July 6, 2015

Wishing You a Great Failure

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“As is a tale, so is life. It is not how long it is, but how good it is that matters.” ~Seneca

This is the time of year for finishing–across the country, students are finishing preschool, elementary school, middle school, high school, and college. While none of our sons have reached a traditional educational milestone this year, we realized that some of their day-to-day trials and tribulations are worthy of at least a small bit of the celebration we save for those momentous occasions.

Recently, Kim’s ninth grade son, Matthew, took an English exam. In spite of thoroughly preparing for the test, the exam was hard.  So hard, in fact, that thirty-five minutes into the ninety minute test, he decided it wasn’t worth finishing.  He handed the test to the proctor and walked out.

As you would expect, the fallout for not finishing this exam is a failing grade. Given the work that he has done in the course to improve and even excel, failing this test left him feeling defeated.  He was ready to write letters of angry protest and picket for justice, which in this case meant an easier exam.

For Kim, watching Matthew struggle–and fail–triggered a complex array of emotions ranging from empathy to her own feelings of failure as a parent, thus complicating an already complicated situation. She wanted to do something to make the situation “right” but struggled to know what that was.  Fortunately, her own conflict consumed her long enough for Matthew to fully digest the experience.  After giving it a great deal of thought, Matthew realized for himself that if he studied differently–and harder–he would be able to pass this exam.  He petitioned for a retake (which has been granted) and he is gearing up to take the exam again.

In her commencement speech at Harvard University in 2008, J.K. Rowling reminded graduates that, “Some failure in life is inevitable.  It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case, you fail by default.”  As you finish this school year and celebrate your children’s accomplishments, we hope that you will at least pause and give a nod to failure, for without it, great success would not be possible.

Open a World of Possible with Engaging Literacy Instruction

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Open a World of Possible is an initiative by Scholastic that celebrates the moments that turned people into readers. Dedicated to helping those moments happen again and again for children so that they grow to love reading and books, this new website by Scholastic features some wonderful resources–quotes, articles, books, and now lessons–that help promote this important goal.

If you scroll down The Open a World of Possible webpage, near the the bottom you will find four, free downloadable powerpoints that we developed for Scholastic in collaboration with Literacyhead. In an effort to make reading instruction both engaging and intriguing, these lessons use both art and children’s literature.

Each time we teach a lesson, we harbor the hope that the book we are using or some part of our conversation will be one of those moments that transform children into readers. The idea of celebrating these moments is exciting to us and makes us proud to contribute to Scholastic’s “Open the World of Possible” initiative. The four lessons we developed are described below.


Lesson 1: A K-2 Read Aloud Lesson











This lesson begins by priming students’ thinking, showing them different pieces of artwork and prompting them to think about the ways in which the artwork illustrates the word “hope.” The lesson continues with a read aloud of Come On Rain by Karen Hesse. Complete with thought provoking questions to ask throughout the read aloud, this lesson also allows teachers to project several key illustrations onto the whiteboard to engage students in close, careful observation and animated discussion. By the end, this lesson comes back around to the idea of hope with more artwork and questions that prompt students to think deeply about the way the hoped-for experience–playing in the rain–changed the characters in the story.


Lesson 2: A K-2 Comprehension Strategy Lesson on Making Predictions


This lesson introduces prediction by showing students a series of three paintings and asking them to practice making reasonable guesses about what might happen next. You can then show students how this skill translates to reading by picking some or all of the four different excerpts from both fiction and nonfiction texts, including Lion’s Lunch, My Name is Yoon, Stone Soup, Who Would Win: Alligator vs. Python. In this lesson, as in all of the lessons, the notes section of the powerpoint provides suggestions and guidance for teacher talk that will keep students thinking and engaged in the lesson.


Lesson 3: An 2nd-4th Grade Academic Vocabulary Lesson on Comparing


This lesson begins by asking students to look at a piece of artwork featuring a green apple and an orange to “compare.” Compare is the focus word and students work to craft their own definition after thinking about the image as well as several sentences that use the word in context. The lesson continues by asking students to use the word “compare” as they discuss how it relates to other images. Throughout the course of the lesson, students gain an in-depth look at the meaning of the word by considering examples, non-examples, and derivatives of the word.


Lesson 4: A 3rd-5th Grade Comprehension Strategy Lesson on Summarizing


Like each of the other three lessons, this lesson begins by having students look at artwork. Students study each of the images and work to synthesize the most important details of the picture to summarize its essence. Students then work to transfer this skill to reading. The Powerpoint provides three text excerpts–a fiction piece from LaRue for Mayor, a fiction selection from The Journey and nonfiction selection from The Ancient Maya–that students can use to practice filtering out the most important details and formulating brief, succinct summaries. At the end of the lesson, students are asked to think about the books they are reading independently and how they might use this skill to help them synthesize what is most important about what they are reading on their own.




Cooking Up Great Instruction

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While we both enjoy puttering around the kitchen, Kim, especially, loves to cook. If you visit her home, you will find an extensive collection of cookbooks.

Cookbooks on shelf


The cookbooks Kim refers to most often, such as her copy of The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, are splattered and stained. The margins are lined with notes about her family’s reactions to dishes as well as notes about revisions–add more onions, leave out the ginger, use a little less garlic– that she wants to remember the next time she uses the recipe.


Cookbook page


Because the authors of her cookbooks can’t actually work alongside her in the kitchen, their recipes and Kim’s marginal annotations become her cooking mentors. Each time she cooks, she consults with them as she works to duplicate her last success or improve on her last attempt at a dish.

In many ways, our teaching resources serve us the same way. As we work to hone our craft, we reach for our dog-eared resources and read and reread the wise words of our mentors,  canvassing for inspiration, guidance, and coaching. While most teaching resources don’t read like a cookbook, there have been times when a cookbook of lessons felt like the very thing we needed:

Students unable to sustain attention during independent reading?

Flip to the section on Reading Engagement.

Students not reading with expression?

Turn to the tab labeled “Teaching Fluency.”

Students skipping all of the hard words in the Social Studies textbook?

Go to “Supporting Comprehension in Nonfiction.”

When we’re crunched for time, we try to work most efficiently. With their intuitive organization, cookbooks help us find what we are looking for quickly and allow us to pick and choose just what we need.

Coming this May, teachers will have just this sort of resource. The Reading Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo  promises to be like our dog-eared, splattered, and stained cookbooks. Organized into thirteen sections that cover a wide-range of reading strategies, Jen’s book is filled with lesson ideas from which to pick and choose. The lesson “recipes” say enough to inspire and guide us but not so much that if we vary the ingredients a bit, we will worry that it will “come out all wrong.”  We imagine that Jen’s new book will become like Kim’s copy of The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook–bookmarked and spotted with notes. However, instead of comments like “Delicious. Make this on Thanksgiving!” and “Took extra ten minutes to cook through,” in the margins of this book, teachers will write instructional notes, such as  “Great lesson. Remember to do this in September!” and  “Only had 15 minutes to practice. Make sure to plan 25 next time!”

The Reading Strategies Book Cover Jennifer Serravallo


Though the title, The Reading Strategies Book, may lead readers to think that they will be learning new ways to help students connect, question, infer, and synthesize, this book aims to extend the definition of “strategies.”  Serravallo defines strategies as “a means to the end,” the processes that help readers become more skilled (p. 8), and with over two hundred lessons, she helps teachers internalize the meaning of this updated definition. This book is very practical and offers the best of Jen’s reading lesson repertoire. Like any great cookbook, The Reading Strategies Book is carefully organized and gives wise direction that will help novice and veteran teachers alike hone their craft whenever they are looking to cook up something great in the classroom.