Friday, January 27, 2017

Summer Reading Starts Now

Recently, a colleague emailed our New Jersey ELA supervisor group asking for ideas and input about her school district's summer reading program.  I do not have much to contribute to these conversations as my district does not have a summer reading program, a fact that astonishes some people.

Truthfully, I've never bought into mandating a summer reading program.  When I was a high school senior, I was assigned A Light in August by William Faulkner.  I will shamefully admit not only did I not read it during the summer of 1991 (sorry, Ms. Carboy), but I still haven't read it (adding it to my TBR list right now)!  As an English educator, I do not think summer reading assignments yield the results well-meaning English teachers desire.

Beach reading with my girl!
In traditional English classrooms, we assign students books to read all year.  Is it fair for us to also dictate what students spend their summers reading?  Real readers look forward to the summer days when they indulge themselves in beach reads - romances, mysteries, thrillers, and whatever else their book-loving hearts desire. While sprawled on beach blankets or cuddled up on porch swings, readers savor long, warm days with a good book in their hands.  I have spoken with countless teachers who eagerly anticipate these cherished hours of reading.  So why shouldn't we want the same for our students?

Summer reading programs are full of good intentions.  We want our students to read great books and to maintain their reading stamina.  We want to help them pick books we think they will like.  Teachers debate and discuss titles to add to lists and the work students will do in September to prove they read (eek!).  However, summer reading assignments are also born out of fear.  We worry, "If we don't assign them a book, they won't read."  And you know what?  We are right...kind of.

Most kids won't read in the summer when they are not already in the habit of reading.  They will go to campgrounds, beaches, lakes, and parks without a book in their bag to accompany them, if they do not see the joy and purpose of reading.  So assigning non-readers a book (even a book they choose from a list of 100) will not miraculously inspire them to read all summer.

Summer reading starts now.
One of my Beach Vacation TBR Piles

If we want students to be excited about a summer of books, we need to fill their autumns, winters and springs with great books too.  We need to let them read books they love in our classrooms every day.  We need to talk with them about books they might enjoy.  We need to ask them to make recommendations to their classmates.  We need to share the books we abandoned and explain why.  We need to show them how to go to their town library to find books they want to read. We need to help students curate an ever growing "To Read" book lists just like real readers do.

Our high school students spend the first ten minutes of nearly every English class reading a book they chose.  At the end of the school year, we survey them to assess how this curriculum component helps build their reading lives and improves their reading abilities.  We also ask them if they plan to continue to read this summer -- no reading assignment, no one book initiative, no lists.  Over 85% of our students said they will read during the summer.  Of course, 100% would be better, but we will get there someday!

So start your students' summer reading now by letting them read widely and broadly in your classrooms, exploring to discover what they books love and which authors they enjoy.  If they have books they love in their backpacks now, they won't forget to add them to their travel bags this summer.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

What Are You Reading?: Reading Conferences with High School Students

For many years teacher-student conferences have been an important component of writing instruction at the high school level.  Many teachers require writing conferences while students write essays or research papers.  They include these productive conversations into their class periods as well as before school, after school, during lunch and prep periods and even online.  Students receive individual feedback that improves their writing.

So why, then, do most secondary educators neglect reading conferences?  When I taught high school, I never thought to include them either.  Most secondary level teachers do not see themselves as teachers of reading the way they see themselves as writing teachers.  However, this mindset is slowly starting to change.  As we move from teachers of literature to teachers of literacy, we need to find time to talk with students about their reading.

Several years ago I read Penny Kittle's book, Book Love.  Anyone who knows me or my ELA department knows how transformative this professional text has been to our school community.  Independent reading plays an important role in our work with students, though it has taken us some time to see where and how to add reading conferences into the mix as well.  In Book Love, Penny dedicates an entire chapter to reading conferences, which has been so helpful to understanding the purpose and the architecture of a reading conference.

The Reading Conference
Penny outlines a few types of conferences - reading life, reading strategy and reading for complexity. At this point in our professional growth, most of our conferences are "reading life" conferences.  This means teachers individually meet with students to talk about who they are as readers and to help them set reading goals.  Questions teachers may ask are:
  • What are you currently reading?
  • What is your favorite book or author and why?
  • What is the last book you abandoned and why?
  • Where do you like to read most?
  • How long can you read in one sitting?
  • From where do you get book recommendations?
The answers to these questions help teachers make book suggestions as well as offer guidance on students' reading behaviors.  If a student says she can only read for five minutes at a time, there are many follow-up questions the teacher asks to understand why this is so.  The possibilities range from the student picks books that don't intrigue her to her reading spot is too distracting to she may need glasses!

Finding the Time
I know what you're thinking.  "This all sounds great, Heather, but when does one find the time?"  Let me say first, then, I understanding the constraints secondary educators have.  If you still teach in a school where a bell rings every 42 to 45 minutes, you cram lots of learning into a class period that is already too short.  Those of us with periods of an hour or longer do have an easier time of it.  No matter the period length, though, it is about prioritizing reading conferences in your plans because reading conferences make you a better teacher for your readers and help your students have richer reading lives.   Some scheduling options are:
  1. Meet with one student each class period for three to five minutes while other students engage in an opening activity.  By month's end, you will have met with every student at least once.  You could do this each month, or do it three times a year.  
  2. Dedicate several full class periods to reading conferences.  As other students work on a research project or a group learning experience, you meet with students for conferences, usually speaking with five to six students in one period. 
  3. Use all those shortened days or days before breaks, hosting conferences more sporadically throughout the year.  
  4. Schedule reading conferences during a prep time or lunch time just as you might a writing conference.  
  5. Try a combination of one or two options! 
I do not have one "right way" to find time to schedule reading conferences.  With a little trial and error and a solid commitment to the practice, you will find something that works for you.

I promise you, it will be time well spent.  You will know your students better.  You will design more meaningful reading lessons because you will understand their needs better.  You will engage in productive, meaningful conversations with them about reading and books that inspire them to read more than they thought they could.  And, if all goes as we hope, you will help them nurture reading life that will extend way beyond their time in your classroom.  


Monday, January 2, 2017

Reading: It's Not Just for English Teachers

When I was teaching high school English, one of the many things I loved about independent reading is that my students saw me as a reader.  I read with them nearly every day during independent reading time.  My students wanted to know the books I chose and why I chose them.  They sought recommendations from me and borrowed the books I kept in my classroom library.  Like any reader, though, I have my preferred genres and authors.  I increased the scope of my reading every year, but I was never going to dive into books on science or economics or military history.  Those are topics that couldn't hold my interest.  And yet, I had many students who were passionate about those topics.  When helping those students choose books, I often suggested they ask their science or history teachers for book recommendations.  Students returned to my class surprised to learn that their biology teacher or computer science teacher was also an avid reader.  Hmmm...should they be so shocked by this fact?

The English teachers in our school always share what we are reading with students.  We add signature lines to our emails that list the book titles we are currently reading.  We post our "Read" and "To Be Read" lists on the whiteboards in our rooms.  We book talk with kids regularly., so our students definitely know we are readers.

Equally important, though, all teachers should be readers and should share their reading lives with students.  Those math-minded students might better see the value of reading if they knew their favorite math teacher was reading The Signal and The Noise by Nate Silver.  Students fascinated by DNA might find reading inspiration from their science teacher who is reading The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee.  The star soccer player might be intrigued to pick up Forward by Abby Wambach if it was recommended by the physical education teacher.  And any student might love to know that a teacher is also a huge fan of the Alex Cross series written by James Patterson.  Guilty pleasure reads are fun to share too!

No matter what content area, speciality or grade you teach, you should have an active reading life, and you should share it with your students.  Students, then, will see the tremendous range of books available to them as well as the role that reading plays in everyone's life.  I guarantee you that the books you tell your students about will start showing up in their hands.  It is such a satisfying feeling when you see a student in study hall or after school or in English class reading a book that you said you loved.  You might even open up a whole new world to them that they never would have found otherwise.

Happy Reading!

Friday, November 25, 2016

Using Gratitude as a Weapon

“It's wonderful to be grateful. To have that gratitude well out from deep within you and pour out in waves. Once you truly experience this, you will never want to give it up.” ~Srikumar Rao

For many (including me) the past few weeks have been restless ones.  We are anxious, angry, and, let’s face it, scared.  Unable to anticipate what the next few years might bring, some of us want to insulate and isolate ourselves, simply keeping our heads down and hoping for the best.  We do not know what to do, so our impulse is to do nothing.  

This week the season of gratitude has stumbled into our consciousness.  However, we are unsure what to make of it.  How can we be grateful when we are living with fear and hatred?  If we express our gratitude for the lives we have, will we be perceived as heartless braggarts, blissfully unaware of our citizens’ struggles?  Is it still okay to feel blessed?

Hateful rhetoric and actions have been empowered due to election results.  Children and adults have been subjected to horrible verbal and physical attacks because of their skin color, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or gender identity.  In a November 17th article, “Hate on the Rise After Trump Election,” The New York Times reported that the Southern Poverty Law Center saw an increase in hate-fueled intimidation acts.  More frightening?  We can only guess how many went unreported.  To hear this news deeply troubles me.  What can we...should we do, then, to reverse this horrendous trend of hatred?   What must we do now to make America remember its ideals again?  Maybe now it is more important than ever to be grateful.  

We must use gratitude as a weapon.  We should honor all that brings us joy by insisting they be offered to everyone.  We should seek justice because we value its critical importance to our humanity.  We must persevere so that every person in this country have access to the human rights that actually make our country great.  We must be grateful as it opens our hearts to kindness and inspires us to provide to others.   

If we do not create a space for gratitude in our lives, we will become complacent.  We will take all we have for granted, losing perspective on what others need because we refuse to pick up our heads and look at all that is good in our lives.  BUT if we refuse to forget our joys and privileges, we will never forget their value.  AND if we know how valuable these are, we will not rest until everyone has them too.  

Use gratitude as a weapon.  Wield its message wildly in the face of those who hate. Show them that grateful hearts do not rest, do not give up.  In a country that dedicates entire days to giving thanks, we have a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to continue the pursuit of life and liberty for all.

Approach each interaction with a giving heart. Be kind. Be proactive. Be a voice for those who need theirs amplified. Be vigilant.  Be grateful.                

Monday, January 18, 2016

Go with the Flow

“Spend more time doing things that make you forget about the time."                                                                 ~Charlotte Eriksson
In October I saw Harvey “Smokey” Daniels present a fantastic session about inquiry in the classroom at Kean University. He modeled several ideas on how to leverage students’ interests while teaching them critical literacy skills such as reading informational texts and evaluating data. However, he also made two poignant comments that have bounced around my brain ever since.

The education world has engaged in lots of conversations about “grit” over the last few years. Angela Duckworth’s TED Talk on grit in April 2013 really brought this discussion to the forefront of the education narrative both in popular media and in our faculty meetings. In his recent workshop, though, Smokey Daniels stated, “When we are curious, we don’t need grit. If [educators] rely on grit, that blames the child rather than the curriculum.”

Grit Versus Flow

I love when I hear something that makes me think, “I’ve never thought of it that way before,” and these statements definitely fell into this category. Should educators dedicate our energy to teaching students how to be gritty, or should we provide them learning experiences that intrinsically activate their desire to persevere? I do not pretend to have the answer, but it has inspired some more thinking. Maybe rather than focusing on developing grit in students, our more fruitful pursuit is to give students increased opportunities to experience “flow.” Around the same time I saw Smokey, I also saw The Educator Collaborative Founding Director (and all-around amazing educator and person) Chris Lehman present at the Conference on English Leadership's Regional Institute in New Jersey. He wisely discussed the need to create condition of flow in order to generate insatiably curious learners, teachers, and school leaders.

Have you ever experienced flow? Think about those spectacular times when you dove head first into a project and minutes or (more likely) hours passed without notice because you were so deeply entrenched in the flow of the work. In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes “Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person's skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.”

Perhaps, then, our conversation about resilience in students should more carefully examine how our curriculum and instruction provides optimal “flow” conditions, so our students learn more than just “grit.” They learn that challenging but meaningful work is a reward itself.  

Conditions for Flow

So how do we create "flow" conditions in our classrooms?  If teachers are very clear on what skills students need to learn, they can design engaging learning experiences that launch students into a state of flow rather than requiring them to endure the activity.  As I watch the tweets that are coming out of Heinemann's "Reading the City Institute" in Santa Fe, NM this weekend, I am reminded that inquiry and ownership are the key components to creating the optimal conditions for flow.  Here are a few components to consider as you design students' learning opportunities:

1.  Clear Goals - When I say students should have choice, I am not suggesting it is a free-for-all.  Teachers have standards they need to teach, and students have skills they need to acquire.  Instead, it is crucial for teachers to clearly identify what these skills are and how students will know they have met them.  No matter what the grade level, then, teachers need to share these goals with their students in language the children will understand.  This may take more time than most people realize.  Revisiting these objectives throughout the teachers' and the students' planning process is vital.  Teachers will need to mention them over and over as students work, especially if the students' work veers off track.  Asking students, "How does this meet our goal of examining persuasive writing techniques?" when they simply want to bake a cake and write a how-to book about it helps get them back on target.

2. Consistent, Frequent Feedback - Once learning experiences are determined and underway, teachers move into feedback mode.  As students conduct research or write stories or prepare presentations, the teacher's primary role is to offer them specific feedback that validates as well as challenges students.  I'm not going to sugar coat this process.  It is exhausting, draining work. Students will be in all different stages of understanding and their needs will vary greatly.  Teachers will feel more like triage nurses, at times, as they seek to support and push all their students appropriately.  However, it is worth the time and the effort.  Teachers will need to meet with students as often as possible to help maintain the "flow" conditions, but the results will astound.  

3.  Healthy Balance of Challenge & Success - Without a sense of efficacy, students will be easily discouraged (as we all would).  However, if they believe they have the skills and the support to be success, they will be more likely to embrace any challenges that arise.  And they should arise.  That space between stress and success is where they learning happens.  Not only do they acquire new skills, they also feel that sense of accomplishment that satisfies the soul and shows them how fulfilling the work can be.  Hence, the feeling of flow.  Again, teachers' consistent feedback and instruction keeps them working in that sweet spot of learning.  Teachers add complexity to a task by offering resources that extend or contradict the students' premise or by expanding their audience so they contemplate their language more carefully or any number of ways to raise the bar (if only slightly).


Often, the assessment of student-driven inquiries causes educators stress or discomfort.  Teachers frequently ask me how they will answer parents who wonder why all the students are reading different texts or exploring different topics.  However, it all goes back to setting clear goals.  Teachers are measuring students' capacities with particular skills.  A clear, easy-to-read rubric can help parents and students understand what these are.   Also, teachers should explain that they do not need to teach only one book in order to measure students' abilities to analyze text or to evaluate voice or whatever the key objectives may be.  They can do so within texts students have selected to pursue inquiry pathways they have built.  Through a teacher's consistent work with the students as well as his/her own advanced skill, he or she can assess how well students have met the goals.  It is also important to explain that students find more success when they are working within their interest areas.   

Designing Learning Experiences

This could be an entirely different blog post, but I think it is unnecessary to write it.  Why?  Well, the first reason is your students will be your best resource.  You will use their interests and questions to help them create inquiry experiences that meet the standards and create "flow" conditions.  The second reason is several really smart people have already written fantastic professional texts to help teachers with this work.  Here are links to a few great ones:

Upstanders by Harvey "Smokey" Daniels and Sara Ahmed

And do not forget to add flow into your life as well.  Do something simply because you love to do it. Follow Charlotte Eriksson's advice and allow yourself time to engage in work that causes you to lose all sense of time!    

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Why I Love My Job

*Originally published on January 3, 2016 on my blog (which I am abandoning - Blogger is better). 

“The pitcher cries for water to carry/ and a person for work that is real.” 

To Be of Use ~Marge Piercy

Recently, I chatted with a friend about work. Approximately thirty minutes into the conversation, he paused and said, “We are only talking about our frustrations. Let’s talk about what is going well at school.” This interjection was a wonderful reminder that (though tempting, at times) I should not fall prey to focusing on what isn’t going exactly the way I planned or hoped. Instead, I should spend time celebrating the many accomplishments of students, teachers and colleagues.

Since that phone call I have reflected on why I absolutely love my job and how blessed I am to return to my work every day. So on the eve of this winter break’s end, I thought I’d share just a few reasons why I love what I do:
  1. Teachers — My job is to work with teachers, and teachers are the bravest, smartest, best people I know. Each day teachers walk into classrooms filled with dozens of children who bring various strengths, needs, and interests to their desks. Teachers see potential where others may only see challenges. And I am lucky enough to be the person to whom teachers turn when they are struggling. It is my job to help them design lessons and assessments, to find ways to reach disaffected students, to seek resources to inspire students’ learning and to encourage them when they feel uncertain. It is a joy to be surrounded by so many people who simply love their work and want to do what is best for kids.
  2. Students — Since leaving the classroom a few years ago, I have limited opportunities to work closely with students. However, I am in classrooms all the time, so I frequently have the privilege to see them in action. I sit in first grade rooms and watch reading buddies enthusiastically share their favorite books. I visit fourth grade rooms and observe students composing their fictional narratives, making sure every word captures the correct mood. I join tenth grade classes and listen to students debate whether Lady Macbeth’s insults were the catalyst for MacBeth’s power hungry rampage. Whether I spend five minutes or fifty with students, I am reminded why our work matters. I feel privileged to help design their educational experiences and to see them engage in their learning process.
  3. Books & Poetry — Somedays it feels like a miracle. I have to read all kinds of books and all types of poetry to identify the best ones to include in our classroom libraries, instructional units and book circles. It is my job to do so! I review picture books by the dozen. I follow the Nerdy Book Club and read books they recommend. I notice what our middle and high school students read during independent reading time and read those books too. Plus, I read poetry every day, checking The Writer’s Almanac and Poetry Daily web pages to see what poems are posted and how they might be used in our classrooms. Seriously? Pinch me.
So before the Sunday night blues sweep over you, take a few minutes and jot down why you love your job. Then when your 5:30 a.m. alarm sounds on Monday morning, you will wake with a smile knowing how blessed you are to be an educator.
Have a great day!

More Than Words

*Originally published on Dec 29, 2015 on my blog (which I am abandoning - Blogger is better).

“I don’t want just words. If that’s all you have for me, you’d better go.” 

~F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and the Damned

While I extracted this quote from Fitzgerald’s novel about a doomed couple, it is also a sentiment easily applied to leaders. Teachers are not a naive audience. Those born to be teachers were also born with the gift to quickly spot a phony. This gift is a survival instinct that is deeply embedded into their psyche to assist their navigation of those students who try to fake their way through a class discussion or assessment or bathroom requests. With little hesitation, teachers feel in their guts whether a student is being truthful when she says her printer wasn’t working or her dog ate her homework.
Teachers have the same instinct when it comes to school leaders.

School leaders have to offer more than “just words.” Truthfully, leaders should listen — really listen — more than they speak. An astute listener will learn more about a school’s culture, a teacher’s struggles, or a student’s pain by what is left unsaid. Leaders, then, should use their words to ask questions, to propose possible solutions, and to create plans.

School leaders must be comprised of more than the words they proffer during faculty or PTO meetings. Leaders who show teachers that the work they do matters and that they believe in them are those who create positive school climates which lead to productive teachers and students.

So how do you show you are a person of more than words? Resolve to perform one, two or all of these actions before the school year ends:
  1. Dress up on a theme day. I mean who doesn’t want to go to work in PJs? Of course you can have your regular business attire at the ready, but if it is school spirit week, make sure you show your school spirit.
  2. Teach a lesson. Plan the lesson. Teach the lesson. Gather feedback. Repeat. True, it is probably not something you can do often, but you should try to do so several times a year.
  3. Celebrate teachers. Show the community how hard they work. Invite the local newspaper to write profiles. Take photos and post them on Twitter. Write a blog that describes what teachers do each day to teach and reach students.
  4. Give them time. Too often leaders make the mistake of talking their ways through the entire professional development days. If you need to present information or provide training, limit yourself to 20% of the allotted time slot for the in-service. Give teachers, then, the rest of the time to work in groups or alone to extend their learning and apply it to their teaching.
  5. Seek input from your teachers and staff. Consistently ask where they want to go professionally. What should the school do to be a better learning environment? What does and does not work about a daily schedule. When someone gives you a great idea, then, make sure you give him or her the credit.
What other ways can school leaders show they are more than “just words”?