The Fab Four Comprehension Strategies: Accelerating Reading NOW!

By Lori Oczkus

Summer reading loss is real! We know that many students lose anywhere from two weeks to two months when they don’t read much in the summer. Couple that with the months of learning loss due to Covid 19 and researchers estimate that students could fall as much as 30% behind in their reading this school year. (NWEA, 2020) Our students desperately need a boost in their comprehension and engagement to catch them up in reading now and in the fall. 

My favorite go-to strategy to accelerate reading, is reciprocal teaching (Palinscar & Brown, 1984), or the “ Fab Four” (Oczkus, 2018) Reciprocal teaching is a scaffolded discussion technique based on four of the strategies good readers use; predict, question, clarify, and summarize (Oczkus, 2018). Reciprocal teaching is backed by over 30 years of solid research with consistent gains of .74 or nearly two years in one year. (Hattie, 2008) An added bonus is that the Fab Four easily adapts to a digital setting at any grade level with any text. 

In my travels to schools around the globe, I collaborate with teachers and work in classrooms to find ways to engage students in reciprocal teaching while raising reading scores. Here are some tips, pointers, and my “go to” lessons to get you started. In February I will present more ideas at CCIRA 2021. I can’t wait to return to Colorado to meet more fabulous colleagues and to visit my “home” state where I grew up! 

Best Pointers to Yield Results 

Teach the Fab Four Package

Teach all four strategies in ONE lesson! Represent them in a poster to ensure you cover them all. Designate one student as the “checker” who checks off each strategy as the class discusses it. Students predict what they will learn; clarify tricky words and discuss how to figure them out; ask questions for the group to answer; and summarize what they read. Try color coding the four strategies live and in online discussion boards. 

Follow a Gradual Release Model with Discussion 

Ensure success with a gradual release model of teaching by modeling the strategies. Then provide opportunities for students to discuss the reading and the strategies in pairs and teams. Students may take on roles -predictor, questioner, clarifier, summarizer. Try using chat rooms in Zoom or Google Meets or responding to one another on Flip Grid or Google Docs. 

Teach Metacognition

Teach students to become metacognitive when using the strategies by making them their own. Students and the teacher record demonstrations and explanations of the strategies for each other on a platform such as See Saw.

Close Reading with Informational Text

One of my favorite ways to introduce the “The Fab Four” is with informational articles. In this demonstration I use an article from my series Close Reading with Paired Text k-12 co-authored with Dr. Rasinski (Shell, 2015) In my project schools we also use Newsela, Scholastic News, and other short articles once the class is familiar with the method. The students and the teacher each have copies of the text that they mark up using either on a device or a hard copy with colored pencils or highlighters. The teacher and students reread the text at least three times to discuss; what they will learn, words to clarify, questions to ask, and important points to summarize the reading. Here is my 7-minute video for educators and parents explaining how to participate with students in a Fab Four discussion. Scroll down for the bookmark lesson plans, question and answers for parents, and parent letter. How to Boost Reading Comprehension with the Fab Four 

Fab Four Poetry Lesson for Comprehension and Fluency

Here is a comprehension lesson that includes predicting what the poem is about, clarifying words, phrases, and visual images, asking questions, and summarizing by sharing favorite lines and parts. The result is a peppy and engaging student-centered discussion. Students then reread the poetry to perform live in class or record on a digital platform. The demonstration here is from my series Close Reading with Paired Texts co- authored with Dr. Tim Rasinski. Here is a 7-minute video to show how to conduct a Fab Four poetry lesson for parents and teachers. Scroll down for bookmark lesson plans. 

How to Improve Comprehension & Fluency with Poetry 

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See you at CCIRA! The research behind reciprocal teaching consistently delivers results in just a few months. For high-yield/ low prep strategies refer to my books and resources listed in the bibliography below for more information and follow me on twitter @LoriOczkus or contact me at and let’s connect. See you at CCIRA in February 2021! Please join me for one or all of my 3 CCIRA sessions on reading and writing 

 Reading Rescue with the Fab Four: Comprehension Strategies to Accelerate Learning Now! 

Literacy Strong All Year Long!

Teaching Guided Writing For Success 

Lori Oczkus is a literacy coach, author, and popular speaker across the United States and internationally. Tens of thousands of teachers have attended her motivating, fast paced workshops and read her practical, research-based professional books. She is the author of the best-selling book Reciprocal Teaching at Work (ASCD, 2018) with the foreword by John Hattie. Lori has extensive experience as a bilingual elementary teacher, intervention specialist working with struggling readers, and staff developer and literacy coach. She works with students in classrooms and really knows the challenges that teachers face in teaching students to read! Lori has been inducted in the California Reading Association Hall of Fame for her many contributions to the field of reading in California and internationally.

Some of Lori’s Books and Resources:  

Teaching Guided Writing: Scaffolding for Success QRG (NCTE, 2020)

Close Reading with Paired Texts k-12 Series co-author Tim Rasinski (Shell,2015)

Fabulous Four Comprehension Puppets ( Primary Concepts, 2008) 


Stepping Back-Moving Forward

By Patrick Allen, longtime CCIRA Presenter

Let’s step back for a moment.  Let’s think about our teaching.  Let’s think about the reasons we became teachers in the first place.  

I grew up in a small town in southeastern Colorado.  Summers, circa 1968, were spent riding bikes, digging tunnels, swinging in tire swings… and playing school!  The kids in my neighborhood would load up wagons with books and chalk and crayons and Big Chiefs and travel to the front porch “classrooms” of our friends (and stuffed animals).  Porch school.  Each week or so, a new teacher would take on the role.  If I close my eyes, I can still remember it.  I loved playing school.

Fast forward.  In the fall of 2020, God and COVID willing, I’ll begin my 35th year of teaching.  Three schools.  Approximately 850 students.  Numerous administrators.  Countless colleagues.  I student-taught with a brilliant teacher named Judy Gilkey and we’re still good friends.  I remember my first interview (at the same school).  Laura Harmon, the principal, said to me, “Before you come for your interview, I want you to read Understanding Reading and be ready to talk about it.” (Smith, 1971)  I did. I was.  Laura had incredible insight into learning and leaders and her nudge into Frank Smith’s world remains a building block of my success as a teacher of readers.  That was one of the smartest things anyone has asked me to do.  Prepare.  Know.  Understand.

My teaching journey has been incredible.  Along the way I’ve been influenced by the best of the best, both personally and professionally.  If I tried to name each person whose shoulders I stand on, this blog post would be 27 pages long.  I guess my question is:  Who’s shoulders are you willing to stand on?  

Year 35.  I am moving from fifth grade to second grade.  I am excited about the change in grade levels.  I am excited to learn from colleagues I admire and respect.  I am excited to challenge myself as a learner.  I am excited to dig into the work of the professionals writers I admire who understand the developmental needs of young learners.  Most of all, I am excited to work with burgeoning readers early on in their literacy journey.  

Recently, someone asked me, “What will you do differently?”   Brilliant Question. 

In When Writers Read, Jane Hansen reminds us that our mission is to help learners become better evaluators of their work.  She nudges engagement and encourages independence.  She says that to be effective, readers and writers, need:

  • Voices – need to be honored (all voices)
  • Decisions – decisions rest in the hands of the learner (ultimately)
  • Time – opportunities must be plentiful to “do” and “create” (daily)
  • Response – listening is key (always)
  • Self-Discipline – leads to engagement (proactively) 

(Hansen, 2001)

Voices.  Today, I think it’s as important as ever that we listen to the voices of young people; those that sit in our classrooms, in person or virtually, and those that sit outside our classrooms.  If I’ve learned nothing over the past few months, it’s that my students can and MUST know their world.  The voices of children must ruminate through our instruction and our interactions. 

Decisions.  Decisions must rest in the hands, hearts, and minds of the learner.  In my classroom, hang these words, “Where choice lives, learning prospers!”  It’s true.  Students must be in charge of the decisions they are making as learners – what to read, what to write, what to think about.  It’s my job to set up opportunities.  It’s their job to make the decisions that propel them forward with my support.

Time.  Thoreau says, “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.”  We worry so much about time.  I know that large blocks of time give students the opportunity to make wise choices.  Time gives children opportunities to think, grow, and prosper without feeling rushed. 

Response.  I must respond with kindness and curiosity, if I’m going to create a classroom community in which learners thrive and prosper.  I must listen.  Children must, in turn, respond with kindness.  They must listen.  A response is only as good as the effort the listener puts into the situation.  My father used to say, “Look them in the eye.  Gather their thoughts in your head.  Respond with honor and humility.”  See.  Gather.  Respond.  Not bad advice. 

Self-Discipline.  A bold task.  It takes control.  Self-discipline means that one can actively “pursue what one thinks is right despite temptations to abandon it.”  It’s definitely not easy to overcome weaknesses and face difficulties, but that’s what it takes to be self-disciplined.  I think there’s a direct correlation between engagement and self-discipline.  Knowing what you don’t know so you can better understand what you do know.

So, with Jane’s voice in my head, here are the things that will remain constant:

  • The Workshop Structure.  There is no better format for ensuring consistency from day-to-day.  Crafting, composing, and reflecting will sit at the heart of my instruction.
  • Rich Print.  Children deserve to hear and read provocative and thought-provoking text.  They must see themselves in the books they read, but more importantly, they must see the big-wide world in the texts made available to them. 
  • Notebooks.  Children not only need to read every day, they need to write about their reading in wise ways every day.  They also need daily opportunities to write about what they deem important.
  • Talk.  Time to talk in pairs, in small groups, and in one-on-one conferences with me. Conferring is, afterall, the keystone of the reader’s workshop.
  • Thinking Strategies.  Thinking (comprehension) strategies are the glue that binds together days, weeks, the year.  Our work will be grounded in thinking.  Children must learn:  
    • Monitoring for Meaning and Problem Solving
    • Activating, Utilizing and Building Background Knowledge (Schema)
    • Asking Questions
    • Drawing Inferences
    • Creating Sensory Images
    • Determining Importance
    • Synthesizing Information (PEBC, 2014)
  • Engagement.  Thinking through the systems and structure that lead to deep, lasting engagement is critical.  Ellin Keene asks the questions, “What can we do to encourage motivation for students, or better yet, their engagement?” (Keene, 2018).
  • Stamina and Endurance.  Providing opportunities to develop their stamina over time is critical to help nourish and maintain their self-discipline.
  • Community.  Trust, Respect, Tone.  These three notions must continue to serve as “strong bulwarks in my classroom” if I want to “ensure that my classroom is primed and ready for literacy learning to flourish.” (Allen, 2009)

And, here are the things that will change:

  • Brilliance.  Recognizing the brilliance of 7-8 year olds is different than noticing the brilliance of 10-11 year olds.  “Children’s metacognition begins to develop across this age — their ability to know what they need to do to better, learn or understand (e.g., reread a passage, ask a question). They also begin to understand the permanent nature of items.” (Anthony, 2017)  I have got to keep learner’s developmental milestones in mind. 
  • Purposeful Play. “Play is one type of environment where children can be rigorous in their learning.” (Mraz, Porcelli, Tyler, 2016).  Opportunities for play – physical, social, emotional, and intellectual – must be integrated into a young learner’s day.
  • Celebrate Naivate.  There’s a joyous naivate in children, especially young children.  I’ve got to make sure to find time to celebrate the silliness.  Learning to laugh with learners is an important part of working with primary students.  There’s still an innocence to behold.
  • Recognizing Time.  The reckoning of time is important.  Helping students learn to manage their time and to understand how time works is an essential part of the primary grades.  I can develop stamina and endurance, but simultaneously I have to recognize that time is different for young learners. 
  • Scope and Sequence.  My friend, Lori Conrad, taught me long ago, “the scope is what we know children need and the sequence is what we pay attention to when they show us they need it.”  This is especially important with young learners.  No publisher knows our children better than us.

My second grade teacher was MIldred Henrie.  I loved her with all my heart.  She had beautiful white hair piled on top of her head.  Her blue eyes twinkled when she smiled at me and her blue eyes could shoot a glare of “stop that right now!”  But she never raised her voice and she always made me feel like I was the most important person in her world when she sat down beside me.  She turned sixteen the year I had her (Leap Day) and we celebrated with laughter and songs and joy.  It was a beautiful year. 

I guess that the most important thing I’ll keep in mind as I start my 35th year and work with younger learners is that, “Childhood is not preparation for anything.  Childhood just IS, and they only get one.  It’s up to us to protect it!”  (Laminack, 1995).  

It just is.  

Step back and refill your wagon with what’s most important.  I know I will be. 



Allen, Patrick.  Conferring:  The Keystone Of Reader’s Workshop. Stenhouse Publishers. 2009

Anthony, MIchelle.  “Cognitive Development in 6-7 Year Olds.” Scholastic, 2017.

Hansen, Jane.  When Writers Read. Heinemann, 2001.

Keene, Ellin.  Engaging Children:  Igniting a Drive for Deeper Learning. Heinemann, 2018.

Laminack, Lester.  Learning with Zachary. Scholastic, 1995.

Mraz, Kristine, Porcelli, Allison, and Tyler, Cheryl.  Purposeful Play:  A Teacher’s Guide to Igniting Deep and Joyful Learning Across the Day.  Heinemann, 2016

Public Education and Business Coalition, Thinking Strategies for Learners, PEBC, 2014.

Smith, Frank.  Understanding Reading:  A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading. L. Erlbaum Associates, 1971.

Patrick Allen is a second grade teacher at Frontier Valley Elementary in Parker, Colorado and he has taught in Douglas County Schools for over 30 years.  He is the author of Conferring: The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop and co-author of Put Thinking to the Test, both with Stenhouse Publishers.  Patrick’s work is highlighted in two video series, “Fact Finders” and “What are You Thinking?” (Stenhouse).  Patrick has worked with the Public Education and Business Coalition (PEBC) as a staff developer and his classroom serves as a lab classroom for local and national visitors.  Patrick has presented locally, nationally, and internationally.  He is a regular attendee and presenter at the CCIRA Conference.  Patrick’s wife, Susan, is a first grade teacher.  He has four grown children (his oldest daughter teaches Kindergarten) and one grandson, Ryker.


The Responsibility of Mentorship

By Danny Burleigh

Who is your mentor? To whom do you attribute your pivotal development as a professional? As a first year teacher, I was lucky enough to have been offered two fifth grade positions at two schools. I met with friends, colleagues, and administrators weighing in on which offer to accept, and ultimately the decision was made on a single factor. I chose a school where I would be able to teach and grow alongside Patrick Allen.

I was entering the education field after serving as a Marine Officer for four years (talk about culture shock), and I knew that I needed guidance. I had incredible mentors that guided me throughout that career, so I had a deep desire to find strong mentorship as a teacher. I already knew Patrick to be a brilliant educator through his book Conferring: The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop and classroom observations, and he was going to mentor me. 

He just didn’t know it yet.

It is no secret that the long term outlook for new teachers in the field is often bleak. Nearly one third of all new teachers leave the profession within three years. Half leave after five. Statistically, I still have a 50/50 shot of being in my classroom next year (social distancing aside). Most states and districts have mandated induction programs for new teachers and yet these numbers have seen little change over the years (Ingersoll, R., & Merrill, L., 2012).

There are a number of factors that contribute to why induction programs may, or may not, lead to long and productive careers in teaching; but I can only speak from my experience (both in and out of the classroom). As educators, we are deeply compassionate people. We remember the whirlwind that was our first year and, when placed in positions of leadership, do not want to overwhelm our new teachers with the burden of induction programs. Coupled with our responsibilities to our students or other teachers, induction programs begin to degrade into a task that you “get through” rather than something efficacious.

Induction/mentorship programs are the single most important developmental step for any teacher (Rockoff, 2008). It should be a rich and intensive process in order to continue developing strong foundations. It is the benchmark that influences the trajectory of how they interact with children for the rest of their career. Everyone has intense and specific responsibilities to uphold within the mentorship process that are essential for development as a teacher.

Responsibility Starts with Mentees

The responsibility for the effective mentorship rests on the mentee. I was determined to find a mentor who would challenge me professionally. Even though Patrick didn’t initially know that he would be my mentor, I sought him out for his wisdom and guidance. I count my blessings now as I look at our friendship and know that he has been an important part of my development as a professional.

Mentees are responsible for their trajectory within their mentorship. It is their responsibility to express their needs and to pursue a greater understanding of their craft. If the mentee is unwilling to sacrifice time and effort in the pursuit of greater understanding, then the mentorship process is irrelevant. 

When I first approached Patrick, I was seeking help with conferring. I knew that was an area of growth for me and I sought out specific guidance around a concept with which I was struggling in the classroom. I spoke frequently to Patrick over a multitude of topics ranging from instruction with thinking strategies, to discourse in the classroom, to creating a warm environment with my classroom furniture. 

I learned a long time ago that it was better for me to understand why my mentor did things rather than what they actually did. I would certainly mimic some of my mentor’s choices in my own classroom, but I knew the reasoning behind teacher decisions was how I would make instructional decisions for students regardless of the thinking we were tackling. Mentees, whether veteran teachers or fresh out of school, need to understand how great teachers make the decisions they do rather than trying to merely mimic instructional practices.

But how do we find this person? First develop a list in your mind of what qualities you would expect to see from students of great teachers. Would they be engaged? Creative? Love learning? Ask yourself what feelings you get when you walk into an ideal classroom? Once you answer these questions for yourself, start looking for teachers in your building, district, city, or state that foster the kind of learning you your students should be doing.

If your workplace does not provide the mentorship you need, it is your responsibility to be creative. There are a multitude of ways to get involved with other teachers professionally, both in-person and virtually. If you expect your students to seek answers to their questions, I would encourage you to also do the same. 

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Photo Courtesy of Thao Le Hoang at Unsplash

Responsibility of Mentors

Mentorship is a privilege in any profession. To be called a mentor is something that should be received with humble respect. It means sacrificing time and energy to share wisdom with a colleague who holds you in the highest regard. It means staying later and coming earlier. It means giving up breaks and plan times to work with your mentee. It also means influencing a whole generation of educators and the students they are privileged to teach.

Mentors are well read. If mentees are to hold the responsibility of seeking out why mentors make the decisions they do, mentors are responsible for providing the research and reading for the instructional moves they make in the classroom. I know this is a high order, but it is one that will not only benefit the practice of the mentee, but will also challenge the mentor to truly decide if their practice holds up to a research-based standard.

Mentorship is fostered through inquiry. When I expressed to Patrick that I was wanting to work on writing instruction, I came in the next day to a pile of articles by Penny Kittle, Donald Graves, Katy Wood Ray and a myriad of other writers who mentored him. It was long work sifting through those documents finding idea after idea on how I might implement those concepts into our study on the persuasive mode. A few days later he and I met to discuss what I discovered and he helped me bring some lofty ideas down to earth, demonstrating how he has used many of the same ideas in his own instruction. Positive mentorship allows the mentee to formulate their own ideas then refine them instead of offering the refined idea with no understanding of its origin. 

Often mentor and mentee conversations can become debased to a discussion on how to teach to certain programs and resources within the school. However, no program has ever been shown to create high quality teaching on its own accord (Allington, 2013). If this is true, then it is far more beneficial for mentors to help their mentees to understand why they might choose to use certain resources, or not use them. Mentors might help guide mentees to understand how their philosophies on education and students (backed by research of course) can be interwoven into mandatory programs or resources. They might help them to whittle away at the purposeless activities that are ever present.

Observation is key to developing great teachers. Mentors need to be in mentees’ classrooms and vice versa. This is where mentors have the ability to note where their discussions meet children and how their mentees are truly utilizing them.

Patrick once observed a workshop I facilitated with my students. We had just finished our composing time and had transitioned to our reflection. A student began sharing and, when they were finished, the conversation moved to another student. Following the workshop, Patrick said little about my management or instructional prowess. Rather, he made a small note. The first student was not finished with their thinking. He told me to “hold out your silence a little longer; students will continue to dig deeper into their thinking.”

Instructional moves like that cannot be discovered through conversation. They are only seen through the lens of an observer who is focused on perfecting the craft of their mentee. Inversely, mentees need to be afforded the opportunity to observe the mentor’s classroom. This allows them to ask questions about practices that develop into rich dialogue toward instructional decisions in their own classrooms.

Administrators are responsible for vision and implementation. 

Without a clear mission and vision in the school, teachers are at a loss for what is truly important for them to accomplish. The school’s mission needs to be clear, concise, and explicit. Most schools and educator leaders have this mission. What begins to degrade this vision are the implicit, “suggested” missions that we set. 

When I was a young officer in command of a motor transport platoon, I was walking my line of vehicles with my squad leaders. I remember making a careless suggestion that it would be, “awesome if all the tires were polished.” I did not intend for it to be an order, nor did I think it was at all necessary. However, the next day I discovered that my platoon had stayed late and polished all the tires of all 32 vehicles in our platoon. Obviously I was mortified, but I learned a valuable lesson. Implicit missions are just as heard and carried out as explicit ones. Leaders must be cognizant of the implicit missions they direct. 

For example, if we state that our school’s vision is for students to create a lifelong love for reading, but we only discuss student standardized testing scores, there are competing visions. Implicitly, teachers are perceiving that standardized testing is the most important factor in evaluations because it is the only factor discussed. These small, competing visions ultimately cause burnout, especially for teachers who are already unsure of their own visions within the classroom. 

Administrators should not be the source of mentorship for new teachers. They are responsible for providing and supporting mentors by providing them time and resources in order to foster growth in their mentees. Mentors need time to observe and coach the mentee. Mentorship is a difficult and sacrificial task that requires professional development and guidance. Administrators who invest in these leaders must create opportunities for their mentors to grow.

It is imperative to understand that mentorship is not something that ends with a two-year induction program, it evolves to a different form. In my fifth year of teaching I still know that my friend and mentor will continue to coach me, even if we are not in the same building; just like he seeks mentorship from colleagues he respects. I also know that in each new chapter of my career, I will find colleagues who will continually support me professionally, challenge my thinking, and help me strive to understand my vision for students.

Who is my mentor? I know I will continue to add to the answer.

Now I ask who is my mentee?  To whom will I offer support? 

These are also important questions to ask.


Allington, R. L. (2013). What Really Matters When Working With Struggling Readers. The Reading Teacher, 66(7), 520–530. doi: 10.1002/trtr.1154

Ingersoll, R., & Merrill, L. (2012). Seven Trends: The Transformation of the Teaching Force. PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi: 10.1037/e579212012-001

Rockoff, J. (2008). Does Mentoring Reduce Turnover and Improve Skills of New Employees? Evidence from Teachers in New York City. National Bureau of Economic Research, 12(24). doi: 10.3386/w13868

Danny Burleigh served as a United States Marine Corps Captain before becoming a teacher in Parker, Colorado. He is in his fifth year of teaching and currently teaches fourth grade at Mammoth Heights Elementary. He was fortunate to present at CCIRA 2020 on teacher mentorship with Dana Sorensen from the Public Education and Business Coalition. He is currently a member of the Public Education and Business Coalition Lab Host Fellowship.

Sidelined but Ready to Get Back into the Game

By Cris Tovani

It’s easy to feel sidelined by this pandemic.  Negotiating everyday life is a whole new ballgame.  It’s hard to know what is true, what to believe, and how to act.  Even grocery shopping proves to be an epic adventure. I put on a mask, believing it will protect me from spreading virus germs.  I vacillate on wearing gloves.  I’ve heard they act like as an extra layer of skin that keep germs from one’s face.  But they make my hands sweaty, so I decide to take a calculated risk and not wear them.  Instead of grabbing a cart from the parking lot like I usually do, I decide not to because I’m sure the handle is a virus hotbed.  I limit what I buy so that it fits into my own bags.  Surely, they are cleaner, but who really knows?  Upon entering the store, I head straight for aisle six and notice several packs of toilet paper AND Bounty sitting on the shelves. I fight my urge to grab one of each.   My head reminds me that there is no longer a shortage and I need to leave what’s there for those who aren’t stockpiled.  Still, my heart tells me that while they are available, I should get one of each. After circling back to the produce section, I head to the baking aisle and I see a man without a mask, coughing all over the spices.  I decide to skip this row even though I need garlic powder. My actions are driven by the belief that the man’s cough has infected the aisle and his germs will linger way longer than I want to wait.  I skip the garlic powder deciding to substitute the recipe with another ingredient.

I am feeling vulnerable in this new reality.  Every aspect of my life is changing. I recognize as I work on this blog post that anything I write has the unintended potential to trivialize what others are experiencing.  I feel like a phony because when the pandemic hit, my work stopped.  Teacher workshops were postponed.  Demonstration teaching lessons with kids were canceled and planning with groups of teachers ended.  I was standing on the sidelines.  Unlike classroom teachers, I haven’t been responsible for trying to figure out how to do the heroic job of helping students learn remotely.  This makes me not qualified to tell those who are, how to do it.  So, with humility, I ask that you humor me as I try to figure out how to get back into the game.

When I’m in a classroom, I’m constantly in the “Hey whatcha doing?” mode.  I watch students interact with other kids, I listen to their sidebar conversations, I talk to them during conferences about what makes them tick.  I use these conversations as resources to keep up with their passions and pop culture.  I ask them questions about music, athletics, video games, anything that I think they care about.  In the classroom, I can peek over their shoulder and see their annotations.  I can listen to their discussions in small groups.  Even for kids who aren’t participating, asking them what they need often leads me to another instructional move.  I share with them what makes learning hard for me and then ask them to reciprocate.  If I know who my learners are, I can find text that they will read, targets they will shoot for, and tasks that they care enough about to do.

But now, what? In a remote environment, where I can’t rely on physical proximity to make connections, look over student’s shoulders, or monitor the time they have their eyes on text, I need to make adjustments.  I ask myself, “How do I get back in there and teach?”

I worry about the kids.  I fret about the ones who don’t have books at home or a place to study.  I worry about the ones who struggle even when they were with their teachers.  I think about the students who have given up on school–the kids who don’t show up for class much less for an online lecture.  I worry about the students who won’t graduate because there will be no summer credit recovery.  So, instead of worrying, I need to pull myself together and join those who started working on these problems three months ago.  How can I help? Could I teach an online credit recovery class? What would a pandemic summer school literacy class look like?  How might I engage our most disengaged learners?

Staying connected to my beliefs has always helped me keep kids at the front and center.  They drive my practice and this keeps my instruction anchored in authenticity and purpose. I reread my list of twelve beliefs, ones I’ve shared at workshops to help others flesh out what they think matter most to teaching and learning.  I’ve kept them close to my planning to remind me of what matters most.  But for a pandemic summer school, twelve beliefs are too many.  I pare the list down, knowing that my top three will help me decide what matters most:

  1. The time that students spend behaviorally, emotionally, and cognitively engaged in reading, writing, and discussing matters most to their learning. My concrete goal, backed by research is to help students engage for 67 minutes per day of reading, and 60 minutes per day of writing (Guthrie, 2004; Calkins, 2006).
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Photo courtesy of Gabriel Tovar on Unsplash 
  1. I need to learn what students care and wonder about in order to get a variety of texts into their hands and to give them a variety of genres in which to write about.


  1. I have to see and hear students’ thinking, even if their thinking is “I don’t know” or “I don’t care.” Learning what they know and need is the only way I can figure out what their next steps are in terms tasks, texts, and learning targets.If I can see what they get and need, I can do a better job helping them to fulfill their reading and writing minutes. Providing the right “Ts” will enable them to get smarter and more skilled each day.

So, with these beliefs in mind, what would I do first?

From recent conversations with colleagues who are teaching, I learn that kids are over this new norm of school.  They need a better reason than an online Powerpoint to get out of bed in the morning.  Now more than ever before, figuring out what makes each student tick before I plan will be crucial.  If what I’m teaching doesn’t connect to their lives, why should they bother?

My plan is to set up a schedule where I call/video chat individual students before we gather as a group on the first day.  On this call, I will spend a little time getting to know individuals to see what they care about most during this time of disruption.  There are so many things I will want to know about my new students.  How are they currently spending their time? What’s surprising them? What’s frustrating them? What are they feeling good about or wishing for?  What do I need to know about them as learners and people to better meet their needs?  What are they curious about?

To build an initial connection, I will share with them a list of questions that I am currently wondering about and ask that they send me a few of their own.  I have no idea what I will get as a response, but I’m thinking that some kids might be curious about:

  • When will things seem normal again?
  • How does human contact and friendship help us navigate learning?
  • How is propaganda used to manipulate?
  • Who gets sick and why?
  • Is the US losing its place of power in the world?
  • Why is there a rise in racism?
  • Can video games teach us about the world in which we live?
  • What are the effects of cancelled professional sports?
  • How do vaccines work?

I am also prepared for snarky responses like:

  • When will this stupid pandemic be over?
  • Why are my parents so annoying?
  • Who cares about your questions?
  • Do we even need school if we can’t see our friends?

Once I get some information from individuals about what they care about, I can then figure out topics, texts and tasks that are worthy of their time.  I will search for texts that will help them answer their questions, making sure that I have different text structures and levels of reading.  I will consider options for small groups because it will be important for students to stay connected and have accountability to each other. Depending on schedules, I will set up a few whole class meetings and then make the Zoom breakouts more flexible.  I will pop into their small group chat rooms in real time to learn more about students and provide individual instruction.  I also want to empower students to decide how they will use group time.  They will need flexibility to schedule their own meetings so they can connect with their group.  When I can’t be present, they can hold their thinking on a simple google.doc to keep me in the loop. I recognize that initially, students may not meet in their small groups.  This will circle me back to my beliefs that it’s my job to facilitate how students behaviorally, emotionally, and cognitively engage in worthy work.

As I notice patterns within the smaller groups, I will use our ten to fifteen-minute Zoom time to do mini-lessons or give kids some input like a short article, to provoke and draw them back to their small groups.  Small groups could be based on questions students have, novels, or topics they care about.  While kids are in their clusters, I can enter different chat rooms to confer or do small group instruction.  Similar to when I’m in the classroom, I will monitor the whole class in between each chat room conference to decide where to go next.  Once I confer with one group, I will pull back and observe the other chat rooms to decide where to go next.  This is just a start.  But thinking about this, has allayed some fears and has made me feel like a participant again.

Last week, I was feeling pretty down.  Fortunately, I had the pleasure of being on a Zoom chat with Cornelius Minor and several other consultants.  We were brainstorming a bit and also bemoaning the fact that we couldn’t be with teachers and kids.  In his patient and wise way, Cornelius very quietly said, “We’ve lost some of our jobs but we haven’t lost our work.”  He’s right.  There is so much work out there to be done.  The trick is figuring out how to do “work” that is helpful to teachers and students.  I’m coming to grips with the fact that I probably won’t ever be able to go back to teaching the way I did in the past.  And maybe that’s a good thing. I readily admit that I am struggling to figure out next steps.  So, I need to get off the sidelines and get back into the game, figuring out with the rest of you, how to do the work of teaching and learning.

This is only a start.  Now, I need to find some takers who I can serve.  Any teachers or kids out there who want a thought partner–I’m all in.

Chris Tovani is the recipient of ILA’s Adolescent Literacy Thought Leader Award in 2017,  a veteran teacher, staff developer, and nationally known consultant on issues of reading, content comprehension and assessment in secondary classrooms. She is the author of  I Read It But I Don’t Get It, Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? and So, What do They Really Know?

Cris Tovani is coauthor with Samantha Bennett of the Heinemann Digital Campus course Adolescent Reading RX, which shows a variety of ways to reach reluctant and struggling readers.


Calkins, L. (2006) A Guide to the Writing Workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Guthrie, J. T., A. Wigfield, and K. C. Perencevich.  2004.  Motivating Reading Comprehension:  Concept-Orientated Reading Instruction.  Mahwah, NJ:  Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

An April (Mostly) Inside

By Tanny McGregor, 2021 CCIRA Conference Presenter

There’s a visual cliché that you’ve likely seen in film, where a calendar is pictured with its pages peeling off one by one. The calendar in motion is an effective way to show time flying, right before our eyes. During the past year, quarantined months notwithstanding, time has rushed past like those pages curling into the wind.

At the time of this writing, I’ve been alive for 640 months. Something inside me has risen up, a new longing to make those fleeting months accountable. What happens to small moments if not captured in a poem, a photo, or quick sketch? I know what happens. The moments fade and the calendar pages fly away.

Screen Shot 2020-05-06 at 10.15.47 AM
Created by Tanny McGregor, April 2020, on an iPad with Paper by WeTransfer (@WeTransfer).


Creating a visual calendar changes the way I think about time. Due to the stay-at-home orders in my state, I have more unstructured time to navigate than I can remember. The memorable moments surface daily, though, same as before. So with five minutes each evening, I pick up my stylus and think about the day behind me. What happened that was important, surprising, or interesting? Maybe it’s none of those, but an ordinary moment instead. 

In each empty calendar square, something is remembered. A simple symbol, accompanied by a word or phrase, preserves a fleeting memory, giving it permanence on the page. A visual calendar clutches the everyday, one tiny square at a time.

In our community of readers and writers, time is noticed and named in a variety of ways, through journals and poems, photographs and videos, audio recordings, sketches, and social media posts. A visual calendar is yet another way to create a thought-filled curio cabinet, a place to stow away the moments and take them out again from time to time. 

Note: Last December, Tanny’s sketchnoted thinking was featured on Mike Rohde’s Sketchnote Army blog. Take a look at this visual calendar, created in more typical times:

Tanny McGregor has been teaching and learning for 31 years in Cincinnati, Ohio. Since 2007, she has been writing and presenting for teachers near and far. Tanny’s books include Comprehension Connections: Bridges to Strategic Reading (Heinemann, 2007), Comprehension Going Forward: Where We Are & What’s Next (Heinemann, 2011), Genre Connections: Lessons to Launch Literary & Nonfiction Texts (Heinemann, 2013), and her most recent publication, Ink & Ideas: Sketchnotes for Engagement, Comprehension, and Thinking (Heinemann, 2019). Find her on Twitter @TannyMcG.