Reflections: The gift of the Boothbay Literacy Retreat

I arrived at a most beautiful place…

boothbay     photo 3 (1)

To learn from those I so admire…

boothbay peepsdonalynnlester laminack

…and I wondered : what will it be like? what will I learn? what can I contribute? how will it shape my new thinking? clarify my  doubts? how will it help me be the teacher I so want to be?

I came away from Maine with a teaching practices notebook filled with new ideas and new understandings.  It will take me the rest of the summer to parse through my notes and figure out how these ideas and realizations will find their way into my classroom.  But I already know that I came away from Boothbay nourished and changed as teacher.

From Linda Rief I learned to give myself the permission to really write – to practice what I teach.  No more does my writer’s notebook sit idly by as I write my blog posts, book reviews, and work-related-this-and-that , these days   my notebook is out and about, written in daily, and as much a part of my every day life as reading and breathing.

From Kylene Beers and Robert Probst I learned  to listen to the voices of our children – Kylene and Bob pay attention to how our children think, and their research and writing paves the way for us to learn how how to make reading an authentic, relevant experience for our kids.  Notice & Note, and Kylene’s earlier books When Kids Can’t Read/What Teachers Can Do and (with Linda Rief and Robert Probst) Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice  have been my go to texts for shaping an effective and meaningful  reading workshop.  Notice & Note , in particular, led to so many reading breakthroughs in my classroom last year.  So, I was thrilled to have the chance to learn from them for three whole days.

Some of my jottings:

*We need to think about the assumptions we make about our students and what we think they are capable of.  The skills that we want to develop in our highest level students – making logical inferences from the text, citing evidence from the text to support our thinking, being alert to the author’s purpose and bias – should be skills we seek to develop in all our students. We need to move beyond low level skills such as identifying the main idea and going on a hunt for context clues.

*We live in a world that depends on synthesis as literacy, where literacy is really defined as reading with meaning and writing with intent.  Literacy confers both power and privilege – those who are literate hold power, with that power comes both privilege and a responsibility to share what we know with others.

*”Rigor without relevance is really hard” – we build relevance (whether it’s a short text or a long one) so that kids get invested in the topic, and we build relevance by getting kids to ask questions.  We practiced two strategies to help us build relevance and investment , the first being “Dialogue booklets” that Bob had created (these are available for viewing on SlideShare here) to:

  • enable teachers to withdraw from the center of the conversation
  • gradually transfer responsibility to students
  • to support talk
  • to respect every reader’s unique response to the text

and we also re-visited and re-examined the  old KWL chart – with which I, for one, have had limited success over the years.  Kylene and Bob began with the premise that “we’ve drawn the lines the wrong way “- we need to find a way to get kids to effectively attach new knowledge with existing knowledge – that, after all, is the definition of comprehension .  We need to “reverse who is doing the active front loading ” and to  build interest and background knowledge before reading the text itself by:

  • keying in on important vocabulary (teacher generated, tier 1 words from the text itself)
  • making predictions – using  the words in  sentences that you think might appear in the text
  • modifying predictions – after reading the text, review the sentence you wrote. If the way you used it fits with the text, simply write, “True.” If not, revise your possible sentence to fit the text.

Kylene made this point in working with nonfiction – kids are often limited by their interest, and teachers get limited by the text.  Working with the above exercise allows much more active participation on the part of students – and I am really excited about trying this out with my kids in the Fall.

*In order to read closely you have to go beyond a reading that is confined within the “four corners of the text”. Bob gave us a wonderful overview of Louise Rosenblatt’s work, particularly her theory of transactional reading.  “The writer writes the text,” he reminded us, “but the reader makes the text”  through his or her experience – it is a “negotiated understanding.”  I found this discussion such a relief after the Common Core related focus on close reading of just the text and somehow staying only within the four corners of the text.  How is that even possible??!!

From Penny Kittle I learned the great benefits of play with purpose in our reading – writing workshops.  Penny’s kids have done amazing things through creating digital texts, and she shared samples of these .  Like Linda Rief’s early morning writing workshop, we were launched into creating our own digital pieces in the spirit of do-it-before-you-teach-it. “You’ve got something to say to the world that no one else can say, ” Penny encouraged us, even as we looked around the room  in panic, thinking to ourselves: “If she thinks we can create a book trailer, documentary, rant in one day, she’s nuts!”   But, with guidance and specific suggestions about storyboarding and craft moves, my erstwhile partner Diana Marc-Aurele and I were able to produce a respectable book trailer for “Zane and the Hurricane” – a book both os us loved.  

Two things that Penny said resonated with me deeply:

“You want kids to be engaged? They need to have mastery, autonomy, and purpose.”

“Don’t let someone hand you a unit of study and say this is what to teach–you need to engage your active mind.”

My only Boothbay regret is that I had to leave on the third day and miss out on the session with Penny and Linda Rief. 😦

We were lucky to have inspirational keynotes by Donalyn Miller, Lester Laminack and Chris Crutcher, too.  Lester’s talk was alternatively hilarious and deeply moving.  It’s central message, to me, was to infuse our kids with a passion for reading by inviting them into the books we read aloud. Lester taught us the true meaning behind the Katharine Paterson quote he shared with us:”Every time we ask a child to read to us, it’s a test. Every time we tell a child, ‘Let me read to you,’ it’s a gift.”  Donalyn’s  gift for inspiring students to read  has done so much to inspire us to do the same.  She encouraged us to work towards developing independence  and empowerment in our students reading choices – the need for each student to own a personal reading canon, just as we do.  There is ” no need for stickers and prizes, when reading is its own reward.” So true.  And Chris Crutcher, well, I was so moved by his words about how teachers can reach the most troubled among our kids through the power of stories shared and writing , that I took no notes at all. I just sat and listened and felt enriched and humbled.

At the end of my last session at Boothbay, all of us first stood to give Kylene and Bob a standing ovation.  Penny Kittle (I think) took this photograph which made its way to my Twitter feed (I am in the foreground, in the purple and green sweater) :

standing o for boothbay

I’m glad that Penny did, for I was “in the moment,” savoring every last moment of an absolutely amazing experience.  And already plotting a return next year.


7 thoughts on “Reflections: The gift of the Boothbay Literacy Retreat

  1. It sounds awesome, Tara. So glad you shared this with us. Much of it rings so true to me, the interest is key, and teachers who help students invest, then release it to them are wise. Thanks much, looks like a marvelous place to be, too!

  2. Pingback: Sunday Salon: A Round-Up of Online Reading | the dirigible plum

  3. Tara, this post makes me more determined to attend this retreat next year! I especially love this, from Penny Kittle: “You want kids to be engaged? They need to have mastery, autonomy, and purpose.” Such good advice. Thank so much for sharing what you learned from these amazing educators!

  4. Dear Tara: Great post. Thanks so much for sharing what these memorable moments and insights from this terrific conference. It’s one I’d been hoping to attend ever since its inception seven years ago, and it certainly did not disappoint!

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