In this episode of Teacher's Corner, we talk to author, Cris Tovani, about her new book, Why Do I Have to Read This? Literacy Strategies to Engage our Most Reluctant Students with her instructional coach/editor/friend, Samantha Bennett. Cris and Sam reflect on their long relationship with one another, and share the stories that helped shape the book.
Read the Transcript
Sam: Hi, Cris.
Cris: Hi, Sam.
Sam: Thank you so much for coming over. It's so nice to see you.
Cris: I know. I love it that we're in a closet doing this podcast.
Sam: We decided to do this in the same room, in the same space. So the quality was a little better. And then we decided to sit in my husband's closet, which is...
Cris: Socially distanced though.
Sam: We are socially distanced. We are.
Cris: So we're going to talk about the book. Woo-hoo!
Sam: I'm so excited. Thank you so much for bringing it. You guys, it is so beautiful. I hope you are all holding it in your hands right this second. It is beautiful. Beautiful.
Cris: Thank you.
Sam: Just the right size. It feels right. It looks beautiful. So exciting.
Cris: Big margins.
Sam: Yeah. Well, the fun thing about this podcast is we're not really here to talk about the book. We're here to just... We've always wanted our own talk show.
Cris: Here we go.
Sam: Here we go. This is our own talk show.
Cris: And we kind of put a lot of our stories in the book that brought us together, I think.
Sam: I know. So let's just kick off with a story, and then I think we can explain the why and the how it came together.
Cris: I think we got start with our fight and only fight.
Sam: Well, before we start with the fight though, what I want to talk about is the first time I met you.
Sam: So I had just moved to Denver from San Francisco and got a job at the PEBC, the Public Education Business Coalition. They had had a ton of elementary people working. And then who was it that asked you to write the book first? Was it Steph or Chris Hutchins?
Cris: Yeah, Steph Harvey brought her editor, Philippa Stratton, to see me teach. So Philippa watch me teach. And at the end of the day, she said, "We'd like you to submit a proposal for a book." And I said, "A book? I can't write a book." And Philippa said, "Just write up what you did and send that to me." And so I did. And a couple of weeks later, I got a contract and thought, "Wow, I guess I really have to write a book now." So 20 years ago.
Sam: That was so good. So fast forward to the year 2000. I had just moved to Denver. And so PEBC, based on your work, was expanding into secondary. And I had been a middle school teacher and literacy coach. And so I got hired. So we're sitting like in a boardroom, around this big table, and in walks Cris Tovani. And I remember you just holding, I read it, but I don't get it, in both hands with the biggest smile I had ever seen.
Sam: And you were like, "Oh my God. Here it is." And I was like, "Holy cow." I'd never met anybody that had written a book before. And my eyes were so big. I was like, "Oh my God, number one, I want to be her friend," because there was like this glow of electricity around you because you were so excited. And I was like, all right, if she could write a book, I guess I can write a book. But that was the first.
Sam: And so since I was the new secondary person on the scene, I got to start coming into your classroom, because so many teachers wanted to see your classroom after I read it. And I was kind of the secondary coach and the one with secondary experience. So when groups of teachers requested to see you teach, then I got to facilitate those days.
Cris: Yeah. It was great too to have somebody with a secondary background. I remember it probably was one of the very first times we did a demo that you hosted and we were sitting in this little conference room at Smokey Hill. And the teachers were introducing themselves and doing the pre-brief. And I remember just thinking, "Okay. How's this going to go?" And I was looking around at kind of all these kind of grumpy secondary teachers who were there, some who wanted to be, but then others whose principals had sent them.
Cris: And so before I went to get ready for class and leave Sam with the visitors or leave you with the visitors, I had made an announcement to the group to say, okay, I just want to let you know that Sam is a really smart teacher and she has been coaching me and I really consider her my instructional coach. So I hope that you guys will get a lot today. In my head I was just thinking, "Okay. Here's this young teacher. I've written a book and I've taught all these years and maybe my little comment is going to give Sam credibility to these visiting teachers." What I didn't know when I introduced you as my coach, you actually thought you were my couch.
Sam: I had to step in. I mean, and that's the thing. I think throughout our relationship, I had to be worthy of your time. I wasn't signing up to be your secretary or to be your errand runner. I had to come with something. So I took on my role as a researcher in your classroom very seriously. I mean, it took me... Well, I think it took me four years to ask you a question that you really cared about. I had to study so carefully. And I was in your classroom eight to 10 times per year.
Sam: So literally that would be 40 observations before I think I asked you a question you cared about and/or brought up a point that tweaked you, which kind of leads us to our first big fight, which is a whole chapter in this book now that you couldn't write about for 20 years, which makes me laugh even harder. But it took me that long because your instruction is so multilayered to like tease out all those layers and write all the questions that teachers come with when they see you. All right. So you want to kick us off with the big fight?
Cris: Yeah. And really, it was, as I was working on this book, I was cleaning out files and just kind of thinking through some of the big lessons and stories that had taught me things that we've put in the book and that we'll share a few with you today. But I found your coaching letter that you wrote me when we had our re really, and I think it's been our only fight in 20 years. That I found this coaching letter and it just rocked me again. Because you had asked me a question and really pointed out a deficiency in my teaching that just really hit home and it made me angry.
Sam: Yeah. I mean, I wouldn't categorize it as a deficiency. I would couch it as something where I knew you could build to get better. I knew if you could figure out this planning piece, that you could take your instruction to the next level. Because something watching you over those first four years, I think you were getting a little bored with the strategies.
Cris: Yeah. In my reading workshop classes, I was teaching strategies and isolation. There wasn't anything really beyond the mini lesson and then the work time and then the debrief around that. And so for my English classes, I was doing long-term planning. But I really wasn't doing it with my workshop classes. And part of it too was I was tired. I was burnt. I think probably every teacher in the world is going to be able to relate to not being as well planned as he or she could have been. So thinking about the question that you asked me around...
Sam: Yeah. So let's set the stage.
Cris: Okay. All right.
Sam: Okay. So we have 12 teachers from South Dakota coming to visit your classroom. You were teaching two classes in the mornings at that time.
Cris: Well, I was on a block schedule. So the day of the visitors, I only had two classes.
Sam: Right. You had two classes that day. So the first class was...
Cris: And I had been on the road Friday.
Sam: Don't start making excuses.
Cris: I had been traveling.
Sam: Do not start making excuses. But in the morning, the first class, and you had taught in 90 minute blocks, right?
Sam: The first class was your 12th graders.
Cris: Yeah. College prep English.
Sam: College prep English. And then your second class was ninth grade struggling readers.
Cris: Yeah. It was an intervention class.
Sam: An intervention class. Okay. So those were the two classes on that day that you were teaching?
Sam: All right. So it was like 7:00 AM, not even like 6:30 AM, the visitors show up. We kind of prep them for what they're going to see. I do all the prep for what they're going to see and how to take notes. Write everything you know and you see in here. And then why does it matter? How does it connect to research? How does it connect to your beliefs? What are the practices? So I do all the setup. The visitors watch the first college prep 12th grade class, and it was incredible. So talk a little bit about your goal for that day with the college prep class.
Cris: Yeah. I was so well-planned because I had some long-term goals in mind and I knew where I wanted the kids to end up and I knew what kind of texts that I was going to pull for them.
Sam: And was Afghanistan that day?
Cris: Yeah. It was shortly after 9/11. And so we were trying to figure out like what happened on 9/11 and who are these terrorists and why do they hate the United States so much? And they were writing commentaries to The Denver Post and we had lots of non-fiction texts in there. And they were reading Kite Runner as their piece of literature and then all these choice texts that they were pulling from. The 90 minutes just flew by because I knew what they were working on for writing and what they're working on for reading. And we had just this kind of really long-term plan that helped make every day to day class easier.
Sam: Yeah. And I just remember my fingers were flying, because I was sitting with the small group that was just discussing this issue of self-immolation and these women setting themselves on fire in protest for their own personal relationships and how they were being treated. And it was their only way out. And the conversation... And I think it was even like two girls and two boys in the group. I mean, it was one of the richest student conversations I've ever scripted, ever. So that was the morning class. Then we transitioned to the ninth grade struggling readers.
Cris: Yeah. And I just hadn't clicked with these guys all year long. And I look back now and I know why. I wasn't really giving them enough reasons to read and write and discuss.
Sam: Talk about the lesson.
Cris: Okay. Yeah. So if you've ever talked to Sam before, you're going to hear this story, and this still kind of makes me mad. But she always says, "Well, the first time I asked Cris how she plans, Chris turns around to me and says, 'I just find great texts. I just find great texts." Actually, I do more than that. But that was really at the time what my focus was, to find something that kids would want to read. So these visitors were coming and we were working on in furry and I found these two pieces of texts that were now embarrassing to even say.
Cris: You're going to have to read the book to find out what they are because I'm too embarrassed to say them on podcast. But they were short pieces from the newspaper and they were insulting. It was like spinning plates. I confer with one group and then the other side of the room would explode. I had these 12 visitors in the classroom. And that 90 minutes seemed like 90 hours. And it was just there wasn't this long-term plan. When I look back on it, I think I just probably didn't trust the kids as much as I should have, like I did first hour. And I think I wrote that off to, well, these are seniors and they could do it and freshmen can. But really, all kids can if we give it them rich stuff.
Sam: I mean, and the thing was, we get to the debrief and I felt like had to spin it. And rarely had I ever felt before when I brought visitors to your class that I had to spin the instruction and kind of highlight some things and try to bury other things that weren't going well. Talk about the debrief to me lasted 62 hours. So I also had a little bit of anger and frustration in me too. I mean, I didn't send you the coaching note that day.
Sam: It took me a good week to figure out how I was going to craft what I felt and where was my frustration coming from and the difference between those two classrooms. But I was also pretty clear, like if you and I don't dig into this, what matters most to planning, I don't think I want to facilitate your labs anymore because I can't spin it. I didn't want to be fakey. So the big question... I think the thing... I mean, I don't know. You say the thing that got to you, but I remember like I think what I just saw was a civil rights issue. The topic that you allowed...
Cris: Yeah, civil rights. She accuses me of a civil rights violation. I think that's a little going overboard. Okay. Go on.
Sam: Well, it was, but I knew that that would make you pay attention more than, "How do you plan? How do you plan? How do you plan?" That was not working.
Sam: So saying I think what I witnessed today was a civil rights violation. You allowed these 12th graders to dig in to this really meaty topic that was worthy of their time and these ninth graders who are struggling readers who need the most worthy topics. They were talking about dumb, just dumb. Dumb. So I sent you the note and then I didn't hear from you for... I know we disagree about how long, but I don't think I heard from you for a good six weeks.
Cris: Yeah. I probably needed a break.
Sam: So that would be the only six weeks chunk in 20 years that Cris did not speak to me, was right after edged you a note.
Cris: And really it was about, I remember after Sam left that day thinking about, wow, I guess I got to go deeper than she's in a strategy and the right piece of text. And I remember just kind of mulling that over in my head and I think just trying to figure out about, how am I going to manage this? How am I going to plan in this way? Because I don't really think I learned how to plan. I know I didn't in college, and I don't think I really learned how to plan until Sam helped me figure it out. So this was a whole new piece of learning that I had to figure out, which was kind of cool because I thought it was miss thing with this book.
Sam: First of all, you are miss thing. You were miss thing and you are miss thing.
Cris: Yeah. I think we got back together because there was another group that PEBC...
Sam: Yeah, there was another group coming, and I was assigned to facilitate.
Cris: Yeah. And so I think we just sort of swept it under the carpet and just moved forward. Because then we started traveling together. You started facilitating me doing labs on the road when we were doing our literacy labs. And then you ended up being my God sent with articles that I would write. You would help me edit them and put them in a sensible order. And I think that's what this book you've done such an amazing job of pulling all my kind of random stories together and in a structure that makes sense.
Cris: That was really fun. The summer before the book got done, Sam just had me and she just said, "Write stories. Think about your teaching life and stories that have made an impact on you." And I did that for about four months, five months maybe. And I got to the point where I was like, okay, now you do something. What are you going to do? And you worked your magic. You just started pulling out together to make these kind of... You notice all these patterns that I hadn't seen.
Sam: So what's so fun, why I fell in love with you and why everyone falls in love with you is you are the best storyteller on the planet. And it is so tied to your beliefs about stories being life, right? And that is the whole thing. So what was so fun when you sent me kind of the pile of stories that there are stories about your daughter, Carrie, taking you to a hot yoga class.
Sam: And then there's a story about Caleb and Jacob in another class. And so it was so fun to weave your personal stories, learning to ski with your brothers and all of these things and figure out like, okay, so what is the so what behind and what is the thread for all these stories? I know people aren't really going to believe this because of this year, but we started writing this book almost two years ago.
Sam: And one of the threads that was pulling all the stories together is how you get kids to dig in, even kids that come in with attitude, class clown, just angry, exhausted. I think about Stephanie. You were just like, "Go sit in the classroom and put your head down and take a breath and rest," after she delivered four siblings to school and barely made it on time 7:35 for your class. So I started thinking about, okay, the thread really here is how you get kids, no matter... How they walk in the door, how you get them to take off the mask, whatever mask they bring in. And now masks are such a part of our daily lives, wearing masks to protect ourselves, but also how much we miss when we can only see half of a person's face, right?
Sam: And we're trying to connect through eyes. And when you pass somebody on a walk past the park, you try to make eye contact and make your eyes really extra smiley. But just how different our world is now that we are all masked. But that was our first organizing structure, was the kid that comes in with the mask of anger, the kid that comes in with the mask of apathy, the kid that comes in with the class clown mask, and I'm going to entertain everybody in this class.
Sam: And how you get them to take off the mask and be their authentic selves. And one of the ways you do that is because you are so authentic. So through your stories, that became our organizing feature. So in these six chapters, four of the six chapters are about the different masks kids wear. And this is just stunning to me that now it's coming out in December of 2020. And we are nine months into wearing masks. And that's what your entire book is about that we turned in in November of 2019 before we were wearing masks.
Cris: I know. It is kind of eerie. And I just think about how happy we're all going to be when those masks come off. And just like in the classroom, when you're able to take a mask off of a kid who is trying to hide who he is to protect himself from being a struggling reader. And just knowing that we aren't always who we are with those masks on. And I think that's really hopeful for teachers, is to think about that a kid may come to your class angry and it might be for one reason or another, but that kid probably isn't angry all day long. And so finding where that kid is joyful I think gives us hope that we can do great work if we start to think about the way in which we're anticipating and planning for kids.
Sam: Yeah. So let's tell the Panera story.
Cris: Okay. I want to just start with my curriculum. So I never knew curriculum was like everything. Curriculum is like what you ask kids to read and the video clips you share and how you arrange the classroom and how you speak to them. That curriculum counts for everything that teachers do in the classroom. That was a big aha when I was writing the book and you shared with me Stephen Walk's book that I can't remember the title. Can you remember?
Sam: Being good.
Cris: Being good. Yeah.
Sam: And it's actually Damarius and Lecom. That's their writing on curriculum from 20 plus years ago about curriculum is everything we do.
Cris: Yeah. And so thinking about that. And we were at Panera. We were just kind of doing a planning meeting. And that next day, I think we were flying to Vancouver, Washington, to do a literacy lab. And you had asked me, "How do you..."
Sam: Right. Yeah. So we were talking about the book that day and we were planning for our trip. So we had the masks structure, but then we were trying to figure out, okay, so how do we share all the practices that no matter what kid walks in, and especially because we were going to Vancouver the next day, our Vancouver school is right outside of Portland, I said like, okay, so what do you do? These is the first time you're meeting 24 kids walk in the room. And some of them are psyched for the novelty of a new teacher teaching them, some of them are like, "Who the heck are you?" I said, "How do you plan just knowing a little bit about what the teacher wants and all these new kids?" And you said...
Cris: At first, I'm trying to anticipate everything. I'm trying to anticipate struggling readers, great readers. And I enlisted all these things I was planning. Then I stopped and I just looked at Sam and I just said, "I have CYA." I got to cover my ass. From everything to the text I bring, to how I ask them to show their thinking, to thinking about the kid who's got the mask of disengagement who doesn't want to do this, I have to anticipate.
Sam: Yeah. And that's what makes you genius, is because you have enough background knowledge and I think you'll use all five senses, right? What you see, what you hear, what you smell, what you feel from a kid. The energy you feel from a kid when they walk in the room. You use all five senses to try to figure out like, okay, what does that kid need? And actually, it was a principal in Vancouver who labeled that. He said, "Here's the difference with Cris? After Chris teaches a lesson, she came up to me..." Oh, I think it was about Jacob or Caleb. I can't remember.
Cris: No. I think I think it was Edgar. Edgar had transferred to the building and was giving me a kind of a run for my money the first day.
Sam: Yeah. And the principal, Greg, had asked you, "So what are you going to do about Edgar?" You go, "Don't worry. I'm going to get him." And so then when I talked to Greg later, he said, "Here's the thing about Chris. Chris says to me, 'I'm going to get him. I'm going to get that kid' versus a teacher who goes, 'I'm going to get that kid." So the tone of how when you say I'm going to get that kid versus when one of his cranky teachers, "I'm going to get that kid in this adversarial relationship."
Cris: So get the kid, I was like I'm going to get him with a piece of text or I'm going to get him with a different way to show his thinking, or I'm going to get him with a connection, somehow get him engaged. And I think that is like one of the so much fun of being a teacher, is trying to figure out, okay, what's going to make this kid take off his mask so you can see his whole face light up?
Sam: Yeah. So that was that day. I feel like I'm doing a commercial for Panera, but it was just hilarious because we were sitting in that space. And so I was like, "Okay, cover your ass." I said, "Okay. It's a book for secondary teachers. Let's just call them CYA structures." Here are the CYA structures so you can meet every kid's need. And then we started brainstorming some of them. And I can't remember who said it, but then we decided, oh, CYA could be curriculum you anticipate.
Cris: So next audiences, it's curriculum you anticipate. Among all of us, it's CYA. Because if you don't, you'll get eaten alive.
Sam: Yeah. You got to cover your every day, right? And if I think right now, teachers on Zoom and trying to do this work, where you can't lean over a kid's shoulder, you can't like get down eye to eye. I mean, you kind of can on Zoom, but not really. So what are the things that I can anticipate the kids might need to sit up straight or to lean in, to have some energy in their voice? What tasks are we asking them to do? What texts are we asking them to read? How are we asking them to connect with each other? And how are we asking them to do this all through screens? So many of those CYA structures work whether you're on screen or in person.
Cris: Well, this has been the beauty of all of your notes of watching kids for all the years and going back and transcribing them, noticing patterns. We had used Ron Berger and his team of teachers from Expeditionary Learning and the book, transformational Literacy, talk about the importance of planning with texts and targets and tasks and topics. And so then you went back and kind of looked at all the notes and noticed that in addition to those four structures, there were two more that we used a lot, and that was this idea of kind of thinking about time.
Cris: Does a kid need more time for this or does a kid need less time for this? And kind of instead of being at the mercy of the clock, how do we use time to support learners? And then the other T was this idea of just tending, just tending to a kid, like Stephanie getting her four little siblings to school after she's worked until one o'clock in the morning. She puts her head on her desk and sleeps a little bit. Her first period class is 7:30. She needs that more than she needs me talking about literary elements.
Cris: So just kind of thinking that whole piece around what kids need. Since the pandemic I've been using this phrase "Maslow before Bloom," and I did not make that up. I think I got that from an article that Larry Ferlazzo wrote for EdWeek. But that idea of like, okay, we have to think about these human beings that we have the good fortune to teach. They're suffering right now. Everybody's suffering right now.
Cris: But even before the pandemic, just that sort of basic need of security and food and safety and being welcomed. That T of tending to is really crucial to me. That idea of even just a kid not coming to class with a pencil, like here's a pencil, as opposed to thinking you're going to teach them responsibility by letting them sit for 45 minutes without doing anything.
Sam: Well, and I think this is another COVID silver lining, because one of the reasons that I hear teachers offer, an excuse they offer for why they can't get down eye to eye, nose to nose with one kid and talk to them and confer with them. They say, "Well, what are all the other kids doing?" You don't have to worry about that now. So this idea of how we're flipping time, and how do we as teachers use our time kid by kid to help connect kid by kid? What does this kid need? What is this kid doing? Versus trying to manage a class? We don't really have to spend that much time managing class anymore. And so the teachers that I see that are thriving right now in this environment are teachers that have shifted to both small group and one-to-one, spending their time with small groups and one-to-one with rich tasks and rich texts. Those are the teachers and the kids that are thriving right now.
Cris: Yeah. And that whole idea of even when we go back to whole class learning, if a kid can't work more than seven minutes, then there's a problem with what we're asking them to read or write or do. And when you talk about that, it kind of gives me a pit in my stomach a little bit. Because when you talk about going kid by kid, that seems so overwhelming. But when your focus is really about giving kids opportunities to dig into something juicy, you start to see patterns, and you get a kid today who then you've hooked for the next two weeks. And that gives you time to focus on somebody else.
Sam: Yeah. So I think one of the beauties of this book is not only do you tell stories, but you tell stories in context. And so thinking through the big unit that a lot of the stories are tied to in the book, why don't you talk a little bit about that unit and how you came up with that organization?
Cris: Yeah. So I was lucky enough to get to do a two week summer school class, and I tell a lot of stories from that in the book. And it was four hours a day for two weeks, which ended up being about a quarter's worth of time. And I knew if I didn't have something intriguing or compelling, these kids were going to eat me alive. It was a credit recovery course for incoming 10th, 11th, and 12th graders.
Cris: And I had kids in there who were reading second grade level all the way up to kids who had dropped out of AP. So I thought, okay, I've got to think about something that's currently happening that's distressing, that's controversial. And so I thought this community where I was working referred to themselves as the working poor, and I didn't know at the time that that meant people had jobs, but they were low paid jobs. They weren't making enough money to pay all the bills.
Cris: This community was also not real pro immigration and also a lot of people in the community were very pro Trump. And so I thought, okay, I think what we're going to do is we're going to study the Syrian refugee crisis. We're going to really dig in and figure out, is the United States losing its humanity by not letting refugees in? And do refugees really cause more terrorism? And are they costing us a lot of money as Americans? And are they taking our jobs?
Cris: And I thought these were all kind of controversial topics that these kids would hopefully want to argue about. And in order to argue logically, they would have to build some background knowledge and not just repeat what they were hearing at the dining room table, the kitchen table. And so that was really fun because the last day of our class, we had a summit that we call the Awareness, Empathy, and Action Summit, where I had invited people from the community, from churches and universities and nonprofits to come in and listen to the kids position on the whole refugee crisis. And then after the kids had...
Sam: Telling how immigration was affecting their community.
Cris: Yeah. And how after the kids got the chance to share their thinking, and then the visitors could weigh in. So it was so much fun. Not everybody got up to grade level, but everybody got to become a better reader and writer in those two weeks. And I didn't get fired.
Sam: Shockingly. Yeah. So that idea. So if we go back to the six T's, which is the masks kids wear is one organizing feature, and then the six T's become this second organizing feature. So this idea of topic, task. What do we ask kids to do that's connected to the real world of what readers, writers, mathematicians, historian, social scientists... Oh, I guess we don't do any math in this book, do we?
Cris: No math. It's science and social studies.
Sam: Yeah, science and social studies.
Cris: Actually, there's a little math I think in the invoice sheets.
Sam: Oh, okay. So topic, task, texts, which also now we talk about like inputs. Because it's not just texts on paper, like written word that kids dig into, but any inputs that help them think more deeply.
Cris: Yeah, like video clips. Tweets.
Sam: One of the days that I think rocked everybody's world was when we showed that short video of those Greek boatmen that were trying to save people from the water...
Cris: Yeah, the Greek fisherman.
Sam: The Greek fishermen that were saving people and then bringing them to the Greek shores. There was not a dry eye in the house from any of the kids. And that got them just pure outrage, and how can humans do this? And what is an individual response and what should an organized government response be? So anyway, that day was just amazing. But if we get back to the T's. All right.
Sam: So topic, task, texts, learning targets. So there's some student ownership and clarity. Because if we can be clear on naming, how do I want you to get smarter? What knowledge do I want you to build? What skills do I want you to develop? And then towards what understanding? Which is that bigger one. And then the two we explicitly added, which is time, the amount of time it takes to get a high quality piece of work and for it to allow kids to get back or knowledge.
Sam: And then the kid by kid slog. How do you tend to each learner to make sure they have the just right text and the just right task in front of them towards that deeper understanding. So this is where the real critical, practical parts of the book come in. Because you do such a good job of organizing for teachers like, okay, so where am I? What do I have in place? But what are some other layers I can add? So can you talk a little bit about teachers that you're working with and inspiring and how that's been helping them meet kids' needs?
Cris: Well, what I like about those six T's is you can use them to plan before you even meet your students. So that's the anticipation part. Every teacher knows they're going to have a struggling reader in their class. They just know that. So you plan ahead for that. What kind of texts will they read? So you can use those six T's for the long-term planning. But then what's so fun are those six T's, kind of like a formative assessments.
Cris: So if a kid's fooling around or not engaged or not doing what we want them to do, you can go through those six T's and think about, okay, what T might that kid need to get engaged tomorrow? Do they need a different text? Do they need a different task? Do they need some more time? And so thinking about that makes it this sort of like I could step back and I can think of my class as a whole and think about, all right, what's working and what's not working? And then go through that list of T's. And that really helps me to have kind of a quick readjustment or it helps me just kind of tweak, I guess, what I'm going to do the next day.
Sam: Another T, tweak.
Cris: Yeah, another T.
Sam: Oh my God! We have to write another book. We have seven T's now.
Cris: Tweaking the T's. Not twerking, but tweaking.
Sam: Oh, you know what story we have to tell? I think we should tell the... Well, this was a CYA moment. So this was early...
Cris: I know what you're going to say.
Sam: This was early in our travel and our work together, when I started going on the road with you. Cris had already had all these jobs to do labs and to teach in front of teachers. But the cool thing was she really needed to focus on the kids. And so she started to bring me along because then my focus would be on the teacher learning and her focus would be on the kid learning. And we do just like what we were doing in Denver when teachers would come to her classroom and I was facilitating. So we were in Houston, Texas.
Cris: Yeah. And we were in a 10th grade biology class. And if you've ever seen Sam and I worked together, when I start teaching, Sam starts typing. So she types what I say. She types what the kids are saying. And I always know that I'm talking too much or my mini lesson has gone too long if she stops typing, or I always just know something's gone wrong when she stops typing. So I do my quick little mini lesson and she types it and everything's fine. And I've got like five pieces of text in that I've brought. We're studying these things called alleles. It was a genetics unit.
Sam: Okay. Well, you have to back up a minute, because in order to prep for these days, you send the teacher an email.
Cris: Oh yeah. So I do send the teacher an email because I don't want it to be a dog and pony show. I want it to be a literacy demonstration of their unit of study, whatever that is. And then I want to try to pull in the six T's and I want to try to show what workshop model looks like, but in context of what it is they're working on. And so it was a genetics unit and the teacher wanted me to introduce alleles, which if you haven't had biology for a while, it's like when you're talking about brown hair, blonde hair. It's the big B, little B stuff. So the teacher had sent me some typical articles they had read to give me an idea of their reading level.
Sam: And it was mostly textbook.
Cris: Mostly textbook stuff. But then there were a few things that were from online that she got offline. And so I had about six pieces of text. The reading level was really maybe third, fourth grade level. It wasn't insulting, but it was readable. Because I just didn't know the range of readers of that.
Sam: But you used a lot of graphics with captions, what scientists use, right? Scientists look at diagrams.
Cris: Not as much as I should have. I think I got better at that as I went on with the more infographics.
Sam: But you did have some.
Cris: I had some, yeah, but there was still a lot of text. So I sent the kids off to pick up their article and I realized very quickly that nobody could read even the easiest article. And then I realized that the reason for that is because this was kids who had recently arrived in the United States and most of them were native Spanish speakers.
Sam: But the failed to share that information with you.
Cris: Yeah. But it goes back to I didn't CYA. Now I know that there's going to be probably some English learners or emerging bilinguals that are in the class. So I like to say, okay, I did such a wreck. What do I do now? Nobody can read this text. And she just started laughing and shrugged her shoulders.
Sam: Well, that's the whole thing.
Cris: She was like, "Nice coach."
Sam: Oh my God. It was so bad, because our foundational belief is that whoever's doing the reading, writing, talking is doing the thinking. So you had kicked them off with a learning target. You had done your mini lesson. They were all quiet and nodding their heads and looking at you and all very compliant. But then we release them to do the work and there was zero. They could not access any of it.
Cris: Yeah. It'd be like giving me alleles in Russian. I wouldn't even know where to start.
Sam: Right. So we just had to call it, and that is the only time in 20 years that we just stopped the lesson 20 minutes in, because I think it was supposed to be a 70 minute lesson. And we were like, well, if we don't have anything for them to read, write and talk about, there is no lesson. You were like, "I'm not going to stand up here and talk at them. What would that be?" So we just called it. And so we asked the teacher to get the sub that was there and to just bring the kids back to the classroom.
Cris: It was awful.
Sam: And the teacher was bawling, crying.
Cris: Yeah. And it was kind of sad because she did say that she didn't know the kids were going to have to read it, because she had read to them and then helped them felt the worksheets. She didn't know. The worry is never sharing the stories because this was probably 20 years ago. I haven't found this teacher. She's probably retired, long gone by now. So not in a bad way, but retired. But I think just how many secondary teachers aren't really sure how their kids read because they...
Sam: How they make sense of everything in front of them, right?
Cris: Yeah. And how important that is. We have to figure out like, okay, what are you getting from this? What are you make making sense? Because I think the kids who wear the mask of invincibility can really slip through the cracks that way. They could just look tough or they can look mean, or they can just be compliant, and they just keep getting passed through.
Sam: And I think that's the thing that is really coming to the fore in this online environment, is if there is zero reason for kids to gather in a live Zoom class, if you're just going to talk at them, just do it asynchronous. Why bother? So when we ask kids to gather on Zoom, it's because we need them to talk to each other. If they need to see something as a model, we can just tape it and put it on asynchronous.
Sam: Why do they need to gather? Which is that great Priya Parker book, The Art of Gathering. That book has resonated, oh my God, in this time right now. Yeah. What is the purpose for gathering? Because if it's just to listen to my teacher talk, I don't need to show up at the same time every day. You can just tape it and stick it online and I'll watch it whenever.
Sam: If you're going to ask me to gather, there had better be a reason, and it had better not be for me to hear you talk as a teacher, because otherwise just video it and stick it online and I'll watch it at my convenience versus showing up at 10:00 AM every day of the week. So I think that is the other thing that has become shockingly clear. When kids aren't showing up, you have to ask yourself why. Why is this worthy of their time? And what should we be asking them to do when we ask them to gather? How is it meeting their needs?
Cris: And I think the big thing that you taught me that really changed how I was doing those intervention classes versus my English classes is that my English classes every day was connected Whereas in the intervention classes, everyday lived in isolation. It was activity, activity, activity, texts, texts, texts, strategy, strategy, strategy. And there was nothing that held it together. And I think that was something that when I started planning with compelling units that were relevant and that were timely, texts just started to fall on my lap. Kids saw a reason to come and argue and to work on their writing. And there was authentic audiences we could share the work with. It just changed everything, as opposed to trying to just kind of get through the skills and get through the strategies on a day-to-day basis. There had to be like a bigger reason.
Sam: So great. All right. Well, the book is out in the universe, and I just could not be more thankful for you, Cris Tovani, for all of the work that you do for kids and for teachers and in this time where we need it most. We most need this spark of energy and joy and your stories to help us really reground in, why are we doing this? Why do we get out of bed in the morning? And what does it look like? As we look forward to the future in vaccines and being able to gather in person again in the coming months, this book could not be out at a better time. So thank you so much for all your efforts and focus and getting it down on paper. And I'm just so thrilled to be your colleague and your editor and your friend to help this genius in the world.
Cris: Thank you. And I dedicate this book to Sam because sometimes my brain and then I had to change it, who is, okay, always my brain. So I thank you for all your hard work. And I also would like to throw out to teachers, I know, when I read comments online and Twitter and Instagram, that there's a lot of discouraged teachers out there right now. And when we look back on this, teachers, you guys will be the historical heroes. You are the ones that are showing up for kids and being there every day, trying to figure this out. So I want to thank you all for the work that you're doing for our kids right now, who need you so desperately.
Sam: Here, here, here, here. All right, guys. Go get them. Thanks so much for spending your time with us on this podcast.
Sam: Take care. Bye.