One of the more powerful things a teacher can do to both positively build a reading community and enhance teaching and learning is to embrace the mind shift of seeking out what students are doing as opposed to what they are not doing.
When students feel valued and that their strengths are seen and honored before all else, many positives will arise. Some of the benefits I noticed in my own classroom when I made this shift years ago were that students became more likely to share, their motivation grew, they felt safer to take risks in their learning, and they started to support and lift each other up more.
If making the shift to asset-based thinking about students is new to you, consider framing your thinking around these questions. Sometimes, the first questions will be all you need. Other times, you’ll need to use the second question to guide your thinking.
What is this student doing well? or What is a reading strength I see in this student?
How can I turn this observation into a positive to better serve this student?
I actually have these questions written on a note taped to my conferring clipboard. So, every time I meet with a student, I’m reminded to seek out the assets before all else. Below are two examples of intentionally pushing my thinking as a teacher to make the shift from deficit-based thinking to asset-based. The more you make the shift, the easier it will become. Eventually, it will become your default way of thinking if you continually work on it.
It’s quite easy to notice all the things that aren’t going well. Noticing the positives, or reframing the perceived deficits to be assets will change the trajectory of your reading community in a big way!
Before diving in to the academics of the school year, prioritize learning more about your students as the full and complete people they are. All students come to our classrooms with full and complete lives comprised of many aspects that should be both appreciated and celebrated. Their experiences, interests, and backgrounds need to be fully seen and celebrated if they are to feel like valued members of the classroom community.
Taking the time to really get to know your students will build their trust in you, deepen your relationship with them, and enable you to better make decisions about language to use, books to seek out, and so much more regarding reading instruction. Plus, and perhaps most importantly, when you get to know and celebrate your students for the people they are, they will feel more comfortable and confident in celebrating themselves and each other.
Classroom Practices to Better Learn ABout Your Students During the First Weeks of School
Start your school days with a morning meeting, or as I like to call it, morning circle, where we all sit in a large circle facing each other. Pose questions for students to consider and verbally answer to get to know them (*note- it’s also important to allow students to pass. It takes some more time to feel comfortable speaking in front of the whole group, and this should always be respected). Also, in addition to you getting to know students, this will enable students to learn more about each other. Choose a question or two each day that applies to all students. Avoid questions about material possessions, vacations, and anything that would not equitably apply to all students. Some questions to get you started might include:
What is something you enjoy doing with your family?
What is a favorite food you like to eat at home?
What is one activity you like to do outside of school?
What is something that makes you smile?
What is one special thing you’d like to share with all of us? TIP: Also be sure to share your answers to these questions as well. Students are more likely to share their lives with us when we also share our lives with them.
Prioritize conferring from day one. If you’ve read this blog or any of my writing before, you know that conferring is the most trusted tool in my teacher toolbox. A conference is a one on one conversation between two people. It can be instructional or just informational. Contrary to what some might say, there are no required steps to a conference, especially to a conference with the purpose of getting to know another person. A bonus of engaging in casual conversation conferences during the first couple weeks of school is that doing so will also build students’ comfort level with conferring when instructional conferences begin. To start beginning of the school year conferences, simply sit beside students one at a time, ask if you can join them for a minute or so to chat, ask a thoughtful question, and listen. Students should do most of the talking. A casual conference can start with
How are you enjoying school so far?
What has been your favorite part of our first couple school days together.
Do you have any suggestions for our classroom? TIP: After the short conversation, end the conference with a celebratory statement. A simple, “I am so glad we chatted and am so glad you’re in my class this year!”
Give students lots of time to chat with each other. One of the best ways to get to know students, and to help them get to know each other and find comfort in the classroom, is to offer multiple opportunities throughout each day for them to chat with each other. While they are chatting, listen in to learn more. But, be sure to listen rather than talk so they are the ones setting the tone and topics for the conversations. Here are a few simple ways to do this within the first days of school:
One thing: In table groups, or in small groups of 3-5, ask students to find one thing they all have in common outside of school. Encourage students to start by simply asking each other basic questions– How many siblings do you have?Do you play or watch any sports?Do you enjoy music?etc. I’ve been doing this activity for years, and I can safely say there is no other activity that provides nearly as much information about students in a short amount of time! As students do this, I roam around the room and listen in. When groups have found one thing, ask them to find another. Students of all ages absolutely love this activity as it gives them a safe space to share their lives and get to know the lives of their classmates.
Free choice time: Providing students with free choice time a few times within the first couple weeks of school enables me to learn their preferences in activities, listen in to authentic student conversation that naturally occurs, and allows me to see whether students prefer to work with others, independently, or a mix of the two. During free choice time, students may choose to read, draw, write, play/build with blocks, play games, work on puzzles, and more. They may choose to do things with others or independently. They are also free to change their minds and try something new! TIP: Free choice time does not mean unstructured time or a free-for-all. Prior to the first free choice time, sit down with students to co-create a set of norms for this time.A co-creation of norms is a community builder within itself as it gives students voice and choice in classroom procedures.
At the end of the first two weeks of school, sit down before or after school one day to list three outside-of-school asset-based facts or celebrations you’ve learned about each of your students. Doing this not only solidifies your learning about your students, but it will also show you which students you will still need to learn more about. The first step in building any community, reading or otherwise, is learning about and then celebrating its members. Dr. Gholdy Muhammad reminds us, and I strongly agree that, “It is our job as educators to not just teach skills, but also to teach students to know, validate, and celebrate who they are.” Once you celebrate your students as the people they are, it opens up space for them to celebrate themselves in the classroom community. There is nothing more important in education.
Like many of you, I will be heading back to my classroom soon. While still relishing in the final days of summer relaxation (and let’s be honest, recovery from the past two and a half tumultuous school years), I’m beginning to think about the steps I’ll take starting on the first day of school to build a classroom reading community that will enable each of my individual students to become members of a collective, supportive, cohesive community of readers.
A well formed community is celebratory in the good times, supportive in the tough times, and successful due to everyone collectively working together toward common goals that evolve over time as the community grows. Also, being a member of a safe and nurturing reading community makes students more apt to take risks and unabashedly embrace new learning. Building a well formed reading community doesn’t happen by chance. It takes intention with teaching decisions, consistent practices, and predictable procedures. It goes well beyond the pages of any required curriculum.
The upcoming posts in this blog series will be short for end-of-summer reading ease but packed with practical ideas and methods that I have refined over the years in my own fifth grade classroom and the classrooms of my lower grade teaching colleagues (who always graciously try out my ideas, offer feedback, and invite me into their classrooms to work with their students).
This series will run from 8/1/22 to 8/27/22. Follow the blog to receive every post in your email inbox or check back here then. All posts will be linked here after they publish.
This letter is for you if your paper has published anything about the resurgence of the so-calledReading 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 teacherswho 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.
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.
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
*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 email@example.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.
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.
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!
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 IBPOCblog 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.
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.
“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.
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.
_______________________________________________________________ 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 firstname.lastname@example.org to get started. I’d love to work with you and your teachers! -Christina