Struggling Mathers

This past year was my 26th in this business. I spent 11 of those as a middle school language arts and social studies teacher. I spent 5 years as an instructional coach. I taught alternative ed and GED for 2.5 years. All of my working life I’d been concerned with the input side of literacy – reading.  This year, I am teaching high school math.

I am a complete newbie at teaching high school Algebra. And I feel like it. I spend long hours poring over content trying to understand the most sensible route to making this abstract subject comprehensible and engaging for my freshmen. They were placed with me at the beginning of the second semester this past year to repeat semester 1 because they had failed it. I am certainly no expert and lean on my new peers in the math department for help.

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This is one reason why I am thankful to be reading Jennifer Allen’s book, Becoming A Literacy Leader. Specifically, she opens with her call to creating a climate where “creating ongoing opportunities for shared experiences and conversations among staff” is the way forward in navigating the myriad demands we face as teachers.

One of the most striking parts of my experience has been a fresh set of unbiased eyes on a traditional subject. All my years of literacy instruction have given me a different perspective on this whole math thing. I watch students “get it” when I sit with them one-on-one and we read a word problem out loud together. They start to make sense when I ask them a few good questions to help them reflect and verbalize what they know from the problem. As much as I leaned on my team, I believe I brought perspective to our conversations. 

It’s like “good” readers vs. struggling readers. You know. All those things we know those good readers are doing in their heads, like, predicting, connecting the text to things they know, making a movie of the action in their mind, reading for a specific purpose, scanning, skimming, re-reading… the list could go on. I am finding that struggling mathers are not doing the things that “good” mathers are doing.

That the difference between them often lies not in some innate ability, but a collection of habits that they don’t have yet and are not employing to help themselves. I find myself often modeling my thinking out loud for them. They apply few of the Standards For Mathematical Practice (which I am only just getting to now, as you can imagine).

This is only one example of how I am “seeing” and wrestling with literacy in math.

Just as Ms. Allen notes in chapter 2, as “learning to read should be a joyful experience,” so should learning to math. My attempt this summer while reading Jennifer’s book is to find parallels to help foster and lead in literacy in the math world. I know I have tons of math resources available to me – I’ve spent a lot of time reading them these past few months – but I want to specifically think about my context, my assignment, my kids and how I can help them navigate math help and instructional resources. I think Ms. Allen’s book is the perfect platform for developing the questions I want to ask in order to explore this further.

 

Encouraging Summer Reading with Authentic Experiences

It’s June. Many are itching to call it a year. The local swimming pool is open, and it’s much more inviting than that next page in the textbook –> for the students as well as the teachers. Three months from now, our kids will arrive back after a much-needed break, take a reading screener, and the results will tell us what we already know. Here’s the deal: Some kids leave school and read a ton, and some do not read at all.

How can we encourage the latter to engage in habitual reading over the summer? Some argue that it is the classroom teacher that must be the primary influencer in this task. This is a noble statement. Yet it can also be a tall order for a teacher trying to turn a really resistant student into a lifelong reader. He/she might need several teachers in a row to spark a love for literacy plus a purpose for engaging in text.

Cahill, Horvath, Franzen, and Allington wrote a helpful resource titled No More Summer Reading Loss (Heinemann, 2013). I have explored some of their ideas in my prior school, such as opening up the library during the summer. Yet I have not been strategic in these efforts. This year, we have made more concerted efforts to target our students who need to read the most, while encouraging everyone to read every day. Our primary approach to encourage summer reading by facilitating authentic experiences.

Providing Books for Students in Intervention

We don’t want to make a judgment in sending home books for our students who received additional support in reading. Yet we know that the typical student who struggles in reading has less access to text in the home. That is why we are sending home books in the mail to these kids over the summer. It can’t get more authentic than a book, right?

They were provided choice in what they wanted to read. Our two reading teachers gave each student a visual list of high-interest titles that they could circle with a highlighter. Then the teachers ordered the books, sorted them, and prepared each title for staggered mailing. This was a lot of work on their part, but worth it as we believe more books in the home can make the difference.

Leveraging Digital and Online Tools

I am the first to admit that technology is not the panacea that some enthusiasts might like you to believe. However, when it comes to issues of access, technology makes perfect sense. Getting a kid to the public library can be a challenge if parents are at work or it is too far away. Digital tools are ubiquitous in most homes now.

Here are a few digital and online tools our students likely have access to over the summer:

  • Overdrive: Students can check out eBooks and audiobooks using their public library card number.
  • Biblionasium: Like Goodreads for younger people, kids can rate, review, and recommend books for peers.
  • Kidblog: An online writing tool that offers students a safe space to publish reflections on what they are reading, as well as to post digital creations.

All three of these literacy experiences closely resemble how adult readers connect and interact with text.

Modeling Ourselves as Readers and Writers

We as educators don’t reveal ourselves enough as individuals who engage in authentic literacy experiences . If a teacher or principal isn’t a lifelong reader to begin with…well, that’s a bigger problem. I’ll assume the former.

For our last day activity as a school, a picture book was purchased for every teacher in the classroom. During our recognition assembly I will be encouraging teachers to read aloud their book to their students. In addition, each student will be receiving a small pocket journal. The suggestion will be to carry this around during the summer months and used it to maintain a reading list, a to-read list, or even a grocery list. Writing anything is better than not writing. If we can connect writing to reading, all the better.

I plan on sharing an entry from my own pocket journal, which coincidentally contains ideas for how students might read over the summer.

 

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Promoting lifelong reading with authentic experiences has the potential to encourage more students to become avid readers over the summer.


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Interested in some summer professional reading? Contributors to this collaborative blog will be reading and responding to Becoming a Literacy Leader: Supporting Learning and Change, 2nd Edition by Jennifer Allen (Stenhouse, 2016). Jennifer’s updated text has many ideas for facilitating coaching cycles, preparing for excellent professional learning, and reflections from the field.

Update 6-3-17: The sign up for this opportunity has been closed due to high interest.

 

 

 

Homework: Helpful, Harmful, or Otherwise?

As I write this, I am out on our back patio. My kids are in the neighbor’s backyard, flying a kite with friends. They had recently recovered the kite from a tree. This time around, they are staying away from the natural hazard. I don’t know how they got the kite down previously; they had figured it out before I was called to the rescue.

Imagine, instead, if I had made my kids stay in after school to finish their homework.

Four years ago, I shared my attempt at revising our homework policy at my former school. It was more policy than practice – we briefly discussed it, then moved on to something related to literacy, I’m sure. Looking back, it was a topical change at best. My suggestions were within the paradigm that homework was still necessary. We never really delved into the idea of homework as a concept that may be outdated.

I’m torn. Some of the work students bring home can make for an interesting study. For example, my son was recently assigned a family heritage project. He had to locate an item that is a part of our family’s history and culture, learn about its significance through interviewing family members, and then communicate his new knowledge through speaking. Storytelling is a skill they have been working on for a while.

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My daughter has elected to bring home learning. She is participating in Genius Hour in her classroom. This primary class refers to these inquiry-based learning activities as “Wonder Projects”. My wife and I are often recruited to support her most current questions, whether that be taking pictures of her next to enclosed animals (“What animals most often live in a zoo and why?”) or setting up a mini-art studio in our dining room (“What are some famous artists and their artwork?”).

These examples are, by definition, homework. One was assigned, one wasn’t. Both facilitated a unique learning experience in our home. This seems to fly in the face of research, such as John Hattie’s meta-analysis that homework has a negligible effect in elementary school and a significant one at the secondary. To be fair, homework that I just described is rare. The typical fare is worksheetsreading logs, and studying spelling words for Friday’s test. One can understand with these examples why schools are starting to outright ban homework.

These absolute policies also result in absolute thinking.  My post here is not to admonish or advocate for homework. Rather, let’s bring some common sense into the conversation. An instructional coach, Dana Murphy, came up with a novel way for teachers to think before they assign homework.

In other words, if we are assigning homework, is it more important than opportunities for kids to play, read, or spend time with families? If the answer is “no”, then how can we rethink our instructional approach for the 6-8 hours that we do have students in our classrooms?

Gotta go. The kids are burying each other in landscape pebbles.

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.

What I’m Reading: March 2017

Professional Resources

Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America by Allan Collins and Richard Halverson (Teachers College, 2009)

An essential resource for thinking about and discussing technology in education. The authors provide a thorough history of what has come regarding schooling and how it is not a good fit with our knowledge society. This book is not outdated; the concepts and critiques are just as relevant today.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire (Bloomsbury, 1970, 2000)

I took on this classic in order to better understand critical literacy and its foundations. I will be honest: this was a tough, slow read. However, it might also be an essential text for any educator looking to understand the importance of being literate in a changing world. I’m glad I finished it.

 Personal Reading

The Plot Against America by Phillip Roth (Vintage, 2005)

The premise of the novel is Charles Lindbergh is elected president, denying Franklin D. Roosevelt a third term. The famous aviator arrives at the White House on a singular promise: to avoid going to war with Germany. His isolationist platform is in contrast to FDR’s growing concerns regarding anti-Semitism spreading across Europe. Lindbergh’s affinity for the Nazi party comes to light more and more as the story progresses. This piece of fiction is based on the events of this time, told through the author’s perspective as a Jewish child growing up in New Jersey. It almost reads like a memoir with all of the details.

The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin (Ballantine, 2016)

An excellent way to close out this sci-fi/literature trilogy. Epic in its scope yet manages to find a balance with small moments. For me, The City of Mirrors stands alongside The Stand by Stephen King and American Gods by Neil Gaiman. My only regret is that I read each of the three books when they came out. The amount of time between books made it a challenge to remember all of the details from previous stories.

Children’s Literature

The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires (Kids Can, 2014)

A thoughtful and humorous picture book about the design process. The story’s message of kids needing opportunities to be challenged with personal inquiries is well heeded. A perfect read aloud for teachers getting started in Genius Hour or Makerspaces.

Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce (HarperCollins, 2005)

The unique idea behind this story (boy finds a quarter million pounds before England changes to the Euro) makes for an excellent study on values and our choices. The author does not try to preach about the ills that money can bring to our lives. Instead, he lets the well-drawn characters reveal themselves in the situation presented. The ending is satisfying even though the author does not wrap things up in a nice tidy bow. Highly recommended read aloud for intermediate/middle-level classes.

We Found a Hat by Jon Klassen (Candlewick, 2016)

It had to have been hard for Klassen to follow up on his first two pictures books, I Want My Hat Back and This is Not My Hat. Yet the author succeeds. Two turtles find one hat. They both agree that it is a nice hat. So how do they reconcile this situation? The illustrations tell as much of the story as the text.

The Connection Between Reading and Writing

Not that long ago, I was struggling to write, digital or print. To be fair, my time was committed to formal projects. Reading also took a back seat. Was there more to it? I have heard of this reluctance to write as “the resistance”. This invisible force throws up mental roadblocks whenever we see a blank piece of paper or an untitled document. It can happen for all learners. A strategy I learned for this type of situation was suggested by Regie Routman at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention.

If a student is having a hard time getting started with their writing, ask them what they would like to read.

This advice was excellent. It felt unexpected at first but now makes so much sense. By always “doing” – working, talking, traveling – but not taking the time to read and reflect, we struggle to write. We know that reading and writing are connected. So why do we still silo these two disciplines in our instruction and in our lives? Reading is the foundation for much of what we write. Writing is how we make visible all that we have read, experienced, and reflected upon. One does not exist without the other.

Tomorrow I fly out from the ASCD convention in Anaheim to home in Wisconsin. I could certainly get a lot of work done during layovers. But I kind of hope the wireless will be spotty. The opportunities for some quiet time to read in a connected, constantly in motion world are hard to come by.

 

 

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.

The Thin Line Between Critical Literacy and New Literacies

This is another reaction I wrote to assigned reading for the graduate course I am taking through the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Technology and School Leadership. Enjoy!

Critical literacy is an instructional approach that “advocates the adoption of ‘critical’ perspectives toward text. Critical literacy encourages readers to actively analyze texts and offers strategies for what proponents describe as uncovering underlying messages” (Wikipedia). This approach asks readers to investigate why the author wrote what they did, what writing tools they used to convey their ideas and why, as well as to investigate underlying messages within the text.

Also important regarding critical literacy is exploring multiple perspectives by reading various texts to understand what concepts a writer left out of a piece and why they might do that. Critical literacy’s roots are founded in social justice. It “requires imagining others’ intentions, adopting multiple perspectives, and imagining social arrangements that don’t yet exist” (Johnston, 73). People from both affluent and non affluent backgrounds benefit from instruction that helps them take another person’s perspective, as well as to have the tools to lift themselves out of poverty.

The question then is, What does critical literacy have to do with new literacies, which “include the traditional literacy that evolved with print culture as well as the newer forms of literacy within mass and digital media” (Jenkins, 19)?

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Quite a bit.

First, both new literacies and critical literacy demand a context within the broader society. Because of its foundations in social justice, critical literacy may ask students to closely read multiple pieces of work on a relevant topic in order to understand how some writers might exclude certain perspectives in order to better persuade an audience. Likewise, with the new literacies everyone can be an author who brings a specific perspective. People’s positions and experiences described on websites and blogs matter as much as the accuracy of the information presented. “We might well find that much of the meaning to be made from the content has to do with who we think the blog writer is: what they are like, how they want to think of themselves, and how they want us to think of them” (Lankshear & Knobel, 4).

Second, students in both instructional approaches are expected to be participants in the learning. Whether a dialogue about what is read and what is written happens online or off, learners should have opportunities to engage in dialogue about information. This includes actively listening to someone else’s point of view without immediately disagreeing, and reconsidering one’s beliefs in light of new information presented. Critical literacy applied in this fashion better prepares students to be college and career ready.

New literacies, with their dynamic capabilities, invites a response from an audience. For example, when someone posts on their blog, this published piece is sometimes the start of a conversation rather than finished work. Within the comments and the sharing via social media, followers and connected educators can engage in a dialogue around the ideas initially shared. The participatory nature of online learning helps ensure that those who post have at least some level of reliable rationale to support their positions.

These similarities beg a follow up question: are the new literacies merely critical literacy adapted for a more connected world? Adages such as “Today’s students require tomorrow’s literacy skills” (Forzani, 2) might still apply. Yet the common threads between critical literacy and new literacies are hard to ignore.

References

Critical literacy. (2016, May 14). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:00, October 25, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Critical_literacy&oldid=720298766

Forzani, E. (2013). Teaching Digital Literacies for the Common Core: What Results From New Assessments Tell Us. Storrs, CT: University of Connecticut.

Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Johnston, P. (2012). Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2007). A New Literacies Sampler. New York: Peter Lang.