For the past decade or so, we've been throwing around the term professional learning communities to describe the way adults work together in schools. Roland Barth, founder of the Principals' Center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education describes four different types of adult learning communities in schools in his amazing book for principals, Learning by Heart (Jossey Bass 2001). While there are a great many schools around the country that are collegial (teachers teaching in front of each other, reflecting and giving feedback), there are others which are less so (teachers not really aware of what their colleagues are doing, often harboring resentments and professional jealousy.) Let's think about what a community is...and is not!
Communities are groups of people with a higher ideal at their heart of their mission. They have an articulate vision of where they are headed, and are so fluent in their beliefs that they are willing and able to support one another through its most difficult points. Crowds are groups of people with something more short-term, often extrinsic that holds them together. They're not primarily motivated by a higher ideal, at least not one in common. Because they don't share this vision, they're less able to support one another when they have trouble. Therefore trouble can cause them friction, possibly turning them into an angry mob!
So what is at the core of your community's beliefs? If you're a principal, you may know what you believe in...but are you sure all the teachers you work with can articulate it? If you're a teacher, can you articulate a vision you hold true? Does it match the vision of your colleagues or your school? If the answer to any of these questions is no, don't worry, you can do it! Here are a few ways to get started.
1. Hash out your beliefs by studying something together. Student work. A chapter book. A professional text. Anything. All eyes on the same thing. Then follow these three steps: Read. React. Talk about your practice. For example, when reading a piece of student writing, give everyone a few minutes to read it. React to it by naming what the student did in his work. Talk about your practice and what you would do next. When engaging in a professional text, read a part of it. React by commenting on the ideas in the text. Talk about your practice by explaining how these ideas fit what you do, not shying away from thinking of ways you'll revise your teaching because of what you've read!
2. Write some belief statements. Create a T-chart. The column on the left should read, "This I believe..." and the column on the right should say, "Actions that support this vision." For example, you might write in the left, "I believe in a student-centered environment filled with lots of student choice." You'll need multiple examples of actions on the right: independent book choice, lots of student work on the walls, student-designed classroom configuration. The book, The Teacher You Want to Be (Heinemann 2015) has 13 core beliefs written by the over 60 educators who visited the Reggio Emilia schools in Italy. If you're not sure what a good belief statement might sound like, take a look at the belief statements in this book. Sometimes articulating your beliefs is easier if you talk through them with others. Once you formulate them, you might stick to them better by writing them in the form of a promise to your students!
3. Teach in front of others. Yes. For real! Invite a colleague into your classroom and ask her to watch you teach. Go to her classroom and return the favor! Break the ice by giving the observer something specific to look for. Ask him to time you, to transcribe what a student says so you can study it together, to record the questions you ask, to gather data on student behavior as they read. Ask for friendly feedback. As you offer feedback, start off the (what might start as an awkward) conversation with words like, "What I saw you doing was," "How did you (name something cool you observed?" or "One way I try to do that is..." You'll find that talking about your teaching through this common experience will add greater depth to your conversations, and you'll be more aware of your own teaching even when you're on your own later.
A very good teacher friend of mine likes to tell me that one of the most important things for teachers is a sense of autonomy. It's true. Our individuality and artistry are critical to our work. However, there's sometimes a fine line between autonomy and irresponsibility. We have to make informed decisions based on the students we teach and on the teaching communities we call our own. It's easy to forget one another and turn our communities into crowds...teachers who as Alfie Kohn writes...share little more than a parking lot. Ask someone you work with to think about this with you. How do your beliefs align? Are the most important things you value the same? Can you live with what's unique to each of you? Most importantly, how does the strength of your unity and contrast in your diversity affect your students?
You might say we live in a product-oriented society! People compare their i-phones. Kids get bullied for not having the right backpack or sneakers. Donald Trump is running for President. Yes, we do live in a product-oriented society!
That being said, it's easy to forget about process in our teaching...and that's what workshop teaching is really all about! Teach the reader, not the book. The the writer, not the writing. It's not that I don't think product is important. Much of the way the world judges us is based on product. However, you'll never get to a good product, unless you work on your process! Athletes don't gain muscle and skill, scientists don't make breakthroughs, artists don't create masterpieces, unless they know what they're doing!
I'd like to talk about three important areas where we can't forget about process in a workshop world!
1. Interpretation. In high school and college, I read many books, skimming over the words and learning the "right" interpretation that the teacher told us about. Two moments in my student life helped me see this was wrong.
During my senior year in high school, Mr. Bodnar, who was about to retire after a long career, told us that he had a teacher who was about to retire after a long career, who once attended an audience with Robert Frost. This teacher asked Mr. Frost if in his poem, "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening," the snow was a symbol of life in an endless winter of universe. Mr. Frost took off his glasses and said that he was in a cabin, looked outside and saw snow, and wrote a poem.
During my junior year in college, my English professor, Dr. Gardineer, told us all about the official interpretation of a novel. Calling on enough courage, I raised my hand and asked, "How do we know that this is what the author really meant in this book?" She looked at me, smiling, and told me, "We don't, but this book isn't the author's anymore. It's ours, and we can interpret it however we want." How liberating!
Isn't that what Louise Rosenblatt taught us in 1938 in transactional theory? Readers bring their own experience to a book. That's why in my nine years in the classroom, reading aloud certain books every year, the class would have entirely different interpretations...because they were all different people.
When our students interpret a text differently than we might, it's so tempting to stop them and say they're wrong, but we can't...it will just make them stop thinking. Instead, ask, "What in the text makes you think that?" They might have an answer that blows you away. They also might not, in which case, you should teach into their process of thinking within the text, so they learn to interpret...these stories no longer belong to the authors, or us. They belong to this reader at this moment, and it's our chance to strengthen her for a lifetime of reading by teaching into her process!
2. Mechanics. It's so easy to view ourselves as the editors-in-chief of our students' writing. It is tempting to sit there and correct spelling, note fragments, and comma splices. When we do this, we're actually weakening our students' ability to communicate through writing, because we give them the message that they need us to do this work for them! We take the power of their message away. I'm not saying we should ignore dangling prepositions that pass us by (like that one! :) ) It's just that we need to teach the process of using these things appropriately.
Bear in mind that not all mistakes are created equal! Weigh the mistake against the writer. If you have a 2nd Grade writer who uses a semicolon wrong (something that is hard for anyone until about 5th Grade), you might have to let that one go. Depending on the situation, by correcting the mistake, you might not be teaching the concept. Instead, you might inadvertently teach them not to take the risk of using that skill at all!
Look for trends in the mistake, and teach toward the pattern. If your writer is ignoring commas in the middle of a compound sentence (look it up in case you don't remember!), find multiple instances of it in the writing and model how to fix it (if it's indeed age appropriate) with one or two sentences, and allow the student to go back and find it multiple times. The fact that it's a trend in the student's writing shows that this type of sentence is something he is gesturing toward (dangling preposition, sorry!), and therefore he is ready to learn it.
Finally, talk about how this type of sentence adds power to the writing! Why might you choose to have one long, luxurious sentence instead of a series of very short ones? Why might you ask a rhetorical question instead of stating an obvious fact? Talk about the craft associated with the sentence type, rather than just the black and white nature of the words and the marks around them.
3. Writing about Reading. Writing can be an important tool in growing ideas about the books we read. It's just a tool though, part of a process...so it shouldn't be evaluated as a product of its own! When we grade writing about reading, or dictate which type should be used on any given day by any given student, it becomes another hoop kids jump through to please the teacher.
Imagine you're a reading student. It's Tuesday, and the teacher has just taught you to use a Venn Diagram. It's Tuesday, so you must use a Venn Diagram, but in your book, there is nothing to compare, or nothing of significance to compare. In fact, you might have already been on the verge of a reading breakthrough, but now this adult is slowing you down, or even confusing you, by giving you another silly assignment!
I also like to think of writing about reading like conferring notes. The function of conferring notes is to help you keep these important conversations straight, so that you can make the best plans possible for each student in your class. Some of us like to write paragraph-type notes. Some of us like checklists. Some of us figure out other ways to organize that work for us! Imagine being told by your principal that you had to make your conferring notes on some seemingly obscure form that she liked, but you didn't really get. That's what we do to kids whenever we give mandatory writing about reading assignments.
How will we know that they actually read? is a question I get asked often on this topic. Writing about reading is not the way! Kids will learn how to fill pages and pages (which is very exhausting for a teacher to read anyway...) without actually reading the text, or reading it and misunderstanding it. Soon these kids will just read so that they have something to write. Here, we've taught them the lesson that they read so they can write something to please us, when it's really about teaching them many ways to write, so they can choose the best way to help them grow better and better ideas inside their books!
So how do you teach this process? Besides modeling lots of ways to write about reading in your read aloud and minilesson, ask a student in a conference, "How might you use writing to help you grow this idea?" See what the student says. It might amaze you! Just like anything in our teaching, teach them many ways, and provide the choice that makes the most sense to this student at this time!
Process? Product? A delicate balancing act! Don't forget that a sound product is valued for being the reflection of good process, and that good process will yield many good products in the future, too!
On a site where most of the letters spell the word together, we try to make connections with others in this sometimes very isolating profession. It used to be that if you didn't have a coach, a staff developer, an instructional principal, a someone who could engage you in true professional collaboration right there in your own school, it was very hard to engage in collaborative learning. However, today, when you can't reach across the hall to a colleague, you can reach across the country through professional organizations and technology!
Over the last few months, I've done most of my professional reading online, via Twitter and blogs. On today's post, I'd like to share with you some of my professional friends, whose blogs I've enjoyed, and which have nourished my teaching soul. Hopefully, they'll do the same for you!
Vicki Vinton's blog, To Make a Prairie borrows its title from an Emily Dickinson poem, and offers us a chance to reflect on what's important in teaching and learning, in reading and writing. I think Vicki's power comes from not writing about one program, but about the real work readers and writers do. She is the author of many great go-to books about these topics, but she is also one of the authors who brought us The Teacher You Want to Be, and there is no finer voice to talk about what learning looks like on the inside of the student's soul! Sign up to follow her!
Two Writing Teachers is an amazing resource that was begun by well, two writing teachers, to provide resources for us. They now have ten (don't let the title fool you!) contributing writers who are teachers, coaches, and staff developers who send out daily (yes, daily!) tidbits on best practices. These are very real posts, because they are written by teachers who live their work every day with real children! Every Tuesday, they have their "Slice of Life" posts, sharing real-life reflections on well, life. If you want good resources for writing instruction, or for yourself as a writer, follow them!
Next is Kristine Mraz with Kinderconfidential. Kristi and I just missed each other at the Reading & Writing Project, but I'm so glad we got to connect in our post-Project life! A master kindergarten teacher at PS 59 in Manhattan, Kristi is the author of many great books, as well as a pioneer of mindset theory and the importance of play and inquiry in the classroom. She processes both what she learns at national conferences where she is often a presenter, or when listening to others, and what the 3-foot something teachers in her kindergarten class teach her every day! The subtitle of her blog is The Good, the Bad, the Planning: make no mistake about it...teaching is hard work, but Kristi's insights bring new layers to our work!
And if that's not enough Kristi Mraz for you, take a look at her other blog, Chartchums, which she writes with Smarter Charts co-author, Marjorie Martinelli.
Shana Frazin and Katy Wischow, TC staff developers have created Turn and Talk, a blog that always starts with real-life situations they as teachers, or the teachers they serve, encountered...with musings and solutions, always with great reflections about what matters. Their subtitle says a lot about their mission: Exploring the intersection between teaching about talking and talking about teaching! Check them out!
(Twitter: @sfrazintcrwp @kw625)
Welcome to the Poem Farm, where my friend Amy Ludwig VanDerwater harvests poetry and has a section called, Sharing Our Notebooks, breathing new life into these critical tools of writing. Amy really lives on a farm, and reminds us just how important poetry is to teaching and to life! You'll love it!
Donalyn Miller is a hero to classroom teachers, especially at the secondary level! She single-handedly fought the middle school "teach the novel, not the student" wave to become the Book Whisperer! She created a legendary classroom of high engagement for all students through choice. Her books The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild offer very real ways in which to create this for all students. Donalyn speaks regularly for NCTE and Scholastic, and posts right here.
Coach, Actually is a blog I just discovered where my former colleagues Christy Curran and Monique Knight share very detailed, very real, very relevant step-by-step plans on how to create classrooms that maximize learning with a slightly coachy spin! Their most recent post was about building leadership from the bottom up! It's just what we really need! I just subscribed. You should, too!
(Twitter: @christy_curran @monique_knight)
A little something for the leaders out there...Matt Renwick writes on Reading by Example. Matt has published books on technology in education, and blogs about technology, but also about reading with the spin of an elementary principal. He has a section of the most memorable blog posts from others, an A-1 reading list of professional books for principals and teacher leaders, and technology tutorials. A school administrator who's into learning?? Nah, it'll never work! :-) (Twitter: @ReadByExample)
Chris Lehman has taken the education world by storm with The Educator Collaborative. It has consulting services, online courses, and so much more, but don't neglect the blog! The monthly posts, many written by guest bloggers, are all about revising the way we teach and how we can implement positive change the right way!
Heather Rocco is a fairly new professional friend of mine. She has more of a background in secondary education and currently works as a K-12 language arts supervisor in New Jersey. She is also a consultant for the Educator Collaborative and Associate Chair of the CEL (Council for English Leadership) of NCTE. Heather's blog has good advice that has its roots in literature, research, and professionalism.
Gravity Goldberg and her team of staff developers and teacher leaders has a wonderful blog based in real classroom practice. Sharing the pen, this team has very sound advice for all, offered by multiple perspectives. You will always learn something!
The blogosphere (can you believe that's now a word?) is filled with so many new professional friends! It's impossible to list them all here. Who do you follow? Share your favorite blogs and Twitter handles right here, so we can come together, right now!
I'm dealing with some blog guilt...I'm like the bad boyfriend, the faraway uncle who never calls. It's been a very busy year. We had a beautiful new baby, moved into a new house in a new town, and then I broke my arms hanging Christmas lights, and surgery and lots of therapy that has since followed.
But I've thought about you the whole time!! :-) Really!
In each of these situations, there have countless parallels to learning. I promise to be sharing some of those in new posts in the upcoming months.
Just a few brief bits of news...
1. The teacher leader project is well underway. Although we ended up cancelling the launch day, we'll be holding a celebration day in the spring! Look for it. Thank you to all our group leaders and participants!
2. Many of you have asked for an answer key to the PARCC passages that were posted on our site here last year. The last thing I ever thought I'd be known for was testing. I don't have answer keys, and I will try my best to get that together, but there is a lot to be said for sitting down with colleagues and working out the answers together in a grade level meeting...as with any learning experience, you'll learn so much about the thinking your students need to go through by doing that, so try it out! It will definitely help you understand the work of PARCC.
3. I've also begun to tweet. You can follow me if you're interested at @tomlittogether. If not, there are plenty of other great people to follow who can teach you so much! I've learned a tremendous amount by following along.
So, we'll do lunch. I promise. There is so much power in learning, and lit...together!
We are very pleased to announce that the LitTogether Teacher Leader Project is officially LAUNCHED!!
Members of our think tank will be starting their teacher leader study groups on a variety of topics starting this January!
Please read the program descriptions attached here to see the various topics.
Sign up with the application form. Remember, participation is totally FREE. The only commitments we ask are for perfect attendance at all three sessions and that you share your learning with colleagues in your own school! Applications are due on Tuesday, December 1st.
We will also be taking registration for our kickoff day on January 7th, a day on fostering communities of risk and inquiry, taught by Christine Lagatta, Tom Marshall, and members of our think tank community!
BE THE CHANGE YOU HOPE FOR IN SCHOOLS! Join us today!
Teaching is such a lonely job sometimes! The mounting pressures in this fast-paced, high-stakes environment make collaboration seem impossible--but absolutely necessary! It is for this reason, we invite you to think together with us!
We are proud to present the Littogether Teacher Leader Study Groups! Some of the outstanding teachers and principals from our Littogether Think Tank will be providing after-school study groups on a variety of topics this school year, each hosting at their own school.
Topics will include very hands-on work on topics like conferring, writing about reading, mindset theory, and the best part is that the workshops will be FREE!
The freedom does have a cost. There are two conditions for membership in this teacher leader program. Anyone who signs up must attend all the meetings. Meetings will be held after school, starting at about 4:15 or 4:30. Groups will meet 3-4 times each.
The other condition is that participants will be asked to take on some sort of leadership role at their own schools to share what they've learned and grow new thinking there!
An online list of groups will be available here in October!
We are very excited to share this opportunity with you to build bridges in what were once very isolated school districts in New Jersey! We look forward to building these bridges (lit)together with you!
For some reason, the number 19 has always been my lucky number. Just a few days ago, on May 19th, it was the anniversary of my college graduation, the day I became a teacher. In fact, it was the 19th anniversary! Yes, it was May of 1996. Bill Clinton was approaching the end of his first term in the White House. Friends was at the end of its second season. You could still walk up to the gate when meeting someone at the airport.
It's amazing how quickly the years fly by, and all the learning that can happen in 19 years. So in honor of this anniversary, I'd like to share here some of the things I've learned about teaching and learning. (Don't worry, there won't be 19 things!)
1. When you stop learning, you stop teaching. I remember thinking that once I got my teaching degree, I would be all right. I'd know how to handle every situation that would come up. I'd understand the content and delivery of my teaching. It would have its challenges, but all in all, I'd have it all figured out. WRONG.
In going back to graduate school, and through some awesome professional development experiences I had, formally in staff development and informally through professional conversations with colleagues, I began to realize that there was so much more left to learn...that there was so much I didn't yet know. It's a humbling experience to be reminded that you really don't know everything, but you need this humility to be a true learner. This humility creates drive in us that somehow helps us translate that into our teaching work. When you teach with a learner's soul, it's just more exciting, and that can give you the energy that will help you sustain a long career.
You have to do this. Read a new professional text. Subscribe to a professional organization. Visit someone else's classroom. Write professionally. Talk shop with colleagues. Do something to maintain your own learning. Otherwise, it's too easy to get caught up in the minutia that is a part of our world right now! Just keep learning!
2. Teaching is both an art and a science. Yes, it's both. The much younger me graduated with the same enthusiasm about teaching that hopefully all of us had. The 20-something me would say it was an art. There was something absolutely intangible about teaching...that the only definite was that it was indefinite...and that the world would never understand what it meant to teach. This might somehow have contributed to the rift between our field and others around us, leading to some of the changes that have made schools a much different place these last few years.
We have to hang on to the artfulness of knowing the avenue with which to bring learning to each and every student. However, there is a science to that as well. We have to be research-minded so that we can make those decisions wisely, knowing that there is an entire of field of research of the giants who have come before us or might be teaching alongside us today, that can scientifically inform our artfulness. We don't look at data, because we like data. We don't quote research just to do it. We don't work in teams and schools and districts, because it's some business model that's been imposed on us. We do these things, because collaboration improves what we do. Teaching is an art, and a science.
3. Learning is much better with friends! Engaging in this learning is so much more meaningful when you can do it in community. We try to set up partnerships for out students to work in. Tony Wagner of Harvard University tells us that one of major things that businesses look for in college graduates is the ability to work together. It's no coincidence, even in our world as teachers.
Face it. Teaching is lonely work. Although the company of children is wonderful, many teachers never have contact with their colleagues for most of the work day. Most teachers don't have phones in their rooms with which they can call a colleague to ask a question. However, we always tell our students that when something is difficult, it's best to work it out with a partner.
Today, the educational world is paying more attention to this. We try to build teams that can meet together often and have meaningful discussions with one another. I think as a field, we've come so far past the cooperative learning models that were so big in 1996 where everyone had one specific role to pay attention to. In the best schools, teachers are growing ideas together systemically, as one learning unit. Michael Fullan tells us in his 2014 book Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact that the key to improving schools is by improving teacher performance in groups rather than individuals. Teams of teachers can support each other individually, but we have to think in groups.
It's exciting to see teachers and principals working with colleagues across the hall, across town, and across districts to refine their practice! If you're not doing this yet, or you're not happy with the way it's going, make a concerted effort to reach out to some professional friends, and say, "I'd like to study something with you." Collaborate on something by talking about something that's perplexing to you. Visit each other's classrooms or schools, and talk about what you see or don't see, what you hear or don't hear, what you feel or don't feel. It will change the way you see your own work every day!
4. Approximation and celebration are critical to learning! As a teaching child of whole language in the 1990's, I was very much into invented spelling. This was the notion that a student's best approximation at spelling a word would suffice. I was young and naïve at the time, and thought that this was just about spelling words. I've since come to believe that it's about everything. We all invent everything we're trying to learn to do with conformity...walking, speaking a foreign language, dancing, cooking, even blogging! This is approximation, through which learners approach something they are trying to master. I guess I was approximating the work of a teacher by associating this primarily with spelling.
However, the more experienced teacher I am today sees that my work is really to find my students on a map, recognizing their approximation in whatever they are trying to learn, celebrate that with a specific compliment that forces me to name exactly where students are in their approximation, and then teach from there, meeting them at their strength. Just like in conferring, we compliment and teach, compliment and teach, honing in precisely with each compliment and lifting up with each piece of teaching. The trick of it is to lift just the right amount so as not to do too little or too much. Approximation and celebration go hand in hand in getting anyone to learn anything!
5. Finally, if you build it, they will come! Nineteen years ago, when the Macarena was new and Jerry Maguire, Twister, The English Patient, and Independence Day were your choices at the movies, our field was still in the midst of what we called, "The Reading Wars." Camps of educators rallied around whole language or phonics instruction. In the end, the cease fire of balance prevailed. Today's wars seem to be about text complexity. For this argument, I defer to Vicki Vinton's recent blog post. However, I'd like to make a case for thought complexity.
I remember debating with classmates in college, when interdisciplinary learning and thematic studies were so big, about how kids could or couldn't take an idea like explorers and apply it to the Age of Exploration, and then to space exploration, and then to their own explorations of characters in books or discovering a new rule in math or science through inquiry. Boy, was I wrong! If you build it, they will come! When we create classrooms that are rich in thinking, kids thrive!
When you create a classroom or school community in which children develop big ideas through conversation, through inquiry, and through courage that's created by taking away the fear of wrong answers, kids can do it. Sometimes, I joke with my wife that the 3rd and 4th Graders in my school carry on better book club conversations than the adult book club we really belong to, simply because we teach and believe in them. We give kids the tools, scaffolds, and the environment in which they are able to think their way through anything!
The world has changed tremendously in many ways in the last 19 years! Fashion is different. Values have changed. Politics, economics, technology, security at airports and in schools are all far different than we ever would have imagined them back then! Of course education has changed also! There are many changes that have come that are not so favorable for us. We can name those very easily.
However, in 19 years of learning about learning, I'm so happy with the many advances our field has made. We know so much more about how to push kids to think more deeply, and we've become smarter about maintaining learning lives ourselves that help our students get there. It's been a long ride, filled with both smooth and bumpy parts...but that's just learning, isn't it?
Has this ever happened to you? You get in your car to go to work, or the store, or someone's house. You start driving, maybe listening to the radio, maybe thinking about the day's events, or what you're about to do. All of a sudden, you're there. You've arrived without even thinking about how to get there. You remember back to when you first started taking that same drive. You used to have to study a map before leaving, watch for a particular turn that was easy to confuse, or look for the house numbers on the last bend in the road. How does this happen? When do you go from thinking so meticulously about every step to being able to accomplish the task with your eyes closed (not that I'm recommending driving with your eyes closed!)
This is actually because you've taken the drive so many times, you're able to do this with a sense of fluency! Fluency is the ability to do something without much concentration at all, because you've done it so many times. You can achieve fluency in anything you've learned: driving, parallel parking, mowing the lawn, cooking your favorite recipe, playing a song you've practiced on an instrument, tying a boy scout knot, any move in a sport, writing in cursive, typing on a keyboard, anything! The old adage must be true...practice makes perfect!
Malcolm Gladwell writes in his book Outliers that researchers have found that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to really become good, or fluent at anything. 10,000 hours! Mem Fox tells us in Reading Magic that in order for kids' brains to be ready to learn to read, they need to hear 1,000 stories, because then their pump is primed and fluent at how stories go and the relationship between print and the spoken word. Richard Allington tells us in What Really Matters Most to Struggling Readers that in order to maintain a student's reading level, he or she needs to read 2 hours a day.
In reading, there are three parts to fluency. Automaticity is the ease and accuracy with which we read. It's about not stumbling or stuttering. It's about getting the words right. Parsing is about the way we phrase the words. We need to break them up and put them together in groups that sound like the rhythm of spoken language. Prosody is the inflection and emotion with which we speak. Reading has to have the right sound based on the type of sentence, or the mood of the piece.
In writing, there are many aspects to fluency. Students have to be able to spell words without much concentration. They also need to be able to write as they talk, or better than they talk, or they'll realize that they'll write, as many of us speak, in short, choppy fragments. They have to have variety to the lengths of their sentences. While doing all of this, they also need to pay attention to the many punctuation marks they'll use, and how each sentence contributes to the overall meaning of the entire piece.
You can imagine how this fits in other subject areas: knowing math facts, applying mathematical operations, conducting certain scientific processes, finding something on a map, or looking up a word in a dictionary or online.
Yes, fluency is important, but here's the essential question to today's post...Wait for it...
Why is fluency so important? Is it just about speed? Some educational packages would have you think so! They market themselves as being able to increase student fluency in reading, writing, or whatever their subject is. Is it just about saving time? Yes, if you know how to cook well, it will ultimately save you time and allow you to do other things. But is that it?
With certain tasks, that is it! We want a mechanic to be able to do an oil change in under 10 minutes, so we can go home. He can then do more oil changes in a day, and make more money. We want the chef in a restaurant to be able to cook our meal quickly, so that we can go home. She can cook the many meal orders that come in at one time. However, is that the point with reading? Is that the point with writing? Is that the point with math, science, exercise, music, art? Not really.
When students can do anything with fluency, it allows them to apply the work to some greater cause. If kids can read fluently, they can achieve deeper comprehension. Writing fluency leads to greater expression. We can move toward greater depth in a process of something through fluency in any of these areas: scientific discoveries, mathematical problem solving, playing an entire piece, or winning at a sport! Fluency leads to a higher accomplishment. It allows them to become engrossed in the process they are undertaking. It gives them pleasure, a rush so to speak, because they're not expending all their energy solving words, remember what 4 times 6 is, or concentrating on every stroke of their paintbrush.
If you've gotten this far in this post, congratulations! You've got pretty good reading fluency, but you're also probably interested in the topic. It's causing you to read and grow ideas. You're reading with fluency to get the words right, but you're also reading with something called flow.
In a theory that has been strongly developed by former University of Chicago professor (and my fellow Hungarian!) Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (that might not read so fluently for some of us!) flow is the feeling of utter stimulation that happens when a person becomes engrossed in a task. It's just like when we say that we are "in the zone," performing some task that brings us pleasure.
In Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi writes, "Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person's skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding." There is a connection between effortless fluency in any task and the pleasure that you can achieve, something he calls the autotelic experience, internal motivation that is a reward itself!
Yes, fluency can lead us to deeper thinking. It creates engagement, immersion, and a sense of reward if we push students and ourselves to that deeper level. It's the motivation to do more and to do better! It's the drive that should be leading us down roads to new professional learning as teachers, never really mastering our work, because we're trapped in the four (sometimes fewer) walls of any specific program. We might feel fluent at teaching any one particular thing, but that means we have to do more with it to make our work as rewarding as it was when we started many years ago!
I often say that we're in the business of learning. That's our capital. That's the life we have to lead. Whether it's in increasing kids' fluency in reading or anything else, or in our teaching fluency, we have to push to the level of flow to create engagement, motivation, and passion for what is learned. Otherwise, we've only done half of our work!
April showers bring May flowers, right? So, April's poetry month is a natural segue into May's teacher appreciation! Let's have some fun with this next post.
Check out the haikus I have here that honor teaching and learning in schools. Feel free to post some of your own haikus about teaching and learning!
Teachers are heroes,
who light fires for learning,
and wipe away tears!
Turning the pages
is the greatest exercise
of the growing mind.
Add voice to your craft
and your teaching will remain
yours in harmony!
Testing, oh testing!
Stop taking our time away.
Oh, just let us teach!
Children: the single
best part of a teacher's life.
Our number one kids!
Join me. Celebrate.
Add your own five-seven-five.
When you do something once, it's an action. When you do something repeatedly to achieve something, it's a habit. When you do something many times, it's a tradition. When you do something many times and know that it's meaningful, it's a ritual! Today, I'd like to share some ideas for rituals that can help build habits and traditions of a literate learning life in your students and schools.
Start each day by reading something. If you're a classroom teacher, open up your day with a short read aloud. It can be a picture book, a familiar story, a poem, some nonfiction, a letter you received. Anything. In The Art of Teaching Reading, Lucy Calkins says that a reader's bill of rights includes the right to be read aloud to at least 5 times a day.
If you're a middle school or high school teacher, you might be saying you don't have enough time for this. It doesn't have to be long. Use that "Do Now" time that is so common to give students a chance to read something on their own or with a partner each day, or on predictable days of the week (once is probably not enough!)
If you're a principal, open up your faculty meetings or meetings with your colleagues by reading something...a piece of children's literature, an excerpt from a professional article, a piece of student writing. It will set the tone as a gentle reminder of something that your community believes in.
Highlight an author that you'll study. However, don't have a prescribed curriculum about the author. Make in an authentic exploration. Let the identity of the author come from the class. Maybe it's an author your students enjoy, or one who just wrote a great new book. Cynthia Rylant, Eric Carle, Patricia Maclachlan and the like are all wonderful writers, and you might choose them, but don't feel compelled, just because you've always studied them. In fact, only study them, if you yourself feel you'll learn more from the experience. This will keep the learning real!
Read their texts again and again. Pick apart your favorite sentences. This doesn't mean diagramming the sentences or overdoing any one thing. It means savoring them, posting them around the room for kids to enjoy and internalize during the day. Refer to their lessons throughout the day. Name-drop them as often as you can so that the students feel like they know them!
When studying authors, you really shouldn't use worksheets or store-bought activities. You should just read the author's work, try out some of their techniques, and live his or her lessons. If it feels too school-like, don't do it! If it feels like something you yourself would do to get to know an author, do it!
Make reading a part of your birthday celebrations. I did this when I taught 3rd and 4th Grade. Whenever it's someone's birthday, ask them to bring in something special to read to the class. Kids will bring in a poem that matters to them. Sometimes they'll bring in a nonfiction book about a topic they love. Others might bring in the picture book their parents read to them when they were babies, going to sleep, or the last book they got from their grandparents. Every once in a while, someone will bring something in that's written in another language, and kids can hear the music of the languages around the world!
You can also have the class choose something special to read in honor of the birthday person. We used to call this a literary gift. It allows kids to really be selective in what they choose, and teaches them that birthday presents are more than just the newest toy. It also builds the community of the class.
In the upcoming days, countless people around the world will celebrate Easter and Passover. These special days are filled with rituals that help bring a sense of meaning to who we are. Others who don't celebrate them are probably engaging in other rituals of springtime--cleaning, mowing the lawn for the first time, getting their gardens ready for new planting. When we engage in rituals, it strengthens our identity of who we are, often who we are together. Let's share some of our favorite rituals that we use with our students to strengthen their identities as readers and learners. This is perhaps our most important function as teachers.
You need a learner's soul, a teacher's heart, a coach's mind, and a principal's hand!