The article below is adapted from a talk I gave at the Barnes and Noble on the Campus of The College of New Jersey in Ewing, NJ. The event was held to celebrate the release of Hacking Literacy: 5 Ways to Turn Any Classroom into a Culture of Readers.Thanks to Dr. Emily Meixner for organizing the event, to Mr. Bill Sowder for bringing his class of student teachers and for my colleagues and family who attended.
The story of how I came to write the book
On the morning of January 1 this year, I saw a blog post by an educator and publisher, Mark Barnes. He had written a book called Hacking Education: 10 Quick Fixes for Every School. That book interested me because of how immediately useful it was. It gave ideas for how to get rid of long meetings and how to get teachers to observe each other in class more. Ultimately, the book was filled with ways to to make school better so students learn more.
Mark put out a list of the future topics he would like to cover in the Hack Learning series, and literacy was one of the topics.
I crafted an email to him with a list seven or eight chapter ideas for the book. He got back to me and asked me to talk a little more about what would be included in the book. So, I took a risk and wrote out a full chapter, sent it to him, and he liked what he read. He offered me the opportunity to write the book. Looking back now, it’s funny to realize that we ended up deleting that chapter entirely, which was a good writing lesson to experience.
The structure of the book
The Hack Learning series books are different than many other education books out there for at least two reasons. One, they are “research lite,” which basically means that they focus on immediately useful ideas above everything else. Second, each chapter includes the story of a teacher who uses ideas that relate to the chapter. This is called the “Hack in Action” section of the book.
This was why I was most excited to write this book, because it gave me the opportunity to reach out to, interview, and learn from seven amazing educators. In some cases I knew them, even well, but it was a chance to have deep conversations about their teaching practices that don’t always get to happen for teachers.
I’ll get to talking about the ideas in this book near the bottom of this post. First, the valuable information I have to share is a message about why teachers need to learn from each other and why they need to write about their experiences.
The importance of learning from other teachers
So, I connected with seven educators, and one or two others whose ideas were very helpful but didn’t make it into the book. Each of these seven educators was kind enough to spend time talking about how they had build a culture of readers in their class or in their school.
And one immediate thing that I realized was that every educator, whether they realize it or not, has a specific set of teaching strategies or philosophies that they use that make them unique. They do something well. It’s something that other teachers haven’t even thought of doing before. Or, it’s something that’s a struggle for other teachers, while these teachers have figured out how to make it happen in an easier and more effective way.
And just to show you how much these teachers had to share, and maybe how much we both needed those conversations…in almost every conversation, the educators would begin to share their ideas about what works for them in the classroom or in their school, and trying to be a good listener, I would draw a generalization from the ideas, repeat it back to them, and see if they agreed.
So one teacher, Gerilyn Lessing from Long Island, she seemed to have such a strong classroom community, and she told me about how even on the days when she is absent, her students have a whole procedure of doing book talks, photographing each other doing the book talk, posting it to a shared site or cloud storage, and then do their independent reading. The book talks were part of the assessments for the students. Then, she sent me pictures of her classroom, and there were these awesome pieces of artwork around the room, all about books, and those were some of the assessments students did, too. And she was telling me about this and I looked at all of the ideas and said to her, “well, in lots of classes, the reading assessment is what ends up killing the love of reading. But in your class, the assessments are actually what build the classroom community.”
And mind you, I was just the listener here, Gerilyn was the one who had come up with the idea of letting students design their own reading assessments and she had taken all of the time and effort to hang all of this student work around the room, and create the trust and the routine that allows students to continue reading workshop even when she is absent.
But she said, yea, I guess that’s what it is. I never explain my ideas like this, so I hadn’t thought of it that way.
And that’s where I realized that, though writing about useful ideas for teachers seemed helpful and interesting, it was this part of the writing process that I felt was most important and interesting: finding the big ideas in the messy everyday of our teaching.
The 5 Big Ideas
To give you an overview of the 5 Hacks included in Hacking Literacy: 5 Ways to Turn Any Classroom into a Culture of Readers, I’ve created a one page PDF over of the book. It’s filled with ideas I’ve used successfully in my classroom, and inspiration ideas from other educators from around the country.