Becoming Leaders of Readers

My friend and colleague @directoramy and I often discuss the work we are doing to support our district’s literacy initiative and our curriculum alignment to the Common Core.  In fact, it is how we spend most of our time together these days.  Last week, our conversation took an interesting turn, as they often do, and we found ourself discussing children’s literature and wondering how many teachers in our schools are up to date on the recently published titles… we weren’t sure of the answer to that question.  California has traditionally been a very textbook-driven state.  With the added layers of many of our schools participating in the Reading First Initiative and being identified as Program Improvement under NCLB, the textbook-driven focus intensified.  In fact, one of the requirements in the State of California when a school/district is identified as a PI school is to “implement the core (textbooks) with fidelity”.  Teachers have received so many messages that this is what they need to do that it is what we have seen in classrooms for years.  We have done a lot of work in our system recently to focus on engaging students as readers with rich non-fiction text.  As a result, we have seen some highly engaging lessons focused on making meaning and building comprehension of great informational text, but we started to question…What about great literature?  When do our students get to experience that?

MH900401070The conversation left me wondering… how do we turn students on to great literature if we are not familiar with it ourselves?  How do we know what books to recommend to our students that align with their interests if we haven ‘t read widely and engaged with the books that our children might love?  One of the things I love about my daughter’s current 4th grade teacher is how well she can engage with Ashlyn as a reader.  She has been able to recommend so many books to my daughter because she knows who Ashlyn is and what she likes, and Ashlyn is gobbling up the books!  In fact, it is her teacher’s passion for literature and her vast experience with engaging children’s and young adult books that have really turned my daughter on to fiction; until this year she mostly read non-fiction texts.

When I was a middle school English teacher, I read so many pieces of great young adult literature.  When my children were younger, we read wonderful picture books and chapter books together, but as they have become proficient readers themselves, they have gone off on their own reading adventures, and I have left this genre behind.  My kids have actually been trying to convince me for some time to read some of their favorites (I did succumb to the Hunger Games series), but other than that I haven’t made the time.  That changed this weekend!  Amy and I made a commitment to read more children’s and young adult literature after our conversation, and I picked up my first book!

Inspired by my daughter and a fabulous 2nd grade teacher in Canada, @carriegelson, I read the book Out of my Mind  by Sharon Draper.  I loved it!  Even more importantly, I loved the conversations I was able to have with my daughter about the book!  I also know Amy (who is also reading this one) and I will enjoy discussions about this title, and I know it is a book I can discuss and recommend to teachers.  Looking for additional recommendations, I turned to my PLN and have received many wonderful recommendations from two teachers passionate about children’s lit (you seriously need to check out their blogs!) @carriegelsonThere is a Book for That and @jkloczkoRoom 6 Bob Cat Blog .  Next on my list was The One and Only Ivan.  I finished it this morning (a nice thing about children’s books is that I can read them fairly quickly)!  Once again, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and walked away with a great appreciation for the style of writing and the amazing voice the author was able to give to a gorilla! A bonus for me is that I now have a new book that I can recommend to Ashlyn – I KNOW she will love it!  At Carrie and Jennifer’s suggestion, I will tackle The False Prince next.

One of the things I appreciate about the Common Core is that we are asked to balance fiction and non-fiction reading; we are also asked to ensure that students are reading rich and complex texts.  I am certain that the intent is that we actually read great pieces of literature and not the condensed versions that are often watered down in textbooks.  We are asked to have our students think about books, talk about books, and write about books.  With all that is available to us on the internet, we are also so easily able to find other resources that connect to the text.  In a quick search today, I found interviews with the authors, video book trailers, discussion questions, book reviews, blogs and connections to great informational text pieces to support  both of the titles I read – I find this exciting, and I think others in our district will too!   I now want to think of ways that our system can begin to build our collective knowledge of great children’s literature beyond what we have in our textbooks.  I am certain that the excitement a few of us have about renewing our passion for great children’s and young adult books will quickly become contagious… after all, what educator doesn’t LOVE a good book!

If you are looking for a few good recommendations, the following resources are a great place to start (Thanks, Carrie!)

Top Ten Read Alouds for 6-10 year olds

2012 Favorites

My Picture Book 10 for 10 in 2012

Non-fiction Picture Book 10 for 10

Stop Asking Kids to Just “Do School” – The Impact is Powerful!

Our topic today for our #satchat discussion was “rigor” in schools and classrooms.  It was an exciting chat with multiple perspectives and insights from great educators.  There were several tweets in our chat that talked about students taking ownership of their learning, stretching students’ thinking and moving our lessons away from allowing students to get away with simple answers and just “doing school”.  The tweets prompted me to link one of my older posts about my son and some of the experiences he has had with “doing school” and the negative impact of low expectations and a curriculum that does not challenge students.  It also prompted my decision to write this post as a follow up to that original blog.

My son is now in his first year of middle school this year and has been experiencing all of the excitement and challenges that go along with this new phase in his life.  One of the highlights for me, though, is the impact two of his teachers are having on his learning.


First, his math teacher… as a sixth grader, my son has been placed in an advanced pre-algebra class.  I was actually worried that while I WANT him to be challenged,  that this class MIGHT not be a good idea.  Turns out it was a GREAT idea thanks to my son’s teacher.  Hayden loves his math class.  While he is not one to share all of his experiences in school, math is a frequent topic of conversation this year.  His enthusiasm for math goes beyond getting the answers right.  He wants to “get it”, and we find ourselves frequently discussing the “why” of the math and how it works.  His teacher has clearly made the conceptual understanding important, and I can tell that “talking math” and “writing math” in his classroom is a part of their every day work.  Hayden has shared with us that his teacher has a special way of helping them understand complex math concepts and that he doesn’t give up on them when they don’t get it.  His teacher expects great things of them and believes that his students are capable.  His class is one of high expectations, lots of support, and an unwavering confidence in his students’ abilities…  Hayden is THRIVING in this class!

Next, Hayden’s English teacher.  As his mother, and also a former English teacher, I have consistently struggled with the lack of good writing instruction my son has received (I believe I highlighted how bad some of it was in my earlier post!)  Hayden’s English teacher has turned him on to writing and has also increased his passion for reading.  Imagine my shock the day my son came home insisting on reciting a poem to us – making sure he changed his voice and body language to elicit the proper tone of the piece!  In his English class, students are reading incredibly complex texts that prompt discussion of meaty issues.  They have read, discussed, and written about failure and the role of technology in our lives; they have read excerpts from Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed and from Carol Dweck’s book Mindset.  During the elections in November, they read about the battle for the Hispanic vote, and after the Sandy Hook tragedy they read an article in Time  called “Sandy Hook Shootings: Video Games blamed Again”.  In fact, they read an article like these at least once each week.  They are expected to read closely, ask questions, form opinions based on evidence, and participate in discussions about what they read.  They talk, debate, and ultimately write each week about what they have read and learned. One of my favorite writing topics was “What’s better… a hard earned B or an easy A?” Additionally, my son keeps an amazing writing journal and has developed several of his ideas into exceptional pieces of writing (he has even contemplated starting his own blog!)

In these two classrooms, my son has NOT been “Doing School”.  He has been learning and thriving.  He is being challenged and he is being treated like a thinker.  He is expected to do great work, he is expected to stretch his thinking and share it with others, and he is producing amazing work for himself and for these two teachers.

Whether you call it increasing rigor, having high expectations, incorporating higher-level thinking skills, stretching thinking, levels of complexity (or anything else)…  get it into your schools and classrooms.  Our students deserve it… and they are hungry for it!