Time to Think

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 Changing Roles of Educators


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My son did not want to practice his trumpet. He was finding anything else to do to avoid this daily task. To be honest, I felt the same way when I was in 6th grade and the novelty of playing the trumpet had worn off after about two weeks.

Knowing his affinity for pop music, I asked him to search online for the trumpet sheet music for “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars (his favorite song). He was excited to find someone had uploaded a video tutorial, a step-by-step visual demonstration for learning to play the melody for this song.

While he was keeping up with the tutorial, I elected to videotape his performance. This was just me being a dad, documenting him playing to share out later with family and friends. He saw me recording his practice and then asked me, “Could I see how I did?” Sure, I said, and we watched him doing his best to play the song. His nose wrinkled up as he commented on how his attempt was less than what he had expected. “I’m going to try it another time. Record me again?”

With the access people have to learn almost anything at any time from anywhere, how does the role of the educator change?I see two distinct shifts: what we teach and how we teach. This is curriculum and instruction, respectively. Regarding what we teach, the access provided by the Internet to almost any content seems limitless. No one textbook or resource can possibly serve as a primary source of information anymore. Teachers need to be more adventurous and at the same time increasingly discerning. For every excellent Uptown Funk video tutorial, there are many poor examples of similar content.

With how to teach, the Internet comes into play again. People can teach themselves what they want to learn (consider how many times one searches YouTube to repair some appliance). So our role as educators needs to shift from the person delivering the content to a coach or a mentor, providing feedback and offering suggestions when necessary. I didn’t have to say much when my son watched himself playing. He understood the criteria for success (the what) and could compare that with his own visible performance (the how).

These shifts take time. We need to give ourselves some grace and remember that we are doing the best we know how today. Tomorrow will be better provided we are open to change.

Civic Responsibility

This post is a newsletter I am sending home to our elementary school families. Let me know what you think in the comments! -Matt

It is hard to believe that November is already here! It’s been a busy two months of building our learning community at school, connecting with kids, staff and families, and discussing our goals. For this school year, we are focused as a faculty on reading instruction, specifically thinking about the text. This includes thinking critically about what we read and analyzing the writer’s craft.

It can be challenging for schools to maintain a singular focus on a building-wide goal. Public education receives many requests to implement initiatives within the school day. It’s an honor to been viewed as a central tenet of a healthy community and society. Yet we cannot adopt everything deemed important. If all ideas are essential, how do we determine what is taught and learned?

One topic that has come up a lot recently is civic responsibility. Schools are being called to action to reverse the trend of Americans not participating in civic duties, for example a decline in people voting. In an article for Phi Delta Kappan, educator Michael Rebell goes as far as to state that preparing students for capable citizenship is the school’s primary responsibility.

Schools must create environments that respect and harness both pluralism and individualism while adopting instructional practices that promote civic agency, critical inquiry, and participatory experiences.

(You can access Rebell’s article at this URL: http://www.kappanonline.org/rebell-preparation-capable-citizenship-schools-primary-responsibility/)

When I first started reading this article, I felt a little defensive. How can we take on this responsibility?, I thought. No doubt we teach social studies. That said, literacy and mathematics are what we are tested on every spring. What gets measured gets done first. In addition, we do worry about discussing topics with students that are deemed controversial by some. How can we take civic understanding to a deeper level of understanding in an agreeable manner? Factor in the constraints of time and you get the picture.

As I read on in the article, my thinking started to shift. For example, are the “3 R’s” – reading, writing, ‘rithmetic – mutually exclusive from social studies? They can appear like separate entities with the hyper focus on literacy and math standards. Yet Rebell points out that for students to become more civic-minded, they need to have developed in the very areas we are focused on as a faculty: critical thinking, effective speaking and listening skills, and understanding how a writer uses text structures to convey meaning.

Many American students who have basic literacy skills have yet to master the critical-reasoning and deliberation skills needed to appraise one-side or false information, assess policy alternatives, and enter into fruitful conversation with people who have opposing views.

The author almost suggests that for someone to truly be literate, they have to be able to take a critical stance toward text, as well as consider multiple perspectives at the same time. This would seem especially pertinent in a connected world where anyone can publish their thinking without the guidance of an editor to question one’s position or sources. Here again, Rebell addresses this issue by connecting media literacy and the role of the school.

Accelerating use of new digital media presents an additional challenge. Schools need to create and adopt curricula and instructional practices that enable all students to develop media-literacy skills to identify sources of information, distinguish accurate from fake facts, and engage in deliberative online discussions.

The community can also play a role in teaching students to be more civic-minded. This is part of our strategic plan: community engagement. Classrooms have already developed instructional plans that address this area. For example, students interviewed Mineral Point city officials about the governing process. The learning that occurs through these experiences is being measured through more authentic means, such as essays and video creation.

The Rebell article was a good reminder for me about the purpose of public education: to develop responsible and contributing members of society. Literacy and mathematics are in service to the larger goals and ideas for our students and for our community. They work hand-in-hand. Are we responsible for every individual’s actions once they leave the PK-12 world? Of course not. But we are responsible for developing a curriculum that gives every student the best opportunity to successfully navigate a changing world.

Reading by Example Newsletter, 11/3/18: The Social/Emotional Side of Literacy

Click here to read this week’s short list of posts and articles highlighting the social/emotional side of literacy. Sign up today to receive these newsletters weekly in your inbox. At the end of this newsletter you will find a free downloadable template to guide students to develop their own digital portfolios!



Learning By Doing: Using the Arts to Enhance Reading and Stop Bullying

This is a guest post by Kathy Wade, CEO and co-founder of Learning Through Art. Her organization has developed five free resources to help caring parents, teachers, and community leaders bring the story of Chrysanthemum to their own learners.

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At each mention of bullying, students folded their paper hearts until there was nothing left but a tiny, crumpled paper ball in their hands. They’d been instructed to fold in one section at a time, at each mention of bullying, during the read-aloud of Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes, a book in which the eponymous character is endlessly mocked by her peers for her unique name. At the end of the exercise they were asked to uncrumple the paper hearts and smooth them back out, but the evidence was clear: the damage remained. Students learned that the effects of bullying are lasting and irreversible. It’s hard to heal a broken heart.

This interactive exercise was a part of a 90-minute program designed to help kids recognize bullying, understand how their words and actions affect others, and coping strategies and resilience. We developed the program as part of a larger effort to bring performing arts literacy programs to under-resourced schools in Cincinnati to help students and their families learn and grow together.

As many as one in three students have been bullied at school according to StopBullying.gov. But research shows that caring adults and supportive school environments play a critical role in helping children identify, understand, and manage their emotions—an important first step in preventing bullying behaviors.

The Importance of Social-Emotional Learning

While bullying takes many shapes and forms, one identified cause stems from a lack of understanding of other people’s experiences. Social-emotional learning (SEL) can help equip students with the ability to manage their own emotions and experiences and learn from shared experiences with others.

Research supports incorporating social-emotional learning in schools through explicit instruction and across all academic subjects. One study investigated the long-term success of teaching SEL to all students, including those from low-income families, and concluded that effective SEL policies are key to reducing the education gap.

School leaders and educators are increasingly aware that providing a strong social-emotional learning program can foster students’ success. In fact, comprehensive SEL programs have been identified as the foundation for developing a positive school environment and helping to address some of the most challenging issues educators face today, including behavior issues and emotional distress.

Here are a few relevant articles that add helpful insights on these key topics:

Indeed, students begin to develop their foundational social-emotional competencies at a young age. There is no time to waste in helping each child develop healthy behaviors and learn to exercise empathy.

Intersection of SEL, Arts Education, and Academic Achievement

Leaders in SEL recommend that educators across all grades and academic subjects incorporate teaching social-emotional competencies—defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) as self-awareness, self-management, social responsibility, relationship skills, and responsible decision making—into their classroom strategies. This is equally evident in ASCD’s whole child approach, with the goals of ensuring each child is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. Addressing SEL and academics are not independent aims: they are each part of a comprehensive education. Studies have shown that students who establish core social-emotional skills experience significant gains in academic achievements.

Just as a whole-child education extends beyond mere academics, it includes much more than just “core” subjects on the academic side. The arts are a powerful vehicle for increasing students’ engagement with academic and SEL content. The creativity present in arts education unlocks learners’ personalities, makes them feel connected to their social-emotional competencies, and helps them develop important success skills for life.

To that end, my organization, Learning Through Art, teamed up with experts from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and Medical Center and The Children’s Theater of Cincinnati to develop an anti-bullying program combining performing arts, reading, and drama to teach kids an important lesson about caring and resilience. Specifically, we knew that by integrating the arts into the lesson and giving kids the chance to create, perform and interact with one another, we could foster an active learning experience for children, so the lessons they learned would stick.

Here are three reasons to combine arts education with SEL:

  • Kids learn more by doing: When students are able to actively engage with learning materials and their peers, they are better equipped to take what they’ve learned at school and apply it to their experiences outside the classroom. Young children may have difficulty listening quietly and staying still throughout a read-aloud, but by tying experiential learning to curricular goals, students are able to make real-world connections at school.
  • Collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking: In practice, SEL combined with arts education fosters the 4Cs of 21st century learning. For example, after learning about the different types of bullying behavior, the students were asked to work together to re-enact Chrysanthemum’s experiences (creativity and collaboration) in order to identify examples of bullying and facilitate meaningful dialogue (communication and critical thinking) between children and caring adults.
  • Self-expression is amplified: Both SEL and arts education help equip students with the skill set to express their own thoughts, ideas, and emotions. Promoting avenues for self-expression is key to guiding students through a multitude of experiences in a healthy way. This is not only good for social-emotional development, but career development, as well: speaking skills, the very embodiment of effective self-expression, are desired by employers, but are not always taught in schools.

Final Thoughts

The growing emphases on SEL and the arts have come at a time when education is moving away from a traditional “one-size-fits-all” model or a focus only on academics, and embracing the need to support the whole child. By providing students with a platform to express themselves through a variety of arts-related activities and reflect on how their actions affect themselves and others, students are equipped with skills that will serve them well beyond the classroom.

About Kathy Wade


Kathy Wade is the CEO and co-founder of Learning Through Art, Inc. (LTA), the non-profit organization whose programs have impacted over one million participants by increasing opportunities for collaboration, arts education, artistic growth, community engagement, and economic development for the past 26 years. Kathy recently contributed a chapter to the book, Building People: Social-Emotional Learning for Kids, Families, Schools, and Communities. Follow Kathy and Learning Through Art on Twitter: @LTACincy 

The Ups and Downs of a Reading Life

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.

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.