Reading Instruction Revisited

“Hey, Mrs. Phillips. Watch this. I can read with my eyes shut!”

Many years later I can still picture Tyler, an earnest and keen young grade one reader, proclaiming his new reading skill. We relied on pattern text as an early reading strategy and Tyler had mastered it. While I smiled at his achievement, I made a mental note to move him along. He was missing one of the key components of reading: the letters mattered and you couldn’t do it with your eyes closed.

The “reading wars” are back. Teachers who have been teaching through a balanced literacy approach are now confronted with The Science of Reading. Boards and school districts (and publishing companies) are scrambling to ensure that their primary years teachers embrace the components of the science of reading and eschew the balanced reading approach. Articles abound. PD is happening. And teachers may be feeling overwhelmed. Surely they were not “bad” reading teachers before.

I fully support the tenets of the science of reading. However, I worry that in our collective desire to do the right thing, the implementation of this approach to teaching reading will cause more angst than is necessary. Instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water, let’s look at how teachers can take what they have been doing and tweak it to support more students in learning to read.

  1. Pattern texts will not teach students to read. But they do help students figure out some very early things about reading: stories have meaning and the words go with the pictures; each group of letters is a word that makes sense; when you say the pattern, some words become recognizable. These are very early reading behaviours. We don’t want to linger here. We don’t head to have a running record at 92% accuracy. These books are highly dependent on a student’s vocabulary knowledge of the objects in the pictures and second language teachers have long known they don’t work if you don’t know the word in the picture. Teachers don’t need to throw them out but they do need to know that the books have limited value as an early reading tool.
  2. Rethink the three cuing systems to be a way of error analysis: what are students doing when they misread a word. For example, the actual word is truck and the student reads dump truck because that is the picture. Good reading teachers have always used that information to cue students to look at the letters and use phonics. If a student reads “the” instead of “a”, using syntactic clues, good reading teachers have always used that information to cue students to look at the letters and use phonics. When the word is “car” and the student stumbles, good reading teachers encourage the student to use phonics (let’s look at the sounds) and might have noticed if the student also looked at the picture to guess at the word. Good reading teachers have always made a mental note about why students were misreading words and what they needed to do to help them read the correct words. As we move forward paying attention to why students are misreading a word and then helping them to focus on the letters and letter patterns will move students toward solid reading skills.
  3. Running records can still help you.  I’ve never been a fan of analyzing all the errors in a RR but have always used a running record to see what kinds of errors a student is making and look for patterns.  As your knowledge of phonics instruction increases you will also begin to notice which sounds a student is confusing or missing.  Instead of thinking that a student needs to use more picture clues, you will notice when a student is over-relying on picture clues and provide learning opportunities for the student to pay more attention to the words such as making sentences out of words on cards.  But you still need a way to know how well your student is reading real text and a running record on the fly is one of many tools you can use.
  4. Inventive spelling in your writing program is still the best way to get kids to practice the phonics they know and to develop the phonics they need to know. Good literacy teachers have always used student writing to determine which rules a student needs to learn next. For example, an early writer will likely represent all vowels with an “a” at first.  When this happens teachers will focus their teaching on the other short vowel sounds.  Early writers will write the long e sound at the end of the word as an E (babe for baby, sune for sunny, pupe for puppy). When a student is doing this regularly, good literacy teachers will help them to see that two syllable words that end in a long e sound are almost always spelled with a y. Knowing the conventions of English spelling is key to this type of teaching.
  5. Differentiation is still key. Research is clear that all students use phonics and letter-sound relationships to read. But the amount of support they will need, the type of support they will need and the pace of that support will differ. While 10 minutes of fun phonemic awareness activities in kindergarten may be useful for the whole class, teachers will still need to pay attention to who needs extra practice. Teachers will need to be wary of class sets of phonics worksheets that do little to support students who don’t need them. And to be aware of phonics worksheets that don’t require you to read at all to complete! Just like always, some students will need more and some will need less and worksheets are boring. They were in balanced reading and they are in the science of reading.
  6. Read alouds are still important for students to develop vocabulary and background knowledge Choose read alouds that have a rich and varied vocabulary and on a variety of themes, topics, fiction and nonfiction.  Don’t beat the read aloud to death with too many questions.  Model learning and thinking and enjoying.

As you delve into the science of reading you will learn new things. I loved this article in 1999 and I love the revised version now. If you only read one thing, try Reading Is Rocket Science. Remember that you don’t have to tell your students all the stuff you are learning. Perhaps you have now learned about r-controlled vowels, and the different shape your mouth makes in saying different sounds, and digraphs, diphthongs, morphemes and phonemes. You don’t have to tell your students all this. Remember that for your students, learning to read should be fun. A quick internet search of “sound walls” has both good ideas (organizing words by sounds not initial letter) and crazy ones with way too much information for young learners.

Good literacy teachers have always tweaked their programs based on the latest available research.  But it takes time. As you tweak your reading program it is going to be messy. You will try things and love them and try things and hate them. When your students are successful learning to read is when you will know that your new practices are working. 

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The Best First Day of School

Which day of the year will you have all eyes on you?  The keenest students? The least amount of student misbehaviour?  The first day of school.  So, think about how you can capitalize on that to engage your students in the deep thinking and exciting work you want them to do.  Often we think, as teachers, that we have to set down all the expectations on the first day of school or the rest of the year will be chaos.  You do have to live and model your expectations, but I’m not sure you need to talk about them.  Maybe that class agreement is something to save until later in the first week.  By then, I suspect your students will have already figured out your expectations and the activity will go a lot faster.

Let’s think about the first day of school from a student’s point of view.  They are excited to be back and meet their new teacher and see their friends.  they are excited to use their new and shiny pencil crayons.  They actually WANT to do some work.  But frequently it is a day of “sit and get”: one teacher after another going over the rules and expectations.  Really, our rules aren’t any different than last year’s rules.  And most rules are self-evident.  We don’t really need to talk a lot about keeping your locker tidy since I doubt any of our students would think that our expectation was to do otherwise (although they may act that way over the course of the year!). Except for kindergarteners everyone knows you should put up your hand, and if you have ever taught kindergarten you know that this is not a rule figured out on the first day of school!

In some schools/classrooms, there is a feeling that we need to ease students into school with a week of fun activities.  I don’t think so.  First of all, they just had 10 weeks of fun activities or camps or TV or playing with friends.  Second, if you describe your first week as “fun”, then by default you are saying that real school is not “fun”.  You may want to have a few team building activities, but I would urge you to have them be within the context of curriculum.

Why not have that first interaction with your students be challenging? Be engaging?  Be creative?  Set the tone for how learning will take place in your classroom.  Pose a question, get them creating or writing or exploring or problem-solving.  Hook your students in right away.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Read aloud the best short story you know, or the first chapter of the read aloud.
  • Introduce writer’s workshop with idea generation activities so that they are itching to start writing.  You could even start writing. Do a quick write about what you didn’t do this summer, or the best small moment, or what you wished you had done.
  • Introduce a complex but open ended problem such as “How could you measure a puddle?” Or, “If all the  students lay head to toe, how far would we reach?” Or, “What are all the different ways we could arrange the desks in this classroom?  Why are the advantages and disadvantages?”  Or, “If we all joined hands, in the whole school, could we encircle the school?”.  Check out these sites for some great problems: or or
  • Get in teams and create an obstacle course that will challenge the rest of the students. Or, read the rules to Harry Potter’s Quidditch and figure out how to create your own version of the game (without the flying broomsticks).
  • Have some equipment available and have students figure out how to move an object from point A to point B without carrying it.  Or, review structures, movement and friction by having groups create a marble maze that goes the slowest.  Or, provide students with a stack of newspapers and masking tape with the challenge of building a piece of furniture.
  • Put out a variety of art supplies and have students begin to experiment with texture and line with mixed media.  Have them create and critique a piece in the first week that can then be their jumping off point for the remainder of the year:  what did they like? What would they want to do differently?
  • In any subject present a problem to solve by the end of the week.
  • Start the year with a week of genius hour where students can learn about and present about a passion of theirs.
  • Have students create a class song on their instruments or in garage band.  Show them a clip from “Stomp” and have students create their own number.
  • If you teach kindergarten or grade one, you have to teach them to “read” on the first day–even if it is just a shared poem.  Let them take a copy home to read to their parents.

Just start your course–but not by lecturing, or reviewing, or a really big diagnostic test.  Start by engaging your students in the kind of learning you want them to be doing all year.

I am sure for your subject area you have thousands of ideas.  Often I hear teachers saying that we need to ease into school.  Maybe that is not true.  Maybe we should jump in with both feet and just start.  When our students go home after the first day of school, we want them to go home full of excitement, joy and enthusiasm for learning.  It is up to us to create those conditions.  The first day of school could be the best day ever..until the second day of school.

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Make Every Moment Count: 14 Ideas to Create a Productive Sense of Urgency in the Classroom

As a principal I frequently visited classrooms. Sometimes a classroom visit flew by, but at other times I watched the clock. What makes the difference? Many things, but often it is the pacing of the lesson. When the time is dragging no one is enjoying the learning, not even the teacher! As we move out of the disruptions of the pandemic (fingers crossed), teachers around the world are faced with the daunting task of teaching grade level curriculum to students who may have missed large chunks of the last two years. One of the ways teachers will accomplish this is by making every moment count. In a previous post, I called this “productive urgency”. A fast paced classroom where students are anxious and unable to keep up is not going to work. A classroom with lots of down time and wasted time is not going to work. But teachers who figure out how to get students working, on task and feeling successful will be in a better place to make up lost time and close gaps.

Here is the blog post originally titled “A Productive Sense of Urgency in the Classroom”. I hope it resonates as we begin to plan for the next school year:

I actually get more done when I don’t have enough time.  I get more done when there is a structure to my days.  I think students are often the same.  We don’t want to overwhelm students but how we structure and pace our lessons can greatly influence the amount of work students get done.  You want to create a productive sense of urgency in the classroom.  Your students need to be energized and engaged in the learning.  You know yourself that when things drag on you quickly become less engaged and less productive.

Here are some ideas that lend themselves to students getting more work accomplished in shorter amounts of time or ways that teachers have organized time and materials to lessen the amount of wasted time in their classrooms.

  • Have a routine that students do when they enter your room to get them on task right away. I recently read The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller,  a classroom teacher who gets her students to read 40 books a year.  One of her tricks is to have kids pick up their book and read the minute they enter her class.  Some of our core teachers have implemented that practice.  It means that not only do your students get more reading done, but it also gives you some time to take attendance quietly, deal with any administrative tasks and maybe get reset from the previous lesson.
  • Or other types of “bell work”. The trick to this type of activity is that it needs to be engaging for students.  If your routine is that students review their notes from last class they probably won’t do it.  Here are some other things that might engage students as they enter your room and could possibly act as review:
    • Have a word sort on their tables as they enter
    • Have a problem to solve on little white boards as they enter
    • Hand students either a question or an answer as they enter and they have to find their partner
    • Have students work in pairs to compare homework answers – if they have the same answer chances are it is correct; if they have different answers they have to talk it over
  • Get kids up and moving during the class. Post some questions on the walls and have students go around and answer them.  If you have a method of students checking their answers after each question, they get immediate feedback.  One teacher posted different levels of questions on different coloured cards.  As soon as students got three correct of one colour they received that colored dot on their hand and could move on.  Don’t have the activity last more than 15 minutes.
  • Have and teach routines in September. Keep the little white boards in the desks. Keep the math manipulatives in a bin on the desks.  Have a bucket of sharp pencils.  Have the worksheets/duotangs organized for students to pick up as they enter.  Have a system for students to go to the washroom without having to ask you.  All of these little organizational tricks (and others) will lessen transition times in your classroom.
  • Tell students how long they will have to do the work: “You need to have 3 examples done in the next 15 minutes”  “Your group has 5 minutes to think of ten words to describe X” “In 10 minutes we will share 3 different leads to our stories”.  Don’t have the end of the work time be when most students are done; rather you set the time limits on the activities.  Of course you don’t want to do this for all activities; you don’t want to encourage speed reading or sloppy work.  However, creating a sense of urgency and having deadlines for short amounts of work will keep everyone on task.
  • Never say “If you don’t get done, then you will have it for homework”. Instead of creating a sense of urgency you have just given every one more time.  Kids, and many adults, are not good at organizing time and will just take this as permission to do it later.
  • Grab kids who are off task and have them work with you at the guided table for a few minutes. Assume that off-task behaviour is a result of misunderstanding and get them back to work.  If everyone is antsy, do some push-ups and jumping jacks or run around the school.  It is hard to sit all day.  While you may think that this disrupts your pacing, it is more beneficial than constant nagging to get on task.
  • Give small chunks to do, especially to the more disorganized kids. The whole page, the whole chapter, the whole story, the whole piece of music is overwhelming and impossible.  Their solution is often to do none of it.  Beat them to the game and only give them a small chunk and then a check-in.  They will accomplish a lot more.
  • Keep Learning cycles short. Try to create units/learning cycles that last 2-4 weeks maximum.  This creates “flow”.  It is easy to sustain interest in a topic that long.   It is more difficult to maintain interest for 10 weeks.  Interest is engaging.
  • Return to key concepts frequently over the course of the year through shorter learning cycles.  Students need percolating time.  Students need to repeat and practice.  Practice is better when it is spread out over time.  You don’t learn to program you car’s clock because you only do it twice a year.  So, instead of trying to teaching everything at once, pick up the pace but come back to the key ideas again and again.  Familiarity is engaging.
  • Ensure students have ample talk time with each other without it being so long that they get off topic. We understand that students need time to have focussed discussion but that when it is planned, purposeful and reasonably short, they stay on task.  Collaboration is engaging.
  • By providing small group instruction at either the back table or as you circulate among groups you are providing just right instruction for specific groups of students. Kids are hearing only that which is relevant to their learning.  Feedback is engaging.
  • Let students struggle by not telling them everything.  How can you create challenge and discord?  Do you create problematic situations?  Do you create inquiry?  When you provide just enough information to get students thinking but not so much that they are only completing a task, they are challenged.  Challenge is engaging.

And the last thing the 7 minute talking rule.  Very rarely should you talk for more than 7 minutes.  Your lesson at the beginning can include you talking for 7 minutes and kids trying things out for another 7 minutes but a lesson that goes much longer would be rare.  Mini lessons should be mini.  Set a timer if you think you are talking too long.  Pacing is usually better when kids are doing more and we are talking less.

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Teaching is really hard, and totally worth it.

My friend, also a newly retired teacher and I were reminiscing about our early days of teaching.  She surprised me when she said that she hated teaching when she first started.  “I was going to be the best teacher there is.  And then I wasn’t.  It was just so hard.  It took a good year or two to figure out all the little things that made a big difference,” she said.  “Like being able to move away from my desk, standing next to the kid who is talking too much or figuring out that I don’t have to plan so much for every class.  Learning to trust that I know what I’m doing.”

The early days of teaching were a blur of excitement and constant work.  I remember feeling like it consumed my whole life.  I brought every kid home with me every night.  I thought about teaching all the time.  And I remember never really knowing if the lesson I’d spent so long planning was actually going to work or not.  Of course, like my friend, I figured out the little tricks that make all the difference.  But we shouldn’t forget how hard teaching really is.  Sometimes we don’t give ourselves enough credit for the number of tasks we juggle on a continual basis.  Nor, as we ask teachers to implement new strategies and ideas, do we necessarily honour that teaching is more than completing a checklist of tasks.  It involves integrating all your knowledge about teaching, all your knowledge about assessment, all your knowledge about your students and classroom management, and all your knowledge about learning into a whole.  And that whole keeps changing as new students arrive and go, as you learn a new idea or teaching strategy, as you decide to add google classroom, as a pandemic disrupts everything!

So…recognize that teaching is not something you are ever going to “get” (sorry new teachers).  It is a continual process of reflecting and trying and learning and reflecting and trying again.  Sometimes, because we want to think “this has got to be easier” we fall into the trap of wanting someone to tell us what to do.  But the truth is, no one can tell you all the pieces.  You have to learn the pieces, think about how they all go together, try it out and start again when you figure out what doesn’t work.  And at that point you will have learned something else you want to integrate!  Teaching is really, really hard.  But when it works, it is totally worth it.  Even in a pandemic.

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Teaching in Covid Times – exactly them same and totally different

I am planning to teach an online “zoom” class. It feels like everything I know about teaching will work in this milieu and everything I know about teaching won’t work. The last time I taught was in Tanzania last year-in a nearly open-air school with dirt floors, snakes and a single blackboard with the smallest pieces of chalk I’ve ever seen. I felt the same way as I do now: I know how to do this and I have no idea how to do this.

As teachers we learn after a few years what works and what doesn’t. The early years of endlessly planning lessons, many of which bomb, you arrive at a place where for the most part you know how to do this. And then something happens, like Covid-19, or like moving to Tanzania, which throws you off your game. Part of you panics and part of you embraces the challenge.

Teaching around the world has changed (even in Tanzania I suspect although I left before the schools closed). It is both familiar and foreign. Teachers working virtually have new sets of challenges but so do those working in classrooms with social distancing and masks and hand sanitizer. As teachers we are committed to student learning and while lamenting what cannot be, look for ways to make this work.

I am wondering how to engage university level students are #zoomhausted from online learning. Lecturing into a screen with minimal feedback (and did they really turn off video to go to the washroom?) isn’t nearly as engaging as a live lecture where feedback lets you know whether to keep going (they are leaning in and laughing) or to change tracks (on their phones, heads down). My teaching has always included group work, turn and talk, figure this out together. Will breakout rooms work as well? While it feels comfortable to stop by and listen to a table group, entering a breakout room feels a little more intrusive.

But I remember teaching in Tanzania, speaking English to a group of girls who were far more comfortable in Swahili. I had to adjust my jokes, my pace, my vocabulary otherwise it was exactly speaking to a screen of blank faces. I had to work extra hard to get them to do group work as this was a new concept to my Tanzanian students. They could not believe that I actually wanted them to figure out the math problem together! I learned tricks like only giving them one writing utensil, allowing them to speak in Swahili, even to me, when they were discussing the question, and getting them to switch their partners around. It was exactly the same as teaching in Canada and totally different.

Today, teaching in our classrooms today, virtually or in schools, is also exactly the same and totally different. I am heartened by stories of teachers who are figuring out ways to continue to have student talk – through google classrooms, using Zoom whiteboards, with group chats, using Jamboard and padlet and student conferencing. It would be easier, I think at times, to revert back to “transmission teaching” or the “sage on the stage” where the teacher provides the information and the students regurgitate it back to us. But we aren’t doing that. Teachers everywhere know they can do this – it’s exactly the same and totally different.

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Five Equity Moves

My daughter has a significant reading disability.  As a parent I found it difficult to imagine how hard school was for her since it had always come easily to me.  As teachers I think it is often difficult for us to imagine the lived experience of some of our students.  Most of us got into teaching because we liked learning and school.  We want to recreate our great experiences with learning for our students.  But it is difficult to recreate that exact experience when we don’t recognize that our students may be experiencing school differently than we did.   The equity question becomes how do I create that great learning experience for all students, not just the ones who learn like I did?

The problem is big.  And the more I learn the bigger it becomes.  However daunting the problem of equity in our schools is, there are four small moves (and one big one) teachers can make that begin to address the issue.

  1. Think about how you partner students.  My other daughter, who loved school and underlined all her titles in red, twice, used to come home sighing that she was partners with “Tyler” once again.  I wonder how Tyler felt.  What did the rest of the class notice, about both my daughter, and “Tyler”?  When we let students choose their partners you can watch the social power dynamics in the classroom right away.  There are the few students whom everyone clamours to partner with.   Students surround them, pleaing to be chosen.  There are the students who are never picked.  But if you visibly randomize how you group students it is an equity move.  What you are saying to your students is that everyone matters and everyone can be partners with everyone else.  On top of that, there is research to show that it works.
  2. Think about who gets to work with you at the guided learning table.  It is easy to always pull the same group of kids to work with you.  You want to strategically choose who works with you, and some students will need more support than others.  But that certainly sends a message to the whole class.  I worked with a teacher once who created an atmosphere in her class whereby it was “cool” to work with the teacher.  She often started the class working with a specific group, which she tried to change up regularly.  But then as seats at the table became available, other students would come to their table with their questions.  No longer was the guided learning table seen as the place for the “dumb” kids; needing help was for everyone.  Allowing all students access to work with you is an equity move.
  3. Think about open ended tasks.  Time and time again I have seen students who are working at a lower grade level sitting off to the side with a booklet of worksheets. These students are definitely not feeling part of the group although the booklet was created with the best of teacher intentions.  When we have a variety of leveled texts or when the math question is open-ended with multiple entry points or when the science experiment can be recorded in a different ways or when you can choose volleyball or beach volleyball or ping pong, we allow all students to participate at their own entry level.  When all students are part of the class, it is an equity move.
  4. Think about how you have students respond.  How often do you ask questions and have students raise their hands to respond?  Every time you choose one student to respond over another, someone  feels left out.  “The teacher never picks me…” and even if that is not true, that is how it feels.  Students will make up their own reasons as to why that is.  And what about the students who just aren’t raising their hand?  How do they feel?  You don’t have to give up the practice entirely but it is worth adding other strategies to your repertoire.  Turn and talk gives all students a chance to think about the question and participate in learning.  In number talks when students have the answer they put their thumb up by their chest.  This is a much more private gesture which does not stop other students from continuing to think because they see hands waving in the air.  Providing students with little white boards so that all students answer and hold up their boards is another one.  When all of your students are participating in answering the questions and doing the thinking, it is an equity move.
  5. Think about high expectations – really think about it.  We all bring preconceived ideas to our practice, even when we think we don’t.  When I think back to some of the students I have had over the years, I wonder if I really had high expectations for them or if I quickly categorized them into a group in my head and unintentionally lowered my standards.  It is hard to examine our own biases but they often get in the way of high expectations.  When we know a student belongs to a particular socio-economic group, or has a learning disability,  do we have certain expectations, even if we think we don’t?  So, although having high expectations for all is a phrase we throw about, I think it is harder to realize than we believe.  When we truly believe in high expectations for all students, and we teach in ways that allow students to access those high expectations, then it is an equity move.


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Who is sitting on the edge of your learning organization?

Ever been to a party and even though you were invited you didn’t feel welcome? Or, perhaps you were invited to the party but you did’t really know everyone?  Or perhaps it was a sporting event and you didn’t feel like you had the skill level everyone else did? Or maybe you’ve been to a party that wasn’t well hosted and there were long periods of uncomfortable silence?  And  in these situations did you quietly move off to the edges of the gathering, not feeling like one of the gang?

It is the same thing in a learning organization at a school. Teachers who are seen to be resisters are often relegated to sitting on the edge.  “Don’t water the rocks” is a common phrase.  Administrators and superintendents who may feel that they don’t have sufficient curriculum knowledge to lead put themselves on the edge of the learning.  Even central staff like consultants and coaches are often pushed away as they are seen as threatening; in such cases there is probably not a lot of learning going on and no one wants anyone else to know.

But in a true learning organization everyone is  simply assumed to be “part of the gang”.  Not only is everyone invited to join in but they are welcomed in, at their own starting point.  The excitement of the learning carries everyone along.    Schools as learning organizations is a term that is bandied about frequently in education but often seems to be a moving target.  Everyone knows that is what we are striving for but how do you get there?   I certainly don’t have all the answers but I do know it happens when everyone attached to the building feels like “one of the gang”.

This came to light the other day in a meeting with a school administration, consultants and coaches attached to the school, system staff and the superintendent.  This particular school (low SES, low standardized scores, high needs) is becoming a learning organization.  What was remarkable during this meeting?

  • Everyone at the table could talk knowledgeably about the school.  Everyone had specific examples to share.
  • Both administrators clearly participated in the staff learning.  Again, they could speak to specific examples of teacher learning and changes in student participation.
  • The principal said that the system consultants were seen as part of the staff at the school level.  It was not an “event” that they were in the building.
  • The superintendent was as equally involved in the conversations as everyone else.  He clearly saw himself as “one of the gang”.
  • No one at the table had all the answers but everyone believed there were solutions.
  • Monitoring and data were part of the conversation but it was not a meeting about data.
  • There was a feeling of good will and excitement around the table.  Things were happening and everyone was involved.

I meet with this group frequently.  Although this feeling of “togetherness” has grown, it has not taken long.  Often we hear that a learning organization takes time to develop; that the hard work of forming working relationships needs to be done before the culture can change.  I don’t think so.  Relationships grow fastest in a culture that honours the work, sets a purpose and creates a sense of “we are all in this together”.  Relationships grow as a result of the shared work.

People tend to pay attention to the things that their supervisor is interested in.  In schools, students pay attention to what their teacher values.  We see this all the time; if the teacher values putting up your hand, students put up their hand; if the teacher values reading, the students love reading; and the list goes on.  Teachers are similar.  When their administrators value learning and are interested in their teaching practice, teachers also value it.  And when superintendents lean into the nitty gritty specific work of a school and show interest, principals pay attention.  This was what had happened at this particular school and some others with which I work.

But in many schools, with the same levels of system support available to them, there is not a feeling of togetherness.   There is a feeling of good intentions and a desire to create a learning organization but it is just beyond grasp.  Consultants and coaches are invited but not necessarily welcomed and sit on the edge.  The administration cites the business of running the school as a barrier to learning.  They sit on the edge.  Some teachers on staff are identified as “resisters”.  They sit on the edge.  The superintendent does not participate fully in the conversation, sitting on the edge.  When you have so many who are not part of the gang, there is not a learning organization.

So the administrators and the superintendent need to become part of the gang, not just the facilitator of the group.  They need to pay attention to the learning, be excited about it, ask questions.  But most importantly they need to feel like they are “part of the gang”.  And this is hard because often those in the highest supervisory positions may feel they don’t have the specific curriculum knowledge to engage in the conversation.  But those who take a learner’s stance, who ask questions, who are truly engaged in the conversation, who read the professional literature, who try to make connections between ideas – they are part of the learning organization, part of the gang.

So, who sits on the edges of your learning organization? Your learning organization might be your class, your division, your school, your area or your whole system. In any learning organization, it will only be successful when everyone joins in whether it is students in your class or teachers on your staff or schools in your system.  It is hard work to create an organization where everyone belongs; not everyone is going to jump in with two feet and it is easier to dismiss them as disinterested or unable.  But learning is about the what ifs and when you do create a learning organization, it really is just so much fun – like a good party.

What are the intentional and specific moves that you can make to invite everyone to the party, to feel part of the gang?  What are the definitive actions that you can take so that you feel like part of the gang?  Because if you feel like part of the gang, everyone else will want to join, too.  Don’t leave anyone sitting on the edges.

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Filed under school culture, school improvement plannig

Making a “quarter turn” in your teaching practice: little changes that have huge impact

The year my daughter, Jill, turned 12 she discovered cheesecake.   Jill’s first 12 attempts at baking cheesecake were dismal failures and our family ate our fair share of under-cooked soupy cheesecakes and over-cooked dry cheesecakes and there was the one where she forgot the sugar.  Yet Jill forged ahead undaunted, convinced that the next cheesecake would be the perfect one.  And eventually it was.

All of us have had experiences of trying new skills and recognize that it takes time and patience to develop them.  Except, perhaps in our teaching practice where we are often unwilling to make changes or when we do try something new it doesn’t turn out like  the recipe, we go back to the old and comfortable way of doing things.  I’m not exactly sure what the difference between baking cheesecake and changing teaching practice is but I surmise the following:

  • We are emotionally tied to our practice and it defines us.  We don’t want to fail.
  • We feel that it is not just us, but our students, who will suffer if it doesn’t go well.
  • It feels like we lost time trying something new that didn’t work.

The reality is that our students don’t have access to our day plans and are probably unaware of when a lesson didn’t go as we thought it should.  And, if it isn’t going well and the teacher just stops and does something else (read a story, do jumping jacks, run around the school, play a game, start the homework early), the students will be just fine.

One of the problems with changes in teacher practice is that we often elect to make a 5 course meal, not a cheesecake.  Teachers often try, or administrators and districts suggest, big “blow up your course” changes.  That is hard work and more likely to have a lot of bumps along the way.  Instead I suggest the “quarter turn change”.  What change can you make that is small but that you think might have a huge impact?  What can you do that is just a slight deviation from how you normally do things?  When you make that change what happens with your students?  Does that little change inspire you to make another change?

A teacher I worked with, Karen, taught grade 6.  She wanted to move towards inquiry-based learning in her flight unit but was nervous about leaving something that was tried and true.  So I suggested a “quarter turn”.  She always taught her unit and then at the end culminated with a big “fly off” in the gym with student-made paper airplanes incorporating all the principles of flight.  The “quarter turn” was to start the unit with making a paper airplane.  Throughout the unit, taught the same way as always, students continued to refine their paper airplanes, tryout  modifications and share what they were discovering.  This small change had huge impact in both student engagement and learning.  We still had the big “fly off” at the end but the planes were of a much better quality and there was a great deal more pride in the students’ creations.  Plus, students were much better able to explain why their plane could fly.

A group of junior math teachers wanted to start spiraling their math course but it seemed like an overwhelming task ( TEDx talk). The “quarter turn” was to only spiral for 5 to 15 minutes a day.  We spent a morning exploring some short, fun and engaging activities students could do to increase conceptual understanding and fluency in math.  We played with creating human number lines to explore ordering and comparing numbers, we practiced number talks, we did some work with puzzle pieces on a hundreds board, we played some estimating games, and did activities such as building two digit numbers with only 6 base ten blocks.  Then we made a list of curriculum expectations that could be addressed with these types of short activities repeated many times over the course of the year.  Teachers went back to their math classrooms with a small change but the impact was huge:  students were engaged and loved the activities; teachers were covering curriculum expectations throughout the course of the year which freed more time for their longer units of study during the rest of the math black.

A secondary math team was not ready to dive into learning through problem solving full tilt but decided to start their unit on linear relations with one problem.  They called it their “mentor problem”.  Throughout the rest of the unit, which they taught as they always had, they returned to this “mentor problem” to highlight key concepts.  Students were better able to connect to these key concepts as they returned to their thinking during this one task over and over.  A “quarter turn” changed practice.

A grade eight teacher, Monica,  was intrigued with incorporating mindfulness into her classroom practice but wasn’t willing to “give up” 10 -15 minutes of instructional time a day.  So she made a “quarter turn” in her thinking.  She devoted the 10-15 minutes for one week only  to teaching some mindfulness practices but then turned it back to the students, allowing them the permission and space to take a mindful moment when they needed.  She was thrilled when those students who needed it, took their mindful moments and found that it did not interrupt the flow of her day.  Every few weeks she incorporated a whole class refresher mindfulness session to keep the thinking alive.  She didn’t need to blow up her program; her willingness to make a small adjustment in her own thinking about how to incorporate mindfulness into her program worked.

“Quarter turns” are bigger than “baby steps”.  I dislike that terminology because it is usually in relation to a top down change.  I often hear that a staff or a group of teachers or an individual teacher is making “baby steps” towards a new initiative.  It usually means that nothing of any significance is happening.  A “quarter turn” is teacher driven.

Like learning to make cheesecake, changing our practice and adopting new pedagogical ideas takes courage and time.  We need to give ourselves and the teachers we work with permission to make a “quarter turn”. Think of one small move you could make within your existing program that you think might make a big difference.  Give it a try and see what happens; no one will die and you might be surprised.


Filed under pedagogy, Uncategorized

The label isn’t the individual

A colleague, Jason,  has been experimenting with teaching grade 9 applied and academic math in a combined class*.  It has been going well and he has learned a lot.  His goal has been that all students have the opportunity to achieve the expectations of the academic credit but to offer the flexibility to all students to attain whichever credit they earn.  It is not a matter of teaching the academic course and then just “granting” the applied level credit for those students who are unsuccessful.  Expectations for each pathway are tracked and students earn the credit they earn.

All the ins and outs of how Jason organizes his course are beyond the scope of this blogpost (and I’d be happy to introduce anyone who is interested).  As Jason was presenting his findings to a group of administrators the other day, he made a comment that has stuck with me.  This is his second semester with the combined class and while reflecting upon his experience he said, “I don’t even think of the students as applied or academic any more.”  This wasn’t part of his slide presentation.  I don’t even know if he remembers saying it.  But I do.

How do labels we use to describe students affect our expectations and perceptions of them?  I wonder if the students in Jason’s class also now feel like students and don’t classify themselves as “academic” or “applied”.

I have been working very hard lately to avoid saying things like “applied kids” or “autistic kid” or “IEP kids”.  Even though I have always tried to see each individual student’s strengths, I have begun to wonder if the label I casually apply, more for expediency than anything else, actually does mean that I tend to group students with a label under an umbrella of similar traits.

My journey started, as many do, on a personal level.  I was sitting in a system level meeting of administrators and the presenter was talking about how difficult “applied kids” were last period on Friday afternoons.  At the time my son was taking applied level credits.  I was surprised at the force of my reaction to that simple statement – one that I had probably said myself on occasion.  That was my kid someone was generalizing about and I didn’t like it; I didn’t like it one bit.  Yet I know that had I asked the presenter if he felt that all students in applied level courses misbehaved on Friday afternoons he would have said, “Of course not.”

We all do it.  We take some experiences and generalize.  In math, we want this very ability to generalize the pattern or the rule.  But in dealing with people, students included, the labels and generalizations are detrimental.  They cloud our judgements and our ability to really see each student as an individual.  As soon as we put students under a label, consciously or subconsciously, we begin to assign the perceived attributes of that group to them.

I read a lot of Individual Education Plans.  Often they don’t sound very individual.  Part of this has to do with the format and sheer number of them (another blog post to be written).  But perhaps some of it has to do with our belief that once under the IEP label, all students are sort of the same and therefore we should respond similarly.

So, I have been catching myself in my language.  Although it is more words to say, I try now to talk about a student who is taking an applied level course or a student who falls on the autism spectrum or a student who has an IEP.  I challenge my thoughts to see to what extent I might be presuming that all these students share similar characteristics.  It is hard work.  I catch myself a lot.  But I think it is worth the effort.

Back to Jason’s math class.  The student who got the highest mark in his class, and achieved the expectations of the academic credit, was originally enrolled in the applied level course.  The label isn’t the individual.

*In Ontario when students hit grade 9 they choose either the applied or academic pathway.  Other jurisdictions may refer to them as college/workplace vs university  prep courses.

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Filed under Differentiation, school culture, student behaviour

Self-regulation does not mean being good when you are bored

When I am in a meeting (and I go to lots and lots of meetings) and there are challenges to solve, or the speaker is entertaining and has something to say that I am interested in, and when I get opportunities to talk about what I am learning, I am totally engaged.  I don’t check my email.  I don’t text my friends.  I don’t secretly hope my secretary will call with an emergency.  I don’t drink lots of coffee so that I have to visit the restroom.  On occasion I have to remind myself to listen to others when I am excited about the topic and be patient with others who may have a different viewpoint. My level of engagement and my ability to attend, though, is more about the content and structure of the meeting and my social and emotional skills are secondary.

Now, when I go to a meeting that is not engaging it is a different story altogether.  At first I try to be attentive but soon my attention wanders.  I  look around.  I check my phone.  I read my email. I even do my email if it won’t look too rude.  I play with anything I can find to fiddle with.  I get up and get more coffee.  I frequent the restroom. If you watched me you might think I have very poor self-regulation skills.

Self-regulation does not mean being good when you are bored.  Grit, perseverance and resilience are not skills that you develop in environments that are not conducive to obtaining them.  I worry that we are jumping on the bandwagon of teaching students skills they seem to be lacking before we examine whether the classroom environment we create may be a contributing factor.

Lest teachers feel I am picking on them, administrators tend to do the same thing.  We often look at our staff meetings and see that no one is participating or attentive and think, “Those teachers just don’t care.”  But perhaps they are not engaged.  Teachers care.

But this is difficult to do because it means we need to examine our own teaching and facilitation practices.  And when you are leading or teaching, you are usually engaged.  It is hard to step out of our own shoes and look at it from the participant’s perspective.  We are deeply tied to our work emotionally and therefore it is extremely difficult to examine our own practices.  So we often tend to blame the lack of engagement or poor behaviour on the participants.  I know as a beginning teacher my go-to response to a bad day was to change the seating plan.

Do kids need to learn to manage their emotions appropriately?  For sure.  Do teachers need to teach and support students to develop self-regulation?  Absolutely.  Is it worthwhile creating norms for adult working groups?  Yes.  But don’t jump to blame the participants for not using those skills when things don’t go as you wish.  Check and make sure that the lesson or the meeting was the very best ever. Seven year olds aren’t going to sit quietly if they have been on the carpet for a long time.  Fourteen year olds aren’t going to ignore their phones and friends if you have been lecturing for more than 15 minutes.  Adults are not going to engage in professional development if it is not relevant and interesting.    Sometimes I hear “Well, everything in life isn’t fun and kids need to learn to behave in those situations.”  Really?  The job of school is to train kids to be bored?  Workplace meetings need to be boring?  I don’t think so.

As educators we know more about how people learn and how to engage others in learning than most.   We have an obligation to ensure that happens every lesson, every meeting, every day.

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Filed under classroom environment, classroom management, student behaviour, Uncategorized