Bronwen’s Guide to Dystopian Novels

by Guest Blogger Dan Feigelson, Author and Literacy For All conference Featured Speaker

5th grader Bronwen, like many upper elementary and middle school students, couldn’t get enough of dystopian novels. After going through the entire Hunger Games series in a week and a half, she had moved on to Lois Lowry’s The Giver. When I sat down for a conference with her and asked what she was noticing about the genre, she thought for a minute. “Well, they aren’t the easiest kind of books,” she finally responded. “You sort of have to know how to read them.” Intrigued, I asked her to say more. “Well, there are certain kinds of parts you really have to stop and pay attention. Like here in Chapter Two – Jonah’s parents are telling him about the Ceremony Of Twelve, where he’s going to find out what his job will be when he grows up.”

“Hmm,” I responded, genuinely curious. “You said before there were certain kinds of parts. So what kind of part is that one?” I asked, genuinely curious.

“Well, it’s like when there’s a big ceremony it’s usually really important,” she reflected. “And also, Jonah’s parents are explaining it to him. I’ve noticed that when a parent or some older person explains something to a younger person that’s usually a big deal.”

After a couple more minutes of conversation, I suggested to Bronwen that her reading work for the next several days could be to put together a Guide To Dystopian Novels, teaching other readers where they should stop and pay attention. Here’s what she came up with:

Bronwen's Guide to Dystopian Novels

My conversation with Bronwen didn’t come out of nowhere. Most people who become teachers do so, at least in part, because they are fascinated with the way kids think. At one time or another each of us has marveled at some idiosyncratic piece of wisdom coming from the mind of a child.

Sadly, once we enter the hectic life of the classroom the ideas of students tend to take a back seat to standards and units of study. Schools and districts are under enormous pressure to achieve, to test well. This means kids must be able to perform at a level comparable to other children of the same age. A teacher who cares about the success of her students has little time to concentrate on the quirky ideas of each individual kid – especially when it comes to core academic subjects like reading.

It’s not that paying attention to literacy standards is a bad idea; wise curriculum is critical for a good reading class. Indeed, we wouldn’t be doing our job as educators if our 4th graders finished the year without knowing the stuff 4th graders are supposed to know. But the truth is most students are raised on a steady diet of clever comprehension questions, formulated by teachers or commercial programs. The result is that kids – even those who do well on state tests – often have a hard time knowing how to approach a complex text when there is no one there to tell them what to think about.

Over the last several years I’ve had the good fortune to explore this issue with many courageous teachers. What we’ve realized is that at least some of our time in reading class should be devoted to teaching kids to recognize, name, and extend their own ideas about what they read.

To do this well means getting back to that original passion which all teachers share. We need to allow ourselves the time and space to be fascinated with what our students think. This means when we ask them to comment on a story or an informational text that we listen for the most interesting part of what they say and ask them to say more about that, rather than quickly going on to the next child – or jumping in with our own agenda. And lo and behold, when kids do reading work based on their own thinking they are more engaged, more independent, and willing to take on new challenges. The classroom takes on a whole different sort of buzz. In other words, the rigor goes up, not down – and it carries over into whole class curriculum work as well.

In Reading Projects, Reimagined, I’ve laid out a series of steps for teachers to use in individual reading conferences so their students can engage in rigorous work based on their own thinking. My hope is that these sorts of conferences will help create joyful, independent student readers who are just as good at coming up with their own ideas about books as they are at answering questions on tests.


Dan is speaking at the Literacy for All conference in Providence, RI on Monday, November 16. His sessions include:

  • Reading Projects, Reimagined Workshop: Student-Driven Conferences to Deepen Critical Thinking
  • Practical Punctuation: Teaching Mechanics in the Writing Workshop

Dan Feigelson is an international literacy consultant who has led institutes, workshops, and lab-sites around the world on the teaching of reading and writing. He worked extensively in New York City schools for 27 years as a principal, local superintendent, network leader, staff developer, curriculum writer, and teacher.  An early member of the Teachers College Writing Project, Dan served as a fellow at the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Learning where he helped develop literacy standards for New York and other cities. A regular presenter at national and international conferences, Dan is the author of Reading Projects Reimagined: Student-Driven Conferences to Deepen Critical Thinking (Heinemann 2015), and Practical Punctuation: Lessons In Rule Making And Rule Breaking For Elementary Writers (Heinemann, 2008).

Resisting the Frenzy: Staying the Course of Common Sense in Literacy Teaching

3.20.15 Irene Fountas Photo

by Irene Fountas, Author, Professor, and Director of the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative at Lesley University

In the past several decades, there have been a variety of movements that have shifted literacy teaching in our schools. Often the newest trend has meant a total mind-shift of instructional practice for teachers. Certainly something important can be learned from the emphases of each movement, but each swing of the pendulum has also left out some important areas of literacy teaching and learning. One cannot simply make the assumption when there is a new movement in the midst that the worthy new areas of emphasis are not already implemented in schools that are implementing a high quality literacy approach.

When we have articulated our values and beliefs about meaningful, authentic literacy learning in our schools, we can examine the contributions of each new movement in the light of well-grounded principles and stay the course of common sense in our responsibilities to our students, instead of shifting to a new bias that may compromise our commitment.

I will address a few of the key areas we have articulated in our work in supporting high quality literacy approaches that we believe have stayed the course of common sense for almost three decades.

First, every student deserves to have a meaningful and interesting reading life and writing life in school.

This means students read and write for real purposes every day in school and have choice in what they read and write. Choice breeds students’ sense of agency and promotes engagement, and furthers the development of one’s tastes in reading and one’s voice in writing. With the appropriate learning environment and scaffolding, students learn that reading and writing are thinking and that they can think about a variety of topics, authors and genres when they read and mentor with the thinking of the best of writers when they write. They experience some teacher-selected high quality literature and nonfiction, but also a good selection of self-selected material that builds their understanding of their selves and their physical and social world. They learn from their teachers how to make the good choices that offer enjoyment and expand their breadth and depth as readers, writers, and global citizens.

Second, students need a variety of structured opportunities to talk throughout the day.

Talk represents thinking. Students need to think and talk in school. This means pair and triad talk, small group talk, and some whole class discussions that have intent, not just talk for talk’s sake. This includes such instructional contexts as reading or writing conferences, literature discussion groups, guided reading groups, and interactive read aloud lessons that include pair or small group talk. Teachers sometimes don’t realize they are dominating the talk and robbing the students of the process of learning through verbalizing their understandings and building on or challenging each other’s ideas. The one who talks is the one who learns. Teachers play a key role in helping students learn how to use language that promotes conversation and the analysis of texts with others to achieve deeper understandings than any one reader could achieve on his own. When students discuss a variety of fiction texts, nonfiction texts, and poetry in a community of readers and writers, they learn how to use the language and vocabulary of literate people. These rich experiences build their background knowledge and academic vocabulary and put each learner in the role of a literate being.

Third, the text base for learning needs to include a variety of high quality fiction and nonfiction texts, primary and secondary sources, as well as poetry. 

The classroom text base needs to provide access to age appropriate, grade appropriate material that is of high interest and value. Sometimes the texts students are asked to read simply aren’t worth reading or don’t engage their intellectual curiosity. The texts need to be meaningful, relevant, developmentally appropriate and made accessible. Alongside this rich base, students need the opportunity to lift their reading powers with the precision teaching made possible with the teacher’s use of carefully leveled, challenging texts at the student’s instructional level. These texts allow for the differentiated, intentional teaching that each student deserves to develop an effective processing system and move forward as a self-regulating, independent reader.  Photo of Girl Reading

Fourth, students deserve to be acknowledged as unique learners.

Every student and every group of students is different. When teachers learn how to systematically observe the strengths and needs of individuals, the assessments can inform instruction and the teaching can be responsive. No assessment is valuable if it doesn’t result in better teaching. Good assessment gives information on how students process texts and what they understand about words, language, and text qualities. High quality literacy opportunities are built on the strength of the teacher’s expertise in assessing the readers and writers he/she is teaching. Some teachers fall into the trap of teaching students as if they are all the same or focus on teaching the book or program, not the diverse group of students in front of them. Effective teachers assess at intervals to document progress and assess by the minute to fine tune their decisions in the act of teaching.

Staying the Course 

These are some of the mainstays of high quality literacy opportunities for every student. Learning to read and write is complex and will require the complexity of teacher decision-making with sound rationales that are rooted in students’ observable reading, writing and language behaviors. Let’s look to the new movements for what they add to our expertise but keep our good sense about what really matters.

For more information about the Lesley University Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative events and trainings, visit our website at www.lesley.edu/crr .

Charts: Purpose Is Key

by Marjorie Martinelli and Kristine Mraz, Authors and Featured Speakers at the 2013 Literacy for All Conference

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Charts are here, there, and everywhere. Teachers spend a great deal of energy and time creating charts. They hang from every nook and cranny of each and every classroom. They are the expected norm, a part of pedagogy, and a sense of pride. But they are also an ongoing challenge. Why? Because in spite of this attention, interest, and passion for charts on the part of teachers, students often appear oblivious to the charts. They do not seem to grasp the reason for charts, the why of charts, and often do not use the charts as a result. For many students charts have become blended into the background like wallpaper, absorbed into the subconscious, or simply exist in schools like fire bells and cafeteria smells. They just are. But when charts seem unimportant to the audience we hope to reach, then it is the purpose that needs to be made perfectly clear for both students and teachers.

Start by asking why you make charts in the first place. We have found the most effective charts come out of a need to make our instruction crystal clear. Charts help when planning lessons because a chart forces you to break down an idea into concrete steps. They help us test out the language that will be used and repeated over and over. They lead us to think about student engagement. And charts help us consider the different learning modalities that exist in our classrooms. Which children need visuals? Repetition? Linear-sequential steps? The sketching out of a chart allows for revision and editing which leads to efficiency and effectiveness in our teaching.

Then we need to make sure our students understand the purpose behind the charts we make and how charts can help them meet the increased challenges we plan to set forth. Try asking some students what they think the charts are for, but don’t be discouraged if you hear things like, “They’re for the teacher” or “They’re when you don’t know something and you have to cheat.” This just means they really don’t understand the purpose of the charts and this is a quick remedy. Start with some real life scenarios that illustrate how people in the world use checklists to help them be more strategic or to remember complex steps. Commercial pilots know how to fly jets, but they still use charts to double-check themselves and to set the right course. Doctors are very smart people who use charts and checklists so they can look for patterns and be more strategic in figuring out a patient’s needs. Even your own use of the notes function on your smartphone shows how you need help remembering things you know but don’t want to forget. The most brilliant people in the world use charts to scaffold and support the work they do.

Finally, find opportunities to model how the charts in the classroom can be used to make students become more strategic, flexible, and innovative as they grow and learn. For example, when San Ho kept finding himself starting every piece of writing the same way, he went up to the chart on writing leads: Hook your Reader, and decided to try some of the other suggestions. He shared that he was getting bored with his own writing and that using the chart got him to try out some new strategies which helped him be excited about his writing again.

Charts are here, there and everywhere for a reason. They help both teachers and students clarify, challenge, and scaffold in ways that are authentic and useful. Charts also help teachers turn learning into an active process for students by making information visible and accessible to all.

Marjorie Martinelli and Kristine Mraz are co-authors of Smarter Charts (Heinemann 2012). They will be presenting two workshops at this year’s Literacy for All Conference in Providence, R.I. on November 4 and 5: Visible Learning: Charts in Action and Beyond the Basics: Optimizing Classroom Charts for Independence.

Articulating a Literacy Vision for your School

by Irene Fountas, Director, Center for Reading Recovery & Literacy Collaborative

Vision word dictionary definition

What are your beliefs and your vision for the literacy lives of students in your school?

Take a few minutes to jot down your beliefs or brainstorm with colleagues. If you are a school administrator, you might gather your faculty team for this activity. Think together about how you believe students should spend their time in a school day.

My beliefs are that students deserve to grow up literate in schools, engaging in the authentic literacy activities of thinking, talking, reading, and writing about books. Books are the center of thinking and talking about ideas, and students learn that they are responsible for supporting the literate lives of their peers.

Each student has the opportunity to choose books to read and experience a wide range of topics and genre through read alouds and book discussions. All students engage with appropriate texts that are intellectually stimulating as they build their language power. Alongside the opportunities for age appropriate text experiences, students deserve texts that support their ability to expand their reading power ­­­­across increasingly challenging texts. With these leveled texts, the teacher can scaffold the readers and support forward progress.

Lastly, readers need frequent opportunities for choice, independent reading to build their mileage and tastes as readers.

Students also need to build their writing lives through frequent writing opportunities for real purposes and audiences. They learn to write from writers, noticing their craft and becoming their apprentices. With explicit teaching in minilessons and writing conferences, the teacher supports the expansion of writing power. Small group guided writing lessons support the student’s common writing needs.

I believe this vision of authentic literacy offers students the multiple layers of rich, meaningful learning that they deserve. Think about your vision of how students would spend the day enjoying literacy and gaining the competencies they need.

It may help to write your vision so it can be referred to and revised.

If you are a school leader, gather your faculty team to create your school vision. You may want to consider joining me and my colleague, Cindy Downend this summer for a four day seminar in Cambridge, Massachusetts to learn how to lead with a powerful vision that enables every student to succeed. Visit our website to learn more.

References

Fountas, I., and Pinnell, G.S. (2006). Teaching for Comprehending and Fluency: Thinking, Talking, and Writing About Reading, K–8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fountas, I., and Pinnell, G.S. (2011). The Continuum of Literacy Learning: Grades PreK–8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fountas, I., and Pinnell, G.S. (2001). Guiding Readers and Writers: Teaching Comprehension, Genre, and Content Literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Leading for Excellence: Establishing Coherence in the Instructional Program

by Irene Fountas

Director, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

One essential goal in our schools is to create places where students learn how to learn and experience the joy of inquiry into meaningful topics and a variety of texts so they can develop the essential habits and competencies that will enable them to live a fulfilling and productive life. This is the greater goal that sometimes gets lost in everyday schooling. The goal can’t be accomplished without year after year of highly effective teamwork around a set of common values and beliefs that pervade the school. The set of values and beliefs form the foundation for the set of competencies that form the curriculum and lead to the effective instructional practices.

The Principal Factor

As the instructional leader in the school, the principal plays a key role in bringing the team together around developing and stating in clear terms the values and beliefs of the school that will provide the context for student learning. The team includes all those who support the literacy development of the students which of course includes classroom teachers, disciplinary teachers, support teachers, and specialists and classroom teachers. Along with the principal, the whole school team owns the outcomes of the literacy program and contributes to the success of each other in helping students achieving those outcomes.

Some key questions include:

What literacy opportunities will every student have in their school day?

How will students be actively engaged in their learning?

How much text will students process each day?

What text resources will students access?

What kinds of assessments will inform the continuous teaching?

How will members of the team work together to plan for and assess the progress of each student?

When the values and beliefs in the school are clear, the team can provide coherence in the instructional program and the principal can support policy decisions and decisions related to professional learning opportunities in the school to align with those goals. The professional staff has clear expectations of their role in supporting the students and in supporting each other and the students benefit from the kind of teamwork that lets no child fall through the crack.  Every child deserves this kind of coherence to grow up literate in our schools.

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We hope principals and school teams can join us for What Every School Leader Needs to Know About Good Literacy Teaching and Effective Literacy Coaching so that you can articulate your vision and have the collegial support to help your school achieve the excellence that assures every child is successfully literate.  Consider coming with principals and school teams from your district, your literacy coach, and key members of your central office as a team. Choose from our winter or summer seminar series:

Winter 2013:

January 29-31 and March 4-5, 2013

Summer 2013:

August 12-15, 2013

I hope to meet you and support you in achieving excellence!