Engaged teacher, Engaged readers…

This is my 7th year teaching in Michigan State University’s Teacher Education Program. I have taught students at almost every phase of the program. Because Michigan State’s program is so large, I often don’t see or hear from my students after I’ve taught them. I think of many of them and wonder how they are doing, what literature they are sharing with their students, and how they are managing their first years of teaching. Today – I got to visit one of those students. It was so amazing for both of us. I looked at her and said, “Do you still have days when you can’t believe you are doing what you love?” She smiled widely and I said, “me too”.

Then, Ms. C lead me to the back of her classroom. “This is the first thing I want to show you.” I walked around a corner to see her classroom library. She told me about how she has built it up so far (books, shelves, book boxes, beanbags) that she has implemented student librarians (“we’re still working out some of those kinks”), and that she can’t wait to meet Donalyn Miller at MRA this year. She has used donors choose to fund numerous projects in her room and is always trying to add more books for her students.

I stayed in her classroom for almost an hour during their “read to self” time. I watched third grade children, some of whom are still learning English, select their own books and read. They read deeply and widely. They read non-fiction books about Penguins and tornados. They read Skippyjon Jones, Clifford, Little Critter, Junie B. Jones, and Froggie. They read picture books, chapter books, and graphic novels. They abandoned books when they needed to, and selected other ones instead. As their teacher walked around the room and conferred with students, I joined in asking them to share with me. Some read outloud to me, some showed me a favorite illustration, and another boy showed me a cookie recipe he copied from Clifford. They were so ENGAGED in reading. And this was after lunch and after recess on a warm day.

Then they each wrote a short “review” of one of the books they had read. Each card included the title, author, star rating, if the book was fiction or non-fiction, and 1-2 sentences about what they liked or what it was about. THEN they booktalked in pairs. Did I mention how engaged they were? How they were asking each other questions and asking to share with me?

It made me think about Donalyn’s newest book Reading in the Wild and her premise that we don’t just want students to read in our classes, we want them to keep reading afterwards. It doesn’t matter their age. This is what I hope for my own teacher education students; that they will be engaged readers in our classes together and then want to help their own students develop as not just competent readers, but also as engaged readers As I looked around the room, I saw that Ms. C had taken time to find a book of her own, sit down next to a student and read. She not only set up the environment, procedures, and instruction for her students – she herself was an engaged reader.

As Junie B would say, “It was a thing of beauty I tell you.”

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Teacher and Reader: Reader and Teacher

Earlier this week, my friend Donalyn Miller wrote a Nerdy Book Club Post titled “Fangirl” about meeting and talking with authors; and the impact that has had on her as a reader. Something that I have always admired about Donalyn and my nerdy friends is the ways that they are committed to helping children develop into readers. And it isn’t some prescribed version of reader where everyone reads the same books and has the same response either. It’s a version of reader unique to each student.

Just like our students are unique readers, so are we, their teachers. I think that sometimes we get so lost in being teachers, that we forget to be readers ourselves. We forget that their is joy and pleasure, pain and sorrow, adventures and homecomings; all found within the pages of a book. But we have to find the books that work for us, that make us feel at home and also push us to see outside of ourselves. Donalyn posed the question,

How would children see reading differently if we taught language arts as an art appreciation class?

How about if we separate the mechanics of reading from the pleasure of reading? This got me thinking about something that Dr. P. David Pearson said at the Boston University Literacy Institute 2 weeks ago.

The language arts: reading, writing, and language are tools. Tools that we use to make sense of situations and subjects. Literature is it’s own body of knowledge, a unique disciplinary area. I don’t lump it with language arts even though it can be used as a tool.

So often, I hear and see elementary teachers only think of literature as a tool. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be used as a tool, but that it shouldn’t be utilized ONLY as a tool. Getting back to Donalyn’s question about teaching arts as art appreciation, I think that another way of thinking about this is to be more explicit about thinking about literature as tools (teacher) and literature as a discipline (reader).

And an appreciation of something has to be more than just choice reading or read alouds (though these are a great place to start). It also has to be (just to name a few things): identifying what genres we like and don’t like, identifying why we have the tastes that we do, discovering how images work in picture books and graphic novels, marveling at how a turn of phrase can give us goosebumps, and how, as Donalyn wrote, knowing the human being that created a story can make us tongue-tied.

NCTE 2012: Friends, Books, Networking, and Nerdybooklovers

I spent last weekend in Las Vegas with a whole bunch of fantastic friends, colleagues and nerdybookclubers. Also known as the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Conference.  It was amazing. My preservice teachers often ask me for advice about staying current in the field, what to read, how to stay inspired, etc. Attending conferences is at the top of my list. While this was a national conference, our local Michigan Council of Teachers of English (held in October) and Michigan Reading Association Conference (held in March) are equally fantastic.

My head is still swimming with all of the books that I looked at, sessions that I attended, and people I spoke with – not to mention the constant sensory bombardment that is Las Vegas.

Highlights included:

  • presenting with my good friends and colleagues Lynne Watanabe & Dr. Laura Jimenez and using picture books and graphic novels across grade levels. Thanks to all who attended!
  • Running into nerdy friends Donalyn Miller, Paul Hankins, Cindy Minnich, John Scovill, and more in the exhibits
  • attending the Nerdy Book Club get together on Friday evening and talking to tweeps and nerdy friends in person
  • Seeing The Beatles Love show by Cirque de Soleil
  • more exhibits, more books, more nerdy friends
  • Seeing the Eagles come down the escalator for their sound check but not having the nerve to say anything (yes, those Eagles)
  • Meeting with Teri Lesesne (a.k.a. Professor Nana) in person
  • Attending the Children’s Literature Master Class on Fantasy with Dr. Barbara Kiefer and author John Stephens
  • Talking with illustrator Melissa Sweet
  • Getting an advanced review copy of P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams Garcia – the follow-up to One Crazy Summer.
  • Relaxing in the hot tub
  • Telling Kristin Cashore about the amazing discussions my children’s literature classes had about her book Graceling – they talked feminism, power, and identity!
  • ALAN Author Meet & Greet on Sunday evening –  I talked with Kristin Cashore, Rebecca Stead, Deborah Hopkinson, Jo Knowles, and Rae Carson at the same time. I told them I felt like a 12-year-old girl meeting Justin Bieber. Thankfully they said I had it more together than that.
  • ALAN Book Fest on Monday with 3 friends & nerdy folks
  • Pizza & Wine dinner in our pjs, in the room, with 2 of my closest friends on Monday evening.
  • but the best was probably having people ask me about my dissertation and respond with questions that made me clarify my thinking. More on this to follow…

There are many more people that I talked with that I didn’t mention here – thanks to each and every one of you for your smiling faces, love of books, passion for teaching, and curious questions.