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    Supporting New Teachers Through Tech: Introducing #Preservicelit

    By Stephanie Affinito
     | Feb 14, 2018

    shutterstock_213310894_x300Where do you find your teaching inspiration? In our tech-savvy world, chances are, you turn to other educators on social media. Facebook groups and Google+ communities provide avenues for digital conversations about teaching and learning. Twitter connects educators through micro-writing. Pinterest houses millions of lesson plans, activities, decoration ideas, and more. Even Instagram can link us to authors and books to bring into our classrooms. So, which one has inspired you?

    Twitter has been a particularly important tool for building my personal learning network (PLN). The virtual support, camaraderie, and inspiration fuels my heart and mind. I tweet for my next book to read, for advice on an upcoming presentation, to request resources, and to participate in Twitter chats for real-time professional development and learning.

    Twitter chats have connected me to other teacher educators, have hatched ideas for collaborative research projects, and—put simply—have supported my own professional learning to better my teaching. I have often said that I wished I knew about the power of Twitter much earlier in my career. Therefore, I have woven Twitter and social media into my teacher education classes to introduce my students to the power of social media to build our fellow tribe of educators.

    Imagine if we created a support system where education students cultivated their own professional learning networks within, across, and beyond institution walls so that, when they graduated, they were armed with a tribe of supportive teachers to support them on their new journey? Enter #preservicelit—a new Twitter chat where undergraduate and graduate education students and preservice teachers connect to discuss current ideas in the field, share ideas and resources, grapple with teaching challenges, ask questions, and meet new mentors for their own professional learning.

    Our inaugural chat was a complete success as education students, preservice teachers, new teachers, literacy teacher educators, practicing educators, literacy coaches, and even prominent authors in our field came together to support new educators as they explored the world of social media and began building their professional support systems.

    While #preservicelit was especially created for education students and preservice teachers, all educators play an important role in its success. Preservice teachers learn about the power of growing their PLNs and practice using social media professionally, ethically, and responsibly to further their learning. Literacy teacher educators coach preservice teachers through virtual interactions, collaborate with other faculty across institutions, combine expertise, and strengthen education programs together. Educators, mentors, and guest hosts support the newest members of our profession and even connect preservice teachers to the very authors, researchers, and professionals they are learning from in their teacher education programs.

    All educators are invited to the #preservicelit chat. Please visit our website for additional information, including a calendar of monthly topics and a place to sign up for text reminders. Join us in supporting our future educators on the first Saturday of every month at 9:00 a.m. ET for a lively 30-minute chat on all things literacy!

    Stephanie AffinitoStephanie Affinito is a literacy teacher educator in the Department of Literacy Teaching and Learning at the University at Albany in New York. Stephanie regularly teaches graduate courses on elementary classroom literacy instruction, literacy intervention, and children’s literature. She has researched literacy coaching as part of her doctoral studies and focuses much of her current work on how technology and digital tools can impact teacher learning and collaboration. You can find her on Twitter at @AffinitoLit.

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    I Sound It out in My Heart

    By Julia Hill
     | Feb 08, 2018

    80284960_x300It’s 3:00 p.m. on a spring afternoon and time for my last kindergarten reading group of the day. The group is made up of five students who know their letters, sounds, and some sight words. I put the bins of books in front of them and let them dive in. They keep lists of the books that they read, building strategies to use the pictures and to stretch the sounds. Though it’s late in the day and they’re tired and wiggly, they’re engaged, finding books that make them exclaim with glee and get to work on learning to read.

    I circulate around the table, encouraging them to independently solve new words. Many of the students are also learning English and need some support with new vocabulary. They begin to grasp the patterns of the stories and make their way through the short books, soaking up new words. “You try it,” I say when Johan asks, “Ms. Hill, what’s this?” A moment later, as I make it over to his end of the table to check in, he’s already figured out the word he was stuck on and has moved on. “How’d you solve that word?” I ask. Beaming with pride, he replies, “I sound it out in my heart!”

    I am bowled over by the wisdom and poetry of his words. In a simple phrase he has summed up the nuanced complexity of learning to read that the “reading wars” can never quite agree upon—that debate between phonics and whole language I’ve heard about the entire 20 years of my teaching career. He’d been reading Look Up, a book about the things we see in the sky, and the word he solved was “cloud. Perhaps he used the first letters to connect with the picture clue to solve the word, but the /ou/ vowel pattern was way over his level of phonetic knowledge to “sound out.” He also used his knowledge of the world in his heart to “sound it out.”

    In my years of teaching in the era of balanced literacy, I have read many articles on the phrase “sound it out.” Though it is on the lips of nearly every parent in the United States as they support their children to read, I’ve worked to take the phrase out of my own vocabulary. Because English has so many irregular word patterns, we can’t “sound out” every word. Instead, I have students look at the first letter and ask if they can remember the patter or if they have seen the word elsewhere or if there is anything else on the page that can help them understand the meaning.

    However, because I work with many struggling readers, my background is a combination of phonics and whole language methods. I’m trained in Orton-Gillingham and Reading Recovery, among other programs, and use every tool I can find to help support my students who do not easily understand or retain the way text represents language. Orton-Gillingham helps students who benefit from the use of repetition to remember the symbols and patterns within words. In Reading Recovery, which follows a whole language approach, students build reading skills by reading books.

    When I returned to school this fall, I kept thinking back to that spring afternoon and Johan’s wisdom as I waded through planning which interventions might be effective for a struggling second- or third-grade reader. How does a child who has worked her hardest to avoid putting her eyes on those black squiggles on the page feel about reading in her heart? How do children proceed when, no matter how hard they work, they still can’t make those letters hold still, or when they continue to confuse the “b” with “p”? I begin to doubt my commitment to choice and learning within context and start thinking I just need to drill those phonetic patterns into the students. I carry around a heavy bag of books and curriculum for weeks, searching for the right approach and start impulsively ordering new tools and books online to find that quick fix.

    But then I remember Johan's words from last spring and I know we can’t forget the heart in learning to read either. In addition to understanding all those vowel digraphs and irregular spelling patterns, students also need to be able to connect with the word’s meaning. To find stories that speak to their hearts and represent something they care about in their lives. The heart brings in the importance of critical pedagogy and ensuring that students see themselves and their lives in the content we are teaching. The heart brings in the importance of choice and autonomy—the need for students to choose what interests them and makes their hearts beat a little faster.

    Educators can and will debate for decades to come about the “right way” to teach reading, as if one way exists. Science can tell us a lot about how our brains work, but there remains a bit of mystery in the part the heart plays for each of us. Johan helped me remember that, as long as I help my students listen to their hearts, I am OK with the phrase “sound it out.”

    Julia Hill is a K–3 reading specialist in St. Paul Public Schools.

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    Gateway Emotions to Reading

    By Justin Stygles
     | Jan 24, 2018

    shutterstock_210165379_x300In the face of high-stakes mandates and policies, the time has come to shift our conversations by balancing cognition—what a reader “knows” from reading (e.g., literary devices, themes, and vocabulary)—with emotions (e.g., perceptions, experiences, and the physiological nature of reading).

    Over the past five years, I have jumped into the lightly tread psychology of shame. My work with members in the field, combined with extensive reading, has led me to believe that there is an opportunity to shed light on a hidden crisis in our schools and classrooms. Many psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists acknowledge the need for more school-based training and professional development focused on reducing shame among young readers.

    When a person of influence deliberately imposes power or control to force a comparison or to create inferiority, the act of shaming occurs. For example, imagine a line of students in the hall.  Two students in the middle are talking. The teacher stops the line and says to the students, in front of the class, “Can you boys act like Sara?” In such an instance, shaming occurs because those students are being made to feel inferior.

    Shame, on the other hand, is an embodiment; a conceptualization of self. Shame emulsifies from interactions, events, and other environmental factors—impacting a person’s confidence, competence, and self-perception.

    What does this mean for reading practices? 

    Although educators may not be able to control feelings of shame, they can control the act of shaming. For example, many readers feel embarrassment when they read passages aloud and make decoding errors in front of their peers. When a strong interpersonal bridge is in place, temporary moments of humiliation can be laughed off because we, as the teachers, can empathize. In order to build a strong interpersonal bridge, we have to show interest in the reader’s experiences and feelings.

    If I call out a student’s poor reading habits in front of his classmates or tease him about his unending range of excuses for not reading, I commit shaming. Why? Because I am not looking at each day as a new opportunity, but rather, locking the reader in his transgressions. Through shaming, I destroy the interpersonal bridge between me and the reader for a sense of power, moral authority, or for the sake of “teaching him a lesson.” Reading becomes about me, the teacher—not about the student or his potential to interact with text.

    So, what now? 

    Unfortunately, there is no linear approach to addressing shame among readers. Believe it or not, much of our shame can be found, felt, or experienced through archetypal stories. To better understand shame, I suggest students read Parzival by Katherine Paterson—a story about a young boy who overcomes massive failure, finding redemption and self-actualization. In my opinion, the crucial moment Parzival faces is his failure to ask the ailing King, “What happened?”

    I would argue that educators tend to overlook shame and readers’ emotions because of our high-stakes learning environments. If we take time to establish an interpersonal bridge and to ask the reader, “What happened?” the world will open wide. Within the reader’s own story, we can reveal the means to build resilience. 

    Throughout the year, my job is to make young readers comfortable with their reading style and level. As their confidence grows, stress and anxiety declines, resulting in greater willingness to engage with text and to share perspectives.

    Even before we look at the data, look compassionately into the eyes of the maturing reader and convey, “We’re in this together.”

    justin-styglesJustin Stygles is a fifth-grade teacher in Wiscasset, Maine. He's taught for 15 years in various settings. You can follow him on Twitter at @justinstygles.

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    A Blended Approach to Teaching Comprehension and Vocabulary

    By Carla Kessler
     | Jan 23, 2018

    ThinkstockPhotos-83116026_x600Many teachers confess that they struggle to dedicate 90 minutes each week to vocabulary learning. The most commonly cited reason is that their pacing calendar, among other demands of the reading program, does not allow room for more time with vocabulary.

    I’d like to address this challenge with what might be a paradigm shift for you or for your administration.

    At first glance, it may seem like asking teachers to spend less time on comprehension and more on vocabulary sounds like asking a runner to spend less time on training and more time on exercise. The two approaches are working toward the same goal. In the one case, a self-sufficient reader, in the other a strong athlete.

    So why am I suggesting this challenge? Because I feel that teaching comprehension has become synonymous with reading activities in many schools. In the process, learning goals and objectives are often forgotten.

    As Timothy Shanahan, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chi­cago, states, "…schools are dedicated to promoting particular activities and practices—not to teaching children. There are particular activities these principals and teachers want to see in classrooms, and they are not particularly focused on what they are supposed to be engaged in: teaching children to read."

    He continues, "Instead of focusing like-a-laser on what they want kids to know, to be able to do, to be, they are promoting favorite classroom activities. Instead of thinking about how to get kids to a particular outcome, they are wondering if they can somehow align the required activities with useful outcomes."

    I remember when new reading comprehension strategies arrived at our school, I was excited to have a concrete list of skills to prioritize. I quickly became occupied with teaching activities around those skills.

    Each of my students held a checklist of these strategies, and I had one on the wall. Our goal became “covering” all of the items on the list, and in turn, learning took on a formulaic nature. It took a few years for me to recognize that this practice rarely helped my struggling students to become independent readers.

    This was in part because reading comprehension is intimately dependent on knowledge. Strong readers typically enter school with a broad knowledge base and can apply “formulas” for reading comprehension. They do not have to familiarize themselves with the content and vocabulary of each reading selection.

    I had to take a step back and reexamine my teaching against current research. Two key elements repeatedly appeared in my search for “how to build competent readers.”

    • The importance of building a broad knowledge base with a focus on word knowledge: According to academic literary critic E.D. Hirsch,“When children are offered coherent, cumulative knowledge from preschool on, reading proficiency is the result.” He believes schools and educators should be “imparters of language in all its aspects: vocabulary, syntax, knowledge, etc.”
    • The importance of challenging students to think deeply: The first College/Career Readiness anchor standard within the Reading strand of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for ELA/Literacy states, “Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.”

    Is it possible your curriculum is focused too heavily on reading activities and not enough on thinking? By spending more time with word learning processes, you are building—not detracting from—comprehension.

    Effective approaches to word learning ask the learner to understand how and why the word adds meaning to a context. Combine a strong word knowledge base with critical thinking skills and you have a winning approach for building competent readers.

    Learn more about the 90 Minute Challenge here.

    kessler-headshotCarla Kessler is the director of learning at LogixLab LLC and along with her husband, Richard, co-creator of Word Lab Web. She was formerly a Title I coordinator and learning specialist, and has been recognized as an Outstanding Educator by Delta Kappa Gamma Society International.

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    The Culture Litmus Test

    By Julie Scullen
     | Jan 11, 2018

    ThinkstockPhotos-56381621_x600I’m often asked, “How do I know if my building has a culture of literacy?” and, more importantly, “How do I build one?” 

    A lasting culture of literacy isn’t about posters, it isn’t about pictures, graphs, and star charts in hallways. A lasting culture of literacy isn't created with contests and rewards, or when a principal loses a bet and has to sleep on the roof, kiss a pig, or shave a beard. It’s about an enthusiasm and a commitment by all staff—not just the English language arts teachers—to ensure that all students have a book in their hands that they are excited to read. Staff must embrace and value student choice, as well as believe in the power of reading.

    The best way to tell if your building has a strong culture of literacy? Talk to the students, and use their answers to guide you. Chemists use a litmus test as an indicator, and we can do the same as educators. My favorite litmus tests to determine a culture of literacy are the following questions:

    1. Ask students, “What books are popular right now? What is trending?”

    In a building with a strong culture of reading, students’ responses are deep and thoughtful. Their answers aren’t stifled and forced, and students don’t look confused by the question. They don’t glance around for possible answers from which to choose. 

    Responses will be similar to what I heard from Aamira, a seventh grader, as I visited her middle school with my litmus test questions in mind. She said,“I feel like in books there is a lot more diversity right now. Our teacher would say we can see more ‘mirror books.’ A lot of the books I’m thinking of have maybe somebody of a different race...a lot more strong characters like that, which can help other readers. I can relate with them.”

    Aamira has read enough to know that there is a strong push among authors and publishers to represent students of all kinds, and she’s been taught how to recognize, seek it out, and celebrate it. Her teachers frequently recommend current and trending books to all their students.

    2. Ask students, “What are you going to read next?”

    Readers learning in a building with a strong culture of literacy have a list of books or genres in mind, based on their own preferences and recommendations from others. They don’t go to the library because they were forced to, or to avoid classwork—they go because they genuinely enjoy the time. They ask to go. 

    When choosing a book, voracious readers don’t flip to the last page to see how many pages their commitment to this book would entail. They don’t stand in the book stacks staring at spines. They have a plan, a list of options, and their names are on waiting lists for new and trending titles.

    When I ask, “How much do you read?” voracious readers’ eyes don’t glaze over while they automatically and without thinking respond, “20 minutes a night” (the most frequently cited time requirement for independent reading). They don’t mention pages, points, genre studies, or logs. They don’t have to lie.

    They say things like this: “I read a lot. I read at every possible moment I can, almost every single day, a book every two days on my normal days, my goal is to read 40 books in three months.” While Sophie, a middle schooler, may not be typical of every student, she certainly isn’t embarrassed by her love of reading.

    Jeremiah, another student in her class, describes his favorite books like this: “I like when there’s no hope coming, and the character is at the lowest point they could possibly be, and you feel like there is like NO WAY, and they won’t get back up, and then they DO find a way to do that, so then it kind of uplifts you!” Jeremiah has made connections between books, and he’s read enough to have very specific opinions about plot styles and characters.

    Students who read a great deal can state analysis of genres like Madison, who said, “I usually read fantasy books, and inevitably they [the main characters] are boys, and they are really weird and different and want to be normal, or really really ordinary and dull and want to be special, and….then (she says with a laugh) they get magical powers.”

    Not one of these students mentioned a required novel or a book project. Their passion for reading didn’t didn’t start there. They all want time to talk to others about what they are reading. When one person talks about their book, another will jump in and say, “Hey! That reminds me of this other book...”

    3. Ask teachers, “What was the last book you suggested to a student?”

    Teachers should read widely and be able to recommend current books, not just what they read themselves as middle graders. Students are intuitive, and they will know if an adult pitching them a book hasn’t read it themselves or are not likely to read it, and they also know when their teacher is recommending a book that was already on library shelves in 1982. Teachers should be dabbling in all types of books—even graphic novels—and should not belittle or forbid these choices in classrooms. Students should not have to hide their preferences and favorite genres from their teachers.

    Teachers should read with the hope of connecting a book to a student. Students need to see all their teachers as readers. Not just the ELA teachers.

    So, how do you know if your building has a culture of literacy? My first thought is this: If you have to ask, we have a lot of work to do together. There isn’t a quick, three-step process. A real culture of literacy requires a commitment by a group of passionate people whose reach extends far beyond the library.

    Julie ScullenJulie Scullen is a former member of the ILA Board of Directors and also served as president of the Minnesota Reading Association and Minnesota Secondary Reading Interest Council. She taught most of her career in secondary reading intervention classrooms and now serves as Teaching and Learning Specialist for Secondary Reading in Anoka-Hennepin schools in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She teaches graduate courses at Hamline University in St. Paul in literacy leadership and coaching, disciplinary literacy, critical literacy, and reading assessment and evaluation.

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