Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Year in Review: Best of 2010

With the final days of the first decade of the new millennium ticking away, it felt like the perfect time to reflect on the past year. As I reread my weekly posts from 2010, I was glad to find certain posts safely buried in the eternal depths of cyberspace but others, I realized, ignited the feeling I get when I see an old friend—excited at the opportunity to reconnect.

Of the 51 Literacy Builders’ blog posts during 2010, the following rank on my list of top ten favorites for the year. If you’ve been busy and haven’t read them, take a moment and share your thoughts. If you’ve read them and are like me, needing a “boost” to energize the beginning of 2011, enjoy the reread!

10. Rescuing Picture Books from Extinction: Nothing was more appalling to me than the thought that the next casualty of standardized testing could be something as sacred as the picture book.

9. Magic? Or Just Reflective Teaching? Lessons from a Nine Year Old: I learn a lot from observing my own children play. In this particular post, my older son, Matthew, recognized when his own teaching wasn’t working and revised his approach to make it better.

8. Teach them Well: When learning fails, who’s responsible? This is a big question that I find I revisit often.

7. What Would Harry Potter Do?: More lessons from my fifth grade son and Harry Potter. A post about using literature as “imaginative rehearsal” for real life. Is there a better reason for reading?

6. Rethinking Curriculum Refuse: First of all, I like the title but more than that, if you are feeling overwhelmed, this post is great for putting things into perspective.

5. Forgiveness for Going Off the Diet: And as you continue to deal with the overwhelmed feeling brought on by the overflowing plate of Balanced Literacy, this post will help focus the lens to give you still a clearer perspective.

4. Better than the Best: What do Tiger Woods and teaching have in common? This post urges teachers to reflect on their practices and think about what we could do to be better. With resolutions being a big part of the new year, a great piece for jumpstarting conversations about change.

3. How do YOU Peel a Banana?: A favorite because it was the most controversial post on the site this year. Also great for rethinking things that we do “just because.”

2. Education’s Greatest Foe: Complacency: The title says it best, but what I really like about this post is that it ends with questions to help us reflect on and rethink the things we see as best practice.

1. The Reading Checklist Manifesto: It surprises me that this is the post that I selected as my favorite. The beginning is a little bogged down with scholarly quotes from Dr. Atul Gawande, but his whole idea of creating checklists prompted me to come up with a checklist for daily reading instruction that I really like. It’s comprehensive and research-based. In my mind, it sums up what good reading instruction is all about and that is why it earned the title of Best Literacy Builders Blog Post 2010!

In honor of this year’s Best of 2010 post, I created a replica of the checklist to be downloaded and pinned to your bulletin board as a daily reminder to be the best reading teacher you can be! Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Reader + Long Book = Good Reader?

Do you know this scenario?
You have a student who struggles a bit as a reader. When she heads to the classroom library, she picks the longest book that she can find. When you try to steer her towards something a little less daunting, she insists that THIS is the book that she wants to read.

What about this scenario?
You have a student who is a proficient grade level reader. Mom and dad are very proud and want to continue to “challenge” this reader so they take him to the bookstore and find the thickest book in the children’s department, buy it, send him off to school, and insist that this is the reading that this child not only wants to be doing but SHOULD be doing.

While these scenarios are different, they have a thread of similarity running through them: they share the notion that good reading is synonymous with book length.

When I think about how this notion was born, I realize it’s pretty transparent. As emergent and early readers, we look at our reading role models (parents, teachers, older siblings). We notice that their reading is infinitely longer than the Dick and Jane books that we are reading. It seems like those readers, the ones we want to be like, are toting around much bigger books—they are longer, they are thicker, they have more words, the print is tinier. Those readers are way better than us, so therefore, when we are able to read stuff that looks like that, that must mean we, too, are good readers.

In the same way that good spellers almost automatically earn the title of good writer, people carrying around long, thick books earn the title of good reader, regardless of whether it’s deserved. What the girl who struggles in the first scenario and the parent who insists on the long text in the second scenario are failing to realize, however, is that good readers choose books for many reasons, and length is but one factor. Who Moved My Cheese by Dr. Spencer Johnson (amazon affiliate link) is a really short book. I can read it in less than 45 minutes. Most Harlequin romances are much longer than Who Moved My Cheese but I can assure you, Who Moved My Cheese is a far more taxing read in that I ask myself a lot of questions, infer, and use it as a mirror for looking at my own life. It’s the thinking and skills that a text demands that determine whether a book is a good fit for a reader or not. And it’s all those factors combined that add up to what makes a reader a good reader.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Forgiveness for Going off the Diet

Have you ever noticed how appealing everything looks on a holiday table? The turkey, cooked to a beautiful golden brown, sits as a centerpiece of perfection. The green beans with a hint of garlic and balsamic are served on a silver platter. The breads are placed in lovely woven baskets lined with a festive towel. There is cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes and squash and every dish looks more appetizing than the next. Eagerly we fill our plates with a little of everything and when we sit down, we glance at the plate. It seems a bit full, slightly daunting. But we don’t care. It’s the holidays. On the holidays, we feast.

Afterwards, we unbutton our pants and begin to feel a little remorse. It all looked so good on the table, but when the table is cleared, we take Zantac and promise to start the diet again tomorrow.

As I meet and talk with teachers about better reading and writing instruction, I realize that balanced literacy is perceived a lot like the holiday feast. Mini lessons. Guided reading. Shared reading. Choral reading. Reading conferences. Read aloud. Strategy Groups. Word Study. Interactive writing. You name it. It’s all beautifully packaged and presented at conferences, workshops, faculty meetings, and books by renowned and respected experts. As educators, we take bits and pieces of these ideas and put them on our teaching plate and attempt to clean up every morsel. However, at the end of the teaching day, we are often left with something akin to the indigestion we feel at the end of the feast, only now, we don’t have a fasting plan that will restore us to our previous level of comfort in a relatively short amount of time. The dissonance creates feelings of exasperation and worse, inadequacy. We wonder, how is this all do-able?

I have met countless teachers ready to throw in the towel and quit balanced literacy. They are ready to go back to the basal and traditional reading groups and when this happens, I remind them that nobody gets it all right on the first day out. Even Vincent Van Gogh, master painter, said, “I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it.” And that’s what we have to do, too. Yes, it is true, the people selling balanced literacy present it on silver platters, but that is only because they have had lots of time to practice serving it up on paper plates. Like Van Gogh, they kept at it. They sought out whatever information they could: they read, they planned, they practiced, and they talked to whoever they could about it.

Contrary to how it may feel at times, balanced literacy is not a feast. It is the meant to be a steady diet of solid reading and writing instruction. And like any good diet, it needs to be learned in moderation with the knowledge that from time to time, we’ll mess up. When that happens, we call it a day, and start new tomorrow, knowing that it won’t be long before we, too, will be ready for the fine china.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Teach them Well

Left to their own devices, my boys, aged 10 and 7, would grunt hello in the morning, leave their pants of the floor for me to pick up, and command me to fix them a snack when they were hungry. I find these behaviors rude and appalling and work very hard to correct these obnoxious habits. When they bark orders, I remind them to say please and thank you. In spite of their angry protests, I make them clean up the bits of construction paper they sprayed all over the floor in the great confetti experiment. They are responsible for putting their clothes in the hamper and their dirty dishes in the sink and as a result, people often tell me how polite and pleasant my boys are. I am always flattered and hear myself saying, “yes, they are such good boys,” as if their affability were innate and had nothing to do with me at all.

I recently visited a first grade classroom and modeled a lesson about how to help children recognize words they don’t know in their reading. Following the lesson, the six year olds in this class grabbed their book baggies, found their cozy spot in the classroom, and read for fifteen minutes. There was a quiet buzz in the classroom as children spoke softly into their whisper phones or shared something too good to be missed with a friend sitting near them. The tenor of this independent reading period was focused and productive. When I complemented the teacher on the efficacy of her reading workshop, she smiled and said, “It’s because I have such a good group this year.”

It surprised me to hear her say this. Implied in her comment was the notion that what I saw might not be possible with a different group of students. In the same way that I attribute my own children’s pleasantries to something they were born with, she saw her success as a workshop teacher as dependent upon her students. I quickly reminded her that while it’s always nice to work with a “good group,” our successes as educators are directly linked to what we know about best practice and the daily decisions we make about how to implement this knowledge. While “a good group” might facilitate implementation, what I saw was directly linked to good teaching.

As educators, we need to think hard about educational responsibility. When things go well, it is not just because our students are “smart” or “working really hard.” It’s because we are doing something right as teachers. In the same sense, when things are not going well, it’s not just because children are “difficult” or “come from poor homes” or “distractible.” It’s because we need to do something different to reach those students. While it is easy, and arguably natural, to attribute both positive and negative learning outcomes to children, there is really but one direction to point the finger for the success and failure of our students: at ourselves. What students learn and how well they learn is dictated by the quality of the person delivering the instruction: children’s educations are our responsibility. The more we know, the better we teach. The better we teach, the better they learn.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Thanks for the Stories

With Thanksgiving on the horizon, this is the time of year I find myself thinking about all of the things for which I am grateful. As I started to write this blog, I made a list that included things like:
  • Collaboration
  • Questions
  • Thoughtful Discussions
  • Reflection
And then I moved to things like

  • Inquisitive children
  • Quiet time to think
  • Blank pieces of paper

And then, I found myself jotting down:

  • Books
  • Interesting illustrations
  • Poems

And it got me thinking a lot about children’s literature. I love children’s books. My own personal collection contains over 3,000 titles that have enchanted my family, my students, and myself. Authors and illustrators are the truest champions of literacy. Without them, there’d be no books. Without books, our children would not read. So, for this year’s Thanksgiving post, I would like to share my tribute to children’s authors. I am grateful for the amazing work of the legions people who write books that children want to read and want to personally say, Thank You to all of them.

Once upon a time,
Someone sat
Characters like
They sat, they dreamed, they wrote,
Of magic tree houses,
     magic school buses,
          magic castles,
To capture the
               And awe
Of a child.

To any person who has ever written for a child, thank you. With each book and illustration, another reader is born.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Better than the Best

In the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (Amazon Affiliate Link), Chip and Dan Heath share a story about pro golfer Tiger Woods. As they tell it, eight championships into his career, Tiger Woods decided that his swing needed an overhaul. For the typical lay person or spectator, it’s hard to imagine that Tiger had anything to improve, let alone the swing that had earned him countless trophies and prizes. One might ask, if something is working, why change it?

As a teacher, I think about this question a lot. Do we really need to change things that are working? I think the answer is no, we don’t need to change them. What we need to do, however, is think about them. If we aim to duplicate or amplify our successes, we need to ask why. Why does what we are doing work? And then we need to ask what. What can I do to make this better?

When Tiger Woods set out to improve his swing, I don’t believe that what motivated him was a notion that he was swinging the club wrong or badly—he simply believed that he could do it better. At the top of his game, Tiger positioned himself as a learner. Since then, he has gone on to win over thirty-five more championships and titles. Why? Because he wanted to be better than the best.

From time to time, we all need a little push to rethink our best practices. Today I am asking you to think about what you are doing that works. Why does it work? What can you do to make this better?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Say a Little Prayer

My computer is dying. As I write this blog (by hand, on a yellow legal pad), I am sitting a prayer-filled bedside vigil as my husband, the computer tech, is desperately attempting to resuscitate Windows which seems to be lost somewhere on the hard drive.

I fidget as I contemplate what the loss of my seven year old laptop may mean. All of the things that I do with ease and automaticity will now be so…complicated: checking my email, tweeting, pulling up a PowerPoint for Tuesday’s afterschool workshop, writing this week’s edition of The Boost.

The gravity of this situation is hitting me hard.


With my computer on life support, I digress from my normal musings about all things literacy. I apologize for the lapse and promise to share something meaningful as soon as I resolve my computer issues. In the meantime, say a little prayer for my ‘puter.

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Message from Space

One day, a couple of weeks back, I visited a fifth grade classroom during independent reading. I was on a quest to lift the quality of student thinking through conferring. One-by-one, I made my way around the classroom and eventually, I came to this reader.

Look for a moment at this picture. What are your first thoughts? How might your conversation with this reader begin?

The first thought that I had when I met this child was engagement. His chin sits on the desk and he isn’t touching the book. I immediately drew the conclusion that he wasn’t reading. And if he was, no way was he really into his book.

My objective, as I mentioned a moment ago, was to lift the quality of student thinking. I was wondering how I would do that with a child so clearly disengaged in reading. So, rather than try to go somewhere I doubted would be successful, I introduced the elephant in the room. I said, “I notice you sit differently than other kids sit during reading time. Tell me about this choice.”

I expected that he’d shift in his seat, extend his arms to touch the cover, and initiate a transformational posture change because of what I implied in my opener. But that isn’t what happened at all.

He looked at me and said, “I’m not comfortable sitting at a desk and reading. This is the only way it feels good.”

He went on to tell me about the characters in his book and shared some of the questions he was grappling with. He was clearly not disengaged as I had first thought. He was just uncomfortable.

I have spent a good part of the beginning of this school year thinking about environment. What should a classroom look like? How should a classroom be laid out? At the beginning of the year, it feels like these are aesthetic choices. However, as the year wears on, we are reminded that the choices we make about how to organize our classroom space reach far deeper than aesthetics. Environment establishes the parameters for learning and communicates what we value.

It is now November. Stand in the doorway of your classroom and take a good look around. What message is your space sending?

Monday, October 25, 2010

You are What You Read

On Friday, October 29th, Scholastic is launching You Are What You Read, an initiative for people to think about and reflect on which five books have shaped their lives. When I first read about this, I was intrigued. I found myself thinking back over many, many years trying to figure out which books have molded me into the person that I am. My memories of childhood reading are somewhat limited because I was a sporadic reader. When I’d finished Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume by fourth and fifth grade, I didn’t read again till eighth grade when I discovered V.C. Andrews. After that, I didn’t read again until I was a sophomore. At that time I got into The Clan of the Cave Bear (Amazon Affiliate Link) series and fell in love with Ayla and all things Neanderthal (maybe that explains my high school boyfriend?)

But shaped me as a person? Certainly these books entertained me, but they didn’t leave me in a state of pensive reflection. In fact, I can’t help but think that as a child, reading was a bit passive for me. When I finished a book, I slammed the cover shut and when outside to play. It has only been in adulthood that I have discovered the lingering effects of reading. Now, it seems that everything I pick up moves me and changes me in both small and big ways. Now, narrowing it down to five is difficult. However, after much thought, these are the five titles that make me who I am:

Who Moved my Cheese by Dr. Spencer Johnson
Who Moved My Cheese (Amazon Affiliate Link) came into my life at exactly the time I needed it to. A few years back, my career felt at a crossroads. My children were reaching school age and I wondered if I wanted to go back into the classroom or continue working as a staff developer. As a staff developer, I felt I had been talking the same game for five years and what I had to offer was getting stale. Who Moved My Cheese gave me a new way to look at and think about making change and helped me to realize that my block of cheese was whittling away and the time had come to find new cheese. Reading this book unleashed in me an intense quest for new “cheese” that I am hoping never ends…

What Really Matters for Struggling Readers  (Amazon Affiliate Link) by Richard Allington
On my quest for new cheese, I found this book. Never has one book ever clarified in such simple terms what needs to change and happen in order to help children on the path to greater reading proficiency. In this book, Richard Allington spells out what children need to become more proficient: Books that match their ability level, practice (lots of it), and expert guidance. As far as books go, for me, this one was transformational. Now, every lesson I teach mirrors these tenets.

Outliers (Amazon Affilate Link) by Malcom Gladwell
Richard Allington told me that practice is really important if we want to help children become more proficient readers, but in Outliers, Malcom Gladwell sealed the deal. I have always felt a bit envious of the super talented and the super successful. Why not me, I’d wonder and shake my head at picking the short straw in the “gifts” department. Nothing has ever compelled me more or helped me to reach new understandings about how the cards fall more than Outliers. Malcom Gladwell helped me to realize that talent and success are more the result of hard work and proximity than they are luck of the draw.

A Whole New Mind (Amazon Affiliate Link) by Daniel Pink
In the way that Malcom Gladwell helped me to think differently about success, Daniel Pink helped me think differently about everything. As I read this book, I felt a call to action. While I think Daniel Pink meant to speak to a wide audience of service providers and business people, I couldn’t help but wonder what we need to do differently in education “to think outside of the box.” Daniel Pink showed me what can happen when we think and do things differently. The results can be transformational. I embrace reform because of this book.

Hey World, Here I Am (Amazon Affiliate Link) by Jean Little
In the spirit of looking with “a whole new mind,” this is the book that never ceases to surprise me of its potential. Of all the books I have listed here, this is the one I have known the longest. It has been a text that I have used since the inception of my career. It is filled with stories that I keep going back to for the purpose of demonstrating absolutely everything and anything I need to. Every time I read these little vignettes, I see new possibilities. I love it because I couldn’t teach without it.

So, these are the titles that have shaped me. Now I want to know, which titles have molded you?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Rome wasn’t built in a day…

The Literacy Builders community has been thinking a lot about classroom environment and its impact and effect on teaching and learning.  At the beginning of the school year, we heard from Kathy Merlino, a second grade teacher from Islip, New York about her travails and triumphs with going deskless.  This week, Cara Newman, a fourth grade teacher from Plainedge, New York, shares her “hybrid” approach to the “deskless” classroom. 

I’ve been a teacher for 8 years now and one aspect of teaching that I have always struggled with is classroom setup. Every year I enter my classroom over the summer, set the desks up in tables of 4-8 desks, put the teacher desk off to the corner somewhere and then wait for the students to come in, in order to see if the classroom set up works.  It wouldn’t be long until I stayed after school and re-arranged the classroom again, this time hoping it would work. Through all of this re-arranging I wanted to achieve a “homier” feeling but that wasn’t going to work with a minimum of 22 desks taking up the classroom space and current fire codes.

At the end of last year I asked my principal if I could get rid of all desks and set up my classroom with just tables. I had a dream classroom in my mind and I couldn’t wait to set it up. Unfortunately, the answer was “no”. My husband and I then went into my classroom at the end of the summer to set up and while moving each desk into tables I was so upset that once again my classroom would be mediocre and not have the “homey” feeling I was craving. I left knowing this set up wouldn’t last all year but didn’t know how I could fix it with the desks in the way. The classrooms that I read about over the summer, in books such as Classroom Management In Photographs (Amazon Affiliate Link) by Maria L. Chang and Spaces & Places: Designing Classrooms for Literacy (Amazon Affiliate Link) by Debbie Diller seemed so unachievable.

As the school year began I launched Daily Five, Math Workshop, Science and Enrichment. My kids are allowed to move anywhere in the classroom when they are working and very often the desks would be empty. Something had to be changed! The desks couldn’t take up the prime real estate in the classroom when they weren’t being used 75% of the time. Keeping my principals “no” in my head I had to think of a creative way where each kid would still have their own desk, although may not be where they sit all the time.

With the help of the math teacher, who was also looking for a more manageable way to do Math Workshop, we sat down and drew out a floor plan. Together after school we moved the furniture in the classroom and came up with a plan that I think may work. Half of the desks in the classroom were moved to the outside parameters and now half of the children are sitting at tables while the other half is still at desks. I have 11 desks, 1 hexagon table of 6, and two circle tables of 4. The children sitting at the tables have two places where they can put their materials. Since their desks are arranged on the outside of the classroom flat against the wall, open side facing out, they are still available for storage. Also, each table has a crate for materials. We use a "tool book" basically a big binder with everything in it and this is the only item they need for the day. The children at the tables have also taken it upon themselves to put pencils in a common supply box, along with stacking their independent reading books in various areas. I love how every time I look at the tables the kids have come up with a new idea.

In order to avoid parent or student complaints we talked a lot about "good fit" spots and how they can try both the tables and desks to see what they like better. We spoke about how trying different things is good and sometimes change is for the better. No child has to sit at either a desk or table. I am glad I didn't get rid of the desks because now the option is still there for the children who want them. Some kids came in the first day very upset when they saw the new arrangement and were like "I don't want to sit at table!" I made sure they knew they didn't have to. I also had a child who was agonizing over the decision of whether or not he wanted to sit at a table. I told him not to worry about it and try the table for a day. He said he would next week. At the end of the day I looked at his desk and found a post it with a note on it that he wrote to himself, “Next week I will try a table”. When I questioned him about the note he said he didn’t want to forget that he wanted to try the table when he walked into school on Tuesday. A lot of Daily Five is about student choice and I think because they are being given the choice and opportunity to be a part of the classroom set up, they are more opt to respect their area, the classroom, materials, and the new arrangement.

Some of the positive aspects of this change are: the classroom is bigger, there is more room for everyone to move around, children's seats are no longer bumping into each other, children have personal space, kids sitting at the tables are not worrying about the next step (taking out a book before I say so), I've taught more lessons where kids are on the carpet, I have a common area for group work and we now have only one meeting area instead of two. I've also found the classroom to quieter. This is all in only one week.

Things I need to still work on... some of the children at desks can not see the Smartboard from their seat, if more kids want to sit at the table and/or desks there is not enough room, switches need to be made but that may not be an option, and I need to get use to all of the movement with kids getting up to get materials (I am thinking about putting tennis balls on the legs of the chairs). We also need to work on our transitions.

It has been an interesting week one and I look forward to improving the classroom set up as we move forward. As my dad once reminded me when I moved into my college dorm and wanted everything to be set up at once, “Rome was not built in a day” and neither are our classrooms.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Rescuing Picture Books from Extinction

On October 7th The New York Times ran an article titled Picture Books No Longer Staple for Children. When I saw this article, my eyes bugged out of my head. I had to look twice. Could it be? On the very day that people were banding together to read the Ezra Jack Keats’s classic The Snowy Day (Amazon Affiliate Link) to break the record for the most people reading the same book in a day, was this article to imply that picture books are at risk of becoming an endangered species?

After reading the article, I am disappointed to report that yes, indeed, this was an article reporting sluggish sales of this beloved genre. Good journalists don’t leave out the why and The Times cited some reasons for the decline: “Parents have begun pressing their kindergarteners and first graders to leave behind the picture book and move to more text heavy chapter books….Publishers cite pressures from parents who are mindful of increasingly rigorous standardized testing in schools.”

I nearly cried. Picture books a casualty of our test crazed culture? This is a crime against literacy that can only be exonerated through an unyielding crusade to educate the masses of the formidable value of picture books in children’s reading growth and development.

So, as a self-appointed ambassador in this crusade, I want to share the following anecdote.

When my son entered third grade, he was a proficient, but reluctant, Level M reader. As his mom, I felt it was my duty to “challenge” him. For at-home independent reading, I laid out my collection of Magic Tree House books and said, “Pick one.” Dutifully he did and retired to the den to do his “homework” that required him to read for 20 minutes. I peeked in on him as he read and saw that he had sprawled himself out on the floor. He was rolling around and every five minutes or so, he’d yell, “Am I done yet?” He flipped through the pages and counted the chapters and clearly, he was disengaged.

A few days later, he sauntered into my office while I was busy working. I looked up from my desk to see that he had picked up a book. I watched as he flipped through the pages studying the pictures and then…heaven and bliss, he began to read. When it was time for him to go, he walked out of my office with his nose still in the book…reading.

I couldn’t believe it. Two days before I was engaged in the interminable struggle of forcing reading on my son and now he was reading…voluntarily? What had prompted the change?

The book my son chose to read on this occasion was a Berenstain Bears picture book. He loved the brightly colored illustrations and he loved that he could sit down and finish the book in one sitting. When I offered him my entire collection and informed him that it would be just fine for him to read these books for homework, I had an eager reader.

Some parents would argue that I had done a disservice to my son because he was, well, capable of more than babyish picture book reading. You can imagine their surprise when I tell them that The Berenstain Bear book that my son was reading was a level M, the very same level as those Magic Tree House books I was pushing. And what’s more, my son was experiencing success and joy as a reader. THAT’S what makes children into readers. When kids want to read, they read lots. When they read lots, they get better. Chapter books don’t make them better. Reading makes them better.

This week, my question looms large. What will you do to protect picture books from being a victim of standardized testing? How will you spread the word that picture books are important and valuable in the development of strong, eager, and proficient readers?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Importance of Talk and Collaboration

Tired and weak from a sleepless night of coughing and waking to blow my nose to achieve five minute increments of clear breathing, I spent this past Saturday in an unusual way—idle.  I sipped tea, sucked lozenges, and burrowed under the covers…with my computer on my lap.  I spent the day surfing the web and mining little gems here and there. 

One “find” that I came across was a podcast by Jennifer Allen, a literacy coach from Maine and Franki Sibberson, a library media specialist from Ohio.  These are two of my favorite educators and I jumped at the chance to listen to them talk together.  In this brief interview, Franki queried Jenn about her work as a coach, specifically the job of helping veteran teachers outgrow their best ideas.  It was interesting to hear her ideas about working with teachers to perfect their craft after so many years and if you’re interested in hearing what she had to say, you can listen to the podcast or read that transcript at  What stuck with me, however, was the notion that Jenn shared that in order to refine their practice, the thing that veteran teachers crave most is “collaboration and talk.” 

Hours after first listening to this intriguing conversation, I found myself watching an interesting TED video featuring Dr. Sugata Mitra from India.  As an educational researcher, Dr. Mitra has done some ground-breaking work about how people learn and people’s motivation for learning.  He’s famous for putting computers with internet access in slum walls and rigging up video cameras to watch what poor, undereducated children do with this technology with little to no instruction. Fascinatingly, these children played with it until they figured it out.  Dr. Mitra discovered that once one gets it, he shares with others.  How did these children learn?  Through collaboration and talk. 

For me, a theme was clearly emerging.  People, not just veteran teachers, crave collaboration and talk.  When we talk to others, we merge our thinking in ways that leads us to important “a-has”  that inevitably expand our minds.  As our minds expand, we refine our thinking which leads us to be more productive—no matter our practice or trade.

As a staff developer, I work with a lot of teachers who crave the opportunity to collaborate and talk with others.  It is a common lament that there simply isn’t enough time to sit down to share ideas.  And the bottom line is, they’re right. 

That said, that’s not an excuse not to talk and collaborate.  Technology has given us the tools we need to extend our conversations beyond the walls of our classrooms..  Any teacher wanting to engage thought-provoking conversation can log on to the internet and venture into the world of educational chats and discussion boards to engage in amazing collaboration and talk.    If you don’t know where to go, I suggest starting at the Literacy Builders Discussion Boards.  Our boards are ready and waiting for you to share your thinking.  This week I added an “issues in reading workshop” thread that I hope you will log on and contribute to.  While you’re there, check out the other threads as well and become part of collaborative community that wants to help all of us feed our innate desire to talk in order to “outgrow our best ideas.” 

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What would Harry Potter Do?

In the opening days of school, my son encountered some trouble on the playground.  He came home visibly upset and his tales pulled at my heartstrings.  What could I do? He was struggling and I wanted to make it all better.  Naturally, marching onto the playground and wagging my finger in front of the noses of those schoolyard bullies wasn’t an option.  I felt stuck.

So I handled it the way I suspect most parents might.  I reviewed the protocol for playground problem solving: ignore it, walk away, tell a grown-up. But that didn’t placate him. That wasn’t what he needed to know.  He wanted to understand why—why do people act this way?

Hmmm.  Good question.  How does one explain what motivates ill-will and mean-spirited, hurtful human behavior?  Why DO people act this way?

As I stuttered and stumbled my way toward an explanation, my son began to mull over his own question.  He said, “You know, Adam is kind of like Voldemort because he’s the leader. He’s really mean and yet the other kids, Zach and Ian follow him and do bad stuff for him.  They’re  kind of like the Death Eaters.”

I couldn’t believe it.  In that moment, Harry Potter’s magic permeated the walls of Hogwarts and took hold in my very own kitchen in Long Island, New York. Through The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets and The Prisoner of Azkaban, my son had met and come to know a motley and interesting cast of characters.  Some he admired and others he saw as downright loathsome and wicked. But either way, these people made sense to him. In Harry Potter’s world, evil and ill-will had a place.  We giggled as we imagined the Whomping Willow attacking his tormentors and we wondered what spells Harry Potter might cast to retaliate and fight this brand of school yard evil.

In his book Readicide (Amazon affiliate link), Kelly Gallagher cites Kenneth Burke who postulates that reading is important for children because “it provides them with ‘imaginative rehearsals’ for the real world.”  The world can be big and bad and ugly and good authors know that good stories weave the world’s complexities into their plots and characters. Through reading, children are exposed to many of the complicated issues that they might meet in the real world. And though they may whine and question why they have to read, I can think of no better reason than to tell them to take heed, because they can never know when they might need to know what Harry Potter would do. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Embracing Change: The Decision to Go Deskless

Embrace change.  As of late, that seems to be my message and I have been very moved by those of you who have commented on the blog and emailed me your inspiring stories.  This week, Kathy Merlino, a friend and colleague who teaches in Islip, New York, agreed to share her story of change and the experience of teaching second grade in a deskless second grade classroom.

The decision to go deskless
I had heard about the idea for years at conferences I attended.  It never attracted me.  I didn't see the point.  Then, last year, I began to entertain the thought, and I couldn't get it out of my mind: going deskless in the classroom.  What would it look like?  Where would the children sit?  Where would I teach whole class lessons? My mind began to race with ideas. What are desks for?  Why have them take up valuable space in the classroom?  Couldn't I have community pencils and supplies placed around the room instead?   A child will seldom fit the exact measurements of his desk.  Other seating arrangements could actually be better for small children.  Handwriting improves for sloppy writers when their elbows are anchored down on the floor and they are forced to use their smaller motor skills.   Besides, the atmosphere would be more comfortable--almost like at home-- and the children would be better able to learn.

I already had a couch in my room, but I didn't really have any child-sized furniture.  I went to yard sales and acquired a couple of low coffee/end tables and a magazine rack.  I bought a child's Adirondack chair and a child's rocking chair.  I got a child's park bench and a bean bag chair.  I lowered my posters and bought beautiful braided, non-allergic, non-flammable rugs.  I traded my big old teacher's desk for a smaller version that tucks away in the corner by the sink. I brought in plants from home, not just for cleaner air, but also to help relax the children. I was ready.  I was excited.  I just couldn't wait for the new school year to begin!

Organizing the space

I felt like I was setting up a home--a home for little folks who come to learn.  Many of my colleagues came by to see my room and were surprised and impressed with the new set up. They asked me questions and I showed them the "mailbox" I had set up to hold the children's math and science workbooks.  I showed them where I was going to place the children's homework on the top shelf of their cubbies.  It took a lot of thinking, but everything seemed to have a logical place to go and there were no desks to get in the way.

Living in a deskless classroom
As the weeks have gone by, I have had many visits from many more colleagues, my principal, and parents. They have observed and commented on how welcoming my classroom is.  They say it's beautiful and cozy and comfortable.  This year my students seem to be more attentive and caring.  One child even said, "I don't see anything I don't like about this room!"  It all seems to be working out very well.  Change is often difficult, but this change has been paying big dividends!

Click here to see all my pictures.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

How Do YOU Peel a Banana?

September brings a lull for staff developers like myself itching to begin working in classrooms but needing to wait patiently as teachers build rapport with students and lay the groundwork for well-established routines and procedures. This holding pattern inevitably gives me time to reflect on my own practices and set goals for the work that I will accomplish during this school year. As I think about what has been and what is yet to be, I surf the web for information: articles, blogs, videos—anything that I can use as a sounding board for my thoughts and ideas. Every now and then, I find a gem. And recently, I found one that I HAVE to share with you.

This is a video about opening a banana. I know what you’re thinking. If I’m amused by a man peeling a banana, I have WAY too much time on my hands, right? Here’s my response: watch the video, then we’ll talk.

After I watched this, I couldn’t help but think that this video is the perfect metaphor for professional growth and development. Year after year after year, we do what we think is best. It works, so we don’t bother to think about how to do it better or differently. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Isn’t that the old adage?

Since watching this video, I have eaten a lot of bananas. Sometimes, I remember to pinch the bottom and peel with ease. But, sometimes, because I’m in a hurry or because I’m just not thinking a whole lot about how to peel my banana, I revert to my old ways. I chuckle and think to myself, so that’s why some teachers insist on teaching whole class novels or give seven ELA practice tests before testing day: Change is hard.

Colin Powell said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ is the slogan of the complacent, the arrogant, or the scared. It’s an excuse for inaction, a call to non-arms.” When it comes to teaching, the call to action is imminent. Education is under the gun and we can no longer afford to be complacent, arrogant, or scared. The time to change is now and if we don’t start thinking about how to peel the banana differently, we may never arrive at the level of innovation our schools need to improve.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Education’s Greatest Foe: Complacency

We shall have no better conditions in the future if we are satisfied with all those which we have at present.

~Thomas Edison

In the summer of 1996 I attended Columbia University’s Teacher College weeklong writing institute. Each morning, I sat mesmerized as I listened to Kathleen Tolan and Isoke Nia share the podium and fill my vessel with information I felt I desperately needed to become a more powerful and effective teacher of writing. In the afternoon, with the gentle coaching of Sharon Hill, I immersed myself in my own writing and pushed myself to understand the writing process in a way that could only be achieved by trying the things that we ask of students. At the end of those seven days, I was invigorated and energized. I knew my learning would elevate my teaching to new levels.

I returned to my fifth grade classroom and implemented units of study and planned mini lessons with focus and poignancy. With the help of Carl Anderson who worked with me in my classroom, I tweaked and honed my conferring skills. I read Katie Wood Ray and Ralph Fletcher and I felt like there was simply not enough information available to satiate my hunger and thirst for knowledge about how to do this better.

In retrospect, there is no doubt that my professional learning curve was never greater than in my earliest years of teaching. I was uncertain and curious. I was new and I felt like I had so much to prove. I was highly motivated to work hard to be the best that I could be.

As time wore on, I achieved a level of success with my workshop that made me feel confident. Where once I sought advice from others, colleagues were now coming to me as their role model for workshop instruction. Little by little, I asked fewer questions. I read fewer books and articles. I became comfortable.

And with comfort comes complacency.

With movies like Waiting for Superman due to be released this fall and states vying for Race to the Top funding, education has moved to the public awareness hot seat. Policy makers, business people, and administrators are all weighing in on what they believe needs to happen to improve education. They promote initiatives and programs—and then wonder, why are things not getting better?

When I think about why things are not getting better, my thoughts turn immediately to complacency. Unless ALL teachers continue to push themselves, it will be as Thomas Edison stated: “We shall have no better conditions in the future.”

Education knows no greater enemy than the status quo and even good teachers no longer striving to be great are part of the problem. So the question I leave you with today is this: Have you stagnated at good? What will you do this year to outgrow your best ideas?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Jedi Master Speaks: Try Not, Do or Do Not

This past spring, many of my study group colleagues attended a workshop led by the sisters, Gail Boushey and Joan Moser. They returned invigorated and validated and inspired. They found themselves thinking about September and what they would do differently to prepare for a year of solid literacy instruction.

At this particular workshop, the sisters shared videos of their classrooms and talked in-depth about their space and how it supports effective literacy learning. My colleagues were intrigued by their ideas, especially the notion of a classroom where not every student has his or her own desk. They wondered out loud about what this would be like, how it would change the dynamic of the learning, and what the ramifications of making changes in their own classroom environments might be.

Eager for change, several of my colleagues returned to their schools to look at their space with fresh eyes. Should they exchange their desks for a few tables strategically placed around the room? They wrestled with the idea of having more students than desks. Would that work during content area instruction? Would there be fallout with parents or the principal? Where would students keep their things?

Were they sure they wanted to do this?

Where once they were jazzed up and excited to go back and make radical changes, now they weren’t sure they wanted to change at all. They faced a common conundrum: I want to do it differently, but I don’t feel comfortable.

Facing change is a theme that surfaces regularly in my life. I have seen change brought about by necessity to yield glorious and grand results. I have witnessed forced changes bring about unexpected consequences. But in each instance, it seems that change is always accompanied by fear. Sometimes that fear is debilitating, slowing innovation to a turtle’s pace or worse, bringing it to a complete halt. And sometimes fear is what invigorates, making the change positive and successful.

As you begin this school year, think carefully about the things you want change. Will you organize your space differently? Will you form a study group with colleagues so that you can become more schooled at the art of teaching? Will you approach your principal about the newest and best idea that you read about this summer?

No matter what change you’d like to make, do not forget that it is normal to feel afraid when embarking on a new journey and when in doubt, we should all return to the words of the great Jedi master, Yoda:

“Try not, do or do not.”

I intend this to be my year of great change and I wish you all the same. Don’t let your fear of change stop you. Just do it.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Poem for the Beginning of the School Year

There’s no more avoiding or denying it. It’s back-to-school season. It is my sincere hope that everybody has the most amazing year ever and as you begin, I’d like to share with you a poem that I wrote last year after attending my son’s first grade poetry celebration.

As he plays, I watch.

He writes books with blurbs
And speech bubbles.
He scribbles song lyrics
And journals about his trip to the zoo.

He is a writer.

He asks to go to the library.
He seeks out books on bunnies
And runs to me when he learns
What they eat
And how long they live
And what we need to do to take care of them.

He is a reader.

He holds coins in his hands
And asks, “How much is this?”
And then counts
And adds
And figures it out for himself.

He is a mathematician.

He mixes chocolate
with water
and yogurt
and salt
and sugar
And says,
“I need to watch and see what happens.”
He waits
And observes
And makes notes.

He is a scientist.

He sits at the table and does his homework.
He’s in a hurry.
He wants to be done
He stops and asks,
Is this my best work?

He is a student.

He is a writer.
He is a reader.
He is a mathematician.
He is a scientist.
He is a student.


Because he has a teacher.

I hope you all have a fantastic year molding writers, readers, mathematicians, scientists, students, and most of all LEARNERS!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Rethinking Curriculum Refuse

I spent some time revisiting some of my old blog posts and came across this one from last August. As I sift through my own files and ready myself for the school year, being reminded that every lesson I teach doesn’t hold equal weight was humbling.

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.

So, don’t forget to share—what ideas, practices, and lessons will you file in the trash this year?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Reader’s Theater: A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to a Workshop

Last week, one of the workshops that I led was titled Motivating Struggling and Reluctant Readers. In preparation for this program, I had gathered all kinds of research about motivation and what really makes kids want to read. I had it boiled down to a few basic things:

1. Allow them to choose what they want to read.

2. Respect their choices—comics, graphic novels, gaming manuals, and websites are all valid sources of reading material.

3. Help kids know what’s out there to read: Read aloud, bless books.

4. Build in success—don’t require kids to read things that are too hard. People WANT to do things they feel they CAN do.

In the vein of building in success, one of the things I had planned to promote was reader’s theater. It’s fun and engaging. It makes kids want to reread which helps to build confidence and fluency without raising and eyebrow.

And then a funny thing happened.

Two nights before the presentation, my seven year old son Nathan was reading at bedtime. He had pulled out his old friends Elephant and Piggie. Instead of curling up next to me to read aloud like he normally does, he decided he needed to “perform.” On this particular evening, Are You Ready to Play Outside? (Amazon affiliate link) looked like this:

Through his hand gestures and expressions, Nathan internalized the meaning of the words he was reading. He was able to take a book that he loved and make it dramatic and theatric—all without a script.

As he read, Nathan reminded me that reader’s theater doesn’t have to be a time consuming, over-the-top production. We don’t need to run out and purchase commercially produced materials in order to be able to implement this variety of shared and performance reading. The requirements for reader’s theater are actually quite simple: eager students and books. The rest comes naturally from rereading. .

Monday, August 2, 2010

Do Not Read Past This Title Till Next Tuesday

When I met with my colleagues last week who were busy preparing a workshop on reading partnerships and book clubs, a very thought provoking question arose: When kids set their assignments for literature circles, is it okay to say, "AND DON'T READ ON!"?

Teachers have good reasons for saying this. Their biggest concern is that early finishers will spoil the ending for those who haven't finished reading the book. Then there is the fear that the details of the book will become fuzzy for kids who read too much too soon calling into question the quality of their contributions to group discussion. Then, of course, there are those who issue this dictum merely because it seems to be the intuitive thing to do. When you read a book with a partner or friend, you read at the same pace.


Book partnerships and clubs are meant to mimic the reading behaviors of sophisticated adult readers. For years, people have been gathering to talk around books that they are passionate about. It is both stimulating and deeply gratifying to come together to discuss our thoughts and questions about a shared reading experience. Talk helps us to achieve new understandings and insights about the text being read.

This summer, I have been meeting with my study group to discuss Anne Goudvis and Stephanie Harvey's Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension for Understanding and Engagement (Amazon affiliate link). Each time we meet, we set a goal for the number of chapters that we'd like to read before our next meeting. I like having a goal. It disciplines me to make sure that reading is a priority. But, if I were to read on, I think I would be equally prepared for the conversation. And my group wouldn't be mad. Granted, if this book were fiction, I'd know the ending before them. But, as a sophisticated adult reader, I'd know better than to reveal the surprise.

Thinking about my own book club has really helped me rethink the "Don't read on" rule. I think it sends a very mixed message to kids to communicate in one breath that they need to read a lot and then impose limits in the next. If we are worried that kids will forget what they read and won't be equipped to make intelligent contributions to the discussion, we need to teach them how to track their thinking and how to prepare for book conversations. And for those worried about the "spoiler," that too comes back to good teaching. Instead of simply solving the problem by saying, "Don't read on," why not say instead, "Today our mini lesson is going to be the problems that can arise when book club members read ahead..."

What do you think? Should kids be able to read to the end? Or, are there other reasons why kids should stay together with the pack?