A Literacy-Rich Environment in the Classroom

By Jan Anttila

Getting students absorbed in meaningful, purposeful literacy activities requires a number of significant changes in the classroom – in the physical environment, in the events and activities, and in the nature and quality of the interactions. – Noel Jones

By now, your classrooms are all set up, decorated and in full use by your students, and I’m sure they look wonderful. But I have a question for you. Is your classroom Literacy-Rich?  This was a question I asked many teachers during my tenure as a district literacy trainer for Douglas County Schools in Colorado. I trained hundreds of elementary and secondary teachers in  best practices in teaching literacy, called LIFT (Literacy Instructional Framework for Teaching). This program was based on the California Early Literacy Learning program (CELL).

Screen Shot 2018-10-23 at 8.06.26 AM                   Screen Shot 2018-10-23 at 8.06.33 AM

One of the most important components of LIFT was ensuring that all teachers, but especially those in elementary schools and teaching secondary Language Arts, had a “literacy-rich environment” in their classroom.  Dr. Kimberly Tyson defines this environment as: “a setting that encourages and supports speaking, listening, reading, and writing in a variety of authentic ways – through print & digital media”. During our LIFT training, we focused on the following components of the environment: classroom design and materials, and reading and writing through authentic activities.

Classroom Materials: The Classroom Library

Screen Shot 2018-10-23 at 8.06.41 AMAt our training sessions, I began by asking our teachers these questions:  Is the classroom library inviting? Does it  provide a range of quality books and other types of text at all appropriate levels?  How is it organized? When creating their libraries, teachers need to take a cue from public libraries and bookstores where books are facing out to entice readers and comfortable seating is available for readers. Teachers can use many methods to organize, such as using bins/baskets separated by popular authors, topics, genre, etc. However, I don’t recommend  “leveling” the classroom librar

y. Fountas and Pinnell agree: “It is our belief that levels have no place in classroom libraries, in school libraries, in public libraries, or on report cards.” Students need to be able to choose books based on interest and favorite authors or genres, just as they do at the public library. Leveled books can be used in guided reading, and the teacher can certainly suggest certain books that would be appropriate for kids, but ultimately they must have choice in selecting books from the library.

Classroom Design: Words All Over the Place!

“A print-rich environment is one in which “children interact with many forms of print, including signs, labeled centers, wall stories, word displays, labeled murals, bulletin boards, charts, poems, and other printed materials” (Kadlic and Lesiak, 2003).

What goes on your classroom walls is important as well!  All classrooms should have print on the walls that assist students with (depending on the grade level) the alphabet, sight words, phonics concepts, writing and content vocabulary.  Of course, you can buy commercial posters, make some online, or print on chart paper. But more ownership comes when these materials are created with the help of the students through Interactive Writing (sometimes also called Shared Writing). When a teacher and students create text together, students are more likely to use it in their literacy activities.

Word Walls are another crucial element of a literacy-rich classroom and help student remember words they will see in their reading and use in their writing. In addition, they help students strengthen their vocabulary.  There are so many ways to create word walls: the traditional one on the classroom wall, personal word walls, or digital word walls. Content area classrooms in secondary schools have them, too, as well as art, music, and PE teachers.

Classroom Layout

“The room arrangement should encourage repeated opportunities to interact with literacy materials and activities to practice skills that students are learning.” (Gunn, Simmons, & Kameenui, 1995)

Another question teachers need to ask themselves is:  Does the room arrangement support all literacy activities of the instructional framework? How your room is set-up can affect how successful your literacy activities are!  What area will allow for a large enough classroom library, where students can both read and browse for books? Where will print be hung so that students can see it clearly and use as a reference? Most importantly, where is your whole class meeting area?  This is something that I never had in my 90’s intermediate classroom. But in my classroom visits, I saw the power of this space, not only in primary classrooms but also in intermediate! These areas are used for read-aloud, shared reading, interactive writing, interactive editing and mini-lessons. And of course, they can be used for class meetings as well.  An area for your small group instruction work is also important.

Authentic Literacy

Children who are successful at becoming literate view reading and writing as authentic activities from which they get information and pleasure, and by which they communicate with others. – Richard Allington, Classrooms That Work

Finally, a literacy-rich environment needs to include authentic literacy activities, not ones created by publishing companies (disclaimer: nothing wrong with using these occasionally, but authentic activities create better readers and writers!). NWEA states that: “Authentic learning occurs when activities or projects offer students an opportunity to directly apply their knowledge or skills to real-world situations.”  In an ASCD blog, Amber Teamann writes “George Couros has shared that when students are creating for their teacher it only has to be good enough, but when they are creating for the world, it has to be GREAT”.

Screen Shot 2018-10-23 at 8.07.55 AM                              Screen Shot 2018-10-23 at 8.08.02 AM

So what are examples of authentic literacy activities?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Daily class news taken home to parents
  • “Text messages” between novel characters (I used http://ios.foxsash.com/)
  • Actual text messages from students to the teacher or a parent using new vocabulary words
  • Thank you notes to classmates, teachers, school staff and parents
  • Novel character “Fakebook” page using Classtools.net, or this Google Doc template
  • Novel character Instagram post
  • Student submissions to classroom or school newsletter
  • Interactive Writing to use as a resource for students
  • Book reviews posted online
  • Letters to government officials about community issues or letters to editor of local paper
  • Letters to authors of books students read
  • Biographies of family members/family history stories
  • Information brochures or letters to next year’s students and their parents
  • Tweeting on classroom Twitter account or posts on classroom Instagram account
  • Student written blog for parents on classroom activities and learning (Kidblog is great!

Our students definitely need teachers trained in all aspects of literacy. But teachers also need to be “interior literacy decorators” who strive to make their classroom literacy-rich. By ensuring that all classrooms have daily opportunities for authentic activities, easy access to a wide range of books and text, print displays and literacy learning centers and areas, our students will become literate citizens of the world.

Thank you to the following teachers for allowing me to use photos of their classrooms:

  • Kelly Broecker, 5th grade, Gold Rush Elementary in Parker, CO
  • Carol McRae, 6th grade Writing, Sagewood Middle School, Parker, CO
  • Abby Schmitz, 2nd grade, Ruth Hill, Lincoln NE
  • Leslie Schlag, Preschool, Cherokee Trails Elementary, Parker, CO
  • Angela Davis, Kindergarten, Saddle Ranch Elementary, Highlands Ranch, CO


Jan Anttila recently retired from Douglas County Schools after working as a classroom teacher, teacher mentor, staff developer, literacy specialist and GT facilitator. In addition, she was a faculty practitioner at the University of Phoenix, teaching preservice teachers. Jan currently has her own business, 21st Century Tutoring and Consulting, providing services for today’s students and teachers. She also blogs about teaching and education at teachingtheteacherblog.com.  Look for Jan’s sessions at the CCIRA conference in February, 2019.


Playing the School Game without Sacrificing our Star Players

By Mary Howard

I always feel like I should start with a warning when I’m about to launch into a long angst-filled passionate pondering-rant – so consider yourself warned. These wonderings on paper are entirely selfish on my part as it’s my form of therapy and much cheaper than the real deal. I’ve talked about this topic on many occasions, but it seems to warrant repeated discussion since it’s having an increasingly negative impact on this profession.

Over the past year, as I have worked in schools from one side of the country to the other I have personally witnessed the tragic recipients of poor decision-making by those who don’t even seem aware of the negative impact they’re putting into motion. What motivates me to keep writing about this is that the situation is growing worse and it’s not an issue in one school one district or one state but many schools, districts and states. In fact, it’s become so pervasive that it is impacting educators everywhere and my view from outside-in as a literacy consultant allows me to witness the sad aftermath of these failed efforts.

Before I begin, I want to share the brilliant words of someone I have admired for many years since the immense wisdom of others inspires and fuels me when my energy and patience wanes. Here, Billie Askew reflects on Marie Clay’s work:
“When teachers address individual differences, children will take different paths to similar outcomes. Rather than a map of sequence through which children should pass, the crucial factor is the body of knowledge in the heads of teachers that guides their interactions with students.”Billie J. Askew, 2012 (page 18)

Well folks those waters have reached a level of “turbulence” the likes of which we have never seen in education. Actually, that’s not entirely true since scripted programs were a thing even when I began teaching in 1972. But then that sad little history doesn’t hold a candle to the situation we now face since it was long before we knew better. That’s what makes the professional crossroads we find ourselves standing before so scary. Now we know better but we’re doing it anyway. I find it alarming that in spite of the gift of decades of rich research support that goes against the grain of these highly scripted one-size-fits-all programs, we still can’t seem to let go. Our renewed obsession with programs

Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 12.23.04 AM
Peter Forster on Unsplash

is at a staggering all-time financial high (millions when it’s district wide) with epic proportions of stupidity that seems to be growing as I type these words. I use the word stupidity because I see no intelligent decision-making in blindly trusting companies led by snake oil salesmen as we are slowly sacrificing the literacy lives of children and the professional lives of teachers. Quite frankly, I am increasingly frustrated by the impact I see in our schools as we leave our most dedicated teachers helplessly littered across a tragic trail of forced rigid compliance where professional judgement has no place. It seems as if schools want these teachers to forget everything they know about good teaching and instead trust someone to take the lead who doesn’t know their children, and in many cases doesn’t even have a foundation of literacy knowledge. There is no professional wisdom in making our teachers the sacrificial lamb of others.

Every day there a new “magic bullet program” that has somehow made its way into our schools. I can’t open my computer without seeing or hearing about a new one and my inbox is full of the name of programs shared by frustrated educators who want to put the brakes on this travesty of awful. I think that at least in part this highly suspect STUFF is feeding our deep love of glowing adjectives, phrases or descriptors that accompany the program and give us a false sense of hope with words like:

empowered, student-centered, standards based, formative assessment, kids at the center, holistic, learner friendly, research based, best practices, high-quality, authentic, rigorous, gradual release of responsibility model, integrated, balanced approach, workshop model, responsive, scaffolded differentiation, forward-thinking, framework, foundational, comprehensive, aligned, challenging, meaningful, purposeful

Who could argue with those pretty awesome terms, right? Yet, when those terms are attached to these rigid programs, they transform into shallow promises that demean the instructional process and elevate the underlying financial agenda that motivated them in the first place. These awesome words are used to spout marketing claims in showy websites with colorful slideshow presentations by nicely dressed people with a dramatic flair. How could we possibly resist the emotional battle cry of “We can save you’? Couple that with a website filled with really awesome quotes we love and photos of awesome smiling children who went from sad passive tormented to joyful engaged successful because someone had the wisdom to buy this awesome program. Oh, and you’ve got to love the awesome sad-to-happy teachers standing beside newly happy children celebrating this magical transformation with an all-is-right-with-my-teaching-world smile brought to you by this totally awesome company. If you detect a facetious tone in my words, you would be accurate.

But the scariest part of all is not the clever marketing frenzy filled with empty promises since legally they have the right to spread one-size-fits-all lies. My growing sense of utter frustration is not that these things are out there. No, I’m astonished, confounded confused and a little depressed that we’re buying their brazen dribble (metaphorically and literally). How is it that we are allowing ourselves to be duped into reaching for the checkbook without even thinking about the long-term implications? Do we even care about the impact it’s having on teachers and kids? And I’m not talking about teachers who are begging for those boxes in the first place, since complacency and lack of professional ownership is a whole other issue. I’m also not talking about new teachers who need a resource, although I’d argue that an awful resource is an ill-conceived Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 12.25.27 AMprofessional model. I’m talking about teachers who are begging NOT to have those boxes or at the very least to have the right to use them as a resource or even (shock warning) not use them at all. Do you know how many brilliant, amazing and dedicated teachers we have in this country? Well I do but clearly those who are force feeding them boxed programs and then tethering them to someone else’s agenda surely don’t. And again, I’m well aware that there are teachers who either don’t want to do the work or truly need a reference to support their efforts. But why are we punishing every teacher by pushing these programs on those who don’t need a teacher’s guide to tell them what to say and do? I hate to tell you this astonishing news, but many teachers know what to say and do and they can do it far better than these boxes ever could. The box obviously doesn’t know the research that we hold dear and knowing this would make us walk the other way. Worse, the box doesn’t know the kids the iffy box is purportedly for. Teaching without agenda-driven research or knowledge of children isn’t teaching at all. And following a script is as far removed from student-learning teaching as one can get.

For the past year (well actually, for decades, but it’s worse now) I go into districts all over the country where I am personally witnessing the frustration and unhappiness that is putting the very professionalism of our teachers at stake. I sadly watching as teacher agency is being ripped from the hands of those who stand helplessly in the wake of irresponsible mandates. Yes, I go to schools who are now suffering from a severe case of buyer’s remorse in the aftermath of the failure of these quick fixes. I could have told you that would happen if you’d asked. I can’t help but wonder why we don’t adopt a Buyer Beware mentality before we write that check in the first place? And even if we didn’t, why are we more worried about the loss of money when we abandon these failed experiments than we are about the loss of professionalism. “But we spent a lot of money on this” isn’t an excuse, but a reminder that we should be more careful about the money we spend in the first place. I mean really, are we that desperate for fast results and so deluded into thinking that there’s such a thing as fast results? Do we truly have so little faith in our teachers? Are we that unwilling to admit that we’re wrong and do whatever it takes to right that wrong?

Adding to my sense of astonished, confounded confused and a little depressed state over the massive dollars we have squandered is that we could have spent those dollars in ways that would be worthy of our teachers and kids and actually have a positive impact. Just imagine the high-quality books, literacy coaches and ongoing professional learning that would have been possible with that money. I’m sorry, folks, but we don’t have a money issue; we have a common-sense issue and it’s hurting our schools and demeaning this profession. We are reducing the work that I have spent nearly five decades engaged in to understand to something that requires literally no thinking. In fact, much of it requires us to abandon everything that we’ve spent our careers reading, thinking, pondering, growing, and researching in the name of kids. In the process, we’re turning this profession into a grab and go mentality. To make matters worse, we are putting texts in front of kids that are robbing them of the joy that should accompany the learning process and cheating teachers of the immense joy that comes from responsive teaching with kids (not boxes) at the center of those efforts. At what point did we alleviate our commitment to teachers and children and hand it over to publishers?

So, what do we do? Well, for starters, we recognize that we are being duped before they have a chance to dupe us. We quit foolishly writing checks just because we believe in the educational version of the tooth fairy. We invite teachers to the thinking and discussion table and stop disrespecting them as incapable decision-makers. We opt to trust professional knowledge grounded in years of growing understanding over shallow marketing ploys. We refuse to get stuck in the muck and mire of the marketing mess surrounding us and look in the professional mirror. We insist on making professional learning a priority and stop allowing any teacher to opt for thoughtless teaching over professional wisdom. We support the knowledge-fueled efforts of teachers across the learning year and engage them in real conversations about their student-centered work. We question every penny we spend before we even think about spending it. We take the checkbook away from those who don’t know the first thing about literacy research. We make professional reading and learning the heartbeat of our schools and make room in every single day to celebrate it in the company of others. We look beyond glowing adjectives of marketeers and see the business at work;  we refuse to fill their pockets at the expense of our values. We stand up. We speak up. We rise up.
The stakes are high, folks, because we are holding the professional lives of our teachers and the learning lives of our children in our hands. I see what happens when we refuse to do these things and I can’t help but wonder why we all don’t all see what’s happening right in front of our eyes. I believe our silence is destroying, not lifting up this profession. We are relegating kids to mind numbing scripted cookie-cutter programs and then sending kids who need the most off to the fix-it-room to undo the damage of those mind numbing scripted cookie-cutter programs. We are trading children with teachers who don’t even know or care about them rather than taking responsibility for them ourselves. We are relinquishing responsibility for intervention from the classroom teacher and sending them to scripted intervention prison with little chance of escape. We are allowing levels, tests scores and labels to define our kids (and our teachers) and then relegating children to the book bins that fit the label we ask them to wear across their foreheads. We are celebrating rising scores of stupid tests based on stupid programs that are always going to rise when you pay homage to stupid and then test stupid. What exactly are we celebrating when this is a pure and simple sellout?
And for the record, I’m not just talking about basal programs. I’m talking about programs like Accelerated Reader and the old wine in new bottle clones that are reducing our readers to meaningless numbers more relevant than the hearts and minds of readers free to choose what they read. I’m talking about Teachers Pay Teachers scripts that are turning beautiful books into mindless activities with 100+ pages riddles with a task master mentality. I’m talking about the myriad of ‘cutesy’ that we bring into our teaching that usurp the time that could be spent in far more purposeful ways. It’s not just the foolish expenditure of dollars that is harming us all, but an even more foolish and dangerous expenditure of TIME. We need to value every second we are blessed to have children in our care. These things do not honor children – they honor THINGS.
SO let me repeat Billie Askew’s brilliant message once again:

“…Rather than a map of sequence through which children should pass, the crucial factor is the body of knowledge in the heads of teachers that guides their interactions with students.”

Thanks to the plethora of marketing ploys and snake oil salesmen desperate for our money, we are so busy filling our schools with programs, packages, quick fixes and magic bullets that we forgot to ‘fill the heads of our teachers with the body of knowledge’ that would make those programs null and void and help us realize just how stupid many of their suggestions are. We are mandating teachers to do the bidding of the program rather than to draw from their knowledge in true responsive teaching that is impossible within a dictatorial process. Calling the program “research-based” or any other lovely descriptor does NOT make it so. It just makes both of us look foolish; marketers for creating these programs and educational suckers for investing in them. We aren’t just wasting our money. We are telling teachers that their knowledge is irrelevant. Here’s a thought: if you want to pollute your school with one-size-fits-all garbage, fire all the teachers who could actually make a difference and hire a school full of non-educators who don’t know diddly-doo-doo about effective student-centered teaching. Because the results would be the same but at least we wouldn’t be hurting educators who are wise enough to know that. Or better yet, quit searching for instructional nirvana and turn your attention to the only nirvana I know – teachers who know kids and literacy. I’d put my money on them any day.
I see teachers trying to play the program game and either deluding themselves into thinking they’re doing the right thing or drowning, trying to find the teacher they want to be. Why would we ever put teachers in a position where they must choose between their dedication to professional ownership and other-driven obligatory compliance? For that matter, why would we even think that other-driven obligatory compliance is a worthy goal? If schools and districts want to waste money on these programs, I can’t stop them, but please don’t take teachers down with you who actually know what they’re doing and want to do it. Give them the option to put the program aside. Don’t ask our star players (knowledgeable teachers) to choose between the rules of the game and the deep-rooted commitment to their beliefs and values that were the guiding force of their efforts long before marketing came along. And for heaven’s sake, stop subjecting our youngest players (our kids) to curriculum that treats them as if they are one-size-fits-all when nothing could be further from the truth. Don’t force feed our children too-hard joyless texts they couldn’t care anything about. Because if I feel like vomiting when I read these contrived fake texts riddled with a marketing agenda, then why would you think that kids wouldn’t feel the same? We are beating the joyful learning that our children and teachers deserve to death with a stick and I fear we may never again resurrect the sense of excitement that comes from meaningful, purposeful, relevant, responsive teaching in the hands of a teacher who knows literacy research and kids and wants to do the right thing in their honor. Boxes aren’t the right thing my friends – filling our teachers heads with knowledge and hearts with our faith in them is.

Can someone please explain this to me because I’m baffled and exhausted watching the impact these programs are having on our schools, our teachers, and our kids? And frankly, I’m not sure this profession can withstand another year of the tragic aftermath of program-fueled professional sameness.

Dr. Mary Howard is the author of several books and co-host of the Good 2 Great (#G2Great) weekly Twitter chat. Find her on Twitter at @DrMaryHoward.


Billie J. Askew (Fall 2012). A Standard Boat in Turbulent Waters. Journal of Reading Recovery, 12 (1), page 17- 25)

One Key Word for Gifted Learners: Connection

By Teresa Brown

“Differentiation” is a key word in the vocabulary of any teacher just out of their teaching program, and is one that we continue to use throughout our careers. We cultivate a variety of strategies over time to reach our typical and struggling learners, providing multiple levels of mentor texts, explicitly teaching and reteaching skills to analyze and understand literature and non-fiction, supporting our young writers with graphic organizers and patterns to help them get their voices down on paper in a way that reaches their target audience, and supporting them as they grow to into critical readers and writers.

But what about the gifted students we serve?  What tools do we have to support them in a way that helps them to grow as well?  How are their needs any different from those of a typical student?

Screen Shot 2018-10-09 at 6.18.29 AM
Photo by Fischer Twins on Unsplash

Being gifted goes beyond academic achievement, and that’s what often gets forgotten in the classroom.  The National Association of Gifted Children notes that the many of the myths about gifted students involve the idea that they don’t need anything special to learn–they’ll be fine. The fact is that gifted students see and experience the world around them differently, which means they also see and experience literature and communication differently.  

The way the gifted brain works requires that we modify our teaching practices as well to ensure that their needs are met, both academic and social-emotional. Their inner worlds (intensities, emotions, perceptions, relationships, personality, etc.) need to connect to and understand the world around them on multiple levels.  Asynchronous development (The Columbus Group, 1991) plays a role as well; gifted children are often many ages in one body, at age 7 enjoying entertaining stories about animals living in the forest, obsessing over non-fiction texts about the inner workings of ships and planes, and worrying about poverty and homelessness in their communities and abroad all at the same time.

Reaching and growing your gifted learners comes down to one word:


In order for gifted students to grow, they need opportunities to connect to what they’re learning at a deeper level.  Providing opportunities for students to see themselves, the experiences they are having, and the issues they care about in the literature, poetry, and nonfiction texts they’re reading to learn literacy skills is critical. We work to ensure that all of our students make connections to text, however gifted students require high level of thinking and the presentation of big ideas first to remain engaged and involved in their learning.  Connection to text is what provides access to text for our gifted learners–not the other way around as it is for those who need to practice a skill before a connection can be made.

Using the text “Salvador Late or Early” by Sandra Cisneros as an example, gifted students from a variety of socio-economic or cultural backgrounds and age levels can connect to the child and his experience.  Discussions about patience, kindness, handling conflict, poverty, the increasing responsibility of children to help raise siblings, family dynamics, gang activity and its impact on learning and living, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and a host of other topics are incredibly valuable in connecting gifted readers to the text. Bringing appropriate non-fiction pieces about any of those topics helps to solidify those connections with factual information. Discussions of why Cisneros and other authors exploring similar themes and ideas chose particular words, specific phrases, and sentence structure are incredibly valuable to gifted students, as they are able to think through the nuances of writing as communication and their own work as writers.  

Suddenly, a three-paragraph piece has created connections to the lives of today’s children and the social-emotional issues that many face, current events in our communities and world, and the work of authors to connect with their audience. A piece that took 10 minutes to read can take days or weeks to analyze and provided a cognitive hook on which a gifted student can develop close reading skills and meaningful writing skills.  Modeling learner’s thinking is still critical and it shows your gifted students that taking risks in their thinking is ok. A question like, “Can you tell me more about your thinking?” often opens a floodgate of thought!

Screen Shot 2018-10-09 at 6.27.23 AM
Photo by Anna Samoylova on Unsplah

The key to this work for us as educators is looking beyond the text, and in some cases even the grade level standards, for ways to connect your gifted readers to what they’re reading as you’re explicitly teaching skills and then connecting what they’re reading to their writing.  Some ideas to consider as you’re planning are:

  • What topics matter to them?  What issues are they passionate about?  
  • What types of characters do they identify with?  Why?
  • What experiences of their favorite characters resonate with them?  Why?
  • What genre will help them communicate their thinking best to their intended audience?
  • What components of nonfiction text do they connect with most: diagrams? Scientific or historical facts? Photos?  Emotional wording?

Allowing our students to bring these questions to the forefront of their work with text, in both what they read and what they write, creates a depth and complexity of thought that a worksheet, multiple choice test, or response to a group writing prompt can’t capture. Their thinking about a particular text is often far deeper than simply determining the main idea and details.

Linda Silverman, a local expert in gifted children at the Denver, Colorado Gifted Development Center, shared her thoughts at a conference I attended a few years ago and her words have stuck with me and drive my work with our gifted students and their teachers: “Gifted is who they are, not what they produce.” This is so true for our gifted students when we think about them as readers and writers. With intentional support, they will learn to connect to text, that of others and their own, and explore it in ways that are meaningful to the way they see and experience the world.

Teresa Brown is the Dean of Student Support and Director of the Center for Gifted Resources at Academy for Advanced and Creative Learning, a K-8 public charter school in Colorado Springs, Colorado with a focus on gifted education.  She has presented on topics related to supporting gifted learners in the classroom for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, Colorado Association for Gifted and Talented, CCIRA, and at Denver Comic Con, which was the highlight of her summer!  Teresa also serves as an officer in PPIRA. She practices self-care by fly fishing, practicing yoga, and listening to a variety of podcasts and audio books.

Finding the ME in Leadership

By Jill Lewis

Mike Murdock states, “Leaders make decisions that create the future they desire.” A simple statement; yet, a profound one.  It is this quote that led me to reflect on the decisions I make as I lead myself, my businesses, and the CO ASCD organization. Was I being willy-nilly? Do I know why I make certain decisions and say yes to some things and no to others? Or was it because I was jumping to grasp at the edges of cliffs trying to grab a pebble to keep going? I needed to find answers and most importantly I needed to find the me in leadership, then find the why I lead.

5 Ways to find the ME in Leadership


 This may sound cliché. However, I read everything I can get my hands on about leadership. Look for the golden nuggets in articles, blogs, magazines, books, and social media. Reach out to leaders in the leadership industry. There are incredible resources of all types out there to support not only leadership pedagogy, but the development of skills and tools. Each of the books below gave me pause to find the me in leadership.

  • Jesus as CEO, Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership by Laurie Beth Jones
  • The Power of the Other by Dr. Henry Cloud
  • Presence by Amy Cuddy
  • Servant Leadership by Robert K. Greenleaf
  • The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz
  • You are a Badass by Jen Sincero

Find a Mentor

Everyone needs a coach. Currently, I have three coaches, all of whom are very different, from different organizations, and differing fields. I think about what I need and where I Screen Shot 2018-10-02 at 7.16.27 AMneed to grow as a leader and seek those people out. I place great importance of looking for a variety of perspectives as I navigate this journey of leadership. In my wheelhouse of mentors, I make sure to have a trifecta approach connecting personal growth, business development, and specific skill knowledge. I find people who are in the corner four quadrant (Cloud, 2016), who push me to stretch and then stretch some more, question my motivations, and most importantly, hold me accountable.

Observe & Study

Once I find my mentors, I seek out other leaders in the field that I can emulate. I study how that person interacts with his or her audience and delivers content through analysis of their actions and words. I observe the behavior of the different types of interactions and the effect of how relationships are enhanced. In essence, I ask myself this question.

How does this person stand in their own personal power?

Researcher and renowned speaker on the power of presence, Amy Cuddy, says, “…if power reveals, then we can only know the truly powerful, because only they are bold enough to show who they are without subterfuge and without apology. They have the courage and the confidence to open themselves to the gaze of others” (Cuddy, 2015, p. 143).

It is through my gaze that I continue to find the me in the way I want to lead.


Say YES to everything. Ok, ok, I know jaws started dropping, coffee dripped down the front of shirts, and I heard the exasperated sighs. Here is the next part. Say YES to everything that matches the vision of who you want to be as a leader. Use your leadership vision as a litmus test to determine the potency the experience may bring. Take the risk.

My personal vision is to transform education on a global scale, so that every person has the freedom to innovate, create, and be empowered to live purposely. Because I say YES to some of the craziest ideas tested against my vision litmus test, doors consistently open allowing me to grow exponentially in ways I never considered. This is why saying YES is so important.

Screen Shot 2018-10-02 at 7.16.54 AM


Madonna, Cher, Lady Gaga are known within the music industry as constantly changing to stay relevant. Spanning over 5 decades, these women use their power to reinvent themselves over and over. In order to do that, they read, have mentors and confidents, observe, study, and risk. Most importantly, they reflect on where they have been and where they want to go. Each of these three women look at their successes and failures, reflect to move forward, and rise again and again with innovative types of music, dance, and special effects. This type of relevance would not happen without constant reflection of their industry, what their audience currently wants, nor if they remained stagnate in what they have already done. Reflection is key.

Reflection for me happens daily. I journal. I show gratitude for the little things. I ask questions to help make processes more efficient. I look inward to understand my own habits and actions. I do this so I continue to remain relevant in our ever-changing world.

Consistency of these five types of behaviors I use to grow my capacity as a leader develops the me in leadership. The behaviors I exude pour into the different organizations I serve, and are ingrained into each organization’s culture through its people. Leading in this manner creates opportunities for others to step into their own power elevating their own skills and tools leaving a legacy where leadership multiplies.

Cloud, D. H. (2016). Power of the other. Place of publication not identified: Harpercollins.

Cuddy, A. (2016). Presence: Bringing your boldest self to your biggest challenges. London: Orion.

Ryan, Syd. (July 2017). Leading with Vision Workshop. Nashville

“Read it Again!” – The Joy of Shared Reading

“Read it Again!” – The Joy of Shared Reading

“Read it again! Read it again!”

The cheers of the children ring out as we finish reading the last page of Mrs. Wishy Washy. They cannot wait to hear the book again. There is joy, engagement and excitement for every student. Shared reading is a daily part of our literacy instruction in our kindergarten classroom, and one of the most important pieces of our day. I believe that shared reading has a place in all elementary classrooms, as it speaks to the power of learning with an “expert other” through a low risk, enjoyable experience.

Screen Shot 2018-09-25 at 10.09.32 AM

Don Holdaway introduced shared reading, an interactive reading experience, as a way to imitate the typical bedtime story. It’s a joyful time for all students to access a text, experience what it feels like to be a proficient reader and get caught up in the pleasure and engagement of reading. It’s also a time for teachers to support children in building an effective reading process system and model what it looks like when a proficient reader is using his or her system.

Screen Shot 2018-09-25 at 10.09.54 AM

Shared reading texts can be a variety of formats – as long as children can see the text clearly. You can use big books, large charts, or projected text. Big books are still my favorites. I love the excitement that a new big book evokes as it sits on my easel waiting to be read, and I love how children can return to the book over and over again on their own. I also use poems, songs and chants on large, homemade charts. These allow me to customize my shared reading texts for the students in my class, responding to interests and needs.

Enjoyment, reading for meaning and talk is always at the heart of the work we do with every shared reading text. I typically plan for one big book and 2-3 charts each week. We revisit these texts every day for a week. Carefully choosing your texts is important. Highly engaging characters like Mrs. Wishy Washy, high interest topics like monarch butterflies, dinosaurs, Superheroes (or whatever your class is interested in), and charts that have children’s names or connections to shared experiences keep the excitement high as you revisit the texts during the week.

Screen Shot 2018-09-25 at 10.10.00 AM

The following is a list of possible teaching points for shared reading lessons. It is not all-inclusive, nor is it listed in any particular order. These teaching points evolve as the year goes on and as you observe your students and what they might need. This is your opportunity to make the thinking you do as a proficient reader visible to your students – and to encourage them to share the reading work with you. I am always amazed at just how much can be taught in shared reading lessons!

  • Word by word matching
  • Looking at text
  • Where to start reading
  • Left to right (page and sentence)
  • Return sweep
  • Parts of a book: cover, author, illustrator
  • Using illustrations to help comprehension
  • Letter vs. word
  • Noticing punctuation and what it means for the reader
  • Spaces between words
  • Making predictions
  • Rhyming words
  • Vocabulary
  • Using meaning, structure and visual sources of information to solve words and comprehend  (Is that word right? Does that make sense? How do we know? Let’s check it!)
  • Searching and gathering information to support word solving or comprehension
  • Fluency
  • Word solving (Cover words to look at first letter or letters  or use oral cloze: “what might this word be?”)
  • Comprehension strategies (visualizing, questioning, activating schema, inferring, making connections, predicting on the word or text level, monitoring, cross-checking)
  • Nonfiction text features
  • Genre study
  • Character study
  • Readers talk about books

Every shared reading lesson starts with reading the text for enjoyment. There is always the opportunity for talk, initiated by the children, about what they are thinking, noticing or wondering. Much of my teaching is implicit and embedded into the conversation every time we read a text. For example, at the beginning of the year in kindergarten, I am verbalizing book handling and pointing out the cover, the title, the author and dedication. I may talk about how readers think about what they are reading. I then focus explicitly on one or two specific teaching points for each lesson, as we reread and interact with the text, such as word-by-word matching or checking the pictures. I have a general plan for the week, focusing on a different area each day. For example, I might focus on reading the pictures, predicting and word solving on Monday, monitoring and cross-checking Tuesday, print conventions on Wednesday, fluency on Thursday and orchestration on Friday. As always, I follow the children’s lead and adapt as I listen to the conversation and respond to what the class or small group might need.

Screen Shot 2018-09-25 at 10.10.09 AMAt the end of the week, our shared reading texts go in the children’s Shared Reading Binder. This is a 3-ring binder where children keep copies of all the poems, songs and mini-books we read each week. I take a photo of the charts and put them in the binder to go home for the weekend. We stress the importance of bringing these binders back to school on Monday, where they are kept in the children’s individual book boxes and are available for children to read independently during our readers’ workshop. The home/school connection is very important, and these binders provide another opportunity for children to share what they are learning at school.

Screen Shot 2018-09-25 at 10.10.14 AM

Revisiting shared reading texts is yet another great teaching and learning opportunity. The large charts and big books are available to children to read throughout the day, in addition to being in their binders. I also have an invitation at the end of every week for children to engage further with the text. Some possibilities might be; a puppet to make, toys to act out the book or art materials available to create art inspired from the text. Children that choose to linger even longer with a text are encouraged to do so. This is a choice during our Explore time after we’ve finished with a shared reading text.

Screen Shot 2018-09-25 at 10.11.12 AM

Shared reading is a part of our daily schedule for whole class and small group lessons that I couldn’t do without. The powerful learning and enjoyment that children have during and beyond shared reading lessons makes this time extremely valuable. There are so many possibilities for all grade levels! How do you see shared reading fitting into your day?

Katie Keier has been teaching and learning with children, as a classroom teacher and literacy specialist, in grades K-8, for twenty-six years. She is currently a kindergarten teacher in an urban, Title I school. She is the co-author of Catching Readers Before They Fall with Pat Johnson, from Stenhouse Publishers. Katie is an adjunct faculty member for American University, a national presenter and conducts staff development workshops and interactive webinars. She is currently in training for Reading Recovery for classroom teachers. You can follow her @bluskyz on Instagram and Twitter, and her kindergarten class @KinderUnicorns .

Being “Inspired” to Hold on to New Learning

Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris, 2019 CCIRA Featured Speakers

We are always looking for ways to push our thinking and outgrow our best ideas and we find attending powerful and inspiring conferences such as CCIRA to be transformational. Connecting with others dedicated to sound literacy education and soaking up the positive energy of the event buoys us, however, sometimes it is a challenge for us to hold onto this energy once we are back home facing long to-do lists or on the road for extended engagements.

If you’re like us, we imagine that you might struggle with this, too, which leaves us all wondering how we can translate the energy and force of an inspiring conference into our daily lives. How do we maintain the momentum and energy of learning alongside so many intelligent, creative, and dedicated educators when the stove just broke, our son has a school project due, and the dog just ate a Lego?

Making substantive, long term change can be challenging but, if you are intentional, you can succeed. We have six strategies to help you (and us) maintain your CCIRA conference energy and focus, once you travel home with plans to apply your most important learning.

  1.  Write about what you learn.

Whether you blog or reflect in a paper journal, writing about what you have learned will bring you clarity. Thinking on paper will help you gain insight into your new learning and show you your next steps along a path to translating this learning into habituated practice.

     2.   Set up a “tripwire”.

Screen Shot 2018-09-18 at 7.07.57 AM



Sometimes the trickiest part of adopting or adapting new ideas is simply remembering to do them. In our busiest moments, our muscle memory kicks in and we tend to do what is automatic for us. Until new practices become habituated, it takes conscious attention to include them in our instruction. So, if you want to remember to make some particular change in your practice, give yourself a “tripwire”–a physical reminder to do something differently. For example, if you want to remember to prompt differently during guided reading, put stickers, sticky notes, or a even tattoo within the range of your vision to remind you to use the new language during the business of guided reading.

    3.   Find a partner.



Whether you are changing your diet, your reading habits, or your instructional practice, a journey of change and growth is always more enjoyable (and successful) with a travel companion. Find someone who is interested in your instructional destination, get connected, and develop a plan together. In today’s digital world, your learning buddy doesn’t even have to live near you–he or she could live anywhere in the world. Make a point during CCIRA to not only discover new ideas, but to find learning collaborators who can share your commitment to change.

    4. Video or audio tape yourself.



This is not a strategy for the faint-of-heart, but once you discover the ways that recording your instruction provides you powerful insights for transforming your work, you will adopt this self-reflecting tool as a regular part of your professional development. It is easier than you think, so no need to overcomplicate things! Your classroom doesn’t have to be perfect; you don’t need a fancy camera, and you don’t need to wait until the schedule is perfect. Your subconscious will always give you a reason (excuse) not to record yourself. Tell your subconscious, “Thank you for sharing; this is going to be fine” and then get your camera out and start rolling. Seriously.

    5.  Find a coach.



Finding a critical friend can elevate your practice in powerful ways! It is common to miss the obvious when we look at ourselves. Oftentimes, substantive change requires a colleague looking at our practice and giving us feedback to help us shift. We challenge you to invite a coach or colleague to watch you implement your new learning and offer you insights into what might make your efforts even more successful.

CCIRA will offer you a wealth of connections and new insights, but these require your commitment to sustaining them. As Cornelius Minor so wisely states, “When you gain new insight, it is really important to change your life to match your new understanding. To choose not to change is to embrace ignorance.” So, once we know the change we want to adopt, we are obligated to ourselves (and to our students) to be intentional about being true to ourselves.

We can’t wait to see you in Colorado to share in your insight and enjoy your energy!

About the Authors

Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris are the writers and thinkers behind Burkins & Yaris—Think Tank for 21st Century Literacy, where their blog and their instructional resources have drawn a national audience and made them thought leaders in the field of literacy instruction.

In their role as literacy consultants, Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris work closely with schools and districts, facilitating staff development, conducting in-class demonstrations, and developing curriculum. Kim Yaris is the founder of Literacy Builders and spends more than 100 days per year consulting in schools. Jan Burkins, founder of Literacyhead,  has authored and co-authored several books, including IRA’s bestseller, Preventing Misguided Reading.

Jan and Kim’s first book together, Reading Wellness (Stenhouse, 2014), shares field-tested, practical lessons designed to meet the rigorous demands of the Common Core while increasing joy in classrooms. With more than 40 combined years of experience in school districts, Jan and Kim’s work is steeped in literacy research but both have the heart of a practitioner.  They truly understand what teachers need to know in order to improve literacy instruction.


Mentor Texts to Engage and Empower Our Students

by Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli

Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli are featured presenters at the 2019 CCIRA Conference on Literacy. 

In Painting the Windby Patricia and Emily MacLachlan, we follow a young boy’s journey as he studies the artists who visit his island. Each one is a mentor who teaches the boy some new technique. In our classrooms, mentor texts do the same thing for our student writers. They provide opportunities to take risks and try new things. Mentor texts serve as snapshots into the future, helping students envision the kind of writer they can become. A writer needs to try new things in order to write differently tomorrow than he writes today.

Studying mentor texts with a teacher or partner, or examining a favorite mentor text independently, can move a community of writers forward. When a teacher carefully chooses a set of mentor texts and returns to them frequently, there is a commonality that students bring to discussions, share sessions, and conferences. Mentor texts serve to sustain the writing community. With the help of mentor texts, students build writing muscles to help them tackle longer pieces of writing in new genres and formats.

Sometimes a mentor text can provide a seed of an idea before a student starts to write. Other times, a student may need to return to a mentor text to help him problem solve when he is stuck. He may return to examine a structure, investigate how an author uses dialogue, or discover new strategies to create a satisfying ending. Even after many drafts, a student may go back to a mentor text to study punctuation, perhaps finding new ways to use a comma, colon, or ellipsis in his piece of writing before the final edit.

Screen Shot 2018-09-11 at 7.09.15 AM

Choosing mentor texts for your classroom is a personal matter. We believe you must connect to the books you choose – even love them. When you know your students well, you will understand what they will connect with, as well as what they need to help them move forward as writers. It is important for teachers to know mentor texts inside and out to be able to pull that “just-right” book that inspires a student to say “I can do this, too.” While we find picture books to be extremely useful, it is important to have a balance created by different genres, fiction and nonfiction, and a variety of authors. Occasionally you may decide to use magazine articles, graphic novels, chapter books, poems, or song lyrics as mentor texts. Eventually, we hope students will have the knowledge and confidence to choose their own mentor texts when they need to do so.

At the end of Painting the Wind,the young artist finally reaches his goal, but he needed his mentor to point that out to him.

I look at the painting of Meatball running from the wave, his ears flying.

“You have painted the wind,” I say to the landscape painter.

He points to my painting hung next to his, my painting of bent trees.

“You have, too,” he says.

 We do the same thing as teachers, using mentor texts to help young writers discover more about themselves and empower them to move forward with greater confidence. In other words, mentor texts help students continually reinvent themselves as writers.

MacLachlan, Patricia and Emily MacLachlan. 2006. Painting the Wind. New York: HarperCollins.

Lynn Dorfman and Rose Capelli are literacy consultants working with teachers nationwide to support writing workshop.  Their popular book is now in it’s second edition: Mentor Texts, 2nd edition: Teaching Writing Through Children’s Literature, K-6 Lynn and Rose also authored Nonfiction Mentor Texts:  Teaching Informational Writing Through Children’s Literature, K-8. Follow Lynn and Rose on Twitter.