Fidelity vs. Thoughtfulness

img_9986 We live in a time right now when professional resources are abundant. We have endless access to lesson plans, problem based learning projects, activities, ideas, blog posts, professional books, teachers sharing with teachers, curriculum guides, programs, etc… I can Google any topic and find a wealth of resources. Teachers are not at a loss for what to teach and ideas for how to teach it. But there’s something that I keep coming back to:

Are we being thoughtful with what and how we teach?

There are now scripts written out for literacy workshops, charts to copy or simply post, literacy “cookbooks” of sorts with specific lessons for exactly what your students might need and other resources to make our lives easier and to save time. These are good things, for the most part. Don’t get me wrong. They are based in research, carefully thought out by expert educators who know how kids learn best, tested in real classrooms with real kids. I own most of these resources and use them as I plan – (as a resource, not as a script). And these are WAY better than any basal textbook series I’ve ever seen. These resources have definitely lifted the quality of literacy instruction in many schools. They’ve provided a scaffold for implementing literacy workshops.

But are we thinking deeply about the kids we are teaching? 

img_0082Years ago while teaching in Florida I was at a required basal textbook training for a series my county had just adopted. The representative said, “Look! Everything is written out for you. Even the teachable moments. You don’t even have to think!” And that’s when I walked out of the meeting. I didn’t go into teaching to not think. And I value my profession way more than to accept the idea that it would be a good thing if I didn’t have to think. It’s offensive and degrading to be told you don’t have to think.

It’s easy to flip open a book and have your lesson plan written out for you and ready to go. And chances are, with many of these resources, you would be teaching a good lesson. We get ideas from each other – that’s what teachers do. We don’t have to constantly recreate the wheel.  But I hope that we are still thinking. And reflecting. And connecting with OUR kids – the ones sitting with us in our classrooms at this very moment. I hope we are not taking exactly what’s handed to us and teaching it blindly because we were told to “teach with fidelity”. We need to think and question. We need to teach our kids to think and question. We need to continue learning as teachers and understand the WHY behind what we are doing. We need to be responsive and reflective as teachers.

img_0081A teacher leader in my county once helped me reflect on the idea of fidelity vs. thoughtfulness. I keep coming back to that. Perhaps we need to be implementing new structures, programs, etc. with “thoughtfulness”, rather than “fidelity”. We need to look at the programs, curriculums and expectations our district and administration give us with a critical eye. We need to be very careful with resources we find online. We need to tweak the “recipes” in these literacy “cookbooks” to meet the needs of our students. We need to use the pre-printed anchor charts as a temporary scaffold for us as teachers – and replace them with kid pictures and drawings and our own students’ words as soon as we feel solid in that teaching.  We need to deconstruct these things together with our team, be thoughtful in our implementation, question and reflect on what works and what doesn’t.  As one of my former principals always says, “the answer is in the room”.  Talk, reflect and think together – don’t just blindly follow something from outside. We need to use the abundance of resources we have as departure points to launch our own best teaching. We need to keep talking, questioning and thinking with our team and on our own.  As I’ve said before, we teach children, not curriculum, programs or standards.

Be thoughtful. Question. Be willing to change your thinking.  And as Lucy Calkins once wrote in my copy of The Art of Teaching Writing, 

“Be a brave learner. Be brave enough to outgrow your own best teaching.”


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.

2016-01-20 10.28.07

A project coming to life in Writer’s Workshop.









Leveled Books – Questioning our Practice

2015-09-29 10.30.25

Do your students know their reading level? Why? Why not?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about leveled texts and their purpose and place in the classroom. Thanks to Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell for designing a text gradient based on Reading Recovery levels, teachers have strong support and guidance when they are matching books to readers. But the level of text is only one thing we can use as a resource when making decisions. We also need to know about the child’s interests, strengths and weaknesses,  what strategic actions they are using, how they are constructing a reading processing system, etc… But I am concerned how these levels are being used in classrooms across the country. Fountas and Pinnell intended for levels to be used by teachers, as a way to help teachers analyze texts and select “just-right” books for small-group reading instruction and as a support for teachers to guide readers in choosing books. They never intended levels to be used by students. The levels on books are for teachers, not students.

“We do not recommend that students use the levels of a gradient to choose books for independent reading. The levels should be very unobtrusive (if not totally invisible) in your classroom. Students need to learn how to choose books based on their own assessment of readability, interesting topics or plots, favorite authors, and general appeal. You can teach students how to assess the appropriateness of texts they find interesting for their present reading levels.”  

-Fountas and Pinnell, Teaching for Comprehending and Fluency, page 152.

I started thinking about teaching independence and how that connects to this quote. If our goal is to teach children to be independent, self-motivated, voracious readers – then aren’t we doing them a disservice by labeling books in our classroom with levels? This is going to encourage mindlessly choosing a book because “it’s a J” – not looking and thinking if it’s a good match. I think teachers have to teach children how to choose just-right books for themselves, not teach children to rely on a leveling system.  I’m very concerned about the authenticity of teaching children to use the level of a book as a guiding factor. What happens when that child goes to the book fair, the public library, the bookstore or to a pile of books at a yard sale? Real readers in the real world don’t use a level to choose their books.  If children have access to lots of books that are “just right” from guided reading and conferences – carefully selected by teachers for that student – and teachers are teaching kids what makes a “just right” book, then shouldn’t we be giving them the opportunity to practice this when choosing books from the classroom library, the public library, a bookstore or when out with their families? We want to create real world readers who can assess whether a book will be a good choice independently.

What happens when children are told their level? Often times that becomes the way a child defines himself as a reader – bragging “I’m a level M.” or, with head hung low, “I’m only a level E.” How do you define yourself as a reader? What would your answer be if someone asked you, “what kind of reader are you?” I would guess that no adult is going to identify herself as a level.  I want my kids to say things like, “I’m a reader who loves Mo Willems, who likes to read books that are about real things and who can’t wait to see what new books arrived at the library.” Perhaps asking your students this question might give you some insight into what kind of readers they are becoming. Do we want kids who can identify what kind of reader they are or who can tell us what level they are?

Another thing that I’ve seen is a high level of competition and comparing in classrooms where children know their levels. Instead of clamoring to read the new Mo Willems book, or an enticing picture book displayed at the library, children quickly dismiss books if they are not on their level and start to look down on children who are at a lower level. At the other end, I’ve seen strong readers held back by their level – being made to stay at a level when they can really take on much more challenging and interesting texts because they’ve been identified at a level lower than where they are really reading.  That level becomes part of the readers’ identity. Kids are ashamed to be reading at a level that is not associated with that grade level. The focus becomes all about a level instead of about reading, books, authors, genres, series books, or fabulous illustrations. When I sit down to confer with a child I never want the focus to be on what level we are aiming for. Do I have that in my head as a teacher? Of course. It’s a tool I use as a teacher. But I want children to be working on their reading and setting goals relating to thinking deeply about texts, authors, genres, a variety of topics, talking about reading with others, enjoying reading and creating a reading processing system that helps them in becoming fluent, flexible, strong readers. I don’t want their goal to be moving to the next level.

What happens when parents are told the level that their child is reading? Most parents have no idea what a “level J” book means. I’m concerned that this is making school reading and real world reading two different things. It’s creating a gap comparable to when we teach young children to use words like “schema” and “metacognition” – parents are mystified as to how reading instruction is happening.  Parents may start to compare their child with others in the neighborhood, or try to push reading books at a much higher level than that child can handle at the moment. What if, instead of sharing a child’s reading level at conferences, teachers showed families examples of books where that child is reading now, and examples of benchmark texts for where we are heading? This helps families understand what their child is working on and helps them understand much more than a “level J” text.

So do my students know their reading level? No. These are a few reasons why. But are leveled books important? YES! Check back for Part II tomorrow when I will post on how I use leveled texts in my classroom as an important tool for teachers.

I would love any thoughts on this post. I realize this may leave some people uncomfortable or unsure or questioning our practice. But isn’t that what we want to do as educators? I invite you to ask yourself, your team and your school “how are we using leveled texts, and why?” As Lucy Calkins wrote in my The Art of Teaching Writing book many years ago, “be brave enough to outgrow your own best teaching”. Questioning and challenging how levels are being used, and what messages we are sending, might be an area where we need to be brave.

On mentors

MentoringHands-0A mentor is defined as someone who guides another to greater success. I’m mentoring a new-to-kindergarten teacher this year, and it has caused me to reflect on who my mentors are. Of course, I could list so many of the authors of the books that line my walls – Nancie Atwell, Katie Wood Ray, Lucy Calkins, Donald Graves, Dick Allington, Ken and Yetta Goodman, Marie Clay, Debbie Miller, Steph Harvey and Anne Goudvis – just to name a few.  We all have those mentors. The people we get excited to see in person at NCTE or IRA, the authors we wait in line for the chance to speak a word or two, the authors whose voices echo in our mind as we teach every day.

But as I reflected on this, I started thinking of the teachers I have taught with throughout the years. Teachers I have worked with who were in their first year or their twentieth have made an impact on my teaching to this day. I fear that we are entering an age of teaching where collaboration and sharing are discouraged. Stories of competition between teachers in the name of test scores frighten me. (for many reasons) Teaching can be a lonely profession. We can easily be isolated in our classrooms. Sharing and learning from our colleagues is so important and sometimes the littlest thing can stick with that teacher across the hall forever.

I want to thank a few of my teaching mentors I think about daily. You’ve given me ideas and inspiration that I carry into my classroom every day. I realize the danger of doing a post like this – I’m sure I will leave someone out. And really, everyone who I’ve had the privilege of teaching with has impacted me in some way. Thanks to Zoya Bankley Lucas, I still hand out “love notes” – tiny pieces of paper with fun messages – to my kids every day as we say good-bye for the day.  Christy Thompson, Sam Straker, and Susan Cox are my inspirations for creating community in my classroom. They have taught me so much about honoring and respecting children and listening to them. I can hear their voices every day as I interact with my kindergarteners. Julie King taught me how important enthusiasm and patience are in a classroom. The joy she showed for her job and students, even in the face of challenges and frustration, is something I think of often when faced with difficulties. Pat Johnson’s voice comes to me often as I work with my young readers and writers. “What would Aunt Pat do?” is a thought I have at least once a day. Rosary Lalik and my cohort for the Literacy Studies master’s program at Virginia Tech truly transformed who I am as a teacher. Your voices blend into a symphony of support and encouragement to challenge me to think outside the status quo and always question and speak up for what is right for children. You help me be brave in my teaching. Melanie Rick taught me so much about arts integration. The lessons we planned and taught together help me every year as I integrate the arts into my teaching. Ann Mabry has helped me achieve balance in my life. I learned that I could be a good teacher and have a rich life outside of school through her. Kassia Omohundro Wedekind, Jessica Shumway, Debbie Gates and Michelle Gale, you have taught me to love teaching math. You come into my math workshop with me every day and help bring excitement, inquiry and fun to math. Shannon Christie, Lauren Price and Althea Greenstone make up my current kindergarten team. I learn from each of you and feel so grateful to be a part of a team who shares a common, child-centered philosophy and love for teaching kindergarten.

Thank you all.

Who are your teaching mentors? Who can you thank today for making you a better teacher?


Our Virginia Tech Literacy Studies cohort

Be the Change – Reflections on #NCTE12

I just spent four days in Las Vegas at the NCTE annual conference engaging, learning and sharing with some of the most amazing educators on the planet. My head is spinning, my brain is full, and I cannot wait to get back in my classroom tomorrow. I have many thoughts to reflect on and share in upcoming blog posts, but for now, all I can think of is how lucky I am to be a teacher. The last four days reminded me of how much hope, possibility, passion and love there is in education. It is so easy to get bogged down in the day to day struggles, the isolation that can occur in our profession, the frustration from policies, standards, inequities, injustices and the overall feeling that teaching is being disrespected as a profession. But spending the last four days with thousands of educators who took time off school, flew across the country, many (if not most) on their own dime, prepared presentations to share the joyful work they are doing with students, and engaged in dialogue about making the world a better place through teaching, reminded me just how committed teachers are.

We can make a difference. And we are. Let’s keep the conversations that began at NCTE going, and let’s invite others in. Twitter is a fabulous place to see what was shared and discussed at NCTE (#NCTE12), and I’m sure there will be many, many blog posts, articles and even books that come out of the networking, conversations and pure possibility that occurred in Las Vegas. There are many teachers all over this country doing amazing work with children – engaging them in pursuing their passions, collaborating all over the globe, supporting them in making sense of struggle and injustices in our world while encouraging them to take action and teaching them that their words are power and that their voices matter.

It’s truly a great time to be a teacher. And as Mahatma Gandhi said, “be the change you wish to see in the world.”

What change will YOU be?

We Teach Children

I just finished a week of preservice days – our children arrive on Tuesday. The week was a busy whirlwind of meetings, setting up the classroom, thinking through the first days and reconnecting with colleagues after summer vacation. As I left school on Friday I was reflecting on the week when I realized how inspired, energized and excited I am about the upcoming year. Our administration planned a wonderful week of meetings and activities that focused on creating community. We did not discuss test scores, school improvement plans or data. We spent time connecting with each other, exploring our strengths individually and as a team, and creating a shared vision for what the school year will bring and for the community we will all live in for at least 8 hours every day. There is plenty of time later to get into the scores, data and plans for the year – this week was all about creating that foundation that will allow us to work together as a team. It’s similar to that first week or so with our students. We have to spend time creating community, getting to know each other and making our classroom a safe space to learn. We need to go slow at first so that we can go faster later. I can’t express how much I appreciated my first week back being like that. And, yes, I do know how lucky I am. I wish everyone could experience a preservice week like that.

One of the things that I keep thinking about was something that was said during a math planning meeting. We have two new math specialists at our school so it was our first time meeting with them as a team. As we were discussing how we will go about planning instruction for our students, one of the math specialists said, “We teach children – not the standards, curriculum or tests. The children come first in our thinking and planning.” YES! This is so true. We DO teach children. We have to look at who they are as a learner, what they know, what they almost know, what they are struggling with and consider how they learn. Only after we have looked carefully at that can we consider the state standards, the textbook, the curriculum map or the information needed for the state tests. We have to put the children first.

So this year, when I am thinking, “what do I teach this week?” – my immediate answer will be “my children”. Only after I have thought about each of my learners will I look at the standards, curriculum, etc. and then decide the best way to make sure I am reaching the minds – and hearts – of the children entrusted to me every day.

Enjoy teaching children this year.

What makes you happy?

I enjoyed hearing Pat share about The Happiness Project over dinner last week, and just started reading it last night on my iPad. It got me thinking about what makes me happy in teaching. I’ve had some difficult years where it was very hard to focus on what made me happy. Years where the days that ended in tears far outweighed the days that ended with a smile. Years where I really questioned whether I could stay in this career or not. This year, in my first year teaching kindergarten, I am happier than I’ve ever been in my teaching career. On my run this evening I reflected on why – what is it that has me being so happy as a teacher right now?

1. The kids. I absolutely love my students. They are funny, sweet, caring, energetic, loud, wiggly, creative, bouncy, squirmy, fabulous, thoughtful, inquisitive, wonderful little people. They love being at school and make our classroom such a happy place for us all to be. They force me to be in the present – in the “right now” – because that’s where their world exists. They celebrate the littlest things and help me see the beauty and magic in the 1/2 inch that our plant grows overnight, the magnets in our science center, the first words they put in their books and that first book they read all by themselves. Every day has little celebrations woven throughout. Even when things get tough (and yes they do get tough, as in any classroom) we work through the problems and end up back in our happy place. They seem to get, in their 5 and 6 year old wisdom, that life is short – fix our problems quickly so we can hug and go back to play. I learn so much from my students every day.

2. My team. I work with 2 dedicated, passionate, fun teachers and 3 amazing instructional assistants, as well as a wonderful ESOL team. I feel supported, encouraged and connected unlike any year before in my teaching career. It makes all the difference when you have team members you can share with, reflect with and create with. I never realized the power of collaboration until this year. I learn from these wise educators every day.

3. My school. I feel respected as an educator and trusted to make decisions in my classroom. This is huge. I am VERY aware of how little this happens in other schools around the country. Being trusted as a knowledgeable professional in your classroom and school is empowering and motivating and something ALL teachers should have. And it can make all the difference in how happy you are at work.

4. The play. Our day is full of play. Pure play, playful learning, playful discoveries, outdoor play, dramatic play, literacy/math/science play. Purposeful play that supports children in learning and growing in a developmentally appropriate way. How can you not be happy when your day is full of play? I work hard every day. I go home utterly exhausted. But I like to think of it as playing all day, because it rarely occurs as “work”.

5. The books. Reading books to kindergarteners is pure joy. I love sharing my passion for books with my young learners. They get so excited when I introduce a new book, they love reading books by themselves and with a friend, and they love hearing books read aloud. I get to plan great books to read for our curriculum and share them with my kids. It’s really one of the best parts of my job. Helping to cultivate a love of reading and writing through complete immersion in the wonderful children’s books that are out there is a tough job. But someone has to do it. 😉 I’m so happy it gets to be me.

What makes you happy? 

How do you stay happy in the face of the many challenges facing education and educators currently?

We are Versatile Bloggers!

A huge thank you to Cathy at Reflect & Refine for nominating us for the Versatile Blogger Award! This blog has been a fun adventure to keep us writing after Catching Readers was published. After accepting this honor we are asked to:

1. Thank the person (people) who nominated you and provide a link back to their blog.                                                2. Share 7 things about you (us).                                               3. Pass this award along to 15 other blogs that you have discovered.

So here we go! Enjoy!

7 things about Pat:

1.)   I’m an avid reader of adult fiction, professional books on teaching reading and writing, and children’s literature.  (My favorite authors are Barbara Kingsolver, Geraldine Brooks, and Ann Patchett.)

2.)   I walk 4-8 miles every day for exercise.  It’s when I do most of my good thinking.

3.)   I have four grandkids, two in Virginia and two in Phoenix, and love spending tons of time with them – going to parks, reading books, or just tickling and cuddling.

4.)   I love talking with teachers, veteran and brand new, about how they can support their struggling readers, or any aspect of teaching reading and writing.

5.)   I have over 30 years experience in education, mostly as a reading teacher in elementary schools, and I’m Reading Recovery trained.

6.)   I’m a storyteller and often tell tales in my grand nieces’ and nephews’ classrooms near their birthdays.

7.)   I enjoy dancing and even have a dance named after me called “The Aunt Pat.”

7 things about Katie:

1. I have a serious book addiction. I am in constant need of 1 more bookshelf. So there are always piles of books somewhere in my house (and Amazon boxes on my front porch).

2. I love to run. I recently started running ultra marathons (distances over the 26.2 marathon) mostly on mountain trails. I love spending time playing on the trails. Most of my writing & teaching ideas happen on the trail.

3. This is my 20th year of teaching. And my first year teaching Kindergarten. I’ve taught grades 1-8 (except for 6th), and have been a literacy specialist and a librarian.

4. I LOVE LOVE LOVE teaching Kindergarten. I laugh more every day than I ever have before. I love playing with the kids, and learning so much alongside of them.

5. I’ve taught in 8 schools (ranging from 100 students to 1000 students) in 3 states (CO, FL, VA)- and I’ve always taught in a Title 1 school.

6. I taught Kelly McGillis’ daughter when I taught in Key West. She was a very cool kid.

7. Helping kids discover new things is the best part of teaching for me. Whether it’s monarch caterpillars, a fun sensory box, making books, a Pete the Cat puppet or reading a book for the first time – it’s what I love about my job.

Here are 15 blogs to recognize. Enjoy!

1. Jenny at let the children play

2. Mari-Ann at Counting Coconuts

3. Zella said purple

4. Tom at Teacher Tom

5. Sherry and Donna at Irresistable Ideas for Play Based Learning

6. MaryLea at Pink and Green Mama

7. Look at My Happy Rainbow

8. Mrs. Mimi at It’s Not All Flowers and Sausages

9. Vanessa at Pre-K Pages

10. Patrick at All-en-A-Day’s Work

11. Yo-Yo Reggio!

12. Scott at Brick by Brick

13. My Mommy Reads

14. Langwitches Blog

15. Tammy at Apples With Many Seeds

Where have all the thinkers gone?

Life consists in what a man is thinking of all day.  

                           – Ralph Waldo Emerson

So I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching lately. I tend to spend the first several weeks of summer reflecting on the past year, looking towards the upcoming year and asking myself what worked and what didn’t. I go for long runs and bike rides and think about my teaching. I surround myself with other thinkers in my life – people who are constantly asking themselves “why?”, questioning, wondering and reflecting on their own best practices.  Twitter and blogs provide another place to think and read about what other educators are thinking, and allow me to question, wonder and grow as a learner. I can’t imagine teaching any other way.

But I’m worried. I hear a lot of the conversations in the teaching world revolving around a “tell me what to do” mentality.  I’ve talked with teachers who define their literacy or math block as, “whatever the teaching manual says to do that day”.  But where are the students in this plan? We expect a teacher’s guide, a pacing guide, a list of test items and a copy of the standards and we think we’re good to go.  This is what much of education has been reduced to.  It’s the only way that many teachers know. While all of these things are important tools to have, I think educators have to be thinkers. We can’t let other people do our thinking for us. We are the ones who know our students and who must be responsive to what our students do each and every day. A pacing guide or teacher’s manual can’t possibly do this.

I was at an inservice once for a basal reading series and I was asking several questions about how this “one size fits all” program could possibly reach the needs of my students. I was doing some serious thinking and questioning about the program our county was adopting. The presenter told me, “look, it’s all right here in the teacher’s manual – even your teachable moments. You don’t even have to think!” I told him that when I stopped thinking, I would stop teaching.

In this era of standardized testing and accountability it’s even more important for us to be thinkers and to teach our students to be thinkers. While a bubble test does have a correct answer, much of life does not have a correct answer. It requires problem solving, reflecting, questioning, wondering  and lots of thinking. I want my students to be curious and thoughtful, to wonder and ask “why” as much as they can.  I want to model this by challenging (professionally, of course) questionable practices or curriculum mandates that I don’t feel are in the best interests of our students. I need to be current on best practices and solid research to support my questions and be ready to propose an alternative plan. I need to be constantly thinking and learning. Not only for me, but for all the students I teach every day.

So how do you describe yourself ? Are you a thinker or someone who reflects on his or her teaching? Do you question what is asked of you if you feel that it may not be what’s best for students?

I hope teachers are resting up this summer, reflecting on their teaching and getting ready to make next year a fabulous teaching and THINKING year! What have you been thinking about this summer? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

photo from Wikimedia Commons