What We’re Signing Them Up For & Why #TeacherMom

Is it bad that as I attended a training meeting for an online preschool, I was:

1) reading Free to Learn by Peter Gray, and,

2) internally rolling my eyes while the trainer extolled promises of kindergarten readiness and motivation tips for consistent use from our 4 year-olds?

I probably didn’t earn any gold stars at any rate.

But I’m not in it for performance anyway. I’m in it because my son has started to exhibit interest in letters, and I wanted to see whether this program might further his interest. It is not to replace or even complete with our story time, library trips, or casual chats related to literacy.

If he’s not motivated, it’s not because I need to do more to motivate him — it’s because he’s not developmentally ready for it.

If he’s not “performing” on later tests, it’s not because I didn’t do enough to drill ABC’s with him in PreK — it’s because standardized tests are an inherently poor measure of authentic learning.

These are truths whether we face, as Kristine Mraz put it so eloquently,  lowercase “s” struggles (ordinary variation of learning pace) or uppercase “S” STRUGGLES (systemic barriers that disproportionately impact families and students of color).

However, when we look again at this program with the lens of STRUGGLE, it becomes clearer why we might hope it will aid in closing socioeconomic achievement gaps. After all, it’s free, home-based, and equipped with personal consultants for each family to support their children.

But even so, I would caution all users against being overly dazzled by promises of future academic performance. I would probably be more enthusiastic if the introductory folder (full of opt-in sheets for motivational texts and tips for establishing user routines) also included information on the local library and tips for establishing meaningful literary routines. (I’d like to be clear, I am grateful for the resource to be able to help my son investigate his growing curiosity about letters in a new way; I just don’t attach the same weight to it all that the program seems to expect).

No matter our background, and no matter our kids’ ages, books > programs. Connecting with a good book is much more likely to produce readers than drilling skills.

For other parents worried about kindergarten readiness, here are some other posts you might enjoy based on our experiences with my now 3rd grader:

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“A” is For Captain America: Following Their Lead for Learning

Despite my commitment to follow my kids’ lead when it comes to their natural developmental learning pace, I still find myself worrying at times. What if they never indicate readiness? What if I miss the signs? What if I wait too long before possible interventions might be needed?

Once again, it has proven to be unnecessary worry. Over the last few months, my 4 year-old has started to indicate interest in identifying letters. This began with, “A is for Captain America!” He began identifying “A’s” everywhere, connecting both to the shape of the letter and its sound.

When he started to add others, like “B is for Black Widow,” I decided to turn to our environment help build this growing interest. We put some vinyl sticker letters to use, reinforcing both superheros and household objects that begin with each letter. How many can you name?

While this was a simple exercise, we’re already seeing him make even more connections beyond the home environment. It stands as a reminder to me that building early literacy does not need to be very complicated. Following the child’s lead is more powerful than we might think.

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She Just Asked Google To Remind Her to “Read All the Books On the Bottom Shelf” #TeacherMom

A few days ago, I overheard my 8 year-old adding her day plans to our shared daily to-do list (more on that here). Using the speech-to-text feature, amid other typical tasks, I suddenly heard her say, “Read all the books on the bottom shelf.”

Teacher mom that I am, of course I was delighted. 

But then I turned to reflect once more on our journey of her literacy:

The pressures I felt to ensure she memorized the ABC’s before kindergarten.

The way I felt like a failure as a teacher when she would not cooperate with my beautifully laid-out magnetic letter play.

The constant tension I felt between whether I should let her choose her own books or drill her on-level basal reader or sight-word flashcards to push her to the next reading level.

The nagging worry that I was denying her opportunities by turning down programs with the label, “proven to be successful in improving the reading skills of every student who participates.”

The way I wondered if I was wrong to yield to her book-making efforts over any worksheets that came home.

Yet amid all the angst, here we are to nearly the start of 3rd grade, and not only is she a fantastic reader and writer, but she’s adding items to her to-do list like “read all the books on the bottom shelf.”

It makes me wonder. Had I pushed all those academics and level advancement on her from my place of stress and worry, would she be making such choices for her summer? My suspicion is that had I pushed my agenda on my strong-willed child, she would want little to do with books today–especially on her “time off.”

It seems that those of us raising kids today are given every reason to believe that to trust our kids’ autonomy over their learning is tantamount to negligence. We are constantly bombarded with ads that offer promises of confidence in our children’s future success. We are so stressed by questions on whether we’re doing enough for our kids, that there is little room left for noticing the learning that quietly and naturally unfolds each day.

This is where I’ll share and re-share this quote from Brene Brown (see it also on Preschool, Kinder-Prep, & 3 Things Kids Need Most):

There is an abundance of learning and growing happening within our kids each day. Recognizing, embracing, and celebrating that from a place of love will always outperform operating from a place of not-enough stress and fear. Not because it will guarantee some future Harvard acceptance or a job on Wall Street, but because it will cultivate a lifetime of joyful learning.

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21st Century Literacy Opportunities You Probably Overlook #TeacherMom #IMMOOC

I’ve decided to join this year’s #IMMOOC as I finally read George Couros’ book, Innovator’s Mindset. I’m looking forward to making new connections with teachers around the world and to finding ways to push my thinking and comfort zone over the next 5 weeks!

Here’s a passage that has stood out to me most for this week’s reading:

“We are spending so much time telling our students about what they can’t do that we have lost focus on what we can do. Imagine that if every time you talked about the ability to write with a pencil, you only focused on telling kids to not stab one another with the tool. What would you really inspire in your students? Creativity? Unlikely. Fear? Almost certainly.”

It seems that the older my kids get, the more often I hear about the dangers of screen time, online predators, and cyberbullying. Rarely if ever do I hear parents share the amazing ways they are engaging in technology with their kids.

Apart from this being a missed opportunity to build positive associations with the possibility tech affords, it also misses out on some serious opportunities for literacy (both traditional and digital).

As rare as it is to hear about the positive examples among parents, I actually observed an impromptu example just this weekend as my mother-in-law sat at the computer with my nephew. They were searching out some fun gadgets together on Amazon, but what quickly caught my attention was the language my mother-in-law was using with my nephew. As they looked at new products, she helped him scroll down the page, saying things like, “When I’m looking at something I think I might like to buy, I look first at the 1-star reviews. That helps me find out what I might not like about it.”

I listened as they read the reviews out loud together and then discussed whether they thought those would be relevant issues. And as they navigated new products, it was clear my nephew was quickly becoming more discerning about what he was viewing.

Who would have thought Amazon could be rich soil for literacy? But I guess if we’re paralyzed by fear, we’re not exactly on the lookout for ways we might invite our kids to join us in our screen use.

Now, to be clear, if our kids’ device use is also limited to moments we “give in” due to begging or boredom, that’s also a missed opportunity. The key is in how we are engaging with our kids, and in positive, practical ways. I’m looking forward to finding more ways we can show kids what they can do with tech, both as parents and as teachers.

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3 Fabulous Rhyming Picture Books & Their Powerful Impact on Reading

A recent favorite read-along is the beloved classic, “Going on a Bear Hunt” by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. After just a couple listens, I would find my 3 year old chanting the phrases during make-believe play, marching up and down the halls.

This kind of small adoption into personal speaking and listening have a major impact on literacy development. From fluency to comprehension that words are made up of small sounds (known as phonemic awareness), rhyming and or lyrical books can be powerful for our youngest readers.

Here are three of our recent rhyming reads that have become instant hits with my kids:

A Greyhound, A Groundhog by Emily Jenkins and Chris Appelhans

This delightful tongue-twister immediately had me thinking of Dr. Seuss. I especially loved the gorgeous artwork as brown and grey swirls as fluidly as the wordplay. Incidentally, research shows that such tongue-twisters take the power of rhyming/lyrical reads up a notch when it comes to that above-mentioned phonemic awareness, so go ahead and check out “Fox & Socks” again with your preschoolers, too!

When’s My Birthday? by Julie Fogliano and Christian Robinson

This one isn’t technically a rhyming book, but it is oh, so lyrical. Not to mention on the very topic that most young kids everywhere continually obsess about. “when’s my birthday? where’s my birthday? how many days until my birthday?’ launches a beautiful countdown to kids’ favorite celebration. My kids especially loved the birthday chart at the very end of the book.

Gone CampingA Novel in Verse by Tamera Will Wissinger and Matthew Cordell

This outdoors-loving girl adored this book the moment I had it in my hands. In delightfully varied forms of poetry, follow the story of Sam and Lucy’s camping trip. Individual chapters are particularly valuable as short reads to build fluency with your older students (see a discussion and specific strategies from Russ Walsh here). And of course, the handy reference at the back on rhyme, rhythm, literary devices, and poetic forms makes the perfect companion for any poetry unit.

What are some of your favorite rhyming and/or lyrical reads with your kids?

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Media Literacy, ISTE Standards, & #FakeNews

In the wake of #FakeNews, and, more recently, President Trump’s “Fake News Awards,” it makes me reflect on our role as educators when it comes to media literacy, which has me again pondering the purpose of education. In 1934, John Dewey wrote,

“The purpose of education has always been to every one, in
essence, the same—to give the young the things they need in
order to develop in an orderly, sequential way into members of
society. This was the purpose of the education given to a little
aboriginal in the Australian bush before the coming of the white
man. It was the purpose of the education of youth in the golden
age of Athens. It is the purpose of education today, whether
this education goes on in a one-room school in the mountains
of Tennessee or in the most advanced, progressive school in a
radical community. But to develop into a member of society in
the Australian bush had nothing in common with developing into
a member of society in ancient Greece, and still less with what
is needed today. Any education is, in its forms and methods, an
outgrowth of the needs of the society in which it exists.”

In this unprecedented, exponential, and experimental age of communication, information, and sometimes misinformation, all previous norms and rules start to blur. As online rhetoric becomes more polarized, it starts to seem that our needs as a society are also becoming divided.

But the ability to ascertain truth remains a common, fundamental need of a democratic society, which makes our free press all the more essential. As educators this pursuit of truth comes through cultivating healthy media literacy. The ISTE standards are a powerful resource, as they can all be used to strengthen our students’ capacity to assess whatever information comes their way. Here are my thoughts on what this might look like.

1. Empowered Learner: “Students leverage technology to take an active role in choosing, achieving and demonstrating competency in their learning goals, informed by the learning sciences.”) Helping students learn to identify bias, and giving them the technological know-how to discern among different types of online media (ie, social media posts, blog posts, journalism, etc.)

2. Digital Citizen: Students recognize the rights, responsibilities and opportunities of living, learning and working in an interconnected digital world, and they act and model in ways that are safe, legal and ethical.”) Helping students learn specific strategies for fact-checking, and a general “think before you share” mindset.

via Marshall University Libraries

3. Knowledge Constructor: “Students critically curate a variety of resources using digital tools to construct knowledge, produce creative artifacts and make meaningful learning experiences for themselves and others.”)  Giving our students immersive opportunities to read a large cross-section of sources when embarking on a new unit.

4. Innovative Designer: Students use a variety of technologies within a design process to identify and solve problems by creating new, useful or imaginative solutions.” → Encouraging students to be part of the solution when it comes to misinformation by creating their own carefully-sourced media literacy resources (infographics, videos, etc).

5. Computational Thinker: Students develop and employ strategies for understanding and solving problems in ways that leverage the power of technological methods to develop and test solutions.”) Teaching students the science and driving force behind “click bait,” as well what methods mainstream news outlets use to fact-check.

6. Creative Communicator (“Students communicate clearly and express themselves creatively for a variety of purposes using the platforms, tools, styles, formats and digital media appropriate to their goals.”) Giving students the opportunity to have authentic audiences via student blogs to increase their literacy as online contributors. 

7. Global Collaborator (“Students use digital tools to broaden their perspectives and enrich their learning by collaborating with others and working effectively in teams locally and globally.”)Join a global collaborative platform such as The Wonderment where students can gain a sense of themselves as citizens of a global society, in which their voice matters.
There are many unknowns as we continue to collectively feel our way through this unparalleled time. But we can be certain that media literacy will empower and equip our students and ourselves to better access and anchor our society in truth.
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4 Reasons We Just Can’t Break Up with Basals (& How to Finally Move On)

The typical basal-reading program lesson frequently boils down to something like this:

  • Assigned shared text read aloud.
  • Definitions of carefully-bolded vocabulary words copied down.
  • Comprehension worksheets filled out.
  • Students and teachers alike feeling bored to tears.

The truth is, putting kids through this kind of soul-less exercise will produce authentic readers no more than the mastery of connect-the-dots sheets will produce artists.

And we know it. Master teachers refer to the need to “finesse and hybridize” basals to make sure they’re effective. ¹ (which also makes basals’ claims at “research-based effectiveness” shaky since there’s real possibility they take credit for master teachers’ adjustments).

There are so many other ways to help our students develop the reading skills they need while protecting and nurturing their love of reading. Here are a few of the messages I believe we keep getting from basal program companies to convince us otherwise.

#1: Inexperienced teachers need me!

Basals assert that new teachers won’t be able to navigate the waters of literacy instruction without their careful direction. However, if our solution for offering literacy support to new teachers is to let them muddle through a sub-par program, we’re doing a disservice to both our teachers and our students.

Furthermore, even with all the details of a basal program (many of which supply ideas for differentiation, activating background knowledge, etc), “only a well-trained teacher can make the multifaceted decisions involved in developing such instruction”² anyway. Outsourcing this training to a one-size fits all manual is simply inadequate.

P.S. Going basal-free doesn’t mean you have to/should abandon a framework. One phenomenal example is a a workshop framework by Pam Allyn that I reviewed a couple years ago.

#2: You can’t be sure students will develop skills without my guidance.

In a workshop/units of study model, not only do students develop literacy skills, but they do so with a greater degree of context and response to the ongoing trajectory of student learning.

Meanwhile, basal programs tend to spend disproportionate amounts of time drilling specific skills, such as the ones involved in reading comprehension. Consider this:

“It is critical to note that these and other reading programs allocate as much or more actual time to rehearsing comprehension skills than they allocate to teaching any other element in their language-arts program…In reality, when children experience problems comprehending text, it is much more likely due to the child’s lack of knowledge of the subject matter…The notion that we can teach students a set of skills that they will be able to apply to new and unfamiliar texts or situations is a process that cognitive psychologists call “skills transference.” This is regarded as an inordinately difficult task for our brains to pull off and, therefore, is not a practical educational goal. But it is a goal set forward by every major reading program on the market.”³

In addition, even if students develop said skills, if they never apply them because all those basal worksheets suffocated their love of reading, what’s the point? As educator Ross Cooper wrote, “First and foremost, we must promote a love of reading, not a culture of literacy-based micromanagement.4

#3: You won’t have ready access to ability-appropriate text!

Twenty years ago, this may have been the case. But just consider this small sampling of today’s possibilities:

  • Shared texts via projectors/document cameras
  • Newsela (engaging, level-able text at the click of a button)
  • Wonderopolis (text based on “more than 90,000 Wonder questions submitted by users” and differentiation features such as selected-text-to-audio and hover-to-define-vocabulary)
  • DOGO (kid-friendly news that’s also leveled at the click of a button and includes assignments, vocab, and Google Classroom integration)
  • Savvy multimedia librarians that can help identify/pull relevant texts during the immersion phase of units.

#4: You won’t have as much time without me to meet students’ individual needs!

Basal models assume that most kids’ learning takes place right at the top of the bell curve, with “differentiation tips” for the few kids on either side of the curve. But the truth is, every journey is unique. The sooner we disentangle ourselves from all the micromanaged requirements of a basal, the sooner we can spend our time where it really counts: 1-1 conferences, responsive mini-lessons, mentor text studies, student ownership/agency, etc.

No matter what promises are made to the contrary, we need to remember that “there’s no simple solution, no panacea, or miracle cure for reading. The range of ways to solve reading achievement challenges is as broad as the range of student profiles.”²

Sources:

1. http://digitalcommons.brockport.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1507&context=ehd_theses

2. https://www.naesp.org/sites/default/files/resources/2/Principal/2009/J-F_p26.pdf

3. http://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Basal_readers.pdf

4. http://www.bamradionetwork.com/edwords-blog/3-reasons-to-rethink-your-basal-reader

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