Teaching by Example

Teaching by Example

“Demonstration— Model reading and writing for children. Let them see you writing notes, letters, stories, recipes, and lists. Make sure they notice you reading to yourself, for pleasure, for information, for directions, and for other purposes. Show them how to hold a book, turn the pages, and read aloud.”



My father always told me that you lead by example and not by words. I was fortunate to have great examples in my life. While my father wasn’t much of a reader, he definitely modeled wonder, generosity and curiosity. Our evening meals were filled with lively discussions and debates around current events and other topics. My dad did read the paper. My mother was the reader spending her evenings on the upstairs couch reading “Readers Digest” or an Agatha Christie novel.

I hope I have continued to model wonder, generosity and curiosity to my own children. I am constantly reading, writing and thinking out loud. I read chapter books to my children and of course, picture book after picture book after picture book.

Our computer is in the living room kitchen area so my children notice me writing emails to numerous people including legislators. They also see me writing and practicing the public comments I’ll read to the school board as well as my writing and revising this blog. Unfortunately, they also see me spending way too much time texting or reacting to social media posts. I have been working hard on reducing my use of texts and social media and increasing my face-to-face attention with my daughters and son.

I was fortunate to teach at a time when teachers were actively learning to understand critical authentic reading practices and making these central to the curriculum. I followed my father’s belief in being an example: I read the books my students were reading; and I did the assignments I asked them to do.

I also modeled and made explicit comments about what I was doing to better understand a text I was currently reading. I made a particular point of explaining my strategies in trying to understand science and social studies text. I remember my own science teacher telling us to read a passage in our science textbook. I read it, but didn’t understand it. I always felt not being taught how to actually read nonfiction texts hurt me at the college level. This memory encouraged me to demonstrate and comment to my own students how to interact with a variety of genres.

The beginning of the school year would start with inquiry lessons on why we read and how we choose the books we do. After a few weeks of helping students get comfortable with inquiring into their own reading practices, I would highlight the concept that would be the main focus for the whole year – understanding what was being read. I told my students the story of a contest my brother and I had had when we were younger. The winner was the person who read the words first, and I won! My brother, a few years older, suspected that I hadn’t really done it. He insisted I tell him what I read. I told him that I didn’t know. I had read the words and that’s what the contest was all about. I had won.

This seems to be the main message my own children are getting about what reading is. Memorizing word lists, reading a passage fast and accurately, answering multiple choice questions around learning targets like main idea, supporting details, compare and contrast. . . so many skills, if actually needed, that would be better taught through modeling and immersion as kids read for understanding. To break down reading into a subset of mini skills is malpractice in my opinion.

My modeling to focus on and improve my students’ comprehension was not linear but would happen throughout my own reading and processing during the year. As I read out loud to students if my mind drifted – I would stop, tell my students what had just happened and then go back to reread. We would then have conversations whether large group or one on one conferences around what they did as readers when they lost the meaning of what they were reading.

In remembering my science textbook experience, I made sure students had ample opportunities to read for understanding in content areas. I checked out books from the public library around the specific topic we were working on; e.g., the Revolutionary War or the solar system. To improve my own understanding, I read numerous professional books on reading comprehension in content area reading. We discovered and discussed the value of pictures, headings, table of contents, glossary and other nonfiction features that helped us understand what we were reading. I’d show students my own nonfiction texts and how I covered the pages with my own thinking process. I’d then model with sticky notes my thinking as I read nonfiction text. I made sure there was plenty of time to practice what I modeled. I’d partner students up to practice reading a nonfiction paragraph, cover it up and retell it to their partner. Students would cover their nonfiction text with sticky notes to help understand and interact with the information in front of them. And we’d always go back to what we did if it didn’t make sense.

I provided lots of time for students to model for all of us. I remember telling the students that I had little background knowledge on the solar system and that a particular passage totally didn’t make sense to me. I told them what I had done to try to understand but it just didn’t make sense. Fortunately, many of them did have more background knowledge and told me what they thought the passage was trying to tell us about the solar system and how they had come to that conclusion.

As I’m writing this blog, I stop with so many feelings of excitement and sadness. Excitement in the memories of a classroom filled with examples of wonder, generosity and curiosity. But also a profound sense of loss of the teaching we were able to do in the years before No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and now the Every Student Succeeds Act. We need to get back to the conditions that create the readers our world so desperately need.



1 Comment

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One response to “Teaching by Example

  1. Richard Owen

    Dear Stefanie, You are right that much has changed in the American education system since No Child Left Behind and the follow up federal programs. I agree with you about the sense of loss to the teaching profession and especially the loss to children in the last two decades.

    One disappointment about the situation today is the blame being assigned to educators who understand the critical component of meaning-making in the teaching and learning process. Odd that these folks are being blamed given the federal intrusion with high stakes testing of bits and pieces of language in the last twenty years.

    Your comments about wonder, generosity, and curiosity are absolutely consistent with meaning-making. And Brian Cambourne’s work with the Conditions of Learning provide a pathway to reaching the goals of meaning-making. Please keep posting your thoughts about the Conditions of Learning!

    Richard Owen

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