February 11, 2016

Beyond the “Gist”

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Yesterday, Jan discovered that her thirteen-year-old’s shower routine consisted of getting in the shower, turning on the water, letting it run over him for a while, turning off the water, and toweling off.  When asked if he has taken a shower, he always responds affirmatively. However, he ran out of soap (apparently months ago) and never bothered to get more. Jan had to explain to him that, while getting wet creates the “gist” of cleanliness, a shower without soap is not really a shower.

Interestingly, we have found an unlikely parallel between showering without soap and many of the children we encounter in our work in schools. Very often, when we go into classrooms, we pull up alongside children and invite them to read aloud and talk with us about their reading.  Too often, they will offer a “gist” statement about what they are reading, rather than really thinking about it deeply. For example, one fifth-grader shared his thinking about the paragraph below from Holes by Louis Sachar:

Stanley dug his shovel into the ground. His hole was about three and a half feet deep in the center. He grunted as he pried up some dirt, then flung it off to the side. The sun was almost directly overhead. (p. 114)

He summarized the paragraph by simply stating, “He’s digging a hole.” But summarizing the sentences above as “digging a hole” is like taking a shower without soap. It offers the gist of the passage, but much is missed.

We want readers to understand that writers put each sentence into their books for a reason. The excerpt from Holes, above, offers readers insight into just how hard the ground was, how tired the main character was, and just how hot it was, all subtleties overlooked by the reader. Like showering, reading is more than letting the words wash over you. It is an investment of time and energy, and it takes a bit of intention.

Many, many thanks to the thoughtful educators at Two Writing Teachers for giving us a community for sharing and exploring ideas.

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Brave Hearts

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In The Girl With A Brave Heart: A Tale from Tehran by Rita Rohanforuz and Vali Mintzi (Barefoot Books, 2013), Shiraz, the main character finds herself at the home of an old woman who is tired and angry. She takes Shiraz to her kitchen, piled high with dishes and mess, and tells Shiraz to break all the dishes. Instead, when the woman leaves, Shiraz washes the dishes, puts them away, and cleans the kitchen. Next, the old woman takes Shiraz to her garden, which is horribly overgrown with weeds, and asks her to pull up all the plants by their roots. Instead, Shiraz pulls up only the weeds and prunes the plants, recovering the garden. After Shiraz has completed each task in her own way–rather than the way the woman directs–she learns that the woman has magical powers. She makes Shiraz very beautiful.

Upon seeing Shiraz’s beauty, her less kindhearted sister is jealous and wants to be beautiful too. She visits the woman, intent on becoming beautiful. The woman asks the sister to do the same tasks but, unlike Shiraz, the sister follows the woman’s directions, breaking the dishes and destroying the garden. True to narrative story structure, the old woman does not make the sister beautiful. Upon returning home, the sister asks Shiraz what she had done differently on her visit to the old woman. Shiraz explained that when the woman told her to break the dishes and destroy the garden, Shiraz knew that that the woman wasn’t asking for what she really wanted. Shiraz goes on to explain that, when people are sad, they sometimes don’t know how to tell you what they need. You have to listen with a brave heart.

This weekend, I (Jan) attended the 2016 JOLLE Conference, which was inspiring and thought-provoking. In particular, I attended a session entitled “Examining and Creating Artifacts: (Re)narrating Our Lives as Teachers” where Audrey Lensmire, a professor at Augsburg College, presented with Anna Schick, Samantha Scott, Amanda Mohan, and Aubrey Hendry–four classroom teachers representing kindergarten through high school. For a couple of years now, these educators have been gathering to reflect and write about their work. They construct their re-narratives around artifacts of their work. Two teachers wrote in response to photographs from their classroom, one wrote about the graffiti in the schools, and one wrote in response to the texts she sent to her husband during her first year of teaching.

All of these teachers teach in particularly challenging contexts. While their presentation was funny, engaging, and clever, what was most beautiful and moving about their work was their brave hearts. In a time when many teachers choose to manage the emotional strain of accountability pressures gone amok by blaming students or blaming themselves, these women are managing to see their students in admiring ways while still honestly exploring the complexities of their work. It would be easy to see graffiti in schools and decide that the kids are bad. It is courageous to, instead, recognize the creativity of the graffitti (such as that below) and learn from it, or even admire it. It takes strength and bravery to see the children as smart and beautiful and filled with promise, as opposed to seeing them as the source of our struggle.


This week (and all year), we invite you to tap into your brave hearts and see who your most difficult students are, rather than what they are doing. Find collegial support, accept the grace of others, and give some to your students. Look at yourself and your work through the same admiring eyes. You are brave enough to find the wisdom or the beauty or the humor in the complexities of your classroom, re-narrating them in ways that create new possibilities for you and for your students.

Thank you to the folks at Two Writing Teachers who have helped to jumpstart our blogging habit with their Slice of Life Challenge!

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Professional Soulmates

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As of late, Jan has had commitments that have required all of her time.  Because Jan is busy, I, Kim, will write a first-person Slice of Life. Once again, thank you to all of the fine folks at Two Writing Teachers who make this possible!

Because it was my very first book, the arrival of Reading Wellness was ceremonious. Taking it out of the box and touching it and seeing our labors as a final, finished product was enough to make me cry, however, the real tears began to flow as I opened the book and began to turn the pages.  First the title page. I traced my fingers over the letters and stopped when I saw my name sitting proudly alongside Jan’s. Next the dedication page. My eyes skimmed over the words that I had written for my husband. Then I glanced upward to be reminded of what Jan had said to her husband only to discover that the words had changed since we submitted them to Stenhouse. I read slowly and carefully: 

Reading Wellness Dedication

I began to sob.

When Jan and I began writing together in March 2012, I knew her only through reading Preventing Misguided Reading. Though I had had long conversations with her in the margins of my copy of the book she had written, these had been one-sided chats.

PMG page 2

She didn’t know me at all. However, after a couple of phone conversations she said, “Let’s write a blog together…and…let’s write every day.”

We hit the ground running.  At first, as much as I embraced the task, writing was an act of bravery. When she shared things that she had drafted, I was hesitant to suggest changes. I mean, she wrote books.  I just wrote…for myself. What did I know?

When I drafted blog posts,  I worried about sharing them with Jan:  What will she think? I wondered.  If I write this, will she think I’m a fraud? Fortunately, courage triumphed over fear and day by day, Jan and I got to know each other through our words and the white space between our words.

During that time, Jan and I talked regularly on the phone and now, a day without talking to Jan is like a day without brushing my teeth (which I promise, does not happen very often). When I go to work and I meet a child who says, “I think you are magic because you’re making me LOVE reading!”, my first thought is I have to call Jan. When I do, she says with genuine curiosity, “Tell me about the lesson.  What did you say?  How did you say it?” And on the flip side, when things don’t go well and I meet a child that says, “I don’t get this, this is boring,” again I think, I have to call Jan.  She listens to these stories with the same unprejudiced mind and says, “Tell me about the lesson.  What did you say?  How did you say it?”

And sometimes there are days when Jan needs to talk to me.  She will call and tell me about something interesting a child said during a shared reading lesson. Or, she will need to read aloud to me from a book that inspires her. She will tell me about what she is thinking and then it is my turn to ask her questions. We talk and talk and talk and oftentimes, we are surprised when we look at the clock and see that two hours have passed.

Four years ago, I longed for a learning companion and who showed up at my virtual doorstep? Jan.  So, yes, I wept when I saw Jan’s dedication to me because I feel exactly the same about her.  It isn’t often that you find someone who is a true friend and a good writer and when you do, you celebrate your good fortune.

The Joy Jar

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“Sit.  Feast on your life.”

                          ~Derek Wolcott


Happy New Year!

Isn’t the energy of a new year so…intoxicating? Don’t you wish you could jar it up and take it out during the doldrums of March and the frenzy of May to give yourself an energy boost precisely when you need it most?

Well, this year, that is exactly what we intend to do. As students of positive psychology, we have long recognized and dabbled in the practices of gratitude. We try to scan our worlds for the things that we are grateful for and if it’s a person, we try to tell them so. If it’s a place, or event, or idea, or thing, we tell somebody else (and in some cases, lots of somebodys). However, we find ourselves inconsistent as we become distracted by deadlines and laundry and homework. So, we’ve decided to give ourselves a concrete reminder to celebrate moments of joy; we’ve committed to creating joy jars. If you’re not familiar with this idea, it’s actually quite simple.

  • Get a container. (It doesn’t have to be fancy. Kim got a special one for this experiment, but any old bowl or plastic container will do.)

Joy Jar

Jan has a flour canister that she can write on, so she has reclaimed it as a joy jar.

Joy Jar Jan

  • Whenever you feel a flood of gratitude or joy, jot down on a piece of paper something that will help you recall that moment (grab whatever you can to write on–a notepad, the corner of an envelope, a napkin, anything, just get it down!.).

Joy Jar Note


Joy Jar Note Jan

  • When you need a rush of happy, read through your pieces of paper. You can also read through them all to mark holidays, such as Thanksgiving or New Year’s Eve and read them aloud to your family and friends. Have a joy party!

This joyous exercise need not be reserved for home–consider using a joy jar with your students too!  Here are a few ideas for using a joy jar in your classroom.

  • When your class is having an off day or you’re feeling irritable, gather your students in a cozy spot, pull out your joy jar, and begin reading some of your rich memories!
  • Encourage children to add to the joy jar anytime. Read new student submissions during transitions.
  • Let individual children read from the joy jar when they need a pick-me-up.
  • Let reading from the joy jar be a center.
  • Model using joy jar moments as prompts for writing.
  • Connect joy jar experiences to gratitude and to writing by letting students write thank you notes (when applicable) to the people who have given them moments of joy.
  • Before students leave your classroom on the last day of school, gather together and read the joy jar notes aloud.  Allow students to take notes home with them as a way to remember their favorite moments from throughout the school year.

We know that the next twelve months of our lives, and yours, will be filled with many, many memorable and precious moments that take our breath away; we just have to notice them. Here’s to a New Year of noticing, celebrating, and remembering. Here’s to creating habits that draw our attention to the magic in our lives. Here’s to a joyful 2016.

(This is our first Slice of Life post and we’d like to thank the great folks at Two Writing Teachers for providing the opportunity to be part of such a wonderful community!)


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How Numbers Make Us Shortsighted

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Although our interest in athletics is limited to stopping to watch kids kick a ball around a field as we stroll through the park, baseball is a recurring theme in our writing lives as we’ve written about it here, here, and here.  Oddly enough, here we are, once again poised to talk about…baseball! We were recently reading Jeff Olson’s book The Slight Edge and happened upon this quote:

“In baseball, my theory is to strive for consistency, not to worry about the numbers.  If you dwell on statistics,  you get shortsighted; if you aim for consistency, the numbers will be there in the end.”                   

                                                                                                                                                                     ~Tom Seaver, Hall of Fame Baseball Player


If you dwell on statistics, you get shortsighted. This rings true for us, both as teachers and as parents.  Each time we check our children’s grades online, our conversations with our sons are always about what is most obvious:  “I saw you didn’t do so well on that math quiz. What’s up with that? Did you study?” or “It looks like you’re not consistently turning in your homework.  I think you need a little less time on the computer.”


Educators tend to do this in education as well.  When the test scores are in, we go over the data with a fine tooth comb and see that 34.9% of our students didn’t do well on the main idea questions and 58.7% of them are really having a hard time synthesizing. When we see these results, we say, “Well, we know what we need to focus on!”


But do we?


Recently, after speaking to her son about a low math quiz grade and some missed homework, Matthew shifted the conversation to something that he had been talking with Kim about periodically over the last three weeks–friendship. He had begun to hang out with some kids who he really liked at the beginning of the year but as the year has worn on, he has discovered that these friends like to make a sport out of teasing others.  Matthew has been expressing his discomfort with this behavior and has been seeking advice about how best to handle it.  On this particular day, he began with the pronouncement, “I’ve decided I’m not going to hang out with these kids anymore.  I’m really uncomfortable with the way they treat others and I don’t want to be a part of it.”


When Matthew revealed this to Kim, she began to wonder what role this situation might have played in him missing homework or doing poorly on a math quiz.  He’s always struggled socially and to decide to walk away from friends when you’ve never really had many is a big decision. And what’s more, it reminded Kim that while she wants her son to be educated and do well in school, raising an empathetic human being who follows his heart in ways that make him feel like he’s positively contributing to his world is “the end” she’s always had in mind for her son.
This exchange was a humbling reminder to us both that statistics do have a way of causing short-sightedness.  They make us believe that we are seeing the big picture when, in effect, statistics give us a very small glimpse into a very small piece of the big picture. When we are looking at data, especially student data, we have to keep things in perspective by always asking ourselves what’s “the end” we truly desire and remaining steadfast in our efforts to achieve that goal.   

Giving Thanks

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

                                                                                                                                      ~Meister Eckhart



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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

What is Your Banana? Rethinking Common Literacy Practices

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

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

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

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

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

What instructional banana can you peel differently?

Level Mania: What are we really saying to kids?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smart is a Fixed Mindset

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“If you knew how much work went into it,

you wouldn’t call it genius.”

Michelangelo in reference to the Sistine Chapel.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Attending Our Children’s Sporting Events and Other Bad Habits

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Recently, we encountered this three minute video essay by Daniel Pink that you should watch before reading the blog post that follows. 


After watching this video essay, we had many thoughts, including, “Wow, this makes writing persuasive essay infinitely more interesting!” We imagined showing students this video and studying how Daniel Pink uses literary devices, such as alliteration, exaggeration, emotional appeal, and research to make his case.  We envisioned students working with partners and video cameras on playgrounds, in subways, in school cafeterias. We saw them working to perfect their inflection as they deliver carefully crafted messages about topics that matter to them.

However, in addition to the teaching possibilities we saw in this video, we found ourselves thinking a lot about Daniel Pink’s message, which seemed to be asking us to consider how our best intentions may inadvertently be doing more harm than good. For example, Pink questions the value of parents being on the sidelines and says, “When kids look to us for approval, consolation, or even orange slices, part of them is distracted from what really counts: the mastery of something difficult, the obligation to teammates, the game itself.” While we are very hesitant to suggest (or even practice) skipping children’s sporting events, something in Pink’s message rings true for us.

The video made us think about students we’ve encountered who demonstrated a learned dependency on the teacher. One kindergartner was working hard to read a book that contained the word “seaweed.” When he arrived at this word, he used several strategies to figure out the word and got it right! What made this especially interesting was when he got it right; he looked to his teacher for confirmation. Instead of telling him whether he was right or wrong, she encouraged him to use what he knew about the meaning of the story as well as letters and sounds to confirm for himself if “seaweed” was correct which stopped this kindergartner dead in his tracks.  He refused to turn the page until she told him he was right!  

On the one hand, this may seem like an extreme example of a lack of student agency, however, on the other hand, it makes us wonder about and take notice of the things we may be doing to cause such interference with student agency.  When we stepped back and took a long hard look, we noticed that oftentimes, when kids are working to figure things out, we begin to eagerly nod our heads, communicating that they are on the right track.  When students get things right, especially hard things, we have a tendency to clap wildly and tell them how impressed we are with them. While these behaviors are rooted in our intent to be supportive and encouraging, if the “game” of reading involves teaching children how to integrate print and meaning–independently and proficiently–we fear these behaviors may be distracting them from the very thing we aim to teach. For example, when we nod and cue students that they are correct, students have no reason to cross check for print and meaning anomalies themselves. Similarly, our enthusiastic applause reinforces that getting it “right” is what we’re going for which perpetuates fixed mindsets about learning. This leaves us wondering how we communicate support and encouragement without interfering with student agency.

As difficult as it has been, one thing we’ve been working on is toning down our body language.  When students look to us as if to ask, “How did I do?” we smile and say, “Wow, you’re working hard.” When they follow up with, “Yeah, but is that right?”, we follow up by asking them what they will do to find out.. The following is a list of prompts that we have found communicate to children that we encourage and support them while at the same time empowering them to figure things out for themselves:

  • Does that match? (Be sure to ask this when students make mistakes as well as when they don’t make mistakes!)
  • What will you try?
  • How do you know?
  • How else do you know?

In the same way that Daniel Pink explains why so many parents are compelled to attend their children’s sporting events (because it’s “a leading indicator of parental awesomeness!”), we think some of our cheerleading and affirmative body language were meant to communicate our teacher awesomeness.  What we’re realizing now, however, is that the most awesome teachers are the ones that build children’s confidence AND teach in ways that truly release the responsibility of learning which means sometimes we just have to get out the way and let kids think for themselves.

We are exploring these ideas within the context of building a classroom community in a live webinar (presented by Kim) during Chris Lehman’s EdCollaborative Gathering this Saturday at 11:00.

Beginning October 5th, we are also facilitating an online class–Teaching the Growth Mindset— through Brenda Power’s Choice Literacy, which will explore mindset and teacher language in depth.
Finally, this week we will put the finishing touches on our last chapter of our new book, Who’s Doing the Work? (Stenhouse), which will roll out this spring. It looks closely at mindset and the gradual release of responsibility as they relate to the interconnected instructional contexts–read aloud, shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading. We are excited to share it with you, so please look for it in early spring.