I spent the morning in my classroom doing some cleaning and organizing bookshelves. So often while I reshelve books I pause and wonder which ones to feature, I think about past lessons that I have used the books as some instructional inspiration. Organizing picture books into different groupings like Peter Reynolds, Notice and Note and BHH, Mindset and Life Lessons, Social Studies and “Additional Awesome Books I just like to share with kids”  I just love all the different concepts that can be taught and explore within a picture book.

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I look over my comic books and know that there is a great movement in education right now incorporating all the amazing themes and character work in comics and I get anxiety over the “new” way to explore within these wonderful texts.

I am not a huge fan of front faced libraries when it comes to novels, I just don’t have the shelf space and find it is messy (yup a bit of a control freak) but today I thought about just front facing some titles as a bit of a showcase. For my reluctant readers, to add some diversity to the suggestions and just show off some of the titles I love (A few I have not read but they are authors I love or recommended by some pretty awesome people).

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I see this line so often, “How do you teach… The Giver, How to Kill a Mocking Bird, Outsiders, Refugee… the list goes on and on. I always think that it seems so impersonal when the words that an author puts on a page are just the opposite. So incredibly personal. You hear JK Rowling talk about her love for her characters, the tears she shed as some died throughout the books. I can’t imagine she ever envisioned a 225 page Novel Study to “teach” Prisoner of Azkaban. For only 25 dollars you too can own it on TPT. Or heck why not get the MEGA PACK covering Books 1-3 for all your teaching needs for only 60 dollars. I can’t imagine reducing a story of redemption and perseverance like Azkaban to a workbook but hey we gotta teach the books.

I can’t help but wonder how much our students learn to dislike reading because of the “teaching” of books. We can explore books, we can use them to help illustrate a concept but breaking them down to a page by page workbook is disrespectful to the stories, to the characters and to the authors. Buying the workbook is likely some form of copyright violation as the author probably gave no permission for their intellectual property to be sold off to teachers who are desperate for a way to “teach”. Finally, these workbooks rob us too. They rob teachers of the opportunity to read with their students, to enjoy the moments together.

Many of the leaders in literacy I have the chance to learn from discuss multiple factors to creating a classroom of kids who love to read. Passionate teachers sharing titles, access to books, removing levels as a tool for segregation and time to read and apply knowledge. None mention workbooks, none mention a teaching really just “teaching” a book so hard that readers are born. They don’t mention it because it doesn’t happen. Readers are not born in the pages of workbooks. They are born as a Patronus Charm explodes over a lake, they are born as a Wild Robot returns home, they are born in the final moments of Refugee as the story is so beautifully woven together.

We need to stop being so concerned with how to teach books. We need to get back to the business of helping students love them.

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I have always wanted to use this quote

Please bear with me as I use one of my favourite movie moments to set the scene for this post. I loved the movie The American President as a kid. A scene has always stuck out to me between President Shepard and one of his advisors. A particularly tense moment when the advisor played the amazing Michael J. Fox speaks out about the Presidents lack of aggression in getting his message out there:

Lewis: People want leadership. And in the absence of genuine leadership, they will listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership, Mr. President. They’re so thirsty for it, they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.
Sheperd: Lewis, we’ve had Presidents who were beloved, who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty, Lewis. They drink it because they don’t know the difference.

I look at this quote often when discussing teaching practice and trying to answer the question of why teachers continue to use and defend online reading programs and activity booklets from Teachers Pay Teachers. I am going to take a bit of liberty here in making the connection but It should be a fun little ride.

First, let’s apply this scenario of being forced to drink sand to two different groups. Students and Teachers.

When we take out leadership from the quote and replace it with authentic engaging literacy work the same applies. Students crave to have work that engages them, they will dive into books that catch their imagination that light that creative flame that fills the room. When they are presented instead with only drills in isolation, program readers and books that are outdated but the teachers have taught for years and are comfortable they will still do the work but the enjoyment will not be there. They are trusting us to give them that promised water as they work through the desert and instead we give them cups and cups of sand. They choke it down but they will know better for next time. They are less likely to be lead through the desert with the promise of something better at the end. We must be prepared with all that amazing life-giving water at the end.

That brings us to the teachers. I am not here to condemn all teachers, not by any means. I think many of us (myself included for a time) are being tricked by the mirage of easy literacy instruction and when we get to it and realize it is sand we don’t know any better. The promises of a quick assessment on a computer that will level your students for easy grading, the novel studies and units that you can download at the click of a mouse for the low price of 5.99, but the high price of deep meaningful instruction purposefully tailored to your unique class.

In both of these scenarios, we can easily correct our path we just need to make a commitment to do it.

Steps to Replace Sand with Water

Sand -Accelerated Reader as Assessment or Accountability tool: The common argument that I hear often is that AR is a good quick assessment or accountability tool. How else can we know our students are reading and understanding a text?

Water– Conferencing: In minutes I can tell if a student is truly reading a text when I am talking to them. We can set goals for book completion and I can get a handle on their comprehension. The best part is it takes moments and you get a more complete picture over time than any “point and click” test with low-level knowledge questions will ever provide. I have never had a student request to do AR tests, I have never had a student come and talk to me about why AR being removed from their life has made their reading journey less enjoyable. Never.

Sand – Class Novels with little to no choice. I think this is a tricky one because some will argue against full class novels completely, others embrace them fully and there is a large group in between that use them in different ways. I will completely show my cards on this and say that I am in the third camp, I use them but with options. The sand of the full class novel tends to come with text choice. Students with no connection to a book, books chosen because “we have a set” or unfortunately the “well I read it when I was a kid”. All of these reasons come up and none of them has to do with the students.

Water- Whole class novels can be a great tool to build a community of conversation around a shared text. The text and how we use it is the difference maker from sand to water. A text that students play a role in selecting, a text that is relevant and a text that provides opportunities to be a mirror, window or door are the kid of whole class novels that students really “thirst” for. Classics are great, my students loved the Outsiders last year. I loved reading Lord of the Flies in 9th grade. I didn’t love The Grapes of Wrath. Sand vs Water.

Sand– Trading Cute for Content with Teachers Pay Teachers and buying into programs to simplify the process. I see the comments made a lot, “I love this unit I bought on Teachers Pay Teachers it made teaching (insert book) so easy, the kids just read through and do the workbook” There is so much that qualifies as sand in this statement I don’t know where to begin. How about “this is so cute and fun I want to make it my room theme” and it takes up the space that student work should have in the room. The Instagram classrooms selling out our students for some flexible seating sponsorships, this IS the mirage, the distraction that pulls us all in and in the end all we have is sand.

Water- Beautiful books and meaningful strategies to make text accessible. First, let me just repeat the words of a great educator, Kylene Beers said: “Books aren’t written to be taught, they are written to be loved”. This statement alone has been water in the desert for me but beyond that, it helps to shift the focus away from teaching tools and towards books. We should be making the text accessible through strategies, talking about them celebrating them having conversations that deepen our understanding. Maybe it is Signposts and the discussions that come from them, maybe it is TQE and magical moments it has already lead to in my classroom. I know for certain it is not fill in the blank questions and vocabulary tests.

When faced with nothing else students will drink the sand. We have to make sure that we are providing meaningful literacy work that makes the mirage a reality. The provides students with wonderful books and the means to enjoy them, think about them, talk about them and understand them without jeopardizing their reading futures.

Today I spent the morning watching my nephews play each other in their league football championship. It was not a good game, one team was vastly better than the other. The degree of improvement from their last matchup seemed to have thrown off the other team. At the half, my nephews met in the middle of the field and patted each other on the shoulder before they made their way back to their respective teams. As the very one-sided game continued to roll on the spotlight started to shift. The focus moved away from the boys on the field and became the adults. Angry shouts from the stands when things were not being called their way, the complaints about coaching calls they did not agree with and attacks on other peoples children that they (the parents) thought were not doing a good enough job supporting their teammates. Forget about rules, forget about the fact that coaching and even more so officiating is hard and unless you are winning, a thankless job, they were upset and wanted to make sure everyone knew. I became increasingly annoyed by the commentary among the “fans” it was not one-sided, parents from both teams were complaining even the team winning by a large margin if a call did not go their way.

I sat there in that crowd and could not help but think about not just the kids on the field but those supporting their siblings in the stands. What they were hearing, what they were seeing. Adults that were not enjoying a game because it was not going their way and making sure everyone around them knew about it.

I grew up with parents (my Dad was also my coach) that pushed for sportsmanship. My mom walks out of events when the parents are “embarrassing themselves” in her words. I have a dad who will correct the behaviour of his players loud enough that their parents (the even larger offenders) will hear it and take the not remotely subtle hint. To my parents and now to me, sports was and always has been about, family, fun and being the best people we can be. My dad has won many awards as a coach and is very well respected in his field but every year the award he wanted the most was the most sportsmanlike team because that reflected who we are as people not just players. That showed the work we were doing not just on the field but off it.

I don’t write this to put myself on a pedestal, I have not always been the best example of sportsmanship but I see more than ever the need to make sure I am teaching by example.

Do we want the children that see us to value respect for others or to have a win at all costs attitude? Do we want our students to perform and win with humility or lose and blame everyone else for the perceived injustice? Do we want to have two cousins on separate teams congratulating each other on a great first half or parents screaming about a rule they don’t even understand?

We are Teaching by Example.

This afternoon we went to volleyball (teacher life and we love it) and behind us sat another group of parents. We were shocked as words came from their mouths that we were not prepared for. They were cheering on the efforts of the rival team. Whenever a pass or hit was missed, a return or serve did not quite clear the net, they were encouraging, they praised their effort, by name or number they celebrated the efforts of another team. Julie turned to thank them because it was such a refreshing moment in comparison to the morning and the lady responded, “What are we teaching the kids when we act the opposite?” Amen.

I am excited to get back into coaching, I am a football coach that has been asked to help coach Basketball. It will be an adventure because I can’t teach them basketball but I can teach them this, I can help them to be kind, to be supportive, to help another player up and to celebrate our successes and learn from our missteps. We will not look to blame others but we will learn because of them.

As teachers and parents, our jobs are to help the young people in our care be awesome. It is time we all start teaching by example.

Thanks for listening to my Ted Talk.

I just finished listening to The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. I am not a huge fan of audiobooks but they sure make it easy to enjoy a great book while also working out. As I listen to the story I had to pause at some of the profound lines and beautiful story. This morning as the story wrapped up I was struck by one line in particular and I wrote it down in another novel as it was the only paper I had available (I could have used my arms like other people I know but opted for the book).

“I hand it over like a present I’ve had gift wrapped” is the line as the central character describes sharing her poetry. The line struck me one because of the beautiful image it creates but also because of the thoughts it brought me to regarding my own students.

This year I have shifted away from so much technology. I want my students writing pencil to paper, the smudge of erasers as we try to craft our best work. I want my students to see their final products as a gift they are presenting to the world. We are utilizing quick writes a lot and exploring different ideas to write on. The effort put in through multiple drafts, the shared experience of conferencing and feedback all culminating in these beautiful gifts of words.

The other day Pernille Ripp posted a response to a question that was grammatically incorrect. I students shared their true thoughts and an adult onlooker decided to inform Pernille through a comment on the post that it was grammatically incorrect. When we look at these gifts that our students hand to us and instead of seeing the beauty we look for the flaws what is the message we are sending?

“Your gift is not enough”

“This is not what I wanted”

Like macaroni art on the fridge, I want to celebrate my students writing. I want to take these gifts and present them to the world because a gift is not given to be dissected a gift is given to be celebrated. Take these moments to do that. There are mini-lessons to address the gaps, don’t make students think their work unworthy of giving.

With that in mind, this is a beautiful piece written by one of my striving 8th graders,

When i went to the bookstore

When I go to the bookstore I like to take my time to look at all the book on shelves all neatly in a line I like  to see all the radiant colours make the stories come to life. I can feel all the characters emotions around me. To sense all the stories calling me, telling me to read  their stories so I do as if I’m in a race I go faster and faster stroking each page until there are none to stroke as I get closer and closer to the end it gets harder and harder to keep a consistent speed. When I finish the book I am exceedingly annoyed with the end so I start imagining what it would be like with a more exhilarating ending.When I finally leave it is like it was all a dream the most wonderful dream I could imagine.   

The other day I was in a conversation on Facebook around accountability and independent reading. The original post was looking for ways to help reluctant readers both increase their reading and also how to have some form of an accountability check. Now before I keep going I should state that I am pretty easy on my kids when it comes to independent reading accountability. We do this crazy thing called talking about our books. If a student really can’t tell me much about it we have either a comprehension issue or the text is not really being read. Both things that can be addressed in the future. I will talk about it more in detail in a minute but I do think it is only fair to put that out there as a preface to what is to come.

Back to the Facebook conversation, I love social media as a way to connect with other educators. I love the opportunity to talk to other educators and share ideas and approaches. I do not love the ever-growing presence of quick fixes, worksheets and for lack of a better word corruption of great ideas to streamline a process that should be about savouring.

When we look at independent choice reading we should be looking at it with two objectives in mind first and foremost for me it is the development of joyful reading, followed up as a form of practising the skills we learn each day. I understand that I am lucky in not needing to attach a mark to everything I do. Every minute of my instructional day does not need to be assessed and I understand that is not a luxury that is afforded to all so let’s look at some options out there to help with this apparently needed check without making independent reading just another task that students must suffer through.

The inspiration for my title came from a response to the request for assistance in helping reluctant readers, in the post the person suggested downloading a novel unit from Teachers Pay Teachers that students would have to do to show accountability for the novel that they were given. SO a couple problems here lead of course to my big mouth having to weigh in on the suggestion and I questioned how an assigned text with a mandatory Teachers Pay Teachers Unit was going to lead to more engaged, joyful reading for students that already viewed reading as a task. The poster responded with, “It has a five star rating so others must like it as well so it can’t be that bad” I paused for a moment as I read the line, I reminded them of the work of Pernille Ripp, Donalyn Miller and Kelly Gallagher I offered alternatives and was then accused of lecturing them. I wondered after that for a moment about this whole 5-star rating. I am curious if they let kids rate the crap they are pushing out on TPT if there would still be a lot of 5-star ratings. I feel safe in saying it would not be as common. When we have novel units to complete it becomes just a task. So what about an alternative.

First I don’t think anything more than a conversation is required for accountability in IR but if we extend the conversation to book clubs and whole class novels where I am looking at measuring objectives I do have a few things my students do. First, we have our thought logs. They pick their best few entries every couple weeks and I mark for compliance mostly but also it gives me great conferencing points later. We have started taking some time each week for TQE which you can find here and here and then we do a midpoint check-in assignment (WCN, not in Book Clubs) and then a final assignment. Both the assignments are choice-driven, students can create whatever they want to address the questions that they are assessed on. These are not fill in the blank or matching questions with cute clip art. These are questions that depend on a students understanding of character and theme, their ability to analyze a conflict. This is where I measure those objectives so that independent reading can become just about reading.

I think we are 5-Star worksheeting reading to death. I do not think when Donalyn Miller wrote The Book Whisperer or Reading in the Wild that she ever thought I hope someone sells a 5-star worksheet on Teachers Pay Teachers to map the 40 book challenge. (Side note- if you need to download a 5-star worksheet to monitor a 40 book challenge…I don’t even know) I am pretty sure when the very inspiring GRA in all its book celebrating forms was envisioned by Pernille Ripp she did not think “I hope someone will create some worksheets to compliment these fantastic books, it is just what they need”. And yet they are being created and sold (without permission using GRA label) to teachers who either are overwhelmed by the requirements of their job, are too busy doing all the other things we need to do as teachers or they just don’t want to put in the effort to create joyful reading moments for their students. I don’t care about the 5-star ratings on TPT.

I care about the engagement of my students, the gasps as an AHA moment is had, the discussions around the girl in the blue dress that Chase remembers, the small moments where a connection is made that was not there before. You can’t put a star rating on practices that grow readers because they are so much better than a booklet full of questions to make sure they read paragraph 3 on page 267 and notice the “juicy” words on the page.

Teachers of reading lets stop worrying about star ratings and busy booklets and let’s remember that our end goal should be joyful reading.

Last night as I walked back to the school to try and fix a vinyl cutter with some trusty youtube tutorials I heard the sound of sirens. Ambulance, Fire, Police. I can never tell the difference and living beside a highway you tend to just notice it and move on. I noticed it and moved on. Julie called me a few minutes later audibly upset to inform me there had been an accident, students from my school, my community. Students that I visited with in the halls, work out with at the gym and cheered on at their football, basketball and volleyball games had been in a car accident and it was very serious. The details slowly came in and then I remembered. This community, the one I live in and have grown to love, has dealt with tragedy before. Seven years ago our community lost 4 students in a car accident and a week later my dad and his football team and their community lost 4 students in another tragic event.

I did not work in my community at the time of the first tragedy. I did not witness how teachers and community members came together to strengthen each other. I saw the struggles through my dad and his community but hearing the news last night that some of our student body where being airlifted to hospitals other transported through ambulance I ask myself the questions, “How do we teach tomorrow?” “How can I be there for my students to support them?” “How can we focus on anything but this terrible accident and the lives being affected?” “How can I help?”

Community it seems is the answer to all the questions I was asking. A leadership team at the school and a Principal, that unfortunately has been through this before, that were there to support their staff, a staff that was there to support each other and students and families that displayed resilience. The school was full today, at first of students comforting each other and then of students laughing as they focused more today on relationships and joyful learning than the tests and other activities that might have been originally planned. At one point I had to check the commotion in the hall and discovered kids balancing sticks on their hands in some apparent contest with bubbles. I don’t know what the learning objective might have been but I do know what they were learning.

Community is how we get through tough times. It is the rival sports teams showing up wearing your colours to stand together or taking a moment of silence to respect those who could not be there. It is the muffins in the staffroom and high fives that continue in the hallways because it is what is always done.

I am not an overly emotional person in public. I remain guarded. My students supported me today as much as I supported them. We had moments that were tough and we continue to pray and hope for those students from our wonderful community as they heal. That is what a community does. We support each other, we hold each other up when we need to and we sit together in those quiet moments too. I am incredibly grateful for the community I live in. I am incredibly grateful for the students I serve and I pray for the recovery of my students that are in need of those prayers tonight. If you feel as though you could add to those prayers it would be much appreciated.

After all, we are all part of this community.

We Are Magrath

 

This weekend my friend Mary sent me a link to the very brilliant Kate Roberts and Tricia Ebarvia discussing finding balance in our literacy blocks. I have not watched the full learning session yet but fully intend to. One part did cause me to pause reflect and write down however. Kate mentions the need to be ruthless in our choices of how we spend our time.

There are so many amazing ideas out there, from Notice and Note to the Teaching of 180 Days, we have quick writes and literary essay writing, research projects and opinion pieces. Book Clubs, Literature Circles, Whole class Novels, independent reading, deep discussions and joyful celebrations of writing. We have so much to cover in a literacy period so where can our Ruthless decision making come in and best serve our students?

So Ruthless decisions here we go.

This year I started pushing more authenticity and flexibility in writing. We are starting classes with quick writes, using mentor texts to guide us and then writing about ourselves and our interests. The goal, of course, is to become writers before taking on tasks that require us to dig deeper into the skills of writing. Today I watched a few students in a different class struggle with a piece of writing and shut down, the idea was great but the authenticity for them was not there. I am sure I will encounter this at some point this year in my class and since it hasn’t happened yet I am sure it will come sooner than later but for now, my ruthless writing decision has been to cut the manufactured “connect the dots” writing assignments of the past. The typical assignments and move towards the interests and choice of my students that celebrate their voice as they writers they are becoming.

In years past my reading instruction has been very formulaic. I have strategies I like and know work, I push Notice and Note and Reading Journals. We look at strategies that help us dig deeper into books. When I think about my ruthless decision making regarding reading instruction it is in the reflections of actions I have already taken. The other day I had a few run ins with people who like to utilize TPT novel units filled with pages of comprehension questions and vocabulary lists and “activities”. In my own teaching, I had to make the decision after talking to my students that I needed to remove those types of items from my reading instruction. I needed to learn to support my students as real readers. Not as readers for information only, to fill the blanks and find the answers but as readers who read for joy, who learn through discussion with peers and observations of what a text does to them, how a story can help them discover their own. I was ruthless and cut out the easy, the quick fixes and the photocopied “expert teacher created resources” (A term TPT fanatics like to apply to themselves) and replaced them with conversations across a table, Book Commercials and Reading. Reading as many books as we can and talking about them.

Teaching is hard, time is precious. We have a responsibility to be great for our students. To provide them with an experience worth getting up for because they don’t have choice, they have to be there.

This week, this topic became too personal. Our students deserve more than, “If it is easy I will use it” They deserve more than a search for handouts in a file folder. They deserve ruthless, they deserve a teacher who values them more than easy. We are all tired.

Imagine how the kids feel when faced with another booklet printed off instead a book. This isn’t about shaming, it is about looking at what we are doing and trying to be better.