Who we are as readers (thank you, Vicki Vinton)

A post from Vicki Vinton got me thinking and wanting to work through my thinking in a public space. I am grateful for the need to write with purpose.

A friend once said she couldn’t define the type of reader as was, as in what kind of books I like. I had to agree with her. The books I loved were all over the place.  This quiz I found on Vicki’s blog, defined me in a way that made sense. My highest score was as the aesthete, the type of reader who treasures a writer who can take the ordinary and make it profound. This score was followed closely by the endurance reader, one who has no problem with sweeping sagas that span multiple generations. That’s a reasonably good definition. But I believe I would not have been defined in this way decades ago.

As a younger reader, I gravitated toward escape novels and books that reflected who I was and what I was struggling with. Over time, I consciously sought books that presented people and places with stories that were vastly different.  I wanted to look into other worlds. Over time, what attracted me changed. Was this because of experience, and how much of this change was because of my reading life. I like to think it was equal parts. I want to believe reading can change our reflection.

How this translates to our young readers is also on my mind. I don’t have an online quiz that would define my students’ preferences. That’s my job.

Last week, M– asked me during an engineering competition,
Can we have no homework if we win?

What homework do you have?
M– Reading.
That’s not homework. That’s just what readers do.
M– It is to me.

A– was listening in. Reading isn’t homework. I do it anyway.
This wasn’t a surprise. A– reads everything and anything.

A– and M– have the same running record score.

So why does M– see reading as an assignment, while A– sees it as what she does. And I’d say who she is.  More importantly, what can I do as their teacher to get M– to see reading as A– sees it?

So I asked him.
Do you always feel that way about reading?
M — Not during read aloud.
How is that different?
M — I’m not reading.
But you are doing the thinking of a reader.
He was not convinced.

So I asked more.
Aren’t there books that you read that make you feel the same way as a read-aloud?
M– Fantasy. Like the Land of Stories.
So this has to do with the type of books you read. Not reading in general.
M– I guess.

Perhaps our student’s perception of reading and our perceptions of our students as readers need to be reframed. Seeing M– and A– as similar readers because of their running records scores would be a disservice to both of them. I’m not concerned about A–.  But M– needs a lot more of what he loves as a reader.

Later, I check in on the students who have yet to finish a book they chose last week.
K– I don’t really like this book, but we’ll finish it.
Why? I ask. I have a book like that now, and talking to you makes me realize I just don’t like it. I’m not going to waste any more time on it. And, you shouldn’t have to keep reading something you don’t like either. Don’t waste your time.
K– Really?
Really. There are too many books to read. Do you know what it is about this book that you don’t like?
K– It’s slow.
We talked about those “slow” parts and why they are in books. Why they are necessary. But as younger readers, they may lack patience for them even if they understand why they are there.
K– handed me the book, gathered his group, and they choose another.

I’m not worried about K– as a reader. He knows what he likes, and he reads without being asked. I am more concerned about his perception of school and reading. Just because he chooses a book at school doesn’t mean he loses the right to abandon a book. Time is precious for all of our readers.

Finding out who we are and who our students are readers as readers require more than a test Be it of interest or skill. We readers are on a journey that evolves as we do. This is the beauty of reading, and the opportunity presented to teachers of reading. To introduce and expose our students to stories that they want to read and as well as stories that may change who they are as readers. To get students to see it is their right to abandon books, to honor their tastes and interest, to allow them to see themselves as readers.

As my students pick up their books, I am looking for what keeps them reading. Not because it is homework or because someone recommended it, or even when they chose it themselves.  But because it fills and feeds them as a reader right now.






Unexpected Possibilities

I have a love-hate relationship with field trips. I love the opportunity to go outside the classrooms to find new experiences. The hate or I should say the stressful part is unexpected possibilities. When venturing outside the school gate, even the best-laid plans can go awry.

Our adventure to a downtown museum allowed time for traffic, construction, and child-related delays. The walk to a historic part of the city was mapped, and a 1 to 4 adult to child ratio felt comfortable.  Yet all along the way, the unexpected kept popping up along our three-mile walk past museums, monuments, and government buildings. None of these obstacles derailed the trip. In fact, in some way, each experience made the trip.

When we arrived at the museum, A’s mom pushed her wheelchair up to the base of a steep stairway. There had to an access point, but where? A construction worker saw the situation and didn’t hesitate to ask if he could help. Next thing I know, he’s carried her up two flights. Problem solved as well as an act of kindness demonstrated for all. This is how we act in the world as helpers.

After the tour, our adventure began, past MOCA and the line of people waiting at The Broad, past Disney Music Hall with its blindingly bright reflective exterior, to the grassy Grand Park where we would have lunch. I hear comments.
“I’ve never been downtown.”
“I”ve never been on a field trip like this before.”
“Big streets scare me.”
And each of these thoughts starts a conversation about the place, the world. 

After lunch, we gather up our things, count up students. Make sure each child in with their chaperone, and we venture off.  More crosswalks, cars, and people, past City Hall and more comments pop up.
“What do they do there?”
“My feet hurt.”
“What are those tents for?”
Explanations and conversations follow each other.

“See that bridge ahead,” I say. “The walkway is narrow. We have to walk single file.” The walkway is narrow because of the homeless encampment that seems to exist on every freeway overpass in Los Angeles. This is our world that requires more conversation.

We arrive at Olvera Street. It’s short and crowded. Filled with vendors, delicious smells, traditional music, and more conversation.
“I wish I brought money,”
“I’m begging my parents to come here.”
“Where is the bus?”

We finish up at Union Station.
“Is this a hotel?”
“Just keep moving.”
“Is that our bus?”
“Line up.”

Each unexpected encounter made this trip for me. Each one met with wonder allowing parts of the world to filter into our lives. Each one added to who we are and what the world is to us. A travel experience of kindness, difference, color, sadness and the inexplicable that I hope planted seeds for more in each of my students

valuing old teachings

This morning I listened to an indigenous Australian speak about how his people have dealt with wildfire for thousands of years. Apparently, the government is looking into this, yet not putting the money and effort behind this time-honored indigenous-based land management. His words reminded me of the chapter I had just finished in Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. The book jacket describes Kimmerer as “a mother, scientist, decorated professor and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation,” making her a spokesperson for both the scientist and indigenous person. Each beautifully written essay tells of how our developed and scientifically driven thinking often ignores or devalues the teachings of indigenous peoples. She constructs connections as well as gives commentary on how the two worlds are at odds.

Sad. There value in our human experiences. Yet, we ignore our history in a rush to get to the new, to not miss out on the latest for fear, we will become obsolete. Ironically, we might be destroying ourselves in the process.

I thought of what traditions and teachings have been passed down in my family. What has survived? The teachings of how to live in us as long as we teach it to others. That worries me. Did I pass the lessons on to my kids? So much of how to is contained on YouTube video. Is this the new teacher?  Do our elders feel ignored, replaced, devalued?

Some things can’t be found on YouTube. How to be in the world. How to treat others, animals, our environment. More than ever, teachers carry this load along with instruction in subject areas.

Teachers are given this along with a new something to teach or teach with. It’s not that we don’t grow and evolve as educators, but are there teachings and beliefs that hold constant?

In a recent staff meeting, I chronicled my years of professional development in reading. As each new book or new staff developer entered my world, I’d take on their thinking and bring it into my classroom, often at a cost to previously learned strategies and stances.


Looking back on my wise teachers, I checked in on what teachings I still hold on to and consider the ones I have forgotten. Some strategies have blended into others in my reading instruction. But I still have questions. How effectively am I using these strategies? Am I undervaluing some tools? Overvaluing others? Are there some strategies that I’ve set aside that could benefit individual students?

I am very fortunate to have such rich experiences as a professional. I have been blessed with the teachings of wise educators. Revisiting their lessons is good practice.

Journeying into Historical Fiction

We started our unit on historical fiction today.  In the past, I had students discover the time, setting, and major events, through reading the texts. But this year, I decided to give students a chance to read a few informational articles that might help them discern the setting, and the possible challenges characters might face within various historical contexts.

To demonstrate and practice what students were to do, I started out by reading aloud a few paragraphs on Westward Expansion.

The Oregon Trail was a major route that people took when migrating to the western part of the United States. Between 1841 and 1869, hundreds of thousands of people traveled westward on the trail. Many of them traveled in large wagon trains using covered wagons to carry their belongings.

The Oregon Trail began in Independence, Missouri and ended in Oregon City, Oregon. It stretched for around 2,000 miles and through six different states including Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon. Along the way, travelers had to cross all sorts of rough terrain such as the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

From this, students sketched in their notebooks what they thought the trail might look like and speculated as to the challenges a character might face in this world, including wild animals, natural disasters, disease, food shortages, and bad weather. With these few paragraphs, they predicted many of the challenges our character will face in our read-aloud Some Kind of Courage.

I sent them off to read articles from other periods, including The Great Depression, the Holocaust, Japanese Internment, the Civil Rights Movement,  Hurricane Katrina, and the 9-11 attacks. Handing them these dark moments in our nation’s history wasn’t easy. Many of my young students are unaware of these events. As always, they astounded me with their thoughts and questions.

“This says that civil rights are guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence. But that happened in 1776. The Civil Rights Movement was in the 1960s. That doesn’t make sense.”

“How did the Germans know who the Jews were?

” This is sad. Why did they do this?”

“That’s messed up.”

It didn’t take much to get my students thinking and connecting.  Wondering. The fact that they could readily take in information and put it into context was impressive. In the next few days, students will decide what historical period they want to choose for historical fiction reading.

I’m glad we are spending time setting the stage.

I’m curious about what periods they will choose and excited about their upcoming journey into historical fiction





One Little Word for 2020

remove the outer covering or skin;
separate a thin cover or part
from the outside or surface of something

The skin came away in a neat spiral. Most fruits cling to their coat. Refusing to let go without a bit of digging and tugging, mangling of the skin, and sometimes the fruit within.
Looking at the coiled skin on my plate, I thought of what I’d been reading. Bit by bit, I was learning what was unseen, unknown to me. The process of reading was one of deconstruction, chapter by chapter, sentence by sentence, and then piecing it together to understand the whole.
Seeing the core, the history of people, places, and ideas fascinate me. It feels necessary. Rather than discarding the differences that exist on the surface, judging too quickly, consider what is beneath the skin. Understanding the composition of the whole provides understanding.
And as much as I like to look outside to understand, ultimately, I need to look inward. What is my history? Peeling away my experiences, what makes me whole, is necessary to process my place in this world. And I realize and am grateful for the privilege to learn.
Learning and teaching is a part of what makes me whole. To do this well, it requires peeling away to see what is underneath. What foundations are present? What is missing? What teaching tools to I have, and what tools do I need to procure to grow this learner?


Most people don’t peel their skin in a neat spiral. Most of us present a resistant exterior that protects our inner workings.   Peeling away the surface to get to what makes up the person, the place, the idea, myself will be my way to see this new year.

Is it off task?

After several weeks of reading and taking notes on natural disasters,  I told students that they would have the choice between teaching what they had learned with a game board or game show. The magical word game (thank you, Shana Frazin) got 100% buy-in. Engagement skyrocketed as students wrote the dialogue for their game show or designed their board, cards, and playing pieces.


And on the day of the gameplay, all had a great time.


But, was it learning? How much of the work was off task?

After the games were cleaned up, I asked the students to write me a brief note sharing what they had learned. And to be honest. I told them this was for me to know if this was an effective way to learn. I asked them to be specific. What did they learn, either from another team or from the creation of their game?

The majority mentioned specific content learning, and few said what they learned about working with others.

S–‘s comment was one that I thought captured the essence of group work and talk that can seem silly at times. 

Our group did get a little off-task because of finding out who was the youngest, but that was kind of it. I think this was a good way of learning because we students look forward to it.

Students looked forward to it. And they found out who was the youngest. While the latter might not be “on-task” as S– commented, is that talk a bad thing? Isn’t getting to know each other what makes for beautiful partnerships and teams? My own experience in group work has led me to believe that some of the best collaborative thinking is done when trust and friendship are high. How many times have I laughed about something silly with my grade-level colleagues and then gotten right back to reading student work or planning a unit of study? Having a safe and welcoming group of partners makes for excellent working conditions. Our kiddos have the same needs.


Yes, I still love it

A visiting educator stopped by my classroom today. He walked around, looked at charts. He talked to my students; asked some pointed questions. And then he said, “After all these years, you still love teaching.”

At that moment, we were simply doing what we do, but what he said threw me. He named how I felt. And apparently, at the moment, it was evident.

That is not to say there aren’t painful times.

Times that I go home questioning myself, upset about something that did not go well. Times when my next step is unclear. Times when something crops up that I can not control or figure out stops learning cold. Times when the stumbling blocks of learning keep me from sleep. These times describe a large part of teaching.  Even so, the puzzle and the possibility keep me coming back to the classroom, And every day, I’m met by students.

Being able to step into what is hard about learning and figure it out with students is a great gift. Yes, after all these years, I still love it. 

That One Kid

Last week my kiddos entered the library. Many had a mission. Some had no idea what they wanted. All* were eager as they sat on the steps of the tiny read aloud amphitheater. They waited, listening to the always repeated instructions to be quiet because of students being tutored in nooks and crannies. Slowly. Step by step, they were released.

D– grabs a Baby Mouse book.
K– is clutching a Rick Riordan graphic novel (who knew).
V– opens a book about India as D– asks, is that really how it looks?
M– has already checked out her book and is engrossed on the steps of the amphitheater.
S– rocks in the rocking chair with Harry Potter.
M– sits at the table reading a cookbook.
A– is looking for a book on Cinderella. Not a Cinderella book, a book on Cinderella. 

This could be a post on how wonderful this tiny slice of my day felt. Or about the importance of library space and time. It could be about allowing choice. Or about what real readers look like. But this post is about one kiddo.

T– sits without a book on the step. I wander over to him. “I don’t want a book,” he replies matter-a-factly, to my query.  I follow up with the usual round of questions. Nothing inspires him to try. He is my worry. He is sweet and smart. He has lots of friends, but he’s an outlier. In our daily community circle, we have a generalized question that most can respond to. Something like what’s your favorite color, food, movie, game, etc. He most often responds sweetly with “I don’t know.”  I have yet to get his parent in to talk about his work. I am flummoxed. And every time I sit and reflect on student work, I see him as barely meeting expectations.

Recently, I sat with T– to talk about his writing. The two paragraphs, six lines, 65 words, were good. Right on track. This was the product of two weeks of nudging and coaching.  I complimented him on what he did and what he could do next. He smiled. But he was done. He had no desire to continue on.

As I write this, I don’t have a solution. T– is the kid that haunts me because I know how this goes.  Coaching him through a process moves him a little.  With each nudge, he takes the requested step. But without the next nudge, there’s no movement.  And I’m not always there for that push. I can’t be, and I shouldn’t be. It is so easy to give up. And I am sure that is what has happened over the years.

I will continue to nudge, offer another book, ask him another question, and judging by his behavior so far, he will continue to comply just enough to barely meet the expectation.  I know the minute I walk away, he will drift off into another space.

In the end, it comes down to our relationship. I am T’s teacher, and he is doing what he has always done with teachers.  But each day offers another opportunity for me. T– has a line in my plan book, making me accountable to his needs.  A plan that consists of conversation and choice. And hopefully, he will bring me a little closer to what might inspire him to become a learner.


NCTE19: Seeing Student Thinking

I remember when my oldest was in fifth grade and was ready to give up on a science project, I said, “You can’t! I’ve worked too hard on this!” I think of that time when I am working really hard to teach something, and I make myself stop.

Learning is done by students. I can’t force learning.  For so many reasons. I need reminders to listen and look for what the student is doing in their context, not my lesson. What they are doing makes sense to them. Most likely, what I intended to teach them won’t unless I can understand their understanding. It’s my job to see their thinking.

This message I heard, again and again, at NCTE19. 

Shift the paradigm of teaching from what is in our heads to what is in the student’s head.– Vicki Vinton

The teacher should not be the protagonist. — Carl Anderson

We need to let go of our thinking and listen to theirs. — Maria Nichols

Don’t rush the reseach. Don’t interpret. Just take notes. — Dan Feigelson

Learning is consensual. — Cornelius Minor

My NCTE notebook is full of wise words from master teachers and writers. And while I have many ideas to plumb around action research, informational writing, revision, poetry, and the teaching of reading, all are deeply impacted by the need to become, as the Minor/Anderson/Feigelson Sunday session called it, a radical listener. To be able to hear the process by which students are attempting to tackle their learning, one must listen for what they are doing with nudges to say more or show me. All moves to engage the learner in doing so that the next challenge might be revealed to me. Setting my teach aside is necessary to be able to see what students might be ready to learn.

This is not to say I haven’t shown a math strategy, suggested a transitional phrase to help a writer, or told a student the meaning of a word.  But, when I do, I try to remember that science project. I was the learner, not my son, and it wasn’t about science.



Out of Nowhere

Last Friday, K– asked, “Why do we have homework?”

“K –,”  I said, “Why do you ask? All we do is read.”

“I know. We read more at home, so we can grow. I just want to know why homework exists.”

“What made you think of this?”

“I don’t know.”

Exactly where the best questions come from, I think.

So I give him a super-short version of a topic that too many have said too much about.

“Well…the amount of homework has to do with the amount of academic progress you need to make and the amount of it you can do in the classroom.” I look at him. He’s looking at me. This is a kiddo who usually plays tag all the way into class.  What the heck? “Does that make sense?” I ask.


Alrighty. With that, check-in, I continue. “When you are young, you do most of your learning in class. You are asked to read in elementary school because the amount of reading you must do to grow a grade level can’t be done in the time we have in class.”

I check again to see if he is with me. He’s listening as are two of his friends. “As you age, ” I continue, “you can handle more learning on your own, and the amount of learning you must do increases. ”

They are still looking at me. So I continue, building the scenario up to college, where one hour of class time requires three hours of study time. And then I stop.

I look at K– and his friends and ask, “Does that make sense?”


Glad I solved that one.