Amplifying Minds

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Making Readers

My Mother helped make me a reader.  I remember being read to before I was 7 years old.  (I lived in W. VA until then and I have memories of being read to in the W. VA house.) So I got that early exposure to reading, and I’m pretty sure I was reading before I went to school. Then, we moved, and in our new house, I remember my Mom and I going to the library to get books every week. I walked out each week carrying so many books I could barely hold them. I remember going home with every book in a picture books series–back then it was books like Flicka, Ricka and Dicka and Snip, Snap,and Snurr. (These have been reprinted in the mid-90’s.)


50 years later, I could have told you (before I looked them up), that they were set in Sweden.  I knew they were books about triplets and that I loved poring over the illustrations.

I remember moving into chapter book series like Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys and then into Heinlein and Asimov (thanks to my brother, Rod.) All of this was done through the public library. (Thank you, Roanoke City for building a new one on the grounds of my Jr. High School!)

Then, I got more into science fiction and fantasy and in college and when I began to work, I began buying my own paperbacks–and so when I moved into my house, I had to have floor to ceiling bookshelves for those books I had been moving from place to place. I also have bookshelves all over my classroom and have spent way too much of my lifetime salary supporting my love of books.

I mostly spend on children’s books now–just to keep up with the upper elementary kids I teach. I introduced Out of My Mind and The One and Only Ivan and Hurt Go Happy to the kids in my school.  I read the Nerdy Book Club posts and often buy the books reviewed there. Just the other day I watched the Scholastic Spring Preview and immediately got some of those.

And I am still wondering why schools often don’t  make a lifetime reader.  I grew up on Lucy Calkins, Donald Graves, Regie Routman, Jane Hanson, and others of that era where we began talking about really teaching reading and writing like real readers and writers act. Yeah, I’ve read Donalyn Miller’s Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild. I have kids who are readers…and I have kids who can read, but choose not to.  I have kids who HATE, HATE, HATE anything that has to do with Daily 5 or a literacy menu, because they see that as making reading boring.  Kids don’t mind discussing books–but filling out packets of comprehension questions doesn’t cut it with them. And, I’m seeing more and more of that coming back into our classrooms.

So I struggle with preparing them for the state tests, which gives them a passage and asks them to answer questions like those typically found in packets. I sporadically give them worksheets on making inferences and reading for meaning, and interpreting various kinds of reading (poetry, narratives, non-fiction, etc.) but those don’t make them a reader.  They support them becoming a good test taker. And, as a teacher, I do see that as part of my job–because taking tests is part of schooling as we know it now.

I spend most of my time with students talking books, sharing books, enjoying stories together and supporting them loving to read, thinking deeply about connections and meanings and themes. But it’s the talking that matters to my kids.  They have a lot to say, and most of them are really thinking. They have questions, they wonder, they ponder why an author did this or that, they imagine being in the story, they engage with the characters, they connect around similar plots and characters, and they share recommendations for good reads.

I wish they could prepare a portfolio for the state assessment.  I wish theycould write a testimonial to the kind of reading they do.  I wish they could share their blog posts of reading recommendations.  There are a ton of things my kids–and all kids–could do to show they are successful readers beyond reading a passage and answering multiple choice questions about it. But while my state requires that test, I’ll continue to do test prep–enough for the kids to do well, but not so much they begin to see reading as a test to pass, or as answering questions, or as worksheets to do.

And, in the meantime, we’ll continue to share good books, read together, cry and laugh together over events in the stories we co-habitate in, and we’ll look to finding the next great book that flies around my classroom because we just can’t put it down. Because while I am expected to do test prep, I believe making readers is more important.


What’s In A Fishbowl?

Wow…I watched my 5th graders on Wednesday have a great discussion on Today’s Meet about books.  They were sharing and recommending, and asking for recommendations and connecting and just basically having a ball. They went on and on for around 30 minutes.

On Thursday, I put 3 of my fourth graders into a “fishbowl” to talk about the books they are reading.  The kids watching the fishbowl conversation were supposed to write down thoughts they had that connected to the book talkers, or questions they had. The first group was extremely self conscious, but they could each talk about their book.  Success! After all, this is literacy group, right?

They just didn’t have a conversation–each of them took a turn talking and then there was dead silence. Then one kid asked if either of the other two had anything else to say, because he could “add a whole bunch more”.  When neither of them spoke up, we started hearing the whole story of the book he was reading!

So we tried a second group–after one kid had said, “A conversation is supposed to go back and forth, back and forth–and they just said something and no one responded.”

So in the second group, I told the “watchers” they were to listen for questions the group members asked, and still write down their connections.  That prompt itself changed the conversation–since the three kids knew the rest of them were listening for questions, they did ask questions of each other–in 5 minutes, they asked each other somewhere between 12 and 15 questions…

The we noted that one of the speakers wasn’t looking at both other people in the fishbowl , but only looked to one. We talked about how that body language could make someone feel left out, and how nice it feels when someone looks at you and smiles as they are talking. At this point, the kids were all clamoring to get in the fishbowl to talk, and to show they could ask questions and they could talk to both people, and be the best they could be.  However, our time was up…so they all walked out of my class wanting it to be tomorrow so they can come back and talk about books. They can’t wait!

And neither can I.  I want to see their eyes light up as they hear about books and they decide they want to read that one.  I want to see them scribbling furiously as they make those connections to their friends talking and as they think of something they want to ask. I want to watch their questions get more and more sophisticated and their connections get stronger and stronger as they realize how the stories they read and the books they study have connecting features ands elements?

Now, it’s my job to keep ramping it up so their conversations become more than retelling the story and sharing favorite books. Keep tuning in…I’ll be sharing how I shape that happening as I go along.

5th Graders Recommending Books

My 5th grade literacy group on Wednesday participated in a Today’s Meet and discussed books for well over 30 minutes.  I had asked them to share about the “Letter books” they read with a sub last week while I was away. (A “letter book” is where the story is told through letters or a letter (or more) serves as a major prop in the story.)

Here’s the transcript:


Why I Don’t Give Grades

My 4th grade math group is a bunch of geeky math kids.  They love puzzles, trying to figure out problems by themselves, and they do math just for the fun of it.  It’s really an amazing hour three times a week.

Our fourth grade is where kids in our county encounter report card grades for the first time.  Up to this point, they’ve gotten behavioral and work habit scoring and a satisfactory (or not) ranking on subject areas–but no A, B, C, D, F to this point.  Here, though, they begin to encounter that grading system we all know and love.

I have nothing to do with their grade–the classroom teachers do that. I also don’t have the same kids all the time.  Our 4th grade teachers pre-assess at the beginning of a unit and I work with the kids who need extension.  Kids stay in their math class Monday and Fridays so the teachers can make sure they get exposed to and work on all pieces of the curriculum. I work with them the other three days of the week.

My current 4th grade math group is working on analogies and patterns in math right now as an extension to their place value work. For the past week, they’ve been working independently on a series of worksheets and problems that stretch them in all kinds of ways, and they’ve been loving it.

They love feedback, so when they finish a page, they find a buddy who has finished the same page and compare answers–when answers are different, they work the problem together to find the correct one. As they discuss and solve problems and question each other, I glance over their work, but I don’t ever sit down and go through their papers problem by problem, to score it in any way.  Our work is collaborative enough and we talk enough about  the work that I know who’s still a little iffy on certain things, who has it solid and who needs lots of support. We end class lots of times by going over the problems someone found hard that day.

Today was hilarious–I was teasing some kid–I honestly don’t even remember about what, but I said something stupid like “if you do so and so, it’ll be an “F”.”  The kid I was talking to looked at me and her eyes starting widening, getting round as saucers.  I looked at her and was thinking–but not saying– “Really?  You really think I’ll give you an F?” She hesitated, and then she said,

“Do you actually  grade our papers?”

I laughed.

It was such a foreign notion to her–she had no clue what that might look like.  Me judging her? Me putting red marks on her paper?  Me crossing out ones she missed and counting them up? (This is the same kid who earlier today had looked at me and said, “I don’t see how you do it–so many kids are asking for help and you help all of us.  Any other teacher would be yelling at us, telling us not to call her name anymore!” )

(I have to say I don’t think that’s really true in my school, but I know we’ve probably all had days we wished we could change our names–even if just for a little while!)

So, why don’t I grade their papers?

Because I think kids learn more from reflective feedback and deep questions and studying and finding and talking through their own mistakes.

Because what we learn from grades is to compare ourselves to others around us–and I’d rather set them up to look for their own growth in relation to themselves, instead of their performance in relation to someone else.

Because I know them–from our class discussions and our quiet one-on-one talks and the questions they ask, and the comments they make and the strategies they share– I feel no need to give them a letter grade to tell them what I think.

Because I get to know their thinking every day as I challenge their sharing, ask them hard questions and honor their responses as a learner–right or wrong.

Because we share strategies and thoughts every day–and they trust themselves to ask questions about stuff they don’t understand–and their questions help me know what to teach and help them learn.

Because I expect them to be learners–and people who care about their own learning don’t much care about outside evaluations of their learning–they know when they know it and when they don’t. They don’t need a grade to tell them that.

So, yeah, when I was asked if I actually grade papers, I laughed…and we do that a lot in my class.

So, Reagan, this blog’s for you–keep asking those hard questions, thinking, looking to make meaning and sense of your world  and most of all, keep laughing with those sparkly blue eyes!

We Want Them to Wonder

In my last post, Great Questions for Learning, I talked a bit about questions.  In the post prior to that, I shared a story about homework. This one will pull both of those together in some ways.

We want our students to wonder.  Learners–lifelong learners–never stop questioning.  They never stop looking at the world–or at least parts of it–with awe and a multitude of feelings–delight, sadness, confusion, affirmation, etc.  Lifelong learners never stop being curious, wondering about inconsistencies, about oddities, about beautiful–and not-so-beautiful– sights, events and objects, both man-made and natural.

My students, over the years, have learned to be critical thinkers about the “facts” I give them and the questions I ask. They know I am going to ask questions that may lead them down a distracting path so they do a lot of skill practice that leads them to doing more.  I want them to be critical listeners to listen for discrepancies, connections, new information and details.  I want them to be attentive, to be active listeners, to know when to ask clarifying questions and especially when to ask for help and when to try something on their own. So, I ask questions that will scaffold them, but also give them practice being thoughtful consumers of information.

Full disclosure: I really don’t believe in a lot of homework. I want kids to go home and enjoy their families, being outside, reading for pleasure, and exploring their world through a variety of activities they cannot do in  the 6 or more hours they are in school.  I want them to have time to learn to clean their rooms, stay organized, help around the house, know their brothers and sisters and play and use their imagination. So any homework I am a part of sending home will generally NOT be worksheets or drill and skill work.  It will be something that helps them make connections, think more deeply about something they have talked/learned about that day, or an extension of our learning here at school.

So, homework in my classes is more like

  • Develop 2 or 3 “Henry questions” as you enjoy your evening.
  • Practice some factor trees–you choose the numbers.
  • Ask someone at home when they use estimation and when they use exact calculations–make a list if you need it to remember which is which.
  • As you go places this week, look for mathematical signs that might encourage you to ask more questions. (They know they can get a picture of it and send it to me if they want, so they can share in class.)

and as far as literacy?

  • Connect something in your book to something that has happened to you in real life.  Be ready to share tomorrow.
  • As you read tonight, think about whether this author is one you’d recommend to your classmates. Be ready to talk specific reasons why you would or would not.
  • Can you find any words in your reading tonight you think would stump the class?  make sure you can use it in  a sentence and give synonyms or antonyms in case you need to help your classmates figure it out.
  • Think about the theme in your book and be ready to share a “text set” of books with that theme if you have read others like it.

Or, if we have a great discussion, and the kids come up with their own questions, we challenge them to go home and answer them.  They often ask, “Can I work on this at home?” and that’s, of course, a delight to us.

The bottom line is that we try to incite and encourage and stand in awe of the wonder our kids have and develop, and we try to set up situations where kids will never lose that sense of curiosity and delight in the world most of them bring to their first experiences in school. We want our students to wonder!

Sharing Books

Just finished Okay For Now by Gary Schmidt.  I’m trying to remember back to my middle school years and what in the heck I read beyond science fiction.

NOT books like this one…where the main character has what could be considered to be an awful life.  I don’t remember reading books where parents wouldn’t let their hard of hearing kids learn sign language (Hurt Go Happy) or kids killed other kids (Hunger Games) or kids committed suicide (13 Reasons Why).

But I remember losing myself in books for hours and hours…I still do, which is why it’s midnight and I’m still up–I just finished reading a book I began around 9 PM.

I’m a mystery nut–always have liked them, and it may have begun with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. But, crime shows, police shows, medical shows–those are what I’ve always liked watching on TV….until recently.  I recently have lost all interest in crime shows…in  CSI shows, in Criminal Minds, in anything with bloody guts and gore…I think maybe I’ve become saturated with horrible things.

Would I have turned out as a sensitive human being if I had read books like I mentioned when I was a kid?  If I had watched the horrible crimes one sees on TV these days?  If my reading and TV watching had been dark and criminally based? Is the world changing partially because of what we allow our children to read/write/play on the computer?

I played outside.  I used my imagination, not having a huge tub of toys.  I climbed trees, rode my bike, ran around (literally) and ate fruit from the trees in our backyard.  I walked outside after dark without being afraid.  I hung out in my neighborhood after dark without being afraid. I went to the library weekly to get a huge stack of books to last me til the next visit….and I shared good books with friends.

My librarian and I are talking about these books we’re both reading….and it’s fun to share about them with each other. She read Okay for Now 1st and I chose to read it next in my lineup because of her sharing. But this is another one I won’t push with elementary kids. Middle school?  In a heartbeat…and to be fair, it’s on the VA Young Reader’s Choice list as a middle school book. And, many of our older kids are reading at that level…but I want kids to be kids as long as they can, and I think I’ll go for Hound Dog True next–so I can talk to kids about a book. How do you pick what to share and what not to share?

Hey. It’s only my opinion.

The Invisible Sister and The False Prince are two of the Virginia Young Reader’s Choice books.  Kids read from the list of books here and then vote on which ones they liked best. I wouldn’t vote for either of these and here’s why:

The Invisible Sister is a book about a family whose oldest child is born with a case of “Formulous Disappearus,” which simply means she was born invisible. The book is full of sibling fussing, with the younger brother, Frank’s, insecurities, being part of the reason for that bickering. The plot can be stated in one sentence, it’s not a particularly rich book for discussion, and I personally would never recommend it to a kid. However, I think it’s one kids will find funny, the events can be easily understood, kids will relate to the big sister’s picking on the younger brother, the nicknames Frank gives his neighbors may appeal to them, and the misunderstandings between Frank and his new friend Charlie will easily be understood by kid readers. Kids may really enjoy it–I thought it was pretty shallow, and the jokes or what were supposed to be funny parts just didn’t strike me as that funny.

Right now, I feel like saying something I see at the end of an opinion piece in a magazine I read regularly–“Hey, it’s only my opinion!”

And, as for The False Prince? Well, if you read my prior post mentioning it, you know once I began it, I couldn’t put it down until I finished (at 2AM) and then I promptly went to Amazon and downloaded the sequel, and read it through (going to sleep at 4:30 AM). I loved both books, for lots of reasons.

The story is a typical fantasy/lost and found prince retelling, with some very compelling friendship making (or unmaking) along the way. The characters, mostly put into some awful situations, are well drawn, interesting and there’s some great foreshadowing in this book that would be awesome to talk about with kids as they read it. It’s mostly realistic (within its realm of a make believe world) and the romance is kept to a reasonable amount, without descriptive scenes inappropriate for young kids. So why wouldn’t I vote for it?

Simply put, the violence.

I think the world is harsh enough and kids have to see/live with too much already.  Especially in this time of citizen journalism and explicit TV camera scenes of disasters, war, killings, beatings, etc. I prefer that the books my kids read not contain vivid pictures of cruelty and torture–which this book has. Whips are the preferred tool of torture…and the poor hero of the story continually had wounds that needed alcohol poured in them to not become infected. (That was one glaring inconsistency in this somewhat medieval fantasy world–a bottle of alcohol being readily available everywhere and people knowing to pour it in wounds to keep infection at bay. I think the only purpose for it was to increase the hurt one’s pain.)

And I don’t really care that it’s recommended for middle school. In middle school I began reading Heinlen and Asimov and a ton of other pretty thought-heavy books–but I don’t remember them having needless cruelty and descriptions of torture that had me picturing some pretty gruesome scenes of bloody backs. I tend to skip over that kind of text,  even as an adult, as it disturbs me…so I sure wouldn’t ask my 9 and 10 year olds to read it–though some of them will, since it’s on the list for a vote. It’s one of those books I think I’d rather talk to parents about before a kid reads it by getting it from me.

Hey.  It’s only my opinion.

These are some prior winners, by the way, in case you’re interested in checking them out:

  • 2012-2013 WINNERS

Primary: I Need My Monster by Amanda Noll (Flashlight Press)

Elementary: Frankie Pickle and the Closet of Doom by Eric Wight (Simon & Schuster)

Middle: Powerless by Matthew Cody (Random House)

High: Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan (Random House)

Virginia Young Reader’s Choice

If you don’t know anything about the Young Reader’s Choice awards, you can find out here. Basically, this is a process to help young readers get introduced to some contemporary books they might not otherwise read.

I have several 5th graders who are SO excited about this list of books. There are kids all over my school interested in reading this list of books, mostly because of how our school librarian introduces the list to the kids and partially because the kids who read and vote also get to have a pizza party celebration after the voting is over. I’ve never been involved before, but this year, kids from all over the school have been coming and asking me if I have this book or that book.

That’s happening, I guess, because last year I worked with both 3rd and 4th graders in Literacy and the kids discovered one of my loves–books–so they know I have a pretty extensive library.  Many of them borrowed iPads at various points last spring to read books, and discovered I buy regularly from Amazon–so have books the library doesn’t have.  When kids started coming to me this week, I went to Amazon and made a “Young Reader’s” wish list. By week’s end, a parent had given a gift card that covered most of the books from the Kindle store.

So my iPad now has those books on it, and I am spending my weekend reading many of them. One of the kids really wanted to read The False Prince by Jennifer Nielson, so I decided I would read that first.  (Click on the cover to go to Amazon’s page about it.)

Screen Shot 2013-09-07 at 12.19.54 PM

So, 2:00 Saturday morning, I finished–and went and bought the sequel and read that, too. I am looking forward to getting to school on Monday and see if the kid saw and read the sequel, too. I am also looking forward to the final installment in this series coming out this fall.  At least I don’t have too long to wait.

Loaning my books (or iPads) out to kids so they can read is just something I do. It’s just like Donalyn Miller (@donalynmiller) explains in The Book Whisperer–most of the time books come back, and in the fall, many children return books they “found” in their houses over the summer. Because of my passion for reading and sharing and talking books and because of my ready trust of kids when they ask to borrow a book, and because of our sharing of stories with one another in book discussions, the kids work hard to return the books–they know others want to read them too.

So, I’m really looking forward to the conversations these Young Readers Choice books will elicit. And I’m looking forward even more to reading more of them–so right now I’m going to quit writing and go read…

I’ll share my reflections on the books (at least the ones that touch me) as I read.  Have a great weekend!

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