Category Archives: Teaching

The Story Museum

I was a collecting child which no doubt partially explains my interest in museums.  At one point during my many years trying to figure out how to tell Sarah Margru Kinson‘s story, I seriously contemplated doing it as an exhibition complete with a curator and rooms for each part of her life.  I especially like the cabinet-of-curiosities-sorts-of-museums, those with cases and rooms filled to the brink with things,  say London’s Sir John Soane’s Museum and Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum*.  I also adore the idea of museums that are sly and totally unlike anything else, say  The Museum of Jurassic Technology  or  Dennis Severs’ House (both of which I yearn to see).  And when it comes to children and museums, the more experiential and hands-on, the better.

Which is why I’m excited about Oxford’s Story Museum.  It is truly an original idea — blending art, performance, telling, viewing, and pretty much everything else story-related in imaginative ways.  While the physical museum will not be open for a while yet, they’ve been working in schools and doing all sorts of programs featuring their ideas about stories.  Some of these include:

  • Schools programme  “Since 2005 the Story Museum has been working with teachers to harness the power of stories to inspire and support children’s learning. An important strand of this work is oral storytelling: learning to tell stories from memory.”  Some of the schools they work with center their whole curricula around storytelling, Storytelling Schools.
  • Alice’s Day.  As you might guess given the name of this blog, I wish I could have been at this year’s event, just a few weeks back and am thinking I’ve got to get there next year as it is a very important anniversary for Alice.
  • 1001 stories  That’s right. “Inspired by this ancient Arabic tale we have set ourselves the challenge of gathering and sharing 1001 stories for everyone to enjoy.”  They’ve got a bunch there already.

Yesterday, Philip Pullman who is, unsurprisingly, one of their patrons took me to the museum where we got a fascinating tour with co-director Kim Pickin.  The physical space is a remarkable warren of rooms of all sizes with a fascinating history and, if they do even a smidgen of what they dream to do, it will be extraordinary. They’ve got some massive Alice cut-outs peering out of the windows, a dinosaur, some scary vaults (part of the space used to be the post office and there are rumors that gold bullion was stored there at one point), some very old printing presses, and lots of energy .  Outside they’ve a few sly touches to intrigue passersby.

The sign says “Rochester’s Story Supplies” and the objects are witty and clever story references.  I wasn’t able to get a very good shot of the window so you must just go yourself to see it! Below is another small and even more subversive window with three bowls— for what story, do you think?  They’ve got a third in the works being created by Mini Grey that is going to be equally clever.

And then there is this phone box that I noticed as we drove in, wondering about the chain. To give you a feel of their sensibility, they’ve toyed with it being a museum entrance.

* I visited the Pitt Rivers Museum today for the first time and I’m in love — the way they’ve maintained the original sense of the place is fantastic.  One of the best museum experience I’ve had in some while.  I also enjoyed very much the Oxford University Museum of Natural History which is in front of it — what a gorgeous Victorian space!


Filed under Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Children's Literature, Other, Philip Pullman, Teaching

In the Classroom: Nothing But the Facts

A few days back I was in a rollicking debate with Marc Aronson at his blog over the recently released results of the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), this one focusing on history.  Disgusted by the 4th grade test I wrote in one of several comments:

I’ve been studying the questions for the fourth grade test and they got me crazy. I want to know at one point in the school year the test was given, did the kids study, etc etc. As for the Chicken Little “The sky is falling because they don’t know what Lincoln did” business, as Gary Nash and others have pointed out in various publications over the years, it was ever thus.

My curriculum is history-centered, but it is deep engagement and not the sort of superficial kind those fourth graders would have had to do well on that assessment. Teaching to this particular test isn’t going to make for better citizens, people, etc etc that I assume is what people want in the long run (or do they just want kids to be able to say what Thanksgiving is about evermore)?

I have not noticed a focus anywhere on memorizing and retention of facts when people fuss about schooling today. Some of the questions actually asked the kids to think, but far too many of them are simplistic fact-based ones.

At my school teachers sometimes express SHOCK when a class of fourth graders doesn’t know something in history, say indeed details about Lincoln, and my response is why should they? We don’t do a massive US history survey in third or fourth grade where they’d be exposed to Lincoln and I bet even if we did there still be many who wouldn’t remember. In my opinion what would make them remember would be the sort of deep engagement Myra [Zarnowski] is talking about and that ain’t gonna happen if they have to be ready for a test with questions such as these.


And so I’m now gratified to see Nick Paumgarten’s equally skeptical take on it in The New Yorker with the money quote from one of my favorite thinkers about kids and historical thinking:

“We haven’t ever known our past,” Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford, said last week. “Your kids are no stupider than their grandparents.”


Filed under History, In the Classroom, Teaching

In the Classroom: First Do No Harm

Recent conversations with my school colleagues about the teaching of writing has me reflecting on my own practice. And as I do, the same overriding precept keeps coming to mind: first do no harm. This belief underlies every choice I make about what and how to teach, guides me in decisions about whole group lessons, conversations with individual children about their work, communications with their parents, and is deeply ingrained into the very core of my being as a teacher. Why, you may wonder, is that? Sadly, it is because a teacher unknowingly did harm me, causing me to be terrified and incapable of writing for twenty years.

This may surprise those of you who know me today as the author of books, articles, reviews, and blog posts. But that is now. Then was 1970, my senior year of high school. I’d always liked writing and thought I was pretty good at it. Certainly until then, despite my miserable spelling, I’d always felt appreciated and supported by family and teachers. But that year I was in an AP English class taught by a teacher we admired beyond all reason. You know how it is in high school — there is always at least one incredibly smart and charismatic teacher — ours was Oscar Wilde-like in his witty snarkiness. Sure, he was often scathing, telling us he didn’t know what any of us were doing in the class, but somehow it didn’t matter. He was brilliant and, in spite of all the harsh talk, he made us feel brilliant too. I was certain, by the end of the year, that he’d concede, confess that we weren’t all that bad after all.

But then there came a day that is still vivid in my memory decades later. It seems embarrassingly pedestrian today, but that is why it is so important to describe. Because it is just the sort of thing we teachers can easily do, things that affect our students in ways we can’t imagine. On that day my parents told me that this teacher had recommended I not take a part in the spring play because I needed to “work on my writing.” Theater was then my passion, and the idea that this godlike teacher thought my writing was so problematic had me miserable. I had no idea what he thought was wrong with my writing as he never volunteered to help me and I was far too in awe of him to ask. Instead, I’d stay up until 2 AM hopelessly trying to “fix” it even though I didn’t know what needed fixing or how to do it.

At college things got worse. My poor performance in freshman English sent me to a weekly remedial writing tutorial with the head of the department. She diagnosed my problem as emotional and felt she had no cure to provide. So I came up with my own — to stay away from the always-enticing English Department offerings for the rest of my matriculated life (and I’ve an undergraduate and two graduate degrees). I read voraciously on my own, took intellectually stimulating courses in other departments, and would looked longingly at the literature offerings in the course catalogs before quickly turning the page.

When I became a teacher I was determined that my students would feel like writers  — always. And so they did loads of the same sort joyful writing I had done when young — reports, stories, poems, reviews, journals, and more. Sometimes we published and sometimes we didn’t. I had them think about audience, introduced and reinforced the necessary language conventions, supported them through the revision process, helped them become independent proofreaders, and met privately (sometimes after school) with those who needed the sort of individual attention I didn’t get. My introduction to the writing process approach in the early 1980s was nirvana.  So were computers.

Yet I was still not a writer myself. Oh, I went through the motions. After all, I had to write all the time — papers for graduate school, curriculum and lesson plans, reports to parents about their children. But deep down I felt totally incompetent, still that person nailed by her high school AP teacher as needing to work on her writing. Until 1990 when I saw an announcement for a fellowship to study children’s literature at Princeton and wanted to do it — badly. So much so that somehow I wrote (and rewrote and rewrote and rewrote) the required essay well enough to be one of the fifteen selected out of the over one hundred who applied. After all that time an English professor  (one of those I’d avoided for twenty years) thought I could write; evidently he didn’t think I needed to “work on my writing” at all. From then on everything was different. I started writing seriously and a lot, perhaps making up for all those lost years. I came across the childlit list serve and made a name for myself with extensive and opinionated posts on a range of topics.  I wrote my first book for teachers. I was told often that I was a good writer and my editors were surprised when I told them of my earlier difficulties. The curse had been lifted, but it took twenty years.

I still remember that high school teacher with great fondness. He was such a grand character and introduced me to some wonderful writers and playwrights. I’m sure he never had a clue that he did anything to me. And that is what I take away from this — that as a teacher I have to be so careful, to be sure my classroom is a safe place to learn, to be certain that my students have the confidence and feel secure enough to take risks. I need to be aware of their individual sensitivities, their private weaknesses, and to always support them in every possible way as developing writers and human beings. Most of all, I must try to do no harm.


Filed under In the Classroom, Teaching, Writing

A Tribute to My Colleagues in Public Schools

It seems that everywhere you turn these days we educators are being maligned and demonized, disrespected, not allowed to practice methods of good teaching,  repeatedly questioned and belittled, and generally presented in the public consciousness in very ugly ways .  Every time I see another such nasty mention I again feel incredibly grateful to be teaching in a private school where I am respected and where I am able to teach in ways that keep me intellectually and creatively happy. And so I am in awe of my public school colleagues  who manage to continue, in the face of all this negativity, to fight the good fight and continue to teach creatively and inform others about this too.  Teachers  like classroom teacher Mary Lee Hahn who touched me deeply yesterday when she thanked me in this giving thanks post, for for doing something that made a big difference in her professional life.  I responded with the following comment and decided to post it here too:

Mary Lee,

I’m incredibly touched and honored by your mention of me. I am incredibly grateful of your work too.  In particular my admiration knows no bounds for your staying in the classroom and fighting on behalf of good teaching and good learning. Being in a private school it is much easier for me and so I admire and respect all of you who manage to continue to teach creatively, with books, and so intimately in this time of high-stakes tests and standards.  Thank you so much for all you do.



Filed under Teaching

A Few Clues from Me

Every month the Sherlock Holmes-like creators of the very fine Story Sleuths blog investigate a book to see what can they can glean from it in terms of writing for children.  Sometimes they have interviews with the authors and sometimes other folks weigh in as well. Say me. Their latest focus has been One Crazy Summer and I was delighted when they invited me to contribute this guest post. Others they’ve explored include The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianCharles and Emma, and When You Reach Me.

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Filed under Children's Literature, Teaching

The Metropolitan Museum, Percy Jackson, and Rick Riordan

Rick Riordan was a middle school teacher for years and used his own lessons to create an excellent Percy Jackson teacher guide.   And now he is going to be part of a Metropolitan Museum teacher workshop on March 14th. Bet it is going to be excellent!

Full-Day Workshop—Gods, Monsters, Myths: Exploring Greek and Roman Art through the Eyes of Percy Jackson

In the opening pages of Rick Riordan’s book The Lightning Thief, young Percy Jackson visits the Greek and Roman galleries at the Metropolitan Museum with his school class to witness the power and magic of the works of art as mythology springs to life. Join us for this special workshop for K–12 educators and discover the wonder and beauty of classical mythology as represented in great ancient Greek and Roman works of art. Discuss key works, develop teaching strategies, and receive resource materials before attending a talk by

Riordan in the afternoon.

See Teacher Programs for registration information. For further information about teacher programs please call 212–570–3985 or email Enrollment for all workshops is limited and on a first-come, first-served basis.

Susan K. Morrall, Giovanna Assenso-Termini
Fee: $50 (Includes instruction, resource materials, admission to the Museum and the Rick Riordan event, and lunch)
10:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m., Art Study Room, Uris Center for Education

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Filed under Other, Teaching

In the Classroom: Sixteen Years Later

I just found this unpublished essay from 2004 about my teaching with technology.  What a leap from the word processors we were using in 1994 to the wireless netbooks all our 4th graders have today.  This coming Tuesday we will be introducing my current class to blogging — each child, as we’ve done for the previous three years — will be getting his or her own blog.  They and I can’t wait!

So what follows are my 2004 thoughts along with some additional comments from today, January 2010:


My article, “Empowering Young Writers with Technology” was published in the April 1994 issue of Educational Leadership.  In it I described my fourth grade students’ use of portable word processors for writing.  Ten years later I’m still a fourth grade teacher at the Dalton School and my students are still using portable word processors for writing.  So what is the same and what is different?  And what can I expect in ten more years?  (January 2010: still a fourth grade teacher at the Dalton School and my students are still writing on computers more than ever.  As for what I can expect in ten more years — see my notes in red below.)

A Look Back

Convincing my school’s administration to put those initial portable word processors into my classroom was challenging.  After all, I wanted enough so that every child would have access to one during our writing periods and that meant not only a substantial monetary commitment, but a pedagogical one as well.   At the time the school’s technological focus was on collaborative projects oriented around specific curricular content. The 6th grade, for example, worked one team to a computer, excavating a virtual archaeological dig as part of their study of ancient Greece.  Writing was done in response to such projects and was not seen as an end in itself.   It took much persuading to convince those in charge to buy that first set of portable word processors for our use in the 4th grade.

Fortunately, as I described in my 1994 article, my students quickly proved the worth of this purchase.  Given the choice between writing with a pencil and writing on a portable word processor, most soon preferred the latter.  Initial frustrations due to minimal keyboarding skills and technical knowledge gave way to delight as the children discovered how much easier it was to plan, draft, revise, and proofread their work.  Students became much more independent as they discovered that they could move around text, add and subtract information, and even correct spelling without adult help.  The level of their writing soared now that the arduous nature of handwriting had been removed.  More children began seeing themselves as serious writers, taking their portable word processors out during free time to write stories on their own.  It was clear that the introduction of the word processors had been a great success.

Using Portable Word Processors Today (That is, 2004, not 2010)

Ten years later not only is the idea of using computers in the teaching of writing much more accepted, but the technology is much better and less expensive as well.  Currently, each of our 4th and 5th graders is given an Alphasmart to use at home and school.   (January 2010: As I wrote above, we now have netbooks for each child.  Not only word processors, but easy Internet access, something we used much more occasionally six years ago.) After a focused course in keyboarding, the children use them in a myriad of ways.  Some take them to the science lab to use when writing up an experiment.  Others use them when doing interviews for the school newspaper.  When writing in journals, some chose to write by hand and some on their Alphasmarts.  During recess it is not uncommon to see pairs of children busily writing stories together on their Alphasmarts.  And of course, they are still used as I described in my article a decade ago — for intensive writing instruction.  These inexpensive computers have become part of the fabric of our classrooms, almost as ubiquitous as pencils.  (January 2010.  Fascinating to read this now and be reminded how far we have come.  Not only are computers part of the fabric of our classroom, but the current group of children come with the skills to dive right in to using them. And, as I wrote above, the easy online access they offer is a huge difference.)

What is the Same?

We still use the writing process approach. The children work hard to plan, draft, revise, proofread, and publish their work.   Come into my classroom during a writing period and you will still see children doing what children have always done during this time— working on writing in a variety of ways.  Over there is a child by herself busily typing away.  And over there, another child with a pencil, reading over a draft and marking it up.  Two children sit on the rug sharing stories while I sit with another child discussing a glitch in his story. The process hasn’t changed, only the tools.  (January 2010 I’d say this is pretty much unchanged.)

What is the Same and Different?

I’ve been publishing student work for three decades.  I still have copies of mimeographed books and magazines done by classes when personal computers were the stuff of science fiction, not reality.  As delightful as they are, I must admit that I have no wish to go back to the days of purple ditto sheets and sore arms from cranking up those big old mimeograph machines!  Today, not only does each of my students have an Alphasmart, but we have access to a class set of laptops and sufficient printers as well.  Once the children are ready to publish their writing, they are able to use these laptops to produce high quality final products.   So even though I still do as many publication projects as I did before I had access to computers, I must admit they are much easier to do today. (January 2010: One BIG change since I wrote this — we do most of our publishing now on the blogs!  Becoming more and more paperless. Just the easy Internet access for all sorts of things is another big change.)

A great example of this is our immigrant oral history picture book project.  I start, as I would have thirty years ago, immersing the children in the study of immigration with a variety of materials: books, videos, primary sources, museum visits, visits to immigrant neighborhoods and more.  Next I model the process of doing an oral history for the children and together we study a variety of picture books based on oral histories. (January 2010: This year one of my colleagues did this as a DVD, a lovely overview of the process that we can reuse in the future.) So far this is all that I would have done pre-computers. The children then tape record their own interviews and then transcribe them, usually by hand. (January 2010: I think we are close to kids doing these interviews on computers. Not there quite yet, but very close.) You would think, as I did initially, that this would be overwhelming for them, but remarkably they enjoy doing it. They then decide what parts of the transcript they want in their final picture book and type those into their Alphasmarts.  From that point on all is different as they use computers to revise these drafts for their picture books. Some children completely retell the oral history in third person, others keep the interview exactly as is, and still others experiment with a variety of writing formats for their books.  Conferring, multiple drafts, and proofreading are now a breeze with the Alphasmarts and laptops.  And then there are the illustrations.  With the Internet available on the laptops, the children can easily research their subjects’ countries of origin to be sure their illustrations are accurate.   Further, those children who do not like or do not feel comfortable drawing happily make collages using images from the Internet.  And so a project, pedagogically like those I’ve done my whole teaching career, is transformed with technology. (January 2010. We still do this project and the children end up with beautiful books.  This year I saw something a bit different from previous years, something only possible with the netbooks. This was a greater use of collage — more children found, printed out, and used images from the Internet than in previous years.  I’m not sure if this is a good thing or not.  Were kids would could have drawn, avoiding it?  Certainly, those who used images spent huge amounts of time looking for just the right one.  Will be interested to see what happens next year. Is this a blip with this year’s cohort or not?)

What is Different?

The Internet is probably the biggest difference in how I use technology in teaching everything, especially but not only writing.  Publications, for example, can go on the Web as easily as in a class book.  And do — over the past ten years my students and I have produced many Web-based publications for their families, friends, and those all over the world to enjoy.  Research is now done online as well as from books.  Communication is as often by email as it is by letter or phone call.  (January 2010:  It is now 99% via email.  The school now expects parents to read their email.  What is new since I wrote this is that the children have email too.  I have many children emailing me already with their own email accounts.  In a few weeks their school emails will be set so they can communicate with their teachers and I will ask them to write me weekly about their reading instead of in a dialog journal as they do in the fall. Last year some kids were great about this and some not so great.  I then added a little note at the end of my responses to those who wrote regularly telling them to come to me and to whisper a secret word.  When they did they got a lollypop.  They loved this and those who weren’t keeping up with their email suddenly did.)

(January 2010: Biggest change since I wrote this would be blogs.  I adore and love using them with my students.  I’ve done some presentations at conferences about this. Here’s a wiki and slide presentation my collaborators and I did for a conference last year that gives a good sense of how we approach individual blogs with this age group.)

A good example of change is my Alice in Wonderland unit. Ten years ago, after studying the book and its illustrators, my students would do their own illustrations of the story, which I displayed on the bulletin board outside my classroom.  In 1998 I started putting them on the Web.  Today technology has further transformed the unit.  After studying the book as always, the children create small toy theater productions of the book’s different chapters, which we film, edit with Imovie, and finally show at an assembly. Most of the script writing is done on the Alphasmarts and laptops. The children move easily and confidently back and forth between the 19th century text of Alice (available online), their Alphasmarts, and the laptops as they work on this project.  At the end they create individual Web pages complete with their movies, original scripts, puppets, scenery, and more for anyone to see. What a change!  (January 2010: And now we are doing Alice Comics!  I think this many be my favorite way yet to bring Alice alive with 4th graders!)

Some Reservations

Ten years ago I was completely focused on convincing others of the value of giving every child a portable word processor during the writing workshop; a bit of a zealot, I can’t recall having any reservations.  However, having now used computers extensively in my classroom for ten years I’ve had more time to observe, talk to others, and reflect on their pros and cons.

One concern ironically is handwriting.  Ten years ago, in my school, we decided that 4th grade was the right time to focus on keyboarding and urged the lower grades to be sure they saw to it that the children were comfortable with handwriting before they came to us.  That has been an uneven situation. The lower grades now also use computers for writing and there have been years when the children arrived in 4th grade with weak handwriting skills creating quite a quandary for us. Should we focus on handwriting and forget the keyboarding?  Try to do both confusing the children?  Or just focus on keyboarding and give up on handwriting? Because of our tremendous focus on writing on the Alphasmarts we have chosen to focus on keyboarding with only brief remedial attention to handwriting.   Unfortunately, the result has been that upper grade teachers often complain justifiably about illegible handwriting just as they, due to the alarming increase of cheating and Internet-based plagiarism, require that their students do more handwritten work in class.  Because of this, I’m beginning to rethink allowing the children to use their Alphasmarts at all times.  For the last couple of years, for example, I’ve insisted they handwrite in their journals unless they have a clear grapho-motor disability. Balancing the need for children to confidently read and write by hand with the empowerment the computer so clearly provides is a challenge indeed.  (January 2010:  Still a quandary.)

And then there is the digital divide. Some children in the upper grades bring their own laptops to school and there has been discussion of requiring them of every student, as has been the case in other schools.  However, not all have the same economic circumstances. Some students can work on a project comfortably at home because they have the latest and fastest computer with all the possible bells and whistles including the fastest possible Internet connection.  Others stay late at school to work because they may have a four year old computer at home, one telephone line (used by the whole family), with a slow dialup connection.  How do we deal with this iniquity in our schools not to mention in society?  (January 2010: My school has partially solved this by starting a one-to-one laptop program in the 6th grade and will be introducing the same in the high school next year. So all our students have the same computer and software on it. I’m not sure though what sort of connections they have at home — do they all have Internet access at home, I wonder?  And of course, this is just in my private school. While it seems kids do have more access than four years ago, I suspect there is still a divide.)

And in Ten Years?

Twenty years ago I was using the first Apple computers to teach Logo and just beginning to explore the potential of writing and technology. Ten years ago I discovered how children could be empowered as writers when given simple portable word processors.  What do I see for 2014?  I imagine computers replacing notebooks and textbooks. (January 2010: We are heading to that in my school.  I think it is very likely that in the next four years we will have textbook content online. I know that the school is looking at ereaders with this idea in mind.) I see students carrying them everywhere and doing much of their reading and writing on them. (January 2010: this is happening already and I think that textbook reading will be more and more online.  Not so sure about literature though. I think we teachers will still want real books that kids can mark up and consider in a different way from a digital book. Maybe in twenty years though we may be more digital with all reading material. Who’s to say?) I see teachers and students communicating almost more extensively on email.  (January 2010: Definitely the case.) I see media becoming more a part of traditional writing projects — film, music, images, and more. (January 2010: Definitely.  Our teachers are becoming more and more eager to do stuff.  Voicethread, movies, podcasts  — seeing way more of this.) I see more collaborations — even beyond the school to the world beyond. (January 2010: We are also doing more of this at my school.) I see writing continuing to be transformed in ways I can’t even imagine.   And I can’t wait!  (January 2010: Still can’t for whatever is going to happen next!)


Filed under In the Classroom, Reading, Teaching, Writing

In the Classroom: Teaching Reading

In the past week I’ve read two completely oppositional articles on teaching.  The first was “Tyranny of the Test: One Year as a Kaplan Coach in the Public Schools” by Jeremy Miller.  It is a superb piece providing a disturbing, real, and moving view of the specifics of legislation that has made Kaplan such a player in the schools, the sad realities of testing, teaching, and more.  The second was “Students Get New Assignment: Pick Books You Like.”  This is a very different sort of article, Mokoto Rich is a reporter for the New York Times, not a teacher, and so she comes to this topic quite differently — following a teacher as she begins this “new” method in her classroom — children choosing their own reading material.

The method is one of choice — individual reading rather than the whole-class-reads-one book method.  It isn’t, for all Rich suggests it is, new.  It was around when I started teaching in the early 70s and was around even earlier among those with a progressive mindset.  Choice is at the heart of Montessori, open classroom, whole language, constructivism, and many other pedagogies that have waxed and waned in popularity over the years.  I’m glad Rich featured Nancie Atwell, someone who inspired me twenty years ago with her seminal book, In the Middle.  She, along with others, gave me some  excellent tools that helped me to fine-tune a method I already had been using — now known as readers’ workshop.

A few years after that I spent a summer at Princeton studying classical children’s literature. I came back to my classroom determined to bring some of that magic into my teaching.  Since then other experiences have helped me to continually refine how I teach reading.  At the moment, in broad sweeps (leaving out the specific lessons that I do), here’s an overview:

  • Independent Reading.  My students are all expected to always have a book they’ve chosen to read.  The only homework I assign is to read for at least 30 minutes a night. I monitor the reading by having the children write the book title and the pages read.  I can easily determine how their reading is going by those pages.  If a child is only reading ten pages in 30 minutes night after night, for example, something is wrong and I will investigate.  I encourage them to drop books they don’t like and work hard to help them find ones they do.  Periodically I invite them to prepare readings from these books for the class for our weekly Literary Salons.   I have private conversations with them about their readings. They write about the books in response journals (and on blogs).  All the stuff mentioned in Rich’s article and many other places.
  • Reading Aloud. I always am reading aloud a book, ideally one the kids can’t get themselves yet. Last year I read The Graveyard Book and When You Reach Me before they were published, for example.  I’m still mulling over the first book for this year.
  • One Book for the Whole Class.  I do believe in occasionally reading a book together. I think that there can be a very special experience when a group comes together over a book.  And I have to say, I don’t get the vehemence some have against doing this. While I understand how it has been done badly, it can also be wonderful.  I mean, what about those communities that read books together?  Book groups?  Book clubs? Why can’t teachers orchestrate something similar in their classrooms?  Certainly, I hope I do.  We begin the year with Charlotte’s Web and end it with The Wizard of Oz. Both are wonderful experiences.
  • Group Books.  We do a study of historical fiction prior to the kids writing their own.  As part of the preparations I have the kids read books in small groups.
  • Research. Sometimes I think people are so invested in getting kids to love reading that they forget that there is all kinds of reading.  Sometimes it is to get information.  My students read widely when working on their historical fiction stories about Mayflower passengers. They read primary sources, secondary sources, all sorts of stuff.

Okay. I could go on, but I won’t.  Reading is so many different things to so many different people so it stands to reason there would be many different ways to teach it and many different ways to learn it.


Filed under Historical Fiction, In the Classroom, Reading, Reading Aloud, Teaching

In the Classroom: “Poor Kids” and Reading

The latest to give his list of summer reading books for kids is Nicholas Kristof, op-ed columnist for the New York Times.  In “The Best Kid Books Ever” Kristof writes:

In educating myself this spring about education, I was aghast to learn that American children drop in I.Q. each summer vacation — because they aren’t in school or exercising their brains.

This is less true of middle-class students whose parents drag them off to summer classes or make them read books. But poor kids fall two months behind in reading level each summer break, and that accounts for much of the difference in learning trajectory between rich and poor students.

Like so many similar well-intentioned pieces, this column bugged me.  Not only are the books Kristof recommends unlikely to end up in the hands of one of those “poor kids” this summer, even if they were in their hands, they might not speak to them at all.  The suggestions pouring in from his readers seem equally myopic— I see next to none considering what the actual reality is for those at-risk children.

If Krisof is so concerned about those “poor kids,” I wish he’d devote a column to them rather than listing books that he and his middle-class kids liked  — why are these “poor kids” not reading? What programs for them are working? Why? And what books are they liking?   What books (or other media, for that matter) are helping them keep those I.Q. points from bleeding away. (For that matter, check out Walter Kirn’s “Life, Liberty, and the Persuit of Aptitude” for another perspective on testing),  Rather than producing yet another list of books for us children’s book lovers to carp over, I’d like to see someone instead really examine those children who are struggling in school, what happens to them over the summer, and why.


Filed under In the Classroom, Reading, Teaching

In the Classroom: Don’t Blame the Book

I know that I am, like, annoyingly old-fashioned about this, but it seems to me that a big part of the problem is that we have lately empowered students to think that their reading of a book is inherently good and/or interesting.

Too often, we teach kids that all readings are created equal and that there are no bad ideas and etc.

But kids are not in school so that they can tell us what they think about Holden Caulfield. They’re in school to learn what to think about. And whether or not you like Holden is not, imho, the most important or interesting thing you might be thinking about when reading Catcher.

It’s not Holden’s fault if people read him poorly.

Those fighting words are from  John Green in his response to a recent New York Times piece on kids’ dislike of The Catcher in the Rye and, perhaps more significantly, its main character.  I recommend reading the article, reading John’s response, and then — most of all— the comments. For many of them are from high school kids and quite a few of them are fans of Holden.

To me the missing ingredient in this discussion is the teacher.  A great teacher can make most books interesting. (Mind you — I’m not saying likable.  You can enjoy the experience of reading and talking about a particular book — say Catcher — without necessarily liking it.) Now I know that all too often teachers in schools sadly make the experience of reading a book together as a class a misery.  But I have to say that I believe that done right it can be transcendent.  With a great teacher a group becomes a community discussing and considering and wondering and thinking hard about all sorts of stuff by way of a great book.  It bugs me that there is such a negative view about community book readings — IN SCHOOL SETTINGS.  After all, people are big on book groups and whole towns and cities reading a book together. Yet too many of these same folks tear up and spit out teachers and schools for doing something similar.

Good teachers guide and prod and get everyone thinking hard. I teach 4th graders and I like to think I’m able to do this with our study of Charlotte’s Web and am arrogant enough to think I could do it with Catcher in the Rye. It doesn’t always have to be just personal.  Sometimes reading is about something else — about ideas, about the world, about all sorts of stuff. When we do a close reading of Charlotte’s Web we consider the circle of life, irony, nature, death, and tons more.  The kids move outside of their personal response to consider those of others and whether those change their own. The conversation is  exhilarating.  For the kids and for me.  As wonderful as when I first did a close reading of the book with U.C. Knoepflmacher at Princeton in 1990.

I don’t think every book in the classroom needs to be done by the whole class, but I think it is a shame if some aren’t.  Be it Catcher or Charlotte’s Web or another book that is full of meaty stuff to tussle with, to consider, to rail against, or to love.  Books and teachers and students together can create extraordinary classroom communities.  Don’t rule them out.

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Filed under Classic, In the Classroom, Reading, Teaching