A Seat at the Table

By Hollyanna Bates

As a school district literacy coordinator, I worry about literacy. I worry about students learning how to read. I worry about those who find reading difficult. I worry that we aren’t spending enough time creating readers who choose to read.

I have found that I can fend off a little worry when I leverage the worry into powerful actions.  These actions have developed from small steps to well-developed projects. The projects are implemented across our schools in order to impact both reading achievement and a love of reading.  The projects are possible because teachers, administrators, and volunteers work together with the belief that we have to do whatever it takes. We stand firm in the belief that students need access to the behaviors of literate cultures and we aim to provide this access in a variety of ways. We offer our students a seat at the literate table.

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Summer Books

A few years ago we read Allington and McGill’s research on summer reading and were persuaded to make a change.  We hadn’t seen much success from our traditional summer school model and limited funds reduced the number of students we were able to impact. Since we had surveyed students using Donalyn Miller’s tool in the Book Whisperer, we knew that many students would not read during the summer if we didn’t provide books. Many of our students reported having 0-2 books at home.

With district funds and a heck-of-a-lot of grant funding from our local Rotary club, we have replicated the work of Allington and McGill.  Each student in K-4 gets to choose summer books from a large library we created just for this purpose. Our team researched the newest, most popular titles and cultivated a collection for each school.  Each May we roll out the bins, add some new titles and invite students to select books to take home for the summer.

Author Visits

Our local education foundation has partnered with the school district to provide author visits to all K-8 students each year. Because literate citizens know the names of authors, have books inscribed by authors, and have read several books by a favorite author, we implemented the visits as a way to provide this access. Last year one hundred percent of teachers reported via a survey that they found the visits effective for these reasons: the author visit built excitement around reading, writing and art, inspired students to read books, provided access to literate cultures, and built understanding around the writing process. Before the author visit each year, students write letters persuading a committee to be chosen to eat lunch with the author.  This year, *Carlos, a student who is living in poverty and learning English as a second language, wrote, “I want to be picked to eat lunch with the author because it will change my life.” Today he ate breakfast with Colorado author Todd Mitchell and I think both of them will be forever changed after their time together!

Home Libraries

When our district leaders looked at the research related to the number of books children have at home, the number of students who choose to read and the correlation with achievement, we couldn’t help but take action.  The pilot project was funded by our education foundation and has grown to be funded by every community resource available. Now implemented in our three schools most impacted by poverty, students in 3-5th grades are well on their way to having authentic home libraries. Each month students select two books from the Scholastic order. These books belong to the students and become their home libraries.  In a recent survey, 93 percent of participating students reported they had read all the books ordered through the project, with 76 percent of students reporting that they read some books twice.

While I still worry about literacy development of our students, I am proud of the projects we have in place, the opportunities we provide, and the improvements we make each year to help all children fall in love with reading. 
Summer Reading: Closing the Rich/Poor Achievement Gap by Richard Allington and Anne McGill-Franzen

Scholastic Research Compendium on Access to Books

*name changed to protect identity

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



Inviting the Thought Partner

By May Tripp

I had the opportunity to observe a teacher named Kristina teach Reading Workshop as she launched the Super Powers unit with her Kinders. The main reason she had asked me to come was to provide feedback on her instructional practice and to be a thought partner as she continued to navigate teaching from the Reading Units of Study resource. I love that she invited me within her first couple days of teaching, knowing she wanted the opportunity to adjust instruction before she got too comfortable in her ways. I applaud her willingness, as I know how scary it can be to put yourself out there and be observed when you’re trying something new!

Two days prior to the lesson, we had a conversation about what I might see. Of course, we all know lessons don’t always go as planned! As she taught the lesson prior to the one I observed, she realized the kiddos needed more instruction around partner reading beyond what had been given that day. The very next day’s mini-lesson, I observed Kristina intentionally adjusting the focus of the instruction and allowing herself the time to help the students develop those essential reading behaviors. That day, the students started reading workshop with the mini-lesson around echo reading as one way to engage in partner reading. Check out these cuties as they used little green witch fingers to harness their pointer power:

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After the lesson, we had time to debrief about the way things went. Kristina began the conversation talking about how she was feeling a lesson behind since she made adjustments and didn’t follow the unit’s plans for the day. As we processed through her sense of rushing through, one of the reminders that helped Kristina was around pacing and allowing yourself the time to slow-down and back-fill, as needed. These kiddos hadn’t engaged in much partner reading yet this year, so she needed to go back and solidify those reading behaviors in order to get to the work reading. Sometimes we get so caught up in the go-go-go mode that we don’t allow ourselves the permission to make a one-day lesson into two, or to be as responsive to their needs day-to-day. Lucy Calkins and her co-authors designed each unit at every grade level with 17-21 lessons and 25-30 days to teach it. The authors ask the teacher to be responsive and adjust the pacing if necessary, as observation and data will dictate throughout the lessons! To finish a unit within a reasonable time however, I do think it’s important to anticipate which lesson(s) or bend(s) your students might need extra time with. The unit overview and table of contents are great tools for this work!

May Tripp has been an elementary teacher for 13 years.  She has taught intermediate grades and is currently working for Jeffco Public Schools as an Elementary Literacy Specialist.

Book Choice: Magic Fairy Dust

By Christina Nosek and Kari Yates

Christina glances around her classroom as she gathers her trusty clipboard and pencil case full of post-its and pens for conferring. She watches as her fifth graders quickly settle into their reading routines, nestling into beanbag chairs and pillows, and quickly losing themselves in the pages of their self-selected books. She smiles to herself. It’s obvious this has become a classroom of readers. Everyone is so engaged. And then she notices Marla.

Something about Marla’s fiddling with her supply box seems way too drawn out. Christina is curious. Marla is usually one of the first to settle in to engaged reading.  So, rather than rush in with a reminder to get started, Christina takes another moment to watch and wonder about what might be going on. After more digging through post-its and pencils, Marla eventually picks up a book and chooses a reading spot.  Yet, instead of truly engaged reading, Christina sees more telltale signs of the very opposite as Marla seems to aimlessly fan the pages of her book and play with her bracelet.

Clearly, something is off with Marla.  Because every other reader seems engaged, Christina knows that checking in with Marla will be her first priority for conferring today. Before she approaches Marla, Christina takes a moment to look back at the notes she jotted during their last conference . Her past notes quickly remind her that Marla was just pages away from finishing The Penultimate Peril, the final book in A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket.  Christina recalls how Marla had devoured one book after another for weeks. Suddenly, she has a hunch about what might going on with Marla.

Wherever there are classrooms where teachers commit to the brave but messy work of letting students choose books for themselves, there will always be a need for lots of reading conferences focused on book choice.  We think this is critically important work for reading teachers; work that has too often been brushed aside or treated as something we take care of with a few quick lessons in the fall before moving on to the real work of teaching reading.  Great books are the magic fairy dust of engagement. We’re sure of it.

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Think about your own reading life for a moment. When have you been driven to stay up  late into the night completely captivated by an author’s words? Or, lock yourself away in the bathroom just to sneak in a few more pages or chapters?  And, on the other hand, when have you had dry spells as a reader? What was missing in the times when you didn’t feel that same sense of urgency to squeak out a few extra minutes, or even move onto the next chapter of a book you had started?  Most likely it was the absence of a compelling book. It’s easy to recognize that the ebb and flow of adult reading lives is driven by the books we choose just as it is for our students. Great books don’t seem to care a bit about our busy lives. They demand our time and attention right now. They won’t let themselves be ignored. They refuse to lie dormant on the bed stand. They follow us around in our thoughts even when we are away from them. And some of them become such a part of us, that even when we reach the end, they refuse to let us go. They live on inside of us, making other books pale in comparison, leaving us temporarily unwilling or unable to believe there could ever be another so perfect for us.  

When it comes to building vibrant reading lives, book choice is everything. At least it is the something that everything else depends on. In our text, To Know and Nurture a Reader; Conferring with Confidence and Joy (Stenhouse, June 2018), we share four intentional directions that a teacher might pursue in a conference including:

  • Book Choice
  • Healthy Reading Habits
  • Strategic Process, and
  • Authentic Response  

While all four of these conferring directions are critical to nurture in every reader, we view book choice as the foundation on which everything else is built.  Why? Because we believe that with an engaging text in their hands, everything else has at least a chance of coming together, but without a text they care about, everything else quickly falls apart including habits, strategic actions, and meaningful ways of responding to texts.

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So it makes sense that until all of our students are consistently finding their way to texts that engage and delight them, book choice will often be the focus of many our one-on-one conversations with students. Today, we highlight a few of the common reasons that drive us to focus on book choice in a conference with a young reader.

  • When we’re first getting to know a reader. Whether it’s the fall of the year or the moment that a new reader joins your classroom, making time to explore past and present book choice strategies will provide windows into their success, struggles, and skills in quest for finding great books. What you learn in these early conferences with young readers can inform future conferences, small group lessons, and whole group instruction about book choosing strategies.  It can help you connect readers with similar interests, and inform your choices about how to organize and supplement the classroom library with topics, authors and series your kids will want to read.
  • When a reader isn’t settling into engaged reading. Whether it presents itself as consistent trips to the restroom, endlessly abandoning books, fiddling in the supply box, or flipping aimlessly through pages, the symptoms of disengagement can look the same for many readers while the root causes might be very different. It can be easy for our thoughts to go to stamina, attention problems, or even intentional misbehavior. However, we find that more often than not the real culprit is the absence of texts the reader finds worthy of their attention. Of course, sometimes kids might have books they want to read and be disengaged for other reasons, but until we’re convinced a worthy text is in the mix, we continue to focus our conferring efforts around book choice. Disengagement is a symptom. The more time we take to understand it, the better positioned we find we are to work thought it.  Conferring allows us to do just that.
  • When a reader is showing new signs of engagement in a book. Conferring focused on book choice isn’t something we reserve only for when a reader is having difficulty finding engaging texts. We also sometimes choose to focus here when a reader has had obvious book choice success, finding a book that seems to take their engagement to new heights. Leveraging a conference to help a reader reflect on how and why they found their way to a particular book and what it is about that book that’s making it work, can be powerful path identifying strategic and transferrable actions they can draw on again and again when making book choices in the future. How did you find your way the last book that you couldn’t put down?  What could you learn from that to find your way to another one like it in the future?

Book choice and engagement are inseparably linked. The time we invest in supporting to develop the skills and strategies to consistently find their way from one engaging text to the next is time well spent in the reading classroom.  Until every last reader has found his or her way to a book they can’t wait to dig into and don’t want to put down, there’s still urgent work to pursue.

Christina Nosek and Kari Yates are the coauthors of the upcoming To Know and Nurture a Reader from Stenhouse Publishers. Christina is a fifth grade teacher and literacy coach in the San Francisco Bay Area. Kari is a staff developer and consultant living in Moorhead, Minnesota. To read more from them, visit their new blog at https://toknowandnurtureareader.com/. You can also follow them on Twitter: @ChristinaNosek and @Kari_Yates or on their Facebook Page.

Balancing Act: Small groups, conferring and partnerships

by Kristina Harris

The other night I was looking through the “Units of Study in Reading TCRWP”  Facebook group. A teacher had elevated their  struggle to balance the “teacher directed” components of the independent time during the Reading Workshop.  We know what kids are doing, READING!  However, the question always comes back to how many kids should a teacher aim to meet with during the Reading Workshop daily? Is there a method to the “madness”? I saw a response from someone in the group that suggested a 3,2,1 approach for direct, explicit instruction:

  • 3 kids – with one small group
  • 2 kids – with one partnership
  • 1 kid – with a reading conference

WHAT!? 6 kids? That just didn’t seem like enough kids to me.  Granted I realize it is a balancing act, I know I can meet with more than that.  So I looked back from my reading notes of the past week and decided to flip the suggestion to a 1,2,3 plan.

  • 1 small group (strategy or guided) (~4 kids)
  • 2 groups of partnerships (4 kids)
  • 3 reading conferences (3 kids)les-anderson-215208-unsplash                                         Photo by Les Anderson on Unsplash

That would give me a chance to instruct 11 kids during the independent time of Reading Workshop  and 55 over the course of the week. To me, that felt better, but  please know that this is not a science but an art.  I know there will be days that I might have 2 small  groups and no one-to-one conferences.  I’m using this as my guideline to keep me on track and accountable for my minutes. I know how cute those kindergarteners are with their stories and they can easily persuade me to be off track!

This also lead me to think about my accountability to my students.  Am I meeting with them enough? Is it fair? Is it equitable?  As I was digging through my informal data over the past 2 weeks, I wondered if I had seen everyone.  So I tallied each conference, small group and partnership conversation I had. Yikes! There were ones that I had met with numerous times (double digits) and others that had flown under the radar and I only met with once! Does it need to be equitable? Or will some students naturally need more direct instruction than others? I came to the conclusion that I must have been putting out fires first and only getting to the engaged proficient readers when I had time. I needed to change that, so that those proficient readers also had direct instruction more frequently. I also questioned if I am giving my struggling readers a chance to practice and transfer the skills and strategies independently if I’m always meeting with them.   In light of this new information, I mapped out my conferences and groups for the next few days, knowing I could still remain flexible.  I will continue to do this so that I can ensure I am meeting with my students enough, and  to be sure I have data and accountability for not only  my students, but for myself as well.

Updated with a Visual of my thinking from the comment below.

Kristina Harris has been an elementary teacher for 12 years.  She has taught primary grades and is currently working for Jeffco Public Schools as an Elementary Literacy Specialist. She is currently sharing about her co-teaching experience in a Kindergarten classroom through her blog, Teaching With Elevations.


What Does it Mean to Be Welcoming and Inclusive?

By Kendra Carpenter

Have you ever wondered if families would attend your school if they had a choice? Due to some programming changes in our district, this is a question I have been pondering lately.  To answer it, I had to identify what makes our school special. On the surface, it has always been our dual language program. For the last 13 years, we have offered a bilingual program with English and Spanish.  Since starting this program, we have watched our enrollment grow from the mid 200’s to just over 400. Currently, we are the largest elementary school in our small district. Our uniqueness due to our programming is about to end as one of our neighboring elementary schools is starting a dual language program as well.  Screen Shot 2018-04-10 at 5.33.12 AM

This led me to dig deeper into the culture of our school and really contemplate what it is that makes our culture inviting and inclusive.  Certainly the dual language aspect helps support an inviting culture. At any time, the majority of our parents know they can enter the school and immediately speak with someone in their native language.   Our office staff and classroom teachers reflect the diversity of our families. Parents have both an English and Spanish speaking point person they can turn to for questions and/or support. Although it seems simple, just greeting parents with a smile when they enter our building makes a difference. 

When I peeled back more layers, I also realized that we offer some unique events that honor the different cultures and backgrounds of our families.  Each year we start out with a family fun run called “El Grito.” This event is to celebrate independence for Latin countries around the world. Parents and the community are invited and the whole school runs/walks through the neighborhood.  We end with a huge festival of food, where our families bring in dishes that represent their home countries. All classes perform a song or dance from around the world and we have time to come together as a community. This event helps us set the tone for the year.

Another special offering is our Mother Tongue Celebration.  We invite families to share traditions about their home country through pictures, food, dance, games, etc..  Students work through stations, participating in small groups. Each year my heart is warmed watching children beam with pride as their parents present to the rest of the student body.  

We have worked hard to create a strong culture of literacy in our building.  This has taken time and a lot of hard work, but we send home books nightly in both English and Spanish for all of our students.  We continue this practice throughout the summer, opening our doors every other week so that students can come in and exchange books.  This practice is not perfect, and we still have students that do not read, but it is not due to a lack of resources in the home.

We are lucky to live in a community that offers many opportunities to participate in sports, at little to no cost.  As a school we work hard to recruit all of our students to play on the various teams. Teachers kindly volunteer their time to stay several evenings and hold sign up nights to help parents work their way through paperwork that is often not in their native language.  Once teams are formed, personal phone calls are made to let parents know what team their child is on, what nights they will practice and when games will be held. Standing on the side lines on a weekly basis watching as our kids play has created the added benefit of parent relationships.  Through these events, parents have become more comfortable with one another and the children have grown their social group. This is also true for the myriad of clubs that teachers offer in the mornings. We have everything from knitting to chess to cursive writing. All free and open to any student that wants to participate.  These clubs also honor the schedule that our parents need to keep for work. School does not start until 8:45, but we open our doors at 8:00 because so many of our families need to get to work. This way, their children are engaged in quality activities and forming strong relationships with teachers outside of the classroom.

To keep the focus on the positive, once a month we use the first 15 minutes of our Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s) to make positive phone calls home.  We knew this was a need when the majority of our parents answered the phone wondering what their child had done wrong. It is taking time to turn this culture around and let parents know we want to highlight the good.  Now, when we do have to call home about a behavior incident we have a well established relationship.

One area I need to work to improve is my ongoing communication with parents.  Last year I started a podcast for parents in English and Spanish. This allowed me to communicate with our parents, regardless of their reading ability.  I was able to text out a link to phones, which also supported ease of use. Despite receiving positive feedback and increased attendance at meetings, I have let this practice fall to the wayside.  This is one of my goals to revive this practice for next year.

We certainly aren’t perfect and are always looking for ideas to get more diverse participation in organizations like our PTSA and Building Accountability, but as long as we keep it in the forefront of our minds we are doing something right.  So, what are your traditions and systems that make your school welcoming? What are the ideas you would share with others? As a principal, I think building and sustaining a welcoming school is one of the most important things we do. We need our families to be part of our team and it is through a welcoming culture that we can accomplish this goal.

Kendra Carpenter is an elementary principal and CCIRA council leader in Summit School District in Colorado.  Find her on Twitter at @kendracarpen.

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 @fantastic_ms.fox 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.