Reading Deeply in Digital Spaces

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Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

For too long, I have deleted all of the blog updates that come through my email. I “subscribe” to other educators and thought leaders who post frequently on their site. Yet it has become my habit to Select All when these updates show up in my inbox and promptly delete. This practice has become a habit, a ritual that in reflection seems silly.

Why do I do this? What is the reason why I am not learning from others through their blogs and newsletters like I used to?

I suspect some of it has to do with priorities. I have prioritized checking Twitter for any interesting bits of information such as news updates, journal articles, and videos. But I tend to stick a toe into these information streams and rarely dive into an in-depth article or post (exceptions include The New York Times and The Washington Post, which I subscribe to both). To reprioritize, I probably need to revisit Twitter lists with more intent to read/view what is shared in their entirety.

Maybe my reluctance is due in part to the assumption that blog posts and other more opinion-based writing may not be as reliable or accurate as the information I read from major news sources. But this assumption is false. What educators and other thought leaders share online is just as “true” as anything a professional journalist might publish. In fact, some of the best content online is often from teachers and principals who reveal the challenges and struggles they have in their professional lives. I need to get back to this frame of mind more often, that recognizes process as just as important as any product.

The world is changing at such a rapid rate that it’s turning us all into amateurs. Even for professionals, the best way to flourish is to retain an amateur’s spirit and embrace uncertainty and the unknown. – Austin Kleon, Show Your Work! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered

Coming back to this idea of reading more deeply when online, I believe the other challenge is a technical one. Most sites are cluttered with advertisements and pop-ups (a big reason why this blog remains ad-free). Even the cleanest sites are still online which gives access to a host of other social media platforms and websites that we could explore instead. There always seems to be something more interesting on the other side of the digital fence. We need to be aware of this mental pull when reading and consuming information online.

Researcher Dr. Maryanne Wolf emphasizes the concept of “bi-literacy”, in which we take different approaches to read online vs. reading in print. In her recent article for The Guardian (which ~ahem~ I read on my smartphone and discovered via Twitter), Wolf shares studies on how the reading environment itself influences how people learn to read:

We know from research that the reading circuit is not given to human beings through a genetic blueprint like vision or language; it needs an environment to develop. Further, it will adapt to that environment’s requirements – from different writing systems to the characteristics of whatever medium is used. If the dominant medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, like the current digital medium, so will the reading circuit.

In other words, if a person’s daily diet of text is comprised primarily of digital, then their capacity to read and think deeply will more likely be shallow and cursory. Wolf notes that this phenomenon can occur at a pretty young age, “starting around 4th or 5th grade”.

Does this mean we eschew all things digital from our instruction? Of course not. There is so much excellent content out there that students and teachers should include as part of the curriculum. In addition, specific skills can and should be taught when reading online. Coming back to the concept of “bi-literacy”, Wolf recommends embracing a comprehensive approach to reading (and writing) for today’s learner.

We need to cultivate a new kind of brain: a “bi-literate” reading brain capable of the deepest forms of thought in either digital or traditional mediums. A great deal hangs on it: the ability of citizens in a vibrant democracy to try on other perspectives and discern truth; the capacity of our children and grandchildren to appreciate and create beauty; and the ability in ourselves to go beyond our present glut of information to reach the knowledge and wisdom necessary to sustain a good society.

I’ve started doing this for myself with more intentionality. For example, one educator’s blog I subscribe to, Tom Whitby, is clean and uncluttered. Still, for me, there is a need to trim down these posts to text only. I am using a Chrome extension called EasyReader. Select the button at the top right of your Chrome browser after downloading it, select the text you want to read, and you get a text-only interface.

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Before EasyReader
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After EasyReader

Free from distractions (except for that Twitter feed I need to close down), I now have the cognitive space to read this post critically and with my fullest attention. Mind you, no one taught me these types of skills, beyond the wise and generous educators and people online who were willing to share their ideas with everyone. Also, I chose to seek this information out because of my interest in literacies (vs. literacy).

So here it is to you. And what will we do with this information? How can we implement these necessary yet generally unknown reading practices into the curriculum? When will print text no longer be viewed as the only game in town during the literacy block? I believe by sharing and reflecting on our current work, to embrace being an “amateur” again as Austin Kleon recommends, especially when practices aren’t working like it was for me. Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

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.

It’s All About Relationships

“Culture exists whether we are intentional about creating it or not, but it’s a positive culture that is essential to making the necessary changes within our school.” -Jay Billy  #TLAP

“People ask me all the time-’What’s the next big thing coming in education? This is what I tell them.  Relationships relationships relationships relationships relationships relationships relationships-those never go out of style!”  -Adam Welcome #KidsDeserveIt

“The best teachers know that it comes down to this one thing- relationships.” -Michele Hill

Recently on social media, I’ve noticed some buzz about “Relationships” in education. Even if you aren’t on social media, you’d have to live under a rock to not understand that relationships are the bedrock of any organization.  Schools included. Unfortunately, building and maintaining positive relationships is a lot easier said than done. Changes in staff, administration, and transient students make sustaining positive relationships a daunting challenge.  I know this from personal experience. Throughout my 21 years of teaching, I have seen both positive and negative shifts in the culture based on healthy vs. unhealthy relationships in the building. And it DOES affect the culture of the school. Regie states, “Trusting relationships are necessary for students and teachers to engage in serious learning and for all learners in a school to flourish.” (9)  This…   This is truth.

But rather than just “talk” about the importance of relationships, Regie offers scaffolding to create healthy and positive relationships.  She says, “When we feel personally and professionally valued, we are apt to be happier, more productive, and more likely to take risks as teachers and learners.” (10)  Do teachers actually perform better when they feel valued by their administration? My response… Absolutely-100%. It honestly makes all the difference. There isn’t a doubt in my mind.  Regie then goes on in her Take Action section to offer those scaffolding pieces:

  • Get to know students, teachers, and community members, and greet them by name.
  • Express appreciation specifically and often.
  • Remember colleagues birthdays’, special occasions, and individual accomplishments.
  • Invite all staff members to attend professional development meetings.
  • Publicly acknowledge a colleague’s achievement in a staff meeting.
  • Provide families with a welcoming school culture.
  • Treat secretaries, office staff, volunteers, and custodians as valued players in a schools success.
  • Perform acts of kindness each day.

All of the bullet points are important steps to consider when building relationships, but two stick out for me.  When I think about the first bullet point, “Get to know students, teachers, and community members and greet them by name,”  I’m reminded of a time when a new staff member was publicly introducing students at an induction ceremony. She hadn’t had the opportunity to learn each student’s last name and I remember being embarrassed for her, and also ashamed of not having had the forward thinking to have prepared her in advance on how to pronounce the names of those students.  It may seem insignificant to us, but it isn’t for the kids. They remember things like that.

When I was a child, I frequented horse shows quite a bit. Inevitably, when I was on deck to enter the arena, my name was always pronounced “Ryan”. It infuriated me, not only because I was a girl, not a boy, but because I couldn’t understand why it was so difficult for the announcer to read and pronounce my name, “Ryanne”.   Names are important, and greeting fellow staff, students, and parents by name go a long way in building relationships and letting others know we value them enough to call them by the correct name.

The other; “Treat secretaries, office staff, volunteers, and custodians as valued players in a school success,” really resonates with me.  Each and every member of the school is a contributing member, whether or not the school is a success or a failure. The playing field should be level, with everyone pulling their weight and working together for the betterment of the students we serve.  It’s difficult when even one person on the team doesn’t value this mindset. “Everything meaningful that happens in a classroom, a school, and a district depends on a bedrock foundation of mutual respect, trust, collaboration, fairness, and physical and emotional safety.” (9)  It involves ALL stakeholders in the district.

I believe we can all be leaders in the ongoing quest to instill positive, healthy relationships in our schools. It isn’t just the responsibility of the administration. Each and every stakeholder has the choice every day to choose kindness and build one another up instead of down.  Yes, some days are harder than others, and often I too miss the mark, succumbing to negativity and gossip, rather than shining the light. Becoming more consciously aware of my responses to others, and more intentional about seeking out positives, especially with fellow staff members is my inherent responsibility and one that I aim to get more resilient at.

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.

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

Reading and Writing in the Real World

I’ve been thinking more and more about teaching literacy for students today. Digital media has become a primary source of information for many people. Do they know how to read a Twitter thread or write an effective blog post? If someone does not, are they fully literate? I wrote the following piece for our school’s families to start the conversation. I’m sure I will be revisiting this topic again soon.

-Matt

One of my sources of information is Twitter. I follow educators, leaders, journalists, and friends. I also subscribe to a few newspapers, although much of the content I read there is online. As I scroll through articles from a web browser or app, I find I have to work hard to keep my attention focused on the writing. My mind is drawn to the advertisements and other distractions that appear at the edges of the screen.

I share this information, both in digital and in print, for a reason. Mainly, when education is tasked with teaching students to read and write, we can no longer limit our scope to printed text. The advent of the Internet has created brand new literacies. In a connected society, we need to be globally literate, in which we can understand people’s perspectives from other cultures and locations. We also need to be digitally literate. Multimedia messages read and heard online require new strategies to comprehend them.

At a recent strategic planning for the district, a variety of community members got together with Mineral Point School educators to talk about what we want our students to know, understand, and be able to do. After a lot of conversation and debate, we decided on two big goals: community engagement and academic innovation and independence. These are pretty broad. Basically, we want to improve our connections with our local community around the concept of education, and we want to prepare our students for a changing world.

How do we get there? We have already started follow-up conversations at the administrative level. One of the things that we can agree on is for students to be readers and writers in the real world. That means being able to decode and comprehend text both in print and online. That means writing for an audience that could be one person or the world. Speaking and listening also have taken on new purpose when we can communicate with anyone from anywhere. These ideas are both challenging and exciting. I look forward to working with you to help project a course for our students’ futures.

My Life in Seven Stories

The bridge between knowing and doing is feeling. – Unknown

Reading the acknowledgments in Becoming a Literacy Leader: Supporting Learning and Change, Jennifer Allen thanks Franki Sibberson for her initial interest in the professional learning activity “My Life in Seven Stories”. It sounds like this idea was the seed that resulted in the book we read today.

“My Life in Seven Stories” is the title of a professional learning activity. Teachers make a list of seven titles that touch on past experiences in their lives. Then, they take one title and write about this small moment. They can share with a group of teachers or decide not to, their choice. The purpose is to get teachers to write during monthly staff meetings. Through these snapshots, the literacy leader can then demonstrate a writing strategy, such as revising leads, using their personal narratives. “My Life in Seven Stories” also helps build trust by being vulnerable and integrating feelings into the literacy work.

I thought I would try this here – My Life in Seven Stories:

  • Dessert in Elmwood, Illinois
  • Thunderstorm
  • All-Star Game
  • The Missed Shot
  • Going to College
  • The Apartment
  • The Move

I purposefully avoided titles related to my kids; I could have created a list of seventeen topics to write about related to them. Instead, each title/topic is about my life.

Below is my short narrative for the title “The Move”:

I sat on the front porch of a rustic cabin. No television. It was a summer evening and I was enjoying a cold shandy. Right now, my family and I were in between residences. We had our home for sale up north while we waited for the closing date on our new home in our new town, Mineral Point. Because there was much to do to get myself ready for the new school year, I would come down during the week, rent whatever was available, while my family stayed up north. Not a lot to do in the evenings, I sometimes found myself on a cabin porch, staring across the street at the new school I would soon be leading.

It was at this point that I think our move become 100% real for me. For sixteen years, my wife and I had served as educators in another town. We had friends, were logistically close to family, and had made many connections with other educators. Why did we move? The reasons were many, yet at that point they didn’t matter because here I was, sitting on the front porch of a log cabin, staring at a school (and community) we knew little about. This was exciting and nerve-racking at the same time. “How can I take advantage of this fresh start?” and “Will our house sell before we move in?” were questions that constantly swirled in my head during this tumultuous and sometimes lonely time.

Being a literacy leader means that we sometimes need to be vulnerable with our faculty. If we expect teachers to take risks and grow with their colleagues and their students, then we have to model this. My willingness to share a personal part of who I am through writing (and I know I could improve upon this initial offering) will more likely lead to teachers doing the same with their students. If we can cause that change by opening ourselves up emotionally, even a little bit, that may lead to teachers and students discovering the larger purpose to reading and writing.

I don’t plan on sharing my other personal stories in this space. One is enough. Maybe we will use this professional development activity in the future at our school. It’s hard to be vulnerable without trust, yet without taking a personal risk, trust may never be gained.

 

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Cothren House – The cabin I stayed in

 

 

 

What I’m Reading – June 2017

What I’ve Read

Evil at Heart (Archie Sheridan & Gretchen Lowell, #3) by Chelsea Cain

This psychological thriller series is hard to put down. The flawed characters, plot twists, and Portland, OR setting make for an engaging read.

Walking Trees: Portraits of Teachers and Children in the Culture of Schools by Ralph Fletcher

Very few books take an unfiltered look into the reality of schools and leaders making efforts to improve education. Fletcher’s memoir is funny, honest and, at times, tragic.

Nothing But the Truth by Avi 

Near the end of this book, as the two main characters (teacher, student) realized that no good resolution was going to come from their situation, I thought about Wayne Dyer’s precept from Wonder by R.J. Palacio:

“When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.” 

I was introduced to this book by a thoughtful middle-level English teacher. She was guiding the students to think deeply about rights vs. responsibilities in a democracy. I would have enjoyed being a student in her class! Nothing But the Truth is a strong text for facilitating smart discussions.

Bold Moves for Schools: How We Create Remarkable Learning Environments by Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Marie Hubley Alcock

This book provides an essential vision and pathway for what schools should strive to become in this century.

Not Quite Narwhal by Jessie Sima

Wow, what a perfect book for helping kids (and adults?) understand that not everyone fits into a simple category. Definitely a text that could precede a conversation on empathy, gender, and/or acceptance. 

Bob, Not Bob!: *to be read as though you have the worst cold ever by Liz Garton Scanlon, Audrey Vernick, Matthew Cordell (illustrator)

You must read this aloud as if you have a cold. It’s a picture book that begs to be shared with others. I’m sure kids will clamor to reread the text and emulate the funny dialogue that leads to a satisfying ending. 

Truck: A Love Story by Michael Perry

A great follow-up to the author’s first memoir on small town life. If Population: 485 told the story of New Auburn, WI through the eyes of Michael Perry, then Truck: A Love Story shares the story of Michael Perry through the collective lens of his northern Wisconsin township. Perry provides more humor and self-deprecation as he provides a close examination of his two parallel endeavors: fixing up an old truck that’s been sitting in his yard and finally finding his partner in life.

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield

In a funk with your creative work? Pick up Pressfield’s short guide to battling your artistic block. He personifies all of our excuses reasons for not pursuing our passion projects as “The Resistance”. How we attack this common occurrence is the topic of this practical resource. 

It’s Not About the Coffee: Leadership Principles from a Life at Starbucks by Howard Behar

This short memoir is focused on one thing: When it comes to running an organization, it’s about the people. Whether we sell coffee or any other service or product, our priority should be the people we serve and those we serve with. Behar restates this philosophy a hundred different ways, which can be either affirming or redundant for the reader. For me, I appreciated hearing from a business leader that advocates for people over product, especially in today’s world. 

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Harry Potter, #4)
by J.K. Rowling, Mary GrandPré (Illustrator)

Just finished reading this to my son. It’s my second time reading it. All I can say is: wow, what a story. J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin have nothing on J.K. Rowling. If you’ve only seen the movie, do yourself a favor and read the book. Read the whole series. Rowling gives us some of the best writing of our times.

 

What I’m Reading

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien 

From the Goodreads summary: 

They carried malaria tablets, love letters, 28-pound mine detectors, dope, illustrated bibles, each other. And if they made it home alive, they carried unrelenting images of a nightmarish war that history is only beginning to absorb. Since its first publication, The Things They Carried has become an unparalleled Vietnam testament, a classic work of American literature, and a profound study of men at war that illuminates the capacity, and the limits, of the human heart and soul.

The Things They Carried depicts the men of Alpha Company: Jimmy Cross, Henry Dobbins, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Norman Bowker, Kiowa, and the character Tim O’Brien, who has survived his tour in Vietnam to become a father and writer at the age of forty-three.

Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Instruction by Maja Wilson

From the Goodreads summary:

Though you may sense a disconnect between student-centered teaching and rubric-based assessment, you may still use rubrics for convenience or for want of better alternatives. Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment gives you the impetus to make a change, demonstrating how rubrics can hurt kids and replace professional decision making with an inauthentic pigeonholing that stamps standardization onto a notably nonstandard process. With an emphasis on thoughtful planning and teaching, Wilson shows you how to reconsider writing assessment so that it aligns more closely with high-quality instruction and avoids the potentially damaging effects of rubrics.

  

What I Plan to Read Next

Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art by Virginia Heffernan

Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein

 

Thinking About Assessment…

My son’s first swim meet was tonight. After his five events, he told me he wanted to get to practice tomorrow for two reasons: to see how he and his teammates did and to swim some more.

The best assessments create a desire to want to improve and learn more. I post my books here not to show what I know, but because it’s important for me to go back over my reading list, see what I’ve read, and make plans to read for the future. Maybe someone will comment on what I’ve read, share their response to the same text, and offer another title that relates to this book. Maybe I’ll do the same.

I think you can learn a lot about someone by looking at what they read. If I were to look at my list from the outside and not as myself, I might think: 

• This guy reads a lot.

• He either has kids or works with kids.

• If he reads a nonfiction text, he is likely to pick up fiction next.

• Learning for life is important to him.

This reading list and my responses to the books I read offer a lot of information about who I am as a reader. A teacher would not need to give me a multiple choice quiz to assess whether I comprehended the texts or not. It’s as clear as day in my brief reactions. Maybe a more important assessment point is the fact that I am currently reading and that I have books that I want to read next. Seems important to me anyway.

In one of the books I am currently reading, Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Instruction, Maja Wilson offers a convincing argument about how traditional assessment practices can impact our instruction. It’s one of the best educational resources I’ve read. There are many memorable lines, and I’ll share one here I feel is pertinent.

Encouraged by the performance levels on the rubric to rank students against an external standard, our readings of student work are based firmly in a deficit model. We look for mistakes, inconsistencies, and unclear thinking to justify which square in the matrix we will circle. (pg. 30)

Assessment in literacy should have no room for competition. There are no winners, no losers. Reading and writing should be a community experience. We celebrate our friends’ successes and help them improve in areas of growth. In a classroom that promotes connectedness and democracy, our peers’ strengths are to our benefit. My reading list is evidence of my life as a reader, as well as a member of a community of readers.