Student assemblies prove something. (I just don’t know what.)

I am on a bit of a blog kick as of late which have all been connected to the same opening line: “When I enter the schools of other teachers wearing my hat of “YA author” to do student assemblies, I am treated to a rare vantage point.”

Today, I want to talk about my aspiration to particularly reach boy readers when I do student assemblies. And my constant wondering of not being exactly sure why so many folks are stumped by the question of, “How do you get a teen boy to read?”

The answer is fairly simple. It’s not rocket science. The answer is… drumroll please… GIVE THEM SOMETHING THEY WANT TO READ!

Here’s a picture of me the other day in South Texas, near the border, at a Title 1 school with a 100% Latino population. (Note: This school had all the challenges: LEP kids, low SES kids, budget cuts, state threats for low test score performance, blah, blah, blah.)

After my assembly at least 50 boys asked for a book. That’s not hyperbole. And being that the school didn’t have but 1 or 2 copies of my books (note: HOMEBOYZ is perennially the title which kids most want to read but since it’s part of a trilogy, it’s kind of like a gateway drug to other books – mine as well as titles by a host of other wonderful authors) these students were bummed.

Like genuinely bummed. I mean, we made sure to bring a few copies to give away but I can only carry like 3 with me when I travel and once I signed those and gave them away, they turned on their VP and clamored for the guy to “hook ‘em up with some books”.

When’s the last time you’ve seen throngs of teenage males seriously asking for books to read?

Fact is, it happens all over America all the time. Problem is, it doesn’t happen enough. Often, we see it in pockets. (Makes me think I need to plug Kelly Gallagher’s READICIDE right now… a great title which explains a ton and will spare me from having to too deeply plumb the topic of why schools are killing reading. Because schools are killing the love of reading. Generally speaking, that is. In other ways though, schools are doing more to promote a love of reading than any other institution in the nation. It’s a complex issue.)

The picture was taken when I was getting ready to leave and a group of guys sabotaged me and, instead of returning to class as they were supposed to do, they insisted that I take a pic with them “as proof”.

Being that I had to get to the airport, and I was also being invited to a Project X type party they were going to be throwing this coming weekend (Dude, you gotta come. It’s gonna be SICK!), I didn’t get to follow up on the notion of “as proof of what”.

  • As proof that a group of teen boys actually like to read?
  • As proof that the stereotypes about kids like them in this part of Texas weren’t fair or accurate?
  • As proof that they got to meet a real live author from California? (My, what low standards right?)

Getting to visit a campus such as this as an author offers proof of many things. I’m just not entirely sure of what.

Student assemblies and encouraging dreamers

The other day I wrote a blog which began with the line, “When I enter the schools of other teachers wearing my hat of “YA author” to do student assemblies, I am treated to a rare vantage point.”

First off, I’d be entirely lying if I did not admit how much I really adore doing student assemblies. A variety of reasons exist for this.

To begin with, when I was in high school, I thought all authors were dead. Fact is, well over 90% of the books assigned to us to read in class had been written by dead people. (Okay, that’s an exaggeration. 99% of the books assigned to us had been penned by folks who’d long since kicked. I was underestimating in order not to offend anyone because, as anyone who knows anything about books clearly knows, live authors can’t possibly measure up to dead ones when it comes to elevating the literacy skills of today’s kids.) Truth is, I only wish I’d been a teen who had the chance to grow up in a YA Lit Renaissance, like the age in which today’s young people are now living. I never had a real, live, in the flesh book author come visit my campus. Heck, I’d never even met a professional writer of any type til I got to college. And certainly, I don’t recall anyone ever even suggesting I could make a career out of writing.

For those kids in the audience who hold aspirations to become storytellers or poets or artists or musicians or filmmakers or game designers or dreamers of any sort, really, I get to be the guy who says, “It can come true. No promises but if you don’t ever take the risk to find out, you’ll never know what you can be,” I tell them. “Sure, it’s confrontational, gut-wrenching and requires immense sacrifice but what in this world that is truly worth achieving doesn’t?”

That message plays well. And being able to offer that idea in a school system gone absolutely bonkers with bubble tests as the raison d’etre for public education in America, well… all I can say is I feel honored and lucky to be able to fight the good fight.

And fight the machine.

I mean come on, school and education is about so much more than assessments yet so often I wonder, what percentage of today’s education system is really delivering that message to today’s kids in deeds as opposed to mere [lip service] words?

Plus, since we pretty much cancelled all field trips since NCLB burst gloriously onto the scene, this is sorta like a field trip that comes to them. In a David vs. Goliath way, it’s work that feels important.

Student assemblies, grandmas and breast feeding on campus

When I enter the schools of other teachers wearing my hat of “YA author” to do student assemblies, I am treated to a rare vantage point. Fact is, before these assemblies even began, I am sometimes treated to a few of those real “show-stopping moments.” For example…

While waiting in the front office of a school for the vice principal to greet me and walk me over to the auditorium where I’d be speaking last week, a girl – she could not have been more than 14 years old – signed in with the front secretary.

She was about 20 minutes late for school. And she was asked, upon signing in, “And where were you yesterday?”

Her reply: “My baby was sick.”

Now I have been in education a fairly long time and I have seen – and taught – bunches of pregnant teens before. But a girl this young who had already given birth long enough ago to be back at school? That one threw me for a loop.

Then I heard about how one school had converted an old office to a breast feeding area. Apparently grandmas show up to school with babies, kids are called out of class, and the baby is handed over to mama for a little snacky-poo.

After a deep drink from mama’s academic bosom, someone wipes the kid’s chin, grandma takes the baby home and the student goes back to class.

Now, I’m biologically underequipped to place my nipple in a youngun’s mouth and provide anything that resembles sustenance so I am taking a leap here but from what I’ve gathered about this uniquely female phenomenon, isn’t breastfeeding kinda physically draining for mama? Like, does providing milk for a hungry mouth affect one’s ability to solve for X in an exercise on isosceles triangles?

And if a kid leaves class to do a 25 minute feed, does that count as an excused absence? Like, does the law require teachers to make accommodations of this sort for teen moms in an effort to keep them in school or is a teacher supposed to doink them for missing 40% of class that day? (And what kind of professional conundrum is it to be asked to deduct points from a student’s performance because they had to feed a hungry baby?)

All this got me wondering if a student who is on breast-feeding intermission from her third period class is less responsible for her classroom assignments and deadlines than a non-breastfeeding student in the same such class?

Of course, then I wonder, if you spill breast milk on a bubble test, will that affect its ability to be scanned by Pearson?

Are there policies on this? I tell you this, doing student assemblies for 700 are challenging enough without having my mind bent by questions like this before I take the stage.

Welcome Kerri!

I get lots and lots of email. Sometimes it overwhelms me. Sometimes it makes me feel good. Below is an email I got last week. My thoughts?

Welcome Kerri!

Hi, Alan–

I emailed you about a month and a half ago about wanting to get out there in the educational world and spread my pedagogy, and I just wanted to say thank you. Your reply inspired me to start my own website (, and I’m going to launch my first blog this upcoming Monday! Thank you for your encouraging words! I’m excited and I can’t wait to see where this path will lead me.

Kerri Schweibert

This is Kerri’s first blog post. If you feel so inclined, have a read. Here are the first two lines…

My favorite unit to teach every year is invariably poetry. And honestly, what poetry unit is complete without Dr. Seuss?

This is what happens when you sit next to big brain people.

I was sitting next to the fabulous Donalyn Miller yesterday (yep, The Book Whisperer. We were both at the Michigan Reading Association’s Annual Conference – whatta GREAT state conf, btw) and of course, we talked shop for quite a few hours.

One thing she mentioned over the course of our conversation about the challenges of turning non-book reading kids into readers struck me as notable. She said, “So often, teachers have higher expectations for kids than parents do.”

I paused. That’s really, really interesting, I thought.

I mean expectations and hopes for positive achievement frequently have their roots in love, don’t they. (i.e. I have high aspirations/expectations for you because I care so much about you and see such wonderful potential in you – and the more I care, the higher my expectations/hopes. Conversely, the less I care about you as a person, the less I care about what you do with your life… as long as you don’t break the law, tread on me, or whatever. And isn’t there a degree of self-fulfilling prophesy which often plays into all this as well?)

But if my theory of “degree of how much you care equates to the hope/expectations one holds for a child” then Donalyn just blew it up.

Or did she?

Was she saying that teachers often care about kids more than parents? No, I don’t think so. (Yet, to call out a pink elephant in the room, in modern-day America, this is certainly the case in more than a handful of situations.)

Unfortunately, I had to get to the airport and didn’t get to finish the chat. (Note: my limo waits for no one. And the private jet can’t really whisk away until the whiskee is comfortably seated in a leather chair with a scotch in hand. Neat. I’m drifting, aren’t I?)

Anyway, I think what she was saying is that reading specialists know more about what is possible than parents do (because they are laypersons and we are “in the industry”) and as such, we do need to set a higher bar because we know that when it comes to books, the hurdle of dormant literacy can be awakened by a skilled professional.

So yes, converting the non-reader to reader is a culture war in many ways because in so many households it’s Home vs. School. And when parents aren’t readers and aren’t modeling the habits of readers in the home, the work of reading teachers is made even that much more difficult in the school.

Yet, how do we better slant things so that the reading teacher stands a greater chance of being successful?

Expectations, it seems, are the Archimedean point. If teachers don’t believe a non-reader can be converted, won over, awakened (use whatever switch term ya want) then aren’t we defeated before we even begin?

And why is it that talking about reading makes me want to read more?

This is what happens when you sit next to big brain people. YOU THINK MORE. It’s also why educational conferences are inimitable.

Common Core: It’s Complexical

The battle for the success of Common Core will not be won in the Beltway of D.C. And it will not be won in the Departments of Education in our state capitols. The success of whether or not Common Core reaches the heights of our collective aspirations for education, or turns into an abject failure, will be determined by the collective buy-in by America’s classroom teachers, parents and students.

Success can’t be legislated.

Now, will our nation’s school-y folks collectively buy-in? At first blush – and based upon so much of the pointed feedback I perpetually get whenever I even raise the notion that I like the ELA CC standards which have been created (only the standards, people – it’s all I have yet weighed in on!) – I’d say that Common Core has her work cut out for her.


Perhaps skepticism is always first to rear its head when change such as this is presented. Really, I don’t know. What I do feel I have come to see is that it’s pretty clear there’s a very vocal contingent of people who are slashing at Common Core in a way that has caught me off guard. And without a doubt, these people are raising keen points that have exceptional merit. I don’t agree with all the knocks but some of the knocks are entirely legit. Ultimately, it’s clear that CC has layers which run deep and complexical.

This is why I have decided going to trademark the term “complexical” and all its variants because clearly the CC edu-babble yet to come is going to shift towards this new terminology: “complexically” evaluating text, the “complexical” nature of reaching hard-to-reach students, the “complexicaliciousness” of transitioning teams of educators to CC, folks making Common Core more “complexical” than they need to make it, a complex text that meets an appropriate lexilillic criteria (hey, that could be a new word, too) is thus compLEXical. Do I smell a line of t-shirts in the air?)

Of course, ultimately, changing the standards isn’t really going to do diddly-squat to change bupkas (to use some exactly vocabulary.) The standards are merely a destination on the map. The standards can proclaim all students must become trilingual by 5th grade with one of those languages being of non-Latin descent but just because “they” demand and pass legislation on the issue it does not mean it’s gonna happen.

Buy-in – and the ability to actually meet the demands being asked of schools, teachers, administrators, kids and parents with the resources, abilities and ingrained cultures we have – matters.

Should “we” buy-in? I guess that is the billion-dollar question all of us have a front row seat to watching people try to answer over the course of the next 2 years.

The answers to how this riddle ultimately plays out are indeed complexical.