Teacher Tuesday

I’m delighted to introduce you to Brian Wilhorn, from Vesper Community Academy in Vesper, Wisconsin. I don’t know quite how he does it, but Brian is the reading teacher AND the lead teacher for the 4-year-old kindergarteners through the sixth graders. That’s a large age span and set of differences. I am in awe of this guy. And you will be, too, after you read the interview below.

Brian in 4th grade– note the books in the background. A sign of things to come!

Brian, let’s take a little peek at your past:

  • Favorite school lunch as a kid: A tie between the chicken gravy over biscuits and Salisbury steak.
  • Best friend in grade school: It changed year to year. (I think teachers tried spreading us out between classrooms.) I met Jeff W. in ninth grade and we’re good friends to this day.
  • Times you were the new kid in school: Always attending the neighborhood school kept me from ever really being the new kid until college, but I was probably the most out-of-place-kid in junior high shop class.
  • Teacher who inspired you to stretch: The professor in my college freshman writing class, whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten. She taught me that writing is more than good grammar and following directions. She told me my biography was boring. She was right. I completely rewrote it.
  • The one thing you always wished you could do in grade school but never achieved: Color inside the lines and have fancy, neat handwriting.

Brian, you shared with me that one of your big passions is providing context for your students. This resonated with me because, as a writer, I sometimes assume readers know things that they don’t, necessarily. For example, when I began talking to students about Hattie Big Sky, I quickly realized I needed to explain what “homesteading” was. I’ve been so impressed by the ways in which you use blogs to
enrich your readers’ understanding of the books they’re reading. How did your blogs come about?

Help Readers Love Reading came about as an extension of my reading presentations. The biggest request I receive from teachers is for more books, so I created the blog as an answer to that request.

The MrWReads blog started as a way to quickly give students links, videos, resources, and directions for lessons. Then the reading part slowly took over as I started adding visual resources for my class read alouds.

Why do you do it?

I started Googling things for myself from the books I’d read before I started sharing with students. When reading Alvin Ho by Lenore Look, I Googled Johnny Astro on a whim and was thrilled to discover it was a real toy and that the commercial was on YouTube. Then I found a site that created Shakespearian curses, just like Alvin’s dad. (Thou grizzled, lily-livered giglet!) In many cases the online resources come from my own searches. I’ll look something up, find it fascinating, and think, “Hey! My students should see this!”
I don’t create online resources for all the books we use. The resources come about when I feel we can really dig into a book as a class.

Do you have students help you in this process? If so, how?

Not directly, but now that you mention it, that could be a great way to combine self-chosen reading, research, and writing. For the posts I’ve done, I just try to imagine what my students might not have locked away in their background knowledge and create posts to share that information.

What has most surprised you since you began blogging about books and reading?

By far the biggest surprise has been the response to my posts (here and here) on Wonder by R. J. Palacio. I started writing them to use with my students shortly after the book’s release, but as Wonder’s audience has grown, so has the interest in the online resources. Those posts have generated around 9,000 page views in September, 2012. By comparison, in September, 2010 the entire MrWReads blog generated 58 views.

What are the biggest impacts you’ve seen on your students?

I’ll be the first to admit that these online resources are not necessary for readers. Great books work their magic with readers on their own. But I think the visual resources can help readers more clearly see the story in their imaginations. Our rural community doesn’t have crosstown buses or a subway. Our acres of cornfields are pretty far removed from the Florida Keys.

The biggest impacts have come from historical resources. Learning that the church bombing in The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 actually happened added to the seriousness of the story’s events (see the post here). Students realized that Kenny’s sister, Joey, really could have died that Sunday morning. Reading newspaper reports about the 1935 Labor Day hurricane in the Florida Keys helped students understand how incredible it was that Turtle and her cousins survived on the pirate’s key in Turtle in Paradise (read that post here). In Wonder, when students said that touching Auggie gave you the plague, learning what the plague actually did helped students realize how hurtful Auggie’s classmates’ words were, even if they didn’t realize what they were saying (here is that post). 

These posts of yours seem like a ton of work. Why is it worth the effort? Would you encourage other teachers to try something like this?

They can be a lot of work, but I get lost in the research and enjoy fleshing out my own understanding of the story. Sometimes it’s like I’m tracking down the author’s own research.

Any time that teachers spend learning more about their subject matter is time well spent. When students say, “I didn’t know…” or “Did he really…” or “I can’t believe…”, then I’m always glad I took the time to share whatever it was they didn’t know.

What resources have been particularly helpful to you in generating these blog posts?

Mostly a combination of my own curiosity, my students’ knowledge, and Google.

What practical tips do you have for other teachers who might want to launch an effort like this?

Try to keep posts from becoming some sort of assigned reading. Don’t let learning kill the enjoyment of the story. Try to use natural breaks in the story to quickly share images, but don’t let the story get fragmented.

Also, start by seeing what is already out there. When I started the Wonder posts, I didn’t know that author R. J. Palacio already had similar resources on her own site. That would have been a great place for me to start.

How could authors and/or publishers help you in your efforts to provide context for your students?

 Authors and publishers are so easy to connect with today. Sometimes you just need to ask. When creating the Wonder resources, I tweeted R. J. Palacio asking if the Avatar Miranda mentions was the cartoon TV series or the James Cameron movie. A few hours later she tweeted the answer. (It was the cartoon.)

Brian, thank you so much for taking time to share these insights. I’m sure there are many teachers out there who are going to give this a try! And as a passionate researcher myself, you’ve given me incentive (and permission!) to make my Author’s Notes and webpages more informative.

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