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Our Inspired Teachers: Lisa Ellenberg

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Every day Catlin Gabel teachers inspire their students. 16 faculty members talk about how they came to teaching—and what they love about their craft

 From the Autumn 2012 Caller

Lisa Ellenberg, BS & LS librarian

Bachelor's and master's in education, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. At CGS since 1991.

During storytime at the library, the satisfying language and structure of folktales can create an enchanting bond between the children and me, lingering deliciously in the air at a story’s close. During such a moment, a kindergartener once remarked, “You’re really old, aren’t you.” At that point, I was actually a relatively young teacher. Curious, I responded, “Well, I’m a lot older than you are. How old do you think I am?” After a studied pause, she ventured a guess, “Seven?” This would be one of many opportunities over the years for the words of a child to swiftly transmit unexpected perspective, surprise, and delight.
 
Teaching requires grappling with questions, both crafting and responding thoughtfully to them. The process keeps me fascinated with my work. Every day children come to the library with questions that require me to listen and interview to discover what is really being asked. “Lisa, where is the robbing section?” I say, “Tell me more about that.” Response: “You know, like a sneak-around book, that would help you find things.” Further investigation revealed some possibilities, including that the child has an interest in techniques of espionage, or is looking to design a recess game involving capture.
 
Back to the folktales. The text of one traditional tale includes the refrain, “and the dog leaped that hedge in a single bound!” A 2nd grader with wrinkled brow quipped dryly, “Well, how else could you do it?,” instantly illuminating the truth that either you get over the hedge in a single bound or crash into it. For me, it was impossible to not add that question to the refrain as we completed the story. As their fresh eyes and minds absorb experiences, children’s questions fill me with wonder about their potential for invention. I recently heard it said, “Creation is evolution.” I am grateful to witness this every day.  

 

 

Reflections on Reading: How to Create an Inviting Library--and Eager Readers

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By Lynn Silbernagel

From the Fall 2010 Caller
The reading of all good books is indeed like a conversation with the noblest men of past centuries who were the authors of them, nay a carefully studied conversation, in which they reveal to us none but the best of their thoughts.” —René Descartes
 
“I cannot live without books.” —Thomas Jefferson
 
“My library was dukedom large enough.” —William Shakespeare
 
Together these quotes speak to some of the values I find in reading: it is a way to connect with and understand other people, past and present; it is something I, too, cannot imagine living without; and ultimately, it is a solitary intellectual experience.
 
The last point seems at odds with life in Catlin Gabel’s middle school library, where we are surrounded with the energies of nearly 200 people, oversee a collection of 10,000 items, and work with 6th through 8th graders to foster reading. This hardly makes reading seem a solitary endeavor. Yet one of the main goals I bring to the school is to help students become strong independent readers—to really get them engaged with reading as an enjoyable practice and to encourage them to grapple in their own ways with the ideas presented.
 
In order to encourage students to become readers, a number of strategies have been proven helpful. Overall, my aim is to make reading, and the library in general, inviting, accessible, convenient, non-judgmental, and non-restrictive. Here are some specific things I do to foster this type of environment.
 
* The library has comfortable spaces for both groups and individuals to read and explore library materials.
 
* I purchase a variety of materials in a broad range of genres, and change displays of material frequently.
 
* I rely on students and teachers to recommend and review books. (Nothing encourages students to read more than a recommendation from a peer!) This often results in our generating waitlists of people who want the recommended titles when they come in.
 
* Teachers and I are committed to students making independent reading choices each month. For example, 7th grade students spin the “Genre Wheel” then choose any book they’d like from that genre.
 
* We do not limit the number of items students may check out, how long they may have them, or what types of material they may check out.
 
* The library has invested in a number of audio titles so students who are auditory learners can read more easily.
 
* We also have newer types of material (graphic novels, for example) that allow reluctant readers, or those who are more oriented toward visuals, to become engaged and successful at reading.
 
* We recommend books when students ask for ideas, but allow them free access to the materials to explore if they prefer.
 
* We encourage adults in the community to model reading as a valuable, pleasurable activity.
 
Reading is a joy for me, as it is for so many people. I am particularly fortunate to be in a profession that allows me to share that joy with others, and help engage them in a conversation that can span generations.
 
Lynn Silbernagel has been Catlin Gabel’s Middle School librarian for 16 years. As a fused glass artisan, she has also taught several Catlin Gabel summer programs and Breakaway experiences.  

Reflections on Reading: The Storytelling Brain

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By Hannah Whitehead

From the Fall 2010 Caller
Stories are the way we live our lives, so it is not surprising that our brains appear to be set up for them. Our lives are one experience followed by another in a sequence beginning with birth and ending with death, although some would say that death is merely the beginning of the next story. Storytelling is found in all cultures and has persisted from cave painting to YouTube, so people naturally wonder about the source of its robustness.
 
Our experiences take place in surroundings that the hippocampus of our brain indexes and constructs into a mental map. We continually adjust and update this map to link new experiences to what we already know, and revise our maps (our stories) accordingly. This kind of memory is very flexible and was originally part of our ability to navigate safely through terrain. It is why learning anything in a rich context is so much easier than learning decontextualized pieces. In fact, we have a predilection for making stories out of all we observe, even geometric shapes.
 
We tell stories as a way of explaining our experiences to ourselves and to others. Someone counted the kinds of verbal exchanges people had in public places: 65 percent was either personal stories or gossip (other people’s personal stories). When we have unexplained symptoms of illness, the quest for a diagnosis is the quest for a comprehensible story to explain our symptoms for ourselves, for those who care for us, and for our doctors. We want to know what is going on and why, and we are persistent in our search for answers. We even prefer speculation to no story at all.
 
Stories can be a way to try out experiences vicariously. Through stories— in books, oral histories and lore, movies, and other forms of tale-telling—we can immerse ourselves in other people’s lives, unconfined by time, place, culture, age, gender, or temperament. Those of us who would never dare to break into a bank or plan a complicated jewel heist can experience the adrenaline rush from afar without risking incarceration.
 
Being able to understand and empathize with others is a helpful trait to cultivate in members of a community. Children who are exposed to more fiction tend to perform better on tests of social ability and empathy. And those who are more empathetic are able to immerse themselves more completely in the trials and tribulations of the fictional characters. Stories are a good way to test-drive real life, rather like pilots training in a flight simulator.
 
Stories are also one way a culture defines its expectations of its members—its rules of behavior. Think of family stories, fairy tales, legends, religious texts, creation myths, and such. We pass this understanding on in the most memorable way possible for our brains—stories. As internet entrepreneur Mike Speiser says, stories are “one of mankind’s most efficient compression algorithms.”
 
Think about how difficult it is to remember a lecture that is merely informational. We have to take notes, chunk the information, review it, summarize it for ourselves; it takes a lot of conscious hard work to move that information from short-term to long-term memory. Information in this form tends to be received by the listener in a critical fashion, whereas information embedded in stories is accepted less critically. This technique is well understood by storytelling advertisers and politicians.
 
So the next time you want to get your point across, or to remember something, tell the story. “Gather round and let me tell you the story of stories . . .”
 
A faculty member since 1982, Hannah Whitehead is the head of Catlin Gabel’s beginning school and formerly taught kindergarten, 1st grade, and 6th grade. She has two alumni children: David ’90 and Katie ’94.  
Thanks to the following sources. We encourage further reading:
Caine, Renate Nummela, and Geoffrey Caine. Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain. Menlo Park, California: Addison Wesley Publ. Co. 1994.
Hsu, Jeremy. “The Secrets of Storytelling.” Scientific American Mind 18 Sept. 2008.  

A Child's Journey

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Learning to Read and Love Reading

By Mimi Tang

From the Fall 2010 Caller
As the other 1st graders poured out the door for recess on their first day of school, she sat at her desk, freckled face resting on the open palms of her tiny, dimpled hands. In response to my query, a dark cloud passed over Amanda’s face as she whispered her confession, “I can’t read.” Hers was a fear shared by many other 1st grade children. . . .
 

How do young children learn to read?

It is a question asked of me, a 1st grade teacher, time and time again. The reading process can be extremely complex, but at its heart it is relatively simple to explain. Early reading development typically follows a somewhat predictable route for most children. At the same time, however, it is a unique, individualized puzzle to be assembled using a developmentally appropriate methodology sensitive to each child’s interests, strengths, needs, fears, gifts, experience, confidence level, and desire.
 

Reading instruction primarily comprises two components: decoding and comprehension.

Decoding consists of figuring out the words; comprehension consists of understanding what one has read. When children enter 1st grade, they are primarily focused on decoding. In fact, they are typically so focused on learning how to decode words that they often pay little or no attention to whether they actually understand what they have read. Comprehension, however, is the ultimate, long-term goal of reading. My challenge, as a teacher of early readers, is to honor the children’s desire (desperation, in most cases!) to learn how to decode while providing balanced instruction in all aspects of reading. Skills in decoding are the more technical aspects of reading, consisting of a number of strategies that all readers need to apply at one time or another in order to figure out the words. Children arrive in 1st grade with the beginning of many decoding strategies already in place (such as letter recognition, using the picture to make sense of the text, recognizing when a sentence sounds funny). My task is to help each reader recognize his or her strengths, and to teach this child the decoding strategies he or she does not yet know and the understanding of when to apply the appropriate strategy when reading independently. Depending on a child’s natural tendencies and his or her previous exposure to particular decoding strategies, I focus my instruction differently for each child. Every child brings strengths to the early reading experience upon which I can build my instruction.
 
For example, a meaning-driven student is one who primarily wants his reading to make sense. When decoding a sentence (figuring out the words), he might look more at the pictures than at the print in order to make what he reads make sense by matching it up to the picture. He might read the sentence “The dog went to the park” as “The dog goes to the park” based on the picture, ignoring the fact that the print does not match what he has read (“went” vs. “goes”). As with any child’s approach to early reading, I honor and praise the child’s strengths (in this case making meaning based on the pictures) and help the child focus on a strategy that will shine a light on the area that the child is not yet noticing, covering up the word “went” and asking, “What sound does ‘goes’ start with? What letter would you expect to see at the beginning of ‘goes’?” then unmasking the initial sound and letter in the word “went.”
 
As stated earlier, each child’s reading journey is unique. My own brother, Jason, is deaf. The path he traveled as a reader is unlike that of any child I have taught. On occasion, I ask him about his experience as an early reader since he lacked the ability to use the sound-symbol relationship of the written language to help him learn how to read: “Tell me again, Jason. Just how in the world did you learn how to read without phonics?” Today, Jason is an extremely strong adult reader with phenomenal comprehension, recall, and application of what he has read. He learned to decode without using one of the most powerful tools that most early readers use: phonics. Knowing this, and having grown up watching him ravenously devour books, I am hopeful that working together, any 1st grader and I can discover the decoding strategies that will work best for that child. (“Comic books!” by the way, is always Jason’s answer!)
 

If decoding is the how of reading, then comprehension is the why.

Understanding deeply what one has read is the ultimate goal of reading instruction. Decoding is a big focus in reading instruction in the primary grades and continues to be a focus throughout the upper elementary years. We readers, however, continue to actively grow and evolve our reading comprehension throughout our entire lives. From my perspective, comprehension is the brass ring.
 
Instruction in reading comprehension has technical aspects, just as decoding does. We teach our young readers story grammar (character, setting, problem and solution, plot), different levels of reading comprehension (literal and inferential), questioning skills, previewing, reading fluency, reading with expression and phrasing, making connections (textto- text, text-to-self, text-to- world)—all of which improve a child’s reading comprehension. But true reading comprehension encompasses so much more. The heart of bonedeep comprehension lies in a love of language and of reading that thrives and flourishes well beyond the classroom walls.
 
Falling in love with reading, however, is not something that happens in the blink of an eye. It is a long, slow process that evolves over many years. My own son, born just last spring, has already begun the process of falling in love with literate language. As he wiggles and giggles and happily plays while lying in bed, his eyes widen and a hush falls over his entire body as he is lulled by the beauty of literate language when I lie next to him to read a story to him or to make up an episode of our never-ending story featuring him as the main character. Only four months old, he can already distinguish between conversational language and literate language, as evidenced by his obvious physical responses. What I am teaching him through these affective experiences with story and books has little to do with decoding (figuring the words out) at this point, but I am laying the foundation for the development of a lifelong passion for comprehension.
 

Parents often come to me with the same anxiety about reading that their children have: my child can’t read.

The fear is real, and I know how terrifying it must be to think that one’s child is behind his age mates or not meeting benchmarks. My question is this: what can your child do? All young children who have been exposed to print of any sort have some knowledge about how books, stories, words, and pictures work. In this current era of accountability, front page news about test scores and the push to force children of younger and younger ages to do what their elders did at much older ages, it is no wonder that we worry about our children falling behind. Reading achievement can be forced to occur at younger ages than in the past. But just because we can, does that mean we should?
 
Consider how children’s oral language develops. Children are surrounded by people who speak, so they hear language modeled on a regular basis. When they make grammatical errors, we initially think it is adorable and allow those errors to continue until the child corrects the error himself based on the modeling he hears. If the child does not eventually correct the error, we may correct it gently depending on whether it is of concern or not (say, “Fine, thank you. I am well.”). There is a naturally accepted window of time within which we honor a child’s errors in oral language as a natural part of the learning process. We honor children’s explorations and attempts in oral language (“Oh, isn’t it cute when she says ‘aminal’?”) and help them build on their strengths. Then we use their strengths to address the challenges. Teaching children how to use the written language can follow a similar path. Both reading and writing have a natural window within which children should be given some leeway to explore, discover, and make mistakes without punishment. If we can consider early reading a journey of discovery rather than an assignment with a looming deadline, we will remove a considerable amount of pressure from our early readers that will then allow them to grow, explore, and flourish in the same way that they did when learning how to speak.
 
A love of reading can be learned at school and at home without the drill and kill exercises we had as children by surrounding our youngest readers with excellent, authentic, high-interest resources (oral and written stories, magazines, informational books, poetry), consistent modeling, and a regular commitment to engaging conversations about reading throughout our children’s years in school. The single most important act a parent can engage in to support a child’s reading development is to read aloud to that child often and consistently, no matter how old the child is. Children’s experiences as early readers in the primary grades are simply laying the foundation for a lifelong love of reading and understanding that is sure to reap tremendous rewards.
 
Recently, a child halted a class read aloud with a loud gasp. In response to my raised eyebrow, she exclaimed breathlessly, “Patricia Polacco’s description of her brother was so delicious! Can you go back and read it again so I can taste the words with my ears one more time?” This is the sort of passion that grows out of constantly swimming in environments inside and outside of school that are rich with lovely language and beautiful literature.
 
Mimi Tang teaches 1st grade at Catlin Gabel.

The Unlimited World of Readers

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By Lark P. Palma, PhD, Head of School

From the Autumn 2010 Caller

When I hear teachers talk about the breakthroughs—the aha! moments—when a child makes the leap to linking the sound and letter of a word to its meaning, I am a bit envious. When I worked as a middle and upper school teacher, my job was to solidify and enhance what my students had learned, helping them become more sophisticated readers. What I learned about secondary reading is sound advice: spend almost as much time preparing the student for reading as for the reading itself. My work seeking the hooks on which to hang the reading, finding the deeper meanings and leading my students to discover those meanings for themselves, helped them become analytical readers who came to comprehend texts with depth and insight.
 
However great that was, I never had the opportunity to teach a young child to read. Despite all the methods, the science, and the research, the moment when a child recognizes a word and its meaning still seems magical to me. Recently I discovered a picture of my 5-year-old self in footie pajamas reading the comics. It brought back memories of figuring out from the illustrations what Brenda Starr or Prince Valiant was saying. Eventually, I could pair the repeated words with what I thought was going on. But although I don’t remember much about the moment I learned to read, I was fortunate that someone took an interest in me as a young reader and put wonderful books in my hands.
 
Dick and Jane, Tag, and Through the Garden Gate—the books we were all supposed to read—bored me beyond words. We lived on a tiny coastal island, and the library was the size of a small living room. But the unforgettable Miss Chastain was there, and she kept handing me books to read that she knew would spark my interest: The Five Little Peppers, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, The Secret Garden, Misty of Chincoteague, The Arabian Nights, Treasure Island, and many others. Her gesture implied “You will love this.” When no one else was there (which was often), she would let me read adult fiction. I gulped down great historical novels by Anya Seton and others, with their thrilling battles and momentous events. I felt like I was right there in the throes of the Puritan Revolution, the Great Plague, the building of cathedrals, and the Viking invasion of Britain. (The truly transformative books came later: the existentialists, Richard Brautigan, John Barth, Walker Percy, John Fowles, Kurt Vonnegut, D. H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf.)
 
Just as I had passed my books on to my brothers, so did I dole out the special books to my cousins and friends. The tradition continues today through two more generations. If you have someone in your life who sets the table and joyously offers you a smorgasbord of books, you will partake with gusto and pleasure.
 
I am so proud to be part of a school whose teachers make the world of reading come alive for their students. They place the right books in their hands, just as Miss Chastain did for me. Our teachers understand how to reach readers of all types of learning styles, so that they too can take part in absorbing and thrilling experiences with just the turns of a few pages. This issue of the Caller is full of stories of the transformative acts of both reading and writing, another area that we teach extraordinarily well. Please enjoy these stories, and don’t hesitate to share a much-loved book with me.