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Leveling up: Pathways to reading

mc escher

Wonderful colleague posts this question to the universe:
Calling ALL opinions: students are reading below grade level (anywhere from 5 to 1 year behind) and I want to do a book study to meet some CORE standards. Can I use one that isn’t at grade level? Or is that just making it too easy? Is it OK to use any book as long as it is higher than their current level of performance? Weigh in…and not just teachers!

My quick response:I have a lot to say about this, but Lucy Calkins said it well: “I want to know when I am about to ski down the black diamond slope.” In other words, make the reading levels AND the student’s current reading abilities as transparent as possible, with the key ingredient: Once they know, teach the hell out of how they can improve. I have “let go” so much regarding levels as far as what they “should” be reading – I encourage ANY kind of reading–comic books, picture books, fairy tales, graphic novels, cereal boxes, video game quest logs, you name it. In fact, on the MSP there is a place for “functional” reading–which I agree with. Being able to read a functional document means a functional adult (or a greatly improved chance). I stress, stress, stress to my students if you don’t understand it and can’t talk about it, you’re not “reading” –you’re faking it. So, encourage them if they want to read something higher than their “level” but let them know they are going to have to approach it a bit differently. And, they can get deep meaning out of any narrative or information they find interesting and meaningful to them.

So, here’s what I’m thinking: In order to get my own head on straight for this upcoming, topsy-turvy year, this week I will do a series all about reading, and my reflections on its process, purpose, and perpetuating the pursuit.

I would love any guest bloggers to engage with their philosophies, strategies, and reflections on this as well — what have you tried that worked with the majority of your students, and what have you tried that worked with the minority of your students?

Send me an e-mail:

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Help. I need somebody. Help. Not just anybody.

Beatles HELP albumOkay. There are limitations to many human endeavors. There are boundaries of time, space, resources, and yes, human kindness.

I say this in response to the limitations of 140 characters in Twitter. A wonderful, helpful boundary, because it forces me to be ‘less is more.’ The current 140 character volley concerns ‘student collaborative and cooperative learning.’ But I have more than a 140 characters on this one.

Yes: Cooperative, collaborative learning: All Good Things. Here’s where the goodness gets a little sugary-sticky for me though:

1. Some kids/adults are know-it-alls, and want to share too much. (Shhh….yes, I know this may be my category….)

2. Some are know-it-alls, but don’t want to share knowledge.

3. Some know-nothings don’t want to be informed by their peers, thank you very much. (And the know-it-alls get labeled as ‘geeks, nerds, teachers’ pets, etc.)

4. Some are resentful when they are co-opted by teachers and put into service of teaching others under the guise of ‘cooperative learning.’ Kids smell a rat, and are always on alert to when they think someone’s not doing her job.

In my experience, setting up artificial cooperative learning partnerships feels hollow. The students sense it, and indeed, we all do. That is perhaps part of human nature. Just because Grog the Mighty Hunter knows how to find the best and biggest bison in the area doesn’t mean he knows the best way to barbecue his quarry. And Grog may not be all that interested in A. teaching his fellow Neanderthals how to hunt or B. learning how to make bison brisket. So what’s the other tribe supposed to do? Keep their great recipes to themselves, and go hungry, while Grog and his gang have lots of fresh groceries to eat, but no flavor? Cooperative learning takes place best when it’s a mutually-agreed upon (mental) bargain or trade. If one person is the “expert,” and the others are just the receivers of knowledge, the recipient group doesn’t feel respect or encouragement. This is what teachers mean by true cooperative learning–encourage the trades, the bargainings, so that each person is feeling respect and bolstered by the other. This is why teachers often refer to themselves as ‘facilitators,’ rather than ‘lecturers.’ But here’s again the gopher hole: sometimes Grog does need to stand up in front of a willing audience and tell them how to hunt. And Iron-Chef Brog needs to stand up in front of a group and tell them where to find the fresh rosemary for the reduction sauce. (Duh! Cave Paintings = first social network!)

So, just how do we know when to sit down and shut up, or stand up and say something?

Well, perhaps it’s all in the reflection. Sometimes students just need to know things before they can step up the taxonomical steps. And, as they climb, need to discuss and confer with teachers and others about if what they’re seeing and hearing makes sense, and what others see from their perspectives.

We tend to specialize, compartmentalize, and marginalize our learning.This is probably one reason why I abadoned the roles in book groups. Roles led to expert-think, and not share-think. Usually just a few good questions to start a discussion is all it takes. Encourage the conversation, which in turn leads to knowledge, thinking, and more questions. Model to students how fun, interesting conversations can happen, and then stand back. We have a world of followers of single-focused ‘experts.’ These so-called experts seem to be more interested in the sound of their own braying than in hearing what others have to say, and I would suspect are not the most reflective of souls. Teachers, as you reflect, consider that value for your students, too, and allow them a lot of time to write/talk about what they heard, saw, said, and thought. And that’s helpful for anyone.

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Short-cuts: Thoughts on Diagon Alley.

Diagon Alley - Where Harry Shops for Back-to-Hogwarts Supplies!
Diagon Alley - Where Harry Shops for Back-to-Hogwarts Supplies!

This summer, I checked out–mentally, physically, and work-ethically. (Didn’t abandon emotions or ethics, but overall, have been really lazy. And I consider “lazy” to be a four-letter word. Well, it is, but you know what I mean.)

ANYWAY….the drips and drabbles of the looming school year start to seep in under the doorjamb. Teachers post things about getting ready, and the classrooms are scrubbed by dutiful and conscientious janitors, and all is made shiny and new again. This year the first day of school is September 1. In the olden days, my husband remembers that school never started until after Labor Day, and got out much sooner than we do. I informed him that since the days of No Child Left Behind, a Federal law enacted in the 90s that required teachers receive ‘professional development’ to be considered ‘highly qualified.’ (Those quotation marks are not intended as sarcastic air quotes, but a demarcation of jargon. I am still fuzzy on the whole highly qualified thing, although I am sure I am, and have the evidence/data to back it up.) So, because teachers need more time to receive professional development time, the school year has been expanded to accommodate when teachers are otherwise engaged in their own learning. This is not inherently a bad or good thing, it just is. The goodness comes from when professional development is desired, and choice is given. I have thrived in classes and workshops of my choosing, of my interests. And, the quality of the presentations plays a huge role, too. Not all teachers are meant to be “teachers of teachers.” And that’s okay. But if they’re not going to take on any sort of leadership, or better said, a ‘collaborative, creative workshop’ of sharing ideas and strengths, then perhaps they need to look at who they are as “students:” Teachers act just like students do, too. There are the teachers who constantly raise their hand, interrupting, challenging, arguing, and blurting. (I’m not talking about a respectful exchange of ideas, or challenging falsehoods, but arguing for the sake of arguing.) There are the teachers who sit, distracted by checking emails and other job listings, looking to gnaw their way out. There are teachers, who after one has poured their blood, sweat and tears into a presentation sit back and say they got nothing out of it, that they are beyond everything just presented. (Yes, those have been my tears…) I have come down from the mountaintop only to find the good folks dancing around golden calves and getting into the metaphorical liquor cabinet. All the great information we learn that helps us become better teachers, so in turn, our struggling students can become the cricial thinkers with background knowledge, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension, and resourcefulness we all desire gets broken over heads, like clay tablets. And turned to dust.

But still, August passes. I go to Target and snatch up as many .25 cent, now .50 cent composition books as I can (the price will rise steadily the closer it gets to the first day of school, which I find wholly unfair). Yes, we are heavy into tech, but went the ‘Net is down, and we just need some time to review without electricity or the hum of the machine, compositon books are, for me, a great way to spend school supply money. (My children ask me why I don’t ‘make’  my students buy them–many reasons, not for this post.) But I imagine what would be different if I made a journey to Diagon Alley to buy school supplies. Would there be less of a hullaballo from colleagues over textbooks if the titles were, gee, perhaps Monsters: A Compendium or Anthology of Wizarding Writers’ Workshops: Quills and Quagmires of the Ages?

Not sure why I don’t want to think about this next year (but here I am, thinking nonetheless). Perhaps it is as my older son said, that this year may be like Harry Potter’s fifth year – long, boring, but an important expository turning point. In the fifth year, Dumbledore is otherwise incapacitated, and a bureaucratic, fascist pink-suited meanie takes over, Dolores Umbridge. She is as cruel as her devotion to cats.

And, I am terrified of working with her, or worse–becoming her.

Dolores Umbridge

There will be a lot of new people to get to know: new teammates, new administration, new curriculum, new resources, and most importantly, new students.

But the new students will come with their own perceptions of being clever, unique, and the same old tricks will deceptively seem fresh and untried. Alas, dear students – you are not all that clever, at least in many ways. Your trips to the bathroom, getting a drink, including sitting in the bathroom for a few class periods “just talking” will seem like it’s the first time those fabrications have been tried on a teacher. You will test the boundaries of trust and respect. You may even steal from me. All this is true. BUT…it does not make me jaded. Because I know for every lie a student tells, there are a millions sweet truths. I will be honest with you, trust and respect you, because we all deserve a fresh start. And a new composition book.

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Summer lament.


"I have never surfed. But my inner surfer always feels this way, like a sad Beach Boys song, in August..."

Every August, for years, I felt that something ritualistic or noteworthy was missing to mark the occasion of summer’s end. The perfumed, yet sulferic combination of back-to-school supplies and popsicles doesn’t buff up the mojo as I would wish. Since becoming a teacher, I straddle both worlds, between anticipating the school year for myself, my students, as well as balancing emotions for my own children. And, yes, even for my own personal expectations.

What did I want to accomplish? Did I “relax” enough? (And in asking, that feels stressful in itself.) 

Fortunately, very timely, two bloggers I thoroughly enjoy recently posted their thoughts on summer’s end. One, Doyle, provides his viewpoint using all the sensory images, and sure enough, there IS a holiday associated with this time of the year! I KNEW it, I just KNEW it! There had to be….this time of year, between the summer solstice and fall equinox, had to be marked by some acknowledgment that the light is waning, and the sun is growing ever more shadowy and elusive. It’s called “Lammas.” “Lament” can be a verb or a noun.

The second writer, John Spencer, writes about how he spends his time in the summer. Or rather, doesn’t spend his time.

When I tally up what I did this summer, some of it will feel less like a harvest, and more like a molting. I chose to do nothing this summer, or at least the bare minimum. No conferences, no workshops, no professional development, no classes, and no thinking, really. I went to one day-long seminar to hear John Medina, author of Brain Rules, speak, at Seattle Pacific University. He had some golden nuggets to relate, but it was just as if not more valuable to catch up with some of my colleagues and talk with teachers and business people from around the state/country.

The only thing I have to do is finish up a unit, including incorporating the new common national standards, and making sure it makes sense to others. Sometimes a work of art makes a lot of sense to the artist, but not to the audience.

My musings take me to wonder, though, does the word “lammas” give us the word “lament?” Lament means to grieve, or a grief. There is always that long shadow cast over me this time of year, the end of summer. Maybe some Halloween candy will do the trick to ease the pain.

intransitive verb : to mourn aloud : wailtransitive verb 1 : to express sorrow, mourning, or regret for often demonstratively : mourn
2 : to regret strongly