Seeing Our Kids as Writers

     When I was six years old, my parents signed me up for soccer.  After receiving an envelope in the mail one day, my mother told me, “You’re going to be on the Sharks this year.”  The Sharks!  Wow, how excited I remember feeling!  Being on a soccer team was something new for me, and that energy alone propelled me right past potentially daunting feelings of trepidation straight to my first practice.  Now, it should be noted that I was not from a “soccer family.”  I had not been steeped in the game the way kids from other countries from around the world had been.  No, soccer in the 1970s was a fairly new sport to our nation.  So, needless to say when I stepped onto the field in 1974, I definitely did NOT see myself as a soccer player – yet.  That took time.  But eventually it happened.  Over several days, weeks, and years, I began to learn some techniques, some ways to practice and get better, the rules of the game, etc.  And with coaching, encouragement, support, and lots of practice, I began to build my skills and see myself as a soccer player.  A good one, in fact!
     As we embark upon a new school year, I have been thinking back to not only my early beginnings as a soccer player, but also my early growth and development as a writer.  As a literacy specialist, I like to emphasize the importance of nurturing our students’ Writing Identities.  Before kids can become good writers, they must be able to see themselves as writers.  It is essential.  But, how can we help them do that?  Here are just a few ideas:

1.  Their lives are worth writing about– One of my greatest mentors, Dr. Mary Ehrenworth teaches us that we must send this message to our young writers. And although not providing kids with the topic they must write about might be a shift from the way some of us learned, it is a necessary ingredient to building a confident, engaged writer.  If we as adults find ways to acknowledge and embrace the critical issues that shape our students’ lives by validating their experiences, this will go a long way in fostering a lasting writing identity.  Encourage them to write about their lives, what they know.  As Ira Glass once said, “Great stories happen to those who can tell them.”
     Ehrenworth also points out that knowledge problems can quickly begin to look like writing problems.  What if I tried to write about the finer points of handicapping horseracing?  Well, since I know nothing about it, I can imagine the page would either (a) look completely blank or (b) it would be full of terrible writing!  We must be wary of asking our kids to write well about topics for which they are unfamiliar.  Rather, I would suggest we think about how we can channel students’ own experiences and expertise to help them grow as writers.  When kids write about what they care about, engagement is generally higher!

2.  Most of us aren’t born writersNatalie Goldberg in her seminal book, Writing Down the Bones (Shambhala, 2005), says about writing, “Like running, the more you do it, the better you get at it” (p. 11). And it’s true– writing (like reading) is a skill learned in use.  As my colleague Chris Lehman always says, “We get better at what we do.”
     Right now, my seven year-old daughter is taking piano lessons from me.  And just like writers, I teach her that playing the piano is something she will get better at it through practice.  Dr. Brian Cambourne (1986), in his research on the conditions for learning, calls this “employment” (to download a document on Cambourne’s conditions applications to literacy learning, click here).  And what’s encouraging is the fact that most humans are not “born writers”!  Author and speaker Ralph Fletcher writes (1999), “Here’s the good news: most of us are not born writers.  We were not born with a pencil in our tiny fingers.  And very rarely do the words flow clear and sparkling the first time we write them down.  Most of us have to work at our writing.”  But as best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell points out, it is the opportunity to work hard at something that stands out as a key ingredient to success.  So let’s teach our writers that, like anything we are trying to get better at, writing takes practice.

3.  The risk — yes, there’s risk in writing! – is worth it – Writing could be thought of as a naked expression of who we are.  And so yes, there is always inherent risk in putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboards) and exposing ourselves to others through writing.  But what I find magical about writing is the generative nature of the process.  When I sit down to write, I don’t exactly know what’s going to come out…and how exciting is that?!  Right now, as I write this blog post, I find myself exhilarated by the way these ideas are forming on my computer screen.  But that exhilaration is never going to be discovered or experienced by our young writers if they are constantly concerned with “getting it right”.  Ehrenworth once said that the Number One way to get kids to stop taking risks is to tell them they’re wrong.  Conversely, we want to always be acknowledging and validating what kids are doing well FIRST– this might be called a “lens of strengths”.  Because if kids have written something, they have taken a risk.  And taking risks is part of the writing process.
     One strategy I love to demonstrate for students is how we can place trust in our pens that ideas will surface.  We might write, “One day…” or “I think…” or “My idea is…” and trust that ideas will come.  This is part of the magic of writing.

Let’s think about some of the things we would love for our students to be able to do:

  • Generate ideas for writing
  • Incorporate craft ideas and techniques
  • See writing as a process
  • Achieve independence
  • Have confidence
  • Be able to begin a piece of writing
  • Demonstrate clarity of expression
  • Convey messages cogently
  • Lose their fear around writing
  • Write to think
  • Be creative
This list could likely go on and on.  But the point here is that ALL of these things become more possible once kids begin to see themselves as writers.

 
     Fall always makes me think of chilly weather and soccer, and as I reflect back on the days of playing on the Sharks, I am struck by the fact that there was a day that I did not view myself as a “soccer player.” Just like there were days when I did not see myself as “piano player”, “teacher”, “father”, “blogger”, “writer”…you get the picture.  But through the support of mentors, a willingness to risk, lots of encouragement, and significant amounts of practice, I now consider these all to be different identities within which I feel confident.
     I wish you all a terrific start to the new school year.  Here’s to the magic and power of WRITING!

Summer Reading: The Big Prize

Ah, summer is upon us.  Who’s excited?!  For many of us (okay, it’s probably the majority) who exist inside the world of education, summer is an extraordinarily wonderful- and necessary- time of the year.  It is a time to decompress, recharge, and gear up for the next school year.  Sunny vacations, fascinating camp experiences, trips to see the relatives– there is so much to love about summer.

Oh, and then there’s that reading we are supposed to be doing, too.  Yeah, that.

Research has show time and time again that students that read during the summer do themselves an enormous favor.  Many students do themselves the favor of participating in summer reading programs, such as the Connecticut Governor’s Reading Challenge or programs sponsored by local public libraries.  But I sometimes wonder, do we truly understand what is at stake when it comes to summer reading?  Since this blog is dedicated to supporting middle school readers and writers, allow me to share some somewhat shocking information:

1.  Summer slide is real.  When students do not read over the summer, they experience what some term, “Summer Slide.”  This is real and has been documented several times in several places– like here and here and here (if you prefer more academic writing, check this or this out).  The gist of the problem is simple: kids who do not read adequately, that is to say at least 4-6 books over the summer break, lose ground academically.  This contributes to a growing achievement gap.  For students living in economically disadvantaged circumstances, the effect is significant.  According to researchers Allington and McGill-Franzen (2013), the summer break (and lack of reading and/or access to books) widens the achievement gap between economically advantaged and disadvantaged by around three months.  Three months?!

2.  Literacy saves lives.  A few years ago, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop led by Dr. Noah Borrero, an associate professor of Urban Education and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco.  At that workshop, Dr. Borrero shared some shocking statistics.  Here are just a few:

  • 43% of adults at Level 1 literacy skills (the lowest) live in poverty compared to only 4% of those at Level 5 (the highest).
  • 3 out of 4 food stamp recipients’ literacy skills are Level 2 or below; 90% of welfare recipients are high school dropouts.
  • Teenage girls living at the poverty level with “below average” literacy skills are six times more likely to have out-of-wedlock children than female teenage counterparts (also at the poverty level) who read “at or above basic proficiency”.
So yes, reading achievement matters.  It really, really does.
3.  Be careful! Reading incentive programs can have detrimental effects.  According to researcher and writer Alfie Kohn, studies conducted on the effects of incentive programs on long-term reading affinity have revealed startlingly negative results.  In this excerpt entitled, “A Closer Look at Reading Incentive Programs”, Kohn discusses how reading incentive programs, when used as a replacement for grades as just a way to get kids to read, produce less than positive effects.  It is therefore vital that summer reading expectations set at home are coupled with authentic modeling of real reading behaviors (I wrote about this here).  We do not want kids reading just to earn a prize.  Rather, we want to foster and nurture a genuine lifelong love of reading! The authors at Nerdy Book Club make some great suggestions; here are a few: 
(1) Share your summer reading plans.  Readers need to know that planning helps– show them a stack of books you intend to read this summer. Be inspirational by showing your excitement about reading! 
(2)  Show kids how to plan.  Using a calendar that illustrates when they will be home, not at home, with relatives, etc. can work to set up a supportive structure for realistic reading plans.
(3)  Plan Summer Book Clubs.  Book clubs can even be virtual!  Consider using/trying Google hangouts or virtual chats.
4.  Summer Reading offers a way out of summer slide.  Award-winning author Kate DiCamillo was recently featured as a “Summer Reading Champion” by the publication, American Libraries.  Kate feels strongly that connecting students with the joy of reading is truly a way to counteract the detrimental effects of summer reading loss. According to Ms. DiCamillo, “There’s nothing that you have to read.  It’s what you want to read.  If we could get that freedom of choice cemented into a kid’s head and connect it with the library and books, I think the world just opens up.”  Incidentally, I have written about this incredibly important choice factor before.

So besides the public library, where might we find some high-quality resources that might help connect kids with great books?  Allow me to suggest just a few (note: suggested lists are my own ideas):

  • Nutmeg Award Winners Sponsored by the Connecticut Library Association, the Nutmeg Award encourages children to read high quality literature.  The list is here.
  • Nerdy Book Club Our friends at the aforementioned Nerdy Book Club have a robust list for all levels of readers.  Check it out here!
  • Lee & Low Personally, I am a great believer in the ability of books to be both mirrors and windows into the human condition.  Books can be windows into the condition of those different than ourselves, and they can be mirrors that show us who we are as humans.  Lee & Low is a high quality site dedicated to sharing the rich diversity of our world through literature.  Check out their recommendations here.
  • Reading is Fundamental Here are some great resources for younger children.
So here’s to summer!  I wish everyone a terrific blast of relaxation, reconnection, and fun.  While we know how important our educational endeavors are, let’s face it– it wears us down.  So go enjoy the pool, the beach, your family…and don’t forget the books.  A lot depends on it!

    Reading Like a Russian Doll: Thoughts on Rereading, Growing, and the Power of Words

    Recently I became a new dad.  Again.  My daughter Iris was born a few months ago, and by doing so she became my third daughter.  Livi is six and Lexi is four, so when Iris was born…yes it all came back to me.  Well, sort of.  It has now been four and a half years since we had a newborn in our house.  And I must admit, something feels different this time.  Perhaps it’s because so many life-altering events have taken place since that last birth? Por ejemplo, four years ago I took a job in New York City as a Staff Developer for the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project at Columbia University.  In doing this, I uprooted my entire nuclear family to pursue a passion.  We sold our house.  We squeezed into a tiny New York City apartment for an entire year.  Then, I decided to leave that job.  So we uprooted the family again, loading up a moving truck and moving to Connecticut.  Then once in Connecticut, we moved again– to a different part of Connecticut.  My children started in a new school.  And on and on.  Through these last four and a half years, I have lived through changes, experiences that have left their mark on me for a lifetime.
     
    So now I have a new baby. And it feels different.  I’m thinking it feels different because, well, I’m different.  And I think about what this means to me as a reader.  The late Louise Rosenblatt, a famous teacher and researcher, once defined reading as a transaction between the reader and a text.  Each reader brings his/her experiences, beliefs, background knowledge, opinions, and life wisdom to the text.  And those things, all of them, are constantly expanding and changing—both in depth and in breadth.
     
    So when we pick up a book we’ve “read before”—think about how different “the transaction” (as Rosenblatt calls it) is going to be!  Yes, it is the same words there on the pages.  But it’s not the same reader.  It’s really not.  That reader is older, changed somehow, different, wiser, more affected…there is always a difference between who the reader was and who s/he is now.  So, consequently, that is going to make the transaction qualitatively different.
    When kids pick up a book they have read before, how do we often react as adults, teachers, and mentors?  “You’ve read that before, choose something else.”  If you recognize yourself in that advice,  allow me to offer an alternate perspective:
    (1)    Encourage rereading- Especially when some time has passed, encourage it! This is not the same boy or girl that read this book before.  Understanding that, do not discourage rereading—cheerlead it!
    (2)    Be excited and roll out a path s/he will want to go down— This might sound like, “Oh, I can’t wait to hear what you think of Tuck Everlasting this time.  Remember how old you were last time you read that book?  You have learned so much about life since then.  I’ll bet you’ll think about Winnie and the Tuck family in a whole new way now!”
    (3)    Connect- Have you ever seen a movie more than once? Listened to a podcast or TedTalk more than once?  Stared at a painting more than once?  Replayed your favorite Prince record?  Chances are, your thinking has changed somehow by these repeated interactions with the movie, talk, or art piece.  Most of us understand that repeated exposures (readings) of a known “text” can yield new, different, and sometimes much more sophisticated understandings.  That’s not because the text has changed– it is because you are different!
     
    The importance of arriving at new understandings in what we read and reread cannot be underestimated.  As writers and researchers Kylene Beers and Bob Probst write about in their important book, Notice and Note (2013), “…It is imaginative literature that offers readers a chance to think about the human issues that concern us all: love, hate, hope, fear, and all the other emotions, problems, situations, and experiences of living” (p. 17).  Wouldn’t we want our young readers and writers to evolve in their thinking about these issues that define the human condition?  One of my mentors once taught me that a way to let a book leave its impression upon you is to think, ‘How will I live differently because of this book?’  As a classroom teacher, I remember including this notion in a lesson during a unit on writing literary essays.  Garrett, a lanky athletic eighth grader who struggled in reading raised his hand one day.  He had just reread Gary Soto’s “Marble Champ” (from Baseball in April, 1990).  “Mr. Ball,” he said, “I never knew you could live differently because of a story.  Now I know someone can be good at sports and school.  I guess I never thought that was possible.”  Rereading texts can allow for deep reflection that helps us anchor moments of real growth in our thinking about the world and who we are inside it. 

    Author Madeline L’Engle once said, “The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.”  Sandra Cisneros explores this same idea in her seminal short story, “Eleven” from Woman Hollering Creek, when she writes (1991), “Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one” (pp. 6-7).  We might say that each one of those layers of us, rings inside us, or old versions of us still lives; but when we reread a story or book, it is the latest most recent version of ourselves reading it.  And therefore it won’t be the same.

    Becoming a new dad– again– has been an amazing and educational experience.  I realize the metaphor here is not completely parallel because Iris is her own baby.  She is unique. She is not the same “text”, as it were.  But the process of bringing a new set of background experiences and new wisdom gained from those experiences to her life as I begin parenting her– well, it feels similar to rereading a text.  I’m not the same dad.  And the young people in our lives?  Well, once some time has passed, they are different, too.  And so it will not be the same “them” when you see them sitting down to reread something.  It will be a new reader at the table.  And thus, a new journey with new understandings.

    “There’s nothing wrong with reading a book you love over and over.  When you do, the words get inside you, become a part of you, in a way that words in a book you’ve read only once can’t.”  -Gail Carson Levine, Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly

    Be a Reader Yourself: Lessons from the Branding World

    Let’s begin with a short exercise:  What do you think of when you think, “Nike”?  
    Take a moment.
    Okay, did you think, Sports? Excellence? Michael Jordan? Shoes? Athletics? Expensive?  If any or all of those concepts came to your mind, that is due, at least partially, to a phenomenon called “Branding”.  A quick Google search defines branding as, “a brand name, logo, slogan, and/or design scheme associated with a product or service.” Or, “The act of imprinting or engraving a brand name or symbol onto a product.”  In talking with my wife (who is in this business), she would say your personal brand—at its best—is all about finding what matters to you and telling your story in a way that resonates with others.
    But what does branding have to do with being a reading mentor? Three years ago,  Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer, invited my friend and colleague Chris Lehman to write a fabulous post on the Education Week blog entitled, What the Kardashians Taught Me About Reading Instruction.  In his post, Chris makes a fascinating comparison about how and why teachers might brand themselves like the Kardashians have branded themselves.  He writes about how those who have successfully branded themselves (like the Kardashians, love them or hate them) have succeeded in providing visions some can or might aspire to.
    The truth is, when we brand ourselves, others begin to associate us with a story, a passion, or a way of thinking.  So when considering how we might become an effective reading mentor for a young person in our lives, we might think about how we might go about branding ourselves.
    The best brands are driven by an idea and do not just seek out what’s popular.  Rather, when thinking about how to brand ourselves as reading mentor, it is probably most important to consider branding ourselves as READERS (the way Chris Lehman suggests).  Here are some ways you might consider:
    1. See yourself as a reader– It begins with developing a reading identity.  You might begin, as my colleague Jennifer Serravallo suggests, by jotting down the top five books you have ever read in your lifetime.  Then reflect on your list—what is present?  What is missing?  What does this list say about you as a reader?  You may already see yourself this way…great!  Now, read on…


    1. Help others see you as a reader– This year I have taken on reading as many of the Nutmeg Nominee books as I can.  Currently, I am reading Liesl and Po by Lauren Oliver, illustrated by Kei Acedera.  I make sure my four and six year-old daughters see me reading this book at least sometimes (I generally read at night after the kids are in bed), as this is important for visibility of my brand as reader.  One small anecdote: apparently, there is a Liesl and Po poster on the wall at my daughters’ school.  My wife overheard the girls telling whoever would listen, “My dad is reading that book!” (cue, beam with pride with soundtrack).  The point is to make reading—literally—a visible part of your life.  This adds to the authenticity of your brand, which leads to the next point…


    1. Be authentic One of my favorite authors, Katie Wood Ray, writes books for teachers.  In the following quote, she is talking about writing; but watch as I substitute the word ‘read’ for ‘write’.  I think this works:   Either we can be walking, breathing, talking examples of all we advocate for our students, or we can have them sitting around wondering why we are trying to get them into something that we are obviously not into ourselves.  They see me as someone who [reads], which is how I’m asking them to see themselves, and this is a key ingredient to learning anything.  They listen to me because they can see that I know what I’m talking about.  You can’t get that if you don’t [read].” – Katie Wood Ray, 2012. Oftentimes as adults it is all too easy to take the “Do as I say, not as I do” approach to situations involving the young readers/writers in our lives.  But kids tend to have an astute “bull-puckey” detector; they know when we aren’t being what we profess to believe, and can usually tell when we’re just saying it.  This matters. So working to bring authenticity to your brand by knowing what you’re talking about can go a long way in branding yourself as a reading mentor.  You might:
      1. Read a hot book that kids are reading right now (say, the Insignia series by S.J Kincaid).
      2. Bring up a book or article you’ve read recently in conversations with a young reader.
      3. Make reading a regular part of your everyday routine and broadcast it.  I think one of the best ways to do that is to read something in print, not just off a device.  This way, the translation is much more tangible– it’s clear you’re not on FaceBook, checking email, or texting.


    There are so many different reasons we read.  What are yours?  Do you read to learn more about topics you are interested in?  Do you read to savor the beauty of the printed word?  Do you read to become more knowledgeable about the world around you?  Do you read because you love to puzzle out mysteries or study the human condition? Why do you read?


    1. Be passionate– Passion is a key ingredient, in my opinion, to the success of anything. Branding expert Simon Sinek once said, “People don’t buy what you do.  They buy why you do it.  What you do just proves what you believe.”  If we do nothing else in regards to branding ourselves as reading mentors, we ought to exude passion.  Passion tends to be contagious.  Share your why.  Expose it.  Sharing why you’re reading something (as well as what has drawn you to that text) can create a layer of authenticity that allows your kids to connect you as a reader.  In turn, that is going to allow kids to make the connection as to why they might read something.  Young people need to learn that ‘I like it’ is not the only reason we read.


    1. Make it sticky– In his seminal book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the important factors that have led to the astonishing success of certain brands.  One of those factors is called the “Stickiness Factor”.  Essentially, the stickiness factor is the something that helps to make a brand somehow memorable.  It’s that thing that makes the brand stick in the mind of a person.  On the digital Comprehensive Guide to the Tipping Point, an example is provided about why the children’s television show “Blues Clues” is substantially more appealing than the popular “Sesame Street.”  In our reading context, we might take the following lessons away with us:


      1. Know your audience– When working to develop your brand as reading mentor through conversations, avoid talking over kids’ heads.  Talk at their level in a way they are able to engage. I tend to avoid phrases like, “Well, when I was in school we had to read way more than you guys do and the books were way harder and…”  No.  Adopt an invitational tone in your conversation.  “Oh, that sounds like such a cool book!  I can’t wait to hear more about it!” Of course, converse as you would authentically.  But it might help to engage kids with a positive, invitational tone.
      2. Repetition-  One of the key ingredients to learning anything is repetition.  Your brand will only “stick” if your young readers are exposed to it over and over.  That means it’s not enough to have kids see you as a reader once; it’s not enough to talk to them about a book you are loving just once; it’s not enough to exude your passion for an author just once.  In order for your brand to possess a stickiness factor, it must be repeatedly visible to the audience.
    So take a moment.  When the young readers in your life think of you, what do they think?  Okay, that can be terrifying, right? Especially when they are in middle school!  But I invite you to think, “Would he think ‘reader’ when he thinks of me? Would he really?”  If you’ve accomplished that, you have accomplished something big.  Something worthwhile.  And it really is a gift you’re giving your kids.  Statistics now show that the average college graduate reads about one book per year.  One book!  This issue is, in part, due to the fact that kids do not see themselves enough as readers at an early age.  They may have been told to read, but they haven’t been shown to read.  If we can turn ourselves into authentic, branded models of reading, what might be possible is helping to create a lifelong reader.

    • A huge thank you to my friend and colleague Chris Lehman at the Educator Collaborative for the inspiration on this post.

    Make Reading a Part of Vacation: 3 Ways to Let Books Join Your Break


    To quote a famous holiday song, it’s the most wonderful time of the year!  For many of us, there are variant reasons why this might be true.  Perhaps for some of us, we are celebrating a religious holiday around this time.  For others, it is a time to reconnect with family and friends, touching base through special visits, phone calls, or even digital media.  And for still others it is appreciating the fact that we FINALLY have some down time to rest and read some great books we have been meaning to start reading!  

     

    For our middle school readers, this final point is worthy of consideration.  Reading is a skill learned in use.  So therefore, it is important that our young adult readers have a plan to continue to read over holiday vacations.  Here are a few suggestions from my colleague Katie Gordon on how to develop a plan for vacation reading:

     

    Share your own reading plans-  As I have written about previously, when kids see adults who value reading, that matters.  As my colleague Katie wrote, “We are model readers and our smaller readers look up to us.”  Adults who have a plan for reading over an extended break, or at least can be seen reading, send a message that reading is important and it is worth doing.  Personally, I am looking forward to getting back to my Nutmeg Nominee pile of books that I have been neglecting (curse you, graduate courses!).

     

    Pack your vacation books – If you are traveling this holiday season, be sure to include books as part of the overall experience.  Even twenty minutes a day can make a huge difference in the lives of our readers!  Check out teacher and author Penny Kittle’s infographic entitled, “Why Can’t I Skip My 20 Minutes of Reading Tonight?”.

     

    Make plans to be “sneaky readers” – Sneaky readers are the kinds of readers who, as Katie writes, “…sneak in a few minutes of reading wherever they are.  Waiting in line…in the cafeteria…stuck in traffic.”  Author, teacher, and speaker Kristin Ziemke wrote the following guest blog for Scholastic on this topic.  Check it out here!

     

    However you spend your time off from school, I wish you a peaceful season of gratitude and renewal.  Happy Reading!

     

    Note:  Thanks to my colleague Katie Gordon for the ideas and inspiration for this post.