By MaryAnna Fox
I have been a teacher for 12 years now. That’s longer than anything I have ever chosen to do in my life. Even with the intention of choosing to be in a school every day, there are days I feel like I don’t belong. There are days, moments, weeks where I feel like I have no clue as to what is going on – that everyone except me, is making decisions for me. It’s exhausting and scary to be vulnerable and put myself out there every single day and to know that I might fail and fall flat on my face in an attempt to try something new. It can all be overwhelming and exhausting, and there are days I want to avoid all of it, play hooky from our staff meeting, and just play Candy Crush on my phone instead.
But, I’m an adult.
I am an adult who asks students every single day and do exactly what I want to avoid myself. I ask them to show up, learn something new, expose their weaknesses and strengths and be vulnerable in front of me and their peers. To be exposed. To take risks. But, am I an adult who has created the opportunity for them to belong? To have ownership of their learning? To develop the narrative of who they are as a student without asking them to leave who they are as a kid at the door?
I have had the honor of being a classroom teacher, and now of being a small group teacher. A reading specialist. An interventionist. An enrichment teacher. The teacher who works with ‘struggling’ readers. The teacher who provides “Tier II” intervention. The teacher who is the data keeper. The teacher who pulls students out of class.
I am the teacher who is very conscious of the narrative that I am helping create in every student I see. Intentionally or not, I am a part of their story. Am I telling them they’re not good enough to be in their classroom as I ask them to leave their community and come with me? Am I telling them that there is something wrong with them? That they don’t belong? That they need fixing?
Please don’t misunderstand me: I am not advocating for eliminating a space (within or out of the classroom) where students receive the specialized, individualized instruction that they need. Rather, I am reflecting and questioning the identities that we are creating for the students who we see as ‘struggling’ by taking them out of a classroom for individualized instruction.
So, now what?
Exactly. Now what. How can I, as a teacher, mirror and create an environment that supports the classroom community when I only see these students 30 minutes a day? How can I encourage and support the Balanced Literacy space that my students just left, while individualizing the instruction to meet each student where they are, and push them to new places? I honestly, had no clue. I had many questions, many thoughts, but few answers. I wanted to know how do I offer both individualized instruction and full membership in the classroom community when they returned? So, I turned to my professional sidekicks (thanks Maggie Beatty Roberts for a term I will always and forever use). That’s right – I consulted the sidekicks that live on my bookshelf and surround me at school. I read and re-read Jennifer Serravallo, Jan Richardson, Donalyn Miller, Richard Allington, Marie Clay, Deborah L. Wolter, Debbie Miller, Christopher Emdin, Lucy Calkins and more. I talked to classroom teachers, past teammates, our incredible instructional coach and the students who sit with me in my intervention room.
It kept coming back to me. Me as the teacher and the adult. Back to me and the intentionality of what I do everyday.
So, I set my intentions.
The intention to make sure that every student I see does not have their narrative as a reader defined by the fact that they need support in reading. The intention of helping carry the heavy lifting in building bridges between the classroom and the intervention classroom.
The intention that the intervention space is not a space of deficit. It’s not a space for students to ‘catch-up”. It’s not in replacement of classroom instruction. It is not reteaching of content. That it is not part of setting up “exclusionary practices in the student’s educational narrative” (Wolter, 2015, p. 12)
The intention to collaborate and communicate. At our school, we are extremely fortunate to have a system in place where grade level teams and specialists (English Language Arts, Gifted and Talented, Reading, Math, Special Ed, etc) have a time every other month to collaborate and look at upcoming units in the classroom. The space is used to anticipate possible challenges and extensions needed within the classroom, but also in the space outside of the classroom. Through this space we can intentionally align our teaching to the standards and main ideas of the classroom units and help students bridge and connect the physical and intellectual spaces.
The intention to follow through. I’ll be honest. I see 10 groups of kids, kindergarten through 5th grade, and more than 50 students pass through my door every day. Somedays it is easier for me to do my own thing; to teach a lesson in isolation or just move on to the next guided reading lesson in the curriculum. It takes more time, more intention, more follow through, to plan my space to align with the classroom – that is true. But again, I’ll be honest. It’s so worth it. Right now my second graders are working on poetry to practice their fluency, phrasing, word flexibility, and phonemic awareness. But, they’re also working on poetry because in their classroom, everyone is working on poetry. In a space with four students, my second graders are taking risks, being vulnerable, taking ownership, feeling successful, and feel as if they belong, not just in my room, but in the classroom as well. They look at me as if I have magical powers in knowing what is going on in their classroom. “Ms. Fox! Did you know we’re also working on poetry in class?? That’s so cool!” I wish I could them it was magic, but it’s not. It’s all about intention. In fourth grade we are tackling social issues amd empathy through Historical Fiction and Lucy Calkins Units of Study. We are taking on character traits in first grade through Jan Richardson’s guided reading structure. We are supporting with details in third and defining our identity as readers in 5th grade via Serravallo. We have Reading Goal bookmarks from the classroom (courtesy of Serravallo) which we add to before students take them back into their communities. We radiate happiness, success, ownership, identity and belonging. We also celebrate incredible growth and less and less of a need for me.
In going back to my sidekicks Jan Richardson and Marie Clay, they speak of “echoes” from one part of a guided reading lesson to another. The concepts you develop in word work is what shows up in the text, in the writing and across the next day’s lesson. With our intentionality, we can set up and create these echoes across classrooms, across spaces, across days, weeks and months. In reinforcing, supporting, aligning and helping create bridges between spaces, we remove much of the heavy lifting for our students. We can create spaces that no longer reinforce struggling readers’ narratives with inadequacy, but instead give them autonomy, ownership and belonging.
I am the adult. The adult that asks students to show up and be vulnerable and take risks. But I’m also the adult that intentionally chooses to create a space, an environment of learning that is founded in belonging, ownership, safety, and success. I intentionally create echoes across environments, and make sure that my time spent along each student’s journey is not seen as because of a deficit. I can be intentional in what role I play in the creation of their identity as a student, learner, and kid.
My “Professional Sidekicks” that I reference often:
Reading Upside Down by Deborah L. Wolter
The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller
Next Step Forward in Guided Reading by Jan Richardson
A Mindset for Learning by Kristine Mraz
Identity Safe Classrooms by Dorothy Steele
For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y’all Too by Christopher Emdin
Anything by Jennifer Serravallo, but specifically:
Teaching Reading in Small Groups by Jennifer Serravallo and Lucy Calkins
Wolter, D. L. (2015). Reading upside down: Identifying and addressing opportunity gaps in literacy instruction. New York: Teachers College Press.
MaryAnna Fox has been an elementary school teacher for 12 years. She has taught kindergarten, second grade, and is currently a K-5 reading specialist at an elementary school in the Cherry Creek School District. MaryAnna is also the co-president of the Arapahoe County chapter of CCIRA @ac_ccira. She can be found professionally on Instagram at @fantastic_ms.fox or on Twitter at @mountainsun16.