Monday, January 16, 2017

Our Reading Culture

Getting middle school kiddos to read is often difficult. Early grade children usually love reading and story time but as kids get older, they lose the love of reading. At the beginning of the year, I hear "I hate reading" and "I don't read" often...too often. Inevitably, every year, I am tasked with getting my kiddos to love reading and for that, we normally need a shift in culture.

Many kids come to me with a love of reading. Those are not the kids who shout out in class. The kids with negative feelings about reading usually shout it out and many others join in. It is as if the tone is set once the first student speaks. Kids who love reading don't want to speak up and look "uncool". So how do we make reading cool? How do we make even the most anti-reading, book-hating kids want to read? Well, it isn't easy.

From the beginning of the year, I talk about books, show book trailers, model reading, help kids choose books, and give kids time to read in class. Giving kids reading time in class is the most important thing that I do. I also read along with them, modeling as best I can. We all read. This is not busy work that I have the kids do while I grade papers and prepare for classes. I value reading and so I read with them. I also tell them that the minutes that they reading during the day are the most important minutes of their day.

As the year goes on, kids discover books that they love. They begin to talk about those books and share them. After a month or so, roughly 75% of the kids are happily reading. We have reached critical mass. The others see most of the kids reading during our class time, talking about books, eagerly copying titles on to their "To Read Next" lists and generally loving reading. More join in the fun because of peer pressure. Peer pressure works both ways and so I work at changing the conditions so that I can get peer pressure to work for me.

Since I have all of my kids doing the 40-Book Challenge, I have a classroom wall dedicated to our reading experience. Each child has a large index card with a sticker representing each book they have read so far this year. Every Thursday, I check in with the kids to see how many books they've completed since the last time we spoke. I read their reader response journals every Friday. Some of our reluctant readers have only read four books so far this year and some of our avid readers have read over forty books already. When I ask, nearly all of the kids say that they have read far more this year than any other year in their school lives.

There is no magic to creating a culture of reading. It is constant and hard work. The essential element of a robust reading culture is choice. We cannot assign books for kids to read and expect them to be joyous about them. We have to give kids a chance to exercise their choice and voice by picking their own books. That is why I have stocked my room with books, get kids to the library multiple times a week, show book trailers every other week or so, and continue to devote class time to reading. Kids will read and kids will love reading. It all comes down to how we as teachers build our reading culture.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Our First Breakout!

For a couple of years, I have been hearing great things about Breakout EDU. During a Breakout, kids have to solve puzzles in order to open locks and discover what is inside the Breakout box. This kind of classroom gamification seemed like a great way to get kids to think critically, work together and have some fun. It's funny how kids will eagerly do the work we want them to do if it comes in the form of a game. Breakout EDU has capitalized on this human tendency to solve puzzles.

The game I chose was "Commander in Mis-Chief" created by Joe Welch, a social studies teacher. The premise was that a newly-elected president was trying to destroy all primary source documents and rewrite history with his own version. Kids had to solve several puzzles to get inside the box and find the one thing that could stop the president. They had 45 minutes to do so. During this time, I saw many positive learning traits. Some kids took leadership roles and other kids were helpful followers. At some points during this exercise, those followers became leaders for a bit and the leaders became followers. The kids collaborated, conversed, debated and tried over and over again to solve the problem.

Each of my classes solved the puzzle. Since it was our first Breakout, I nudged and hinted a bit in order to keep them working toward their goal. Some of my kids lack persistence and grit, and things like Breakout will help them develop those traits. I made sure that they were engaged during the entire process so that they would feel the success of solving the puzzle.

This year has been one of discovery. Kids are discovering many things about themselves from our work in class, our Genius Hour projects (see more at and activities like Breakout EDU. I am confident that, at the end of the year, they will move on to eighth grade as more confident and tenacious learners who see themselves differently and aspire to do great things. We still have a semester to help them recast themselves in this light and we will be working hard to do so. Breakout EDU is one tool that we will use again and again to achieve this goal.