Monday, March 29, 2021

The Reading Helper

I have a teaching certificate that says I am a qualified Teacher of Reading, and Reading Specialist and Supervisor, but from the time I got a certain Valentine's Day card from a student in 1993 I have thought of myself as a Reading Helper. That card was from a second grade vulnerable reader named Danielle who had been my student since that September. The cover of the hand made card was full of many colored hearts and flowers and said, of course, "Happy Valentine's Day." Inside was a message that I will never forget and which has defined my work ever since: "Thank you for hleping me read. Love, Danielle" Yes, exactly, "hleping." Danielle still had some spelling reversals crop up from time to time. But the message could not have been clearer. I was being thanked for helping and it meant the world to me.

As I reflected on this note, I began to realize that Danielle's message was truly profound. Danielle had made progress in reading, and I had helped, but Danielle was the one who did most of the work in her great improvement. She needed some help, but she had to do the hard work. I think it is important that we all remember this. Most of the hard work of becoming a reader is done by the reader. We can help, but skilled reading is mostly a matter of the individual spending highly engaged time in the act of reading, making meaning, figuring out words, solving problems along the way.

When vulnerable readers need help, reading helpers provide it. Here are some ways I think we can provide that help.

Vulnerable readers are children first and we need to get to know the child, their interests, their passions, their worries, their hopes, their dreams first. Share with the child your own passions, worries, hopes and dreams as well. Relationships are two way streets. It. may not seem like instruction to just sit and talk, but it is a prerequisite for the reading helper.

Know Lots of Books

A reading helper needs to know a wide variety of books on a wide variety of topics and a wide variety of reading levels to make knowledgeable recommendations to vulnerable readers. It is important to be able to say, "I think I know a book you will like."

Watch and Listen

For the reading helper, diagnosis is accomplished by knowledgeable observation of the child in the act of reading and other literacy activities (writing, spelling, choosing a book, sitting and reading). That means lots of listening to the child read and lots of analysis of that reading. Running Records are an excellent format for this, but sometimes just sitting and watching while the child reads can yield useful information.

Target Instruction

Watching and listening provide information for targeted instruction. Reading helpers need to focus on one or two key instructional points per session. Build slowly and celebrate small successes. Be sure to focus on decoding and comprehension and teach intentionally for fluency development.

Follow Instruction with Choice Reading

Build in time for the child to do some reading from a book of their own choosing, perhaps books that have been the focus of instruction previously or a book from a browsing box you have developed with the child. Note how the child is doing with applying the targeted instruction for the day.

Advocate for the Student

Communicate to the classroom teacher and the parents about what you have learned about the child, their reading challenges, and your recommendations for how they can help. Try to insure that teaching points are reinforced in the regular classroom and work to have the parent provide a time for reading and listening at home.

Increase the Complexity of the Tasks

Try not to belabor instructional goals, even if they don't seemed to be mastered. Move to more complex tasks and more difficult reading tasks, cautiously, but with the intention of continuing forward momentum. If fluency or understanding are lost, double back to reinforce previous teaching points.

Focus on Will and Skill

Motivation to read is built on interest and success. As the reading helper your job is to help the child identify books that they want to read and that they can read. Most of what a reader will learn about reading will occur while the reader is engaged in real reading. Make sure that real reading happens as often as possible. Every successful encounter with an unknown word and every successful attempt to make sense of the reading, reinforces your teaching and extends the reader's knowledge of reading. Engaged, independent reading is critical to success.

My work with Danielle resulted, as many of my encounters with students did in those days, in a poem. The poem was published in The Reading Teacher, in March 1995 (Volume 48, No. 6).


As I flash, all business, into the room. 
I am stopped by her doe-eyed expectancy.
The tilt of the head, the turn of the nose,
The shy-happy, half-lip smile of greeting.
Pleased to see me.

"Can I read to you today, Mr. R?
I practiced last night."
Her baby radiance lifts my bone-achy
Early morning fog.

"Yes, Danielle, read to me.
Read to me of dreams fulfilled."

"Well, I only have this book about a cat."

"That will do nicely, Danielle."

Monday, March 22, 2021

Reading Aloud for Better Human Understanding: Asian-American Picture Books

Prejudice and hate crimes against Asian-Americans are not new in the United States, unfortunately, but the recent increase in bias related crimes against this segment of the American population reminds us that anti-bias efforts remain critical. The need to address the issues head on is made doubly important when political leaders are among the principal spreaders of this unreasoned hatred. One way to combat prejudice is through knowledge and understanding and one good way to spread knowledge and understanding is through a good book. Here are some great picture books that will help young readers learn about their Asian-American classmates and neighbors.

Long one of my favorite read alouds for children in grades 2-5, Angel Child, Dragon Child, by Michelle Maria Serat, with pictures by Vo-Dinh Mai, tells the story of Ut, recently arrived in the United States from Vietnam. Ut is teased by her new classmates for her different language and different clothes. School is a sad, dispiriting experience and home is a place where she misses her mother who has not made the journey with the family. Ut eventually makes an unlikely friend at school, a boy who was her chief tormentor, and the school community eventually unites around Ut and her family. Wonderful soft pencil and watercolor illustrations enhance the story.

In Grandfather's Journey, the great artist and story teller, Alan Say, recounts his own cross-cultural experience as a man who loves to countries. When in America, he misses Japan, when in Japan he misses his home in America. His grandfather, who made the journey from home in Japan to new home in America, would understand. A Caldecott medal winner. Don't miss it.

Coolies, by Yin, with phenomenal illustrations by Chris Sontpiet, tells the story of the Chinese immigrants to America who came to help build the transcontinental railroad. Arriving full of wonder and hope, Shek and his brother, Little Wong, find back breaking labor, harsh discrimination, and dangerous conditions in the railroad labor camps. The story, based on historical events, becomes a testament to these workers' courage and perseverance. The richly detailed pictures make the story even more unforgettable and compelling.

Just published this year, Eyes that Kiss in the Corner, by Joanna Ho, with drawings by Dung Ho, is a powerful reminder of the importance of a positive self-image for all young people. When a young Asian girl notices the difference between her eyes and the eyes of the other children in her class, she draws on the strength of her mother and grandmother to come to an understanding that her eyes are special and beautiful and filled with stories from the past and hope for the future.

An old, much loved favorite is Taro Yashima's Caldecott Honor winning tale of the Crow Boy. Chibi, or "tiny boy", is a strange boy in school. He was afraid of the teacher and could not learn a thing. He was afraid of the other children and could not make friends. The other children in school called him stupid and slowpoke. But day after day, year after year, Chibi came trudging to school. Finally, Chibi finds a teacher who understands him. Mr. Isobe discovers Chibi's special gifts. When Chibi shows off his ability to imitate the sounds of birds, the children are amazed and saddened by how much they had mistreated Chibi all those years. A character and a story to remember, with a universal message. 

A good book, well read. A kind word. A conversation about how we are all so very different and yet all so much the same. These are conversations we must be having with children right now. Hate and mistrust cannot be our legacy. When we grow to understand our different cultures, our different histories, our different physical features, we reduce the chances for hate to take root. What a wonderful goal for an author, an illustrator, and a teacher. 

Monday, March 15, 2021

Henny Penny Discovers Learning Loss

It was a difficult year in the barnyard with all the animals confined to their own homes because of a mysterious and devastating avian flu. Henny Penny, cooped up in her humble abode with a half dozen chicks scurrying about unable to go to school, was at her wits' end. She barricaded herself in the TV room and turned on Foxy News. There she heard a report from an education expert, one Chester Tester, that the entire barnyard was going down the tubes due to an outbreak of  "learning loss."

Henny Penny flew into a panic. She flung open the door calling to the chicks, "You are losing learning. You are losing learning. Hurry we must find it." Henny Penny and her chicks scurried around the chicken house looking for their learning. The looked under the beds of straw. They looked in the kitchen. They searched the family room. They even rifled through the medicine cabinet, but they could not find their learning. 

Finally, Henny Penny FaceTimed her friend, Ducky Lucky. "Ducky Lucky," said Henny Penny, "I just heard on Foxy News that my chicks are losing their learning."

"Oh, no!" said Ducky Lucky. "If your chicks are losing their learning, mine must be, too. Our friend Goosey Loosey is here, let's see what she thinks."

Goosey Loosey came onto the FaceTime call. Henny Penny said, "The chicks are losing their learning! The chicks are losing their learning!"

Goosey Loosey said, "You know, I haven't seen my chicks carrying their learning around in weeks. I think they must have lost their learning, too. It's a community problem. We need a Zoom meeting with all the animals in the barnyard."

Goosey Loosey, who was the best organized of the three, sent out a Zoom invitation to Turkey Lurkey, Drakey Lakey, Goosey Gander, and Foxy Woxy. At first the Zoom meeting was a disaster with each of the animals clucking at the same time and Goosey Gander having microphone issues, but finally Henny Penny shouted over the din, "Our children are losing their learning! Our children are losing their learning! What can we do?"

Everybody started clucking and cackling again until Foxy Loxy intoned in a deep clear voice, "I can help you."

"What can you do?" the concerned parents all asked at once.

"Well, first we need to measure the learning that has been lost," said Foxy Loxy. 

"How do you do that?" they asked.

"Oh, with a great big standardized learning loss test," said the sly fox. "I have one ready to go."

"But what if the test shows they have learning loss?" asked Turkey Lurkey.

"Oh, well then, my den of learned foxes will offer the chicks intensified tutoring and summer school. It really works wonders," enthused the fox.

"That sounds pretty expensive," said Goosey Gander who was always worried about money.

"Oh, no!" said Foxy Loxy slyly, "all you need to do is let my group of foxes into the hen house."

Foxy Loxy smiled and licked his lips. The group of concerned parents murmured to each other in concern for their chicks. They were about to agree, when Drakey Lakey spoke up.

"Wait a minute. Are we sure our children have lost their learning? I know a year away from the schoolhouse is concerning. And I know the online learning is not as good as beak to beak learning, but just what are we worried about here. Our children are learning lots of things. They have learned how to make the best of a bad situation. They have learned how we all need to pitch in to help each other. They have learned to wear masks in public. They have learned a lot about communicable diseases. They may have different learning this year, but is that the same as losing learning?  Before we let the foxes into the hen house, we better be sure there is a big problem."

The Zoom meeting went silent. Goosey Loosey shut down Foxy Loxy's Zoom feed. She said, "You know maybe we have bigger things to worry about than learning loss. I am going to go read my chicks a book."

For some serious reading about the silliness of learning loss check out Peter Greene's collection of the best pieces on the topic here.

Monday, March 8, 2021

Read Alouds for Social Justice: The Right to Vote and Combatting "The Big Lie"

This past Sunday was the anniversary of  "Bloody Sunday," the attack on peaceful protestors on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama that resulted in many marchers, including future Congressman John Lewis, being beaten nearly to death. Those marchers were seeking the most basic of American rights, the right to vote. Not long after Selma, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was supposed to protect everyone's right to vote. Much of that landmark legislation was gutted by the Supreme Court in a 2013 decision, and that action brought on a new round of attempts to suppress voters. The Big Lie propagated by former President Trump and his followers, asserting that the latest presidential election was rigged, has now led to 23 states again trying to limit our voting rights. 

Picture books and read alouds have an important role to play in informing children about the importance of voting, the sacrifice others have made so we can vote, and the actions we need to take to make sure that the right to vote is protected. He are some favorites.

For The Teachers March! authors Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace interviewed the Reverand F. D. Reese, a principal and teacher and a leader of the Voting Rights Movement in Selma , Alabama, along with several other teachers and their families. The interviews make for a compelling story. It is the story of a group of Black teachers who walked off their jobs on January 22, 1965 to march for the right to vote. Charley Palmer's vibrant illustrations bring the story to life.

In Lillian's Right to Vote, we get the story of an elderly woman's determination to make her voice heard. As she climbs a tall hill to her polling place, Lillian remembers the sacrifices her family made to ensure that this precious right would be hers. The book is a 50th anniversary tribute to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Author Jonah Winter uses the hill that Lillian must climb to beautifully evoke the struggles of her ancestors to reach their goal. The pictures are by Coretta Scott King Award Winner Shane W. Evans.

In So You Want to Be President, veteran non-fiction author Judith St. George and Caldecott winning illustrator , David Small, combine for this updated version of the classic picture book that helps children learn what it takes to be the president. The book shares not just the humanity of our presidents, but some of the characteristics that make each of them unique. The illustrations are laugh out loud funny.

Senator Kristin Gillibrand of New York brings us the story  of ten heroes who won women the right to vote. The book highlights not only the stories of well known women like Susan B. Anthony and  Ida B. Wells, but lesser known names like Alice Paul and Mary Church Terrell. Gillibrand demonstrates that each woman has a lesson to teach us about courage and determination. The witty illustrations are by famed New Yorker cover artist, Maira Kalman.

This biography of Ida B. Wells by one of my favorite authors for young people, Walter Dean Myers, tells the story of the remarkable career of the African American journalist, abolitionist, and feminist who led a powerful anti-lynching campaign and later became involved in the fight for women's suffrage despite the opposition of some of her white suffragist colleagues. Myers' story highlights Ida's courage and persistence, while Bonnie Chritensen's watercolors provide rich historical detail.

Our right to vote is precious. It is never too early to read and learn about how that right has been fought for and defended throughout our history. 

Monday, March 1, 2021

Read Aloud Treasures: The Wit and Wisdom of William Steig

Most children these days are well versed in the adventures of  Shrek!  from the Dreamworks movie franchise and the Broadway musical, but Shrek!, of course, first lived in the very fertile, active, and definitely quirky mind of children's book author and illustrator, William Steig. Steig is a fascinating character himself. He did not write his first children's book until he was in his 60s, but by that time he was world famous as a cartoonist for The New Yorker. His books for children are witty, wacky, wonderful, and slightly off center. Here are some of my favorites for read aloud. Reading these books to children always spurred great follow-up conversations.

Steig's first picture book finds sweet voiced troubadour, Roland, traveling the country to share his songs and stories. A scheming fox named Sebastian fools the trusting Roland and almost roasts him over a fire, until he is rescued by the King. The fox is "put in the dungeon, where he lives the rest of his years on nothing but stale bread, sour grapes and water." Steig establishes his distinctive style with the animals in this story.

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble may be Steig's most famous book. It won the Caldecott Medal for 1970 and shows Steig's  mastery of the personified animal cartoon format. Sylvester finds a magic pebble and in a panic makes a foolish wish and turns himself into a rock. After a long time and with growing loneliness, he is finally reunited with his family when his rock form self thinks, "I wish I were my real self again."

The warm and witty story of Doctor DeSoto  is a sure crowd pleaser. Dr. DeSoto, the mouse, is a dentist who is careful not to treat "dangerous animals, but one day a fox shows up. Children are delighted to find out how the dentist mouse outfoxes the hungry fox.

Plucky Irene braves a terrible snowstorm to deliver the dress her ill mother has made  for the duchess. Along the way Irene faces many hardships, particularly from the wicked wind, but she prevails to get the dress to its destination. It is impossible to read this book without cheering Brave Irene on.

Were there ever two more unlikely or more devoted friends than Amos, the mouse, and Boris, the whale?  The two friends meet when Amos goes off on an ocean adventure and is rescued by Boris. Soon Boris needs the help of his friend Amos, when he is in danger. Along with Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel, this is one of the great books about friendship and loyalty you will ever read.

Today would be a good day to share the special pleasures of a William Steig picture book with your students/children.