Posts filed under 'Literacy'

Turn Reluctant Readers Into Independent Readers

By reframing difficulty as opportunity, children begin to see the connection between their effort and their success.” Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris from Who’s Doing the Work? How to Say Less So Readers Can Do More

The relationship between reading volume and reading proficiency is well documented (Allington 2011). The more time children spend engaged with text, the more exposure they have to problem-solving opportunities, new vocabulary, and information, all of which contribute to growing proficiency in reading.

Who’s Doing the Work? Lesson Sets (WDTW) guides teachers to offer a wide variety of literacy opportunities to young readers through engaging lessons that align with a balanced literacy framework (Read Aloud, Shared Reading, Guided Reading, Independent Reading). Using high-quality art and literature along with “next generation” reading instruction strategies, teachers will gain the tools they need to empower reluctant readers to become independent readers.

Next Generation Reading Instruction

The lessons in WDTW Lessons Sets were created around the idea of next generation reading instruction, which is defined as responsive teaching in the 2016 professional book, Who’s Doing the Work? How to Say Less So Readers Can Do More. Instructional decisions are made based on carefully observing how students identify and manage the challenges they encounter in a text. The lessons are designed to show students their power as learners; reflect grade-level instructional standards; make learning deeper; and engage students in ways that make them forget that they’re working.

Engage Readers Through Art and High-Quality Books

In the WDTW Lesson Sets Reading Art lessons, teachers introduce a piece of art to students and encourage them to make observations and ask questions to determine what’s going on in the piece, thus practicing a skill or strategy they will be learning to apply when reading. A favorite among users of WDTW Lesson Sets, the Reading Art lessons allow teachers to ensure that students of all ability levels are able to participate and understand the lesson’s objective. WDTW Lesson Sets also include carefully selected fiction and nonfiction children’s trade books for each Read Aloud and Shared Reading lesson. According to Patti Austin, a second-grade teacher from Islip, NY who is currently using the WDTW Lesson Sets, “These books are such crowd-pleasers for the children, and for us as teachers, because they speak so well to what we’re trying to teach. The kids rave. They want to read them, they want to borrow them, they get very excited, and they want to hear them again and again.”

One Teacher’s Success Story

Take a look at this success story from Valinda Kimmel, an educator from Houston, TX, about a reluctant third-grade reader she worked with outside of the regular classroom using WDTW Lesson Sets.

“My planning and support for her was in large part guided by WDTW. . . We met every day from October until late May. Today her teacher sent me a text saying that she (the student) had passed our state assessment. She had a 37-point improvement from the benchmark she took in February until the ‘real’ test in early May. The last GRL she assessed as independent was a level G. The texts on the test were way beyond that. I’m believing that because she was empowered day after day to use the strategies she knew and had internalized, she was able, on the day of the test, to ‘gut it out.’ I know that she still has a long way to go, but the work she’s done and the fact that she passed should give her the much-needed confidence required to keep improving.”

A Gradual Release of Responsibility

At the heart of this student’s journey is the gradual release of responsibility, which supports a teacher’s shift from over-scaffolding a student’s development and allowing students to assume responsibility for their own reading progress by tapping into learned strategies on their own. According to Stephanie Harvey, the gradual release of responsibility is not a linear process, but rather a recursive and dynamic one (Harvey and Goudvis 2017). So, through repeated practice, with multiple texts of varying difficulties, reluctant readers can internalize new learning in ways that help them access it when working independently and transfer these skills back into their mainstream classrooms.

By presenting challenges as opportunities for growth, readers begin to see the connection between their effort and their success. As reading becomes its own reward, students are primed to become independent, proficient, joyful readers for life.

To learn more, download a sampler.

REFERENCES

Allington, Richard. 2002 “What I’ve Learned About Effective Reading Instruction.” Phi Delta Kappan (June): 740-747

Harvey, S., & Goudvis, A. 2017. Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension for Understanding, Engagement, and Building Knowledge. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

Add comment December 10th, 2018

Review of Not Light, But Fire by Matthew R. Kay

Recently, Peter Anderson, an English Language Arts teacher from Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Arlington, VA, sent us his take on Not Light, But Fire: How to Have Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom by Matthew R. Kay. He very articulately put into words what we at Stenhouse all think about this important book and its potential impact on classrooms across the country. We had to share.

Not Light, But Fire is a masterful combination of pedagogy and critical consciousness. It is impossible to come out on the other side of this book without experiencing some sort of growth. It was like Matthew had watched videotapes of my most ineffective teaching moments and devised a plan to help me improve. I’d been that teacher who engaged in privilege walks and shock pedagogy in the misguided belief that this would help my students engage with race. I had watched my classroom discussions flounder, unaware that I was setting my bar too low and staying away from the ‘hard problems.’ Thank goodness Matthew Kay is willing to share his own path and his own knowledge with folks like me. Every chapter contains relatable anecdotes, instructional strategies, and incisive commentary. Matthew Kay pushes us to see ourselves and our students as scholars, critical thinkers capable of high-level discourse. In an ideal world, my teacher training would have prepared me for the ethical and professional challenges I (and any teacher) face on a daily basis. But it didn’t. For that and other reasons, I am profoundly grateful that this book exists.

One of the sections I found most powerful was the very brief discussion of the different reasons teachers wish to incorporate social justice into the classroom. As someone who has tried to consume a steady diet of anti-racist texts in the last year and a half, I identified with the social justice warrior category. And it was wonderfully humbling.”

Pick up your copy of Not Light, But Fire HERE. Start having the tough, but essential conversations in your classroom and empower your students to find their voice.

Add comment December 1st, 2018

Mentoring New Teachers Podcast — Episode III: Effective guided reading groups

This is the third episode of our podcast series with Stenhouse author Shawna Coppola and kindergarten teacher Laura, who is in her first year of teaching.

Mentoring New Teachers Podcast – Episode III: Effective guided reading groups
By Shawna Coppola

In the last episode of our Mentoring New Teachers podcast, kindergarten teacher Laura talked about the high social-emotional demands of her kindergarten students and that she sometimes felt as though she was “drowning in behavior charts.” This led to a discussion about the importance of integrating social-emotional learning throughout the day, and I shared with her how kidwatching and documentation—even when focused on one or two particular students at a time—can help educators root out some of the causes of student behaviors that frequently derail the development of a healthy classroom community.

In this episode, Laura shares how well her students are adjusting to the routines they’ve established around their classroom literacy centers and how frequent check-ins are helping students develop their ability to reflect on their work in peer partnerships. With literacy centers running more smoothly, Laura talks about wanting to begin facilitating guided reading groups so that she may support her students as they read connected text within their zone of proximal development. I explain to her the original intention of guided reading and share how that intention has become somewhat lost as a result of the nature of many existing guided reading programs, and I offer Laura some advice for how to begin the challenging work of facilitating effective guided reading groups without becoming too overwhelmed.

Check out Episode 1 and Episode 2 of this podcast.

RESOURCES & INSPIRATION

Boushey, G., & Moser, J. (2006). The Daily 5. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Burkins, Jan & Melody M. Croft. (2017.) Preventing Misguided Reading: Next Generation Guided Reading Strategies. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

Shawna Coppola:

Hey there.

Laura:

Hello.

SC:

How are you doing?

L:

All right. Plugging through.

SC:

Good, so, well, tell me what’s going on with you and your students?

L:

So, we’ve been making adjustments with, we started up our new like center routine right after break. So, they’ve kind of been learning to do that. And we’ve been really making, I’ve been trying to make sure I really establish like our schedule at this point. Um, and that we’re kind of doing the same thing every day now. And more with that comes like the more parts of the day where they’re able to work independently.

SC:

What do the routines look like for students or what are their expectations?

L:

Right now, it’s like seven different centers, um, that are the same all the time and I’ll just rotate like themes on some of them for each month. But yeah, they work with a partner and we do two rotations. So usually we kind of group and do a small lesson before they start and then I send them and they’re learning, how to like, find their name and look to see what’s next to it. Um, so which center they have. And then I have a shelf that has boxes that match `the pictures on the chart, um, for like puzzles and writing and different things that they go and they pull them out. My principal actually observed that week and was at least impressed that they knew where everything was and were able to get it. Which is nice. And then I’m not super like strict about where in the room they’re working and stuff, except for ones that are kind of stuck in one place, like listening. But as long as they are able to work quietly and they’re staying in one place.

SC:

It sort of reminds me of Daily Five expectations in a sense where like find a good fit spot and stay in one spot the whole time. Is that sort of what you’ve been working off of?

L:

Yeah, I read the Daily Five book at the beginning of the year, actually, and I was like I love a lot of this stuff. But I was finding that having like too many kids doing listening and too many kids reading to a partner, whatever, they just got very like out of control. Um, and, it just was kind of crazy. And when I went to a conference in November, there was a speaker there that was talking about what she does which was like this partner, she has like twelve centers…

SC:

Wow, twelve centers?

L:

Yeah.  And so, I was like, oh, I’ll give that a try. And just working in partners, I had known from doing some other things that I was like I think it might be better. And it has been better, where I just have, I have too many kids who, a lot of boys and a lot who need a lot of work on self-regulation. And so,  it’s made it a lot easier to just pair them so that, for the most part they’re able to work with that one person.

SC:

And I love that idea of pairing them with a student, a classmate, too, because not only are they working on their routines you set up for centers, but just honing their collaboration skills is so great for them. Are these partners that they have chosen or are they strategically arranged partners?

L:

Right now, they’re arranged. Especially with all of the behavior things going on in here.  we’ve talked about how, what we can show that we know how to do each center responsibly. Then I could start having some days where they get to choose their center. Um, and then same thing, once I’ve seen that they’re able to work with their classmates responsibly then we can have some times that they could choose their partner. So, we’re kind of working towards that and trying to keep track of the work, like how well we’re doing. And right now, they actually have like a little, like a punch card to start off to reinforce like checking on did you do your work? Were you working with your partner? Were you staying in one place? Kind of checking back through those things.

SC:

Do they look at that punch card at the end of the whole sort of period?

L:

After each, we do two centers so after each one we check in with that.

SC:

What are the centers that you have set up?

Laura has a variety of literacy centers set up around her classroom that help to reinforce students’ developing literacy skills, including their letter-sound correspondence, their sight-word knowledge, and of course their ability to read and write connected texts of their own choosing.

SC:

So, with the centers what do you think it’s going really, really well for you and the students?

 L:

I think the big part is the, like, organizational, independence part of it. At this point, as long as I’ve moved their cards to where they need to be, pretty much all of them can walk over, know where they need to go and go get what they need. Um, and so that’s been, that didn’t seem to take long, which was awesome. So yeah, that’s definitely the big one. That and just that they’re working well with having partners…

SC:

Have you had any major partner arguments or problems that need to be solved?

L:

I have a couple. There’s one boy and he decided like a few days in that he didn’t want to be with his partner, which there is always the option of them working on some things alone. Some of them will take a day and do something and then be like I don’t want to do this by myself. But, but with him I’m trying to have the partners, also that set up so that I could pull them both and they’d be working on something similar with me.  With him it was hard to figure out somebody that would be able to work well with him that would also fall into that category. Otherwise most of the rest of them have done pretty well.

SC:

Well, that’s great. And so, there’s a lot that seems like it’s going well.  I remember when we were first talking about the kinds of things you were doing your classroom routines were something that they were, they were sort of taking too pretty well and I remember you saying that you love the independence of those Daily Five choices, um, which is nice to see that’s still sort of continuing.  So, I know that initially you had talked about wanting to discuss group or working in small groups?

L:

I’m just trying to like, anticipate starting those small group…and so making sure that I’m well prepared to use that time well was kind of my thinking. And I’ve done, I mean like from student teaching and stuff we did small group work but it ended up just like we almost always did the exact same like reading a little book from the curriculum that they had. And they did it kind of the same way every time. That was that. So, I didn’t get to see like a whole lot of very individualized instruction.

 SC:

Yeah.

SC:

So, are you anticipating that, so when you say working with small groups, are you looking at doing some guided reaching specifically?

L:

Yeah.

SC:

And have you started sort of thinking about what you want to do? Or have you just thought, you know what, this is sort of a missing piece in what I’m doing, and I want to just get some small group guided reading groups started?

L:

I mean to start off I do want to try to make sure we’re just taking a lot of chances to read books that are at their level.  So my plan for now was just that I was going to start off there. But I know there’s a lot of skills that we just have a hard time addressing as a whole group that I would like to be able to also get to during that time.

SC:

What kind of skills?

L:

Just like, doing more work on letters and sounds and kind of the building words part of things. And I mean some of the decoding stuff would be through doing those books together. But just more targeted lessons there. And even pull in some more of the writing stuff that we’re working on, pull that into that…

SC:

So, what have you, from your, sort of school experience, what do you know about guided reading? Did they talk about that a lot? Did they give you readings to do in relation to guided reading? Or people to follow?

L:

Yeah, I mean I felt like they went over a lot of different stuff. But because we went over a lot some of it just wasn’t very much in depth. And I know my school was big on a lot of our learning being out at other schools and seeing what teachers were using.  Although with that it kind of, some of it depended on who you ended up with. We had a couple classes that we spent a lot of time going through like just the different reading skills and strategies to use for those, not necessarily specified at how to do that with a group but at least how to identify the skills that they needed and find different ways to be teaching those. Some of the stuff, I’m just looking back, and I forget way too much too easily.

SC:

Well it’s a lot. I mean if you think about, all the things that you have to keep in your head as a classroom teacher. you know, I’m a literacy specialist, and just focusing on all the literacy components that…you have this person telling you to do all this stuff and then this group of people saying nope, balanced literacy includes these components and it’s really, really overwhelming. And like you said, a lot of times in our university setting, our college setting, we don’t get a lot of in depth practice with them But one of the thing that I know about guided reading…it’s really changed a lot over the years. And so, a lot of times when I talk to teachers about guided reading they’re thinking of certain, you know, particular programs or curriculums that have been really, really popular where guided reading originally was really just meant to be a small group conversation, very sort of I don’t know if informal’s the right word but certainly not a lesson with, you know, we’re going to go over these three skills. Because it’s really meant to be a dynamic sort of session where you’re sort of reading a text together, like you said. It doesn’t even have to be the same text. But sort of reading with the intent to gain meaning from the text. So, of course that means that sometimes you’re working on decoding because you need to understand, or you need to be able to identify those words to gain meaning from the text that sometimes it might be just talking about the text as well. And it’s just really meant to be really dynamic. So one of the things that has worked for me in the past, I know that a lot of programs have, you know these leveled books that they use and that can be useful as well, but I find that using short poems or songs is really useful as a, as sort of a common text can be useful to do during guided reading, particularly because if they’re familiar to the students, especially the songs…you guys sing songs in your class? Do they have those printed out at all?

L:

We’ve done a couple that we’ve, like yeah… or ones that we have as like old posters that we put together and stuff to be able to read.

SC:

Yeah, so like maybe starting with something like that where let’s say you start with, I don’t know, three students and you start with a really, really familiar song. And most of your intent for that meeting would be to just see what they do and that’s how you can sort of build your guided reading curriculum off of just seeing what these, three or four children do as you’re going through that song. And so, one of the things you might notice are oh, well, I’m noticing that this child is following the text as he reads with his finger. And so, if that’s something that you’re noticing happening you can sort of stop and just say oh my gosh…look at what he’s doing with his finger when he’s trying to read this song or when he comes to a part that he may be forgot or wasn’t sure what the word says. Let’s try that and see if that helps us while we’re reading. But starting something that they’re pretty familiar with is a nice way to start because you know, they’ll experience that success right away.

I find that, if I’m focusing on noticing what kids are doing or what they’re not doing that helps me build my curriculum. So, I maybe would have an idea of what I might do, but that often changes when I see what they actually do. So that actually happened to me the other day. I had a group of three girls who I was working with and my intent was to read a particular poem but like, we had a booklet full of poetry that I had created for them with poems that I’d thought they’d enjoy and that I kind of could sense that it was at a good instructional level for them, that most of the words they would know and some they’d have to figure out. And of course, my intention was to start with this particular poem. and they didn’t, you know, they were like oh, can we do this one? And I was like sure, that sounds fine, let’s start with that. Because of course for me engagement makes everything easier for readers. You know, if you’re more engaged in something you’re more likely to want to try to figure it out.

 So, it was actually a great poem to do because there were several tricky words. So, we talked about well, how do you know? How do you figure out what, you know, how do you figure out that word? And they could really help each other out. I mean at one point I sort of sat back and was like, they’re literally teaching each other right now. I mean I don’t even need to…it was so great.

I was just sort of facilitating the conversation. And originally that’s sort of what guided reading was about, was really just facilitating conversation about a text. And really focusing on strategies, but what it sort of transformed into is more of everybody at the same level, and we go in with a lot more preconceived notions of what we’re going to talk about. So, it’s just interesting how it’s evolved. I think some of the intent of guided reading has gotten lost along the way. But I find it really fun. However, I will say that I think a lot of teachers become very overwhelmed with guided reading. So, my question for you is when you’re thinking of working with small groups are you thinking of rotating through so that eventually you get to all the kids in your class? Or are you just thinking of a targeted group of students who could use an extra little boost at this point in time?

 L:

At least to start out I was just going to rotate more through.

SC:

Yeah. Well, being a first-year teacher and sort of having this feeling of being overwhelmed by what you’d learned about guided reading and knowing there’s so much to sort of think about and there are so many resources to go back to, my suggestion to you would be to really give yourself the gift of identifying a particular small group that really just want to work with that could maybe use an extra boost but maybe aren’t, aren’t the biggest challenge for you, just to hone your guided reading sort of skills.  And sort of think about what is working and what’s not working. Because I think what happens is that a lot of teachers, veteran teachers included, they feel this pressure to say, well every child must get guided reading. And that’s not the case. It’s a good tool in our tool box of when we’re thinking of balanced literacy. But it’s not something that I believe is necessary for everybody. Of course, you want to offer something that seems to be beneficial to every child. But I also think that as teachers we expect too much of ourselves. And so especially, like I said, this being your first year, and you feeling a little unfamiliar with guided reading, I would definitely suggest that you just, you know, if you leave here and say I can’t just do one group, at the very least two groups. And just work with those two groups and really sort of reflect on how guided reading is going, what’s working well, what’s not, what’s not working well, where do you need some extra support? And then not feeling so overwhelmed because you have now five guided reading groups that you’re feeling overwhelmed with but rather you might have one or two. So that’s my best advice to you.  What do you think about that?

 L:

I think it’s worth a try.

SC:

I mean I’m still in my infancy stage of teaching, being here almost for two decades. You know, you think about how long many teachers stay in the profession, but I have not once met a teacher who feels like she does everything well. And I think part of the reason for that is because we’re constantly just piling on, especially with literacy.

SC:

You know, there’s so much you could be doing. But you don’t have to do everything. And you don’t have to do everything for every child either. So, I definitely feel strongly that it would be in your best benefit and for your students too to say, you know, I’m going to work with one group.  I’m going to work with one group and really try to, you know, just do a little bit of catching up on some guided reading sources that you might have from your, your year in school, the years that you had in school and some of the readings you had and looking online at what people are doing and sort of picking and choosing things that you think would work for your kids who you know best.

And I actually, I just have to tell you about this amazing source that helped me so much. It’s not overwhelming and it’s one of those books that you can dip in and out. And it’s called Preventing Misguided Readings. Have you heard of that?

L:

I don’t think so.

SC:

What’s really interesting, I did not plan this, I swear. But they have a brand-new version out. So, it’s a book, let me try and find it right now so I can tell you…it really helped me so much. So, it’s called Preventing Misguided Reading and the subtitle is Next Generation Guided Reading Strategies.  You get sort of the history of guided reading and what its intent is. Which I think is really useful because with so many things in education over time it tends to get lost. And then it talks about all of these different ways that you can stay true to that intent and also give kids what they need.

SC:

I just find it really useful. And like I said it’s one of those that you can dip in and out. It’s not one that you have to read from front to back cover.  If you look at it you’ll notice a lot of similarities to Daily Five as well, in terms of talk about strategies and grouping based on, not on level but on what strategy do you want to teach that day or what strategy do you think these students need.  But as you’re thinking about who you think would benefit most from guided reading, working in a small group with you.  Start, start jotting down as you’re, as they’re in stations or as they’re working at that read to self station, what are some of the things that you’re noticing that they are doing. And build off of those. Because as you know, if they experience success first then they’re more likely to try something new and unfamiliar.

L:

Oh, when it started today I was reading a little book to the class before we started, and I let them choose that to go back through if they wanted to and look over. And two of them were sitting there trying to tell the whole story over again.

SC:

Aw, I love that. And that’s even something, you know, even if you had the small group and you said, and you noticed that…let’s say you had a group, a group of students who you just noticed that one of the things that they don’t do is they don’t pay much attention the pictures, that they’re so focused on learning the words even though it’s really hard for them. That they’re not enjoying the reading experience because they’re not sort of practicing that idea that you can read pictures, or that you can retell a story you already know. That could be a guided reading session. It’s just retelling a story they already know. And just talking about how do we do that.

You know it doesn’t’ have to be super formal. And with my guided reason…I shouldn’t call them lessons ‘cause they’re really just sort of conversations…but you know, let’s say I’ll set aside twenty minutes to work with this group. And sometimes after ten minutes we’re like all right, great. You know, it’s just very dynamic. And based on what I’m noticing, where they’re engaged and when we’re sort of done with the conversation. And it’s like there’s no reason to keep going just ‘cause I think it should last twenty minutes. So, you know, sort of being flexible about that is, you know, taking that pressure off of what things have to be like is something that I think we can always practice as teachers.

L:

Mm hmm, yeah.

SC:

Yeah, and as you’re thinking, too, about who you might want to work with or kind of practice this guided reading with and you’re trying to brainstorm possible sessions, you know, possible focuses for a session or you know, these are the things I’m noticing. What do I do with it. Feel free to send those along or take a picture of it if you need someone to sort of bounce ideas off of, too. Cause another thing with teaching is it’s really isolating. And if you don’t have people to bounce ideas off of it can be, it can feel really defeating. And I know you have a great support system in your school, but if you need an outside view I’m happy to take a look or just talk. I have, you know, we can set up just another conversation to kind of troubleshoot. So, does that sound okay?

L:

Yeah.

SC:

Okay, all right. Well, it was great to talk to you. And I’m excited for your kids to sort of get started with the small groups.

 L:

Yeah.

SC:

It was good to see you.

L:

You too.

Add comment May 10th, 2018

Free webinar with Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris

janandkimcropHow to Make Learning Stick: 3 Ways to Boost Your Reading Instruction
Wednesday, March 28, 2 p.m. ET

Have you ever felt frustrated when students don’t apply the skills and strategies you know you have taught them? You might ask yourself, “Why is this happening? Why isn’t my instruction transferring?”

Through their work in classrooms across the country, Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris have identified three elements that determine how well instruction transfers, and they will share them with you in this hourlong webinar. You’ll learn:
• The most important part of any reading lesson;
• Why instruction can fail even when a lesson is instructionally sound;
• How to avoid unintentionally creating learned helplessness in readers.
Jan and Kim will suggest specific strategies that you can put to use immediately, and they will help teachers, principals, and administrators work together to create independent, empowered readers.

Jan and Kim are the authors of the bestselling book, Who’s Doing the Work? How to Say Less So Readers Can Do More and the upcoming Who’s Doing the Work? Lesson Sets.

When: Wednesday, March 28, 2 p.m. EST
Can’t make the date? Register anyway for access to the archived version!

Who should attend: K-5 teachers, literacy specialists, principals, and district administrators.

Add comment March 23rd, 2018

Mentoring New Teachers Podcast – Episode I: Fitting It All In

We are excited to launch a new podcast series about mentoring new teachers. Stenhouse author Shawna Coppola has been talking with Laura, a new kindergarten teacher. Join us and follow along as they discuss Laura’s first year of teaching.

Mentoring New Teachers Podcast-Episode 1: Fitting It All In
By Shawna Coppola

When Stenhouse asked me if I wanted to mentor a new teacher through her first year and record the experience for posterity, I barely took a breath before saying yes. As someone who has taught for nearly two decades, I still feel the desire to be mentored, to surround myself with supportive individuals who understand the joyful, yet challenging, life of an educator and can occasionally offer a sage piece of advice, a thought-provoking question, a listening ear, or–most importantly, for me anyway–a much-needed laugh.

It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway, and loudly, for those sitting in the back) that teachers are engaged in some of the most complex work imaginable. If you don’t believe me, spend a day in a public school classroom; it’s all the time you’ll need to witness the hundreds of important decisions made (often on the fly), the masterful integration of a seemingly endless variety of skills, and the near-superhuman capacity for empathy and grace.

Laura is an educator who, even in her first year, demonstrates all of these things. A kindergarten teacher in a K-6 public school serving approximately 300 students, Laura confessed to me during our very first conversation together that she knew from early on that she wanted to work with children. This year, she teaches–largely independently, with only occasional access to a classroom aide–22 of them, although the number varies depending on the fluctuation of families moving in and out of the community. According to Laura, the students she has this year are kind, motivated to learn, and, for the most part, “want to be” in school.

Like many teachers, though, Laura finds it difficult to balance building positive, healthy relationships with her students alongside “managing” them as a whole group. One of her biggest challenges is related to planning and making all of the (aforementioned) decisions she must make as a teacher–both ahead of time and “in the moment.” She worries about how to fit in valuable instruction around skills that many perceive as “non-academic” or “soft” along with more traditionally-recognized “academic” skills.

In this first audio post, which was recorded in October of 2017,  Laura and I discuss the enormous, all-too-familiar challenge of “fitting it all in”–particularly with regard to literacy–and how to maintain a daily schedule for her students that is meaningful, engaging, and developmentally appropriate.

RESOURCES & INSPIRATION:

Boushey, G., & Moser, J. (2006). The Daily 5. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

#kinderchat (Twitter chat, Mondays 9:00 PM EST)

Mraz. K. & Hertz, C. (2015). A mindset for learning: Teaching the traits of joyful, independent growth. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Mraz, Kristine. Kinderconfidential [Blog]. https://kinderconfidential.wordpress.com/author/kristimraz/


Full transcript:

SHAWNA:

Hello, and welcome to our first Stenhouse ( Mentoring) Podcast. I’m Shawna Coppola, author of the book Renew, Become a Better and More Authentic Writing Techer. In this series of audio posts, you will hear how a K-6 literacy specialist, that’s me, mentors Laura, a young kindergarten teacher through her first year of teaching. In this episode Laura and I discuss the enormous, all too familiar challenge of trying to fit it all in, particularly with regard to literacy. And I offer her some advice about how to do this while also maintaining a daily schedule for her students that is meaningful, engaging, and developmentally appropriate.

SHAWNA:

Hi Laura!

LAURA:

Hi.

SHAWNA:

How are you?

LAURA:

Good.

SHAWNA:  Do you want to just tell me a little bit about what’s going on or, you know, what sort of..what you’ve been thinking about?

LAURA:

A lot of things. For kindergarten we’re getting into the part of the year where…there’s a lot of things that we need to be covering now. And I mean I’m still trying to make sure I take the time I need for some of the more social emotional stuff and what not. But it’s, I’m still kind of figuring out where a good balance is where they’re engaged and they’re learning. Um, and still giving them, like, the social opportunities and even like play time that kindergartners really need.

SHAWNA:

Yeah.

LAURA:

Cause we started off the year doing like, we had play time in the morning, we had an extra recess and we had regular recess. Um, but then now we’ve dropped that down to like two things. Either play time or an extra recess and the regular recess. And so some of my students have not handled that as well.

SHAWNA:

You’ve noticed a difference?

LAURA:

Oh yeah. Uh, not…I mean for the most part they’re doing well with it but there’s just a few who you could tell, especially some of my younger ones …

SHAWNA:

Yeah.

LAURA:

And that’s a lot. And so I’ve been trying to figure out how to make things so that they’re succeeding but also be doing what we need to for the whole group.

SHAWNA:

Do you have a certain set curriculum that you have to follow? Is there something like do you have a mandate like I need to do, you know, thirty minutes of this and forty minutes of this? What are some of the limits on you as a teacher?

LAURA:

There’s actually not a lot.

SHAWNA:

Oh, that’s good.

LAURA:

We only have curriculum for like reading and math. The district does have, they have (atlas) for like curriculum mapping. So I do have a map that I’m supposed to generally follow. And that’s where I can find more of their like science and social studies topics. But there’s a lot of flexibility within everything since we have a lot of new hires when we were talking who were like: Is there some schedule you want us to follow? And it basically was like, well, we’ll give you your special schedule and we’ll give you your lunch and recess. And other than that it’s kind of our decision on how we want to structure the day. So, it’s good to have the freedom but it also has been overwhelming at times to figure that ( ).

SHAWNA:

Yeah, I can imagine cause you know, for, for me going into my, I think eighteenth year, that’s like a dream come true. You’re like wow, you’re going to tell me what my specials and my lunch recess are and I get to choose everything else. It’s so amazing. And it’s great to have that autonomy, but you’re right. At the same time, too much choice and autonomy can be super overwhelming, especially when you’re just starting out. Uh, and even it can be overwhelming for teachers who are veteran teachers too. It depends, you know, on a lot of different things. So, so, okay, so it sounds like you’re taking some of the pieces that you like from different things? Which is great. But it sounds like you’re feeling like something’s missing? You talked about not being able to fit it all into a day. So, what are you able to fit in that you feel really good about?

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SHAWNA:

Laura has her students for just under six and a half hours. And her day sounds a lot like a typical day of kindergarten: morning meeting, which sometimes includes a social lesson or read aloud, forty to fifty minutes of mathematics, a large literacy block and choice time, with some movement breaks, snack, lunch and recess interspersed throughout the days. She finds her literacy block to be the most challenging. Like many teachers, she’s not sure how to fit together each of the pieces of the literacy puzzle. And she worries that in trying to include everything she’s making some haphazard decisions.

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LAURA:

It’s kind of like picking and choosing which days I’m going to do what which is part of the scheduling that I’m still trying to figure out ( ) Not do enough of anything. I want them to get their letters, I want them to get their sight words, but it’s been hard to find any like consistent way to keep up with all of that. And then, yeah, they go to lunch at ( ) 11:50 and don’t have them again until 1. So I get from like 1:05, is usually, 1:10 maybe even, is by the time we get inside until like 1:50, 1:55. And that chunk of time is when I have to get them packed up and then I have a short amount of time to do something else. So that’s also been where scheduling has been like some days that’s when we do our writing, if I feel like we didn’t get much in the morning. And then other times that’s when I’m trying to pull in like some more science and social studies focused lessons. Or a combination of things ( ) get some integration. But it’s that, it’s that before lunch and afternoon, those two blocks of time where I find myself making all these decisions about what we’re going to do and not, not really sure about this whole part of things.

SHAWNA:

All right, so that actually is really helpful, like looking at sort of your day at a glance, in a sense. So I can just tell you, though, that I work at a small school but it’s the, the teachers that I do work with have a wide varying range of experiences. And I have to tell you that every single teacher I’ve ever talked to says the same stuff. They say I cannot fit it all in. I need more time in the day. As a matter of fact last week at our leadership team meeting my principal who’s amazing, she said we need to figure out how to give each other more time. We need to figure out how to make more time in the day. And we all sort of laughed. We’re like, we can’t physically create time. But we all feel that need to do that. We all feel, have that desire to have more time with kids. So you’re definitely not alone. So first know that that’s true. I feel like there’s going to be, you know, moments where you’re like oh my gosh, that really worked well as far as I feel like I’m getting a lot of bang for my buck. But if my experiences are any indication it’s just one of those things that as teachers we always feel like we need more of is time. So it’s hard. And there’s never a right, perfect answer. But I can suggest a couple of things, and this is something, when I first started my work, one of the things that we did, uh, when I first got there is they were saying the same stuff to me. They were like we just don’t, especially with literacy, we don’t know how to fit it all in. They wanted to do read aloud and they wanted to do writing of course. And letters and sounds, and um, singing and handwriting and all this stuff. Um, and so one of the things we did was we wrote down everything that they have ever done for literacy. So we just kind of listed it all there. Um, and then what we did was we looked at, so what’s the purpose of each of these things? We used a program called Lively Letters. Have you heard of that?

LAURA:

I don’t think so.

SHAWNA:

It’s, it’s basically a letter, letter name and letter sound program that was, it was actually created to use with speech language pathologists or in conjunction with a speech language pathologist in the classroom. But um, a lot of people use it as, you know, one of the thing that they have in the whole, the core classroom. But I bring it up because that was one of the things that they were really adamant they wanted to keep in their repertoire. But they also said well, when do we talk about vocabulary and when do we do read aloud, and when do we do guided reading groups? And so one of, so like I said what we did was we just listed all the possibilities or all the things that they’ve ever done during that time. And in the second column we said okay, so if you have done lively letter work, what’s the purpose of that? What’s the outcome of using lively letters in the classroom? And so for example with your Daily Five center time, so that’s one of the things that you do. Then in your next column you can say, okay so what’s the purpose of that? So just to think about that. So why, and I don’t mean this to say we’re looking critically at any of these practices, but we’re trying to kind of get at, are there places where, where maybe we’re overlapping or maybe we can integrate more or combine things for that higher purpose. So if you were to think about Daily Five center time what are the, what are the outcomes or what are the reasons why you’d want to have that be a part of your literacy instruction? Cause I’m sure there’s a lot of reasons, right? So what is it that you like about that?

LAURA:

Well, for one, just building their independence. I mean I’ve worked with kindergartens who don’t do much of anything like that. And I just find that the kids are just not able to work independently. They just expect that they get correction for one thing and they do it and then they move onto the next thing. And there’s just a lack of being able to work that way and being able to work, you know, with a group and things like that. Um, I also like just that it gives them different opportunities to experience reading and to experience working with words and like they can listen to a story, they can read to themselves, they can read with a partner. And I love that they can have the choice. And although they have to kind of hit some of those things at some point during the week, they choice definitely I can see their engagement just from the first day is like, yeah, like they’re excited because they’re making the choice for themselves and then they’re doing it. And so, and as time goes on that’ll be reading, especially the independent reading part of it, like they, that’s something that I find so important in kindergarten is that they build that confidence that I can read a book to myself. Actually today there was like a little sight word book I printed off that had Halloween things in it and we’ve been working on. We’ve done ” I” and “see”  and ” the” and this book happened to have on every page it was like ” I see the little pumpkin, I see the little leaf.:” And so they read it with me and then they got to take it for themselves. And like seeing their excitement over, like I did just read that page.

SHAWNA:

That’s the best..

LAURA:

But it was like, so that was something I don’t want to lose that part of it. And then also like the word work and the writing part of it, that’s where I see a lot of their making connections and applying some of the stuff that they are learning. Like seeing them `pick up on those sight words and start building them.

SHAWNA:

So I’m hearing you, sort of in what you’re saying that that’s a really good assessment time for you, that you’re able to do some kid watching then?

LAURA:

And I’m even, yeah, and eventually I’ll even work with small groups and one on one during that time, so then I’ll ( ) need it even more.

SHAWNA:

Yeah.

LAURA:

For sure.

SHAWNA:

Okay, so it sounds like that, there’s a ton there. So there’s a lot of benefit to keeping something like Daily Five around. I know you talked a little bit about maybe having some lessons with new letters or sight words? Can you talk maybe about like, give me an example of something that you’ve done?

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SHAWNA:

Laura explained that she uses a popular story and song based program to teach her student their letters and sounds. And that she makes sure they get regular handwriting instruction. As far as leaning sight words, the work she and her students do includes going on word hunts in their little books and practicing writing these words on individual white boards.

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SHAWNA:

I have a couple of thoughts. I definitely, I mean, again, there’s never enough time in the day, so that’s the rule number one. I definitely think that’s just the nature of our work. There’s just only so much we can do. And one of the things that I’m constantly telling my colleagues who often tend to come to me, you know, sort of just for emotional and moral support would be that you’re not a miracle worker and you’re doing the very best that you can every day. And that’s really important to actually, you know, say to yourself. I actually have to leave my work sometimes and say you know, I’m there three days a week and I sometimes feel, often, actually feel the same way, that there’s not enough time. I didn’t meet with enough teachers. I wasn’t in enough classrooms. But I’m doing the very best I can and so that’s what’s really important. And it’s important to remind yourself of that. I have some suggestions for some people who I think would be really great, if you don’t know of them already for you to sort of check out some of their work. Um, because as I’m thinking of things that might help you to incorporate literacy throughout other parts of your day in a way that feels natural and not like an add on, ( ) they’re coming from them. So, have you heard of Kristine Mraz? She’s out of New York City.

LAURA:

I’m not sure.

SHAWNA:

She has a blog called Kinder Confidential. And it’s amazing. And she’s just a great person to sort of get to know. Um, but I definitely will send you a link to her blog cause she has some great ideas for um, how she incorporates literacy, not only across the day but particularly during choice and play time. Um, so that’s one thing you can think about is, you know, if you have their un, sort of their unstructured play, can you tell me a little bit about what that looks like? Do they get to, do they have centers or what happens during playtime?

LAURA:

Usually I choose, every week I choose like five, six options. And so they get to just choose from those six.

SHAWNA:

Can you give me some examples of something they might choose to do?

LAURA:

Yeah, I mean actually usually I always have some sort of building type thing, like the blocks or the Lincoln Logs or the Legos. So some sort of building, sometimes two of those options. They ( ) those. And then I’ll often pull out just either, I have like dinosaurs or animals or like some felt people. So I do something along those. I usually do some sort of puzzle type group. And then I also have like alphabet puzzles that I’ll do sometimes. Or I have some regular like puzzles to ( ) use. And then a lot of times I let them choose coloring as an option. Although I find that half the class wants to choose coloring all the time. Some of them spend the whole time writing words instead of drawing pictures. So, like, of course you can choose that. Um, those are usually some combination of those.

SHAWNA:

Yeah, and so the coloring station, do they have like things that are printed out? Or do they have blank paper or what..?

LAURA:

It’s usually just blank paper and crayons and they can make their own decision.

SHAWNA:

How fun. Okay, so just a couple of thoughts about the play time, cause those are all awesome kinds of stations. And, obviously, you know, that kind of choice time is so important, as you know. There’s so much of, with the engagement and building independence and just playing that, you know, I think that the play stuff sort of tends to get lost the older kids get. And one of the things that I advocate for is having unstructured play and choice time, even in the older grades. Last year one of my colleagues who taught in the 5/6 classroom started doing choice time in the afternoons and it was like the best time. The kids loved it, it was great and they seemed to be engaged more the rest of the day. So I definitely loved that, you know, cause you sometimes look into kindergarten classrooms and that’s not happening. So it’s nice to see that happening. With the puzzles, I’m wondering if, have you ever done any name puzzles, like have their names kind of cut up in puzzle form?

LAURA:

We did something kind of like that back when we were working on ( ). Where they had, cause they each have like a laminated shape that has like their name written out that they can trace with a finger and that they can trace with a dry erase marker. And then it had space on the bottom where they could put pieces together to make their name.

SHAWNA:

Oh, perfect.

LAURA:

Yeah.

SHAWNA:

Yeah, that’s awesome.  One of the things that someone showed me, too, um, with those kinds of laminated sheets is to..how are they..I mean I don’t know how they’re doing with their names but um, they would use that puffy paint that you use on t-shirts and they would draw over the, the typed out name so that there’s even that kinesthetic piece, which I thought was really cool. Work intensive but cool. I’m like, oh, man, that’ll take me forever to do. But that sounds, that sounds really fun. The dinosaurs and the animals, I bet what you’re seeing there is I bet they’re telling stories while they’re playing. Is that what you’re noticing, or..?

LAURA:

A lot of the time. When it’s not a matter of splitting up the ones who are like fighting with them.

SHAWNA:

YEah. Cause that could be a really great time to just really encourage them to tell stories and to think about you know, what kind of stories they might then write about, you know, if they’re really engaged in something, even with the building parts. You know, what are you, what’s going on here and, because often times what comes out of some of this playtime would be great ideas for writing. And um, so having some kind of, and this is actually adding, not subtracting to your day, but maybe, but having some sort of share time. Do you have any sort of reflection or debrief after the play time?

LAURA:

Not usually.

SHAWNA:

Yeah, that might, that might be something to think about, only because what you could do, potentially with that is, as they sort of reflect on how it went you could do so much with that that would bring in some of that social emotional stuff that I know is really important to you and to them. So for example you could start sort of charting or talking about you know, what problems came up today or what conflicts came up that, that you were able to` work through? Or what’s a problem that you weren’t able to solve? Let’s maybe talk it through today. That could be just, a possibility. Another kind of share after playtime that would, it sounds again like I’m adding on but it, it actually I think would benefit other areas of the day would be to say something like, you know, what kind of stories did you tell during your play today? And oh my gosh, that sounds like that would make `a really fun book. Or that sounds like that would make  a really fun story to do during writing. And you know, they’ll start to see that stories and ideas for writing come from everywhere. Which is really. Cause a lot of times kids are like I don’t know what to write about. Not so much at this age but definitely the older they get. So the more we’re able to show them where stories and other ideas come from, the better I think they are, you know, it would be for them.

LAURA:

And actually we were talking about characters last week. We made a poster together where I wrote down all their ideas. Um, and then over the weekend I added little pictures to go with them to put up so that they had it to look at when they were doing writing. And..

SHAWNA:

Oh yes, see. That’s awesome.

LAURA:

I didn’t even think about that but..

SHAWNA:

Yeah.

LAURA:

Like most of them were in that…and actually only a few were trying to name like people and things, which I was like wow, like they’re thinking. I mean I was impressed by their ( )ideas.

SHAWNA:

Yeah, yeah. I mean there’s just, I mean even with the blocks and stuff , you know, if kids are doing, or building something or creating something you can you know, sort of talk about that, you know, there are so many books out there about how to do something or how to make something. And you can, you know, sort of, sort of plant the seed that that’s something that could happen as a result of their play. That that could be the seed for maybe a, you know, a story or a book idea later on.

LAURA:

Sometimes being able to share motivates them a lot. Cause that’s (for writing) that’s a big thing is that I try to section it in a time when they’ll have time to write and then at least ( ) they’ll have time to share with the class what they’re working on. And there’s quite a few who normally are pretty slow to pick up that for themselves. But if they’re informed that they get to share it they’re following directions quickly and coming to the carpet then…( )move.

SHAWNA:

Yeah, and again, like I said, that…you know, one of the things that you could focus on, you know, if they’re having a particularly difficult week is just, is problem solving or really even identifying problems. So you know, you always have those students who, for whom, you know, he didn’t get a chance to sit next to the person he wanted to on the rug. It’s a really big deal. And cries and cries and cries and cries. And you have kids for whom that’s not a big deal but, um, you know, running so fast while they’re looking behind them and then bumping into a wall, that’s a big deal. So you know, talking about the differentiation between kinds of problems that we have and how might we react to them, um, is something that could come up in a share like that after paly time, which I think is really useful. So, but that’s just one thought. And then the other thought I had about trying to incorporate something, you know, more literacy stuff throughout the day that feels not like too much additional work but where you feel like you’re getting more in, more bang for your buck involves, you know, just doing a ton of labeling around the classroom. Do you guys do any of that stuff?

LAURA:

Yeah, some.

SHAWNA:

Yeah. I just think it’s, you know, even during their play time encouraging them to, you know, if they, if they build a structure and I don’t know if they ever have the chance to sort of leave things up but they could always make signs, anytime you have any sort of literacy tools available to them they’ll find a way to use them. Like I would, I don’t know if you have any sort of dress up or restaurant area or anything like that in your classroom? Do you have anything like pretend play?

LAURA:

Oh, part of it is the space, the classroom actually. Like I constantly find myself wishing I had more room to put things on the walls or to put things, to leave things out but the space is pretty ( ). So, yeah.

SHAWNA:

And that might be, that might be something you bring up to kids. You could say, you know, I really want you to be able to do some, you know, pretend sort of play where maybe you have a section or, that one day if you wanted to make a post office you could make a post office. What could we, how could we figure that out together when you’re talking about, you know, I have all this stuff and I barely can potentially get to social studies and science. Well, that’s where social studies and science can come in, too, is integrating that kind of problem based work. So, um, real life problems in your classroom like not having a space for pretend play or, or maybe wanting to have a space but not knowing how to sort of structure, how do we include this when we have all of this too, could be a potential sort of inquiry that you could do where you end up talking about needs and wants and materials and what’s costly and what’s not and space concerns and stuff like that. So those are just some ideas. But, again, I know that it’s tough. There’s just so much, so much to do and they’re so eager to learn. I mean can you just imagine if we were to, you know, if I said okay, Laura take us through your entire day and tell me every single decision that you make. I don’t, people just don’t understand, the general public does not understand the amount of decisions you have to make on any given day as a teacher. It’s crazy. You said something about, during morning meeting one of the things, you do have the schedule up on the white board. And you said you have picture, like picture cues, is that right?

LAURA:

Yeah.

SHAWNA:

One of the things you might consider is having them, you know, if there are parts that they can reach you might have one or two sort of maybe try to `write in their approximation of what that time is and that could be just another opportunity. And you know how kids love writing on white boards, especially if the whole class is going to look at it. Um, so that could be another opportunity just to get some  of that sort of literacy engagement/practice in, potentially. But I guess one of the things that I would just consider thinking about in the next few weeks is sort of you know, when you’re looking at all the things that you do, what is giving you the most bang for your buck? So, what is, what is reaching, maybe what is reaching the most students and what is sort of, where are you seeing the greatest benefit? So, for example, clearly Daily Five times. I mean you just sort of like rolled off, it rolled off your tongue, all these things that were bent with, that the kids were benefitting from from that. The building independence and the experiencing literacy in different ways. Um, the choice and the engagement and the confidence building. So clearly that’s a huge, like bang for your buck. You’re getting so much out `of that. But if you were to sort of just reflect a little bit and it doesn’t’ have to be formally, but just think about you know, what are they, you know, what are the benefits of this and what, are there areas where, like overlapping a lot. Where we’re doing a lot of, you know, one thing and less of another. And sort of look at it as a whole. And just see if there are areas where you feel like, okay, I’m definitely not getting enough of this in. And then we can sort of brainstorm ways to incorporate that a little bit more or maybe balance things out  a little bit. Where talk about, you know, what might give you the best bang for your buck. But I know it’s not an easy task for sure. And I think, I mean I would, I wish I could come visit you. I want to come visit your class because I’m so, I’m like in awe of all that you do. I just can’t believe, I’m looking at my notes and I’m like oh my gosh. I just want to see all this in action. Um, but I will, what I’ll do, too, is I’ll send you that blog that I was talking about. Are you on twitter at all?

LAURA:

Yeah.

SHAWNA:

One of the things that they had, I think it’s Monday night, it’s a little late for me. It’s 9:00 but there’s a chat called Kinder Chat. I don’t know if you’ve ever participated in a chat before.

LAURA:

Yeah.

SHAWNA:

On twitter? You have? Do you know Kinder chat?

LAURA:

No, I mostly just did…my college actually did like education ones. In ( ) classes they had us be involved in that.

SHAWNA:

Quite honestly I think a lot of educational chats, especially some of the literacy chats are sort of, you know, it’s sort of like everybody’s’ vying to say the right answer and it’s not super, super useful. But I have found that the few times I’ve participated in Kinder Chat, and often I’m on twitter, on Mondays during that time for another reason. And I see a lot of that feed. And the people who are involved in that are super supportive. And you seem to sort of share a philosophy with them. And I think that might be a good sort of support system for you, potentially. But so I’ll send you some of that information and we’ll try to not send you so much that you’re overwhelmed because I know it doesn’t help just to pile stuff on someone who’s’ already doing so much work. But it just might be useful for you to check those people out. Cause the more support that you have, you know, we can’t ever get enough. So, but yeah, just think about, over the next few weeks just sort of all the things that you’re doing and is there anything that you’re sort of doing, and you’re not really sure what, you know, that you’re not really sure that you’re seeing much of a benefit. Or you’re seeing a benefit in a really small percentage and then maybe we can talk about what those are what could be done instead of that. Does that sound okay?

LAURA:

Yeah.

SHAWNA:

Okay. All right. It was good to talk to you again.  Have a good night.

LAURA:

Thanks.

SHAWNA:

Bye.

LAURA:

Bye.

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SHAWNA:

Thanks for listening to our first Stenhouse mentor podcase. What advice would you give a colleague about fitting it all in? Feel free to comment with your ideas and words of wisdom. And don’t forget to check out the resources we referenced today. Next time on the podcast Laura and I discuss how to manage student behaviors while also developing a safe, collaborative classroom community. See you then.

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2 comments February 27th, 2018

Fostering Professional Relationships to Facilitate Peer Observations

In the third installment of our series by elementary principal Matt Renwick, he talks about how–and why–he encourages his teachers to observe each other in the classroom.

We know that one of the best ways to improve collective instruction in a school is by watching excellent teaching in action and then applying these strategies to our practice. We know this, yet we often fail to act even though excellence might be a few doors down from our classroom.

What dissuades teachers from watching each other teach? Time, for sure. We also might feel guilty about leaving our own students in order to invest in ourselves through peer observation and peer coaching. “What will our kids do without us?” we might ask.

In my own previous prodding and nudging of teachers to get into other classrooms, often resulting either in failure or compliance, I have discovered there needs to be a safe and innovative school environment for genuine peer-to-peer learning. Teachers need to feel like they can take risks in letting someone come into their classroom, as well as in acknowledging that they may still have something to learn.

A high-quality learning environment has two elements in place: strong levels of trust and clear communication within the building. You can see evidence of this in schools, such as in the informal collegial conversations among faculty and in the high-quality student work posted in the school hallways. The walls do talk.

When trust and communication are high, professional relationships have the potential to be formed. Relationships can be defined as “the way two people are connected”. This connection, even a loose tie, is a prerequisite for effective peer observations to take place.

The rest of this article describes the steps our school took to facilitate peer observations with our kindergarten teachers. The purpose was to discover new ideas for literacy instruction.

Identifying a Need

Our school’s newest hire is one of our kindergarten teachers. Knowing high-quality professional learning includes peer observations and peer coaching (Routman, 2018, pg. 76), I connected with the kindergarten team to consider this possibility. All were open to it.

A Connection to Relationships: It helped that this team has taken the initiative to create a collaborative learning environment not only for their students, but also for themselves. For example, they turned their storage space into a team meeting room. They use this room to meet for PLCs as well as to have lunch together during their noon break.

Scheduling the Visits

One of those challenges with peer observations is finding coverage for the visiting teacher. I offered my time, although I am sometimes called away as the principal to deal with a behavior issue or a pressing matter. Fortunately, our district leadership had the foresight to create an instructional coaching position. This person stepped up and offered to teach kindergarten while one teacher was observing their colleague’s instruction.

A Connection to Relationships: Our instructional coach, new this year, has gone out of her way to foster connections with every faculty member in the building. One way is by stopping into classrooms on a regular basis. “I am simply coming in to get to know you and your students a little better” was her brief explanation at a staff meeting early in the school year. These regular touches, non-threatening and from a point of curiosity, has fostered professional relationships in several classrooms. The results has been multiple teachers volunteering for coaching cycles with this specialist, including this learning experience.

Initiating the Peer Observations

The day had come. Our new teacher was up first, coming into visit a more veteran colleague. The other two observations would commence in the subsequent days. The host teacher shared her intentions for the day’s lesson ahead of time. My role was to provide minimal guidance for our new teacher. I gave them a form I use when conducting my instructional walks as a way to frame the observation.

Student Goals Written by Teacher

Student Goals Written by Teacher

 

A Connection to Relationships: Prior to this learning experience, I had been a frequent visitor to every classroom. Acknowledging the positive aspects of teachers’ literacy instruction has helped create the conditions for this innovative work to occur. They have become comfortable with my presence as a principal because I focused first on strengths. From the teachers’ perspective, I imagine having another teacher in their room might be even less threatening.

Celebrating and Reflecting on the Experience

“I was impressed with how she is already having her students learning sight words.” This comment, shared with me from a veteran teacher, came after she had observed our newest colleague. Soon after, I relayed this information to the first year teacher. “Oh, wow, that’s nice to hear,” she responded.

We could have gone with a structured reflection and debrief led by me. But it didn’t feel right. I wanted to give them ownership in the process and treat them like the professionals that they are. Plus, they had taken time out of their busy days to make this happen. So I provided lunch the next day, along with a thank you for participating in this experience. “If you want to just chat and enjoy yourselves, that would be great. Not necessary to have any formal reflection.”

A Connection to Relationships: Did any debriefing happen? I’d like to think so. Even if not, I felt good about how the peer coaching experience went based on their comments and my observations. Regie shares her own wisdom in building trusting relationships among administrators during a school visit. “I know they were surprised when I said, ‘Let’s not work through lunch. Let’s take a well-deserved break and just enjoy our time together.’ We wound up talking about our families, hobbies, cooking, and favorite things to do and eat. At the end of lunch, I felt closer to each one of them” (pg. 10). The relationships formed today can lead to powerful learning in the future.

Giving teachers time to form relationships, with their students and with each other, is built on the foundation of trust and communication. The experiences we facilitate in our schools, such as peer coaching, can only be successful with these elements in place. While the ultimate goal is literacy engagement, excellence, and equity for all learners, as literacy leaders we have to remember and attend to the means to achieve this end.

Add comment February 26th, 2018

Communication Strategies for Partnering with Parents

In this second in a series of blog posts, elementary principal Matt Renwick shares how his schools uses the strategies found in Regie Routman’s new book Literacy Essentials to form lasting, productive partnerships with parents.

Communication Strategies for Partnering with Parents
Matt Renwick

“When parents are truly viewed as partners and not obstacles, students are more likely to be successful regardless of where they go to school.” – Regie Routman

The people both inside and outside our schools form an opinion of our work with students. This is why we are intentional in our efforts to communicate and partner with parents in our important work. In her new book Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners, Regie highlights important strategies in this area (pgs. 19-23). Our school district in Mineral Point, Wisconsin has been leading the way in leveraging technologies to communicate with families, with a special focus on reading and writing in the classroom. Next is a list of strategies Regie recommends for partnering with parents, along with the digital tools used to help facilitate this essential part of literacy leadership.

  • Invite parents to join us as partners. Families with students enrolled in our schools should be our champions, our biggest advocates in our quest for excellent literacy opportunities for all students. (It may not be a coincidence that “parents” and “partners” are almost anagrams!) Their perceptions about the learning experience in our school are critical for a school’s success. Our district has an active Facebook page that regularly posts pictures, videos, and announcements. Some of these posts encourage families and community members to work with the school in various ways, such as donating books to a classroom library or running for an open school board position.
  • Make contact early in the school year. Several of our teachers gather contact information from parents during Meet and Greet night in the early fall. They set up school messenger accounts through Remind and other applications. Parents receive notifications on their smartphones and computers about what is happening in the classroom, sometimes on a daily basis. Families can comment on these posts and even message their child’s teacher if questions come up. Because this form of communication is online, only information that is positive and informative is shared.
  • Share visual snapshots of life in the classroom. A professional goal of mine is to capture and celebrate learning happening in our classrooms on a regular basis. A preferred mode of mine for public celebration is Twitter. I use this social media because it is open to anyone in the world to view and respond. My posts are pretty simple; a recent tweet highlighted a 4K teacher introducing an author/writer center to her students. Yet from a parent’s point of view, the text and images or video of this experience creates a window into the classroom. With each tweet, I include our self-selected hashtag #pointernation to ensure visibility with parents and the school community.

tweet

  • Create personal, classroom, or school blogs. Using blogs, also known as “web logs”, to communicate the classroom experience with parents can go many ways. Teachers can maintain a personal blog using tools such as Edublogs to document the teaching and learning happening in their classrooms. Also, each student can maintain a personal classroom blog through Kidblog, a safe and secure technology where kids can share their learning artifacts and comment on the work of other students. WordPress is another popular tool that schools can leverage for their websites and parent communications. I have a school-based blog on our WordPress-powered website, where I publish 2-4 posts a month that highlight current school news and learning experiences.
  • Provide easy access to information. Parents and teachers are busy. Educators are wise to communicate about each child’s school experience in smarter ways. Digital portolio tools such as FreshGrade and Seesaw give students the ability to document their learning as it happens. For example, students can video record each other reading aloud a favorite book and then post this artifact of fluency and comprehension into their portfolios. If completed monthly, parents and teacher get a regular update about each student’s reading progress over time. This information can be just as powerful for assessing literacy growth as a benchmark assessment or a screener.

 

reading

 

  • Incorporate weekly newsletters. Our school office assistant utilizes Smore, a web-based newsletter tool that Regie recommends in her book as well. Images, video, and web links can be naturally embedded within important text such as announcements and reminders. We also utilize Smore to celebrate all of the good things happening in our school. For instance, we post scheduled family literacy night dates along with a link to RSVP. After an event, images from the experience are shared in a future newsletter. Examples of literacy events we host include Popcorn, Movie, and a Book (movie based on a book) and Take a Book to the Beach. These weekly communications help build a culture that embraces literacy, community, and celebration.

Certainly, these technologies are nice, sometimes necessary. Yet for all of our efforts in connecting online with families, nothing can replace the in-person communications that we facilitate within our schools. For example, we installed a book shelf and a nice bench in the front lobby of our building. Parents use this space to read aloud to a younger sibling while they wait for an older brother or sister to be dismissed at the end of the day.

bench

Technology is a means for our communication efforts. The ends are the goals of our school: to build essential literacy skills for a lifetime and ensure engagement, excellence, and equity for all learners.

Add comment January 29th, 2018

Building a Literacy Culture with Instructional Walks

“A thriving, trusting culture helps any organization succeed and is a major factor in why people choose to stay. Without trust, we are all less likely to invest our energies in taking on new tasks and challenges. Everything meaningful that happens in a classroom, a school, and a district depends on a bedrock foundation of mutual respect, trust, collaboration, fairness, and physical and emotional safety.”

– Regie Routman, Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners (Stenhouse, 2018)

In the first of three articles, elementary principal Matt Renwick shares how he builds a literacy culture by developing a sense of trust through instructional walks. The second and third articles will highlight relationships and communication, respectively.

Building a Literacy Culture with Instructional Walks
By Matt Renwick

Instructional walks are the daily visits a school leader makes in classrooms. They are non-evaluative in nature. Rather, the purpose is to build a sense of trust with teachers by communicating both verbally and nonverbally that the school leader is here to support their important work. With the way our current educational system has been set up, with teachers’ practice broken down into isolated criteria and scored, administrators are sometimes pitted against teachers. This is unfortunate. Just as “trusting relationships are a necessity for students and teachers to engage in serious learning and for all learners in a school to flourish” (Routman, 2018, pg. 9), so to should school leaders partner with their teachers.

In the beginning of my tenure as a school leader, I have used instructional walks to observe what is happening in the classroom and affirm the good work that is already taking place. It might be a simple comment, such as “Your bulletin board with the students’ book reviews really caught my eye when I came in to your classroom.” A typical response to this affirmation is a smile along with an explanation of the students’ work.

bookreview

 

I might also write a small note with a similar comment and leave it on their desk. I get custom stationary made for these affirmations and celebrations. Using professionally made materials conveys the importance of our interactions. Over the years, I have found that teachers treasure these notes much more than any evaluation I might conduct, sometimes pinning them on tagboard by their desk.

Once I feel that teachers are comfortable with me coming into their classrooms (the students are fine; they are the most adaptable people in a school), I will start writing longer narratives about what I notice in the classroom. I’ll generally give teachers a heads up on this transition at a staff meeting, reinforcing that these instructional walks are not evaluative, although they are welcome to take whatever I write and use those comments for their professional portfolios and as artifacts for their teacher evaluations. In the past, I’ve waited too long to start conducting longer visits with instructional walks. That’s a mistake. The sooner I get into classrooms and stick around for longer periods of time, anywhere from ten to twenty minutes, the sooner teachers feel this practice is the new normal. Also, because the instructional walks focus first on recognizing teachers’ strengths, trust develops as a by-product.

Building trust is a complex task that requires a recipe for success. So what are the necessary ingredients for a successful instructional walk?

  • Pen and paper (or a tablet and stylus if you prefer)
  • Time scheduled in the day to visit classrooms
  • Guiding questions to help focus the instructional walk
  • A positive, growth-oriented mindset

Of these four, the most important ingredient is the positive, growth-oriented mindset. To build trust, we have to show that we trust our teachers. With regard to the guiding questions, Regie Routman offers several examples to keep in mind when observing instruction in classrooms (2014, pg. 202). Below are a few of my favorites when getting start with instructional walks.

  • Who’s doing most of the talking? Are all students’ voices being heard?
  • Are the language and conversations moving student learning forward?
  • How are choices being provided for students?
  • Is assessment for learning, by teachers and students, taking place daily?
  • Is time being provided for sustained and deliberate practice?

I like these general instruction questions to start with, as all teachers can be expected to provide at minimum an effective learning experience for students.

Next are artifacts from an instructional walk I conducted in my school. We had previously learned about how to organize a classroom library with students. All teachers were expected to try and apply this teaching strategy. My observations take place in a 1st grade classroom.

The teacher shares new books to place in their classroom library. “How should we organize them?”

The teacher shares new books to place in their classroom library. “How should we organize them?”

 

Students and the teacher decide to put them in groups based on the genre of nonfiction they represent.

Students and the teacher decide to put them in groups based on the genre of nonfiction they represent.

 

Students write and attach appropriate labels to the books before shelving them.

Students write and attach appropriate labels to the books before shelving them.

 

Students place the books in their proper location.

Students place the books in their proper location.

 

Teacher debriefs with a shared writing summary of the classroom library experience.

Teacher debriefs with a shared writing summary of the classroom library experience.

 

My notes, which are emailed to the teacher.

My notes, which are emailed to the teacher.

Before leaving the classroom, I made a point of affirming the teacher’s efforts. “Every student was engaged in this activity in a purposeful way!” We discussed how much more the students are using the classroom library during independent reading and taking books home to read. The teacher also noted that instruction around genres is happening within the context of this authentic activity. We agreed that organizing a classroom library can be an ongoing instructional experience throughout the school year.

One of the most important actions I make as a school leader when building a literacy culture is conducting instructional walks. They allow me to celebrate what teachers are already doing well, reinforce new strategies that are tried and applied in the classroom, and ensure that all students are experiencing high-quality instruction. Trust is a natural outcome of visiting classrooms on a regular, positive, and intentional basis.

References

Routman, R. (2018). Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Routman, R. (2014). Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

(Thanks go to our first grade teachers at Mineral Point Elementary School for letting me share their work here, and to Kimberly O’Donnell, principal, for her helpful feedback on this article.)

Add comment January 16th, 2018

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week

Teaching is not just a job — it’s a profession, a calling, a passion. And it’s hard work. For Teacher Appreciation Week we asked some of our authors why they love to teach, what keeps them passionate and engaged in the classroom or while writing professional books. Watch Stacey Shubitz (Craft Moves), Paula Bourque (Close Writing), Jennifer McDonough (Conferring with Young Writers), and Katie Cunningham (Story), talk about their love for the profession.

Why do you love to teach? Leave your response in the comments for a chance to win $100 in your choice of Stenhouse books. (Please comment by Friday, May 12, 2017, to be eligible for the drawing.)

8 comments May 2nd, 2017

Strategies That Work – images from you

As we prepare for the publication of the new, third edition of Strategies That Work, we enjoyed seeing pictures of your well-loved and used copies of the previous two editions. The winner who will receive a free copy of the new edition is Karla Silbernagel. Here are some of the images you sent us:

 

Add comment April 17th, 2017

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