Here we go… again

IIMG_2565t’s budget time once again in Lowell and if you thought last year’s budget was a squeaker, wait until you see this year’s edition.

I do not envy the Superintendents across Massachusetts. This is a pretty ugly time to try to keep programming viable when Foundation Budget calculations are 25 years out of date and when cities and towns have little appetite for raising tax revenues.

If Lowell’s budget proposal is any indication, most of the options for cutting without affecting direct services to students have been exercised. Now it is going to hurt. And one of those areas of pain seems to be library services.

Like last year, the proposal is that the entirety of school libraries – with the exception of the High School – will be dismantled. I believe the only reason that the certified Library Media Specialist at the High School is retained only because, without this position, the High School could lose certification. Not a good thing.

Historically, all of our schools had library-media specialists (click the link to see those requirements) AND library aides. Why? Because it was unthinkable that a school would not have a library where students learn literacy and research skills that they not only use later in life, but where students could go to be exposed to all manner of materials – video, audio, web-based, and of course print – that enhanced their love of literacy and literacy learning.

When all but a few library media specialists were cut from a very lean budget, the library aides were there to pick up maintaining a welcoming school library. The aides became the last line of defense for school libraries, and a threatened one at that.

Last year, there was a proposal to eliminate library aides, and the school libraries. The positions and the library programs were retained however because of some strong advocacy to increase the City’s contribution to the school budget. And here we stand, a year later, with the same threat to eliminate all library aides across the District and push the school library collections into classrooms. As Yogi Berra once said, it’s like deja vu all over again.

I recently heard an educator equate a classroom library to a school library. That was a shock to me as a classroom library and a school library are two very different entities.

Here is why I think such a statement is impossibly misinformed.  My own classroom library (documented on this very blog) was curated by me, the books in the collection were not only purchased by me – all 2,000 of them. That’s an important point. I am good at a lot of things, but I am not an expert at building a library collection. My book collections had biases – for example, I’m not a fan of science fiction, so I didn’t buy a lot of that genre. If one of my students loved science fiction, those books could be checked out of the school library, a more eclectic and thoroughly curated collection of books.

Last year, this is what I wrote about the value of our school libraries and the wonderful library aides that staff them:

… As a former educator, now retired, I am concerned with the short-sightedness of this action [eliminating library aides]. Library Aides not only check out materials for staff and for students, they maintain the school libraries as a welcoming environment in which to pursue literacy. Books that are in need of repair, are fixed and reshelved. New and replacement materials are added to school libraries. Weekly book exchanges are a time when students can explore new reading genres. The Library Aides also assist students using electronic card catalogues, a research skill that will be necessary as a student moves from grade to grade.  Without the assistance provided by Library Aides will these valuable literacy and library skills still exist in the coming years? I do not think they will and I wonder if in a few years, the School Committee will be decrying the loss of library skills. 

As Paul Begala once said, “a budget is a profoundly moral document” in that we fund what we value.

If we value literacy, if we value fostering our students’ love of literacy, we must also ensure that our school libraries remain and that our Library Aides continue in each and every school. We need to insist that our City funds our schools so that our students are not short-changed.

And if you also think it is incomprehensible that an entire school district would shutter all but the High School’s libraries, please let your elected officials, city council and school committee, know your thinking. Otherwise, what we value might be lost. Forever.

 

When we push children to learn before they are ready…

There is a cost for pushing readers! We don’t just TEACH readers – we help them to BECOME readers.

Dr. Mary Howard

2016-sep-22_btubooks2As an educator, I find more often than not that I have conflicting emotions about the current state of curricula. The narrative, at least from much of the press and definitely from state and federal education agencies, is that our schools are failing. And while I think that education can always find ways to improve instruction and to reach all learners, I do not believe our schools are dismally inept at education.

Consider the current climate in reading instruction for example. There is almost an atmosphere of panic in making sure students are reading with rigor. Kindergarten children are expected to leave that grade level as five- and six-year old readers on F&P Level D. Did you leave Kindergarten reading?

What exactly does that designation “Level D” mean? Let me quote the introduction to Readers at Level D from Fountas & Pinnell’s Continuum (2016, p 428):

At Level D, readers process and understand simple fiction and fantasy stories and easy informational texts. They can track print with their eyes over two to six lines per page without pointing, and they can process texts with more varied and more complex language patterns. They notice and use a range of punctuation and read dialogue, reflecting the meaning through phrasing, intonation, and appropriate word stress. Readers can solve many easy, regular two-syllable words – usually words with inflectional endings such as ing and simple compound words. Pointing may occasionally be used at difficulty, but readers drop the finger when they are confident and are reading easily. The core of know high-frequency words is expanding. Readers consistently monitor their reading, cross-check one source of information with another, and often use multiple sources of information. Readers use text and pictures to construct the meaning of stores and nonfiction texts. They infer meaning from pictures and connect the meaning of texts to their own experiences. At level D, readers process and understand simple and some split dialogue.

Yes, these are the expectations for ALL KINDERGARTENERS as they leave to transition to Grade 1. In the beginning days of my teaching career, many of these characteristics were quite normally found in typical mid-first and early-second grade students.

So I ask again, were you reading in Kindergarten? I was not.  I don’t think I fell behind in my education because I wasn’t reading in Kindergarten. I do know that I have cultivated a love of print that has lasted a lifetime. I believe I was fortunate that when I was learning to read, my teachers worked not only on how to read, but also on development of a love of reading.

Because I was taught the skill of reading when I was developmentally ready to not only word-solve (decode), but also to comprehend, I learned to become a reader – exactly what Mary Howard speaks about in the quotation above.

The demands being placed on our youngest learners are unrealistic and oftentimes unattainable. My opinion? Children who are in Kindergarten need to learn to love learning: they need to practice social skills through play. They need to get used to school and learning.

Squeezing all children, ready or not into the same curriculum funnel makes me think that education policy makers need to realign their focus. When the goal of reading instruction is so skewed toward the mechanics of reading at a developmentally inappropriate age, is the opportunity to help a child become a reader sacrificed?

“Doing” Justice: More than just forms

Donalyn Miller recently tweeted about a recording sheet she uses for the 40 Book Challenge she not only “invented” but practices with her students in her classroom.  As I’ve recently added her book “The Book Whisperer” to the book study portion of a course I’ve developed, Donalyn’s tweet caught my attention:

Screenshot 2017-08-17 20.30.30

My curiosity over why Donalyn Miller would feel compelled to tweet an endorsement of  Debbie Ohi’s collection of forms led me to read this post from August 2014:  The 40 book Challenge Revisited.

Her point this:

… the original thinking behind an instructional idea becomes lost when it’s passed along like a game of Telephone. You heard about it from a 60-minute conference session. Your teammate attended a book study and she gave you the highlight reel. The teacher down the hall is doing something innovative. You should try it. We’ve all seen the quick adoption of shiny, new ideas without a full picture of how these concepts fit into best practices (or don’t).

I’ve frequently heard fellow educators reference that they are “doing” the Daily Five or the Daily CAFE. However, digging in a little deeper, misinformed yet well-intentioned educator’s idea of the “doing” is more likely to be incorporating some of the “centers” (sorry Gail and Joan, I know that’s not what you intended) or using some printable for students downloaded from one of the educator enterprise sites.

The Daily Five practice is based on developing a trusting relationship between learners and teacher. The development of this trusting relationship is every bit as important as the student activities.  A gradual release of responsibility leads to developing students independence and accountability.  Joan and Gail’s commitment to research and development of their own practice is the powerful glue that, in my opinion, holds the Daily Five and CAFE together. This becomes the basis for educator changes that lead to best practice.

Shiny new ideas are terrific, of course. That is the basis of being “green and growing”, as one of my former administrators used to say.  However, without fully understanding a method for management of teacher, the practice become so simplified that it often becomes just another tedious fill-in-the-blank task to keep students occupied.

 

And that, is not a best practice of any kind.

 

Are we over-coaching developing readers?

2014-11-25-lincoln-024One of the texts I’ve reviewed for a course I’m leading this summer is Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris’ Who’s doing the work: How to say less so readers can do more

What do you, as teacher, do when a student is stuck in their reading? Do you go into wait-time mode or try to move things along with hints or suggestions of strategies? And if you do either of these, what is the student’s response or reaction?

Sometimes when we think we are moving responsibility for learning to our students, the shift is not as significant as we think. Case in point: when a student successfully uses a decoding strategy to uncover a challenging word, does the student look to you, the teacher, for affirmation.  Surely that’s something I was guilty of doing.

However, when students come to rely on that affirmation and teacher praise as an indication of whether or not the word was called correctly, that is scaffolding that has over-served its usefulness in steering students toward a gradual release of responsibility.  We set the students up for dependency, not independency.

In real reading – the kind that students engage in on their own either in school or later in life as adult readers – what happens when a decoding challenge the meaning of the print breaks down? Will a teacher always be there to nod a yes or to give hints?

The end game for reading instruction is to enable a reader to develop so that he or she knows that to do when confronted with reading challenges.  Instead of leading a student through the use of a specific strategy (get your mouth ready, think about what makes sense), what if the prompts from a teacher were more open-ended:

What do you notice?

What can you try?

There are undoubtedly times when explicitly teaching strategies for decoding and comprehension are not only appropriate, they are essential. How else would a reader learn about them? But once the strategy has been introduced, practiced and become part of a reader’s repertoire, shouldn’t we, as coaches, allow the reader to decide what to do?

Over coaching developing readers is something I became aware of as an active and as a retired teacher.  More open-ended questions and less controlled coaching not applies to reading. Think of the implications for problem-solving in math.

So I ask: are we empowering our students to truly be independent? Or, as Yaris and Burkins point out, are we creating learners who are dependent upon our affirmation and approval? Are we allowing students to be independent learners?

First Book/AFT Kicks Off Lowell’s Books on Wheels

FB TruckI’m really excited about this project!

When the American Federation of Teachers-Massachusetts (AFT-MA), our local union’s state affiliate, approached our local union a year ago about hosting a First Book/AFT Books on Wheels event, we were intrigued, but the timing was just not right. We may have had to put the project on a back burner, but it was never forgotten. And here we are at the start of a new school year, ready to launch for an event to take place in less than 8 weeks.  Things just got real!

The premise is really simple.  First Book is a national non-profit with a mission to provide new books to children in need, addressing one of the most important factors affecting literacy – access to books. Through a unique partnership with American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the national affiliate of our local United Teachers of Lowell, we are planning to bring a semi-tractor trailer of new books (ages 0-18) – that’s 40,000 to 44,000 books – to distribute absolutely free to our teachers, schools, programs, and families right here in Lowell.

What is needed in return are 2,000 email addresses of programs and educators working with those children and families in need. By registering an email address, the owner can then access First Book’s Marketplace where brand new books are available for 50-90% off list prices. I personally used First Book’s Marketplace when I was in the classroom to round out my classroom library purchases (yes, teachers do indeed buy many materials) or to create a study set of a book a group of children were reading.

Our efforts toward earning the Books on Wheels Truck of 40,000+ free books kicked off last Friday with the newest faculty members at Lowell Teacher Academy orientation.  We will begin recruiting all returning staff – teachers, administrators, coaches, paraprofessionals, custodians, cafeteria workers, therapists, librarians, school clerks, and tutors – beginning on Monday morning.

We know this is a unique opportunity to increase access to literature for our families. While a truck loaded with 40,000 plus new books is a.w.e.s.o.m.e. by itself, we are hoping to make this event even better.  We’ve also established a gofundme effort to raise $5,000 which will allow Lowell’s English Language Learner expert teachers/coaches to select literature from First Book’s Marketplace of Books.  Click this LINK to access our gofundme page and please, feel free to share with friends and neighbors.

8/28: (Calling out our First Book Lowell crowd funding link here: www.gofundme.com/firstbooklowell)

We will use any funds raised through gofundme to purchase books that are reflective of the cultural and language diversity in our community.  If 500 people donate just $10, we will meet our goal, and if we exceed our goal we’ll be able to purchase even greater numbers of culturally appropriate books for our families and readers.

Our goal is to have everything in place for a Book Distribution on Saturday, October 22 at the Rogers STEM Academy. We are appreciative of Superintendent Khelfaoui’s support of this effort and especially grateful to Principal Jason McCrevan and his team at the Rogers STEM Academy for offering to host this event. More information on the Book Distribution and how you can help will be coming in a future post.

It takes a village, or in Lowell’s case, a city to make this endeavor a success. We are counting on everyone to help our village bring books to our children that will embrace the diversity of cultures and languages of our community.

Editing & Revising with Peers

IMG_0200As a writer and, as a teacher, I value collaboration with peers. I know that my writing is made more clear, more interesting, and more precise when I rely on a trusted “critical friend” to offer constructive feedback. And so, when the Commonwealth’s writing standards included peer revising as well as adult conferring, the inclusion of critical friends in the Writing Process made sense. Beginning in Grade 2, Writing Standard 5 includes this important progression of peer revision and peer editing. [Refer to the Writing Standards (“Code W”) by grade level beginning on page 26 of the 2011 Frameworks.]

From my experience, elementary students must be taught explicitly how to do this. They need good models of what peer conferring looks like. As a proponent of the Daily Five, I found the 10 Steps to Independence model to be an ideal teaching method for introducing peer editing and revising to my students.

Students at the elementary level need some structure for learning how to be a helpful peer editor or revisor; and to this end, I was fortunate to get an offer for some coaching from our former Literacy Coach, Patricia Sweeney.  Pat provided a structure for the students: 2 compliments and a suggestion. Here were the guidelines:

  • The author reads the piece from beginning to end without interruption
  • The revisor/editor offers 2 compliments. Personal references (“I like...”) were excluded; more constructive/objective language included (“When you wrote…, your writing was… (very clear, powerful, descriptive, etc.”).
  • No “buts” – one of my 3rd and 4th graders favorites, because what 9-year old can resist telling another to get their “but” out of writing. (When you wrote …., your description was very clear, BUT…)
  • The revisor/editor can offer 1 suggestion (so not to overwhelm the author all at once), jotting on a stick-on note. (You might want to …. or Your writing might be more powerful if …). The author can agree or disagree with the suggestion, but listens and takes it “under advisement”.

This structure provided the students with two things: a language framework for offering constructive feedback and an opportunity to apply grade-level writing skills as the “student” become the “teacher”.

These peer-led conferences always took place prior to conferring with an adult and prior to producing a final version of the writing.  Peers did not assess another student’s writing, but offered constructive criticism for the purpose of helping the author improve upon the writing.

Exactly what my adult peer editor and revisor does for me.

 

 

Reading Licenses

When I first began teaching elementary school, the only “independent” books kids had were the books they checked out of the library. And maybe a borrowed read-aloud left of the chalk (!) ledge. Can you imagine how boring that must have been?

newbasketsMorphing to Reading Workshops and Daily Five gave our students opportunities to self-select books for reading independently. And of course, that was a lot more engaging for students. Kids being kids though, were they always doing the right thing at self-selection time?

We teach kids explicitly how to find “just right” books that are neither frustrating nor so easy that kids don’t grow as readers. In my classroom, students received a readers’ license to help them remember where their proximal reading level was. (For information on how my classroom library was leveled, see The Leveled Library Project above.)

The license included a digitized photo of the student created on one of the first days of school, the student’s name, and a color code sticker as a reminder of what just-right-level should be the current target. Students were encouraged to choose 1 book from a level down and 1 book from a level up (the challenge) as well as 2 just-right books. I usually printed all this on a 4×6 plain index card or some heavy card stock paper.

At conferencing time, the student arrived with book box and license and we’d always spend a minute or two making sure selections were a match. New color code stickers were added throughout the year as the student progressed; we’d talk about a goal or next step to work on, record that idea in the student’s reading notebook and move on.

Did I have students who tried to fake their way into a level because a friend was there? Some did from time to time. But I also had students who wanted to prove that they could read more challenging books. How I loved when a student was so bent on proving that higher challenging level was really “just right” that the student doubled down on effort to move forward!

A “license” to read… just another way to track whether book choices match independent reading levels.