Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Rarity of Engaged Reading

Picture a classroom full of youngsters. They could be darling, chubby-cheeked kindergartners or swaggering, confident high school seniors – or anything in between. Can you see them?

Now, picture this class engrossed in reading.

What does being engrossed in reading look like? What does it sound like? What evidence exists that true, engaged reading is taking place?

In my visualization, I see a room full of freshmen – my classroom of yesteryear. There are five or six students lounging in the reading area, reclining on the sofa or stretched out on floor pillows. A dozen or so students are at their desks with their noses buried in books, their desktops strewn with pencils, highlighters, and sticky notes. A group of four girls sits cross-legged near the doorway, each with their own copy of a provocative young adult novel, whispering about what has happened and what might happen next. They’ve chosen to read the book together and push each other to meet their self-imposed schedule for discussion. Along the sides of the room, near a couple of electrical outlets, are students sitting alone, with headphones, listening to audiobooks. One is lying on his back, staring up at the ceiling. The other is lying on his side, following along in a hard copy of the book, often stopping, rewinding, and carefully replaying the audio, following the text with his index finger. And there I am – I can see myself near the front of the room, sitting in one chair with my feet propped up in another, devouring some current nonfiction, glaring at any student who dare interrupt my concentration or the concentration of a classmate.

When is the last time you saw a classroom like I’ve described, not just in your head, but in reality?

In my consulting work in the past five years, I have seen classrooms that are truly engaged in reading only a handful of times. I remember them vividly because they are exceedingly rare.

One was a room full of first-graders, spread out at various stations, rotating every 15 or 20 minutes. One group was at a table with a paraprofessional, another was in the floor with books, and yet another in the floor with tablet devices. Lastly, one group was at a table doing some kind of hands-on activity related to their reading. I listened as the adults talked with the children about what they were reading. These kids could talk about the characters, the events, the whole shebang. They weren’t just regurgitating. They were invested.

Another was a middle school classroom. The teacher started class with everyone sitting in a circle in the floor. She posed an authentic, no-one-right-answer question about the book they were all reading together. The students eagerly responded to her question and to each other. They posed new questions. The discussion was energizing. After about ten minutes, the students raced to their desks, ready to open their books and continue reading, inspired.

Much more common in my observations is the room where reading is inflicted upon the students. They sit in their desks, compliant for the most part, waiting for the next worksheet or the next recall-level question. Those who enjoy playing the game of school answer aloud and answer quickly. They sometimes prod their neighbors to participate in the discussion or complete the questions on the worksheet. Those who don’t enjoy the game put their heads down or engage with whomever is on the other end of their cell phones. Those who despise the game act out. They might be up, wandering around the classroom, or they might be calling out inappropriate comments. They might be repeatedly asking to go to the restroom, or the nurse, or the guidance counselor. When the drudgery is too much for them to bear, they will do something horrendous enough to warrant the teacher removing them from the room.

What has become of reading in school? The terms “close reading” and “complex text” have been used enough the past few years to make me visibly cringe when a teacher utters them. Did we ever want students NOT to read closely? Of course not. Did we ever want the end goal of a lesson or unit to be that students could read simplistic text? No. But have these terms – or possibly our application of them – killed engaged reading in our classes?

What should engaged reading look like, sound like, and achieve for readers?

My first thought is to reach back to Nancie Atwell and her mantra for reading/writing workshop: we must give students time, ownership, and response. Are we ELA teachers giving students time to read in class? Do we assign reading and then expect it to be done somewhere else? Shouldn’t reading be done when and where we can best help, which is in our classrooms? Does a reader ever become a stronger reader without role models, coaches, and peers to read alongside? I doubt it.

And what is the role of ownership? I have seen self-selected reading virtually disappear in the age of the Common Core. Teachers scurry to cover assigned text after assigned text and spend hours adapting activities to take into account the weak reading skills and the downright resistance of their students. To me, this is not the right path. The right path is to make more time for reading materials of choice in order to boost the skills (like stamina!) that are needed to tackle assigned (and often boring) materials.

Given the right conditions, students will tackle extremely complex texts on their own. Sometimes peers will help facilitate this; at other times, a caring teacher will. I vividly remember a student who told me he had never read a whole book during our first week of school. He was fifteen. He worked with his father on a commercial fishing boat. What was the first book I put in his hands? The Old Man and the Sea. And I stayed by his side as he lumbered through it. Guess what he tackled later in the year? The Call of the Wild. This is but one tiny example of what a teacher who truly values reading can do.

This particular student was buoyed by the trifecta of time, ownership, and response. I responded to him as a fellow reader, not as a teacher checking off specific objectives on some kind of record of his reading achievement. When one’s teacher and one’s peers are also engaged readers, it’s hard not to partake in the community.

So let’s stop the endless worksheets. Let’s put an end to the fake cooperative groups that skim through text merely to find answers to the teacher’s tedious questions. Let’s again make room in the curriculum for engaged reading, where readers actually sit and read in the company of other readers, because it’s important enough to do so together, in class, in a community. Where readers talk with each other about what they’re reading because they want to, not because they’re being forced to. And where readers tackle the classics and other difficult texts with confidence, because they know they can draw upon authentic reading experiences to help them.

As Pernille Ripp has noted, “In our quest to create lifelong readers, we seem to be missing some very basic truths about what makes a reader.” We need to restore time, ownership, and response to their rightful status in instruction before we create an entire generation of non-readers. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

Do we look for the positive?

I recently conducted an inservice for over 100 secondary teachers. It was the kind of back-to-school professional development day that could have been a waste of time for all of us, a useless filling of six hours of "seat time," a rah-rah session for the latest initiative -- you know the kind of workshops you've sat through in an uncomfortable cafeteria seat on days when you'd rather have been in your classroom, getting ready for students. However, the directors who had hired me had given me quite a bit of leeway in planning. They asked me to focus on the quality of teacher collaboration and to guide these teachers in using reading strategies across the curriculum. I was excited by the challenge and planned a day with lots of opportunities for interaction, use of video and other technology, and modeling of strategies like Cornell notes that teachers could turn right around and use with their students.

In one segment of the day, I chose to show a video of middle school science teacher Jason Schmidt, a vibrant young educator who demonstrates how to use the think-aloud strategy with a lab assignment he's giving his students ( I asked my participants to watch the video and concentrate on the moves Jason makes as a teacher. What is he doing to engage students? What is he doing to impact their cognition? For the administrators in the room, I asked, what is Jason doing that you'd like to see teachers do?

Despite the not-so-great filming (I'm sure Jason has a student at the helm), there's a lot of good in this video. Jason exemplifies curiosity and enthusiasm. He connects science concepts to his own experiences. He uses complex vocabulary terms that he wants students to understand deeply. And he physically models going into and out of the text to read it and then think on it. In six minutes or so, he provides an excellent model of a reader -- and how to read in science, when there is sometimes highly technical information to be comprehended.

After the video, I asked the teachers to conduct a table talk about the questions I had posed. What is Jason doing well, I summarized, as I set them off to talk, having had them appoint a facilitator and reporter for each table. I set my on-screen timer for six minutes and took off to circulate, ready to listen in on table groups to see what their thoughts were.

One table called me over. The table was occupied by four women, all of whom were in their 40s or 50s, and as I recall, had raised their hands earlier in the day when I asked who had more than 15 years of experience teaching. The fifth occupant was a young assistant principal from a different school from the women, a young man named Michael whom I'd met the week before. I stepped over to the table, expecting that a question or clarification was needed, and one of the women said, "We wanted to tell you that we thought he took way too long to explain the assignment."

There it was -- the thing that teachers often do, even when they're explicitly asked NOT to do it. Critique. Criticism. Letting someone know what's wrong instead of what's good, or right, or just interesting. Slam! Jason Schmidt is not as good of a teacher as I am -- that was the implication. One of the women even said, "My students would never listen for that long. They would just want to get to work."

I was livid. I frantically searched my brain for what to say, what to do. I could feel my face getting hot because I was frustrated. So.... I said, "You know, I'm in hundreds of classrooms a year, observing, and I'd be so happy to see a segment of a lesson like this. Why do you think I chose this video for us to watch? I thought the task was to discuss what the teacher did that was good or that other teachers could emulate. Did your table come up with some positives?"

All four of the women almost visibly recoiled. They were shocked that I would not honor their criticism. Thank goodness for Michael, who saw the direction the table needed to go. He started offering positives from the video. I patted him on the shoulder, gave the entire group another verbal nudge, and went on to the next table, trying to get to the rest of the room before time was up.

Why is it so hard for teachers to state something positive -- or to even THINK about it -- before they jump in with criticism? And why are teachers so threatened when they see a fellow teacher do something that works? Why is the natural response (for some educators), "Well, that would never work with MY students."

This conundrum is at the heart of school improvement. Teachers will never change their teaching if their gut reaction is to look for the negative instead of the positive -- and to look for the positive FIRST and ALWAYS.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

What About Teaching Like a Teacher?

So many books out there for teachers to read... So many blogs to follow... So many Twitter chats to attend and tweeting educators to follow. And it seems that there's tons of advice about how to teach better, much of it advising us to be unlike what we are.

My first experience with this was Rafe Esquith's book Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire. I had a positive impression of this book and of this man when I finished, but at the same time, I remember thinking that much of what he advocated would be frowned upon in many schools. Alas, I believe he has retired under pressure, or was being investigated for his methods, or that some kind of brouhaha was going on.

Next there came Teach Like a Champion. I avoided this book for well over a year basically because I don't like sports analogies. I'm an English teacher, and an author, and I take pride in being a bookworm, a bibliophile, and a sesquipedalian. I don't need to be a champion; I need to be the professorial, yet engaging, teacher that I am. However, I read this book, and now I recommend it to many teacher with whom I work, mainly because it focuses quite a bit on how to conduct effective classroom discussions - and I see so many educators who need this kind of support.

Now there's Teach Like a Pirate. This book is on my Kindle, but I've yet to open it. Again, the name is part of what's putting me off. Why teach like a pirate? What if I don't particularly care for pirates? I've not seen one of the Johnny Depp pirate movies. I've never been on any pirate-themed excursion. I could care less when it's Talk Like a Pirate Day. This book is big with my Twitter friends, and I even follow the author (and his wife) on Twitter. But I still can't bring myself to read the book.

Why can't we just teach like teachers, darn it? What's wrong with that? What have the best teachers always done? Well, they've been passionate, both about their subject matter and their students. They've been engaging. Great teachers compel you to join in. And they've been models of what lifelong inquirers and lifelong learners are. They don't get complacent. They continue to learn and grow and share themselves with others. They also push you to be better today than you were yesterday. They believe in the power of continuous improvement.

I don't need to set my hair on fire, or be a champion, or emulate a pirate. I just need to be me. And being me helps me be the best teacher I can be.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Spring Cleaning

It's a beautiful day on the South Carolina coast, and I'm inside, moving the summery clothes to my bedroom closet and the cooler-weather ones upstairs, out of sight, out of reach. I've dusted, vacuumed, and gotten on hands and knees to wipe baseboards. And now I'm back at the keyboard, feeling utterly accomplished, facing what I've been avoiding - writing.

My second book manuscript of the year is in need of heavy revision, and cleaning house is one of my favorite diversions when deadlines loom. Why? Why do I seek the dirt, the muck, the dust and and spills and misplaced clothes when I'm supposed to be writing?

Because writing is hard. Pat Conroy often spoke of it being painful. Somebody famous once said that in order to write, "just open a vein."

Before opening that vein, I have to do some niggling chores, check boxes off the to-do list, and clear my mind (most times, with a nap). Writing something of significance requires focus and determination. Distractions must be silenced.

We should be mindful that students may also need to do some cleaning, literal or figurative, before settling down to write. Do we give them this opportunity? Or do we demand they focus immediately and crank out whatever it is that we demand?

As we enjoy spring - and look ahead to a summer of renewal - let's also think about cleaning up some of our teaching practices.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Are we as open to new learning as we think we are?

I'm spending a few days in Sydney before conducting professional development elsewhere in Australia. Last night, I had the privilege of meeting a former "Twitter-only" friend in person for drinks and dinner. The wine flowed, and so did provocative conversation. In reflecting upon my lovely evening, I've come to wonder - as educators, do we really believe in lifelong learning? Do we model that in our words and deeds?

Think about it. I flew halfway around the world and met up with a person I'd never laid eyes on before. And we had so much to share! It took me an hour or more to wind down when I returned to my hotel because I was so stimulated by all the ideas that she offered - plus the ones we co-created. Obviously she and I are both very committed to the idea that teachers need to learn and grow throughout their careers. But I began to wonder.... what do teachers do to move their own learning forward?

I know more than one teacher who takes pride in not reading professional books. Other teachers claim that they don't grade papers or plan lessons at home. These teachers are doing a disservice to the profession I both love and revere. Why is it okay to be an educator and say that you don't put in extra time to learn, reflect, and grow?

I went kicking and screaming into Twitter. I hate it when I have to upgrade a phone or laptop. Am I an old dog who finds it hard to learn new tricks? Absolutely. But to not learn new tricks would make me a fraud. I'm a teacher. I need to learn something new every day.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The late Pat Conroy was accurate when he said, “The great teachers fill you up with hope and shower you with a thousand reasons to embrace all aspects of life." In this blog, I strive to honor and inspire my fellow educators.