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.

Literacy Leaders: You can’t name it if you don’t know it

Without a synergy between literacy and leadership and a committed, joint effort by teachers and principals, fragile achievement gains do not hold.

– Regie Routman, Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success

In a primary classroom today, I was observing the teacher reading aloud a picture book about penguins. The students were active participants, answering questions about the main character and offering their theories about what might happen next in the story. “Could anyone else share their thinking?” invited the teacher, after affirming one student’s response with an objective “Mmm-hmm”.

After writing down my observational narrative (instructional walk) of the read-aloud experience, I gave the teacher my notes while commenting publicly about the lesson in front of the student. “Wow, I could tell you all understood the story well. You made predictions about what would happen next, using details from the book.” The class then shared that tomorrow they would be reading a nonfiction text about penguins online.

By sharing what I observed with the class, I did more than recognize the teacher for her efforts in being intentional with her read aloud. I also named the strategies – making a prediction, using details for support – as a reinforcement of their thinking. Students heard the point of the lesson from two different adults. My presence was value-added; I didn’t distract from the lesson but instead became a part of the learning experience.

My formal educational background is not literacy-rich. While I enjoyed reading as a student, my college studies were more focused on mathematics and middle-level philosophy. When I became an elementary principal, I had limited background knowledge about promising reading and writing practices. Thankfully, I had literacy leaders in my prior school who kindly yet firmly encouraged me to participate in our professional development focused on literacy. My first visits to classrooms were as a learner more than a partner, but eventually I felt competent to engage in the process.

Educators enter the world of leadership from many backgrounds. Some involve reading and writing instruction; some do not. Regardless of our backgrounds, we have an obligation to know literacy through formal and informal professional learning experiences. It’s a continuous commitment as new forms of literacy are growing in the information age. Lifelong learning gives me the language to engage in literacy conversations with faculty, an essential trait for sustainable student success.

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.

Teaching Literacy During the Holidays

It’s that time of year…the red and green butcher paper rolls are shrinking, the Grinch makes a school visit, and concerts have replaced athletics as the main evening events. The holidays offer opportunities for celebration as well as distractions. Kids get off of their routines or the classroom curriculum is not aligned with the seasonal activities and, as a result, our plans too often take a backseat to festivities or classroom challenges.

I won’t get into the religious aspect of celebrating the holidays, especially in public schools (check out Teaching Tolerance for more information on this topic). Instead, I thought I would share as well as request ideas for integrating promising literacy practices during the holiday season.

  • Service learning projects – This time of year can be stressful for some families living in poverty or just find this time of year hard. Teachers can develop extended lesson plans that involve students writing letters to individuals in assisted living centers and then hand delivering them, or creating original multimedia content to raise money for organizations in need.
  • Learning about our culture – Why do we celebrate some holidays and not others? How does where we live influence what holidays we choose to recognize as a community? These big questions can guide students to research their traditions in order to better understand their past. What they learn can be written as a report and then presented to peers and families using a digital tool of choice.
  • Exploring themes of the holidays – When we study a topic and look at multiple perspectives, trends and themes may present themselves. If holidays as a study are a staple in a school, it might be interesting to facilitate literary analysis and have students explore various texts to understand the larger ideas that are connected to the many known and unknown holidays. The idea of “text” can be expanded by incorporating podcasts, art, and other nonconventional mediums.

I realize this post comes at the tail end of the holiday season. Yet now might be a great time to reflect on our current practices and how they might better incorporate literacy for future instructional planning. How do you authentically integrate reading, writing, language, speaking, and listening with your teaching at this time of year? Please share in the comments.

Beliefs and Practices: Embracing Failure and Supporting Each Other

It’s one thing to have a belief in an approach for teaching or leading. It’s another thing to apply those beliefs to our practices. The distance between beliefs and practices is a group’s willingness to embrace failure as an opportunity for collective learning. 

Today, I facilitated a professional learning session with teachers about reading comprehension. We started by celebrating our growth as a faculty. Important to stress was how our positive school report card was a product of our shared beliefs about literacy. We are on the same page.

But being on the same page philosophically does not necessarily translate to practice. Teachers are at various stages of expertise, often varied in different areas with each teacher. To relate, I shared a story about how I was recently reading aloud to 1st graders, and it didn’t dawn on me to stop and take a moment to explain challenging vocabulary until one student asked, “How can you sow (sew) seeds?”

My personal example of failure led to a short exercise. Teachers were provided a matrix. On the left side were our literacy beliefs we currently shared as a faculty, translated into teaching practices they represented. At the top were four columns. Each heading described a level of progression along a learning continuum. I won’t spend time or words trying to describe it: you can click here to download it or view it below.

Teachers were provided time to reflect on where they were on the learning progression spectrum with regard to each literacy belief in action. (Our beliefs derive from Regie Routman in Residence.) Then they shared with a trusted colleague which practices they felt effective with and with practices they believe they needed more support.

“Do you want to collect these?” asked a teacher. “No, I want you to keep this reflection tool for future use. Maybe you might want to explore a practice more deeply through instructional coaching or peer observation.” Next, I asked if any teachers were willing to share their reflections with the whole group. No one spoke up. To follow, I asked those who rated themselves as unconsciously effective (become second nature) in every practice to raise their hands. No one did, although I noticed many smiles on teachers’ faces.

Later in the professional learning session, teachers were having conversations within self-directed study groups about their selected professional resources. I sat in on one group. As teachers went around discussing their work, one teacher announced, “I have a failure to share.” She pulled up her phone and displayed a picture of a student’s novel filled with sticky notes. “He has a Post-it note for every page!” shared the teacher, which led to laughter and more honest conversations about their own challenges, along with ideas for how this teacher could use the Post-it note information to guide future instruction. 

If schools are ever going to grow collectively, we have to start being honest with ourselves about our practices. Teaching and leading in schools is incredibly complex work. People outside education rarely understand this so we cannot expect them to adequately address the issue. By being open and vulnerable about where we struggle, it gives others permission to divulge their own failures and challenges. These confessions are the seeds for true growth as professionals. It starts with leaders – not just principals – speaking the truth about our challenging, rewarding work.

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.