Book Summary: ‘Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire By M. Fontaine

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A Different Focus

Schools have lost sight of why we read. Like many school communities, the Los Angeles Unified School District uses scripted basal readers to teach children to read. A glance at the district’s list of reading objectives explains why students do not find this reading material exciting. The objectives always focus on fluency, comprehension, and other necessary but deadly dull goals. I have never seen district reading objectives in which the words joy, passion, or excitement top the list. I think they should.

These are the reasons why readers read, and we’ve lost sight of this fact. I read every day, and it is not because of a test coming up or because I want my achievement scores printed in the paper to demonstrate that my school is improving. I read because I like to read.

I want my students to love to read. Reading is not a subject. Reading is a foundation of life, an activity that people who are engaged with the world do all the time. It is often exceedingly difficult to convince young people of this fact, given the world in which they are growing up. But it is possible, and when you consider what is at stake, the effort is worth it. If a child is going to grow into a truly special adult—someone who thinks, considers other points of view, has an open mind, and possesses the ability to discuss great ideas with other people—a love of reading is an essential foundation.

The Adult as Guide

Children—even very bright ones—need guidance. Whether they are selecting food or literature, kids need our leadership to help them find the right path.

I am not smarter than my students. But I know more than they do because I am older than they are. I know about fabulous books that they might not yet have come across. It is my job as their mentor to put these books in their hands. Because the kids trust me, they are more likely to try a book I suggest. Sharing the joy of great literature can be a cornerstone of a relationship between an adult and a child. It is through literature that young people first begin to look at the world differently, to open their minds to new ideas, to journey down an avenue of excellence. To complete the metaphor: Reading nothing but basal readers often leads to a dead end.

There are many ways to find terrific books for children. Of course the simplest way is to share books you love and continue to enjoy. Librarians also have all sorts of lists from which both parents and teachers can begin their quest to find books that will be remembered forever.

Students Who Cannot Read

Many teachers would love to read literature with their students but have some students who struggle with challenging works. Fearing the idea of leaving a child behind, teachers often use less demanding material to help such students feel they are succeeding. The result is that capable and exceptional students are bored out of their minds waiting for others to catch up.

I use a two-pronged strategy here. First, by constantly explaining material, I am able to keep struggling students up to speed. I prepare in advance particularly simple passages for students who are beginning readers. I create their success before the lesson even begins. They gain confidence on a daily basis because they read in front of their peers, are never laughed at when they struggle, and find themselves improving faster than they ever had in the past. When I assign written work, I am there to help such students answer questions and improve their writing skills.

The second part of my reading strategy is to have individual kids read books associated with their particular reading levels. Each month they write reports on these books.

By guiding the students and helping them overcome their insecurities, I help even my lowest-achieving students gain confidence. They are being challenged in an environment that combines a push for excellence with a nurturing, positive mentor. Last year all of my students who came to me with a rating of “far below basic” passed their basic reading proficiency tests at the end of the year.

Middle and High School Teachers

One of the misconceptions young people have today is that reading is something we study only during English class. This notion is absurd and must be countered. I’ve found that one of the best ways to do this is for all teachers to start book clubs. Where is it written that math or science teachers should not be reading role models for their students?

I’ve seen any number of marvelous science, history, and physical education teachers run book clubs. They select a good book and give all the kids in their various classes the option of reading it. Most of these clubs have scheduled meetings, often during the lunch hour or after school. After completing a chapter, the group meets to discuss it. The students participate voluntarily, so the teacher is working with enthusiastic young people. The kids get to meet like-minded peers from other classes whom they might not have gotten to know otherwise. Friendships are formed. The teacher bonds with young scholars in a different environment, which strengthens the teacher-student relationship in the classroom. It is a superb way for all involved to spend a couple of hours a week. Everyone wins. It’s reading for all the right reasons.

Parents can do the same thing at home. Some have a family reading hour, while others ask everyone to read, say, chapter 2 of Great Expectations by dinner on Thursday. Our children need to have adults constantly reading and discussing books with them. We need to be the people we want our children to become.

Making Things Relevant

I am constantly astonished to hear the range of reasons why students are reading what they’re reading: “My teacher assigned it because it’s on the list.” “There are questions on the test that refer to this book.” “I need to read this to pass the course.” All of these far-too-frequent answers fall wide of the mark in terms of why we want our children to be readers.

Young people who read for pleasure are able to make connections with the world around them and eventually grow to understand themselves on levels they never thought possible. They make associations between characters and situations that can shape their own decisions. When my ten-year-old students performed both parts of Henry IV in one night, many cynics questioned their ability to find meaning in the antics of Prince Hal and Falstaff. The children knew better. In scrutinizing Prince Hal’s struggle to find honor in a dishonorable world, they learned something about how to approach their own struggles in the cafeteria and on the playground.

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