Day One – July 17, 2014
Longwood University, located in Farmville, Virginia, hosts the best literacy conferences anywhere, and the people who attend are truly devoted to their work. This is evidenced by the fact that the Summer Literacy Institute takes place when most people think teachers just sit around at home with nothing to do or go on vacation for two months. Whether attendees are authors, guests, or participants, everyone comes together to share what they know about literacy. For the third year in a row, I was there. Moreover, for the third year in a row, I was incredibly pleased with what I came away with.
Doug Buehl was the Thursday morning workshop guest. Hearing this literacy expert in person has been on my teacher conference bucket list for about five years, and I have to say that while reading two of his books has been enlightening, having him walk me and everyone else through the steps was certainly very helpful. Somehow, what I knew before sank deeper into my thinking about lessons, largely because he modeled the process of interacting with complex text. He pointed out the twofold rigor of reading, the specialized Tier III vocabulary in a content course like science and the Tier II vocabulary used to communicate precisely and economically. I was thrilled when he pointed out that students need the opportunity to talk in pairs before whole group discussion of a reading assignment takes place. I have been doing this for years, and it was nice to feel validated. When students read pieces that are above their grade level, they struggle over the missing pieces. Teachers need to be good a modeling how to mediate through the gaps in scheme, often by skipping over words, to try to make meaning. Text structures are complicated, and when you add the nuances of tone and voice, any unfamiliar vocabulary (not to mention lack of background knowledge) certainly will halt learning. Complex text is written in the language of the content area; science people have specialized vocabulary that is used in written and oral communication; that language is most likely not the everyday language of the student who has to read the text.
Close reading requires “working the text” so that there is comprehension focus between the author and the reader or readers. When students work in pairs, it is often easier to work out understanding with the author. Teachers need to mentor students so they opt for using reading as opposed to doing reading. Teachers may start out reading everything to students, but it is highly advised that they scaffold to help students read by themselves and gradually remove some or all of the scaffolding over time.
Students, through modeling by their teacher, learn to question the author. This is especially important today because we need to spend time on understanding—not on test preparation! Spending ten minutes on complex text from a specific discipline is important. Questioning to Learn is NOT completing worksheets, not is it assessment. The method introduced by Buehl makes it necessary for all students to read, not skim, as they go through the steps of making meaning. By taking a leveled article and placing eight to ten asterisks (*) throughout, students are provided stopping points for the purpose of completing a Question the Author graphic organizer. With these stops, students think critically, share with a partner, and ultimately help formulate a class-wide understanding of what is read. Ultimately, students gain experience with the upper levels of Bloom’s when they build schema and make discoveries on their own (with guidance from an educator at critical times).
As usual, I was very impressed by Doug Buehl’s entire presentation. It makes sense. It is doable. And it will fill in the gaps my students possess as we all transition from forty-five minute classes to eighty. There will finally be time to infuse reading fiction and nonfiction and writing on a daily basis, and I will take a confident stab at facilitating all of it because I was at this summer institute learning how to do a better job from Doug Buehl. I have two books for reference—Classroom Strategies for Interactive Learning (ISBN 978-0-87207-002-8) and Developing Readers in the Academic Disciplines (ISBN 977-0-87207-845-1) whenever I need to dig deeper or assess how things are going. There are best practices models and reproducibles so that I can help students bridge their learning gaps.
It is always hard to choose which breakout sessions to attend after lunch. (By the way, the registration fee covers breakfasts, lunches, and the banquet when you register early.) My Session I choice was called “The Exceptional School: Adapting Lessons to Meet Your Students’ Needs”—led by two librarians who go so far as to adapt their lessons for students who cannot talk. It was incredibly interesting to see how they adjust instruction for the most challenged students enrolled in school. What a reality check!
Session II, “Creating Avenues of Instruction”—led by Scott Cassell was enlightening as well. Differentiation of macro and micro skills was stressed, and I realize that these must be explicitly taught to middle school students. Cassell shared some activity folders that had book pockets inside; students learn research principles using his system, and I immediately came up with a way to adapt his example.
I will use his model to reinforce vocabulary as well as aspects of fiction, nonfiction, and research. The presenter reminded everyone that the worst thing an educator can do is to teach a skill out of its real-life context. In summary, I will pay more attention to micro skills than I have in the past.
Author/illustrator Henry Cole was the keynote at the Thursday evening banquet. What can I say? I checked my notes, and all I wrote down was the titles of three books he read as a child—The Wonderful Electric Elephant (written in 1903 by Frances T. Montgomery), Our National Calamity of Fire, Flood and Tornado (written in 1913 by Logan Marshall), and Slovenly Peter (published in 1918 by Heinrich Hoffmann). Henry Cole is a masterful storyteller, and I dared not blink or laugh so hard I could not hear his next line. He is imagery. The underlayments of how he sees when he illustrates were revealed in layers as he shared his ideas and processes for creating pictures for books. I especially liked his drawings for A Nest for Celeste and Unspoken. Why? Because I know that getting things just right when you do not use color and rely on the very basic pencils and shading, you are challenged to create a nuance that pulls on heartstrings or captures the imagination (which adds color subliminally). There was a slide of Cole peeking through a space where all the books he had written and/or illustrated. It astounded me because I have struggled with making time to finish my first serious book. I love the titles of the books, my eyes tracking his many styles. There was Clara Caterpillar, Dinorella, Jack’s Garden, and Some Smug Slug that tried earnestly to blend in with all the others, but they popped for me. I use the dinosaur fairy tale in my classroom—turned it into a reader’s theater piece! How I wish I could revisit the evening so I could laugh and think about the message he brought to us.
Day Two—July 18, 2014
Have you ever felt like you had met someone before? Perhaps sat with that person on a plane or noticed them in crowded hotel lobby? Well, when I saw L. M. Elliott, I felt as though I had met her before. I cannot place it. Such an interesting speaker! She made me think seriously about primary documents that spawn writing responses from my students. I knew this before, but seeing what she has done with such documents prompts me to create files for students to peruse. I could create dossiers complete with photographs, articles, and letters; students could use those to create storyboards and then write a fictional piece based on the materials provided. As students matured in their thinking and writing, I could provide links so they can do their own primary source searches to create more stories. Exciting stuff! It pleased me greatly to share with the author that her book, Under a War-Torn Sky (ISBN-10: 0786817534), is the number one “stolen” book from my school lending library. I had her sign the ninth copy I have bought. No doubt I will be buying more copies so that my reluctant readers—mostly boys—will have something great to read. They love reading about World War II, so two sets of Elliott’s trilogy will be on the shelves before the end of September. Listening to this author has inspired me to take a closer look at all my bits of loose string (life experiences, thoughts, ideas, little trivial things of life) to find my next story!
The second author, Meg Medina, does character first. She considers a problem to be external (superficial) and internal (authentic). This makes the problem a 3-D puzzle for the reader to solve. This struck hard because when teaching characterization, many educators make it seem two-dimensional because they do not see deeply. The best characters are layers of complexity, and now I know to teach this explicitly. Where I know about internal and external conflict, it is obvious my students think it is one or the other…internal or external, not a fluid, viscous coexistence of both. Medina also spends time considering which settings deserve airtime. As she sketches characters in her mind, she thinks about what kind of book she will create. I have Tia Isa Wants a Car (ISBN-10: 0763641561) in my classroom because I feel many of my students would identify with the characters. Mine is a rural school, and without transportation, students and their families become more disconnected from the mobility as the community goes global.
A.B. Westrick began with a startlingly good book trailer for her first book, Brotherhood (ISBN-10: 0670014397). I knew when I saw the book cover and read the first reviews on Kirkus, Horn Book, and Good Reads that I would have to buy this book for my classroom. There are so many reluctant readers that a few copies are needed. Westrick shared that her family history and its clash with the history lessons at school pressed her to ask difficult questions. Secrets and painful family history prompted her to dig in the past, and her first novel stems from what she learned and how it blended with what life must have been like in Richmond during Reconstruction. I connected with her reference to strange answers about her family’s past because I have been asking questions about my grandfather. All the ambiguity made me start looking, and I found out the person who abandoned his family had to relocate because of what he did in the war. He had to leave his family to keep them safe. I will put this puzzle together— even though others in the family do not want to know. Perhaps it is Westrick’s comment that “a place of emotional truth is a hard place to be” that prompts me to obtain the emotional strength that comes from finally discovering the truth.
Dynamic author and speaker Jason Wright was the final celebrated author to speak to the audience of educators. Such humor, so quick. We found out that he was an early writer, and he shared Molly and Polly plays with us! Such vocabulary from a third grade boy! Early encouragement from one teacher, then another sent Wright soaring to his present moment in a writer’s life. With several deeply moving novels to his credit, he has inspired people to think of others over self. Christmas Jars (ISBN-10: 1590384814) is a book I have shown my principal in hopes that we can start our own jars tradition. I am fortunate to live in a community that takes care of others. We pool our resources to help out, and this jar idea fits right in. Wright lives by what he says to do—practice for big moments by watching for little moments. The act of looking and then wordsmithing comes into play because he feels he is a flawed person who writes what he knows. He asks what he needs to fix and then sets about the task. Ultimately, Wright’s being a motivator who inspires others to do what they can to make the world a better place will keep me reading. His books will also go on the shelf for students to ponder.
There were plenty of choices in the breakout sessions, but since I was on the presenters schedule with colleague Valerie Leonard, I did not attend those. Instead, we shared some ideas to start the school year off with some hands-on activities for middle school language arts classes. We made trees out of paper bags and glued autumn leaves on them—our annual root words project. We talked about fiction, nonfiction, and vocabulary and how formative assessment of student hands-on activities made life better for everyone in the classroom. In the end, we think we gave everyone several things to run with at the start of the upcoming school year.
If you have not realized the Longwood University Summer Literacy Institute is for you, rethink! I have never been to this event and been disappointed—not even for five minutes. I want to return next year and present more ideas because the 2015 topic, Real Life Literacy, inspires me to contemplate the new school year. Save this date: July 23-24, 2015. You will be glad you did. If you want more information about the Summer Literacy Institute, contact Dr. Audrey Church. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit the institute website at http://www.longwood.edu/cehs for updates.