My Bookshelf

Sunday, January 17, 2016


To kick off 2016, I was a guest blogger for the Nerdy Book Club.  This blog post considers the multiple types of texts that girls read (which are often overlooked in traditional school settings).  Read the blog post here.  Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Beginning Book Clubs

Now is the time of year when teachers often begin book clubs with their students.  There are various considerations for book selection, discussion, and management that teachers need to mull over prior to implementation.  The first being book selection. Selecting texts for book club can occur on a continuum from more teacher control to complete student choice.

Most Teacher Control
As the teacher, you decide which books would be appropropriate for your students.  You assign the texts to specific groups.
PROS:  Teacher selection ensures students are reading a book at their level.  Teacher has control over management of behaviors by ensuring that students are in a book club with other students that facilitate learning (e.g. positive behavior).
CONS:  Um, well, teacher control... need I go on? Students have no voice in the book they want to read, develop no sense of agency, and may dislike the book.  Reading is seen as a teacher directed activity.

Some Teacher Control
In this scenario, the teacher finds several titles for students to select from, gives a book talk to the class about each book. Next, the students write down their top choices and the teacher figures out book clubs based upon student choices (and/or reading level).
PROS:  Students are provided a bit more voice in their book selection.  They generally are provided texts that teachers know students will enjoy.
CONS:  Students may end up in a text they don't want to read or select a text based solely on what their friends may be reading.

Least Teacher Control
Here, the teacher allows the students to find other students to enter into a book club with.  The students select their text and create their group.
PROS:  Provides complete autonomy and purpose for students.  Students read what they want to read.
CONS:   Students may choose books that are too hard or enter into a book club based only on friends and not on the text.

Regardless of the scenario, for book clubs to be successful, they require upfront teaching so students know how to critically question and use talk as a device for comprehension.

Important Considerations
  • Students need lots of opportunities to practice discussion techniques in book clubs.  Use fishbowl strategies that allow students to observe critical discussions in action.  For example, have two teachers or a parent and teacher discuss a poem as students observe.  Or, video students in the spring of the year participating in a book club and show to the new class in the fall.
  • Remember that students need skills and strategies for how to talk in book club as this process may feel awkward for some.  Prior to beginning book clubs, focus on strategies that allow for the free flow of discussion (encourage no hand raising, teach strategies for when two people respond at the same time,  encourage students to respectfully disagree or offer alternate viewpoints about the text).  
  • Provide warm-up discussions for just 15 minutes each day and focus on prompts that will get students talking.  Pose questions to students that are controversial but allow all students (with diverse reading levels) to engage in discussion. For example, pose a group question like "Dogs are better pets than cats" and see where the discussion goes.  Did students use evidence to support their conclusions?  Were they respectful?  Did they question one another to add on and say more?  Of course, the interactive read alouds that you do daily naturally support this purpose.
  • Anchor Chart for Text Discussion
  • Create anchor charts for talk that facilitate discussion.  Encourage students to offer agreements, disagreements, challenges.  These talk moves enhance reading comprehension.
  • The use of roles during literature discussions such as "questioner" "vocabulary wizard" etc. can limit critical comprehension and roboticize discussion. Assigned roles should only be implemented temporarily, if at all.
  • Make sure students have (or create) a time table or contract for how much they are reading each day, when they are discussing the text, and when the book is to be finished.  Below is a contract I found online: 
Book Club Contract
  •  Lastly, students should embrace a mindset where they recognize that the purpose of the discussion is to deepen understanding and not just argue for the sake of arguing.  For more on this see a previous blog post about the types of talk that promote critical thinking.
In closing, book clubs are an effective instructional strategy that can promote critical interpretation of a book.  With enough practice and the proper mindset, your students will surely take off!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Reading and Writing Workshop: It's Time to Pare it Down

Let me preface this post by stating that I am an ardent supporter of the framework of both reading and writing workshop.  I first learned about Writing Workshop back in the mid 1990's when I taught in Phoenix and heard Lucy Calkins at a one day PD event on teaching writing.  Everything she said about teaching process writing made sense: provide choice in writing topics, give frequent and actionable feedback to writers, give brief mini-lessons, and cultivate a literacy community where writing matters.  Her approach back then was simple, organic,  and student centered.  I immediately fell in love with it.

Since then, I have been fortunate to attend several week long training sessions at Columbia University's Teachers College (for both reading and writing workshop as well as literacy coaching). These institutes were truly some of the best professional development I've experienced and taught me about effective frameworks for teaching and coaching literacy.  Undeniably, Teachers College Reading and Writing Project provides some of the most meaningful PD for literacy educators in the U.S.

However, what has me troubled lately is the joy-sucking literacy curriculum (workshop curriculum) that has been published by Calkins and the ways in which districts have implemented it.  In the process of generating big bucks, workshop curriculum has simultaneously turned both teachers and kids off to literacy instruction with its brand of over-intellectualized and at times, demotivating components.

So what exactly went wrong?  In a word: money. Profitizing workshop with the teacher proofed curriculum has been its downfall.  It appears that the framework of workshop, including the beautifully scaffolded mini-lesson, has now become basalized in the truest sense of the word.  Instead of teachers creating their mini-lessons based on student needs,  they must abide by the script of the program.  Sure, Calkins would argue that teachers should differentiate their lessons (for example by using the "if, then" units) and the curriculum is only meant to be a guide (a mighty expensive one). However, districts don't see it that way. In today's day and age, districts are all about standardization and want teachers to adhere to the "fidelity" of programs. Districts don't seem to really trust their teachers to know how to create lessons independently (or want to invest time in teaching them), so the script prevails.

Secondly, school districts please take note:  It's okay if teachers just want to have a conference with kids about the book the student is reading.  Not every conference needs to have a teaching point.  I will repeat that.  Not every conference needs to have a teaching point.  In fact, I just heard a horror story about a district where teachers must be able to recite exactly what the teaching point is every time the principal walks in the room and the teacher is conferring.  Couldn't the point of one on one discussions be to deepen understanding through talk?  Wasn't it Vygotsky who stated that language is the tool of all tools?  Couldn't we allow kids to just share their thinking at the moment?  Or perhaps their excitement about the book instead of being subjected to another conferring mini-lesson?

Finally, I think what I find most ridiculous about the Calkins curricular approach to reading workshop is this overgrown fear that kids can't fall too in love with a book for fear they may become "plot junkies".  Instead of allowing students to just, they must "push their thinking" in god awful reader's notebooks.  Here, they must create T-Charts about characters; analyze the minutia of character actions, and basically create a negative association with reading text.  I mean, when was the last time you stopped the book that you were reading in order to create a full page essay about the character conflict in your book?  Ahh...that would be never.  Don't get me wrong, we need to get students to linger in books and be reflective and talk about what they read.  Likewise, we need to teach important literary elements like symbolism, conflict, and theme. Unfortunately, the way in which workshop curriculum forces it on students is absurd.  We need to balance meaningful instruction with student's wants and desires as readers.   I suggest all workshop teachers read the study by Ivey and Johnston (2013) that illustrates just how motivating reading can be for kids when they are given the freedom to just read. Pure and simple: READ.

So, I ask all teachers to every so often skip the workshop Kool-Aid.  Or better yet, spit when you need to and go rogue!  Stand-up for your integrity, your talent, and of course, your student's identity as readers.  Take what you can from the original beauty of workshop (mini-lesson architecture, student choice, and gentle conferring) but don't be afraid to carve your own path for your students and yourself.

Now, off you go!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Ms. Anderson and the Art of Wait Time

Once every month, I spend a Saturday facilitating a learning cohort for graduate students who are pursuing a Reading Teacher license.  My co-facilitator is Ms. Anderson, a 3rd grade, master teacher with big glasses and a demeanor that immediately puts you at ease. The first weekend our cohort met, Ms. Anderson designed several community builders and created various open ended prompts to spark critical conversation.  The discussion prompts centered around students' views on teaching, personal beliefs, and even some fluffy ones (worst haircut for example) intended for community building. After witnessing a few rounds of Ms. Anderson's facilitation style, what immediately struck me  was her unbelievable penchant for wait time.  You see, she is a downright master at it, or as one of my students phrased it, "she's uncomfortably good".

What separates Ms. Anderson from pretty much most of the teachers I've observed (myself included) is that Ms. Anderson never jumps in after giving a prompt.  And I mean never.  Students will sit and say nothing............and sit..............crickets...........more crickets...and finally a student will speak...and then another, and so on.  After several go 'rounds of this sort of awkward waiting, students eventually realized that there would be no "rescuing" by the facilitator and that student voices mattered and were expected to be heard.  Most importantly, this rich facilitation style allowed all students processing time.  Our shy or introverted (who don't particularly like small talk) were further given a forum that built trust and a safe haven to respond.  In time, all students were responding more readily and comfortably adding on to other students comments.

In my experience, Ms. Anderson, is a rare jewel in the world of wait time as she not only recognizes the value of silence, but she embraces it as a key instructional strategy. As teachers, we often understand the importance of discourse moves but we struggle actually implementing them.  However, wait time is essential for student learning and interestingly doesn't require all that much "waiting".  In fact, the following phenomena (Rowe, 1986) were observed when teachers increased their wait time from just one to three seconds:
  • Teachers' questions became richer and more cognitively challenging for students.  Longer wait times actually improved the questioning of the teacher.
  • Teachers became better at building on student responses in ways that facilitated deeper student thinking.
  • Quieter students, who rarely (if ever) spoke in large groups, began participating more
  • Students exhibited more control over the flow of the discussion as discussions became student centered.
Research (e.g. Cazden, Mehan, Wilkinson, Alexander, Nystrand, etc.) surrounding effective classroom discourse structures is wide and deep. What's more, research has suggested that when wait time is coupled with exploratory talk, student comprehension can sky rocket. Indeed, the most advantageous type of classroom discourse is exploratory in nature (Mercer, 2009) where students build on one another's thinking, provide evidence for the statements, challenge ideas, and shift viewpoints when the evidence warrants. Mercer refers to this as "inter-thinking".

Unfortunately, what we sometimes see in student discussion (especially at the beginning of the school year) is what Mercer refers to as cumulative discourse.  This is also student centered but far less helpful in building comprehension.  It is characterized as the general sharing of ideas with a notable lack of disagreement or challenge between participants.  It's friendly talk but won't sustain critical thinking.

What's worse, in some classrooms, students engage in disputational talk.  This happens when students have little recognition of discourse as a tool for thinking.  Thus, students basically argue over view points but don't have evidence for their thinking and are only interested in being right.   Ineffective in nature, this type of classroom discourse won't build comprehension.

The most effective classroom teachers are like Ms. Anderson and use wait time masterfully while carefully prompting students to think around all sides of an issue.  Getting to this level of mastery requires hard work.  Ultimately, we need to lessen our classroom control and be willing to feel uncomfortable as awkward silences permeate the room. Yes, there will be moments where wait time doesn't work or the teacher needs to provide reinforcements, but by and large, longer wait times improve learning. So the next time you prompt students for an idea, channel Ms. Anderson, and just wait...and wait...and wait.  Trust me, your students will respond.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

5 Reasons Students Need a Constructivist Educator

Way back in 1993, Alfie Kohn wrote a book, Punished by Rewards, which made a case for educators to eschew behaviorist approaches to teaching and learning and essentially embrace a constructivist mindset. Unfortunately, despite Kohn's powerful prose, pockets of draconian educational leaders and "If you don't eat your meat you can't have any pudding" educators still exist in 2015. Behaviorist ideals (often couched under the guise of "rigor") fuel their approach to teaching.  Needless to say, I've been reflecting upon these two approaches to pedagogy and in this blog post, argue five reasons why constructivism is a rigorous, complex, and essential approach to PK-16+ classroom instruction.

5.  Scaffolding:  Constructivist educators scaffold the learning.  Before engaging novices in a task that is new or complex, the teacher models for the students how to complete it while slowly handing over the responsibility to the learner.  Scaffolding is essential not only for successful accomplishment of a new task but necessary for inducing risk taking in a safe, non-threatening environment.  Most learners (depending on the task), from preschool through college, benefit from this sort of teaching.

4.  Knowledge Co-construction:  Constructivist educators root their beliefs in the idea that deep knowledge is constructed when social language mediates cognition.  Critical thinking and idea exploration are at the heart of this sort of teaching and learning.  Dialogic discourse environments are prevalent in these constructivist classrooms.  In such environments, students talk more than the teacher, the talk is utilized to advance the understanding of complex concepts, and discussion isn't a hand bidding war.  Educators who operate from a behaviorist perspective employ lots of hand bidding because knowledge is viewed as correct or incorrect.  There is only one right answer and that can be found in a textbook or somewhere in the mind of the teacher.

3.  Rigor:  This buzz word kind of annoys me, specifically as it relates to education.  However, for the sake of argument, I suggest that constructivist teaching is inherently rigorous.  Does that mean that mountains of homework is given or that students must sit in rows while the keeper of knowledge imparts their wisdom on the empty vessel?  No, not at all.  In a constructivist classroom students must negotiate deep understanding, engage in learning tasks that are complex, demonstrate accountability to their thinking, and reciprocate with the academic community. It is therefore, no surprise that constructivist teaching is hard-work. Educators must be comfortable with silence and wait time, must know how to scaffold and conduct effective think-alouds, must establish healthy emotional learning communities, and above all must differentiate to meet the vast needs of every learner in the classroom.

4.  Intrinsic Motivation:  Recently, a colleague shared with me a Ted Talk by Daniel Pink on the role of extrinsic motivators in the workplace.  Echoing Kohn's work from 20 years ago, Pink argued (with credible research to back him) that extrinsic motivators are useless.  In a constructivist classroom, the goal of the learner isn't the grade - it's the learning - it's critical thinking.  Hence, students seek understanding because they are driven to do so and their curiosity is embraced. However, when pedagogy is rooted in behaviorism, the goal of school is to get a good grade, please the teacher, and unknowingly become a bullet point on a school-wide "data wall".

5.  Relationships.  A culture of caring is at the heart of constructivist ideology.   Students are respected, valued, and appreciated for the knowledge and experiences that they bring with them to the learning environment.  These experiences are leveraged and honored as important tools in the learning.  As Nel Noddings so beautifully put it, "The student is infinitely more important than the subject matter".   Constructivist educators recognize, and more importantly, embrace the power of these words.

In closing, this blog post is meant to be a simple and straightforward commentary on why constructivism matters.  By no means is the depth of either constructivist or behaviorist approaches to teaching represented in these few words, yet hopefully, the soul of the subject matter is.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Dipthongs, Digraphs, and Blends...Oh My!

So this past week, my pre-service teachers began learning about various concepts associated with teaching word identification: phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, phonics, etc.  As we moved deeper into some of the phonics terms, students seemingly entered a bermuda triangle of confusion, intermixing dipthongs, digraphs, and blends.  This isn't the first time these concepts have caused trouble so I thought I would write a blog post to help clarify the individual differences present in the world of clusters, vowel and consonant.  For educators who must take the Foundations of Reading Test, these terms are important to know and understand as they will invariably be referenced on test questions.

Let's begin with a basic overview of definitions:

Consonant Blends - consonant pairs in which each consonant sound blends together:

          b+l = bl (two sounds in the blend /bl/  b and l)

Diphthong (a type of blend) – vowel pairs in which two vowel sounds blend together to make a unique sound (the vowel version of consonant blends) (note: y can act as a vowel as in oy)

          o+i = /oi/ two vowel sounds, o and i are blended together to create a unique sound; you can                 detect elements of each vowel in the dipthong

Vowel Digraphs - pairs of vowels that make only one sound (no blending of sounds present):
          ea = one vowel sound /ē/ represented by two letters

Consonant Digraphs are clusters of consonants that make only one sound (no blending of sounds present):
          /sh/ – one sound /sh/ represented by two letters

Here's a graphic representation:

Vowel Digraph
Consonant Digraph
Consonant Blend
How many letters?
Vowels or consonants?
How many sounds are present? (is the resulting sound a blend of two sounds or considered only one sound?)

Create your own examples:

Another trick that may help you distinguish digraphs from dipthongs and blends is to notice how your mouth moves when you pronounce them.  When you vocalize a digraph - your mouth doesn't need to move. However, when you vocalize a dipthong or blend, your mouth slides from one sound to another in order to blend them together.  Place your finger on the corner of your lip and notice how digraphs keep the mouth in place while dipthongs and blends make it move.  Try it and see!

Now that you've practiced understanding the difference between these terms, see if you can explain why the "ow" in show is considered a digraph but the "ow" in sow is considered a dipthong.  If you can answer this you're well on way to understanding the clusters discussed in this blog.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Book Review: The Reading Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo

Ohhh, I love the month of September.  Everything feels new again and I am typically hopeful for a positive and healthy new school year.  To be honest, this past summer, I did only a bit of professional reading and not nearly as much as I would've liked to. And like many of you, I really needed a hiatus from an uber stressful school year that I couldn't put behind me fast enough.  And so now I am off to new beginnings; refreshed and loving my job once again.

Today, a book arrived in my mailbox titled the The Reading Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo. Having been a big fan of Serravallo's text, Conferring with Readers, I was thrilled to see she had published a book about teaching a diversity of strategies to wide variety of readers.  Within this text, Serravallo has included a whopping 300 strategies to teach readers and writers at all levels, from emergent through proficient levels.  The content is diverse with skills and strategies for book handling, word recognition, fluency, comprehension, partner work, stamina, and on and on.

What differentiates this text from many other well meaning teacher books is that Serravallo's lessons are straightforward, clear, and and realistic to implement.  Intentionally brief, each lesson is approximately a page in length, matched to a reading level and genre, sites the skill that is the focus, and contains helpful teaching prompts for instruction.  Teachers who utilize frameworks like The Daily Five or Reading Workshop can really depend upon this text to facilitate whole group lessons, strategy groups,  and conferring.

Lastly, what is especially cool about this text is that each lesson includes a corresponding anchor chart or student work example.   I admit, I am an anchor chart junkie and this text will come in ridiculously handy for ideas.  The anchor charts Jennifer provides are simple, facilitate academic language, and you don't need an art degree to reproduce them.  Most importantly, they are useful and can facilitate growing readers and writers.

All in all, I highly recommend this book for both pre-service and practicing educators.

Happy September!