Category Archives: Reading


“Struggling Reluctantly”

This post is written by member Peg Grafwallner.

It’s become a personal quest of mine, something that I repeatedly profess in professional meetings, in presentations, on twitter, and on my own personal blog.

The terms “struggling” and “reluctant” cannot be allowed to reference readers who need our support.  Those terms come from a deficit model of thinking, in which somehow these students will never become the readers we want them to be but, rather, will continually fail according to some district initiated benchmark or criterion.

According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, the term “struggling,” means to “proceed with difficulty or with great effort,” and reluctant means “feeling or showing aversion, hesitation, or unwillingness.”  Imagine showing these definitions to a student and explaining that they referred to the student’s reading talent? Of course the student would feel disgruntled and frustrated.

I’ve modified these terms to “developing” because we simply are not there – yet.  If I were labeled a “struggling” runner, the idea is that no matter how hard I try, no matter the small bursts of progress I make, the label would become so engrained in who I am that it could actually define me.  In truth, I have been progressing at running and while I may (notice the use of the qualifier) never run a marathon, I continue to make gains in my running.

Now imagine explaining to a student that he/she is a developing reader. According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, “developing” means “to acquire gradually.”  That’s a definition a student can live with and grow into.  It means we can work together for a successful outcome.

So the next time you’re tempted to refer to a student as “struggling” or “reluctant,” please consider eliminating that deficit thinking, and instead, replace with the word, “developing.”  In that way, all students will have a chance to proceed, progress, and promote!

Peg Grafwallner is an Instructional Coach and Reading Specialist at a large urban high school. Peg draws on her nearly 23 years of experience and expertise to focus on engagement, motivation and interventions to create student opportunities of learning and inquiry.  


“Say It Loud . . . ”: Preparing Children to Be Leaders through Playing and Storytelling

This post is written by member Raven Jones Stanbrough.

Parent-Teacher Conferencing with a One-Year-Old

Like most new mothers, I used to sometimes attempt to get my daughter to silently play (as if that even makes sense) when I’m on “important” phone calls, at meetings, or out in certain public spaces. I pretty much failed each and every time because Zuri Hudson wasn’t born to “be quiet,” and I’m so here for her purposeful verbal insertions, regardless of the setting.

During my pregnancy, my partner Darryl—also an educator—and I read to, talked to, and sang to Zuri Hudson. At seven months, her first word was “book.” As educators with almost 20 years of collective teaching experiences with K–16 students, we conference each and every day about what we want to teach our students and our child. In fact, Darryl and I first met as classroom co-teachers in Detroit. When asked, we happily share advice and suggestions with our family and friends about the educational practices we engage in with our daughter and students in our classrooms.

One of our main pieces of advice for others is to begin to build a library for their children— whether it’s filled with books, art, pictures, flashcards, music, blocks, coins, notebooks, or other artifacts that interest them. When we drove to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Annual Convention in Atlanta, Georgia—we had all of those things for our 23-hour roundtrip car ride and for our time in Atlanta with Zuri Hudson.

On the morning of Saturday, November 19, when I sat at the table with Darryl and our ready-for-the-wor(l)d baby girl (who was 18 months at the time) to accept the 2016 Early Career Educator of Color (ECEOC) Leadership Award, we did not seek to silence her. So when her louder-than-a-whisper shouts of, “1,2,3,4,5” K,” and “T” filled the room with smiles, laughter, and affirming head nods from others, I picked her up from the floor where her toys were spread,  pulled her closer to me, and said, “I love you” and “I’m so proud of you” as I hugged her and removed one of her half-torn alphabet stickers from her afro.

During her emphatic outbursts, I could’ve said, “Shhhh” or “Be quiet, Z,” but I didn’t have the desire to do so. I strongly believe that children and students need the freedom and opportunities to be curious and exploratory—even when it may be an inconvenience for their parent-teachers and other loved ones. Considering this, it was no surprise to me, when I walked across the stage to accept my plaque that Darryl had to release a squirming Zuri Hudson from his arms because she wanted to run to and love on her mama, near the stage.

In that moment, I was reminded that my roles as a parent and teacher are to continue to assist children and students with finding their voices and using them to be loud when necessary.

Zuri Hudson at 18 months reciting ‘NCTE’ letters, near the stage of the 2016 NCTE Early Career Educator of Color Leadership Awards Ceremony.

Counting Children in Seven Days a Week

As a former K–12 educator, it has brought me tremendous joy to teach other people’s children. I always told myself that whenever I had my own child,  I’d be conscious and deliberate about teaching her or him some of what I taught my previous students.

Last week, I shared a photo of Zuri Hudson on Facebook during our storytelling time. We purchased a podium for her that sits in the center of our living room and we all use it to share stories. This is something that’s very important to for us as parent-teachers and debate coaches. Since Darryl and I have flexible teaching schedules, Zuri Hudson is home with us every single day and has not had to be enrolled in a daycare facility. While I understand that every household is different, I want to offer a few tips that may be helpful when teaching or working with your child(ren) throughout the week.

  • Talk to your child(ren) throughout the day. Sometimes, they may have a lot on their minds, especially if they’re in school. Ask them open-ended questions, offer affirming words, and embrace them to remind them that they’re important and are loved.
  • Allow your child(ren) to play in a designated area and clean it up later. This used to be difficult for me, given that I’m very clean and dislike for things to be out of order. However, allowing our daughter to play without too many restrictions teaches us as her parents what her interests are and how she comprehends what we teach her.
  • Turn the television off. While there are great television shows that provide educational value for young people, don’t be afraid to turn the television off from time to time. Instead, take a walk around the house or outside and name various objects you see along the way. Create index cards that correspond to the items in your home and discuss these with your learners.
  • Create a growing library. Take advantage of secondhand stores and libraries that sell books for cheap, in an effort to build a library for your child(ren). Ask loved ones to donate books to your cause or, in lieu of toys for birthdays, ask for books.
  • Make every day fun! Tell your child(ren) stories, sing to or with them, and dance with them. Show them that you can have fun too. Have weekly talent shows that allow them to showcase their talents and interests.
Image 2 shows Zuri Hudson at her podium, counting and telling a story to her stuffed animal friends about her pink triangle.

Raven Jones Stanbrough, Ph.D., is a Detroit native and a K–12 product of Detroit Public Schools. Dr. Jones Stanbrough is an assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University and is the co-founder of the The Zuri Reads Initiative, an effort to provide and organize literacy-related events and resources for Detroit-area children, students, and families. 


Being the Book! More Important Now Than Ever

This post is written by member Jeffrey Wilhelm. 

The third edition of You Gotta BE the Book!” Teaching Engaged and Reflective Reading with Adolescents ( YGBB) was recently released (NCTE/Teachers College Press).  It’s been 20 years since the first edition appeared, and I was struck with how the findings of the book are even more important to me—urgently so—as a teacher today than they were when the book was first published.

Here is the central takeaway to me, particularly as we are living in the era of next generation standards: reading is much more and much greater than a repertoire of strategies.  The most engaged reading involves imagination, joy, relationship, and even transformation.

Here is the major payoff and what is most at stake: personal development, social imagination, and the evolution of democratic ways of living.

I happen to like—as far as they go—most of the next generation standards (like the Common Core and the Next Generation Science Standards) with which I have worked over the last few years.  However, these certainly do not go far enough. That means that extending these standards and filling their gaps is up to us as teachers.  YGBB is highly relevant in this regard: the book explores the participatory, visual, emotional, psychological, embodied, imaginative, connective, and reflective stances and strategies of expert readers and discusses how to promote and support these with students. These dimensions are prerequisite to and supportive of the cognitive dimensions highlighted in current standards documents.

My research found that disengaged readers do not understand and have not experienced what real engaged reading is, nor how they can practice it. Teaching approaches that exclusively promote or even privilege decoding or cognitive strategies exacerbate the problem of disengagement because such approaches miss the wonder of the lived-through experience of reading. These slighted dimensions of the reader’s repertoire make this wonder, the joy and the transformation, possible.

Often in school, we ask students to answer questions and reflect about an experience that they have not had and that instruction has not supported them to have.  Of course, they might think, as my case study student Marvin asserted, “Reading is STUPID!”

Now, more than ever, we need to promote purpose in reading (both in terms of functional application and pleasure), high expectation of text, participation in creating and living through textual worlds, and the visualization and embodiment of these secondary worlds.  In the intervention research that followed the research describing the dimensions of engaged readers’ response, I found that strategies to promote participation, like drama in education strategies (see Wilhelm, 2013a for a full treatment), and to promote seeing what one is reading through visualization strategies (Wilhelm, 2013b) led disengaged readers to a richer construal of reading and to the capacity to construct rich and personally significant meanings with text.

Nevertheless, perhaps the most important finding was that these collaborative meaning-making approaches were both prerequisite and foundational to cognitive connective, inferential, and reflective kinds of reading and to the cultivation of what might be called social imagination. Social imagination can be defined as the capacity to see the world from a variety of perspectives, and to experience and learn from cultural situations and worlds that are distant from one’s own experience, time, or place.  Social imagination is what moves us beyond looking in the mirror and allows us to learn from text and to apply what we learn in our lives.

For learners to become engaged and democratic citizens and workers, they need to practice skills that develop social and ethical imagination and agency.  Without this cultivation of social imagination, there can be no personal development, no outgrowing of the current self, and no social transformation of the networks of which one is a part.

Social imagination is also developed when students collaboratively connect, discuss, and reflect on the meanings of text, particularly regarding what texts mean about how we should be and live in our world. The text, in effect, is a secondary world that helps us to imaginatively rehearse how to be in the primary world.

It is a Vygotskian insight that thinking together helps us think in new ways, and thinking well together is prerequisite to thinking powerfully in ways that are more independent.

If we care about the development of our students as individuals who can relate to and appreciate and care for others; if we care about the development of the democratic communities our students will participate in; if we care about democratic living and work; if we care about attention to one’s own growth and to the needs of others, then we need to teach engaged and reflective reading.  The third edition of YGBB explores why this is of paramount importance now, why teaching to standards is not enough, and how to teach for the bigger purposes of joy, imagination, love, and transformation.

Works Cited

Wilhelm, J. (2016). “You gotta BE the book!”: Teaching engaged and reflective reading with adolescents (3rd ed.).  New York: Teachers College Press.

Wilhelm, J. (2013a). Deepening comprehension with action strategies  (2nd ed., including DVD).  New York: Scholastic.

Wilhelm, J. (2013b). Enriching comprehension with visualization strategies  (2., including DVD).  New York: Scholastic.

Jeffrey D. Wilhelm is Distinguished Professor of English Education at Boise State University who teaches and co-teaches middle and high school classes each year.  He is the author or co-author of 37 books about literacy teaching, the winner of the NCTE Promising Research Award, and two-time recipient of the David H. Russell Award for Distinguished Research in English Education.

No Homework…Beneficial?

This is a guest post written by Katie Cassavaugh. 

katiecassavaughHomework as defined by Merriam-Webster means “preparatory reading or research (as for a discussion or a debate).” When I was a student, it meant hours of stress and hair pulling after having having already spent eight hours cramming knowledge into my head. It was also a point of tension in my house as I who lacked math skills tried to get help from my parents who were not hip to the new methods. And my brother didn’t want to read anything other than sports magazines. Not only was homework a painful time for me, it was more than exhausting for my parents, who had a full work day followed by making dinner only to then battle us for homework.

That is why when I started this year as a student teacher in a fifth-grade classroom at Orchard Elementary, I was overjoyed to learn that the school had instituted a no-homework policy. I, along with some of the other teachers, immediately became worried that our already jammed schedules would become more cramped, but after the first two or three weeks, that concern faded away and we got into a steady rhythm. We found ways to fit all the subjects into the school day and knew that whatever we did not finish, we could do tomorrow.

Now, no homework does not mean no reading; the stipulation is that students are still always working on becoming lifelong readers. We expect them to read their “just right books” for 20–30 minutes a night and do not consider a book they are choosing to read out of interest to be homework. This is learning to enjoy reading rather than dreading it,  which would have been perfect for my brother who only read magazines. And, along with choice reading, we expect students to spend more time playing and not sitting in front of a screen!

As a student teacher, I was excited to see this policy in play. Earlier in my school career, I had interned in a first-grade classroom. The students there had only one math sheet for homework every night, but this was enough to cause them stress. Not getting it done and missing morning meeting to complete it made them sad. The school and students were great, but if one worksheet made children this stressed, I could only imagine what 30 to 60 minutes of work would do!

Of course, we cannot forget the benefits of homework, such as helping those who struggle to get extra practice and holding students accountable for all their work. One drawback to to  a no-homework policy is that students do not have any accountability for their work. Before, if students fooled around and did not finish their work, they would have to finish it at home. Now with the new policy, teachers either let go of the assignment and move on or have to carve out more time during the school day for the students to finish.

Overall, I support a no-homework policy. Students are so scheduled between school, sports, musical instruments, and other extracurricular activities and chores. Taking away one thing such as homework can free the students to be kids again. It can give them an extra one to three hours to play and be free. They already spend so much time studying and learning new information; they should have the opportunity to leave their work behind for the day and relax. When kids hit sixth grade and beyond, they will once again have homework. From age 5 to 10, they need to focus on being kids, growing their creativity, and learning through play!

Katie Cassavaugh is a senior at Champlain College. She currently interns at Orchard Elementary and works at Kids and Fitness in Burlington, Vermont.

The Essential Work of English Language Arts—and ELA Teachers—in Our Democracy

This post is written by member Dana Maloney. 

“We must awaken in order to continue our efforts to build a just, compassionate, and meaningful democracy.”Maxine Greene

danamaloneyThe longer I have taught English Language Arts (ELA)—28 years now—the more I have come to understand that what we do is not trivial or incidental; it is essential.

We can start with two reasons why our work is so important:

  1. Literature is life. When we read imaginative literature—whether prose, poetry or drama—we explore what it means to be alive and to be human. As one of my students remarked years ago, “Literature humanizes us.” We help students understand themselves, others, and the world. We help students crisscross the globe, step into other people’s shoes to see the world through their eyes, and more. Through all of this, we also help students deepen understandings of themselves and of their lives.
  2. We teach the most essential human skills: how to receive information from others and how to transmit information. This is literacy. Through reading and listening, we receive information; through writing and speaking, we transmit information.

Those reasons are so important in the lives of each of our students. However, they are not the only reasons why I think our work is so essential—and why I would posit that it is perhaps the most essential work within the school.

Here is why our work is absolutely essential: What we do in our classrooms protects and perpetuates democracy. John Dewey taught us this long ago, but we need to remind ourselves of this ultimate purpose and context of education.

In ELA classes, we empower students to use their voices and to be able to use the tools of literacy, including digital tools, to contribute to our democracy and to the world. Democracy is a system of government in which people use their literacy skills in order to run a country “of the people, by the people, for the people,” as President Lincoln noted in his Gettysburg Address.

The discourse in our democracy today, continuing even after the inauguration of the new president, illustrates the need for strong literacy skills. I believe that the following ideas help us cultivate strong literacy skills in our students:

  • Critical thinking is the essential filter through which we process information so that we do not simply believe everything we read or hear and so that we think before we speak or write. We encourage thinking when we give students hard questions, when we allow students to craft their own questions, and when we allow them to own the answers. We have to encourage students to ask good, open-ended questions—not leading ones. We have to offer students opportunities to exercise high-level critical thinking.
  • We can also ask students to synthesize across texts—including texts that offer different points of view (as many news sources do today). Our curriculum can reach for the highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, including synthesis and creation that is informed by the consideration of multiple texts that present opposing information or perspectives.
  • We should not read texts for our students. As teachers, we have to be careful not to own the interpretations of texts. We should not present the text as a mystery for which the teacher has all the answers (e.g., a list of themes and symbols). Instead, we should offer texts to our students and ask students for their engaged readings of them. Of course, we want students to back up their readings with textual evidence and with strong reasoning. Great literature is ambiguous and thus allows for multiple ways of reading. This is one reason why high-merit, classic texts should have a strong place in our classrooms, even as we also embrace student choice in reading selections. Students need to own their questions; we need to create room for students to read texts through their own inquiry lenses.
  • We need to create opportunities for student exchange of readings and ideas via active listening and speaking. We need to require them to listen to each other—and to respond to each other. Discourse is a means through which we strengthen our thinking and our articulation of perspective.

To go one step further, I believe that not only is the discipline of ELA essential to the world today but we ELA teachers are as well.

As ELA teachers, we are in a unique position to help moderate readings of the news and of the world—and we can help cultivate healthy dialogue via spoken and written word. There are many ways in which this might happen, including via school and community events and via social media.

I have started to explore how we can view social media—not just the public forum of Twitter but also the “private” world of Facebook—as a form of digital classroom, with ourselves as moderators of civil discourse or even as discussion leaders (AKA teachers). I believe we can be creative in the ways in which we might do this.

I have been prompted by election and inauguration discourse to attempt to create some impact even in Facebook. This means some risk—moving beyond the easy, friendly discourse that characterized Facebook communication for me before. I am working on a book focused on “reading the text to read the world,” and I have started to transfer some of the content of the book to my Facebook posts.

I will leave off by sharing some of my posts from January 22, 2017. Through these, I also want to share with you some additional thoughts about how we can see the power of our work—and the potential impact all of us can make in our classrooms as well as outside of them:

As a teacher of reading, I would just encourage everyone to read well: Read the whole book, not just one page, and not just the Cliff Notes version. The book here is, of course, the one we are living in today—our world. We have a beautiful democracy which many men and women—including our ancestors—sacrificed their lives to build and to defend. At this moment, many people have their lives on the line for all of us–for our liberty, for justice, for all our rights. Therefore, I encourage everyone to defend our country by seeking the actual truth, not just a limited or false perception of it. Beware of blatant lies. Be aware that lying is an actual strategy, to manipulate people; diversionary tactics are also intentional strategies. Whether you are conservative or liberal, please do not give away our democratic ideals, which include those expressed in the First Amendment—including freedom of the press and the right to peaceful protest. Do not just believe all that you are told—all that you might want to believe. Seek the truth.

In response to this post, I received a comment, which prompted me to write:

Great literature may be fiction, but it is about truth: truth of human experience and more. Moreover, in true literature there are always multiple perspectives offered. Propaganda is one-sided; a true story has many sides, many points of view, and many voices—like democracy. I think we all have to LISTEN to and READ many perspectives to maintain our healthy democracy and to avoid losing it.

After the Facebook friend replied again to me and as we moved closer to agreement, I added:

Another thing I would add is that we have to be careful what we “say” in the social media world—with regard to selecting and sharing information. An English classroom can be a good analogy and training ground for discourse—if we encourage students to speak what they think (after time is given for thoughtful reflection) and if students also respond to each other, to challenge (civilly) each other’s’ statements—and thus to push every person’s separate thinking. We don’t push particular beliefs or interpretations (because literature, like life, is ambiguous), but we encourage thought—not just fast or shallow thought but careful thought that has processed perspectives and that continues to do so. This is also how public schools help nurture democratic citizens who not only tolerate but also embrace diversity of perspectives— not bullying of perspective, not control of truth.

Dana H. Maloney is the chair of the NCTE Achievement Awards in Writing Advisory Committee, the 2012 winner of the CEE James Moffett Award, and an Executive Board member of the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English. She teaches English at Tenafly High School in New Jersey. Her Twitter handle is @danahmaloney.