Friday, May 2, 2014

PBD: Picturebooks with Books as Characters

I have been working on my new column for The Reading Teacher from IRA. This column will feature picturebooks that incorporate a book into their storyline or as a character in the book. These examples above all feature postmodern or metafictive elements, in particular self-referentiality, parody, and ambiguity. I love these books! They force the reader to be more active and involved in the story and playfully expose some of the narrative conventions readers take for granted.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Some Advice for Graduating Teachers

Here are some excerpts from the Commencement Address I delivered at Willammette University in Salem, OR a few years ago:

My experience over the past 25 years as an educator has helped shape my outlook on life and helped form my vision for the world I want to live in. But as the gray hair becomes more prominent, my years of experience have also caused me to forget what it is like to be 20 something and starting a new career in education. Over the next few weeks, and probably at some party this evening, someone that is as old as I am is going to lean over and offer you some advice for your future. So listen to us, and nod your head respectfully, and consider what we have to say, but be sure the decisions ahead are all yours:

There are very few black and white decisions, and No one can live your life for you. You need to get out in the world and find your own path, create your own vision of what you want the world to be. Life is simply what you make of it. So get outside, travel as much as you can, play an instrument, learn a new language, try some exotic food, and dance and sing like no one is watching you. I truly believe the more interesting a person you are the better teacher you will become.

With the help of today’s technology you are able to develop on-line relationships that provide a sense of anonymity. The Internet allows us to hide from each other as we pretend to develop lasting friendships. I’m here to tell you that it is just not possible for anybody to have 4764 real friends and life doesn't come at you in 140 character bits. It's bigger. It's messier. And it requires more depth and attention than a single text message can possibly provide.

But modern technology is seductive. It makes it easy to engage and disengage at will. I’m here to tell you that real relationships are built on commitment, integrity and respect. True friendships are demanding. So is being a teacher. You can’t be anonymous in the classroom. You can’t engage and disengage at will. You have to be fully present each and every day. For better or worse, you can’t tweet your way through the required curriculum. The face-to-face conversation has been replaced by the written letter, and the written letter has been replaced by the phone call, and the phone call was replaced by the e-mail that was then replaced by the text message. I don't think we can get much more detached than that.

But as teachers it is all about the developing relationships with your students, not detachments. Teaching is about being there for your students. It's about getting to know the kids in your classroom as human beings, not as standardized test scores.

I give you my top ten bits of wisdom about education, teaching and being an educator that I have developed over my years as a classroom teacher and university professor.

Number 10:
When students are bored and confused it's usually because teachers can be boring and confusing.

Number 9:
Stay away from teachers that suck the life out of their classrooms. There is a big difference between teaching for 20 years and teaching the same year 20 times.

Number 8:
Teach things well. Teach them slowly and thoughtfully and live to teach something else another day. 

Number 7:
When everything goes wrong, go play kickball. Then, come back the next day and start all over again. I have often joked with one of my publishers that I should write a book called “Oh Crap: One Hundred and 10 lessons that didn't do anything good for anybody.

Number 6:
Find passion in the subject matter you teach. Learn to love what you teach whether it's physics, phonics, fiction or fractions. 

Number 5:
The best form of classroom management is an engaging curriculum. Students that are interested in what they are learning rarely cause problems. 

Number 4:
Go home before dark. Get a life. There is a fine line between being committed to education and getting committed. You're an interesting teacher when you are an interesting person. 

Number 3:
Be a learner 1st and a teacher 2nd. Don’t be afraid to tell students you don't know something. Show them how you found the answers. Demonstrate your passion as a learner and your students will follow.

Number 2:
Read aloud to your students every day and let them talk about what you've read. There is nothing as effective and as efficient as reading aloud and discussing texts in a classroom.

Number 1:
In the name of creating lifelong learners, don't make students do things lifelong learners would never tolerate.

But before I leave, let me share with you One last thought.

You never graduate from yourself. Your sense of identity continues to develop long after your formal schooling is over. Indeed, your development as a learner and as a human being continues throughout your life. As teachers, what we have to do is live in a way that makes learning possible. We have to reflect on our experiences and learn from them all - good and bad - and make room in our lives for the things we are passionate about. It's never too late or too early to rework your life. As a teacher, each Monday brings a renewed sense of possibility. Each week can be a do over, a chance to try new things and learn new things from your students. I'd like to point out that there is a multiuser, multimodal, multiplatform reality game readily available for each and every one of you. It's called life. And it is time to get out and start playing it today.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

PBD: Picturebooks by Kadir Nelson

The picturebooks of Kadir Nelson feature the lives and stories of famous African Americans. His artwork has won numerous awards and is featured on his website at: and in a new gallery exhibit at

His realistic paintings and extensive research bring to life the joys and struggles of these historical characters. I eagerly await every new picturebook that features his illustrations.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

PBD: Some Favorites by Leo Lionni

Everyone is familiar with Leo Lionni's books Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse and Swimmy, but here are a few more of my favorites. Born in Italy, Lionni was a graphic designer as much as a children's book artist. His colorful images blend drawing and collage and are delightful to share with young readers. His stories often revolve around being different, getting along and expanding one's creativity and imagination. There couldn't be any more important things to do these days in the dreary landscape of many classrooms than foster curiosity and expand children's imagination. Read on and let the mind wander!

Fostering Comprehension: Some Guidelines

            Reading comprehension instruction has assumed a prominent place in educational conversations of late, and for good reasons. With the recent release of the Rand Report on Reading Comprehension, Reading for Understanding: Toward an R & D Program in Reading Comprehension, and the increasing focus on reading instruction as a topic of national concern, we need to understand how reading comprehension is defined, taught and assessed. First, let me share the definition set forth in the Rand Report for reading comprehension; the process of simultaneously extracting and constructing meaning through interaction and involvement with written language. So if we are extracting meaning, then it must reside IN the text? Though I do not agree with this, we shall move forward nonetheless. This definition focuses on meaning residing in the text, and refers to reading comprehension as “text-based thinking.” The three elements of the reading event are described as the reader, the text and the activity or purpose for reading, however the primary focus seems to be the reader and the text. Second, the researchers that wrote this report agree that reading comprehension should be taught explicitly in classrooms, and it should not be assumed that comprehension is the goal of all readers. Third, they agree that teacher development in the area of reading comprehension instruction is crucial for improving reading comprehension across grade levels. And finally, they believe that reading comprehension should be assessed at every stage of learning.
            Focusing on explicit instruction of reading comprehension, I offer five (5) elements of instruction that should be part of every classroom, kindergarten through high school.
  1. Setting Expectations: We need to be sure that readers understand that making sense of texts is the primary goal of every reading event. We can do this by sharing our own reading processes, reading books about readers (there is a booklist on my web-site,, generating a list of characteristics of “Successful Readers” in every classroom and adopting a class slogan or motto, Reading Is Understanding, for example.
  2. Demonstrations of Comprehension Strategies: Readers need to hear and see how proficient readers make sense of texts. Using think alouds and other discussion techniques we can demonstrate how we make sense of texts in front of our students. The language we use is explicit and sets the expectation that understanding is the primary goal of reading texts.
  3. Guided Practice: Reading comprehension instruction should be based on the “Gradual Release of Responsibility Model” developed by P. David Pearson and others. In this model, the teacher demonstrates a strategy, students practice that strategy with teacher guidance and then begin using it independently. During guided practice, teachers work alongside students as they try and implement the strategies demonstrated by the teacher. One word of caution, the focus must remain on the construction of meaning, and not simply readers using more and more comprehension strategies. Strategies are a means to comprehension, not an end in themselves.
  4. Independent Use: Readers need many opportunities to read books and other materials and discuss these texts with other readers. The whole purpose of comprehension instruction is to help readers make sense of the texts they read. Because of this, we need to allow time in our day for readers to read.
  5. Reflective Opportunities: During reading workshops, or other classroom instructional frameworks, we need to allow students the opportunity to talk about and think about the strategies they have been employing, the books they have been reading and any questions or challenges that may arise during the reading event. Readers need to learn to talk about their reading processes. It has been shown that those readers that are more “meta-cognitively aware” are in general our better readers.
Demonstrating how proficient readers make sense of texts and then guiding readers to apply the same strategies helps readers develop their own strategies for making sense of texts. However, the goal is not to get better at strategies but to get better at making sense. Setting the expectation that reading should ALWAYS be a meaning making process is probably the most important thing we can do as reading teachers.

Monday, April 28, 2014

PBD: Tree of Life & Starry Messenger

Two fabulous picturebooks by Peter Sis highlighting the lives of Charles Darwin and Galileo. Sis treats the controversial nature of the lives of these two historic figures with balance and accurate details. He seems to promote science over religion in both books without clubbing the reader over the head with the possible implications for each.