Teaching Students, Not the Curriculum

Screenshot 2016-01-27 10.13.41

Thanks to Heather for sharing this timely quote!

I often say, “I teach children – not the curriculum, program or standard”. I can’t remember where I first heard this statement, but I love it and I truly believe this. My children – the ones I’m teaching RIGHT NOW – are first and foremost in my mind as I plan, set up invitations and provocations and determine the next steps in my instruction. I use a wide variety of resources provided by the state, my county, my school, my colleagues and my own professional library – but I believe they are resources, not a prescribed script to follow. My plans are constantly changing and evolving, in response to the five and six year olds in my classroom. This doesn’t mean that I wing it. Not at all! I spend a lot of time planning the framework of our day, looking at individual students and where they are in their ZPD and making instructional decisions based on my research, beliefs and philosophy of how children learn. But I don’t consider myself a “Responsive Classroom” teacher or a “Units of Study” teacher. You will see much of the philosophy of Responsive Classroom because I believe in a constructivist approach and that the social curriculum is at the heart of what we do; you will see a balanced literacy approach and you will see Writer’s Workshop and Reader’s Workshop because I believe (and have believed and taught this way for 24 years) in a framework of time, choice and response. But within that framework, every year looks a little different – based on the kids in our room that year. It’s kind of like building a house. The framework stays the same on most houses, but what’s inside is different depending on who lives there. The framework of my teaching is the same – a workshop approach, balanced literacy approach, constructivist, inquiry-based learning – but the details of how it looks each year is different, based on who lives in our classroom that year.

I worry that in today’s climate of one-size-fits-all instruction, with increasing kits, units and books that pre-plan lessons down to the minute being hailed as the “answer” to educational problems, that teachers aren’t being challenged to think. Are we reading the script or lesson that another teacher used with her kids, blindly following what “the experts” say to do?

Or are we reading the lessons carefully, reflecting on how it will work in our classroom, with our students, discussing and collaborating with colleagues about the lessons, and then planning a lesson that we own, along with our current students? I hope we are. I hope we are trusting ourselves and supporting each other. And I hope our schools are providing the time and support for all teachers, and especially our new teachers, to think deeply about instruction.

We can’t stop thinking, reflecting, questioning and challenging our own best teaching – and the resources we use. And we can’t forget that we teach children – not a curriculum.

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A project coming to life in Writer’s Workshop.









Should we teach kindergarteners to read?

Playing with cloud dough

Making a volcano with cloud dough

Making friend's names with magnetic letters

Making friend’s names with magnetic letters

This week I read an article citing a report saying that forcing kids to read before they are ready could be harmful. The report specifically references Common Core Standards in Kindergarten and says “there is no evidence to support a widespread belief in the United States that children must read in prekindergarten or kindergarten to become strong readers and achieve academic success”. While it was surprising to me to hear that there is “no evidence”, it was not surprising to read the other findings the authors reported. I hear over and over about blocks and dramatic play stations taken out of classrooms, recess taken away, and endless inappropriate assessments being given (an “online, practice quiz for kindergarten” should never, ever happen). Our children deserve better.

Reading in the Gingerbread House

Reading in the Gingerbread House

I agree completely with what the authors of the study share in the report. Children need to play – it is how they learn (and research does support this).  But I also think it’s important that we give our kids every chance to get that important school literacy piece as soon as possible – with developmentally appropriate practices. It is tragic that, as the article states, “teacher-led direct instruction in kindergarten has almost entirely replaced the active, play-based experiential learning that we know children need”. I don’t think that we should force children to read, but I do think we can immerse children in rich literacy experiences early on and ignite an interest in learning to read and write. We don’t need to have hours of drill and kill and teacher-led direct instruction. We don’t need worksheets and mindless one-size-fits-all instruction. We don’t need hours of assessments. We don’t need to make kindergarten (or first, second..or any grade, for that matter) full of these things.

Acting out Knuffle Bunny in the "laundromat"

Acting out Knuffle Bunny in the “laundromat”

My classroom is a play-based kindergarten classroom, with a great deal of authentic and meaningful literacy experiences offered each day. We read aloud, we have choices throughout the day in curriculum, content and activities, we have a daily Writer’s Workshop, we play, we learn letters, sounds and links, we have 2 recesses each day, we have snack, we read pictures and words in books, we build things with blocks, we learn how to read,  we dress up in the drama center, we play in the kitchen/spaceship/laundromat, we put on puppet shows, we learn how to form our letters, we discover things in sensory boxes, we have guided reading groups, we explore things we are interested in, we read charts and poems, we wonder, question and grow and we do it all in an active, playful, meaningful and developmentally appropriate way. And at the end of the year, some of my kindergarteners are reading at the county-wide benchmark. And some aren’t. But they can all tell you a favorite author and what kind of books they like. They can all read books they’ve written and tell you what author/illustrator they see as a mentor.  They all see themselves as readers and writers. That is ultimately my goal.

Negotiating the order of the alphabet letters with friends

Negotiating the order of the alphabet letters with friends

I’m reminded of the phrase from medicine, “first, do no harm”. This needs to hold true in education. The last thing any of us want is a child refusing to go to school, locking himself in his bedroom, and hiding under his bed. We want children excited about learning, passionate about topics they are discovering at school, talking about favorite authors and illustrators, questioning, wondering and eager to learn, empowered because they know they have a voice in their learning. We don’t want to harm our children. If we are being asked to do things that we know are not developmentally appropriate and that may harm some children, then we need to speak up. It’s worth fighting for the blocks, the recess and the dramatic play. It’s worth fighting for our children. Thank you to the authors of the Defending the Early Years project study for giving us another tool to fight with.

Spaces to Live and Learn

It’s that time of year again. The time where visions of my classroom dance in my head and trips to Ikea, yard sales and Target become very frequent. I am constantly on the lookout for things I need for my room. Just today I scored two blue and green lamps that a neighbor was taking to the Salvation Army! I have no shame in asking if I can have things – people love giving stuff to teachers.  I find myself thinking of how I want our classroom space to look and envisioning happy children living and learning in a beautiful classroom.

Last year I took a year off from being a classroom teacher and was a literacy specialist. I enjoyed it, but I missed having my own classroom so much. One piece I missed a lot was creating a community and a space that is truly a home away from home. I cannot wait to begin setting up a classroom for our incoming kindergartners! The other day I was looking through pictures from many years past and jotting down ideas that I wanted to use or adapt for my new room. It was a lot of fun taking that trip down memory lane, remembering some great ideas and shaking my head at some of the “what was I thinking” ideas (recalling the year I took an entire day to carefully hang an actual parachute above my reading area…). I find that I am now so much more aware of the purpose for everything in my space. Yes, it must be beautiful, but it also needs to be purposeful. I have been inspired by the great thinking in Waldorf, Montessori and Reggio approaches and strive to make sure that our environment is truly the third teacher and is full of wonder and natural objects. I’ve moved away from bright primary colors and have chosen to focus on 2 calm colors (blue and green) as much as I can – one of the many ideas Debbie Diller recommends in her book, Spaces and Places. I’m also going to try to live by Debbie’s advice and assertion that you can set up your classroom in ONE day. Now that may be a true challenge, but I do know that I’m not going to spend one whole day hanging something from the ceiling!

I am a very visual person, and love looking at photos of classrooms. Chapter Five in Catching Readers has some ideas for setting up your classroom, as do these posts from last year (Designing Your Classroom Space, and Reflecting on Your Classroom Space). There are so many creative, inspiring teachers who create beautiful spaces to live and learn in. Pinterest has been an exciting new find with tons of great pictures from teachers. The folks at #kinderchat have graciously shared their spaces with us on Twitter. I decided to compile a bunch of my photos from years past and set up a Flickr account. I’ll continue to add photos of classrooms, charts, organizational ideas, etc. as the year goes on. I get to start setting up my room Friday – so look for pictures next week of my space this year! And if you’ve got a photo to share, please feel free to email me and I’ll be happy to feature it on the Flickr site. I look forward to seeing the wondrous spaces that our children will have to learn, create, grow and discover in.

How is your classroom set up this year? What are some great ideas that you would like to share?

Click here to view my Pinterest classroom space site

Commit to your own learning

Before you get swept away with all the things that you will be required to do at the beginning of the school year, why not make a personal commitment to your own learning and professional development?  It doesn’t have to an expensive or overwhelming commitment.  Katie and I work with so many teachers who want to remain learners.  We often remind each other, “No matter how busy I get, I’m going to try to find some time for me to grow as a literacy educator.” If you agree, read through the following suggestions we’ve collected from our fellow learners and choose one!

10 ways to grow as a teacher of reading and writing:

  1. Pick a literacy blog that you will commit to reading once a week.  We like these — (Choice Literacy, A Year of Reading, Two Writing Teachers, AM Literacy Learning Log) — but there are many to choose from.
  2. Go to one literacy conference this school year.  National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), Reading Recovery (open to all teachers), and International Reading Association (IRA) conferences at the state, regional, or national level are not just for reading teachers.  They are for everyone!
  3. Have another teacher, someone you admire and trust, watch you teach. Invite that person to watch a guided reading lesson or a shared demonstration lesson, and then meet with that person for some critical feedback.
  4. Put your head together with a more knowledgeable teacher about a student who troubles you. Have that person read with your student, take some running records, and guide you as to what this child needs next as a reader.
  5. Start a teachers-as-readers group that meets before or after school once a month.  Even if only 4 or 5 teachers join, you can have a great discussion about the book you are reading. Several teacher books come with a study guide that provides questions, activities, or reflections for the chapters. (Our study guide for Catching Readers can be downloaded free at http://www.stenhouse.com)
  6. Encourage your grade-level team to save a little bit of time at meetings for discussion around specific kids who are struggling with reading or writing.  Take turns talking about a child, sharing writing samples or running records, and ask your teammates for input.
  7. Devote one lunchtime per week to eating alone and reading an article from a literacy journal.  If you don’t subscribe to any journals, your school professional library should have copies of this month’s Language Arts, Reading Teacher, or Educational Leadership.
  8. Ask your principal to provide coverage so that you can watch another teacher teach.  Or give up a planning time once a month to observe a teacher you think you can learn from.
  9. Participate in an online discussion on a literacy topic. Establishing a Professional Learning Network (PLN) on Twitter can give you many different perspectives about education. Educators send out daily links to articles, as well as information on weekly online chats. Many authors have Twitter accounts that you can link to from their blogs. Find an educator you trust, and see who they follow. Some great Twitter people to follow are: DonalynBooks, FrankiSibberson, ReadingCountess,  chrislehmann, and web20classroom. Catching Readers is on Twitter too!
  10. Start a “Ten minute tidbits” forum in the morning before school once every two weeks.  Have different teachers share a quick literacy idea that helped improve the reading/writing abilities of their students.

If you have other ways that you like to learn, please feel free to add them. Enjoy growing as a teacher of literacy this school year!

Katie and Pat

Reflecting On Your Classroom Space

In the previous blog entry, Designing Your Classroom Space,  we mentioned some things to think about while designing your classroom before the children arrive.  Once the children come it’s time to talk with them about the various spaces – what they are for, how the children will participate in keeping each space neat and organized, and so on.  Perhaps they will have suggestions for areas you haven’t thought of. One year my first graders asked for a Lego building table so they could keep their creations intact and continue building each day when they arrived in the morning. What a great idea! We moved tables and immediately set up that space in our classroom. Once your children arrive you will be able to see if your classroom works. Do you have enough whole group area so that the whole class can sit and not be crowded?  Is your library big enough for many kids to browse books? Is your small group area really out of the way so you and the children you work with are not distracted or interrupted?  Teachers need to be responsive to what the students need and how the classroom can work best for them.

After the first few weeks of school, we suggest you consider the following questions:

  • Walk around your room – does every space have a purpose? Talk about this with the kids. Are they able to explain the purpose of each space and use it effectively?
  • Does your environment help or hinder what you and your students want to do? Some years most of my kids like to work on the floor with clipboards – some years most like tables or desks. I adapt to what my class needs that year.
  • Do your walls tell the story of children’s learning journeys? Consider charting your year of  learning through shared writing monthly, photographs of children at work, photocopies of book covers, etc. – all of this sparks conversation and tracks your year together.
  • Do the children have ownership of all that is displayed – do they know WHY it is on the walls? Does it reflect their learning? Are your anchor charts created with the class – and able to be added to or changed as new learning occurs?
  • Do you have children’s work and photographs displayed? Artwork, family photos, field trip photos, self-portraits, photos from recess or reading workshop, and more – all of these add a sense of community to your space.
  • Do your available resources encourage curiosity, creativity and communication?
  • Is your personal space uncluttered? (get rid of things you do not use or love; find ways to organize things that constantly look untidy; file away things that are not being used.)
  • Is there an area that isn’t working as well as it can?  If so, plan to discuss it with the children and come up with solutions.

Chapter 5 in Catching Readers describes in words and photographs how to set up an environment to support students in a comprehensive literacy approach, as well as provides a list of professional resources to help you design your classroom space.  Your classroom is home for you and your students 8 hours a day, 180 days a year. Make it a warm and welcoming place that encourages learning, creativity and self-expression. And never be afraid to change things as you continue to reflect on your year with your students. What are some ways you create a fabulous classroom space? Please share your ideas!