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

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.