Bridging Classroom and Small Group Instruction through Intention

By MaryAnna Fox

I have been a teacher for 12 years now.  That’s longer than anything I have ever chosen to do in my life. Even with the intention of choosing to be in a school every day, there are days I feel like I don’t belong.  There are days, moments, weeks where I feel like I have no clue as to what is going on – that everyone except me, is making decisions for me.  It’s exhausting and scary to be vulnerable and put myself out there every single day and to know that I might fail and fall flat on my face in an attempt to try something new.  It can all be overwhelming and exhausting, and there are days I want to avoid all of it, play hooky from our staff meeting, and just play Candy Crush on my phone instead.

But, I’m an adult.

I am an adult who asks students every single day and do exactly what I want to avoid myself. I ask them to show up, learn something new, expose their weaknesses and strengths and be vulnerable in front of me and their peers.  To be exposed. To take risks. But, am I an adult who has created the opportunity for them to belong? To have ownership of their learning? To develop the narrative of who they are as a student without asking them to leave who they are as a kid at the door?

I have had the honor of being a classroom teacher, and now of being a small group teacher.  A reading specialist. An interventionist. An enrichment teacher. The teacher who works with ‘struggling’ readers.  The teacher who provides “Tier II” intervention. The teacher who is the data keeper. The teacher who pulls students out of class.  

I am the teacher who is very conscious of the narrative that I am helping create in every student I see.  Intentionally or not, I am a part of their story. Am I telling them they’re not good enough to be in their classroom as I ask them to leave their community and come with me?  Am I telling them that there is something wrong with them? That they don’t belong? That they need fixing?

Please don’t misunderstand me: I am not advocating for eliminating a space (within or out of the classroom) where students receive the specialized, individualized instruction that they need.  Rather, I am reflecting and questioning the identities that we are creating for the students who we see as ‘struggling’ by taking them out of a classroom for individualized instruction.

So, now what?

Exactly.  Now what. How can I, as a teacher, mirror and create an environment that supports the classroom community when I only see these students 30 minutes a day?  How can I encourage and support the Balanced Literacy space that my students just left, while individualizing the instruction to meet each student where they are, and push them to new places?   I honestly, had no clue. I had many questions, many thoughts, but few answers. I wanted to know how do I offer both individualized instruction and full membership in the classroom community when they returned? So, I turned to my professional sidekicks (thanks Maggie Beatty Roberts  for a term I will always and forever use). That’s right – I consulted the sidekicks that live on my bookshelf and surround me at school. I read and re-read Jennifer Serravallo, Jan Richardson, Donalyn Miller, Richard Allington, Marie Clay, Deborah L. Wolter, Debbie Miller, Christopher Emdin, Lucy Calkins and more.  I talked to classroom teachers, past teammates, our incredible instructional coach and the students who sit with me in my intervention room.

It kept coming back to me.  Me as the teacher and the adult. Back to me and the intentionality of what I do everyday.  

So, I set my intentions.

The intention to make sure that every student I see does not have their narrative as a reader defined by the fact that they need support in reading.  The intention of helping carry the heavy lifting in building bridges between the classroom and the intervention classroom.

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The intention that the intervention space is not a space of deficit.  It’s not a space for students to ‘catch-up”. It’s not in replacement of classroom instruction.  It is not reteaching of content. That it is not part of setting up “exclusionary practices in the student’s educational narrative” (Wolter, 2015, p. 12)

The intention to collaborate and communicate.  At our school, we are extremely fortunate to have a system in place where grade level teams and specialists (English Language Arts, Gifted and Talented, Reading, Math, Special Ed, etc) have a time every other month to collaborate and look at upcoming units in the classroom.  The space is used to anticipate possible challenges and extensions needed within the classroom, but also in the space outside of the classroom. Through this space we can intentionally align our teaching to the standards and main ideas of the classroom units and help students bridge and connect the physical and intellectual spaces.  

The intention to follow through.  I’ll be honest.  I see 10 groups of kids, kindergarten through 5th grade, and more than 50 students pass through my door every day.  Somedays it is easier for me to do my own thing; to teach a lesson in isolation or just move on to the next guided reading lesson in the curriculum.  It takes more time, more intention, more follow through, to plan my space to align with the classroom – that is true. But again, I’ll be honest. It’s so worth it.  Right now my second graders are working on poetry to practice their fluency, phrasing, word flexibility, and phonemic awareness. But, they’re also working on poetry because in their classroom, everyone is working on poetry.  In a space with four students, my second graders are taking risks, being vulnerable, taking ownership, feeling successful, and feel as if they belong, not just in my room, but in the classroom as well. They look at me as if I have magical powers in knowing what is going on in their classroom.  “Ms. Fox! Did you know we’re also working on poetry in class?? That’s so cool!” I wish I could them it was magic, but it’s not. It’s all about intention. In fourth grade we are tackling social issues amd empathy through Historical Fiction and Lucy Calkins Units of Study. We are taking on character traits in first grade through Jan Richardson’s guided reading structure. We are supporting with details in third and defining our identity as readers in 5th grade via Serravallo.  We have Reading Goal bookmarks from the classroom (courtesy of Serravallo) which we add to before students take them back into their communities. We radiate happiness, success, ownership, identity and belonging. We also celebrate incredible growth and less and less of a need for me.

In going back to my sidekicks Jan Richardson and Marie Clay, they speak of “echoes” from one part of a guided reading lesson to another. The concepts you develop in word work is what shows up in the text, in the writing and across the next day’s lesson.  With our intentionality, we can set up and create these echoes across classrooms, across spaces, across days, weeks and months. In reinforcing, supporting, aligning and helping create bridges between spaces, we remove much of the heavy lifting for our students.  We can create spaces that no longer reinforce struggling readers’ narratives with inadequacy, but instead give them autonomy, ownership and belonging.

I am the adult.  The adult that asks students to show up and be vulnerable and take risks.  But I’m also the adult that intentionally chooses to create a space, an environment of learning that is founded in belonging, ownership, safety, and success.  I intentionally create echoes across environments, and make sure that my time spent along each student’s journey is not seen as because of a deficit. I can be intentional in what role I play in the creation of their identity as a student, learner, and kid.
My “Professional Sidekicks” that I reference often:

Reading Upside Down by Deborah L. Wolter

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller

Next Step Forward in Guided Reading by Jan Richardson

A Mindset for Learning by Kristine Mraz

Identity Safe Classrooms by Dorothy Steele

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y’all Too by Christopher Emdin

Anything by Jennifer Serravallo, but specifically:

Teaching Reading in Small Groups by Jennifer Serravallo and Lucy Calkins

The Literacy Teacher’s Handbook K-2

The Literacy Teacher’s Handbook 3-6

Reading Strategies

Wolter, D. L. (2015). Reading upside down: Identifying and addressing opportunity gaps in literacy instruction. New York: Teachers College Press.
MaryAnna Fox has been an elementary school teacher for 12 years. She has taught kindergarten, second grade, and is currently a K-5 reading specialist at an elementary school in the Cherry Creek School District.  MaryAnna is also the co-president of the Arapahoe County chapter of CCIRA @ac_ccira. She can be found professionally on Instagram at or on Twitter at @mountainsun16.

Heart Matters

By Jennifer Allen

Fostering Heart in Professional Development


When I was in high school I had a soccer coach, Mr. Thurston. Mr. Thurston was a screamer. He screamed it all, the good and the bad. What I remember most about being a part of this team are not the wins or losses, but rather his words, “play with heart.” His belief was that if we worked together and played with heart as a team we would always be winners, both on and off the field. He believed playing with heart was greater than any individual win. The more heart we had as a team the stronger the team we became.

I believe that the concept of playing with heart holds true in professional learning communities as it does in sports. It’s been a personal quest of mine over the years to design professional development experiences for teachers that foster this feeling of playing with heart.

This year I facilitated a professional development opportunity for veteran teachers.

My hope was to provide veteran teachers with a study group like experience that would rekindle their flame for the classroom. The group was designed to promote collaboration as well as a self-reflection. The monthly day long meetings were designed to feel more like a retreat than an inservice. Ultimately the goal was for teachers in the group to rediscover what it feels like to play with heart both as a collaborative learner in a professional development group, as well as their classroom.

Elements that Matter in Nourishing the Heart

Giving teachers a monthly release day for this work during the school day and providing an environment away from classrooms were ways to acknowledge the teachers in the group as professionals. Teachers also had chunks of time during the day to design their own learning in which they could work individually or with their colleagues. The design of the day fostered relationships among the group. Teachers interpreted the content as meaningful since they had opportunities to self-select and dig into the resources that were most relevant to their learning interests. Environment, shared leadership, and individualized learning were strategies used to foster a sense of belonging and professionalism within this group, all which got at the heart of our learning


We met during the school day once a month off school grounds. I wanted participants to feel like they were at a retreat rather than a traditional pd school inserivce. Leaving the school and providing coffee and a few treats helped make the day feel a bit more special. Teachers commented that they felt treated like professionals.

Shared Leadership

We rotated facilitators as we made meaning together of new content. This was another way to acknowledge the professionalism of each teacher. Typically we were together about 3 hours out of the day exploring new content. We had a common text to ground us in this experience. We started the day together for the first 2 ½ hours and ended the day together by reconvening for the last ½ hour of the day.

 Individualized Learning

There were 3 hours in the middle of the day in which teachers set their own agenda. This was time to work alone or collaborate.

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 The February issue of Educational Leadership explored the theme of Measuring What Matters. I thought about the veteran teacher group. The evaluations and rating scales documented concrete changes to practice that teachers would make as a result of their participation. But, what wasn’t captured through the rating scales was the heart of this group which was the key to their success. Sometimes our data can’t always be conveyed through numbers on a paper. After reading through the evaluations I went back to the group and simply asked each teacher to share one word that best describes this learning experience. I will leave you with the words from the participants. Words that I believe reflect the heart of the group, words that get at the core of what it means to learn with heart.

Refreshed. Recharged. Nourished. Inspired. Renewed. Journey. Rejuvenated. Motivated. Again!

Jennifer Allen is a literacy specialist in Waterville, Maine. She has worked in education for the last twenty-five years.  Jennifer started as a classroom teacher in the primary grades and has been working in this position as a literacy/specialist coach for the last sixteen years. She is the author of Becoming a Literacy Leader and A Sense of Belonging, both published by Stenhouse.

Creating Classrooms That Foster Resilience

by Vicki Collet

Do your students see challenges and confusion as stepping stones to success? Do they recognize that taking risks and making mistakes are important parts of learning?  Students who have the resilience to deal with problems are better prepared for the unknown future that lies ahead in our rapidly-changing world.

Imagine this scene in Mrs. Durkin’s kindergarten classroom:  At the writing table, Christopher is making a birthday card for his classmate, Zander. He checks Zander’s nametag to get the spelling right and stretches out sounds as he composes his message.  Santos is at the SmartBoard in the front of the room; when the audio is not working, he reaches over and turns the volume knob; still no sound. Then Santos unplugs and reinserts the audio cord and smiles as music begins playing. At the kidney table, Mrs. Durkin takes a Running Record, noting that Gracie stops, rereads, and corrects her miscue when she gets confused.  All of these students are exhibiting resilience; they respond actively when confronted with problems during learning.

Resilient classrooms are those where students are not afraid to make mistakes.  There is a strong culture for inquiry and the atmosphere reflects a willingness to take risks because learning is seen as worthwhile.  Students understand that trials and errors bring learning! Because literacy learning requires experimenting and facing unknowns, knowing how to deal well with challenges is an important literacy skill.  Classrooms with an environment of flexibility enhance students’ learning and foster resilience.

As students develop resilience, they recognize that effort develops knowledge and skill.  Rather than believing that success depends solely on talent, they recognize that success is tied to effort (Dweck, 2002).  Rather than focusing on difficulties, they focus on what they can do.  Resilient people take an optimistic view.  They interpret setbacks as temporary, situational, and changeable.  Students who are less resilient describe failure as permanent, pervasive, and out of their control (Seligman, 2011).  

All students are motivated—but some, because of past experiences, are dominated by avoidance motivation as a way to protect themselves from situations that they feel may lead to humiliation or disappointment (Goldstein & Brooks, 2013).  Students who are not resilient are worried about making mistakes because they fear failure. Because of this fear, they choose what to do based on how successful they think they will be. When these students don’t feel certain of their ability to succeed, they procrastinate or do not attempt assignments.  During class, they may not participate because they worry about what others will think if they give an incorrect answer. They view their performance as a measure of their value. They will avoid mistakes to avoid the risk of being embarrassed. Making mistakes can leave non-resilient students feeling distressed and overwhelmed.  

Learning Experiences That Increase Resilience

Teachers can take action to overcome students’ fears, reduce avoidance motivation, and increase resilience.  Literacy learning experiences that build resilience include opportunities for students to correct errors and build understanding.  

For example, encouraging readers to “take a running start and try that again,” when faced with an unknown word will increase reading tenacity.  Students who struggle are often conditioned to look to the teacher whenever they come to an unknown word. Teachers build resilience when, instead of supplying the word, they encourage application of a strategy or use of a resource.  A quick cue can urge students to re-read, apply context clues, consider background experience, use sound/symbol association, or use classroom resources to figure out the unknown word. If teachers mindfully take this approach, they build their students’ capacity for independence and resilience.  In the classroom described above, Mrs. Durkin quickly responded to a student’s upward glance for assistance by pointing back to the book, redirecting the child’s attention to cues that she had and skills she could use to figure out an unknown word.

Teaching comprehension fix-up strategies helps students to develop persistence in meaning-making as they read.  Mrs. Durkin taught her students fix-up strategies during small-group guided reading instruction. An object was used to introduce each strategy: a stop sign (stop-and-think), a paper clip (make connections), and a parrot figure (reread).  Then, when students got stuck, they decided which strategy would work best; they grabbed the corresponding object as a visual reminder.   

Encouraging students to use classroom resources such as process charts, word walls, and letter-sound cards engenders a problem-solving attitude.  For example, an anchor chart created by Mrs. Durkin’s class entitled, “Help for Writing,” includes a list (with accompanying visuals) of resources for writing:  Ask a friend, word wall, letter cards, my word bank (each child’s file box of words), posters, and finally, Mrs. Durkin. Although Mrs. Durkin’s name had originally appeared at the top of the list, after the class brainstormed so many other resources, they decided together that they could move her to the bottom of the list!Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 11.46.34 PM

Teachers’ approach toward spelling can foster resilience.  Encouraging invented spelling in emergent writing helps children take risks and develop confidence as writers.  Mrs. Durkin had letter-sound cards posted in her classroom to encourage invented spelling. Although she had these cards available from the beginning of the year, Mrs. Durkin also taught mini-lessons that highlighted the features of the cards (picture, letter, other possible spellings) to draw students’ attention to how they might be used during reading and writing.  Importantly, if students asked her how to spell a word, Mrs. Durkin directed their attention to the cards when she felt they would be helpful. For older writers, spelling strategies like Have-A-Go recognize the value of making an educated guess. With Have-a-Go, students lift words from their writing that need correcting, use what they know to make attempts at spelling the word, then check it against a resource for correct spelling.  Invented spelling and Have-A-Go both encourage students to use their background skills and knowledge, make an educated guess, and take risks in their writing. My favorite example of this came from a kindergarten student, Savannah, who unabashedly included the word “nomony” (pneumonia) in her writing!

Providing students with opportunities for drafting and revision cultivates a realistic and helpful view of the writing process and supports resilience. Mrs. Durkin’s writing workshop time provided students with opportunities to revisit their favorite pieces.  They gloried in learning about the caret, and a look through students’ writing folders showed that they were taking advantage of the ability it offered to add to their thinking. Correction tape was another favorite tool in Mrs. Durkin’s classroom. As students prepared their final drafts, they knew they could turn to this resource rather than recopying the entirety of their precious published piece.  Tools like these reduce the consequences of making a mistake. By offering learning experiences that encourage risk-taking over perfection, teachers create a classroom climate that builds resilience.

Offering Praise to Increase Resilience

Another way teachers can create a resilient classroom is through offering specific praise that is focused on students’ efforts.  When teachers look for opportunities to praise effort rather than critique outcomes, they are utilizing a strengths-based approach.  According to Mueller and Dweck (1998), praising children for hard work leads them to value learning opportunities and persist in their efforts.  When praise is tied to the process of students’ work, rather than their perceived ability, students rise to challenges in ways that enhance their skills and their resilience.  

Mrs. Durkin offered her students praise that had these motivating characteristics. When Ryan read his zoo book to Mrs. Durkin, she responded, “Good job, Ryan.  I love it—I love all your detail. I love how you told me the giraffe was yellow and the lizard was green. I like that you used the word finally.”  Similarly, when Zach read Mrs. Durkin his book draft, she said, “Good, Zach – very nice!  I love how you talked about the zoo train. I wouldn’t expect that that would escape from your writing.”  In those few short words she: 1) expressed her high expectations for him, 2) praised his use of detail, and 3) made a personal connection, showing that she knew and remembered something he was passionate about (trains).  Praise such as Mrs. Durkin’s, which is specific and focused on effort, increases students’ resilience.

When tied to student efforts, praise encourages students to learn new things, persist after difficulty, use better strategies for correcting mistakes, and improve performance (Zentall & Morris, 2010).  Students whose efforts are praised want to “immerse themselves in information that could teach them more” (Dweck, 2002, p. 49). Praising children for hard work leads them to value learning opportunities and continue in their efforts.

Resilient students recognize mistakes and failures as opportunities to learn.  They know that discovery requires testing and trying the unfamiliar. As you use the approaches described above, you are not only strengthening students’ literacy skills, you are building the important personal attribute of resilience.


Dweck, C. (2002).  Messages that motivate:  How praise molds students’ beliefs, motivation, and performance (in surprising ways).  In J.Aronson (Ed.), Improving academic achievement: Impact of psychological factors on education (pp.37-59).  San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Goldstein, S. & Brooks, R. (2013).  Handbook of resilience in children. New York: Springer.

Mueller, C.M., & Dweck, C.S. (1998).  Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1), 33-52.  

Seligman, M.E.P. (2011).  Building resilience. Harvard Business Review, 89, 100-106.    

Zentall, S. R., & Morris, B. J. (2010). “Good job, you’re so smart”: The effects of inconsistency of praise on young children’s motivation. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 107(2), 155-163.
Vicki Collet is an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas and past president of CCIRA. Her research focuses on literacy, instructional coaching, and teacher preparation and mentorship. Follow her blog at , on Facebook at, and Twitter @vscollet.

Money Write Now For Books

By Sophie Schwedland

As part of my district’s early literacy initiatives, Literacy Interventionists are able to provide students they teach with books the students get to choose and keep to read over the summer. In my first year as a Literacy Interventionist, I was able to gift each of my students $200 worth of personally-selected books.  This program is still in place for this school year, but I wanted to do more somehow. As an avid reader, this was meaningful and fun for me, though there was still a niggling thought in the back of my head. A third grade teacher had gotten me thinking when she described how she partnered with parents about reading and the outcome was that students seemed to grow exponentially. I went to speak to that teacher about this more. We decided to work together to win some grant money to let students choose books they wanted to read all year long with hopes that we would build on these positive results.

My Process:

  1. I brainstormed our purpose: why, and what.
  2. I wordsmithed it.
  3. Then I searched EVERYWHERE online for grants that had those keywords.

Some helpful grant resources are:  Pro Literacy, US Department of Education, CCIRA, Dollar General Literacy Foundation, Mary Pope Osborne, Westerra Credit Union and your district grant office.

I admit that I did use education buzzwords in my grant proposals. Each time I wrote a grant, I put my answers into a Google document master, so that I could copy and paste my wonderfully written, heartfelt answers into the fture grants which happened to ask the same questions on every application.  I didn’t think I needed to recreate the wheel as time was limited! I applied for any and every literacy grant that I felt would support us, no matter how larger or small, for this school year or next. FINALLY, I waited and waited and waited and forgot about deadlines, award dates, grant amounts, grant contents, grant requirements, etc.

Throughouth the school year, I continued to apply for grants whenever I was notified of one  (our district has a monthly notification newsletter of grant opportunities) or I found one which matched our needs.

Fast forward to the next school year.  Why wait for summer to give students books to read at home if they don’t have books at the beginning of the school year?? Literacy Interventionists, Curriculum and Instruction administration, and English Language Arts Content Specialists  discussed this question. I met with my school’s third grade teachers who had also shared quite positive feedback about the previous book project. They had seen increased engagement and literacy growth in reading outside of school.  

Together, these conversations led me to do something new this school year. First, I contacted Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, our local area advocacy group. Mr. Newton worked with a local donor to fund enough new Scholastic books so that each student in my groups received several books early in the fall to beef up their home libraries. My students became so motivated to read more that I was inspired to write over $3,000 in grants from Dollar General, Westerra, and Mary Pope Osborne.

Part of this post did go into an article for my school district and our local online newspaper. Amazingly, months later I still have not spent all of the grant money, although I did visit the Scholastic Warehouse Book sale in December!. Sorting sure can be a nightmare, even though it is like Christmas every time! I met someone just last week who wants to be walked through this manic process of mine, so she can accomplish a goal of hers at her school.  I will be able to let the students choose their own books to take home at least twice more this school year!! To end the year, I will complete the grant reports required by the grantors and our district. That should be fun! Sarcasm included here. I am not sure what I will do next year to continue this endeavor, as it is a huge undertaking on my own.  I am torn because it is so rewarding but money is needed to keep this project sustainable into the future. A question I’m still pondering is how to motivate families to access these resources on their own. If you have any ideas, please share! Next year one improvement is adding volunteers in order to reduce the time spent sorting and organizing books.

I TRULY believe that the love of reading and finding books one is interested in are FOUNDATIONAL to being a reader! The passion for reading at Lumberg Elementary is contagious now! I have helped to create the community of reading in which students thrive.  IF I can do this, anyone can!

Sophie Schwedland grew up around readers in Indiana and even remembers reading her first book Hand Hand, Fingers, Thumb by Dr. Seuss as a three year-old with her mother.  Sophie moved from teaching third grade to teaching school-based reading intervention when recovering from cancer. This is how she ended up as a district-based Literacy Interventionist today, where she is able to literally spread the love of reading!

Sophie is involved in activities other than reading, though literacy always begins, ends or fills her days in some way, shape or form. She is a two-time breast cancer survivor who paddles on the Pink Phantom Dragon Boat team, a machine embroiderer, a Girls on the Run coach, a pet lover and an avid crafter. Find her on Twitter @soapsschwed.

Conferring with Confidence

by Aimee Buckner
Does anyone else feel a lot of pressure when they confer with students? Pressure to say the right thing? Pressure to lift the level of the student’s writing? Pressure to be as perfect as you envision Lucy Calkins, Jennifer Serrvallo, or Colleen Cruz must be in their conferences?

I’ve been studying my own conferring practices and working with a group of
teachers who are doing the same. The first day of the study, I was modeling
conferring in a third grade classroom. Students were in various parts of the writing process – from idea gathering and notebook work to drafting and revising. They kept me on my toes as I went from student to student, monitoring my time with each, and being acutely aware teachers were watching.

When we returned to our conference room for the debrief, one of the teachers
cried out, “How do you do that? It’s like you pull stuff from the air!” This comment stopped me in my tracks. I panicked, thinking, what did I do that
seemed false-as if I was making things up?

“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, for starters, you pulled that tunnel story from your trip to Vietnam out of your hat. Did you even go to Vietnam or were you making that up?”
“I went to Vietnam and that was a true story.”
“But how did you remember it? How did you know to use that particular story?
And what about the kid who you showed a mentor text to – you just happened to
have the text and the page marked? You didn’t even know the kids and what you
would need. It’s like conferring magic!”
At this comment, I laughed. There is no magic about it.Screen Shot 2018-03-06 at 12.22.32 AM

Prepare: When teachers plan a unit of writing, we not only think through the
standards and lessons we’ll teach, but we’re also thinking about the mentor texts we’ll share and the mentor texts we’ll have on hand. Part of my preparation also includes writing in my notebook and rereading older entries – mining entries and experiences that will help me help my students. As a teacher, you also have an upper hand that I do not have as a consultant. You have opportunities to know your students. You know them academically – their goals, their habits, their potential, and their likes and dislikes. You also know them personally – what makes them happy or mad, how they treat others, their home life, and their extracurricular activities.

Knowing this prepares you for talking with them, understanding their goals, and
moving them forward enough to challenge them without frustrating them.
Experience: Carl Anderson refers to a ‘fistful of knowledge’ about writing that we use to confer with students. This knowledge comes from a lot of preparation, but like many things, our knowledge expands with experience. I have a lot of experience with conferring, but I didn’t always. I started out with a list of questions that was published in the first edition of The Art of Teaching Writing by Lucy Calkins. I had that list taped to a clipboard and it was always with me in a conference. But the more I wrote, the more I read, the more I taught, and the more I listened and observed my students, the better I got at anticipating what they might need. I now know that some kids will respond best to me when I model writing. Others respond well to using mentor texts. Some need more guided practice than others. All of my know-how goes into each conference.

Understanding: My editor is constantly reminding me of one of her favorite Don
Graves’ sayings, listen more- talk less. We need to slow down in our conferences and listen to what the student is saying or trying to say. When we’re in the research phase of the conference, we really need to ask questions out of genuine curiosity as we try to figure out what new challenge this writer is trying to tackle. All of our preparation and knowledge and all of our experience will mean nothing if we don’t stop and listen. Malcolm Gladwell reminds us of this in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, “The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding.” Most students will direct us in the conference. They’ll signal what they are trying to accomplish with their writing. Sometimes we know this by what they say and sometimes we know this by what they don’t say. The trick is to stop and listen long enough to understand the student. Remember the old adage – no one cares what you know until they know that you care.

I am no Lucy Calkins. But I’m getting better and better as I develop the three keys to conferring well: preparation, experience, and understanding. In addition, I’ve learned there is one more thing I do that as teachers we often forget to do or don’t have time to do it. I follow up. I’ll talk.

Aimee Buckner has been in education for more than twenty years. She thrives on the idea that teaching is about helping students develop intellectually, physically, and emotionally. The writer’s notebook helps her carve out a place in the curriculum to allow students to truly be themselves and find their own voice. Aimee continues to consult both nationally and internationally as well as speak at state and national conventions. Aimee is a contributor to Choice Literacy and is the author of a number of books and videos with Stenhouse Publishers.  Follow her on Twitter @BucknerAimee.

Bibliography and References
Anderson, Carl. How’s It Going?: a Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers.Heinemann, 2000.

Calkins, Lucy McCormick. The Art of Teaching Writing. Heinemann, 1986.

Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink.

The Profound Wrongness of Peppa Pig

By Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts
Our toddler’s favorite show is Peppa Pig. It’s a British cartoon starring a sweet pig
and her good-natured family. While at times we wish that screen time equaled zeroScreen Shot 2018-02-27 at 7.18.30 AM
in our home, if our kid is going to watch TV, at least he is learning what “petrol” is
and that things can go on “for ages.” That counts for something, right?

While Peppa is largely an amusingly benign presence, there is one thing she has
taught our son that we are fighting against tooth and nail. “That’s impossible,” Peppa
says when she faces difficulty – and now our son does, too.

“That’s impossible,” when a pea falls off his fork.
“That’s impossible,” when his arm gets stuck in his sleeve.
“That’s impossible,” when he trips on his own feet and takes a tumble.

So, yes, it’s mostly adorable. But then there are the bigger things: trying to ride a
scooter, drawing a smiley face, getting his coat on. We may be falsely blaming the
pig, but we can see that we clearly need to help our son move through difficulty and
get to the other side. Right now, he is very quick to feel frustrated. Very quick to say
“That’s impossible!”

We know how he feels. We remember giving up the following when we were
growing up: the viola, gymnastics, swimming, math, making friends. Why? It just
seemed too hard, too complicated, and we didn’t have all the tools or the help we

Our students often feel the same way. We may think we are presenting books, skills
and curriculum that is within our students’ reach, but when we see a lack of
engagement or struggle – when we see what looks like laziness – often times that’s
our students’ inner voice of pure Peppa.

“That’s impossible.”Screen Shot 2018-02-27 at 7.18.42 AM

But why is it so hard to try hard things? After all, most of us are not shaming our
kids when they have trouble. And yet still the experience of facing difficulty proves
to be too much for many kids.


There are real reasons why kids (and ourselves) shy away from challenge. Kids
know how much persistence it takes to get to the other side of a difficult challenge.
They can see the road ahead. We all can. Kate recently finished a book. At the start of
that process, the future looked bleak. She couldn't see how the little chunks of time
she had available to write could ever result in a manuscript. Without the tools she
has to help her focus on a small task ahead, without the faith past on past experience that tells her that even thirty minutes of work can build up to get the job done, she
would have given up before she started.

We cannot shy away from how embarrassing and painful it can be when we are not
that great at something. For some kids, this is no big deal: “I’m bad at math,” said
with a shrug of the shoulders. But for others, this experience of trying something
and not hitting the mark is excruciating, or at least very uncomfortable. Like most
people, kids will avoid uncomfortable, excruciating experiences whenever possible.
In his new book, Embarrassment, Tom Newkirk explores the effect this feeling can
have on students (and teachers). He offers strategies to help everyone tackle the
obstacle of shame. It is a beautiful, important, gift of a book.

If we want to help our students face difficulty, we are going to need some helpful,
concrete ways to show kids the small, actionable steps they can take when they are
balking at the challenge. When our inner Peppa Pig cries out, “That’s impossible!”
we need to be there with something clear that our students can do to take that tough
next step forward. Here are a few suggestions:

How to Prove our Inner Peppa Pig Wrong:

1. Name the ways we work hard. Every kid on our classroom knows what it’s like to
work hard at something difficult. It is a human thing. Maybe it was that summer
they chopped wood with their grandmother. Or maybe it was that really tough level
in a video game. Have students list out what they did to keep working. Put those
things on a chart and keep the list handy when things get tricky.

2. Break the tough task down into bits. The whole task is almost always impossible.
Even something as mundane as “clean the house.” To face this mountain of work,
most of us break it up: “I will clean the bathroom and then I will take a break.” Any
task can be broken up into parts; Each part can feel more doable. When reading a
nonfiction book, it’s helpful to say, “First, I’m going to take a tour of this book, Then,
I’ll make sure that I understand the first section. Reading slowly or rereading can
help enter the world of nonfiction.”

3. Celebrate tiny success. If something is difficult, we are not going to get great at it
right away. Take the little leaps forward as great moments. Celebrate with a break, a
compliment, or another task that feels fun or easy. When you accomplish something,
albeit small, name what you DID do as opposed to what you DIDN’T.

4. Get help. Anytime we truly struggle, we reach out. Period. End of story. We have
friends we text about work, friends we call about emotions. We have our own lists of
people we call to help us around the house or with the kids when life gets a little too
crazy. Make sure kids have partners they can work with when they inevitably
encounter struggle. Coach them to build inspirational musical playlists or create a
the mental routine for resetting so they can tap into it when they need to restart and
reembrace something challenging.

5. Take breaks. When a task feels like too much or too long, it can help to know you
won’t be at it forever. Set a timer for fifteen minutes, work, and then ask yourself if
you can keep at it for 15 minutes more. Or just try and pay attention to those signs
you are burnt out – irritability, disengaged, cloudy-headed – and then take a mini-
break. A quick walk around the block, listening to music or taking a few deep
breaths can sometimes be enough to reset and jump into the tough task again.

So when you catch your students (or yourself) feeling the impossibility of something
challenging, acknowledge it, recognize the voice as Peppa, and make a small move
forward into the depth of learning something new.

(And you can always reward yourself by jumping in muddy puddles…but you must wear your boots.)

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

For ten years, Kate and Maggie worked across elementary, middle school, and high school grades, focusing on skill and strategy-based literacy instruction, literacy across the content areas, differentiated teaching methods, including conferring and small group instruction. Over time, Kate and Maggie have become known for their concrete solutions to tough situations, their humor, and their strong curricular, pedagogical and personal support of teachers, administrators and students. These strengths shine through during their presentations and social media presence, such as their blog, indent, Twitter accounts, and their video series for their latest book, DIY Literacy.  



Play is Work and Work is Play

By Kristi Mraz

Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 10.08.09 PM

Two second grade boys sit, heads pressed close together, studying a book. A heated discussion breaks out. From across the room you hear the passion if not the individual words.  Finally one boy stands up with the book, flips back a few pages and appears to read something aloud. The other boy covers his eyes with his hands and then stands up shaking his head. They keep the book open to that very important page and return to the blocks area in their classroom where they hold it up to compare to a replica of the Titanic they are building during choice time.

Meanwhile, a hallway away, three kindergarteners huddled around a piece of paper are engaged in an intense discussion about a letter sound. Finally one stands up, gets the alphabet chart and points to a letter. The child holding the pen starts to make the letter and the one next to her traces the shape of the letter next to her when she asks for help. They stand back and admire their handiwork: signs to label materials in their pet store. 

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Upstairs in the fourth grade, children are using fabric to make puppets for a play they wrote.

In a first grade, construction paper strips of money are being counted by the children playing grocery store. Someone suggests they make piles of ten to keep track.

Some adults peek in these classrooms and say, “That’s just play. When does the work start?”

Those adults are sadly misinformed.

Play is Work and Work is Play

Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 10.18.54 PMSomewhere along the line, a message went out that play had no place in schools. That it was frivolous, time spent away from actual learning, that it was earned, that less play meant more learning.

There was also a time when people were told that Radium was good for you, even amidst emerging research that proved it made you radioactive. They bottled it in water! People drank it!

That is to say, don’t believe everything you hear.

Play is learning. Play is a right for all children. Play is serious work.

What does the research have to say about play?

  • “Studies also show that [free play] ….helps children discover principles such as symmetry and geometry and sets the stage for more advanced skills used later in mathematics and geography.” Katrina Ferrara, Kathryn Hursh-Pasek, and Roberta Golinkoff The Wisdom of Play (14)
  • “If a child has no play experience, it is likely that both his cognitive and social emotional development will suffer.”  Elena Bodrova and Deborah Leong Tools of the Mind  (133)
  • “Symbolic play, from a relational standpoint, provides an important foundation for literacy development.” Sandra Stone and William Stone Symbolic Play and Emergent Literacy  (1)
  • “… the more a child moves, the more she stimulates her brain.” Gill Connell and Cheryl McCarthy A Moving Child is a Learning Child  (7)

There is much, much more in the research. I list great resources below.

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From Research To Real Life: 5 Tips

How do we ensure that every child plays every day to maximize the power of this state? And not just playing with a puzzle or Simon Says, but deeply involved, child-directed play?

  1. Become more playful yourself. This may seem like an odd tip, but when we are playful, our students follow suit. Do not banish play to the yard or the last 30 minutes of Friday, invite it in to each thing you do. Kids don’t have a dividing line between work and play until adults imply that there is one. Declare in the middle of trying to stretch a challenging word in interactive writing that it is beyond fun to try to figure it out, lose yourself and your students so deeply in a read aloud the time flies by- and then point that out, leave parts of the day unstructured so you and your students can reboot with something self-selected. Becoming more playful doesn’t mean breaking out Barbies for math or telling knock-knock jokes for three hours straight, it means finding the joy in each thing you do.
  1. Reframe play materials as thinking materials. Imagine saying, “This scene in your chapter book is hard to visualize, why don’t you grab the blocks and see if you can create it that way?” or, “It can be hard to come up with story ideas, let’s look at some of the materials in dramatic play and see if it sparks a story!” Blur the lines between play and work by having materials work across the schedule. Use legos as counters and alphabet charts to help make the ice cream store sign.
  1. Call play “work” when speaking with children and adults about it. Some people call choice time “work time” to impart the seriousness of the play state for children. Instead of referring to children’s play, call it work. Use the lingo traditionally reserved for academia. “In Harry’s work today he revised the bottom of his block structure so it could balance better.” Part of play’s power is the concrete experience that we will lay abstract academics on, using the same language helps that transfer. Revising blocks is a stepping stone to revising writing, it requires the same kind of thinking, “How could I do this differently to achieve what I want?”
  1. Prioritize it in your schedule. Don’t see play as taking time away from learning more traditionally academic things, see it as time added. Play deepens and extends learning in ways that traditional school cannot. Yes, you can assess comprehension with a multiple choice test, but you can also watch kids at play. Many times children reenact stories they have heard or read themselves, and as they play you can see evidence of their retelling, inferential comprehension, fluency, and what they determine as important. Aim to have a choice time or work time. Plan for it your day, and protect that time, and you will see the benefits.
  1. Gather a community. Read articles and books, experiment in your classroom, go to conferences, and most importantly, find people to dig into this work with you. Especially if you are working in a place that has given you the “no more recess” talk, you need a team. It could be parents of your students, teachers in your school or district, or educators you meet on twitter or facebook.

We all need someone to play with!

Great Resources:

Bodrova and Leong. Tools of the Mind. Pearson (2007)

Connell and McCarthy. A Moving Child is a Learning Child.  Free Spirit Publishing (2014)

Lester and Russel. Play for a Change. Play England

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

Stone, Sandra and William. Symbolic Play and Emergent Literacy.

Various Authors. The Wisdom of Play: How Children Learn to Make Sense of the World. Community Playthings (2016)