Posts filed under 'Leadership & Mentoring'

Mentoring New Teachers, Episode 6

Welcome to the final episode of this season of our Mentoring New Teachers podcast! In our last episode, Laura and I explored the idea of using mentors–both professional and student mentors–to inspire students to write. As Laura shares with me in this episode, her students benefited greatly from 1) noticing the different and varied craft moves of such beloved authors as Kevin Henkes and Mo Willems and 2) trying them out in their own compositions. Their excitement over the realization that they, too, could use these moves in their writing was palpable!

In this episode, I offer Laura some advice about how to incorporate strategies for helping her students learn and retain sight words into her instructional routine. As many teachers who work with our youngest students know, it can be enormously difficult to balance phonics work and word play with opportunities to listen to and read connected text–not to mention everything else that teachers must juggle within what often seems like a few short hours! Because this is our final “formal” conversation for the podcast, Laura and I also reflect on this unique experience and the many ways in which it has impacted our work as educators.

Thank you for joining us on this journey through one classroom teacher’s first full year as a public school educator. We hope you have found lots to take away and try in your own classroom and/or share with others, whether you consider yourself a “novice,” a “veteran,” or somewhere in between. If so, please recommend this podcast to colleagues within your professional learning network. And if you have any advice for how we might improve this or future Stenhouse podcasts, we’d love to hear from you!


Add comment September 24th, 2018

Mentoring New Teachers, Episode 5

It’s hard to believe that this is the second to last episode of our Mentoring New Teachers podcast–we hope you have enjoyed it thus far! In our last episode, Laura and I discussed what she might do to help her kindergarteners gather the courage to practice decoding and encoding words as they become more and more aware of the variety of ways that letters and sounds combine to form words. In the interest of not adding anything more to her plate as a classroom teacher, I offered some suggestions for how she might encourage her students to take “healthy risks” with their words by modifying some of what she already does with them. In addition, I suggested some simple ways that Laura might incorporate additional multisensory work within her literacy stations as a fun way to help her students create even more neural pathways in the brain than they’ve already created as developing readers and writers.

In this episode, Laura and I talk about the power of using mentors–both professional mentors and student mentors–to inspire students to write while also opening up a world of possibilities for how they might make decisions as composers of text. While teaching students to write by focusing on specific genres or forms of writing can be useful, teaching them to notice and ask questions about the kinds of craft, organization, and illustration moves their mentors make–while also encouraging them to envision making these “moves” in their own work–can ultimately transcend any genre or form that students might compose. Because this kind of “noticing” and “wondering” work can leave teachers feeling overwhelmed by possibilities about where to go next in their teaching, we also briefly discussed how to then build responsive curricula for their student writers.




Coppola, Shawna. 2015. “Math, Literacy, and the Need for More Blank Paper.” The Educator Collaborative Community Blog


Dorfman, Lynne and Rose Cappelli. 2017. Mentor Texts: Teaching Writing Through Children’s Literature, K-6 (Second Edition). Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse


Eickholdt, Lisa. 2015. Learning from Classmates: Using Students’ Writing As Mentor Texts. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


Ray, Katie. 1999. Wondrous Words: Writers and Writing in the Elementary Classroom. National Council of Teachers of English.


Add comment September 21st, 2018

Mentoring New Teachers, Episode 4

In the last episode of our Mentoring New Teachers podcast, Laura and I talked about how to begin the (often overwhelming) task of facilitating guided reading groups with young students. I explained to her how the original intention of guided reading has become somewhat lost due to the nature of many of today’s existing guided reading programs, and I offered some advice for how to begin this challenging,  but often necessary, work.

In our fourth episode, Laura shares with me how her mid-year literacy assessments led her to conclude that she needs to invest more time in helping her kindergarten students to practice decoding and encoding words. We discuss how to do this by modifying some of what she already does with her students, and I also suggest some ways to incorporate additional multisensory work with letters and sounds to help students create even more neural pathways in the brain than they’ve already created over the past several months. Finally, I share with Laura some common missteps that many teachers make–myself included!–when working to help students become more independent readers and writers. A tip: you may want to listen to this episode in small chunks–there’s a lot to absorb!





Cleaveland, Lisa. (2016). More About the Authors: Authors and Illustrators Mentor Our Youngest Writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


Dehaene, Stanislas. (2010). Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read. New York, NY: Penguin Publishers.


Add comment September 20th, 2018

Read, Apply, Learn

At Stenhouse, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to create resources that are useful for teachers. We are always eager to hear how teachers, coaches, and administrators use our books, videos, and courses in practice. That’s why we’re especially excited about Jill Gough and Jennifer Wilson’s upcoming NCSM preconference. In it, they’ll be talking about how they use professional literature to grow their teaching practice. How do they apply what they’ve read? How do they collaborate, both in-person and online, to reflect on that application with their colleagues? What new learning and productive changes in teaching practice result from that work?

We asked Jennifer and Jill for a sneak peek of their session, and we’re happy to share it with you here. We hope you can join them in San Antonio, or follow along online.

Read, Apply, Learn
By Jill Gough and Jennifer Wilson

In Kindergarten Reading Workshop this week, the teaching point was when we want to learn new things, we first read what experts say. Now, it is clear that we are preparing our young learners for a unit on nonfiction reading and on research.  What if we transfer that simple, direct teaching point to our own work?

We set three goals this year as a team of teachers committed to narrowing the achievement gap for our learners. These goals are to learn more math, to scale what we learn across our schools, and to more deeply understand the Standards for Mathematical Practices.  With these goals, we have to ask, what do experts say?

We have been reading a lot lately, and we have been considering how to share what we are trying and learning in both our home communities and in a more global community. We are now studying and strongly recommend 5 Practices for Orchestrating Productive Mathematics Discussions by Mary Kay Stein and Margaret Smith, NCTM’s publication, Principles to Action,  The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. by Daniel Coyle,  Beyond Answers: Exploring Mathematical Practices with Young Children from Mike Flynn, and Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had: Ideas and Strategies from Vibrant Classrooms by Tracy Zager and more.

In Beyond Answers, Mike Flynn suggests “We need to give students the opportunity to develop their own rich and deep understanding of our number system. With that understanding, they will be able to develop and use a wide array of strategies in ways that make sense for the problem at hand.” How might we slow down to afford our students the opportunity to develop their own deep understanding and grow their own mathematical flexibility? What will be gained when our young learners have acquired a deep foundation of understanding, confidence, and competence?


In Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had, Tracy Zager encourages us to engage our learners in productive struggle so that they are “challenged and learning”. She writes “As long as learners are engaged in productive struggle, even if they are headed toward a dead end, we need to bite our tongues and let students figure it out. Otherwise, we rob them of their well-deserved, satisfying, wonderful feelings of accomplishment when they make sense of problems and persevere.”


So what does productive struggle look like in the classroom with students? What does productive struggle look like in professional learning communities with teachers? How do we learn to bite our tongues and give students time to figure it out? What stories can you share about students engaged in productive struggle?

What if we take ideas and apply them in our learning and teaching? What might we learn about our students, ourselves, and mathematics? What is to be gained by reflecting on our learning and sharing our thinking with our PLN here, there, and everywhere?

We look forward to considering these questions Sunday at our NCSM pre-conference session. And we look forward to sharing what we learn and discuss with those who can’t attend in real-time on Twitter and later through our blogs.

Jill (@jgough)  – Sneak Peek on Flexibility: Experiments in Learning by Doing

Jennifer (@jwilson828) – Sneak Peek on Empowering Learners: Easing the Hurry Syndrome

#NCSM17 #LearnAndShare #SlowMath

Flynn, Michael. 2017 Beyond Answers: Exploring Mathematical Practices with Young Children. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Zager, Tracy. 2017. Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had: Ideas and Strategies from Vibrant Classrooms. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.


Jill Gough learns, serves, and teaches as the Director of Teaching and Learning at Trinity School. Previously, she taught in the Westminster Schools, after 14 years of teaching in public schools in Mississippi and at the Kiski School of Pennsylvania. Jill received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching in 1998 and Mathematical Association of America’s Sliffe Award in 2006 for excellence in teaching junior high.
Jennifer Wilson has been an educator for 24 years, spending 20 of those years teaching and learning mathematics with students at Northwest Rankin High School in Flowood, Mississippi. She currently teaches Advanced Placement Calculus and Geometry and also serves as a Curriculum Specialist with the Rankin County School District. Jennifer is an advocate for #slowmath, in which students and teachers take the time to enjoy mathematics.



Add comment April 1st, 2017

Now Online: Becoming a Literacy Leader

Becoming a Literacy Leader 2EThe first edition of Becoming a Literacy Leader chronicled Jennifer’s work as she moved to a new school and a new job as a literacy specialist. She found herself tackling everything from teacher study groups to state-mandated assessment plans.

The new edition of her book is a thoughtful, reflective evolution of her work as she rethinks how her identity and role as a literacy leader have evolved. She focuses on three ideas to describe her work: the concept of layered leadership, shared experiences in making meaning together, and the importance of rowing in the same direction as a school community.

Jennifer describes the layers of support that coaches can implement within a school and provides an explicit framework for implementing these layers and explains how administrators can use the literacy leader position to build and sustain change within their schools.

Preview the book online now!

Add comment August 11th, 2016

Summer PD is good for you

In today’s guest post, literacy specialist Shawna Coppola talks about why professional development in the summer is a great way to refresh your knowledge in an authentic, sustainable, and engaging way. Shawna is hard at work on her Stenhouse book, tentatively titled “Rethink, Revise, Renew” and she is teaching a summer course at UNH. Visit her blog at:

Summer PD is good for you
By Shawna Coppola

shawnaAuthenticity. Sustainability. Engagement. While all three can be filed under educational buzzwords, they are also what we strive to provide for our students each day in our classrooms. We strive to make the learning as authentic as possible so that students find meaning in the work they do; we strive for learning to be sustainable–to transcend a particular lesson, project, course, or classroom; and–above all else–we strive to engage students in the learning process itself, to captivate their minds in a way that will lead them to fall in love with learning and become passionate, lifelong learners.

For those of us who work to support educators, our goals are (or should be) exactly the same. Rather than “develop” teachers through mandated workshop days, program trainings, or outside consultancies–most of which teachers have little to no choice in selecting–we must strive to ensure that the professional learning opportunities we offer our colleagues are authentic, sustainable, and engaging.

Simple, right?

Unfortunately, no. Such an objective is challenging, complex, and dependent on a whole host of factors that are out of our control. This is partly why so many professional learning opportunities fall short. Another, perhaps less benign, reason is what author/educator Mary Ann Reilly (2009) refers to as “doing unto others as a means of improving” professional practice. When learning is done to us, rather than something we pursue with curiosity, desire, and action, we are left with “professional development”: something that passively exists. That stagnates.

I suppose this is why I have always been intoxicated by the concept of summer learning, which to me is the very opposite of “professional development.” Summer learning is full of opportunity, choice, and possibility. (Not to mention furtive side trips to the ice cream stand….) It is authentic in that I have genuinely pursued it. It is sustainable in that I’ve chosen it (and have approximately 964 fewer things to think about on any given day during the summer, thus leading to better retention). And it is engaging in that I can do it where I want, when I want, and how I want.

Last May I posted  about ways that educators might pursue summer learning opportunities that don’t involve withdrawing large sums from the bank or filling out district reimbursement forms. However, the possibilities don’t end there. Summer can also be the perfect time to take a class at a local college or university, to chip away at your professional TBR (to-be-read) pile, or to participate in an educational webinar. Just think of the brain capacity that’ll be increased by the lunch counts you won’t have to submit! The minute-by-minute decisions you won’t have to make! The shoelaces you won’t have to tie!

The learning that won’t be done to you.

So as you begin to wrap up the learning opportunities you have painstakingly provided for students this year, consider it your chance to plan your own incredible opportunity–one that is authentic, sustainable, and engaging.

One, perhaps, like that you would wish for your own students.


Reilly, Mary Ann. 2009. “Dressing the Corpse: Professional Development and the Play of Singularities.” Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy 6(1): 79-99.

Free, Easy, & Fun Summer Learning (Sangria Not Included)

1 comment May 11th, 2016

Building a Culture of Trust and Respect: One Police Officer and One Child at a Time

Assistant Principal Krista Venza and Officer Wayne

Assistant Principal Krista Venza and Officer Wayne Moreland

Today’s guest post comes from Krista Venza, assistant principal at a Pennsylvania middle school, and Wayne Moreland, a police officer. The two of them paired up to create the “Hello My Friend Project,” aimed at inspiring students — and teachers — to respect each other, to create a sense of community in their schools, and to reach outside of their schools to help those in need. You can find out more about the project on their website or their Facebook page.

Building a Culture of Trust and Respect: One Police Officer and One Child at a Time

By Wayne S.  Moreland, Police Officer and Krista M. Venza, Assistant Principal

When something negative is reported in the news, people tend to use generalizations such as, “All teachers . . .,” “All lawyers . . .,” “All police officers . . .,” and so on. Although there are some people in every field who can give the whole profession a bad name, most people are good and work very hard at their jobs. If we wait until a tragedy monopolizes the news and creates a culture of mistrust, we will miss the chance to build bridges between two institutions that share a vital role in every community: guiding children to become responsible and educated citizens.

As school and police leaders, we may seem an unlikely pair to join forces, but we realized we had a common desire to change perceptions and create a culture of trust and respect between schools and law enforcement. Wayne is a township police officer with eighteen years of experience in law enforcement, including the motorcycle patrol and training coordinator and team leader for a county SWAT team. Krista has eighteen years of experience in education as a special education teacher, instructional support facilitator, and school administrator.

Krista enrolled in a local citizen police academy, which helps the public learn about policing, Pennsylvania criminal law, and connections to the community. One of the key insights she gained was how quickly police officers must use their training, experience, and judgment to make decisions that can have lasting impacts on lives. The parallels to teaching are clear. Although educators do not normally have to make life-or-death decisions, they do need to react quickly and effectively to a number of different situations throughout the day that impact students’ lives.

Meanwhile, Wayne was searching for a way to show children a different side of law enforcement. He recalled an incident when he had volunteered to read to a local third-grade class. After the teacher introduced him, he was startled when a child walked up to him and asked if he was going to kill her. Wayne immediately knelt down beside the girl, placed his hand on her shoulder, and said, “Honey, I am here to read a book to you and your classmates. The police are here to help you, not hurt you.” But the moment stung.

After much discussion, we decided to supplement the work of the DARE program, in which police officers teach school students good decision-making skills, by creating a middle school program called PEACE Crew. The letters in PEACE represent the following:

P – Practicing self-control through

E – Exercise, discussion, and reflection of

A – Attitude and

C – Choices while always valuing

E – Each other

The after-school program is voluntary, and attendance fluctuates between five and twenty students each week. The structured sessions include focus and meditation activities, discussion of current topics, personal reflection, viewing of inspirational video clips, and physical exercise. Students are guided through a meditation session to help them to clear their minds and let go of any issues that may be distracting them. Topics discussed include bullying, friendship/relationship issues, academics, social media, and family dynamics. Students spend time writing about something that made them smile, something that made them upset, and something they learned that day. They then share these with the group. We model and practice active listening, showing empathy for others, and providing appropriate feedback during this time. We also feed them; usually we order a few pizzas and eat while we watch TED Talks, Kid President YouTube videos, and other video clips featuring inspirational people. The session is wrapped up by engaging in physical activity such as running sprints, stretching, working out in the weight room, or playing organized games.

The biggest surprise we’ve observed is that, when others see the positive interactions taking place within our crew, they are inspired and want to get involved. One of our mathematics teachers, who is also the high school football coach, volunteered to share a video clip of an NFL coach’s motivational speech to his players and then spoke frankly with students, encouraging them to be people with integrity who can be counted on. We have faculty members lined up to lead students in yoga and Zumba workouts, and we plan to invite other administrators, faculty members, and members of the community—such as business owners, judges, and police officers—to be guest speakers.

Another great outcome is how quickly we’ve gotten to know the students on a personal level. They have become comfortable talking openly with us and approaching us when they need support or someone to listen. Being available to them and making connections is so important when teaching them about trust and respect. As teen advocate Josh Shipp says, “Every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story.”

The students have expressed interest in spending time volunteering at a nursing home, cooking a meal for their teachers, holding a coat drive, and helping clean the school. They have plans to become ambassadors of good in our school and encourage others to become responsible, caring individuals.

Their first outreach activity is holding a food drive to benefit our local food bank. Crew members will go to each homeroom and speak to their peers about the food drive and the competition they’ve developed to encourage participation. This will be the first opportunity for many of our members to try out a leadership role where their peers are looking to them for information and instruction. They are taking this new role very seriously, and we are providing them time to work together to decide what they will say and to practice delivering this message before having to do it for real. We are excited to help them see this project through and for them to experience something they planned successfully come to fruition.

These students have ideas about how to reach out to others in need, how to stop bullying, and how to simply be kind to one another, but some of them continue to say and do things that test our patience and question our will to continue giving of ourselves and our time. Still, we do continue—it takes a lot more than just creating a club and asking kids to show up to effect real change. Expectations and skills need to be strategically taught, especially those having to do with becoming a contributing member of a community that values a partnership between its citizens and law enforcement. These skills need to be modeled by everyone the students interact with, and the students need to be given the opportunity to practice the skills in a safe, supportive atmosphere.

How can we help make that happen? It simply comes down to caring and doing it. Lots of people have good ideas and good intentions; we’ve decided to jump in with two feet and all our hearts to make a difference. Our group is special because we are giving students opportunities they may not otherwise have, and people want to be a part of it. It is human nature to internalize what we experience, hear about, and read about, and to make it our personal reality. Our hope is that this program bridges the divide and that our reality becomes a culture of trust and respect among individuals, the community, and law enforcement.

This is all about people deciding to step up and create opportunities to make connections so our students—and, we hope, the entire community—know that someone cares about them and believes in them. In life, the stars don’t always align, and we don’t always hit every green light. It’s up to individuals to choose to make things happen, so why not an unlikely pair like a police officer and an assistant principal? Who’s with us?

Add comment April 14th, 2015

Classroom Conversation and Collaboration

Matt Copeland, author of Socratic Circles, launched a Facebook discussion and collaboration page about a year ago. Today he discusses why teachers need collaboration and discussion and how his online community helps to facilitate the process.

Collaboration. It’s the one thing we educators never seem to get enough time to do.

Very early in my teaching career, a more seasoned colleague shared with me his lamentation on the profession: As teachers, we are the eggs; the school is our egg carton. Each of us is separated off into our own little protective compartment—our classroom—never touching, never interacting, never discussing.

Remodeling Literacy Learning: Making Room for What Works,” a report from the National Center for Literacy Education, appears to suggest that little has changed in the last twenty years in that regard. According to its findings, only 40% of educators have the opportunity to co-plan with colleagues more than once a month. And yet, co-planning is the one professional learning experience survey respondents value the most. In fact, a majority of educators have less than one hour per week to work with other members of their learning teams. (A one-page infographic summarizing the report’s findings is also available.)

In a fascinating article from Vox, Elizabeth Green, who spent five years researching the complexities of becoming an exceptional educator, offered the following nugget of insight:

We don’t give teachers the space to do anything but work, work, work. They have no space to learn. Whereas in Japan or Finland there are 600 hours per year of time spent teaching, in the US, it’s 1,000 hours or more. So teachers have no time to think, no time to learn, no time to study the kids, no time to study the curriculum. They have no way of seeing anything that’s happening outside their own classroom.

For a profession firmly focused on developing a love of lifelong learning, this reality may seem counterintuitive. The good news, as the NCLE report also states, is that many of the building blocks to begin to rectify this problem may already be in place: educator teams, online professional networks, smart use of student data, and—perhaps most important—instructional coaches and school librarians.

For those educators interested in empowering student-led discussion in their classrooms, one such online professional network already exists: the Socratic Circles Community on Facebook. Here, practitioners of the strategy share insight and advice with one another and learn from the classroom experiences and expertise of others. We share potential sources of text, troubleshoot common pitfalls, and offer one another the kind of support and collaboration that is too often missing from our lives during the school day.

socratic circlesChanging the climate and culture of our schools to embrace collaboration may seem a daunting task. Yet, as classroom teachers, we must be that change. Now, as we begin a new school year, as classrooms across the country begin the heavy lifting of implementing new standards and striving for college and career readiness, the work becomes more important than ever.

So, come and check out the Socratic Circles Community. Click “Like” and join us. Engage in the conversation and collaboration. This is the time to finally break free from our Styrofoam sarcophagi, to escape our egg-carton mentality, and to model for our students the kind of lifelong learning we desire to see in them.

Add comment October 8th, 2014

Stenhouse authors to the rescue

Larry Ferlazzo is an award-winning English and Social Studies teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif. In his popular EdWeek blog Classroom Q&A, he addresses readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers.

Recently a couple of Stenhouse authors made an appearance to give advice on a wide range of topics from motivating students to parent-teacher relationships. Check back often for more advice!

Question: How can I deal with unmotivated students? I’m a little bit frustrated when I know my students don’t do their homework and sometimes they talk during my lessons.

Response from Cris Tovani: For me, engaging students at the emotional level is the easiest.  This means I need to work to build personal relationships–to know and care about students. When that relationship is developed kids will often “work” harder just because they like me.  However, just engaging them at the gut level isn’t enough.  I also need to set up rituals and routines and model how they work in the classroom if I want behavioral engagement.  However, just being behaviorally engaged isn’t enough either.”

Read the rest of Cris’ response on Classroom Q&A

Cris’ latest title is the DVD Talk to Me: Conferring to Engage, Differentiate, and Assess, 6-12

Question: How do we educate families about the ways in which they can support their children, without insulting their trust in us to do what’s best, and while not placing blame?

Response from Jane Baskwill: In order to operate from a position of trust rather than blame, schools–and teachers in particular–need to establish a positive relationship with families. Teachers need to create a supportive environment in which they demonstrate, through their words and actions, that they value parents’ knowledge as their children’s first teacher. By keeping the child at the center, all parties can feel they have a role to play and something valuable to contribute to the child’s learning.

Read the rest of Jane’s response on Classroom Q&A

Jane’s latest book is Attention-Grabbing Tools: Involving Parents in Their Children’s Learning

Questions: What do you do when you’re having a bad day in the classroom?  How do you get over feelings of frustration?

Response from Terry Thompson:  Let’s face it–no day in the classroom is perfect.  Our energies are pulled in so many different directions that things are bound to get hectic from time to time. Considering how we merge time crunches, curriculum crunches, and even personality crunches, it’s easy to see how the occasional off day could derail us.

Read the rest of Terry response

Terry is the author of Adventures in Graphica: Using Comics and Graphic Novels to Teach Comprehension, 2-6

Add comment January 15th, 2014

Profiles in Effective PD Initiatives: Mamaroneck, NY

In our new series on effective PD initiatives Stenhouse editor (and longtime education journalist) Holly Holland  interviews staff developers and administrators about how a Stenhouse book or video changed practice in schools. We continue this series with a look at schools in the Mamaroneck School District. Teachers there embraced Peter Johnston’s work to empower their students through language and to make them resilient, self-confident learners.

Last year, when educators in Mamaroneck, New York, began reviewing a new state-approved rubric to guide teacher evaluations, many wondered about the criteria that teachers demonstrate a “growth mind-set.”

Assistant superintendent Annie Ward knew just where to turn for information.

Years before, while working in New York City, Ward had become a fan of Choice Words (Stenhouse, 2004), Peter Johnston’s book about how the language that teachers use shapes students’ perceptions of themselves as learners. Through classroom discourse, Johnston asserts, teachers can encourage students to become strategic, dynamic thinkers or reinforce the belief that intelligence is fixed.  A teacher with a growth mind-set might display student work that demonstrates progress, important insights, and the capacity for learning. A teacher with a fixed mind-set might display only papers on which students had received A’s.

As soon as Ward discovered that Johnston had written a follow-up book, Opening Minds (Stenhouse, 2012), she knew that the resource would play a pivotal role in the district’s professional development plans.

“It just seemed like the perfect text at the perfect time,” Ward says. She likens Johnston’s writing to “a single malt scotch in that you have to really savor it and read and reread it. There’s just so much there.”

Starting with a professional book study for district instructional coaches, expanding to summer training for all new teachers, continuing with ongoing faculty studies at school sites, and including a personal visit by Johnston this spring, the Mamaroneck School District has embraced the author’s work and used it as the centerpiece of a broader focus on providing effective formative feedback. As Ward explains, “How do we give it, how do we receive it, and ultimately what impact does it have when administrators give it to teachers and when teachers give it to students?”

Using Language to Change Lives

Mamaroneck, which serves about 5,000 students, is a largely suburban school district about twenty-five miles from New York City. Educators there acknowledge that they have only started to explore the richness of Johnston’s reflections about how “words change the life of the classroom” and the risks that students and teachers must be willing to take to learn, not just get the right answer. “Children must experience many things as at least potentially changeable, not just aspects of the world outside them, but also aspects of themselves—their learning, their identities, their intellect, their personal attributes, and their ways of relating to others,” Johnston writes. “In the talk of the classroom, we want to hear the threads of a dynamic view of intellect—indeed, of self. We want to inoculate the children against infection by fixed theories; we want them to say ‘I’m not good at this yet’ and to take steps to change that. Indeed, yet is a key word that we should regularly encourage children to add to their narratives” (2012, 27).

At Chatsworth Avenue School, principal Gail Boyle and assistant principal Katie Andersen led faculty study sessions of Opening Minds and also began observing classrooms to search for evidence of growth mind-set in practice. The following are just a few of the examples they captured in the elementary classrooms:

  • A child freely acknowledging “I don’t get it” and asking for and receiving help from a peer
  • A team of teachers who asked each other to return with ideas about how to collectively support a struggling student instead of just judging his deficiencies
  • Teachers carrying “cheat sheets” to remind them to use empowering terms when conferring with students

In the upcoming school year, Andersen plans to set up a lab site where teachers can model lessons using what Johnston calls a “dynamic-learning frame,” such as emphasizing that the goal is to learn as much as you can, versus a “fixed-performance frame” in which the goal is to look as smart as you can.

Andersen and Boyle also have tried to model the instructive feedback they expect teachers to give to students through their own interactions with the faculty.

“I do believe that people will grow, and we communicate that to teachers,” Boyle says. “We acknowledge the hard work they are putting in but we also communicate that we believe they can do better and therefore the children will do better.”

Adds Andersen, “If you talk with kids in the classroom, most can articulate back to you what they need to work on. I believe that’s because the teachers have given them specific and direct feedback in terms of where they need to grow as a learner.”

Dialogic Conversations

If people question whether young children are capable of thinking meta-cognitively about their learning, Kelly Brennan would beg to disagree. A second-grade teacher at Mamaroneck Avenue School, Brennan strives to create what Johnston refers to as a “dialogic classroom,” one in which “there are lots of open questions and extended exchanges among students. These are not classrooms based on the delivery of facts. They are classrooms in which there are multiple interpretations and perspectives—classrooms in which facts are considered in different contexts and in which people challenge each other’s views and conclusions” (2012, 52).

Providing feedback to show students that learning is a process of improvement is one of the ways Brennan puts this theory into action. During a lesson focusing on poetry and reading fluency, for example, she modeled how to read a poem and then asked for volunteers to follow her lead. At first, when classmates offered constructive comments about their delivery, the students felt dejected. But when Brennan stressed the value of the feedback from their peers and asked the students to try reading again, they not only improved their fluency but also asked to try more difficult poems to stretch their range.

“It’s fun to watch it happen,” Brennan says, when kids realize that getting better is “really the best learning instead of only being right.”

Brennan says she used to have dialogic conversations when she taught fourth grade, but reading Johnston’s book reminded her of the importance of establishing expectations for divergent learning in the primary grades too.

“I think sometimes in your career there’s just a book that comes along and it’s what you need to hear again,” she says. “This was a way to remind us to take a step back and figure out, ‘How do we find time to have these conversations with our kids?’”

The Capacity for Learning

After taking time off to raise her children, Kim Armogida returned to teach reading at Hommocks Middle School in time to participate in the faculty book study of Opening Minds. She took to heart the message that teacher feedback is a critical part of shaping students’ resilience.

“It was my nature to rush in to praise them to build up their self-esteem, but I wasn’t having great results,” she says. “So I went back to the book. I did a second read about halfway through the year and realized I wasn’t giving them enough time to struggle through it.”

She started writing sticky notes to remind herself not to jump in at the first sign of student hesitation. This was particularly challenging with a group of eighth graders who had never been successful with reading. Armogida concentrated on turning around their negativity by valuing their contributions and relying on their expertise to interpret literature and share strategies for finding meaning.

“I used Johnston to figure it out,” she says. “If you act as an expert, it cuts off their ability to figure it out together. I shifted the power back to the kids.”

When students looked to her for answers, she shifted the responsibility. Over time, both Armogida and her students learned to become comfortable with uncertainty and have rich conversations about racism, social justice, peer pressure, and other topics that gave their texts relevance.

“As Johnston says, we want to read for meaningful action,” she shares. “We want them to take it out into the world with them. I think the kids have been amazing, but they have to have the opportunity to think and the time to do so.”

Katie Nagrotsky, a sixth-grade English teacher at Hommocks, says she also had to learn how to stop rushing in to provide answers to her students so they would develop intellectual independence. She has pushed them to share the steps of their writing processes and to invite feedback from their peers, just as medical or law students might analyze cases from their own fields. At first, students typically offered soft commentary to curry favor rather than to coach improvement, but as Nagrotsky asked for more precision, they eventually sharpened their language to talk about maintaining voice, choosing quotes with impact, using complex sentences, and other important literary devices.

Assistant principal Nora Mazzone, recalling research that most of the feedback kids get every day comes from their peers, says teachers like Katie Nagrotsky provide value-added instruction. “If we model for kids how to give feedback, we’re helping our own work as teachers. We are guiding learning in a way that’s far more powerful than we can ever do by being one in a group of many. Katie’s work really exemplifies that, teaching them to teach each other in how they give feedback.”

Math teacher Paul Swiatocha says he initially struggled with how to adapt those principles in his classroom, believing that ambiguity has more in common with literary or historical analysis than computation or algebraic thinking. But, encouraged by teachers on his sixth-grade team, he began asking students to show their problem-solving strategies in addition to finding the right answer. Responding to students’ familiarity with the shorthand of Twitter, Swiatocha and Nagrotsky put the message #SWYK on their classroom whiteboards: hashtag, Show What You Know.

“That’s really what popped for them and got them to show the process,” he says, particularly as they prepared for the state testing period. “We looked at a lot of complicated problems and kids would say, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ I would say, ‘What’s the problem about? It’s about area. Okay, what do you know about area? Write down everything you know about area.’

“On the state tests on open-ended questions, they get partial credit for showing substantial thinking about the content.”

Building on those practices, Swiatocha also encouraged students to put collective intelligence to the challenge of analyzing problems. The more he stepped out of the way, the more students stepped up, and in the process they learned to respect each other’s contributions.

“If a child gets 85 percent of the way to solve the problem, we’ll look at that solution in class,” he explains. “Somebody will be able to follow the thinking and fill in that last piece, and then the class has the right answer. You’re not chastising them for not getting 100 percent of the way. You’re celebrating, ‘Wow, you didn’t know how to solve it, but because you showed your work so beautifully the rest of the class was able to say, ‘This is the last piece we need to solve it.’”

Teachers and administrators plan to continue cultivating a growth mind-set this next school year. Reading teacher Nancy Capparelli says she wants to display classroom anchor charts of prompts so students can use them to initiate academic conversations, explain their learning strategies, and provide feedback to peers. Nagrotsky says she plans to emphasize the value of struggling, beginning with the first days of school, so students will understand that the most important work in class “is the thinking, the process.” And Mazzone says she will encourage colleagues to keep opening minds.

“It’s riveting enough to us that it’s a topic that’s going to stay on the table,” Mazzone says. “I think everyone feels this has been valuable.”

Acknowledging that much work still needs to be done, such as reflecting the growth mind-set on students’ report cards, Annie Ward says she’s nevertheless delighted by what’s happening in Mamaroneck.

“It’s been very exciting and energizing to see teachers and administrators at all stages of our careers respond and participate in professional dialogue and make change,” Ward says. “It’s attributable to Opening Minds and to our work on leadership and providing constructive and timely feedback at all levels of our organization. . . . We think this work is enhancing the professional culture of the district.”

Add comment August 20th, 2013

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