Thursday, October 16, 2014

How "Well" Is Your Reading Instruction? A Review of Reading Wellness by Burkins and Yaris

In their new book, Reading Wellness (Stenhouse, 2014),  Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris want to help teachers keep their eyes on the true prize of reading proficiency: an enriched life. The authors, both former teachers who have become influential voices in the literacy field through their blog, Burkins and Yaris - Think Tank for the 21st Century Literacy, worry that the current mania surrounding standards and accountability will draw teacher's attention away from a broader vision of students as readers and people. They offer up a book of practical lessons and knowing advice to help teachers stray true to their literate selves and true to their students literacy needs in the strange new world that is education in the 21st century.

The authors frame the text around four basic tenets that guide their work with children and teachers and that they believe guide the work of all teachers. They call these tenets "intentions." These intentions are ideals that are universal and that predate the standards movement.
  • Intention 1: We intend toward alignment with our inner teacher - For Burkins and Yaris alignment with our inner teacher will serve as a check to an alignment that is only narrowly focused on standards. This means that we teach with our highest purpose for teaching in mind - a focus on lifelong learning. When we align with our inner teacher,we keep our eyes on what research says about moving children from dependence to independence as readers and learners.
  • Intention 2: We intend towards balance - This intention requires us to balance our attention to the demands of standards and accountability, that is the expectations of others, with our own intentions directed toward life-long learning. Balance requires a marriage of the goals of the inner teacher with the immediate considerations of accountability. A teacher may be required to use a certain curriculum or program, but the teacher must balance these requirements with the bigger picture goals of the inner teacher.
  • Intention 3: We intend toward sustainability - Because we live in a world of constant time constraints, we must prioritize lessons that teach ways of learning that can grow into other lessons. These high value lessons answer the question, "How does this lesson make students more "well" as readers?" In this context, I understand Burkins and Yaris to mean "well" as adept at the skill of reading, but also filled with the will to read.
  • Intention 4: We intend toward joy - If our reading lessons are to inspire lifelong learners they must energize the teacher and the students and fill the classroom with energy and inspiration. Joy is an indispensable ingredient in lifelong literacy.
Moving from this framework, Burkins and Yaris offer clearly laid out and field tested lessons to put their intentions into action. The lessons focus on helping students identify their passions and the books that may feed those passions; the rewards of really hard reading work; the interaction between print and meaning; an approach to close reading they call "mindfulness"; and building reading stamina.

The lessons are creative, thoughtful and would be sure to enhance any teachers repertoire of reading instruction practices. Each lesson is accompanied with a chart that sets out a long and short range purpose, standards alignment, time frame, materials and procedure. While these charts are very helpful, it is important to read the explanations that the authors offer because these explanations imbue the lessons with the spirit with which they need to be delivered.

The final chapter is entitled Joy - Reading More for the Love of It. As I work with teachers around the country, even in a conversation with some teachers in New Jersey yesterday, I hear a consistent fear for the loss of the joy of teaching and the joy of learning. Burkins and Yaris encourage us to reclaim joy. They remind us that reading wellness is more than just about numbers, true reading wellness is about the transformative power and sheer joy that can be provided by a good book. Lessons in this chapter focus on helping children see how reading makes them feel good. If this chapter on joy were the only chapter in the book, the book would still be well worth the price.

Ultimately, Burkins and Yaris, want to help literacy teachers to move beyond the expectations of others - close reading, identifying main ideas, and all the aspects of reading writ small - and to keep our eyes on READING writ large, that READING that enriches our lives and that we hope will enrich the lives of our students.

Buy the book. Try out the lessons. Infuse joy into your reading instruction. Doing so will take your teaching beyond standards and accountability to joy.

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