Monthly Archives: January 2016
One of my driving philosophies when teaching reading is this: Teach kids to do things that real readers do.
In essence, this means I want students to develop the patterns, strategies, and behaviors lifelong readers – both children and adults – use in their everyday reading lives. After all, why spend time teaching something students don’t need and won’t use? Students are savvy; they know when something is useless and they stop paying attention.
As I honed and developed this method of thinking, I would run into the same roadblock every year – book clubs. I would read professional literature about how to facilitate amazing book clubs. I would listen to teachers describe the deep conversations students were having. I would read blog posts offering step-by-step instructions about how to organize the perfect classroom book club.
One problem. It never worked for me. EVER. No matter how much I read or how motivating the books were, it simply didn’t work. Some students would be finished with the book when we were only supposed to discuss chapter two. Others would start the book and have great success, but when they had to wait for the meeting, they would lose interest and move on to other books. A few students would secretly try to sneak in some reading of a book they loved instead of their book club book.
I was fighting the wrong battles. And I was losing.
The reason I was losing was because what I was asking didn’t make sense. What adult book club decides to read only the first three chapters in a fiction book, have everyone stop reading, and then discuss? Nobody. Especially not in a fiction book. (Nonfiction might be different.) Why was I demanding that students put aside the book in which they were deeply engaged just so they could be ready for our next meeting?
My solution? I scrapped the whole system. There would be no more sludging through a book you didn’t want to read in my room. Everyone was happier. However, I did miss some of the discussions we sometimes had. Occasionally, a student would discover a favorite book through a book club, and even though they were a struggle, I did enjoy exposing kids to books they might not have picked up otherwise.
Finally, I found a middle ground – Lunch Bunch Book Club. It’s amazing. It’s also amazingly simple. At the beginning of each month, I do a book talk about a book I enjoy. I announce the date we will hold the discussion, and I leave a bunch of copies of the book on a table. Students who are interested can read it; those who aren’t, don’t. Throughout the month, when a student finishes the book, they let me know. At the end of the month, anyone who reads the book comes and eats lunch in the room as we talk about the book. It’s wonderful!
The reason it works is because it is real. When adult readers meet at a book club, they have all finished the book and there is food. It works for kids too! It creates a memorable experience and help you connect with your readers. I hope you give it a try!
I got caught in a trap last week.
I was lucky to be able to attend a half-day staff inservice by a wonderful presenter who came to visit our school. The topic was standardized test writing, and I was interested in what she had to say.
Two hours later, my head was crammed so full it was about to explode. I was completely overwhelmed.
We discussed and learned about so many different kinds of open-response test questions that my mind was struggling to keep up. After introducing each type, she said, “Okay, turn-and-talk with your partner and tell them what you have done to prepare students for this type of question.” Often, I could say very little. I felt like I must have been cheating my students out of something they should have been getting.
Now, a few days have passed, and I’ve been able to calm down and reflect. I’ve thought about whether we should have been repeatedly practicing these open-response questions my students are likely to see on standardized tests this spring. Am I failing them?
The short answer I came up with: No.
The long answer: If I had spent endless hours practicing test responses, my students would perform worse on the standardized tests. How is this possible? Consider the hours and hours which would have to be spent to prepare students for every conceivable type of test question. Instead, I choose to devote that time to self-selected reading, real reading that develops life-long readers who enjoy books. I choose to devote that time to minilessons that teach skills and strategies real readers will use for their entire lives, how to infer big ideas, how to notice and note important events, how to monitor understanding and fix it if needed. I choose to devote that time to conferences with individuals and groups, getting to know them as readers and finding the ways to help them grow.
If I spent all that time doing test-prep activities, my students would not be advancing as readers. And readers who can’t read the reading passages on the test won’t be able to answer the questions regardless of the number of times they practiced! Students who can read, write, and think effectively will do just fine on any test, standardized or not.
Now, we will spend some time looking at the formats of some of these questions in the upcoming weeks. Students need to know how to play the standardized testing game. However, we will continue to sink the majority of our time into authentic reading and writing tasks because they are what matter. When my students look back on their fourth-grade year, they are not going to remember the right way to answer a constructed response question, but they will remember the amazing book series they read, the persuasive letter they sent out into the world, and blog comments they received from across the country.
Again, seeing the format of a standardized test can be helpful. But spending excessive amounts of time preparing for every test possibility steals valuable minutes students could be using to blossom as readers and writers.