December 19, 2014

Meet Your Inner Teacher: The Four Intentions

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If you were to draw your inner teacher, what would he/she look like? How does he/she feel? Excited? Nervous? Overwhelmed? In reading the work of Martha Beck–which encourages us to pay close attention to our emotions because they are our inner compass–we’ve discovered that our inner teacher’s emotions can serve as our teaching compass. After teaching, thinking, feeling, writing, reflecting–lather, rinse, repeat–we’ve learned to trust our inner teacher, and to understand that, when she is lethargic or angry we need to adjust something in our practice or our thinking, or even both. As we have explored the connection between our energy, our effectiveness, and our teaching, we have arrived at a four big principles that help our teaching compass stay on true north. We call these four guiding tenets “The Four Intentions” and, if we are mindful of them, our inner teacher feels like this:


We use these intentions to plan lessons, purposefully considering each tenet as we design instruction. We also use them to reflect on lessons we teach. These intentions have become the framework for all our thinking about instruction, even about education in general. Here is an explanation for each intention, and questions you can ask yourself to reflect on how well a particular lesson or some other work addresses “The Four Intentions.”

Intention 1: Alignment (with our inner teacher)

In these days of aligning curricula, instruction, and language with performance standards, we offer, instead, as our primary teaching intention alignment with our highest purpose for teaching–that is, a focus on lifelong learning. This includes a reconnection with our original visions for our teaching selves and a reawakening of our loftiest visions for students as learners. Staying true to the alignment intention means keeping our sights set on our long-term outcomes and the ways in which our instructional decisions can affect who children will grow up to become. The alignment intention is all about recognizing and action on our agency as teachers, and using this agency to empower students. To evaluate your work against the alignment intention, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does my inner teacher, my highest teaching self, feel safe (even happy) with this instructional choice? How do I know?
  • How does this work/decision/lesson  show students their power as learners?
  • Am I excited about this work/lesson? Why?

Intention 2: Balance

We intend to balance the aforementioned alignment to our inner teacher with our immediate instructional goals, whether state directives around the Common Core State Standards or district expectations that we must use certain curricula. We must attend to accountability demands intentionally, but we want to do so without losing sight of our best selves as educators or of who we want students to grow to become. To evaluate your work against the balance intention, ask yourself the following question:

  • How well does this work/lesson help students meet the expectations others place on them? How do I know?
  • How does this lesson/work accentuate the aspects of accountability and standardization that are most closely connected to what my inner teacher holds most important?
  • How does this lesson/work marry the goals of my inner teacher, the immediate considerations of accountability, and checks against my own biases?

Intention 3: Sustainability

Classroom time restraints demand that we teach lessons that serve purposes beyond the immediate work. Sustainable lessons are those that teach processes, strategies, or routines that support learning in other contexts. We acknowledge that, ultimately, practices that support reading wellness must be self-sustaining, even habituated. Sustainable lessons/work are not an end in themselves, but rather pathways for establishing new ways of being, knowing, and doing that can serve students within our classroom communities, and even for a lifetime. To evaluate lessons/work against the sustainability intention, consider the following questions:

  • How does the core of this lesson/work make future learning/work easier, better, and deeper?
  • How does this lesson/work make it easier for us, as a classroom community, to talk about our work?
  • How will habituating what they are practicing in this lesson make students more “well” as learners?

Intention 4: Joy

Most importantly, we intend toward joyful instruction and joyful learning in classrooms all the time! We actively search for sources of joy, and work to extend and perpetuate them. We are not referring to “fun” lessons or “cute” activities, although joyful learning is usually fun and may well lead to inspired (and even inspiring) and innovative student work. Joy in this context refers to the moments you and your students are engaged in work that matters to you, that holds the potential for propelling lifelong learning habits, and that results in growth both toward accountability standards and toward and agentive life of learning. To evaluate lessons against the joy intention, consider the following questions:

  • What makes this lesson/work memorable?
  • How does this lesson/work fill my students and/or me with energy, awe, and inspiration?
  • How does this lesson/work perpetuate a love of learning?

To learn more about the Four Intentions, you can find a thorough explanation, as well as six lessons written with these intentions, in Reading Wellness. Or, you can follow reading teacher bloggers who are practicing these intentions regularly and writing about it, such as Steve Peterson, Julianne Harmatz, Mary Lee Hahn and Franki Sibberson.

How do you stay in touch with your inner teacher?

They Grew Up Reading and Writing: Using Picture Book Biographies to Help Children Imagine Big Things for the Future

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In our recent post Sending Children Off to do “Big Things,” we talked about how we are fueled by idealistic notions of helping children grow to become the kind of people who grow up to go off and do “big things.”  For example, we enjoy sharing with children Balloons over Broadway, a book about Tony Sarg–who loved puppets and figuring out how things worked when he was a child and grew up to create balloons for the Macy’s Day Parade–because it shows children how their current passions can fuel a lifetime of exploration, and even provide their livelihood.

We want students to see how passion (heart), mindset (head), and effort (hands and feet) can work together to help someone grow up to do something he/she loves, which can be powerful when helping children imagine possibilities for their own futures. While many biographies lend themselves to the lens of heart, head, hands and feet, we especially love books that demonstrate how reading and writing played a particularly important role on the path to success. The following is a list of some of our favorite biographies of people who used reading and writing as a means to living their dreams:



Fifty Cents and a Dream by Jabari Asim

Booker T. Washington grew up to become a scholar, author, and speaker during a period of American history when African Americans were faced with almost insurmountable challenges and inequalities. How did Booker T. rise above these challenges?

As a teenager, he heard talk of a wonderful school called Hampton Institute.  Negroes could study writing there, along with farming, science, and many other things–and they could read all the books they wanted.  Booker listened and dreamed.

Fifty Cents and a Dream illuminates how hard work and persistence, particularly in learning to read and write, helped Booker T. Washington eventually accomplish what most others would have thought impossible.


Manfish Story of Jacques Cousteau

Manfish: The Story of Jacques Cousteau by Jennifer Berne

How did Jacques Cousteau grow up to define and redefine the potential of underwater exploration? The seed was planted by something he read in a book as a young child.

One day Jacques read a story about a man who hid underwater by breathing through a long tube. Jacques tried it and discovered it was impossible.  He dreamed that someday he would be able to breathe underwater for real.

Manfish: The Story of Jacques Cousteau goes on to explain that Jacques, “wrote little books that he illustrated with his own drawings” further helping children see how the reading and writing that one does as a child can prime the paths that their futures may eventually follow.


Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People by Monica Brown

 In 1971, Pablo Neruda grew up to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.  How does a man from a little known town in Chile grow up to accomplish such notoriety?

From the moment he could talk, Naftali (Pablo Neruda) surrounded himself with words that whirled and swirled, just like the river that ran near his home in Chile.

A very special teacher named Gabriela Mistral gave him wonderful books from faraway places, and Neftali decided he wanted to be a writer too.

In this colorfully and beautifully illustrated story of Pablo Neruda’s life, Monica Brown shows children how a person’s childhood passions and interests can parlay into later career paths that lead to great success.


The Right Word

The Right Word by Jennifer Bryant and Melissa Sweet

In 1779 when Peter Mark Roget was born, there wasn’t a resource that one could go to find just the right word when it was needed.  However, even as a young child, Roget knew that words mattered and that they served him when he most needed them:

Peter’s family moved often, so making friends was difficult. But books, Peter discovered, were also good friends.  There were always plenty of them around, and he never had to leave them behind.

This beau-ti-ful book by Jennifer Bryant and Melissa Sweet emphasizes the important role that reading and writing played in Roget’s young life and brilliantly illustrates how Roget’s investigations as a child led to the creation of the “treasure house” of words now known as  Roget’s Thesaurus.



Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell

Mention Jane Goodall and people almost instantly conjure up images of a woman reaching her hand out to a baby gorilla.  But how did a woman from rural England grow up to become the world’s most famous primatologist? In his surprisingly simple, yet beautiful book, Me…Jane, Patrick McDonnell makes a strong case that Jane’s actions as a child, particularly the things she read about in books, led to her important work in Africa:

Jane learned all that she could about the animals and plants she studied in her backyard and read about in books.

With the wind in her hair, she read and reread the books about Tarzan of the Apes, in which another girl, also named Jane, lived in the jungles of Africa.

Closing Thoughts

Inspiring children to imagine great things for their futures feels like some of the most important work we do as teachers and exploring picture book biographies of admirable and successful people really makes this work feel easier.  We are always on the lookout for great picture book biographies, particularly those that illuminate the importance of reading and writing. If you know of other biographies that belong on this list, please share them in the comments!  To read more about “heart, head, hands and feet” explorations, see chapter one of Reading Wellness, available for free preview at the Stenhouse website.

The Whole is Greater Than The Sum of the Parts: Creating Synergy at NCTE 2014

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Oh, sweet Washington, DC.  That was a great conference.

While the sessions and the learning were inspiring, most inspiring of all were the connections.

NCTE Vicki's Workshop Crew


On Friday, To Make a Prairie blogger and co-author of What Readers Really Do, Vicki Vinton, gathered together some of our favorite teachers/thinkers/fellow bloggers to present a session titled It’s Not Just for The Kids: Stories of What Can Happen When Teachers Embrace Curiosity, Openness, Creativity, and Wonder in the Teaching of Reading.  This was hands-down our favorite session not only because it was a privilege to listen to the stories of teaching and learning told by such gifted and dedicated teachers, but also because the way it exemplified synergy was sublime.  Stephen Covey says that “if you put two pieces of wood together, they will hold much more than the total of the weight held by each separately.  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” We are all better when we come together to learn and this session was a humbling reminder of this important point.  If you don’t know the blogs written by Steve Peterson, Fran McVeigh, Julianne Harmatz, and Mary Lee Hahn, and of course, Vicki Vinton, you should.  These are outstanding thinkers!

NCTE 14 drinks with friends

The synergy continued on Friday night with AMAZING impromptu, one-on-one conversations with other bloggers, authors, and educators in the lounge at the Aloft Hotel.  We honestly find these conversations as stimulating (if not more so) than planned conference sessions. We are so grateful to our community and feel honored to have had the chance to meet so many of you!

NCTE Chris Lehman and Carol

As is the case with all busy conferences, we weren’t able to “synergize” as much as we would have liked with everyone, however, we are grateful to our friend Chris Lehman for organizing a professional book exchange.  We’re as excited to read the notes in the margins of the books we took home as we are to read the books themselves!

NCTE Picture With Barry Lane

And in the spirit of saving the best for last, a very special thank you to Barry Lane who happened by the Stenhouse booth while we were signing copies of Reading Wellness. His songs and jokes and joie de vivre reminded us that learning feels best when complemented with heaping piles of joy!



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