Stop Teaching Kids to Read

For 13 years I taught Language Arts to junior high students. I had a list of reading standards that I needed to teach on a yearly basis. I had to make sure kids knew the theme, perspective, conflict, author’s purpose, create beautiful plots lines, and many other standards. During that time we read lots of short stories, novels, articles, and a wide variety of other reading materials. Nearly every time kids were reading, they were doing something with the text. They had to annotate, fill in an organizer, do notes and many other things. However, after this last year teaching in the library, I am beginning to wonder if teaching reading is something we really should be doing. Or at the very least, we need to look at it differently.

Let me be clear that yes, we need to teach kids how to read. They need to know the vocabulary and be able to comprehend what they are reading. Reading is a foundational skill that all kids, and adults for that matter, need to master. However, at some point much of the reading standards we ask kids to learn don’t serve any purpose beyond filling in a bubble or checking off a list of standards. I wonder if there might be another way to go about it.

This past year as I spent my time working with students in the library I had a much different perspective on reading. I talked to kids every single day about what they were reading. Frankly, I talked more about reading this past year as the librarian than any other year as a Language Arts teacher. When talking to kids, I wasn’t asking them to interpret the text or seeking out right answers about what they were reading. Instead, we just talked about the books. Period. We talked about what made them laugh, cry or think about their world. Those conversations were not only enjoyable to me but it appeared as though lots of kids were just excited to talk about what they were reading.

With that in mind, I wonder if we can shift how we approach reading in our classes. I fear we have become obsessed with over teaching and seeking “right” answers, we are missing the bigger picture which is creating kids who love reading. I firmly believe literature can be used as a gateway into learning far beyond the learning standards teachers are asked to teach.

Reading can create empathy within our students when they are exposed to ways of life different than their own. Check out I Will Always Write Back for a fantastic example of looking at life through another lens. I had a great conversation with my own children about homelessness after we read Crenshaw together as a family. Empathy is so critical in our world and many books help kids put on someone else's shoes.

A great book can help students connect with characters who may be struggling with the same personal challenges the reader is. Gracefully Grayson and El Deafo are two solid examples of characters dealing with their identities and the discomforts they encounter. Kids often don’t know how to talk to people about their struggles and a character in a book can often give insights and guide them through troublesome times. Or at the very least give them hope they are not alone.

As we see evidence of a lack of perspective and understanding of others in this often unjust world, literature can be a way to start difficult conversations we need to be having. For me, The Hate U Give and Full Cicada Moon are solid stories to help start a critical conversation. It is too easy to brush these conversations off because as adults we are uncomfortable but literature can be the jumpstart we need.

I think it’s time to lay down the rubrics or reader’s workshop checklists and just talk to kids about the books they love and even those they hate. If we approach teaching reading with the mindset there are right answers, we are doing it wrong. The beauty of reading is there are no right or wrong answers. There are just perspectives and every reader has one of their own. There are lots of kids that love reading until we teach the love out of them. It’s time to shift to helping kids use reading as an avenue to learning about themselves and the world around them.

What Effective Admin Do

Administrators are the leaders in schools and in some buildings have been rebranded as lead learners, program directors, chief storytellers or some other trendy term. Now, some of these leaders are leading in title only but not through their actions. They wield their authority in a dictatorial manner which does little to help the teachers or students. However, some truly are leaders through the way in which they perform the duties of their job, regardless of their title. Interestingly, I have started to notice administrators who are effective and good at their job just simply act like good teachers.

Good teachers know the importance of building a classroom culture. In fact, they know this is the most important aspect of their job. They work to make sure every child feels valued and an important part of their classroom. An effective administrator does the same thing. When an administrator creates a positive culture, people want to work for them. Teachers are willing to go through some of the tough work because they know their administrator cares about them and has their back. Culture trumps all in the classroom as well as the building.

Good teachers don’t punish a class for the actions of one child. They know the ineffectiveness of this method and deal with problems on a case by case basis. This too is seen with effective administrators. If one teacher or a small group of teachers are not following a school mandate or expectation, an effective administrator works with them personally. They know an all staff email is as pointless as a teacher yelling at the whole class for the actions of one student.

Good teachers know that not every student learns in the same way or on the same time frame. These teachers differentiate and provide individual instruction as well as support where and when needed. They have an intimate knowledge of their student’s strengths and weaknesses.This too is a hallmark of good administrators. They do not subscribe to the one size fits all or sit and get model of professional development. In fact, it is hypocritical for an administrator to expect their teachers to differentiate for students when they won’t for their own staff. Good administrators create professional development opportunities geared toward to individual needs of their teachers built upon individual need, interest, and choice.

The administrator often dictates the learning, culture and overall success of a building. This one person can have more impact in a building than any other single person. Personally, I have seen both sides of this as I have worked for administrators that have torn the staff down and those who built us up and empowered us in our work. In the case of those great administrators, the simple truth is they modeled their work after good teachers. :)

Increasing Test Scores

Anyone who works in education knows the institution's obsession with data. What I mean is school districts are always worried about their data. Are the test scores high enough? Are the students making adequate growth? How many kids do we have in the exceeds category or in the needs improvement category? What do these numbers mean for our teachers and their evaluations? Bottom line schools are obsessed with data and that data is often how we determine “success”. As I have said many times before, I think we look at the wrong data. However, the reality is math and reading scores are often used to paint a picture of the success or failure of a school or of an individual teacher. Whenever you see a teacher or a school with high marks on these scores, people want to know what they're doing. Conversely, if there are low scores people want to know why that is happening is well.

I have spent many years looking at this data both in my own school and many others I work with. Based on these experiences, I have a handful of things I often hear. Some people will say making kids aware of their data and tracking progress helps increase their scores. The argument is kids are buying into the idea of their own progress and can see it on their charts and their goal sheets. I think there may be some truth to this and this practice may help students on these tests. Another thing I hear often enough is the shameful activity of bribery. I have seen schools that have bribed kids to increase their standardized test scores. They have offered rewards from donuts and extra credit points to parties and prizes. These bribes are tied to their progress or a point value. In some cases the results do work but something about this practice has never set right with me.

The one thing I don't think we talked about enough is the emotional well-being of the child and that's impact on this “sacred” data. As I have looked at teachers who regularly produce solid test scores, there is a common denominator. Yes, they are good teachers but more importantly, they are great people. They are the teachers who kids want to be in their room. They are the teachers who care and love every single child in their classroom. Even if they don’t love them, the kids don’t know it. :) They care more about the social emotional well-being than the data point on a nationally normed test.

It should be no secret that if you like your teacher and enjoy the environment in class, you are likely going to absorb and learn more of the content. So, while bribery and goal-setting may help test scores, I firmly believe if we focused on the way we treat kids it would have a far greater impact. In addition, we would be increasing the overall social and emotional well-being of the child. If we ensure that all teachers are treating kids with dignity, respect and genuinely caring for their well-being, the test scores will take care of themselves. Even if the test scores don’t, then we may just have created better people which this world can certainly use more of.

Reflections From The Library

As I am in the home stretch of my first year as a junior high librarian, I thought it a good time to reflect a bit. One of my focus areas this year has been literacy growth. Part of that is have an environment and culture within the library space that is welcoming and engaging for students. Simply put, I want kids to be excited about coming to the library and more so about reading books. As a result of this reflection, I wanted to highlight some of the things I have done this year in an effort to help both of these areas.

Book Talks
I have a belief that one of the most powerful things we can do as educators is to share with kids what we are reading and what we love about reading. Kids look up to us and will connect with us in a literary sense. If we tell them we read a book and we loved it, they will be more inclined to pick it up. I book talk 50-60 books in any given week and most of them are checked out and read by students.

If I don’t have time to go into a classroom and talk to students, I will create a book trailer for students to watch. This is a great alternative for students to watch if they can’t come to the library. In addition, it is a great resource for teachers to post in their LMS or online resources for students to access whenever they have the time to.

I have been extremely fortunate that in my district we were able to acquire a set of Google Expeditions. While this is a new asset in our library, it is bringing the kids and teachers in for sure. Just this week I was taking health classes on a tour of the respiratory system. It was a learning experience that would not have been possible without this technology. This is just another fantastic resource our library has to offer that can enrich the learning experience of all students.
Many teachers and schools are aware of the phenomenon that is BreakoutEdu. We have a handful of these kits in our library and they have been received with high levels of enthusiasm. If you have not engaged students and staff with this game, you will be blown away at the engagement and interest levels.

Genre - fication

Probably the biggest shift I made in the library, and still in the process of doing, is reorganizing our collection by genre. It has been my experience that students come to the library and ask me to help find them a good book. Often they know what genre of book they like but struggle to navigate the collection to find that. Most kids know what kind of story they like but often fail to find them in the mess that is a fiction collection organized by author’s last name. By creating genre sections in the library, kids are easily able to locate books in their wheelhouse and also easier to steer them to try something new.

Teacher Displays
I believe kids often have special connections with their teachers. For some kids their teacher is viewed as a role model and in some cases an inspiration to them. As a result I have gone back to the 1990’s and created “Staff Picks” section in the library. This rotates periodically and is a place where staff can put together a list of their favorites. Kids love this one!

Another big change in our library was the weeding process which is ongoing. I won’t go into specific numbers but let’s just say we made a number of healthy donations to some schools in need. My philosophy was that if it was not be circulated or used in a curriculum, we removed it. We had many titles not touched in 10+ years.

Content Area book talks
As a former content area teacher, I was blind to the books in the library that would have supplemented my teaching. I have started pulling books both from the fiction and non-fiction collection to share with classes. For example, when our 6th grade history classes were studying Ancient Greece, I pull graphic novels, fiction texts, picture books and non-fiction titles from that topic area. It was a great way for kids to connect their classroom learning to great literature.

Focus Groups

Without a doubt, the best thing I have been doing in the library is holding what we have begun to call “focus groups”. These are almost always made up of a small group of students. I call these groups together randomly and just get their feedback on new things in the library or ask them what more they want to see happen. As I continue to evolve our library into the optimal resource for all students and staff, these focus groups will be an integral part of that change.

I hope to continue in my reflecting on my role in the library as I continue to learn and evolve the space to best suit the needs of my students. If you are a librarian or work with a dynamic one, please share their story in the comments or connect me to them. I am always willing to learn and grow!

Presidential Reading List

As our new president takes the oath of office and assumes the role of Commander in Chief and leader of the free world, I felt as though I would take some time to offer him some advice. It is well known our former president, Barack Obama, was an avid reader and a lover of knowledge and learning. I thought I might do my part as a citizen, lover of literature, and public school educator to share a handful of titles I feel might benefit our newly elected president. Naturally, there are hundreds of high-quality books on everyone’s must read lists, but these are a few that I think would really help set the foundation for a great presidency.

Shh! We’re Writing the Constitution - I feel as though this is a great starting point for anyone trying to grapple with the basic concepts within the US constitution. Certainly, this is just a starting point, but a great resource for those trying to understand what the founding fathers intended over 200 years ago. There is a reason our country is the envy of those around the world and the very foundation is in this document authored so many years ago.

Gracefully Grayson - As a public school educator who has worked with students struggling with their identity, this novel hit home for me. A powerful narrative about a young man who is trying to figure out who he is in the world. Not only is our character struggling with his identity, he is fighting for social and self-acceptance in an environment not conducive to either. For anyone, president or otherwise, trying to understand the very real and raw story of someone working through gender identity, this is a must read for sure.

March Book 1-3 - Written by John Lewis, these are a fantastic graphic novel chronicling Lewis’ life and struggles during the civil right’s movement. It is powerful narrative and important read for a number of reasons. For one, it highlights the importance of American heroes such as Lewis but also the value in protest and standing up for what is right. Another reason these books have value is due to their artistic quality. Elements such as graphics, art, and literature, should be valued and held in high esteem. They are not something to be politicized and cast away for the sake of a budget item.

Best Man - Richard Peck is a master storyteller and doesn’t let us down in his latest novel. Peck tells the story of a young man coming of age and realizing some truths about his uncle and his teacher. Without spoiling it for those who have not read it, this story is an important narrative on marriage equality and how we can never control who we love. Again, love is not something that should be politicized or marginalized by individuals and certainly not by a government.  

All American Boys - This story will rock you to your very core with its graphic content and blunt honesty. Reynolds tackles the issues of racial tension that echoes the stories of so many around our country. Without antagonizing law enforcement or the African American community, Reynolds paints an honest picture of the tenuous relationship between those two groups. He also paints a picture of hope and possibility rather than one of anger and fear with a brutally honest narrative.

Hidden - One of the best books I have read this year, Hidden, is the story of brave young people putting their lives on the line to hide and protect a refugee. After finding a man on the beach, the main characters sacrifice their own well being to protect and aid him. Navigating the social web of racism, bigotry, and fear, they go out of their way to help the man and demonstrate the true power of the human spirit. The main characters prove that protecting human life should always trump politics or social bigotry.

Now, I am not naive enough to think our president will take this short reading list and do anything with it. However, I still put it out there for anyone looking to understand the complex world we live in. The only way we continue to make America great is to understand its people for all their faults and awesomeness. The people of this world are amazing and these stories illustrate that very fact. Rather than focus on the ills and fears in our world, I turn to literature such as those mentioned to shine the light on all that can be and is good within the human race. I urge our president to read these books and understand all of the great people he now represents.