Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District, also in Wisconsin (http://mineralpointschools.org/). He also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Matt tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).
This is a repost from my school blog. I share my reading life with families and the community to help develop a new norm, in which everyone is a reader and writer.
“What do you do when you don’t know what to write?” A student asked me this during a classroom visit. My response: I read, and I find easy ways to write!
One way I accomplish both is by writing reviews for books on Goodreads. This social media site for bibliophiles allows people to connect with other readers, recommend titles to friends, and discover new books to read. Since I could not think of something to write for this month’s newsletter, I thought I would share some of the titles I most enjoyed from 2017.
Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce (A boy and his older brother discover over a million dollars along the railroad tracks behind their house. Funny and wise.)
We Found a Hat by Jon Klassen (From the back cover of this picture book: “Two turtles have found a hat. The hat looks good on both of them. But there are two turtles. And there is only one hat. . . . “)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (I read this book aloud to my son. The books are better than the movies, and the movies are good.)
The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors by Drew Daywalt (This was a fun picture book to read aloud. The images and text call back to martial arts movies.)
Truck: A Love Story by Michael Perry (This memoirist shares life stories, such as tending his unproductive garden and fixing up an old pick up. Full of life.)
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (A mix of stories and experiences from a Vietnam Veteran. This book altered my view on the costs of war.)
Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal by Amy Krouse Rosenthal (What a fun book to read and respond to! Unlike any other literary experience. Also bittersweet as Rosenthal died from cancer in 2016.)
Ghostly Echoes by William Ritter (For young adults, this supernatural mystery is part of a series that takes place in nineteenth-century New England. “Sherlock Holmes meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer” says one reviewer.)
It’s awards season! Typically this annual post is published late of the same year. However, it is never too late to recognize the great writing on educational blogs. I saved each of the posts listed here because I found them to be important to my work as an educator. Maybe you will too.
This list is without descriptions for each linked post, unlike past lists. Time is valuable. I suggest exploring each of these posts yourself. If one strikes you as important in your work, please share your response in the comments. You don’t have to agree with the content. Each post was selected because it caused thinking on my end as a reader.
For example, I included Tim Shanahan’s post on this list specifically because I did not agree with his position. But it did cause thinking, specifically in re-examining my own beliefs about literacy instruction. Posting his initial thinking online led to several comments with various levels of agreement/disagreement. Conversation ensued. Conversely, Digital Pedagogy Lab’s post about the negatives regarding the technology Turnitin changed my thinking about a product I had once promoted.
This gets to the heart of blogging as an educator: Every teacher and administrator has something to say and to contribute to the larger conversation of teaching and learning. Our experiences working with kids daily has just as much credibility as any letters behind our names. We build our collective intelligence when we blog about our work and engage with others willing to take a risk and share their thinking online. If you have been hesitant to start a blog, consider now as a good time to begin.
Each day we seem to enter a story. The introduction starts when we wake up. What we think and do is a lead into a plot. Yet our goals are too often the same; get to work on time, do my job well, figure out dinner and how to spend quality time with the kids, find some quiet time to breathe, and go to sleep. Maybe read the next chapter in a book if we are lucky.
But a story demands more than a series of events. There needs to be conflict. A plot with an intriguing setting. Character change over time, complex and maybe unexpected. A resolution that does not solve the conflict as much as allow the characters in a story to resolve the conflict and find more peace within themselves. Above all, this story wants the reader (and ourselves) to “stay with it”, if I can quote Tom Newkirk’s book Minds Made for Stories.
Maybe that is why people experience hopelessness and end up turning to less healthy behaviors. They have no story. They aren’t struggling with a conflict that productively challenges them to achieve their inspiring goals. Maybe they have no goals. Instead, they just struggle. They lose more than they win. Defeat becomes the overwhelming setting and context.
Blaming outside factors for this malaise can only go so far. If there is a predisposition to mental health concerns, that certainly needs more outside support. For everyone else, maybe we forgot the importance and the enjoyment of a story. How might we place ourselves as the protagonist in our personal journeys? We need a goal that we desire to reach, an objective so important that we are willing to struggle through the struggles to achieve it.
Everyone wants to be inspired. We look to movies, to books, to other people’s lives for examples of who has overcome obstacles to realize their dreams. I have no problem with that. My concern is that if we only live vicariously through others’ experiences, their personal goals and journeys can become a substitute for our potential. Maybe we are susceptible to forget what we were passionate about… We need to start our own stories. Stories that other people will want to read about and be inspired by in their own personal journeys. Stories in which we are the protagonist, seeking success.
I recently read aloud Meet the Dogs of Bedlam Farm by Jon Katz (an excellent nonfiction picture book) to 1st graders. After the story, we discussed possible writing ideas inspired by this text. One student raised his hand.
I called on him.
He thought some more.
I waited some more.
Finally, he shared an idea based on the book plus his own experience with pets. I wrote it down on a piece of paper and then showed everyone.
In the past, I would have likely told that student that we could come back to him later. After reading an article about think time, I have changed this practice. Here is one line from the article: “The students never disappoint. They trust that smart things will pop into their minds. And smart things always do—if we give them time to think.” Without reading, watching, and reflecting upon excellent instruction, I would never have grown.
When I am not blogging, it usually means I am on a tech sabbatical, on vacation (I wish!), or working on a writing project. Lately, I have been reading and enjoying Regie Routman’s new resource Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners. Like Regie’s previous work, this book is a necessary text for any teacher of literacy (see: you).
As a way for me to connect with and reflect upon the ideas in Literacy Essentials, I have written three articles for Stenhouse’s blog. They describe the importance of building a literacy culture, addressing the elements of trust, communication, and relationships. You can read the first two posts by clicking here and here. Look for the third post on the Stenhouse blog in the near future.
Reading Literacy Essentials, it could almost be called “Life Essentials”. Regie mixes research and practice with personal stories as a wife, parent, grandparent, friend, and unique individual. She offers suggestions for becoming a better teacher and a more interesting person. Joy can be had in the classroom and in life; they are not mutually exclusive. This makes Regie’s new book essential reading for all educators.
At the turn of the new year, I took a look at my reading habits. I have participated in the Goodreads Reading Challenge for the last five years. You set a goal for number of books read, and then document each book you read with a date finished, rating and maybe even a review. Here is how I have fared.
2013: 12 books read out of a goal of 40
2014: No challenge accepted
2015: 56 books read out of a goal of 50
2016: 55 books read out of a goal of 60
2017: 49 books read out of a goal of 52
I saw some interesting patterns and trends here. First, I was very unsuccessful the first time I participated in the Reading Challenge, so much so that I failed to document a goal for 2014 (I’m sure I read). Second, the only year I met my goal was in 2015. That is a success rate of 20%, if you define success as meeting an arbitrary benchmark. Third, my average number of books read for the past three years is 53, or one book per week. Knowing that the top 1% of earners read at least one book a month on average, I am looking forward to my future financial wealth.
This last point is my attempt at humor, but there is truth here as well. Habitual readers tend to find success in life, both personal and professional. They are typically more knowledgable about the world and have greater empathy for people in other cultures. The books I read vary in genre, author, length, etc., which broadens my perspective. Some books are for kids, such as the ones I read aloud to my children, but many are for me. Reading is a selfish act that also inspires selflessness and a desire to affect the greater good.
I keep track of my reading because it is important to me and the community of readers I know online and offline. I don’t set reading goals to hit a number or see how many more books I can read than others. My list of books read provides me with a literary history, a chronology of my reading life. If I don’t reach my goal, what’s the big deal? I’d rather know whether I have an imbalance of fiction and nonfiction. These are points worth stressing in our classrooms so our students don’t miss the forest for the trees.
“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”
– J.K. Rowling
This question recently cropped up from one of our faculty members. We are deep into exploring the connection between reading and writing, building a foundation for literacy instruction schoolwide. My response was off-the-cuff, sharing some general ideas, but maybe a little too vague and lacking coherence. The source of their concern was likely our high marks on our school report card. Here is what I wanted to say in my preferred mode of communication (writing).
When a school decides to pursue a literacy initiative as a whole faculty, they are already heading in the right direction. Anytime we can get everyone on the same page around reading and writing instruction, we build a common language and understanding for what will occur regularly in each classroom. Actually, the only wrong direction is by making no decision. By allowing everyone to have 100% autonomy in how reading and writing instruction will be delivered in classrooms, we create the conditions for student inequity.
A quality schoolwide literacy initiative should allow for some flexibility with teachers to personalize their approach. There should be enough room for teachers to have voice and choice in how instruction will be delivered. It’s the same thing we want for our students, right? We need to model this belief at every level.
For literacy initiatives that start to feel more closed in the level of autonomy for teachers as time progresses, be sure to check student assessment results. In my previous school, we felt like two years of writing training was possibly too scripted and squeezed some of the voice out of our students’ work. We facilitated a mid-year writing check. Sure enough: lots of structure but little style in students’ writing. As one teacher noted when we debriefed after the assessment, “Our kids will be able to nail a college essay, but do they love writing?” This information guided our decision to come back to a more holistic approach to teaching writing in the classroom.
This decision to pursue a more structured writing approach was not wrong; our intentions were good and were based on what we believed our students needed. The only wrong approach would have been to forge ahead with our current efforts, ignoring what our students’ writing was telling us. This is different than what a lot of schools do: jumping from one initiative to the next, year after year. We knew that our students needed consistently strong literacy instruction year after year. Hopping from rock to rock along a stream of new ideas wasn’t going to help our kids become literate individuals, as tempting as it might be.
That’s why decisions for pursuing a schoolwide literacy initiative should be a part of a long-term plan. Three years is probably a minimum. A long-term plan reduces the desire for rock hopping. It’s easier to say “no” to a new and exciting professional learning opportunity when you have a pathway already laid out. Part of this long-term plan should include multiple points of celebration. These opportunities to highlight school success have to be tangible and genuine. In our school, we re-examine our beliefs about literacy, owning new beliefs after a year of schoolwide professional development work. We also set aside the beginning of staff meetings for staff celebrations. Teachers can share quick wins and victories. I also make a point of taking pictures of teachers innovating in their classrooms as they try and apply new strategies. These images are shared and celebrated before we begin learning about a new literacy strategy. All of our celebrations build on where we have been and inspire us to learn more.
That might be the biggest point in a response to this question about heading in the wrong direction: If our intentions are based on students’ needs and teachers’ informed beliefs, and we were are willing to adjust course in light of the evidence, then we cannot make a poor decision. The constant pursuit of becoming better in our practice is always the right choice.