Monday, December 21, 2009

Differentiated Instruction For All, and For All, a Good Workshop

A teacher recently said to me, “I have a group of four boys who won’t commit to a book. Every time I turn around, they’re in the library.” Then, in almost a whisper, she continued, “I know I’m not supposed to do this, but I picked a book for them and I’m reading it with them in a small group.”

Clearly this teacher recognizes the importance of choice and independent reading as integral components of the reading workshop. But here she is being covert, feeling like she is sneaking around the dark alleys of the reading workshop. It makes me wonder, how many times do teachers forsake good, differentiated instruction for purity?

Great reading workshops consist of some combination of mini lesson, independent reading, small group instruction, conferences, and share. Workshop teachers know that the goal is to get children to read more pages, more often in books that match their ability level. They know that with their expert guidance students will grow and soar as readers. But probably the thing workshop teachers know best is that at the heart of all instruction are readers. The most effective workshops are the ones where teachers recognize children’s needs and provide instruction that meets those needs.

As we break for the winter holidays, I leave you with this thought: When you feel like you may be committing crimes against literacy, go back to the basics. Ask yourself, “Am I doing what is best for the child? Am I helping this child to increase his/her reading volume and reading power? If the answer is yes, then absolve yourself and know that your instruction is on the right track.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Learning Boosts

As teachers, we all need a lift at some time or another. Sometimes we attend a conference, sometimes we read a book, sometimes we collaborate with colleagues, but sometimes, none of that is practical. We’re busy; but yet, our teaching needs a boost.

Whenever I feel I need a lift and there’s no professional development on tap, I take out my tape recorder and press record as I teach. Long after the lesson is over, I play back the recording and transcribe what transpired verbatim. As I type, I relive the lesson in slow motion. Sometimes I cringe at my words. “What was I thinking?” I wonder aloud. But sometimes I find myself saying, “Wow, I can’t believe what happened there.”

My transcribing sessions of late have helped me realize some important things about my teaching including:
• When pushing kids to go deeper into their reading, they need time to think. Most of them don’t say profound things when I ask one question. They need time to think.
• Most kids need to summarize the text before they are able to reflect on the themes highlighted in a text.
• When I take the time to say, “Can you say more about that?” kids rise to the occasion. They seem to always reach deeper to find something new to say. That surprises me.

When we understand what works well in our teaching, we can duplicate it over and over again. When we understand what isn’t working, we can steer clear of the obstacles. If you feel like your teaching needs a boost, take out a tape recorder. You, too, may be surprised at what taking time to reflect might teach you about being a better teacher.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Change Happens

As recently as 2007, email was a very small part of my life. I’d check in every third day or so to clear the spam and read the occasional note I’d get. But then it started to happen in my work life that people would say, “Did you get the email I sent you?” Shamefully, I didn’t and I realized I’d better start checking a bit more frequently.

Next, I started checking my email at the end of each day. By and large, I was keeping up with the updates people would send me and I was feeling pretty in the loop…until, I started missing the things people would jot off in the morning that I needed to know for that day.

From that point on, I checked my email morning and night. In fact, I now have a Blackberry so I can check it between classes and during lunch too. Never will I be out of the loop again.

The issue of assessment keeps coming up in the conversations I have been having with teachers.
They are jazzed up and excited about new ways to get students thinking and talking and responding thoughtfully in reading and writing but yet, they are afraid. They wonder, “How will I assess this? Our report card asks for letter grades or numerical percentages.”

And so, they retreat from good teaching practices because they cannot reconcile how to make their teaching match their report card.

I have begun thinking that assessment is a lot like me and email. At first, it was what it was. I didn’t have a lot of reason to change. It worked for me the way I needed it to work. And then it didn’t, so I tweaked it and it was working again. Then it wasn’t working, so I changed it a lot and now it runs like a well-oiled machine.

The same thing has to happen with assessment. It is important to remember that report cards and assessment practices are no more than ink on paper. They derive from conversations that have happened at some point in the past by some group of thoughtful professionals. When things aren’t working, it’s time to start having conversations to think about what is working and what isn’t working. Granted, the change may happen slowly, but change happens.

And most of the time, change is for the better.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Not So Teachable Moments

Have you sat at the back of your classroom recently? I feel like I learn so much from watching others teach. When we are in the throws of what we do, rarely do we have time to take notice of Lara’s dazed look, Tim staring out the window, Tammy’s disappointment at not being able to share, Luis’s look of glee at being right. Teaching is so…well, frenetic.

However, when you put some distance between yourself and the class, you start to notice things you never noticed before—important things, like for example, how we teach read aloud.

I have long been a proponent of using read aloud to teach skills in meaningful contexts. As I sat and watched my colleagues use read aloud to support reading instruction, I felt like I was looking in a mirror. In their expressions, I recognized my own. In their words, I heard my own. In their shortcomings, I saw my own.

“Shortcomings?” you ask. Interactive read aloud seems like one of the most straightforward approaches out there. But as I watched, my colleagues talked about characters and themes and morals. In addition, they made predictions and asked questions. And thirty to forty minutes later, the read aloud ended.

While the many skills and strategies that came up during the read aloud were important, it took thirty to forty minutes to complete. It is no wonder Lara looks dazed and Tim is staring out the window. They are getting bored. And possibly confused. “Why are we reading this book?”they wonder.

Read alouds offer many teaching opportunities. Watching my colleagues reminded me that when we are using read alouds to teach what children need to know to become better readers, we need to be very conscious of what we want children to learn. While it is tempting to follow the conversation in every direction possible, we need to remember that that decision comes with the risk of losing our purpose in the middle of the conversation. Some kids might get it, but others will leave simply thinking, “what was the point of that?”

As teachers, we are trained to seize teachable moments and no doubt, great children’s literature is filled with them. However, do we teach more when we teach less? When it comes to read aloud, the answer, unequivocally, is “yes.”

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Shroud of Secrecy

This weekend, my brother was a vendor at a local woodworking expo. As a show of moral support, I stopped by to see him. As I made my way through the crowd (and it was surprisingly crowded), I stopped to admire all sorts of beautiful, one-of-a-kind works of art.

In the far corners of the room, I noticed large groups of people gathered to listen to what other hobbyists and professionals had to say about perfecting finishes or more precise saw cuts. All those folks recognized there was information out there to help them do what they do better. They embraced the opportunity to learn.

One day during the week past, I presented a mini workshop at a nearby school district. The crowd was respectful and listened politely. When we broke out into groups, a teacher asked me, “Did our administrators tell you we don’t know how to teach reading?”

This question left me dumbfounded. I didn’t know what to say.

This is not the first time I have met a teacher suspicious of a professional development initiative. Instead of learning being an opportunity, it is an insult. They are curiously suspicious, loathe to admit that there might be gaps or things that they don’t know about teaching.

The woodworkers reminded me that we all have things to learn about our craft. Just like they don’t attend seminars because they are incapable of creating beautiful things out of wood, teachers don’t attend professional development because they don’t know how to teach children.
Beautiful, one-of-a-kind works of art are the culmination of study, practice, and reflection. If we want a masterpiece, we’ve got to embrace every opportunity to learn.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Turtle and the Hare

In a blog titled Book Emergencies, I introduced you to my now fourth grade son Matthew, my feast or famine reader. On some occasions, he devours books, on others, he nibbles his way through them. Last month, Jeff Kinney’s Dog Days came out and when he got his hands on it, he read it in one day, staying up late to finish it. Since then, he has merrily returned to Lego magazine and his fifth reread of Club Penguin pick your own ending. In a conversation with other teachers, I affectionately referred to Matthew as “my turtle,” the one content to plod along slowly, slowly, slowly.

My other son, Nathan, is “my hare.” He’s a first grader who wants to read everything. He’s dying to read “chapter books.” In fact, very often he will pick up a Magic Tree House book and read several lines and not make a mistake.

Hallelujah, right?

Wrong. I am worried about Nathan, too. Sure, he can say all the words in Magic Tree House but he works awfully hard at it. All of his energy is poured into decoding and by the time he reaches the end of a paragraph, do you know what he has left for understanding? Zilch.

Matthew, on the other hand, understands everything. Recently, he read Amber Brown is Not a Crayon, another book below his “level.” Yet, as he read this story, he talked about how Amber is “forgetful” (like him, he added) and Justin is feeling “awkward” about moving. When he finished he told me that this book is “a lot like that saying ‘If you love something, set if free.’”

When he told me this, I nearly fell off my chair…and as I hit my head, a thought occurred to me. So, he reads all this easy stuff, but he gets it. In fact, not only does he get it, he goes deep.
Hmmm. Maybe Aesop was onto something when he told us about the turtle and the hare. Maybe slow and steady really is the way to win the race.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Unwrapping the Gift of Understanding

This week, I began a conversation with a fourth grade reader with, “So tell me what you know about the main character.” He said, “Well, she has a friend named Justin and has a mean girl named Hannah in her class.”

Do you notice? These are peripheral details about the character in his book.

So I probed further. He went on to tell me about what happens in her class and her teacher’s name and then after I prompted a third time “anything else you can tell me about her?” the floodgates opened. He told me that his main character is forgetful (like him, he said), she thinks she’s mature (which she’s really not, according to him), and she’s the kind of character who’s always getting into trouble.

For me, the lesson in all of this is that it took time to get this reader to a level of understanding that got him excited. I had to ask him three times to think about his character. With each probe, he thought about the character more. Slowly but surely, he arrived at new and deeper understandings about his character.

When I shared this experience with a group of colleagues, one teacher observed how this reader’s thinking unfolded in layers, “like opening a gift,” she said. Ever since she said that, I can’t stop picturing this in my head. Presents get better and better as you unwrap them. We’re eager to open the box and tear the pretty paper but once we see what’s inside, that’s when we really get excited. Understanding is a lot like that. It doesn’t always happen in teacher time with the first question we ask. Sometimes, we have to keep going.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

You Can’t Hurry Book Choice

Today I worked closely with a reader who was trying to choose a book. When I approached him, I sensed that he was somewhat reluctant. He struck me as the kind of child who would spend his entire reading time choosing a book if it meant he could avoid actually reading. My instinct was to take the “Hurry up, get a book, get back to your seat, and get busy reading approach.”

Then it occurred to me.

Reluctant readers very often don’t know what to choose because they don’t know what’s out there. Sure, I could rush Billy, but to what end? What will I have taught him about book choice? About stamina? About good readership?

So, I decided to invest the time to carefully guide Billy’s book choice. We scoured the classroom library together. As we thumbed through books, I told him about titles and authors that we encountered, eliminating things that weren’t of interest as we went along. Before long, we had narrowed his choices down to a small stack of possibilities.

As it turned out, Billy did avoid the entire reading period making his book selection. However, he now has a book he is excited about reading. In fact, he chose two books that he is excited about reading. Had I hurried him, he might have chosen something to placate me and I’d be happy for now, but he wouldn’t. And he’d be back in the classroom library tomorrow.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Simplifying Book Choice

At this time of the year, I am privy to a lot of conversations about book choice. Helping match readers to books is one four guiding principles of good reading instruction closely linked to two of the other tenets: read more often, read more pages. It seems so simple: The sooner we empower children to make good choices, the quicker we send them on their way to greater reading proficiency…

If only it were that easy.

In reality, book choice is layered with perplexing issues. From book shopping to abandoning books to figuring out what interests you as a reader, it is a topic that needs to be visited and revisited.

Recently a group of teachers presented me with a logistical problem centering on book choice: When is the best time for students to go book shopping? Do I send them all at once or should I send them in small groups?

In the third grade classroom that I visited today, the children normally shop for books on Monday (the day of my visit). Instead of worrying about managing a class full of students mulling around the library all at once, I brought two strips of poster board with me. One was labeled “still reading,” the other was titled “need new now.” As I entered the classroom, I invited the children to jot their name down on an index card and passed around my poster board strips and asked them to clip their name to whichever title best applied to their needs as a reader. In less than two minutes I knew that Evan and Kirana needed to shop for books and the rest of the class was comfortably settled with what they were reading. We got busy with our mini lesson and our workshop went off without a hitch.

In response to those teachers who ask, “When is the best time to go book shopping?” I respond, “whenever they need new books.” When it becomes an issue that children are without books or always in need of a new book, those are the layers I eluded to before—we address them as the need arises.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Guiding Principles of Good Reading Instruction

How do we help children become better readers? This question drives many of the conversations that we have during the course of the year. Inasmuch as it is a national discussion, it is also a district, building, and parent discussion. Everybody wants to know: how can we help children to read better?

As long as we have children who struggle, there will always be ongoing research to fine tune our understanding of how children learn to read. In the meantime, there is already a great deal of research that addresses this very important issue. When I think about how to help children become better readers, I think in terms of four guiding principles:
1. Create opportunities for children to read more often
2. Encourage children to read more pages
3. Help match books to readers
4. Provide expert instruction

If you find yourself questioning how to help children become better readers, consider planning instruction according to these principles. The first two tenets speak to reading volume. As you plan reading lessons, ask: Do I provide time for practice? How much are my students actually reading? Couple that with “Are my children reading books that are too hard?” and you have addressed three quarters of the reading puzzle.

Broken down like this, teaching everybody to read doesn’t seem like such an insurmountable task.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Good vs. Great Instruction

This week when I visited a teacher to do a demonstration lesson in reading workshop, the teacher said, “I love it when you come in because it gives me time to watch my students. When you teach, I notice things about how they respond and how they think that I never noticed before.”

This conversation continued and we talked about how those noticings influence our teaching decisions. Who needs to learn what? How should I group them? Who’s getting it? Who needs follow-up?

Our jobs as teachers demand a lot from us. At the end of each day, we are all worn pretty thin from teaching seven different lessons, managing behavior, and ushering students to and from the far corners of the buildings we work in. There barely seems to be enough time to get through the plans we made for our immediate day let alone making time to reflect on them.

But I can’t help but remember what my colleague said, “I notice things about how they respond and think.” These revelations help us to plan instruction that makes a difference in children’s learning. Granted, it is easier to turn to the teacher manual and deliver the lesson that comes up next in the program but can we neglect to factor in what our observations and experiences tell us about what children need to know?

Teaching is a frenetic business and while I hate to add one more thing to an already full plate of things to do, I ask you to think about making time to reflect. What we learn might be the difference between good and great instruction.

Our lives as teachers are busy. Very busy. We know that good instruction relies on us reflecting on what our students need as readers and writers; however, when do we do that? On our prep? During lunch? In the car on the way to and from school? It seems like everything needs to fit into the cracks if it is going to get a check on the list of things to do.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Teaching Revisions

During the past few weeks, I have been helping to launch the writer’s workshop in several classrooms. We are up to choosing seeds. For years, I have been fielding questions like “what do you mean I have to write more about an idea?” and “I know which idea I like best, but once I choose it, what do I do with it?” I enter into this knowing this is a difficult move for young writers; so this year, I resolved to approach it differently.

My first change will be to develop this concept over several days. I began today by having children reread their notebooks. As they reread, they wrote one to two words that summed up the content of each entry on post-its. When they completed that, I asked the children to think about whether each idea felt “worth mentioning” or “worth discussing.” This was a new step for me and I was amazed at the result.

By adding this new layer, children began to talk about which ideas felt “done” and which ones they knew they could talk more about. Some kids didn’t have any ideas worth discussing. They knew without me telling them that they would need to write more entries. Others narrowed down their many ideas to two or three worth discussing. Those writers are getting closer to choosing an idea that will become something bigger and different.

I have been teaching seed choice for sixteen years and today, I feel like I discovered a new path to what is at the heart of this concept. Sixteen years feels like a long time to get it right, but what I am realizing is that teaching is a lot like writing. Getting it “right” isn’t the ultimate goal. It’s about seeing bigger possibilities and making it better.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Struggler or A Reader?

On Tuesday, I was working with classroom teachers using the Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System for the first time. We were in awe at the amazing information we were learning about students. One of the teachers shared an observation she had made about one of her strugglers. She said, “It was so strange. Every time she came to a word she didn’t know, she kept looking at me. She wanted me to give her the word.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. I had just finished reading What Really Matters in Fluency by Richard Allington. In that book he warned that the tell-tale sign of a child who has been “remediated” is one that exhibits just that behavior! These readers are often interrupted by well-meaning adults who want to “correct” their miscues. Instead of learning to monitor their own reading and developing strategies for solving unknown words, strugglers learn to let other people do the work for them.

The bright side of this story is that the Benchmark Assessment invites “talk” about each book that the child reads. During the assessment conversation, this reader shared how she pictured the red eyed tree frogs. We shared our response to her response. She lit up. No longer did she seem meek and unsure of herself.

As I reflect on this experience, I am realizing that we often make the mistake of emphasizing the struggle with struggling readers. I am wondering how we can shift the emphasis to reader and in doing so, help children emerge more confident and proficient?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Being Resourceful

How excited would you be if you got 541 new books for your classroom library? One of my colleagues is VERY excited because that is how this new school year is beginning for her. She has so many new books that she enlisted the help of her husband to build bookshelves to give them a proper home.

What’s running through your head right now? Are you wondering where the funds for so many new books came from? Are you wondering where she teaches? Where is it that values reading so much that adding 541 new books to a single classroom library was a priority? Are you wishing that you, too, could start the year with 541 new books?

As I pass through conversations in lots of different schools, I hear a great deal of negative criticism about what teachers CAN’T do because schools haven’t provided what they feel is adequate training, resources, or materials. Teachers wish and wonder what it’s like to work where their friends teach and dream about how much better it would be if “this district did it like that district.” As somebody who works with educators in many different districts, I can tell you, no matter where you teach, something will always be lacking. There is NEVER enough money for all the training, resources, and materials that we need, so instead of resisting good teaching initiatives, I propose we exchange CAN’T for CAN and plow ahead with good teaching practices.

My colleague, the one who has 541 new books for her classroom library, is a dedicated reading workshop teacher. With a mere twelve hours of training under her belt, she started independent reading and literature circles with the classroom library she had. In spite of not having an adequately stocked tool box, she dabbled with mini lessons and teaching strategies and forged ahead with her reading workshop. Her courage and can-do attitude helped her figure out what else she needed to make her reading workshop productive and successful. For her, it came down to books. She needed more books.

Probably like your school district, there wasn’t much money in the budget for new titles, especially the number of books she was looking to add to her classroom library. So what did she do? She placed a letter in the mailbox of her many neighbors asking them to donate any gently used children’s book that had been relegated to a dusty shelf or box in their basement. “Please, if you are done using them, I will put them to good use,” she promised her neighbors. And little by little, the books began to appear—in her mailbox, on her stoop, at the end of her driveway stuffed into a paper bag.

Five hundred forty one books later, Michele feels ready to begin her reading workshop. Is this because she works in a dreamy, heavenly district that made her teaching dreams come true? No. This is because she is a teacher committed to helping children become more proficient readers. In order to do this, they need books. Lots of books. And her students will have them because like any great teacher, she is resourceful.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

September Love Affairs

Yesterday I watched a video of a struggling reader with a group of second grade teachers. As they listened to him read and analyzed his miscues and asked questions about him as a reader, they hypothesized and thought about what he needs to get better. They commented on how cute he was and sympathized about his struggle. They wished out loud that they could work with this child. In short, they fell in love.

Last September, this child’s teacher loved this reader, too. She tried her best to teach him, but as he failed to make the progress she hoped he would, he grew apathetic and uncooperative. He became easily distracted and ill-behaved. By June, September’s love affair had morphed into an eager parting of ways. Good riddance.

Anybody who has ever taught children understands what it is like to teach a child who struggles. When children struggle, it is easy to blame the learner. He’s lazy. He’s not listening. He’s not trying. He’s not supported at home. It’s somehow easier to explain away misgivings when it’s the child’s fault.

But…what if it’s not the child? What if it’s something we’re doing? Or not doing?

As we analyzed the behaviors and errors that this child made as a reader, I was reminded of how important it is that we be reflective about the children we teach. On this day in September, we understand what this reader needs. But as he grows and changes, his needs will change. Only if we remain perceptive and reflective will we change our instruction and approach to continue to meet his needs. We can only do this if we care enough to keep trying.

This September, I urge you to not only fall in love with your students, but to stay in love. When you feel frustrated by the teaching challenges before you, ask questions, think out loud with colleagues, but whatever you do, don’t stop exploring what you could do differently or better to teach the children who sit before you.

Have a great year.

Monday, August 31, 2009

You Can’t Teach Them Until You Know Them

Most teachers spend the last precious days of their summer vacations readying their classrooms to usher in the new school year. As they write out labels with names like Suzanne Ormond and Michael Calliente, they wonder about who these children are. What will they be like? How will I teach them? What will I teach them?

Our nature as industrious human beings makes us eager to get started. Over the summer, you might have read an idea that you want to try out or maybe you took a class and saw a strategy that you are dying to use. But before you dive headfirst into your curriculum, take the time to get to know your students.

What are they interested in? How do they feel about reading and writing? What are they excited about? What makes them feel nervous? What are their hopes and goals for this year? What do they seem to be able to do? What do they seem to struggle with?

For those of you worried about what you will teach this year’s students, fret not. You cannot know what to teach until you know who you are teaching. September is a time for learning the needs of the new group of students who sit before you. Great instruction reflects what good researchers we are and not until we know them will we be ready to teach them.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Curriculum Refuse

My good friend once said to me that in the life of a teacher, July is like Saturday, a time for relaxing and regrouping; and August is like Sunday, a time to start thinking about and preparing for work.

Well, it’s here. It’s August. While many of us are still enjoying outings to the beach and riding roller coasters with our hands up, in the corner of our minds, we are entertaining thoughts of September. We are thinking about unpacking dust-covered books and decorating bulletin boards and readying our classrooms for the first day of school. In addition, we are organizing our materials, paging through professional resources, and thinking about what we will teach this year.

So many teachers start the school year with good intentions. We vow that children will read independently every day. We promise to make time each day for writing. We will conference and assess and plan meaningful instruction. But then, we have our first faculty meeting and we receive the laundry list of directives for this school year. Then, there’s the pressure of back-to-school night and parent-teacher conferences and report cards. Next, it’s prepping for the ELA, the math assessment, the Terra Nova, and whatever other standardized tests are coming down the line.

There go our good intentions.

Feeling like there is too much on our plates is a common lament. As you start this school year, I urge you to keep your eye on your best intentions. Years ago, I heard Lucy Calkins speak about making time for the teaching you know is important. She said that sometimes, “you have to take carloads of curriculum to the dump.”

As you sift through your thoughts and plans and ideas for this school year, think carefully about what you do. If you’re not sure if a piece of your curriculum is worth keeping, ask yourself this question: How does this benefit my students? If you can’t think of at least three good reasons, take it to the dump.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Who Moved My Cheese?

Who Moved My Cheese? When you hear this title it doesn’t sound much like a book meant to help teachers improve the quality of their literacy instruction. In fact, this little gem by Dr. Spencer Johnson isn’t about teaching—it’s about learning.

In this book, two mice named Sniff and Scurry and two little people named Hem and Haw head into a maze searching for nourishment and happiness which for them, comes in the form of cheese. The journey is different for each character and when the cheese becomes difficult to find and eventually disappears, each character reacts differently.

In education, we face a constant stream of change in the way of student needs, assessments, administrative changes, and shifts in policy. In the same way that Sniff and Scurry and Hem and Haw deal differently with change, so too, do teachers. Who Moved My Cheese? helps to put change into perspective and forces us to think about the need to adapt and rethink how we deliver instruction. In my busy life, I relish simplicity. This story is a simple and valuable tale that takes less than forty-five minutes to read but leaves you thinking and questioning for hours and days after.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Start Your Reading Workshop Strong

With this year barely over, September is a far off, distant thought for most. At Literacy Builders, we are busy planning what promises to be our best offerings yet! I spent last week gathering thoughts and ideas for Organizing for a Strong Reading Workshop, our August 5th offering. Our day will begin with looking closely at assessing readers’ needs and learning about their interests and habits as readers. After that, we will talk about establishing expectations that encourage readers to set their own standards high as readers. The rest of our day will be filled with mini-lessons that lead to active readership and ideas that ensure that your reading workshop gets off to a strong, positive start.

Six hours is barely enough time to think about starting a strong Reading Workshop. For those wanting content specific information, August 6th is for you. The morning will be dedicated to comprehension monitoring. For any teacher who ever thought, “They’re reading, but I’m not sure if they are getting it,” this session is for you. This hands-on workshop will send you home with mini-lesson after mini-lesson to take back to your classroom to help develop your students’ concept of “What is understanding?” Our afternoon will be dedicated to looking at the specific needs of struggling and reluctant readers. What can be done to bring them on board? What understandings do teachers need to have in order to effectively teach and motivate these readers? Filled with hands-on activities to bring back to your classroom in September, this workshop promises to help get the year off to a strong start!

Visit for our course brochure. Hope to see you in August.

Monday, June 8, 2009


A kindergarten class that I visited today continues to learn about poetry. I struggled over the weekend with what to do with this group of writers to help move them forward. I was afraid of making poetry seem hard--their enthusiasm is infectious and their can-do attitude is astounding. I couldn’t bear to squash that energy. As I waffled through possibilities, I had to make a decision. I would teach them about how poems look a certain way on the paper as a result of line breaks.

In the same class, I had a conference with a young writer. He was writing about apples. By his account, he was done. Do I continue the conversation about line breaks seizing the opportunity to help him see how today’s lesson applies to his writing or do I make it about his process? Yet another decision.

Ultimately, the lesson about line breaks was mediocre at best. I used a pocket chart and index cards that could be moved around and while I was successful at not squashing their energy, I don’t know that I was effective in getting my point across.

The conference, however, was amazing. I decided not to stick with the conversation about line breaks and asked my young writing friend what his plan for writing was now that he was done. In our conversation, he not only let me know that he had options, he let me know of his intentions. Now that he was finished writing this poem about apples, he would go on to write a poem about carrots. When the carrot poem is done, he will write poems about a bunch of other foods and put them all together in a book of poems about food.

At the end of each day, we will have made countless decisions. Some of them will be insightful and brilliant and others, well, we’ll be inclined not to talk too much about them. I think what’s important about decisions is to reflect on them. We have so much to learn from ALL of the decisions we make—good AND bad.

Friday, May 29, 2009

For the Love of Learning

I cannot teach anybody anything.
I can only make them think.

A few weeks ago I saw Peter Johnston, an Education professor at SUNY Albany and author of a great little book called Choice Words, speak at a conference I attended. On that day, he said many profound things that I am still thinking about including this, “Who cares if kids love books? I want them to love what books can do for them.”

This makes me think a lot about my own reading life. I love books. There is no question about this. My favorite way to spend a Saturday is browsing Barnes and Noble. I can lose myself for hours meandering from section to section, cracking spines and skimming backs of books.

That said, I don’t just love books. I love what is inside of books. Last week I finished A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink. After reading this book, I couldn’t stop thinking about right brain thinking. I started collecting metaphors. I wanted to run to Avalon in Stony Brook so I could walk the labyrinth chanting a word like hope or faith to see what creative things might come from me. Over vacation I read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and met my all-time favorite book character—Hans Hubermann. How I wish that man were real! What a kind and gentle soul. He made me think hard about humanity and circumstance.

Peter Johnston was right. Inasmuch as I love books, I love what books do for me. They make me think. They make me wonder. They make me question my world. I love anything that makes me do those things. Talking with my colleagues makes me think and wonder and question. Seeing people like Peter Johnston makes me think and wonder and question.

Learning is pervasive and never ending. Teachers know this better than anybody. How are you planning to think and learn over the upcoming summer? Are there books that you are excited to read? Are you planning to take a course? If you’re not sure, know that there will be lots of thinking going on in August at Literacy Builders’ summer workshops and everybody is invited to join! For information, visit

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Book Emergencies

My third grade son was very into the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series a couple of months ago. He started the first book on a Friday night and stayed up late reading. That Saturday, we had some errands to run, one of which included the bookstore. He read in the car and was more than halfway through book one when we arrived at Barnes and Noble. As we shopped, he made a beeline for the Jeff Kinney display and came back with books two and three in hand. He insisted we buy them both because he would be done soon and what if we didn’t have them? Heaven and bliss, we had a book emergency.

Sadly, Matthew has long since finished the Wimpy Kid series. He occasionally picks up his do-it-yourself book and makes an entry, but that burning hot desire to read has cooled. I watched him staring at the pages of his book last night. He’d glance out the window then back at the page. After twenty minutes, he’d read six pages—clearly his Night at the Museum book didn’t warrant the undivided attention that Greg Heffley got. As a mom and a reading teacher, I am longing for more book emergencies.

What is it that really ignites passion in young readers? This is a question that I am asked all the time but struggle with myself. I do know that the more children know about what’s out there to read, the more inclined they are to read it. So perhaps, the secret lies in talking more about books. Is there a book or series that went “viral” in your classroom this year? Let me know because summer is right around the corner and I am hoping to refuel a reading fervor.

Friday, May 15, 2009

CAN’T They?

The cold air ____________________my neck. How would you fill in the blank?

I’ve been working with a group of first grade poets and I posed the same question to them. In my head, I considered the words “blew on” and “breathes on.” My first grade friends came up with those words too but they also came up with “kisses,” “tickles,” and “stings.” When I brought this question to these young writers, I had preselected “breathes on” as the best choice for what I was trying to say. After talking to them, they made me reconsider. “Sting” was, by far, the BEST word for the image I was trying to create. I planned to teach these first graders something new about word choice and walked away having learned more than I could have ever taught them.

A colleague recently shared a story of a college professor who postulated in a graduate school class that first graders weren’t really capable of writing poetry. When she shared that story, all I could think about were these first graders. They write things like “the snake slithers like a worm” and “my guinea pig, my own little prairie dog, he’s so fast like lightening!” By virtue of being a child, they find poetry in everything. They are awed by things that stopped being beautiful to adults a long time ago. First graders can’t write poetry? Only if we grown-ups tell them they can’t. Otherwise, their words capture the poetry of the world perfectly.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Creatures of Habit

Today is Mother’s Day. I had grandiose visions of sleeping in till 9:00 and eating breakfast in bed off a tray filled with flowers and adoring letters from my children. But, here I sit at 6:30 AM dressed in my sweats and sneakers ready for my morning walk—why? Because that is my routine. That is what I do every day.

I visited a kindergarten this week. I taught a brief lesson on what to do when you are stuck and don’t know what to write. After my lesson, I took a risk and simply said, “Now, I’d like you to go get started on your own writing.” In a classroom of five and six year old writers, you might have expected chaos—a mad dash to the folders, confusion until everybody found something to write with, but no, that is not what happened. It was quiet and orderly. The children quickly gathered their materials and sat down to write. As I began to confer with them about their work, they talked to me about their “drafts,” “stretching out words,” and “brainstorming their planning pages.” They easily sustained twenty minutes of independent writing and could have gone longer except for the fact that I stopped them because I was leaving and wanted time to share.

Such language, organization, and stamina during writing workshop. How is this possible? I wondered. And then I realized. In this classroom, writing is valued by the teacher. Every day since the first day of school, they have had writing workshop. Their language is so impressive because the teacher uses this language when she teaches them. The transition from mini lesson to independent writing time is so smooth because each day for the 150 odd days that they have come to this classroom the teacher has set expectations for how to gather their materials and get started in order to make the most out of the time they are given. They can sustain long periods of writing because they have practiced and because they have been taught that their words matter. They know that they have important things to say. Writing Workshop is an integral part of their day. It is a routine is ingrained into their being—just like me and my sneakers.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Should they or shouldn’t they?

Yesterday I visited a teacher at her wit’s end with book abandoners. She said, “I can’t believe that here we are in April and I still have kids who pick up a book, read a couple of pages, and put it down only to start the cycle again with another book!” She continued by saying, “These are fourth graders. They should be reading chapter books!”

Understanding her frustration and knowing that she is feeling the pressure of June, my question for her was simple. “Should they?”

She thought. “Shouldn’t they?”

Reaching our wit’s end is not a comfortable feeling. However, it is sometimes just what we need to rethink our instruction and evaluate what WE are doing that might be impeding the change we hope to affect.

When children abandon books, it is often their way of telling us that their reading is too hard. Perhaps if these children were reading shorter texts they would build the stamina they’d need to sustain a longer text. Or maybe, if these children spent some time with picture books they’d rediscover a passion that died when the books they were expected to read stopped having the lovely illustrations that they fell in love with as young readers. Either way, maybe fourth graders shouldn’t always be reading chapter books. I’m thirty-eight and I haven’t picked up a chapter book today. I have read the newspaper, my email, and several samples of first grade writing. I feel a sense of accomplishment. Could it be that chapter books don’t always give our young readers a sense of accomplishment? Are we perpetuating an anti-reading sentiment by pushing them into long texts all the time?

I warn to be wary of the word should. Very often the change that we seek rests with “should not.”

Friday, April 3, 2009

Spring Awakenings

A girl writes about a painting in a museum. She shares how it looks “like a line of poetry,” and how the colors blend together like “a rainbow under the sea.” After she reads aloud, the class claps. Another boy stands to share his work. He begins to read: “Thor gives dry kisses, not drooly ones. When he is done, the class claps again. This group of fourth graders is doing the difficult work of “showing” instead of” telling” in their writing and they are impressed by the accomplishments of their classmates.

I, too, clap after they share but secretly I am celebrating something very different. These two writers have spent countless writing workshops staring at the blank page watching the clock slowly tick, wishing the period over. As I cheer their accomplishments, my mind wanders to the daffodils I had seen on my morning walk: tiny green stems topped by yellow buds poking out from beneath the hard weathered grounds of early spring. “Finally,” I thought to myself convinced that the flowers would never come out.

How many times had I thought the same thing about these two writers? Would they ever be able to find an idea that seemed worthy of writing? Would writing ever be anything but painful hard work? At times I felt doubtful, but like the daffodils that slowly took root and found their way through dirt and rocks, these writers, found their way to beautiful words and vivid descriptions. They were nudged and nurtured and what emerged? A beautiful flower. Finally.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Cutting the Fat

For many young writers, revision is the most dreaded step of the writing process. Over the course of the last few days, I have been exploring revision with some fourth and fifth grade students. We have been investigating how decisions about what to take out can have as much of an impact on improving writing as adding details or descriptive language.

One of the pieces we tackled read, “We were getting ready for school when we heard the bus squeaking down the street.” Squeaking is one of those words we teachers love. Isn’t it wonderfully descriptive?

Not according to my fifth graders.

As I circulated the room, checking to see which words were getting the ax, I noticed nearly all of them saw this word as “fat” destined for the chopping block. I didn’t get it. “What was wrong with the word squeaking?” I asked. I wanted them to justify their decision.

It was simple in their eyes. Buses do not “squeak” as they are going down the street. They “squeak” when they stop. When a bus moves, it is more like a “rumble.” The word “squeaking” was not right. This writer needed a more precise word.

Now I saw their point. I marveled at the shortsightedness of my own thinking. I couldn’t believe how a strong action verb lured me in to make me believe the writing was solid.

As I sit here typing this, I find myself wondering if the problem is not in teaching revision inasmuch as it is in the WAY we teach kids to revise. The extent of much of the teaching about how to improve a piece of writing never gets past “add detail and description.” By starting with “what should we take out?”, my students began asking questions like: Does it make sense? How does it sound? Is this detail important? Is this confusing? Does this tell instead of show? Is this specific enough?

When they asked these questions, they had no trouble going back to their piece with fresh eyes. Their pencil points were sharp, ready to eliminate the fat. The impact on their writing was immediate and profound.

Never again will you hear me say, “add description, add detail.” The better question seems to be “What can you take out?”

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Activating the Love Sac

Are you wondering what this is going to be about? That’s what good titles do.

Last night I had one of those cherished heart-to-heart conversations with my eight year old son. He was asking me how people fall in love. An honest question followed up by an innocent theory: “Mom, do people have a love sac in their bodies that gets turned on when they’re grown up?”

So you see, he wasn’t asking me about the love you feel for your parents or your brother or your grandma. This was about LOVE—the grown-up version.

Thinking back on this conversation, I find myself smiling. This is one of those “kids say the darndest things” stories I will share with my friends and family (unbeknownst to him to spare him any embarrassment). It’s a sweet story, one worth telling.

Imagine now that I called this story “The Love Talk” or “Talking about Love.” Would you be as interested in reading my story? I polled the students I was working with today about which story they’d be most interested in reading. It was unanimous. Everybody wanted to read “Activating the Love Sac.”

Teaching kids about writing titles has been relegated to “afterthought” status in my instructional repertoire. I am wondering today how that happened because ultimately, a title is our first encounter with a piece of writing. First impressions are lasting impressions and if we want readers to look further, we have to entice them. From now on, I am upping the ante on teaching titles. I want my writing students’ voices to be heard.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Don’t Sour the Grapes

Yesterday, I worked with a fifth grade class on stretching their thinking about a topic. I had them reread a recent notebook entry and underline a line of their writing that spoke to them. They then rewrote this line on the top of a new page and used it to prompt their thinking and writing for the day. As far as lessons go, it was a good one. The children were inspired. They took their writing in new directions.

After the lesson, I proceeded with my conferences. Most went smoothly. I encountered the typical set of writing issues: “I don’t know what to write about.” “ I’m done.” And then:“I don’t know what else to say.”

“ I don’t know what else to say.” This particular conference posed a particular challenge for me. The young girl I was working with shared her original entry about a stranger on New Year’s Eve. The line she had lifted inspired a new entry about her family tradition of watching the ball drop and eating twelve grapes and making wishes for each month of the newyear. Her problem now was knowing what she would write next. This is where my own struggle began. I wanted to say, “That thing about the grapes is so interesting to me. I’d love to know what you wished for.” But I couldn’t. The teach the writer, not the writing mantra echoed in my mind. I needed to help her know how to solve this very common writing dilemma: What DO writers do when they don’t know what else to write?

So instead, I said, “Well, when I write and face this problem, I reread what I have written to help me rethink my idea. You might even try lifting another line from this entry and see what happens.”

After that, I walked away. When I checked back in with her, she told me she decided to write about grapes. When I looked at what she had done, I saw that she had launched a whole new entry about her brother’s allergy. She took her writing in a direction only she could have imagined for herself.

I was pleasantly surprised at the outcome of this conference and realized as I left this young writer to her work how important it is to resist our impulse to help too much. Each time I sit down to confer, I make a subconscious decision—will I enable or will I empower? When it comes to efficiency, it is always easier to enable. However, if it is effectiveness I seek, empowerment is the only way to go.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Slow Down and Let Him Put on His Shoes

When my now six year old son was three and four, he had a fierce independence streak. He wanted to brush his teeth, get dressed, and put on his coat and shoes all by himself. When this started, we celebrated. We’d say, “Look at what a big boy you are!”

As time went on, I found myself cheering his accomplishments less and less. I was in a rush. I had places to be, things to do. Instead of encouraging my son to do things for himself, I insisted on doing them for him. I usurped the responsibility of putting on his shoes, zipping up his coat. Why? It was quicker. Shamefully, it was more convenient for me.

Now I have a six year old son who, when it is time to go to the bus stop or leave the house, refuses to put his shoes and coat on by himself. Where once he was so willing and eager to do it on his own, I created a monster who depends on me to do it for him.

When I think about the mistakes I have made with my son, my thoughts turn to writing workshop. Teachers contend with students who refuse to write on a daily basis. In our rush to confer and meet the needs of 20-25 children, we do the equivalent of “put the shoes” on these writers. Because we are in a hurry and we have places to be and things to do, we tell them what they need to do as writers. We list ideas for them to choose from as we tap our foot and hurry them to get started. Each time we rush a child, we need to remember that while it may not be convenient at this moment, the time we invest in helping children understand the writing process saves us a lot of time in the future. Ultimately, we want these writers to know what to do when we’re not there and if we teach them to rely on us to do their thinking for them, really, what have we taught them? Learning and thinking takes time. Sometimes, we can’t rush it.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Supermarket Stories

The other day, I was in the supermarket. It was a Sunday, the day before a predicted snowstorm. The lines at the checkout were long so I grabbed a magazine to pass the time. I became so absorbed in what I was reading, it was my turn before I knew it. As I moved to the conveyer belt to unload my overflowing cart, I glanced behind me. There was a much older gentleman with five or six items in his wagon. With all I had, this man would easily be waiting an extra ten to fifteen minutes for me to finish so I offered to let him go ahead of me. His response surprised me. His eyes welled with tears as he graciously accepted. He went about his business and as he was leaving, he turned to me and said, “Thank you so much. I’ll be sure to pass it on.” Now it was my turn to well with tears. This simple, sincere gesture had assumed some greater meaning. I was moved that he was moved. It felt good to have made a difference in somebody’s day.

The reluctant writer is the nemesis of every writing teacher. We have all had the conference where a child insists that they have absolutely nothing of value to write about. The only things they ever do is go to school, go home, watch tv, and play video games. According to them, their lives are boring; therefore, they have nothing to write about.

In talking with students like this, I have come to realize that they think they have to live fantastic lives in order to be a writer. Part of being a writing teacher is helping them realize that fantastic is a state of mind. They need to come to understand that they don’t have to have taken a fancy vacation or experienced something extraordinary in order to have a story to tell. Great ideas are lurking everywhere. Even in the supermarket.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Effective Talk, Effective Teaching

I have listened in on many reading conferences that sound more like inquisitions than conversations. “Who’s the main character? What’s the problem? Where does the story take place?” Children obediently respond but I often find myself wondering as I walk away, “Aside from confirming this child can recall literal details from the story, what do I know about this child as a reader?”

This question has forced me to reflect on my own conferences and take measures to question students differently. In a fourth grade classroom I’ve been working with, we’ve been investigating the question, “Am I understanding?” My conference today started with, “So, are you understanding?” The child nodded confidently. I asked him to tell me how he knew. He responded by saying that he could easily summarize what he had read, a strategy that we had talked about using when monitoring comprehension.

I continued our conversation by asking him to reflect on whether or not there were times when he knows he is NOT understanding. His reply? “Not in this book because it has short chapters but sometimes when I read books that have long chapters, I don’t always understand.”

Wow. I never would have got that had I stuck to the typical repertoire of comprehension questions. I was so glad I asked because now, he has got me thinking about how to support him when he reads longer texts. He also has me wondering if other children are facing the same struggle. This conversation made me take pause and consider where to take my comprehension monitoring instruction next.

Without this kind of talk, my teaching would be much less informed and consequently, less effective.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Teach the Writer

When I run a writing workshop, I can count on there ALWAYS being at least one child sitting doing absolutely nothing. Without fail, I can predict why this child sits whittling away precious time. It’s not because he’s defiant or lazy. It’s because he’s experiencing the ubiquitous writing workshop problem: He doesn’t know what to write about.

There is something very uncomfortable about a child who isn’t working. When we begin conferring, these writers are our top priority. Very often, the conferences go something like this: “Johnny, I see you are having trouble getting started. What’s the problem?” (He shrugs). “Well, we’re writing about things that we want to convince other of. Let’s look at our list. Do you want to write about no homework?” (He shakes his head no). “How about longer recess?” (Another head shake). “Better cafeteria food? Saving the environment? Younger voting age?” (No. No. No.)

We begin to sound frantic. We start to share his frustration. We wonder, “Is he defiant after all?”

Because the problem of kids not knowing what to write about is so prevalent, we need to step back and ask ourselves about the quality of our conferences. Reread the conference I just shared. What did we teach this writer?

Answer: That whenever he is stuck, the teacher will do his thinking for him. That won’t be very useful to him when he’s at home trying to write something on his own.

Imagine now that our conference went like this: “Johnny, I see you’re having trouble getting started. That happens a lot to real writers everywhere. What we need to figure out here is how to get unstuck. What have you tried so far that isn’t working?
Instead of rattling off a bunch of things he could write about for today’s assignment, we’ve begun to help him recognize his problem and guide his thinking about how to solve it. The likelihood is that he will face this challenge again sometime. This conference will show him how to fix the problem now AND in the future. THAT’S teaching the writer.

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Reluctant Reader Conundrum

In his book What Really Matters for Struggling Readers Richard Allington writes, "Our schools create more students who can read than students who do read." The problem of getting kids to read more is rampant. They just don’t seem to want to do it. The question is why?

A lot of teachers sheepishly confess to me on that sly that when they were young, they didn’t like to read either. They get it when kids say, “I don’t want to read!” In the spirit of coming clean, I too have a confession. I was one of you. I didn’t like to read as a kid, either.

Looking back, I can’t understand it. I grew up in Central New York, the land of lake effect snow. I can’t tell you how many hours I wiled away doing nothing but feeling bored. I could have filled a lot of hours reading books, but I go back to my original question: Why don’t kids want to read?

For me, I think a lot of the problem was book choice. Every time I’d go to the library and pick something out on my own, it was a long shot. It was a random grab at the shelves. I’d look at the cover and think, “this looks okay, I’ll give it a whirl.” I’d read a couple of pages, put it down, and never go back to it. Sound familiar?

I see this cycle a lot in the classrooms I visit. I predict with staggering certainty who will finish books and who will not. So, again I ask, why don’t they want to read? I think a lot of the problem is kids don’t know what to read. Earlier this year, I blogged about the importance of blessing books. I mentioned the titles we share often become coveted reading in the classroom. At first kids are interested because they like you and want to please you, but then, they read it and actually get turned on. When kids get turned on to something, they start telling other kids about what is happening. They start passing books around. Certain titles have waiting lists. It’s what happened with Harry Potter a few years ago, it’s what I see every day with Captain Underpants, The Magic Tree House, and The Diary of a Wimpy Kid. How do these crazes get started? People get excited and they talk.

We as teachers can learn so much from this. Talk. Therein lies the secret to getting kids to read more. I sometimes wonder how my reading life would have been different had my teachers spent time talking up books. What if they had allowed other kids to share what they were on about in their reading? Would it have made me a reader? Who knows? But I sure wish someone would have tried.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Be careful of assumptions

I recently read Peter Johnston’s book Choice Words. In it he quotes Margaret Donaldson from her book Children’s Minds, “the better you know something, the more risk there is of behaving egocentrically in relation to your knowledge. Thus, the greater the gap between teacher and learner, the harder teaching becomes.” I took notice of this because I had recently had a conversation with a group of teachers about this very topic. Over the years, we become very close to our teaching. We come to know and understand what we do really well because we’ve been doing a lot of years. This knowledge, for all intents and purposes, is an asset. However, we do sometimes begin to make assumptions about what children should know. I think this is the gap that Margaret Donaldson is talking about and it definitely does make teaching harder.

Today I was in a third grade reading workshop classroom having a conference with a boy reading a Pokemon book. I made the assumption that he probably knew a lot about Pokemon from watching the television show and figured I would support his comprehension by activating prior knowledge. Mistake one. He really knew very little about Pokemon and according to him, had caught only the end of a couple Diamond and Pearl episodes. Then I launched into my next assumption. He had some other reason for choosing this book and had thought about what to expect based on the title, cover illustration, and back cover. Mistake two. He had looked at the front cover and had some thoughts about what the book might be about but he hadn’t read the back cover. In fact, he was thinking he’d do that when he finished the book because after all, that is the very last page. Wow. That surprised me. I know that a lot of kids don’t read the back cover of books but it never occurred to me that a child would reason it would only make sense to do that at the end of the book because it is the very last page. This was the wake up call I needed to remind me to stop making assumptions. In order to be the most effective teachers we can be, we need to step into the shoes of the children that we teach .

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Imagine this...

It is reading workshop. The teacher reads aloud from a book and teaches a mini lesson about questioning as a comprehension monitoring strategy. After the lesson, the children head back to their seats. The teacher draws their attention to a chart that instructs them how they will use their time during the rest of the workshop. Quietly, children begin to move about the room. Some put on headphones and begin to listen to a story on tape. Others report to the classroom library to select new books. Some stay in their seats to read quietly from their independent selections while others write in their response journal. A small group reports to the computers and begins to work on an interactive program that has been selected for them. For nearly sixty minutes these children move from reading activity to reading activity without instruction or intervention from the teacher. For sixty full minutes, these children are engaged in reading and activities that support their growth as readers. It is quiet and productive.

I have heard teachers insist that such a scene is just a dream. Something that they merely WISH could happen in their classrooms. However, what I have just described is a REAL reading workshop in a SECOND grade classroom. Thank you, Patti, for inviting me into your classroom and reminding me of what really can happen when a reading workshop is nurtured and tended to with the “I think I can” and “I know I will” attitude. Wow.