Some quick thoughts on reading

I’m at a session sponsored by the American Reading Company, and in the course of their presentation, we’ve stumbled upon some interesting discussions.  The presenter is moving through three of the shifts that the Common Core brings about:

  • Shift I: 80% of our reading is spent on fiction and stories, we need to shift that to 50% non-fiction or informational text and 50% fiction.
  • Shift II: Reading and Writing grounded in evidence from text, both literary and informational
  • Shift III: Regular practice with complex text and it’s academic language

At various junctures, he asks us to think about the changes that each of these shifts bring about for students, for teachers, and for school and district leaders.  The audience, consisting of supervisors of Language Arts, some Principals and Vice Principals as well as some teachers, has hit on the fact that we need more “text” in classes, and by that they have taken to mean that we need more books.  I’m struggling with this a bit.  Here’s why.

When we first got into the room, the presenter asked to list all of what we read in the past twenty-four hours, his point being to prove that the majority of what we read these days is informational text or non-fiction text.  However, as we dove into discussions about these shifts, and heard from folks saying that they see the need for more “texts” for students, it dawned on me to ask the group how much of what you read in those twenty-four hours was on paper?  How much was on a screen?

That’s significant.  The way we access text is different when we access it on a device.  Even a device as basic as a Kindle or a Nook, there are features that change the way we read and how we access text.

Are we thinking about that?

Plus, before we begin pushing more text into the classroom, much thought has to be given to what those texts are.  Looking at the books in the baskets in the front of the room, I see many books that are tradebooks or basals.  I’m not so sure that our diet as readers should consist of all that form.  Personally, I would have gone nuts.  I cut my reading teeth on long-form magazine writing.  Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, and even those wonky J.Peterman catalogs totally saved me from the doldrums of classroom reading.

Additionally (and now this is bordering on rant) one of the issues many districts have in changing the complexity of text (Shift III) is that they rarely have an exact picture of where there students are reading.  Part of the pitch today is the ARC’s IRLA system, which is analogous to DRA2, Guided Reading Level, Lexile, or SRI.  Whichever flavor your school or district uses, having an understanding of where your students can read is so paramount to beginning the work required by the Common Core.  How many of our schools have teachers that have and use this information?  It’s incumbent upon school leaders to make sure this is happening.

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?

Transcript from “Building a Community of Literacy” from Edscape

litbuzz.

  • 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 
  • http://hbwreads.blogspot.com/ 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: https://sites.google.com/site/writingandthinkingcamden/live-writing Patrick 
  • The “choose your own adventure” using Google Forms: http://davidwees.com/content/using-google-forms-choose-your-own-adventure-style-story. Patrick 
  • The “choose your own adventure” using Google Forms: http://davidwees.com/content/using-google-forms-choose-your-own-adventure-style-story. Patrick
  • Penny Kittle’s video with her Senior English students: http://youtu.be/gokm9RUr4ME. Patrick 

Slides from the #140edu Conference

My role, other than being a learner, at the #140edu Conference, was to share our work with summer reading and the changing of the culture of reading as a whole in our district.  My slides are below:

I love the format: you have ten minutes to make your point or tell your story–and the clock is right there in front of you.  I remarked to the crowd, only half-jokingly, that I am going to make all my meetings behave in that way. Ten minutes and you have to deliver the goods.

Buzz Books

(A version of this post appears at HBWReads under a different title.  Feel free to check it out here)
In April, I wrote about a project we began in Verona regarding summer reading, and described it as an attempt to make reading viral within our middle school.  The post, titled “Making Reading Viral,” detailed what was then an idea about how to create buzz around the titles we were recommending for the summer.The project began in earnest on June 27th, and we are now a month in.  Some brief stats on the site so far:Our middle school has a population of less than 700 students, and our town roughly 14,000 people.  Students and teachers write on their assigned days, with some mixing and matching going on.  It’s been a pleasure to administer the site and organize their work.

On Tuesday, August 2nd, I have the privilege of speaking at #140edu: Exploring the State of Education NOW Conference at the 92nd Street Y, NY, NY.  My topic: The Buzz Books.

A while back, I was asked by the conference founder, Jeff Pulver, to participate in this conference, and if so, what did I have in mind to talk about.  Immediately, I thought of the Buzz Books and the HBWReads blog.  Reading, to me, has been a difference-maker in my life, taking me from a place of shadows and ignorance, to one of luminosity and understanding.

Scholars have recently been examining the state of reading today among the general population of children in grades 5-12, and thestatistics coming out of their work paint an awful picture.  There are extreme ramifications upon our society if we raise a generation of non-readers.  So, we as a district, looked at what we thought of reading in general, and more specifically of summer reading.  We looked at reading phenomena like the Harry Potter books, the Twilight Series, and more recently, the Hunger Games trilogy.

We saw something there that caught our eye.

Reading is a social endeavor, and it’s done best when we can talk about books with people we have an interest in.  When we read a book that is outstanding, the first thing we want to do is to run and tell someone who matters to us all about it and recommend it to them.  We wanted to capture that somehow.

When I get on stage on Monday, I’m going to talk about that idea, but I am also going to talk about the work that has been done by all of the students and teachers at HBWReads so far this summer.  Looking back at the statistics I shared the other day, we have had wild success in terms of readers and traffic through our site.  We have had conversations around books that would not have otherwise occurred.  We are making reading viral, and helping to spread it through not only our community here in Verona, but also in other parts of the county and world.  Don’t underestimate the power of that.

The conference will be live on the web, and as soon as the information is posted as to how to tune in, I’ll pass it along here. (Here is the Ustream address if you are interested in catching the conference.  I go on roughly at 11:45am)


Making Reading Viral

“When we read a good book, the first thing we do is talk about it to our friends, and then we end up giving it to them and they read it, and so on and so forth. I mean, look at Twilight.”

This is a loose paraphrasing of a line from a conversation that occurred last Monday among the middle school teachers in my district. The purpose of the meeting? An all-hands on deck chat about summer reading.

It’s almost Sisyphean. Every year I spend a good deal of time hemming and hawing over whether or not it’s worth doing and whether or not we are doing it right. I’ve come to realize that whether you assign it or not, you will always anger 50% of the school community.

With that realization comes some clarity. If we know that no one will be completely happy, we can focus on doing what we think is right.

The first step in that process is always to ask the staff. Yvette McNeal, our middle school principal, and I got everyone together in the media center during their lunch last Monday to gauge their feeling on summer reading. What should it look like? Should we be assessing? What was the point of it anyway?

The feedback was fantastic from all directions. Teachers discussing their issues with the summer reading from their own children’s school; their concern with the students who read too early in the summer as well as those who read the night before; their feeling that reading, reading anything, was extremely important for kids to do over the two months they are gone.

That last statement is where we began. Let’s ask them to read something. Anything.

And then let’s go back to the beginning of this post and look at the meaning behind that quote: reading is, and always be, a social endeavor. It’s driven by what we share, and a book’s life is determined by how many people buzz about it.

So this is what we decided to do:

  • Require reading, but give complete freedom in choosing what it consists of.
  • Show the community that we are passionate advocates of reading by doing it ourselves.
  • Making the act of reading and sharing publicly visible.
  • Making any “work” the students do in regards to the book an act that will promote what they read to the community.

The first premise we started with is that of course we care about the reading students will do for us and with us, but we really care about the reading they will do in twenty or thirty years. We need to start them thinking about reading as a lifelong endeavor (thanks to Maria Clayton for that one). We will require them to read something over the summer in grades 5-8, but that something is up to them. Our media specialist is fast at work right now building suggested book and magazine lists for each grade level, but students have complete freedom to read anything else they want to.

We then began thinking about how we can show the community that this matters to us in visible ways. Taking a page from the work Ryan Bretag has been doing with his I.D.E.A., we began thinking about how books are shared. That’s where the quote came in. If we read something we love, the first thing we do is run and tell someone “Oh my god, you have to read this book–when I’m finished.” That’s what we want. We want viral reading. We saw it with Hunger Games. We saw it with Twilight, and before that with Harry Potter.

We built a school-wide reading site (sorry for not linking yet–we’re not ready for prime time) where teachers, students, and administrators are going to be featuring one title from each grade level list as the “buzz book,” a title that we will all read as a grade level. That “buzz book” will become the centerpiece of weekly blog posts by teachers, students, and administrators throughout the summer. Alongside that, we’ll also be featuring “staff picks” and “student picks” in the sidebars of the blog so that the community can lean on one another for recommendations. There was also talk of a rating system for the titles as they are read.

Lastly, the dreaded summer reading assignment that awaits each student when they return to school. Rather than have them slog through an essay on a book they may or may not have liked, we decided to use their assignment as another recommendation engine. Students will create book advertisements, book trailers, and flyers for the books or magazines they read over the summer. Each of these will be placed strategically throughout the school, space permitting, and used as part of regular book displays by our media specialists. Additionally, we’ll be collecting data from the students in September to see what the hottest 5th/6th/7th/8th grade title was, and then promoting that as well.

It’s the First Big Plan, and I am excited to see where it takes us.