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.