This recently ended school year was unlike any other, and its effects will be felt for years, perhaps permanently.
In response to uncertainty about coronavirus transmission, school districts are developing multiple tools and models to deliver instruction efficiently and equitably, while the ongoing protests in response to the death of George Floyd have sparked reflection among many educators about their responsibility in teaching anti-racism.
What’s worked for us? How can we use these new tools more effectively? And how can we ensure that education is accessible by every child?
In this episode of Teacher's Corner, Gravity Goldberg and Renée Houser, creators of the Teachers Toolkit for Independent Reading, share their experiences helping students access books and teachers, and discuss what’s important as they look to the fall.
Gravity: Hi, I'm Gravity Goldberg, and I'm here with my friend and co-author, Renée Houser. And we're the authors of Teacher's Toolkit for Independent Reading. And we've spent the last 20 years as educators, as classroom teachers working side by side with teachers, as staff developers, consultants, and coaches. And we really spent most of our time thinking about questions around independent reading and conferring. And what that looked like day to day was modeling lessons, giving feedback to teachers, participating in inquiry groups, and then being really nerdy and talking about it for hours. Whether those hours are on bikes next to one another, or on runs, or walks together. But blurring the boundary between friendship and studying our practice.
Gravity: And we took all of that and we created this resource, this toolkit, where we took our most productive and impactful tools and brought them to teachers. And we felt really excited and great about it and then we had a global pandemic and we pivoted like everybody else. So we still are focused on those same questions, but the context is really different. So we've been thinking about still independent reading, and we've been still thinking about feedback and conferring with readers. And what we've done is we've still been side by side with teachers. We've still been modeling. But we're now doing this over a screen like everybody else.
Gravity: So we've really spent lots of time asking these questions around, "Well, what does a conference look like when we're using different tools and mediums?" And we've talked about access to books and we've talked about where do we put our time and attention. And so what we're going to share today is some of what we've found in the last few months even around this work around how do we help kids access books, and how do we access time and attention to students? What do we prioritize? And what do we want to think about as we head into fall 2020?
Renée: 20 years, Gravity, 20 years. It's a lot of time.
Gravity: This was the end of my 20th year. Yep. Don't do the math on how old I am.
Renée: Yeah, I wrote that down. I wrote a big 20 on my notebook. Yeah. But loving every minute of it.
Gravity: So, Renée, I think probably if I had to rank the questions that we've been getting and we've actually been studying, the first one is just, how do we make sure that all students have access to books and high quality texts they actually can and want to read? So I'm thinking we should probably just start with that question. So what have you been trying out? What have you been learning? I'm curious to hear.
Renée: So, I've been, this question, you're right, has come up a lot in conversations with both educators and with families and caregivers and parents. And so it's been really fun to explore and really open up the boundary, so to speak, and to like what are the things that we're reading and almost gamifying it a little bit, one middle school that we share in Carteret, New Jersey, the middle school teams were thinking about each month since the pandemic, they were making it like, "Let's see if we, how many directions of games we can read this month. Or can we next month, how many in your pantry or wherever you keep your food, what can you read and what kind of texts are you reading?"
Renée: Another team of teachers are pen palling it. So they're getting kids to write letters and then the receivers are getting a chance to read one another, their peers' work, and how lovely it is to actually get a piece of mail from a peer. And so I think there are some fun ways to explore out of the box thinking, texts that kids are reading. There are, I think it's also teachers are recognizing and are grateful for all of the digital books that are available as well. Those subscriptions are free for the moment and that's been incredible, but that's also balanced with screen time.
Renée: So thinking about just being really careful of how much students and teachers, all of us right now are on screens. So being grateful on one hand for things like Kindle and Amazon, that those virtual texts or libraries are being opened up, but also balancing it with getting up and moving on your feet and finding texts to read in your everyday life, work. And also, I think public libraries, at least here in North Carolina, the public libraries are starting to phase open. So they're having story time. Lots of people are reading stories. So local libraries are a great resource and also lots of authors are reading their books. So I know we're talking about independent reading, but just fostering that love and habit of connecting to text and connecting to characters and ideas. I'm kind of lumping all together.
Gravity: Yeah. And I have some schools, I think you did too, where they've gotten really creative, where when families come to pick up food that they're getting, they're having book pickups. And I know, having read recently an article in the School Library Journal, some librarians who I really, really respect were saying that they recommend literally emptying out school libraries because they do no good sitting, collecting dust in a school right now. So what they're doing is they're taking out books and they're having them available. So a family member comes and picks up their food for that day or that week. And they can pick up books.
Gravity: I also know of schools where each teacher got 10 books per student to be able to take from the school library and they're dropping them off house by house, and they're doing it in a way that's safe, physically distant and dropping it off. And like said also the local libraries, even in New York where I am, where I would say things have been shut down probably the most, we now have library returns and they talk about how they sit in the spa, is what my library talks about it. So you return your book, it sits in the spa for a week to sort of, I guess, sanitize. And then it gets back in circulation.
Gravity: So I'm just in awe of the schools and teachers who have been creative to think about getting physical books in hands in that way. And then one other thing that I've been talking to friends about is how many people want to donate books right now. People who do have, we know that book access in people's homes and ownership of books is certainly not equitable. So I had several friends who have started to volunteer, to gather up books, sanitize them, and also give those to teachers to hand out or community centers.
Gravity: And I think part of it is just minimizing the number of times a family needs to go out to get something. So having books available in a place where they're going to go anyway, that's where I feel like food pickups are such a great place to be able to do that.
Renée: Yeah. Gwinnett County, it has that there, they have bookmobiles from their local library at all their food pickups. And that's been really successful. Another group of teachers in Southern California was talking about having some handy people in their life make the neighborhood lending libraries-
Renée: near grocery stores. Yeah. So, even in the neighborhood, but also in the town. When you mentioned people gathering books. So it's really incredible. I feel like, as the eternal optimist, to see the silver linings in lots of things, that sometimes pain points reveal to us area where we need to work. And this has been a really interesting, and really fantastic to see everybody putting their brains together because they know how important it is for all of us to have access to texts and for kids to really love their reading.
Gravity: And I just also am thinking about, for families who do have the means to be purchasing books right now, and be doing that, to make sure we're supporting our independent booksellers, that that's a great place to be able to do that. And if people have the means, why not also find if there's a school that's not too far away that might buy two of that book. And is there a way that you can ship that to a teacher who will put that in students' hands?
Gravity: So lots of ways. When there's a will, there's a way to get texts in students' hands. So the other accessibility piece, Renée, of course, is access to actually having conferences and talking to students about their reading, which is a challenge in places where there's not always reliable internet or high speed internet. So obviously if there is, we can get on a video chat and we can have conferences just like we would in school, but we're talking through a screen. So let's share some of what we've learned and tried out in places where that isn't possible for every family member and every community.
Renée: Yeah. I think some teachers are thinking about, I'm going back to pen pal, the letter writing, and the idea of writing to students to humanize, to make the connection first too. But also then adding in feedback has been really fun and teachers have reported really enjoying it, because they miss that interaction, I think, just as much as kids do. So writing to kids in the mail, or even just physically dropping off a letter or physically dropping off, I've seen a lot of pictures and teachers have talked about, "I'm going to be on your porch in a few minutes, if you want to come and say hi." And that idea of what you were saying earlier that teachers are collecting books or kind of summer kits for kids and hand-delivering them to families has been a beautiful thing to see as well.
Renée: So physical visits, stopping in and saying hi, and to bring things and to give feedback and to have conversations. Phone calls have been happening and pen to paper letter writing has been happening. Maybe somewhere in between, something I've been trying to do with some students that I've been working with is leaving them, using apps like Marco Polo and leaving them messages or even Voxer, if they do have access to some kind of voice recording app has been fun.
Renée: And I think engaging, because we can just go back and forth and leave each other short messages as a follow through of like, "How's your calendaring going? We worked on calendaring." So quick reminders. It might not be like the full blown conference, but some reminders to keep students interested in their goals they're working on.
Gravity: And as you're saying that, Renée, all of those things are things we would be doing in the classroom. We're just now it's mediated through some sort of technological device in some way. So whether that's something that we would have just said to a student, we now might still just say it to a student, but we are using an app or calling them to say it. And that written feedback or question we would ask, we're now doing this and taking a few days to put it in the mail. But I think sometimes it's just important to remember that at the end of the day, we're talking to kids about their books and who they are as readers and any and all of these means are helpful.
Gravity: And a lot of the teachers that I've been working with have set, I would say, such high expectations for themselves that they almost want to check in every day or every other day. But as you're saying this, I'm even thinking of once a week, the student and you had some sort of connection in one of these mediums, then you're like, "I still see you. I still want to know what you're doing as a reader." And anything above and beyond that is a bonus. But I'm also just saying that because I think sometimes people have set the bar so high and we have to also just realize that there are going to be days that we don't talk to them about their reading, and in those in between days, we just do the best we can. And I know that can be hard for some of us who like to know every single day what's going on.
Renée: Well, and it makes me think, depending on the age of the student, or maybe not, because I'm thinking of, I have a very young four year old who keeps in touch with her friends. And so it feels like part of the touch point is not only teacher to reader, but it could be caregiver to reader, or reader to reader. So, setting up a balance between all the ways that teacher readers can share their thinking with one another. So it doesn't always have to be me, the teacher. So there can still be a really nice balance for the reader to experience. So, "Today I'm going to talk to my stuffed animal, or I'm going to talk to my cousin or I'm going to talk to my neighbor and then I'm going to talk to my teacher." So just setting up for students a whole menu of options for them, or calendaring out. "Who are you going to talk to your reading about today? Or who are you going to read with today?" Could be a way to spread that out.
Gravity: I think that's a really important point is that we're not, as the teacher, the only person who can talk to a child about their reading. So, that idea of really leveraging partnerships. And I even know that sometimes a student being on the phone with the teacher, even if they loved and adored that teacher in the brick and mortar school, it's a little intimidating at first to be on the phone with them. So I do know some teachers who were saying having two students on the phone, just having one other peer, made a really big difference. So the two of them are talking and the teacher is there and the three of them are having conversations. And for those who are doing video conferences at first, a lot of, especially as students got older, actually, they were saying having two or three of the students with the teacher, that ratio made it feel a little bit safer at first. Which is interesting because sometimes it's the opposite when we're in school physically.
Gravity: There's this idea of, it almost reminds me of that awkward like I just had a play date with a new friend for my son and there's this awkward like the two kids are just staring at each other at first. But just me coming over, just having a third person there for a few minutes, just makes it a little bit easier. So I do feel like there's that interesting dynamic of the peer to peer being really helpful.
Gravity: And something else, as you said that, Renée, too I'm thinking about maybe what we spend some of our time on is making a resource for parents, so that they know some of the questions to ask. So maybe it's the kind of thing where you record with permission, of course, a conference that actually could be sent to a parent to listen to, so they can hear what it sounds like. Or making a list of, "Here are some questions that over the next two weeks that you might ask your child when they're talking about reading." So I think the parent piece is huge and they might need some supports, a model of what it sounds like and looks like, and maybe some questions to ask.
Renée: That makes me think about where should we focus our attention on of late. It feels like there's a lot. And most teachers feel like they want to try to do it all. But if we had to think about depth versus breadth maybe, where it does feel like setting up readers with a community of support would yield a lot of productivity, it would be high value, is one area I'm thinking about.
Renée: The other thing, as we're talking, is I feel like, or at least even in the experiences where I'm trying out my conferring in different platforms is the good news is not a whole lot changes in terms of the actual interaction with students, because so much of our work, Gravity, in our research and trying all of this is that idea of connecting with a fellow reader. I've been talking a lot about connection over perfection, but the idea of that hasn't been changing and the gift, I think, in all of this is that when I'm on a call or a virtual meeting with a student, or students, a lot is silenced and I can be a lot more present because the phone isn't ringing off the hook, somebody is not coming into the classroom. William's not sharpening his pencil. None of those things are bad, but it just has become what we know of in brick and mortar.
Renée: And this is why teachers again are super, superheroes, because they can numb one area and focus on the other area. But it's really been lovely to focus on that feedback that we're giving, an attention that we're giving to kids, which I would say is important in any learning platform, brick and mortar, virtual or blended.
Gravity: I think that's so huge right now is, I know, I live with a teacher, my husband, and I've been talking to teachers every day. And one of the things that we're just hearing from everybody is there's not enough time, because there's the learning curve of just how to be a teacher in a remote learning situation or an emergency from a learning situation. There's the learning curve of maybe using a platform or a digital tool for the first time. And then there's all those issues of access we talked about. And then a lot of us don't have childcare or family care, and we're trying to figure out how to get our groceries and our medicine and the many things going on. There's only so much energy we have every day.
Gravity: And so, at first, and I'm going to say for me too, I was like, "All right, what's the whole class lesson structure I can focus on? How can I record these video lessons or make these slide presentations that I can push out to everybody?" And it was easy to spend an entire day on one whole class lesson. The problem with that is, one, we now know, as the research is coming in, how few students are actually viewing those, how few students are actually doing them all the way through. And the other part of that is we know the real learning happens after that. That that whole class video lesson is enough to get kids interested and engaged. But really the learning happens when they actually open up the book and start reading.
Gravity: So I know we both really believe in the importance of minimizing whole class instruction, not to get rid of it, it's necessary, but spending a smaller portion of time on that, so we can really maximize the amount of time we're spending conferring with kids and talking to them about independent reading. Just one interesting anecdote. I was talking to some supervisors in Ohio and they were saying they had all this high school data to look at when kids were accessing the videos, the whole class videos that students were asked to watch by their teachers. And the average time kids were logging on was 2:00 AM, 2:00 AM. And I know we're talking about high school and that hopefully is not the case with elementary or middle school. But if we think about that realistically, how much attention are they going to spend at 2:00 AM watching a 15 minute whole class lesson?
Gravity: So I think part of us is also just having to live in this new reality of our attention might actually be our most important asset and commodity right now. And how can we maximize it by shining a light on the independent part? And I think that's just really important to give ourselves permission to have, like you said, perfection can get in the way like good enough whole class instruction so we can have even better conferences.
Renée: One thing I've seen that is pretty incredible that teachers are doing in that vein is teaming together. So I'm sure you've seen it too, but teams of teachers coming together and saying, "Okay." And every team is a little different, every teacher loves their read aloud. So they're holding onto that individually. But perhaps looking at the unit and rethinking it, "Okay, I'll do this lesson. You do that lesson, I'll do that lesson." And then that frees up the team, so we can put more time and energy into working with kids either one-on-one or in smaller groups, has been really fun to see. And teachers really love it, because again, like you're saying, our brains only have so much capacity. So it frees up the team to also collaborate in ways of, "I'll get to know this tool. You get to know that tool, we'll try it out, we'll figure out." So it's been really great to see the collaboration that's always been there, but it's just been accelerated.
Gravity: And as you're saying that, I'm thinking about how the word boundaries has come up a lot. And so many people are saying like, "There's no more boundaries, my kitchen table is my office. And my bathtub is my whiteboard in my classroom where I'm writing on it with an erasable marker." This idea of boundary is going away, but one of the boundaries that's going away too, is the my class versus your class. And I think that's a really powerful boundary that starting to blur, is that these are all of our students. And exactly what you're saying, I was just talking to a third grade teacher where what they basically did was almost redefine their roles as a teaching team. Where someone's like, "I'm going to be the model. So I'm going to model my reading and whole class lessons. And that's my job that I'm going to do. And I'm going to video record that, I'm going to get really good at that and own that."
Gravity: And other teachers are like, "I really, really want to mentor kids and I want to spend my time conferring with them and I will take on the vast majority of that part of it." So I think this idea of it's almost like when we look ahead to 2020, in the fall, when we're going back to school, one of the things that we might be doing is re-imagining like, "What does it even mean to be a teacher?" And what if every teacher got to really think about, "Here's my gift, here's my passion. And I'm going to really focus on that." And I think, again, like you've said in the past, Renée, that's always been a possibility, but now it's almost like a necessity for all of us to do that.
Gravity: So one of the things folks, who are listening, might even think about is going back to your grade level team and saying like, "Hey, who wants to be the lead conferrer? Who wants to do this modeling for mini lessons?" And it doesn't mean that we can't do all of it, but really somebody really putting their attention into each of those. And when I think about the fall and I think about school, I have a lot of questions like everybody else. Like we don't know, is it going to be blended? Are we going to be back in person? Will there be be alternating schedules? How often will I see students? That's probably going to be different in different places and we don't have answers. So I'm almost going to encourage us to ask a different set of questions.
Gravity: Which is how can we [inaudible 00:22:44] connection? How can we maintain these connections? How can we still focus on the individual students and not lose sight of them as independent readers and thinkers? And so when we ask those questions, I don't feel so anxious about it, because we have all these tools. We have the brick and mortar tools, and now we have these ways that we can have conferences and still connect with kids in this digital space. So I think part of it is when the unknown is there, we tend to ask questions about things we have no control over, which can then tend to get us spinning. But what if we start to ask questions about the things that we do have control over, which is how we show up for kids in any of these spaces. And what if this summer was really a time to just be prepared for any of those, of what our conferences might look like?
Renée: My coach used to say, "Worry about the things you can control and forget about the rest." So it's that idea of, I mean, that's hard for us all to live [inaudible 00:23:45] on the daily life, but thinking about it, but it really comes down to foundational tenets or beliefs, foundations that are at the core of what we believe is important to not only our learning life as teachers, but to students learning lives. Yeah. So I think the idea of independence and connection, and then just to add choice, I think would be one thing to think about too.
Renée: And as I hear you talking about re-imagining teams, I think it's important that we always think, we often think about students having choice, but also layering the idea of our team having choice. We together as a team, as adults, should offer ourselves choice too. And that we have a choice to rethink our curriculum and how that's going to play out and our roles and our support and our tools that we can use. And all the while still giving kids choice as well. when you brought up that idea of choice and curriculum and rethinking curriculum, I was thinking about it in terms of there's a lot right now that's going on sending the message that students are going to be so behind. That our kids are behind and how are we going to catch them up. And I think that there's a real danger to that narrative in a lot of ways. I think for one thing, historically, we know that one of the ways that our country is set up in an inequitable way is that this is where tutors, and this is where hiring more teachers can happen in some districts and not in others.
Gravity: So we know that when someone is "behind" and they are white and they are middle or upper class, then they often have access to resources that people of color often don't, and often that places where they have less school funding and less money in our community. I think another part of that, that's potentially dangerous is how are we even defining behind? So one of, I think, the things that's been brought to the forefront with the anti-racism movement, that's been really powerful, is the way we even define success must be reexamined and challenged.
Gravity: So if we're defining success in ways that we know are set up in ways to disproportionately affect people of color, then maybe the way that we're talking about behind is often doing that also.
So when we think about independent reading, the only real behind is really issues of access, which we talked about earlier. So all students, if they can continue to read and continue to be in connection to the texts they're reading and their teachers and their peers and their caregivers, then there's actually, I would argue, no such thing as behind. We know from studies back from 2002 and in 2012 that the summer reading gap is really huge. And the summer reading gap, there was a study done back in 2012, where they looked at students in three categories, there was one set of students who were from lower socioeconomic communities, who had no access to books. There was one set that were from middle and upper class that had book access. And then a third was a group that they actually gave book access to groups of kids who didn't, before that because of their socioeconomic status, have access.
Gravity: And what they found a year later was the group that didn't have access, that all of a sudden was given, books outperformed by 25 points the other two groups. So if we think about this, it's not really an issue of whether we're in a screen or not, whether we're calling kids or not the issue is whether or not kids actually have books. And so, when we're looking at funding, when we're looking at access, that's really one of the ways that we can really work to level the playing field in this way.
Gravity: I also think we just have to look at who we historically call behind and we have to look at those demographics and we have to be able to challenge when it also often falls in racial groups.
Renée: Hearing all that, it makes me come back to the power of choice. And when we can choose the books that we give kids access to, we've got a classroom library where kids see themselves, there's books like me and not at all like me. So I'm going to round out my whole being through my reading journey. And when you and I've talked about this before too, and reading gives us the power of empathy, of understanding that I'm not the only one going through this.
Renée: And there are people going through things that I can't even imagine, but I'm going to try to bridge all of that by reading and learning and listening and taking it all in. And we have the choice as teachers, let me come back to our teacher choice, of what books we share through reading aloud to give kids all of those experiences and journeys. And also hopefully, as we build our classroom libraries, whether that's in brick and mortar or digital or both, to have an array of books that represent all humans perspectives.