Going Schoolwide with Reading Engagement: How We Got to Now

This is a follow up to a previous post about our school’s collective efforts to increase student engagement in reading, especially in their dispositions around talking about and sharing their reading lives.

“Hey, I have a quote for you.” A second grader had stopped me in the hallway to let me know about his discovery. He comes from the same class in which another student gave me a new metallic marker for our schoolwide reading graffiti board. I asked him to share it with me. We weren’t sure of the source (he discovered it at home among his mother’s collection of clipped quotes), so we searched for it online.

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Oscar Wilde!

As I mentioned in my previous post, it was the students’ turn to have the proverbial pencil in hand. I encouraged him to use second grade handwriting, but his spelling had to be perfect. He didn’t disappoint. Later during morning announcements, I recognized this student for his contribution and encouraged others to participate in this project.

Some Background

I’ve read that the best place to start a story is in the middle. However, our school’s narrative has some background worth sharing. Doesn’t every school?

For the past five years, our K-5 elementary school has focused on the relationship between reading and writing. The first three years we delved into the professional development program Regie Routman in Residence: Reading-Writing Connection. Faculty received learning binders. We watched videos of Regie in action, modeling for students during one of her residencies the process of writing and how what we read influences this craft. Our students’ work, collaboratively assessed through grade level and vertical teams, has shown great gains.

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After finishing the Reading-Writing Connection, faculty wanted to try a different approach to writing. Specifically, they felt that students needed more structure. One teacher had experience with The Write Tools. For two years, we received training in how to teach a variety of text features as readers and writers, such as topic sentences, supporting details, and transitions. The Common Core State Standards were a primary focus.

Structure and Style

Our students’ work followed suit. Kids as young as six years old can now write a fully formed paragraph. Other elementary buildings that visit us (we are a lab school through the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction) comment frequently on the quantity of words per page students produce. Staff members who have spouses teaching in other schools sometimes mention that the student writing produced is comparable with secondary level work. We’ve seen many benefits to this more direct approach to literacy.

But with this structure, we’ve lost some of the style. Kids could clearly write a paragraph, but was the paragraph worth reading? Voice was down while conventions increased. This became clear during our mid-year formative writing assessment check last year, especially during our debriefing about the strengths and weaknesses of our students’ work.

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Even our narrative writing, which should be a strength with our younger students’ vivid imaginations and humor, was suffering from staleness and a lack of personal engagement. One of our teachers summed it up well: “I miss the kids’ stories.”

Multiple Measures

Our debriefing was a powerful wake up call. It wasn’t anything against The Write Tools. Our trainer did a wonderful job. I think it had more to do with our (see: my) approach to benchmarking our students’ writing against the Common Core State Standards. We had standardized our expectations and, subsequently, our instruction. Maybe this works for other disciplines. Reading and writing are not other disciplines. Literacy is as much an affective endeavor as a cognitive one. As Regie Routman has stated in her presentations and writings, “We have to engage our students’ hearts and minds.”

Our collaborative self-assessment led me to investigate other data points. What was discovered corroborated with what we suspected:

  • Engagement in the classroom was scored lower than other areas of instruction within the Danielson Framework for Teaching, our professional evaluation tool. This was found in both teachers’ self-ratings and in my own observations.
  • According to a reading profile survey administered this fall, students had less positive attitudes about talking and sharing about their reading lives in class, compared to the value they place on reading and how they view themselves as readers.
  • In my regular instructional walks, group discussion and higher order questioning (which leads to authentic student conversations) was not observed as frequently as other tenets of literacy engagement, such as choice, authenticity, and feedback.

Triangulating this data with staff, it was apparent that we needed a different approach to professional development for the 2015-2016 school year. This is why we have come back to the Regie Routman in Residence program, this time focused on Writing for Audience and Purpose. We will continue to examine and own those beliefs where we find common ground.

Starting Where We Began

I often hear education described as a pendulum. We go from this end of the initiative spectrum to that one.

This metaphor isn’t working for me. My biggest concern is the connotation that schools are helpless in the face of outside factors. We blame the Common Core, the government, or accountability to the public. But schools can have more control over their destiny than maybe realized.

My preferred metaphor to describe our school’s professional learning community is a journey. We’ve embarked on a path toward a love for learning that is guided by our shared beliefs about literacy. True learning is circuitous and hard to predict where it will lead. Teams’ professional learning journeys were honored this fall, as they illustrated their own pathways toward excellence.

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Our Interventionists’ Journey Toward Excellence

Our organization may venture this way and that, but as long as we keep our focus on our North Star –  authentic and meaningful literacy experiences – our students will become successful readers and writers.

Going Schoolwide with Reading Engagement

Two years ago we sent our 4th and 5th grade teachers to CESA 5 to hear Donalyn Miller speak. Familiar with both of her excellent books, one of the hallmarks of her work is allowing the students to guide their own reading lives. This happens when the teacher provides opportunities for structured choice and exposure to quality, high interest literature in school.

One of the ideas gained from Donalyn that has entered our school is the reading graffiti board. A teacher created one in her classroom. The kids took off and took it over. They added quotes from their current books they were reading independently. The students also pulled memorable lines from the read alouds the teacher started facilitating on a regular basis.

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Students proved themselves to be very adept at selecting quotes from the texts they were reading. That is why we tried it out on a schoolwide bulletin board. It is one way we are modeling literacy engagement, our building’s goal. Specifically, we are attempting to increase questioning and student discussion in order to realize increased engagement, in both our students and teachers.

Using the companion book to Wonder by R.J. Palacio, 365 Days of Wonder provides one quote a day, as curated by Mr. Brown, a teacher from the story. He refers to these quotes as “precepts”. We call them “Word We Live By” in our school. Many of the quotes come from well-know figures of past and present. Others are from fictional students in his class.

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I would select one quote and read it over the announcements. Then I used a metallic marker to write on the board. The board is located next to where students line up for lunch.

As we have filled up the board, there have been signs that others want to participate in this activity. For example, one of our reading interventionists shared an anthology of quotes “collected” by Pete the Cat. See image. Whenever possible, I’ve included an illustration. Students and staff have shared that they like hearing me on the P.A. system daily.

Good Intentions

As our quotes filled up our board from left to right, I noticed that the marker was wearing out. The silver just wasn’t as bright. In normal teacher mode, I would have gone out and purchased a new marker. But recognizing that reading and writing are participatory activities, I decided to retire my marker.

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My hope was that a student or teacher would “carry the torch” and start offering thoughtful quotes of their own. I even offered a rubric for what I believe makes for a quote worth sharing.

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No such luck! I guess this is a good lesson in teaching: No matter how much we model, we have to include the learners in our demonstrations at some point. This concept comes back to the gradual release of responsibility, reframed as the Optimal Learning Model by Regie Routman.

Scaling Down, Not Up

With that, I have “inducted” a few 5th grade students to find important phrases within authentic literature. I was previously meeting with a small group to discuss questionable behaviors in our school and how to solve them together. Ever the teacher, I had donned my instructor’s hat and requested that they journal about how school and life in general was going for them. Lots of giggles and little depth in their responses told me that this wasn’t working for anyone.

How many times does it take for someone to understand that when we tell learners to learn, it is often met with indifference and resistance? For me, I’m still counting. I’ve put the notebooks away for now. In it’s place was a preview stack of high interest fiction for a different composition of two interested 5th graders to choose from and read together. We came to consensus on The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau (Yearling, 2004). I think I had them at “underground city” during my brief book talk.

It was their suggestion to bring in a third student for our Monday book club during our lunch. We agreed that a more visual example of The City of Ember might help with comprehension when reading the book later. I found the graphic novel adaptation of DuPrau’s book in our school library and on iBooks. The three students could pick which text format in which they wanted to read the graphic novel in the classroom.

The next week, all three students came ready to discuss The City of Ember. I let them do most of the talking and asked a lot of questions, some of which I didn’t know the answer. These inquiries were mostly about their opinions about the text, and how the graphic novel might be different than the original we would be reading next. Our conversation lasted five minutes about the book before it evolved to their plans for the week outside of school.

First Signs

At our most recent meeting, one of the students commented, “Time goes by so fast during our book club at lunch.” Promising. Around this same time, a 2nd grader brought a new metallic marker from home and gave it to me as a holiday gift. She had noticed the dried out one taped to the reading graffiti board while waiting in the lunch line.

I know what to do with the new marker: When ready, hand it over to the students.

Rethinking Reading Logs

In another lively #educoach Twitter chat, we discussed the first chapter of Donalyn Miller’s book Reading in the Wild. This excellent resource provides educators with many ideas on how to raise readers for a lifetime, and not just for that next test or quiz.

A topic that came up near the end of the discussion was reading logs.

There were multiple responses. Most of them were not favorable toward this practice. I realize why educators use reading logs: We want students to become habitual readers. But why do we develop habits? A habit is a behavior that we repeat over and over because we experience something positive from it.

Reading logs do not develop lifelong readers. It is the act of reading itself – the entertainment to be had, the information gained, and the subsequent socialization we experience – that keeps us coming back for more.

So how can we rethink this assessment tool, so that the accountability we place on students to become more regular readers augments instead of detracts from the experience?

Reading Graffiti Boards

Our 4th and 5th grade teachers all attended a one day workshop with Donalyn Miller last fall. Reading graffiti boards is an idea suggested by her. The teacher puts up black butcher paper. He or she then models how to write favorite lines from their book they are reading on the board. Metallic markers make the writing pop out.

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During my regular walkthroughs, I enjoyed watching this graffiti board expand with student contributions. This tool for sharing led to students having more authentic peer conversations with each other about what they were reading. It also served well as a natural way to recommend titles.

Would this have occurred with reading logs?

Blog Instead of Log

My son hated filling out his reading log as a first grader this past school year. It was like pulling teeth, as they say. Because he liked technology (just like his dad:), we tried blogging about his reading instead.

We used KidBlog as our writing tool. Initially, it was still the same process of forcing him to respond to his reading. But once he started getting comments from family members, such as his grandmother, he became more motivated to share his reading life.

We hit pay dirt when one of his favorite authors, Johnathan Rand, posted a comment on his blog post about his book series Freddy Fernortner: Fearless First Grader. (I had emailed the author my son’s post about his books, in hopes of him responding.) After a discussion in the comments, including many questions from my son, I suggested hosting a Skype chat between the author and his classmates.

Before the Skype chat, the classroom teacher had the students suggest several questions for Mr. Rand. When they finally did connect with him, students had the opportunity to come up and speak with the author, each with a question in hand.

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After this experience, I was told that many of my son’s 1st grade classmates were much more motivated to read, especially the Freddy Fernortner chapter book series. This included one student who last semester was in Reading Recovery.

Would this have occurred with reading logs?

Create Book Trailers

In another one of our 4th grade classrooms, a teacher had discovered Educreations. This is a simple web-based screencasting tool that can be used on iPads and other mobile devices. Students in this classroom still had reading expectations, but they were to create a book trailer for a title they had recently read.

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Book trailers are visual and audio summaries of titles, with the purpose of convincing someone else to read that book. The students in this classroom regularly shared their creations with their peers by mirroring the content onto the whiteboard. I was told that one of the more challenging students in this classroom, who refused to do much of any other work, was highly motivated to create these book trailers.

Would this have occurred with reading logs?

I realize my repeated question is rhetorical. The reactions, products, and feelings toward reading that I listed would not have occurred with the outdated practice of paper-based reading logs. There needs to be an authentic audience for the responses students are asked to produce about their reading. This audience creates a more profound purpose for these types of assessments and accountability tasks.

What is your opinion on reading logs? In what ways have you augmented how students respond to their independent reading? How do you know it is working, in that your students are becoming lifelong readers? Please share in the comments.