[NOTE: The following is a review I wrote for MiddleWeb, an online organisation all about teaching and learning in the middle grades, which they define as grades 4-8. I have written four reviews for them previously, all of which can be found here. This review will likely be on their website in the next two or three weeks. In the meantime, you can read it now.]
Quick! Grab a pen or pencil or open up a new document on your computer. Ready? Good. Now, write down the name of every initiative you school or district has adopted since you started working there. Go ahead, I’ll wait. All finished? Okay. Now, circle all of the ones that you can prove are improving student learning and growth. How many initiatives did you list? Five? Ten? Twenty? More? How many did you circle? One? Two? Zero?
If there is anything that school leaders and policymakers are frustratingly good at doing, it is coming up with new initiatives for classrooms, schools, and districts. Whether the initiatives are focused on academics, behavior, instruction, culture, family engagement, teacher quality, or any number of possibilities, there is not a school in the nation that doesn’t have at least one new initiative put into place every year. But what do we do after we initiate the initiative? How do we know if it is actually making a difference? Are we even bothering to check? Or do we just start something new and keep doing it mechanically, thinking to ourselves that this, too, shall pass? Has the Shiny New Thing become so commonplace that we don’t even care if it works or not?
Dr. Nikki C. Woodson, an educational leader, and James W. Frakes, a business consultant who has spent much of his career working with the manufacturing industry, both believe that the problem with initiatives is not the initiatives themselves, but the lack of intentionality and monitoring. In their book, Is It Working in Your Middle School?, they provide a simple framework for identifying appropriate initiatives and monitoring them with consistency so that teachers, leaders, and other stakeholders can separate the wheat from the chaff and put into place programs, policies, and practices that will lead to meaningful, lasting changes in your school.
While focusing on middle schools, the authors are quick to note that their framework, based on proven quality assurance processes, can be used in any school setting and, indeed, in any organization that wants to know if what they are doing is actually making a difference. Their process will help anyone with an interest in improving their school to identify all of the current initiatives, or programs in place, eliminate the ones that have no discernible purpose, set S.M.A.R.T. goals, identifying quantifiable strategies, assess the efficacy of the strategies, monitor for success, and plan for next steps to the school improvement process truly continuous. To help the reader through the process, Woodson and Frakes provide templates for reflection, goal setting, planning, and monitoring which can be either copied from the book or downloaded for free through a website given. They also use a case study to model how their framework has been used to change a middle school’s approach to improvement plan goals.
Classrooms, schools, and districts are constantly adapting as they try to keep up with the latest research, best practices, and the ever-changing landscape of education in the 21st century. These adaptations are not, in and of themselves, a bad thing; they can push a school to grow and improvement. Growth and improvement will only happen, though, if teachers and leaders work together to monitor the changes and keep asking each other two simple questions: Is it working? How do we know? If you are concerned that the programs you are using in your classroom, school, and/or district are not making a difference in student achievement but are not sure how to prove it, or you are convinced that your programs are working but need evidence to justify continuing them, this is the book for you! You may not be able to stem the tide of Shiny New Things coming your way, but you will be able to show which ones are making a difference in the lives of your students and which ones are just passing fads.
For someone who has loved reading from a very early age, the idea of picking the “right” book has seemed rather foreign to me. The first book I remember reading completely on my own was Syd Hoff’s literary masterpiece, Danny and the Dinosaur, first read when I was five years old. There may have been others before it, but since neither I nor my mother can recall, we are sticking with this as the official “first” book. I don’t really even know what other books I read on my own when I was young, but I do know that from that time forward, it was a rare moment when you found me without a book within arm’s reach!
I started reading more complex books early on. Mum read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to my younger sister and I when I was still in kindergarten. I started reading books like that on my own early enough that teachers often passed over more “age-appropriate” books. I didn’t read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing until 2011, when I started teaching at Wiley and decided to use it as my first read aloud! I still have yet to read any of Jerry Spinelli’s books, although they are in my “To Be Read” (TBR) pile and one of my goals this year is to at least read Maniac Magee. I was reading novels by John Grisham by the time I was in middle school and just kept on reading.
All of this to illustrate that my method of selecting books to read was to go to the bookshelf, whether in my bedroom, in the living room, at a friend’s house, at the public library, or in my classroom, and start reading. I never really thought about whether or not the book was “right.” I knew that such a concept existed for other people. After all, I had to get special signed permission from my parents to be able to get a public library card that gave me access to the “adult” section of the library (a term that simply meant the upstairs-not-children’s-library-section.) I vividly recall the time I was in sixth grade that my middle school library acquired a beautiful leatherette-bound, gilt-edged edition of the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien but wouldn’t let my brother in eighth grade check it out because it was “too difficult.” (Even though he’d already read the entire series on his own before.)
However, since not all of my students are voracious bibliophiles like me, they need strategies to help them pick books that will be good fits for them. One such strategy that we are using throughout our school is I PICK. It has the advantage of being both easy to use and easy to remember:
Most of my students already use elements of this strategy. We talked about it today and then I gave them bookmarks that they can use. When I choose a book, I ask myself four questions: why do I want to read this? (Inform, entertain, my-teacher-is-making-me, curiosity, or a combination of these). Does the topic interest me? (Yes, no, it-doesn’t-matter-because-my-super-mean-teacher-is-making-me-read-it-anyway). Do I understand it? (Absolutely, not at all, most of it, not-really-but-my-teacher-who-really-is-mean-no-seriously-he-is-the-meanest-teacher-ever-he-keeps-making-me-figure-things-out-on-my-own-instead-of-just-telling-me-the-answer-says-I-can). Do I know most of the words? (I like the five-word rule: if the student reads the first page and doesn’t know five of the words, it might be a little too difficult for them.)
I will be sending home information about this strategy so students can share it with their parents, too. I encourage all of my students to select books from the library at school, the library in the community, and the library at home. Hopefully the I PICK strategy will help them build their personal reading CAFE skills: comprehension, accuracy, fluency, and expanded vocabulary!
Alternatively titled, “Why I Read The Books My Students Recommend To Me.”
Of the nineteen books that I have read since the start of summer, twelve of them have been in the category of children’s literature or young adult fiction. Additionally, four more have been professional texts that have helped me improve my practice as an educator. Which means that just under 16% of the books that I have read in the past six months have been fiction written for an adult audience.
Sometimes I get asked why I read so many books written for young people. My short answer is that I am a fourth grade teacher and I want to keep up with the books my students are reading.
But the long answer is much more than that. I read these books so that I can make recommendations to my students. I read these books so that I know what young people are reading and can make connections between these stories, my students’ lives, and the material we are studying in class. I read these books so that when I pick a book off a shelf and hand it to a student, saying, “This is a really good book; I think you’d enjoy it” my students will know that they can trust my opinion. I read these books so that when a young person comes up to me and says, “You know, Mr. Valencic, I remember reading a book a few years ago about these two boys who go swimming together and one of them drowns. I don’t remember the name and I don’t know the author, but it was a really good book and I would love to read it again!” I can walk over to my shelf, pull On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer, hand it to the student, and see the biggest smile you’ll ever see on anyone’s face.
I read the books that I recommend to my students so that I can recommend them! Additionally, I read the books my students suggest to me! Sometimes it may take several months, or even a year or longer, to get to it, but I will read these books. I love that I have a classroom of readers that each year becomes a part of a larger community of readers throughout our school district. I love visiting the middle school and having a former student approach me for the sole purpose of sharing what they are reading. I love bumping into students and parents at the store and having them show me a book they just got. I love when several students in my class all end up reading the same book at the same time and excitedly share this with me.
That is why I read the books I recommend to students and why I read the books they recommend to me.
Also, children’s literature is, despite what some New York Times columnists think, quality literature that is worth reading for the lessons they teach of love, friendship, compassion, courage, perseverance, adventure, mystery, learning, teaching, integrity, respect, responsibility, and a host of other character traits that will make our young people great.
About a month ago or so, I got an email from a member of the Champaign-Urbana Film Society. He let me know that he got my name from one of our awesome fine arts teachers. He was writing to tell me about an amazing writing contest the CUFS was holding, in conjunction with the Champaign-Urbana Design Organization (CUDO). It is called the Pens to Lens Screenwriting Competition. The competition itself is fairly simple: students in grades K-12 are invited to write a screenplay between 1 and 5 pages in length. The screenplays must be typed and submitted electronically by February 28. The submissions will be judged in three categories: K-5, 6-8, and 9-12.
Our music teacher came in to tell the students about the contest and answered a few questions. The members of my class are invited to participate, but we are not going to take time out of our regular schedule for them to work on it. This is a purely voluntary event. However, I wanted to make sure my students knew some of the basic rules for writing a screenplay, and since this ties in well with our dramatic writing unit, I decided to give them time today to work on this unique writing format.
I started by reviewing that every story has three basic elements: characters, setting, and plot. I asked my students to create a “seed story” by generating these basic elements. Our seed story was outlined as follows:
Characters: two girls in our class, one boy, George Washington, and Snoopy.
Setting: Hawaii, midnight, 3164 A.D.
Plot: The characters are playing hide-and-go seek and Snoopy tries to play “fetch” with George Washington’s teeth.
The students got together in groups of two, three, or four and started writing. I gave them 20 minutes initially, but since they were all engaged after that time, I let them go for a little while longer. There was a wide variety of stories produced, and the boys and girls were able to experiment with telling stories in a dramatic format. Even without being told, many of the stories were written like a play or script, rather than in narrative form. It was really neat to see what happens when I continue to give my students the freedom to express themselves! I hope that at least a few will submit a screenplay for the Pens to Lens competition. The grand prize is having their story produced by CUFS and CUDO and shown at a film festival in town in May! Other submissions may have trailers or promotional material made!
One of the indicators that the end of the year is nearly upon us is the arrival of the children’s librarians from the Urbana Free Library. They come to the school each year to announce the library’s summer reading program. I honestly have no idea if summer reading programs at public libraries are a universal practice or just something that happens around central Illinois, but I love them and hope that they do get offered everywhere.
When I was a kid, I always participated in the reading program; at least, for as long as I can remember I did. I don’t remember Mrs. Walker, our children’s librarian, coming to the school to announce the program, though. It seemed like it was just a given that we would be signing up and participating as soon as it was offered. But then, my best friend and I spent a lot of time at the library throughout the year anyway. The library was roughly halfway between my house and his, so it was a convenient place to me. And, of course, we couldn’t meet at the library without going in, finding books, playing games, watching movies (old filmstrip movies that were old adaptations of classic books, usually), and just hanging out with Mrs. Walker. We even helped her tidy up the library from time to time.
I distinctly remember the last year we were allowed to participate in the summer reading program. Most students dropped out after elementary school, but we were allowed to participate in middle school, too. And even though we knew we were going to be reading anyway, we wanted to participate so we could get the free donuts from Ron’s Donuts & Bakery, which just happened to be down the street from my best friend’s house. At the end of eighth grade, we were told that we could participate one last time. Because it was the last year, we wanted to make it special.
Instead of setting a reading goal of 25 or 50 books, which is what most of the big kids did, we decided to go all out and set a reading goal of 100 books. The librarian had set a rule that children reading chapter books could count every sixty pages as a book, which means my best friend and I each had to read approximately 6,000 pages. Easy as a pie!
When librarians came to our school, I made sure to tell my students about this story as further evidence of my passion for reading. I would love for each of my students to participate in the library reading program. As I reflect on how this year has gone, I can think of a lot of things I would have done differently, but there is one thing I think I have done very well: I have passed on my love of reading to my students. Not all of them want to read as often and as long as I want them to, but far more of them want to read than don’t. This is a signal that I’ve done something right this year. I just hope that this love for reading continues onward!