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.