Matt de la Peña: Writing From the Outside

If I had to choose a few books that should be in every K-12 classroom, I think one of them would be Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson. It’s an important book on many levels, conveying messages about gratitude, cultural awareness, and diversity.

So I was felt fortunate to hear Matt de la Peña speak at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention this past weekend. If I could summarize his session, in which he spoke about his journey as an author, it would be “writing from the outside”.

The author’s father is Mexican and his mother is white. He shared how growing up, he had to code-switch a lot between the two families to feel a greater sense of belonging within each. This paradox influenced de la Peña’s work. Instead of trying to simplify the topics he wants to write about, he leans into these complexities and describes what it is like to live between two worlds.

For example, in Last Stop on Market Street, the author highlights the ways people are diverse beyond the color of one’s skin. CJ learns while riding the bus that a blind man can see with his other senses. As de la Peña noted during his session:

Diversity goes beyond just race. We need to examine our thinking about this concept, such as seeing one’s class status or disability in a new way.

As the author read aloud and shared about his books, he also explained how he can write about complex issues within the small window of a picture book.

The more you can simplify, the more you can do with a book. For example, CJ sees the people in the soup kitchen and he associates the service with them.

Related, in another picture book he wrote, Love, de la Peña explained how the story and illustrations move from a familiar idea of the title’s name to a more nuanced understanding that helps the reader build perspective.

You can’t know love if you also don’t know adversity.

The author also has several acclaimed young adult novels. I’m not familiar with these titles, but after listening to Matt de la Peña speak, I am looking forward to reading some of them with my own kids as they approach adolescence.

And I believe that is an important, final point to make. The author shared an observation after having visited schools in both affluent/mostly white communities and in more diverse areas. In the former, it was rare to find many of his books in the school libraries that depicted different cultures. “We just don’t have many kids who look like that in our school,” shared one librarian. Given the frequency he sees the Harry Potter series in schools, he wondered aloud during the session if these schools have a lot of wizards.

In other words, literature should be diverse because we need to introduce our students to different perspectives, ways of being, and how the world actually is. Authors like Matt de la Peña who write from the outside and embrace life’s paradoxes serve to complicate our understanding of the world in important ways.

What books shaped you? Three for my reading autobiography #WSRA19

At the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention, Donalyn Miller invited us to write a reading autobiography. This is a list of books that shaped us as readers and as people. My group thought that this activity would be an excellent way to end the school year with students or to re-engage a group of “dormant readers”. Below is my short list.

Elementary School: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume – I was a reluctant reader until my 3rd-grade teacher read it aloud to our class. I’m told that I reread this book several times before I found my next book. I guess I had some catching up to do.

Junior High: It by Stephen King – I’m surprised my junior high teachers let me read this novel and other King books. The content was not middle level appropriate…if I remember correctly, my friend and I found these books at the public library in town. I particularly remember It because half of the story was told from the kids’ point of view. Our town wasn’t nearly as dangerous as Derry but we had just as much free reign, something not often seen in today’s hyper-vigilant world.

High School: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes – My current preference of science fiction was influenced by this book we read in high school English. The idea that science and technology might always have a cost in addition to the opportunities realized has stayed with me.

What books would be in your reading autobiography? How did these books shape you? Consider writing your own post or share in the comments here.

Repositioning Educational Leadership: Leading from an Inquiry Stance

A book that piqued my interest in the principalship was Improving Schools from Within: Teachers, Parents, and Principals Can Make the Difference by Roland Barth (Jossey-Bass, 1990). During one of my first years as a teacher, I found it while browsing through our professional library. At the time I only knew I should probably go for my masters but I was unsure about any focus.

After reading Barth’s classic resource, I knew what I wanted to study. He shared his own personal journey as a principal, the ups and downs, before conveying his belief that empowered schools have all they need to continuously grow as a community of learners. Barth’s frank and authentic descriptions of the principalship are something I don’t often read about in today’s literature on school leadership.

Repositioning Educational Leadership: Practitioners Leading from an Inquiry Stance (Teachers College Press, 2018) carries Barth’s torch and follows a similar journey. The editors – James Lytle, Susan Lytle, Michael Johanek, and Kathy Rho – have collected a series of narratives from doctoral students at the University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education. They are research summaries that describe the real problems of practice for these leadership students within their context at the time.

Among the eleven memorable experiences, I want to briefly highlight one narrative that hit home for me as a principal.

“Language and Third Spaces” by Ann Dealy

A principal in Ossining, New York explores the possibilities of implementing a more culturally-relevant curriculum into her increasingly diverse elementary school. What she discovers is that when leaders try to make instructional changes, they also have to consider the school culture and community in the process.

Professional development shifted from looking for answers from outside of the school to studying our students as learners and collaborating on changes in practice to better support teaching and learning (38).

Dealy also learned through her inquiry that, by upgrading a curriculum to be more culturally responsive, other groups may inadvertently experience somewhat similar feelings of being underrepresented.

It became clear that in the effort to open up curricula, we can also inadvertently close out those whose prior dominance we may have been countering (41).

This research helped reveal for Dealy and her partners that the process of organizational change is most effective as a team effort. Not taking into consideration others’ perspectives will likely lead to limited results.

The implementation of best-researched models of equitable practice is a start – but it is not enough. My leadership learnings include the necessity for collective inquiry to affect systemic change (45).

After reading Dealy’s narrative, I reflected on my own experiences when I have not included the broader school community in decision making on behalf of our students. Almost always when I have engaged with others regarding our schools’ needs, the direction we took was positive. The narratives shared in Repositioning Educational Leadership provided necessary perspectives for me as I considered my own context. It also brought me back to the original goal of getting into the principalship: to affect change from within and with many.

Note: A copy of Repositioning Educational Leadership was provided for me at no cost to read and respond to for this post.

Sharing Our Reading Lives

It can be challenging to sell some students on reading without being readers ourselves. So it is important as teachers and leaders to share our reading lives. As a school leader, I believe making my reading life more public is influential on students, staff, and even families.

With students, I am sometimes seen walking around with reading material in case of a “reading emergency”, a term coined by Donalyn Miller that describes those small moments without anything to do. Reading can fill that gap. Plus, the students and staff often notice.

With staff, I will often read aloud at staff meetings. Right now I am starting each meeting with a poem and related response from Teaching with Fire: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Teach. In my agenda, I include the entire poem from the last meeting so they can reread it and take it with them. I’ve also started sharing what I am reading in place of my weekly staff newsletter once in a great while.

For the list of books I shared with my staff today, sign up for my free newsletter. You will receive it tomorrow.

With all stakeholders who communicate with me via email, they might find my Goodreads email signature at the bottom. It is a widget that showcases what book I am reading right now. I know from seeing what other people are reading who use the same widget, it sparks my interest as a possible next book to read. Also, I feel like I know that person a little better, seeing what they are reading. What we read often reveals what we value, beyond the act of reading for its own sake.

How do you share your reading life with staff, students, and families? If you currently don’t, what approaches sound intriguing to you? Please share in the comments.

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.

The Ups and Downs of a Reading Life

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Photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash

When is the last time you led a conversation with students about reading habits and you shared, “You know, I just haven’t had time to read lately.”?

I know; some of us might have to get rid of our perpetual “read 20 minutes a day” assignment for our students. Or, add –ish after “20” or “day”. We may have to update that “What Real Readers Do” anchor chart with statements like “Sometimes have other things to do” or “Binge-watch the Netflix series based on the book you just read”.

Because that is what real readers do, right? Who reads 20 minutes a day? Last night I read the last 150 pages of A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. Today I might search for online articles, blog posts, and reviews that analyze this novel. Tomorrow I might not find that next book to read. This morning I’ve thought about Tremblay’s story, asking myself questions about certain events and character actions. If reading is thinking, then does this time to reflect on the book count? Or is it “fake reading”?

Let’s get to the point: if we are going to model and share what real readers do, then we need to be transparent and a little more honest about our own reading lives. That means divulging our personal challenges as well as the positive actions that have solidified reading as a lifelong habit for us. By painting a more accurate picture of our own relationship with books and other forms of text, students can start to build their own identities as readers. Reading is not simply a science as some might want to suggest; there are social and emotional underpinnings that need to be considered.

So what might this look like in the classroom? Maybe it comes back to the tasks, rituals, and expectations of the reading classroom. Here are some initial ideas.

  • Have students keep a log of their reading habits for one week. Document how long they read and what they read. Then have the students share their findings as a class. Using this information, come up with an agreed-upon guideline for daily reading, for example, “Read around 25 minutes a day”.
  • Offer a variety of authentic ways for students to respond to their reading. Examples include but are not limited to documenting books read in reader journal, preparing a book talk, write a review on Biblionasium, and write an essay about a book or article that made an impact. Offer prompts and protocols only as needed.
  • Revisit your classroom’s or school’s current homework policy. Ask important questions such as “Are the assignments being asked of us critical to our education?” or “Is homework getting in the way of our reading lives?”. This doesn’t have to be a debate about the idea of homework as much as a needed discussion around the school’s authority in deciding how students should spend their free/family time.
  • Give students more say in what books are selected for the classroom library. (And if you do not have a classroom library, today is a great day to start!) One of the teachers in my school has her students write requested titles on sticky notes and post them on the side of a bookshelf. She uses Scholastic book club points, her classroom budget, and her agreeable principal to get these books ordered and in kids’ hands. This process becomes an opportunity to teach students about genre, cultural representation in literature, and strategies for self-selecting texts.
  • Prepare personal stories about times in your life in which reading was not a daily habit. Maybe a loved one became ill. Or, a book stayed with us long after the last page was finished and we needed time to process through the experience. These stories can be shared orally during readers workshop or as a personal essay written in front of the students as a shared demonstration.

The idea that’s revealed itself here is that for students to build their identities as readers, they need to see and experience authentic reading lives. That means negotiation, that means ownership, and that means making it, yes, okay to not read at times. Real readers are real people, full of contradiction and complexity. If students can see that in ourselves, I believe they are more likely to emulate it in their own lives.

Professional Learning: Engagement Before Anything Else

I believe that when you teach a work of fiction, you should not bring all the baggage that comes with it. You should not fill the minds of the students with the background material. Let the students first connect to the book. Even if that connection is negative, even if they hate it – that reaction belongs to them.

Azar Nafisi, “Enough About Me”, Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process

Our school’s theme this year is “A Community of Readers”. We believe that creating an environment of authentic inquiry and student-directed discussion will lead to an increase in reading engagement. The expected outcome is growth in comprehending text. We have also come to agree that this outcome is largely a product of lots of time to read and respond to high-interest texts with the support of a knowledgeable teacher.

We are becoming more knowledgeable as a faculty by developing our own community of readers. Teachers have selected one of a variety of faculty-suggested professional resources. Their book choice has determined what groups they are in within the school. Although many of the groups were already formed prior to our book study, i.e. grade level or department, there has been some crossover. The art teacher is meeting with the 4K teachers. 2nd grade and kindergarten are discussing What Are the Rest of My Kids Doing? by Lindsey Moses and Merideth Odgen (Stenhouse, 2017).

Another example: I purchased several copies of each selected text, a few more than requested. As it became known which teachers had what books, some staff members would request a copy of this or that text because they’ve “heard good things” about it. For instance, Conferring with Readers by Jennifer Serravallo and Gravity Goldberg (Heinemann, 2007) is now located in three different grade levels/departments (and counting). I have a running Amazon cart of professional titles. I’m almost afraid to purchase too soon in case one more request comes in.

As I have ordered and handed out these books to teachers, I have been wondering: Would this level of engagement be happening if I had been more directive in this professional book study? The question is rhetorical; the answer is “no”. I recall a schoolwide book study in a previous school in which I was principal. During one all staff book discussion, a teacher remarked that she hadn’t read the assigned chapters…and I was in her discussion group!

I am not advocating for laissez-faire literacy leadership. We need to be working with teacher-leaders to guide the direction of the faculty’s professional learning focus. But the more we try to steer toward a specific outcome, the greater the likelihood that we will disengage our faculty in building our collective knowledge. In fact, our expected outcome might change – what does “growth in comprehending text” really mean? This is the paradox that I have struggled to deal with in the past because we should simply “deal with”. Instead, appreciate the journey we are taking as professionals. Be more curious than constraining. There is more than one pathway toward schoolwide literacy success.