Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Reading Contagion

Hosted by the team at Two Writing Teachers, link up
your Slice of Life 

on Tuesdays throughout the year.
Paul W. Hankins and Sarah Gross have been posting "High Point(s) of the Teaching Day" on Facebook. I love catching these glimpses into their classrooms. Light travels. Today my high point was listening to tenth graders, Mahammed and Kevin, talk about Sick by Tom Leveen.

Kevin is "patient zero" when it comes to being infected by Leveen's story. He read it first and he has been talking it up since. Mahammed just finished it. He handed it right off to another student even as his table mate clamored to be "next" to read it.  It's been read by three students in less than two weeks. That's the best kind of contagious. And they are still talking about it. That, I love.

Another high point in my day was finally getting students into the digital textbook. I finally had time to figure out what we'd been doing wrong getting there.  Learning a new resource takes time even for folks who are tech savvy. Just as I need time to learn, so do my students. I want to keep the idea that learning takes time in mind, especially  this time a year when it can seem like there is a rush to get things done and moving at the start.  I screen casted my demonstration today if you'd like to get a peek into our new resource.  Please forgive the multiple log on interruptions around 2:36 . Sometimes our server requests multiple log ons when we're using personal devices on the network and what works one way one day does not always work the next.



On the plus side students were excited to see the online book. They jumped right in, got through the multiple log on requests with their mobile devices and even figured out the highlighting tools using their phones.

Four textbooks, four devices. 
On a funny note, I just went to find the picture of Kevin reading Leveen's Sick on my phone and discovered I'd been photo bombed. Do you call it photo bombing when someone snicks your phone and takes a bunch of pictures of himself? I don't think students call it that, but I vaguely recall them calling it something. Blowing up the photos or the phone maybe? Tobi left about eight pictures of his face on my phone. I can tell he his standing at the computer station because of the light fixture above his head.

I've been taking pictures of students reading and of students' work in class and saving the images to their folders in Evernote, so I have my phone out on a work table a lot. I trust my students not to take the phone and can't help but laugh at the funny faces Tobi made on the screen. I wonder what possessed him to do that?


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Kale or Ice Cream: Choice and Summer Reading


My husband is an amazing cook. There are days I believe he could conjure a sauce out of dirt and rocks. He bakes bread: rye bread, wheat bread, sunflower bread. He's been known to brew beer, roast green coffee beans, pit smoke whole hogs.

Last week he made us patty melts on home-made rye bread just out of the oven. He sauted peppers, onions and mushrooms until they were just sweetened up in the pan. He topped the pressed beef patties with swiss cheese. Dropped the sauted vegetables on top then buttered the rye bread and grilled the sandwiches . Somehow that sandwich tasted better than one I would have made for myself. 

It's not often the same with books though, is it? When we pick books for students they often are not sweeter than the books students would have chosen for themselves. 

Last week Karen Terlecky wrote about a reader being slowed by a book she chose from four titles offered for summer reading.  Karen likened that struggle to a truck, engine screaming, crawling uphill on the interstate. Slow, the trucks struggle, but without their uphill climb where would consumers be?
We need those trucks to keep moving just like we need to vegetables for our health.

There are reading assignments that are slow like that uphill climb and if I switch the metaphor and think diet, those assignments are broccoli and kale. Good for me, but not my first choice.

I like kale, now. I used to think it was a bitter decoration. Now, I juice it, chop it, mix it into breads. I like kale now, but it took years of vegetable conditioning to develop the taste for it. Even though I like it, I don't want to eat it in every salad or with every meal. It's good, but let's be honest, it's not ice cream or popcorn.  As with any comparison, there are limits to my food analogy, but the obesity epidemic (and my own "summer slide" toward too many chips and Popsicles) seems very real evidence for balance. 

I must balance making healthy food choices with my love of chips and ice cream. If I am going to be healthy and or take off some of the stress weight I put on last spring, I've got to balance doing what I want to do (read and nap) and doing what I have to do (eat well and exercise). From a health and nutritional stance, this makes sense.

It was the kale salad at the Wicked Spoon buffet in Las Vegas that changed my
mind about eating greens. English teacher friends and I ate there during NCTE 2012. 

But it does not always make sense for readers. Yes, as an adult I have to read things that I absolutely do not find pleasure in (income taxes, credit card documents, legislation that impacts educators). If I am to be an informed citizen I must read about issues of community concern. I've got to read the manual to my car to trouble shoot issues with the air conditioner. I have to read all of the beginning of the year papers that my son brings home from school.  I have to read ingredient labels on soaps and cosmetics to avoid a chemical allergen. At work, I have to read about our teacher evaluation model. Not fun, such reading. It is, however, necessary. 

When we give students bounded choices or no choice at all in what they read for summer reading,  what's our purpose? Why do we limit readers to one book or one out of four? If my purpose is to keep students reading during the summer months then I can see where I need to leave title options wide open. Let them eat cake so to speak. Some students do not get that treat though.

Some high school students  must read particular titles. Do they really have to do that during the summer?  International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement students have required reading lists. College freshmen have required reading too. Locally, one year at Rollins College all incoming freshmen had to read Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. Several colleges, such as Smith, and others, continue  a one book one college required reading experience for incoming freshmen. Why? What beliefs do we share that says such common experiences are valuable, important even? 

My answer to that question is grade-level or age dependent. At some point in a students' academic lives, students must be able to read assigned works.  Even my child will have to read textbook chapters or discipline-specific content. Engineers, doctors, lawyers, repairmen, contractors, even dental hygienists, computer programmers, stylists or graphic designers do not get to their degree or certification through selective reading. They get there by completing requirements and becoming credentialed. 

When I think about bounded choice--giving students several titles from which to choose--I liken that to getting students to eat a little bit of kale in their pre-dinner salad. Students may not be as invested in a book they are directed to read. I am okay with that for high school students. I do not believe we  need to limit or constrain choices for younger readers though. Is that ageist?  No, it's practical. 

The common reading experience and constrained choice is a means to prepare students for the reading demands they will face in colleges and careers. But that preparation need not begin in the summer months. I keep thinking about purpose.  Did the classic choice assignment meet my purpose? How many students chose classics that are also films? What might that suggest?

I need to revise the choice portion of my summer reading.  I need students choice to be wide-open not constrained to a cannon they may not be prepared to read. That lesson in meeting reading demands  is likely best taught when I can work with students side-by-side, not during the summer months. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Reading Records and Revision Histories

Hosted by the team at Two Writing Teachers, link up your Slice of Life 
on Tuesdays throughout the year. Today my slice grew from a moment on the steps leading in the classroom to a moment where I reflect on one way readers are accountable in my classroom. 

Lunch is over. I am standing on the second step of three at the door to my classroom. I'm watching students stream toward the field of portable classrooms. My eleventh graders have started to arrive and as I stand on the step I can hear them chatting, checking the board and settling in before the bell rings. 

A students approaches me to talk about our Reading Record. We've just begun using it for  the year. 
"I don't know what I did, Miss Spillane," she begins. "But  I went on the Reading page last night and I don't ..."
"No worries, ___. I saw it. I don't know what happened either but all of the students' names in first period were gone. They were period 1, period 1, period 2, period 2 instead," I said.
"I know! I don't know what I did."
"That's okay. Because I knew how to fix it. We discovered it this morning, so  I went  into the revision history and I restored the file. It's all fixed. No worries."
"Oh thank you! I didn't even know you could do that..."
Many of my students have never collaborated on a document before, nor are many familiar with excel spreadsheets (yet). The "restore this version" command in the revision history has saved us more than once since I shifted our record to a shared digital document. Students are amazed when I reveal that bit of Google magic--they are even surprise to see that the record is color-coded by user in the revision history.
You can see Angelika adding her AP World reading in the purple cells

We've set reading page goals using a version of the process Penny Kittle describes in Book Love

My thinking and notes on pages 28-29 of my dog-eared copy of Book Love.
We read in class for a set amount of time. Students then write a quick retelling/summary on an index card so that I can assess their comprehension. Speed is only one component of reading fluency. If students are not able to accurately retell what they read then I need re-assess. I used a variety of books for the initial assessment--some students chose and were already reading, others we pulled from the shelves. They were all titles I'd read. After students jotted a quick retelling, we calculated how many pages can be comfortably read in an hour. Then we we calculate out how many pages we can read in two and a half hours (my expectation). That becomes students weekly reading goal which we track on the reading record. 

In class that day, I read ten pages in six minutes. So my formula to calculate pages per hour is ten times ten. My goal for two and a half hours of reading is two-hundred and fifty pages a day. Every student has an individual goal. There is some overlap but the range in my tenth grade IB classes runs from seventy-five pages per week to five hundred; students assessment snapshots (standardized testing data) support or validate our rate assessments. This year we also calculated words per minute (just for fun).  We  compared our words per minute rates to silent reading normed data I'd dipped into.

from Hiebert, Wilson and Trainin (154)

This year for the first time, I researched silent reading rates and book formats and publishing. Kittle describes  the reading demands of college and she uses that evidence as she frames reading's importance in her book and in her work with students. I do too, but because I'm familiar with oral reading rates I wondered about research on silent reading. So I've been on an explore.*

I discovered that different formats or layouts of trade books have different word counts per page. Students and I talked about that. We also talked about how textbooks, especially those required in my students AP or IB classes, are denser in terms of words per page. We talked about how students could balance required textbook reading with choice-driven, pleasure reading. They must do both if they are to thrive as readers. At the same time, I want students to know that I value all of the reading they do, so they can record their assigned textbook reading on our record too. It counts.

Our version of Atwell's "Status of the Class" is a shared Google spreadsheet where students note what they are reading and the page the left off on. The record serves a few purposes. It becomes a reading history over time. It holds students accountable and much like exercising in a group, we see what each of us are doing. We can support, cajole and encourage each other. More conversations begins as students note pages that I could recount.  Student readers and I can review genre preferences, reading preferences or even reading demands (as students note more than just pleasure reading on the record). It become a rich data stream for me to assess readers in my room 

It takes less than five minutes once students understand how the document works and can readily access it on the Google Sheets app or online at their groups desktop. Once used to the routine students can get the pages noted in less than three minutes--it's a quick transition to our next instructional segment.  Once a week, students calculate how many pages they read and total it in the colored-coded column. We track our progress and talk about where we are doing well and where we are facing challenges. 

At year's start our calculations are clunky, but once students understand the formula they are subtracting their starting page numbers from their ending page numbers and adding across books read quickly. It is one quantitative measure of what students are doing. Over time it provides data we use to make reading plans, set goals or stretch ourselves. It also provides data I bring to data meetings with my principal.

None of the numbers, none of the qualitative data we examined together measures up to the power of story in students' lives. What matters is that students read and read and read and read.


Initial pictures of readers in the room. We're in the middle of a 30-month renovation so the shares
look a mess as I've been packing to shift and move.
*I've only just started looking (so it will be another post in the future). If you want to see the studies I'm using as a springboard, find them herehere and here. I found over and over the 250 words per minute as a "usual" reading rate for twelfth graders (Taylor). 

Works Cited

Atwell, Nancie. In the Middle: New Understandings about Writing, Reading and Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998.

Hiebert, Elfrieda H.; Wilson, Kathleen M. and Guy Trainin. "Are Students Really Reading-Based  in Indepenent Reading Contexts? An Examination of Comprehension-Based Silent Reading Rate. in 

Revisiting Silent Reading: New Directions for Teachers and Researchers. Elfrieda Hiebert and Ray Reutzel, Eds. International Reading Association, 2010. 


Kittle, Penny. Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina and Passion in Adolescent Readers. Portsmouth,NH: Heinemann, 2013.