July 23, 2016

Looking Forward to Seeing You at ILA Boston

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How are you spending your summer?

Over the last couple of weeks we have had the privilege of spending time with teachers so committed to learning and improving their craft  that they spend part of their summer attending regional conferences and optional professional learning provided by their school districts. The energy at these sessions has been contagious, and we are eager to continue to ride this learning high through the ILA conference in Boston on July 8-11. Will you be there? If you see us in the halls or in a session, be sure to say hello or come over and chat about the ways the conference is inspiring you or stretching your thinking.

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You could even join us for a full day of learning on Friday, July 8, when we will be hosting an all-day pre-conference institute titled Who’s Doing the Work? Teaching for Transfer Across Read-Aloud, Shared Reading, Guided Reading and Independent Reading. We are super excited about this day!  We will be joined by educators from all across the United States–Justin Dolcimascolo, JoAnne Duncan, Gravity Goldberg, JulieAnne Harmatz, Kathryn Hoffman-Thompson, Susie Rolander, and Kari Yates–who have collaborated with us to create a dynamite agenda! The morning will begin with a whole group session chock-full of simple suggestions and ideas for adjusting instruction so that students do more of the work and consequently, learn more.  After this whole-group presentation, we will offer three breakout sessions that explore each instructional context across the gradual release of responsibility (read aloud, shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading).  After lunch, Gravity Goldberg will talk with the whole group about helping students reflect on their learning through powerful feedback.  Following a short break, there will be additional breakout sessions on topics such as student empowerment and reading interventions. The day will end with a short conversation about the importance of tripwires and a Q and A forum with all of the day’s presenters. In addition to being thought provoking, this day is going to be fun, fun, FUN!

If you’re unable to join us for our pre-conference institute, we hope that you’ll stop by the Stenhouse booth (#1912) on Saturday, July 9th, where we will be signing copies of Who’s Doing the Work? and Reading Wellness from 11:30-12:00.  We can’t wait to meet you and talk with you!

The Urge to Read Aloud: “This Book Made Me Think of You”

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Like most readers of Slice of Life posts, we read books constantly. Almost every day, one (or both) of us reads something that we just can’t resist reading aloud. Kim just read aloud the text below, from Born for This, to Jan because she knew Jan would be excited about. Jan is particularly moved by stories of people spending their lives doing what they love most:

When I asked hundreds of people who found the work they were “born to do” what paths they took to become the acupuncturist, the civil servant, the teacher, or whatever their current profession is, one theme ran through all their responses: the search took time and effort, and the path had lots of twists and turns, but they all kept working toward it. They believed in the goal, and when they encountered obstacles, they found ways around them. (p.14)

Jan, just read the following excerpt from Think Like a Freak to Kim and to their professional learning network in a Voxer group. It was a reminder to both of them that having “expertise” in literacy means that we are particularly vulnerable to inadvertently confirming our own biases–i.e. experts tend to look for evidence that what they think and believe is “right.”

When asked to name the attributes of someone who is particularly bad at predicting, Tetlock [researcher] needed just one word, “Dogmatism,” he says. That is, an unshakable belief they know something to be true even when they don’t. Tetlock and other scholars who have tracked prominent pundits find that they tend to be “massively overconfident,” in Tetlock’s words, even when their predictions prove stone-cold wrong. That is a lethal combination–cocky plus wrong–especially when a more prudent option exists: simply admit that the future is far less knowable than you think. Unfortunately, this rarely happens. Smart people love to make smart-sounding statements, no matter how wrong they may turn out to be. (p. 25)

We read aloud to our spouses. We read aloud to our children. We read aloud to students. We read aloud in a number of different Voxer chat groups. We call people on the phone and say, “I just had to read you this … .”

We think that the compulsion to share something is less a product of an excellent text (although we think that is important too) and more a product of knowing someone. Jan knows what interests Kim, personally and professionally. Kim knows the same about Jan. Everything we read, we read with an eye/ear/mind for each other, and when we find something that we know the other will find moving/invigorating/inspiring, we feel like a water-diviner who’s fork-shaped stick has locked in on an underground water source.

Reading aloud to someone, for us, says, “This book made me think of you.” And to the listener, it says, “This person has taken the time to really see me.” For both of these, we are always appreciative, for having someone see, having someone read, and having someone listen are all gifts.

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#WhosDoingTheWork : Scaffolding vs. Carrying

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What the Teacher Did!

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Once again, Jan has traveled to paradise to spend a week in south Florida working with Kim. We had decided to focus on deadlines for current writing projects and to take a hiatus from blogging this week. However, Jan’s husband wrote to her early today to tell her what Victor’s (Jan’s eight-year-old son) teacher did, giving us a slice of life post we could not resist writing!

A few months ago, Jan’s husband taught Victor to play the melody of Stand by Me. Many times each day, Victor goes to the piano to play and sing, prompting Jan and her husband to sign him up for piano lessons. Yesterday, Victor met his piano teacher for the first time and took his first lesson.

Apparently, his teacher is a genius! He did all the things we (classroom educators) know children need. He found out what Victor knew and what he was interested in. Then, he connected the lesson to Victor’s interests. The piano teacher taught Victor chords to play with his other hand as he sings Stand by Me. The chords make Victor’s piano playing sound much more sophisticated; they connect to his love for the particular song; they make him instantly successful. The teacher demonstrated that he was responsive to Victor, and that he will follow Victor’s lead.

And then, this morning, something amazing happened. Victor woke early, walked out of his bedroom into the darkness, found the piano, and began to practice. Here is a link to a video. (Forgive the darkness, Jan’s husband was trying to be surreptitious.)

There is little that is more gratifying to a mother than a teacher who takes the time to see, know, and respond to her child’s needs as a learner. We dedicate this post to all of you who so lovingly and responsively take the time to see children and put them before standards’ accountability, instructional maps, and curricular pacing guides. It is amazing to know that so many educators out there are working to engage (rather than “motivate”) children in authentic ways! And it is powerful the responses we get from kids when we follow their lead!


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Short on Words, Big on Conversation: Quick Reads for Sparking Deep Discussions

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Rich conversations support deeper understanding during read aloud, but sometimes time constraints can limit opportunities to discuss stories. We, along with a number of dear colleagues, have been collecting read aloud titles that are short, yet dense enough to support rich conversations.

In collaboration with our Good to Great friends–members of our #G2Great Professional Learning Network PLN*, which was founded around Dr. Mary Howard’s book Good to Great Teaching. The group has compiled a list of some of our favorite short-but-deep read aloud titles. The books on this list are brief enough to read in one sitting, yet engaging enough to invite thoughtful conversation. Each story succinctly offers beautifully integrated print and illustration, giving students much to explore and talk about. Such textual engagement is the cornerstone of our new book, Who’s Doing the Work? and the core of all our work with students and teachers.

Most importantly, Book Source (@thebooksource) has agreed to assemble these titles in one place for us (and for you) and to donate two-percent of purchases of titles on this list. The two percent will be donated to students who live on Native American reservations in Minnesota–many of whom do not have books in their homes or access to a public library–giving them the opportunity to choose books they can keep. In particular, this effort has been designed to support their summer reading. Click the image below to access the list at Booksource and help put books in the hands of Native American students this summer.
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*The “Good to Great” (#G2Great) Voxer Professional Learning Network, which (at the time of this writing) includes Amy Brennan, Trevor Bryan, Jan Burkins, Dani Burtsfield, Rich Czyz, Jill DeRosa, Justin Dolci, Donna Donner, JoAnne Duncan, Lisa Eickholdt, Julieanne Harmatz, Michelle Haseltine, Jenn Hayhurst, Kathryn Hoffman-Thompson, Mary Howard, Jeanne-Marie Mazzaferro, Fran McVeigh, Jessie Miller, Natalie Miller, Cornelius Minor, Joan Moser, Kristi Mraz, Colleen Nizza, Christina Nosek, Erica Pecorale, Meenoo Rami, Susie Rolander, Jennifer Sniadecki, Dan Tricarico, and Kari Yates.

#Who’sDoingTheWork: Core Beliefs Infographic

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Orange-Polka Dotted Umbrella Trees

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When we were together in Florida, we took walks together along a neatly manicured path in Kim’s neighborhood. As we walked, we talked about the trees and flora and wildlife and how different it was from the places we grew up. The flora and fauna of our childhoods were familiar and distinguishable for us. We could easily tell an oak tree from a maple tree and could identify hydrangea bushes from azalea bushes. In Florida, however, the landscape is different and tropical, and neither of us know what anything is called. However, as we walked, Kim–who has lived in Florida for nearly two years now and has grown familiar with the landscape of paradise–narrated our tour.

Royal Poinciana Tree
“This is what I call an orange polka-dotted umbrella tree. Notice how it’s shaped. It’s branches grow in a semi-circle. It provides a wonderful shade and lots of people hang swings on its branches. In the summer, it will be speckled with bright orange flowers. You’ll notice on this tree, its seeds grow in these long, brownish pods. I call those sea pickles because I see them washed up on shore every time I go to the beach.” Kim also pointed out “turduckens” and “tree of life” trees, and each time Kim gave a made-up name to something new, she shared what she has learned through her daily observations of these living things.


We couldn’t help but feel like we were channeling our inner Richard Feynman who, in The Making of a Scientist, discusses how his father taught him to study birds. Feynman’s father explained, “You can know the name of the bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird.” Richard Feynman says that his dad taught him that looking at the bird and seeing what it is doing is what really counts. He goes on to write, “I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”

When it comes to reading, we think the important thing to “know” is that reading is about making meaning. If what you read doesn’t make sense or you’re not seeing how the details connect to communicate the author’s message, what is the point of reading? These days, in education, we want to split hairs over whether students are  “close reading” or “getting the gist.” We have students label strategies and name their learning, which we agree can be helpful. But to us, if students are constructing meaning and making sense of what they read, their labels for their work are secondary.


As always, we are grateful to the Slice of Life family at Two Writing Teachers!

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This We Believe: Some Core Beliefs Behind WHO’S DOING THE WORK

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Helping students become more independent and more proficient as readers and understanding what prompts and inhibits students’ movement along a learning continuum has driven our professional inquiry since the beginning of our careers. In Who’s Doing the Work?, we share what we have learned about optimizing students’ growth through read-aloud, shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading. The work we write about in this book (and model when we work with schools) is deeply connected to some core beliefs that drive our practice, many of which we share below.

1. Reflection and practice are key to improvement.

We picture teaching not as a clearly defined evaluation scale that begins with “ineffective” and ends with “highly effective,” but rather, as a learning continuum that begins at “try something” and moves infinitely in the direction of “reflect and get better.”  Whether we are learning to become better readers, writers, basket weavers, or teachers,  we can always continue to improve, if we pause to think about our actions, are honest and thoughtful about the results of our efforts, and are intentional in revising our approximations when things are in need of improvement.

2. There is more than one “right” way to teach reading.

Our instruction is driven by one primary goal: optimal student learning. While many vehemently defend some practices as “best” and go so far as to label other practices “wrong” or “bad,”  we believe dogma is the enemy of progress. Learning from people who approach literacy instruction differently challenges us to interrogate our own thinking. Drawing from a wide variety of instructional possibilities helps us to consider a learning situation (i.e. students, resources, environment) and employ strategies and approaches that best suit the student and the situation.

3. Reading process is more important than reading level.

Smoothly operating reading processes are a sign of optimal student learning. When children utilize information about the print and meaning in integrated ways, the result is a smoothly operating reading process that yields deep understandings. Different types of reading experiences (i.e. read aloud, shared reading, guided reading, independent reading) provide students opportunities to strengthen different aspects of their reading process. Spending lots of time in each of these instructional contexts contributes to the development of a balanced, integrated reading processes, whereas neglecting instructional contexts creates gaps in students’ reading development.

4. It is important to listen to and observe children.

Optimal student learning is rooted in providing students the instruction that they need most, which is informed by careful listening and observing. Getting quiet enough to listen and observe allows us to understand which aspects of our teaching are–and are not–translating to independence and proficiency. This information guides our instructional planning and helps us to know what to teach and when to teach it.

5. It’s okay if students struggle a bit.

Students are natural problem solvers who enjoy the gratification of figuring things out for themselves. While our empathetic inclinations and our rescuing habits may compel us to jump in each time children encounter difficulty, doing so can rob students of important learning opportunities. Consequently, they can miss out on the confidence that comes from figuring something out. Experiencing some cognitive dissonance is not only good for learners, it is critical to their growth and development. Spending extensive time in frustration level text, however, develops (and can habituate) inefficient reading processes in students.

6. Working through a text’s tricky spots takes time, and students need to be given time to think in order to solve the problems they encounter.

Learning doesn’t abide by our pre-imposed schedules; it happens according to each learner’s individual clock. Giving students time to think sends an important message that we value their needs and believe in their ability to figure things out. When we rescue immediately, we not only rob students of the opportunity to grow, we communicate that we don’t believe in them. Presuming that the text is within a child’s reach, wait time is a vote of confidence.

7. We communicate with both our words and our bodies.

The messages we send students can have a powerful impact on what they believe about themselves as learners. We used to smile and clap a lot when students figured things out, but we’ve adjusted to doing that less. Instead, we try to stay warm but neutral and respond by saying things like, “Is that right? How do you know?” or “What can you try?,” which communicate that we believe they are in control of their learning, have the power to solve problems, and can self-monitor as they read.  

8. Great texts help nurture balanced, integrated reading processes.

Developing the skills and strategies to understand a text is often hard work, which requires wanting to learn to read and understand. Texts that provide new insight or perspective, introduce fascinating topics or ideas, and are filled with engaging illustrations or photographs compel readers to want to understand, which in turn, helps readers to develop integrated reading processes.

9. Always work toward balance.

Whether balancing time spent on read aloud with time spent on guided reading, balancing teacher talk with opportunities for students to talk, or balancing explicit instruction with inquiry, real life in the classroom is about constantly tweaking our instruction in one way or another to ensure that we remain anchored in a middle way.



#WhosDoingTheWork Look For …

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#Who’sDoingTheWork: 4 Ways to Grow Readers

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