Increase Access in 2 simple steps.

The start of a thought

As I continue to reflect on the amazing experience that was NCTE and all the fun that was had learning and meeting my friends, mentors and idols in the literacy world a common theme stuck out to me in the sessions I attended. That being the need for students to be able to access text.

Now I am not talking just about the idea that they need to be able to connect to text be it as a mirror or window or door as is often mention I am talking about the limiting factor that some text can be for our striving or as Nancy Akhavan referred as extending readers. 

In one of my favourite session of the week, Kylene Beers talked about the soft bigotry of low expectations. The fact that when our thinking of a student is limited to what they can’t do we give up on teaching them skills beyond the basics, thinking, “If they can’t do this they surely can’t do that” This limiting of access to critical thinking strategies not only stunts the future potential of our students it also dishonours them. My dear friend and mentor in the joy of literacy Mary Howard discussed once on Twitter the fact that it is indeed our student’s birthright to receive the education and support they are in need of saying, 

“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”

So as I listened to such amazing voices as Kylene Beers, Mary Howard, Bob Probst, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Kate Roberts and so many more I started to ponder on what simple things we can do as teachers to close the gap, to help our students extend past where they are. To grant them access to the conversations that so often, sadly, are left open only for those already at the top.

Think Aloud

I feel like the answer, at least to start, comes in 2 simple steps. I have started looking at the work of Dr. Molly Ness regarding Think Alouds. I used them a lot in elementary school to guide students and model thinking as we approached a text. As I moved up in school I started to abandon the process mostly because I felt silly (a great reason to end good practice). When we look at the think aloud we need to remember that students that do not yet have the tools to internally do the thinking need the model, they need the steps but that little assist can yield huge gains. Yesterday I was reading The North Star by Peter Reynolds to my grade 7 class. As we read through the story I paused to discuss my thinking. We practice Notice and Note Signposts as a way to discuss our stories in class. This is a skill that at times is difficult for our extending learners, so we do it as a class. We point out the reoccurring elements the “Again and Again” and wonder about what they mean. We ponder on the words of the wiser, out loud, together. They start to notice without me, I step back and let them lead. It isn’t about levels when we think together and discuss our thoughts. It is about all being a part of the conversation, about my students witnessing that I too struggle with thinking it through at times.

Read Aloud

  I love to read aloud, mostly because I love to see the Aha moments my students have when they realize something important has occurred, the whispered lean to their shoulder partners or table groups as they predict, the writing of beautiful lines that stick out. Reading aloud to my students opens up a text in a different way. Students get a chance to focus on skills while I get the joy of focusing on words, on emphasizing just the right parts and leaving them hanging as a close the book at the “best part”. My favourite part though of a read aloud is the chance to do strategy work together, to move from the text into the talk. The moments before during and after where the class is discussing a shared experience and the different perspectives. Striving and Extending students often times gain access to an otherwise inaccessible experience when the reading is removed and the thinking can be amplified. I sat reading The North Star on Thursday and at moments I would just ask a simple question and wait for the discussions to roll in. I was not wondering about the sequence of events or the first animal the child encounters. It was not about right answers it was about many answers, many thoughts and many discussions. Read Aloud gives the teacher a chance to invite so many more to the table, to see what our students really can do not just what an assessment says they can. It is also just plain fun. 

Conclusion

Two simple steps. They require work but they are not complicated. They are not something that removes the teacher from the equation, they put us smack dab in the middle surrounded by curious, inquisitive learners developing the skills for themselves. You are not going to find some great read aloud or think aloud on Teachers Pay Teachers. You are not going to notice its star rating. Hopefully, you won’t be attaching some assignment that does the opposite of the beautiful intent of a read aloud. Your students will never fondly look back on the workbooks or quiz of the week but they will remember reading Scar Island or Restart or The Outsiders or Refugee or Freak the Mighty or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas or any other title you share with them. If you need an assessment just look around the room at the kids eager to think with you, eager to discover with you and eager to hear what is coming next.

Just Read, Just Think it is that simple. These simple things open up the door for all learners. Why would we limit students to the basics when the world requires so much more? Read Aloud and Think Aloud provide the opportunities for all students to succeed and grow. 

Large or Small a book should change you

My favorite educational writers Kylene Beers and Robert Probst have taught me many things. Most recently in the book Disrupting Thinking they put out the idea that the things we read should have some kind of impact on us as readers. Either through learning something new or building up an established idea or maybe even leading to a change in us.

The book as many of their other texts has had a profound impact on me as a teacher but more so as a reader. In the last few weeks (and few days now that summer is here) I have had numerous reading experiences that have lead to a change in me and the way I look at the world.

First The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Growing up in smaller towns in Canada and now living in a very small town the subject matter of police misconduct and racial discrimination is not one that resonated with me personally. Like everyone I am upset by news stories that report this ever growing issue but as it was not something I could “relate” to it was not something that occupied my thinking. Reading this book  and being introduced to these outstanding characters somehow made something that I only would ever see on the news more real. Imagine that, a young adult fiction novel became so much more real and powerful in showing me the impact of racism and police misconduct in American cities than the news stories. My second profound change book has been A List of Cages by Robin Roe. Again a story that I have not experienced anything that the characters in this story go through but after reading it I am changed. Page after page of heartache followed by hope. One characters journey to just be a great guy and another characters goal being to survive. The impact of horrific abuse is explored in this story in a way that shook me to my core. The idea that we never know what people are truly dealing with and even when we do helping them is not as easy as hollywood makes it seem. It sometimes is cliche to say but this book broke me down at points but built me up in others changed, hopefully more empathetic and focused on the struggles others may be silently suffering rather than my trivial struggles in comparison. After reading such a hard book at times I needed something up lifting. I finished Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder this afternoon while tanning by the pool (burning really). This book was a wonderful story that while I think not intentional could be great as an example to teachers in that we can’t teach all students the same. In reality themes around fear of change, friendship and family all  loop over and over. Now how did it change me? One simple lesson, we are not always ready for change but if we wait to long we might do more harm than good, take a step and enjoy the adventure.

In 7 week I start a new adventure and I am excited. Hopefully I can be like Kylene and Bob, or Rae and Cory or Charlie and Mark or my Mom and Dad. Teachers that have all helped to change me, who I am as a teacher and who I am as a person. I hope to be that teacher for my students to come and hope I have been that teacher for my students past.

Now time to read a few more books!

We use Reading Journals…so should you

 

Choice

There is a lot of discussion in the teaching world that centres around choice. Students having the choice in how to represent their ideas and what types of books they read is pivotal in student engagement. At the start of the year I decided that I was going to use reading journals as a way to get my students to reflect on the reading they were doing. I went away from the idea of choice and set up the way I wanted them to reflect and well the results were not great. Summaries a plenty but the depth and individuality of the responses were lost.

Reading Journals

Reading Journals are known in different classes as different thing. Double entry diaries, thought logs, reflection books, reading response logs. Some use them as page counters with a question and answer approach, others in book clubs as a way to collect “discussion points”. In my classroom it doubles as their strategy tool box, Any skills that we are practicing are written in the journal then, in class read aloud or their person reading books, they are given a chance to write down their thoughts. Like I mentioned earlier this started out as far more structured and less accessible to some of my readers. The journals themselves remained but the way we used them had to change.

The Return to Choice

Strategies a page turn away that each student had a different level of comfort using. Many going unused or used only when it was “Double Entry Diary Day”, or “Signposts Day” or “Visualization Day” I imagine you see the pattern. Then one day a student said “Can I just do BHH (another strategy) all the time I like it most?” followed by a table mate saying, “Yeah I would rather do Questions and Answers” or “I like highlighting” and finally “I really liked those Quadrants of Thought”. I decided that we would not have anymore set “this is the strategy you use” after the initial teachings. Every student sees a text in a different way and should have different ways to show that. So today I had them go through and find their favourite entries so far. It was really fun to see all the different ways they respond.

Assessing (How do we do it?)

This was and is my main struggle. I am moving towards a weekly checkin to go along with conferencing for next year. They can explain one of the mandatory 5 responses in the week. They will log the book and pages read and then, however they want to, show their thinking/responses/reflections. The best part lately has been the conversations, the Aha moments caught in the moment that are only aided by students tracking their understandings. Noting them and then reflecting on why they are impactful to them.

Next Steps

Next year I plan to have journals take a larger daily role in our reading, the skill level of the reader is not the measuring stick it is the thought they put in. One of my students struggles on the writing down of things, he likes minimal work but is a wizard at finding signposts and loves to talk about them. His minimal notes remind him of what he wants to talk about. For me the point of reading a great book is talking about it with others, journals help my students remember what it is they want to talk about. It is not always an easy road but it is most certainly a fun one. Take a look at some of their work.

One Thousand Reasons to read thought provoking literature.

I preface this post with the statement, “It is important to read for fun and enjoyment” I am a strong believer in this and I want my students to have time every day to read books they like and want to read. Sometimes these books are fun: Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Captain Underpants, Dork Diaries, I survived. The list goes on and on. Sometimes though books that make us think, that make us consider other points of view are not only important they are necessary.

I don’t have 1000 reason to read thought provoking literature but I do have a few.

  1. Exposing ourselves to experiences outside what we know. I just finished reading one of the most interesting books I have read in a long time. One Thousand Hills is a recounting of the time leading up to the Rwandan genocide and it has me completely engrossed. The final chapter and seeming epilogue had me so gripped I lost track of time. I had some background knowledge of the Rwandan Genocide but the scope of it’s enormity I had no idea. The parallels that could be drawn today to other crisis around the world are simply chilling. I am currently reading A Long Walk to Water with my class and it lightly discusses the crisis in Sudan. This text is another example of how we can use stories to explore topics like refugees and genocide in a way that is both informative and engaging. I hope to use One Thousand Hills with my class. Edited a bit but as close to the material as possible.
  2. Picture Books serve a purpose far beyond “looking at nice pictures”. Peter Reynolds writes and illustrates wonderful stories about inclusion, creativity and kindness. Tango makes Three by Justin Richardson explores family beyond the “traditional sense”. My wonderful wife found me the most wonderfully touching story titled “Out“. The story of a refugee family leaving a war torn area and adjusting to their new lives. The ending is a tear jerker but the story helps the reader to be in the characters shoes. My classroom has no refugees but we do have kids that deal with tough things in their lives they can relate to this character in a different situation with that connection.
  3. Critical Thinking is a life skill we will use forever. If we are never challenged in our thinking, if we are only exposed to literature that agrees with our mindset we will not grow. A book that discusses issues of race, poverty and religion that are contrary to our thoughts does not necessarily change our thoughts but it hopefully will make us look at them further. Questioning and thinking about our own positions should lead us to new conclusion. We will either strengthen our positions with evidence or we will realize there is perhaps a better position to take. Reading can bring us to this in a way that not many things can. Just the other day my Trump supporting students (they are in grade 6 so cut them some slack) read an article about the restrictions Trump placed on immigrants coming from primarily Muslim nations. The article did not say it was wrong just simply discussed the impact on those seeking asylum or those coming to see family or even legal residents returning home from vacation. After reading, their stance was challenged that his decisions are all “GREAT” and they wanted to learn more about why he did what he did. It will lead to further conversations.

Thought provoking articles, picture books and novels, all literature, helps us to develop more as individuals. Reading a book like Diary of a Wimpy kid is great. My students love them, I have not read them so I can’t say they are not thought provoking, but I feel safe in saying stories like it serve a different purpose than books like One Thousand Hills, Child Soldiers, Tango Makes Three or Freak the Mighty. Reading serves many purposes causing us to think is just one of the best ones. Until next time.