In the meantime, let's put our hands together, to pray, to remember, to retell this beautiful life that had so much meaning!
|Welcome to Lit Together|
I just heard the devastating news that my dear friend and mentor Kathleen Tolan passed away peacefully in her sleep last night. Kathleen was the Deputy Director for Reading at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. Her leadership and brilliance in the field of reading taught so many of us about what it means to be teachers. Right now, the sudden passing of this champion of children is a bit much to comprehend. I hope to share more here very soon!
In the meantime, let's put our hands together, to pray, to remember, to retell this beautiful life that had so much meaning!
It's back!! The second year of teacher leader workshops is on...and it's free!
All our courses are taught after school by teachers, coaches, and principals around the state! Our theme is engagement as a continuation of our summer institutes.
There will be a kickoff workshop at Barnes & Noble of Paramus that you can sign up for on January 12th.
Please join us in this exciting venture!
As many of you know, this past December, I had an accident while hanging Christmas lights. I broke both of my arms in different places, and was home for a long time recuperating. While at home, I began an intensive amount of occupational therapy to gain my strength and range of motion back.
Three times a week, I visit the wonderful people at Accelerated Hand Therapy of Morristown, where they give me lots of activities to do. I stretch to touch blocks to the top of my head, I bounce weighted balls on trampolines, and play with putty. As a warm-up, I have to dip my elbow into paraffin, a hot wax that's about 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and the therapists stretch and bend my elbows and wrists.
I also have to wear this JAS splint three times a day for 30 minutes. It stretches and bends my arm, and I can't move while it's on. The intense stretching it gives me helps me gain back my range of motion.
This is the DynaSplint. I have to wear it for 4-6 hours a day. You need a special key to align the Robocop bars on the outside. I sleep in this one, which allows for stretching which tolerates motion while it's being worn.
Both of these splints hurt while I wear them, but when all is said and done, they help me increase the range of motion in my right arm. Wearing these two types of splints intermittently is considered an aggressive type of therapy, but it's necessary, because like most elbow fractures, my injury was pretty bad.
Immediately following the accident, my range of motion was severely limited. The surgery I had, the therapy, and these splints are all part of a comprehensive healing plan to help me gain back what I had lost. Part of the whole process is measuring the number of degrees I can bend my elbow at any given time. Right after the accident, I was able to bend my right arm about 50 degrees (remember, that 90 degrees makes a right angle). Thanks to all the parts of this healing plan, I can now bend about 100 degrees (bending at 120-140 degrees is normal activity). This growth ebbs and flows. There are weeks with significant improvement, and there are plateaus. I'm in one of those right now.
After a particularly grueling day of therapy, my therapist got out the handy protractor to measure my range of motion. 100. Again. No growth. "Numbers aren't everything," she reminds me. Let's think about the function of your arm. What are you able to do now that you couldn't do before?
I've begun to touch the top of my head. In recent weeks, I've learned again to eat with a long fork with my right hand. I can brush my teeth if I concentrate. Scratching my nose is easier than it was. Yes, scratching my nose! But these are small successes, equally important in the process of healing, of growth.
It's so easy to get caught up in the numbers game. Kids do this. Parents too. They see others around them reading at higher levels. Even the most authentic rubric tempts us to get better and better numbers each time. It's tempting for us to become frustrated when we don't get highly effective on our own evaluations. When talking to our students, or talking to our evaluators, whether about kids' learning or our own, instead of focusing on the level, the score, the number, let the conversation take stock of what we've learned. "You're able to make your voice sound like a character." "Look at the way you're putting more internal story into your writing." "See all this new rich vocabulary you're using!" "I can't believe how attractive your charts have become!" "How have you integrated the work of this professional book?" "You're really adding to your teaching through our coaching sessions!"
When we don't focus on the number, but on our function as learners, as teachers, and as arm-users, we can more readily see how we've grown...and what our next steps will be!
This is Kende, my big first grader! Every night, Kende has reading homework, where he needs to read for at least 20 minutes. Over the last few months, Kende has discovered nonfiction books, and has fallen in love with it! In reading with him, I've rediscovered some important truths about reading.
A few nights ago, Kende read a book about his favorite animal, tigers. Yes, tigers end up on his homework reading log at least twice a week in some form or another. He knows so much about tigers, and he shared with me how reading about them doesn't even feel like homework anymore! I paused and shared with him that there are schools where kids don't actually get to choose the books they read.
Kende looked at me in disbelief. "Why would that happen?" he asked. "There are some schools that just don't have enough books. There are others where teachers don't think their kids are smart enough to choose what to read. And there are others where kids aren't allowed to read books; they just do worksheets for homework!" Kende rolled his eyes, thinking I was telling stories!
I actually was telling a story. It's the same story that's been told for years. Heroically by teachers who offer their students choice, because they know that's such an important part in creating lifelong readers. Famously by Donalyn Miller and the authors of The Teacher You Want to Be, who remind us that authentic choice leads to engagement in reading. Infamously by our generation of students who grew up without choice, and who didn't identify with being readers. We only read books that would turn into book reports. We only identified with the color level of our SRA tests. Fortunately, this story has a much happier ending for many of our kids today!
Next lesson. While reading his book on tigers, Kende arrived at this page called, "Dangers to Tigers." He read the first line, "Few animals hunt adult tigers." Kende paused, because this line challenged his understanding of tigers. It was a long, almost uncomfortable pause. "Who are they?" he asked. Knowing that tigers are apex predators at the top of the food chain, he got up, and headed for the computer. He opened up Google, and thought of the words to type in. "What...animals...eat...adult...tigers?"
He found this site, which explained that although tigers are apex predators, hunters at the top of the food chain, even they are killed sometimes when their territories overlap with those of other animals. He read on that sometimes their habitats overlap with the territories of hyenas, which can attack them. "Wait a second...hyenas and tigers? They don't live together."
"What words should we use to find out?" I asked. "Hyena...habitats." Sure enough, right here, he found that hyenas' habitats include forests and mountains, where there might be tigers! When their territories overlap, tigers might get eaten.
Today, March 14th is Albert Einstein's birthday, who was perhaps the greatest questioner of all! Kende was acting like a very critical reader who was doing much more than just getting all the words right. When we read nonfiction, need to question the text by juxtaposing it next to what we already know (or think we know!) to form new knowledge. Yes, readers of nonfiction learn new information, but Kende pushed it one level further!
Readers of nonfiction need to take both new and old information and use it to grow new ideas about the world! The text told him that sometimes, crocodiles sneak up on thirsty tigers who come to the water to drink, and kill them with their massive jaws. This is different than when a crocodile approaches a tiger on land. The tiger will usually kill the crocodile.
"Huh! What does that make you think, Kende?" I asked. Kind of puzzled, he wasn't sure what to say. "It seems like territory is important here," I told him. "Use that word and talk about this."
"It's like whoever's territory it is wins and can kill each other. The crocodile kills the tiger at the water. The tiger kills the crocodile on land." Yes! Kende synthesized this important information and used text evidence to support his thinking! He grew a new idea about the world of animals. Then he pushed the thought some more. "That doesn't make sense!" I asked him to explain.
He pulled up this video, which he had watched another day, in which a jaguar attacks a caiman right in the water, seemingly not the jaguar's territory, at least not as much as the caiman's. We grew the idea some more through conversation to arrive at the greater idea that maybe we have to redefine what the territory of the jaguar is, or maybe this is one big difference between the tiger and the jaguar. Now, neither of us is a zoologist, so our ideas might be debatable, but we are synthesizing, reading with our minds on fire! How many of our students are reading this actively in nonfiction...in 1st Grade much less? How could we create such engagement without partners to talk to, or without choice?
Let's name what Kende taught us about nonfiction reading in this 20 minute assignment. He read the words, questioned them, went to alternative sources, assimilated new knowledge into prior knowledge, synthesized new ideas, supported them with text evidence, and further developed his ideas by talking to a partner! If a first grader can do all these things with a relatively simple text, just imagine the possibilities for your conferring!
Thank you Mrs. Stanton and everyone at Lakeview for honoring student choice in reading! Thank you Kende, for having ideas about something you love, tigers, that push your dad to grow new ideas about something he loves, teaching! And thank you all for taking the time to read this!
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!
You need a learner's soul, a teacher's heart, a coach's mind, and a principal's hand!