aha moment, being a teacher, being me

Know Your Place


When I was a second year teacher I was told to know my place.  To remember that although I might have a voice, I should be more careful.  That I should not ask so many questions, nor share quite so many ideas.  That some things would be better left unsaid because I had not earned the right to say them.  And not just told it either.  No, for extra emphasis it was written as part of my official evaluation that year.  In my permanent record lest I ever forget that I had a place to be in.  That the place I needed to be in was one of new teacher that followed most of the rules and certainly did not question so much.

I remember I went back to my classroom shell-shocked.  When I closed the door, I cried. Maybe this teaching thing was not for me after all.  Maybe asking questions was wrong.  It certainly seemed that way.

So I took the lesson to heart; I shut my door, metaphorically and literally.  I had to.  I could not face what some others saw me as; a know-it-all new teacher that thought she had such great ideas.  I skittered through the rest of the year watching every single word I spoke, always telling myself to just stay quiet, think it but not say it.  To hide the new.  To not share.  After all, I needed to stay in my place, whatever that place might be.

By the end of the year I wanted to quit.  It turns out that eating your own words leaves you hollow after awhile.  But I didn’t, instead I changed, and as they say; the rest is history.

So for the past 6 years I have carried those words with me.  I have known my place every single step of the way.  Never forgetting that I do have a place in this world, in education.  Never forgetting that, really, we all have a place if we only knew where.

So what I know now is that my place is with my students asking them what I can change. To realize that I am not a perfect teacher, nor do I have all of the answers, but that I will spend every ounce of energy I have to try to make it better for them.

That my place is among colleagues who push my thinking and always have what’s best for kids in mind.  That while we may not always agree, we always respect, we always have each other’s back even when we have to have tough conversations.

That my place is on this blog sharing how I screw up so that others may learn from it without having to experience it.

Among the teachers that feel alone, much like I did so many days as I tried to change myself.

Among the people who question and show up every day trying make themselves better because they know they have a long way to go.

Among those that still doubt but try any way.

Among those that dare to dream.

Among those that still cry when it hurts.

Among those that know that even a small change makes a difference.

Those that change.

Those that question.

Those that fight.

6 years ago I was told to know my place and so I went looking for it.    It was not pretty.  I was not perfect.  I was not always right.  I did not always know what I needed to know.  Yet within that quest, I found myself.  So I ask today; do you know your place?  Because if not, you should probably search for it some day.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.



aha moment, being a teacher, being me, books, Literacy, Reading

When Reading Becomes a To-Do

I have been in the longest reading slump of my adult life this winter.  Books have been picked up and tossed aside.  My iPad and I have entered a new relationship level as I have committed to beat all levels of Candy Crush Jelly Saga.  I spent an entire plane ride to California thinking about how I should read and then not actually doing any reading.  Both ways.  And I have abandoned book upon book, only to feverishly cram the shortest book down in a half an hour so that I could my students that I was still reading.

What caused this reading disenchantment?  Pressure.  Pressure to find the perfect book for the Global Read Aloud.  Pressure to find an engaging story to beat the last engaging story I finished.  Pressure to read more than I read the week before.  Pressure to meet my goal.  Pressure to like a book that everyone else liked.  And yes, even pressure to read some of the mountain of books that sits next to my bed waiting to spill out of the bookshelves at the slightest movement.  Good thing, earthquakes are rare in Wisconsin.

On Monday, I realized that I loathed reading.  That I would have no problem not really reading for the next year or so.  That reading and I could certainly break up and I could fake it for a while, after all I did not really have to read all those books, I could just read their reviews and pass them off to students.  Yet, in that stark realization I found my key to salvation; reading had become a chore rather than something I do for pleasure.  Reading had been added to my to-do list right beside folding the laundry and answering email.  So I knew it it was time to reclaim my reading life.  To not let this one completely self-indulgent pleasure fade out of my life.  And since last night, I have gratefully sunk into the pages of a self-selected perfect for me book and rekindled  my love slowly, page by page, minute by minute.  There is still hope for me, I am not a lost cause, because deep down, I love reading.

Yet, I wonder about our students who loathe reading.

Whose fragile relationship with reading is one marred by well-meaning intentions from their teachers that tried to change their mind.  Who will gladly accept whatever book you hand them because then at least you will stop bugging them.  Who stare at a book not as a welcome friend but as a chore, a to-do, rather than a to-love.  Who are told what to read because they do not know how to find a book by themselves.  Who are limited in their choice because they certainly cannot read that book, whatever that book may be.

I worry about the kids who do not know that reading can be something incredible and therefore go through life eagerly awaiting the day that no adult will tell them to read.  Who cannot wait to fake read their way through the next book they are forced to read.  What a skill they can perfect right under our noses.

What will ever snap them out of their loathing when the things we do to help only cause them to hate it more?  When we tell them to stick with a book rather than abandon it, when we tell them to always write about their reading or log their minutes and don’t forget the parent signature.  When we tell them to find books at their level even if their heart calls out for another.  What will break them out of their pattern of reading not for enjoyment, not for fun, not for exploration, or self-preservation, but instead for the-teacher-said-I-had-to.  Will they know that reading is meant to be an act of love?  Of dreaming?  Or will they simply count the days when reading disappears from their to-do list never to return.

I fell in love with reading because I was given the space to grow as one.  I was given the trust to pick my books and to abandon them as well.  To not produce after I read but instead be given more time to read.  I fell in love with reading not because a teacher told me I had to but because my heart longed for the pages of a book.  Can our students hear their hearts in our classrooms or does our teaching get in the way?  I think it is time we stopped and listened.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

aha moment, Be the change, being a teacher, Literacy, Reading

When We Harm Rather than Help – Some Thoughts on Reading Interventions


We read to Thea in the womb like all the fancy books told us to.  Surrounded her with books from the moment she was born.  We read every night creating memories.  We pointed to text, had her touch the books she loved as much as she wanted.  Some still have chewed up corners.  We followed all the steps that it takes to create a reader, and yet, when she started to learn to read, it did not come naturally.  It was hard and it continues to be hard.  She works for every single letter, for every single word, for every single page.  And she has incredible support from her teachers.  We are lucky.  They protect her love of reading with everything they’ve got.

Yet, some kids are not as lucky as Thea.  The very interventions that are meant to help end up harming their love of reading.  The very skills we try to teach end up taking precedent above everything else, leaving us with a child that perhaps can read better but will never do so on their own.

There are many well-meaning things that we have done throughout our teaching that is not good for children.  That is not good for those that so need us to be great teachers.  Those kids that need us more than others, need the very best of us, sometimes get the worst.

So as we think of our reading intervention, of the very programs and ideas that we have in place for those who need extra instruction, we must make sure that we are not harming.  That the very children we speak of so often do not end up victims of misguided attempts to help.  Because there are a few things that seem to happen more often to children who are in reading intervention than those who are not.  A few tendencies that can be problematic.

They get pulled from the “fun” classes.  How often do we schedule their intervention to be when the class is doing something that is more hands-on or exploratory?  I have had students that had not had science for several years.  Yet students who are developing readers need those experiences as much as the other students.  When a child gets pulled like that it signals that those classes are not as important, and that the child will not need those skills.  Yet, often this is where students can be the most successful.  The best solution is to create a school-wide resource time, different from grade level to grade level, that offers a window for all students to receive intervention or enrichment.

They get shorter text.   Thanks to the wisdom of Penny Kittle I have been thinking a lot about text length and how we do not give our developing readers long texts.  Instead much of our intervention instruction is based on short text, yet that means they build no stamina.  And without stamina they cannot be free of intervention since they will struggle with sustained concentration.  That doesn’t just happen, it is experienced over and over as we build the text lengths.  So vary the length and use an independent reading book (self-chosen, of course) to teach the skills.  Use actual reading materials and not just the scripted versions so that students can have true buy-in.

They are spoken at more.  With intervention comes more instruction, yet often what students need is more practice.  Why is it that when a child struggle our first inclination is to re-explain, give further instruction ,and then interrupt.  Rather than allow them to ask questions, teach briefly and then give them time to work with the skill.  We already have a teacher talk epidemic in our schools, think of how much more teacher talk these students receive.

They have more repetition.  I believe in revisiting texts, this is part of the reason I love picture books so much.  Yet, the constant repetition where students may read the same passage 5 days in a row is hard to understand.  When we know how intimately motivation is linked with student achievement, why do we create conditions where students automatically tune out because it is the same passage over and over?  Instead, use it for a few days and then change it up.  Find something with a common theme and then work on transfer of skills through that.

They have less choice.  It seems the older our students get, the less choice and control they have.  Yet, developing readers need more choice.  Sure, we can help guide them but telling them what their lexile level is, or whatever other box we choose to put them in, in order for them to select a text from that level but that is not guidance.  It is dictation.  Furthermore, expecting them to then develop natural reading habits which include the ability to self-select books as discussed by Donalyn Miller and many others, when they have not had the opportunity to makes little sense.  If we want students to love reading and to transfer the skills that they learn in intervention (or regular instruction) then they must have choice.  They must be able to have the chance to figure out what books work for them or not.  And why.

They have less time.  If we want students to become better readers they need more time to read.  So if we are doing intervention, giving them time to read a self-selected book should be a major component.  Not just all of the skill teaching.  And if a child is being pulled during their in-class independent reading time to receive intervention there is a serious scheduling and priority problem.

They get challenged less.  In the past, I was lulled into thinking that my developing readers could not handle complex thinking tasks.  However, my students have proven me wrong and I am thankful for that.  A developing reader, or a reader who struggles, does not have a thinking problem and yet we often differentiate in such a way that students who receive intervention do not get the same challenging questions or projects as other students.  Yes, we should differentiate to scaffold all learners, but not when they do not need it.  Access to text is one thing, access to thinking is another.

They stay in intervention.  If the same child stays in intervention year after year without the possibility of release then we must re-examine the very interventions we are implementing.  While many programs work, must do not work for ALL students.  Do we have instruction in place that will benefit each individual child or only some?

They get interrupted more.  Call it the plight of the conscientious teacher, but when students struggle we tend to interrupt all of the time.  We check in, we re-explain, we teach them more, often without checking to see if they need it.  We read aloud constantly interrupting the story to model our own thinking.  No wonder people who are interrupted have a harder time reaching a state of flow.  So before we are helpful make sure the help is needed.  Otherwise we are harming more than helping.

They tend to be asked to be vulnerable more often.  I see how my own daughter feels about reading and how hard it is.  I have had students confide in me how hard it is to admit in front of  others, especially good readers, how difficult reading is for them.  Yet, we tend to ask probing questions more often to the students who need intervention.  We ask them to open up in a way that we don’t expect of other students.  I know  this trust and intimacy of knowledge is necessary to be the best teacher  for them but we need to be aware of the vulnerable position we are placing students in.  We don’t have a right to know their feelings, we can earn their trust and then ask.

They tend to be defined by their struggle.  When a child struggles with reading we often assume they will struggle with everything.  After all, reading comprehension is the foundation of it all.  Yet, that mindset is dangerous as it leads to lower expectations which in turn leads to less challenges.  We get “pleasantly” surprised more often with lower expectations as we teach a child that if they cannot read well then they must be bad at everything in school.

I have seen incredible intervention programs that have created powerful readers.  I have seen programs that chopped reading into little bits that did little to help all students.  I think that most reading intervention programs lie somewhere in the middle.  They work for some and not for others.  So I write this post not to judge, but to question the things we end up doing, for in our habits we often dismiss our own flaws.  In our programs we sometimes forego common sense but that doesn’t mean we can’t change.  We just need to re-examine our practices honestly.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

aha moment, being a teacher, writing

I Am Not a Writer – On Developing Student Writing Identity

I have taught writing for 8 years.  8 years of outlines, of brainstorms, of on-demand writing.  Of peer editing and feedback cycles.  Of writer’s notebooks to mine for ideas.  Of blank stares and “I have nothing to write.”  And never once did I think deeply about the writing process.

I knew I had to write with my students.  I knew I had to develop my own writing in front of them.  I knew that writers needed different conditions to spark creativity.  And yet, we still followed a pretty linear process, a one path to greatness type of ideal.  We write different pieces but all for the same purpose.

This summer, I was asked to speak out loud while I wrote to be part of a series of videos called Wisconsin Writes.  I was asked to write in front of a camera and a person and just talk as I wrote, providing a running commentary on how my process worked.  It was awkward.  It was stilted.  But it was also enlightening.  That is not the writing process I teach.

Yesterday Jacqueline Woodson spoke about her writing process.  An offhand comment about how she doesn’t outline but just keeps asking “what if.”  Sees where the story takes her and then jumps from piece to piece when she gets bored.  She knows there is a story, she just doesn’t know what it is.  That is not the writing process I teach.

Last night, Donalyn Miller and I spoke about writing and her words sit with me still; there is not one process to writing, there are many.  I know this as a writer myself, so why have I forgotten it so often in the classroom?

Our job as teachers who write is to help students uncover their writing identity.  To show them many different ways of writing and constantly asking them to find what works for them.  To ask questions rather than dictate a path.  To have them reflect on the very creative process that they undergo.  We should not just be assessing their final product but instead support them uncovering their process.  Because their process will be distinctly unique much like ours is.

So as I turn my eyes on developing writer identities, there are a few things I must keep in mind.

All writers are writers.  We say this all the time but if we do not give them opportunities to feel like successful writers then they will never believe us.  So writing must be bigger than one thing.  Writing must be about thinking like a writer, feeling a writer, and not just producing.

All writers need time.  We tend to think that writing is only happening when students are physically writing, but most of us know that writing is also thinking, mulling, abandoning and coming back to our work.  That writing is an unseen process most of the time and the actual act of writing is the product of something so much bigger.  So why do we expect students to write right away?

All writers need choice.  Not just in what they write, but also how they write.  That choice can be whether it is typed or handwritten, where they physically write but also who they write for.  Different audiences require different thought processes.

All writers need ownership.  We expect students to want to share their writing all the time, whether with others through peer editing, feedback or simply celebrating their writing by making it public.  But not all written work needs to be shared.  Some things are just for the authors and that is to be celebrated as well.

All writers need to end it.  Why must every piece be finished?  Why must every piece be edited?  When we tell students that they can start something and when they feel it is done, it is done, it gives them courage to write more.  It gives them ownership over completion rather than asking the teacher whether something is done or not.

All writers write differently.  Much like my writing process is one that only suits me, the writing process of my students is uniquely theirs.  Yet we keep squeezing them into a box of how writers write and then wonder when their writing isn’t powerful.

All writers need self-discovery.  We need to lead conversations where students can put into words what their process is. So using videos of writers speaking about their process gives us a common language and starting point to talk about their writing process.  Our writing instruction needs to encompass all aspects of writing, not just the visible part of it, but the thinking, the journey, the progress.  We need to bring that into the open so that students can understand what it really means to write.

All students need questions.  When someone says they are not a writer, we must ask “Why?”  And if they are not sure then keep asking questions.  Most students say they are bad writers because they cannot spell.  Because they cannot come up with ideas.  Because writing is for other kids.  But writing is bigger than that.  Writing is about finding a way to express the thoughts that jumble our heads.  Not just being a great speller. Or being like others.

I have a long way to go.  I have a long way to teach.  I have some big conversations to have with my students and I cannot wait.  We are all different yet our difference is what makes us unique writers.  What makes our writing powerful.

aha moment, Be the change, being a teacher, books, change, Literacy, Reading, student choice, Student Engagement

So You Teach a Whole Class Novel – A Small Idea to Help


I spend too many hours thinking of my students love (or lack of love) of reading.  Of how the things that we do together hopefully is enough to sustain that love for words.  That this year is another part of their journey as readers, as humans who know that reading can unlock the powers of the universe.  And so I think of what is ahead.  Of whether they are truly “Wild readers” to quote Donalyn Miller.  Whether they have the stamina they need to be successful in college to quote Penny Kittle.  And whether the type of literacy instruction they will receive in the years to come will allow them to continue to love books.  To still read something that they choose.  To still see themselves as children who read for fun, not by force.

Today, as I sat next to a friend who teaches high school English, we discussed the concept of the whole class novel.  Something I have opened up for discussion here.  There are districts that mandate that the whole class novel is used for all students, no matter their comprehension ability, which is another blog post in itself, and yet, it reminds me that not everyone works in an environment that trusts its teachers to teach all students, no matter their ability.

So if you teach the whole class novel, whether by choice or force, there is a very little tweak that may make it accessible to all students.  Because if we want the whole class novel to be a vessel for deeper literature conversation and yet we have students who cannot access the text, then we must find a way for them to be successful.  The idea is simple, really.  Create different pathways to access the text by allowing students to select which method they will use.  Those pathways can be:

  1. I choose to read it on my own, ready to come to discussion.  This is the most common pathway of doing a whole class novel but it cannot be the only one.  Think of how many students where this act would be impossible.  Where they would rather defiantly not read then even try.
  2. I choose to read the book with a partner and we discuss as we read.  Sometimes when we struggle all we need is a trusted adviser to bring us through the hard parts.  We see this happen in our classrooms all of the time; students reaching out for help, and then going to back to their task renewed.  Why not let them do that formally?
  3. I choose to have it read aloud with the teacher in a small group.   Sometimes we need an adult voice to carry students through, other times you just need a community of readers to help you process the text, let alone the finer nuances behind the words.  Having a teacher at the helm and making it a read aloud means that it has no longer become an exercise of decoding, but rather one of comprehension.
  4. I choose to listen to the text.  I know some frown upon the use of audio books in our literacy classrooms, but they can be the game changer for some of our most disillusioned non-reading students.  If our goal is to use a whole class novel for students to think deeply about a text, then why not remove the barrier of the text itself?  If a child cannot read a text then the instruction of how to read it should happen with a text that they can access, not something that is far beyond their current skill level.

That’s it really.  Offering student choice in how they access the learning we must do, allows them to find success even within the most mandated curriculum.  We must remember our task at hand; to have rich discussion, so let’s make sure that all of our students can be a part of that, not just the ones that have mastered the act of reading at a certain level.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

aha moment, Be the change, being a student, being a teacher, being me, student voice

Enough with the Teacher Talk- Ideas for Getting More Student Talk


“I wish you would talk less…”

The comment smacks me in the face over and over as I read my 6th hour students’ feedback for the semester..  At first, I think they must be forgetting how little I speak.  How much work time I give them.  How they clearly must be wrong, because I am the queen of not speaking much.

Yet, that very next day I realize that they are right.  As I teach my 6th hour, the one right after lunch, I see how much longer I take to get directions.  How much more information I give them.  How my brain seems to work a little slower right after lunch and I am talking myself back into the lesson.  At the expense of their time.  At the expense of their attention span.  And their eyes glaze over so I speak more to get them excited  It’s a vicious cycle.

And I am not the only one speaking too much.  As I do workshops on student engagement, I keep adding m0re and more research on teacher talk versus student talk.  The research is startling; according to John Hattie teachers ask between 200 and 300 questions a day, whereas most students ask 2. 2...And those questions are typically clarification questions.

Teachers dominate classroom talk speaking anywhere between 60% to 75% of the time.  That means in an average 45 minute English class, the teacher may lead the conversation an average of 27 to 33 minutes, leaving little time for most students to speak.  And while I know I do not speak that much in any class, unless we are learning an entirely new concept, I also know that most of us think we speak a lot less than we actually do.  And I also know that the more my students seem disengaged, the louder I speak.

So what can be done to limit teacher talk.  To create an environment where students have a much bigger chance to discuss and explore?  Where every child has a voice and someone to hear it?

Own your talking.  Like I said, I thought I was quick to get to the point, apparently not.   If we won’t acknowledge that we talk too much we won’t see an impetus for change.  And if you are not sure, ask your students.

Set a timer.  I generally allow myself 10 minutes to teach a concept leaving 25 minutes for the students to work and me to do one-to-one or small group instruction (25 minutes because we start with 10 minutes of independent reading).  I thought I was pretty good at keeping it to 10 minutes but my surveys are telling me otherwise.  Time to pull the timer out again.

Have students answer in a group.  Too often, we rely on the call out question and answer, which is not the type of talk we should be trying to generate since it only allows one student to speak.  I often have students give their answers in their table groups instead and then have them share out.  I find that it opens up the classroom for much deeper discussions since many students become invested in the conversation, and it also means that students who may have been confused get a chance to try out some ideas or unscramble their thoughts.  Turn and talk also works for this.  Circulate instead and pick up on their answers that way.

Avoid the echo.  The best advice I received my first year as a teacher was to stop echoing student answers back to them and yet, I still catch myself doing it every now and again.  Our job is not to be the voice of the classroom, it is to give students a way to be the voice.  So when a child gives an answer do not repeat it, if the class did not hear it then have them ask for it to be repeated.

Change your questions.  No more call and response, instead have open-ended questions that will lead to a discussion. I know this, yet I forget at times, I will therefore be writing some big questions down on a post-it to remind me.

Just ask the question.  Too often when we ask a question, it becomes a long rambling sentence filled with anecdotes and extra information.  Yet this ends up confusing students more and we then have to repeat the question.  So get to the point and then add afterwards for those students who need it.

Stop the unnecessary repetitions.  How often do we teach to the students who do not get it rather than assume that most will?  So rather than over-explain, state the instructions and then head over and check in with those students who may not have understood.  Think of how often we explain more than necessary because we are worried that a few students may not get it while the others have?  Stop explaining so much and teach instead to those that do need it.

Stop interrupting.  How many read alouds have we interrupted to ask just one more question?  How many times have students been in the zone working and we have borken their concentration to do a quick check-in.  I think I do it because that looks like teaching to me; a busy teacher asking lots of questions.  Find the right time to interrupt, enjoy your read aloud rather than constantly model what you are thinking.  Limit it to the very best things so that students can reach a state of flow more often.

Be mentally ready after a break.  The hour that told me I spoke the most is the one right after lunch, where my brain has had a nice break and I feel more relaxed.  Yet, I often enter the classroom right when my students enter and then launch into class.  Get your brain woken up by revisiting (mentally or on paper) your main points of instructions.  Take a few minutes to wake yourself up so that you are back in teaching mode, because when we don’t we end up rambling.

Encourage student talk.  By emphasizing the importance of students speaking up, asking questions, discussing and dissecting, we can create communities where all students are heard, where all voices are part of the learning.  My amazing principal, Shannon Anderson, gave me the idea of giving each child two markers that they use when they want to speak.  All students need to have used a marker in the group before they can use their second one.  While I have not tried this yet, I want to try it for book club discussions to make sure all students feel they can speak and that not one voice dominates the conversations.

As little as we think we speak, I think it is vital to take the pulse of our classrooms every now and again.  We would all like to think that our words are dripping wisdom, but how often do we ramble on when students are ready to work?  So check yourself and your talk, ask your students, and then change your ways.  I never want to be main voice of the classroom, none of us do, but it takes changing our deep-seated ways to truly change it.  We can create classrooms filled with passionate learners but to do it, students have to have a voice.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.