Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Surfing the internet & browsing in magazines

Yesterday I felt like I finally had a day off and spent the day as a real couch potato.  Most of my day was spent surfing the internet, learning about many random things as I buffed and updated the Portaportal site for my school library. This felt particularly decadent because my college age sons are both at home and I am constantly urging them to get off the computer and do something.  So there I was doing just what I tell them not to do, spending a whole day exploring the internet and digging through the deep web.

My portaportal site is a "link farm" where I keep internet links that I use and that I recommend.  It is by no means an exhaustive list but it still demands a fair amount of grooming so it doesn't become an embarrassment.  The best internet sites aren't static so checking that a link is "live" (Portaportal does this for me automatically) is not enough.  If I plan to use sites with students or recommend them to teachers I have to have an idea how to operate the web site and find what is needed.  

As I explored and poked around at the wonderful world of the internet I thought about what was doing in relation to reading.  Was this a reading activity?  It certainly demanded a fair amount of reading skill.  I scanned and explored sites, entered exploratory searches and reviewed the content returned this way for clarity, grade appropriateness and interest. I certainly read a fair number of words but jumping back and forth across topics, reading only enough to evaluate, checking links to visuals and interactive illustrations, even noting the add-ons necessary to make things work and then moving on - was this really reading? 

The constraints of what "counts" as reading is not a small question.  Students are required to spend a certain amount of time each day "doing independent reading."  So when a child is leafing through a magazine (poring over the ads, checking out the bold face headings and perhaps reading captions for particularly intriguing pictures) it matters to the child, the parents and the teachers if this should be either classified as a waste of time, or counted as homework.

Browsing through a magazine like surfing the internet is a skill that demands a fair amount of reading and thinking skill.  Browsing through a magazine is how many readers find the articles they want to read.  Of course most magazines have tables of contents, some publish indexes, and most are indexed online, but realistically, most people browse to find what they want to read.  Surfing the internet is similar, if a bit more layered and complicated but it also demands reading skill along with others and is one way that a reader can find what they want to read.  Is it reading?  Perhaps that depends on whether you find anything you want to settle in and read.  It is certainly not a waste of time if you find something to pursue further.  As to what I was doing, thank goodness I didn't have to fill out a reading log because I don't think it "counted."

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Reader's advisory and reader's expectations

Supporting students as they choose books is a big part of my work as a school librarian. Although by necessity ruthlessly brief, the "reader's advisory conferences" that are initiated by the students are often the best part of my day. They give me a chance to talk about books and help students describe what it is they really want from a book, reflecting on what is working well and not so well in their current reading.These conferences often end with students choosing a book that they feel enthusiastic about reading.  Sometimes (but not always!) this is a book that I recommended.

The polar opposite of these student initiated reader's advisory conferences are conferences that are prompted by a student selecting books that they have no chance of actually reading.  These conferences usually take longer and I often end up delaying their book choice until later in the day, usually during my lunch break. They can also be frustrating because the student and I often have very different expectations about reading. 

Last week a second grader from an ESL class selected Biscuit by Alyssa Capucilli (a book for beginning readers with between two and eight words on a page) and The Amber Spy Glass by Phillip Pullman (Volume 1 from His Dark Materials a fantasy series directed at middle school and high school students). After reading a together for a little while (she read part of Biscuit to me and I read the first two paragraphs of The Amber Spy Glass to her) she was able to tell me that her teacher said she had to read longer books with chapters. She ended up leaving with a book about Amanda Pig by Jean Van Leeuwen.   We were able to agree that she wanted a book with chapters that had a story she could understand and not too many words she couldn't figure out. She also liked that the Amanda Pig book had stories about friends and family.

Not all conferences have such happy endings.  I remember a third grader who struggled with reading explaining in all earnestness, "but I don't want a book that is enjoyable.  I want a book that is hard!" Clearly my expectation for what happens when you read is very different from his. Eventually, after several months, he began to choose non-fiction information books on topics that interested him, but his definition of reading still seems to include struggling over each word.

So, what is necessary for successful book choice? Students are choosing books that will be read in front of both teachers and peers  The books can't look too easy, or too embarrassing or too hard to be read at all.  They have to be long enough to satisfy required reading logs for at least a week but not so long that they end up returning the book before coming to the end.  The book has to be interesting enough to make it possible to keep reading, but not so interesting that they attract too much attention.  What are students actually doing when  they visit the library for a quick 10 or 15 minutes and leave with a book they want to read?  Often they are looking for books that have been recently read by their peers so the returns cart is the most visited shelf. Sometimes they are either  looking for something that is familiar (Wimpy Kid, Amber Brown, Gary Paulson, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) other times  they are getting advice from peers. 

Book choice for reading in school may fill social needs just as much or even more than academic needs. Perhaps I can find a way to harness the social machine to support all the readers in my elementary school, not just the ones who are already getting the support they need from their peers.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

mermaids and appeal

Earlier this month I went to an inspiring workshop with Olga Nesi about using appeal terms to talk about and teach students to describe books.  (see this article from School Library Journal for a quick introduction to the concept of appeal terms http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/slj/home/885803-312/its_all_about_text_appeal.html.csp )

I was thinking about this workshop as I read yet another mermaid book.  Books can feel so different, even when a description of plot or topic makes them seem related.  Here are the two "mermaid books" that I read this month.  One is current, and the other isn't.  Libraries can be like that...

Appelt, Kathi. Keeper. New York: Atheneum for Young Readers, 2010.
Kessler, Liz. The Tail of Emily Windsnap. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick, 2006.

A description could make them seem closely related but their appeal is miles apart.  I would recommend them both - but not to the same reader!

Ten-year-old Keeper heads to a sandbar in a small boat along with her dog BD and a seagull named Captain in order to find her mother, a mermaid who left her when Keeper was only three. 

After twelve-year-old Emily discovers she is a mermaid during 7th grade swim class she is determined to find and rescue her estranged father. 

Keeper is a compelling book with a quiet and timeless feel.  The entire story takes place over one complex and multi-layered day surrounding a rich cast of characters that explore many kinds of love.

The Tail of Emily Windsnap is a lively romp through school and family on shore (or at least in a boat) and under the sea with recognizable if eccentric characters and a comfortably resolved plot. 

Both books are wonderful in their own way.  The Tail of Emily Windsnap will leave some readers begging for more (and I will stock the sequels in my library), but years later the reader won't really remember why.  Keeper on the other hand is the kind of book that the right reader will want to go back and read again, and will tell their very special friends (as I am telling you) that they just have to read it.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A subject that is avoided

As part of a scavenger hunt in my school library fifth grade students were asked to find a book related to their religion.  The students were directed to notice the Dewey hundreds posters above the non-fiction shelves before they began, so there was a strategy provided for finding these books.  To my chagrin, many students couldn't find anything appropriate (in their minds) in that section and instead returned with books about Italy, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica.  It hadn't occurred to me that the word "religion" would be a vocabulary word! 

On reflection I realize that the "R" word is almost never spoken in school - despite the inclusion of the "G" word in our daily recitation the Pledge of Allegiance.  I flashed back to a lesson I co-taught last year to a third grade class.  We were using Google-Earth to explore Jerusalem, a city that is studied for one month during the third grade.  We were identifying certain important buildings in the city, and the question arose of the meaning of certain symbols in Google-Earth.  I ended up making a chart for the class with religion / place of worship / symbol.  A lot of important vocabulary was discussed and the students left with a sense of excitement around learning more about this fascinating city. I thought I had done well by this class.  As the class was leaving an adult (an educational assistant that was assigned to one of the students in that class) pulled me aside and said "I can't believe that you just went there!"  The concern seemed to be that I might get into trouble for mentioning what seems to be a taboo subject. 

Perhaps we (teachers and librarians) should not be shy about teaching about things that exist.  Religion is a big part of news almost every day, and our students deserve to know what is meant by words like religion and faith.  Confusing religion, nationality, and culture is not acceptable if our young people are going to have a chance of knowing what is going on. 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Short Picture Book - Good for Tweens

Night of the Gargoyles by Eve Bunting is a wonderful book that just doesn't quite fit into a pigeon hole so it often doesn't get read in the classroom or even the library.  Today I had a small group of 5th and 6th grade students - all English Language Learners - who needed to wait in the library for a few minutes before returning to their class. When one asked me to read to them (possibly hoping to delay their return to the classroom) I reached for Night of the Gargoyles.  "It had been on my mind," I told them, "because it is a favorite spooky story that somehow I didn't get a chance to read during the Halloween season."
"So now's your chance!" was the (kind of) snappy comeback.  The group settled into the meeting area for a story.  Some of them commenting as they settled in around my rocking chair that they "felt like little kids."

Then from the first page they were all gripped.  Atmospheric yet detailed pictures.  Rich descriptive vocabulary. Even the dictionary style definition at the beginning, clearly signaling that this is not a little kids book pulled them in.  Finally it was an invitation to look more carefully at the built world around them. They left the library talking to each other about what they had seen on buildings both real and in movies. And all with almost no time stolen from their day (or mine.)  This was a magical interlude.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What are picture books for?

Some of the most memorable and beloved books in my library are picture books. As an elementary school librarian I am one of the lucky ones that I get to surround myself with the art, words, and deep thoughts of picture books.  Yet once my children are independent readers they seldom choose picture books to read.  So how do I keep these books, some of the best art and literature in my library, from languishing on the shelves? I talk to anyone who will listen about picture books and what they are for.

Picture books are for sharing.  The unspoken assumption behind the format is that this is a book for a reader and a listener (or a class).  The traditional oversize format is not really comfortable for a child reading alone.  Often the words - the reading level, the vocabulary - even the size of the print - are not appropriate for the independent reader.  Great picture books beg to be read out loud!  They want to be performed, sung, whispered, shouted, and shared. I would even say that if you have only read a picture book silently to yourself you haven't really read it.

So who will borrow the wonderful, thoughtful, artistic books from my school library?  I try to convince the classroom teachers that they can teach so much (comprehension strategies, writing style, even content) with picture books, but most of them are engaged in reading novels.  So I turn to the students.  When I explain what picture books are really for, many students are excited to try out the role of reader! It seems like almost everybody has a younger sibling, or a cousin, or somebody to babysit (or help mom babysit.)

At first I gave extra borrowing privileges to students that told me they were reading to a younger child.  Now I let everyone borrow two books a week.  Often one of those books is a book to read to someone else. Does everyone who borrows a picture book follow through and read to someone else?  Of course not.  But the intention of reading to someone else can make a student feel entitled to read a picture book without feeling out of place.  And once the book is opened the words and pictures will sell themselves.   

Who will you read to today?

Sunday, October 31, 2010


Welcome to Reading River, a blog about books and children.  As a school librarian I am incredibly lucky to watch and support students as they learn, grow and change.  I am also lucky to be working with books and children at a time that will surely be regarded as a great golden age of writing for children.