Trying Something a Little Bit Scary #sol21

I’m one of those people who has little bits of inspiration tacked up above her desk…. judge if you must.

Trying Something a Little Bit Scary Every Day. #sol21

I’m a literacy coach. I’ve gone by many titles over the years, but this is the one I’ve settled into, the one I feel in my bones. I coach students and their teachers every day Monday through Friday. I attempt coaching my husband, my sons and my dogs on the weekends and evenings, but honestly, I’m much less successful at that…

Honestly, I’m having a little crisis of faith in my own coaching abilities recently. You see, I’m asking a lot of people big and small to move out of their comfort zone to ‘where the magic happens’. I believe they call them comfort zones for a reason… they are comfortable… and secure. But unfortunately, the times they are changing. As Irene Fountas said in a recent podcast, we still have to look at those students in front of us and figure out what to do next. (I paraphrase). We can blame it on the pandemic, on the changing times, on exposure, learning loss, regardless we desperately need to dig deep and shift.

I’m struck with the difficulty of this for so many as I cajole and prod my way through the day. Everyone is trying to make life easier for themselves and perhaps those around them. It seems like a great cause, but then there’s reality.

Schools and their communities thrive on routines and common commitments. In the past few years, those routines and the fabric of those commitments has honestly frayed. We are in the business of creating a new normal and it’s …. tricky.

The next ‘testing window’ is fast approaching. Usually in January, we give a round of assessments to the students which include a benchmark assessment in reading and math along with an oral reading and comprehension assessment. Here in Massachusetts, we have many new assessment requirements to identify dyslexia, many of which we as a learning community already had in place. Typically, we did an oral reading and comprehension assessment routinely and determined the instructional reading level of each student. That was our routine. It has been my routine for decades.

If you’re an elementary educator, you sensed my sigh after that last sentence. Unless you’ve been in complete media silence, you know the debate that is raging and getting louder and louder.

Here’s what I know… I went to a research university for my undergraduate and another one for my first graduate degree. The science of reading, so to speak, was mostly new then. I’ve read Proust and the Squid. I believe in brain research… and I also believe what Irene Fountas said, there are still students in front of us, that we need to do our own research on, and then plan accordingly. As a coach, I want to help educators in my learning community bridge that thinking.

It’s true, some of old ways don’t work. I don’t know if they always were faulty or a new generation of students has required us to rethink them. Most of these ‘new’ old ideas make sense to me …. and balance literacy still makes sense to me as well. The criticism is strong and it sounds compelling, but one thing I learned at that research university is that research is always a little biased… and people naturally want to be the one others are listening too.

So as I sit down with those teachers, I’m not going to ask them to veer off the road they’ve traveled so to speak. I am going to ask them to think about brain research, consider the students in front of them, and systematically try something scary, something new, something that might just make all the difference.

Wonders of the Week #sol18

 Wonders of the Week

March 3, 2018



Curriculum time-  Using the Study Group Protocol,  the teachers dug in to accountable talk.  Team run study all the way.  First we watched some videos of accountable talk,  consider the scope of our study,  read some, then planned some.



Giving ourselves accountability and visibility, we set goals for ourselves and the work we do with students.  Our EL coordinator created this wonderful and powerful display. 









Midweek,  treated to some first grade expert writing.  You can wear dresses everywhere,  even to the horse stables, but especially to a picnic.

Thursday,  talking book clubs and new unit of study during scheduled 7:30 am chat with a third grade teacher.  Planning together and then teaching in tandem strengthens our work.

Late week,  observed a lesson.  Side benefit enjoyed some kindergarteners retelling the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff using homemade props.

Today,  teared up at the tenacity of this third grade newcomer’s genius project presentation.  She taught me all about Pandas with a moments hesitation.  The third grade class also presented to their first grade buddies and their next door neighbors.  Learned about helicopters, tsunamis,  Spartan spears, parrots, allergies, and more.

Their poise, creativity, language skills, and enthusiasm are what learning can be at its best.



To round out the week,  was able to see teacher ideas at work.  Accountable talk in full swing.  Why did that bear and hare in Tops and Bottoms decide they wouldn’t work together anymore?

How did that work out for them?  Partners listen, ask questions, and form theories.  Engagement and energy sky high.  This is memorable learning in grade 2.

And these are just the moments I photographed.


Hope to see some of you this morning in New York at the reunion!

Screen Shot 2017-02-28 at 9.10.00 PM  Day 3 of 31 Slice of Life March Challenge.  Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for facilitating, encouraging, and sponsoring this challenge.  Read so many more slices and join in here.

Reading Biographies with a New Lens #sol17


IMG_8271Reading Biographies with a New Lens

March 15, 2017

The fourth graders are reading biography this month.  What should a competent reader of biography know and do?  As Dorothy Barnhouse writes in Readers Front and Center,  the classroom is the place where we teach students how to read, not what to read.  All understanding about reading seems to stem from noticing and naming.  So what to notice and what to name?


Biographies consist of a classic story arc positioned on a historical significant timeline which defines the person.  Splitting the focus lessons into those components, first story arc understanding, followed by character traits, significance of biography subject, main idea, and details related to the historic context.  Laying a flexible design on our outline, we planned to started with an assisted lesson on applying story elements to the story of Ruby Bridges.  Rethinking text Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 7.17.17 PMcomplexity as outlined by Barnhouse,  more complex tasks/simpler texts.



A short video about Ruby Bridges Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 7.36.55 PMprovided an auditory scaffold to the
learning.  Using a Newsela article about Ruby Bridges,  the class investigated the story elements of Ruby Bridges life.  Checking for understanding, the next day featured a review of the first day’s work using the story arc graphic.  Even simple visuals can pack a powerful punch.


Reviewing the elements of the story arc, the students were given a laminated story arc template, a Newsela article about Malala Yousafzai.  Work was structured in teams with IMG_8272completion including  applying elements of the story arc: rising action, climax/turning point, falling action, and resolution to the story.  In the organization of the Newsela articles, a synopsis is included in the beginning of the article with no introduction.  Setting up texts as problems to be solved develops agency and critical thinking in students.  


Criteria for evaluation included students abilities to articulate the story elements in their foursomes and understanding the story structure.  IMG_8274

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

Thank you to Melissa Quimby, @QuimbysClass,  fourth grade teacher, for continuing to develop curriculum through experimentation with me.

Poetry Sunday: Yardstick Haiku #SOL17

IMG_3688Poetry Sunday~  #yardstickhaiku

March 12, 2017


Kindergarten kids

Time for play

Everything’s new


First graders ready

For reading

And writing ideas


Second grade learning

New techniques

Characters and plot


Third grade curious

About world

Opinions abound


Fourth grade noticing

How things work

Showing what you know


Inspired by  Mary Lee Hahn in  A Year of Reading, #haikuforhealing

and my dear friend, Anna Martin, for always keeping Yardsticks on my mind.  


I am participating in the Slice of Life challenge to write and publish a post every day in March.

Slice of Life is hosted by Two Writing Teachers. I thank them for the community they provide. Read more slices here.

Using Story Arc to Explore Author’s Craft and Characters #SOL17

Using Story Arc to Explore Author’s Craft and Characters  #SOL17

March 10, 2017

IMG_8263 (1).jpg

I have been taking a serendipitous journey with a fourth grade class.  After reading Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing together for a weeks and then realizing that no one in the class understood theme,  we regrouped… by taking a week off for February vacation.  When we returned from February vacation,  the magic began to happen.  We did a few days on finding theme in picture books.  See The Space Between  for more about this beginning.  

Then, we spent a few days writing a filler chapter for Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.  ( See Units of Study For Teaching Reading,  Fourth Grade Unit 1,  Interpreting Character: The Heart of the Story.)  The first day,  their teacher read a chapter from the next book in the series,  Super Fudge.  I think we both thought the students might write from between Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Super Fudge.  Not one did that.  After the first day we noticed that the students writing lacked the classic elements of narrative and the central elements of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing,  so we decided to review narrative structure in light of Chapter 3, The Family Dog.  After reading chapter 3,  their teacher reviewed the story arc and conducted a discussion of the elements in this chapter. For your benefit,  the story arc in this chapter includes:  review as hook,  micro-story to set up solution,  problem,  several attempts, climax, falling action, and solution.  IMG_8264 (9).jpg

Since it wasn’t my idea,  I can say that it really was genius.  She continued the great ideas by using her iPads to let students view the arc representation while they completed a revision of their chapter with the same style.

In the end,  her class had a wonderful understanding of theme in novel, a terrific review of the story arc using a novel example, and two days of quick narrative writing.
These ideas could be adapted to any novel study at the intermediate grades.

Thanks to Melissa Quimby,  Grade 4 for this collaboration.



I am participating in the Slice of Life challenge to write and publish a post every day in March.

Slice of Life is hosted by Two Writing Teachers. I thank them for the community they provide. Read more slices here.



Book Snob #sol17


Book Snob

March 7, 2017

I like to think that I believe all books to be created equal.  I mean,  I’ve read quite a few romance novels in my day, although you won’t find them on my Goodreads profile.  So I guess I don’t want you to know I read them.  Cat’s out of the bag.  

I’m a snob about children’s books too.  I’ll admit it.  I saw Dav Pilkey speak at the Teachers’ College reunion last spring.  I thought he was fantastic.  I thought his message was on point.  I thought his reasons for writing what he does were perfect.  I still couldn’t get through a single Captain Underpants book.  

Then I had a student.  A third grader who needed to be listened to.  A third grader who needed to be encouraged.  A third grader who didn’t need my sanctimonious rant about “good books”.  A third grader who needed me to remember when the going gets tough, the reading teacher reads romance.

So when this student told me that what he really wanted me to partner read with him was Dogman and that he couldn’t wait to show me the part where they handshake with poop on their hands,  I cringed.  ( I hope that cringe was on the inside.)  He was testing me.  He was wondering if I would say, “Oh, no,  let’s read something else.”

Ladies and Gentlemen,  I did not.  I read all 240 graphic pages of dog jokes, poop,  people make stupid by spray,  the world’s books being destroyed,  conflict ridden pages with him.  Sorry,  Dav Pilkey,  I did not love it, but I’m not your audience.  My young third grade friend not only loved it, but loved getting me to read it too.

Like Nelson Mandela,  I hope that the reading of comics (or graphic novels) will lead to the reading of ‘good’ books.  But really what I hope is that the reading of this book and any other book will just lead to more reading of any sort.  All reading is good. This book made my young friend think.  This book  gave us a chance to talk about reading and books… and dog poop.  That’s not so bad for a Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday or Thursday afternoon.

So thank you Dav Pilkey for writing books that many students want to read over and over and over again.  Thank you for explaining to me why you write them so I could tell my third grader about hearing you in person and what inspires you.  Mostly,  thank you my third grade friend for reading with me.  It’s good to read with friends. 



I am participating in the Slice of Life challenge to write and publish a post every day in March.

Slice of Life is hosted by Two Writing Teachers. I thank them for the community they provide. Read more slices here.

This is Too Easy

This is Too Easy

March 4, 2017


“Introducing a spelling test to a student by saying, ‘Let’s see how many words you know,’ is different from saying, ‘Let’s see how many words you know already.’ It is only one word, but the already suggests that any words the child knows are ahead of expectation and, most important, that there is nothing permanent about what is known and not known.”

— Peter Johnston

We might have oversold the growth mindset message.

My students are now convinced that everything should be hard and by hard, they mean difficult.  They now emphatically state that if the work we do isn’t hard for them, then it isn’t worth doing.  They want harder books,  harder problems, harder words to spell.  Their favorite thing to say to me is  This is soooo easy.   This is too easy.  Make it harder.  

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m all for challenges.  Setting a goal, seeing it through,  believe that you can achieve.  The whole enchilada.  But practice… shots on goal… doesn’t have to be difficult.  I can read for pleasure.  I can spell to get more accurate.  I don’t have to read an 800 page book to be a good reader… and neither do they.  

So I continue to promote a growth mindset along with the pleasure of doing something that isn’t all that hard.  The idea of baby steps not gigantic leaps.   The idea that all of it doesn’t have to be a challenge.

In her book,  Readers Front and Center,  Dorothy Barnhouse takes us on a constructivist journey emphasizing learning over knowledge, process over product.  So when my students say, This is easy,  I ask how do you know that?   How did you learn to spell because,  to read longer words,  to enjoy a book.  By doing this we help our students notice process and effort over product and ability.  They solidify their thinking through the process of explaining their learning.  This builds conversation skills, synthesizing skills, and a growth mindset.   The real growth mindset,  the one that says I’m always growing.  slice-of-life_individual.jpg

I am participating in the March Slice of Life Challenge: A slice a day for all of March.    

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers!

Readers, check out their site, and start slicing!

When is Measuring Fluency So Much More

When Measuring Fluency is So Much More  

March 2, 2017

IMG_7993 (1).jpgProgress monitoring reading fluency gets a bad rap almost everywhere, but not at my school.  I’m going to take credit for that.  

The question is on the table in my district and many others.  Are we assessing students too much and can the endless time tests in reading fluency be the first to go?  I say an emphatic NO.  And here’s why.  

I agree that drilling student with boring reading passages and telling them to read faster and faster is at least pointless and at most damaging to reading as a pleasure.  But my students look forward to our Wednesday progress monitoring.

What’s my secret?  Jedi Mind Tricks…  Actually no.  We have a routine.  When Wednesday rolls around each student knows that they will have 5 minutes of my undivided attention to discuss their reading, to show off their prosody, and to revel in their success … or future success.  They chart their success, monitor their rate of improvement,  map out how many words per week they want to gain, and cheer each other on.  Wednesdays,  we write about our reading quietly, while our friends get a chance to read at my desk.  I have a special stool just for this activity and a special notebook for my notes about our conversations. I had to create a list of who got to read first in a rotation because everyone wanted to be first!  Everything about Reading Day is special.

The truth is that this is so much more than reading fast.  Everyone has a ‘zen’ moment where they mentally prepare for their reading.  They use their good reading habits,  scanning the text,  thinking about what they might read about, and accessing their schema. All the things we hope readers do every time they prepare to read. We discuss training like athletes.  We trade tips for how to improve.  They sometimes ask for re-dos, which are willingly given because this isn’t a competition with winners and losers.  This is training.  This is creating mental strength.  This is seeing how much we can improve ourselves.

So today was “READING DAY’!  It was a good day.  Several students met their goals and we set new ones together.  Today, when I met with some first year teachers,  they were excited to share this time with their students.  Today, when someone asked me if I was putting too much pressure on my students with these big goals,  I said it’s about progress.  I said, we set these goals together week by week.  I said research says that having goals helps students meet goals.  I said drop by and see for yourself.
So maybe it is a Jedi Mind Trick.  I tell you honestly,  Wednesday is my favorite day of the week.  


The Space Between

The Space Between   March 1, 2017

I was working on coaching points for the next units of study in reading and writing for our elementary building when I began thinking about… the space between.  Sometimes it’s a rush moving from one unit to another, there really isn’t any breathing space for the teachers or… the students.

I feel rushed during the day, during the week, during a month, during the year.  How do our students feel?   I thought about this in earnest several weeks ago during a professional development day with our primary teachers.   Our trainer for the year and this day, Clare Landrigan said we need to create balance between destinations.  I began thinking about this balance and the concept of lingering began to take shape in my thinking.  

Oh,  I’m a lingerer.  I am a lingerer from way back.  Ask my husband.  I can spend an hour looking at yarn color,  recipe books,  dishes,  a sunset,  the list goes on.  So if I find peace, comfort, and inspiration from lingering,  why don’t I encourage it in others?

So I began in small ways to encourage the linger through my collaboration meetings.  I would say to a teacher partner, “we could spend another day on this and… have the students present their thinking to each other,  write long about what we talked about today, linger over one more mentor text.  I thought they would offer excuses not to,  telling me that we were “moving forward”,  “ground to cover”, and so on.  They really didn’t.  They exhaled… and they lingered with their students.

I had a lingering moment today with a fourth grade class.  We had worked through a novel prior to February vacation and the last day, the teacher had asked the students to write a ‘stickie’ about the theme and put in our their exit ticket board.  As the two of us read through the stickie notes, she said,  “They think it’s about getting a puppy. That’s what happen in the last chapter.”  We decided to sleep on it,  for real.  We spend the next week on break.  Melissa and I thinking sporadically on theme and the students enjoy the nice weather.  

Melissa saw a great idea about students writing an additional chapter for the book based on their thinking about the theme, but decided that the class needed a little more work prior to diving in.  I saw the short animation Oscar winner,  Piper, and could clearly see the theme in the movie.  So I suggested that we try to talk through theme, again and again moments, and life lessons using this short film with no dialogue.  When the students didn’t immediately jump to the lesson,  we asked,  what was the problem?  We went back and rewatched.  You get the idea.  Rewatching is like rereading.  
So here we are a few days later with several picture books under our belts along with some great discussions, some collaborative learning, and some breathing room.  Tomorrow we might actually go back to the novel…  There’s always next week.  


Challenges of Coaching a New Literacy Specialist

Challenges of Mentoring a New Literacy Specialist-Susan Kennedy

“learning floats on a sea of talk”  James Britton

The coaching process is like the sea of talk.  The listening, the reflecting, the ripples of ideas are what drives the new staff member forward.  While coaching is not a new skill or task for me, each new person who enters this relationship has their own experiences, their own challenges, and their own needs.  One  must seek first to understand and then be understood, as Stephen Covey so eloquently said.  It is always a challenge to hear what a person does not say,  to understand their personal dynamic, and to gently coach while respecting the infinite amount of skills they bring to their new situation.

From years of being a reading specialist, it’s clear that staff members are suspicious of any staff member who is in a ‘nonteaching’ position.  The role of specialist is unique in the district and the school.  Literacy Specialists teach but are not the primary teacher.  They coach, but are not evaluators.  The role is as varied as the literacy needs of a building.  So coaching a new literacy specialist is to tread lightly and encourage the same in the protege.

Coaching is relational.  What I hope to communicate:  work hard,  be open to what is new, and be a good colleague.  What I know is that we might not always see those things the same.  Again,  it goes back to the listening.  I like to think about being like water:  reflective, fluid, calm.  She came from somewhere where she was respected and successful.  She had been there a long time.  I understand that.  I was at my last school a long time as well.  However, every place is new.  We bring our knowledge, but hopefully not the places where we are stuck.  The relational coach helps keep the protege from the stuck places.  That’s a challenge.

Coaching is fluid. The new literacy specialist is overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work in the fall.  Benchmark assessments, record keeping, professional development, coaching, establishing an intervention schedule, maintaining the literacy center, and establishing a relationship with so many people.  To coach someone who has so many responsibilities is to listen and really hear the concerns, the triumphs, and the trials of the new literacy specialist.

The message to the protege is hopefully consistent, how to get off to a great start.  It’s everything you might not want to do in the beginning.  Get involved.  Respect different ways.  Don’t whine.  Make sure you clearly understand expectations.  Avoid the four most dangerous words: “in my old school..,”  I say to her, “You’re nearly there.  When December comes, you’ll have your sea legs.”  When she does not want to listen to that,  I just listen to her.  Just like the water:  reflective, fluid, calm.

Be like water:  reflective,  fluid,  calm.