Through the Fairy Door

Our fantasy characters became our confidants. We would talk and listen to them and tell their stories at will. They did not mask reality; they helped us interpret and explain our feelings about reality.
—Vivian Gussin Paley, A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play


Fiona is our classroom fairy. She visits every so often, leaving us notes and surprises. Fiona made herself known one fall day when the kids in the class noticed our fairy door on the wall. The next day there was a letter waiting. The kids write her notes, leave her presents and celebrate the magic that is Fiona. Every single kid buys in to the fantasy play that our fairy brings. She begins her visits each year once the kids notice the fairy door, and classes talk about her from years past. I love it.

Today when the kids arrived, Fiona had made our play stand into a magical fairy garden. There was an invitation to play with the fairy stones, the glitter, the natural objects and the books and writing paper that Fiona left us. It’s another space in our classroom where kids can go and play and imagine that Fiona is real. She becomes their confidant, their friend, their imaginary player in our kindergarten classroom. She provides another path to creating narratives, solving problems, inventing situations and seeking meaning in a five year old’s world. The play is filled with talk and imagination, literacy, wonder and joy. It’s truly as magical as Fiona.

“Let me end with what for me may be the most important aspect of play we learn from the children: it is in play where we learn best to be kind to others. In play we learn to recognize another person’s pain, for we can identify with all the feelings and issues presented by our make-believe characters.”

– Vivian Gussin Paley, from The Importance of Fantasy, Fairness, and Friendship in Children’s Play – An Interview with Vivian Gussin Paley


Screenshot 2018-03-01 22.18.35

Day 5

Be the Character

One thing I do during an interactive read aloud is have kids “be the character”.  I stop at a point in the text where the character is feeling an emotion or anticipating an upcoming event. I ask the kids to “pull out their masks” (I model pulling out an imaginary mask from my sock.) and put on their mask to be the character. I look to see them show what the character is feeling on their faces. Then I invite children who want to “be the character” to say what they are thinking or feeling (as the character). After we’ve shared briefly, I tell them to put their masks away (they put them back in their sock as a signal to come back to focus on the book) and we continue reading the book.

I’ve always thought this was a great way for me to teach inferring, engage children with the characters and events in the book, to predict and to show how readers read beyond the text. After reading Peter Johnston’s, Opening Minds (Chapter 6), I now see that having children imagine that they are experiencing another’s feelings or emotions is much bigger than all of that. It is also a key component in building social imagination.

Much of what happens in texts, personal interactions, academics and the “real world” happens inside our heads. Teaching children to imagine what is going on “behind the scenes”, in essence, is a highly important task. And how can we neglect this? As Johnston says, “social imagination is the foundation of civil society.” Children (and adults) need to be able to understand what others are feeling, to read people’s faces and expressions,  to imagine different perspectives, to make sense of abstract ideas, and to reason through this. While social imagination may not show up in a list of state standards, it’s a critical piece of education that we cannot leave out.

I’m looking forward to exploring this more in the upcoming school year. I see possibility in using this as we role-play problems that may arise in the classroom, as we read a variety of texts and as we interact with each other in the classroom. Kindergarten isn’t too early to start teaching children to look at multiple perspectives, to imagine alternate possibilities and to develop empathy. If we start there and continue building on throughout the school years imagine what kind of future we might have.

How do you build social imagination & social reasoning in your classroom?

Opening Minds: Summer Cyber PD

I’m excited to be reading Peter Johnston’s Opening Minds and joining the #cyberPD conversation hosted by Cathy Mere, Jill Fisch and Laura Komos. If this wonderful book is on your summer reading list, please join us! Check out Cathy’s blog for more information or follow the #cyberPD hashtag on Twitter. And if this book isn’t on your summer reading list…I strongly suggest adding it! Here are my reflections on Chapters 1-3.

When I read Choice Words (Peter Johnston’s first book) eight years ago, it changed who I am as a teacher. I remember reading it. Then reading it again. And again. It was a little book that was jam packed with “a-ha moments”. I felt as if I got something new from it every time I read it. (I still do, which I why I reread it every summer.) I started a teachers as readers group at my school to talk about the book and kept referring back to it. I wanted to internalize all of his wonderful words and wisdom. I was extremely lucky to be invited to a small group lunch with Peter Johnston at NCTE in 2005. I remember what he shared with the table – he told us to feel free to make “cheat sheets” – to write down the phrases, language and responses from the book that we wanted to internalize. He told us to use the cheat sheets until the language became a natural part of our teaching. I recently found those cheat sheets in a file and was amazed at how much of that language is just a part of who I am in the classroom. I really did internalize and now own a new way of thinking, talking and teaching. I am so excited about Peter’s new book and I am starting my new “cheat sheets” for next year after reading the first three chapters of Opening Minds.

At the top of my “cheat sheet” is the word, “yet“. What a powerful word it is!  Imagine what happens when a child says, “I’m not good at this.” vs. “I’m not good at this, yet.” I just love the sense of possibility that the word “yet” generates. It opens up so many opportunities, rather than shutting down the learning. Working with kindergarteners gives me a huge opportunity to help them create themselves as learners. Johnston talks about how “for us to have agency we have to believe that things are changeable, because if they can’t be changed, taking action is futile.” (p.27) I want my students to see themselves as “can-do kids” – kids who can make a difference in their learning, their lives and the world. Choice Words talked a lot about agency and Opening Minds layers bold new thinking on this idea.

Next on my list is, “thanks for teaching us that“. (p.32) I often ask my students “how did you do that?” or “how did you figure that out?” and then I ask them to explain and share with the class. But I love how ending that conversation with “thank you for teaching us that”, rather than with praise, empowers children and positions them as another teacher in the classroom.

My third word on my cheat sheet is one I want to eliminate, the word “smart“. After reading Choice Words, I immediately stopped using the term “good” – as in “good readers/writers/mathematicians” because by saying someone or some action/behavior was good, I felt that it was implying that someone or some actions must be bad. Johnston illustrates, and shares research on why  using the word smart, and telling children “you must be so smart”, really do the same thing. (p.9-10) It implies that you are either smart or dumb, which is a fixed characteristic that doesn’t leave a lot of room for learning, growth or facing challenges. I grew up thinking and saying (often) that I was dumb in math. Recently, I’ve changed that fixed theory and embraced learning and teaching math. Thanks to many great mentors, professional texts and workshops, I have come to see math as a fun challenge to teach and to continue learning more about. I even started my summer with a 2 day math workshop! I realized that my fixed idea about being dumb in math wasn’t serving me or my students. I don’t want my students to stay in a fixed mindset about anything in school, or beyond. Johnston says, “when children holding fixed theories encounter difficulties, mistakes become crippling.” (p.11) I want our classroom community to be one where people take risks, attempt challenges, make mistakes and learn from all of these things. I want them to see that “when you run into difficulty it just means things are becoming more interesting. Challenging activities present no threat, only the promise of learning something new.” (p.12). Imagine how exciting, interesting and fulfilling learning and teaching would be if that was our thinking!

I am looking forward to reading the rest of this book, probably multiple times, and reflecting on my language as a learner and a teacher. Please join in our discussion in the comments section here, on any of the host blogs mentioned at the beginning of the post, or on Twitter. Check back in the next two weeks for posts on the rest of the book.

If you are interested in reading Opening Minds or Choice Words, both books are available at Stenhouse for 20% off during their Blogstitute Event, along with free shipping. Just use the code BLOG when you order online. Peter Johnston is a featured author for the Blogstitute, so look for his posts on the Stenhouse blog site.


Three Things

Last week I was in Asheville for Spring Break, enjoying running the beautiful mountain trails there. I met two women at a bike & outdoor shop bar one evening and we started talking. The women were on a mountain biking vacation from Canada and had left their children and husbands at home. It came up in conversation that I was a kindergarten teacher, and one of the women asked me if I could tell her the top 3 things she should be doing to prepare her 2 and 4 year old children for kindergarten. Without hesitation, I told her – read to them, play with them and talk with them.

She seemed a bit surprised. She said of course she was doing those things – but what could she do to really prepare them? And then she immediately stopped, took a step back, and said, “wait – you mean everyone doesn’t do that?”

I wish all of my children came in to kindergarten with 4 years of rich, enjoyable read aloud experiences – tons of imaginative journeys they’ve taken with forts in their living rooms, fairy houses in the backyard, castles built out of refrigerator boxes, blocks and Lego creations, cardboard arcades built, time spent running from dragons, swimming with mermaids or whatever else their imagination created for them – and hours of talk with family members who not only ask questions but stop to really listen to what their young children have to say, wonder about, dream up and talk about. But the reality is that many of our kids don’t. So that’s my job. I want kindergarten to be a time for my students to hear hundreds of amazing books read aloud, to play for hours with things that interest them and with their own imaginations and to have lots and lots of time to talk and to listen, to talk and to be listened to.

Of course there are many other things that I rank with high importance as well, but my top 3…read, play and talk. Those are the things I wish all new parents knew about and made a priority for their child’s learning and development.

And the things I wish all early childhood classrooms provided for their young learners.

What are your 3 things ?

Literature Circles Continued

If you saw my post the other day, you’ll remember that I’ve been thinking a lot about literature circles or book clubs lately.  We can teach children to facilitate their own discussion groups.  I especially like to see these happening in grades 3-8, but I’ve also seen them work well in grade 2.

You might want to pick up a professional book on the topic this summer. Here are a few I’d suggest:

Harvey Daniels, Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs or Reading Groups, Stenhouse, 2002.

Harvey Daniels (or Smokey as he’s known to his friends) is probably the person most responsible for getting many teachers to think about literature circles.  In this second edition he clears up the confusion about “role sheets.”  In some classrooms, he says, they became “a hindrance, an obstacle, a drain.”  He explains that the roles are “intermediate support structures” and that each role was designed to “support collaborative learning by giving kids clearly defined, interlocking, and open-ended tasks.” In this text he moves from role sheets to a training process.  On pages 55-71 he gives four training options.

Jeni Day, et. al., Moving Forward with Literature Circles, Scholastic, 2002.

This book will really help you begin the year with careful practice of discussion groups.  The authors help you map out a way to begin with whole group read alouds and practice different ways of talking about text before moving students into running their own groups. The lists of prompts to get discussions going on various topics will be helpful to novice teachers.

Kathy Collins, Reading for Real: Teaching Students to Read with Power, Intention, and Joy in K-3 Classrooms, Stenhouse, 2008.

Although Collins is not talking about literature circles, she does use reading partnerships. The partnerships are student-led discussions and are meant to support students as they delve deeper into texts. The two members of the partnership read the same book or books by the same author and then “grow ideas” together about their book, characters, series, author, and so on.  Collins has the partners fill out a “Reading Partnership Contract” (an adaptation for book club members would be easy.)  Their contract begins, “We will try our best to work well together to help each other become stronger readers, thinkers, and talkers. Here is a list of things we will do as partners (book club members) that will help us do our best work together.” Then the students create a list and sign their contract.

Other ideas from Collins’ book involve the T-charts she often uses. For NonFiction reading:

Column 1: What we noticed, learned, and found in the text.

Column 2: What it makes us think, wonder, and question.

Or if students are reading fiction, make a T-chart about characters:

Column 1: What we noticed about our character.

Column 2: What ideas we grew about our character from the things we noticed.

Comprehension Through Conversation, Heinemann, 2006

Maria Nichols has two wonderful books out – Talking about Texts, Shell Education, 2008 and Comprehension Through Conversation, Heinemann, 2006. Both texts will help you teach children about what good literature conversations look like and sound like.

Shelley Harwayne, Lasting Impressions, Heinemann, 1992.

This book is probably already on your shelf! Has it really been 20 years since I first read this book??? Consider rereading the first four chapters. Even though it’s mostly about writing, the reading connection is so profound.  She opens the year by encouraging kids to respond to great literature and poetry.  Again, literature circles are not mentioned specifically, but the idea of teaching kids how to delve deeply into texts is ever-present.

Please feel free to add any other ideas of professional texts, blogs, or articles that relate to implementing book clubs in your classrooms.

Conferring with students about their reading

I read Patrick Allen’s book Conferring:  The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop a while back, but reread it when Cathy Mere started a cyber discussion about it a few weeks ago.  Recently, I was re-skimming the last few chapters and I got inspired to want to work with upper elementary grades again.  Since retiring and moving into consulting work, I am only in a school one day a week for volunteering and research.  For the past few years I’ve always been in first or second grades supporting classroom teachers with their struggling readers.  But I’m thinking of taking a whole new direction this school year.  I love the literature that 4th and 5th graders read and I have really missed it.  Patrick’s book is so rich with scenarios of him sitting, chatting with kids, that I could feel myself right there! And I want to be there too.

I particularly like that Allen’s format of RIP (his structure for a reading conference) has three words for each part of his conferring framework. His RIP is so open and useable for any teacher to make his/her own. The “I” section can be instruction, insights, or intrigue.  And that is so true.  Sometimes it is just an insight into the child’s thinking that we make note of, sometimes we are surprised by a response given, but sometimes we need to do some hard teaching.  It is the instructional piece that concerns me the most.

In many of the examples throughout the book Allen confirms or reinforces a strategy that the child has used or he names it for the child.   One could tell that he had done incredible work at the beginning of the year to get all this going.  His students select books well and for the most part comprehend them.  But I have been in many situations (and I’m sure we can all say this) where the child doesn’t comprehend what he is reading.  The student may be in a book that is way too hard to read independently; the student might have a fluency issue; it’s possible he’s not self-monitoring; it might be that his word analysis skills are lacking; there may be unfamiliar vocabulary and she’s not sure how to use the context clues to make it make sense; it could be that the child’s mind wanders and he doesn’t have strategies to help him stay engaged with the text, or any other number of things. As Patrick said, it’s hard to make a quick analysis of what this child needs right then at that moment, but with practice we will all get better.  Our strongest teaching will come into play when the child we are conferring with is NOT understanding.  The instructional piece then means that we have to support that child as we hook him/her back to an anchor lesson or a shared demonstration lesson.

v Remember when we read that ______ article together and we all thought of some questions we had before we read.  I wonder if that will help you here.  Let’s try it together.

v It seems like there were some words in this part that you were unsure of.  Let’s go back to some of those together and I’ll show you what I might do.

v Poems say a lot in so few words.  I find I understand them better when I make pictures in my mind.  Would you like to try that with me here and see if it helps us understand this poem better?

Finding where to meet the child in his ZPD is such a challenge for all of us, but, for many struggling readers, it is during the 1:1 conferring that we can “do it together.” Vygotsky always said that the zone of proximal development is the place where the child can do it “with our help” and the conferring time is sometimes just the right moment for this specific teaching.  As Allen says “it’s hard work” and “it ain’t easy.”

In the last chapters of Allen’s text he asks us to return to our chart we made earlier about “what emerges from a reading conference?”  Luckily I had my paper stuck inside my book.  I was amazed with all I had written and was happy to reflect on it once again.  I will take my chart along with my book to school next year and see if there are 4th and 5th grade teachers who would like to explore conferring with me.  I can’t wait for the fun (and the hard, but satisfying work) to begin!

What’s RIGHT with education?

Lately there has been a lot of talk about education in the news. Unfortunately, it seems to be a lot of talk about what’s wrong with education and how we can fix it. We’d like to take a minute to share our list of what’s right with education. What does it look like when things are going well? What are the signs that a school or a classroom doesn’t need to be “fixed?”

Here are a few of our thoughts.

1.  Teachers are smiling.

We’re not just talking about the “nice to meet you smiles,” but the genuine “I love my job” smiles. Those authentic smiles to kids, parents and colleagues in the hallways, classrooms and teacher’s lounges are signs that teachers love what they do. Teachers smile a lot more when they are respected, trusted, encouraged and celebrated.  A school most likely doesn’t need to be fixed when the teachers are happy.

2.  Kids are smiling.

We want our kids to love learning, love school, enjoy what they are doing, and feel valued as contributing members of the classroom community. It’s our job as teachers to make sure we’ve created the environment for this to happen.  Kids smile when they have choice in what they read and write, when they are listened to and respected, and when they are encouraged to do their best. A school most likely doesn’t need to be fixed when the kids are happy.

3.  Kids are reading and writing daily and growing as literate beings.

A school that is working well has kids engaged in daily, meaningful literacy work. Kids have ownership of their reading and writing and are given sufficient time each day to practice.  Kids aren’t doing mindless worksheets or isolated activities just to have something to turn in to the teacher.  Rather, they are being treated as real readers and writers in the world.  Their teachers are supporting them and helping them grow into proficient readers and writers.  That growth is measured in multiple ways, not just with test scores. A school most likely doesn’t need to be fixed when kids are engaged in meaningful literacy work.

4.  It is noisy.

We’re not talking about just random noise, but purposeful, meaningful literacy talk. Kids should be talking about their reading and writing daily. Literacy is social and kids (and adults) need time to talk in order to construct meaning and see the purpose that literacy has in their lives. A school most likely doesn’t need to be fixed when kids are talking about their thinking, their learning and their literate lives.

5 .  More teaching than testing is going on.

Teachers need to be interacting with and responding to the students in their classrooms.  Time is spent constructing the curriculum, choosing the read alouds, planning instruction, meeting with children to talk about their reading and writing, and assessing students based on their specific needs as learners.  A school most likely doesn’t need to be fixed when teachers are teaching and not just testing.

What else is happening in schools and classrooms that don’t need to be fixed?  We look forward to your thoughts!