#4: Make the Shift to Asset-Based Thinking

This is the fourth post in the Building a Reading Community blog series to kick off the 2022-23 school year. All posts in the series can be found here.

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.

  1. What is this student doing well? or What is a reading strength I see in this student?
  2. 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!

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Up Next in the Series: #5: Teach Student How to Choose Books. All posts in this blog series can be found linked here. To learn more about shifting to asset-based thinking about students, check out pages 16 and 107-108 in Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Reading.

#2: Make Use of Browsing Boxes From the Start

This is the second post in the Building a Reading Community blog series to kick off the 2022-23 school year. All posts in the series can be found here.

Choice and access to a classroom library full of books is an incredibly joyous, central part of thriving classroom reading community. Getting books into students’ hands from the get-go is key for setting the tone that reading is the central focus of the school year together. However, for students who have not experienced choice before, this access can also be quite overwhelming. Contrary to what some might think, choice is something that actually needs to be taught to support elementary students with making solid book picks for themselves (the fifth post in this series will take a deep dive into teaching choice).

To ease the overwhelm and still provide all students choice in their reading at the start of the school year, give browsing boxes a try. During the first two to three days of school while I am still introducing procedures for the classroom library and tweaking it a bit based on learning more about my students, I place browsing boxes full of books of different topics, genres, and readability at each student group table. Students browse though the books in the boxes while chatting with their table mates. The boxes provide book access, more opportunity for student conversation, and choice in reading without the overwhelm a larger classroom library might bring at first.

Steps to Getting Started with Browsing Boxes
  1. Gather large boxes to fill that will be placed at student tables.
  2. Select a wide variety of books including different genres, topics, and even books from past grade levels that might serve to give some students the comfort and familiarity they need in a new classroom. I like to ask my colleagues in the grade levels below me about some loved books in the prior school years.
  3. Place the books in the boxes.
  4. Places the boxes at student tables for student reading choice. Encourage students to try out some of the books and even settle in to reading one or more. Also be sure to encourage conversation around the books: What looks good to you? Have you read this book before? etc.
  5. Use with flexibility! Remember, browsing boxes are a starting point, not a gatekeeper to other books. If a student sees a book of interest in a different browsing box or somewhere else in the room, offer the book to the child!
  6. Take note of the books students are gravitating toward. This will be valuable information for you moving forward. Swap books out if needed.
  7. Have a plan for removal or an extension of the browsing boxes. They may continue to serve a purpose in other ways throughout the school year, but their purpose is to be a starting point of comfort to get students accustomed to choice. They are not the end point when it comes to choosing books.

Browsing boxes work in every grade level. Many kindergarten and first grade teachers even make use of them well after the first weeks of school. As long as boxes are kept fresh with books being added and swapped out, browsing boxes can serve different purposes all year long in classrooms. They can even be used instructionally. Pages 52-53 and 100 of Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Reading discuss using browsing boxes along with instructional reading more in-depth.

The key thing to remember for the first days of school is that browsing boxes offer curated choice in a way that is manageable for students before complete open access to the classroom library is given.

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Up Next in the Series: #3: Establish Daily Supported Independent Reading Time. All posts in this blog series can be found linked here. To learn more about building a reading community, check out chapter one in Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Reading.

#1: Learn About and Celebrate Your Students

This is the first post in the Building a Reading Community blog series to kick off the 2022-23 school year. All posts in the series can be found here.

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.

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Up Next in the Series: #2: Make Use of Browsing Boxes From the Start. All posts in this blog series can be found linked here. To learn more about making the effort to get to know your students in order to build a reading community, pages 10-15 in Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Reading offer more practices and methods.

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