Teachable Moments #sol18

(Teachable) Moments #sol18

October 15, 2018

Most mornings I have the opportunity to greet the first graders as they arrive at school and wait with them in the hallway until it is time for class to begin.  These moments with them-fifteen at the most- are ripe with opportunity for observation, idea generation, relationship building, and teaching in the moment.


One day last week, it was terribly humid inside and out.  The floor began to collect condensation.  We cautioned the students to wipe their feet and exercise caution as they walked around the large corridor.  As six year olds will be just that,  some began to skate around on their shoes as if we had created a large rink just for them.  Peels of first grade laughter accompanied slips, cheers, and slides around the hall and the minutes flew by until it was time to enter class.  Another day, an ambulance came before school and there was much discussion about the fire truck escort,  how the person (adult) was bundled for the ride,  who would go with her, what was wrong, and so many other inquiries.  I am able to listen in on conversations, note who is talking to others and who is observing.  Who has a comfort item in their backpack.  Who is seeking out friends.  Who is seeking out me.  So much to learn and see in such a little time.

Idea Generation

While we are in narrative writing in first grade, we focus on small moment.  Sometime moments are upon us, like Friday.  Friday a small spider was navigating along the wall near where the students were waiting in their class lines.  Mrs. Kennedy!  There’s a spider.   What should we do about it?   Save it or smush it.  SAVE IT!   Can you carry it outside?  What should we use?  Let’s try your paper.  (Close watching.  Several attempts.  Spiders desperate tries to escape me, the paper, and them. Spider curls up.) This seems like a good story.  I pick up the spider in my two fingers and gently carrying it outside.  His status among the living unknown to me.

Sometimes it’s merely oral rehearsal of their own stories relayed from that morning or the afternoon before of soccer games and playdates,  television watching or cookie baking.  All of these are ripe for partner talk with mediation, rehearsal,  oral story telling, and of course, encouragement.  I’m not sure how many show up on a page, but we have the opportunity to talk over stories practicing the cadence and organization of problem/solution, beginning, middle, end, and character development.

Relationship Building

That’s seems obvious.  The gentle greeting at the door, good morning. The noticing of a interesting shirt.  The use of a student’s name.  Triangulating between students until their conversation takes off like wood from kindling.  Every day a few more initiate talk with me.  Conversation that is practice for working together.  Conversation that is the beginning of stories.  Conversation that cements that we are here in the same place, with similar interests, to do this school thing together.

Teachable Moments

Finally considering the teachable moment of conversation, observation,  and interest, we come to consider who is actually being taught here.  I’m  going to the open classroom of the first grade, learning how one puts together a sentence, considers a possibility, and tries out a new idea.  I’m schooled on Pokemon, cartoons, and the best place to buy t-shirts.  I’m afforded the gentle confidence that come just at a magical moment in the hush of the beginning,  the hilarity of idea intersected with action,  and the noticing of those aware of so much.  While I do work our daily work into the conversations with those first graders, it is they,  they themselves, who are teaching me so much about being six and seven.  How fortunate I am to receive these lessons.




A New Way of Thinking #sol18

$_57.jpgA New Way of Thinking #sol18

October 2, 2018

It’s that time of year.  When basic addition results in this equation:  Student Learning Goals +  Data Collection = Teacher Stress and Low Self Esteem.   Now,  I’m a literacy specialist not a math teacher, but these are the types of conversations I heard during the last week.

” We can’t set a goal that 100% of our students meet this goal,  I know students who won’t be able to.”

” I think this student is low on fluency (insert comprehension or spelling)”

The actual truth is that any one or all of these statements might be true, but today I switched my own thinking about these statements.  When we think about the three legged stool of RtI, we might call to mind the tiers 1-3,  classroom instruction, differentiated instruction, or special education.  Those are all means to assisting students in exercising their potential or getting to grade level or even progressing, but what are the real legs of our success.

When we consider who might reach our lofty goals or our measured goals, which students are more likely to succeed?  Perhaps we are asking ourselves the wrong questions.  It is less about the deficits of the students and more about our scaffolds, instruction, and assessment.  When we create a partnership between the students, ourselves, and our resources, we elevate what each might do.

Let’s consider.  First there’s the data. We collect it statically, actively, anecdotally, scientifically, through standards based assessments given with fidelity, and given to us by others whom we may or may not know.  All data is taken at one moment in time by one human in a situation.  Data has power to reveal and occasionally just encourage us to seek more data.

Students bring their experiences, perceptions, and knowledge to the equation; their mindset for learning, their challenges behaviorally, emotionally, and experientially.  The students bring whatever situations they were in and experienced before we were their teachers.  All of those things are mostly beyond us.

We, however, bring to the equation our considerable experience, our research, our knowledge, our colleagues, our ingenuity, our compassion, and our considerable grit.

So we, as educators, have the largest margin for change.  Honestly, we are the only things we really can change.  So let’s do it.  How?

Updating our toolkit.  Toolkits will vary by teacher, grade level, student population, and content.  When you think about your primary presenting difficulties of your students, think what would be helpful?  If students are having difficulty writing leads, perhaps shorter lessons on just leads,  author mentors of leads in the genre you are writing, different ways of presenting lead including visual and auditory, short and more extensive.

Updating our mindset.  I don’t know what is in your heart or mind, but we can all use a little (lot) can-do spirit, not just for ourselves, but our students.  When I began thinking about writing this, I imagined that our general difficulty with goals for students is far less about what we think about the student capacity and far more about what we consider about our own abilities as educators.  That’s a very hard truth and I also imagine some will not agree.  However,  if I truly believe that everyone’s capacity for learning is fairly limitless, then I also should believe that my ability to learn to assist that capacity is limitless as well.

Digging in.  A very large part of success is actually failure.  While I could Malcolm Gladwell here,  perhaps it is true that we just have to keep attempting different approaches until one works and then again when we set a new goal with a student or that approach times out.  I’m not going to lie here.  Those attempts and the generation of those ideas are exhausting.  That’s when we should help ourselves to the following tools:

Data collection – it will tell us what is working and how it is workin

Our colleagues in real Life– Our colleagues have had difficulties and ideas.  They have attempted things, read things, and are fully prepared to provide us with new perspective, fresh legs, and encouragement.

Our virtual colleagues are invaluableDebbie Miller, Lucy Calkins, Clare Landrigan, Tammy Mulligan,  Jennifer Serravallo, and I are in constant communication.  Sometimes that communication is one sided.  They tell me things from their writings, their blogs,  their tweets.  Occasionally,  I actually hear them speak or speak to them directly.  Along with them,  I have a cohort of practitioners who encourage me through social media.

So there you have it.  It’s not them,  it’s us… but in a good way.  We have power.  Power to adapt,  to grow,  to change, to attempt.  To speak truth.  To fail.  To notice and definitely to succeed.  I love a scene in the movie Eat Pray Love  where she’s encouraged to cross over, attraversiamo.  Just give it a go.  What’s the worst that could happen?  My darlings,  what is the best?

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Time for Take Off #sol18

IMG_2366Time for Take Off #sol18

As I left our ‘kick-off’ day yesterday contemplating the presentation and all that the beginning of a new school year means to me and to the students and faculty I’ll encounter this year,  a white trail from a rising plane crossed the beautiful summer sky.  It moved so effortless across the expanse, nearly out of my sight before I reached the road.  This sight made me contemplate how that take off seems so effortless from a distance, but from my seat in an airplane, not so much.  That initial lift off, for me,  is fraught with that catch in my stomach,  the fleeting sense of what if’s.  The acceleration, each bump, jolts me into the reality that this huge machine filled with humans and jet fuel is being flung into the air.  Yet each time, in mere seconds, we are airborne.  The view is amazing and I take that next breath I didn’t know I was holding.  It’s exactly like every single school year beginning I’ve ever had.

So with all that in mind,  I contemplate the ‘take off’ of another school year.  I fill my heart with a summer full of learning, smiling, and refilling my own tank and then I plunge into that perfect collection of rooms and first day outfits and promise that is the beginning of a school year.  Here’s what I carry with me this year.

What if?   The beautiful questions that Debbie Miller so wonderful poses in her new book, What is the Best That Could Happen?, invite more questions.  What if we fail?  Oh, what if we succeed?

The moves don’t have to be big.  Tiny small trials and efforts can make a ripple of difference that we might not see at first.

Relational moves.  Our superintendent asked us to think about relationships that we had formed that changed everything.  Every relationship changes everything.  Again from Debbie Miller, Teaching is about relationships with children not rigid structures.

Thinking about those relationships, I consider my mantras from last year:  noticing and sharing.  The more I notice those around me, their feelings and their struggles,  their successes, and their desires,  the more I can help them move forward.  The more I share the stage, the pen, the work,  the more of us will rise.

So here we are at the take off.  It may feel a little bumpy. Let’s fill our hearts with ambitions and be brave… The journey is worth it.

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Thank to Two Writing Teachers and a host of Slicers that inspire me every day.  Read more slices here.






Two Left Feet #sol18

IMG_1910.JPGTwo Left Feet #sol18

August 21, 2018

One afternoon a few weeks ago,  we got into the car to take our dog to the dog park not far from home.  As I often do in the summer,  I picked up my shoes from inside the front door and carried them out to the car with the dog leash.  When we got to the park,  I bent down to put on my shoes, but I had brought one left shoe from my pair of sneakers, but the other shoe was my husband’s shoe.  If it had been his right shoe,  I could have put in on and clumsily managed to walk around at the park.  As fate would have it,  it was also his left shoe.  So there I sat looking down at the shoes in my hand, worthless to me, and my bare feet.   I could not get out of the car at the park so I had to go home without a visit, effecting all three of us.

This little scene struck me as rich with metaphor and honestly, life lesson.  I rushed out of the house, ill-prepared, paying little attention to my needed materials and was caught up short at my destination.  As I reflected on this,  it seemed like a bigger message from the universe.  I mean, two left feet, come on.

We rush out semi-prepared thinking we know what the needs of this task are.  We can rush on grabbing what we need as we go, starting before we are fully prepared.  Where do we end up?  In the car at the park on a sunny day in August, with two left shoes or in other words, disappointed.

Our district is embarking on a literacy curriculum journey. We’ve pushed the boats off the shore, provisions in hand.  In the early summer, the literacy specialists made a pact to read the units of study in narrative reading and writing for kindergarten through fourth grade as well as thoroughly explore the reading/writing pathways books, and the guides to the workshops.  Not a small plan or a small task.

Yesterday, we came back together with the literacy leadership in our district.  One of us did a break out in pathway assessments,  one of us did a breakout in the architecture of the mini-lessons, and one of us did conferring/small group in the workshop.  We talked to teachers in groups of 5-7.  We listened,  we highlighted resources in the unit kits.

Afterward, one of the teachers reflected that the energy in the specialists and in the room was high.  It felt productive and exciting.  It made me think of those two left shoes.  I didn’t go to that meeting yesterday with my two left shoes.  I went having watched videos and read books,  thinking, discussing, and planning ahead of time.  I looked down at my feet, placed those metaphoric shoes on and laced them before I stepped out of the door and so did everyone else in that room.

We elevated our talk.  We built on a firm foundation.  We pushed those boats off the shore with only a little trepidation, mostly excitement.  I can’t wait to see what’s next.


Screen Shot 2017-06-27 at 8.32.28 AM I write alongside my Slice of Life community each Tuesday.  Thank you to Two Writing Teachers for having the vision to begin this community and the enthusiasm to sustain it.  That is the secret to success.   Read more amazing slices here.

Seeing What Comes Up #sol18


Wild Rudebeckia in my garden

Seeing What Comes Up #sol18

July 31, 2018

I like to say that I’m organized, a planner… sometimes.  This morning I told my husband that I like a loose plan, some structure and some room for…what?  miracles? surprises? change?  In truth, I might crave more of the structure than I like to admit.

Call this the story of two … invasive species…  Our house is surrounded on two sides with woods, a small forest.  A small forest that would like to take that plot of land we stole back.  It’s a fairly constant struggle between us and the flora and fauna.

Often, little unidentified plants creep into my flower beds and start sprouting.

Most of the time,  I unceremoniously rip those sprouts right out of there.  I have a Plan.  I plant things I remember from my childhood,  things I planted in the Midwest, things I long to see as I pass by.  Many of those things don’t make it.  Those plants transplanted by me, watered, nurtured,  just don’t make it in this soil.  Those sprouts dropped by birds, carried in fur, washed by rain, do.


Solomon Seal, a delightful surprise

Sometimes,  I notice something in them.  A familiar leaf.  An inkling.  In those moments,  I leave them in peace.  Sometimes,  this leads to a big reward.  Like last summer,  Solomon Seal decided to take up residence in my side garden.  Nearly annually some truly wild flowers make themselves at home in our front garden. Today, a black eyed Susan and a bright pink Phlox are blooming with abandon.  If I planted them in my flower bed in the backyard,  they would wither or become a deer snack, but there where they weren’t planted,  they thrive giving joy to those that stop to admire.


Bright Pink Wild Phlox, a favorite of deer

This reminds me of my school life.  We plan, we “plant”, we nurture what we want to grow.  We rarely let the ‘weeds’ of what students want to do interrupt our plans.  Seeing what come up can be nerve wracking.  There are just weeds, invasive, troublesome weeds. It’s difficult to know what’s what. Maybe that’s the point.  Whose to say? I don’t let it all grow.  I still have a plan.  Some of what I do let go amounts to nothing spectacular. It reminds me of what Ralph Fletcher says about greenbelt writing.  Just like those greenbelts we are trying to nurture around our cities,  we have to nurture that writing in the wild,  those unexpected things that start to grow in pockets of time we give for just that wildness. We weed some, we nurture more.  We observe. We notice.

We don’t know what that sprout will grow into.

Let’s be surprised.



too much of a good thing?  a story for another day


The Dilemma of Two O’Clock Writing: Who’s hair is on fire?

The Dilemma of Two O’Clock Writing: Who’s Hair is on fire?

July 16, 2018

True Story:  Two o’clock writing workshop is the pits.  Even I think so. But I let that two o’clock writing get into the students’ heads and into mine.  They would write more about how they couldn’t write at 2 p.m. than about whatever they were intended to write about day after day.  Chaos broke out. How they couldn’t write filled their thoughts and they no longer focused on what and how to write. My co-teacher and I discussed all the things we might do to engage the students in writing.  Nothing really worked. Why?

What we Hear: The teacher is the key.

We as educators get a great deal of coaching these days about motivating students.  Teach like a ______.  Teach like your ________ is on fire.  It’s all about what we do, how we can change.

Recently,  I’ve been coaching more about letting students be in the struggle as they work, no longer jumping to rescue them.  A quick reference here for those who are wondering about this idea.  (Scaffold or Rescue)  Moving educators away from compliance tasks to inquiry stance.  Thinking and practicing carefully crafted mindset motivating language.

Is it Skill or Motivation?

The questions still lingered.  What is holding us back? The idea seems straightforward: skill or motivation.  With a deeper look, it appears. What are the criteria for success? How can I get there, and why would it be important to arrive?  So this year, as we prepare for fall, let’s think less about being entertaining and more about authenticity, focusing on these questions.

Why? Why might success be important to an individual or the group? What is the nugget of this exercise?

For example,  in writing an information article, the writer is teaching someone something. We routine show students examples of this writing in the wild; real world applications.  Still students routinely stare at the page and state I have noting to writing about.  Why?  Perhaps the students believe that their audience shares their same knowledge.  Perspective might be the motivator in this case. No one else is going to tell it your way,  from your perspective.

Helping Students See  Purpose and More

Ok,  perspective, but then what?  Let’s press pause here and say to the kids: yes,  then what?  Why do you think this might be important/relevant/something you want to do? Then painstakingly wait.  Wait past the I don’t know, the silence, the distractions.  Just like Field of Dreams, if we build it,  they will come. All the while, subtly reading Pink is for  Blobfish.  Filling heads with ideas.  Noticing ideas for your objectives as you wait in line for music, listen to a podcast, read aloud another book.  Noting casual comments of kids and bringing them back to so what.

Here is the place for our energy.  The subtle, elusive steps to success.  Sometime we rush in this place. We’ve got four weeks to finish this writing unit.  We want students to write two information pieces a week.  WHY is the kid still on page one?!?!? Breathe in and breathe out.  Here we land at strategic planning.  This is the place our energy and their motivation lie.   Step by step we plan as an architect plans a building for we are architects of this learning.

Plan for Success= Success of the Plan

First, what are the skills needed to be successful in this task at any time.The skeleton of the activity.  In order to be there, it’s helpful to read A LOT of mentor texts, write a lot, experiment, rehearse, practice.  When we put ourselves in the time, the barriers, the thick of the activity and consider how will I explain success.  The students can be part of this: looking at resources, reading, developing exemplars, forming the statement: if successful, we will…

Knowing that struggle will happen,  how will we notice the first signs? What might we do when that struggle occurs?  Again, we go to the students. We know as educators, we might go back to the success point for most students.  Rewind talk. Remember when we… How did we…    Find this in your…     Explain it to your partner.   

Wait for lightbulbs.

Next, we want to…

Don’t fill in… Lead.  Let student think it and talk it through. Try it out together. (active engagement) Go of to try in a specific place. Explain or show a partner where.  Listen. Keep stragglers on the rug to rework. This method will work for whole groups, strategy groups, and conferring. Then share out. What did you try?  I noticed Sean tried this… Can we see?   Post idea or success as mentors.

Specific Plans

Time for specifics. These specifics will develop in the fray including conferring, strategy groups., mini-lessons, micro-progressions, reworking mini-lessons, reteaching in the whole group and in strategy groups, and very carefully chosen and strategic sharing.

What will we look for in independent work time?  Evidence of current lessons. When preparing for conferring have on hand a list of recent topics or strategies revealed, exemplars of these strategies, mentors, and specific tools to teach quickly in.  Leave with a plan remembering whose plan it is. You might offer choices. Will you try this or that?  Be specific.

From these you might plan a number of things for your current independent work time.  A strategy group or class reteach could go back a step or two to a place of success. A share could reinforce what most get scaffolding to the next step.

Coaching Tip:                                                                                                                                           If more than 50% of your students are in the weeds, reteach.                                                   If 25%, form strategy group(s)                                                                                                          If 10%, confer 1:1.

Develop your sweet spot. Feel your way to what percentages feel right for you.

Think of your developed criteria.  Notice three specific things to work on.

Perhaps this is a place for love in the real world.  To work on word solving and fluency with a student recently, I spent fifteen minutes a day listening to him reading Dogman to me.  A student who loves Dogman might write stories and sequels in that graphic format.  Our news feeds are filled with inquiries from other teachers, what are your read alouds.  In that place, read aloud, where we figuratively and sometimes literally stand on our heads as educators.  We struggle for the perfect mentor text, the just right beginning, the book kiddos will fall in love with instantly.  That will come once the students find their flow.  The key ingredients: time and clarity. So next time and all the times that struggle occurs, let’s ask ourselves, who’s hair is on fire? 

This idea was first revealed to me in Terry Thompson book, The Construction Zone.  For more on this idea, also see Who’s Doing the Work by Burkins and Yaris.

Coaching for the Distance #sol18

Coaching for the Distance

May 22, 2018


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Christopher Lehmann,  Foreword to Reading Wellness

In the frayed, worn edges of the school year, with the clock ticking down, our district and many others continue to do the tough work.  We are in a trifecta of growth:  adapting the curriculums,  considering assessment, and now we arrived at the third leg, coaching into these changes.

I’ve been asked in a team to consider what is valuable in coaching, what are institutional features, and where we might go next.

Listening to Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher read from their 180 Days book on the Heinemann Podcast today,  it struck me what I really think about coaching.  Kelly quotes Chris Lehmann from the forward to Reading Wellness.  I paraphrase here.  Our best work happens when we align our coaching to their instructional decisions, when their work becomes the curriculum (of coaching).

I fill my desk with inspirational quotes and hope they guide my words and actions.  I believe we are only limited my the limits we put on ourselves. I believe we can’t really teach anything, just help folks to discover it within themselves.  I believe that 25% of coaching is encouragement,  25% is listening,  25% is a flood of ideas, and 25% is rolling up your sleeves and getting into the thick of it.

Encouragement comes in many forms.  My favorite form is noticing.  Just taking a photo and tweeting it out to say,  wow,  that was something that happened right there.  Much like our work with the students,  noticing and naming is strong.  When a teacher or a student is in the weeds, it’s difficult to see where the flowers are blooming. Sometimes I just notice in the moment.  I find that this encourages teachers to tell me about moments I’ve missed that were great too.

Listening… can be a challenge.  My personal favorite time to listen is at 7:30 a.m. before the rush of the school day.  Just a little chat over coffee about a particular thing or perhaps many little things.  These I schedule.  They are an amazing way for me to launch the day.  These meetings spark ideas, generate excitement, and set the tone for the entire day.  4:30 in the afternoon is good too.  These meetings are relaxed, punctuated by the personal, and can often turn into a field trip or a scavenger hunt for a book or a lesson.

Flooding the room with ideas has to be entered carefully.  I usually start a meeting, a year, a relationship with a teacher by just saying I’m going to be putting a lot of ideas out there.  Most of them come from my head, my reading, my experience, what you’re saying.  Use what you will.  Leave what you want.  It’s all good.  Sometimes this flood of ideas will help someone try something they might not have.  The comfort of a fall back ideas is that if the original doesn’t work,  I could try this other idea.  This is the power of constructing something…together.  It’s just what we hope for with the students as well.

The last and most important part of coaching to me is rolling up your sleeves and getting in there.  I spend the majority of the school day in there.  Yesterday our principal and I were standing in our courtyard garden admiring the view.   I lamented that I hadn’t taken a picture of the space before we started the transformation so many years ago.  We were both new to the building then and it was a wonderful neutral project to work with the team.  The infamous cookies and cakes just a way to say I’m here for you.  Covering for a teacher when she is in a meeting,  finding a book,  conferring with a student,  doing some running records,  there are so many ways to be there in the work.

I think coaching is best when it is student centered.  More than that,  coaching is best in the fabric of a philosophy of education.  We are all constructing knowledge:  the coaches,  the teachers, and the students.  We help create an environment for experimentation,  for learning, and for growth.  We assist in getting the tools in place and helping people learn how to use those tool.  It’s true,  we can’t teach people anything.  We can only help them discover it within themselves.


Thank you to some powerful coaches in my life including my slicing community and Two Writing Teachers.   Read more from powerful educators at twowritingteachers.org.