Bring an Author to Your School

One of the best ways to increase enthusiasm for reading and writing in your school is by bringing an author on-site. It is mutually beneficial: the author receives support and awareness for their book(s); the students get a glimpse into the mind of a professional writer. I’ve been involved in several author visits at my schools and I have never been disappointed.

Next are three ways you can facilitate an author visit.

  • Skype an author

This is the most cost-effective way to bring an author into your school. Some authors will participate in video-based conversations for free, although I think it is great if you can pay them for their time. Title I funds would certainly support this. Skype chats with authors work well for individual classrooms or grade levels who might want to chat with an author in which they did a study of their books. It might also work as an entry event into a genre study in which the author’s work would apply.

Below is a short video of a Skype chat my son’s 1st-grade class had with Johnathan Rand, author of the Freddy Fernortner: Fearless 1st Grader series.

After this Skype chat with the author, the students were excited to read Rand’s early reader series. One student who was in Reading Recovery was so motivated after this event that she was able to decode and comprehend these chapter books while reading independently.

  • Partner with another organization

If costs are an issue and your school really wants to bring an author on-site, consider partnering with another local organization to help make this happen. Public libraries would be a logical connection. If the author has publications for both adults and kids, this can help the cause.

At my last school, we partnered with our local library in bringing Michael Perry to our building. Typically known for his memoirs and humorous writing, Perry had recently published his first book for older students, The Scavengers. After his talk at the local library the previous night for a citywide read of Population: 485, we brought the author over to our school for an hour-long chat with our 4th and 5th graders about his new series.

 

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Michael Perry speaking at our public library

 

While I was able to attend his appearance at the public library, I wasn’t able to make it to his school visit. From what the teachers told me, the kids really enjoyed his presentation.

  • Invite an author to your school

This is the preferred approach, as you get full access to the author for at least a day. The author can read aloud his/her book to the students, lead workshops on the writing process, and share personal experiences that led them to want to become an author in the first place. Prior to the visit, I have found it wise to discuss with the author what the day will look for everyone and how to make the best use of everyone’s time. For example, it is smart to consider the attention spans of younger vs. older students when scheduling classroom visits. Also, it is great to have copies of the author’s text in every classroom. In addition, I like to promote these visits to neighboring schools. If another school also wants the author to visit, it might help defray the costs of lodging and travel.

 

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Lisl visited my last school and my current school.

Our students, especially the young ones, may not truly understand where literature comes from until they meet an author in real life. The stories they tell, the experiences they share, and their simple presence in a school should be regular occurrences in every school. As a principal, I’ve personally witnessed the benefits of author visits in our students’ literacy lives.

 

 

Some of My Fondest Memories of High School were Read-Alouds

You could hear a pin drop in my classroom when I read aloud. It is their favorite time of the day. They beg me to read aloud to them.

-What a teacher recently shared with me

 

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I still remember when I got hooked on reading. My 3rd-grade teacher started reading aloud Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. The humor and plot hit home for me, also being an older brother like Peter, the main character. After hearing that book read aloud, I became a voracious reader. I now associated reading with both pleasure and with learning more about myself (“Would I have reacted to my younger brother like Peter did to Fudge?”). Bill Wallace and Roald Dahl were favorite authors, along with comics such as Calvin & Hobbes and Garfield.

As I progressed through the middle grades, I remained an avid reader in spite of the fact that my teachers did not read aloud to us. This is before the advent of smartphones, television-on-demand, and ubiquitous wireless. Reading was the only game in town. However, as I became more involved in high school, books started to become less important. Sports and other extracurriculars monopolized my time. I didn’t complain. It was great to be involved in the many opportunities. But my reading life suffered.

That’s why I am thankful that a high school teacher took the time to read aloud to us. He taught English and wasn’t shy about bucking the current thinking that reading aloud to secondary students was a waste of time. Read-aloud was leveraged as a tool both for instruction and for engagement. To be fair, what we participated in would be termed “shared read aloud”. We all had copies of the text and were expected to read at least some of it independently during class and at home. Here are a few snippets of what I remember from his classroom.

  • While reading aloud Lord of the Flies by William Golding, our teacher would reread dialogue out loud that gave clues to the personalities of each character.
  • While reading aloud Flower for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, the teacher asked provocative questions about the nature of science and perceived benefits.

As much as the lesson objective, I recall the very act of being read aloud to in the classroom. Getting to hear the cadence and prosody of an expert reader was an invaluable model for secondary students like myself who still hadn’t yet mastered the art of reading. The joy in literature was evident as our teacher read aloud to us. I cannot recall one peer stating that this type of activity was a waste of time or boring.

Through our community-based literacy experience mediated through read-aloud, I had rediscovered the importance of reading. I was more likely to pick up a book to read for pleasure, or even force myself to read a required text in another classroom and not defer to the Cliff Notes or the movie (if applicable). The typical life of a high schooler still held my focus. Yet my interest in reading was renewed. I once again viewed literature as a lifelong activity instead of another subject to be completed in school.

 

 

Tailings (Or: Why This Blog Might Become a Collaborative Space)

In our town, the city department used to lay down a mix of sand and gravel to make the roads safe during winter travel. The material was called “tailings”. It came from the mining shafts, dug up and dispersed once the lead ore had been excavated from deep below. With the closing of the mines, tailings have been replaced with road salt.

This seems like an appropriate metaphor for my current situation with blogging. Right now I am feeling like I am doing more reposting of events from my website (mattrenwick.com) than actual writing. What I don’t want to see happen is for Reading by Example to become the repository for my own writing tailings – the rejected articles and ideas from my other writing outlets. My situation is not a bad one; I’ve found opportunities to write for multiple audiences and get compensated for my time and efforts. I am thankful. Yet this means less time to write in this space. I’ve connected with multiple people who have shared their appreciation for what is posted here.

That’s why now seems like as good a time as ever to open up this blog to other writers who are also literacy leaders – teacher leaders, lead teachers, instructional coaches, prospective administrators, assistant principals and head principals, curriculum directors, superintendents, university faculty, consultants, thought leaders – anyone who has knowledge to share and a story to tell. This could be an opportunity for educators who have not blogged before, who are new to writing online or might like to drive more traffic to their own blog. I realize I am making a large assumption that people would want to write in this space at all. Having over 800 subscribers does help hedge this bet.

I’m not interested in being an editor, but there are some questions I would like prospective contributors to respond to before we agree that this is right for both of us. See form below for more information. Related, the goal of this blog will be revisited. To start, it will no longer be merely my perspective, but one of many. Having a public forum and continuous dialogue about literacy and leadership is critical for schools and their respective students to be successful. I hope that by opening up this digital space for more voices on the topic, we might find it to be a much better resource for all. That’s the plan, anyway. Your comments and questions are, as always, very much appreciated.

Cajun Dancing

“Would you like to go Cajun dancing? It’s for my friend’s birthday.” I have to admit: at the time that I heard this request from my wife, I might not have been attentively listening. If I had, I imagine I would have asked a series of questions.

“What is ‘Cajun’ dancing?”

“How much does it cost?”

“About how long do we have to stay?”

My inquiries would have been more about my desire to avoid this activity than any interest in dancing. Alas, the day came and I had committed. At the very least, we could connect with friends and have a night out.

We got to the dance hall and checked in. The instructor called us to the middle of the floor for the lesson before the dance. After a brief introduction of the style of music, we got started. “Okay, we are going to start with the basics. Three steps to the left, lift foot and dip, and then three steps to the right, lift foot and dip.” She modeled this with a partner plucked out of the circle at random. Then we tried it.

My wife and I only got to briefly dance together during the lesson. The men were moved one partner to the right after each bit of new instruction. I could tell which partners were as new to this as me by the mutual sweat in our palms. Those more veteran to Cajun dancing were unfiltered in their feedback. “Be sure to put your hand on the blade of my shoulder, not the side.”

Having adequately introduced ourselves to just about everyone in the hall, the instructor transitioned our music from a CD to an actual Cajun band. They needed to do a soundcheck before the official dance began. Feeling good about our progress, our instructor announced, “Okay, don’t worry about being perfect. The most important part about Cajun dancing is to…have fun!” The band started playing and we danced.

The beginning was rough. We bumped into other couples. I lost my step count more than once, even though I was counting under my breath. “Are you leading me, or am I leading you?” my wife quipped with a smile. Yet for all my initial fumbles, I finally found my rhythm, more or less. Counting steps gave way to spins and turns.

This new learning experience revealed missing elements in too many classrooms. When was the last time we as educators kept reading and writing instruction to the bare minimum? What would happen if we positioned our students as teachers and learners for each other more often than not? How would our student respond to the announcement, “Don’t worry about being perfect; just go have fun!” after a brief writing demonstration? Yes, some students would flounder. But not for long.

In an educational world where accountability as left no lesson untouched, the victim of standardization is engagement. We have lost faith in our students’ natural abilities to learn. Our fear of mistake-making has squeezed out some of the joy that should be a by-product of this process.

Let’s get our kids out on the dance floor as soon as possible. Yes, we should teach strategies, offer feedback, and provide assistance when needed.  But is achievement without engagement an education worth having? 


I am currently scheduling one- and two-day workshops for this summer. Topic: How to use classroom technology for developing self-directed learners.

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Educators participating in this workshop will become more confident and fluent in using digital tools in the classrooms. The goal is to identify practices and technologies that can nurture self-directed learners. This professional learning experience will be student-centered, engaging, and relevant for all educators, K-12.

Click here to request more information.

Most Memorable Blogs Posts of the Year – 2016

Every year around the Thanksgiving holiday, I provite a short list of memorable blog posts I read the last twelve months or so. This is not an award show. I cannot say that these are the “best blogs” of the year or anything, although these posts were very well written.

I curate other writers’ posts on my own blog for two reasons. Selfishly, I want to have an easy way to come back to what they wrote to read again and possibly inform my own writing. Unselfishly, this list (and past lists) are a great place to start exploring what blogging looks, sounds and feels like. Maybe their posts will inspire you to blog yourself.

Without further adieu…

A tragic story well told by Father Tom Lindner (Are We There Yet?)

Father Tom is the priest of the Catholic church our family used to attend. Here he writes about the importance of journalism in the era of the 24 hour news cycle and social media. Father Tom also reflects on the challenges of the priesthood. His honest reflections coupled with his prior experience as a journalist makes for an insightful article.

Why We Are Opting Out of Testing by Christopher Lehman (Christopher Lehman)

An educational consultant offers his reasons for opting his oldest child out of the state test in New York. He shares the steps a family could take to ensure that they understand all sides of the issue. This post does not resemble other calls to opt-out that merely demonize testing. Lehman provides an objective, factual and personal piece.

“Making” Does Not Equal “Constructionism” by Peter Skillen (Inquire Within)

Peter Skillen provides a brief history of making and makerspaces. His piece stand out due to his belief that this approach to learning is about more than just electronics. Makerspaces allow us to be “active creators of our own knowledge” in all disciplines.

Building poems, art, music, mathematical solutions and so on are all part of the ‘maker movement’ in my mind.

If we are tinkering but never building understanding or developing new ideas, then we are not utilizing makerspaces on behalf of students to their full potential.

Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year by Kim Liao (Literary Hub)

I always appreciate hearing about other writers’ struggles, of course not to revel in them but to feel okay about my own many rejections. Liao shares how she received 43 rejections and didn’t meet her goal of 100. Why 100 rejections? According to a colleague of hers, “If you work that hard to get so many rejections, you’re sure to get a few acceptances, too.”

Where Ideas Go to Die by Brad Gustafson (Adjusting Course)

Dr. Brad Gustafson, an elementary school principal, shares his debate on whether to host an all schol picture using a drone for his building’s 50th anniversary. He understands the need to celebrate, yet has concerns about disrupting the school day and classroom instruction. Brad realizes the importance of holding his “no’s” at bay, at least at first.

Hate is a Strong Word by Ben Gilpen (The Colorful Principal)

Ben visibly shares his struggles with a teacher evaluation system that does  not align with his professional philosophy. He shares a personal experience as a golf caddy to illustrate the importance of being objective when observing teachers. Ben’s thoughts about the limitations of staff supervision are candid and appreciated.

I came to my first ISTE expecting to find educators sharing stories of inspiration and struggle… by Adam Rosenzweig (Medium)

I submitted a proposal for the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) convention. It was rejected. This post from an educator working with at-risk students provided some perspective. Rosenzweig found that the ISTE experience was “a sales environment” and a lost opportunity for educators to engage in deep conversation about how technology might improve teaching and learning.

My favorite quote from his post is: “What problems are we hiring edtech to solve?” Wise words. It reminds me of another turn of phrase, adapted by me: “If technology is the aspirin, what is the headache?”

Note to Educators: Pay Not or Pay Later! by Dr. Gary Stager (Medium)

Ever since I read Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering and Engineering in the Classroom (on sale now), I have been a big fan of Stager’s and co-author Sylvia Lebow Martinez’s work. Here, Stager admonishes education’s infatuation with “free” technology. He points out the problems in not paying for technology that supports student learning, including the challenge of smaller software companies to produce excellent resources.

The Uber of Education is a Horrible Idea by Dean Shareski (Ideas and Thoughts)

Shareski offers his perspective with regard to integrating technology with instruction in the name of being more efficient in this endeavor. He sees many flaws in the approach. “Education at its core is about relationships and experiences. At its best, it involves caring adults designing and guiding learners through rich learning tasks.”

A Level is a Teacher’s Tool, NOT a Child’s Label by Jill Backman (Fountas and Pinnell Blog)

I was so thankful when I discovered this post. It said everything I felt about the inappropriateness of telling a child they are a “level” when self-selecting books to read. To a deeper point, any teacher using an assessment should be able to tell you a) who it’s for and b) why it’s being used. Backman offers a concise rationale for why levels are not for kids.

School Offices Must Serve as Sanctuaries by Jimmy Casas (Passion…Purpose…Pride)

A topic not often brought up in educational leadership discourse is the importance of the front office of any school. Casas offers a helpful comparison between morale builders and morale killers. It is a post worthy of sharing with your own office staff.

A Thousand Rivers by Carol Black (Carol Black)

If I had to pick one post – one article – as a favorite read from the past year, this would be it. Black offers an expansive overview of the limitations of applying research to education, specifically in reading. This is essential reading for any parent questioning a school’s decision on behalf of their child.

The Three P’s of Learning and Living

This is a transcript of my speech I gave for our 5th graders’ Moving On Up ceremony. It is also my last address I will give at Howe Elementary School, as I have taken a leadership position with the Mineral Point Area School District, also in Wisconsin.

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So how many days are left? (smattering of responses)  Uh, teachers, I was addressing the students…;-)

That’s okay! Having a clean end to a school year can be rewarding for all of us, educators included. It allows us to take a step back and reflect on the school year as a whole. A little bit of disengagement with the current pace of life is not a bad thing.

During these transitions, it is also good to take stock in our current situation. This means acknowledging where we came from, where we are at, and where we anticipate going. As I took some time to do this recently in preparation for this speech, I discovered that my life as an educator has followed three basic principles up to this point. They are not steps to be taken. Rather, these principles served as guideposts. I share and describe these with you today, as I believe they might also apply to your own personal learning and living journeys.

The first principle is passion. When I was your age, I was passionate about pretty much one thing: Sports. It didn’t matter if it was Little League, our school’s basketball team, the wrestling club, or a pickup football game in a friend’s backyard. If an athletic contest was taking place, I was sure to be involved.

Okay adults, you may want to cover your ears…One thing I did not have a passion for was school. It wasn’t that I was a bad student. I just didn’t work as hard as I could have. Part of that is my own fault – I could have made more of a commitment to my education, and getting my grades up to where they belong with a little more effort. But I didn’t. Also a part of this lack of engagement was that I often didn’t see the relevance in the learning experiences I was asked to pursue. Unlike sports, where our practices were always in preparation for an opportunity to showcase our talents and abilities, school lacked that same opportunity for me. I did what I needed to do in school in order to participate in my passion.

As I progressed through school and entered college, I started coaching the very same teams that I used to participate in as a younger student. This is when I realized that my passion for athletics could also be merged with a career, specifically working with kids in school. This led to the second principle I discovered of living and learning: Persistence.

We hear a lot about “grit” and teaching kids to persevere through challenges. It is my personal opinion that you cannot teach this skill. As educators and parents, we can only create the conditions in which learners will want to pursue a level of mastery and expertise in an area of interest.  That is what happened with me. Once I knew what I believed I wanted to do as a profession, I worked harder in my academics. I rose from a so-so student in high school to being named to the Dean’s List in college several times. A little bit of passion can go a long way.

The thing about passion creating the conditions for persistence is, when someone wants to become very good at something, we start to identify gaps in our skills and abilities. For me, this happened in my 2nd year of teaching. Previously, I had taught 5th and 6th graders in all subject areas, including reading and writing. I thought I was flying along in my first year, offering kids great literature and opportunities to write about what they read. When I moved to a 3rd and 4th grade position the next year, I realized that while I had been teaching reading and writing, I was not teaching readers and writers. It became evident to me with these younger students that I could not merely expose them to resources.

So I read everything I could about effective literacy instruction. I pored over current resources, attended conferences about differentiation and assessment, and observed veteran teachers in their classrooms. Once I persisted in improving myself, I gradually became the teacher I wanted to be for my students.

When I felt I had become proficient in instruction, I found this need to share it with other educators and make a difference in their professional lives. This led to me getting my administrative license ten years ago, which leads me to my current position at Howe. When I accepted the position five years ago, I felt like this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. This was my purpose in life, the third principle.

What I didn’t anticipate was how my purpose might change between then and today. My passion for education and my persistence in learning everything about my profession evolved into writing about my experiences and the knowledge I had gained to support our work. Writing online in the form of social media and blogging has led to published articles and books on the topics of technology in education and school leadership. This was not in the plans five years ago, yet here I was, trying to balance a full time principal position while writing and share about my work and finding balance with my family and personal life. It was becoming an impossible task.

This year, I realized that purpose in education has changed a bit. I am no longer content with leading a school as my sole pursuit, as admirable as this vocation is. The saddest part about this discovery is that my passions and pursuits are not conducive with being the principal at Howe Elementary School. Something had to give, and it wasn’t going to be my family, nor my writing and everything that comes with that.

Enough about me. (By the way, have you noticed that principals like to hear themselves talk?) This is about your special day. You have achieved a major milestone in your educational career and I congratulate you. You should celebrate. Once the confetti settles, consider some humble advice as you take that next step in your life:

  • Your passions may not align with your current responsibilities. That’s okay. Keep working hard. The habits you build now will transfer when you find what excites you in the future.
  • Don’t let what you believe you are good at right now necessarily determine what you will become later in life. While I loved sports, as many of you do, I did not have the necessary talent to “make it”. I became open to combining what I loved to do with what I could provide for others that would bring satisfaction and stability in my life.
  • Persistence is largely dependent on how relevant one finds their current learning and living experiences. Try not to rely on every person in your life to connect your situations with your personal pursuits. Instead, figure out where the connections are between what you love and what is possible.
  • Allow your circumstances to reveal what your true purpose in life might be. If you look closely enough, you might see that what you are striving for may not be what you originally anticipated. This is also okay. It’s a natural part of the change process.
  • Write out or draw a visual of your dream job. I did this at the recommendation of a close colleague. It was excellent advice. When I started applying for positions this spring, I approached each interview as an opportunity for the district to partner with me on our mutual goals (instead of trying to sell myself as a “good fit” for the district). If I was going to move forward, it had to be on my terms with regard to my dream job.
  • Resist allowing others to frame what you are seeking. This is important. They mean well, but they don’t know you or what you are truly after. For example, a few districts did not hire me for the position I sought, but thought I would be excellent for __________. I politely declined. Although it was scary, especially for my wife as I had already resigned my position at Howe, I am glad I kept after what I really wanted.
  • At the same time, consider the advice of others, especially those you respect and admire. They have most likely gone through similar experiences and can offer suggestions that will be helpful. Having good mentors in your life is essential. Still, keep your focus on what you are really after. When ready to move forward with what you really want, don’t settle. You may regret it.

To close, the principles of passion, persistence, and purpose lead me to think about an important phrase you most likely learned about during your social studies instruction. It is at the beginning of our country’s Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Notice that it is not “Life, Liberty and Happiness”? “the pursuit of” is critical language. Our founding fathers understood that while it is our right to live our lives as free people, it is up to us to find our true happiness. It is not an entitlement, but an opportunity if you so choose to pursue it. I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors. I will be thinking about you as I pursue my renewed purpose in life. Have a great summer.

Author Visit: Michael Perry

New York Times bestselling author Michael Perry (Population: 485 – Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time) visited Howe Elementary School today. He spoke with our 4th and 5th graders about his new book for middle level readers, The Scavengers. Perry shared his process for writing, including the research he does prior to starting a book and his methods for revising his manuscripts once a draft is written. The teachers I spoke with thought he gave an excellent presentation. “The students were totally engaged in his stories and insights – you could have heard a pin drop in the cafeteria,” described one teacher.

I had a school administrator meeting, so I was unable to enjoy the presentation. Fortunately, Michael Perry was speaking at our public library the evening prior. This was the main reason he was in town in the first place: McMillan Memorial Library hosted our first ever community book club. It was titled “Rapids Reads” and focused on three of Michael’s books (Population: 485, The Scavengers, and The Jesus Cow) to read. The author visit at the library was the culminating activity.

The assistant director of McMillan Memorial Library, Brian Kopetsky, introduced the program and the author. It was nice to hear the purpose and the expected outcomes of hosting a community read. “We wanted to create a dialogue around a story, and through that dialogue we can come to discover our values.” One of the activities hosted by the library was a youth writing contest. To my pleasant surprise, two Howe students were the winner and the runner up!

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Next up was Michael Perry himself. He started off by sharing that he was very shy by nature and did not naturally enjoy speaking in front of others. Perry’s preferred lifestyle is writing in his second floor office in his farmhouse in Northern Wisconsin. “I will spend multiple days not talking to anyone. This recharges me and allows me to speak to audiences such as writing groups and community programs.”

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Next, the author went into his life as a professional writer (and part time farmer). He specifically spoke about the revision process as something he really enjoys.

I am a polisher. I love to revise and edit my work. For example, I will play what I like to call “desperate literary solitaire”: I will print off my manuscript, cut up the sections into smaller pieces, and then move the pieces around until they make sense to me.

Michael Perry did not attempt to glorify the life of a writer. It is his livelihood. He finds joy in his profession as a writer, yet he does not wait to be inspired.

My muse is Mr. Jim, the bald guy nine miles away sitting at the Chetek State Bank who holds my mortgage.

With regard to generating ideas to write about (Perry also writes a weekly column for the Wisconsin State Journal), he finds the best ones derive from his everyday life.

A lot my stories come from phone calls from my brothers.

As I listened to the various stories he shared about his family and friends, I found that these narratives relied on the language and the dialogue of the characters. Their words revealed who they were. What Michael Perry does, in both his speaking and writing, is to pace the narrative in a way that allows for unique phrases to provide a big pay off.

I wasn’t able to stick around for the entire event – my wife had Zumba. Perry read aloud from some of his work and also shared some personal thoughts on the book that I am reading right now, Population: 485.

It is your classic “Can you go home again?” book. What I can say about this book is that I am very grateful that I was able to write it. I got the opportunity to work on something for two years on a topic that I love – the small town of New Auburn and the volunteer fire fighting department.

This post does not adequately convey Perry’s humor, modesty, and honesty that I witnessed in person. If you can bring Michael in for a community read in your area, or to speak with your students, I highly recommend it. His observations about writing, small town America, family and friends, and what it means to be a part of a community are not to be missed.