Riddle Me This…

Riddle me this readers…why do so many educators consider comic books second class literature?

Comic books are books. The very word “book” is in the title of the genre.

I recently asked a kid in my intervention class who had just finished his novel what he was reading next. He shamefully showed me his chosen book and said, “it’s just a comic.”

Just a comic?

Have educators so lost touch with the act of growing readers that students who are reading comics are ashamed of their choices? First, the student was reading. Secondly, reading choices should not be shamed. Ever. Multiple students have expressed shock in my classroom when they discover that comic books are acceptable reading choices. The only caveat is that everyone work to read across genres.

Comic books are a viable contribution to the classroom and can do more for undiscovered readers than access to hundreds of the latest and best chapter books can.

What is an undiscovered reader? A person who doesn’t know they love reading and hasn’t found the right text yet. Often, undiscovered readers are marginalized and underrepresented in the books present on our classroom shelves. Comics give undiscovered readers a face, voice and purpose.

The benefit of welcoming comic books into classrooms is that you can reach the unreachable. Comic books create readers. This deceptively complex text can answer to all the TEKS and grow your undiscovered reader in to a kid who willingly picks up books.

Comic books have involved, complicated plot lines. Some of these plot lines now span generations. Writers take these plots and continue to rework and expand them into a fabulously relevant and ever evolving, streaming works of fiction. Much like Charles Dickens and his beloved The Pickwick Papers, the plots unfold over a whole of series of books. Readers are perpetually engaged and ready for more.

Aside from these fantastic plots, the publishers allow writers to go off on tangents and create alternate universe plot lines or completely start over with a character. This is amazing! A reader can potentially see the same characters in a myriad of situations in which the fundamentals of the character stay the same, but the entire circumstance has changed. Try Thor as a woman. Captain America shedding his shield to become Nomad. Robin morphing into Nightwing. These are dizzying concepts and make for a challenging reading experience. They are rigorous reads. Character study anyone?

Comic books are timely. From their inception, comic books have challenged the status quo and worked to advance social issues. DC had Green Arrow and Green Lantern tackling drug addiction, race and social injustice as early as the 60’s. Many have had LGBTQIA representation. In the 80’s, Captain Marvel was a black woman who lead the Avengers. Today comics address the issues we are dealing with as a society. They are socially relevant. Imagine the engagement to be had if you were to pair a comic book with a thematically linked nonfiction text. Minds would be blown and engagement would be off the charts.

Comics also have connective powers of a shared societal cannon. A common reference point that the majority can understand and relate to thanks to highly powerful and well marketed movie franchises. Comics help connect, engage and inform.

They deserve a place on our shelves.

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Choice and Independent Reading

I have a confession to make.

I did not read any assigned books in high school. 

I didn’t have to.

My teacher assigned chapters to read at night and the next day he would tell us everything we needed to know.  Sometimes this happened in the form of a class discussion and I would echo comments of my classmates to make it look like I knew what I was doing.  Of course, I aced all the multiple choice style tests because we were given a review or everything was covered in class.  All the thinking (and reading) was done for me. In this process I became a fabulous con woman. Had I been given more ownership of this process, I imagine it would have looked very different.

What if students were allowed to pick a book and talk about character change, plot development, and author’s craft at their own rate and pace?  What if there was not an expert there to translate the text and break it down for them every step of the way? What if teachers took a step back and allowed students to be the experts?

It would be revolutionary!

Studies as far back as the late 70’s have talked about the importance of encouraging reading for the sheer joy of it.  More and more professional texts written by teachers and reading advocates emphasize the value of simply reading to read. More detailed information please visit the amazing blog of Pernille Ripp. With so many literacy experts extolling the virtues of independent reading and choice, do the interwebs really need another blog post about it?  Apparently it does.

One such reading advocate is Kelly Gallagher.  His book, Readicide, discusses how we, the teachers in the hallowed halls of America’s schools, are the ones most guilty of butchering the love of reading in our country.  How can we reverse this trend?  I think the answer is to promote reading for the sake of reading.

Even in the face of so much supporting data, many educators still don’t provide uninterrupted reading time in class OR self selected texts.  Allowing time for students to read self selected texts without the burden of an associated task is a huge boon for promoting the love of reading.  Reading for the sheer pleasure of the task is how we can remind students that reading is FUN.

In addition to helping create lifelong readers,  independent reading:

  • levels the playing field
    • Statistically 1 in 5 people are dyslexic and reading to a prescribed pace or calendar can heighten anxiety.  Independent reading allows everyone to read at their own pace.  Readers don’t have to be concerned with their speed or reading rates.
  • combined with self selected texts is the ultimate differentiation
    • looking to meet all your students’ needs? Allow self selected texts and independent reading.  Everyone is reading at their interest and reading levels AND at a pace that promotes deeper connection to the text.
  • provides ownership
    • students are the expert of what they have read. Instead of repeating what the teacher or classmates have said, students are making their own connections and conclusions.

There are a plethora of other benefits as well.

The readers in my classroom groan in frustration when it is time to stop reading because after more than a month in our class, they have learned a little something about reading.  They may not love it yet, but they are enjoying time with the books they picked for themselves.   The routine is soothing in a chaotic day.  They like being the expert of their text.  They are thriving at their own pace.

Independent reading has an importance and value which can not be measured. Add in choice, and you will grow readers.

Now for implementation.

A Whole Other Level

It’s a picture book with a goofy alien on the cover.

It is older than the students sitting around waiting to hear it.

It is completely relevant in a secondary classroom.

As I read the story and allow the natural back and forth that has developed during read alouds, I also work in my prefabricated, deeper thinking questions. Sometimes I don’t have to use my questions because the kids get there themselves.  When we are done reading, some of the kids make declarative statements like, “now we have to go find the same type of thing in our books, right?”  They know the drill.  In my 45 minutes, I have read a story, taught a lesson, and now release my students to practice that skill.

The most asked question I get about using picture books in a secondary classroom is how do I maintain rigor and text complexity.

For me, rigor is not about the difficulty level of an assignment or task. It’s all about the students’ thinking process.  As a reading teacher I perpetually work at realigning the way middle school students think about their learning. Students are so used to a system in which they either do not have to struggle because eventually the answers will be given to them OR they struggle so much they are perpetually drowning. Picture books, although deceptively simple, can help meet the needs of both these types of student and our gifted populations while creating the same level of rigor and depth of thinking a short story out of a textbook can.

To maintain rigor:
Continue reading “A Whole Other Level”

Picture This

My 8th grade students are all leaning in, listening to every word I say.  Various emotions pass over their faces as I speak.  They are reacting emotionally to what I am reading. Some of these guys are six-foot plus athletes and they are actively listening to the picture book I am reading aloud. I turn the page and read and continue the story.  Someone exclaims, “That’s not right!” in reaction to a character’s behavior and others agree.  On the inside I am fist-bumping myself.

I’ve got them.

When I first pulled out a picture book for a mini lesson a few weeks ago eyes rolled, there were groans, and heads dropped to desktops in disappointment. A month into school and students come in attempting to guess which book will be today’s read aloud.

Picture books are the perfect gateway text for deep analysis and connection.   They are transportive-a quality missing in so many secondary classrooms. Picture books are poignant, condensed, and relatable.  Also, they remind struggling readers of a time when reading wasn’t a dreaded task but an enjoyable pastime. Integrating picture books into lessons is a natural way to elevate classroom community and activate student engagement.

To include picture books in class I have to procure books and brainstorm how to use them. First, I collect picture books I think will work well with potential lessons.  I figure the more books I have to choose from the better relevance they have for various lessons I need to teach. This means book shopping! To build up my library, I follow other teachers on social media who are a wealth of fabulous reading recommendations. As soon as I see a promising book, I add to an Amazon wish list.  When I can, I visit my favorite bookstore in the world, BookPeople in Austin, and peruse the amazing selection. The American Library Association has lists of award-winning books I check for potential titles as well.  Building up a picture book library is an important step in utilizing these books in class.

Secondly, I scour the district curriculum and lessons.  In studying the nuances of the lessons and their objectives, I attempt to concentrate them down to the most valuable elements.  In doing this, I try to not be predictable in how I present the lesson contents.  This helps be match books to the lessons.  Kids are smart and are used to making the obvious connections.  I try to help them make the ones that are deeper or hidden.  For instance, in the book read in the scenario described above, Each Kindness, students made obvious assumptions about stereotypes and judging people.  Our analysis helped them look deeper at how the character’s actions drove the plot and the repercussions of regret.  Additionally, with the one text we explored character, setting, conflict, summary, and theme.

To use books in class there are three steps I feel are very valuable.

  1. Read it aloud by yourself BEFORE reading it aloud to kids.  For me, a lot of my teaching practice, at least for the few minutes I’m taking in class, is performance.  Reading a picture book is almost like me performing a one woman play.  Practicing beforehand helps be know what to emphasize and how to sell important points.  I can make note of what issues I have-such as a word or sentence flow-and point that out to my students.  This way, too, I can find places to pause and help make connections. Sometimes questions form organically during a class reading, and that is exciting and fabulous. I try not to rely on those magical moments simply happening by chance and think out the questions I want answered before students ever step into my classroom.
  2. Adjust seating.  I ask students to move to the carpet or gather around my rocking chair for our reading.  I ask that they position themselves so they can see and hear adequately.  Physically moving helps to make the read aloud experience a tad more transformative.  It triggers memories of gathering to listen from earlier school days and creates a sense of anticipation and fun. It changes the dynamic of students sitting and getting to being part of the reading itself. The very atmosphere changes to one of anticipation. Exactly what a reader should feel before opening the pages of a new book.
  3. Introduce the book and give background.  Help students practice engaging their prior knowledge.  Engaging prior knowledge is VITAL for my readers! It’s not yet automatic and picture books make this habit easier to form. We ask questions of the book before we ever read it. What tone does the cover set? What conclusions can we draw about the plot/characters/story? What awards, if any, are recognized on the cover? This teaches students the practices of good readers when encountering any new text.

Not only is it fun to read picture books, it reconnects students to a possibly long-lost love of reading.  It helps kids plug back into the reading experience and helps them be more willing to read independently when the times comes. It also creates a series of texts they can always come back to for connections.

Reading picture books in class is a magical experience!

Next week: A Whole Other Level

Faking It

It’s independent reading time and a student across the room is looking at me with a smile in her eyes.  She’s testing me to notice if she is reading or not. It’s easy to tell because her book is upside down and backwards.  I smile, roll my eyes, draw a circle in the air and she fixes her book while her shoulders shake with laughter.  Of course, it’s not always so to easy to tell if a student is faking it or not.

Usually, they are not looking to get taught.

Real vs Fake reading is something that needs to be directly taught so that students can self correct when necessary. The fragile readers I have in class are smart, savvy kids and are experts at task avoidance.  Some fake reading behaviours have become so ingrained, students habitually perform them. Others justify the choices they make that keep them from reading. In this lesson, we lay it all on the table-or anchor chart.

To start, I greet everyone at the door with five or so sticky notes.  On a large piece of chart paper or the whiteboard I create a two column chart.  To build anticipation I write real reading above the first column and have them guess what the other column will be.  I start one fresh in each class.

Then we get down to the nitty gritty.  Students get one or two of their sticky notes and write one thing they have done to be a fake reader.  I assure them it is completely anonymous.  This step in the process is HUGELY important.  One, my sweet children want to share and by writing their fake reading techniques on a sticky note means they are happily handing over the fake reading behavior I need to look for.  Two, it causes students to reflect on their process. Once students pass in the notes or place them in the fake reading column, I read the responses and we talk about them.   We laugh at how silly some of the tactics are and I share what I’ve done to avoid reading as well. We discuss the harm these behaviors can cause our success, the reasons behind the behaviors and how to correct them. I point how we’ve put so much effort in to fake reading, shouldn’t we put the same type of effort in to actually reading.

Then we transition to real reading.

This is a little more challenging because some students really can’t say what this looks and feels like.  Their experience with real reading is full of negative experiences or was years ago in elementary school. Before beginning we talk about the difference between perception and reality.  Then I have students write down what they think it looks like, sounds like and feels like on different sticky notes.  We post those on the chart and discuss. I then post only the real read reading side in the classroom as that behavior is the one I wish to showcase.

I tie real reading back to right fit books and remind them we are self paced.  Also, real reading may look different for different readers.  Reading is not one size fits all.

Then we practice.  As students practice, I walk around and praise effort, make gentle correction where needed or help evaluate if struggling students have the best book for them.

Then we continually practice.  Some kiddos take to this straight away.  Others are resistant.

But we’re all readers here.

Next week: Picture This

 

 

Reading + Chocolate=Love

On the fifth day of the new school year, my class full of reluctant readers picked their first library books.  My wonderful librarian welcomed us and helped me assist our readers in finding books that seemed promising.  After checking out their new reading materials and without being prompted, students settled at tables arranged around the library and started reading.

Independently.

How did this surprising phenomenon occur? For the past week I have I have worked on building community,  the value of reading, how much reading touches our lives and how to select reading materials.

It’s been a literacy whirlwind.

We’ve reminisced about beloved childhood books, read picture books, analyzed our reading lives, started a read aloud and discussed our strengths and weaknesses.

Here are three things that help when implementing independent reading:

  1. Differentiate between accidental reading and intentional reading.  First, I break down the meaning of accidental and intentional.  For example, accidental has negative connotations and we don’t want to have accidents! We talk about how we need to be purposeful in our reading selections because what we read becomes a part of us.
  2. Emphasize the power students have.  I spend a lot of time showing students THEY are in charge of their learning and potential growth.  We have 25-30 minutes in each class period allotted for independent study and they are accountable for managing it well. We have a class chant where I say, “What starts here” and the students respond with, “Changes the world.” They are the game changers in our classroom.  We also have a class motto I have them repeat when anyone says they are not a reader, they hate to read, or don’t read: we’re all readers here. Additionally, they get to pick what they read!  So much power.
  3. Practice.  The library scenario I described in the intro happened in all five of my classes.  It was super exciting because it is proof my students want to be readers. But.  In one class the reading lasted for 7 minutes.  In another it lasted 3.  This is not discouraging in the least!  Reading stamina is something we will practice in chunks.  We will discuss real reading vs fake reading, eliminating distractions, self accountability, and personal reading rates over the next week.

Moving forward with independent reading is challenging.  Teachers have to let go and turn over a lot of the class to their students.  The top questions educators have asked me when talking about independent reading and choice are:

  • How can you teach deep concepts if everyone is reading different books?
    • We need to separate comfort with a text and depth of understanding.  I feel that a lot of times as educators we expect students to comprehend readings on the same level as we do.  This is not a realistic expectation.  Especially considering many teachers teach the same pieces year after year and have gained exceptional expertise and insights. I can gage if a student has a deep understanding of a text I have not yet read through discussion and written response.   Independence and choice allows us to step away from specific, limited developments in assigned texts and allow broader conversations about how authors create characters, plots and conflicts across literature.  Why create experts on one story or book when we can equip them to with the ability analyze all texts they encounter?
  • How do you keep students accountable if everyone is reading different texts?
    • In Texas our TEKS or learning standards are recursive.  This means that they are essentially the same from 6-12, but have increasing complexity.  The reading material can be interchangeable when answering standards based questions.  30 kids can read 30 different books and all answer questions like, “how does the setting help the plot progress” or “how do the choices the protagonist make contribute to the conflict”.  Additionally, each student is an expert on their chosen text rather than parroting the teacher or classmates.
  • How can you tell they are actually reading?
    • As I’ve said before, I didn’t read one of the texts assigned to me in high school.  I only read a handful of the books assigned in college.  Why?  I didn’t have to.  The teacher or classmates told me everything I needed to know.  If students are reading self selected novels, there is no one feeding them information about the story.   Independent reading allows for them to actually have to read and self pace. To really get in depth and evaluate if my students are really reading, I confer with every student at least once a week.  Via this one on one conversation I am able to glean lots of information about their reading process,

You know what happened when the reading happening in the intro broke down?  I didn’t panic because I know this is a behavior my students will grow more comfortable with over time.  Instead, we talked.  We talked about their lives, their school year so far, their weekend plans. We laughed.  We were loud in the library.

And the librarian offered us chocolate.

 

Next week: Fake reading vs Real reading

 

Independent Reading with Choice

My classroom is peaceful.  All my students are arranged on various surfaces.  Some are  twisted into pretzel shapes they find comfortable, others under tables or draped over our couch.  Everyone has a different book. No one is taking notes.  Everyone is reading.  When the timer goes off indicating it’s time to transition, there is a chorus of groans. They don’t want to stop reading.

An outsider would never guess this was a room full of struggling readers.

It took months to get to this point with my 8th graders, but the rewards of those groans was worth it!  The single most valuable tool in getting to this point, aside from bucket loads of patience, was allowing time for my students to read what they wanted unfettered by tasks or constraints.

Studies as far back as the late 70’s have talked about the importance of encouraging reading for the sheer joy of it.  More and more professional texts written by teachers and reading advocates emphasize the value of simply reading to read. More detailed information please visit the amazing blog of Pernille Ripp. With so many literacy experts extolling the virtues of independent reading and choice, do the interwebs really need another blog post about it?  Apparently it does.

One such reading advocate is Kelly Gallagher.  His book, Readicide, discusses how we, the teachers in the hallowed halls of America’s schools, are the ones most guilty of butchering the love of reading in our country.  How can we reverse this trend?  I think the answer is to promote reading for the sake of reading.

Even in the face of so much supporting data, many educators still don’t provide uninterrupted reading time in class OR self selected texts.  Allowing time for students to read self selected texts without the burden of an associated task is a huge boon for promoting the love of reading.  Reading for the sheer pleasure of the task is how we can remind students that reading is FUN.

In addition to helping create lifelong readers,  independent reading:

  • levels the playing field
    • Statistically 1 in 5 people are dyslexic and reading to a prescribed pace or calendar can heighten anxiety.  Independent reading allows everyone to read at their own pace.  Readers don’t have to be concerned with their speed or reading rates.
  • combined with self selected texts is the ultimate differentiation
    • looking to meet all your students’ needs? Allow self selected texts and independent reading.  Everyone is reading at their interest and reading levels AND at a pace that promotes deeper connection to the text.
  • provides ownership
    • students are the expert of what they have read. Instead of repeating what the teacher or classmates have said, students are making their own connections and conclusions.

There are a plethora of other benefits as well.

It is vital we turn around the perception our secondary students have of  reading. Independent reading has an importance and value which can not be measured. Add in choice, and you will grow readers.

Next week: Implementing Independent Reading

Wonder Twin Powers…Activate

When I first started out as a language arts teacher, my classroom looked and sounded a lot different.

Desks were in rows.

We all read the same book.

At the same time.

At the same pace.

On a strict schedule that disallowed time for reflection, review, or discussion.

Technically, we read texts, but in reality we simply finished them. At least that was the goal. Reading was a task to get through and none of us ended up enjoying the process.  Looking back, I’m shocked anything productive happened.

As I approach my 19th year in education, I’ve been contemplating how I came to believe what I do about literacy.  Over almost two decades students, co-workers, and professional texts have massively altered how I approach reading instruction.

A pivotal moment in my reading education was when my campus introduced Cris Tovani’s I Read It, But I Don’t Get It as professional development my third or fourth year of teaching.  My reading teacher world started to shift and change. This book, and several others I will blog about over the next few weeks, helped alter my ideas of what it means to be a literacy advocate.

The biggest takeaway from this book was that we need to talk to kids about their understanding and reading progress.  When students are reading and not “getting” it, we need to step in and help them figure out where meaning broke down and reestablish comprehension.

As a language arts teacher, the finer points of reading instruction were not something I was aware of.  The idea of providing a scaffolding to support understanding or encouraging a second reading to ensure comprehension was a logical answer I was unable to provide. I made a lot of assumptions about my students’ reading abilities. And perhaps my lack of experience and fear of losing control of the class contributed to killing all the fun whilst reading.  I was teaching the way I had been taught and conferring with individual kids was nowhere on my radar.

When considering reading instruction, I Read It, But I Don’t Get It started to open my eyes to the gulf that exists between the training language arts teachers receive and that of reading teachers. Having taught both subjects and attended various trainings, I can attest to how differently these closely knit subject promote literacy.

For example, one time I attended a training geared to reading teachers where I was the only language arts teacher present.  I sat down with a group and when I introduced myself as a LA teacher, the rest of the table, all reading teachers, promptly started to ignore me.  It was as if I had draped an invisibility cloak around my shoulders.

To be fair, I don’t think the teachers at that training years ago meant to be unwelcoming or rude.  I just think they recognized that LA teachers don’t teach reading as it should be taught.

And without training, they don’t.

Language Arts teachers are trained to analyze texts for deeper meaning, use of vocabulary and syntax, and develop thesis statements about the texts to defend opinions.

Reading teachers are trained to facilitate student understanding of a text, diagnose reading issues, and prescribe fixes for reading difficulties.

Imagine if these powers were combined…

Bridging the gap between language arts and reading instruction is a step in the right direction to create students who are lifelong readers.

My language arts background has given me tons of short stories to utilize, extensive experience in literary analysis, and a strong background author’s craft.  As I morphed into a reading teacher, those skills combined with a new understanding of right fit books, language acquisition, and independent practice.

We must not assume that students are able to read at the grade level they are in or have acquired academic language or decoding skills with accuracy when they enter our classrooms.  It is important we work to discover where each child is in their quest toward true literacy.  Just because a student is in an upper grade does not mean they are a proficient reader.

To bridge the gap between reading and language arts instruction here are three things can be done:

  1. Build a teacher community.  A collaborative, mixed group of reading and language arts experts can work together to fill gaps in curriculum and instruction.  A teamwork approach ensures that students are receiving well-rounded instruction.
  2. Consistently appropriate texts, differentiated for all levels of readers.   This happens best in a small group model where students have the best texts for them individually and all are assessed with a similar assessment tool.
  3. Conferring.  Talking to students about their understanding and predictions is the BEST thing we can do to help students in our classes as it creates a more self-aware student who can monitor their own understanding.

Pooling our expertise to round out the instruction of reading and literature will do wonders for growing students who are lifelong lovers of learning.

And makes us super teachers!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fun

To start my daughter on her journey to driving, we got the chance to motor to the Department of Public Safety.  We decided to journey to a DPS in a small, nearby town to get her permit thinking we would avoid the crowds.

We arrived at 8:45 to find an overflowing full parking lot.

We parked and picked our way through an overgrown sidewalk around a portable building to a side entrance where about 50 people stood lined up on a covered porch. My daughter, son, and I dutifully got in line.

The silence was deafening.  No one was talking.

So I started up a conversation with the person next to me.  Then I walked up to the front of the line and asked how long they had been waiting. (Since 7:30!)  A gentleman who overheard me talking to the guy in the front of the line started joking about the wait.  The group started loosening up.

My kids and talked about leaving, but decided we would stick it out. We talked and joked around.  Others who were not as strong simply gave up and left. After and hour and 15 minutes the gentleman who was at the front of the line was FINALLY let into the building.

My natural reaction was to start cheering.  I was the only one.

For a few seconds.

Then others joined in. The silence we walked up to evaporated.  We suddenly became a community joined in a joint goal.  To get in the building!

We were doing the unthinkable. We were having fun at the DPS.

As my kids and I got into the car 3.5 hours later, I was struck by how the experience could have been so much more unpleasant. Standing outside for hours in heat of a Texas summer is nobody’s idea of a good time, but the choices we made shifted the experience to one of joy and delight.  It is true that time flies when you are having fun!

Thinking about this experience naturally caused me to reflect upon my teaching practice. Our classrooms can be as dry, dull and torturous as a visit to the DPS. We have the ultimate control over our classroom environment. In this I am reminded of Ebenezer Scrooge reflecting on how his old boss, Fezziwig, could make work laborious  or pleasurable.  By deciding to have fun, we as teachers can make an otherwise dreaded experience one of joy and a blessing.

How can we make the mundane delightful?

  • Celebrate EVERYTHING!  This is not a new idea, but it is a useful one. Everyone is seated when the bell rings? Celebrate! It’s Monday? That’s a reason to have fun!
  • Play a game.  I love randomly having a rock, paper, scissors tournament.  It takes 2 minutes-I’ve timed it-and it improves engagement.
  • Delight in your students. Say hi to everyone everyday.  Give high-fives or fist-bumps. Share a smile.  The vibe in your room when class starts will be charged for learning.
  • Embrace the silly. Don’t be afraid to look ridiculous or make mistakes.  Sometimes we take ourselves way too seriously.
  • Reevaluate what fun means.  Having fun does not necessarily mean every moment is a party.  To me fun means you’re engaged and interested or finding your task enjoyable. We can make everything fun if we try.

Ultimately, focus on enjoying the moment, your students, and the myriad of opportunities to teach children and not just a lesson.  It is up to us as the educational professionals to make the experience students have in our classrooms one our students look back on with a with a positive glow.  That is simple to do by adding some fun.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

My daughter was just a few days old when Fred Rogers passed away in 2003. Knowing the world would no longer be influenced by Mr. Rogers was, to me, crushing news. It was as if the children of the world had collectively lost a wise, beloved guide.   If you’ve read a biography or seen one of the documentaries about him, then you know he was an amazing human being despite his legacy of groundbreaking children’s programming. His serene nature and direct dealing with all manner of issues was reassuring. If Mr. Rogers said it, it had to be true.

One of the things that stood out about him was the way he was able to form connections quickly with his audience. Something observed by many who worked with him is that when you talked with him, you really felt he was listening and cared. He was genuine and authentic. He was an expert at building community.

Time is precious-especially in education.   We have 180 days with our students. 180 days to turn around their reading lives and metamorphosize them into glorious academic butterflies.  The pressure is tremendous. Building a viable classroom community is imperative.

In order to grow readers, a pleasant, trusting working relationship must be established almost immediately upon them stepping into the classroom.   In case you didn’t know, that’s a challenge with reluctant readers. Knowing that my class is a remedial reading course AND takes the place of an elective, I have to work extra diligently to make it a place students want to be.

Bear in mind a lot is asked of our students the first few days of school.  We demand they write about their summers, tell us things we should know about them, and/or create goals. All of this and they are waking up before midmorning for the first time in weeks.

There are lots of great methods to build classroom community out there.  Google classroom icebreakers and tons of ideas appear from elaborate games to simple activities.

In talking with various groups of students as part of an informal survey, I discovered that almost all teachers in all content areas do pretty much the same thing in all classes for the first few days.  It has to be mind numbing.  And it has to feel a bit disingenuous from the students’ perspective.  Teachers expect so much of students, shouldn’t the opposite be true as well?

Besides, most students want to find the right rooms, friends, and a tribe with which they can eat lunch those first few days.  They are nervous about their new batch of teachers and just want to not stand out in the wrong ways.

In observing Mr. Rogers interactions, he does several things to establish rapport.  He greets, maintains eye contact, smiles, says how he feels, asks questions and responds.  He was not afraid to look goofy trying something new. If something needed to be explored or stated, he found a way to do so with grace. A perfect template for the classroom teacher.

Here are some things I do to help establish relationships and community right off the bat:

  • Reassure students
  • Ask nothing of them I wouldn’t do myself
  • Allow time
  • Explain how class will run
  • Reassure them

Reassure them

As I stated earlier, I teach remedial reading to secondary students.  They know failure. They need to know that I’m in their corner and that I believe in them.  I tell this in no uncertain terms.  I explain that they may not leave my room at the end of the year loving reading, but they won’t hate it anymore.

Ask nothing of them I wouldn’t do myself

I love passing out note cards, sticky notes, or using Pear Deck (a fabulous Google Drive add on) and having kids write down three things they would like to know about me.  This is a reversal of an activity where kids make a list of things they feel the teacher should know about them. I don’t feel it’s fair for me to expect students to joyfully give up personal information to an almost stranger right off the bat, although I do eventually ask them once some trust is built.

Then, I tell them what I think they should know:

  1. I was socio-economically disadvantaged
  2. I’ve never met my dad
  3. I spent the first five years my life on a farm with my great aunt and uncle

Students LOVE to know about us. My dramatic personal story is an instant way to              connect with many of my students.

Allow Time

Those first few days I really want them to know my class is a shared space.  I let them explore, ask questions, peruse our reading selections, and get to know each other.  Instead of jumping straight into curriculum, I live by the “go slower to go faster” philosophy.  We play games, talk about reading habits, what we are good at and what needs work.  It feels like play, but LOTS of groundwork is being laid for future lessons.

Explain how class will run

We generate expectations together and I get books in their hands ASAP.  I start with a tower of picture books activity.  Read as many as you can and rate them from 1-5.  Then we discuss ratings.  This is a fun way to ease into reading and it gets them exposed to independent reading quickly and in bite sized chunks. A few days in, I start explaining course objectives and how we will do things.  I wait a few days so that I’m not just repeating what students are hearing in all their classes.

Reassure Them..Again

Of course, we end where we began.  I strive to be my student’s biggest cheerleader. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of constantly building kids up.  The first thing they hear walking into our shared space as well as the last should be positive and uplifting.  If I mess up, I try and find kids and fix it ASAP.  They need to know I am for them and with them during our journey and beyond. I create comfort with routines we revert back to with consistency. Much like Mr. Rogers changing his sport coat and shoes.

I hope to be a beloved guide to literacy like the incomparable Fred Rogers was a guide for so much to so many.