Ending with the Beginning in Mind #sol19

Ending with the Beginning in Mind #sol19

June 11, 2019

There’s so much at the end of the school year that it’s tempting to metaphorically throw things in the closet after the students leave and say All set!  Late spring can be a time when we are our most reflective.  The year’s experiences are fresh in our minds.  We see the capacity of learning at its peak.  If we can get past the  tired,  this is the greatest time to plan for the next year.

We have targeted shared reading as a goal in our learning community for next year, strengthening book choice, strategically planning for learning needs, and assisting teachers in considering shared reading (and interactive reading) texts.  Having that in mind, we made a plan for some of us to meet together to plan out at least the first unit of first grade’s framework for shared reading as school opens in the fall.

Coming from my perspective,  I was considering the framework, each day of the week’s focus and learning objectives.  I was thinking of a template, of thinking stems, of routines that would ensure shared reading become a expected routine in each class.  I was ready to talk about these structures.  I had the phonics units.  I had Understanding Texts and Readers,  I had the Guide to the Reading Workshop.  I had the first units of study in reading.  I had talked over the structure with a fellow literacy coach and thought I was prepared but flexible to teacher needs.

Yesterday afternoon, I met with the teacher.  She immediately started talking about what books would fit together and what level they would be.  Well versed in the units, she began logical with the suggested book in the unit.  Knowing the author, she began suggesting other titles.  As I shifted my thinking, I caught up to her and we spent the next couple of hours, creating a stack of possible book choices making it through to our upcoming February’s unit.  Now we have a stack and the next time we meet we will dive into the routine, the additional poems, and other plans to round out this thinking.

As I consider this work time,  I am excited about the potential for success.  The teacher clearly took the lead, with me listening to ideas and offering up suggestions.  With history of collaboration, we spoke quickly and generated ideas and abandoned some ideas with equal speed.  All of this made me think about how to spark initiatives in others.  Here’s what I’ll try

Be open to inquiry.  From creating mentor text lists, to toolkits, to ideas from articles, to needs that teachers feel that they or their students have based on the day to day work.

Be open to shifting.  I have a head full of ideas based on what I’ve read, tried, and seen.  All the professionals I work with have their own schema.  The synergy of those can be really strong.

Be open to messiness.  The truth is growth is full stops and starts, of missteps and progress, of surprises and triumphs.

So I learned a lot yesterday.  Here’s to continuing to grow.


The Trees in the Forest #sol19

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The Trees in the Forest #sol19

I have pursued many opportunities in the last few weeks to gather feedback from students, from administrators, from colleagues and from parents.  It doesn’t seem odd this time a year to put a point on the work that has been done.  Through data meetings, end of year assessments, planning meetings, and casual talk, I began to see a picture of the work that I have been a part of over the last year.  For the first time, I didn’t like all that I saw.

Truthfully,  it’s not the first time, I have courted brutal honesty.  It might be said of me that I like that type of feedback most of all.  Just give it to me with no sugar-coating, just raw, unaltered truth.  What’s that saying, You can’t handle the truth? I believe I can.  That doesn’t mean it doesn’t take a few days to digest.  For example, when folks say it’s not personal, it most assuredly is profoundly and deeply personal on a cellular level.

But this really isn’t a story about that… or is it?  This is a story about having an opportunity in the midst of all this amazing crack-openly honest feedback to see the work vertically, agenda-free, through the eyes of complete strangers.

As you may have read a few weeks ago, our school was visited by some curious educators from another district.  These educators wanted a peek into our literary lens, the view and philosophical stance we have toward reading and writing in the workshop.  It’s a lot to explain in a couple of hours, but we made a plan to lay out the vision, tour the classrooms vertical in small groups, and then create a panel of local question-answering educators when we returned from our viewing.

Rarely is there an opportunity to distill the work we do day after day into 20 or so minutes of elevator talk.  Rarely do I talk a vertical swath through the school.  Never do I take such a swath without a clear agenda (of my own). Rarely do I give myself over to the vision in someone else’s eyes.  But here I was on a Friday, giving my elevator talk about the units of study, strolling along enjoying the sights, and having my eyes opened at the same time.

For you see, I am often thinking of improvements to make, not celebrations to have. (personally,  I love to celebrate what I notice in students and classrooms).  I am often set on purpose when visiting or talking.  As all of us,  I am busy in the day to day work of the hive.  But in this moment, which these educators at my side, my mode changed.  I slowed down.  Even before they came, I took some time to carefully think of what I had noticed in our literacy journey.  Not what pitfalls we had seen, but what we noticed was important to success.

As we walked the halls in my small group, I gave myself over to seeing our world through their eyes.  I noticed how long the kindergarteners were sticking with independent reading and how they were eager to share moments of that reading with their peers.  I noticed how our first graders could explain their semantic maps and how they were comparing information in two text.  I noticed their engagements and their ability to easily use all the tools their teacher had provided for them.  I noticed how teaches could have a few minutes to chat with the visitors as their children worked independently or together on authentic work.  I noticed how the writers were choosing independently how they would convey their learning, I noticed how the students were sticking in the work when it got tricky and how teachers were noticing that difficulty and letting the students work through it.  I noticed how even though students were talking, it wasn’t loud in the rooms.

I saw students and teachers trying new things.  In revision, holding on to the original as we craft ideas for how we might revise.  Reading the simple texts first to get a basis for the learning.  Conferring with each other before asking the teacher.  Generally behaving like people who understand and like the work that they are doing.

It’s late in the year, so perhaps independence, collaboration, and agency are not so surprising.  Perhaps in a different moment, things might have been going a lot less smooth.  You can fake agency though.  You cannot fabricate each and every student in every class in every grade being able to clearly articulate what they were doing and why they were doing it.

In that moment,  I truly knew that is all we really want, for student to know what they are doing and why they are doing it.  For each of them to have a goal to work towards. For each student to have purpose in their work.

So on that May morning, I say with fresh eyes and I explained with a new voice. Hopefully, what I see and hear will be forever changed by those moments I took the time to just notice and wonder, distill and consider.  That doesn’t mean there won’t be difficulties and criticisms.  What it means is that the trees in that forest are pretty important and their growing strong.



Catching Fire: Adopting the Units of Study as a Process

cropped-img_5340.jpgCatching Fire:  Adopting the Units of Study as  Process

May 22, 2019

This week I had the opportunity to explain our school/district’s journey with the Teachers’ College Units of Study in Reading and Writing to a group of visiting educators.  Distilling a long complicated journey into a two hour span was difficult but helped by a visit to the the important places in our school where this work is happening. Here is what I considered when I began my share and what I noticed as I presented.

When I think about our journey into the units of study, I echo several important points made by Lucy Calkins in the book, Leading Well.  Much of what was completed here at our school echos these ideas. For me, it was about seeing something worthwhile, something that could transform literacy education.  What’s that old term? The Units were a disruptor.

Here, we were workshop teachers.  That means many different things to different people, but for us, it meant that we had a reading workshop with a lesson, guided reading, and some independent practice.  We also had writing workshop with a lesson and a slightly more prescribed guided practice. We were following the state standards based on the common core and had explored a framework for reading and writing.  

I began to think about early adopters to the units.  I didn’t call them that at the time, this is a term from Leading Well.  However, I bought a personal set of the fourth grade units that I saw presented at the TCRWP Reunion and began to discuss them with a fourth grade teacher I was collaborating with that year.  No consultant, no training except my reading, visits to TC, and a burning desire to get them going. We began to try the core units that year in reading.

In the next year,  we bought a set of the units for the literacy center and I began to shop them around to keystone teachers, teachers I collaborated with in their classroom, met with during planning, or who I knew were looking for innovation.  They shared their ideas with their professional learning communities and the fire started which just the faintest of embers.

The school district began exploring the units and hired a consulting team to manage the professional development and advise.  The initial teams in our home school were becoming more excited about the units as teams, some planning and trying, watching videos and experimenting.  The sparks began to fly.

Last year as the district suggested experimenting with the units, many grades at our school jumped in,  teaching the core four and experimenting again with others with the help of our professional development model and team planning.  In pockets, change was happening and growing. We began to develop resources, involve our entire school and openly talk about the progressions of learning.

This year,  in the district’s first full adoption year of reading and writing, all the classes here are openly teaching the units.  We spend our professional development time unpacking units, studying vertical alignment, and thinking deeply and richly about our practice.  In our classrooms, the lab is open. We are examining our practice and daily adjusting to fit student needs, build student engagement and agency.

So when I was able to take the tour and articulate the vision,  talk about the evolution, see through fresh eyes without the agenda of coaching or consulting, intervening or problem solving,  I could see the fire burning. Every student in each grade level class could articulate what they were doing, how they were doing it, and what the next step might be.  The classrooms were filled with homegrown work that spoke the evolution of not just the year, but conscious choices designed to grown student agency and thinking in literacy.  Students were doing things naturally with little adult support that were authentic displays of their growing knowledge of literacy: independently reading and sharing at kindergarten, creating semantic maps at first,  designing their own independent writing projects at second, reviewing summarizing at third in work related to their science curriculum, and at fourth, designing their own presentations in varying genres to articulate their learning about a biographic figure.  It was nothing short of amazing.

It was then, though probably before, that I knew that the fire was spreading across the grades, the teachers, the classrooms,  and most importantly in the way that students viewed themselves as learners. Maybe I am a fire starter, but definitely I fanned the flames.  

Here are the secrets to success

  • Be unflaggingly committed to the work.  Always displaying a positive, trusting commitment to what you know students and teachers will be able to do.
  • Go to the source.  Watch videos, read facebook posts, follow blogs, twitter, go to Teachers’ College.  Get your professional development from the people who know in the closest place possible to the knowledge, in the best way you individually can.
  • Get early adopters.  Teachers who try things out with no fear are the best carriers of the torch.
  • Find ways to help teachers achieve early wins.  Some things are just natural for students and enhance management and outcomes.  Some of these include: accountable talk, shortened teacher instruction time, flexible small group work, and integrating the reading and writing workshop
  • Know that teachers will have trouble.  The work is messy and can be complicated.  It requires trying and sometimes failing, but mostly persevering.

Catching Fire #sol19

Catching Fire #sol19

images-1Yesterday,  twelve educators from neighboring districts came to meet with us about adopting the Units of Study in Reading and Writing.  I knew they were coming for several weeks.  We arranged a short presentation, then longer classrooms tour, ending with a panel question and answer with grade level teachers.  I wasn’t sure what grade levels the teacher visitors would teach and I knew their administrators would be coming with them.

I sat down one afternoon and created a list of the important steps we had taken as we began our journey with the units.  Thinking about it made me consider missteps as well or perhaps just difficulties along the way that I hadn’t anticipated.  I contemplated what I have personally learned; that the units aren’t so much curriculum as a general road map.  Head off in that direction.  You might try this.  Keep an eye on your travel partners.  Take supplies!  How to articulate something like that? Also, the units are more story than prescription, a let-me tell-you-what-I’ve-learned sort of thing.

I talked to the teachers about what they would be teaching during the visit.  No, that’s not right.  I asked them what the class would be doing during our visits.  Then I went back on Friday to check in again.  All of the teachers said, the students will be in independent practice.  Is that ok?  Of course, let’s just show them the authentic work.  What I noticed about the authentic work is how it lined up across the grades.  How amazingly you can see in this one slice how each year’s work builds on the next.  I took a few minutes to sketch that out on a slide. Screen Shot 2019-05-21 at 7.13.09 AM.png

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I made one more slide to show what here in this place we considered to be essential to the work:  accountable talk, collaborative work, small group work, growing independence, shortened teacher instruction time,  and integrating reading/writing workshop.  So many things went into each of those talking points, months of planning, considering how that would look at each grade,  guiding discussions with teachers and students, and reflecting on the work with all of the stakeholders.  A long journey, not complete.  But oh, to look back and reflect felt like a deep drink of cool water.

I glanced at the list of typed questions that one of the districts had compiled.  For a moment my breath caught.  I hadn’t considered any of them.  I wasn’t planning on speaking to any of these topics they were thinking.  I breathed in and out.  maybe a few times… Then I thought,  what they see will speak to the work and what doesn’t, they will ask.  The teachers will have answers and I know as well.  I thought I would be nervous, but there with the encouragement of our leadership, it felt natural to share.  I thought of all the things Lucy Calkins says in Leading Well.  It’s a challenging journey and people will want to turn back.  Creating a literacy team strengthens the work.  Celebrating wins of any size is important.  You have to have unflagging, positive, trusting commitment to the work.

The amazing moments began to unfold as we began to tour the building.  We stopped at our learning commons and I explained how our library assistant  helps add to the school based collection to reinforce the work that students are doing.  She displays books related to the work students are doing.  She helps students, teachers, and myself find the books that might be just right to show an author’s craft or teach a student about character or informational topics.  I explained how her partnership was so important to the work.

We stopped in the literacy center and I was anxious about its clearly lived in state and the changes I had made over the last year in response to the units.  Hours of work to organize the leveled library, the lending bins, the mentor texts,  I could see the flaws, the what-elses.  Would they?  They asked a lot of questions about leveling and organizing.  Inside, I could feel myself relaxing in the work and letting myself see it through their eyes.

Then we went to the classrooms!  Seeing through their eyes,  the children were engaged.  The students could explain what they were doing. There were tools for the students to use.  The teachers and students seemed relaxed and happy in the work. Kindergarten was reading and preparing for their super power celebration.  First grade was working in their book clubs on their semantic maps of animals.  IMG_4214-1.jpgIMG_4215.jpg

2nd grade was working on their research writing. Students were making posters, brochures, and  All About books.  Their teacher stopped a minute to talk about anchor charts with our visitors.

Third grade was trying out summarizing practice in response to our professional development on Friday.  Their teacher had fresh  excerpts for the students to do thwork all tied to their science curriculum.  IMG_4223.jpg

Fourth grade was deep in revisions.  The students explained their work, a new one in revision for them.IMG_4219.jpg

We returned after a full trip around the grades to a panel discussion with some grade level teachers.  The teachers answered questions from the group about such a big range of topics until one teacher ask them how it was.  A teacher took a breath and said, it was difficult at first.  We didn’t think the students were going to be able to do the work.  There were a lot of weekends taking home the units and reading.  Also we noticed that students came in knowing how to independently read and fill out book logs.  We saw that they could do the skills.  They were enjoying it. 

In those moments in those hours,  I saw how the units have caught fire.  When someone asked me, how can we do this without a literacy coach,  I answered that you have the power to do this yourselves.  I tell people sometimes that I drank the koolaid, but perhaps what happened is that I helped start a fire.

Monday, Monday #sol19

imagesMonday, Monday #sol19

May 14, 2019

I know it’s Tuesday, however I want to talk about Monday or maybe just Mondays in general.  Yesterday was May 13.  Not a Friday.  The first day of benchmark assessments which I usually look forward too.  Here in New England, it seems we have had a endless rainy spring.  All these things converged.

I didn’t think much about it until I was talking over results with a teacher while strolling down the hall.  He said, this is because it’s Monday.  

Monday?  Monday… Can our teaching and their learning be so fragile that a weekend can change the outcome? What will the summer do?  Well we know what summer can do.

I went on yesterday to do a reading assessment on an intervention student.  She struggled to decode many words in a story that I presumed would be simple for her.  She was hesitant, nervous, and generally anxious throughout.  Monday?

Later in the day,  I had a district wide meeting.  We hosted in our conference room.  It has a broad table and a dozen comfortable chairs.  Airplay and a large screen.  We had a very productive meeting and at the end one of the principals said we should meet in this room every time.  It raised our productivity.  

It makes me pause.  Perhaps the message is that it really is not so much big picture, but all in the details.  Perhaps all the magic we put together for success is the true secret sauce.  Every single careful decision adds up to the mix that works.

As we finish up this year,  I consider how we create the alchemy that makes that magic in a bottle.  Do we avoid tests on Mondays?   Do we bring cookies?  Have comfortable chairs when we meet as adults?  What conscious decisions can we make that might in fact change everything?


Reflection #sol19

May 7, 2019


It’s that time again.  The sweeping rush to the end of the school year and yet as endless activities swirl around me,  I feel like one of those photos where I am still and everything else is moving.  I don’t think I realized when I took on that one little word, reflection, how deeply it was the word for the time.

At the end of the year, we naturally reflect.  We reflect on success and missed opportunities.  We reflect on goals and accomplishments along with missteps.  The balance is… delicate.

I have the opportunity to make a fair number of decisions,  offer even more advice, have endless planned and unplanned conversation, and a little time to reflect.  Our careers and daily work is based on change.  Change for student may equal growth.  That’s an equation that makes sense.  Change for us as educators sometimes doesn’t make that much sense as we stand in the fray.

I have written about change many times.  This isn’t a reflection of change, but I don’t think we can have a reflection without considering how change effects a system and the individuals that populate that system.  When things are difficult for the adults or the children, does that make them wrong?  Does struggle equal inappropriate?  I am trying to reduce struggle or move everyone forward?  What does moving forward mean?  Reflection, right?

As a people we are not so reflection driven.  We are more solutions driven.  We have problem A,  so let’s try solution B.  We notice deficit C,  so the solution must be decision F and so on and so on.  What if solution isn’t the next step after problem?  What if the next step after problem is inquiry?  Observation?  Discussion?  What if in our rush to solve, we have stepped all over our evidence?

So this year,  I am going to do what I usually do in May and June with an enhancement.  I’m going to go to the data and encourage others to go to the data.  I am going to reflection on difficulties and ponder them deeper wondering about their makeup.  I am not going to drive headlong into solutions as tempting as that always is. 

This year I’m going to take a hard look at my practice, at the systems I promote and the ones I don’t, at the ideas I was so sure of and reflect on that certainty.  I hope to listen and contemplate, and reflect.  Not always looking backward, but not leaving those experiences in the rearview until I have truly thought about them.

My plan of action:

Collect data of all kinds.  Student driven data.  Teacher driven data.  My own numbers.

Ask myself and others some big questions:  How did we grow?  Where we didn’t, why didn’t we?

Ask other people for their reflections about our shared work.

Mull it over.  Mix it with a few more discussions and readings and distance.

Then begin again.

One Last Poem (or two) #napomo19


April 30, 2019

Poetry month has been so much fun.  With playing with poetry myself, trying it out with students, and then giving teachers a sandbox of poetry to play in,  I have really learned more about poetry and enjoyed all of the poems I created and read this month.

The students’ poems have been especially rewarding.  They were open to trying and enjoyed the experiences.  I share these last two poems today from students.  An ode to Character Studies and a response to the book, Clancy.  The joy of being in community with these writers is immeasurable.


This is an acrostic poem spontaneously written in response to the book Clancy by a third grade reluctant writer. He shared the poem with his class to rave reviews.