Tag Archives: reading instruction

Reading Strategies: A How-To for Teachers

At Thinkport you’ll find a pretty awesome series of online guides, videos, and tutorials aimed at making you a more effective teacher of reading strategies. What’s most amazing is that this site is actually aimed at middle school teachers, that oft-forgotten cadre of souls wedged between elementary and high school.

So what’s Thinkport? From the site:

Thinkport is the product of an on-going partnership between Maryland Public Television (MPT) and Johns Hopkins University Center for Technology in Education (CTE), two of the most trusted names in Maryland education.

Thinkport aims to help teachers teach more effectively, inspire students to learn, build bridges between schools and homes, and fulfill Maryland Content Standards for education. We’re focused on harnessing technology in the service of education.

Well, I’m not from Maryland, but I absolutely love the Reading Strategies resources offered here. You first investigate discrete reading strategies through videos, interviews, and examples, and you’re then given printable aids to help incorporate those strategies in your classroom.

You then see these strategies in action, assisted by a teacher’s guide.

Finally, you see how reading skills can best be implemented using a number of online virtual field trips available from this site. Although many relate specifically to Maryland’s history, others can absolutely be used by anyone.

Lots to see here for both novices and pros!

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What Makes a Good Children’s Book?

What makes a good children’s book? I’d suppose that’s a tough question to answer, otherwise Microsoft would have already written Newbery Notebook 1.0 and Caldecott Creator for Windows. A good children’s book is far from formulaic.

It seems, however, that Little, Brown Books has done a pretty good job of nailing some of the more prominently recurring traits of good children’s books (both novels and picture books). See the whole list at the Upstart Crow Literary blog (a cool place to peek behind the curtain of the writing and publishing biz).

What use is this list to the average classroom teacher?

  • It may help you understand why some books win with children while others fail. The list explains, for example, why a common literary motif of many children’s novels (Harry Potter, Lord of the Flies, Narnia, Holes) is the removal of the protagonist (and other main characters) from adult supervision and control.
  • The individual attributes may help you create some connections between otherwise unrelated texts. One successful exercise with every novel, for example, is looking at how a character grows or changes over time. I’ve used this approach with Number the Stars, Because of Winn Dixie, Crash, Flipped, and Island of the Blue Dolphins to name just a few. Check out this sample recording sheet.
  • The list can be used a fairly accurate indicator of a book’s overall value when teachers must choose just two or three titles for study. Many teachers, for example, complain that their boys just don’t “get into” books which feature strong female protagonists. A book like Poppy, however, which features a female animal protagonist, is somehow more readily embraced.
  • Teachers can use the list as a reference for writing minilessons. If these are the traits that make good children’s books work, and if these are the attributes with which children have the most first-hand experience, then perhaps many of them could inform student writing as well.

How else do you see putting this list to work for you? Email me or leave a comment below!

(This same post also appears at my Teach with Picture Books site).

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60 Second Recap

If you haven’t checked out 60 Second Recap, you’re in for a treat. 60 Second Recap is a collection of video clips covering the plots, characters, symbolism, and more of favorite classic literature for teens. But it’s not a dry, overly-academic examination. It’s a lively conversation hosted by a real-life, somewhat zany hostess named Jenny (you can find her on Twitter).

The site’s overview gives you a sense of the tongue-in-cheek humor that’s behind this great site:

“Eat your lima beans,” Mom used to say.

And now that you’re out on your own, honestly, are lima beans a staple of your culinary repertoire?

There, in a lima bean, lies the problem confronting the great works of literature. We’re all forced to read them in school so we can get good grades so we can go to a good college so we can get a good job so we can forget all about that literature they used to force us to read so we could get good grades.

The 60second Recap™ aims to break this cycle of canonical irrelevance. We want to help teens (yes, teens of all ages!) engage with literature. We want to help them see it not as some chore to be endured, but as — dare we say it? — the gift of a lifetime. How? Through the language of our time — the language of video. Video that’s focused, engaging, informative … and short enough to hold just about anyone’s attention.

Smirk if you must. Consider this yet another mile-marker on civilization’s road to perdition. But here’s the fact: You won’t get non-readers to read by forcing them to read more. You’ll get them to read by opening their eyes to the marvels awaiting them between the covers of that homework assignment.

With the 60second Recap™, teens finally have an alternative to the boring, text-based study guides that have burdened them for generations. And — who knows? — maybe that’s just what they’ll need to begin a love affair with literature, one that will last a lifetime.

In addition to the videos on classics such as Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men, Frankenstein, Lord of the Flies, and Hamlet, users will find a section called Recap Resource which includes a Dictionary of Terms (allegory, motifs, subtext, protagonist, etc.) and How to Write a Paper (that Won’t Put your Teacher to Sleep).  Again, these are presented in video form, which them much less intimidating for the average high school user.

The site also features an area for video responses from users, and another for users to request titles for recapping.

I highly recommend you visit the site and give it a look! I’m curious to see how it will change as it grows.

Know another great site for teachers working with novels? Find me on Twitter!

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Teaching Metaphorically

In response to my prior post about Metaphors & Analogies: Power Tools for Teaching Any Subject, I received an email from Adriana who asked, “Can you give an example of a metaphorical lesson? Not a lesson that teaches about metaphors, but a lesson that uses the idea.”

While I had a few ideas, I thought the best way might be to show a lesson in action. Check out this clip from Mr. Langhorst’s 8th grade in Liberty, Missouri. It’s a perfect example of an extended metaphor.

I love this approach! In my third and fourth grades, where I’ve taught the Revolutionary War as well, I’ve taken a slightly different approach. Students were presented with a letter from the school board, announcing that due to last year’s low test scores several drastic measures would be put into place: extended school hours, summer school for all students below a 3.5 average, school on Saturdays, and no more Physical Education. Students became quite upset that neither they not their parents were in attendance at this meeting, and that they were being punished for last year’s bad scores (purely fictitious as well). Seeing how distraught my students were, I graciously allowed them to draft letters to the testing coordinator (Mr. Itzal LaSham) expressing their feelings. Without fail, students created the most articulate, persuasive writing of their lives! When read aloud, the letters of protest were impassioned and convincing.

But then I wondered aloud, “I’m not sure if we should have done this. Perhaps Mr. LaSham will get upset, and call your parents. Are you guys really willing to take that risk?” Out come the erasers, but not for all. Most students are so adamant in their beliefs that they refuse to erase their names, no matter what the consequences!

It’s usually at this point, although sometimes much earlier, that some student will exclaim, “This is exactly what happened to the colonists! We’re being forced to live by rules that we didn’t help to make.” And eventually, of course, I do let students in on the secret: The letter is fictitious, and so is the testing director (Mr. It’s All a Sham). We then discuss the similarity between their letters and the Declaration of Independence. Both documents express extreme dissatisfaction, but the latter is further expressing outright rebellion. Should the colonists lose this war, the bold Declaration will serve as King George’s hanging list.

In nearly twenty years of implementing this lesson, students have been faithful to not share it with their siblings or friends, and each year’s new class faithfully falls for the trick: hook, line, and sinker. But the real payoff is that years later, when students return from high school and college to visit, they’ll ask, “Did you do the letter yet?” and they’ll vividly recall every aspect of the lesson, including (here’s the clincher!) its point.

Now that’s a lesson that sticks.

If you’re a social studies teacher, check out Eric Langhorst’s blog for more great resources and insights. You may also want to check out the six elements of “stickiness” found in Dan and Chip Heath’s Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

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Metaphorically Speaking

Metaphors and AnalogiesStenhouse has put out a new book that I can’t recommend enthusiastically enough. Rick Wormeli’s Metaphors & Analogies: Power Tools for Teaching Any Subject adds to the canon of distinguished titles which deal with the topic of metaphor. His work, however, is so far the most practical title I’ve seen on the topic, offering teachers simple steps for improving their instruction through the use of metaphors and analogies. Every page provides subject-specific examples, allowing readers to easily understand the real-life applications to the classroom.

My own forays into this topic began with George Lakoff’s now-classic Metaphors We Live By, which plainly illustrated the pervasiveness of metaphor in everyday language. While critics argued that the book was not well supported with research, just a brief look into its pages will convince Metaphors We Live Byany reader that what Lakoff was attempting to prove through discourse alone was pretty self-evident (once exposed) and pretty remarkable as well. People do speak unconsciously in metaphors, all the time, and the metaphors they choose can tell us a lot about their preconceptions, perspectives, and prejudices on a topic. My personal copy of Metaphors We Live By contains hardly a page not scribbled with a comment or question; it did profoundly influence the way in which I approached reading and language arts instruction.

Next came Marcel Danesi’s Poetic Logic: The Role of Metaphor in Thought, Language, and Culture, which was arguably more research based than Poetic LogicMetaphors We Live By. Discovering the scientific and linguistic basis for everything Lakoff argued reinforced for me that metaphorical language is neither coincidental nor arbitrary. In Danesi’s own words:

The main goal of this book has been to take the reader on an excursion through an amalgam of facts, ideas, and illustrations that reveal how poetic logic works in making the world visible and thus understandable in human terms. Metaphor is a trace to poetic thinking, which constantly creates connections among things. This is why metaphors and metaforms have such emotional power—they tie people together, allowing them to express a common sense of purpose in an interconnected fashion.

What Rick Wormeli now brilliantly accomplishes through Metaphors & Analogies: Power Tools for Teaching Any Subject might be seen as a currency exchange. He takes the “hundred dollar ideas” of Lakoff and Danesi and turns them into “spending money” for the classroom. Wormeli shows how students can use metaphors to make connections between the concrete and the abstract, prior knowledge and new concepts, and language and image (neither Lakoff nor Danesi discussed visual metaphors at any length). Wormeli also goes beyond the passive museum experience of “let’s notice and appreciate the beauty of metaphors” to a workshop mentality of “let’s throw some clay on the wheel and see what we can form on our own.” Ultimately, his work is an impressive how-to on the subject.

But what’s in it for teachers of literature? So many of Wormeli’s examples are based in math, social studies, and science that Reading and Language Arts teachers might wonder what’s in it for them.

Rather than construct an argument, let me instead offer a simple example. FlippedBelow is an excerpt from Wendelin Van Draanen’s Flipped (grade level equivalent 5.5). How many single and extended metaphors can you spot? And more importantly, what additional (between the lines) information can they provide if the reader is alert enough to notice them?

My sister, on the other hand, tried to sabotage me any chance she got. Lynetta’s like that. She’s four years older than me, and buddy, I’ve learned from watching her how not to run your life. She’s got ANTAGONIZE written all over her. Just look at her – not cross-eyed or with your tongue sticking out or anything – just look at her and you’ve started an argument.

I used to knock-down-drag-out with her, but it’s just not worth it. Girls don’t fight fair. They pull your hair and gouge you and pinch you; then they run off gasping to mommy when you try and defend yourself with a fist. Then you get locked into time-out, and for what? No, my friend, the secret is, don’t snap at the bait. Let it dangle. Swim around it. Laugh it off. After a while they’ll give up and try to lure someone else.

At least that’s the way it is with Lynetta. And the bonus of having her as a pain-in-the-rear sister was figuring out that this method works on everyone. Teachers, jerks at school, even Mom and Dad. Seriously. There’s no winning arguments with your parents, so why get all pumped up over them? It is way better to dive down and get out of the way than it is to get clobbered by some parental tidal wave.

The funny thing is, Lynetta’s still clueless when it comes to dealing with Mom and Dad. She goes straight into thrash mode and is too busy drowning in the argument to take a deep breath and dive for calmer water.

And she thinks I’m stupid.

The fact is, for students to read with comprehension and appreciation, they must be able to recognize and dissect both simple and complex analogies. And for students to be able to explain their own understandings of difficult concepts (no matter what the discipline), they must be able to describe those concepts through metaphors and analogies.

I highly recommend Metaphors & Analogies: Power Tools for Teaching Any Subject for teachers looking to advance their own practice as teaching professionals. As always, Stenhouse offers you a preview of the entire book at their site.

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New Teacher’s Guides at Harper Collins

Looks like Harper Collins has reformatted their homepage for teacher’s and readers’ guides. Lots of great free resources here for many popular books at all reading levels.

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Classics Online

There are hundreds of sites online that allow you to read public domain classics such as 1984 and Paradise Lost. If Google is any measure, the search phrase “Read Classic Literature Online” serves up 321 results, and “Read Classics Online” serves up 5,740.

If you’re looking for the best site of its kind, I highly recommend ReadPrint. Unlike other literary classics sites, ReadPrint is incredibly lean and clean, with a modern ReadPrintinterface with no annoying ads or upsells. Over 8,000 books by 3,500 authors available at your fingertips.

Like most other sites, you can search by either author, title, or writing type (essay, fiction, nonfiction, play, short story, poem). But what’s really nice is that ReadPrint also provides you the author’s biography and selected quotes. The quotes alone are worth the visit! I found myself reading through dozens of these, thinking how each could be used as a great thinking prompt at the start of class.

What happens so often as we get involved with new writers and new books is we forget how terrific the “old school stuff” really is. Take this character description from the opening page of Treasure Island as an example:

I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow–a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of his soiled blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. I remember him looking round the cover and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:

“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest– Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!” in the high, old tottering voice that seemed to have been tuned and broken at the capstan bars. Then he rapped on the door with a bit of stick like a handspike that he carried, and when my father appeared, called roughly for a glass of rum. This, when it was brought to him, he drank slowly, like a connoisseur, lingering on the taste and still looking about him at the cliffs and up at our signboard.

“This is a handy cove,” says he at length; “and a pleasant sittyated grog-shop. Much company, mate?”

My father told him no, very little company, the more was the pity.

“Well, then,” said he, “this is the berth for me. Here you, matey,” he cried to the man who trundled the barrow; “bring up alongside and help up my chest. I’ll stay here a bit,” he continued. “I’m a plain man; rum and bacon and eggs is what I want, and that head up there for to watch ships off. What you mought call me? You mought call me captain. Oh, I see what you’re at– there”; and he threw down three or four gold pieces on the threshold. “You can tell me when I’ve worked through that,” says he, looking as fierce as a commander.

Arr, that be good writin.’ And there’s plenty more where that came from. Give ReadPrint a visit; it’s sure to become your go-to site for classical inspiration.

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