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    The Unplanned Lesson Plan

    By Julie Scullen
     | Nov 28, 2017

    unplanned-lesson-planFive high school students just spent six weeks teaching me how to be a better teacher.

    It started in the usual way. I thought I was teaching them

    As a reading intervention specialist, I spend much of my time in a cubicle, in a space that used to be a classroom but is now repurposed as our district office. In my cubicle, I fill out forms, answer emails, plan professional development, write SMART goals, and perform “other duties as assigned.”

    I find, however, that every now and then, I need to surface to work with students and teachers. If I don’t, I forget why I’m in the cubicle: to make certain every one of our students sees success. 

    In an effort to try out some reading strategies I’d recently read about in education journals, I asked a fellow teacher if I could borrow a small group of students a couple times a week during her reading intervention class. I asked for her reluctant readers, the ones who consistently neglected to remember their book and take the longest to get on task. Masterful avoiders. Strangely, she was incredibly willing. She provided me with five names and asked how soon I could start. 

    I thought that if I brought in truly authentic and interesting reads, they’d devour them, instantly discover the joy of reading, and go on to share that joy with all their friends. No problem. I forgot that these boys didn’t read the journals I did, so they didn’t know how great these ideas were.

    The first day I just attempted to get to know them. I was not the first person to attempt to “make them like reading.” I was met with eye rolls and snickers when I asked what they liked to read. One young man even retreated into his hoodie like a turtle into his shell and yanked the strings tight so that only his nose was visible. Another informed me, “Just so you know, I have an attitude problem.”

     

    Lesson one: what I find meaningful is not necessarily what they find meaningful

    The second day I brought in Terrible Things by Eve Bunting, an allegory of the Holocaust, depicted by animals. I started in confidently, asking them what they would do if they witnessed someone treating others poorly. Would they step in? “It depends. Do I know them?” It was an interesting conversation, but not as life-changing as I had envisioned. After we finished, one of the students asked why I made them read a story about fish, birds, and bunnies. Clearly, he had missed the point of the book.

    Lesson two: cool toys and strategies don’t make reluctant readers want to read

    Frustrated, I tried something different. Rather than use the authentic and interesting books, I brought in informational texts and tried to infuse useful reading strategies. Who wouldn’t enjoy a strong informational text when they had cool, colored sticky notes to track their thinking? They were bound to engage, right? Wrong. We read, they dutifully put their sticky notes in the appropriate places, they were compliant. But they didn’t engage or have any type of animated conversation. No one asked for more. I was still headed in the wrong direction.

    Lesson three: they will engage, if you ask the right questions

    Then something horrifying and wonderful happened. I brought in an article about issues facing youth, but it wasn’t long enough to fill the block of time we had that day. I had to figure out what to do with five disengaged students for 15 minutes until lunch. Panicking on the inside, I stalled. “So, what do you think? Was the author right?” Blank stares. “What do WE think? Do WE think he’s right? I don’t get it.” I carried on. “Yes, tell me what YOU think.” After a few tense moments, one of them spoke. From across the table, someone agreed. Then someone disagreed. I let them talk. And talk.

    And then, miracle of miracles, one of them pointed to the article and said something that made my heart skip a beat. “Yea, right here he says that, but I don’t think that’s what he MEANT.” More talking.

    The next week, I came prepared with more short texts and very little planned.  I let them lead me.

    Lesson four: if you build trust, they will come

    I realized what I needed to ask “What do YOU want to read about next? I’ll bring that next time.” And we started a list. 

    I had one rule: no politics. Otherwise, we could read and talk about whatever they wanted. They wanted to know more about materialism. Time management. World hunger efforts. Stereotypes.  

    In this small group, I could probe deeply. Why are you so sure? How do you know that? What makes you so certain? Now, with trust that comes from consistency and without the pressure of a grade, they could call each other out. “Bro. Seriously, what does this have to do with race? You are so wrong, man.”

    Unfortunately, things got busy, and I had things that needed to be accomplished back in my cubicle. I had to stop meeting with the students.

    On my last day, we read an article together and had our final conversation. The group went to lunch, except one. He was still reading, and he held up his hand so I didn’t interrupt.

    Then, he said the most amazing thing: “Am I allowed to have this article? I want to take it home and finish it.”

    And I was able to say, “Yep, it’s yours. And I can show you how to find more on your own just like it.”

    They taught me well.

    Julie ScullenJulie 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.

    This piece originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Literacy Today, ILA's member magazine. 

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    Inspiring a New Generation of Readers

    By Julie Scullen
     | Nov 03, 2017

    ThinkstockPhotos-166669107_x300In an effort to find out firsthand what kinds of books today’s teens and tweens are reading, I went to the experts. I asked teachers to give me some quality time with their most voracious readers.

    It was quite an education. I was reminded that today’s middle grade and young adult readers are savvier, more worldly, and more informed than those of my own generation. These remarkable readers let me know with certainty we need to catch up with their reading needs and interests, or at least get out of their way.

    Keep in mind, I’m a child of the 1970s and 1980s. I came of age in a conservative school district in the era of Blubber, Ramona the Pest, A Summer to Die, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.  In my high school, “diversity” was about what kind of fertilizer your dad spread on his fields last season. Girl protagonists in our libraries were worried about whether they would get their period before their friends did, and if they would ever be kissed. Relationships with schoolmates created the most significant conflicts, siblings and parents were a close second. Adults were always there to save the day.

    Reading, even at its most controversial, was pretty tame. In today’s world, lame.

    I sat down with ten groups of seventh- and eighth-grade students to talk about trends in middle grade and young adult literature, and their thoughts were insightful, honest, and telling. I asked them what kinds of books we need more of in our libraries.

    I learned that today, book characters are still worried their siblings or parents might embarrass them, and that stories are still set at school or home. But we no longer live in the world of passive girls waiting for things to happen to them, or brave boys surviving in the woods, and our book recommendations need to reflect this new reality.

    What I heard loud and clear is that our teens are irritated by books that imply that this is all there is.

    Our students shared with me that while these topics, characters and settings are still prevalent, they are interlaced with issues of race, LGBTQ, violence, and mental illness: all deeper, controversial issues schools are often afraid to put on the shelves.

    “We need more mature books. Those that are up to date, that are popular. Not just books that were popular ‘back then,’” Greg, a seventh grader, said with a smile. He referred, of course, to the books we often recommend to students that were our favorites when we were in middle school.

    “Back then?” I asked.

    Eighth grader Sarah explained, “You know, back then. Most of the books [in our library] are from the 1900s.”

    In fact, kids are savvier than we think. Brandon, an eighth grader who admitted he only reads in school, said this about books being written for middle graders: “It’s some 60-year-old person, you know? It’s a middle-aged man trying to write as a high schooler.” Nods all around. His classmate Ariella added, “Yeah, like they write about these high school stereotypes, and everything, and it’s not even true.”

    As a group, they said they are tired of the stereotypical characters they see portrayed in middle grade novels: the ditzy girl, the brain who fails embarrassingly at romantic relationships, the bully, the jock.

    Sam, a self-proclaimed voracious reader, said, “So, I usually read fantasy books, and inevitably [the main characters] are boys, and they are either really weird and different and want to be normal, or really really ordinary and dull and want to be special, and…. then they get magical powers.” The room erupted in laughter and knowing smiles.

    Seventh grader Natalie admitted she reads more than an hour each day. Her response was that we need “more books that don’t try to baby us.” She added, “schools put books on the shelves that aren’t going to offend people. None of these books have any bad words or any REAL things that are actually happening.”

    Elena, another student from her class added, “yes, we need mature books. Right now [authors] put a lot more modern issues in their new books. Issues like race, gender, sexuality, those kinds of things. More than just the basics. We need more of those in our library.”

    This response prompted me to ask if they felt represented in the books they were reading now. Do you see characters that look like you? Think like you? Act like you?

    Brandon is a seventh-grade student of color. “Am I represented? Not the [books] I’ve been reading. I read books my teachers recommended…and the one character closest to me is a cat from the Warriors series.” His peers laughed and nodded.

    Another avid reader and student of color, Fatima, was thoughtful in her response. “Yes and no, because I read a lot of books with male leads and female leads, and they won’t look like me, not particularly…they are a different race. Books aren’t that diverse, and [characters] won’t look like me.”

    Alexa pointed out that diversity is needed. “Sometimes it’s nice when they [characters] are different from you so that you get to see a new perspective.” She added, “there are sometimes books with characters that have kind of the same personality [as you], but like if it’s not, it’s still good to read them, because it helps to grow YOUR personality.”

    My favorite response about characters came from Harry, an eighth grader with very strong opinions about young adult literature. He said, “Whenever there is a character that is really weird, but also a genius, that’s me.”

    These students have provided me with amazing insights into what I as a literacy leader will recommend to students, teachers, and media specialists.

    If we’re going to inspire a new generation of readers, we need to listen to these insightful and remarkable teens. If we want to convince them to get off their devices and into books, we need to find characters and plots they can relate to.

    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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    A Mantra of Moderation

    By Julie Scullen
     | Jun 07, 2017
    A Mantra of ModerationEat more veggies, but not potatoes. Eat more salads, but only dark green leaves, no iceberg lettuce, and skip the dressing. Eat more fruit, but not bananas. And never strawberries—strawberries have pesticides. Avoid gluten, but make sure you eat your whole grains. Drink milk, it’s good for you. Don’t drink milk, it’s bad for you. Weigh yourself every day, it’s motivating. Don’t weigh yourself every day, it’s defeating.

    Conflicting information about diet and nutrition will make you crazy enough to crawl under the covers with a big bag of Doritos. 

    The only area of my life where I find more consistently conflicting information? TEACHING. Every time I read a journal, buy a new resource, collaborate with a colleague, or visit my curriculum materials, I’m given conflicting information. No matter what I do, I’m doing it wrong.

    Make sure your students are reading classic books and literature, but don’t make them read old dead white men. By the way, every student should be exposed to Shakespeare, Orwell, Hawthorne, and Hemingway. 

    Students should read material that they consider a struggle. It’s good for them. Students should read material that is at their independent level. Reading shouldn’t be a struggle.

    Activate students’ background knowledge as much as you can before assigning a text. But don’t give them too much information up front, or they won’t see reading as a means of gaining information. If you tell them everything, they don’t have to read.

    Make sure your students are reading widely and often, from a variety of genres. Track this to make sure. But not with checklists, book lists, or counting minutes. And never assign particular genres—allow choice. 

    Collect data from assessments every week so that you can see progress and plan instruction. Use formative assessment often. But don’t continually stress your students out with assessment and data collection. By the way, assessments take away crucial instructional time, so limit assessment.

    Follow the standards to the letter, but meet kids where they are. 

    Differentiate, but ensure that every student completes the same common assignments. 

    Read aloud to your students every day. Don’t read aloud to your students. It’s a waste of time because listening isn’t tested.

    Make time every day in class to allow for independent reading. Class time is for direct instruction, and if students want to read what they choose, they should do it at home. 

    My mantra has become one of common sense. All things in moderation. I read the journals, buy the new resources, collaborate and follow curriculum, but I keep the faces of students in my mind at all times. They need me to sort through all the advice and do what is best right now. Their needs change every day. 

    Some days they need dressing on their green salad.

    And if you need me, I’m under the covers with an empty bag of Doritos.

    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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    Being Professional About PD

    by Julie Scullen
     | Mar 15, 2017


    This is too long to sit.

    When will I ever use this in real life?
    Can you just hurry up and give us the information so we can leave? All this "turn and talk" is annoying.
    I have to be here TWO HOURS?
    Just so you know, I have permission to leave a few minutes early.
    Can I just have a copy of the PowerPoint? I'll read it later.

    These sound like comments someone might expect to hear from students about to earn a detention. Unfortunately, these are all statements made by teachers during professional development sessions.

    Teachers are often frustrated by these trainings, and sometimes understandably so, but they are no more frustrated than those trying to provide practical and engaging professional development for all attendees.

    TeachersProviding professional development is darn tough. Challenging. If you think differentiating for a class of 35 students is tough, put 150 adults in a room and try to meet their needs. No matter the topic, no matter who determined it was necessary, no matter how it is presented, a large number of attendees will be unhappy.

    Planning of professional development is similar to planning for classroom lessons: It seems like the more information there is to provide, the shorter the span of time allotted, and the less effective the time spent enmeshed in the learning becomes.

    The reality is that, just like students, teachers need time to process and to discuss new learning and information. They need the opportunity to collaborate and to discuss ways to incorporate the new learning into the framework of the old. In these days of shrinking professional development budgets, time to process and to collaborate becomes a tough sell. Time is money, after all.

    Honestly, those assigned to provide professional development in your school or district do not sit for weeks beforehand planning ways for their session to be unengaging and useless. Much of the time, the professional development they provide has been requested by particular teachers themselves and arduously planned. It's just really tough to do it well.

    We all must occasionally engage in professional development that is tedious but legally required. Sometimes the intended messages are designed to protect those in the room. Sometimes they represent new research or information that will be helpful to those teaching content. Sometimes they are required for relicensure.

    Providing the right professional development at the right time is difficult when teachers constantly have so much to learn. Things are changing quickly. As soon as you really understand how your computer system works, someone will come in with a new operating system. As soon as you've perfected the ability to ask high-level questions, someone will tell you to incorporate inquiry groups. Or book clubs. Or Socratic seminars.

    All these are great professional development opportunities, but they take time to learn to use effectively. Successful implementation of these wonderful ideas can't take place after a 30-minute seminar.

    My response is to put yourself out there. If you don't like the PD provided, start lobbying for choice. Start asking to help prioritize the list of needs teachers have. Ask about the long-term plan for professional development. Talk to teacher leaders in your building. It may mean having to admit there are things you don't know.

    Most important, if you have some good ideas, share them with colleagues. Teachers need teachers to support them, and there is no one better than you to do it.

    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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    Bringing Real-World Motivation to Class

    By Julie Scullen
     | Feb 23, 2017

    ThinkstockPhotos-145846868_x300Think about the last thing you chose to read: a magazine article, a Facebook post, a book, a tweet. What motivated you to read it? Was it a recommendation, or did you stumble across it? What did you do afterward? I’m guessing you didn’t answer even one multiple choice question about the content. 

    I almost never finish reading an article I’ve discovered online or read in a magazine and immediately think, “Gosh, this would make a great diorama!” or “Does anyone have a hanger? I need to make a mobile so I can really show you all what this article meant to me!” It’s rare that I seek out a multiple choice question or two so that I can feel qualified and ready to discuss what I have read with colleagues or my family. 

    Adults talk about what they read. They share. They compare. They make connections to other texts on similar topics or similar historical events. They share on social media and e-mail article links to each other. Our students, however, often live in a world of worksheets and packets. No wonder reading has become a task many dread—worksheets do not often inspire.

    Let’s put a little more real world into our classrooms, across the school day. Stop talking to students about passing standardized tests and start asking them to do some authentic reading. Stop talking about how reading practice will help them get a high score on the ACT, and start talking about how reading is necessary for informed adult life. When adults become ill, they read as many things as they can about symptoms and treatment options from as many different sources as possible. They don’t prepare for a quiz in their doctor’s office.

    We need to make student reading across the school day feel as authentic, purposeful, and engaging as adult reading.

    We’ve all been in this classroom: “OK, kids, I’m handing out this article. You need to read it and answer the questions in the yellow packet. It’s important, so read it carefully—some of these questions are related to our Standards. I’m sorry, I know it is more than one full page, and it’s going to be tough reading. I think most of you will be able to complete it before the bell. If not, it is homework. Your quiz is tomorrow.” Hint: If you feel the need to apologize for assigning a reading task, something is wrong.

    Seek authenticity. Don’t turn a strategy into a worksheet or bog down a reading task with an acronym that makes the learning less engaging rather than more. Don’t ask students to read articles from their copy of a newspaper with the only goal being to “find the 5 Ws” in the articles you have chosen for them. Instead, ask students to pick up their device and find an article on a particular current event and read it with the goal of being able to tell someone else about it. Have a discussion about what happened and how it was covered in the website they found. Ask them to seek out another website with a different perspective. How do these writers convey their messages? 

    Stop connecting reading to packets and worksheets. Asking students to fill in blank after blank is encouraging shallow reading, without engagement or passion. It’s exhausting and tedious and easily forgotten. It’s also pretty darn easy to copy from someone else during study hall.

    Think of packets as the student equivalent of insurance policies and privacy notices. It’s certainly important reading to the person asking you to read it, and it may be important to you someday, but it’s darn boring to read and easily forgotten.

    Julie 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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