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    Summer Reading Intervention: Self-Care

    By Justin Stygles
     | Jun 20, 2018

    Summer ReadingWhen I think of summer reading, I think about the scores of fifth- and sixth-grade students arriving at my makeshift, intervention-based literacy classroom, prepared to embark on a summer reading challenge. My readers do not share the same sentiment. In their minds, summer reading means, How long can I passively resist this required hour of reading intervention?

    As each summer day drifts by, I can’t help but wonder if we were all set up to fail in the first place. My summer school kids know exactly why they are in summer school. They think that summer reading is what happens to kids who “can’t read” during the school year. Yet, here these students are, amid the consequence of their “failure,” while their friends are off in pools or lakes taking in the delights of summer.

    Reading at the middle level is more than reading skills, such as phonics and decoding. Reading is also more than strategies and questions. Yet, when I ask administrators about our goals and outcomes for summer reading, I am told,  “We need to prove we maintained or improved their reading levels to report to the state.”

    Who is reading really about?

    Readers at the middle level spend a consuming amount of time figuring out who they are. Too often, reading is rejected from this identity, for good reason. Reading is often presented as an imposition, something that needs to be done for someone. When reading toward an assessment, score, or level, students know the purpose of summer reading. That purpose is not for their own benefit.

    What about self-care?

    There is an unacknowledged degree of self-care in reading. Many of the students who sit in my summer reading program lack basic consciousness of self-care. Still young, they live their lives at the whims and decisions of others. Their enrollment is beyond their control, making the intervention somewhat counterproductive.

    Investing time to help students develop self-efficacy, self-regulation, and metacognition, as well as to reframe their self-perception, should be prioritized over skill-based reading. When readers are invested in the development of their own reading process, they acquire the skills they need to become more proficient readers. In some of my summer reading settings, we focus on supporting readers’ engagement with text. We spend time determining book selection, and discussing the feelings and emotions attached to reading. Over time, these students build the skills needed to embrace more challenging texts. Now the door is open to focus on skills.

    When a reader adopts reading as a form of self-care, he or she accepts reading as a means to improve himself or herself. He or she is more likely to explore resources and avenues to overcome challenges, without fear or consequence. The middle-level reader who uses reading as self-care takes times out of his or her busy day to relieve stress. The reader also prioritizes the conditions in which he or she reads to maximize the experience.

    Reading is a cognitive practice. But reading also requires a sense of security and confidence. We all know middle school readers whose minds are moving 1,000 miles per hour, whose emotions are inconsistent, and whose sense of self changes as often as the lights on the Empire State Building. When the reader’s physiology is in flux, adopting reading as a measure of self-care is a complicated task. Often these readers assume a degree of shame about their “inability” to read comfortably like their “smarter” peers.

    I feel the summer reading classroom should be a substitute for what readers may not have available to them outside of school. My summer classroom is a scaffold to autonomous reading, rather than a continuation of instructional situations that fueled the readers’ reluctance.

    If reading was about the child’s well-being—rather than the reading level—would we have as many reluctant middle-level readers in our summer classrooms?

    I think the answer is no.

    In turn, rather than finding ways to remind middle-level readers of their weakness, we should help them experience the positive effects on their emotional, physical, and cognitive well-being. When our readers invest in reading as a form of self-care, they will become more receptive readers, rather than resistant.

    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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    Literacy Lessons From the Track

    By Justin Stygles
     | May 09, 2018
    racing

    Does reading ability determine our future success? And if so, by whose standard? 

    Days after the Kentucky Derby, I think back to my experience working as a groom at various harness (horse) race tracks and as an aspiring driver at Morrisville State College in New York. My day at the track typically started at 6:00 a.m. (many others arrived before 5:00 a.m.). Before noon, my three to five horses would be fed, harnessed, jogged, bathed, and wrapped. And I would be exhausted. Depending on the race day, we might have a few hours in the afternoon to relax, if we didn't ship to another track or race a matinee card. Usually, the afternoon carried another set of responsibilities, leaving little time to read.

    When I did read, I would peruse weekly racing recap magazines, such as Times in Harness or The Horseman at the tack shop, but nothing that substantiated sustained reading. Did I squander an opportunity? I had the ability to read. I could read fluently, comprehend, and interpret. Yet I abstained, whether by choice or circumstance. Did I choose not to read, with what little spare time I had?

    Many backstretch workers I spent time with didn’t have that luxury. Such souls, some of the kindest and craftiest people I’ve ever met, faced the stark reality of illiteracy, where career mobility didn’t exist. For those men and women, working with horses provided security in a world where no security could be found without the ability to read.

    One elderly man I worked with had a magnificent touch with horses. He could calm a horse and tend to each one like his own child. He could also fix every part of my Plymouth Reliant. But he could never train a horse. Like several others we worked with, he couldn’t read the regulations for licensure, condition sheets, or stall applications, let alone a newspaper. They survived on hands-on knowledge and intellect.

    The gentleman made enough money to scrape by, just like the rest of us (In 1996, that was $250 a week, with housing provided). When we had time, sitting on track trunks along the shedrow, he'd express why we needed to go back and finish college. He regretted his inability to read.

    Years ago, I worked with a young teenager who loved harness racing. As I watched him move through the grades, I noticed that he struggled to acquire reading skills, whether in class or specialized interventions. But he loved his race horses. He could tell you every detail on every horse and he could critique a horse’s performance on par with a professional handicapper or horseman.

    Eventually, he faced a challenge. He could only work at the track if he improved his grades. By the time he was old enough to drive, he had enough literacy capacity—gained primarily through the language of the track and the pressure to pass his classes—to be successful and to earn a living at the track. However, the idea of reading a book for pleasure was a foreign concept. He became what I call a "functional reader": one who reads to survive or succeed in a career field, but not by choice or for pleasure.

    Consider our schools and classrooms, our pressures and expectations. Do students really only need to achieve reading competency during school, or is recreational reading essential to one’s overall quality of life?

    Reading is not a possession or an affirmation, but a gift that each of us must extend to our peers—young or old, rich or poor. We need to extend our purpose, not just to make functional readers, but to encourage reading that inspires, empowers, and connects. After all, literacy is empathy.

    Every summer I spend six weekends at Saratoga Race Course. Sitting in the clocker’s booth alongside the Oklahoma Training Track, I wonder, how often do grooms read? If so, can they read in English? Are they bound to the track because they do not have the basic literacy skills needed to “make it” outside of the horse world? This always causes me to pause. Then, I realize, I don't teach for competency via a state test, grade, or reading level. I teach students to own reading as a part of their lives, so that they never have to wonder what could have been.

    If I am lucky enough, I will return the track and teach those who want a second chance at literacy.

    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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    Releasing the Mind of Childhood Trauma Through Writing

    By Tiana Silvas
     | May 01, 2018

    Society is experiencing overwhelming incidents of violence and oppression. These incidents impact everyone, but they have a heightened consequential impact on children. In an unsettling report from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the 2010 BRFSS Adverse Childhood Experiences module indicated that almost two-thirds of adults have reported at least one childhood experience, ranging from living with a substance abuser to neglect. This report only includes reported numbers. What about the uncollected statistics? This means millions of students directly or indirectly experience adversity or trauma.

    As teachers, we are likely to be the first people at school who have contact with a student who has experienced trauma or adversity. Some students immediately share their experience, while other students display behaviors related to it. I have witnessed students display aggression, a lack of focus, isolation, and regression. Sometimes, students who exhibit these behaviors are misdiagnosed with ADD, ADHD, or learning disabilities.

    I will never forget an incident that happened when I taught in the South Bronx. One of our students was caught in gang crossfire and his mother was killed trying to shield him. The next day, students looked stunned and asked me many questions. I knew that this was not my students’ first experience with adversity, nor their last. Students that day said, “This happens. It’s sad, but it happens.” Trauma and adversity do not discriminate and have no boundaries; it can happen to anyone at any time.

    As adults, we might have a set of coping strategies when faced with adversity, but what strategies do children have? Are children dealing with emotional situations by thinking those traumatic situations are normal? Are children putting on a brave front to survive? Are children coping with adversity and trauma in ways that others do not understand? Yes. Children are trying to reclaim their childhood.

    What can classroom teachers do? In many schools, counselors are in high demand. This shortage extends the emotional responsibility to teachers. As the students’ experiences begin to unfold as they mature, we need to revise our practices to become more responsive and supportive to students who face trauma and adversity. One way I have supported students is by developing a sensitive and supportive writing workshop in which students can utilize writing as a coping tool.

    Here are some ways to start creating a sensitive and supportive writing workshop for all students:

    Class declaration of trust

    Creating a shared understanding about trust in the classroom is key. This declaration of trust goes far beyond trusting students to be responsible. This kind of trust is angled toward the entire community understanding that individuals need to feel emotionally and physically sound. These points might look different for each individual. Some students might feel triggered and respond physically. When this occurs, it is critical that we stay calm and make sure that those students understand that they are not being judged.

    Each year I make sure students have plenty of space to share aspects of their lives so they have opportunities to get to know each other on multiple levels. With this practice, we create listening routines that are inviting, and students begin to move from listening to actually hearing one another. As a teacher, I share parts of my life and at times show vulnerability. This openness brings humanization to our practice. Once students have created a trusting environment, they then can define their needs for emotional and physical well-being as they begin to take risks. This is the foundation of my writing workshop.

    Choice

    Choice is one way to return power to the student. Students who are experiencing trauma and adversity need to have a sense of control over some aspect of their lives. As teachers, we cannot control what happens outside of school, but we can empower students by providing choice. To do this, I consider students’ unique ways of expressing themselves and how they construct meaning.

    If we want students to write and to feel that writing is a way to work through life, then we must employ multiple areas of choice throughout their writing experiences. Their choices can range from the type of notebook to topic selection. The most important aspect of choice is to make sure that students feel like they can write about any topic throughout the year. Genres are flexible; therefore, student topics can be nurtured across genres. For instance, I had a student write throughout the year about domestic violence in multiple ways though memoir writing, journalism, and essays.

    As we nurture freedom of choice, we must keep in mind that what works for one student might not work for another.

    Privacy and safety

    As a sensitive and supportive writing workshop develops, students might disclose personal information. As a teacher, I feel that it is a positive step when students trust the classroom environment enough to share their stories. However, we must proceed with caution.

    First, students should never be pushed to write about their trauma. To honor privacy and trust, the student must initiate this step. At times, a student’s writing has caught me off guard and triggered an emotional response. As we read their writing, we must remain open and grounded. If students decide to share a traumatic or adverse experience, they are showing trust, and we must continue to develop that trust. There will be times their writing will remain private. On the other hand, students’ safety and well-being are the top priorities. Teachers have a responsibility to take action and follow reporting protocols if students reveal something that puts their safety in jeopardy.

    There is an emerging need to develop coping strategies for our students facing trauma and adversity. Our practice is calling for the development of a sensitive and supportive writing workshop that provides students with avenues to explore their own topics while allowing them to develop within their writing journey of trust. These values are important to the whole child. As such, I keep these at the forefront of my teaching.

    Silvas wrote about the topic of reading in the wake of violence and trauma and how students can find comfort in books in the May/June issue issue of Literacy TodayILA's bimonthly member magazine.

    Tiana Silvas is an educator, researcher, and advocate. She is currently a fifth-grade public school teacher in New York City and a Heinemann Fellow.

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    Literacy at the Barre: A Focus on Differentiation

    By Kathryn Caprino
     | Mar 22, 2018

    Literacy at the BarreBarre is my new go-to fitness class.

    When I signed up for my first class, I thought barre would allow me to escape briefly my world as a literacy teacher educator. And then I had this amazing teacher, who just happened to be a former English teacher. The way differentiation played out so organically in the class was something I wanted my students to see.  

    In this blog post I share what I have learned about differentiation from the excellent barre teachers I have had and ask questions to help pre-K12 literacy teachers consider how we create spaces for and engage in differentiation.

    • Effective teachers create a positive environment that encourages risk-taking. The best studios always make me feel calm when I arrive and energized when I leave. How can we do this in our literacy classrooms? Can we design our classrooms like barre studios, adding soft lighting and incense? Maybe not all of us. How can we create environments that put students at ease so that they feel comfortable enough to take risks?   
    • Effective teachers encourage students to make decisions. At various times during my barre journey, including when I was expecting my first child and when I returned to the studio after having my little boy, I had to make adaptations that were appropriate for my fitness and ability levels. Sometimes these levels changed from class to class and even during class. Instructors’ comments, such as, “You make the choice” and “Whatever you need today” gave me the autonomy to decide what I wanted to work on or not work on in class. For example, during one of my most recent classes, I went up to relevé to challenge myself but also did modified push-ups when I was not sure if my arms could support me. How do we encourage our students to engage in this type of on-the-spot individual choice?
    • Effective teachers do not make students feel ostracized for needing modifications. I used to motivate myself during fitness classes by trying to outdo my classmates. I wanted to lift more weights or to hold my balance just a little longer. This changed when I attended a barre class 37 weeks into my pregnancy. There were things I just could not do. I had to learn—with my instructor's support, of course—the appropriate modifications. At first, I did not like doing arm circles with no weights while the woman next to me was using three-pound weights. But eventually, I learned to be confident in who I was and to not rely on social comparison. I also learned that a group of people can share a similar goal (e.g., to have a good barre workout) but reach that goal in myriad ways. How can we create this reality in our classrooms?
    • Effective teachers encourage students to push themselves. As educators, sometimes we wonder if we should offer students choices. What if they always select what is easy? From personal experience, I know this is not the way it goes. I have heard my barre instructors use phrases such as, “Whatever you are doing is awesome,” but then come back with, “You’re stronger than you think you are.” In these moments, I hold my weights up just a little bit higher or hold on for one more rep. The instructor’s praise does not fall on deaf ears. Like many of the pre-K–12 students with whom I have worked, we appreciate when our teachers notice we have done something well. How can we apply this in our literacy classrooms?
    • Effective teachers help students understand that barre is really hard. There are certain times—during plank especially—when I just want to stop. And sometimes I actually do have to stop (so that my arm does not fall off). But pushing through challenges is an important part of learning to read and write—or learning to teach reading and writing, for that matter. How do we encourage our students to push themselves as readers and writers and to strive to reach new levels?
    • Effective teachers celebrate strengths and accomplishments. One of the reasons I can push myself during barre classes is because my instructors are quick to celebrate my strengths as well as those of my classmates. When someone does something well, she is praised immediately. There are no gradebooks, no formal assessments—just simple praise for a job well done. Someone might have challenged herself to hold a move for just a bit longer. The person beside her might have stopped a few seconds before. Yet, they both did their best. How can we recognize each student’s personal growth and success?

    I just scheduled my next barre class, and I am excited. I am equally excited for the work to come in our literacy classrooms.

    Maybe we should all take some lessons from the barre. As we imagine our classrooms as studios, what are some steps we can take to foster differentiation in our literacy classrooms? I would love to hear your ideas!

    Kathryn Caprino is an assistant professor of pre-K–12 new literacies at Elizabethtown College and a book blogger for teachers and parents at katiereviewsbooks.wordpress.com.

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    What Writing My Mother’s Eulogy Taught Me About Writing

    By Rebecca Harper
     | Mar 08, 2018

    harper1As a literacy teacher, I tend to look at the world in ways that others may not. I listen for figurative language in song lyrics, find the craft of argumentative writing on ESPN, and ask strangers reading The Hunger Games what their image of Cinna looked like after Lenny Kravitz was cast in the film. However, I learned more about literacy through the composition of one single writing task: my mother’s eulogy.

    When my mother was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer, I began the task of writing her eulogy. Not on paper, but in my head. For almost four months, I drafted this document in my head whenever I had time and ideas. In the hospital while she slept. On a plane to speak at a literacy conference in Arkansas. In a car line while waiting to pick up my children. At night when I could not sleep. However, it was not until the day after she died and the night before her funeral that I put pen to paper. The accompanying images are some of the documents I used as I delivered my mother’s eulogy at her funeral last December. If you notice, it looks messy. Haphazard. Unorganized. Yet these images represent almost four months of deliberate planning, drafting, and revision. Rewrites that existed only in my head, but which aided substantially in the final—yet not so final—product.

    harper2Drafting this piece made me seriously reconsider how writers plan, think, and revise. It also made me think hard about the emphasis that is often placed on written prewriting or planning. In fact, I am ashamed to admit that I required a graphic organizer for all writing tasks my first year of teaching. In many classrooms, my mental planning and thinking that went into the crafting of this piece would not have been acceptable. How can thinking be measured? How could a teacher assess my mental planning without some type of written piece of justification or evidence? These types of questions are often the very ones that prompt teachers to continue to use traditional teaching methods and assessments when it comes to writing instruction. However, any teacher could have assessed my thinking and planning just by simply having a conversation with me about my writing.

    Here is what writing my mother’s eulogy taught me and reminded me about writing:

    • Most writing is messy. Most of what we write in our daily lives never becomes published and polished. Instead, it functions mainly to inform, communicate, understand, explain, and process information. In the classroom, this tenet is especially important. For one, it gives students the freedom to write without the pressure of ensuring that every piece of writing they complete is publishable quality. In fact, 90% of what students should be writing in their classrooms should fit the previous descriptors. But here’s the really important part: Students should be writing in class every single day. Practicing writing for a variety of purposes gives students opportunities to improve basic skills and prepares them for writing tasks that need to be more polished and presentable. In my experience, many students care only about the letter grade and either ignore the comments if the grade is satisfactory or shut down completely if the grade is poor. With less emphasis on the final product, teachers should spend less time grading; qualitative, focused feedback may yield better results.
    • Prewriting does not have to be written. One mistake I made as a writing teacher was requiring students to submit a graphic organizer or other form of written prewriting as proof that they had planned their writing piece. Although the written prewriting task did aid some students in the construction of their composition, I found that others haphazardly filled in the obligatory organizer at the end of the writing task so they would not lose points for omitting this portion of the assignment. This is not the true purpose of prewriting, planning, or both. Some tasks require more planning than others. Planning and prewriting need not be written; valuable planning may take place through thinking or oral discussion. These venues are no less important than written ones.
    • Revision is ongoing. Revision is not a destination; writers do not simply arrive at the revision step, complete the task, and move on to the final draft. Rather, revision and writing are recursive processes that are ongoing and certainly not linear. While I was drafting Mom’s eulogy in my head, I was also revising and modifying the writing, whether it was in phrasing, word choice, or organizational structure. Revision is a sophisticated process and is not as simple as capitalizing letters and adding punctuation (that’s editing). Revision requires writers to revisit their pieces, consider their audience, think about the words they chose, and make decisions about the flow, purpose, and voice of their piece.

    When designing and implementing writing engagements in the classroom, I implore teachers to consider these principles. Instead of focusing on a final product or the steps within the process, teachers can encourage and facilitate writers as they plan, revisit, and revise. Acknowledging these simple principles offers opportunities to nurture and support writers as they wade through a variety of writing engagements in both the academic and personal realm.

    Rebecca Harper is an assistant professor of literacy at Augusta University. She received her PhD in Language and Literacy from the University of South Carolina. She is the author of Content-Area Writing that Rocks (and Works!).

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