Reflections on Technology and Literacy

Notes from the Classroom


As I think about literacy in our classrooms and what I have observed this year, a few things stand out.

A big one: We must teach our children keyboarding skills.

Though we have a program that students can use at any time, we must be intentional about regular practice if our students are going to become proficient typists. This is important not only because they are now assessed as writers by the state through typed text, but also because we are living in an increasingly digital world. Moreover, when students struggle to type, they are not able to fully express their thinking and often give up before they have written all that they have to say.

The Benefits of Google Docs and Classroom

When students have the ability to use Google Docs with ease, multiple things happen.

  • They are able to receive feedback from their teachers easily and respond to it accordingly.
  • Collaboration with peers is instant.
  • They have a digital portfolio of their writing that will follow them year to year.

Teachers can use Google Classroom for assignments, which makes assigning and collecting student work both organized and incredibly easy. (I so wish I had known about this amazing tool years ago!) At the end of the year, teachers can “return” all assignments to their students, which removes the files from the teacher’s Google Drive. The original assignment stays with the teacher, so it can be used in the future.

Capturing Student Voice with Digital Portfolios

Our district has been working for the past few years on using portfolios as part of telling the story of student learning. We have teachers who have been using just binders, others using just digital tools, and still others a combination of both.

The platform that we have chosen for digital portfolios is Seesaw, and I couldn’t be happier with what this offers students. Within Seesaw, students can upload a piece of digital writing; take a picture of a piece published with paper and pencil; or even use Shadow Puppet to capture multiple pages of published writing (great for our lower elementary students).

The best part is this: They can record themselves reading and reflecting on their writing. Adding a student’s actual voice to a piece of writing is incredibly powerful for both parents and teachers. Suddenly, you can hear inflection and enthusiasm that doesn’t necessarily come through otherwise. When students are asked to reflect, they will often say more than they would if they were writing.

Portfolios Help with Reading Fluency, Too

Similarly, we have used the record function for reading fluency. I have had students ask if they can practice before uploading a recording–a teacher’s dream. Parents hear fluency checks throughout the year, and thus conversations at conferences are easier.

We also use Seesaw for student reflection at the end of texts. These can take any form the student wishes, and often students will take a picture of their books and simply talk about their thinking.

In tandem with Seesaw, we used Screencastify with 5th graders, who were able to create book trailers using Google Slides and then upload the files to Seesaw. (We used this to publish personal narratives with pictures as well!)

Where We Go from Here

We are already busy planning for next year: keyboarding, blogging, Google applications, and more. There are so many possibilities.

But at the heart of this are our students. Our driving question will always be: “How we can help students move forward and be the best readers and writers that they can be?” The answer is complex but we will keep striving to put all of the pieces in place. Technology + good instruction is a nice place to start.

beth Beth Rogers (@bethann1468) has taught in the elementary setting for the past 11 years. During this time, she earned her Master’s in Educational Technology from Michigan State University. This year, she is in a new position: Instructional Technologist K-12. This gives her the unique opportunity to work with teachers and students, district wide, to incorporate technology into their teaching and learning, in ways that engage, enhance, and extend the learning. She has already already begun to work with multiple classrooms to engage students in blogging, and to help teachers understand the power of this platform. At home, she lives with her husband, sons, and an anxiety-ridden German Shepherd who requires inordinate amounts of time and attention.

4 Ways Education Should Look More Like Google

Notes from the Classroom

Technology has certainly exploded between the time I started preparing to become a teacher and now, but lately I’ve been thinking about Google–and the ways that education can, and should, mirror the company’s ubiquitous technology.

We don’t need to focus on memorization.

We have to confront our fascination with facts and memorization: Why bother if you can Google it? In the age of information overload, we’re finding that it’s far more important to teach our students how to analyze multiple sources, determine credibility, and read around a topic to gain a deeper understanding of it.

That’s true for vocabulary, too. Vocabulary in English classes used to consist mostly of looking up definitions in dusty dictionaries and, if your teacher was really on top of things, using the word in a few different sentences or drawing a picture of it. Now, the standards call for students to flexibly use a variety of strategies to determine meaning when they encounter unfamiliar vocabulary; the last strategy involves looking it up in reference materials (ahem, Googling it). 

Let’s prepare our students to collaborate.

There is inherent value in teaching the collaborative skills that will prepare our students for success beyond their high school walls. We design projects and lessons so that students will bounce ideas back and forth, develop questions, and seek answers together.

In many ways, this mirrors the Google Drive platform. On Google Drive, you don’t just create documents inside your own software, then print or attach to share. Instead, you have control over how and with whom you share your folders as you’re working. Sure, you can still choose to keep something private and then share it only once you’re ready for the work to get into others’ hands. But now we have the opportunity to collaborate on our work as we’re drafting–in real time–and it’s changing the face of how we work.

It’s been less than a year since I fully switched over to Google as my primary mode of doc creation, but I already have a hard time imagining drafting something without hitting that little comment button to get feedback from my colleagues.

Tech companies update their software. We should update our practices.

We all know that feeling when our favorite technology company updates something. It’s almost like we go through Kubler-Ross’ seven stages of grief each time our tech changes. But the thing is, we do reach acceptance and adapt to the changes–and we do it quickly. 

Part of this has to do with semantics. Google has been telling its users about some upcoming changes to its Drive services and apps. But they aren’t just adapting, changing, or revising: they’re upgrading.

I hear teachers say all the time that “X worked for me when I was in school…” If I applied that logic to my tech life, I’d have to accept being completely okay with only a house phone and a dial-up internet connection. Isn’t it only fair to our students that we upgrade our teaching like we upgrade our technology?

Employees in the tech industry feel valued. Shouldn’t teachers?

I’ve never been to Google’s headquarters myself, and I’m sure there’s more than meets the eye, but still: the company ranks at the top of employee satisfaction surveys year after year. In an interview with Fast Company, Karen May, Google’s VP of people development, explains that the company believes that focusing on their employees’ health and happiness is what ultimately determines their success.

I think we are all realists and know that our funding sources are vastly different from Google’s, so I don’t think too many teachers expect field trips to exotic locales. But in our current climate, I think we’d do well to take a step back and think about how we can support the health and happiness of our teachers, our administrators, and ultimately, our students.

Megan Kortlandt (@megankortlandt) is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches at Durant High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students through the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Every time Megan goes grocery shopping, her cart makes her appear to be exceptionally healthy, but don’t be fooled. The healthy stuff is all for her pet rabbit, Hans.

Why Students Benefit When You Take Professional Risks

Notes from the Classroom

There’s a lot of groupthink in education.

It’s an obvious side effect of our nature as teachers.  We’re team builders and supporters, nurturers and cooperators.

Those are all wonderful traits, but they also make us reluctant to press into new or unknown territory. We even give each other the stink eye when somebody in our department goes rogue on a writing assignment.

It’s like ambition and risk-taking are betrayals of some unwritten teacherly pact.

But risk-taking is important for our students.

The last few years, I’ve learned that not only does a little boundary pushing lead to better outcomes for students–it also helps the professionals coming up behind you to trust their instincts.

My first venture into unknown territory came a few years ago when I started to explore graphic novels for my lowest readers. It felt strange to give these pleasure readings to kids, in a medium that few other people (at least in my building or immediate professional group) were engaging with.

I kept second guessing myself. People would nod their heads when I explained my thinking, but nobody else jumped on board immediately, aside from the comfort-zone books that had already been accepted into the canon of “okay” English texts (think Maus and…well, that’s about it…).  

I remember thinking constantly that at some point–if I kept on with this “weird” idea I was exploring–that someone was going to step out from behind a tree in this woods I’d wandered into, and tell me to get back on the path and stop taking risks that could impact students.  Here’s what actually happened.

Nobody ever told me to quit exploring.  

In fact, special education teachers in my building were incredibly supportive and started helping to spread the word. I also discovered quite quickly that I wasn’t the only one who was using graphic novels for high-interest pleasure reading. Several colleagues had multiple titles in their classroom libraries.  

While I was utilizing them in different ways, it became evident quite quickly that my idea wasn’t as “out there” as I’d originally thought. Then something else became evident.

The Risky experiment started to work.

It was the great graphic novel experiment. And it worked.

I found titles that really resonated with kids–and I even blogged about the titles that were big hits.

What’s more, my school librarian (whom you might know from this very blog!) turned out to be way ahead of me in terms of graphic novels, and helped build up our media center’s collection while I worked on my classroom one!

Over time, students I’d had in previous years started returning to my room, looking for new titles–which also helped other teachers find titles that these struggling-but-eager readers would latch onto.

Then this year, when I attended NCTE’s big annual conference, I was elated to see multiple sessions explaining the effectiveness of graphic novels. The sessions even looked at the novels’ complexities–which actually rival many traditional classroom texts.

The topic blew up on Twitter for the next couple days, and suddenly there was a shift.

My graphic novel experiment was getting validation.

I wasn’t in the woods anymore. What I thought was a (pun intended) novel idea a few years ago, turned out to be the same idea lots and lots of teachers were having. It just took us a while to spot each other.

I probably would’ve listened to those two great presentations at the conference and started using graphic novels anyway. But I think about all the students I’ve had, students who never saw themselves as readers until the right graphic novels were in their hands.

And I’m glad that I took a professional risk, instead of waiting for someone else to tell me what good ideas the group had pre-approved of.

Michael ZieglerMichael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

Emergent Literacy is Play

Notes from the Classroom


Before my daughter’s music class starts, the moms that attend get a chance to chat while we wait for the previous class to end. Last week, the conversation turned toward preschool and what we’ve all decided. One mom said that she wasn’t going to pay for three-year-old preschool because “all they do is play.”

I’ve thought about this notion all week and have decided that play is not such a bad thing.  

When Literacy Begins

In a master’s thesis, Kelly Day says, “Emergent literacy is the natural occurring reading and writing behaviors of children beginning at birth, up until they learn to read and write conventionally.” 

Some examples of emergent literacy at my house–which you can see in the image above–include my daughter’s:

  • “doing work” and using a pencil to write jagged zig zags on paper and cards
  • pointing to distinct scribbles she has written and saying one word for each scribble
  • noticing word bubbles in the “Elephant and Piggie” books and asking who is talking
  • taking a familiar book and turning the pages while “reading” it to her mom and dad
  • looking at a red candy wrapper with white writing and knowing that it says “Kit-Kat”
  • hanging up a “missing cat” poster and asking me to add numbers for the phone number

Writing Through Play

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning.” – Fred Rogers

Much of the writing my daughter creates is based in play. She is a doctor taking notes on her clipboard like Doc McStuffins. She is Mom doing work on the computer and typing words. She is a waitress taking your order in her special black notepad. She is a scientist studying bugs, and making observations in her notebook.

Lots of the games that she and my husband play deal with rhythm and rhyming words. In one game, he reads a familiar book that rhymes and leaves off the last word/rhyme, and she fills it in. Sometimes she thinks that rhyming is when words have the same beginning sounds. One of her favorite phrases right now is: “Hey, that rhymes!” Instead of correcting her, we usually run with it and try to think of more words that have that same sound.

Bring Back the Fun

When I see the joyful play that my daughter partakes in daily, I can’t help but think about how my classroom should awaken students’ playfulness in writing and reading. Where are the areas in my literacy instruction that suffer drabness? How might I capitalize on all I’ve learned about gaming and the Makerspace culture from the MACUL conference to evoke joyful play in my students? Here are some ideas:

  • Poetry has always been a source of joy and so I think I will revisit poem-a-day annotations and perhaps incorporate some interesting technology to further the conversation.
  • Try to use popular song lyrics, rap and rhythm, or rhyming poems more in mini-lessons.
  • I recently attended the 4T Virtual Conference and learned about Genius Hour: giving students 20 percent of class time to work on a project of their own choosing and direction. I’m interested in making Genius Hour happen in my classroom.
  • I want to have a game area (with games like Scrabble, Up Words, Boggle, Balderdash, Madlibs, Crosswords) that students can use at set times or when they are feeling unmotivated.
  • I’m still thinking about how to create a Makerspace in my classroom–what it would have, when kids would use it, how would I infuse writing without making it drain the fun.

Mostly, I want to do more than just add an activity to my daily routine. I want to make play a real focus in my classroom, because a playful mind is a thoughtful mind.

In sending my daughter to preschool next fall, I’m most excited to see how she will negotiate all this playing, this conversation, this pre-literacy–with other kids her age. How they will all create a new, collective knowledge of the world around them and change or grow their sense of what it means to be–all because of play!

Caroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for twelve years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent literacy consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She has a BA in English from Michigan State University and a Masters in the Art of Teaching Reading from Oakland University. She lives in Berkley, Michigan with her husband and their three year old daughter.

Provocative Nonfiction about the Birth of Our Nation

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

I used to think that nonfiction was not my thing. But I’m a librarian, so I have to make it my thing in order to best serve my students and staff. Still, I often felt like I was twisting my own arm while reading nonfiction.

But then, as I often tell reluctant readers, after a few missteps with the wrong books at the wrong times, I started to find exciting, narrative nonfiction that was as captivating and readable as my favorite fiction pieces.

I was reading unbelievable stories about mutinies, revolutions, sports stars, and even corpses, and they were true! Not only did I have a great tale to tempt my students with, but every event actually happened.

People are enchanted by dynamic, true stories even more so than by fiction because they engage our child-like curiosity about the many events and topics that have previously eluded us. Yes, we have been in school (or out of school) for years, but we haven’t yet learned it all. I recently finished reading In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives, by Kenneth C. Davis (a 2017 YALSA Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction finalist) and found myself alight with all that I had learned and wanted to share with others.

The Story

In the Shadow of Liberty tells the true stories of five African-Americans who were enslaved by four of the country’s founding fathers. We learn about Billy Lee, Washington’s right-hand man on and off the battlefield; and Ona Judge, Washington’s house maid who escaped and was fervently hunted by both George and Martha Washington.

We hear about Paul Jennings, who grew up playing with Dolly Madison’s oldest son, though Jennings was already enslaved to the family. And we learn of Isaac Granger, who was enslaved to Thomas Jefferson after Jefferson wrote a law ending slave trading to America.

Finally, we read about Alfred Jackson. Jackson lived his entire life at Andrew Jackson’s “Hermitage,” watching as Andrew ordered enslaved workers to be whipped savagely–but then doled out vast sums to provide defense lawyers for enslaved men on trial for involvement in a slave rebellion.

Kenneth C. Davis writes about the full scope of the labor that these five people were expected to perform. He describes the way that they were treated, and most especially, the roles that they played in the major accomplishments of their owners.

Why It’s Worth Reading

We spend a great deal of time learning about the Founding Fathers and the way that they helped develop the country and institute democracy. But like all famous figures, these men did not work alone.

There were many people, including hundreds of enslaved people, who fought in the wars, managed the meetings, and built famous structures, like the White House. Billy Lee went everywhere with George Washington, fought alongside him, and carried his most precious items and documents. He is one of the most famous enslaved people in U.S. history, yet no one knows when he died or where he is buried. He never even knew his own birthday.

The thing that stands out to me most about this book is a great historical paradox. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson were all deeply involved in battles related to rights and liberties, but each of them failed to consider, at least initially, that enslaving others was a direct contradiction to their fights for freedom.

This book will make you think about American history in a completely new way. It’s a fabulous text to work into a history or sociology class, and I can see it as an engaging title for students who are interested in current civil rights issues. In the Shadow of Liberty could turn anyone into a nonfiction convert.

Book Details:
Title: In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives
Author: Kenneth C. Davis
Reading Level: AR = 8.2
ISBN: 9781627793117
Publisher: Henry Holt & Company
Publication Date: September 20, 2016
Format: Hardcover
Awards/Accolades: 2017 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults finalist and at least 3 starred reviews

Bethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.

Filling in Context Gaps

Notes from the Classroom

The other day, my eight year old was brimming with questions about the Revolutionary War. As I went through each, I found myself using vocabulary that he needed me to explain, like alliance–after which he quickly said, “Oh, I get it! My buddy is my alliance on the playground.”

My son is lucky that I majored in history in college. Yet, as teachers, we need to recognize that many of our kids do not have these experiences when they’re young. This opportunity gap explains why some students arrive to high school prepared to grapple with text complexity, while others continually struggle.

The Common Core State Standards state that ninth graders must be able to “[c]ite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.1). This ability to infer depends greatly on the student’s prior knowledge.

So how do we play ten years of catch-up in four years of high school?

Teach Kids to be Resourceful

As an academic interventionist, I’ve learned that many students who struggle to understand the course content are also struggling to read the textbook.

Many students simply read the text without paying any mind to the accompanying images, graphs, charts, and summary boxes. In Text and Lessons for Content Area Reading, by Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and Nancy Steineke, the authors explain that reading is easier when “the text makes ample use of pictures, charts, and other visual and text features that support and add meaning.”

When I work with underperforming students, I first show them how to use these features. I show them how to preview the text, by modeling an image walk, observing headings and bolded words, and reading the end-of-the-chapter summary before actually beginning the reading. This helps build context for students who may be unfamiliar with the content.

Create a Collaborative Culture

Context in any subject area often begins informally through conversation. Creating a classroom based on discussion, then, effectively engages struggling learners by giving them an entry point. When I taught English 9, I incorporated frequent, low-stakes discussion opportunities. When students discuss content, they make their thinking visible, and teachers see what gaps need to be filled.

Early on in the school year, I introduced my students to the “think-pair-share” protocol. My students could anticipate and prepare to verbally discuss ideas, and soon this routine was normalized.

Some teachers may feel hesitant to put an underperforming reader on the spot, but there are ways to scaffold discussion:

  • I often had students spend a few moments writing down their ideas on paper before sharing with a partner.
  • I arranged my room in either pairs or quads, so that turning and talking was natural.
  • My students also needed processing time, in which they could ask questions and grapple with the content.

Authentic context is built upon multiple sources–not merely upon the teacher quickly rattling through facts. Having this time to discuss with peers and think aloud was important for resistant readers.

Model Strategic Reading

This year, I have worked closely with U.S. History students to engage with the content. Many of them tell me things like, “I can read this, but I don’t get it” or “I just can’t pay attention.”

I began to notice a difference in how my students were performing on tests when I taught them how to text code. This strategy, also from Daniels and Steineke, instructs students to label details of the text with symbols, engaging in an abbreviated reader response. Daniels and Steineke offer a general list of text codes that students can use to monitor comprehension, and I adapted this strategy to text code for content-specific details.

I worked with U.S. History students studying America’s entry into the first World War, for instance, and helped them develop the text codes (N and DW) shown here:

chart
As students went through the text, they used these codes, and categorized the actions leading up to the U.S. entry into WWI.

Text coding provides students with a framework, which is especially important for those who lack prior knowledge. It also serves as a scaffold to show students which details matter, helping them to pay better attention to the text and prepare them to annotate independently.

Moving Forward

Teachers can’t turn back time. But they can establish routines and norms that create growth for underperforming readers.

There is not a one-size-fits-all solution for students who lack contextual knowledge. Still, by teaching students to read strategically and collaboratively with others, we include–rather than exclude–developing readers in the secondary classroom.

lauren nizolLauren Nizol (@CoachNizol) is an MTSS Student Support Coach and Interventionist at Novi High School. She has eleven years of classroom experience, teaching English, IB Theory of Knowledge and English Lab. Lauren completed her undergraduate degree in History, English and Secondary Education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and her Masters in English Education from Eastern Michigan University. She is a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant with the Eastern Michigan Writing Project and an advocate for underperforming students and literacy interventions.

Growing Reading Practice

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_140887543

I became an English teacher because I loved to read. My days would be filled studying the works of Hemingway and Fitzgerald–determining the link between a text’s historical setting and its plot, studying symbolism. I was so excited.

But with the adoption of the Common Core State Standards and my training in reading and writing workshops, I realized something. With the CCSS, I was not a teacher of literature; I was a teacher of skills to read literature. I’d like to share two experiences that helped me develop this realization.

More than Summaries

In my first experience, I was several days into an introductory unit on personal narratives. My teaching partner and I chose a Nick Adams story as the text of study. After three days reading the story together as a class (insert groan here), students wrote summaries of the stories.

But these summaries restated words I had used in class to explain key scenes. They did not reference the actual text, and they had no feeling. Each summary was dry in word choice, and the structure was repeated over and over again, across the 120 students who wrote it. It was clear that kids did not engage in the text, nor did I ask them to.

I realized that kids should and can do more with a text than just name its main idea. Second, a better teaching move would have been to model for kids how to read this text to find a main idea.  

Observing a Writer’s Craft

The next experience involved a literacy consultant who brought some texts that were so interesting in content and structure, that I had to find a place to use them in my classroom. The consultant shared these texts as mentor texts for middle school informational reading. The texts were news articles and introductions to books, on The New York Times.

As a teacher who has always taught without a textbook, these texts opened my mind to authentic genres and dynamic texts that were rigorous for my grade level. They were also the complete opposite of the dry, formulaic informational essays that I had been reading.

Now I knew that I had texts that were worth reading beyond the main ideas. They had a beauty of language and unique structures that related to the development of their main ideas. I needed to model for kids, then, how to read these texts–to appreciate the word choices, craft decisions, and structures.

Close Reading

I currently work with teachers, and help them choose texts with the rigor expected in the CCSS. These are real-life texts that students can later use as mentor texts for writing.

51AsrMeYOxL._SX402_BO1,204,203,200_I teach close reading strategies for fiction and informational reading. According to Fisher and Frey, “Close reading is an instructional routine in which students are guided in their understanding of complex texts” (2015, p. 1). As an instructional coordinator, I love that Fisher and Frey’s text is offered for grades K-5 and 6-12. Key ideas from the 6-12 text that I have used in classrooms:

  • 1st read: What does the text say? By underlining key ideas and details, develop an understanding of the central idea of the text.
  • 2nd read: How does the text work? By taking note of vocabulary, craft, and structure, understand why an author uses these moves to enhance the main idea.
  • 3rd read: What does the text mean? Consider the bias and purpose of the writing to determine how a reader receives this text.
  • 4th read: What does the text inspire you to do? Evaluate the action you will take, having read this text, such as writing or debating.

Reading can be relevant and exciting for students. At the same time, I can teach reading skills, like noticing an author’s craft, and the impact these things have on my reading experience.

A Farewell to Arms may still be my favorite book of all time, and I may read it everyday before I go to bed. But my job as a teacher of English is to help kids learn how to access meaning from any text that they may encounter in their lives.

pic 2Amy Gurney (@agurney_amy) is an ELA and Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator for Walled Lake Schools. She has a Master’s degree from Michigan State University in Educational Administration and is currently pursuing an Education Specialist in Educational Leadership at Oakland University. She is a current Galileo Leader. She worked on the MAISA units of study and has studied reading and writing workshop practice and conducted action research.

Selling Reading to Kids Who Hate It

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_307383305Strong words, right? Whenever I see the words hate and reading this close together, my skin crawls.

And yet, I have known many students who have resisted reading with a vengeance. But instead of throwing my hands up, I learned how to strategically market books to students who fought the process.

Give Books Street Cred

“Wait-wait. He read this? He read a book?”

This was a student’s response when I book-talked Boy 21, by Matthew Quick, to him. I ended my spiel saying how much his friend and fellow “non-reader” liked it.

The student was shocked that a.) his friend had read a book and b.) he had actually liked it. That conversation did more for the student than my simply telling him that Boy 21 was one of my favorite books from that summer. Of course I love books. I’m the English teacher. But a resistant reader, reading the book while he was home sick–instead of watching Netflix?

Books need street cred.

Talk a Lot About Books

More than ever, resistant readers need exposure to new books. They also need repeated invitations to read.

When I taught seniors, I made it my point to talk about a new book every day for the first unit. I wanted kids to see my genuine interest, engagement, and happiness that a book gave me. Even though some kids’ eyes glazed over, others were quietly taking note of my recommendations.

In fact, in his final reading reflection, one student described how my daily book talks unexpectedly piqued his interest. This student had struggled to find a book to hold his interest. Add this to frequent absences, and it was easy to view him as a disengaged student.

But by the middle of the semester, he ended up selecting Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried to read. Talking freely about a wide range of books opened a door for membership into the reading community–for a student who did not see himself as a reader.

Let Them Hear Other Resistant Voices

Penny Kittle's interviews of high school students. Click to view on YouTube.

Penny Kittle’s interviews of high school students. Click to view the interviews on YouTube.

Every semester, I introduced independent reading to my classes using Penny Kittle’s interviews of resistant readers. Kittle’s interviews are raw, and students freely share their disdain for books.

At one point, a boy confesses to all the fake reading he had done over his schooling. Kittle follows it with simple empathy: “Has reading always been hard for you?”

I always loved watching kids react to this clip. First, it was interesting to watch many nod their heads when the student began talking about the fake reading he had done. But most of all, I noticed how freeing it was for students to watch another be vulnerable about his reading baggage. I would watch relief cross their faces as they realized that they are not alone in their vulnerability.

If I say reading is hard for me, kids don’t buy it. But if they hear others say so, it has a deep resonance. And then when they hear that same voice share a book they love: it’s magic.

Let Them Quit

The worst thing teachers can do for a resistant reader is force them to read a book they hate. The main reason kids tell me that they don’t read: “’cause it’s boring.” What they really mean is that they don’t like to read boring books.

When students quit, it is key to have another book waiting in the wings. Recently, I book-talked Twisted to a student who admitted he doesn’t read alongside his classmates at the daily read. One of my big selling points was that he could quit if he disliked it. We set a deal: if he read three chapters and disliked it, he could come back for another book. When he left, he assured me that he’d give it a try.

Kids who struggle to read often need to experience a book that makes them feel successful. Repeated invitations to read, exposure to a wide variety of books, and reading autonomy are empowering ways to position non-readers as readers.

lauren nizolLauren Nizol (@CoachNizol) is an MTSS Student Support Coach and Interventionist at Novi High School. She has eleven years of classroom experience, teaching English, IB Theory of Knowledge and English Lab. Lauren completed her undergraduate degree in History, English and Secondary Education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and her Masters in English Education from Eastern Michigan University. She is a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant with the Eastern Michigan Writing Project and an advocate for underperforming students and literacy interventions.

Mnany, Mnany Mnemonics

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_389332456Our department read the wonderful The Skin That We Speakby Lisa Delpit, a couple years back, and while every chapter of that book could be its own focal point for an entire department overhaul at most high schools, we committed ourselves to addressing the challenges of code switching for students in their writing. It turns out kids are pretty much naturals at code switching (switching between various dialects or other linguistic patterns from one context to another). But they have to know a code and its corresponding context before they can “switch” into it.

Maybe that’s why it was such an epiphany the other day when two of my “besties” (code switch!) at work had a rather funny exchange regarding a co-curricular writing assignment. In the midst of explaining the organizational structure of their work, my friend was suddenly bombarded by the students shouting: “Dorito of Tension! Dorito of Tension!” All to her understandable confusion, of course.

It didn’t take long for her to figure out that her co-teacher over in the Social Studies department had his own name for the structure of their writing. Later on she texted him (with all their pals cc’d for laughs), “What the heck is a ‘Dorito of Tension’?” She knew, of course, that it’s a mnemonic device, and a right funny one at that.

But the minor incident does bring up a broader issue.

A Thesis by Any Other Name

We all find ways to help kids wrap their heads around dense concepts and structures and nuances. In some sense one might even argue that it’s the core of our work–finding effective ways of getting some really complicated ideas to make sense for a LOT of kids in a VERY short time window.

The trouble is, the more individualized these efforts become, the more we create discrete, isolated dialects and vernaculars within our own classrooms, PLCs, grade levels, buildings, etc. Our department has been lucky enough to be gifted some time to work on vertical alignment between grades. But even with those efforts, we’ve discovered just how much we confuse kids with language barriers of our own making.

Let’s take the example that I think is most likely to be present in most districts: the language we use to discuss writing. To a professional in our field, a thesis is a main idea–is a topic sentence–is a claim.

To a kid? You might have just laid out four different tasks for her with no sense that they’re interchangeable. If this happens from grade to grade, the language transition may very well be guided–eventually a kid learns several terms for the same writing construct and is better prepared for the diversity of college professors.

But quite often it doesn’t happen that way at all. What happens, for example, when a kid has an English teacher who calls it a “thesis” and a history teacher the next hour who calls it a “claim”? I know the easy answer feels like, “Uh, he learns to read directions and figure it out.” But let’s imagine for a second that this student also has a history of struggling with writing. He isn’t great at organizing his ideas, he doesn’t always get how to choose the best evidence, and he tends to stray off topic.

Now multiply this sudden code-switching by all the other elements of a writing piece. Are they “examples” or “supporting ideas” or “quotes”? Is it a “conclusion” or “synthesis”? Do you offer “counterpoints” or “alternate perspectives”?

You get the idea. And none of this terminology is wrong! It’s the transitioning between several names for the same concept that I think is killing some kids.

My Mnemonics

Which brings me to the problem. I don’t have a solution to this one. We all get very attached to our mnemonic devices and cleverly named assignments and graphic organizers, and well we should! These are a part of our classroom culture and that’s really important!

And yet, kids understanding the complexity of writing and other concepts over time is also important. If we aren’t creating a cohesive enough narrative for them over time to internalize all of those intricate ideas, then I think we also have to stop asking ourselves why our seniors so often still lean so hard on those same graphic organizers and goofy mnemonics that we all thought they’d leave behind much earlier in their writing careers.

Perhaps it’s no wonder so many of our writers tell us that when they have to write they always end up feeling a bit salty (code switch!).

Michael Ziegler

Michael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

What’s Your Vision?

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_193135235I am lucky to have a new job this year as a Curriculum Coordinator for English Language Arts and Social Studies in a new school district. Since I am new to the district, I found myself at New Teacher Orientation. At these sessions, the upper administration focuses on the district’s vision, and how the new teachers are going to be a part of that vision. Having progressed through the ranks with a lot of time in classrooms, administrators tend to share anecdotes about times when they helped to develop this vision, or instances in which they found satisfaction in keeping this vision.

Subsequently, I buy in.

They say good things, they’ve done good things, and I nod along as I listen. I know that this is what’s good for kids, and that I can be a part of this work.

In these initial days, I have also worked with several groups of teachers. Here, I have had the opportunity to learn about their visions and what their classrooms look like on a daily basis. I see the beginning-of-the-year excitement and the true belief that they can do good things for kids. I believe in these teachers too.

This raises a question for all teachers: As the year progresses, and demands increase, and yes, you get a little tired, what visions of your classroom will you support no matter what comes your way? What will you fight for because it’s good for kids?

A Vision for Literacy Instruction

I’d like to promise that I will uphold these beliefs in my new role:

shutterstock_115746919Kids should be given an opportunity to write consistently. This writing should be varied and open to student choice. This choice may be in the strategy they use to produce writing, the length of the writing, the topic of the writing, or even the genre of the writing. Why is this important? Students who write and make choices about writing develop critical thinking skills needed in our world.

Kids should be given the opportunity to read every day. Reading can be a collaborative process. It doesn’t have to be silent and individual. As teachers, we have to expose kids to texts they may not have chosen on their own. This can look like strong mentor texts that guide writing and reading, as well as genre-specific texts that mirror student interests. This is important because students who read consistently and with variety do better in school.

Reading, writing, word study, and grammar are not separate entities in literacy instruction. They interact together and should be taught together. Students who can make connections between these topics are exposed to more real-life opportunities and will be better able to transfer these skills outside the Language Arts classroom.

The most effective tool for developing the reading and writing abilities of kids is feedback. Feedback or conferencing should be connected to standards, and should offer skills to increase the depth of the work produced. Feedback should guide students toward mentor texts and class materials that will assist them in high-quality achievement. As with all of my vision statements, students should have a choice in the feedback they take and the action-steps they enact after feedback.

These are a few of the beliefs that I will fight for in literacy instruction. What are yours?

pic 2Amy Gurney (@agurney_amy) is an ELA and Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator for Walled Lake Schools. She has a Master’s degree from Michigan State University in Educational Administration and is currently pursuing an Education Specialist in Educational Leadership at Oakland University. She is a current Galileo Leader. She worked on the MAISA units of study and has studied reading and writing workshop practice and conducted action research.