Worried about Conferring? Just Listen.

By Emily Galle-From

To those who know me, it is no surprise that writer’s workshop is my favorite part of the school day. To those who don’t, I’m often greeted with confused stares or a thread of questions: How do you fit Writing into your schedule?, Isn’t it intimidating?, and How do you know what to teach? Enter: conferring. By doing daily writing conferences, I am able to tailor my teaching directly to my first graders’ needs. Not sure what to teach? Listen to your students. They’ll tell you.

Screen Shot 2019-04-15 at 11.37.00 PM
photo by Agance Olloweb

In her book with Lester Laminack, The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts), Katie Wood Ray defines writing conferences as “‘the essential act’ in workshop teaching because of their individualized nature” (156). They occur “when the teacher sits down beside a student . . . finds out how the student’s writing is going, and then in a very direct but conversational way, teaches (or tries to teach) the student something that makes sense at this time.”

Last week, I conferred with a first grader writing a fictional story about unicorns. She included two characters and plenty of dialogue — an impressive feat for a six-year-old. She blushed and beamed as I complimented this work, clearly proud of the story that was unfurling on the page before her.

Of course, my mind took note of this. Carl Anderson reminds us that “it isn’t [the teacher’s] job to fix or edit the student’s writing. Rather, it’s to teach the student one writing strategy or technique he can use in a current piece of writing and continue to use in future writing.” While this student was already achieving first grade standards, I had the unique opportunity to teach something she was proving that she was ready (and excited!) to include in her writing: dialogue tags. It is not a first grade standard, it is not something I have taught the class as a whole, but by listening closely to this student’s writing — and noticing her excitement — I knew this was the right next-step for her.

As I was showing this skill to the young writer, I began to notice an eavesdropper: the student to her left was watching my every move. Out of the corner of his eye, he observed my demonstration, saw the example in a mentor text, and watched his classmate try it in her own writing. The student to her right did not notice at all — she kept plowing ahead with her own work. Honestly, it did not surprise me: that student was so focused on stretching out sounds to write words on the page that dialogue tags were far from her realm of reality. But that student to her left? His attention proved that he was ready and eager to try this new skill, too.

As I circled back around to check in with my student towards the end of writer’s workshop that day, I was thrilled to see her adding dialogue tags when her unicorns spoke with one another. The added bonus? The boy to her left had gone back and added them into his own writing, too. Two for one.

Students will show you when they’re ready for a new skill. When it comes down to it, all we need to do is listen.

Emily Galle-From has been a teacher in North St. Paul, MN for eight years.  She presented at CCIRA for the first time in 2019; her session was entitled Fostering Empathy through Picture Books.  In her free time she enjoys traveling, writing, and reading.

Just Breathe:  Reviving the Read-Write Connection

by Vince Puzick

I’ve been fascinated several years now with what is somewhat formally called “the read-write connection.” We’ve heard about the importance of this connection for so long – “reading is the inhale, writing the exhale” – that, just like breathing, we may take it for granted. I recently had the chance to teach a course at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs that gave me another deep dive into studying this relationship. Just like yoga forces us to be more aware of our breathing, prepping for the course allowed me to become more mindful of my reading-writing connected practices.

The Foundation

 In recent years, several reports have been released about the ways in which reading and writing reinforce each other. Judith Langer’s lengthy analysis, “Writing and Reading Relationships: Constructive Tasks,” offers a broad historical and theoretical exploration into the relationship between these two literacies. In it, she analyzes the processes inherent in both of these literacies that are more similar than we may first acknowledge. The act of composing texts draws on many of the same ways of thinking as comprehending the texts we read while we make sense of the world around us.

Another important report, now nearly ten years old, is Writing to Read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Readingfrom the Carnegie Foundation. The practices detailed under the section entitled “Have Students Write About the Texts They Read” detail the ways that students may deepen their understanding of a text by writing about it:

  • Respond to a Text in Writing (Writing Personal Reactions, Analyzing and Interpreting the Text). Newer and better understandings of textual material are likely to occur when students write about text in extended ways involving analysis, interpretation, or personalization (Langer and Applebee, 1987).
  • Write Summaries of a Text. Summary writing practices studied ranged from writing a synopsis with little to no guidance (e.g., writing a one-sentence summary) to the use of a variety of different guided summarizing strategies: writing a summary using a set of rules or steps; developing a written outline of text and converting it to a summary; locating the main idea in each paragraph and summarizing it; creating a written/graphic organizer of important information and converting it to a summary.
  • Write Notes About a Text. Taking notes about text ranged from a prompt to take notes with little or no direction to the use of a wide variety of structured note-taking procedures, such as developing a written outline of text; designing a written chart showing the relationship between key ideas, details, concepts, and vocabulary in text; and taking notes about text and separating these notes into different columns related to main ideas, details, and questions.
  • Answer Questions About a Text in Writing, or Create and Answer Written Questions About a Text. Writing answers to text-based questions makes the text more memorable because writing an answer provides a second form of rehearsal. This practice should further enhance the quality of students’ responses, as written answers are available for review, reevaluation, and reconstruction (Emig, 1977).

Reading Horizons published “Writing for Comprehension” that describes four instructional activities using writing to deepen understanding of a text. “The writing strategies—About/Point, Cubing, Four Square Graphic Organizer, and Read, Respond, Revisit, Discuss—reinforce reading comprehension by helping students strengthen their skills at summarizing, thinking in-depth from multiple perspectives, activating and organizing numerous thoughts, and creating interest through meaningful social interactions.”

What quickly becomes evident through all of the research is that reading and writing are similar, related composing processes rather than isolated skills and behaviors. Both are social tasks. Both are efforts to compose meaning, and that learning, itself, is the process of making meaning.

Screen Shot 2019-04-11 at 5.57.31 AM
Photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan 

New(ish) Thinking: Writing First! 

In prepping for the UCCS course, I discovered Peter Elbow’s article called “Writing First.” In it, Elbow argues that we too often privilege reading over writing.  He argues that we need to shift our thinking: “When we make writing as important as reading … we help students break out of their characteristically passive stance in school and in learning.”

Elbow’s concluding statement, though, stimulated my thinking about literacy learning:

“Students will put more care and attention into reading when they have had more of     a chance to write what’s on their mindsand when they have been given more opportunities to assume the role of writer” (emphasis mine).

His statement took me back to my late teens and early 20’s. I had dropped out of college and worked the swing shift in a factory that made convertible tops for Jeeps. After the shift ended at midnight, I went home and wrote: stories about the Vietnam veterans with whom I worked; poems about the whole idea of “work”; poems about loneliness and disconnection; a scene for a one-act play about father and son coal miners. After those thirteen months in the factory, my desire to write about the world (and my place in it) motivated my return to college as an English major. My passion for reading followed.

Consider this:  what ifwe had students generate drafts at the initial point of studying a particular topic, theme, or issue and prior to moving into the reading? Elbow calls this “writing their hunches.” While we may begin to do this with quickwrites, here I mean going beyond merely capturing ideas to really getting down on paper their own thinking, beliefs, experiences, and perspectives as they compose drafts of narratives, arguments, and informational texts. Visual artists call these attempts “studies”; what if our students’ initial drafts became “studies” that they returned to over time as they researched, drafted, and contemplated, challenging others’ thinking and their own as they composed and revised?

Elbow argues that

“Starting with writing rather than reading highlights how learning and thinking      work best: as a process of hypothesis making and hypothesis adjustment in which         the mind is active rather than passive.”

I think of the fifth grade student in class who has a lot to say about inequality and inequity; about the high school student who wants to share a perspective on the #metoo movement; about the student who may want to offer a commentary on immigration and a wall; about the student who spends every weekend in the mountains and wants to write about conservation. I think of me at 19 years old, struggling to forge an identity as a college student from the raw material of a kid from a blue-collar family – and how writing was the tool that allowed me to do so.

Once they have gotten their thinking down on paper, students then read what others – professionals, experts, journalists — have said about that topic or theme. Students get to test their hypotheses (as Elbow states). They are able to enter into what Elbow calls “an intellectual relationship to the ideas in the text.” It is in this transactional reading — pushing against ideas they are reading and finding pushback to their own ideas – that they begin to make meaning of the world around them. It is moving from their own writing, to reading the ideas of others, and returning to their writing that deepens their own breathing.

In writer’s workshop, we often use mentor texts to show students the types of moves that writer’s make – craft moves – to construct an argument, to build a setting, to develop character, to deliver information. Elbow’s argument that “students will put more care and attention into reading” can take us deeper into the ideas of the text, the content, while also serving as mentor texts around the craft of writing. He advocates for both:  reading for content and then “writing in the mode” to understand the forms that writing takes.

Students ultimately get to develop their voice as a member in a community of writers exploring a common topic. They witness whatpeople have to say and how others write about those ideas, and that exposure follows their initial thinking and writing. Elbow argues that by putting writing first, we force students out of their passivity by asking them what theythink before asking them to consider what others think.

Ultimately, Elbow builds a very compelling argument:  “Students invariably read better if they write first” and that “weakness in reading often stems from neglect of writing.” In our current state of high accountability and high stakes standardized assessments, I am continually surprised and alarmed as many school leaders march to the battle cry of “improve reading scores” but fail to see the immense power in, and necessity for, writing.

It’s as if breathing has been reduced to one long inhale; we need to see that the exhale is vital to our literacy lives.


Vince Puzick is a literacy consultant and adjunct lecturer at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. In the course of his 32 years in public education, he has taught in a variety of institutions and environments: college composition at Pikes Peak Community College and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs; IB English, journalism, and school-to-work courses at William J. Palmer High School; teacher prep classes in the Pikes Peak BOCES alternative license program.   Vince does yoga at home in Colorado Springs to learn to breathe and fly fishes when he can because it takes his breath away. 

Teaching Will Never Be the Same

By Lindsay Sauer

Be careful reading this post about CCIRCA because after I attended, I will never go back to the way I was teaching before.  In this year alone I have learned so much about myself as an educator and have grown more than any other year I’ve taught. In reflecting on what has had the biggest impact on the drastic shift of my teaching, I’ve narrowed it down to two contributing factors: the birth of my son and attending CCIRA for the first time.

I had the pleasurable opportunity of staying home with my son for his first year and when I went back to the classroom, I realized one huge thing that my classroom was missing. Students need more play! This insight came from interacting with my son during his first year and being so aware of his constant need to play and be active. I then realized that my first graders were not much different and they too needed to be active and play in order to be successful. I attribute this as the beginning of some radical changes in the way I run my classroom.

I implemented an abundance of hands on learning activities and opportunities for students to play while learning. I came to the realization that it was not only MY classroom but more importantly, the students; this classroom was OURS. At this realization, here came another huge shift in our room. I felt I had to do more fostering student choice and ownership in the classroom. I wanted students to be proud of their class and the learning that was happening inside.

I had been trying to implement student choice and voice all year by using flexible seating, connection circles, as well as a variety of other tools. I thought I was giving all the choices they could handle. However, after attending CCIRA for the first time and getting to hear Debbie Miller speak about her new book, I understood I was still missing a huge part of student voice. She asked something that really made me stop and think about everything I had previously learned about teaching literacy. “Are there rules to workshop?” (Miller, 2018, p. xvi)

At first I immediately thought yes of course there are. You have a 10-15 minute mini lesson, guided groups are conducted, and then closure. But then she blew my mind when she showed that it doesn’t have to be the same thing every time and how we can teach in different ways and that workshop can look different depending on the needs of our STUDENTS. Of course, this was my biggest take away. What do our students need? After all, our teaching is all about the students and their needs.

Debbie then took it a step further and asked us what would happen if we let the students own the work. She stated to let students show their learning in whatever way works for them. This really made me stop and think. Was I letting my students have enough choice? Was I allowing them the freedom to show their learning in a way that worked for them? The answer was no. I realized that we discussed the learning target everyday and why it was important. We discussed our success criteria but in the end, I was the one truly owning it. I had put my first graders in a box and it really broke my heart to think that. Well I walked out of the session knowing that my teaching had completely changed and that I had to take immediate action.

I went back that following Monday and knew that student work time was going to look completely different. Instead of the normal, “Here’s how you need to complete your independent work”, I told students, “Show your learning in a way that works for you.” Well I bet you can imagine the looks on their faces… they were lost. I had so many questions and I was intently very vague. We discussed the learning target one more time and I said simply said ‘go’. As you can probably also imagine, day one ended up being a total disaster and honestly most students didn’t get anything done. It was a huge learning experience.

During planning time, my teammate and I got together and discussed what we needed to do differently to better support our students. We made a few different examples to show students some ideas of ways to show their learning. As a grade level, we use Seesaw so we showed students all the different tools offered on the application to support their learning. Some examples included recordings, drawings, typing, and writing. After providing a few examples, I was amazed at the depth of learning and understanding of our students. We have since continued to fine tune how this works.

Allowing students to have true ownership over their learning, I have seen just how brilliant my students are and how they differentiate for their own needs. I am constantly in awe of the creative work they continue to produce, as well as their deep understanding of their own learning. They are the true owners of the work now and it shows.

Screen Shot 2019-04-02 at 6.28.56 AM

Eventually my teammate and I decided we were ready to fine-tune this process a step further and we created our first micro-progression. This happened after listening to Maggie Roberts speak about the importance of micro progressions in the classroom. “Micro-progressions house the way toward higher levels of work. By providing actual examples of work that’s improving, as well as listing the qualities that make up each “level” of work, micro-progressions allow for both self-assessment and self-assignment.” (Roberts & Roberts, 2016, p. 17)

We decided to try it out with our character unit and made our first micro-progression for character traits. We started backwards and created 4 levels of understanding of character traits. We discussed the four levels and again gave students the opportunity to show their learning in a way that worked for them.

I was blown away at not only their depth of understanding of character traits, but also the ability to assess themselves at the level they were working at. Learning these two tools at CCIRA has changed the way our classrooms look. If you walk into our classroom, you see students engaged in literacy and taking ownership of their learning. You will hear students discussing with one another their understanding of their learning target and how to increase their level of understanding. So I leave you with this – “If we’re not teaching children to be independent thinkers, what are we teaching them?”(Miller, 2018, p. 171)

Lindsay Sauer is a first grade teacher in Arvada, Colorado.  Arvada.  She’s been teaching for six years and is passionate about education and making a difference. Follow her classroom on Instagram @sweetnsauerfirsties.


Miller, D. (2018). What’s The Best That Could Happen? Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Roberts, K., & Roberts, M. B. (2016). DIY Literacy: Teaching Tools for Differentiation, Independence, and Rigor. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

The Reading Principle: Three Types of Reading

By Evan Robb

Recently, I was interviewing candidates for a language arts position.  Several candidates just finished college and were eager to start a teaching career.  Included was one question all candidates had to respond to: How would you teach a particular short story to a group of students?  A frequent answer I received was, “Read it to the students or let the students read it out loud.” Letting students read out loud in front of the class is commonly referred to as popcorn or round-robin reading.  One candidate proudly explained a reading game called “bump,” where students would read out loud and could intermittently call on another student to continue the reading. Bump permits students to embarrass one another or to catch another student not paying attention.  No student should graduate from any college or university and bring such archaic and at times hurtful methods into a classroom. Popcorn, round robin, and bump reading should never be part of an elementary, middle, or high school classroom!

As a middle school principal, I am often asked what types of reading should occur in a middle school English classroom? What is a balanced literacy program? My answer is not that complex: “Reading can and should be taught.”  In addition to the teacher reading aloud for students’ enjoyment, every middle school classroom should have three types of reading:

  • Instructional Interactive Read Aloud
  • Instructional Reading
  • Independent Reading


Instructional Interactive Read Aloud

An interactive read aloud allows the teacher to model in a think aloud how to apply a reading strategy. This modeling during a read aloud builds and/or enlarges students’ mental model of how a strategy works. For this aspect of instruction, I suggest that the teacher models with a short text that matches the genre and/or theme that ties a reading unit together.  Short texts can include a picture book, an excerpt from a longer text, a folk or fairy tale, myth or legend, a short, short story, or an article from a magazine or newsletter.

Here are six of many skills and strategies that you can model in interactive read-aloud lessons:

  • Making inferences
  • Linking literary elements to a text
  • Identifying big ideas and themes
  • Locating important details
  • Skimming to find details
  • Emotional responses

The interactive read aloud is teachers’ common text. Once teachers complete the modeling over five to eight classes, they have a reference text to support students by reviewing a lesson. Then, they move to reading aloud from texts that resonate with students.

Instructional Reading

Instructional reading occurs during class. Students need to read materials at their instructional reading level, which is about 90 % to 95% reading accuracy and about 90% comprehension. Organizing instructional reading around a genre and theme—for example biography with a theme of obstacles—permits students to read different texts and discuss their reading around the genre and theme. One book for all does not work.  Based on a false assumption, one-book-for-all assumes that no one has already read the book and everyone is on the same reading level.

As an example, the class opens with an interactive read-aloud lesson that lasts about ten minutes.  Next, a transition to instructional reading. Find books for students in your school library, your community public library, in your class library, and the school’s book room (if you have one).  Instructional reading books stay in the classroom, as students from different sections may be using the same materials each day.

Instructional reading asks students to apply specific skills and strategies to texts that can improve students’ comprehension, vocabulary, and skill because these texts stretch students’ thinking with the teacher, the expert, as a supportive guide.

Screen Shot 2019-03-26 at 12.00.02 AM
Photo by Klim Sergeev  on Unsplash

Independent Reading

Students should always have a book they are reading independently. By encouraging them to read accessible books on topics they love and want to know more about, you develop their motivation to read!

Have students keep a Book Log of the titles they’ve read and reread. Do not ask students to do a project for each completed book; that will turn them away from reading.  Reflecting on the value of independent reading is important. Getting hung up on how you will hold students accountable is not valuable. Remember, enthusiastic readers of any age do not summarize every chapter they read in a journal. Neither do you!

Students should complete twenty to thirty minutes of independent reading a night, and that should be their main homework assignment. If you’re on a block schedule, set aside two days a week for students to complete independent reading at school. If you have 90 to 120 minutes for reading and writing daily, then independent reading should occur every day.  This is not wasted time. When students read the teacher can read part of the time which communicates a great message to students: adults read independently, too! Equally important during this time, teachers also confer with a few students about their reading.

Including the three types of reading in a middle school curriculum brings balance, engagement, and motivation to the curriculum and holds the potential of improving reading for all students. We must be better than popcorn reading as a go-to-method for a teacher to use with students.  We must be better than reading out loud for an entire class. We need a balanced framework, a balanced literacy program. Encourage your teachers to give the three types of reading a try. The goal is to increase students’ reading skill and help students become lifelong readers. But the goal is also to reclaim the professionalism language arts teachers and students deserve.

Evan Robb is a middle school principal in Clarke County, Virginia. He is a committed educator, progressive thinker, author, speaker, and fitness enthusiast.

Don’t Skip It! The Case for Daily Phonemic Awareness Activities

By Carolyn Banuelos

Phonemic Awareness: the ability to manipulate sounds (phonemes) within words

Phonemic Awareness Activities: Two- to three-minute oral games that require students to isolate and manipulate sounds within words

Two- to three-minutes—how much could such a short activity really impact student learning? Phonemic Awareness activities are so easy to skip. Don’t do it! Phonemic awareness is an essential foundational skill for reading and writing. And activities that develop phonemic awareness can be quick and highly effective. Let’s take a look at why and how to make phonemic awareness activities a regular part of your foundational skills daily instruction.  

Screen Shot 2019-03-12 at 4.59.04 PM.png
Photo by Jon Tyson at Unsplash

Why teach phonemic awareness in the first place? Because it is essential. Phonemic awareness and alphabet recognition are the two best predictors of early reading success (Adams, 1990; Beck & Juel, 1995; Chall, 1996). Students must know that words are made up of sounds in order to read and write. Phonemic awareness activities teach this essential understanding. They also teach children how words work and give them practice manipulating sounds within words. In other words, phonemic awareness activities lay the foundation for decoding (breaking words into sounds and blending the sounds together) and encoding (breaking words into sounds and recording the individual sounds). Without a strong foundation of phonemic awareness, students might completely miss the point of phonics instruction!

Fortunately, phonemic awareness activities are simple to plan and implement if you know the skills your students need and which activities target those skills. Students begin first by working with whole words and progress to working with individual sounds (phonemes) within words. Check out this chart, which follows the Fountas and Pinnell progression of learning for phonological awareness skills (2017) and has our suggestions for simple, effective games to play with your students.

Skill Sample Activity Directions

Give the following directions to your students to teach them to play each word game.

Rhyming Words
Hear rhyming words Some words sound the same at the end. They rhyme. I’m going to say two words. Your job is to tell me if they rhyme. If they rhyme, give me a thumbs-up and say the words. If they do not rhyme, give me a thumbs-down. For example, if I say, “hiss, miss,” you would give me a thumbs-up and say the words “hiss, miss.” K, 1
Identifying Words
Listen for words within a sentence Sentences are made up of words. I’m going to say a sentence. Your job is to repeat the sentence back to me and pause after each word. For example, if I say, “The cat is big and yellow.” You would say, “The…cat…is…big…and…yellow.” K
Identify and Manipulate Syllables
Segment words into syllables Words are made up of parts. These parts are called syllables. I’m going to say a word. Your job is to clap and count the number of syllables in the word. For example, if I say, “blanket,” you would say, “blan-ket” and hold up two fingers.” K, 1, 2
Delete syllables from a word Words are made up of parts. These parts are called syllables. We can delete a syllable from a word to make a new word. I’m going to say a word. Your job is to delete the first syllable from the word. For example, if I say, “between” you would say, “tween.” K, 1, 2
Isolate and Manipulate Onset and Rime
Divide onset and rime I’m going to say a word. Your job is to tell break the word into its first sound and the rest of the word. For example, if I say, “time,” you would say, “t-ime.” K, 1
Isolate and Manipulate Phonemes
Isolate and say the beginning phoneme in a word I’m going to say three words. They all have the same beginning sound. Your job is to tell me the beginning sound of all three words. For example, if I say “bat, ball, bike” you would say, “/b/.”   K, 1
Segment a word into phonemes Words are made up of sounds. I’m going to say a word. Your job is to tell me each of the sounds in the word. For example, if I say, “hat,” you would say, “/h/ /a/ /t/.” K, 1, 2
Blend phonemes within a word Words are made up of sounds. I’m going to say some sounds. Your job is to blend the sounds together to make a word. For example, if I say, “/m/ /a/ /p/,” you would say, “map.” K, 1, 2

*These are suggestions, however, begin at whichever skill your students have yet to master. Skills in the chart progress in complexity from top to bottom.

There are so many benefits of phonemic awareness activities and ways to mix it up and engage with your students. The chart above is not comprehensive. There are many fun word games to pull from depending on the skill your class is targeting. For more ideas on Phonemic Awareness activities and Foundational Skills check out Puzzle Piece Phonics: Word Study for the Balanced Literacy Classroom. Puzzle Piece Phonics provides professional development as well as instruction to implement phonics and foundational skills in your classroom in a sustainable and engaging way. 

Carolyn Banuelos is a facilitator and presenter for Catawba Press. She is a former primary grade teacher and literacy coach who is passionate about implementing Balanced Literacy into classrooms around the country. Carolyn is the co-author of Puzzle Piece Phonics: Word Study for the Balanced Literacy Classroom, published by Corwin Literacy. Carolyn resides in Salt Lake City, Utah with her growing family and enjoys cooking, hiking, and a good book.


Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking about learning about print. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Beck, I., & Juel, C. (1995, Summer). The role of decoding in learning to read. American Education, 19(2).

Chall, J. S. (1996). Stages of reading development (2nd ed.). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt.

Fountas, I., & Pinnell, G. (2017) Comprehensive Phonics, Spelling, and Word Study Guide. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


When Students Create, The Impossible Can Happen

By A.J. Juliani, 2020 CCIRA Speaker
There is a famous quote from Albert Einstein that many teachers like to quote: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”


Most often I see this quote associated with the high-stakes testing movement and other forms of education reform. I actually used to nod my head when I read this quote, silently saying “Yep, that’s right. You can’t force a student to be something they aren’t.” Shame on me. Agreeing with this quote is giving in to the notion that kids have limitations they can’t overcome. And that’s not right.

Instead, my motto this year is focusing on “teaching fish how to climb trees”. Crazy? I don’t think so.

The mudskippers are probably the best land-adapted of contemporary fish and are able to spend days moving about out of water and can even climb mangroves.

Yep, that’s right. The ol’ mudskipper fish can climb a tree. I’m sure all it’s fish friends and teachers probably told him it was “impossible” or that he’d be “stupid” to try it. But he went with it anyway, and eventually joined the ranks of flying and jumping fish as geniuses.

As a teacher, I realize that my students may come into class with varying levels of skills and talents. I see the same thing as a coach. But it would be foolish for me to pidgeon-hole any of my students or players into a “role” or “category”. Usually, it’s those students who overcome obstacles and the “impossible” that end up being remarkable. And that’s what I want all of my students and players to be: remarkable.

Here are just a few examples of student’s “climbing trees”:

  • Nick D’Alosio started his company “Summly” at age 15. At age 17 he sold it to Yahoo! for $30 million. Nick said in a Business Insider interview: “When I founded Summly at 15, I would have never imagined being in this position so suddenly. I’d personally like to thank Li Ka-Shing and Horizons Ventures for having the foresight to back a teenager pursuing his dream. Without you all, this never would have been possible. I’d also like to thank my family, friends and school for supporting me.”
  • Katie Davis left over Christmas break of her senior year for a short mission trip to Uganda and her life was turned completely inside out. She found herself so moved by the people of Uganda and the needs she saw that she knew her calling was to return and care for them. Katie, a charismatic and articulate young woman, is in the process of adopting thirteen children in Uganda and has established a ministry, Amazima, that feeds and sends hundreds more to school. You can read about her story in Kisses From Katie.
Screen Shot 2019-03-04 at 10.50.24 PM
Courtesy of Shutterstock
  • When 12-year-old Steven Gonzalez Jr. was diagnosed Acute Myelogenous Leukemia, a rare form of cancer, doctors said that he had a 2% chance to live. But he beat the odds and survived, though his weak immune system forced him into isolation for 100 days. He credits video games for helping him through the rough experience. Gonzalez wanted to help other cancer patients his age, and so he created a video game, Play Against Cancer, in which players destroy cancer cells illustrated as green ghosts. He also developed The Survivor Games, a social network and online community for teen cancer patients.
  • 5-year-old Phoebe Russell needed to complete a community service project before she could graduate from kindergarten. Uninterested in a lemonade stand, she saw a homeless man begging for food and decided to raise $1,000 for the San Francisco Food Bank. Her teacher tried to lower expectations to something more reasonable, but Phoebe’s heartwarming appeal to leave soda cans and donations at the school snowballed. Before she knew it, Phoebe had raised $3,736.30– the equivalent of 17,800 heated meals. via Listverse

These are just a few of the thousands of stories out there of kids doing the impossible. And there are many stories of teachers doing the impossible. So go ahead and tell your students to dream big. I’m going to be busy teaching fish how to climb trees. I hope you join me.

A.J. Juliani is the author of four books related to innovation in the classroom. He directs learning and innovation for a school district in Pennsylvania and can be found at www.ajjuliani.com.

Principled First, Practical Second

By Rick Wormeli, 2019 CCIRA Presenter

There were hundreds of ideas, tools, and insights shared at this year’s CCIRA conference in Denver, and now we’ve returned to our schools and have to make sense of all we learned. It’s an exciting, heady experience for many of us, and some colleagues who did not attend will note our post-conference, anything-is-possible glow with bemusement. We smile with renewed vitality.

‘Quick caution in all that excitement, however: Let’s consider all those ideas not as recipes for our teaching cookbooks, but more as principles from which we draw our practicalities. In some cases, we get an idea from a researcher, presenter, or author and we try it out in our classrooms, regardless of whether or not it’s warranted. We were told it works, so we implemented it in our classes right away. It bombs, however, students don’t learn, and we swear we’ll never use it again. We move into Eeyore-mode, and declare to the faculty in low, sad voice, “It’s my birthday, nobody will remember. This author’s idea is just a fad; it will pass like an education kidney stone.” Alternatively, some of us try an idea because we’re excited about it, and, just by luck alone, it works really well, so we declare that everyone on the team, grade level, department, or school has to do it, too. This over-zealousness is just as unhelpful.

Let’s be principled first, strategic and practical second. A principle is often considered a fundamental truth or foundation of belief and behaviors, or an accepted explanation for how something operates. For example, the Order of Operations in math – parentheses, exponents, multiply, divide, add, subtract (PEMDAS) – is the way we prioritize math operations when solving equations. It’s universally accepted. We are negligent and ineffective when we disregard its truth.

In the world of cognitive science, we know that priming students’ brains for the lesson ahead increases their capacity to learn and retain new content. Roughly, that means we make them aware of the lesson’s goals and objectives, and we describe what they are going to experience in the journey. We also know that little goes into long-term memory unless it has a strong emotional connection or it is connected to something already in storage. This means that we should spend significant time helping students connect with learning emotionally and building prior knowledge where there was none. Just as above, we are ineffective when we ignore these truths.

In each case, an operating principle indicated our actions. Without the principle, however, actions were just mismatched, wild shots in the dark.  When students fail to learn as a result, it’s easier to blame the student for his lack of diligence or the system in general, rather than looking at our own decisions as instructors.   

There is no book, Ted Talk, software, or seminar that will tell us how to handle every teaching situation we’ll face in the course of our classroom careers. Let’s stop seeking such a resource. Instead, let’s collaborate with one another and determine our principles, and from each one, identify how to respond to challenges as they arise. For many of us, this is the true value of presenters at conferences: the principles they share and how they are manifest in our classrooms.

Integrity requires a match between our values and actions. In teaching, though, we can be hypocritical: Yes, we know that middle and high school students learn better when they get ample sleep before coming to school, but the bus schedule dictates an unusually early start to the school day for secondary students and so, we muddle through the first two zombie periods of the day. Yes, we know students develop cognitively at different rates, but we march them through a uniform curriculum sequence nonetheless.  

Being principled minimizes our hypocrisies to a large degree, and it brings us into alignment with our school’s values. We declare something an operational truth in teaching and learning, and we act accordingly – or so we hope. Sometimes we lose focus, however, and stray from our beliefs, giving only lip service to something deeply fundamental to student success.

Take a look at the principles listed below that drive instruction in today’s effective classrooms. For each one, consider what it would mean for us, if weren’t hypocrites, identifying at least one element or action in our classrooms that would be in place if we had the courage of our convictions and followed through on the principle:

  • Chance favors the prepared mind. – Pasteur
  • All thinking begins with wonder. – Socrates
  • Sense-making (students accessing content) is great, but long-term retention of curriculum requires meaning-making (students making connections and processing content).  
  • Recovering in full from failure teaches more than being labeled for failure can teach.
  • Whoever does the editing does the learning.
  • We cannot conflate reports of compliance with evidence of mastery.
  • Homework is practice of what has already been learned, not for learning content for the first time.
  • We can’t be creative unless we’re willing to be confused. – Margaret Wheatley
  • What students learn is heavily influenced by their existing ideas.
  • Emotion drives attention, attention drives learning. – Robert Sylwester, 1995, p. 119, Wolfe
  • Strict, unwavering adherence to pacing mandates, regardless of student need, is willful act of failure.
  • Evaluation and judgement inhibit critical error analysis and thoughtful reflection.
  • Memorization is still important in a, “You can always look it up” world.
  • Grades are communication, not compensation.
  • Everyone needs to save face, be honored; cornered students self-preserve.
  • We can’t drive forward by looking only in the rearview mirror. (“Rearview-Mirror Effect,” White, 2011)
  • We can’t get creative students from non-creative classrooms.
  • My testimony as a teacher is what students carry forward at the end of my lessons, not what I presented to them during those lessons.
  • Teachers are responsible for their own professional development.
  • Learning is fundamentally an act of creation, not consumption of information. – Sharon L. Bowman, Professional Trainer

Each one of these serves is a catalyst for a myriad of teaching decisions and actions. For example, in White’s caution about not driving forward while looking only in the rearview mirror, we realize that we can’t make instructional decisions regarding a student’s learning this fall or winter by only looking at his test scores from last March; we’ll have to do some assessments right here and now to perceive where he is.  If we accept the principle about whoever does the editing, does the learning, then we have to stop editing student’s writings, and instead, place a dot at the end of the line where there is an error and teach students to find their own errors and correct them. And if we’re principled, what are we doing to build students’ personal background knowledge with a given topic before asking them to read challenging text regarding that content?

Screen Shot 2019-02-26 at 9.00.40 AM
Photo credit: Izzy Rivi

If we find evidence for a favored principle in our practice lacking, that’s the place to start: Does the principle still work for us, given our latest thinking, or does it need augmentation or deletion? If we still find it valuable, what do we need to change in order to bring it back into focus? What new principles gained over the last year intersect with this current one, and how does that intersection inform what we do next? Renewing oneself to guiding principles is liberating; it inspires reinvention.  

If you attended the CCIRA conference this year, consider arranging the most resonant ideas, tools, and elements you gleaned from the experience into principles. For example, you may have learned quite a bit about descriptive feedback, so gather those ideas under the category, “Guidelines for effective feedback.” You may have found great ideas for how to use mentor texts (or, “Just good literature,” as Regie Routman reminded us), or principles for how to use instructional apps and technology, how to do effective grammar instruction, or how to use graphic novels to teach historical, mathematical, or scientific content. Alternatively, if you didn’t attend the conference, just record five principles of literacy instruction that inform your practice. Then, for each principle, identify at least three ways that the given principle is manifest in your instructional design. If possible, share your thinking with a colleague (‘acting principle: The brain is innately social!), and ask for feedback on whether or not the identified actions/elements express the principle. True, it’s a meaningful way to create our authentic selves in classroom, but even better, students learn more with principled teachers. They’re simply more effective.

Instead of throwing new techniques and strategies randomly into old lesson plans, take a moment to see if the new ideas are warranted based on which principles are in play, and if they are needed, where they might fit, and with which students. This is the stuff of invigorated teaching – It will carry us through the rest of the school year. Enjoy the ride!

Rick Wormeli is a national speaker and author of three books: Fair Isn’t Always Equal, 2nd Edition (Stenhouse), Summarization in any Subject, 2nd Edition (ASCD), Metaphors & Analogies: Power Tools for Teaching any Subject (Stenhouse). Contact him at www.rickwormeli.com.