The Magic

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Do you ever get discouraged about reaching all your kids in the time you have allotted?  I sure do.  I have kids I worried about from Day One and kids I didn’t even know I needed to be worried about until day before yesterday.  Then there is the lovely habit my kids of making me believe they have ‘it’ when in fact, they do not.  They’re knee deep into an ‘awesome’ book one day and the next they tell me, ‘Oh, I abandoned that one, it was boring.’  Or they write me a gorgeous lyrical reading response letter one week and the next week they don’t bother to turn one in at all.  What gives, people?  Can’t I help you turn into a reader and writer and then just let you fly off to books and stories on your own?  …Not so much.

The good news is that discouraging days are often divinely followed by wondrous, magical moments. Moments that give me my footing back and help me believe that the path I so carefully stake out for our students is the one they need to be on.  I posted earlier about the ‘awesome’ book Reading in the Wild by Donalyn Miller.  I’ve slowly been rolling out some of the ideas from the book (from my 2 pages of legal pad notes – single spaced) with the kids, not wanting to overwhelm them with my enthusiasm.

One of her ideas is to have the kids do small, informal, book commercials.  Now I’ve been doing book commercials for a couple of years, but always by me, not the kids.  Hearing a 7th grade boy talk to other 7th graders about the excitement of The 11th Plague is WAY better than Mrs. McG. talking about it – DUH! So, trying to appear subtle, I threw a sign up sheet on the board and said if anyone wanted to recommend a book to the class they should add their name.  I watched during silent reading.  No one signed up.  The timer ticked down to 1 minute – still no volunteers. ‘Well, that was a great idea that didn’t work, I thought to myself.’

The timer went off and suddenly, Huntley yelled out, “WAIT! I wanted to sign up to give a commercial!” I hope my jaw didn’t drop.  In my head it certainly did.  This was Huntley, our dear boy who is frequently absent and hates to read.  He is on book 4 for the year and all of those 4 have been a struggle.  Look up reluctant reader in the dictionary, and there is his cherubic face.  But, here he was, strutting to the front of the class (the FRONT OF THE CLASS!) to talk about The Darkest Path by Jeff Hirsch.  He said it was, ‘adventurous and exciting’ and  he ‘couldn’t stop reading it’. He went on to say that ‘Jax might like it, he likes the same kinds of books as me.’  All this time, I thought he wasn’t really listening.  Turns out…he was!

At writing time, I told the kids the story of how our cats, Ron and Harry (yes, THAT Ron and Harry) came to live at our house.  I showed them a picture of the cute little kittens who arrived together in a little tiny crate to meet our very large black labs; Paddy and Molly.  Paddy ignored them completely (I’m still not convinced he actually knew they were living here) and Molly has made it her life’s work to turn them into dogs so she can play with them.  So far, it’s not working but she hasn’t given up yet.

the new boys in town


The kids were to write for 5 minutes about what happened next, after Ron and Harry left that crate.  It could be realistic, fantasy, or a combination.  The only rule was keep writing and see where it leads.  At the end of the 5 minutes, Huntley wanted to share his writing (has not shared ANY writing since the first day of school). He got a round of applause for his adventure story.  Jason also shared, the same Jason who has mostly done comic strips stories since school started.  He also got an enthusiastic response from students and teacher alike.

Since both of  these responses could not have been more uncharacteristic Teresa, my co-teacher, and I were astounded.  Why this day?  What clicked that hasn’t clicked before?  What is it so we can do it again???

I think there are two possible answers.  One is that we teach what we value.  For Teresa and I, the relationships are the most important thing. We want them to feel cared for and nurtured in a deep and abiding way.  We appreciate kindness and thus, the kids are extremely thoughtful.  We value reflective reading so the kids strive to notice the words on the page and the effect those words have on them.  We encourage writers so the students take every opportunity to find the golden lines in a piece shared, or insist that the writer continue writing so they can see what happens next.  What we emphasize is what they notice. That’s step one.

The second part has everything to do with them and very little to do with us as teachers.  After all, our students could notice what we wanted but still reject those ideas.  I have students in every class that are not buying what I’m selling.  This group does, though, in part, because of the level of trust they have created with one another.  They feel safe. They critique without being mean. They encourage with conviction.  They have each other’s backs and they all know it.  Because of that, they can relax and be who they really are, write what they feel, read what they want, and, in the process, lift each other and themselves up.

A group this caring? They can move mountains.  They can create beautiful art.  They can even  pass tests.  And they can give their teachers a little magic to make it to another day.

Why I Heart Donalyn Miller

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Over winter break, I read Donalyn Miller’s second book Reading in the Wild and I was struck again by how she articulates what I and many of my fellow teachers feel but have never said.  Those thoughts at the edge of your brain that you just can’t quite grasp?  She not only grasps them, she figures out how to do them with real kids and then she writes books that tell you how to do them with your real kids, too.  How cool is that?

The Book Whisperer changed my teaching life, as it has millions of other teachers as well.  Suddenly, what we had always thought might work, that kids should be able to pick their own books, like real readers do, was in a BOOK!  Not only that but people, important decision making people were taking notice. Now, we hear self selected books and say, ‘Of course – duh!’ but when the book first came out self-selected reading was NOT what was happening at any school I taught nor in any of the schools my own children attended.

I read The Book Whisperer  over the summer in 2009 while helping with the National Writing Project Summer Institute.  It went through that group of teachers like a whirlwind. Each day we’d come in saying, “Did you read about the____?” and “I LOVED when she said _____________”. That summer resounded with ‘Amen, Sister!’ directed at Donalyn Miller, this wonderful teacher and author who was giving us permission to do what we really wanted – fill our students with the joy and magic of reading.  We were all inspired to head back to our classrooms in the fall, ready to rock the literacy world. We could not wait for school to start!

In the years since, my respect for Donalyn (I can call her that because I introduced her at a conference and she told me I could.:) has grown in direct proportion to the results I have seen with my students.   She gave me permission to do what I knew was the right thing for kids.  If someone questioned me, I could point to her book on my shelf and say, ‘Read that and you will understand that this is the way we should have been teaching reading all along.’ Many of my administrators did read it and became champions of it, too.

Through the years, most of my kids became real readers because of what I learned from her book.  My kids knew what it meant to be in the ‘Zone” (lost in a book and the world falls away).  They rejoiced at the end of every quarter when we had days where we celebrated by reading – only reading – for the language arts block.  Their totals for books read climbed ever higher, far surpassing any totals PBW (pre Book Whisperer). They knew how to intelligently discuss their favorite books as well as why they liked them. They became experts at recommending books to each other and even started a ‘Leave a book, take a book’ swap in our classroom to increase circulation.

Now comes Reading in the Wild, just when I needed it.  This nagging thought had occurred to me sporadically over the years when I’d see my former students in the hallway.

 “What are you reading?” (to the student who read 84 books the previous year)

“Oh, nothing really, not for fun, we have Literature Circles and we get assigned our books.”

 “Well what about outside of school? What are you reading at home?”

“I don’t really read at home that much.”  

My heart sinking, I would wonder what happened – how could you be a real reader one year and let that passion go?  It didn’t make sense to me but I told myself that I couldn’t control what happened after my kids moved on.  I could only do what I could do…yadda, yadda, yadda.

Guess who already thought about this problem?  Guess who wrestled and studied and worked to find an answer?  Guess who wrote a book (with contributor Susan Kelley) to help all of us?  That’s right – our very own Donalyn Miller.  She tried to codify what it means to be a real lifetime reader.  How do they act?  What do they do?  What are their habits?  And most importantly, what can we, as their teachers, do to instill these habits for a lifetime, not just a school year?

Here are three of my favorites:

1. If you suspect one of your students is ‘fake reading’ (and come one, we all have at least one of those in every class) there is a form in Reading in the Wild that you can use to observe said student for 10 minutes.  When all the boxes show ‘staring off into space’ instead of ‘in the zone’ you have real data to use when conferring. ( The first step to recovery is admitting there is a problem…) My co-teacher and I have these forms copied and ready for Block 5 tomorrow. 🙂

2.  Like most teachers, I teach a mix of Honors, Academic, and Team Taught classes.  Most of my true Honors kids would read even if I told them not to.  They are already addicted.  Many of them are perfectionists, however. (It takes one to know one, I know…) When I assign reading 30 minutes for homework, they find half an hour (or more) of time, sit down, and read.  Donalyn tells them (and me) that ,’Hey – we lead busy lives – it doesn’t have to be 30 minutes all at once!  If you always have a book with you, you can read while waiting for your little brother to get done with soccer practice, or while your Dad runs into the drugstore, or your bus is stopped in traffic’.  She created a nifty little form, The Reading Itinerary, where the kids track, for a week, where and how long they read.  This seems to me to have double benefits – my Honors perfectionists can relax a little and give themselves permission to read in smaller increments and my reluctant readers can have a multitude of places where reading can actually take place.  My B Day kids get theirs tomorrow.  They will keep track for a week and we’ll regroup.  I fully expect some revelations when we do.

3. I struggle with meeting with all of my kids during reading time.  I try, I really do.  I make charts and create new conferring sheets, and schedule it out so I get to talk to everyone in two weeks.  It never, ever, ever, works.  Most of it is my fault because they’ll tell me something interesting about their book and then I think of a book it reminds me of and then we’re off and chatting away like I only have one kiddo to talk to…but I don’t.  Well, Donalyn does table conferences.  She sits down with a team of kids and talks to all of them at once.  (Yes, she has a nifty form for this, too.)They get to hear each other (you know they listen in to the one on one conferences anyway) and make recommendations, and discuss genres, and write books on their ‘Someday’ lists and you can do 4 people at once! I’m telling you, this woman is a genius.

Well, I could go on and on about why I heart Donalyn Miller.  I just hope she knows how much she has meant to the teaching profession.  I hope she knows that she has really made a difference in the lives of children.  I hope she knows I am a better teacher for having read and embraced her books and that I am not alone.

I hope she sells billions and billions of books: