How I Read as a Literacy Leader

cesar-viteri-426877-unsplashSchoool leaders cannot know literacy without being a reader. Therefore we have to read. Here, I share five suggestions for becoming a more intentional reader.

  • Read widely.

This means reading across a variety of genres and modes. Both online and offline. The main benefit is that we don’t get pinned within one type of prose. Otherwise, we might get into a reading rut. Like well-worn tire tracks in the woods, we can get stuck within these constraints and not realize the variety that literature has so much to offer. We should also read newspapers, magazines, blog posts, tweets…anything worth our attention.

Consider: When’s the last time you read fiction? As a school leader, I can relate to our busy lives. Reading fiction may seem superfluous. But at what cost? Research shows many benefits to reading fiction, including building a broader perspective and developing empathy. Nonfiction is also enjoyable; however, the best nonfiction has a narrative arc. This is not a post about reading fiction as much as it is to stress the importance of reading widely and becoming a well-rounded individual.

  • Read regularly.

Habits take time and intention. We repeat what we enjoy. So it is important that we construct our environments for optimal times for reading and accessing text. For example, I always have a to-read pile on my bedside table. I’ll even organize this stack based on which book I plan to read next… #nerdalert

During the school day, I sometimes carry a book or article with me on the off-chance of downtime, what Donalyn Miller refers to as a “reading emergency”. My two children have emulated my practice. Imagine what your students might do if you tried the same thing. If life is too busy for even that, consider audiobooks. Audible offers a monthly membership where you can download any book to listen to in the car to and from school. Whatever life throws at you, just read.

  • Read publicly.

Reading in public view is one of the best ways to encourage everyone to be a reader. We make it visibly acceptable to be a reader wherever we may be. I think there is this cultural aspect that has formed, where it is now okay to check in with our smartphones constantly, while reading a book becomes less of a norm. And to write in public…aghast! You will get weird looks at worst, apathy at best.

Digitally speaking, I post my book covers in my email signature from Goodreads. When I update my book I am reading, the cover changes. I am a part of a community of readers through Goodreads, which gives me access to others’ reviews of books I have read plus ideas for future reading. This is something you as a leader can share with students, who can emulate this practice through Biblionaisum. If online is not to your taste, maybe have a book board where you print off covers of titles you are reading by your door, like our school librarian.

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  • Read critically.

It’s good to remember that every text is the author’s take on the truth. That means I read with a critical lens. I’ll have a pen in hand and write in the margins. It’s a transactional process, where I am interpreting what I am reading through my current and limited thinking (why I need a reading community, see prior). As an example, I will sometimes highlight a few words in the text and accompany this annotation with a question or a comment. The author and I are (almost) having a conversation in this sense.

Sometimes, I will even select a text that runs counter to my current beliefs. At the very least, I will understand multiple sides of an issue. It’s also possible that my thinking will change on a topic. For example, I have picked up The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. This text, critical of reading online, will pair well with Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art by Virginia Heffernan. I can read both with a critical stance, knowing the two authors are coming at this similar topic from different perspectives, which could expand my own point of view regarding new literacies.

  • Read selectively.

For some professional resources, I have moved away from feeling I have to read the whole book. Some of the content is more relevant than other parts. My time is limited. Furthermore, I don’t have time for bad writing. The official reviews on Amazon, from legitimate sites and sources, are often reliable. We have to remember that we have permission to say “no” with regard to our precious time.

Same goes for recreational reading. For example, if someone recommends a book to me, and upon preview it is not of interest, I feel okay about declining. That said, I have been more careful about my own book recommendations to others. With others, I might say “You might find this book interesting. If you want, check it out. If you are not interested, feel free to throw it my mailbox.”

How do you read as a leader? What strategies or books have helped you know literacy? Please share in the comments.

 

The Point of Reading Goals

At the turn of the new year, I took a look at my reading habits. I have participated in the  Goodreads Reading Challenge for the last five years. You set a goal for number of books read, and then document each book you read with a date finished, rating and maybe even a review. Here is how I have fared.

  • 2013: 12 books read out of a goal of 40
  • 2014: No challenge accepted
  • 2015: 56 books read out of a goal of 50
  • 2016: 55 books read out of a goal of 60
  • 2017: 49 books read out of a goal of 52

I saw some interesting patterns and trends here. First, I was very unsuccessful the first time I participated in the Reading Challenge, so much so that I failed to document a goal for 2014 (I’m sure I read). Second, the only year I met my goal was in 2015. That is a success rate of 20%, if you define success as meeting an arbitrary benchmark. Third, my average number of books read for the past three years is 53, or one book per week. Knowing that the top 1% of earners read at least one book a month on average, I am looking forward to my future financial wealth.

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Photo by Breather on Unsplash

This last point is my attempt at humor, but there is truth here as well. Habitual readers tend to find success in life, both personal and professional. They are typically more knowledgable about the world and have greater empathy for people in other cultures. The books I read vary in genre, author, length, etc., which broadens my perspective. Some books are for kids, such as the ones I read aloud to my children, but many are for me. Reading is a selfish act that also inspires selflessness and a desire to affect the greater good.

I keep track of my reading because it is important to me and the community of readers I know online and offline. I don’t set reading goals to hit a number or see how many more books I can read than others. My list of books read provides me with a literary history, a chronology of my reading life. If I don’t reach my goal, what’s the big deal? I’d rather know whether I have an imbalance of fiction and nonfiction. These are points worth stressing in our classrooms so our students don’t miss the forest for the trees.

 

 

Silent Reading vs. Independent Reading: What’s the Difference? (plus digital tools to assess IR)

During a past professional development workshop, the consultant informed us at one point to end independent reading in our classrooms. “It doesn’t work.” (discrete sideway glances at each other) “Really. Have students read with a partner or facilitate choral reading. Students reading by themselves does not increase reading achievement.”

I think I know what the consultant was trying to convey: having students select books and then read silently without any guidance from the teacher is not an effective practice. Some students will utilize this time effectively, but in my experience as a classroom teacher and principal, it is the students that need our guidance the least that do well with silent reading. For students who have not developed a reading habit, or lack the skills to effectively engage in reading independently for an extended period of time, this may be a waste of time.

The problem with stating that students should not be reading independently in school is people confuse silent reading with independent reading (IR). I could see some principals globbing onto this misconception as fodder for restricting teachers from using IR and keep them following the canned program religiously. The fact is, these two practices are very different. In their excellent resource No More Independent Reading Without Support (Heinemann, 2013), Debbie Miller and Barbara Moss provide a helpful comparison:

Silent Reading

  • Lack of a clear focus – kids grab a book and read (pg. 2)
  • Teachers read silently along with the students (pg. 3)
  • No accountability regarding what students read (pg. 8)

Independent Reading (pg. 16)

  • Classroom time to read
  • Students choose what to read
  • Explicit instruction about what, why, and how readers read
  • Reading a large number of books and variety of texts through the year
  • Access to texts
  • Teacher monitoring, assessing, and support during IR
  • Students talk about what they read

You could really make the case that independent reading is not independent at all: it is silent reading with scaffolds, and independence is the goal. The rest of the book goes into all of the research that supports independent reading, along with ideas and examples for implementing it in classrooms. The authors also cite the Common Core Anchor Standard that addresses independent reading:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.10
Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.
Maybe this information will be helpful, in case you ever have a principal or consultant question your practice. 🙂

Assessing Independent Reading

The challenge then is: how do I assess independent reading? Many teachers use a paper-based conferring notebook. If that works for them, that’s great. My opinion is, this is an opportunity to leverage technology to effectively identify trends and patterns in students’ independent reading habits and skills, which can inform future instruction. Next is a list of tools that I have observed teachers using for assessing independent reading.

This is an iPad application that allows the user to draw, type, and add images to a single document. The teacher can use a stylus (I recommend the Apple Pencil) to handwrite their notes. Each student can be assigned their own folder within Notability. In addition, a teacher can record audio and add it to a note, such as a student reading aloud a page from their book. This information can be backed up to Google Drive, Evernote, and other cloud storage options.

In my last school, one of the teachers swore by this tool. “If you don’t pay for it,” she stated one day, “I’ll pay for it out of my own pocket.” Enough said! Teachers who use the Daily 5 workshop approach would find CC Pensieve familiar. It uses the same tenets of reading and writing to document student conferences and set literacy goals. Students can also be grouped in the software based on specific strategies and needs.

Teachers can set up a digital form to capture any type of information. The information goes to a spreadsheet. This allows the teacher to sort columns in order to drive instruction regarding students’ reading habits and skills. Also, the quantitative results are automatically graphed to look for classroom trends and patterns. We set up a Google Form in one grade level in our school:

I’ve written a lot about using Evernote as a teaching tool in the past. It is probably the tool I would use to document classroom formative assessment. Each note can house images, text, audio, and links, similar to Notability. These notes can be shared out as a URL with parents via email so they can see how their child is progressing as a reader. Check out this article I wrote for Middleweb on how a speech teacher used Evernote.

The previous digital tools for assessing independent reading are largely teacher-directed. The next three are more student-led. One of my favorite educational technologies is Kidblog. Classrooms can connect with other classrooms to comment on each other’s posts. Teachers can have students post book reviews, book trailers, and creative multimedia projects from other applications.

Whereas Kidblog is pretty wide open in how it can be used, Biblionasium is a more focused tool. It can serve as an online book club for students. Students can make to-read lists, write reviews and rate books, and recommend titles to friends. Like Kidblog, Biblionaisum is a smart way to connect reading with writing in an authentic way.

This social media site is for book lovers. Although 13 is the minimum age to join, parents need to provide consent if a child is under 18. Besides rating and reviewing books, Goodreads allows readers to create book groups with discussion boards around specific topics – an option for teachers to promote discussion and digital citizenship. Students can also post their original creative writing on Goodreads by genre. Check out this post I wrote about how to get students started.

What is your current understanding of independent reading? What tools do you find effective in assessing students during this time? Please share in the comments.

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

Recent Books I’ve Read and Recommend

Being in between positions, I am finding more time to read books and write about them. I usually post my ratings and reviews on Goodreads. This social media tool provides an HTML code of your post to publish on your blog. So…here you go! Look for more reviews over the summer. If you have titles you have read recently and would recommend, please post in the comments.

The Action Research Guidebook: A Four-Stage Process for Educators and School TeamsThe Action Research Guidebook: A Four-Stage Process for Educators and School Teams by Richard D. Sagor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A comprehensive guide for educators to conduct action research in schools. The author provides lots of templates as well as examples from both the teacher and principal perspective. I used this text to conduct my own action research. The four stage process was explained well. It might be too much information for educators just getting familiar with the action research process.

Beastly Bones (Jackaby, #2)Beastly Bones by William Ritter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An entertaining follow up to the first Jackaby book. The author provides enough red herrings to keep you guessing about the perpetrator and its origins. A nice blend of mystery, paranormal, and humor.

Solving 25 Problems in Unit Design: how do I refine my units to enhance student learning? (ASCD Arias)Solving 25 Problems in Unit Design: how do I refine my units to enhance student learning? by Jay McTighe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A nice companion to the other UbD resources by the authors. I could see teams of teachers using it when doing a curriculum audit.

Better: A Surgeon's Notes on PerformanceBetter: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are few books I elect to own in multiple formats. Better is one of them. I listened to it as an audiobook, and plan to purchase a physical copy soon. There are so many ideas in Better that I want to come back to: Innovation, systems thinking, improving performance, and doing the right thing that any person can relate to. It’s a book about medicine, yes, but so much more.

Digital Reading: What's Essential in Grades 3-8Digital Reading: What’s Essential in Grades 3-8 by William L. Bass II, Franki Sibberson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the rare #edtech books that prioritizes pedagogy over technology. The authors take a deep dive into the benefits and costs of reading on a screen. I especially enjoyed the chapters on connectedness and home-school communication.

Mistakes Were Made (Timmy Failure, #1)Mistakes Were Made by Stephan Pastis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A nice departure from Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Timmy may be the worst detective in history, mostly because he doesn’t listen to others or make basic observations. His ignorance leads him into a lot of trouble that is more funny than serious. The author keeps things grounded when he touches on Timmy’s home life, a realistic portrait of a single parent situation (minus the polar bear).

Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get DiscoveredShow Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered by Austin Kleon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A brief text filled with many ideas for sharing your work and process with others. Felt it was too short. The author could have expanded on some of the topics a bit more. Still, well worth my time reading it.

View all my reviews

How Can I Rethink Reading Logs with High Schoolers?

This post is actually a lengthy reply I left for a reader, who asked me the question via comments in a post I published a year and a half ago. So great to see how what we share online impacts other schools!

Hi Francisco. I appreciate your honest question. I’m not experienced with high school, but I have some thoughts. My initial suggestion is to get your students on Goodreads (https://www.goodreads.com/about/how_it_works). If you are not familiar with Goodreads, it is a social media tool for readers. They can use their Facebook accounts to create an account within Goodreads. Readers can rate and review books, read what others are reading, and have suggestions sent to them based on their past interests (https://www.goodreads.com/recommendations). Students can also make “to-read” lists, selecting what books they want to read next, which all readers should have anyway.

Maybe have them take the Goodreads Book Challenge (https://www.goodreads.com/challenges/), where they select a number of books they plan to read for the calendar year. They can then see their progress as time goes on. They can also recommend books to peers through Goodreads as long as they are “friends”. In addition, the students can download the book titles they’ve read so far into a spreadsheet to share with you periodically. They could also use this list as a way to reflect about their reading, such as what genres they prefer and who has been influential in their reading lives.

I also like the “groups” function of Goodreads, which is an online community around a topic, favorite author, or a genre. Discussion boards can be created within a group. Goodreads is very mobile friendly, so they can use their smartphones and tablets for this purpose at school. One more idea: As students build a substantial list of books they’ve read, they can start creating libraries around the categories of books they have been reading.

If there are privacy/sharing concerns from families or administration, you could also have students use Google Docs to keep track of their reading and thinking, but it is not as authentic. As for strategy work with high schoolers, if they are engaged in what they are reading because they could pick the texts and talk about them with friends, older students have shown that they can teach themselves strategies because they are motivated to read. Our jobs as teachers at this age level is to educate our students about the strategies they are using, which can then lead into future instruction using more complex texts they will need to read closely today and in the future.

As I stated, I do not have a lot of background in adolescent literacy, but reading enough of the research tells me that older students’ reading instruction should be as authentic and relevant as we can make possible. Your students may continue to use Goodreads as they get older, which also helps them leave a positive digital footprint in their future. Using a social media tool would allow your students to continue their conversations with peers beyond the school day. They will be doing exactly what you ask of them with less of the griping, because they won’t see it as school work.

Good luck!

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Why We Read: Reflections After Completing the Goodreads Book Challenge #NCTE15

50 books. 365 days. This was the goal for my reading life starting in January 2015.

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Having completed the challenge early, I had time to reflect on this experience, share what I learned about myself as a reader, and offer suggestions for educators who help students become lifelong readers.

1. Setting goals is important, so long as the goal doesn’t become the goal itself.

I set 50 books as my goal with the knowledge that I can read a book within a week on average. Sometimes I flew through a text. Examples include The Martian by Andy Weir and Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. With other texts, such as The Art of Slow Reading by Thomas Newkirk and Mindfulness by Ellen Langer, I took my time while reading. My deliberateness allowed me to reflect on the information and consider how I could apply this knowledge to my current position as an elementary school principal. With every book I read, I selected it because I wanted to read it, not to meet my goal. The goal of 50 books served to keep me accountable for reading more,  but not to simply read.

Implications for the classroom: If you are a classroom teacher, how are you developing reading goals with students? I emphasize “with”, because if you are doing the goal setting for students, there will be little ownership for the student. Also, the goal has to be meaningful. If it is a goal based on a skill or on volume of reading, do students understand the goal and what the results mean? If not, we promote compliance instead of engagement in our classrooms.

2. Fiction is not just for entertainment, and nonfiction is not just for learning.

I had little knowledge about space explorations before starting The Martian. But I was motivated to read it, with the movie coming out along with friends recommending it. I struggled with some of the science concepts and acronyms. Yet I persevered because the story about Mark Watney stranded on Mars was just so interesting. In the two days that I read The Martian, I explored various online webpages via NASA to learn more about Mars expeditions and what the future holds. I couldn’t “count” my additional reading, but that didn’t really matter to me. Fiction sparked interest in informational text.

Implications for the classroom: With all due respect to E.D. Hirsch and his acolytes, having enough background knowledge about a complex text before reading it should not always be required. Creating a dichotomy between engagement and information promotes the misconception that reading is done either for entertainment or for learning. The Common Core State Standards perpetuates this idea by separating informative and narrative reading. Educators need to embrace reading as a complex experience that can offer multiple benefits simultaneously. In other words, discovering new information can be enjoyable, and you can learn a lot from a story. Context matters.

3. Be intentional about the role of technology with reading.

One of the biggest surprises for me during this Goodreads challenge is how much I prefer reading on print versus eBooks. Also surprising is how my wife, a 2nd grade teacher and less techy than me, reads almost all of her books on her eReader. So why the difference? Because we read for different reasons. Lately, I have had a passion for learning more about education as a profession and writing about it. This situation created a necessary demand that I have print versions of the texts on hand for easy reference.

In my wife’s case, she connects with other readers/friends on Facebook, Amazon, and Goodreads. They recommend books to each other in their ratings and reviews, and want to read that next text without the wait. We also have two young children, so the natural light from her eReader allows her to enjoy a book when the opportunity presents itself in our busy lives. She is a part of a reading community, much like a classroom that promotes authentic reading experiences. These digital resources are necessary for some readers.

Circumstances change. Technology can also help readers adapt. For example, once I finished writing my most recent book, I welcomed the opportunity to read more fiction. A brief scan of my visual reading log on Goodreads confirmed that I had been favoring nonfiction lately. If my list of previously read titles had been text only, I would have had a harder time determining this. The ability of Goodreads to not only track my reading life but also to offer a visual summary with book covers provided this information more quickly. Goodreads also allows readers to create groups around a genre or topic to read and write about online. Currently, I am facilitating the group “School Leaders as Readers”, where we read and discuss texts relevant to our positions.

Implications for the classroom: Technology can be a necessary part of our reading experiences at school. Online reading communities and the availability of more books via the Internet and eReaders can serve to expand our students’ access to texts and how they interact with others about their reading.

Technology can also simply be nice. Take the one-to-one initiatives that put a device in the hands of all students K-12. Does every 1st grader need a tablet like they need paper, a pencil, and a good book to read? What opportunities for conversation and collaboration do we give up for students when we place a priority on being connected?

The biggest thing I learned from the Goodreads Book Challenge is that reading is a personal endeavor. If we are to create a personalized learning experience for our students, then educators need to make sure that goal setting is collaborative and meaningful, that the complexities of fiction and nonfiction are deeply explored, and that technology serves to support students’ reading experiences instead of driving them.