Friday, May 30, 2014

The Evolution of Wonder in Room A110


It all began with a book trailer.


     If you don't show book trailers to your students yet, it's time to start.  Book trailers are to books as previews are to movies.  They get kids thinking about what they want to read, and the good ones spark a hunger.

     Wonder, by RJ Palacio, has a good one.  It made us, as a class, do exactly what we were meant to do -- wonder about the book.   Lots of kids wrote its title on the "Want to Read" page of their composition books.  After viewing the trailer, everyone was dying to know why, exactly, did Auggie's face make "ordinary kids run away screaming on playgrounds"?  And what did he mean when he said " . . . the only reason I'm not ordinary is that no one sees me?"  Although we speculated, no one got any answers that day.  Our library's one copy was already checked out which, in retrospect, was probably a good thing.  The wonder grew.


     Never one to wait on a good book, I picked up a copy after school and changed "Mrs. McHale is Reading . . . " on the whiteboard at the front of the room.


     Fortunately, reviews on the back of the book jacket had three great adjectives for us to harvest:  "engaging," "memorable," and "inspiring."  By adding them to a "Words for Discussing Books" list in our composition books, and then discussing their definitions, the students stretched their academic vocabularies.  But they also remembered the interesting trailer we'd seen on Library Day, and many reminded themselves to try to check out the book.  Their wonder grew.
  
     After a week or two, copies of Wonder started popping up in some of my classes.

     "Did you check that out from the library?" I asked.

     "Nah," one boy said.  "I got tired of waiting and asked my mom to buy it for me."

     The kids reading Wonder during SSR shared out about it in "Book Talk" afterward.  It invariably shot up when I instructed the class to "Hold up your book if you like it."  And then?  Word of mouth did what teachers only wish they could do.  Demand for the book began to spread like wildfire.  I didn't even realize it had happened until later that semester.

     One day during a lesson, as I wandered about the room, my eye snagged on something unexpected:  three . . . four . . .  five copies of Wonder sat on the floor next to students' desks.  Curious, I made a point of checking throughout the day.  Sure enough -- multiple copies of Wonder appeared in almost every period.  My classes were Wonderful!

And it all began with a book trailer.


Next up: Harvesting Vocabulary From Self-Selected Reading


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Mystery of the Maligned Manuscript

     My mother hated Nancy Drew -- I wasn't even allowed to spend my birthday money on her! -- and for the life of me, I could not figure out what grudge she held against the intrepid Titian-haired sleuth.  Only as an adult was I able to unravel the mystery:  Nancy wasn't serious enough.  She didn't have a horse named Black Beauty.  She never traversed The Bridge to Terabithia.   Let's face it:  Chances were slim that our Nancy ever would meet John Newbery, much less take home one of his medals.


     Like many parents and even some teachers, my mother believed that to become superior readers, children must read the "right" sorts of books.  I've even known a few purists who question whether interacting with certain kinds of text can legitimately be classified as "reading."

     Take, for example, comic books.  For someone so biased against a particular teenage detective, my mother had no problem parking me in front of the comic book rack at our local grocery store.  While she was thumping cantaloupes, I was bonding with all manner of questionable characters:  Archie and his gang, Dennis the Menace -- the Crypt-Keeper!  A complete waste of time, right?  Actually, I can remember more than once raising my hand in elementary school to relay geographic gold mined from these "worthless rags":


(Do you know what "poi" is?  Well, I do!  I spent one summer in Hawaii with Dennis the Menace!)

     Graphic novels pose a similar dilemma for today's parents and teachers.  Do they "count" as actual reading?  I, myself, was skeptical at first.  But Scholastic's Using Graphic Novels with Children and Teens asserts that they often "contain more advanced vocabulary than traditional books [as well as] a range of literary devices, including narrative structures, metaphor and symbolism, point of view, and the use of puns and alliteration, intertextuality, and inference."  (That's a really long way of saying "They count.")  Any librarian worth her salt is now stockpiling graphic novels, including the Japanese manga which breathed new life into the languishing genre:


This year, Volumes 1, 2, and 19 of the Fruits Basket series made The Top Twenty-Five list of books most frequently borrowed from my middle school's library.  Am I baffled by their popularity?  Yes.  Does that matter?  No.  Students who never before cracked a book are now snarfing down graphic novels as if they were M&Ms.  That's persuasion enough.  Remember:  The only way to improve as a reader is by reading.  With time and improved reading skills, many graphic novel devotees finally gain the confidence they need to tackle text-only publications.

     One last story.  When I was 19, my family took a summer vacation to England, Spain, and Scotland.  As we wandered the streets of Edinburgh, discussing tartan displays and other Scottish curiosities, I contributed some tidbits I knew about bagpipes:  for example, the fact that it's a double-reed instrument like an oboe or bassoon.

     "I never knew that!" my mother exclaimed.  "Where on Earth did you learn about bagpipes?"

     Unable to suppress a smile, I delighted in giving the answer:  "Why, from Nancy Drew!  The Clue of the Whistling Bagpipes"  That was, hands down, my favorite part of the trip.














Monday, May 26, 2014

Can You See Me Now???

      I read a compelling article yesterday, Misreading the Never-Ending Dropout "Crisis," which argues eloquently in support of this statement:

     Standardized testing is not solving our education woes;  it is creating them. 

Asserting that "Standardizing students is dehumanizing, and likely driving children into our streets," we are offered a glimpse of a better future:

" . . . the classroom will share certain features:  It will take the time to build relationships, and it will say, "You matter . . . You belong here.*

     Sometimes building those relationships is easier said than done when a teacher finds herself confronted with a student actively, angrily working to let her know he'd rather be anywhere but sitting in her classroom.


     Back when I was a young and relatively inexperienced teacher, a new student "Joey" was placed in my class halfway into the semester, and he made no effort to hide his feelings about that turn of events.

     "Uh-oh," I thought.

      Squelching my instinct to give a wide berth to our class's newest addition, I did my best to integrate Joey into the group.  While his menacing demeanor made it impossible to embrace my new student fully, I didn't try to change him either.  I just accepted him "as is," and before long the scowl relaxed and finally disappeared.  Turns out that Joey was nothing of the ruffian I feared him to be, and I was genuinely sad not six months later when I heard that his family was moving again.  Hoping to ease his upcoming transition, I gave him a little advice.

     "Joey, when you walk into your next teachers' classrooms, try not to look at them as if you hate their guts, okay?"

     "What?" he asked, genuinely surprised.

     Scrunching up my face into a semblance of his on that first day of class, I replied, "Remember how you looked at me like this for the first month you were here?"

     No, as a matter of fact, he didn't.  He insisted that hadn't been the case.  In that moment, I realized maybe his expression hadn't been showing me anything.  Maybe it had been hiding something:  his fear of being in a new school, perhaps, or resentment over being uprooted once more by an unstable family situation.  Whatever the underlying cause had been, this much was clear:  The boy I thought I'd met that first day was entirely different from the boy I came to know.


     Over time, I've come to associate that enlightening experience with this poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar:  

We Wear the Mask
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,--
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be overwise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!




















Friday, May 23, 2014

Starting the Student Book Buzz!

        This is the beautiful background music in The Sustained Reader's classroom:
  • glorious silence as students engage in reading their well-chosen* books, 
  • a steady scritch-scratch of pencils on paper as readers react to their text, and 
  • the formal and informal buzz of students evaluating, analyzing, and promoting good books they have found.



     But that doesn't happen on its own.  The initial classroom buzz is carefully orchestrated by you, the teacher.  For the first few weeks, SSR is immediately followed by fluency writing in student journals.  During this instructional phase, students are directly taught that it's time to move beyond simple summaries.  How, exactly, does one talk about books beyond explaining what happened?  That's where the teacher steps in.  With extensive whole-class practice, most middle-school students can eventually take charge of the topics they wish to discuss.  For starters, six timed minutes of writing is generally sufficient to break down writing blocks and build up a little fluency.

     Ding!

     Composition books close at the sound of the timer's bell, and "Book Buzz" begins like this:

     "Okay, everyone who likes his book hold it high so we all can see it.  No, don't show me -- show each other!  Yes!  If you're showing off your book right now, congratulations!  You made a great selection."  

     Wandering up and down the aisles, comment on books that you've read.  Ask questions to draw a number of children into the class discussion.

     "What genre is that one, Urbin?  Don't know?  Hey, who can give Urbin some help?  Does anyone see a clue on the book jacket?"

    "Bad Girls Don't Die?  Lauren, that's horror!  Has it gotten scary yet?  Did you know that it's part of a trilogy?"

     Make it clear that everyone's participation is valued in both listening and speaking during "Book Buzz."  Periodically remind the class:  If you see a book that grabs your interest, write that title on your "Want to Read" page in the back of your composition book.  (At the end of the school year, any unread books on that page become their summer reading list!)

     Possibly because they've never before been asked just to talk about books they read, students really enjoy this seemingly casual conversation.  They don't realize that each of your questions has been crafted to contain an abundance of academic vocabulary.  It's also easy to design questions and comments to include any Language Arts concepts addressed in class that week:  setting, conflict, figurative language . . .  Just don't drag out any one topic too long.  The kids will lose interest, and besides -- you've got all year to revisit the concept as many times as you like!


     As so often happens, one of my best ideas was born of desperation on a day no one wanted to talk. Grabbing a marker from the whiteboard tray, I strolled among the students doing on-the-spot "Oprah" interviews, hamming it up and using the marker as a microphone.  It was hilarious to watch my snoozy crew morph into a lively "studio audience" filled with kids vying for a chance to talk into "the mike"!


      After a semester of classroom practice, you'll start to hear spontaneous book talk initiated by the students themselves.  It flares up frequently at the end of class and especially on Library Day, when students sometimes engage in dialogue far better than any you ever started!  If you genuinely love to read and to contribute interesting comments, the students will still let you chime in, but at this point, you no longer have to lead them. Those are the days you're hoping for, the days you step back just to savor the classroom buzz.


* Teaching students how to select their own reading material is crucial to the success of The Sustained Reader's classroom.  So Many Books, So Little Time provides a list of twelve techniques for students to apply toward making a satisfying selection.

Next up:  Can You See Me Now???











Thursday, May 22, 2014

Reeling in Student Readers with Movies

     As winter gave way to spring this year, copies of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars started popping up in classrooms like bluebonnets along Texas highways.  Touted by Entertainment Weekly as "the greatest romance story of this decade," this YA blockbuster was published in January 2012.  So why now, after two full years, has TFIOS become the "it" book for self-selected reading?  Haven't you heard?  It's coming soon to theaters near you -- June 6, to be exact -- and, for once, the instant gratification aspect of modern society is working in teachers' favor!  Kids just can't wait to laugh and cry with Hazel and Augustus, the troubled teens in this riveting novel.


     What a joy when an upcoming movie inspires our children to read!  But choosing a book after having seen the movie is a cause for concern in parents and teachers alike:  That won't help children's reading skills, will it?

     The surprising answer to that question is "yes" if the reader's faulty comprehension results from a failure to visualize while reading.  If a student does not create mental images to correspond with the words he reads, he's simply running his eyes over lines and lines of letters on a page.  Imagine doing that for 30 minutes of Sustained Silent Reading.  No wonder some kids are bored by what they think of as "reading."  

     Consider this.  Watching a movie first often inspires students to revisit the story in print.  When they pick up the novel, images supplied beforehand then support their comprehension as they tackle the written word.  In other words, the movie serves as mental "training wheels" for struggling readers, helping sustain them through text that's somewhat above their comprehension level.  Remember:  The more one reads, the better one reads.  Is the question of "before or after the movie" really more important than the fact that the book gets read?

     How then do teachers eliminate the possibility of "book reports" based on a movie?  It's easy:  Save the written summaries for those stories you read in class.  For SSR assignments, create activities like this which require text-based responses:

    Which adjectives best describe the main character in your story?  Support your adjective choices with direct quotes from the novel:  something your character said, something your character thought, something your character did -- and so on.


     Not only does the assignment require that students read the text, it also affords them practice in a number of Language Arts skills:

  • visualize a character based on descriptive details in the text,
  • make inferences about characters based on details in the text,
  • apply "personality trait" vocabulary accumulated throughout the school year, 
        and
  • use quotation marks when directly quoting from the text.
In addition, artistically-inclined students always appreciate an opportunity to showcase their talent -- plus, the final products make for a colorful display!


Question:  Should kids read the book before or after they see the movie?
Answer:    Yes.  (Just as long as the book gets read.)

Don't miss our newest posting:  Starting the Student Book Buzz!




















Monday, May 19, 2014

How Hollywood Made My Students Read


     Were you one of those kids who wrote "book reports" after watching the movie?  Oldest trick in the book.  Unfortunately for today's kids, a lot of us -- I mean, a lot of those naughty children grew up to be savvy reading teachers who don't fall for such time-worn shenanigans.  Instead, we use Hollywood's glitz to lure unsuspecting students into our scholarly snare.  It all begins quite innocently with a much longer, teacher-made version of the three-column chart you see below:
________________________________

    Read the list of movie titles below.  Highlight the entire line from left to right each time you see the title of a movie that you loved!

   Movie                              Genre                                    Author

   The Fault in Our Stars     Realistic Fiction/Romance     John Green

   Divergent                       Science Fiction                     Veronica Roth

   Diary of a Wimpy Kid      Humor                                  Jeff Kinney


_________________________________


     
Fortunately for us middle-school teachers, it's all the rage to make movies from YA books -- there are plenty of titles to use in creating this engaging starter activity!

     When the highlighting has been completed, ask your class what the movies have in common.  It doesn't take long for someone to point out that each of the movies is also a book.  Every year, though, I'm amazed by students oblivious to the fact that, in most cases, the book came before the movie.  That leads me straight to the conversation I want us all to have:

     "You know that movies cost millions of dollars to make, right?"

     Kids start to nod in agreement.

     "And, obviously, producers wouldn't waste their millions basing movies on horrible books, would they?  No, they want to make more millions!  That's why they deal only with stories that began as ridiculously popular books."

     Light bulbs begin to flicker over a few heads.  Hmm . . . she's got a point.

     "Once you know that, Students, doesn't it make sense to choose books that were made into movies?  Chances are that the stories are very good."  I gesture toward the ledge where my "movie books" are displayed.  "Raise your hand if you've seen any of these movies."



      Typically, there's lots of discussion now, not just about the books on the shelf, but the books on the starter activity as well.

     "Do any of you guys ever read the books after you've seen the movies?"

      Not many do, in fact, but every now and then, one of The Blessedly Bookish steps up to help me make my point:  "I do.  It's like getting to watch the movie all over again inside my head.  Sometimes, the book is even better than the movie."  (For me, that describes pretty much every movie based on a Stephen King novel.  For my students, well, The Lightning Thief movie fills the bill.)

     At this point, discussion becomes a little giddy -- a middle-school sign that it's time to move on -- so I ask the students to pick up their starter papers.

     "Okay, everybody, now you're going to learn something about yourselves. Fold your papers so you can't see the left-hand "Movie" column anymore."  

     The teacher wanders, helping out stragglers and eavesdropping as students unabashedly opine about movies they have seen.  (Never discount the value of eavesdropping as a means of gathering honest input!  Plus, you often discover who's "going out" with whom, information which is every bit as entertaining as it is useless.)

     "Now count the number of times you've highlighted a genre more than once.  That shows the genre to which you are most attracted.  Did anyone highlight the same genre a bunch of times?"

     Malachi:  "Fantasy!"

     "Okay.  So the next time we go to the library, toward which section should you head immediately?"

     "Fantasy?"

     "Exactly.  Now, everyone turn to the kid nearest you and see which genre he likes the best."

     Sometimes, this discussion of "movies as stories" will drift toward discussion of TV shows and video games as well.  Let it.  Actually, force it.  In my earliest efforts to promote self-selected text, I'd advise students to choose books that "reflect your interests," only to be assailed by a crowd of boys hunting for books about video games.

     "Guys, guys, you've got it all wrong!  Don't look for books about video games;  think about the games you like to play!  Who plays sports games?  Well, there's the Sports Fiction over there.  Who likes to kill hordes of ravenous zombies?  Look for the Horror shelves two sections over.  Anyone like those games where you get to be a wizard or an elf or something?  You'll be happy to know that all our half-sized shelves contain fantasy stories brimming with the adventures you love to experience virtually." 

     (Can you see why you need to persuade your school librarian to organize the collection by genre?  If you're lucky, she already does!)

     The next time Library Day rolls around, first have your students review their "movie books" activity sheet.  Ask them to remember what they learned about themselves.  Then remind them to head for the genre of stories their past choices suggest they will like.  Why?  Because we're working to ingrain new library behaviors.  Without explicit, on-going reminders, students tend to revert to the same old methods they've always used to choose books, often with disappointing results. 

Read the the story of Leo, the disappointed reader, in

     At this point, you may wonder why any teacher worth her salt would set herself up to receive book reports written over movies.  Thank you for asking!  Remember:  The Sustained Reader is not just any teacher!  Because of the many blocks we have already been around, the Sustained Reader is also a savvy reading teacher.  Next up, we'll reveal secrets for thwarting movies as the age-old reading dodge.  In the meantime, help me eat some of this popcorn -- I always buy too much.


Next Up:  Movies, Books, and the Typical Preteen Reader







     
















Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Unnatural Appeal of Supernatural Romance

    Are you aware that Supernatural Romance now has its own section in Barnes and Noble?  I can’t be the only one who finds this disturbing.  Seriously.  At what point did monsters crawl out from under our beds and climb up into them?  Even more perplexing, why do we seem to want them there?  Open your eyes, ladies -- even a fleeting glimpse of these dudes reveals some major drawbacks.


Dracula:  Sure, he’s smooth, but he insists on consuming his girlfriends’ lives. What draws us to these love 'em and leave 'em types, anyway? Especially when we've seen the ending, time and time again. His initial smoldering passion ultimately leaves a girl cold. Just ask Bella.



Frankenstein and his Bride:  Sorry, gals -- he’s already taken.  (It’s no wonder they fell in love:  They were made for each other!)  


King Kong:  A muscle-bound brute with primitive technique, K-Kong still managed to get the girl.  Too bad his thrilling ascent into show biz took a major nose-dive.


The Mummy:  Don’t you just hate a guy who tries to remake you into his first true love?  And for all you witty psychiatrists out there, the woman he yearns for is Anck Su Namun, not his own “mummy.”  (Sheesh.)



The Boogeyman:  Just when you think you’ve found “Mr. Right,” he decides to come out of the closet.


Godzilla:  A perfect example of the alluring foreigner who ends up wrecking your world.

The Wolfman:  This guy actually shows promise if he could learn to contain those animal urges.  For now, though, things get a little too hairy once the sun goes down.


Zombies:  They relentlessly pursue you, even when it’s clear you’re not interested.  The upside? At least they love you for your brains.


The Invisible Man: No substance whatsoever.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (or any other campus, for that matter):  It’s time for us all to quit being superficial and give this guy a chance.  Plus, he’s got a job.

Despite my personal misgivings, throngs of middle-school females are dying to find love with a supernatural boyfriend. This series was among my students' faves this year:



That's the first book of ten. As for the next nine, you're on your own -- and don't say I didn't warn you.


Next up: How Hollywood Made My Students Read




Friday, May 16, 2014

The Sustained Reader's Classroom

     This will come as a shock in some circles, but bean bag chairs are completely optional for The Sustained Reader's classroom.  In fact, certain bean bags might cause quite a disruption.  Can you imagine the running, screaming, crying fights over this one?  And that would just be me!


     Scented candles (before they were banned), strings of Christmas lights (ditto), classical music (until my students made me quit) -- all are nice, but unnecessary for an environment conducive to Sustained Silent Reading.

      The essential element of a space for sustained reading is the teacher's immutable expectation that all students can (and will) read silently for an extended period of time.  That's it -- and it's absolutely free!  But you have to set the stage.  First, you must ensure that everyone understands the purpose of SSR.  Yes, you'll have The Bookishly Blessed whose only concern is their 30-minutes of bliss in Narnia or District 13.  But you've also got students like Chris who once told me, "I just figured the teachers need extra time to grade papers."  (Hmm . . .  I wonder where he got that idea.)

     Typically, I begin by asking who knows the meaning of the word "stamina."  Some kid -- usually an athlete -- will ultimately venture "Something you can do for a really long time?"  Yes!  Then we discuss why it might be important to read for a long, uninterrupted stretch.  Unfortunately, this is the point where The Standardized Test must be mentioned, but it is a cruel fact of the world in which they live.  Kind of like tetanus shots or kale.

     "So is anyone in here a runner?"

     Hands go up.

     "Do you run a mile the very first day?  Bryce -- is that what you did?"

     Bryce, rolling her eyes at the very thought:  "No."

    "So what did you do?"

    The discussion eventually grows to include all which a middle-school student holds dear -- dancing, learning a musical instrument, video gaming, competing in every conceivable sport on the planet -- and it always leads to this basic truth:  

Everything we want to do well requires practice, and not just a little.  

(Too bad the ol' 10,000 Hours Rule didn't pan out.  That concept really played well to a sixth-grade audience.)

    Starting with a seven-minute dip in the pool of Sustained Silent Reading, the expectation grows:  seven minutes, 12 minutes, 20 minutes, 30.  One day, the timer goes off, and students snap back, blinking in the glare of reality.

     "What?  We read for 30 minutes?"

     It happens every year.

  This year, though, I beheld a sight for the first time in my 23 years of teaching.  At the end of the four-hour standardized testing marathon, STaar-struck students turned in their tests, pulled out their books, and proceeded to read as if it were any other day.  And it was.  It was any other day in the real world, where reading is fun.  It takes us places we never knew we'd go.

Next up:  The Unnatural Appeal of Supernatural Romance


   




















   











               In case you missed it, The Sustained Reader debuted our first posting,

               Let It Goon May 13, 2014.



Thursday, May 15, 2014

So Many Books, So Little Time


     Once upon a time, there was a boy named Leo.  Leo loved going to the library with his Language Arts class.  In fact, Library Day was his favorite day!  He would frolic amidst the shelves as if in a meadow of wild flowers, frequently pausing to thrill his classmates with a hilarious jest (or two).  If a girl was really cute, he might snatch up her pencil/binder/pom-pom hat and race away, laughing in that manner sure to capture her middle-school heart.


     Inevitably, though, these carefree moments ended with a dire warning:  "You have five more minutes to choose a book!"
     Eyes darting, heart racing, Leo knew it was time to act.  Plucking a text from the shelf at hand, he scurried up to the check-out counter just in the nick of time.  Whew!
     Back in the classroom, Mrs. McHale's students settled in for a little Silent Sustained Reading.  Only then did our hero lay eyes on the reading selection he'd made:  The History of Sugar.
     Sigh.
     "Reading is so boring," he thought.


The End

     I love to tell this story at the start of each school year and ask my students, "Does Leo sound like anyone you know?"
  
     Pause.  

     "Does he sound like you?"  

     Smothered giggles.  

     Every year, each student knows at least one "Leo."  But, the strangest part of this tale is that Leo, himself, has never once connected his aversion to books with the manner in which he chooses them. That's where we come in.  If you're lucky, you learned this precept early on in your teaching career:

No matter how many times or how many ways you explain it,
somebody, somewhere still doesn't understand.  


     I suspect that's how a surprising number of kids reach sixth grade unable to find a book worth reading.  Consequently, I've compiled a list of suggestions for them.  I give you that list today with three important reminders:  No matter how obvious an idea seems, you're going to have to explain it -- maybe even do a quick, illustrative activity.  Then, you must integrate it into your class routines.  Occasionally, you'll need to revisit and re-explain the concepts.  And after that?  Somebody, somewhere still won't understand.


How to Choose a Book You Will Enjoy!


1.  Listen to what your friends and classmates like. Every year, this is the #1 source of great recommendations for Mrs. McHale's students.

2.  Look on the whiteboard to see what Mrs. McHale is reading.  It's almost always a student-recommended book!

3.  Find an author you like. If you liked one book by that author, chances are you'll enjoy others as well!

4.   Find a series you like. It will keep you in books for a looooooooooooooong time!

5.  Find a genre you like. When you go to the library, explore those shelves first! (This presumes that your awesome librarian has organized the collection by genre.)

6.  If you are interested by a book trailer shown in class, check out that book!

7.   Lots of movies are based on books. If you liked the movie, you'll probably like the book, too! (See How Hollywood Helped My Students Read.)

8.  Multiple copies of the same book mean that it was requested by LOTS of students! That's why your librarian bought extra copies.

9.  Look at the Local Bestsellers List posted in and outside of Mrs. McHale's classroom. People bought more of those books than any others in your local bookstores!

10.  Look for posters titled  "2013 Top Twenty Books."  These 20 books were the most frequently borrowed from our school library last year.

12.  Investigate "You May Also Like" book suggestions on websites like Destiny Quest, Amazon.com, Goodreads, etc. Those books are similar to the ones you've already enjoyed.






Don't miss our newest post: The Sustained Readers' Classroom




Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Let It Go

"SSR?  Yay!"

"Do we get to read today?"

"Oh, boy -- it's Library Day!"

"Mrs. McHale, have you ever read . . . "
    Much to my delight, I routinely hear comments like these in my Language Arts classroom.   I would love to claim that it’s all my doing -- but it’s not.  It's because books are wonderful. They can be teachers and friends.  They can transport you back to a time when life was very different or hurtle you forward to amazing worlds that don't exist -- yet.   You get my point: Reading is fun! Why have so many schools forgotten that?



After obtaining my Master Reading Teacher certification, I spent the next five years as a Reading Specialist in inner-city schools, dragging reluctant students through worksheets, and trying to ingrain the "discipline of reading" they'd need to pass the standardized reading test.  It was grueling work -- and guess what?  I was good at it.  The students' scores rose dramatically, and my principal was thrilled.

     The problem was that I was miserable.  My students hated me, and they hated to read.  Why wouldn't they?  They had no say in what they read.  If we weren't working with short, "skills-based" passages, we were reading from the State-adopted text, a collection of literature -- well above their reading levels -- that a panel of well-intentioned experts decided they "ought" to be reading. 


     Reading just wasn't fun anymore.  Reading was the dark, stifling cave we mined in our quest for Standardized Gold.  Clearly, it was time for a change.

     I landed a position in Leander ISD, a suburban district with a reputation for excellence.  While I still would work with struggling readers, my administrators weren't yet hard-wired for Standardized Testing Crisis Mode.  Preparing for "The Test" was not the sole purpose for my job's existence.  In this new environment, I started to learn more about "authentic reading," "self-selected reading," and "SSR," or Silent Sustained Reading. Tentatively, I shepherded my students into unfamiliar territory where I began
 to catch glimpses of a reading class very different from the ones I'd been teaching.



Four years later, I was assigned to a newly-created position designed to support the reading and writing skills taught in sixth-grade Language Arts.  A lack of adopted textbooks + the loosely-structured curriculum = my opportunity to take a chance on students learning with an emphasis on the silent sustained reading of self-selected text.

  Halfway through that first year, I surveyed my students, asking how they'd found the books they most enjoyed.  One comment really struck me.  An athletic little boy -- a "jock" -- simply stated this:  "I listened to the buzz in the classroom."

   A buzz?  My classroom buzzed about books?  That response, above all others, persuaded me I was on to something. Encouraged by the success of that year -- (Yes, standardized test scores improved.) -- I decided not only to teach students how to choose their own books, but also to reduce the amount of teacher-selected text and increase the time for Silent Sustained Reading followed by written or spoken response. I began to design more instruction with passages from my self-selected YA books, many of which were student-suggested. We began to examine the students' own sentences as we studied the conventions of English.

 Suddenly, the anxious guesswork of choosing enjoyable reading materials was no longer my responsibility.  When their choices were successful, the students began to believe in their ability to unearth written treasure.  They no longer had to feel guilty or apologetic for hating the stories I loved.   When a student reported he'd chosen a snoozer, I no longer expressed disappointment.  Instead, I stressed my belief that finding the right book was just a matter of time:

     "That's okay.  Nobody likes every book he reads.  I know I don't."

     "Maybe you should choose your next book differently.  How did you find that one?"  

     Together, we'd browse the library collection, discussing the student's interests.  I'd point out books other kids had loved.  Kids like him.  Occasionally, I'd mention a book trailer we'd watched in class or point out the sign of a well-loved book:  multiple copies of a high-demand novel lined up along a shelf.  (Think The Hunger Games.)  No matter what, though, his hands carried the final choices over to the check-out desk.

Eventually, I surveyed my students on their reading preference:  teacher-selected or student-selected text.  The results were so overwhelmingly in favor of student-selected materials that I almost felt stupid for asking the question.  (Actually, I did feel stupid.  How much more obvious could it be?)  Except for the necessary model texts and Mrs. McHale's Sure-fire, Always-works, Never-fails Greek Mythology Unit saved for the end of each school year, I knew what I had to do with teacher-selected text.



   Near the end of that year, my desk was piled so high with student-recommended books, I knew I couldn't finish them all before summer vacation arrived.  I also knew I would never go back to the test-driven methods for teaching reading and writing. 

My goal now is to persuade you to do the same and show you ideas for how it can be done.  I do not claim to have ironed out all the details.  After three years, I still have questions I'm working to answer. The one part I really "get," though, is why I teach this way: Books are wonderful, and that's what I want my students to learn.  

Teacher Tip

Can you get started this late in the year? Yes!  

Ask your school librarian to print out a list of this year's 20 most frequently borrowed books and create a poster to save for next year's students. According to student surveys, peer recommendations are the number one source for great book suggestions!

 example of  a Top Twenty poster

Also, if you haven't yet read Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer, order your copy today. It's 227 pages of pure inspiration.

Next up: So Many Books, So Little Time