Read. Read. READ!

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

JunkyardWondersjcktA few months ago, after soliciting ideas on social media, I selected The Junkard Wonders, by Michigan author/illustrator Patricia Polacco, as the Official Book of the Michigan Teacher of the Year 2016. The story compels readers to realize that no matter their ability, they are geniuses.

The message of The Junkyard Wonders is that we ought to seek out our genius, nurture it through hard work, and use our genius to contribute to the betterment of others and the world. We all belong, and we all have something to contribute to our communities, the book suggests.

This is a message that everyone needs to hear constantly. But no group needs to hear this idea more than our children—especially in the form of stories, read out loud.

As humans, our brains are hardwired for stories. We tune in naturally to the familiar architecture of a story arc, with its problems, solutions, characters, and settings. Joseph Campbell writes about the Hero’s Journey as a global story archetype, one that is common to all cultures around the globe. Our stories have always helped us not only to communicate, but to make sense of our world and realize our place in it. By reading aloud, we share these stories, and in doing so we create community.

People have also known for years that stories develop children’s vocabulary, improve their ability to learn to read, and—perhaps most important—foster a lifelong love of books and reading.

Associating Reading with Pleasure

main-centermastThe ability to develop a passionate reading life is crucial, according to Jim Trelease, author of the best-selling The Read-Aloud Handbook. “Every time we read to a child, we’re sending a ‘pleasure’ message to the child’s brain,” he writes in the Handbook. “You could even call it a commercial, conditioning the child to associate books and print with pleasure.”

This reading “commercial” is critical when competition for a child’s attention is so fierce. Between television, movies, the Internet, video games, and myriad after-school activities, the pleasures of sitting down with a book are often overlooked. In addition, negative experiences with reading—whether frustrations in learning to read or tedious “drill and kill” school assignments—can further turn children off from reading.

A child who does not have a healthy reading habit may suffer long-term consequences. As Trelease succinctly puts it, “Students who read the most, read the best, achieve the most, and stay in school the longest. Conversely, those who don’t read much, cannot get better at it.”

This is a relatively simple idea, and comes down to the importance of building a habit. Additionally, reading aloud is, according to the landmark 1985 report Becoming a Nation of Readers, “the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading.”

Excitement in the Classroom

rick j-1

Auburn Elementary students after a read-aloud of The Junkyard Wonders

Recently, I read The Junkyard Wonders aloud to 5th graders at Deerfield and Auburn Elementary Schools, in the Avondale School District. The kids were enthralled with the story and connected easily with Polacco’s message of optimism, hope, and perseverance against all odds.

The next day, in an unrelated visit to Auburn, I stopped in the same classroom. What was most remarkable was that as soon as I entered, I was swarmed with kids who were thrusting their books in my face.

“Mr. Joe, have you read The Crossover?” came an inquiry from an eager 5th grade boy.

“I’m reading El Deafo. Have you read this book?” spat another.

“Look what I’m reading: Wonder. I love this book. Have you read it?” another asked.

I was flabbergasted that a read-aloud from the day before, to complete strangers, had created this instant reader-to-reader bond. I was reminded of out-loud reading’s intense power to stimulate a desire in the listener to grab a book and read more.

I felt part of a community of readers who talk about the stories they’ve read, try to make sense of them, and connect them to their own lives. Kids were so hungry to share their books with me. And they were hungry to communicate their excitement about stories—and to urge me to read, read, READ!

rick josephRick Joseph is a National Board Certified Teacher and has taught 5/6 grade at Covington School in the Birmingham Public School district since 2003. Prior, he served as a bilingual educator and trainer for nine years in the Chicago Public Schools. Rick is thrilled to serve as the 2016 Michigan Teacher of the Year. Through Superhero Training Academy, Rick’s students have created a superhero identity to uplift the communities where they learn and live.

Making Reading Interventions Relevant

AARI Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_163383446As a teacher who works with struggling readers, my favorite time of year is the end of the semester. It’s then that I assess students’ progress. When I give them their results, some can’t believe it. Some want to call their parents to share the good news. And some even cry. They all beam with pride.

What’s not to love?

The time of year that is a close second, though, is the just-past-halfway-point. Yes, I know that this is when students and teachers tend to count down toward the next break, with nothing but survival on their minds. But in the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Initiative, or AARI, things are starting to get exciting.

AARI is a program that quickly brings struggling students up to grade level, using a variety of research-supported techniques. During the first few weeks of AARI, we learn a lot about an author’s purpose. We also learn how authors achieve their purposes through the organization of their texts. We focus heavily on text structures and “mapping” a text’s organization, which shows the relationships between facts and information.

It’s at this point in the year, this just-past-halfway-point, when my students start to recognize text structures in their books—on their own. I love this because it shows me that they’re ready for more. They’re ready to start transitioning to grade-level texts.

The Real-World Connection

There are other signs that they’re ready. Sometimes a student will burst into the room at the beginning of the period and exclaim, “You’ll never believe what we’re doing in Chemistry! The teacher gave us a chart, and he didn’t even realize it was a matrix!”

Seeing kids make these connections to their learning is what makes my work so vital. It’s why even as I’m launching the first weeks of the class, my focus is always on my endpoint: helping students use their intervention in relevant, real-world applications.Sequence Word Bank

This real-world focus starts early. Toward the beginning of the semester, we start talking about our text structures in the “real world.” I start this discussion by asking students what clues readers have in other, more difficult texts.

Together, we make anchor charts of “clue” words and phrases that writers use to signal that they are using a particular text structure to organize their thoughts. We post these in the room and add to them as we encounter more. Having these word banks arms students with tools to start recognizing text structures when the texts aren’t so easy.

Starting Small

Once students have these tools in their tool belt, I start introducing higher-level texts. They’re gaining proficiency, but they are still struggling readers, and they’re not ready for the full independence of working with long texts on their own.

So I start to give them a little taste: an appetizer, if you will. To do this and to make the reading relevant to them, I get my texts snippets from their content area textbooks.

I bring these “appetizers” in to class and “serve” them at the beginning of class as our warm-up. To scaffold their reading, I give them a focused purpose. They may have to answer a question about the author’s purpose, or they may have to identify a text structure. It helps them to see that their practice work with the easier texts is helping them to approach the more daunting texts they see in their classes all the time.

Lessons for ELA Classrooms

Finding this balance is crucial not only in intervention classes like AARI, but in all reading. We know our students have some pretty high expectations set by the Common Core State Standards and assessments like the redesigned SAT. Teachers want students to be able to access their texts, but they also know the value of exposing them to more challenging options. To help achieve this balance, I’ve found that these steps are key:

  • Arm students with tools to help them bridge the gap between accessible and challenging texts. Word banks are a great start.
  • Introduce more difficult texts slowly and in small chunks.
  • Gradually build to a combination of high-level, high-skill texts that require more stamina.

MKortlandt2Megan Kortlandt is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches AARI and literacy intervention classes at Waterford Mott High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Additionally, Megan works with Oakland Schools as an instructional coach for AARI. She has presented at various conferences including the Michigan Council for Teachers of English and Michigan Reading Association annual conferences.

Graphic Novels Not Called “Maus”

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_215485291A real conversation, repeated yearly:

“I really wish we could find a way to reach these struggling readers.”

“You know what might work really well? Graphic novels.” (That’s me, in a very hopeful tone.)

“Oh, good idea—we have all those copies of Maus!”

“Well, yeah…” (That’s me again, giving up the gun, so to speak.)

I’ve previously argued that being too tied to the classics alienates a lot of our fledgling readers. But in some ways, the tunnel vision about worthy graphic novels is an extension of that classics-oriented mindset.

Maus is a tragic, intelligent, powerful story told with heart-tugging visuals. Teachers who use it in their classrooms are rightly proud. They are exploring an important fictional work, in a historical context that students should understand deeply. At the same time, they are teaching students about a new genre of literature that most of them otherwise might never be exposed to.

But Maus is also heavy and sort of depressing. It’s a book that demands stone-faced seriousness.

That’s all to say, Maus’s visual nature doesn’t necessarily make it an appealing alternative to a traditional novel.

A Successful Experiment

After years of mumbling about graphic novels at department meetings, I finally decided to put my money where my mouth is. A few weeks ago I brought into class my collection of Flight graphic novels, my copy of Batman: The Long Halloween, and the award-winning Concrete graphic novel.

On the first day, a girl forgot her Kindle at home and asked to borrow the Batman book. “I just need something for today,” she said insistently.

She conveniently forgot her Kindle for the rest of the week and finished the book.

A couple days later, a student in my 6th hour selected the same graphic novel, tore through it in two days (graphic novels are quick reads), and then exchanged it for Concrete, which he took home and finished in a single night. In both cases, I ended up enjoying extensive conversations with the kids about literature. An English teacher’s dream, if ever there was one!

Graphic Novels as Success Stories

The best part of this experiment, though, has been the reaction from my co-departmental class. These are students who collectively read at around a 4th-grade level.

Mark (name changed) was the first student to borrow the Batman novel. Mark is a well-intentioned reader who would spend his entire 15 minutes of independent reading time slogging through perhaps three pages of a traditional novel. He would then chat with me afterward, mostly to check his understanding of the strange scientific concepts that inhabit Michael Crichton’s works.

shutterstock_274167122It was inspiring and tragic to watch him try to tackle a book that matched his interests, but which was simply beating him down in terms of comprehension. I wasn’t about to tell him to quit; he’d come too far for me to do that to him.

Turned out, I didn’t have to. Batman saved him, and suddenly our conversations were two-way streets. He’d confidently tell me about the story elements that he loved, instead of asking whether he had the details right. He has since moved on to his second Flight story collection and chats with me practically every other day about the pleasures in them.

And it’s a good thing he moved on to another graphic novel, because the moment he set down Batman, his friend Daniel (name also changed) picked it up and plowed through it. Daniel had been reading the third book in the A Child Called It series, which seems like too much heavy-handed literature for any reader to take on before graduating high school. But Daniel has embraced the graphic novel format, and it’s gratifying for both of us to experience his actually turning pages when he reads.

Start Simple

My personal collection clearly isn’t going to meet the demand. And so I plan to apply for a grant for graphic novels to add to my classroom collection. But if you’re only curious to try this out, start simple. Besides the titles I mentioned above, there are countless great titles in the genre. Persepolis and American Born Chinese are both fantastic reads featuring minority voices.

More mature readers might even appreciate the political complexities of Alan Moore’s cult-classics Watchmen and V for Vendetta. They pair just as well with Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 as they do with an ice cold Coke and a bag of potato chips. In other words, hand your students some graphic novels and see what it leads them to!

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.