No More Language Arts and Crafts

I’ll admit that I hold my children’s teachers to a higher than reasonable standard. Would you want my kid in your English class? As a parent, I could be a burr in your saddle. I get that.

I’m not a harassing parent, I promise. Most of my children’s teachers have no idea who I am, other than Celeste and Sarah’s mom. That’s how it should be.

On the other hand, my children’s teachers don’t know who Penny Kittle is. They don’t know who Kristin Ziemke is. They don’t know who Kelly Gallagher is.

Heck, my children’s teachers don’t know who Nancie Atwell and Lucy Calkins are. It doesn’t matter if they’ve read my books about teaching reading, but it does matter when my children’s teachers haven’t read a book or article about teaching reading in 20 years.

A line divides parents who know a lot about reading and their children’s less-knowledgeable teachers. What can we teacher-parents do when our children have poor reading instruction at school? I may not have my own classroom this year, but this reading war front line cuts across my lawn. It stretches across my dining room table—limiting and defining my children’s reading lives.

My oldest granddaughter, Emma, spends an hour and a half at our house every morning and afternoon. My husband walks Emma to first grade. We help her with homework. Celeste, my older daughter, joked with us last week, “Andrew and I don’t think we’re are going to have to worry about Emma’s reading log all year. It’s always filled out when we pick her up.”

Of course, I’m going to read with her. You can bet your tail feathers that I will monitor my grand baby’s reading homework.

Emma has a reading log. Each day, she’s supposed to read for 20 minutes. We record the book titles for what she reads and sign Emma’s log. Kids with unsigned reading logs receive consequences at school. Emma’s vague on what happens because her log is always signed.

the troublemakerLast week, Emma and I re-read three outstanding wordless picture books, Flashlight by Lizi Boyd, The Troublemaker by Lauren Castillo, and Molly Idle’s Flora and the Flamingo, a 2014 Caldecott Honor Book. Filling out her reading log, Emma said, “We can’t write those books down, Mimi. We didn’t read any words.”

These books are standouts—amazing pieces of storytelling. Award-deserving. Emma recommends them, too.

Sadly, they’re not reading log worthy.

Somewhere in Texas, on a first grade teacher’s desk, sits a reading log with my signature on it. I have publicly denounced reading logs for a decade, but I still sign one every night for my granddaughter. I feel the injustice every time I hold the pen.

And the world spins madly on.

Our younger daughter, Sarah, is a high school sophomore this year. Sarah is a reader. Well, Sarah was a reader. Her dad and I hope she will be a reader in the future. She doesn’t read much any more. Burdened with pointless assignments for English class, Sarah doesn’t have time to read or write at home. Her English teacher doesn’t give Sarah and her classmates time to read or write at school, either.

Sarah is in the gifted and talented program. She’s an International Baccalaureate student. She takes an advanced English course. Sarah’s first project this year? Make a collage about The Beast from The Lord of the Flies. Her second project? On the corners of a tissue box, share your hopes, dreams, fears, and personal creed. I guess Sarah’s teacher needed Kleenex.

Sarah told us that the kids didn’t even share their boxes with each other. They just stacked their boxes on a table. That’s where kids’ hopes and dreams belong—in the back of the room.

Two weeks into school, and Sarah still hasn’t read a book or visited the school library with her class. The Lord of the Flies was assigned for summer reading.

Last week, Sarah’s teacher launched a discussion about “why reading matters” and “what makes a book worthy.” She lectured the class for an hour about literary merit. She never asked students to contribute their opinions about the importance of reading and the value of books. What could Sarah and her classmates possibly know about reading? She’s the teacher. She knows why reading matters.

It’s clear that my children’s teachers value school-based definitions of reading. Reading matters outside of school, too. I’m glad Emma and Sarah learned this at home, but what about the kids who don’t?

On Facebook this weekend, I invited friends to share the worst reading assignments they’ve seen as students, parents, and teachers. In many cases, our children complete the same boring, teacher-directed reading assignments we did 30 years ago. Putting low-level comprehension questions on iPads doesn’t improve the questions.

My Facebook query opened a floodgate. Dioramas, book reports, paragraph and chapter summaries, Accelerated Reader quizzes—teachers confessed to assigning landslides of pointless busy work to their students. Parents bemoaned burdensome reading logs and worksheets. Librarians complained about teachers’ restrictive book selection criteria that prevent children from self-selecting books—unreasonable page limits, reading level boundaries, and narrow genre requirements.

What are children really learning from us about reading?

I’m not a perfect teacher. I’ve assigned some crummy, waste-of-time, language arts and crafts projects to my students over the years. Cereal Box Biographies, novel unit packets, and vocabulary crossword puzzles—my students churned out a lot of mindless work. It finally occurred to me that if I hated grading 98 cereal boxes, my students hated making them.

I’m still learning how to be a better teacher. I’ve missed a lot of chances to connect my students with reading. I’ve created negative reading experiences in my classroom. I didn’t know what I know now. I learned. I grew. I evolved. I improved. I was a novice teacher once, but I’m not new any more. When you know better, you do better. No excuses.

Celebrating Dr. Seuss’s birthday on March 2nd can’t offset a year of reading logs and book reports. Our children must spend more time reading than they spend completing reading-related activities. Generating grades shouldn’t drive teaching decisions. Our children must develop positive reading identities. Worksheets don’t value readers or reading. Children should not become readers in spite of school.

At some point, ignorance becomes a choice. When teachers reject evidence-based teaching practices in favor of outdated traditions, it’s a choice. When parents endure the disrespectful, useless reading work our children bring home, it’s a choice.

Share what you know. Learn as much as you can. Build relationships. When we remain silent—afraid to rock the boat, offend a teacher, or question an administrator, it’s a choice. What choices do our children have?

We must advocate for children’s reading lives, or they won’t have reading lives.

If we don’t speak up, too many children will make the only reading choice they have left. They will choose not to read.

*** Note added on September 14, 2014.**

The response to this post has been overwhelming. While most of the comments I have received in person, through Twitter and Facebook, and here on the blog have been positive, a few have been hateful and derisive–including curse words, cruel remarks about my children, and personal attacks–which I have chosen not to approve on the blog or respond to elsewhere. I cannot possibly restate everything that I have written and spoken over the years about meaningful reading instruction in a single blog post. I cannot summarize decades of reading research, either. What I can do is respond to specific questions or remarks.

Yes, I know that reading wordless books doesn’t provide my granddaughter the same skill development that decoding words does. What wordless books offer is practice generating stories by inferring visual cues from the illustrations. This is higher-level thinking–valuable for young readers to practice.

It bothers me that my granddaughter is learning in first grade that some types of reading “count” and some don’t.

Reading logs do not hold children and parents accountable for reading home. Reading logs hold children and parents accountable for filling out reading logs.

I am not against the arts. I am not against artistic expression in language arts class. I believe that inviting children to choose how they want to respond to a text is better than assigning the same project to everyone. Students should spend the majority of language arts class reading, writing, and discussing reading and writing. I believe writing is art and reading is art appreciation. We must be critical of activities that crowd the Ianguage arts out of language arts classes.

I do not think I am better than other teachers. I admit in this post that I have made mistakes and continue to learn. Reading professional books and articles, attending conferences, joining Twitter chats. attending PLC meetings, talking with colleagues, enrolling in courses–I invest substantial time learning from OTHER teachers. I am grateful for the vast learning community of colleagues who teach me every day. Like many of you, I know that being a good teacher demands investment in my personal learning.

I appreciate the many parents and professional colleagues who have engaged in meaningful discourse about this post over the past week. I look forward to learning more from you.

Why I’m Not Answering Your E-Mail Today

I know I owe you an e-mail response. Looking at my inboxes, it appears I owe the world an e-mail. It’s not that I don’t want to respond. I do care, but if I give as much time to answering my e-mail as it demands, I would never read, write, or talk to my family and friends, again. Yes, I could have answered your e-mail instead of writing this blog post. I could let g-mail consume me and never again feel the rays of the sun.

I have two e-mail accounts, Sisyphus and Bartleby. I conservatively receive 300 e-mails a day—each box. I admit that occasionally it’s a Talbots’ coupon. If you e-mailed me during your workday this summer, I was likely standing in front of our teaching colleagues leading a workshop, or attending a literacy conference. At night, I’m usually on airplanes. I feel blessed every day to have these opportunities, but they do limit my availability.

You must know that I spend a lot of time reading. I need to read for both my sanity and my soul. In a traveling life, reading wards off loneliness. The stories I’ve read (and lived) inspire and sustain me. I’m not much good to myself or anyone else if I stop reading.

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I read journal articles, professional books, blog posts, tweets, and Facebook posts about teaching and reading. I need to remain current with our profession. I’m not done learning how to be a good teacher. To keep growing, I must read research, innovations, conversations, and world news. I will never learn all there is to know.

I read hundreds of books a year written for kids. I enjoy children’s and young adult literature. Reading it helps me stay connected to my students and the children in my life. Staying current on children’s literature remains a vital part of my teacher education. Bottom Line: I should always be able to recommend a book to a kid. That’s where I started. Who am I if I can’t do that?

I enjoy and appreciate children’s and young adult literature for my own reading purposes. I’ll admit it. At this stage of my reading life, I’m chasing a great story. I want to read things that excite and surprise me. Children’s and young adult authors are the best writers around these days. Yes, I read The Goldfinch this summer. OK, part of it. I didn’t like it as much as Grasshopper Jungle.

I read all of your e-mails, I promise. You’re not just casting into the wind. I respond to as many as I can every single day. Some days, it’s five. Some days, it’s fifty. I will eventually answer you. I learn a lot reading your e-mails; you stretch my thinking and show me what topics matter to teachers.

Reading e-mails feeds my writing, but answering them doesn’t. If twenty teachers ask me the same question, I need to pay attention. My answer to you might be addressed to thousands of teachers or just myself. Reading in the Wild began with questions teachers asked me. My blog post about the 40 Book Challenge grew from e-mails, too. I’m working on a book right now with Teri Lesesne. I need to spend more time writing it. She’s counting on me to row my side of the canoe.

Fleeting free moments in my life– I tithe to writing. I discover and work through a lot of ideas and feelings when I write. Writing helps me think. Everything I read, hear, see, feel, wonder—comes together when I write. As Donald Graves said, my brain is “in a constant state of composition.” I’m a painfully slow writer. I spend an inordinate amount of time percolating ideas. Thinking about what I want to say through my writing takes up more time than writing does. I have grown to accept my processes. Sometimes, I slip my writing out into the world and share it. That feels good.

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I might have time to answer your email today. I probably won’t. I’m sorry. I’m going to lunch with an old friend. I haven’t seen her in almost a year. Later, I’m going bowling with my husband and my teenager. You’re important. They’re more important.

I promise to be fully present when I answer your email. I will focus on the conversation and engage with you. I will take the time and write a decent answer. You may be waiting awhile. I know it’s rude, but I can’t help it.

I need to be fully present and engage with my life, today. I hope you take the time to live your life today, too.

The 40 Book Challenge Revisited

Years ago, at a professional development workshop, Ellin Keene poked fun at the creator of the overwrought and overused “Text-to-Self, Text-to-Text, Text-to-World” reading strategy. If you’re laughing right now, you know that Ellin is one of the original architects of this strategy, which appears in her groundbreaking book (co-authored with Susan Zimmerman), Mosaic of Thought.

A few years back, a woman proudly announced to me at a workshop that she was, “doing her own version of the Daily 5, but she could only get in three of them.” I imagine Gail and Joan want to know which three. I should have asked, ladies, but I was at a loss for words.

It happens; the original thinking behind an instructional idea becomes lost when it’s passed along like a game of Telephone. You heard about it from a 60-minute conference session. Your teammate attended a book study and she gave you the highlight reel. The teacher down the hall is doing something innovative. You should try it. We’ve all seen the quick adoption of shiny, new ideas without a full picture of how these concepts fit into best practices (or don’t).

I’ve shared many ideas through my teaching and writing, and I stand by what I’ve put out into the world—but the one idea most demanding a revisit is my 40 Book Challenge, which appears in The Book Whisperer. In a nutshell, the 40 Book Challenge invites students to read 40 books across different genres during the school year.

I wonder sometimes if I failed to communicate the true intentions behind the 40 Book Challenge. Teachers email me or contact me on Facebook and Twitter about it every day. I have also seen a lot of what my dear friend, Teresa Bunner calls, “Book Whisperer Gone Bad” activities that actually undermine children’s development as independent readers instead of fostering it.

On Teachers-Pay-Teachers, I found worksheets, award certificates, rubrics, and posters using “The 40 Book Challenge.” While citing me as the source (shudder), the teacher who designed these materials offers incentives and creates competition between readers—the antithesis of my teaching philosophy and research about incentives tied to reading.

An unfamiliar parent emailed me to complain. She tracked me down on the Internet after asking her son’s teacher about the “outrageous requirement” that students read 40 books and complete 40 book reports this school year. Her son’s teacher said the assignment was based on my work, and this upset mom wanted me to know that I was hurting her son. I responded that while I expect my students to read 40 books, I don’t tie any assignments or grades to this expectation.

A close friend shared on Facebook that a teacher publicly humiliated his daughter because she “only” read 35 books this school year. The complexity or length of the books his daughter read weren’t considered. What she gained from these reading experiences didn’t matter, either.

Visiting a school last spring, a 4th grade teacher told me that she didn’t “allow” her students to “count” any books that were under 100 pages long. Walking the school library together, I asked the teacher to look at the biographies, traditional literature, and nonfiction texts available (and appropriate) for her 4th graders to read. After 20 minutes of searching, we found 12 biographies that met her stringent guidelines. It never occurred to her that she was limiting her students’ choices or access to books.

The 40 Book Challenge isn’t an assignment you can simply add to outdated, ineffective teaching practices. The Book Challenge rests on the foundation of a classroom reading community built on research-based practices for engaging children with reading. Assigning a 40 Book Challenge as a way to generate grades or push children into reading in order to compete with their classmates corrupts everything I have written and said about reading. The 40 Book Challenge is meant to expand students’ reading lives, not limit or define it.

The 40 Book Challenge is a personal challenge for each student, not a contest or competition between students or classes. In every competition or contest there are winners and losers. Why would we communicate to our students that they are reading losers? For some students, reading 40 books is an impossible leap from where they start as readers, and for others, it’s not a challenge at all.

If Alex read two books in 4th grade and reads 22 in 5th grade, I am celebrating with him. What an accomplishment! Look how much Alex grew. He didn’t grow because he read more books. He grew because he had 22 successful reading experiences.

Conversely, when Hailey read 55 books in 4th grade, reading 40 books in 5th grade isn’t challenging her. Encouraging Hailey to read biographies and historical fiction, which she claims to detest, does more to stretch her than simply reading more books.

Honestly, I don’t care if all of my students read 40 books or not. What matters is that students stretch themselves as readers and increase their competence, confidence, and reading motivation through their daily participation in our reading community. The 40 Book Challenge works for my students and me and for the many teachers successfully implementing it because of these core beliefs:

Everybody reads here. Let’s get started. Our direct influence on students’ reading lives lasts 40 weeks—36 weeks of school and 4 weeks of school vacation. Setting high expectations (roughly a book a week) communicates that reading is ongoing and continues from the first day of school to the last—hopefully longer. Students should spend more time reading than they spend completing reading-related activities like worksheets, reading responses, and projects. Students who read the most will always outperform the students who don’t read much (Krashen, 2004).

*Strong readers have lots of reading experiences. You need to be a good all-around reader. Encouraging students to read widely—sampling books from every genre—improves their reading ability by expanding their reading experiences. If you spend every day working on your jump shot, you’ll improve your jump shot. To be a strong all-around player, you must practice passing, guarding, and dribbling, too. To be a strong reader, you must practice reading poetry, fiction, nonfiction, wordless books, graphic novels, blog posts—a little bit of everything.

*There’s the right book for you out there somewhere. Let’s find it. For many students, trying a lot of books helps them find the one type of text that excites them and invites them into reading. True preferences come from years of wide reading—trying books, having some false starts, discovering authors, genres, and writing styles that we enjoy. Students who haven’t read much may not have found the books that speak to them. Reading buffet-style—tasting all types of books—students can discover what the world of reading has to offer.

*Whether you read or not isn’t a choice, but what you read is YOUR choice. I don’t waste a lot of time at the beginning of the school year talking about why students might not like to read. Everybody reads here. Everybody is a reader. Whether you read or not is off the table, but what you read is your choice. Whatever you want. You pick. Providing students with choice in what they read increases their reading motivation and engagement (Gambrell, Coding, & Palmer, 1996; Worthy & McKool, 1996; Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000).

*Your reading life matters. Students’ personal reading goals have as much value as our academic goals. Classrooms exert tremendous influence on the development of students’ reading identities—whether it’s positive or negative. While students learn the skills of reading, they must develop a positive reading identity to remain readers (Serafini, 2013).

Without these core beliefs in place, the 40 Book Challenge becomes another tedious reading assignment that drives kids away from reading. If students leave our classrooms hating to read or skate through without any positive reading experiences, we have failed. It doesn’t matter what they scored on the reading test. It doesn’t matter how many books they read if they stop reading when they leave our classrooms.

I recently received a Facebook message and photos from Aliza Werner, a third grade teacher at Parkway Elementary School in Glendale, Wisconsin. Aliza and her students held a 40 Book Challenge last school year, and she wanted to share her students’ successes with me, “Through the challenge, we created an enormous sense of community that embraced comfort, security, growth, sharing, excitement, and organic learning and curiosity that I had never felt before in any class.”

alizas class photo Aliza’s 20 students read 1741 books last year and they all met or surpassed their academic reading goals. More important, these 9-year olds developed a bond with each other and with reading that will last long after 3rd grade. Recounting anecdote after anecdote about her students’ individual reading successes, Aliza told me, “I could go on and on, as I am so proud of each of them in their own way.” Looking through the photos of Aliza’s beaming students, this note from Kristen made me smile.

Kristens best year ever

 

It’s clear that Aliza and her students embraced the full intent of the 40 Book Challenge. Aliza says that her students are still chatting over the summer–sharing their reading. In a classroom culture where reading threads through every class day and every conversation—everyone grows as a reader and finds reading more interesting and personally meaningful. Every reader has value. Every reading experience has value. It doesn’t matter who ultimately crosses an arbitrary finish line.

How can we empower our students and help them grow? How can we make reading an exciting adventure? What do we want our students to remember about reading and our classroom community when they leave? The 40 Book Challenge kicks off a year of reading. That’s Day One. What about the rest of the year? Developing students’ positive reading identities and development as lifelong readers—these must remain our priorities every day, all year long.

What Remains

“Someday, in the mist of time,

When they ask me if I knew you,

I’d smile and say you were a friend of mine.

And the sadness will be lifted from my eyes.

Oh, when I’m old and wise.”

–“Old and Wise,” The Alan Parsons Project

If you want to feel life at its fullest, attend a high school graduation. Look into graduates’ beaming faces and you’ll see it—their eyes glow like stars. Youth at its pinnacle. Adulthood on its first day. Freedom personified.

For a few hours, the adults called to witness this passage feel what it’s like to be young again. We remember. But we are only visitors now. We passed this way once, but we can’t stay long. We feel time’s march and our place in it. No matter how much we influenced these golden children, we have moved into the past now. Just a few paragraphs in their stories. Chapter One.

And life goes on.

It’s hard to explain sometimes why anyone chooses to teach. Teaching is challenging work. It’s often thankless. Beset on all sides by condescending people who infantilize us and tell us how to do our jobs. Sisyphean paperwork and endless meetings. Why would anyone endure it?

“I like working with young people.”

“ I believe in the power of education.”

–Shadows of the truth, interview platitudes that fail to capture the intensity of our relationships with students. You want to know why we teach? We look at the sun without blindness and feel its warmth. We hold possibility in our hands. We see hope manifest. Year after year, we see life reborn. Teachers are keepers of the flame. The children stand as life’s promise. We will go on.

Teaching is touching immortality.

My students make me feel alive and through them, I live forever.

As this school year ends, I feel the weight of this pact more than most years. My fifth graders are leaving our building for middle school next year. I am leaving, too. Packing my classroom, passing back notebooks, clearing the walls. When Room 211 empties this Friday and the children and I leave it forever, I wonder what remains. Will my students remember what they’ve learned? Will they remember our classroom family? Will they remember the books we read? Most of all, will they remember how much I loved them?

While my professional training prepared me for many things—designing lessons, implementing best practices, working with other teachers—it never prepared me for the fierce, territorial love and concern I feel for my students. These children—brilliant, loving, flawed, hurting, and needy—come into my classroom every year.

My family knows my students’ names and their stories both heartwarming and tragic, I worry about my students long after they leave me, and my life becomes entwined with theirs—for one school year at least—often longer. As much as I hope to change children’s lives, my relationships with students transform me. They are forever mine, and I am forever, their teacher.

On their worst day. On my worst day. Until my last day on Earth, I will love them all. That’s my promise.

Twenty years down the road, what else could they take away from my class that matters more?

I spent the evening attending a graduation party for one of my former 6th graders, Daniella. Flitting around the party, laughing with friends, hugging relatives, dutifully talking with all of her guests, Daniella was bubbly and brilliant. She is glad that high school is over. She is ready for her next life.

Chatting with several former students at the party, I asked each one, “Where are you going? What are you going to do?”

“University of Texas. Biology.”

“Oklahoma Baptist. Art, and I’m going to swim for them.”

“Weatherford. Architecture.”

“Full Sail. Media Communications.”

“Midwestern State. Undecided.”

“Two year mission in Mexico.”

They all had an answer, but I could see it in their eyes. They don’t know. They don’t know where they’re going. They don’t know what they are going to do. Their eyes shine a little too brightly. There’s fear underneath it. An unanswered question, “What’s next?”

I don’t have an answer for them. I wish I did. All I have is the promise I made to them years ago. I love you, my bright stars. I believe in you. I always have. I always will.

Life goes on.

Love remains.

The most important lessons ever learned.

Famous

One of the best things about being a published writer is that you run into people at conferences who have read your book. I enjoy meeting colleagues who share my professional interests. Talking to other teachers and librarians about the importance of reading excites me. These conversations engage my brain.

I know that I’m a better teacher now because I have learned from some of the best teachers in America—the ones I meet while presenting at professional development conferences and workshops. Anyone who gets up early on a Saturday morning to learn about reading instruction is my kind of person.

And sometimes, these kind colleagues will ask me to sign my book for them. It is awesome. Signing books is fun. It is one of the best things.

But, it’s not the best thing.

At the end of every school year, I cull our class library and my students help. My class librarians and I examine every book and I pull out damaged books, duplicate copies, and out of date books. I dig out books no one has read all year and booktalk lots of them. Kids recommend books to each other and take more reading risks—branching out to try books they haven’t already read this year. Our class has renewed excitement for reading.

Every morning, I fill one marker rail with discarded books, scrawl “Free to good homes!” on the whiteboard and invite my students to take these books. I know many of my students don’t own books, and I would never sell my used books when I can give them away to kids.

A few students each day grab a book off our giveaway rail and bring it to me, so that I can write “discard” in it. Wednesday, two girls in my afternoon class shyly asked, “Can you write your name in our books, too, Mrs. Miller? When we donate books to the class library, you always ask us to write our names in them. You should do it, too!” I smiled, “Sure, girls.” All of the kids wanted me to sign their books. I’ve been writing “donated by Mrs. Miller” in books all week.

My favorite book signings ever.

It’s true that some teachers are famous for what they contribute outside of the classroom.

But all of us are famous for what we contribute inside of the classroom.

Teachers feed more dinner table conversation than Beyonce and Peyton Manning. We are famous (or infamous) to our students and their families. These relationships matter. One of my favorite poem is “Famous” by Naomi Shihab Nye, my fellow Texan. This poem centers me, and I read it often. (Read it. I’ll wait.) “famous as the one who smiled back,” that’s how I want to be remembered.

As we end another school year, reflect on how you’re famous to your students. How will they remember your class and you? What can you celebrate? What do you still need to teach them before they go? What can you do together to end this year memorably?

I wish you the best for your last weeks with your students and colleagues. Enjoy your time with them.

Common Knowledge

Yeah, so this happened:

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My little Book Whisperer, which turns five-years-old this month, received its worst review. I’ll admit HH’s words hurt my feelings. I read it out loud to my husband and texted a few friends about it.  At first, I was offended. Don’t I know how mainstream my ideas are? Anyone who’s read anything knows how to engage children with reading. My ideas are common knowledge to all teachers. I wish HH was right. Unfortunately, HH presumes that most traditionally trained teachers know best practices in language arts instruction, and apply these practices in their classrooms.

HH, your experiences are not my experiences. Sadly, I’ve never worked in a school where more than a handful of teachers know who Richard Allington or Peter Johnston are. I’ve worked in schools where no one reads children’s books, including the librarian. I weep because my daughters will never have a high school teacher like Penny Kittle or Kelly Gallagher. Instead, Sarah, spent 7th grade pre-AP English filling out S.E. Hinton crossword puzzles. I wish more teachers believed what you and I believe, HH, but they don’t.

HH, it’s clear that you and I are kindred teachers, shaped by the same body of knowledge. You and I both know that “students need time to read and teachers must be avid and passionate readers.” I’m glad that you live and teach in a world were these concepts are widely understood, but a lot of teachers and kids have never seen your world. Are you naïve that many of our colleagues—pressured to prepare students for endless, mindless tests—have jettisoned best practices like unnecessary cargo under an onslaught of mandates and accountability initiatives?

Even in schools where teachers understand and implement research-proven instruction, many must battle ignorant administrators who lack a fundamental knowledge of quality instruction. They struggle with parents who don’t value reading or support their children academically. I’m invited to speak in schools that want to improve their test scores, but the kids don’t have books to read and parent volunteers run the library. They don’t get it.

I’m glad, HH, that you live and teach in a world where children have engaging, accessible books and time to read them. I’m glad that your colleagues and you read. I’m glad that your school community supports reading. I’m glad that my dream—a place where children love reading and adults model reading lives exists somewhere in the world.

It sounds like Paradise. I hope I see it some day.

HH, I wish your review is true. My entire body of work should be common knowledge by now, but it isn’t.  Trust me, when I say that I’m doing my part to see that it is. I know a lot of teachers, librarians, administrators, authors, and parents who strive every day to make reading better for kids. It comforts me that you are out there, too. It’s great that you don’t suffer the same obstacles to good teaching that many of us do.

I’m still mad that you didn’t like my beloved Book Whisperer, though. It’s just another book about teaching reading to you, but anyone who really knows me understands that The Book Whisperer is my memoir. When I open that book, memories fall out of it—a sea of students’ names, book titles, field trips, lessons, and conversations. Besides my two daughters, I know that The Book Whisperer is my shining achievement. I’m proud of it. You don’t have to like it or see it as groundbreaking. I love every one of the students in that book. Our years together matter. Your opinion doesn’t fit into the picture.

Share what you know with as many people as you can, HH. I’m still learning how to be a good teacher. I hope you still think there’s something to learn.

 

Professional Development Discussion Opportunity

**Talking with Teri Lesesne this week, we discovered a shared interest in reading and discussing several influential research articles together. Join us for a Twitter discussion of Richard Allington’s “Every Child, Every Day,” on Sunday, April 13th at 7 pm Central.

I’m a Reader, Not a Writer

My six-month journey with a broken tooth ended today when my dentist installed a permanent crown. Chatting with the dental hygienist, she asked me what I did, “I’m a teacher and a writer.” As we left the office, my husband told me he was proud of me, “I’ve never heard you tell a stranger that you’re a writer before. That’s new.”

Last Saturday, my friend and colleague, Gretchen Bernabei, led professional development in our school district. Her area of expertise? Teaching writing. Sitting with Gretchen and our district ELA coordinators, Gretchen and I joked about how hard it is to see ourselves as writers.

“I write technical writing. It’s not like real writing,” Gretchen said.

“Writing is hard. The only way I get any writing done is waking up at four a.m. and writing. Otherwise, I would talk myself out of it most days,” I admitted.

One of my district friends shook her head, “If the two of you—both published authors—feel insecure and struggle with writing, that makes me feel better about my own writing!” We spent lunch chatting about writing, teaching writing, and fostering students’ ownership for their writing, too.

I know it’s absurd, but I have only recently seen myself as a writer. I wrote two books, and I’m working on another. I write for Nerdy Book Club and this blog on a regular basis. I’ve published journal and magazine articles. I’ve been a professional writer for seven years. I was a writer long before I published anything, but I define myself as a reader, not a writer.

For me, writing is one long response to my ongoing affair with reading and books. Love letters, memoir, manifesto. I write about reading to extend my reading life. I’m an artist’s patron, not her equal. I write about reading because reading doesn’t matter to enough people. I want more people to care.

If I stopped writing about reading, I would stop writing. That’s the truth. Fortunately, I can connect almost anything in my life back to reading. Reading frames my life already. No surprise that reading would frame my writing life, too. I have finally realized that if I value reading so much, I must value writing about reading more. Even though I still see myself as a reader who writes, I can own the writer label honestly now.

My dearest friends are writers, too, but all wear their “writer” badges uneasily. Why is it so hard to take ownership of our writing? Here’s what I need to remind myself and share with you.

Just this:

  • If you write, you are a writer.
  • If you don’t write, you are not a writer.
  • If you want to be a writer, you must write.
  • The only writers who struggle with writing are ALL of them.
  • Write about what matters to you and make the rest of us care about it.
  • Anyone who tells you she’s a writer must believe it herself before she can admit it to you.

 

Of course, I could give you the exact same advice about reading.

But you knew that already.