Learning While Teaching

“We must…consider the space between teaching and learning.  Students are part of the learning process, but they do not necessarily initiate it, and teachers cannot fully instruct it.”  (Symeonidis & Schwarz, 2016)

There is a space between teaching and learning where the magic lies.  Not only do our students deserve teachers dedicated to learning, but teachers deserve the best learning a school can provide. Professional learning comes in many forms.  Through my personal experiences I’ve found these tenants to be the most powerful in shaping my practice.

Utility – Beyond relevance, teachers need to see practical application to professional learning in their immediate environments.  Our go-to utility is students that are unengaged or outliers. Yes, these are clear sign-posts that a change in instruction could support.  But there are other, less obvious needs for utility.  To name a few…

  • Engaging in new technology without knowing where to start
  • Expanding instructional practices to include more student-led work
  • Seeing critical needs in the world and engaging students in real-life problem solving

Instead of mandating, let’s ask teachers. “What is your most apparent need in your classroom?  What is a dream that you wish you could achieve in your teaching right now?”

Multiple Modes of Learning – Just as we know lecturing and handouts don’t engage students, they also don’t engage teachers.  While more PD sessions are turning to modeling instructional strategies, reflection and time to talk with colleagues, we need more real-time support.  Why not try…

  • Using technology to preview and engage with professional learning before a whole group session
  • Creating and maintaining professional learning communities beyond the school walls
  • Providing additional resources in one central location
  • Making time and space for collaboration and reflection

Instead of planning sit and get sessions, let’s ask: “How do you as an adult learner engage best? In what ways could your colleagues and administration support your work?”

Different Paths – Every teacher from novice to experienced has a different skill set and a  unique approach to teaching.  Acknowledging and honoring these differences is not only critical, but a part of professional learning itself.  As learners, teachers need space to think metacognitively about their own learning and set authentic goals.  These goals should simultaneously align with the school’s mission and individual teacher needs. Shifting from stand alone professional development sessions to on-going professional learning means teachers have both responsibility for collective learning and freedom to follow their own educational interests.  How schools weave these two together hinges on the success of teacher professional learning.

A Broader Purpose – If I ever started my own school, it would be a learning school.  Teachers, administrators, parents, and of course students would all be learning while doing.  This is the real learning. The in the moment, let’s research it to figure out how, ask an expert, or just experiment.  The goal of school should no longer be to disseminate knowledge, but to grow learners.  As teachers, our role has changed from keeper of knowledge to facilitator of learning.  So let’s explore the space between teaching and learning and be teacher-learners together.

Symeonidis, V. & Schwarz, J. F. (2016). Phenomenon-Based Teaching and Learning through the Pedagogical Lenses of Phenomenology: The Recent Curriculum Reform in Finland. Forum Oswiatowe, 28(2), 31-47. Retrieved from http://forumoswiatowe.pl/index.phpczsopismo/article/view/458

An Interpretation of Phenomenon Based Learning

I work with 8 year olds.  They are ambitious, creative, determined, and real.  They want to be heard and take action to make a difference. And they can.

On Monday I started a rather scary (for me) project with my students using the Finnish approach to PBL – Phenomenon Based Learning.  In essence we started with a phenomenon – in our case book deserts in our community – and dove deep into the study, interconnecting subject areas and relying on both teacher expertise and student constructed learning.  There was only so much I could prepare before Monday since I didn’t know what my students would need.  That’s what made it scary.  Would we have enough to do each day? What if I couldn’t give them what they needed?  What if they didn’t care about book deserts as much as I thought they would? What if they got bored?

I kept in mind a line from one of the few English translated pieces on Phenomenon Based Learning – the teacher initiates the learning while the process of learning is negotiated by both the student and the teacher.

Hesitant to step completely out of my comfort zone at first, Monday and Tuesday consisted of much teacher initiation – questioning, writing, collecting data, reading and reflecting.

By Wednesday we had enough momentum that I didn’t even put a schedule on the board aside from the designated “project times”.  The students were perplexed.  What are we going to do all day?  With a list of student generated questions (we used the QFT approach) and ideas they created to collect, analyze and examine data to understand book deserts, they negotiated the work.  I was there to support, guide and occasionally assign.  I was there to push, offer advice and organize.  I was there as the overseer of all the parts and the glue that held them together.  At the end of that day (one that flew by for us all) students shared their learning and made connections to others’ work.  8 year olds discovered:

  • The average amount of books we have at home is 315.
  • Our school has over 37,000 books.
  • No one in our class lives in a book desert.
  • The amount of books in a book desert is equal to each child in our school getting to take one book home for one day in the year.
  • Books teach us knowledge but also teach us to love reading.
  • More girls in the world can’t read than boys.
  • No one should grow up in a book desert.

Let me just restate, 8 year olds discovered this.  I did not tell them this information, nor did I explicitly show them how to find it.  I initiated the inquiry, but they negotiated the learning space to make these revelations.

I was scared to take this leap. I surrendered control in my own classroom. I had to think on the fly, teach multiplication, averages, literary analysis and more without a lesson plan.  But my students trusted me and I trusted them.  Together, we are creating something more than parts to a whole.

Along the way, students began prototyping ideas of how we could help with this problem.  We love books, we don’t live in a book desert, and we want to help.  After daydreaming, wishing and brainstorming, the children settled the idea of creating a class company to make and sell books, generating revenue to donate to a local book charity.  And that is our work for next week in school.


Introducing, #GlobalGoals

Last month I joined an incredible group of global educators as a #TeachSDG Ambassador.    Charged with teaching and spreading awareness of the Global Goals, I’m diving right in.  Yes, this blog historically features literacy-specific strategies, inquiry and revelations in the classroom.  But what better way to develop independent readers than to develop compassionate, globally minded independent thinkers?

So I did what any teacher does when charged with a new challenge – I tried it out with my students.  Let me just put it this way – if you are feeling the need for a change, some inspiration in humanity, a rekindling of why you joined the teaching profession – TEACH THE SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS.  An underestimated statement, the past two week my students’ thinking, interest and commitment to a better world surpasses most adults I know.

Recently, #TeachSDGs started a slow chat with the first question as “Where is the best place to start when introducing your students to the SDGs?”  My reply was a natural point in the curriculum.  The goals should enrich learning rather than be seen as an add on or extra.  To her credit, Noa Lahav, the Digital Literacy Pedagogical Coordinator for CET Around the World,  pushed back to say with curriculum so closely tied to standards there is often not enough time and space to do this.  Agreed – education today is standards obsessed, often leaving little space for experimental, new, and different approaches. But we must start somewhere.

Here’s a few highlights from my introduction to teaching the Global Goals and the entry points in my curriculum.

IMG_1415My school, as many US schools, celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January.  This year we collectively read the book We Shall Overcome by, Debbie Levy, telling the story of a song that transverses generations to inspire a better world.
Teachers created individual class representations of the book to make a collective art instillation.  My class focused on our local community and represented how the Global Goals can support a more sustainable local community.  In order of the goals, 2nd graders created this vision.IMG_0188Following our school’s MKL Jr. assembly and a beautiful community sing of “We Shall Overcome” led by our incredible music teacher, my students reflected on the words:

IMG_3163   We shall overcome,
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome, some day.

We’ll walk hand in hand,
We’ll walk hand in hand,
We’ll walk hand in hand, some day.

We shall live in peace,
We shall live in peace,
We shall live in peace, some day.

The whole wide world around
The whole wide world around
The whole wide world around some day.

Returning to class, (yes, I did rearrange our schedule for the urgency to connect this experience to the real idea that children can do this work) we finished writing our 2018 new year resolutions.  Connecting to the SDGs, students explored ways they can personally make a difference.  These goals range from “making a vegetarian food choice” to “using a metal fork” to “turing off lights” reflecting real ways kids can be part of real change.IMG_0733.JPGTo keep their goals going, next week students will engaged in a math project with one of their goals “ask for book donations instead of birthday presents” as the context.

Each of these opportunities to infuse learning with the Global Goals was not separately created from the curriculum, but tied to the learning we already do – community studies, MLK Jr. celebration, writing new year resolutions, math problems.  Keep an eye out in your curriculum – you might be surprised how #TeachSDGs can reframe a lesson creating relevant, authentic connections beyond the classroom.

Boredom: A good reason to read

Just before a long weekend I gave my students one homework assignment: to carry a book wherever they go.  I said it doesn’t matter how much you read or what book it is, just bring it with you.  You might be stuck waiting for your parents (it was parent teacher conference week), you might be in the car, you never know when you might be bored and need a book.

Fast forward a few days at one of my parent conferences.  As our conversation turned to reading a parent remarked on how independent his child now seemed with books.  He said, “I mean, she is even insisting to take a book in the car and wanting to read all the time!”

Boredom, or lack of anything else but a book, is a good reason for kids to read.  In fact, it might be one of the best motivating factors of reading aside from having that just right book that can’t be put down.  Here are four intentional suggestions for getting kids to read during those boring times, such as a car ride (tried and tested with my own first grader).

Explicitly suggest reading, but not at that moment.  Chances are if you tell a child to read they probably won’t do it right then and there.  Plant the seed about reading in the car or doctors office before it’s going to happen.

Define free reading. Sometimes beginning or reluctant readers think of reading as a chore, and rightfully so, it can be.  Free reading, anything outside of school or homework, should be just that – free.  That means reading only the pictures, reading your favorite part, or just looking at the book.  Chances are this will eventually turn into some actually reading with zero pressure to perform.

Secretly plant highly engaging books in the car or other “readable” places.  This one might seem a little strange, but it works.  Graphic novels, nonfiction texts, and magazines are all great choices because they can easily to read for a few minutes or a long time.  They can often be opened up at various points and you don’t have to remember the story from the beginning to engage in the text.  The secret part gives novelty to the situation.  Who doesn’t want to pick up a new book laying on the seat?

Zip it. The other day I got into the car and within 30 seconds asked my son “How was your day at school?”  When he didn’t respond I looked in the rear view mirror to discover him reading a book.  Sometimes it’s best to follow your child’s lead. Talk if they want to talk and be quiet when they need it quiet.  Chances are with the other three things in place, a book will eventually find its way into those eager little hands.

My commute to school and back is a lucky 12 minutes a day.  Over five days that could be up to an extra 2 hours of reading for my son.  So whether you are a parent or teacher, simply telling kids to read when they are bored might just increase their time with text dramatically.

Taking Literacy Beyond the Workshop

Children are curious by nature. They see the world in small details and a vast whole simultaneously. They ask questions without one right answer and see wonder in everyday things. When cultivated, they love reading, see themselves as writers and develop deep mathematical reasoning. This leaves me with space to wonder.  How do we utilize the classroom community as a catalyst for curriculum and instruction?  Conversely, what instructional strategies promote a holistic and empowering classroom community for learners while reaching curricular goals?

As I push myself to see my teaching, their learning, in the context of the real world, I struggle to see the permanent confines of subjects.  When we talk of being college and career ready, how does isolation of learning support this?  To clarify, I am not calling for an end to subjects, nor do I believe that all learning should be intermingled with other content.  I am a firm believer that reading and writing instruction, especially in the early years, requires deep content knowledge and strategies to apply literacy skills. However, it is unfair to assume students operate in compartmentalize subject areas best.  Just because it is easy for educators to think of the skills of reading, writing and math as separate entities children do not necessarily see them as such. Some students require application of skills in holistic ways to make meaning.

In the search to bring curriculum and students closer together I discovered Phenomenon Based Learning.  This is an approach based in Finland where educators cycle through an interdisciplinary unit of study for several weeks centered around one, real-world phenomenon or event. This inquiry, project based work sounds like one big, multi-lesson, multi-content area, multi-day workshop where children have space to apply, question, develop and produce meaningful work. So I’m planning a unit for my students to wonder, question, apply and create solutions to book deserts in our community later this year incorporating multiple subject areas and service learning. 

When I shared this idea with a colleague her first response was surprise that I would give up precious readers and writers workshop time. Her second response was “Oh, I get it. It will be like one cohesive learning workshop.”

Is it possible to suspend our focused, explicit content area instruction temporarily to create spaces for students to exist within highly contextual learning to  observe, question, dream, create and preform for something bigger then themselves? I am hopeful. 

The Intersection of Curriculum and Community

When I first started teaching I thought it was the “answer” I wanted students to uncover at the end of my lesson.  I was skill hyper-focused.  But over the years, I’ve mellowed as an educator, as we do. I think most of us could agree it is not the answer we strive for children to understand – but the understanding itself.

Reflecting on how students, specifically readers and writers, develop an understanding of the art and science of literacy I’ve come upon an idea.  Or rather an inkling.  As a blogger in my tucked away corner of the web, I’m turning to writing as an attempt to hash out my thoughts.

Anywhere teachers turn in the educational world today we are inundated with curriculum, best practices, new practices, change, and a never ending struggle to reach our instructional goals.  No complaining – this exists and is necessary in many ways.

On the other side, we have the children.  The real, soulful, inspiring, curious creatures entrusted to us for more time in the school day than their own parents.  We are their caregivers, mentors, facilitators, and ultimately teachers of the human condition.

Often these two facets of teaching seem at odds with one another.  Yes, we want to improve instruction to meet. the. needs. of. our. students. But then there is the actual, acute needs of children that lie before us. In this teeter-totter dance of the classroom one of these aspects gets over looked for the other.  If we focus on the academics, the social-emotional needs of our children can get replaced with pre-assessment, post-assessment, covering curriculum and data.  And if we focus on the kids we run the risk of overlooking critical instructional time in honor of personal connections.

But what if our curriculum and instruction was a driving force for classroom and school culture? What if our students’ innate desires to explore the world in authentic ways coincided with our curricular goals?  What if the way that we taught consistently developed both academic rigor and a culture of life long learning?  I think this is what project based learning and the growth mindset get at, but I’m talking about more basic level.

If we can begin to envision the teacher’s role as participator, inspirer and leader of learning, children will follow.  Are there concrete, tactical ways we can capitalize on our curriculum and instruction to create a community of life long learners? I think so.

Teachers lead everyday. Mostly, we do this well.  But are we intentional? Are we purposely intertwining curriculum and culture, instruction and interest? Are we guiding students toward the understanding that learning is as much about the process as it is the answer?

Equity in the Classroom Library

Over the past year I’ve explored ways to create a classroom environment absent of reading levels.  My students were unaware of their levels yet acutely tuned in to their reading goals and strategies to support those goals.  I communicated their strengths and areas for growth with parents, rarely mentioning specific numbers.  I used reading assessments regularly to gauge my instruction and continued to track my readers’ progress through monitoring their reading levels without them ever really knowing.

While this process was by no means streamlined or perfect, I shared my learning and experiences on four separate occasions with other educators at state and national conferences and with a group of aspiring principals.  The strongest responses I received were often from educators in schools heavily relying on reading levels, some of which expressed great frustration with school libraries using reading levels.

I have never visited a library that uses the leveling system.  From my perspective, a school library is a miniature community library curated based on the age and developmental needs of its clientele – students.  To this end, no school library should ever induce the need for reading levels for students or teachers.

Which makes the classroom library all the more critical to develop.  I have taught in five different classroom in three very different schools – ranging from Title 1 to private schools.  Not all classroom libraries are created equally, and this is problematic.  I have been in classrooms with prepackaged leveled libraries, rooms with no library at all and rooms with huge ranges of reading materials, sometime organized by levels and sometimes not.   In fact, I never gave much thought to my classroom library until I realized that to develop independent readers I must first teach them how to independently select the right books to read.  The classroom library makes all the difference.

One concrete step we can take to close the opportunity gap for students is to create individual classroom libraries that are created equally.

If you don’t already have a library, start with a high quality classroom library set.  Booksource is a great website for finding a variety of text sets depending on the needs of your library.  They offer a wide range of levels, topics and prices.  In my experience, their books are high quality, diverse and true to their descriptions. But don’t stop there.

A classroom library should reflect the needs of the readers in the room.  I like to have a wide range of levels available, but not much wider than the levels of the students in the room. The easier books for my age group are available the first half of the year.  At some point, I put those away and take out the more challenging texts.  The middle of the road books are available all year long.  This way students have a narrower range of texts, based on their individual and group needs.

Buy books for specific students.  Each year I set aside a small budget to visit bookstores, used book sales and Amazon.com to select books that individual kids need or might want.  This not only helps to connect kids to books in a personal way (what reader doesn’t like when someone intentionally buys them a book?) but it also diversifies my reading library based on kids interests.

Don’t be afraid to eliminate books that don’t fit. Each year I discard books that are damaged, irrelevant, outdated, too hard or any other reason don’t think they fit with the classroom community of readers.  Someone, somewhere else will enjoy it more.

Once your classroom library is healthy and relevant to your readers, push yourself one step further.  This year I am intentionally selecting new texts to provide windows and mirrors for my students.  Books are opportunities for students to develop their own identities and experience others’ perspectives.  Having diverse books that represent your class community and beyond provides rich, authentic experiences for young readers. Author Grace Lin portrays this clearly in a TED talk with anecdotes from her childhood reading experiences and how that shaped her as a writer.  We Need Diverse Books is a great website resource for inspiration and ideas.

Maybe some schools rely so heavily on leveling their school-wide library because their classroom libraries are lacking. Maybe the classroom library is often thought of as a static fixture in the classroom.  Maybe there is more to these collections than books.

A classroom library is the intimate safe place a reader goes to find the enjoyment and purpose in reading.  It has more specific patrons and purpose than the school library and should directly reflect the needs of the readers in the classroom. It is our duty as educators to ensure every student has high quality access to books in their everyday classroom habitat.

In the Middle

We existed silently side by side.  He sat on a tall stool.  I stood, shoulders level, working quietly on who knows what trying to appear busy and slyly watching his progress.  He drew with percision, intentionally adding details in what seemed like random order.  As a six year old he crafted a story about knights.  Able to write himself he asked, “Mom, can you write the next sentence for me?”

As a writing teacher I wanted to say no.

As a mom, I responded, “Yes, of course I can.”

I wrote this piece as a three minute quick write during Jennifer Serravallo’s session at the International Literacy Association Conference today.  As I reflect on the day, its symbolism resounds.

Simultaneously we want to protect our children and allow them to participate fully in the world around us. But our purpose must move beyond protection to a world where young learners trust us to lead them to a place of unknowing answers.

I come from a privileged life and work in a privileged school.  I do not take for granted that he wants to write during his spare time.  I marvel at his ownership of being an author.  I am hopeful one day his actions will be precise and authentic enough to lead the world toward a better place.  In my six year old lies our future. But how do we change the motivation to write into agency and action?

After the emotional and raw panel on Disrupting a Destructive Cycle: How Literacy Drives Social Change I am moved by this position of power I was so easily brought up in.

Why do some children have the opportunity and luxury of seeing themselves as real writers at a young age and some do not?  What are the systemic actions that result in beginning first grade identifying with literacy and those that do not?  Where is the breakdown of differences?  And how can teachers and students in a position of privilege partner with other educators and students to…

…to what? 

What are the steps I can take with eight year olds to actually make change?  This is not a rhetorical question but one I am struggling with. 

So I leave you with this. As Ralph Fletcher reminded me, writing is scary and risky. So I will try to do what we ask of our students, to publish a poem of belief that somewhere there is a middle.
There is a place

in between

where randomness occurs.

Some of us have,

Some never have.

But where do we meet?

How do we grasp the randomness


to find a balance

between have

And not?

Somewhere in the middle

particles float

and we teach

to place them


Learning Disguised as Failure

At the essence of education is change. To educate children means to take them from one point in their understanding and development to a more complex and sophisticated point of existence. To educate is to grow learners.

When children approximate during the learning process they imitate, trying to grasp new learning in messy ways, often loosely recognizable to the desired skills. We think this is adorable in babies as they misspeak our language for babbles and goos. We call this the zone of proximal development with students as they need teacher scaffolds to move to the next level. As adults, we often deem our first attempts to approximate new skills as failures. But as educators we must push against that resistance.

Three years ago I completed a graduate project to integrate technology and 21st century skills of collaboration and communication into an existing lesson.  You can read a full description on ILA’s blog, Literacy Daily.  It was a mess.  The project when on for four weeks.  I was asking first graders to articulate how they know what makes good reading.  Their responses were robust and varied but the process existed beyond my control. I had to figure out the technology with recordings, audio, iMovie, and more.  Along the way it felt like a failure – but I had to do it – it was my final class project.

In the end, the project was so meaningful to my students I decided to do it again the next year. This time, I learned from my mistakes and made appropriate changes.  Then I accidentally deleted all the videos before publishing the iMovie.

On my third attempt this year I had the teaching part down.  I knew what worked with my students and I could give them even more ownership over the process. I collaborated with our school librarian to try a new app Green Screen by Do Ink to record.  After feeling out of control of the process when trying something new and completely deleting an entire 2 weeks worth of work I kept trying.

Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 11.04.43 PM

My first graders produced a video beyond my expectations.

There is no destination to arrive at in the process of learning. We are never fully there. I had to fail to learn. As a result, students engaged in a processes where I as a teacher simultaneously searched refined and evaluated. To be learner in the failures of growth authenticates the processs for my students.


The Empowered Learner

The empowered learner creates empowered teachers. At our faculty meeting last week, my colleagues and I unpacked the ISTE standard of the “empowered learnerstandards-header-circlewith many of us leaving the meeting feeling empowered ourselves.  We researched, collaborated, created and constructed shared learning.  Engaging in the process of reimagining our work with children resulted in empowered teachers.  But what happens beyond the faculty meeting?  How do we keep that empowerment going?

In undergrad I changed my major from elementary education to cognitive studies. For years, I agonized over this “failure” as I ultimately returned to graduate school, twice, to get the qualifications and training I needed to fulfill my career goals. And then came the dawn of the growth mindset into the educational field.  My degree ultimately created the conditions, knowledge and strategies for me to develop the growth mindset long ago and transform the landscape of my classroom today.

Many educators worry that the growth mindset means giving up control.  That the empowered learner is too scary, and the teacher is no longer in the driving seat.  I’d like to argue otherwise.  The growth mindset is more of a shift of control, where the individual is in control of effort, perspective, and the ability to keep trying.  Empowering students is the same – teachers still control the learning goals and outcomes (while products might very). They control the high expectations for work and the gentle nudges of instruction. They control the framework and classroom culture of learning.  Empowering students allows teachers the opportunity to develop the growth mindset in the most forgiving environment – the classroom.

Giving up control of making decisions students are capable of making isn’t all that scary once you do it.

I’ve heard of genius hour for the past few years and finally decided that while I rarely have a spare hour in the classroom, we’d try it out. Our initial study was to answer “How can I as a first grader make the world a better place?” While our genius hour was often genius 45 or 25 minutes students were empowered to solve world problems such as helping homeless pets and reducing accidents on the roads. Led by their own passions and strengths, their projects varied from emailing our state governor to forming a camp for younger children. Student engagement and collaboration was high, but they were not the only ones who learned something. By allowing my students to take risks, I was empowered too.

Whenever we had time in the schedule for genius hour, I was excited.  I was no longer the central orchestrator of learning, but entirely the facilitator of making first grade ideas come to life.  While six and seven year olds have bounds of creativity and ideas, their articulation and practical application of these ideas lacks dramatically.  My role was not to impose learning on children, but to help them develop, elaborate and articulate their constructs.  Many people question whether this work is apt for young children and I believe it is critical. To develop a growth mindset we must live a growth mindset.

There were three key components that I focused during our instruction

Setting one clear expectation for the learning environment allowed students ownership for the rest.  I said “You are workiIMG_3429ng on your project the entire time.”  The rest they instilled themselves.

Essential questions, when articulated to learners and returned to often, empower learning.  After our first session most of my students decided they would make a donation box to raise money.  Through our driving question: “How can I as a first grader make the world a better place?” I asked them, who is doing the work with a donation box? They instantly realized they were asking others to make the world a better place.  By returning to the essential question their work was focused on action, not asking of others.

Having an audience, purpose and connection to the real world really does motive learners.  Knowing who you want to communicate your change to is empowering in it self.  It drives the work and elaborates creativity.  Making a sign to drive slower changed to creating a demo video and emailing our governor.  Making a poster to get along with siblings evolved into a planning for a summer camp for younger kids.  Working to inform and help others amplifies the purpose of work and ultimately of learning.

Call it genius hour, student centered learning, or the empowered learner.  It doesn’t really matter.  Give children a purpose, voice and space and they will give you the unthinkable.  Empowered teachers create spaces for students to actualize their potential.   Empowered students will propel our profession forward.