Am I Doing Enough?

by Dorothy Barnhouse

At the beginning of this month, Maria Walther invited readers of this blog to share three words to guide their teaching in 2018. Although I tend not to make formal New Year’s resolutions, I naturally reflect on and focus my priorities as a new year rolls around. I therefore welcomed Maria’s exercise as I returned to work after the holidays.

Three words bobbed to the surface of almost every conversation I had during that first weekback: “Not long enough” (in response to the question, “How were your holidays?”), but I know that’s not what Maria had in mind. I proceeded with my work attuned to other words that might serve as a mantra for me this year.

One classroom, a fourth grade in a New York City public school where I’ve been consulting, offered just the opportunity. But before I reveal the three guiding words that came to me, some background: When I began my work with this teacher last fall, she had complained to me that the scripted curriculum the school had chosen wasn’t working for her students. “They’re not engaged,” she told me, and proceeded to describe how they would groan at the prospect of opening the single text that steered the lessons and tasks, how they would wiggle and misbehave, and how she would spend more time managing the class than teaching. “I want my students to love reading,” she said. “And this curriculum is not doing it.”

I praised the teacher’s instincts to teach her students rather than the curriculum and welcomed the opportunity to rethink her reading classroom (Barnhouse, 2014). Together we began to plan an alternative unit. We pulled from the essential questions and skills that were required of students but chose what we thought would be another, more engaging read-aloud, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. The chapters of this book are short, the characters deeply sympathetic and the themes applicable to any number of issues these students might be facing. I hoped therefore that they would have an opportunity to experience the impact a book can have on their lives. “Why read?” became one of our essential questions, and after reading The One and Only Ivan, we expected the answers to that question to go beyond “because the teacher is telling me to” or “to pass the State tests.”

Additionally, I knew that through the reading of this book, these students would be able to experience what deep comprehension looks, sounds and feels like. The answer-driven scripted curriculum would certainly not do this. Applegate’s prose invites interpretation. It is spare without being overly complex, and students would therefore have lots of opportunities to notice details, generate questions and formulate ‘maybe’ answers that they could confirm or revise as we kept reading (Barnhouse and Vinton, 2012).

And so, in December we got started. We gathered the students together, established partners and talk routines and started reading The One and Only Ivan. Sure enough, through simple open-ended engagements such as asking students to talk with their partners about what they were noticing or what they were wondering, we began to unveil the process of making meaning that I first wrote about with Vicki Vinton in What Readers Really Do. The initial chart of the students’ thinking looked like this:

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Once students internalized the way readers hang onto details (“Know”) and read on with questions in their minds (“Wonder”), we stopped charting but continued to offer students opportunities to talk and share with one another and with the group.

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During the second week of this work, the teacher and I noticed that students’ wonderings were often focused on ‘why’ questions, in particular why characters were doing or saying or thinking what they were. Knowing that ‘why’ questions usually indicate the seeds of an inference, we decided to slow down and linger on making these processes more visible for the students. We wrote down some of their questions and invited themto fit details from the text together in order to draft ‘maybe’ answers to those questions. We demonstrated this thought process by focusing on one student’s question, which was “Why does Ivan name his toy gorilla Not-Tag?” Students pieced details together to make an inference that Ivan misses his sister.

That is where we left off when the holidays rolled around. I was confident that the students and teacher were in a good place. The students were doing authentic reading work and the teacher was facilitating thinking rather than managing tasks.

Fast forward to my return that first week in January: the teacher started our planning session a bit sheepishly, as if making a confession. “I got nervous,” she said. “I felt that I wasn’t doing enough. So I went on Teachers Pay Teachers and got some comprehension questions for the chapters we’re going to read this week.”

Now there has been a lot of chatter recently about Teachers Pay Teachers, taking issue with copyright infringement and discussing the implications of the site on teacher collaboration, but I didn’t want to get into any of that with this teacher. What I wanted to do was respond to her very real fear of “not doing enough.” This teacher had taken a big risk in abandoning the curriculum that had been sanctioned by her administrators and the district. She was going rogue, and I needed to support her and respond to her discomfort.

“Let’s take a look at some of the questions you found,” I suggested, and she handed me a sheet of paper with a decorative border, inside of which was the following question: What does Stella mean on page 53 when she says, “There’s a difference between ‘can’t remember’ and ‘won’t remember.’”? Use details from the text to support your answer.

I was both disappointed and relieved. Relieved because the question was, in fact, simply a different phrasing of a ‘why’ question. It could easily have been stated, “Why does Stella say…?” But I was also disappointed. Students had already been doing this work: asking questions that were giving rise to inferences, which, in turn, were blooming into interpretations and big ideas. Did the teacher not recognize that?

I tried to articulate my thinking. “We’ve been focusing on powerful questions with the students,” I said, “and they seem to have experienced the power of their thinking. It’s helped them make deep inferences and be deeply engaged in the process. Do you think if we read these next few pages and remind them of their thinking, they might ask similar questions that TPT did?” I pointed to the photocopy.

“They might,” the teacher conceded. “But what if they don’t? And they need experience answering these kinds of questions for the test.”

I agreed that they did. “But maybe they’ll do better on canned questions,” I argued, “if we first give them writing experiences from their own questions.” We agreed and decided that it was a good time to move students from talking to writing, perhaps first on post-its and then in their reading notebooks.

And so when we settled the students into the read-aloud, we reminded them, via the anchor charts, about the power of drafting answers to their why questions and told them that today they would be talking and writing. We read a few pages, stopping at the same spot that the TPT question came from, and said to them, “Turn and talk. What questions do you have right now? What are thinking?”

We hunkered down to listen. Sure enough, many partnerships shared versions of the same question the teacher had paid for on TPT, and many posed answers to those questions. Others went even deeper, noticing that the idea of memory and remembering “keeps repeating,” and developing theories about what that pattern could mean. All the students did thinking that was deeper, more satisfying and more authentic than the short-answer task that TPT had suggested. It was time to send them back to their desks to write.

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When I returned to the school the following week, the teacher had created a bulletin board detailing the journey her students had embarked on. Partners had made posters of their thought processes, choosing a ‘why’ question to answer and examining details from the text to formulate a ‘maybe answer’ to that question (‘idea’).  They had also written one-paragraph responses in the manner of the test, some of which were also displayed on the bulletin board.


As I looked at the work, I knew I had my three words for the year.  Here they are, in sentence form:  Trust Authentic Processes.
– We have to trust the authentic processes of our teaching (yes, that teacher was doing enough — more than enough, really);
– We have trust the authentic processes of our students (yes, given the
opportunity, students can, and will, do thinking that is as deep and deeper than
any curriculum or prepared comprehension questions);
– We have to trust the authentic processes of reading. The readers in this fourth-grade classroom were not all arriving at the same answers to their ‘why’
questions at the same moment. No doubt some of them would have “failed” to
accurately answer the TPT question if we had stopped at that page and expected correct thinking right then and there. But as we gave students opportunities to draft and revise, as we made visible how readers postpone clarity but expect it at the same time – to say, “I don’t know yet” – we began to hear the wonderful‘oh’s’ and ‘ah’s’ that show us how deeply satisfying and stimulating reading can be when we allow our students to throw their whole selves into the meaning-making process.

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Authentic processes will work in classrooms if we put our trust in well-written texts. Good books can be our best teachers, if we’re willing to step aside and offer students authentic ways to engage with them. That, certainly, will always be enough.

Happy New Year – and see you at CCIRA in February.

References:Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton. What Readers Really Do: Teaching the Process of Reading. Heinemann, 2012.

Dorothy Barnhouse. Readers Front and Center: Helping All Students Engage with Complex Texts. Stenhouse, 2014.

Katherine Applegate. The One and Only Ivan. HarperCollins, 2012.

Dorothy Barnhouse is a literacy consultant and instructional coach with experience working in elementary, middle and high schools in New York City and across the U.S. She recently completed a two-year residency at the American School of Bombay, where she provided reading and writing support for content-area teachersin Grades 6-12. She is a regular presenter at national literacy conferences and can be found on Twitter <ahref=””>@dorobarn

Looking Forward to a Rebirth of Literacy Teaching and Learning

Like many people, I was more than ready to say good riddance to 2017, which was as disruptive, divisive and depressing a year as any I’ve seen in my lifetime. Yet as I think about 2018, I’ve found myself strangely hopeful that something is stirring in literacy education. And one of the indications of that for me is the theme for this year’s CCIRA conference, where I’ll be presenting two sessions in February.

The theme for this year is Literacy Renaissance, which was inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci’s life, and I have to say that I found the idea of a literacy renaissance incredibly exciting. You see, way before I ever imagined myself working in classrooms and being a writer, I was on my way to becoming an art history major in college, where I studied and fell in love with Renaissance art—especially frescoes and portraits, like Leonardo’s “Lady with an Ermine,” whose soulful eyes you see above.

Leonardo definitely captures the spirit of the Renaissance and seems as powerful a role model as any I can think of. But knowing a bit more about the Renaissance than your average person might, I found myself thinking about that theme in a slightly different way.

I know, for instance, that the word renaissance literally means rebirth, and the historical period known as the Renaissance was seen as the rebirth of the classical traditions of ancient Greece and Rome, where artists had developed and mastered the skill to paint and sculpt figures that actually seemed life-like, with a range of gestures and expressions that conveyed the whole spectrum of human emotions.

Those skills, however, were lost or forgotten during what’s alternately called the Medieval, Middle or Dark Ages. In that period artists struggled with perspective and proportions, with people’s heads sometimes as large as their torsos and their bodies as tall as buildings. The subject matter was also much bleaker than Ancient Greek and Roman art, which is characterized by beauty, ease and grace. Medieval art, on the other hand, reflects a time of plague and superstition, where life was seen as little more than a vale of tears. And that got me wondering: If we’re in or entering a Literacy Renaissance, what was our Classical Age and what were our Dark Ages?

When it comes to the Dark Ages, I think we’ve been living in pretty dark times, where data, accountability and mandates are deemed more important than a teacher’s professional knowledge and judgement—and where teachers and students alike often feel an enormous amount of stress. Unfortunately, though, there are tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of teachers in classrooms across the country who came of age during these times. And many of them may simply be unable to imagine an alternative way of teaching because this world of numbers, packaged programs, and rubrics for everything under the sun is the only one they’ve experienced. And that’s why I think it’s so important to consider what our Classical Age was.

Personally, I see it as the period when figures like Don Graves in writing and Ralph Peterson and Maryann Eeds in reading were developing the concept of readers and writers workshop. Compared to today, where teachers are often overwhelmed by the volume of content they’re expected to cover and the paperwork they’re required to complete, the work of these educators—as can be seen in books like Writing: Teachers & Children at Work (Graves, 1983) and Grand Conversations: Literature Groups in Action (Peterson & Eeds, 1983)—can seem almost leisurely. They took time to listen carefully to children, not just to find an opportunity to teach them, but to more deeply understand their thinking. And there’s an authentic, natural feel to the conversations they had with kids, which, in our age of acceleration, we seem to have forgotten or lost.

Here, for instance, is an anecdote that Tom Newkirk and Penny Kittle share in their book about Don Grave’s work. Children Want to Write. Don and his team of researchers were puzzled by a girl named Amy, whose first drafts were so lovely and thoughtful that she never needed to revise. What was her process? they wonder and asked Amy herself. At first, she said she wasn’t sure, but one morning she came to school and shared what she thought was the answer to Lucy Calkins, who was then one of Don’s researchers:

“I think I know how I write. The other night I was lying in bed and I couldn’t get to sleep. I was thinking, “I wonder how I will start my fox piece in the morning.” It was 9:30 at night and Sidney my car was next to me on the bed. I thought and thought and couldn’t figure how to start it. Finally, about 10:30, my sister came home and she turned on the hall light. Now my door has a round hole where there ought to be a lock. A beam of light came through the hole and struck Sidney in the face. Sidney went squint. Then I knew how I would start my fox piece: There was a fox who lived in a den and over the den was a stump and in the stump was a crack and a beam of light came through the crack and struck the fox full in the face.”

Now just imagine Amy for a moment in a typical classroom today. There’s a good chance she’d be required to write a flash draft first, because supposedly that’s what all writers do (FYI, I don’t), then be presented with a sequence of predetermined lessons—often accompanied by checklists and worksheets—that marched her through a process aimed less at developing her identity as a writer than at completing a task.

In this Classical Age, however, teachers believed in and trusted the capacity of children as meaning makers, which I fear is something we’ve lost. Graves, for instance, firmly believed that “Children will continually surprise us if we let them. It’s what happens when we slow down, listen, and let the children lead.” And here’s what Ralph Peterson and Maryann Eeds have to say about this in Grand Conversations:

“If we accept that literature is another way of understanding the world and that it will illuminate our lives, if we accept the value of the interpretations that all children bring to their reading with a heart-to-heartedness that shows we want to understand why they say what they saw, if we trust that making sense of the world is inherent in being human, and if we walk alongside our students in the collaboration of true dialogue, then we can expect that remarkable insights about literature will occur.”

This vision of teachers as learners who “walk alongside their students in the collaboration of true dialogue,” is also something we seem to have lost, though it was a hallmark of that time. Graves, for instance, firmly believed that “the teacher is the chief learner in the classroom.” And like the Greek and Roman artists of the Classical Age—and the Renaissance artists who came after—Graves’s vision of learners encompasses the whole spectrum of human emotion, including uncertainty and vulnerability. “A teacher,”

who shows what she is trying to learn through writing isn’t afraid to ask children what they are trying to learn through their own writing . . . Truth seekers have a way of helping others to get at the truth. They question children just as they question themselves.

And here’s Peterson and Eeds again echoing that idea:

Teachers need to remember that teaching is easy only when students are asked to become consumers of conventional views. Teachers who use dialogue as a means for [children to] interpret a text must value the dynamic, ever-changing characters of meaning making . . . The words ‘I think I’m changing my mind‘ should come to be valued, whether uttered by students or teachers.

Of course, a learning stance is hard to take if you’re worried about test scores and evaluations. But with Leonardo as inspiration, CCIRA is inviting us to leave the Dark Ages of fear and compliance behind and step into the light of a new Renaissance. And to do that, I think it behooves us to look back and remember those early workshop pioneers from our own Classical Age. There’s much that we can learn from them and much that should be revived. I’m looking forward to it!

Vicki Vinton is a literacy consultant and writer who  has worked in schools and districts across the country and around the world.  She is the author of Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading: Shifting to a Problem-Based Approach (2017), and coauthor of What Readers Really Do: Teaching the Process of Meaning Making and The Power of Grammar: Unconventional Approaches to the Conventions of Language.  Vicki is also author of the novel The Jungle Law. Additionally, you can find Vicki online, at the popular literacy blog To Make a Prairie ( Find her on Twitter @vickivintonTMAP.


The Importance of Being a Teacher-Writer

by Stacey Shubitz

Last winter, I enrolled my daughter in aerial arts classes. I checked the instructor’s qualifications because the idea of her hanging upside down from a piece of silk fabric frightened me. The instructor had been performing and teaching aerial arts for a decade. That said, I still observed the instructor carefully during my daughter’s trial class. The instructor demonstrated before the kids to tried anything. I noticed he talked each student through the moves as she spotted them on the silks, repositioning hands, supporting bodies, and using specific praise at the end of each turn on the silk. She knew what to say and how to instruct because she was a practitioner. Just as I expect my daughter to have a proficient aerial artist teaching her, I want all children to learn how to write from teachers who are writing practitioners.
Lucy Calkins (2013, 23) published several bottom line conditions for effective writing instruction:

  • Writing needs to be taught like any other basic skill, with explicit instruction and   ample opportunity for practice.
  • Children deserve to write for real purposes, to write the kinds of texts that they see in the world and to write for an audience of readers.
  • Writers write to put meaning onto the page. Children invest themselves in their writing when they choose topics that are important to them.
  • Children deserve to be explicitly taught how to write.
  • Children deserve the opportunity and instruction to cycle through the writing process.
  • To write well, children need opportunities to read and to hear texts read, and to read as writers.
  • Children need clear goals and frequent feedback.

I love these statements. I believe there is one other essential necessary for children to receive effective writing instruction:

Every student, in every writing classroom, deserves to be taught by a teacher who writes.

When a teacher writes, there are benefits for both the teacher and for the students.
Teachers know first-hand the obstacles their students will face and what to do about it.
Over the years, I’ve learned several key things that have helped me work with children by being a writer myself:

  • I have trouble getting started. Sometimes I struggle to find a topic. Other times I find it hard to focus myself once I’ve selected a topic.
  • I know revision is the most painstaking part of writing since I have to be merciless and “kill my darlings.”
  • I know what to do when I’m stuck or if something isn’t working. I have writer-friends I reach out to in order to help me figure out my next steps as a writer.
  • I know it’s hard to share a piece of writing with an audience since you never know how your writing will be perceived.

We can’t just talk the talk, we must walk the walk. Vicki Spandel (2005, 42-43) states: “Almost nothing does more to sustain a culture of writing than a teacher who writes with students, thereby underscoring the importance of writing, and also allowing students to see the process – one writer’s version of it – as it unfolds.” When we’re the lead writer in the classroom, we can predict the hard spots where students may struggle when we plan minilessons and respond more thoughtfully in conferences. Sharing our writing and our process with students allows us to be more effective and credible practitioners.

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“Writing is scary and overwhelming for students who have never had a positive writing experience. They view the teacher as judge and jury, and their classmates as competition. An African proverb says, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ In this age of assessment, have we forgotten that it also takes a community to develop a writer?” (Meigs-Kahlenberg, 2017) One crucial thing we must remember is that we are the leaders of our classroom writing community.  It doesn’t matter if we teach ten students or thirty-two students: either we are the living, breathing author in the room or we are assigner and grader of the work. It’s our job to model our own writing and to talk about our writing process, successes, and struggles if we want to nurture students and help them become passionate writers.

Teachers can use their writing as mentor texts and share their process.
Dorfman and Cappelli assert, “To treat our students like genuine authors, respect their abilities, and understand their struggles, we need to write so that we can call ourselves ‘author.’ Because we are part of the writing community, our writing efforts should be included in hallway and bulletin board publications and as part of classroom writing anthologies. Our writer’s notebook should always be available to record our thoughts and observations. Writing for our students and for ourselves continually immerses us in the fundamentals of the writing craft and process” (2017, 13-14). In order to look genuine, we have to write a lot. We have to write snippets of our daily lives – things that happen to us, things we wonder about, things we are perplexed by — in a writer’s notebook. Also, we write in service of the units of study we are teaching so we can share teacher-written mentor texts with students. I realize this is a tall order for teachers, especially elementary school teachers, who are often not departmentalized and are therefore teaching multiple subjects daily.

Teachers devote time to becoming writers.
This year, I’m fortunate to be working in two school districts that have prioritized daily writing instruction. They are investing professional development time for their teachers to hone their own skills as writers. In one district, I’ve worked with teachers on writing in service of the units of study they’re teaching so teachers have time to create teacher-written mentor texts. In the other district, I’m leading teacher-as- writer sessions across the school year, in addition to supporting teachers with minilessons, conferring, and small group instruction. I’ve led some open-ended sessions, inspired by the work of Shawna Coppola (2017, 96-97), where I’ve read a text that provokes a feeling, thought, or memory and have encouraged teachers to write in whatever genre they’d like. I’m also using quick write prompts from Donald H. Graves and Penny Kittle’s My Quick Writes for Inside Writing (2007) so teachers have some more structured experiences.  In both districts, teachers are engaging in process and content shares. In addition, we take time to reflect on their experience as writers so they can increase their effectiveness in the classroom.

You can become a teacher-writer even if you work in a district that doesn’t invest
time in developing teachers-as- writers.

I realize many districts are unwilling to spend PD time and dollars on developing their teachers as writers. Therefore, there are a few steps any teacher can take to cultivate a writing life:

Step 1: Make time to write every day, even if it’s just for ten minutes. Several
years ago I compiled a list of ten tips to creating a consistent and meaningful
writing life. This list can help you get started so that writing every day becomes a habit just like flossing your teeth.
Step 2: Buy a notebook or create a blog. It doesn’t matter if you write in longhand
or electronically. What matters is that you write daily.
Step 3: Share your writing with your students.

I realize I’m over-simplifying the process. Some people might write in service of their
minilessons while others might aspire to get published. Your end goal doesn’t matter.
What matters is that you’re writing every day so you can sit beside your students and talk to them, writer-to- writer, sharing your expertise.

As the lead writer in our writing classrooms, we owe it to our students to position ourselves as fellow writers. Doing so boosts our credibility, as well as our ability to provide high-quality writing instruction.

Committing yourself to being a teacher-writer can feel scary. Therefore, it helps to have a
tribe when you’re getting started and to keep you going. You can look for your tribe within or outside the walls of your school.

  • Look for one or more like-minded colleagues and form a writing group that meets at least once a week. Develop ground rules and expectations for your group soeveryone’s needs are met and your time together is well-spent. (To help you get started, check out Seven Habits of an Effective Critique Group).
  • Check out the weekly or month-long Slice of Life Story Challenge  my colleagues and I host on Two Writing Teachers. Every Tuesday year-round and every day during the month of March, teacher-writers from six continents gather to share stories from our lives with each other. It’s a nurturing community of teachers who have committed themselves to the belief that they can be better teachers of writing by writing regularly.

My daughter has begun to use the trapeze, in addition to the fabric silks, in her aerial arts class. As a parent, I’m still concerned about safety, but I know she’s being shown what to do and is being supported on the trapeze by a competent and experienced practitioner.  Expertise is paramount, regardless of the discipline, when you’re teaching children.

Bio: Stacey Shubitz is an independent literacy consultant, an adjunct professor, and a former elementary school teacher. She’s the author Craft Moves: Lesson Sets for Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts and the co-author of Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice. She is presently working on a book with Lynne Dorfman, which has the working title of WELCOME TO WRITING WORKSHOP (anticipated publication date: Winter 2018/19). She blogs at Two Writing Teachers and can be found on Twitter @sshubitz.

Stacey will be presenting twice at CCIRA. She will lead a Teacher As Writer Session on
Wednesday evening, February 7th and will present about mentor texts on Thursday morning, February 8th, 2018.

Calkins, Lucy. 2013. A Guide to the Common Core Writing Workshop, Intermediate Grades. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Coppola, Shawna. 2017. Renew: Become a Better – and More Authentic – Writing Teacher. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Dorfman, Lynne R. and Rose Cappelli. 2012. Mentor Texts: Teaching Writing Through
Children’s Literature, K-6, 2 nd Edition. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Meigs-Kahlenberg, Vicki. 2017. “Why I Write with My Students.” October 17. write-with- my-students/.

Shubitz, Stacey. 2012. “Creating a Consistent & Meaningful Writing Life.” September 15.

Spandel, Vicki. 2005. The 9 Rights of Every Writer. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Peace, Joy, and BOOKS!

by Maria Walther

This fall, I began my 32nd year of teaching first grade. As I inch closer to retirement, I find myself ponderingwhat’s most important in the life of a learner. I certainly don’t claim to have all of the answers, but my research-guided practice has led me to conclude,“Keep it simple.” In other words, I’ve observed that kids thrive in a predictable environment with ample time to read, write, talk, and think together. I learned this from Lucy Calkins (1983) decades ago when she said that creative environments are “deliberately kept simple to support the complexities of the work-in-progress. They are deliberately kept predictable so the unpredictable can happen” (p. 32). In this post, I offer three ideas to guide you in creating a classroom culture where the unpredictable can happen—surround students with peace, joy, and books (a lot of them!).

In our classrooms, we work to promote a calm learning environment and also harmonious interactions among students. Fairly early in my career, I was fortunate to hear the wise Debbie Miller speak. From her presentations and book, I discovered the power of music in the classroom (2013). To help children remain calm during transitions, I play short song clips to signal them to move from one learning experience to the next. So, instead of my voice, they hear snippets of “Food, Glorious Food” (from the musical   Oliver!) when it’s lunchtime and “The Happy Working Song” (from the movie Enchanted) announces it is time to clean up. To end our day, we gather together to sing tunes fromsong picture books. Year after year, my students’ favorite song book is John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads (2005)!

Screen Shot 2017-12-19 at 9.11.42 AMA Few of MyFavorite Song Picture Books

Footloose (Loggins, 2016) *Includes CD

The Library Book (Chapin & Mark, 2017)*Download song from I-Tunes
Octopus’s Garden (Starr & Cort, 2014) *Includes CD

We also read aloud and discuss books that promote peaceful interactions among children. We converse about the importance of friendship after reading Friendshape (Rosenthal, 2015) and brainstorm ways to resolve playground conflicts like the children did in Rulers of the Playground (Kuefler, 2017). Although these small, peaceful happenings may appear simple, they are key for kids. Peter Johnston reminds us that, “In productive classrooms there are routines and rituals that give a sense of stability and control” (2012, p. 29). When children feel in control, they are more willing to challenge themselves to grow as thinkers and learners.

Joyful learning occurs in classrooms where approximations are honored and mistakes are viewed as opportunities to further understanding. We can nurture joyful learners by adopting and promoting a dynamic learning frame—the belief that the more you learn, the smarter you get (Johnston, 2012). Again, I turn to books to help lead the way. Stories like Dan Santat’s After the Fall (2017), help students see the importance of getting back up and Rosie Revere, Engineer (Beaty, 2013), demonstrates persistence. We also promote
joy by laughing together the antics of The Wolf, The Duck, and the Mouse (Barnett, 2017) or the toddler portrayed in Rodzilla (Sanders, 2017). Learning, in and of itself, is an enjoyable endeavor. When you look at your students’ faces as you energetically read aloud or watch a pair of learners rereading (for the one hundredth time) their favorite Elephant and Piggie book, you witness pure joy. When kept simple, by sharing engaging children’s books, creating purposeful writing experiences, and offering opportunities to inquire, collaborate, and share, the excitement of uncovering new understandings thrives.

You can probably tell by now that children’s literature is at the center of almost everything I do with kids. In fact, I’ve collected 32 years’ worth of books for my students because I know that the right book can entice a reluctant or vulnerable reader. Books spill out of every nook and cranny in my classroom (and my home office). Thus, instead of calling it a classroom library, I call it our library classroom. A robust classroom collection of books is crucial. Kids not only need to read a lot, but they also need lots ofbooks right at their fingertips. Books that “entice them, attract them to reading” (Allington, 2006, p. 85). So, if you are going to spend your hard-earned dollars on teaching materials, take my advice—shut down your computer, visit an
independent bookstore, and buy a books with a specific child in mind. You and your students will be thankful you did!

I hope this post gave you a few ideas to ponder. I’d love to learn from you. What are the three words that guide your teaching?

Allington, R. (2006). What really matters for struggling readers (2 nd ed.). New York: Pearson.
Calkins, L. (1983). Lessons from a child. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Johnston, P. (2012). Opening minds. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
Miller, D. (2013). Reading with meaning (2 nd ed.). Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Maria Walther has taught first grade since 1986. In 2008, Maria earned the ICARE for Reading Award for fostering the love of reading in children and in 2016 she was presented with the Illinois Reading Council Hall of Fame Award. She has co-
authored five professional books and the Next Step Guided Reading Assessment. 
Her latest book The Revved-Up Read Aloud will be published by Corwin. Learn more about Maria at #CCIRA18,  on her website or follow her on Twitter @mariapwalther.

Maintaining Reading Community Over Break

As teachers, we work incredibly hard to build many facets of community within our classroom and then… BOOM – a break happens!Screen Shot 2017-12-12 at 9.04.57 AM

One of the biggest challenges is how to maintain our reading community over the long Winter Break. It’s easier when I’m seeing my students five days a week and am there to encourage, share books, confer, and build excitement. When we spend two-and-a-half weeks away from each other it’s a struggle to bring that community back together. These are my top strategies for maintaining the reading expectations over break so that we are ready to roll in 2018!

  • To Be Read (TBR) Lists: In Reading in the Wild, Donalyn Miller, @donalynbooks, dedicates an entire chapter to the fact that Wild Readers have reading plans (p. 135). Before break, I build my own TBR List to share with students and then have kids create their own! I always bring my book stack or list in before a break to share with my students. We discuss the variety of genres, how I have books that will be easy to read and others that are more challenging, how I have new authors and old favorites. After this discussion, I hand it over to the kids and we pull out books from the classroom library and head to the school library to fill TBR lists and pack backpacks so there is no excuse for not reading over break.
  • Preview Stacks: As their teachers, we often know our students as readers better than anyone, so who better to make recommendations?  Miller also discusses building Preview Stacks for students (p. 73). It is crucial to consider your students’ interests and passions and then books that might connect to them. Miller states “Always offer several books at once. Suggesting one book takes away a student’s ability to choose.” Just because I think it is their perfect book, that may not be the case. After picking one or two to read immediately, they can then add titles to their TBR lists that they may want to read at another time
  • Book Raffles: Do you have new books that you haven’t shared with students yet? What about the books that you love, but kids aren’t picking them up? Book talk a handful of books to build excitement about them and then raffle off the opportunity to read! This is always a great way to generate interest in books. In my classroom, I share about 5-7 books and then hand out “tickets” (let’s be real – these are cut up pieces of bright colored paper). Students get four tickets towards the raffle. They can split them among different books or put all four towards one book. They love it and I have even had to create a waitlist if there a ton of names for a book!

The key element for encouraging and supporting reading over break is that Screen Shot 2017-12-12 at 9.04.09 AMREADING ISTHE PRIZE (@hellojenjones). It is easy to want to offer prizes when they come back for who read the most minutes, most books, most pages, whatever it may be… Students need not be rewarded for with extra prizes for reading over break if our aim is to build a community of lifelong readers!

Keep supporting those readers and engaging them, even when on break! Enjoy the time to recharge for yourself and build up that stock-pile of books you love so that you can share with students when you return! No better way to start the new year than with new books!

Ashley Hickey is a fifth grade teacher in Jefferson County. She is “Mama” to two lively boys who love to read and discover books. She is a board member of JCIRA and explores all things teaching, running, reading, and “momming” on Twitter and Instagram @ashhickeyread.

Inviting Complexity into Interventions

By Lynn Newmyer
In my job as a literacy instructional coach and intervention teacher, this statement from the CCSS literacy standards frequently comes up in my coaching conversations and lesson planning:  “Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.” 

My teacher colleagues question this statement by wondering how they can bring complexity into their lessons with students who find literacy difficult, especially because they are not yet reading grade level text. My answer is always the same: how can we NOT bring complexity into our lessons especially with our students who at this time find grade level reading out of their reach? Without the complexity, we create gaps that are more serious;  deeper comprehension, rich vocabulary that builds background and content knowledge and the pure joy of losing yourself in a story or text, which all add to creating life-long readers.

This last month I have been problem-solving with a teacher colleague, Christine, about a third grade group of students that have been puzzling. These students are almost reading at grade level with a basic understanding of narrative and informational texts. The students can orally share what they know and understand but have difficulty organizing their thoughts in writing. What is imperative to include in our plans if these students are to reach their full literate potential?

Complexity of course! Complexity, however, is not the same as difficulty. Dr. Linda Dorn from the Center for Literacy at the University of Little Rock succinctly shared in a recent presentation why they are not. “Difficulty relates to the amount of work required to perform a task. Complexity relates to the degree of interconnected concepts, relationships, structures or patterns within a task.” So our question developed into this: how could we include complexity in ways that move students’ processing forward while keeping it easy to learn?

Choosing Engaging and Complex Texts  

To prepare the students to move out of leveled reading texts into trade books and picture books with more opportunity for complexity, we knew that we would have to build their background knowledge by engaging them in a read aloud that would become a mentor text for how to do deeper thinking. We looked for professional resources that would give us a framework for analyzing complexity in picture books. One particularly helpful one was an article in The Reading Teacher, “Complexity in Picture Books” by Sierschynski, Louie & Pughe. Their framework uses the CCSS Qualitative Measures of Text Complexity, which includes levels of meaning, structure, language conventionality and clarity and knowledge demands. Also included are consideration of the textual-visual elements and guiding questions for further analysis. A list of literary texts in the article gave us wonderful suggestions that we used as our mentor texts.

Encouraging Collaborative Discussions

Students would also need to learn how to have conversations to negotiate text that is more complex where the meaning is nuanced and not obvious. Although we had chosen picture books, the pictures added another layer beyond the words. The interactive read aloud we chose, The Fox by Margaret Wild & Ron Brooks has an open ending, which leaves the reader wondering what really did happen next.  Conversation exploded and Christine had to assist students on how to take their talk and work together to build deeper meaning using evidence from the text. One of the students in the group was so concerned about the ending that she spend the whole weekend writing a new one that she brought to school to share with her group. The students were quite impressed as she described her process of writing, as “pens and paper were everywhere!”  

We relied on other professional resources including Dorn & Soffos’ Teaching for Deep Comprehension and Interventions that Work!  Their works helped us to set structures in place for our group and ways to engage students in productive conversation. Of course, we re-visited Johnston’s Choice Words and Opening Minds. We knew about Johnston’s research on dialogic classrooms and the effect on comprehension and student engagement.

The story of Christine’s group is still unfolding.  The ending is open. This week they will be starting to read a new book, Voices in the Park by Anthony Browne, in a small guided group. She gave them a sneak peek by sharing the cover and the title page of a floating red hat that casts a shadow. Their faces shone with excitement as they started debating what it might mean. One student, a boy, exclaimed that he could not wait until Monday, so she had better lock her door, as he was going to sneak in and steal that book so he could read it. And, this is from a student who hated to read last year! Just maybe we are on to something!

Lynn Newmyer is a Reading Recovery Teacher Leader and District Literacy Instructional Coach for the Walled Lake Consolidated School district in Michigan. This is Lynn’s 43rd year in education.  and is an avid collector of picture books. Follow her on Twitter @LynnRdgtch.

Becoming the Ringmaster: Engaging Students through the Work of Readers

By Morgan Davis

I walk into a class of second graders whose teacher has asked for my help in gathering some data on student engagement.  Right from the start, I notice that all kids are engaging in the work of readers: most have their eyes on text, one is placing a sticky note on a page before turning to the next, two are choosing another book from their book bags, and one more is at the classroom library looking for a copy of a book his friend is reading. This is a workshop full of engaged readers.

That is, except for Jay*.  I watch him covertly for a minute to see if—like all of us do sometimes—he is simply distracted or having a hard time getting started.  Without a book in hand, or even within arm’s reach, he isn’t even trying to fake it.  

For the next few minutes, I try all sorts of things:  I try relating our expectations. “No,” he says and starts rolling around on the floor.  I try talking to him about things I know he likes. “That’s stupid,” he says before adding,  “You’re stupid.”  He’s right; I should have known better.

I glance up and, sitting atop the heating vent is a copy of an Elephant and Piggie book. I get up and grab it, my back to Jay. “I love this one!” I whisper to no one in particular.  I simply sit down on the stool at the back of the room and start reading.  Two pages in and his eyes are glued to the pages, too.  A few more pages in and many of the words are his to read.  By the end of the book, he is nearly sharing the stool with me for how badly he wants to see if Elephant will have any ice cream left to share with Piggie in the end.  And when he doesn’t, Jay is the first to say, “I told you.”  He is also the first to go back to the shelf for the next in the series.

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Engagement.  When it is, you can feel it, like the hum of a well-oiled machine.  When it is absent, you can’t fake it.  It has the power to make or break any workshop, any classroom community.  More than ever before, we know how loaded the word engagement can be.  Each day we are responsible for maintaining student attention, building relationships, and advancing achievement, a veritable trifecta of engagement: behavioral, emotional, and cognitive.  



So where do we start?  How do we become the ringmaster of wha


t could otherwise feel like a three-ring circus?

We start the way Jay and I did:

We read.

Behavioral Engagement through the Work of Readers

It is amazing what happens when you give seven-year-olds Post-its with a purpose. Last week, they used them to mark tricky words that they solved and wanted to share with the class.  A month ago, they used them to jot down how the characters were feeling.  And before that, they captures their expectations from a preview of the pages.  Sure, they played with them at first, found out what makes them lose their “sticky” and even lost the privilege of using them a time or two.  But their teacher did not wait to use them.  


If we want behaviors to align with engagement in the work, we show students how to work like readers do:  Readers read.  They stop and jot.  They read some more.  They choose their books and make plans for what to read next.  In first grade, this looks like a book stack at the start of workshop, one that gets smaller as the workshop goes.  


Readers get distracted and learn strategies to get back on track. This often means making the most of our space. In third grade we draw students’ attention back to the bulletin board where at the beginning of the year, they drew themselves in their best reading spaces.  They do their best approximate this kind of place, revisiting their drawings each time they need to be reminded.


Readers meet with other readers to share what they are reading. In kindergarten, this means that students sit side-by-side on the carpet with a book open between them. In third grade, this means modeling how to turn our stop-and-jots into meaningful conversation.  Their teacher does not put the learning objectives for character analysis on hold because students need to be taught how to work with partners.  She teaches students how to talk with their partners about their characters and work through the hard parts of inferring together.  


When we teach students how to engage in the work that readers do, we teach authentic behaviors that become authentic habits.  

Emotional Engagement through the Work of Readers

My first day with our kindergartners ended a few minutes before dismissal and the room was vibrating with the energy of the day, a perfect opportunity to get to know each other. I could have chosen any number of ways to go about this.  I turned to a story I know by heart from innumerable bedtime readings with my own daughter, Mem Fox’s The Magic Hat. We giggled and enjoyed our time together.


Now when I join them in their classroom, many of them still reach for the “magic hat” on their heads before we channel this shared experience into other literary activities.  From that first day of school, I showed them what kind of teacher I am: the kind that can tell a story in an Australian accent, turning the word giraffe into a fancy word rhyming with “off.” And it showed them what kind of learners I expect them to be: the kind that giggle and play and learn along the way.  


To be to true to the human experience, emotional engagement is not just about making reading fun; it can’t be giggles and play all the time. Down the hall from the kindergarten class, our fourth graders are reading Tiger Rising. The main character  struggles with the death of his mother even as he is tortured by his classmates, and the curriculum suggests exploring the concept of bullying as a way for students to learn to analyze the depth of this character.  With expertise in “listening to teach” (a la Samantha Bennett), their teacher, however,  takes a different path.  During our planning session, she points to an empty desk: “She lost her mom last year.”  She points to another empty desk, “and he hasn’t seen his mom in a while,” and another, “and I’m pretty sure he lives with his dad.”   


The curriculum is not the content here; it is not where the learning leads.  Their teacher sees this is an opportunity to get to know her students better by listening to them talk about the character’s experience with loss even before they may be ready to share about their own. Just like this teacher is doing, we can connect to ourselves and to each other through our connections with the stories and characters that become as much a part of the community as the students we serve.  


We can forge lasting relationships with and among our students through the work of readers.

Cognitive Engagement through the Work of Readers

Our third graders are working to refine their expectations of fictional stories.  I sit among them as their teacher reads a fable. They expect that, even in this short story, there will be a problem.  It is pretty obvious who will be the problem-solver.  They understand the basic story structure, which is the reason their teacher chose this one.  This is not where she wants the cognitive demand.

Today, they are reading more carefully: they are looking for clues about the character that hint at how the problem might be solved.  Like detectives solving a mystery, they notice things about how the character lacks confidence through his weak voice.  They notice that his friends are not any help.  They are learning to turn those noticings into predictions that synthesize what they have read already.  This is demanding work.  

The model their teacher has provided—the one that breaks this process into a series of stop-and-jots—makes this work accessible and therefore engaging as they go back to their seats and apply these strategies to their own stories and share their noticings with their partners.  


When this kind of struggle to understand what we read is productive, students tend to stick with it. The decisions we make during workshop about access to text (who is doing the print work) and gradual release of responsibility (who is doing the meaning making) are critical to ensuring that learning remains accessible during whole- and small-group instruction as well as during collaborative and independent practice.  


Our work in listening and studying the way students process the content gives us opportunities to make adjustments that adapt to each reader and keep them at the edge of their learning.  It is from this edge that students send up a collective groan at the end of the reading block, that students sneak a book beneath their desk to read during another part of the day, that they ask if we can order the next book in a series or if we can go to the library before it is our turn.

Understanding what we read requires a cognitive demand, one that rewards our efforts to engage with an experience that can last a lifetime.


Becoming the Ringmaster

Readers might not be aware of the behaviors that make reading possible.  They might not stop to think about how each book changes them before they order the next one in the series.  They might not articulate the theme or lesson that a character learns as a result of solving a problem.  But they do seek out spaces and places to lose themselves in the pages of a book.  They do work what they are reading into the topic of conversations.  They do make stacks of books by their bedside tables. They do let books keep them awake at night. They do remember the books that make them cry and laugh out loud and they remember the people with whom they share these experiences.


When I visit Jay’s classroom next week, we will both be better for our shared experience with Elephant and Piggie.  The next time I see him in the hallway, I will have something to talk to him about.  The next time he reads, he will have one more positive experience to add to the side of the balance that, I’m sure at times, seems stacked against him.  

To read is to engage behaviorally, emotionally, and cognitively.  

When we make the work of readers the focus of our instruction, we become the ringmaster under this big top, building a classroom community on a solid foundation of life-long literacy.

*The name of the student in this post has been changed to protect his anonymity.
About the Author: Morgan Davis is a K-6 Instructional Coach in Jefferson County.  She also serves on the conference committee for CCIRA and will be presenting for the JCIRA local council in January. You can follow Morgan as she explores teaching and learning, slices of life, and her own writing processes at “It’s About Making Space”.