Slice of Life: Turn Up the Volume!

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“Reading became my rocket ship out of the second-floor apartment in the projects. I traveled the world through books.”
~ Sonia Sotomayor ~

“Reading became my rocket ship out of the second-floor apartment in the projects. I traveled the world through books.” Sonia Sotomayor
Space Station Expedition 17 crew holding Jules Verne book and manuscript inside ATV Jules Verne. Credits: NASA

There’s a welcome chill in the air this morning, and in just a week, students will be streaming into my school. They’ll be eager to see their friends and meet their teachers. I’m eager to greet them. My summer has been filled with reading and attending conferences that have given me a plethora of ideas about ways to help my students learn and grow as readers, as writers, as people.

As I reflected on all of the professional development I’ve participated in the past few months, one work kept coming up: volume.

Kelly Gallagher talked about the importance of reading volume at ILA in Boston: “If the volume doesn’t happen, it doesn’t matter what standards we cover.”

At TCRWP’s August Reading Institute, Kylene Beers shared that research shows that “reading volume is the single best predictor of how good a reader is.”

She also shared Richard Allington’s finding that “the more minutes of high-success reading completed each day is the best predictor of reading growth.”

How will I translate this into classroom practice? By keeping my minilessons truly MINI. This is a huge challenge for me, but I know it’s critical. It’s critical because the less time spent on a minilesson means more time for students to read and write independently. It means more time for me to confer with individuals and small groups, where powerful learning is more likely to happen.

Kids also need this space to practice the skills they’re learning. Because, as Kathleen Tolan recently reminded teachers, “it’s in the over and over again of trying that you get better at something.” She also pointed out that “it’s not always about moving them higher, but for them to get better at it.” And, according to Mark Overmeyer, in order to be effective and lasting, “practice must be done in context.”

This means that kids are practicing reading in books that they choose. I might guide this choice, but the child should have the final say. In his decades of research, Richard Allington has found that “the best intervention is a good book that a child can and wants to read.”

How will I ensure that kids have books they can and want to read? I’ve read more books this summer than I’ve ever read in a single summer. I’ve done this because I want to be able to say to a student, “I thought of you when I read this book.” In his Newbery Medal Acceptance speech, Matt de la Peña told listeners that he didn’t identify himself as a reader until college, when a professor gave him a copy of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. “When I finally fell for literature, I fell hard.”

He went on to say, “But what if I can nudge a few…kids toward the magic of books at a younger age?” That is my mission. To know my students well enough that I can read a book and know that it’s a book they might love. A book with a character they can look at and say, “I know how she feels.” Or, “That’s me. I’m not alone.” A book that nudges them toward the magic.

Stephanie Harvey says that when we give them the access, the choice, and the time, the volume will follow naturally. Because when students find that magic, they read more. 

And when they know they’re not alone, that we’re there to cheer them on, to lend a hand, an ear, a shoulder, that is when they do their best learning. That is how we, in the words of Kylene Beers, “change tomorrow, each and every day.”

Thank you to StaceyDanaBetsyBeth, KathleenDeb, Melanie, and Lisa for creating this community and providing this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

SOLC 2014: Most Likely to Improve

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Bowling alleys have a culture all their own. The sound of balls hurtling down the polished alleys, the crashing of the pins. The funny shoes, the smell of fries. For some people, bowling is serious business. Those in leagues have handicaps and custom-made balls. For many, though, bowling is a fun night out with friends, maybe once or twice a year, with nothing really at stake. I am this kind of bowler.

By David Castillo Dominici, freedigitalphotos.net
By David Castillo Dominici, freedigitalphotos.net

Friday afternoon was our annual staff “Bowling Tournament of Champions.” Teachers and other staff members sign up and teams are assembled at random. Each team comes up with a silly name and matching silly attire. I love these afternoons because it gives us a chance to chat with colleagues we don’t often see. We’re outside of school, and for the most part, school stays out of the conversations. Everyone cheers each other on, no matter which team they’re on, although sometimes a hidden competitive streak reveals itself. There are prizes for the team with the most spirit, the best costumes, and, of course, the champions. It’s all good fun.

Until it isn’t

I know I’m not great a great bowler, but I usually can hold my own at these tournaments. But Friday wasn’t my day. I’d been up much too late the night before, and I didn’t sit down for lunch until after two o’clock. Add this to the fact that I bowl once a year and you get this: a trophy for  “Most Likely to Improve.” (Code for: lowest score) The smiley face sticker on the trophy didn’t help.

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Now I’m not really that upset about all this. I had a good time. But it made me think about the chances of doing well in any kind of activity that you do only once a year.

Maybe you can see where I’m going with this, but don’t misunderstand. I am not, in any way, saying that with more test preparation kids would do better on standardized tests. In fact, I think exactly the opposite is true.

Diane Ravitch pointed out, in her keynote address at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Saturday Reunion yesterday, that the tests our children are taking as part of the PARCC and SBAC pilots “have no diagnostic value” and serve only to give “numbers to students.” What does this have to do with ensuring that a child is “college and career ready,” the stated goal of the current education reform movement? How does that help a teacher know her students and understand how to help them learn and grow?

If the Department of Education and the reformers working so hard to destroy public education truly cared about children and were interested in ensuring that every child reached his or her full potential, they would do everything in their power to help teachers enrich instruction. They would do everything in their power to ensure that teachers have time to, in Stephanie Harvey’s words, “teach kids to think so they can acquire and use knowledge” and “solve problems on their own.” They would do everything in their power to lower the rate of childhood poverty, the highest in the developed world.

If the reformers in power took only these steps, then would be on our way to giving all our children the education they deserve. Then we really would be the “Most Likely to Improve.”

Thank you, as always, to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for hosting the Slice of Life Challenge. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

SOLC: My Day at the Teachers College Saturday Reunion, 2014 Edition

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This morning, I left my house at 6:30 and drove to Teachers College at Columbia University for their spring Reading and Writing Project Saturday Reunion. I spent the day with thousands of dedicated teachers soaking up the wisdom of the amazing presenters. Because I am now quite tired, here is my day in pictures.

Diane Ravitch delivering the opening keynote.
Diane Ravitch delivering the opening keynote.

Diane Ravitch’s keynote was a call to arms. Lucy Calkins, in her introduction, described Ravitch as “the single most important defender of public education” and “our hero, inspiring all of us to speak out and tell the truth.

Anna Gratz Cockerille sharing strategies to help children improve their informational writing.
Fellow Slicer Anna Gratz Cockerille sharing strategies to help children improve their informational writing.
Cynthia Satterlee had great advice for helping kids craft personal opinion essays.
Cynthia Satterlee had great advice for helping kids craft personal opinion essays.
Stephanie Harvey shared her wisdom about nonfiction.
Stephanie Harvey reminding teachers that “there’s a difference between thinking and knowledge. We have to teach kids to think so they can acquire and use knowledge.”
Kathleen Tolan describing how to "take an ordinary idea about a character and make it extraordinary."
Kathleen Tolan describing how to “take an ordinary idea about a character and make it extraordinary.”
The wisdom of Kathy Collins: "Children should believe that  when they give something to texts, they will get something back from the text."
The wisdom of Kathy Collins: “Children should believe that when they give something to texts, they will get something back from the text.”
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Having coffee with friends and talking about our wonderful day.
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On my way to Brooklyn, my first view of the Freedom Tower.
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The view from Brooklyn.
Dinner with my son and his girlfriend.
Dinner with my son and his girlfriend.

What an amazing day, filled with learning, laughter, family, and friends. Thank to everyone at Teachers College for hosting this amazing event!

Thank you, as always, to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for hosting the Slice of Life Challenge. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.