncle. I am just not used to going somewhere in the morning without getting someone else ready and lugging around extra stuff.

But, I am taking summer classes, and lots of them, so that helps raise my geek status.

Why all the talk about geekiness, you ask?

On the way to my class, I heard on the radio that today is Embrace Your Inner Geek Day! I love the idea of this holiday. I'm the teacher who wears her "Nerdy" shirt to school on Fridays. Literally, I've had a shirt embroidered with the word "Nerdy" on it. I'm a self-proclaimed nerd (but unfortunately not the level of nerd who can fix your computer). I love being nerdy! It's something I'm proud to embrace.

So, on the radio, the DJs were asking everyone what they were geeky about. I'll tell you about myself. I'm geeky about school stuff. Crazy geeky about school stuff! I love school supply shopping, I love buying organizing shelves and baskets, I love making documents for school - I love it all! School stuff totally geeks me out.

How about you? What things make you feel geeky?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

My "To-Read" List

So, I posted last week that I want to match my students' requirements for reading and writing, week by week, book by book. Here, I'm going to outline my reading plan to you, dear readers, so you can help to...
a) hold me accountable, and
b) make suggestions for me to read.

My team and I use Donalyn Miller's book, The Book Whisperer, to guide our reading instruction. She gives her students a 40-book goal for the year. Thus, I am going to give myself a 40-book goal for the coming school year, which I will start August 8th.

I need to create a plan for reading. I will also ask my students to make goals and plans for their reading. This is a huge goal, and it's something we will all have to work hard to accomplish.

Donalyn has laid out an outline for the 40-book goal. Here's how she breaks down the 40 books by genre:

Poetry Anthologies: 4
Traditional Literature: 3
Realistic Fiction: 5
Historical Fiction: 4
Fantasy: 4
Science Fiction: 2
Informational: 4
Biographies, Autobiographies, Memoirs: 2
Graphic Novels: 1
Chapter Book Free Choice: 11

I still want to read some kids' lit (so I can continue to make quality recommendations for my students), and I think that will cover the majority of my list. However, I want to focus right now on what I should read from authors targeting the grown-up folks.

Frankly, I haven't paid much attention to any "grown-up" books except for professional development. Don't get me wrong, I love me some good PD books! But I think it's time I branched out.

I already know what I want to read for my Biographies, Autobiographies, and Memoirs selections. I'd like to read Jaycee Dugard's memoir, A Stolen Life. I also want to read Tina Fey's book, Bossy Pants.

I also have a good informational book, a historical account of the shark attacks of 1916. It's called Close to Shore by Michael Capuzzo. Another information book I'd like to read is The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. Both are sitting on my side table in the living room.

In the fantasy genre, I'd like to read one or two of the Percy Jackson books again. I love to reread some of my favorite books, and I want to model that this is okay for the kids as well. My absolute favorite books to reread are the Harry Potter books, and I am currently reading through the series for the fourth time.

For historical fiction? I definitely want to read The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I feel a little guilty reading a book because it's becoming a movie, but that's a very legitimate way to hear about a book, especially in this era. I feel sort of like I'm jumping on the bandwagon, but that's okay, right, as long as I'm reading more?

The rest? I just don't know where to start. There are so many great authors out there, and I haven't read many fiction books targeted to my demographic in a long time. In my defense, I've read a lot of children's lit so I could be more useful to my students. I want to model for them, though, reading books that are appropriate. So, this is an area in which I can start to grow!

Where do you find book reviews? Who do you look to for advice on what to read? Who is your favorite author? Do you have a title you can recommend?


Friday, July 1, 2011

Practice What We Preach

I teach reading. I think I'm a fairly good reading teacher. One reason is that I really, truly love to read. My friend, The Lit Lady, and I changed our reading program this year for the better, and our students began reading more and more books. Would you like to know one reason our students read more? Because WE read.

This is a difficult post to write, but this is an idea I take very seriously and believe in very strongly.

Our students can't take us seriously if we don't practice what we preach. This sounds like common sense, but it's tougher than it seems.

If I want my kids to read more, I've got to read. A lot. They have to know it. They have to see me reading. They have to hear me talk about the books I read. They have to see a stack of books I'm hoarding on my desk because they are in my "to read soon" pile. They have to know what's in my "to read soon" pile. They have to be kind of mad that I'm reading it before they have the chance. They have to anticipate me finishing the books in my pile so they can beg to read it next. It's crucial. It happens in my classroom. 

If I want my kids to like nonfiction, I have to read a lot of it myself, and use what knowledge I gain from it. I do a lot of professional reading. I read particularly moving portions of the books sometimes out loud to the students - especially when I read something that I think the kids will have an opinion about. I have to come into my classroom one day so excited over some new method I want to try, and I have to tell them that I found it in a book! I need to show them the cover, tell them the name of the author, and point to the part of the book where I found that idea. This sends such a powerful message!

If you don't read, don't expect your students to do it. If you don't like nonfiction, don't expect your students to like it. Read. Often. In front of the kids. 

Now, I do read more things than just kids' lit and professional development. The kids know that I read books written for adults, but I rarely share titles or authors. (They do know I like Dan Brown and John Grisham, but I don't necessarily want them to go out and read their books at age 10.) They don't need to know that stuff. Nor do they care about the titles or the authors. They do care, though, that I read. It means a lot to them. If you ask them if I enjoy reading, they will say yes. And they will confirm the fact that my love of reading inspires them.

As far as reading goes, I think I do a worthy job of reading a lot and conveying that fact to my students. I want them to be  lifelong lovers of reading like I am. I need to make it more explicit, though. If I dare ask my students to set aside 30-50 minutes a night of reading, I need to do it, too. I don't accept excuses for not reading every night. Why should they expect excuses from me? I am committing to reading minute-by-minute along with my students every night. I'm excited about what this will do for our classroom next year.

Now here's where it gets even more difficult. The reading thing? I've got that down (for the most part). I talk the talk, and I walk the walk in reading. But what about writing?

Writing is a whole different story. Be honest. How often do you write something? I honestly can't say that I write often enough.

I have read many of Rafe Esquith's books (I recommend them to you). One concept he puts into practice in his classroom is "Essay of the Week." The premise is that kids will become better writers the more they practice. I love it. I've done Essay of the Week in my classroom with good results. BUT.... will the results get even better if I practice what I preach?

I think I do a fair amount of writing. I had to write several essays about myself and my teaching philosophies last school year. I had to write a few research papers for a class I've been taking. I even write blog posts (when I feel up to it). I write weekly to my parents on my class website. But I still feel like I need to do more.

So here's where this blog comes in. I want to commit myself to weekly blog updates of some kind. I expect my students to write weekly. I want them to expect ME to write weekly. When they know that I write often (and that it's relevant to me, that I do it on a weekly basis, that it makes me a better person, and that it makes me develop a stronger passion for writing and learning), then they will take my requests more seriously.

I want all learning my students do to be applicable to the real world. I want it to matter to them for life. I don't want them to do an assignment just for the assignment's sake. I don't want them to do it to please me, even. I want them to do it because they are passionate about learning for life. That's my goal. So here's my commitment to weekly posting. I hope I'm up for it! And I hope you'll read it.

What's coming soon? Our thoughts on billable hours. Discussions about assessment for learning. Relationship building in our classrooms. There are all sorts of ideas buzzing around in my head! Maybe this won't be so hard after all! :)