October 10, 2015

Attending Our Children’s Sporting Events and Other Bad Habits

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Recently, we encountered this three minute video essay by Daniel Pink that you should watch before reading the blog post that follows. 


After watching this video essay, we had many thoughts, including, “Wow, this makes writing persuasive essay infinitely more interesting!” We imagined showing students this video and studying how Daniel Pink uses literary devices, such as alliteration, exaggeration, emotional appeal, and research to make his case.  We envisioned students working with partners and video cameras on playgrounds, in subways, in school cafeterias. We saw them working to perfect their inflection as they deliver carefully crafted messages about topics that matter to them.

However, in addition to the teaching possibilities we saw in this video, we found ourselves thinking a lot about Daniel Pink’s message, which seemed to be asking us to consider how our best intentions may inadvertently be doing more harm than good. For example, Pink questions the value of parents being on the sidelines and says, “When kids look to us for approval, consolation, or even orange slices, part of them is distracted from what really counts: the mastery of something difficult, the obligation to teammates, the game itself.” While we are very hesitant to suggest (or even practice) skipping children’s sporting events, something in Pink’s message rings true for us.

The video made us think about students we’ve encountered who demonstrated a learned dependency on the teacher. One kindergartner was working hard to read a book that contained the word “seaweed.” When he arrived at this word, he used several strategies to figure out the word and got it right! What made this especially interesting was when he got it right; he looked to his teacher for confirmation. Instead of telling him whether he was right or wrong, she encouraged him to use what he knew about the meaning of the story as well as letters and sounds to confirm for himself if “seaweed” was correct which stopped this kindergartner dead in his tracks.  He refused to turn the page until she told him he was right!  

On the one hand, this may seem like an extreme example of a lack of student agency, however, on the other hand, it makes us wonder about and take notice of the things we may be doing to cause such interference with student agency.  When we stepped back and took a long hard look, we noticed that oftentimes, when kids are working to figure things out, we begin to eagerly nod our heads, communicating that they are on the right track.  When students get things right, especially hard things, we have a tendency to clap wildly and tell them how impressed we are with them. While these behaviors are rooted in our intent to be supportive and encouraging, if the “game” of reading involves teaching children how to integrate print and meaning–independently and proficiently–we fear these behaviors may be distracting them from the very thing we aim to teach. For example, when we nod and cue students that they are correct, students have no reason to cross check for print and meaning anomalies themselves. Similarly, our enthusiastic applause reinforces that getting it “right” is what we’re going for which perpetuates fixed mindsets about learning. This leaves us wondering how we communicate support and encouragement without interfering with student agency.

As difficult as it has been, one thing we’ve been working on is toning down our body language.  When students look to us as if to ask, “How did I do?” we smile and say, “Wow, you’re working hard.” When they follow up with, “Yeah, but is that right?”, we follow up by asking them what they will do to find out.. The following is a list of prompts that we have found communicate to children that we encourage and support them while at the same time empowering them to figure things out for themselves:

  • Does that match? (Be sure to ask this when students make mistakes as well as when they don’t make mistakes!)
  • What will you try?
  • How do you know?
  • How else do you know?

In the same way that Daniel Pink explains why so many parents are compelled to attend their children’s sporting events (because it’s “a leading indicator of parental awesomeness!”), we think some of our cheerleading and affirmative body language were meant to communicate our teacher awesomeness.  What we’re realizing now, however, is that the most awesome teachers are the ones that build children’s confidence AND teach in ways that truly release the responsibility of learning which means sometimes we just have to get out the way and let kids think for themselves.

We are exploring these ideas within the context of building a classroom community in a live webinar (presented by Kim) during Chris Lehman’s EdCollaborative Gathering this Saturday at 11:00.

Beginning October 5th, we are also facilitating an online class–Teaching the Growth Mindset— through Brenda Power’s Choice Literacy, which will explore mindset and teacher language in depth.
Finally, this week we will put the finishing touches on our last chapter of our new book, Who’s Doing the Work? (Stenhouse), which will roll out this spring. It looks closely at mindset and the gradual release of responsibility as they relate to the interconnected instructional contexts–read aloud, shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading. We are excited to share it with you, so please look for it in early spring.

Do You Really Think So?

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Mr. Jones walked into the teacher’s workroom exasperated.  Throwing a stack of papers onto the table and speaking out loud to anybody who would listen, he said, “Can you believe this work?  These kids these days can’t write.”

Sifting through the papers strewn about the table, another teacher chimed in, “I know exactly what you’re talking about.  They never use capital letters and always forget punctuation. Oh, and what about using the letter u for you and the number 2 for to.  It’s all the technology–the texting–that they do.”

Sitting quietly, Ms. Rich had begun reading through the papers as the other teachers talked. She interrupted their conversation. “Do you really think so?” she asked.

In To Kill a Mockingbird,  Atticus Finch was famous for asking, “Do you really think so?” to help diffuse tense situations. When we are emotionally charged, we have a tendency to make broad generalizations and use words like “always” and “never” to describe the situation. However, very often, when we speak in this way, what we are saying is not entirely true.  Is it really “all” of these kids or is it one or two?  Is it “these days” or did some kids in days past demonstrate similar tendencies every once in awhile, too? Do students really “never” use capital letters or is it that they are not using it as much as we expect they should at this point? Are your third graders really substituting “u” for “you” or did you see that once on a random paper four years ago? Is the writing that you say is bad as bad as you are making it out to be?  

Asking “Do you really think so?” forces us to pause long enough to reconsider what we are saying.

Mr. Jones and his colleague looked up from their conversation and stared at Ms. Rich as she invited them to gather around the paper she had been reading. “Look here. This boy wrote, Booker T. Washington was an inspiring man.  Inspiring is a great word for a third grader.” Picking up another paper, she said, “And look at this one, He taught himself how to read and write. The grammar is perfect.”

Mr. Jones began to look again at his stack of papers, asking himself whether he really thought his kids couldn’t write. He realized that most had written three quarters of a page and many had occasionally used “a great word for a third grader.” Could they write?  Of course.  Did they need more work? Of course. 

The stories we exaggerate tend to be the negative ones we tell ourselves and what’s more, we come to believe these stories as true.  This school year, we encourage you to listen to your inner voice as it narrates the events of your teaching life and interrogate it like Atticus Finch.  Ask yourself often: Do you really think so?

Classroom Community and the Common Core: Lesson Sets for Elementary Classrooms

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This time two years ago, the educational community was super-focused on becoming acquainted with the Common Core State Standards. We were exploring questions, such as what do the Common Core documents say? What do they mean? How are they different from the state standards we had before? We engaged ourselves with exercises to “unpack” and “unwrap” standards, as we searched for the instructional implications. Ultimately, we all wanted to know how the new Common Core Standards would change the way we worked with students.

Last year, the school year opened with a sense of urgency around aligning curriculum with the new standards. The question we were all asking (and are still asking to some degree) was, “What does Common Core aligned instruction look like?”

After a few years of Common Core immersion, the fall 2015-16 school year opens with the next evolution of questions: How do we align to standards and still take care of kids? Basically, we are increasingly concerned with instruction that focuses on the standards at the expense of students (and teachers).

Towards the end of taking care of students while also meeting standards, we developed sets of back-to-school lessons using favorite picture books. As we considered how to address beginning of the school year concerns about establishing a safe community, setting goals, taking risks, sharing, being curious, and persevering when things get difficult, our first thought was to begin with texts that we love to read aloud at the beginning of the school year. After we had selected these books and scrutinized them for complexity, we began to sort through them and think about which text best supported which standard.  Once we identified a focus standard, we began to plan an interactive read aloud around that standard and we realized that what naturally began to happen was our lesson touched upon many standards in spite of being focused on one. In the end, we created nine lessons that not only addressed all ten reading standards but also met our goals for building a safe place for students to work and learn.

Because we know that planning is time consuming, we decided to develop a “Building Community” standard-by-standard lesson plan series that puts all of these ideas together in one place.  We created three “lesson kits,” one for kindergarten and first grade, one for second and third grade, and one for fourth and fifth grade. When we worked on these lesson sets, we put a lot of thought into the design, as we are finding more and more that the visual presentation matters to us almost as much as the content, so we worked with an artist to create something visually interesting.


As for lesson content, we offer a brief synopsis of the read aloud text; a summary of the standards these lessons address; detailed instructions of what to do before, during, and after the read aloud; as well as extensions for each lesson. In addition, each lesson is coded with the related icon from our Common Core Toolkit, for those of you using our iconography in your classrooms. We are excited by both the design and content of this set of Standard-by-Standard lessons, and look forward to creating more.

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We hope this first set of lessons supports you as you engage in the important work of aligning your instruction to the Common Core Standards while you also holding tight to your visions of your students as lifelong learners.