Why Read?

     If you haven't yet heard my speech on the importance of reading, it's time. I am a BIG proponent of making sure students are reading to improve their skills and comprehensionincrease their vocabularymake life connections, and enjoy the pleasures of getting lost in an adventure or traveling to another place or time without ever leaving their seat!  Reading is a skill that will benefit us in any job market and any profession.  And, reading makes us better writers! You wouldn't try to play a sport without watching it a few times to see what the game looks like, right? Well, when we read, we are training our brain to see what good writing looks like.  And, reading for pleasure is a hobby we'll enjoy for the rest of our lives.
     Reading also builds a student's "background knowledge", or schema. This is important so that students can connect concepts to experiences, words and events that are already part of their "mental filing cabinet".  A large part of reading comprehension is due to a student being able to relate to, or understand a concept by digging into that filing cabinet. Students with limited background information to draw on may struggle with making the connections needed to fully comprehend a passage they've read. The quickest way to build that background knowledge is not by experiencing it, but by reading about it.
     What many people may not realize is that reading fiction (novels, children's books, classic literature) teaches empathy. According to Keith Oatley, Cognitive Psychologist at the University of Toronto, engaging with stories about people "can improve empathy." He says when we read about other people, we begin to "imagine ourselves in their position (what the kids in school call "making connections"), which enables us to better understand people." How does this happen? "It is because readers are experiencing a lot of situations in a short amount of time as they read, far more than if we spent our lives waiting for those situations to come to us." So, bottom line is that reading is good for more than just academics.
     According to the Global Language Monitor, the English language has over one million wordsBut a typical adult will have a usable vocabulary of only 10,000 to 20,000 words. That leaves a lot of words in our language that aren't being used.   Exposing young children to new words helps them to not only learn the word, but to see the word in action, specifically how the word is used. That's a great thing, especially as our students will be exposed to "higher level" words through standardized testing.
     Remember that reading and reading comprehension spans all subjects - even math!  Imagine struggling to read through a math word problem and not understanding what math calculations need to be done to solve it.  Many students struggle with the literacy of math, understanding the meaning of the vocabulary associated with it. These domain-specific words should continue to be used daily so that they become a part of the student's vernacular.
An easy way to look at vocabulary taught in school is to bucket it into the groupings outlined in the Common Core curriculum:
  • Tier 1 words are basic words that commonly appear in spoken language. These would be common words in our vocabulary. Students are already familiar with these words. For example, "house", "they", and "equal".
  • Tier 2 words are high frequency words used by mature language users across several content areas. These would be words such as "establish" , "obtain",and "verify". As you can tell, these words would be extemely useful for students to be able to use and understand, as they woud be used in many different subject areas ("cross-curricular").
  • Tier 3 words are low-frequency words that are domain-specific.These would be words associated with a particular content area, such as medical terms, music terms, or words associated with a particular occupation.  For example, "mitosis" in science, "civil" in social studies, "personification" in language arts.
     In the classroom, the focus on vocabulary in the middle grades and middle school will be on the Tier 2 and Tier 3 words, to help the students expand their understanding of these higher-level words. One way is through repetition. Using the word when speaking will help the student begin to associate the word with it's domain and usage. At home, a way to help students is to review these Tier 2 and Tier 3 words and use them in discussions.  Using the words in conversation will help students understand both meaning and usage. An easy way to see the words in action is by reading different types of material. Both fiction and non-fiction will expose the students to many Tier 2 and Tier 3 words.
 I truly believe that reading is the answer to succeeding in school and in life!

Middle School Non-Fiction Activity: The Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping

One of the most engaging activities I do in class with my Middle Schoolers when we tackle non-fiction is our quest to find the real killer of the Lindbergh baby. You may ask, "How can that be? Bruno Richard Hauptmann was tried, convicted and executed for that crime 80 years ago!" Well, yes, he was. But the case was so flawed, it doesn't take an FBI-trained officer to see that the wrong man may have been blamed.  Or, possibly, been guilty but didn't act alone.  In either case, the students get into the story and background and are determined to find out who the real killer(s) are...

I begin with a two page summary of the kidnapping. You can find them all over the internet. Once they understand what happened, and view the key pieces of evidence (the note, the location of the baby's body, the home-made ladder..) and throw in the fact that it was a rainy night, no one knew the Lindberghs were even at their vacation home that night, there was no way anyone went down that ladder holding a baby... well, before you know it, the students will be throwing conspiracy theories, other evidence, and motives at you like hot potatoes.  The internet has the drawings of the layout of the home, aerial views of the property, photos of the ladder propped against the house, and a list of mistresses of Lindbergh Sr. that all lend credibility to the idea that he might have been involved.

I give them 3 days to search the evidence, work in groups to go over theories, and watch videos. Then they write a 5 paragraph essay with an introduction, thesis statement (focusing on who they think really did it, and why) and their body of proof to support their claim. On the day their papers are due, I invite our school resource officer to sit in on the class. They each informally present their suspects and motive, and the officer quizzes them and tries to disprove their claim. (Officer: What about footprints? Wasn't it raining out?"  Student: "Yes! They found footprints - same size as Lindbergh's!" Officer: "They found the baby's body in the woods." Student: "No! They found A body, probably not THE body. There was an orphanage nearby, and it could have been a baby from there!")  I'm always amazed at the theories and motives the students throw out during the discussion. It's obvious that they did some research, and I've heard from parents that it was often the dinner conversation each night for that week.

I also throw in a quick lesson on domain-specific vocabulary. In this case, we go over a list of police terminology so that when they are presenting, they are using words such as motive, indictment, evidence, conspiracy, alleged, felony, etc.  They love learning the terms and using them. And, you'll be surprised at how many CSI TV program watchers you have in your class!

I love this research/writing lesson because it gets my students involved in local history - the Lindbergh's vacation home where the kidnapping occurred is not far from our school in New Jersey, and that helps the students relate to it .  It is also a great way to practice formal essay writing and thesis statements and all that goes along with that. Oh, throw in public speaking as well.

Some links to get you started:

FBI information on the kidnapping

The American Experience on PBS: Lindbergh Kidnapping

NJ State Police Lindbergh Kidnapping Evidence Photographs




A Missing Piece of Common Core

Every year, teachers count down the days until summer vacation. Heck, I had the countdown on the board from the first day of school, and a student in my class was given the task of changing the number each day. But as the number on the board gets smaller and smaller, and the stress level of making sure you’ve covered all of the required curriculum gets higher and higher, it’s time to take a deep breath and convince yourself that you’ve done the best you can to get through it. No matter how well you’ve pulled together detailed plans, printed off those Pinterest ideas, downloaded those tips from Twitter, there is no way you’ve been able to get to everything you wanted to. Those assemblies, snow days, state tests, class trips and ad-hoc conversations that the kids can always drag you into somehow keeps you from covering all you planned to cover. And when the weather suddenly breaks and you get that urge to have a kickball game during 6th period? What’s wrong with that? Nothing!

Some of my most memorable teaching moments have come when we’ve put away the books, dropped the pencils and just talked. We talked about what we had for dinner last night, what our favorite movies are, what music we like to listen to. We talked about divorce, new babies, moving out of town and leaving friends behind. We talked about current events and the SuperBowl. And from those conversations, we learned a lot about empathy.

If you look at the Common Core Standards, somehow empathy was left off the list of standards in Language Arts. Somehow someone who wrote those standards didn’t feel that learning to put yourself in other’s shoes would help you to become a better writer, or understand what a character in literature was feeling or experiencing. For that matter, it also doesn’t help someone become a better person either. Isn’t that what we are supposed to be helping our students become? More well-rounded, ready-to-take-on-the-world people?

So my advice to teachers in these last few weeks of school: Put down the expo markers, close the books, and take a walk outside to the playground to hang out and just talk. About the weather. About vacation. About family. About the kids. Let them tell you about themselves, and then tell them about you. They may not remember how to conjugate a verb, or the theme of their latest novel, but they will remember the day they told you about the time they crashed their bike, or visited the beach with friends. And they’ll remember when you told them about your experiences. And they’ll appreciate the time you spent getting to know them. That’s what I call a learning experience.