becoming a reader

I started to love to read right around 5th or 6th grade. There were no big readers in my house, no bookshelves stuffed with titles. I remember my mother telling me once that she struggled to be able to read at all because she needed glasses that her family could not afford for a very long time. She never developed the habit, she said. Her brother did. I remember visits from Uncle Cliff. He was usually the first one out of bed and I would often find him at the kitchen table with morning coffee and a book. Fantasy and science fiction, I think. (Fantasy is my favorite genre.)

The first book I remember loving was Elizabeth’s George’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond. It was assigned reading for school and I was as surprised that the school assigned the book as I was that I enjoyed it so much. I don’t remember any other book from that time, but I have vivid memories of sitting on the swing in the backyard reading this one. It wasn’t until high school, when I had more freedom to wander into a school library, that I really developed my love of reading. I still read sitting on the back swing, and also on the front stoop, and in bed, and sitting in the back of Dad’s pickup truck parked in the driveway during the week, and at the park, and . . . well, you know.

My delayed start as a reader reminds me of the importance of giving kids access to books. I think this year I’m going to be more willing to lose books from the classroom library. Last year I set aside a box of “take home” books but there were so many great titles in the library that kids wanted to savor. I want kids to know they can borrow books, take the time to fall in love with them. So, we’ll set some time right at the beginning of the year for lessons on how to take care of books, how to find them and reshelve them so others can find them, how to put them in your backpack to minimize damage to the cover, how to budget time to finish a popular book to give someone else a chance with it. And I’ll brace myself to deal with torn covers and lost titles.

If I truly think kids should read self-selected titles, if I want to develop a reading culture where kids anticipate getting a copy of a popular book at least as much as they anticipate Pizza Friday, then I need give them access.

I want one of my students to have a memory of savoring a great book while swinging in their backyard.

Heads up to my DonorsChoose community, I may need to request a lot of new books next year.


Same Sun Here – fiction that helps us understand the world

This spring my fourth graders learned a little bit about energy sources used in the United States and started to think about the consequences, both positive and negative, of each. I was dissatisfied with the unit, feeling like the kids were not able to connect well enough with the information to gain a good understanding of those consequences.

IMG_0132My mistake in the unit was to neglect fiction. I wish I had read Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani before teaching that unit, but at least I’ll be ready next year.

Fiction introduces us to new friends and can help us to gain empathy and understanding in a way that nonfiction might not. (Though a good narrative nonfiction would do the same.) After reading The Tales of Despereaux as a class, the kids seemed to understand well why the little mouse who set up household in our classroom acted the way it did. Our Despereaux also stayed to the edges, ran when people approached, but crept out seemingly to better hear the stories during read aloud. Because of the valiant Despereaux of the story, they did not want to harm this little mouse but rather to find it a better place to live.

River’s experience with the coal industry in Same Sun Here might help kids better understand the consequences of this particular energy source. On the one hand, River’s family, like most of the families in his Kentucky home, depended on the coal industry for income. We see the disruption to family life when the coal jobs moved away and his dad had to go away to find work. The coal industry means jobs, means funded schools, means that people can afford to stay in their homes. Later, when mountaintop removal begins, the consequences become dire. The stream is polluted and can no longer be fished and then a rock slide puts kids in danger.

Stories like this can help kids see the consequences of such usually invisible decisions like where our electricity comes from.

Even without the connection to our energy unit, this book is a good read. It shows us long-distance friendship between two kids who on the surface are completely different. It reminds us that people are the same: we love our grandmothers, we want to fit in without losing ourselves, we want our families to be together, we want to know there is something we can do to fight injustice, we make mistakes, and we need a friend who lets us be our true selves.

Meena’s story reveals the struggles of many immigrant families to find their place in the United States, through the bureaucratic hoops and the economic realities. Her description of life in New York City would sound familiar  to many of my students who also have had to lie or hide to keep their family safely housed, who have seen family and friends move away because they could not afford to stay, who find joy in a trusted community despite the difficulties.

And, in their friendship, River and Meena teach us that stereotypes and prejudices only serve to keep us apart when a good friend could found instead.

Same Sun Here is told through the letters these pen pals exchange. We get to eavesdrop on their friendship and see how it grows and this format helps readers connect to the characters. We see how they each draw strength from the relationship, we see their kindness for a person they never met face to face, and we learn something about how to find common ground.

Read the book. Read it out loud with your elementary school students. Read it with a small book club, as part of an energy unit, as part of an immigration unit, or to launch a pen pal writing project. Or just read it because it is a good story, well told by kids who are a lot like ours.

Marty Pants

I spent my last week of school sneaking in time between paperwork deadlines and cleaning chores to read the first in Mark Parisi’s Marty Pants books, Marty Pants: Do Not Open. The book was recommended to me by one of my fourth graders who read it after talking to one of her third grade friends about it who actually got to meet Parisi during a school visit. (Parisi’s sister-in-law is a third grade teacher at my school.) Marty certainly helped make light of a stressfully busy week.

Marty Pants is one of those boys who seems completely oblivious to the world around him, functioning in a universe of his own making. It’s great to hear the story told by Marty himself but hilariously unbelievable to think that any boy – real or fictional – could survive long with his particular way of seeing the world. And yet, I think I’ve had a Marty in my class every year I’ve taught. Throughout the story he misinterprets just about everything that he sees and hears and gets into some trouble with grownups on a daily basis.

Though not a graphic novel, Parisi illustrates every page and parts of the story rely on those pictures. One of the rising 4th graders that I met on Move Up Day asked if I would let him draw his comic strips and we had a short discussion about the many ways to show learning and tell stories, including comics. I can’t help but think Marty Pants was a big inspiration to him.

You can tell by the dinged corners and grimy cover of the edition that I borrowed that lots of kids have already enjoyed this book. You will too. It’s a quick, easy read, especially if you don’t have cumulative folders to organize and report cards to finish.

Starting Book A Day with Magic

IMG_0018I am drawn to titles that include a reference to magic and even more to book jackets featuring a dragon, so Susan Cooper’s The Magician’s Boy seemed the perfect way to start out the Book A Day Challenge. Granted, that it is a particularly short book weighed in as well, since my last day of school is still a month away and I have miles to grade before I read.

The Magician’s Boy also features another literary device that I usually enjoy. Cooper takes familiar stories and characters and places them in a slightly new context. The Boy, nameless through most of the story, is apprenticed to a magician who will not teach him magic. But he is given the responsibility of the puppet theater, telling the story of Saint George and the Dragon.

Margaret Hodges’ version of the story was a favorite of my daughters. We often included it in our “book festivals” until the pages started falling from the binding. But I did think it odd to include this as the central story for this jump into Story Land since it didn’t seem like a well-known tale in our day. Cooper summarizes just enough so her readers know what’s going on.

When the Saint George puppet goes missing from the boy’s performance case, the magician sends him into the story to look for him. That’s when things get weird for me. The boy meets the Old Woman who lives int he shoe, and her too many children; the Pied Piper who tries to lead the children away; Jack and his Giant; and even Little Red Riding Hood. The stories didn’t seem to go together for me, though I suppose once upon a time, children would have been familiar with all of them.

I wonder if my students are? I don’t think most would have ever heard of the Pied Piper though they likely read Little Red in school. Teaching 4th grade, I haven’t been reading the old fairy tales they way I did with my 2nd graders. My students, mostly born in the United States of immigrant parents, have not had the same exposure to tales as I once had. My childhood was not filled with books outside of school, as theirs is not, but somehow we seemed to base more of our popular media on traditional tales than happens now. It was as if we know Little Red Riding Hood as a neighbor, never having been formally introduced, she was just always there.

So, how will my students take The Magician’s Boy, or any of the many books based on fairy tale characters? Should I take the time to survey the class about their familiarity with traditional literature at the start of the year?

There is so much material to cover in 4th grade. But, it wouldn’t take long to read a fairy tale now and then. It would make a few books make a bit more sense.

Check out Miller’s 8th Annual Book A Day Challenge here.

Classroom Library

img_4288As I was helping Harper locate a graphic novel to add to his book box, I kept fishing books out of boxes where they did not belong. Geronimo Stilton in a nonfiction box reserved for books on energy? What was the problem? Didn’t we spread the books all over the classroom and look at them and think about what genre they were and decide which books belonged where together?

No. We didn’t. Not really.

That was the plan, and the books were certainly in a mess everywhere. But I have several children with some pretty difficult to manage behaviors so our work dissolved into chaos and most children missed the point. The days started to get away from me and I made different decisions than intended. And so, with the help of only a few students, the library was put together. And I learned some tough lessons. Here’s my thinking for next year:

1.) Put some of the library together before the kids arrive. I realized I was feeling rushed since, without the library put together, we couldn’t work on choosing good books for ourselves. I hurried through the organization and the kids didn’t have time to think through their choices or try things out and then change their minds. So, I’ll pull out some basic categories and have those bins already set up. Animal books, graphic novels, poetry, biography – we can pretty much rely on these groups so it won’t stifle student thinking. And besides, they can always refine those categories – ocean animals, sport biographies. Before we tackle the library, we’ll think about how to choose a good book, what we need to work on as readers, and then what we want and need for the work.

2.) We’ll learn about different genres before we put books out. When they came up with the category “animal books” they lumped in books on the life cycle of frogs with books from the Humphrey series about a mischievous hamster. We had to back track and talk about the difference that I thought we had settled already. Quick reviews aren’t quite enough on the hot and humid first days back at school.

One half of the room is now settled as the nonfiction side, with Science, Math, and Social Studies books grouped together in their own areas. Next year, we can spend some time talking about each area of the room and what sorts of books would fit there, before we start putting books away.

3.) I’ll keep the boxes of unshelved books out of the classroom and bring in only one at a time. The mess of too many unorganized things in the room was a jarring beginning, and combined with troubling behaviors created an atmosphere of unsettledness that has been hard to overcome.

Monday will be our 12th day of school and we’ll go in with a library  sorted into categories the students created – for the most part. I’ve created a Library Scavenger Hunt to start off a conversation about how we find and return library books that I hope will be a useful review of the organization.

It’s a work in progress.


distracted reading

The Boston Globe offered a brief article this Sunday on our changing reading brains. As we adapt to the skimming of online reading – reading the first few sentences, scrolling down in search of keywords and interesting phrases, clicking on to new links – many of us find that we can no longer sit and read through a novel or scholarly journal. My husband has already been monitoring this decline in his own reading habits, forcing himself to sit with a novel for half-hour stretches to try to re-train his brain.

Researchers are now looking into what this adaptation will mean for critical reading necessary to process information at school and work. “There is concern that young children’s affinity and often mastery of their parents’ devices could stunt the development of deep reading skills.” And I’m thinking, if my husband – life-long lover of good books, university trained in how to read them – can begin to lose his ability to read deeply, what does this mean for my second graders? After all, the students I teach are already on the “watch list” of those who may need extra support to develop strong academic skills. They are predominantly from low-income families, more than half of them are English language learners, hardly any of their parents have more than a high school education (and some, not even that), and several are transients who move from school to school each year. They are already disadvantaged readers.

As a school, we address these issues as best we can. We support families in finding stable housing, we connect them with services to balance out the lack of income, and we structure our curriculum to fill in the language and literacy gaps traditionally connected with these social and economic groups. But, we have done little, or nothing, to address this new threat to literacy. Quite the opposite, in fact. In an effort to provide students with more reading material outside of school, we help set families up with online reading material.

Certainly, keeping students off the internet is not the answer. What we need is to adjust our reading instruction to the reality of reading in 2014 and beyond.

But I don’t know how to do that yet. In fact, while writing this rather short post, I stopped once to check email, another time to refill my coffee cup, and then clicked on to a teacher bog recommended by a colleague that had nothing to do with the topic at hand. Who am I to instruct students on how to read through distractions?

All I can do right now is begin to look closely at how my students tackle a reading project. During Independent Reading (20 minutes of our day) do they stick to a book or continually sift through their bag? Is their Response to Reading reflective of critical thought about the book or distracted rambling? Do they know enough about books and what they like to make a good choice in the classroom library? And, when they have some online reading time, how many clicks away from the text do they make?

Once I get a better feel for my students’ reading habits . . . well, I don’t know yet what I’ll do. But I know I’d like to be a part of this conversation. I know that the ability to read critically is key to learning, a key they’ll need to hold on to through school and their careers.


Reading a book of her own creation – a good sign


Stuffed “Reading Buddies” help keep us focused.