By Elisabeth Bostwick, 2020 CCIRA Featured Speaker

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It always fascinates me that perception really is in the eye of the beholder. Although some people consider our youth to be unmotivated or lazy, I want to challenge that perception and make the claim that our youth are remarkable. They’re capable of greatness–– just look at this list of the 25 Most Influential Teens compiled by Time. We have young entrepreneurs and activists making waves and creating an impact in our world. Shouldn’t every child be provided with the opportunity to connect with their strengths and interests, along with learning experiences that support their success? Additionally, our youngest learners are insatiably curious. But, that sense of wonder seems to diminish the older our students become. When we spark curiosity and create meaningful learning experiences, we increase the desire to learn. All of this is possible through inspiring creativity and incorporating Design Thinking within learning.

As an educator myself, I know that many of us seek to create experiences that empower learning, spark curiosity, and inspire creative thinking. It really is an amazing time to be in education because of all the capabilities we have at our fingertips. We can connect with experts who contribute to deepening our understanding, collaborate globally with other classrooms, and have the potential to leverage technology to accelerate learning. We can also share our learning and outcomes with authentic audiences, and gain feedback to grow.

Culture is the Springboard for Every Successful Classroom

Of course, it’s the foundation of relationships and a culture of thoughtful risk taking that foster the conditions to empower learning. Culture has to always be on the forefront of our minds, it should never be an afterthought. Culture is the springboard for every successful classroom. To explore how you can foster a culture that supports thoughtful risk-taking and innovative thinking you may be interested in reading Promoting Empathy in Learners: Develop Deep Connections, Fostering Communication Skills to Deepen Learning, and Proactive Approaches to Support ALL Learners: Moving Beyond the Behavior Chart.

Nonetheless, due to various reasons, it’s not uncommon for teachers to fall back on what is most comfortable to them. Due to time constraints, mandates, and even our own teaching and learning experiences, we may have the tendency to engage in more direct instruction as opposed to inquiry-based learning–– fostering both agency and curiosity. We may push the pause button on opportunities to infuse creativity or amplify student voice and choice into learning because it feels like ‘one more thing.’ With that said, I want to clarify that direct instruction certainly has its time and place. As educators, our classrooms are like a canvas; we and our learners are the artists who can mix and match colors and techniques to create colorful masterpieces of learning and discovery together. We can incorporate teaching and learning strategies as needed to enhance learning. It’s essential that we ensure we’re responsive to each individual and not relying heavily on any one approach.

We Can Create Cultures Where Creativity and Innovation Flourish

However, all too often our learners are still positioned to go through traditional models of school ie. teacher is the beholder of all content, content is siloed, students rotate based on a bell schedule, and they complete work to be assessed by their teachers for a grade–– often without useful feedback. 

Don’t our learners deserve more?

Don’t our learners deserve opportunities to connect with their inner ideas and topics that are meaningful to them, sparking deep curiosity and fostering passion?

When we create authentic learning experiences and empower student voice and choice, we begin to inspire intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is essential when it comes to learning to persevere through failure. We cannot hold back any longer when it comes to fostering the conditions where creativity and innovation flourishes.

From my book, Take the L.E.A.P.: Ignite a Culture of Innovation, I share: 

“The disconnect that often occurs between traditional school and the world in which our children are growing up leaves students ill prepared for life outside the classroom. In bright contrast to education’s slow rate of change are companies such as Uber and Lyft, which offer peer-to-peer ridesharing in answer to the challenges of public transportation. Behind these companies—and so many other innovative companies like them—are creative entrepreneurs who look at problems differently, then find ways to revolutionize entire industries. It may very well be a learner sitting in your classroom who has the next big idea that will contribute to significant improvements in our world. Every single child deserves the opportunity to unleash inner potential. But that kind of innovation will only come from people who are encouraged to explore ideas, try new things, and to challenge the status quo.

“Our schools ought to be places where students explore, inquire, and create new-and-improved ideas within a supportive, collaborative environment. Of course, our learners require all the basics to be successful, but the approaches we employ are what foster empowerment.”


One step we can take is to encourage learners to look at things differently. In education, we often place emphasis on convergent as opposed to divergent thinking.

  • Divergent thinking promotes the creation of multiple solutions to various problems and is characterized by diverse and creative thought.
  • Convergent thinking is defined as seeking a single correct answer to a question and is necessary for engaging in critical thinking and being able to analyze problems using information and logic.

Although both are critical to the process of learning, fostering divergent thinking promotes the creation of new ideas or unique wonderings. If we place emphasis on finding one right answer by primarily focusing on convergent thinking through frequent multiple-choice assignments, students are eventually influenced to stop considering all of the possibilities. They learn, instead, to focus on mastering specific skills or facts to memorize. I’m certain that we can all think of that one student who just wants to know the ‘right’ answer.

What if, instead, we created opportunities for learners to think of multiple possibilities rather than simply one correct answer?”


We can foster creativity by developing divergent thinking in learners and employing structures that encourage creative thought. In our schools, we need to be creating experiences that encourage learners to consider and explore new ideas within a culture where all individuals are supported in developing new ways of thinking, promoting more in-depth learning.

Foster Creative Thought in the Classroom

Divergent Thinking Within Literacy

The goal is to spark curiosity in our learners and shift from asking ‘right there’ questions or questions that yield only one correct answer. We want to encourage learners to dig deep and ask questions themselves. As teachers, we can also pose questions that would generate multiple solutions or various responses. Through divergent thinking, learners generate many ideas or solutions.

Divergent thinking includes:

  • Drafting ideas independently.
  • Combining and building on ideas with others.
  • Growing and taking create risks to share wild ideas.
  • Developing unique or alternative solutions to problems that may differ from what was written in the text.
  • Creating alternative extensions to stories or imagining what would might have happened if ______ occurred instead?

We can incorporate questions such as:

  • Reflecting on [book/passage], what might have happened if [character] decided to [verb] earlier in the story?
  • Imagine that [event] never occurred, what might have occurred to [the environment/life/relationship] as a result?
  • How might we design a better experience or find a solution to [the problem] for [character(s)]?
  • What if [the character’s] trait, setting, conflict, etc. changed? How might it affect the entire outcome of the book?
  • How would you rewrite the ending if the conflict within [the book/passage] changed?

Within literacy it’s important to pose questions that encourage making predictions, using information, summarizing, making connections, inferring, critiquing and analyzing. From my experiences, educators tend to place emphasis on convergent thinking, which is definitely an important skill. If we can carve out time to also incorporate divergent thinking, we encourage learners to think of other possibilities and generate unique ideas that inspire creative thinking. Imaginative thinking can lend itself to developing greater problem solving skills through considering multiple solutions to problems or scenarios.

Wonderwalls Can Inspire Curiosity

Dedicating wall space as a ‘wonder wall’ in the classroom can serve as a platform to inspire student generated questions. The purpose of a wonderwall is to encourage learners to post and share questions they ponder. You can opt to have wonderwalls that are specific to content or one that is dedicated to anything learners wonder, in general. Or, you may have space to do both. For example, if in connection with literacy, you may have a wonderwall that connects to a mentor text or trade book. Learners would pause as they read to post their individual wonderings or perhaps craft a question in connection with a specific passage. Often, we request our learners to respond to questions in connection with the text rather than encouraging them to pose questions. Student-generated questions put learners in the driver’s seat, fostering autonomy. Encouraging learners to ask questions also helps to develop greater metacognition.

Incorporate Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a systematic process that encourages individuals to create new, innovative solutions or ideas. It is human centered and places the needs of the user first. Within Design Thinking, learners formulate questions to help guide their understanding. For instance, ‘How might we…’ questions are often used within Design Thinking to foster empathy for the user. When we can connect with the needs of others, we are able to connect through empathy and create solutions or products to meet their needs. Design Thinking also inspires Divergent Thinking as individuals are required to ideate. Later, during the prototyping and testing phases, learners shift to think more convergently to analyze their ideas and retool their work.

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Design Thinking can be interdisciplinary; we can combine literacy and STEAM by empathizing with a character and the problem or conflict they face. From there, we can engage in divergent thinking to ideate. Learners could be empowered to consider how they might design a solution to a problem that the character is facing or even ideas for creating a product that may have helped them in a situation. Learners then shift to convergent thinking to analyze and narrow down ideas to create prototypes. Following ample time to consider various ideas, learners then benefit from reflecting and retooling their work, which again, entails convergent thinking. 

We Can Empower All Learners to Explore Possibilities

As demonstrated, one type of thinking is not better than the other. Rather, we just need to remain cognizant that we are indeed fostering divergent thinking leading to creative thought processes in our learners. Doing so has the potential to help learners see that they can be both problem finders and solvers–– not learners who are just complacently seeking the right answer day in and day out. We want to foster the mindset that every single individual has the potential to create change. That change begins with asking frequent questions and considering possibilities.

As a teacher myself, I understand the need to foster all skills required to develop literacy. All elements of english language arts are critical. We just need to ensure that we also create experiences that encourage learners to think differently in all areas of learning. The more we nurture a sense of wonder and place learners in the driver’s seat to generate questions and ideas, the more we will empower learning. More than ever in today’s world, we need to empower learners to explore new possibilities and ideas by fostering divergent thinking, thereby expanding on creativity.

Elisabeth Bostwick is a multi-award-winning educator who is passionate about creating the conditions to spark curiosity and unleash creativity to empower learning. She is the author of Take the L.E.A.P.: Ignite a Culture of Innovation and co-author of Education Write Now, Volume II: Top Strategies for Improving Relationships and Culture. As an instructional coach supporting K-12 teachers, Elisabeth works alongside colleagues to deepen learning leveraging highly effective strategies that engage and empower all learners to maximize growth. Find her on Twitter @Elisabostwick


The Power of Little Creations

By George Couros with Katie Novak

Excerpts from Innovate Inside the Box: Empowering Learners Through UDL and the Innovator’s Mindset, Chapter 10, “Creators.”

GC: Here is a little confession: I have a gigantic #ManCrush on Ryan Gosling. I think he is amazingly talented and love his range in so many roles; La La Land is in my top ten movies of all time! He is one of my favorite actors in the world and has been for a long time. And he is Canadian!

That is why I laughed hysterically when I saw a series on the Vine app (I miss you so much, Vine!) called “Ryan Gosling won’t eat his cereal.” In segments no longer than six seconds each, someone would find clips of Ryan Gosling in movies and try to feed him a spoonful of cereal by standing in front of a screen and slowly moving cereal to his mouth—that he would ultimately deny. It was amazing how many different ways Ryan Gosling would deny the cereal (he is so versatile), from making faces of disgust to actually making movements to swat the cereal away from his mouth. Every six-second video would bring me to tears as it was so random yet funny.

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Image courtesy of Fast Company

The mastermind behind the videos was Ryan McHenry, a Scottish film director. With each short creation, he brought joy to the world and smiles to a ton of people. Ryan Gosling even acknowledged in an April 2015 tweet that one thing people didn’t know about him was that he actually loved cereal, a little nod to the meme created by Ryan McHenry. 

In 2013, Ryan McHenry was diagnosed with a form of cancer, osteosarcoma. Through his diagnosis, chemotherapy treatments, and remission, he continued to make short videos that connected a community to his story. The cancer eventually returned, and McHenry passed away in May of 2015. I didn’t even know about McHenry’s passing until I saw a strange video of a bowl of cereal on Vine, with Ryan Gosling taking a spoonful of cereal, making a slight nod, and eating cereal in front of the audience. Gosling actually created a Vine account just to take a moment to eat cereal and acknowledge McHenry.

Gosling then followed up with a tweet: “My heart goes out to all of Ryan McHenry’s family and friends. Feel very lucky to have been a part of his life in some small way.” Seriously, Ryan Gosling? You have to be gorgeous, talented, and sweet?

I share this story of Ryan McHenry and Ryan Gosling often as something that seems so ridiculous and minute, but actually has a very powerful underlying message. Little creations that may seem insignificant can have a big impact on the world. In education, we talk about developing the next person to create “Facebook,” but the little cereal videos McHenry created brought smiles to so many people in a time when it seems we need more light in the world.

When my daughter was born, I played a song titled “Growing Up” by Ryan Macklemore on repeat. My favorite lines from the song are:

Don’t try to change the world, find something that

you love

And do it every day

Do that for the rest of your life

And eventually, the world will change

What McHenry shared in his short twenty-seven years embodied this lyric to a tee. What we create doesn’t have to be “big” to have an impact. Small gifts continuously shared over time can make an incredible difference in the world.

Why the Word “Create” Is So Crucial to Education in Our World Today

A quote from Thomas Friedman has shaped a lot of my thinking: 

The world only cares about—and pays off on—what you can do with what you know (and it doesn’t care how you learned it).

In other words, it isn’t what we know that matters; it is what we do with what we know—what we create—that matters. I believe that to be true, and yet I remember reading a Wikipedia article on “Internet Culture” that said only 1 percent of people online create content, and 99 percent consume. I have no idea the validity of that statistic, but let’s think of it in terms of school. How often do high school students in school consume information from Wikipedia versus contribute to a Wikipedia article, in a serious manner? Even in classrooms, we confuse regurgitation of information with creation.

Chris Lehman, the CEO of the Science Leadership Academy Schools in Philadelphia, makes this point brilliantly: 

If you assign a project and get back thirty of the exact same thing, that’s not a project—that’s a recipe.

 Are our students clamoring to “create” in schools? Maybe in kindergarten. But too often the need to create gets “schooled” out of them before they leave elementary school. I have worked with students in schools where their own mobile devices are not allowed in classrooms, and I ask them, “If you could bring your device, how would you use it in the classroom?” The typical answers I hear over and over again are “to Google stuff” and “as a calculator.” 

It’s always disheartening, because I know there is so much students can create with technology! Information searches and calculations don’t even scratch the surface of what they could do with even a device as simple as their smartphone. But when they aren’t encouraged to create or to explore the possibilities for creation, “to Google stuff” and “as a calculator” are the best they can come up with—at school. The story might be completely different at home.

KN: Embracing Student-Centric Creations

In Universal Design for Learning (UDL), we want all students to be creators and makers. I asked my second-grade daughter what she wants to learn to make in school. Her answer: “I want to learn how to make robot puppies.” Now, how many classes are providing her with the skills to make those robot puppies?! In all seriousness, our kids have passions and interests, and when we align our goals and standards with personalized assessments, magic happens. Assessments need to move beyond worksheets, essays, and presentations to more authentic applications that include student-centric creations.

We are much more likely to persevere when we know our goal and are empowered to choose what we create to reach it. One of the UDL guidelines reminds educators to “optimize choice and autonomy.”

Provide choices. Options and choices are often used interchangeably, but they are not always synonymous. Too often, teachers give students options, but they do not give them choices. Students know what their options are. They know they can write blogs, produce videos, create projects, or work alone or with peers, but often they don’t have a choice in what they create. After you have your why, consider taking the time to tell students, “This is what you’ll be learning about in the next week. That is non-negotiable, but you get to decide what you want to create to show me that you met your goal. Let’s list four possible options together, so you can make a choice about how to best meet your goals.” (Innovate inside the box!) In a sixth-grade science class taught by the brilliant Caitlyn Morris, students had the following choices to express their understanding of the similarities and differences between solar and lunar eclipses:

  • Create a poster (use any art medium you wish or graphically design on your Chromebook)
  • Create a sketchnote (by hand or on Google Draw)
  • Create a slideshow
  • Create a Flipgrid video demonstration, and the link will be posted on Google Classroom (this could also be in homage to the Ryan Gosling cereal videos!)

Innovators need to be creators, not just consumers. With that in mind, teachers need to provide numerous opportunities for students to create by providing options and choices for students to collaborate, examine exemplars of creativity, find solutions to problems, use non-traditional formats to consume new information and content, and have the flexibility to put the ideas together to create and express new and better ideas.


George Couros is a leading educator in the area of innovative leadership, teaching, and learning. He has worked with all levels of school, from K-12 as a teacher, technology facilitator and as a school and district administrator.

Katie Novak, Ed.D., is an internationally renowned education consultant as well as a practicing leader in education as an Assistant Superintendent of Schools in Massachusetts.


Setting Intentions: Student-driven Goals in Word Study

By Pam Koutrakos

Pledges and missions set our sights on something big yet imply a certain worthiness that can also feel… daunting. Goals (AKA learning intentions) feel a bit more accessible and possible. When we create next-step-goals based off what we feel is already going well, we gain vision for what can be attained through consistent, focused effort. Dynamic classroom word learning is student-centered and driven by the readiness of each child. Therefore, it makes sense that the goal-setting, reflection, celebration loop would be in place and for these processes to be generated and inspired by the students themselves. 


Goals reflect our priorities and intentions. When goal setting is new for students, tools (like checklists) can provide needed clarity. Here is a flexible process that can be used to guide students toward naming their own learning priorities:

  • Review previous conversations, read alouds, or personal anecdotes around working toward something challenging. Reflect on the knowledge and processes that helped make growth and success attainable. 
  • Do the same for word study. Envision the end goals of word study. Name out the content knowledge and learning habits that might make these goals a reality. OPTIONAL: create a tool, like the checklists shown below, as a reminder of these actions. 
  • Review the list and ask students to consider where they feel most confident. Then invite learners to prioritize 1-2 areas that feel challenging, but also interesting …and like worthwhile next step(s). 
  • Draft a simple action plan. Add in checkpoints for when and how to reflect on and celebrate progress toward set goals.

Here is a quick glimpse into what some of those different “habits” and “concepts” checklists look like across grades and settings: 

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Above charts from Word Study That Sticks, Best Practices K-6 (Koutrakos, 2018)

…And a couple of the subsequent goals/action plans students created using those checklists:

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These tools spotlight success and help learners identify the places where they want to grow. 

Tip: The magic ingredient in using tools effectively is the teaching that happens around the tools. When we hand students a tool (or better yet co-create that tool with students), we also need to teach and support the processes inherent in thoughtfully using that tool.

Reflection may be the most underused tool in teaching. Goals may propel learning, but alone will not carry us through the finish line. We also need to make space for reflection. Consistent and ongoing reflection enables us to figure out how things are going and what might need to be adjusted. Here are a few time-efficient invitations to help students build a habit of reflection: 

Look back and your goal/learning priority. Then…

  • name something you did today that helped you work toward that goal. 
  • put a post it on one page of your notebook that shows evidence of your progress toward this goal. Share and celebrate with a partner. 
  • ask yourself, what part of this work has been challenging? Brainstorm realistic solutions and workarounds to get past these challenges and continue to make progress. 
  • ponder, what wrong turn have I taken? AKA: what’s something that you thought would help… but didn’t? Celebrate that risk taking and think about what else you might try so that your progress doesn’t stall out. 

Tip: When reflecting is brand new for students, it can be helpful to have a tool to clarify and support the process. Simple numerical scales, emoji continuums, and succinct reflection forms are all options. Once reflection has become a habit, students will be better prepared for in-the-moment reflection- no tools necessary! Here are a couple of examples of students reflecting: 

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Meaningful reflection can happen with and without the support of a formal reflection tool.


Celebration seals the deal, boosting motivation, focus, and willingness to persevere through challenges. Although celebration is very worthy of our time, we don’t always need it to be a big production. Here are 3 ideas that can be used across grades: 

  • Buddy Day: Invite another class in for word study. Quickly create cross-class partnerships. Students teach their buddies a favorite word study routine and then complete the routine together.
  • Reflection Celebration: Students note recent progress and celebrate these efforts by creating personal statements like I used to… but now I… and posting them on digital or traditional classroom bulletin boards. 
  • Show Off Routine: Students quite literally show off recent learning by publicizing it. This may mean quickly sharing with a partner, leading a brief conference with a caregiver and/or teacher, jotting a few sentences, creating an infographic, or “flipping” the learning and teaching peers. In the past, Ed Camps, Flip Grid, Screencastify, Powtoon, Show Me, Wevideo, and Scratch have been student favorites for showing off. 
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Students enjoy using digital tools like Powtoon to “show off” their learning and teach classmates about different Greek and Latin roots.

Tip: This printable chart provides additional guidance in finding festive ways to incorporate the celebration of all that’s happened in word study. 

Thinking these ideas sound “nice” in theory, but there is simply no time in the day? I respectfully challenge that idea. Remind yourself that a little goes a long way! Although implementing these ideas does takes time, the engagement, investment, and momentum that result yield a more efficient and productive use of each subsequent minute spent exploring words.  By zooming out and looking beyond a period, day, or week, we are more likely to see the long-term value and benefits these practices produce- both in the classroom this year… and in students’ lives for years to come. 


Pam Koutrakos is an educational consultant with Gravity Goldberg, LLC where she works with students, teachers, and administrators PreK- grade 8. She recently published Word Study That Sticks: Best Practices K-6 (Corwin, 2018) and The Word Study That Sticks Companion: Classroom-Ready Tools for Teachers and Students, K-6 (Corwin, 2019). Both include ideas, lessons, resources, and tools for teachers of all subjects. Connect with Pam on Twitter @PamKou and on LinkedIn.



Teacher, Lost and Found

By Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski

It was on the seventh day of school, near the end of the day- Friday the 13th no less, when one of my new third grade students asked me why I wanted to be a teacher. In my 18 years of teaching, no student has ever asked me this question. I was busy doing one of the many teacher tasks that must get done as a day draws to a close when he asked the question. I stopped what I was doing and looked at him with a smile. I spoke my truth:

“I always loved school. I loved to learn and just felt at home and happy at school. I missed it when I wasn’t there. Then, when I got older, I really enjoyed helping people and showing someone how to do something they didn’t know how to do. I wanted to help people,” I told him. I thanked him for asking me that question. Because, I’ve learned, even at the end of the day on a Friday the 13th, it’s important to keep your focus on what brought you to this profession in the first place.

It always come back to the WHY.


For a person who always wanted to be a teacher- believing it was more of a calling than a job, I have sadly found myself lost more than once.  Unsure if this profession was really for me. Unsure if I really was effective at all. Unsure if I could handle all the work that is required to keep your head above water when teaching 25 (or more) children in every subject, every day, while communicating with families, learning new curriculum, differentiating assignments, filling out forms, battling with stubborn photocopy machines and so much more. Unsure if I should be more ambitious and seek a different position in education, leaving the classroom behind. Unsure if I could be happy in a profession that requires so much emotional labor and so little respect for those in the trenches. Unsure if I could be a good mom and a good teacher simultaneously. Unsure if I could survive being evaluated by my student’s test scores. Unsure if I could survive hiding in a corner with my students during lockdown drills. Unsure if there wasn’t something else out there for me after all this time, doing this one job.

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Photo courtesy of Mishal Ibrahim at Unsplash

Last year, in particular, I felt a professional restlessness. Maybe it was the fact I was turning 40. Maybe it was the frustration of feeling like I couldn’t get a handle on all the work I had to do and, after 17 years of teaching, it STILL shouldn’t feel so hard. Maybe it was that many of my contemporaries were now high in the ranks of education- principals, directors, speakers, consultants, authors- and I was still in the same role that I started at as a 22 year old. Maybe it was a feeling that my expertise wasn’t valued or appreciated as I thought it should be. 

There was a sense that something felt off. I wasn’t loving teaching in the same way. I was resentful of the demands on my time, resentful of colleagues who had less work to do, resentful that some with less experience and passion were telling me the best way to do my job. As summer vacation started, a new opportunity presented itself. A K-2 Instructional Coach position became available in my school building. Suddenly, it felt like the perfect move for me to make- a chance to do something different. As a former kindergarten teacher, a current third grade teacher and a person who had presented professionally as part of the Long Island Writing Project, I felt that my skills and experience came together to make this a position where I could really make a positive difference. 

I spent weeks preparing my cover letter and resume. I started following instructional coaches and hashtags on Twitter. I dreamed of how I would help teachers and students. I bought inspiring teacher greeting cards, planning on all the little notes I would leave to let teachers know all the beautiful things they were doing. I studied interview questions. I shopped for a new suit to wear on my interview. I crafted a digital portfolio of all the professional blog posts and presentations I’ve shared through the years. I created a sample newsletter I would share with teachers. I didn’t think at all about my classroom or being away from students- I felt ready to make this leap. 

My dreams of being an instructional coach came to a screeching halt when I got the news I wasn’t selected. I was stunned. Hurt. Sad. Disappointed. Embarrassed. Lost again. After so much time preparing for a new position, I was going back to the classroom, which I had felt so ready to leave behind. 


I am sharing this here because I don’t think we, as educators, talk enough about the times we are lost. I’ve been noticing a theme lately- many former educators now host podcasts, write books, and consult on the notion of teacher wellness and self-care. But almost every single person advising teachers on how to navigate the work-life balance has left the classroom themselves. They will tell you how to be mindful, practice deep breathing, create boundaries- but they left the classroom to live this different life. That’s not practical or possible for many of us who need the salary, benefits, and security that a tenured teaching position provides. 

When I’m driving and I get lost (which happens way more than I’d like to admit), it is always MAPS that help me find my way back. I usually use Google Maps, where my wrong turn can easily be rerouted. I can see the big picture before me and find my way to my destination.

When I felt lost this summer, I navigated my way back to joy as a teacher by using MAPS: Meaning and (What) Matters, Attitude, Professionals and “My People” and Self-Care.  

M: Meaning and (What) Matters

My son is a third grader this year, and my daughter is a first grader. As a parent, I realize just how important a caring and effective teacher is in the life of a child. I want my children to go to school and feel seen, valued, and liked (even loved). I want them to feel curious and excited about what they are learning. I want them to have the opportunity to connect to their learning in personal ways. I want them to grow and flourish in every way while they are in school. As I think of all that I want for my own children, I realize what a privilege it is to create that type of atmosphere for my students. All that I want my own children to experience are elements I can create in my classroom. I can make a difference in the lives of my 26 third graders. I can help them feel happy in school, and seen, and safe. I can help them grow in confidence and curiosity. I can make learning relevant and engaging. This is ultimately what matters most and why I wanted to be a teacher all those years ago when I started on this path. This is what matters- more than any evaluation, test score, data point, new curriculum, reading level. This is why I teach. Keeping my focus on what matters most helps me believe in the work I am doing each day. 

A: Attitude

I am realizing more and more that it isn’t what happens in life, it’s how I react to it. It’s how I approach my day. It’s what I chose to focus on. It’s who I want to be and how I want to show up for my life. It’s choosing to be grateful for my job and choosing to focus on the good instead of all the big and little frustrations that come with being a teacher. It’s watering the flowers instead of watering the weeds. It’s focusing on what matters and radically accepting there will be parts of the job that are really hard and really annoying. I realize that last year I didn’t always show a positive attitude at work. I let frustration boil over at times when I was in meetings. While I can’t change that, I can choose my attitude now and I am working to keep a positive outlook. Choosing to be happy each day is a way to enjoy being in the classroom. 

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Photo courtesy of Melissa Askew at Unsplash

P- Professionals and “My People”

The times I’ve been lost as a teacher, I’ve always (eventually) found guides to show me the way. Professional organizations like the Long Island Writing Project. Blogging communities like the Two Writing Teachers and the Slice of Life folks. Educators who I follow on Twitter. Authors who share their brilliance in books. Reading about other teachers and their challenges and triumphs always helps me realize that this is a job like no other and the struggle IS real. Supportive educators who value me as a teacher and a writer have made all the difference. I reread the notes of appreciation given to me by administrators, parents and students and realize I have made a positive impact on those I teach and my school community. 

S- Self Care

In my first year of teaching, I arrived at school two hours before the first bell rang and stayed up to four hours after the last child left. I carried work home with me, too. I had no social life, ate poorly and still felt like I wasn’t teaching well. 

There were times in my teaching life where I would set my alarm for 1:00 AM and literally work in the middle of the night because it was the only time I could get things done. As you can imagine, this wasn’t sustainable or healthy at all. 

Now, after being a teacher for so many years, I’ve added being a wife and a mom to the mix. I get to work maybe 20 minutes before the students and many days I leave when I am contractually allowed. I carry work home but sometimes it just sits in my bag, ignored. Nowadays, I go to bed at a reasonable hour. I work on drinking more water, eating nutritious foods, and exercising. I read for pleasure, even when there is work in my bag that should get done. I let certain things go because a teacher could work around the clock and there would still be more to do. And my children deserve a present mother which means sometimes, teaching tasks get pushed to the side. I’ve learned that life goes on in school when you can’t be there, but you are irreplaceable to your family. I’ve learned that I am no good to anyone when I am exhausted, stressed and unhealthy. So, if you are feeling lost as a teacher, maybe start here. Get some rest. Eat the food that fuels you. Sit in the sunshine. Make time for the people you love. 

Teacher, Lost and Found 

In a lucky twist of fate, being back in the classroom this year allowed me to have a student teacher. She is full of enthusiasm and excitement for teaching. She has good insight and is caring to the students. She is hard-working and brings ideas to share. It is such a pleasure to be able to coach someone after all, and our 26 third graders are blooming with two of us there to plant seeds of love of learning. I am proud of the work we are doing each day. I look forward to seeing my students every morning and trying new strategies and approaches. I feel a deep sense of gratitude that I am a teacher, in this place, at this time. After questioning if I want to teach anymore, I now know that I am right where I belong.  

If you are a teacher who feels lost, I hope you know you are not alone. Truly, I’ve been there. And I hope that sharing MAPS might help you reconnect to your WHY again. Here’s hoping you find your way home, too.

Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski is a third grade teacher in Farmingdale, NY. She has taught 6th grade, Special Education, and Kindergarten. Kathleen is the co-director of the Long Island Writing Project and has presented workshops to educators from K-College. She is also one of the co-authors of the Two Writing Teachers blog. While she is proud of all her roles in education, her proudest job is being mom to Alex and Megan.


Books as Tools

By Matt de la Pena, 2020 CCIRA Presenter

When I was a newer author I dreamed of writing a great novel. A great picture book. I dreamed of getting positive reviews, maybe even awards, and meeting readers who had been moved by my words. I think a lot of writers begin in this head space. We want to make something great so we can feel like worthy creators. Like worthy humans. It’s Screen Shot 2019-09-17 at 6.35.47 AMnatural. We have read many wonderful books, and we want to affix our names to something wonderful, too. But over time I have discovered the true value of a good book – even a great one. It’s a vehicle for conversation. Nothing more. At the same time, I believe book-induced conversation can lead to seismic shifts, both internally and externally. These conversations can take many shapes. They can be made up of a parent and a child. Or a teacher and a student. Or two friends. Some of the most profound take place inside the head of a single person. Why? Because great stories are usually complex. Right and wrong isn’t so easy to define. Moral lines are drawn in surprising places. The point is, physical books – the words and the pages that hold the words – do not come alive until humans enter the equation. And contrary to what I once believed, the most ideal position of the author in this equation is on the back of a milk carton. True literature isn’t about the writer. It’s about the reader. It’s about readers.Screen Shot 2019-09-17 at 6.36.33 AM

In one of the spreads of my picture book LOVE (illustrated by Loren Long), an anxious boy hides under a piano, huddled with his dog, while his parents argue in the foreground. The simple text reads: “But it’s not only stars that flame out, you discover. It’s summers, too. And friendships. And people.” Loren and I have heard from so many educators around the country who, after reading LOVE aloud to the class, are approached by a student after class, privately, who points to that very spread, saying, “That’s me.” In all of these cases, the book may have prompted the young person to reach out in this way. But after the initial gesture it’s all about that kid and that teacher. And the conversation that follows.

People often ask me why I write for young people and not adults. Though I mostly just shrug off this question, the answer is pretty simple. Adults mostly read to reinforce their own ideologies. Conservative-leaning readers seek out conservative-leaning books. Progressive-leaning readers seek out prog


ressive-leaning books. Young people are different. They’re still building their ideologies. As a result, they’re more open minded as readers. Young readers treat books as tools. Too often we adults treat books as a pat on the back.

Little Roja Riding Hood: Translanguaging texts for k-8 classroom

By Liz Mahon

A translanguaging pedagogy is when teachers create classrooms that welcome and plan for the complex language practices of bilinguals.  The two images below are examples of translanguaging in a community setting:

Translanguaging shows the fluidity of language practices where bilinguals use all linguistic resources including named languages (i.e., Spanish, English), formal and informal registers, images, body language, and intonation to comprehend the world and express meaning.

Adopting a translanguaging pedagogy can be an act of resistance.  This pedagogy challenges the imperative of English in schools and rejects racist and anti-immigrant ideologies.  A translanguaging pedagogy also challenges deficit views, allowing bilingual students to shine and show their brilliance when they bring all their linguistic resources to school.

There are many ways to create a classroom which welcomes translanguaging.  (See this free Translanguaging Guide from CUNY-NYSIEB).  For the past four years, I have focused on one way: Collecting, studying and using translanguaging children’s literature in classrooms.  To do this, I have worked with teachers and students using an inquiry lens to ask:

  • Why do authors use translanguaging?
  • What effect does translanguaging have on an audience?
  • How do language conventions work with translanguaging texts?

Let’s look at some examples to get the idea.

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There once was a niña who lived near the woods.

She like to wear colorful capas with hoods.

Roja” called Mom from her telenovelas.

“go through the woods till you get to Abuela’s.”

(Elya, 2014)

Translanguaging with a Fairy Tale:

Teachers and students notice many interesting points about translanguaging with regards to author purpose and conventions with this example.  Teachers and students said that the author used translanguaging to:

  • Show how bilinguals really talk and tell stories
  • Make the story more Mexican
  • Show off her Spanish
  • Play with the rhymes and rhythms in both languages

Monolingual English speakers noted that they were able to infer the meaning of the Spanish words by using context.  They also asked their Spanish speaking classmates for help which gives the bilingual speakers the role of the expert with translanguaging texts.

In terms of conventions, using a possessive apostrophe with Abuela’s also leads to rich discussions around language. In Spanish, possession would be expressed by saying la casa de abuela.  The author of this text chooses to use the English construction of possession with a Spanish word.  Furthermore, in this book, there is not a glossary or pronunciation guide.  Noticing the conventions and text features used in translanguaging texts is important as students will need to make choices as to which conventions to incorporate into their own writing when they begin to create translanguaging texts.

 Translanguaging in a Poem:

Screen Shot 2019-09-11 at 6.42.37 AM      Screen Shot 2019-09-11 at 6.44.12 AM

Spanish and English are the most common languages in translanguaging children’s literature, but I have found examples with Arabic, Nuahtal, Chinese, Haitian Creole and several Native American languages.  The poem below was written by a 16-year-old Oglala from the Pine Ridge Reservation.

To introduce this poem, we read it aloud chorally with the group reading the refrain “Pine Ridge.”  In this case, there are two instances of translanguaging, when the author says Ma Lakhóta! and signs the poem with his name in Lakota (Cokata Aupi).  The cry of Ma Lakhóta! at the end of the poem shows how translanguaging works to reclaim and assert the cultural heritage of the author even amidst the oppression of Pine Ridge.  It can be powerful when only one or two words are in a language other than English.

Translanguaging with Realistic Fiction:

In My Shoes and I, by RenéColato Laínez, a young boy accompanied by his father make the journey by bus and by foot from El Salvador to the United State to join his mom.  His Mamáhas sent him a new pair of shoes from the United States which carry him through the journey.

The boy and father encounter many challenges and his brand new shoes become muddy, scuffed, torn and wet.  After each encounter, the boy talks to his shoes:

Screen Shot 2019-09-11 at 6.46.40 AM 

“Sana, sana, colita de rana” is part of a nursery rhyme which family members say to comfort a child when he or she is hurt.  It literally translates to “Heal, heal, little frog tail.”  When asked why the author chose to preserve the nursery rhyme in Spanish, teachers and students say:

  • It feels like it is carrying the comfort from home when it is in Spanish.
  • It would be too weird to say it in English. You only say it in Spanish.

Preserving dichos in home languages provides authenticity in writing, as many sayings lose their meaning and emotion when translated.  It is also common for authors to include translanguaging in conversations between family members, as the fluidity of languages is the natural way that communication occurs in bilingual families.

Inviting your Students to the Translanguaging Conversation:

What happens when you invite your students to examine texts that use translanguaging?  I have seen students develop a metalinguistic awareness, where they naturally notice how people use multiple languages and approaches to tell stories, write poems and sing songs.  These conversations position bilingual learners as experts which is a welcome role in schools for many.  Monolingual English speakers begin to see the world as multilingual and are intrigued to learn more.  Some bilingual writers begin to use the examples as mentor texts, and incorporate translanguaging in a way that feels natural for them.

However, as you can imagine, teachers have also encountered bumps along the way.  Sometimes, bilingual students resist using or acknowledging their home languages in the classroom.  It can be challenging to find resources in all the languages of your students. (See Bibliography ofTranslanguaging Texts for Classrooms). It can be intimidating if you are a monolingual English teacher and do not know what the texts are saying.  These challenges are real, but I hope that they do not stop you from joining us in this important work.  A translanguaging pedagogy elevates the status of bilingualism in schools, honors the diverse, multilingual world in which we live, and allows your bilingual students to shine.

Resource:  Bibliography ofTranslanguaging Texts for Classrooms.  This includes the texts referred to in this article, as well as many more translanguaging texts.

List of Works Cited 

Dr. Pepper Translanguaging Billboard. (2015).

Elya, S. M. (2014). Little Roja Riding Hood.New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

Laínez, R. C. (2010). My shoes and I.Honesdale, PA:Boyds Mills Press.

National Museum of the American Indian, 1999. When the Rain Sings: Poems by Young Native Americans. New York, NY. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. 

 Yanowitch, B. (2009).  Oye Read Mas!


Liz Mahon is an Assistant Clinical Professor in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education at the University of Colorado Denver.  She was a school counselor and English Language Development teacher for 20 years in K-12 public schools in North Carolina and Colorado.  Contact her with questions or comments at


Professional Development by Teachers

by Vicki S. Collet, 2020 Conference Speaker

I believe that professional development should be done by teachers, not done to them.  It works best when PD comes from the inside out, not from the top down.  This idea is not new, and it is well-supported in research. However, I’ve noticed that teachers’ professional development is often provided, rather than supported.  Why is this?

There seems to be a belief that “outside experts” have the silver bullet for improved instruction and student achievement.  Billions of dollars have been spent on professional development in the United States, with a trend toward less-effective, shorter-duration trainings of the “sit and get” variety.  But externally-imposed professional development is not “powerful enough, specific enough, or sustained enough” to effect lasting change (Fullan, 2007).  

Does this ring true for you?  Have you noticed that real changes in instruction and student learning come when professional development is focused at the classroom level?  As suggested by Thomas Guskey (2005), “The hard lesson we have gleaned from analyzing various waves of education reform is that it doesn’t matter what happens at the national, state, or even district level.  Unless change takes place at the building and classroom levels, improvement is unlikely” (p. 40). No matter the grand imperatives and high-level planning, it is in the classroom where changes in teaching and learning can actually occur.  So it makes sense to start there.

This is why professional learning communities (PLCs) matter.  When PLCs are truly learning communities that regard teachers as professionals, professional development happens. 

What is professional development?  Let’s take a look at each of the words making up that phrase.  Professional means being connected to a profession.  A profession requires prolonged preparation and formal qualification. Because teachers have earned their teaching credentials, they are licensed professionals and should be regarded as such.  This implies acknowledgement and respect for their knowledge and expertise about teaching. Professional development should regard teachers as professionals.

A close look at the idea of development is also enlightening.  The root word, develop, has meanings with differing connotations that are worth considering. Something can develop or it can be developed.  It’s important to think about who is doing the work. Is something developing from within or being developed from an outside source?  Piaget and Vygotsky had ideas about child development that might shed some light. Piaget saw development as a natural unfolding. Vygotsky saw development as supported by tools and by “more knowledgeable others.”  Professional development can occur through a blend of these ideas, a supported unfolding. This is the purpose of providing structures for professional learning communities. One such structure is collaborative Lesson Study.

In contrast to top-down reforms, Lesson Study is professional development that empowers teachers to drive improvement as they determine new ideas and methods to incorporate into their teaching. This job-embedded professional learning process has the potential to improve student achievement by looking closely at classroom practice.  

Lesson Study is as straightforward as it sounds: the study of a lesson. However, Catherine Lewis, who learned about Lesson Study in Japan and has been instrumental in spreading its use in the United States, points out that during Lesson Study teachers improve lessons not as an end unto itself, “but as a way to deepen their own content knowledge, their knowledge of student thinking, their understanding of teaching and learning, and their commitment to improvement of their own practice and that of colleagues” (Lewis & Hurd, 2011, p. 24).

Lesson Study is not just about improving a single lesson; it is about improving the overall teaching/learning process in ways that are both generic and sensitive to the unique needs of students and their teachers.  Through Lesson Study, teachers identify techniques that can be used in many situations.  

In addition to elevating effective practices, research lessons also provide a window for considering students’ progress toward long-term learning goals.  Teachers look closely at what students are learning, identify their misconceptions, and design ways to address them. Attention to individual students improves learning for all students.  Lesson Study supports improvement that is adapted to individual students and local contexts while increasing teachers’ pedagogical and content knowledge, developing professional learning communities, and increasing teachers’ motivation and efficacy.

My first encounter with Lesson Study was over a decade ago, when I was working in Ft. Collilns.  It was an amazing, impactful experience! Since then, I’ve worked with teachers across the country on collaborative Lesson Study, and I’ve seen dramatic results in teacher learning and student achievement.  Here’s the model I use for Lesson Study:

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Pretty simple, right?  However, although teachers often plan and reflect together, they don’t often observe together a lesson they have collaboratively planned.  And I truly believe the observation piece is key. It takes forethought and creativity to make it happen. But it is worth the effort!

As Angela Duckworth points out in her book, Grit: Passion, Perseverance, and the Science of Success, “There are no shortcuts to excellence. Developing real expertise, figuring out really hard problems, it all takes time” (Duckworth, 2016, p. 54).  Lesson Study is not a quick fix. It is a structure that supports authentic, productive professional development, a cycle for instructional improvement that pays ongoing dividends.

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Vicki Collet is a past president of CCIRA and an associate professor of Curriculum and
Instruction at the University of Arkansas whose previous experiences include classroom teaching, intervention, instructional coaching, and district leadership in Colorado. Vicki’s new book,
Collaborative Lesson Study, describes her experiences with Lesson Study and
shares insights about how to increase the effectiveness of professional learning communities (PLCs).  Look for her session on Lesson Study at the CCIRA Conference next February!