Parents and Levels

 

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We have started organizing our classroom library by favorite authors and favorite topics.

 

Yesterday, during Readers Workshop, I suggested a book to one of my kindergarteners. He looked at it and then asked me, “what level is it?” I was stunned. Where had he heard about levels? It certainly wasn’t in our classroom. None of my books are leveled and I’ve never mentioned anything about levels in our talks about how readers choose books to read.

I asked him what he meant. He told me, “the level tells you whether you can read the book or not.” Wow. We went on to have a great conversation about how readers (not levels) decide if they can read a book. Readers can choose a book that interests them, an old favorite, a favorite author or character, and they can read the pictures, read the words or remember read.

But I couldn’t get this conversation out of my mind. This five year old has already heard about levels. A system that is meant for teachers to use to guide OUR instruction. (see my previous blog posts about this) Chances are, he heard about this from a well-meaning parent or adult in his community. Which led me to question – do parents need to know reading levels? What does that really tell our parents? It gives them a number or letter to compare their child to others. It gives them a number or letter to talk about with other parents at soccer practice, the playground or gym. It gives them a number or letter that, most likely, doesn’t really mean much more than a letter or a number that ranks their child. And it may give them a letter or number that their child uses to define himself or herself as a reader and that limits what they can read or not read.

Parent – teacher conferences are coming up in the next months. There are so many things we can share with parents to help them understand where their child is in reading. A level doesn’t really help them understand, and it can do harm.

  • What if we shared their child’s book box and shared the kinds of books their child enjoys?
  • What if we showed our parents texts that their child is reading in guided reading and then compared that text with benchmark texts – showing parents where we are headed?
  • What if we shared the goals their child has set to work on as a reader or the goals we have set for their child?
  • What if we shared how we are teaching strategies to help their child as a reader?
  • What if we shared language that parents can use to help their child talk about books or problem solve when they get to tricky parts?
  • What if we shared our class charts that help guide our readers? (I send these home in our weekly poetry notebooks so parents can see the language we are using and so that kids can share what they are learning in Readers Workshop.)
  • What if we shared lists of suggested books to check out from the library? (Most librarians aren’t going to be able to help you find a “level L” book – however, they can help you find Mo Willems or Jan Thomas books)

I think this is an important conversation to have in our schools. Are we sharing levels outside of our school? And if so, what is that purpose? I worry that talking about levels with parents serves no other purpose than to further define readers by a level and widen the gap between home and school. Choosing a book by the level is not an authentic way of choosing books in the real world. Libraries don’t level books. Book stores don’t level books. Speaking in terms of levels is a language most parents don’t understand, and it doesn’t serve our purpose of creating strong, lifelong readers who love to read.

How do you communicate with families about where their child is as a reader, and where they are headed? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Update: Here is an interview published on October 12 with Fountas and Pinnell that echoes our thoughts on leveled texts and who the levels are for – from the experts who created this leveling system. Well worth a read!

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Why?

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Why?

As educators, I think this is the question we need to be asking. All. The. Time.

I’m worried. I’m worried that our profession is moving towards the timesavers, the quick fixes, the lessons-in-a-box (or book). I’m worried that we are easily accepting what we are asked to do without questioning, without asking for evidence that it is best practice, without asking whether it is what’s best for our students, without asking “why” we are doing this.  We are asked to follow scripts written by people who oftentimes aren’t even educators, to follow lessons written by well-meaning educators (but educators who have never met our children) without thinking them through, to put children in front of computers to assess their reading and math abilities (and, even worse, to deliver instruction) without asking why in the world we would rely on a computer instead of a trained professional educator to assess and teach our children.

We are busy. So. Very. Busy.  Believe me, I get that. But we can’t stop questioning. We can’t stop thinking.  We can’t stop “being brave enough to outgrow your own best teaching”, (as Lucy Calkins wrote). We can’t look for the quick fix, the timesaver, the intervention-in-a-box. We can’t stop believing that it is highly trained educators that can make the difference. Not for any children, but especially not for our most vulnerable children. Not for the kids that need us the most. These children need us to be thinkers. Questioners. Fighters. They need teachers who are willing to go the extra mile, who aren’t willing to give up, who realize that the fastest assessment or the quickest lesson plan or the packet on TPT  may not be the best. Teachers who view every lesson idea and plan through the lens of the children who are in their class at this moment. Teachers who put children above curriculum, standards or objectives. Teachers who are advocates and not afraid to speak up. Teachers who are willing to put their heads together to figure out what is going on and how to best help these children. Teachers who will never give up. Teachers who realize that we cannot waste time with activities and tasks that are not authentic and meaningful. Teachers who keep learning and thinking and talking and digging deeper into curriculum, assessment and most of all, the children in their rooms right now.

Teachers who collaborate, think and constantly question their practices, and what they are asked to do – are the ones who can, and will make a difference.

Be brave, my teacher friends. Be brave. Ask why. And keep making a difference every day.

 

 

Integration

img_1715Pat and I wrote about the importance of integrating strategies in Catching Readers Before They Fall. We love the analogy of an orchestra. In a symphony orchestra, all the instruments blend together to form incredible compositions extremely pleasing to the ear. The strategies in the head of the reader combine together to make meaning of the text just as each instrument joins the musical composition perfectly in tune with the others.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot as my kindergarten readers are taking off in their independent reading. Teaching integration right from the start is key to developing strategic readers. I teach many strategies through reading aloud, thinking aloud and showing kids how that strategy can help them as readers. Together, we create an evolving chart of what readers do. It’s important to me that this chart, and the language on the chart, is co-created with the kids so they have ownership.

As we add to our anchor chart of what readers do, I make sure to refer to this chart often by thinking aloud during interactive read alouds, and referring to it during small group instruction and conferences. I show the kids how we don’t just use one strategy at a time, rather, we use many of them simultaneously.

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I help the kids reflect on what they are doing as readers and see these strategies as tools to make meaning from text. I want them to have several things to pull from when meaning breaks down and when they are stuck on a tricky word. I keep small photos of our large, evolving, strategy chart around the room for them to refer to as they read.

As I send the kids off to read independently, we read over our anchor chart. I have them put up their fingers, one at a time, as we read each strategy. Then we weave our fingers together, showing that the strategies all go together. This physical movement symbolizes the integration of strategies.

Teaching integration right from the start helps build a solid foundation for our readers. How do you help readers see the importance of integration?

 

Fidelity vs. Thoughtfulness

img_9986 We live in a time right now when professional resources are abundant. We have endless access to lesson plans, problem based learning projects, activities, ideas, blog posts, professional books, teachers sharing with teachers, curriculum guides, programs, etc… I can Google any topic and find a wealth of resources. Teachers are not at a loss for what to teach and ideas for how to teach it. But there’s something that I keep coming back to:

Are we being thoughtful with what and how we teach?

There are now scripts written out for literacy workshops, charts to copy or simply post, literacy “cookbooks” of sorts with specific lessons for exactly what your students might need and other resources to make our lives easier and to save time. These are good things, for the most part. Don’t get me wrong. They are based in research, carefully thought out by expert educators who know how kids learn best, tested in real classrooms with real kids. I own most of these resources and use them as I plan – (as a resource, not as a script). And these are WAY better than any basal textbook series I’ve ever seen. These resources have definitely lifted the quality of literacy instruction in many schools. They’ve provided a scaffold for implementing literacy workshops.

But are we thinking deeply about the kids we are teaching? 

img_0082Years ago while teaching in Florida I was at a required basal textbook training for a series my county had just adopted. The representative said, “Look! Everything is written out for you. Even the teachable moments. You don’t even have to think!” And that’s when I walked out of the meeting. I didn’t go into teaching to not think. And I value my profession way more than to accept the idea that it would be a good thing if I didn’t have to think. It’s offensive and degrading to be told you don’t have to think.

It’s easy to flip open a book and have your lesson plan written out for you and ready to go. And chances are, with many of these resources, you would be teaching a good lesson. We get ideas from each other – that’s what teachers do. We don’t have to constantly recreate the wheel.  But I hope that we are still thinking. And reflecting. And connecting with OUR kids – the ones sitting with us in our classrooms at this very moment. I hope we are not taking exactly what’s handed to us and teaching it blindly because we were told to “teach with fidelity”. We need to think and question. We need to teach our kids to think and question. We need to continue learning as teachers and understand the WHY behind what we are doing. We need to be responsive and reflective as teachers.

img_0081A teacher leader in my county once helped me reflect on the idea of fidelity vs. thoughtfulness. I keep coming back to that. Perhaps we need to be implementing new structures, programs, etc. with “thoughtfulness”, rather than “fidelity”. We need to look at the programs, curriculums and expectations our district and administration give us with a critical eye. We need to be very careful with resources we find online. We need to tweak the “recipes” in these literacy “cookbooks” to meet the needs of our students. We need to use the pre-printed anchor charts as a temporary scaffold for us as teachers – and replace them with kid pictures and drawings and our own students’ words as soon as we feel solid in that teaching.  We need to deconstruct these things together with our team, be thoughtful in our implementation, question and reflect on what works and what doesn’t.  As one of my former principals always says, “the answer is in the room”.  Talk, reflect and think together – don’t just blindly follow something from outside. We need to use the abundance of resources we have as departure points to launch our own best teaching. We need to keep talking, questioning and thinking with our team and on our own.  As I’ve said before, we teach children, not curriculum, programs or standards.

Be thoughtful. Question. Be willing to change your thinking.  And as Lucy Calkins once wrote in my copy of The Art of Teaching Writing, 

“Be a brave learner. Be brave enough to outgrow your own best teaching.”

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What Kind of Class Do We Want?

img_6072I love the way winter break is like pushing the reset button. I’ve enjoyed relaxed days with friends, family, books and the mountains. It’s been fabulous. It’s recharged my mind, my body and my soul. I’ve allowed myself to step away from my classroom (physically and mentally) and now I feel a renewed sense of excitement, energy and possibility as I get ready to return in a few days.

My kids and I have enjoyed 17 days off. While it’s been wonderful, I know that January 3rd is going to be like starting all over again in many ways. Seventeen days to a five and six year old is an eternity. But I love the idea of a second “first day” of sorts. It’s a chance to re-establish our community, to get to know one another again, to reteach those things that were falling apart in December and to revisit what kind of class we are. It’s like a blank slate that we can create together again.

One thing I always do that first week back is to ask my kids, “what kind of class do we want to be? What kind of community do we want to have? Who are we?” Those are big questions, but my kindergarteners never fail to think deeply, to reflect on what was working and what wasn’t, and to create a promise of sorts that guides us for the rest of the year.

We start this conversation in our morning meeting on the first day back. I take notes on chart paper as we talk and start to determine what really matters to us. We read new books and revisit old favorites that first week back and talk about what makes characters kind and likable, or unkind and unlikable, and how that might look in our classroom. Books like Grumpy Bird, Each Kindness, It’s Okay to Make Mistakes – and any Todd Parr book, Red, A Crayon’s Story, I Used to Be Afraid, Walter Was Worried, The OK Book, Elephants Cannot Dance, Ish, The Invisible Boy, Have You Filled a Bucket Today?  and Last Stop on Market Street – just to name a few of our favorites. The main idea here is to determine what would make our classroom a wonderful place to be – and how can we contribute to that.

We revisit the chart daily, adding and revising our thinking. After a week or so, we create our own chart – through interactive writing – that reflects who we are in this classroom. We always display it in a prominent place so that, as one of my kids said last year, “everyone who comes in here knows that this is how they have to be. You can’t be mean and come in our room.”

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Last year’s chart as a work in progress – adding things to it as we discuss.

This document serves as a class pledge or promise for the rest of the year. We read it and use it as a tool to solve problems, resolve issues and remind us of what kind of class we are. It’s a powerful tool to come back to when the inevitable problems arise.

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Last year’s  finished chart with photos!

How do you reset after a long winter break? Best wishes to everyone for a fantastic second “first day”!

Update: Here is our chart from last week (January 2017). We will be working on making our class chart next week. Stay tuned!

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What Really Matters

img_9753When I was a kid I was terrified of bees. Add tornadoes and getting left in a store after closing time and you have my top 3 fears as a child.

Never once was I fearful that I wouldn’t be allowed to return home after visiting my grandparents in their country. Never once was I scared that people would come and take my parents away. Never once was I terrified of getting taunted, bullied, beat up or shot because of my religion. Or culture. Or skin color. Or who I was in love with. Or the clothing I was wearing. Never.

But these are the fears that our children have today. The children I teach,  the children you may teach, your own children, the children in schools throughout our country. And many adults, as well. And these fears have magnified tremendously lately. As a teacher, it’s my  job to acknowledge what my students are feeling, listen to them, talk with them, comfort them and provide a safe space for them to feel loved and accepted. I can’t imagine doing anything less.

But it’s also my job to empower my students. Yes, they are five and six years old. Are we talking about immigration laws, our government system, electoral votes and checks and balances in our classroom? No. In my kindergarten class we are talking about empathy, kindness, collaboration and being a good person. I am teaching harder than ever about how important it is to be accepting, to have empathy and to be kind. I am teaching that it’s never okay to remain silent when you feel strongly about something. I am teaching the importance of making your voice heard. And the importance of listening to others’ voices.

img_9789As I tend to do, I’ve reached for books over the past month as my comfort and my light. My professional mentors reminded me of what’s important, what’s necessary and what I must do as a teacher. My teaching must go beyond one to one match, directionality and making connections. Way beyond.

My children’s authors, once again, gave us those anchors in the classroom to come together as a community, to laugh, to cry, to learn about feelings, to be together and to think about how we are as people in the world. Mo Willems reminded us about the importance of empathy with  Leonardo, the Terrible Monster. We read Peaceful Piggies and learned what we can do when we are feeling sad, angry or frustrated. Todd Parr’s The Peace Book, Mem Fox’s Whoever You Are, Kathryn Otoshi’s One and Elephant and Piggie connected us, grounded us and reminded us of what is important. We read and reread Bret Baumgarten and Kathryn Otoshi’s Beautiful Hands and created a mural to share our class name, Team Love, and vision of Kindergarten Teamwork.img_0141

As I regroup over winter break and begin to think about my teaching in January, this is what will continue to guide me – children’s books and authors who serve as mirrors and windows for my kids and our classroom, as well as responsive teaching to what I see and hear every day in the classroom. Yes, the curriculum guides, pacing guides and standards are important, but I feel a much more urgent need to teach empathy, compassion, flexibility, perseverance and simply – how to be a good person.

Because the world needs good people.

Now more than ever.

 

I want my children to understand the world, but not just because the world is fascinating and the human mind is curious. I want them to understand it so that they will be positioned to make it a better place.

Howard Gardner

 

 

Who’s Doing the Work?

If you are looking for a professional book to read this summer, read on. I recently finished a new one from Stenhouse called Who’s Doing the Work: How to Say Less So Readers Can Do More by Burkins and Yaris. There were many wonderful parts of the text that reiterated some of my firm beliefs about teaching reading. I’ll list some in this post and, hopefully, ignite your interest.

I totally agree with the basic premise that as teachers we have to monitor ourselves so that we do not take on work that the students are capable of doing themselves. The authors use the four instructional contexts of reading aloud, shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading to show us how to let students take more control of their developing reading processing systems. Burkins and Yaris also make a strong case against the ‘leveling frenzy’ saying that some teachers are “blinded by levels,” not being able to see past levels to what the child can actually do as a reader.

In chapter 2, the authors emphasis the benefits of reading aloud to children calling the read aloud time a “commercial for reading.” We should be setting kids up to want to be readers. Several classroom examples are given which show how students can participate in negotiating the meaning of the text.

Chapter 3 emphasizes the importance of shared reading with students. I was reminded of something Regie Routman always says — that she does most of her teaching through Shared Reading experiences, where the students can all see the text. Yaris and Burkins expand the meaning of shared reading beyond what some teachers may think of as only K-2 teachers reading Big Books and poems together with their students. They feel that if we did more shared reading experiences in grades 2-5, students would be more equipped with strategies and behaviors to use during guided reading when each child is in the role of the reader. “Shared reading allows students to experience reading a more difficult text in a supportive, meaningful context.” (p. 65.)

In the guided reading chapter, the authors remind us that the teacher must step back and let the students do the work as they problem solve words and make meaning of texts. I love that they call guided reading “independent reading’s dress rehearsal.” During these  small group sessions, the teacher can see how students “apply all of their knowledge about how to read” while she is still there to intervene or support when necessary. Just as Terry Thompson says in his book on scaffolding, these authors remind us to “resist the urge to jump in and prompt heavily as soon as students have difficulty.”(p. 93.) Kids should feel safe enough in guided reading to take the time to try different strategies to resolve problems.

One major point of the whole book is that we should always be teaching towards the end goal of developing lifelong readers who CAN and DO read for pleasure and for information.  The independent reading time is when students have plenty of class time to read books of their own choosing, books that match their interests and their abilities, without being restricted by a level number or letter. “If teachers micromanage independent reading time, they limit students agency and engagement and, consequently, limit the amount of work students do.” (p. 111).

Early in the book (p. 28), the authors suggest we reflect on what we, the readers of this text, agree with and what we disagree with. To me that means that they encourage professional discussion on various topics, so I feel OK in mentioning two points that I question (‘disagree” being too strong a word).

  1. There is recurring mention throughout the text that ‘book introductions involve the teacher doing too much for the students.’  I tend to agree with Clay who says that students are “entitled to a book introduction.” I support the use of book intros (when done correctly) especially for students reading at beginning primary levels, K-2.  I agree with these authors who worry that some teachers have misunderstood the concept of a book introduction and prime the students with too much information or pre-teach words. I also agree that a good book intro is NOT a page-by-page book walk. Katie and I present our views of book intros on pages 78-80 and 127-130 in Catching Readers Before They Fall.  I’d also like to suggest that teachers look for a new book coming from Stenhouse within the next year on Book Introductions (no title yet) by authors Fay, Whaley, and Moritz.  I think that book will help clarify any questions teachers may have.
  2. My other concern relates to the way that word solving is described in this text.  Though the authors mention Clay and her three sources of information: meaning, structure, and visual information – they decide to combine two of those and only explain the Meaning and the Print aspects.  I find this a bit misleading for teachers, however, I can understand that they were trying to simplify it for their readers.  Again, the new book coming soon from Stenhouse will address the structural source of information.

I hope my last two points don’t discourage anyone from reading this book because it is a valuable text.  Rather, I included them so that all teachers will read with a reflective stance. We should always think and reflect on what we read in any professional text.