Posts filed under 'Questions & Authors'

Questions & Authors: Using short texts with struggling readers

In a recent post author Pat Johnson (One Child at a Time, Catching Readers Before They Fall) talked about guided reading with struggling readers in grades 3-6. She emphasized using short texts with these students whenever possible. In this latest installment of Questions & Authors, Pat talks in more detail about what kinds of short texts she suggests.

I often recommend that teachers in upper elementary grades use short texts for struggling readers during guided reading. It’s so much easier to focus in on the students’ comprehension, or lack of understanding, when the lesson is centered on a poem, short story, or something equally as short. On occasion a teacher will ask, “But where do I find these short texts?”

My list of short texts includes five ideas: poetry, non-fiction articles, short stories or vignettes, excerpts from the book you are reading aloud to the whole class, and picture books.

Poetry. Poems often say a lot in very few words. They are perfect opportunities for students to dig deeper and create the meaning behind the poem. They can be read and reread easily enough and struggling readers often discover more each time they experience the poem. Poetry abounds with metaphors, figurative language, subtle humor, and other inferring opportunities. Take Jean Little’s poem called “Clothes” in her book  Hey, World Here I Am. She uses the first stanza to talk about what’s great about new clothes and then the second stanza to say why old clothes are so terrific also. But it’s the last line that gets kids delving deeper into the poem’s meaning. “You know, it’s a funny thing… Friends are like clothes.”

Non-fiction articles. Many teachers worry that in order to match their upper grade struggling readers with appropriate texts, they have to use “baby books.” There is nothing babyish about non-fiction articles. Check out some of the interesting topics in kids magazines, such as, Muse, Click, National Geographic for Kids, Time for Kids, and so on. I’ve learned so much about giant squid, climbing Mt. Everest, making jam from cactus flowers, what spiders do, and more, along with the kids I work with. Struggling readers, more often than not, love non-fiction. So spend a little time in your school or public library skimming through some of those magazines and look for a few articles that would spark your students’ interests.

Short stories and vignettes. I love Cynthia Rylant’s book Every Living Thing. Each story is about a person and an animal. The stories include real dilemmas, interesting issues, and sometimes, sad endings. But they always leave the kids with lots to talk about as they negotiate the meaning of the text together, connect with the characters, and give their opinions about what happened in the plot or what should have happened. Not all of Sandra Cisneros’ short stories are appropriate for grades 3-6, however, I’ve used several of them from her books House on Mango Street and Woman Hollering Creek. Jean Little’s Hey, World, Here I Am is another great resource these short vignettes.

Excerpts from your read aloud book. I often see teachers reading aloud great chapter books to their upper grade students and I can’t think of anything better for developing community. But sometimes the discussions around these texts are dominated by the “talkers” in the classroom. Why not revisit sections of the book with struggling readers in a small group setting to offer them more opportunities to respond? Look for a part of the book that has potential for discussions beyond the literal level, like the climax of the plot or a major turning point.

Picture Books. We are so lucky to live in a time when wonderful picture books are available for upper grade students. Even though most elementary school book rooms may not have multiple copies of picture books, with a little effort you can round up three or four copies for the students in that one special guided reading group, even if the kids have to partner-up on reading them. Try any of the ones listed here and you’ll see that your struggling readers can get hooked on books, want to reread them to find more support for their opinions, and are actually willing to practice their fluency in texts like these.
Voices in the Park, Anthony Browne
Faithful Elephants, Yukio Tsuchiya
Garden of Abdul Gasazi, Chris Van Allsburg
Emma’s Rug, Allen Say
The Enemy, Davide Cali
The Bracelet, Y. Uchida
Nettie’s Trip South, Ann Turner
Freedom Summer, Deborah Wiles

1 comment November 29th, 2011

Questions & Authors: Reading and Teaching Charitably

In our latest installment of Questions & Authors, Tim Gillespie (Doing Literary Criticism) takes a look at the importance of examining a piece of writing from a moral standpoint. He asks his students to raise questions about whether the text helps them understand others more deeply. “Does the work enlarge our capacity for empathy; does it stretch our moral imaginations? My students usually found this an avenue of inquiry worth traveling,” he writes. Travel along with Tim in this essay and then check out his book the Stenhouse website.

Teaching and Reading Charitably

A word that I read in a newspaper review has been stuck in my brain.

The review considered the latest T.C. Boyle novel, When the Killing’s Done, a story about environmental conflicts on the Channel Islands off the coast of California. A characteristic trait of the fiction of T.C. Boyle, a favorite writer of mine, is his fidelity to life’s complexities. For example, in alternating chapters in The Tortilla Curtain (a novel some colleagues are using in their high school classrooms), Boyle offers the perspectives of a homeless illegal immigrant from Mexico and a suburban California magazine writer just outside of whose gated community the immigrant is camping. Each protagonist, in his attempt to make a better life for his family, damages the other. Through these characters the contentious issue of immigration becomes a profoundly tragic human dilemma beyond all sound bites and shouting, calling forth from readers deeper reserves of imagination and empathy to be applied to the issue.

The same is true of Boyle’s latest novel with its environmental themes, according to reviewer Don Waters in my local newspaper. “Boyle does so much right,” says Waters, “he poses the big questions, refrains from offering answers, and humanizes the argument without proselytizing” (The Oregonian, February 27). Waters marvels in particular at the way Boyle treats the contradictions of characters on all sides, helping us understand their convictions and their doubts, their admirable acts alongside their flaws. The bottom line of the review: Boyle is to be applauded for treating both the complex environmental issues in the novel and his complex characters “charitably.”

That’s the word that has stuck with me: charitably.

The word offers an interesting way to think about evaluating the effectiveness of a work of fiction. I want to talk about that idea with students.

Might an important critical standard for judging literature be how charitable authors are to their stories and characters? Can generosity of spirit about fictional characters and about social issues be a reasonable marker of the quality of an author’s work?

These are the kinds of questions that I regularly brought into my classroom. “What’s your bottom line as a reader?” I’d ask my students. “What makes a novel applause-worthy for you? What counts in fiction? How should we read fiction? Why should we read fiction?”

For me, this kind of interrogation is at the heart of literary criticism. During my nearly four decades as a public high school teacher, my habit was to share a variety of such critical questions with my students—and the assumptions and theories behind them. The more different angles of approach the better, I figured, since all those hungry, iconoclastic teenagers sitting at their desks all have different preferences for what they want to get out of a reading. So instead of teaching particular readings of texts, I sought to teach multiple ways of reading texts. My conviction was that exploring many different interpretive strategies would ultimately help my students be more motivated readers and give them more tools for being independent critical thinkers. My recent book Doing Literary Criticism, describes those classroom explorations.

We would explore biographical, historical, psychological, philosophical, moral, archetypal, genre-centered, feminist, political, formalist and postmodern approaches to texts. Having all these different critical lenses available in the classroom means the door is open to all kinds of different ideas about reading that might walk in.

But what about that idea of being a charitable writer? I guess I’d ultimately call that an aspect of moral criticism, a critical angle that raises questions of great consequence: Does the text help us understand others more deeply, particularly those with perspectives and backgrounds different than ours? Does the work enlarge our capacity for empathy; does it stretch our moral imaginations? My students usually found this an avenue of inquiry worth traveling.

In addition, a moral critical approach lends itself nicely to a classroom unit on fiction writing. This activity is explained in much more detail in Doing Literary Criticism, but basically I ask students to create a fictional character unlike themselves and work at imagining in detail that character’s life, stretching their moral imaginations to invent a realistic, multi-dimensional character with the hodgepodge of experiences, traits, beauties and blemishes, gifts and frailties we all have.

Messing with moral criticism in all these ways means exploring what it means to be a charitable writer, reader, and person.

And messing with literary criticism in general means when we are provoked to thought by a single word in a newspaper book review, we have a way to bring that provocation into the classroom.

1 comment October 26th, 2011

Questions & Authors: The excitement of selecting a book

Do you feel a bit giddy when you go through your stack of books, trying to decide what to read next? If you do, Terry Thompson shares that feeling. In this installment of Questions & Authors, the author of Adventures in Graphica shares his ritual for “Choosing Day,” and wonders how he could instill the same excitement about choosing a book in his students.

Today is Choosing Day.

I’ve been looking forward to this all day. I’ve cleared my evening and carefully organized a comfortable spot on the sofa.

I rushed straight home from work (no tutoring or after school meetings!), picked up a light dinner on the way (Chicken la Madeleine!), walked the dog, and silenced my phone.

I’ve taken care of everything.

My pile of books waits patiently. It always does.

Last night, I finally finished Edward Rutherfurd’s New York, and I’m ready to pick my next book. I relax into my spot and turn my attention to the stack that’s been gathering on my night stand for some time. Today is Choosing Day. Today I pick a new friend.

My professional book club is reading one of Richard Allington’s books next, but I figure that can wait. A book I want to study for church calls to me, but I’m going to hold off on that one a bit longer.

I decide that I’m in the mood for something historical (no surprise there, it’s my favorite!), so with that, I move on to several, more specific options. A recent trip to Illinois landed Devil and the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America in my stack, and that same trip prompted an interest in an Abraham Lincoln book, Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse. My editor recommended Year of Wonders and Dissolution, but both seem a bit heavy for my mood right now. And – even though I’m dying to – I’m hesitant to start Ken Follett’s new book, Fall of Giants, because his work is such a rare treat and I don’t want to use it up too quickly.

I revisit each title, remembering what originally drew me to them, and reread the jacket flap summaries. I shuffle through the stack several times. Deliberating. I take my time here. This is an important decision for me, and I don’t want to rush it. I finally settle on Devil in the White City. It’s a lightweight paperback making it a perfect choice for all the poolside reading I’ll be doing on my upcoming three day weekend.

I put the leftover books back in the stack on my night stand (until next time) and get ready to spend the rest of the evening immersed in a true crime historical murder mystery. I’m pleased and content. It doesn’t get any better than this.

I’m not sure when Choosing Day became such a big deal to me, where it began, or even how it got its name. But, it’s been a constant ritual in my life for years. Although not as childlike and giddy as it may seem, I really do get a boost of excitement from the thrill of deciding which book I’ll read next.

I often wonder, though: how many of our students feel this way? Certainly, it might seem unreasonable to expect every student we work with to gush with excitement for their next book, but what are their practices when they go to choose their next independent reading selection? Are their choices purposeful? Haphazard? Nonexistent?

Come to that, what are our practices that help promote an eager anticipation around book selection? I want my young readers to know this feeling. Granted, some of our learners will cultivate a similar type of choosing day for themselves, but just as many won’t. What conditions can we put in place that can promote an excitement for book selection in our students?


When teachers share their own excitement and process about book selection (and encourage students to do the same) they promote a classroom culture of enthusiasm for choosing texts. In a classroom that supports book selection, you’re likely to see students who are encouraged to share out about their selections and teachers that share favorite titles with the entire class or individual students who would take to them. Hearing trusted adults and peers share their reasoning for choosing particular texts lets students in on this valuable part of what it means to be a reader.


I get my best reading choices through recommendations from friends who know me well and know what I like to read. I bet you do, too. Offering a variety of recommendation options is a great way to get students interested in their next book. Whether you schedule time for readers to share their favorites out loud, have them use a classroom chart with sticky notes, or let them use a private note passing system for sharing books, making recommendations to friends – just like real readers do – can go a long way to foster enthusiasm for choosing that next read.

Keeping a Stack

Most readers don’t wait to finish their current book before considering their next one, preferring instead to keep a physical or mental stack of titles ready to pick from. For some, it’s a stack on their nightstand. Others keep a running list on their cell phone. In classrooms where there are enough books and space, readers could collect titles in their book boxes for later. If this seems difficult logistically (think: space and number of books available), students could easily keep a list of books they’d like to read next in their journals.

Knowing Yourself

Real readers know what they like. They know themselves as readers. They have favorite titles, series, subjects, and genres. They can talk about them and justify what makes them personally important. When they go to choose their next read, they do so in tune with their interests and their mood. They consider which titles they’re willing to commit to and pass on the others. Teachers who model, push for, and encourage this type of self-reflection help foster excitement about book choice.


Book choice in many of our classrooms is a hurried afterthought. We tell students they have five minutes to get to the library and back or we relegate independent reading book choice time to that space between attendance and announcements. But, when we set aside unrushed time for it, young readers come to learn that book selection is premeditated, thoughtful, and intentional. Classrooms that honor and celebrate book selection, allow students the contemplative time they need to get excited and give them permission to celebrate that excitement with others.

7 comments September 12th, 2011

A teacher reviews “Waiting for Superman”

We know many teachers who have avoided watching the documentary Waiting for Superman because of what they’ve heard about the film’s view of public school teachers. We asked teacher educator Maureen Barbieri for her thoughts about the film and the messages it sends. After working as a teacher, principal, and literacy coach for many years, Maureen currently teaches literacy courses at the University of New Hampshire, volunteers at a local elementary school, and takes care of two young grandchildren every week.  This is the first in a series of blog posts by Maureen.

Too many of our inner city students are not thriving in school.  So along comes Waiting for Superman, a compelling documentary produced by Davis Guggenheim, to raise the question: “What is our obligation to other people’s children?” The film is an indictment of the public school system with particular criticism aimed at teachers’ unions, the villains of the piece.  Heralded as “inspiring” and “one of the best films of the year,” it left me heartsick. The movie is slick and manipulative, advocating a school reform agenda that pushes charter schools and “teacher accountability” tied to students’ standardized test scores.

Guggenheim deserves credit for shining a light on education, but his solutions are simplistic and ignore the fact that societal inequities are more powerful than any force teachers can bring to bear in schools.  The pedagogy of rote learning, endorsed in the film, is one that many contemporary educators have abandoned in favor of a more student-centered approach that recognizes that knowledge is a process of coming to understand, connecting new information to previously held concepts.

Waiting for Superman casts a rosy glow on Geoffrey Canada, founding principal of Harlem Success Academy, who narrates a short cartoon in which a teacher walks from student to student, opening heads and pouring something from a pitcher.  “It should be simple,” he says. “A teacher filling her students’ heads with knowledge and sending them on their way.  But we’ve made it complicated.” This feels like a leap back into the past; what we really want is students who are much more active participants in their own learning.

Waiting for Superman accuses teachers’ unions of being the monkey wrench in school reform.  If only we could torpedo teacher tenure and move to merit pay, insists the film’s other star, Michelle Rhee, everything would improve.  Rhee, former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. schools, closed 23 schools in one year and offered teachers huge salary increases, if they would agree to forfeit tenure.  Now she travels around the country advancing the idea that unions are the enemy of school reform, and she has been persuasive.  She is not alone in her disdain for the unions, as we have seen in Wisconsin, Ohio, and New Hampshire, where some people place blame on unions for everything from low test scores to budget deficits.

In New York City today, teachers applying for tenure go through a rigorous process of compiling a portfolio, securing letters of endorsement, and being observed and interviewed.  The vast majority of teachers I’ve known over the past 28 years, twelve spent in New York City as a literacy coach, principal, and university instructor, have been conscientious in their commitment to students, something the film ignores.  Teachers do not seek job security at the expense of students’ welfare, as Rhee asserts; they seek to be treated as professionals.

These issues are complex and it won’t be a “superman” who will address them.  The film’s melodramatic portrayal of moms too poor to pay Catholic school tuition, its blanket condemnation of unions, and its presentation of dubious statistics will do little to help. Other, more constructive, ideas abound.

For every dedicated educator shown in the film who is working at a charter or private schools in New York, there are thousands of equally committed and creative teachers working within the public school system. In addition to being excellent teachers in the classroom, they devote hours of free time to their students beyond the school day. I am thinking about two young teachers from IS 131 in New York’s Chinatown who spent their Saturdays taking immigrant kids on walks around the city, encouraging them to make observations, ask questions, and wonder about the implications of what they had seen.  I’m remembering the year a science teacher and I took a group of eighth grade “feisty females” to art museums, cafes, and bookstores every Friday after school. I’m thinking about a fifth grade teacher at PS 11 in Chelsea who designed and implemented a social justice curriculum requiring children to observe and write about what was unfair in their communities and then develop action plans to make changes.

These days I get emails from former NYU students, telling tales of being compelled to follow scripted reading programs. They’re dismayed at the lack of value placed on the teaching of writing and at the obsession with test scores.  They love working with students, but they are disheartened to have such little voice in what happens in their classrooms.  Several have left in frustration already, pursuing journalism or law careers.  Among my current students at UNH there is a sense of foreboding where there was once a sense of joy.  They lament the lack of respect for teachers in the media and among the general public, and they are uneasy about their futures.  I worry that they will lose heart.

Waiting for Superman shows little respect for teachers’ intelligence, integrity, or creativity. Unless we can counter this mind-set, we can anticipate that talented teachers will leave the profession and smart young college students will make other career choices.  The stakes are too high here to allow the nation’s attention to be hijacked by such a narrow, simplistic agenda as the film advances.  Other voices are sorely needed in this conversation: the voices of thinkers like Diane Ravitch, Alfie Kohn, and Linda Darling Hammond; the voices of families whose children are thriving in many types of schools; and, most of all, the voices of teachers who know better than anyone else what it means to work and learn and think alongside other people’s children.

For more information about the issues raised by Waiting for Superman—and the reality behind them– check out these links:

  • Diane Ravitch looks at the reality behind the schools and reforms profiled in the film in her review in the New York Times Review of Books.
  • The Grassroots Education Movement of New York has just released a documentary challenging the picture of public education portrayed in the Guggenheim film.
  • “Good teaching alone can’t overcome the many obstacles” students face when they are not in school writes Joe Nocera in a recent column in the NY Times.
  • Alfie Kohn takes school reformers to task for advocating what he calls “poor teaching for poor children” in this recent commentary in Education Week.

18 comments May 25th, 2011

Questions & Authors: Finding the time for reading

A few weeks ago we heard from Pat Johnson (One Child at a Time, Catching Readers Before They Fall), about the essentials of guided reading groups. In this installment of Questions & Authors Pat’s coauthor, Katie Keier shares some practical tips for making time for in-class reading.

We all agree that kids need lots of in-school time to read, enjoy books, and share their books and ideas with others. Besides the guided reading time, how else can we make that happen in classrooms where teachers are pushed to do test preparation and worry about their overflowing curriculum demands?

While guided reading is one time in your day to have your students reading, there are many more opportunities we, as teachers, can create.  If our goal is making sure we have kids who not only can read, but choose to read, then we must provide lots of opportunities within the school day to help all readers develop a reading process system and practice using it with meaningful, authentic texts. Having choice in what they read helps these readers see how reading can become a part of their lives. Our daily read aloud time, independent reading time and the teacher’s modeling can support not only the readers who struggle, but also every other reader in your classroom.

Read Alouds. I read aloud as much as possible in the classroom. There is no substitution for a teacher passionately sharing a book he/she loves. Bringing in new books that I find and sharing them with my students helps them see reading as something we do for enjoyment as well as a way to learn new things. I use picture books in every classroom I work in, from kindergarten through sixth grade. I share books from favorite authors, new books I discover that I know kids will love, and books connected to content area topics. What better way to introduce or sustain a topic in science or social studies than by sharing an engaging book? I also use interactive read alouds to teach reading strategies and to help children see a reading process system at work. Our writer’s workshop often starts with a read aloud, as students learn to read like writers through these mentor texts. I don’t see read aloud as a separate time that I may or may not squeeze in, but rather as a key piece of my instruction.

The books I read aloud to kids are the ones that don’t stay on our class bookshelves or in the library for long. Kids want to take these books home and reread them independently or with friends and family. It’s important to make sure your readers who struggle are not pulled out for intervention during read aloud time. This is not “just reading aloud”, but rather a critical time where they can hear fluent, expressive reading modeled, laugh or cry in response to a great book, share ideas and feelings with classmates, and hear a teacher think aloud.  Read aloud time also exposes struggling readers to books at a higher level than they can read independently. They need these opportunities to comprehend and participate in discussions.  Feeling part of the classroom reading community is important. Protect your read aloud time. All kids need to be there for it.

Independent Reading Time. Kids need lots of time, every day, to read books independently. It’s really the only way we can improve at anything – by practicing. Sadly, independent reading time often gets pushed aside in favor of test preparation workbooks, lengthy organizers for kids to record what they are reading (instead of reading), and other activities that take away from reading. Without sustained periods of independent reading time, our students will not be able to have the endurance necessary for the standardized reading tests they are required to take, nor will they learn to enjoy and love reading – our ultimate goal. Independent reading time is a necessary piece of every school day.

In the classrooms where I work, children have boxes or bags of books that are “just right” for them. Often these are books they have read with a teacher in guided reading groups, or a teacher has helped them choose based on a reading level. I agree that kids need to be reading these books every day. Books that are just right for them support their developing reading process system.  The more they practice reading strategically in appropriate level texts the stronger their system becomes.

 However, I also feel that kids need time to read books they have chosen, maybe for no other reason than that the topic or the picture on the cover interests them. A fellow teacher once gave me the idea of having kids keep their “just right” books in a large Ziploc bag. They could also have 4-6 free choice books outside the bag, in their individual book box or desk. It didn’t matter what kind of books these were. The agreement during independent reading time is that they have to read from their bags first, then they can read their free choice books. This has worked quite well at keeping a balance of “just-right” books with free choice books. And it’s amazing how often those free choice books end up moving into the bags as the kids become stronger readers!

Modeling what readers do.  When I tell my students that I read on Twitter that Chris Van Allsburg has a nonfiction book coming out in April, they are as excited as I am. I share author blogs with my students and videos on YouTube of authors reading their books. I bring new books into the classroom frequently, and share my excitement with my students. I love books and reading and love sharing that with my students. I try to be a constant model of what a lifelong reader does. I talk to my students about trying to navigate my way through the complicated owner’s manual on my new camera as well as how I read Pete the Cat to my dog because I was so excited to get it in the mail (and it’s one of those books that begs to be read aloud!)

I feel that bringing excitement and enthusiasm about books into your classroom will get a lot of your readers who struggle to rethink what reading means to them. When you create this culture in your classroom, even your most reluctant readers will be motivated to find a book they enjoy. The more you read aloud great books, provide time daily for students to read in class, engage your class in conversations about books, take note of your student’s interests and find books that appeal to them, and support them in creating a reading process system, the more likely you are to have readers who not only can read, but choose to read.

4 comments February 16th, 2011

Questions & Authors: Essentials for guided reading

In this installment of Questions & Authors, Pat Johnson, co-author of Catching Readers Before They Fall: Supporting Readers Who Struggle, K-4, talks about small groups for guided reading and how they can help students in grades 3-6 who are reading below their grade level. She offers some essentials that teachers need to remember when conducting these groups. Check back soon for more tips from Pat’s co-author, Katie Keier, on how to create in-school time for students to read, enjoy, and share books.

A common problem for students in grades 3-6 who are struggling putting a reading process system together is that they are often in books that are too hard for them. In order to avoid giving them “baby books,” they end up in novel unit groups and teachers try to pull them along with the other students. When the text is too difficult, the struggling reader expends all his energies figuring out the words and thus comprehension suffers. These readers often practice “fake reading” as they only pretend to look like they are engaged in these chapter books.  We would suggest letting them participate in these chapter book literature circle discussions after they have listened to the book on a CD or allowing another student, parent, or volunteer to read the text to them.  Then, in combination with that, these students participate in guided reading lessons with text that is more appropriate to their reading levels. Students in grades 3-6 who are still considered below grade level need some very focused teaching.  Guided reading small group gatherings are the perfect place for this.

Here are a few essential elements that help make the teaching in small groups effective for these students:

  • Use short text
  •  Keep meaning-making at the forefront
  • Plan in ways that help you tailor the lesson to the specific needs of the group
  • Allow talk time as you encourage students to negotiate the meaning of the text beyond the literal level and actually teach talking behaviors to maximize comprehension

Why short texts?  We find that using short text in guided reading helps both the teacher and students focus better.  Many high interest short texts can be found in children’s magazines or from the internet, in poetry, or in short stories or vignettes. It’s easier for struggling readers when the text is short.  They don’t feel so overwhelmed and approach the task with a more “I can do this” attitude. Remember, guided reading is a time for the students to practice putting their system of strategies together. Problem solving is part of reading, and if they are appropriately matched to the text, they will be able to balance word solving along with comprehension.  Also, the teacher can focus on the students’ comprehension better when the text is not a complete novel.  The whole guided reading lesson from start to finish can be completed in 2-3 sessions without the students losing interest.

Making meaning.  Always keep meaning-making at the forefront of the guided reading lesson.  Even if you have the students practicing a particular strategic action — such as, maintaining fluency, asking questions and searching for answers as you read the text, or using context clues to help figure out the meanings of unknown words — it’s still crucial to have students realize that  reading is about meaning-making. Fountas and Pinnell say, “Keep the language grounded in good texts so that students understand that their goal is to understand and notice more rather than to ‘do’ a strategy.” (p. 353). Let students respond to the text in a very conversational way. With short text it’s easier for students to go back to selected lines or paragraphs that confused them and get help from others in the group.  They learn how to build meaning together. 

Plan ahead.  Just like any other teaching that we do, planning ahead for our guided reading lessons is especially important for struggling readers. I use a sheet that lists four areas that help me think through the lesson. Focus: Why have I called these students together? What have my assessments and anecdotal notes told me that these students need practice with? Text Introduction: I jot down a 2-3 sentence summary of what this text will be about and then add a hook or question that will invite the children to talk about the topic. Connection and Purpose: I connect the lesson to previous lessons and then give the students a purpose for reading.  For example, “Read to find out as much as you can about this narrator, the “I” of this text.” Or “You just shared how dangerous tornadoes can be. Read to find out some ways to keep safe during a tornado.” Notes: I sometimes jot down a few ideas that are important for this text in order to get it’s full meaning.  I want to be ready to guide the students back to the text if their talk gets too far off topic.  Each teacher usually develops her own planning sheet based on what works for her and her students. 

Time for talk. What sometimes happens in classroom whole-group discussions is that a few talkers do all the discussing.  Struggling readers often become passive because they know there are others who will fill the silence.  So, meeting in small groups with only these struggling readers offers them more opportunity to get their ideas out. They may be reluctant to talk and offer opinions until they see the environment as a safe place to share.  It’s important that the teacher take time to actually “teach talking behaviors” as Maria Nichols says in Talking About Texts. Because of her work, I am more careful to support students as they learn to:

  •  Respond to each other
  • Provide evidence for opinions
  • Confirm for themselves rather than waiting for teacher approval
  • Grasp that their idea can be put on hold to delve further into another student’s idea
  • Realize that thoughts can be questioned.

In this supportive setting, the readers see that ideas and feelings you have about a text can change and grow over time.

No matter how you structure your reading workshop time, we hope that you are striving to meet the needs of the struggling readers in your classroom.  Small group instruction, tailored to the students’ needs, is very effective in supporting these students to grow into proficient readers.  Taking the time to find short, interesting texts for guided reading will add to your powerful teaching.

7 comments January 26th, 2011

Questions & Authors: Teaching organization to young writers

All writing teachers are familiar with the “hamburger paragraph” and other well-intentioned but ultimately faulty  systems to help students organize their writing. And while not all organizational structures are irrelevant, in this installment of Questions & Authors Jennifer Jacobson argues that helping students think of their audience and guiding them to discover writing structures and styles as they read their favorite books, are the foundations of better organized writing. Jennifer is the author of No More “I’m Done!” Fostering Independent Writers in the Primary Grades.

We’ve long accepted that learning to read is a developmental process. We know that, year by year, students will grow in their understanding of how print is constructed. They will increase their knowledge and application of reading strategies and comprehension. But when it comes to writing, we often fail to think developmentally. This is particularly true in the teaching of organization, where we provide lists of instructions or formulas to students so they can produce seemingly well-organized products. In many instances, the formulas are bogus, no more than fabrications designed by well-meaning educators to prompt students for a patterned (but often hollow) response.

The hamburger paragraph is one example of well-intentioned but faulty scaffolding. In this popular lesson, we teach students to begin each paragraph with a topic sentence, follow with three supporting sentences, and end with a concluding sentence. Imagine for a moment trying to write a letter, an essay, or a report this way. All paragraphs would be approximately five sentences long. Transitions from one paragraph to another would be a nightmare: all those conclusions, all those new openings. If you examine professional writing, you’ll discover that sometimes a topic sentence comes in the middle of the paragraph, sometimes at the end. (Years ago, when doing some writing for a textbook company, I had difficulty finding a mentor text that had even a single paragraph modeled after the hamburger.)

But, you say, once we started teaching the hamburger, our students scored higher on the state assessment! I’m not surprised. In some states, teachers who are enlisted to score state assessments have been taught to look for the hamburger structure in student responses. Another name for the hamburger paragraph, then, could be the Big Test Paragraph. 

This is not to say that all of the structures we teach students—the compare-and-contrast essay, the persuasive essay, the rising action to climax in fiction, the haiku, or the sonnet, for example—are not relevant. They certainly are. However, we need to give students knowledge of and experience with different organizational patterns. And before we do that, we need to help them grow in their intrinsic understanding of organization. That is, we need to help them realize that organization serves a particular function, and that they—as writers—have important decisions to make.
How do we accomplish this?

We begin by building a sense of audience. When a writer shifts his purpose from writing for himself to writing with a reader in mind, he becomes increasingly aware of the need for structure. He first recognizes that organization is essential for clarity, and then grows to understand that by manipulating the organization he can better inform, persuade, entertain, or move the reader.

There are a myriad of positive ways that we can help young writers keep audience in mind. As your students leave the rug where you have gathered for your mini-lesson, ask, “What are you going to write about today?” And then, “What do you think the reader would like to know about (your cat, your trip to the Laundromat, your birthday party)?”
During writing conferences we can ask questions that help the writer keep the reader in mind:
• What is the purpose of your piece?
• What is the most important thing you wish to tell the reader?
• Do you have a lead that will hook the reader?
• Are there any places in your work that might confuse the reader? How could you make this part clearer?
• What does the reader learn in the middle of your piece?
• What do you think the reader will want to know at the end?
• How do you think the reader will react to this ending?

I conduct mini-lessons in which I model prewriting with audience in mind. I tell students my topic choice—for example, my dogs—and then ask, “What do you think the reader would like to know about them?” They provide me with a list of questions, which I record on the board. After the questions have been generated, we discuss which ones I should answer in the beginning of the piece (What are your dogs’ names? What do they look like?), those that should be answered in the middle of the piece (What do they like to do? Do they get into trouble?), and the questions that will serve the ending (How do you feel about your dogs?). Then I write a piece that includes the answers to all of the questions. I think out loud, indicating when it’s time to shift to another paragraph (for example, when I’m introducing a new idea about my subject).

Of course, the very best way to help students develop a sense of audience is to give them one (the teacher alone does not serve as an effective audience). Daily sharing of writing in the author’s chair; peer conferencing; and publishing student work in newsletters, podcasts, and collective anthologies all go a long way toward helping students keep listeners and readers in mind.

After they have developed a sense of audience, students need to understand that writers make choices about how to organize their work. When reading a mentor text to primary students, I often ask, “How did the author choose to organize this piece?” Many of the stories I read are chronological, so students say, “She told the story in the order it happened.” But I’m careful to read fiction and nonfiction that are organized around other structures as well. We read Carmine: A Little More Red by Melissa Sweet (2005), an adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood that is organized as an alphabet book; The Great Blue House by Kate Banks (2005), which is organized according to the seasons; Previously by Allan Ahlberg (2008), a story told backward; Now and Ben: The Modern Inventions of Benjamin Franklin by Gene Barretta (2006), which alternates between present and past; and many other books that allow us to examine different structural bones.

Once young students become familiar with the many organizational possibilities that exist, they often adapt them for their own purposes. As I mentioned in my book No More “I’m Done”: Fostering Independent Writers in the Primary Grades, it is a great feeling when a young student says, “Look! I’m using the Now and Ben pattern, only my book is Me as a Baby, Me Now.” Choosing their own organizational structure is a far more sophisticated approach than following a list of instructions.

Students can also examine the ways in which authors begin and end their pieces. In the not-so-distant past, I recommended providing students with a list of strategies that authors use. I now realize that an even more productive exercise is to invite students to conduct their own investigations of the techniques, and to provide their own names for these strategies. One group of students discovered that many writers begin a piece with a sentence that tells when:

• “When Owen’s granny heard he was a baby . . .” (Banjo Granny by Sarah Martin Busse and Jacqueline Briggs Martin [2006])
• “Not so long ago, before she could even speak words . . .” (Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale by Mo Willems [2004])
• “When I was younger it was plain to me . . .” (A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams by Jen Bryant [2008])

We know that with discovery comes ownership—not something that students are likely to forget.

Only when students truly understand the need and function for organization should we have them experiment with structures that are particularly useful to writers. I often begin by showing students the “pattern of three” that appears in some works of fiction: 1) a character wants something and tries to get it but fails, 2) he tries again and fails again, and 3) he tries a third time and either gets what he wants or changes his mind. Although fiction can be difficult, it is usually the genre children know best; therefore, they are able to apply a good deal of background knowledge. In addition, the pattern of three is a common organizational structure: the five-paragraph essay and the traditional persuasive essay are two familiar examples. Both essays begin with an introductory paragraph (equivalent to the opening of a story in which we are introduced to a character and what he wants), followed by three supporting paragraphs (the three tries), and a conclusion (the story’s resolution). Once students have developed a solid understanding of one of these formats, it’s easy to introduce the others.

When it comes to teaching writing, there is a constant tension between allowing students to practice the craft and rushing them to create a product that looks accomplished. With subjects such as mathematics or music, we accept that mastery will take hours and hours of exposure. Writing, on the other hand, we too often treat as a fill-in-the-blank exercise.  Providing formulas too early not only stunts writing growth, it also interferes with the development of ideas, voice, and sentence fluency. Instead, we must encourage students to identify themselves as writers and to know that writers first ask themselves “What do I want to write about?” and then “How will I organize this piece?” Teaching students this foundational concept of the writing process will serve them well.

2 comments October 27th, 2010

Questions & Authors: The Power of Memoir

Everyone has a story to tell. Kimberly Hill Campbell realized that adolescents in middle and high school especially appreciate reading — and writing — memoir. In this installment of our Questions & Authors series, Kimberly shares some great memoirs for reading, followed by prompts that support writing a memoir. Kimberly’s recent book Less Is More: Teaching Literature with Short Texts, Grades 6-12, explores a variety of short texts to engage a wide range of middle and high school students.

The Power of Memoir

This fall I was asked by one of the graduate students in my language arts methods class to explain the difference between personal narrative and memoir.  And I immediately thought of the personal narratives so many of my high school students had written.  Stories of experiences that were often rich in detail but missing what I so appreciate about memoir: the why of the personal story.  Personal narrative is the starting point for memoir, but it is in the selection of what to include and what it all means, that we move from narrative to memoir.  As William Zinsser, author of Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir notes, “A good memoir requires two elements—one of art, and the other of craft.  Memoir is how we make sense of who we are, who we once were, and what values and heritage shaped us….Memoir writers must manufacture a text, imposing narrative order on a jumble of half-remembered events” (1998, p. 6)

I have loved memoir as a personal reading choice since I was in high school. And I am not alone in my appreciation of memoir.  I am on the waiting list at my local library for Mary Karr’s newest memoir, Lit, and I note Karr’s previous memoirs, The Liar’s Club, and Cherry, also have waiting lists.  But it took me longer than it should have to recognize the teaching value of memoir in middle school and high school classrooms.  What I know now is that students appreciate the wisdom and humor that can be found in a memoir.  As one high school student noted after reading a selection of memoir excerpts,  “I have been interested in how people can express their life in a book.  Everyone has had problems and gifts, and everyone has their own story to tell.” Having a story to tell is particularly true for adolescents who are in the very process of discovering themselves. As Nancie Atwell writes in her chapter, “Call Home the Child: Memoir” in In the Middle,  “Memoir celebrates people and places no one has ever heard of.  And memoir allows us to discover and tell our own truths as writers” (1998).

I appreciate how reading memoir supports writing memoir.  So the discussion that follows will first focus on recommendations for memoir reading followed by prompts that support writing memoir.  It’s my hope these ideas will support those of you who are already working with memoir in your middle school and high school classrooms. And I am counting on you to respond to this blog with your recommendations for reading and writing memoir.  For those of you who have not yet worked with memoir, I hope you’ll be willing to explore this genre with your students and share your discoveries.

In choosing memoirs for whole class or literature circle reading, I look for a mix that address a variety of topics.  I also look at the writing craft of the memoirs we read: What lessons can students learn from this author’s writing.  Typically I select excerpts from longer works, although please see the reference to a collection of short memoirs, edited by Amy Erlich in the section on “Lessons from Childhood.”   Listed below are memoir excerpts that have worked well with middle school and high school students.  Each one illustrates the power of focusing on “small self-contained incidents that are still vivid….because they contain a universal truth that …readers will recognize from their own life” (Zinsser, 2006)

Memoirs to Read

As noted above, I try to provide a mix of memoir and particularly appreciate memoirs that focus on lessons learned from childhood, memoirs that highlight the importance of reading and/or writing, and memoirs that make me laugh.

Lessons Learned from Childhood

Excerpt from Part I of Annie Dillard’s memoir, An American Childhood (1987).  Dillard describes throwing snowballs at cars and the chase that ensues when one driver pulls over and chases Dillard and her snow-ball-throwing friends.  I admire Dillard’s appreciation of the chase and her craft, particularly her use of  descriptive details.

When I Was Your Age, Volume Two: Original Stories about Growing Up, ed. by Amy Erlich.(1999) is a rich collection of short memoirs of adolescence by authors who write YA fiction. I admire the accessibility of these memoirs and the fine writing craft, in particular, compelling leads (“ In the Blink of an Eye” by Norma Fox Mazer and “ Pegasus for a Summer” by Michael Rosen) and setting details to illustrate the power of place (“The Long Closet” by Jane Yolen).

The Importance of Reading and Writing

Excerpt from Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodgriguez: An Autobiography (1982. pp. 62-72).  Rodriguez details his love of reading and its impact on his life in a distinct style of varied sentence lengths, questions, parenthetical remarks, and repetition.

Excerpt “20” from Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000, pp. 55-58 (Please be aware there is profanity in the opening paragraph). In this excerpt, King shares the revisions and advice he received from the local newspaper editor in response to his sports story, “[w]rite with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.  Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out.  Once you know what the story is and it get right—as right as you can, anyway—it belongs to anyone who wants to read it” (2000, p. 57).

Memoirs that Make Me Laugh

Opening section of the chapter “Bawlbaby” in Chris Crutcher’s, King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography (2003, p. 19-26)  In this excerpt, Crutcher shares his struggle with showing anger through crying and life with an older brother.  I also appreciate his candid passion for cookies.  It’s funny, poignant and Illustrates the power of dialogue in support of memoir.

A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Moreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel (2002)  is a delightful memoir focusing on a series of vignettes that celebrate the wisdom and humor of childhood.  In particular, I recommend “Daniel” (p. 40-45) and “Diner” (p. 167-172).

“Thinking Small” in Support of Writing Memoir

William Zinsser talk about the challenge of finding an entry point to memoir, deciding “What to put in? What to take leave out? Where to start? Where to stop? How to shape the story?”  He suggest that as writers of memoir, we are well served to “think small.”  Two memoir writing strategies that have worked well with adolescent writers and heed Zinseer’s “reduced” writing approach are described below:

Candy and Me

Hilary Liftin’s wonderful memoir, Candy and Me: A Love Story (2003) details the author’s passion for candy and other sweet treat, including canned frosting.  Excerpts from this text have inspired many middle school and high school students to craft their own candy memoirs.  The key elements of this writing workshop include reading selections from Liftin’s memoir:  I recommend the chapter on “Snickers.”  (pp. 62-64). As Liftin notes, Snickers is the perfect blend of chocolate, peanuts, nougat, and caramel.  And she goes on to describe that in a pinch, it’s the candy bar that “eats like a meal” so it sustained her on a two-week-long high school graduation camping trip that surprisingly didn’t include meals.   I follow this reading by providing students with a sampling of candy.  I know this idea of giving students candy has its challenges and may even be prohibited in some schools.   But I have watched in amazement as students (grades 6-12)  respect and embrace the idea that the candy is in support of their writing.  Some teachers have found it helpful to ask students to wait to eat the candy until the end of the quiet writing period.

Just last week, in a senior English class, students sampled candy as they wrote their candy memoirs. One student, who described herself as a reluctant writer and who had not been been willing to share any of her writing with the class, willingly volunteered to read her candy memoir about Smarties.  When she was finished reading, her peers applauded.

Six-Word Memoirs

I have read that Hemingway was once challenged to write a story in only six words. He wrote: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” SMITH magazine ( celebrated Hemingway’s efforts by encouraging readers to write their own six-word memoirs.  The result is a magazine, website, and series of books celebrating six-word memoirs, including the original published collection: Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six Word Memoirs from Writers Famous and Obscure, edited by Rachel Feirshleiser and Larry Smith (2006).   In this collection journalist Chuck Klosterman writes, “Nobody cared, then they did. Why?”  and Amy Sedaris offers a very different approach, “Mushrooms. Clowns. Wands. Five. Wig. Thatched.”

After sharing Hemingway’s model and excerpts from the original collection described above and the SMITH website ( words), juniors and seniors in a Creative Writing class wrote their own six-word memoirs:

            “Treading through the waters of the past” by Bradie

            “Silver lining sliding over murky puddle” by Chelsea

            “I’m fat but I am tender” by Shanji

            “Life is creating your own Stories” by Taylor

            “Internal Assessment due Tomorrow: bad words” by Vivian

            “I’m worried, thinking, twisted, and …shrinking.” by Chelsea

And as evidence that students will build on their six-word memoirs in crafting longer memoirs, Sam wrote “I need more than six words.”

A group of middle school students turned their six-word memoirs into a compelling video.  Check out Mollie Dickson’s blog to see their outstanding work.

Why Memoir?

Memoir is an opportunity for us, as readers, to experience the well-told moments of the author’s life.  It’s an opportunity for us as writers, to craft our own stories, carefully selecting each detail in an effort to discover our own truth.  As memoir author  Mary Karr notes in describing good memoirs, “they elevate experience into art and use individual lives to locate universal truths.”

4 comments August 18th, 2010

Questions & Authors: Integrating inquiry, assessment, and strategic teaching

In Pulling Together: Integrating Inquiry, Assessment and Instruction in English Classrooms, Leyton Schnellert and his coauthors present a comprehensive answer to the current big ideas in teaching: formative assessment, backward design, inquiry learning, strategic teaching, and metacognition. In this edition of Questions & Authors, Leyton talks about the origins and inspiration for Pulling Together, and how he and his colleagues find connections between English language arts and inclusive education.

Pulling Together emerged through collaboration with my colleagues Krista Ediger, Mehjabeen Datoo, and Joanne Panas.  Over the last few years, we have met about once a month to build text sets, redesign lessons, explore strategy instruction and wrestle with assessment.  However, somewhere along the way, we began to realize that the various approaches that we were pulling apart and trying to make our own actually supported one another.  Our inquiry then became something more satisfying and even elegant – an attempt to pull various practices together.

Pulling together seems to be a theme for me; I have spent much of my teaching career finding connections between my two passions: English language arts and inclusive education.  For me they go hand in hand, classroom communities with diverse student populations open up opportunities to explore multiple perspectives and literacies from the inside out.  Krista, Mehjabeen, Joanne and I use inquiry as a planning and teaching framework because inquiry invites students to engage with ideas and experiences by asking questions and developing and sharing their own perspectives. Planning from our knowledge of students – what they know and believe, looking at their strengths, interests and stretches – helps us to develop culturally relevant curriculum.  For us, ongoing formative assessment plays a big part in inquiry-oriented classrooms.

Through teaching English language arts and co-teaching with peers (in my role as a resource teacher), I have learned to invite students to tell their stories and develop their own insights.  Instead of looking for right answers, I ask students to develop an idea and/or interpretation and to explain their understanding using evidence.  When there is an aspect of oral or written language that we all want to develop – a common outcome – I invite students to generate criteria with me.  Even if criteria or rubrics exist, I prefer to involve the students in figuring out what our shared criteria might be and invite them to find positive examples of these criteria in their own and others’ writing and thinking.  In my teaching I work from a belief that all students bring experience and skill – I don’t expect all students to at the same skill or knowledge level, but what I do communicate is that each of them needs to move from where they are as a learner to a deeper, more accomplished place.  In my planning and teaching, I’m asking students to pull together their background knowledge, the texts they read and create, the criteria we develop together and the mini-lessons I teach to help them get closer to those criteria.  Together my students and I make curriculum together.  The learning outcomes or standards are part of this curriculum, but so are we.

Inquiry learning builds enduring understandings and thinking strategies.  In Pulling Together we show how we have combined inquiry, formative and summative assessment, and strategic teaching. Within inquiry units we find that we can both (1) help students to develop deep, conceptual understanding and (2) explicitly build the thinking skills they need to help them develop these understandings. In each unit we focus on a few key thinking, reading, and writing skills. This is how we develop thoughtful readers and writers, who choose to read and write beyond our classrooms.

To help us in this process we:

1. Start with the end in mind.  We look at the learning outcomes and/or or standards to determine what we want students to know and do in a unit.  We also think about what themes and/or aspects of the human experience we can students to explore. Then we group these into one or two big ideas.  By the end of the unit, we want students to:

–      link examples and ideas across texts and explain how they are related to the human experience

–      explain how technology shapes the way we live our lives

–      use more than one medium to analyze and share a personal example of technology impacting how they communicate and behave

2.  Recast big ideas as questions that can be explored through inquiry.  Joanne, Krista, Mehjabeen and I were able to shape an entire three month unit around the questions:

How does communications technology shape our humanity?

How do we communicate with each other?

How does technology impact the way we communicate?

How does the way we communicate change the way we behave?

How does communications technology humanize and/or dehumanize us?

3.  Plan one or two performance assessments for the unit.  These allow students to show the understandings and skills they have developed.  For this unit students:

– wrote a personal essay on the topic how communications technology impacts them personally

– created a video, blog or broadcast (ie podcast) on how communications technology affects humanity/ society/other groups

– reflected on their learning in their metacognition journals

4.  Engage in lots of formative assessment especially descriptive feedback and student self-assessment.  These activities and assessments are not usually for marks, but rather to help students practice working with ideas and approaches, getting feedback along the way.  In this unit:

-students co-created a personal essay, guided by the teacher, on the topic “how does YouTube affect behavior?”

-they created a communications technology timeline

-They participated in quickwrites, a class blog, group discussions, information circles, and read and discussed articles on the impact of technologies

-wrote a reflection on their learning in their metacognition journals

5.  Teach mini-lessons use gradual release of responsibility for key knowledge and skills.

–      Students saw a teacher model ways to brainstorm ideas, start essays, create a flow for their ideas and back up their ideas with examples.

–      The strategies and approaches used and practiced along the way were the same ones they used in the performance assessments.

–      By the end of the unit everyone had a change to see examples and practice with feedback related to criteria.

–      All students had more success as they got personalized feedback related to shared criteria.

For Mehjabeen, Krista, Joanne and I, we are working to help students develop foundational skills for working with texts, ideas, each other and beyond the classroom. What is key for us is that it is the thinking skills and communication approaches that allow students to deeply engage with and understand complex ideas and information being taught.  This is a principle of inclusion – all students have a right to access ideas and techniques that can help them to develop themselves and engage with others and the world.

It is exciting for us is to hear and read how students’ thinking and understandings are developing.   By spending this extended time developing thinking skills, we have found that our students are able to grasp increasingly complex ideas and synthesize information and concepts with insight and appreciation. Using inquiry and performance assessment has also helped students to see the unique perspectives of their peers and any number of ways that these insights can be represented and communicated.  This provides us with a deep satisfaction as teachers; pulling together inquiry, formative and summative assessment, and strategic teaching is helping our students to develop the ability and sensitivity to appreciate diversity and difference.

Add comment July 29th, 2010

Questions & Authors: Mastering the art of school leadership

In his recent book Leading and Learning, Fred Brill draws on more than 240 interviews with new and experiences school administrators to examine common concerns, successes, and failures. In this edition of Questions & Authors, Fred talks about the importance of Professional Learning Communities for new school leaders and the role regular reflection on practice plays in professional growth and development for these leaders as they navigate their wide-ranging responsibilities every day.

Novice administrators regularly talk of being overwhelmed by the relentlessness of their work; they express uneasiness with the ambiguity of the roles they are expected to play. They struggle to find meaning and to create coherence and clarity in their work.  Being new to a leadership position, being new to a school site, or being unclear of roles, responsibilities, and expectations can be highly stress inducing. It takes time and experience to comfortably assume the identity of a school leader. Before we explore how reflective storytelling might be used as a tool for professional growth and development, it is important to understand why the role of the school leader is so important to a school’s success.

Although successful school leaders spend significant time at the intersection of teaching and learning, they are also responsible for the operational management of the school, community relations, and culture building. At one moment, they may be putting a Band-Aid on a child’s knee; the next moment, they might be working with an angry parent whose child was suspended for fighting. One day, they are facilitating the professional development on rubric development for teachers; the next day, they are convening a school site council to determine the best use of Title I funds. Educational leaders are charged with setting the tone, crafting the vision, and making good decisions to create a clean, safe, and healthy learning environment for every member of the school community.

Indeed, the principalship is one of the most exciting and rewarding roles in the world of education. It is the position at the epicenter of school reform and site-level decision making. A strong principal cultivates an effective learning community for students, teachers, and parents, and is able to develop strong relationships with individuals across stakeholder groups. The effective principal is the conduit, the connection, the spark, the stick, the carrot, the architect, and the builder responsible for ensuring that effective teaching and learning is taking place for every student in every classroom throughout the school.  But can school leaders really meet the needs, expectations, and mandates of all stakeholders?

“Although the job of school leader is not for everyone, it is clear that-with the proper training and support-administrators can become more effective, resilient, reflective, deliberate, principle-based leaders.”

The position of school principal requires an ability to recognize and understand the root causes of the challenges emerging in the field. It necessitates continual reprioritization and alignment of scarce resources. In addition, the work must be done beneath the stage lights, where any decisions and actions, signs of tentativeness, and missteps or miscommunications are witnessed and judged by a wide swath of stakeholders. Indeed, impeccable judgment is expected at most every turn. Ours has become an extremely litigious culture, and the principal is expected to serve thoughtfully without ever breaking a sweat, decide without showing any sign of angst or uncertainty, and resolve so that all parties feel listened to and validated. Unfortunately, like any baseball manager who does not get immediate and favorable outcomes, the school leader is subject to replacement at the end of the season.

The responsibilities, conflicting expectations, time demands, stressors, and challenges associated with administrative positions often make such jobs highly undesirable. One school leader described the sense of being overwhelmed by the competing demands: “And then I get to my office this afternoon, and I have papers all over the place. You can always tell what kind of state my work life is in because when it’s really, really busy, there’s just papers falling off the desk and under the desk. And you know, I keep putting things into my in-basket; my in-basket now is like this [holds hands about three feet apart]. And I just felt so frazzled because I knew I had to get here by five, and I’ve usually been staying until eight o’clock every night, so I was like, “Crap, I don’t have time.” (Gretchen C., September 2002)

In a typical workday, few school leaders are afforded the opportunity to reflect on their practice, the decisions they make, or the actions they take. Yet, regular reflection on practice is imperative for professional growth and development. School leaders are calling for structured opportunities to serve as co-researchers and co-learners who base their learning on actual challenges confronted in the field. Although the job of school leader is not for everyone, it is clear that-with the proper training and support-administrators can become more effective, resilient, reflective, deliberate, principle-based leaders. New leaders can learn to choose where they allocate their time and other precious resources, and how they might work more effectively to make decisions and improve student learning.

Adult learning theory suggests that professionals learn not only from their own practice, which is a trial-and-error type of learning, but also from interactions-formal and informal conversations-with other professionals. When systems and protocols are embedded within a professional learning community, there are more likely to be higher levels of achievement, more positive relationships, and psychologically healthier group members than might be found in individual learning situations

One fact is clear from looking at the research on professional development: learning and reflection do not happen readily in isolation. Learning is a social activity, and it comes largely from our participation in daily life. Communities of practice are everywhere; they emerge in social and professional settings, and they fill an inherent need for struggling individuals to make sense of their challenges. One new school leader explained: “We’ve got to learn from each other’s mistakes. I’m not going to live long enough to make them all myself” (Sally B., October 2003).

“One of the most damaging myths that aspiring school administrators often learn is that the change process, if managed well, will proceed smoothly. That myth amounts to little more than a cruel hoax, an illusion that encourages educators to view problems and conflict as evidence of mistakes or mis-managed process rather than as the inevitable byproducts of serious reform” (DuFour and Eaker 1998, 49).

Indeed, the school leader must manage dissension and opposition, setbacks, and unintended consequences. Although it is sometimes excruciatingly challenging, school leaders also must maintain an unshakable belief that all human beings, including adults, can continually learn and grow.

New school leaders are expected to burst forth from the cloistered phone booth of an administrative credentialing program, take to the air, and effectively meet the needs of all students, teachers, parents, and higher-level administrators. Unfortunately, leadership development programs are not generally structured or organized in such a way that prospective leaders are prepared to address the challenges they will face and the various roles they will be expected to play in the school setting. Classroom learning for professionals is inclined toward the theoretical rather than the practical.

It is tragic that schools become environments in which teachers engage in a form of parallel play. Child psychologists describe this behavior in preschoolers as when similar activities take place in different corners of a sandbox, with nary a word of interaction flowing between the children. In school environments, those who have participated in committees to improve one area of the school or another typically have not met with much success in making a difference or even having their voices heard. One new leader offered his favorite quote when the subject of professional collaboration was being discussed: “A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled.” Clearly, a lot of work needs to be done to get educators to learn, understand, and experience the value of participating in a professional learning community.

In the world of education, professional learning communities have become all the rage. Workshops are held around the country to promote the creation of collaborative structures focused on the improvement of student learning. DuFour and Eaker (1998) describe the critical components of a professional learning community: participants develop a shared mission, vision, and values; they engage in collective inquiry, which includes public reflection and the building of a shared meaning; they maintain an action orientation, promoting experimentation and a focus on continual improvement; and, finally, they maintain a strong outcomes orientation that places a high value on results rather than intentions. The four guiding questions that are intended to frame the work of a professional learning community (Dufour, Eaker, and DuFour 2005, 15) are:

  • What is it we want all students to learn?
  • How will we know when each student has mastered the essential learning?
  • How will we respond if a student experiences initial difficulty in learning?
  • How will we deepen the learning for students who have already mastered essential knowledge and skills?

It is no wonder that PLCs are gaining traction in public and private organizations. Professional learning communities can meet so many basic human needs: the need for a sense of belonging and acceptance, the need for esteem based on learning and growth, the need to serve a higher moral purpose, and the need for meaning in our work and our lives. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it is because it calls to mind Maslow (1943) and his hierarchy of needs. The lower level of Maslow’s pyramid contains our basic human needs (physiological requirements such as oxygen, food, and water). The next levels are safety; love, acceptance, and belonging; and esteem in the community. The apex of the pyramid, the highest form of human development, is the need for self-actualization. Maslow argued that the only reason individuals would not move toward self-actualization is because of hindrances placed in their way by society. Sadly, educational organizations often fit neatly into this category.

“A primary mission for all educators is to help students understand that their education is not about their parents or their teachers or their principal-rather, it is for their own benefit.”

What is the role of the school leader in cultivating professional learning communities? Where and how do school leaders get to reflect on their own craft? If PLCs are primarily about teachers collaboratively engaging in the improvement of the teaching and learning activities that take place in their classrooms, what is the role of the school leader in this process?

Regardless of administrative intentions, desires, suggestions, or expectations, it can be very challenging to influence teacher practice. School leaders are not direct service providers. Rather, the teachers are responsible for student learning, and a classroom with a closed door has proven to be a safe haven for students and teachers to do what they have always done and to resist the latest school reform effort. For school leaders to achieve a desired outcome of improved student learning, they first must figure out how to influence teacher actions in the classroom. At the same time, they must efficiently tend to the various operational responsibilities and institutional expections that are part of the position.

Building on the four guiding questions asked by DuFour, Eaker, and DuFour (2005), I propose four questions that must be continually addressed within a professional learning community of school leaders:

  • What is it we want all teachers to know and be able to do?
  • How will we know when each teacher has mastered the essential learning and is actively using the agreed-on tools and strategies?
  • How will we respond if a teacher experiences initial difficulty in learning or actively resists implementation?
  • How will we cultivate leadership capacity and opportunity for those teachers who have already mastered essential knowledge and skills?

School administrators cannot improve a school and increase student learning on their own. A primary mission for all educators is to help students understand that their education is not about their parents or their teachers or their principal-rather, it is for their own benefit. It is intended to increase their opportunities for success in college or the workplace. Likewise, a primary charge of the school leader is to help teachers understand that collaborative processes and active engagement in a professional learning community are not about the principal, the district, the state, or the federal government. These are simply the best ways we know to do business. Over time, as these practices become systemic, the principal becomes less visible and works behind the scenes to ensure that teachers have the necessary support and resources to participate fully and deeply in a professional learning community; the notion of distributed leadership becomes a reality rather than a buzzword. Professional learning communities can provide the structures to engage in collaborative inquiry for the purpose of improving instructional practice and determining the necessary actions that must be taken to ensure that all students are learning.

The role of the school principal is one of the loneliest and most challenging positions in the field of education. School leaders must seek out or create their own PLCs, so that they-like students and teachers-continually engage in reflective practices with colleagues who are interested in growing and improving their practice. Professional learning communities are all about translating theory into practice, learning into action.

Add comment May 5th, 2010

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