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That’s a horse of another color: Finding what makes us giddy-up and GO!

Vintage Cowgirl 2Deep breath. This is really a dicey area. How do we help students one, know they must read; two, know that they should read, and three, want to read? Well, perhaps it all gels into one colloidal ooze of humanity – we all have one thing universally in common: we are unique. And because we are unique, we all need to personalize, and internalize, those matters closest to our hearts and soul.

My first year of teaching I had a student who only wanted to read books about horses; primarily fantasy and realistic fiction, but some sort of equine overtone was always at the books’ core. In my earnestness, I tried to have her break out of what I perceived was a rut in reading. (And I was never a ‘horsey” type of girl–sure, would I have like a pony? Well, duh! Even Lisa Simpson has a weakness for pretty ponies, but still…) So, between my biases and trying to be a ‘good teacher of reading,’ I tried, unsuccessfully, in pulling the reins on the horse books. What I probably DID end up succeeding in was making this student feel bad. I could crop myself now, thinking back on it. What was I thinking?! She was reading! And, after all, perhaps if I was so bent on getting her to open up access to other themes, perhaps I just should have said, “Hey (is for horses), I see you like books that have horses. Let’s explore that in genres, and see where that takes you?” Or something like that. I don’t talk like that in real life. I did run into her a year or so after the fact, and a charming young lady was she, and very gracious when I asked her if she was reading other books besides horse tales. She said yes, but I was still a schmuck.

As I alluded to in the post yesterday, the ALA has a good reading interest survey, which I’ve modified over the years. For example: Question No. 6 puzzles me a great deal. “About how many books do you own?”

Well, I know already that many of my students don’t have enough socks and underwear, so I would imagine books are low on the priority list. But, I can’t assume anything. Perhaps the question should be, “Do you know anyone who owns a lot of books? Why do you think they do?”

I confess: I am a bookaholic. (At the risk of having John Spencer call me out on using the suffix “holic” on a word–I know it’s cliche….my apologies!) Anyway, I am. I have no willpower or any modicum of self-control when I am in any bookstore, whether it’s a big box chain bookstore or the local (and diminishing) locally-owned one, or if I’m on an on-line bookstore. Imagine a swirling, sparkling vortex of gauzy purple smoke hovering over my brain, and this ‘woooo—woooooooo……” sound humming from some unknown shadowy source.A wave of confusion and hypnotic command takes over my higher brain functions, and the next thing I know the debit card is in my hand, the order has been placed, and we are scrambling for groceries for two weeks.

I buy a lot of books.

And…I also collect a variety of reading materials, wherever I can scrounge them. If I’m in the city, and there’s one of those tourist pamphlet stands, I grab all I can. Business cards, menus, magazines, catalogs, fortune cookie slips, etc., I gather and horde. Their use is simple: when it comes to understanding that reading is everywhere, I simply put all of this reading material on tables around the room, and have students actively look through as much as they can. They categorize, analyze, and simonize. Well, not the last one. But, the goal is, if they find something that looks like a promising possibility, they write the title/type down. Then…read. And then, think. Did they like it? Why, why not? Who are they now and why did this book fit, or not? Then saddle up again.

But here’s the key: the grand conversation. It still comes back to conferencing with the students as much as possible individually, and the (dare I say it?) a whole-class discussion (which can look an awful lot like a lecture). And, as much as I wish providing students with a wide variety of genres would be the magic elixir to get them all just as stoopified and voo-doo’ed as I am when it comes to books, it doesn’t. The mojo only carries so far. But, it does lasso a few. The rest of the non-believers still have a greater understanding that they are readers, whether they like it or not. They read to live (while some of us live to read).

Now, there is friction with this, make no mistake. My husband has asked me, begged me, not to spend money on books for my classroom. I have tried to slow down. But when I’m at a full gallop, I simply take the fences and dead-head until dawn.

I still want to give a big “Yee-haw!” to, whose participants equipped my classroom with thirty copies of The Lightening Thief by Rick Riordan two years ago. That truly is the gift for the long run.

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If I blog it, they will read…

 Field of DreamsI think if I say it publicly, I’ll have to honor the promise to myself to write about reading. Disclosure statement: This is not everything I know about teaching reading, and I don’t know much, paradoxically! My experience is with “average” middle school-aged students, 11 to 15, with a large population of diverse languages, backgrounds, and cultural experiences. (I love it, by the way.) Oh, and they don’t have much money. But we’re not going to let that stop us from a world-class education! Take that, misguided ed reformers!

The thing is, for all of the great reading strategies, they cannot work independently. It’s like explaining how a carburetor works, and tires, and fuel injector, but not explaining all the parts go into making a vehicle GO. So, let’s see if we can build something together–all comments, resources, and insights are welcome!

Monday (later today): In the Zone: Proximal Development and Background Knowledge

Tuesday: The view from here: Understanding a child’s reading interest, abilities, and desires

Wednesday: Dr. Watson, I infer? Using inferences, allusions, connecting, metacognition, and clues

Thursday: Sass Back:  Questioning and talking back to your books/writers

Friday: Reading like a writer, and writing like a reader: How language connects us all

On Friday, I’ll provide a list of some of my favorite professional development books, too.

Now — for some more coffee.

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Finding Your Way in Reading

When you can read something, and understand it, you gain power–access to knowledge, access to the entire world. It frustrates us when we read something and it becomes “word soup.” It happens to all of us–even me. But, I have the skills to help myself understand most of what I read, and that’s what I’m going to help you all do, too.

There are three basic levels to reading:

Frustration Level: Nothing makes sense — you can’t connect to the text in any way. It might as well be written in another language that you don’t know.

Instructional Level: It makes sense when someone guides you through it, you learn more about the background of the information, you start to see how it makes sense to you, and, as a result of the help, you increase your vocabulary, background knowledge and expands your mental world.

Independent Level: You can read and understand this all on your own. As you grow older, and read more, your independent level naturally increases. Continued reading just beyond your independent level is important — you need to stretch your mind. Getting older by itself doesn’t work–you must keep reading, too.

There are 7 Keys to Reading Well:
(From the book, “7 Keys to Comprehension: How to Help Your Kids Read It and Get It!” by Susan Zimmerman and Chryse Hutchins, Three Rivers Press, copyright 2003.)

1. Create mental images — see what’s happening in your mind. Imagine the book as if it’s a movie.
2. Use your background knowledge — you know more than you may think; what do you know? Make any connection to what you know, no matter how insignificant or small you think it is.
3. Ask questions. That simple — ask questions. Listen to the answers. Ask all three levels of questions you’ve been taught.
4. Make inferences — what do you think might happen, based on what you know so far?
5. Determine the most important ideas or themes: You can use text features, such as headlines, and subheads, chapter titles, etc. to help you.
6. Synthesize information: Ask yourself, “So what?” What is the real meaning, the important meaning, or the main idea of this text? It works for both informational and narrative texts.
7. Use fix-up strategies: Remember when we talked about “metacognition?” It means “thinking about your thinking.” Do you know when you get lost? How do you get back? It’s the same with reading. Re-read, slow your pace, stop and think about your purpose for reading–are you looking for clues about a character? Trying to find out about the sun’s chemical composition? What vocabulary is challenging you?

We are going to work on all of these this year, in varying ways. Before you know it, you won’t even think about the ‘strategies’ you’re using, you’ll just do them automatically, and be a better reader!