Tag Archives: literacy

A favourite way to read

In an ELA classroom, there is often so much on the plate, we don’t always give our kids enough time to read. I try to offer a mix of opportunities to read out loud, to be read to (by me), to read at home, and to read in class. I admit that in the past, I probably didn’t give my kids quite enough chances to read in class, but this year I’m trying to give them that time.

What I love about in-class reading blocks is that the kids get a chance to unwind a little and just be with a book. Some of my kids aren’t usually readers outside of the classroom and offering them this time is so important. And yeah, it’s not like reading blocks aren’t enjoyable for me, too. Having a reading block gives me a bit of time also to read my own book (Modeling! So important!), to do a bit of marking or answer emails, and so forth. But ultimately, the reading block is intended to serve the students.

Basically, my approach to reading blocks follows this basic premise: if we want our kids to learn that reading can be enjoyable, we should offer them opportunities (as well as tools and strategies) to enjoy their reading experience.

When I was in school, reading blocks were set up so that everyone was sitting in a desk, facing forward in rows, in complete silence. Because the way we were expected to read in school felt very regimented and forced, the act of reading—which I normally would freely choose to do for fun, even as a child—was now drudgery. Compare this reading experience to the kind I’d have when I was at home. When I was home, I would never sit in a chair at a table and read in silence. My favourite way to read involved grabbing a snack, putting my favourite cassette tape into my Walkman (!), and settling into one of my preferred reading positions.

My favourite reading position has always been laying down on my tummy — on a couch, bed, or even on the floor — with a cushion propped up under my chest. Second favourite: sitting with my right side body pressed against the arm of a chair or sofa, my right elbow propped up, and my right leg curled under me. Neither of these positions are easily offered by a regular student desk/chair. So, when I decided to start implementing reading blocks in my school schedule, I took all of this into account. Many of my kids — aged twelve through fourteen this time of year — are just being able to figure out how (and if) they like to read and how to be comfortable with a book. Some of them are like me: book lovers who seek out opportunities to read, but whose favourite way to read is not at a desk. For all of these reasons, I give my kids complete freedom within the classroom space during reading blocks and let them engage as organically as possible in their reading experience.

When I first moved into this classroom, I inherited a decrepit, wood-frame couch; while the frame eventually fell apart, I decided to keep the cushions. During reading blocks, some kids like to sit on them, others like to lay a cushion on the floor and sprawl out on their bellies or backs (exactly what I would do) or curl up in fetal position. Some kids like to stay upright in their usual seats. Some slouch in their chairs and put their feet up on a vacant chair next to them. I’ve seen students retreat to a pod of desks as a group just so they can read in the company of their friends. There are two girls in my grade nine class who curl up each in her own corner of the classroom to read in relative solitude. Others sit against the wall and some students even sit/lay under desks (and yes, I permit this). A few of my kids like to try out different locations/positions from block to block while others find their favourite space and predictably choose it time and time again.


Three of my grade nine girls who grabbed cushions and got comfy. I kind of wanted to join them!

I allow my students to snack/drink and listen to music while they read, too, because like I said, I like to snack, drink, and listen to music when I read. I often will play soft music in the background while they read; my favourites include instrumental tracks from Disney films (“King of Pride Rock” from The Lion King, “Short Hair” from Mulan, and “Transformation” from Beauty and the Beast are fantastic), any softer tracks by Jesse Cook, John Williams, the Vitamin String Quartet, and other music that kind of “fits” this mold. I try to avoid upbeat songs or songs with lyrics during reading time because some kids have a hard time processing two streams of language simultaneously and my goal is for them to focus on their reading.

“You play music while they read? But what about kids who don’t want to listen to music?” you ask. Recently, I purchased a few cheap sets of ear plugs to give to students who prefer complete silence. They aren’t expensive, and I don’t mind giving them away (who wants to reuse someone else’s ear plugs anyway?). I provide these because I believe that kids who crave silence have just as much a right to read in an environment that is comfortable to them as the kids who crave music.

At literacy PDs, they’ll tell you that many young readers and non-readers come to dislike reading because they aren’t exposed to books that are relevant or interesting to them. While this is definitely true, I think that while we are on the hunt for great stuff for our kids to read, we should also be mindful of exposing them to reading experiences/contexts that are relevant, engaging, and comforting.


Two boys sitting in the comfy chairs at my resource table.

Above all, my hope is that my students learn that a reading experience should be something they can choose for themselves, and that with a little freedom, they can discover their own favourite way to read, too. 🙂


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October 25, 2013 · 9:25 am

Procrastination be damned. Also, Penny Kittle!

Whoops. Left the blog behind for a while, didn’t I?

One of Penny’s books. Want!

Penny Kittle came into town on a cold February day and I anticipate that it will be one of the most memorable PDs I will ever attend, mostly because of all the crying experienced by its attendees! Between reading heartrending texts and doing some of our own intimate, personal writing, there certainly were many tears shed. I think I cried a minimum of five separate times. You know you’re at a good PD when…!

Penny is a teacher and author who specializes in literacy development and English Language Arts. I first heard about her from my friend, Erin, and heard of her again from Kelly Gallagher, who is basically one of my educational heroes (and whose PDs also always make me cry). I looked so forward to spending a day inside Penny Kittle’s brain and was even more jazzed when I got there because I found myself sitting at a table of incredible educators and friends.

To be honest, I think the document of notes (completely disorganized notes, alas!) I took speaks much more to the awesomeness of the PD session than anything I might cobble together now, but these are four things that really stuck with me from Penny’s day with us.

1) The act of giving a kid a book can make them want to read it. I did this with one of my grade eight girls last year. I handed her The Book of Negroes, which some might feel is too advanced for a kid like her, but she fell in love with it.

2) The use of the classroom writing notebook as a catch-all scrapbook/journal/idea explosion. Penny’s got some amazing, creative ideas for quickwrites and activities.

3) Escalating texts. Using multiple texts surrounding the same topic/issue and reading them in sequence, increasing with “intensity” so that kids form first impressions and dive deeper. Seriously, when Penny did this with us in the session using three texts revolving around 9/11, there wasn’t a dry eye in the entire room. (Insert tangent: I don’t even know how she managed to read one of those texts aloud to us without crying herself. I don’t think I could do it. I know there’s got to be more teachers who end up teaching through their tears besides me, right? Right? Up! as a film study, anyone? That montage gets me every. single. time.)

4) Writing conferences. Penny’s got some great leading phrases and approaches in writers’ conferences that don’t have anything to do with grammar/spelling. She really latches on to the idea of teaching kids to write, as in creating ideas and shaping worlds and painting characters. She gets them to expand their ideas rather than quibbling over homophones when she meets with them. It is expected that they go back and check their conventions later, so the writing conference is spent more productively. After all, a flat story with insipid characters is not improved by perfect grammar. In the same way, a truly riveting tale with engaging and charismatic characters nonetheless draws readership even with the odd spelling error.

In case you missed the link a few paragraphs ago, I’ll redundantly stick it in here again. Sorry again about the here-and-there formatting of the doc, but I couldn’t bear to sit on it anymore! What’s nice is that where possible, I tried to include links to texts and resources Penny mentioned throughout the day, so hopefully they can lead you to peruse even more avenues of thought regarding your classes. Please enjoy and share alike!

Other great Penny stuff:
Penny’s online PDF notes that accompany her book, Write Beside Them are available here.
Her site, chock full of resources and things to think about.

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What about English Language Learners?

*dusts cobwebs*

Jeez Louise. I swear, I didn’t forget about this blog. Things have just been incredibly hectic over here… which, I mean, for any fellow teachers reading this blog, you already know. I don’t have to tell you what January is like.

So I’ll begin with some good news: Since EdCamp, I’ve been to more good PD! Shocking, I know. I’ve also been to some lame PD. But you can’t win ’em all, and the fact that I’m going to a Writing PD with Penny Kittle (@pennykittle) next month pretty much means that my PD score for the 2012-2013 year is still chalking up to more good than bad. By the way, Edmonton folks, you really want to register for that PD! Then we can hang out and be nerdy together!

Yesterday, I attended a webinar with Dr. Deborah Short (one of the creators of the SIOP educational model) on how to support literacy with English Language Learners (ELLs), and although I found some things about the layout of the PD to be a little confusing or disjointed, I definitely enjoyed thinking about various strategies I could use in my own classroom. I have to say that although it is only January and although we still have half a year left in which I can start using these strategies, I’m already excited about beginning a new school year with these strategies and routines firmly in place from the get-go.

On a semi-related note, can we take a moment to talk about the fact that it is super lame when you end up going to really good PD in April or May? There’s hardly any time left! I guess it gives you a lot of extra prep time to get it ready for September.

Anyway, there were a lot of cool PD sessions available yesterday that I could have attended (like watercolour painting at one of our local botanical conservatories), but since literacy is my passion, I pretty much saw no other option but the one I went to. Besides, it certainly was a PD that would be immediately relevant in my teaching, because at my school, we have a lot of ELLs.

Working with ELLs is not something I’m unfamiliar with. In my first year of teaching, I ended up doing a short temporary contract at a junior high wherein I was actually teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) to some grade nines. Then, at the high school where I taught for the following two years, I found myself teaching many ELLs as well. Being an “academically focused” school, the demographics of that particular student body skewed toward Asian. Despite being skilled mathematicians, some of my students there struggled to form coherent sentences. I have distinct memories of reading passages from some student work aloud just to try to make sense of it, then laughing at the hopelessness of the situation.

This year, I find myself in a junior high school whose student population comprises something like 80-85% ELLs and only 15-20% native English speakers. Although I’ve dealt with ELL support before, I never had to face the challenges I face at this new school. Trying to figure out ways to reach all the kids in an effective way while still providing adequate challenges for my Pre-AP kids has been extremely trying at times. When it works, things are really exciting, but when I find myself at the occasional crossroads where twenty-two of my kids are good to go and only one kid finds himself stuck and unable to continue with the task I’ve presented, I feel lost, anxious, and to be frank, rather weary. It is tiring trying to keep up with all the different levels of language learning happening in my classroom. I have ELLs who speak better English than some high school students I know. I have ELLs who read, write, and converse fluently, but sometimes get stumped on trickier, more nuanced words/concepts like “reluctant” or “controversy.” I have ELLs who are still in such a formative stage of their language acquisition that they cannot tell me why they are late to class. How do we plan for all these young people? And how can we support the ELLs who are newest to English, who arguably need us most (but who, let’s face it, are often ignored in favour of keeping the others “on schedule”)?

First of all, we need to think like an ELL. I watched a webinar a few months ago that opened with an exercise that I’ll not soon forget. The speaker told us that she was going to show us an image. We could think whatever we wanted about it. Then we’d have to describe it. Okay, simple enough. This is basically what came up on the screen:

Easy enough, right? “Where’s the challenge in this?” I wondered.

“Now, here’s the catch,” the speaker said, “When you describe this object, you cannot use any words that contain the letter N.”

Huh. Let’s think about that. You can’t say line. You can’t say point. You can’t say triangle. You can’t say intersect. You certainly can’t say polygon. Think about what you would say! Personally, I didn’t get much farther than “three-sided shape,” and even though I think that accurately describes a triangle, you can imagine that it would be a heck of a lot easier to visualize it if I could use words like line and point. This brain-crunching process that I experienced in this short exercise was meant to acquaint me with what it’s like to be an ELL. You know what that stupid thing is. You have words you want to use, but you can’t use those ones. You are limited to only a few other words that would never really be your first choice and you really have to ponder for a while before you can spit out your thoughts.

What I liked about the session with Deb yesterday is that she didn’t just theorize about teaching ELLs. She presented us with some concrete ideas and strategies that we could carry forward and implement immediately in our teaching, regardless of the subject being taught. There were definitely a bunch of strategies she discussed that are already in place in my classroom, but there were other ideas that, although being pretty simple and intuitive, I’d never really thought much about before! More importantly, perhaps, some of the things she talked about provoked further thought processes about pedagogy and best practices for me. When my brain gets all tickly like that during PD, it’s almost like I can feel the potential growth taking root. That might be really nerdy to say, but hey, I love my job. Nerding out over literacy is what I do.

I took pretty detailed notes during this session — probably much to the chagrin of my tablemates who had to endure the irritating sound of my nails clicking away incessantly on my keyboard — and now I’m very excited to share the document with you! In my typically-OCD manner, I got a little cray-cray over the formatting of this document; I’m hoping that you find it to be a reasonably well-structured resource that you can take and peruse for ideas and perhaps reshare with your teaching friends! You’ll notice, now and again, that there are italicized comments written in violet. Those are my own personal, random thoughts about teaching and pedagogy that I inserted along the way. 🙂 Enjoy!

Stay tuned for upcoming posts about my February PD session with Penny  Kittle (Squee!), my experiences using learning centers in a high school English class, and a general reflection about some of the emotional challenges I’ve faced in this profession.

Happy weekend!

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