Donalyn Miller's Blog
September 30, 2012
Four years ago, Education Week Teacher (formerly Teacher Magazine) invited me to appear as a guest columnist for their Ask the Mentor series. I had never written for publication and I was thrilled about the opportunity to share my ideas about inspiring children to read. One column turned into three and Ed. Week invited me to join their regular bloggers. The Book Whisperer blog led to the publication of my first book, The Book Whisperer, and I have been writing, sharing, and learning with you ever since.
I will always be grateful to Education Week , who took a chance on me--an unpublished, unknown, suburban teacher with unusual ideas about reading instruction. Education Week provided me with a voice and initial audience for my writing, and I have benefited from our partnership. Although I still have a lot to say and a lot to learn, this post will be the last installment of The Book Whisperer blog. I have enjoyed writing for Education Week and I look forward to collaborating with them in the future if the opportunity appears.
For now, I will continue contributing on a regular basis to The Nerdy Book Club blog. When my friend, Colby Sharp, and I started Nerdy last year, we had no idea what an incredible, vibrant community the blog would become. I believe in Nerdy's mission--that every reader has value and a voice in our community. The Nerdy Book Club invites teachers, librarians, administrators, literacy coaches, authors, illustrators, booksellers, parents, children, and all readers to share their love of reading and participate in a committed community focused on encouraging children to read more and celebrate books.
Reading Nerdy's daily posts from diverse voices representing every possible corner of the reading world feeds my teaching heart, challenges my thinking, and helps me discover new books and resources for my students and me. I invite you to join the conversation and contribute your ideas, too.
In addition to Nerdy, I will continue to co-write a monthly column with Alyson Beecher for Scholastic's Principal to Principal E-Newsletter. Our column focuses on school-wide reading initiatives like book clubs, book talking, and promoting reading throughout the school day--providing both classroom and campus-wide suggestions.
Through social media like Twitter (My tweet ID is @donalynbooks) and Facebook (The Book Whisperer page), I find daily support and learning from thousands of professionals using social media to enhance our teaching and advance our learning through collaboration. I look forward to learning with you in these forums.
Finally, I would like to thank all of you for reading this blog, sharing it with others, and contributing comments over the years. I have grown as a teacher and a writer because of you. We are colleagues, united in our common goal--to improve children's lives through reading and books. Our shared journey will continue.
September 9, 2012
I don't watch the Kardashians and I admit that I cannot tell them apart. Thankfully, my colleague, Christopher Lehman, found a way to connect the reality TV family with my passion for reading. I hope you enjoy Chris's humorous and insightful guest post!
Christopher Lehman (@iChrisLehman) is an author, a speaker, and a lead staff developer with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. His newest book, Energize Research Reading and Writing, is available now. Find him at his new blog.
What the Kardashians Taught Me About Reading Instruction (No, For Real)by Christopher Lehman
This all started on Twitter when Donalyn, I and a few friends somehow got on the topic of the Kardashians. And by "on the topic," I mean: I brought it up.
Which got me to thinking--and please follow me on this one--we could learn a lot about reading instruction from this particular reality TV family. Or perhaps my real message here is: if we take up a metaphor - even seemingly as non sequitur as Kim, Kourt, and Khloe - we can see our instruction in a new light.
Brand Yourself as a Reader, So Your Students Will Emulate
Kim Kardashian is on television, social media, billboards, magazines, ads on sides of buses, even Oprah. Love her or hate her, she is everywhere. And everywhere she shows up she is styled to be glamorous, branded to be the very fashionable friend you maybe, just maybe could have in your life if you shopped at the same places and bought the same things. We need to take a lesson from Ms. K and brand ourselves as readers just as carefully so our students have that vision to aspire to.
Donalyn is the consummate example of this, when you think "Donalyn Miller" you instantly think "reading." Why? Because she talks about books, posts about books, asks you about books, writes books about books, she is a one woman reading marketing blitz. So ask yourself, are you known as "a reader"? Do people look at you and think "that guy's got to know a great book for me to read next"? Do your students think "when it comes to reading, she's the real deal."
So this year, brand yourself as a reader:
Have a predictable opening line. My friend Audra, for example, quite regularly begins conversations by asking, "What are you reading?" She has done that so often with me, that I have started doing the same thing with others. It's as catchy as a catch phrase.
Any press is good press, as long as it's press. Don't think you can only talk about reading when you've just finished a great book. Even talking about how hard you are finding it to make time to read, or how you just can't find a good book, is still a book conversation: "I have four half-read books on my Kindle that I just can't seem to find the time to read. I'm particularly feeling bad about Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, because Melody, the main character just shocked her entire class and I'm nervous to find out what will happen next..." Ta-da, you're talking about reading. Even if you feel ashamed.
Post your reading life anywhere you can. Place a "I'm currently reading..." white-board on your classroom/office/bedroom door. Post reviews on Twitter or Goodreads or Nerdy Book Club or anywhere you can think to. Wallpaper your room with book covers from books you have read or want to read next. Be as annoying-mazing with your branding as a Kardashian SlimFast ad followed by a Kardashian perfume ad followed by a preview of their next super new episode. Be everywhere.
If you are branding yourself as a reader, it also means you cannot dilute the brand by engaging in things readers just never do. Saying "I'm a reader!" and then forcing your children to turn to page 167 of Chapter 18 of the Language Arts textbook is like Kourtney posing for Us Weekly without make-up--it just doesn't happen on purpose. An anthologized textbook doesn't know your students, their strengths, interests or needs. Walk the walk, not just the talk. Readers don't let readers skim to answer chapter questions.
Treat Your Library as a Marketing Genius Would, To Attract Your "Buyers"
We are all consumers, our students are as well. We must be enticing, intriguing, flat out marketing machines. If you see your classroom (or home) library as simply "a place to hold books" and your role as "re-sorter of those books" then, my friend, you are very boring. Also, you are not living up to mama-manager, Kris Jenner's example: take every opportunity to promote your clients and your products.
This year, look at your library as if you need to sell those books, not just house them:
Rotate your stock often. Put some titles in more prominent places, really highlight books that match your current study, and move untouched titles in the place of ones that everyone is reading. Then do the whole thing again next month.
Special events boost "sales." Perhaps make some books "special" that students have to wait for. A section of your library cordoned off by "caution" tape, stating that those new nonfiction titles will be made public in three weeks (while making sure they are just visible enough to build intrigue).
Poll your audience often and be responsive. Instead of labeling shelves "fiction" and "nonfiction." Ask your students what kinds of books they love, then slap those tags right on the shelf. "Drama, Drama, Drama" and "Scary Murder Books" are some of my recent favorites. Enlist focus groups of students to help you review, restyle, and restock your library often.
A good manager also has an ever expanding product line and list of appearances. If you go to the trouble of setting up a gorgeous library, don't just check it off the list. Instead, keep growing it (and when you run out of space, help the classroom next door or even one across town grow, too.) I wrote a post on the "book gap" and reasons for reading here (which contains some helpful statistics if you are making the case for more books to others!).
Reality Means Real (Mostly), Present It As Such
The Kardashian family is most well known for having cameras follow them everywhere, nearly all of the time. We see every fight, every joke, every move (and yes, maybe my wife and I make it a point to see every episode. Don't judge.). The point is that they aim to be real, well mostly real. Our reading instruction, then, needs to take up that same lead. To be as close to real as possible.
There is always a place for scaffolding in instruction, for sure. I doubt that when you bend over to tie your shoe as an adult you first say, "Make a bunny with the laces. He runs aaaarrrooound the tree. Jumps in the hole. Close that burrow up tight. Now my shoe is tied!" You do not say that today, but you may have said that at one point to do shoe-tying well. I am completely in favor of providing supports for students, like teaching them to jot about their reading on post-its, then eventually in notebooks, all to practice metacognition that is eventually in their heads. But, even pseudo-real reality TV has a lot of real in it.
Anything you aim to do in reading instruction should go through a "does this feel mostly real?" test that I image the producers of any more staged reality show goes through (I'm not suggesting Kardashians is one of those, lawyers).
Ask, "Would this be how people normally act?" Meaning, does that funky seven-bubble chart worksheet feel exactly like, or a close precursor to, how you actually read and think about a text? If no, if it doesn't feel on the line to real--pseudo-real--then it's most likely not worth teaching with it.
Ask, "Is it mostly real?" You improve your reading by reading. Not just by listening to people talk about reading, not by filling out worksheets about reading. By reading. This time is the most essential. Reality reading means time for reading, really.
Lastly, any major television production has tons and tons of behind the scenes work to have it run smoothly (seriously, just watch the Kardashian episode when Oprah came to interview the family - their house was taken over by Oprah's crew and equipment). You are your readers' set designer, lighting tech, director, producer, acting coach. Every effort you make to live as a reader, design spaces that inspire reading, and support real reading time, will in turn make each one of your students a star.
I'd love to hear more about ways you are making reading a celebrity affair and I know others would to. Please share your stories and ideas in the comments.
August 16, 2012
Daydreaming about the new school year, I envision our classroom as a supportive place where my students and I take risks and learn. I see caring people who embrace our differences and discover what we have in common. I think about laughing and crying together. My students and I will become a family--bonded by shared experiences in a community where everyone has value.
Successful classroom communities need cultivation to flourish. What my students need to learn is important, but the conditions that allow learning to happen concern me more. While standards and learning targets dictate the content I must teach, I construct the classroom environment. How my students and I interact creates a climate that supports learning and provides social and emotional safety.
During the summer months, I read and reread books I might use in our classroom and consider how each text serves my students. Reading books together creates shared experiences that foster community-building and literacy development. Looking through my summer reads and booklists, I have selected a few titles to launch our learning year.
Communities of Readers and Writers
Ask Me by Antje Damm. From commonplace ("Who is your best friend?") to thought-provoking ("Whom do you miss?") this nifty book of questions invites children to reveal personal information, reflect on their lives, and learn more about each other. Engaging illustrations accompany each question and provide further response opportunities. Designed as a conversation starter between parents and children, Ask Me provides a unique resource for writing and discussion topics.
BookSpeak!: Poems about Books by Laura Purdie Salas. This collection offers 21 poems on everything bookish from characters to indexes to falling asleep while reading. At turns humorous and informative, BookSpeak! is the perfect text to launch a reading year and reinforce a love of reading.
Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It: False Apology Poems by Gail Carson Levine. Modeled after William Carlos Williams' "This Is Just to Say," Levine presents over 40 insincere apologies for misdeeds. Children, often encouraged to apologize when they don't want to, will appreciate Levine's honesty and humor and consider writing false apologies of their own.
Communities Who Value All Members
Hound Dog True by Linda Urban: Shy and self-conscious, Mattie Breen dreads starting another school year. Apprenticing herself to the school custodian, her Uncle Potluck, Mattie hopes to avoid her classmates when school begins. Brilliantly written, Hound Dog True is a powerful book to share at the beginning of the school year when many students feel apprehensive and worry about finding friends.
Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper: Eleven year-old Melody has cerebral palsy. She lives in a world of silence-- unable to talk or write. Although she is extremely intelligent, her classmates and more than a few teachers, see her as simple-minded. Out of My Mind sparks powerful conversations about embracing every student in our schools and valuing every child's right to learn.
The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger: Dwight is a misfit, so weird that the other sixth graders avoid him. For mysterious reasons, Dwight creates an origami Yoda puppet, wears it on his finger, and uses it to dispense advice. The other kids usually avoid Dwight, but they are drawn to Yoda's seemingly helpful wisdom. This book sends the message that all kids have something to contribute. Read aloud The Strange Case of Origami Yoda; then introduce students to Angleberger's sequels, Darth Paper Strikes Back and The Secret of the Fortune Wookiee.
Wonder by R.J. Palacio: Auggie Pullman is born with Treacher Collins, a chromosome disorder that results in severe facial deformities. He is homeschooled for many years because of his ongoing need for extensive surgery and his parents' fear about how Auggie will be treated. When Auggie begins fifth grade, his parents decide to send him to school. Wonder is a remarkable book about courage, love, and the difference one person can make in the lives of others.
Communities Who Have Fun
Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein: It's time for little red chicken's bedtime story, but she's so enthusiastic about the book that she can't help interrupting Papa. If there is a chicken on the cover, you can predict the book is funny. Children will see themselves in this clever story. Use this book as a springboard for conversations about classroom discussion etiquette or just enjoy the chickens.
I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen: Bear has misplaced his pointy red hat. Questioning the other woodland animals, the distracted Bear finally discovers the location of his hat. Amused by the dark and hilarious surprise ending, my sixth graders declared I Want My Hat Back one of their favorites. Klassen takes his deadpan visual humor into the ocean in this year's follow-up, This Is Not My Hat.
The Wonder Book by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. What do you wonder? This random assortment of riddles, word games, and poems offers answers to our wonderings and encourage inquiry. Short selections are perfect for transitions, energizing breaks, and the beginning or end of class.
Communities Who Care about the World
14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy: In 2002, Kimeli Naiyomah returned home to his Maasai village from New York City with news of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Moved by the horrific story, the Maasai respond by donating their most sacred and valuable possessions, fourteen cows, to America. A powerful book about compassion and hope, 14 Cows for America shows our connections in a global community.
A Bus Called Heaven by Bob Graham: One morning, Stella discovers an abandoned bus outside her house. The bus, labeled Heaven, inspires Stella's diverse neighborhood, who turn the bus into a community space. This is a sweet book about one community and the dilapidated--but still useful--bus that brings them together.
Laundry Day by Maurie J. Manning: When a red cloth floats down from the clotheslines overhead, an honest shoeshine boy climbs from window to window in a NYC tenement building searching for the cloth's owner. The boy's journey up the building celebrates America's rich immigrant heritage and the importance of honesty and caring.
I look forward to meeting my new students next week. I hope you enjoy a marvelous new school year in your classroom and school communities.
July 25, 2012
What do Jeff Kinney's popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Ray Bradbury's classic Fahrenheit 451 have in common? What about Gossip Girl: A Novel, Cicely von Ziegesar's catty romance and The Great Gilly Hopkins, Katherine Paterson's 1979 Newbery Honor book? While clear distinctions exist between each book's literary merit, age appropriateness, and reader appeal, these titles possess one similarity--they sit within the same Lexile text complexity band.**
Well-meaning educators, concerned about increasing text complexity and reading rigor, engage in this game of "Guess My Lexile" when denouncing the low-reading level of young adult literature, elevating certain titles over others, or dictating book purchases and recommended reading lists. But looking at just a few examples reveals problems when narrowly evaluating texts by readability number alone.
The Lexile Framework for Reading by Metametrix provides quantitative assessment of both students' reading levels and texts' complexity. Students receive a Lexile measure from certain reading tests. Books and other texts receive a Lexile measure from a software tool, the Lexile Analyzer, which evaluates word frequency and sentence length. Many schools use Lexile measures to assess students' reading levels and match students with appropriately rigorous reading material.
I have no issue with assessing students' reading levels and identifying text complexity. As a teacher, I find such information helpful when determining my students' reading ability and what books might fit them. What concerns me is that in many situations, Lexile measures become the sole factor in book selection and recommendation.
While identifying readability can be useful when evaluating textbooks, guided reading texts, or other teaching materials, selecting books for classroom instruction and recommending books for independent reading are two different processes. Avid readers do not always read at the edge of their competence, traveling through increasingly more difficult texts as leveling systems proscribe (Carter, 2000). Given free choice, readers select reading material according to their interests, preferences, background knowledge, purposes for reading, and personal motivation.
I hear horror stories about teachers and librarians rigidly enforcing Lexile bands--preventing children from reading books that aren't at their Lexile level: Students can't read an entire series because every book isn't at their Lexile. Students can't use sections of school and classroom libraries because the books are too easy or too hard (according to Lexile measures). Parents receive Lexile reading lists for their children with strict instructions to exclusively use these lists when purchasing books.
In cynical moments, I picture a Lexile store selling tattoo kits, so over-zealous educators can brand students with their Lexiles. Wouldn't this make trips to the library easier for everyone?
Investigating Lexile measures further, imagine my surprise when I found this information on Metametrix's website:
"Many other factors affect the relationship between a reader and a book, including its content, the age and interests of the reader, and the design of the actual book. The Lexile text measure is a good starting point in the book-selection process, with these other factors then being considered."
Addressing questions such as, "What do Lexile measures tell me about grade appropriateness?" "Why do some great books have low Lexile measures?" and "What is the relationship between grade equivalents and Lexile measures?" I found several informative videos and researched-based responses on Metametrix's website, which reinforce that Lexile measures do not tell us everything we need to know about texts or students. With Lexile measures touted as a key indicator of text complexity as defined by Common Core State Standards, we must critically consider what Lexile bands offer teachers and students, and what they don't.
Overreliance on reading level systems hinders children from learning how to self-select books. Bookstores, libraries, and Grandma's bookshelf aren't leveled. Beyond students' and books' reading levels, we must consider content and interests when selecting materials and recommending books for independent reading. Slavish devotion to numbers doesn't benefit readers.
Is this practice employed because it's better for kids or just easier for adults? What about children who find their reading experiences limited when Lexile numbers dictate their book access and choices? Looking at a child's face or a book's cover, I see possibility, not a number.We can't shortcut or disregard knowing books, knowing readers, and building connections between them.
Reading leveling systems like Lexile, DRA, and Guided Reading provide teachers and librarians with one measure for making book recommendations and supporting students as they self-select books, but children shouldn't wear their reading levels like a badge and become defined by them.
Do we teach children how to preview and evaluate books for themselves or teach them that reading and book selection belong to school and we can't trust them with it?
For additional commentary about Lexile, reading level systems, and text complexity:
"The Lexile Framework: Unnecessary and Potentially Harmful" by Dr. Stephen Krashen
From ASCD's Educational Leadership, "The Challenge of Challenging Texts" by Timothy Shanahan, Douglas Fisher, and Nancy Frey
"Lamentations from the Lex-aisle" by Paul W. Hankins
From School Library Journal, "Formula for Failure: Reading Levels and Readability Formulas Do Not Create Lifelong Readers" by Betty Carter
**According to Titlewave:
The Diary of a Wimpy Kid 950
Fahrenheit 451 890
Gossip Girl 820
The Great Gilly Hopkins 800
July 10, 2012
Are you looking for high-quality, life-affirming books for young adults? ALAN's Amelia Elizabeth Walden Book Award for Young Adult Fiction is the best YA book award list you may not know.
Reading over 300 titles, this year's Walden Award committee officially announced their 2012 award finalists yesterday. You can see the press release here. Check out these outstanding titles and recommend them to the teens in your life.
The 2012 Amelia Elizabeth Walden Book Award winner will be announced next week and I will update this post at that time.
June 17, 2012
There are several bookcases in my house storing books I plan to read someday. My goodreads' to-read shelf contains a staggering 1515 titles on it. No matter how much I read these piles never shrink. Author Maud Casey said, "I was born with a reading list I will never finish," and I can relate.
Keeping up with all of the books I want to read for my personal enjoyment or to share with students is daunting and unmanageable at times. Reading a book every day of summer break and at least two or three a week during the school year, my students still out-read me and often ask me about books I haven't heard of or read.
Thinking back to my first few years of teaching, I recognize that I have expanded my book knowledge a great deal over the years, though, and every year my understanding and appreciation of books for young readers grows. Accepting that I will never know about every outstanding book or lauded new author, I feel confident in my abilities to recommend titles to readers who need suggestions.
Many teachers, librarians, and parents ask me how to increase their knowledge of children's books and remain current about outstanding and engaging books for their students and children to read. Here are my tips for building up your book muscle in ways that maximum your efforts:
• Dedicate daily time for reading. If you want to increase your book knowledge, you must set aside time for reading. Tell yourself you are doing research!
• Read books on your district lists and curriculum documents. If a text is required use for your grade level, you should read it before sharing it with students.
• Explore your school's book closet. Many schools have sets of books squirreled away in department or grade level closets--often forgotten or unused.
• Read winners from major award lists. Begin by exploring the American Library Association's Book and Media Award lists . Most state library associations create recommended reading lists of children's and young adult literature each year, too. These lists offer an entry point to the authors and high-quality texts available for your students to read.
• Befriend a librarian. Librarians know things. They are tapped in to the latest books and resources for using these titles in your classroom. A savvy librarian can recommend grade level texts and help you find books that match students' interests and your curriculum, as well as websites, technology tools, and response ideas.
• Ask your students what you should read. If I see several students in my class reading the same book and I have not read it, I will move it up the pile. A book that already has proven kid appeal is a guaranteed must-read.
• Browse bookstores and library shelves. Investigate books by authors you recognize or new series books. Check out books in genres you may not know well like poetry and nonfiction, too.
• Check out "Readers who liked this, also liked..." recommendations. Books selected by other readers with similar tastes often lead you to books that connect by theme, topic, or author.
• Start a book club. Find a few colleagues who share your interest in children's literature and schedule regular meetings online or in person to discuss the books you read.
• Follow reviewers' and authors' blogs. Authors often provide sneak peeks and advance information about their new books as well as resources for their titles, and there are hundreds of book reviewers online who review children's books. The Nerdy Book Club blog, which recently won an Independent Book Blogger Award for the Best Young Adult and Children's blog, has an extensive blog roll if you need a place to start. In addition to Nerdy, some of my favorite blogs are:
In addition to these great book review sites, investigate Anita Silvey's Children's Book-a-Day Almanac where Ms. Silvey offers a love letter to one beloved children's book each day. I look forward to reading her entries every morning.
• Attend professional development training about children's literature. When attending conferences or workshops, I always look for children's and young adult literature sessions that can introduce me to interesting or new books I might have missed, or show me interesting ways to use books with my students.
• Join reading groups and book-related chats on social networking sites. I mentioned several online reading communities in an earlier blog post. A great place to start is the monthly #titletalk chat on Twitter this Sunday at 8 pm ET.
• Read book review publications. Ask your librarian if your school subscribes to book review publications such as Booklist Magazine or School Library Journal, or look for discounted subscription rates on publication websites.
Whether you are new to a classroom or library, changing grade levels, or want to ramp up your knowledge, these suggestions will provide you a starting point. Pick one or two suggestions and see how many books and authors you discover.
It isn't necessary or possible to read every book that your students read or a popular author writes. Select the first books in series, the touchstone works by notable authors, or the hot book seven kids in third period are reading. Balance your reading life with adult books and professional titles, as well as children's literature. Show your students what a well-rounded reader looks like through your example.
May 15, 2012
We all know that teachers who read are more effective at engaging their students with reading, but our school year demands often limit our reading time. Summer vacations give us an opportunity to recommit to reading, explore new books for our students, or dive into the books that pile up around our houses during the year.
Give us your beach reads, your professional development texts, your Game of Thrones series waiting to be read. It is time for my 4th Annual Summer Book-a-Day Challenge. My last school day is June 1st and I will begin my personal reading challenge on June 2nd.
The rules (more guidelines, really) are simple:
Read one book per day for each day of summer vacation. This is an average, so if you read three books one day (Hey, I have done this!) and none the next two, it still counts.
You set your own start date and end date.
Any book qualifies including picture books, nonfiction, professional books, poetry anthologies, or fiction--children's, youth, or adult titles.
Keep a list of the books you read and share them often via a social networking site like goodreads or Twitter (post using the #bookaday hashtag), a blog, or Facebook page. You do not have to post reviews, but you can if you wish. Titles will do.
The #bookaday community has become a vibrant group of avid readers, teachers, and librarians who share book titles all year and participate in ongoing conversations about books, reading and the young readers we support. Many participants tell me that they rediscovered their love of reading and walked into their classrooms and libraries in the fall with mountains of books and reading experiences to share with their new students after the summer Book-a-Day Challenge.
Let me admit a secret. I probably won't make my Book-a-Day Challenge this year without reading more than a few picture books and graphic novels to hedge my bets. You probably won't either. Ultimately, it doesn't matter what we read, or how much, or when. What matters is that we celebrate reading, share our book love with other readers, discover new titles, and enjoy ourselves.
I look forward to a great summer of reading and the opportunity to share with new reading friends.
My family insists that stacks of books are not furniture. For the sake of family harmony, I need to read. Seriously, I am not doing this for myself...
Are you ready to read?
April 30, 2012
Looking for a great book to recommend to your upper elementary students and children? Christopher Healy's debut book, The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom is a funny mash-up of classic storybook tropes. Readers will love meeting the real Princes Charming and their fairy tale love interests.
No Disney princesses! These are strong, empowered, self-determined young ladies and they don't need a prince to rescue them. When the princes get in trouble, the princesses do a bit of rescuing.
Walden Pond Press is celebrating The Hero's Guide's publication with a blog tour this week and Christopher has stopped by to share his inspiration for writing the book his thoughts about those princes and princesses.
DEFINING PRINCE CHARMING
I can't say I was thrilled when my daughter went through her requisite pink-and-sparkly princess phase. But at least I had company in my grief. I never had to look very far to find another parent willing to grouse about the poor superficial role models provided by classic fairytale femmes like Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. Yeah, I would say, and how about those awful princes?
It struck me as odd that no one seemed to complain about Prince Charming. If this is the guy who, like it or not, swoops in at the end to rescue the heroine -- the guy our daughters are supposed to fall in love with -- shouldn't we know something about him? Shouldn't he be a real person? All we had from those old stories were cardboard cutouts in generic hero shapes. If it was inevitable that my daughter was going to fantasize about a fairytale wedding, Prince Charming wasn't the guy I wanted her to picture up at the altar. At least not in the form we classically know him.
So I decided that I wanted to take those fairytale princes and turn them into fully fleshed-out characters, good but flawed human beings who -- if a girl were to fall in love with them -- could be loved for their deeds and personalities, as opposed to just their wealth, handsomeness, and station in life. And I wanted to turn those guys into real heroes, too -- because if you go solely by their original stories -- most of them don't quite fit the definition.
The most heroic thing Cinderella's prince did, for instance, was order his servants to go out and look for a girl he lost track of -- he didn't even do the looking himself! Snow White's prince is probably worst of all. What did he do? By random luck, he stumbled upon a cursed princess in the woods and he kissed her. I've done more heroic things on a milk run to my local grocery store. (Honestly, the dwarfs don't get nearly enough credit for their heroism in that story.)
This whole train of thought, which I tossed around in my head for years, was the genesis of The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom. I saw writing the book as a public service for my kids in a way. I was providing fairytale princes that my son might actually stand a chance of relating to, and whom my daughter could like -- or not like -- based on how she felt about their true characters. And while I was at it, I decided to make some changes to those princesses, too, because, well, you know...
More buzz for The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom:
"In this debut, Healy juggles with pitch-perfect accuracy, rendering the princes as goobers with good hearts and individual strengths, keeping them distinct and believable. Inventive and hilarious, with laugh-out-loud moments on every page."-Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review
"Less like a book and more like a swashbuckling costume party, this is the most fun you can have short of rounding up King Arthur's knights, filling their armor with laughing gas, and driving them to a roller disco." - Frank Cottrell Boyce, New York Times-bestselling author of Cosmic
Christopher Healy has spent years reviewing children's books and media online and in print. His work has appeared in Cookie, iVillage, Parenting, Time Out New York Kids, and Real Simple Family. The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom is his first children's book. He lives with his family in Maplewood, New Jersey. You can find him online at www.christopherhealy.com.
Check out Walden Pond Press's blog tour stops this week including giveaways and a free excerpt of The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom
April 22, 2012
Reading research indicates that many children's reading ability declines between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next. My sixth graders can tell you why this happens; they don't usually read much over the summer. Children can offset this summer reading slump by reading as few as four or five books over the summer. I, of course, would love for kids to read more than this small number of books! The summer break is a marvelous time for readers, freed from the mandates of assigned school reading, to explore topics and books of their own interest. While it is challenging to require or monitor students' summer reading, here are some suggestions for launching a school-wide summer reading initiative that encourages more children to read during summer break.
Provide lots of opportunities for students to recommend books. Hang recommendations on the walls in the hallways and in the library. Present book commercials over the announcements and in school newsletters. Provide student-created lists or podcasts on the school web site. Discussing books students might read over the summer sends a message that you expect them to read and gives students titles to consider.
Encourage children to make lists of books they would like to read over the break. Explicitly setting the goal to read at least a few books sends students off for the summer with a reading plan and some specific titles they have self-selected to read.
Hold a book swap. Invite students to donate old books in exchange for a ticket. During the book swap, students may select another book for every ticket they hold. We have held a book swap for many years at my school on the last Saturday before school ends. Our teachers and the librarian cull personal and classroom collections, too, and often donate their tickets to kids who don't have books. If you have extra books at the end, find a local charity, hospital, or children's organization that could use the books.
Open the school library for a few days a week. Talking with my students, I discovered that their primary sources of books were the school and classroom libraries. When school closes for the summer, many students lose access to reading material. Consider opening your school library for a few hours two days a week. Invite parents and staff to volunteer for at least one shift over the summer and talk with your librarian about how to monitor the books over the break. We will open our school library for two hours one afternoon and two hours one morning every week for most of the summer.
Host a library card sign up event. Librarians are a wonderful resource for children who need book recommendations. Many libraries offer summer reading programs, author visits, and other events to entice children to read more over the summer. Invite librarians or volunteers from the local library to attend a PTA meeting or Open House and explain the library's summer programs. Encourage families to sign up for library cards.
Advise parents to set the expectations for their child to read every day. Reading for 20-30 minutes a day keeps students' vocabulary and reading ability growing during the summer and can be a wonderful activity for rainy days, household errand running, and long waits in the car or the airport.
Look for ways to include parents and children in your summer reading initiatives and you will have more buy-in and motivation to participate.
The fabulous folks at Choice Literacy have collected ideas that celebrate students' reading and promote reading over the summer in their Preparing Students for Summer Reading Roundup.
April 3, 2012
Testing season is upon us and in many classrooms the pressure to assure all students pass minimum proficiency on standardized tests overwhelms teachers and reduces meaningful teaching to test prep. According to Richard Allington in What Really Matters for Struggling Readers: Designing Research-Based Programs:
Test preparation might produce a small benefit if it works to ensure students are familiar with the test format, but too much practice on formats produces careless errors. The best guideline for test preparation would seem to be to practice a couple of days before the test to familiarize students with the test format and to introduce or review, general test-taking strategies. But daily periods of test preparation across the school year seems more likely to result in lower performances because most test preparation involves little, if any, teaching of useful reading strategies or development of world knowledge (Allington, 2006, 23-24).
While there is no research to support that test prep improves students' reading ability or standardized test performance, extensive test practice and the teaching of test-taking strategies continue to replace or subvert quality reading instruction in some schools. I encourage you to revisit this post, which appeared in February of 2008, as a reminder of why we teach and where our responsibilities lie-- with the young readers we serve.
First Do No Harm
Primum non nocere- "First do no harm". This tenet of the medical profession reminds doctors to consider the negative consequences of any medical intervention alongside the advantages. Quality of life for the patient overrides the good intentions of any course of treatment even if there are perceived benefits. I believe that the teaching profession needs this lesson as much as doctors do.
Young children love to read, or at least be read to. The most dormant sixth graders in my classes can recall a book they have loved, even if it was Green Eggs and Ham. Following years of schooling, this book love goes away for many kids. Those of us who are charged with teaching students to read claim not to understand why this love for reading and books go away, but I secretly (OK, not so secretly, now) suspect that we do know. The manner in which schools institutionalize reading takes this love away from children.
What does reading look like for you? For me, reading is not just something I do; being a reader is who I am. In many ways, being a reader has defined my life. I married a reader, hang out with other readers, and have dedicated my professional life to working with children as a reading teacher.
Not only am I a passionate reader, I am a great test taker, too. I can dissect tests on topics that I do not know that much about (check out my GRE scores) in large part because I am a great reader. But, let's not put the cart before the horse, I am good test-taker because I am a good reader; I am not a good reader because I am good test-taker.
Standardized reading test season has descended on classrooms, and the reading instruction in many has narrowed to a handful of test-taking tricks drilled into students day in and day out in a monotonous stream of acronyms, chants, and tricks labeled as strategies. Make no mistake about it, no matter what we proclaim to our students about book love the rest of the year, this is the message they get from us about what reading is. As instruction becomes limited to test-taking drill and kill, we are slowly strangling the joy of reading out of students, and without quality instruction in how to read well, we are narrowing their possibilities as readers forever.
Are there any teachers in the world who truly, with all of their hearts, believe that they are creating lifelong readers with all of this drill? The ugly truth is we know we aren't, but we are doing what our administrators, parents, and legislators expect from us-- get students to pass the test, the test, the test. If our students don't ever pick up a book again after graduation, it is not our fault.
What we fail to accept is that those students who grew to love reading in spite of us still do better on these tests than all of the kids who endured years of reading instruction by highlighter, but never really read. Avid "I cannot wait to get my hands on a book" readers outstrip their peers on every test, every time.
Isn't this what students should learn from us about reading?
It is an ethical issue, not just an educational one. Children trust us and deserve more.
So, first, do no harm. Do not take away that love of reading in the name of the greater good (Good for whom?). It ultimately kills. It kills children's love of reading for all of their lives.