content driven literacy #sol17

IMG_6218“Without systematic attention to reading and writing in subjects like science and history, students will leave schools with an impoverished sense of what it means to use the tools of literacy for learning or even to reason within various disciplines.”  
Pearson, 2010

Brain Friendly Content Driven

March 29, 2017

I want to slip literacy, reading and writing, into content instruction the way spiralizers are slipping zucchini into my Italian cooking or perhaps the way I used to slip carrots into my meatloaf. With time is in short supply and content learning literacy is dense,  it’s critical  to slip parallel literacy in content teaching or content learning into literacy workshop.

When I first arrived at my K-4 school, I had much more experience in the primary grades.  In an effort to tie intervention to authentic work in grades 3-4 and provide support to struggling readers, I began to assist during content area instruction.  Initially,  I just shadowed the teacher and scaffolded the content literacy. Soon we began to collaborate on many different aspects of literacy in content area.

The most straight forward and the most difficult is providing rich text that is accessible to all students regardless of reading ability. Without too much detail, we have found much success with Newsela, which provides content at many reading levels.  We also use and save Scholastic News at many reading levels.  Often stories will appear in one grade level and be simplified in lower levels.  These are easily moved seamlessly between whole group, small group, and intervention. Wonderopolis is a daily and also searchable site for many ideas that student might research.  Try teaching them to use tags as described in Still Learning to Read.  I am also fascinated by the idea of creating a digital bin as demonstrated by Clare Landrigan here.  We continue to search out, share, and save content reading materials.

As with our informational reading,  the use of simple note taking organizers generated by students are  best.  We use box and bullets for main idea and details throughout grades 1-4 with gradients of detail.  Applying lessons we have learned about informational reading to content during other times of the day, scaffolding students to use techniques they have learned in reading workshop, frees up that working memory for content which many students are unfamiliar.  Using multimedia in primary sources, visual records,  and video assists students in accessing content and scaffolding vocabulary.

We began to explore ways for students to respond to content learning.  Inspired by the work of Beers and Probst in Reading Nonfiction  and Sunday Cummins’ Close Reading of Informational Text, we first tried paper and pencil tasks such as one of our favorites called Did You Know?  It’s a simple format based on the pages of this book,  Did You Know? We originally created the projects for our third grade study of the American Revolution.  This can be adapted to any science or social studies topic.  Here’s the simple sheet we created here.  We quickly moved with some students to google slides.  We like creating video presentations using QR codes to archive presentations.   These are also helpful for students to review content or share content with absent students.  We found these templates to be especially supportive for our more fragile learners.  Content area is a place where technology can be leveraged in a way to balance the accessibility of materials for all students.  Recently, we have begun experimenting with Seesaw as a digital portfolio tool with easy access for parents.

Remembering to keep the structure of how to read, of writing, and response to reading from workshop present in content instruction,  we can reduce cognitive overload for students and facilitate the access of content for all students.  Blurring the edges of content vs.  workshop can support student learning as well.  Reading aloud content connected texts, using historical fiction, informational books, and internet sources for small group work, and using the same nomenclature across all the parts of the day, strengthens students schema, capacity, and competency.


Screen Shot 2017-03-28 at 8.51.15 PM

thanks to Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis for first introducing me to content literacy.




Thank you to Two Writing Teachers for 10 years of the March Slice of Life Challenge.  This is day 28 of 31.  Access many, many wonderful blogs here.













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Brain Friendly #sol17


Reducing Cognitive Load in the Workshop

March 28, 2017

One of my students is having difficulty learning to spell high frequency words.  She reads them with ease, but when it comes to spelling, she still struggles.  After thinking and talking and trying lots of things, it was so simple.  I took the word solving strategies that we had applied to reading to our spelling with a few twists: see the word in your head,  give it a go,  does it look right?  It’s not rocket science, but it is brain research.  

Our working memory can only keep 6-7 things at a time.  As David Souza points out in How the Brain Learns,  this might not be a bad thing.  Having a small amount of items in your brain may allow things to be more easily associated with other things. So if I am teaching steps in a process in writing, reading, spelling, or even math,  I had better keep the steps down to 5 or less. Our visual memory is stronger than any other memory and current research show that visual memory is getting stronger.  So those simple strategies  help our young speller use a technique but where else in literacy learning is brain research facilitating.  

Our working memory is also temporary.  Most reports say less than 20 minutes.  If I am trying to maximize brain use,  I am switching activities every 15-20 minutes.  Think of a 15 minute mini-lesson, 15 minute small group,  15 minutes increments of independent practice.   When we write focus phrases, as outlined by Terry Thompson in The Construction Zone,  I am creating short kid-friendly mantras with students that they can repeat to themselves during the scaffolding process.  Check over my spelling.  Circle words that don’t look right.  Then go back and correct the spelling.

If I know students have enhanced visual memory,  I may start a lesson with a short video of the subject or review with BrainPop, Kahoot,  a drawing or picture.  I also am thinking about reducing the visual load in my classroom.  I read once that after a very short time (one week) anchor charts become visual wallpaper to students.  Using them through the I do and We do phases and then moving them to a student size chart or a photo on an iPad for students who still need the scaffold during independent work, is an effective strategy.

Other things to keep in mind.  Routines reduce cognitive clutter.  If the structure of our routines stays relatively constant that frees up cognitive space for critical thinking and deeper learning. Practice matters.  Moving from listen, watch, to perform helps move concepts from working memory to long term storage.  How do we get thinking from working memory to long term storage?  Two questions seem critical.  Does this make sense?  Does this have meaning?  

My final thought is to think about the depth of the stairs.  If those stairs are steep, carrying the groceries is really difficult.  Making the moves from concepts easier by bridging ideas.  Take care in moving through the gradual release, lingering in shared practice.  This is not just for primary students.  Finally,  give wait, think, processing, and practice time.  

To think is to practice brain chemistry– Deepak Chopra


Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for the March Slice of Life Challenge. This is day 28 of 31. Read more slices here.

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Reading with Rigor: Teacher Edition #sol17

It’s Monday What Are You Reading?  Cognitive Load Edition

March 27, 2017

Recently,  I have been lingering over lessons and concepts, giving students time to understand more fully, considering the gradual release of responsibility in a more thoughtful way, scaffolding the ideas of something we have worked on into other areas.  Isn’t rigor something more than just difficult?  Note:  My links will send you to Heinemann and Stenhouse sites rather than Amazon.  It’s here that you will get more information, videos, and sample chapters.  sk

Disclaimer: This might seem like a crash course in literacy instruction.


Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 7.28.52 PMPreventing Misguided Reading, Jan Miller Burkins and Melody Croft

The Next Generation of Reading Instruction

This book is a GPS for the driving purposes behind quality literacy instruction.

Through structures in place, we can provide students with the environment to think critically and read closely.  The authors strategically use preassessment to reduce cognitive load.  

From the author:

“As you read this book, you will feel like you are having a stimulating professional conversation. You will agree, disagree, question, but most importantly, you will reflect. And after that, you will want to talk. For teachers…looking to think hard about the quality of their guided reading instruction, Preventing Misguided Reading promises to be the perfect study group companion.” — Kim Yaris, Educational Consultant, Plainview, NY.

Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 7.30.10 PMThe Construction Zone, Thompson

The subtitle says it all:  Building Scaffolds for Readers and Writers.  While I love this whole book, today I’m recommending Chapters 4 and 5 which focus on flexible design and flexible delivery.  We can get caught up on delivery curriculum and lose sight of the learners.  

In Thompson’s words,

If something isn’t working or if learners need more (or less) assistance, we counter by shifting our levels of support up or down as our scaffold moves closer and closer to its intended target.  In this way, scaffolding is alive and organic.  


Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 7.29.31 PMTeaching Reading in Small Groups, Serravallo

In Serravallo’s own words:

We believe reading instruction should: ❏ match the individual reader ❏ teach toward independence ❏ teach strategies explicitly so that readers become proficient and skilled ❏ value time spent, volume, and variety of reading ❏ follow predictable structures and routines

We wrote that in a reader’s workshop classroom, we are reading mentors, and conferences are an opportunity for us to model the kinds of reading habits and skills we use to support student readers to do the same in their own reading.

This book is for anyone that is reconsidering their small group and perhaps whole class instruction, for teachers who wonder why their students aren’t making the progress they hope.


Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 7.29.14 PMWho is Doing the Work?

In their follow up book to Reading Wellness,  Burkins and Yaris hit us right between the eyes.  In their words,

When we are mindful about allowing students to actively engage their reading processes, each of these instructional context contribute to children rich reading growth.

This book covers building agency in read aloud, shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading.  Caution:  They are tough on teachers, so be prepared to look closely at your practices and not take offense.  


Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 7.29.46 PMNotice and Note- Strategies for Close Reading

Grade 3-8

I just can’t say it better than the authors themselves.  Here is a book that gives concrete systematic ways to reveal text to students.  Sidenote: follow Beers on Twitter @KyleneBeers and Facebook. She does not hold back.

Check out their Rigor and Talk Checklist.  

Just as rigor does not reside in the barbell but in the act of lifting it, rigor in reading is not an attribute of a text but rather of a reader’s behavior—engaged, observant, responsive, questioning, analytical. The close reading strategies in Notice and Note will help you cultivate those critical reading habits that will make your students more attentive, thoughtful, independent readers.”

—Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst
Also,  Readers Front and Center,  reviewed here.


For Students:


Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 7.28.40 PMStuck Oliver Jeffers


An amazing book for anyone who has been, well, stuck.  Problem solving abounds.


Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 7.28.20 PMThe Most Magnificent Thing  Ashley Spires
Sometimes we can’t quite see where we are going until we look again with fresh eyes.




new-slicer-badgeThank you, Two Writing Teachers for the March Slice of Life Challenge. Read more slices here.

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Load Limit Exceeded #sol17

work-load-limit-warning-sign-s2-0031Work Load Limit Exceeded

March 26, 2017  #sol26

Yesterday, I joined my husband at the tax accountant.  The accountant is a nice man who is obviously a whiz at taxes.  He pulled up the forms on his big monitor and was finished with both ours and our twenty something sons’ in short work.  He has completed our returns for the past six or so years. My husband commented that he could do this too, however it would take him so much longer.  I thought of how years earlier,  I had decided to have my husband’s shirt done at the dry cleaners rather than ironing them myself.  Again,  I could iron them, but it would be labor intensive and not as professional.

All of this consideration of reducing my personal work load and tax on my working memory allowed me to  consider reducing cognitive load for our students.    Friday,  I had a think session with a kindergarten teacher who is working on her instructional design.  We looked over photos of a classroom in New York that I had observed and discussed a playful stance in teaching. These ideas led us to consider reducing cognitive (over)load.  Considering brain theory and teaching:

In cognitive psychology, cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory. Cognitive load theory was developed out of the study of problem solving by John Sweller in the late 1980s. Sweller argued that instructional design can be used to reduce cognitive load in learners.

Reducing cognitive load in teaching?  Basically,  humans only have so much room in working memory, room for the essential components of a task and then as teachers, we hope room for the generative load,  the integration of their prior knowledge and all the new learning.  So by design,  the less room they need for the essential components, the more room they will have for new learning.  Much like a grocery bag, brains can only hold so much at once. In practical terms,  if I keep the structure of lessons the same almost always, the students don’t have to think about navigating that.  For example, we always do… (routines).  If I keep the environment minimal with certain elements always in the same place,  I again free up cognitive space. For example, bulletin boards, things hanging, etc.   If I begin my lesson with a quick review of previous work and the connection of that work to our new work,  students are aided in making those prior knowledge connections and may move more quickly into our new thinking.

This also brings us back to lingering in lessons.  If I reduce the stair step from one idea to another, going from informational reading to informational poetry,  using story arcs from narrative writing/reading to explain narrative nonfiction/biography, comparing arcs in a simple picture book to arcs in a more complex novel,  I have given the students the opportunity to connect their ‘file drawers’.  Our mental file drawers can be messy,  by making connections and watching for understanding, reducing clutter, eliminating irrelevant materials/presentations,  we can enhance student learning.

For more background in reducing cognitive load,  see these resources.

Reducing Cognitive Load

Cognitive Load Theory


Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for the March Slice of Life Challenge. Read more slices here.

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Lily, the People Whisperer #sol17



My Dog is a Genius

March 23, 2017

I am not a dog trainer.  I am currently a co-parent of a sweetie pie of a black lab mix, Lily.  We are all constantly trying to ‘teach’ Lily to do new things.   She can sit and lay down very well.  She does a crazy version of high-five and ‘pound-it’. (My niece’s idea)  She seems to know lots of words.  Lately I’ve been trying to teach her to smile.  She only ‘smiles’ when gravity and the desire for a belly rub turn her on her back and gravity takes over. Our last dog could ‘dance’ and we are constantly trying to ‘teach’ Lily to dance too.  This consists of us dancing away in our kitchen while Lily looks on.  If she does anything that remotely resembles moving,  I reward her.  But, Lily knows herself as a learner.   She’s a good observer.   She’s knows when it’s time for dinner, her normal walk time, what our cars sound like on the street.  She recognizes the UPS truck and gives it a bark in warning every time. She knows when Dylan’s phone flashes, his girlfriend will be coming through the door soon. She talks to us with vocalizations, proximity, and toys.  She knows how to show us a good time. She loves to run errands … And she knows when it is Saturday.  Sometime in her young life with us, Bob started calling Saturday, Dog Saturday, because we had time to take Lily to the park to run or swim.  On Saturday morning, after our coffee routine is finished,  Lily begins her relentless quest to go to the park.  All the toys leave the basket and are deposited all over the living room.  Each of us gets a full body seventy five pound hug. She circles the coffee table a few times.  She looks out the window longingly.  When none of that works, if one of us gets up, she goes to the door and starts BARKING.  When we open the front door, she goes right to Bob’s car and waits.  If the garage door isn’t open, she waits at the back door until someone opens the garage.  So,  I’m not a dog trainer, but my dog definitely is a people trainer.

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend.  Inside a dog, it’s too dark to read.  Groucho Marx



Two Writing Teachers sponsor the March Slice of Life Story Challenge.  This is day 23 of 31. Read some amazing blogs here.

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24:7 The Unexpected Benefits of Blogging #sol17


24/7  The Unexpected Benefits of Blogging

March 25, 2017

I write to figure out what I’m thinking.  Joan Didion

I’ve almost done it.  I have successful completed 25 blogs. (I have one on reserve #planner)



Here are a few of the things I wasn’t expecting to learn.

I wasn’t expecting to improve my writing skills. Writing is so much more than writing.

I wasn’t expecting a healthy emotional outlet, but thinking through things as  I write in my writing journal helps me work through them. Reflection is good, really good. 

I wasn’t expecting to build a habit, but I have, writing after work, keeping a writer’s notebook, posting and reading blogs in the morning and evening.

I wasn’t expecting to make a difference to others. My thoughts resonate with others.

I wasn’t expecting to gain confidence.

I wasn’t expecting for anyone to read my blog, but some did.  What a responsive PLN.

I wasn’t expecting to stretch my thinking, but I did.

I wasn’t expecting how much I anticipated reading other participants’ blogs, so many are the highlight of my day.

I wasn’t expecting the overwhelmingly generous support I received for my writing.

I wasn’t expecting SO much honesty.

I was expecting to realize that being a writer makes me a better teacher and collaborator. Teachers of writing should write. 

I wasn’t expecting to count down the remaining days and wish there were more.

It’s wonderful when something exceeds expectations.

I knew some things but now I feel them in my bones. 

I am proud to participate with the generous and wonderful writers of the Two Writing Teachers March Slice of Life Story Challenge.  I stand on the shoulders of Giants. This is Blog #24,  read some really wonderful blogs here.

So many bloggers to thank for their encouraging words, amazing posts, and generous honesty.  My life is richer for reading your words.


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Time to Rally #sol17


Good to Great SOL #23

March 23, 2017

let your dreams be bigger than your fears and actions louder than your words. 


I drove home Tuesday exhausted.  Not from the hard work but from a challenge put in front of me. I didn’t handle the challenge well, speak well, or really react well.  I talked it over on the phone with my older son.  I told him I felt stupid.  I can’t remember ever really saying that about myself before now.  He asked me if I was too old or really not smart enough to understand.  Both of those things cut me to the quick.  I wrote yesterday’s post about it.  I didn’t find comfort in any of my comfort routines.  I walked the dog.  I changed my clothes.  I didn’t even want to cook.  I fell asleep in my reading chair at 8:30 p.m. without reading anything.  This isn’t me,  I always rise… or do I?

Students are limited by teacher’s comfort zones.  

If that is true then when I am limited by my comfort zone, the teachers I collaborate with are limited by that discomfort and so are their students.  In other words,  SHAKE IT OFF RIGHT NOW!  I’m a thinker and a planner,  so I’ll avoid a little,  read a lot,  think some more, and then get on with it.  If I am assisting in creating 21st century thinkers, classrooms, learning plans, and environments,  I have to stretch myself.  I have to find my own zone of proximal development and dig in.  My enthusiasm is directly connected to some other humans willingness to give things a go.

So for today,  I’m going to walk the dog, make some dinner, read lots of blogs, and some other things, and I’m not going to be old, or stuck, or even stupid.  I’m going to put on different glasses and view things differently.

As a union organizer I know said, “We should strive to make hope possible instead of despair convincing.”  If you want that in a more global perspective than my little pity party, watch the Black-ish episode called LEMONS.

and lastly,


good to great



Grateful to be part of the Slice of Life Writing Challenge.  Thank you to Two Writing Teachers.  Read some exceptional blogs here.

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the space between #sol17

IMG_8441 (1)The In-Between Space

Thoughts on Change

March 22, 2017

Change is the end result of all true learning- Leo Buscaglia


While the weather could be the space between


snow on the ground and 55 degrees,  

this space between is

The metaphor

that gap you must leap

to change.


Change isn’t always easy

Even for the agents of change


Did i wear the right shoes?

Did i eat lunch?


What will I say next?


The in-between requires


And contemplation

But not too much


the in-between requires


And conviction

And trust


It’s always going to be

A hope

And a leap

in order to write this I changed my 


my boots

and my attitude. 


Thank you to Two Writing Teachers for sponsoring the March Slice of Life Story Challenge.  This is day 22.  Read more here.

Thank you to Clare Landrigan for being a tremendous catalyst for change.  Read her posts here.

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Truth Tuesday: ReWrite Your Job Description #sol17 #day21


inspire-curiosity-fbA Job Description for A New Century 

March 21, 2017

A few weeks ago, something Brian Rozinsky said on his blog,
A Cast of Characters, drew me in.   In his post, he directed us toward some ‘provocative’ videos, one of which was this Ted Talk by Elizabeth Gilbert about  curiosity .  In it, she says that if you don’t have one true passion,  forget about passion,  follow your curiosity.  Every day there is something that you are curious about, follow it. In the same chain, Glennon Doyle Melton explained in  The Most Valuable Thing a Parent Can Do for their Kids,  that perhaps parents have given themselves the wrong job description.

The intersection of these two truths hit me.  That’s what’s happening to some teachers,  they have assigned themselves the wrong job description.  In this job description, they have to be an expert, in charge, the guide, the cheerleader…   It sounds exhausting… and it is.

So what is our collective job description?  I can’t answer that for each of us,

but here is my stab at my one sentence job description.

To inspire curiosity, inquiry, wonder and agency  in those that cross my path through encouragement, questions, and resources.  

My coaching advice today…  follow your curiosity, find purpose, and on this day, rewrite your job description.


Elizabeth Gilbert 

So here’s my weird bit of advice: If you’ve lost your life’s true passion (or if you’re struggling desperately to find passion in the first place), don’t sweat it. Back off for a while. But don’t go idle, either. Just try something different, something you don’t care about so much. Why not try following mere curiosity, with its humble, roundabout magic? At the very least, it will keep you pleasantly distracted while life sorts itself out. At the very most, your curiosity may surprise you. Before you even realize what’s happening, it may have led you safely all the way home.

Dear Two Writing Teachers,  Thank you for assigning Brian Rozinsky to be my guardian angel.  He really, really is.

I am proud to be participating in the Two Writing Teachers 31 Day Slice of Life Story Challenge.  This is day 21.  You can check out some amazing blogs here.

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It’s Not Me, It’s Them #sol17

#IMWAYR  (It’s Monday,  What are You Reading?)

March 20, 2017


Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 5.11.36 PMFor fans of What Readers Really Do? , you already know that Dorothy Barnhouse is nothing short of amazingly inspiring.  In What Readers Really Do,  Barnhouse taught us to be observers and listeners creating student agency with questions such as “What are you working on?” and “What are you thinking about here?”,  then naming their work in ways that give them power and truth and a foothold.   In  Readers Front and Center, Barnhouse brings us to intentionality, to in-your-face realization of the person doing the work is the one learning.  Through chapter after chapter entitled  Teaching Smarter,  Barnhouse shows us clearly how to do just that.  There is so much that is great here and I’ll be straight, it’s not a straight through kind of read.  Her description of the stairway to text complexity and how we don’t have to use a hard text and a hard task was an idea I go back to again and again, with colleagues, with administrators, with students, and with parents.  

Page 8

“Our students need to become the center of our teaching- not the texts, not the standards, and certainly not the assessments.”  

This isn’t a call to abandon all these things, but to teach in that place that includes them, but gives the standing they are due, behind the student.  

“Let’s think of a pebble through into a pond.  The pebble is the student and the pond is the text.  When that pebble hits the surface of the pond, we see ripples.  That’s the thinking the student is doing as he reads.  By paying attention to those ripples-and doing so by listening to the student-we can get a better understanding of how that text might be complex for that students… As teachers that’s what we need to see- our students interacting with texts.  That’s where our teaching needs to start.”

Our role is to help students take on identities of learners.

To pay attention is our endless and proper work.”  Maxine Greene

For Teachers Who:  Want to build agency,  strengthen conferencing

Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 4.43.29 PMI also read The Tree Lady during my story arc biography work in fourth grade.   This book tells the story of Kate Sessions, the woman instrumental in establishing the diverse tree population in Balboa Park in San Diego.  It is a visually stunning book with a clear story arc and a repetitive pattern if you wanted to teach into craft moves or structure.  The story itself is amazing and would fit into curriculum studies in biomes, trees,  ecology, botany, or women as leaders.  The students are questioning my constantly choosing books with strong women.  I think it goes without saying what my purpose is.  

Teaching Use:  Mentor text for biography, story arc work, craft moves of repetitive lines



Thank you to Unleashing Readers for the #IMWAYR inspiration.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for the March Slice of Life Challenge. Read more slices here.


Posted in It's Monday, What are You Reading?, literacy, reading instruction, Slice of Life #SOL17 | Tagged , | 5 Comments