Saturday, 25 August 2012

Remember, We Know What We're Doing

Maybe it's just me, but my head is already spinning with only two weeks of school under our belts.  I know, the beginning of the school year is always going to be hectic.  With Open House, Parent Night, and CWW, how can it not?  And this year, we've also got technology migrations, PLC meetings, and PD opportunities after school and on weekends.

Don't get me wrong, it's all good.  I'm excited about where we are heading, and I'd love to be able to do it all.  The problem is I can't.  And when I try, I end up feeling like I don't know what I'm doing.

The thing is we do know what we're doing.  Need some proof?  First, look at our students.  They are coming to us as more sophisticated readers and more eloquent writers.  The work we are doing in our classrooms day in and day out is making a difference.

Next, look at our colleagues.  I was fortunate enough to sit in on a Grade 8 PLC meeting recently, and the level of personal connection and professional collaboration between teachers inspired me.  Earlier this week, a number of colleagues shared effective ways to use iPads in our classrooms.  Rich, meaningful conversations are happening daily within partnerships and across teams, and they make a difference.

Finally, look in the mirror.  Each one of us brings a unique perspective to the table that has been informed by our years of experience as a reader, writer, and lifelong learner.  We rely on these experiences every single day as we work alongside our students, and by drawing on them, we make a difference.

It's just that in our busy teacher lives, we forget to look around when we're always looking ahead.  As I said, I'm not against looking forward at all, but if that's the only thing we're looking at, we lose focus.

It reminds me of what I just said to my students' parents on Parent Night.  Remember when we used to correct every mistake on a student's paper before handing it back to them?  They sat there holding their marked up papers, eyes glazed over.  We were only giving feedback right?  Well, that's what I feel like as a teacher some days.  I'm just simply overwhelmed at all the things I'm supposed to do to get better.

Instead, I told the parents the other night, I now determine the one area that needs fixing the most for a given student.  I teach him strategies and techniques to overcome that deficit.  Since it's the only focus, the change is manageable and meaningful, and the impact is greater.  That's exactly what we should do as teachers.

So, as we settle in to the routine of the new year, I know that I've got lots of things to work on, but I'm only choosing one for now.  If I try to do them all, I know that I won't do any well.  

How about you?  What's that one thing that you want to tackle this year and "get it right?"  Once you've chosen it, let me know.  Maybe I can help.  After all, the one thing I've chosen this year is to help my colleagues in any way that I can as your Literacy Coach.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Conquering Conferring

We all know that the focused mini-lesson is an integral part of our workshops.  Having said that, I remember what Janine King said once: "One of the most powerful way to move students forward as readers and writers is through the one-on-one and group conferences."   Not only that, conferring with our readers and writers regularly allows us to:

  • track student growth over time
  • ensure that every student is targeted at his/her level
  • follow up with students on goals/last teaching points
  • collect authentic and anecdotal data that we can use later
  • gather groups of similar readers and writers for an additional focused mini-lesson
  • pick up new strategies and techniques that our students are doing on their own

While we're all continuing to fine-tune our conferring skills, there's the logistical aspect of conferring that we can easily conquer by using our iPads and the Confer app. I know, I know, not another techie thing, right? Before you decide on whether you'd use it or not, check out this online introduction:

When I saw the quick grouping feature, I was hooked.  I used to keep notes and cross-check them to try and find out which kids needed what.  With this app though, it's just a click away.  Of course the other features of uploading existing notes (i.e. curriculum standards) doesn't sound bad either.

So what do you say?  I'm game if you are.  

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Keeping Track of Readers

"You're not going to believe it," Jackie said as she came into my classroom after one of her first classes of the year.  "Seven of my kids have already read Wonder!"  I have to admit, I was a bit deflated.  I'd read Wonder (see trailer above), a powerful first novel by R.J. Palacio, over the summer and couldn't wait to showcase it in my class.  You know that feeling you get when read a great book and have to share it with others?  Well, it turns out even though Wonder was just released in spring, a bunch of our readers had already devoured it.

If your students are anything like mine or Jackie's, they're amazing readers.  This is good news.  They come to us knowing what genres grab them and which authors work for them.  Not only that, they keep up to date with the latest and greatest new releases.  That's why now more than ever before, we have to be on top of our game in the classroom when it comes to keeping track of our readers.

When I think of keeping track of my readers, I keep the following in mind:  volume, reading rate, and books they're reading.  At the same time, I'm always looking for seamless systems that make these things visible and easily accessible.  


For volume (how much each reader reads), I'd been using Reading Records in the back of students' readers' notebooks where students record the books they've read.  Although good in principle, students seemed to forget about it, and I had to collect all of their notebooks to check them out.  

This year, I'm trying something new.  I've adapted an idea that I got from Jackie where I've posted a Reading Record pocket chart in the back of the room.  In it, each student has a card where they write down the title, start and finish dates, and genre of the books they read.  When I introduced it, I likened it to a factory where workers check in and check out by punching a card.  Hopefully that's what they'll do as readers with this system.  

What I like is that I can already see how many books they are reading, how fast they are reading them, and what genres they are trying out.  I can also use them during conferences as an additional talking point.

Reading Rate:

Let's face it.  Knowing a reader's reading rate is important, but it's not the end all be all.  I used to have students fill out countless Reading Logs noting the pages they read and how long it took them.  They hated it, and I don't blame them.  When I tried it out, I hated it too.  And the worst part was, I never really referred to them as their teacher.

So I've modified it.  Now I use them with a purpose.  I have students complete a Reading Log for a given week only.  Then we can analyze that information and figure out the reading rate (words/minute).  As long as I know that students continue to read chunks of text on a regular basis, I don't need to know every single page number and minute read.

Recently, I picked up an idea from Crystal while working with her in her classroom.  She does a snapshot of a log by having students record the pages they read in one sitting on a sticky note.  She then collects them, and instantly, she's got valuable data and can plan meeting with certain kids immediately.

Of course the things I look for are high and low reading rates.  Some readers are blasting through books.  They're plot junkies, and they need to slow it down.  Others are extremely slow.  They might be in a challenging book, they might be distracted, or they might be reading a new genre (i.e. nonfiction).

While I don't consider it an exact science, it's certainly something to think about.  If you're interested in suggested reading rates per grade level generated by Teacher's College, click on this link.

Books They're Reading:

I believe that one of our most important jobs is to match every reader with the right book at the right time.  Like you, I use surveys and one-on-one conferences to make suggestions and give mini-book talks on the spot.  In the back of my mind, I also keep in mind the concept of Reading Ladders from Teri Lesesne.  Her idea is that readers can move through a progression of books based on increasing difficulty in a given genre or theme.

I also try to showcase my library whenever I can.  Years ago, Betsy gave me the idea of having Book Bag Mondays.  For twenty minutes or so, she pulls books out of her beloved bag and gives book talks on them.  Very often they are new releases or must reads, and it's amazing how quickly they fly off the shelf.

These are just a few of the many great ideas that are happening in our classrooms to promote reading.  If you have another idea you think others would benefit from, please leave a comment or have me come and check it out in person.  We'd love to learn from you!  

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Why a Coach?

We all have an idea of what a coach is.  You've probably already had a few of them in your life.  Whether it was the one telling you what your position was or how to hold a high note, the coach was always the giver of knowledge, the experienced counsel, the savvy strategist. The coach knew exactly where you needed to go and how you should get there.

Teaching, however, is different.  And teaching literacy is complex.  That's why the role of a literacy coach needs clarification.  

Unsatisfied with the conventional definitions of a coach, I've come up with my own:  A Literacy Coach is someone who provides continual support, offers a range of possibilities, and builds upon the strengths of individuals to ensure a successful outcome for the entire team.

In considering this definition, I found this image which really resonates with me.  The coach is there, following along, listening in, asking questions, and providing instant feedback.  The expert, in this case, Lance Armstrong, is still in control and will finish the race.  Just like Lance's coach, part of my role as your Literacy Coach is to work with you in real time as you are planning and teaching.  I will support you in any way that I can.  Possibilities of what this may look like include:

  • planning a mini-lesson with you
  • locating authentic samples and valuable resources
  • modeling a mini-lesson
  • providing feedback
  • assessing student work
  • reworking the classroom environment and library
  • fine-tuning anchor charts
  • modeling a conference (individual or small group)
  • calibrating an assessment
  • developing a record keeping system
  • covering your class while you work with a peer
Finally, while I will provide you with these possibilities and more, one of the most exciting aspects of being your Coach is that I will learn so much from you.  And when I do come in to work with you, I'll be sure to share the exciting strategies and techniques that I've come across in all of your classrooms.

Image from:

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Why the Middle Matters

When asked, I often tell people how lucky I am.  I know I may be giving away our secret, but I can't help it. Honestly, who else gets to spend their days immersed in great writing and talking about what makes it work?  At the same time, we are daring enough to try it out ourselves knowing full well how daunting a task it really is.  But when we get an idea down or capture a moment in time with words, it's magic.  

As if this weren't enough, we're doing all this alongside one of the most crucial group of readers and writers out there, middle school students.  Let's face it, life for middle school students can be challenging.   For them, the world as they know it is in continual flux.  Friendships evolve, relationships change, and new realities emerge.  Even their own bodies become unrecognizable.  Finding their place amidst all this upheaval is so critical.   How do they do it?  One way is by finding relevance in story and having plenty of opportunities to develop their own voice.  

As their Reading/Language Arts teachers,  our job is to help each and every student find his/her place in a book, in the classroom, in their world.  Of course the art of it is in how we do it.  We do it by using our own voices.  We do it by drawing from our own experiences.  We do it by applying what we know about good teaching and learning.  And since we are all different, we do this in our own unique ways while striving to provide a consistent and rigorous program through our shared commitment, collaboration, and approach.

With this in mind, I offer this blog as a place for us to share our successes and consider our challenges.  It's also a place for us access resources, voice ideas, and sign up to collaborate with me and your peers.  And in the spirit of collaboration, if you have an idea or link that would be great to add to this blog, please let me know.