Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
My current teaching assignment has me away from the library media center, but I do get to visit school libraries from time to time. The other day I heard a little girl – probably a third or fourth grader – ask her library media specialist, “Do you have any zombie books?”
Of course, zombies are very popular in contemporary culture. I really have no idea why, and that’s not the focus of this blog posting. Instead, I’m asking myself this question: how much emphasis (and budget money) should library media specialists place on obtaining books about the latest pop culture fads? My short answer: not much.
Those of us who have been in the education business for some time have seen many different waves of pop culture. At any given time, our students’ minds were filled with visions of an assortment of toys, games, entertainers, TV shows, and music styles, most of which enjoyed their 6 months of fame before passing into cultural oblivion. And there’s probably nothing wrong with that. Every generation has its fashion. But there’s really no reason to deplete library budgets and occupy precious shelf space with topics that will be out of date before the books are checked-out more than a couple of times.
We’ve all made these mistakes. Several years ago I purchased a set of library-bound Lizzie McGuirebooks for my elementary media center. (Lizzie McGuire was a popular and well-made Disney Channel program that ran from 2001-2004.) I think I spent about $250. A few months after I received the books, the TV show was cancelled. The books – novels on a 4th or 5th grade level – were checked-out a few times. But within a couple of years the students knew nothing about Lizzie McGuire, and of course the characters were the main attraction for the books. Many times I have wished for a do-over on that one.
My goal is not to moralize (although on a blog, I’m allowed) but really, what do you do with your teenage Miley Cyrus biography? What about the biographies of public figures, music stars and athletes who are convicted of crimes or behave badly in public? Do you keep those books on the elementary shelf? The middle school shelf? My answer is “no.” Once again, my goal here is not to scold or pontificate. I want to let you off the hook. You had no obligation to buy most of those books in the first place.
I understand why library media specialists make pop culture purchases a priority. They want their libraries to remain relevant. They want the kids to be able to check-out books about topics that they like. I get that. I applaud that. School libraries should certainly be relevant and kid-friendly. But here’s an idea: let’s make reading relevant.
Reading is reading. Reading is an alternative to television and video games. In my opinion, reading is better. If I hand a child a book and say, “Hey, this is just like the TV show,” then I’m asking the child to lower his standards. It’s like taking the child to a fancy gourmet restaurant and saying, “You’ll like it. It’s just like McDonalds.” Let’s promote the beauty of reading, not bring reading down to the level of a video game.
Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against superhero books or books based on pop culture characters. In fact, as a librarian I actively seek those books. However, I’m not going to lower my standards for good children’s books just because there’s a popular character on the cover. And I could really get excited about great tween authors writing those books! How about Roland Smith writing a Batman novel? I can certainly imagine Gordon Korman writing a series featuring The Flash. Dan Gutman: Teen Titans – run with it! That’s what I’m looking for. Combine great authors with popular tween characters. I can promote that book with a straight face and check ‘em out all day long.
As a school librarian, I always wanted to provide quality books that my students wanted to read, not just use as an accessory. I want them to read during the five minutes of free time at the end of class. I want to see them reading at lunch. I want them to read in the car and on the school bus. I want them to read while waiting for their dentist appointment. I want them to read under the bedcovers with a flashlight.
I want them to be excited when the new books go on display in the library. I want them to reserve the book that their friend is reading. I want them to read about snakes and construction equipment and cooking and magic tricks. I want them to read about Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Tubman and Teddy Roosevelt. I want them to run into the library to tell me about this cool book they’re reading –Island of the Blue Dolphins – and how they can’t wait to see how it ends. I won’t tell them it was written before their parents were born.
So – how do you get there? How do you build an appetite for the enduring? Here are five steps.
#1 Acquire good books. I am convinced that some of the best authors today are writing fiction for kids. With online resources it’s easier than ever to find their books. A quick online search will get you the award books from every state. That’s a good place to start!
#2 Know those books. Become familiar with the new books in your collection, and the books that are already on the shelves. Reading every book in your library is an impossible goal. But you can become familiar with many of the popular books, authors and series. I encourage every library media specialist to regularly read books from the grade-level they work with. Check Amazon.com descriptions and reviews for those you simply don’t have time to read. When that fourth grader comes up to you and says, “I want to read a funny book about dogs,” two or three titles should pop into your head. That’s when you know you’re ready. It’s part of the job – a big part of the job.
#3 Promote your books. I’ve spent a lot of time in school libraries, and never has a book jumped off the shelf. A good library media specialist promotes books. Make bulletin boards and eye-catching displays. Give quick booktalks during library visits. Leave room on your shelves to display the book covers, not just the spines. Book promotion strategies can be found online, in professional magazines, and by networking with peers.
#4 Reward reading. Some of your students will read without prompting, but others need a little encouragement. Positively reinforce reading in your school and in your classroom. Accelerated Reader and Reading Counts programs are great ways to keep track of the books your students read. Go beyond “prizes” and focus on awards. (My recent book, Rewarding Your Accelerated Readers, describes a ready-made reading rewards program for your school.)
#5 Use alternative methods to provide pop culture books. You don’t need a $12 Perma-bound copy of a book about a current fad. The fad will expire long before the book wears out. Instead, actively solicit donations from parents who probably have the once-read book around the house. Used book stores and thrift stores can also be good places to find inexpensive paperbacks on the current fads. And don’t forget BookOutlet.com for inexpensive copies of popular titles. You won’t feel bad about discarding an out-of-fashion paperback that you got for 25 cents at a garage sale.
Remember, your criteria for adding books to your collection remains the same, whether you’re acquiring classics, books by today’s best tween authors, or pop culture paperbacks. Don’t undermine the integrity and effectiveness of your library media center in an attempt to be relevant. The best way to get kids hooked on reading is to expose them to quality tween literature.
Reading is reading. Your library, whether it’s a school media center or a classroom collection, is The Library. It’s not a TV station, a movie theatre, or a video game console. Embrace your role as a literacy leader, and create a fantastic library for your students. Help your students develop lifelong reading habits.
We’ve already got enough “TV zombies,” don’t you agree?
Note: this post originally appeared on Keith's book review blog, TweenReading.com.
As we begin a new school year, I want to issue a challenge to all of my fellow teachers in the upper-elementary and middle school grade levels: read to your students. More specifically, select a novel and read to your students a few minutes each day.
A few years ago I returned to the classroom after 15 years working as a library media specialist. The outstanding school where I worked had 10 minutes built into the middle of the school day for reading. As teachers, we had the freedom to use that time for literacy activities at our discretion. I decided that I would read to my students. I continued this practice for the four years that followed, and I never regretted my decision. Dozens of students over the years told me that they really looked forward to hearing me read to them every day. In fact, as the year progressed I “gained” several students who joined my class (with their teacher’s permission, of course) for our daily 10-minute reading session.
There’s plenty of research to document the power and effectiveness of reading to students of every age, and I won’t restate it here. Your school literacy coach and media specialist can provide that documentation. Here are my tips for a successful in-class read-aloud program.
Selection. Selection. Selection. Selecting a good book for your read-aloud is a critical component to your success. Find a book with a quick-paced plot, with the characters going somewhere and doing something. Avoid multi-page scene descriptions or long philosophical discourses. Short chapters work best, and provide a natural stopping point. (My favorites are at the bottom of this post.)
Avoid scary books that may be too intense for some of your students. I also don’t read-aloud books that have recently been made into movies (with the exception of The City of Ember, which was made into a movie that almost nobody saw.) And stay away from books with characters suffering from terminal illnesses; chances are you have a student whose family is going through similar circumstances. In other words, we want this to be a fun, adventurous experience.
Your school library media specialist and literacy coach can help you choose a great read-aloud for your class. You may be able to find a book that relates to your subject matter. This isn’t too hard for social studies teachers, who will find a good selection of historical fiction in most libraries.
Read the Book First. You should read the entire book before sharing it with your class. Don’t just run to the library, grab something, and start reading. Big Mistake! – and some teachers can testify to that! You really don’t want any surprises as you read to your students. Some teachers skip-over embarrassing parts, but I would advise against that as well. Chances are, a student has checked-out the book from the library and is reading along with you. They will raise their hand and say, “Hey Ms. Jones, you skipped the good part!” Fortunately, you can finish a tween book in one evening, and you’ll probably know pretty soon if there’s a part that eliminates a book from consideration.
Be Prepared to Provide Context. As you read the book, think about the places and items mentioned that your students may not understand. For example, one year when I read Island of the Blue Dolphins I made a quick PowerPoint using images that I found on the Internet.
Read Every Day. You will be tempted at times to skip daily reading. Maybe you want to get in a few extra minutes of instruction, or you just don’t feel like reading aloud. Resist the urge. By reading every day, you’re telling your students about the importance of reading. Read on!
Consider Accountability. When I read to my class, we had free reading time, and I was teaching an elective (digital photography.) I didn’t really feel a need to generate a grade based on my daily reading. But, if you’re taking instructional time and/or you’re a core-course teacher, you might want to make a quick assignment based on your daily reading. Students can keep a daily journal with characters, settings, and plot points. You can write one upper-level question on the board and give the students a couple of minutes to respond in their journals, or on a notecard that you collect. (For example, “Why do you think Sally tore up the note she found in her locker?” or “What do you think Joe should do with the wallet he found?”)
Don’t Allow Disruptions. Make sure that your students know that your read-aloud is an important part of your class. Pencils should be down. Cell phones should stay in the bookbag. Beware of earbuds that have crept into ears. Additionally, you might have a few students who moan, or roll their eyes when you start reading – reactions familiar to parents and middle school teachers. “Do youhave to read today?” Smile and dive in.
Get Into It! Make sure that you’re using the appropriate amount of energy to keep your students’ attention. Don’t expect to mumble your way through the book. Vary your pitch, your pace, and your volume. Make notes in the margins indicating especially dramatic or humorous parts of the book. And yes, I practiced those parts. When the mystery is solved or an important detail is revealed you need to create that drama with your voice. I’ve actually had the teacher next door peek into my room as I yelled dialogue from a read-aloud. (Sorry about that – didn’t mean to interrupt your silent reading time.)
Have Fun. As a teacher, you can model reading as a fun, rewarding activity. This is your chance to create a love of reading in your students. Don’t be surprised if your students start sharing their books with you, and suggest the book to read next.
Here are books that I enjoy reading aloud to middle school students.
The “On the Run” series by Gordon Korman. Six books. The first book is Chasing the Falconers. (This is my favorite read-aloud series.) The books are short, and it is one big story. Plan to read them all, in order.
The “Kidnapped” series by Gordon Korman. Three books. Takes place after "On the Run," with the same characters.
Dovey Coe by Frances O'Roark Dowell
Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix
The City of Ember by Jeanne Duprau (Make copies of the puzzle and let students solve as you read.)
Escaping the Giant Wave by Peg Kehret
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell
Note: this post originally appeared on Keith's book review blog, TweenReading.com.
TeacherScope is a web-site featuring ideas an opinions about education from an experienced teacher’s perpective.
That teacher is me – Keith Kyker. I’m currently in my 34th year of teaching. Add to that my 16 years as a student, and I have 50 years of experience in the educational system. I’ve taught in huge schools (4,000 students) and tiny schools (55 students.) I’ve taught in the suburbs, in the city, and in a rural Alaskan village. I’ve taught a few hundred feet from an interstate highway, and one hundred miles from the nearest traffic light. I’ve taught all four core subjects, and several electives. As a library media specialist and classroom teacher, I’ve taught every grade from pre-K to college. I’ve also conducted hundreds of sessions at 75 conferences in 14 states.
So, I like to think I’ve earned the right to express my opinions on the subject. :-)
Why go to the trouble of creating a web-site? There are a few reasons. For one, I’m a writer. I’ve written or co-written a dozen books and several magazine articles. I enjoy writing, and it’s probably my most effective mode of communication. Also, I enjoy making web-pages. Anybody out there remember Adobe PageMill and Microsoft FrontPage? Yep, I learned to make web-pages before Google was founded. Today’s online tools (I prefer Weebly) make it much easier and a lot more fun.
And most importantly, I believe that my long-term big-picture approach can be beneficial to other educators. Teachers have a way of retiring young and drifting off into the sunset without writing down their experiences for the next generations who follow us into the classroom. If it turns out that absolutely no one benefits from this web-site, that’s fine. But at least I’ve put it out there.
Before I end this introduction, let me tell you some things you won’t see on TeacherScope. You won’t read a rant. I won’t write just to vent steam if I’ve had a very bad day. That’s unprofessional, and doesn’t really help anyone. All of my entries will be thoughtful and reflective. Speaking of professionalism, you won’t find any negative personal comments here. As a rule, I don’t criticize my supervisors – past or present – and I can extend that policy to my blog. My goal is to encourage educators, not denigrate them.
Finally, you won’t see a comments section on TeacherScope. There are several educational forums out there, where educators and other citizens can voice their opinions and concerns. TeacherScope isn’t one of them. Web space is inexpensive, and sometimes free. If you have the skill to type a comment, then you probably have the skill to create a free web-page on Weebly. Go for it! Add your blog to the educational knowledge base. Send me a link. But TeacherScope is my notebook. Thanks for understanding.
P.S. - I know that "Teacherscope" can be TeacherScope, and that it can also be TeachersCope. So maybe this web-site is destined to help with coping skills, too! :-)
Keith Kyker (M.Ed)
is a career educator with 36 years of teaching experience. He has worked with every age group from Pre-K to college. Keith's experience includes stints at suburban mega-high schools, neighborhood elementary and middle schools, and a tiny K-12 school in a Yupik village on the Bering Sea.
Send e-mail to Keith
Important note: the ideas and opinions expressed on this blog are the those of the author, Keith Kyker, and in no way reflect the opinions, policies, or practices of any of Keith's current or former employing school districts.
"TeacherScope is a reflection of my professional philosophy - positive, encouraging, edifying, and thought-provoking. Thanks for stopping by." - Keith
Keith's new book helps students and parents make a successful transition to middle school. Click here for more information.
Ditch the candy and toys. Reward your dedicated readers the right way. Click here for more information.
Interested in teaching a digital photography class? Here's your full-year curriculum. Click here for more information.
Book reviews for teachers and library media specialists working with upper-elementary and middle school readers. Click here.
TeacherScope is a service of