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.


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 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.

Set Reading Goals, Not Reading Levels

Recently, I commented about removing the levels from my classroom library on a post from Irene C. Fountas and Guy Su Pinnell’s Facebook group.  Their post was about using reading levels as a tool for teachers, not a tool for students. One teacher responded that giving children reading levels at least ensures they have books they can read.  And I couldn’t agree more.  That is exactly why many teachers use this practice in their classrooms.  I did for years, knowing that if I assigned children levels from my diagnostic reading assessments I could assure they had books they could read.  This works for many students.  But for some kids, it doesn’t.  Here are some potential situations readers find themselves in when assigned levels.  These kids are the reason levels should not be a tool for students.

Setting unrealistic goals – “I want to read the highest level in the class because I want to be the best in the class.”  But right now, that reader is reading below grade level and reaching that goals is not only unattainable, but it is also a hinderance to the work he needs to do.

Having an screwed reading identity – This happens in two ways.  “I want to read level x books”instead of “I want to read more nonfiction or mystery books.”  OR (and I’ve had this exact conversation) “What is wrong with my reading, why can’t I read level x?” When in fact the reader is above grade level, but not reading the highest level in the classroom.

Reading less challenging books – Readability is only one measure of text complexity and does not take into account the reader’s motivation, interest or background knowledge.  Struggling readers will surprise you when they choose books just beyond their assessed levels and are motivated to read them.

So, how can reading teachers find a balance? Removing the scaffold of telling readers the levels they can read does not mean you leave them to read any book freely.  It means you must replace that scaffold with other supports.  Working with individual readers to set realistic and specific reading goals is one way to help them.  Teaching strategies to work toward those goals means they must pick books they can read to practice the strategies.  Here’s how I rolled it out with my first graders.

  1. Explicitly teach the options for reading goals.  I use the Reading CAFE goal setting framework including Comprehension, Accuracy, Fluency or Expanding Vocabulary.  Your students’ goals would match whatever reading benchmarks or goals you have in your curriculum.  Heinemann shared a great goal setting sheet created by Jennifer Serrevallo.  After sharing the goals, I ask students to think about what is tricky and decide what they would like to work on.
  2. Individually conference with each student to co-set a goal.  This take some preplanning.  After conducting reading assessments with my students I have a predetermined goal they each need to work on.  Usually in our conference, my goal matches theirs.   But when it doesn’t, I have two options.
    • Ask why they want that goal.  Recently, a six year told me she wanted to work on fluency while I thought she needed support in accuracy.  Her rational was that another student told her she read smoothly, but with little expression.  We went with her goal – she is motivated, has a clear focus, and fluency will also support her work in accuracy.
    • Listen to the child read, notice something he is already doing with your goal in mind and lead him toward it.  For example, a student who needs support in comprehension but is already making connections I name what he is doing and guide him toward the goal of comprehension.  This identification of one thing he is already doing it attainable and authentic.
  3. Use visual tools to teach strategies to habits.  img_2828I learned this in a workshop from Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.  By recording the goal and teaching specific strategies to work toward that goal students are empowered in their own learning.  Over time these strategies will become habits and we will co-create a new reading goal together.  This is an example of strategies to support a student’s goal of reading accurately.

Taking away reading levels does not equate to letting kids read whatever they want.  Setting reading goals and purpose behind reading ensures students select books they can read.  They know where they are headed and naturally begin to select books that are challenging, engaging and readable.


Goodbye Leveled Library Part #2

Before school began I said goodbye to my leveled classroom library. I rearranged books to support independent readers – NOT Lexiles and labels.  After a few weeks of getting to know my readers and my readers getting to know books they love, we started the long journey of choosing the right book at the right time for the right purpose.

All readers need books that meet their needs.drminilesson With two volunteers we role play visiting the doctor.  The first student has a broken arm and I (the doctor) put a cast on his arm.  The second student enters with a broken leg, and I put a cast on her arm as well.  All the children erupt “NO, that won’t help! She has a broken leg! Put a cast on her leg!” Engaging, yes.  But my point illustrates that just as doctors treat patients based on their individual needs, the books we choose are based on our individual reading needs. All readers’ book choices must reflect their goals.

Good readers purposefully choose books they can read.  ipickI originally stole this from the background of a Twitter photo and later saw it blasted all over Pinterest. While I don’t generally rip off pre-created anchor charts, this one comprehensively illustrates the mindset of real reading.  As we set the purpose for reading instruction the children immediately recognize it is to become better readers.  Every book they choose is with the intention of growing as readers. As we spent the previous three weeks building interest, they are already familiar with their own reading tastes.  The last two, comprehension and accuracy, go together.  Real reading is reading the words and understanding the text. Read on to see how I spend the next few days teaching specific strategies for accuracy and comprehension.

All readers practice reading fivefingerwith books they can read MOST of the words.  While I hesitate to give children a definitive limit on selecting a text, the Five Finger Rule can help young readers quantify books that really are too hard.  If a reader encounters five (or more) tricky words in the first few pages, a book might be too hard. I was serendipitously away from my class for professional development this day and our reading specialist modeled the strategy for the kids.  Upon my return, I had the children teach it to me and we co-created this anchor chart. Yes, they taught me to “Start with a book you think is just right” and try out the words.  First graders get this – the Five Finger Rule can be one strategy to gauge readability, but NOT the only strategy.

Real reading is reading the words and understanding the text.  In every lesson, I reiterate the main reason for reading is to understand.  Comprehension Connections by, Tanny McGregor suggests using paint samples to monitor comprehension. After reading part of a new text, stop and evaluate.  If your thinking or understanding is fuzzy its like the lighter color on a swatch.  The clearer your understanding of the text the brighter the color. While my students in September don’t have the comprehension strategies or language to fully articulate their thinking, they now have a conceptual tool (and unique bookmark) to monitor understanding.

Readers make plans for books they want to read in the future. As students began to sift through their personal book boxes, select books from our classroom library and make critical decisions balancing interest, purpose and readability they had to let some books go.  They used deep thinking to select books with the purpose of becoming better readers.  I remind them these books are here for the whole year and confer with statements such as “Is this a book you might save for later in the year?” or “Remember that one in a few months, it will be waiting for you.”  More advanced readers could even make a running list of future texts or log them on an Instagram or Goodreads account.

Here are some priceless thoughts from my 6 year old readers.

  • “I really like David Shannon books and I really want to read about math.  I think I’ll save the math book for later because I can’t read all the words yet.”
  • “I am picking these science books because the words (text) are bigger and usually I can read those words better.”
  • “These five books I think I can read.  This other one has lots of tricky words, but I really like it.  I think I’ll keep it for a challenge.”

With that being said, letting go of control in the classroom is hard. Some kids just aren’t developmentally there yet. But keeping the big goal in mind – growing independent readers – means we are headed down the right path.

Up next, helping readers set realistic goals to increase purpose and ways to monitor and informally assess independent reading choices.




Making Friends with Books

The first few weeks of school are busy with building routines and community.  But just as important – building relationships with books is critical in setting the tone of a classroom full of readers. Here are some practical ways I accomplished both – building friends with books and with each other.

Choose the “just right” read alouds everyday. Children find comfort and purpose in the texts we read. From the shy student who thought it was hilarious I didn’t have a purple tounge like Mrs. Watson to the class conflict we resolved from sharing our scales like the rainbow fish, books build threads that tie a classroom community together. Picking books that represent your goals, classroom community and big ideas remains pertinent to this selection.  The second week into school I started my first chapter book read aloud to lay the foundation for important comprehension strategies and effectively refocus students when their stamina and attention lags. Below are some of my favorites and a unique list from Nerdy Book Club to explore.


Bring books home the first day and every day.  I took a risk here and opened my classroom library before establishing clear boundaries and expectations.  My purpose was twofold. The classroom library is not mine, it is the readers. Having access to books builds interests, investment and connections to home. It has given me plenty of teachable moments and potential ideas for lessons to come. Yes, students are picking books way above their independent levels, but they are reading, talking about books and developing an important habit of taking books wherever they go.

Watch and talk with kids. In a recent blog post Jennifer Serravallo shared ways to get to know your readers.  She recommended kid watching while documenting observations on a class checklist.  After two weeks of this I know which kids think every book is too easy and which ones worry about picking one that is too hard.  I know their interests, their engagement  and possible reading goals.  I also know who is able to sustain working for more than 10 minutes and who will need scaffolding.  I will get to the more formal assessments of reading skills, but strategic kidwatching has given me information about my students as readers that no diagnostic could.  Here is a blank checklist for observations or an Excel editable option to use.

Partner kids based on interests, not reading levels.  This idea came about through kid watching. When building a community of readers, children need opportunities to talk about books with others.  As the year goes on they will be strategically paired with readers who have similar needs.  But right now, as we all become friends, reading next to someone who has the same interests, regardless of their reading level is a powerful human connection.

Above all, focus on building a community of readers and writers, not a community of rules and procedures. Students thrive in a space where learning is not governed by rules  and compliance but the universal need to communicate. A love of literacy conveys the need for routines and expectations within a classroom community.

Good Bye Leveled Library

Every conference began this way.  “What are you working on today as a reader?” Response:  “I want to read yellow (aka above-grade level) books.”  Despite my varied best attempts to instill in this reader the purpose for reading at his independent level and my knowledge that he may never read “yellow” books that year, his reading goal remained the same.  This was a direct failure on my part and I was far too frequently hearing students want to advance to the next level – not wanting to find the next great book to read.

This problem nagged at me all school year, until I attended the NCRA conference and heard Donalyn Miller as the keynote speaker.  She spoke directly to me – and my aspiring “yellow” readers.  In reference to a short blog post by Irene Fountas my discomfort was remedy. Leveled texts are a tool for teachers to plan for instruction and monitor progress – NOT a label for students and parents.  I had permission to rip the red, green, blue and yellow stickers off the books in my classroom library – and I did.  Well, I first wrote the DRA level in teeny tiny numbers on the back of each book for my reference.

While liberating at first, I’ve returned to my classroom library, trying to figure out how to arrange the unleveled books while scaffolding readers to select books they can read.

Most books are organized by a category.  Kids need opportunities to select books they have background knowledge about and motivation to read.  Sorting through leveled books to find one that fits these two criteria takes kids mental energy away from picking a readable book.  By setting up the library where kids can easily locate books they already know about and are interested in reading, they have more capacity to look through that limited selection and find a book they can actually read.

Sometimes Teacher’s Pay Teacher’s is worthwhile, where I opted for $5 book bin labels instead of creating my own. 

Some books are organized by reading skills.  After sorting by topic I still had lots of books that were initially labeled “beginning readers.”  I wanted to avoid ALL labeling of this sort, so decided to group them by reading goals.  Typically beginning readers are working on decoding and fluency.  I have bins that match those levels so kids can also shop according to their reading goals. Additionally, more advanced books have new vocabulary and multi-syllabic words with corresponding labels.

Easier books in each bin have a “smiley face” tag.  The purpose is two-fold.  Beginning readers typically have a more challenging time sorting through books to find one that fits. The smiley face is a simple cue to direct them toward books with less complexity.  Additionally, more advanced readers might check these books out when trying a new topic where they have limited background knowledge.

Now I’m eagerly awaiting for my readers to arrive and get the right books into the right hands at the right time.

Update: check out Good Bye Level Library Part #2 for five lessons to support readers selecting their own books