Notice and Name

This post is from my weekly staff newsletter. Maybe you will find it useful as well! -Matt

“The 3rd graders noticed you were reading a book while walking down the hallway.” The teacher had stepped out to let me know this. I had been walking upstairs with my nose in a professional resource, on my way to help supervise recess. I could see the 3rd graders smiling at me through the open door.

My first reaction was guilt. Maybe I should have been paying more attention in the hallway and not modeling the potentially unsafe behavior of reading while walking. The teacher continued, “We thought it was neat to see the principal also as a reader.” This led to me stepping into the classroom briefly, sharing what I was reading (a series of essays by Alfie Kohn) and letting them know that I thought the books they were holding in their hands looked more interesting.

I’ve always been a “sneak reader”, using downtime to pull out a book or article. While in school, this led to some mild redirection from my teachers, they themselves probably not sure how to manage the dilemma of attending to their instruction while not wanting to dissuade me from reading independently. Maybe that is where my initial feeling of guilt arose from when the 3rd graders noticed me in the hallway.

As we continue to shift our instruction toward more authentic literacy practices, there might be some similar issues we experience. For example, allowing students to read independently while we confer with an individual may feel odd at first. We should be teaching and similar thoughts may arise. But teaching is not exclusive to standing up in front of a group of students and modeling a skill. Bringing students in as part of instruction, providing just enough scaffolding for guided support, and releasing the students to practice independently are just as important to the process of learning.

When I visit classrooms daily and provide feedback about our work, I learn more and more that today’s lesson started before I arrived and will continue after I leave. I want to point out what is happening in the classroom so that you feel affirmed in your efforts to try something new. Also, I like to notice and name tried and true practices that you might be taking for granted. I had forgotten that reading a book in front of others can be a positive model for students. Reading aloud in the classroom may have become routine in a classroom, yet the students notice. When we are in the midst of instruction, it can be hard to take a step back and appreciate our work. We should!

Time to Think

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Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

My wife and I are still at the stage in our lives where, if one of our kids is sick, one of us is staying home. Today was my turn. I planned to be back at school tomorrow, assuming my son only had a virus and not strep throat.

There always seems to be a twinge of guilt educators feel in these circumstances. It’s not like the work goes away. The students show up regardless of our situation. Will the guest teacher deliver the lessons like we prefer? or Who will step in if a student is struggling behaviorally? are typical questions that arise.

Once we get over this guilt, I start to see these occasions not as time off but more as time away. A change when time allows to reflect on my experiences and to let the mind wander a bit. Maybe an opportunity to read and learn from others online. More so, being at home or away from school gives me the mental space to look at my practice from a distance and be a little more objective about it (in between medical visits and meeting my child’s needs, of course).

When I come back to school after a short break, I often feel a sense of renewal. Sure, there are the tasks left on my desk or in my email that only I could take care of. But the larger projects are ongoing, progressing day-by-day in the classrooms.

Margaret Wheatley, writer and leadership consultant, offers answers to why our perspective and appreciation for our work improves after time away. In a 2001 article titled “Can We Reclaim Time to Think?“, she describes the current professional situation as it is today for many leaders.

In this turbo speed culture, we’ve begun to equate productivity with speed. If it can be done faster, we assume it’s more productive.

This calls to mind current discussions about assessments we might decide to administer for literacy. Conversations are often focused on attributes such as “time”, “reliability”, and “proficiency”. These attributes translate to alternative terms: speed, consistency, and being right. Now when you read these terms, does this call to mind engaging and effective literacy instruction?

Not for me. As I read Wheatley’s article today, I recalled a few memorable reading and writing experiences from my K-12 educational career.

  • Our elementary school librarian reading aloud George’s Marvelous Medicine by Roald Dahl, and the anticipation that built as George dumped one toxic ingredient after another into a mixture that would eventually be administered to his abusive grandmother.
  • A high school English teacher engaging us in a shared read aloud of Lord of the Flies by William Golding, rereading a passage of dialogue while explaining how what the main characters were saying revealed their personalities and potential future actions.

What these examples reveal is two teachers’ willingness to take the time to expose their students to authentic literature, not with the intent of scoring well on a test but to become immersed in the story itself. We read and “take up residence” in these stories, as far-fetched as some might be. To be able to empathize with a character and their situation requires the time to think about the story, sometimes after we have read a passage or even the entire book.

Wheatley offers a rationale for building in these opportunities to think about our experiences, fictional and real.

Thinking is the place where intelligent actions begin. We pause long enough to look more carefully at a situation, to see more of its character, to think about why it’s happening, to notice how it’s affecting us and others.

Reading what Wheatley shares, how does this philosophy comport with the current world of teaching and learning? For many of us: poorly. We are driven to meet standards and make sure students are “college and career” ready. Time spent thinking and reflecting does not involve any type of visible action, and therefore leads people to assume that learning is not happening. Our respective missions and visions describe the ideal, and yet our practices more likely than not represent our reality.

Too often, the largest obstacles in our way are the professionals we consider colleagues. The more traditional mindset tries to pull down our ambitions of academic innovation and student independence. Moving toward more promising practices calls attention not only to our growth but also to the lagging skills in which our more satisfied colleagues might be so desperate to hide.

Again, Wheatley recognizes the challenge of carving out time for ourselves to reflect and renew in a larger educational culture that has a default of busy.

Don’t expect anybody to give you this time. You will have to claim it for yourself. No one will give it to you because thinking is always dangerous to the status quo. Those benefiting from the present system have no interest in your new ideas. In fact, your thinking is a threat to them. The moment you start thinking, you’ll want to change something.


My son’s strep test came back: negative. “Do I have to go back to school?” The physician smiled, silently deferring to me. My first thought was: Is he trying to avoid school? And then I paused and asked myself, Is he looking for time to think? Maybe, maybe not. But I can empathize with him, trying to navigate his own educational world that rarely offers the opportunity to step back and appreciate our experiences.

Student Engagement: Consider Context and Relevance

I’ve been reading an informational book on and off, The Complete Guide to Article Writing: How to Write Successful Articles for Online and Print Markets by Naveed Saleh. So far it’s been helpful for me to think more critically about my writing craft.

The first chapter starts with a primer on style. Saleh describes the difference between active vs. passive voice, for example, and the right and wrong way to use specific words such as “about” and “affect/effect” in your writing. (And in case you are wondering, we should use “affect” to describe how something has an influence on another thing, and “effect” for when there is a direct correlation.)

If I had started this text like I would a more typical book, the content from the first chapter would have gone in one ear and out the other. It would have had no context or meaning for me. So I have bounced around, reading different chapters that seem relevant, such as “Publication”. In these chapters, the author will sometimes make reference to an idea from the first chapter (a primer on style). I would go back to the page, read that bit of information, and was better able to remember and apply it. Now, these disparate ideas have context and relevance.

I think back to a workshop with Heidi Hayes Jacobs that our district facilitated in August. She talked about how students get a lot of skill and drill, sometimes participate in rehearsal, but rarely take their learning to a performance/transfer level in schools (in general).

To continue this thinking, what happens when we communicate with students, in the beginning, the larger purpose of why we should be learning certain content and skills? How does starting with the whole picture of learning impact our motivation and engagement when trying to improve in the smaller and more mundane tasks?

During my imperfect K-12 tenure as a student, I am sure my teachers covered the difference between the usage of “affect” and “effect”. But it didn’t stick, at least not until I was in a position where my writing was read and responded to by others. Creating content for an audience and for a purpose has made all of the difference in my ability to retain and apply new learning. My work matters now. 

Certainly, schools cannot completely reflect the real world. Yet the closer we can design our instruction to resemble these experiences, the better.

Should students read 20 minutes a day?

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

While initially thinking about this question, I wanted to clearly state “no”. No, we shouldn’t be assigning students to read 20 minutes a day. Mandating a student to read can make this practice feel like drudgery, equated with homework and its ilk. But this issue deserves more attention; it’s not that simple.

Yes, I do know the effect that voluminous reading has on achievement and building a lifelong habit. If you Google the phrase “read 20 minutes a day”, you will get page after page of articles, posts, and videos praising this practice. Reading log templates sometimes accompany the content. One has to get to the seventeenth page of search results before they can find the first article that questions this practice.

The article I found on the seventeenth page is worth reading. Can Reading Logs Ruin Reading for Kids?, written by Erica Reischer for The Atlantic, cites two studies that demonstrate the potential negative effects of assigning reading to students and using reading logs (a common practice when assigning daily reading).

  • When rewards or mandates are used to coax kids to read, they may lose their internal motivation to read independently.
  • In comparison to students who were assigned to read daily, students who are encouraged to read voluntarily showed an increased interest in reading independently.

Still, I understand teachers’ interest in holding students accountable for reading regularly. We know that some kids will not read regularly without some level of expectations. So maybe the answer is “no”, but what can we do? Consider the following alternatives to assigning 20 minutes of reading per night.

Co-create Reader Expectations with Students

If we can build learning community norms with students, then they will likely have more ownership in what is decided. (Teachers are the same way.) Today, I happened to visit a few classrooms that were engaged in this discussion. One group decided that, instead of expecting 20 minutes a day, they would read 100 minutes a week. “Some evenings, we get really busy,” acknolwedged the teacher.

Confer with Students

Students cannot fake their understanding of a book when we ask them thoughtful questions about what they read. With conferring, students can connect with a couple students each day during independent reading time to discuss what they read, offer personalized instruction regarding skills and strategies, and craft goals for the future. The accountability piece can still be a reading log, just as long as students know they are responsibile for maintaining it for that next conference. Teachers generally keep some type of conferring notebook to organize their notes.

Bonus: Check out this Edutopia article for more information on reading conferences.

Reader Responses

High school English teacher and prolific writer Kelly Gallagher shares his solution to balancing engagement and accountability with independent reading. In his book Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About it (Stenhouse, 2009), Gallagher describes his use of “one-pagers” (pg. 82) to evaluate student comprehension. These brief written responses can reveal students’ understanding of what they read. Skills such as prediction and persuasive writing are also assessed with these one-pagers.

Gallagher understands as a practitioner that fine balance between student engagement and classroom expectations during independent reading.

If the teacher infuses the recreational reading experience with too much accountability – chapter questions, worksheets, double-entry journals – then the experience ceases to be recreational. However, if students are never held to any accountability, many of them will not start reading.

Co-creating reader expectations, conferring, and written responses to what students are reading seem like reasonable improvements to the tired practice of assigning a set amount of time for students to read daily. What works for you? What do you struggle with? Feel free to share in the comments.

First Days of School: Keep it Simple

The classroom could have been for almost any age level. The bulletin board was bare besides the butcher paper stapled up with colorful border framing each side. Book bins stood empty, waiting to be filled with reading material. One slogan, “Believe in Yourself”, was posted above the otherwise spartan door.

51Lrt8Ar8vL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgEven if the classroom walls were covered with all kinds of decorations in every color imaginable, none of the 4th graders would have noticed. They were listening and watching their teacher read aloud School’s First Day of School, written by Adam Rex and illustrated by Christian Robinson. In this story, a newly built elementary school doesn’t realize what it is until the students and teachers show up. After some deductive reasoning through some humorous situations, Frederick Douglass Elementary learns and appreciates what its purpose is.

The teacher had a nice flow to the read aloud. She didn’t pause too many times in an attempt to dissect every word and phrase to understand author’s purpose. Students were provided a few opportunities to share their questions and connections during the story. “I guess the main character – the narrator – is the school! What a creative way to tell a story. I would have never thought of that.” Everyone nodded in agreement.

It should be noted that this was the second time these 4th graders had heard School’s First Day of School. Earlier in the morning, I had read aloud the same book to the entire student body during our first-day assembly (I relied on the eBook version, a microphone, and a projector connected to my computer.) The goal was to introduce our yearlong theme, “A Community of Readers”.

Initially preparing for this assembly, I was going to put together several slides that touched on what it means to be a community and what tools we might use to share what we were reading with others. As I started a new slide deck, a feeling of unease set over me. “Is this what readers do?” I asked myself. “Do they create slide decks to encourage others to check out a book?” Only in school.

I am thankful that I pushed pause on my habit of always feeling like I need to spend a large chunk of time putting together a presentation for communicating our school goals. Sometimes its necessary, but it comes with a potential cost (besides my time): inauthenticity. Too much of what we do in education feels forced and arbitrary. We work too hard and not always on the right things. I’d rather try to be genuine and true to our collective purpose of developing readers and writers for a lifetime. Effective teachers understand this. They live out their beliefs about authentic literacy experiences that engage students in co-creating a classroom community.

Teaching is complex, one of the most challenging professions we can aspire to take on. Yet it’s premise is simple: guide students to become independent thinkers and learners. If we are doing the lion’s share of the work, how is this outcome possible?

For additional ideas on embedding more authentic literacy practices in your classroom or school, check out all of the posts from this summer’s book study. We read and responded to Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellent, and Equity for All Students by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Click on this link or find the book study page in this blog’s menu.

How to Plan For Purposeful Conversations In Math

Talk is not cheap.

It may be if it is not purposeful, thoughtful, useful. But it can be powerful, meaningful, and a link to making sense of things… even math.

In Regie Routman’s compelling tome, Literacy Essentials, she wades into Listening, Speaking , and Questioning as a source to “elevate teaching and learning” (149). After seeing how important it is these past few years while teaching high school math to have conversation as part of the instructional equation, I know that I am going to have to do a lot explicit modeling and teaching this next year to help 6th graders have a healthy, usable framework for how to have math discussions.

That will be a lot of work and a lot of fun! I think it will set them up to continue to grow as thinkers and problem solvers. They will have the tools to handle talking about tuned mass dampers and the world’s tallest buildings, about icosahedrons and Fuller projections, and how to solve ratio problems.

On pages 153-154, Routman pegs how to promote and have “significant conversations.”

* Students today need “demonstrations and practice on how and why meaningful conversation is an artful necessity for optimal living and learning” (153).

* This is a “most important skill” (154).

* Our role? “Simulate, clarify and moderate the conversations so students do most of the talking” (154).

* These conversations should “promote debate, curiosity… thoughtful questioning… valuing multiple perspectives” (154).

* Regie again says on 154, “…if we want students to invest in complex thinking and sharing of ideas, they must believe their voices matter.”

Making this happen requires deliberate and intentional planning. Mrs. Routman gives several tools and steps in her “Take Action” section. I want to highlight one of the tools that speaks the loudest to me on this read. She says to “ensure your students and you have the tools to make productive discussions possible” (156) and then cites Talk Moves to Support Classroom Discussion from a book by Elham Kazemi and Allison Hintz. These “moves” are discussion stems for various tasks within thoughtful and purposeful discussion. For example, this stem – “so you’re saying…” – can be used for helping frame and paraphrase what another student has said.

Sure, it seems simple. But for conversations to be civil and thoughtful, these types of discussion prompts have to be rehearsed in context. That may be a little forced at first. Awkward. Maybe even a little uncomfortable. The kids will need to see me model it. They will need prompts in their hands so they can practice. They will most likely need to listen in on each other to offer feedback. It may be emotional.

If they have to disagree or correct some math missteps, it almost certainly will be. Harry O’Malley, in a recent article, suggests that I could even plan for the emotions that I want them to have. What if I introduce, as he suggests, music in the background during a practice conversation – music that was specifically chosen to evoke a more predictable emotion?

Whatever my methods, I once again come away from Mrs. Routman’s excellent book about literacy chock-full of ideas about how to apply some of those core learnings in my 6th-grade math classroom. That’s not only something worth thinking about, it’s something worth talking about.

Re-envisioning Roles

It’s easy to get caught up in the quick fix of doing the task, presenting the question that gives one quick response, and providing the immediate answer when a student approaches us. After all, we are under strict time constraints, the tests are always looming, and there’s those dang mandated curriculums to cover.  Come to think of it, that’s not even factoring in the students sitting in front of us, all seeming to need our attention at the same moment. So yeah, I get it, and in the short run, doing the task, asking for one correct response, just giving the answer… all seem feasible and even manageable. However…in the long run, it’s the students who lose out.  We do the exact opposite of what we truly intend, and thus create students who play the “School game.” Students who want to know exactly what they need to do for “said” grade. Kids who are constantly looking for a reward, kids who are trained to be compliant rather than curious. Kids who seemingly give up the moment the going gets a little tough.

In my experience teaching lower elementary, especially when I was first starting out and didn’t know any better, I was guilty of exactly what Regie talks about in the section on Equity-  Unintentionally disadvantaging and disabling my students by doing all the work for them, rather then guiding them towards self sufficiency and self regulation. She says it best, “…we disadvantage and disable kids by thwarting and delaying the development of competencies that lead to growing self-confidence and self-reliance.  Students develop self-regulation and self-sufficiency only when we teach for it and expect it” (p.347). Regie goes on to say that one of the best ways to develop this characteristic of self-determining, self-evaluating learners is through student-directed, small-group work. How does one go about creating this dynamic? It starts on day one.  Coming together as a community of learners. Co-creating the norms and expectations, giving students a voice…when these things are in place, the rest also falls into place.

Many years ago, the 2 Sisters, Gail Boushey and Joan Moser started me on a better path toward creating self-directed, self-evaluating learners. Their book, The Daily 5 was instrumental in helping me renew my teaching practice. It was through them that I first learned about the “Gradual release of responsibility method”.  Reading similar sentiments about how to engage and empower students through Regie’s lens in Literacy Essentials affirms the value of honoring students through voice and choice.  It’s about establishing ground rules through a shared creation of norms with your students. Co-creating anchor charts and classroom expectations, modeling and practicing the right way, wrong way, and the right way yet again. Asking more thought-provoking questions, and putting the thinking where it needs to be- On The Student. Talking less and listening more.

Even kindergarteners are capable of having ownership of the learning and learning environment when we co-create the norms and expectations. I was astounded with how capable they actually were!  Sure, they might not always have the stamina or resilience to make good choices 100% of the time, but most of the time they were much more engaged and self-reliant through this process than when I was the one controlling everything about the learning environment. It’s the same with my first graders. And if we are brutally honest, even adults aren’t on task and making good choices 100% of the time; it’s just part of human nature. Once you make the deliberate move to shift your thinking and teaching toward practices that engage and empower your students, you won’t ever go back.  

A huge part of this shift in our thinking about how we teach involves a focus on the part of talk. When we, as the teacher, are doing most of the talking (lecturing, question asking, answer providing), then we are also consequently doing most of the work.  On p. 338, Regie talks about finding the balance and about embracing conversations in the classroom. Conversations where all voices are heard and valued and there is no threat of a hidden agenda.  Conversations that ignite and drive curiosity. Conversations that involve the teacher as an integral part of the learning, not just dispensing the learning. I love this quote from Regie, “Balancing the power in the room leads to a better power balance outside the room” (p.338).  To me this means, not just balancing the power outside the classroom, but of a balance reaching far further than school walls.

Much to the end that Regie encapsulates with the following quote, “Empowered students come to believe they have agency in their lives, that they have the ability to implement positive changes for themselves and others” (p. 338). This. Isn’t this what we hope for all students?

Check out all of the posts from this book study by going to the Literacy Essentials webpage. There, you can select different articles to read and respond to and continue the conversation in the comments. In addition, consider joining our new Google+ Community to extend these discussions and connect with other literacy leaders.