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Tales Out of School
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    There’s No One-Size-Fits-All Literacy Strategy

    by Julie Scullen
     | Jul 15, 2015

    shutterstock_153671990_x300If you are a literacy leader, you’ve invariably been part of a meeting in which a group of dedicated but exhausted educators and administrators gather around a table to discuss how to improve reading scores across a grade level, building, or district. The literacy leader is then asked to field the question, “What strategy should we teach kids in order to bring up our reading scores?” They’re looking for the perfect answer—preferably something with a clever acronym that fits nicely on a poster.

    There is no one perfect answer. There never is.

    I find myself in this meeting time and time again. My response? “It depends.”

    A hand slaps the table. “For crying out loud! Stop beating around the bush and just tell us! What’s your favorite strategy?”

    I smile politely, trying not to laugh, and think about how my answer must sound to exasperated administrators. The table-slapping principal is clearly frustrated by my lack of specifics. What she and the many administrators in the room want is something that I know requires work. Something much deeper and broader than what they are envisioning.

    Administrators aren’t the only education professionals with misconceptions about the use of strategies. About three times a month I get an e-mail like this one: “My principal is coming to observe me, and he/she says we need to focus on literacy. What’s a reading strategy I can use for my observation?”

    These conversations provide me with clear insight to the biggest misconception my colleagues have regarding reading instruction. They’re thinking that I will share with them The Strategy that will solve the problems our students face with comprehension of rigorous material. That once they use The Strategy, we will see great gains.

    Unfortunately, The Strategy alone won’t raise our test scores, even if we put it on posters in every classroom.

    Think about K-W-L. Well known. Effective. In some instances.

    Let’s pretend I’m excited to bring a new topic to life with my seventh-grade students. My lesson might start like this:

    “OK, fellow historians! Today we’re going to continue digging into America’s past by talking about the French and Indian War. Let’s use a strategy to help us—one you all know—K-W-L! Let’s start with K. What do you know about the French and Indian War?”

    Crickets. Silence. Blank looks.

    Finally, this: “There were French guys in it? And Indians, right?”

    I shift gears.

    “Maybe we’ll need to read a bit and gain more knowledge here. But we can still talk about the W. What do you want to know about the French and Indian War?”

    Again, crickets.

    After an appropriate amount of time has been spent engaging in learning about this pivotal event, I’ll end with this: “Let’s finish up our reading strategy. We talked about both the K and the W in K-W-L. It’s time for the L. What did you learn about the French and Indian War?”

    At least one student will say “nothing” or “nothing new.” In reflecting on the lesson, I’ll wonder why I bothered to use a strategy at all. It took up valuable class time and achieved little. The students weren’t better readers when I finished, and they seemed unlikely to use this strategy on their own in the future.

    It’s a shame, too, because K-W-L is a great strategy. It just was used in the wrong situation.

    Generally, students need to learn strategies to help them engage with a text to gain deep comprehension, or to organize their thinking, or to prepare for class discussion, or to gather new vocabulary. They may need to read critically through a particular lens. Each purpose requires a different type of thinking and analysis. The strategy an adult reader might use in each instance is different. Strong readers perform these strategies without even realizing it, while others need modeling and practice to begin to see the benefit.

    Back to the meeting with administrators: Now I answer their question with some of my own: “What are your students not yet able to do independently when approaching a particular type of text? Where and when do they struggle, become frustrated, and disengage with the reading?” The answer to these questions will lead teachers to the best instructional choices.

    We’ve made quite a few changes in the way we approach reading since my first experience with that type of meeting. We’ve begun asking the right questions in these collaborative conversations. We’ve learned it’s not about the strategy, the acronym, or the poster—it’s about the thinking a person does while engaged with text. It’s about making sure we’re preparing students for the many different types of reading and thinking adults engage in every day.

    How and what they will read as adults? It depends. On us.

    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.

    Scullen will present “Read Any Good Stuff Lately? Building a Culture of Literacy in Secondary Classrooms” Saturday, July 18, at the ILA 2015 Conference in St. Louis, MO, July 18–20. The session will suggest how make meaningful reading and literacy activities palatable with humor and practical ideas. Visit the ILA 2015 Conference website for more information or to register.

     
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  • Learning is not memorization, it's understanding.
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    • Tales Out of School

    Getting the Answers Past Your Eyes

    by Julie Scullen
     | Jun 17, 2015

    A few short years ago, I had the opportunity to work as a middle school reading specialist. My role was to work with students who were not qualifying for special services but still demonstrating a need for reading intervention. On this particular day, one of my sixth-grade students had neglected to visit my office. This wasn’t unusual for Jordan. Jordan could remember what shoes I wore last Tuesday, but not once had she remembered a reading intervention session. To be fair, Jordan forgot most school-related information, but she was very knowledgeable about fashionable footwear.

    About 10 minutes into the class period, I was in the doorway of her classroom. Students were busily writing in yellow packets of questions, textbooks open. The teacher looked relieved to see me. “Jordan is a bit behind in her study guide,” she told me. “Can you help her catch up in your time together?” She smiled hopefully, and I mentally threw out the close reading lesson I had planned for Jordan. Monitor and adjust.

    Jordan, visibly thrilled with opportunity to escape the room during a reading assignment, grabbed her textbook and her yellow packet and practically danced to the door.

    On our way back to my office space, I had a conversation with Jordan that would forever change how I approached my work with students and with staff.

    “So, Jordan, what are you learning in class today?” I asked.

    “I don’t know. Calories.”

    I smiled. “Yes, but what are you learning about calories?”

    Jordan stopped and looked at me with sympathy. Poor teacher. So uninformed. So inexperienced.

    “It’s OK, Mrs. Scullen. We don’t have to understand it, we just have to do the worksheets.”

    I stopped walking and contemplated this revelation. We consistently teach students to read for understanding. How could it be that Jordan had such a deeply ingrained misconception?

    Suddenly I understood why Jordan couldn’t remember what she’d read, why she couldn’t participate in a discussion of what she was learning, and why her completion of packets didn’t translate to higher grades. Understanding was not her goal.

    I began asking my other students about the work they were required to do with open textbooks, and I found that Jordan’s peers had similar views. Reading was a hunt for the answer the teacher expected, not a search for understanding.

    Jordan and her peers were performing what I started to call “pasteurized” (past-your-eyes’d) reading. When students were reading, the words went “past their eyes” but stayed on the page. Students’ purpose for reading was to find the answers. Compliance in the task meant that their eyes saw every word. Students had somehow missed the notion that textbook reading had a purpose, and that understanding was the goal.

    This mindset, not unusual for many students, highlighted the need for teachers’ modeling of their own thinking during reading. It presented a strong reason to provide multiple opportunities for close reading across genres and text types, and for providing students with the opportunity to discuss and use what they learn in class. It highlighted a need for authentic reading tasks. It forced me, and my colleagues, to change the way we framed questions and had an impact on the rigor with which we asked them.
    Years later, I have Jordan to thank for changing the way I approach teaching students to approach nonfiction text, and the way I guide teachers in professional development.

    Incidentally, her shoes were pink that day. Mine were brown.

    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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  • Dioramas are a staple, but are they helpful?
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    • Tales Out of School

    Tales Out of School: Diorama-O-Rama

    by Julie Scullen
     | May 20, 2015

    When my daughter was in elementary school, she brought home a letter informing us she was going to be working on a project. “A project, Mom!” She beamed with excitement, toting a book with a happy panda on the cover.  

    The word project strikes fear in the heart of parents everywhere, particularly those with more than one child. This was my third go-round with this project. She was to read a nonfiction book about an animal and then create a diorama to celebrate what she had learned.

    Clearly, discussions about pandas were in my future.

    Full disclosure: I really am a big fan of being “crafty.” I can adequately sew, quilt, cross-stitch, and crochet. I’ve attended local “Wine and Canvas” painting nights. I’ve been a scrapbooker. I’ve learned to make my own jewelry, and for that I now have a box of fancy beads, wires and tools and…one crooked pair of earrings. One of my Pinterest boards is devoted to the hundreds of things I’m eventually going to make, paint, sew, glue, and create in my spare time.

    Even so, the thought of making a diorama with my daughter made me a bit queasy.

    Now, before you start sending disapproving e-mails, please understand that I know art has a place in school. I’ve been to all the staff development on brain research. I’ve differentiated according to learning style in my classroom. Honest, I get it.

    However, this was more. These dioramas would be on display. This ramps up the apprehension and concern considerably.

    It’s no secret to any experienced parent that this project wasn’t really a student project. I’d seen the dioramas from previous years proudly displayed on Parent Night. At the unveiling of the class dioramas there would be plenty of moms and dads patting their child on the back for their beautiful rendition of a wildebeest habitat, complete with holding pond, a small stream, and live trees—while turning up their noses at the projects that were clearly created by students with less crafty parents, with their visible glue, smudges, and descriptions scrawled in crayon on loose-leaf paper.

    I had a small panic attack at the thought of providing guidance to my daughter in making a diorama for panda in his natural habitat. (Assuming we would learn pandas live in shoeboxes.)

    This project would require me to scavenge a shoebox (“small, and in good condition”) and also require no less than three financially debilitating trips to the craft store. You can’t buy just three green pipe cleaners, you must buy the entire package in a rainbow of colors. You can’t just use regular green construction paper, you must buy the fancy paper that actually looks like leaves. Who doesn’t cherish the thought of standing in the craft store paper aisle with a tearful child frantically looking for paper covered in bamboo leaves?

    As an educator, I take issue with this type of project for a different reason: relevancy. Show me the adult who finishes a novel, a biography, or an article in Time magazine and proceeds to turn to another person and say, “Wow, that was fascinating. I’d love to share it with you. I need to make a quick trip to the craft store, but I’ll have a diorama ready for you tomorrow by noon.”

    Did my daughter learn about pandas? Yes. She read her panda book with reverence and gusto three times. She made a list of the environmental needs of pandas. This work took about 30 minutes. Creating the diorama took more than a week from planning to completion.

    Every night she worked on the project while I fought the urge to push her aside to do it for her. I reminded her again and again that this was to be her work, not mine. She raised her eyebrow suspiciously, but soldiered on. After tears and a meltdown requiring ice cream for both of us, I gave in and assisted.

    Clay lumps wouldn’t hold the trees and brush in place, so we went to the craft store to purchase industrial-strength glue. The glue wouldn’t hold the pipe cleaner trees and bushes in place either, so we gave up and used staples. Unfortunately, staples are not skin friendly. Anyone who held the completed project was in serious danger of bleeding to death from staple piercings.

    Granted, she learned from this project. She learned that when clay doesn’t work to use glue. When glue doesn’t work, use staples. She learned that the use of staples creates a need for bandages. She learned that a 5-inch stuffed panda is difficult to display to scale in a 6-inch high shoebox.

    What did she learn about pandas? She’ll tell you she learned pandas eat bamboo, and they aren’t really bears. This is good knowledge to have.

    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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