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    Marking Text With Special Education Students: Ditch the Tech

    By Jonathan Pickles
     | Oct 30, 2018

    Marking TextLet me begin by saying that I embrace technology in my sixth-grade language arts classroom, but there are times when tried-and-true methods, however archaic or old school they may seem, are the best tools for the task at hand.

    It’s easy to feel pressured by the technology tide that is rolling through the academic world; I have many colleagues who feel guilty when they assign a worksheet or ask their students to complete a workbook activity. Truth be told, in the spirit of differentiating instruction for all students, there are situations where that mimeographed exercise from 1979 is the best tool for a particular student at a particular time.

    I encourage you to ditch the tech and try a timeless technique that has endured since the first word was printed on a page: marking text. I’m referring to annotation, or writing in the margins of books.

    Readers across time and across the world have read with a pen or pencil in hand, ready to mark an important paragraph or scribble their innermost thoughts in response to a relevant passage.

    Low-skilled readers often have difficulty in establishing a purpose for reading. If they are compliant, they may want to please the teacher and search through literary or informational text to find an “answer.” If this is the case, they can’t see the forest for the trees. Conversely, if they are prompted to find the “big idea” or “message,” they won’t see the trees for the forest.

    This is especially true of my special education students, who, although willing to please and work hard for the most part, often miss out on the journey and the simple joys of reading. This leads to frustration and confusion, which quenches their spirits and quashes any chance of developing a growth mind-set. As such, they have had limited success in building their language arts skills.

    Low-skilled readers need to know that their reading reactions may matter more than finding the answer or message in a text. Students can begin annotating right away. Try this: Ask your students to help you make a list of possible emotional reactions a reader might have while reading. A reader might be amused or angry. Perhaps they agree or disagree strongly with a passage. Maybe they despise or love a certain character in a story or are surprised by the thrust of a news article.

    After you and your students have a list of reactions, assign a simple icon to each. For example, to mark agreement, use a check mark. To note disagreement, make an X. Use emojis where possible, as your students are most definitely familiar with them. A happy face can note amusement.

    If the students own the books or texts that they are reading, they can annotate directly—mark a passage, draw the icon or emoji, and write a few words about why they had a particular reaction. If they do not own the texts, simply do this on a sticky note and affix it to the relevant passage.

    Students can share their reactions with seat partners. They can use their annotations in literature circles or reading groups. Probe the readers as to why they reacted a certain way and celebrate differences. Draw their attention to the reading journey itself.

    Your students will have had a positive reading experience, which is a success in and of itself. This will boost engagement immediately and reap rewards beyond what you might have expected. And the only technology you will have used is the printed page.

    Jonathan Pickles has taught language arts at the middle and secondary levels for more than 20 years. He has worked in both public and private schools in California, Connecticut, and New York. Jonathan currently resides in Dutchess County’s gorgeous Hudson Valley with his wife, daughters, cats, dogs, and one very lucky goldfish. For more, visit

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    Out of the Classroom and Into the Office

    By Nancy Veatch
     | Oct 26, 2018

    Out of the Classroom I wandered from room to room on the first day of school, feeling a bit lost without my own group of students to teach. I observed kindergartners as they wholeheartedly tried to listen to their energetic new teacher read a story aloud. I progressed to the other side of the building where seventh and eighth graders sat in a circle discussed their summers under the guidance of their industrious teacher, who ensured equity of voice.

    No matter which room I entered, literacy instruction was happening, and I felt at a loss for how I could help provide authentic literacy opportunities for students now that I was out of the classroom and in my office serving as the principal and assistant superintendent of educational services for the district.

    But physically leaving the classroom and moving into an administrative role does not mean the end of guiding instruction. Rather, it’s an opportunity to support more teachers and students. However, I’ve learned that leaders must be mindful of several practices as they transition into an expanded role.

    You can be everywhere, be nowhere, and accomplish nothing

    I am confident that this feeling of aimlessness is familiar to other leaders who have transitioned into an administrative role from working 180 days a year providing instruction for students. On that first day of school, I spent the entire day  assisting in classrooms, helping serve lunch, meeting with parents, supervising recess, and checking in with students. By that evening, I confirmed that this was an absurd way for me to spend my time; I had burned an entire day. All the teachers and staff were fully qualified to instruct and provide services for these students. I had spent the day being present everywhere, but actually being nowhere, and at the end of the day I had accomplished nothing.

    No leader will be productive in his or her role unless he or she makes a balanced, intentional plan to support the teachers and students on a daily basis. Effective leaders must schedule a specific time each day to visit classrooms and check in with teachers, as teachers need to know leaders are present, involved, and supportive of their efforts. Additionally, leaders must devote periods of the day to ensuring that the management and leadership of the school are attended to with a focus on helping the system move forward.

    Don’t forget what it feels like to be a teacher

    I believe that teaching is the most rewarding occupation that exists. Teachers are responsible for helping children to develop the skills they need to become productive citizens who will make a difference in the world. It can be hard, exhausting work, riddled with challenges that can come from addressing varied groups of students with unique needs, but anyone who has witnessed a child begin to read knows that it is well worth the effort.

    Teachers need support in their work with students as they strive to meet their academic, social–emotional, and physical needs and challenges. This does not equate to the leader doing the work for the teachers but, rather, the leader providing the teachers with opportunities to expand their own professional learning so that they can most effectively attend to their students’ needs. It also includes empowering teachers by providing them with the space to exercise their teacher leader capabilities and lead initiatives. An effective leader understands and appreciates that if you grow teachers, they can excel and better serve their students and school community.

    Build reciprocal relationships based upon trust

    Years ago, I heard an insensitive administrator who I overheard criticizing what was perceived as teachers’ lack of knowledge. I was highly offended by this remark and to this day cringe whenever I hear anyone echo this sentiment. While there are consistently mounds of new initiatives and expectations placed on teachers, they are running as fast as they can to address the needs of the students before them each day. It is the leader’s responsibility to weed through this clutter and provide teachers with the guidance and information they need to adjust their instruction as the changes occur.

    Effective leaders must guide teachers in their new learning and provide continued support, affirmations, and suggestions as needed along the way. This is impossible to do unless both parties have established a reciprocal relationship based upon trust.

    Notes to self:

    • Intentionally set aside time each day to be visible and available for teachers with equal time devoted to the management and leadership of the system; don’t burn a day wandering.
    • Support and empower all teachers in their work; serve them.
    • Be the master teacher you wish you had.

    The world of education often is so harried and scattered, but it does not need to be. By leading with intention and focusing on priorities, school leaders who work outside of the classroom can ensure they are growing teachers who can provide quality authentic literacy and learning experiences for all the students they serve.

    Nancy Veatch is assistant superintendent of educational services and principal at Bend Elementary School.

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    When Collaborative Professional Learning Influences Curriculum, Part 2: The Process of Curricular Improvement

    By Christina Dobbs and Jacy Ippolito
     | Oct 23, 2018

    Collaborative PLThis is the second installment of a two-part blog series about a standout school teacher collaboration around disciplinary literacy and citizenship, as an instructional focus. Read Part 1, A Case of Disciplinary Literacy Professional Learning and Instruction, here.

    The Baker team began by identifying a time of year when they could potentially pilot a bounded, interdisciplinary project. In this way, the team created a pilot space in which they could rapidly shape and redesign curriculum, without having to necessarily disturb entire curricula across multiple content areas. The team identified a week between other units of instruction and considered learning goals that seemed to cut across disciplines. This process led to rich conversations about the discipline-specific and interdisciplinary skills they would like to see students build more fully and that they’d like to provide more instruction around.

    Choose shared literacy skills that are important across the curriculum

    Next, the Baker team deeply considered their students’ reading and writing engagement as an area they’d like to improve. One key goal they set was to provide highly engaging experiences that were interdisciplinary so that students could feel a sense of authentic reasons for learning and connectedness to their own literacy skills. They also wanted students to do more “response writing” to capture their experiences. Finally, they wished to include the notion of multiple texts, which we had learned about in workshops together, to help students achieve some of these goals. Then, the team identified a central “habit of mind” that might help students focus and deepen their learning. The team identified citizenship as a key focus area, a unifying concept that linked multiple disciplinary skills and disparate content and experiences. By choosing a bounded space and timeframe and an interdisciplinary focus with these practices, the team created a clear experimental space within which to try out newly adapted and adopted disciplinary literacy instructional practices.

    Plan instruction for the bounded space

    The team at Baker created a set of multimodal texts designed to emphasize national and local ideas of citizenship, including reflective writing tasks to accompany the texts and experiences. The team elected to do a few small readings on the topic, to take students to participate in a local mock Senate experience, to view the film Hidden Figures, and to volunteer at a local charity. They conceived of these tasks because they emphasized various content disciplines and related skills within those disciplines. The governance skills in the mock Senate experience related to the habits of mind promoted in the social studies curriculum, the Hidden Figures film furthered math and science habits of mind, and so on. Ultimately, the team considered how to connect teachers’ and students’ experiences across these tasks to really deepen students’ collective understanding of citizenship and to see what would happen to students’ reading and writing engagement as a result.

    Collect information about what happens in the pilot space

    The team was then able, within this bounded and shared pilot space, to consider how students reacted to these practices and whether reading and writing engagement seemed to improve and whether multiple texts seemed to help hone student learning. They carefully observed students in the variety of spaces they had created during their week, and they collected work products from the week to determine what students had learned. Of course, the team found some positive results of their approach and some areas they would like to improve. For instance, they found high levels of engagement with many of the ideas presented in the multimodal text set. As a result of working with the text set, the team felt that students really learned and deepened their idea of what citizenship means. They also found some lovely facets of the reflective writing they had asked students to do, as students found space to discuss their feelings about their learning. However, they also felt that adding more structure and guidelines to the writing process might improve the experience in the future.

    Plan for the future and for curricula in the disciplines

    The team then took what they had learned in their pilot space to plan for subsequent learning. The team first elected that they’d like to continue Citizenship Week as a tradition because of its many opportunities to work in interdisciplinary ways, to pilot new practices, and to provide meaningful connections between disciplines for students. More broadly speaking, though, the team’s discussion had bigger implications for curricula improvement. They began to identify pilot practices from their Citizenship Week that they wished to implement in individual disciplines and across them. Multiple texts and text sets were a structure that they felt had promise for various disciplinary classes for eighth graders, and they immediately began planning to implement new text sets in their individual curricula.

    Collect and reflect on the instruction outside the pilot space and make recommendations about what is working

    Finally, the team tried out the practices in their own curricular spaces (and sometimes across them) to keep considering how students literacy skills might be improved. These practices are now becoming more widely spread across grades and are a topic of conversation for adoption schoolwide.

    Reflecting on this pilot space process for curricular improvement

    As outside consultants to this project, we were excited by this approach and by the teachers’ confidence in and agreement about the practices they wanted to pilot in their various disciplinary curricula. They didn’t all implement the same practices in exactly the same ways, but they had a plan in place about who would do what and a theory of change about what they’d like to improve.

    In our experience, interdisciplinary teams can struggle to reach this point—the point where team members are teaching their own curricula but still have a cohesive vision for improvement around literacy instruction across and within individual disciplines. We truly feel it was the pilot space that allowed this theory of action around improvement to be formed. Because the team carved out a space to experience the practices together, they were able to have a real shared curricular knowledge base to draw from as they considered potential changes.

    One clear advantage of interdisciplinary teams who share students is an ability to delve deeply into students’ individual needs and to consider serving them well. But these configurations can create curricular challenges as teams consist of teams that don’t tend to share curricula. This can make curricular improvement challenging as teachers can face demands for improvement without any collaborators specific to their own disciplines and particular curricula.

    Some schools and districts have approached this by connecting math teachers, for example, across the building or across schools. But this team’s inquiry learning together presents an interesting model for curricular improvement on a true interdisciplinary team that can lead to curricula improvement and interdisciplinary synergy.

    The teachers at the heart of this story are Jacqueline Hallo, Christina Collins, Sheila Jaung, Pamela Penwarden, John Padula, and Marisa Ricci, who are all educators at the Edith C. Baker School in Brookline, Massachusetts.

    Christina L. Dobbs is program director and assistant professor of English education at Boston University. 

    Jacy Ippolito is an associate professor and department chair of the Secondary and Higher Education Department for the School of Education at Salem State University in Massachusetts.

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    Just Pick Anything

    By Julie Scullen
     | Oct 11, 2018
    Just Pick Anything

    “Just pick anything, it doesn't matter.”

    I was standing in the stacks of the middle school library, filling a cart with books I would share with students throughout the day during book talks. I had been granted the tremendous honor of sharing the books I love with students. As always, it felt as though I was pulling my friends from these shelves. I pulled some old favorites, some graphic novels, some adventures, some classics, some mysteries, some books with great opening lines, and some with surprise endings. I even singled out books representing the first in a series in order to provide students with an opportunity to continue adventures with familiar characters and settings.

    As I stood, I heard a conversation between two students in the next aisle.

    “Hey, are there any good books in here?”

    “Where, here? I don’t know. I guess.”

    “We’ve already been here too long, she’s going to be mad when we go back.”

    “Yeah, right. Just pick anything, it doesn’t matter.”

    I stood there, frozen, books in hand, disappointed at being powerless to make things different. I wanted to run after these two boys and haul them back to the stacks. Instead, I considered what I could learn from their conversation.

    These dormant readers were standing in front of shelves at least six feet high and 15 feet long, full of books carefully chosen for them, but they were staring blankly at book spines. Lost. They didn’t think it mattered.

    I wondered to myself: What if? What if something simple could prevent this scenario from happening tomorrow or in the next hour? What could we do to stop students from declaring in frustration, “Just pick anything, it doesn’t matter”?

    As teachers, we all want our students to have engaging reading material. We all want our students to have a book in their hand and “next book” on their mind. Unfortunately, we also know our ability to inspire readers can become lost in the push for coverage and the constant battle for instructional time.

    This was still on my mind when I heard the amazing Cornelius Minor speak to a group of literacy leaders at a Leadership in Reading Network event. He challenged every educator in the room to find small ways to experiment within classrooms and find evidence to grow an idea. His call to action was reasonable: Make a small change and try it for five days. Just five days. Five days is brief enough to be manageable, but long enough to see incremental results.

    Here is a potential five-day challenge. Each class day, for one week, do one of these two things:

    • Pull a book off the classroom or school library shelf (a lack of classroom libraries is a column for another day) and read aloud the back cover and, time permitting, the first few pages to your students. Don’t worry if you haven’t read it beforehand. Don’t turn this into a lesson or make it a teachable moment. Don’t oversell it. Don’t spend a great deal of time contemplating who might like this book. Just share it. Then leave that book on the ledge in the front of the room and begin class. If it disappears or is checked out, pat yourself on the back and offer up another book the next hour.
    • Set a timer for three minutes. Student may use that three minutes to talk to their peers about a text they are currently reading, or one they have read and enjoyed in the past. Don’t grade these discussions. Don’t critique their choices. Don’t insist on a particular format. Just let them talk. Start or end class this way, or perhaps use this time as a brain break in the middle of a long lesson.

    That’s it.

    If those five days go well, have students start a list on a sheet of paper, a designated place in their notebook, or even an index card. Ask them to write down books and authors they might like to read, because what they want to read matters. Then invite students to add what has been shared with them to their list. Remind them to bring the list on their next visit to the library.

    As a teacher, you don’t have to be a voracious reader of children’s literature to make it work. You don’t need to give up a great deal of class time. I’m speculating even three minutes a day will make a difference.

    As teachers, we have incredible power to inspire. We have the power to show students their reading choices matter. Five days may be the beginning of a new classroom habit. In any case, in those five days, someone in each classroom will be inspired to read something new. And that matters.

    Julie Scullen, an ILA member since 2005, is a teaching and learning specialist for secondary reading in Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She teaches graduate courses at Hamline University in St. Paul in literacy leadership and coaching, disciplinary literacy, critical literacy, and reading assessment and evaluation.

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    Resources for World Teachers' Day

    By Alina O'Donnell
     | Oct 04, 2018

    World Teacher's DayCelebrated annually on October 5, World Teachers' Day marks not only a time to celebrate the contributions of teachers on a global scale, but also to recognize and mobilize around the challenges facing them every day.

    This year’s theme, which highlights the invaluable role of teachers in fulfilling the fundamental right to education, reminds us that we cannot realize our goal of literacy for all without teachers who come through high-quality preparation programs and are given meaningful professional learning opportunities and experiences on an ongoing basis.

    Here are five key resources for developing prepared and motivated teachers:

    • Standards for the Preparation of Literacy Professionals 2017 are the first-ever set of national standards guiding the preparation of literacy professionals. Drafted by a team of 28 literacy experts from across the United States, the updated standards describe the characteristics of effective literacy professional preparation programs, integrating research-based promising practices, professional wisdom, and feedback from expert stakeholders during public comment periods.
    • In addition to setting the standards, ILA, convened a task force charged to review and analyze the research on teacher preparation for literacy instruction. This joint effort with along with the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), produced a research advisory, that discusses common features of successful teacher prep programs.
    • Democratizing Professional Growth With Teachers: From Development to Learning reimagines a more “democratic” model of professional learning that allows educators to participate in its planning and implementation.  
    • Personalized Professional Development: At the Center of Your Own Learning,” a Literacy Daily blog post, discusses the value and practical applications of professional learning networks.
    • Teaching Tolerance provides a range of instruction, teacher leadership, school climate, and other resources that help educators shape their schools into strong, equitable communities.

    Alina O’Donnell is the communications strategist at ILA and the editor of Literacy Daily.

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