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.


Russell, Andrew and Vinsel, Lee. “Hail the Maintainers.” (Accessed August 6th, 2017).

Are You Teaching or Testing Comprehension?

irene_fountas_photoby Irene Fountas, Author and Founder/Director of the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative at Lesley University

All too often, successful comprehension has been regarded as a student’s ability to answer a teacher’s questions (which is one way of assessing comprehension), but it does not enhance the reader’s self-regulating power for processing a new text with deep understanding. Think about how your teaching moves may be focused on testing when you continually pose questions, or how you can shift to teaching or helping students learn how to comprehend texts for themselves.

Teaching for comprehending means supporting your students’ ability to construct the meaning of the text in a way that expands their reading ability. You can help them learn what to notice in a text and what is important to think about, how to solve problems when meaning is not clear, and provide scaffolds to develop their in-the-head systems for working through the meaning of the text. These abilities are generative, so students will be able to transfer what they learn how to do as readers before, during, or after reading to a variety of increasingly challenging texts in every genre.

Introduce the text to readers

When you introduce a challenging text to your students, be sure to help them notice how the writer constructed the meaning, organized the text, used language and made decisions about the print features. Help them know how the book works and get them started thinking about the writers’ purpose and message and the characteristics of the genre.

Prompt the readers for constructive activity

As students read orally, interact very briefly at points of difficulty to demonstrate, prompt for, or reinforce effective problem-solving actions that they can try out and make their own. Your facilitative language is a call for the reader to engage in problem-solving that expands their reading strengths.

Teach students how to read closely

Take the readers back into the text after reading to notice the writer’s craft more closely. Select a phrase, sentence or paragraph, or focus on helping them notice how the writer organized the whole text. Revisiting the text calls the reader’s attention to particular features.

Engage students in talk about texts

Talk represents thinking. When students talk about a text, they are processing the vocabulary, language and content aloud. This enables them to articulate their understandings, reactions and wonderings. When they learn to be articulate in their talk, they can then show their ability to communicate their thinking about texts in their writing.

Engage students in writing about texts

Writing about reading is a tool for sharing and thinking about a text. When students articulate their thoughts in writing, they confirm their understandings, reflect on the meaning and explore new understandings.

Testing is a controlled task for measuring what students can do without teacher help. Teaching is the opportunity to make a difference in the self-regulating capacity of the learner. Reflect on your teaching moves and engage in a discussion with your colleagues to shift from testing to teaching. When students focus on meaning-making with every text they read, they will be able to show their competencies on the test.

For more information about the Lesley University Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative’s events and trainings, visit

Understanding the Supports and Challenges of Texts

by Toni Czekanski

Intermediate/Middle School Literacy Collaborative Trainer, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

Much has been written about how we can best support our students when working with them in small group instruction, or when we help them select texts for independent reading that they are able to read with understanding.  But how do we know which texts are just right for a particular student or group of students?  Which texts might present too many challenges, and which might offer just the right amount of support to allow for effective reading?  Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell developed a system for leveling texts that places texts along a gradient based on the supports and challenges that they present.  They take into consideration ten factors, which, if we begin to notice and understand them, will help us all look at texts differently.

The ten categories include genre and form, structure, content, themes and ideas, language and literary features, sentence complexity, vocabulary, words, illustrations, and book and print features (Fountas & Pinnell, 2011, The Continuum of Literacy Learning, p. 248 – 249).  If we consider these ten factors, we will notice that they are included in all texts, regardless of the level of difficulty.  Each factor increases with complexity as we move up the gradient.  The more complex the factor, the greater the challenge it present to students.

Now let’s think for a moment or two about preparing to work with small groups of students in guided reading groups.  Once you have assessed the students, and recognize their strengths and needs as readers, you select a text to use during your lesson.  When reading the text you use the lens of these ten characteristics to decide where the challenges lie, and what about the book will support your readers.  Is the theme one they can easily relate to, or will it require them to think beyond their prior experiences?  Does the text contain a great deal of technical vocabulary, or perhaps figures of speech that students are not familiar with?  Is the text organized in a way that will challenge them, or does it contain a structure that is familiar?

Once you decide what will be challenging, you can prepare a supportive text introduction that will take into consideration these challenges, and make this text accessible to the students through your supportive introduction.  You might discuss the complexity of the theme, or use the vocabulary as you introduce the book.  You might take them to a page with complex figurative language and ask them to think about its meaning before they begin to read.  By giving them this support before reading, you are working to insure that they will understand the text as they read it. Your own developing understandings of the factors that relate to text difficulty will help you support your students.

Similarly, when you confer with students around their independent reading, you can take a moment to notice how the text works.  By asking students whether there is any language that is causing them difficulty, or by having conversations around themes and ideas, you will assess whether this book is too challenging, or at just the right level for their independent reading.  Text complexity goes beyond being able to decode the words.  It is important that students are able to read their independent reading books with a good level of comprehension.  We can talk with them, keeping the ten factors in mind, and help them make more productive text selections if they are choosing books that are too challenging.

Although our goal is for all students to be reading texts that are at their grade level, there are students who need extra support.  The Common Core State Standards require us to use grade and age appropriate literature with our students, considering themes and ideas, precise meanings of words, figurative language, and details that support the meaning of the text.  Understanding the complexities of texts ourselves can help us to support our students.  When we read aloud texts that are at or above the students’ instructional level, we can keep these ten factors in mind and take the opportunity to model for students how to navigate the challenges presented in the text.

When the text presents a challenge, it is a signal to slow down and think about where the challenge lies.  Is it around word-solving?  What actions might we take to solve those words?  Is it the introduction of a new feature of text, such as a text box?  How do we read text boxes and why are they there?  In considering the theme, how might we notice how the author introduces it through the details of the story?  Do the illustrations support the text that is on the page, or do they go beyond the words in some way?  By modeling for students how to problem solve when encountering difficult texts, we give them tools to engage with texts on their own.

Reading is a complex interaction between a reader and the text, and understanding how texts work can help us to help students recognize both the challenges and the supports that they encounter when reading. Readers interact with their texts in order to take meaning from them, and grow as people who understand their world.  By working with a variety of texts across the day, and helping students to understand how texts work, we are supporting their development as readers who will grow and learn in many contexts.


Fountas, I.C. & Pinnell, G.S. (2011).  The Continuum of Literacy Learning:  A Guide to Teaching.  Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.