The Reading Principle: Three Types of Reading

By Evan Robb

Recently, I was interviewing candidates for a language arts position.  Several candidates just finished college and were eager to start a teaching career.  Included was one question all candidates had to respond to: How would you teach a particular short story to a group of students?  A frequent answer I received was, “Read it to the students or let the students read it out loud.” Letting students read out loud in front of the class is commonly referred to as popcorn or round-robin reading.  One candidate proudly explained a reading game called “bump,” where students would read out loud and could intermittently call on another student to continue the reading. Bump permits students to embarrass one another or to catch another student not paying attention.  No student should graduate from any college or university and bring such archaic and at times hurtful methods into a classroom. Popcorn, round robin, and bump reading should never be part of an elementary, middle, or high school classroom!

As a middle school principal, I am often asked what types of reading should occur in a middle school English classroom? What is a balanced literacy program? My answer is not that complex: “Reading can and should be taught.”  In addition to the teacher reading aloud for students’ enjoyment, every middle school classroom should have three types of reading:

  • Instructional Interactive Read Aloud
  • Instructional Reading
  • Independent Reading


Instructional Interactive Read Aloud

An interactive read aloud allows the teacher to model in a think aloud how to apply a reading strategy. This modeling during a read aloud builds and/or enlarges students’ mental model of how a strategy works. For this aspect of instruction, I suggest that the teacher models with a short text that matches the genre and/or theme that ties a reading unit together.  Short texts can include a picture book, an excerpt from a longer text, a folk or fairy tale, myth or legend, a short, short story, or an article from a magazine or newsletter.

Here are six of many skills and strategies that you can model in interactive read-aloud lessons:

  • Making inferences
  • Linking literary elements to a text
  • Identifying big ideas and themes
  • Locating important details
  • Skimming to find details
  • Emotional responses

The interactive read aloud is teachers’ common text. Once teachers complete the modeling over five to eight classes, they have a reference text to support students by reviewing a lesson. Then, they move to reading aloud from texts that resonate with students.

Instructional Reading

Instructional reading occurs during class. Students need to read materials at their instructional reading level, which is about 90 % to 95% reading accuracy and about 90% comprehension. Organizing instructional reading around a genre and theme—for example biography with a theme of obstacles—permits students to read different texts and discuss their reading around the genre and theme. One book for all does not work.  Based on a false assumption, one-book-for-all assumes that no one has already read the book and everyone is on the same reading level.

As an example, the class opens with an interactive read-aloud lesson that lasts about ten minutes.  Next, a transition to instructional reading. Find books for students in your school library, your community public library, in your class library, and the school’s book room (if you have one).  Instructional reading books stay in the classroom, as students from different sections may be using the same materials each day.

Instructional reading asks students to apply specific skills and strategies to texts that can improve students’ comprehension, vocabulary, and skill because these texts stretch students’ thinking with the teacher, the expert, as a supportive guide.

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Photo by Klim Sergeev  on Unsplash

Independent Reading

Students should always have a book they are reading independently. By encouraging them to read accessible books on topics they love and want to know more about, you develop their motivation to read!

Have students keep a Book Log of the titles they’ve read and reread. Do not ask students to do a project for each completed book; that will turn them away from reading.  Reflecting on the value of independent reading is important. Getting hung up on how you will hold students accountable is not valuable. Remember, enthusiastic readers of any age do not summarize every chapter they read in a journal. Neither do you!

Students should complete twenty to thirty minutes of independent reading a night, and that should be their main homework assignment. If you’re on a block schedule, set aside two days a week for students to complete independent reading at school. If you have 90 to 120 minutes for reading and writing daily, then independent reading should occur every day.  This is not wasted time. When students read the teacher can read part of the time which communicates a great message to students: adults read independently, too! Equally important during this time, teachers also confer with a few students about their reading.

Including the three types of reading in a middle school curriculum brings balance, engagement, and motivation to the curriculum and holds the potential of improving reading for all students. We must be better than popcorn reading as a go-to-method for a teacher to use with students.  We must be better than reading out loud for an entire class. We need a balanced framework, a balanced literacy program. Encourage your teachers to give the three types of reading a try. The goal is to increase students’ reading skill and help students become lifelong readers. But the goal is also to reclaim the professionalism language arts teachers and students deserve.

Evan Robb is a middle school principal in Clarke County, Virginia. He is a committed educator, progressive thinker, author, speaker, and fitness enthusiast.

Don’t Skip It! The Case for Daily Phonemic Awareness Activities

By Carolyn Banuelos

Phonemic Awareness: the ability to manipulate sounds (phonemes) within words

Phonemic Awareness Activities: Two- to three-minute oral games that require students to isolate and manipulate sounds within words

Two- to three-minutes—how much could such a short activity really impact student learning? Phonemic Awareness activities are so easy to skip. Don’t do it! Phonemic awareness is an essential foundational skill for reading and writing. And activities that develop phonemic awareness can be quick and highly effective. Let’s take a look at why and how to make phonemic awareness activities a regular part of your foundational skills daily instruction.  

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Photo by Jon Tyson at Unsplash

Why teach phonemic awareness in the first place? Because it is essential. Phonemic awareness and alphabet recognition are the two best predictors of early reading success (Adams, 1990; Beck & Juel, 1995; Chall, 1996). Students must know that words are made up of sounds in order to read and write. Phonemic awareness activities teach this essential understanding. They also teach children how words work and give them practice manipulating sounds within words. In other words, phonemic awareness activities lay the foundation for decoding (breaking words into sounds and blending the sounds together) and encoding (breaking words into sounds and recording the individual sounds). Without a strong foundation of phonemic awareness, students might completely miss the point of phonics instruction!

Fortunately, phonemic awareness activities are simple to plan and implement if you know the skills your students need and which activities target those skills. Students begin first by working with whole words and progress to working with individual sounds (phonemes) within words. Check out this chart, which follows the Fountas and Pinnell progression of learning for phonological awareness skills (2017) and has our suggestions for simple, effective games to play with your students.

Skill Sample Activity Directions

Give the following directions to your students to teach them to play each word game.

Rhyming Words
Hear rhyming words Some words sound the same at the end. They rhyme. I’m going to say two words. Your job is to tell me if they rhyme. If they rhyme, give me a thumbs-up and say the words. If they do not rhyme, give me a thumbs-down. For example, if I say, “hiss, miss,” you would give me a thumbs-up and say the words “hiss, miss.” K, 1
Identifying Words
Listen for words within a sentence Sentences are made up of words. I’m going to say a sentence. Your job is to repeat the sentence back to me and pause after each word. For example, if I say, “The cat is big and yellow.” You would say, “The…cat…is…big…and…yellow.” K
Identify and Manipulate Syllables
Segment words into syllables Words are made up of parts. These parts are called syllables. I’m going to say a word. Your job is to clap and count the number of syllables in the word. For example, if I say, “blanket,” you would say, “blan-ket” and hold up two fingers.” K, 1, 2
Delete syllables from a word Words are made up of parts. These parts are called syllables. We can delete a syllable from a word to make a new word. I’m going to say a word. Your job is to delete the first syllable from the word. For example, if I say, “between” you would say, “tween.” K, 1, 2
Isolate and Manipulate Onset and Rime
Divide onset and rime I’m going to say a word. Your job is to tell break the word into its first sound and the rest of the word. For example, if I say, “time,” you would say, “t-ime.” K, 1
Isolate and Manipulate Phonemes
Isolate and say the beginning phoneme in a word I’m going to say three words. They all have the same beginning sound. Your job is to tell me the beginning sound of all three words. For example, if I say “bat, ball, bike” you would say, “/b/.”   K, 1
Segment a word into phonemes Words are made up of sounds. I’m going to say a word. Your job is to tell me each of the sounds in the word. For example, if I say, “hat,” you would say, “/h/ /a/ /t/.” K, 1, 2
Blend phonemes within a word Words are made up of sounds. I’m going to say some sounds. Your job is to blend the sounds together to make a word. For example, if I say, “/m/ /a/ /p/,” you would say, “map.” K, 1, 2

*These are suggestions, however, begin at whichever skill your students have yet to master. Skills in the chart progress in complexity from top to bottom.

There are so many benefits of phonemic awareness activities and ways to mix it up and engage with your students. The chart above is not comprehensive. There are many fun word games to pull from depending on the skill your class is targeting. For more ideas on Phonemic Awareness activities and Foundational Skills check out Puzzle Piece Phonics: Word Study for the Balanced Literacy Classroom. Puzzle Piece Phonics provides professional development as well as instruction to implement phonics and foundational skills in your classroom in a sustainable and engaging way. 

Carolyn Banuelos is a facilitator and presenter for Catawba Press. She is a former primary grade teacher and literacy coach who is passionate about implementing Balanced Literacy into classrooms around the country. Carolyn is the co-author of Puzzle Piece Phonics: Word Study for the Balanced Literacy Classroom, published by Corwin Literacy. Carolyn resides in Salt Lake City, Utah with her growing family and enjoys cooking, hiking, and a good book.


Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking about learning about print. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Beck, I., & Juel, C. (1995, Summer). The role of decoding in learning to read. American Education, 19(2).

Chall, J. S. (1996). Stages of reading development (2nd ed.). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt.

Fountas, I., & Pinnell, G. (2017) Comprehensive Phonics, Spelling, and Word Study Guide. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


When Students Create, The Impossible Can Happen

By A.J. Juliani, 2020 CCIRA Speaker
There is a famous quote from Albert Einstein that many teachers like to quote: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”


Most often I see this quote associated with the high-stakes testing movement and other forms of education reform. I actually used to nod my head when I read this quote, silently saying “Yep, that’s right. You can’t force a student to be something they aren’t.” Shame on me. Agreeing with this quote is giving in to the notion that kids have limitations they can’t overcome. And that’s not right.

Instead, my motto this year is focusing on “teaching fish how to climb trees”. Crazy? I don’t think so.

The mudskippers are probably the best land-adapted of contemporary fish and are able to spend days moving about out of water and can even climb mangroves.

Yep, that’s right. The ol’ mudskipper fish can climb a tree. I’m sure all it’s fish friends and teachers probably told him it was “impossible” or that he’d be “stupid” to try it. But he went with it anyway, and eventually joined the ranks of flying and jumping fish as geniuses.

As a teacher, I realize that my students may come into class with varying levels of skills and talents. I see the same thing as a coach. But it would be foolish for me to pidgeon-hole any of my students or players into a “role” or “category”. Usually, it’s those students who overcome obstacles and the “impossible” that end up being remarkable. And that’s what I want all of my students and players to be: remarkable.

Here are just a few examples of student’s “climbing trees”:

  • Nick D’Alosio started his company “Summly” at age 15. At age 17 he sold it to Yahoo! for $30 million. Nick said in a Business Insider interview: “When I founded Summly at 15, I would have never imagined being in this position so suddenly. I’d personally like to thank Li Ka-Shing and Horizons Ventures for having the foresight to back a teenager pursuing his dream. Without you all, this never would have been possible. I’d also like to thank my family, friends and school for supporting me.”
  • Katie Davis left over Christmas break of her senior year for a short mission trip to Uganda and her life was turned completely inside out. She found herself so moved by the people of Uganda and the needs she saw that she knew her calling was to return and care for them. Katie, a charismatic and articulate young woman, is in the process of adopting thirteen children in Uganda and has established a ministry, Amazima, that feeds and sends hundreds more to school. You can read about her story in Kisses From Katie.
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Courtesy of Shutterstock
  • When 12-year-old Steven Gonzalez Jr. was diagnosed Acute Myelogenous Leukemia, a rare form of cancer, doctors said that he had a 2% chance to live. But he beat the odds and survived, though his weak immune system forced him into isolation for 100 days. He credits video games for helping him through the rough experience. Gonzalez wanted to help other cancer patients his age, and so he created a video game, Play Against Cancer, in which players destroy cancer cells illustrated as green ghosts. He also developed The Survivor Games, a social network and online community for teen cancer patients.
  • 5-year-old Phoebe Russell needed to complete a community service project before she could graduate from kindergarten. Uninterested in a lemonade stand, she saw a homeless man begging for food and decided to raise $1,000 for the San Francisco Food Bank. Her teacher tried to lower expectations to something more reasonable, but Phoebe’s heartwarming appeal to leave soda cans and donations at the school snowballed. Before she knew it, Phoebe had raised $3,736.30– the equivalent of 17,800 heated meals. via Listverse

These are just a few of the thousands of stories out there of kids doing the impossible. And there are many stories of teachers doing the impossible. So go ahead and tell your students to dream big. I’m going to be busy teaching fish how to climb trees. I hope you join me.

A.J. Juliani is the author of four books related to innovation in the classroom. He directs learning and innovation for a school district in Pennsylvania and can be found at

Principled First, Practical Second

By Rick Wormeli, 2019 CCIRA Presenter

There were hundreds of ideas, tools, and insights shared at this year’s CCIRA conference in Denver, and now we’ve returned to our schools and have to make sense of all we learned. It’s an exciting, heady experience for many of us, and some colleagues who did not attend will note our post-conference, anything-is-possible glow with bemusement. We smile with renewed vitality.

‘Quick caution in all that excitement, however: Let’s consider all those ideas not as recipes for our teaching cookbooks, but more as principles from which we draw our practicalities. In some cases, we get an idea from a researcher, presenter, or author and we try it out in our classrooms, regardless of whether or not it’s warranted. We were told it works, so we implemented it in our classes right away. It bombs, however, students don’t learn, and we swear we’ll never use it again. We move into Eeyore-mode, and declare to the faculty in low, sad voice, “It’s my birthday, nobody will remember. This author’s idea is just a fad; it will pass like an education kidney stone.” Alternatively, some of us try an idea because we’re excited about it, and, just by luck alone, it works really well, so we declare that everyone on the team, grade level, department, or school has to do it, too. This over-zealousness is just as unhelpful.

Let’s be principled first, strategic and practical second. A principle is often considered a fundamental truth or foundation of belief and behaviors, or an accepted explanation for how something operates. For example, the Order of Operations in math – parentheses, exponents, multiply, divide, add, subtract (PEMDAS) – is the way we prioritize math operations when solving equations. It’s universally accepted. We are negligent and ineffective when we disregard its truth.

In the world of cognitive science, we know that priming students’ brains for the lesson ahead increases their capacity to learn and retain new content. Roughly, that means we make them aware of the lesson’s goals and objectives, and we describe what they are going to experience in the journey. We also know that little goes into long-term memory unless it has a strong emotional connection or it is connected to something already in storage. This means that we should spend significant time helping students connect with learning emotionally and building prior knowledge where there was none. Just as above, we are ineffective when we ignore these truths.

In each case, an operating principle indicated our actions. Without the principle, however, actions were just mismatched, wild shots in the dark.  When students fail to learn as a result, it’s easier to blame the student for his lack of diligence or the system in general, rather than looking at our own decisions as instructors.   

There is no book, Ted Talk, software, or seminar that will tell us how to handle every teaching situation we’ll face in the course of our classroom careers. Let’s stop seeking such a resource. Instead, let’s collaborate with one another and determine our principles, and from each one, identify how to respond to challenges as they arise. For many of us, this is the true value of presenters at conferences: the principles they share and how they are manifest in our classrooms.

Integrity requires a match between our values and actions. In teaching, though, we can be hypocritical: Yes, we know that middle and high school students learn better when they get ample sleep before coming to school, but the bus schedule dictates an unusually early start to the school day for secondary students and so, we muddle through the first two zombie periods of the day. Yes, we know students develop cognitively at different rates, but we march them through a uniform curriculum sequence nonetheless.  

Being principled minimizes our hypocrisies to a large degree, and it brings us into alignment with our school’s values. We declare something an operational truth in teaching and learning, and we act accordingly – or so we hope. Sometimes we lose focus, however, and stray from our beliefs, giving only lip service to something deeply fundamental to student success.

Take a look at the principles listed below that drive instruction in today’s effective classrooms. For each one, consider what it would mean for us, if weren’t hypocrites, identifying at least one element or action in our classrooms that would be in place if we had the courage of our convictions and followed through on the principle:

  • Chance favors the prepared mind. – Pasteur
  • All thinking begins with wonder. – Socrates
  • Sense-making (students accessing content) is great, but long-term retention of curriculum requires meaning-making (students making connections and processing content).  
  • Recovering in full from failure teaches more than being labeled for failure can teach.
  • Whoever does the editing does the learning.
  • We cannot conflate reports of compliance with evidence of mastery.
  • Homework is practice of what has already been learned, not for learning content for the first time.
  • We can’t be creative unless we’re willing to be confused. – Margaret Wheatley
  • What students learn is heavily influenced by their existing ideas.
  • Emotion drives attention, attention drives learning. – Robert Sylwester, 1995, p. 119, Wolfe
  • Strict, unwavering adherence to pacing mandates, regardless of student need, is willful act of failure.
  • Evaluation and judgement inhibit critical error analysis and thoughtful reflection.
  • Memorization is still important in a, “You can always look it up” world.
  • Grades are communication, not compensation.
  • Everyone needs to save face, be honored; cornered students self-preserve.
  • We can’t drive forward by looking only in the rearview mirror. (“Rearview-Mirror Effect,” White, 2011)
  • We can’t get creative students from non-creative classrooms.
  • My testimony as a teacher is what students carry forward at the end of my lessons, not what I presented to them during those lessons.
  • Teachers are responsible for their own professional development.
  • Learning is fundamentally an act of creation, not consumption of information. – Sharon L. Bowman, Professional Trainer

Each one of these serves is a catalyst for a myriad of teaching decisions and actions. For example, in White’s caution about not driving forward while looking only in the rearview mirror, we realize that we can’t make instructional decisions regarding a student’s learning this fall or winter by only looking at his test scores from last March; we’ll have to do some assessments right here and now to perceive where he is.  If we accept the principle about whoever does the editing, does the learning, then we have to stop editing student’s writings, and instead, place a dot at the end of the line where there is an error and teach students to find their own errors and correct them. And if we’re principled, what are we doing to build students’ personal background knowledge with a given topic before asking them to read challenging text regarding that content?

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Photo credit: Izzy Rivi

If we find evidence for a favored principle in our practice lacking, that’s the place to start: Does the principle still work for us, given our latest thinking, or does it need augmentation or deletion? If we still find it valuable, what do we need to change in order to bring it back into focus? What new principles gained over the last year intersect with this current one, and how does that intersection inform what we do next? Renewing oneself to guiding principles is liberating; it inspires reinvention.  

If you attended the CCIRA conference this year, consider arranging the most resonant ideas, tools, and elements you gleaned from the experience into principles. For example, you may have learned quite a bit about descriptive feedback, so gather those ideas under the category, “Guidelines for effective feedback.” You may have found great ideas for how to use mentor texts (or, “Just good literature,” as Regie Routman reminded us), or principles for how to use instructional apps and technology, how to do effective grammar instruction, or how to use graphic novels to teach historical, mathematical, or scientific content. Alternatively, if you didn’t attend the conference, just record five principles of literacy instruction that inform your practice. Then, for each principle, identify at least three ways that the given principle is manifest in your instructional design. If possible, share your thinking with a colleague (‘acting principle: The brain is innately social!), and ask for feedback on whether or not the identified actions/elements express the principle. True, it’s a meaningful way to create our authentic selves in classroom, but even better, students learn more with principled teachers. They’re simply more effective.

Instead of throwing new techniques and strategies randomly into old lesson plans, take a moment to see if the new ideas are warranted based on which principles are in play, and if they are needed, where they might fit, and with which students. This is the stuff of invigorated teaching – It will carry us through the rest of the school year. Enjoy the ride!

Rick Wormeli is a national speaker and author of three books: Fair Isn’t Always Equal, 2nd Edition (Stenhouse), Summarization in any Subject, 2nd Edition (ASCD), Metaphors & Analogies: Power Tools for Teaching any Subject (Stenhouse). Contact him at


Teacher, Coach, and Everything In-Between

by Peg Grafwallner

Like many of us who have made career shifts, the road to occupational contentment is occasionally paved with potholes – some enormous, others mere bumps. As an English teacher for nearly 23 years, the move from teacher to Coach wasn’t that far off. But, in my case, I began a new position in a new school with an ambiguous job description. A little intimidating? Perhaps. But, also an opportunity to make my own mark and create my own destiny.

When I began my Coaching position, my office was a small, cramped room that housed the industrial copier. Even though the room was warm and loud, I realized quickly how the location, albeit uncomfortable, was actually a benefit. One at a time, teachers came in the room to make copies. As they did, I introduced myself and asked if I could observe their classroom and get to know their unit of study.

Every teacher gave me an enthusiastic yes and quickly I was putting dates on my calendar.

As I began observing classes, I took copious notes and asked a lot of questions. After every observation, I sent a thank you email along with a graphic organizer that I thought could enhance the lesson; or an article focusing on the topic in class that day or a scholarly research article that supported the teacher’s pedagogy.

While I had a cache of strategies from my years as an English teacher and alternative education teacher, I began to quickly add to them from various websites: Scholastic, Edutopia and Cult of Pedagogy. I utilized informational text from Newsela, Science Daily and EngageNY and gave them to teachers. And finally, I shared pedagogy from NCTE, ASCD and ILA as a way to enhance one’s practice.

But, the single most important thing I remembered throughout these first several weeks was the critical importance of selling myself and my product. I was not in classrooms to tell teachers what to do; on the contrary, I was observing to learn how to support them and the important work they did. I needed to be still; to learn what they needed without maybe having the ability to exactly define it. In addition, I had to sell the product of literacy to clients who might not necessarily envision how that product “fit” into their content area.

As a Coach, you need to be prepared for anything. By certification, I am an English teacher. Yet, there I was in a freshmen Biology classroom, co-teaching a class on viruses, modeling how to use a concept map. It’s important to remember you are not a “content” area teacher; rather, you are a pedagogical instructor. Begin with the art and science of teaching, not the content. In that way, you will focus on skill-building, while the classroom teacher conveys the content.

In addition, your attitude should always express your willingness and desire to assist and support your teachers. You are an equal, a peer. You are not in an evaluative position and you are not reporting back to anyone if the lesson didn’t go as planned. Be mindful that your expertise is what got you this position in the first place. Don’t be afraid to show teachers what you know; but, always be mindful to do it in a collaborative, professional way.

As you continually refine your practice, it is critical to your growth and development as a coach to gather feedback from your teachers. You want to create a sense of community where they feel comfortable to tell you how you can improve and grow. To that end, I created a Coaches’ Feedback Form specifically designed for their thoughts and reflections. While you’ll notice the form is decisively positive, it encourages teachers to ruminate on the lesson and perhaps contradict the statement; giving them the opportunity to share their thoughts in a safe, professional way. I always complete the top of the form for them and write down the skills we focused on (Number 4) using the ACT College and Career Reading/Writing Readiness Standards.

Nearly five years later, I continue to support and assist teachers in creating what they need for their students to be successful. I learned very quickly none of this – what I do – was and is about me. This is about the teachers and how to make their planning and teaching lives easier so they can provide comprehensive literacy lessons for the ultimate success of their students.

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Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Coaches’ Feedback Form

Teacher: _________________________  Course: ______________ Date: _________________

  1. It was easy to schedule time with the coach (she/he worked around my schedule).
  2. The coach listened to my ideas/suggestions about the lesson.
  3. The coach understood what the lesson was about and gathered pertinent resources for the lesson.
  4. The skill(s) we focused on were:
    1. ____________________________________________
    2. ____________________________________________
    3. ____________________________________________
  5. The coach met with me prior to the lesson as often as I needed to meet with her/him.
  6. The coach was prepared and ready for class.
  7. The coach had a good rapport with the students.
  8. The coach was respectful toward student needs/diversity/learning styles.
  9. The coach’s timing was right for my students, i.e., the lesson was set at a good pace.
  10. The coach’s activities/handouts/resources were respectful of student needs, i.e., the coach was willing to modify activities/handouts/resources for to accommodate student needs.  
  11. The coach offered/created a formative assessment of the lesson for authentic student feedback.
  12.  I enjoyed working with this coach and would seek her/him out for her/his expertise.

Peg Grafwallner is an instructional coach, author, blogger, national presenter, and a  really good listener. Find her at

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

Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts, 2019 CCIRA Conference Presenters

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Craft an environment that tells a story.

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

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

  1. Create lots of ways for learners to learn.

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

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

  1. Put kids first.

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

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

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

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

by Kate Roberts & Maggie Beattie Roberts

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

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

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



3 Key Questions to Ask Yourself Before Having a Hard Conversation

By Jennifer Abrams, 2019 Conference Presenter

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

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

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Photo courtesy of Mimi Thian 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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