|FOR THE LOVE OF READING|
One Small Tree
When we moved into our home last year, I was feeling a little bereft. We had left a large yard with two beautiful trees in order to move into a newer home that required less work but had a small yard and no trees.
As spring moved into summer and then into fall, I was constantly surveying the landscape for beautiful, natural views. One small tree fit the bill. A lovely, bright red sugar maple grew right off the alley and I could see it from my kitchen window. It's lovely foliage made me smile every time I glanced out. I was smitten and calmed. I felt much better about our new location.
It's amazing how something so small, just a bit of nature, could make me feel so much better about a big change. As you enter a new school year, remember that connecting to the natural world makes a big difference. Find a way to add a bit of nature and color to the lives of the people around you as they enter a time where they are inside more often. Bring someone a flower or write them a small nature-inspired poem or note. Show your children or students how special they are by adding a plant to their room or the classroom. Go for a walk in the forest or take a trip to an arboretum.
Remember, feelings matter and we all need the beautiful, natural world around us to help us feel joyful, calm and energized. Social emotional health is strongly linked to the natural world around us and it can help us weather any time of big change.
So, find your own little tree, and smile.
I just watched John Oliver’s report on standardized testing in America.
(Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6lyURyVz7k&app=desktop)
I couldn’t stop. It isn’t that I don’t know that testing is destroying the fabric of our schools: it’s just that I sometimes pretend it isn’t true. Couldn’t be true. Some of the things he shared are just too ridiculous to be true.
I think sometimes that the decision-makers in this country don’t ever really think about actual children when they make decisions. They must just put them right out of their heads. For how could someone think of a child, a wonderfully-made child, and determine that each one must perform to a certain degree on one kind of standardized test?
Children come to us in many ways. And they are a gift. From the tops of their heads to the bottom of their toes, a gift full of promise. Children are thoughtful from the very earliest age. They wonder about us and about their world. They listen and copy and think and learn. They were made to do those things. To be creative and create. To be inquisitive and ask. From the earliest age their brains are learning and creating and asking. They are learning to be like the people around them. It can be a process of discovery and joy.
We watch them grow and we exclaim over every step, every thought, every question. We exclaim because it seems to happen so naturally and so wonderfully. We exclaim because it seems almost as though we did nothing to foster this amazing growth. This amazing child.
But children learn from watching and mimicking. Their brains look for patterns and they learn from those patterns. They learn language by listening and copying and inferring. They learn everything in that same way. From watching, being immersed, and mimicking those around them because their brains were created to do so. And to do it with creativity and often innovation.
So, why in the world do any people think that standardized tests could ever measure the breadth and depth of a child’s ability and capacity to think?
And what kind of models are we providing in schools that feed each child’s amazing capacity to learn as they mimic the behavior and thinking of others?
What are children really learning as they work through a school year filled with tests?
Why in the world.
I am sometimes saddened by the state of education in this bountiful country today.
I am saddened that there has been a tremendous loss of the belief in one thing:
That children are wonderfully made, my friends. They are all (every. single. one.) capable of the kind of learning and thinking that could transform the whole wide world. Our great leaders have decided to measure this with tests that only measure one kind of thinking. One kind of learning. With no creativity of thought. Without considering the wonder and miracle of a young mind. There needs to be a change.
So be sad with me.
But just for one minute.
Then think about how you can impact this culture of testing to make a change.
Is it one email? One call? A conversation? A prayer?
We have to rise up and reclaim education for our wonderfully-made children.
As parents, as educators, we can do this. Together. To reclaim the joy.
Anchors are incredibly useful tools.
I haven’t been boating on the ocean many times in my life, but on the occasions where I was lucky enough, the anchor has been immensely important. On our honeymoon, my husband and I took a catamaran on a snorkeling trip. The boat soared over the sea, rocking with amazing speed. It felt like we were flying.
When we finally stopped, the captain released the anchor down into the turquoise abyss.
And it held us in place.
In the middle of this giant expanse of untamed ocean, it held us in place. The waves rocked, the wildlife teemed below the surface, the colors exploded in our view as we snorkeled, and the entire time the anchor held the boat in place.
It’s incredibly simple and powerful: an anchor. It’s a tool as old as the ages. And it’s power and simplicity doesn’t need to change in order for it to hold an entire boat in place. Hold it despite rough waters, an entire world of species below, an unpredictable sky above.
Anchors are incredibly powerful tools in the classroom too. “What?” you say. But it’s true. I talk with teachers about anchors all of the time.
To create an anchor in the classroom is very simple. There is no forging of metal needed. Anchoring a child’s thinking simply takes a chart, sometimes a text and a clear focus. A classroom anchor doesn’t need to hold an entire boat in place. It simply needs to hold a child’s thinking in place.
A mental anchor holds a child’s thinking in place.
It takes the thinking back to the place where the child first learned something and allows him to connect new thinking to that old experience. Anchors also help children transfer any disconnected learning to an appropriate context.
A classroom anchor, whether a chart, an experience, or a text, helps children connect new learning to old thinking despite distractions, rough days, time spent away from school.
Anchors are immensely important on boats. If you don’t anchor a boat it may float off in any direction and completely lose track of where it started and where it is going. You may even lose the entire boat.
Anchors are even more important in teaching a child to think and learn. If you don’t anchor thinking it will float off in any direction and completely lose track of where it started and where it is going. It will get lost. And the thinker may be lost as well.
But, we can create classrooms where mental anchors hold the thinking in place and help children grow and expand their thinking in meaningful ways.
Expand it in ways that are bigger and broader than an entire ocean.
And yet keep it anchored in place and connected to prior learning so that it all makes sense. And it all adds up to bigger thinking than ever before.
Anchors can help us do that. Simple, powerful anchors for small, powerful thinkers.
We can do it together. Joyfully.
My six-year old daughter just had the opportunity to be a part of a wonderful local theater production of Willy Wonka Jr. She was an Oompa Loompa.
Roald Dahl, the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the story that this production is based on) was an amazingly creative and quirky writer. His stories defy the imagination. Yet, he is able to take fantastic situations and make us believe them and want to be a part of them. We can imagine how the characters feel. We can imagine what it might be like to join Willy Wonka in his chocolate factory. To be an Oompa Loompa. We bring our own imagination to the story and we make the whole crazy story meaningful. We can make meaning from something amazingly fantastic and unreal.
As a longtime teacher of reading, the words “make meaning” have come out of my mouth more times than I even realize. For those of you who are not teachers, this phrase essentially means that reading has to make sense. Reading is all about making sense. Even when the story is comes purely from the imagination of a well-loved writer like Roald Dahl.
Making meaning is something we do all day long from the moment we are able to comprehend our world as small, small children. We don’t just start as readers. We begin as young thinkers.
This behavior is very human, very important to our social development as we learn to think deeply about the people in our world. Peter Johnston, of Opening Minds, refers to one aspect of this ability as social imagination. I love this because the word imagination goes so nicely with play.
Children play to learn how to learn and how to imagine. Imagining what others are thinking is exactly what play is all about. Dressing up like Mommy helps children to become Mommy, to think like Mommy, to use their social imagination to be Mommy. Dressing up like an Oompa Loompa helps children imagine they are a part of Willy’s fantastic chocolate factory. They can think like one of the characters. It’s pure imagination.
Children make meaning in giant ways even as small, small people. They use play and their imagination to make meaning. Eventually they use this kind of thinking to make meaning in the books that they hear, the books that they read. Reading cannot be truly taught in the absence of meaning. Reading is all about meaning.
The letters and words just get us there. To the meaning. Through imagination.
And the experiences with play, with imagining what other people think, eventually can help us think deeply about the books that we read. About the characters and situations that draw us in. Like Willy, a chocolate factory, and the very imaginary and incredibly fun Oompa Loompas.
We can teach reading in meaningful ways. Fantastic, unreal ways. Children can use the amazing thinking that comes so naturally to think deeply about all kinds of text. We can help them do this. With joy. And, sometimes, with a chocolate factory.
We can do it together. Thanks, Roald Dahl.
Ah… the reality of a teacher’s life. Too much work, too little time, too many Institute Days.
Recently, I was invited to attend a district-wide Institute Day. After arriving at the school I was unable to find parking and ended up entering first my session a few minutes late. After finding a seat, I set my attention to the front of the room.
The presenter was very animated. His hands were active and his voice carried a lot of inflection. He was excited about his topic. He was an engaging individual... but, unfortunately, I had no idea what he was talking about. So, I desperately looked to his projected slides.
Alas, they did not help much. I am always intrigued by presenters who fill their slides with lines and lines of text. In this case, it was all in capitals.
I NEED YOU TO HEAR WHAT I AM SAYING.
THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT.
ARE YOU LISTENING?
Why are you yelling at us? Each slide was the same. And, honestly, I couldn’t figure out exactly what his workshop was all about.
But I remember one detail very clearly. He indicated in one of his slides that:
STUDENTS DO NOT NEED TO HEAR LECTURES.
THEY NEED TO BE ENGAGED IN LEARNING.
And then he proceeded to lecture for full hour.
I was not engaged. And by the number of people looking at laptop screens and phones, I suspect others were not as well.
So here’s what I think: teachers need the same things their students need. A clear reason for listening. A high level of engagement. To understand the need for the professional development. To want it. And to use it to work toward becoming more knowledgeable.
JUST LIKE THEIR STUDENTS.
I am here to tell you that all of this is possible. We can link professional development to the needs of teachers and their students based on real classroom data. We can engage teachers in learning and thinking at high levels through a variety of professional development opportunities embedded in their day to day world. We can create learning communities that really learn. And teachers who really think. We can do this with joy. We can do all of this together.
AND THERE’S NO NEED FOR YELLING.
Suzanne Hostrawser is available to create engaging professional development for teachers or parent groups.
Contact her at email@example.com.
I like big books.
Really. I cannot lie. The bigger, the better. When I find a book I might like to read, I immediately judge it for its size. I want a book that will last a long, long time. Usually, I want to find one that will never end. Because, remember, I love to read. I am so, so sad when the reading ends.
As a person who supports teachers, I often am perplexed by the mini-ness of so much of our work with students.
We have mini-lessons, short texts, one-page articles, short blocks of time. We have quick-writes and short centers (that often last for 11 minutes or less). Even guided reading lessons are often reduced to 10 minute blocks. Independent reading has shrunk down to something barely visible in most classrooms. There is often very little actual reading happening in classrooms. Miniature times. Miniature lessons.
Our time and lessons are shrinking while books continue to be big, bigger or biggest. Text is still complex and requires time to think. The ideas are big. Vocabulary is big and sophisticated. Authors continue to amaze me with the complexity and beauty of the texts they create. Big, beautiful books. We need time to read them, think about them, become residents in their language and soak it in for a while. We need lots of time for the work of becoming real readers.
But even basic texts require time for students to practice solving words, thinking about what to try next, developing capacity to use strategies as a real reader. It all takes time. It is big work in a very small world.
I understand, from a daily schedule perspective, that we, as educators, struggle with never having enough time. So, we devise ways to fit many many instructional opportunities into smaller and smaller spaces.
But when it comes to teaching a child to read, we should not minimize the importance of big. Big ideas, big thinking, big words, big books. Does all this fit into mini?
All students need time to process and practice. Sometimes, a small lesson is just what they need to push them to the next place in their development as a reader. Sometimes, a few minutes is enough.
But other times, they may need a lesson that gives them the time and space to think deeply over time. They may need guided reading that supports them through the reading of a very, very big book. They may need days and weeks of time to build stamina for reading those texts as they become a real reader of longer, more sophisticated text.
A reader who looks for the biggest book on shelf and thinks, I wish it were longer. I don’t ever want the reading to end.
It is possible. In a world of mini-teaching we can create the space and time to teach our students how to dive into complex text and become readers of big beautiful books that last a long time. We must do this.
We can do it. We can, together.
Suzanne Hostrawser is a literacy consultant that can help make sure you have time for the big thinking that books require.
Contact her today at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week was my son’s 4th grade show. I love to hear young children sing in a chorus! What a privilege and a joy. I don’t know what it is about children’s voices coming together in song, but it almost always gives me chills and puts tears in my eyes. There is just something about those young voices coming together to make something beautiful. It’s truly awesome and special.
Having music in an elementary school is, hopefully, like having lunch. It’s a regular part of every child’s experience as a student. We, as a nation, seem to value its importance because we love music and inherently know that we also need music. Learning music is important. The experience of coming together as one musical voice is important.
Bringing children’s voices together is vitally important. Song is one way. Another way is through conversation. Yet, conversation is not a regular part of children’s experience as students. And I always wonder why.
The sheer power and emotion of hearing children’s voices in one chorus is amazing; hearing children’s voices converse with power and emotion is also amazing. And, I would argue, just as vital to brain development.
Peter H. Johnson, author of Opening Minds, advocates for the creation of dialogic classrooms, where children’s voices are engaged in conversation on a daily basis. Their voices and ideas are the star of the show. They read and engage in conversations about the perspectives of the characters. They think about how those perspectives can change their perspective and, ultimately, change the way they act and react in their lives.
Voices coming together for a purpose: to change minds. Literally.
Children need to sing. There’s something just simply heavenly about a choir of children’s voices. You just know it’s meant to be. There’s power in it.
But children also need to bring their voices together in discussions. And arguments. And debates. If you’ve ever been witness to children passionately engaged in a conversation about text, about anything, you will agree that it is just as heavenly. Just as meant to be. Just as powerful.
We can bring children’s voices together in dialogue every single day in our classrooms. We can make their voices the star of the show. We can do it confidently because it changes who children are and how they think. It helps them realize who they are and who they want to be.
We can really listen to each child’s voice, their song.
We can do it with joy.
My early childhood was golden. Really. My parents created an idyllic outside space that I remember being purely golden. There were the flower gardens, the cherry tree, and a large vegetable garden. I remember a patch of mint and lilies of the valley. It was a beautiful yard where I imagined, played and created a million different worlds and adventures. I grew up with the growing things. My memories from that early time really are tinged with a golden light.
I yearn to create such a world for my children. Alas, my garden beds are not quite as impressive. I have all the right tools. But, I struggle a bit with finding my inner-gardener. I’m sure she’s there. (I worry that she’s a bit crowded by my family’s needs, the house that perpetually needs picked up, the job that tends to take over every extra minute, and every other little thing that seems more important than digging in the dirt).
But growing things is important. I am convinced. So I keep planting and try not to notice that the weeds are taking over and the leaves look a little yellow. I peek at them sometimes from behind my book as I relax in the sun. I feel a bit guilty but, as usual, the books get my attention before the plants.
Right now I am reading a book entitled Opening Minds by Peter H. Johnston. His ideas have completely taken me in. There is so much to think about on every page. But, recently, one idea grabbed me and held on. He states, “… books are not merely to entertain or to teach kids to figure out words or even to learn things from. They are tools for growing minds”.
“Tools for growing minds”.
“Books are not merely to entertain.
Or to teach kids how to figure out words.
Or even to learn things from.
They are tools for growing minds”.
Johnston continues by stating that children need to discuss the ideas in the books that they read or hear read aloud. That children’s minds require opportunities for dialogue about text with their peers. And that these opportunities help their minds grow and change and develop into the minds of compassionate, insightful, adults. Therefore, he argues, we must use books as dialogic tools in classrooms and homes everywhere.
We must use books as tools.
If I don’t use my gardening tools, my garden will not flourish.
If we don’t use books as tools, children’s minds will not grow.
My gardening tools may sit unused a bit too often. My plants may grow weed-bound and yellowed. But the little minds in my house are still growing. And they are tended by the books that threaten to take over all the extra space.
We can all use books as tools to grow every child’s mind into a place tinged by golden light. Where ideas grow like vegetables and new insights bloom every single day.
We can do it. With so much joy and light.
We can do it together.
We all woke up today to snow, which isn’t unusual in Chicago. But all my kids know is that we celebrated the first day of spring a couple of days ago. “Nooo!” my son wailed as he looked out the window. My daughter just dove back under the covers. I agree with their sentiments. The snow needs to go.
Sometimes we get what we don’t expect. What we don’t want. But yelling no and hiding under the covers aren’t really options. (Well, not usually). Like a spring snow, sometimes we are ready to move on but Mother Nature has other plans.
As a parent and a teacher I have those spring snow kind of moments all of the time. I’m ready for spring and the kids still need the snow. I’m ready to move on and they need more time.
Even so, I tend to rush in and try to make everything go my way. But even shoveling like a mad woman is not going to change the fact that there is still snow coming down on this early spring day. I have to wait. And be still. And try to enjoy this moment.
Waiting is so hard. Waiting for the snow to leave is really hard. But the sun will shine and the snow will melt, all in its own time. Waiting is a part of being a parent and being a teacher. (By the way, parents, you are both).
So today, as I look out at the spring snow, I pledge to remember to wait. To be still and watch. To give my students and children the space and time they sometimes need. To make the work about what they need rather than what I want.
We can give children the space to do the work they need to do in their own time. We can support them and love them, get ready for what they need next and wait for them.
We can stop and notice the beauty of the moment. Where we are right now. Even in the middle of a spring snow.
There is joy in this moment. In all moments.
We can find it together.
Suzanne Hostrawser is a mother, a teacher, a lover of much warmer weather. She is available to work with you and your teachers to help them learn to use wait time to help students do the real work of becoming lifelong readers and writers. Contact her today at email@example.com.
I am lucky to be a part of a wonderful studio where I strengthen my body. It is very challenging work and to add to the challenge, a few times a year, they have “Challenge Month”. During this month you get to put a sticker on a chart to keep track of how many times you attend class (yes, stickers and charts happen in real life too).
In the beginning, Challenge Month went like this; you came to class , you got a sticker, the people with the most stickers won. Only the person a sticker on every single day would win a prize. Only the people who were able to come every day were challenged.
At that time, I was a traveling teacher. There were times when I literally could not come to class. So, I quickly gave up on Challenge Month. I was not challenged because there was not equal opportunity for me to be challenged.
It’s Challenge Month again but the rules have changed. This time, every sticker means I get a dollar off my next studio package. Even if I miss a day or two, the challenge is still available. (I feel empowered to save money!) And I’m not the only one. I notice that many more people are filling up their chart. We are all challenged equally. It’s worth the risk.
Challenge is a funny thing. We want to “challenge” our students. Cognitive rigor is a hot topic is schools today based on the new expectations set forward by the Common Core Standards. But what do students need in order to be challenged and not defeated?
To start, they need a level playing field. We cannot extend challenging work to only those who have been deemed “able” to be challenged. Challenge needs to be presented in a way that all students have access to the kind of work that creates cognitive rigor. All students.
You see, all students are capable of thinking in deep and challenging ways. We need to structure our classrooms so that every student has access to this kind of work. So, what does that look like when every student is appropriately challenged?
It looks like a classroom where many ability levels are represented. The class is a community of learners who trust one another and listen to one another and stay together throughout their day. They are engaged in learning and thinking and being challenged, together. It is a dialogic community where daily conversation is vital and all voices are valued. Students respect, and need, each other’s opinions and thoughts.
Text is at a variety of levels and the teacher is very aware of the point at which each of her students is challenged based on ongoing study of all kinds of classroom data. All students have opportunities to access and work with text at a variety of levels. There are opportunities for conversation about text that supersedes any text level.
There are opportunities to practice being challenged in small and whole groups. Students and teacher all work together to create opportunities for challenge at every turn. They take risks, and it’s hard, so they talk about it and work through it together. The teacher is a guide, a coach, a facilitator.
Her voice is not heard as often as her students’ voices.
Because she wants students to be the challenge. To own it.
Challenge isn’t exclusive, but inclusive. It’s a part of life.
If you walked into this classroom you would not be able to tell the struggling learner from any other learner. All of their voices would hold equal weight and they wouldn’t be kept from the challenge for any reason.
Challenge is a part of life. Taking risks is a part of challenge. But there needs to be equal opportunity for all students to access the challenge and feel empowered to meet it.
This is possible. All students can be challenged to think deeply and take risks as they learn. All teachers can create learning communities that work like this. And we can do it with joy.
We can do it together.
Suzanne Hostrawser is a passionate learner and knowledgeable literacy coach who wants to share her passion with you. She is available to provide specialized, job-embedded professional development opportunities for your teachers and leaders.
Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have been lucky enough to have wonderful life experiences in the world of literacy education. I love to learn and talk about learning. Join me. Let's learn together.