Not the Drop-Off!

Bob: Hey, you’re doing pretty well for a first-timer.
Marlin: Well, you can’t hold on to them forever, can you?
Bill: You know I had a tough time when my oldest went out to the drop off.
Marlin: They’ve just got to grow up som – THE DROP OFF? THEY’RE GOING TO THE DROP OFF? WHAT ARE YOU, INSANE? WHY DON’T WE FRY THEM UP NOW AND SERVE THEM WITH CHIPS?

Over the course of the last few years, I’ve talked to teachers and students about what it is about reading that they love, hate, and, in some cases, run away from kicking and screaming.  Today during my session at the Pennsylvania State Librarians Association Annual Conference, we talked about this idea:

What are the reasons we begin to see students’ interest in school, especially reading, wane by the time they graduate high school?  Is it a natural disinclination towards school attributable to youth culture across time?  Are there other factors that contribute to this?  Does this happen everywhere?

The group in the session was incredible–from sharing their ideas about what the aim of summer reading (and reading instruction in general) is, to their willingness to share resources and provide examples of what they do with their students and staff, they were spot on, and made my presentation much richer.

So I asked them the question above, and they created this list:

  • We need better choices for our students
  • When students have jobs, sports, other activities, the time needed to read is a factor
  • When students are awash in reading for other academic pursuits, there’s no time for reading for leisure
  • it’s so not cool to read if you are a guy
  • we are competing for attention with other media
  • the responsibilities placed upon children who live below the poverty line.
  • lack of reading advocates and “cheerleaders” in their lives.
  • Our definition of what we consider “good reading” is too narrow, and we discourage students from reading things that appeal to them (newspapers, comic books, magazines)
  • The need to find books for students that they want to read (9th grade and up)

What can you add to this list?

Already Talking Summer Reading…

*Update: Take the poll if you are interested in this topic!

No, not for my own edification.

The topic of summer reading/summer assignments is ramping up in my district, and with it thoughts on either side of the spectrum are piling up.  Some are steadfast in their belief that there should be structured, rigorous work done over the summer that students should be held accountable for when they walk in the doors in September.  This group, in my experience believes that the only way to combat summer brain-drain is through structured summer assignments and summer reading.  These beliefs fly in the face of the other side of this coin: those that believe the goal of summer reading should be to ignite and engage the students in reading that is unstructured, self-selected and fun.

I Love to Read, By Carlos Porto

Personally, I believe that, especially at the middle school level where students really begin checking out of reading for pleasure, we need to create structures that hook kids into reading, not scare them into it.  Now, in thinking this, I realize that is fairly “pie in the sky–” it’s one of those ideas that sounds great but loses all efficacy in the implementation.  It sounds great in theory, but what does it look like in practice?

So I am thinking about what we might do to create systems whereby students are excited to read on their own time, and one thing keeps popping up in my mind as a remnant of watching “The Social Network” over the weekend: community and exclusivity.  We want to know what the people we like are doing, and if the people we like are reading a particular book, we might want to know what they think of it.  With that in mind, I started brainstorming any decent idea I had about summer reading.  What I have so far is below:

  • Piloting an idea with a grade level before we go big.  Meaning that if we come up with something that is pretty out there in terms of allowing kids to choose and not holding them to the traditional accountability standards we have (quiz, essay, book report, project, etc.) we try it with a grade level this summer and see what the feedback from parents is.
  • The Hunger Games idea: I think our media specialist was onto something when she stated that when the Hunger Games series was freely available to large percentages of the kids (she purchased one-hundred copies via a grant), they read it because their friends were reading it.  Can we replicate that kind of social pressure around a book or series of books?
  • Choice with discussion groups: One of our teachers is doing something interesting with her kids using an online discussion board that is private to her kids (via Google Groups).  If we allow students to choose between several titles and assigned each title its own discussion group, we could create communities around each of the books over the summer.  Monitoring would be an issue.
  • Huge list of choices per grade and community promotions.  Ask local businesses to offer discounts to students or families who show up with their summer reading books (one from the list).
  • Figure out ways to create community around books the Barnes & Noble Way.  Staff picks, student-created book trailers filmed or read over the announcements, advertisements and posters around the school for summer-reading books.
  • One Book, One Town.  Everyone reads the same book in all grades (this may be tougher in Middle School where reading and maturity levels vary a bit more in grades 5-8 than in the high school).  In addition to reading the same book, we provide avenues for discussion groups to form at local businesses, the park, the library, etc. as well as online forums and groups.  The reading could culminate in a speaker series or at least a guest speaker who is an expert in an aspect of the chosen book.

I’m doing my best to gather input here for a meeting with all middle school language arts teachers on April 11th where we’ll run through this and see where they want to go.  If you or your school district does something meaningful with summer reading or summer assignments, I’d love to hear it.

Opening the Floodgates

We are reading Readicide as a department this year, which is something I’ve wanted to do now for two years, ever since Bill Ferriter announced that he was profiling the book on his site and interviewing the author, Kelly Gallagher via Voicethread.

Today was the first meeting of one of the groups within the department, a group of middle school language arts teachers.  We met to discuss the first two chapters of the book, which, if you haven’t read it, delve into the definition of Readicide and the statistics he examined to coin the term.

Read-i-cide n: The systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.

Gallagher also talked about something I’ve noticed since I have been in elementary buildings and secondary buildings: a gradual decline in curiosity.  Gallagher called it enthusiasm for reading, but today one of the group really summed it up by saying that by the time these students reach the upper grades in a middle school, much of their natural curiosity has been mined from them.  They don’t necessarily hate reading, but they don’t see any purpose behind it if it doesn’t either serve to get them a grade, or is required for something within their class.

My question in response to everything said today was a variation on the protocol What-SoWhat-NowWhat in that I wondered aloud that if we take what we say about our students and their inherent lack of curiosity, or their lack of attention span, or their penchant for reaching for SparkNotes when confronted with an outside reading novel, than what now?  Do we look the parents of these students in the eyes and say, “Well, what we’ve done in the past just isn’t working well here, so, I’ll just keep doing it.”

No.  And that is why I think Gallagher’s book really has legs.  We are only in chapter 2 and we are already seeing glimpses of what he prescribes as the cures to readicide, and what he is offering so far sound less like individual classroom fixes, and more like a school-wide committment to textual immersion.

Which I dig.

More to come as we get deeper into the discussions.

Image Credit: “Overwhelmed,” from Kozumel’s Photostream.

Aha!

Take a quick look at this video:

It may be contrived, it may be produced by a major publisher, but notice they didn’t try to sell anything.  Also notice that the students were honest in their assessment of their reading habits before and after choice.

Do we underestimate the power of choice in student reading?  Do we accept that students must read certain books regardless of whether or not they are ready for them or want to read them?

Look, I understand the Broccoli Effect, but if you asked me whether or not these students learned more about the skills they will need to become lifelong critical readers through a teacher-paced dissection of TKAM, or what they did through reading books of choice, I am going to say that the choice ruled.

This is perfect timing for me as we have been analyzing where we lose our students when it comes to reading, and how we can correct this.

How Nancy Atwell’s “Case for Literature” Really Got Me Thinking

On a day in which I could have done a slew of other things, most notably chores around my house that have been hanging around for a while, I found myself trying to catch up on my reading.  I’ve spent the better part of the last two weeks ignoring most of the interesting reading that has come my way.  I’ve been in classrooms, and if a pile of reading is my trade-off for that, it’s one I would gladly make any day.

We’ve completely reshaped our focus in our K-5 literacy program this year, and our teachers are doing a wonderful job transitioning to the program and all the new materials and methods that it requires.  The past two weeks were spent in as many of the classrooms as time would allow.  The program, a combination of Pearson’s Good Habits, Great Readers and a phonics program from Wilson called Fundations (with some modification for grades four and five), places emphasis on teaching students at their own instructional level.

We often speak about the kinds of data that we truly need in our schools and the amount of time and money that data would cost us.  We can’t possibly base our successes and failures on once-a-year indicators whose results are given back to us far too late for any decisions to be made that would affect the current year.  However, data that is gathered at multiple points, based on one-on-one interaction with students in both conversational and written format, is powerful, and I’ve just seen that.

Our teachers work with students in this program at various levels: instructional, shared, and independent.  The goal of the program is to instill the habits of great readers in these students while exposing them to various genres and styles both in reading and their own writing.  Being in these classrooms this year, and comparing them to the visits I made last year is like night and day.  The students, as young as second grade, are using the vocabulary of readers–we heard phrases from students like “text to self connection” and “my portfolio shows that I’ve been able to do that this year”–and interacting with all types of materials.

Nancy Atwell’s piece in EdWeek on Monday, entitled “The Case for Literature,” pushed me to really look at what I saw in those classrooms, and what I want to see as these students move to our middle and high schools.  We are spending a good part of their time in language arts at the elementary level showing them what great readers and writers do, their habits, their practices, and their traits and then asking them to practice those same skills in texts that are on a level that is not too complex, but not too simplistic.  By the time these students reach the middle school, as Atwell attests, these students need to immerse themselves in literature that is important to them:

They find their interests, needs, struggles, and dreams spoken for in the crafted stories that fill their library. More importantly, they get to experience the interests, needs, struggles, and dreams of young people unlike themselves. At a critical juncture, they learn about a diversity of human experiences and begin to consider both what they care about and who they might dare to become.

I see our students progressing from a high-frequency of skill building in the elementary schools, to more focused study of high-interest materials in the middle school.  Also, as Atwell points out about her students:

But most importantly, from my perspective as the teacher responsible for their literacy, my students become strong readers. They build fluency, stamina, vocabulary, confidence, critical abilities, habits, tastes, and comprehension.

and I don’t plan on losing sight of the reading skills our students have learned in elementary school as they enter into middle school, because there is that other element that we don’t talk about too much as they transition from elementary to middle school: the rampant loss of enthusiasm for school.  While not occurring in every classroom, I think it is worth noting the drastic change in energy from the elementary classroom to the middle school classroom.  In looking at continuing to ignite passion for reading, as Atwell wants us to do, we’ll need to look at a redesigning the energy within our middle school rooms.

How do we do that?  I am still working on that one.

Stephen Wilmarth: Five Socio-Technological Trends That Change Everything in Learning and Teaching

In his chapter of Curriculum 21, Stephen Wilmarth puts forth an argument that we are in the throes of a revolution that will upend what we assume to be true about learning and teaching. The trends are as follows:

  • Social Production: the creation of content through various digital tools
  • Social Networks: the connection of individuals into like-minded groups at the digital level.
  • The Semantic Web: the transformation of the web into patterned information based on the coding of individual “pieces” of information
  • Media Grids: three-dimensional representations of space using computing power and the internet (Wilmarth, 91)
  • The New Zoo of non-linear learning: the mastery of biology through technology.

I can’t recall exactly how he said it, but on Thursday, Chris Dede from Harvard University, described our visions of the future as never being fully realized, but it still matters that we have them. When reading through Wilmarth’s chapter, I got just that feeling–as if I was reading about what our best selves as educators and leaders might look like. In reality, I am not so sure about his vision, but I like that he expressed it in terms of the types of learning that will need to occur for his vision to become reality.

A long-held belief of mine has been that technologies that make us less social and more fragmented will not succeed; they are just contrary to our genetic makeup. A passage from the chapter echoes this:

The way people connect with each other–the community that’s created–determines the power of learning shifts. If a technology makes connections more interesting, more varied, or more frequent, it is likely to be more widely adopted and have disproportionate effect on the creation of dynamic learning communities.

Essentially, the more human technology makes us, the more likely we are to proliferate that technology–we’ll call it technical selection. Wilmarth uses the example of Facebook and Twitter to prove this point. It’s not been lost on me that some of the most reticent users of technology in the classroom I have worked with all now have Facebook pages, yet still ask for assistance when sending attachments via email. One connects us, the other confounds us. Where Wilmarth and I truly agree is in the fact that we should examine the structures within education that can make us more human, more connected and push in that direction.

In his summary, Wilmarth makes a very salient point, and one that after the last two days of interaction I’ve had, deserves restating:

What we thought about teaching and learning, the cathedral-like, elegant, top-down, complex systems we designed to support the formal processes of learning and teaching, just may not be the relevant model. We may have to imagine a model that will behave more organically.

The point has come where we stop supporting systems that are not meeting the needs our students, not pushing our teachers to learn and grow alongside their students, and rooted in tradition rather than research and logic.

It would be great if someone was providing blueprints…

Heidi Hayes Jacobs: Curriculum 21 Essential Education for a Changing World

On my desk yesterday sat an unwrapped copy from of Heidi Hayes Jacobs’ latest book “Curriculum 21 Essential Education for a Changing World” my monthly gift from ASCD. In all honesty, I immediately balk at most things labeled with the ordinal number “21” as a result of its saturated use in educational circles these days. Rarely does a memo leave the offices in Trenton without mention of this initiative or that program designed to incorporate the 21st Century in some manner.

I am just a little over the term, that’s all.

Being that today is a day of airports and the requisite time-suck that they, and the airlines, put you through, I knew that I’d have time to get through some of the book on the way down. My intent was to use some of it as a springboard for FETC, as some of the themes presented are concurrent with some of my aims at the conference.

The book is laid out in an interesting format, in that Jacobs is the editor, but the first four chapters are hers. Following her are chapters from: Stephen Wilmarth, Vivien Stewart, Tim Tyson (of Mabry Middle School fame), Frank W. Baker (who is also creating a ton of great content over that the Making Curriculum Pop Ning), Daivd Niguidula, Jaimie Cloud, Alan November, Bill Sheskey, Aurther Costa and Bena Kallick.

Since this is mid-flight, and I am nowhere near through the entire book, I thought I’d start with some reactions to the first chapter authored by Jacobs. The thrid through fourth chapters dealing with the structural change to schools and curriculum at the systems level, also Jacobs’ chapters, I’d like to treat on their own, especially after some of the sessions I plan on attending tomorrow.

“The good old days are still good enough.”

In chapter one, I enjoyed the three myths that she believes need addressing when talking about school reform, especially curricular reform. The first myth is a sentiment anyone involved in moving schools and districts forward encounters on a daily basis. Very much the same as the TTWWADI mentality, this one extends beyond schools typically and into the community that surrounds it. There are methodologies that are timeless in education, and there are those that are fleeting. Without careful examination and experimentation with these ideas, we lose the ability to know what works best in given situations. Schools or communities, Jacobs states, are “shackled by memories,” and many times paralyzed by the insecurity of change.

“We’re better off if we all think alike–and not too much.”

The second myth addresses what Jacobs calls “America’s love/hate relationship with being educated.” The myth, is as unsettling as it is hilarious. The glorification of the self-made man who rises out of poverty with little or no formal education to millionaire status is revered among the general population of the United States. Jacobs points to Susan Jacoby’s “The Age of American Unreason,” here with its examination of the fracturing of American discourse into factional discord, whereby thinkers surround themselves with those who share their own ideas. This for is evidenced by the consistent battle between the viewers of Fox News and those of every other major media outlet. We now have the ability and what’s worse, the desire to surround ourselves, rather insulate ourselves with those who think like us. What is missing and necessary in any future of curricular change, according to Jacobs, is a return to active, open discourse between factional thinkers. We were founded amid chaos, and our students need to understand that disagreement is not disloyalty.

“Too much creativity is dangerous–and the arts are frills”

Even though we have much data showing the correlation between study of the arts and music and future academic success, as a society we marginalize the study of these disciplines in times of extreme panic or budget shortfall. Jacobs looks to Dan Pink to help characterize the future skill-set of the 21st Century worker (ugh, I used it as an adjective). Sir Ken Robinson defines creativity as this: an original thought or idea that has merit. In that capacity it cannot be limited to the realm of arts and music. We don’t have innovation fields like accounting unless there is someone who sits in his or her chair and conceives of a whole new way to crunch numbers and manipulate their trade. Eliminating or denigrating arts as “frills” does a complete disservice to the students we teach today who will become tomorrow’s leaders.