Struggling reader, at-risk, disadvantaged, a level M, low reader, below grade level, striving reader, nonreader, these kids, those kids, initiative kids, program kids, label, after harmful label… the list could go on.
Did you have a reaction as you read this list of commonly used labels in school? I definitely had a reaction as I wrote them. In fact, I have a reaction each time I hear one of them used- whether in writing or in conversation. I actually have a reaction every time I hear any label that lumps children together.
Often times when children are lumped together with a label, the assumption is made that they all need the same type of instruction in order to grow. Not all children who need extra support in reading need the same thing. Some children will need more targeted instruction in phonemic awareness while others might need support with monitoring for understanding or active self-regulation. Unless the adults involved take the time to get to know children as individual readers, nothing will change. Assumptions are just as harmful as labels, perhaps even more harmful.
I propose a different way to refer to our students. Rather than sticking an unhelpful label on our students, let’s adopt language that is individualized, actionable, and that puts the onus on the adults at all levels, from the classroom to the district office, to provide our individual students with what they individually need to grow.
So, how do we do this?
The first step is to watch and listen to our students with a sense of wonder. Identify strengths first. Notice and name what kids are already doing well. After naming strengths, move on to identifying next steps for growth. Our language should then mirror this. Our adult language should start with a strength, then name the actionable teaching to provide the needed next step.
Instead of saying an unhelpful statement like, “Tony is a struggling reader” Reframe it to, “Tony is a skilled decoder of words. He needs direct support in listening comprehension in order to continue to grow his vocabulary. He also will highly benefit from more time to engage in casual conversation with friends in class.”
Rather than using a hurtful phrase like, “Lina is a low reader” Try, “Lina loves listening to and talking about stories. She is always highly engaged during class read alouds. She will benefit from extra support with decoding multisyllabic words so she can independently access even more stories.”
In place of a deficit-based label like, “Rui is below grade level” Try, “Rui is a fluent speaker and skilled reader of Portuguese. I need to provide him with more time listening and talking in small groups in class with his friends to support his new language acquisition. Additionally, I need to find more stories in Portuguese to help him also continue to grow in his home language.”
This more specific language not only supports educators who directly work with children by starting with an asset-based lens, but it also names actionable steps that will actually help.
In order to do this continual work of reframing language to view students with an asset-based lens, teachers need to be given room to do so. Sadly, one size fits all heavily marketed solutions seem to be gaining traction across schools, districts, and learning communities. Placing an emphasis on one size fits all solutions detracts from the time and energy needed to individualize our lens and language in education.
I’ll end with this simple thought: In my own teaching practice, I will not use language to describe a student that I wouldn’t use in front of them or their families. I invite you to join me. Join me in using the extra words. The extra words will lead to action. The extra words are worth it.
_______________________________________________________________ Looking for literacy PD?I’m available for on-site, in-school, and virtual summer professional development sessions around all topics and needs in K-6 literacy education. Booking is also available for select dates during the 2022-23 school year and beyond. Learn more here or contact firstname.lastname@example.org to get started. I’d love to work with you and your teachers! -Christina
This is going to be a tough one to write. It’s going to be honest, and it isn’t going to be pretty. My goal as a teacher-writer isn’t to paint myself in a glowing light. Quite the contrary, in fact. My goal is to show myself as I truly am: a flawed but dedicated classroom teacher. I also happen to be someone with a deep passion for literacy education- such a passion that I even cowrote a book about conferring with readers. That’s why this is going to be a hard one to admit to…
Mistakes I Made in the Spring of 2020
I was an ineffective conferring teacher in April and May of 2020. It’s true. I just really didn’t know what to do. Like all of you, my world was completely turned upside down. If you’re a classroom teacher like me, you probably just didn’t know how to balance it all. My biggest concerns did not revolve around how to confer around reading…
Rather, I was mourning the very recent unexpected loss of a former student with my school community. Additionally, I was worried about my student Aiden’s family- his sister has serious health issues and the family moved to my area so she could be treated. I was also concerned about Angela- would she remember her school login and eventually join us in Zoom? I was deeply worried about Nate- the once happy-go-lucky chatty friend to all in our classroom had turned inward and just stopped talking. My nine months pregnant kindergarten buddy teacher and her family were constantly on my mind. Would they be ok through all this? My brother was also consistently in my thoughts. As a nurse in a busy San Francisco emergency department, was he in danger? Not only all this, but I was beside myself concerned about my parents. Will their age and health conditions put them in danger? When it came to the actual work of teaching, I was exhausting myself following my district’s directions of creating original videos every single day for my students. On a related note, I was often trying to mend my broken spirit when my equally exhausted students admitted they didn’t watch the video I sent that day or that they watched it at 2x speed. Plus, I was trying to keep up with 15-20 minute scheduled Zoom meetings with small groups of students that actually turned into emotional support time for all of us rather than instructional periods. Like all of you, I was trying to wrap my understanding around what a global pandemic was and how we even got there. To be completely honest, I was falling apart.
So, it’s true. I wasn’t even thinking about conferring. And, I forgive myself. You should forgive yourself, too. Actually, there is nothing to forgive. We were in crisis mode. Let’s all collectively grant each other some grace and move forward.
What I Plan to do in the Fall of 2020
Once school starts again, I plan to start conferring right away. Why? In retrospect, I honestly think a regular conferring practice would have actually worked wonders this past spring (not dwelling on it, just reflecting on it). It would have potentially given my students, and even me, some comfort, safe conversation, and an outlet of sorts.
In our 2018 book, To Know and Nurture a Reader: Conferring with Confidence and Joy, Kari Yates and I share that we believe at its simplest, a conference is a conversation between two readers. When we are fortunate to learn alongside teachers in person, we often share our belief that every child deserves a teacher who confers, and every teacher can develop a conferring practice that really works. All it takes is a little heart, tenacity, and a willingness to learn. This also applies from a distance- just a bit differently.
To be completely honest, conferring just isn’t the same over Zoom. Absolutely nothing can replace pulling up alongside a child in person, sitting shoulder to shoulder at the same level, leaning in asking, “May I join you,” and then engaging in a friendly in-person conversation around wonder, affirmation, and learning. Yet, there are things we can do from a distance to harness much of the power of conferring.
Instead of writing in paragraph form how I plan to confer with students this spring, I thought I’d create a more visually pleasing guide.
The guide below explains three different methods for conferring with students from a distance: After the Lesson Conferring, Scheduled Conferring, and Peer to Peer Conferring.
By providing one on one time to engage with students myself, and encouraging them to do so with each other, I’m hoping students will feel more of a connection with me and with their peers than if I did not intentionally take steps to set up a conferring practice from a distance. Plus, the more I confer with students, the more I’ll really get to know what’s going- both in their school work and in their hearts. In our work together, Kari and I keep two key questions at the forefront of everything we do:
What’s going on?
How might I respond?
There really is no more powerful teaching move than kidwatching (Yetta Goodman, 1978, 2002) and responding. We won’t know how to respond until we’ve explored what’s going on. We can’t exactly fully engage in the traditional instructional move of kid watching from a distance, but we can still figure out what’s going on by conferring on a consistent basis. I plan to do this from the start once we’re back at school- even from a distance.
More Conferring Support from the To Know and Nurture a Reader Blog
In our work together, Kari Yates and I often share with teachers our belief that all readers are constantly making strategic decisions. It is our job as teachers to let students in on the secret. Many times, students are using skills and strategies and aren’t even aware they are doing so. When we recognize and name what our readers are doing, it is very likely they will do it again. Thus, they will continue to grow as readers.
Our work as teachers is to celebrate the effort, approximations, and new strategic work that our students are continually doing. Kari and I often talk about this with readers, but the same goes for our student writers.
During conferences and small groups with students, when we recognize, name, and point out the strategic moves they are making, we are intentionally offering teaching that will support them in using these skills and strategies again and again.
I am so excited to share this idea tomorrow with elementary teachers in Los Gatos, CA! In our three professional development sessions around writing workshop, we are going to practice recognizing, naming, and pointing out the strategic moves that student writers are making, and then thinking about possible next steps to help them grow. Can you name some of the strategic decisions these writers made?
As teaching colleagues, one of the most powerful things we can do to refine our practice and grow ourselves is to analyze student work together. I can’t think of a better way to spend a staff meeting, grade level collaboration session, or professional development day. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
This school year, I took a risk (which is so unlike me) by taking a slightly reduced teaching contract so I could open up more days to bring my deep love of literacy education to teachers in other schools and districts across the Bay Area and other parts of the West. I love teaching kids, but I equally love teaching teachers- I feel so incredibly fortunate to be able to do both. My schedule is already completely full for the year. Day one of working with teachers is this Monday! I am so excited for the opportunity to work with the teachers at Laurel School in Menlo Park… I’m looking forward to sharing these great books and discussing different ways to kick off and make the most of reading workshop for all students. I’m so grateful for this opportunity. And, I’m now booking for the summer of 2020 and the 2020-21 school year!
If you’re a classroom teacher, you can probably understand why it took me a while since the last day of school to write the final piece for this blog series. The last few days of school are a bit crazy to say the least- they included an all-fifth grade day long pool party, two 5th grade promotion practices, year book distribution and signing, longer announcements, and just pure and utter exhaustion. All of this encompassed our final four days of school in addition to our literacy and math learning and reflection.
Now that I’ve had a bit of time between between my last day of school and packing up my classroom (which all of us do at my school at the end of the year), I’m reflecting on what mattered most during these past 180 school days. When thinking about our literacy learning all year long, I can easily narrow it down to three consistent, daily practices that mattered most:
Daily Independent Reading Soft Starts
Daily Picture Book Read Aloud
Daily Independent Reading Soft Starts– 180 days of it- even on the first and last days of school, even on field trip days, even on assembly days, even on minimum days- we did this every single day without exception. When I first read Allington’s landmark piece If They Don’t Read Much, How They Ever Gonna Get Good (1977) while in grad school well over a decade ago, his words made perfect sense to me. It was baffling to think that some in our field expect kids to become proficient readers without really reading much. It just made no sense. From that day forward, independent choice reading has been a daily nonnegotiable in my classroom.
Thanks to learning about soft starts from Sara Ahmed at a conference a few years back (I wish I could remember which conference!), our independent choice reading time has started our every day in the classroom. Without exception, I open my classroom door at 7:55, the kids walk in and take care of any needs (putting their stuff away, ordering lunch, finishing up a conversation with a friend, etc.), then they settle in for 15 – 40 minutes of independent choice reading. During these 15 to 40 minutes, I confer with a couple students, and am also able to do a quick check-in with each of them. Not only do kids get in a lot of low pressure time in with their eyes on text, but also it is a great opportunity for me to build and foster relationships.
On the last day of school, we even squeezed in 5 minutes for our final, almost ceremonial, independent choice reading soft start. We could only do five minutes as school started at 8:00 and we had to line up for our big 5th grade promotion ceremony at 8:25. However, we made those five minutes count! After those five minutes, my fifth graders joined me in our meeting area for our final picture book read aloud and discussion of the year.
Daily Picture Book Read Aloud– yes, again, every single day, we made time for our picture book read alouds. In addition to supporting students in recognizing and learning the skills and strategies that readers and writers use, our daily picture book read aloud was instrumental in both fostering our caring classroom community and examining how we can work toward empowering ourselves and others. Reading a picture book aloud every single day provided students with 180 shared experiences, shared stories, and shared discussions. You can view all of our read aloud titles here.
While I have always valued picture book read aloud in the classroom, this is the first year I made the commitment as an upper elementary teacher to share one every day. The inspiration came from two places: Jillian Heise’s work with Classroom Book a Day and a little prompting from my friend and colleague Jennifer Ford.
The day before the last day of school, each fifth grader shared a book talk or screencast around the book that impacted them the most this year. Many of the fifth graders opted to present on one of our picture books. During these presentations, we heard how Duncan’s Tonatiuh’s Seperate is Never Equal prompted one student to further dive into her family’s history in California’s Central Valley. Another student shared that Sparkle Boy by Leslea Newman inspired her to seek out more books featuring LGBTQIA kids and families, and then to share those books with friends. We even learned that another student felt she gained more confidence in herself after reading and reflecting on Louisa Belinda’s courageous story in Larissa Theule’s Born to Ride.
On that last day of school, right before we took our last day class selfie (a silly tradition I started years ago) and walked out to line up for our 5th grade promotion ceremony, I invited my fifth graders to quickly write a note about their selected inspirational book or another book on a sticky note for next year’s fifth graders.
Daily Writing– I am so fortunate to work in a school that believes in and practices a daily writing workshop. I say practice because all of us on staff have been refining our workshop practice for years now. I can say this with confidence because prior to working as a fifth grade teacher at my school, I was the literacy coach! At one time or another, I’ve worked with every teacher on staff in developing our workshop practices.
My students came to me as writers- on our first day of school when I said, “Writers, meet me in the meeting area,” they knew exactly what to do and where to go without much prompting. It was pretty obvious the teachers before me helped instill a workshop lifestyle into their consciousness. I’m happy to say we continued that way of life every single day in the classroom.
That being said, it is important to note that I did not deliver a brand new mini lesson each day. Nor did I require students to engage in what one might consider high stakes academic writing each day. We wrote each day, but often times our writing existed in what Ralph Fletcher refers to as the Greenbelt (2017). In his book, Joy Write, Fletcher describes the joy of autonomous, playful, low-stakes writing. On days I would announce, “We’re heading in to the Greenbelt for writing workshop today,” students cheered! They loved experimenting poetry, cowriting fictional stories with friends, creating detailed comics, and even working on stories that they first started in fourth grade! Greenbelt time was their opportunity to have 100% free choice in how they would use workshop time- they chose their writing space, writing modality, genre, topic, whether to write independently or to coauthor pieces, and even their audience. Every single aspect of that time was up to them.
When we weren’t in the Greenbelt, we were largely working within the TCRWP Units of Study in Writing. While the Writing Units of Study for 5th grade was the foundation for our workshop mini lessons, my grade level partners and I often infused in our own teacher-created mini lessons based on what we thought our students would benefit from after talking about their writing. This collaboration with my grade level partners not only helped me grow my practice as a writing teacher, but also it helped my students grow as writers. Three minds thinking about student writing is definitely greater than one!
Perhaps one of the more powerful things we chose to do as a grade level team was invite our fifth grade writers to take time to view their saved writing from previous grades to reflect on how much they’ve grown in their writing practice.
One of the most satisfying experiences for a writer is realizing how much they’ve grown. While reading old pieces of writing can be scary for some adult writers (I’ve shuddered rereading some of my first blog posts), the experience was quite different for my fifth graders. On the day that I handed out their K-5 writing portfolios, the room was filled with kids poring over their old pieces with wonder. The sounds of joyous laughter, shared discussion around old pieces, and gasps of realization of growth filled the room for well over 45 minutes. These 45 minutes were time well spent with three days to go in the school year.
On that last day of school, with only 25ish minutes together with my class, we independently read, shared a beautiful final picture book and discussion, and jotted notes to future fifth graders. We make time for what we value. And that concluded our 180 days of literacy learning.
For more information on why these three practices matter, I highly recommend these resources. There are many more resources in addition to the ones listed below, these are just a few that I’ve turned to again and again in my practice.
Take a look at today’s teaching schedule. As you can see there was not much instructional time. If I had absolute control over my teaching day everyday, it would probably look different than this. Alas, I teach in a school community that highly values learning outside of the traditional elementary school subjects of reading, writing, and math as much as it values learning inside of those subjects. While the lack of traditional academic instructional time irks me on days like this, when I take a step back and think about the benefits of all of these programs, I realize how fortunate my students are to receive consistent learning in the arts and physical education. It’s rare. It shouldn’t be.
Where I teach, days like this are a common occurrence. The scheduled assembly, music class, and PE class are completely out of my scheduling control. Plus, every Wednesday is an early dismissal day for students. While all the other days of the week students are dismissed at 2:30, on Wednesdays, they are released at 1:20. Our Wednesday afternoons are dedicated to staff, grade level, IEP, SST, and parent meetings. On the rare Wednesday where we don’t have a meeting, we might have a district-wide professional development afternoon, collaboration time, or teacher prep time. Obviously, my instructional time is limited on Wednesdays- even more so today due to the hour long assembly this morning.
However, lack of instructional time is not an excuse for robbing kids of precious learning moments. I’m a firm believer that we must make use of the valuable little time we have on days like these. Also, the saying that we make time for what we value is so true. If we value it, we do it.
Years ago, I made the deliberate choice to make time for self-selected independent reading every single day. Some days, independent reading time lasts 45 minutes. On days like today, we independently read for 15. Those 15 minutes of time matter.
We should never discount even small chunks of time- we must make the most of the valuable little time we have on the days where we feel like we have no time at all.
So much is emphasized, written, and said about the first 20 days of school. Well, I’m entering my last 20, and the work isn’t even close to being done. This blog series will chronicle the literacy learning of the last 20 days of school in my fifth grade classroom.