Who’s Doing the Work?

Archive from The Teacher Triathlete, May 10, 2016

“Can you read with Roberto while you’re here and let me know what you think?”  the teacher asked as I walked into her second grade classroom today after lunch.

“Of course!  I’d be happy to read with Roberto!”  

I’d only read with Roberto once this school year prior to today.  I welcomed the chance to see how much he’s grown as a reader since that day back in January. As I looked around the room, I noticed the classroom was a buzz with readers chatting, reading, and thinking!  Kiddos were sitting on the rug in pairs, at their desk with headphones, in small groups in chairs, and even standing against the countertops propping their books up in a comfy leaning position.  It was so great to see the magic of reading workshop overtaking the classroom.  

When Roberto walked over to me, he asked if we could read outside.  The day was a bright, sunny comfortable 70 degrees. The picnic benches right outside the classroom door were calling our names! As Roberto and I settled in to the closest picnic bench, he lifted up his book to make sure I saw the cover and title, Koalas.  

“I know a lot about koalas!” he announced.

“Really?  I just know a little bit.  Maybe you can teach me something!  What do you know?”  I inquired.

“They have really sharp claws and are slow. See.”  He then opened the book to a page that showed the long curve of a koala’s claw.  Then, he immediately settled into reading.  I just sat back and listened. 

As he read, he stopped and gave his own commentary around koalas every couple pages.  I nodded and just listened for the most part.  I wanted to see what Roberto could do as a reader on his own- without me.  

When he came to the section titled Koala Joeys, he paused and scrunched his eyebrows.  He stared at the page for a couple seconds before he slowly started to read, “Koala babies are called joes.  When joes are born they do not have (pause)… they do not have (longer pause)… hmm.”  He did not take his eyes off the page.  I remained silent.

Finally, after a couple seconds, he sighed and said, “I don’t know that word.” He then looked up at me.  His big brown eyes looked desperate.  They were seeking something.  

I looked at the book and simply said, “Well, what can you try?”  That’s all I said.

“Oh.” He perked up, looked at the word, tilted his head sideways in thought and without looking up at me, simply said, “I can sound out that word.”  He took a deep breath and started again, “When joes are born they do not have f-f-oo- f-oo-r- for?  No. They do not have for?  That can’t be it.”  He paused for another moment before he began again.  He was definitely thinking in that momentary pause.  “Oh! They do not have fur! When joes are born they do not have fur!” Then, he stopped and smiled.  He turned the page and kept reading. 

After he read a couple more pages, I stopped him to name what he did- hoping that it would be replicated again and again. “Roberto, think about what you did as a reader just now.”

“I read about koalas.  They don’t have fur when they’re born.  That’s weird!” he exclaimed.  So, of course we talked about how how “weird” the babies look when they’re born.  I then took the conversation in a slightly different direction. 

“You also did something that so many great readers do!  You thought about what you could try when you didn’t know a word, you tried it, and you solved the word on your own!”

He continued to smile.  In fact, I don’t think that smile left his face after he successfully read the word fur.

“Remember, next time you aren’t sure about a word, you can always ask yourself,  ‘Hmm… what can I try?’ just like you did today.”

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Here’s my point for sharing this story, friends- Rather than telling Roberto a strategy to use to solve the word, I left it up to him.  I put the power in his hands. I could have easily handed him a plethora of strategies to try, but I didn’t. Rather, I channeled Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris’ words from their new book, Who’s Doing the Work?  I turned the work over to Roberto by using a simple phrase: What can you try? Those four little words hold such great power. Those four little words handed Roberto the responsibility of thinking and problem solving on his own.  Because he did this on his own, without an adult telling him how to think or problem solve, he is more likely to do it again independently. He is more likely to transfer this kind of thinking to the next time he comes across a word he doesn’t know.

I am just so excited to continue applying the lessons from Who’s Doing the Work? to all of my work with students and teachers.  This book is a game changer.  Rather, it’s a practice changer.  After reading this book,  I’ve started to deeply look at my own practice and truly question who is, in fact, doing the work when I’m teaching or coaching in a classroom.  I’m now constantly asking, are the students doing the work or am I?  The ones who are doing the work are the ones who are doing the learning.  Thank you so much, Jan and Kim. I am inspired.  My practice is truly changing. I am so grateful.  

As I walked Roberto back into the classroom, the teacher approached me and asked, “Well, what do you think?”

“I think Roberto is a reader. When he was stuck, I simply said the phrase ‘what can you try?‘  Roberto then thought about a strategy on his own and solved that word.  He read a couple more pages, and we had a great conversation about how weird baby koalas look.”


“Yes! Really!  I think Roberto is an independent reader who now knows to ask himself what he can try when he gets stuck on a word.”  

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