A Letter to My Colleagues

Dear Colleague,

I have typed the beginning of this letter a hundred times because it’s really hard for me to write.  I’ve been repeatedly typing, deleting, and re-typing all while blinking back tears.  You see, based on my childhood neighborhoods, my family structure, my SES, and my skin color, I should have had a lack of background knowledge.  My teachers should have had to go the extra mile for me, but they didn’t.  They didn’t because my mom did.

I basically grew up in a single-parent home, even though my dad was always around.  My high-school-educated mother moved us around a lot, due to the fact that she struggled taking care of the three of us on her meager salary.  The places she could afford were not always the nicest, but certainly weren’t the worst either, and we always managed to move before eviction.  The basics were really all we could afford, so we didn’t take weekend trips, make visits to museums, art galleries, or aquariums.  Our school holidays were spent the days at home alone–watching tv.

Our lack of background knowledge didn’t really impact us because, fortunately, we were readers.  The expectation was always there for us to excel in school, regardless of what we did on our off-days.  My mother was rarely seen volunteering in schools, but she was there in us!  Eventually graduating from college, she made us know education was important.  She instilled in us that we were there for one purpose–learning.  And we loved it!  We loved everything about school!  New knowledge was like air, at least for me.  School always came easily for me, so I guess (according to Marzano) I was blessed with fluid intelligence.  We all were.  In fact, we were almost always one of only a few black girls in the advanced classes throughout school.  Sure, if I had had extra exposure to add to my natural abilities, I may have become a genius, but I did very well without it.  So, we’re not talking about me.

We are, however, talking about my classmates, my friends, people who look like me.  People who, when I take my daughter on day-trips to the Charleston Aquarium, are NOT there.  We’re talking about your students who have parents with negative experiences with learning and knowing.  More than background knowledge, the home environment has a huge impact on school learning.  Think about it:  Marzano states that, “Academic background knowledge affects more than just “school learning.” Studies have also shown its relation to occupation and status in life.”  Now think about your students’ parents and their occupations.  For many of your students, their parents are lacking academic knowledge, as evidenced by their jobs or lack thereof.  How would we expect them to instill in their children the need and importance of learning, even without background knowledge?

That’s why you are necessary.  That’s why you make or break your students.  Your actions and words regarding their education and them as learners is key.  That’s why you are doing them a disservice when you do “just enough” in teaching the lesson as opposed to doing “whatever it takes” to make the learning stick.  And the learning has to have something to stick to!  That’s why background knowledge is vital!  If they don’t have it, build it for them!  Show them, take them, let them feel it, hear it, taste it!  Do it for all your students, not just the ones who look like me.  Learning is connecting new knowledge to old knowledge and to the world around us.  Your students may never know the world around them, unless you build it for them!

Sincerely,

 

The Black, Poor, & Fluidly Intelligent

What Are We Doing?

Right now, as we speak, I have been asked to write a reflection on teachers, students, and myself as a Reading Coach.  I was told to think about any emerging trends that have come forth throughout my past Coaching Cycles.  Well, it seems simple enough.  But, today my mind is wandering.

I am thinking about a little of everything that is going on in my life.  (Aren’t we all?)  There are issues with people at my church, on my job, in my personal life…and even in the mirror.

But, one trend I am noticing when I lump all these things into one is that they all boil down to our actions…what we are doing?  In each one of the roles we bear in life, what are we actually doing there?  Me –as a singing choir member, as a Reading Coach, as a friend, as a mother– what am I doing with the charges that come with each role?

All of a sudden, it hit me–exactly why I’m feeling meh.  It’s because of what I’m doing in my roles, with what I’ve been gifted in each role.  So as to not take all the blame for my current reality, I’d venture to say that we’re all doing the same thing.

What are we doing, you ask?  Well, in some cases, we are doing just enough, instead of whatever it takes.

In all those areas where there is confusion, discord, discomfort, I have found that the people involved (myself included) are merely doing just enough.  Just enough to sing the songs you already know, not whatever it takes to perfect your craft.  Just enough to be connected, not whatever it takes to be the best friend.  Just enough to still maintain the job title “teacher,” not whatever it takes to ensure your students are moving to higher heights.

When we fall into the rut of “just enough,” the people around us suffer from not getting our best.  And, truth be told, we are not fulfilled by giving less than our best.  So, really, no one wins.

Reflecting on this concept of what we’re actually doing has made me actually think about what I’m doing and the purpose behind it.  Why do I sing on the choir? Why do I teach? Why do I coach? Why am I still in this relationship/friendship?  Once we honestly and candidly determine our “whys,” that alone should move us from just enough to whatever it takes.

And if it doesn’t, then maybe you’re doing the wrong things.  And for the sake of the people around you who deserve whatever it takes, consider a change.

Series of Actionable Steps

I recently had the pleasure of attending the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE) 2016 Conference in Atlanta, GA, and it was more amazing than amazing.  The wealth of literacy knowledge around me was astounding!  The highlight (by far) was sitting next to Jennifer Serravallo, author of The Reading Strategies Book.  She brilliantly pointed out that different literacy scholars interpret the word “strategy” differently, so she shared with us her definition, which is that a strategy is a series of actionable steps, that are generalizable, authentic, and can be carried out by the student independently, even without active teaching (Serravalo, 2016).  The strategies we teach students should be transferrable to different texts, across genres and years of education.  She states that we teach students strategies for navigating literacy because we are teaching “the reader, not the book … the writer, not the writing” (Serravallo, 2016).  Can’t you see why she’s amazing?

I must admit that I have used the term “strategy” loosely over the years.  I’ve mislabeled skills and concepts as strategies, too, have probably confused a few kids, and have definitely taught books and writing as opposed to readers and writers.  Fortunately, when you know better, you do better, and now I am happy to say that I know better.

I have collected here some of my favorite strategies that I hope you’ll try with your students.  Consider your kids blank slates, ready for you to teach them exactly HOW (by giving them a series of actionable steps that can transfer to any text) to become a lover and learner of literacy.

Skimming and Scanning (from The Best Instructional Strategies and Resources Compiled by: Heather Mullins, Professional Development Consultant North Carolina Department of Public Instruction)

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Skimming & Scanning – PTKSE

What is it?: The first step in close reading of a text is skimming and scanning.  The reader previews the text, making note of text features titles, illustrations or pictures, captions, headings, and subheadings.

Evidence to Support It:  According to author Dr. Douglas Fisher, “Close Reading is a careful and purposeful re-reading of a text.”  Personally, I use this strategy because it’s just good reading practice.  For students who are just learning to navigate text on higher levels, it is important that it becomes second nature for them to read a text multiple times.  By having them skim and scan, they are preparing their brains for processing the content.  My students began to see it as an enjoyable experience because we did it so often, and they enjoyed being able to use highlighters, colored pencils, and sticky notes as a part of their skimming and scanning (previewing) step.

Below is the anchor chart my students used to outline the strategy of skimming and scanning.  Notice the series of actionable steps.

Feedback Request Tool (from The Best Instructional Strategies and Resources Compiled by: Heather Mullins, Professional Development Consultant North Carolina Department of Public Instruction)

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Feedback Request

What is it?:  This is a system I created for giving my students the opportunity to solicit my feedback on specific aspects of their writing.  My students were able to self-evaluate their own work in order to ask for the teacher’s specific feedback regarding a concept, section, or item.  The students would complete the series of actionable steps I taught about a writing skill, and then ask for specific feedback on their writing.  When they were ready for my feedback, they would move the magnet with their picture next to the words Teacher Conference on the board, and I would know that they needed feedback.

Evidence to Support It?: John Hattie ranks self-assessment and feedback high in terms of the impact on student achievement, both having an effect size that yields more than one year’s growth (Visible Learning for Literacy, Hattie 2016).  Personally, this was one of the most effective and impactful moves I made as an educator!  My students grew to be meticulous examiners of their work and would request feedback from me that was concise, actionable (imagine that!) and specific to their goals as writers!  The ownership they took over their work took their writing to higher heights, and I saw growth in writing and in writers.

Below is the writing status of the class display from my board.  (Excuse the science graphs.)

Provide Models: (from Principles of Instruction: Research-Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know by Barak Rosenshine)

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Anchor Charts with Actionable Steps

What is it?: The teacher provides students with models and worked examples that can help them learn to solve problems independently, not only using the actionable steps, but also seeing models done accurately.  Ladies and Gentlemen, think anchor charts and Interactive Notebooks.

Evidence to Support it:  “Students need cognitive support to help them learn to solve problems.  The teacher modeling and thinking aloud while demonstrating how to solve a problem are examples of effective cognitive support.  Worked examples (such as a math problem for which the teacher has not only provided the solution but has clearly laid out each step) are another form of modeling that has been developed by researchers” (Rosenshine, 2012).  Personally, the anchor charts and Interactive Notebooks saved my teaching life last year!  I was new to the grade level and having to learn content as I taught it.  Creating the anchor charts of examples and actionable steps for my kids helped me learn, too!  Plus, I could take pictures of them, print them 4-per-page and the kids could glue them into their Interactive Notebooks, as evidence of learning!  They loved it!  They were able to take their notebooks home to assist with homework or projects, and the anchor charts served as paper teachers while I was working with other students.  Talk about independence!

These are just a few of my (and my students’) favorites!  If you can teach transferrable actionable steps for fostering independence, you (and your students) will be all the better!  Happy teaching!

Why are we learning about this?

I was in the middle of conducting a writing conference with a 5th grade student when a district administrator walked into the room to conduct a walk-through observation.  Using only my peripheral vision, I followed her steps around the room as she slowly wove in and out of children sprawled on the tile floors working feverishly in their Writer’s Notebooks.

My breath caught in my throat as she stopped and knelt beside three girls who were sitting in a cluster (which I had told them NOT to do many, many times during INDEPENDENT writing…but I digress).  I heard the question they were asked as clear as day from across the silent room. “Why are you learning about this?”

And then it hit me.  After all the mini-lessons taught, I had failed to let the students in on the secret of writing.  The magical “thing” that makes authors everywhere pick up pens and open pages.  The secret is the PURPOSE behind the writing.

So, what is the purpose of writing?  Why do authors write?  Here’s what I think.

For Themselves… Primarily, I think writers write to convey ideas, explain their thoughts, and provide insight into their hearts and souls.  Writing provides each of us with a lifelong legacy, something that remains long after we’re gone.  It stays.  And it continues to tell the story long after the storyteller ends it.

For Readers… This is where the craft of writing really becomes significant.  As a writer, you control the way your readers takes in your ideas.  What power!  Adding punctuation to tell your reader when to pause, stop, or scream… precise vocabulary paints vivid images in the readers’ minds so that they see the action as you saw it!  Authors control how much of themselves we see and get to know and experience!  The beauty of writing is reading!

When I have the opportunity (and from now on) I will begin my writing lessons with helping students make personal connections to the why behind their writing.  The independent writing time will flow so much better if they know that they are writing for themselves and their readers, as opposed to writing for an assignment.

Here are a few of my personal favorite books (not totally appropriate to use with children) that really illuminate the purposes for writing.

What will you write today that will give readers insight into who and what you are?

Voice

This morning started out typically.  We were running late.  Fortunately, Rhyan woke up rested, on her own, so we did not have to engage in our ritual dance-fight of getting dressed.  However, she was still dancing.  Everywhere.  I blurted commands: “Take that off.”  “Come back, and put this on.”  “Be still, and find your other sock.”  In my haste to get out the door, I could feel my frustration building.

She smiled and ran and skipped through the hall, holding a toy.  “Mommy!” she shouted excitedly.  “Can I…”

Knowing exactly what she was about to ask, I interrupted, “No.  Sit down so that I can finish your hair.”

She stopped, frowned, folded her arms, and said matter-of-factly, “You didn’t hear my voice.  I want to say my voice!”

Wow.  How profound, at age 6.  Because she’s my daughter, i immediately felt guilty.  Even though I tell her all the time how impolite it is to interrupt, I had done it to her.  But I did more than just stop her from sharing “her voice.”  There’s always a bigger picture.

In what ways do we stop kids’ voices?  And what are the effects?  I had indirectly communicated to Rhyan that what she had to say was not important.  That we did not even have time for her to speak.  That her wants and desires did not matter.

Sadly, the teacher in me realizes that we do this to kids daily.  Every time we rob them of choice, we steal their voices.  We steal their voices when we pull them from their favorite subjects, activities, or texts to layer on another scripted-program.  They are stripped of their voices when we tell them they have to read books on their levels…

I know that there are demands in the classroom: time constraints, testing, grades, accountability…the list is endless.  But I pray that we remember that each of our kids has a voice that deserves to be heard.  Listen to their voices.

What do you want school to provide for YOUR child?

When I think about what I want school to provide for my child, I think about who she is as a person.

This is Rhyan (about 4 years ago).  She’s my only child, has an inactive father, and has me as a mother, and I am literally obsessed with her.  She is my favorite …everything.  There’s no child more beautiful, none more precious, none smarter, and none who eats more ketchup than she.  She is not a morning person.  She’s spoiled.  I still pick her up, and hug and kiss her daily.  She smells like cookies and playgrounds.  She’s perfectly mine.

Rhyan is smart.  The smartest girl in the world, if you ask me.  When she entered 4K, I told her teacher at the Back-to-School Bash that I was excited to meet her, and was looking forward to how she would teach my baby to read before she went to kindergarten.  She looked at me, shook her head, and said, “Everybody’s not an A/B student.”  Of course, I gave her the side eye, and had to “casually” run my credentials.  Long story, short, we ended up on the same page.

When I think about what I want school to provide for my child, I think of literacy.  I want my daughter, my perfect baby to learn strategies so that she can think for herself.  I want her to be a risk-taking, problem-solver, and to know things so that she can make educated decisions.  I want her to learn to respect authority by having teachers in authority who respect her enough to give her a chance to strive to be an A/B student.  I want school to teach my princess that she is not a score or a grade or a level, but a reader, a writer of bar-coded mermaid books, a mathematician, a planner, and a thinker.

Rhyan is THE most important child to me, but I challenge you to think about who’s most important to you.  Think about their faces…their brains.  Their need and desire to know things…to read.  And then I challenge you to understand that it is their teachers’ responsibility to equip them with strategies for becoming readers.

Now, think about how you would structure your literacy block, your classroom, if they were seated in the front row.classroom-and-misc-004