Cultivating Voluntary Reading in the Classroom

One of the greatest gifts my family bestowed upon me was the love of a good story. My mother read to me daily, as did my grandmother, and my father created stories in which I was the main character. Mom will still sit down and read 3-4 novels a week. (I usually finish 3-4 per month, but I’m not retired.)

Early in my teaching career it became apparent that not all families were like mine, and I dare say we are becoming somewhat of an anomaly. Finding this unacceptable, I have always incorporated free reading time into my classroom in addition to reading aloud daily to my students. Today, however, many teachers feel pressed to teach so many test-taking skills that the reading test has become a genre.

We have lost the idea of balance and as a result are losing a generation of readers. But how do we regain that balance and still maintain rigorous standards? Believe it or not, the research supports reading for choice over direct instruction.

Free Voluntary Reading (FVR) means reading because you want to. No book reports, no comprehension questions, and the book is one of your choosing. And while class novels are preferable over the reading passage/question worksheet, this will not have the same impact as FVR. Research has shown that FVR improves comprehension, vocabulary, spelling, writing, and grammar (Krashen, 2004).

Having students talk about their reading is critical. Sharing the books they’ve enjoyed through Book Talks, Reviews, and Journals promotes comprehension and is more authentic than asking low-level questions (Atwell, 2007; Miller, 2009). Teaching direct comprehension skills has its place, but it should not be the crux of your reading lessons.

So as you look at your classroom schedule, make time for silent-sustained reading, free voluntary reading, or DEAR time. Regardless of what you call it, just make the time.

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Happy New Year!: 2014 Education Reform in Review (your champagne break)

I speak from experience: there are some “teachers” at BASIS charter schools who have no clue how to teach, and some of the ones I met did not want to learn. Charters take funding away from public schools in the neediest districts. We do have the power to change this; spread the word.

Cloaking Inequity

Wow. 2014 is already gone. Allot happened in education policy in 2014… Are the corporate reformers finally in retreat? There is some optimism out there that the public is finally seeing through their “civil rights” rhetoric and understanding that their true focus is control, profit, and privatization. With your input and support, Cloaking Inequity, our community blog project, will continue to critique hegemonic education policy in 2015. But first, here is a quick year in review for Cloaking Inequity from 2014.

SO what were the most read posts in 2014?

1. Tell-All From A TFA and KIPP Teacher: Unprepared, Isolation, Shame, and Burnout 

Intro: A few years ago a UT-Austin undergraduate student sat in my office and told me that she was joining Teach For America and was going to teach in KIPP school. The essence of TFA’s pitch to her?…

2. Parent Horror Stories from BASIS: Corporate…

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“How can I help my child be a better reader?”

This is the question I’m asked all the time, and oftentimes parents don’t like what I have to say. It’s really quite simple: good readers actually read. Every day. Like anything else you want to improve upon, it takes practice.

The question parents need to ask is: “How can I help my child enjoy reading?”

Remember the days when bedtime stories were the norm? Your mom or dad tucked you in and read you a story. This is how we learned empathy. This is how we learned to love a good story. This is how we learned to love language. Many parents today are not reading to their children.

So the child who is not read to enters school and all of a sudden this child is surrounded by print, sight words, stories, and expectations. This is when parents start to wake up and realize they may need to step in and help. Again there is no magic remedy for improving reading, you just have to make it a priority.

To invigorate a sluggish reader, you need to find out what interests them. Visit the library and talk with the librarians. They are the experts at finding good books. Spend money at your school’s book fair and order books when the teacher sends home the book orders. With tweens and teens, share what you’re reading with them and explain why you enjoy the types of books you read.

Assuming you, the adult, are reading…see, that’s the other problem. There is a large population of adults who don’t read. What’s happening here?

It’s easy to blame TV and the internet or the ubiquitous “I don’t have time” whine, but honestly it goes back to priorities. If you want to be a better reader, you need to read. Period.

Finding Balance in the Classroom Between Competition and Cooperation

Competition and cooperation – how do we find a balance in the classroom? As an educator, I am reminded daily that people like to win. As parents we boast of our child’s accomplishments, comparing them to others. Students are encouraged to go out for sports because it builds character. Even the youngest students want to be “the best”, “the smartest”, “the prettiest”. It’s a natural thing, right? Or is it?

In Po Bronson’s book Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, competition is viewed as positive, driving learning and performance. “In finite games, you compete and then you let it go, and you have rest and recuperation – that’s actually really important for kids,” said Bronson. “It’s the continuous sense of pressure that is unhealthy for them.” As an educator, it’s the pressure that worries me because I feel today’s classrooms have become way too competitive. Students actually feel shame when they don’t win.

Here in the south, football is king. Millions of dollars are spent maintaining and improving fields and athletic facilities. Coaches typically make more than the average teacher, and they earn it by giving up their evenings and weekends to practices and games. If the coach does not produce a winning team, he or she is fired regardless of their prowess as an educator.

But competition exists in academics as well as sports. The NCLB test mentality has seen to that. Schools compete for the honor to call themselves “exemplary”. Charter schools weed out the special-need students in order to skew their results. Teachers are judged on how many students pass standardized tests. And while you won’t see cheerleaders at academic bowls or ice-cold Gatorade poured on the faculty sponsor leading the Chess Club to victory, there is still a winner and a loser. Someone walks out with a trophy and bragging rights while others are encouraged to congratulate the victor on a job well done.

Alfie Kohn, author of No Contest: The Case Against Competition argues “studies have shown that feelings of self-worth become dependent on external sources of evaluation as a result of competition: Your value is defined by what you’ve done. Worse — you’re a good person in proportion to the number of people you’ve beaten.” And y’know, I have to agree. While it’s important to remember that you are not defined by the win and that the only expectation is to try your best, society tells us otherwise. Self-esteem discussions take this further by saying “everyone’s a winner” and “we’re all special”. Even a child will be able to tell you there is no way we can all be special, so why do we continue with this illusion?

Tom Shadyac’s movie I Am explains that we are actually designed to be cooperative rather than competitive. It’s a natural occurrence yet societal norms perpetuate the idea that winning is the ultimate goal – the pinnacle of success. Our schools are a microcosm of society, so we continue to promote winning and being the best.

As a classroom teacher, I always promoted teamwork. We supported each other and worked together every chance we could, and honestly I didn’t think this was unique. Educators refer to this as “cooperative learning” and it’s been around forever. One day I picked up my class of 4th graders from P.E. The teacher was beaming, letting me know that my class was the only group to get the tennis ball over the roof. Seeing my puzzled expression, she continued to explain that each class had been given the task to bounce a tennis ball over the two-story building using teamwork and a parachute. She was thrilled to report that my students not only worked together, but were supportive in their conversation and sportsmanship. “They lifted each other up!” she exclaimed.

Again, why is this unique? I would hope this would be the norm, but I knew our class excelled because they knew how to work together. They also knew each other’s weaknesses and strengths and they were well-versed in encouraging others. I still smile thinking about that day.

So what do we want for our students? We want them to follow their passions. We want them to be resilient, well-adjusted adults. We want them to make educated choices in life. We want them to find a career that stimulates. We want them to get along well with others. How can we accomplish that by promoting competition at the expense of cooperation? Can we find balance?

“It’s all in my Head”

Was reminded today of one week several years ago when it seemed all my students had discovered hidden talents.

One young lady had accomplished the near-impossible task of completing long-division with remainders without showing any work whatsoever!  When I inquired about her work, she simply replied, “I did it in my head.”  Pretty amazing considering math was usually her most challenging subject.

Another young lady read aloud her rather creative spelling story.  When I asked her to share one of her more remarkable sentences with us, she gave me the deer-in-the-headlights pose.  Upon further inspection, her spelling composition notebook was completly blank.  Her reply?  “I didn’t write down my story – it’s all in my head.”  Sigh…

Tip to parents:  please, please, please review your child’s homework each night to ensure that it’s not all still stuck in their heads. 🙂

Thoughts on Writing (republished from my former blog)

My son is a 4th grader this year and is learning how to be a better writer.  He’s enthralled by all the elaboration techniques available these days.  Things sure have changed, y’know.  We used to study/teach similes, metaphors, etc. out of an English textbook.  His enlightened teacher doesn’t use a text, but chooses activities like showing movie clips and allowing him to respond in writing, giving the perfect authentic opportunity to practice these elaboration techniques.  We are even throwing out “trash words” from our daily communication.  He’s growing as a writer and a thinker.  I like that!

My own students struggle with basic reading and writing skills.  They are simply trying to formulate a basic sentence, so the idea of trying to get them to expand on their ideas is daunting at best.  Cop out?  Nah – I work with very special young people whose strengths are not always of the academic sort.  We need to embrace the different learners out there who will undoubtedly add to our society in their own unique way.  Yes, some are meant to be thinkers and some to be workers.  Some to build, some to create, and some to write.  There’s not a darn thing wrong with that.

So what are the elaboration techniques my son is being encouraged to use?  Your basic literary elements are there:  simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, but he is also encouraged to create “thought shots” which share his feelings and to hook them with a really good beginning sentence.  Sometimes it’s contrived; other times it’s pretty good!

Will he be a famous writer?  Probably not, but he sure has discovered a new appreciation for the written words.  And for that I am truly grateful.