Sunday, May 25, 2008

Reading To Impress

Many people read, but less than many actually read because they enjoy it. There are elitists out there, those that read to impress, and I'm not down with those people. Yes, I've tried to read a few of 'their' books, but by and large, it hasn't been a positive experience.

In 2007, the Library and Information Update did a survey and found that half of their respondents said that reading classics made one appear more intelligent, and that's why they did it. Also, more than half of the young adults, age 19-21, lied when asked to name their favorite books. The favorite books of read to impress name droppers were:

Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien
War and Peace – Tolstoy
Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus – John Gray
1984 – George Orwell
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling
Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
The Diary of Anne Frank

That's not to say that all of these books, or any of them, are bad. It just goes to show what the common thought is on what intelligent literature is. Lord of the Rings is one of my favorite stories of all time. 1984 has consistently rated among my favorite books ever, and of course, children the world over love Harry Potter. I've also read The Da Vinci Code and loved it, and I read portions of The Diary of Anne Frank to my students every year.

The point here is that if reading becomes seen as nothing more than a task someone undertakes in order to appear smart, then it is done in vain, and serves no purpose beyond appearance, much like getting plastic surgery or something like that. As teachers and/or literary theorists, it is our job to make reading real to kids, to help them find the true value in reading, and to enjoy the process.

Please take a look at the reading survey that is tied to this post, and my personal response. I have also provided a link to the survey itself in .pdf format on that post. CLICK HERE to go to that post, which also happens to be the post immediately prior to this one.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Reading Interest Survey

This survey is taken directly from the Reading Interest Survey pdf file that you can locate by clicking the just mentioned link. I am providing my personal responses because it's fun, please take the survey and do it or use it with your students to get a better view of them as readers.

1. Do you like to read? Of course, I wouldn't do this blog if I didn't.

2. How much time do you spend reading? During the school year, probably 10 hours per week. During summer vacation, much more, probably 30 hours per week.

3. What are some of the books you have read lately? I read I Am the Messenger, The Little Prince, I'm reading The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford right now, and that's about it, it was a busy month.

4. Do you have a library card? How often do you use it? Yes I do. I use it probably ten times per year.

5. Do you ever get books from the school library? Well, this is cheating because I'm a teacher, but of course I do, I get dozens at a time actually. I also have my own classroom library that served my class well this year.

6. About how many books do you own? This is a two parter. Personally, for my own home collection, about 200. What I own for my classroom, as a teacher, about 400.

7. What are some books you would like to own? I'm just trying to keep up with my students interests, so whatever they're interested in. Personally, I don't TRY to own anything, I just find what's good. I'm currently looking for a couple of Holocaust related graphic novels, I'd like to own those.

8. The kind of reading I like best: History, science fiction, adventure, novels, biography, humor, mysteries.

9. Do you like to read the newspaper? Yes, I don't read it from cover to cover, but I read what stands out to me.

10. What parts of the newspaper do you like? Columnists, headlines, sports, comic strips, politics, current events, and editorials

11. What are your favorite television programs? The Office, The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Iron Chef America.

12. How much time do you spend watching television? During the school year, maybe one hour per night. During the summer, maybe a lot more.

13. What is your favorite magazine? Wired

14. Do you have a hobby? If so, what is it? Yes, reading.

15. What are the two best movies you have ever seen? The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Pianist.

16. Who are your favorite entertainers and/or movie stars? I've always thought that Ben Affleck was pretty cool, and that Jessica Alba was pretty pretty.

17. When you were little, did you enjoy having someone read aloud to you? Yes, I did. I still do.

18. List topics, subjects, etc. which you might like to read about: Zombie fiction, I love the stuff and can't find it. The Holocaust, I am immersed in the genre, and am always trying to find more. And any good young adult and pre-adolescent literature, for obvious reasons (it's my field).

19. What does the word 'reading' mean to you? It means more than just looking at words on a page and making sense of them. Reading means actually interacting with a text, enjoying it, wanting more of it, and becoming immersed in it. Of course, that is a classroom definition.

20. Say anything else that you would like to say about reading: Reading opens door, it changes world views, and it has the power to shape lives.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Textbook Manifesto

Textbooks are the devil, textbooks drive students away from true learning, and textbooks are a waste of money. Teachers use textbooks because they're already there, they're easy, they don't force the teacher to actually have the background knowledge, and they're usually standards based. Textbooks are a cop out, they make the job of a teacher easier, and if a teacher uses them they'll be considered a good teacher.

Textbooks are like a lot of other things the schools want teachers to use. Textbooks are ridiculous, out of touch, and are one of the main things that drive students away from learning. I still have yet to see a textbook that is effective in any way.

A textbook should be a tool for learning, a resource, much like an encyclopedia or wikipedia. It is not the curriculum, the sooner teachers realize that, the sooner children will actually start learning. Until then, it's long live the textbook culture, and the 50% dropout rate. Let's keep patting ourselves on the back and ignore the problem.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Goals Time

As the school year winds down, I'm starting to plan some summer activities and tie up the end of the school year. Our final read for the year in class is The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, which is a timeless classic of juvenile literature. Apart from that, I'm starting to get my classroom collection ready to come home for the summer.

Yes, I get to lug well over 300 books home for the summer, but I do have a goal in mind. I'm shopping around for a good computer program that will serve to catalog my classroom library and also allow students to check out books electronically, to make it easier to track the process. I've narrowed it down a bit, and will definitely post about it when I've chosen the right software. I want something that's not overly complicated, expensive, and I want a program that will give me license to install it on at least three machines, because I have a number of good running computers in my class.

That's just a start, apart from that, I do plan on reading and providing this blog with a good number of book reviews, so don't worry, I won't be running out of steam, there will never be a shortage of books out there that are school appropriate.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

I Am The Messenger, by Markus Zusak

I Am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak, is a great book that will appeal to teenagers and adults alike. As I've begun to get more and more involved in young adult literature, I'm learning that quality young adult books are often times better than quality adult reads. That is the case with I Am the Messenger, it's a strong story with themes that apply to high school students and adults, and the story is also sophisticated enough to find readers in both age groups (although the adult age group is a little bigger and more complex than I'm letting on).

Because of this books dual identity in terms of its appeal, I want to talk about its appropriateness to both young adults and adults. First of all, I wouldn't use this book with any student younger than maybe 10th grade, there is a sexual theme that recurs, and I could almost liken some of the internal dialogue in this book to the internal dialogue in The Catcher in the Rye. Of course, J.D. Salinger's signature novel is one of the most banned books that is still widely read.

I Am the Messenger is a much deeper story in my opinion than Holden Caufield's exploits from The Catcher in the Rye. When I first read Catcher, I was surprised at how shallow Caufield (the protagonist) was for the entire story. I didn't get that impression with Ed Kennedy, the protagonist from Messenger. Students will enjoy this book because of its parallels to the realities of life and failure, they'll also enjoy the mystery aspect to the story, and the many different story lines that take place within the mind of a single character.

Now, for adults, the book I kept relating this too was Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas. The internal monologue is very similar, and the self-deprecating manner that the protagonist treats himself is extremely similar in both books. Plus, we encounter an unlikely hero in both books, so the stories strongly relate. I wouldn't say that Zusak and Koontz write in the same way, but they way they carry on their character portraits were similar in the case of these two specific characters of Odd Thomas and Ed Kennedy, without Ed Kennedy seeing dead people and all of that.

This book is highly recommended from me. Markus Zusak can practically do no wrong. His other best seller, The Book Thief (read my review of that book HERE), is one of my favorite books of all time. Check out both of these books, and have fun, because they're highly enjoyable.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Watsons Go To Birmingham - 1963

The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis, has been growing in popularity, not to mention banned book lists, since it was first published in 1995. This book is a great Civil Rights era story. It's the story of Kenny and the Watson family, and their experience living in Flint, Michigan in 1963. They're a fairly normal family, with problems common of the times, and that even parallel our lives today in many ways. Eventually they head off to Birmingham, Alabama, to return to the home of Kenny's mother.

They are in Birmingham when the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing took place on September 15, 1963 that killed four girls and injured many others. The great thing about this book is that it does what textbooks and worksheets can't, it injects emotion, a real story into the civil rights movement, and this means so much to pre-teen and teenage students alike. Pat R. Scales, author of Teaching Banned Books: 12 Guides for Young Readers, said:

Students may learn about the Civil Rights Movement in social studies, but they experience the horror, the fear, and the devastation of this terrible time with the Watson family in The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. Textbooks omit emotions. Novels don't. Knowing the facts is important, but making an emotional connection is the only way to truly walk in the shoes of others.

So, if you're looking for a great Civil Rights book that will leave a lasting impression on your students, this book is great. If you're interested in knowing why it has been challenged in the past and has ended up on banned book lists, it's basically because the book falls in line with a lot of pre-teen tales. The story is candid, words like 'hell' and 'ass' are said a few times, and the bombing of the church is definitely difficult to read. But shying kids away from stuff like this isn't doing them any favors, censorship in the case of this book is unnecessary and wrong, this book should be read, and I hope that if you're considering a unit on it, to consider it.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Joy of Reading

I'll never forget the experience. Up until 7th grade, reading class in school had been an endless pattern of sentence diagramming, vocabulary and spelling worksheets, and textbooks. It was boring, and when I walked into my 7th grade classroom, I had never willingly read a book in my life.

I walked in the class, and there were bookshelves everywhere. There was easily over 1,000 books in the classroom. The teacher explained how her class worked. We were supposed to come to class, grab a book, and read. There were tasks to be completed at the end of each book, including a book report and summary. I read over twenty books that year.

That is the one positive literacy experience I had in all my years of schooling, and it has had a profound impact on how I teach reading today. I try very hard to mold my class after my own 7th grade experience. As the school year draws to a close, I'm beginning to reflect on this year with my class. I have students who claimed to have never read a book before. One student in particular claimed she always hated reading. She read twenty-four books this school year, all of them quality pieces of literature, and now says that reading is her favorite past time, that her mom has to force her to stop and go to bed.

Now you tell me, what's more important, that my students make AYP on some stupid test, or that they become involved, want to read, and enjoy the process? I've done my job, I'm happy. That one experience has had the potential to impact many many students in the future. I'm thankful for my 7th grade reading teacher, and I hope that someday one of my students will become a teacher and be influenced as well.

Monday, May 5, 2008

My Secret Shame: Ending the School Year

I'll admit it right here in the beginning, I am horrible at ending school years. All year long, my students are highly engaged, happy with the learning that takes place, and comfortable in the classroom... then May comes around.

No, it's not that my kids start hating school, it's that I always seem to flare out early and just coast through the last two or three weeks, and this year, it's tree. OK, it's not totally me, my school is MAJORLY data driven, which isn't a good thing from where I sit, but I digress. Part of being data driven is this big pre/mid/post mentality (I think middle and high school teachers would better know these as "midterms" and "finals"). So, I give these finals, or post-tests, and then just kind of take them out early to recess, let them do interactive computer stuff, give them free time, watch movies, you know, stuff that we don't do a whole lot during the school year.

Now, free time is built in to my weekly routine, it's part of our classroom. We do watch movies as part of instructional units, I think they're great pedagogical practice if done correctly, and I do use computers a lot, but this is different. It's free recess because we're all ready to get some fresh air, movies for the sake of sitting there, and being on computers to play games, not educational games, games games.

My secret shame is that I still haven't figured out how to end the year in a consistent fashion. Don't get me wrong, my students love it to death. We had a fun year, I'm a pretty sarcastic and laid back teacher, so they enjoy it, but now that I'm also burned out, they REALLY enjoy it. It's something that either comes with experience, or I'll always be the "schools out by early May" teacher.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

What Doesn't Make A Good Teacher

Today's posting is all about the things that many teachers do that give them and others the perception that they are great, when in fact they are irrelevant to their students, their instruction is ineffective, and they embody a lot of bad qualities teachers shouldn't have. We all know these people, those teachers who walk the halls like they're changing the world. The ones who stay late and believe that their sacrifice means they are doing more, the ones who lecture their students and believe they've changed them forever. Yet, in the mind of every student, that teacher is a meaningless relic, and every word that went in one ear went right out the other. Hopefully if you're reading this, it doesn't describe you, if it does, it's not too late, but if it's not you, think of that teacher next door it does describe.

Here are many different things teachers do that they think makes them amazing teacher of the year candidates, but in reality, don't. And yes, I'm saying that many teacher of the year candidates aren't good teachers, it's a reality, we reward people for the wrong things in this profession.

  • Staying late does not make a teacher a martyr: I work at a school that has a 'give more of yourself' culture. I never stay late, I have kids at home, and plus I get everything done during the day. So I've always had difficulty with those teachers that stay until 7:00 everyday and come in on weekends, and then say "some of us care enough to give that extra 150%." Well, to me it means that you aren't efficient enough at your job to get it done the first time around. OK, this isn't bashing on everyone that stays late, just the ones who use it as reasoning to showcase how great they are.
  • Straight lines do not equal quality teaching: I know you know this person. That teacher who prides themselves in how straight and quiet their kids are in the hallway. Yes, good hallway behavior is nice, especially in elementary school, so you're not disrupting other classes. But come on, this doesn't make you a good teacher, it makes you a good drill sergeant.
  • The high test score teacher with the advanced students: There's one in every school. That teacher who somehow weaseled their way in to landing all the advanced students that year. They then sit back, watch dreams come true, and reap all the benefits when the kids score at high levels. DUH, they would have done that with my three-year-old as their teacher, stop patting yourself on the back.
  • The department head power hungry teacher: I've seen this a million times, and I'm still in my twenties. I was department head last year, and ran things by trusting everyone else. I delegated responsibilities, let everyone in my department know they didn't answer to me, that I was just there to keep it organized, and then this year I handed it off. I've seen so many department heads who DEMAND that decisions go through them, who DEMAND that they're kept in the loop on everything, and get all hurt when anything is done without their express consent. They also walk around like they're gods gift, but you know, they're not.
  • The boring teacher who doesn't teach anything but thinks they've changed the world: This is just reality. We're not changing the world, especially in 2nd grade. I see this all too often, teachers who act as if they're the students "last chance." OK, the kid is 7, they'll have more chances, stop acting like you're Ghandi or something, get over yourself, and teach.

It's fairly obvious I could go on forever here, so I'm going to stop. If you know of anything that should be added to this list, let me know.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

The DRA Problem

DRA stands for the Developmental Reading Assessment, a reading assessment program published by Pearson. The DRA is used in schools across the nation to assess student reading fluency and comprehension. This year was my first using the DRA in my classroom, as it was adopted by my school district at the end of last school year.

Of course I went through all of the trainings that came with the program (they were provided on DVD's, and my school set up a process for seeing each part and practicing the test). The DRA usually comes in a kit, which includes a set of leveled readers (that are only supposed to be used for the purposes of the assessment), teacher guides, training DVD's, and the materials the teacher needs to do the assessment and analyze the results. This comes at a cost of $150 per kit. Let me break this down for you. I work in a school district that has 25 elementary schools. My school, like most in town, ordered two English kits and one Spanish kit for every grade level. Assuming this trend held across the city, the district spent $90,000 at least on purchasing these kits.

I know that school districts have a tendency to throw money in the direction of every fad that comes down the pike, and I have always had my suspicions that this was the case with the DRA. If you're new to the DRA, are here seeking information from someone who has nothing to gain by selling you the kits, or are just curious, let me walk you through my experience and my opinions with this program.

The DRA is a scripted program where the teacher reads certain questions or statements to students, and they respond. The teacher then interprets student answers according to a rubric, and, taken with their fluency score and their miscues, they either score at that level, or need to move up/down depending on their score.

So there's the DRA for you. Now, for me, at the beginning of the year, having already seen my kids work for a few weeks, I thought the DRA gave an inflated view of how the students were actually performing. This is a trend that continued all year long, it wasn't entirely consistent with my own observations or assessments that I used to inform my teaching (you know, REAL assessments).

There are many issues I have with the DRA:

  • First of all, I am always hesitant to use scripted programs, they serve mainly to assess learning that serves students well on the standardized test, and I have big problems with this.
  • Next, this very expensive program did not give me any information that I could not have gotten by myself, for free, using my own skill as a teacher-researcher (that's a whole other problem itself, the fact that teachers aren't trusted even though they're the experts).
  • I also am not a huge fan of pre/mid/post tests, that is, tests that are given only a few times per year, as they really can't serve to be assessments that inform learning and instruction in the short term.
  • If you use the test much more often than four or five times a year, students will have seen so many of the leveled readers that it will become invalid.
  • There is no student buy-in on this test. I've found that my students aren't interested in the small texts that come with the program, and they don't really feel the connection between the results and them.
  • For students above grade level, this test won't serve them after a year or two. I've seen third graders 'max out' the program, which means we can't give it to them in fourth or fifth grade, because they're done.

There are some of my issues with the DRA. I can tell you, quite honestly, that if you really want to assess literacy learning, there are better ways to do it that won't cost you $150 per classroom. That is a ridiculous cost, and for schools to continue to scrape by while spending money on these fad programs just doesn't make sense.