The Driver’s Seat

This is cross-posted from my school blog. It was also sent out as a monthly print newsletter for families. I thought you might enjoy reading it here too. -Matt

With a year under my belt and feeling more comfortable each day in my position as principal here, I am starting to find more time to engage in fun activities. One thing I enjoy is producing digital media of my family’s life captured on camera. Right now I am putting together images and video in order to create a multimedia presentation of our two kids’ experiences in Wisconsin Rapids, our former home.

In one series of videos, we documented our daughter learning to ride her bike. I held the camera while my wife jogged alongside her, holding the bike to provide that extra support while our daughter attempted to find her balance. My wife was giving constant feedback, telling her to “pedal faster” or “straighten out the handlebars” when appropriate. Eventually, as every kid does, our daughter was able to ride her bike independently.

Throughout this process, our daughter was the one pedaling and steering. We didn’t do a lot of modeling of how to ride or explain this skill in words. Our daughter got on a bike with training wheels at first, then removed them when we all felt she was ready. She was in the driver’s seat at all times.

This personal story relates to the professional practice we are striving for in classrooms. Instead of the teacher doing the majority of the work, we are shifting the reading, the writing, and the thinking to the student. Just like riding a bike, students cannot learn something new unless they are actively involved in the process. The driver’s seat in school is a pencil or a book in one’s hands.

This might seem obvious. Yet education has been traditionally delivered with the teacher expected to do the heavy lifting. We know now that our role as educators in today’s world is to be that guide on the side, supporting our students as they attempt time and again to improve in their abilities and become successful learners for life.

Build a Classroom Library with Students

This post is actually a grant my wife and I are sending to a local community foundation. She is getting back into the teaching game and is lacking in books for her classroom. We are sharing this proposal so that others may also use it and find the same success that we hope to see.

1. Purpose Statement

When I walked into my new 2nd grade classroom this summer, my first thought was: “Where are all the books?” Nevermind the staplers, the bulletin board paper, or the dry erase markers. For my students to be successful this year, they needed books. Lots of them. Preferably of high interest and readability.

Resources are tougher to come by in today’s educational world when compared to the past. And no resource is more important to my students’ success than access to high quality and engaging books. While I first viewed this situation as a problem, I quickly observed that there were opportunities here as well. I could create my own classroom library! Better yet, what if my students and I chose the books we wanted to read together during the school year?

The purpose of this grant is to create a community of readers. We will do this by using the funds from your organization to build a classroom library together. These selections will be made collaboratively by the students, their families, and me. Literacy expert Stephen Krashen notes that research shows that classrooms with more books result in students who are better readers ( Another respected reading researcher Richard Allington found that having ownership in the process of selecting books for independent reading only furthers to enhance the benefits of access to many texts (,-Every-Day.aspx). Access and ownership– this is the foundation for the purpose of this grant.

2. Innovative Programming to Build Trust and Sustain Relationships

This project finds itself relying on trust and relationships. While I will have to make the initial purchases before schools starts, starting second quarter, students and families will be asked to identify texts that are of high interest, readable, and increase their knowledge as learners. We will make regular book purchases once per quarter.

To start, I plan to wrap new books in butcher paper and display them in the classrooms. On the front, five to six key words will be printed on the paper. They may include descriptions of the main character, the type of genre, whether a boy or girl might like it, and related titles. The idea here will be to pique the students’ interest. As the first quarter progresses, we will “unwrap” these books through read alouds, reading with a partner, writing about what we read, and sharing our favorite titles through book talks (a great way to practice speaking and listening, also essential literacy skills).

We got the idea for wrapping books and providing key descriptors from a Barnes and Noble in Madison, WI.

Through this collaborative inquiry, students will develop a deep understanding in how texts are categorized, what separates a picture (everybody) book from a chapter book, the importance of understanding genre and knowing authors, identifying text features, discovering new words from reading, and how books can make us feel. This last factor is one of the most crucial. In fact, Nell Duke and P. David Pearson found that associating pleasure with reading is the one of the most critical drivers in developing life long readers ( Motivated readers read more. Success begets success.

Starting second quarter, we would take this new knowledge and apply it to selecting books to add to our classroom library. We will use online book sellers, such as Amazon or Barnes and Noble, to search for texts that meet a certain criteria for our library (interesting, readable, unique, balance of genre, relevant). Parents would be invited via safe social media tools into our Wish List to add titles themselves. Once we had enough books selected, we would request that these titles be purchased. I can only imagine the anticipation that my students will show as we wait for our collaboratively-selected texts to arrive at our classroom. Once they get here, my guess is I will have to prevent arguments about which students could read certain books first, instead of negotiating with students to just get them to read, period. Including my students and families into the process of building our classroom library seems like a perfect way to build trust and sustain relationships.

3. Objectives and Measures

My two objectives are:

1. Engage my students and families in collaborative inquiry by selecting titles for our classroom library, based on a rubric created with my class that will identify appropriate texts for a 2nd grade classroom.
2. Increase my students’ ability to read by a) suggesting books they are interested in reading, b) involving them and their families in the selection of future titles, c) giving my students time to read, and d) sharing our reading lives with each other, our families, and a global audience.

These two objectives will be measure by the following assessments:

1. My students’ families will be asked to complete a pre- and post-survey about their reading habits and dispositions.
2. My students will complete multiple reading assessments throughout the school year to measure growth in their skills.

4. Community and Family Involvement

Parents and community members will be invited into my classroom to experience our learning environment throughout the school year. These interactions will be facilitated through both formal (parent conferences, portfolio night) and informal (classroom celebrations, guest readers) events.