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.”


What Kind of Class Do We Want?


*Update: After presenting at the WLU conference in July 2018, several people tweeted out my “Who We Are” charts. I’ve revised this previous blog post with charts from the past 3 years and updated book recommendations. Enjoy!

I love the way winter break is like pushing the reset button. I’ve enjoyed relaxed days with friends, family, books and the mountains. It’s been fabulous. It’s recharged my mind, my body and my soul. I’ve allowed myself to step away from my classroom (physically and mentally) and now I feel a renewed sense of excitement, energy and possibility as I get ready to return in a few days.

My kids and I have enjoyed 17 days off. While it’s been wonderful, I know that January 3rd is going to be like starting all over again in many ways. Seventeen days to a five and six year old is an eternity. But I love the idea of a second “first day” of sorts. It’s a chance to re-establish our community, to get to know one another again, to reteach those things that were falling apart in December and to revisit what kind of class we are. It’s like a blank slate that we can create together again.

One thing I always do that first week back is to ask my kids, “what kind of class do we want to be? What kind of community do we want to have? Who are we?” Those are big questions, but my kindergarteners never fail to think deeply, to reflect on what was working and what wasn’t, and to create a promise of sorts that guides us for the rest of the year.

We start this conversation in our morning meeting on the first day back. I take notes on chart paper as we talk and start to determine what really matters to us. We read new books and revisit old favorites that first week back and talk about what makes characters kind and likable, or unkind and unlikable, and how that might look in our classroom. We talk about what makes us special and unique and about how we are different and alike. We talk a lot about how we treat each other when we agree and when we disagree. We read books like Grumpy Bird, Each Kindness, It’s Okay to Make Mistakes – and any Todd Parr book, Red, A Crayon’s Story, I Used to Be Afraid, Walter Was Worried, The OK Book, Elephants Cannot Dance, Ish, The Invisible Boy, Have You Filled a Bucket Today?  and Last Stop on Market Street – just to name a few of our favorites. Some more favorites to add to this list are: Love, Love the World, Sparkle Boy, I Am PeaceBe KindThe Big Umbrella, In My Heart: A Book of Feelings, Brave as Can Be: A Book of Courage, All My Treasures: A Book of Joy,  The Skin You Live InJulian is a Mermaid, Why Am I Me?, I Am Enough,  She Persisted, Be Who You Are, Not Quite Narwhal, Chocolate Me!, and A Unicorn Named Sparkle. The main idea here is to determine what would make our classroom a wonderful place to be, how can we respect and celebrate each others differences, how can we live in a joyful place together, how can we make a difference  – and how can we contribute to that.

We revisit the chart daily, adding and revising our thinking. After a week or so, we create our own chart – through interactive writing – that reflects who we are in this classroom. We always display it in a prominent place so that, as one of my kids said last year, “everyone who comes in here knows that this is how they have to be. You can’t be mean and come in our room.”

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Last year’s chart as a work in progress – adding things to it as we discuss. (2016)

This document serves as a class pledge or promise for the rest of the year. We read it and use it as a tool to solve problems, resolve issues and remind us of what kind of class we are. It’s a powerful tool to come back to when the inevitable problems arise.


Last year’s  finished chart with photos! (2016)

How do you reset after a long winter break? Best wishes to everyone for a fantastic second “first day”!

Update: Here are the charts from 2017.


And here are the charts from 2018:



Teaching Students, Not the Curriculum

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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.









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“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

How do you encourage and celebrate thinking in your classroom?

Something to think about…

Think – Rethink – Layer

Recently someone asked me, “What kinds of things do you do in summer to get ready for the upcoming school year?”  I referred the person to Katie because I assumed the question meant “ideas for setting up your classroom or other things related to your organization, management, or curriculum for the next class of kids.”  Since I am no longer working full time in a school my first reaction was that I had no thoughts on the matter.  But over the past few weeks, I’ve come to realize that I do plenty in the summer to plan for the next year.  As a literacy consultant who does staff development with groups of teachers and as a volunteer who works in a school to support kids and teachers, I spend lots of time thinking, reading, rethinking, layering my knowledge base, and sometimes shifting my ideas about teaching reading, supporting children who struggle, and guiding teachers toward new understandings.

One way I do this is to read, read, read in the summer.  I read blog posts, professional books, children’s literature, and various articles referred to by colleagues on Twitter.

Here is a bit of the thinking that comes from all that reading:

1. I can’t stop reflecting on the idea of changing the way we talk to children so that they develop a sense of agency as Peter Johnston explains. He got me thinking about this with his first book, Choice Words, but took me even further with Opening Minds. He says we can support children in developing agentive narratives…. “I am a person who…” By the end of Opening Minds he gets us thinking about supporting kids’ moral compasses as they realize “I am a person who…acts when I see injustice or inequality.” But in the early chapters, Johnston shows us how to support all students, even kindergartners, as they create agentive narratives about themselves as readers and writers.  “I am a person who…. solve problems when I read; tries something and, if that doesn’t work, tries something else; goes back and rereads to keep the story in my head;  keeps checking to make sure that what I’m reading makes sense; and so on. He does this by giving us peeks into classrooms where teachers support these agentive narratives so well.  On pages 2-4, teacher Pageen loses her place during a read aloud because of an interruption.  She tells the students that she needs to go back and reread a page to remember what was going on.  Michael chimes in saying that he does that same thing.  Pageen asks him to tell the class more about that. The child describes how he does exactly what the teacher was just talking about. Later in the day the teacher attributes that idea to Michael when she mentions to the class, “Remember what Michael does when… ”  The teacher has “created a story line in which Michael was a particular kind of reader.” Michael nows owns this narrative.  He is a reader who...

2. I’ve also spent hours thinking about Barnhouse and Vinton’s idea of back door teaching — not naming a strategy for the students until they have actually experienced using it as they negotiate a text together (from What Readers Really Do.) Take character traits, for example.  How many times have we asked kids to name a trait of a particular character?  They often say, “she’s nice” or “not nice.”  To help them with better word choice, we’ve often brainstormed a list of traits for the kids to choose from and then ask them to provide evidence of why they think that trait applies. But Barnhouse/Vinton say we should help kids start with what’s in the text.  Help them learn to read carefully and notice what the character does or says.  Then ask, “what kind of person acts like that?” By doing this together, the students have actually done some inferring.  But there is no need to begin the lesson by defining or identifying “inferring” as a useful strategy.  Always begin with meaning making.

3. While reading  an article by Franki Sibberson in Choice Literacy, I got excited to share her ideas for setting up an upper elementary classroom with interactive wall displays.  She suggests a board with pictures of book characters, another with interesting/fun facts, graphs, surveys, or images; another display with word play ideas, and yet another with websites worth visiting.    She says, “Like a museum, I want the room to be filled with invitations and possibilities, with something for everyone.” I can see the kids in that room having so much to talk about and share while browsing the walls in the first few days.

4. From my reading of children’s lit, I am recommending several of my favorite chapter books to read aloud to 4th and 5th grades this year:  One for the Murphys, How to Steal a Dog, and The One and Only Ivan. Today I’m heading to a book store to look for Wonder because I loved what Katherine Sokolowski wrote about it in this week’s Choice Literacy.

What have you been thinking a lot about this summer?  

Are you changing anything next school year because of something you read or heard this summer?

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?

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