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    Pay It Back

    By Pamela J. Farris
     | Jun 18, 2019
    LT366_reflections_ldReading and writing are critical, and making opportunities for children to read and write has been a calling throughout my life. I came from an impoverished community. Through reading and writing, I was able to gain scholarships and loans to attend college. Since then, I’ve always made it a point to pay it back. From donating to the Little Free Library at Lot 12 of a trailer park in rural Illinois to working with inner-city students on writing skills, I’ve seen the advances children make once provided opportunities to engage in literacy. Along the way, I’ve seen various methods of making literacy happen for students.

    “Pay it forward” is a popular slogan. I believe providing opportunities for our future leaders is also critical. After retiring from Northern Illinois University as a distinguished teaching professor of literacy education, a fund was set up in my honor that provides $500 scholarships to student teachers to purchase children’s literature to build a teaching library for instructional purposes.

    “Pay it back so kids can move forward” is my personal motto. Each year, I donate a $500 Pamela J. Farris Rural Classroom Library to a teacher who is a member of the Illinois Reading Council and who teaches in a community of 8,000 or fewer. Some years, I’ve donated five such libraries as the need is great. Often there are no public libraries in the community. Funding for rural schools is minimal as there is little or no industry and often high levels of poverty.

    This summer, my husband, Richard Fluck, a retired school superintendent, and I decided it was time to take it further. We donated $15,000 worth of new books, featuring noted authors and illustrators across a variety of genres, to Central and Fillmore elementary schools in Indiana, which is where I began my teaching career. The books are in bins that move each quarter from classroom to classroom to enhance each teacher’s personal library. Research demonstrates that students read more when they have ready access to books

    The kids and their teachers were excited when, on a hot August day, I drove up in a pickup truck filled with new children’s and young adult books. The students beamed as they carried books into their school. They chattered about the authors they already knew and titles they selected to read. That made it all worthwhile.

    These are difficult times for schools. I believe we have an obligation as teachers to “pay it back so kids can move forward.” Whether it is sponsoring a child to get a new book each month, donating for preservice education scholarships, helping the schools we’ve taught in develop classroom libraries, volunteering in a school library that just lost its librarian because of budget cuts, or helping with other literacy projects, our donations make an important difference in the lives of teachers and students.

    Pamela J. Farris, an ILA member since 1975, is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus with the Department of Literacy and Elementary Education at Northern Illinois University. She is a former team leader for the ILA Teachers’ Choices and Children’s Choices reading list projects.

    This article originally appeared in the May/June issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.
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    A Fresh Take on Book Clubs Promotes Early Literacy Development

    By Maria Dismondy
     | Jun 13, 2019

    fresh-take-book-clubsDid you know when parents and caregivers are involved in their children’s reading habits, the children are more likely to be frequent readers later in life? When I found this out, a light bulb went off and the Family Book Study was born. I like to think of it as a movement that bridges literacy and family togetherness. Thinking back to my own childhood, I remember reading picture books with my grandma and chapter books with my sister. Through these experiences, I saw firsthand how books can enhance family time.

    To get this educational family reading event off the ground, I first reached out to my daughter’s school and got the staff on board. It took shape as an evening of togetherness that meets twice a year at the school.

    The books for each grade level are chosen and shared with the school families. We don’t limit this to parents and children, either. We have a diverse culture of families and do not want to exclude anyone.

    As the coordinator of this event, I search online lists of books that received positive reviews by families and educators on Goodreads, Amazon and Common Sense Media. I provide three to four titles to the school administrator who then asks the school staff to vote on which book will be assigned to each grade-level group. Having the teachers involved makes a difference as many of them offer to facilitate a discussion group the night of the event.

    Participants are then encouraged to read to, with, or alongside their children for the Family Book Study. We ensure families know how to get their hands on the chosen titles, many of which are free.

    On the evening of the event, the media center at my daughter’s school is buzzing with families excitedly discussing their books. As an author and literacy advocate, it doesn’t get much better than this.

    We start the evening with a book-themed icebreaker and then we’re off and running. To help the evening run smoothly, I provide discussion questions for each title and choose one adult facilitator for each group to help lead the discussions. Occasionally, I’ll even prep an activity for the younger children. For example, after reading the book, The Wonky Donkey by Craig Smith and Katz Cowley (Scholastic), students and family members worked together to create silly donkey puppets using markers and paper lunch bags. They were encouraged to recite the repetitive phrase from the book using their homemade puppet. Next, they were asked to come up with their own rhymes to be recited by their donkey puppet.

    The benefits of Family Book Study go beyond literacy development. It has helped strengthen family bonds and allowed parents to be intentional about reading quality literature with their children at home. One particular comment stands out after hosting several of these book nights. A grandmother told me how much she looks forward to this special night with her grandson. They read the book independently, then go out to dinner to discuss the book before the school event. We have had several of our English language learner families attend the event, which has provided them with a platform to make connections and build community.

    Ready to start your own Family Book Study? Download your how-to guide here

    Happy reading!

    Maria Dismondy is a former educator with over a decade of classroom experience. She graduated from Michigan State University with a BS and MA in education and child development. For the past 10 years, Maria has been writing children’s picture books, speaking at schools across the United States, and raising her own three little readers. She is passionate about literacy, character education, and promoting positive family engagement. Find out more at mariadismondy.com or CardinalRulePress.com

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    Incarceration of Shame for Young Readers

    By Justin Stygles
     | May 30, 2019
    armingteachers1

    Have you ever felt anger because you had to take responsibility for something you couldn’t control?

    Time to read independently is not always a guarantee for a maturing reader. Yet the reader can be subject to the consequences of being denied such an opportunity.

    A student might develop shame after repeatedly admitting he didn’t read at home—but perhaps not admitting he didn’t read due to challenges or circumstances he couldn’t control. The student’s sense of self, his feelings about himself as a reader, his life circumstances, and the teacher’s reaction to the transgression are all factors that determine the extent of shame he feels.

    Let’s consider possible responses to the reader who continually errs in his responsibilities.

    • Is our response to the student one of forgiveness? Or do we punish (detention, loss of recess, etc.)?
    • Do we leave room for the student to explain his circumstances or feelings? Or is our expectation final?
    • Do we believe the student is capable of changing his ways? Or is the student “like the rest of his family?”
    • What supports can we offer? Or do we leave the student to work through these challenges alone?
    • Do our responses leave open the possibility for future success? Or do we leave the reader feeling responsible for an existence he hardly has any control over?

    Consider the different responses I have given students in the past:

    “Ok. What happened last night? Can you try again tonight?”

    "You didn’t read again? How is this going to look on your report card?”

    The latter creates shame. My reply stifled the student and left him no recourse. If you’re like me, this was an automatic response intended to impose healthy shame by “righting” the reader. Instead, I inflicted negative shame. The terseness of “You didn’t read again?” implies personal failure on the reader’s behalf. I held little value for the reader’s circumstances outside of the classroom, alienating his being. Further, I transferred my shame about my failure to inspire reading by holding him accountable to my pedagogy.

    Before any reader is “corrected,” we need to consider the following:

    • Does the student have a safe place to read? 
    • Is the student ridiculed at home for reading?
    • Is the student unable to read and comprehend the book without help?
    • Are the student’s parents illiterate, nonnative English speakers, or struggling readers who cannot offer any support?
    • What else might be going on?

    There seems to be growing rhetoric suggesting that students need to be given time to read in school because they aren’t likely reading at home. In the rural communities where I’ve taught, I know this to be quite true. However, I have also realized that many students do not read at home because they genuinely do not know how. The expectation from parents and teachers is to simply read at home. With such a broad expectation, there is no doubt a broad range of interactions that can constitute reading, not all of which involve meaningful, personal interaction between the reader and the written word.

    Our endeavor to teach students reading should never be about punishment or consequences. Blame creates shame, which later induces reluctance and even resistance. Learning to read, I have found, is a gift, and also a responsibility, from teacher to students. As a parent once told me, “I send my son to you because you can teach him things I cannot.” In many cases, the “cannot” includes not only fluency and decoding but also the circumstances that permit successful reading. Perhaps a student cannot read successfully outside of school. Should that be the case, I have the distinction or honor of creating time before, during, or after school to make reading possible. In turn, I help students become shame-resistant readers.

    Justin Stygles, an ILA member since 2008, is a fifth-grade teacher in Wiscasset, ME. He's taught for 15 years in various settings. You can follow him on Twitter @justinstygles.

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    Quiet Conversations: A Unique Approach to Practicing Speaking and Listening Skills

    By Lauren Bakian Aaker
     | May 23, 2019

    marking-textStudents busily move around the table, markers in hand, jotting, drawing connecting arrows, sketching symbols. The only sound to be heard is the scuff of the chairs on the floor and the swoosh of markers moving along the paper. You wouldn’t know it, but students are deep in discussion, moving beyond surface-level observations to more sophisticated ideas that analyze a theme, character, or topic. This is a quiet conversation.

    When we think about speaking and listening standards, many of us count on accountable talks or literacy circles, those often used after the completion of a read-aloud or shared text, where students sit in a circle and talk with guidance from a teacher or, if they are experienced, without that guidance. In these conversations, it is usually our strongest verbal students who drive the direction of the thinking, often leaving out or leaving behind students who require more time to process and share.

    Not only have I been frustrated that my conversations may only involve a handful of students, but I have also found it challenging to teach developing speakers how to listen—really listen—to what others are saying and to build off that rather than throw another idea into the mix. To address this challenge, which many other teachers experience, I introduced a way of sharing ideas without ever opening your mouth and instead opening your marker cap.

    Quiet conversations can be used with a range of texts, from excerpts from primary sources to book blurbs to introduce and build excitement for book clubs. Following is a series of steps to spark quiet conversations. 

    • Prior to your first quiet conversation, ensure students are familiar with annotation symbols and purposes such as underlining, circling, and more.
    • Print out the text to be shared and attach it to a larger chart paper or poster board.
    • Separate the class into groups of 3–4 students for effective conversations.
    • Encourage students to stand around the text from all directions to add their notes and symbols. While not necessary, using different colored writing tools (markers, pens, colored pencils) can help students and teachers alike track different students’ thinking.
    • After students have spent 5–15 minutes “discussing” on paper, invite them to read the other quiet conversations that took place to see where ideas were similar or different from their own. If there’s remaining space, they can even continue the conversation.

    The first time this protocol is used, students will be both excited and unsure. As you provide more opportunities to communicate in this way, students will ask for more clarification and explanation from one another, will challenge and connect ideas, and will begin to more frequently build, rather than move on from, ideas that are already started. In this way, we can teach students to be better listeners as well as advocates of their own thoughts and voices.

    Lauren Bakian Aaker is an elementary school teacher in Kansas City, MO, who believes in student choice and student voice in the classroom. Lauren began her career in New York City where she earned a degree in literacy from Teachers College, Columbia University and taught graduate-level literacy courses to preservice teachers. To learn more, follow Lauren on Instagram at No Frills Classroom.   

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    When We Teach Programming Languages as Literacy

    By Ziva R. Hassenfeld and Marina Umaschi Bers
     | May 16, 2019
    kibo-1

    Sarah sits with a small class of 4- and 5-year-old students. She is teaching students to use a KIBO robotics kit, which uses a tangible programming language for children made of wooden blocks. At the heart of her lesson is a maze task. There is a start spot and end spot demarcated on the carpet. First, to get comfortable with the idea of commands, the students play a game called “Program the Teacher.” Sarah invites students to get her through the maze using the KIBO language. KIBO can step forward and backward, turn, shake, spin, beep, and sing (KIBO plays a short melody). The students jump right in:

    “Sing!”
    “Beep!”
    “Shake!”
    “Spin!”

    Reluctantly, Sarah obliges, but probes the students: “Is this going to get me where we want me to go?”

    “No,” they reply, “but it’s fun.” The students are clearly excited by the KIBO programming language, they just don’t care that much about the maze.

    “OK. Straight,” they oblige.

     Sarah immediately shows excitement. “How many steps?” she asks.

    “Three,” they answer. “OK, now sing again!”

    The activity continues until, through a series of probes and pushes, Sarah gets the students to tell her to walk straight and then turn so that she can get through the maze.

    kibo-2Next, they try to get an actual KIBO through the maze. It doesn’t go much better. They want KIBO to sing and beep and shake and spin. Sarah gently asks them whether their program will get KIBO from the start spot to the end spot. But they’re too busy experimenting with KIBO, the performer, to worry about the task Sarah has assigned them. At one point, they make KIBO lurch around the room spinning and they run in circles squealing, “It’s eating my feet! It’s eating my feet!” Sarah tries one more time: “But, tell me, how can I get KIBO to the end spot?” With utter sincerity, one student answers, “You could pick him up and move him.” Sarah calls a snack break.

    There was no problem with KIBO. In fact, the students loved playing with KIBO. They quickly mastered the idea of using commands to make KIBO follow their instructions. They just didn’t care about the maze task.

    Literacy educators have long known that students are far more likely to take on a cognitive challenge when they care about the task assigned. The anecdote above sheds light on what kinds of activities teachers should design to teach young children programming languages.

    Learning programming languages is like learning to read and write a new language. Experts in literacy stress that students can only learn to read and write when teachers give them activities that leave room for their own self-expression. In a 2007 Research in the Teaching of English article, literacy scholar Maren Aukerman explains, “When reading instruction principally focuses on a teacher’s interpretation and interpretive techniques, we misrepresent to children what reading actually is.” When literacy instruction focuses solely on phonics, or the transmission of authoritative interpretations, reading in schools becomes cut off from the reading children do outside of school. Outside of school, children (and adults) read and interpret as part of the natural activity of sense-making. Inside of school, it’s easy to lose this most basic purpose for reading and writing. At the heart of the balanced literacy approach is the understanding that students learn literacy better when it’s taught through tasks that matter to them (i.e., tasks that make room for their self-expression and sense-making).

    The students in this anecdote were not interested in the maze task their teacher assigned. As such, they could not get into the cognitive work it required. The task wasn’t guided by their own questions or curiosities. I can’t help but wonder how the outcomes would have differed had they been allowed to explore KIBO’s performance capabilities. Imagine if they had gone through the process of developing a performance for KIBO, writing the program for that performance, and reflecting on how their written program did and did not realize their vision. Instead, their interests were continually thwarted in service of the task at hand—a task that didn’t hold the students’ engagement.

    In the November/December 2018 issue of Literacy Today, educator Chris Panell wrote, “Those who are digitally literate in the future will be those who can read not only the surface of the text, but also the programming that makes it appear as it does.” Panell is correct in connecting the two. We would go one step further and connect how we teach students to read both “the surface of the text” and “the programming that makes it appear.” Educators must think about the teaching of programming languages like we think about the teaching of literacy and natural language, emphasizing student meaning-making, imagination, and creativity.

    It’s much easier to ask students to write a program that moves a robot from a start spot to an end spot than it is to allow them open exploration of this block programming language. However, the nascent field of early childhood programming education need not repeat the mistakes of the past. It must take as its starting place the hard-learned lessons from literacy education: Students learn more when the task matters to them.

    Ziva R. Hassenfeld, an ILA member since 2016, earned her doctorate in curriculum and teacher education from Stanford University in 2016. She is currently a middle school teacher in the Boston area and a post-doctoral fellow at the Dev Tech Research Group of Tufts University and at Brandeis University. Her research focuses on the tools and reading strategies young children employ when reading texts, as well as the pedagogies teachers use to support student textual interpretation, fluency, and comprehension.

    Marina Umaschi Bers 
    is professor and chair at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development and an adjunct professor in the Computer Science Department at Tufts University. She heads the interdisciplinary Developmental Technologies research group. Her research involves the design and study of innovative learning technologies to promote children’s positive development. She also developed and serves as director of the graduate certificate program on Early Childhood Technology at Tufts University.

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