"It is estimated that the "Summer Slide" accounts for as much as 85% of the reading achievement gap between lower income students and their middle- and upper-income peers." (Why Summer Matters in the Rich/Poor Achievement Gap, Richard Allington and Anne McGill-Frazen, August 2009.) WOW! We know that it is important for kids to engage with reading year-round, but there are certain shifts we must make as educators during the summer to help prevent a slide in both comprehension and engagement.
You see summer reading come in many forms in schools that are abuzz at the end of the school year. Our school used to do a calendar with parent signatures and the kids that read all summer got an ice cream party when school resumed in August (yikes). Even though that strategy now seems terrifying to me, it was backed by a well-meaning librarian. One who knew the research about summer slide and wanted to do something about. Other schools make required reading lists, or other incentive programs made to motivate students. The problem with that extrinsic motivation is that it does not stick. It motivates a student with a reward, not the actual reading. So, what can we all do? What are some ways to keep our kids reading over the summer and maintain those Wild Reading classrooms we have worked so hard to establish during the school year? Here is a list of things that I have found to help keep my kids engaged with reading over the long summer.
1. Make Plans
Before school is over, we start making plans for the summer. We take a look at our reading notebook and see some of our gaps for the school year, series that we really loved and what we plan on reading next. In my experience, it helps to write down the plan. This book form I created is one way for students to keep their list on hand. Students write the titles of books they want to read and color them in as they read. There is no reward involved with this, and students don't have to color, but the coloring helps some of us see what we have completed. You can also use the form to just keep track of what you ended up reading over the summer. That's it! We have forms just like this one that we keep in our reading notebooks, so my kids are pretty comfortable with this. We also share apps, websites and free book programs (from the Public Library and Barnes & Noble), so kids know where to find books during the summer.
2. Provide Access
Kids cannot read over the summer if they do not have any books to read. Period. It seems that some teachers and librarians have no idea that their kids live in book deserts. These same teachers rebute with "go to the public library, it's free!" This is not the answer for all families. Some communities have stringent requirements to get cards, like proof of residency. Some families have no way to get a library. Some families have anxiety over past fees and penalties, and some families do not have libraries in their communities. With that being said, we should not ignore the plethora of resources our public libraries offer.
-Give books away. The end of the year is a great time for teachers to weed through their classroom libraries, and these books can be laid out on tables in the library or cafeteria and students can choose books that they would like to keep. If you have two copies of great books in your library, give one away. Buy books for your kids. Do whatever you can to provide them with access to books they WANT to read. Last year, we saw kids excited for their "first books," some of our students didn't own any books.
-We don't just want to give kids books that we feel like aren't good enough for the library anymore, plan ahead. You can order books from Scholastic using bonus points all year long and have quite the collection for kids to choose from in June. Order a book for each of your kids that you know they will like (because you know them) and give it to them as an end of year gift. Ditch the water bottles, mechanical pencils and candy.
-Add Little Free Libraries around your community. These projects take some fundraising and planning, but they provide instant access to books for everyone in the community. We currently have two, one at each of our elementary schools. Our plans are to add two more before next summer.
-The Public Library. Our public library comes to our school and gives kids sign-up forms for library cards. Your library might do the same. They might even offer to come in and get kids signed up on the spot. Your public library is just waiting for you to reach out and ask for help. Our librarians in Hamilton County are top notch. Give kids handouts, showing them the summer programming and book clubs that your county offers. There would be nothing stopping you from some sort of carpooling effort and summer visit schedule.
3. Community Outreach
Last school year, our librarian was inspired by a presentation from the librarians who set up Books on Bikes. She changed the name to Books on Blankets and we started planning. Over the summer we spent one day a week (for the whole summer) providing a read aloud, free book and popsicle to every child in attendance. We had some families who came to BoB every single week during the summer. This means that their kids had at least one shared reading experience a week and one book they read a week. Using our outlets (Facebook, all-calls, school website and Twitter) we reminded families of our events and encouraged them to attend. Teachers, staff members and community members signed up to read aloud. They also helped pull our book carts out, helped kids select books and helped cut popsicles and clean-up. Our giveaway books were ones left from the giveaway at the end of the year, and some donations from our local Half Price Bookstores. This is such a simple way to provide for the community, and our ultimate goal is for a van. Be creative and start a project like this in your community!
There are so many great ways to share books with kids over the summer. These are three things that work for me and my district. None of them involve rewards or pre-made lists. I hope this post gets you excited about trying out what works for us, or sparks some inspiration to branch out and build on these ideas.
I happened to come across an ARC of Laurel Snyder's Orphan Island, due out in May of 2017. Thank you to Patrick Andrus to allowing me to read this one. I have been anticipating it's release.
Fantasy is one of my favorite genres. I cannot imagine what kind of challenge in must be to build worlds in the ways that excellent fantasy writers do. This book pulled me right in with some intense imagery. The setting is easy to imagine, it feels like paradise. A paradise where only nine children live in complete and happy bliss. Immediately I am pulled to images of Lord of the Flies or Blue Lagoon. The transportation to a new world is one that I have experienced for many years now.
How many times as a child did I imagine living far away, left to my own devices? More times that I can possibly remember. I was quite moved by The Boxcar Children series as a child. A couple of my childhood neighbors worked with me to create their world in our backyards. We made wild onion soup, set up different rooms in our house made of boxwood bushes. It was all quite magical, yet safe. The hollers of our mothers were always within earshot.
Another series that made a profound impact on playtime was The Babysitter's Club. I mean, what 80's/90's kid didn't have the same experience? You read Kristy's Great Idea and all of a sudden you have three of your closest friends gathered and a notebook with a cutout of JTT's face plastered on the front, Babysitter's Club scribbled in your best fourth grade cursive.
And while all of these memories of early world building sit fondly in my heart, there is one more that burns the brightest. As an early reader I was drawn to Mercer Mayer. Drawn might not be the word. Obsessed?
This book: There's An Alligator Under My Bed is one that will always remain a childhood favorite. I had a kindergarten teacher who made this fantasy world real and that inspired a lifetime of play when it comes to reading. I do not remember it all, but I remember her setting up plastic vegetables, fruits and cookies in a trail like the one the boy makes in the book. We had read the book together and then she transformed our classroom into the pages, and wow. What magic there was in that.
And so, I continued to build worlds. Whether it was the boxcar or my friend's bedroom because she was the only one who had a bubblegum pink Girl Talk phone.
As an adult, I no longer build these worlds, but I thoroughly enjoy visiting them through the work of others. If you like to be transported to different places with bizarre rules and possibilities then Orphan Island might be a nice choice for you. While the world is only one piece of the book, it is important. It allows the narrative of friendship and growing up to unfold in the most interesting way.
Students write narratives on Kid Blog.
Can you feel the shift to sheer fear in the classroom? It radiates down the hallways. It makes it's way into team and staff meetings. It permeates the four walls of our learning spaces. If you're a third grade reading teacher, it has probably lived in your room all year. The fear is not coming from the kids, it is coming from their teachers. The fear of will my kids pass the test? is sinking into schools all over America, right now. Tis the season.
This is not the same fear that lives in my teacher heart. My fears take the form of wondering if my kids love reading yet. It takes the form of hoping to one day hear the cheers that fill that room when it's time to get back to our latest writing piece. My fear is that the reading and writing community I worked so hard to establish is soon coming to an end. That it's time for me to pull away my scaffolds and see if my kids can still find books they WANT to read, and that it's time for them to see that all year my editing marks have not covered their notebook pages because I don't want their writer's voice strangled and left dead in a sea of red ink. These are my legitimate fears.
Teachers, do not be afraid that your children will not pass a test. We are human, they are human. We have days when we are not feeling well, when there is no possible way we can focus on another boring, made-up for testing story and the surface level comprehension questions that follow. And that is okay. Teachers, you work hard! You love kids! You are in the trenches helping them along the way every single day. Do not discount all of your hard work and theirs for one day. One day that means what exactly?
I will say this, and I mean it. The only "test prep" my kids do is this: they read and write every single day. We read across genres. We write across genres. Guess what? My kids still work on narrative writing even though it will not be tested on the Ohio Fourth Grade AIR test they will take next month. My kids make up stories that they want to tell, they find their voices. They work through hard times and share happy times. They anticipate book releases and their book talks and critical analysis can bring you to tears. They grow. They grow each and every day and that is worth more than one day of a test.
I am reminded of a time that Donalyn Miller appeared on Penny Kittle's The Book Love Foundation Podcast. She said this "Nobody goes down to the basketball coach and says hey, why are the kids just dribbling basketballs down here? Nobody goes to the band hall and says you know, don't you think the children should be comparing an oboe to a clarinet on a venn diagram? Don't you think that would improve their musicianship? We will still in the same school go down to an english classroom and ask why the kids are just reading and writing in here?" If you want kids to be better at reading and writing, they must have time to read and write. Not to fill out graphic organizers, hamburger writing templates, do language arts and crafts or even... your really "fun and engaging" test prep task cards.
So teachers, guess what you need to grow readers and writers?
Books. Lots of them. Across all genres and formats.
Paper & pencils. Lots of paper.
Time. Lots of time to read and write.
Communities that offer support and socialization. Lots of socialization.
Test Prep 101.
Grab your books,
Quiet those voices,
A walk down the hall,
is that all it takes?
Push open the door,
just a smidgen more.
All of a sudden,
I can breathe.
Cobwebs be gone,
limbs stretch out.
Find a cozy spot,
under a tree
against a wall
next to a friend
on the ground.
Crack open the spine,
a boy learning he's a wizard
a girl trying to speak the words in her heart
a boy who put all of his feelings in a suitcase
a robot turning into a mother.
A breath of fresh air.
Teaching is hard. There are times when I find myself in the midst of these small moments that can only be described as chaotic. Typically, chaos waits to sink it's teeth in during what teachers call "transitions." Allow me to set the scene.
A class full of 23 nine and ten year olds have just pulled up from the surface of their books. Books which they have been engrossed in for the past 25ish minutes. Disclaimer: most of them were engrossed, others were blowing their noses or staring off into the abyss, but that is a topic we will touch on some other time. I gently say "alright, let's find a spot to stop. Reading materials away, grab everything you need for writing and meet me on the carpet."
Chaos sees his in. Here he comes.
It only takes one person who does not hear anything I just said. One person who heard "I'm starting in about four minutes so you have time to do whatever you would like." Realistically, what they actually heard probably sounds more like wah wah wah wah wah a la Charlie Brown's teacher. Then, the inevitable happens. Another adult walks into the room to tell or show me something. Seeing the new adult in the room will remind a child that they have a story to tell me. That will then remind another child that they have a story too. All of a sudden, no one remembers the bathroom signal and everyone has to go. If you're lucky, at this precise moment a dramatic indoor or outdoor recess announcement will come crackling over the intercom. This will be met with either an enthusiastic YEAHHH and fist pumps or a devastating NOOOO.
Chaos has arrived and he is trying to steal my cool.
At this moment, a child who really does need me or really does need directions clarified because I gave multiple steps instead of one, will approach me. This is it, this is the moment that will make or break the rest of the day for this child and it's all in my hands. I can take out the stress of the current situation or I can take a deep breath and help this little person who is hoping only to be met with a response that is not dehumanizing.
When my kids ask me questions I like to ask them a question in return. One that I think will help them get to a solution without me laying out the full plan for them. This does not work with all kids. For some kids, it can cause them to tear up as soon as I pose my first question. This year, I have one sweet little girl that is extremely sensitive. I had to learn that the hard way when I used my reverse questioning technique on her the first time. This student always needs the most support in the moments that are heavy with chaos.
Today, she gave me this note and it helped me see that she appreciates the patience I show her. All it takes is a deep breath in those moments that matter the most. If she can try her best then so can I.
Outside of Scholastic Headquarters in NYC, March 2016
How hard it is to try something new. To put ourselves out there and hope, maybe foolishly, for something to happen. I often wonder how we can expect our own children and students to be brave if we are not. It is easy to sit behind our desks and tell kids to be brave. It is easy to do this when they're the only ones filling their days with taking chances, not us.
They listen to a teacher say "what's the worst that could happen if you try?"
But, what if our kids saw us taking chances too? This thought took root in my mind this last year as more and more opportunities came knocking on my door. Suddenly, I was presented with possibilities to grow as an educator, to learn more about my craft and to collaborate on levels I never imagined for myself. It was scary. It still is scary. But for me, the chance to grow and be better than I am today helps squash my fear.
It started with having enough courage to stand up in front of hundreds of educators, librarians and authors at Nerd Camp and tell Donalyn Miller that her books saved my teaching life. Then it transformed into having the courage to apply to be a Scholastic Teacher Advisor. After that, it was connecting with eight other educators, most of which I did not know in real life. Now, it is taking the form of saying yes to sharing my passion with other educators on a larger scale. While these moments help me grow professionally, chances to be brave happen in my classroom every single day.
It might take the form of sharing my own writing with the class, and listen... that takes more courage than almost anything else I have ever done. Often it is being honest about books and my own reading life. Kids can see right through you, and why listen to someone who talks the talk but does not walk the walk? I am not standing at the front of my room telling my kids to be readers when I am not a reader myself. Maybe it is acknowledging that I do not know it all. I am learning right along with my kids and it took me a couple of years to embrace that.
So, maybe if we can show bravery then our kids will be more likely to. Maybe knowing that they are a part of a caring community helps them be brave. I know my community helps me show courage. If you want to put yourself out there, this Nerdy community will be there.
I have the audacity to believe that what I do is important. Monumental, even.
The words I choose can uplift or deflate. The look on my face can encourage or hinder. I set the tone. If I put myself out there in and out of the classroom, then my kids have a role model. They can see (from a safe distance) that when we are bold in life, amazing things can happen.
I mean, what's the worst that could happen if we try?
I am living in the heart of the school year.
You know what I mean. Everyone knows the routine, because it has been established. Everyone knows where things go, because they have lived in the space for five months. Everyone knows what time lunch is, because... wait. No one can ever remember what time lunch is. Including me. It's that time of the year when you see the lightbulbs going off more and more. You see the real, genuine growth. Kids look back through their writing notebooks and scoff at their barely there single sentence they wrote on day one during our first free write. Then they flip to their latest piece and you see a smile spread across their face. There is so much pride living in the heart of the school year.
My fourth graders have been in our shared space for months and it feels like home. A safe place in the building where we can be ourselves. We can laugh at our little inside jokes, we can smile when Hailey comes in with another pair of Harry Potter inspired earrings, when Cam bursts through the door with the newest volume of Chicken President, and when Layla loses her mind cracking up because she has caught me making one of my classic "Mrs. Riedmiller faces."
It has taken us all year to get here, but here we are.
This is the time of the year when my sadness starts sinking in. I know my kids will leave me soon and I never know what is waiting for them in fifth grade. I know their teachers, my own colleagues, but I do not live in those spaces, so I cannot attest to them. What I do know is that they are leaving an embedded learning community. They are leaving a unique space that I have worked tirelessly to create. They are leaving a space where they have left their mark, and where their teacher will not soon forget their little quirks. The things that make them who they are. Here's the thing: I know they will be fine. I know they will enjoy fifth grade and I know that they will be successful, but that doesn't mean that I won't miss them and all of the time we shared together.
So, as we enter the testing season and the season where we start looking at little humans and deciding where they fit in the puzzle that is next year, let us remember one thing. Let us remember that these children are why we do what we do. Their smiles, their creative minds and curious hearts are why we are here. Instead of just trying to fit them into the puzzle academically, I hope we will also look at their little hearts. I hope we will say that this child would be great with another because they both have a fire in their belly for learning. That these two children go together because they are kind to everyone they meet. And maybe that this friend would fit with this teacher because their personalities are so similar. I encourage you to take a step back and celebrate all of the growth and successes of the school year. Celebrate them before it's too late to look back together. Celebrate these kids and how hard they work on a daily basis; whether it's multiplying mixed numbers, finally finishing a 200 page book or literally keeping their cool all day in a school setting. Celebrate it.
I will soak up these moments and live in the heart of the school year, because these moments are now numbered. It won't be long before our kids move on and settle into the hearts of their next teacher.