Today we are excited to welcome 4th grade teacher Scott Fillner to the #MGBookVillage as part of our month-long celebration of educators!
Please tell us about yourself!
My name is Scott Fillner and I have been an educator for 19 years. I have spent that time teaching middle school for 2 years, elementary for 13 years and have been an Instructional Coach and Facilitator for 4 years. This year I am currently teaching 4th grade at Bowman Woods Elementary for the Linn Mar School District, which is located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I am married and have three children at home. They are twelve, ten, and eight. I love to spend time with friends and family, watch and participate in sports, and get lost any chance I can get in reading!
Who are some of your favorite middle grade books or authors?
This is such a tough question because there are SO many great books to choose from! The hardest part I have found is to keep that ever-growing list organized and handy. I feel like I try my best to focus on newly released books and authors who are contributing to the literacy world. I listen to my former, and current students, for books to watch out for, and of course I rely heavily on my colleagues and #NerdyPeeps for must read books to add to my never ending #TBR (To Be Read) pile.
What was your favorite book as a child? Why did you love it so much?
As a small child I couldn’t get enough of Richard Scarry books. I loved naming things, finding things, and reading with my Grandmother everyday. I bet we searched for Gold Bug on every page a million times. But somewhere along the way, I lost my love, my desire, or my stamina for reading. I don’t blame anyone for this. I had great teachers, supportive parents, and a local library stuffed with great books and programs. I just didn’t identify myself as a reader as I grew older.
In elementary school I tuned in for some of our read alouds. To this day there is only one I can remember, and to this day it has stuck with me. I will never forget Mr. Sheski, My 6’4” (which happens to be the height I am) first male teacher, reading Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. The story itself was amazing, but the other thing that made it amazing was the emotion I felt and the emotion I witnessed from my teacher. I remember him crying, and our whole class crying as we tried to finish the story. I feel like that book, and that teacher, taught me that it was ok to be emotional while reading.
So fast forward 10 years and imagine me teaching 8th grade literature in 1999, and absolutely falling to pieces as I read this story aloud to my first ever class. I remember others crying and some giggling, and some just befuddled that their teacher is really a human and was really crying. By the time my 4th class of that day came in, I remember one of my students asking if I was going to cry again, because they had heard that I had cried 3 other times that day. My only response I could think of at the time was to smile, say, “yeah probably,” and then ask if they’d be the one to get me a kleenex and possibly take over if I wasn’t able to finish it. It just so happened that during that 4th period, that student who approached me before class was the one to finish the book for us, and in that 8th grade room you could hear a pin drop as she read it.
What book has impacted you most as a teacher?
Two books I find myself going back to over and over again, helping to shape my thinking, and renew my passion for what I do everyday are: The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller, and Teaching with Love and Logic by Jim Fay and David Funk.
Those two books have helped to build and affirm my foundational beliefs in education. Those two books have been with me for most of my almost 20 year journey. Those two books have been the sparks or the catalyst, which have led me to other books and deepend those beliefs and have helped me to continue to expand my learning.
The reason both of those books have been so foundational for me is that they focus on two areas, which I believe are vital to education. Those two areas are: building relationships and building a literacy rich classroom community. A community where students have choice, are surrounded by books they can identify with, and books which stretch them into new areas. A community that is not about trinket rewards or giving students labels which can give students a false sense of who they are or what they can become.
How do you stay “in the know” about new/upcoming books?
Staying “in the know” was such a challenge in the beginning of my journey as an educator. It used to mean that you had to know your librarians, (if they were connected or passionate about this area) you had to have people around you that were passionate about reading, and you had to hope that when your school hosted a Scholastic Book Fair, that Scholastic stocked it with the newest books, rather than a heavy emphasis on the trinkets and non book related items.
Nowadays (man I sound long in the tooth) I stay “in the know” by some of the ways mentioned above, but now I rely heavily on connections via social media. I do my best to connect with others who have similar passions, and I follow others who challenge and stretch my thinking to new areas to help me grow. I mainly use Facebook and Twitter. I have also connected with other groups via Voxer. I follow MGBookVillage podcasts and other blogs as well. I have tried Instagram, but I found that for me, right now, it hasn’t been my favorite social media app to make connections and keep me “in the know.”
Are you connected with authors online? How do you incorporate authors in your classroom?
I have to be honest for a moment, before last year I was intimidated at the thought of reaching out to an author or illustrator to ask if they would Skype with us. I am not really sure why, but I guess I thought I was intruding on their day and their time. What I have come to find is that this opportunity and relationship can really be quite rewarding for all parties involved.
Honestly, before social media and Skype, I am not sure how I would have found a way to reach out to authors and illustrators. Twitter has afforded me with opportunities to interact with authors, illustrators and publishers. It has been such an authentic relationship that I have been able to connect my readers with their reading life in and out of the classroom.
I have come to find that every author, illustrator, and publisher that we have had the privilege to interact with has been so kind and inspiring. As a teacher, I have been very intentional to be aware of the questions we ask, and how long our interactions are. We research the person we connect with beforehand. We read about them before formulating author’s craft and personal questions. We take pride in asking questions that you cannot find the answers to on their website. We also, like any good relationship, make sure to send some sort of appreciation afterwards tailored to what we think they would enjoy. I have also made a conscious effort to try and write a review for their books on Goodreads and Amazon. I have come to learn that this helps them out as well.
How do you encourage less-than-enthusiastic readers?
First, from the help of my PLN, I’ve learned that labeling students as reluctant, or non-readers, or any other term can be harmful and shift mindsets for us in a direction that become non-productive or harmful. It has given me pause to be more observant and realize that there are so many reasons that students may not be as voracious as we hope. So with that in mind, I have become much more observant and patient when students ask to go to the library everyday, visit the classroom library multiple times during read to self, read the same genre or book format everyday, or have that copy of Captain Underpants memorized, but pull it out everyday.
What I have gleaned from these observations is that I need to intensify my relationship building and listening. I’ve learned that I need to ask really good questions and not judge their answers. I’ve learned that I need to surround my students with books they can see themselves in and offer books that they can discover the world around them. I have discovered that I need to make time to have students share and talk about what they love with each other, what they’ve been reading, and what they like and don’t like. I have learned that I need to allow them to reread to build confidence and help them to connect with books that may be similar to what they are reading but stretch them to areas they have not explored yet. What I have ultimately come to realize is that I need to breathe, be intentional, invest in conversation, and surround them with choice and amazing literature that will make them want to talk with each other.
What’s a strategy or tool that you are excited to try out next?
I am always trying to find ways to get students to connect with each other and share what they are reading, which I believe makes them amazing writers as well. I believe they need space and opportunity to have their voice heard, and to have others respond to their ideas and reactions. They need feedback from peers, adults, and people they look up to. This year I have found the tool Flipgrid to offer these possibilities.
We have used this tool to share what we are reading, recommend what to read, give each other feedback, offer opinions for our Mock Newbery and Mock Caldecott clubs, explore ideas we are considering in writing, and have an authentic, diverse audience for their story ideas, reflections, and drafts.
I used the paid version of Flipgrid this year and found students are able to give each other direct feedback. In the Free version they are not able to directly, but can post their own feedback separately.
In using Flipgrid, I have found that students have been motivated to think more deeply, take risks with ideas, use feedback to grow upon, and try out books and genres that maybe they would not have, if it weren’t for hearing from other students about the books. So as I move onto thinking about next year, Flipgrid is a tool that I will be investing in for my students and their voice.
You can find Scott on Twitter at @sfillner .
Want more inspiration? Check out the other #MGEducators interviews and guests posts!