Preparing to Teach in the Middle

Photo by Tim Wright on Unsplash

When I was a 5th- and 6th-grade classroom teacher, my lesson plans primarily consisted of the following: the learning objective and how I would assess student learning. Little time was spent thinking about strategies and practices that would guide students to new understanding.

As a principal for the last twelve years, I can see now how limiting this approach to lesson preparation was. Teachers are wise to spend the majority of their time planning instruction in-between the two.

During a recent classroom visit, a teacher was focused on debate skills and how to make a persuasive argument both in writing and verbally. There was a learning target posted and an assessment planned at the end, yet the majority of the time was spent in the middle of the lesson.

  • They connected this work to how an attorney might have to take on a case in which they disagreed philosophically with the position.
  • Clear criteria for success were provided, including steps they should follow to develop their position for the upcoming debate.
  • The teacher shared the stage with another student to demonstrate how a debate might proceed. They discussed what the student did well and aligned their thinking with the goal of the lesson.
  • Students were placed in groups based on the issue they would debate, such as cell phone use in school, and partnered with someone who had their same position (for or against).
  • The majority of the lesson was spent with students working with peers to collect evidence, outline their argument, and share their ideas. The teacher walked around and conferred with groups when support was needed.
  • They finished this lesson, a part of a larger unit on persuasive writing, by practicing their debate skills in front of peers. The teacher video recorded them. She would later share the footage with each student so they could self-assess their skills and compare to the success criteria.

If I went back into the classroom, learning targets and summative assessments would not be a priority. The messier process of teaching and learning, with all of the interactions that occur in the middle, would be my focus. If we can get that part right, the results will take care of themselves.

The Sometimes Unnecessariness of Technology

I enjoy watching baseball. In particular, I try to catch the Milwaukee Brewers when televised and I am free. There is so much strategy involved: When to hit away, when to steal a base, when to pitch inside. Every action has a potential impact on the final outcome.

Image Source: Wikipedia

Baseball is an imperfect game in which, like other sports, the participants are always striving for perfection. That includes the umpires. They are tasked with calling balls and strikes on pitches teetering toward 100 miles per hour. A split second is all they get to decide if a runner is safe or out. They don’t always get it right, but most of the time they do.

A recent wrinkle added to the game is instant replay. Managers can ask for one on a close play in the field. Calls can be reversed upon video review. I don’t mind this addition, as a baseball game is a series of stops and starts as it is. One more pause in the action isn’t going to hurt.

Where will technology’s influence creep next into baseball? From what I am reading: Automated strike zones. Computers already augment televised games with pitch-by-pitch graphics that show the exact location of each delivery from the pitcher. Commentators refer to this frequently when discussing the batter’s judgment or the pitcher’s ability to locate pitches. More accurate calls and less player-umpire arguments would be some of the benefits of this technology upgrade.

I am not convinced that this would be better for baseball. There is a type of balance achieved with an umpire behind the catcher as the pitcher and batter duel it out. Maybe it’s the simple presence of a triad surrounding home plate. Nature loves odd numbers. Also worth noting is the relationship between the catcher and the home plate umpire. They look out for each other, like when an errant foul ball strikes one of them in a vulnerable area of their body. Watch a game to see what I mean.

Education is feeling a similar push to digitize many aspects of the profession and process. Assessments such as reading screeners can be administered more quickly using computers. Students can submit work to their teacher with a click of a button. Some of the improvements, such as blogging and parent communication, are welcomed upgrades. They provide a broader audience and heighten home-school communications.

But adding technology for the sake of improving results and accuracy does not mean that the final outcomes are necessarily better. If going digital decreases the relationships between participants, what happens to engagement? If technology reduces the need for certain roles that add value beyond their basic job descriptions, how does the lost part affect that larger whole? I don’t have the answers. What I do know is when a technological innovation replaces human participation, the subsequent results cannot simply be measured in balls and strikes or multiple choice. We work in the people business.

Why I Dropped Out of My First MOOC

I am in the midst of final edits for my first eBook, to be released on July 31. After sending these to my editor, I realized that lately I have not completed any work for this Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) I enrolled in this summer. The topic of learning was teaching and assessment in the 21st century.

So why didn’t I complete it?

It was a lot of sit and get.

There were a series of videos for each of the five weeks (I got through the first three weeks). Each video ranged from seven to twenty minutes long, with five or more videos each week. While the content being shared was fine, I had a problem with the way it was delivered. It was just the two main professors, speaking to the text that was shown on the screen. I was wondering how this is any different that sitting in a lecture hall. This is not how I would choose to spend my summer.

The content lacked context.

This is unfortunate, because I felt the people who developed this course have some interesting thoughts on the topic of 21st century instruction. However, not at one time did we see a piece of student work nor students actually working. The best that was shared was listening to two high school students trying to collaboratively solve a computer-based story problem, which leads me to my next concern…

I felt there was an agenda.

I cannot verify this. But there were too many examples that led me to believe that a large standardized assessment organization was involved in this MOOC. The company’s name was referenced more than once. In addition, the collaborative problem solving example just mentioned distinctly resembled how new computer-based tests might look like next year. There was a whole lot of talk about assessment, but very little about teaching. The title of the course was misleading.

It lacked relevance.

I went back and forth about whether I should continue to stay active with this MOOC. What would I miss that others might gain? Would I be seen as another “MOOC dropout”? In the end, it came down to how ready I was (or wasn’t) to absorb this information, in addition to applying it to my current school context. I can see how collaborative problem solving in online spaces might be a part of the future of assessment. But we are not there yet. Are you?

This topic is not being discussed within my personal learning network.

I consider the educators I follow and connect with to be the most up-to-date learners. To my knowledge, they are not discussing on Twitter or Google+ how to best assess students as they collaborate with peers to solve contrived story problems with computer access only. My PLN is like a bellweather for me when it comes to issues I need to develop more awareness of.

So what has been your experience with MOOCs? Is it similar or different than mine? Should I give MOOCs another shot in the future? Feel free to share your thinking in the comments.

Why I Struggle with Data Walls

What is your opinion on data walls?

My perspective is that data walls have several limitations. First, data walls are usually comprised of mostly summative and formal assessment data. Conferring notes and other important pieces of qualitative student information often do not make it on the wall. I also struggle with the immobility of data walls. When expert teachers formatively assess their students, many times they make smart conclusions about their students’ needs during the flow of instruction. Teachers don’t then stop their teaching and say, “Hold on to that thought, because I need to move you along the data wall!” Responsive teachers use that information to alter their immediate instruction in order to provide their students with the best teaching possible. Thirdly, hosting data walls focuses an inordinate amount of attention on outcomes and not enough time on the thinking processes of students. Great teachers, in my humble opinion, try to climb inside their learners’ heads to find out what they know and are able to do. They then use this information to provide feedback. This helps their students generalize the strategies that will allow them to be self-directed learners.

This does not even consider the fact that much of our assessment data can now be housed digitally. Even conferring notes can be stored in applications like CCPensieve and Evernote. I don’t know, I could be way off base on this. My school have dabbled with student data walls in the past. They often only seem to heighten awareness of strengths and deficiencies, but rarely change practices. Maybe I have not used them with fidelity, or given them enough time to flourish. What has changed practices in my school is having a strong set of learning beliefs that everyone owns + systems in place (i.e. instructional walks) that hold ourselves accountable for implementing teaching strategies that work.

What is your experience and current position on data walls? Please share in the comments.

Assessing Engagement

This post on Stenhouse’s blog is a follow up to my initial offering, Increasing Engagement.  If you have a question, comment, or suggestion about this program, please share in the comments. I will respond.

Summer has arrived: Lockers have been cleared out, desks are empty, and report cards were sent home. While another school year comes to a close, ten reluctant readers are only continuing their learning.

Last fall, my school revamped our after school reading intervention program. Illustrated in our previous post, my staff and I designed a book club based on the tenets of Peter Johnston’s reflections from last summer, Reducing Instruction, Increasing Engagement. We transitioned from a computer-based reading program to an intervention that relied more on students’ interests than on their Lexiles.

Everything started strong. Kids came to book club eager to check out the new titles, selected just for them. The majority of the time was allocated to allowing students to read books, to talk about books, and to share what they read. The facilitator’s job was simply to spark their interest and gently guide.

For a while we had them – They were reading! However, interest gradually dissipated. Some students got off task. Others stopped showing up regularly. The perception was that this “book club” was just an extension of the school day. We had to rethink our approach.
We knew students were engaged by technology. But would purchasing tablets to promote reading provide too much of a distraction? We found our middle ground and purchased ten simple eReaders. These devices were unable to house games and other forms of digital media. Just books. While we waited for the eReaders to show up, students came down to my office in groups of twos and threes to request their favorite titles and authors. Once students had signed a contract and the books were loaded on the devices. we sent them on their way to read.

We quickly realized the benefits of offering eReaders to students:

  • They were more willing to pick books they could decode and understand. On one occasion, a 4th grade boy rattled off some grade level titles, then looked around and whispered, “Could I also get some Flat Stanley chapter books?” I replied, “Sure” without missing a beat. Unless his books could be hidden within an eReader, it was unlikely he would have been caught by his peers reading Flat Stanley and related titles.
  • The technology itself seemed to engage the students. I have never, as a teacher or as a principal, had students seek me out (repeatedly) to see if their new books were available and ready to read. Having kids peek their heads out of classrooms when they heard me walking the hall to ask when their books would be downloaded was a visible example of their engagement with reading.
  • The buy in from parents was impressive. One parent made a special trip to school to pick up her son’s eReader. A father, whose son was home sick on the last day and came to pick up his report card, made a point to share with me that “he has been reading on that thing every day”.

When we looked at our year-end assessments, the results were a mixed bag. Analyzing computer-based screener scores, on average our ten students’ overall literacy skills stayed the same. However, looking at district-developed assessments, the majority of the students (70%) met their grade level benchmark, and the other three students were very close. In addition, their average fluency rate increased by 27% (92 Words Correct Per Minute (WCPM) in the fall; 117 WCPM in the spring).

Beyond this promising quantitative data, did our students develop an affection toward reading? Do they better value the impact a narrative can have on a person’s life? We attempted to measure engagement with a survey given to the students themselves. They were asked specific questions about their reading dispositions and habits; you can view the results here. Here are the most revealing conclusions:

  • Students in book club read a lot more now than they did before joining book club.
  • The eReaders encouraged the students to read more.
  • Students understood what they read, whether in print or digital text format.
  • They often reread their favorite books.

These statements read like they belong in a resource titled “The Seven Habits of Highly Engaged Readers”. We hope these practices continue, as we sent them home with both print and digital texts to peruse over the summer months.

My teachers often state that teaching reading is not like baking a cake. Students aren’t “done” after a certain amount of time and attention. Maybe we should compare educators to gardeners instead of bakers; they plant the seeds for literacy engagement, to grow and eventually blossom. Readers are created over time and do not adhere to deadlines. Where learners are heading is as important as where they have been.

Should Kindergarten Teachers Use Guided Reading?

This is cross posted on the #kinderchat blog.

This question I pose is genuine. It is not rhetorical or just an attempt at an effective lead to draw in readers. In the midst of the Common Core, raised expectations and standardized assessments for five year olds, it is something worth pondering.

Besides being an elementary principal, I am also a parent of a kindergarten student. With that, this topic should be looked at from multiple perspectives within a school. (This is not necessarily my thinking, just what could reasonably be each position’s point of view.)

As a principal…I see the whole picture. I know students come in with various language abilities. Guided reading is an effective instructional strategy to accommodate every student’s needs.

As a parent…I want what’s best for my child. Is he/she getting what is needed to stay challenged? What should I be doing at home to support my child in reading?

As a kindergarten teacher…Each of my student’s skills and ability levels are so unique. And their specific needs within reading vary as well, like concept of print and phonemic awareness. With this many students, how can I use guided reading while keeping the rest of my class engaged in effective reading activities?

As an instructional coach or interventionist…Now that we are midway through the school year, how do we take the next step and differentiate for our students through practices such as guided reading? We have to meet a certain benchmark by the end of the year. I am not sure if we are going to make it.

The purpose of this post is only to explore this issue, maybe even start a conversation on the topic. To start, I need to digress and explore what guided reading is and isn’t. (This is probably more for me than anyone.)

Guided Reading Is Not Necessarily…

Small Group Instruction

Three or four students congregated around a teacher, sitting behind a bean-shaped table does not mean guided reading is occurring. Upon closer examination, it might be round robin reading (kids taking turns reading aloud a page). Unfortunately, the teacher is controlling the learning instead of the student.


Small Groups Always Reading the Same Book

I used this practice too often as an elementary teacher. Students worked with me based on their reading level. This is ability grouping, a practice that shouldn’t be used exclusively because the focus (in students’ minds, anyway) only seems to be on decoding. Students grouped in this way might also view themselves as either poor readers, or better readers than peers. Both mindsets are not healthy when developing life long learners.

Shared Read Aloud, Interactive Read Alouds

It is not guided reading when a teacher reads aloud the same text that every student has access to. Yes, the teacher is scaffolding for students by doing the decoding for them. But how does a teacher balance the need for student choice and engagement with structure and support?

What Guided Reading Is

Prepared, Thoughtful Instruction

Guided reading is defined as “the place where every child, every day, has the opportunity to learn by reading a book that is just right” (Fountas and Pinnell, 1996). It does involve small group instruction, but based on students’ needs, personal goals and interests. Only using a prescribed set of readers from a basal or anthology series does not take into account these elements, although it might make planning easier for the teacher. More time should be spent preparing for where both the teacher and student want to go, and selecting a just right text that will help get them there.


My teachers regularly enter independent reading levels for all of their students on a spreadsheet. Looking at most classrooms, I notice students at a wide range of levels rather than three to five convenient groupings. I would say this is most evident in primary level classrooms. This can make it difficult to facilitate guided reading in kindergarten as it is strictly prescribed. A few students at this age level require one-on-one support, others need an adult to touch base with them from time to time, while the rest of the class is somewhere in between.

Shared Assessment

Students need to be able to assess themselves as readers. One job of the teacher is to facilitate this process. Teacher talk that is observational and questioning can help students reflect on their efforts. Questions that focus on strengths as well as areas for improvement also blurs the lines between teacher and learner, as described by Peter Johnston in Knowing Literacy. “Children develop the criteria for evaluating their reading out of the conversations in which they are immersed” (Johnston, 1998). Anecdotal records and student portfolios can also provide more concrete evidence to measure growth in this process.

So, should kindergarten teachers use guided reading? Maybe a better question to ask is how we as teachers fulfill our role as a guide, which Merriam Webster defines as “one that leads or direct another’s way”.

Consider the following:

  • Do I know my students as readers? That is, am I aware of their interests, reading habits, background knowledge and aspirations?
  • Can I explain to a parent or colleague each of my student’s strengths and areas for growth?
  • When a student struggles to find his or her next book, am I able to pique their interest with other titles I think they will enjoy?
  • Do I regularly confer with my readers and keep anecdotal notes to plan for future instruction?
  • Are my students reading and writing at least 50% of the school day (Allington, 2002)?
  • When my students are reading independently, are they allowed to choose what they want to read?
  • Are the texts my students are reading at their level (Allington and Gabriel, 2012)?
  • Am I extending my students with text at their instructional level and guided support?
  • If our efforts result in students who develop a love for reading while making strong growth, then our guidance has been effective.


    Allington, Richard E. (2002). “What I’ve Learned About Effective Reading Instruction From a Decade of Studying Exemplary Elementary Classroom Teachers.” Phi Delta Kappan, 83(10).

    Allington, R.E. & Gabriel, R.E. (2012). “Every Child, Every Day”. Educational Leadership, 69(6).

    Fountas, I.C. & Pinnell, G.S. (1996). Guided Reading: Good First Teaching for All Children. Heinemann: Portsmouth, NH.

    Johnston, Peter H. (1997). Knowing Literacy: Constructive Literacy Assessment. Stenhouse: Portland, ME.

Feedback After an Evernote and iPad Workshop

I recently hosted a one hour technology session for district staff. The topic: Using Evernote on the iPad to Confer With and Assess Readers.

Afterward, I emailed each participant a survey via Google Forms to gather feedback. The last question I posed was, “What is one way you see using Evernote with the iPad in your current teaching position?” Here are their responses:

“I plan to have students read and record them, then play back. I am working on fluency with a lot of kids and I would like them to hear themselves. I’m not sure on the conferencing part/note taking yet, but we’ll see as I mess with it. With things like this I don’t make plans, I just jump in and see where it takes me.”

“I plan on recording students’ one minute reading fluency assessments and then embedding a picture of the actual passage they read with miscues and self-corrections marked. I am also going to take a pic of a page in their independent reading book and record them reading as part of my ‘running records on the fly'”

“I plan to record running records and allow students to hear themselves read, both immediately after reading and later on in the year (to show growth).”

“Photograph and save student work samples using hash tags so that I can easily access them later.”

“During running records: record students’ reading of the selection in order to score/check the record at a later time. This allows for me to focus on fluency during the assessment as well as have documentation of the students’ reading at that point in time.”

“I plan to use this when I conference with my students. It is my hope to try this today!”

“I could see myself taking a picture of what a student is working on and sharing it with the classroom teacher.”

“In Reading Intervention, I could record a students’ reading of a passage and replay it for them to hear. Together we could discuss strengths and weaknesses and set goals for improvement.”

“I plan to use Evernote by making notes as I meet with students during guided reading groups. Each group is reading a different book that they were able to choose. I will use it to create a notebook for each group. – Jot down their predictions and record audio of students reading and/or our group discussions at the end of each chapter.”

“I don’t have my own iPad, so I don’t see myself continuing with this. Maybe having your own iPad should be a requirement for this course.”

“I find this to be effective for my guided reading. I can keep all of my notes together instead of having a post-it here and a post-it there. I can view my notes from home too without having to bring my notes home with me.”

“I started using Evernote the next day. I took pictures of student tradition writing and them recorded their voice reading it. Next I am going to use volunteers to display on reflection and go through the process of editing on the SMARTboard.”

I am scheduled to run this workshop again for Central Wisconsin reading teachers in January. This information is invaluable to me as I think about how I will change my instruction to better meet the needs of the participants.