Think about a time when you had to do something complex. You have a plan, you know what it is you want to do, and you are ready to go. Now think about how that scenario would go if someone else was watching you. It’s a little different, right? Fear is real. Professional teachers learn quickly that their teaching will be on display from time to time. It is meant to help us reflect and grow. However, it is also tied to an evaluative end. We have skin in the game, so how do we get comfortable with discomfort? It ‘s one thing to feel uncomfortable, but we can power through it if we can set-up some conditions for a safe learning environment. 

A condition for safety is coming to mutual respect. When we focus on our strengths and use positive language overcoming those nervous feelings becomes a natural part of the process. Complex work, like teaching, requires so much risk because there are so many facets that go into planning.  Being uncertain about what another person believes about you, your values, or your performance undermines potential. However, we can take some control to feel safe. This is how it can be done:

  1. Know how to make your curriculum relevant to the real work of students.
  2. Have a deep understanding of how to support students’ developmental needs.
  3. Go into each lesson with a clear intention, with an array of potential outcomes. 

What’s true for us, is true for kids. Consider how you are creating a safe environment for your students to take risks. What would that look like in your classroom? We show students we believe in them by the way we speak to them, the way we show them respect and the kinds of expectations we set for them.  If we just look at what they can do we cannot go wrong. We are teaching them that they are safe, respected, valued, and only then will they take the really big risks

Sometimes someone else can see things that we take for granted. Having the benefit of a fresh perspective at something that has become an ordinary practice, reminds us of the ongoing importance of making agency a reality. Jill works as an Adjunct Professor at a college on Long Island. As part of this work, she opens up her second grade classroom to both student observers and  student teachers. Today was one of those days, Jill welcomed a bright engaged student observer to come spend the day with her class.  

The reading lesson was to use a reader’s notebook as a tool to help support the work of  keeping track of longer books. The students are experimenting with different ways to take notes to keep track of the setting, characters and their feelings, thoughts, actions, and to follow a story’s problems and solutions. The class was engaged, and Jill and her student observer were circulating the room. First they noticed a boy who was making a list of the setting, a question followed, “Is it important to know the sequence of when each setting was introduced?” The boy decided on numbering the settings and it turned out they were not in sequence. Now we know something important about this student. There were many students who were keeping track of their reading in many ways. 

At the end of every lesson, there is a time to share and reflect on the learning that happened.. Jill asked her students if they would like to come up and show their classmates how they are using their notebooks and other tools to do this work.  Volunteers eagerly raised their hands and excitement grew. Now was their chance to share their strategies with others. One by one, they came up and shared all the many ways they recorded their thinking using post its, sketches of the changes in the setting and character diagrams showing all they have learned.  Each way so unique to the child and their way of learning.

While children are sharing their work, strategies, thinking or tips, Jill dipped in and out prompting and questioning to help children make connections to real life learning.  Questions like, “How did they help you as a reader today?” or “How does this strategy help you to better understand the book?” or “So you did… and then you understood…” This language was generous and inclusive, she did not tell students what to say. Instead she asked them questions or mirrored their words back to them. 

 After the lesson was done, the student observer shared her surprise at the levels of student ownership, and how interesting it was to see each child’s approach. This less directive approach proved to be just what the students needed and this was a great surprise to her. These practices of giving students: a tool, a suggestion, or even just a positive nod was enough. Better than enough – just what they needed to take on the work themselves.

Teachers are being inundated with a need to collect data. Data is important because it is meant to inform day-to-day teaching. That looks like an examination of student writing, rubrics, checklists, and anecdotal notes that are driven by close “kidwatching”  inside the instructional day. Yet teachers are often faced with the need to collect data in a sequential way, to plot growth on a graph. When plotting numeric scores on a graph becomes the “thing of importance” many times that score is relating to oversimplified disconnected academic tasks that can be completed quickly and that do not require deep thinking. The problem is there is no quick fixes when it comes to transferable learning. 

To understand what students can do we need to gauge growth within authentic learning situations. That looks like:

  • There is a student in my classroom who is reading below grade level expectations. 
  • I decide to provide an intervention in my classroom: Guided Reading 3 times a week for six to eight weeks. . 
  • My progress monitoring is the RR that triggered the need for intervention and subsequent Running Records throughout the process. Those along with my anecdotal notes are the progress monitoring data. 
  • At the end of the cycle reflect and refine my practice to see if it worked, or if something needs to change, or if I need some help to come up with a different approach. 

When teachers are collecting formative data like running records and anecdotal notes they are capturing the intricial features of what the reading process is and what it is to  transfer learning. In the end the whole purpose is to actually read in the real world. To learning something it has to connect real life experience. Responsive teaching is driven by real interactions with students. It is not a form, a chart, a graph. We need to be careful not to oversimplify the process in service of a number, a level, a cut-points. Everything we do as teachers is in service to our students’ developmental needs. 

In some classrooms, the last day before a holiday recess tends to be a time to host a class party, watch holiday videos, or do crafts. We look at this day as our last chance before a prolonged break to spend some meaningful time with students. We want our students to go into their time off with energy and excitement around learning. Today was a day full of celebration, fun, and excitement, and it packed an academic punch.  We hosted our informational museum exhibits, and the students had great experiences. Children went to work setting up their displays and materials to get ready to TEACH other students. Our second graders taught first graders all about:

  • What dogs need to live
  • How volcanoes erupt
  • Different types of tornados
  • What different baby animals eat
  • Different planets in the solar system
  • What tigers eat
  • All about baby pandas
  • How whales use their bodies to survive 
  • Different types of clouds
  • Different things dinosaurs eat
  • What damage a hurricane causes

As you read through this list you get a little glimpse of who these students are and what they really care about. The topics all belonged to them, and how they presented it to their first grade students was completely their decisions. It can be done, kids really can take control over their own learning. When we allow it we will always be amazed because we will know them even better.  We want to make the most of every single moment in school and we want it to be joyful. 

We love @Twitter because any day we can hear @VickiVintonTMAP & @KellyGToGo is a good day.

We walked our students out to the buses as holiday music played throughout the gymnasium. We will be off for two weeks. It is important to us that we keep our blog connected to students, so we will be back on January 6, 2020! In the meantime, you can find us hidden away in a corner of Panera writing. We are deep into revisions with our book, WIRE for Agency Four Simple Moves That Transfer Learning. We hope you have a happy and healthy holiday. Please take some time out to renew and gear up for all the great learning ahead in 2020!

Sometimes we think about all the energy it takes to teach and it feels daunting. Students are coming to school with a sweeping range of abilities and needs. Some days in the classroom feel as though we are making great strides, those days are the best! While other days it’s as though we aren’t hitting the mark, those days really don’t feel good at all… We have to pause to wonder, “Are we enough?” These thoughts pass through every thoughtful teacher’s mind.

The most important thing is that we keep showing up and doing our best. We keep trying to find solutions, we keep looking for better ways of doing things. Despite all of our vulnerabilities teachers put themselves out there and lead. We are working on the front lines of society and we see our students coming to school from all different circumstances. We worry, we celebrate, we plan, we try, we fail, we grow. Responsive teachers live a learner’s life.

Living a life as a learner means that we are indeed, enough. Our students can learn from our experiences as well as the content we teach them. They can feel safe because they know that we hold them in the highest esteem. Every time we see a student make academic gains, find a topic they are really interested in, or make a new friend we know we had a part in that. Yes, we are enough.

Jill’s class is currently celebrating a reading unit of study where they learned how to grow personal knowledge about a topic.  One intention Jill had going into the unit was to share control of the learning with her students. Another intention was to create experiences where her students could work with more independence.There were a few little tweaks to traditional practices that made this possible:

  • Instead of assigning, or limiting choices for topics, allow students free choice. Let them decide what they will study. 
  • Instead of controlling every aspect of the unit, allow students  to take ownership of their work throughout the unit.  
  • Instead of being fixed with potential products for the unit, allow creativity to bloom and take full advantage of the high levels of students’ motivation.  

Jill decided to embrace the plethora of opportunities that choice, ownership, and flexibility affords. All of which, made students’ learning more meaningful, relevant, and fun.  Here is a description of how we did it.

Getting Setup to Learn: We let students tour the library and gather books on a topic they’re interested in. They made their own text set. The work focused on finding  support for the books they chose that are outside their instructional band. If you try this, you may make recommendations of books to include in the text sets afterwards, “Look what I found, would this go with your topic? I was thinking about you when I saw this book.” 

Intentional Reading: Then it was time to read and explore the books. Students were able to make decisions as to what books remained in their text sets or what books were removed.  

Collaborative Work: Children invited other students to share their text sets. Some text sets started to be merged, or expanded to include each others. So for example Aine was reading books about pandas, and her friend Olivia was reading books about mammals. They decided to work together on a piece about animal babies. Chris was reading about sharks, and La’Nyah was reading about sea creatures and then they decided to work collaboratively. 

Creating an Action Plan: Culminated into museum pieces. They are getting ready to teach visitors about their topics. There is an option to work independently or collaboratively with a partner. They firm up their text sets combining and discarding texts to make their text sets reflect their topics they’re going to teach about. 

Planning for Transfer: Now they mark up their text sets to pull the information that they plan on teaching. Then they have a choice as to how they will share: a speech, a poster, book, sign, did they want to act it out, do a dance, create a physical model or structure, or if they thought of something different that’s ok too. This is the time of year when teachers will tell you, “Students’ energy is off the charts!” We certainly agree!  Many students are very excited to spend this special time with their families and friends.The result is that many children are often restless and unfocused. However, this is not the case this week in Jill’s class. Children are engaged, and intentional because they are happy in their work.  Meaningful work, is a very gratifying thing for us all. 

Jenn tweeted this last Thursday during #G2Great on Twitter:

This Is Balanced Literacy Chat #G2Great December 12, 2019 Click here to read Brent Gilson’s post

There were so many “likes” and “retweets” that we grew curious. This tweet prompted us to think more deeply about the Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR).  Anything that is discussed widely by so many stakeholders in school is deserving of a closer look. We would bet most teachers think of the GRR in this way; I do / We do / You do. That is very memorable, and it is true, but to stop there would be an oversimplification of what it is really all about. We wondered if teachers actively think about the fact that the GRR is imbedded inside of the curriculum they teach each and every day?

From Theory

First a little history for the intentionality of the GRR’s theoretical design. Let’s go all the way back to 1983…

Gives us an idea of how long ago this was!

1983- The problem was that there was no comprehension teaching going on in school (Durkins 1978).  So, Pearson and Gallagher created a theoretical cognitive model to better understand the process for reading comprehension. It  was based on the work of Lev Vygotsky’s ZPD, or Zone of Proximal Development (1978). Otherwise known as the “just right” amount of scaffolding from an “expert” learner to a child. It had three stages:

  • I do it: Teacher models comprehension strategy like summarizing a text
  • We do it: Teacher works with the student to practice the strategy together, we summarize a text
  • You do it: Teacher observes students do it on their own, you summarize a text

2002- A new goal was being formed around using the GRR as a basis for lesson and curriculum design. Duke and Pearson moved the emphasis to embed the GRR as a part of daily practice.  They started to use it as a way to design programs and curriculum that would support instruction for reading comprehension. This was a step-wise approach of instructional scripts that teachers could follow. 

2008- The framework begins to shift again, this time moving toward a more student centered approach. Fisher and Frey included a fourth phase: a collaborative stage where students work on their own, together. The energy of the framework was being invested in creating spaces built for independence and a teacher’s observational work. Doing this opens up the learning process, I watch what you are doing and I respond with what you might need. This shift is a big step away from the GRR’s linear script to a more authentic student centered process. Students could move more flexibility throughout all four stages: focus, and guided, collaborative, and independent.

To Practice

Today, curriculum and standards are designed to be cyclical. Students are getting lots of repeated practice as their learning grows more complex over time. This is what is meant when we think about how the gradual release of responsibility rests on a strong vertical alignment in terms of curriculum. Teachers are growing a more sophisticated bank of  instructional repertoires in order to meet these higher standards and to accommodate the expanse of students’ developmental levels. The GRR has become a flexible dynamic tool that moves fluidly in order to meet the differentiated needs of our students. How do we do that in the classroom? Think of it this way: 

Three Important Questions for Your Consideration:

  1. In what ways can I work with students to support their independence?
  2. In what ways can students work either by themselves or with each other to be independent?
  3. In what ways can I monitor growth and/or adjust challenge over time? 

Our Take Away

We are facilitators for students’ learning. Students need to be driving the process, and our work is to create the conditions for that to happen. The GRR is the way to get there, it is so much more than just, I do / We do / You do.

Fix a problem, fix a problem, fix a problem. There are so many needs and we care so much about our students. The attachment is real, and we want the best possible learning environment for them. There is a lot we can control to make a positive impact but there really are things that make negative impacts. Maybe some children don’t have what they need, maybe we don’t share beliefs with some of our colleagues, maybe there isn’t enough time to do everything we think needs to get done. When we feel this way, it almost feels like we are drowning. The work ahead is so big that we don’t always see the progress because we’re up to our elbows in the work. This is us losing perspective.

We are human, and when people are stressed, focus narrows. If we only see the needs  in front of us we can’t appreciate the growth. That is compounded when sometimes it seems as though the people all around us have it all under control everything is light and airy and they just don’t seem to share the same sense of urgency. We have to ask ourselves, what’s wrong? There is so much pressure when instruction is rooted in authentic learning experiences and we are teaching for transfer for higher level thinking, and then we are held to these assessments that don’t match up to the methods of instruction. It doesn’t feel good to worry about not  having the results you want when you work so hard.

We know it’s not our job to “fix” our students they don’t need fixing. The goal of our instruction is to help students become more confident, and to build up their identity as learners.  There is nothing wrong with us – we just care a lot. Step away from the stress and open up to listening to another’s perspective! Sometimes we need people who aren’t in the day-to-day work inside the classroom, because they can more easily see evidence of the growth students are making.This is how we maintain a more balanced view of things. Finding people who share our values. People who are expert listeners and who help us with the reflection process makes a huge difference.  We are not so different than our students we have needs too and the same thing that helps our students will help us. Find people who believe in you.

Hello! Come on In…

We just finished a round of parent-teacher conferences. Our hallways were full of smiling families who were there to support their children. It was a beautiful thing! Caring adults who stopped to read pieces of writing, or who took some extra time to pay a visit to the school librarian, leave us feeling so very inspired and hopeful.  Conferences went well, and as meaningful conversations tend to do, we were left to wonder about how we may better enlist the support of parents for the academic, social, and emotional demands for the classroom of today.

Reminiscing about an idyllic past

Parents send their children off to school and as they do they are reenacting deep rituals that feel so familiar. Lunch boxes, library books, and sneakers on Wednesday revives old scripts – this is how we do school. Yes, that is school. However, problems arise when we think all school is identical to what it once was because that’s not true. The world is not the same and as the world changes the demands of schooling change too. Academic, social, and emotional expectations are entirely different than they once were. So it might be disorienting to parents when they expect to repeat academic scripts, meaning they expect to see worksheets, spelling tests, and book reports. These are basic tasks that yield neat and tidy results. They are either right or wrong with smiley faces or red checks. We think of those traditional practices as reminients of schooling from the past. In a changing and uncertain world it can be very tempting to embrace those old expectations and to resist the new.

It is hard to (really) remember the day-to-day work of school. Instead parents tend to remember special moments like Halloween parades, guest readers, Valentine’s boxes and other fond  traditions. Yes, of course we still make room for these types of experiences but this is not the true goal of learning. Another layer to consider, if you had a great school experience then you may want the same experiences for your children. On the flip side, if you had a bad experience with school, you may want a totally different experience for them. Many parents have memories and expectations of the kinds of places school should be. All of these varied expectations influence conferences, and sometimes when we meet with some parents, there may be a disconnect between what was school and what is school. For example, math is no longer about getting the right answer but instead about showing a variety of ways to solve problems.  Writing is no longer the beautifully rewritten product we used to produce but instead the writing process is more visible, that means writing may look messy because we are attempting to reveal a students’ process. 

Getting on the same page

Current day expectations for students are wrapped up in words like flexible, creative, and plurality. There is no one “right way”; instead there are many possibilities. Children are learning how to open multiple perspectives for problem solving. They are learning how to collaborate and grow their thinking collectively. We are teachers, and it is our professional charge to enlighten and inspire parents to embrace a hopeful view of their child’s future. We do that work as we assure these caring adults who show up for conferences that their child is remarkable, and has something unique to offer the world. We educate and inform about current standards and best practice. Why do we have children learn a variety of ways to solve problems? We do this so that students get a deeper understanding of number sense and are not just following a step by step procedure that they don’t truly understand. Why does the writing look that way? We have children use different color markers so we can see their process.  When we see black we know this is their original writing, blue shows their revisions, and red shows their ability to edit their work. We tell our parents this so they gain new insights as to why we do the things we do in the classroom. All the while these conversations are happening, parents are getting an estimation of who we are, and how we regard their children.

Time Is on My Side

Time is not a teacher’s friend. It can be an unwelcome guest that comes to the classroom with lots of baggage. Teachers worry about time slipping away. We fret about lessons taking too long. If a student is taking too much time to share we may even start to sweat. Even when there doesn’t seem to be a single moment to spare, it is never a wrong time to listen to children.  Perhaps the most important way we take back our power over time is when we decide to be fully present and in the moment with students. We lean in with genuine interest, we show them that we are totally “all in” and ask, “Tell me about yourself. What do you enjoy? What would you say you are really good at?” These are generous questions that are implicitly positive. 

In many ways a teacher is like a biographer. We are writing narratives for our students to inhabit. Narratives where our students are the heros. As we watch our students day-in-day-out we are learning about who they are. We are telling them their stories back to them with enthusiasm and sincerity. “Wow! Did you notice what you just did? You said you liked to draw pictures, and now it’s completely clear to me! You are an illustrator.” That observation becomes another page in their book. Pages that are filling up as the year progresses and students grow more confident.

Meet J.C.

JC used to play soccer, but he didn’t like it because sometimes he didn’t understand what the coach was saying. Now, he really likes Karate and also wants to try basketball. The thing he likes best about school, is writing. He likes that he can write his own stories about anything he wants. He also enjoys  being an illustrator. He thinks drawing pictures is a lot of fun. He wants to tell his stories and have people read his books.

It takes time for students to grow into their identity. They are trying things on and learning about themselves along the way. JC sees himself as a writer and illustrator. That is very important to acknowledge before any academic work can begin. This is an entry point for us to build upon to nurture his sense of self, his identity.  It is our job as teachers to take the time to listen to our students, to honor what they say and to celebrate how they see themselves. Maybe we really misunderstand time. Maybe we should just unpack its bags and invite it to stay knowing it is well spent anytime we sit side-by-side with a child to honor who they are for this brief moment that is now.

Being is Believing

What belief systems have you built up around your students? This is an important question because belief systems are very powerful things. It is our beliefs that slant our perspective and sway the action we take. Our belief systems for students are built around trust. We trust them to show us the way into their learning process.

Student Centered learning is where we want to be.

Children have a more flexible view of the world and are open to more possibilities that might stay hidden to adults. They see the world with beginner’s eyes. So what does that look like in day-to-day instruction? How do we take advantage of their unique view of things? We trust them to set their own learning goals. Your students have a sense of who they are and what they need that is independent of our assessments of them. By trusting our students to self-select their goals we are handing over the big work of learning to them. Genuine student ownership necessitates shared control. This is the part where some teachers might say, “Wait, what? That sounds risky, not sure if that will work for me.” The thing is it’s not about us; it’s about them. It’s our students’ learning process and their learning can only come to life when it holds meaning and relevance. 

The insights we garner from students’ self-selected goals give  us an opening to see the world of learning as they do. Elliot understands something about “How to Draw” books. Typically they do have a lot of steps! He is also a rule follower and that adds an interesting layer as we think about his goal. He likes order, he wants his book to look like a realistic drawing book – that’s important to him. Whereas Jose is all about action. His how-to book needs to capture the excitement of “moving people” to hook his audience. Two boys working in the same UOS with very different goals. As we observe these boys we are learning more about who they are, what is really important, and how to best meet their needs. In other words, this is (authentic) differentiated instruction made easier because students are leading the way.