Category Archives: literacy

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Real Life Reading Logs

LibraryThing IconI have belonged to LibraryThing (LT) almost since it began and have written about it over the years.. My “thingaversary” is October 13, 2005. In LT lore that means that this year I get to buy 16 books on October 13, one for each year and one more for good luck. In those 15 years, I have moved from cataloging my reading to becoming part of a robust reading community. I join the 75 Book Challenge group each year and have a core group of friends.  But, I have not been as involved as I might be so this year I am committing to making that my main social outlet online. I have followed a few more people and am making time each day to check their posts.

For me, LT provides a model for an authentic approach to encouraging reading and writing  in the classroom. I know there is a lot of pushback against reading logs that track number of pages or minutes of reading, and while most of us on LT do some kind of statistical tracking, the focus is on sharing our reading  with others. Our stats also go way beyond number of pages: we think about our reading in terms of genres, geographic, racial and ethnic diversity, and so forth. We record them and then reflect on them personally and communally.

On Twitter, Michael Bonner asked about tips for increasing middle school literacy. There are specific skills to teach, but they can be taught and practiced through authentic reading, particularly at the middle school level. My answer to him was simple: let the kids read and write and talk about their reading and writing. (As always, I gave credit to my early mentor Nancy Atwell.) I would add that we should use the widest definitions of reading and writing and talking that we can to throw out the widest net. We can listen to text. We can read through images. We can talk through video.

And, the world of contemporary middle grade and young adult literature is rich these days. I haven’t compiled my list of best reads for 2019 yet, but I know it will include Finding Langston and Dear Martin and books by Jacqueline Woodson and Elizabeth Acevedo and Angie Thomas  and  Julie Murphy. Not sure where to start? The Nerdy Book Club is in the midst of announcing its awards for 2019 with lists from picture books to young adult fiction and everything in between. They’ve been doing it since 2011 and reading through all the lists would be a pretty amazing challenge.

For now, I’m busy setting up my LT thread, planning some of my reading and connecting with old friends and a few new ones. If you’re looking for a group of serious but fun readers, consider LibraryThing. Meanwhile, best wishes for a year of good reading and sharing.




Distracted by Books

IMG_0122I have written about my own love for reading and described my implementation of middle school reading workshops. Those workshops were designed to give my students the same experiences with books that fueled my own love of reading: choosing what I wanted to read and making reading a priority in my day.

Two recent blog entries show that my values continue in contemporary classrooms. Former high school teacher Julia Franks describes making a change in her AP English classroom when she moved away from communal reading and analysis of the classics to choosing their own reading. Her practice arose from her belief that readers make better citizens as they are able to construct more sophisticated narratives around events in the world around them:

As a nation, too, we need these narratives. Election results end in an upset, and we spend a whole lot of time trying to answer the question why? Or a man walks into a church and opens fire on the congregation. We as a country respond by trying to make a narrative: cause, effect, cause, effect. When we can’t do it, we feel adrift, even despairing. And yes, we’re tempted to oversimplify the story. But the more practice we have at story-making, the more we’re able to construct a nuanced national story.

Given the option of reading the books on the syllabus or reading twice as many books from a list of 300 titles, all students chose the latter and, by the end of the year, had read nearly twice as many pages as mandated on the original plan. And those AP exam scores that seem to dictate the analysis that eats up so much class time? They did not suffer at all.

Franks concludes:

We have to offer more choice, and we have to set actual time aside in the school day for reading.  (Maybe fewer hours, say, discussing Hamlet?) In this moment in American culture, we need reader-citizens more than ever. Because of that, English departments have the opportunity to be especially relevant in civic life. Some of them are already taking up that challenge.

Middle school teacher and founder of The Global Read Aloud, Pernille Ripp, describes her own “horror” when, at the beginning of the year, her students reported how little they enjoyed reading. She was determined to change that and she did it with books:

Books, and plenty of them.  Books that were accessible through audio and text.  Books that were not there to push them in a certain direction.  That were not forced on them.  Picture books for the days where chapter books seemed to be too much work.  Free verse for those who had lost their connection with the magic of reading.  Graphic novels meant to teach, entice, and enthrall.  Everywhere they looked there were books and the books called to them.  Without judgment.  Without restriction.  Without one path to being a reader.

And time:

We also took time.  Ten minutes every day to read.  To find books.  To have conversations about the texts we chose.  To find something worthy of our time, that we perhaps would want to read later as well.  Ten minutes that were the expectation coupled with the idea that one should only read good books, not waste our time on books that would make us dislike reading more.  To abandon when needed, to book shop when desired.

The two priorities: the ability to choose your own books and the time to read them.

This message has also been part of The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, the book I am reading right now. Sara Lindqvist is a reader who uses books to change a small, dying Iowa town. As she organizes the books in her shop, she put “every unreadable book she could find” on a shelf. These mostly included the award winners that everyone talked about but never read. Sara had tried to by systematic about reading these classics:

She had thrown herself into one ambitious reading project after another, but things had rarely gone according to plan. It was boring to think of books as something you should read just because others had, and besides, she was much too easily distracted. There were far too many books out there to stick to any kind of theme.

Lots of the teachers I follow on Twitter are busy planning their summer reading. I applaud their desire to dive into professional reading, and I have a few of those books on my own list. But, I also would encourage them to let themselves be distracted and see where it leads.






More On Moby Dick

Joyce Valenza posted a link to Jen Hunter’s insightful review of Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick for the English Classroom. Hunter is a student in Joyce’s social media course at Rutgers and the review is part of a larger website related to the reading of the book. Go read it now and be prepared to buy the book when you’re done. I did.

I am looking forward to reading the book even though I can’t imagine reading Moby Dick with any students, much less the challenging population described in the book. It almost makes me want to head back to the high school classroom, a place I haven’t been since the beginning of my career in the ice age before digital media:

Edited by new media literacy scholar, Henry Jenkins, and Melville scholar Wyn Kelley, the book describes how the two came to collaborate with Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, who had been teaching young men in a juvenile detention center not only to read Moby-Dick, but also to care about it and make sense of it in the context of their own lives through a stage production called Moby-Dick: Then and Now. This collaboration sparked a study in which NML strategies were applied in English classrooms to teach Moby-Dick, and more importantly, to empower students to claim ownership of their authority and participate in the wider conversations happening around them.

The section of the review that struck me was the notion that incorporating popular culture to help students grapple with traditional literature is somehow a lowering of expectations for those students:

Without ever saying it explicitly, the text seems to imply that while students can learn to read, find relevancy in, and enjoy Moby-Dick, educators need to reframe their expectations of their students, which might be interpreted as lower expectations as opposed to simply different expectations.

Hunter goes on to discuss how Jenkins’ addresses this concern:

Jenkins defends the use of popular culture in the classroom when he says, “It should not be seen as a means of entertaining students or holding their attention, but rather as a means of respecting their existing expertise and helping them to acquire core skills they will need to meaningfully participate in this new and emerging media landscape” (location 1071). While all of the authors advocate for the development of the kinds of skills that educators may associate with traditional literacy and scholarly inquiry, they suggest that there needs to be a gradual building to that level, particularly for at-risk youth.

Respect for our students’ experiences when they are different from our own is a powerful concept. I am, in no way, lowering expectations for contemporary students when I suggest that not every child needs to grapple with Shakespeare in the original. Or, as Jenkins and his colleagues demonstrate, plunge into Moby Dick without some kind of preparation. I may question if getting through Melville is a good use of time but if it really does provide the students with a confidence and sense of authority, then the time will be well spent.

The book is one my Kindle and may rise to the top of the TBR list. I’ll let you know how it goes.



A Learning Journey

Since mid-September, I’ve been working with a local non-profit to provide an after school tutorial/computer program for local kids. We have a group of about 16 ranging from pre-K to 7th grade that comes to us on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Volunteers help with homework and provide a meal before taking the kids home.

My original plan was to work with upper elementary and middle schoolers to teach them to program with Scratch. I’ve done a bit of that with a few middle school girls but haven’t been able to really dig in yet. With the little bit we did do, only one seemed particularly interested. I am wondering if I need to give them more choice including doing something with digital storytelling. My larger goal is to help them see that they can create rather than consume on the computer and maybe programming isn’t the only way to achieve that.

Part of the problem is space. We meet in one big space, and even with a few rolling walls, it’s noisy and a little chaotic. There’s an empty elementary school just behind our building, and we’re hoping to work with the county to get access.

The other issue that became glaringly clear last evening was the depth of the educational needs in the group. My girls had a pile of math homework so they started with that, and I spent some time with two first grade boys working through a language arts worksheet. This is the first time I’ve really sat with some of the youngest kids. These two boys were really struggling. They can sort of decode, but they aren’t really reading or comprehending. They couldn’t read the directions for one of the assignments so they merrily copied the out-of-order words that they were supposed to be putting in sentences. When I wrote the words on cards, they were able to manipulate them into sentences and then copy them onto the paper.

Other activities didn’t even make sense to me…a series of sentences with blanks and a word bank. We used  a process of elimination to finish it, but with no context for the random sentences, it was sometimes hard to figure out which word made a comprehensible sentence. If I hadn’t been there to supervise and advise, I’m sure they would have simply guessed just so that there was something on the line since that had been their strategy on the first few pages. I couldn’t help but wondering how much feedback they got on the packets.

I also wondered how much time they get to hang out with books. I’m already planning to take my pile of children’s books when I go next week and get them reading together. The middle school kids could sit with the younger ones and help them and probably improve their own skills. And then we could use digital storytelling tools to create our own books. It would tie the program pieces together.

I worry that by just focusing on helping them get their homework done, we are missing an opportunity to give them larger experiences that they don’t seem to be getting in school. There must be a balance. I have to remind myself that we have only been doing this for a few weeks. We had some sketchy plans but didn’t really know how many kids would come and what their needs would be.

We are definitely on a learning journey together….



Naming Things

I couldn’t find my phone this morning. Not plugged in. Not by my chair. So, I dialed the number and discovered it propped up against the kitchen window. I had used it yesterday for access to a recipe for Thanksgiving. There it was, spitting out the blues riffs that I had chosen for my home number, reminding me of the difficulty of names in this crossover, hybrid, multi-tasking age in which we live.

Earlier yesterday, that 3 X 4 inch piece of technology had been a camera, which I used to record the passing of the seasons as I walked the dog along the road to the winery.

This morning, I was looking for it because I needed it as a book to look up a quote to share with a friend.

Later, I will play sudoku and surf the web and listen to music.

Yet, we reduce it to one name: cell phone. And, we ban it, despite its potential to provide access to all the tools of education from textbooks to videos to pens. Because we can’t control it and schools have a responsibility to keep kids safe and we’ve seen plenty of examples where they’ve gotten in real trouble having unfettered access to the world. But there are also plenty of examples where grown ups haven’t done such a good job either. It’s THE media literacy issue that we need to discuss: consumer/producer/prosumer and the implications.

But even as I write the above, I wonder if we will miss this opportunity as well…the chance to make learning, working, and living all more humane enterprises. Anyone who knows even a little of the history of school reform understands that technology almost never drives real change. Instead, it gets incorporated into the existing structures of the system, maybe making small changes, but ultimately being changed itself.

But, at the risk of flying in the face of history, there seem to be larger forces at work here that are challenging our names for lots of things. Work: Changes in the way people access their jobs may lead them to question a school schedule that no longer matches their own. School: Easy access to educational resources makes it easier to imagine teaching your own children.

Even the word “teacher”…last Saturday I was part of a conference with pre-service teachers and I made an off hand comment about not being a real teacher. One of the 20-somethings looked at me and asked what I meant by that. I explained that while I was a teacher in many ways, since I didn’t teach the grueling schedule of a K-12 classroom teacher, I didn’t really consider myself a “real” teacher. I had it easy with my online courses, afternoon workshops and evening webinars. But, he insisted, I was a real teacher because I was doing the work of teaching. Just because I wasn’t adhering to a particular schedule or killing myself to try and meet impossible demands didn’t make a difference to him.

And, there it is: what will make the real difference in the future. Young people who are questioning everything about the world we have created and the way we have defined words like “work” and “school” and “fun.” His generation is the real force that, when joined with mobile multimedia technologies and other cultural shifts, will change definitions in ways we can’t even imagine.