Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Book review: "The Book Whisperer"

I just finished "The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child" and it makes me want to not only soak up as many books as I can read, but also to grab a nearby child and book talk them into reading as many books as they can as well. It's obvious from this book that Miller is a lifelong reader who is passionate about convincing children to be the same. She is a sixth grade teacher whose classroom rivals the school library in diversity and size. She expects her kids to read 40 books during the year they are with her, and though some don't make it (the fewest any child has read over the year is 22 books) they usually end up reading MANY more books than they had the previous year. She dedicates 30 minutes per day to independent reading for her students, and spends the other 60 minutes of her period on instruction. If I could find one fault with her book it's that I wish she'd spent more time on describing the instruction that happens in her classroom during the 60 minutes her kids aren't reading. Perhaps she's leaving room to publish another book at a later point in time.

She does go into accountability measures she uses to track student reading, her requirements that students read a variety of genres, and how this devotion to reading translates into test scores (her students regularly do very well on the Texas high-stakes assessment). She also addresses many traditional practices such as round robin reading, incentive programs, and book reports, and I think she does a marvelous job of justifying why she doesn't do them and describing her alternatives instead.

This is a wonderful book, particularly for upper grades teachers who want insight into how workshop can look for their students. She writes in a very readable, convincing style. Now if she'll just come out with her sequel!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Summer Reading

When I first started teaching, I didn’t read professional books. Granted, there wasn’t much out there to choose from. But it wasn’t just lack of selection that got in my way. When I did find some professional books I liked, I found that I could only read them during the summer months. If I read during the school year, inevitably I ended up feeling enormously guilty that my classroom differed so greatly from the shining examples of teaching I encountered in my books. The authors were always sensitive, knowledgeable angels of God with patience to spare and apparently no classroom discipline problems to deal with. The writing or reading responses their students came up with seemed so much more profound that what I could coax from my little ones, and the comparison was painful. So, I solved that by just avoiding it.

I chose instead to read professionally only during the summer. Because during those wonderful, lazy days anything was possible. This next year when I met my students they would all be sensitive, caring scholars who would do anything to please me. They would anticipate my every wish and need, surprise me with their intuitive responses to literature, and endear me to the administration, who would be in awe of my expertise in changing the lives of these little ones.

Or maybe not.

What I ended up discovering, by accident or necessity (I can’t remember which), was that if I just jumped in and tried to change my classroom one little bit at a time to reflect the brilliant techniques I read about, the students rose to the occasion. Rather than think, “Oh, what a great idea! I’ll try that with next year’s class” I began to implement changes as I went. I discovered that only 3-4 weeks after what had seemed like a major change I couldn’t imagine my classroom any other way. One year I gave up the basal mid-way through the year and went to small group sets of children’s literature. Another year I gave up the spelling lists and began individualized spelling. Only a few years ago I decided to try math workshop mid-way through the year, drawing from Marilyn Burns’ books for inspiration. Each time the change was a good one, and I ended up feeling grateful that I’d taken the plunge and changed mid-way through. And that has led to an unapologetic addiction to reading professional books, no matter what time of year it may be.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

LSD and reading

I used to race mountain bikes for fun on weekends, and after the first few races I began to realize that for folks who were serious about this sport, there were certain training regimes that gave them an advantage. Among those were nutrition, weight lifting, interval training, and LSD. No, that’s not the hallucinogenic drug from the 60’s, but instead stands for Long, Slow Distance. Typically, this was done in the winter, and involved going out for long rides at an easy, conversational pace for hours at a time. The idea was that it built endurance, heart strength, and automated your body’s use of its muscle’s energy stores. Once race season came near, you were supposed to increase the difficulty by doing interval training and more intense workouts.

It occurred to me on my bike ride today (which necessarily consists of LSD since I’m riding by myself with no one to push me – or maybe it was just L & S) that there’s an easy connection between this LSD concept and what Allington was talking about regarding text selection in his article . In order for me to become a better and faster racer, I had to step back and, counter-intuitively, go slow. With readers, we often want to push them to read harder and longer books, stretching their skills past what they can comfortably do. But by doing so, we run the risk of pushing them to the point of exhaustion. When this happens, students learn that 1) reading is hard and 2) they can’t do it very well. They’re learning, but it’s not what we want them to learn.

Allington is arguing that we need to allow students to read easier texts to build automaticity, in the same way that Long, Slow Distance allowed me to build my base strength as a cyclist. By spending time with these easier texts, readers learn to successfully apply the decoding and comprehension strategies they’re being taught. They also learn to be motivated, confident readers who will choose to read in the future.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Allington's Six Ts of Effective Instruction

Dick Allington is brilliant. He’s a wonderful researcher, but I consider his most brilliant feat to be making the research that’s out there so completely accessible to the rest of us.

He has written about the “Six T’s of Effective Instruction” before, but I think it’s worth summarizing here because it’s so brilliant. The excerpts below are all from his chapter “What I’ve Learned About Effective Reading Instruction From a Decade of Studying Exemplary Elementary Classroom Teachers” in “RTI in Literacy – Responsive and Comprehensive”.

Allington argues that good Tier 1 literacy instruction has 6 common features:

Time: Exemplary teachers balance out true reading and writing in their classroom as compared to “stuff”, which is what Allington calls the activities such as worksheets, test-prep, dictionary skills, etc. that aren’t real reading. In many classrooms it’s not unusual for children to spend only 10% of their day actually reading or writing, whereas students in exemplary teachers’ classrooms spend around 50% of their time really reading and writing. That’s approximately 150 minutes out of a 300 minute school day.
Texts: “Students need enormous quantities of successful reading to become independent, proficient readers. By successful reading, I mean reading experiences in which students perform with a high level of accuracy, fluency, and comprehension.” Students need texts that they are able to read.
Teaching: It sounds simple, but students need to be taught. Too many times, what teachers do instead is assign and assess. Allington promotes “the notion of active instruction – the modeling and demonstration of the useful strategies that good readers employ.” We can’t expect most kids to learn how to comprehend or decode or read fluently without being explicitly shown how.
Talk: “We observed the exemplary teachers fostering much more student talk – teacher/student and student/student – than has previously been reported. In other words, these exemplary teachers encouraged, modeled, and supported lots of talk across the school day.” These teachers tended to ask more open-ended, thought-provoking questions than less effective teachers.
Tasks: “Another characteristic of these exemplary teachers’ classrooms was greater use of longer assignments and less emphasis on filling the day with multiple shorter tasks.” The tasks these teachers asked students to engage in integrated multiple skills and strategies the students were taught, rather than isolating them. The researchers also found that students exhibited less off-task behaviors and more engagement because of the longer tasks.
Testing: “Exemplary teachers evaluated student work and awarded grades based more on effort and improvement than simply on achievement.” In other words, teachers were looking more at the process the students underwent rather than the product. Struggling students were rewarded for growth and improvement in learning, and teachers often used rubrics to help students see their progress towards their learning goals.

Allington’s Six T’s provide us a succinct way to evaluate our own instruction and whether we’d measure up to the exemplary teachers he studied. When scientists are seeking the answer to a problem, the first thing they do is research to see if anyone else has found the solution. It seems that Allington has done the research, and now it’s just up to us to use it to adjust our own teaching.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

In it for the long haul

I’ve always been amazed by those teachers who teach beyond their requisite 30 years. So I was quite amazed to read about this 93 year old calculus teacher who has been teaching for 75 consecutive years.

I’d love to see a side-by-side comparison of his first year of teaching and this current year. What’s the same? What is different besides available technology?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Book Review: Teach Like a Champion

I rarely, if ever, abandon any book that I set out to read, especially professional books. An eternal optimist, I keep hoping that it’s a slow start and that I’ll reach the good part in the next hundred pages. But this past week I found that I couldn’t continue reading “Teach Like A Champion” by Doug Lemov.

I’d read an article online somewhere months ago describing the work Lemov is doing to transform inner-city schools into bustling hives of inspiration, sending hundreds or thousands of kids to college who wouldn’t otherwise go. He’s observed the best teachers in these schools and compiled 49 techniques they use to “put students on the path to college”. My hope was that Lemov’s book would help pinpoint those critical teaching moves so that, as a coach, I could bring them to other teachers.

While Lemov does discuss some useful techniques, the majority of what he promotes in the book and accompanying DVD are very old-fashioned. Teachers stand at the front of the room, students sit in silent rows or stand beside their desks, and interaction consists of the teacher barking out information or questions while the students call back in unison or respond when “cold called” by the teacher. Most examples consisted of whole group instruction, and even round robin reading, or reading from basal texts. Check out some videos at this link to see some examples. Scroll down to “check out related media” and look for teaching examples.

It’s a very behavioralist methodology, and perhaps the only use I can think of for the DVD is as a contrast to the constructivist approach that I’d much prefer teachers use. Learning is not about regurgitation, or following orders, or rote memorization. Yes, it is about time on task, but it’s also about thoughtful participation, about individual opinions, and about groups of students working to construct their knowledge together. As a contrast, check out this 4 minute video on Teacher Tube by Lucy Calkins discussing the Reading Workshop approach. The contrast could not be sharper.

Last week I read an article from a British online magazine discussing Lemov’s book. Here’s what one teacher had to say:

Many of the points he gives are related to what you could call an autocratic style of teaching – constantly asking questions. There are fewer ideas to improve the dynamics of group work – if you were to pick up a British book on modern teaching it would be about how to create a dynamic learning environment. If you stood in front of a class of British schoolkids doing question-and-answer all lesson, you would lose them. It's not the way we teach. After reading this book, my perception is that British teaching is ahead of the game.

It’s disturbing to think that 1) new teachers might pick up this book and think it’s a good way to teach and 2) that other countries might judge us on the basis of this book. I’d hope that most people have moved into the 21st century and beyond this very old-fashioned way of teaching.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

She sees his face
staring from the old class picture
Surrounded by smiling 7 year old cheesy grins
his face is blank, his eyes empty
Why didn’t she see it then?
Did she do enough?
She wonders where his face is now,
years past the frozen picture moment.

The universal teacher’s prayer:
please let him be happy now,
Was some other teacher able to reach in
and turn the key that opened him?

~Heather Wall

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Breathing In and Breathing Out

The past week has been a wonderful blur of sleeping late, piddling in the yard, and fictional books that have nothing to do with teaching. It was the first full week off for summer vacation, and I reveled in it, to the point that when asked by a friend to discuss an educational topic towards the end of the week, I found that I didn’t have the “education-ese” ready at the tip of my tongue. My brain had taken a much-needed rest and had promptly forgotten so much of what I’d worked on for the past 200 days.

Sylvia Ashton-Warner, in her book “Teacher”, talks about arranging her day with the Maori children of New Zealand as an alternation between “breathing in” and “breathing out”. She felt that kids need to balance taking in new information with their creative impulses to produce something, and so she layered her day with, for instance, whole-group big book reading followed by independent writing time, then singing songs and reciting rhymes as a whole group followed by small group projects. This approach gives kids a chance to process and apply all the new information they hear during the day. It’s why a pure lecture method doesn’t work, even for adults.

As a teacher and coach, I find that I need to balance my “breathing in” with my “breathing out” as well. There are only so many professional books I can read, or even so many pages of one professional book I can take in, before I must take a break and put it to use. It’s also why I am a fairly slow reader when it comes to reading professionally – I spend a great deal of time staring off into space processing what I’ve read. The time spent staring is directly proportional to the unfamiliarity or originality of the material I read. But by balancing that breathing in and out as I read, I’ve been able to process the material by applying it virtually to situations in my classroom.

There’s a rhythm to a productive life, a groove that, once we fit into it, feels just right. And sometimes what feels just right is to piddle in the yard and take a complete break from breathing at all.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


If you try to teach a child the same
thing in the same way
over and over,
who's the slow learner?
~ Unknown

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Trip Back in Time

Today I spent hours cleaning out one of my filing cabinets, a task that has been long overdue and which is, for me, oddly satisfying. I love getting rid of old things that I no longer use. It’s like weeding the garden and suddenly being able to see organized rows where before there had been only chaos. It’s why, as I recently justified to my husband, I let housework get so far behind: it’s so satisfying to see a stark difference rather than only a slight improvement.

The cleaning of my files brought home the unexpected realization that I have now become one of those older teachers who has drawers filled with outdated, blurry worksheets with no discernible purpose or redeeming qualities. The opening of each file in the cabinet revealed another layer of the onion of the teacher I used to be. Why did I save an entire file on penguins? Did I ever plan thematic units on topics such as soil based on all the possible art, music, social studies and math connections? Or what about one whole file folder dedicated to “bulletin boards”? I still had papers I’d written in college, and even “activity” ideas that I’d inherited from a retiring teacher as I began my career almost 20 years ago. One index card was so wrinkled and coffee-stained I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away, despite the fact that it recorded the words to a song I had no idea how to sing.

Reading through the files brought back memories (and actual parent notes and classroom newsletters) of previous years, and I suddenly began to remember that teacher I used to be. People I used to work with, students I’d taught, plans I’d written, notes I’d taken in workshops and articles I’d clipped and taped together. There’s so much that I wasn’t aware that I didn’t know. Ignorance was bliss.

Sandra Cisneros has written about the years of our lives layering upon each other like the skin of an onion. In her short story “Eleven”, she discusses being eleven, and that when you turn eleven underneath you’re still 10 and 9 and 8 and 7 and 6 and 5 and 4 and 3 and 2 and 1. But all people see is the eleven-year-old you. All of us are like that. Even though the teacher/coach I am now feels like a fully-formed, independent person, I’m really just a composite of all those versions of me that came before. A mosaic of experiences, spread out on an office floor, or piled in an office trashcan waiting to be recycled.

Every once in a while it’s good to dig beneath the surface and revisit that earlier version of ourselves, if only to see how far we’ve come.