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

By Liz Mahon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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There once was a niña who lived near the woods.

She like to wear colorful capas with hoods.

Roja” called Mom from her telenovelas.

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

(Elya, 2014)

Translanguaging with a Fairy Tale:

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

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

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

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

 Translanguaging in a Poem:

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

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

Translanguaging with Realistic Fiction:

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

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

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

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

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

Inviting your Students to the Translanguaging Conversation:

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

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

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

List of Works Cited 

Dr. Pepper Translanguaging Billboard. (2015).

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

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

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

 Yanowitch, B. (2009).  Oye Read Mas!


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


Professional Development by Teachers

by Vicki S. Collet, 2020 Conference Speaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Using Mentor Text to Scaffold Writers

By Clare Landrigan

Mentor texts are the perfect scaffold for young writers.  Mentor texts are always available.  They do not care how often they are used for support.  They don’t over-scaffold or rescue. They are great with wait-time.  They are open-ended and allow the writer to use craft moves purposefully in his/her own writing.  Research demonstrates that it takes 10,000 hours to become deliberate in any field – that’s a lot of hours.  Mentor texts provide choice, allow students to have agency, and create space for students to practice again and again.

The sooner we start inviting our writers to use mentor texts the sooner they will start reading like a writer.  There are no limits to how we can use mentor texts to support our young writers.  I worry that too often we only use mentor texts in our lessons to model or to study a particular author/genre. Sometimes we over scaffold students’ experiences with mentor texts by telling them which craft moves to use and how to use them.  I have been trying to broaden how mentor texts are used by always making them an option for students when they are writing. Once we show them how to use a mentor text, students can be in control of when and how they use them.

This past spring, I had the privilege of joining two first grade classrooms for writing workshop. The students were studying traditional tales.  They were in the process of drafting and revising their own traditional tales. When we analyzed the student writing we noticed the students were using dialogue, strong feelings, and thoughts to elaborate their stories.  They were ready to learn how to stretch out the most important part by telling it scene by scene.  We noticed an opportunity to teach them how to add action in order to stretch out these scenes. Whenever I invite elementary students to try a new craft move or an elaboration strategy, I typically show how to apply it in both the illustrations and the words.  This provides multiple entry points into understanding how a particular craft move impacts the writing.

These students had recently participated in March Book Madnessand fell in love with two texts: Drawn Togetherby Min Lê and Dan Santat and The Fieldby Baptiste Paul and Jacqueline Alcántara. These texts were perfect for the instructional focus we identified, and the students knew them so well they were primed to be mentors. Even though these texts are not traditional tales we decided to use them to model using action to stretch out the scenes and tell the most important part of the story step by step. Both texts showed how these craft moves can be used in the illustrations and the words.

I modeled a quick lesson showing how I would use these texts as mentors.  I identified the moment in my story and showed how I would stretch it out using panels or a series of pictures across two pages. I also added the text to model how I would elaborate in words using strong verbs.  In one classroom I used Drawn Togetherand in the other, I used The Field.  I then placed copies of the text around the room and invited these young writers to use it as a mentor.  I did not assign the students a task or make everyone use the text as a mentor. It was simply an invitation.  I sent them off and then asked the adults in the room to resist teaching so we could observe how and if the students used the texts as mentors.


Here are some samples of the students’ work inspired by studying Drawn Together:


The students using The Fieldfocused immediately on the strong verbs and action in the illustrations.  Several students identified the moment in their story that needed to be stretched out scene by scene and found a mentor page to guide them.


As we observed the students using these mentor texts to scaffold their revision process, we noticed another pattern emerging.  Students started studying each other’s writing.  Explaining to each other the craft moves they tried and why they tried them in that moment of the story.  It was powerful to watch them confer purposefully with each other and look to each other as mentors.


I believe there needs to be more fluidity between our reading and writing workshops.  If a student notices something that is perfect for her writing during reading workshop, I want her to get up and get her writing to capture this idea.  If a student is stuck during writing workshop, I want him to get up and head to the classroom library.  When the going gets rough, writers get up and read.  Our students need to know this, and we need to give them the opportunity to move between reading and writing as needed.  This is the process authentically used by readers and writers. It also encourages our students to look within and develop agency in their writing process.  Using mentor texts is a strategy that will last a lifetime.

It is important to remember that, “the learning environment is ‘the third teacher’ that can either enhance the kind of learning that optimizes our students’ potential to respond creatively and meaningfully to future challenges or detract from it” (Fraser, 2012; Helm et al., 2007; OWP/P Architects et al., 2010). In my most recent book co-authored with Tammy Mulligan, It’s All About the Books, we suggest having a section in the classroom library that is dedicated to mentor texts, so students know there is a place to go when they are looking for a particular type of mentor text.  The classroom library can be the third teacher if it is designed to support our writers.

I also love including student writing in this section of the classroom library.  There is no better way to say, “You are a writer,” than to include a student’s writing in the classroom library.  It gives them an authentic audience and it gives classmates another mentor text to study and use in their own writing.  I also include teacher writing in this section of the classroom library. It is helpful for students to have time to truly study the writing their peers and teachers share.  They can also easily access the author to ask questions since they are members of the classroom community.


There is a lot of space for approximation between teacher modeling and student application.  “Mentor texts empower students to become independent, which is crucial because they will not always have you as their writing teacher. If students develop an understanding of how to tap into the power of mentor texts, they will be able to seek out their own mentors in the future” (Ayres and Shubitz, Day by Day, 2010).  The process of revision should be active, playful, and meaningful.  We need to get out of our students’ way and let them give it go.  The more they try things out and look to authors – professional, teacher, and student authors – as mentors, the more they will embrace and find joy in the revision process.

Clare Landrigan is a staff developer who is still a teacher at heart. She began her work as an educator over twenty years ago, teaching in an integrated first- and second-grade classroom at the Eliot Pearson Children’s School in Medford, MA. She now leads a private staff development business and spends her days partnering with school systems to help them implement best practices in the field of literacy. Clare is the coauthor of the book, It’s All About the Books: How to Create Bookrooms and Classroom Libraries That Inspire Readers. She believes that effective professional development includes side-by-side teaching, analysis of student work, mutual trust, respect, and a good dose of laughter. You can find Clare online at Twitter, and at her website, where she blogs about books and the art of teaching.

These Kids, Our Kids

By Pernille Ripp

She tells us that she is not smart.  That school is not a place she wants to go to because that’s where all the smart kids go.  The ones who can read.  The ones who can do things so much easier than her.

She shows us that she is trying.  That every word that sits in front of her is a mountain to be climbed, seemingly no matter how many times she has seen it before, the climb is still there.  The doubt is still there.  The wanting to give up, because “This so hard, Mommy..” and we tell her to sound it out, to try again, to see the letters, even as they move and squiggle and run away from her eyes as she tries once again.  Everything taking twice as long as her twin brother.  Everything coming at a price of time that seemingly no other child has to give up because to them it just comes easy.

So we search for answers, for teachers who see the girl before they see the problem, for others who like us, sit with a child where reading does not come easy.  Where reading is not a magical adventure but instead dreaded work that doesn’t bring happiness but only affirmation of her supposed lack of can.  And we get the doctors involved and they tell us their diagnosis and I cry in the meeting because wouldn’t it have been nice if it wasn’t a specific learning disorder but instead just something that hadn’t clicked?  Wouldn’t it have been nice if we had it all wrong and she had us all fooled?  Wouldn’t it have been nice?

So we sit down with our little girl, who really isn’t so little anymore, and tell her that we did get answers and as we thought it turns out her brain just learns differently.  That reading is, indeed, hard to figure out but not impossible.  That now that we know more, we can do more, we can get help, we can get support, and we can go in the right direction rather than searching in the dark hoping for something to help us.  We can tell she doesn’t believe us, not yet, anyway.

And as summer unfolds, we hope that having this time can give us the time we need to build her back up, not because anyone tore her down, but because this mountain of reading has been telling her for too long that she is not as good as she thought she was.  And once those whispers started they were awfully hard to drown out when the proof is right there in front of her on the page.

And I think of how the systems of school play into this self-evaluation.  How the grades and the labels so often harm.  How we, as educators, sometimes confuse good grades with dedication, as if a child who is failing a class isn’t dedicated?  As if all a child needs is to just work harder, or hard enough because then the learning will surely come, and how for some of our kids, that is simply not true.  That I can see my child work hard.  That I can see my child stay at the table longer.  That I can see my child give her best every single day.  That I can see my child get extra teaching, tutoring outside of school, and yet the results don’t come because it turns out that hard work doesn’t always equal results.

And these kids, our kids, who are behind are often the ones working the hardest if we really had to compare.

And these kids, our kids, who are behind are often the ones pulled out of recess and fun activities in order to go work more.

And these kids, our kids, who are behind are often the ones given fewer opportunity for choice because it turns out that when you need extra support we have to cut something out of your schedule.

And these kids, our kids, sit with the same kids year after year, traveling as a group because the only thing we have identified them by is their lack of ability.

And these kids, our kids notice.

And these kids, our kids, know it.

And these kids, our kids, feel it.

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Photo courtesy of Janko Ferlič

And these kids, our kids, slowly start to take on the new identities we have created for them in our data meetings, in our hallway conversations, in our quick meetups when we make our lists, where we make our groups, where we share the stories that we think define these kids.

And these kids, our kids, are honored for their efforts by being given new names; struggling readers, lower level learners, behind, and you wonder how they lose themselves in the process.

And you wonder why one day, despite our best intentions, they tell us that they don’t think they are smart and that they don’t want to go to school.

So as my family once again adjusts itself in our pursuit of learning for all.  As we celebrate the answers we have been given this week while nurturing the child who is at the center of it all, I ask you to please consider this.  My child, our daughter, is not a struggling reader, she is a reader.  Period.  To tell her otherwise would break her heart.

And so these kids, our kids, deserve to be fully spoken about, to be fully known.  For us to start a conversation asking how they see themselves and if it is through a negative lens we actively fight against that.  And we tell them we see their effort, we tell them we see their progress.  We tell them we see they are smart, and we stop with the labels, and the assumptions, and we see the kid for who they are rather than what the data tells us.

Because this kid, my kid, doesn’t think that reading will ever be something she can do, and I need, she needs, everyone that works with her to believe otherwise and loudly, because my voice is not enough.


Pernille Ripp is an expert in literacy and technology integration and dedicates her research and practice to developing engaged and empowered students and communities.

She is a teacher, speaker, author, blogger, and passionate advocate for education. She is a Skype Master Teacher; recipient of the 2015 WEMTA Making IT Happen Award; and the 2015 ISTE Award for Innovation in Global Collaboration.

One Teacher’s Survival Guide to a Long Career: How to feel the joy, work through the hard stuff and embrace humanity.

By Barbara Watson

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(Pictured second from left with: Nicole Stout; Stephanie Jackman; and Julie Marquez)

I am pictured here with my colleagues a couple of years ago at the Tointon Institute for Leadership in Vail, Colorado (sponsored by UNC). I am a proud member of the school Leadership Team at Lafayette Elementary; where we work hard to create a welcoming and warm learning environment, where all students can reach their potential.  It’s a great little school, and I am so happy to be a fourth grade teacher there with the best teammates ever: Carolan Covington and Steve Lohn. As I enter my thirty-second year as an educator, with a continued passion to teach, I believe I can pass on some pearls of wisdom, you might be interested in to stay the course, as long as I have. This is my teachers’ survival guide for a long career.


First of all, it is important to remember that being a teacher is a VOCATIONAL PROFESSION,  it is not just a job. We are expected to work independently, and collaboratively toward the goal of successfully educating a group of people, or individuals about a given number of standards, within a given set of subject areas. This is HARD work, and not everyone is cut out for it. The question is are you?

As you continue to read, I am inviting you to reflect; to take a deep dive into your choices, behaviors and beliefs about your profession. Through reflection, it is my hope that you may make some decisions which might help you as you progress in your career.


When I became a teacher, no one sat me down and asked me to consider my values and what I believed in. But when I completed my principal’s license they did. I found it to be a very valuable exercise. Maybe you could take out a journal, and honestly respond to each question posed.

    1. Explore and seek to understand why you became a teacher in the first place. Try to ground your feet. Did you take this path because you couldn’t think of anything better to do? Did you like the idea of long school holidays? Did you have experience with working with youngsters, and wanted to work in a career that would help them grow and learn. Maybe you had some other motivation, or a combination of some of the above. There are no right or wrong answers here. It is good to be honest with yourself. I stumbled upon divine inspiration, but that’s a whole different story.
    2. Find your drivers. What do you believe in? What are your core values that provide the foundation or bedrock of your vocation? You will never make enough money in the classroom to call it anything else. My drivers are: honesty, integrity, compassion and kindness. If I look through these lenses, and what I am doing doesn’t fit with those values, I’m not doing something right. I need to speak up perhaps and talk to my colleagues or principal, or I need to rethink my classroom practice in some way. 
    3. Decide whether you are in it for the content or the students. It’s good to be passionate about a content area, but if you are more in love with it, than the idea of sharing that passion with someone else you might have a problem. If you do not like working with students, and being a teacher is only a job, then find the exit ramp now! Teaching is NOT for you. Well, not for the long haul anyway.




As an educator, you have been through college and been taught most of the stuff you are supposed to know to do your work of teaching. However, most of us land in the classroom, for the first time by ourselves, and feel woefully unprepared. I know I did. The plain fact of the matter is, you will have to spend time acquiring the tools of the trade, and the expertise to use them. This is the time to be humble. If you are like me, and became a teacher after a first career, you might think you are Miss Smarty Pants. I had to learn so much to get to the point where I was truly proficient as a teacher. Learn to ask questions. Listen a lot, and offer ideas gently. In addition:

    1. Build your knowledge base in all areas you teach. Take the time to seek out professional development in areas where you feel weak, or lacking in depth of knowledge. Become a lifelong learner. Read. Ask for help from your peers to grow.
    2. Learn all you can about classroom management. If you cannot manage your classroom environment in a safe and productive way, you are way behind the eightball already. If you are struggling, seek advice. 
    3. Look for mentorship in two directions: Mentors who can help you navigate the requirements of your district through the early years to tenureship; mentors who are successful at their craft and who are willing to share and support your thinking.
    4. Choose professional development in areas that will build your capacity to understand how people (especially children and peers) tick. Professional development can mean personal development outside of school too. Take up Tai Chi, play golf, learn to fly a plane. Whatever it is, learn to give others space, so that you can accept and enjoy the personality traits and quirks of others. It will make life a lot easier.
    5. Accept that truth is often in the eye of the beholder. I have heard so many people tell me that their teaching is research driven and children are not developmentally ready for this or that because so and so said so. Just because someone thinks they are right, doesn’t make them right. Do your own legwork to find good practice while still collaborating with others. Pilot new ideas and share out. You may be the leader you were hoping to follow!



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Let’s face it, the first three years as a teacher are brutal. The learning curve is almost a vertical cliff face. You are in boot camp, with many levels of scrutiny, before you find yourself in a position to attain tenureship.

You have no choice other than to suck it up, or leave the profession. Many people choose the exit ramp at this point. It does get better for most of us. Once you are on the pathway to security in your profession it may be time to take stock. Even if you have been teaching for a few years, I would encourage taking the time to stop and evaluate where you are at. 

Try this checklist:

  • I have read, digested and understood all of the standards I am expected to teach.
  • I have been provided with or developed a scope and sequence for the delivery of those standards. That document is also alive and flexible; revisited at least once a year for updates and improvements.
  • I have developed units of study using Backward Design (Wiggins and McTighe, 1999) to ensure that I meet all essential learning targets within that scope and sequence.
  • I have thought about, and planned for future professional development choices to support my growth as an educator.
  • I have developed strategies to work collaboratively with colleagues while maintaining my own sense of ownership and autonomy. I accept and follow norms.
  • I have come to the conclusion that gossip is toxic, and a happy work environment is one where teachers and colleagues assume positive intent from those around them.
  • I have established a safe and well-managed learning environment with and for my students, and have taught them, and practised with them, specific behaviors to meet expectations.
  • I know that being friendly with students and creating a warm and loving class environment is NOT the same as being their friend. I am still the authority figure in the room. I have fun with my kids, but can make sure we learn too.
  • I know that fair is not always equal. I have to be flexible about expectations and outcomes. Being reasonable builds respect.
  • I know that children feel safe when there are clear expectations and boundaries. They may give push back, but they prefer clarity around their behavior decisions and a bar set high for achievement.
  • I have a well-developed sense of humor. If I can’t laugh about many of the things that happen in any given day, then I will cry an awful lot.
  • Parents can be challenging. I am friendly, professional and courteous. However, I do not give out my personal contact information to everyone, and I certainly don’t become friends on FACEBOOK. Building a deep relationship with parents takes time, and may backfire on me if I become an open target.
  • I don’t get sucked into negative email communications. I thank parents for their feedback, I acknowledge any area that needs work, I seek a parent conference where needed. If I need administration to respond, I defer. Most parents want to vent in long emails because they are frustrated with their child and don’t know what to do.
  • I have become a union member, knowing that I might need their support at some point in my career, and through the union I have better pay and working conditions.
  • I apologise when I am wrong. Admitting mistakes is better in the long run. We all screw up at some point. Been there, done that, got too many t-shirts to mention.
  • OTHERS – My list is not exhaustive. It’s a starting point. HERE YOU GET TO PUT IN YOUR OWN CHECK POINTS. What are you still hoping to improve in?

HOW DID YOU DO? ARE YOU THERE YET? NO! Me neither, but I am closer to this point than I used to be. Many of us get wrapped so much in planning everything down to the last detail, that we forget that this is work involves young humans and their families. People rarely respond the way we expect them to, and so we must learn to be flexible and to grow.


The key to time use is to work smarter, not harder. Easier said than done, I know. But we have to work out a sensible life/work balance, otherwise we explode from the effort. Without it, many teachers burnout and take the exit ramp before retirement. The pie-chart below may be a little unrealistic. However, if you consider your overall time balance of work, play and sleep, it really is important to seek a fairly equal distribution. When I shifted the balance in my life a few years ago, the sky did not fall, and the students learned just as well. Food for thought!

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  • Get enough sleep. Preferably 8 hours.
  • Try to do your work at school in an 8hr time frame. Work during plans instead of visiting. Go home.
  • Rest. Enjoy family, friends, and food. Do something enriching to feed your own soul.


FURTHERMORE: DO NOT GRADE EVERYTHING! Most of the time students don’t read half of what you write. Talk to them instead! This is worth repeating: DO NOT GRADE EVERYTHING BELIEVING ANYONE IS GOING TO READ AND DIGEST YOUR COMMENTS!

Learning is a process. There needs to be space and time to grow and to fail. If all tasks in the classroom are high stakes, then students will not take risks to try something new. Life is too stressful for them and you. Identify vital and necessary check points and make clear to the students that you are going to grade them on the work associated with that checkpoint. You are going to use those grades in your gradebook to determine mastery. Guess what? More time is released to you to do a better job all around.

I don’t mean that you back away from knowing their progress and sit at your computer and shop online. Absolutely not! Being present during instruction; discussing their work and paying attention to details will give you tons of information about their progress. Record your anecdotes in a notebook if needed, but take the released time to educate yourself about your students as learners and people. Listen. Listen in on their conversations. Pay attention to struggles, and check in with those who have little support at home.

Contact parents early if there are issues or if you have a concern. Let them know what you are experiencing, and ask for their input. “Have you noticed any changes at home? Is there anything going on that I should be aware of? Can you offer some advice, so that I can help your child better?” Parents are generally happy when you have paid attention to their child, and are grateful for your interest and questions. Realise that most parents love their kids and are trying their best. Humanity is really messy, and everyone has got something going on in their lives we are probably unaware of. Try to give others grace and space even if they are really annoying!


If you can’t find the joy in your daily exchanges with students and colleagues, get out of the profession now! Look for the small moments and the victories that make the hard slog worth it: the student who smiles at you when they finally get it; the hug you receive from a past student who remembered the activity they liked in class; the student who writes you a note to thank you for raising the bar and helping them to reach their potential. This is the motherlode of gold lying deep within that rockface; sometimes hidden between the multiple and complex layers of this profession. You have to care; you have to be present. Ultimately, if you don’t turn up and tune in, everyone suffers and ultimately your administrator will notice too. (You know right! That evaluation thing?)

Be aware too, that there are a lot of bandwagons in education. If you have been in the business of education for a long time like me, this can be exasperating, and we feel like our expertise is being undermined. New people at management and district levels are often unaware of a district’s history and bring back old ideas, as though they are new. The latest research becomes the “secret code” to student achievement. However, we do not have to throw the baby out with the bathwater every time this happens. Be patient, do your due diligence to what is expected of you, and breathe. This too shall pass! 


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Barbara Watson is a fourth grade teacher at LAFAYETTE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, BOULDER VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT. She has been an educator since 1987, beginning her career in the U.K, before moving to Colorado in 1997. In 2006, she received the IMPACT ON EDUCATION award for her proactive initiatives at Louisville Elementary, in areas of Science and Math. She was also an administrator for three years at ELDORADO K-8 SCHOOL. A life- long learner, Barbara became one of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s cohort of educators, who have brought OPEN INQUIRY to ELEMENTARY science education, and in 2012 she became a NOYCE Scholar at CU Boulder, fostering science investigation in the elementary classroom. She has just completed the COLORADO WRITING PROJECT, is enthusiastic about using WRITER’S WORKSHOP in her class, and is actively engaged in writing her first novel. Contact her at



When Reading Comprehension Work is Hard, Close the Book and Pick Up a Pen

By M.Colleen Cruz, 2020 CCIRA Conference Featured Speaker

Because I am a book nerd, I was one of the first of my friends to read the first Harry Potter book. I frequented a bookstore that regularly carried imports, and the first Harry Potter I read was the British version. I dressed up as Harry for Halloween that year, complete with lightning bolt scar and broom, and no one at the part, a party filled with teachers, knew who I was dressed as. This is laughable now because Harry Potter is a character who has become so much a part of the literary culture. But I had to wait months until most of my friends had read that first book and we could all talk about it. (Spoiler alert: skip the next couple paragraphs if you haven’t yet read the Harry Potter books.)

When we finally did talk about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I said something that angered my friends more than almost anything I had ever said: “I really liked the book. But the real bummer is that my favorite character is Dumbledore, and his going to have to die before the series ends.”

My friends were aghast and disgusted: “Why would you say that?”

“Dumbledore is the best wizard in the world. He can’t die.”

“He’s the most powerful!”

I shook my head. “I know. But I also know that Harry is clearly the main character and the hero. He will need to take on Voldemort on his own in order to have his own story arc. That means Dumbledore will need to be out of the picture. Because he’s so powerful, it’s unlikely he can be put aside or captured. And I also know that names matter. J.K. Rowling named him Dumbledore for a reason. I know I name all my characters for vert specific reasons. And because Dumbledore’s name is an Old English term that means bumblebee, and we know bumblebees will die to defend…”

My friends glared. They argued. I felt bad that they were annoyed. But I knew, as someone who writes narratives, that I was right. So convinced was I that I wrote down my prediction on a piece of paper and placed it in a sealed envelope for all of us to open when the last book came out. The vindication was bittersweet; although I was chuffed to be right, I did miss the beloved character.

The point of this story is not to brag about a moment (because, quite frankly, as I type this I realize what a self-satisfied jerk I sound like). Instead, I want to unpack how I was able to make a long-term prediction about a character. It was not because I was a voracious reader, although I am, because all of the friends I was speaking with are also voracious readers, if not more so. No, the reason I was able to make that prediction, as well as other predictions, inferences and interpretations in the stories I read, is because I am also a frequent writer of narrative, both personal and fictional.

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Photo courtesy of Simson Petrol at Unsplash

When one writes, one build stories from the inside out. And in the building, we know, because we have done it ourselves, how writers choose which characters to include, names to bestow, settings to describe, and plots to embellish or tamp down. Much like the archetypical hero of many a sci-fi movie, the creator of the bode or the builder of the reactor who knows its flaws and strengths better than anyone, narrative writers are uniquely positioned to be stronger readers than others.

If you teach your students both reading and writing, chances are good you are familiar with leaning on reading to support your writing work. You have likely read aloud or asked students to read examples of genres you’d like them to read. You live by the adage: “The more you read, the better you write.” You point out beautiful sentences and word choices in books and encourage students to try similar work in their own writing. And all of these things are vital and valuable. My life and teaching were forever changed the first time I picked up Katie Wood Ray’s seminal text Wondrous Words, which describes the power and independence writers are given when we teach them to mentor themselves to other writers.

That said, the notion that sometimes there are certain reading skills that not only might be more accessible if taught from a writing entry point first, let alone perhaps even better taught, is not yet as widespread as one would think.

When we choose to teach anything, but especially literacy skills, it’s important for us to think about how kids will most successfully access the skills and strategies we’re targeting. Many literacy skills have reciprocal relationship that can be put to powerful use. Some are best taught from the reading side of the desk. Topics such as genre characteristics, retelling and intertextuality often seem easier to teaching in reading before writing. But other topics, in my experiences some of the trickiest to teach, can be more readily accessed if we explore them first in writing. Teaching students to infer is notoriously challenging, for example. But when I first taught it from the other side of the desk, that as writers we “show don’t tell,” suddenly the reading-between-the-lines-work needed for inference became so much more accessible. 

Examples of this sort of side-door teaching are many – and backed by research.

One of the most influential studies to my thinking was “Writing to Read: Evidence for How Writing Can Improve Reading,” a goose-bump inducing report by Steve Graham and Michael Hebert (2010). In this report, Graham and Hebert look to answer the question of how writing can support reading and vice versa. The first is that students benefit from writing about their texts, which comes as a surprise to no one. The second is that “Students’ reading skills and comprehension are improved by learning the skills and processes that go into creating text…” The third recommendation is to “Increase how much students write. Students’ reading comprehension is improved by having them increase how often they produce their own texts.”

If this sort of thinking about the connections between writing and reading feels new to you, but you are intrigued by it, I encourage you to try it. Some steps you might want to take:

  1. Choose a reading skill that flummoxes you or your students.
  2. Figure out the reciprocal writing skill 
  3. Try out that writing move in a piece of writing – this can be simple notebook exploration or full on drafting and revision work
  4. Annotate the work you did with comment boxes or in the margin
  5. Visit a place in a text that calls you to try the tricky reading work
  6. With your annotated writing by your side, try applying what you know as a writer to understanding what the author of the text you’re reading is doing
  7. Demonstrate your work to students

Adapted from Writers Read Better: Narrative

M. Colleen Cruz  is the author of WRITERS READ BETTER: NONFICTION, THE UNSTOPPABLE WRITING TEACHER, INDEPENDENT WRITING and A QUICK GUIDE TO REACHING STRUGGLING WRITERS, as well as the author of the young adult novel BORDER CROSSING, a Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award Finalist.  Cruz was a classroom teacher in general education and inclusive settings before joining the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project where she is Director of Innovation. Cruz currently supports schools, teachers and their students nationally and internationally as a literacy consultant. Follow her on Twitter



Storytelling as an Instructional Tool

By Liz Prather, CCIRA 2020 Featured Speaker

We are “storytelling animals,” says author Jonathan Gottschall (2012) in his book of the same title. “Story is the glue of human social life.” In every known human culture,
storytelling binds communities with gossip, warning, and instruction. Stories help us make sense of our existence.

Writer and teacher Joy Hakim (2010) has spent a lifetime writing textbooks that sound like storybooks. During her acceptance speech for the 1997 James A Michener Prize in Writing, she said, “It is the storyteller’s job to make the world around us understandable. Think of teaching and storytelling as entwined disciplines and you will bring coherence and inspiration to your classrooms. Finding the story in a subject is to discover its essence. If we can train our students to pattern the world into stories we can turn them into powerful, analytical learners.”

This quote has been one of my instructional north stars since discovering it, and I have come to depend on storytelling as one of the most powerful instructional tools at my disposal. Developing the art of storytelling costs nothing, requires no real training, and can be impromptu.

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Photo by Mike Erskine via Unsplash

So how can a teacher use this most basic of communicative stances in the
classroom to engage students? Here are three ways I use this potent tool.

1) Tell a story of your own struggle.
Introducing a writing mini-lesson with a story about my own writing process is
incredibly powerful. Telling a story from my own experience does a couple of things: it makes it permissible to talk about process as well as the product of writing; it shows students I’m vulnerable to the slippery, often frustrating nature of writing; and it shows them that writing is a valuable, worthy activity, not just something we do for school. It also gives me a certain amount of credibility if I’ve done something that I’m asking them to do. When I’m teaching students the rhetorical moves of an argumentative text, I share with them the letters I write to my legislative representatives that are, in essence, mini-arguments with claims, counter-claims, and evidence. I model my process, show them a real-world example of writing, and share my misgivings and successes with them. I tell them about what led me to write the letter and what I hope the response will be. Whether you teach Math or Agriculture or French, you can share with your students a story of your own struggle to master or even attempt the content and/or the skill you are asking them to attempt.

2) Tell a story that creates context for your content.
If I assign a reading to my students, I like to introduce the reading with a story about the author, and if I can find a story about the work that we are reading, even better. If we are studying James Baldwin, for example, telling the story of his love-hate relationship with America or his childhood or his family is a great place to start. With a little research, you can find many stories about the personal lives of writers and poets and how those events influenced their work. These human stories make the writer real to the students in a way that merely reading a work would not. Telling a story that provides context and engages my students with the writer as a person who may have experienced the same frustrations as they have as a writer.

3) Dedicate time in your classroom for storytelling.
One Friday, our school had an unusually long lock-down drill. My classroom has
a closet in the back. After my students hustled in and sat down, I turned off the light, and because the drill went on longer than normal, the kids started telling stories. The moment took on a summer-camp feel. We were sitting cross-legged in a small, tight circle in the dark. There was 100% engagement around the circle. No side-bar conversations. No one was checking cell phones. After one kid told a story, there would be laughter or questions or a small moment of lull, until another kid said, “Yeah that reminds me about once in fourth grade…,” and we were off again. “We should do this every Friday,” somebody said. “Can we?”another student asked. “I like that idea,” I said. Telling stories to students is a powerful instructional tool, but allowing students to tell stories to each other can be an even more powerful one, both as a speaking and listening activity and a way to build community.

Gottschall, Jonathon. 2012. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.
New York: Mariner Books.

Hakim, Joy. 1997. Acceptance speech upon receipt of the 1997 James A. Michener
Prize in Writing. Accessed June 23, 2019.

Liz Prather is a writing teacher at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, a magnet arts program at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Kentucky. A classroom teacher with 21years of experience teaching writing at both the secondary and post-secondary level, Liz is also a professional freelance writer and holds a MFA from the University of Texas-Austin. She is the author of Project-Based Learning: Teaching Writers to Manage Time and Clarify Purpose.