August 31, 2015

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

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

To Kill a Mockingbird
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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.

Poetry Friday–Renga with Friends

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In the Corn Field, Lars Plougmann (Wikipedia Commons)

A few weeks ago, Steve Peterson approached Mary Lee Hahn and me (Jan) to see if we would participate in a collaborative poetry writing experience. After some research, he had selected the form, a renga, which he describes in this companion post on his lovely blog, Inside the Dog.

After we finished the poem, we spent about an hour in a conference call reflecting on the experience and decided to simultaneously blog about our collaboration, with each of us writing about it from a different perspective. For me, I found the form really stretched me. Because each stanza of the renga is based solely on the previous stanza, not necessarily on any central theme, the poem morphs as it progresses, making it hard to nail down.

My type A personality really struggled with working with a form that didn’t work in the ways I traditionally think of poetry working. I found myself really struggling with my need to get things “right.” We have pretty different background experiences (I know little about prairies!), and our writing styles are also pretty different. I found myself feeling like I was doing it “wrong.” As we began the process, each time it was my turn to add to the poem, I emailed Steve and Mary Lee to hand it off and would send along messages that communicated my wobbliness and insecurity. At one point, Mary Lee said, “What has happened to your growth mindset?”

So, I let go and relaxed. I began to truly trust the form, the process, and my collaborators. The final product is included below. You will notice its serpentine nature and the way clusters of stanzas fit together. The stanzas serve as a path through the poem; when you get to the other side, you are, of course, not where you started.

In the end, we found it interesting that particular lines in the poem drew different visual images for each of us. For example, while we each have different church experiences, the “peace be with wheat” section drew distinctive, strong images for each of us. We found this reader’s response aspect of our shared experience powerful and fascinating, and Mary Lee explores it much more in her blog about our collaboration at A Year of Reading.

Here’s our collaborative renga:


in the prairie dawn

a spider’s web snares the sun  —

cricket rejoices

meadowlark joins the chorus

breeze bends ripening wheat heads

whose lanky bodies

bow, sun’s church–peace be with wheat

and also with corn

they gather on folding chairs,

jello melts while the preacher prays

white-robed acolytes

shoulders shaking with giggles

two clouds hide the sun

even the adolescent stalks are sober today

word of fire in the neighboring field

this dark sky —

thunderheads poke fingers

at a thirsty land

near the abandoned homestead

ditch lilies toss flaming heads

who called this place home

does the ground remember

stories brought to earth

a faded calendar tacked

to the wall above the stove

try to imagine

the layers of memories

beneath the dust

how much memory is imagination

how much dust is history

sun slants through wavy glass

in the stale air

motes rise to dance

down the road, far down the road

reverberations can be felt

Margaret has the Poetry Friday Roundup today at Reflections on the Teche.


Setting the Course for the Future: The Power of Words

A River of Words
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No time to read? Listen to today’s post while you do something else!


Kate McCue, who we met in West Palm Beach’s Sun Sentinel on July 14,  is a 37 year old woman from San Francisco who was recently appointed captain of the Summit, a Celebrity Cruise megaship.

When asked how she became interested in ship navigation, Kate explains that her family took a cruise vacation when she was 12, which made her think she might like to grow up to be “the person who plans all the fun events on board.” At the impressionable age of 12, Kate shared this thought with her father who responded with, “But you can also drive the ship if you want.”

Kate credits her father’s words with helping her envision the possibility of captaining a ship, and with influencing the choices that led her to become a captain in a predominantly male industry at the very young age of 37. Kate’s story–shaped by her father’s words–makes us think a lot about the power of words and how they can influence children throughout their lives.

We have written a few times about Heart, Head, Hands and Feet  (HHHF), a lesson from Reading Wellness that explores the lives of people who discovered as children what they loved to do and pursued their passions throughout their lives, making amazing contributions to humanity as a result. We find these passionate people in picture books and articles, such as the aforementioned story of Kate McCue.

In fact, we have a growing list of about 50 picture book biographies that begin when the subject–such as Frida Kahlo, Albert Einstein, and Jacques Cousteau–was just a child and filled with curiosity that he/she followed through a lifetime. Picture book biographies are a great vehicle for empowering children to imagine great futures for themselves, as they describe the lives of everyday yet extraordinary people.

Here are a few Heart, Head, Hands and Feet biographies that illustrate the ways, like Kate McCue’s father, the words we share with children can shape their entire lives:

In Me…Jane, we discover how Edgar Rice Burrough’s words in Tarzan of the Apes  help Jane Goodall imagine living amongst gorillas in Africa.


In A River of Words, we hear how William Carlos Williams grew up hearing his mother talk about him to their neighbors: “My Willie has sharp eyes–he notices everything.” “My boy is a good writer.”

A River of Words

In Boys of Steel Creators of Superman we learn how the words of authors such as Philip Francis Nolan and Alex Raymond ignited Jerry Siegel’s imagination. (It’s a good thing their words resonated louder than his teacher’s who called his earliest tales “trash.”)

Boys of Steel

We will be at ILA this weekend sharing many, many Heart, Head, Hands and Feet biographies, a graphic organizer for using them with children, and classroom stories about children who are reading and writing to explore their passions. Our session titled Literacy Changed Their Lives: Teaching Reading and Writing With Picture Book Biographies is on Sunday at 11:00 AM (America’s Center St. Louis, 103). Booksource has generously donated a copy of many of the picture books for us to give away during this session, so we hope that you’ll join us, if you are in St. Louis!


What is College and Career Readiness Anyway?

Oprah Little Speaker Book Cover
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In this hilarious video, George Costanza–who has just quit his job–talks about what he enjoys and the related jobs he would like to pursue. He finally decides that he should be a talk show host, and wonders how to do that.



Of course, becoming a talk show host as an adult would be much harder than working towards it your whole life, as Oprah did.


Oprah Little Speaker Book Cover


In Oprah, The Little Speaker, Carole Boston Weatherford describes Oprah’s life as a young girl and the ways she began preparing for her later life by speaking publicly in her church, which placed her in much better stead for becoming a talk show host than George Costanza!

In Reading Wellness, we argue that developing “college and career readiness” should include helping students discover the things they love to do and the careers that will give them opportunities to spend their time practicing their passions. We describe the “Heart, Head, Hands, and Feet Lesson (HHHF),” in which we read picture book biographies about people who began pursuing their interests as children and went on to make tremendous contributions to the world by continuing to explore these passions. Using the HHHF graphic organizer, we closely read and breakdown these biographies and then let students complete individual HHHF graphic organizers. Click here for a link to the lesson and the graphic organizer. Also, you can access our growing list of HHHF books in this Google document.

 Heart Head Hands and Feet graphic organizer


 To make our list, a HHHF biography has to meet the following criteria:

  • It has to begin in the subject’s childhood.
  • It has to describe the childhood passions and interests of the subject.
  • It has to connect the childhood interests to the subject’s work/life as an adult.
  • It has to be a picture book, because we read these in one sitting (even in middle and high school).
  • It has to be beautifully written and illustrated.


With the help of Booksource, we’ve been working to include more girls in our collection of titles. In addition to the aforementioned picture book about Oprah, here are a few of our new favorite titles about girls who changed (or are changing) the world.
Little Melba and Her Big Trombone

Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown

Melba Loretta Liston fell in love with jazz as a young child and taught herself to play the trombone at seven. Her talent, drive, and passion brought her opportunities to play with jazz greats all over the world, as she took on race and gender barriers of the 1940s.


Touch the Sky Alice Coachman


Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper by Ann Malaspina

The first African-American to win an Olympic gold medal, Alice Coachman began jumping as a young child and didn’t stop until she won the Olympics. This story of energy, passion, and persistence powerfully illustrates what can happen when we help children pursue what they love.

Who Says Women Can't Be Doctors


Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell

From the time she was a young girl, Elizabeth Blackwell wanted to be a doctor, but in the 1930s there were none. Nonetheless, she relentlessly pushed through barriers that prevented women from studying medicine and became the first woman doctor.


This month, we are sharing the HHHF lesson and LOTS of HHHF biographies at the NCTE WLU Literacies for All Conference in Atlanta and at ILA. BookSource and the publishers they represent have graciously provided us with many HHHF biographies to give away. Please join us as we redefine “college and career readiness” and give you tools that will inspire students to read and write as a path towards spending their lives doing the things they love. We would love to connect with you in Atlanta and St. Louis!




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

Cookbooks on shelf
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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.

Staying the Course During Testing Season

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On today’s blog, we reintroduce you to our friends and colleagues from North Carolina, Hope Reagan and Alice Oakley.  Testing is a hot-bed topic in education and in this post, they share some of their thoughts and observations about test preparation as well as some insight about staying the course during this hectic time. 

‘Tis the season of testing and with this season comes a real pet peeve of ours. This pet peeve being schools who choose to essentially shut down instruction to start the heavy duty test preparation work, months before the actual test date. Seemingly, they move into panic mode. It has been our experience when panic mode sets in, the game plan for what is best for children can be misplaced. This kind of work can be disguised with fancy names such as strategy groups, data clusters or Links, as in linking what you know with how to take a test. Beware.


According to many people, teaching to the test is as unavoidable and those who opt not to succumb to the pressure will reap harsh consequences under tough accountability systems.

We worry when we hear such stories as the principal who turned up the dial on his staff to start test preparation as early as three months before the test and a brave teacher spoke up challenged this idea, “Wouldn’t it make sense to just keep teaching in a purposeful and meaningful way like we do everyday in our classrooms?” he suggested.

We are thankful for teachers who teach this way and think this way.

In stark contrast we celebrate when we hear about a principal who told her entire staff if she saw test preparation in the form of item testing before two weeks of the actual end of grade test, she would put them on an action plan. She explained that the practice was unethical and “curriculum teaching” should continue in classrooms to prepare students for the EOG not “item teaching”. She also compared it to fool’s gold – you don’t actual have what you think you have.

We are thankful for principals like this.


What is wrong with teaching to the test?


There are different ways of thinking about “teaching to the test”.  We really like the way assessment expert W. James Popham helps to clarify the difference. He defines two kinds of assessment-aware instruction: “curriculum teaching” and “item-teaching.”4 Curriculum teachers focus on the full body of knowledge and skills represented by test questions even though tests can employ only a sample of questions to assess students’ knowledge about a topic.


For example, if students will be tested on author’s purpose in reading, curriculum teachers will set students up to think about (evaluate) the many reasons authors choose to write, the structures in which authors use to lay out their message and how the message is created through main ideas and details or a well developed plot. Students will read and discuss many types of texts to experience and evaluate author’s purpose and they will also practice authentically writing for different purposes in order to apply these ideas.


Item teachers narrow their instruction, organizing their teaching around particular questions most likely to be found on the test — and thus teach only the bits of knowledge students are most likely to encounter on state assessments.


Mr. Popham goes on to say the latter is unethical. We believe it!



Staying the Course


Tony Dungy says in is book Quiet Strength, “Leaving the game plan is a sign of panic, and panic is not in our game plan.”


We would argue that the best way to prepare students for high stakes tests is to stay the course with teaching the curriculum with rigor and purpose. As we work in classroom as coaches, we see effective instruction – students gathered together talking about a good book they are reading, writing that is being revised, edited and finally published, application of content through project based learning and math concepts being explored at a deep level so that more complex problems can be solved. What more could we ask for?


We know, based on research, that effective instruction is correlated with student achievement. Why would we want to stop this type of teaching months before the end of grade test?