Perseverance and Stamina

1280px-Yosemite_El_CapitanTwo American rock climbers reached the summit of El Capitan this week by scaling the rock face with just their hands and feet. No pulleys, no ascenders, no spikes–just safety equipment in case of falls. An article in the Huffington Post describes the process that took 19 days. Talk about perseverance, stamina, grit—Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson accomplished an amazing feat that combined physical strength, mental acuity, and guts.

Always with my teacher’s hat on, I thought this climb would make the basis for a engaging exploration of the human spirit that would fit right into an advisory program. And then…I was reminded of Penny Kittle’s Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers. For many adolescents, reading is their El Capitan.  They may struggle because of learning disabilities, but many just are not in the practice of reading books and therefore lack the stamina to complete challenging and lengthy pieces of literature or non-fiction. This phenomenon, not restricted to teenagers, has also grown in proportion to the popularity of the internet with its short, bulleted posts. Another reason, according to Kittle’s summary of the research surrounding adolescent reading, middle and high school students have been reading less and less on their own for the past two decades.

Screen Shot 2015-01-15 at 8.31.57 AMThe issue for high school students is that many will lack the stamina for the reading load of their freshmen year of college where they will be expected to read anywhere from 400-1000 pages a week. Kittle tackles this dilemma head on by discussing the pretend reading that goes on in many classes where students are able to maintain reasonable grades by picking up the “gist’ of a novel or text through class discussions.  According to Kittle, many teachers estimate that their students only read 20% of their assigned reading.  It is no wonder too many college freshmen struggle to stay afloat when confronted with hefty reading loads they are expected to internalize independently.

Anyone who has read Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle will feel right at home with Book Love. Kittle’s students, juniors and seniors not middle schoolers, also respond positively to the reading/writing workshop approach. Interspersing student anecdotes that inspire and instruct, Kittle shows the readers how she reaches out to her reluctant readers and opens the doorway to a lifetime of reading enjoyment and reflection. Classroom libraries, book talks, conferences and student reflection are the practices that shape her instruction.  However, the heart of her work is the relationship she builds with each individual student that allows her to guide them on their journey to seeing themselves as readers with a future.

Many of Kittle’s students successfully scale their personal academic El Capitan with grit and acquire the stamina that will help them work through future challenges. I have to say Book Love is an essential read for any English/Language Arts teacher and every administrator stressing about reading scores.


Attribution for image of El Capitan: “Yosemite El Capitan” by Mike Murphy. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –


The Power of Student Choice

Nancy & NickAt a recent conference of the Maine Association for Middle Level Education, Nancy Doda, renowned expert on teaching and learning, shared her keynote podium with Nick, a ninth grade student. He explained to attendees how choice in the way he demonstrated his learning engaged him more deeply in his work. Listen to him in this video.


This young man was empowered and inspired to write an original musical composition to demonstrate the effect Samantha Smith’s life had on him.

Nick’s words make us think—What do we really mean when we use the words “Student Choice.” Is it simply…

  • You may read this book or that one
  • You can create a diorama or draw a picture
  • You can use whatever images you would like in your PowerPoint

Or, does student choice go deeper?  Does it involve student voice in the direction a unit might take?  Does it allow students the freedom to demonstrate their learning in ways the teacher has never considered? What is the role of student questions in the lesson plan?

Nancy Doda and Mark Springer speak of student engagement and empowerment on their Alliance for Powerful Learning website:

The need for empowerment rests on the premise that human beings are innately driven to learn and create.  So, recognizing and engaging young peoples’ natural curiosities and interests constitutes the initial level of empowerment. From this requisite starting point, when teachers shift the cognitive load to students, students are afforded far richer opportunities to develop the skills and capacities most needed to live well in our ever-changing world.

In other words, powerful learning best occurs when students have a say in what and how they learn. In powerful learning communities, students and teachers collaborate in making a variety of decisions. Optimally, comprehensive empowerment that involves students in every phase of the design, implementation and assessment of their curriculum should be the aim.

While there are numerous ways students might be empowered and engaged, powerful learning demands these conditions:

  • everyone respects the inherent dignity of each individual
  • each individual is committed to the welfare of the community
  • learning and decision-making are collaborative,
  • collaboration is ongoing and continuous
  • individual learning needs and preferences are honored,
  • students are active participants in the learning process.

Incorporating student voice and choice in a meaningful way is an act of courage in many districts these days. Despite pressure for standardization and compliance, we need to have more conversations about engagement, empowerment, and the role of the student in developing the plans for teaching and learning in our classrooms.

Listen and enjoy Nick’s composition.