Posted in #Deconstruct, #ProjectLit, Anti-racist work, ELA, Series: White People Homework

Series: White People Homework (24) Read, listen, take action

I read another tweet from the founder of #ProjectLit, Jarred Amato, about The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne. In two occasions he’s used this text as his go-to for discussing how we should abandon old, irrelevant texts in our classrooms. And I get it, I really do. Post #22 speaks to the canon. But here is a another secret of upholding systemic racism in our schools, classrooms, and libraries: some “white canon, colonized” books take up oxygen we could be using to read others’ beautiful works. And–and here’s the catch–we can still use them as historical texts as examples of themes, context, and ideas. And he’s also right.

Whole lotta white gaze going on here

The issue is we English teachers get stuck on our books. We fall in love with a text, and stay put. Grounded. Stubborn. We defend these texts with passion and lizard-brain emotion. And I mean white teachers, if I was being too subtle. Over my fifteen years of teaching, even recently, there is still so much “othering” of books written by authors of color, global viewpoints, etc. It’s become a binary conversation: this or that. White books or Non-white books. But here’s the thing: let go. Just–let go. Look at your canon and take out what is worth discussing, and eschew the rest. Don’t teach the entire novel. Have it as a reference for a timeline, but otherwise, release. Relook. Review. There are brilliant educators doing the work right now, in real time, who can help you find better novels with thematic clarity, relevancy, and rich, deep philosophies.

Shared on Donalyn Miller’s feed: Weeding Out Racism’s Invisible Roots: Rethinking Children’s Classics | Opinion

Important School Library Journal post from Padma Venkatraman about the importance of reading and sharing #ownvoices books instead of timeworn “classics” that perpetuate harmful stereotypes:“Powerful books can transport us to different places and times and also transplant us, temporarily, into a character’s body. Protagonists haunt us, move us, and sometimes spur us to act by sowing empathy and respect for diversity.Conversely, exposing young people to stories in which racism, sexism, ableism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of hate are the norm may sow seeds of bias that can grow into indifference or prejudice.”

And I would ask that you bookmark this, watch it, take notes, keep, review, and place high on your priority list.

Posted in being a better colleague, Being a better teacher, Best Practices, Reading, Reading Strategies, Relationship Building, Research, Writing

protecting readers

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who loved to read. Her mother read her books. When baby sisters came along she read books to herself. Her dad would take her to the library. Her teacher suggested books to her, including Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret when she was in fourth grade. It became her anthem into adolescence. She read Harriet the Spy three times, long before there was a movie adaptation. She learned that some books were too cold, some too hot, but most just right, all without someone telling her. No context clues. No five fingers. No color-coded levels or reading logs. Nothing was forbidden or taboo. When her great-grandmother gave her The Secret Garden, she used her own judgment to put it aside until she connected with it a year or so later. She would read anything and everything. Stories and information fueled her imagination.

My apologies for using third-person point of view: I needed to get outside my own head for a while and look at the bigger landscape. What a pure joy, to develop and cultivate a reading life before it was a “thing.” Of my current 90 students, I have one girl who tears through my #ProjectLit books as if they’re a bag of Takis. She is a reader. She tested far and away the highest ‘level’ IRLA from the American Reading Company can test. She is proud of her reading and her intelligence, as well she should be. Meeting her mother at conferences I thanked her, and her mother said they read at home.

Now another 8th-grade girl said she doesn’t need to read The Hate U Give because she already saw the movie. She said this in a defensive, snotty tone, challenging me to push back on this notion. I didn’t try. And please don’t misunderstand: I am not critical of her: she’s a teenage girl who doesn’t see the value in spending time with the book, with the author’s prose and structure and doesn’t want to think beyond that. She saw the movie, and that’s enough.



So we’ve had years of reading logs, and accountable talk, and for what? Now I’m in a district that uses a program called IRLA from the American Reading Company that says it doesn’t level readers, only books. When a representative from the company visited my room, she wanted to demonstrate the program with a student, and I chose a young girl who’s been reading anything scary I have in my classroom library. She was reading Through The Woods. The rep look at her computer screen leveled this book, and immediately told the student the book wasn’t at her level, “she was an orange level” and to go get an orange book. My student did what she was told.

That is a true story.

And what is also true is after the rep and group left my room, I went into damage control. I told her to never, ever worry about what level she or a book is in terms of what she wants to read. Read and talk about whatever she wants.

But I am left with my own accountability for using this program with students, and my evaluation is based on how much growth students show over this year. It’s on my TPEP evaluation goals, which my administrator crafted. I didn’t have a say in what my goals were or should be. Okay. This is the reality thousands of teachers face in schools across the country. I have the screenshots. We are required to teach and use instructional time for this program. The research I’ve done is dominated by the American Reading Company, so it’s difficult to find independent data. I am a solution-oriented person: if this is what I am required to use, then I will also tap into my professional expertise (by reading Donalyn Miller, Kylene Beers, Kelly Gallagher, et al) and make it work. Fortunately, Cult of Pedagogy addressed this issue: What are the best ways to use leveled texts?

And now, for those in the back: READERS ARE NOT LEVELS. BOOKS ARE.


One of the biggest mistakes Serravallo sees is labeling students by text levels. “Levels are meant for books, not for kids,” she explains. “There’s really no point in time when a kid is just a level, just one. There’s a real range, and it depends on a lot of other factors.”

Please: protect your readers. And be transparent about how and why you’re protecting them. You are fighting for their love of reading, but they need to learn how to do this, too, and advocate for their reading lives. 

I’m returning to my Burning Questions unit soon. Not sure I ever stop, actually. Time to flip the script on reading instruction and give authentic and honest hope in our agency.





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Posted in Being a better teacher, Best Practices, Big Questions, book recommendations, Books, Reading Strategies

Summer Series of Saves: free-range reading

Buy this book, please.

What do the middle years of teaching look like, because I am in the thick of it now? Do they come with a mix, much like the middle of a marriage or middle of life, where we know just enough to feel competent, still open to new ideas, and enough doubt to gnaw at our knowledge?

Last week my new district offered two full days of new hire training. The training sessions offered overviews of their pillars, including a brief introduction to the IT department, ELL, ELA, and their prescriptive reading program, IRLA, or Independent Reading Level Assessment developed by the American Reading Company.  I am looking forward to helping students become stronger readers with this program, and will sort out some confusion as I move through it with students. Kelly Gallagher’s Readacide was recommended during this session, and immediately I thought of how Gallagher might push back on the notion his work would be used in a prescribed context.

I know one of my new colleagues levels her classroom library, too, and it was suggested by a leader that I might want to do the same, and I thought about it, and this is where that muddy middle-years teacher speaks up: no, I don’t think so. But what would be the harm?

Fountas and Pinnell were my gurus when I began teaching, as Nancie Atwood (especially The Reading Zone) and Kylene Beers and Bob Probst have shaped my reading instruction tremendously.

But one thing I don’t want to do is create a culture where students only choose books “at their level.” What does that even really mean?!

In an article by Kiera Parrot, Thinking Outside the Bin: Why labeling books by reading level disempowers young readers, she quotes the amazing Pernille Ripp:

Research says that students should spend most of their time in ‘just right’ or ‘at their level’ books, but that research does not say to limit students and what they would like to read,” says Pernille Ripp, creator of the Global Read Aloud and author of Passionate Learners: How to Engage and Empower Your Students (Routledge, 2015).

And my other reading hero, Donalyn Miller:

Donalyn Miller, author of Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits (Jossey-Bass, 2013), has called leveling “educational malpractice.” Schools have gone too far, she believes. “There is a lack of fundamental understanding by many educators about the limitations of leveling systems and their role in children’s reading development,” she says. “Matching children with books solely by reading level removes the teacher’s responsibility for knowing much about children’s literature or teaching children meaningful strategies for self-selecting books beyond level.”

When I’m in my book club, no one ever, not once, asks me what my reading level is.

In a 2012 article for, “Guided Reading: the Romance and the Reality”, Fountas and Pinnell cautioned that they “never recommended that the school library or classroom libraries be leveled or that levels be reported to parents.” Using leveled texts in classrooms following the “A to Z” matrix, Lexile, or other systems, however, seems to contradict this advice, as educators report that more schools are leveling, with some districts mandating it. Teachers often discuss individual reading levels with their students, and some let students know one another levels.

I am coming to the point, promise.

Last night, in a short time, I read Wishtree by Katherine Applegate. It is far below my “reading level” and I suspect many of my middle school students’, too. The book is illustrated, and on a text complexity chart would not rank as very complex.

But that is incredibly deceptive.

Wishtree is what I wish The Giving Tree was–a beautiful story about friendship, family, longevity, and bravery. And if someone told me it was “too low” for me to read I would be indeed, disempowered. I don’t want to put a number on my personal classroom library books: I want the texts to draw students in and have them count on their own intuition, thin-slicing, and desire to read a book. If it’s too challenging (Black Diamond slope, as Lucy Calkins would say) then there is no shame in putting it down for the time being and moving on. The reading instructional time is devoted to creating readers with a rich reading life: explicit skills and strategies, with the desire to find things and curiosity that speaks to their lives.

So: I will keep asking — please contribute to my classroom library of mirrors and windows for students. A reading life isn’t built on levels alone, but the view when we can see all around us.