“Good Books, Relatively Speaking…”

Last week I needed to take my husband’s truck to the local dealership to get an estimate for some body work. As I usually do when facing a waiting room situation, I try to avoid having what Donalyn Miller calls a “book emergency.” This means stashing a book in my vehicle, my laptop bag, or in last Wednesday’s case, my oversized purse so I can steal some extra reading minutes.

After handing over the keys, I settled into one of the leather chairs and pulled out Raina Telgemeier’s new graphic novel version of Ann M. Martin’s “The Baby-Sitters Club: The Truth About Stacey.”  I flipped to the page that held my bookmark and returned to the fictional town of Stoneybrook. A couple minutes went by and I had that feeling that someone was watching me. I lifted my eyes from the book and noticed one of the service reps glancing my way.  Returning to the babysitters, a few more minutes passed. A mechanic walked by. Then a customer. And another.

One by one, each of them took momentary note of my reading material. As the hands on the clock slowly made their way around, I grew more and more self-conscious about the book I was holding. What were they thinking? Had they formed an opinion about my choice? And if so, what was it? I had a sudden urge to defend my actions…

“I can explain!”

“I’m a teacher!”

“I’m reading this so I can talk about it with my kids!”

But most of all, if I was being truthful with myself, I was reading it because I simply enjoyed it. I had grown up with The BSC series and though I am so excited to share it with a new generation of readers, I am equally excited to transport myself back to a familiar, comfortable place and spend some time with familiar, comfortable characters. But I didn’t say that. I didn’t say any of it.  I slowly closed my book and sat quietly, thinking about what I had just experienced.

And I thought about our students.

The students whose texts evoke awkward feelings of embarrassment for them. Perhaps they’re sitting in a guided reading group or carrying around an overflowing browsing box filled with books labeled “Level G.” We, as teachers, need to be mindful of the texts we require students to read and take into consideration their perception of it.

Even more importantly, we need to foster a community of acceptance where it is safe to read what you choose, safe to experiment with book choice, and safe to take risks as readers.  I’ve seen a lot of posts recently from author friends about the fact that there should be no qualifying of literature as “a good boy book” or “a good girl book,” that there are simply GOOD BOOKS. I agree with this premise wholeheartedly.

Our children deserve to be able to make their own choices about what they choose when it comes to independent reading. They shouldn’t have to feel like they need to carry around a four-pound Harry Potter book in order to be seen as a “good reader.” Likewise, reading Elephant & Piggie books doesn’t make someone a “bad reader.” Have you read that series?! It’s darn funny and this 42-year-old highly proficient reader quite enjoys it!

This school year, I urge you to think consciously about the messages you send to your students, both verbal and nonverbal messages. Celebrate ALL readers, ALL reading, and establish a safe literacy community for ALL learners.

Reading Plans: The Power of a TBR List

In every spare minute of time I’ve had with students for the past month that hasn’t included standardized testing, I’ve tried to talk books with them.  I’d recently given them a reading interest survey and when I was conferencing with them individually about their responses, one thing struck me as being the same among all of them.

It was the way they answered the question, “What do you plan to read next?”

They all replied in one of three ways:

1) “I don’t know,” or

2) they listed a familiar (and very independent level!) book, or

3) they simply left it blank.

The beginning of our year was very exciting, particularly with the “Grand Opening” of our classroom library.  I cordoned off the shelves with yellow CAUTION tape and we utilized the first couple weeks of school to become researchers in our own library. We had mini-lessons about how it was categorized and  the maintenance and care of the library, while pulling out a few labeled bins at a time to scour the contents, and share with each other titles, authors, and series of interest that the kids wanted to read or recommend to others.  The library officially opened, students enthusiastically engaged with texts, and reading stamina was rising. Things were on a roll.  But that’s not good enough.

As a reader, I am constantly getting recommendations from friends, family, colleagues, and students about books or authors they think I should check out.  If I don’t happen to have my iPhone with me, I frantically grab for a pen and piece of paper so that I can record those recommendations to prevent them from becoming lost in the daily minutia that’s filed in my brain.

Enter… my To Be Read List.

My TBR List is a critical tool for my reading life.  It keeps me going… it fuels my literary fire.  It prevents me from falling into reading slumps. It gives me options and a plan, when I may not be able to decide where I want to focus my attention next as a reader. My TBR List keeps me current with new and popular books and authors. It keeps me in touch with what my friends and colleagues are reading, as they share theirs with me and vice versa.

So to hear that my students weren’t formulating a plan for where they were headed next as readers meant that I had to re-examine my instruction.  I needed to help them understand what an important lifelong strategy… what an important habit it is.  I shared my TBR List with them.  I shared the stories that led to the stories on my list- how each title had “made the cut,” how I categorize my reads: personal, professional, & children’s texts.  We talked about the benefit of having those written down, in order to be an efficient, well-prepared reader.  I also shared with them the times that I chose to edit my list… moving titles up or down on it, adding to it, deleting from it.

And then we set to work.

Each student got their own blank TBR List to be kept in their reader’s/writer’s notebook.  We dedicated an afternoon to crafting our TBRs and when we were finished, we talked about our choices.  I even added a couple more books to my own list that day.  One student, who has not truly viewed herself as a reader prior to this year, happily shared with me 7 titles she had added, through browsing and talking with others.  Students are now diligently maintaining their TBRs and as we come together for book talks, we make sure to bring them with us, pencil in hand, poised for the next great addition to our reading life plan.


This was one of my favorite places to record my TBR Lists,

prior to switching over to my iPhone. 

Old school, but I still love it!

Big Picture vs. Small Steps: The Power of Scaffolding

    Several months ago I began to experience excruciating back and leg pain and, at the time, I was sure I had just overdone a workout; if I rested, it would be ok.  As it turned out, I was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease. I continue to see a chiropractor on a regular basis, who has truly been my salvation through all of this.  
    I can’t say there have been many times in my life when I was not able to muster a sliver of a positive outlook, but since March, there have been days I thought I would NEVER be pain-free again. It was intense and constant… unrelenting. I just wanted to give up and didn’t see how I would be able to continue carrying on with my regular life.  I felt utterly hopeless.
    In my role as a literacy coach, part of my work is as an interventionist.  I have seen hopelessness in the eyes of students who struggle, students who feel no reprieve.  As teachers, we often feel the need to paint the “big picture” for our students.  Don’t get me wrong, it is important for kids to have a sense of why they are learning certain things. Instruction without a sense of authenticity is shallow and does not encourage students’ real world connections.  However, if we constantly focus on the “big picture,” we may miss some crucial scaffolds along the way.  We may inadvertently undermine our instruction.
    After learning of my condition, several of my friends and colleagues asked what my doctor’s long-term plans were for me to be healthy and remain pain-free. Would I eventually need surgery?  What would the ‘end result‘ be?  I very politely told them that my chiropractor’s mantra to me through all of this has been, “Let’s work together to get this immediate situation under control so that your pain is managed. Then we’ll talk about long-term plans.”  My doctor knows that we must focus on the many little steps that need to build upon one another first before the big picture will even seem attainable.  For that, I am grateful.  When one is that overwhelmed, and the focus remains just on an end result, it’s easy to overlook and forget to monitor the little steps… the small points of progress that slowly give us back our hope.
    Oftentimes, I think it is in our urgency to have our students “arrive” at a particular benchmark, standard, or number on a rubric, that we might tend to place more distance between the “rungs” of our scaffold ladders, thinking it may get them there faster, yet if the distance becomes too great, they are unable to reach the next level of success.  
    One example of this is the guided practice component of a workshop framework.  This component of a gradual release of responsibility model cannot be overstated. Yet it is a component which is sometimes eliminated, for the sake of moving on to independent practice.  Likewise, we can’t simply think that by  providing merely one opportunity to practice the task modeled in the mini-lesson, that it will always be sufficient for the majority of learners.  Repeated over time, this will also reinforce our struggling learners’ belief that they will never attain the end goal, (the “big picture.”)  The time invested in guided practice will ultimately reap more independent gains.  
    Sibberson & Szymusiak in their text, Still learning to read: Teaching students in grades 3-6 (Stenhouse, 2003) state:    

“It is tempting to make a list of all the concepts and skills that our students need to learn and check them off as we teach them. But, these strategies are complex, and we expect our students to use them all their lives. We can’t expect children to be able to use these strategies independently, without support, after just a few lessons.  As teachers, we work to design whole-class, small-group, and individual experiences that model and scaffold our students’ learning and give them the time they need to develop independence” (p. 74).    

I’m getting better.  I was at the point of being pain-free for over three weeks before I decided that I would increase my level of independence and try a day of canoeing over Independence Day weekend.  (Ironic, I know!) Did I have a setback? You bet. I had completely forgotten how many back muscles (and the demands of controlling those muscles) are involved in that activity.  My chiropractor did what great teachers do: he reminded me that I needed more practice with the little steps, such as balancing, building my stamina, and utilizing the right tools in order to be successful.  I had taken away my own scaffolds too quickly because I was too focused on only my ultimate goal rather than what needed to be in place for it to be achieved. 

There’s a good reason it’s called the GRADUAL release of responsibility.