Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Bad Kitty Says "No!" to Lexile Levels

Meet Kevin Lester,* sixth grader:
  • On each of this year's reading assessments, Kevin has proven his ability to read at the 12.9+ grade level.  
  • Last month, Kevin took first place in the city-wide Science Fair, competing against students in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade.
  • This past weekend, he participated in the middle school State Ready Writing competition and took second place. As he explained to me after class this morning, "Last year, I wrote a very serious and detailed essay, and I didn't place at all.  So this year, I decided to change my strategy and write something really wacky." (Apparently, it worked.)
In other words, Kevin is REALLY smart.

     You can imagine my surprise, therefore, when I noticed him reading Nick Bruel's Bad Kitty for President during Silent Sustained Reading (SSR) this week.

     At a Lexile level of 690 (approximately the 4th grade reading level), Bad Kitty is perfectly appropriate for a struggling sixth grade reader.  But Kevin?  Sidling up to his desk, I nonchalantly inquired, "So what do you think of that book?"
     Grinning from ear to ear, Kevin gave me a big thumbs up and went back to reading.  Hmm.  Clearly, he likes it.  And why?


     If you're familiar with middle school children, you know that they are ALL over the place -- physically, mentally, socially, psychologically, and every other '-ly.'  Depending on which aspect of the whole child you're discussing, one middle school boy like Kevin can be a bizarre hodge-podge of ages ranging from 8 to 18.  That, in a nutshell, is why they're so weird!  Who can blame them?
     Given all those variables, can you understand why it's a little silly to restrict children's reading to materials in their Lexile range?  If I were to follow that protocol, here's a sampling of what Kevin would be digging into this week:

A Theory of Conceptual Intelligence by Rex Li, or

Fyodor Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamzov, 
or this beloved sixth-grade classic:

Annotations on First Corinthians by Philipp Melanchthon.

     Are you kidding me?  No offense to the really smart guys who wrote those books, but even I don't want to read them!  
     If Kevin Lester is smart enough to beat out all the other sixth, seventh, and eighth-grade participants in the city-wide Science Fair, I think we can trust him to choose the books he'll enjoy reading on any given day.  Obviously, he didn't get to the 12.9+ reading level on a strict diet of Bad Kitty books, right? As for those three books you see above:  They're a full 100 Lexile points BELOW Kevin's actual reading level.  I couldn't find any books on a high enough level for him at
     If I have to choose between making Kevin Lester* read books "appropriate" for his reading level or allowing him to devour the occasional silly morsel of his own choosing, Bad Kitty for President will get my vote every time.

* Children's names have been changed to protect the innocent.  As usual, all adults are guilty as charged.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Twitter University

     I am a student at Twitter University, an institution of higher learning that is open 24-hours a day.  You choose your own classes with lessons offered by experienced, educated, and enthusiastic teachers of limitless backgrounds and perspectives. The world is your classroom.

    I regularly attend classes on Saturday morning in my bedroom where, sometimes, coffee is delivered in my favorite mug by a very nice man who just happens to be my husband.  (No, I don't know what I did to deserve him.  Thank you so much for asking.)  Here is what I learned today:, aka @RWTnow, introduced me to Word Mover, an intriguing app for creating poetry during National Poetry Month (which I also learned about on Twitter).  We'll be trying it out next week in Room 213E.  By the way, did you know that National Poem in Your Pocket Day is on April 30 this year?  I didn't either until @MrSchuReads and @MrsPstorytime told me yesterday!

@DrMaryHoward, an educational consultant and author, reminded me of the importance of read-alouds, the practice I am most likely to abandon whenever I'm feeling a time crunch.  (Just where did I put that great Read-Aloud Anthology?)

In "What I Know to be True," Katherine Sokolowski reaffirmed what I've long known to be true:  I have the greatest job in the world, a job for which I'm actually paid to hang out with kids and books every day of the week.  I look forward to learning more from Ms. Sokolowski at Read.  Write.  Reflect, her blogsite to which I now subscribe.  (You can, too!)  During my time there this morning, I came across a series of books by Andy Griffiths that I think will be just right for my 6th grade devotees of "Wimpy Kid" style books.  Thanks, @katsok!

Here's a new mini-poster I got for my classroom:

And thanks to @edudemic,  I've got a new pre-reading guessing game to use with my students when advertising great reads during our weekly "book talks."  

     Not bad for a morning's "work," eh?  Oh, and before I forget, here's the best news of all:  Tuition is free!  But you'll have to get your own coffee.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Old Dog in the 21st Century

     Let me begin by admitting that I am the "old dog."  I began teaching back in a time when PCs did not exist.  Neither did iPhones or iPads or Twitter or Tumblr . . . you get the iDea.  Needless to say, I've spent the past couple of decades learning scads of "new tricks" -- enthusiastically, for the most part.  But when I first started hearing about "brain theory" and various hypotheses that technology is "changing the way our children think," my initial reaction as an old TEXAN dog was, well, "B.S."*
*Cow patty bingo -- Google it.

     A few years back, though, my colleagues and I started to notice something strange -- strange, even for middle school students.  (And that's saying something.)  When presented with a list of tasks, most students started with Task #1 and methodically worked their way down the list.  That's what "everyone" does, right?  Wrong.  Periodically, we'd spot a random student who would start his work with Task #4.  Or he would begin with Task #1 but then skip around, picking and choosing the order that he preferred.  What???

     At first, we teachers chalked it up to middle school squirreliness, something found in abundance on campuses nationwide.  But as we noted the phenomenon with increasing frequency, we began to suspect that something was afoot.  Why on Earth were children suddenly incapable of following a simple list of instructions?

     A glimmer of insight emerged one day in the library as I observed a student working at the computer with our librarian, Paulette Rodriguez (See

     "Eggbert,** stop clicking all over the screen," admonished Mrs. Rodriguez.  "Just go to the list of steps I've provided and follow them one by one."

     After class, as Paulette and I stood scratching our heads over the mysterious ways of the preteen, Paulette said, "Did you notice how he was clicking all over the screen?  It was as if he were playing a video game!"

     Had we been cartoon characters, that would have been the moment for light bulbs to appear above our heads.  Oh.  My.  Gosh.  After years and years of video gaming, some students are so oriented toward the "point and click" approach to seeking information, linear thinking is no longer their default strategy.  [The writer pauses a moment for readers to pick up their jaws.]

     Fast forward to third period Language Arts today.  Even before roll call, Alistair -- an 8th grader NOT renowned for his linear thinking -- fluttered around me, anxiously asking endless questions about every item on the starter list.  Mustering as much as patience as I could pretend in that moment to have, I requested that he go to his desk and begin doing Task #1.

     "I'll answer your questions in just a minute."

     After the usual start-of-class minutia, I called everyone's attention to the Smart Board rather than single out Alistair's confusion.  Pointing at Task #1, I announced, "This is where we will begin for today.  After completing that assignment, you will return your Chromebook to the cart, move on to Task #2 and, eventually, begin Task #3."

     Oh. My. Gosh.  Even as I was speaking, the realization hit me:  Alistair is one of those "nonlinear kids."    When he looks at the SmartBoard, he doesn't see a list of discrete tasks that he knows to tackle one by one;  he sees it like a gaming screen with neither a clue about where to begin nor an understanding that the tasks are presented in the order they are to be completed.  No WONDER he always seems to be on the wrong task!  

     The moral of this story?  Take a few minutes at the start of each school year to explain the concept of "following lists" to your students.  Something so obvious to "old dogs" like me might actually be a foreign concept to children born after Y2K.  Weird, huh?

**Children's names have been changed to protect the innocent.  All the adults are guilty as charged.