Category Archives: Teaching

Do You READ Enough?

This post is written by member Susan Wagner. 

I remember books, those stacks of printed paper held in place with a decorative cover. I remember hearing the crack of the spine as I opened a new novel, sinking my nose in between the pages to relish that “new book” scent. My bookcases are stacked with these friends, old and new. I even tote hundreds of them around on my smartphone. I’m ashamed to admit it has been a while since I’ve read any of them.

English professionals advocate reading literature, but according to a Pew report, more than one-quarter of Americans have not read a book in the last year. Could you be one of them?

Here are seven motivational tips and links to help you venture into the land of FLOW and give your brain the reenergizing it needs.

  1. Make a reading appointment. Carve out a specific time during your day to read. Don’t feel defeated if changing up your routine feels like climbing Mt. Everest. One time of the day that is beneficial for reading is just before bed. Reading at night is purported to help you sleep better. However, using technology can be problematic and hinder your brain’s production of melatonin. Keep the bright light out of your eyes and swap the phone for a book and a book light.
  2. Create your own reading zone. So you have found some time and are ready to make that commitment. An inviting chair along with a side table for your latte, a comfy throw for cool nights, and a bookshelf to hold your literary quests will make it easier to escape your hectic routine for the time travel and adventure in the Outlander.
  3. Can’t decide on what to read? Try some Retail Therapy. Visit the public library and local bookstores to peruse their displays. Creative displays and enticing covers may inspire you to select the “just right” book for your return journey into reading. Creative designer Derek Murphy blogs about publishing and writes about the influence of book cover designs.
  4. Subscribe to Bookbub for daily e-book recommendations. It’s a great way to delve into the guilty pleasures of reading a murder mystery or high fantasy on the weekends. With one click you can download your e-book and commence reading.
  5. Goal oriented? Get motivated with the same methods you use to motivate your students. Many public libraries provide reading programs and incentive items like the Reading Bingo Card produced by the San Rafael [California] Public Library. Gain knowledge and wisdom and explore a genre you’ve never read before.
  6. Phone your friends. With all your newfound book savvy, why go it alone? Start a book club with your colleagues, neighbors, or family members. Oprah’s televised book club inspired millions. Inspire other teachers and be a model for students. Take a page from Oprah and see the best books from Oprah’s book club.
  7. Return to the familiar. What better time to reread a favorite novel from years past? Rereading a book is not like watching a TV rerun, where the scenes are the same. Each time you reread a novel, you are reinterpreting that story through the lenses of your many experiences since your first read. Pull out that old copy of Catcher in the Rye and see what Holden Caulfield is up to these days.

If you are absolutely stretched for time, fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow, and all the comfy chairs in your home have been hijacked by your pets, you have another option: get your daily read on by reading to your students.

The New York Times put together a list of recommendations for read-alouds. Commit to reading aloud to your students each day. No matter their ages or your place in the pacing guide, reserving time each day to share a phenomenal book will not only inspire your students, but you will reap the benefits as well.

Susan R. Wagner obtained her PhD in reading from the University of Tennessee. She is assistant professor of education and teaches literacy and instructional methods courses in the Carter and Moyers School of Education for Lincoln Memorial University.

Learning: The Fine Art of Drowning

This post is written by member Tom O’Connor. 

Education was not my forte. Given that I am a teacher, that sounds odd.

While in Teachers’ College at the University of Ottawa, I was asked to think back on a teacher that changed my life. Students around the room had stories of joyful teachers with animated birds floating around them who would bestow straight A’s and praise at the blink of an eye. I did not. As hard as I pondered, I kept coming up blank. Sure, I enjoyed the antics of my zany history teachers. And, of course, I recall the English teacher who read Leonard Cohen lyrics and whose class I didn’t skip. But, in all honesty, Leonard Cohen had nothing to do with it. I didn’t skip because I had a crush on her. The reality is that I don’t recall high school classes bringing any sense of happiness or joy to my life.

The teacher who came to mind was Kevin Gildea, my university professor in Canadian Literature. I was not excited about the course. In fact, if it was not a required course at Carleton College, I would never have taken it. Canadian Literature? Why would I want to read a bunch of books about pioneers trapped in a snowstorm? But, Gildea pushed me to think. He introduced me to the world of critical theory. Yes, I remember reading Ondaatje, Birney, and Moodie, but more importantly I realized how thinkers like Marx, Heidegger, Rousseau, and Bakunin could influence how I read. The CanLit canon was merely a means of understanding the bigger ideas at play. Canadian literature wasn’t about a pioneer roughing it in the bush; it was about the individual attempting to understand their sense of self in an unforgiving land that is unloving and soul crushing. Whoa.

Of course, there was no course for this at Teachers College. There was no course that told us to teach ideas that were bigger than the curriculum. There was no course that told us to make students feel awkward, uncomfortable, and out of their depth.

I often share with students the feelings I would have in Gildea’s (and subsequent) classes. In those classes, I would feel lost. The term I find myself using is drowning. I was drowning in a sea of ideas that I didn’t think I was smart enough to comprehend. Week after week I would flail around, my arms swinging to grab something stable, something that would save me. Yet, there was nothing. I was drowning. So, I kicked. I would sit in the library (this was before the internet existed in everyone’s pocket) and wrestle with secondary texts. I would flail. Searching through stacks of sources, each one more confusing than the previous one. And I would gasp for breath. Finding occasional bits of knowledge that would help me to put the puzzle together. And then, as if by magic, I would be lucky enough to grasp the idea. I could suddenly swim.

My job as a teacher, it would seem, is to arm my students, not with the curriculum, but with a sense of fearlessness when it comes to learning. In short, my job is to teach them to swim when the waves feel like they are going to pull them under.

The question is, am I willing to push them into the water? And, perhaps more importantly, are they willing to swim?

Yes, it’s true. I am the teacher who asks you to read “through a lens” and, whether it be feminism, Marxism or post-colonialism, there had better be an “ism” in your analysis somewhere. These ideas come from my post-secondary education at Carleton and my deeply held opinion that without a strong idea, one’s writing lacks power. Of course, these ideas are hard for people to grasp, or at least that’s what people think. Throughout this semester, I have had several students who have written on the topic of a hero in texts like Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Fahrenheit 451, and Ender’s Game. During our initial conversations, the students found themselves trying to force dynamic multidimensional characters into a small, limited, concrete definition of a hero. You know the one I mean—a good person who does the right thing.

Then I introduced them to two other ideas. Joseph Campbell’s idea of the archetype hero, was a good fit for a character like Ender, or even 451’s Guy Montag. However, to try and fit a character like V or Watchmen’s Rorschach into Campbell’s definition is akin to fitting a 747 into a pop bottle. So, I did the unthinkable. I let grade ten students—those “innocent” young minds—loose on Friedrich Nietzsche’s existential hero. Were there questions? Of course, there were. Was there confusion? Of course. Was there fear (and trembling)? Absolutely. But, more importantly, there was a shred of understanding and a degree of thinking that those students didn’t know they could reach in an English class. When I discussed the choice of essays with the students later in the semester, they used words like scary, but afterward, one student said, “I am really proud of myself.” Isn’t this the answer we always want from our students? It should be, but instead, we have created a system that rewards good work, but not always challenging work.

Did these students feel like they were drowning? Sure they did. It certainly would have been easier to write a paper on a less complex topic. They could have done that. They could have gotten a 70 percent and gone home content. Instead, they took a risk. They read a copious amount of writing that was not mandated by the course outline. And, instead of feeling content, they felt “proud.”

What about those who don’t want to swim? What about those who want to stay in the shallow water? Fine. Stay there. But, be comfortable with your average, or even below-average, marks. If you are like I was in high school, you will be fine. But if you are like I was in university, you will hurl yourself into the deep-dark seas and learn to navigate the waves of challenge.

The truth is that by focusing on student comfort, we are forcing kids to think about their marks instead of thinking about the creative and critical ways of dealing with a question. So, instead of challenging themselves and facing a fear, they instead play it safe. And safe, as they say, is boring. Besides, boring isn’t going to create the leaders of the future, and God knows, we need them.

Tom O’Connor plunges into the battery-smoke while waging war on the five-paragraph essay. He is also the Assistant Department Head of English at Jacob Hespeler Secondary School in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada. 

What Happened in Your State This July?

During July, seven policy analysts published reports about what occurred in California, Florida, Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington.

Higher Education

California: Daniel Melzer explained the Bill to Prohibit Standardized Placement Exams in California Community Colleges introduced in the state legislature. High school GPA and coursework would replace standardized tests.


California: Laurie Stowell described a New Free App for California schools that shares school data with parents, students, and the community.

Florida: Margaret Gardineer examines Florida’s Request for Waivers from ESSA with regard to assessment and placement of ELL students. Margaret notes that Florida had sought a similar waiver in 2014, prompting Margaret to conclude, “Florida’s current waiver request appears to be part of a policy pattern to extend its flexibility in assessing and implementing entitlements for its significant ELL student population.”

Maine: In Proficiency-Based Education: Innovation for Improvement or Servant of Standards, Susan Stires grappled with Maine’s instituting proficiency-based diplomas in the four core subjects by 2021.

New York: Derek Kulnis reported that the “New York State Legislature granted New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio a two-year extension on mayoral control of the city’s school system.”

Washington: Barbara Ward listed webinar dates for the public to provide comments on Washington’s ESSA plan.

Both PreK–12 and Higher Education

Pennsylvania: Aileen Hower shared an article from the Philadelphia Tribune regarding Community College of Philadelphia and Philadelphia School District teaming up for school that offers associates degrees.

Mrs. Stuart Goes to Washington: Policy Brief, Assessment and Back to School

Project: Policy Brief

Oh, the wonderful world of writing policy briefs. This week was spent working on a piece for the National Council of Teachers of English. We are trying to uncover who is teaching English and how these educators feel about a range of topics. There is data on teachers in general, but not a lot on teachers of English specifically. As an organization, we wanted to learn about this critical group of educators. Here are some questions that arose during my research:

  1. What might the race and gender of our teachers tell us about the ways we connect with our students?
  2. Why is it important to look at the levels of education a teacher has achieved?
  3. In a post–Common Core world, have levels of job satisfaction changed?
  4. What are the professional learning needs of teachers of English?

The most glaring fact so far has been the lack of current research on teachers. The U.S. Department of Education is set to release the next set of data end of summer/beginning of fall.

You know what they say about assessment …

I took a break from writing and research to meet with Miah Daughtery, the Director of English Language Arts and Literacy at Achieve. A fellow Wolverine, Miah and I discussed everything from ideas for getting kids to read—The Reading Minute by Kelly Gallagher—was new to me! to understanding why standardized assessments are so long (if you don’t know what a psychometrician is, then you probably don’t know the answer). One thing that was suggested in my district was that we write our own district-wide benchmarks. It was such a casual comment to our little department of 10 teachers that it seemed like a simple idea. Miah and I discussed how complicated writing assessment is, especially if it is assessment that you are going to use to make claims about student achievement. Miah has a presentation called “The Top 25 Ways a Test Item Can Be Flawed.” There are more than 25? The moral of the story is, folks, we need to revisit our benchmark plan. Miah suggested checking out the assessments from Achieve the Core, so I’m going to start there.

Oh and I’m back in the classroom on Monday

When my eyes got tired of looking at data, I turned my attention to my classroom. I have 6th and 8th graders reporting to me, excited yet sleepy, Monday. As most teachers do, I have grand plans for the year. These include, but are not limited to

  • infusing global education in all of my units, and building a website for my students to interact with me while I am on my study abroad, probably on Facebook or a page on my personal site
  • getting my kids to enjoy reading (also, getting them to actually read)—this means getting my classroom library in order, which terrifies me
  • doing daily read-alouds and maybe the Reading Minute
  • pairing contemporary texts with my mandated curriculum

I’m open to ideas!


Seriously, need to get it together! What a mess.

Reading That Makes Sense: A Reader Revalued

This post is written by member Susan Warren.

“James, what makes your friends good readers?”

“They just magically know all the words!”

James’s words lingered in my ears. James was able to explain good reading strategies to use when he came to something that he didn’t know, but he only used one. He exclusively chose to sound out words, neglecting any meaning-making strategy. When he came upon a less familiar word, he would sound it out, skip it, give up, and claim he was no good at reading.

James’s second-grade reading assessments reflected below-benchmark scores in his oral reading fluency, based on traditional assessment tools. Although James fell below benchmarks, he was not a high enough priority to qualify for direct reading intervention services during the school day. James struggled, but his struggle had less to do with reading than with the messages that he received from the reading assessments and the skills-based reading instruction focus. The message that he received most often was that reading equaled reading words accurately and fast.

James was struggling with the demands of school at the same time I was learning to use Goodman’s Reading Miscue Inventory. I needed a student to work with, and James seemed a perfect candidate for tutoring.

“James,” I inquired, “Would you be willing to read with me after school twice a week during the spring semester? You would be a big help to me if I could learn to use a different approach to reading with you.” James agreed and we got to work. Me—not knowing exactly what I was doing, and James—liking the attention, if not the reading itself.

It was clear from the Burke reading interview that James liked animals. James chose to read about snakes while I audio-recorded and analyzed his reading. As he read, he was unsuccessful sounding out less familiar words. James would beg me to tell him the correct word. I encouraged him to think about what made sense, which caused him to generally skip the word and continue along. Using the Goodman’s In-depth Miscue Reading Inventory, I determined that his strengths rested in knowing how language sounded (syntax). He would correct miscues to make the sentences grammatically correct. Not surprisingly, he relied heavily on graphophonic cues to the exclusion of meaning-making strategies. James was bound to only sounding out words that were less familiar.

After reading, James was asked to retell what he had read. He generally related some details from the last part of the book. After I analyzed James’s reading, I had him listen back to his reading, allowing him to catch his own miscues. During Retrospective Miscue Analysis, James would hear his miscue and we would stop the recording. I would ask him why he thought he made the miscue. I was often shocked by how his reflections made sense. James also surprised himself with how many miscues he was immediately able to fix up before we started our discussion. He would ask, “How was it I didn’t get that before?”

Week after week, James would read and retell a chapter from a book that he had chosen. I would record him; then I reread the chapter back to him and modeled how I would retell the chapter. Over the weeks, James’s retells improved greatly. He started achieving above the benchmark in his DIBELS retell scores.

While I reread a chapter back to him, I would point out my miscues and discuss them with him. We talked about why I might have miscued and evaluated if the miscue was high-quality or low-quality and why. By exploring our miscues, James was developing the idea that reading was not about reading words fast and accurately. He was beginning to understand that reading was about comprehending. When James came to a word he did not know, he needed permission to make a meaningful substitution. We practiced this until he was doing it on his own. Instead of begging me to tell him the word, he started demanding that I not tell him the word, but give him a hint about what it might mean. Success! Eventually, through my giving him synonyms or making a meaningful connection for him, he would read the word easily without needing to sound it out.

Toward the end of the semester I shared with him that he had been reading books with a Lexile of 500-550. He was amazed! He was thrilled to tell the librarian and his classroom teacher. His confidence and his meaning-making strategies progressed.

I began using similar techniques with students on my special education caseload. I noticed the same pattern in them as I did in James. They lacked confidence, they thought themselves incapable of reading, and they only ever used one strategy—sounding out words. Reading to these students was all about reading the words accurately and fast (which they could not do). Asking them to think of a word that might make sense was foreign to them because the scripted programs that they had participated in used only a skills-based approach, which neglected all of the other meaning-making strategies. Breaking the “sound-it-out” stronghold was not easy, but it was quite engaging for the students as learners and for me as the teacher-facilitator. As students left the reading intervention group, I started hearing, “That was fun! Can we do that again tomorrow?” Success!

Less proficient readers need more support reading lots of books. Scripted reading intervention programs don’t give less proficient readers more support and experience with real books! We need to rethink reading intervention and revalue the reader and the reading process.

Susan G. Warren is a learning and behavior specialist and a 32-year veteran of the Bloomington Public Schools in Bloomington, Illinois.