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    The Lighter Side of Survival

    By Julie Scullen
     | Oct 19, 2016

    ThinkstockPhotos-97430222_x300At our first department leader meeting this fall, I asked each person to share a one-word goal for the year. There were 14 people in the room, and three listed survival as their word. Their goal was to survive. One other said persevere and still another’s goal was serenity. Almost a third were thinking about their emotional needs and steeling themselves for what would come next. No one in the room was surprised; in fact several others said they had considered using the same word—survive—but weren’t brave enough to admit it to the group. There was a bit of nervous laughter, and we moved on to business. Teaching is a tough job, and getting tougher.

    Inspired by these teaching warriors and Shanna Peeples’ article in October’s Literacy Today, I starting asking teachers for their stories. What happened that influenced your day? What made you smile? What made you change direction?

    Hearing stories from the trenches helps us realize we’re not alone. Better yet, our students (and colleagues) might provide us with cause to laugh. I consider humor cheap therapy.

    Let me provide you with some cheap therapy.

    I was working alongside a dedicated, energetic secondary teacher. On this particular day we asked students to practice reading authentic online text and respond to what they had read. Engagement was high, keyboards were clicking purposefully, and we were feeling the rush of professional success and mentally high-fiving each other.

    One young lady who had been typically distracted and disengaged broke away from her response writing and motioned for my attention.

    “Hey, Reading Lady. Do I capitalize the ‘h’ in Hispanic right here?”

    I smiled, proud of her question. She was making such progress! “Yes, of course.”

    As I walked away, I heard her mutter to herself. “Duh. Of course I should. Hispanic is a pretty big religion!”

    End scene.

    A short time ago I was watching a phenomenal teacher perform a close reading lesson. She had the kids near her in a semicircle, each with a notebook and pencil. A few minutes into the lesson a young man popped up and headed to the pencil sharpener. He started sharpening…and sharpening and sharpening and sharpening and sharpening and sharpening—with occasional peeks to see if the lead was sharp enough yet.

    The teacher motioned for him to have a seat. Reluctantly and dramatically he dragged his feet back to his space.

    A moment later he popped up again, even more enthusiastically, and dashed to his chair. He dug through his backpack, tossing everything and leaving items strewn all over the floor, chair, and desk. Triumphantly he held up what he had been seeking: a small pencil sharpener.

    He smiled and skipped back to his place in the front of the room…and began sharpening. Sharpening and sharpening and sharpening and sharpening and sharpening…. The teacher, valiantly continuing to teach, walked to her desk and pulled out a pencil. She walked to him and gave him a meaningful stare as she handed him her pencil. He looked at it as she walked away, perplexed. Then his face lit up with blissful understanding, and he started sharpening her pencil.

    End scene.

    You can’t make this stuff up.

    To be fair, sometimes my colleagues provide me with cheap therapy as well. For instance, in recent years, I’ve helped to dispel many misconceptions regarding standards and testing. I’ve had conversations with colleagues referencing “formalative” assessment (as opposed to “summalative”). During curriculum writing, somone referred to our “new STRANDards.” One of my favorites is this: “What are we going to do about this CANNON Core?”

    We all need to seek out the lighter moments and collect stories from our schools to share. It’s a matter of survival.

    Do you have a good story? Share it with us on social media with #ClassroomTales.

    Julie Scullen is a former member of the ILA Board of Directors, and has 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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    When the Scores Are Flat

    By Julie Scullen
     | Sep 21, 2016

    Julie Scullen 092116If you work in a school, you’ve had the conversation many times: The one where a group of dedicated and well-educated professionals sit in a room and look over the data, wondering why the test scores didn’t go up. Everything that could possibly have been done to raise test scores was done. “We tried everything!”

    • We explained to students the importance of the test, over and over again.
    • We shared individual scores with students and held goal-setting conferences throughout the year.
    • We talked about the test at every staff meeting. 
    • We taught students how to navigate online questions.
    • We modeled how to use all the special features of the online test format.
    • We asked our test questions throughout the year in the test format.
    • We provided practice tests.
    • We taught the students the academic language likely used in the test questions.
    • We modeled how to best answer multiple choice questions.
    • We had a pep fest, complete with a flash mob and inspirational video.
    • We provided a protein-packed breakfast to ensure students didn’t have rumbly tummies during test time.
    • We provided peppermint during the test to increase their brain activity.

    Still, our scores are flat. Level. Stagnant. How can this be?

    Do we need a new reading program? More interventions? Different interventions? Another incentive program? More professional development? Are we providing the wrong professional development?

    The focus on the test is missing the point. The best way to make our students better readers isn’t to teach them about how to answer multiple choice questions. The best way to make our students better readers is to make them readers.

    What if we ask the question, How often do our students read? Do we have them reading throughout the school day? Are they exposed to different types of texts? Are students expected to use what they have read to consider new perspectives, to solve problems, and to step outside themselves, or are they reading to complete a set of carefully worded multiple choice questions?

    Are there unopened textbooks in our classrooms with stiff bindings because we found it is easier to just tell the students what they would be reading instead of allowing them to read? Under the guise of getting through all the content, did we forget to let students read to discover for themselves? 

    If students roll their eyes and complain when they are asked to open a book, perhaps it isn’t entirely their fault. Do we give our students authentic reasons to read?  Do we model excitement for the insights we gain from reading?

    Our best schools make literacy everyone’s responsibility. Everyone reads. In every content area, teachers talk about the specialized text structures and other intricacies of their discipline. Students both read and write in every classroom. Having a “next read” is as important as having a current one. Students aren’t skimming to find the answers to fill-in-the-blank questions, they are reading deeply to compare, to synthesize, to form an argument, to create something new.

    The next time you are asked to take part in the conversation about stagnant scores, steer the conversation away from test prep and toward the outcome that is most important—making all students readers. Remind your colleagues that this is more important than any test score.

    Julie Scullen is a former member of the ILA Board of Directors, and has 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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    Getting the Cold Hard Middle School Truth

    By Julie Scullen
     | Jun 15, 2016

    ThinkstockPhotos-78635418_x300Gosh, I love middle-schoolers. They are so. . .honest. Unquestionably honest.

    Last month I asked our middle-school students some very informal questions about their classroom and out-of-school reading. These kiddos were enrolled in a full-year reading intervention course for students not yet reaching grade-level reading goals. We wanted to use their responses to plan and prepare for the coming year. The teachers and I braced ourselves for the answers these highly honest adolescents would provide. 

    What I found out had me laughing—through tears.

    Finding research to support increasing student achievement in literacy by encouraging independent reading is not difficult. We know choice is important, we know making reading social is crucial to today’s kids, and we know making reading meaningful and authentic is vital to keeping them engaged. Seeing that our students prove our theories and research to be true is always gratifying.

    Our students advised us that the best place to find out about good books is to ask another student. Proof that for students, reading is social. They told us that they usually choose their next book on the basis of their favorite authors or the next book in a series. Unfortunately, “teacher suggestion” ranked almost equally with “chosen randomly from the shelf”. 

    I asked, “How can your teachers make reading more interesting and fun in the classroom? How can they make it something you want to do?” Some of my favorite responses were the most honest. Note that I kept their initial spelling and grammar intact, as it adds to the authenticity. They are quite revealing. 

    I don’t know, but the teachers could try and work some stuff into the lesson that kids like.  (If they only knew how hard we try to do just that!)

    Just give me good book about fallen angels and stuff like that or a book that people die in.

    Talk about sports. (This would create a very narrow curriculum, but we’ll consider it.)

    Let you read whatever you won’t. (I’m pretty sure this youngster meant whatever you want.)

    Don’t force a kid to read things they don’t want let them pick. (Also, don’t make them eat green vegetables or go to the dentist, right? But we get the point.)

    Give us more books to choose from. (Oh, my! How many of your teachers frequent used bookstores, book clubs, and garage sales looking for new selections? If it were up to us, every classroom would have new books to choose on the shelves every week.)

    There were many responses from students who wanted us to know they aspired to improve their world, and they wanted to read about genuine issues:

    If we read an article have it be a powerful one that people should care about, and if it’s a normal book then books that get your attention right away. I want to read about something I really care about.

    Many responses were reflective of current emphasis on testing:

    Let us just read instead of analyzing paragraphs!

    Actually let us independent read cause we don’t do that a lot

    Let me read and let me injoy the book and NOT think about how I fell(This darling student likely meant, “think about how I FEEL”.  He has a few spelling needs.)

    Then there were of course those few students who were hoping for sweeping change:

    Don’t look to see if I’m really reading.

    Give candy and don’t talk to us. Also, let us sit wherever we want.

    These connections with kids prove to me yet again that our future generations are savvy, smart, and want to make our world a better place.

    Overall, it should be noted I could easily separate their answers into categories.

    1. Give us a choice.
    2. Let us talk.
    3. Don’t give us worksheets.

    Your advice is noted, middle-schoolers. See you next fall!

    Julie Scullen is a former president of the Minnesota Reading Association and Minnesota Secondary Reading Interest Council and is a current member of the International Literacy Association Board of Directors. 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, as well as reading assessment and evaluation.

     
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    Opening Doors for Myself and Others

    By Julie Scullen
     | May 18, 2016

    ThinkstockPhotos-84464828_x300Leadership in literacy was not in my grand plan when I left my undergrad program.  With a double major—Elementary Education and Reading Instruction—my professional goal was to be the best darned fourth-grade teacher ever and eventually retire quietly having systematically given all my tattered classroom resources and picture books to new teachers starting their journey.  I planned to spend my career making a difference for 30 students a year. Then I gratefully took a job teaching remedial reading to seventh and eighth graders.

    Ironically, I haven’t taught one day of fourth grade beyond student teaching.  I found I spoke the same language as middle schoolers, they made me laugh. I’ve never looked back.

    In addition to teaching, I was asked to lead the Reading Department—of which I was the one and only member—which entailed keeping track of where the $200 I was given to spend on materials went.  There were no committee approvals or hoops to jump through.  I used a legal pad, a pencil, and a calculator to perform all my leadership duties.

    A few years later, in a different district, my department was slightly larger, but the legal pad of computations was similar.  “Leading” meant keeping track of money, ordering highlighters, and choosing the size and color of our sticky notes.

    One transformative day, my principal called me in to her office. “So, I’ve heard of this new thing called ‘reading coaching.’  Would you like to be one?  I think you would do a great job of helping teachers here in our building.”  She freed me up a couple hours a day to “coach” my peers, model in classrooms, and problem solve.  At that time there wasn’t a model in place, we weren’t sure where it was going, and I spent a long summer reading everything I could on instructional coaching.  What I couldn’t see at the time was that she had opened an invisible door.  I now had opportunities that weren’t visible to me before that fateful meeting.

    Soon after I started coaching, I realized it was lonely work.  I had no one to ask when I had a question. I had no one to coach me.

    I reached out to our local council leaders, who linked me to people in similar professional roles.  We met in coffee shops or over pizza surrounded by dirty napkins and piles of resources we wanted to share. We frantically took notes regarding each other’s experiences.  I had stumbled across a group of like-minded and equally passionate people. 

    I volunteered for a committee, and suddenly I was on the state executive board and planning professional development opportunities for teachers outside of my community.  Another invisible door had opened.

    Skip forward a few years.  Reports of the success of building coaching spread to the district office, and I was invited to leave my home school and, with two others, implement literacy coaching in all seven middle schools.  I packed up my classroom, all the while reassuring fellow teachers and students I would only be gone one year, two at the most. 

    As it turns out, I haven’t been back. Yet.

    I continued to lean on my local council colleagues for support and advice.

    While I was coaching, my supervisor pushed me to earn my administrative license.  She predicted I would soon be leading groups, and I would need supervisory credentials to make it happen.  Even without knowing when I would ever use it, I completed a program and earned my education specialist credential.  She had also opened an invisible door.

    My work with our state council allowed me to work with staff and Board members from International Reading Association.  I attended two advocacy workshops in Washington D.C., learned from IRA staff at Leadership Academies, and found myself again surrounded with people holding similar passions.  Each person I met opened more and more invisible doors to new possibilities.

    Now I’m completing my third year on the (now) International Literacy Association Board of Directors, still surrounded by passionate and energetic people, and highly grateful for those who pushed me along the way.

    Invisible doors opened to me because of a handful of leaders.

    Each time I took a risk, it was due to one person making a personal contact, pointing out a door I didn’t realize was there.  We need more leaders to push our passionate and energetic peers to share their talents, to speak out and advocate, to strive for more—to see possibilities they might not yet see.

    Julie Scullen is a former president of the Minnesota Reading Association and Minnesota Secondary Reading Interest Council and is a current member of the International Literacy Association Board of Directors. 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, as well as reading assessment and evaluation.

     
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    Finding a Twist for a Reluctant Reader

    By Julie Scullen
     | Mar 16, 2016

    It was Tornado Awareness Month. I’d just spent a class period with a group of seventh graders deeply involved in close, authentic readings on tornadoes. We had read about what causes them, their impact, how to protect ourselves from these swirling monsters. It was the last period of the day, so I was just about to collapse into my desk chair and start scanning e-mail when I realized I was not alone.

    Brandon was still there, and he was annoyed. Brandon was not yet an energetic reader, so I was not surprised he was annoyed. Of course—we had been reading that day.

    “I need to talk to you, Mrs. Scullen.” He paused for effect. “Just so you know, I don’t believe in tornadoes.”

    I must have looked bewildered. He continued.

    “You know, they can do a lot with computers these days.”

    And he was gone. Off to the bus. I sat there with my jaw hanging open, reanalyzing my life choices.

    Brandon was an enigma. Not only did he not believe in tornadoes, he also didn’t believe he would ever read and enjoy a book. I had been trying my best to find just the right thing for him. We’d had some successes and some misses, but nothing that really gave him that “good-read” rush of adrenaline that I was hoping he would have.

    Then I remembered it was almost time to start my end-of-the-year read-aloud, and I was again hopeful. Like so many books my students read, I knew it would be a slow start, but after a few chapters, they would love the book.

    For several years I had used the book Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls to finish our year. This book is hysterical and tragic, sentimental and old-fashioned. It’s a gem of a coming-of-age novel. I used this novel as a read-aloud “year-ender,” because the school library would close for inventory, leaving my students without access to books, and I wanted to keep them reading. Each day my mantra would be, Don’t worry. You are going to LOVE this book.

    My students would respond with familiar eye rolls and groans. “This book will never be good!” Jay Berry (the main character’s) sister believed in fairies and made wishes in fairy rings. She played in a treehouse. And she was 13—too old for that! “Oh man, Mrs. Scullen! Seriously? Fairy Rings?”

    Just as I said with so many book recommendations for my students, I would repeat: Don’t worry. You are going to LOVE this book. This is a story you will remember forever. Trust me.

    There were always one or two Brandons in every class with “the attitude.” Arms folded. Face of disdain for old-fashioned language.

    “Have I ever steered you wrong about a book before? Trust me, you will LOVE this book.”

    About halfway through the book, Jay Berry gets himself in a jam. Spoiler alert: Jay Berry finds himself in the woods with a chimpanzee and about 100 little monkeys from a circus train wreck, and a still full of sour apple mash in barrels on the way to being fermented into whiskey. I’m betting that none of you have ever been in the presence of 100 drunk monkeys, but Wilson Rawls apparently had.

    If you want to build an eagerness to read from a book, read aloud a chapter of a book describing the behavior of drunken monkeys who manage to trick a young man into drinking sour mash and losing his britches in the woods.

    Then, ask students to predict what his mama is going to say when he comes home from the woods, drunk and without pants, and tells her a bunch of monkeys tricked him into getting drunk. “Honest!”

    Now you have their attention. Even Brandon’s.

    The best part happens after the book concludes, when the students—previously full of disdain—had to admit they “did, kinda, sorta, like this book.” Then they ask if Wilson Rawls had any sequels. Did he write anything else? Can we ask him to visit our school?

    My response? “Hey, if you are looking for a good summer read, Wilson Rawls did write another book, Where the Red Fern Grows.

    Every child a reader? A book for every reader? Yes. Maybe not this book, but there is one. There is even a book for those who don’t believe in tornadoes.

    The task is so big; the work you do in your schools is overwhelming. I get it.

    My mantra for you is this. There will be many Brandons. You will have to work hard to win him over, but don’t worry. He’ll get there, as will all the others. You will LOVE this work. This is a story you will remember forever.

    Julie Scullen is a former president of the Minnesota Reading Association and Minnesota Secondary Reading Interest Council and is a current member of the International Literacy Association Board of Directors. 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, as well as reading assessment and evaluation.

     
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