The Extra Words Are Worth It: It’s Time to Stop the Assumptive Labeling of Children

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.

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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 cnosekliteracy@gmail.com to get started. I’d love to work with you and your teachers! -Christina

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.

15 Lessons Learned for the 2020-21 School Year: #9 Prioritize Conferring from the Start

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.

A larger version of this image can be found here.

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:

  1. What’s going on?
  2. 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

Post #10 is coming up on Tuesday! Tuesday’s writing will discuss the big idea that Less is More in distance learning.

All posts in this blog series will be housed here: 15 lessons learned for the 2020-21 School Year, July 20-August 7th Click on the follow this blog link to have the posts delivered to your inbox each day, or check back tomorrow!

15 Lessons Learned for the 2020-21 School Year: #2 Build & Maintain Student Relationships Before Academics

Building and maintaining positive relationships with students is absolutely everything. Without trusting relationships, teaching will be less effective, students will be less engaged, and much of what we do will be for naught. I made mistakes with maintaining student relationships this past spring, and have intentionally made plans to build and maintain trusting relationships come August.

Mistakes I Made in the Spring of 2020

When reflecting on relationships with students this past spring, I can pinpoint two major mistakes I made once we started distance learning.

First, I made the assumption that since I had already built relationships with my students that we could get right to the business of learning. Honestly, I was so worried about academics that I didn’t really think about our relationships. This was a huge misstep.

Second, I did not do nearly enough to put systems into place to allow students to maintain and continue to build their relationships with each other. My relationship with students is important, but I came to realize that my students’ relationships with each other were of even more importance. Students need me, but distance learning clearly showed me that they need connection with each other even more.

What I’ll Do Moving Forward As the School Year Begins

My fifth grade team and I have spent a great deal of time talking about changes we will work to actively make at the start of the school year to foster relationship building with students from a distance. It’s much easier in person, but we have a few ideas we’re going to try out at a distance.

Idea #1 Before the start of our school year, we are going to try to safely (with a mask and physically distanced) visit each of our students either outdoors at their home or at an agreed upon meeting place near their home. Since we know we are going to be teaching at a distance through a computer, we want to meet each student in-person to casually chat, answer questions they may have, and get to know them before the school year starts. This will take time, but the time spent up front will only support everything we will try to do in the future.

Idea #2 Schedule twice weekly Fun Zooms with our classes. This will look different with different age groups. With my fifth graders, this was a huge hit in the spring, and we did not do it nearly enough! We need more connection through fun and joy right now that is not attached to academics at all. For example, my fifth grade level partner Laura loved playing MadLibs with her class. This is something they all laughed around and connected on each week. Students really enjoyed sharing their outside interests as well- one of my students played his guitar for us, another often shared her drawings, while another just wanted to chat about her annoyance with her younger sibling. This unstructured, free, fun time was always a welcome experience for all involved. It really helped us stay and feel connected with each other. So, instead of doing this every now and again, we’re going to schedule it at a regular time twice a week during school hours. Some weeks, we may even do it more!

Idea #3 Create many opportunities for students to build and maintain relationships with each other. Before we sheltered in place, I had systems in my classroom set up for group work and different partnerships throughout the school day. Every single school day prior to March 13th, students collaborated with multiple peers on an ongoing basis. This fell by the wayside when we were in crisis mode and following an asynchronous teaching model this past spring. Well, my fifth grade team and I are bringing back regularly scheduled, real-time human interaction for our kids- and ourselves! This was sorely missed in the spring. In July 28th’s post, I’ll go into much more detail about how we are going to make this happen from a distance, but for now, here are a two of our ideas.

  • Daily class Zoom morning meetings where students will have rotating morning partners for small group and whole group discussion. In these meetings, we plan to have casual conversation, read alouds, and play a game or two to start each day. Students will be able to both freely ask questions, offer ideas, and share stories.
  • Reading, writing, and math partnerships or trios for each learning unit. After our synchronous whole group mini lessons each day, students will break off to independently work offline, but they will all have their Zooms still open and computers within earshot in breakout rooms so they can easily ask questions or collaborate with their partners when needed. This will also allow us teachers to pop in and out of break out rooms for small group instruction and conferring during independent work time. More importantly, it will give students the opportunity to collaborate on their terms when they feel that they need it.

Idea #4 Regularly seek out, listen to, and apply feedback from students. One thing we do not do enough of in education is ask students how we’re doing and what they’d like to see more of in class. We rarely ask them how we’re making them feel and what they’d like to see change in school. I did not do this in the spring, but have made a habit of it in the past. This can be done through a Google Form survey or even a casual class discussion in the morning meeting. When we invite students to let us know how we’re doing as teachers and how they’re feeling as students, trust has the potential to exponentially grow, and relationships tend to become much stronger. But, not only should we ask them their opinion, we should also apply what they tell us. That’s key!

Here’s an example of a beginning of year survey and a mid-year student survey from last school year.

Idea #5 Allow students to get to know you, too! As teachers, we often make efforts to get to know students, but we should equally make an effort to allow students to get to know us. My students know me almost as well as my friends do, but in a more professional manner, of course. They all knew I was a massive Pearl Jam and San Jose Sharks fan, had a fear of flying, loved singing (poor kids heard me break out into song often!), and that I despised ants more than any other creature on Earth. These things may sound trivial, but opening up and allowing students to get to know me only made our relationships stronger. One rule of thumb I try to follow each year is to connect with each student around something outside of school. For example, with my students Eddie and Nicholas this year, we talked hockey all the time. My student Angela and I shared a fondness for cats. Elsa and I connected over a shared music interest while Vince and I talked ramen. You’d be surprised how much there is to discuss about ramen (unless you’re a ramen lover like Vince and me!). Making a point to find an outside of school connection with students goes a long way in relationship building, trust, and connection.

I’d love to hear some of your ideas for building relationships with students. What have you done in the past that has worked well? What are some new things you plan to do in our new teaching and learning landscape moving forward?

Further Resources

  • Book: Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy by Gholdy Muhammad, particularly chapter 3, Toward the Pursuit of Identity. My fifth grade team and I are reading and discussing this brilliant book over the summer. We are really examining how our literacy practices impact our students and what we should do differently. Chapter 3 is all about inviting in and honoring students’ identities in the classroom. By acknowledging and honoring our students identities, they will more likely feel safe, more likely trust us, and we will more likely be able to better build relationships with them that are authentic. I cannot recommend this book enough!
  • Book: No More Teaching Without Positive Relationships (disclaimer: I have not read this book myself yet, but I have learned a great deal from Heinemann’s Not This, But That series and heard this is a great new book, so it is high on my to-read list!)
  • Blog Post: Building Student Relationships Online from the NCTE Blog

Post #3 is coming up tomorrow! Tomorrow’s writing will explore the mistakes I made in the relationships with my students’ caregivers this past spring and how I plan to effectively communicate with students’ caregivers once the new school year starts in just a few weeks’ time.

All posts in this blog series will be housed here: 15 lessons learned for the 2020-21 School Year, July 20-August 7th Click on the follow this blog link to have the posts delivered to your inbox each day, or check back tomorrow!

Rethinking “I’m proud of you.”

Andi, a student of mine, was so excited during writing workshop today. After trying a few different things out, she finally wrote an introduction to her persuasive essay that she felt would really grab her readers’ attention. She excitedly requested a conference with me to ask what I thought about her introduction.

I didn’t plan to meet with Andi today, but she was so excited to share her writing that I certainly couldn’t say no. When we settled in for our conference together, I started off how I typically do with my fifth grade writers, “Hi Andi- what would you like to talk about?”

“I think I really wrote a great introduction! I want to know what you think!”

“Ok, can you read it to me?” I responded with a smile.

Andi then read her introduction aloud, which I have to say was very clever, and definitely made me want to read more. As soon as she finished reading it aloud, she looked at me with a huge smile seeking out my approval by asking, “Do you like it?

Some of you might be thinking- that’s great, she wants to share her writing! She’s seeking out the teacher to share her great work.

Well, I honestly had a different reaction. The last thing I want as a writing teacher is my students seeking out my approval. I don’t want them to look for the standard response of “I’m proud of you” or “Great job!” Their job as writers (readers, mathematicians, scientists, etc) is not to gain my approval. So, I responded with something else. I tried to respond in a way to get Andi to seek out her own approval and to notice exactly what she did as a writer to make her feel this way.

“Well, what do you think about your introduction? Do you feel you’ve accomplished what you set out to do?”

Andi quickly responded, “Yes! Definitely. I think my reader will want to keep reading. I think the statistic I shared will surprise them and make them want to know more about the topic.”

I looked at her, smiled, and said, “Andi, recognize how you’re feeling right now as a writer. Think about the decision you made to provoke this feeling in your future readers. This is potentially a strategy you can use again in your writing. I bet you can even share it with some classmates to support their efforts. Would you be up for that?”

“Yes! I’ll share why I decided to use the statistic to start! I really like how it sounds.”

“Take note of the pride you feel in yourself right now, Andi. Consider jotting down the decision you made as a writer in your notebook. Revisit it the next time you’re starting a piece of writing or perhaps when you’re conferring with a friend to support their work.”

“Ok. I will! Thanks, Ms. Nosek.” Andi then jotted down the strategy she made the choice to use in her notebook, and walked off feeling proud of herself as a writer. With that, our conference ended.

Now, imagine if I just told Andi that I was proud of her. If I used those words, it would have made her writing about pleasing me instead of empowering her. There is nothing inherently wrong with telling kids we’re proud of them. However, I’m making the effort with my teacher language to help them recognize when they are proud of themselves. The goal is helping my students empower themselves, not making me proud. Simple language choices make a big difference.