An excerpt from Pam Withers’ Jump-Starting Boys

I’m excited to share an excerpt from Pam Withers’ Jump-Starting Boys: Help Your Reluctant Learner Find Success in School and Life today.  Pam Withers is a former journalist, editor and outdoor guide who has written many sports and adventure novels for teens, including the Take-it-to-the-Extreme series. She has one son and lives with her husband in Vancouver, Canada. She is the co-founder of the youth literacy website Keenreaders and blogs at kidsliteracy.

Her latest book deals specifically with boys who are struggling in school. Below is an excerpt about boys and reading.  I think all teachers can agree that more time spent reading and more parents modeling reading will help students, both boys and girls, become more enthusiastic readers!

So What is a Reluctant Reader?

From these slumps emerge what are variously called “slow,” “struggling,” or

“reluctant” readers. And the majority of these are boys. But beware: There is no

widespread agreement on what a reluctant reader is. In fact, one sunny optimist,

Donalyn Miller, a sixth-grade teacher who wrote The Book Whisperer, says, “Lord

help the students with [those] labels.” She prefers:

developing readers: those not reading at grade level, whether due to

inadequate reading experiences or learning disabilities,

dormant readers: unmotivated, uninterested, “good enough” readers who

don’t engage with reading due to a lack of support and role models,

underground readers: gifted or beyond the average student’s level, individuals

simply uninterested in what school requires them to read.

Sticking for now with the term “reluctant reader,” we’d like to add that some

of these boys have fallen so far behind (one to two grade levels) that reading now

elicits fear and embarrassment. Perhaps they started out with the disadvantage of

speaking English as a second language (ESL). There are also “closet readers” who

prefer to read at home so they’re not seen as a reader in school. And there are kids

who slide into and out of all these descriptions.

“These categories shift and change and vary with socioeconomics and ESL

factors,” says David Ward, an assistant professor in literacy at Lewis and Clark

College in Portland, Oregon, and a children’s author. “We’ve seen a terrible crash in

wages to middle class and below, and loss of jobs. That impacts the children, home

literacy, how many books a family can buy, even affordability for getting to the

library.”

Ward says that in conversations with parents across North America, the word

he hears most is “unmotivated.” Yet when he delves deeper, he finds that half the

parents using that term have a child with a physical challenge, diagnosed or not. The

other half could benefit from putting stricter limits on their child’s television, video

game, and other media time, he notes (more on that in Chapter Seven).

Screen time is often just a symptom of a larger problem, however: parental

busy-ness, or a lack of one-on-one interaction between child and adult. In their

formative years, children desperately need the one thing that busy parents often

cannot or will not give them: time. It’s a theme well addressed in David Elkind’s The

Hurried Child.

Regardless of why a boy gets labeled a reluctant reader, determined parents

can help turn him around. If we had to boil all the advice into a sentence, it would

be: Get him reading one-on-one with someone—with you, a reading buddy, a

reading specialist, whomever—and pull out all the stops to make reading a bigger

part of his life.

Again, there’s a direct link between how much time he spends reading for

pleasure and his future achievement in life. Or, as Henry David Thoreau wrote, “How

many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!”

Forgive Me Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick

The first day of school is imminent and this new YA book is one that I want to make sure all high school teachers place in their classroom library. What Speak did for awareness of sexual assault, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock will do for teen suicide and depression. It’s a must read for every teacher. It’s not an easy read by any means, but it is an important one.

It’s Leonard Peacock’s 18th birthday and he is prepared to end his life.  But before he does that he packs a gun in his backpack and makes a plan to kill his former best friend.  It’s about Leonard’s last day on earth and it’s intense, heartbreaking, and gut-wrenching. I won’t tell you more because you need to meet Leonard and get to know him in order to fully appreciate the story.

I read Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock in one sitting and it was intense.  Quick’s writing will make you uncomfortable and you might want to put the book down.  Don’t.  It’s vital that you finish Leonard’s story and that you listen to all of the characters.  They are well-written and realistic– even the less-than-perfect characters.  There are no easy answers for Leonard or those around him, just like there are no easy answers in life.  And that’s why this book is so important.

 

A must-have for all high school libraries and a must-read for adults who work with teenagers.  Be aware that there are swear words liberally scattered throughout the pages, but they are important to the voice of the characters.  This is a book about very important issues- school violence, suicide, bullying– and those issues are life-altering.  The language fits and it’s appropriate.

Slice of Life March 29th, 2013 #slice2013

sols_6

Yesterday it was announced that Amazon will be purchasing Goodreads next quarter.  I’m not sure how to react to this news, because I love Goodreads.  I loved its independence, the community, and the interface.  While I am an Amazon customer (no independent bookstores closer than an hour away), I don’t need Amazon taking over every website I use.  They already own all or part of Shelfari and Librarything, which is one reason I don’t use either site.

But what upsets me the most about the sale is that I encourage my students to use Goodreads.  It was independent and not tied to any major retailer, so I was comfortable recommending it.  It also allows my students to grow as they move through school and eventually graduate.  The few other book social networking communities I tried out were aimed at kids and my students would eventually age out of them.  While this may seem like a silly thing for me to worry about, it’s important that my students find a community of readers that can stay with them as long as they are willing to participate.

When I taught 6th grade, I always shared Goodreads with my students and encouraged them to join (with their parents’ permission).  Many of them did.  It’s been over 6 years since I first started recommending the site and I still hear from many of those students.  There is an ebb and flow to the site, allowing members to pick up where they left off, without any pressure or judgement.  In the last few months I have been contacted by 5 former students, ranging from 8th grade to current juniors in high school, who have become active on Goodreads again.

 One of those students told me she was looking up a book her friend was reading and the search results included Goodreads.  She remembered using the site with me, clicked on it, and soon she was adding books to her “want to read” shelf and reminiscing over the list of books she last updated in 7th grade.  I now see her adding books a few times a week and she even recommended a book to me!  The power of a reading community is stronger than most people realize and too many students (and adults) lack access to one in the flesh.  Too many of my former students tell me that they haven’t heard a booktalk since leaving my classroom, haven’t had a teacher recommend a book that wasn’t canon since being with me, and no longer remember how to find books on their own.  And how can we expect them to keep reading if no one is providing them with the opportunity to find and read books?

That’s why I love Goodreads.  I love that current and former students can message me about books.  I love that our school book club can have conversations between meetings.  I love that I can model my reading life and passion for all of my students (current and former) in an unobtrusive manner.  And I love that there is no commercial tie-in.  We are surrounded by ads all day and Goodreads was a welcome respite from that.  Sure, there are banner ads and such, but they were book-related and usually lead to a publisher’s official site or an author’s blog.  They didn’t lead me to an Amazon order page.

Goodreads is about community and passionate readers.  It’s not about making a buck.  At least, it’s not about making a buck for me.  Sadly, it seems to be about money for the founders.  I can’t blame them for that, of course.  But I do wish they had offered the users of Goodreads an option.  Maybe we would have been willing to kick in money to keep the site independent!  I’d even be ok with publishers buying into the site.  But a single retailer?  That’s harder for me to digest.

We have a while before anything changes because the sale doesn’t close until next quarter.  I’m not going to stop using Goodreads and I hope I won’t have to in the future.  But I will be watching carefully.  And in the meantime, I think I will be doing what author Kate Messner suggests.  We can support other retailers, especially indie bookstores, in the reviews we post.  But my students and I will keep using Goodreads, while crossing our fingers that the community isn’t destroyed by Amazon.  Because the community is what drew me to the site and it’s why I share it with my students.  Losing that would be a shame.

Voting for the Children’s Choice Book Awards

Make sure you get your vote in!

 

Voting is now open for the Children’s Choice Book Awards! This is the only national book awards program where the winners are selected by children and teens of all ages. I hope you will consider sharing the news about this exciting program! Vote now on BookWeekOnline.com and spread the word!

 

Voting is open through May 9th. Winners will be announced live during Children’s Book Week (May 13-19, 2013), at a charity gala to benefit Every Child a Reader (ECAR).

 

Tweets and Facebook posts that will help us spread the word: 

  • Voice your choice! Voting for @CBCBook‘s Children’s & Teen Choice Book Awards is open now through May 9 atbookweekonline.com!

Full STEAM Ahead is Back Tomorrow!

After a brief holiday break, Full STEAM Ahead will be back tomorrow.  Our special guest will be Jen Bryant, prolific author!

 

I am also looking to line up more authors for Full STEAM Ahead.  Are you an author with a book that involves science, technology, engineering, or math in some capacity?  I’d love to hear from you!  Please email me- thereadingzone @ gmail(dot) com if you are interested!

Why Can’t We Be Friends? The Common Core, Informational Text, and Literature

summer reading

summer reading (Photo credit: ruminatrix)

This is a blog post I have been meaning to write for months.  But I am finally sitting down to write it after reading the Telegraph’s “Catcher in the Rye dropped from US school curriculum“, an article that went viral this weekend.  As I read the article, I couldn’t help but think that it was alarmist and extreme.  For those who haven’t read it, the article claims that “Schools in America are to drop classic books such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and JD Salinger‘s Catcher in the Rye from their curriculum in favour of ‘informational texts’.”  It goes on to say that classrooms will no longer read literature and instead students will be required to read “insulation manuals and plant inventories in US classrooms by 2014.”.

 

I wish that some of these reporters who write about the Common Core would actually talk to teachers who are implementing the standards.  Standards are not curriculum, despite headlines that like to insinuate that those words are interchangeable.  Standards tell me, the teacher, where my students should end up.  I decide what our journey will look like.  I decide how far we will meander down one fork before choosing a different direction.  I decide when we sit and spend a while enjoying the scenery.  And my path may not look like the path the teacher down the hall, across the street, or in another state takes.  But as long as the destination is the same, we have the freedom to make our own choices.

 

I’m not afraid of the Common Core State Standards. I admit I was skeptical at first.  I definitely don’t support the testing that will be developed to assess the implementation of the standards.  But I do support the standards.  Are they perfect?  Not at all.  But they are a great place to start.  As teachers, we need to lead from the floor and take charge.  We need to take ownership of the standards and their implementation.

 

The misinformation out there about Common Core scares me and the attempt by some districts (and publishers) to use it as an excuse to implement a scripted curriculum worries me. Nowhere in the document adopted by 46 states is a prescribed list of books assigned.  Nowhere in the standards is there a script teachers must follow.  The most-maligned aspect of the standards is the call for students to read 70% nonfiction/informational text by 12th grade.  But what many administrators neglect is that that footnote (which should be in huge, bold letters) reminds teachers that the percentage is for all in-school reading and not just the reading done in English classes.  By senior year, most of our students are reading informational text the majority of the school day. A typical student spends 45 minutes in English class every day.  Over the course of the day they sit in an average of seven 45 minute classes.  That means that students in high school are spending about 14% of their school day in a class where fiction is read.  Sadly, many content area teachers, especially at the secondary level, don’t include fiction in their classes.  “That’s for the English teacher to do!  I have to cover my own curriculum!” is the typical explanation. So at this moment, many students are reading fiction less than 30% of their day!

 

14% of their school day.  That’s it. So I’m thrilled that the Common Core asks that 30% of what students read is fiction!  As for the 70% informational text?  It’s about time!

 

Have you looked at a textbook recently?  Most of them are dreadful.  I can’t tell you how dry and dull they are, not to mention riddled with errors.  Our students should be reading real-life informational text in their content area classes.  I want to see my students reading field guides in biology!  I want them to analyze journal articles and primary documents in history!  Why shouldn’t they read biographies of mathematicians in geometry or instruction manuals in CAD class?  There is no textbook in life, so they should be reading and interacting with these texts beginning in school.

 

And there is a place for literary nonfiction in the English classroom, too.  Does it need to push fiction out of the picture? Absolutely not.  But it should be offered as a choice.  Many of my students actually prefer nonfiction and rarely have a chance to see it in school.  But as English teachers we have the opportunity to reach across the aisle and facilitate interdisciplinary work with our colleagues in the content areas, to the benefit of our students.  As I am constantly telling my students, no one can claim that they are “just an engineer” who will never read and write as a professional.  Look at the job ads in any newspaper or online- almost all of them, regardless of occupation, require strong communication skills.  The world is not put into neat little boxes like our subject areas are.  The real world  is interdisciplinary!  A student just told me that she is working with a college engineering professor this semester and her first job?  Working alongside him reading and writing reports.  As an engineer!

 

Our students need to be prepared to the real world, for jobs that don’t even exist yet.  That means we need to bring the real world to them as often as possible.  The real world is not in a textbook.  The world is in Katherine Boo‘s Behind the Beautiful Forevers and David McCullough‘s The Johnstown Flood.  It’s in Dave Eggers‘ Zeitoun or Sue Halpern’s Four Wings and  a Prayer.  If the Common Core can help some districts move away from textbooks and into newspapers and literary nonfiction then I am all for it!

 

But for me, in my classroom? I’ve embraced the standards. My students are reading and writing more than ever before and I actually have the opportunity to add more literature to my curriculum. How? By working with my colleagues across disciplines to implement the reading and writing standards my students receive more instruction in informational text and I have more time in English! And I’m bringing the real world applications of the Common Core to my students as often as possible.  Most recently, I have begun interviewing authors about their experiences with STEM in the arts.  Full STEaM Ahead will allow me to bring these authors and their experiences to my students, who will see that being an author and being a scientist aren’t mutually exclusive.

 

We need to work with our colleagues in all disciplines in order to better serve our students.

 

What I have learned so far is that teachers can implement much of the Common Core just by bringing newspapers into the classroom, in any subject area.  My students read the paper every day and write in response to what they read.  They are surrounded by informational text mentors as I work with my history co-teacher, and then we draw connections between current events, the literature we read, and the information they study in history.  It’s truly a multidisciplinary approach and the students enjoy it!  The improvement in their reading and writing skills in just a few months is tremendous (and measurable!).  Even better?  They are reading more!  They pick up the newspaper and can think critically about the issue affecting their world.  Then they apply that same thinking to literature.  They also increase their background knowledge, very much like Kelly Gallagher has done with his Article of the Week, which enhances the reading they do, whether it is fiction or nonfiction. (To see what Jon and I are doing in the classroom, check out our weekly column on the NYTimes Learning Network.  Learn more about how we implemented it.)

 

You know what else?  I see more room for independent reading in the Common Core Standards.  I’m actually adding fiction to my English I class because we cover so much NF alongside history.  And I love sharing contemporary literature- YA and adult- with my students in 9th and 12th grade.  Now, thanks to the interdisciplinary call in the Common Core, I have an excuse to bring more of those books into my classroom.  Just take a look the summer reading suggestions my freshmen students receive.

 

The alarmist article did bring up one good point.  It’s about time teachers and districts started reevaluating the canon literature foisted upon every student.  Does every seventeen-year old need to read Catcher in the Rye? Or are there other, better books out there now?  Maybe every student isn’t ready for canon literature in high school.  So let’s get them ready by bringing them to the table and meeting them halfway.  Find what they like to read.  Offer them YA and NF, allow them some form of choice.  And get them reading!  There will be time for canon later. Right now, we need to get them to read.  As Penny Kittle says, “It’s not rigorous if they are not reading it”. So find what they like and bring that into the classroom! The standards give me more freedom to bring in newspapers and magazines, nonfiction books about math and mechanics, science and hobbies.  And those books can ladder to more rigorous texts.  And so on.

 

The standards give me the freedom to decide how I get my students ready.   I’ve found room for lots of choice. The examplar texts are just examples. They are not mandated. I’m sure there are districts who have decided to mandate them, but that’s a battle we need to fight as teachers.  Stand up to your administrators and set them straight!

 

Listen to me.  I am a teacher on the ground who is implementing the Common Core Standards every day.  Can we get one thing straight?  Nowhere does the Common Core state that literature must be removed from the classroom. If anyone is telling you, the teacher, that you can’t teach literature then you need to get out your copy of the Common Core and explain that they are wrong.  Don’t misunderstand me-there are plenty of districts making bad decisions around the CCSS. But the standards themselves aren’t as bad as these articles make them out to be.  Check out the Uncommon Corps for some real, in-the-field knowledge about bringing more nonfiction into classrooms.  Like me, Marc Aronson, Sue Bartle, Mary Ann Cappiello, Kathleen Odean, Myra Zarnowski think there is a dearth of fabulous nonfiction being shared with our students and they are embracing the call to action for more NF in the classroom.  And it’s about time.

 

There wasn’t a lot I could do, on a daily basis, about NCLB, Race to the Top, or other initiatives driven by lawmakers.  But the Common Core?  That I can drive with my own actions.  We are the ones on the ground, in the trenches, and we will lead with our actions.  We need to empower good teachers. Standards tell me where my kids should end up. I get to decide how we get there.

National Book Award Nominees!

Today was chaotic at school and I missed the National Book Awards nominees announcements!  Thankfully, my twitter friends reminded me as I began to see the hashtag popping up. And then I almost let out a scream when I saw that one of my favorite books of the year was nominated!  I reviewed Eliot Schrefer’s Endangered last month and I haven’t stopped raving about it since.  Congratulations to Eliot on his National Book Award nomination!  Now get out there a pick up a copy before everyone else beats you to it!

The other nominees are now on their way to my house.  I haven’t read the rest of the Young People’s Literature Award nominees yet, and some of them aren’t even published as of this date, but they are now pre-ordered.  The list runs the age gamut, from a recommended 8+ to upper-YA. I’m excited to read them!

Nominees:

I also ordered a few of the adult nominees.  John Green and Penny Kittle both recommended the nonfiction nominee Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. Plus, I somehow never added Junot Diaz’s books to my library.

What are you looking forward to reading form this year’s nominees?

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