Responsive Teaching is the Answer: An Open Letter

Dear Newspaper Editors,

This letter is for you if your paper has published anything about the resurgence of the so-called Reading Wars, which many of us who actually teach in classrooms choose not to engage in. Frankly, we’re too busy teaching children of varying strengths and needs to get caught up in this unfortunate debate steeped in misunderstanding. However, the record needs to be set straight about what works for children. I agree in that not all children are getting what they need. All children need responsive teachers who take the time to learn their individual strengths and needs and then know how to respond accordingly. And, to be clear, the onus of this falls on more people than the teacher in the classroom– I’ll get to that later in this letter. Thank you for reading.

Years ago when I taught third grade during this one particular school year, most of my class entered my classroom as fluent readers. In this third grade class of 24 students, three of my students at the time still needed more focused, intentional instruction in decoding. I learned this rather quickly through conferring with these students within the first two weeks of school. Luckily, I had access to great curricular materials to use at my discretion that specifically focused on phonics instruction in small chunks each day.

Over a four-month period, I met with these three students in a small group during supported independent reading time for 7-15 minutes four to five days each week to give them the decoding lessons that the rest of the class simply did not need. Because these three students needed the lessons, they found them highly engaging. After each lesson, they spent time reading books they chose that they could read and wanted to read to transfer the decoding skills they just learned to their actual reading.

This is an example of responsive teaching. I used ongoing formative assessment to figure out my students’ individual strengths and needs so I could respond accordingly.

Now, imagine if I gave my entire class of 24 readers these lessons as a whole group. The 21 kids who simply did not need the lessons would have been completely bored and quickly disengaged. If you’ve ever taught in a classroom with children who become disengaged (I’ve been there– all classroom teachers have!), you know how disruptive it can be for the children who desperately need the lesson at hand. It is simply ineffective teaching for everyone in the room. Additionally, valuable reading time for the disengaged children would have been wasted on something they didn’t need.

Think about the reverse now. If I chose not to give those three students the lessons, or if didn’t know it was an option to deviate from “grade-level” instruction, and only taught from one set of materials, those three children would not have fully learned to read that year. They would have left third grade as non-readers who likely would have either developed coping mechanisms to painfully survive in school or different behaviors to self-sooth and deal with their frustration.

Responsive teaching, or providing students with what they individually need in order to thrive, was the answer then. It still is the answer today, nearly 15 years later.

It’s simply untrue to say that all kids need the same thing at the same time in order to thrive. It’s also wrong to say teachers must use this method or that approach in order to be successful. Now, it is safe to say that many or most kindergarteners will benefit from intentionally planned lessons in phonemic awareness and phonics. Also, it’s fair to say that many or most fifth graders will benefit from well developed lessons on how to use text evidence to back-up claims about their reading. Statements like these about teaching and learning can be made with nearly every age group. However, to say all kids learn a certain way or that all teachers must follow a script, a program, or a specific methodology in order to be effective is simply false. It’s easy to say and do, thus the widespread appeal. But, it’s just downright ineffective when teaching a classroom of different learners who deserve to be seen and known and loved by their teachers.

Being a responsive literacy teacher is what works. A responsive literacy teacher spends time getting to know students and responds accordingly. A responsive literacy teacher deviates from the plan when they realize said plan won’t work for some students. However, being a responsive literacy teacher is not easy. Herein lies the issue. Many people are looking for easy fixes or the one right program to teach reading and writing. These things simply don’t exist. If school systems truly care about literacy education, they would put all of their resources into developing their teaching force to be truly responsive to all students. It takes five main things to achieve this: Belief, curricular materials, on-going professional learning, time, and class size.

Belief
To be a responsive literacy teacher, one needs to believe that all students want to read and will learn to read. No exceptions here. As teachers, we simply must believe with our whole hearts in all of our students. Without this belief, nothing else matters.

Curricular Materials
When I say curricular materials, I do not mean a specific program developed by a for-profit company (who are making loads of money right now due to their misleading marketing capitalizing on the resurgence of the so-called Reading Wars). When I say curricular materials, I mean that teachers need to have access to a wide variety of classroom library books that represent all children in the classroom and community, small group books, lessons, and other various materials to support their instructional decision making. A new teacher walking into an empty classroom with no guidance or materials for decision making will have an incredibly challenging time being a responsive literacy teacher. School systems need to ensure teachers have access to a wide variety of materials from which to choose. States need to equitably and properly fund school systems in order for them to be able to do this. Teachers should not be expected to pay out of pocket for their own teaching materials.

On-Going Professional Learning
This is a huge missing piece in most school systems. It takes on-going professional learning to be a responsive literacy teacher. It is incredibly difficult for teachers to be responsive if they have never learned how. On-going professional learning does not refer to trainings on how to use a program. To the contrary, teachers need to know what to do when the plan and program don’t work for some students.

Years ago, I was a literacy coach at my school– what isn’t seen in this photo is that just a few feet away, my colleagues and principal were observing while I was modeling a writing conference with a student. These professional learning sessions were invaluable!

On-going professional learning takes place with colleagues to learn and collaborate around how to best teach students by building on their individual strengths and pinpointing their specific needs to then address them. It doesn’t take place once or twice a year, nor does it happen on a computer. The best professional learning I ever engaged in was delivered by staff developers who worked alongside my colleagues and me inside our classrooms on an ongoing basis. We watched our staff developers teach, tried out the modeled methods ourselves, received coaching feedback, and reflected on the lessons and most importantly, how students responded to the lessons. The best professional learning is done in the classroom with a literacy coach or staff developer who has an ongoing relationship with both teachers and students. I’ve seen it work. I’ve been both the coach who delivers this type of professional learning and the teacher who receives the coaching. It is powerful and highly impactful! I am a responsive teacher because I have the know-how of years and years of benefitting from solid professional learning.

My fifth grade teaching team and I during
one of our allotted planning sessions–
time makes a difference!

Time
Curricular materials and professional learning won’t go very far if teachers are not provided ample time to think, collaborate, rethink, and plan with their colleagues. Consider it this way: I can have the best ingredients and cooking lessons from a Michelin-rated chef, but they will do me no good in preparing a world class meal for friends and family unless I have ample time and space to practice the cooking methods it takes to make the meal. Teachers need time. Like world-class chefs, responsive teachers need time and space to practice and process with their materials and learning.

Class Size
Simply put, and this does not require much explanation, class size greatly matters. It is reasonable for a teacher with 20 students to be responsive to students’ strengths and needs. It is completely unreasonable to expect this of a teacher in a classroom packed with close to 30 students. Most teachers I know will still try, but it will not be likely that all kids’ needs will be met in an over-packed classroom. If you disagree with me, I suspect you have never actually worked as an elementary school classroom teacher.

Other Factors
To be completely honest, there are likely some things I’m not considering right now that also play a role in responsive teaching. Also, responsive teaching is what can be done inside the classroom. Many other factors also play a role in a child’s literacy development outside the classroom. Did the child have access to a preschool that emphasized oral language and cooperative, imaginative play? Does the child have access to books at home– to build on to this, does the child’s community of residence support families by having systems in place to provide accessible early literacy experiences like a community library with books in languages spoken within the community?

Teaching literacy is a beautiful blend of art, science, resources, time, and much more. I’m a very different teacher than I was 10 years ago. I know I will be a very different teacher 10 years from now.

The next time a reporter is tasked with writing about literacy education, please encourage them to dig a little deeper. If they say the answer is simple and can’t understand why teachers aren’t using the magic solution, be wary. Be very wary and ask that reporter to go back and research a bit more. The answer is not simple. Being a responsive teacher is incredibly challenging work that requires a great deal of systemic support. Frankly, the system as a whole just isn’t there yet, though it should be.

Respectfully,
Christina Nosek
-Responsive teacher
-24 year elementary educator
-Certificated reading specialist
-Author of two books on the teaching of reading
-Classroom teacher who is continually learning and growing

Summer Reading & Learning Recs for Elementary Teachers

*This post was originally published on 5/30/22. It was updated on 6/4/22 as I added even more resources to my summer learning stack! Enjoy!*

Summer break is just weeks away or already here for many! It’s the perfect time to unwind, recharge, and do a little self-paced reading or learning in a book club!

If you and your colleagues are reading Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Reading in a summer book club, I’d love to casually chat with you and answer questions through Zoom (or potentially even in person if you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area or Seattle area). Additionally, if you are leading a group of new teachers or preservice teachers, please do not hesitate to reach out this summer or in the fall. I will always make time to openly chat with new and preservice teachers– I’m here to answer their questions, hear their thinking/feedback, and ultimately learn from them as well! Just send me an email at cnosekliteracy@gmail.com.

A key aspect of Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Reading is pointing teachers in the direction of other great resources to continue their learning and answer further questions. I am the teacher I am today because my first year mentor, Midge, introduced me to the habit of professional reading to continually inform my practice. This summer, I plan to read and reread the following professional texts. I hope you’ll join me in reading one or more of these books!

If you’re looking to make your writing instruction more student-centered or are looking to make your writing routines, procedures, and instruction more effective, Melanie Meehan has you covered with her newest book, Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Writing. Does the book look familiar? My book and Melanie’s are in the same series! We actually even collaborated during the process of writing the books as well.

If you’re looking to make your literacy practice more culturally responsive and are ready to do the work and make some important changes to benefit all students, Dr. Kim Parker has the book for you with Literacy is Liberation: Working Toward Justice Through Culturally Relevant Teaching. A key focus of this book is the emphasis on creating an intentional space and community where students feel safe to talk about pressing issues.

If you are interested in instructionally making the most out of your book collection and adding new titles to your teaching, Mentor Texts That Multitask: A Less-Is-More Approach to Integrated Literacy Instruction by Pam Koutrakos will help you out! Pam shows teachers how to plan intentional and thoughtful lessons based on student needs using loved and well written books that likely already line your shelves.

What a complete joy it was to read this gorgeous book by Donalyn Miller and Teri Lesesne. I highly recommend the audiobook read by Donalyn herself! Helping every child find reading joy is in reach of all classroom teachers. The Joy of Reading offers key considerations and shifts in classroom practice to make reading joy a reality for all students.

As I write this blog post, I am about half way through Reading Above the Fray: Reliable, Research-Based Routines for Developing Decoding Skills by Julia B. Lindsey. If you are a K-3 teacher, reading specialist, literacy coach, or just interested in how to effectively teach the vital early reading skill of decoding, this book is a must read and must-keep-on-the-desk for reference.

Teachers have been given yet another literacy gift from read aloud and children’s literature aficionado Maria Walther. In Shake Up Shared Reading: Expanding on Read Alouds to Encourage Student Independence, Maria offers 100 teacher-friendly “bursts” of shared reading lessons inspired by 50 current picture books. If you are a fan of Maria’s Ramped Up Read Aloud or her cowritten book with Karen Biggs-Tucker, The Literacy Workshop, you will absolutely love Shake Up Shared Reading!

This new book by Afrika Afeni Mills will be released in a few weeks, and I cannot wait to dive in. Open Windows, Open Minds: Developing Antiracist, Pro-Human Students , “fills an important gap in the arena of diversity, equity and inclusion... If you’re a White educator or parent, this book will help you to let go of the things that no longer serve you, and to teach your students to embrace those things that will help create welcoming environments where all feel a sense of belonging.” (review from Zaretta Hammond on Corwin’s website). This is a book many of us need, myself included as a White teacher working to do better.

I typically only write about literacy education, but like most elementary school teachers, I teach all subjects! The longer I teach, the more it’s confirmed that my classroom instruction is more impactful for students when I blend subjects by concurrently finding cross-curricular and community connections. Enter Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Math. From Building a positive math community to encouraging talk about math, the four authors of this book bring their years of math expertise into this question/answer format book that is sure to help all who teach or support elementary math. If this one also looks familiar, it’s in the same series as mine and Melanie Meehan’s books!

A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Workshop Mini lessons by the writing team of Lisa Eikholdt and Patty Vitale-Reilly will support both new and veteran teachers alike in mastering the important teaching method of mini lessons. As a new teacher many years ago, my area of focus was keeping my mini lessons mini– this is no easy feat! Now, as a veteran teacher who’s mastered timing, my current area of focus is ensuring all of my mini lessons are relevant and engaging for all students while still keeping them appropriately academically challenging. I wish I had this book as a new teacher, and I’m so glad I have it now as a veteran!

Life, Literacy, and the Pursuit of Happiness: Supporting Our Immigrant and Refugee Children Through the Power of Reading by Don Vu was published last spring, but I finally have my hands on it now. In the book, the author, who is a successful school administrator, masterfully explains how six conditions (Commitment, Collection, Clock, Conversation, Connection, and Celebration) determine a school’s literacy culture.

Interested in additional budget-friendly options for professional learning this summer? A few months ago, Melanie Meehan, Georgina Rivera, and I recorded a webinar about bringing more joy to the elementary classroom. This hour-long webinar can be found for free embedded here or at this link on YouTube. In this video, we offer lots of “party favors” (free teaching resources) for teachers.

Another resource I highly recommend reading, rereading, and savoring throughout the summer months is the annual 31 Days IBPOC blog series (linked here) hosted by Tricia Ebarvia and Dr. Kim Parker (author of the above recommended book, Literacy is Liberation). Every May, 31 educators of color generously share a blog post with the education world and beyond. I have learned a ton over the years from this blog series and have found many authors and educators to continually seek out and learn from because of it.

The final resource I have to share is a podcast I recently participated in with a few educators I deeply admire. In this podcast, Dear School Leaders (linked here), from Peter DeWitt’s Leaders Coaching Leaders podcast, Ayanna Perry, Matt Kay, Georgina Rivera and I discuss building community, relevancy for students, authenticity, teacher entry points, book banning, and so much more! The podcast can be found at the included link or on most podcast hosting platforms.

Whatever you do to support your professional learning this summer, please also prioritize rest, recreation, and recharging. It’s been a rough year for all of us in schools. I, for one, need a reset.

Also, check back here periodically over the summer or click the blue follow button to have more teaching and learning tips delivered directly to your inbox.

I hope this summer brings you and your loved ones what you need.

-Christina

Everyone needs a Midge.

Teacher Appreciation Week always has me reflecting. This Teacher Appreciation Week is extra special, but not in the way most might think. It’s nice to be appreciated and thanked. The flowers from my students this morning were lovely and have the classroom smelling of spring. The coffee and bagels in the staff lounge were also a nice touch! It feels good to be appreciated. But, this year, I feel a fulfillment and sense of gratitude that I haven’t quite ever felt with past Teacher Appreciation Weeks.

This year, I am proud to have my second book for teachers now out in the world. In the book, I have the honor of introducing readers to one of my greatest teaching mentors, Midge Fuller. Simply put, everyone needs a Midge. I wrote this book because I know how powerful it is to have a trusted, experienced, talented, knowledgeable mentor in the room next door. I want that for all teachers. When I was a brand new teacher, Midge, a veteran of over 30 years, graciously and selflessly took me under her wing to introduce me to the ins, outs, ups, downs, and everything in between in literacy education.

Tears are welling in my eyes as I type these words. Midge is no longer here with us on Earth, but her impact is one that will live on and on in the many who loved her and the countless children and teachers who still have yet to be touched by her impact because of all the good she instilled in so many of us who had the pleasure of teaching and learning with her.

Midge, on this Teacher Appreciation Week, I still appreciate you 20 years later. And I will continue your legacy of always doing right by the kids I serve and hopefully inspiring other teachers to do the same.

I wish everyone had a Midge.

An excerpt from the introduction and conclusion of Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Reading

Thank you, Midge. I hope I am making you proud.
Love,
Christina

Sneak Peek at Chapter #5: How Do I Shift Agency to Students, Engaging and Empowering Them as Readers?

The fifth chapter in Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Reading discusses how teachers can make a shift from a teacher-centered reading classroom to a student-centered one.

Agency refers to people making their own independent choices and acting of their own free will to complete tasks and solve problems. In the reading classroom agency is something teachers can support students in building over time.” (pg. 128). When students are agentive readers, they choose their own reading material, make productive choices with where to read, engage in thinking and conversations around their reading, and tackle problem solving when issues or roadblocks arise. Supporting students in building their own agency as readers is a process that takes place overtime, and will likely look different with each student in your classroom. Chapter five will help with this.

Chapter five offers answers to the following questions about shifting agency to students.

Building Agency Resource Right Now

One of my favorite ways to give students more decision-making power, which builds agency in the classroom, is to invite them to play a role in the way the classroom library is organized. A small but mighty way to start to do this is to invite students to create book boxes for the classroom library.

These book boxes were created by students in Haley Harrier’s
first grade classroom and my own fifth grade classroom (pg. 136)

Offering students opportunities to play a role in the organization of the classroom library gives them decision making power and send the message that the teacher trusts them to make choices about their learning.

In addition to making decisions and choices about how the library is organized, teachers can also offer students decision making power in other ways, both big and small: from suggesting a small group lesson topic (pg. 136) to selecting a reading space in the classroom (pg. 132), the possibilities are really endless!

One misconception about offering students choice and decision making power is that it’s a free-for-all that can easily turn into chaos. A key idea to keep in mind is that choice is not necessarily unlimited. Students will need guidance and support when they are first starting to make choices and decisions in the classroom. It’s a messy but beautiful process! This idea is further explained throughout the pages of chapter five.

All posts in this sneak peek blog series can be found linked here. Learn even more about Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Reading by clicking here.

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Looking for literacy PD? I’m available for on-site, in-school, and virtual summer 2022 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 cnosekliteracy@gmail.com to get started. I’d love to work with you and your teachers! -Christina

Learning Gain #3: Listen to the Children

Last week, on the one year anniversary of teaching pandemic school, my fifth grade teaching colleagues and I invited our students to reflect on the past year. We asked our students to consider what they’ve learned, how they’ve grown, what they’ve missed, and even what they now understand that they didn’t understand 12 months ago. Our fifth graders were given space and time to share their thinking through writing.

Not one of our 64 fifth graders, 1/3 of whom are learning from home full-time while the other 2/3 are learning in a hybrid school environment, mentioned that they worried about “learning loss,” academic standards, or about keeping/catching up. Oddly, many adults removed from classrooms or direct work with children are loudly sharing concerns with anyone who will listen about our children falling behind an arbitrary benchmark or standard. These same adults have likely not asked any children to reflect and share their thinking.

Let’s listen to the children. I have gained quite a bit by listening to our fifth graders over the past few months. Here is what some of them had to say last week, on our one year anniversary of doing school during the pandemic…

On Themselves

  • “Through this pandemic, I have realized more about myself, from my personal preferences to how I think. I have learned a lot of life lessons, and now I know how to better cope with bad things that come my way. I think I have also become a better person, I’m more self-aware and persevering.”
  • “I think that I have learned to be patient, and I still am learning because the virus hasn’t stopped yet. One thing that I have realized about myself when I was stuck in quarantine was that music and singing could help with my anxiety. Music has really helped. I can always depend on my music.”
  • “I really miss what life was like before COVID-19, but I’ve grown during this time. I’ve learned how to have fun with myself and that I need to appreciate time with others. But it’s really good that I know how to enjoy my time alone. It’s ok to be alone sometimes.”
  • “I’ve learned that sometimes just making it through is an accomplishment. We should all feel accomplished.”

On Relationships

  • “I have learned to be grateful for what I have and to not take things for granted. I’m so grateful for my family. Other people have lost so much and I realize I am so fortunate to have my family. I will never take them for granted.”
  • “I’ve learned the importance of family, even if we drive each other crazy. They are the ones I love and care about. I need them just like they need me. We all need each other. Especially now. We are united, together, and a team.”
  • “I miss playing with my friends everyday. Even though I don’t get to see them in person I’m glad we have found other ways to do things together. I appreciate my friends more than ever.”
  • “This year has been filled with tears, laughter, and new friends. I met new people! I actually met new friends in school but in weird ways. It wasn’t like how I used to meet friends. I feel more confident to talk to new people now. Everybody needs friends and I see that now.”

On The World, Advocacy, and Change

  • “I’ve learned that the world is a really big place and a really small place. I’ve learned that it’s important to care about other people and other places in the world. That if I can help I should help. I want to help all people in the world.”
  • “I also think that I have learned how bad racism is, which makes me so mad and upset. I know I need to do something about it. I need to speak up. I will speak up.”
  • “I have realized that we need to adapt to our environment, it won’t adapt to us. But, I have also realized that if we want anything to change we have to do it together. We have to actually do something. Not just wait around for others because if everyone does that then nothing will actually change.”
  • “This pandemic has turned the world upside down, and once the vaccines are done, hopefully it will be turned back again. No matter what happens, it will always stay a little tilted from all the changes it has made to the way we live. It showed the human race how no matter what challenges we face, there is always a way to persevere. It showed us that even in the darkest tunnels, no matter how overwhelmed you feel, there will be light at the end.”

On Overcoming Obstacles

  • “I have also come to understand that we will face big problems in our life that we can’t always fix alone. We have to take them slow like a math problem that we don’t understand yet. And slowly, but surely our problem will start to get fixed. Not just like that, but it will fade away slowly with work. We can’t always solve the problems in our lives, but we have to try different ways to solve them and never give up. I know that these days are really hard for everybody, so we all have to try to make a difference.”
  • “Everything has been so hard. But I now realize that I can overcome hard things. It’s not easy, but it can be done. Sometimes I need to ask for help and sometimes I don’t. No matter how hard something feels I now know that it’s probably temporary. It’s ok if things are hard sometimes.”
  • “The pandemic has brought us problems, but also solutions, solutions that can carry on even after these days of troubles. Solutions that will make a difference even in the far, cloudy future where kids will be learning about how this year was one of the strangest humanity has seen. This year has taught everyone how easy our society can shatter, but also that we can put the pieces back together.”

On More Traditional Academics

  • “I learned things! I learned how to draw better and I learned more math! Which has surprised me and everyone around me! It’s inspired me to work harder. I know I don’t really need normal school to learn new things.”
  • “The pandemic has also shown me that I love to draw and I’m good at it. For example, in fourth grade I didn’t know how to draw, I didn’t even really try. When the pandemic started, I began to draw to fill the time. Now I enjoy drawing and have found it as one of my hobbies. It even helps me with my writing!”
  • “I learned a very important lesson. I learned that I can choose my own books. I don’t have to just read books others want me to read. That helped me so much. I actually like reading now.”
  • “I learned that school can be done anywhere. I miss going to my actual school, but I know I can learn from home. I actually kind of like it. I like doing math and writing at home. I never thought I’d say that.”

So, the next time someone makes claims about our children, ask them if they’ve given children the opportunity to reflect upon and share what they’ve learned and realized over these past 12 months. When we take the time to give our kids an opportunity to truly reflect on their feelings and learnings and express themselves, we can learn so much more than we could ever anticipate.

It’s time to listen to the kids. It’s long past time.

-Christina

All posts in this series can be found at this link.

Learning Gain #2: Blunders & Missteps Modeled

“I can’t hear you. I see you’re not muted, but I can’t hear you.” The images on the Zoom screen showed mouths moving and gestures of conversation, but I could not hear anyone on the other end.

Suddenly, messages started flooding the chat…
I can hear her, Ms. Nosek.
She sounds fine to me.
Ms. Nosek check your settings.
Are you connected to audio Ms. Nosek?

I started to grow a tad frazzled as we only had a short amount of time for the reading workshop ahead. The added pressure of seamlessly managing the tech know-how of Zoom meetings while simultaneously leading a reading workshop is real. Not only did I need to respond to student reading needs in the moment, but I also had to respond to tech-issues, often my own, in the moment as well.

The advice continued in the chat…
Remember this happened before.
What was it last time when this happened to Ms. Nosek?
Ms. Nosek, is your computer volume turned all the way down AGAIN?

I immediately looked down at my keyboard, repeatedly pushed the volume button, and watched the volume symbol on screen grow from zero to ten. Yep. That was it. My computer volume was once again turned all the way down and I didn’t realize it. I planted my hand on the familiar spot on my forehead, took a deep breath, and sighed, “Thank you, fifth graders. What would I do without you? Shall we start reading workshop now?” Then, a friendly, understanding response came my way…

“It’s ok Ms. Nosek. These things happen.”

If your teaching is anything like mine, you’ve made quite a few missteps and blunders this year. Not only have I continually made these flubs, but I have made them publicly, in front of my students and even their families on occasion due to being broadcast into some of their homes. However, the power of this lesson does not come from the blunder itself being made. Rather, the power comes from watching me, the teacher in charge, publicly make them, learn from them, and eventually bounce back.

Some of the missteps and blunders I’ve unintentionally modeled in front of my students have included accidentally ending the entire Zoom meeting instead of closing breakout rooms, allowing my own typos to go unedited on assignments while realizing it as I’m explaining said assignment, and even making a simple arithmetic error in front of everyone while modeling a strategy on how to add fractions with unlike denominators. In all of these instances, rather than trying to cover my tracks or make an excuse for the blunder, I named it, owned it, repaired it when I could, and moved on…

Some of these lessons from the blunders have been simple- make sure double check the button I’m about to click in the Zoom meeting before I click on it. Others have been a bit more impactful- when I speed through my work without rereading it, even as an adult who is well versed at doing school, errors are bound to go unfixed. So, be sure to always reread or double check my work. The public and often unintended modeling of noticing, naming, accepting, and then finding the remedy to the errors is where the power of the lesson resides.

After a few weeks together, I noticed students started going through the same process with their small blunders. When minor blunders were made, students would say things like, “Oh well. Let me just fix this and move on!” or “Oh, now I see. Got it.” The embarrassment and self-consciousness of school years past has transformed into a humble confidence of sorts. During this school year more than any other, students are granting themselves grace or are even partially celebrating their minor blunders and then are just moving on.

I’m not able to draw causation from my public unintentional modeling of my missteps and blunders, but I do wonder if this has had an impact on my students when they make a minor misstep as well. I wonder if my frequent publicly made blunders are putting students more at ease for when they make them. I may never have an answer, but I do know I will carry this thinking with me well past this school year.

Learning gained: blunders and missteps publicly modeled are a beautiful thing.

-Christina

Learning Gain #3 will describe the power of listening to our kids. Click on the follow button to have each post delivered to your inbox, or check back here in a few days! All posts in this series can be found at this link.

Learning Gain #1: Friendship Found

During a meeting back in October with my fifth grade teaching partners and principal, I expressed that I was worried about one of my students. “I’m really concerned that Jill does not have a close friend in the current cohort. She needs that connection to feel safe,” We were working to place our students into cohorts of 10-12 kids each as we were moving from a full distance model of school to a hybrid model. In our hybrid model, students would remain with the same cohort of children for all activities both in and out of the classroom each day- they would learn together, eat together, and play together with no physical exposure to any other children at school. So, we spent quite a bit of time creating, rethinking, and then recreating our cohort placements. Ultimately, many of the placement decisions ended up being out of our control as we had to ensure siblings were in the same cohort time frames in addition to a few other considerations as well. So, we did not have as much flexibility as we would have liked.

On our first day back I was worried for Jill as her two closest friends were placed in a different cohort. The first hour and a half of the day went smoothly. We reacquainted ourselves with physically being back in school and of course read some great books! Around 9:30 that morning, I decided to bring my students outside for some unstructured extra play time. I figured that they had not been with other children in 8 months, so the more play time together, the better! As students moved into our designated play zone for the day (each cohort is assigned a rotating play zone everyday in order to stay physically distanced from other cohorts), I noticed Jill stayed back a ways and just observed the others. The rest of the kids quickly gathered together (at a safe distance of course) and started chatting. It looked like they were figuring out what to do. I’m a firm believer in allowing kids the space and freedom to structure their own play time, so I decided to hang back and just observe. As a little more time went on, the kids all moved into a game with jump ropes. They all grabbed ropes, helped tie a few together, and formed a line to take turns running into the spinning jump rope two at a time. It brought me immense joy to watch them giddily play together after months of being separated. However, Jill was still hanging back on her own.

As I was about to walk up to Jill to invite her to play with the other kids, Layla, another student in class, looked over and gleefully yelled, “Jill, what are you doing? Come play with us!” I took a step back and just looked at Jill. As she quickly glanced up from whatever she was staring at on the ground, a smile grew across her face, and she ran over to the other kids to join the jumping line. That’s all it took.

Every single day since, Jill’s cohort has played together like a family out at recess and during extra play time. All kids in the cohort of ten are always included. They do this completely on their own without my prompting. Instead of small groups of two or three children doing their own separate things, they always make it a point to play as a whole group. The ten of them, all coming from different friendship groups in previous grades, have become a caring and nurturing bubble of classmates. Not only do they continue to play together without my intervention, but they also share their personal poetry with each other, audibly laugh with each other in class (mostly at my frustration with tech issues!), and even resolve conflict with each other in a compassionate way. Our days are not always without conflict, but that conflict is now met with a layer of compassion that’s much deeper than I’ve ever previously observed as a teacher.

Someone recently asked me how I work to foster friendships in a hybrid model classroom. I honestly answered that the kids have done it themselves. They just needed the adult around them to get out of the way. Or, I should say, they needed the adult around them to give them the space to apply what they have learned and experienced as humans living in a pandemic to build relationships with the people around them. It didn’t matter that Jill wasn’t placed in a cohort with her best friends. What mattered on that first day back and still matters now is that the people with her value her as a fellow human being and she values them as well. Friendship was found in simple, beautiful ways because of our situation, not in spite of it. Imagine if I would have intervened with Jill that day. I would have taken away that feeling of acceptance she felt coming directly from the other kids. Adult intervention is definitely necessary at times, but more often than not, the kids just don’t need us- and we have to recognize what a beautiful thing that is! 

Interestingly, when chatting with students’ caregivers at our conferences a couple weeks ago, a few parents mentioned that they were concerned at first because their child’s close friend was placed in a different cohort, but that the concern quickly faded as new friendships were immediately formed. In talking with a few of my colleagues, they are also noticing the same level of new friendships blossoming as well.

Whether our kids are in a full distance, hybrid, or even back to a full classroom model of learning, one thing I know is true. Our kids have realized and prioritized the importance of friendships and relationships during this trying time- whether those relationships are developing in-person or online, human connection matters now more than it ever has before. Being physically away from others has really demonstrated how important we all are to one another.

We have gone through so much loss as a global community. Our children have not been spared from this loss. In these overwhelmingly difficult times, friendship, love, and compassion for each other have been found and fostered. It’s not perfect. After all, who has ever heard of a perfect friendship or a perfect love? But, it is real and it is perhaps more important than anything else. Authentic human relationships and budding or growing friendships have been shining lights in the darkness of this pandemic. Our kids see it, believe in it, and most importantly, act upon it. It’s time for us to follow their lead. 

Learning Gain #2 of this series, Blunders & Missteps Modeled, is coming out soon. Click on the follow button to have the post delivered to your inbox or check back here in a few days. Until then, follow the lead of our kids- they clearly know what they’re doing!

-Christina

All posts in this series can be found at this link.