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.

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?

Transcript from “Building a Community of Literacy” from Edscape


  • Welcome. Patrick 
  • hi Michelle 
  • Are your students turning away from printed books and materials. Dr. Timony 
  • Yes, but the printed materials are also turning away from us. eBooks, mags &news online etc. Laurie 
  • Teachers have to be readers. Admins too. Sisyphus 
  • Kids need printed books. Experience all sensory inputs. Become attached. Love books.Dr. Timony 
  • Don’t make them read for a grade. Sisyphus 
  • Let students have access to information. Vivian 
  • Students need instant access to info. Laurie 
  • I would like everyone to stop typing and listen. Not PHiggins 
  • Having a print-rich environment, especially for younger students. Laurie 
  • Reading rich environment across all content areas. Vivian 
  • Opportunities to read and comment on others’ work. Laurie 
  • This room is a no-tie zone. Not PHiggins 
  • Recirculate books. Laurie 
  • I LOVE taking my daughter with me to the used book store in Philly. She loves it. Dr. Timony 
  • Bring the classics to kids, like bringing them to lima beans ;)! Jennifer 
  • Saturday morning. Newspaper. Pipe. Tea. Dog. Heaven. Not PHiggins 
  • Readicide- systmatic killing of reading in schools.- need to read. Vivian 
  • Exposure to words has far-reaching effects, some of which have no effect on literacy but on development. Dr. Timony
  • More books in the home = more appreciation for the printed word, ideas, diversity. Sisyphus
  • thanks for ruining Mockingbird for me. #onmylist. Dr. Timony 
  • Students lack knowledge capital. Vivian 
  • Number of books in the house persists as a predictor of academic achievement. Indicator of many things. Dr. Timony
  • Viral books. Creating mini-cults of book personality works. Dr. Timony 
  • Reading can catch fire! Give kids ‘buzz books’ and also asked teachers to read them as well. Jennifer 
  • If schools looked more like barnes and noble and less like government block houses, we might all read more in education. Design inspires. Sisyphus 
  • Dr. Timony 
  • I do not coordinate bullying in my district. Not PHiggins 
  • Showcase reading and literature in every venue – websites, fb pages, etc, Sisyphus 
  • shelfari; good reads. Vivian 
  • Online comics are great for reluctant readers. Dr. Timony 
  • Letting you go early. Grab an extra sandwich, would you? Not PHiggins 
  • Thanks for all of the dialogue! Resources to follow. Patrick 
  • Writing for authentic audiences: Patrick 
  • The “choose your own adventure” using Google Forms: Patrick 
  • The “choose your own adventure” using Google Forms: Patrick
  • Penny Kittle’s video with her Senior English students: Patrick 

The Detached Mouse Ear v. The Attached Mouse Ear

Today I spun a phrase that I blatantly stole from someone, but at the time could not remember who that was.  Upon further review, I stole it from Amy Sandvold.

Amy, here is your attribution (not that she asked for it by any means, but I felt giving credit to the source was the proper measure to take).

We are moving our middle school into the world of balanced literacy for the second time.  We tried a few years back, and for the most part were successful in moving towards it.  However, in light of some great work our elementary teachers have been doing using the Good Habits, Great Readers program, we felt that using some elements of that program, coupled with some of the elements we have cobbled from Fountas and Pinnell, would really move the needle, so to speak.

To accomplish this, we’ve pulled together all of our middle school language arts and Connections teachers for two days to work with a representative from Pearson whom we have used before and truly respect.  However, listening to her speak to the teachers, and listening to their reactions to some of the things she is saying made me remember this phrase, which I broadcast out:

In many ways, what our presenter was saying was not wholly different from conversations we had engaged in previously in department meetings, other smaller workshops, and in one-on-one discussions with teachers.  However, she had geography on her side.

And this is where Amy’s quote sprang up for me.

Last year at ASCD, I sat in a session that was a panel discussion of literacy and literacy coaching in schools, and I wrote about it here and here at length.  Amy discussed the idea that we had to take advantage of “prophets in our own land” (to steal one from @bethstill) but rather there was a mileage component that determined expertise.  That component, she judged, was roughly fifty miles.  To boot, she added these great illustrations of her concept:

In this one, Amy was detailing how when the presenter is not from the district there is a greater instance of their perceived credibility, but what we should be moving towards is something I believe she called the “one-eared Mickey Mouse.”

Okay, I might have made that last part up, but in looking at these images, observing the teachers and presenter today, and from my own experiences in districts or at conference as a presenter, I see Amy’s theory as having some definite credence.  Why is it that anyone with a great idea from within a district is not taken as seriously as someone who comes in for a day or two and makes the same claims?  My all time favorite instance of this was when a teacher in my district was taking the requisite educational technology class for their doctoral program and one of the required readings for the first week was a post I wrote about the need for informed leaders who were models of technological literacy.  I had to chuckle a little (and celebrate on the inside).

Don’t get me wrong here–I enjoy working with districts and I think some great changes have come about individually within some of the people I have spoken to, but I don’t understand why we can’t celebrate the expertise that exists within our walls.  Or, better yet, we can create sustainable professional development models that require multiple investigations into the concepts that are introduced by a one-time speaker.  It’s those systems I feel are more lacking when it comes to our professional development of teachers.

I Think, Therefore I Write.

Today I spent the afternoon in the company of Dr. Richard Miller and Dr. Paul Hammond from Rutgers University.  I had asked Dr. Miller to come speak to our English Department regarding the shifts they saw in writing, composing, and learning.

In my conversations leading up to today with Dr. Miller, I found out that the Expository Writing Class at Rutgers is a course that nearly 85% of all Freshman take, with only those testing out via AP exams the exceptions.  Miller and Hammond have a unique advantage in that the changes they make to that class are ones that could have a profound effect on the quality of the writing experience that the students have in their undergraduate years.

I am really into the styles people use when they present after witnessing the excellence of the speakers at TEDxNYED, so I paid close attention when the two of them started today.  Miller used the backdrop of the Geocentric View of the Universe to introduce the idea of saving appearances; when the data coming in to astronomers was no longer fitting a clean model of the Earth as center of the universe, the scientists simply changed the models to fit the data, thereby increasing the complexity of the Geocentric system.  They had no choice–there was no way to save the appearance of the system without completely blowing it up.  When Copernicus’ Heliocentric model of the universe arrived, it was a paradigm shift entirely: new model, new ideas, new M.O.

Miller compared this to what is happening now.  We are seeing industries that have long been immune to changes in market or information flow completely decimated by what is occurring now.

Newspapers.  Automakers.  Education.

Our systems are not set up to handle the types of thinking and information flow that are occurring or will occur shortly.  Not our physical structures, not our time structures, not our curricular or assessment structures.

The ground beneath our feet is shifting and we are clinging to the idea that we must save the appearance of credibility.  It’s flawed thinking to believe that we can design school buildings, curriculum, school schedules, and syllabi in a manner that is best described by saying “it was good enough for us, why shouldn’t it be good enough for them.”

A few years back, Hammond and Miller set out to rethink they types of writing that were focused on during the Expository Writing class at Rutgers.  Their goal: “get behind the writing.”  Taking the philosophy that we’ve also latched onto here of writing as thinking, the two decided there needed to be more focus on getting students to think deeply and do so in an active capacity through writing.  How do you do that?

It was at this point in the presentation that Hammond and Miller broke out four case studies of student writing and peer editing via Google Docs.  In a move that I am truly going to steal for any one of my future presentations, they used the revision slider in Google Docs to illustrate how students built drafts, and how their editing partners added comments.  Essentially, they were showing the progression of thinking in the students’ writing.  One student plainly just wrote straight through to the end of the draft (until, as Hammond stated, he hit the number of words he needed) without any recursion to earlier points of writing.  Others, he noted, without prompting from peer editors, continually made edits as they wrote, jumping from later parts of the writing back to earlier parts.  Each case study brought forth a clearer picture of what goes on in the minds of young writers today.  We are no longer holding on to the idealized image of the solitary writer plucking ideas from his own imagination solely towards a much more social and conversational form of writing as thinking.

We can use the technology we have to get behind the writing to see the thinking that constructs it.  (at this point, the slide rotated from a screenshot of a completed Google Doc to a an image of it’s negative, thereby revealing that we were literally and figuratively, behind the writing–a truly great effect)

There’s more to come from this presentation, as I haven’t even touched on the conversation that ensued when one of our teachers asked about the relevance of the 5-paragraph essay in the college environment, but the length of this post is rapidly becoming offensive.  Soon to follow…

Writing and the Relevance of High School

In an effort to continue to bridge the gap between how we are preparing our students for future studies and the world beyond, on April 13th our high school will be hosting Dr. Richard Miller, Professor of English and the Director of the Plangere Writing Center at Rutgers University.  Dr. Miller is the author of As if Learning Mattered: Reforming Higher Education (1998) and Writing at the End of the World (2005). His articles have appeared in the journals College English, CCC: College Composition and Communication, JAC: A Journal of Advanced Composition, WPA: Writing Program Administration Journal, and Pedagogy, as well as in the collections Composition Studies in the 21st Century: Rereading the Past, Rewriting the Future, Teaching/Writing in the Late Age of Print, and Professing in the Contact Zone: Bringing Theory and Practice Together. He is also the co-editor, with Kurt Spellmeyer, of The New Humanities Reader (2nd edition, 2006) and co-author of the web site

Several of his presentations have been recorded and viewed by thousands via YouTube, including This is How We Dream (Parts I and II) which were made at the National Conference of the MLA, The Future Is Now (made to the Rutgers University Board of Governors), and The Spirit of the New Humanities.

We will be inviting other colleagues from our district, and Dr. Miller will feature several of his current undergraduate students in his discussion.  We will be live streaming the event via this Ustream Channel, and tweeting the link out to as many as are interested.  More information will follow in the coming days regarding some of your preferences in what he will discuss.  We are very excited for the discussions that will follow this.  Please Join us!

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.