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    Pay It Back

    By Pamela J. Farris
     | Jun 18, 2019
    LT366_reflections_ldReading and writing are critical, and making opportunities for children to read and write has been a calling throughout my life. I came from an impoverished community. Through reading and writing, I was able to gain scholarships and loans to attend college. Since then, I’ve always made it a point to pay it back. From donating to the Little Free Library at Lot 12 of a trailer park in rural Illinois to working with inner-city students on writing skills, I’ve seen the advances children make once provided opportunities to engage in literacy. Along the way, I’ve seen various methods of making literacy happen for students.

    “Pay it forward” is a popular slogan. I believe providing opportunities for our future leaders is also critical. After retiring from Northern Illinois University as a distinguished teaching professor of literacy education, a fund was set up in my honor that provides $500 scholarships to student teachers to purchase children’s literature to build a teaching library for instructional purposes.

    “Pay it back so kids can move forward” is my personal motto. Each year, I donate a $500 Pamela J. Farris Rural Classroom Library to a teacher who is a member of the Illinois Reading Council and who teaches in a community of 8,000 or fewer. Some years, I’ve donated five such libraries as the need is great. Often there are no public libraries in the community. Funding for rural schools is minimal as there is little or no industry and often high levels of poverty.

    This summer, my husband, Richard Fluck, a retired school superintendent, and I decided it was time to take it further. We donated $15,000 worth of new books, featuring noted authors and illustrators across a variety of genres, to Central and Fillmore elementary schools in Indiana, which is where I began my teaching career. The books are in bins that move each quarter from classroom to classroom to enhance each teacher’s personal library. Research demonstrates that students read more when they have ready access to books

    The kids and their teachers were excited when, on a hot August day, I drove up in a pickup truck filled with new children’s and young adult books. The students beamed as they carried books into their school. They chattered about the authors they already knew and titles they selected to read. That made it all worthwhile.

    These are difficult times for schools. I believe we have an obligation as teachers to “pay it back so kids can move forward.” Whether it is sponsoring a child to get a new book each month, donating for preservice education scholarships, helping the schools we’ve taught in develop classroom libraries, volunteering in a school library that just lost its librarian because of budget cuts, or helping with other literacy projects, our donations make an important difference in the lives of teachers and students.

    Pamela J. Farris, an ILA member since 1975, is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus with the Department of Literacy and Elementary Education at Northern Illinois University. She is a former team leader for the ILA Teachers’ Choices and Children’s Choices reading list projects.

    This article originally appeared in the May/June issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.
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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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    Invisibility: The Superpower of Literacy Leaders

    By Julie Scullen
     | May 22, 2018
    Pushing Glaciers

    For a very brief, shining moment recently I thought someone understood how difficult it is to be a literacy leader.

    One of the teachers I work with smiled at me and remarked, “Gosh, your job must be really stressful.” My heart leapt with appreciation.

    But before I could thank her for her thoughtful and generous insight, she added, “I mean, you have to keep finding all these different projects and things to do so they don’t send you back to the classroom.”

    She gave me a sympathetic head tilt, patted my shoulder, and walked away. I was having an out of body experience, but I’m fairly sure I just stared at her as she walked away, mouth gaping.

    Now, with the benefit of hindsight, this is what I wish I had said:

    Yes, as literacy leaders, we do often have to “find” things to do.

    We “find” SMART goals representative of the needs of thousands of students considered acceptable to teachers, administrators, and our community. We also “find” the data on which to base these goals, then analyze and track that data over years and months.

    We “find” professional development opportunities that meet the needs of hundreds of teachers—both new and seasoned professionals with a variety of training and experiences—and provide these opportunities within the scope of the mere three half-day sessions provided each year.

    We “find” ways to navigate, address, and communicate the conflicting philosophies of literacy instruction to ensure that thousands of students have their needs met and aren’t caught in the philosophical crossfire.

    We “find” ways to help teams of teachers write curriculum documents reflective of an overwhelming number of standards in ways that keep students in mind but don’t force teachers to skip through curriculum to guarantee coverage.

    We “find” ways to ensure that our students have authentic reasons to read and write in all disciplines.

    We “find” ways to carefully guide new teachers who don’t yet understand why they shouldn’t ask, “What happens if I don’t teach the curriculum?” Then we “find” ways to mentor these teachers to ensure they have a positive powerful teaching experience and decide stay with the profession beyond their first few years.

    We “find” and carefully read pages and pages of literacy research to ensure that our teachers and students have the most relevant and beneficial instructional resources boosting their learning.

    I wish I had that moment with that teacher again. Without meaning to, she made my work clearer than ever.

    Literacy leadership is hard work, but if it’s done right, it’s almost invisible. If it’s working, no one sees the magic happen.

    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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    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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