April 16, 2014

Keeping it Real: Making Professional Learning Relevant

Feedback from Ellicott City MD PD
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Feedback from Ellicott City MD PD

After a recent day of professional learning in Ellicott City, Maryland a teacher wrote us the note above. Such feedback moves us because the heart of our work right now is helping educators meet the demands of accountability without sacrificing their highest ideals for teaching and learning. The professional learning day in Ellicott City included several of the lessons from our new book, Reading Wellness (Stenhouse, summer 2014), which ends with the following excerpt that captures our intent.

“While many of us fight to preserve instruction that is rich and deep, we cannot escape the details of measures and the public pressures of others. We are overwrought by rubrics. We are in a quandary over questions that are essential. Rather than deciding not to believe in anything, we find points of instructional meaning, even when the directives we receive make little sense. We continue to read beautiful books, ask questions that don’t have one answer, and show children ways to think about tremendous and transformative ideas. But we feel pressure to teach as if we are preparing for some timed physical fitness test on live television, rather than continually working toward more and more wellness. We sometimes find it hard to think about anything else. This might please the others, but it doesn’t do much for the boys and girls, or the teachers.” (Burkins and Yaris, 2014, epilogue)

In the process of writing Reading Wellness, we have centered our work around four intentions that help us stay true to what matters most to us as teachers. We use these four intentions to guide our planning when we develop lessons and to evaluate these lessons after we teach them.

Intention 1 is alignment, not to standards or accountability measures, but to our inner teachers. This means that our highest priority is to consider the ways the work within our lessons furthers our goals helping children become lifelong learners.

Intention 2 is balance and is the counterpoint to alignment. While we are guided by our inner teachers who speak to us about teaching for lifelong learning, we know that our instruction must also align with standards. This intention reminds us to balance these two demands.

Intention 3 is sustainability. This intention focuses on lessons that teach strategies and processes rather than discreet content.  We work to develop lessons that help children extend their own learning and that transfer to other learning experiences.

Intention 4, possibly the most important intention, is joy. With the heavy demands of accountability and constant political pressure, too many teachers speak about teaching in places devoid of happiness. Intention 4 establishes our commitment to engaged, joyful learning.

We are sharing some of the lessons and ideas from Reading Wellness during an all-day, pre-conference institute at IRA in New Orleans on May 9th. The institute titled “Aligning to the Common Core Without Sacrificing Your Inner Teacher: Joyful Lessons that Support Independence and Proficiency with Complex Texts.”

We would love for you to join us! We promise to keep it real and relevant, filled with practical lessons and ideas that you can use immediately! Namaste. :)

College and Career Readiness: What Else Matters?

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At the heart of the Common Core standards is a mission that has become as well known as the standards themselves: College and career readiness. No matter what your position or belief about this rally cry, most educators agree that the purpose of education is to serve students in ways that help them find success after high school. While surely sound instructional standards contribute to this goal, every skilled educator knows that success in not incumbent upon standards alone, leaving us to wonder: What else matters?

To help us think about this question, we turned to some of history’s most successful people to see what they had to say about success:

Albert Einstein: It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.

Thomas Edison: I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

Robert Kennedy: Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.

Abraham Lincoln: Always bear in mind that your resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing.

As we look at these quotes, we notice a thread of commonality amongst them that seems to suggest that mindset is an important factor in success.

Cognitively challenging work evokes a myriad of responses from students ranging from “This is hard.  I can do this” to “This is hard. I’m not even going to try.” No matter how wonderfully we align a lesson to standards, when students decide that they “don’t know” or they’re “not very good” at something, we/they make little progress. We have to explicitly address the issue of embracing problems and the relationship between effort and success or there’s very little room for great teaching to prevail.

In the chapter titled “Be the First Penguin” in his book The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch wrote about repeatedly saying to his students that “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.” He wanted to remind them that “failure is not just acceptable, it’s often essential” (p. 148). To help students understand this, at the end of each semester, Pausch rewarded risk-taking by handing out “The First Penguin Award” to the team of students who failed to achieve their stated goals but demonstrated outstanding out-of-the box thinking.

In thinking about our original question–What else matters?–we believe that working to create classroom learning cultures that laud effort, celebrate failure, and promote perseverance is another important factor to consider when reforming education.

Aligning Instruction in Music, Art, and PE with the CCSS

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When the Common Core State Standards were first introduced, the rollout was accompanied by six instructional shifts. The second shift, “knowledge in the disciplines, ” popularized the idea that all teachers–including music, art, and PE teachers–are responsible for contributing to a child’s growth and development in literacy. These six shifts have since been condensed to three; however, with language such as “reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from the text” and “building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction,” even these shifts allude to the role that special area teachers can play in developing children’s growth and development as readers, writers, speakers, and listeners.

In spite of the fact that there is an expectation that all teachers contribute to students’ literacy, how to address aligning instruction with the Common Core in content areas such as music, art, and PE has not been widely discussed leaving many teachers in these disciplines wondering what to do.  Many have been instructed  to have students “closely and carefully” read short texts about art and music history or sports articles from the newspaper.  As you can imagine, this causes great angst amongst special area teachers and students. For special area teachers, their time with students is already limited to one, sometimes two, forty minute periods and introducing close, careful readings feels like a new and extra layer that they don’t have time for.  Students, on the other hand, generally embrace music, art, and PE because of the break it offers them from traditional classroom practices and when this coveted time begins to feel more like an extension of regular class time and less “special”, they feel resentful.

This conundrum illuminates the need to think carefully about how to preserve the best aspects of music, art, and PE while at the same time honoring both the spirit and letter of the Common Core Standards. To help shed some light on this, we offer you the following things to think about:

1. The Common Core Standards cast a wide net when defining text.

Reading anchor standard seven expects that students learn to “integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively.” In thinking about how this could apply to special areas like music, art, and PE, we believe that this standard makes room to closely and carefully read things like musical compositions, paintings, or videos of game winning plays of major sporting events.

2. There are six standards for speaking and listening. 

Special areas offer students lots of different lenses for viewing the world, thereby providing ample opportunity for them to form new ideas and perspectives.  These perspectives can and should be shared through rich conversations that allow students “build on other’s ideas” and “evaluate speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence.”   Encouraging lots of turn and talk is as important in music, art, and PE as it is in the classroom.

3. There are six language standards in the Common Core.

While the first three language standards seem more related to writing, the last three are all about expanding children’s vocabulary.  Music, art, and PE are rich with content-specific vocabulary like crescendo and texture and coordination which means that special area teachers can help students seize opportunities to “apply knowledge of language…in different contexts” and “acquire and use a range of general academic and domain specific words.”  When it comes to aligning special area instruction with the Common Core standards, goals for developing word knowledge can and should be an instructional priority.



The Great Irony of Teaching

Are you ready to play outside
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Are you ready to play outside

Recently, we visited a kindergarten classroom to share one of Mo Willems’s Elephant and Piggie books titled Are You Ready to Play Outside? As we read aloud, we asked the students to pay careful attention to the character’s expressions and to think about how Gerald and Piggie were feeling based on the clues in the illustrations. Initially, students thought of words such as happy and sad but as we looked closer at the details provided in the illustrations, students began to offer more robust words like  disappointed, frustrated, excited, joyful, and angry to describe how the characters were feeling.

As we continued to explore the rich illustrations in Are You Ready to Play Outside, students began to notice that previously identified emotions seemed to re-surface at different points in the story and when this happened, we asked the question, “So which one of our new words best describes this emotion?”

Ever eager to answer the question asked by the teacher, nearly every hand in the class went up.  We called on Jamal and when we asked him which word he thought was best to describe the picture of  Piggie bouncing in a puddle with her eyes closed and her back to Gerald, he thought for a moment and said, “uh…I…uh…forgot what I was going to say.”

If you teach, you know this moment well. Sometimes the response varies from “I forgot” to “I don’t know” to an awkward moment of silence when the child just stares at you trying to tell you via ESP that he or she just doesn’t know the answer to what you’re asking.  It’s uncomfortable for everybody and that’s why a common response to this situation is to say something like, “Can someone help Jamal out?” or “Does anyone else know?”

But sometimes, the reason for responses such as these has less to do with awkwardness and more to do with time.  As we wait for Jamal to try to remember what he knew (or thought he knew) just a few moments ago, there’s an insidious voice inside our heads tallying everything that needs to be done in this school day screaming, “Hurry that kid up!  You have no time to waste!”  This voice is hard to ignore, so in the interest of time, we ask Tamika, who always has correct answers, to share her response to the question.

When we step away from this situation and think about this response, we have to ask ourselves a really hard question.  Is that voice really saying, “Hurry up…you have no time to waste…on kids THINKING?”

If you’re like us, you probably cringe at such a thought, but if you’re like us, you’re probably concerned that there might be some truth to this.

Managing instructional time is probably one of the hardest aspects of teaching and when the to-do list mounts, it is easy to exchange valuable wait time for a more immediate, correct response.  When we feel this pressure, however, we need to remind ourselves to step back and think about the important role that cognitive dissonance plays in learning.  Even though it feels counter-intuitive the our pacing guides and lesson plans, time to think is an important investment in the learning process. As David Sousa says, “The brain that does the work, is the brain that does the learning” and if we want kids to learn, we’ve got to give them time to think!


Chronicles of a Reluctant Reader: Checking in on Matthew

The last lecture
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Last summer, we wrote about Kim’s eldest son, Matthew, in our blog post Reading Power: You Get What You Focus On. Kim began reading aloud to Matthew in-utero and continues to read great books to Matthew, such as The Giver and Divergent. Great literature has always been a part of Matthew’s life, yet, much to his mother’s dismay, Matthew has always been a reluctant reader.

In spite of ascribing to all of the dogma about reading aloud, helping Matthew know the great books available to him, hooking him on series books, and helping him find books on topics that interest him, independent reading still has not become an integral part of Matthew’s life. While he doesn’t flat out refuse reading and doesn’t profess to hate it, it just isn’t a high priority for him.

Readers such as Matthew worry us—how will they become more proficient? Will they grow to become lifelong learners? For teachers (and reading teacher mothers), reluctant readers are a source of constant frustration.  What can we do to get these kids to read when we have exhausted our bag of tricks?

When it comes to Matthew, Kim has decided that the only thing she can do is carry on. She checks in with him daily and asks questions, such as “What are you reading?” “How much did you read?” “How long did you read?”

Every day, the response is similar.  “Yeah, Mom, I’m reading (just not very much).”

Every day, Kim continues to worry…until recently. After thinking about our own advice to focus on what we want more of (Needs Assessments vs. Wants Assessments ), she decided that what she really wants is for Matthew to be moved by books and words.  She wants his reading to be a source of inspiration and insight. So, rather than asking him about how much he’s been reading and how long he’s been reading, she’s started to seize opportunities to talk to him about compelling reading.  She’s begun to make it a point to call him over and read bits of books and articles she finds interesting.

The last lecture


Recently, Matthew began reading The Last Lecture and when he got to Randy Pausch’s advice that recommended that even though you have a car, you don’t have to run people over, he made it a point to tell Kim about it.  As he talked about it, he mentioned that he had been having trouble with a kid in school and many of the other boys were coaxing him to “fight him.” When Kim asked him what he was thinking, he said, “It’s just like the book mom, just because I have power it doesn’t mean I have to use it.”

Matthew’s reading had impacted him, and Kim smiled because that is what she is wants more of.

Eureka! Using Complementary Texts to Lead to Insight

Baby incubator
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Baby incubator

In our post Solving Education’s Greatest Challenges: Unconventional Collaborations, we shared our fascination with nineteenth century French obstetrician, Stephane Tarnier, who found himself wandering through the zoo one afternoon during a break from his busy work at the Paris hospital across the street.  On the day that Tarnier visited the zoo, he paused at a bird exhibit where he saw eggs resting inside a covered box with a lamp rigged to shine on it. Captivated by the display, Tarnier studied it closely and found himself thinking about the disturbing reality of practicing obstetrics in the mid-1800s in Paris—one in five babies died before the end of their first year, with most dying within the first few weeks of their lives. Quite often. the babies died because they could not regulate their body temperature. As he carefully observed the zoo display, he realized that the zookeeper and he had a similar job in that they were both responsible for the prenatal care of babies, as well as their survival immediately following birth. This made him even more curious, and he became intent on learning everything he possibly could about the contraption.  Ultimately, this walk in the zoo led to Tarnier inventing what would become the first baby incubator, an invention that is still used in hospital nurseries around the world to this day.

One of the things that we love about this story is the way in which Tarnier used one text (the bird incubation exhibit) to help him better understand a text that he didn’t understand quite as well (how to reduce the infant mortality rate). It makes us think about classroom instruction and wonder how we can create situations where one text supports another so well that children don’t simply say, “Oooh, interesting,” but rather shout in discovery, “A-ha!”

Consider a group of fifth grade boys huddled around a book called The Civil War: The Battles, Generals, Issues, and Reconstruction (author J.P. Allice) and read aloud battle figures like:

  • Nearly 23,000 men were killed or wounded by the end of the day in Antietam.
  • In Gettysburg, more than 160,000 Americans fought and more than 50,000 of them were killed or wounded.
  •  Over 600,000 people died in the Civil War

At first, you might simply  be pleased that they were were compelled to read about this on their own. After listening in on  their conversation, however, imagine you are struck  by how they were speaking about the loss of life with the same inflection that they use when talking about the number of baseball cards they have collected!

Returning to the Tarnier story, how could you use another text to help these boys wrap their heads around the facts and figures they were reading?  Perhaps, you would pull out Andrew Clements’s A Million Dots.  Showing them the different pictures depicting a million. This might make them ooh and ahhh, but there is more to the voluminous loss of life than sheer numbers. Insights usually don’t happen when the connection between texts is obvious, they happen when a reader sees the way that two seemingly unrelated topics fuse together, just as Tarnier saw the connections between the incubator at the zoo and the loss of life at the hospital. While  A Million Dots would be an obvious complementary text choice, perhaps the less obvious and ultimately better choice to support these boys’ comprehension of the death statistics for the Civil War might be a book like The Tenth Good Thing About BarneyBefore these boys can understand the impact of losing 600,000 lives, they will first need to understand what it meant to lose just one.

Small Changes, Big Gains

Happiness Advantage
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Happiness Advantage

As you might have gathered from posts such as Elevating Greatness, Learning Life Lessons from Books, and the title of our forthcoming book from Stenhouse, Reading Wellness, understanding how to live happy, well-balanced, fulfilling lives is an important theme for us. Looking to enrich both our personal and professional lives, we are always reading, listening to, or watching something that will help inform our understanding of wellness. Recently, we’ve been reading The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. In this book, Achor popularizes some of the research behind positive psychology and offers readers seven principles aimed at helping them feel happier and more successful:

  1. The Happiness Advantage: Instead of looking for and illuminating what is wrong or bad, look for the positive and you will see your productivity and performance improve.
  2. The Fulcrum and Lever: Our reality is relative (as opposed to fixed). Shifting our mindset about our reality can empower us to feel happier which brings greater success.
  3. The Tetris Effect: By focusing on the positive, we enable ourselves to see and seize opportunity.
  4. Falling Up: When things are hard or bad, look for the mental path that leads you up and away from your suffering.
  5. The Zorro Circle: In order to regain control, focus on small, manageable goals.  When those goals are accomplished, seek to incrementally increase the size of your goals to make them easier to attain.
  6. The 20 Second Rule: If you really want to change something, place reminders in your daily path so that you remember to expend the energy required to change it.
  7. Social Investments: Taking time to nurture relationships with friends, peers, and family creates a support network that helps you feel happier and leads to increased success.

As we read this book, and others like it, we often find ourselves nodding in agreement, saying, “Yep, we knew that.” However, this thought is countered with a somewhat disturbing realization:  Even though we know it, it doesn’t mean we do it.

We began to think about how this applies to the classroom—what is it that we know but don’t do or perhaps don’t do as much as we would like?  While different for everyone, this list might include things like:

  • Independent reading
  • Read aloud
  • Individual conferences with kids about their reading and writing
  • Anecdotal records
  • Idea exchanges with colleagues
  • Small group instruction
  • Opportunities for students to talk about the books they’re reading
  • Interactive writing
  • Etc., etc., etc.

In his chapter about the 20-second rule, Achor aptly reminds us that “Common sense is not common practice” but adds that by placing things within our path of least resistance, we can easily change this reality. So, for example, if we wanted to read aloud more often, we might place our selection on the chalk tray and announce to students a specific time when we will read it.  If we want to be more vigilant about taking anecdotal records, we might strategically place clipboards filled with record keeping forms in multiples spots around the classroom. The trick to translating common sense to common practice is intention which leaves us asking you, what small change can you make that could have a big impact on some aspect of either your professional or personal wellness?

Elevating Greatness

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In November 2012, Dr. Atul Gawande gave a talk at Harvard University titled The Difference Between Coaching and Teaching.  In this speech, Dr. Gawande invites listeners to think about what makes some people good, or competent, at what they do and what makes others excellent.  At a time when the stakes have never been higher with regard to accountability, this strikes us as an interesting question.  What are the things that we do well? And what are the things that we do better than well? In fact, what are we actually great at? And how can exploring the difference between these two things serve us as practitioners?

In his pursuit to answer these questions for himself both as a physician and a surgeon, Dr. Gawande began by looking at hospitals and programs with particularly high success rates with different diseases and procedures.  His investigation led him to Dr. Warren Warwick, a pediatrician from Minneapolis, Minnesota specializing in Cystic Fibrosis.  The patients in Dr. Warwick’s clinic have higher life expectancy rates than those in other Cystic Fibrosis programs and Dr. Gawande wanted to know why.  What was different about this program? What made it great?

In order to find out, Dr. Gawande traveled to Minnesota and sat with Dr. Warwick and one of his patients, a seventeen year old girl named Janelle. During this appointment, Dr. Warwick noted that Janelle’s lung function had decreased considerably and began to question Janelle about what she thought might be responsible for causing this drop.  True to typical teenage form, Janelle had no idea.  According to her, she had followed her treatment regime faithfully and nothing had changed since the last visit.

It was at this point that Dr. Warwick demonstrated the difference between good and great.  Rather than simply reiterating her treatment regime and making sure Janelle understood what she needed to do to ensure that she maintained optimal lung function before sending her on her way, he turned and began discussing the life expectancy statistics for people with Cystic Fibrosis.  He drew a couple of diagrams and processed out loud what he knew and understood about the relationship between life expectancy and treatment. At one point in the conversation, he looked at Janelle and said, “It is important to acknowledge when we have failed,” at which point Janelle began to cry and revealed that because of her new job, new boyfriend, and a change in school policy about having to go to the nurse to take medications, she had not faithfully followed her treatment regime.

Dr. Gawande points out that Dr. Warwick is great at ushering his juvenile Cystic Fibrosis patients into adulthood.  Driven by a strong “moral clarity” to keep his patients healthy and well, Dr. Warwick achieves his goal by being fastidious about details, by looking for the ways in which things connect, and by knowing that “small things can amplify in non-linear ways.”

Fortunately for educators, our work with children is not usually a matter of life and death in the ways it is for Dr. Warwick; however, his story holds an element of universality for all professionals. He stands as an example of what it means to be exceptional and provides us clues about the difference between being competent and being excellent. As we conclude this post, we encourage you to think about the fine line that exists between good and great, and to share what you have observed about yourself and your colleagues from which we can all learn as we continue on our perpetual quest to be excellent.

Announcing: PLEASE, LOUISE and a Related Contest

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     On September 17, 2001, just days after the attacks on the Twin Towers, I was spending my days tying up a series of loose ends in preparation for a move to a new town. One such loose end involved cataloging and sorting books I had purchased through a grant written through the local library to establish a small library at the local jail. I was stressed, working frenetically in the back room of the public library while trying to manage the simultaneous emotions of an unwanted move and national grief when what appeared to be a rather hapless library volunteer walked into the corner of one of my boxes of books and pantomimed a serious injury. I was in no mood for frivolity or distraction. I apologized and strategically avoided small talk by overtly returning my attention to my stacks of books. A few minutes later he did it again, bumping into the corner of another box. And again. Eventually, my stoicism cracked and we enjoyed a few moments of laughter together. He offered to help me with my task and, although he continued to prove a distraction, we managed to organize the books for the new library. To make a long story 250-words-or-less, after twelve years of marriage and two sons (ages 11 and 6) he still regularly distracts me from my work by making me laugh, and I am still grateful for his love of laughter and of libraries.–Jan Burkins

It was September 2006.  My older son, Matthew, had been in first grade for about two weeks and things were going fine; however, on the other side of town, where his best friend from preschool lived, the transition from kindergarten wasn’t going as smoothly. On about the tenth day, his mom, my good friend, called me, worried that Owen wasn’t where he should be as a reader.  What could she do, she asked, to help him?

I said, “Let’s go to the library.”  

A day later, we met inside the children’s section of our public library. As we moms browsed the shelves, chatting about this and that, our boys waded through books, pointed at pictures, and giggled at the things that made them laugh. My friend, who arrived worried, quickly felt a sense of calm and said, “I think we need to do this more often!”  Before we left, we made a plan to return a week later.

Unfortunately, that second meeting never happened because my friend passed away unexpectedly two days after we met in the library. Some might think that such a sad circumstance would cloud this moment with sad memories, but for me, this is my most cherished memory of my beloved friend and I can look back with fondness and say, “I had a beautiful day with a beautiful person in a beautiful place.” And for that, I am grateful. ~Kim Yaris

These are our entries in Shadra Strickland’s contest for a free, autographed copy of her new book, Please, Louise, written by Toni Morrison and Slade Morrison and illustrated by (none other than) Shadra Strickland. We love everything Shadra does; we know the integrity with which she lives and the care with which she selects projects. Needless to say, this new book’s theme of the power of libraries makes the new title especially compelling for us, and perhaps for you, too! So we couldn’t resist entering her contest and inviting you to do the same! Your students can enter, too, since there is no age limit on the contest. Simply describe in 250 words, or less (there is a discrepancy in the word counts listed on the contest description, so we went with the longest option), a favorite library experience. Follow this link for a description of the book and the contest. The book drops on March 4th, which is the deadline for the contest. So start reliving your favorite library experiences and submit them for a chance to win free, autographed copy of Please, Louise.

New Twitter Chat for Literacy Leaders

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Happy Monday, Friends!

We are excited to announce that we, in collaboration with Dr. Kimberly Tyson of Learning Unlimited, are founding an educational Twitter chat! This Literacy Leaders chat will utilize the hashtag #LitLeadchat. Our audience is literacy educators who serve in informal or formal leadership capacities, which is really anyone who talks with colleagues about ways to improve literacy instruction. Whether you are a classroom teacher swapping ideas with the teacher next door, a literacy coach, a literacy consultant, or the superintendent of a school district, we intend for this chat to offer you fresh ideas about improving the literacy learning of students.

The three of us–Kimberly, Kim, and Jan–will host this one-hour chat every Monday night at 8:00 p.m. Our inaugural chat is Monday, March 3, 2014 at 8:00 p.m. Our first discussion topic is “What is a literacy leader?” So, mark your calendars and join us for our first conversation, at the end of which we will announce the topic for our discussion on March 10th (Clue: It has a children’s literature focus. :) )

We look forward to chatting with you on March 3rd!


(c) 2012-2013 Burkins and Yaris. All Rights Reserved