How do I know if my students are really reading?

Burning QuestionsTHIS IS A PART OF THE BURNING QUESTIONS BLOG SERIES. AT THE END OF EACH POST, YOU WILL FIND RESOURCE LINKS AND A LINK TO A ONE-PAGE PDF WITH THE INFORMATION IN THE BLOG — INCLUDING RESOURCES.

Kids are great fakers.  If I’m honest, I was a pretty good faker in school too.  I’ll never forget a teacher saying he was going to give us a super hard test on a book and if we didn’t read it, there was no way we would make an A.  All I could think was challenge accepted, dude.   

If I didn’t like a book, I knew ways to fake it to get the grade I wanted.  Students in my classes know the same tricks – and maybe a few more (and better) ones too. 

I’m a part of a professional group that recently asked the same question.  The answers surprised me – many were playing a game of “gotcha” with kids usually via some horrendous quiz.  

This brought back memories of another teacher who assigned a book – a book I loved and read every word!  His quiz included questions such as how long was the rope that the character bought.  I got the question wrong, and I had read the book.  The fact I remember that 20+ years later tells you the impact it had on me. 

So, if we know kids fake it at times and we know “gotcha” quizzes can punish students who actually read, what do we do? 

Here’s what the research and experts suggest isn’t effective: 

  • Reading Logs– While reading logs are okay for informal formative assessments or information for the reader, they should not be used as a grade.  DonalynMiller once said that reading logs only measured which parent had a pen on Friday morning.   
  • Jots– Again, jots are not bad.  Jots just should be about instruction, reading growth, and the reader. Assigning 15 jots of at least 3 sentences each does little to ensure reading; rather, it often has the unintended consequence of students worrying more about jots than reading and thinking about reading. 
  • Incentive-based Programs– Whether this is a purchased program or a “homegrown” created program, incentives can often lead to diminished reading in the long run.  There’s lots of research on this.  I suggest checking out Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards (1995). 

So then what’s the answer?  Here’s some thoughts on where to start: 

  • Talk to students – Conferring is arguably one of the best ways to know if students are reading.  If we are using independent reading time in our class, during that time, we should be talking to kids about their reading!  Students should know we are a readersby the way we promote books, make recommendations, etc.  They don’t need to see us reading.  They need us talking to them about what they are reading! 
  • Get students talking to each other – While the teacher/student conference is incredibly important, it is equally important to have students talk to each other about their reading lives.  This can be done through book clubs or informal book talks or partner talks.  Students talking about books and their reading has so many positive implications, it really is a priority to implement it in every classroom.  But implemented well and with intention and purpose. 
  • Access and choice and time – Students have to have access to high interest books they want to read and the time to read them.  If we get students hooked in a book, they will read.  But we know that not every kid is going to be “hooked” by the same book.  Students need to have choice — and to have choice they have tohave access to lots of different, high interest books that are mirrors and windows for them.  Then, of course, it follows, if students have access to choose a high interest book, they will need to have time to read it.  What we spend time on in our classrooms reflects our values as educators.

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How Do I Help Reluctant Readers Find the Right Book?

Burning Questions This is a part of the Burning Questions blog series. At the end of each post, you will find resource links and a link to a one-page PDF with the information in the blog — including resources.

To answer this question, I feel like you first must ask two questions: What does “reluctant reader” mean? And what is a “right book”? 

I hesitate to use the term “reluctant” reader. Author Laurie Halse Anderson recently tweeted:

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Many times, a reluctant reader is one who is reluctant to read the books put in front of them but would read if she found the “right” book. Likewise, the “reluctant” read-er may be one who is struggling with reading and needs support without being made to feel like they are different and somehow not a part of the real reading community of the class. 

And sometimes “reluctant” really means resistant reader. Somewhere (or many wheres) these kids had negative experiences with reading and just don’t want to do it. 

No matter the reason, the answer is to find the “right” book. But what does “right” book mean? Again, that depends so much on the reader. There are no short an-swers; no 1-2-3 that will automatically give you the right title. You have to be pa-tient and persistent. And you have to be a reader. 

It’s hard to think of recommendations when you don’t read. However, that does not mean you must read every single book out there or even in your classroom library. Being a reader, I know about books and authors and genres in ways I wouldn’t know if I didn’t read. I draw on my personal reading life to help find the right book for kids. 

Even if you are a reader and your students have access to great books in your classroom, you will still have to help a kid who doesn’t have a reading life figure out how to find “right” books. This starts with a conversation. 

And I do mean, sitting down and talking one-on-one with a kid, asking questions and really listening to what he says and doesn’t say. Why don’t they read? When did they stop reading? What kind of stories do they like? What are they willing to try? 

From conversation, you should be able to recommend 3 to 4 books for the reader to check out, preview, decide which one he wants to try out. Give her permission to abandon the book after 10 or so pages and try another one. Maybe even read a few pages with him. If you can, get her hooked in a series, so she’ll know where to go for her next book. 

The goal is to have kids – all kids—fall in love with reading, so much so that they become lifelong readers. This may seem like a lofty goal for a “reluctant” reader who can’t seem to find the “right” book. 

We open the doors of the world for kids when we take the time, not to find a Lexile or reading level, but to find a book they just can’t put down. Or we close doors for a lifetime. 

We owe it to all our kids to be patient and persist in our pursuit to help all readers find the right book. And the next right book. 

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BQI4 Reluctant Readers

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Three Things Thursday (17 Aug)

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Our students have been back in school for two weeks now.  For many other places, they are just going back (or getting ready to go back).  The beginning of school is a time of reflection.  This week’s three things I read worth sharing helped me be more reflective of my practice.

1. Risk-taking in the Writer’s Notebook by Lanny Ball

This is a beautifully written blog on our responsibilities as teachers to take risks in our own writing so that students take risk in their writing.  She talks about how taking risks is where learning happens.

The point here is, if you are a writing workshop teacher, a writer’s notebook is likely a structure you harness in your classroom.  And you likely build language around the value of this tool because you believe it to be instrumental in supporting student writing improvement.  This year, consider being a stand and a model for experimenting and risk-taking in the notebook.

2. Ten Ways to Ditch the Reading Log by Heather Marshall

What I love most about this blog post is that she not only suggests alternative (and authentic) ways to see what kids are reading,  but she also posts pictures and videos of student work.  This is someone who is really doing the work and sharing it with us!

When I read a book that I really enjoy, I want to share it with others. I do not show them my reading log and say, “Hey you should read this, it’s really good.” I want them to read it too, so that we can talk about it.  So I had to ask myself, “Why exactly do I assign students to record pages, titles, summaries, and minutes of reading on a worksheet?” I want them to read, but how is this table with parent signatures making them want to read?

3. The Most Important Thing by John Spence

This is a short TEDTalk.  While he talks about finding success in college and in life, I think there are many implications for finding success as teachers.  We have to be aware and intentional in the choices we make in our professional life as well as our personal life.  And our choices should be focused on honing our craft so we can be the best teachers possible for our students.

The single most important things I’ve learned … you become what you focus on and you become like the people you spend time with.

Three Things Thursday

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Here’s three things I read this week worth sharing.  Hope you are as challenged by them as I am.  Learning together, C

#1 The Work of Back to School by Chad Everett

So many wonderful things to say about this post.  I want to keep this post near me this year and continually ask the questions he poses, reminding us of the meaningful work that we do every day.  If you aren’t following Chad Everett on Twitter, you should.

Know this: your classroom does not have to look like it’s pulled from a Pinterest board to make you an effective teacher. You are enough. You don’t have to teach like a pirate, like a champion, or like your hair is on fire to be enough. You do have to commit to showing up for 180 days and doing the work—the work that is not always visible, the work you may never be recognized for doing, the work that is the foundation of all the other work.

#2  How to Deal with Student Grammar Errors by Jennifer Gonzalez 

This is forever the question of most ELA teachers.  I love Jennifer’s transparency, honesty, research, resources, and applicable tips.  This is the place to start for thinking through grammar instruction in our classrooms this year.

…here’s the most important thing any teacher of English language arts should take away from this post: Grammar taught in isolation, outside the context of meaningful writing, has been found to have no significant impact on the quality of student writing; in fact, excessive drills can have a detrimental impact on it.

#3 How Do You Know which Books to Purchase?  A Few Tips to Help Build A Better Classroom Library by Pernille Ripp

You don’t have to be around me long before I’ve probably suggested a post from Pernille Ripp’s blog.  I just love her!  In this post, she gives suggestions on how to make your classroom library a place where students want to go to check out books.  With limited (or no) budgets, we need to make smart choices about what books we are investing in.

4 years ago I realized that while our library was full, it was not great.  It was not something the students could use.  It was not something they wanted to use.  So I embarked on a journey to get better books in the hands of my students.  I found a better way to spend the precious money we have to get books for our libraries.  And it worked.  Slowly, our library has grown to now encompass more than 2,000 books.  Books that the students want to read.  Books that are worn out from use and not from age.

Three Things Thursday

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#1:  Matt de la Peña: From Reluctant Reader to Best-Selling Author

In my community, we don’t respect males who are sensitive, but what these guys and boys don’t realize is we need it more than anybody. We need to learn empathy through watching characters in a novel.

Okay, okay, I know this is really a podcast, BUT it’s Matt de la Peña!  This is such a great podcast on his journey from a kid who didn’t want to read to becoming closer to his dad through books to becoming a best selling author.

#2:  Kwame Alexander on How to Excite Kids about Summer Reading

I have this mantra that I believe: Books are like amusement parks, and sometimes you gotta let kids choose the rides.

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Kwame Alexander.  You can read the interview or listen to it or both.  Every time I hear Kwame Alexander I walk away inspired.  I love his honesty, his humor, and his enthusiasm.  Enjoy this lyrical interview!

#3:  My Big Fat Secret to Holding Kids Accountable for Reading by Justin Stortz

So I guess my big fat secret to holding kids accountable for reading is realizing that you can’t. Not really anyway. Teachers can’t make students read. I think kids need to know that. It’s what gives them the power and responsibility.

I found this blog post via another blog post on Read Write Reflect blog post which referenced Teri Lesesne’s blog post about student engagement which referenced another post on this blog post about reading logs.  I agree with a lot of what they all said.  Honestly, though I like a reading log; I keep one myself on Goodreads. But the reading log is for me — not for a grade.  All of these posts pushed me to think about how I can take away the artificial feel of reading logs and make reading (and reading logs, if you so choose) more organic.

Three Things Thursday

three-things-thursdayI’m a big fan of reading for pleasure.  And while I think that is incredibly important for everyone, I also believe we need to read to grow and to be challenged in our profession.  As educators we influence the lives that sit in our classrooms.   It is our responsibility to make sure that influence is positive.

We’re also busy.

Hence, the idea for Three Things Thursday.  I’m putting in one place three things I’ve read during the week I thought were worth sharing and, hopefully, worth taking a few moments to read.  To make us better.  Together.

#1: The Heinemann Podcast: Cornelius Minor on Building Your Teacher Team

So designing the time requires great sacrifice. So the first thing you’re doing as a team after you’ve identified your superpowers, is you’re actually making a sacrifice together that we’re gonna commit to a specified amount of time together, and here’s how that time is gonna go.

I’m a huge fan of Cornelius Minor.  I highly recommend listening to all his podcasts, following him on Twitter, reading his blog, and generally stalking him.  No shame here.  This particular podcast struck me as super important as professional learning communities are back in the educational spotlight.  The best teams I’ve ever seen are the ones who like each other, do life with each other, and support each other in the work in honest ways.

#2: Promoting the Pleasures of Reading: Why It Matters to Kids and to Country by Jeff Wilhelm

Pleasure reading is more powerful than parents’ educational attainment or socioeconomic status. This means that pleasure reading is THE way to address social inequalities in terms of actualizing our students’ full potential and overcoming barriers to satisfying and successful lives.

Many of us are champions of choice reading and pleasure reading.  This blog post helps us articulate the research showing the power of what we know is right for kids.  It also helps us think about how to be more intentional in our teaching using pleasure reading.

#3:  How to Teach a Young Introvert:  interviews Susan Cain

…the idea is just to maximize choice.  … The same kid who might not raise their hand in class might write something really interesting into some kind of classroom app or blog.

As I read this, I thought how many of the idea Cain discusses, such as working in partnerships, are very much a part of the reading and writing workshop model.  It also made me think about the quiet kids who were in my class and wonder if I provided enough option in my class to meet their needs.

When we fail. . .

2016-02-09 09.53.18I took a hiatus from my blog during January to work on my dissertation. My chair told me I needed to have a complete draft by the end of January to graduate in May. I didn’t make the deadline. (I am now shooting for completion by April to graduate in July.)

This is the season for college applications, which means the season of writing lots of recommendations and editing lots of admission essays. A question I see that keeps popping up for college applicants as well as job applicants—in some manner or another—is name a time you’ve failed and how you overcame.

In my English 10 classes, we are working on our Shakespeare themed units. I wanted to do something different with this unit, and I wanted to provide choice. I planned what I thought was a great structure to do that. I would be lying if I said this unit had been a success. There was something lacking in the unit.

Failure has been on my mind.

What do you do when you are a teacher and you feel like you didn’t succeed, or more 2016-02-09 10.58.18bluntly put, failed at a lesson or unit? Reflect, self-assess, make notes and adjustments, learn, and do better.

But also, be okay…no be more than okay, be proud that you took a risk, you tried something new, you learned, you grew as an educator (and probably as a person) and your students will benefit from this. Celebrate that!

We have a responsibility to our students, to our profession, and to our future to reflect on our practice. We have a responsibility to make sure that we are reading current research, engaging in proven professional development, and learning from a community of leaders in our field.  We have a responsibility to make sure that we are growing as educators and we are putting that into practice so that our students are growing as learners and citizens.  But if we are doing that, if we are measuring ourselves by the best education has to offer, if we are stepping out of our comfort zone to do what is right, then we also have a responsibility to let ourselves fail, reflect on our learning from the failure, and go back the next day ready to try (with tweaks) again.

I was quite bummed about my unit. I had been so excited about it, and I was frustrated that it didn’t come to fruition as I had envisioned. I was talking with a colleague about my frustrations with the unit. She asked me why I thought it didn’t go like I had envisioned. I responded with something like, “I don’t know. Something just isn’t right.”

The question haunted me. I needed to really reflect: What was it that specifically that went wrong? What was I not happy with? Why did it not go like I wanted? How could it have gone different? AND what did go right?

I realized timing was a bit of an issue with this unit. Since timing became an issue, I didn’t focus as much on reading and writing skills to make up for loss of time. Choice was another issue. Although I didn’t dictate how students wrote in this unit, I felt I forced them into the box of one particular lens for too long. I should have started with the teacher-directed lens and then let them explore others on their own.

Now that I named the failure, I know what to do differently, what to do better next unit.

But I also had to think about what went right. Students’ final tasks as well as their online discussion about the texts showed a real sense of understanding—way beyond the surface level. Students weren’t just reading a Shakespeare play because we always teach a Shakespeare play. They had purpose and direction. Students were able to discuss themes across texts—they talked about the impact of the theme of deception not only in the play they studied for this unit, but also in their independent novels, informational texts, and other Shak2016-02-10 11.14.40.jpgespearean plays.

[Side note: One thing I did make sure we did was have 10 minutes of class reading time for independent novels three to four and sometimes five days a week. After I commented on how I loved seeing a particular student with two books in hand, she said, “It’s because of you. You made us read, and now I can’t stop.” That’s a success.]

Mary Ehrenworth once said something to the effect of it is worse to keep teaching as we’ve always taught than to try to do right by students and not be perfect. I was far from perfect in this unit, but I know I tried to do right by my kids, and in doing so, the failure unit helped my kids grow more as readers and writers than by not doing anything different.

If you want to see some of the end results from this unit, look at these examples and this student created music video.  The final project (which accompanied a paper, a online Socratic discussion, and reading journals) was a creative piece on how a character they studied viewed deception presented from the character’s point of view.  This part of the unit was successful.  Many of them also discussed other themes in their interpretation.

Bonus Read:  Pernille Rip seems to continually challenge me with her thoughtful posts.  And she always seems to know what I’ve been discussing with my colleagues.  I love her openness to conversation about hot topics and her fearlessness in tackling them head-on.  If you have found yourself in a discussion on whole class novels, I suggest you read her post, “So You Teach a Whole Class Novel – A Small Idea to Help.