Re-Imagining RtI / MTSS: Putting Students Back at the Center of Instructional Designs

By Julie Wright and Mark Bazata

When the Individuals with Disabilities Act was reauthorized in 2004, Response to Intervention (RtI) hit the educational landscape like an avalanche. The goal was to move away from a discrepancy model for identifying students and to provide support for students who needed different options to meet their learning needs. Then, in 2015 the Elementary and Secondary Education/Every Student Succeeds Act (ESEA/ESSA), signed into law in December 2015, called for a “for a multi-tier system of supports for literacy services”, aka MTSS.  While well-intentioned at the onset, but, unfortunately, have created a rigid system of canned programs and the potential for creating more policies and procedures by depersonalizing support, over-scaffolding, and placing students in a box by using labels that hurt more than they helped. In the process, it also robbed many teachers of the autonomy and agency they once had to differentiate and meet students’ needs. Many years have passed and the problems of practice continue to increase. So what do we do now?

RtI / MTSS 2.0

The good news is that we can harness many of the positive aspects of RtI / MTSS while still allowing teachers the ability to utilize their immense knowledge of their students in a positive, asset-based approach to responding to students’ educational needs. We’ve listed three strategies that we’ve used to address some of the challenges teachers and administrators face when working within an RtI / MTSS system.  These new ways of thinking and operationalizing support empower teachers and create opportunities for students to reach their full potential.   

Strategy 1 – Menu of Supports 

Let’s face it.  Whether we are advocates for pre-packed or boxed curricula and resources or not, we know that there isn’t one program or instructional material that meets all students’ needs.  Schools and districts are smart.  We know that there’s no one-stop solution and that the important work is in creating the match — matching what students know, understand, can do and need with the just-in-time support to nudge them forward.  If we aren’t careful, we end up with more login usernames, passwords, teacher manuals, student journals and at-home extra practice booklets than we know what to do with.  On the surface, this will look like we are resource rich, when actually we will be responsive-to-all-students’-unique-needs poor.  This is because many of these resources are focused more on skills and less on students’ individual needs and wants.  Creating a Menu of Supports, with carefully crafted instructional designs and thoughtfully curated materials that are culturally responsive to meet students’ individual and collective needs is a strategy that goes the long distance.  

Take Action

Creating a Menu of Support that teachers will feel comfortable with and empowered to use isn’t as easy as putting together a list of interventions. First, teachers need to understand the vision for how the supports fit into their daily routines. Some teachers may be able to already see it because they use intervention in their classes already. Others may need to see an example schedule or even a video of how it would look in their routine. Next, they need to participate in professional dialogue around ways to get to know students and use that intel into the supports they create. This requires teachers to be able to envision different ways to provide student support, have access to easy-to-use resources, and time for low-risk practice in using them. Finally, there needs to be a follow-up plan. This could include offering scaffolded support in the classroom from a coach or feedback from a principal during the school day. 

We were able to roll out a Menu of Support effectively in one building by taking a faculty meeting and turning it into a “mini conference” around reading supports. We set up three classrooms that teachers could visit. We had three 20-minute sessions where teachers and reading specialists modeled a reading support, explained how teachers could use them, and then gave them time to practice the support with a colleague. Teachers were able to select three supports that they felt would be the most beneficial to them that year, and by the end of the one hour, each teacher had three new reading supports that they felt comfortable trying in their classroom. Through the next four weeks, the principal asked the teachers to try each of the three out with a student or small group during their literacy workshop time, and at their next faculty meeting, the teachers shared how the support worked in their classrooms. 

Strategy 2 – Asset-based Child Study Teams 

When we focus on assets — building upon human, social, and cultural capital — we can identify and utilize individual and collective strengths, rather than focusing on deficits, or weaknesses.  Some may argue that if we name what is not working, we (teachers) can use a fix it approach to making things better.  One way we can shift into an asset-based stance is shining a light on what students can do versus focusing on what they cannot do.  An asset-based response to instruction begins by knowing kids beyond the numbers.  Dr. Towanda Harris (2019) reminds us that, “Knowing our students helps us to choose the most powerful resources for them and to make every moment in our precious instructional time count.”  When we go on a data dig to find out about students’ whole selves — inside and outside of school hours, we disrupt current practices and position ourselves for finding the good in what kids’ know, understand and can do and design learning opportunities that meet students’ collective and individual needs.  Some questions to ask include:

  • What language(s) does the student speak?  Read?  Write?
  • Who are the student’s best buds?  What do they like to do together?
  • Is the student left or right-handed?  Wear glasses?
  • What’s in the “next up to read” book stack for this student?
  • Is this student an only child?  Oldest? Youngest?
  • How would you describe this student from a whole-child perspective?  How would this student describe him/herself?
  • What do we need to figure out about students’ strengths and areas needing a lift that will help us better serve their individual needs and wants?
  • How will our instruction help students learn more about themselves and others?
  • How will we ensure that our instructional practices include criticality, or critical consciousness?

Take Action

Creating meeting structures that use asset-based language is one way to keep team members accountable to positive responses.  Look at the form or documents you use for your student study teams. What are the first things you look at and discuss? Too often we don’t address the strengths of students, and the few times that we do, we give them lip service and don’t actually think about using their strengths in meaningful ways. We skip over that and move to the data (that is mostly measuring their deficiencies) and spend our time talking about what the student CAN’T do. 

What would happen if we swapped our structure around? Yes, we know we want to help students with an academic or behavioral skill or goal.  We wouldn’t be having a study team if that wasn’t the case, but what if we framed the structure of the meeting to ask, “How can we harness the student’s interest, strengths, and dreams to help them improve …?” Let’s take for example a student who was struggling to focus in the beginning of the class period. Then, we held our student study team to brainstorm ways we might provide support, and in a conversation with his mom, we found out that every day after school, he would go over to a neighbor’s house to help them with their pets. He was very focused during that time, and it was something he really enjoyed doing. When asked why he liked that work, he said, “Because I had a job to do, and I felt like I was helping them.” We harnessed his desire for purpose and belonging by giving him a job to do when he first came into the class – making sure everyone had the materials they needed. Once he did his job, he was able to focus on his classwork more effectively.

Strategy 3 – Broaden Who and Where 

The least restrictive environment for students is most often right in their classroom, working, and learning right next to their teachers and peers.  When instructional designs and plans are created to meet all students’ wants and needs in Tier 1, natural interventions are intentionally built in.  Good instruction often results in some of the best interventions.  When support is provided in Tier 1, such as specialists pushing into the classroom, it opens up opportunities for adults to work together to provide on-the-spot instruction that also serves as interventions.  In addition, when teachers work together it can be empowering as they can lift each other up and learn from one another.  

One surefire way to create natural interventions is to get students involved.  When we make decisions with and for students, we open up opportunities for creative and collaborative problem solving.  When asked, “What’s your role?” during a data team meeting or a 1:1 conference, students might respond by telling us what they need and want that will help them succeed.  For example, a student might explain that they need support in creating a book stack reflecting up next to read books or that they want to work in a small, flexible group with peers.  In addition, students might self-identify they need a seat change, an extension for an upcoming due date, or an independent study project to take the learning in a new or different direction.  There’s no doubt that optimizing the Tier 1 classroom through a push-in model and getting students involved to personalize instructional designs yields greater success.  If you are interested in broadening the who and where of instructional designs and plans, consider using the Least Restrictive Environment Protocol.

Take Action

To try the Least Restrictive Environment Protocol, create a four column chart with the following headings: 

  • Supports (Who can support the student?)
  • Inputs (What type of support can be provided?)
  • Student (What is the student’s role?)
  • Output (What are the intended consequences with and for the student?)

With a team of stakeholders who know or support the student, brainstorm ideas for each column. After the brainstorm, highlight what the team sees as the highest leverage supports, share those supports with anyone who works with the student, and set a time to come back and revisit how the supports are working. 

Book stacks are a high-leverage practice to support students in the classroom that can be done by anyone working with that student. We typically think of book stacks for younger students, where they have a bin of high-interest books at various levels that students can choose from and read, but this concept can be used at older grades as well. For example, in eighth grade social studies class, students were asked to present on a figure who contributed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. On one of the research days, the Library Media Specialist came to work with one of the groups with some sample articles, videos, and infographics that addressed each of the people students could pick from. The group looked at the texts, and they each picked one the read that matched what they were most interested in. After reading, they shared a summary of the text and what they learned from it. Not only did this give students some autonomy of what they picked to read, they had access to different types of texts, and they were all able to learn the key information they needed to create a successful product and sales pitch. 

Conclusion

The time is now. It’s a perfect time to reset and think forward.  Let’s reimagine the instructional designs and supports that will be put into place to meet students’ individual and collective needs. This is a double win, creating opportunities to increase teacher autonomy and agency while also putting students at the center of our decision-making.  So, let’s do it.  Let’s reimagine RtI / MTSS.  The time really is now!

References

Harris, Towanda. The Right Tools: A Guide to Selecting, Evaluating, and Implementing Classroom Resources and Practices. Heinemann, 2019. 

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 (2004).

No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, 20 U.S.C. § 6319 (2008).

Wright, Julie.  What’s Our Response?  Creating Systems and Structures to Support ALL Learners.  FIRST Educational Resources, 2021.

Bios

Julie Wright is a traveling teacher, instructional coach, educational consultant, author, and a short  texts-of-all-types enthusiast. Whether working alongside students, teachers, or administrators, Julie  believes in bringing out the best in the work by using asset-based approaches. As an educator for  over 25 years, Julie has worked in rural, urban, and suburban settings. Julie is the co-author of What Are You Grouping For?, Grades 3-8: How to Guide Small Groups Based on Readers — Not the Book and author of What’s Our Response? Creating Systems and Structures to Support ALL Learners and Side-by-Side Instructional Coaching: 10 Asset-Based Habits that Spark Collaboration, Risk-Taking, and Growth.  To learn more visit Julie’s website www.juliewrightconsulting.com or connect with her on Twitter @juliewright4444.

Mark Bazata, PhD (mark.bazata@gmail.com) is the Superintendent for the Kewaskum School District with over 20 years of professional experience in both the US and England. After teaching high school and middle school English for 14 years, he served as an instructional coach, infusing authentic disciplinary literacy practices in science and career classrooms. He also served as the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for seven years before moving into the Superintendent role. He is passionate about building the leadership capacity of educators, developing  effective professional learning communities, and improving literacy across all grade levels and content areas.

Breathing Life Into the Syllabus: How Teaching Preservice Educators Hones My Practice

By Nawal Qarooni, 2023 Conference Speaker

I have the honor of serving 21 pre-service educators in a children’s literature course this semester at Brooklyn College that covers the art of teaching reading and writing for elementary kids. And it is the best part of my week. 

My students are hungry for information, diligently taking notes and discussing in table groups, co-creating artifacts for their thinking together, and readily asking questions. But what I have found in our few months together so far are a handful of critically important reminders that keep my own teaching pedagogy sharp, relevant and equitable. 

In every session together, I have strived to model validating teaching practices that my students will remember and take back to their own classroom experiences. That they feel part of a warmly-cultivated community with belonging remains at the center of my mind and moves, regardless of what’s written on the syllabus. 

Photos courtesy of the author.

Staying Flexible; Staying Multimodal 

I have been carefully observing the way my undergraduate students learn. About half of them come prepared with analog notebooks and writing utensils. A handful of students solely take notes on electronic devices. One student takes notes on her little iPhone. Another uses a notebook so tiny it would fit in my pocket. Another handful just listen. All of these versions are okay.

After group discussions, I ask that students share their learning with the larger community however they wish. Sometimes we don’t share with the whole group; sometimes they can email me. That could be:

  • a screenshot or a photo of their notebooks. 
  • paragraphs of writing. 
  • a low-pressure recording or video clip of what really stuck with them that day. 
  • a few slides the group co-created during talk time.
  • a drawing, potentially with captions that depicts the content. 

The wide variety of learning artifacts have astounded and impressed me. I’ve been saying aloud, “You are learners with agency. You get to decide how you want to digest and share back what you’ve learned and are still thinking about.” While there is sometimes the tendency to demand that turned in materials for grading or otherwise must be required to look one specific way, I philosophically believe that there are no prescribed musts. I value creativity and individualism. The options I give are meant to serve a wide variety of learners. I want to breed the opposite of fill-in-the-blank thinkers – and future teachers. This openness and leeway is working. 

Revealing My Own, Nuanced Reading Identity 

Each class begins when I shout out a text I recently read and am excited about. I talk about them with equal passion, criticism and wonder. I tell them why I found the text ridiculous, and what questions I had for the author, the characters or our world as a result. I’m honest when my concentration fails. And I am careful to diversify the texts, with an ever-expansive definition of what counts. 

I do this because I know teachers of reading must be readers themselves. But also because the text our students consume are all valid, from new Never Have I Ever episodes to belting aloud and questioning Tems’ Try Me (which I love and sometimes play during writing time) to books they choose on their own, like When We Make It: A Nuyorican novel in verse by Elisabet Velasquez (which my daughter is currently devouring). When I’m modeling in K-8 classrooms, I do this with my own adultish text, too, so the young ones see authentic reading identities too. For every text I ask at least this same, repeated question: what does this text teach us about being human?

Here’s a partial list of what I’ve text-talked recently: 

  • An interesting piece in The Atlantic October 2022 magazine about the rise of myopia in young people worldwide. Because my daughter is experiencing a rapid rate of increased near-sightedness, this article felt especially pertinent.  I told my students about my personal connection and they readily made similar parallel ones, quickly tabbing the piece online for their own reading. 
  • The statement art of an Iranian and Black queer artist I admire greatly, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. I shared the pieces she has currently housed all over my alma mater’s campus at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and asked them to analyze a few pieces with their discussion groups using the questioning stems ‘I see,’ ‘I notice,’ and ‘I wonder.’ Thinking critically about art is no different than thinking critically about alphabetic text, I told them. They were convinced.  
  • Angie Cruz’s recent novel, How to Not Drown in a Glass of Water, which I loved and tore through in a day. One of my students is Dominican and as soon as I read the title, she announced that the author, too must be Dominican, because it’s an idiom she knew well. 
  • A new novel in verse I just read aloud with my young ones, Aida Salazar’s A Seed in the Sun. I told them how reluctant one of my daughter’s was about reading “a whole book of connected poems,” but how, in the end, she thought it was “so fun and easy to understand actually.” 

Naming Aloud My Teaching Moves 

By paying careful attention to my students and what they love, thrive on, and still have questions about, I have been able to tailor each week’s learning to their needs. I go back to the syllabus and jot notes about what else I layered in, and ask them to do the same. I explain that the syllabus- or classroom curriculum they might be handed at their future schools – is solely a guide. We must breathe life into those guides with all of our passions, knowledge about the world, and personal experiences: each valid, valuable, and important. Naturally, the students in my cohort are getting a Professor Q version of this course- a version I have infinite pride in. And it is my specific teaching identity that I bring to the classroom that will positively shape these future educators. I have taken to creating a secondary slide deck – not the actual content, but the teaching behaviors –  that explicitly names the validating pedagogical approaches I have been careful to model each week. That too, is a teaching artifact I am proud of. 

Last week I ended the class with these words. “Remember, your curriculum isn’t meant to be read verbatim. You need to be nimble. You need to know your students. They’ll all be different and perfect. Adjust accordingly.” 

Nawal Qarooni is an educator and writer who works in learning spaces to support a holistic model of literacy instruction. She and her team of coaches at NQC Literacy work with teachers and school leaders to grow a love of reading and composition in ways that exalt the whole child, their cultural capital and their intrinsic curiosities. She is the proud daughter of immigrants, and mothering her four young kids shapes her understanding of teaching and learning. She is a former international newspaper reporter and currently a contributing writer for We Need Diverse Books. Nawal holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan; a master’s degree in newspaper, magazine, and online journalism from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School; and a master’s degree from Brooklyn College via the NYC Teaching Fellows program. In her daily literacy coaching and school-based support, Nawal draws on her years as a middle grades classroom teacher and professional writer, as well as her love of photography and connection to nature. You can find her reading aloud to her kids, running in Liberty State Park, or on Twitter @NQCLiteracy. Learn more about her work at NQCLiteracy.com. 

Growth and Loss: Black Children’s Literature Post-George Floyd 

by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, 2023 CCIRA Author/Presenter

Educators… you should know… there have been whispers. In my private messages, in subtweets, in texts, and in quiet conversations amongst children book authors, I am hearing a sad admission: “The ‘George Floyd Effect’ on publishing is fading.” 

The George Floyd Effect. 

What do we do with that phrase? A phrase that comes from the wrongful loss of a life? An internet search would show you two meanings for it: one that speaks to the way that institutions like schools and publishing and even corporate coffee chains scrambled in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder to reflect upon and address their racism and a second meaning focused on blaming the deceased for criminality and lawlessness (we’ll ignore that one). That first usage of the phrasing impacted what books became available for our classrooms and library shelves. It meant that publishers made extra efforts to employ Black talent and publish Black creatives. It meant more Black children’s books were coming and more schools were prioritizing getting them. 

Because these books were “needed.”

In July 2020, my second book Your Name is a Song had unexpectedly sold out its first printing on the first day of release. I was told books like mine were needed in the aftermath of brutality. And I watched many books about race become bestsellers. Meanwhile, at the request of my editor, I had been working for days on end to add back matter for Hold Them Close, a book that seeks to help Black kids make sense of racism. I sat in a hotel room in Center City Philadelphia when protests broke out in the streets, working to mold historical facts of racial violence into short and accessible sentences for youth. I pushed through  when I wanted to run into the streets too. To scream, to cry, to mourn. To stop and reflect even on my feelings about  senseless death being necessary for people to see the worthiness of our books. But I pushed through because of the repeated refrain that these books were so needed in that moment.

They’ve always been needed though. They continue to be.

There is article upon article about the importance of Black representation for Black children in developing their self worth. Many of us are aware of Rudine Sims Bishop’s work of describing books as “mirrors” or  stories where we see ourselves and are affirmed therein; and as “windows” when we see others and truly empathize with them and possibly even enter the “sliding glass doors” of their worlds. Additionally, in our context where racism persists, we know sources that teach about racism and its history honestly are necessary for change. In the aftermath of George Floyd, Black authors ploughed on as we always do to create texts of joy and of pain, of fun and of importance, of our authentic stories. However, I believe many of us hoped that this moment for change would be something more. We understood it required more than a moment. Our kids needed it to be longer than a moment.

But the George Floyd effect is fading.

Recent research by WordsRated has suggested that the boom in bestselling children’s books with Black characters was fleeting. By 2021, the number of bestselling children’s books with Black characters had decreased by 23%. Gone is that brief moment in time when Black character books and their authors were in demand. Gone are big publishing’s promises as they now dismantle Black imprints and rid themselves of staff unceremoniously. Gone are the promises of big bookstore retailers to support diverse books. As such, educators are now  left to contend not only with the old status quo of options for their students but also a new pressure…

Backlash.

 The backlash to antiracism, the backlash to more stories giving our kids new perspectives and opportunities for empathy, and the backlash to people simply caring about Black life has been book banning. The response has been to stamp out the literary existence of Black people and their history from schools. I watched books like mine–ones that were “so needed” the year before– get banned in a few districts while Black bestsellers of 2020  became banned in countless U.S.  school districts and library systems. Additionally, because anti-Blackness seems to be the gateway to all kinds of bigotry in our societal context it meant that the bans then extended to literature about indigenous peoples, POC,  and in particular, LGBTQ communities. At the root, yet and still, is this nation’s historical commitment to denying the humanity of Black people. 

So what do we do?

How do we  ensure that our kids have access to diverse stories at all times, not just in tragic moments and also in spite of those who see that access is threatening. I suggest:

  • Audit your bookshelves for diverse and equitable representation every year. Do a deeper dive after the audit.
  • Discuss  representation in books with students and what books get banned. Spark conversations and new ways of thinking.
  • Proactively develop the language to argue against  bans. Here are talking points.
  • Develop an awareness of lesser known Black book creators (and those from other marginalized communities). Request their books in your schools and libraries to continue communicating the demand to the industry that we need many voices.
  • Organize at the local level. Get to know who makes these decisions and organize around their elections.
  • If you experience a ban, organize on social media and reach out to authors who are banned. They and others may amplify your efforts as in the case of this campaign.

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow is  is a Philadelphia-based, award-winning children’s book author. A former English teacher, she educated children and teens in traditional and alternative learning settings for more than 15 years. Her picture books and middle grade fiction, which feature young Black and Muslim protagonists, have been recognized as the best in children’s literature by Time Magazine, Read Across America, NCTE, and NPR, and she is a 2021 Irma Black Award Honor author. In addition to producing children’s literature, she invests her time in the mentorship of aspiring children’s book authors through multiple programs including We Need Diverse Books and the Muslim Storytellers Fellowship of the Highlights Foundation where she is also a program committee member.

Mentoring and Coaching to Support Colleagues

By Vicki Collet, CCIRA Past President

As lifelong learners, teachers are always working to improve instruction.  In addition to focusing on your own classroom, are you also supporting other teachers in improving their practice?

Whether you are a student-teaching supervisor, a mentor for an early-career teacher, a team leader or department head, or an administrator or instructional coach working with veteran teachers, you offer support to improve instruction, and you are taking a coaching role. Even if you don’t have an officially-assigned role as a coach, you probably offer up your own teaching ideas from time to time in an effort to help someone else. The Gradually Increase of Responsibility (GIR) Model can make you more intentional about this work. 

The GIR Model for Mentoring & Coaching is a research-developed approach to differentiate the support we offer our colleagues. Just like our students, teachers are at different places in their learning, and they grow in different ways. They’ll benefit most from coaching that meets them where they are, addressing their unique needs. 

Five Moves

The five coaching moves in the GIR model are: modeling, recommending, asking questions, affirming, and praising. Being purposeful about how you choose and change these moves while working with a colleague will make your support more effective. I’ve listed the moves in order from most-supportive to least supportive, as illustrated in the model below:

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Changing Support

The GIR Model flips the popular Gradual Release of Responsibility Model* on its head, looking at support from the learner’s point of view. But, just like our students don’t all need a model for every new concept, the teacher we are supporting may not need the most supportive move. We choose and use the move that matches the need, and we change our support over time, because teachers grow as they go. 

Think of a teacher you are working with. Think of a challenge they are facing. Now think of which of the 5 coaching moves might be most helpful. Here’s a quick list of those 5 moves and when they might be called for:

MoveWhen to Use
ModelTeacher lacks experience with a particular content or practice
RecommendTeacher has requests or questions, or a limited teaching repertoire
QuestionTo prompt planning, problem-solving, and reflection
AffirmGood things are happening, but teacher is looking for confirmation
PraiseTeacher no longer looks to coach for confirmation

Tools for the Work

The 5 coaching moves are tools you can use; you choose based on the current context – the teacher and the situation. 

When I was meeting with a group of coaches, one of them, who was new to the position, felt a bit shaky about her skills. We’d talked about the GIR Model, and she said, “I want to make sure I’m doing this right! Can you tell me what I should be doing right now?”

Coaches from the group who were experienced with the Model chimed in. “The thing about it,” one said, “is that every teacher is different.” Another said, “What you do for one may not be what another teacher needs. It’s different every time!” I nodded my head and emphasized, “When we meet as coaches, I make suggestions about what coaching move you might consider based on where you are in the coaching cycle, but it’s always about what your teachers need.” I went on to describe how they might consider each of the 5 coaching moves and think about which could be most effective at that time. That would be the move they’d emphasize…but not to the complete exclusion of the others. 

Although your coaching will generally move from more supportive to less supportive, the path is not a linear one. Your insight, observation, and careful listening will help you choose your move. 

A Continuum of Support

The 5 coaching moves are useful for supporting teachers at any point along the continuum of experience and expertise. The need for these moves differs among teachers and across time. For example, modeling (the most supportive move) occurs when a preservice teacher has her first practicum experience, visiting a school to observe a teacher in action. Even a very experienced teacher, however, may benefit from modeling; for example, a new technology application could be demonstrated, or an approach to whole-class discussion might be modeled if that is a focus area. If you are mentoring a first-year teacher into the profession, recommendations about available resources might be warranted. For some, asking questions to support reflection about potential changes will provide enough support. An elementary school teacher might request recommendations for improving her math instruction but benefit from simply hearing affirmations about her already-solid instruction during guided reading.

When I talked to a mentor who was working with a student-teaching intern, she described how the GIR model guided her. “She really needed the modeling,” she said, “and at first even that wasn’t working. She didn’t know what to pay attention to. Modeling started working better once I gave her very specific things to watch for.” Then they moved into recommending – a phase that lasted a long, long time! Questioning became the dominant move (even though recommending lingered) much later. And the mentor felt they never made it to praising when she commended the intern’s work; it still felt more like affirming, because the intern seemed to be looking for validation.

A coach who was working with an experienced teacher to implement close reading said, “She really didn’t need the modeling, or the recommending, either. I jumped right in with questioning. That helped support her thinking and reflection.”  But later, when the same teacher was working on differentiation – a complex teaching skill – modeling and recommending were included before moving to less-supportive coaching approaches. 

Successful coaches and mentors adjust based on the complexity and difficulty of the task, as well as teachers’ experience. The 5 coaching moves in the GIR model can be selected, as appropriate, as tools for the work. 

The Right Tool for the Task

The GIR coaching model can serve as a guide no matter who you are working with.  But where you begin and the way you move through it will change every time. Even though coaching conversations will include a healthy mix of recommending, questioning, and affirming, you can be intentional about which one you lean on most as you work with a teacher, focusing on the “bang-for-your-buck” coaching move.

My husband has a garage full of tools, so it amazes me when he “needs” to buy a new one. He explains, however, that having the right tool for the job means it gets done more efficiently and effectively. Similarly, using the right tool at the right time makes coaching more productive. As you think about how to support your colleagues in their efforts to improve instruction, having these 5 moves in your toolbelt will strengthen your work.

* Pearson, P. D., & Gallagher, M. C. (1983). The instruction of reading comprehension. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8(3), 317-344.

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Vicki Collet is a past-president of CCIRA who has been attending and presenting at the conference for over 20 years. She is currently an associate professor in Teacher Education at the University of Arkansas. Read more about mentoring and coaching in her book, Differentiated Mentoring & Coaching in Education: From Preservice Teacher to Expert Practitioner, or on her blog: mycoachcescouch.blogspot.com. Follow Vicki on Facebook at facebook.com/mycoachescouch and Twitter and Instagram @vscollet. You can also find her at VickiCollet.com.

Combatting Aliteracy: Mentoring Today’s Students to Become Tomorrow’s Avid Readers

By Gravity Goldberg

According to a 2021 Pew Research study 23% of adults surveyed say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form. When we look at the surveys of school age children we see reading volume begins to drop by age 9. Only 35%  of nine year olds report reading five to seven days a week compared to 57%  percent of eight year olds (Scholastic, 2019).  These two studies and many others point to a larger issue of aliteracy in this country. 

Aliteracy refers to people who can read but choose not to. While the national narrative has focused on those who are struggling to learn to decode the words (which of course also needs to be addressed), we cannot forget this other group who have not identified as readers and do not see the value of time spent reading. 

We have likely all sat around the dinner table and teacher’s room lamenting social media and smartphones as the cause of so much aliteracy, and of course books are competing for attention with our devices. But, since smartphones are likely not going anywhere, we must look at what we can control – how we frame reading instruction, how we mentor readers, and what we can do to make sure all students graduate understanding not just how to read the words but how to use reading to make lives better. 

Photo courtesy of Pan Xiaozhen via Unsplash

We know there is always a lag between culture and curriculum. Just because something changes in our current culture does not mean we immediately see a shift in what or how we teach. The summer is a great time to reflect and make an action plan for how we can bring our curricular approach up to date. How can we make our literacy approach relevant for our students today so they also become the avid adult readers of tomorrow?

Literacy Habits of Mind

What it means to be literate is always changing given the context we are living within. In Performative Literacy: The Habits of Mind of Highly Literate Readers, by Sheridan Blau (2003), he explains that reading is more than a set of skills. Blau lists the habits that readers must have to be highly literate which include

  • Willingness to suspend closure—to entertain problems rather than avoid them
  • Tolerance for failure—a willingness to re-read and re-read again
  • Tolerance for ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty
  • Metacognitive awareness–capacity to monitor and direct one’s own reading process

If your current approach solely focuses on reading as a set of skills, consider how and where you can integrate the dispositions needed to be highly literate too.

Critical Digital Literacy 

With access to technology and a push for more interconnectedness, being literate also includes critical digital literacy practices. Reading and writing no longer simply include a book or article you can hold in your hands. Reading has broadened to include reading a video, podcast, infographic, and photos etc.

According Hinrichsen and Coombs (2014) successful literacy learners need to engage in four roles to be critically digital literate. They need to be:

  • Code Breakers– How do I crack this text? How does it work?
  • Meaning Makers– How do the ideas represented in the text string together? What are the cultural meanings and possible readings that can be constructed from this text?
  • Text Users–How do the users of this text shape its composition? What do I do with this text, here and now?
  • Text Analysts– What is this text trying to do to me? In whose interests?

If your current approach focuses mostly on finding the  messages “in the book” consider how you can include more multimodal texts and teach students to be more critical thinkers within and beyond the texts. 

Community and Advocacy 

Youth and adults today use the power of social media to form connections and become advocates for the causes they believe in. Being literate includes an interconnectedness to a community who uses language in nuanced and purposeful ways. Readers need to understand the implicit meanings and tone as well as the perspectives that the community holds. They also need to use information to create narratives that inspire change using a variety of mediums. When students understand that reading and writing are powerful tools that allow them to impact others they begin to see their larger value.

Being a member of a literacy community means:Becoming an advocate means:
I bring my full identity with me.I curate the texts I consume.I choose the conversations I want to join.I set goals for myself.I ask for feedback.I see my role in the communities I am a part of.I know and name challenges my communities face.I use texts to understand, empathize, and problem solve.I contribute through listening, speaking, writing, and doing.

If your current approach does not explicitly set all students up to be contributors within a community, think about who and what is being centered so you can make a different set of choices.

Am I Teaching Students to Be Literate Today? 

If we are serious about combating aliteracy we need to teach students that reading is relevant right now. It can bring joy, create connection, and answer questions. Reading cannot simply be about reading levels, test scores, and standards. Students must see the value and purpose of reading within and beyond school if they grow up to be adults who choose to read.

Take some time this summer and fall to reflect in a community around the following questions and then make an action plan for how you will contextualize reading differently this school year. What follows are a few ideas to get you started. 

Reflection QuestionsAction Plan
What are the literacy habits of mind that readers will develop this year?Add literacy habits of mind into curriculum maps Model these literacy habits such as navigating ambiguity, rereading, and leaning into problems by making your own reading process more visible Confer with students regularly and ask them to share their process and habits with you
How will you support students in becoming critical consumers and producers of a variety of texts?Create digital text sets for and with studentsStudy mentor texts that include audio, video and print and discuss the norms of eachModel and coach students inVerifying the accuracy of informationUnderstanding the author’s worldview and perspectiveComparing information across sourcesSynthesizing information from multiple textsMoving between different text types and modalities 
How will the curriculum create space and mentorship for students to be contributors in their communities? Make sure students have access to texts that include positive representative of all identities and communitiesAsk for and center students’ questions that they want to studyIntegrate community-based learning into unitsModel how you use reading and writing to make your communities a better place Include more student work in data meetings that contextualize and humanize students beyond numbers

I can’t help but think of the current humanitarian, political, environmental, and health related crises we are facing. Most days I wake up overwhelmed and some days even hopeless. But then I remember I am a literacy educator and there is much I can do.  None of today’s global or local challenges can be solved without having these literacy dispositions because being literate is not only about the books in our hands, but the ways we think and act. No matter what this next school year brings, please remember, our goal is not simply to create better readers. Our goal is to help students use reading to make their worlds better. 

Dr. Gravity Goldberg is an educational consultant, author and founder of Gravity Goldberg, LLC. While based in the New York / New Jersey metro area, Gravity supports school districts across the country. She specializes in literacy, special education, curriculum, assessment, and learning with technology. Her work ranges from demonstrating lessons and leading workshops on balanced literacy to working with administrators developing curriculum and customizing professional development programs. She works in classrooms from pre-kindergarten through college and in a variety of settings, both urban and suburban. Contact her at Gravity@Drgravitygoldberg.com.