It’s a Nice Idea

“The kids at this table are my low ones. I usually sit here while they’re finishing their worksheets. The two tables in the middle are just regular kids. Over there are my high ones,” she smiles as she gestures to the other side of the room.

I nod and look around, shifting uneasily. Still, it’s not bad. Could be worse, as I now know. No fly traps. It’s clean and bright. Looks like a Kindergarten room. She looks like a Kindergarten teacher up there in front of her students who crane back their little necks to view the book she’s reading.

For the second time in my brief career, I’m taking over a kindergarten classroom in the spring while the teacher goes on maternity leave. I sit in the back jotting down the schedule, lyrics to the little songs, routines, names of children. 8:00 to 8:15 – pledge, attendance, “character education” lesson. 8:15 to 8:45 – calendar songs. 8:45 to 9:30 – snack and recess. No, this time was going to be a different ball game, I could see. When I arrived in the spring last time, all but three of my students were already reading. Here, many students were still missing 5 or more letter sounds.

“This is a rough neighborhood. Lots of ESL kids. You know,” she warns me.

Again, I shift slightly in my chair to contain an argumentative remark. I want to believe I learned something from the past fall and will keep my mouth shut, close the door, and show these kids what they’re capable of.

9:30 to 10:30 students dance to a little alphabet song, copy sentences off the board, listen to a story, complete a worksheet requiring them to trace letters and draw lines between pictures with the same initial sound.

“No talking, please, Maria, finish your worksheet and you can go look at books on the carpet.”

10:30 is music class. When we arrive to pick them up, they are calling out the names of music notes. “Half note!” they  shout. 11:00 is recess and lunch. 11:40 to 12:10 is a math lesson followed by another several worksheets. Then free play until at 12:45 they are packed up and trotted out to the gate to meet their parents. I remember the conversation I had with the director a few days prior: “Your work day ends at 3:30.”

“And what are my responsibilities after the students leave at one?” I asked, a bit confused. I can’t seem to stop myself from asking questions.

“Oh the kindergarten teachers really need that extra prep time. You know… all that cutting!” She makes a motion with her fingers as though they are scissors.

Indeed, when we return to the classroom that afternoon, the teacher is cutting out identical flower shapes from construction paper. “For their writing craftivity tomorrow,” she explains. I nod.

A few days pass and the baby arrives. I’m up to bat. Doing my best to replicate the schedule, feeling frustrated and bored, students piping up, “No, Mrs. Garrison, that song isn’t next. You forgot the color song.”

“Well, don’t you know your colors already, friends?”

“Yessss!” They intone, smiling as though I was asking a very silly question.

“Then maybe we don’t need to sing that song anymore.” They look at me a little blankly, uncertain.

After a few weeks, I try to incorporate small group-style learning centers. Less worksheets, more collaboration. It’s not pretty. I sit with students holding paper books, leaning in to listen to them sound out words. A parent volunteer shhhh’s the students writing poetry. They stop sharing rhyming words and bend their heads back down to the paper.

At lunch with the other Kindergarten teacher, I get an unexpected lesson on classroom management. “You see, the kids are always rowdy when it’s windy like this. I’ll probably let them stay out for a bit of extra recess. And you know, Thursdays are always really rough days for some reason.. Mondays too. Thankfully, Friday is a ‘fun day’ with no math lesson and early dismissal. And they have P.E. that day.”

We pause to take a few bites.

“What was your school like where you moved from? I heard you taught Kinder before?”

“It was pretty different,” I say.

“Oh, well, you know our kids come to us so low. Most of mine didn’t even know how to hold a pencil. It’s the neighborhood. The parents either don’t parent much or they don’t speak English.”

I’m not sure where she got the idea that my previous school – a public elementary school in Chicago – was homogeneous. I try to clear it up. I can’t seem to stop myself from batting at her veiled explanation for the kids’ mediocrity. I knew she meant well. She was kind and loving to her students. She wanted them to learn to behave. It was my problem really… I wanted more. Too much, some would say.

The following week, after another messy, loud round of centers, I return to my classroom to have lunch in peace. Only now the parent volunteer is lingering in the back, pushing together stacks of cut-out butterflies. I thank her again for her help and take out a sandwich at my desk.

“You know, I think (the other teacher) had a good set up in here. It wasn’t so rowdy.”

“With the copying off the board?” I respond. I wonder if she can hear the contempt in my voice.

“Exactly!” she smiles, glad I understood her. “I’ll be here next week!” She waves cheerily and closes the door. My heart is pounding, my sandwich swimming in my vision through hot tears. I throw it in the trash, unable to eat. Unable to think.

It could be worse, I tell myself, thinking of the drives home from the school in the country. Unable to see the road from crying so hard, unwilling to pull over because I wouldn’t feel safe until I was far away from there. I think of the fourth grade classroom where I spent time substituting. The chart on the wall with the students names and results from the last standardized test. Far Below Basic: Kendra, Dario, Cruz, Perla. Below Basic: Jamal, Wesley, Ricardo… It could be worse. Thinking of the special education classroom where I filled in for a week. “Bring a book with you,” the secretary chuckled before she hung up. The four classroom aides ran the routine like clock work – changing diapers, passing out papers, turning on a DVD. “Can I help?” I asked.

“Sure! I think Eddie needs help with that puzzle.” Eddie was in third grade – autistic. I sat with him as he chanted names of dinosaurs. I counted about 18 different types, but some were repeated. He spun the puzzle piece around in front of his face.

“When does he go back to his classroom?” I asked, having been accustomed to full-day inclusion.

“This is his classroom,” they chuckle. My brows came together. I said nothing.

When the parent volunteer returned to the classroom the following week, it was just as noisy. “Did (your son) show you his poem about butterflies?” I asked hopefully.

“He did!” Then she added, whispering “I told him it was lovely, even though it didn’t rhyme.”

At the end of the year I was asked to remain at the school as a first grade teacher. “Any requests for students in your class?” the director asked. I didn’t know I could do that…

“Maybe (the parent volunteer’s child) could be in the other class? You know – since I already got her help…” I trailed off weakly.

“Of course!” she replied brightly. Later I realized that the same request had likely already been made in reverse, so it had been an easy one to accommodate.

“Too much noise,” I imagined her saying, “my child can hardly think.”




Falling Flat on My Face

I turned the faucet at the back of the classroom and a brown liquid sputtered out, smelling of eggs. Fly paper swung from the ceiling when the air conditioner kicked on. My teeth felt gritty with dust from the twenty miles off the highway, through the orchards, past the dairy farms with their relentless clouds of flies. I smacked my hands past one another and put them on my hips, looking around the room like Mary Poppins. I had flown in just in time to help these sad children.

If you’ve ever been asked to complete an impossible task, you might know that at first it just seems very difficult, rather improbable… a thinker, you’ll have to look at it from every angle. You might have thought, like me, that it just needed a creative solution, a fresh pair of eyes. You notice the tangles on the outside first and tease them apart with a hopefulness inside until you get past them and see it’s a rat’s nest and you might not get out alive.

The class was comprised of 27 seventh and eighth grade students. Due to low enrollment, grades were combined and teachers instructed in all subjects. Five content areas, two grade levels of content, one day. It seemed difficult but not impossible. I became obsessed with time management, rotating my students around the room like a mad dance. This grade receiving instruction while that grade practiced independently. This group receiving remediation while the others worked collaboratively. The students were gangly and startlingly distractible. They were dazed at first, by my determination and the expectation that they would and could actually learn. Some fell in love, most fought back. After five weeks and a class novel they were mostly on board. They were thirsty after all. Their struggles and small victories were always on my mind.

As we studied medieval Europe, I wondered if they might see their reflection in the feudal system. Children of fieldworkers, they rode the bus home after school and let themselves in to the trailer with a few younger siblings following behind. Squeezing onto the couch with a bag of Taquitos and bad TV: the American dream. Their parents, pulling double shifts, would stay in the fields ’till dusk so that they could be at their kid’s volleyball match on Friday.

Interpersonally, I had a lot to learn about a career in education. I had a lot to learn about adulthood. I had a lot to learn about people. Like how dangerous they can be when they are given a position of power and lack the skills to succeed there. Naively, I went to my administrator with some questions that stemmed from genuine confusion on my part. I wasn’t in Chicago anymore and I couldn’t quite figure out why, for example, athletic competitions took place during the school day every Friday – reducing my classroom to four students, while the rest splayed on the brittle grass near the soccer fields or hustled up and down a painted football field. How was I to recover the years of instruction they’d missed from teachers who sat behind their desk, telling them to turn to page 74 in the text and complete the questions at the end of the chapter with a partner?

No, I shouldn’t have asked that question. I shouldn’t have wondered aloud why weekly staff meetings required early student dismissal, additionally cutting a full two hours of classroom time from my already shortened week. What’s that phrase, squeezing blood from a turnip? I was picking at the wrong knots. The administrator told me so. With a slam of his fist on his desk, he demanded I not disrespect him in such a way at staff meetings. I left stunned like a fly that had smacked against the glass; thinking I was soaring free and realizing I was woefully trapped.

Thankfully, I had a mentor here too. “Keep your head down, Adrienne. That’s how we get by here. Just nod and smile and then go to your classroom and close your door.” I became aware of a buzzing in my head at that point. A rising panic and awareness that I was trespassing and needed to tread lightly, but surely that was just my imagination. Surely, it really came down to the students and their needs. I pitched myself forward, wholly committed to them, to helping them find a way out.

Each morning began with P.E. Yes, I taught that too. First thing in the morning, before the air quality became a serious threat to their health – the sun shining against the fruit trees, green leaves aspirating pesticides. On a Monday in October, my students’ feet dragged against the pavement on our way out to meet the rest of the hundred-odd students for stretches. “Come on!” I shouted, smiling, desperate to make them care, desperate to continue caring. “Anyone who doesn’t beat me to the line has twice the laps to run.”

I laughed and broke into a run. Some of them laughed along and a few dozen feet slapped the pavement behind me. Then, in my slacks and my respectable leather flats, I felt my foot land a bit wrong on a weak ankle. My knee crumpled and I skidded against the pavement. So much weight hitting the hard, unforgiving surface. I had forgotten what it was to fall after so many years. The pain, the pride, it was excruciating. I pulled myself up, my students forming a half-circle around me. Concealing laughter, expressing concern… mostly just staring stunned at the unlikelihood of it all. Their pretty white teacher having to pick herself up from the ground, her pants ripped and bloody. “Okay, Carla, looks like you’re leading stretches today.” Baffled, bloodied, I limped to the office.

A half-hour later, all of us back in the classroom, I cut into my Algebra lesson by telling them to just go ahead and get it over with. “I know you want to laugh about it. Go ahead, tell me how ridiculous I looked.” Nervous chuckles gave way to exclamations and vivid retellings. “You see,” I said, “You see what I’ll do trying to get the very best out of you?” I’ll break myself in the process, I thought. Foolish, foolish me.

The next day, during Algebra, my administrator came to observe. Sitting in the back of the classroom, taking notes on a tablet bought with grant-money. All the teachers had one. As I had always done, I continued teaching as though he wasn’t there. Leaning in to address a student question, I didn’t realize until he was a few feet away that he had moved from his spot in the back. I tried to continue, moved to the next slide, then he caught my eye and motioned me to step aside. The buzzing started in again in my head and I stopped mid-sentence and stepped to the side as he walked to the front and continued my lesson, straight from my own slides. After a few minutes, he nodded to my students and to me and walked out of the room. Shakily, I wrote the practice problems on the board and slid into a chair. What could it mean? A critique? Feedback on my teaching style? Meant to be a teachable moment to me as a young teacher? Reminding me of my place? Somehow, the day eventually ended and I sat at my desk with hot tears streaming down my face. I called my Chicago-mentor. I said many things. I resolved to walk out of there and never return. “Now don’t be reactive, Adrienne. You have a tendency to do that. Think of the kids.” So I loaded my bag and got in the car and drove home. The experience wasted me. I felt like a husk, hollowed out and tossed around by a small breeze claiming to be a gale force wind.

Gains were made and warily reported during parent teacher conferences. If I was lucky, someone might be available to translate. My students were unreliable at this not only because of their incentive to bend the truth, but also because a number of them also did not speak Spanish. Older siblings bridged the gap and had, apparently, taught them to speak as a toddler using only English. Language aside, parents are parents. Flawed, well-meaning, hopeful. I committed myself to them, set goals, made promises. Silly, stupid me.

In the end I learned that I had been unsuccessful at keeping my head down. The administrator – burdened as he was with a school board dotted with parents of students in my class who had seen first hand the gains I had made with their children – had to get inventive. He gathered together a group of boys I had sent in for a referral and got them to make a professionally and personally damning complaint. He looked right into my eyes as he pulled the report from a file beside his desk. “The adults present stated that this report was untrue,” he said. “Of course it isn’t true,” I replied. And yet he replaced the paper into the file. Later a coworker recounted a man-to-man conversation with this administrator regarding my time at the school. “I just don’t do well with strong females,” he reportedly said.

The following week I handed in my letter of resignation. My students were told I was needed at home and assumed I must be pregnant. A few of the girls hugged me and cried, the rest of them looked back at me with dull eyes. I was doing just what they had known I would do all along – leaving them behind.The buzzing stopped, left me numb from all the promises I had broken. I packed my bag and drove away for the last time. Pomegranates rolled along the road. I had only made it to November.

If You’ve Ever Wondered

If you’ve ever wondered why the school year doesn’t begin until after Labor Day in Chicago, the reason is that the buildings are so antiquated that few of them are outfitted with air conditioners. Starting after Labor Day is meant to spare the children of the City of Broad Shoulders the discomfort of August’s relentless humidity. Instead, we start off the year baking behind tall windows that open only as wide as absolutely necessary in a second story school building.

On my very first day of teaching, I wore a khaki shirtdress. A-line and tied with a sash, it was something out of a movie about a lovely young teacher setting out to make the world a little more kind, a little more grammatically correct. I don’t remember sweating at all. My students were bright-eyed and darling, except for a few misfits and one boy I most definitely didn’t like the looks of. Eight-year-olds have surprisingly defined notions of themselves and absolutely no way to hide them. The baddies are blatantly sneaky: shoulders sloped in, eyes shining with naughtiness as they shoot sideways glances, always laughing with their mouths shut tight. This boy’s mother would be a headache for the entire school year – passive-aggressive emails, insincere smiles, tests returned with little handwritten questions posing as statements: “Mikey doesn’t recall learning it this way in second grade.” Poor Mikey, I got off easy only answering to her for a year of my life.

I don’t remember sweating my first day of teaching, or very many days at all that first year. Ever the contrarian, I breezed through my rookie year seeing success at every turn, innovating just enough to interest administration while still towing the line. The deck was stacked in my favor, of course, but I wouldn’t know the extent of it ’till the following year.

My mentor was also my teaching partner. We had met over the summer in her northside home, bees buzzing around our iced coffees. She encouraged me to think up a theme for my classroom. She shared every last resource she’d gathered and used in the past several years. She split the curriculum down the middle and we planned it together. I have a wonderful picture of the two of us, head to head, on that first day with me in my khaki shirtdress. Our rooms shared a wall that could be folded and pushed aside, which we did to foster collaboration between the classes, but more often to keep an eye out while the other went to the loo.

There were a number of afternoons I stood at the wall red-faced and sputtering retorts to Mikey’s mom that would later be carefully whittled down and sucked dry of all spitfire, then punted back via email with the principal CC’d. Sometimes she couldn’t help me, though, like when I accidentally filled the tank of our beloved class Beta with water that was too cold and he floated pathetically to the top, flipping his tail a bit. “Just take him away from me. I can’t bear to look. It’s too sad.” The fish later recovered, so I learned to do some things on my own.

There is a special power wielded by teachers using a red pen and letters of the alphabet. Adults understand the limits of this power, but children with their magical thinking can take things much too far. For some, the letters came like coins from the tooth fairy. For others, they were a symbol of the world’s unfairness. A not-yet-understood example of the lie that trying your best is always good enough. Emily had a particularly hard time swallowing these letters. They were never the ones she wanted – the A’s with their pinnacle; their ascending, symmetrical grace. She was an average student. She believed she was trying her very best and so did I and so did her parents. She crumpled under criticism. But Emily had this incredibly fascinating capacity for cutting away the fat when she spoke. Also when she wrote. But she never got an A, so she “wasn’t a good writer”. Adults understand the limits of a rubric, but still we stretch the students out on them like a form of medieval torture.

In November we got two new students in our classroom. One of them was difficult with a capital D. We could even call him Defiant, only he never threw anything, so that might be an overstatement in this day and age. Our lengthy sidebars regarding his behavior became tedious to my other students, patiently awaiting their lesson (yes, stacked deck). Eventually, Emily raised her hand and spoke directly to Capital D: “You know, D, I have a lot to learn this year and every time you interrupt Mrs. Garrison you keep me from learning what I need to know.” I was so incredibly proud of her – for asserting herself, her goals. But when the honor’s reception came around she couldn’t attend. Not enough A’s.

On the last day of school I put my beloved green viney plant in the back of my car. The greenhouse effect was somehow unfriendly to the poor thing and when I returned a few hours later it was black. Just completely black. I was wearing the shoes I wore on the first day of school but that day the glue attaching the wedged heel to the sole came undone. I cleverly reattached it using my stapler and managed to get through that day okay. Some of the students in the grade below came to me wondering why they hadn’t been placed in my classroom. “I’m not teaching here next year,” I told them.

“Where are you teaching?”


Five days later the wheels went up and my plane headed west where I would rejoin my husband. His residency had begun a few weeks prior, leaving me couch-hopping as I planned end-of-the-year reflections and read final essays.

Notice and Note for Primary Grades: Why Not?!

In my last post, I shared the success I’ve had in weaving close reading into our reading instruction in 2nd grade. The act of reading text multiple times with support has a clear advantage for primary readers in regards to fluency, vocabulary development and comprehension. Once I got the basics down, I started looking around for literature on close reading that would guide my mini-lessons.

Once I got my hands on Notice and Note I knew it was exactly what I had been searching for, even though it is written for grades 4+.

The authors polled teachers in grades 4-12 to compile a list of the most frequently studied novels and then began to look for similarities in plot, character development and theme. What resulted was a set of “signposts”. As drivers, when we encounter a sign such as this we know what is about to happen and change our driving accordingly.


Similarly, successful readers can read the signs that the author leaves behind to know what’s coming in the text and change their thinking accordingly.

My favorite example that I have been able to apply to many of our read-alouds is the “Again and Again” signpost because it seemed most relevant to real life. If I need my husband to remember that we have plans on Saturday, I can’t expect that mentioning this once will be enough to ensure he remembers. Delicately, careful not to nag, I weave the mention of those plans into several conversations because it’s important to me that he keeps those plans in mind when he schedules other things. My kiddos responded well to this story and could certainly relate to such tactics being used by their own mothers.

Similarly, authors will mention things “Again and Again” and when they do we must ask ourselves: What is it that they want us to understand and why is it so important to the author that we understand it?


To teach this to my second graders, I created a mini-lesson using the book Sheila Rae, the Brave in which the author repeats some variation of “Sheila Rae wasn’t afraid of anything” on nearly every page. Very quickly my students picked up on the repetition. During my first attempts at close reading I might have been satisfied simply by the fact that they’d noticed it, but Notice and Note had me expecting more from such a realization.

What do you think the author wants to make sure that you understand about Sheila in the first part of this book?

Through turning and talking, my students were able to articulate that the author really wanted us to understand that Sheila Rae was brave.

Why do you think that the author, Kevin Henkes, felt that he had to work so hard to make sure that we believed that Sheila Rae was very brave?

From here, with guidance, my students acknowledged that mice are not often thought to be brave, but rather shy and timid. Upon finishing the book, I shared my thoughts aloud that when Sheila Rae became scared, I was quite surprised. Even though it shouldn’t really surprise me that a baby mouse would feel afraid when she was lost in the woods. I was surprised because Henkes had completely convinced me that Sheila Rae wasn’t afraid of anything. He had convinced me by saying so “Again and Again.”

The practice of repetition is so common in books for young readers that noticing “Again and Again” signpost was the perfect mini-lesson for my 2nd graders. My students are now independently noticing this practice and discussing its purpose in our shared read-alouds and their own texts. Thanks to Notice and Note, the highest purpose of close reading has come to fruition in my classroom: my students are reading like writers.

I began to ask myself: What other signposts can work for the primary grades? And why do the strategies and Notice and Note seem to be written exclusively for grades 4+?

I have had similar success with mini-lessons on…

  • “Word of the Wiser”, where another character gives the main character advice as in Strega Nona by Toni dePaolo and
  • “Memory Moment”, where the author reveals a memory or a flashback to share important information with the reader, which happens throughout the book Holes by Louis Sachar.


Admittedly, some of the signposts do not occur as frequently with the text complexity that is typically encountered by primary grades, such as “Ah Ha Moments” and “Contrasts and Contradictions”.

However, I think there is a treasure trove of other signposts waiting to be recognized in picture books and chapter books for primary readers. 

For example, I’ve taught a signpost lesson to help them notice “plot twists” – or events in the text that go differently than the main character expected, such as when Ramona cracks a raw egg on her head (intending to merely remove the shell of a hard-boiled egg) in Ramona Quimby, Age 8. Or when Wilbur – taking the suggestion of the goose – breaks free from his pen and discovers that freedom is not at all what he thought it would be. (Charlotte’s Web)

It was clear to us that the way a character responds to a “plot twist” tell us A LOT about the character. They can indicate a starting or ending point in the equation of how a character changes over the course of the text.

I’m working on developing a few more as we wind our way through many amazing texts this year. Though my second graders are not yet automatically reaching for the author’s intent when reading or discussing a text, our modeled think-alouds lead to richer dialogue and a deeper understanding of the text as a whole.

Where is close reading taking your primary learners? Are you searching for a higher purpose in all that re-reading? Leave your comments below.

How to Make or Break Close Reading in the Primary Classroom


A quick google search of “Teacher Blog Close Reading” will yield an abundant harvest of graphic organizers, posters, passages and book recommendations. It’s hard to believe that just a few short years ago, many of us were cautiously dipping a toe in the waters of close reading. Now it seems that Common Core ELA and Close Reading are synonymous. This can be a dangerous over-simplification, especially if teachers aren’t sure why they are re-reading a text multiple times with their students.

That being said, I am often exasperated with the timidity of educators and coaches in bringing close reading into the primary classroom. Just because your earliest memory of annotating text and rereading for meaning was in high school or college does not mean my kiddos aren’t capable of doing just that (with a simpler text, of course).

I’ve found a number of consistencies between the practice of close reading and research-based learning experiences that are known to grow good readers, such as:

  • listening to a fluent reader
  • modeled think-alouds where an expert reader responds to the text
  • exposure to complex text
  • repeated readings of a text
  • text-dependent comprehension questions

In spite of these many advantages to using close reading in the primary classroom, it’s certainly not foolproof. Here are a few common mistakes I’ve learned from or observed:

  1. Please don’t close read entire books. Close reading is definitely about quality over quantity. Would you take your class to visit a museum and expect them to read every plaque on every exhibit? That would be drudgery, and so many asides could cause them to miss the overall message.
  2. Please make sure you have selected a portion of the text that is worth examining. The section that you share with your students can shift their entire perspective of the work. Imagine if you were to section off the Mona Lisa until all that was visible was her hand. Would that develop the same understanding of the picture as if you had chosen her smile?
  3. Please make sure you have jotted down a few elements worth noticing in the text selection. This will focus your instruction and help students understand what to look for in this and other texts. (Which leads me to…)

4. Close reading is NOT just re-reading a text multiple times. Or even going back to a text to find the answers to text dependent questions. While there are certainly benefits to multiple re-readings in building fluency, students should be expected to uncover another layer of meaning in the text with each re-reading. If their capacity to glean more meaning seems to have plateaued, end the lesson by modeling your own thinking and return to the text another day.

Like any aspect of instruction, close reading can become a part of our day where we are simply going through the motions. Consider, though, that like the stretches and strength-building drills of athletes, close reading can grow thoughtful, capable readers. And like a coach that keeps the game in mind, we teachers must consider the end goal of reading instruction: lifelong readers!

How does close reading fit into your classroom? Do your students dread it or eat it up? Leave your comments below.

Skill and Will: The Holes in our Bucket

In the few short years I have been an educator, I have found myself (at first, unwittingly) tilting toward reform. The needs of my students and challenges of teaching have circulated in my mind to form distilled practices and theories of learning. These methods have allowed me to see success beyond my years of experience, as confirmed by evaluations, comments from mentors and a quick ascent into ed leadership. I was fortunate to have been equipped with sufficient background knowledge and schema paved by my teacher prep program and early teaching experiences to sort, evaluate and study the successes and failures of my students, interactions with parents and other staff. I have filled shelves and purses and beach bags and suitcases with educational research and professional texts, spent hundreds of my own dollars to attend conferences and pushed through crowds to connect with other successful, thinking educators.

And every text read, every dismissal bell rung, every conference closed and staff meeting adjourned I have asked myself: What can I do? Students needs are not being met. Teachers are not being adequately supported to facilitate change. What can I do?

As I transitioned from the classroom to coaching and administrating, my library of best practices got lent to teachers, and my iPad began to fill with works by Linda Darling-Hammond, Bob Marzano, Thomas Friedman and Tony Wagner. In the next several posts, I will grapple with the widening gap in education, both socioeconomically and globally speaking. My summaries and considerations are my own and are offered only as a form of self-reflection and a means of soliciting feedback from others asking themselves the same question: What can I do? I’ll be attending the Next New World Forum next month in San Fransisco, primarily to hear Wagner speak (Eeee!!!), but also to connect and network with other reflective, progressive practitioners.

This summary of Wagner’s MassCue Conference ’13, where he discusses his book A Global Achievement Gap, highlights my key take-aways from the works mentioned above. Wagner, more so than others, responds to our shared desire to make change happen.

Three Considerations of the Current Educational Landscape

1. Knowledge is a commodity. “What the world cares about today is not what you know, but what you can DO with what you know.”

2. Careers are changing at an exponential rate. “Students today will need to find or create their own opportunities in the world.”

3. Student motivation is at an all time low. “The internet is the preferred learning provider” since it never dampens students’ innate curiosity and provides a means for them to create, connect, collaborate and create – which students do not find in the classroom.

A Summary of Wagner’s 21st Century Learning Skills

1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving. Critical thinking as defined by business executives is all about “asking the right questions. Having the right answer is no longer relevant, since the right answer will only be right for a nanosecond.”

2. Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence. “As we know today virtually all work is being done collaboratively, except in education.” It requires a deep appreciation of differences and are lead by peers through influence.

3. Agility and Adaptability. “The pace of change and complexity of problems favors those who are agile and adaptable.”

4. Initiative and Entrepreneurism. Those who take risks, stretch themselves and create opportunities for themselves are the only ones who will succeed. Those who are average, those whose greatest strength is following directions correctly and in a timely manner will not experience success in this “new world.”

5. Effective oral and written communication. “The number one complaint of both college teachers and employers.” “They cannot write because they don’t know how to think – how to reason.” (Dell CEO)

6. Accessing and Analyzing Information. This is the information age – are we equipping them to live in it?

7. Curiosity and Imagination. “The right brain skills will be at least as important as left brain skills.” (Daniel Pink)

Wagner goes on to discuss the need for our country to become a nation of creative problem solvers in order to restore and grow our economy. His work in Creating Innovators explores the patterns and experiences shared by creative and innovative young people. The practices used by the educators that influenced these young people were often the same practices that made them outliers in their field. The practices used by most educators today are “radically at odds with a culture of learning that supports creative problem solving.”

5 Contradictions in the Culture of Schooling

1. The culture of schooling is all about measuring and rewarding individual achievement. Whereas, innovation is a team sport.

2. Culture of schooling is all about compartmentalizing knowledge. Whereas, innovation happens at the boundaries of academic disciplines, not within them.

3. The culture of schooling is a passive, consuming, initializing experience. Whereas, innovation is all about empowering students through effective coaching.

4. Failure is the worse thing that can happen to you in school. Whereas, innovation demands that you take risks, make mistakes and fail.

How many of you have learned more from your mistakes than your successes? Why do we penalize that in school? How can we create a culture where not only is it okay to make mistakes, but that you understand that mistakes are the only way to learn. Where there is no such thing as failure, so long as you have reflected on your mistakes and apply what you learn to your next attempt. – Tony Wagner

5. We rely far too much on extrinsic incentives to motivate learners in our school. Whereas, innovators are far more intrinsically motivated. They do their work not because of a carrot or a stick, but because they want to make a difference.

Play. Passion. Purpose. The three factors that were reinforced by both parents and teachers of the young innovators in this text.

It’s in pursuit of a passion that we best learn the thing we now call grit: perseverance, focus, self-discipline, self-regulation.- Tony Wagner

“Teachers build time into the curriculum where students could ask their own questions, pursue their own interest, understanding that the passion to learn, the curiosity had to be nurtured with opportunities on a regular basis.”

Similarly, the adults in their lives impressed upon them that they have a purpose on this earth and a responsibility to give back.

I encourage you to watch this keynote, read other titles on ed reform and begin to do the messy work of asking difficult questions about the students that we are not yet reaching, and re-examining the desired outcomes for our students as as whole.


Elias hated writing. Baggy t-shirts, messy hair, green eyes like crescent moons above his freckled cheeks; he was just the kind of kid you noticed. He loved nonfiction and could wax poetic on Paleolithic fossils and had a Ph.D. in Lego design. But he hated writing. I knew this because when the class rosters were posted the spring before, Elias’s mom came by to pick up her kindergartener from my class and said, “Elias isn’t like Gayle. He’s not meticulous and over-achieving like her.” She said this in a way that was different than the tone most parents take when comparing their children. She said it to cushion his landing into my classroom – to help me build a realistic expectation of him. I already liked him.

It’s reassuring to know a few faces and names on the first day of third grade. The first day of school is that day where kids and parents and teachers go to school with knots in their stomach. But I knew Elias and a few other older siblings of my kindergarten students the year before.

Knowing my students well is a non-negotiable for me as a teacher. I’ve read books that say: “Know ten things about every student, five of them being non-academic, by the third week of school.” Yeah. But personally, I’ve never really appreciated those jigsaw, find-someone-who social assignments. They suck the social right out of me. I get to know my students because I want to know them. I want to know these people I will be responsible for educating these next ten months.

It’s also true that there is really no distance that I won’t travel to help a child succeed. That’s why, when I look out on my classroom of students, I never really see a “class”… I see twenty-five individual minds and hearts.

As sure as the sky is blue, our yearly writing began with the personal narrative. This is painful. We may as well start with poetry. But not roses-are-red poetry. Vague, teenage angst poetry. The intention is the same: let’s dig around inside with a microscope and see how interesting we can make the minutia of our lives. Don’t get me wrong. Personal narrative is the most powerful genre. It’s the way we learn about ourselves by examining small parts of our own life. But working off that summer-brain takes time, and when students look inside themselves for a story, they often struggle to see one.

Elias dragged behind; while other students wrote about baby brothers and broken arms, he sat and scratched some words down, bored to tears. His writing was boring too, of course. Since I wrote that you’ll know that I’m also not the sort of sunshine-and-rainbows teacher that thinks praise and a sticker cures all. I actually kind of hate stickers. What a pitiful token for actual learning. It’s like – here, you just sorted new information into existing schema, and reformatted a minor misconception, then utilized this new information in a meaningful way – have a shiny smiley face.

But… I do believe in contests.

“Today, I would like to take a break from our personal narratives and give you the opportunity to write about something you know.” This is where the other half of students – the half that thrived with personal narrative – curl their shoulders forward. Even though I didn’t say it, they knew what I meant: research report. (I’m like these kids, actually. I can write about myself all day… but content knowledge evaporates into the furthest reaches of my brain at the least mention of expository.)

“You may write about any topic you choose. You may do additional research using texts from our library and the computer. But here’s the catch: You’re not writing me a report. You’re writing me a script.” Now all my students’ shoulders are slumping forward.

“I’m going to choose five scripts and those students will record a Super Short Science Show.” They viewed a short clip of Bill Nye, caught a little bit of my infectious excitement and went off to the classroom library or their table to write.

I skipped the part where I told you why I decided to hold an expository writing contest in the middle of a too-long personal narrative unit, but you probably already know. It was five weeks into the first quarter and Elias had As in every subject but writing, in which he had a low C.

“Elias is saying that he doesn’t like school. He just wants to stay home. I’m trying to get him into Harry Potter, since I know he needs to actually read fiction at some point, but he’s just not interested.” I really understood Elias’s mom for some reason. It was beyond obvious that Elias was exceedingly bright. The system wasn’t working for him, though. School quashed his spirit.

That’s when I acted on something that I had always known. If the system isn’t working, change the system. It started with the Super Short Science Show.

Elias actually didn’t even turn in a script, and I toiled away throughout the year making short productions of student writing. But other students bloomed.

He eventually caught the Harry Potter fever spreading like wildfire through third grade. And he came to love school again when I added student-run clubs and reading groups, held a week to celebrate our “Inner-Awesome” and learned that his voice and expertise were valued in those four walls.

When you are willing to change your methods for one child, you’ll soon see that many children thrive under those conditions as well. Not to be completely cliché and become the millionth person to compare teaching children to growing a garden, but you may have flowers that bloom just fine where you plant them, while others struggle along. Some seem wilted, so you change the conditions. They brighten up considerably and the others benefit as well from the more sheltered, edifying environment that you’ve provided. But no one looks at a garden and says: I grew those flowers. The flowers grew themselves. The gardener just played a part in providing the optimal conditions for their growth.

So, that’s my manifesto. As a teacher, I am responsible for providing the optimal conditions for student learning. I believe that I am charged with educating the whole child, since their social and emotional well-being are not isolated from their intellect. I also believe that no two students are the same, so while I may hold them to equally-high standards, the support and encouragement I provide to help them get there (or beyond) may look different for each child. I also believe that if I represent myself as the ultimate bearer of knowledge my students will never become viable, independent thinkers that learn from themselves, each other and the world around them. Many times, the best thing I can do as a teacher is set the conditions and step back, watching and waiting for growth.

Academic Vocabulary

Vocab LimitsWhat resources, tips and tricks do you use to teach vocabulary to students? Did you know that in order to learn a new word, we need 15-20 authentic encounters with that word to internalize it?

Here are some tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way…

  • Use a multi-sensory approach to teaching vocabulary (nonlinguistic, too!)
  • Use visual cues when presenting new words (colors, images, connections)
  • Arrange your word wall by concept instead of alphabetically


Building a Reading Life

Check out my “Building a Reading Life” prezi here. Feel free to use or share this with your staff!

I had the opportunity to hear Donalyn Miller speak at the Heinemann “Bringing the Standards to Life” Institute in Santa Fe this past January. There are no words for what her talk did for me personally and professionally. I know we’ve all felt a bit mired down by the overwhelming task of incorporating the new Common Core State Standards. I have been optimistic about the opportunity to revitalize our school program with an increased emphasis in rigor, relevance and readiness. Donalyn brought me back to the heart of the matter with her conversation on building lifelong readers. I cannot recommend her work in Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild more fully. Each time a sit down to read them, I spring up after a chapter or two and go off to read a book or write a lesson about book love. She has inspired me to look beyond close reading, evidence and articles and remember what I’ve known all along: books are a refuge that every child deserves a key to.

reading in the wild book whisperer

ELA Anchor Standards

This past week I have been giving a Common Core 101 tutorial to my K-8 teachers regarding the structure of the CCSS ELA standards and major instructional shifts. I had received a few questions about how to read the abbreviations in the standards ELA.3.RL.2.1a is, admittedly, a lot of numbers and letters. I decided it was best to discuss the overall organization of the standards as opposed to the typical diagram of abbreviated standards.

I termed the 4 areas of the ELA standards “branches” to fit with my tree metaphor. I hope this resource can be helpful to other instructional coaches or administrators helping to familiarize their teachers with the Common Core.

Up next: CCSS Math Domains and Standards for Mathematical Practice

CCSS Anchor Standards blank CCSS Anchor Standards