Conference Season, Part Deux

February is when the rest of the annual conferences are scheduled. One of my favorite conferences happens in February, CCIRA.

CCIRA is a literacy organization a friend introduced me to years ago. Their conference is one of the largest in the country, and it often has big names in literacy education speaking either as keynotes or in smaller sessions. It’s a little like Comic Con for Language Arts teachers. This time, I ran (literally) into Gerry Brooks, saw Mark Overmeyer coming to breakfast, had Dr. Bob Seney sit in one of my sessions right up front, and though I missed Tina Boogren, I knew she was there–I felt it. (The self-care energy is great with that one…)

What I love most about it though is that so many of the speakers are local educators. These are the people doing the work in their classrooms every day with kids and they are willing to take two days out of their time with kids to come and share their own learnings with the rest of us.

I’ve presented at this conference twice. This year, they picked up both my proposed sessions and I felt incredibly nervous about them both, despite the fact that I’ve presented both more than once. I met with a friend to chat about how to become more of a dynamic presenter and I spent several hours tweaking both presentations so that they’d be just right for the audiences I’d have, which almost always include people with very little experience in teaching our tall poppies.

So many buildings use basal readers–those big classroom textbooks with a smattering of re-written and simplified stories and non-fiction pieces for students to read and answer questions about. Most programs have a small group timed schedule that looks like this:

Day 1: Teacher reads, vocabulary instruction, skill introduction

Day 2: Popcorn reading, vocabulary review, skill practice with text

Day 3: Partner reading, more vocabulary review, comprehension practice

Day 4: Independent reading, skill and comprehension practice

Day 5: Test, which is almost always a mixture of multiple choice, matching, vocabulary, and if you’re lucky, a short answer or two requiring information that’s right there in the text.

Then the next week they begin again with a new story or non-fiction piece.

Teachers work hard using a system like this to support their readers, providing really intentional instruction in both skills and content. And most basal programs aren’t all bad. For a typical learner or one requiring lots of repetition or specific supports, this type of learning situation can be a good thing, providing explicit instruction in specific skills. They do level the playing field, incorporating instructions for support and accommodation, but what’s provided for “enrichment” usually doesn’t follow gifted best practice. For a gifted learner though, this is a recipe for disaster and kills a love of reading fairly quickly.

One of the things I’ve learned in my years of teaching is that kids, particularly gifted ones, need to read genuine, original literature if they’re to learn how to comprehend text. They need to learn how to work their way through a complex sentence or paragraph, go back and reread a difficult piece of dialogue to figure out who the heck was actually speaking, and they need to learn to muddle through longwinded descriptions of paths lined with trees. The author had a purpose in including that part, after all. More importantly though, as readers, we want to connect with the pieces we read. When we choose books, we look at the first few pages, the cover, the back cover, read the recommendations of others, and then decide if we want to commit to it. We want to know the characters personally by the end of a story, and when reading non-fiction, we want to get our questions answered by the end of the piece, so we choose what we read intentionally. Kids don’t always get that choice, so it’s up to us to help create some connections for them. And that requires going beyond the basal text…

One of the sessions I presented was all about making connections to text. I used a short piece from a well-known author, a woman of color. I was introduced to it not in school, but in a conference session presented by a friend of mine who has far more years experience teaching literature than I. As our intimate group chatted about the piece, ideas began to spring into my head about how I could use this with kids, and how I’d like to see them respond to it.

He helped me create connections to the text by asking a few very deliberate questions. I was looking through the eyes of my students as I read, thinking of all the things beyond the words on the page that I saw in it.

That’s reading. That’s practicing comprehension. That’s exploring vocabulary and sentence structure.

That is the work of readers.

This time, this particular session went very well, and the energy in the room was high, people were engaged, and like when a lesson goes the way I picture it will, I moved on to my next session a little high on excitement.

The people in the room were probably excited to learn a new way to help their kids learn to read literature, but I suspect they left even more excited having had the opportunity to remember what it was to be a student and experience learning in a way that allowed them to remember what it felt like to think and make connections.

We don’t do that very often anymore as adults–we let the news tell us what we need to know, flip through stories on facebook or twitter, read professional books for specific purposes (to get that ONE kid to finally show what they know…) or learn new strategies to help us be more successful, or sometimes slip into a mindless read to downshift into a world of someone else’s making.

This week, I double dog dare you to read something for the sake of creating a connection. Let yourself explore the words, allowing them to roll around in your mouth and wonder why the author chose those words in particular to use to describe something. Allow yourself to step into the shoes of a character or person in a non-fiction piece and think about what their world is really like beyond this one snippet of text. Think about the possible connections that might exist to your own world, that of your kids, current events or past ones. And consider the author’s purpose in writing it…and for whom it was written. Bonus points if you chat with another person about what you are thinking…

There’s no fear that your tongue will stick to a metal pole in this challenge, but you might grow some dendrites and remember what it was to think for yourself with no fear of judgment…

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