The Seasonal Feast of the Skimathon

It was a moment of high suspense: the moment somewhere in mid-January when I announced the results of the Skimathon.

The Skimathon, lasting from one to two weeks, staged a grand meet-up between all the students in the class, usually about 15, and a collection of books, usually at least 30, all related to our theme for the next several months. These were called starter books, because they would eventually serve as the seeds, the starters, of the students’ individual research reports connected with our theme.

Early in my teaching life, when I first asked 11 and 12-year-old students to write extended research reports, they found their own books–or tried to. Unfortunately, things like this happened: a child who wanted to observe, read and write about the behavior of chickens found only a technical manual written by someone at Tufts Veterinary School. Maybe a good book, but not very effective for that kid.

I invented the Skimathon as a way to give students support and a head start, while still honoring and working with their individual preferences. Over time, as it evolved, the Skimathon became a structure for combining our energies toward their success.

Although the Skimathon temporarily interrupted well-loved ordinary reading activities, it felt like a feast. During the Skimathon, students spent each silent reading time skimming and assessing several books, and then took home several more to look through that night.

Students weren’t required to skim all the books, but I usually set a minimum to ensure that an open-minded student wouldn’t be smitten with the first three books and quit. Within each class, always, a couple of kids tried to read (not just skim) all the books that interested them–or even every single book in the bins! Some parents acknowledged that they had read quite a few of the books that came home.

The students recorded their reactions to the books using codes of their own invention, in a special Skimathon packet. Here’s a sample page:

skimathon mimi2 sample

The next day the skimmed books came back to be swapped for new ones. I heard a lot of “Did you know?” as kids wowed each other with amazing new information. Did you know that the Iceman was found by random hikers? Did you know that some bats really do suck blood? Etc.

The goals of the Skimathon evolved along with the process. At first, I just wanted kids to experience less frustration finding books. Gradually I realized how much this activity could do for us.

Partly it was about getting good at skimming–sampling the informational content and the presentation style of each of many books, fairly quickly, in order to make choices. I supported this with mini-lessons about particular techniques for skimming non-fiction books, and about the use of specialized book parts, like the glossary or table of contents.

(In all work of this sort, I’ve thought often of Karen Kuelthau Allan, my content area reading professor at Lesley University. She modeled, so beautifully, a collection of effective strategies for getting the most from nonfiction reading, and I’ve wished again and again that I had encountered her much earlier in my own student years.)

On Time by Gloria SkurzynskiThe Skimathon process also helped students begin or continue to notice a wide variety of non-fiction approaches–the different ways authors, illustrators, designers and publishers have found to organize information and ideas into the form of a book. (To the left, a fascinating book by Gloria Skurzynski, about the history of time keeping, organized by the length of time being measured or designated.)

At the end of a Skimathon reading time, we showed sample pages, sharing different reactions to the same book, or different books about similar topics. Many kids issued recommendations to the full group, sometimes based on content, sometimes based on book style: especially gripping photographs, or helpful maps, or funny little cartoon characters reappearing, like Waldo, in the illustrations.

Ultimately each student would be matched up with one of those starter books as the seed for individual research, report writing, and display making. So the Skimathon was an exercise, for each student, in learning to judge what would work, what would sustain his or her own engagement.

jellyfish steve parkerThe process of skimming this many books also gave students a really wide-angle overview of our theme.

(Here, to the right, one of a set of books about animal behavior. This one helped students think beyond vertebrates.)

For some students, the overview helped them be more receptive to their classmates’ teaching about individual topics, later on. For some especially omnivorous students, casting such a wide net at the beginning helped them accept the necessity of narrowing down later.

For the opposite kind of kid, the one who started out thinking that she would die if she couldn’t do her report about x, the Skimathon could stretch horizons, build flexibility, open up new connections. The last seven or eight years of this process, I asked students to come up with at least three good strong personally-appropriate choices, no longer ranked in any way visible to me. (No, I explained, it wasn’t fair to write PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE next to a particular topic, or to offer bribes designed to appeal to their teacher’s weakness for chocolate.) Each student had an important job: to come up with multiple choices that could all work. Not just one favorite path, but several highly promising paths.

Every year, at least one or two students found it impossible to choose, and listed the maximum number of choices–five, or six, or whatever I’d set as a max. That was sort of wonderful, of course, but I always felt that I should think particularly carefully about those kids. I know that condition of almost pathological over-enthusiasm. Those of us who are prone to it need help being more discriminating, making distinctions, thinking through our own needs more carefully.

Meanwhile, I had the important job of making sure that every student wound up with one of his or her choices, a really engaging and effective topic for that person, without any overlap within the group as a whole. That way, the full collection of individual topics would offer rich opportunities for peer education. Each student would have unique responsibility for some part of our big picture–a responsibility to which every student could rise, regardless of reading or writing levels or rates.

I knew, though, that the peer teaching would be lively and whole-hearted only if each student got a combination of the right topic and the right style of starter book. I looked at their choices for themselves through my own perspective about their capacities. Would a person who read thoroughly (but slowly) be swamped by too much reading material in this first resource? Would a person who thrived on narrative excitement, even within nonfiction learning, find enough of that? Would the structure of his book help a person who needed lots of help connecting details with larger concepts?

The Skimathon worked remarkably well as a way to launch a research report process. The world is fascinating; kids have an inborn desire to understand it; publishers for children have been producing increasingly engaging, thoughtful, and well-illustrated nonfiction books. Finally, the Skimathon worked because it gave me some room to provide support, but honored the vision and choice of each individual child–thereby strengthening their capacity for both vision and choice.

And here’s how I knew it worked: students in my mixed-age class for a second year asked immediately and impatiently, at the beginning of January, “When are we going to do the Skimathon?” With any luck, the bins were full and nearby, the lists were ready, and I could answer, “Soon!” or even better, “Today!”

In the next post, I’m going to answer the question, “What would I give as advice to a teacher starting out with a skimathon process?”

Using Picture Books with Big Kids

Lately I’ve been trying to imagine my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Tuthill, reading a picture book in class, or letting any of us read one. Within the school day, I can’t remember being encouraged to read anything but textbooks. (I was lucky, though; I had a much younger sister to read to at home, and my mother was well on her way to becoming a children’s librarian.)

The people who taught my daughter and son in middle school, good and competent teachers, never used picture books, to my knowledge.

Right now, this minute, most teachers face intense pressure to demonstrate rigor and grade-level competence. I would be thrilled to hear about a sixth-grade teacher in my town, using picture books or urging students to include them in their own reading. I know it’s improbable.

On the other hand, the teachers who taught me how to teach, and the colleagues who challenged and nurtured my teaching spirit, all used picture books in inspired ways. I can’t imagine the life of each class community in which I was honored to work and breathe, without picture books.

It’s amazing what is controversial in this world.

Time of Wonder crop aSusan Doty and I were setting up our classrooms, chatting now and then. She said, “I think I’ll start the year with Time of Wonder,” a Robert McCloskey book I didn’t know yet. It seemed like a sweeter book than I would usually choose for my cool and savvy 11 and 12-year-olds.

Still, I liked it, and tried it out on them.  As I read aloud, the room grew quieter and quieter. I could gauge the attention of many of my listeners by their faces; could tell others were with me when they grinned at the book’s very subtle humor.

Like all the best picture books, Time of Wonder is powerful and efficient. Reading Time of Wonder together, my class and I shared summer, and summer adventures, and the inevitable ending of summer. We shared what it’s like to listen to adults talking about possible trouble, a hurricane coming. We shared what it’s like to sit with your grown-ups and sing through the storm, and wake up the next day to explore the branches and roots of a fallen tree.

A good picture book, like a poem, and like so much of our everyday storytelling for each other, means more than one thing by everything it means.

We talked about students’ experiences of a recent hurricane. The book had given us permission to admit to having been frightened–if we were–along with a model of opportunities for discovery everywhere–and we had had those, too.

Recently I appealed to past students on Facebook. What picture books stood out for them? Taylor Davis responded almost immediately, “The one about the red canoe… something about a boy and his aunt…I remember falling in love with it!”

Three DaysTwo kids, two women who are sisters, a wonderful adventure with danger and glory, and a cat named Sixtoes waiting back at home for an offering of fish.

Some years I used “the red canoe book” as read-aloud to start the year, especially if we were going to be studying watersheds (or map reading, since they use maps to plan their trip.)

Some years, though, the canoe book waited with others to be chosen by individual students, out of a crate full of books brought from home, from my family’s picture book collection. That crate supplemented the classroom’s shelf of picture books, and another bin of books borrowed from the school library, and another from the public library. All together, kids could choose from an enriched and enlarged collection, in the two or three weeks at the start of the year when everyone read picture books during silent reading time.

That happened by my decree, a rare state of affairs which always met with some initial resistance. At home, for their official homework reading time (and, of course, in any additional time they spent curled in a tree or a favorite chair, or walking around a safe path in an open room) they could read the big thick fantasy novels in which they were immersed. In school, though, for those first few weeks, I needed to watch them choose, begin, read, finish, and pass along book after book after book.

go dog go p d eastmanIt’s true that I felt grave concern about a real and present danger: without my intervention, students might get to adulthood never having read highlights of English literature such as Go, Dog. Go! by P. D. Eastman–or never having read them with their new-found, big-kid powers of observation, and sense of irony.

We needed picture books to help us take ourselves less seriously. We also needed picture books to help us take ourselves more seriously, to take us on an express trip into important questions about life and the world.

Jessica Unger, responding to my Facebook invitation, remembered Flight, in which the young Charles Lindbergh struggles to stay awake on his trans-Atlantic voyage. (In other words, in which the perils of lost focus or failing attention could be lethal.)

Flightt Robert BurleighSeveral past students remembered Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar, in which eating and eating, and growing and growing, result in transformation.

Very Hungry Caterpillar Eric Carle cropped

galileo croppedUltimately, picture book season in September worked out well for everyone in the class, partly because many of the books I had gathered were what is known in the trade as “sophisticated picture books”, books definitely intended for somewhat older audiences.

Here’s one of many wonderful picture book biographies. This one, by Peter Sis, doesn’t dodge the horror of Galileo’s being put on trial for his life, for saying what he could see.

Non-fiction picture books could work well later in the year, too. If a group of students were exploring a topic together, reporting to each other on separate individual readings, the right picture book could enable a strong contribution even from a reader still overwhelmed by long blocks of text.

After the first couple weeks, for their individual reading, and for the read-aloud books we shared, the students and I mostly chose novels. I might suggest time with picture books for a student who had left her book at home, or a kid marking time until the next book in his series came out on Wednesday.

Frog Band and Owlnapper Jim SmitSometimes this detour back into picture books would become extended, as a student tracked down all the available picture books by a particular author, or discovered a wacky series that satisfied a taste for British humor, juvenile grade, like this one. (This is a page from The Frog Band and the Owlnapper, by Jim Smith.)

Often, also, a picture book or two could launch a new thematic study–launch in the sense of full throttle forward.

Henry Hikes to Fitchburg D.B. JoFor example, Henry the bear (Henry David Thoreau just barely in disguise) makes a case for his preferred mode of transportation–and a bet with a friend–to prove that hiking to Fitchburg takes no longer than working to pay for train fare.

rows and piles of coins

Henry’s argument with his friend opened a thematic study called Transportation Choices. Other picture books helped us think about people with limited access to choice: people in our own world unable to drive due to disabilities or aging–or youth; people in places where a bicycle can change a family’s possibilities. In My Rows and Piles of Coins, by Tololwa M. Mollel, a young boy wants a bicycle not just to ride, but to serve as a mechanical pack animal, getting farm products to market.

The right picture book could widen–powerfully, effectively, almost magically–our sense of “us.”

Miss Bridie straightenedBefore my school opened an older student program, all my 12-year-olds graduated from our school and became immigrants into the cultures of other schools. Immigration made a particularly strong thematic study topic then, and picture books helped focus on the choices made by immigrants, including what they chose to bring–which could mean how they chose to be prepared. Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel follows Miss Bridie across the sea, and then through her life in her new land, where she uses her shovel to plant, to clean up after a fire, to dig a grave. Here she is, walking away without looking back, setting out into her new life with her shovel in hand.

There are so many other wonderful picture books I’m sad to leave out. My Place, an amazing book from Australia, which I read aloud almost every year, I’m saving for its own special post. The picture books we used to explore ideas about evolution, ditto.

sailor dogFor now, just one more. Almost always, on the last day of school, I read aloud this book. If you were ever in my class, you may remember how we created instant background music for certain pages. Singing the final song, to the tune of Popeye the Sailor Man, was a great antidote for any tendency to get weepy, especially my own.

According to my daughter, I’ve given at least three copies of Sailor Dog to her children, Abe and Julia. “That’s okay,” she says. “It’s good to have one on every floor of the house.”

Some notes:

The round shapes visible on many of the books shown aren’t part of the illustrations. They’re just stickers that marked the books belonging to the classroom collection, or my family collection.

I want to give you publisher information here, in gratitude to the people who keep these books in print. Some are in fact out of print, and harder to find, but I’ve discovered that I can often locate used copies of old favorites through web sellers. So here’s the list:

Time of Wonder, written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey. Puffin.

Three Days on a River with a Red Canoe,  written and illustrated by Vera B. Williams. Greenwillow.

Go, Dog. Go! written and illustrated by P. D. Eastman. Random House.

Flight, by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Mike Wimmer. Puffin.

A Very Hungry Caterpillar, written and illustrated by Eric Carle. Philomel.

Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei, created and illustrated by Peter Sis. Square Fish.

The Frog Band and the Owlnapper, written and illustrated by Jim Smith. Little Brown.

Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, written and illustrated by D. B. Johnson. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

My Rows and PIles of Coins, by Tololwa M. Mollel, illustrated by E. B. Lewis. Clarion.

Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel, by Leslie Connor, illustrated by Mary Azarian. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Sailor Dog, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Garth Williams. Golden Books.

Seven more thoughts about silent reading

reading on floor cropped#1   I’m beginning this post the way I wanted to end the previous one, with photos of kids reading, in the various positions and conditions my students adopted for silent reading time. (I finally found photographs, and got permissions.)

Some sat on the floor leaning against the wall. Some sat on the big rug in the meeting area, often snuggled up next to each other like puppies.

reading line-up cropped

Some sat at their table places, books on the table, heads benreading at tables croppedt over, sometimes inside a curtain of long hair.

(The girl in the background is going through a book stack, as in A Stack of Five.)

Some liked to hide in what kids called “the cave”, a little passage formed by the non-fiction bookshelves, with a rug on the floor, and with less visual or sound distraction than anywhere else in the room–which made another reason, besides privacy, to choose it.

One year I learned that I had to check that corner carefully if the fire alarm went off during reading time. A particular child remained cave-bound, reading straight through the horrific racket of the alarm. To my other overlapping mental categories of readers, I added, “children who could probably keep reading through an earthquake.”

#2   Intense mental adventures are happening in almost complete silence. I move around the room taking notes, but rarely interrupting. Conferences, one-on-one chats with an assessment often included, I try to do in the cubby area, outside the room.

The intensity of that quiet, a kind of sacredness, comes back to me as a I watch my grandson sleep, sense when he is dreaming, wonder what is happening in his dream.

#3   Reading is not sleeping, not dreaming, but reading fiction can be like dreaming someone else’s dream, so in a class of 15 there could be 30 minds dreaming, either creating or recreating stories: 15 students and 15 authors.

Often, though, there were local rages for particular authors. Several kids, recommending books for each other, might all be reading various titles by Nancy Farmer or Gary Paulsen, say. That could throw off my math.

Sometimes I imagined thought balloons above kids’ heads, full of the words they were reading, jostling with each other in the air space of the room; words perhaps moving from bubble to bubble, the way people can move from painting to painting in Harry Potter. The way enthusiasms can move through a reading community.

#4   When I first started teaching this age level, watching whole rooms full of kids reading, I was startled by how much I could tell about them as readers, just by watching their reading behavior, without even hearing them read.

Kids with strong reading skills, who nevertheless had to struggle to maintain focus / kids who were thrillingly a little drunk with the glory of new-found reading fluency / kids who were just too tired to read without falling asleep / kids for whom reading offered a sanctuary they might kill to protect / kids who began book after book but could never manage to finish one / kids who strongly preferred certain kinds of books / kids who could not read funny books without at least shaking slightly, or more likely poking a neighbor. All of that showed, with no need for assessments.

#5   I also discovered that assessments could be very useful. I used the Burns & Roe Informal Reading Inventory, a fairly standard assessment tool to which I had been introduced in graduate school. It gave me lists of words to hand a child, in order to check for ability to decode words without context clues. Then the child would read a passage, and answer the comprehension questions provided.

On my own, I requested a free retelling, which teased out slightly different aspects of a student’s comprehension. Finally, if we had time, I often asked for kids’ reactions, things the passage made them think about or wonder.

Depending on the child, I sometimes shared the results, and we talked over whatever they seemed to show. I wanted to get the kids’ own insights into their experience and history as readers.

An assessment of this sort is often used primarily to get a sense of the grade level at which a child is reading. More than that, I valued the way this series of activities gave me a sense of a child’s approach to reading.

Does the reader seem confident and engaged?  Will she stop and deconstruct and parse out unfamiliar multisyllabic words, and use other clues besides the word itself, when those are available? Is he self-monitoring, or is he willing to tolerate and ignore meaningless readings? Is she finding a balance between inferring things the author never intended, and failing to make any inferences at all? Does he start out strong but wear out, or start out faltering and warm up?  Does she read aloud flawlessly but then have no memory of what she read? Is he one of those slow and patient readers with lots of miscues, who nonetheless gives an inspired free retelling, and then answers every comprehension question perfectly?

Above all, is she comfortable enough to laugh out loud at my all-time favorite reading assessment line, about the ratio of sheep to humans in New Zealand? (18 to 1.)

Jokes aside, it’s how a child is reading, the kinds of energy a student brings to reading, that can tell us how to help that child move forward. We need to know what strengths can be the seeds for new growth, and we need that especially if there are also weaknesses. The same assessment tool I was taught to use in graduate school, with its capacity for pigeonholing, nonetheless turned out to be a great way to find out what I wanted to know: how a child’s intelligence was meeting the world of print, and what I could do to cheer and help.

#6   There are some important lessons to learn about reading, it’s true, and some of them can be taught in a whole class setting. For a while we received a classroom set of Boston Globes every Monday. (We were sad when their distribution arrangements no longer worked for us.) One day, we would read the bridge column–easily decoded words, all of them, that conveyed almost exactly nothing to a person without the right background knowledge.

This was a great way to encourage students to think about the difference between decoding and comprehending, and then go beyond that and think about the dimension of remembering. It’s hard to remember something that is gobbledygook in the first place–even if all the words are words you know. Remembering requires understanding, and understanding requires not just decoding–turning symbols into sounds–but thinking.

Definitely there’s a place for teaching reading skills. But…

It’s even more important to talk about the meanings in a piece of reading, and what the author has done to let them bloom. It’s important to write about reading, to use the discovery process of writing as a way of opening out the experience of reading, and sharing it with others. But…

None of those other peripheral activities should ever be allowed to displace actual time for reading, because actual time for reading is what most builds readers.

All that other stuff is what you do whenever you have enough time in the schedule. Reading itself has to happen no matter what.

Lecteur_-_statuette_pierre#7    It’s part of your religion,” a kid once said. She felt the same way, and probably had some truth on her side.

I imagine the same feeling in whoever made this little statuette, which I found on wikimedia commons, with no other attribution besides the name Pierre. Thank you, whoever offered this for us to find and remember!