With parent conferences fast approaching, our ability to explain how we negotiate, communicate and understand the instructional balance of exposure to “Just Right” books and complex texts might be called to the plate.

Why should students be reading “just right” books?  What is our rationale?  Are we labeling them and pigeon-holing them into leveled boxes or offering them a differentiated approach that builds foundational reading skills?  How do we also assure that our students can grapple with complex texts?  Outside of “book boxes”,  are we exposing our students to rich texts above their level;  books that offer up the rich vocabulary, layers of meaning and complicated plot structures that will propel them as readers;  make them love reading?  After all, shouldn’t that be the goal?

Recently, I was reminded of how careful we need to be when we explain to our readers and our families about this leveling system.  I was choosing books for an intervention student the other day.  She said, “Oh, that’s a J book.  I can’t read that.  I’m an H reader.”    I cringed.  Ugh.  Was I responsible for her thinking that?

NPR has a FANTASTIC four-part series on classroom vignettes of Common Core implementation and, specifically, the big changes in reading instruction.  The five minute piece RIGHT HERE explains how we should strive to achieve that balance of ‘just right’ and ‘complex’ so that our readers feel both motivated and confident to break out of their comfort “independent” level.  Listen to it (ready…GO!) while you’re making that copy or changing your words in the pocket chart or downing that sip of cold coffee from this morning.  I promise, it will make you pause and reflect on how you head into the next few months.

“No child ever learned to swim with his feet planted firmly on the bottom of the shallow end.”

“If you’re never teaching them complex stuff, they’re never learning complex stuff.”

Ideas for engaging ALL levels of readers in the “complex stuff”:

1.  Rich and engaging read-alouds that hook readers in and make them see reading as a worthwhile pursuit.  (I’m working on generating a list of these by grade level);  using these mentor-texts to model what proficient readers do and think while reading;  requiring that students respond, make claims, defend and think critically about these texts

2.  Whole class novels CAN work (Am I going to be stoned to death for this?) if we use them as the impetus for teaching vocabulary, higher-level thinking skills and accountable, academic discussions with peers and if they are not the ONLY form of reading that is happening in a mixed-ability classroom.  I think where whole-class novels go wrong is when we throw kids into the deep-end of reading over and over again and say, “Swim.”  Without floaties.

3.  Mixed ability groups or partnerships of readers that require that ALL students participate, collaborate, present, defend and create together.  Johnny “J level” in 4th grade needs to stand next to Joey “Z level” and see how he thinks and talks and reacts to books.  This is Vygotzgy’s  “Zone of Proximal Development”, where the synapses fire and learning occurs.  Much of the collaborative work that GLAD espouses is based on this principle.

4.  Hold kids and ourselves accountable for our teaching and their thinking by using formative assessments.  “Is my teaching sticky?”  Here’s a great list of creative, on-the-run, easy-to-implement formative assessments to get kids to demonstrate if they’re gettin’ it.

5.  Talk in sophisticated ways with students and they will feel (and act) in sophisticated ways.  I know that sounds simple, but, it sort of is simple.  Teach to the top and the others will rise.  The first part of that same NPR piece speaks to that.  Do you have five minutes?  Listen in.

How will you achieve the balance this year?  That’s a question I’ll be pondering over break too.