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

Our Students Amaze Us

We wanted to start this week by sharing how our students amaze us. We make it our practice to celebrate kids each and every day.  These are some things we observed our students doing today.

  • Yaakov finished his math problems and saw that another classmate was struggling. He quickly scooted over and asked if he could lend a hand.  Sitting side by side, he modeled and prompted ways to try it out. He took on the role of teacher as he taught his classmate how to do the subtraction work and even gave him a tool (number line) to help him out.
  • Olivia was engrossed in writing a letter about her favorite book Ivy and Bean. She wasn’t sure how she wanted to end her letter to get the biggest impact. 

Amalia eagerly offered to listen to her letter and gave her feedback on whether she should end with a question or a sound effect. Together the girls decided that a question at the end was just the thing the letter needed.

  • The children entered the classroom and gathered around the hermit crab. After the crowd dispersed Jake stayed back to talk to Alex who had many questions about what a hermit crab needs to grow bigger and stronger.  Jake has several hermit crabs as pets and spent some time answering Alex’s questions and helping him grow his knowledge about our classroom pet.
  • Kira came skipping down the hallway holding hands with a teary eyed kindergartener. I said, “Good morning” and she told me how she saw this girl crying on her way to class and she told her she would walk her down.  The girl smiled and said, “Kira is my new friend.”

These are just a few highlights of the generous and beautiful things that are happening every day in our classroom.  It would be easy to miss these moments, to get caught up in everything else that is going on around us. We choose to notice and to celebrate.

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. 

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. 

This post is dedicated to our friend and mentor, Dr. Mary Howard. She inspires us everyday to move our practices from “Good to Great”.  Mary, who believes in the potential for all children and works tirelessly to encourage us to be worthy of them.

Jenn, Mary, Jill

After years of working with very young children one thing we can say for sure is that childhood is full of complexity. Children are learning about everything. They are not just learning how to read (which is really hard to do), or how to be problem solvers in math (have you seen how math has changed?). They are also learning how to be more emotionally secure, how to be independent. Yes, in their world that may be how to ride safely on the bus, how to manage a backpack, or even how to get along with others in the lunchroom. Think about everything children learn in comparison to us adults. It’s astounding. 

So when teachers use words like our “low students” they are not honoring all who their students are and hope to be. When any student is denied access to more sophisticated work, they are being robbed of opportunities and may be missing out on important entry points into their learning process. When this happens, teachers are making assumptions and in doing so are most likely creating significant gaps that will be extremely difficult to fill. Why do some educators do this to kids?  Teachers care deeply about students so it just doesn’t make sense. Maybe they do it because students don’t meet their expectations for where they “ought” to be. Maybe they do it because they feel so much pressure to get high scores. We understand that pressure, all kinds of people analyze our data. Maybe they call kids “low” or refer to them as letters, or numbers from a misguided understanding of data and its role in school. We don’t know. One thing we do know for sure, it’s a problem, if we are discussing a child and we are not using the child’s name. 

In the end, does the answer to the question, why, really matter? What matters most is that we put a stop to it. Make a vow with us here today, I will not refer to my students as “low”. I will respect them and acknowledge all of their accomplishments and I will not let my own fear of failure get in their way.  We all have to believe in them if we are going to teach to make a positive impact. Yes, acknowledge the hard work that has to be done, but do that work by leveraging their strengths. There is always something to hold onto and celebrate. Be that teacher, the one who trusts in students’ abilities and hopes for the future.

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.

We are teachers and we want to make our students’ work shine. Whenever we come to the end of a unit we celebrate, so it’s natural to want to put students’ work in the best possible light. In an effort to make their work look polished and finished, it can be easy to get hyper focused on the end product, or to follow only one line of focus. When this happens we could potentially lose opportunities for some important learning along the way.  Learning for transfer is steeped in feedback and reflection, so if we just made a beautiful product like an oral presentation, or piece of writing, we want to be careful not to separate it from its process.  

We are all for a finished product, we want students to be proud of their efforts – that is very important. However, we get into trouble if we decide to interfere with the level of their work in an effort to make it “look good”. Once we start down that road the product begins to reflect us not the students. We are asserting our power and by doing so diminishing theirs. Instead, we see an end product as the beginning for what comes next. A finished product is like a blip on a line graph. It’s a representation of a  moment in time in this child’s school year, and should be celebrated for its own merit. Really, an evaluation of the end product gives us lots of information to carry forward to help students understand that learning is a process.  

The way to make these products more powerful is to seed them with feedback and reflective practice. In doing so we are hitting three important elements:

  1. We are putting the “audience” in an active stance during a celebratory share of their classmate’s work. When we ask students to evaluate, to connect, or question what was shared we are teaching them how to be responsive learners.    
  2. We are honoring the process of those students who created the product. Teaching children how to offer and receive feedback is essential. Students quickly learn their work matters and is not just a “one and done” scenario. Instead, this pushes learners to consider what else they can do, or gain insight for new goals. 
  3. We are growing reflective practices that will extend learning for each child so they may see things through another’s perspective. What was the impact of my work? How do I know? What worked? What could be changed?

If we decide to celebrate finished work by honoring the process we open our students up to a  beautiful experience. Instead of just waiting for their turn to share they are giving feedback and are actually learning from their peers! When we encourage children to be reflective we are deepening their learning so that they may grow more insightful and self-assured. 

Teaching children to be literate is a complex undertaking. It requires hours of study, observational work, critical analysis, and ongoing practice. That is the truth, and Jill and I are just teachers working in a school. Sure, we are engaged, we are educational writers, and we are in constant search of ways to better our practices. Since we really are educators working in public schools, we know full well that when it comes to teaching nothing remains static.

We prefer to stay out of the fray of political pundits who advocate for reform. Jill and I both know that when it comes to teaching children how to read, how to write, there is a process. Teaching into a process requires many different approaches. Some children need to increase their volume, others need specific skill work, while others could benefit from short term strategy use. Learning how to be a strong teacher requires a lot of time. So, we would much rather put our energy into learning more about instructional practice than participating in divisive discourse that feels tribal and unproductive. However, after Jill and I read a recent NY Times Opinion piece, we thought we would lend some practical wisdom.  

We agree that phonics instruction and language learning are important; however, it is our experience that they are not the only two pieces for comprehension. Readers make meaning from what they already know and using their unique perspectives. There is not only one way to learn.  This is why Balanced Literacy works. It is a flexible framework that accommodates students’ needs in a variety of settings. This approach underscores the thinking that when teachers draw from a wide repertoire of strategies, they will be more responsive.

Join us Thursday at 8:30 pm est to chat about Balanced Literacy on #G2Great

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.