Merging Our Reading and Writing Instruction

As I have mentioned before, we, in my district, have the incredible privilege of working with Ellin Keene. She has been a literacy consultant for our district for almost the entire time that I have been working there. She has pushed our thinking in incredible ways and I am pretty sure that I have learned more from her about teaching than from any other single person. She has helped me to become a more student-centered, responsive, thoughtful, reflective teacher and every time I speak with her, I end up a better teacher than I was before the conversation.

This summer she has been talking to our district about changing our reading and writing workshops into being more of a literacy studio.  The literacy studio is something that Ellin discusses in her book To Understand.  While we are still in the process of learning exactly what this switch would entail, one of the biggest changes that Ellin talks about is a need to merge together our reading and writing instruction. She speaks about the time we are wasting and the damage we are doing by separating and compartmentalizing our reading and writing instruction as we have done for so long in our schools.

I am really struck by this idea.

I find real power in the idea that by fusing our reading and writing instruction, our children will stop seeing these two things as separate acts. Instead, they will be able to use what they learn as readers, in order to help them as writers.  And they will use what they learn as writers, in order to help them as readers. Plus, I think about the time we would save on our teacher-driven instruction and how much more time we would have for student-driven work time.

I don’t really know how this will happen in my own classroom. I don’t quite know how we will merge our instruction while still having to worry about the somewhat separate reading and writing curricula that we currently have. I don’t know how to do this kind of work while still honoring both reading and writing equally.

But I do know that I am excited to give it a try. I am excited to learn. I am excited to be more creative with the structures that I use in my classroom in order to create an environment where students see reading and writing as tools that can be used together in order to do important work in making this world a better place.

For me, the place that I want to start with this concept happens to fall at the very start of the school year.  In writing,  we begin with memoir and personal narrative. I have already written about how I want to use this writing unit to focus on the power of telling our own stories.

In reading last year, I began the year by taking the idea of making connections to our reading and pushing it further to look at how books can be both mirrors and windows for students. They can see themselves reflected in the books they read and they can also look into the lives of people who are vastly different than they are in order to gain understanding and develop empathy.  I wrote about that work here and here.

These units feel like the perfect place to start merging my instruction. While we are talking about writing our own stories, it makes so much sense to tie that into how we read the stories of others. While we are reading stories in order to learn how to see ourselves and see others, we can also use those stories as mentor texts for writing our own stories. While we look at how authors teach us about their lives through stories, we can talk about how we can use our stories to teach others about what our own lives are like. While we talk about how reading other people’s stories can challenge what we think we know about what life is like for other people, we can also talk about how when we write our own stories we can challenge what other people think our own lives are like.

There are so many possibilities. So many ways that we can connect these units. So many ways that we can merge our instruction so that our students see that the power of story is in both the READING and WRITING of stories.

I don’t know exactly how this is all going to look yet, but I know that there is something really powerful here. I am eager to get into the classroom, to get right next to my kids and figure it out together.

Beyond the What and How of Reading Comprehension Strategies

Since I started teaching, my reading instruction has centered around the teaching of reading comprehension strategies in a reading workshop structure.  I have been lucky enough to teach in two school districts who have been committed to teaching kids how to be better readers and not just teaching kids to read the books we pick for them to read.

When I began teaching fifth grade, I thought I did a pretty good job of teaching my students about what good readers did.  I knew the research. I knew that it was clear that good readers were able to make connections, predict, infer, visualize, question, determine importance and synthesize. And over the years I gathered, what I thought to be, some pretty inventive ways of teaching kids about WHAT these strategies were.  I did the lesson where we looked at items that were found in a person’s bag and made inferences about that person based on what we saw. We looked at compelling images and asked thick and think questions. We read poems and then drew the images that came to our minds.

At some point in my teaching career, I realized that I had to do more than just teach my students WHAT the reading strategies were. I had to also teach my students how exactly to use these strategies as they read. So I did more work to make my own thinking visible and to break down these complex strategies so that my students could actually see HOW to use them. In this way, I thought that my students would be more likely to use these strategies as they read independently.

And it worked. My students would do what I asked them to do. If we were working on making inferences and I asked them to look in their own books for places where they could infer, then they would do it. They would come back at the end of our reading workshop ready and eager to share their inferences with me.  If we were working on questioning and I asked them to find places where they could ask thick questions in their own text, then they would do it. Again, they would be happy to share with me and with the class how they had done exactly what I asked them to do.

Except something was missing.

In the past few years I realized that while my students were giving me what I asked for, while they were complying, they weren’t actually using these strategies in any meaningful way. The primary purpose of their use of these reading strategies was to complete an assignment. I knew I wanted more than that.

So I started to think about what was missing. Why wasn’t I seeing what I wanted to be seeing? Why weren’t my students using these reading strategies to actually dig deeper into their texts and why weren’t they using them in a way that went beyond the texts they were reading? Obviously I hadn’t taught them something.

And that’s when I realized. I never really stopped to teach my students the purpose of all of these comprehension strategies. I taught them to ask good questions, but we never really talked much about WHY they should ask questions as they read. I taught them to make all sorts of different types of inferences, but we didn’t spend much time talking about what there was to gain by making inferences as you read.  There was a lot of talk about the WHAT and the HOW of reading comprehension strategies in my classroom, but not nearly as much time was spent talking about the WHY of reading comprehension strategies.

So this past school year, I made a commitment to think, for myself, about the purpose for using each of the reading strategies in my own life. I had to start there. I had to understand why I was using these reading strategies before I helped my students to understand why they should use them. And as I did the work in my own reading life I started to see the reading strategies in a really new way.  Suddenly it was about more than skills that I had to teach my students. Instead it was starting to turn into a responsibility that I had to show my students how they could use these reading strategies in order to allow reading to transform their lives and their understanding of the world.

Once I did the work of thinking about these strategies for myself, then I was ready to bring that new understanding to my students. And all of a sudden the reading strategy instruction in my classroom took on a new life. A life of meaning and of purpose. And because I thought about how I used these strategies in my own life outside of the classroom, my instruction became more authentic and therefore more useful to my students. It was no longer just about completing an assignment, now it was about reading to make our own lives better and to make our understanding of the world better.

With each reading strategy that we focused on, I tried to show my students not just what the strategy was or how to use the strategy, I also tried to explicitly teach WHY we would use these strategies in the world. Here are some of the ways we looked at the strategies in the past school year:

CONNECTING: When we read, we make connections to our texts SO THAT we can feel less alone in the world. We make connections to our characters and to the real life people that we read about SO THAT we can feel a sense of community and know that we are not the only ones feeling what we feel or experiencing what we are experiencing.  When we read, we make connections to our texts SO THAT we can better understand the lives of people whose lives are vastly different than our own, but with whom we still share commonalities.  When we read, we make connections to our texts SO THAT we can build empathy for people who are different than us and treat people that we meet with more compassion and understanding.

VISUALIZING: When we read, we visualize SO THAT we can better understand what life is like for our characters or for the people whose lives we are reading about. When we read, we visualize SO THAT we can build empathy for others and better understand what drives them to make the choices that they make. When we read, we visualize SO THAT we can experience, with all of our senses, the difficulties, struggles, joys and experiences of people whose lives are different than our own. When we read, we visualize SO THAT we can better understand the things that we have little experience with ourselves.

QUESTIONING: When we read, we ask questions SO THAT we can check for inaccuracies and bias. When we read, we ask questions SO THAT we can think about whose voices are being heard and whose voices are not being heard. When we read, we ask questions SO THAT we know what else we need to know in order to really understand what our text is saying. When we read, we ask questions SO THAT we can read critically and think about more than just what is written on the page. When we read, we ask questions SO THAT we can begin to think about perspectives other than own and wonder about how others view the same text we have read.

INFERRING: When we read, we infer SO THAT we can understand the social commentary that an author is trying to make and decide whether we agree or disagree with it.  When we read, we infer SO THAT we can understand what an author or a text is trying to teach us. When we read, we infer SO THAT we can understand how a character’s or real life person’s life and background impact the way he or she is acting or feeling or the choices he or she is making.  When we read, we infer SO THAT we can understand the intended and unintended messages that are being sent to us through a text and then fight back against those messages with which we do not agree.

SYNTHESIZING: When we read, we synthesize SO THAT we can put together multiple perspectives on a single event in order to more fully understand the complexities of that event.  When we read, we synthesize SO THAT we do not rely on one single story to help us understand an entire group of people or country or time in history. When we read, we synthesize SO THAT we can correct our own misconceptions as we gather more information.

This is just a short list of some of the real world purposes that we looked at this past year for using some of the reading comprehension strategies that we focus on in fifth grade. What was important to me is that I helped my students to see that these reading comprehension strategies were about more than just better understanding the text they were reading. These strategies were really about better understanding the world we live in.  That had not been coming through in my previous years of teaching.

My work with this has only just started and I am eager to continue working on finding real meaning and purpose for each of the reading comprehension strategies so that my students will start to see them as more than something that their teacher is forcing them to do.  I would love to hear any ideas on how YOU have helped your students to see the purpose of these strategies in your own classrooms.

Starting the School Year With Wonder

Last year, I completely rethought the way I handled the first day of the school year.  This year, I hope to keep many of the same elements in my first day of school plans because I love the way they started my year off and the messages that the activities sent to my students.

But there is one thing that I want to change.  I want to leave space, on the very first day of school, for wonder.

This summer, I had the absolute privilege of attending a workshop all about informational texts run by my incredible literacy coach (and a very dear friend of mine). She is brilliant and her message was brilliant as well.  As teachers of reading, we have a responsibility to share not just wonderful works of fiction with our students, but also to share wonderful works of nonfiction. And if we choose these works of nonfiction wisely, then they can spark wonder and joy and passion within our students. If you are interested in seeing her wonderful recommendations of nonfiction texts, I put them together in a Padlet that you can find HERE.

When I think about my past school years, as a teacher of reading and writing, I do not remember sharing any nonfiction books with my students until much further into the school year. Yes, I read them nonfiction books as a part of our science and social studies work, but in reading and writing I just don’t ever start my school year off with nonfiction books. And often this means that I am missing incredible opportunities to start my school year with wonder.

And that is a shame.

So this year. On the very first day of school (or maybe the second since I always seem to run out of time) we are starting with nonfiction books and we are starting with wonder. Because I think that one of the most amazing things that can come from sharing more nonfiction books with our students is that they can reignite a sense of wonder that is too often lost in the early years of a child’s life.

I see it with my own child. My child is a quintessential toddler. She is feisty and energetic and she just doesn’t ever stop. Ever. And that goes for her questions as well. A walk to the park takes five times as long as it has to because we have to stop every few steps for her to ask, “What’s that?” And it is amazing. She is so curious about the world. She is so interested. She wonders all the time. Every second of every day brings new discoveries for her. And it is incredible to witness.

And it is also exhausting.

And sometimes, the exhaustion gets the better of me. Sometimes, I don’t want to answer one more question. And so sometimes, I tell her to stop asking questions. Or I tell her I am only going to answer one more question. It is often at the end of a long day. Often as we are reading our final books before bed. Often as a moment’s peace is so close I can hardly stand it. It is understandable. And it is also just so sad.  So quickly, as adults, we start to suck the wonder right out of our children.

I do it with my own child and I do it with my students. Because often we are in such a rush. We are in such a rush as parents and we are in such a rush as teachers. We have to get through this lesson, we have to get through this unit, our mini-lessons are only supposed to be so long so we have to keep moving. We have too much that is important to us that sometimes we forget to stop and listen to what is important to our children, to our students.

And whether we realize it or not, we often stop leaving any space for wonder in the craziness of our school days.

So I want to make a promise to myself. And I am sharing it here in the hopes that it will keep me accountable. I want to leave space for wonder in my classroom this year and I want that to start on day one.

My plan, for the moment, is to start a Padlet wonder wall on the first or second day of school.  This is a brilliant idea that I first heard of from the inspiring Katie Muhtaris on her website Innovate, Ignite, Inspire. I will introduce the Padlet to my students as a way to share with them my hopes for wonder in our school year.

Then, I am going to share with them the book Just a Second by Steve Jenkins. This is a book filled with fascinating facts about the amazing things that happen in the span of just a second or slightly longer periods of time. What I love about the book is the way a quick snippet of text can lead to incredible conversations. I also love how many questions the text leads to.  I want to read the book with my students and just allow them the time to write up their wonders on our wonder wall. I want to give them the time to talk about the things they learn from this book and the things that this book makes them want to learn more about.  I want to give them time to wonder. From the very first day of school. So that my students know, from the beginning, that in this classroom their thoughts, their ideas, their questions, their passions are valued and worthy and will have a place in our time together.

From there, I am not sure where we will go. I hope that our wonder wall starts to fill up and that it will be a place that we can return to. From this wall, I hope to find investigations that we can dive into together as a class. From this wall, I hope to grow more wonders. From this wall, I hope to find authentic reasons to seek out new nonfiction texts and journey together into inquiry and research. From this wall, I hope to grow a larger space for wonder in our classroom and in our school year.

I can’t wait to try this plan out. I can’t wait to see where my students will lead me. I can’t wait to fill our room with wonder this year.

In Defense of Reading That Is Fun

Somewhere along the way, I got lost and I forgot what being a teacher of reading was all about.

Somewhere along the way I decided that I knew what were the best kinds of books for kids and I believed that it was my job to make sure that those were the only books my kids were reading.

Somewhere along the way I started to believe that the books that I was moved by were the only books that my kids would be moved by and that there was only one way to be moved by a book.

Somewhere along the way I began to think that it was okay for me to demand that my students push themselves to read books outside of the genres that they loved, while I stayed hidden comfortably within my own love for realistic fiction.

Somewhere along the way I started to falsely assume that certain books were worthy while books like graphic novels and humorous fiction didn’t count as real reading.

Somewhere along the way I became confused and truly started to believe that books that made my students laugh were not worthy of reading in my classroom. Because how could you possibly think deeply about a book that was funny or fun? And what was the point of reading in school if you weren’t going to think deeply?

Somewhere along the way, I got lost and I forgot that it was my job to help create life long lovers of reading and not just readers who read in the way that I decided reading was supposed to be.

I am so thankful that I realized how very wrong I was. And I am so thankful that I have started to find my way back to what I know.

You see, when I began teaching, I taught first grade. And in my first grade classroom, we laughed our way through books all the time.  My classroom library was filled with all kinds of books. Books that could make you cry and also books that could make you laugh. Because at that point, I knew that what mattered most was that I had the right kind of books to hook each of my readers and to help each of my students fall in love with reading. I knew that it was important to have books that spoke to all kinds of readers. I knew that it was important to make sure that my students knew that reading was fun and enjoyable and also hard work, but work that was so so worthwhile.

And then, I started teaching fifth grade. And this is when I began to forget what I knew.

This is when I began to only choose books to read aloud that were serious and led to what I considered to be “deep thinking.” This is when I stopped looking for books that made me laugh and that would make my students laugh.  This is when my classroom library began to feel so unbalanced with shelves full of bins of realistic fiction books while my graphic novel bins sat empty.  This is when I began to think that books that made you cry had more worth and more value than books that made you laugh. This is when I began to think that preparing my students for junior high was more important than preparing my students for a life full of reading.

And the truth is, that for some kids, this worked. Some kids found plenty of books in our classroom to read. Some kids connected easily with the books that I chose to read out loud. Some kids had easily found a way to stay in love with reading in our classroom. But the truth is also that many kids did not.

Without realizing it, and certainly without meaning to, I was shutting out a whole bunch of readers from the reading community that I was cultivating in my classroom.  I was sending the message to kids that I knew better than they did what books were best for them.  I was pushing students out of being readers because I told them that what they liked to read had no place in our classroom.  I set up our classroom library so that some students looked at it and immediately thought, “There is nothing for me here.” I was saying to my students, without using these words, that what they loved to read most had no worth or value in our learning.

And when I think about that now, it is enough to make me want to cry.

Because that is NOT what I had intended to do.  What teacher would ever mean to do that? But that is exactly what I was doing.

So last year, I started to change. I started to even out our classroom library. I spent time in my own reading life pushing myself to read new genres. I made a promise to myself and to my students to read more graphic novels, read more books that were funny, read more fantasy and read more science fiction.  And I invited my students to join me. I asked for their help. I let them be the experts in the genres that I didn’t know enough about. I listened to their recommendations. I read the books that they asked me to read. I laughed out loud as we read books that were funny together. I shared with them my struggles and I learned from my students how to get through them.

And slowly, my graphic novel bins began to fill up. And slowly, more books that made people laugh found their way into our classroom library. And slowly, my students taught me that there is all kinds of different thinking that goes on in the minds of readers as they read all kinds of different books.  And if I only just was willing to listen to my students, then they were happy to teach me about the different ways that they thought about books.  And I learned to see the ways that funny books could open up the minds and imaginations of my students. I learned to see the ways that graphic novels allowed students to feel successful as readers when they never had before. I learned to see that fantasy books required readers to hold on to so many important pieces of information and keep track of incredibly complex plot lines. I learned that no matter what the book was, or what kind of book it was, if a child finished it and loved it, then he or she was so willing to run and pick up another book to read. I learned to see that every single book that was read by every single reader in my room had value. Had worth. Had substance. Had a place in our reading community.

I still have a lot of work to do. I still have a lot of holes to fill in our classroom library. But I do know this. I now feel confident that I will be able to say to every single child who walks through my door this Fall, “I have the perfect book for you in our classroom library.” And if I don’t, then I will do everything that I know how to do in order to find that perfect book and hand it to my student and say to him or her, “I bought this book for our classroom library because I just knew that you would love it.”

Asking Students to Think About the Messages That Surround Them (Part 3)

This is the third and final blog post in a series about the work my students and I did in order to try to take apart the messages that we are surrounded by in the media and in the picture books and novels that we read.  If you are interested, here is PART ONE and here is PART TWO.

After we had finished our work with gender messages in fairy tales, it was time to move on to other types of texts. As a class, we compared the messages on gender that were written into the fairy tales we had read and the messages on gender that we saw in the Pottery Barn Kids catalogue.  We discussed that though the fairy tales were written quite a long time ago and the Pottery Barn Kids catalogue was a very current text, the same messages on gender were found in each.  What that told us was that though we like to pretend that there are no longer the gender stereotypes that there once were, we can see that these messages are still present and prevalent in our society.  And if this is true of gender messages, it is probably true of other types of messages as well.

This is when I asked my students to make a pretty big leap with me.  I said that many of us had talked before about messages on gender, but that now I wanted us to look beyond just messages on gender.  I explained that I hoped that we could now begin to examine messages on race and messages on family structure that exist in more current texts, in order to help us understand how many of our own biases are formed.

So I told the class that they would have a choice.  They were going to be able to focus on one type of message.  They could continue to look at gender in children, they could push a little bit to look at gender roles in adults, OR they could choose to look at messages on race or messages on family structure. I wanted to offer this choice because I knew that there were some students who were ready to take on the harder concepts of race and family structure and I also knew that there were some students who would be more successful in simply continuing to study messages on gender. I knew that in the end, we would all be sharing our learning with each other and I knew that the entire class would be involved in discussions on all four areas. So, at this point, I wanted to offer the choice to my students.

I was fascinated to see that most students wanted to tackle concepts of race and family structure. I am not sure exactly why this appealed to so many students, but here is my best guess.  In elementary school, we work really hard to protect children from things that we think are going to be too difficult or too messy for them.  We keep LGBT issues out of their grasp because we worry that they won’t understand them or we worry that for some reason it will lead us to have to explain sex of all types to our students.  We keep issues of race off limits for so many elementary school students because we aren’t sure we will have the answers they are looking for or we worry that we will upset someone or we worry that children will feel uncomfortable.

But the thing is, these are the EXACT issues that our students want to discuss. They want to discuss them because they want to understand them. They want to grapple with the things that they see as important around them, but that they don’t quite understand yet. Because that gives real purpose to their work. That gives real purpose to their learning. And that is what our students so desperately want.

So needless to say, the majority of my students chose to look at the unintended messages on race and family structure that are present in the picture books we read.

I left the work pretty open to the kids.  Some students chose to work alone and some in groups. Some students immediately began pulling bins of my picture books onto the floor and flipping through them, looking at their covers, researching their authors and skimming their pages. Other students chose one or two books and went off to study them closely. Other students asked to go to our school library to look through books there.  Other students chose to go into one of the three other fifth grade classrooms to look at the books available in those classroom libraries.

I did provide some thinking sheets to help give the kids some ideas on what they might want to look for.

Here are the different sheets that I made available (the kids only used them if they felt like they needed some ideas):

Messages on Race

Messages on Family Structure 

Messages on Gender Roles for Kids

Messages on Gender Roles for Adults 

As I began to circulate the room, I was simply blown away by the conversations that I overheard. I would stop in to help clear up some misconceptions for kids or I would gently guide a child toward a better understanding of what he or she was seeing, but overall the kids were really getting it.  The kids were so engaged in their work and right before my eyes I saw kids starting to understand the very things that we all had been so afraid would upset them and make them uncomfortable. Except, it was doing exactly the opposite. These discoveries they were making were not making them uncomfortable, they were making them question what they thought they knew and they were growing in these huge and important ways.

So often teachers say that they don’t have conversations on race or on gay and lesbian issues because they worry that they will say the wrong thing or they worry that they won’t know what to say, but what my kids showed me through this work is that sometimes you, as the teacher, don’t have to say anything at all. Sometimes it is enough to ask the kids to look at what is right in front of them and question it and deconstruct it and think about it. Sometimes it is enough to help kids see the things that we ourselves do not understand and the things that we know need to be better.

After giving my students two days to work on their chosen area of focus, I put the kids into groups so that they could learn from each other. Students who focused on race had a chance to hear from students who focused on gender or family structure, etc. Again, incredibly powerful conversations took place.

When we pulled back together as a whole class, I asked my students to share what they talked about in their groups.  Every single group had come to the conclusion that there was a real problem with the way our picture books were written. Every single student noticed the extreme lack of diversity that existed in the characters in our picture books. They noticed the lack of African American characters, they noticed the lack of Hispanic characters, they noticed the lack of mixes of races in books, they noticed the lack of families with two moms or two dads. They noticed so many things that had been right in front of them for years, but that they never really saw before. Some students noticed this simply by looking at the people drawn on covers, others noticed this by looking at the families that existed in each of our books, other students went further and looked into the races and ethnicities of the authors of many of our picture books.

I so clearly remember one group sharing the results of an investigation they did. They looked at fifty of the picture books in our classroom (a random selection of two of our picture book bins) and they shared that only 12 of these books had non-white characters on the covers. And then, one child said, “And if this is how it is in your room, Mrs. Lifshitz, I can’t imagine how much worse it is in some other classrooms!” My students knew that I made an effort to bring in diverse books and still this was the truth of what books existed in my classroom.

After this concept was brought up by each group, I knew that it was time to introduce my students to the We Need Diverse Books campaign.  Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote a blog post sharing some ideas that eventually turned into this reading unit.  An incredibly kind reader, Samantha Mosher, left a suggestion to have the kids contribute in some way to the We Need Diverse Books campaign. I am so incredibly thankful that she left such a brilliant comment because that suggestion turned into one of the most powerful learning activities of our school year.

I began by sharing the WNDB website with my students.  We read about the campaign, its beginnings and its mission. We then watched a WNDB video that my students were incredibly moved by.  After begging me to let them watch it for a third time, one student suggested that we make our own video and contribute our own tweets to the campaign using the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag.  And so we got to work.

We used our class Twitter account to tweet our messages about why we needed more diverse books.  We used the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag and used Tweetdeck to see how our tweets were not a part of an international conversation. We wrote blog posts about why we needed more diverse books.  We sent out Twitter messages with links to our blog posts. And finally, we each created a sign to explain why we needed more diverse books, we took pictures of ourselves with the signs and we complied the pictures into our own We Need Diverse Books video.

You can see some of our work here:

One student’s blog post on why we need diverse books

Another student’s blog post on why we need diverse books

Our class video on why we need more diverse books

As we submitted our work to the world, my students were simply abuzz with the possibility of affecting change in the world. This unit brought us so much incredible learning and I am having a hard time summing it all up in this blog post.

This unit left me with a desire to do more of this kind of work in the coming school year. I saw how deeply moved by these issues my students were and I heard the comments that continued to come throughout the rest of the school year about the unintended messages my students were now seeing in the world around them.

There are days when i don’t have a whole lot of hope for this country of ours, but then I think back to the work that took place in my classroom during this study of unintended messages and I take some solace in knowing just how amazing our students are. All they are waiting for is for us to give them the opportunities to grapple with the issues that matter and then help them to find ways to start making the world a better place.

Asking Students to Think About the Messages That Surround Them (Part 2)

In my last blog post, I wrote about my own personal awakening in terms of the need to bring discussions of race into my classroom. I shared some of the earliest discussions that I had with my 5th graders regarding whose voices were being heard and whose voices were missing from current event articles having to do with protests in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere. I also shared how this led us to begin to think about the messages on race that are surrounding us in the media.  Finally, I shared one student’s question about whether these messages on race also existed in the picture books and novels that we read. And that one question led us to our next phase of study on the messages that surround us.

Race is a REALLY hard thing for 5th graders to think about. If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that race is a REALLY hard thing for any of us to think about, especially those of us who have the privilege of NOT thinking about it every day.  As with any new concept in teaching, I knew that I had to start with where my students were before I pushed them to think in new and more complicated ways.  So before we tackled the messages on race that exist in picture books and novels, I wanted to begin with messages on gender.  This concept is more concrete and I knew my students would be able to get a good start here before I pushed them to think about race.

So that is where I started. We would work to look for messages on gender that are present in texts that we read.

In reading, we were currently in the middle of a unit on inferring.  Our reading units are focused around comprehension strategies.  Too often, we teach comprehension strategies simply for the sake of teaching comprehension strategies. We teach children to infer as they read so that they can infer as they read. We know good readers infer and so we want our students to know how to do that.  But what we often miss, is the reason WHY. Why are we inferring? What larger purpose does it serve? So I decided that as a class, in our reading unit on inferring, we would first work to infer the INTENDED messages in the texts that we read (what is the author TRYING to tell us?) and then I would push the kids to infer the UNINTENDED messages in the texts that we read (what messages are present even though the author might not have any intention of sending these messages to us?).

By embedding this work within one of our reading units, I was taking care of a problem that I too often fall back on when looking to find a space in our busy day to teach concepts I KNOW are important for my students. I am too quick to say, I don’t have time to do that. But by working within the structure of our reading units, I was able to find time to work on inferring AND to work on helping my students to realize how many messages they are being bombarded with that are shaping the way they think about people of different genders, races, classes, etc. I was able to do the important work to make my students better human beings and more responsible citizens WHILE also making sure I was meeting all of the learning targets that were laid out in my curriculum.

The first place that we began was at Pottery Barn.  I put my students into small groups and had each small group go to the Pottery Barn Kids website. From there, I had the groups click on the separate boxes for “Boy Rooms” and “Girl Rooms.” I asked the kids to look at the website for a while and just talk about what they were noticing.  After giving them a few minutes to discuss, I pulled the class back together and asked them to share some of their thoughts. I that point I stopped and thought out loud for them that I was noticing two types of thinking being shared.  I noticed that students were talking about things that they actual SAW on the website (this was what was actual IN the text) and then they were talking about what they INFERRED those things meant (this was their own thinking that they were adding to what was IN the text). I told them that this was inferring just like when they added their own thinking to what an author wrote in order to better understand what they author was really trying to say. So we began a chart and I asked them, in their groups, to write down both kinds of thinking that they were sharing. I asked them to write down what they actually saw on the website (or in the text) and then I asked them to write down what messages they thought this was sending on gender. So for example, one group said that they noticed that in the boy rooms there were several science themed rooms but there were not any (other than some butterflies) in the girl rooms.  That was their actual observation. They thought that this sent the message that boys were more likely to enjoy science than girls and maybe even that boys were smarter than girls.  That was their inference on the unintended messages on gender.  The groups quickly got back together and came up with many observations that led to many inferences on unintended messages on gender.

It was amazing to hear the conversations that were already unfolding. One of the biggest realizations that my students made, that would become INCREDIBLY helpful when we moved over to looking at written texts, was that messages are sent without being explicitly stated.  So, for example, Pottery Barn does not need to come out and say that they believe that girls do not play sports and boys do in order to send the message that girls don’t play sports and boys do. That message is sent by having multiple boys’ rooms filled with sports object and no girls’ rooms filled with sports objects.  This concept was new for many of my students and it was one that we would continue to build on.  I never stopped to think about how many of my students thought that the only messages that could be sent were the ones that were explicitly stated.

After noticing MANY messages on gender within the Pottery Barn Kids website, we then moved on to another place that is rich with gender messages: Fairy Tales.  As I wrote earlier this school year, I had the absolute privilege of attending a workshop with Kate Roberts and Chris Lehman on their book Falling in Love with Close Reading. I had yet to find the right place in my reading workshop to use what I had learned with Chris and Kate. One of the big takeaways for me from their workshop was the importance of using close reading for a purpose. And I had not seen a real purpose until we got to our study of unintended messages.  I knew that I needed my students to read texts closely in order for them to see how the words that are chosen and the actions that are described with a text can send strong messages on gender.  My students had to do more than just one reading of a fairy tale in order to see these messages and so I decided to use the close reading ritual so brilliantly described in Kate and Chris’s book.


The first thing that I did was to read Sleeping Beauty out loud to my students.  I asked them only to notice the way male and female characters were described.  When we finished reading, I had them write their observations.  The students shared these observations and I quickly saw that they were extremely general and missing some of the big concepts that I wanted them to see.  So. We reread.  This time, I asked the students to split their paper in half.  On one side I asked them to write the words FEMALE CHARACTERS and on the other side I asked them to write the words MALE CHARACTERS.  As I read the story to them a second time, I asked them to write down words and phrases that were IN THE TEXT that described male characters or female characters. Borrowing language from Kate Roberts, I told them to write down whatever felt important to them.  Here is one sample of what a student’s paper looked like at the end of the second reading of Sleeping Beauty:


The next step in the close reading ritual is to look for patterns in the words that you wrote down on your paper. So I began by modeling for students how I circled all of the words that described how a character looked in a specific color. I had the kids do the same and then I asked them to look for more groupings of patterns that they noticed.  Here is what our class chart looked like in the middle of this work:


Some of the categories or groupings that the kids came up with were: words that described how characters looked, words that described actions characters took, words that described internal characteristics of characters, words that described emotions and words that talked about characters’ futures.  Each student had slightly different categories and slightly different words written down, so they had time to get together to share their work with others.

The final step in the close reading ritual was to make observations based on the list of words and the categories that you had in front of you and to then push yourself to make interpretations of these observations. So for us, that involved looking at what we noticed about our categories and then making interpretations about what kind of gender messages were being sent in the fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty. This was by far the hardest part of the process for my students.  So I created this template to help them to organize and express their thinking.  We summarized some of our thinking on the following class chart: IMG_6197

After going through this whole process as a class, I wanted my students to have some practice doing this work on their own. So I split the class into groups and allowed each group to pick one of four other fairy tales to work with. They could choose: Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel, or Beauty and the Beast. I made sure to have fairy tales of different lengths and difficulty and the groups were made up of a wide range of reading strengths and weaknesses.  This allowed each group to select a text that would work best for that group.

The students were able to work at their own paces because they now knew the entire process to go through. I had two charts displayed to remind them of the steps that we went through.  I only have a picture of the first chart: IMG_6073

The final step involves creating the observations and interpretations using the template that I explained above.

When the groups were finished, each group created a poster to share their observations and interpretations with the rest of the class. Here are some of their posters:

IMG_6209 IMG_6211 IMG_6212 IMG_6219 IMG_6220

The last step of our work was for each group to display their posters around the room. I then gave the kids time to view each of the posters from each of the groups and think about the commonalities that they were seeing in terms of the gender messages being sent.  I then gave them time, in their groups, to write their observations on a class Padlet. Here are the Padlets from my MORNING CLASS and my AFTERNOON CLASS.

The discussions that came from this work were simply incredible. I really saw my students’ understanding of unintended messages grow and deepen. They were really beginning to see how messages that come from what we read or from the media have a profound affect on how we view the world. It was an important step in getting my students to really think about how their ideas about groups of people were formed. They were starting to see that how we view the world doesn’t just come from nowhere and it doesn’t just come from what we hear our parents say. Our ideas on the world come from every single thing that we see or experience and often our ideas are shaped without us even realizing it.

Once we had completed our work with fairy tales, we were ready to move on to picture books and from there, we would expand our thinking to include more than just gender. We would begin to also think about race and family structure as well.  I will write about that work in my next blog post.

Asking Students to Think About the Messages That Surround Them (Part 1)

I remember so vividly the moment that my eyes were ripped open.

The moment occurred while I was watching the coverage that followed the murder of Trayvon Martin.  I remember being horrified by the story. But sadly the story alone is not what finally dragged me out of the ignorance I had been living in.  The moment that truly sent shock waves through my entire being occurred as I was listening to a black woman talking about how she taught her son what he had to do in order to decrease the likelihood that he would be shot by a police officer for nothing other than being a black man.

I didn’t know that happened.

I honestly did not know.

I am ashamed that I didn’t know. I am so saddened that it took something this awful for me to begin to understand. But the truth was that I did not know.  I did not realize what black mothers had to tell their children. I did not bother to seek out the stories of black men and black women who were afraid of not just being treated unfairly, but who were forced to be afraid of being killed because of how others saw them.

But once I started to know. Once I began to understand. I knew that I had to learn more. I knew that my own ignorance was part of the race problem in America. I knew that my ability to NOT know about these fairly common truths was a signal of my privilege and my complicity in a racist system.  And so I started to listen and seek out the stories of others. And I also started to see all that was being presented to me that created the biases that I was operating under. And I started to realize just how much I did not know and just how much racism and how many racist messages existed in our world that I had simply not been seeing.

Because after Trayvon Martin, then it was Michael Brown and then it was Eric Garner and then and then and then. There were the stories that made the news and there were oh so many others that did not.  And the media coverage alone was enough to prove how racist of a world we are living in.  And then, it wasn’t just the media who was saying things that made me cringe. Then it was people in my own life. It was my colleagues. It was my friends on Facebook. It was my students.  So many people operating under incredible ignorance. So many people conveniently hiding in their own privilege.

And I was one of them.

And then. Then I started to think about those who were doing the shooting and the killing.  I thought about what they had been taught. I thought about what they had not been taught. I thought about what kinds of messages they had been exposed to that they did not even realize were shaping the attitudes and beliefs that they held about people of color.  I thought about what kind of classrooms they had sat in as they grew up. What kinds of conversations about race did they hear in those classrooms?

And that’s when i knew. I knew that if their classrooms were anything like the classroom that I teach in every day, there were no conversations about race.  Sure there was teaching about the Civil Rights Movement.  But that was the teaching of history. Ancient history in the minds of the young children I teach. But there were no conversations about the role race plays in our world today.  If their classrooms were anything like my own, their teachers were too afraid, too unaware, too unsure to bring up conversations of race.  I know that I have been.

Until my eyes were ripped open. Then I knew I could no longer stay silent. Then I knew that I had to begin to help my students see what I had only just begun to see.  Because what I know is that the only hope we have in making our world a better place is in helping our students to grow up knowing more than we knew so that they can do better than we have done.

I was so unsure of how to start. So I had my students start where I was starting.  I knew that my students would follow where I led and if I led them into a territory that was so important and yet one that I did not fully understand, I knew that they would still work with me so that we could all reach a better place of understanding.

So this past year, I started with some news articles.  We read about race. We read about the protests in Ferguson and in Baltimore. We read about the way people were using social media in order to protest the way things were in our country. We read. And we thought. And in these small actions, we made ourselves a bit braver to tackle the conversations that still scared us. Suddenly, we were having the conversations that I said I did not know how to have. We started so small. But at least we started.

As we read these articles and watched these news clips. I started to ask my students to think about whose voices were being heard in the media and, more importantly, I asked them to think about whose voices were NOT being heard. These questions alone led us to some incredible conversations and some incredible moments of learning for both my students and for me.  This led us to analyze how different groups of people were portrayed in different news articles and in the media in general.  And this led us to think about who was not really being portrayed at all.

And what my students were showing me was that the most important place for us to start was in simply recognizing the messages that were surrounded us about race.  The vast majority of my students are white and they just had no clue as to how much the outside world was influencing the way they viewed themselves and other races. As we did this work I began to see that I had a huge responsibility to begin to help these kids think about race so that they did not grow up believing that race didn’t matter. I wanted to help them start to unpack their own concepts of race, their concepts of what it means to be white, what it means to be black, what it means to exist in a world where there is so much work still yet to be done before we can ever claim that we are all being treated equally.  I didn’t have all the answers, but what mattered is that my students and I were starting to at least ask the questions.  We were starting to pull apart and look at the messages on race, gender, ethnicity and class that we were surrounded by so that we could question them, push back against them and fight them.

And one day, one of my students asked if these same messages were present in the picture books and novels that we read. And that one question, led my students and I into a four week study of unintended messages present in the picture books that we read. I will share more about the work we did with picture books in my next blog post.

A Different Kind of PD (AKA Thank you Kate Roberts and Chris Lehman)

I will be honest. It’s been a really long time since I have been inspired by a professional development workshop or session.  It’s been a long time since I walked away from a session and felt inspired. Mostly, I find myself walking away from professional development these days feeling disheartened, defeated and on the worst days, rethinking my choice to be an educator.

That changed today.

Today, I had the absolute pleasure of attending the Falling in Love with Close Reading workshop led by the amazing, engaging, and passionate Kate Roberts and Chris Lehman. And. It. Was. Amazing.

If you’ve read the book, you know how great their work is. If you haven’t read the book, you must.  And yes, the information they presented about their strategies for helping kids learn to read texts more closely were amazing. And yes, the lenses that they explained to us were incredible. And yes, the examples of texts and media that we can give to kids to read closesly were engaging. But there was so much more that these two brought to this session.

There was joy. There was hope. There was faith in us as teachers and there was faith in our students.

Over and over again in today’s presentation, I heard two big themes come up.

The first:  As Kate explained, “Be okay with whatever the kids say at first and then trust that the process you are guiding them through is going to bring them to a better place.” I loved that the ritual that they were teaching us had no one right answer and no one right way. Every time that we, as adults, practiced the ritual of close reading today, we came up with a myriad of different answers, different theories, different beliefs about the texts we were reading.  And when we bring this ritual to our students, one of the things that is most exciting to me is that it will allow us to always, always, always start where the students are and not where they are supposed to be or where we wish they were. And if my learning this year has taught me anything, it is that there is nothing more important or nothing that means more to a child than letting that child know that you are going to celebrate and begin your work EXACTLY where he is.  The idea that this ritual is really guided by the students’ thinking itself is so powerful. Knowing that we have the power to take a child from where he is and help them move forward with these rituals for close reading makes me eager to get back to my classroom and put these ideas into action.

The second: We must make sure that our students see the purpose in everything we do in our classrooms.  They should understand that they should read a text closely in order to see something that they did not see before. They do it to gain something new from the text. They are not going through a checklist of steps just because we tell them that these are the steps that they need to take. Instead, as Kate explained, “They begin every reading with the expectation that they are going to arrive at a new idea.”  How powerful is that? There was so much talk of engagment, of making the work relevant, of making the work meaningful. It was so refreshing and inspiring and it made me want to be a better teacher. One of the most powerful moments for me in the entire workshop came at the end when Chris said to us, “Close reading is ONLY important when it is important for the students in front of you.” And I was in awe. And then he said, “What matters most is What does the child need and what is your purpose?” It was just so amazing to hear this said at a professional development workshop.

Too often when I attend PD, I end up leaving feeling like the students themselves were COMPLETELY left out of the sessions. But today. Today was different. Today the students themselves were front and center in everything that was done and everything that was said. And it made such a huge difference for me and for everyone who was sitting in that room.

I once read that the sign of a good professional development session is that you leave feeling like you want to run back to your classroom and try something new. Well, today not only was I was eager to run back to my classroom to try the new strategies that I learned, but I was also eager to run back to my classroom simply to be a better teacher. As Chris suggested in his final words, I am eager to “look through the lens of joy” in order to see the best in the students and teachers and work being done around me. Thank you Kate Roberts and Chris Lehman for the incredible work that you do and for a very different kind of PD.

(If anyone is interested in seeing the many many notes that I took during the workshop, you are welcome to take a look here.)

Writing to Deepen Our Thinking; Writing to Share Our Thinking With the World (Action Research Part 4)

This is the fourth post in a series of posts I am writing about my action research project. If you are interested in reading part one, just click here. If you are interested in reading part two, just click here. If you are interested in reading part three, just click here

For years, I have asked my students to write in response to their reading.  I have asked them to write reading response letters to me, I have asked them to write paragraphs in their reading journals, I have asked them to write letters to each other about their reading. None of it ever gave me what I wanted.

Look back on it now, I realize there was one HUGE reason that I never got what I wanted.  And it was this: I had no idea WHAT I wanted.

I didn’t know why I was asking my students to write about their reading. I knew that they were supposed to write about their reading, but I never really stopped to give much thought as to why.  What could my students gain by writing in response to what they have read? Why should I ask my students to do this kind of writing?

So the place that I needed to begin this year was not with fixing my students’ thinking, but with fixing my own thinking. I needed to figure out my purpose in having kids write about their reading. And here is where I landed: I believe that when we write about our thinking, our thinking deepens. In the same way that conversations can deepen our thinking, writing can deepen our thinking too. Often when I write a blog post, I end up in a different place in my own thinking by the end of my writing. I want this for my students. I want them to know the power that they have to deepen their own thinking by writing it out in words across a page or across a screen. I want them to feel the power of using their own words to bring them to a new understanding and a new place in their thinking.  This is why I want them to write about the thinking they do as they read. I want them to deepen their thinking through writing.

But there is more.  I also want them to be able to share their thinking with others. So often, I am in awe of the thinking that my students share with me in our one-on-one conferences. I don’t want to keep this incredible thinking just between us. I want their classmates to be able to learn and grow from their thinking and I want people beyond the walls of our classroom to learn and grow from their thinking.  I want to show my students how they can use writing to share their thinking with the world. I want to show my students that this world has something to gain by reading the words that they write about the thoughts they having inside of their own minds. This is why I want them to write about the thinking they do as they read. I want them to share their thinking with the world through writing.

Once I had a better understanding of my purposes, then I was better able to create a task for my students that would be able to meet these purposes. Here is what we have done so far:

I have already talked about how I have changed the way that my students use their reading journals this year.  This year, their reading journals are a place to take notes on the careful observations they are making and the investigations they are doing as they read. Their journals are filled with charts and bullet-pointed lists and drawings.  Their journals are filled with the pieces of thinking that they are gathering as they read.

This year, my students’ journals are not where their writing about their reading is taking place. Instead, they are a place to gather that thinking.  One of the complaints that I heard from my students in the past is that they felt that when I asked them to put together a weekly written response about their reading, they were just rewriting the things they had already written in their reading journals in order to hand them in to me.  They felt this was a waste of time. They felt it held no meaning and no purpose. They felt that they gained nothing from it.

They were right.

And so, as the purpose of our reading journals shifted, so did the purpose of our writing.  Now, the writing that I would ask them to do would be a putting together, a synthesis, of the notes that they took in their reading journals.  And I couldn’t just ask them to do this work and expect them to understand the purpose.  I quickly realized that I had to explicitly show them the purpose of this kind of writing.  They are used to writing for an audience.  They are used to their writing serving the purpose of entertaining, persuading or informing the reader. They had never been taught that sometimes, writing is for the writer. Sometimes, we write in order to deepen our thinking. Sometimes, we write in order to end up in a new place in our thinking.

So I spent a lot of time modeling for them how I took my own notes from my reading journals and I took those notes and started writing about what I realized from my notes or what patterns I noticed in my notes or what understandings I arrived at from putting together my notes. And I modeled for them how sometimes as I write, I end up with new thinking and that new thinking becomes a part of my writing as well.  I had to show them how to write for this new purpose, because it was not something that they had been asked to do before.

Too often, I assume that my students will just “get” things and then I get frustrated with them when they don’t. And so often, when I stop and reflect I realize that they don’t “get” things because I have not done enough modeling or guiding.

So once I began to show them this new purpose for writing, once I began to show them how writing could deepen their own thinking, then it was time to ask them to give it a try.  But, I didn’t want this writing to happen in their notebooks because that would not serve my second purpose, which was that their writing should help to share their thinking with the world.  When I ask students to write in their notebooks, I am sending the message that this writing is only worthy of being seen by me, their teacher.  I am sending the message that this writing is only worth doing so that I can see it and assess it.  Instead, I wanted to send the message that this writing has value to others, to the world.

Enter our blogs.

This year, for the first time, each of my students is keeping his/her own blog on It’s been an incredible learning experience for me and an incredible opportunity for my students. I have seen so many benefits in asking my students to blog and I know there are so many undiscovered opportunities for me to still realize.  These blogs also provided the PERFECT place to ask my students to do their writing about their reading so that they could share their thinking with each other and with the world.

Like everything else, I began slowly with this work.  I first shared a blog post about my own reading that I had written.  I showed my students my reading journal and the notes that I had collected in it.  Then I showed them how I took these notes and synthesized them into a blog post.  Here is the first blog post I shared with them:

As a class, we analyzed my writing. And my students created a list of the kinds of things that they might want to write in their own blog posts.  The list that we began with was:

1) A brief description of the book you have been reading

2) An explanation of your reading focus: what you have noticed and what you wanted to pay attention to

3) An example or two of the things that you have collected so far in your reading journal

And this is where we started.  After reading their first reading blog posts, I was blown away at what I was getting. Their writing had voice, it sounded so natural, they were sharing deep pieces of thinking instead of listing a myriad of unrelated, shallow pieces of thinking.  They were great!

I also realized that I had not shown them yet how they should be coming to NEW realizations in their blog posts. Things that weren’t already written in their reading journals. So I wrote another blog post where I tried to do just that.  Here is the second blog post of mine that I shared with them:

After reading this blog post as a class, we added something to our list of what the kids should include in their own posts. Here is what we added:

4) A new realization or understanding that you have reached as a result of looking at the notes you have gathered and writing about those notes.

When looking at my students’ second round of blog posts, I saw that some of them had already started to include this kind of thinking.  Before writing their third round of posts, I shared one more of my own reading blog posts. Here is the third one that I shared with them:

Again, we looked at this as a class and we realized that we could also try to include some writing about what we were learning from the books that we were reading.

What I noticed is that each time I modeled a new way to write about our reading, there were kids who went off and tried to do those things in their own writing. Of course, there were also a lot of kids who weren’t able to do those new things just yet and that simply provided me with teaching points for those students.

So we have now reached a point where the kids know that they are expected to write one reading blog post every two weeks.  At first, we all wrote them on the same day and submitted them on the same day, but now, the kids have the set expectation of needing to write one blog post every two weeks and they are able to choose when they want to write that post. In this way, they can write when they feel they have something to say.  On the final Friday of the two-week span, anyone who has not yet submitted a blog post is asked to write one during independent reading that day.  This system seems to be working well for us.

I do not grade these blog posts.  Instead, allows me to write private comments that can be seen ONLY by me and by the writer of the blog post.  The kids LOVE getting this kind of feedback.  I often point out things that I notice the student doing and I also offer suggestions on how they can push their writing and thinking next time. I have loved seeing that most of my students respond to my comments without me ever asking them to do so.

Another wonderful thing about these blog posts, is that they provide ANOTHER opportunity for the kids to learn from each other. We take time in class to read each other’s blog posts and leave comments for each other.  The students often choose to leave comments for their classmates filled with incredible feedback.  I am also able to use the kids’ blog posts as mentor texts and as a class we analyze what we notice writers doing well so that other writers can try to do similar things.

I realize how incredibly long this blog post has gotten. If anyone is still reading, let me begin by saying how surprised I am by that! I really just wanted to solidify our journey with our reading blog posts so that I can look back and realize how far we have come.  This new way of writing about our reading has really energized my students.  I even overheard a reluctant reader and writer saying to her friend, “This is actually fun!” as she was putting together her first reading blog post.  It warmed my heart to hear what a change in attitude these kids were experiencing as we began to change the way that we wrote about our reading.

And finally, if you are interested, here are a few examples of my students’ blog posts that have really blown me away and impressed me:

Danielle’s Post on Rain Reign

Morissa’s Post on The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Sari’s Post on Unstoppable

Drew’s Post on Breaking Stalin’s Nose

Brady’s Post on The Unwanteds #3

Getting Out of the Way and Letting the Kids Lead the Learning (Action Research Part 3)

This is the third post in a series of posts I am writing about my action research project. If you are interested in reading part one, just click here. If you are interested in reading part two, just click here

After a few weeks of working one-on-one with students, modeling the kind of thinking that I was expecting in their reading journals in whole class lessons and small group lessons, each of my students was working on specific reading focuses in their reading journals.  Each student was paying attention to something and collecting his/her observations in a way that worked for that particular student.  And I was so proud.  And then I realized that we had a really, really long way still to go.

While I was happy with the work that my students were doing, I realized that they were still pretty much completely dependent on me to help them find a reading focus.  They were not yet noticing their own observations and they were not able to craft these observations into something that they wanted to know, something that they wanted to pay attention to, something that they needed to discover.  Instead, they patiently waited for me to come and meet with them to figure out what they should be paying attention to and how they might pay attention to it.  While I was thrilled that this work was taking place, I was unsure of how I would ever break their dependency on me.

Enter my students.

One day, one of my students asked if he could share the work he was doing in his journal with the rest of the class because he was really proud of it.  This year, I began the year with a goal of talking less and allowing my students to talk more. I wanted them to create ideas that worked for them. I wanted them to take ownership over their own learning.  And one way that I had started to try to do that was to really listen to my students’ ideas. Not just listen, nod and then forget about the idea. But, listen, agree and ask them, “What do you need from me in order to do that?” I quickly found that as I put their ideas into action, they trusted that I wanted to hear their ideas and they kept coming up with more and more of them to share with me. It was a wonderful cycle.

So when my student asked me if he could share his reading work with the class, I said, “Of course!” And what began that day was perhaps the most powerful piece of my action research project so far. Because that was the day that I finally got out of the way and allowed my students to teach each other.  And that was the day that the “share” part of our reading workshop finally became valuable and meaningful and purposeful for all of my students.

What I saw that day was that a “share” session could be more than just one student talking about his work in order to make that student feel good about the work he had done. What I saw that day was that the last few minutes of our reading workshop could be the most important because they could allow my students to learn from and be inspired by each other.  I wasn’t the only one who could help show them how to notice their own thinking and use it to come up with particular reading focus and a way to keep track of the observations that came from that focus.  They could share their work with each other and learn from each other.

But they had to really learn how to learn from each other.

One of the first things that I did in order to revamp our reading share, was that I asked my students why they thought teachers had students share their work. The answers were, again, so honest and so eye-opening.  One student said that he believed teachers had kids share their work because then people got to talk about what they were proud of.  One student said that she thought it was because it motivated kids to do good work so that the teacher would choose them to share with the class.  One lovely, and oh-so-honest, child told me that she believed that teachers let kids share because it took up time at the end of the class. I love hearing the reasons why kids think we do what we do. And who knows, maybe for some teachers, this last student is right!

What I noticed right away is that not one child said anything about having kids share so that other kids could learn from the brilliance of the work being talked about. Not one child seemed to realize that they were supposed to listen in order to learn from each other. And who could blame them? I, certainly, have never bothered to explain to my students the purposes for sharing our work. Yes, I told them they should listen to each other. Yes, I told them to be respectful when other students were talking. But, I never even thought to tell them that they should listen to each other in order to be inspired by each other and to gain new ideas for their own work.

And so, we started to have these conversations. I started to share with them ways that I heard ideas kids shared and thought about how other kids could use those ideas. I started to share with them that when I heard a good idea, I often asked questions to help me better understand how I might be able to use this idea too. I started to share with them that when I heard an idea that I liked, I often made sure to tell the person with the idea a specific thing that I thought would work for me. And as I started to share these things with the kids, I noticed that they were beginning to do them as well.

And every single time that I noticed a child was listening in a way that allowed her to learn from someone else’s ideas, I complimented them and pointed it out to the class. When a student shared how he might use someone’s idea in his own work, I made sure the class knew what a huge deal that was. When a student said that what she saw one child doing in one book could be something that she could do in her book, I made sure to acknowledge just how smart that student was being. And the kids began to notice and our sharing time began to change. It had more meaning and it had more purpose and it was actually helping the kids to begin to break their dependency on me.

As our reading share began to evolve, I noticed that kids were stating how they planned to use each other’s ideas in their own work. I noticed that the feedback that they gave each other became more specific. And, most importantly, I began to see the students trying out the ideas of other students in their own reading journals. I had proof that they were learning from each other. I had proof that I was officially not the only teacher in the room any longer.

I also noticed another exciting change in the way we shared our reading. In the past, my reading share quickly morphed into kids providing five to ten minute summaries of the books they were reading. Other kids would ask questions about the plots and maybe, just maybe, the child sharing would talk about a prediction they had.  However, now, our sharing time has finally become more about the thinking that the kids are doing as they read than about the books themselves.

Don’t get me wrong, I love having kids talk about the books they are reading with each other. It’s just that I think there are more effective ways to do that. We share the books we are reading through a Google Doc and Google Form that one of my students created for the class. We share the books we are reading through the QR codes we create that are linked to 30-second audio recordings of book commericals that the kids have made. We share the books we are reading through the informal conversations and book talks that the kids are constantly having. We share the books we are reading through the blog posts that we write about our books. There are many opportunities for the kids to talk about and learn about the plots of the books that we are reading.

And now there is also a time where we get to learn about the thinking that we are doing as we read. This reading share has become such a purposeful and meaningful time of our reading workshop. Where it used to be the first thing that I cut out when we didn’t have enough time, now it is something that the kids really demand because they are eager to share AND they are eager to learn from each other.  Now it has meaning. Now it has purpose. Now my students have a chance to learn more from each other than they do from me on any given day. And we still have a long way to go in order to break their dependency on me, but changing our reading share was a huge step in the right direction. Getting out of the way and letting the kids lead the learning, has been one of the most powerful changes I have made this year.