My First Favourite Year

By Allyson Matczuk, 2018 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

As the school year moves into first term, I have been thinking about my all time favourite year of teaching.  Over coffee with a couple of close colleagues it all came back and I felt that pleasant rush of excitement as I walked home later.
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We had a district early years team with one or two reps from each school.  The meetings rotated from school to school and were held after school hours with a pizza dinner served. Even though I had four children at home, my husband was accommodating enough to take over and give me that one evening a month free to indulge my appetite for all things “teaching”. Our early years team got to visit each other’s teaching environments and every meeting opened with a little “tour” of the classroom we were meeting in.  While the equipment and the organization of the room was always of interest, the ‘why’ of the room looked as it did was a richer conversation.  We all had the “same stuff” but how it was used and why we had made the decisions we had was fascinating.  We found that we were able to personalize our contexts so that others could understand that what mattered about the experiences we created for the individual children we worked with.  The team from my school consisted of myself and my teaching colleague.  We carried the things we had discussed at the team meetings back to our own school where we couldn’t stop talking about the possibilities.  It led us to arrange to do recess supervision together — twice the amount of time on the playground but also twice as much time to talk with each other and with the children.  We found that our plans about how to implement the curriculum were coming from what we knew about our context… our students.

In a radical move, we proposed a change to the principal.  We would combine our classes and our classrooms and teach together. My classroom was a blended first- and second-grade and my partner’s was a blended second- and third-grade class. We were convinced that we would more than double our enthusiasm for teaching and not double the duties each of us had.  Much to our shock, he agreed and the next year we were a team with open doors between our adjoining classrooms.  The next year was my first “favorite-year-of-all-time”.

During that “favorite year” one girl in first grade stands out.  Within the first day or two of school she informally demonstrated she could tell tall tales better than anyone…ever! Rather than stifling her enthusiasm for story-telling by suggesting she was making things up and grumbling about her sense of honesty, my teaching partner and I embraced her skill and built our plans around it. The year revolved around stories of tall tales, legends, and fantasies.  By contrasting them with narrative non-fiction and informational texts, the students learned to distinguish reality from make-believe and everyone had a favorite they liked to think and talk about. They may have been in grade one, but they had taught each other about genre. We all were fanatical about reading and writing in different genres and trying new ways on for size. First grade students were able to classify the little stories they heard, wrote and read.  The older students motivated the younger ones to read more, to listen more, to write more, and to find others who enjoyed the same types of text as they did or suggest different texts to each other. All the while, they were all having fun and the amount of time-on-task was amazing!

As we welcome new students into our schools, I wonder how much we still are able to do that.  Are we able to wrap experiences around the students? Do we greet the new immigrant student, or a student whose home life has changed, or a student who has just moved across the country, or a student who is differently abled with the same respect for their individuality, their diversity and their hidden expertise as my partner and I did with the students in my first favorite year of teaching?

As P. David Pearson says, “Children are who they are.  They know what they know. They bring what they bring. Our job is not to wish our students knew more or knew differently. Our job is to turn each student’s knowledge and diversity of knowledge we encounter into a curricular strength rather than an instructional inconvenience.  We can do that only if we hold high expectations for all students, convey great respect for the knowledge and culture they bring to the classroom, and offer lots of support in helping them achieve those expectations.”  I’ve had other favorite years since, but I’ve learned that harnessing the power of diversity makes teaching my “favorite” thing to do!

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Research Says Celebrate Invented Spelling in Beginning Readers

By J. Richard Gentry PhD, 2018 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

Can you read this story written by an end-of-year kindergartner?

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When I see a beginning writer’s story with invented spelling like this, I know it’s time to cheer. This child is well on the way to reading success. Research in a number of studies from Canadian cognitive psychologists Gene Ouellette and Monique Sénéchal has convincingly championed the positive outcomes of invented spelling showcasing the writing/reading connection. They undergird their research with two long-standing independent lines of research: 1) research in tracking developmental phases of word reading (Ehri, 2000) and 2) research in developmental phases of spelling (Gentry, 2000). In a carefully crafted longitudinal study Ouellette and Sénéchal (2017) followed over 170 kindergarten writers from kindergarten to the end of first grade and found invented spelling to be “a unique predictor of growth in early reading skills.” Far from being nonacademic, harmful to traditional values, or a deterrent to conventional spelling they found use of invented spelling to be a boon to learning to read, phonemic awareness, and learning the alphabetic principle.

This study and others including neuro-imaging studies are helping map the beginning pathway to successful reading with a powerful observational tool called phase observation. It’s based on my many years of research on phases of developmental spelling which perfectly align with Linnea Ehri’s remarkable contribution in a separate line of research based on phases of word reading.

The Gentry phases and Ehri phases are essentially one and the same—or two sides of the same coin representing observable outcomes of the developing architecture of the reading brain’s word form area. Remarkably, neuro-scientific imaging demonstrates the development of this critical part of the proficient reader’s brain from non-existence in Phase 0 non-readers and writers to its presence in the brains of proficient end-of-first grade readers and writers (Gentry & Ouellette, in press).

Today, exemplary kindergarten teachers across the nation and cutting edge staff development resources such as the New York City Department of Education Framework for Early Literacy: Grades Pre-Kindergarten—2 (NYCDOE, 2018) tout phase observation and use of the Gentry developmental spelling phases and Ehri word reading phases as important for promoting early literacy development.

How Phase Observation Works

Here’s a Close Look Writing Assessment (adapted from Feldgus, Cardonick, & Gentry, 2017) of the “Earth Quakes” story. If we analyze each invented spelling we get a measure of what phase the kindergartener is in from this small sample.

You can analyze each invented spelling using this guide:

Mark each invented spelling as Phase 3 if it has a letter for each sound.
Mark each invented spelling as Phase 4 if it has logical phonics patterns consolidated into chunks. (There are no Phase 0-2 spellings.)

Invented Spelling

Phase

Phase Strategy

Rth (earth) Phase 3 r for the r-controlled vowel; he knows the digraph th.
qhaks (quakes) Phase 3 qh for /kw/, afor /ā/, k for /k/, and s for /s/
log (long) Phase 3 l for /l/, o for /ä/ and typical omission of a preconsonantal nasal before g
tim (time) Phase 3 t for /t/, i for /ī/, and m for /m/
mac (make) Phase 3 m for /m/, afor /ā/, and kfor /k/
kel (kill) Phase 3 k for /k/, i for /ě/, l for /l/
pepl (people) Phase 3 p for /p/, e for /ē/, p for /p/, and l for /l/
Sanfrinsiskou (San Francisco) Phase 4 syllablechunks for san-frin-sis-kou
hapin (happen) Phase 4 Syllable chunks for hap-in

There is a lot to celebrate here! What immediately jumps out is that this writer is advanced for kindergarten and making progress for becoming a proficient reader. He is likely moving from Phase 3 into Phase 4 as both a writer and a reader. While celebrating his meaning making and other strengths, this sample helps us target instruction for CVC short vowels, the long vowel CVCe pattern, digraphs qu and ng, and eventually r-controlled syllables and the idea that every syllable needs a vowel.

We can celebrate when science confirms discovery of best classroom practices for beginning reading teachers. Over three decades ago Marie Clay, the revered world-renowned, late, theorist and founder of Reading Recovery called for educators and scientists to capitalize on the early writing/reading connection. “It is probable,” she wrote, “that early writing serves to organize the visual analysis for print, and to strengthen important memoric strategies. The child’s written work also provides us with objective evidence of what the child has learned.” (Clay, 1982, p. 210) Today, Clay’s hopeful prognosis has revealed itself in phase observation. Let’s use invented spelling to set beginning readers on a pathway to conventional spelling and better end-of-first-grade reading scores. Science has spoken!

References

Clay, M. M. (1982). Observing young readers. London: Heinemann Educational Books.

Ehri, L. C. (2000). Learning to read and learning to spell: Two sides of a coin.” Topics in Language Disorder, 20, 19-36.

Feldgus, E., Cardonick, I. & Gentry, R. (2017). Kid writing in the 21st century. Los Angeles, CA: Hameray Publishing Group.

Gentry, J. R. (2000). A retrospective on invented spelling and a look forward, The Reading Teacher, 54(3), 318-332.

Gentry, J. R. & Ouellette, G. (in press). Brain words: How the science of reading informs teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publishers.

Ouelette, G. & Sénéchal, M. (2017). Invented spelling in kindergarten as a predictor of reading and spelling in grade 1: A new Pathway to literacy, or just the same road, less known? Developmental Psychology, 53(1), 77– 88. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dev0000179

New York City Department of Education. (2018). Pre-K—2 Framework for early literacy. New York City: NYCDOE Publication.

 

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Making Space for Play: Tapping into Children’s Play Personalities

LFA2018-Christine-HertzBy Christine Hertz, 2018 Literacy for All Featured Speaker 

Teaching children to read, write, spell, communicate and think critically is challenging work, but it is doesn’t have to be serious work. Teaching and childhood are messy, unpredictable, complex, and inherently steeped in curiosity, wonder and joy. As literacy teachers, we can get caught up in planning responsive lessons, delivering rich instruction and meeting benchmarks. Sometimes, we get so caught up that we temporarily lose sight of the children that are right in front of us.

Last year, while teaching a group of first graders a word study lesson on the silent e rule, I watched as a child carefully placed the letters T-A-P-E on the magnetic board in front of her. Next, she picked up her magnetic E and twirled it through the air. She leaned in close to the rest of the word and then pretended that the E was whispering to the magnetic A. A big part of me wanted to say, “Just go ahead and make the word, please.” But instead I, too, leaned in close and asked, “What’s that E saying to the A?” She looked up at me and said very slowly, “Time to be lonnnng.” We both cracked up. In just the first few minutes of the lesson she had invented a playful narrative that helped her remember the spelling pattern and cultivate tiny moments of joy and spark in her learning.

Stuart Brown, author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul writes, “Play seems to be one of the most advanced methods nature has invented to allow a complex brain to invent itself.” Brown has found that there are very distinct ways people like to play.  He calls them play personalities. Identifying your students’ play personalities (or having them identify their own) is as simple as identifying the things that bring them the most pleasure, when they seem to lose time, and they can feel their creative juices flowing. Knowing your students’ play personalities can help you empathize with their very powerful human drive to play. They need play to feel happy, safe, and challenged– to feel like they belong.

Here are Brown’s eight play personalities and some ideas for incorporating them into your classroom:

Stuart Brown’s Play Personalities In the Classroom
Joker: The Joker loves to make people laugh. Their play “always revolves around some kind of nonsense.” (66) Find opportunities to give the jokers in your class time to make you all laugh. You could offer “open mic” moments in morning meeting, ask for silly sound effects during a read aloud, and provide unstructured times when jokers can entertain, laugh and be silly.
Kinesthete: This player “find themselves happiest moving.” (66) This isn’t just athletes, either, this can be the person who thinks best when walking. Incorporate a love of movement into the day with dance, yoga, flexible seating options and plenty of space for big movement. You might offer your writers a quick walk to generate ideas or weave whole-body movements into read alouds or shared reading.
Explorer: The explorer loves discovering new things: mental, physical, and emotional.(67)

 

Engage with your students over a shared sense of wonder. Incorporate opportunities for inquiry and exploring the community into their learning. Offer as much student-driven choice in reading and writing workshop as possible. Teach strategies for reflection to celebrate moments of learning and discovery.
Competitor: This player loves to turn everything into a game, and to win! (67)

 

Tap into the competitor’s love of challenge and drive to win by creating a game out of even the most unremarkable tasks, strategizing about what reading and writing moves would be most effective, and (always) encouraging good sportsmanship. You could also have them help organize a March Madness of favorite books or a class story slam.
Director: “Directors enjoy planning and executing scenes and events.” (67) Use the director’s love of organizing and planning to help orchestrate special events, units, and experiences for your class. You might have your directors plan end-of-unit celebrations, class bulletin boards, student-led book clubs, or open house events for families.
Collector: The collector enjoys the act of gathering, collating, organizing, and admiring objects and experiences. (68) Focus this passion for collecting on your classroom community. Have students document the year in photographs, curate a treasury of beloved stories, and keep portfolios of their work. You might have them use apps such as SeeSaw to digitally collect memories of the year or put them in charge of curating a shelf of the class’ favorite books or books that align to current units of study.
Artist/Creator For the artist, “joy is found in making things.” (68) Carve out time to make things not just for but with your students. You might have your students co-construct bulletin boards and charts or experiment with different genres of writing and ways to express their ideas.  You could even teach your students new art habits and practices (or have them teach the class!) just like you would writing lessons or reading strategies.
Storyteller:

 

The storyteller uses their imagination in all things, and also loves reading and watching movies. (69) Leverage the love of story to bring play and imagination into every area of the day. Invite storytellers to retell inspiring moments from the classroom or beloved stories and use their imaginations to inspire fellow writers. You might help them remember strategies and skills by incorporating little stories into your lessons.

As the new year begins and you start to get to know your students, take the time to investigate their play personalities. Chances are each individual student is a combination of the personalities listed above. If your goal is to make our lessons as engaging and as successful as possible, play is the perfect means to do so. Brown writes, “Play is like fertilizer for brain growth. It’s crazy not to use it.”

If you’re interested in more ways to incorporate play and child-centered teaching into your practice, check out my new book with Kristi Mraz, Kids First From Day One, and Kristi’s book, Purposeful Play, co-authored with Cheryl Tyler and Alison Porcelli.

Here’s to a school year filled with joy, wonder & play!


Brown, Stuart and Vaughan. Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. Penguin Group/ New York (2010)

Purposeful Pedagogy Creates Joyful and Independent Readers

By Lindsey Moses, 2018 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker 

LFA2018-Lindsey-MosesIn the current state of accountability measures, it is sometimes hard not to get bogged down with what feels like a long checklist of requirements and things that need to get accomplished. While this reality is inescapable, some of the strongest teachers with whom I am lucky collaborate have shifted their thinking from “I can’t get to the instruction I know my kids need because of…..” to “How can I prioritize what I know my students need in my current context?” One of the best ways to do this is developing purposeful independent learning experiences that are representative of real-world reading practices. This is often where teachers have the most freedom in their instruction.

In a typical reading workshop model, approximately 50% of students’ literacy experiences are spent without direct support of the teacher (this is often referred to as independent and/or partner work). The options for this time are endless, but when planning these experiences, I always ask myself, “What do I want my readers to do/know/experience?” and “What purpose does this serve in their reading lives?” Years ago, these questions helped me shift my thinking about independent work experiences. The answer to these questions for me (regardless of grade level) is that I want my readers to read, to love reading, to share reading experiences with others, and to explore, question, learn and grow through experiences with texts. I think the purpose of these goals serves to create life-long readers and inquirers. Purposeful pedagogy helps us work toward that goal.

What does purposeful pedagogy look like in practice?

I spent a couple of years researching and learning alongside an amazing first-grade teacher, Meridith Ogden. When we first started working together, she identified pedagogical goals related to her literacy instruction. Together we developed instructional ideas and a plan for how we would address and research the progress toward these goals. The goals were (1) to have students develop a love of reading; (2) to have students understand that the ultimate goal of reading is to construct meaning; (3) to have students independently applying comprehension skills across a wide variety of texts; and (4) to engage students in meaningful discussions about literature with interpretive responses. Our instructional plans for addressing these goals involved whole-group, small-group, and conferring practices. However, we decided to really focus on supporting those goals and students’ reading experiences by enhancing the purpose and meaning during the independent work time of the reading workshop.

As we discussed how to maximize independent workshop time to meet our goals, we reflected on what we believed was most important. We agreed that we wanted to prioritize engaged reading and talking about reading. So, we did. Kids had choice independent reading and partner reading and talking EVERY DAY! We began thinking about purposeful learning experiences to foster independence, and we removed any “activities” that were not things that real readers do. Here are some ways to think about what purposeful learning experiences are not and what they could be:

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Table from What are the Rest of my Kids Doing? Fostering Independence in the K-2 Reading Workshop (Moses & Ogden, 2017).

We just kept going back to…what is the purpose of this learning experience? If it didn’t serve the most essential purposes, then we tossed it out. We didn’t have enough time for busy work, worksheets, or meaningless activities (we also just don’t want these to be part of our practice). These types of activities often keep children quiet, but quiet means compliant- it is NOT a measure of literacy learning and development. One of my favorite end-of-year quotes from an interview with a first grader was, “We’re a little loud. That’s because we like to read!” Part of our purpose involved creating a community of readers who read, shared, and talked about texts with peers.

Below is a model we designed to support purposeful independent learning experiences.

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We start with establishing routines that help students shop for books they love and are able to engage with during independent reading. This takes time, getting to know kids and their interests, as well as books that are a good fit. We also focus on establishing routines for what we do during independent reading and why- all of this is grounded in what real readers do. We modeled how we shop for books (browsing, looking at the cover, reading a few pages, getting recommendations from friends, etc.). Next, we introduced strategies that would help students be able to read independently and with partners (both fix-up and comprehension). Students could use these strategies as a response opportunity to document their thinking and prepare for discussions with partners or discussion groups. While reading informational texts, students had the same option for documenting strategy use in preparation for conversations, but they also had the opportunity to design their own inquiry projects based on a topic of interest. Finally, we move to collaborative “independent” experiences. We believe there is nothing more powerful than young readers being able to independently collaborate with partners and small groups of peers. We build on the routines, strategies, and response opportunities to prepare them for meaningful engagement with reading and their community of readers.

For us, the key is purposeful pedagogy. We design and support independent learning experiences with a clear purpose that mirror the real work and social interactions of readers. Yes, it is a little noisier and messier than traditional independent seat work, but it is worth it because it allows young readers to develop a love of, connection to, and confidence in reading.

Are We Opening the Door Wide Enough for Our Readers?

By Vicki Vinton, 2018 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker 

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LFA2018-Vicki-VIntonRecently, I’ve been starting PD sessions by asking teachers to engage in what Harvard’s Project Zero calls a “chalk talk.”  A chalk talk asks participants to consider a question then silently write down their ideas about it, without talking to each other. Then once they’ve gotten their own ideas down, they’re invited to respond to others—again, without any talking.

As you can see, the question I ask is “What do you think are the ‘right reasons’ to teach reading?” And to spark their thinking, I share this passage from Vicki Spandel’s preface to The 9 Rights of Every Writers, where she lays out what she believes are the “right reasons” to write:

Our reason is not—or at least it should not be—to help students meet the standards we set…[Instead] I believe the most worthwhile goals of writing are: writing to think, to move another person, to create something that will be remembered, to find the most salient personal topics that will weave a common thread through virtually all the writing text in one’s life, to develop a unique personal voice with which one feels at home, to develop and maintain a spirit of unrelenting curiosity that drives the writing forward.”

 Every time I ask teachers to do this, they come up with many worthwhile and meaningful reasons to teach reading:

  • To become a more empathetic human being
  • To acknowledge the complexity of human experience
  • To help us understand how we fit into our world
  • To feel more understood and accepted
  • To not be satisfied with the status quo

Yet often, in their classrooms, these same teachers spend much of their time teaching discrete skills, standards and strategies that, in and of themselves, may never touch on these deeper reasons for reading. To be clear, this isn’t always the fault of teachers. Many schools use packaged or scripted programs, which they require teachers to implement “with fidelity,” and the lessons in those programs are mostly framed around discrete strategies, standards and skills. And in schools that aren’t using packaged material, teachers are often expected to write a specific outcome in the classroom each day—often presented as an “I can” or “Students will be able to” (SWBAT) statement—and then assess who’s met the outcome, or not, by the end of the period.

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Inevitably, what this does is narrow the door for readers in a way that can give them a warped view of reading—and it prevents us from seeing all they might be capable of. To see what I mean, let’s imagine two groups of students both reading the following passage from Patricia Reilly Griff’s Fish Face, which is a Fountas & Pinnell level M book. One group is being asked to identifying character traits, a commonly taught skill, while the other is reading the passage more holistically to consider what it might mean in a broader way.

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When asked to identify each character’s trait, many students will read this passage and conclude that Emily is nice, friendly or kind and that Dawn is shy. In each case, they’d be able to support these conclusions with evidence from the text: Emily is nice because she wants the new girl to sit next to her and says friendly things, like “You have a pretty name,” while Dawn is shy because she’s a new girl and doesn’t always respond to Emily. They might meet the outcome on the board by doing this, but they’d be missing a lot. I’ve seen many, for instance, who miss the fact that Emily has lied to Dawn because, having already identified a trait, they think their work is finished. And by missing that, they also miss the chance to engage in meaningful reasons to read: to realize how complex people are.

Now, let’s see what can happen if we opened the door wider and set the task, not on practicing a skill, but on exploring what the writer might be trying to show her readers. And let’s say we do this in a way that encourages students, not to rush to make claims, but to consider multiple possibilities. Those students might think that Emily could be nice, kind and friendly and also envious, while Dawn might be shy but also mean or snooty. Many might also consider that envy could lead to lying, which would help them understand that people are complex—and might make feel understood and empathetic.

So how do we open the door wider to give students more room to engage in deeper thinking and reap the real benefits of reading?

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Shift from Answers to Thinking

While standardized tests are all about answers, reading is an act of meaning making, and the first thing we need to do is shift our focus from looking for answers to thinking. To do that, we need to be, as Walt Whitman once said, “curious, not judgmental.” That means not hopscotching from student to student until we get the answer we’re seeking, but accepting a wide a range of thinking—not to debate, but to consider. It also means honoring provisional thinking, which uses words like might, couldandmaybe. After all, the only way to really know what’s going on with the characters in Fish Face is to suspend judgment and keep on reading with these possibilities in mind, revising your ideas as you go.

Use Kid-Friendly Language

 I’m often in schools that want teachers and students to use academic language because, after all, they’re in school and that language will be on the tests. Much of that language, though, consists of abstract words connected to abstract concepts, like theme, and while we can teach students to use this language, it doesn’t mean they really understand it.

Take, for instance, the small group of fourth graders I used the Fish Face passage with. Like our second group, they inferred up a storm, though they hadn’t explicitly been asked to. After they’d shared their thinking, though, I asked them—in front of all the fourth grade teachers—if they knew what the word inferringmeant. To their teachers’ dismay, some said they’d never heard it before, while others said they’d heard it, but couldn’t remember what it meant. But finally, a boy said he knew what it meant: reading between the lines.

Of course, that definition is abstract as well. So to help them see what inferring meant, I named for them what they’d done: they’d added up small details in the story to figure something out the writer hadn’t said directly. And to make that even more concrete, I took one of the inferences they’d made and wrote it out as an equation:

Dawn had curly hair and ladybug earrings

+ Emily had straight hair and no earrings

+ Emily wanted earrings (“She flicked at her ears” and has begged her mother)

Emily is envious of Dawn

“Ah,” they all said, now they got it. What they needed was an experience and a concrete example drawn from their own thinking to attach the abstract word to.

Trust the Process

In our current climate of teacher evaluations, accountability measures and mandates, trust is often in short supply. And I’m aware that some teachers are afraid that, if they open the reading door wider, they’ll be seen as not doing their job.

I’m reminded, though, again of something else Vicki Spandel says about writing:

The problem with standards is not that they aim to high but that often they do not lift us up nearly enough. The great irony is that when we teach writing for the right reasons. . . the little things tend to fall into place anyway. . . What’s more, the writer learns to care about such things, not because we said we said she should, but because they took her to a place where her writing became powerful.

 When we open the door wide enough for students to engage in real meaning making—which involves continually revising your thinking and considering multiple possibilities—the strategies and skills we can belabor often seem to magically appear. Like the fourth graders, students reading for meaning often infer at higher level than students who are charged with practicing a skill. Also, the claims students reading for meaning make tend to be more nuanced and complex than those of students reading to identify a trait. And when it comes to standardized tests, they’ll be ahead of the game. Instead of starting to think once they’ve read the passage and get to the questions, they’ll be thinking from the very first sentence.

Finally, when we open the door wider, we create enough space for students to feel the power of reading to help them better understand themselves, other people and the world around them. And if those chalk talks are any indication, that’s just what we want to happen.

 

References

Spandel, Vicki. 2005. The 9 Rights of Every Readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Giff, Patricia Reilly. 1984. Fish Face. New York: Random House Children’s Books.

 

Teach Social-Emotional Skills through Literacy Workshop

by Mike Anderson, 2018 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker
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Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a hot topic in schools right now—as it should be. It’s increasingly clear that social and emotional skills are the keys to the kingdom—it’s the skill set that employers are seeking—the skill set that’s less likely to be outsourced or automated as our economy continues to shift. Perhaps most importantly, strong SEL skills are correlated with many measures of life-long health and happiness including lower rates of criminal activity and substance abuse and better mental health.

As I work in schools across the US, I hear a common and troubling refrain: more kids are coming to school less school-ready than ever before. Children have a hard time listening to others, making appropriate eye contact, participating in group activities, taking turns, sharing, showing empathy, and making responsible decisions. Many theories are posited by teachers. Parents rely on devices to calm/regulate young children, so they don’t know how to function without a phone or tablet in their hands. Parents themselves may lack key social and emotional skills. In some communities, there are a growing number of children coming from homes where opioids and other drugs are used.

Regardless of the reasons, it’s pretty clear that just as SEL skills are becoming even more important, many children seem to be lacking a solid foundation in these skills. To compound this challenge, teachers are already overwhelmed with all that we have to teach. Many schools are attempting to address the need to teach SEL skills by adopting programs and curricula that emphasize the teaching of SEL skills as an add-on—specific stand-alone lessons and activities to be delivered in addition to academic work. For teachers who are already swamped with too much to teach in not enough time, these boxed curricula can feel burdensome and overwhelming, especially when the required lessons don’t even align with the actual skills needed with a particular group of students!

Wouldn’t it be great if the teaching of social, emotional, and academic skills could somehow come together? What of there was a way to teach these skills as a part of daily academic work instead of on the side?

For those of us who use reading and writing workshops to teach literacy, we’ve already got (at least part of) the answer! There are tons of SEL skills that need to be taught for kids to be successful readers and writers. These are the very skills that they need to learn to be successful throughout school and beyond, and, these are the same skills needed to be successful in most literacy standards! Check out the chart below for a few examples of the overlaps between literacy skills (drawn from Common Core ELA standards), SEL skills, and structures commonly used in literacy workshops.

Literacy Skills SEL Skills Workshop Connections
  •  Read widely and deeply; devote significant time and effort to writing
  •  Focus, attention
  • Self-regulation
  • Setting and working toward goals
  • Building independent reading and writing stamina
  • Choosing just-right books and writing topics of interest
  • Explain the relationships/interactions between individuals in a text
  •  Social awareness
  • Perspective taking
  • Effective communication
  • Book group discussion
  • Reading conference
  • Read prose and poetry orally with accuracy, appropriate rate, and expression
  • Self-awareness
  • Social awareness
  • Reading conference
  • Writing share
  • With guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing
  • Active listening
  • Growth mindset
  • Seeking and offering help
  • Manage stress
  • Perseverance
  • Writing conference
  • Revision/editing
  • Engage in collaborative discussions with diverse partners
  • Empathy
  • Follow social and ethical norms for behavior
  • Control impulses
  • Book group discussion
  • Reading and writing workshops
  • Whole group discussions

A Few Starting Places

Once you start seeing the connections between literacy skills, SEL skills, and the structures of reading and writing workshop, you’ll be amazed at how many start to become obvious. This is both exciting and overwhelming. If every component of reading and writing workshop involves SEL skills that need to be taught (which is true), and if many literacy standards involve SEL skills to be learned (as indeed many do), and if all students need support in SEL skills (and they do), where do you start?

Weave Small Moments of SEL Teaching into Existing Lessons

Each time you’re about to teach a literacy lesson, whether it’s a whole class lesson, a small group strategy session, or a one-on-one conference, consider social or emotional skills that might be involved. Could students use some advice about how to position their bodies effectively for a writing conference? Might they generate some suggestions for how to regain focus on reading after you’ve been distracted? Would some modeling help students better understand how to ask supportive and constructive questions to help push each other’s writing? Here’s a video of a quick discussion I facilitated with a group of third graders as they were about to engage in a series of partner chats to discuss a book they had read. Notice that this is a simple small moment of teaching—something that could easily be incorporated right into many literacy lessons that you already teach.  

Explore SEL Skills in Literacy Standards

This is an activity you might try on your own, with a small group of colleagues (perhaps as a PLC or grade level team), or even with a whole staff at a faculty meeting. First, choose a set of SEL skills or competencies to use. If your district hasn’t already adopted one, you might use the CASEL framework. Another great one is the Habits of Mind. Next, look through your literacy standards or curricula. Make connections between the two. Which SEL skills are required for students to be effective readers and writers? Which literacy skills and structures are great ways to practice the SEL skills kids need to learn? For a more complete write-up of this activity, check out this blog post.

Brainstorm SEL Skills Needed for Structures of Literacy Workshop

This is an activity I tried one summer while teaching a course through the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institutes. We brainstormed common structures used in reading and writing workshop—ones like sustained independent reading/writing, peer and teacher conferences, book groups, read-alouds, whole class lessons, strategy groups, etc. Then, we generated a list of the SEL skills students needed in order to participate effectively in each structure. For example, in order to have good reading conferences, students needed to know how to sit facing their partner, how to make eye contact, how to ask interesting questions, and how to share about a book in a concise way, just to name a few. These lists that we created provided a great starting point for everyone as they considered what to teach, especially at the beginning of the year when setting up these structures.

These are, of course, just a few ideas, but hopefully they’re enough to get you started. I think one more point should be made. Sometimes, teachers worry that they don’t have enough time to teach students social and emotional skills when they already have so many academic ones to teach. The more you explore the integration of SEL in literacy workshop, the more it becomes apparent that SEL skills areacademic. Many are built right into our academic standards and many more are required to participate effectively as a reader and writer in school every day. In the end, I think it’s fair to argue that we don’t have time not to teach social and emotional skills as a part of everyday literacy instruction!

The Importance of Doing the Laundry: Maintenance Matters

by Kate Roberts, 2017 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

A little while ago, I attended a keynote on the importance of innovation in our schools, classrooms, and nation. It was a rousing speech, and I agreed with all of it. Of course, we need fresh, inspiring ideas to help solve some of our most pernicious problems in education. Of course, we want educators who are able to think in new and creative ways about how to best reach and raise our children. I left energized and rearing to go.

Kate RobertsAs I began to implement these innovative ideas, I hit wall after wall of reality. I didn’t have the resources I needed. I didn’t have the experience to truly teach or guide the new ideas I had, so that when my students had trouble, I was not sure where to go. I still had my old, “un-innovative” curriculum to contend with, plus the assessments that seem unmovable, plus the grading system of my school. My foray into innovation gave me a few days of shiny new practices, but they soon gave way to the gravitational pull of normal.

I was tempted to say, “This just doesn’t work.” (Ok, I did say it.)

I was wrong and, at the same time, right. Many innovative ideas can work – as long as we are able and supported in devoting great amounts of labor to them for the long haul.

Innovation needs maintenance. So does normalcy. In fact, without maintenance, the whole thing (our classrooms, our homes, our world) just falls apart. But there are few keynotes given or books written in praise of the need to carry on and keep things going. There are few PD sessions on the power of grinding away at the same old stuff making sure things are working well enough.

But there should be.

In their Aeon article “Hail the Maintainers,” Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel make a case for the importance of supporting the maintainers in any profession. From the fall of the Iron Curtain to the inequity arising out of Silicon Valley, they point out that while novel ideas are integral to our evolution, these ideas wind up really taking on a very small percentage of the actual work.

Russell and Vinsel argue that the hard (and mundane) work of maintenance opens up the space for innovation to exist:

“…focusing on infrastructure or on old, existing things rather than novel ones reminds us of the absolute centrality of the work that goes into keeping the entire world going. Despite recurring fantasies about the end of work or the automation of everything, the central fact of our industrial civilization is labour, and most of this work falls far outside the realm of innovation.”

I would argue we do not spend enough time talking about and celebrating the labor of teachers – all the maintenance it takes to get great and innovative ideas up off of the ground and into the world. And we do not spend enough time helping each other to find sustainable ways to practice that maintenance and keep it going.

If innovation requires the essential and mundane work of maintenance, we must carve out ways to support and nurture this unglamorous work. Here are a few ways that we can support the maintenance that takes innovation going:

  1. Consider the systems and structures first.

When an innovative idea comes along, create systems in your classroom to maintain and support that idea, keeping it accountable for you and your students. For example, you go to a workshop on student blogging and expanding their intellectual social network. Great idea. Now, how much class time per week will you devote to this practice and when will that happen? Wednesdays for 20 minutes? Every Friday? Without repetition, innovative ideas will stay flashes in the pan.

Next, ask yourself, where will they do this work? What platform will they use and how will you make sure your kids know how to use it.

Finally, what is the expectation for the outcome? How will you hold them accountable?

When creating a system to maintain innovation, lean on the building blocks of reality:

TIME: When will students practice this innovation and how will they be         reminded?

SPACE: Where will students practice this innovation and how will you know?

MATTER:  (Ok, this is a stretch in the science metaphor) How will the work    take shape, as in, what is the accountable expectation in your classroom.

Without these systems in place, any new idea will be a flash of something promising, yet struggle to take root.

  1. Listen when it feels like too much work.

If you are listening to a speaker or reading a book and begin to feel overwhelmed (like, what is being presented is way too much work for you to actually get up and going), then, honestly, it probably is, at least completely. The answer to innovation cannot be that teachers just take on more and more work into infinity. And yet that is often the implied suggestion behind every professional development session, every new idea, every exhortation to “lift the level of …”

I am not suggesting that you shut down when things feel like too much work. But when you feel like you cannot do it, I am suggesting that you pause, step back, and realize that you will not be able to get everything in place – at least not right now. Ask yourself, “which part of this do I feel like I can tackle right now? Which part feels like it will take some work, but not so much work that my sliver of work/life balance won’t be obliterated?”

This way, you can begin.

  1. Focus on what matters and be willing to let go of the rest.

Innovative ideas can often come packaged in ideals. And yet, as often quoted, perfect is very much the enemy of the good. We can strive to always ask ourselves, “what is truly important about this work? What is the heart of it? Often, when we name what the most important work is, it helps us to set priorities or to simplify the work ahead of us. We can always work on perfecting things, but let’s get the good stuff going first.

When I was in my 20’s, it felt like I was innovating my life. New relationships, new jobs, new cities and friends. But with each new huge life changing experience, I noticed things were falling apart around me. Heaps of dirty clothes piled on the floor. Stacks of bills to be paid. Unreturned phone calls. Before long, the new things  – relationships, jobs and experiences – paled in comparison to the need to maintain. I realized then that the only way I could create this new life for myself was to keep up the day-to-day stuff; this behind-the-scenes maintenance helped me create the headlines in the newspaper of my life.

We can be innovative. But in order to do so we must also maintain.

References

Russell, Andrew and Vinsel, Lee. “Hail the Maintainers.” Aeon.com. https://aeon.co/essays/innovation-is-overvalued-maintenance-often-matters-more. (Accessed August 6th, 2017).