Sunday, April 5, 2020

Hula Dancing, Singing and a Teacher's Impact

Recently, I had a former student reach out to me on Facebook Messenger. Back in the early 1980s, all middle school students were required to take a developmental reading course. This former student had been wracking his brain to come up with the title of a book he had read in my class 40 years ago.  He described the basic plot, mentioned that it contained some “bad language” and I recalled a book entitled. Headman, by Kin Platt that was on my choice bookshelf back in those days. That was the one, he said. 

This incident reminded me of the influence we have as teachers in ways that we may not even know or realize. I had not heard from this student in nearly 40 years and yet this book had resonated with him in a memorable way. I gave him a socially distanced fist bump and smiled a little to myself.

Over the years I have great memories of teachers who have influenced me. There was Mrs. Stout, in sixth grade, who taught me to believe in myself. There were Mr. Laidacker, Mr. Kautz, Mr. Turner and Mr. DiSangro, who fostered my love of history, which caused me to be a history major as an undergraduate.. The was Mr. Blough, the passionate music appreciation teacher, who fostered an eclectic love of music from Bach to Benny Goodman to Burl Ives. There was Mr. McHale who taught me how to be a professional on the stage and in life. Later on there were Susan Mandel Glazer, Susan Lytle, and M. Jerry Weiss who taught me what literacy education was all about.

Of course, that influence can be a two-way street. Sometimes the actions of a teacher can have a negative effect that also lasts a lifetime. When I was in third grade, I had the good fortune to have Miss. Miyamoto (in 1955 it was almost always Miss). Miss Miyamoto was kind and gentle and always smiling. She was the first Japanese American person I had ever seen and my eight year-old self was in love with her.. She was from Hawaii and she taught us how to do the Hula and how to make the traditional Hawaiian dish, poi. 

Miss Miyamoto was teaching under difficult conditions. Because of baby boomer inspired overcrowding in schools, our “classroom”, was one third of a converted cafeteria, where classrooms were separated by moveable barriers rather than walls. I became adept at shooting crayons over the walls with a makeshift catapult I fashioned from a ruler. When I was finally caught doing this, by the rather stern teacher next door, Miss Keller, I got a severe reprimand and saw Miss Miyamoto’s smile disappear for the first time ever. I think I was more upset at disappointing her than I was at losing recess for a week as punishment.

Anyway, Miss Keller and I had gotten off on the wrong foot. This came back to haunt me, because Miss Keller was the leader of the third grade chorus. Even in those days I had nascent dreams of performing on the stage (I had been featured as the Scarecrow in a second grade production of some play I can’t now recall) and I determined that I would be a part of the chorus, which would be giving a concert for the holiday season.

At this point all I knew about singing I had learned from listening to my mom sing along to The Andrews Sisters at home, but I thought I would give it a shot. You didn’t have to try out or anything, you just showed up for practice after school one day a week.

After a few weeks, as the date of the concert drew closer, I got the sense that Miss Keller was feeling the tension. Directions were barked out. Minor foolishness was not tolerated. Little lines of consternation appeared on her face. One rehearsal, as I was standing in the back (I was always tall), Miss Keller was walking around listening to each singer individually. When she got to me she listened, frowned and said, “Russell, I want you to stand here during the concert and just mouth the words silently. Don’t sing. Your very off key.” 

I accepted this verdict. I wasn’t so much upset as I was surprised.  I didn’t know I couldn’t sing, but now I did. I dutifully stood in my place at the concert and mouthed the words. I didn’t tell anyone I was just mouthing the words and my family was pleased with the performance. I never told anybody this, in fact, until I was an adult. I also never went out for chorus again. When asked to join the church choir, I told them I didn’t sing and became an altar boy instead. I never auditioned for the school musicals, although I was interested in theater. 

I was a non-singer. I got the message. It stuck. Now, imagine please, a child who gets the message that they cannot read. I heard that many times from my seventh grade readers long ago. Once that message is received, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

One positive that came of this experience is that it helped me when I became a teacher. I tried to make statements of encouragement to students. When "constructive criticisms" were made, I tried to root them in a particular situation and not make them a judgement on what a person could or could not do. 

The messages we send to kids last a lifetime and they are not often about the times table or coordinating conjunctions or how many planets are in the skies. It is the personal messages and connections that are remembered. It is the belief  a teacher instills that we can do that resonates through the years. It is that one book that made a special impression that we remember. That is a lesson we all must take into every interaction we have with a child.

I still don't sing in public, but you should see my Hula.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

The Power of "And": Taking Charge of Your Own Teaching

During my forty years as a consultant, I have often had teachers say to me, “I would love to use some of your ideas for instruction, Russ, but…The “but” was always followed by something like “the administration”, “the test”, “these kids”, any and all the reasons you’ve heard about why something couldn’t be done. Finally, at one session I said, “Enough with the ‘buts’ from now on where you were going to say “but", you have to use the word “and.” This made a huge difference in the conversation. The word “but” qualifies a statement with a negative. The word “and” indicates a thought continues. “But” sets up roadblocks. “And” opens-up possibilities. I tried to express the concept in this poem.

Coordinating Conjunctions

If I were compelled to point a finger
At the cause of educational malaise
I surely wouldn’t need to linger
Pondering the answer days on days.

I could indicate that a single word
Manages to keep us in this rut
And I know that it may sound absurd,
To say that single word is –

You hear it in the classrooms
You hear it in the halls
You hear it in the teacher’s lounge,
Where it bounces of the walls:

I’d like to teach kids to love reading,
But I haven’t got the time
I’d like to hold a morning meeting,
But there’s test scores on the line.

I want all my kids to be learners
But their home life’s in the way
I’d like to cover topics in depth.
But the curriculum crowds my day.

I don’t think there is any question
That every teacher’s lesson plans
Could be improved by the suggestion
That they exchange the
“buts” for “ands.”

Teaching time is always limited
And let’s work hard to find a way
To put lots of reading at the center
Of the children’s learning day.

Those tests loom over all our heads
And yet children thrive on choice,
So I’ll spend lots of time on writing,
So my students find their voice.

I know some of the kids are poor,
Their homelife might be a mess
And I also know all kids are reachable,
When I’m teaching at my very best.

Try it the next time you are tempted to say “but” to a good instructional idea. The administration says we need to do test prep and I know they want what is best for kids. We need to have a conversation about best use of instructional time. The curriculum is a mile wide and an inch deep and I need to get on the curriculum committee to encourage and foster change. Take the roadblocks of “but” out of the way and you might just find yourself achieving the instruction you desire. Teachers have great power to influence what happens in the classroom. Sometimes we just need to decide to use it.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Under the Table: A Poem for Independent Readers

Back in the 1990s when I was teaching 2nd grade, I noticed a phenomenon, whenever I announced it was time for independent reading. While some of may students would grab a book and sit on the  carpet or bean bag chairs, a large percentage would take their books under the classroom tables and desks to read. When I asked them about it, they said it was like there own little reading fort or hideaway, where they could escape for 20 minutes and just read. It reminded me of my childhood days when I liked to read by flashlight under the covers of my bed.

The experience inspired this poem, which was published in The Reading Teacher (52.1, p. 75) and in the book, Poetic Possibilities: Using Poetry to Enhance Literacy, by Susan Israel (IRA, 2006).

Under the Table by Russ Walsh

Under the table's the best place to read.
A good book and small table are all that I need
For a morning's adventure
Or a tale of dark doom.
Under the table -
My own reading room.

Under the table, where it's dark and it's quiet,
I open a book and start my own reading riot
With castles and dragons
And maids in distress
And a hero to come in
And clean up the mess.

Under the table I've a place of my own,
Where my book and I can be left quite alone.
To climb the high mountains
Or swim with the fishes,
To uncover a Genie
To fulfill my wishes.

So each day in my classroom at just about ten,
When time for reading rolls around once again,
Under the table's
Where I can be found
With a book in my lap
And no one around.

When planning for independent reading space in your classroom, consider creating as many kid friendly spaces as possible and make sure lots and lots of books and poetry are available in those spaces.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

A Geography of Limericks

April is poetry month. Celebrate with limericks!

Children love limericks. The short form, the rhyme, the insistent rhythm, and the silly content never fail to inspire giggles in kids of any age. The limerick is a form of humorous poetry popularized by Edward Lear in his Book of Nonsense, first published in 1846. The history of the limerick goes back many hundreds of years before that, however. The limerick is the only fixed poetic form that is known to have originated in the English language.

Modern limericks generally have five lines - three long and two short , with the rhyming pattern aabba.  The frst, second and fifth lines have three feet (da da da/da da da/da dum). The third and fourth lines have two feet (da da da/da dum). Don't worry about the technical details with students, just enjoy them.

Many limericks are set in a specific geographical location (Peru, Chicago, Nantucket), so part of the fun can be looking up where the limerick takes place.

Here are some limericks to share. I suggest first reading them aloud to students, then reading them chorally,

and finally having the students read them on their own.

Once kids are familiar with the form, they may want to try to write some on their own. I would recommend this for grades 4 and up, because the rhyming can get pretty tricky.

A Geography of Limericks by Russ Walsh

A cyclist from central Quebec
Was involved in a ten cycle wreck.
          Getting up from the dirt,
          She said, "I'm not hurt,
But this sport is a pain in the neck!"

A young boy from North Bangor, Maine,
Loved to splash in the mud and the rain.
          He said, “I’m seeing how wet
          I can possibly get.”
And his mom washed him right down the drain.

A ballerina from Paris, France
Invited a bear to a dance.
          When they danced a ballet
          He got carried away,
And knocked down two trees and four plants.

A skier from northern Brazil
Skis mountains with marvelous skill.
          While perched on one ski,
           He ran into a tree.
    Since then his whole life’s been downhill.

A koala from Queensland, Australia,
Grew an amazing azalea.
          He sat by the hour
          Admiring his flower,
While his friends cried, “Koala we hail ya!”

A lion from old Cameroon,
Stood in the rain, night and noon.
          And as you might bet
          He got terribly wet,
And wrinkled up just like a prune.

An acrobatic young man from Malaysia
Performs feats that will truly amaze ya’.
          Turning cartwheels one day,
          He got carried away
And he spun all the way across Asia.

A small boy from fog bound Chicago
Said, “Which way did my Ma and my Pa go?
          There were standing right here,
          Then I lost them I fear
And I can’t see in all of this fog, Oh!”

A poor lad from Hope, North Dakota
Drank nothing but black cherry soda.
          Drinking glass after glass
         “Till he filled up with gas,
And floated on past Minnesota.

A brave athlete from Azerbaijan
Gamely entered a triatholon.
          She grew plenty weary,
          But with the crowd cheering
She just kept right on carrying-on.

An unhappy boy from Burundi
Ran away one cloudy gray Sunday.
          Staying outside all night
          Gave him such a fright,
He came home by mid-morning on Monday.

@copywright 2020


Thursday, August 23, 2018

A Back to School Reminder

As teachers across the country return to school across the country over the next few days, I thought I would share this poem I wrote many years ago. The poem is written from the prospective of a parent and is a reminder of the sacred trust that every teacher must accept. I hope everyone has a fulfilling, joyous, engaging, and successful opening to the school year.

The First Day of School
by Russ Walsh

Today, dear teacher, I deliver to you
          my heart, my life, my son.
He’s not perfect:
One day he’s noisy,
Next day he’s careless,
Next day he’s both.
          Treat him kindly;
          Guide his growth.

I assure you, dear teacher,
          you’ll learn his name quickly.
He has his opinions.
He speaks them loudly
Displays them proudly,
So sure he’s right.
          Respect his feelings:
          Harsh words can bite.

I should warn you dear teacher,
          he has no patience for seatwork.
But he’s not lazy,
Just likes to ponder,
And let his mind wander
In every which way direction.
          Value his thinking;
          Allow reflection.

Today dear teacher, I deliver to you
          my heart, my life, my son.
I ask that you listen.
I ask that you watch.
I ask that you care.
          And give him a hug,
          When I’m not there.

Friday, July 6, 2018

The 4th Annual National Give-A-Kid-A-Book Day

Children's Activity at Fallsington Library
Today, July 6, 2018, marks the 4th annual National Give-A-Kid-A-Book Day. This is the yearly celebration dedicated to getting books into children's hands over the summer. Literacy research has shown that the single best way to combat summer reading loss is to get books in kids hands. One way to do this is to give children books.

Participation is easy. All you need to do to is find a child and give that child a book. The child could be your own, a neighbor's child, a student, a grandchild, one of your own kid's friends, children in a homeless shelter. Just give the child a book and say, "I thought you might enjoy this." Some participants like to include a lollipop or other small sweet treat to send the message, "Reading is Sweet!", but the most important thing is to give a kid  book.

National Give-a-Kid-a-Book Day is dedicated to the many hard-working people and organizations who have gone to extraordinary efforts to make sure that all children have access to books. Toward that end each year on this day, we recognize these folks by placing them on the NGKBD Honor Roll. Past inductee's include Luis Soriano, Lisa Willever, Philadelphia's Words on Wheels, Dolly Parton, Leland B. Jacobs, Margaret Craig McNamara, M. Jerry Weiss, Joan Kramer, and The Children's Book Project of San Francisco.

If you wish to read more about these inductees and about the project you can find each year's National Give-A-Kid-A-Book blog posting here, here, and here.

This year's inductees into the National Give-A-Kid-A-Book Day Honor Roll are the following:

Donalyn Miller - Perhaps no educator in the past 10 years has had a greater impact on getting books into children's hands than Donalyn Miller. In her books, like The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild, in her blog with Colby Sharp, The Nerdy Book Club, and in her presentations at conferences around the country, Donalyn has become the leading advocate for children's independent reading in the country. Donalyn Miller has truly become the nation's book whisperer.

Project Night Night - Project Night Night provides "Night Night" packages to 25,00 homeless children every year. Each package contains a book, a blanket, and a stuffed animal. Project Night Night works with tens of thousands of volunteers each year who volunteer to bring a little comfort, joy and literacy to a homeless child's bedtime routine.

Fallsington Library - This tiny library in a tiny town in Bucks County, Pennsylvania is housed in a 150 year old Classic Revival building. The Fallsington Library offers many special programs for children and children who participate are given a coupon for a free book from the on-going book sale housed in a small room off the main library. A great way to bring families, children, and books together.

Readers are welcome to nominate candidates for next year's induction.

Take a moment to Give-A-Kid-A-Book today1

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

On July 4th: Celebrating a Nation of Immigrants

As a young teacher, I got an object lesson in America's great legacy of immigrant achievement. My first job, in the early 1970s, was teaching American History and Civics at Bristol Junior-Senior High School in Bristol, Pennsylvania. Bristol was the very incarnation of the glorious mix of immigrants who came together to make the country the model for the world.

My students were a rich mixture of cultures: English, who came over with William Penn as the original immigrants in the 1700s; Irish, who came to escape the devastating potato famine in Ireland in the 1840s and 50s; African-American, who settled in Bristol - an early stop on the Underground Railroad; Italian, who came to the area to build the railroad highline that still runs through town, and Puerto Rican, who first came to the area in the 1950s to work seasonally in the large farms surrounding town, but who eventually settled down in town.

It was a great pleasure to teach children from these various backgrounds about The Revolutionary War, The Constitution, The Bill of Rights, The Fourteenth Amendment, The Civil Rights Era, etc. I coached the baseball team in those days and my roster was reflective of the school's diversity: Mancuso, Santiago, Burch, Dixon, Murray, Stevens, Paleafico, Spadaccino, Marozzi, Sanchez, Johnson, Petrizzi, Childs. LaRosa.

A new entry to this blend came in the early 1970s, when the first refugee from Vietnam entered my eighth grade American History class. Her name was Thuy Bui. Thuy was tiny, quiet, and spoke no English. She endured the teasing that is typical of middle school students who had difficulty accepting this very different looking, different dressing, different sounding classmate into their mix. But Thuy persevered. In less than six months her English was exemplary; within a year she was one of the top students in the class. Thuy went to college and medical school and returned to Bristol to start her medical practice.

Whenever I read the news reports about the current immigration debate, I think of Thuy. The Vietnam war was not the finest moment for this country, but at least we took the responsibility to make sure that some of the families sent adrift by our policies got a new chance to have a life in the US. These people, like Thuy, took that opportunity and ran with it in a country that afforded them that opportunity.

On this Independence Day, I think it is only right that we remember all the veterans who served our country and all the veterans who served in the Vietnam War. I suspect that the roll call of those veterans would create a list of names not unlike those on my baseball team roster. But I also think it is a very good idea to reflect on our country as a nation of immigrants. A nation not only built by, but sustained by a healthy and constant stream of immigrants. And while we may argue about legal and illegal immigration, building walls and separating families, surely we cannot deny that one thing that makes the country great is that immigrant quest for a better life that all of our ancestors shared.

Happy 4th.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Supreme Court Sticks It To the Union, Again

The increasingly conservative Supreme Court decided to side with the rich and moneyed in the so-called Janus ruling yesterday. The ruling seemed inevitable. In fact, I predicted this day would come in a post 4 years ago, SCOTUS Sticks It To The Union. Justice Samuel Alito has signaled in several rulings that he has been itching to overturn the earlier Supreme Court decision in Abood from 40 years ago that allowed public sector unions (like teacher unions) to collect agency fees from non-members who benefit from the unions collective bargaining activity. Alito just needed to wait for Senator Mitch McConnell to block the Obama nomination of Judge Merrick Garland and then steamroll the approval of Justice Neil Gorsuch and he had the five votes he needed (Roberts, Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch, Kennedy).

Alito sounded almost gleeful in his opinion. "We conclude that this arrangement violates the free speech rights of non-members by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern." In her dissent, read from the bench, Justice Elena Kagan would have none of it. "There is no sugar-coating today's opinion. The majority overthrows an opinion entrenched in the nation's law - and in its economic life - for over forty years... And it does so by weaponizing the first amendment, in a way that unleashes judges, now and in the future, to intervene in economic and regulatory policy."

The ruling will weaken public sector unions in general and teacher unions in particular. Unions are imperfect constructions, of course. They are also vital to the economic and physical health of working people. Teacher unions are vital not just to teachers and teacher families, but to student and student families as well.

I began my career in 1969 prior to unionization and collective bargaining. My pay was too low to support my family, so I worked evenings and weekends at my father's gas station and sold ice cream from a truck in the summer months. I taught 6 classes a day. I was allowed 2 preparation periods a week. My class size was as high as 40 students and averaged 33. My unair-conditioned room reached temperatures approaching 100 degrees on warm June and September days.

In 1970, Pennsylvania teachers won collective bargaining rights. Over the next ten years, thanks to the collective bargaining actions of my union, I saw my salary rise enough so that I did not have to work evenings and weekends at the gas station. My class sizes went down. I was allowed 5 preparation periods a week. An air-conditioner was installed in my classroom.

All this was good for me and my family, of course, but it was also good for my students. A living wage meant I could spend more time on lesson plans and wasn't tired all the time. Smaller classes meant more time for individual student attention. Air-conditioning meant a better learning environment for the students.

The union movement will now be in a battle for its existence. Already groups funded by wealthy conservative organizations are gearing up to help teachers opt out of their union (Philadelphia Inquirer, June 28, 2018 p. A15). Non-Members will reap all the benefits of the collective bargaining work the union does for free. Younger teachers, with lower salaries, may well make the hard choice to opt out of the union to save a few very needed bucks.

This, of course, is exactly what the moneyed 1% of Americans wants. Public sector unions will get smaller and poorer in the coming years. Weak unions mean lower wages. Weak unions mean lower taxes. Weak unions mean more money for the rich and less for the rest of us. The Supreme Court ruling is a boon to the wealthy and a further stake in the heart of public education.

There is, however, hope. Along with the steady drumbeat of anti-worker legislation and anti-labor court rulings coming out of Washington has come a new energy on the part of teachers to take collective action. We have seen this happening in non-union states like Arizona, Oklahoma, and North Carolina, but the attractiveness of collective action seems to be reflecting well on union activities as well. A recent Gallup poll found that more people have a positive view of unions than at any time since 2003. Unions in states like West Virginia, where teachers have had walkouts, report increases in union membership.

Union leaders are going to need to redouble efforts to truly serve their constituents, to make personal contact, to listen, to serve. While virtually every decision coming out of the power corridors has been anti-union, the moneyed classes may have over-played their hand. The true power still remains in the hands of the classroom teacher, because it is the classroom teacher who is responsible for the day-to-day functioning of the public schools where 85% of all children still attend. If those classroom teachers are willing to work together collectively through union action, they are a force that cannot be stopped by any legislation or wrong headed Supreme Court ruling.

By joining together, by working together, teachers can achieve reasonable working conditions, a livable salary, and a more equitable education for their students. If we do not join together, working conditions, salaries, and learning conditions will continue to deteriorate.

As for me, I will borrow from the singing of Pete Seeger: "You can't stop me, I'm sticking to the union. I'm sticking to the union till the day I die."

Monday, June 25, 2018

On the Passing of Donald Hall: Poet, Children's Book Author, Baseball Fan

Donald Hall at work in his office (photo: Tony Cenicola, NYT)
I read in Monday morning's New York Times, that Donald Hall, former Poet Laureate of the United States, a New England poet and writer in the tradition of Robert Frost and Richard Wilbur, had died at the age of 89. Donald Hall and I have a long history. I am sitting here right now pouring over my signed edition of Hall's, Old and New Poems (Ticknor and Fields, 1990). Ironically, though, my first encounter with the great poet wasn't through poetry, but through an extended essay he wrote in the 1970s entitled, Father's Playing Catch with Sons. The essay was, and still is, the very best explication I have read on baseball's special hold on the national consciousness.

...for baseball is continuous, like nothing else among American things, an endless game of repeated summers, joining all the generations of fathers and sons.

Donald Hall, poet, was also Donald Hall, baseball fan, and as a fellow baseball fan, I quickly became a fan of his writing.

I next encountered Donald Hall as a children's book author. His poem, The Ox Cart Man, beautifully illustrated by Barbara Cooney, won the Caldecott Medal in 1980, just as I was launching my second career as a reading specialist. The Ox Cart Man is a little jewel of an exposition on the cycle of the rural life. The poem follows a farmer to market where he sells his honey, wool, leather, and linen and then..

When the cart is empty he sells the cart.
When the cart is sold he sells the ox, 
harness and yoke and walks
home, his pockets heavy
with the year's coin for salt and taxes,

and at home by fire's light in November cold
stitches new harness 
for next year's ox in the barn,
and carves the yoke, and saws planks
building the cart again.

The Ox Cart Man and other children's books by Hall became fixtures in my classroom library and in my read alouds. Other titles include  I Am the Dog I Am the Cat, When Willard Met Babe Ruth, The Farm Summer 1942 (all illustrated by Barry Moser), The Milkman's Boy (illustrated by Greg Shed), The Man Who Lived Alone (illustrated by Mary Azarian), and Lucy's Summer and Lucy's Christmas (illustrated by Michael McCurdy)

Finally, in the 1980s and 90s, I dove into Donald Hall the poet for adults. While much of Hall's early poetry was colored by the same rural themes of his children's books, his later work evoked images of illness and loss. His wife, the noted poet Jane Kenyon, died of leukemia in 1995, and Hall himself fought a 25 year battle with colon and liver cancer.

This is from Stone Walls written in the 1970s:

Stone walls emerge from leafy ground
and show their bones. In September a leaf
falls singly down, then a thousand leaves whirl
in frosty air. I am wild
with joy of leaves falling, of stone walls
emerging, of return to the countryside
where I lay as a boy
in the valley of noon heat, in the village
of little sounds, where I floated 
out of myself, into the world that lives in the air.

This is a later poem from Hall's collection, The Old Life (1996).


          Curled on the sofa
in the fetal position, Jane wept day 
          and night, night and day.
I could not touch her, I could do nothing.
          Melancholia fell
like the rain over Ireland for weeks
          without end.
                                I never
belittled her sorrows or joshed at
          her dreads and miseries.
How admirable I found myself.

For readers wishing for an introduction to the poetry of Donald Hall, I would recommend the collection, White Apples and the Taste of Stone, Selected Poems, 1946-2006. For a teacher's classroom library, I would recommend any of the picture books mentioned above and most especially a collection that Hall edited, The Oxford Illustrated Book of American Children's Poems.

Thank you. Donald Hall for years and years of good reading, good poetry, and good baseball stories.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Fostering a Love for Reading in Children

A recent article in Education Week Teacher caught my attention. The article "Four Steps to Building a Magnificent Classroom Library", by primary grades teacher, Justin Minkel, offers some solid advice for making sure your in-class library is an effective resource for your students. The first three steps are "Increase diversity", "Match books to student ability", and "Make time for reading." All good ideas, thoroughly explained.

The fourth step that Minkel identifies calls for the teacher to "Build a love of reading." This is critical, of course, but aside from acknowledging its importance, "our job isn't just to teach kids to read, but to do whatever we can to make sure they love to read", Minkel offers few recommendations for how to make this happen. Access to lots of books in a well-constructed classroom library is a good start, but what else can a teacher do to foster that love of reading?

1. Be a Reader

In order to foster young readers, teachers must model how much joy reading brings to them personally. I like to think of teachers as living a literate life that includes reading for personal pleasure, reading books that may be of interest to their own students (to know what to purchase for the classroom library), and reading professional journals and books for personal professional development. Teachers should also take some time to share with students, talking about what they are reading, so that students get a picture of the adult in the room as a literate person.

2. Read Aloud Daily

What better way to share the joy of reading with children than by reading a good book aloud to them every day. Read aloud must be a regularly scheduled part of reading instructional time, not just a special treat or as a cool down exercise after recess, but as a celebration of the rich rewards contained in a good book well-read. Teachers must prepare for read aloud by reading the book and practicing reading with proper fluency, expression. and intonation. I wrote about The Need to Read Aloud here.

3. Provide Lots of Time for Reading in Class

In his article, Minkel highlights time for reading, but it bears reiterating here. Time crunches, test pressure, and over-packed curricula have put the squeeze on instructional time in school, but it remains critical that children have time to read independently and extensively during the school day. You can read my thoughts on this topic in this blog post: Independent Reading: A Research-Based Defense.

4. Conduct Regular Book Talks

As classroom teachers, we have tremendous power in shaping our students' reading interests. One way to use this influence productively is through the book talk. In a book talk, the teacher shares a book that she has read and that she thinks may interest some of the students. The book talk shows the children the book, names the author, and tells the students just enough about the book to whet their appetite and help them know if it may be something they want to read. Book talks may also include a brief read aloud of an interesting passage from the book. Book talks are short and don't give away the endings of books. I recommend book talking several books a week. I set aside 10 or 15 minutes on Monday mornings for book talking. After talking about the book to the kids, I just let them know they are available to be borrowed and leave them on my desk to be perused. They usually disappear by the end of the day. Librarian Nancy Keane offers some tips for book talks here. 

5. Encourage Talk About Books

Kids should be encouraged to share what they have read through talk. Independent reading time might end with a turn and talk where students partner up to share what they are reading and "what stood out for them." Teachers can hold mini-conferences with students during independent reading and invite students to, "Tell me about what you are reading." When students finish a book they nay be invited to do their own book talk about the book for their classmates. Talking about our reading with others improves our comprehension and reinforces the social nature of reading and constructing meaning.

6. Help Kids Get Books in Their Homes

One of the most important reasons for having an excellent classroom library is because we know that access to reading material is critical to the development of lifelong readers. Just as important for creating these lifelong readers are books in the home. Teachers can foster reading in the home by making sure that children get regular trips to the school library to borrow books and by encouraging parents to use the resources of the local public libraries to borrow books. Some teachers set up their own classroom libraries as lending libraries, so that students can also take these books home.

Research by Richard Allington has shown that simply getting books in kids hands over the summer helps counteract the effects of summer loss. Many homes do not have rich literacy resources. School activities that would contribute to getting more books in the home would be extremely worthwhile. Profits from book fairs and other activities might be directed to making sure that vulnerable readers get a few books of their own to take home over the summer.

Teachers can do much to foster a love of reading in their children. Like all worthy learning goals, this instruction must be planned, intentional, explicit, and persistent. Most importantly, it must grow out of the joy the teacher herself gets out of leading the literate life.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Exploding the Canon: Do Students Really Need to Read "The Scarlet Letter"?

Raise your hand if you were assigned reading The Scarlet Letter in high school. Keep your hand up if you actually read it. Continue to keep your hand up if you enjoyed it. I'm betting the raised hands are dwindling.

The Scarlet Letter is one of those works, along with The Great Gatsby, Huckleberry Finn, Lord of the Flies, Hamlet, The Odyssey that make up the "literary canon", those classic texts we are all supposed to read. I was assigned it like everyone else. I didn't read it. Neither did most of my tenth grade classmates. Being a generally compliant student, I tried to read it, but I never got past the first couple of chapters. I suspect that The Scarlet Letter is the most assigned, most unread book in the American high school.

The book presented a great many challenges to my tenth grade mind. The greatest challenge was the archaic language and the drudgery involved in understanding what was going on. The sex, deception and community of nasty people were fine, but I just could not engage with this language and the descriptions.

My story has a happy ending. I passed the test on the book (I was really good at listening in class and was good friends with one kid who actually read it). To this day, while I still haven't read the book,  I can answer virtually any Jeopardy! style question on it. In fact, until this very public confession here, no one has ever brought this hole in my education up to me. My life, even my literary life, has not been severely impacted by my failure to read this book. Which brings me to the question, Why do we keep assigning this book to high school students?

The arguments for reading The Scarlet Letter, or any other classic, are many.
  • It's a classic. It has stood the test of time.
  • It has historical and cultural importance.
  • It has beautiful prose, timeless themes, and compelling characters.
  • If students aren't familiar with the classics, students won't understand allusions to them in every day discourse. You can hardly go a day without some reference to a classic text. If we don't study these works we are leaving kids out of participation in our cultural dialogue.
  • I had to read it, so you should, too.
I don't find any of these arguments to be compelling reasons for high school students to read The Scarlet Letter. I certainly think that college English majors and those studying to be English teachers should read the book - in college or as adults. I do think the idea that students need knowledge of the book in order to engage in everyday discourse that includes allusions to these classics is important, but do we really need to read the book to get this knowledge?

Since a classic book has historical and cultural significance, why not study it historically and culturally, as an artifact? After all, we do not need to refight the Battle of Gettysburg to understand its historical and cultural significance. We study about it. Why not study about The Scarlet Letter and read something more contemporary students might find engaging?

Here is what the culturally literate student needs to know about The Scarlet Letter.

Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Date of Publication: 1850
Genre: Romantic Novel
Setting: Massachusetts Bay Colony, mid-17th century, the Puritan era
Summary: Hester Prynne, imprisoned for adultery, is paraded through town carrying her child, Pearl, sporting a scarlet letter "A" on her dress marking her for her sin. She refuses to tell who the father of her child is, a child recently born, despite her husband being away for two full years. Hester is visited in prison by her husband, who disguises himself as Dr. Roger Chillingworth and orders Hester to remain silent while he ferrets out who the father is. It does not take long for Chillingworth to figure out that the father is the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale is too afraid to confess his sin, but feels great pangs of guilt, not to mention being unnerved by the machinations of Chillingworth. Hester tells Dimmesdale who Chillingworth really is and they plan to escape together to England, but Dimmesdale instead confesses his sins, rips open his shirt to show a scarlet wound on his chest and dies. A year later Chillingworth dies, leaving all his money to Pearl. Hester and Pearl escape to England to begin a new life. Hester eventually returns to Massachusetts proudly wearing her scarlet letter and is buried next to Dimmesdale below a gravestone marked with a scarlet "A."
Major Themes: Revenge, Hypocrisy, Guilt and Blame, Women and Femininity, Sin.

Armed with this knowledge, students should be well prepared to parse any Scarlet Letter allusions that come up in conversation. Instead of reading The Scarlet Letter, students could learn about it. We could also show them a movie version, or an adaptation like the movie, The Easy A, which is a lot of fun.

In the meantime, teachers might be more productively engaged in getting students to actually read books that will pique their interest and contribute more fully to their becoming life long readers. Hawthorne, after all, wrote his book for an audience of adults, not high school sophomores. On the other hand, a book like Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, has beautiful prose, timeless (and similar) themes, compelling characters and was written for young adult readers. All in all, if we are assigning reading to high schoolers, Speak seems like a better choice than The Scarlet Letter.

I won't argue that we should do away with the canonical literature in our classes entirely and only have kids read contemporary works, but I do think it would be wise to limit the assigning of classics to those that may have most resonance for a particular group of students and mix in plenty of high quality contemporary (and diverse) literature designed to engage readers in actually reading the book. I also think we would do a great service to our students by giving them more of a voice in what they actually read. Who knows, many of these contemporary books they do read may be part of the canon some day and they will have a head start.

For more arguments for and against teaching the classics see the article: “A Classic Debate” by Emily Chiariello in Literacy Today, May/June 2017 (Vol. 34, #6, p. 26-29),

Sunday, June 3, 2018

A Thank You to My Readers: 1 Million Strong Today

Today this blog attracted its one millionth reader according to the little counter that Blogger provides to users of their service. While this number is dwarfed by many of the great education bloggers out there, it still marks a big milestone for me. I started this blog in earnest five years ago after some fits and starts. It fulfills a promise I made to myself to write after my retirement, because I felt I still had some things to say about teaching literacy. Over time I also began to address teaching and the politics of public education from a broader perspective.

One million is a mind boggling number. I have been presenting workshops for teachers since the early 1980s and in all that time I have probably reached fewer than 5000 teachers. With this blog I reach that many every week. Amazing.

So thank you to all my readers. I appreciate every single person who has ever clicked on this blog and I hope you have found thoughtful and useful information here. A special thank you to some folks who have championed this blog throughout its run: Diane Ravitch, Dr. Mary Howard, Peter Greene, P.L. Thomas, Steven Singer, Stu Bloom, Jonathan Pelto, Julie  Larrea Borst, and Susan DuFresne. Thanks also to Denny Taylor and Garn Press for reposting my work on the Garn Press web site. Special thanks to friends Erica Spence-Umstead, Tom Barclay, Don Stoll, Darcie Cimarusti, and Carol Burris for continued encouragement. Finally thanks to my wife Cindy, my number one confidant, critic, and co-conspirator.

As a form of celebration, here are five posts, one from each of the five years of the blog's existence, that I think represent what the blog has been all about.

From 2013: Round Robin Reading Must Die - One person's effort to wipe out a ubiquitous, but failed, literacy practice.

From 2014: Fighting Back at Standardized Tests: A Teacher's Guide- What the classroom teacher can do to fight back at the proliferation and abuse of standardized tests.

From 2015: You've Got To Be Taught - One teacher's take on racism, how it is taught in this country, and how it can be untaught in our schools by knowledgeable, caring teachers.

From 2016: 10 Reading Instruction Non-Negotiables - What are the most essential elements of reading instruction?

From 2017: What Kind of Knowledge Does a Teacher Need? - While it is important for teachers to have broad and deep content knowledge, even more important is the knowledge of how to communicate that knowledge to students - pedagogical content knowledge.

Enjoy! And as Shakespeare would say, "Thanks and thanks; and ever thanks.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Folly of Test and Punish Education Reform

In April the NAEP Test scores were released and even the most ardent advocates of test-based education reform had to be disappointed. Scores were, at best, flat, failing to recover from the 2015 drop in scores. Mike Petrilli of the reform minded Fordham Foundation said, "There is no way to sugarcoat it, they [the scores] were extremely disappointing." Reformers scrambled to find explanations. Petrilli blamed the 2008 economic recession for draining schools of money. Funny, reformers have always told us money didn't matter.

The education reformers still don't get it. After twenty-years of attempting to improve public education through policies of testing children and punishing the teaching profession, the reform movement is, in the words of Carol Burris of the Network for Public Education, "a train wreck."

It should now be clear to these reformers that their mix of Common Core standards, test-based accountability, charter schools, vouchers, and vilifying teachers has failed to move the needle on educational improvement. Indeed the achievement gap has only widened. This was entirely predictable to anyone who has spent ten minutes trying to understand the issues related to schools and achievement. Public schools are reflections of the society as a whole. Trying to fix schools without an eye to all the factors that impact on the schools is a fool's errand.

American public education accurately reflects our society as a whole. In affluent suburban areas, children from comfortable homes attend well-appointed, well-staffed schools with a wide range of opportunities for extending their learning. These children largely are healthy, do well in school, on standardized tests, and in life.

In blighted urban areas children from homes where safety and food security are often not available, children with multiple health issues attend dilapidated, often under-staffed schools, with a much narrower band of opportunities, often made narrower by the obsession with test scores in a few subjects. These kids tend to not do well in school, on standardized tests, or in life (These are generalizations, of course. Many children heroically escape the cycle of poverty, but they are exceptions that prove the rule.).

Then there are buffer areas, between affluent suburb and poverty riddled city, where kids go to decent schools that are reasonably well-resourced, where families struggle to make ends meet, but mostly keep their heads above water. These kids do reasonably well in school, get decent standardized test scores, get some post high school education, and have a shot at a good life.

Education author and critic, Alfie Kohn, put it best. Standardized tests offer a "remarkably precise method for gauging the size of the houses near the school where the test was administered." Or as I would like to yell at the education reformers, "It's the poverty, stupid!"

Since public schools are a reflection of the society, any attempt at improving public schools and with narrowing the achievement gap, must focus first of all on that society. We need to understand, as reformers seemed to in the 1960s and 1970s that it is inequity, injustice, and segregation that is damaging our public schools, just as it is damaging every other aspect of society.

Education reformers seem to take the approach that poverty is too hard to fix, so we should focus on the schools, but as the last twenty years have demonstrated, that is absolute folly. The truth is that there is not , nor has there been, an educational crisis in this country. What there is, though, is a human crisis, and what is happening in our schools reflects that human crisis.

If the billionaire reformers would show one third the passion for attacking inequity that they have shown for attacking schools and educators, we might be able to start to repair a broken society and education achievement would follow along.

None of this is meant to say that schools themselves cannot get better or should not be aspiring to do better everyday. Schools and teachers can always do better. I have been teaching for 50 years and have not taught the perfect lesson yet. We can and must always work to do better. It would be easier to implement improvements, however, if non-educators would stop trying to tell us what to do and leave the school improvement to professionals.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Following the Child: What Does that Look Like?

Last week my post, Follow the Child, Not the Program,  discussed the importance of taking our cues from the children we are teaching and not sticking slavishly to a program. This week I got an object lesson in just exactly what this means from my 14-month-old grandson, David. I had the opportunity to babysit David while his mom and dad were working and, it being one of the first really nice days of the spring in these parts, I decided to take him to the playground.  So off we went, car seat, diaper bag, snacks, and water bottles in tow on our little adventure.

Being a life-long teacher and not one to leave things to chance, of course, I had a lesson plan. I had been to this playground before with David's big sister, Schuyler, and I knew that it had a small sliding board that I thought would be just right for David. My plan called for me to introduce David to the sliding board, show him how to safely climb up on it, there were only three small steps, show him how to sit at the top and then guide his practice by helping him down and catching him safely at the bottom. Assessment would be based on the squeals of delight he would surely emit at this great pleasure his grandfather had introduced him to.

My plan broke down when David would have none of it. He did not like sitting at the top of the slide and shook his head, "No!" when I eagerly encouraged him to slide down. No amount of encouragement, cajoling, or insistence would sway him. David rose from his seat at the top of the slide, walked down the steps, indicated something he found interesting he saw off in the distance and toddled off away from me.

I was left to literally "follow the child" off into the field. What had attracted David was a clump of dandelions growing, bright and yellow, in the warm May sunshine, about twenty yards beyond the wood chip pit of the playground equipment. David sat down in the middle of this floral display, pointed to the flowers and said something that sounded like, "See this?" Well, I did see this and our sliding board lesson morphed into a science lesson on the color, shape, smell, construction, taste, and life cycle of the dandelion.

As I sat with David, we talked of yellow flowers and green stems, He tasted the flower, determining he did not care for the taste. I showed David a cottony dandelion gone to seed and how a puff of air made the seeds fly off in all directions. David thought this was terrific and I heard the squeals of delight as he blew on one puff ball and scattered the seeds willy-nilly.

In the end, David had a pleasurable learning experience with dandelions and his grandfather learned again that following the child leads to the most meaningful instruction.

But the classroom teacher can't just follow every child across the dandelion field. Lessons need to be planned and kids need literacy instruction. What does following the child look like in literacy instruction?

Following the child in reading instruction means assessing where the child is in the literacy learning process and then providing the instruction, guidance, prompting, questioning or resources needed by the learner.

So when I worked with struggling first-grade reader, Ryan, who informal assessments had shown me could identify no letters and only knew how to write his own name, and the words mom and dad, I did not start by introducing a letter of the day. I started with the letters r, m, and d in words he already knew how to write and which had special significance for him. Soon we added "t" for his brother Tommy, and then used the first letters of names of his classmates to teach other letters.

One place to follow the child is when we listen to children read. While reading children tell us what they know and don't know about words. As we follow their reading, we learn where to help and where to let them do the work. When readers get stuck we can use prompts to help them use the information available to decode a word. In Reading Recovery we called this "prompting at the point of difficulty" and it is a powerful way to help readers grow more proficient in their decoding. I discussed prompting in this post earlier this year.

One time I had a lesson planned for a guided reading group on a nonfiction book about the Statue of Liberty. Since the school where I was teaching was about 10 miles from Liberty Island, the home of the statue, I assumed the kids had a good deal of background information about the statue. I planned a quick introduction, but as I was presenting this brief introduction, it become apparent that the children did not know what I was talking about. I thought my lesson would founder if the students had so little prior knowledge, so I stopped the lesson and found a brief video online that filled in many of the knowledge gaps I thought the kids would need to read the text successfully.

Sometimes following the child means finding the right resource for them. When I was teaching seventh-grade, I had a reluctant reader named PJ. PJ was all freckles, red-hair, and smiles, until it came time to read, when the smile turned to a scowl and his freckled arms were crossed on his chest in defiance. I spoke to PJ about this. "I really don't like to read," he said.

From my assessments, I knew that PJ read on about a fifth-grade level. I asked, "What do you like?"

"My dog."

"Tell me about your dog."

PJ launched into an enthusiastic exposition of all the great things about his dog, about the fun they had together, about how he had to walk him when he got home form school and how he was responsible for cleaning up after him and feeding him and giving him fresh water every morning.

I walked PJ back to our classroom library. I pulled a copy of Sinbad and Me, by Kin Platt, off the shelf, showed PJ the cover with a boy and his English bulldog, Sinbad. I told PJ a little about the story. Steve and Sinbad were best pals and Sinbad helped Steve solve a mystery, while they got into all sorts of mischief themselves. I said, "Why don't you try it? Let me know what you think?" A week or so later PJ came to me, held up the book and asked, "Do you have anymore like this, Mr. Walsh?" It so happens I did.

Following the child can take many forms. What a teacher needs to do is keep her eyes and ears open. Ask questions. Give kids opportunities to talk. Watch them work. Listen to them read. If we get too tied up in our lesson plans and programmed learning, we may be missing the teachable moments children present to us every day.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Follow the Child, Not the Program

I got into a bit of a twitter spat recently with a well-known literacy expert who reacted strongly to one of my posts. After a bit of back and forth, this person wanted to know about my credentials to discuss the topic asking, "Have you ever taught elementary school children to read?"

I responded that I had taught reading for many years as a reading specialist in grades K-4. Then came this question, "What program did you use?" A question I hear repeatedly and that I never know how to answer. I never used a program. To be sure, my work was influenced by a great many researchers and theorists: Marie Clay, Ken Goodman, P. David Pearson, S.J. Samuels, Patricia Cunningham, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Frank Smith, Lucy Calkins, Louise Rosenblatt. My work was also shaped by my professors: Susan Mandel Glazer, M. Jerry Weiss, Dorothy Strickland, John Clifford, Morton Botel, Susan Lytle, Brian Sutton-Smith, Marilyn Cochrane-Smith.

But I never followed a "program"; I followed the child. I worked primarily with vulnerable readers and writers. Kids for whom programs often had not worked very well. Applying a different program seemed futile. I got all the information I needed by talking with the child, observing the child in literacy and non-literacy situations, conducting interviews with the child, collecting samples of the child's writing, and listening to the child read aloud.

My knowledge of literacy research, theory, and instruction allowed me to make instructional decisions for children and then to try different approaches to help these vulnerable readers. Was the child able to use all the sources of information available to decode a word? Could the child track words on the page? Was the child gathering meaning while reading? Did the child carry a summary of the story forward when turning the page? This information allowed me to construct a picture of the reader and design an instructional approach.

School district administrators are often too quick to jump on (and off) the program bandwagon. If scores are low, it must be the program. Let's try another one. If an individual child is struggling, let's try a different program. Plenty of program publishers are out there ready to take school district money. All these programs have two things in common, 1) a slick presentation designed to convince you (and parents) this is the answer to all literacy learning problems, and 2) they don't work.*

Don't get me wrong, many programs have helped many children come to reading. Children are such skilled language learners, that almost any reasonably well-organized program that offers a balance between decoding instruction, comprehension instruction, actual time for reading of real texts, and teacher read aloud is successful for most.

In the 1950s, I, along with most of my classmates, learned to read using the "look-say" method found in the Our Friends and Neighbors Series (Oh! Look! See Spot run!). Later most students came to reading successfully through a more structured phonics (sound it out) approach such as that in the DISTAR program in the 1960s and 70s. The 1980s and 90s saw the growth of the constructivist approach, which emphasized making meaning and the reading of real literature with decoding instruction as needed. Again most kids learned to read. In the late 1990s and into the present, under the pressure of No Child Left Behind and Reading First, the emphasis returned to a focus on direct instruction focused on phonics. Again most children learned to read well enough.

Throughout all of these movements, however, one thing has persisted. Some children, about 15-20%, have struggled to learn to read well. No program has really been able to break through that number, despite the claims of Orton-Gillingham, Wilson Reading, Fundations, and other programs. Why? There are many reasons why children might struggle: learning disabilities, language differences, the impact of poverty, poor instruction, etc. Because the causes are complex, the answers to how to help these kids are also complex. Programs can't respond to this complexity (especially when they lack a balanced approach), but teachers can. If we want to bring a higher percentage of kids to literacy, we need to invest in our teachers, not in programs.

What would that investment look like? Most new teachers graduate from college with a limited understanding of literacy because they simply do not get enough instruction in how it works and how to teach it. This lack of knowledge leaves the novice vulnerable to every program that comes down the pike that promises results. So, one answer is more literacy instruction for prospective teachers.

Even more important, though, is more embedded professional development for teachers in their own school buildings and in the classroom as they are teaching. Recent moves toward having literacy coaches work with teachers in the classroom hold promise. Unfortunately, these coaching sessions have often focused on getting teachers to implement a program with fidelity, rather than with helping teachers meet student needs through better understanding of literacy instruction overall.

In the book, Research Based Practices for Teaching Common Core Literacy, Hoffman and Pearson argue that to improve literacy instruction schools need to invest in their teachers and not in programs. They suggest the following strategies are associated with improving teacher ability to meet the needs of students.
  • Concrete, teacher specific, and extended training
  • Classroom assistance from local staff
  • Teacher observation of other teachers using similar instructional strategies
  • Regular meetings of teachers focused on literacy instructional practice
  • Teacher participation in decision making related to literacy instruction
  • Local development of instructional materials
  • Principals' participation in training
Programs don't teach children literacy; teachers do. Wise administrators invest in their teachers, not in programs. Wise teachers follow the child, because the informed observation of a child's reading behaviors will always tell knowledgeable teachers what instruction is needed.

*I know stating that these programs don't work will upset many, but don't take my word for it. The US Department of Education has been unable to identify any "remedial" program that successfully improves reading ability except for Reading Recovery, which is not a program, but an instructional approach that is the foundation of balanced literacy. The Orton-Gillingham approach has been around since the 1930s and yet we still have students who struggle and no independent research that shows that Orton-Gillingham and its related programs (Wilson, Stevenson) works to improve reading. It may help some improve decoding ability, which is not actual reading improvement. Some folks will say that if teachers would only apply their program with fidelity, it would work. This is just another way of saying the program doesn't work. If the program can't be applied successfully, in practice it doesn't work.