Category Archives: reading

Year of Discovering Strengths

A-Girl can’t read—not much anyway. Oh, she can recognize a few words here and there on a page of text, but reading a sentence like the one I am writing is beyond her capabilities.

A-Girl has stumbles over phonemes. She often confuses /d/ and /b/. Her tongue often trips on consonant blends, so /th/ becomes /h/. In other words, she pronounces that as hat.

For all her reading difficulties, A-Girl is a good-natured kid. The most trouble I’ve had with her in the past two years is refusing to spit out her gum when I told her to do so—and that happened only a couple of days ago!

So being good-natured is one of her strengths. (I was taught to look for strengths in every child—and in every family unit, no matter how dysfunctional—when I worked as a family advocate some years ago.)

Monday, I discovered another of A-Girl’s strengths. She had selected the book from the library and was stumbling over too many words, so I took over reading. We came upon a drawing of a magnificent fox in full color.

“I could draw a fox like that,” A-Girl said.

“Really?” I said.

“Really,” she said. “I’m an artist.”

“Then why don’t you take the book home and draw a fox tonight?” I said.

“OK, I will.”

The next day she returned with her pencil drawing of the head of a fox. It looked remarkably similar to the drawing in the book. (It’s the illustration at the top of this story.)

“Wow!” I said. “That’s great!”

“You can keep it,” she said.

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure. I did it for you.”

A-Girl may not be able to read very well, but am delighted to discover that she has other strengths. Obviously, she can draw. She also has a high degree of self-confidence in her artistic ability. She also has a generous spirit.

How many more strengths does A-Girl have? I don’t know, but I’m eager to find out. The Chinese have their Year of the Rat, Year of the Horse, and Year of the Dragon. I’m going to make this my Year of Discovering Strengths, not only in A-Girl, but in all my students.

Under the Cottonwood Trees: Part 2

Teachers at our school have been mandated to use the Read Naturally program to help struggling readers, and the software has been installed on most classroom computers. The only trouble is, no training has been offered.

In desperation today, I went to the principal and asked that every teacher be trained how to use Read Naturally.

“I can do that,” the principal replied, “or I can come to your classroom this afternoon to show you how.”

True to her word, the principal came to my reading intervention class and showed me how to use the program with two of my reluctant readers.

After 30 minutes of observation and hands-on learning, I had a pretty good grasp of how to manage the software and how to help students gain the most benefit from it.

L-Boy decided to read a selection about trees. (I wonder if our going out to read under the cottonwoods yesterday influenced his decision.)

The principal set an arbitrary goal for L-Boy to read 85 words per minute. He far exceeded that goal, reading 112 words per minute. Plus, he answered every comprehension question correctly.

When the principal asked L-Boy if he wanted to choose another story to read, he declined.

“That’s OK,” I said. “I promised to take him outdoors to read. There are only about 10 minutes until the bell rings, so I guess I’d better keep my promise.”

L-Boy and I, along with two others from the class, walked to the picnic tables under the cottonwood trees.

“I never knew that about tree leaves,” L-Boy said, “that they have to fall off so the tree doesn’t lose water during the winter.”

“I didn’t know it either,” I said. “I learned something new today. I’m glad you read that story.”

Amazing. Absolutely amazing. L-Boy, who hates to read, having gleaned some new knowledge from a simple story about trees, eagerly shared it with me.

Between the computer and the cottonwood trees, I think I see a glimmer—no, a dazzling ray—of hope for L-Boy’s reading future.

Reading Under the Cottonwood Trees

Reluctant readers. Reticent readers. Struggling readers. Non-readers. The I-hate-to-read kids.

Call them what you will, these are the kids I work with every day. Getting them to read anything is one tough job—sort of like saying, “You may choose. Which would you prefer: to have your leg amputated or to have a root canal?”

My last class of the day, reading intervention, is my smallest. I have six students, all of whom have varying degrees of antipathy toward the written word. J-Boy, in particular, despises books. Every time I ask him to read for me, he says no.

J-Boy’s negativity casts a pall over the class, like yesterday’s gloomy weather, with rain falling from morning to night. Today, however, was bright and sunny with scarcely a cloud in the sky. During reading intervention, I looked wistfully out the window at the little courtyard behind the building and thought: I’d like to be there instead of here. Maybe I could take J-Boy outside to read.

“I need you to read for me, please,” I said to J-Boy, shaking myself out of my reverie.


“Don’t argue with me. Just get your book and let’s read.”

“Can we go outside?”


J-Boy’s attitude changed immediately. His look of disgust changed to delight as he grabbed his book and almost ran to the door.

V-Boy (another reluctant reader, who is in my language arts class earlier in the day) happened to be in my room doing some make-up work. “Can I go too?”


So the three of us went outside to the courtyard and sat at a picnic table in the shade of some cottonwood trees. The boys took turns reading aloud to me from an Accelerated Reader book about snakes.

“Let’s finish this book tomorrow,” I said, “and then you can take the AR test on it.”

“Me too?” asked V-Boy?

“Yes, you too.” (Later, I cleared it with his last-period teacher.)

All three of us can hardly wait to read under the cottonwood trees again.

Summer School: Day of Reckoning

Final decisions were made this morning about which sixth-graders to promote and which to retain. There were only two retentions. One of them, unfortunately, was J-Boy. His poor attendance and his almost perfect record of failing grades for the entire year made it impossible to consider promotion, so we’ll be seeing him in sixth grade again in the fall.

C-Boy pestered me all week about whether or not he was going to be retained. He has an IEP and because I’m the head of our school’s special ed team, the decision to retain or promote was in my hands.

C-Boy was clearly worried, and Thursday I found out why: He had repeated second grade. When I told him there was a possibility that he could be retained again, he said, “Then I’m going to drop out.”

His comment made me decide against retention, although I said nothing at that moment. We have a high enough dropout rate in this district without giving kids excuses to leave school.

C-Boy was clearly worried, however, because today for the first time during the whole summer school session, he got serious about reading. We expected every student to read and test on enough Accelerated Reader books to accumulate at least nine points—and preferably 12— by the end of summer school. By this morning, C-Boy had reached only 33 percent of his nine-point goal.

Even though Co-Teacher and I were showing a movie related to the Holocaust and Number the Stars, C-Boy chose to read. All day long he read one book after another. (They were, obviously, short books.) As soon as he finished reading, he’d take the AR test. His lowest score was 80 percent. By day’s end, he had narrowed the gap between his achievement and his goal from 33 percent to 76 percent. Unwittingly, C-Boy had proved that he could do what was expected of him in the classroom, instead of just sitting there looking bored or dozing off.

C-Boy had too many deficiencies in his record to actually promote him to seventh grade, but the team agreed to place him in seventh grade—provided that he participate in mandatory after-school tutoring for the entire year. C-Boy got the news about 30 minutes before the dismissal bell. While he was not happy with the tutoring proviso, he was nevertheless relieved that he doesn’t have to repeat sixth grade.

And I’m relieved that we have probably prevented at least one kid from dropping out.

There Are No Shortcuts

A public library about four hours from where I teach sells used books—cheap. Every time I have occasion to drive through this charming little mountain town, I try to arrange my schedule so that I have at least 30 minutes to browse for bargains.

Sometimes I find only one or two books worth purchasing, but I never come away empty-handed. Sometimes I stagger out the door, marveling at my good fortune. Once, I filled a bag to overflowing with two dozen hardback books for less than five dollars. One of them was Harry Golden’s Only in America.

I grew up with Harry Golden, although I never met him. My parents had copies of Only in America and For 2 Cents Plain on their bookshelf. So when I spotted Only in America at the used-book sale, I grabbed it—for nostalgia’s sake.

I like Harry Golden. He tells it like it is. Or was. Many of his homespun observations are dated, just like his books. The bigotry and racial prejudice he excoriates, for example, are no longer the seemingly insolvable problems they were in the mid-1950s.

But some things never change. Students who do not read and cannot read is one of them. “The big problem which faces us today in education is fairly simple,” Golden writes. “Nobody reads books any more.”

I know all about non-readers. When the school year began in August, I decided to start each sixth-grade language arts class with 10 minutes of SSR (Silent Sustained Reading). Inevitably, after only a handful of minutes have passed, at least one student whines, “Can we stop now?”

The whiners would never survive Donalyn Miller’s language arts class. Ms. Miller requires each of her students to read 30 minutes per day in school—and 30 minutes each evening at home!

Harry Golden was a writer and editor, never a teacher, but he knew something that every effective teacher knows:

There are no short cuts! In economics you start with the land. In education you start with the books. Nothing else can do it for you—not even TV, movies, Hopalong Cassidy, ninety million comic books a year, slopping around with paintbrushes, or letting [students] do what they want. Letting them do what they want belongs in the insane asylum. Half of them can’t even tell you the name of the governor of their State, let alone, letting them do what they want!

If I let my students do what they want, most of them would never pick up a book, let alone read it. That’s why I insist that my students carry a library book with them at all times, and why I start each language arts class with 10 minutes of SSR. For many of my students, these precious few minutes are the only time they will ever read.

Reading is a powerful tool for making sense of the world. Reading, writes Donalyn Miller “is important, and the students who read the most possess the highest academic potential.” Reading, to speak metaphorically, is the pathway out of darkness into light.

There are no shortcuts.


Teachers never know when a student is going to connect something she or he has learned with something else. It’s often a surprise when it happens.

Today my seventh-graders and I were reading from Scott O’Dell’s Sing Down the Moon, and came across this sentence: “Soon after the moon set we halted and made camp.”

“What does halted mean?” I asked. “Can someone give me a synonym?”

Halte!” J-Boy shouted, remembering a foreign word from our reading of Number the Stars last year. (It was a book that all the sixth-graders, including J-Boy, professed to hate because they said it was boring.)

“Exactly!” I said. “Halte is the German word for Stop! It’s like our English word halt—which also means stop. To halt and make camp is to stop and make camp. Good job, J-Boy!”

Connections. Sometimes students make them and sometimes they don’t.

But when they do, it’s an occasion for celebration.

Growing Readers

I teach in a high-poverty area of the United States. Some houses do not have electricity and some do not have running water. It is not unusual to see outhouses slumped behind family dwellings.

At least one of the teachers at our school grew up with no indoor plumbing. When nature called, “Geraldine” had to trot down the trail to the outhouse. Her family had little money, so instead of toilet paper, they used magazines.

Geraldine, however, didn’t feel deprived, because all of her neighbors also participated in the magazine routine. Besides, there was always a steady supply of reading material.

“I’d get so involved in reading the magazines,” Geraldine told me, “that I’d forget where I was. All of a sudden I’d hear my mom calling me.”

As we laughed together, Geraldine said, “I hadn’t thought of this before, but I think my love of reading started with those magazines in the outhouse.”

Kids grow into readers in all kinds of ways.

Some grow by reading cereal boxes at breakfast.

Some grow by checking armfuls of books out of the public library.

And some grow by lingering over stacks of old magazines in the outhouse.

‘Separate Ways’


Excruciating lower-back pain kept me home and out of my classroom today, so I decided to indulge myself in reading several selections from The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories as part of the Japanese Literature Challenge 3.

“Separate Ways” by the 19th-century author Higuchi Ichiyo, is a tale of abandonment. Kichizo, a rather misshapen and small 16-year-old boy, has forged a friendship with “Okyo, a stylish woman in her early twenties.” Their unusual relationship is so strong that Kichizo can tap at Okyo’s window even in the middle of the night with the assurance that she will admit him to her home. Okyo’s kindness and compassion are a source of great joy and satisfaction to Kichizo, for he is often taunted by his peers, who call him “dwarf” and “the tiny monk who’ll never grow.”

Kichizo, who works as an apprentice in an umbrella factory, has no family. He was informally adopted by the factory’s former owner, a massive woman named Omatsu. Omatsu, however, has been dead for two years, and Kichizo’s birth parents have been dead for so long he can barely remember them, nor does he know when to honor them with an annual abstinence.

Okyo, a seamstress, is nearly as bereft of family as Kichizo. Her tenuous connections to a distant relative are not strong enough to prevent her from moving into a house near the umbrella factory. Because the owner of the umbrella factory is her landlord, she invites all the factory’s apprentice boys to leave their mending with her. She develops a special bond with Kichizo because, despite his dwarfish stature, he is not afraid to speak his mind.

One evening, shortly before New Year’s Day, Kichizo makes an unnerving discovery: Okyo is planning to move away. He begs her not to go, but Okyo says she must; she professes to have no choice in the matter. She’s tired of washing and sewing and wearing drab clothes. Then Kichizo understands: Okyo is about to become someone’s mistress; whatever she needs will be supplied.

However, Kichizo also understands something else: Friendship is more important than having fine clothing or a life of relative ease. In an attempt to dissuade Okyo from leaving the neighborhood—and his life—he professes great disgust for the choice she has made. Then he tells her that she’s just like everyone else who has disappeared from his life, including Omatsu, a friend who threw herself in a well and drowned.

Okyo, however feels that she has no choice. Powers greater than she have made the decision. ‘“You can’t change things,’” she says, matter-of-factly.

It is clear that Okyo does not understand why Kichizo is so upset about her impending departure to take up a new life that does not include him. It is equally clear that Kichizo, despite his bravado in the face of taunting from his peers, is unwilling (and perhaps unable) to sustain yet another loss. With tears in his eyes, Kichizo tells Okyo not to touch him anymore, thus signaling his willingness to close his heart against the possibility of further abandonment.

Although “Separate Ways” was written over one hundred years ago, it is a story that reminds me of many the students I work with today. Granted, none of them are physically challenged as the “dwarf” Kichizo. But they too have experienced the pain of abandonment as their fathers (and, sometimes, mothers) have left them by divorce or disease or death. They know the uncertainty that comes from being part of a school culture where the teaching staff changes so frequently that their unspoken question is: “Will my teacher be here tomorrow?”

The story of Okyo and Kichizo reminds me that while human beings are amazingly resilient, they are also incredibly fragile. Abandonment preys on our frailty and makes us close our hearts to the universal invitation to love our neighbor.

Contrary to what Okyo says, there are things I can change about how I relate to other people. The most important of those things is to refuse to walk away from my neighbor—even if that person has hurt me deeply, even if I think some other neighbor will welcome me more warmly.

No more separate ways.

The World of Similes

I usually have several books going at once. It all depends on what I’m in the mood to read at the end of the day. Among the stack of books beside my bed are Barbara Kingsolver’s Pigs in Heaven, and Morgan Llywelyn’s Grania: She-King of the Irish Seas. Both of them are rich in similes.

From Pigs in Heaven:

Cardboard boxes crowd the linoleum floor like little barges bristling with their cargo: pots and pans, mason jars, oven mitts, steak knives, more stuff than Alice can image she ever needed.

Her long hair slides behind her shoulders like a curtain drawn open.

From Grania:

Playfulness rose in Grania like a seal from the surf.

She looked like ripe fruit; it would feed your eyes to see her.

…the carrack swung on her hawser like an overweight dowager, winded and worn.

I’ll be sharing some of the (age-appropriate) similes from these novels with my students. They need to be able to recognize similes and to create their own.

Reading the simile-rich pages of these two novels has awakened in me the desire to use figurative language to describe the children and events in my classroom. Maybe I’ll start a new meme in the blogosphere, Simile Sunday. It would surely include similes such as these:

They scrubbed paint over the paper, wielding their brushes like mops.

The students crowded around the computer like hungry chicks huddling near their mother hen.

Be watching for more similes from the magical world in which I teach!