February 1, 2015

What the Writing Process Really Looks Like

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Writer’s workshop, a common instructional format for teaching writing, is based on the process in which “real” writers engage. A bedrock idea behind writer’s workshop is that these “real” writers take pieces of writing, usually on topics they choose to write about, through a series of stages–prewriting/brainstorming, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing. The cycle is generally thought of as something like this:


Over time, with pressures from roll-outs of published programs and test preparation, this cycle can become formulaic in the classroom. resulting in “writer’s workshop” structures that looks something like this:


Not only is this forced fit model far removed from the original conceptualizations of writer’s workshop, it can also lead to pretty stale writing experiences and student writing. In fact, we find that our writing process looks less like the neat circle above (and certainly not like the regimented weekly schedule) but more random and spontaneous, like this:


jmb_presentation_wake_heart of 21st century writing_1-23-14


Furthermore, our definitions of reasonable work within each stage of the writing process tend to be pretty broad. We are less and less surprised by the way play and seemingly off-task “behavior” helps us break through the places we are stuck in our writing. Prewriting, drafting, even revision, often happen in our heads as we bike, swim, dance, cook, etc. We have grown to think of all these diversions as anything but, giving them their rightful, prominent place in our writing process. Below, you will find lists of the types of work that may occur in each of the stages of our writing process. As you will notice, the lists all end with “and more…” indicating that there are many, many more ways to engage in the particular writing stage. We would love to hear about the work you and/or you students do in the different stages of the writing process? We would also love to hear about the ways that “off-task” behavior helps your writing.

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The Cold (Humid?) Truth about Words

hot and humid
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hot and humid

As the cold grips most of the United States, we begin today by asking you to imagine “unbearably humid” weather. (Does this ease the bite of the winter chill?)  If you were describing this to someone who had never before experienced it, what words would you use to help them understand what it’s like outside?

When we did this, we imagined a 90 degree day in August in New Orleans, Louisiana.  We pictured ourselves catching our breath after stepping outdoors from the temperature controlled indoors. The air feels thick, so thick that we imagine cutting it with a knife.  And it’s heavy.  And wet. Within moments, our skin is clammy, our clothes are drenched with sweat.

In December, a Florida newspaper ran an article about the weather and described this year’s early winter as “unbearably humid.” When Kim and her husband read this, they looked at each other– the weather they had recently experienced had been in the low eighties. While there had been some humidity, perhaps they might go so far as to call it unseasonable humidity, calling it unbearable was just…funny.

This newspaper article became great fodder for teaching students about the importance of words.  Kim brought this article with her to a sixth grade class where they looked closely at it, wondering if they’d find other words that indicated the author intended to write humorously about the weather. However, they didn’t.  Analyzing in this way helped them to realize how one misplaced word can distract a reader, bringing the importance of words into focus.  They talked about how authors use words to communicate their message and how one little word can change the meaning of everything.

Marilyn Jager Adams says, “Words are not just words.  They are the nexus—the interface—between communication and thought.  When we read, it is through words that we build, refine, and modify our knowledge.  What makes vocabulary valuable and important is not the words themselves so much as the understandings they afford.” Words not only matter when we read, but they matter when we write and speak as well. If we aim to help children understand their world better, developing vocabulary is paramount to our work.  We offer the following tips as reminders of how to help expand children’s vocabularies on a day-to-day basis:

1. Read aloud!

Written text is the best source of new vocabulary for students. Hearing new words read aloud in meaningful contexts prompts inquiry about words.  When listening to engaging stories and ideas communicated through read aloud, children will often notice words that they’ve never before heard and ask, “What does that mean?”

2. Provide ample opportunity for students to talk.

Talk provides students opportunities to use the new words they are encountering.  Allowing students time to discuss their ideas about books or process their learning at other times in the day gives them a chance to try out content-specific vocabulary and try-on new words.  Using words in meaningful contexts helps students to remember and retain new vocabulary. 

3. Make sure students write–often and a lot!

Writing also allows students opportunities to use new words.  Experiencing the struggle of figuring out just the right word to complete a sentence or convey a message the way it is imagined, reinforces the importance of words and reminds children that the more words they know, the better they communicate.

For more of our thoughts on vocabulary instruction, watch this short, learning video.

The Power of Job-embedded Coaching

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On Monday, we posted a blog that described a couple of coaching contexts where we have worked in classrooms recently. As we work in schools, we are frequently reminded of the power of coaching in classrooms, and were pleased to see that, in its December issue, the American School Board Journal published a really thorough and thoughtful description of the job-embedded coaching model. The article is written by Alice Oakley and Hope Reagan, practicing coaches and founders of Education Resource Group. The article details a step-by-step process for supporting teachers as they work to take new strategies to expert levels of implementation.

We have a deep appreciation of coaching’s potential, considering our experiences coaching teachers and those of all our friends, including Alice and Hope, who coach in classrooms. Furthermore, job-embedded coaching is supported by a substantial body of research. Most prominently, this includes the monumental research on coaching presented in the classic text, Student Achievement Through Staff Development by Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers, in which they statistically analyze and summarize a tremendous body of research on what works in professional learning. They set out to find out, what types of professional learning lead to substantive changes in classrooms and, consequently, student learning. More specifically, they wanted to know how the context or design of professional learning is related to how well teachers implement the presented strategy towards the end of impacting student achievement outcomes.

Their landmark research has offers substantial support for the kind of classroom coaching described in the American School Board Journal article, as the table below illustrates.

Source: Joyce, B., & Showers, B. (2002). Student achievement through staff development (3rd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


In this table, the first column– “TRAINING COMPONENTS”– presents the design of the professional development. The second column, labeled “Knowledge,” indicates the percentage of participating teachers who could demonstrate knowledge, or rote explanations, of the workshop content after the workshop. The third column, labeled “Skill Demonstration,” indicates the percentage of participants who could demonstrate, beyond the context of the workshop, at least some skill in implementing the strategy. Finally, the fourth column, labeled here as “Use in the Classroom,” shows the percentage of teachers who skillfully implemented the strategy in the classroom. That is, the percentage of workshop participants who reached the level of “executive function” with the strategy.

The Joyce and Showers research makes clear the power of job-embedded coaching. Of note (circled in red in the table, above) is the incredible increase in executive level functioning–from 5% to 95%–that occurs when strategies presented in a workshop are supported with subsequent coaching in a classroom context. What makes this research so powerful is that, it doesn’t simply represent a single study. Rather, Joyce and Showers conducted a meta-analysis of all the professional development research at the time. So the results are not indicative of a one-time outcome in need of replication, but rather a consistent pattern across a body of research.

Considering the thoughtful description articulated by Alice and Hope, combined with the quantitative research summary offered by Joyce and Showers, one wonders why job-embedded coaching is not happening in every school.

What are your experiences with job-embedded coaching?


One Plus One Equals Three

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In this article “Personal Best”  from The New Yorker, Atul Gawande describes having some downtime while visiting Nantucket for a medical meeting. An avid tennis player, Gawande picked up his racket and headed to the court hoping to find someone willing to bat balls back and forth. The only person around happened to be a tennis coach who, for a few bucks, was happy to serve as his partner.

As they started to hit balls, the tennis coach couldn’t resist offering pointers. “You can increase the power of your serve if you pay attention to where your feet are when you serve.” At first, Gawande was taken aback by–and skeptical of–this suggestion. His serve was the best part of his game. However, he listened carefully and by the end of the session, Gawande was hitting balls at least ten miles per hour faster than when he started.

On a recent visit to a second grade classroom, Kim observed a teacher conducting a guided reading lesson.  After the lesson, Kim asked the teacher to reflect on the lesson by thinking about the distribution of work.  “How much work did you do?  How much work did the children do?” As the teacher talked through what had happened, she realized that the children had done startlingly little.  Like Gawande’s tennis coach, Kim couldn’t resist offering pointers.  “Instead of starting your sentences with, We’re going to… or I want you to try…. begin with “How can you figure out…?”

 The next day, Kim returned to watch this teacher conduct another guided reading lesson.  A simple change like asking a “how” question instead of giving a directive, shifted the entire dynamic of the group. The students were far more active participants in their learning and seemed to benefit more from this lesson than they had in the previous day’s lesson.

Similarly, Jan recently coached a teacher during a shared reading lesson. While the text was very engaging, the teacher was doing the work of deciding what was important in the text. She asked comprehension questions that made the lesson feel like a quiz. Because the teacher was so open, Jan was able to initiate a game in the middle of the lesson, which completely changed the energy of the lesson. Students sat up–literally and figuratively–and engaged is amazing work with the text. They noticed and noted the subtleties in the text because the teacher stopped telling them what to pay attention to, making room for their thinking. (See chapter 4 of Reading Wellness for a complete description of the game. Link to free access, here.)

Gawande’s tennis experience, Kim’s guided reading example, and Jan’s shared reading collaboration all illustrate something Stephen Covey refers to as “synergy,” which he describes in this excerpt from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:

If you plant two plants close together, the roots comingle and improve the quality of the soil so that both plants will grow better than if they were separated.  If you put two pieces of wood together, they will hold much more than the total of the weight held by each separately.  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  One plus one equals three or more. (p. 263).

As we continue to celebrate the spirit of the new year, we’d like to wish you a year filled with unconventional math and rich partnerships with people who help you grow.  More on the benefits of working with a coach, later this week.

Be Your Higher Self in 2015

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Like most, we have spent some time during the first few days of this month thinking about what we resolve to do better or differently in 2015. Returning to an idea we shared with you last new year, we have batted around words that embody the identities we wish to grow into.  We have basked in the energy of these first few days of January and realized that there is something magical about the momentum of this time of year. We’ve joked about being able to bottle this spirit and vigor so that we can reclaim it long after the “New” has worn off.  Though we jest about the packaging New Year energy, we really do wish to sustain the energy that motivates and propels us to do great things and be our best selves. But, how do we do this?

It seems that Colleen Mestdagh and Barry Lane have figured out how to help us extend New Year intentions throughout the school year in their Force Field for Good lessons. Setting in place rituals that help children stay connected to their highest selves can help them (and us) remember our truest purposes.

We often say to our children, “It’s better to be kind than smart*,” but the growing body of research on the ways that attention to the social emotional growth of students impacts their academic achievement indicates that, by teaching kids to be kind, we help them grow smart.

Barry Lane, is a master at the kindness/smartness connection; his breadth of expertise–from writing instruction to social emotional learning–has influenced our work in substantial ways. In particular, one of our first encounters with Barry was at a workshop where he inspired us with his song, “Know Your Higher Self.” The language of that song has found its way into our everyday conversations with each other, with our children, and with the students we teach, as we remind each other and ourselves to stay connected to our visions of who we really want to be.

Fortunately, Barry has teamed up with Colleen Mestdagh, who has created a series of lessons around Barry’s songs. All of the songs are available as sing-a-longs, and Colleen has developed a PowerPoint to go with each lesson in their Force Field for Good collection. You can view a video of a sample lesson in an actual classroom or you can access sing-a-long texts for shared reading for all the songs.

In a time when classrooms are heavy with high-stakes accountability, it is nice to see people, such as Barry and Colleen, finding ways to take care of children and to generate positive energy. We find Barry so very inspiring! How lovely is it that such work also contributes to academic learning?

NCTE Picture With Barry LaneUs with Barry Lane when he sang “Know Your Higher Self” at NCTE.


Meet Your Inner Teacher: The Four Intentions

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


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

Intention 1: Alignment (with our inner teacher)

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

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

Intention 2: Balance

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

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

Intention 3: Sustainability

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

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

Intention 4: Joy

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

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

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

How do you stay in touch with your inner teacher?

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

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

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



Fifty Cents and a Dream by Jabari Asim

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

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

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


Manfish Story of Jacques Cousteau

Manfish: The Story of Jacques Cousteau by Jennifer Berne

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

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

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


Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People by Monica Brown

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

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

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

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


The Right Word

The Right Word by Jennifer Bryant and Melissa Sweet

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

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

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



Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell

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

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

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

Closing Thoughts

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

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

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

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

NCTE Vicki's Workshop Crew


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

NCTE 14 drinks with friends

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

NCTE Chris Lehman and Carol

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

NCTE Picture With Barry Lane

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



Sending Children Off to Do “Big Things”

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We’ve been reading and studying Time journalist Amanda Ripley’s fascinating book The Smartest Kids in the World and How they Got that Way.  In this book, Ripley investigates schooling in three educationally high performing nations: Finland, Korea, and Poland.  In addition to carefully parsing apart the data revealed by the Program for International Student Achievement (PISA), which measures advanced thinking and communication skills, the author follows three American, foreign exchange students in these countries to obtain an insider perspective into what it’s like to attend schools in these nations. While we could talk ad infinitum about this book, today we want to focus our thinking on Chapter 7, titled “The Metamorphosis.”

In this chapter, Ripley closely examines education in Poland, a nation with child poverty levels greater than the United States, and attempts to figure out what happened there to catapult this country from the educational doldrums to educational excellence. Ripley explains that the transformation began in 1997 with Miroslaw Handke, a chemist selected to become Poland’s minister of education. Handke’s solution focused on injecting the Polish educational system with renewed rigor. By 2012, fifteen years after the initiative began, Poland “officially joined the ranks of the world’s education superpowers. That year, its teenagers performed at the same level on PISA as kids in Finland and Canada.” (p. 136)

Wanting to better understand what contributed to this grand transformation, Ripley sought insight from a high school student from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania who studied abroad in Wroclaw, Poland. When asked what he believed to be the fundamental difference in American and Polish education, he said his school in the United States “is not that concerned with sending people off to do big things.”

Reading that sentiment stopped us dead in our tracks. As teachers, we are propelled by idealistic notions of helping children to become lifelong learners.  In our hearts, we want nothing more than for the children that fill our classrooms to go off and do “big things.”  Yet, we fear that this posture–not concerned with sending people off to do big things–is all too common, and much of our work has long been around helping schools adopt instructional mindsets that support long range visions for children as doers of big things.

In chapter one of Reading Wellness, we explore this idea by looking at Jane Goodall ,who read “not because others set goals for her,” but rather “because she was driven by her passions.  Her reading was connected to the things she loved.” In addition, because she read, Jane Goodall imagined a future of moving to Africa to live with and study animals. When students read multiple biographies, looking to see the connection between a person’s passion, mindset, and effort (Heart, Head, Hands and Feet), they begin to imagine new possibilities for their own futures which instills a natural motivation to read more informational texts. We get giddy when we see the ways this kind of reading inspires children to imagine the “big things” they want to do.

Student HHHF


For those of you attending NCTE, on Sunday, November 23 at 12:00 we are facilitating a session titled “They Grew Up Reading and Writing: Using Picture Book Biographies to Support Authentic Explorations of Informational Text.” We’d love to see you there, however, if you’ve got other commitments and will be unable to make it to our session, plan to stop by the Stenhouse booth at 9:00 Sunday morning where we will be hanging out and signing books. We would love to meet you and hear about how you are preparing your students to do “big things!”

Challenging Instructional Dogma

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When the Common Core Standards were released, “close reading” was a nebulous term that left many not only seeking to better understand what it was and how it served children, but also wondering what it looked like in the classroom. Because discussions of the Common Core Standards placed such emphasis on close reading and most educators felt they knew so little about it, they scrambled to learn what they could. For many, this exploration began with this EngageNY video of David Coleman discussing how to closely read Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  In this video, Coleman discusses the importance of allowing the text to set the reading agenda and suggests a protocol for reading closely that involves asking students to read a short text with little to no scaffolding, followed by a teacher read aloud of the same selection, followed by a discussion anchored by text-based questions prepared by the teacher in advance.

At the beginning of this video, David Coleman clearly states that this protocol is “one model of instruction in alignment with the core standards of literacy. There can and should be several others.” However, in spite of Coleman’s words of caution, many understand it as the way to teach children to read closely and carefully, which inadvertently has elevated something that began as an instructional suggestion to instructional canon.

This relatively recent development makes us think a lot about some of the rules that govern how we approach literacy instruction that include things such as:

  • Children should read books at their level.
  • Always pre-teach new vocabulary and difficult-to-decode words.
  • Be sure to fill in gaps in background knowledge prior to reading.

While these ideas are rooted in important research about how children become increasingly proficient readers, we have to look closely at the ways in which we implement them and continually ask, “How are these rules serving children?”

For example, we have visited countless classrooms honoring the matching books to reader rule.  The classroom libraries are leveled and students only pick from the bin containing books “on their level.” However, when we ask, “how is this serving children?” we worry that this practice might do more harm than good as we repeatedly encounter children who shy away from reading challenges because “that book isn’t on my level.” Like David Coleman’s approach to teaching children to read closely and carefully, matching books to readers is a well-intended idea. There are many situations when it will serve an important role in helping to improve children’s reading skills, however, when it stops serving children, we can’t soldier on “just because.” Just because David Coleman or some other notable figure popularized a way of teaching children to read or write. We must remember that in education, we are always trying to outgrow our best ideas and that over time, even the best ideas evolve.

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