The Importance of Reading at Home

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_221592391I am fortunate that both of my daughters absolutely love reading. They look at not having time to read as a punishment, one that’s equivalent to losing their favorite toy.

Maybe this is because my husband and I are both educators, and we’ve been reading to them since I found out I was pregnant. But we also do more with books than just read in a monotone voice.

I believe it is important to teach these habits to parents with young children. This can help build the connection between learning at school and at home, a connection that’s desperately needed. It can also make learning more interesting for students.

Setting Higher Expectations

I created a blog for my kindergarten classroom that is updated biweekly. This blog explains what we are doing in the classroom, and includes details on what we are reading. It also describes the stamina we are building as students read to themselves.

Parents are always amazed that my goal for kindergarten is that students read to themselves for 20 minutes or more. (Yes, this takes a while, since we usually start the year with a whopping two minutes!) Most parents can’t believe their child can sit that long and read.

But setting ambitious goals is not enough. I believe that, in addition, we need to explain to parents how we teach reading.

We want students to ask questions of themselves while reading. We also want them to predict what is going to happen next, and to make a connection to themselves or another book they have read.

We teach these skills in the classroom. But we also must encourage parents to do the same at home.

A Few Strategies that Help

How can we ensure that reading instruction continues at home?

One tool I have used is a reading strategy bookmark. In guided-reading book bags, which come home two times a week, we include this bookmark. This bookmark explains in simple detail the strategies we use to teach reading. It also has a page of questions parents can ask while reading with their child, like:

  • What do you think the author is trying to teach us?
  • What was your favorite part?
  • Can you find the word _____?
  • Tell me what happened at the beginning, middle, or end of the story.

shutterstock_158942981This kind of reading can be used during the daily bedtime routine. This makes the books more fun and interesting, and helps students retain more information about their books. Such a routine can also become a time the child looks at with fond memories, a quality time with his or her family.

There’s another conversation to have with parents, and it can be awkward. That is, emphasizing the importance of their reading, too, so their child can see them taking pleasure in it.

We know children learn by watching. When they see parents only playing phone games or video games, checking emails, or staring at the television, this becomes the norm. On the other hand, if children see their parents enjoying a good book, we can more easily expect that child to read at home. Homework also becomes less of a battle.

We as educators know the importance of reading. But while we establish the importance of reading in our classroom, we need to remember that parents can help us further the importance of reading at home.

image1Tricia Ziegler (Twitter: @axf96; blog: is a kindergarten teacher at Loon Lake Elementary, in the Walled Lake School District. She recently became part of the Walled Lake Teacher Leader Fellowship. She is in her tenth year of teaching, with eight in kindergarten and two in Second Grade. Prior to that she taught in the Walled Lake Great Start Readiness Program, which is a state-funded preschool program for at-risk students. Tricia attended Michigan State University for her undergraduate degree and specialization in Early Childhood. She then attended Wayne State University for her Master’s in Teacher Education.

Literacy Outside ELA

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project Professional Learning

shutterstock_171031157Recently I had the pleasure to conduct professional learning sessions on literacy with three separate groups of teachers. The teachers spanned every discipline, which is understandable, given the trends in education throughout the country.

Ever since the adoption of college and career-ready academic standards in Michigan, and throughout the country, more emphasis has been placed on nonfiction reading’s important role in all disciplines. All learners benefit when science teachers, social studies teachers, and math teachers take the time to deconstruct their texts, which helps students understand how to read them. This is true for both traditional print resources and online resources.

To this extent, content-area teachers have realized that they must also become teachers of reading. This realization helps students best access course content and achieve greater understanding.

Real Reading at Hamtramck High

In our professional learning sessions, we emphasized the Reading Apprenticeship approach to teaching reading.

The approach was developed by WestEd, an educational research and services agency. As the agency describes it:

Teachers using the Reading Apprenticeship framework regularly model disciplinary-specific literacy skills, help students build high-level comprehension strategies, engage students in building knowledge by making connections to background knowledge they already have, and provide ample guided, collaborative, and individual practice as an integral part of teaching their subject area curriculum.

This approach helps educators appreciate their important role in teaching students to read and comprehend course content, whether in a traditional English class, a physics class, or physical education.


Hamtramck students in a lab

The approach is useful for a school like Hamtramck High School. Hamtramck is a haven for students whose families hail from all over the world. One of two small municipalities located entirely within the city of Detroit, Hamtramck has a sizable number of students from Yemen and Bangladesh.

For these students, educators realize the need to make esoteric academic language comprehensible. During the professional learning sessions, I clearly saw that these teachers not only had a passion for helping their students learn; they also had a willingness to embrace the approaches of the Reading Apprenticeship model.

Metacognitive Conversation’s Benefits

In the sessions, we explored metacognitive conversation and the four dimensions of literacy–social, personal, cognitive, and knowledge-building. And through this, the teachers came to understand their critical influence over students’ attitudes toward reading.

The metacognitive approach–which largely centers on “making thinking visible”–enables educators to demystify their thought processes as they read and engage with a text. As a teacher explains what is going on in his or her head while reading, students are able to understand the thinking, and gain easier access to course content. This demystification of content also clarifies how information is acquired and why it matters.

So, when educators consciously engage in self-talk during a lesson, students benefit. Furthermore, these skills are very transferable. Students realize that they can apply these newly acquired content-area reading strategies in other disciplines.

This can having lasting effects. Teachers who engage in metacognitive strategies truly help their students, creating a future where the power of reading is enshrined as a lifelong value.

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.

Characters: They’re Just Like Us

Critical Literacy Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_330346853Next month I hope to bring you an update from my graphic novel project (yes, it has officially become a project!), but in the meantime, I thought I might talk for a bit about the great characters of literature . . . and Star Wars. Half kidding.

I read a fantastic article at Slate that argued that Han Solo, the reckless heartthrob who melted hearts across the galaxy, was actually a doofus. It’s a wonderfully fun read, and I highly recommend it.

But the piece is also useful for your classroom. Most notably, it’s a real-world, colorful version of a paper I’m almost certain your kids are writing: the character analysis essay. It’s a chore we’ve tasked students with for decades, and with good reason. But be honest—have you ever handed them a published version of that same classroom staple? Here’s one in living color—and timely and relevant to their pop-culture interests to boot.

Characters—They’re Just Like Us! (Complicated!)

Equally interesting are the article’s assertions about a popular figure. I’m not sure I buy all of the writer’s arguments. But note how effectively she supports every assertion with dialogue and other evidence right from the text (in this case a film). It’s like she’s writing a model analysis paper or informative essay. Imagine that—our classroom skills at work in the real world, being read by tens of thousands. And for pleasure, no less!

But here’s what is really worth noting. The piece recognizes something that I don’t think we help kids to wrestle with enough: the inherent complexity of a well written character.

Challenging a Challenging Text

My students just finished The Crucible, and their fury at Abigail for the unjust hanging of 19 innocent people is still burning at their insides. As well it should be. But I posed a question to them that they largely rejected: Isn’t Abby sympathetic in some ways?

John Proctor had an affair with her, even though she’s an innocent teenage girl, in a society where such people are already powerless. Proctor is largely portrayed as the hero of the play, but his sins (which he does admit) are perhaps worse than even he is prepared to acknowledge.

I think we might improve our students’ analytical abilities if we helped them to recognize something: the binary protagonist-antagonist structure, which they learned so long ago, is almost non-existent in actual literature—or film, or any other storytelling medium.

Granted, students should be analyzing all sorts of things beyond literature. But this false dichotomy tends to be a trap we fall into every time we read a work of fiction. We embrace questions like “Was Gatsby really great?” or “Were Romeo and Juliet’s deaths inevitable because of their families’ ongoing feud?”

The problem here is that the first question invites a watered-down perception of Gatsby—it can have shutterstock_304158824no right answer, because he isn’t reducible to that single, misleading adjective in the book’s title. He’s a bootlegger and rather shallow in his desires, but he’s also a man of enormous will and work ethic and, of course, hope. And the second question excuses Romeo and Juliet entirely. What we perhaps should ask about them is whether they might both have survived if either of them had been mature enough to have patience. Their love was noble and beautiful, but my goodness, if I simply HAD to have everything in my life the way I wanted it to be for all eternity within a fortnight, I might wind up dead in a church basement too.

Overcoming Emotions

Recognizing a character’s complexity is a wonderful starting point for encouraging our students to practice a more important skill. That is, recognizing the inherent complexity of, well, everything. Wouldn’t they be better in almost every subject area if they recognized that a simple, reductive perspective about most subjects is insufficient for understanding it completely?

The idea feels obvious to us as adults, but the acts of reasoning and analytical thinking require a lot of practice—mostly in the area of overcoming our more immediate emotional or intuitive reactions to things. That’s where most of our students are—the phase of existence wherein everything is judged via the first emotion it evokes. Abigail never has a chance. Hamlet is annoying for his indecisiveness. And Han Solo is . . . old. Ew.

With practice, we can help them learn to interpret literature and life more thoroughly. But first we have to identify it as a skill to be practiced and mastered.

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.  

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.

A Window into Students’ Thinking

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_133106732If you are an educator, you know how quickly things can pile up around conference time and holiday breaks. Add in a few major life crises, and you can get way behind.

So when I finally got back to my students’ blogs (I am not even through half of them!), I had some pleasant surprises waiting for me. As I read through my students’ posts, I found myself gaining new insights into who they are as people, even though their spelling and grammar still jumped out at me.

Our last assignment was based on an article about participation trophies, from a reading in Scholastic News, a regular source of readings for my students. The responses of the students were heartfelt and gave me something to think about.

One student wrote, “I remember when my brother went to his Boy Scout wood car race and he lost and he cried because all he wanted was to win.”

Another student wrote, “I had a special needs kid on my baseball team and he was happy and proud that he got a medal in the end.”

Only in Blogs

As I think about this topic, I realize that we could use it in multiple ways: to write persuasive essays (complete with the counterargument paragraph); to have a dialogue and step inside the shoes of someone with a differing opinion; or to brainstorm new ways of doing things that would be win-win.

Yet had we read this article in class and had a discussion, I don’t believe the outcome would have been the same, compared to what came from the blogs. The reason why?

My students tend to publish their posts before reading others’. This means their thinking isn’t influenced by their peers. (Parents probably have an influence, but not for all students.)

This gives me a more authentic look into students’ thinking and sets us up for more powerful conversation and learning. It’s another benefit of blogging that I hadn’t anticipated but am thrilled to discover.

beth croppedBeth Rogers is a fifth grade teacher for Clarkston Community Schools, where she has been teaching full time since 2006.  She is  blessed to teach Language Arts and Social Studies for her class and her teaching partner’s class, while her partner  teaches all of their math and science. This enables them  to focus on their passions and do the best they can for kids. Beth was chosen as Teacher of the Year for 2013-2014 in her district. She earned a B.S. in Education at Kent State University and a Master’s in Educational Technology at Michigan State University. 

A Cozy Book for the Holidays

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_226563166Long breaks from work and school are the perfect time to squeeze in some reading. But what to choose?

The winter breaks make me want something cozy, something I can snuggle with under a warm blanket. And these breaks, for me, mean holidays, so I tend to want something a little lighter that will preserve my festive mood.

As much as I hate to admit it, I like shorter books for these occasions. I know I’m going to be picking the book up and putting it down between conversations, toddler games, and multiple slices of pie. I need a perfect little piece of writing that I can set down easily, but easily come back to between activities.

So I’m looking for the Chupacabra of books, right? Wrong! The cozy, hilarious, creatively written book that you can read with your teenager or elderly aunt exists! Get yourself a copy of Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple.

The Plot

whered you go bernadetteBee idolizes her mother, Bernadette. Bernadette is a creative, free-spirited woman with strong opinions about nearly everything: fellow mothers at Bee’s school (gnats), traffic patterns in Seattle (idiotic), the Microsoft facility where her husband works (The Compound). She’s generally so annoyed by the world around her that she prefers to keep to herself.

But she’s Bee’s best friend and greatest champion. And so when Bee accomplishes a major goal and claims her reward (a trip to Antarctica), Bernadette agrees to go, despite all of her (totally hilarious) reservations about going so far with so many other people.

As the plans become more and more complicated, the entire trip lies in peril. Will Bernadette follow through with the trip? Will their lives unravel before they can leave? What humorous antics will Bernadette get up to next?

Why It’s the Perfect Long-Weekend Novel

Between the story’s Seattle rain and frigid Antarctic breeze, you’ll be reaching for a blanket and a steaming cup of hot chocolate.

And the book is hilarious!

It’s rare to encounter a book that imparts meaning and wisdom, yet does so with such honest humor. It’s a book in which you laugh because you can relate to the story—you’ve found yourself in a similarly awkward, odd, or ridiculous situation, and Bernadette’s sarcastic take makes it comical in retrospect.

The format is one of the most distinctive and fun parts of the novel, and it makes it such a quick read. It’s a modified epistolary novel—a collection of emails, notes, memos, etc.—gathered by Bee as evidence of Bernadette’s life. This makes the novel incredibly easy to set down, because there’s a break on nearly every page.

Here’s the icing on the cake. Once you read and love this book, you’ll be able to recommend it to almost everyone you know, including the teens in your life. Where’d You Go, Bernadette won the Alex Award in 2013, which the Young Adult Library Services Association gives to a collection of adult books that would work well for teens. Other than some occasional strong language from Bernadette’s mouth (which teens have surely heard in the hallways at school), this is a funny, light-hearted story that almost anyone can enjoy.

Grab this book and get ready for the most pleasant school break you’ve had in a long time!

Book Details:

Reading Levels:  Lexile = HL820L, AR = 5.4
ISBN: 9780316204262
Format: Paperback
Publisher: Back Bay Books
Publication Date: April 2, 2013
Awards: Alex Award 2013

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and is the recent recipient of the 2015 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.