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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Importance of Lingering Over Chapter Books

I love picture books. You need to know that about me. Yes, I teach sixth grade, and yes, I use novels as the primary vehicle for teaching reading in the classroom. But I love picture books as well, and use them whenever I can for a number of purposes (see my list of thirteen reasons you should be using picture books).

But we as teachers need students to read longer texts as well. Peter Brunn, the Director of Professional Development at the non-profit Developmental Studies Center (DSC) in Oakland, California, makes that point clear in a recent blog post.

He shares that he and his daughter have been reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory before bedtime each evening. He doesn't think much about it until she brings up the story at breakfast one morning:
"You know daddy," she said, "he's got to find that ticket."

"Huh?" I said in a groggy, pre-coffee voice. "Why in the world do you think that?"

"I mean," she replied, "What's the point of writing the book if he does not find the ticket? I just wonder how it will happen. Charlie's family does not have money to go and buy more chocolate for him. But he's got to find that ticket. What is he going to do?"

This reminds me of the critical role that reading longer books plays in children's literacy. Over the days we have been reading this book, Karina has been developing her own very particular line of thought about the book. Each chapter tests that theory and adds to or changes it. She knows because of the buildup of the first few chapters, the title, and her experience with other texts that Charlie will somehow find the ticket. What I find important and interesting is how the story lingers in her mind in between readings. As a parent, it is a fantastic way to bring my family closer together at the end of each day. As a teacher, I know that this is critical skill my students need to develop.
Are we as teachers "lingering" with our students? I know of some sixth grade teachers who "cover" (their words, not mine) nine or ten novels in a school year. Really? Along with grammar, mechanics, usage, writing, spelling, tech and current events integration, and vocabulary development you can complete ten novels?

As I've said in my workshops, that approach to reading is like roller skating through the Museum of Modern Art. I guess you see everything, but have you really seen anything at all?

(Although Peter blogs even less frequently than me, you can check him out and give some encouragement).

Image via Old Picture of the Day blog.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Real Writers ONLY Need Apply

I recently caught up with an old friend over coffee. At one point during our conversation she asked if I had continued with any writing after college. I mentioned that I wrote three blogs and did some spec work for publishers for online pieces.

When I asked, in turn, if she had continued with creative writing, she responded that she was about to publish her first book of short stories. "Without my writing group," she enthused, "I never would have had the drive to actually finish it."

"Sounds like a pretty awesome group," I responded. "I should join you guys."

"Well," she hesitated, "we're a group of serious writers."

"I'm a serious writer."

"You're writing on the Internet," she replied, as if I were missing an obvious point of consideration. "Anyone can do that."

"Can't anyone do what you're doing? Aren't most of you working on computers?"

"Yes, but we're passionate about what we write."

"Well, you obviously haven't read many blogs, because we can be pretty passionate as well."

"It's not the same," she said lamely, her brow now furrowing.

"Well, unlike some of your real writers, I have an audience for my writing. I also think some of the stuff I write actually moves people to action. And for some of the work I do for publishers, off the blogs, I actually get paid. So how am I not a real writer?"

"You are, but you're not a serious writer. There's a difference that you just don't understand."

On that single point we agreed.

The takeaway from that conversation? Any writing that we can get students to do should be considered real writing. Narratives, persuasive essays, and multi-page reports shouldn't be our only measure of their abilities and passion.

When I asked students to express their feelings about a live performance of Romeo and Juliet, for example, students responded via Edmodo, our closed social media community. The same students who would have grudgingly eked out just one or two sentences in writing typed out huge paragraphs expressing their opinions on the acting, the language, and play's abrupt ending (it ran over time, so the last scene had to be cut). Any one of these short samples was as truly passionate, well written, and skills-representative as anything else they had ever written. Most importantly, however, the writing served a purpose, as real writing should.

But don't take my word for it; I am, after all, not a serious writer.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Why Students Can't Read Novels

No typo on that title. It's not "Why Students Don't Read Novels," it's "Why Students Can't Read Novels."

The answer? Large blocks of uninterrupted text.

In a web article from the olden days of 1997, Jakob Nielsen answers the question of How Do People Read on the Web? by responding:
They don't.
People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences. In research on how people read websites we found that 79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word. (Update: a newer study found that users read email newsletters even more abruptly than they read websites.)
Likewise, many magazines have given up on paragraphs, choosing line breaks over indentation, and relying more upon bulleted lists, Top Ten lists, and text boxes to deliver content to readers.

In an amusing yet painfully truthful article titled Nation Shudders at Large Block of Uninterrupted Text, the Onion pokes fun at this phenomenon:
WASHINGTON—Unable to rest their eyes on a colorful photograph or boldface heading that could be easily skimmed and forgotten about, Americans collectively recoiled Monday when confronted with a solid block of uninterrupted text.
Dumbfounded citizens from Maine to California gazed helplessly at the frightening chunk of print, unsure of what to do next. Without an illustration, chart, or embedded YouTube video to ease them in, millions were frozen in place, terrified by the sight of one long, unbroken string of English words.
"Why won't it just tell me what it's about?" said Boston resident Charlyne Thomson, who was bombarded with the overwhelming mass of black text late Monday afternoon. "There are no bullet points, no highlighted parts. I've looked everywhere—there's nothing here but words."
While we can't rewrite the classics (although we do, I suppose), we might consider what effects these prevailing habits are having upon our students and their comprehension levels. We might also ask ourselves, What can we as teachers do to respond to this challenge?

I'm totally open to suggestions.

(image from The Onion)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Book Trailers: An Update and a How-To

Back in January I wrote a post at my Teach with Picture Books site, mentioning Mark Geary's excellent and growing collection of book trailers (aka book previews in video format). Mark recently checked in to give an update, saying:
Thanks for the mention, Keith! We do have an adolescent section here. We are now up over a thousand booktrailers, and growing. For the most part, our trailers are made using photostory 3, as it is quick, easy, and free, all good combinations for busy educators. I also wrote a short article on How to Make Booktrailers.

Some consideration needs to be given as to where the booktrailers should be posted. I do not recommend YouTube, as that is blocked in most schools, so even when you post there, the viewing opportunities are limited. Teachers and authors are welcome to send booktrailers to me, for inclusion on my site, or they may want to consider SchoolTube (like YouTube, only moderated for content). Another choice may be doing a video commentary on the book, and uploading to that books site on
I went over and checked out Mark's tutorial, and while I am familiar with photostory, I can see that his steps will be easily understood by even a novice user. And as far as the adolescent lit collection, tons of great books are features there including Speak, The Westing Game, The Outsiders, The Face on the Milk Carton, Hatchet, and A Walk to Remember.

So thanks for the tips, Mark! A book trailer is an excellent alternative to the traditional book report, and by increasing the size and breadth of a student's audience, it becomes even more motivating.

For some more ways to use book trailers, plus some additional links, be sure to check out the most recent link on the topic, YA Book Trailers, plus the original article on the topic: The Power of the Preview.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Doing What Works

First, the good news: I have a follower! Woo-Hoo! Sounds kind of silly after nearly a year of blogging, but understand that I recently moved How to Teach Novel from WordPress to here at Blogger. In doing so I kept my posts, but unfortunately lost my comments, my followers, and my Google rank. But as they say in sports, this is a rebuilding year! So join the fan club! Follow me! Pity follows are gratefully accepted.

Second, the equally good news. I discovered a pretty cool resource, courtesy of our tax dollars, called Doing What Works: Research Based Education Practices Online. Now some of you, knowing that this site comes from the government, might be laughing uncontrollably at the title, but trust me, there's some really good stuff here.

Doing What Works is a site that synthesizes educational research with actual classroom practice. Of prime importance to us are the resources provided for Adolescent Literacy. Four recommended practices are featured: Vocabulary Instruction, Comprehension Strategies, Engaging Text Discussion, and Intensive Intervention.

Each of these four practices is in turn broken down into Practice Summary, Learn What Works, See How It Works, and Do What Works:
  • Practice Summary provides a one-paragraph synopsis of what the teacher will achieve through this practice, plus a Multimedia Overview.
  • Learn What Works includes video segments of experts discussing the practice, as well as Key Concepts (in real language, not jargon), Research Evidence, and Related Links.
  • See How It Works allows you to be a fly on the classroom wall through teacher-narrated Presentations illustrating the practice in action. Sample Materials are provided in pdf format for downloading. 
  • Do What Works contains both Ideas for Action and Tools and Templates, designed to help teachers and administrators implement the practices immediately.
For even the most experienced teachers, this site offers a reminder of the basic practices essential to literacy instruction. For beginners, it's an excellent introduction and primer for making literacy work in the classroom by implementing direct and systematic instruction. This site is the "science" of teaching; the "art" is left up to us.

Looking for a terrific text as a desk reference for this site? The English Teacher's Companion is strongly recommended for its straight-forward advice on instruction, organization, and growing in the profession. The Doing What Works site recommends author Jim Burke's web site as well.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Gary Paulsen: Living Literary Legend

Okay, I have to admit it: I have a new hero. That hero is Newbery Award winning author Gary Paulsen.

Most of us know Gary Paulsen from his classics Dogsong and Hatchet, or perhaps his newer titles Lawn Boy and Notes from the Dog. From reading briefly about him, I know that he was, and is, a real rough-and-tumble, outdoorsy kind of guy, who has lived firsthand many of his character's adventures. (Think a G-rated version of Hemingway). As a kid who was raised on camping and fishing, I felt a real kinship.

But when I read a recent interview with Gary about his new novel Woods Runner, I was totally won over. His perspective on how the American Revolution is trivialized echoes everything I've ever said in my numerous posts about the American Revolution at my Teach with Picture Books site. Paulsen feels that the common soldiers of the Revolution are rarely given their due respect; like me, he also marvels that they were able to survive the arduous years of that conflict.

After reading that interview, I can't wait to get my hands on Woods Runner! I can see amazing correlations to other books and subject areas through topic, theme, and genre.

Read more about the book, read an excerpt, download an author study guide, check out his upcoming multi-city tour, and print out a poster. I think the more you investigate, the more you'll discover that an author like Paulsen is a great way to get your students (especially your boys) into good books.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Reading Strategies Archive

At the Florida Online Reading Professional Development site you'll find an excellent archive of Reading Strategies of the Month. If you're looking for ways to put thinking into action, this site is worth a visit. (NOTE: the original link was no longer working, so I replaced it with a link to similar activities while I continue to search out the original archive. PLUS, here's a similar collection from West Virginia. You can also search out individual archives of the strategies originally posted by Florida).

In addition to some familiar strategies such as Literature Circles, Word Walls, and Anticipation Guides, you'll find some less well-known approaches including Six Hat Thinking, Prediction Wheel, and the INSERT Strategy. Not only are the reading strategies described in detail, but the site also provides research findings, a rationale for each, pdf templates and examples, and links to external sites.

The Rationale for the SCAMPER strategy, for example, begins:
Looking for a new spin on an old idea?

Trying to figure out how to solve a problem by working smarter not harder?
Then the SCAMPER strategy may be the answer you are looking for to spark your own creativity, and the creativity of your students.

SCAMPER is a mnemonic acronym that provides a structured way to assist students and teachers with understanding creative problem solving and developing extension-building activities based on prior ideas and processes (Hale-Evans, 2006). First proposed by Alex Osborne in 1953, this thinking strategy was further developed by Bob Eberle and noted in his 1971 book, SCAMPER: Games for Imagination Development. Eberle states that much as the word scamper suggests “running playfully about as a child”, the strategy SCAMPER may also evoke the need “to run playfully about in one’s mind in search of ideas” (Eberle, 1984).

Why is creative problem solving useful to teach? Assisting ourselves and our students to be creative and critical thinkers are key goals of any teacher or school. Yet, you may ask, why is SCAMPER so useful? Creative problem solving strategies involve “a system, a method, a plan for dealing with perplexing situations” (Erberle, 1984). The SCAMPER technique offers a systematic and practical way to stimulate divergent thinking, imagination, originality, and intuition while scaffolding students’ creative thinking for independent use on other tasks and assignments. (Glenn, 1997)
While there, also check out the database of articles and online sources; some terrific stuff there if you enter just a couple terms for searching.

If you're looking for a ready desk reference on the topic of reading strategies, I highly recommend Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension for Understanding and Engagement, by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis.

You'll find lots of practical, concrete ideas to implement, no matter what your level of expertise or experience in teaching reading.