Sharing Benchmark Scores With Students? #TeacherMom

I recently came across this article from Fountas & Pinnell entitled, “A Level is a Teacher’s Tool, Not A Child’s Label.”

Fountas and Pinnell believe very strongly that students’ reading levels have no place in teacher evaluation or on report cards to be sent home to parents. Too much emphasis on levels can lead to misconceptions on the part of families. Informing parents of the level at which their child is reading can make them uneasy.  They may see the level as a very exact measurement, but students don’t always read at a precise level. Parents also talk with other parents, and if they find that their child is reading at a lower level than other children, they might panic. But they don’t understand the intricacies of how those levels work the way you do.

I completely understand where Fountas & Pinnell is coming from here. As a teacher myself, I was glad during my daughter’s last parent teacher conference to possess the background knowledge of these assessments’ imperfections — we chatted about their subjectivity and the uneven spacing between levels (for instance, in the program my school used, it was an extra wide gap between levels T and U for some reason).

I also worry about our students and their parents taking too much stock in these assessments and therefore experiencing pressure, lack of confidence, and yes, even labels. And I recently wrote about my quandary over whether to share scores at all yet with my first grader (Will it Help Or Hurt to Review Scores with My First Grader?).

All that said, I believe that in order for students to take the wheel in driving their own learning, they should be able to reflect using available resources and data to inform their decisions and progress. Not to mention the whole idea of “No secret teacher business!

So is there an in-between place here?

The more I reflect on this, the more I believe there can be — but with some important considerations, including, but probably not limited to the following:

  • Data should only be one piece of the feedback puzzle. Reading benchmarks are a much less frequent and much more formal form of assessment. Students should rely much more on regular formative assessments as they make course corrections in their learning/growth.
  • Seek transparency not just about the data itself, but on its limitations. That it’s not an exact measurement. That there is a definite degree of subjectivity. That it’s meant to compare individual students’ levels against their own progress — not against anyone else in the class.
  • Are students developmentally ready for the type of data you can share? If, as in the story I shared in “Will It Help or Hurt to Review Scores with My First Grader,” the student has yet to even comprehend the nature of data, then it would be counterproductive to share.
  • Ensure there’s a clear connection between the data, metacognition, and “what’s next.” Help students tune into their own thinking about their progress, and maintain a dialogue on the strategies that will best help them move forward.
  • Ensure that students understand that the data is never the goal, but a guide. The goal is always learning, and data serves as lampposts along the way.
  • Protect intrinsic motivation. Students should want to progress for the sake of progression, not for the sake of their levels moving up.

There’s not necessarily a clear-cut answer to the question of whether we should share benchmark data with students. But as long as we are actively engaging with our students to help them take ownership over their progress, we are on the right track.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

What Happens When The Author Becomes A Person #TeacherMom

I admit it: when it comes to reading to squirrelly toddlers, I’ve cut corners. I’ve condensed paragraphs. I’ve skipped pages. I’ve proclaimed happily-ever-after’s within 17 seconds flat.

For the sake of packing in as much story as possible before a cardboard box won over audience attention, I even used to omit reading the author’s name. Fortunately, as my oldest’s patience for storytime grew, noting the author’s name was my first step in making literary reparations.

I would never have guessed the ramifications of such a small course-correction.

First, I noticed that my daughter started “reading” the authors’ names, too.

Next, she started memorizing said authors’ names and would make requests at the library accordingly (“I want a Kevin Henkes book! Can we read Mo Willems? How about Steven Kellogg?”). She started trotting right over to their shelves, recalling the location of those authors’ books even though she was a long way yet from reading.

When she eventually started writing her own stories, she was always sure to list herself as the author, too. And the illustrator. And she made sure everyone in her world knew that she wanted to be an author/illustrator when she grew up.

These days, the author is often as much a part of the conversations about books as the stories they’ve written. I tell her that I think she’ll love Clementine because I read Pax and loved Sara Pennypacker’s style. I show her other Shannon Hale fairy tales when she kicks off Princess in Black. We even got excited when we saw that Brendan Wenzel was the illustrator and author for the first time with “They All Saw a Cat,” (having already enjoyed his illustrations in “Beastly Babies” and “One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree”).

In short, the authors and illustrators have become people. We admire not just the work, but the people themselves — people with unique voices, styles, and humor. We get excited when they write a new book, not just because it’s a new book we enjoy, but because it’s something new from that beloved writer.

This practice of spotlighting the author carried over into my classroom, too, with discussions like, “Did you see what Charlotte Zolotow did in that poem?” or “How did Gail Carson Levine’s use of a super comma work there?” We started to notice the deliberate strategies and craft behind what made the writing magical. As a result, we started to see ourselves as capable of developing those strategies, too, recognizing the fact that every author once started where we are now.

When authors come to life, so does our own self-identity as writers. Because if they are real people instead of an abstract idea, then we can see the possibilities for ourselves, too.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Sharing PD Learning with Students

Professional development meetings are usually an aside, right? We often want to hurry and get them over with so we can get back to our classrooms and students.

But what if we deliberately embraced them as part of our learning process? And no, I don’t mean a general, feel-good, kiss-up-to-the-admin kind of embrace.

I mean, what if we identified one genuine learning moment, and then (here’s the important part) shared that learning with our class when we returned?

It was easy for me the first time I did this, simply because that particular professional development training had been a particularly engaging and enlightening session.

My students had always asked where I’d been when I returned from meetings. But this time, rather than my usual quick response of “meetings,” so we could get back into our learning, I opened up:

(them) “Mrs. Wade, where did you go?”

(me) “A meeting for teachers to learn about how to become better teachers. Did you know we do that? And guess what?! Do you know what I just learned about? Reading workshop! Want to try it?”

My enthusiasm was contagious, and they were instantly curious. I couldn’t have planned a more perfect opportunity to introduce the very concept we’d been encouraged to start implementing.

I continued sharing with them about how I’d learned that we could model reading workshop just like we do writer’s workshop; namely, a mini lesson, guided practice, and wrap up. I shared how I’d discovered that they can make connections during reading workshop that will help them strengthen their writing, and vice versa. And I shared how excited I was because discovering and practicing reading strategies in this way seemed much more interesting than reading comprehension worksheets.

When I asked them if they wanted to give it a shot, they were all-in. And when we actually started, we kept the open dialogue going. I would say things like, “What did you think? How did that compare to the way we used to do that? How could we improve this process?

There was an openness, an energy, and a collective commitment to make this work. And I believe this stemmed from trust. Because the truth was, I was a novice at reading workshop. I had just barely learned about how to implement it.  So I know that had I instead pretended to be the expert, rolling it out in a grand introduction of authority, we would have lost that precious element.

When we let our students see our authentic learning process, we build trust and respect and cooperation because they know we’re in this arena, too. And when we let them in on the vision (even if all the little pieces are not yet in place), they are more willing to bring it to life together.  Our students need our genuine, messy learning process more than they need a polished and perfect appearance of control.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Top 10 Read Alouds for Upper Elementary from 2016

2016 has been an excellent reading year for me. I’ve renewed my use of Goodreads, enjoyed sequels in favorite series, and discovered a new genre I deeply enjoy (more on that later). My old lists of read alouds for upper elementary grades featured a lot of favorites I had read long ago (first list, second list), but not a lot of recent reads.

So to keep my recommendations fresh, and to help me keep up my momentum of reading more books, I want to start making a habit of sharing my favorites reads at the end of each year, starting today (note, these are not necessarily books published this year, but rather ones that I read this year). Hopefully this list will be timely for teachers looking for a quality winter-break stack (and for my own children and students down the road)!

#10: Confessions of an Imaginary Friend: A Memoir by Jacques Papier, by Michelle Cuevas

This book had me tickled by the fact that, without the title, readers wouldn’t even realize the narrator was not, in fact, a living breathing member of the family for the first several chapters. Rather, he seems more like just a kid with a lot of problems with getting ignored. This is a genre that I’ve designated as “other-worldly whimsical,” a personally-defined subset of modern fantasy of which I find myself constantly wanting more. A hilarious yet profound read about belonging and self-understanding.

#9The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas, by David Almond

This book originally caught my eye because of Oliver Jeffers. I was delighted to discover that David Almond’s style very much parallel’s Jeffers’. Follow Stanley Potts as he discovers his destiny far from his fish-canning home. You and your students will enjoy themes of courage, confidence, wonder, rules, and conformity. Also one I’d classify “other-worldly whimsical.”

#8: The Magician’s Elephant, by Kate DiCamillo

The Magician’s Elephant felt like a lovely poem or perhaps a dream. “We must ask ourselves these questions as often as we dare. How will the world change if we do not question it?” Peter Augustus Duchene changes his world by asking the question, “Does my sister live?” Readers then follow him through an enchanting and mysterious tale of truth and love.

#7: The War that Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Like the Pevensies of Narvia, Ada and her little brother are sent to the country away from war-torn London during WWII. There, they, too, discover a new world with their caretaker–one full of love, acceptance, and hope. This historical fiction will move and inspire your class.

#6: The Wild Robot, by Peter Brown

This outdoor adventure-loving girl fell in love with this book the moment I read the words, “If you stand still in nature long enough, something will fall on you.” It’s just so–real. Peter Brown helps us ponder what might actually happen if an advanced A.I. robot found herself on an uninhabited island. How might she adapt to her surroundings? Would she be able to learn the language of animals? And would she–a man-made creation–be able to find her place in the natural world?

#5: The Inquisitor’s Tale, Or Three Magical Children & Their Holy Dogby Adam Gidwitz

From the fascinating approach to narration, to the way we are invited to truly access life in medieval times, this is a fresh and truly unique story. I especially loved the idea of “illumination” as opposed to illustration, keeping in line with a common medieval practice. Learn of three children whose powers have the entire kingdom–from the king of France down–in awe, fear, and/or admiration.

#4: The Seventh Wish, by Kate Messner 

See my review here.

#3: Pax, by Sara Pennypacker

This is a tale of bonds that even miles and a war-torn country cannot break. Follow a story that shifts in perspective between Pax the fox and his boy, Peter.

#2: Lockwood & Company, The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud

If you are looking for a series that will have your students begging for more, this is it (I actually read book 4 in the series this year, The Creeping Shadow, and am dying to find out when book 5 comes out!). Lucy and her companions, Lockwood and George, are teenage agents working to rid London of the Problem (a development in which ghosts return, wreaking panic and death among the living). Only children can see the Visitors, but Lockwood’s is the only company that consists only of children. It is a bit creepy, so you might want to run it by your students before choosing it as a read aloud–but if they aren’t too nervous, it will have them on the edge of their seats!

#1: Three Times Lucky, by Sheila Turnage

I just finished reading the third and final book in this series (The Odds of Getting Even), and I loved every moment of it! Mo is probably the wittiest and sassiest 6th grader you’ll meet, and her best friend Dale is an equally loveable character. Follow the duo as they establish the Desperados Detective Agency and solve a murder. Packed with hilarious figurative language, mystery, and small town charm, Three Times Lucky is simply a must-read!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

A 2 Year-Old’s Favorite “Things That Go” Books #TeacherMom

You know your local library rocks when even your two year-old can access his favorites with ease. One such accessibility detail includes sorting the high-interest books by category, such as ABC’s, colors, dinosaurs, princesses, potty training, and above all (at least in my son’s eyes), “Things that Go.”

Every week, he makes a beeline for that section, quickly piling books on tractors, buses, cars, boats, planes, and bikes (and every week, we face the immortal struggle as he refuses add his books to the bag, but he can’t carry his entire selection. I can’t be the only parent that has failed to convince their child of the purpose of the book bag, can I?).

20161109_105628

Over time, I’ve come to notice he has definite preferences. So, for other parents of “things-that-go”-loving kids out there, I thought I’d share those for today’s #TeacherMom post. After all, every book in their hands that helps them make significant personal meaning is what it’s all about. And right now, for my son, most of that significant personal meaning revolves around “things that go.” So here we go:

construction

His absolute most-selected “things-that-go” book is Sally Sutton’s “Construction.” It might be the attention to detail in constructing a building. Or the variety of tractors and construction vehicles. Or perhaps the fun rhythm and abundant onomatopoeia. Or all of the above.

night-driving

This is probably the most my son has enjoyed a black-and-white illustrated book. “Night Driving,” by John Coy depicts a special nighttime road trip with a father and his son.

sheep-in-a-jeep

Sheep in a Jeep” by Nancy Shaw has now brought multi-generational delight to my family. The spare rhymes offer endless laughter with hilarious illustrations to match.

the-plan

Alison Paul’s “The Plan” is an instant classic. For now, my son just enjoys the process of a child constructing a plane, but eventually, I’m sure he’ll come to appreciate the deeper themes, along with the simple literary construct of shifting one letter per page.

flight-1-2-3

“Flight 1-2-3” by Maria van Lieshout is another frequent choice. The graphic design and use of actual airport symbols engage my son every time.

axel-annie

A bus + an enjoyable story-line of perseverance = another favorite read. “Axle Annie” by Robin Pulver will have your child wondering what’s next!

little-blue-truck

Alice Schertle’s “Little Blue Truck” gets double points with my 2 year-old as it brings farm animals into the mix. And I love that it addresses what kindness really means.

who-sank-the-boat

Another oldie-but-eternally-goodie is Pamela Allen’s “Who Sank the Boat?” It’s always fun for little ones to guess who, in fact, will sink that boat!

on-the-move

“Little Explorers: On the move” by Ruth Martin is a recent nonfiction discovery that has also become an instant favorite. My son spends a good deal of time checking under every single flap.

little-reds-riding-hood

“Little Red’s Riding ‘Hood” by Peter Stein is a delightful vehicular fractured fairy tale. Little Red the scooter meets the big bad Tank–what’s not to love?

old-mcdonald-had-a-truck

“Old MacDonald Had a Truck” by Steve Goetz is another fabulous vehicles-meets-farm story, with an ending that reveals what Old MacDonald and Mrs. MacDonald have been working on all along.

duck-on-a-bike

In “Duck on a Bike” by David Shannon, Duck shares his bike-riding antics with all the other farm animals–and finds out what happens when a bunch of kids park their bikes.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Meeting Your Students’ Authentic Reading Needs with Goodreads

I recently started reading Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer. Two quotes stand out sharply to me. The first:

“I believe that this corporate machinery of scripted programs, comprehension worksheets (reproducibles, handouts, printables, whatever you want to call them), computer-based incentive packages, and test practice curriculum facilitates a solid bottom-line for the companies that sell them, and give schools proof they can point to that they are using every available resource to teach reading, but these efforts are doomed to fail a large number of students because they leave out the most important factor. When you take a forklift and shovel off the programs, underneath it all is a child reading a book.”

Amen!

“I am a reader, a flashlight-under-the-covers, carries-a-book-everywhere-I-go, don’t-look-at-my-Amazon-bill. I choose purses based on whether I can cram a paperback into them, and my books are the first items I pack into a suitcase. I am the person who family and friends call when they need a book recommendation or cannot remember who wrote Heidi. My identity as a person is so entwined with my love of reading and books that I cannot separate the two.”

The best literacy teachers I know of are these kinds of readers. And they do it without the “corporate machinery” of literacy instruction.

It’s obvious why, isn’t it? For one thing, they are able to give timely book recommendations tailored to students’ needs and interests; their kids don’t need those drill-and-kill comprehension worksheets when they are already talking excitedly about that book you helped them find! More importantly, these teachers have thoroughly shaken off the hypocrisy of teaching students to embrace something they themselves do not. They keep literary enthusiasm front and center, regarding books as familiar friends, rather than as benchmarks to “pass off.” They are the embodiment of those “not the filling…a pail, but the lighting…a fire” (William Butler Yeats). Our literacy teachers should be the best readers around.

Yet, for me personally, I admit that I have felt overwhelmed by these prodigious teacher-readers. I love reading, but I have limitations that make me worry that I wouldn’t be able to meet my students’ needs as well as they can.

For me, those limitations here boil down to problems: #1) I’m a slow reader. #2) I have a terrible memory for book titles.

Enter Goodreads. Though I’ve had an account for years, I’d always considered it to be too cumbersome to use regularly. But the two features below have at last shown me how my efforts there can be richly rewarded and magnified to meet my students’ and my own reading needs.

Problem #1: Slow reading 

I don’t read the volume of books that these teacher-readers that I admire do. Without that volume, it’s difficult to offer suggestions that sufficiently meet their needs and interests. But as I sort books that I have read into custom digital shelves on Goodreads (see below), it generates recommendations based on the genres/levels of those shelves. This allows me to leverage the reading/reviews of millions of other readers to help me get that perfect book in my students’ hands.

Problem #2: Memory for titles

For the still-many books I am able to read, the titles tend to swirl together over time, making it difficult to pull one out for a timely student recommendation. Goodreads solves this problem by allowing me to sort and “shelve” these books into a personalized library with custom categories.

To an outsider, my many shelves may seem like madness, but for me, I know they will help me pick out the trees in the forest, so to speak. Some of my current shelves include:

  • 5th grade: Friendship (titles like WonderFlora and UlyssesThe Inquisitor’s Tale: Or the Three Magical Children and their Holy Dog, Three Times Lucky…)
  • 5th grade: Other-Worldly-Whimsical (The Magician’s Elephant, The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas, The Wild Robot)
  • 5th grade: Overcoming Odds (Rules, Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller, Holes)
  • Picture books: Challenging Status Quo (“In Mary’s Garden,” “Rosie Revere, Engineer,” “Cinder Edna,” “Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music”)
  • Picture books: Loss and Emotion (“The Heart and the Bottle,” “Boats for Papa,” “Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgois”)
  • Picture books: Unexpected Endings & Humor (“Stuck,” “The Skunk,” “The Wolf’s Chicken Stew”)

Bonus feature: Integrate your search with your local library’s database!

Today, I added a button to my account that takes me from a book page on Goodreads directly to the book on my library’s online catalog. This allows me to check availability and to place a hold that much more easily! Here’s a link to help you learn how to add the button. If you run into any trouble, just contact Goodread’s customer support and they will add your library for you so you can select it from their list! 🙂

Whatever your strategy–whether through Goodreads or more regularly scheduled library visits–our students will reap the benefits when we choose to commit to move toward greater authenticity as readers ourselves.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Evolution of the Narrative in Picture Books (& Ideas For Your Next Library Visit)

I just finished putting a slew of new picture books on hold at our local public library.

Some were new releases by more contemporary beloved authors, like a new Jon Klassen (Another hat book! “We Found a Hat”), Andrea Beaty (“Ada Twist, Scientist”), and Oliver Jeffers (“A Child of Books”).

Others were by newly discovered authors like Amy Young (“A Unicorn Named Sparkle”) and Dan Yaccarino (“I Am a Story”).

And one was Doreen Cronin’s “Click, Clack, Moo,” which I should really just go ahead and buy already, because my 2 year-old is obsessed with cows.

As my mind sifts through all these authors’ styles, I’m struck by the huge amount of creative narrative voice out there these days. And even more by how dramatically the narrative seems to have evolved over the course of my lifetime.

Classics I enjoyed in my youth, such as Tomie Paola’s “Strega Nona,” Rafe Martin’s “The Rough-Face Girl,” James Marshall’s “Miss Nelson is Missing,” and Ellen Jackson’s “Cinder Edna” (publications ranging from the 70’s to the 90’s), almost always used a more traditional third-person narrative and voice.

A larger flux of first-person reads comes to mind when I think of the 2000’s, like Melinda Long’s “How I Became A Pirate” and Jane O’Connor’s “Fancy Nancy.”

And today it seems like most of the books I check out have incredibly unique narrative techniques and voice–so much so that it’s hard to neatly classify them. There’s Adam Rubin’s playful way of alternating speaking directly to the reader (“Hey, kid! Did you know dragons love tacos?”) and to other characters (“Hey, dragon, how do you feel about spicy taco toppings?”). Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett’s “Battle Bunny” with its dual narration. And of course, B.J. Novak’s “The Book With No Pictures” is truly in a narrative league of its own.

The upside of this shift is obviously our literary enjoyment.

But a potential downside/caution can arise when teachers get stuck in a rut on what a story should look like. Especially if they haven’t familiarized themselves with these modern classics that don’t always comply with the rules. Especially if they push the upside-down V story map so hard that students’ creative voices are quelled when their stories lack a setting (like Mo Willems’ Pigeon books) or when their pictures–not their words–illustrate the problem (like Mac Barnett’s “Sam & Dave Dig a Hole”).

In the end, I think the most important take-away is that it’s easier for us as teachers and parents to embrace the creativity if we stay current on it ourselves. If we stay stuck in the nostalgia of how things looked in our childhood, we may miss incredible opportunities to re-imagine and push the status quo.

new-picture-books

featured image: Kurt