To Raise a Reader

(I wrote this post last week for our families on my school blog.)

If parents want to raise a reader, someone who engages in reading regularly and voluntarily, they should read aloud to their children. Put away the flashcards and take down the sticker charts for number of books read. Make reading aloud every day a priority.

As a parent myself, I realize that this task can be sometimes difficult. There have been evenings when reading aloud didn’t happen in our home due to work or other obligations. However, we have made it a ritual, as regular as brushing our teeth.

The science that supports reading aloud to children, both at home and in school, is clear. Next are some of the biggest benefits, although this list is not exhaustive.

Reading aloud to children:

  • Increases vocabulary acquisition
  • Improves reading comprehension and fluency
  • Increases engagement in reading
  • Broadens their imaginations
  • Improves student writing
  • Fosters relationships between the adult and child
  • Develops listening and speaking skills
  • Facilitates meaningful conversations

Two books reference much of the research on reading aloud: In Defense of Read-Aloud by Dr. Steven L. Layne and The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. Trelease’s resource is in its 7th edition now and should be in the home of every family. Some hospitals will send The Read-Aloud Handbook home with new parents. It was a book I relied on when I taught elementary school.

BUT WHAT IF I HAVEN’T READ ALOUD TO MY CHILD UP UNTIL NOW?

This feeling is called “retroactive guilt.” Educators feel the same way when we discover a new strategy or method and then think about all of the students we had in the past who did not have access to this better practice. The best thing to do is to start reading aloud now and make it a habit. For a list of titles that will engage kids at every age level, go to Scholastic’s list of 100 Best Read-Aloud Books.

MY STUDENTS ARE NOT IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL. WILL THEY ENJOY BEING READ ALOUD TO BY ME?

Yes. Tweens and teens may not admit it, as adolescents seem hard-wired to resist any and all direction from the adults in their lives. But they will enjoy it as long as they find it interesting and they have some say in the book. The best read-aloud books are typically plot-driven. They can’t wait to see what will happen next. Consider these lists of possible titles from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Older students also enjoy pictures books; they can even read them aloud to their younger siblings. Audiobooks to listen to on smartphones and in the car is another option.

BUYING BOOKS CAN GET EXPENSIVE. HOW CAN I KEEP THE COSTS DOWN?

Two words: Public library. Mineral Point has an excellent public library with helpful and knowledgeable staff. There is an entire floor dedicated to children’s literature. Library staff offers a storytime for little ones every Monday morning at 10 A.M. If transportation is an issue, consider utilizing Overdrive, a digital library of eBooks and audiobooks. Patrons can check out titles and download them on their smartphones, tablets, and computers. Overdrive also has dedicated pages for kids and teens.

Reading aloud is an easy and enjoyable activity for any family hoping to raise a reader. At the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention, some Mineral Point Elementary School faculty heard children’s author Mem Fox speak about the importance of reading aloud. Her ten commandments for reading aloud are applicable to parents and educators.

How to Create a Twitter List of Reliable Media Sources

Twitter has been the primary medium for sharing news regarding the presidential election and transition. This social media tool can be effective for gaining multiple perspectives on a topic or cause. The challenge with Twitter is in how to use it so the information you are receiving is reliable. How do we separate the wheat from the chaff?

My suggestion: Create a Twitter list. You don’t even have to follow people or organizations to put them on a list. Here’s how:

  • Select “lists” within the menu under your Twitter profile picture.

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  • Scroll down and select “Create New List”.

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  • Select a hashtag relevant to the topic of interest, such as #WomensMarch. Find people on Twitter who are reporting information and offering commentary (versus simply stating opinions on a topic).

Often journalists and news organizations will have a blue check next to their profile picture. This means they are verified Twitter accounts and have a broader audience on important topics.

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Once you find sources that are reliable for media coverage, select their profile and add them to a new list. You can create a new list when you start looking on Twitter. There is no need to follow them if you prefer not.

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  • Start reading your Twitter list.

The easiest way is to select the list within your Twitter account and read the feed. When posts are retweeted within the feed by those you’ve listed, this can be an opportunity to add more reliable media sources to your list.

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If you read on an tablet or smartphone, I suggest downloading Flipboard to read your Reliable Media Sources list. This free application offers a more visually appealing way to read tweets. You can still access Twitter through Flipboard.

If all of this is too much, you can also simply follow my reliable media sources list. Click here to follow. One caution: Avoid reading these list feeds constantly. News reports can become all consuming, even when the sources are valid. We need to live in the real world so that we have some grounding in reality and be a part of our communities.

In an age where the credibility of the press is openly questioned, it is more important than ever to know how to navigate the information available and decide which sources are most reliable. Fake news does exist. Yet it is up to the reader to determine what sources can be counted upon for facts. A more informed public is the best way to combat misinformation.

I didn’t meet my reading goal (and is that okay?)

2016 has come to a close. Like any year, there were events to celebrate along with a few experiences we may not care to reminisce over. One event that is somewhere in the middle for me is that fact that I didn’t achieve my reading goal.

For the past two years, I have set a goal for number of books to read from January to December. In 2015 I not only met my goal but surpassed it (50/53). This past year I decided to up the ante – more is better, right? – and set a goal for 60. I ended up reading 55 books this year. Not too shabby, considering my recent move and a new job.

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Goodreads, the online community where I along with many other bibliophiles post said goals, seems indifferent to this fact. “Better luck in 2017!” is all the feedback Goodreads offers. I can live with that. The site focused more on all of the books I did read, covers facing out, along with number of pages read and related statistics.Screen Shot 2017-01-01 at 5.43.01 PM.png

I guess I could have pushed through in December and quickly devoured some titles just to meet my goal. They may not have been what I necessarily wanted to read though. Also, I could have thrown in a few more books that my wife and I listened to with our kids while driving. But to be honest, I was half listening and didn’t feel like I could count it.

I’m glad that I didn’t caught up in meeting arbitrary goals. If that had been the case, I may have passed on longer, more complex works of fiction such as All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It’s fiction, yes, but also helped me deepen my understanding of what it means to live in a nation that does not share your beliefs. If I had worried too much about meeting a reading goal, I might not have reread and reread again Last Stop on Market Street by Matthew de la Pena. It still floors me how many ideas and perspectives a reader can glean from such a short text. If I had worried too much about meeting my reading goal, I may have avoided reading reference books about writing, such as Write What Matters by Tom Romano and A Writer’s Guide to Persistence by Jordan Rosenfeld. These are not texts you plow through. Yet I come back to these resources for information and inspiration.

If I was teaching in the classroom again, I think I would adopt a Goodreads-approach to independent reading. Students would still be expected to set some type of goal based on number of books. But it would not be the function of independent reading. We would look at different data about their reading lives, including:

  • Variety of genres explored
  • Complexity of texts from fall to spring
  • Favorite authors, titles and series based on ratings and reviews
  • Classmates whose reading habits influenced their reading lives
  • Books on their to-read list
  • How they feel about reading in general

This data seems a lot more important than the number of books read. I do believe volume in reading is important. But what leads someone to read? We still get reading goals like number of books read confused with purpose. The purpose of a reading goal is to make a more concerted effort to read more and to read daily. The idea is that through habitual reading, we will discover new titles, authors and genres that we come to enjoy and find valuable in our lives. I think about how I got hooked on reading: in the 3rd grade, our teacher read aloud Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. No reading goal, amount of guided reading or immersion into a commercial program did that for me.

As teachers take stock with their students during the school year regarding reading goals, I sincerely hope they look beyond mere numbers and work with their students so they can understand them as readers. Data that only measures quantity and disregards quality tells us very little about who our students are and who they might become as readers.

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Suggestion for Further Reading: No AR, No Big Deal by Brandon Blom

Yes, School Funding Does Matter

The tweet gave me pause when I first read the headline:

I followed this link retweeted by Frederick Hess, contributor to Education Week, to a US News & World Report opinion piece titled More Money, Same Problems. It was written by Gerard Robinson (the source of the tweet) and Benjamin Scafidi. Robinson is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, “a conservative think tank” (Source: Wikipedia). Scafidi is a professor of economics at Kennesaw State University.

The authors acknowledge that “public education is important to the economic and social well-being of our nation”. They go on to point out that there are some students who are successful in public education and far too many who are not. You have no argument from me. Robinson and Scafidi also concede that an adequate level of “resources matter to education”.

Their commentary then gets into the the problems that they believe plague public education:

– While student school enrollment increased 96% since 1950, public school staffing increased 386%.
– Since 1992, public school national math scores have shown little growth (click to their source).
– Today’s graduation rates are only slightly above what they were in 1970.

Robinson and Scafidi follow up with their ideas for improving student outcomes in public education:

– Better involvement from parents
– State control of failing public schools
– Charter schools (a result of state takeovers)

While I appreciate their passion for providing a better experience for students who do not have access to a high quality public education, I take issue with their ideas for improvement.

First, parent involvement. While it can have an impact on student learning when the involvement is positive, it is often not something we as public educators can control in our settings. My experience tells me that the best public schools focus the majority of their efforts and resources on the limited time that they actually have with students. Dr. John Hattie’s research on what works regarding instruction places family involvement on the lower end of the effective educational approach spectrum. It can be effective, but there is a ceiling.

So what’s on the higher end of the spectrum? Everything that Robinson and Scafidi failed to mention, including:

– Formative assessment
– Feedback strategies
– Self-assessment
– Vocabulary instruction
– Classroom discussion
– Response to Intervention

In fact, one of the least effective practices for improving student learning outcomes are…charter schools. According to Hattie, charter schools have around the same effect size as ensuring students had appropriate amounts of sleep and altering classroom/school schedules. My time is important, so I will let charter school and school choice proponents wrestle with these findings.

What I do want to point out is that the most effective instructional strategies require generous amounts of school funding. Here’s why: Teaching is one of the most challenging professions. To do it well, educators need consistent and effective training in the areas of curriculum, assessment and instructional strategies. This requires funding and support for job-embedded professional development. Dollars should be allocated for training, time, resources, and opportunities to apply these new skills in a low risk/high success environment. If this sounds like a lot of money for this type of work, please remember that teaching is a profession. I am sure you would agree that our students are worth it.

Citing graduation rates and flatlining test scores might serve to perpetuate the opinion that public education is broken. However, this argument is a generalization of our system as a whole. Yes, there are ineffective schools and there are effective schools. No one would dispute this. Yet each school is an individual learning community. They each have specific strengths and needs, and should be assessed with valid and reliable measures. To paint a broad stroke over public education with data that is questionable at best (see here and here) is a disservice to the hard work and dedication that all public educators put in every day on behalf of our students.

I won’t argue that public education needs to improve. We do. It is the work that we should be engaging in every day. The least that people outside public education can do is to ensure that they consider multiple perspectives on a position they support and provide valid and reliable evidence to back it up.

Life-Ready: An Alternative to College and Career Readiness

In my former administrative position, I was assigned to serve on the district’s career and technology education committee. There was a lot of talk about “college and career readiness”. Most districts and states have had the same conversations.

One part of this dialogue that rubbed me the wrong way was how school counselors were being tasked with helping students discover possible career opportunities to set goals around. This discussion did not hit home until I realized that my son, now a 4th grader, was so very close to taking part in this initiative.

At that point in the committee’s proceedings, my mind was flooded with a series of questions:

  • How can some of our students possibly know with any certainty what they want to do once they graduate high school?
  • How can any educator make even a general determination as to the life trajectory of a child? What information are they using to make this assessment?
  • Why are we so focused on the future of a child and yet often oblivous to the present, especially when equity is not being achieved for all students in every classroom?
  • Who are we as educators to propose to a student’s family the possibilities of what we believe awaits their son or daughter?

Being the new member of the committee, I bit my tongue and did my best to listen without judgment.

In reflection, I think this eduspeak about “college and career readiness” brought up some personal baggage I have with my own experiences with education trying to make decisions for me about what I would do in the future. For example, I remember taking the Myers-Briggs test, a personality profile tool that categorizes people based on whether they are extroverted or introverted, are more inclined to use their senses or intuition, and so on and so forth. Once you land in one of sixteen categorizes (I was/am an ISTP), a series of careers were suggested for you that “fit” with your personality.

Unfortunately for me, being an educator was not one of those suggestions. I gave engineering the old college try (literally) and found it to not be something I was passitionate about. Police work was out of the question. The Myers-Briggs assessment tool itself did offer some helpful insights, but only from what seemed like a cognitive standpoint.

Today’s focus on college and career readiness has good intentions. Some kids may benefit from learning what’s out there and then set goals to achieve their dreams. But how do we find this to be true when economists are telling us that half of us will be freelancers by 2020 and we will soon be switching jobs every three to five years? This information would seem to conflict with what we are espousing in schools today.

Why should all students have to meet the same goals?

-Susan Brookhart, assessment expert and ASCD author

Instead, I offer an alternative to the college and career readiness talk: Preparing students to be “life-ready”. What do these competencies look like? Given the unpredictability of future work and frequent changes in occupations, it would seem to come down to some of the noncognitive skills:

  • Critical thinking
  • Work well with others
  • Imagination and innovation
  • Problem finding and creative solutions
  • Empathy and ability to take others’ perspectives

So how do schools teach these skills? In my opinion, through the curriculum that is already established and being developed at the school level. This integration increases the relevancy of student learning and makes the connections for students across and within disciplines. David Perkins offers a sound proposal for developing this type of “lifeworthy” curriculum in his excellent resource Future Wise.


At the ASCD Author Retreat I attended last week, we were asked as educational experts what success might mean for our students. Here were our responses:

For all of our expertise, how we defined student success varied considerably as you can see. If our collective thinking can be so diverse regarding one question, what that says to me is student success can and should also look very different depending on the needs and interests of our kids. Defining student success as merely “college and career readiness” seems to narrow the possibilities. Being life-ready might better honor every student’s potential.

The Sometimes Unnecessariness of Technology

I enjoy watching baseball. In particular, I try to catch the Milwaukee Brewers when televised and I am free. There is so much strategy involved: When to hit away, when to steal a base, when to pitch inside. Every action has a potential impact on the final outcome.

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Image Source: Wikipedia

Baseball is an imperfect game in which, like other sports, the participants are always striving for perfection. That includes the umpires. They are tasked with calling balls and strikes on pitches teetering toward 100 miles per hour. A split second is all they get to decide if a runner is safe or out. They don’t always get it right, but most of the time they do.

A recent wrinkle added to the game is instant replay. Managers can ask for one on a close play in the field. Calls can be reversed upon video review. I don’t mind this addition, as a baseball game is a series of stops and starts as it is. One more pause in the action isn’t going to hurt.

Where will technology’s influence creep next into baseball? From what I am reading: Automated strike zones. Computers already augment televised games with pitch-by-pitch graphics that show the exact location of each delivery from the pitcher. Commentators refer to this frequently when discussing the batter’s judgment or the pitcher’s ability to locate pitches. More accurate calls and less player-umpire arguments would be some of the benefits of this technology upgrade.

I am not convinced that this would be better for baseball. There is a type of balance achieved with an umpire behind the catcher as the pitcher and batter duel it out. Maybe it’s the simple presence of a triad surrounding home plate. Nature loves odd numbers. Also worth noting is the relationship between the catcher and the home plate umpire. They look out for each other, like when an errant foul ball strikes one of them in a vulnerable area of their body. Watch a game to see what I mean.

Education is feeling a similar push to digitize many aspects of the profession and process. Assessments such as reading screeners can be administered more quickly using computers. Students can submit work to their teacher with a click of a button. Some of the improvements, such as blogging and parent communication, are welcomed upgrades. They provide a broader audience and heighten home-school communications.

But adding technology for the sake of improving results and accuracy does not mean that the final outcomes are necessarily better. If going digital decreases the relationships between participants, what happens to engagement? If technology reduces the need for certain roles that add value beyond their basic job descriptions, how does the lost part affect that larger whole? I don’t have the answers. What I do know is when a technological innovation replaces human participation, the subsequent results cannot simply be measured in balls and strikes or multiple choice. We work in the people business.

The Promise and Perils of Technology in Education

Technology in schools is a neutral resource. It does not harm or help student learning when put into classrooms. Only when technology is employed by the teacher to serve as part of the learning experience does it have any impact, positive or otherwise. It’s like saying pencils and textbooks can hinder a math lesson. These are tools and little more.

I bring this up because the debate about the promise and perils of technology in schools continues to float around online. In a recent post, Diane Ravitch highlights the commentary from OECD’s Andreas Schleicher, director of the international standardized test PISA. Schleicher agrees with a retiring principal in Australia who stated that mobile technology should not be in classrooms because it is a distraction.

The reality is that technology is doing more harm than good in our schools today. John Vallance, the principal of one of Sydney’s most expensive private schools, Sydney Grammar, said that laptops were not necessary in class and that more traditional teaching methods were more effective.

In response, technologists argue their positions with gusto. The point: How can students take advantage of the vast knowledge available at their fingertips without each of them having access to the connectivity that wireless and mobile devices can bring? Blended learning, flipped learning, and BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) are a few of the pedagogical approaches that are often referenced as powerful practices which rely on technology to facilitate learning.

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My belief is they are both right, and probably both wrong. This happens when we take an extreme view with this very complex issue. Technology can be a distraction and hinder student learning if used mindlessly, such as allowing students to use their mobile devices at any time during the school day. At the same time, there are certain learning accommodations that only technology can provide.

Below are two examples from our own school that aptly make this point, within the discipline of writing. We are not a 1:1 school, and probably won’t be for time unseen. We primarily use iPads at the K-2 level and Chromebooks at grades 3-5, although the purpose for a lesson might demand a different device.

  1. A 1st grade student hates to write, specifically putting words down on paper physically. The teacher and special education aide use the voice dictation software on an iPad and allow her to speak her words. The application transcribed her language. She wrote an informative paragraph about a topic of her interest.
  2. A 5th grade student, who also receives special education services, was writing a fictional story on a Chromebook. I asked him if he prefers typing or handwriting his narratives. “Typing – if I make a mistake, I can go back and change it.” He also utilizes the research, definition, and grammar check tools with Google Docs.

Given these specific examples, would Schleicher still argue that technology hinders learning? Our 1st and 5th grader would not be the writers they are without it. Can educational technology maximalists make the claim that every students needs access to mobile devices at any time? Classrooms in our school probably utilize these mobile devices around 25% of the time, to allow for classroom dialogue and group work. Studies have shown that the physical presence of a mobile device can erode the depth of conversations.

And it is in our conversations about the role of technology in education where we will find consensus about better use of these tools for learning. Black and white thinking only serves to widen the gap of our collective understanding about this issue. Where are you on this topic? Please share in the comments and continue this conversation.