"Children should leave school with a sense that if they act, and act strategically, they can accomplish their goals." Peter H. Johnston, Choice Words (p. 29)
Students were beginning their independent reading, milling about in the classroom looking for books as they settled to read. Our focus lesson about asking questions in our reading had just ended. Most students began the study with an understanding of when we ask questions, but were trying to figure out how it helped us as readers. Dan grabbed a basket of books about planets. Amanda grabbed a basket of Biscuit books as she loves the character. Winston and Sarah found their place at the author stand. I watched everyone getting settled and grabbed my notebook.
Quickly Alexa approached with a serious look on her face. (I think my students have learned this is the perfect time to "schedule" your own conference.) "Mrs. Mere, you are going to have to help me with my reading," she said matter-of-factly. "I'm not a very good reader." My heart sank to the floor and a sadness took over my body. These are words I never like to hear. What had I done to give her that perception? The really crazy thing was Alexa was a reader, a strong reader. The complexity of texts she had been reading since the beginning of the year had grown. She was reading a wide variety of books. She went to the library often. She talked about books from home she was reading with her family. She wasn't just a reader, she was a thinker. She seemed to have a positive attitude about reading. Until this moment...
"You are an amazing reader," I honestly replied. "What is giving you a hard time I asked?" regaining my senses and hoping their was an obvious explanation.
"I'm trying to read nonfiction," she replied as I let out a huge sigh of relief.
"What is making it hard?" I asked gaining confidence and feeling pleased that this reader actually had come against a common challenge for all readers.
"There are a lot of words I don't know," she explained with seriousness. I glanced to her table where a basket of books about matter for an upcoming science unit were waiting for her. In a small group discussion earlier in the week, Alexa had paused to reflect on a line about a bird who put his wings down when he was scared. She couldn't understand why he would put his wings down instead of waving them to get rid of the intruders. It was a good question, and one we couldn't answer. We decided none of us knew about birds enough to answer it. As I looked at Alexa's basket, I realized she did not yet have the background knowledge about matter to read the vocabulary in these books.
"Well, Alexa," I commented. "Nonfiction is sometimes tricky. When I read nonfiction I find a lot of new things I don't know a lot about. There are words I haven't heard before and the books are set up in a different way than my regular reading. Maybe you could use a post-it to mark the places you get confused with your questions."
Alexa looked relieved. Perhaps knowing all readers struggled with this problem from time to time was comforting. Perhaps having a strategy to tackle it helped.
Actually, Alexa had found a "problem" that would help our community to learn. Not only did she discover a time readers might ask questions, she also was paving our way to our nonfiction study which I knew was where we were headed. Oh, the opportunity. "You are going to love it, Alexa." I explained. "We're going to start talking about nonfiction soon. We'll learn some of the ways you can help yourself when you are reading these books. The fact that you are trying to read nonfiction shows what a smart reader you are."
Alexa seemed pleased with my answer. She seemed relieved to know her reading abilities were no longer in question. The conversation with Alexa grabbed me for a few reasons and reminded me of a few things I need to remember.
Nurture reader's self-perceptions: First of all, it reminded me how fragile young readers self-perceptions are. Alexa had been tackling lots of new reading, a sign of her ease of entry to the reading world, but this moment could have been a bump in the road for her.
Listen (and Ask Questions): So often I find a teachable moment in the comments of my students, if I take the time to listen. I also have to remind myself to ask questions instead of immediately jumping to conclusions and providing solutions.
Provide time to read: Alexa had time to choose her own books. One might argue if she had books I had selected this moment of doubt would not have even happened, but I would say without the opportunity to read Alexa wouldn't have learned that as readers we have new challenges in what we read. For these challenges, we have to develop new strategies.
Choice: Alexa's reading choice opened an opportunity for her learning.
Respond reader-to-reader: As a teacher, I have to remind myself not respond as a teacher, but instead to respond as a reader. "Yes, I know it can be hard. It's hard for me too."
Have varying levels of books available in your classroom: My matter basket probably could use some easier books. In any classroom the challenge of having just-right books for every reader is a given. Of even greater challenge, helping students to make appropriate choices. However, it is important to note, as a reader I choose books of varying challenges. I expect my readers to do the same.
Some of our best conferences aren't planned: It seems my best conferences in my workshops are those I did not plan, but instead those in which I took the time to pause to listen to a student. It's those short moments in time - perfectly timed - which have the greatest impact on our students.
As we come back to the carpet to share, Alexa tells the class about her challenge as a reader. She is teaching us today.