Slice of Life: Turn Up the Volume!


“Reading became my rocket ship out of the second-floor apartment in the projects. I traveled the world through books.”
~ Sonia Sotomayor ~

“Reading became my rocket ship out of the second-floor apartment in the projects. I traveled the world through books.” Sonia Sotomayor
Space Station Expedition 17 crew holding Jules Verne book and manuscript inside ATV Jules Verne. Credits: NASA

There’s a welcome chill in the air this morning, and in just a week, students will be streaming into my school. They’ll be eager to see their friends and meet their teachers. I’m eager to greet them. My summer has been filled with reading and attending conferences that have given me a plethora of ideas about ways to help my students learn and grow as readers, as writers, as people.

As I reflected on all of the professional development I’ve participated in the past few months, one work kept coming up: volume.

Kelly Gallagher talked about the importance of reading volume at ILA in Boston: “If the volume doesn’t happen, it doesn’t matter what standards we cover.”

At TCRWP’s August Reading Institute, Kylene Beers shared that research shows that “reading volume is the single best predictor of how good a reader is.”

She also shared Richard Allington’s finding that “the more minutes of high-success reading completed each day is the best predictor of reading growth.”

How will I translate this into classroom practice? By keeping my minilessons truly MINI. This is a huge challenge for me, but I know it’s critical. It’s critical because the less time spent on a minilesson means more time for students to read and write independently. It means more time for me to confer with individuals and small groups, where powerful learning is more likely to happen.

Kids also need this space to practice the skills they’re learning. Because, as Kathleen Tolan recently reminded teachers, “it’s in the over and over again of trying that you get better at something.” She also pointed out that “it’s not always about moving them higher, but for them to get better at it.” And, according to Mark Overmeyer, in order to be effective and lasting, “practice must be done in context.”

This means that kids are practicing reading in books that they choose. I might guide this choice, but the child should have the final say. In his decades of research, Richard Allington has found that “the best intervention is a good book that a child can and wants to read.”

How will I ensure that kids have books they can and want to read? I’ve read more books this summer than I’ve ever read in a single summer. I’ve done this because I want to be able to say to a student, “I thought of you when I read this book.” In his Newbery Medal Acceptance speech, Matt de la Peña told listeners that he didn’t identify himself as a reader until college, when a professor gave him a copy of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. “When I finally fell for literature, I fell hard.”

He went on to say, “But what if I can nudge a few…kids toward the magic of books at a younger age?” That is my mission. To know my students well enough that I can read a book and know that it’s a book they might love. A book with a character they can look at and say, “I know how she feels.” Or, “That’s me. I’m not alone.” A book that nudges them toward the magic.

Stephanie Harvey says that when we give them the access, the choice, and the time, the volume will follow naturally. Because when students find that magic, they read more. 

And when they know they’re not alone, that we’re there to cheer them on, to lend a hand, an ear, a shoulder, that is when they do their best learning. That is how we, in the words of Kylene Beers, “change tomorrow, each and every day.”

Thank you to StaceyDanaBetsyBeth, KathleenDeb, Melanie, and Lisa for creating this community and providing this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

SOL: Finding Ourselves in Others


I think the first Patricia Polacco book I ever read was Pink and Say (1994), but I can’t be certain. I do know that Chicken Sunday was in the literature anthology my school adopted in 1996.  At once I knew Patricia Polacco was a master storyteller whose books conveyed important themes through stories of intergenerational and multicultural friendship and caring. These themes evoked compassion and allowed readers to see “the other” in themselves.

FullSizeRenderAt the 88th Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Saturday Reunion, held yesterday, teachers from across the country braved swirling snow and freezing temperatures to hear Patricia Polacco deliver the opening keynote. She told us that “the greatest heroes in our counry are classroom teachers.” She shared the story of her hero, George Felker, the real Mr. Falker. Mr. Felker was the first teacher to recognize Patricia’s dyslexia and was instrumental in getting her the help she needed to learn to read. Polacco described him as a man who was “beautiful in his heart.”


Polacco also shared the story of The Keeping Quilt. I know I wasn’t the only member of the audience moved to tears as Patricia told of her great-grandmother, Anna, who left the Ukraine as a small child. The dress and headscarf, or babushka, she wore eventually became part of the keeping quilt. Anna’s mother sewed the quilt so that when Anna felt homesick she could “just touch the quilt, and you’ll keep home” in your heart.


Hearts were the thread running through Polacco’s speech. She thanked the thousands of teachers filling Riverside Church for devoting “our lives to educating the minds and hearts of others.” In closing, Polacco told us that she was proud to “walk this earth” with us, and that she holds our hearts in her good keeping. 

Kylene Beers’s closing keynote, “What Matters Most,” was the perfect bookend to Polacco’s opening address. Kylene began by talking about how literacy is about power and privilege. She went on to say that “power is the ability to reach someone with your message” and that “power is about being connected.” What connects us better than stories? Stories like The Keeping Quilt and Dear Mr. Falker.

Beers also told us that “we must have more compassion” and that we “get to compassion best and easiest through the teaching of literature.” Brain research supports this, as well as the role of literature in creating empathy, something that is sorely lacking in our society today. “The humanities should humanize us,” Beers said, and the best way to achieve this is to read. Children should read widely and read books of their choosing, because “want-ability will always be more important that readability.” Children should read widely because through literature “we learn how to navigate our lives by navigating the lives of others.”


With characters as diverse as a slave and soldier of the Civil War, Russian immigrants, Holocaust survivors, and everyday African-American kids, Patricia Polacco has given us literature that enables us to, as Kylene Beers put it, “become what we are not.” Great teachers will share these books with their students because they will help children become curious, creative, and compassionate. They will share them because “great teachers are our best hope for a better tomorrow.”

Thank you to Lucy Calkins and everyone at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project for making the Saturday Reunion possible, and thank you to Patricia Polacco and Kylene Beers for your confidence, faith, and above all, your words of inspiration.

Thank you also to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each day during the month of March and on Tuesdays throughout the year. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

SOLC 2014: Finding Gold in the Classroom


“The text awakens associations in the reader’s mind, and out of the mix, meaning is created.”

~ Kylene Beers & Robert E. Probst ~

Like many of you, I have been working with my colleagues to teach students to read more closely and gather evidence to support their thinking. I am thankful for the work of Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts in their book Falling in Love with Close Reading, Vicki Vinton on her blog, To Make A Prairie (I’m embarrassed to confess that her book, What Readers Really Do, written with Dorothy Barnhouse, is still in my TBR pile.), and Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading, by Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst, for helping us in this endeavor. 

Last week, I mentioned sharing King Midas and the Golden Touch with the fourth grade students at my school. They all enjoyed the story, and because of our rich discussion, had a good understanding of the theme. They were also able to write about this understanding, but incorporating evidence from the story into their writing was more of a challenge.

Their teachers and I knew from the start that this wasn’t going to be a “one-shot deal.” We knew there would be many more lessons, including guided and independent practice, as well as feedback, to get our students to be able to do this kind of work well. So on Friday, I was back in their classrooms with a very short excerpt from Jon J. Muth’s Zen Shorts, “Uncle Ry and the Moon.” I love sharing this deceptively simple story with students, and have done so many times. Muth’s book is quiet and unassuming, but it contains a powerful message.


Following the same routine we had used with King Midas, I read the story through once. The kids followed along on a typed version of the text. When I finished reading, I was met with a roomful of puzzled faces. I asked the kids to write what they had noticed and what they were wondering (We used a modified version on Vicki Vinton’s “Know/Wonder” chart for this.) Once they had their thoughts written down, they shared. All of the students were confused by Uncle Ry’s attitude toward the intruder. This clearly conflicted with the action they would take, or expect anyone to take, under similar circumstances. I complimented them for noticing this important contradiction, and explained to them the importance of this kind of observation. When an author includes those contradictions, he’s doing it for a reason. (Notice & Note, pg. 71)

Our next step was to reread the story, more carefully this time, and we stopped along the way to discuss what we were noticing now, and trying to sort out our confusion and begin to answer some of our questions. As we read, some students made thoughtful observations or raised interesting questions. Others asked questions to clarify a simpler element of the story, but these were important, too. I let them discuss these with their partners before sharing with the whole class.

It was during this conversation that one boy tentatively raised his hand. I have known and worked with this student since he was in first grade. His thinking is often perceptive, but can sometimes be muddled. I paused before calling on him to give him time to organize his thinking. Then I nodded to him and he said, “It’s like he’s the opposite of King Midas. Uncle Ry gives things away because he doesn’t mind being poor, and Midas wanted to have as much gold as he could get.”

I was speechless. I hadn’t thought of that myself. His teacher and I exchanged a look of joy. Of course, we let him know how impressed we were with his thinking and the he had made such a meaningful connection to King Midas. Then, another student started to raise her hand, and again, I could see the wheels still turning. She proceeded to tell us that another reason Uncle Ry was different from Midas is that Midas was blinded by greed, but Uncle Ry was blinded by his kind nature, and that was why he saw the intruder as a visitor.

I have shared this story with students many times before, but they have never come to these deep and thoughtful conclusions or level of understanding. So what was different? I hadn’t read the story right after King Midas before, but I wasn’t consciously thinking of a thematic connection between the two. Just as before, I had a plan when I began the lesson, but it was more open-ended. In the past, we were usually focusing specifically on character traits or summarizing. I firmly believe that the kids were able to achieve this level of understanding because I followed their lead. I let them develop the questions they had about the story. I let them go back and locate significant passages in the text. We do our students a huge disservice when we teach from a script and ask only preplanned, canned questions.

Are we finished with this work? Absolutely not. But we are laying a solid foundation for the kind of close reading and thinking skills our students will need to be thoughtful, caring human beings. And that, my friends, is worth all the gold in the world.

Image courtesy of
Image courtesy of

Thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for hosting the Slice of Life Challenge. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.