What I'm Reading, What I'm Thinking

What I’m Reading: December 2017

At the end of every year, I take a tech sabbatical to recharge and reflect upon the year, as well as to be more present during our break. Part of my recharge process is to read! Here is what I have been reading during the second half of 2017.

See you in 2018. -Matt

Ghostly Echoes by William Ritter

I didn’t realize I was reading YA until this installment (and my wife telling me so). I guess that is a strong sign that good writing transcends age level or intended audience. In the 3rd book, we find out the backstory of Jenny’s murder, along with the reason why New Fiddleham experiences so many supernatural occurrences. It leaves the reader wanting to read #4 without feeling cheated out of a good story to be told now.

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

I listened to the audiobook version. Maybe that is why I slogged through it, listening only during long car trips and trying to stay on top of the many character threads. Still, the magic of Fillory and beyond plus the characters’ development, especially Quintin and Julia, made this an enjoyable read.

Mile 81 by Stephen King

A nice short story that encompasses many elements that are often present in Stephen King’s writing: memorable characters, excellent pacing, supernatural anthropomorphism (in this case, a man-eating car), and a barely credible ending. If you’ve never read anything by King and didn’t want to commit to a lengthy novel on your first read, check out Mile 81.

Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro

In a similar vein to Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, but wholly unique to Shapiro’s experiences and style. It’s part memoir, part writing guide, and fully enjoyable to read and reflect upon her ideas.

Simplifying Response to Intervention: Four Essential Guiding Principles by Austin Buffum, Mike Mattos, and Chris Weber

A helpful guide for schools and districts looking for guidance and templates on RtI. It’s pretty technical, but I did appreciate their consistent position to meet the needs of all students, regardless of an educator’s role.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

A very important book to better understand what is happening right now with *45 and the federal government. I read it in a couple of hours – a short text full of lessons from the past shared by a history professor from Yale. The first line encapsulates the text: “History does not repeat itself, but it does instruct.”

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

An excellent first entry into a series for middle-level readers. It reminded me of some other excellent mystery/thrillers such as The Westing Game and the Percy Jackson series, yet stands out as an original. This would be an excellent read aloud in a 5th/6th-grade classroom.

Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan

A nice summary of Michael Pollan’s work on our diets in the U.S. It’s a quick read, so it could also serve as a primer for delving into some of Pollan’s longer works (and I recommend all of them).

Becoming a Literacy Leader: Supporting Learning and Change by Jennifer Allen

This is for the 2nd edition…a very practical, honest resource about leading literacy efforts in an elementary school. You will find yourself going back into the text repeatedly, asking, “Where did I see that before?” An essential book for instructional coaches and any elementary school leader.

Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

A very unique reading experience, not like any book I’ve read before. It is an interactive memoir, in which you are prompted write, send text messages….it’s really hard to explain in words (surprisingly). Just read it and enjoy!

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

I read this book on my very old yet functioning Kindle. It is the version with push buttons and no touchscreen. This choice seems appropriate for reading a novel about bibliophiles struggling to find a balance between the print and digital world.

It is actually my second read of this book, as I felt I missed important points from the first go round. I did. For example, there were multiple references to and subtle jokes regarding technology and media that I missed (or forget) from my first reading.

More importantly, I felt like I better appreciated this story having read it again in 2017 (vs. 2013). The story might be more relevant today than in the past. It’s a fun experience that has a lot to teach us about living and connecting in an informational age.

The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness by Dave Ramsey

A helpful resource for managing your family budget and saving for the future.

An Improbable School: Transforming How Teachers Teach and Students Learn by Paul Tweed and Liz Seubert

For schools looking to transform the way teachers teach and students learn, this is worth a read. The value system Wildlands School has developed guides their daily work.

Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education by David Sobel

A very important book in the environmental education canon. Using children’s developmental levels to prescribe the appropriate curriculum for learning about nature is the focus of this short text. It’s foundational and essential.

Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art by Virginia Heffernan

This was a challenging book to read, yet to rate or to review. It serves as part memoir, part dissertation, part manifesto around the focus for Heffernan’s work: The Internet. My favorite sections are when she pulls together all of her knowledge for new realizations. The book lags when describing life in the Ivy League. Otherwise, a careful and complete study of our online lives.

What I’m Thinking: Reading Engagement

Our school is slowly transitioning to more meaningful ways of assessing reading and writing in the classroom. For example, instead of only short quizzes and comprehension checks, we are exploring more qualitative and authentic measures of students’ reading lives.

A great way to do this is through reading journals/notebooks. These are different than reading logs, which ask students to read 20 minutes a night and have parents sign off that they completed this task.

A reading journal is a written history of what we read and what we thought about the reading experience. They reveal lots of information about a student’s reading life: reading habits, diversity of genre, comprehension in the context of a review, influence on peers’ reading habits, and willingness to explore more complex texts. If you look through my journal I share here via Goodreads, you’ll see that I am reading widely, although I could probably stand to include more fiction in my literary diet.

Just as important, I own my reading journal. No one is telling me what to read or how often. Conversely, a reading log is an act of compliance. Can you think of a better way to turn students off from reading? Study after study after study shows that unless students are engaged in the act of reading, comprehension and lifelong reading habits will likely be fleeting. I think a first step in changing how to teach reading is to be engaged readers ourselves. It’s hard to teach what we don’t practice.

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5th graders helping me discover author’s craft through reading and writing
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What I'm Thinking

What Engagement Really Is

I write this post on a Saturday night, a time when I should be away from my computer and enjoying the weekend. Ok, let’s retract – I am enjoying my weekend. Just not like you might imagine the typical someone enjoying their weekend.

See, I’m a writer. I’m also an educator, an elementary principal to be exact. When I write, I find joy. It’s as simple as that. This “writing thing” has been a part of my life since 2012, when I first started my blog. That small online space has grown to almost 900 subscribers and is now a collaborative forum for literacy leaders to share their ideas.

So when I write, I have this twin set of feelings. First, I enjoy writing (I’ve already said this, I know). I can put down my thoughts, insights, and questions in an online space for others to read and maybe even respond to in the comments. Second, I also know that when I am writing, I am not attending to all of the other responsibilities and activities that I might otherwise. I’m not talking and listening with my family. I’m not watching television or engaging in recreational activities. I’m not present, at least with the world beyond my computer.

There is guilt with this reality. As a writer, I feel this to some degree anytime I open up my laptop. What could/should I be doing if I were not writing?

Enough of the self-involvement; let’s get to the point of this post. Engagement is not merely a passion for something that is of interest to an individual. Passion is only the half of it. To be truly engaged, a person has to not only have a strong interest in a topic or skill; they also have to dedicate themselves to this effort. Both elements have to be present in order for engagement to be realized.

Is this definition not clear enough? Then consider one of the oldest definitions of engagement. It comes from the agreement two people take when they elect to become married. Consider the typical vow one might hear at a wedding.

I promise to be true to you, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honour you all the days of my life.

This is engagement. It’s not all rose petals and open bar. These experiences are wonderful, but they are offset by driving your kids to urgent care at two in the morning and forgetting to take the garbage out on Friday. The celebrations benefit from the perspective provided through our challenges.

When we talk about engagement in the classroom or in our lives, it isn’t merely the presence of motivation or attention-grabbing activities. Engagement is much more than that. Engagement is when we decide to pursue a passion or a dream, experience setbacks and hardships, and in spite of these situations, we choose to continue to move forward toward our goals.

My third book is coming out in August through ASCD on digital portfolios in the classroom. The process was nothing if not incredibly challenging. I had to rewrite one chapter twice. Figures for the book did not resemble what I had initially proposed. The title changed, which forced me to go back through the manuscript, line by line, to redact one word to make sure there was consistency in the language.

Did I do this out of passion alone? Heck no. At this point, I was emotionally ready to drop this project like a bad habit. Commitment? To the project…to a point, knowing that I was under contract to finish it. No, it was the combination of passion and commitment that helped me get to the finish line. This might be defined as “love”.

So…the question remains as to how true engagement relates to an educator’s position. Here are some initial thoughts.

  • If you are a teacher, do/will your students have time to explore their passions and interests during class time? Will they be given the resources, support, and feedback to become engaged in authentic and meaningful learning experiences?
  • If you are a school leader, do/will your teachers have time to investigate better practices on behalf of their students? Will they be given the resources, support, and feedback to become the teacher they have always wanted to be?

For the latter, I know I have not always lived up to this promise. No matter. Guilt is retroactive; it is always about the past, never the future. We have to move forward. Engagement is the key factor in student and teacher success. Passion and commitment are the twin roads to follow.