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.

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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.


NC Reading 2017

As promised to my engaged audience of educators, here are the resources from my presentation at the North Carolina Reading Association Conference.

Please note, these resources will remain available for a limited time.  Thanks for attending!

Presentation Slides 




Check my post Good-Bye Leveled Library on setting up a student-centered classroom library without reading levels.

Because every child deserves to be seen as a reader, not a level.

Still not convinced?  Read Three Myths About Reading Levels from Psychology Today.

Be Flexible with Flexible Grouping

Small group reading instruction should be flexible based on the needs of students.  As student needs are constantly changing, so should the small groups.  The make up of these groups should be based on assessments and targeted to lift each reader to a higher level based on their needs.

It’s easy for those looking into a classroom to say flexible grouping is necessary for reading instruction but in practice it’s much more challenging. Often groups don’t feel as flexible as they should.  Kids don’t always neatly fit into groups. Assessments take time.  Organizing takes time. Planning takes time.  Flexible grouping is a critical instructional strategy, but difficult to implement in a consistent, meaningful way.

Start with one group and just do it.  Instead of trying to orchestrate flexible grouping for all my students, I started small.  Working with one group of students who had a clear need for extending their reading, I started a small group book club.  The students read the same book and learned how to compose written responses based on their reading.  One group, one instructional focus.  After I organized that group, I looked for other children with similar needs and started another small group using reader’s theater to develop fluency.   You don’t have to put all kids into groups at the same time. Starting small and adding groups to an already existing reading routine ensures manageable success.

Assess in many ways. I started my small groups right after I administered the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) to all my students.  This assessment showed instructional next steps for each student, but I didn’t just use that data.  I considered my individual conferences, observations, and levels of engagement or independence.  Quantitative data such as reading levels are a good starting point for groups, but should not be the only measure.  Thinking about student personality, reading goals, or strengths also offers clues to what a reader might need next.  For example, I have a student that reads fluently but is not highly engaged.  I put that reader in my reader’s theater group as peers are a motivating factor to keep reading, allowing the reader to be successfully engaged.

Keep materials on hand. Pre-select books, organize supplies, and have it all in one central location.  This might sound basic but having books available that you might use with a group in a week or two speeds up the planning process.  Once I decided I wanted to form a group to work on retelling after reading, I could easily grab one of the leveled texts that I already selected from our book room, eliminating that step in planning.

Move kids around for a variety of reasons. My reader’s theater group was so popular that all students in my class wanted to participate.  Right now I have three reader’s theater groups with varying levels of text complexity.  Instead of putting all my top readers in the most challenging group, I mixed it up a little bit.  I put a few students who I knew could handle the challenge to keep my groups flexible for reasons other than text level. As long as this is done with intention, mixing groups for a variety of reasons supports and challenges all readers.

Set up groups all over the classroom. As teachers we often like our own routines.  But staying in the same place makes it harder to change.  Instead of always working with a small group at my “rainbow” table, I might start a group there and then leave them to work. I’ll gather another group on the rug or in our reading library.  Changing students, changing location and changing instructional strategies shows children that groups change.  Being flexible in more than just the students keeps the momentum going.

There are days groups won’t feel so flexible.  There are times when it is a struggle to plan, organize and implement flexible grouping on a daily basis.  Most importantly, students are reading books every day and small group instruction authentically matches their needs as readers consistently.  Start small. Know your readers. Be flexible with kids, spaces, and texts. Eventually, flexibility will become the routine.

A few resources that have shaped my teaching and thinking with small groups:

Teaching Reading in Small Groups:Differentiated Instruction for Building Strategic, Independent Readers by, Jennifer Serravallo.  A practical guide to implementing multiple types of small groups

The Reading Strategies Book by, Jennifer Serravallo. A recipe book of sorts with specific lessons organized by reading goals

Units of Study for Teaching Reading by, Lucy Calkins. Four units of study by grade level to teach reader’s workshop style, with detailed information on how to support small groups embedded within lessons

The Next Steps in Guided Reading: Focused Assessments and Targeted Lesson for Helping Every Student Become a Better Reader by, Jan Richardson. A great first resource to improve guided reading instruction beyond the use of a leveled text



Opening the Door to Text Complexity

Since the dawn of Common Core text complexity as an educational construct has gained so much attention it is nearly in the vocabulary of our society. Teachers rely on text leveling beyond instructional purposes. Some students can only select certain books from their school libraries. And parents compare children’s reading levels like trophies.

For those who haven’t fully grasped text complexity, don’t feel left out. It is far more than the quantitative measures of reading levels, often indicated by a number or letter. Once a text is assigned a level, qualitative measures such as genre, sentence structure and academic content and vocabulary are also considered. These more reader dependent indicators play a role in the ability to deeply comprehend and interact with a text.

Recent literacy goals focus on students climbing the ladder of text complexity; a well-meaning analogy literacy leaders deigned to support the instructional purpose of students reading more challenging texts and improving the over all quality of reading instruction. However, text complexity is not linerar and reading is not a destination. This flawed description of literacy development focuses on the text as the mechanism for growing – not the reader. While texts clearly vary in difficulty, it is the individual doing the reading, thinking and growing.

Instead, let’s envision the reader opening a door of complexity. When you open your front door, your entire house and the memories wrapped up inside reside behind you. Background knowledge or schema are critical to understanding more complex texts and ideas. For example, even proficient readers without a medical degree struggle to comprehend a medical journal, whereas doctors have schema and vocabulary to interpret new ideas within these texts. Students who encounter a new idea will struggle more than those with a house of schema behind them. Conversely, a reader with deep background knowledge of a particular topic can encounter a text with greater complexity on that topic – it is the reader we must focus on, not the text.

It is also the reading teacher we must trust. The ability to determine the new skills a reader needs is critical to opening the door of complexity.  Understanding the cusp of where a reader is and how to move them forward allows readers to encounter increasingly more complex texts and develop skills to understand them. It is not simply moving up the ladder of text complexity, but providing the instruction based on clearly defined needs from the reader.

Another problematic assumption of the ladder suggests that once a reader achieves a certain level of complexity, all others below are subpar.  Just because one level of complexity is mastered we should not discredit the ability to deeply engage with texts that have a lower reading level.  Some of the most profound texts are picture books that a fifth grader could easily decode and basically comprehend – but the deep contextual and social implication of these texts might get overlooked.  

But why are we climbing the ladder when we could be opening doors? Why are we pushing young readers up and up and up, when we should be opening the world of books to them?  The focus on the text takes us away from the focus on the reader.  When we look at complexity through the lens of the reader, we recognize that complexity depends on the reader.  Understanding our readers’ backgrounds and experiences, providing direct scaffolding of skills to encounter new texts and regarding all rich, complex texts, regardless of their lexile levels is  critical to developing literacy.  No longer can our ladder be a trophy, but our books can be opportunities to open up meaningful literacy experiences for all readers.

Jumping Back into Independence

When we returned to the classroom yesterday my students were abuzz with their tales from winter break.  Their stories ranged from watching multiple movies on multiple car trips to not being allowed to use electronics and instead reading for hours each day.  With a range of experiences and a range of beginning and transitional readers, I quickly realized the need to strategically revamp our attachment and identification with our reading lives.

Start with the familiar and infuse it with novelty.  Young children thrive on routines and reading is just the same.  We started our first week back by reviewing our reader’s workshop routines and strategies.  But this work seems so boooooring.  If you’ve ever taught or lived with a first grader you will know – things they learned earlier in the year are things they have “always known.”  Instead, I plan to disguise our review of skills with something new – literature clubs.  Each student, regardless of their reading level, will have a chance to read a book and discuss it in a group.  They are challenged and supported based on their reading needs and the amount of scaffolding I provide.  All the while, we practice accuracy, fluency, and speaking/listening skills in a new way.

Explicitly teach stamina.  Using our senses, I ask students to envision what reader’s workshop looks like, sounds like and feels like.  After picturing and discussion these ideas they work during independent reading time to make their bodies and minds match their ideas.  On the first day back, they read for 25 minutes straight, engaged and energized by their books.  When discussing what that felt like one student described reading as magic because she was so into the book.  We charted our time for reading and celebrated our stamina.  On day two, many students slowed down or took a break from reading only after 15 minutes.  During our discussion, we explicitly talked about why there was a lag in reading today.  They articulated that they weren’t as interested in their books today.  Talking about what strong reading looks like, using the clock to keep track of our stamina, and figuring what goes wrong when it does help readers get back into the routine of reading.

Revisit finding “just right” books. At this point in the year my readers are advancing but not always choosing more challenging books.  In fact, some have attachments to books they have read over and over.  Propelling students forward means helping them step beyond their comfort zone.  Liturature clubs allow me some control as the  books are assigned intentionally at their maximum independent reading.  Using a fresh round of assessments and running records, I can select books and assign groups to stretch my readers.  These books will also become anchor texts, ones they can refer to when selecting new and more challenging texts.

Read more and more. With any habit we are trying to get back into, frequency proceeds regularity.  Getting children to read more throughout the day is critical to developing indepence. I changed the routine for library sign up – now more want to go because they get to sign up on the whiteboard. I encourage students to take more than one book home to read at night, hoping to inspire more outside of school reading. I’m noticing and naming when they self select books more frequently.

Maybe not every tactic will resonate with every reader. By varying the techniques to promote engagement and reinforcing already taught skills in new ways we can continue our reader’s workshop right where we left off in December.

Who are we writing for?

In my first year of teaching, in a DC neighborhood encompassed by poverty, a student gave me the most thoughtful gift of my career.  The battery operated window alarms were a mystery to me for years. I finally realized my student just wanted her teacher to be safe.  Her gift sincerely reflected the reality of her life outside of school and a deep connection to me.

This year, among all the generous and thoughtful gifts my students and their families gave me, I received three journals, pens and pencils, a picture book and a gift card to purchase more books.  Of course these are gifts all teachers would like, but I can’t help but wonder if my intentionality of building my own reading and writing life are reflected in these gifts.  While many of my current students come from highly literate families, do these gifts also reflect their connection to me and our shared love of literacy?  I hope so.

A few months ago George Couros wrote “Blogging is your job” to which I replied – that was going to be my next blog post!  In response, my school librarian – who is always pushing me to think at the edge of my learning – asked me who my audience is and how I know what they want to read.  I stopped to think.  As this conversation unfolded over Twitter on a Saturday morning I realized I am writing ultimately for my students.  She showed me my audience is someone who will actually never read my writing and THAT is why it is so powerful.

Writing pushes me into unknown realms as a teacher.  Sometimes I write a blog post before I even teach a unit and revise and publish it afterward.  I envision the learning and articulate it through the blog and social media.  Of course it changes through the reality of the classroom, but writing as a form a professional development helps me define change in my classroom.  A writing professor of mine always said “keep your pencil moving,” a quote my students hear daily as a tool to generate new ideas.  It is true, the more you write, the more you think of to write.  Continual writing can only help us as educators to push beyond the traditional methods of instruction to find new ways to authentically engage our audience – our students.

It is important for us to feel safe – as writers and agents of change.  It matters to our students that we are safe.  It is equally important that we are active participants in literacy.  It matters to our students that we engage in writing to chart, share and most critically, explore our practice.  Maybe those journals and books weren’t a coincidence. Just maybe, it resonates that reading and writing matter so much that they are authentically in my own life and in my teaching.

Hey Teachers, Let’s Talk!

Teachers matter.  Anyone who’s stepped foot into a classroom for longer than 10 minutes clearly recognizes teachers matter, to the classroom culture, to the instructional methods, to the students.  But teachers matter to each other as well.  And we need to matter more.

I recently facilitated a collaborative workshop at the North Carolina English Teachers Conference.  I was possibly the only elementary educator at the conference, engaging with middle and secondary teachers in a quest to develop better practices for independent reading.  This cross pollination of ages, disciplines and even school structures expanded my vision and understandings of independent reading beyond my classroom. One new teacher gained tangible ideas to expand her students ability to select books beyond their assigned texts – which require students to take a test to demonstrate understanding.  A 9th grade English teacher uses strategy groups based on formative assessment just like I do with my 1st graders.  A charter school 6th grade teacher helped me understand that making instructional changes in one grade can filter to the next, as students are empowered to advocate for high quality choices for independent reading.

So what does this one collaboration mean to us as educators?  Let’s stop putting up barriers.

Barriers such as age – often we think of an age group of teachers different than our own to have vastly different ideas.  Maybe they do, but what can we learn from each other?  How does the history of education or the innovation of today inform instructional decisions?

Barriers such as school structure – I trained as a public school teacher. I learned to recognize each individual child as vital to our school community in the private sector.  Within the current debate of charter schools, utilizing resources from our local communities to support education is fundamental to student success.  How can we collaborate across institutional differences to support the one commonality – learning and growth for kids?

Barriers such as location – I am trained in the US and am guilty of comparing schools from my limited perspective of growing up in public US education, pre-Common Core teaching in Virginia, and our current national standards.  Recently, I’ve made efforts to examine other schools, other counties, talk with other educators.  Teaching in Finland, Scotland, Japan is pretty different than ours.  How can we widen our understanding of education in a more global way?

Barriers such as time – if we want to engage, it is on our own backs, after school, outside regular teaching duties.  This is a current reality but I hope that future educational leaders will begin to recognize that professional development, like all good learning, should not happen in isolation.  Advocating for our own passions in education is a way to broaden and deepen our instructional practices.

So teachers, let’s talk.  Even if you are older or younger, work for a school different than mine, in a different time zone, let’s find the time.  The only way to connect our ideas and learn from one another is through conversation.  What is one instructional change you are thinking about, trying out, or needing some encouragement for? Please, reply. 


NCETA Conference 2016

On Saturday, December 3, 2016 I facilitated a collaborative workshop at the North Carolina English Teachers Conference to develop ideas to support the instructional changes of this blog.  We examined how to support students, teachers and school/community stakeholders to provide more authentic independent reading choices for students.  A group of K -12 educators, representing public, charter and private schools brainstormed these ideas.  After examining potential opportunities and obstacles each group might face when giving students reign over independent reading, we developed strategies to support each group.

My best take away: At the end of this year my first graders will make presentations for their future teachers in our school (2nd – 4th) to share what they’ve learned about independent reading.  The best way we can empower instructional change in through empowering students to take ownership over that change.

You can view the presentation slides here, for reference.  Join me at the North Carolina Reading Association Conference, March 2017 for more instructional strategies to support independent reading.

The Immersion Blender Effect

I recently received two immersion blenders for my birthday.  Two.  This was not a coincidence, but a direct result of an ongoing learning process.  About ten years ago I lived in Scotland where vegetable soups are pureed.  I thought, what a novel idea – very different from our chunky American version.  I bought cookbooks, blended in my blender and often had a mess of soup exploding everywhere.   I kept talking about immersion blenders, apparently to everyone who buys me birthday presents, and voila – made delicious pureed soup in a mess free, almost instantaneous process.

What in the world does this have to do with teaching and learning reading?

Everything.  It was an authentic learning experience led by direct models, trial and error, intrinsic motivation, conversation and failure before success.

It is basic. Today’s education world is inundated with digital tools, personalized learning, tactics to engage all learners, the list goes on and on.  I agree, these evolving  ideas move education forward and aligning learning with real world and future demands.  They should not go away.  However, in the education fog of trying to figure out which method works best for each unique group of students, I am reminded that the basic elements of learning are fundamental to increasing student achievement.

This process relates both to soup and our recent reading unit – Reading About the World with Nonfiction

Authentic experiences provide models for what the learner will achieve.  Scotland showed (not taught) me a new way to consume vegetable soup.  For our first lesson on reading nonfiction, my class visited the library.  We explored nonfiction topics we might want to read and built excitement around a new genre by naming and exploring it.  This connection to the library helped my readers connect our learning in the classroom with expository texts in the real world.

Readers need time to practice, experiment, experience failure and continue to work toward a clear goal. It took me many years to practice making soup, but then again, I was my only teacher.  With my readers, providing daily reading instruction with short mini lessons about how real readers read nonfiction is critical.  Coupled with ample time to read nonfiction every day students practice reading this genre regularly.  They have time to practice alone, with a reading partner and with experienced readers such as their teachers and parents. Also, strategy-based small groups support readers with skills they need, focusing on compression, fluency and accuracy.

Intrinsic motivation promotes trying something slightly different than before, even in the face of failure.   My motivation was simple – to recreate something I experienced  a world away.  Nonfiction reading can be challenging to some students, but every reader can connect to learning about something interesting. While I encouraged my readers to explore new topics, I also led them to become experts on a particular topic, exploring how they can add new ideas to already existing schema.  Searching for new and exciting key words within nonfiction motivated further.

Talking with peers propels the process.  I talked with anyone who ate my soup -how good the soup tasted, what I could do better, the funny stories of it exploding everywhere.  My readers partnered with peers on a daily basis to talk about reading strategies and new content knowledge.  Interacting with a variety of people helps readers construct and solidify their understanding of expository texts. We had a party to mingle and share ideas and created VoiceThreads to record strategies with others.

Success prompts more a recursive desire to learn and try new things.  Now that I have an immersion blender, I want to make soup all the time.  My readers became empowered with concrete reading strategies to decode and comprehend more complex nonfiction texts.  More importantly, when given the option, they still keep nonfiction texts in their reading baskets, with the drive to articulate information about an interesting topic and share their love of learning.

If I had a soup teacher, this process would have taken far less than ten years.  Teachers matter to these readers more than any tool, theory or educational product out there.  Yes, we use digital tools and differentiation to read and communicate our learning. But real understanding of new genres comes from the immersion of learning to read while simultaneously reading to learn.