Uncovering the Why: the Importance of Beliefs

BeliefsFor many years, my professional learning consisted on the “what” and “how” in the classroom. What were your kids reading? writing? discussing? What tech were you using? How are you using portfolios? How do you grade? How do you differentiate? 

While all of these questions are important to answer, it wasn’t until I drilled down the Why, that I truly appreciated learning. Understanding the why, helps provide a framework in which all other decisions can be based upon. Why do I teach Shakespeare? Why do I have students blog? Why does it matter that students publish to  public audience? Why do I prefer the workshop framework over traditional instruction?

Currently, I am reading Read, Write, Teach by Linda Rief. The introduction provides insight into the purpose, design, and the Why for writing this book. She starts with the Why because it “grounds her choices of the what and how.”

The following are images of my own Whys on Literacy, inspired by the work of Linda Rief. I encourage you to not only explore your own beliefs on teaching and learning, but also to bring the conversation back to your departments, buildings, or even districts. Do we have similar beliefs? What is gained and what is lost when staff members have the same beliefs? Is a common set of shared beliefs necessary for our students?

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The Gift of Literacy


Part of my role includes the training and coaching of teachers in the implementation of Reading and Writing Workshop. This past week marked the kickoff for cohort 2, and was spent defining “Workshop”, modeling components, and preparing teachers for the first weeks of school. Learning will continue throughout the year, accompanied by weekly coaching meetings.

During the final day of the training, we invited cohort 1 teachers to sit on a panel and share their insights to the flood of questions the new implementors had on their minds. After the panel concluded, a cohort 1 teacher stopped me and shared a “Magical Moment” that she experienced in her own classroom. The workshop framework shifts focus from the content to the child and provides differentiation to move every reader forward! This is her story…

(all names have been changed)

Sarah started 4th grade with a reading level of a 2nd grader. She was identified as a struggling student in kindergarten and had an IEP which outlined support in the areas of literacy. As a teacher new to workshop, Ms. F was unaware of the profound impact her classroom would have on Sarah.

Sarah’s love for reading blossomed through intentional instruction, scaffolded application, and reader’s choice in the classroom. At an “Open House” a few months after the start of school, Ms. F met Sarah’s mom and was eager to share her growth. Ellen, Sarah’s mom who had a 3rd grade reading level herself, spoke about the changes she saw in Sarah at home. “She was always reading or had a book in her hand.” Ellen was pleased with her daughter’s progress and the teaching of Ms. F.

At Christmas break, Ms. F bumped into Sarah and her mother at the supermarket. After a brief conversation with Sarah about the series she was currently reading, Ellen shared with Ms. F that “We” had been reading over Christmas break together, and that every night, “We” would talk about our books.

At the end of 4th grade, Sarah had the reading level of a 3rd grader and was on her way to closing the large gap that was once there. Ms F, Sarah, and the rest of the students ended the year celebrating their favorite books and sharing their most prized writing with classmates, parents, and others.

During the summer, Ms. F again ran into Sarah and her mother in the supermarket. Ellen spoke to Ms. F about Sarah’s growth in reading and her new goal of entering the 5th grade at the 4th grade reading level. She then quietly continued to share her own personal goal. She had always wanted to read the Little House on the Prairie series and was already on book three. And although she found the next book more challenging, she had set a goal for herself and planned to meet it before Sarah started back to school in the summer!  


As the teacher finished sharing this moving story, we both stood with tears in our eyes and I had goosebumps on my arms. Not only was Ms. F able to impact the life of a child, providing a new path in life, one filled with opportunities and the tools necessary to be a literate student and adult; but this gift, the gift of literacy, opened new doors of learning and understanding for Ellen as well, and perhaps, breaking the cycle that accompanies illiteracy!

One of the most powerful gifts we can give our students is the gift of literacy!

Enjoy your school year!


Differentiation: Workshop Framework to Support All Students

Screen Shot 2014-10-19 at 3.55.32 PMA week after an invigorating ITEC conference, Matt Degner, a principal in Iowa City shared a blog post with me from a teacher implementing Genius Hour in his classroom. Matt and I have had many conversations about this topic, and while his teacher spoke about the various tasks students in his room may be working on; I realized, for many, constructing a framework that supports student-directed learning is difficult for many educators. Breaking the traditional model of a factory-like education system, where all students are expected to be in the same place and on the same content, is a daunting expectation.

Channeling my personal experiences with Genius Time, mixed with the instructional framework of Atwell’s Workshop Model Classroom and the refined learning from my experience at the Teacher’s College in New York this summer, it dawned on me that the Workshop framework would be ideal in this type of setting.

My Advice:

End Goal: A deep student understanding of a concept while honing skills necessary to tackle any project-based exploration. Through Genius Hour, or Passion-Based Learning, we want students to become experts in a particular area, obtaining a depth of knowledge that is transferable to multiple situations the concept is placed within.

Skills: For this area, the advice of my friend Cornelius Minor is a constant reminder! Identify the skills necessary to move all students forward. What does this type of exploration and eventual sharing of learning have in common no matter the student-chosen content?                                                        **********Teach the STUDENT, not the assignment!*****************                                      Example skills may include, developing a driving question that is unGoogleable, gathering reliable and relevant sources, or communication through writing.

Instruction: The beauty of the workshop framework is that it allows multiple student and teacher activities to be taking place in one class period. The 3 major type of instruction include:

  1. Whole Class Instruction – Identify a teaching point, decide on mode of delivery, model, practice and send them off to continue application. This should be streamlined to take 10-15 mins.
  2. Small Group Instruction – Identify a common need with a small group of students. Intentional learning with modeling, application, and follow-up is a basic template. Targeted instruction to enhance student application of skill identified. During small group instruction, it is an excellent time to leave specific “mentor texts” behind for continued reflection and application.
  3. One on One – During independent work time, teachers can confer with students about their progress, success and challenges, in order to collect formative assessment. This general pulse of the class allows future instruction that is targeted and relevant to the needs and end goal.

Share/Reflection: The workshop model also builds in the value of reflection and the sharing of work within the framework. Many times the learning is in the Process, not necessarily the end product. The sharing of their learning is not only valuable in Genius Hour, but in many other projects. A different audience than the traditional, lone teacher increases engagement and relevance and demonstrates the application of learning beyond the four walls.

The Workshop Framework is versatile to fit any content and time restraints. To orchestrate differentiation within the classroom, the focus must be clear and the ability to get many “plates” spinning at the same time an objective. The framework allows all students to progress simultaneously no matter where on the continuum they enter our room!