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    Just Pick Anything

    By Julie Scullen
     | Oct 11, 2018
    Just Pick Anything

    “Just pick anything, it doesn't matter.”

    I was standing in the stacks of the middle school library, filling a cart with books I would share with students throughout the day during book talks. I had been granted the tremendous honor of sharing the books I love with students. As always, it felt as though I was pulling my friends from these shelves. I pulled some old favorites, some graphic novels, some adventures, some classics, some mysteries, some books with great opening lines, and some with surprise endings. I even singled out books representing the first in a series in order to provide students with an opportunity to continue adventures with familiar characters and settings.

    As I stood, I heard a conversation between two students in the next aisle.

    “Hey, are there any good books in here?”

    “Where, here? I don’t know. I guess.”

    “We’ve already been here too long, she’s going to be mad when we go back.”

    “Yeah, right. Just pick anything, it doesn’t matter.”

    I stood there, frozen, books in hand, disappointed at being powerless to make things different. I wanted to run after these two boys and haul them back to the stacks. Instead, I considered what I could learn from their conversation.

    These dormant readers were standing in front of shelves at least six feet high and 15 feet long, full of books carefully chosen for them, but they were staring blankly at book spines. Lost. They didn’t think it mattered.

    I wondered to myself: What if? What if something simple could prevent this scenario from happening tomorrow or in the next hour? What could we do to stop students from declaring in frustration, “Just pick anything, it doesn’t matter”?

    As teachers, we all want our students to have engaging reading material. We all want our students to have a book in their hand and “next book” on their mind. Unfortunately, we also know our ability to inspire readers can become lost in the push for coverage and the constant battle for instructional time.

    This was still on my mind when I heard the amazing Cornelius Minor speak to a group of literacy leaders at a Leadership in Reading Network event. He challenged every educator in the room to find small ways to experiment within classrooms and find evidence to grow an idea. His call to action was reasonable: Make a small change and try it for five days. Just five days. Five days is brief enough to be manageable, but long enough to see incremental results.

    Here is a potential five-day challenge. Each class day, for one week, do one of these two things:

    • Pull a book off the classroom or school library shelf (a lack of classroom libraries is a column for another day) and read aloud the back cover and, time permitting, the first few pages to your students. Don’t worry if you haven’t read it beforehand. Don’t turn this into a lesson or make it a teachable moment. Don’t oversell it. Don’t spend a great deal of time contemplating who might like this book. Just share it. Then leave that book on the ledge in the front of the room and begin class. If it disappears or is checked out, pat yourself on the back and offer up another book the next hour.
    • Set a timer for three minutes. Student may use that three minutes to talk to their peers about a text they are currently reading, or one they have read and enjoyed in the past. Don’t grade these discussions. Don’t critique their choices. Don’t insist on a particular format. Just let them talk. Start or end class this way, or perhaps use this time as a brain break in the middle of a long lesson.

    That’s it.

    If those five days go well, have students start a list on a sheet of paper, a designated place in their notebook, or even an index card. Ask them to write down books and authors they might like to read, because what they want to read matters. Then invite students to add what has been shared with them to their list. Remind them to bring the list on their next visit to the library.

    As a teacher, you don’t have to be a voracious reader of children’s literature to make it work. You don’t need to give up a great deal of class time. I’m speculating even three minutes a day will make a difference.

    As teachers, we have incredible power to inspire. We have the power to show students their reading choices matter. Five days may be the beginning of a new classroom habit. In any case, in those five days, someone in each classroom will be inspired to read something new. And that matters.

    Julie Scullen, an ILA member since 2005, is a teaching and learning specialist for secondary reading in Anoka-Hennepin School District 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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    Resources for World Teachers' Day

    By Alina O'Donnell
     | Oct 04, 2018

    World Teacher's DayCelebrated annually on October 5, World Teachers' Day marks not only a time to celebrate the contributions of teachers on a global scale, but also to recognize and mobilize around the challenges facing them every day.

    This year’s theme, which highlights the invaluable role of teachers in fulfilling the fundamental right to education, reminds us that we cannot realize our goal of literacy for all without teachers who come through high-quality preparation programs and are given meaningful professional learning opportunities and experiences on an ongoing basis.

    Here are five key resources for developing prepared and motivated teachers:

    • Standards for the Preparation of Literacy Professionals 2017 are the first-ever set of national standards guiding the preparation of literacy professionals. Drafted by a team of 28 literacy experts from across the United States, the updated standards describe the characteristics of effective literacy professional preparation programs, integrating research-based promising practices, professional wisdom, and feedback from expert stakeholders during public comment periods.
    • In addition to setting the standards, ILA, convened a task force charged to review and analyze the research on teacher preparation for literacy instruction. This joint effort with along with the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), produced a research advisory, that discusses common features of successful teacher prep programs.
    • Democratizing Professional Growth With Teachers: From Development to Learning reimagines a more “democratic” model of professional learning that allows educators to participate in its planning and implementation.  
    • Personalized Professional Development: At the Center of Your Own Learning,” a Literacy Daily blog post, discusses the value and practical applications of professional learning networks.
    • Teaching Tolerance provides a range of instruction, teacher leadership, school climate, and other resources that help educators shape their schools into strong, equitable communities.

    Alina O’Donnell is the communications strategist at ILA and the editor of Literacy Daily.

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    Pushing vs. Pulling Adolescent Readers Toward Comprehension

    By Colette Coleman
     | Sep 26, 2018

    Pulling Instructional ModelAs learning standards have evolved over the past decade, so too have expectations for adolescents’ reading levels and abilities. To keep up, teachers have adopted new strategies and curricula to try to meet these demands, but given the challenges that they face, student reading success has remained elusive for most. Confirming this, 2017 reading scores released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that only 36% of eighth graders can read at or above a Proficient level, meaning most wouldn’t be able to comprehend this post.

    Why is it that most adolescents are struggling with reading proficiency? There are countless reasons why a student would struggle with reading, but often at the core of literacy stagnation and reading reluctance is the pull reading method. In this instructional model, the teacher starts with her or his own comprehension of a text and works toward the goal of pulling students to this understanding. Although the mind-set behind this approach is well-intentioned, I believe it’s detrimental to students’ reading confidence and engagement for a few important reasons.

    First, as Edmund Wilson, the great literary journalist proclaimed, “No two persons ever read the same book.” Although there are many indisputable facts in books, the meaning that lies beneath the surface may differ from reader to reader. If a teacher pulls students toward only her or his reading, students may miss out on the chance to develop their own interpretations as they read through the lens of their own life experiences. Moreover, when a teacher conveys that students can get to an author’s meaning only through her or his hints and leading questions, the underlying message is that students can’t navigate the text on their own. Here applies the Chinese proverb “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

    The next logical question is, How does an educator teach a student to fish or, rather, close read, without pulling students toward her or his understanding of a text? The answer is the push method. This instructional strategy, recently introduced to me in an intimate literacy professional development program, the Zinc Reading Circle (ZRC), has changed the way I think about developing adolescents’ reading skills. The ZRC, led by literacy expert and veteran educator Matt Bardin, pushed me far out of my comfort zone so that I can now push my students outside of theirs toward the joy, fulfillment, and power of advanced literacy.

    In the ZRC training, I worked with just three other teachers, sharing my beliefs about reading instruction and practices, and recorded one-on-one lessons with select struggling readers. Once I overcame my discomfort of my literacy instruction being analyzed and dissected, frame by frame, I was able to reap the benefits of constructive criticism. As Atul Gawande wrote in The New Yorker on the power of coaching across sectors, from sports fields to operating rooms, the focused attention upped my reading game.

    I had it all wrong. I thought that instructing students on what I considered obvious close reading skills would be condescending but, in fact, it was the opposite. By not equipping students with the skills they need to grapple with tough texts on their own, I was sending the message that they can’t comprehend such writing without my support. Education researcher Louisa Moats’s words, “Speaking is natural; Reading and writing are not,” echoed in my head.

    To get students working toward self-sufficient comprehension, the push method demands explicit reading instruction, a strategy affirmed by countless research studies, including one notable guide, Improving Adolescent Literacy: Effective Classroom and Intervention Practices, published by the Institute of Education Sciences. There are several close reading strategies to teach, but the most crucial is visualizing. This act comes naturally to strong readers (probably you if you’re reading this) but is anything but obvious to most. While reading, it’s crucial to imagine what the author’s describing, evoking, and asking you to infer as you go. These visual representations act as hand holds for your brain to scale the mountain of challenging texts. When I taught primary school, I often asked students to close their eyes and imagine the scenes as I read aloud. This strategy worked well with my fourth graders to understand books such as The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, but to my amazement, the same principle and strategy, taught differently (no longer with read-alouds and eyes closed), is just as important for understanding texts at middle and high school levels.

    Since I’ve started to push my students more toward mastery of this skill and others, there’s no longer a need for me to pull them to comprehension. They’re leading the way to their own understanding, and to my great delight, I’m even learning new interpretations from them.

    Colette Coleman is a part-time educator and full-time educational equity advocate. A former classroom teacher, she is now focused on EdTech, writing as a contributor to EdTech news site EdSurge and working with Zinc Reading Labs.

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    The Benefits of Writing Into the Day for a Whole Year

    By Den'ja Pommarane
     | Sep 20, 2018

    Healing Through WritingDon't get me wrong. I value the importance of writing in my classroom. The work we do with students to prepare them for the next step (college or career) is paramount. We teach students to write the persuasive, the expository, the narrative. We support students with word choice, syntax, organization, ideas, and conventions. We help students patch the bleeding words, sometimes playing the role of the Civil War surgeon, lopping off paragraphs like limbs destroyed by bayonets. To me, high school writing is a high stakes game with little time for “playing” out of bounds.

    With Writing Into the Day, I felt like I was in a battle with time. Just 185 days to take my students to the next level, essential learnings and short cycles, assisting them to reach their highest potential. If I found a cool quote in a book or a moral issue that related to the lesson, then we would spend some time free writing. Otherwise, Writing Into the Day was benched; fated to ride the pine with the other third-string activities and practices that had flowed through the threshold of my mind. The notion of writing for writing’s sake, to let go and see where the mind and pen takes you, appealed to me, but I didn't know how I was going to let go of the precious and limited time I had with these students to ensure the curriculum was covered and the students met the proficiency levels of the standards.

    It wasn't until after spending the summer of 2017 with the Wyoming Writing Project that I resolved to include Writing Into the Day as a part of my classroom's daily routine. I decided I would spend the 2017–2018 school year committed to this practice with my ninth-grade English and American literature classes. Today, as I reflect on the school year, I can't deny the positive impact Writing Into the Day had on my classes.

    Writing Into the Day is an activity where students spend a slice of time (usually seven to 10 minutes) writing at the beginning of the period. Writing topics sometimes differ from the lessons and goals of the day’s curriculum. At first, I worried it was going to be a waste of time or that the students would view it as an opportunity to mess around on their phones and chat with each other. As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about.

    In the beginning, prompts were informational and low risk. For example, a prompt might ask students to write about their favorite season or their least favorite food. I found that starting with these more accessible prompts helped students build the confidence to eventually share their writing. I never mandated that students had to read aloud their work every day or that they had to adhere to the prompt. Sometimes, the prompts weren’t meaningful to them or they had something more pressing on their mind—maybe they had failed a math test the period before English or had a fight with their parents the previous night and needed time and space to process. Their Writing Into the Day might have taken a whole different direction, perhaps for the better. At times, this practice became a form of catharsis. It allowed students to explore their feelings in a safe, constructive manner.

    By the end of the year, students wrote about their personal thoughts and feelings. As the students learned more about each other and made meaningful connections, we created a classroom environment that embodied empathy, compassion, and understanding. 

    I recall many times when Writing Into the Day sparked an interest in writing outside of the classroom, but two incidents stand out in my mind. The first occurrence happened in mid-October. A student raised his hand and said he had not been writing to the prompt that day, but rather was continuing his work on a short story he started over the weekend. He asked if he could share an excerpt with the class. As he started reading aloud the murder scene, complete with blood spatter, shell casings, and red and blue lights, I watched my students slide forward and lean in on their seats. He had hooked them. Upon finishing the excerpt, the class asked for more. He refused, saying it was still a work in progress. His eyes lit up and a smile stretched across his face as his classmates groaned in disappointment. During that moment, Writing Into the Day provided an audience for my students and acted as a bellows to intensify their burning desire to write.              

    Another time, a student chose to write a poem about finals week and the end of the school year. The prompt asked students to discuss strategies they had in place to study and how to end the school year strong. She didn't share that day, but two days later, she handed me a poem. It described her brain as oatmeal and her knowledge running through her fingers like sand through a sieve. Being a freshman, she had encapsulated her feelings about finals and ending the school year in a poem that was not required for the class.

    I feel that Writing Into the Day built my credibility as a teacher, writer, and friend of my students. Too often as teachers, we compartmentalize ourselves. Students see teachers as a source of knowledge, a sort of gatekeeper to our content and a “giver” of grades and little else. Through my experience last year, I found Writing Into the Day became the great equalizer. The practice gave me an opportunity to write side-by-side with my students. When I modeled my own writing process (including the mistakes, struggles, and insecurities) and demonstrated vulnerability, I found that my students did too.

    By no means was Writing Into the Day a "magic bullet." It took practice and patience to achieve the classroom culture both students and I wanted and deserved. Reflecting on the 2017–18 school year makes me place it on the shelf with some of the greatest years I've had as an educator. I believe that Writing Into the Day played an integral part in this success.

    Den'ja Pommarane is an ELA teacher at Laramie High School in Wyoming. 

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    Should a Book Be a School Supply?

    By Justin Stygles
     | Sep 18, 2018
    Classroom Library

    For years I have wondered if a book should be considered a school supply. Recently, I posed this question to parents, educators, and “friends” on social media.

    As a research question, I must concede that clarity is lacking; the question is rather open-ended. I expected the respondents to assume I meant an independent reading book. I posed the question because I sought to evaluate what parents think about ensuring students come to school with their own independent reading book.

    Twenty-four hours after posting my question, I gleaned two major observations.

    First, either due to vagueness or the open-ended nature of the question, many people considered a “book” to be synonymous with a textbook. Second, most educators agreed that a book should be a school supply. Parents and community members felt that books should come from the classroom, or at least a library.

    Before I discuss the results, I would like to share some information. I am not a data analyst; I am merely making conclusions based on the information posted. Second, I posted my question in two forums: my personal Facebook page and a closed group representing parents. My “friends” consisted of colleagues and coworkers from my current career fields and several previous jobs as well as friends and acquaintances from high school, college, and today. Many of the responses on my personal page were from current educators. The closed group included parents from a rural community whose children were enrolled in the local school system.

    As educators, we should consider the implications and questions that need to be raised beyond this very informal study. I wonder how many students, past and present, consider reading to be an act performed in a textbook?  Is this why a certain number of students do not read beyond school? Does this suggest that students who have experience reading independently outside of the classroom are more likely to become lifelong readers? 

    Because I did not define a book as a trade book or an independent reading book, I can see why many parents revolted at the notion that a book be considered a school supply. What parent wants to invest in a basal reader or a textbook? However, if they believe I am the sole supplier of independent reading, I am quite concerned about that value of reading in a maturing reader’s life. There is a strong reality that, although we impart the value of reading, our students might be resistant because reading is not prioritized in the child’s overall existence. This also places a tremendous, and honorable, responsibility to ensure the best books are available to my students for independent reading so that they may be inspired to read beyond the limitations of our school day.

    My question did not consider whether one book constitutes a school supply for an entire year, much like a package of pencils. Nor did my question suggest an invitation for consistent participation in the class book order.

    To conclude, regardless of socioeconomic circumstances, the idea of a reading book as a school supply was met with heavy resistance. Although reading is the integral component of education, books are materials that many people consider a responsibility, if not an obligation, of the school. Although I agree that our schools and district have a fiduciary (or moral) obligation to stock and maintain classroom libraries for the sake of readers, I am left to wonder how invested families are (again, disregarding those who do not have the time or resources to support independent reading habits) in the development of reading and lifelong reading outside the classroom.

    If I can take anything away from my tentative, informal research, it’s that we have no greater responsibility than to show our students that reading is more than a practice performed in a classroom and to help readers develop their relationship with an individual text and the desire to seek reading beyond our brick and mortar walls. Our responsibility begins with an earnest commitment to curate classroom libraries.

    Justin 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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