From First Impressions to Lasting Ones – Three Ways to Keep Students in the Center of Our Classrooms

Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts, 2019 CCIRA Conference Presenters

Researchers from Princeton University discovered that first impressions are created within a fraction of a second after seeing someone’s face. Within milliseconds, we form ideas about the other person’s trustworthiness, competence, and likeability, all based upon reading the face they put forward.

CCIRA 2019, an annual literacy conference in Denver, creates an excellent first impression. From the moment we left the taxi cab and entered the convention, we knew we were in for a great conference. The face of this conference is warm, professional, full of information. From the moment the conference begins, it is clear that our learning is the drive behind this gathering of educators. CCIRA is a conference that puts teachers first.

We left the conference full – our notebooks full of new thinking, bags heavy with new books and our phones filled with new contacts. We left remarking on how CCIRA mindfully and deliberately creates such a teachers-first space, informing, inspiring and innovating our practice. In fact, this year’s conference theme was Inspire!: Championing literacy from conference to classroom.

We craved a way to bottle up the energy of this conference and bring it back to our classrooms on Monday morning. On our flight home, we realized we could study CCIRA 2019 like a mentor text – closely studying the ways this conference creates such a learner-first culture.

We noticed CCIRA does three powerful things in the design of the conference that welcomes, nurtures and inspires their learners – us! And isn’t that what we all want to do in our classrooms? To welcome, nurture and inspire our students. We share these three ways with you, whether you attended the conference or not, so that you can take a little bottle of CCIRA with you into your classrooms this week.

  1. Craft an environment that tells a story.

Pay attention to details, big and small. From the layout design of the entire conference to Screen Shot 2019-02-14 at 7.16.26 AMthe little signs sitting at each coffee table, the details of a space tell a story to participants and create powerful first impressions. Each of these details had purpose. Each space of the conference held details that are functional, inspirational and informational – clear session titles, inspiring quotes and live digital Twitter feeds teaching us as we walked from one space to the next.

Take a brief moment before students arrive or a right after the kids leave for specials and let your eyes drift around your environment. What story do the details tell your students? What details in your environment are functional? Inspirational? Informational? Find one small space you could attend to this week – a corner of your library, a section of your classroom wall, a part of your writing center. Take “before” and “after” pictures to get a visual reward of your work!

  1. Create lots of ways for learners to learn.

Walking down the hallways of CCIRA, you’ll notice lots of different ways teachers experienced their learning. Some sessions were intensive, exciting crash courses in research. Some were filled with examples of student work to study and learn from. And some sessions created lots of time for teachers to experience their own literacy practices.

Screen Shot 2019-02-14 at 7.16.33 AMLook across a class period, a day or a week. Study the different ways kids experience
content alongside you. How many times are you a professor, sharing lots of cool, new research with kids? For example, Donalyn Miller brought the audience to their feet with layers and layers of reading research to support independent reading practices. Perhaps you are teaching a nonfiction reading unit and you begin class by sharing the research on how much false information was spread on social media over the past two years. How many times are you a coach, coaching students to get active and practice writing and reading? How many times are you an artist, encourage students to study the work of others so they can improve upon their own work? Have an eye on not just what we teach but how we teach it can help engage learners in their journey with you across the year.

  1. Put kids first.

Simple and obvious, we know. But in the midst of the school year, this can get lost. There are so many pressures facing our students and ourselves as teachers each day. From high-stakes tests to high-stakes mandates to high-stakes data, there are days that we find ourselves talking about everything but the little people in front of us.

One of the grand hallways in the conference hall was filled with huge reminders of why Screen Shot 2019-02-14 at 7.16.39 AMwe all left our classrooms and gathered together as teachers. Local elementary schools gifted attendees with huge replicates of favorite book covers. These handmade banners hung above our heads, reminding us of the recipients of our learning – our students. The banners depict each of the nominees for the Colorado Children’s Book Award, a unique award where students actually nominate and vote for their favorite books!

Look around your classroom this week. What signals could you send your students that lets them know they come first. Perhaps it is something handmade, like a chart or letter. Perhaps it’s an excerpt of a piece of student writing or a photograph of a student reading.

CCIRA helped us find a place to belong in their learning space by offering small details, packed agendas and student snapshots throughout the background and foreground of our day. Here’s to finding a small way to make a big impact as we move from conference to classroom this week.

by Kate Roberts & Maggie Beattie Roberts

Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts began their teaching careers as middle school teachers in urban centers — Kate in Brooklyn, Maggie in Chicago. They both felt a natural fit in the energy, intensity and humor of early adolescence. After their graduate education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, Kate and Maggie became literacy consultants with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project for nearly a decade.

Over time, Kate and Maggie have become known for their concrete solutions to tough situations, their humor, and their strong curricular, pedagogical and personal support of teachers, administrators and students. These strengths shine through during their presentations and social media presence, such as their blog, indent, Twitter accounts, and their video series for their latest book, DIY Literacy.

Check out their website for more on their publications – from blogs to books – and dates for upcoming presentations. They can be found on Twitter @TeachKate and @MaggieBRoberts.



3 Key Questions to Ask Yourself Before Having a Hard Conversation

By Jennifer Abrams, 2019 Conference Presenter

Everyone is busy. Yes. True.  If we have something to do, we want to do it efficiently and then check off the task.  I relate. If we can send an email, put something out in mass messaging, or get the word out fast on the intercom, we like to do it and then check it off.  Some things can be communicated in that way but hard conversations aren’t one of those things.  Hard conversations about team accountability, co-teaching challenges, performance reviews, classified staff snafus or parent calls; those conversations take more time and more planning. The conversations can be awkward, difficult and emotional. And, the conversations haveto be had.  If something is educationally unsound, physically unsafe or emotionally damaging and you don’t think coaching or inquiry will be the best way of communication to get the point across, you need to have a hard conversation.  If you want to be effective as a colleague, a coach or an administrator, you need to not only have hard conversations, but to make them humane and growth producing as well.

In the spirit of the “Top 10” checklists out there, I will go one step further.  Here’s a Top 3 checklist. The top 3 key questions which can make a difficult conversation even more professional, more humane and more effective.

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Photo courtesy of Mimi Thian 

Question 1: Do I need to have a clarifying conversation INSTEAD of a hard conversation?

Blaine Lee says, “Almost all conflict is the result of violated expectations.” We think we have been clear. So, it makes sense that we should be able to speak up and express our concern, but pause and ask yourself: does everyone know what the expectations are?  Are the standards evident? Did the job description get reviewed and discussed? Have we revisited the group norms for how we work together? Often times we think everyone is on the same page and yet clarification hasn’t happened.  Expectations aren’t clear.

I worked with one new principal who was frustrated that the team leads at his middle school “weren’t doing their jobs” and then discovered there was no job description.

We need to be ‘two feet in the present’ and clarification conversations need to take place before hard conversations.   Clarity before accountability.

Question 2: Do I know what the problem is and can articulate it in a professional way?

I state in my workshop that during a hard conversation there should be no saliva.  A saliva moment is when something is said too pointedly; it is too generalized and too opinionated. The other person grimaces, sucks in a breath and saliva is heard.  It is the moment of the ‘too harsh’ statement.  When we get frustrated, we go emotional with our language.  “Too” or “Very.”  “Always” or “Never” – adverbs that inflame.  Do I know how to say what I want to say but in a professional way? And can it be tied to language of the job description.  The standards.  The expectations.

One principal said, “I just want to tell this person to step up and do her job.” We brainstormed a more professional way to speak to the teacher. We moved away from the global and the inflammatory to language that was professional and aligned with the job description.   Moving out of the emotional isn’t easy, but it is the more mature way to voice a concern.

 Question 3: Do I have an answer to ‘What do you want me to do about it?’

Many a principal has been infuriated with me because I ask them to consider responses to the question above.  Haven’t we hired a professional?  Doesn’t the adult we have in our employment know how to do the job? Why do we need to spoon-feed them by giving the staff responses to this question?

It is understandable to be frustrated, but at this moment in time, the person is looking for some takeaways and you want to see a different behavior.  They want to get a more specific sense of what the actions should be to have you see them as effective in their role, and it is a humane and growth producing thing to do to have a few answers at the ready that are doable.  Consider the frustration one might feel when they are told they aren’t collaborating effectively and yet the person sharing this with them can’t describe one action they could take.  Many times we are too broad with our suggestions.  “Engage more.”  “Infuse more technology.”  “Be a better colleague.” Instead it is better to say, “Here are some behaviors that indicate what I mean by engagement.”  “Here are some ideas of what collegiality could look like.”  Being prepared with some answers is the growth-producing thing to do.

We all need to work on thinking before we speak in order to be more professional and supportive for when we do. Yes, it will take some time and in the fast paced world of education time isn’t something we have much of, yet putting some thought in before we speak is worth it.  Making hard conversations more humane and growth producing will benefit all who learn, teach and work in and with our schools.

Jennifer Abrams is the author of Having Hard Conversations(Corwin, 2009), The Multigenerational Workplace: Communicate, Collaborate & Create Community(Corwin, 2013) and Hard Conversations Unpacked: The Whos, the Whens and the What Ifs(Corwin, 2016) and the upcoming book, Swimming in the Deep End: Four Foundational Strategies for Leading Successful School Initiatives(Solution Tree, March, 2019).  She can be reached at or on Twitter @jenniferabrams.


Making Reading the Reward

by Danny Brassell, Ph.D., 2019 CCIRA Conference Featured Speaker

At the village church in Kalonovka, Russia, attendance at Sunday school picked up after the priest started handing out candy to the peasant children. One of the most faithful was a pug-nosed, pugnacious lad who recited his Scriptures with proper piety, pocketed his reward, then fled into the fields to munch on it.

The priest took a liking to the boy and persuaded him to attend church school. This was preferable to doing household chores from which his devout parents excused him. By offering other inducements, the priest managed to teach the boy the four Gospels. In fact, he won a special prize for learning all four by heart and reciting them nonstop in church. Even 60 years later, the “peasant boy” still liked to recite Scriptures, but in a context that would horrify the old priest. For the prize pupil, who memorized so much of the Bible, was Nikita Khrushchev, who would become Premier of the Soviet Union.

The same Nikita Khrushchev who nimbly mouthed “God’s Word” when a child, later declared God to be nonexistent – because his cosmonauts had not seen Him in outer space. Khrushchev memorized the Scriptures for the candy, the rewards, the bribes, rather than for the meaning it had for his life. Artificial motivation will produce artificial results.

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by Rawpixel on Unsplash

Anyone can develop the reading skills of a child who already likes to read. The real trick is working with students who do not like to read for one reason or another. The question, then, becomes, “How do entice children to read if they do not like to read?”

Inspiring students to love reading can require a great amount of determination, focus and effort, especially for struggling readers who are under-motivated or resistant. Taking the right approach and knowing which techniques to use or avoid is important in helping our students succeed. Students need to be engaged in ongoing reminders about why reading is important (the rewards) and how it will help them in their lives, both now and in the future.

The best reward for students to read is to make reading rewarding to the student.

Rewarding students for reading takes a delicate balance of love and persistence. As parents and teachers, there are some things that we simply must require of our students. We must be persistent that they attend school regularly, behave themselves appropriately, change their underwear, eat properly, etc. Improving our reading skills and nurturing our attitudes toward reading should be added to this list of required activities. When adults consistently follow up in a loving manner to help readers improve and battle through the roadblocks, we send the message that reading is important and we care enough to make sure improvement happens.

Sometimes giving a gentle nudge is all it takes, while other times your engagement requires a more direct or serious approach. No matter what approach you choose to use, it is important that struggling readers hear reasons why you are being persistent. “I’m following up and getting on your case because I care about you and want you to enjoy reading” is a great way to communicate your intentions.

Students also need to feel an appropriate level of challenge. Reading cannot be overly challenging in terms of the difficulty level of materials or the duration.  Students want challenges that they can accomplish, but they need people closely involved to set them up for success by mentoring them, monitoring them, keeping them accountable and teaching them to get back up when they fall.

Strategic complements are one of the best rewards we can give struggling readers, especially compliments that are thoughtful, come from the heart and well-timed. Compliments are easy, effective and help build confidence in readers. Shallow compliments like “I like your book” or “good job, reading” can sometimes work, but the best compliments are ones that are crafted in a way that builds the character of the receiving person. Give compliments that are based on significant reading efforts, improvements, determination, risk-taking and occasions that connect their personality and talents with reading materials.

Still stuck? Here are some quick tips for reading rewards:

  • If you need ideas to remind students of the rewards that reading offers, check out the huge list of children’s book categories on Amazon. You’ll find over 20 different topics that are then broken down into hundreds of specific sub-topics. There’s something there for everyone!
  • Discuss the results of reading tests in a non-judgmental way. Justify a poor performance with concrete, specific reasons that don’t insult students’ character. Give them hope for improvement, make a plan to help them succeed, then follow up to make sure they do.
  • Foster positive reading relationships – the more often struggling readers interact with people who love reading, the more likely their positive attitudes will rub off on them. This applies to peers, parents, teachers, administrators, etc.
  • Book prizes (meaning, rewarding students with actual books) are the best extrinsic motivators.
  • Don’t use rewards to bribe students into reading. It may work in the short term, but not in the long run.
  • Validate what students like to read. It shows that you respect them.
  • Avoid rewarding students if they don’t need the reward. This is called the “Overjustification Effect.” When students are rewarded for things that they already enjoy doing, their desire to participate in those activities decreases.
  • Avoid giving ongoing rewards that students anticipate. The reward will be much more meaningful if it is unexpected.

Danny Brassell is affectionately known as “Jim Carrey with a Ph.D.,” ( and is an internationally-acclaimed speaker and best-selling author of 15 books, including Read, Lead & Succeed and The Reading Makeover, based on his popular TEDx talk. He is the co-founder of the world’s top reading engagement system for struggling and reluctant readers,

Leveraging Meaning

By Wendy Ward Hoffer, 2019 CCIRA Featured Speaker

“To think inclusively and to think for one’s self is very difficult…Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal and the facts from the fiction.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King, The Purpose of Education, 1947.

Dr. King’s words rang true in the days of the Civil Rights Movement, as they ring true today: the purpose of education is to generate a nation of thoughtful, thinking citizens.

How? P. David Pearson’s research, also from the last century, lights the way to supporting all learners’ cognitive acuity and understanding. In 1983, he and his colleagues investigated how proficient readers make sense of complex texts. They found astonishing congruency between the responses of participants in their study. Turns out, we humans pick from a pretty short list of strategies when we are processing information. We tend to:

  • Draw on background knowledge
  • Ask questions
  • Infer
  • Visualize
  • Determine importance
  • Synthesize, and
  • Monitor for meaning

After Pearson’s research was published, some smarty pants teachers got a hold of it and decided, “If that’s what all the successful grown-ups are doing, let’s go teach those strategies to the kids.” And so they did. Hence, the wonderful and amazing work of Ellin Keene, Cheryl Zimmerman, Cris Tovani and so many other empowering teachers who highlighted how these strategies can help learners comprehend text.

More good news: these strategies aren’t just for fiction or even just for narrative text. We do use these thinking strategies to make sense of everything: graphs, pictures, word problems, facial expressions, clouds in the sky. They transfer and apply, hence the good value in teaching these to all learners.


Let’s take math, for example, where we are recovering from decades of algorithm-focused instruction that sidelined understanding in favor of tricks, like “copy-dot-flop” as the means to divide fractions. How might a thinking strategy leverage deeper understanding of that concept? Let’s visit a PEBC lab classroom where the host teacher is inviting learners to visualize and represent the meaning of ¾ divided by 1/3:

“With your partner, come up with as many ways as you can to represent ¾.”

Students scramble to record thinking in their math notebooks: sketches of pizzas, measuring cups, along with coins and division problems fill their pages. Then the teacher calls the group back and gathers everyone’s thinking on the board. She reminds the learners, “Your job is to select the representation that is both accurate and makes sense to you.”

“Now, turn and talk to your partner: what would it mean to divide ¾ by 3?”

After some conversation, the class discusses as a whole and agrees that if you divide ¾ by 3, you would have ¼. Students show this in a variety of ways using the models of ¾ they already created. “Now, what would it mean to divide that same ¾ by 1/3?”

Again, students are invited to discuss with peers, to use their representations to make sense of this problem. Consensus emerges: a little more than two one thirds fit inside three fourths.


As the conversation continues, the teacher challenges the group to represent other fraction division problems as they grow their understanding of this concept. The class closes with a reflection: how do visualizing and representing help us understand? Learners have a lot to say!

This is but one example of how a thinking strategy can leverage understanding in math. There are so many more! The wonderful news is that these strategies many literacy teachers know well can be equally useful to math learners when we bring them to work in authentic ways.

In order to meet Dr. King’s purpose, to raise a nation of thinkers, we must make make conceptual understanding – not just coverage of content – our target; then, intentionally design learning experiences that support students in developing tools to help them make meaning.

To learn more along these lines, attend the June 24 – 25 PEBC Minds on Math Institute; check out Minds on Mathematics, my book on math workshop; or come to one of my sessions at CCIRA, “Math Workshop” Thursday at 10:30 or my keynote, “We Teach Who We Are,” Thursday at 4:30. I look forward to talking with you more about how we leverage meaning for each and every learner.

Wendy Ward Hoffer  is the author of four books about teaching math and science for understanding: Science as Thinking (Heinemann, 2009), Minds on Mathematics (Heinemann, 2012), Developing Literate Mathematicians (NCTM, 2016), and Cultivating STEM Identities (Heinemann, 2016). She works with teachers at all levels to support learners’ understanding of math and science at the Public Education Business Coalition (PEBC) Follow her @wendywardhoffer

Little Pieces of Classroom Joy

By Zac Chase

On the way out of a classroom last week, a middle school language arts teacher stopped me. To tell me about the joy he was seeing in his students. For the unit they were exploring, he had built in choice for the extended texts they were reading. Six titles, all tied together thematically, all appropriate to the age of the students, all presenting varied perspectives on their combined theme. “They are really enjoying selecting their own books,” he said.

I tried to maintain my stoic I’m-from-the-district-and-I’m-here-to-help facade. Inside, I was cheering.

Students in the room weren’t just choosing their texts, they were choosing their talk as well. This teacher, we’ll call him Juan, had built a lesson using the Say Something protocol where students ran their own conversations about texts and had control over what they were moved to say about what they had read. If you’re not familiar, Say Something leaves equal room for a student to say, “I have no idea what’s going on here,” and “I was intrigued by the apparent change of motivation for the protagonist in this passage.”

In addition to the choice of text and the control of talk and thought, students were sitting in community with one another. While Juan’s room had been rays of desks emanating from the “front” of the classroom near the dry erase board at the beginning of the year, arrangement and design had shifted between my visits. Now, students were seated in clusters of four, facing one another, in proximity and arrangement that lent themselves to collaboration. The “front” was wherever the learning needed it to be and students had immediate access to the thinking of their peers.

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Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Juan’s class was exhibiting an awareness of the situated motivation my co-author Chris Lehmann and I think through as part of our book Building School 2.0. Well, he was hitting three of the four C’s. Jaun had choice, challenge, and collaboration. For the fourth C, we’d need to look at how he came to design what was happening in the room.

What We Want for Students We Must Want for Teachers

This year, we are trying something new in the district. At the end of each quarter, but with enough time before the start of the next, we’ve been hosting unit design workshops. I bring coffee, doughnuts, and some chill music and teachers are invited to drop in anytime between 9 and 4 on a Saturday and are compensated at their hourly rate. It’s a chance to get the time and space to think about the learning experiences they want to design for their students in the coming quarters. It’s a bit of an experiment.

Juan attended our last workshop. Though he’d signed up to come for two hours, he stayed for six. Newly returning to the language arts classroom, he’s been working to familiarize himself with our district’s curricular resources. He wasn’t sure what we’d be doing that Saturday, but understood it was time and space to plan.

I should point out I have nothing planned for these workshops. Beyond the coffee, doughnuts, and music, I’ve got nothing. It’s not that I don’t have a million things I’d love to say face-to-face to teachers I know don’t have time to read the e-newsletters I send out. It’s that I’m working to create a space that puts into play the fourth C (and all the others) – control. I recognize that much of the professional learning opportunities teachers experience are packed with information, curated minute-by-minute, and rarely start with, “What is it you’re hoping to get out of our time together today?” This is to say nothing of adjusting our meticulously-designed agendas to respond to the answers to those questions.

So, when Juan showed that Saturday, neither of us knew his response to “What are you hoping to work on?” would lead to the two finding a roll of brown paper to chart out his next quarter’s work, intermittently conferencing with me and his other colleagues in the room to brainstorm and barnraise his ideas.

Remarkably – though not surprisingly – Juan left that workshop with a unit plan that included every piece of what I would have put into a Saturday class on unit design. The difference? He got their on his own. The pieces he was unsure of were uncovered as he worked, and he leveraged the power of the room to get the answers he needed.

While Paris and Turner largely speak to student experience in their work around situated motivation, the implications for the systems we build for adult professional learning cannot be overlooked. If we want our classrooms to include space for students to work together, to make informed decisions, and to own their learning, then we must build similar experiences for adults.

While this is normally a message for administrators and professional development staff, it doesn’t solely reside their. We adults in the education system must be advocates of our own learning. This might mean asking questions like, “Could I help design the next faculty meeting to include more hands on activities?” or “How might we make the next PD feel like what’s happening in the best classrooms in the building?” Increasing capacity, efficacy, and joy means building with, not for.


 Paris, Scott G., and Julianne C. Turner. “Situated motivation.” Student motivation, cognition, and learning. Routledge, 2012. 229-254.

Zac Chase is the pK-12 Language Arts Coordinator at St. Vrain Valley School District.  With Chris Lehmann he wrote Building School 2.0: How to Create the Schools We Need. Zac has worked at Science and Leadership Academy in Philadelphia and the US Department of Education in the Office of Educational Technology. Find him on Twitter @mrchase.