The Teen Years

If my reading career was a line graph, it would definitely have some steep mountains and valleys. Since I can remember, I’ve loved books, thanks to my dad reading to me as a child. In elementary school, I read everything I could. In fourth grade, the teacher had us log our reading goals for the week and I’d slam down about 8 novels on her desk to make reading goals for each of them. I was a regular at the elementary school library. However, my interest dwindled when I got to middle and high school. I guess there were no teachers pushing me to read, so I didn’t!

Like Gallo, I trudged through the classics that were shoved down my throat by teachers who seemed even less thrilled than us to be teaching them. My well-meaning 9th grade English teacher allowed us to listen to Romeo and Juliet on tape as well as view the Leonardo DiCaprio adaptational movie. I never found the purpose. 10th grade brought me more miserable Shakespeare (I’m picking on him badly, but the way he was presented made his plays torturous) as a hopelessly un-engaging young teacher tried to force us to pay attention to Macbeth. I only attended the movie for extra credit. In 11th grade, I only remember trying not to fall asleep, constantly being on my phone while a passionate teacher taught Beowulf in a most dispassionate manner. Senior year, I had no assigned readings, because I opted out of the advanced English class because I thought I wasn’t cut out for it. In all cases, I became a master of using SparkNotes to sound like I had done the readings, using the Internet for inspiration for my papers, and became a whiz of a test taker (product of No Child Left Behind much?).

My teachers thought I was a great student! I usually got A’s and B’s in every class. But when I think about the years wasted on the drudgery of horrible readings, I cringe to think of how many more doors would have been opened for me as a teenager if I had been reading more widely.

Honestly, I don’t remember reading much in those years. But I do remember one day in the library my senior year as I finished an essay several days early. Bored, I perused the Belle Fourche High School’s library, which had a great collection of cowboy literature. I found a book of poetry by Badger Clark, and I was enthralled in the beautiful verses he composed about the way of life I love so much. My interest in reading was rekindled as I was leaving public school. Ironic.

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That summer, I searched for books within my own house, since we lived so far away from a library. Thanks to my dad, I got hooked on old cowboy stories and books that had been the original stories to some movies that I loved (Monte Walsh, Lonesome Dove, even a lengthy biography about Doc Holliday because I loved Tombstone so much).

 

I read Lonesome Dove every night that summer, staying up way too late because I could not stop reading that amazing story. It matched the movie so perfectly, which amazed me even more.

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After that, I remembered a book that I had read in 4th grade – Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles, which I had loved. I found the book, re-read it, and began to read the whole series. They are my favorite books of all time.

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Probably the last book that I read as a teenager was Tom Horn’s autobiography (also made into a movie), which was an incredibly compelling true story of a man whose reputation precedes him (but is it the correct one?). I recommended it to everyone I met in Wyoming, as Tom Horn met his end hanging by a rope in that state.

My reading career has been less-than-normal and I doubt that many of my students will go through the same journey or have similar reading tastes. However, I hope with all my heart that my experiences as a high school teenager will help me to reshape my own classroom to house choice and support for reading. In this way, I hope to open doors for my future students.

Reading and Writing: Not Separate Entities

Stephen King said, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.” As teachers, of course we want our students to be able to write. It would be nearly impossible to exist in the world without being able to compose some sort of writing, whether it be building a resume, a business report, a proposal, or a lesson plan (for us future teachers). Point being, writing is as inescapable in the modern world as reading is. It is a teacher’s job to see the connection between reading and writing and capitalize on it as much as possible.

 

As discussed in all of my past blog posts and as research supports, independent and shared reading is so important for academic success and even creating more empathetic and informed people. Writing only expands upon this concept. I maintain the opinion that reading quality, varied writing helps students to become great writers themselves.

I read Janet Allen’s book, On the Same Page, for a past blog post, but her suggestions and observations are unlimited in applications for the classroom. In the chapter about teaching writing, she had observed another teacher’s classroom and immediately saw an issue with how the teacher was managing her time. She said, “After I observed her class, it was interesting to note with her that she was not actually seeing reading and writing as separate teaching goals and was not using the foundation she had begun with shared reading as a place to start for her teaching of writing.” Obviously, it’s important to understand the links between teaching reading and writing for time management and fewer headaches all around. 

In defense of free-reading, A New York Times article says, “Mrs. Sokolowski is right that formal grammar instruction, like identifying parts of speech, doesn’t work well. In fact, research finds that students exposed to a glut of such instruction perform worse on writing assessments.” I remember something that Dr. Ellington said in class; “One of the worst things a teacher can do is to show students an incorrect sentence and make them correct it. It is much more effective t show them good writing.” It’s easy to make the connection to having students read quality writing in English class. 

Another interesting point that the article brings up is the attempt of free writing to help create good writers. “‘Freewriting, hoping that children will learn or gain a love of writing, hasn’t worked,’ Dr. Hochman told the teachers, many of whom work in low-income neighborhoods. She doesn’t believe that children learn to write well through plumbing their own experiences in a journal, and she applauds the fact that the Common Core asks students to do more writing about what they’ve read, and less about their own lives.” For students that may not have interesting stories in their own lives, literacy can fill the gap. 

Of course, vocabulary is a very important factor in writing effectively. One small suggestion that I also stole from Allen’s book was the “Words We Need to Know Wall.” Students choose words from their independent reading books that they feel the class should know. It’s arranged by letter, alphabetically, and I was surprised to find that many of the words were very advanced, like: benefactor, espionage, fidelity, galvanized, insinuate, lethargic, occult, synagogue, uncouth, vindictive, and zenith. Some of these words were even unfamiliar to me! This is just another small way to aid writing through reading, giving students a constant reminder of how capable they are of writing well. 

As a final thought on teaching reading and writing simultaneously, one study titled Free Voluntary Reading: Still a Very Good Idea reads, “In Elley and Mangubhai (1983), fourth- and fifth-grade students of English as a foreign language were divided into three groups for their thirty-minute daily English class. One group had traditional audio-lingual method instruction, a second did only free reading, while a third did ‘shared reading.’ Shared reading ‘…is a method of sharing a good book with a class, several times, in such a way that the students are read to by the teacher, as in a bedtime story. They then talk about the book, they read it together, they act out the story, they draw parts of it and write their own caption, they rewrite the story with different characters or events…’ (Elley 1998, 1-2). After two years, the free-reading group and the shared-reading group were far superior to the traditional group in tests of reading comprehension, writing, and grammar.”

The possibilities are endless when we have great quality and quantity of reading materials in the classroom. We are already reading, so why not use the materials in front of us to their full potential? 

Shared Reading Experiences

Almost everyone can relate to the experience of being read a picture book while they were a child, whether it was at home or in the classroom. If you remember this, you had the opportunity to receive the messages of those texts in the company of your class or family; a unique experience that will never be replicated. In addition, these early reading experiences helped shape your growth as a reader and as a person.

Most would leave a shared reading experience in that age group. It’s only for learning readers, right? What if we rethought the shared reading experience, and used it for all learners? Fortunately, I’ve been exposed to this experiment. Every day in our Theory of Teaching Reading class, we have a picture book read to us. It’s still just as enjoyable as it was in grade school! The research is in favor of shared reading. As Dr. Ellington often reminds us, “What works for Kindergarten students will often work just as well with college students.”

In high school, the case is sometimes that students do not know how to read, but more often than not, it is that they have not formed the habit to want to read. In the book On the Same Page by Janet Allen, the author tells a story about a real classroom that was rambunctious and out of control. Not knowing what else to do, the teacher gave students the option of two books to have read aloud. Miraculously, order was returned to the classroom as students were enthralled in the words the teacher was reading. As the semester went on, the habitually-absent students returned to class and even brought friends to listen to the novel! Students began generating their own reading discussions, without prompting from the teacher. It worked like magic.

Though I will not even scratch the surface of the information in Janet Allen’s amazing book, I will attempt to summarize important points to help me defend and execute shared reading.

To paraphrase, educators are meant to be facilitators of learning for students. I believe this wholeheartedly, and shared reading is such a wonderful way of facilitating their learning. By having shared reading experiences in the classroom, teachers provide an example of fluent reading, bring background knowledge/context to reading, help students make connections (to real life and to other books), provide them with new forms and reading materials, and help them uncover world knowledge.

Selecting shared reading materials is a little scary to me, but it is important to look to the students for help. Take into account their independent reading habits, common feelings/tastes/themes/lives among students (for example: geographically-themed books for the location of the school, home lives, etc.), and whatever causes students to be curious, ask questions, and discuss on their own.

As a final thought, shared reading can be thought of as a bridge to independent reading. In one study, “Nearly one thousand students (out of twelve hundred) reported they chose books for independent reading for one or more of the following reasons: book read aloud by the teacher, another book by the same author as our shared reading, a book about the same topic as our shared reading, or a sequel to a read-aloud or shared reading book. Many developing readers take their reading cues from us; therefore, it is critical to offer enough variety in the texts we choose for shared reading so that all our students can find reading that meets their independent reading tastes (cue classroom library article!).”

 

Modeling Reading

One of the most important aspects of creating a classroom where kids want to read is modeling the life of a reader. This means that we can show kids the joyfulness that comes with reading materials that work for us, leaving those that don’t, and sharing every struggle and victory with them! Though there are countless ways to model how to be a reader, I’ve come up with three main tenets that will help any teacher be a great example in their classroom. First, we must create the social environment of reading. Second, we should be comfortable sharing the not-as-positive experiences of reading, because being real with students will only help you and them. Finally, share the wonderful experience of reading with them.

Reading in the classroom can be a wonderfully, socially fulfilling activity, if the instructor sets up the classroom to do so. It is very possible to heighten a student’s social pleasure (as per Jeff Wilhelm’s article) just by reading! Sharing books, talking about characters, and reading together can all help to create a warm, socially pleasing environment. One way that this is modeled in Dr. Ellington’s class is through shared reading experiences (more to come on this subject in future blog posts). Each day, Dr. Ellington brings one picture book for us to read together as a class. Over time, the class experiences many teaching moments, moral questions and laughs from these short stories. Another way to bring socialization to classroom reading is to invite students to “book talk” the books that they have read or are currently reading. By making is a free choice activity, students feel free to express their opinions whenever they choose. Bonds are often strengthened between students who read the same books, or books of similar nature. This notion of creating new friendships across the classroom can do wonders to create a caring classroom community (Clock Watchers). One final, small way that teachers can be good reading role models is to listen to recommendations given by students and take them. I think it’s very important that teachers put forth the effort to check out books recommended by students, because it makes them feel valued as readers and as students. Dr. Ellington models this very well, as she often takes notes while her students are giving book talks.

Though there aren’t many downsides to reading, there are a few unpleasant experiences that come with being an avid reader. Most of us can relate to picking up a book, being very excited to delve into its pages, and being bitterly disappointed in it. Readers often don’t want to abandon books, much less talk about abandoning books. However, it is one of the best things that a reading role model can teach and show their class. This article points to a number of reasons that students may abandon books: it is too difficult, it is not interesting, it’s about a topic I don’t like, it’s confusing, etc. I would like to simplify this even more. In Dr. Ellington’s words, “I love abandoning books that don’t work for us!” We need to model and share these very real moments with students. Let’s not force ourselves or our students to read books that do not work, and save our precious reading time for enjoyable texts.

Lastly, let’s share the BEST reading moments with our students. This can be as simple as actually sitting down to read right alongside them during quiet reading time in class. This simple, yet effective action shows students that you do actually practice what you preach. As teachers, sometimes that “spare” ten minutes can be so valuable in preparing yourself for the lesson to come. Sometimes it’s an impossibility to stop your busy day and read with the students. However, I would argue that it is the most important step that you can take to modeling reading. Actually model the reading! Dr. Ellington may find herself too busy on some days to read for the entirety of the ten minutes allotted to us, but she makes a solid effort everyday to be visibly reading in front of the class. This is what matters.

Modeling reading will never involve memorization of flash cards, or lessons on how to comprehend text. Being a great role model may not even mean that you’re perfect. It just means that you share the highs and lows that go along with being a lifetime learner and reader, so that your students can reap the benefits that come from being a voracious reader.

For the Sake of Wonder

In class, we recently watched Mac Barnett’s TED Talk on “Why a good book is a secret door.” Mac is an award-winning author of children’s books and spends most of his time around children, writing for children or writing with children. He is fascinated by their world and their imaginations and believes that adults can reach this stage of “wonder” as well. He says, “That place called art or fiction, I’m going to call it ‘wonder.’ It’s what Coleridge called the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ or ‘poetic faith.’ There are moments, where a story, no matter how strange, has some semblance of the truth and then you’re able to believe it.”

Barnett says that he’s been obsessed with secret doors his whole life, such as the story of the wardrobe and Narnia. He’s worked in and managed “retail stores” that aren’t stores at all, in the normal sense of the word. These stores, like a “pirate supply store” or a “time travel supply store” stand between the real world and what lies behind them; a space for children to read and write whatever their imaginations wish.

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What I want to ponder is how to create secret doors in my classroom. Of course, my students will go through a “secret door” of fiction when they enter into their reading. If I could facilitate or accent this process in some way, I think that my classroom would be so enjoyable and students would look forward to reading and wondering, if this was the case. The goal of this TED Talk-inspired blog post is to explore some of my own ideas on how to do this very thing. How can I produce “wonder” in my classroom? 

Perhaps the entire room could take on the theme of Alice in Wonderland, with cooky characters, splashes of colors and an established “fictional” environment throughout.

Perhaps we, as a class, could read one inspirational book at the beginning of the year and carry it with us the rest of the year. We could continually be inspired by a book like Rules of the Red Rubber Ball by Kevin Carroll as we pursue our own “red rubber balls” of goals and aspirations in life.red rubber ball.jpg

Maybe it could simply establish and celebrate the differences in ourselves and in our reading with decorations like this:

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Maybe the power lies with me. Maybe it should be made known to students that whenever they enter the threshold of my classroom, they are allowed to read and write and use their imaginations to their full extent.

Maybe creating “wonder” begins with simply allowing students to “wonder.” James Cameron, the mastermind behind the creation of the movies “Titanic” and “Avatar,” would use the term “curiosity” in his TED Talk

As a child, “I was always absorbed in a book. A science fiction book that brought my mind to other worlds and satisfied, in a narrative form, this insatiable sense of curiosity that I had. That curiosity also manifested itself in the fact that whenever I wasn’t in school, I was out in the woods hiking and taking “samples;” frogs and snakes and bugs and pond water.”

“Curiosity. It’s the most powerful thing you own,” he said. His curiosity led him to be one of the first people to dive to the real wreckage of the Titanic shipwreck, and then another. He kept diving and discovering and wondering and writing and inspiring. All because of wonder and the power of books. 

Books and Buffalo

Once the work was done for the day–the dry-grass fall gather, the dusty pen sorting, the vaccinations for the health of the calves–the entire crew sat down to a well-used steel pan of hot dish served on a paper plate. As always, I was the only woman in the crew, but that fact of life is as familiar as my favorite saddle horse, at this point. We sat helter-skelter, with some of us balancing our plates on our laps as we shoveled warm beef and noodles into our hungry mouths, while a few sat on regular chairs at table, and some others found too-tall stools and craned over their dinner like a vulture. It doesn’t sound like the ideal place to strike up a conversation about a book, but I did anyway.

An older neighbor addressed my brother and his current job.

“How do you like working those buffalo?”

“I don’t like it at all.”

“I don’t know if I’d like it much either. They’re way too dangerous.”

The conversation took a few turns, while a pondering listener piped up,

“Do you ever wonder how the Indians killed those tough suckers with just a bow and arrow?”

“Well I think they used buffalo jumps quite a bit, too.”

“You know,” said I. “After reading that book, Where the Rivers Run North, I noticed that they never mention buffalo jumps. They only mention legitimate buffalo hunts. It’s weird. I wonder which one they used more.”

It’s as simple as that. I’ve realized it’s not difficult to bring books into everyday conversation, even if I’m in a conversation with some crusty old cowboys. It’s especially not hard to talk about that book. I talk about Where the Rivers Run North all the time. If anything remotely related to that book comes up in conversation, I’ll talk about it. I would be embarrassed, but I really don’t care. Every rural person living in my neck of the woods should definitely read it, and I’ll book talk the same book over and over until it’s in every house in northeastern Wyoming.

In an informal way, I’m book talking in my everyday life. I do it a lot with my dad, as well. I guess I inherited my love for western history from him. We are riveted by the history that wound its way through time and landed at us, so, we like to read books that educate us. I’d recently finished Tom Horn: An Autobiography and highly recommended it to him. The skillful storytelling of a man that was nothing more than a United States scout in the times of Geronimo astounded me. In a similar way, Dad constantly urges me to read Dakota Cowboy and Teddy Blue Abbott’s recollections in a book called We Pointed Them North. Who doesn’t love a cowboy?

My biggest (and perhaps most whimsical) challenge, has been getting my low-talking, snuff-chewing, too-tough-for-reading, cowboy of a boyfriend to pick up a book. I’ve picked up books from thrift stores, cowboy museums, and flea markets in hopes of getting him to take a peek. I special ordered Casey Tibbs’ biography, Born to Ride, in hopes that the wild stories and roots of rodeo might entice him. No luck. I plopped Gold Buckle Dreams down on his nightstand, hoping he’d get bored and pick it up. I’m not sure if he has or not. Of course, the book I had the most luck with was the one I thought he’d dismiss in a heartbeat. The Quotable Will Rogers was a book I picked up for less than two dollars. The corner-worn, mustard-colored book contained almost every quote the famous actor and trick rope artist said on every subject from swimming to women to politics. He loved it! His post-shoulder surgery time was not spent watching television, as I would have guessed, but paging through the short blurbs on each page! Without forcing him to read anything and simply presenting the opportunity for him to read, I achieved success. I haven’t had much luck since the Will Rogers book, but I’ll continue to think outside the box and plant books for him to be curious about. Curiosity is all it takes!

The research supporting book talks (the social aspect of reading in the classroom) is extensive and has been covered in many articles read in class. Furthermore, choice is one of the most important aspects of any classroom and especially a reading classroom. These concepts can be found at these sites:

https://theeducatorsroom.com/using-booktalks-to-create-a-community-of-readers/

https://www.essentiallearningproducts.com/book-talk-tips-gwenyth-j-mccorquoale

https://www.edutopia.org/article/building-choice-student-reading-susan-barber

http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/ELQ/0383-feb2016/ELQ0383Top.pdf

 

 

Why are we teaching like this?

After constructing a lesson plan for my sophomore practicum class, I was very proud of my work. I was just learning how to instruct the regular 10th grade English class at Kelly Walsh High School in Casper, Wyoming under the expert supervision of one of the best teachers in the state. When completing a lesson plan, one of the blank fields that needed to be filled in read, “Extension;” meaning the activities that students should move onto after completing their work in class. Without a second thought, I wrote, “Students can read independently from their free-reading books if they finish early.”

I turned in the lesson plan to my practicum teacher, and she said, “free-reading is not rigorous enough. You need to re-do it.” Even then, before taking a Theory of Teaching Reading class, I was confused. Now, I can put the facts to my gut feeling.

How do students become better readers? They read, of course! The mentor teacher I was paired with for practicum believed in independent reading and choice of content. She knew the value of letting students read what they wanted to read because even the most difficult students in the class would devour their independent reading books when it came time. This is a twofold strategy that both inspired students and helped them to become better overall students. They read books that they chose.

Nancie Atwell wrote a list of “21 Lessons Teachers Demonstrate About Reading,” and #6 reads, “Student readers aren’t smart or trustworthy enough to choose their own texts.” This salty list gets the point across. Teachers often think they know what is best for students but instead of working against the grain, it may be easier to simply work with their tastes, hobbies, and interests. In an article by Donalyn Miller, she states, “When students see that I value their reading choices, they begin to trust themselves to select their own reading material and trust me to suggest more books.” There is so much involved with creating a classroom with avid readers within, but it all starts with choice.

I studied the book Clock Watchers in my Educational Psychology class at Casper College. Choice was a main tenet of the 6 C’s. Integrating choice in the classroom is crucial for engagement and motivation.

The second part of the twofold strategy is that students read. It sounds so very simple, but the way students are “reading” in most classrooms is not what reading really is. As Dr. Ellington says, “I never seek vocabulary words, themes, dissect sentences, or find the main idea of any book that I read.” She reads because she enjoys it, as do all avid readers. We must rid ourselves of the stigma that reading does not advance us as humans and as students.

In a study by Krashen, 2003, the author tells a story about an immigrant student that was learning the English language. She learned very quickly by becoming a reader over one summer. That fall, her teacher confronted her about homework that she had completed on her own, with no assistance from anyone or anything. The teacher believed that she had cheated. She said, “There and then and many years later I could not explain how I knew them. I just did.”

I think this happens to all readers, whether they are native English speakers or not. We suddenly become aware of cultures, words, concepts, and ideas that we would have never been opened up to if it hadn’t been for books. What teacher would deny their students of this privilege and right?