By Patrick Allen, longtime CCIRA Presenter
Let’s step back for a moment. Let’s think about our teaching. Let’s think about the reasons we became teachers in the first place.
I grew up in a small town in southeastern Colorado. Summers, circa 1968, were spent riding bikes, digging tunnels, swinging in tire swings… and playing school! The kids in my neighborhood would load up wagons with books and chalk and crayons and Big Chiefs and travel to the front porch “classrooms” of our friends (and stuffed animals). Porch school. Each week or so, a new teacher would take on the role. If I close my eyes, I can still remember it. I loved playing school.
Fast forward. In the fall of 2020, God and COVID willing, I’ll begin my 35th year of teaching. Three schools. Approximately 850 students. Numerous administrators. Countless colleagues. I student-taught with a brilliant teacher named Judy Gilkey and we’re still good friends. I remember my first interview (at the same school). Laura Harmon, the principal, said to me, “Before you come for your interview, I want you to read Understanding Reading and be ready to talk about it.” (Smith, 1971) I did. I was. Laura had incredible insight into learning and leaders and her nudge into Frank Smith’s world remains a building block of my success as a teacher of readers. That was one of the smartest things anyone has asked me to do. Prepare. Know. Understand.
My teaching journey has been incredible. Along the way I’ve been influenced by the best of the best, both personally and professionally. If I tried to name each person whose shoulders I stand on, this blog post would be 27 pages long. I guess my question is: Who’s shoulders are you willing to stand on?
Year 35. I am moving from fifth grade to second grade. I am excited about the change in grade levels. I am excited to learn from colleagues I admire and respect. I am excited to challenge myself as a learner. I am excited to dig into the work of the professionals writers I admire who understand the developmental needs of young learners. Most of all, I am excited to work with burgeoning readers early on in their literacy journey.
Recently, someone asked me, “What will you do differently?” Brilliant Question.
In When Writers Read, Jane Hansen reminds us that our mission is to help learners become better evaluators of their work. She nudges engagement and encourages independence. She says that to be effective, readers and writers, need:
- Voices – need to be honored (all voices)
- Decisions – decisions rest in the hands of the learner (ultimately)
- Time – opportunities must be plentiful to “do” and “create” (daily)
- Response – listening is key (always)
- Self-Discipline – leads to engagement (proactively)
Voices. Today, I think it’s as important as ever that we listen to the voices of young people; those that sit in our classrooms, in person or virtually, and those that sit outside our classrooms. If I’ve learned nothing over the past few months, it’s that my students can and MUST know their world. The voices of children must ruminate through our instruction and our interactions.
Decisions. Decisions must rest in the hands, hearts, and minds of the learner. In my classroom, hang these words, “Where choice lives, learning prospers!” It’s true. Students must be in charge of the decisions they are making as learners – what to read, what to write, what to think about. It’s my job to set up opportunities. It’s their job to make the decisions that propel them forward with my support.
Time. Thoreau says, “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.” We worry so much about time. I know that large blocks of time give students the opportunity to make wise choices. Time gives children opportunities to think, grow, and prosper without feeling rushed.
Response. I must respond with kindness and curiosity, if I’m going to create a classroom community in which learners thrive and prosper. I must listen. Children must, in turn, respond with kindness. They must listen. A response is only as good as the effort the listener puts into the situation. My father used to say, “Look them in the eye. Gather their thoughts in your head. Respond with honor and humility.” See. Gather. Respond. Not bad advice.
Self-Discipline. A bold task. It takes control. Self-discipline means that one can actively “pursue what one thinks is right despite temptations to abandon it.” It’s definitely not easy to overcome weaknesses and face difficulties, but that’s what it takes to be self-disciplined. I think there’s a direct correlation between engagement and self-discipline. Knowing what you don’t know so you can better understand what you do know.
So, with Jane’s voice in my head, here are the things that will remain constant:
- The Workshop Structure. There is no better format for ensuring consistency from day-to-day. Crafting, composing, and reflecting will sit at the heart of my instruction.
- Rich Print. Children deserve to hear and read provocative and thought-provoking text. They must see themselves in the books they read, but more importantly, they must see the big-wide world in the texts made available to them.
- Notebooks. Children not only need to read every day, they need to write about their reading in wise ways every day. They also need daily opportunities to write about what they deem important.
- Talk. Time to talk in pairs, in small groups, and in one-on-one conferences with me. Conferring is, afterall, the keystone of the reader’s workshop.
- Thinking Strategies. Thinking (comprehension) strategies are the glue that binds together days, weeks, the year. Our work will be grounded in thinking. Children must learn:
- Monitoring for Meaning and Problem Solving
- Activating, Utilizing and Building Background Knowledge (Schema)
- Asking Questions
- Drawing Inferences
- Creating Sensory Images
- Determining Importance
- Synthesizing Information (PEBC, 2014)
- Engagement. Thinking through the systems and structure that lead to deep, lasting engagement is critical. Ellin Keene asks the questions, “What can we do to encourage motivation for students, or better yet, their engagement?” (Keene, 2018).
- Stamina and Endurance. Providing opportunities to develop their stamina over time is critical to help nourish and maintain their self-discipline.
- Community. Trust, Respect, Tone. These three notions must continue to serve as “strong bulwarks in my classroom” if I want to “ensure that my classroom is primed and ready for literacy learning to flourish.” (Allen, 2009)
And, here are the things that will change:
- Brilliance. Recognizing the brilliance of 7-8 year olds is different than noticing the brilliance of 10-11 year olds. “Children’s metacognition begins to develop across this age — their ability to know what they need to do to better, learn or understand (e.g., reread a passage, ask a question). They also begin to understand the permanent nature of items.” (Anthony, 2017) I have got to keep learner’s developmental milestones in mind.
- Purposeful Play. “Play is one type of environment where children can be rigorous in their learning.” (Mraz, Porcelli, Tyler, 2016). Opportunities for play – physical, social, emotional, and intellectual – must be integrated into a young learner’s day.
- Celebrate Naivate. There’s a joyous naivate in children, especially young children. I’ve got to make sure to find time to celebrate the silliness. Learning to laugh with learners is an important part of working with primary students. There’s still an innocence to behold.
- Recognizing Time. The reckoning of time is important. Helping students learn to manage their time and to understand how time works is an essential part of the primary grades. I can develop stamina and endurance, but simultaneously I have to recognize that time is different for young learners.
- Scope and Sequence. My friend, Lori Conrad, taught me long ago, “the scope is what we know children need and the sequence is what we pay attention to when they show us they need it.” This is especially important with young learners. No publisher knows our children better than us.
My second grade teacher was MIldred Henrie. I loved her with all my heart. She had beautiful white hair piled on top of her head. Her blue eyes twinkled when she smiled at me and her blue eyes could shoot a glare of “stop that right now!” But she never raised her voice and she always made me feel like I was the most important person in her world when she sat down beside me. She turned sixteen the year I had her (Leap Day) and we celebrated with laughter and songs and joy. It was a beautiful year.
I guess that the most important thing I’ll keep in mind as I start my 35th year and work with younger learners is that, “Childhood is not preparation for anything. Childhood just IS, and they only get one. It’s up to us to protect it!” (Laminack, 1995).
It just is.
Step back and refill your wagon with what’s most important. I know I will be.
Allen, Patrick. Conferring: The Keystone Of Reader’s Workshop. Stenhouse Publishers. 2009
Anthony, MIchelle. “Cognitive Development in 6-7 Year Olds.” Scholastic, 2017.
Hansen, Jane. When Writers Read. Heinemann, 2001.
Keene, Ellin. Engaging Children: Igniting a Drive for Deeper Learning. Heinemann, 2018.
Laminack, Lester. Learning with Zachary. Scholastic, 1995.
Mraz, Kristine, Porcelli, Allison, and Tyler, Cheryl. Purposeful Play: A Teacher’s Guide to Igniting Deep and Joyful Learning Across the Day. Heinemann, 2016
Public Education and Business Coalition, Thinking Strategies for Learners, PEBC, 2014.
Smith, Frank. Understanding Reading: A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading. L. Erlbaum Associates, 1971.
Patrick Allen is a second grade teacher at Frontier Valley Elementary in Parker, Colorado and he has taught in Douglas County Schools for over 30 years. He is the author of Conferring: The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop and co-author of Put Thinking to the Test, both with Stenhouse Publishers. Patrick’s work is highlighted in two video series, “Fact Finders” and “What are You Thinking?” (Stenhouse). Patrick has worked with the Public Education and Business Coalition (PEBC) as a staff developer and his classroom serves as a lab classroom for local and national visitors. Patrick has presented locally, nationally, and internationally. He is a regular attendee and presenter at the CCIRA Conference. Patrick’s wife, Susan, is a first grade teacher. He has four grown children (his oldest daughter teaches Kindergarten) and one grandson, Ryker.