Quote: ‘Kids teach you everything you need to know’

Today is Maria P. Walther's first day of school. Well, her first day of a new school year. This will actually be her 28th year teaching first grade ("in human years").

"In teacher years," she says, the number is much higher.

Why would someone who has earned a doctorate, was named the Illinois Reading Educator of the Year, and is in demand around the country as a motivational speaker, still mark her days in a first grade classroom—in a public school outside Chicago in a town you've never heard of?

"Kids teach you everything you need to know," she says.

She is staying put. Who can blame her? One student called her "a booty queen."

I can imagine local parents' joy upon learning that their child has drawn the Dr. Walther straw of life. High fives. "Yessss!"

When Dr. Walther does venture out on the road, she leaves her class in good hands. Here's what one student wrote about a substitute: "Mr. C. is here because Dr. W. is not here. I like Mr. C. He has white hair, and he doesn't know our names."

A lot of learning goes on in Dr. Walther's classroom, not just through the rich world of picture books.

"We have learned about seven planets, only two more and then we are done," a student named Stephen wrote. "And then something new comes up, like Dr. King or books or food or words. We are always studying something new. It is fine."

It is fine indeed. When I was in first grade, I hated school. Each morning I'd manufacture a stomachache while my two older siblings went off in the neighborhood carpool. Eventually, my mother would drive the few miles with me in the front seat, a frown on her face, a toddler and a baby bundled up in back.

A patient and kind Sister Martina would walk outside to the parking lot, coaxing me in with news that I had outscored the other kids on some test or other that required little to no expertise. By the time I got settled, we'd read about a boy named Jack and his dog.

Afternoons, we sharpened pencils and did addition problems that involved carrying numbers, or "regrouping." Since I often finished first, I'd be given a box of letters to play with and, as a reward, a pale-blue plaque of the Blessed Mother or a miniature statue of St. Joseph, prizes left over from the pagan baby fund drive.

Besides "pagan baby," the most intriguing term I learned in first grade was "mitre box," which was where we put the quarters and dimes we collected. Five dollars was enough to buy a pagan baby, or get it baptized. Buying a baby for five dollars was one thing I couldn't wrap my head around.

Still, I made it through. Good thing, because I can't go back to first grade, nor would I want to. But if I did, I'd surely love to meet Dr. Walther at the door.

To every teacher out there, despite all of the pressures on you, take a page out of Dr. Walther's book: "Slow down. Give children time to ask questions, to wonder, to investigate."

If you trust yourself to do this, I think Stephen would agree that you'll have a "fine" year.



David and Meredith Liben on addressing the shifts of the Common Core

As part of our Teacher Appreciation Week programming here at Scholastic, David and Meredith Liben from Student Achievement Partners presented to an auditorium full of educators on “Putting the Pieces of the CCSS Together.” Here are some of my take-aways from their informative workshop. 

The Common Core State Standards bring three instructional shifts in ELA/Literacy:

  1. Building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction.
  2. Reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from text, both literary and informational.
  3. Regular practice with complex text and its academic language.

How do educators address these shifts? Through:

  1. Close Reading. Support students in understanding complex text, which will build habit of mind. Focus on the close reading using text-dependent questions, breaking down complex sentences and syntax.
  2. Volume of Reading. After experiencing success through close reading, students are more willing to read independently. Through reading, students develop vocabulary and learn about the world.

The ability to read complex text independently and proficiently is the greatest predictor of college success. Thanks to the Libens for inspiring us to support students and teachers in this endeavor!

UPDATE: Meredith and David Liben's presentation deck has been posted to Scholastic's Common Core website, if you're interested in taking a look.

Overcoming the ‘Matthew effect’ in reading

To me, one of the most interesting (and also maddening) things about the way humans learn to read is how, for learners, reading is both the goal AND the process.

To read well, you need a strong vocabulary, background knowledge on a diversity of topics, and fluency to free up brain power so you can think about what you’re reading. By and large, how do you build vocabulary, knowledge and fluency? By reading.

For students who are succeeding, reading prowess grows exponentially. Reading begets reading. The more you read, the better you get at it.

But what happens if you can’t read – if you’re in, say, 9th grade and you only read on a fifth grade level?

With reading, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This is what researchers term the “Matthew effect,” named after a Bible verse that reads: “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.”

Without the right help and intervention, children who struggle with reading continue to fall farther and farther behind, because, while their on-grade-level peers are unlocking new knowledge and understanding through text, struggling readers can’t access that knowledge. It’s not just that they’re behind; they’re stuck.

Science and research have shown that there’s a lot we can do to help kids get un-stuck, and break the poor-get-poorer cycle. That’s an important topic for future blog posts, but we do know that technology can be a big help, that often a child’s fixed mindset can get in the way, and that close readings of complex texts with great teachers can move kids forward.

And it shows how important it is to close the gap before it begins.

What are your strategies for helping struggling students get un-stuck?

10 things worth doing in your classroom

David Coleman, the architect of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts, spoke to a group of New York City teachers this week about how to enrich their classroom instruction. Here are 10 takeaways:

1. Cultivate wonder. The heart of the Common Core is giving students books worth reading and asking them questions worth answering.

2. Spend more time and have more fun crafting questions. Use your power as a teacher to be an effective guide. Avoid perfunctory questions like: What is the main idea? Can you cite three examples? Above all, avoid questions that have a set of answers students can deploy for any occasion: love, death, and what happened to me yesterday. Shakespeare didn't write Romeo and Juliet about teenage love. If that's all you find in it, skip the play and watch a TV sitcom.

3. Slow down. Read a text that's worth reading with your students and enjoy it. Look at it carefully, step by step, to see how it unfolds. Live within it. In a well-wrought work, each word is worth pondering.

4. Only draw conclusions that can be substantiated by the words on the page. Scrape away terms like "metaphorical," and talk as simply as possible. Once you bring up metaphor and meaning, kids are out of the game.  

5. Collaborate with your students. When you pose a question about a text you love, you may not know the answer. Nurture curiosity in your classroom. Part of the joy will be coming away with a little more knowledge yourself.

6. After living within a text, go outside of it and make connections. How did the writer's background influence his or her subject matter? What other poems might be similar, or very different?

7. Build a firm foundation in phonics and grammar. Kids need to be able to read fluently and with accuracy. Their reading will improve when they can distinguish between a noun, a verb, and an adverb.

8. Help students develop knowledge, not just literacy. Teach kids about science, social studies, and the arts. The general knowledge they gain will enrich their vocabulary.

9. Read aloud. Repeatedly. Reading aloud is one of the most effective ways to help young readers, especially struggling ones, become more fluent and confident. Reading aloud also helps kids acquire information and develop empathy.

10. Make your classroom a place of inquiry. People often say that the classroom is a broken, Industrial Age remnant. Who would have dreamed of a world where you want 20 or 30 people sitting in a room doing something? Yet reading a text together is one of the most wonderful things you can do. The questions you ask will dictate how actively kids respond.

Henry James said: "Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost." For most of us, that is hard. Working together, we observe much more.

The Power of Three: Prior knowledge, reading purposes, and rereading

It’s no mystery. The more a reader knows about a topic, the better his or her comprehension and recall of a complex text will be.

You can teach your students to build their own prior knowledge of short texts by showing them how to preview. Start by thinking aloud. Read the title and ask: What do I know about this topic? If the answer is little to nothing, slow that reading down. Now read the first and last paragraph of informational text and only the first paragraph of a narrative. Model in a think-aloud how you have an in-the-head conversation about the details you recall. Write these details on the chalkboard and explain that writing is a topnotch way to assess recall and understanding.

Next, show students how to set a purpose before they read. Having a purpose provides students with a strong reason to read deeply and carefully, and a benefit is they’ll remember more details. Model two ways for students to set their own purpose for reading: (1) turn the title of the selection into a query or (2) reread the prior knowledge notes to develop a purpose for reading.

When turning the process over to students, use a gradual release model. Pair-up students and have them preview, discuss the preview, write prior knowledge notes in their notebooks, and set a reading purpose.  Continue partner practice until students can work independently.

Armed with prior knowledge and a reading purpose, have students read for the gist, a main point, keeping their reading purpose in mind. Once groups have discussed the gist and their reading purposes, ask them to reread and move deeper into the content and themes. Here’s where you’re likely to meet resistance. It’s time to launch a discussion on why students watch movies and videos multiple times. “I see more. I hear talk I didn’t get the first time. I remember more.”

“Great reasons,” I tell students, “and all apply to rereading.” I like to have students return to a text several times after the second reading. Do this by offering authentic reasons for skimming and rereading sections such as: discussing text dependent questions; making logical inferences; explaining why a character or person changes; pinpointing the central idea(s); and understanding how text structure improved their comprehension. 

Three is a magic number. These three strategies move beyond magic to research that clearly illustrates the power of prior knowledge, reading purposes, and rereading to improve students’ comprehension of complex texts.

Visualizing the jobs of tomorrow for today's students

We must educate today's students for the jobs of tomorrow - jobs we can't even envision yet.  Teachers, I think you've heard this a time or two, right?  It is a resounding and very real chorus.  If we have learned anything from the past, it is that the world is changing very quickly.

If you look at the industrial period, the precursor to the boom of national pride and the American middle class, manufacturing was king.  Made in the U.S.A. was everywhere.  In today's world, manufacturing is now pictured along side struggling towns and out-of-work factory workers.  But, I just read a fascinating article about how that is changing and for the first time in quite awhile, manufacturing jobs and factories are on the rise-they just don't look the same.

I've had the pleasure of going to the Ford Motor Co. F-150 plant to see the truck assembled and it is so cool.  It is conflicting with the traditional imagery of factories that we grew up with from our history books though - no dust or oil, no scary machines but rather clean, safe and sophisticated. TIME took a look at manufactoring companies in the U.S. and they are thriving in many cases, adding space and jobs. GE's battery business is a prime example of products coming out of NY state and ideal to explain even one step further what is so different in today's manufactoring world. 

While the "factory worker" may still be scarce in comparison to the old days, the exchange is on research and development jobs.  And within the factory, parts are literally speaking to each other and the manager via the Internet and censors.  And the creation of parts companies have formally been forced to go oversees is increasing due to the visionaries behind 3-D printing. 

What I loved about this article - and it is an in-depth article - is you can start seeing the future that today's children will enter.  And it is an educated future!


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