One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure

Those of us in the education world understand that all it takes is a good hook to pull in an audience.  So it was that I sat with bated breath in anticipation at the AMLE conference for the session entitled “Let Them Read Trash: The Power of Marginalized Texts to Promote Imagination, Satisfaction and Social Action.”  I had no idea that Jeffrey Wilhelm was an accomplished English professor at Boise State University, nor did I know he was an accomplished author of books including Engaging Readers and Writers With Inquiry, You Gotta Be the Book, and Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys.  What I did know was that this was a provocative title, and I was curious about the premise.

The session did not disappoint.  I found Wilhelm to be a gifted speaker with a compelling message, all backed up by research, his experience with his own eighth grade class, and statements from his students about their experience.  Early in the session Wilhelm asked attendees to rank the following reasons for reading literature:

___ 1. To help young people explore their own feelings about literature

___ 2. To help young people explore their own feelings and understandings about their personal experiences

___ 3. To introduce students to great literary treasures

___ 4. To introduce students to other cultures, especially those distant from their experience

___ 5. To provide a meaningful context for learning to read

___ 6. To develop students’ aesthetic sensibilities

___ 7. To develop critical thinking and writing skills

___ 8. To learn to “read the world” from a critical perspective

___ 9. To discuss and come to deeper understandings of timeless themes such as love, loss, identity, heroism, etc.

___ 10. To create an opportunity to discuss contemporary issues

___ 11. To help students think for themselves, and to create their own philosophies of life and living

___ 12. To help students to “live through” experiences that are distant from them in time, place and experience, therefore widening and deepening their experience.

___ 13. Other?:

 After that excercise, Wilhelm contended that unless #3 was a high priority, it did not matter whether teachers used the classics as a vehicle vs. any other literature that students would read.  He went on to claim that many students who are gamers in their free time speak of game characters in much the same way as one might discuss literary characters.  (This seems like quite a stretch to me, and seems contrary to the goal of getting kids to read, but I do see how games could be used to discuss contemporary issues, etc.)

The discussion reminded me of my own guilty pleasures (or in Willhelm’s jargon, my own meaningful trash): an episode of Two and a Half Men.  In the episode, Jake, the slacker son who both dislikes and is not good at school, is supposed to be doing a book report on Lord of the Flies.  His father not only can’t get Jake to read the book, he can’t even bring him to read the Cliff’s Notes.  At the same time, Jake’s Uncle Charlie is writing the theme song to one of Jake’s favorite graphic novels, Oshikuru – Demon Samurai.  He gives Charlie a stinging critique of his jingle: “Did you even read the comic?  It’s about a teenage boy in a futuristic society, who’s possessed by the tortured soul of a feudal Japanese warrior condemned to walk the earth fighting the evil that he once embodied.  He lives in dark world.  He battles the spirits of the damned.  Your theme doesn’t capture the mood at all.  It just blows.”  Jake and his critique would be easy to dismiss as the rantings of a fictional character, except I have heard kids talk like this — deeply, and emotionally –on a number of occasions about things that they care about.  And I have frequently seen those same kids frustrated about the “stupid book” that they “have to read” in class.  It is obvious that Jake is willing to apply the same skills required to analyze high-brow literature, he just doesn’t want to do so with The Lord of the Flies.  At some point the question becomes: Which is more important, applying the skills of analysis, or reading that particular book?

To me, the whole point is that we need a way to set the hook.  Whether that is finding a way to make classics appealingly and meaningfully relatable to our students, or allowing them to develop important skills and conceive critical thoughts through different vehicles, is really immaterial.  Regardless, we must bring the horse to the water AND make him drink.  I can’t imagine not reading Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, et al, and yet it seems that a balance can be struck allowing choice and multiple genres to be part of the menu.  Then, in the immortal words of Charlie Sheen, we’ll all be “Winning!”

So, I’m curious…which of Wilhelm’s 13 reasons for teaching literature is your number one?  Can reading trash accomplish the same thing, or is this idea headed for the sanitation station?

The Best 20 Minutes of the Day

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry to say that’s the end of the best 20 minutes of the day.”  Thus ended the SSR session I attended yesterday in one of our classrooms.

It’s a bold statement, yet one that was met without argument.  In fact, teachers report that students enter some form of stupor from which it’s difficult to roust them, so it should be no surprise that there was no protest to the claim.  It’s funny, really.  These digital natives and the rest of their generation are frequently accused of entering a transe-like state when playing video games — rightfully so, I should say — and it is frequently suggested that the result of their multi-media immersion is a short attention span.  It seems to me, however, that these same children, when allowed to read from books of their own choosing in a supportive environment, become just as engrossed.  Is attention span the real culprit? 

But if calling 20 minutes of uninterrupted reading the best part of a child’s (or teacher’s) day is bold, it is also humble.  It takes humility to admit that the number of activities and programming that a faculty plans for students on any given day may be less enticing than curling up with a good book.  It takes humility to be willing to give up 20 minutes a day of quality instruction under the notion that students will be better off in the long run.  It truly takes an enlightened and confident individual to admit that.

Research continues to indicate that individuals who read academically outperform those who do not in every way measurable.  While I’m happy that this research exists, it strikes me much as research that indicates people who eat less and exercise more tend to lose weight and be physically fit.  Well, duuuuh!  What is surprising, however, is that it does not seem to matter what people read, it just matters that people read.  Recognizing that school is often cited as the reason people stop reading, and developing strategies to not only avoid having students stop, but to truly embrace and encourage reading through modeling and making it a priority is critical.  After all, schools across the land claim the mission of creating lifelong learners.  If there is a shred of truth that we hold that mission dear, then setting aside time to read in our day is the least we can do.  And if, along the way, we can convince our students that it is the best 20 minutes of their day, we will have really accomplished something.  Except if we do it correctly, students will prove us wrong by making reading the best 40, 60 or 80 minutes of their day!

Bad Dad

It wasn’t the first time, and probably won’t be the last, but I failed as a dad last night.  My older son excitedly brought his spiral notebook into the room exclaiming that he wanted me to read the second paragraph of his essay.  This is a left-brained leaning boy, one who rarely, if ever, talks about writing, so I was a bit surprised and eager to read what he wanted to show me. 

I took the notebook in my post-Open House, supine position and began to read aloud.  Well, sort of.  My son’s words flowed from my lips as smoothly as a fifteen year-old drives a stick shift for the first time.  In the mountains.  The poor boy has his dad’s handwriting skills, and the scrawl was simply illegible.  I sounded like an emergent reader pausing every few words, waiting for someone to help me sound it out.

My next challenge was to decipher meaning amidst the randomly placed commas in one of his more developed sentences.  After clarifying what he meant to say, I next directed him to rewrite that particular sentence and to remove some commas while adding others elsewhere.  Unfortunately, because it was handwritten, there was no room for an extended edit.

I asked him why he had written it in his notebook as opposed to using his laptop.  This is a somewhat frequent question of mine, and on top of my other suggestions and comments, was not exceptionally well received.  His labored response: “That’s what we were supposed to do.”  My son continued, “Besides, he told us it had to be a page long, and a handwritten page is not nearly as long as a typed one.”  He left off the word, “duh,” but as a linguist with vast experience in the world of teen dialect, I’m led to believe that it was implied.

The truth of the matter is that I was asking the wrong person.  As I compose this post, I am writing, re-writing, revising, cutting and pasting, moving some paragraphs, inserting others, exchanging words, etc.  (I used to do some of these things on my yellow legal pad, drawing arrows across the page, scribbling sections out, and writing in the margins.  In the end, it looked like one mysterious hieroglyph.)  One simply cannot do these things well on paper, and it can’t be done at all without completely re-writing the entire thing at the end.  All things considered, to not encourage students (or even coerce them) to use digital tools is malpractice for a writing teacher, isn’t it?  To teach writing today without offering the ability to easily edit, and without directly teaching the practice while using those tools, is simply mis-educating.  Often times we educators find ourselves grading finished products instead of actively teaching the writing process.  It’s a shame that we don’t do less of the former, and more of the latter.

Of course, all of the finger pointing in the world won’t change the fact that I completely messed up the moment.  My faux pas of not embracing the opportunity to hear his writing without offering editorial comment was a big one, and left me hoping that someday I would get another chance.

Do as We Say, Not as We Do?

My weekly updates to staff always include a quote, typically from something I’m reading at the time.  Last week’s quote came from Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide, and it read:

“My students are always reading two books at a time: one that requires a teacher to be in the room, and one that is a high-interest, fun read.  Ignoring the recreational side of reading is a recipe for readicide.  Both sides of reading – the academic and the recreational – need extensive emphasis.”

One of our teachers replied to me and said that she loved the quote in the update, and then asked rhetorically how many of our teachers I thought were always reading two books, one professionally and one for fun.  People who know me well realize that I’ve never come across a rhetorical question that I didn’t think required an answer, and now I evidently think I need to take you on the trip with me.  (Well, the first step to overcoming the problem is admitting you have it, right?)

If I were to guess, I would say that most educators are not constantly and simultanelously engaged in reading for work and for pleasure.  The number one obstacle to reading books (professional or personal) is, of course, grading.  So to suggest that teachers aren’t voracious readers is to oversimplify — if student work counts, we read our tails off!  Having said that, though, it is problematic that as a group we don’t read more books than we do, and reading professionally and for pleasure is almost certain to only happen in the summer.

It’s also interesting that professional literature for teachers is at least a two-headed monster.  We must stay in touch with information our content areas (think of the scientific developments of the last 20 years, technological advances, or simply keeping up with current events and societal shifts), and then there is the pedagogical side, which is completely different territory.  So to truly be at the top of our game, our professional literature would include works from both of these strands.

That’s a tall order.

As I reflect on my own practice while in the classroom, I realize that I read anything about my content area (German) that I could get my hands on.  Pleasure reading is a tough concept to determine when one loves one’s subject area — when I read a German literature work, it was kind of both for me.  But for the sake of argument, if that didn’t count for pleasure reading, then periodicals (Time, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, Smithsonian and the Indianapolis Star) would be my only source of reading.  Does that count?  (For the record, and to again answer a rhetorical question, I vote “yes.”)

However, I never (NEVER!) read any works about pedagogy.  As I transitioned to the principalship, this fact became obvious to me.  My fellow principals would quote books and authors left and right, and I was left there smiling, nodding, and noting my insufficiencies.  Several years later (more than I’d like to admit!), I don’t feel that way anymore, but it took an intentional, concerted effort to do so.

So as I consider the question of whether my own current reading practice could serve as a model for our students, I think I could honestly say yes.  (I also don’t have papers to grade, but I think I can give myself a pass on that — I do attend a handful of athletic contests, music concerts, board meetings, parent gathering, etc.  And it might even be fair to say that I have to respond to an e-mail or two along the way!)  But I also must admit that I have to be cognizant of it, and to deliberately ensure that it happens.

Am I in the majority or minority?  I really don’t know.  I do know that it is critical to remain lifelong learners, and not just espouse the practice.

I would love to know your practices.  What do you read?  How often do you read?  How do you make time to do it?  (Oh, by the way, those are not rhetorical questions!)

My Precious Dots

dotI have written quite a bit over the past year about creating an audience for student work, and how meaningful it is to students.  Now, admittedly, most of the time I say “writing” instead of “work” because I think writing is so important to what we do, but the truth of the matter is that an image of artwork, or a sound file of a music piece, or an image from a science lab are all examples of items that students could exhibit, and they have the potential to experience more meaning if they have an audience for that work.

Now this is a feeling that I have had for a long time, but never did I become more aware of it than a short time ago when my Clustrmaps reset on my blogs.  (They reset automaticaly after one year.)  It happened, interestingly enough, at a time in which my writing on this blog (Conner’s Corner) and my other main blog (Principal Thoughts) was relatively unprolific, and thus, there was really nothing to draw new readers to them.  So my map that once looked like this:



was suddenly vacated and dot-free.  Even worse, it stayed dot-free for a while.  I felt unloved.  Eventually I realized that I was really feeling a loss of what I had acquired over the year, even if it was just a visual representation.  I had felt keenly aware of my audience, appreciated it, and was motivated to write in order to keep it. And then, it was gone.

Of course, learning should be something intrinsic, and shouldn’t require any outside motivation.  But who among us would suggest that a little motivation would be a bad thing?  Moreover, many of the student work items I mentioned above are specifically designed to have an audience and produce a reaction.  Unfortunately, as the saying goes, if a tree falls in the forest…

There are many ZMS kids who inspire me with their work.  One of my favorite examples is Abbey.  She began blogging two years ago, and does it just because she likes to share her thoughts with others, and inspire other kids to write and follow their passions.  Her Clustrmap amazes me, and it shows that she understands not only how to create her own audience, but also that she feels empowered to make a difference with other kids.  The support director for Edublogs writes her often, and has recently requested her to act as a mentor for other student bloggers around the world.  How great is that?  What started as a 6th grade class activity has turned into her being an 8th grade expert for kids around the world.  If you don’t believe the “expert” part, look at her awards.  If you don’t believe the “around the world” part, look at her map.  And did I mention that the director, Miss W, is from Australia?

As I type this post, I do so with the knowledge that 257 people have visited the new ZMS Blog so far today.  I have had 2 comments made on my most recent post on my Principal Thoughts blog today.  I have to admit that I’m excited by both of these facts!  So, yes, I miss my dots, but I’m having fun getting them back.  And I’m really enthused to have a group of kids creating most of the material for our ZMS Blog.  They ask me every day how many visitors we’ve had, and they work their tails off every day on this “extra assignment.” 

In the final analysis, I know that with these digital tools and all that they offer, we are connecting more than dots.

Remote Control

tivo_remoteAfter the invention of the TV remote — yes, most of my childhood had passed by then — watching the television with my dad in the room could be stressful.  Every commercial break turned our livingroom into a clickerpalooza, and dad often lost track of what we were watching to begin with.  As soon as I got interested in one thing, click, and we were off to another.  I’ve had flashbacks recently, because it seems that so many things are coming at us educators, and before we’re done with them, click, here comes something else.  I offer below the thoughts that have been bouncing around my head like dad looking for something good to watch.  Click.

I read a post by Bruce Dixon about 1:1 programs being a means to an educational end, not an end in and of themselves.  I could not agree more, and feel that we need to do all we can to create quality work for students, and allow them to use these “production machines” to their fullest, in an attempt to maximize their learning.  We have made great strides in transforming our instructional model the past few years, and yet I know that we need to continue down this path because we’re not all there yet.  Click.

And then I read a story this morning about a study regarding the ineffectiveness of incentives in improving teacher proficiency — even when the bonuses amount to $15,000.  My favorite line in the Indy Star version of the story was about teachers being so busy that the option of striving for a bonus was immaterial.  I hope we read more and more about the ineffectiveness of incentives, because I think it is a most illogical, ill-conceived notion.  I cannot see how awarding individuals could possibly make the whole better.  On the heels of the news that Indiana principals must categorize for the state their teachers into four groups (highly effective, effective, needs improvement, and ineffective) all of this talk seems ominous and wrong-headed.  Click.

And then I meet with individuals about our referendum.  The latest “magic number” of ZCS teacher cuts should our effort fall short is 90.  Ninety teachers.  Does it really matter on which side of the cut line that a person falls?  No one wants to lose a position, but I have to tell you that working this job after losing 90 colleagues will not exactly be a walk in the park, either.  If there is one soul who is not motivated to help us win this vote, it may be time to check for a pulse.  I’ve come to the conclusion that this feeling of having  so much to lose is the result of creating something so meaningful to begin with — and if I think about it long enough, I figure out that this is a good thing.  It just doesn’t make me feel good.  Click.

And I devoted much of my day yesterday to hearing about/thinking about/discussing our corporation’s literacy initiative.  It takes me a while to process things and to really construct my thoughts about a particular topic, and so, more than a year after our literacy audit, I think I arrived at my ultimate revelation yesterday.  I have long felt that schools have been more about “telling students things” than they have been about allowing students to construct and express their own thoughts about what they are learning.  Kids get much more “intake” than they do open-ended “output.”  (The “open-ended” is critical here, because our kids have a lot of cookie-cutter output.)  Yet, in our attempt to improve our instruction around literacy, our focus is almost solely on reading and not writing.  Input, not output.  Oops.  Reading is very important, and we at the middle level need to continue to teach students how to read — particularly reading strategies.  But we really need to improve in the area of eliciting student writing.  Click.

I want to ask someone to put down the remote.  Channel-surfing is tolerable when you are the one changing the channels!

Flair for the Dramatic?

readingI find it ironic that the book I found difficult to put down this summer was entitled Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It.  As a person who used to profess to hate to read, the book certainly struck a chord with me.  The author, Kelly Gallagher, defines “Readicide” as “The systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.”  Gallagher is a high school English teacher.  In other words, he’s on our side.  His book, however, provides an unflattering look into the mirror, and reveals an educational visage that only a mother could love.  Maybe.  After hearing the title, my first notion was that it was a bit dramatic.  After further reflection, I have to admit that the educational machine is accurately depicted in this work, and we could all benefit from Gallagher’s thoughts and advice.

As you may recall from my previous post in this forum, “digital reading” and the abilty to network it has been on my mind, as well.  The iPad and the Kindle are exploding on the scene, and this will have an immense impact not simply on what we read, but also in how we read it.  The “how we read” refers to much more than a type of device.  Note-taking, highlighting, sharing thoughts about the work with others are all things that are in flux.

Revealing that my summertime thoughts focused more on reading than golf has me a bit uneasy, and I imagine that a number of “nerd-detectors” are on full alert.  The situation is more dire than it appears.  The whole truth is that I was disappointed to spend so much thought on “student reading” because I was looking forward to focusing instead on “student writing.”  While I can’t deny the connection to nerdiness (or is it nerdhood?  or geekdom?), I did finally draw the conclusion while reading Readicide that reading and writing are inextricably interwoven, and that the pedagogical difficulties that we experience with these two areas are fundamentally the same.

Gallagher refers to four major contributing factors to Readicide:

  • Schools value the development of test-takers more than they value the development of readers
  • Schools are limiting authentic reading experiences
  • Teachers are overteaching books (ie chopping up paragraph by paragraph, factoid by factoid)
  • Teachers are underteaching books (offering students few strategies)

I contend that these same four factors apply to writing, as well.  Our students need to read more.  Our students need to write more.  Students need access to authentic text in areas of their academic interests.  Students need to write for an authentic audiences about themes in their area of academic interests.  We need to find ways to develop students’ interest in reading and writing, and ultimately to think of themselves as active readers and writers.  We must also establish once and for all that reading and writing is not just something that happens in English class, and the teachng of those two skills should reflect that.

I wonder how many of us possess and profess a love for reading and writing.  I would speculate that a little over half of us do.  This may be a hazardous presumption, but assuming there is some accuracy, I have two questions:

  1. How did a fairly large portion of educators fail to develop such an integral passion?
  2. How can we do a better job modeling to our students that we are avid readers and writers?

As I reflect on my own path in the world of literacy, I’m shocked that I didn’t like to read until I had long reached adulthood.  (I had a Master’s Degree in German Literature, for crying out loud!  And I didn’t like to read!)  I didn’t realize that I had a penchant for writing until I was a junior in college.  I really think that it was schooled out of me.  It is my sincere hope that we can find ways to avoid doing that to our own students.