Peace, Joy, and BOOKS!

by Maria Walther

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

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

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

Footloose (Loggins, 2016) *Includes CD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maintaining Reading Community Over Break

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inviting Complexity into Interventions

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

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

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

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

Choosing Engaging and Complex Texts  

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

Encouraging Collaborative Discussions

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

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

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

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

Becoming the Ringmaster: Engaging Students through the Work of Readers

By Morgan Davis

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

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

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

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

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



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


t could otherwise feel like a three-ring circus?

We start the way Jay and I did:

We read.

Behavioral Engagement through the Work of Readers

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


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


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


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


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

Emotional Engagement through the Work of Readers

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


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


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


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


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

Cognitive Engagement through the Work of Readers

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

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

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


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


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

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


Becoming the Ringmaster

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


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

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

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

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

The Mysterious World of Twitter: Part Three

This post is the third in a three-part series exploring the role of Twitter in education today. The focus of this post is literacy instruction using Twitter.

By Leslie Davison and Hollyanna Bates

Some of you might be wondering when we will stop talking about Twitter.

Yes, we have found it an invaluable tool for professional development and want the world to know its possibilities. Two weeks ago we shared about Twitter as a resource to grow and develop a Personal Learning Network. Last week Dr. Mary Howard helped us understand why we might want to venture into Twitter Chats for a unique conversation on a literacy-related topic. Closing in the series, this week we delve into ways that Twitter could benefit classroom literacy instruction.

First we start with a warning: technology is not the answer. We will be the first to advocate that children still have a chance to compose on paper, write thank you notes and letters to classmates or community members and spend most of their time reading the the most beautiful books and stories we can find. Additionally, using Twitter in the classroom can bring new and innovative connections for you and your students. Below we have identified five practices that enhance learning when infused into an already strong literacy culture.

Read Aloud Hashtags

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When classrooms of children listen to a novel read out loud, by an enthralled and expert reader, the community lives the story of the characters together. All day long there are references to the lives they are living alongside. During certain sections of the text, there is much anticipation as certain events further unravel. Audible moans can be heard when read aloud finishes as the group is left hanging, each child sharing in the delight of a powerful piece of literature and the impact it leaves. Following a hashtag related to the read aloud may offer insight into how others perceive the characters and plot or events.
The tweet to the right is from a class reading #theoneandonlyivaScreen Shot 2017-11-19 at 3.13.55 PMn. The photo is of their staged protest to protect animal rights. The teacher, Elizabeth Spindler, @lizspindler6, tweeted the picture using book’s hashtag. During the school year, students read the tweets about the novels they have read and continue being invested in the story, watching how others interact with the text. Other resources which may be found using a book hashtag are: artistic interpretations of text, literacy responses via digital tools, book trailers, letters to and from the author, bulletin boards, clips of professional theater performances and more. Sharing these examples with students can support the culture of literacy and generate ideas and excitement for future experiences.

Twitter book reviews

This brand of book reviews forces the student to capture the essence of the text in 280 characters (previously the character limit was 140). @GwynethJones made this display showcasing the student writing. Jones sharesthe process for teaching students how to write these reviews here.

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Book character tweets

Students write a tweet from the perspective of a character in a book they are reading. While taking on a character is not innovative, using Twitter to share this message broadens the audience. The goal is that students write and respond to others in their class and beyond. Motivation and authenticity improve when student voices are public and they receive likes, retweets or replies to their writing.

 Student news

Several major news organizations provide special programming designed for student readers. When following a news outlet, students see a variety of articles about pertinent topics. Some teachers identify one student to read the news of the day and share highlights with the class. Choice, voice, exposure to nonfiction text and current events are all benefits of this implementing this practice. We recommend: @kidspress   @thewhitehouse @bbcnewsround @CNNStudents @NGKids

Students write tweets

One student is assigned to be the tweeter of the day. They choose the most interesting experience of the day and with support, send the tweet out to the universe. Ipads or even the teacher’s phone can provide a photo or video of this experience. Even kindergarteners can learn to tweet using the word wall and known words. Using a hashtag like #firstgradeBHE would signify that while the tweets are coming from the teacher’s account, the students in first grade at Big Horn Elementary are the writers of the tweets. Community members, parents and other followers can provide a positive response to the student writing through retweets, likes, and replies.

 Pro Tips:

  • You will want to preview any hashtag and be wary of book titles that may have other meanings not appropriate to children (#Holes).
  • If you tweet about a book, try to mention the author or publisher. You may get something in return.
  • Be sure to inform yourself about using technology in your district, especially when using student names on social media.
  • Tweet Deck is a method of using Twitter which helps organize hashtags so that students can see multiple conversations at one time.

Leslie Davison is a Google Certified Innovator who presents around the country with the EdTechTeam. She coordinates the Dual Immersion program in Summit School District in Frisco, Colorado. Follow her on Twitter @lesliedavison

Hollyanna Bates is a Past President of CCIRA and a Reading Recovery Teacher Leader/Literacy Coordinator in Summit School District in Frisco, Colorado.  Follow her on Twitter @hollyannabates