Last year I was greeted by 3 classes of self-proclaimed non-readers. There was the odd student here or there that liked to read but years of workbooks, Lexia, AR, Crossroads textbooks written before they were born and a lot of time perfecting fake reading while their teachers sat back and planned during Independent reading time really did a number on their reading love.

I was prepared though because I had read books by Donalyn Miller, Pernille Ripp, Kylene Beers, Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher. I had learned how to help develop a joy for reading and been given the tools through these experts to help my students become not only joyful readers but thoughtful ones. What could go wrong?

Well, pretty much everything haha. They were very resistant to the idea of free reading, they pushed back when presented with the idea of choosing to read novels. They looked at me as if I I had tentacles growing from my head or I had really bad breath when I tried to conference with them over their reading ( I didn’t I checked). There was not a culture established and so the reading habits that I loved to celebrate were going to be a long road to arrive at.

I stuck to my dreams and worked through the resistance, we book talked, I overdid celebrations when books were finished. We talked in groups, we shared and then amazing things started to happen. I student connected with “Some Kind of Happiness” by Claire Legrand. That connection became a recommendation to a friend and then another. Another student read Miles Morales: Spider-Man by Jason Reynolds another “Orphan Island” by Laurel Snyder. They started to share and pass the books between friends. More reluctant readers were picking up books after watching the newly discovered readers come asking for new suggestions. What started as a trickle grew into a stream of students wanting more books. Was every day perfect? Nope. Were the students always on task reading every day? Nope. But there was growth and it was exciting.

Some educators do not believe in independent reading time in school. The position is that the time we have is too important to not be directly instructing our students in whole class or small group setting. Add to that the belief that books should always be controlled while in school. Students need to stay within their level. These people claim if kids are taught to read and told to do so at home they just…will. It is really that easy. I had no idea. I wonder how easy it is for the kids who don’t have books at home? This is not some imaginary nightmare that teachers who favour time for independent choice reading in the class have made up to scare teachers into adopting a similair mindset. When faced with bills or books, parents will pick bills, and they should. Groceries or books to read…a hungry learner is not a learner buy the food I can cover the reading time. My mom and dad once went to help a family in need. They were moving and a tragic situation had limited their ability to pack and clean. My parents and their friends went over to help. My dad later reported to me there was not a single piece of writing in the home. No magazines, no books, no newspapers. No words. If the teacher of those children sent them home to read because it is not important enough to read choice reading at school they were sending them home to a place void of reading. This is not an isolated case. In schools around the world children go home to a place that does not have the means to support independent reading.

We then hear the, “Well ever heard of a library?” remark. Yes, I have and my response is, “Ever heard of late fees and check out limits?” A student that has fines in many situations can not take a book home from the library, those same students can’t pay the fines in many cases and thus… no more books. This again is not a nightmare scenario. I have been in multiple schools and talked to the librarians and it is the policy in more than it isn’t.

Finally, in many households around the world, we are sending kids home to an empty house. Parents are working multiple jobs or do not make at home reading a priority and so the students continue to suffer. And we can provide a solution.

Time for choice independent reading in school levels the playing field. I can make sure my students have quality books in their hands, without limits because they are late returning them and am there to help support as they need and we discover through conferencing. The argument that lazy teachers just sit around while student read independently is a sad attempt to control what teachers do in their classrooms, by people that would rather our students be sitting in desk working in some anthology textbook that wasn’t engaging when it was created let alone 20 years later for the students of today.

I started this post with the statement “Why we take the time” The why is found in the students who I thought about over the summer. The ones who left me readers and I worried that a summer without my booktalks and recommendations would result in no books read. I made the time for them and magic happened. Students I no longer teach came to talk to me about their summer reading, kids who told me they would never be readers came and asked to pop by my library for a new book, one student excitedly told me they have read 76 books since the start of grade 8 because of all their summer reading.

We take the time because we value it, we take the time to make sure our students have a chance to experience great books and joyful literacy. We take the time because we can’t control what happens outside our walls but we can control what happens in.

Independent reading combined with meaningful conferencing will develop lifelong readers far quicker and with lasting results than any workbook that promises to teach students all they need to know. Students will never discover who they are as a reader by working through a bunch of packets. They will just learn they hate packets. We need a balance but if your equation does not include independent reading we are not going to solve the problem.

The reading culture does not change in a day but a day at a time, a book at a time a student at a time it will and with that we raise readers and thinkers.

Our jobs are to guide not limit.

 

 

I have been puzzled by a question that I see a lot lately on various Teacher Social media pages. “How do you teach (insert novel or book name)” I was so grateful when One of my teaching idols Kylene Beers posted the following

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I love using novels as a shared point of discussion, I love using mentor text to assist my students in finding themselves as writers. The books are a gateway to teach concepts and skills. Turing books into a unit breaks them down to nothing but a series of activities and unfortunately, booklets to be sold by “world-class educators” on sites like Teachers Pay Teachers. When we look at the skills and concepts that we are responsible to teach and then utilize wonderful books to teach those concepts we treat the text as a whole. As the adventure, they are intended to be. We don’t reduce it to a series of fill in the blank questions. I can teach theme with multiple sources that we can love for their own unique qualities.

Last year I read Outsiders with my students. I saw a million different packets out there to “teach” Outsiders. Instead, I opted to teach the concepts around character development and theme. My students responded to discussion points, we shared our opinions around characters and what ideas stuck out to us that guided our discussions around the ultimate theme of the story. We notice signposts and discussed them, we wrote BHH reflections around the lose of different characters. We read and read and read. My students reflected that they loved the book and they learned through the discussions we had. I think this distinction of heavy on the reading and targeting in the “work” is key to not spoiling the text and leading to Readicide as we try to “teach a book”.

Today I sat down a read a little of my book “Nightbooks” by J.A White. Chapter 1 was awesome and creepy and changed the direction of my lesson. We had planned to work on BHH reflections with picture books, a favourite activity of mine. Instead, this incredibly creepy first chapter led to a lesson on the strategy of making predictions to check for comprehension. If you were planning to do signpost (introducing on Thursday) it is rich with COntrast and Contradictions throughout. I introduced Double Entry Diaries and as I read we wrote, reflected and visited. The gasps as predictions came true, the smiles from readers who at times struggle as they realized they could be a close reader and discover the secret before the reveal made the change of direction so worth it.

Mr.Gilson Keep Reading!

Mr.Gilson can I read that next?

Mr.Gilson lets read all next class…

I don’t teach books, I teach readers and we love it.

 

“SUCCESS FOR EVERY CHILD IS OUR RESPONSIBILITY. SIMPLY GIVING A CHILD WHO IS STRUGGLING WITH YOUR TEACHING A GRADE THAT WILL SERVE ONLY TO MAKE THE CHILD FEEL LIKE A FAILURE  IS REALLY JUST REFLECTIVE OF YOUR FAILURE TO DO WHAT YOU ARE THERE TO DO. SUCCESS IS NOT RESERVED FOR A FEW BUT IS THE BIRTHRIGHT OF EVERY CHILD NO MATTER WHERE THEY MAY BE IN THE LEARNING PROCESS”- Dr. Mary Howard

The second week of the school year begins tomorrow. After last week I feel like we have been going forever already. Not in a bad way, it just seems so natural. To sit down and visit with students, to laugh with them, to learn with them.

I opened this post quoting my brilliant friend Mary because a small nagging little thought has just been floating around. As we start the year we look at our students and their personalities but we also look into their records. We prepare, hopefully, for how we are going to reach each student and their unique learning needs. Going over notes from past teachers you see the labels and levels that testing brings. What sticks out to me most is that the same kids year after year are the ones to “watch out” for, they are the ones that struggle. Teachers continue to do the same thing with both struggling readers and mathematicians, slower and louder.

Eventually, some put their hands up and say, “I have tried x,y,z and they still don’t get it” I can’t help but wonder if “x,y,z” is not the prescription. If we treat all students with the same solution for a similar but different problem we are not respecting the unique struggle they are having. They could be struggling with early literacy skills like phonemic awareness and alphabetic principle as some like to beat the drum over, they could be struggling with comprehension, fluency or attention to the text. There really is so much that could be interfering in a students ability to access text. So why do we think the treatment should be linear?

This week I met my new students, many talked about how reading is hard (no reasons why) one told me it is just hard to keep everything in order. Their past records indicated a lot of work on fluency, programs and levels.  I wondered if anyone had just asked this wonderful student what they like to read. So I did and he told me detail after detail about his favourite book (he read it with his mom). The comprehension wasn’t the issue but he was being held to only reading books at his tested level while his comprehension is so much more. He got bored with other books and lost track of where he was. I can’t imagine having to be judged as a reader based solely on a test and the data it provides.

This year I plan to conference more, talk more with my students and find out what they, the person, need to be successful not just what the numbers on a page provide. Numbers are important, foundational skills are important but when they become the only focus we lose sight of who we are there to serve.

“SUCCESS IS NOT RESERVED FOR A FEW BUT IS THE BIRTHRIGHT OF EVERY CHILD NO MATTER WHERE THEY MAY BE IN THE LEARNING PROCESS”

I thank Mary for the reminder. I am grateful for the opportunity to put it to work again this year.

The start of the school year has been flying by. I have really enjoyed getting back in front of the students, talking books and trying out the things I have been working on this summer to improve my practice.

There is a lot of information out there on how to start the year. Should we focus on relationships, set our expectations, go over syllabus (yawn) maybe a mix of all three? This year I made the choice to forgo discussion of a syllabus. I can talk about what we are going to do as we do it, I will post the syllabus and email to parents if they need it but I have come to a place in my mind where a syllabus is nothing more than an outline and outlines belong in emails.

So what did we do to start the year? We introduced ourselves, we talked about our passions and one interesting fact, then we talked books. We went over the library expectations, I surveyed their reading interests and we wrote 6-word memoirs. Next class we read, we talked BHH and we used mentor texts to springboard our writing. I have no need for meaningless games when the work we do is meaningful.

Yesterday I received a note thanking me for making Social Studies fun. Past students asked to come a deliver book talks when I was ready to introduce the concept to my new classes. I have had countless books leave my library to go home with smiling students. We laughed at Penelope the T-Rex and her problem eating classmates and we silently listened as our peers shared their golden lines from 100-word stories and Rambling Autobiographies. The students questioned if we were working because time was flying by.

I forgot how it felt to see students discover they are readers and writers. The moment I asked a student if I could borrow one of their lines because I loved it so much I wanted to put it in my book and when the struggling writer realized that it is not about what they can do today but what they will do with work. When a student lights up because you liked their story and asked them to expand a different part to explore other ideas. When a student just wants to tell you about their day, the books they read over the summer and the ideas they have for a writing a list on how to make a sandwich.

It is the start of the year. The groundwork is being laid.

We are readers and writers.

Now we grow.

Today was the first day of school. I find it funny that the instructional calendar has 180 days and I am also planning on utilizing the book 180 days to lead my instruction this year. This is not one of those “Yay I survived day 1” countdown to summer posts. I am celebrating the day because it was awesome. I was able to meet new students, laugh and visit with old ones and watch as the new to junior high 7th graders navigated their newfound lockers and the hallways as they travelled from class to class.

I got names wrong like crazy and forgot them often, I apologized and they laughed as I tried. I told stories about myself and they told stories about themselves. We discussed books and a love of reading that I hope they will develop. We wrote, together, and shared our words.

I didn’t play games, it was not a spectacle. I taught, like myself. The authentic classroom experience that we will have each day. Laughter and learning all about literacy.

We ventured into 6-word memoirs, “Mr.Gilson, How can we tell a story with 6 words?” I told them my story. “Owner of two dogs always tired.” or “I lift heavy things, too early”  and they responded in kind, ” My bird died Christmas last year” “I have 7 siblings very annoying”, “Dad left my life, not happy”. A shared writing experience was started today. A safe one established together. No bells and whistles, just paper and pencil. Just us.

I am excited as day one comes to a close.

Reflect and React, that is the focus of the year. Teaching like myself is the goal.

Today was great, tomorrow might be better.

ps: Students from last year came to tell me about what they are reading, some asked to book talk to my 7-8 classes to help them find books.

I win.

 

In one week I will be returning to the classroom with my students. To say that I am excited is an understatement. I have spent the summer reading both professionally and recreationally and am excited to talk about books and explore different ways to learn in the classroom.

I think it is important that students see us as lifelong learners. Modelling that established that school is not the end of ones learning journey. I have never understood the resistance to learn that some teachers develop as they progress in their careers. The I already know how best to do…attitude.

When I left University and had my first teaching job I encountered many teachers that I would classify as comfortable. They had taught the same thing for many years, got good enough results and could easily say their students had met the learning objectives. So why change? Why move away from the photocopies from 1960? Why move away from the D.O.L? Why move away from the theme units that have nothing to do with outcomes? Why move away from anything we are comfortable doing especially if it works?

I think those are all good questions.

I was watching QB One on Netflix the other day and the question “Do you want to be comfortable or Do you want to be great?” was asked of one of the lead characters. That line stuck with me. I am not implying that teachers that do the same things every year are not capable of greatness, they are. What I am wondering, however, is if our desire to remain comfortable is keeping us from being greater. Are we modelling for our students that trying new things, going beyond our comfort zone is the path to better or are we settling with good enough?

This year with my students I am going to focus on a few simple points.

Our Rules: Be Kind and Work Hard. Easy measures and easy things to demonstrate we are doing…or not.

The second simple point that I want to focus on this year and apply to our learning is the phrase above. Are we striving for comfortable or striving for greatness? Growing is an uncomfortable process, I mean where did the term growing pains come from? But in the end, the results are improvement.

I don’t want anyone to be confused with my point here and think I am asking you to throw away everything that you are doing just because you have done it before. We don’t need to throw out the baby with the bathwater but sometimes we need to change the water. Kylene Beers discusses the idea of innovation leading to “next practices”. We can never stop because we think we have reached “best practice” we must get uncomfortable and try new things. Our students may be getting a fine education but if we are not asking ourselves if they are getting the best, trying new things to determine what that best is we are letting them down.

When faced with the choice this year I hope my students will strive for Greatness over comfort but to do that I must do the same.

 

 

Background

This summer the Gilson’s decided to take the leap and brought home the most delightfully cute puppy. Miss Molly as we affectionately referred to her changed our lives. The other day as I was trying to record a video for #teachlikeyourself I was out playing with the dogs and took a few moments to reflect and as most of my reflections do school and teaching started to come up in the lessons that Molly has reminded me of. So here are a few lessons that my Lab reminded me of this summer.

1. First impressions are important, but they are not everything.

When we first brought Molly home she was a quiet, timid and delightful puppy. She followed around Stanley (Our German Shepard and her owner) and just wanted to cuddle. We were in love. At approximately 11pm that love was questioned when she would not stop barking and crying. Looking at the classroom we start our first days and 9.9/10 times we report having the “best class”, the “cutest kids” but by the end of that first week or first month both our first impressions on our students and the ones we have had of them have faded. Often those behaviours that lead to problems in class start to show up and, being completely honest, we stop pulling out the big gun lessons. After all, we have impressed with the first few days and we hooked those kids and so now we can take that step back. Just like Molly that first impression was great but the work comes long after the first few days (or hours)

2. Any attention might be good attention.

Molly likes to nip still, she likes to jump and hit you in uncomfortable places, she likes to bark in Stanley’s face until he bites her. She gets in trouble a lot. She will leave for a minute after a scolding but in mere minutes she is back nipping and jumping and barking. No amount of negative attention right now is curbing that behaviour, mostly because she doesn’t know better, she hasn’t been taught. In the classroom, this is a common issue. When we don’t take the time to work on the skills and behaviours that as adults we think are common sense our students will continue to do things we are not fans of because any attention is good attention. Beyond that, some students only know negative attention and so they see it as caring. Do you know your student’s stories? Before going home or to the staff room to complain about how tough they are,  do you find out? I think when we take the time to look at the “why?” (Molly is a puppy, student X has a tough life out of school) we can work our way out of the negative attention seeking behaviour. At least I am hoping that is the case because I can only take a few more jumping Molly attacks.

3. The best examples took time to.

Stanley is the greatest dog in the world. I forget that he pulled me so hard that it put my back out once trying to get a deer. I forget the nights we were up with a water gun spraying him whenever he barked. I forget that he ate 3 lawnmower pull cords and dug holes all over the yard. I forget he chewed the doorframe off at our old place. Stanely is the best dog now so I forget what he was like then. Molly is “then” and it is unfair to hold her to my expectations of him. The degree that this applies to the classroom is ridiculous. How many times do we say at the start of the year “oh if only you were like last years kids…” or “my students last year…” we have these standards and compare end of one year to start of another and it is usually an unattainable standard that sets our new learners up for failure. It is something with Molly I need to remember and something on day one of this year I need to remember as well.

4. Avoid the poop

Playing in the yard with Molly is great, we throw the ball she runs around like a maniac and we do it all again. On occasion, I get lazy and let the poop issues (Two dogs, 1 very large and the other eats a lot) start to pile up…literally. If I just dealt with the dang poop when it happened it would not be such a problem. In the classroom, poop piles up to in the form of classroom management issues, lazy instructional practices (a reliance on TPT before ingenuity)  and allowing programs (AR, of course, comes to mind but there are others) to replace teachers. All of these issues can be avoided if we are on our game and watching out for them. I hate stepping in poop and I would hate for my students to step in educational poop because then they are tracking it around for years to come. Let’s pick up the poop and toss it before it becomes a problem.

Conclusion

I thought this was a fun way to tie in the thoughts I have had as the year gets ready to begin. Molly really has inspired this post, I love her flaws and all. Mostly because well…look at this face.