Time Well Spent #sol18


Time Well Spent #sol18

July 17, 2018

One day last week,  I spent the day in a classroom with a teacher reorganizing her classroom library.


LOTS of Books

There were lots of books there.  I estimate that this teacher had 800-1000 books in her collection acquired from inherited books left in her classroom by the previous teacher, her childhood or friend’s childhood books, recent acquisitions, and gifts.  Her books had been leveled into general themes and reading levels.

Game Plan

Make a gathering place for each reading level band:  A/B,  C/D, E,  F/G,  H/I,  J/K,  L,M, and above. Then possibly sort into narrative and information books.  Finally group in loose themes to create book bins of twenty or so books.


Begin at the Beginning?

This is my sixth or so library overhaul with a classroom teacher in the last two years.  My goal is to have some ideas but to give the teacher lots of room to think through her collection his or herself.  I initially try to start in the middle of the collection.  As a first grade teacher, that would have been around a F/G level  using Fountas and Pinnell’s Guided Reading Level by Month Chart. She had many unleveled picture books in subject categories, so we began there.  That project was four hours in this classroom.  Two things contributed to its length.  She was evaluating texts as she went.  What to keep and what to purge. I might have kept all but the most glaringly obvious mismatches and then weeded at the book bin sort.  Eventually we developed a rhythm going along that she looked quickly through and made a brutal cut and then I leveled and reread some books suggesting uses for a few such as mentor text for certain aspects of reading or writing and book progressions.

Interestingly in this sort,  our ages became an obvious difference in selection.  There were many books in her collection that I had used as a teacher or parent.  Of course these books are twenty-some years old now.  For her, they all seemed ancient.  She cut nearly all of them.  While jarring at the time, it might not have been a bad move.  Many things have changed about our teaching,  our read aloud, and the way books draw students.  Unless I saw some emergent storybook potential in these books,  her decisions stood.

Picture Book Sort Tip

Think who will read?  Why read?  What is this books potential use?

End of Stage 1

At the end of stage one,  all the books were divided into reading levels.

Reading Level Tip

You might not sort all of the books into reading levels.  Some might be freeform in a very appealing sort of their own perhaps series or topic.

General Library Regroup Procedure

  1. Divide all the books into Reading Level.   Some you won’t be able to, in that case, approximate.  Use a strategy here, either pitch as you go or create a pile to look at later.  Don’t let that pile get too big, twenty books no more.
  2. Categorize those leveled books into subsets.  She used narrative and information.  In the bins I made for the book room,  I just used general feel of going together.  The teacher says I’m loose with those categories.  I might be.  It’s nice here to start thinking about categories that are going to go across levels for partner reading, leveling up, or whatnot.  Some categories that work might be: pets, dinosaurs, problems, favorite characters, or funny.  This is a good place to consider mentor texts at levels and emergent storybooks.
  3. Make a decision about how high your library should go.  As is common,  her library skewed high.  She had many books in the above level M category and very few at Level A/B.  Perhaps she won’t need those kinder levels in her class, but it’s something to consider.  She ultimately decided to offer to upper grade colleagues high level books that she didn’t think held an appeal to first grade.
  4. Notice what is amazing about your collection.  This about book progressions.  A student wants to read Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  Would Diary of a Worm be a first step? What books are glaringly missing?  I definitely need more Fly Guy.  This may take some thinking.  This doesn’t have to happen today.  You can look at a level a week during the year as your kiddos use them and adjust or make a buying/finding plan.
  5. Create sort system.  This could be bins of certain colors, color dots, bin numbers, labels or names.  The point here is to make the subject the focal point, not the book level.  However at first grade,  book level will be important.
  6. This is the tricky level.  Live in the library.  Watch how the students select or don’t select books.  Notice what draws them, what books they request.  Find a way to let students create book bins of their own with their partner or as a group.
  7. Resist the urge to buy a lot now.  Borrow library books.  Try out new series or characters.  Scouring blogs and bookstores.  Ask colleagues.


So in the end,  these 1,000 books took about six hours to sort, categorize, and weed.  She had some glaring gaps in her library.  Information books, some series,  book pairs, book club offerings, some levels.  Knowing that she can borrow some from the book room, the library,  and begin her acquisition plan.  My assistance is available for the next teacher, but I believe hers is as well.  I did pocket the Icky Bug Alphabet book from the rubbish pile and saved Mossy from oblivion by comparing it to A House for Hermit Crab.


Special thanks to Clare and Tammy and their amazing book, It’s All about the Books for inspiring this teacher and myself to rethink libraries.


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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.

#summersusan #sol18

#summersusan #sol18

July 10, 2018

Every summer I make a plan.  The plan is often too ambitious.  The plan has several essential elements:  self-improvement in the form of professional reading and/or workshops, home improvement,  and life improvement.  More fresh air, more exercise, purging closets, reading, reading, reading are key on the agenda.  This year is no exception.

This summer didn’t get started until June 30.  I don’t think I’ll ever quite adjust to a summer that doesn’t start until after the first official start date of summer.  Come on, people!!   I think we can all agree that summer, no matter where you are, is a pretty exceptional time of year.  Restorative, inspiring, spirit-lifting.

Here are some of my professional goals and how they are moving along.

Writing, Writing, Writing

I’ve taken to heart the notion that in order to be better writing teachers we have to write.  To that end, I am enjoying four weeks of summer camp with

Jennifer Serravallo’s  Writing Camp.

IMG_1972.JPG   The first week, narrative had me write a couple of stories about small moments.  I have a list of more ideas for narratives I might write in the company of students in the fall.  The second week, poetry, explored so many ideas including repetition, line breaks, and sounds of poetry.  Just to show I’m brave,  here’s my poem displayed in celebration.  Couldn’t we display so many poems that students (and educators) write so many places?




After studying the first units of reading and writing for the fall with the second grade literacy leaders to kick off my summer, I realized how beneficial it is to read

a unit through from cover to cover.  To that end,  I am trying to reading the beginning units in reading and writing for each of our school’s grades kindergarten through fourth grade.  Last week I read kindergarten and am enchanted by a revisit to Emergent Storybook Reading.  Beth Moore explains it magically here.  I immediately created my bin of storybooks for loving in the fall with any kindergarten that will have me.  Speaking of book bins, thanks to Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligafor continuing to inspire me. Read more in It’s All about the Books, which I read right before school was out.

Finally,  I have a tall stack of reading about writing books which include: The Unstoppable Writing Teacher (reread), Enticing Hard to Reach WritersJoy Write, and The Power of Grammar.  The Unstoppable Writing Teacher encouraged me to explain more to parents about writing workshop, consider carefully celebrating each writing unit with the students, and remembering on frustrating days that there is no such thing as lazy, only fear.  That last idea applies to so much. Especially inspired by my Connecticut friends to read Joy Write after their amazing posts throughout this year following their study of this book last year.

Nothing makes me smile more than a glass of tea and lemonade on my porch or patio with an amazing read filling my head with great thoughts. I know I’ll return to school in the late summer ready for the challenges and successes a new year will bring.  Hope you’re having just the summer you want as well.


Thanks for my encouragers in the Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge for always writing alongside.



Team Challenge #sol18

downloadTeam Challenge #sol18

July 3, 2018

Recently our district embarked upon a curriculum change for literacy.  Through lots of groundwork, planning, consulting, and collaboration we are moving slowly forward.  That forward movement reminded me of a team challenge in my younger days.

The leadership group that I was a part of at the time escapes me, however plans were made for the group to complete this leadership building training at a newly constructed outdoor team building obstacle course.

When we arrived we were divided into teams, men and women, all young and relatively sure of themselves.  There were many challenges,  high rope walking, log rolling, and others that escape me.  One challenge stands out.  There was a wall.  I am sure you’ve seen them in the recent mud challenges or on television physical challenge shows.  We had to scale up one side and down the other.  The object was to get your whole team across.

Initially,  the tallest and strongest scaled the wall,  leaving the shortest and weaker on the other side. While I know this wasn’t the case, in my memory, it’s just me left on the other side. Since that wasn’t a successful completion of the challenge, the team regrouped to strategized.  First,  they coached me.  This is how you do it.  Give it a try.  It isn’t hard. No luck.  My weak arms and short legs didn’t have the strategy.  Frustration followed.  For a moment, everyone stood still, looking at each other, looking at the ground, looking at the wall.  Then slowly, a breakthrough occurred.  If two went over and one stood on the other shoulders,  they would almost reach the top,  one scaled the front side and straddled the top, and two remained on the front side to get me over.  I was embarrassed and devastated to be the object of all this work and the center of attention.

But then serendipity…No one seemed to mind that I had held them back.  They talked, they planned.  They encouraged.  They strategized.  I was all concentration.  Self-talking my way using one person’s hand as a step and another’s shoulder.  Then the top, a momentary rest and a shaky look down before a shoulder, a hand step, and finally,  the ground.  THE GROUND.  Success.  Cheering.  General high-fiving.

I remember this all these years later not because I couldn’t, but because we could. That team is long gone, the members blurs to me today, but that feeling of everyone getting to the finish, the success,  that stays with me.

So as I think about our new curricular challenges,  I think that we could get some educators to the success quickly.  They are ready,  they are eager, and they are prepared. We could do that.  Then those others,  the ones for which this seems like a unsurmountable challenge, a challenge they don’t quite want to participate in,  will be all the harder,  perhaps impossible.  If we share the leadership, if we plan and strategize, we can get everyone over the wall, whatever that wall might be to them.  I know.  I know the success will be sweeter because I remember that wall so long ago.



I slice with my writing partners at twowritingteachers.org each Tuesday.  Today’s slice inspired by the dedicated work of our district literacy team and the encouragement of Jennifer Serravallo to dig deep for stories.

Book Rise #sol18

IMG_1510Book Rise #sol18

June 19, 2018

Yesterday morning, way before school began,  the literacy center buzzed with the activity of the first grade teaching team chatting, planning, reading, and laughing as they plotted for the book selections they would reveal to their students today.  Yes,  three days left at school and these teachers are helping their kids shop for new books.  A cart was located and the four teachers with 600 or so books divided by reading level in the subtlest of ways made their way down to the first grade hall  chatting away about how the kids would shop for their book rise.

Just three weeks ago when I proposed this book rise plan to teachers,  I think it is fair to say that it was met with skepticism.  Our school has 500 or so students and that is a lot of books to move through the building to 26 classes,  remain there for the summer and then mid-September make their way back to their home base.  But the principal and I had a vision.  A vision fueled by those book-writing, coaching troublemakers, Clare and Tammy. Student would be excited to show their reading selves to their rising teacher.  Their rising teacher, in turn,  would have ready-made book bags for the launch of workshop. The teacher would get a glimpse into their individual students’ end of year reading lives and their reading joys.

Back to yesterday morning.   As I arrived in the first grade wing,  the hall and the classrooms were abuzz with excited talk about the books the students were choosing.  Quick discussions ensued to encourage just perusal not full scale reading of the books.  Teachers noticed which books were being taken and which sections we needed to supplement with more books.

A few students make the trek down to the book room where the main collection lives.  These students knew exactly what they were looking for:   a specific Nate the Great to continue on their series reading, a book about snakes, a book with a dog protagonist.  Some of these books came from the literacy center collection and a few came from my personal stash.

In other grades and classes throughout the school,  students have been making book choices as well.  Yesterday morning,  I conferred with some third graders about the book glimpse they were giving their fourth grade teacher. We discussed novels that they were currently reading and what they wanted to read next.  Chats were had about mysteries, biographies, book-alike novels.  Some students honestly revealed much about their future thinking, their engagement in book choice, and  their reading lives even to us who have been working with them daily.

img_1473In the library,  students came for a book talk on broadened book choices.  With their help of our librarian,  the students with their teachers,  heard about new series to love, book-alike to their much read popular book cousins, and new characters to love as they rise to a new grade.

Throughout the school during the last week,  skepticism began to change to acceptance.  My hope that some of that evolved to enthusiasm.  I know that there was an abundance of student enthusiasm.

img_1471On Thursday,  those books will travel in their bags with those readers to their new class. Their new teacher will read one of his/her favorites to her new students. Then those carefully chosen books will wait patiently there until school starts in August. We will have to wait until fall to see if the vision really arrives at its fruition.  Will those kiddos arrive in their new classroom, those familiar chosen books will be waiting.  Can’t wait to see the reunion.

img_1716-1Slicing along with the Slice of Life community each Tuesday.  Read more amazing slices of life at twowritingteachers.org

The Right Teacher #sol18



The Right Teacher #sol18

June 12, 2018

I have been thinking a great deal lately about the idea of the ‘right’ teacher.  In a meeting last week someone said to me if this child has the right teacher, he can do well.  I stopped in my tracks right there. I’ve been thinking about what I said in response for a week.

I said and still believe that any teacher can be the right teacher for a student.  The magical components for this miracle are the right information and the right support.  Most of that is out of the hands of that hardworking teacher. Those of us who currently are working our best to help that student are responsible for assisting that next teacher in being a success.

I don’t think the teacher who received that response from me, believed me. Perhaps she believed that magically she was assigned this student and she alone was able to figure out exactly what he needed.  This could be true.  If that is the case,  then it’s quite difficult for us to make that magic happen time and again for so many students that struggle with so many different things.  Because they all struggle with something at some time.  Don’t we as well.

What I know is that there is magic sauce, but we cook it ourselves.  We examine.  We assess.  We confer.  We try out things.  Then at some moments in some situations,  things work.  We meet.  We discuss.  We plan.  We measure success.  Then suddenly that combination of teacher, class, physical space, support, and classmates is finished.

When it’s time for the next year, maybe we should think a little less about the right teacher.  Perhaps we should think about the environment,  the support to the student and teacher, and the evolving needs of that precious student.   For when a student fails or miraculously succeeds, it isn’t the responsibility of that one teacher.  It’s the village.

So perhaps you have been the right teacher or even thought you were the wrong teacher.  Perhaps you’ve seen a miraculous relationship between a student and a teacher.  Perhaps you are searching for that right teacher for someone for whom you have concerns.  I tell you in our PLC, in our school, in our teams, in our lives,  we can help every teacher be the right teacher for the students we know.  It is a miracle, however it’s a miracle we can create over and over again.


The Utility Player #sol18

12409113The Utility Player #sol18

June 5, 2018

While usually a sports metaphor is not my go-to,  I’ll bring one out as summer peers over the horizon and my principal of eight year, prone to the sports metaphor, moves up to the general manager’s office.  I strive to be a utility player.

A utility player in sports is a player that can play several positions with success,  a jack of all trades.  Commentators and fantasy league players use this term to denote a player’s versatility.  Versatility is a good trait to have when you’re a literacy coach.

Today I’m cheering from the dugout.  The special education team needed a extra player for special olympics day and yesterday I was the player to be named later.  That and a pitched idea that went a little flat with the staff made me think about being a team and playing your position.

I’ve made my own position or role on the team more versatile over the years.  It started in the earlier years,  offering to help with this or that.  These small tasks were ways to get to know people, to chat in informal ways, to show that I was a team player.  When you’re new in a school,  you tend to bat replacement or inconspicuously in the batting order.  Inconspicuous can be good in the beginning.  Doing small helpful tasks and learning builds your place in the rotation.

Often a utility player just takes practice with the team and cheers from the dugout.  You might see a move you suggested, but more likely that not, you’re there to see the team and other individuals shine.  The sun’s big,  success shines on us all.

After time,  the manager and other players begin to see your usefulness.  Your ability to help seems less like an act and more genuine.  It is genuine.  Being a part of success feels like an accomplishment even from the second row or the dugout or even the bleachers.

So today I’m going to contemplate my swing and my stance and my attitude as I put on my team shirt and say with sincerity, what can I do to help?  I’m also going to be thinking about what can I do to help us grow and change.

img_1405   Thinking and writing about it with my Slice of Life teammates.  Read more from the team at twowritingteachers.org.