The Reader as Narcissus

In college, I studied Shakespeare with a brilliant scholar named Edward Tayler. One of his most repeated phrases—"the Reader as Narcissus"—still echoes in my mind.

As another former student of Tayler's describes it: "There are two types of readers in the world: the Reader as Narcissus, who goes to the page looking for his own reflection, and the Reader as Understander, who goes to see what the writer is up to, what the words themselves are doing."

David Coleman, the architect of the Common Core's ELA Standards, is plainly in "the Reader as Understander" camp. But my experiences at the annual NCTE convention last month underscored that readers intoxicated by language are both.

We may go to a text to understand a subject better, or we may seek to understand why we feel, somehow, different than everyone around us, while managing to see ourselves in a made-up protagonist. Often our quests for knowledge of the world and ourselves are intertwined.

This was illustrated in a New York Times article about President Obama's recent purchases at a Washington, D.C., bookstore. To be clear: Of the 21 books that Obama bought while shopping with his daughters, we don't know which ones he actually plans to read.

Still, Peter Baker, a Times reporter, muses about the president's selections, which include Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, a novel about ethnic violence in Chechnya. Did Obama choose the book because of the background of the Boston Marathon bombers? Or does he want to delve deeper into America's fraught relationship with Russia?

Baker asked Marra why the president might look to fiction to gain insights into a conflict that is all too real.

"I imagine someone in his position gets a lot of facts and figures," Marra said. "But the novel is really about the experience, about the psyche and the soul."

Whatever the case, Baker concludes that a work of fiction "would give the president a more visceral feel for one of the world's most brutal conflicts than the graphic intelligence papers that cross his desk."

Obama also chose books "about identity and reinvention, about what it means to be American." His desire to make sense of his singular journey reminded me of YA author Jacqueline Woodson's words at NCTE, that a student needs to see him or herself reflected on the page.

No one I met at the conference was prepared to cede the primacy of fiction. But I'm guessing that no one wants Obama to stop reading his daily intelligence briefs either.

Why kids need to read what they want

A new book by Jeffrey Wilhelm and Michael Smith (available for purchase now via download, and in print in January) makes a powerful case for the importance of letting kids read what they want.

The culmination of five years of research into the nature and variety of pleasure reading, Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want - and Why We Should Let Them demonstrates the complex and rigorous intellectual work children do when they read genres like vampire books, horror, fantasy and Harry Potter novels.

We'll be sharing more from Jeff and Michael and from their new book in the coming months, but here's a wonderful quotation from the must-read article they recently contributed to The Atlantic:

We want to help our students fall in love with books in ways that foster a life-long devotion to reading. So what should schools do? We think the implications of our research are manifold, but two seem especially compelling.  First, our data make clear that educators should consider interpretive complexity in concert with textual complexity, a centerpiece of the Common Core State Standards.  Every text our participants read—from graphic novels to dark fiction to Harry Potter—required sophisticated strategies for entering a story world and absorbing the twists and turns of the plot line and character relationships.  All fostered deep intellectual engagement.

Our data also convinced us of the importance of choice. Students should have regular opportunities to behave the way adult readers do and choose their own reading.   They know the kinds of texts from which they will take pleasure. At the same time, teachers should expand the possibility of pleasure by introducing students to new books they might not select on their own."

What is close reading and how do I teach it?

In an article from Reading Today (full article available for members), San Diego State University professors Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey define close reading as “a form of guided instruction in which the teacher questions, prompts, and cues the learner. It’s part of the gradual release of responsibility, not a comprehensive instructional effort.” Fisher and Frey suggest how to strategically prepare and follow up to support successful close reading:

Select an appropriate text

Choose a complex, challenging text that lends itself to “grappling.” Multiple readings and deep discussion should be necessary to ensure understanding.

Develop student habits

Discuss the purpose of multiple readings, explaining that repeated readings allow students to dig deeper into the meaning. Teach students to annotate the text by writing questions and reactions in the margin, underlining key ideas, and circling confusing words or phrases. As students mark up the text, they can note evidence to cite in discussion and writing tasks. 

Engage students with text-dependent tasks

Provide opportunities for close reading activities:

1. Text-dependent questions

Questions should lead students back to the text to examine key details, vocabulary, text structure, and author’s purpose.

2. Peer discussion

Students should engage in collaborative conversations with classmates as they read and reread text. Provide support such as sentence starters to help students express their ideas, back up claims, and build on the discussion.

3. Post-reading tasks

Writing prompts and Socratic seminars should tie back to the text, as opposed to personal experience.

If you have other advice to share with colleagues, we'd love to hear it in the comments!

Family Involvement Week: Highlight on Gainesville, GA

In celebration of national Family Involvement Week and as part of Scholastic’s ongoing commitment to comprehensive and effective family engagement, we’ll be highlighting a series of best practice implementation.  For National Attendance Month, I wrote a post about Gainesville City Schools' comprehensive approach related to attendance and truancy. This week, I’m happy to share the district’s successes around family and community engagement

As explained in this year’s Education Development Center study on the district’s approach to all learning supports…

“Gainesville has been particularly challenged with meeting the needs of its growing Hispanic population. This community has grown quickly in recent years and is now quite large, and the schools have had little experience bridging the cultural and language divides. One Board Member commented that Hispanic parents do not always know how the schools work, nor do they trust the schools to welcome them. In order to bridge this divide, each school now has a bilingual (Spanish/English) Parent Involvement coordinator. Most of the parent coordinators are from the Hispanic community and they have been very successful at reaching out and building trust with the Hispanic community. The Board of Education member interviewed was very excited by the fact that the schools are now able to directly engage Hispanic parents in supporting their children’s education. In the past, the schools’ involvement had been limited to the families of students in crisis, or had been mediated through Hispanic churches.

Now, the use of Scholastic’s Read and Rise strengthens and leverages efforts by all parties. Read and Rise is a family and community engagement initiative designed to empower families to help their children’s literacy development. The program’s adaptability and strength-based approach was a natural fit for the district. Read and Rise serves as an anchor to help further connect and strengthen home, school, and community collaboration.”

I recently spoke with Gainesville’s Superintendent Dr. Merrianne Dyer and she shared some additional insight regarding their improved strategies and results.

Q. Can you provide a snapshot “before and now” of the district’s approach to working with community partners to further reach and engage families?

A. Previously, we had good relationships with community partners but our collective meetings were mostly focused on providing updates of individual work, rather than identifying overarching issues/barriers and finding strategies to best leverage resources and areas of expertise. Read and Rise has provided a platform for more effective cross-sector collaboration. For example, we now offer the program’s workshops, called “Family Conversations", in partnership with our elementary schools as well as community partners such as the Gainesville Housing Authority, Boys/Girls Club, Head Start, Adult-Literacy Programs, United Way as well as local companies.

Q. What have been the most important and effective strategies to increase family engagement?

A. We’ve been able to embed the program’s strength-based and literacy focused methodology into all of our outreach. We consistently provide a relaxed and relational atmosphere where families are validated for what they are already doing for their children while also learning about new ideas and resources from the district and each other. We are also very intentional about finding ways to empower families. For example, the whole community is invited to be part of our Family Nights and we’ve moved toward families identifying the event “themes” based on the topics they want to learn more about. Another example which I believe is both a strategy and outcome, is how we’ve followed up with family members who have finished the Read and Rise program and volunteered to “co-lead” the workshops in community settings such as the Housing Authority.  This has helped the program and all outreach to expand in an intentional but organic and family-led way.

Q. What are some of the outcomes related to family engagement that you are most proud of?

A. We’ve seen outcomes related to both our “process for collaboration and engagement” as well as shifts in family attitude, knowledge, behavior and skill.  We have increased family confidence and strengthened the relationship between the district and families. I also believe we’ve helped create a strong network and community among family members.  For example, parents who have participated in Read and Rise are now gathering together on their own and being proactive about engaging with respective schools. Teachers have an entirely different kind of relationship with our families now and this felt and seen each and every day.  I’m also proud of some of our recent data related to family engagement including overall parental satisfaction increased from 78 percent to 93 percent and in pre and post Read and Rise surveys, more than 92 percent of participants reported an increase in supporting their child’s literacy development within the home. And most recently, our Title 1 schools, where we’ve had increased family engagement, were ranked as ‘High-Progress Reward Schools’ which means they are among the top ten percent of Title I schools in the state that are making the most progress in improving the performance of  “all students.” This as an example of how we believe our family engagement is having a direct effect on school and student achievement outcomes.

Congratulations to Dr. Dyer and the entire Gainesville community for the extraordinary difference you are making. You can read more about Gainesville’s implementation of Read and Rise in this recent article

This week and always, we look forward to hearing your stories and ideas about how we can continue to ensure literacy and learning rich environments in all of the places where children live, learn and grow.



Helping kids get financially literate

Many states across the country have integrated financial literacy into school curriculum. This article describes some of the programs equipping Cincinnati teachers with information and classroom materials. Sparked by a 2010 state bill mandating the integration of economics and financial literacy into 9th grade curriculum, schools and banks have been working together to educate students of all ages. Local banks and teachers agree that teaching students to be savvy savers and spenders lays the foundation for personal financial success.

Programs currently in place include Teach Children to Save day, an annual event that brings bank volunteers into K-12 classrooms to teach lessons on the importance of saving. "For me, for you, for later" is an early childhood initiative that’s the result of a partnership between PNC and Sesame Street Workshop.

Does your community have a framework for teaching financial literacy? How do you help instill good saving and spending habits?


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