November 25, 2015

Giving Thanks

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“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is  ‘Thank You,’ it will be enough.”

                                                                                                                                      ~Meister Eckhart



A few nights ago, while we sat chatting on the phone after busy days of work, Kim said to Jan, “Did I ever tell you how I ended up studying reading?” Curiosity piqued, Jan said, “No. Please tell me.” Kim shared this story:

Shortly after I finished undergrad, I was a finalist for a third grade teaching position in a small town smack dab in the center of New York State.  I really, really wanted this job and was one of three people who had been recommended to meet with the superintendent. The meeting went really well until the superintendent asked me what I thought my greatest weakness was as  a teacher. Of course, having never taught before, I figured I had a lot of weaknesses, but I looked him in the eye and said, “I’m worried that I don’t know how to teach children to read.”

Not surprisingly, Kim did not get that job. However, this moment of truth set her on a path to begin learning what she did not know.  Within a year, she had enrolled in a master’s program in reading at the University of New Hampshire.

Reminiscing about this story reminded us both of our journey as educators and made us think about the many, many people who have lent their expertise in ways that help us to  understand literacy more deeply and influence our practice and thinking. During this season of giving thanks, we would like to pay a small tribute to some of these people by sharing what we  consider to be some of their most inspiring words.


Ellin Oliver Keene (@ellinkeene): “We must propel our teaching forward, from good to great, from effective to artistic.  We must do what may be hardest of all–rethink what we believe is already working.” (p. 57 To Understand)


Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton (@Dorobarn and @VickiVintonTMAP) : “…our ultimate task is to remain teachers of thinking, not conveyors of thoughts.” (p. 66 What Readers Really Do)   


Peter Johnston: “If nothing else, children should leave school with a sense that if they act, and act strategically, they can accomplish their goals.” (p.29 Choice Words)


Nancie Atwell (@NancieAtwell): “Learning is more likely to happen when students like what they are doing. Learning is also more likely when students can be involved and active and when they can learn from and with other students.” (p. 69 In the Middle)


Brenda Power (@brendapower/@choiceliteracy): “The truth is, we do know what we’re doing, and our expertise is hard won.  Yet it’s a gentle touch that wins colleagues and community members over, and a heavy hand that leads to stalemates. In the end, how would you prefer to be remembered–as someone who was always right, or always kind?” (The Big Fresh, 1/3/2009)


Chris Tovani (@ctovani): “Teachers have a choice.  We can choose to cover the curriculum or we can choose to teach students to inquire.  If we choose to cover the curriculum, our students will fail.  If we teach our students to inquire, we will have a well of information from which to teach and our students will have a purpose for learning.  It is our obligation to renew our students’ curiosity and guide them toward inquiry.” (p.93 I Read It, But I Don’t Get It)


Dorothy Barnhouse(@dorobarn): “I can only begin to know what that student is thinking by shifting my attitude from the teacher who is supposed to know to the teacher who is supposed to discover.” (p. 13 Readers Front and Center)


Kylene Beers (@KyleneBeers): “…remember that anyone can struggle given the right text. The struggle isn’t the issue; the issue is what the reader does when the text gets tough.” (p. 15 When Kids Can’t Read What Teachers Can Do)


Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts (@iChrisLehman and @teachkate): “Love brings us in close, leads us to study the details of a thing, and asks us to return again and again.” (p. 2 Falling in Love with Close Reading)


Franki Sibberson and Karen Szymusiak (@FrankiSibberson and @KarenSzymusiak): “If we don’t teach our students to stop before they reread and think about how the second or third reading will be different from the first, they may never find success in rereading.  The power of rereading is in reading differently. (p. 71 Still Learning to Read)


Kelly Gallagher (@KellyGToGo): “Rarely does half-hearted effort produce deep pride.  While it’s true that not everyone can become a star baseball player, we must believe that all our students, give the right motivation, teaching, and reading materials can make meaning from hard text.” (p. 23 Reading Reasons)


Fountas and Pinnell (@fountaspinnell): “You don’t first learn about reading and then read.  You learn how to read as you read.” (p. 43 Guiding Readers and Writers)


Richard Allington: “Our schools create more students who can read than students who do read…Interest in voluntary reading begins to fall in the upper-elementary grades, declines steeply in middle school and continues to fall across high school.  We seem to be producing readers who can read more difficult texts but who elect not to read even easy texts on their own time. (p. 10 What Really Matters for Struggling Readers)


Steven Layne (@StevenLayne): “…if research is being given careful consideration, how are we missing the fact that our aliteracy rate has surpassed our illiteracy rate?…we have more readers who can read and don’t than we do readers who can’t read at all! Yet our focus as a nation remains almost exclusively on reading skills.” (p.8 Igniting a Passion for Reading)


Steph Harvey and Anne Goudvis (@StephHarvey49 and @annegoudvis): “Comprehension instruction is not about teaching strategies for strategies’ sake.  Nor is about making sure that kids “master” the strategies. It is about teaching kids to use strategies purposefully to read any text for any reason, and to generate still more learning.” (p. 33 Strategies that Work)


Sharon Taberski (@staberski): “When I ask children to respond to books, it’s never just to keep them busy.  It’s to push their thinking, help them clarify what they’re reading, and promote their appreciation of books.” (p. 12 On Solid Ground)


Penny Kittle (@pennykittle): “Because knowing the gist is not going to lead students to deeper reading and empathy for people in our world or prepare them for independent reading in college or the workplace.” (p. 4 Book Love)


Jenn Serravallo (@JSerravallo): “Without engagement during reading, this ‘time spent reading’  doesn’t count.” (p.20 Teaching Reading in Small Groups)  


Thomas Newkirk (@Tom_Newkirk): “We need to put away the stopwatches and say in every way possible–This is not a race. Take your time.  Pay attention. Touch the words and tell me how they touch you.” ( p. 197 The Art of Slow Reading)


Tanny McGregor (@TannyMcG): “To promote deep thinking in our classrooms, we must build in time for talk.” (p. 6 Comprehension Connections)


Teri Lesesne (@ProfessorNana): “We need to make time daily for reading so that we can share our passion for books with our students…Kids simply want us to tell them about books they might find interesting.” (p. 38 Making the Match)


Donalyn Miller (@donalynbooks): “Anyone who calls him or herself a reader can tell you that it starts with encountering great books, heartfelt recommendations, and a community of readers who share this passion.” (p. 4 The Book Whisperer)


Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan (@clareandtammy): “Our readers need to know that we are listening, watching, and expecting them to grow, learn, make errors, set goals, and reflect on the entire process.  They need to know that we view learning in a dynamic framework.” (p. 103 Assessment in Perspective)


Mary Howard (@DrMaryHoward): “Effective assessment includes evaluation.  Assessment in the process of gathering information from a wide range of sources; evaluation is the process of placing value on that information.” (p. 45 RTI From All Sides)


Joan Moser and Gail Boushey (@gailandjoan): “The change came when we realized that the reason our students were unable to stay engaged was the fact that we were asking them to do unauthentic activities and had never explicitly taught them how to engage in meaningful reading and writing. (p. 22 The Daily Five)


Marie Clay: “As children search for meaning in print are able to notice new things about words or print or messages, constructively linking these things to other things they know. There are ways of instructing or learning which foster such responses and other ways of instructing or learning which limit opportunities to do these things. (p. 319 Becoming Literate)   


Mem Fox (@therealmemfox): “Children develop language through interaction, not action. They learn to talk by talking to someone who responds. They must therefore learn to write by writing to some who responds.” (p. 22 Radical Reflections)


Ralph Fletcher (@FletcherRalph): You don’t learn to write by going through a series of preset writing exercises.   You learn to write by grappling with a real subject that truly matters to you.” (p. 4 What a Writer Needs)


Lucy Calkins: “We cannot write well if we are afraid to let our individual voice stand out from other voices.” (p. 143 The Art of Teaching Writing)


Katie Wood Ray (@KatieWoodRay): “When students are taught to see how writing is done, this way of seeing opens up to them huge warehouses of possibilities for how to make their writing good writing. (p. 11 Wondrous Words)


Georgia Heard (@GeorgiaHeard1): “Together you need to listen as carefully as you can and trust the integrity of your own voices when it’s time to speak.” (p. 35 For the Good of the Earth and the Sun)


Katherine Bomer (@KatherineBomer): “…we should give the same amount of time, respect, and attitude of inquiry into the mystery of our students’ writing that we would give to a published novel, poem, or feature article.” (p. 135 Hidden Gems)


To all of these people and the many, many others who work tirelessly to promote the great cause of literacy, thank you.

What is Your Banana? Rethinking Common Literacy Practices

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Most of us have peeled a banana the same way for our whole lives, having learned from our parents, who likely peeled bananas from the top. In this video, which has been viewed more than 11 million times, we see a demonstration of the way monkeys actually peel a banana.

So here’s the magic question: Will you peel your next banana the way you always have or will you try it a new way? In the responses below the video, it is interesting to see how strongly people feel about the “right ” way to peel a banana. If peeling a banana invites so much contention and so many emphatic responses, how might we respond to suggestions that we try something new in our literacy practices.

Here are places you might try peeling your literacy banana differently:

  • Teach a guided reading lesson without an introduction to the text. Just give it to the students and ask them what they think the group should do to get started with the reading?
  • Read aloud a book for the sheer joy of the experience, vs. to teach a comprehension strategy or a reading skill.
  • Rather than pre-teach vocabulary, encourage students to notice and name words that they don’t understand.
  • Group kids for small group instruction based on their reading process rather than their level.
  • Encourage children to venture out of their “reading level” and support them in thinking through the experiment.

We are by no means suggesting that these practices are bad or wrong. We are suggesting, however, that it is often worthwhile to interrogate our habits. Many of the suggestions above relate to instructional habits that can limit student agency rather than develop it, so shifting some of them some of the time may nudge students to do more of the work across your literacy instruction.

What instructional banana can you peel differently?

Level Mania: What are we really saying to kids?

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Recently, we wrote a lead for the Choice Literacy newsletter, The Big Fresh, in which we told the story of Daisy, a little girl whose efforts to self-select a text that appeals to her are thwarted by her teacher’s loving, albeit misguided, focus on text level. You can read the Daisy story here. First of all, we sometimes advise students that texts are too hard for them “right now,” and we are not suggesting that all conversations about levels are wrong or bad. We are suggesting, however, that we need to look closely at our language and at the underlying messages the hyper-focus on levels (which seems pervasive these days) may communicate.

Beyond the teacher’s literal statement to Daisy, here are messages Daisy may have been inferring:

  • I think of you as a reader almost exclusively in terms of your level.
  • I trust reading levels absolutely and generally don’t consider the nuances of your reading process, the text, or your motivation to read.
  • While you thought you knew how to select a book for yourself, you really don’t.
  • You are not as good at selecting books for yourself as the others standing in line around you.
  • That confidence you have in yourself is misguided.
  • Don’t get excited about the books you want to read until you check with me.
  • I’m in charge of your “independent” reading.

We suggest, however, that Daisy is exactly the reader we want to see en masse in schools. Think about all that she practices as a reader:

  • She chooses to read books that require her to work hard.
  • She reads for meaning, even when she reads a book that is difficult for her.
  • She knows that her effort in a book should be productive (lead to meaning and ideas).
  • She stops to work on words when she has trouble decoding them.
  • She chunks long, unknown words into more manageable parts.
  • After figuring out an unknown word, she rereads to make sense.
  • She is an avid reader.
  • She is selective in what she reads and has particular tastes in books and authors.
  • She likes to read books with characters that remind her of herself.
  • She knows how to preview the book by looking at the cover and reading a bit.
  • She knows that medals on book jackets mean that other people who have read the book thought it was very good.
  • She is very intentional in her book selection.
  • Once she has chosen a book, she gets very excited about it.
  • When she is excited about a book, she looks forward to telling her teacher about it.
  • She sees herself as a reader.

Daisy’s skill, her interest, her knowledge of books and of herself as a reader all epitomize our goals for students, and could translate into her enjoying an agentive identity as a reader across her lifetime. Daisy’s current independence, interest, and willingness to work hard are the end that we have in mind—the end of the gradual release of responsibility, that is—and should be the natural, independent reading bi-product of thoughtful read aloud, shared reading, and guided reading.

However, while Daisy’s reading enthusiasm and proficiency are our goal for all readers, too often we see, hear about, and read about work in read aloud, shared reading, and guided  reading that does not mirror the work we see Daisy doing during the independent reading experience described in the opening story. Rather than teaching children to preview texts, we take on the introduction. Rather than teaching them to wonder and notice, we ask them text-dependent questions. Rather than allowing students to truly choose books for themselves, we retain control–we confine readers to narrow reading level parameters and place excessive demands for book logs, reading goals, and written reflection. We are not saying that we should never introduce a text, ask text-dependent questions, set reading goals, give students guidelines for selecting texts during independent reading, or assign reading logs. We are saying, however, that it seems that in many classrooms, these practices have reached an extreme, and they are increasingly getting in the way of student independence.

Accompanying all instructional choices are many subtle messages to students. 
Unfortunately, Daisy’s well–meaning teacher is short-sighted and doesn’t recognize the beauty in Daisy’s independent reading choice. Though she cares about Daisy and does not mean to thwart her sense of agency, Ms. Wright is blinded by levels and Daisy’s upward movement through them. Consequently, Ms. Wright’s instruction in read aloud, shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading hinge too much on levels which, too often, actually stands in the way of learning.

Smart is a Fixed Mindset

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“If you knew how much work went into it,

you wouldn’t call it genius.”

Michelangelo in reference to the Sistine Chapel.


Conversations about mindset often begin with talk about whether a belief or idea reflects a “fixed” or “growth” mindset.  For those not familiar with this lingo, when we have a fixed mindset, we are likely to say things like, “This looks hard, I must be dumb,” or “I’ve never been good at math; there’s no need for me to even try.”

When we have a growth mindset, on the other hand,  we are more likely to respond to challenges with thoughts like, “This looks hard, but I can figure it out,” or “If I practice math problems like this they will get easier and easier.”  With a growth mindset, we tend to give ourselves room to “grow” into the things that don’t quite “fit” us yet.

In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2007), Carol Dweck describes a fascinating study in which she discovered that children who were told they did well on a test because they were smart were less likely to volunteer to take home extra practice problems, were more likely to shy away from taking a harder test in the future even though it promised to teach them something new, and were more likely to lie about their scores on the test even though they did well! In contrast, the children who were told they did well because they “worked hard” were more likely to volunteer to take the harder test and to take home extra practice problems!

The idea that discussions about innate intelligence inhibit a growth mindset is absolutely central to shifting the way students think about themselves as learners.  When we begin to talk with students about mindset, however, children don’t immediately grasp the smart/fixed paradox.  They sometimes default to the idea that, if saying or thinking “I’m dumb” is a fixed mindset, then thinking its opposite–“I’m smart”–must be a growth mindset. While we want children to have positive self-esteem, the belief that success and achievement are attributable to being  “smart” can be as debilitating as attributing difficulty to being “dumb.”

For us, mindset is an important teaching and learning conversation because of its potential to affect student achievement. It goes without saying that self-talk such as, “This is hard. I’m dumb.  I can’t do this,” stands in the way of children’s learning.  When students talk like this, we want to help them see themselves differently.

In chapter 2 of Reading Wellness, we include The Leaning In/Leaning Out lesson, which introduces students to mindset by helping them think about the things they do and don’t like–the things they literally lean into or lean away from. Then, children participate in read alouds or shared reading from literature about characters who “lean in or lean out” to different things in their lives. Books such as Ish by Peter Reynolds, Salt in His Shoes by Deloris Jordan, That Book Woman by Heather Hensen. These books help us to make the point that, much more than ability, productive effort and practice influence how well a person can do something, not ability.  

This idea bears repeating! Much more than ability, productive effort and practice influence how well a person can do something.


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.

Screen shot 2013-09-09 at 5.58.11 PM

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.

Poetry Friday: Renga with Friends, Take 2

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Image from Wikipedia Commons

Once again, Steve Peterson (Inside the Dog), Mary Lee Hahn (A Year of Reading), and I wrote a renga together.

As I described this summer, I found our first experience writing a renga together challenging because the form is so tenuous and you don’t have that “aaahhh” feeling that comes when the elements of the form click into place. With much encouragement from my writing partners, this round I leaned in and decided not to think so hard. As Mary Lee said, “It is better to rely on your right brain than your left with this exercise” (or something like that).

Consequently, I found the process much more enjoyable. I succeeded in not needing to feel successful, which I guess made me feel successful.

Here are the things I’m enjoying about the process:

  • The email notices and messages when one of us hands the poem off to the other
  • Thinking about what the person before or after me may have been experiencing when he/she wrote
  • The regularity of taking a moment to stop and reflect on whatever is going on in my life and then write just a little bit about it
  • The just-enough pressure to keep the process rolling
  • The phone conference at the end of the poem where we talk about our process and share our favorite parts of the poem
  • Feeling that Mary Lee and Steve and I have become friends beyond poems

Incidentally, my favorite stanzas on this renga are the last three, one from each of us.

Steve has also written a about our second collaborative process, and so has Mary Lee.

And here is the poem:

as the hummingbird sips the nectar

round moon not yet full
finds my cracker–full ‘til bitten
life full with roundness

sharp as a wheel of cheddar
smooth and creamy as brie

under the gnarled oak
an old couple tosses
dry crusts to the pigeons

we become what we take in
fresh foods, sour moods, vast ideas

mountain peaks tower
above the endless plains
full — sharp — old — vast — inspiring

toward evening, golden sunlight
settled on her wrinkled face

inside she’s a girl
surprised by her reflection
in her dreams she runs

river carries silt downstream
building up the new island

sweet alchemy —
orchard apples filled
by the light of a star

loose tooth lost with first bite
red orb of bittersweet

cold front passes through
scrubs away humidity
wren sings from the fence

once, he learned to see rainbows
in the oil on a street puddle

a skill important
for grownups who are often
too busy measuring

too concerned with to-do to
barter duty for beauty

You can find more poetry at Poetry for Children.

Using Reading Wellness to Build Classroom Community: An Instructional Path

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The allure of a fresh start makes back-to-school one of our favorite times of the year. With new students comes new perspectives and new ideas that infuse energy into our teaching. Recently, we have found ourselves thinking a lot about what it takes to create a classroom culture that supports teaching and learning, and much of the work of building classroom community happens in the first few weeks of school. In Choice Words, Peter Johnston (Stenhouse, 2004) talks about one student finding a book and thinking of another student who would really like it. Connections such as these are our goal for classroom community, as classrooms become places where students know each other well and support the joyful learning of their classmates. We encounter similar experiences when teachers use the “Heart, Head, Hands and Feet” (HHHF) graphic organizer to let students share what they love at the beginning of the school year.


In one first-grade classroom, after completing their HHHF graphic organizers, Junior went to a circus. He returned to school eager to tell to Mikele, who wants to be a gymnast, that she “should read about trapeze flyers because they are like gymnasts.” Junior was not only thinking about what he loved and what he wanted to spend his life doing, but also about Mikele (and all his other classmates). In fact, finding books for friends to help them read and learn about their interests becomes part of the classroom culture when we nurture “reading wellness.”

While we think it is still important for students to engage in traditional community building activities, such as bringing in pictures of family and drawing self-portraits, we find that the best way for students of any age to build community and become connected to each other is to do substantive work together. The six lessons in Reading Wellness, spread across the early weeks of a school year, can bind students together in powerful ways. For those of you who are interested in teaching the Reading Wellness lessons at the beginning of the year this year to establish a reading and writing community, we have sketched out the following five-week lesson map (below).

Instructional Path

Instructional Path Page 2


You can download your own copy of this guide by clicking on this link: An Instructional Guide for Beginning School Year with Reading Wellness

Best wishes for a wonderful new school year!

*Note: Booksource has been working with us to curate great picture book biographies to support HHHF lessons.  Be sure to check out the full list here. 

Six Ways to Start the School Year: Back-to-School Stories from Great Books

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We love stories of children learning to read and write. While most of these accounts come from the teachers with whom we work and the professional books we read, we especially love when we find reading and writing stories in texts that aren’t specifically related to education.  Here are a few favorites to enjoy as you are beginning (or getting ready to begin) a new school year. Each one offers an instructional “moral to the story” that gives insight for how to go back-to-school this year.


  1. Start the school year letting students tell you about their identities as readers.

To Kill a Mockingbird


In chapter 2 of To Kill a Mockingbird–a classic text, which many of us are rereading given the recent release of Go Set a Watchman–Scout begins first grade and meets Miss Caroline who “accuses” her of being taught to learn to read at home and tells her to tell her father to stop teaching her lest it “interfere with her reading.” Scout is appalled by Miss Caroline’s suggestion that her father “taught” her anything and begins to think back on how she began to read.  To add further insult to injury, Miss Caroline also discovers that Scout can write–in cursive–a skill that she learned from her housekeeper, Calpurnia.  Scout quickly learns from Miss Caroline that “we don’t write in first grade, we print. You won’t learn to write until you’re in the third grade.”


Unlike Miss Caroline, the best teachers adapt their instruction to the needs of students and, as much as possible, start where the students are, rather than where the curriculum is. Start this school year listening and talking to students, gathering formative assessment data about their interests and their needs, and figuring out how to let the curriculum serve them.


  1. Start the school year with books that make kids want to read.

Mama Makes Up her mind


Bailey White, who was a first-grade teacher for decades, also writes about the various methods she used to try to teach children to read. In Mama Makes Up Her Mind and Other Dangers of Southern Living, she begins by describing the “word-list method” where children work to learn words in isolation and when they know ten to twelve words, they read books that use just these words. She explains that this method led to some “dreary stories” that made it hard to hold children’s interest. Next she talks about the “cute-idea” method which displayed contractions and beginning consonant sounds on parts of cut-paper animals and left her room “strewn with dismembered teddy bears and starving dogs whose bowls were permanently lost.”


In search of a better way, she stumbled upon the “maritime disaster method,” which involves helping students discover “that written words can tell them something absolutely horrible.” Bailey White describes kids falling over each other to get at the stories she read aloud about the Titanic; and not the simpler stuff she rewrote so that they’d be able to read it. Her students wanted the actual words that told the stories she introduced in read aloud.


We agree with Bailey White; stories that describe amazing, fascinating, even horrible things can motivate young children to want to read, particularly when shared through read aloud. What riveting, moving, or spine tingling stories will you share with your students to show them the power of reading? Start the school year with a commitment to abandon “dreary stories” and to surround children with stories they can’t resist.


  1. Start the school year reading aloud.


The Hired Girl

Read aloud is receiving renewed attention, and rightly so! The most compelling reason we know for reading aloud to students is that it makes them want to learn to read for themselves. In The Hired Girl by Newbery Medal winning author Laura Amy Schlitz, we are introduced to Joan, the main character, who remembers her first day of school. Joan tells of how her teacher leaves the upper grade children in the care of an older student and gathers the primary students under a tree to read aloud Thumbelina. This is the first time that Joan has ever been read to and her encounter with the story is mesmerizing and magical. All she wants is for her teacher to “…read it over, read it over!” This experience is so powerful, Joan proclaims that, “I became a scholar that day” and begins learning to read in earnest (and “quickly”) reminding us that something as simple and beloved as reading aloud has the power to leave a child begging to work to claim the experience for themselves and to bathe in the beauty of words.


  1. Start the school year questioning your most closely held beliefs.

For one more day

While we wish that all accounts were as inspiring as Joan’s, unfortunately, some stories sober us and remind us that we adults can inadvertently discourage an eager child.  In Mitch Albom’s For One More Day, nine year old Charley goes to the library and wants to check out 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  Told by the librarian that the book is “too hard,” he opts for a picture book about a monkey instead.  When his mother sees his choice, she questions why he has selected that book again and Charley reveals that the librarian wouldn’t let him take the one he wanted.  Indignant, Charley’s mom marches into the library and demands that the librarian hand over the book Charley really wanted and demands, “Don’t you ever tell a child something’s too hard…And never–NEVER–this child.”


Has what started as a well-intended attempt to match books to readers gone too far? We think Charley’s mom thinks so and her message is humbling.  We all need to be thinking more about what we are saying to students when we micromanage their book choices. While there are some impracticalities with young children “reading” 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the narrow text-level choices to which too many children are confined these days are enough to make any kid disheartened about reading. Why not start the school year with an expanded definition of “Just Right” Books?


  1. Start the school year living your precepts.


In Wonder by R.J. Palacio, Auggie’s (the main character) teacher, Mr. Browne, starts the school year by introducing students to the word precepts–”RULES ABOUT REALLY IMPORTANT THINGS!” After exploring the term thoroughly with the students, they begin brainstorming areas of their lives where precepts apply, such as schoolwork, family, parents, the environment, etc. Mr. Brown explains, “‘Who we are,’ he said, underlining each word as he said it. ‘Who we are! Us! Right? What kind of people are we? What kind of person are you? Isn’t that the most important thing of all? Isn’t that the kind of question we should be asking ourselves all the time? What kind of person am I?’” Mr. Browne offers the class his first precept to start the year, “WHEN GIVEN THE CHOICE BETWEEN BEING RIGHT OR BEING KIND, CHOOSE KIND.” He goes on to explain that, at the beginning of each month, he will give the students a new precept and they will explore it the whole month. Then, at the end of the month, they will write an essay about the precept. After more conversations about precepts, Mr. Browne says, “So, everybody relax a bit while I take attendance, and then when we’re finished with that, I’ll start telling you about all the fun stuff we’re doing to be doing this year–in English.”


We love Mr. Browne for the way he starts with his big goals for students and thinks beyond the curriculum. In most schools, the mission statement includes a piece about students becoming “lifelong learners.” Yet, too often, the work we do towards short-term goals, such as scores on tests, interfere with this larger intention. This year, readjust your focus on lifelong learning and commit yourself to holding tight to it. Your inner teacher will thank you!


  1. Start the school year with appreciation.


In Loser by Jerry Spinelli, Mrs. Meeks begins the first day of first grade talking to students about their graduation from high school. She explains that they will be driving cars and taking jobs and ready to take their place in the world. She writes 180 on the board to represents the number of days in first-grade, and then she multiplies by 12 to calculate the 2160 days they will be in school. She explains, “Two thousand one hundred sixty. The days of your journey. That is how long your adventure will last. Everyone of those days will be an opportunity to learn something new. Just imagine how much you can learn in two thousand one hundred and sixty days.”


Finally, Mrs. Meeks pulls a conductor’s cap and a train whistle out of her desk drawer, blows the whistle, and says, “All aboard the Learning Train! First stop Writing My Own Name! Who’s coming aboard?” Then, “Twenty six hands shoot into the air.”

We wish you much joy as your Learning Train leaves the station this year. May we all remember that learning and teaching are privileges to be appreciated and celebrated.