Thursday, January 22, 2009

Welcome to Kelly Gallagher!

We are honored here at TheDreamTeacher to have a visit from accomplished author Kelly Gallagher! Kelly is renowned for books including Teaching Adolescent Writers and Building Adolescent Readers, both published by Stenhouse and both valuable information for any teacher's library.

For the past week, we've been focusing on Kelly's new book, Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It, which will be released by Stenhouse on February 10th. (Order it HERE!) Kelly has stopped by to answer teacher's questions about the sneak preview that we presented here last week. Here are your questions and Kelly's answers during this exciting discussion:

1. My question has to do with the assessment of student progress in reading. If the current assessments are driving us to Readicide, as they seem to be, what do you think is a fair way to monitor teacher success in helping students gain the full range of reading skills, and most especially comprehension/higher order skills? As much as I disagree with the way we assess reading on a mass high-stakes scale now, I've also been in a lot of schools where teachers were not getting the job done, most often because they really didn't have the deep understanding of how to do it well. How do we spot those teachers and help them?

There are three questions that can be asked after the reading of any text: What does it say? What does it mean? What does it matter? These are the levels of assessment I want to assess after my students read. (More on this in my book, Deeper Reading). I also want them to consider what the text didn't say. I design all my reading assessments with these levels of thinking in mind. This means all my assessment requires written response. No bubbling. If I want to know my students are getting to deeper levels, they have to demonstrate this via writing.

2. I agree with Mr. Gallagher that giving kids time to read during school is important, but what do you do when there are a few kids who simply don't read during this time? For example, I have one student who says he hates reading. We looked through my classroom library together, and there was nothing that looked interesting to him. We've looked through the school's library with the same result. When we finally find a book he's willing to try, he looks around the room during most of our reading time. During independent reading time, I run guided reading groups, have student-teacher conferences, or give individual students reading assessments (DRAs), so I can't read with him every day. How do I make sure independent reading time is a valuable use of time for ALL kids?
Frankly, I do not know that you can. There may be that one kid out there who will not read. Whenever I get a kid like that, I want to know if it is a case of "will" or a case of "skill." Does he not want to read? Or is it that he cannot read? I sit down and assess the child's ability to read. I start really reluctant readers with comic books and magazines. I also start by sharing with them the real-world reasons why reading is a worthwhile undertaking. That said, I do not think it is possible (given our class sizes and other obstacles) to turn every kid on to reading. I try to touch as many of them as I can.

3. I recently discussed the unbelievable breadth of the English Language Arts curriculum with one of my colleagues. As ELA teachers, we both feel the pressure to teach students everything that involves reading, writing, listening, speaking, and viewing. Unfortunately, this sometimes comes at the cost of valuing quantity over quality - an unfortunate step towards Readicide. Your recommendation was to break the curriculum into 2 subjects ­- reading and writing. Although there would be clear overlaps between the two subjects, there would also be distinct objectives for each subject. This would, however, involve hiring additional staff and probably lengthening the instructional day. I firmly believe in an integrated curriculum, but sometimes, when the day is too short and the curriculum is too daunting, this approach seems the way to go. Mr. Gallagher, ­ I know you have focused on both reading and writing curriculums in your work. Have any of your experiences provided insight on the pros/cons of this issue? Are there other models available for creating a more purposeful and critical curriculum?

I would not favor any proposal that separates reading and writing into two subjects. Instead of one hour of reading and one hour of writing, why don't we give them two hours of language arts? What we need to be doing is lobbying for more time (e.g. double periods) for English classes. I talk in Readicide about Marzano's work where he found that the largest impediment to teaching the standards are the standards themselves. Oddly, I take comfort in that. We cannot fit 22 years of curriculum into K-12. What we can do is slow down and make sure that our limited time with our students is maximized. This means we read and write every single day.

5. I have a couple of different questions regarding the ideas presented in Readicide. First of all, I respect the notion that teachers need to find their voices, and begin discussing the problems caused by high-stakes testing, but I cringe at the idea of doing so outside of my teamroom or Friday's "happy hour". My principal made it clear his first year that teachers without his "sense of urgency" could be replaced. I love my school and my community; I don't plan on leaving. Thus, do you have any suggestions for how to begin some "hard talk" in an appropriate, professional manner? I don't want to come across as a complainer or not a team-player when everyone else has accepted multiple-choice testing as the present reality of education.

I don't think there is a generic answer to this question. Much depends on the dynamics of the site---the principal, the make-up of the faculty, the culture of the school. A couple of suggestions: start a professional book club on your campus. Even if you only start with a few teachers, find like-minded teachers and read together. Read what the research says about reading. Share articles. When discussing with other faculty members, always center your discussion around the following question: What is best for kids? I don't think it is about a "sense of urgency." No one has a stronger sense of urgency than I do. It is about meeting in a professional manner and applying our sense of urgency in a way that best helps kids.

Secondly, my colleagues and I have struggled with how to ensure and assess nightly reading at home. We have tried weekly reading logs on which students respond to the reading with questions, summaries, illustrations, connections, etc. as well as simple reading calendars, requiring students to note titles, pages and genres. No matter what we try, these logs always end up being submitted late, incomplete, insufficiently completed or neglected entirely, with struggling readers apathetically accepting zero after zero. It seems the only students who turn them in consistently are the ones I know are reading anyway! Do you have any tips for ensuring reading outside of school? Thank you so much for many of the suggestions in your book! My teammate and I are going to start assigning weekly articles as a way to increase our students' background knowledge.

I share in my early books the logs I have kept with my students. I don't keep them any more. I have simplified things greatly. To get an A, B, or C in my class, you not only have to earn the specific grade, you also have to read 1 book a month on your own (This book-a-month does not include the novels and works of non-fiction that we are reading together). If you are a reluctant reader, read easier books. If you are an excellent reader, read books at your level. Students fill out One-pagers each month for accountability purposes. I should also add that I have to stop repeatedly and remind my students why they should make the effort to read (See my firstbook, Reading Reasons).

Thanks goes out to our visiting author, Kelly Gallagher, as well to as our teachers who submitted questions. We appreciate Mr. Gallagher including us on his BlogTour and wish him well as he continues his travels!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Holding Dreams...

Langston Hughes penned "Hold fast to dreams...." in the young years of the twentieth century, some time before Martin Luther King delivered his immortal speech in August of 1963. Today the dream of a nation will come to pass as we watch history in the making alongside the memorial of a man who proclaimed emancipation a century ago.

I have spoken of our responsibility as teachers to explain to our students that this day, this inauguration, is important because it represents the realization of those dreams to so many in our country. As a little girl who grew up in the South, I too have dreamed of a day when individuals are judged by attributes other than skin color.

When I was five or six, my family, like many others in the sixties, owned only one car. My mother would deliver my Daddy to work each morning, and we would repeat the trip in the afternoon to pick him up. Every day on our return home, we would stop at the same stop sign, at the same intersection, and wait for traffic. To the left of that intersection was a house, and outside of the house, a little Black girl played every afternoon. I would always rest my chin on the edge of the open window and look at her, hoping that one day she would wave at me, maybe be my friend. For months she didn't look my way. But every day I would stare at that little girl and her toys and wish that I could just jump out of my car and run to her and make a friend.

Finally one day I looked her way and she looked up. I smiled at her. Then...she gave me some nonverbal communication - the finger kind.

My face fell. My heart was broken. For years I couldn't understand why that little girl was mad at me when I didn't even know her. But as I grew older, I began to understand. I read books like Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Mildred Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and I knew what had made that little Black girl so angry at a little White girl like me.

My hope is that, as adults, that little girl and I have chatted in some grocery store line or have shared a smile in the shopping mall. Maybe I've taught her kids; maybe she's taught mine. Nevertheless, we are in a different world now, chronologically a long way from the 1960's, even if there are times when, emotionally, we are still close to those days. It is my hope that the events of today will help close that huge divide, that little girls of all colors will wave...and smile...and play together.

Dan Fogelberg sings a song entitled "Same Old Auld Lang Syne." The lyrics tell of a man who runs into a former girlfriend on Christmas Eve when the snow is falling. The last line is "and as I turned to make my way back home, the snow turned into rain." I've always enjoyed the metaphorical intent of that line, realizing that the image of snow and its clean, quiet peacefulness is contrasted to the dreary, repetitious rain.

I've just endured a weekend full of rain. I've walked my dog and returned soggy and shivering for three days. But today I woke to falling snow and a bright sun shining on a crisp, beautiful lawn. That experience, and the events of this day, remind me of another poem by Langston Hughes, "A New Song."

...the past

is done.

A new dream flames

against the sun.

We welcome a new dream to the Presidency of the United States and a new dream to Americans, of all colors and creeds. Perhaps we can finally say "United We Stand," and it will be true.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Are Schools Killing Reading?

As a middle school reading teacher, I often see firsthand the untimely death of reading for pleasure. Those little darlings who squealed with delight over reading their first words in elementary schools come to me and act as if they're being tortured when I say we're going to read. Oh, they're okay when I read to them, but the suggestion of silent reading sounds like punishment to my very active preteens and teenagers.

Every year I ask the students in my school to answer this question: what do you do when you read? And every year I get the same answer - "I look at words." I tell them that if I place a book in front of my cat's face, she will "look at words." Is she reading? The discussion continues - middle school kids like activity. I tell them if I could make reading more like playing a video game or football, they'd love it. And they agree. So I spend the entire school year teaching them ways to make reading interactive, something that requires more than "looking at words." We interact with the text in many ways - we think aloud, we annotate, we visualize - the list is long. But still it's true. Most of my students aren't excited about reading like they were in elementary school. And some openly hate it.

As I read Kelly Gallagher's new book, Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading and What We Can Do About It, I thought about all the things I've tried to do to keep reading alive. I've written short novels myself, unpublished but still my attempt to provide material that I know interests my students. I have dressed up in my wedding gown (veil and all), fairy costumes (I was the Reading Fairy), and even as Britney Spears (that one was a stretch, but we were teaching reading with a music theme that day!) I've brought in, or cooked, almost every food my classes have read about - a character in Pinballs loves Kentucky Fried Chicken; Gerald loved his Aunt Queen's pancakes in Forged by Fire. I've tap danced and once I did a handspring (that was in my younger days.)

So when I read Gallagher's title, I can say that I felt a little defensive. I'm not killing reading, I thought. But a sneak peek at the book proves that I need to understand that perhaps all teachers aren't willing to pull their wedding gowns out of the closet while gradually having more difficulty getting them zipped due to the vast amount of food being consumed in the classroom. There are actually schools who are contributing to "readicide," a malady defined by Gallagher as a "the systematic killing of the love of reading often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools."

Want to know more? I'm excited to announce that Kelly Gallagher is going to be making a Blog Tour Stop right here at The Dream Teacher. Click HERE to download the book, scheduled to be released on February 10th by Stenhouse Publishers. And it's definitely worth the peek! Gallagher begins with an in depth discussion of how testing has impacted our teaching - he calls it "The Elephant in the Room." Then he ends the book with a nice appendix that includes "101 Books My Reluctant Readers Love to Read." Every teacher needs to see that list.

Most importantly, Mr. Gallagher, a full time teacher at Magnolia High School in Anaheim, California, will be stopping by to answer any questions that DreamTeacher readers may have. So click on the link, read the book, and submit your questions in the comment section.

And thanks to Kelly Gallagher who is on a mission to stop readicide in our country. It's a huge undertaking (no pun intended) to end the killing of reading, but this book is a great way to start. Submit your questions, and let's get this discussion started!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Apples for the Teacher

My Superintendent and I were talking recently about our holiday break and our families. He was telling me about some relatives of his who have been in the spotlight recently. One was just crowned a pageant winner and will compete in the Miss USA Pageant this year. Her sister is a former teen pageant winner. Her other sister is a model who is engaged to an actor who can be seen on a current teen drama. He ended by telling me that the mother of these girls was in the Miss USA Pageant in 1982.

All of a sudden that voice in my head (that interrupts way too often) started chanting, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree...the apple doesn't fall...." and I was taken back to the first time I ever heard that phrase.

I was sitting in a parent conference with each of the core teachers on my team and Alton's mother. Alton, who was one of the brightest students I ever taught, as well as a talented and creative artist, was prone to unexpected outbursts of anger. One day, Alton asked for a pass to the restroom. I handed it to him and continued to monitor my class that was unusually quiet while taking a test. Alton opened the classroom door, took one step through the door frame and stopped. He turned, and in one fell swoop, ran across the room, pummeled another student in the head, then ran out the door and down the hall.

As we sat that day and discussed these behaviors with his mother, she sat quietly and listened. She finally said, "I've heard enough," stood up, and walked to the door. We sat at that classroom table, looking confused. Finally, she turned at the doorway, looked in our direction, and started screaming at a pitch that sent my hands to cover my ears and some folks in the hallway to the office for help. She resisted our attempts to calm her and screamed about the unfair treatment of her son for about three minutes before the principal came and escorted her out.

At that point our social studies teacher quietly whispered, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree." I was a relatively young teacher at the time and hadn't heard that phrase before, but the little voice in my head has repeated it many times since.

One year I had a student named Christal. Christal was the loudest child I ever taught. Her normal speaking voice was decibels higher than anything I had ever heard, and when she came down the hallway to my class, she would swing her arms left to right over her head and yell, "Heeeyyyyy, Hoooooo, Heeeeyyyyy, Hooooo..." all the way to my room. I asked her nicely to be quieter. I modeled speaking quietly. Christal wouldn't budge. So I called her mom. I explained the situation into the phone and then jerked it away from my ear as fast as I could when she began yelling, "YEA, I KNOW CHRISTAL'S LOUD, BUT SHE GOT IT HONEST. HER GRANDMA IS LOUD, TOO!!!"

I politely thanked Christal's mother and hung up the phone. It's all about that apple.

Back in the 80's when I was young and in shape, I owned and operated a dance studio at night. Middle school during the day; dancing at night; I had loads of energy then. My daughter Kelli crawled around that studio as a baby and grew up there, dancing from the time she could walk. Now Kelli is a doctoral student and a professional dancer for the NFL who teaches a couple of classes at a dance studio in her spare time. Today she was telling me about her spring recital. There'll be an 80's theme, and I was thinking of some dances we used to do back when I was teaching - Flashdance, Thriller, anything by Janet Jackson or Madonna...

And I started thinking, wow...Kelli's doing exactly what I was doing at her age...

Then that little voice spoke up, loudly like Christal's mother - THE APPLE DOESN'T FALL TOO FAR FROM THE TREE!!!

Happy New Year, everyone! And have fun with all of your apples. They'll be sitting in your classrooms again next week.

Kelli in 1988

and now...