Ten Tips for a Successful PD Convention

School dollars are precious and getting administrators to release some of them to support travel to state and national conventions can be difficult.  It’s not that administrators don’t want teachers to go forth and learn.  It’s that travel is expensive and, let’s face it, sometimes when we return we head right back into the classroom and keep teaching.  Sharing what we’ve learned while away gets pushed to the back burner.

So, how do we make the best of our travel to conferences?  How do we prove to administrators that those dollars spent on just you will benefit many?  Below you’ll find my list of ways to turn any conference that one teacher attends into a positive learning experience for those who didn’t get to travel with you.  The best list, though, is the one you’ll make with your colleagues.  Talk with each other about how you can best share what you will learn while away.

So whether you’re packing up for the IRA convention in New Orleans that begins in just a few days or simply need to keep this list to pull out the next time you ask your principal for travel funds, I hope it offers you some tips for turning any convention into a collaborative experience.

My IRA questions1) Know thyself.  Before you get to the conference, make your own list of questions you hope will be answered.  As you choose sessions, keep this list in mind and that will help you choose where to go.  Here’s my list that will go with me to IRA.

2)   Be open to new ideas.  And though you have that pre-made list, be willing to explore new ideas.

3)   Carry the questions of your colleagues with you.  Before you leave, ask your colleagues who aren’t attending what information they most want you to bring back. When you return, follow-up with “Sam, you really wanted information on helping kids summarize.  Here’s a link to a website on summarizing that I think you’ll find helpful.”

4)   Keep folks in the loop.  Provide daily updates to your school colleagues via your homepage, email, Twitter, or Facebook so you share your learning.  Explain what you’ve learned, mention a link you’ve discovered, discuss a title you hope all will read.  (Maybe don’t mention the fab meal you and friends had in the Quarters.) Start your own hashtag so teachers in your district can follow you at the conference: #KBeersIRA14 for instance!



5) Remember that a picture is worth a thousand words.  Take photos, lots of photos.  Take pictures of handouts, of a PowerPoint screen, of you with a presenter, of the cover of a new book you hope all will read.  Upload often.  Here I’ve grabbed two of my favorite writers–Alfred Tatum and Jackie Woodson–and asked them for photos with me.








6)   Do two-minute interviews.  Use the video camera on your smart phone and ask your favorite literacy leader to share two minutes of his or her time to answer one specific question.  Remember two minutes means that you can’t ask “What do we do with kids who struggle to read” but you can ask “What’s one tip that helps struggling readers tackle hard vocabulary?”  I find most folks will happily share two minutes.  It’s the 10-minute answer that gets hard when everyone is trying to make it to the next session.

7)   Send your principal a daily update.  That’s right—daily.  That doesn’t mean a summary of sessions you attended.  It does mean, “Today I learned three new strategies that we can all use to help students with close reading.  Please think of a time I can share this information with the language arts and social studies teachers before school begins next year.”  In other words, you’re showing the principal that his investment in your PD is really an investment for many teachers. Along with this is tip #7.5:  When you get back, write thank-you letters to your principal, superintendent, and perhaps school board.  Thank them for supporting your professional development and share a little of what you’ve learned and a lot of how this will change your teaching and students’ learning. Make sure they know how you will share with others what you have learned.

8)   Get to sessions early.  Plan your days and know where you’re going.  Session fill up early so get to rooms as early as possible.  Did I mention that early is important?


9)   Go to the general sessions.  These sessions are almost always great, so don’t miss them—even if they are first thing in the morning!




10) Be inclusiveLook for the teacher who is sitting alone and sit by that person.


Conferences are in part about meeting new folks.  But they can be lonely places if you’ve traveled there on your own.  So extend that hand of friendship we hope our students extend to one another.  A shared conversation while waiting for a session to begin or asking someone to join you and others for lunch makes the day better for all.   This is a photo of teachers taken during the Boothbay Literacy Conference Bob Probst and I run each June.  These teachers traveled to this conference each knowing no one. By the end of the week, they were fast friends.


Four Guidelines for Summer Reading

In my previous post, I wrote about the research that links enjoyment of reading to reading achievement.  Perhaps one of the most enjoyable times to read is over the summer.  No reports. No tests. No vocabulary lists.  Just getting lost in a book.  Sadly, most kids don’t turn to summer reading–even when it’s a school requirement.  What happens when kids don’t–or do–read over the summer?

1)   Kids who don’t read during summer vacation lose two to three months of reading achievement. (“The Effects of Summer Vacation on Achievement Test Scores”)

2)   Elementary students who read 10-15 books at home over the summer gain as much in reading achievement as students who attend summer school. (“Addressing Summer Reading Setback Among Economically Disadvantaged Elementary Students“)

3)   Middle school students who read only five to six books over the summer don’t suffer from that summer reading loss. (“Summer Reading and the Ethnic Achievement Gap“)

Those three important studies are enough for me to wonder how we get kids reading during summer months.  I’m hopeful that you and your colleagues will spend some time over the next couple of weeks talking about this important issue.  Be sure to mark your calendar for May 18 at 8 pm ET when Kelly Gallagher and Donalyn Miller host a Twitter chat about this topic.

In the meantime, here are my four guidelines for summer reading.  These are my thoughts, my parameters, created with my biases, my hopes, my ideas. All of us want to do far more than boost reading achievement with summer reading. We want to boost reading enjoyment.  I hope this short list acts as a springboard for discussion in your own school as you and your colleagues think about how to encourage summer reading that’s mostly about developing a love of reading.

 Read Whichever Books Look Good to You

Summer reading isn’t about reading a certain number of titles from a list someone else has compiled.  It’s not about finishing A Tale of Two Cities before the first day of tenth grade.  It’s not about reading books at a certain Lexile level or AR level.   It’s not about preparing for a test, keeping a dialectical journal to be submitted, or logging a certain number of hours or titles in a journal that will eventually be graded.

Summer reading is about holding a book in your hands.  I suppose that also means an e-reader, but e-readers just don’t come with that great book smell; they don’t have the heft of a paper book or the worn cover you see each time you open it again.  E-readers certainly don’t have the grainy feel of paper against your fingers, so I’ll stick with a book.  Summer reading is about kicking off shoes, staying up much too late, reading all day with no one caring that’s what you’re doing.  It’s about rushing through one to get to the next or lingering as long as you want.  It’s about vicarious experiences that let us become a girl in an attic, a boy in the wilderness, a kite runner in a far-away land.  And that type of reading begins with personal choice.


Personal choice, though, doesn’t mean we teachers shouldn’t make suggestions.  For your students who do not see themselves as readers, personal choice could become overwhelming.  How do you make a choice when you don’t know genre, don’t know authors, don’t know how to decide what you want? Students want that independence of making their own choice, but our least skilled readers are also the least skilled at making a choice.  Respecting students’ need for independence while simultaneously helping them make a choice is key.

In August 2013, Dick Allington wrote a smart article that reminds us of the problems with recommended- and required-reading book lists.  I agree with his comments.  But suggestions titled “My Favorite Authors” or “The Books I Think My Fifth-Graders Will Love” or “The Titles Last Year’s Ninth Graders Said They Loved the Most” or “OMGosh I Can’t Wait to Read These Books” are quite different from a list of fifty titles with the directions to “Read 10.”

A final word about lists that help students make a choice:  add a short description of each book.  Don’t put Hatchet by Gary Paulsen on your sixth-grade list without adding,  “This book is about a boy near your age who is lost in the wilderness.  It is exciting and will make you wonder if you, too, could survive a plane crash and being alone with only a hatchet to help you survive.”  Such short descriptions become invaluable when late in July one of your students finds the list in the bottom of his backpack.

 Nudge Students Throughout the Summer

Encouraging students to read over the summer is good, but encouraging them throughout the summer is even better.  You can keep interest going in several ways.

1) Do you have a webpage at your school?  Keep it updated throughout the summer with your “I Just Finished and LOVED!” list and make sure your students know you’ll post updates weekly or every other Tuesday.

2) Do you have a Facebook page set up for communicating with parents/students? Some of you will gasp in horror, while others are nodding, “Yep, I do.”  Update that page often with books you’re reading that your students would enjoy and ask students to respond with what they are reading, too.  That specific tag, “Amanda, I can’t wait to read what you have to say about Wonder!” encourages that two-way conversation.  You’ll be surprised at the number of students who aren’t Amanda but still offer their comments as well.

3) Some teachers mail postcards to their students over the summer telling them about the next YA or children’s book they just read.   Some give stamped and addressed postcards to their students so their students can write back to them with books they’ve read.  If you’re reluctant to give out your home address, use the school address and then just stop by there occasionally to check on mail.

Whether you use Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook, your school webpage, or handwritten postcards you mail to students, these gentle nudges about what you’re reading and thoughts for what they might enjoy next help keep them reading all summer.

 Give Kids Permission to Read Easy

In this time of the Common Core State Standards, with the push for rigor, with new Lexile bands that suggest our students should be reading more and more complex texts, with the rush to make sure kindergarteners are college and career ready, let’s remember that rigor resides in our interaction with a text and not in the text itself.  A student lost in a book, measuring himself against the main character, arguing with a decision made, laughing at antics, and holding his breath in the harrowing escapades of the hero, is reading with far more rigor than the student trudging through a book that makes little sense or the book that is filled with unknown vocabulary and syntax that leaves him convinced he does not like to read.  Summer reading – when the teacher is not around – is not the time to assign the difficult texts you want to help students learn to understand next year.


     Celebrate Reading Series Books

            Nod your head if you like to read.  I suspect all of you did that.  Now think back to your childhood reading and nod your head again if, at some point, you read a series book.  Perhaps you are of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew generation.  Or maybe you’re part of the Babysitter Club decade.  Maybe you grew up with a boy named Harry Potter or you ventured into a land called Narnia.  Whether your series was The Little House on the Prairie, Encyclopedia Brown, Animorphs, Goosebumps, Dear America, Twilight, Hunger Games, Boxcar Children, or The Bobbsey Twins, there is a great chance that if you’re a reader today, then as a child you read a series book.

In fact, the research on this is clear: a critical step in becoming a lifetime reader is, at some point, being a series book reader.  This correlation between series books and lifetime reading was examined as long ago as 1926 in a study of over 36,000 readers.  The conclusion reached, in 1926, when there were few series books, was that these books are an important part of establishing lifetime reading habits.

The benchmark work on this relationship, though, is found in a book titled Voices of Readers: How We Come to Love Books by G. Robert Carlsen and Anne Sherrill.  In their study, Carlsen and Sherrill also found a strong positive correlation between avid reading as an adult and series-book reading as a child or teen. Perhaps it’s the comfort of knowing the characters that makes them so enjoyable.  Perhaps it’s the cliffhangers at the end of each chapter that lure us to read one more page that makes them so enticing.  Perhaps it’s because as we move from one book to the next, we learn more and more about this author’s style and begin to feel as if that next new book is an old friend.  Whatever the reason, we love them.  And because we love them, we get lost in them; we turn page after page; we wonder if Nancy will escape from the hidden attic even though the fact that the next five Nancy Drew books sit beside the bed is a clue she does.  But because we love them, we read page after page after page.  We develop stamina.  We become readers.

And This All Leads to my Hopes for Summer Reading

I hope your students will enjoy summer reading. I hope they will have the experience of losing themselves in a book and at the same time, I hope they will find themselves in a book.  I hope they finish a book they loved with more understanding of themselves, the people around them, and their world.  I hope they discover that in opening up a book, they are opening themselves up to more:  more experiences, more knowledge, more empathy, more what ifs and more could be’s.



What the Research Says about Enjoyment of Reading and Reading Achievement

Kylene in front of class - Version 2

Yesterday I noticed a post from my friend Teri Lesesne on Facebook and so, like I do with any post from Teri, I stopped to see what she was offering. It was a link to a research study.  ”Seriously, Teri,” I thought.  ”Research on a Saturday?” But if Teri thought it was worth sharing, then I figured it was worth reading.  And so I opened the link and began reading.

Wow! What a find. It was a smart study that examined the top performing nations on the reading portion of the PISA–the international achievement test–to discover why they are top performing. Specifically, the researchers looked to see if any particular behaviors or attitudes accounted for high performance.  The “most striking” finding was that across all 13 of the top performing countries, the “best predictor” of reading achievement was 1) enjoyment of reading; and 2) the use of reading strategies to summarize a text.

I was not surprised at that first finding since that just makes sense: If you like to do something, then you’re probably more willing to do it often.  And as you do it often, you get better at it.  My colleague Bob Probst and I have been talking about the bi-directional relationship between will and skill for some time and we’ve never seen a teacher who didn’t automatically nod his or her head in agreement at this.

Skill and Will screen shot







But the push from the CCSS to push kids into more complex texts has meant in many places teachers are feeling the pressure to always focus on a lesson to be learned and to use a book that might be way beyond students’ “wantability” and certainly “readability” level. I’m hoping this research will remind everyone that we can’t build competence without also focusing on confidence and confidence is about enjoyment, about belief that you’re good at something.  It’s hard to care about being good at something you don’t like.  And of course building enjoyment without building the skills to keep getting better doesn’t make sense.  It truly is a bi-directional relationship: improving will builds skill and that improved skill fosters will.

Maybe this is why Penny Kittle‘s newest text Book Love is so important; it’s why Teri Lesesne’s Making the Match, Donalyn Miller‘s Book Whisperer, and Jeff Wilhelm‘s You Gotta Be the Book are all must-reads.  These books help us nurture that will to read.

The focus on summarizing was a bit surprising.  Then I thought about a strategy I love to teach kids: Somebody Wanted But So. This summarizing strategy has always made an immediate difference in students’ understanding of a text. It’s easy to teach and once learned, kids can use it with just about any text.  If you’ve not taught it to kids, I’ve written about it in When Kids Can’t Read.  In brief, students use those four words to help them think through the events in a text.  Here’s an example of one student’s Somebody Wanted But So statement (3rd column) after reading The Gettysburg Address.

850 Gettsburg rereading by student






And here’s a photo that shows a class effort to use SWBS to think about Macbeth.

Photo of SWBS in a classroom







As summer heads this way, what if kids went home with “You’ll LOVE These Books” bookmarks and the knowledge of how to easily summarize what they’re reading?  What if throughout the summer students could turn to their school homepage to post their comments (or videos) about what they’ve been reading and there also find more great book lists that their peers suggest?  What if next year as a nation we talked more about why we love to read and less about Lexiles?  What if becoming a nation of readers was about first becoming a nation that valued a child’s interests over a child’s test scores?

Dear policy maker, are you listening?  Want to improve how students score on a reading test? Well, first make sure they love to read.  The rest will be easier.  Not easy.  But certainly easier.


Reading Nonfiction

My colleague Bob Probst and I have been thinking a lot about nonfiction as we work on our next book which for now is titled Notice and Note for Expository Texts, the companion to our book that focused on literary texts:  Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading.  Part of the research for this new nonfiction book meant each of us ramped up our own volume of nonfiction reading.  As a result, in the past year or so, I’ve learned a great deal about many topics including Sumerians, planets, plagues, early Civil Rights advocates, the dust bowl, volcanoes, the cotton industry, the dung beetle, World War II, photosynthesis, and wine (well, that one was for a different research project…).

For a year, at the end of each week, Bob and I would ask ourselves what we noticed about our reading of nonfiction.  We wanted to focus on what we did while reading nonfiction that we didn’t do while reading fiction.  What struck us both, no matter the topic, was the number of times we said to ourselves, “Really?” or “I didn’t know that.”  For instance, I didn’t know that the Russians landed a probe on Mars years before the USA did.  When I read that, I remember stopping and thinking, “Really?” and then doing more–going to other sites, calling my son and asking if he knew this (“Yes, Mom.  It was the early 70s. Once it landed, though, it didn’t transmit images as they had hoped it would.” I hung up and looked for someone else who, too, was amazed.  Luckily a neighbor’s daughter is only six years old.)

We want students aware of what they are discovering as they read.  We want them to enjoy that feeling of surprise, amazement, and even skepticism.   We want them to say, “Really?”  So, we worked with a group of teachers in Florida and Ohio (thank you Orlando and Akron folks!) and eventually settled on this simple note-taking template that you’ll see below.  You can download this blank template here.

Really template blank jpg from bud







And here’s an example of one completed by an 8th grader:

Really worksheet completed by student


When we talked with this student, she reported, “Sometimes I read and just turn the pages to get finished.  When I used this to keep notes, it was like I was really thinking about how what I was reading was telling me stuff I didn’t know.  I really was like, “Really?” and it helped me keep thinking while I was reading.  Now I find myself doing this even without the worksheet.”



That’s the goal of any good scaffold–to offer support until the support isn’t needed.  If your students have decided that the goal of reading is to finish, then perhaps this  template will help them slow down to focus on what they are learning, on what they’ve discovered that’s new to them.


TestingTalk.Org: An Invitation to Join a National Conversation

It’s that time year of again, that time when instruction in our nation’s schools halts.

DSC_0793It’s the time of year when teachers are told to put down their pencils (holding one might suggest cheating) and monitor their students (but don’t clarify confusion students encounter as that certainly is cheating).  It’s that time when students are told to log on or bubble in.

It’s testing season in the USA.

In many places these tests are new, the result of new standards.  Most teachers will say they had no say in the development of these standards, in the decision for their states or districts to accept them; most parents will say the same.

What teachers and parents can have in a say in, though, is how their students/children responded to these tests.  And so a group of us banded together and created a new website, testingtalk.org, a place where educators and parents can be a part of the national conversation about the tests given in our schools this spring.  We know these new tests will shape the education for a generation of young people.  So we believe collecting thoughtful responses from the people closest to the tests is critical.

How can you help?

1) Community offers strength.  Please help spread the word by sharing the testingtalk.org website with your network of colleagues and friends.  Ask them to share it with their friends.  To have a national response, the nation needs to know.

2) Individuals provide wisdom.  Please add your own voice to the conversation by logging on and posting your comments.  This site is our “neighborhood” so we want it to be a safe place.  If you’re more comfortable posting a comment anonymously, then check that box and your name will not be shared.  Don’t break any copyright laws by revealing specific passages or test items.  At the same time, be as specific as possible.   A comment such as “logging on was hard for 2/3rds of my students” is more helpful than “putting the test on computers was a bad idea.”  Tell about what worked with the test, “Students seemed engaged, excited to respond, and challenged but not defeated” and tell us what didn’t work, “By the second day, students were obviously finishing too quickly, checking boxes just to be done.”  In other words, this isn’t a site only for constructive criticism; it’s also a site for positive feedback.  But mostly, it’s a site for you.

Those of us who created this site did so because we believe any conversation about these high-stakes mandated tests ought to be informed by those of you closest to the test.   We hope you agree.




A Preliminary Report on the Teaching of Chapter Books and Novels, grades 4-8


A Preliminary Report from the July 2013 Survey

What Teachers Tell Us About the Novels/Chapter Books They Teach

By Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst


About a week ago we posted a survey on SurveyMonkey.com asking teachers in grades 4-8 to tell us about their teaching of novels and chapter books.  This survey was a slightly modified version of a survey we had first conducted in 2008.  We hoped that the current survey would tell us something about the novels finding their way into classrooms, about the approaches teachers were taking to the instruction, and about the influence of the Common Core State Standards.  What follows is a first-look at some of the data.

How many books are we teaching?

We received 435 responses, mostly from teachers with 6 to 20 years of experience.  Of those 435 teachers, 426 responded to the question that asked how many novels or chapter books were taught during the school year.  Of that number, about 90% reported that they teach at least one novel a year.  About 20% reported teaching four a year.  We were surprised that 10% — 41 teachers – did not teach any novels or chapter books at all and just as surprised that a little over 10% reported teaching more than seven books in one year.

How many books are taught in 1 year?


Who chooses the books?

Most of the teachers responding choose the books they will teach, with 60% apparently having great autonomy and another 28% required to choose from a list established by the district or at the school level.  Only 2.2% reported that they had no choice whatsoever.

Who chooses the books you teach?


What’s the criteria for choosing books?

We were especially interested in the criteria teachers employed in choosing books for their classes.  To over 50% of respondents, the potential for student enjoyment was the single most important criterion.  Of somewhat lesser significance were the elements or standards the novel would enable them to teach, the literary quality of the books, and the theme.   Only a few—4%—choose a book for the genre it would enable them to study, and only one solitary teacher chooses the novel for author study.

What's the criteria for choosing books?


How are books being taught?

We were also interested in how novels/chapter books were being taught.  We offered respondents a variety of scenarios from which to choose.  We found that about 34% of the respondents said that they introduced the book, gave some structure over how much should be read, and then had large or small group discussions about each section.   We found that the same number responded that they introduced the book and then read the book with the class either through read alouds or listening to portions on tape.

How I teach novels


What books are being taught?

All of the books we inquired about in our 2008 survey are still being taught.  The Giver is still the most commonly taught of all the young adult novels we listed, and none of the other titles had vanished from the list.  Here is that 2008 list as it appears in Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading:


Most Commonly Taught Novels 2008 survey


What new titles have you added?

There were some new titles, however, to add to our 2008 list.  Some are new books teachers reported they are now teaching, and some are books they’d like to teach.  Among the most popular of the new books now being taught are, listed in order of frequency mentioned:


The Hunger Games

The One and Only Ivan

The Lightning Thief

The Westing Game

Wonder, The Hunger Games, and The One and Only Ivan were also the three most commonly mentioned books teacher would like to teach if given the opportunity.

Other titles that appeared in that list with noticeable frequency were:


Out of My Mind

The Book Thief


What do we see when we look at data by grade levels?

When we look at data by grade level, we found that “Potential Enjoyment” continued to be the decisive factor in choosing a book.  While we’re still culling data by grade level, here are some first results:

Most commonly taught books from the list provided

4th Grade:  Because of Winn Dixie

5th Grade: Bud, Not Buddy and Number the Stars

6th Grade: The Giver and The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963

7th Grade: The Giver and The Outsiders

8th Grade: The Diary of Anne Frank, The Giver, and The Outsiders


Mostly commonly taught book that was not on the list provided

4th Grade:  Wonder

5th Grade: Wonder

6th Grade: Wonder

7th Grade: Wonder and Hunger Games

8th Grade: Hunger Games


Most common length of time spent teaching one book

4th Grade:  3 weeks

5th Grade:  3 weeks

6th Grade:  4 weeks

7th Grade:  4 weeks

8th Grade:  4-6 weeks


How has or will the Common Core State Standards affect your teaching of novels/chapter books?

When we looked at information about the effects of the CCSS, as many teachers reported that it would not affect their teaching of novels/chapter books as reported that it would.  Those who reported teaching 1-3 novels a year thought they would continue teaching that number.  Those who taught more, feared that they would be unable to continue teaching as many.  An overwhelming majority of respondents reported that the focus on nonfiction, more than anything else, would change their teaching.


Final comments

While there’s more data to be culled, we wanted to share this preliminary if cursory glance at it, and to thank all who participated.  We’ll use this survey as a pilot, do some refining, and put it in the field again in September and we’ll continue to report findings over the next few weeks.  The comment we enjoyed the most, though, must be shared now:  “I teach novels not because the CCSS says students need to learn to read texts closely or learn to find details or learn something about the author’s craft.  I teach novels because I teach kids and I want kids to love to read.  And if they are going to love to read, they need to read novels.  They need to read some they’ve chosen; some I’ve chosen; some that are hard; some that are easy; some that make them laugh; some that make them cry.  We’ll read some together, and they’ll read some on their own.  We read novels because novels take us places we’ve never been and let us be people we are not.  That’s why I teach novels.”


We agree.




It’s Rigor, Not Rigor Mortis

It’s Rigor, Not Rigor Mortis by Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst

[It seems that the way to solve problems in education, make everyone college and career ready, and probably stop the melting of the polar ice caps is to make sure we have enough rigor in our classrooms. But far too often the synonym for rigor is hard. Below, I share a few thoughts about rigor from our forthcoming book  (co-author Bob Probst), Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading (Heinemann, in press).]

“The essential element in rigor is engagement. The rigor has to be achieved by engaging the readers in a process that is sufficiently interesting or rewarding that they’ll invest energy in the work. If they are to read rigorously, students must to be committed to understanding some intriguing character, to solving some problem, to figuring out what a writer believes or values and how those thoughts compare with their own or to understanding how other readers have made sense of a text.

Granted, students should learn over time to cope with more and more difficult texts. We know of no teachers who do not want students to be able to read increasingly complex texts as the year progresses. But students are more likely to do that if they are invited to read texts with which they can become engaged and are lured into the sort of thinking that might be both challenging and enjoyable.

Rigor, in other words, lies in the transaction between the reader and the text, and then among readers. The essence of rigor is engagement and commitment. A classroom that respects what the students bring to it, what they are capable of and interested in, and that welcomes them into an active intellectual community is more likely to achieve that rigor.”

–From Notice and Note, by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst

Reclaiming “Systematic, Direct, and Explicit”

In November 2009, Congress released to the public the LEARN Act, a comprehensive, K-12 literacy bill.  NCTE worked with five other organizations to help write the bill.

Criticism of NCTE’s participation in this process (read those comments here compelled me to write a response.  In that response, I address many topics, including the part of the bill that defines effective instruction as instruction that is—in addition to other things—“systematic, direct, and explicit.”  Critics of NCTE’s endorsement of LEARN are concerned over this language.  I, too, would be disappointed if I immediately believed that these three words can only suggest a scripted curriculum, one that takes instructional decisions out of the teacher’s hands.  But, I do not believe that.  As I wrote in my response:

We have let these three words become a synonym for scripted instruction when, actually, these words should always describe effective instruction.  Teachers I know who teach in a “workshop” environment will tell you that they are very systematic, direct, and explicit in the mini-lessons they offer students and are quite explicit in the types of questions they offer in reading and writing instruction to facilitate students’ thinking and understanding. First-grade teachers who embrace a constructivist view of education and teach phonics through trade books and student writing do not approach this haphazardly.  No—they plan exhaustively and are quite systematic in their approaches with individual students.

I believe we have an obligation to make it clear that the phrase “systematic, direct, and explicit” has been kidnapped by those who favor scripted teaching even though it is a guiding factor for presumably all effective teachers. The most outspoken critics of this bill have acquiesced to the assumption that this term can only mean scripted instruction.  If that is the assumption, then there is certainly opportunity for disappointment.  But the bill does not call for scripted instruction. It calls for “effective instruction.”  It is up to NCTE to now step forward with clear and compelling evidence and examples of the types of instructional practices that can be “systematic, direct, and explicit” without being scripted.  If NCTE fails to do this, if members fail to offer those examples, if respected educators in student-centered instruction do not offer the evidence needed to convince those who believe that the only way for instruction to be systematic or direct is for it to be scripted, then, then we should be ashamed.

Write your senators and representative and tell them what effective literacy instruction looks like in your classroom.  Don’t be afraid to tell them that your instruction is systematic, is direct, and is explicit even when it is not scripted.  Watch the NCTE website for ways to contribute your examples of effective literacy instruction.  Participate in the NCTE Ningconversations and share examples of effective literacy instruction with other teachers.  Attend your NCTE state affiliate convention and meetings and volunteer to present.  Submit a proposal to present at the NCTE 2010 Convention.  In other words, take the powerful work you do in your classroom and make sure that it is known.

An Ah-Ha Moment

I recently posted a note on my Facebook page regarding a conversation Bob Probst (author of Response and Analysis: Teaching Literature in the Secondary School) and I had in September with teachers, grades 4-12, in a school district close to Detroit.  As a back story, it was that posting on Facebook and the many resulting comments that led me to ask Karl Fisch how I might share such an important conversation with others.  He said, “It’s time you start to blog” and before I could list all the reasons I could not do this, he had enlisted Bud Hunt and the two of them were promising they would help me into this world of blogging.  They have, and I so appreciate their mentoring.

Back to the posting on Facebook.   It was obvious that the conversation I shared struck a chord—harmonious for some, dissonant for others.  I continue to receive emails about the conversation and that is what compels me to share this story a second time, though this time, with more space, I’ve added thoughts.

Bob and I began the day by asking the teachers to work in small groups to define comprehension. Once groups began to share, we didn’t hear the same definition from each group, but we certainly heard a shared theme. These teachers defined comprehension as …

  • evaluating a text (oral or print) to determine its accuracy and truth;
  • figuring out what your own biases are as you respond to the text;
  • recognizing the universal truths in the text;
  • collaborating with the text and with others to defend or deny its accusations;
  • knowing when you stand alongside or in opposition to the ideas in the text;
  • questioning the text and the text’s motives
  • making connections between the text and your own life
  • knowing how to find information in the text to support inferences you make from it.

Next, we asked them to discuss how their students would define comprehension. The answers came quickly: being able to answer the questions at the end of the chapter; knowing the right answer; finishing the homework; knowing what the teacher wants for an answer; finishing a worksheet; getting a good grade on a test.

Quietly the teachers considered the two sets of definitions. Then, I asked them what it was that was happening in classrooms that led students toward those definitions and away from what teachers understood comprehension to be. One teacher spoke up: “It’s what I ask them to do. Answer questions at the end of the chapter; take multiple choice tests; maybe have a discussion, but the discussion is to get to the answer I want from them; maybe write a paragraph about what they think something meant, but too many times I’ve already shared with them what the theme is I think they should know. I want them to get good grades, so I’ve taught them, in some way, that comprehending is about just getting a good grade. They think that’s what comprehension is because in my class that’s what I let it be.”

And there it was, the ah-ha moment. If our actions, the things we ask students to do, are about completing worksheets, teaching students to turn to the end of the chapter first so they will know the questions before they begin to read instead of reading to formulate their own questions, if we give fill-in-the-blank worksheets to accompany great works of literature and think we should reduce discussion of theme to a multiple choice question, then why would we be surprised when students develop a diminished understanding of comprehension?   As another teacher said, “If we build it, they will come.  And what I have built in my classroom is a definition of comprehension I don’t really believe and sure enough, my students have come to that definition.”  Most in the room nodded their heads.

We talked at length about this practice of having students look at the questions at the end of a chapter before reading so that they would have the “right” questions in mind as they read.  Almost all teachers said this was a strategy they taught students.   I would suggest that while this might be an important test-taking strategy, one about using time efficiently, it might not be a powerful reading strategy.  Independent readers are those readers who, along with other things, can formulate their own questions as they read a text.  As Bob points out, articles in USA Today or Atlantic Monthly or for that matter People magazine don’t come with questions at the end of the articles.  As independent readers, we are expected to formulate our own questions as we read.  A steady diet of reminding students to see what someone else has decided is the important question about a text before reading can eventually say to students that those questions—the ones from someone else—are the ones that matter.  I saw that first hand when working with a ninth grader not too long ago.  When I asked him what his questions were after reading the first few chapters of a Chris Crutcher book, he said, “About what?”  I told him I was wondering what questions he might have formulated at this point about the characters or the plot or perhaps even about what the author might be trying to say about people and our relationships with one another.  He was quiet for a moment and finally said, not too kindly, “You didn’t show me any questions before we got started.  What questions?”

I wish I had asked that student to define comprehension.  I fear I already know his answer.