Time to Read: Making Independent Reading a Priority

Regie Routman is a great champion of reading. The kind of reading that is guided by a person’s curiosity, joy, and desire to fall deep into story. Pleasure reading. Real reading.

As a long-time educator and a self-proclaimed book nerd, like Regie, I believe that educators must support and encourage real reading. That is is our job to help our students become lifelong connoisseurs of text. It’s a big deal.  I mean, the research is in, folks who read tend to be more empathetic and as teachers we know, maybe better than anyone else, that we need more empathy in the world.  

One of the many  topics in Literacy Essentials that resonated with me was called, “Make Independant Reading a First Priority” (p. 204). Here Regie shares a tweet she once wrote, “Make daily indep[endent] reading #1 priority & work backwards from there. Use think aloud, guided read, shared read to support that end” (p. 204).

Regie believes that independent reading in schools must be more than just an ad-hoc, when-you’re-finished-with-your-work, kind of thing. Truly, she cautions, it needs to be even more than just a dedicated time slot for independent reading. Regie explains, that for maximum impact, schools must value massive quantities of free reading and students must be taught to choose just-right books ( books they can and want to read) and to self-monitor for comprehension. Further, she advises, a teacher should be teaching during free reading time, working with students one-on-one to help them learn reading skills and strategies and to help choose, discuss, and enjoy texts.

I am the principal of St. Croix Falls and Dresser Elementary Schools in rural Wisconsin. We serve a wonderful community that includes increasing number of students who live in poverty. Despite that fact, we consistently are marked as “Exceeding Expectations” on the state report card and have literacy scores that place us in the top 5% of schools in the state. Perhaps, most important, there is no gap between our students of poverty and their more affluent peers. We are all good readers and writers.

Over the last several years I’ve had many schools reach out to ask how we are so successful. I always say the same thing, “We let kids read. A lot.”  

In our schools every student enjoys a minimum of 30 minutes of free reading time each day. Most days, students have closer to an hour. Right away, beginning in kindergarten, we offer students books, books, books and time to read them. We teach students to pick books that fit their interests and that are within a level that is accessible to them (yes, we level our books, no, it doesn’t limit our readers or kill their love of reading.)  

I believe our emphasis on helping students learn to and love to read in massive quantities is why my school is one of the happiest and most successful schools I have ever had the pleasure of working in. And, that’s what I tell folks who ask “how we do it.” But, guess what? They don’t always believe me. They are often incredulous and profess they don’t have enough time in the day to offer that much independent reading time. They need that time to “teach” kids to read.

If I had a magic wand, I would wave it over the hearts and minds of educators everywhere so they could see that there is a simple way to help their students to be better readers, to love reading, and to grow and learn academically and in their social-emotional lives. All they need to do is give kids time and let them read. Anthologies, lesson sets, interventions, strategy instruction, guided groups, phonics, word study, and all of the other best laid plans of reading teachers will not work if they are not grounded in opportunities for real reading.

Let. Students. Read.

My school is successful in large part because our students read. They read a lot. But that tends to drop off as kids enter middle and high school. Of course, that’s not just in my neck of the woods, it happens in school districts all over the nation. A recent Edutopia article cited the following statistic from a study on the reading lives of school-aged children, “53 percent of 9-year-olds were daily readers, but only 17 percent of 17-year-olds were.” “Why? In large part, I think, because as our children move through the grades they have less and less dedicated reading time scheduled into their day. They read in content classes and in a literature course or two, but they do not have time for choice-based pleasure reading. That’s a problem. Again, if we want kids to read, we have to give them time to read.

In the spirit of Regies plea for schools to make“Make daily indep[endent] reading #1 priority,” I offer the tried and true suggestions below.

Suggestions:

  1. Create a vision statement or set of guiding beliefs about literacy in your school or classroom. Below is a graphic that shows the philosophies that underpin literacy instruction at my school. Note: The three mentioned documents are here (1), here (2), and here (3).

Capture

  1. Allow students time to read in school every day and in every grade. A good friend, who is a high school English teacher recently told me that for the first time this year, she allowed students to self-select a novel to read in class. She raved about a boy who told her, “This was the first book I finished since elementary school!” Imagine if her school could find a way to adjust the schedule so that every student had 20 minutes for independent reading every day!
  2. Let go of programs and buy books. In an article I wrote for Educational Leadership, I detail the path my school took to move from good to great. One thing we didn’t do was buy a new program. Instead, we used what we had to help us build a culture that celebrated reading with a focus on time for choice reading. To support this effort, we spent time and money developing quality classroom libraries. Building classroom libraries can be done on the cheap by requesting donations (I often remind parents and others that I welcome their gently used books and placed a tote in the school lobby for donations), thrift shopping and garage sales, and inexpensive booksellers  (First Book Marketplace and Scholastic Book Clubs are good starts.)  
  3. Teach students to set and meet their own literacy goals. Helping students see themselves as capable readers who have autonomy over their own reading lives is a gift. Readers at my school set quarterly goals, read about how, here. It has been truly amazing to watch students continually raise their own bars, meet loft goals, and enjoy the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes with it.
  4. Build a school culture that supports literacy as a natural part of daily life. Strategies we’ve used include encouraging volunteers to read with students and share their own reading lives (School Library Journal: Reading Friends), helping students to “Binge Read” (EdTech Digest: Next Read), getting free books into the community (School Library Journal: Free Bookstore Turbocharges Reading), using social media to create a community of readers (CUE Blog: I Saw it On Facebook, Focusing School Communities on Literacy with Social Media), hosting author visits (Edutopia: Virtual Author Visits), and harnessing the power of social learning to help students view reading as a normal life thing, not just a school thing (Edutopia: Building a Community of Passionate Readers Outside of School.)

I read Literacy Essentials soon after it was published and wrote a rave review of it for MiddleWeb. I truly think that all educators would benefit from reading parts of Regie’s book if not the whole thing.  My own copy is already dogeared and marked up and has a special place near my desk for quick reference. It is a part of my personal reading life to be sure.

Regie’s call for a focus on independent reading in schools fuels my passion for helping my students learn to and love to read. I hope that it does that for you too.

Re-envisioning Roles

It’s easy to get caught up in the quick fix of doing the task, presenting the question that gives one quick response, and providing the immediate answer when a student approaches us. After all, we are under strict time constraints, the tests are always looming, and there’s those dang mandated curriculums to cover.  Come to think of it, that’s not even factoring in the students sitting in front of us, all seeming to need our attention at the same moment. So yeah, I get it, and in the short run, doing the task, asking for one correct response, just giving the answer… all seem feasible and even manageable. However…in the long run, it’s the students who lose out.  We do the exact opposite of what we truly intend, and thus create students who play the “School game.” Students who want to know exactly what they need to do for “said” grade. Kids who are constantly looking for a reward, kids who are trained to be compliant rather than curious. Kids who seemingly give up the moment the going gets a little tough.

In my experience teaching lower elementary, especially when I was first starting out and didn’t know any better, I was guilty of exactly what Regie talks about in the section on Equity-  Unintentionally disadvantaging and disabling my students by doing all the work for them, rather then guiding them towards self sufficiency and self regulation. She says it best, “…we disadvantage and disable kids by thwarting and delaying the development of competencies that lead to growing self-confidence and self-reliance.  Students develop self-regulation and self-sufficiency only when we teach for it and expect it” (p.347). Regie goes on to say that one of the best ways to develop this characteristic of self-determining, self-evaluating learners is through student-directed, small-group work. How does one go about creating this dynamic? It starts on day one.  Coming together as a community of learners. Co-creating the norms and expectations, giving students a voice…when these things are in place, the rest also falls into place.

Many years ago, the 2 Sisters, Gail Boushey and Joan Moser started me on a better path toward creating self-directed, self-evaluating learners. Their book, The Daily 5 was instrumental in helping me renew my teaching practice. It was through them that I first learned about the “Gradual release of responsibility method”.  Reading similar sentiments about how to engage and empower students through Regie’s lens in Literacy Essentials affirms the value of honoring students through voice and choice.  It’s about establishing ground rules through a shared creation of norms with your students. Co-creating anchor charts and classroom expectations, modeling and practicing the right way, wrong way, and the right way yet again. Asking more thought-provoking questions, and putting the thinking where it needs to be- On The Student. Talking less and listening more.

Even kindergarteners are capable of having ownership of the learning and learning environment when we co-create the norms and expectations. I was astounded with how capable they actually were!  Sure, they might not always have the stamina or resilience to make good choices 100% of the time, but most of the time they were much more engaged and self-reliant through this process than when I was the one controlling everything about the learning environment. It’s the same with my first graders. And if we are brutally honest, even adults aren’t on task and making good choices 100% of the time; it’s just part of human nature. Once you make the deliberate move to shift your thinking and teaching toward practices that engage and empower your students, you won’t ever go back.  

A huge part of this shift in our thinking about how we teach involves a focus on the part of talk. When we, as the teacher, are doing most of the talking (lecturing, question asking, answer providing), then we are also consequently doing most of the work.  On p. 338, Regie talks about finding the balance and about embracing conversations in the classroom. Conversations where all voices are heard and valued and there is no threat of a hidden agenda.  Conversations that ignite and drive curiosity. Conversations that involve the teacher as an integral part of the learning, not just dispensing the learning. I love this quote from Regie, “Balancing the power in the room leads to a better power balance outside the room” (p.338).  To me this means, not just balancing the power outside the classroom, but of a balance reaching far further than school walls.

Much to the end that Regie encapsulates with the following quote, “Empowered students come to believe they have agency in their lives, that they have the ability to implement positive changes for themselves and others” (p. 338). This. Isn’t this what we hope for all students?

Check out all of the posts from this book study by going to the Literacy Essentials webpage. There, you can select different articles to read and respond to and continue the conversation in the comments. In addition, consider joining our new Google+ Community to extend these discussions and connect with other literacy leaders.

How Do We Graduate Self-Determining Adults?

As I read through my highlights in the section entitled “Developing Self-determining Learners” in Regie Routman’s book, Literacy Essentials, I couldn’t help but have my literacy coach hat on as well as my parent hat.  

As I read the highlighted words below, I found myself saying “That’s what I want for my kids!  That’s what I want for every kid–to be able to graduate from our K-12 system with these qualities so that they would be better apt to lead a successful life.”

Not only is it what I want, it is what our kids need to thrive in the world in which they’ll live when they graduate, a world much different than when we were kids.

Some of the highlighted words were “self-direct, self-reflect, self-taught, deep inner questioning, set their own worthwhile goals, curiosity and knowing how to learn.”  

If my kids graduated with these qualities, I would be confident they would be able to navigate their life more effectively.

If our kids graduated from high school and they possessed these qualities, we would have succeeded in our endeavors.

As I contemplated these concepts with my literacy coach hat on, I began reflecting on two things: 1) John Hattie’s work and his list of top instructional practices 2) My most effective coaching cycles over the last four years.

Much of what Routman encourages in this section are several of those practices from John Hattie’s work: learning targets/goals, success criteria, feedback, and monitoring learning to name a few.  As I think of my most effective coaching cycles, it is those cycles where the teacher chose to work on some of these top instructional practices. The engagement that I saw in students skyrocketed. The ownership of learning did as well.  And each time, the teacher would get so much enjoyment and satisfaction as she watched her students progress in their learning–as they became self-determining learners.

But, here’s where my own questioning came in and this is a question I’ve contemplated as I’ve become very familiar with these things that both Routman and Hattie are suggesting impacts kids.  When we discuss how we engage kids, how we teach them in a way that prepares them for the world in which they will live and how we improve student achievement, why are things such as learning targets, success criteria and feedback not received with the same level of excitement as other topics or initiatives? I’m going to refrain from naming those other topics, because I don’t want to come across as not seeing the value in those.  But I wonder that sometimes Hattie’s work (much of what Routman is suggesting) is not as sexy or fun to learn about (or at least seemingly) as other initiatives and we miss the boat when it comes to impacting kids with them.

To take my wondering deeper, I contemplated some possibilities as to why they are not as sexy. I wonder if it is because we think learning targets, success criteria and feedback are for the adults. When, in reality, we want students taking ownership of those things. They facilitate student-directed learning.  If they are not used for that purpose, perhaps I could see why one would think learning targets aren’t something to get excited about–if we just write it on the board as a lesson’s learning objective, of course that’s not engaging to learn about.

You see, in those most successful student-centered learning cycles I’ve had the pleasure to be a part of, it is when students have taken ownership of the learning because of the learning targets, success criteria and feedback. Not because teacher went through the motions and utilized them in instruction.

It excites me to no end to think of a district putting several years of focus on those things Routman is suggesting we do to create self-determining learners. Just think if a K-12 system focused on this, what our students would be capable of as they enter the workforce.  I have no doubt engagement and student achievement would skyrocket. And, our kids would be better prepared for life.

This post is part of a book study around Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Check out more resources associated with the text at this website (https://sites.stenhouse.com/literacyessentials/), including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials.

Teaching Writers

Right away I flipped to Excellence 6-Teaching Writers in Regie Routman’s fabulous new resource, Literacy Essentials. Not that I wasn’t excited all of it, but my personal professional journey focuses so much on writing that I’m always excited to see what others have to say to add to what I already believe and practice. Turns out like everything I read out there I found myself nodding with a little bit of, “Woot, woot!”, some “Right On!”, lamenting with a touch of “Whoops!”,  and finally a HUGE “Thank you!”

First, I was especially drawn to this quote by David McCullough, “To write well is to think clearly. That is why it is so hard.” Yes, yes, yes! Regie and David. Writing is hard. For all of us. When I present at conferences and ask a ballroom full of teachers how many took college classes on how to teach writing effectively there is usually one or two lone hands raised.  No lie. One or two people in a room of one hundred educators who are expected to teach some form of writing each and every day. Next question, “How many of you feel like a writer yourself?.” Crickets. So not only is writing hard, it is made harder by a lack of knowledge on how to teach it effectively by adults who don’t write themselves. What do we do with all of that? We owe it to our kids to figure it out!

This leads to my first, “Woot, woot!” in this chapter (followed by many more in the margins!). The audience is everything. If writing is already hard why would anyone, kid or adult, want to spend that precious time in their day to write to no one? And bigger than that, if we are writing to no one then what are we writing anyway? What stance or tone do we take? What voice do we use? Why would conventions matter if no one is going to see it anyway? When a student writer knows who to write for and has a purpose for the writing then he will know as Ms. Routman says, “Writing takes courage and perseverance.” That it is worth the time spent drafting, revising, drafting, revising, keep going, and finally editing. Where or when there is purpose there is engagement and a move towards excellence. Ms. Routman tells us on page 236, “When we ensure as well that the audience and the purpose are meaningful and relevant to students-and that they have some choice in the writing topic-students do willingly invest in revising their work.”

Which moves us on to my, “Right On, Regie!” Revision is a process that needs to be experienced and then taught. That is another reason why teachers need to write! They need to write personally and in front of students to feel what revision feels like and model what revision looks like. She reminds us to demonstrate our own process, provide shared revision experiences, keep the audience in mind, and give some dedicated time to immerse in the revision process. There is so much power in developing a community of writers where the teacher is seen as part of that community. This always reminds me of the old adage, Kids do what we do. Not what we say. DO the revision work, fellow educators and there is a much bigger chance your students will too. They are surrounded in a world of perfect examples, show them the messy!

But alas, there is always something to learn and challenge my thinking and that is why my Amazon cart is consistently full to the max of professional text! On to my, “Whoops!”I thought I was the best editor in the room. I even made it a thing right around publishing time, bustling around with a pencil behind my ear chiming out, “Editing time, who needs an editor?” Regie, thanks for slowing my roll with this perfect gem, “Too often what happens is that we teachers continue to do most of the work, which makes the editing process cumbersome and exhausting for us and sends students the message that editing is not really their job.” This message was sent clearly to my writers (insert monkey with head in hands emoji here). This is what I love about book studies and being part of a larger learning community. Next year, this will no longer be a whoops! Teachable moment taught, thanks to Ms. Routman.

Finally, there is just one big “Thank you” for all of the research provided in this book. Holy Moly this book is full of what to read next! Most importantly in this section was the research on handwriting which I have been searching for this year. As a literacy leader it is my job to set high standards and expectations for all and having the research to back what I know is so important helps me gain momentum with others. In a busy classroom day, handwriting may seem low on the totem pole but my gut instinct has always been, “Handwriting still matters-a lot” (248). THANK YOU for giving me the research I can now provide as I meet with teachers to focus on this important issue, especially around cursive.

This post is part of a book study around Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Check out more resources associated with the text at this website (https://sites.stenhouse.com/literacyessentials/), including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials.

Frontloading: The Great Equalizer

For years, one of my favorite subjects to read and study about has been the effect of background knowledge on reading comprehension and student achievement. In one of my graduate level ed psych classes, I did a presentation titled “School is So Boring” about how students come to school with different schema and that, depending on what they know, it does not always line up with the expected or assumed background knowledge they would have to have in order to be successful in school.

I’m now a reading specialist for grades 4-6 in Northeast Philadelphia, where my students and I bring varied background knowledge to the table. I’ve actually been thinking about background knowledge and frontloading a lot lately as I recently administered the last F&P Benchmark Assessments of the year. (My school uses these benchmarks to determine which students receive intervention services, and the levels also go on the report cards, but that’s a blog post for another day).

As I read through the section “Excellence 2 – Expert Teaching Through Frontloading”, I highlighted three phrases that stood out to me.

Make no assumptions

You know the saying “you know what happens when you assume…” and I think that this saying holds true in the classroom. Just through observation, it seems to me as if teachers (including myself) make assumptions about what our students know. “They are in ____ grade, so they should know _____.” When we find out they actually don’t know _____, we wonder “well why don’t they know this, they should??!?” But the truth is, it doesn’t really matter what we think our students should know; rather, it matters what they actually *do* know.

In the book, Regie writes that “make no assumptions” applies to our instruction as well. I agree with her thoughts that we should be constantly assessing our teaching to make sure that our students are getting the most out of our instruction. Just because something worked before with another group of students doesn’t mean that it will work with another group of students, or even with the same group of students on a different day!

Make it smart to ask questions

Through informal talks with my students, I have discovered that many of them are hesitant to ask questions in a large group setting for fear of being embarrassed, or because they feel as if they “should” know certain things that they don’t, for whatever reason (which is irrelevant, in my opinion, because our responsibility is to meet students where they are, not where we think they should be).

Asking questions is so smart! I mean, what do adults do when we don’t know something? We get on our devices and Google it! From correct pronunciation of a word to knowing when to use “i.e. vs e.g.”, information is incredibly easy to access. So why should it be different for students? Why create a stigma around asking questions? Asking relevant questions shows that our students are engaged in the material – they want to know more about what they’re reading. That hunger for learning should be encouraged.

Check to be sure students understand the purpose

Like the previous point, I considered this phrase from an adult perspective. If I am being asked to read something or do a task, I like to know why I’m doing it. Bonus points if the reason benefits me. I think it’s the same for our students. If students can see the value in why they’re doing something (Regie writes “‘…Then I want you to do the same kind of thinking when you read ______, so you can become an expert reader.’”) they take ownership of the task and are seem more likely to put effort into the task. My students love when I call them “good readers”! They know that reading is the key to so many things, so they have that buy-in when I ask them to do a task like read through the whole word or use sticky notes to jot down facts and information from a non-fiction text.

I know that I can be cynical about posting SWBAT, IOT on my board, but since I’ve started rephrasing it for the students (rather than administration), I feel much more focused on actually letting my students know why we are doing something.

So back to frontloading, and why I am so interested in it. The benchmark assessments are limited, in my opinion, because they ask for very specific background knowledge in order to be scored as proficient. There is one passage in particular, about hawks in the city, that my students seem to bomb every benchmarking season, regardless of their reading level. It took a while, but I finally came to the conclusion that my students were bombing it because the entire comprehension section was based on the assumption that students knew hawks typically lived in the country. My urban students have never seen a hawk in their lives, so they don’t know this. When I told them “hawks typically don’t live in the city,” it changed almost their ENTIRE response to the comprehension questions and understanding of the passage.

Interesting.

By simply providing students with this little piece of information, their understanding of the text improved so much! And this took less than one minute to do this simple frontloading. Imagine if I would have spent even more time frontloading! Until textbooks and educational materials become more diverse and representative of all our students, frontloading will be one of the most important ways that we can prepare all of our student for success, regardless of their background or experience.

This post is part of a book study around Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Check out more resources associated with the text at this website (https://sites.stenhouse.com/literacyessentials/), including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials.

Writing is Innovation

As an idea, innovation is getting tossed around a lot in education lately.

Anytime I see something accepted en masse, I get suspicious. I find it helpful to go back to the meaning and origin of these concepts. Merriam-Webster defines innovation as “something new or…a change made to an existing product, idea, or field”. The Latin root of innovate is innovatus, meaning “to renew, restore; to change”.

Given this understanding, I believe innovation is used too loosely in the context of teaching and learning. Will Richardson aptly points this out in his article for The Huffington PostStop Innovating in Schools. Please.:

Our efforts at innovating, regardless of method, idea, or product, have been focused far too much on incrementally improving the centuries old structures and practices we employ in schools, not on fundamentally rethinking them.

I would continue this argument by stating that innovation should not be limited to science, technology, and mathematics. We go there, mentally, when we hear the term “innovate”. It’s a misconception that needs clarification.

Consider writing. It is a process as well as an output of information and experiences we have gathered to create a new product. This product – an article, a book, a blog post, a tweet – is almost always an iteration of a person’s prior knowledge. Not a lot new here; mostly remixed. Sound like innovation to you?

Dana Murphy, an instructional coach and a writer for Choice Literacy, offers a visual of the writing process that speaks more authentically to me (also a writer) than anything offered during my many years of formal education.

Screen Shot 2018-03-10 at 3.37.46 PM

Important: Murphy notes that one person’s process for writing (innovation) is likely different than another writer’s process.

Here is what I want kids to know about writing: writers have a unique writing process. All writers approach writing differently. There is not a right way and a wrong way to write. There are many ways—endless ways—to approach the task of writing. The process that works best for you is the right process.

Maybe this is why effective instruction, literacy or otherwise, has taken so long to become embedded in all schools. Teachers have to be prepared for a variety of ways students experience success in the classroom. This approach requires a long-term commitment from leaders to guide a school or district to make instructional changes based on sound beliefs and values. Or, administrators can buy a commercial program, wash their hands of any process or necessary conversations, and call it a day. Innovation stays within the purview of STEM.

Changing curriculum is easy. Changing teacher practices is hard.

It is not just us holding ourselves back. Too many standards, nonacademic demands, and not enough time are a part of our struggle to truly innovate in the classroom. Yet we have to start somewhere. As you think about next week’s lesson plans, where could you include opportunities for student choice and voice? How might you coordinate STEM and literacy activities, and demonstrate for your students that one discipline is dependent on the others? When do you celebrate process in your classroom, instead of only products? I’ll be exploring these questions next week in a classroom. Maybe you will join me. Check out the hashtag #PointerNation for updates on our work.

The visual by Dana Murphy, along with the ideas discussed in this post, are adapted from my new, free eBook titled Looking to the Future: Assessing Innovation in the Classroom

Building a Literacy Culture – a @StenhousePub Blog Series #litessentials

 

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 LearnersLike 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.

Literacy Essentials