Teacher Tuesday

I “met” Jason Lewis through his tweets about books (especially apropos given today’s topic). I knew he was someone I wanted to hear more from and he instantly said yes when I asked if I could interview him. He teaches reading, writing and social studies to two groups of fifth graders at Tyngsborough Elementary School in Tyngsborough, MA. I know you’re eager to learn how he shares his passion for reading and writing with his students, but first we’re going to take a quick peek at his past:

Jason in 1st or 2nd grade. He has a little less hair now.
  • Favorite school lunch as a kid: I remember bringing a lot of peanut butter and jelly and tuna fish sandwiches, still favorites today!  When I did buy, I liked the chicken nuggets.
  • Times you were the new kid in school: Sixth grade, first year of middle school. 
  • Teacher who inspired you to stretch: My sixth grade teacher, Mr. Jordan (no, not the basketball player!).  He was my first male teacher.  I remember laughing a lot in his class and learning how much fun reading was.
  • The one thing you always wished you could do in grade school but never achieved:
  • I wished I had the chance to write like my fifth graders do today and I wish I made it to the top of the rope in gym class! J

Let’s explore how Jason connects kids and books.

Jason, a few years ago, your school departmentalized the upper elementary grades and you assumed responsibility for teaching English Language Arts/Social Studies, and your partner teacher handles math and science. You shared with me that, despite your passion for reading and writing, that passion wasn’t shared by your students.
It was natural for me to want to teach English Language Arts and Social Studies when the upper grades departmentalized.  I had always loved reading myself and thought I was doing a good job passing this love of reading on to my students.  We were writing and reading every day, sharing new books, participating in literature circles, and discussing books.  I really thought my students were loving books as much as I was, but boy was I wrong, something I didn’t realize until this year.
Something changed for you this past summer. What was that something? 
This is an excerpt from a letter that I wrote to the staff at my school trying to hook them on Twitter.  “For the last year I’ve watched my wife read her Twitter account each night to “check in” on Hollywood!  She never “tweeted” anything, just reading about the rich and famous.  So when my assistant principal sent us an e-mail telling us about his positive Twitter experiences, I laughed and immediately said no to myself.  Later that same afternoon, while sitting through a two hour track practice for my son, I decided to check out this Twitter thing.  With the help of my wife, the Twitter professional, I easily created an account and I was ready to tweet!  I was certain that this would become another one of those apps that I never touched on my phone after the initial download.  I typed in some of the names that my A.P. recommended and I started reading some of their tweets.  Most of it was about school related topics.  I was instantly intrigued reading what these people had to say about all things education.” 
What prompted you to join the Twitter conversation?
A few days later the list of peopl
e I was following continued to grow.  I learned that a group of people hold a fifth grade chat every Tuesday evening.  There’s actually a ton of different chats including different grade levels, subject areas, elementary chats, book chats, etc.  I was on the couch with my iPhone ready for the Tuesday chat, thinking I was going to “watch” the conversation and not participate in it.  That didn’t last long!  They started talking about beginning of the year activities and assessments, read-aloud books, technology, etc.  After I figured out how to “tweet” I posted a question about blogging and received a ton of great information.  I received great ideas from setting up my classroom and ice-breakers to reading and writing ideas.  It was a good thing I quickly learned how to send myself copies of tweets, because after one hour-long fifth grade chat, I had a dozen different emails with ideas I wanted to look into further.  Needless to say, I was adding many new names to my expanding list of followers.  After only a week, I was hooked on Twitter!  It’s neat “talking” to educators from across the country, sharing ideas, borrowing ideas, asking questions, and learning new things.
You shared with me that you feel Twitter, and your Personal Learning Network (PLN) is helping you reach more students. How do you feel it is helping to reach them?
For many years, I truly thought I was turning most of my students into life-long readers, but Twitter has shown me that there’s so much more that I could be doing to reach my students.  Besides the countless ideas that I have incorporated into my classroom this year to engage my students, it was the simplest of ideas that I believe has had the strongest impact. 
When I started following other educators, they talked (or tweeted) nonstop about all the books they were currently reading.  They weren’t reading their personal favorite adult novels, but children books.  Specifically, they were reading picture books and young adult novels.  I have always loved reading, but I was failing at reading the books my students were reading.  I ferociously read adult novels during the summer and read an occasional young adult book during the school year.
From the conversations I was having with other teachers about children’s and young adult’s literature, it was clear to see that something needed to change.  I decided to read the books my students were reading during the school year with the same ferociousness that I had been reading with during my summers, and the results have been nothing short of amazing. 
 There have been many benefits to reading the same books that my students are reading.  Some of these include books that I read or recommend seem to fly off the shelf, the kids are really excited to see what book I’m currently reading and what book is “on deck” and gives them the opportunity to try books that they may never have tried.   Most importantly, I can have more meaningful conversations about books with my students that I wasn’t able to have before, and I’m no longer “telling” my students how much I love to read.  With a book always in my hands, I’m also showing them.
At the beginning of the school year, my students and I set reading goals.  One of those goals was the amount of books we were going to complete.  For the first time, I also set a goal.  My goal was to read 70 young adult novels.  It is March as I write this, and I’m already at 60 books.    
What skills do you see your students gaining from what you’ve learned from Twitter?
Many of the ideas I’ve found and used have centered around reading.  With that being said, I’ve seen many more students gain a love of reading than ever before.  Are there still students I haven’t been able to reach?  Sure, but I have many more strategies to pull from.  Another huge skill I think my students have gained from what I’ve been able to learn on Twitter is that there’s many different ways to “talk” about a book.  Of course there’s the face-to-face discussion, but they can also write messages to one another “on the wall,” blog about the books they are reading, and create their own book talks and trailers.
Do you have a favorite anecdote of how your PLN/Twitter has changed a student?
I don’t have one favorite anecdote of how Twitter has changed a student…I have many!  At the beginning of the year, I give my students a reading inventory that asks them about their reading habits, likes, and dislikes.  More students than I would have hoped for said they weren’t a fan of reading or that they weren’t a good reader.  My favorite anecdotes include the smiles on so many of my kids’ faces when they are really loving a book, when they are enjoying a book in a new genre, can’t wait to begin reading, or ask me to give them five more minutes when reading is over.  It’s these smiles that make me smile, and I usually give them ten more minutes to read.
What do you think is the biggest obstacle to kids sharing your passion for reading and writing?
Without a doubt, it has to be video games.  Those kids that I’m still trying to reach, and even some who love to read, would still rather play a video game than pick up a book.  I think blogging about their books and allowing the kids to bring in their electronic devices for reading helps, but some kids would still rather have a controller in their hands than a book.
Would you encourage other teachers/librarians to join the Twitter community? 
Yes, yes, yes!  Absolutely yes!  I feel that after teaching for so many years, I was stuck in a rut.  I was doing many of the same things over and over again and didn’t even realize that my kids weren’t enjoying reading as much as I wanted them to.  Twitter has been so refreshing for me and my teaching and has opened my eyes to many new ideas.  Not only would Twitter open the minds of other teachers/librarians to activities from teachers all over the world, Twitter would give them an outlet to discuss children’s literature.  Many of the books I’ve read and recommended to my students were because of my discussions with other teachers or with the authors themselves on Twitter.
What has most surprised you about your participation in Twitter?
I still can’t believe that I’m on Twitter!  There are people who are on ALL the time, but that’s not me!  Once the school year began it has really been hard to be on Twitter as much as I would like thanks to school work, reading, and my two sons.  I check in from time to time and join certain chats, but try not to get sucked in until vacation times.  However, what I really like about Twitter is no matter when I have a question I can go online and there are hundreds of other teachers around the world willing to give me quick advice, ideas, or answers.
What do you wish I’d asked you that I neglected to ask?
Which books have been my favorites this year?  I’ve read many great books, but here are my five favorites in no particular order.
1.    Wonder by R. J. Palacio
2.    Hattie Big Sky and Hattie Ever After by Kirby Larson (Not because you are interviewing me…I truly love Hattie’s voice in both books!)
3.    Percy Jackson series
4.    Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea
5.     The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen

It was a real treat to read this interview — I found myself smiling just imagining the bookish energy in Jason’s classroom. And his point about reading books his students are reading is one that can apply to all of us, not just teachers, because each one of us has opportunities to interact with kids over books. One of my favorite things to do when I visit schools is simply collect book recommendations from kids. Sometimes something that simple can ratchet up that interest in reading.

As a reluctant convert to Twitter myself, I have to second Jason’s observations about how it’s expanded my literary life. If you want to catch up on more of Jason’s thinki
ng, follow him: