Monday, July 13, 2015

Becoming a Book Whisperer

Recently, I hosted a group of teachers from Eagle Mountain ISD at my home for a Books and Brunch. We gathered together, enjoyed a few delicious treats, and talked informally about The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller. This group was made up of teachers, literacy specialists, librarians, and graduate students. With no formal agenda, we shared our personal connections, insights, and questions. We pondered how to share our learning we others and how to apply new ideas into our classrooms. Our discussion naturally evolved into this blog post, which contains our thoughts, ideas, and reactions to the book. We all encourage you to pick up your own copy and read for yourself. The book reads as if Donalyn is just telling a story of her classroom teaching. It's both entertaining and informative. Willow Creek has ten copies waiting for you to check out in the Literacy Library. If you prefer your own copy, you can purchase on Amazon here. Read more about Donalyn Miller on her website,

Becoming a Book Whisperer


After reading this book, we all thought, "YES! That is the teacher I want to be!" In fact, one teacher admitted to being the worksheet-driven, story-a-week kind of teacher until reading this book. Others nodded in agreement because before this book, reading workshop didn't make quite so much sense. Reading workshop isn't so much about the perfect mini-lesson or unit-of-study, it's an entire framework for instruction that the teacher feels in her bones. It's the way students take responsibility for the own learning and use their classroom as a tool for learning. You know reading workshop by the feeling you get when walking into the classroom. No mini-lesson or unit-of-study can do that-- it starts with the teacher. So here's how you can be come the next book whisperer:

Understand Conditions for Learning

What I really love about Donalyn Miller is that she doesn't bog down her story with citation after citation, but she does credit those whose theories guide her practice. Brian Cambourne, an Australian researcher, identified the factors that contribute to successful learning based on years and years of observations in classrooms. These factors are vital for a motivational environment where students embrace reading. Donalyn Miller explained that without that motivational environment, her "instruction was doomed to fail" (p. 34). Cambourne's Conditions for Learning are the components that I look for as Literacy Coach in every classroom I visit. It is the basic foundation of a successful and engaging classroom. 

Cambourne's Conditions for Learning: 
1. Immersion: Children need to be surrounded by meaningful literature of all types. Classroom libraries should be flooded with various titles, levels, topics, and genres. 
2. Demonstration: Children need models and demonstrations using authentic texts to help them develop reading proficiency. 
3. Expectations: Children will rise to meet our expectations. Expect your students to read every day and they will. 
4. Responsibility: Children need the opportunity to make their own choices and take responsibility for their own learning. 
5. Employment: Children need the opportunity to apply their learning in a real and meaningful context. Each reading lesson should circle back to the child's own reading so they have time to practice those skills in an authentic context with support from the teacher.
6. Approximations: Children need the opportunity to be praised for the skills they do have and allowed time to make mistakes as they learn new skills and strive towards mastery. 
7. Response: Children need positive and immediate feedback on their reading progress.
8. Engagement: Reading must be enjoyable for students. They must be personally invested, feel successful, and comfortable taking risks. 

These Conditions for Learning lead to a successful reading classroom, however, Donalyn Miller explains that most of her efforts in planning go to #8 Engagement. We can spend all of our time crafting beautiful reading lessons, but without engagement, our lessons will usually fall short. 

Which of these Conditions for Learning guide your reading lessons? Do you spend hours, like Donalyn Miller once did, planning intricate novel units or reading plans, rather than time devoted to ensuring students are engaged in authentic texts? With a shift to focus on these Conditions for Learning, you can become a book whisperer for your students. 


Set up Reading Workshop


EMS-ISD has fully embraced the workshop model for literacy instruction but several of you have asked, what IS reading workshop? Donalyn Miller explained the key components of a reading workshop in being:
  • Time for students to read lots of books
  • Choice in reading material
  • Response to literature (through conferences, journals, discussions, or projects)
  • Community of readers where all members meaningfully contribute 
  • Established structure of specific routines and procedures for reading
Reading workshop begins with a mini-lesson focused on reading procedures, skills, or strategies, transitions to independent reading time where students read books of their choice and the teacher conferences with individual or small groups of readers, and ends with a share time where students reflect on their reading that day. Reading workshop allows the teacher to:
  • Meet with every student every week to talk about their reading
  • Pay close attention to student reading choices
  • Facilitate learning in a non-threatening way
  • Model good reading behaviors and strategies
  • Adapt lessons to individual readers and their needs
  • Create a reading community
  • Connect reading to writing and other content areas
Reading workshop is the structure that supports the ideas behind Donalyn Miller and will help you flourish as a book whisperer, too. Yes, it requires letting go of some of the control, but also requires a large amount of organization. The structure supports students in making their own choices in reading and facilitates the learning. Reading workshop allows a teacher to teach readers, not just reading curriculum. 

Donalyn Miller also suggested creating a Reading Rights with your class to hold everyone accountable for reading.  We all loved this idea and plan to incorporate it in our classrooms.


Live a Readerly Life

Donalyn Miller, along with other expects, agree that a teacher of reading must also be a reader. In order to be a book whisperer, you must enjoy reading books yourself. When you live a readerly life, you are able to pull from an abundance of experiences as a reader to share with your children. You help inspire readers because you, too, have been in their shoes (and sometimes still are!). If we ask our students to identify as readers, then we must also identify as readers. 

Donalyn Miller included this Self-Reflection Activity for Teachers. I encourage you to look closely at yourself and reflect on your own reading experiences.

  • What were your reading experiences as a child?
  • Were these positive or negative experiences for you?
  • Do you see yourself as a reader now?
  • How do you share your reading experiences-- both current experiences and those form the past-- with your students? 
  • With which group of readers in your classroom do you most identify-- the underground readers, the developing readers, or the dormant readers?
  • Who have been your role models for reading?
  • List the last five books you have read.
  • How long did it take for you to read these books?
  • Which books were read for a job or for a school-related purpose?
  • Which books were read for pleasure?
After you have reflected on these questions, I challenge you to Donalyn Miller's Reading Improvement Plan: 

  1. Commit to a certain amount of reading per day.
  2. Choose books to read that are personally interesting to you.
  3. Read more books for children. 
  4. Take recommendations from your students.
  5. Investigate recommendations from industry sources (Goodreads, Library Awards, etc.)
  6. Create your own reader's notebook.
  7. Reflect on what you are reading.

A book whisperer is a reader alongside her children. She models a readerly life and immerses herself in books along with her students. If we do not show that we are readers, how can we expect students to value reading? 

We decided to place these either outside our door or somewhere inside so the students can hold us accountable for our own reading lives. 

Provide Ample Time for Reading


If we want our students to value reading, we must provide time for them to READ! Our group spent the most time talking about this because it was the most dear to our hearts. Teachers seem to feel that when kids "just read", there is no learning going on. But the beauty of reading workshop is that you show the kids how to be deeply engaged with texts and that's exactly where the magic happens. Kids can't apply the reading strategies we teach without time to read. Reading needs to be a daily habit. This isn't a "bell ringer", "warm up", or "when you're done" habit. It's purposeful and meaningful. It's a time a day where kids hold you accountable for their time spent in their books. Without time spent reading, reading workshop will fail. Children learn to read by reading. To be a book whisperer, you must also provide time every single day for independent reading. 

Personally, I completely identify with Donalyn Miller when she says her Amazon bill is way too high and her wish list is way too full of books because she loves to read so much. This is the example we need to be for our students. If we want them to value reading, we must show them we also value reading. 


Cambourne's Conditions for Learning help us think about our classroom in a different way and re-evaluate the time spent planning. The structure of Reading Workshop helps us organize and manage our classroom in a way that supports authentic reading experiences. Living a Readerly Life models good reading behaviors for our students. Providing time in our day for reading allows our students to become proficient readers. Together, these components help you become a book whisperer just like Donalyn Miller. The beautiful story of her classroom is obtainable. It may change from year to year based on the group of students, but it is possible. Like a teacher said, "this just makes so much more sense!" Reading should be engaging and it's up to you to make it that way!

We encourage all of you to grab a copy of Donalyn Miller's book and discover ways you can create a classroom that supports readers.

Join me in two more Books & Brunch Events:
July 16: Notice and Note
July 30: Reading with Meaning

If you have any tips, questions, or just want to share how reading workshop has gone in your classroom, comment below. 

~Macie Kerbs

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Are You Missing the Shift?

This summer has not slowed down the learning for our teachers! Ms. Lowrie and Mrs. Martinez went to the Science Inquiry Institute hosted by EMS-ISD on June 16-18. Here's what they learned about incorporating inquiry into the science classroom.

Are You Missing the Shift?

“Students typically do not develop science literacy and do not understand the role and relevance of science in society.” (John Kubicek, 2005)   WOW, an unsettling statement to say to the least.  However, Science Inquiry is a pedagogy that fosters authentic science acquisition. 

What is Science Inquiry?
Science Inquiry results in students taking ownership of their learning and driving them to further investigations.  Best practices teach us that the person doing “the most talking is doing the most learning”.  Science Inquiry is the medium for learners to ask their own questions and find their own answers.  Inquiry is not difficult to implement, it is just tweaking what we as teachers already do. The key is to teach the kids how to question and how to explore the answers to those questions.

Comparing Approaches to Hands-On Science:

Model A - Teacher Led  Lesson.  The teacher gives step by step instructions and the students follow.  This leads to very little to outside discovery.  It still allows the learner to experience hands-on activities, ask questions, and acquire new information but it is controlled and confined.  There will be lessons that require this type of instruction.  However, something to keep in mind with this approach is having them create their own data table immediately increases the rigor.  It requires the learner to consider the end goal. 

Model B - Teacher-Student Lesson.  The teacher gives specifications and materials but the learners can be creative in reaching their end goal within a time limit.  It is very important that materials given be intentional toward the direction you want discovery to go.  The learners are given choices on procedures and results.  A great piece of differentiation in this approach is that giving the learners choices allows your “early finishers” options of what to do when they are done.  Just think, less “I’m done...what do I do now?” 

Model C—Student Lesson.  In this approach, which is considered a full Science Inquiry, the learner is in complete control of their learning.  The learner controls the question or problem being addressed.  They control  the procedure or aspects of the procedure.  They control the outcome.  Again, the teacher needs to be intentional with the materials given to help lead the discovery.

Two critical pieces to successful Science Inquiry are the Process Circus (Process Skills) and Raising Questions.  The two will take time to master but with practice authentic science will eventually take place effortlessly. 

Process Skills, which some teachers will chalk up as the Scientific Method, is so much more than just a plan to follow.  Not to discourage the teaching of the Scientific Method but one needs to remember science should be messy!  The method should not necessarily be practiced in a “cookie cutter” order.  Here are the process skills:

Planning & Investigating

How do the Process Skills look different when used with Science Inquiry?  Be more intentional in how you plan so that the learner has more control. Identify the science process skills by what the learners actually do when they are using the skills.

Questioning drives the investigation process!  There is definitely an art to Raising Questions and instructing learners to ask investigable questions is key to mastering a desirable learning target.  Naturally, learners will ask non-investigable questions but teachers can instruct learners how to “turn” those type of questions into investigable questions.  

Just Breathe!  Teaching through Science Inquiry is not something that happens overnight but it is a gradual process to experience Science. Start out slow, for example teach a Model A Lesson, then progress to a Model B Lesson, and lastly attempt a Model C Lesson. Another example would be to commit to teach two full Science Inquiry lessons this year and each year commit to more.  The benefits of Science Inquiry will long out last your intimidation.  

Benefits such as:
*Learners taking many different paths to learn the same science content.
*Learning in a safe learning environment because it is a learner controlled environment.
* Utilizing the pedagogy of inquiry based learning in other subjects. 

So, are you ready for the shift?  The responsibility of learning to be shifted from the teacher to the learner? 

As a guideline please consider the table when deciding the approach your lesson requires.  

For more information please see Rachel Lowrie or Destina Martinez. 

How do you plan to implement inquiry into your science classroom next year? In what ways can we incorporate these ideas in other content areas?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Growing Strategic Learners

Three of our fabulous primary teachers (Christian Salazar, Alana Eldredge, & Chelsea Barnes) attended TWU's Summer Institute on June 15 & 16. This two-day institute helped teachers find ways to grow strategic readers. Dr. Nancy Anderson, Dr. Elizabeth Kaye, and Dr. Allison Briceno were three professors who led this institute. These professors helped teachers learn how to scaffold oral language development, teach students to self-monitor, and use assessment data to guide reading instruction.Here's what our very own teachers have to share about their learning experience: 

Reading, writing, and talking are the holy trinity of a developed learner. How do we fit it all in? We already struggle to get in reading groups, daily writing, and find time for a morning message. However, we learned that reading, writing, and talking are necessary to have advanced learners that are ready to tackle the complex learning system of our elementary curriculum.

We should not weigh heavily on isolated lessons, but instead focus on pulling all three components together. Copying from the board, spelling tests, phonics in isolation are a waste of time. Instead we can get the biggest bang for our buck when we pull all three components together. In doing so, we are not only saving time but elevating student learning.

All meaningful lessons begin with conversation. Conversation should be student driven, and authentic. Teachers should prompt then listen, observe, and take notes. Students should allowed to express using age appropriate language while the teacher rephrases to expand language or enhance vocabulary.

During reading, students should be searching for information, self-monitoring, and self-correcting. In order to have confident readers, the reader must have the opportunity to search for the appropriate strategies, make an attempt, and self-monitor. The teacher’s role is to choose books on topics of interest, appropriate level of difficulty/sentence structure, provide needed information in the preview for the student success, and redirect to relate to the book.

The focus of writing should be on allowing the student to communicate and express, not grammar. There is no “right way” to write. Importance is placed on effectively communicating and relating ideas. During interactive writing, the teacher should only facilitate. The students select the topic, control the pen, and work together to problem solve. Strategies that can assist would be white boards, word walls, and anchor charts.

Teachers might introduce a book concept or problem, and asks students to relate their own understanding. The teacher should not add ideas or their thoughts to the conversation. Once an authentic conversation has occurred, the teacher then reads aloud. After the read aloud, the teacher will then make it full-circle by asking the students to write through independent or interactive writing opportunities. Then the students are allowed to share their understanding and writing.

The teacher expertise is the greatest indicator of student success. It is our responsibility to plan ahead and facilitate the 3 of language components in the most direct and time sensitive manner. Our struggling students need targeted instruction followed by uninterrupted practice.

Strategies used to help kids would be:
  • Sentence stems/frames
  • Collaboration time
  • Giving students opportunity to attempt and try it out 
    • "Why don't you try it?"
  •  Use multiple senses to assist in the child figuring out unknown words
    • When a student gets stuck, ask them to write down the word.
    • Use a small card to cover text parts to focus attention. 
    • Draw attention to what was correct and then give a direct correction of miscues. 
  • Direct correction of reading miscues 
    • "Does that look right?" 
    • "Does that make sense?
  • Provide visuals
  • Provide multiple opportunities to combine the three essentials of language

How do you implement all three language components in your lessons?

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Reading Conferences

Independent reading is my favorite time of the day because it gives me the chance to listen and talk with my students about books. It is the fastest way to establish a relationship and show kids I care. Plus, it helps me keep them accountable for books read at home and at school. To me, conferencing is much more than a conversation or assessment, it was all about the relationship between the teacher, student,and book. This is differentiation at it's finest! EMS-ISD is embracing Reading Workshop next year, so this post is dedicated to Reading Conferences. Enjoy!

Establish Independent Reading Time

Reading conferences happen while students are independently reading books of their choice. Have one block of time set aside for kids to spend engrossed in books. This is the time when you pull up a chair next to them or slide beside them on the carpet to talk about what they are choosing to read. This routine takes several weeks to establish. It's important to have this routine mastered in order for conferences to go smoothly. Take the time to help students select just-right books and build reading stamina before jumping into conferring.

This document (Reading Conference Framework) is adapted from Regie Routman's Reading Essentials and describes the way a conference can go. 

Make it Comfy

Reading conferences should not be forced. This is not a time for you to quiz your students on plot, setting and character. This is the time where you see how they feel about the book and their reading, give them strategies for reading, or help them take more risks with their reading choices. Reading conferences should be cozy, comfy, and conversational. 

Be a Noticing Teacher

Take time to notice your students. What are they doing well? What types of books are they choosing? Are they engaged with their reading? What does their reading sound like? Before you can support their reading, you have to start paying attention to what they are doing well as readers. I start every conference off by simply listening to a reader or observing them reading to a friend. This helps me hone in on my teaching point.

Complement your Readers

Before worrying about what to teach, start by complementing what they do well. Noticing one thing they do well as a reader sets the tone for a positive conference. In the first few weeks of establishing routines, I only worried about noticing the strengths of my readers. This gave me time to get to know them, build a relationship, and show them I care. It also allowed me to focus on their strengths instead of their weaknesses. Jennifer Serravallo & Gravity Goldberg use the following chart for their conferences. This simple chart makes it easy to focus on the positive while following up with a teaching point. 

Compliments I Could Give the Reader
What I Could Teach the Reader

Have a Teaching Point

If nothing else, a complement conference is a great way to start. Eventually, you have to move into teaching your readers during this time. That means finding a teaching point that your individual reader needs to find more success.Some areas of reading to consider for your teaching point include: comprehension strategies, monitoring & adjusting reading, or fluency. You can also confer with students about their book choices or genre choices based on their reading log. Reading conferences are about adding to a child's reading repertoire. Your whole-class mini-lessons also add to their reading repertoire so reinforcing a lesson previously taught is another type of teaching point. The child should be aware of your teaching point so remind them of the different goals they have set and accomplished to help them see how much they have grown as a reader!

This document (Child Friendly Reading Goals) is adapted from Regie Routman's Reading Essentials and describes different goals to set with students. 

Use Assessment to Drive Instruction

Running records and miscue analysis are the perfect assessment tools to guide your instruction with students. You can use these to find trends and patterns of reading behaviors to help you know what to teach. I do not suggest using a running record during every conference but it is important to incorporate these into your time with the readers.

Be Organized 

Conferencing takes a lot of organization. You want to see what goals you have set in previous conferences and with 20+ students in your class, don't let your brain be responsible for remembering. A notebook, post it notes, or labels work great for those of you who like paper and pencil. Below is an example of a teacher's note taking system for conferencing. She took a 3 subject spiral notebook and divided it for each class she teaches. Then, she informally writes notes for each kid she meets with. Each page is a different student's name.


Other teachers choose to print formatted sheets to put in a binder. Here are some great ones on TPT: 

Reading Conferencing Sheet
Conferencing Rubric 
Reading Goals
Note Taking
Reading Conference Form
Form with SMART Goals
Conference Form
Reading Conference Form

With BYOD you may want to consider these digital apps that also allow for note taking during conferencing: 

One Note (FREE)
Ever Note (FREE)

Conferencing with all 20+ students in your room can seem overwhelming at first. You may be tempted to schedule them all out in order to get them in. For me, this wasn't successful because a student didn't always need me on that particular day. I tried to get to my students based on when they needed the support. Also, I frequently turned a single conference into a small group lesson when I noticed patterns between readers. This allowed me to reach even more students and connect them with others working on similar strategies. Reading conferences are at the heart of reading workshop. This is the time for you to truly know and understand your students. Once you have independent reading time established, start listening into your students' reading and having conversations around their book. Don't let conferences stress you out--this time can be so rewarding and enjoyable for the teacher and students!  

Here are some resources you may enjoy:


Thursday, April 30, 2015

Outdoor Reading Kind of Day

If you walked outside of the Willow Creek building today, you were sure to spot classes spread out along the pavement, grass, and courtyard reading a good book. In the final countdown to summer, Willow Creek Wolverines celebrated "B" day-- or Buddy Reading on a Beach Towel! What a fun way to celebrate readers and enjoy the beautiful weather. I love how WCE Teachers used Spring Fever in a positive way by allowing students to soak up the sunshine with their nose in a book! 

Here are a few pictures I was able to capture today: 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Get Connected

Today I am attending a workshop called Future-Ready Innovators. It is comprised of several outstanding speakers who encourage change and innovation in schools today. George Couros was our first speaker and I was blown away by his enthusiasm for education. He believes in students and he believes in teachers. One point he made was that in today's digital world, isolation is a choice you make. There are so many opportunities to stay connected with others that you have to really choose to stay disconnected. One way I connected with educators across the country and across the world is through Twitter. George said, if you don't know what a hastag or handle is, you are illiterate in today's society. I thought his point was worthy of a blog post on how you can get connected with Twitter.

Note: Check out the Twitter Glossary if you are unfamiliar with any of these terms.

1. Create a handle. 
When I first discovered Twitter, I was confused by it's purpose. I had this cutesy handle and shared only personal information, as if it were Facebook. Twitter has evolved into a digital professional community. Now, I use twitter strictly in a professional manner, with the exception of the obligatory new baby pictures! I chose to make my Twitter PUBLIC, so that means anyone can see what I post. I keep this in mind with each post. This has increase the amount of followers I receive and the connections I have made. I also chose to make my handle my name because it was simple. Others choose create handles that describe what they love. Either way, make it easy for people to remember and recognize what you do. Be sure to include brief information in your bio, too.

2. Know who to follow. 
Start following others and follow their followers. I started out by simply watching twitter. I saw what others posted to get a feel of how I was supposed to use it, and to be honest, I still am learning this! I looked up my favorite educators, researchers, and authors and learned who tweets a lot. Then I started following others who they follow. It was a chain reaction and now I am able to be connected with educators across the country.

3. Participate in chats.
Here's my weakness. I am more of an observer of chats right now. On specific nights of the week, educators come together around a common topic and chat. Depending on your interest, you can find a different chat happening each night of the week.This is a way to stay connected with current research and learn more about what others are doing in their classroom.

4. Tweet and Retweet. 
Share what you are doing in your classroom, what you are learning from a workshop, or questions you have on twitter. Be sure to use an appropriate hashtag (#) for it to get out to the right community. To start out, I simply started just retweeting tweets I found interesting. Now, I am more comfortable composing my own tweets and sharing my learning in 140 characters. 

5. Take it back to your classroom.
If your students have access to technology, show them how they can use twitter to connect with you. Don't be intimidated to be connected with students in this way. Twitter is a great way to build relationships with student and encourage lifelong learners. 

Twitter is just one way educators can collaborate and get connected with each other. Embrace this connection. Share the amazing learning going on in your classroom and hear ideas from others that teach the same grade or subject. Innovation is not age specific. Anyone can be just takes a step in the right direction and people to follow along!

George shared this challenge and I extend this to the teachers at Willow Creek: 

You can follow me on Twitter: 

Use this Willow Creek Hashtag to share what happens in your classroom: 

Don't forget to tag our district:

Monday, April 20, 2015

Classroom Resources for FREE

Are you looking for ways to grow the resources in your classroom? Every year each new group of students require so many different types of resources to help create lifelong learners. I wish everyone saw how much teachers give out of their own pocket to support students. Whether it was buying snacks for my students who came to school hungry, buying supplies for a hands-on science experiment, or buying new and engaging titles for our classroom library, I spent my own money. While these were all GREAT causes and I never thought twice about spending what I earned on the students I loved, I began searching for ways to find other contributors. Here is what I have found so far. I haven't always gotten lucky, but every now and then one will come through! If you have more suggestions, comment below to share! 

Donors Choose 

This site allows YOU, a teacher, to post the needs of your classroom. You create a project and people can go on to donate to your cause. Right now, I am experimenting with this site. I have heard so many teachers get lucky with anonymous donors fulfilling their whole request, but unfortunately my first request fell through. From scouring other's posts about creating an appealing donors choose project, here's what I've learned: 

1. Have a catchy title.
2. Keep the cost under $400. 
3. Describe your students and your needs.
4. Share your project via Facebook, Twitter, Newsletters, Email Signature...
5. Donate to your own cause because it shows you believe in your project.

I just started a new project to try and get an iPad to use with my students in intervention. You can find more about it here: iPads for Reading.

Similar sites to Donors Choose

Scholastic Book Rewards

I have had so much luck with this program. I send home the order forms with my students and then I get to use the bonus points to order books for our classroom. This works better if you have your own classroom full of students. I can't really take advantage of this anymore now that I see kids in an intervention setting. Don't forget to explain the idea behind this to parents. They are more willing to purchase books when you explain that the whole class reaps the reward! 


Whether it's from a retired teacher or a teacher willing to part with materials, RECYCLING can be your friend. 

Freecycle is a website that lists people willing to give away (recycle) various items.

Do Something

Get your students invovled by having them post your classroom needs on your behalf. 

Do you have a success story from one of these sites? Share your story below!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Fine-Tuning Your Literacy Block

I recently presented at TWU's Spicola Forum. This free event provides professional learning opportunities for Texas educators and TWU's student teachers. I hope you will consider attending this next year! For those of you who missed the presentation, I wanted to share the information on this blog.

As a Literacy Coach, I see a pattern of questions asked by teachers and most revolve around the organizational structures for their literacy block. Below you will find five tips for fine-tuning your literacy block.

1: Know WHAT and Know HOW

It is absolutely critical to know WHAT you teach. In Texas, we have the TEKS that lay out the standards we are responsible for teaching. Other states use Common Core. Regardless of the name, it's important for you to know where to start. Standards should guide our instruction but do not serve as a checklist. If you spend time trying to check off each individual standard, you will run yourself into the ground. The best thing about teaching literacy is that it integrates beautifully. When standards are taught in isolation, they become skill & drill exercises with worksheets. Students will be much more engaged and have a higher quality of learning when standards are address in authentic and meaningful ways.

This brings me to the HOW: Balanced Literacy. Balanced Literacy approaches literacy instruction in a comprehensive manner, containing all components necessary for reading and writing. This allows teachers to address TEKS in an integrated, authentic, and meaningful way. The components of Balanced Literacy include: Read Aloud, Shared Reading, Guided Reading, Independent Reading, Word Study, and Writing.

To have an effective literacy block, you must know what you are responsible for teaching and know what research says is best practice for instruction. Because research is being done every single day in classrooms across the country, this requires teachers to stay up to date on current practices. You can continue your  learning by joining NCTE or ILA and subscribing to their corresponding journals, Language Arts and The Reading Teacher. Another great way to continue professional development is through Twitter. You can follow leading researchers as they share about their work in real time. Twitter also has PD nights for various topics where you can chat with other educators about what is happening in your classroom. This digital forum takes PLC's to a whole new level! 

2: Let Assessment Drive Instruction

One frustration I often hear from teachers is, "But I need a grade!" While it can be tempting to create assignments solely to get a grade, try to think of ways you can use assignments to measure student understanding, form small groups, and reach individual needs. Some authentic types of assessments include Running Records, Anecdotal Notes, Observation, Fluency Checks, Rubrics, Checklists, or Written Response. Assessments can take place during the mini-lesson, reading or writing conference, guided reading, independent reading or small group time.

Formative assessment during the whole-group mini-lesson provides opportunities to quickly see how your class is following along. I often choose to do "thumbs-up/thumbs-down" for a quick visual on who understands. I also use post-it notes where students could quickly write down a response to be added to our anchor chart. These formative assessments take a very small chunk of time but provide an immense amount of information on student understanding.

Here is an example of a quick formative assessment using post-it notes from a classroom at Willow Creek.

A reading or writing conference is a one-on-one conversation with a student about their reading and writing so far. It allows you to build a relationship around literacy and set specific goals with that child. During conferences, I took notes about our conversation and stuck them in a folder so I could access them later. With technology now, it would be just as easy to use one of these apps to do the same: Evernote, OneNote, Confer, CCPensieve.

Self-Assessment can be a valuable tool to use with students in the classroom. In my room, we always created a checklist or rubric of expectations together and the students used that to grade themselves in addition to the grade I gave. This allowed the students to become reflective of their work and sparked some great conversations during conferences.

Reading response journals are another great way to assess literacy learning. My students kept up a journal during independent reading time. We talked about this journal each time we conferred. The journal listed the book titles and genres they read along with responses to reading each day. Sometimes a reading response was in the form of a sticky note in their book to track their thinking. 
This 2nd grader is writing a response to Splat Says Thank You!

Finally Running Records were the most informative form of assessments that I used in my classroom. I conducted Running Records once a week for my students. This may differ depending on the grade level you teach and the level of your students. Running Records are the best way to quickly assess a child's ability to accurately and fluently read at a particular level. I also used this information to give them a grade for reading, but most importantly, I used the information from my noticings of their reading to make adjustments for the next week. 

Any types of assessment you do in your class should always, always, always inform your instruction. Gone are the days of weekly stories with comprehension tests on Fridays. Reading and Writing assessment should be authentic, meaningful, and student-focused. 

3: Have a Flexible but Regular Schedule

A schedule can make or break the organizational structure of the literacy block. The first thing I look at when observing a classroom is how the day is broken down. I first ensure that students are getting adequate time to read and write. Then, I look at pacing. I ask, how much time is spent with the teacher in front of the class and how much time are the students working independently or in a small group? I also look at the amount of variation from day to day. Students need consistency. It helps them know what to expect each day and it allows you to hold them accountable for those expectations. It's also important to have an element of flexibility so when something needs to change, students can adapt quickly. Determine what the essentials are for your classroom, while abiding to the expectations of your school/district, and set your schedule accordingly. 

For this fifth grade class, Allington's six essentials shaped their day.

A literacy block should include the following components:

  • Morning Meeting: A quick 10-15 min community gathering to review skills in context
  • Word Work: 10-15 minutes of hands-on working with words
  • Read Aloud: A shared experience hearing a text read aloud to integrate content areas, build vocabulary, becoming a reading model, expose students to a variety of genres and topics, and help them associate reading with pleasure.
  • Reading Workshop: 
    • Reading Mini Lesson: 10-15 minutes to connect learning, teach, and demonstrate reading skills & strategies in context
    • Independent Reading: 30-45 minutes for students to independently try strategies taught in mini-lesson, read texts of their choice, and confer with a teacher or classmate.
    • Guided Reading:Small and flexible grouping that uses leveled texts matched to reader's needs. 3-4 groups a day for 10-15 minutes per group.
    • Share: 5-10 minutes for students to share what they did as a reader that day
  • Writing Workshop:
    • Writing Mini Lesson: 10-15 minutes to connect learning, teach, and demonstrate writing skills & strategies in context
    • Independent Writing: 30-45 minutes for students to independently try strategies taught in mini-lesson, write on topics of their choice, and confer with a teacher or classmate.
    • Small Group:Small and flexible grouping that uses is focused on what the writers need. 3-4 groups a day for 10-15 minutes per group.
    • Share: 5-10 minutes for students to share what they did as a writer that day
  • Intervention & Enrichment: 20-40 minutes of intense intervention or enrichment outside of the normal literacy block to support those students who need additional help
Timing and organization may vary depending on grade level and school. Try to vary the pacing up to accommodate students that need frequent breaks. You will notice that the timing above sticks to 10-15 minute increments. Independent reading and writing time is the only long stretch of time and that can be broken up within to provide variation. Keep in mind attention span. Let go of the temptation to control the teaching. Allow your students to take ownership of their own learning. Be the facilitator.  

4:Organize Your Space

As a new staff member at Willow Creek, one of the first things I noticed was the organization of the classrooms. Every classroom is organized so it is functional, and no, not all the teachers here are Type A or OCD. We know how to have simple systems and we know how to make them work. Organization is not just about looking good. An organize classroom runs smoothly because everything has a place and students know where to access materials. I was so impressed with my pinterest-worthy school that I created a You Tube video highlighting some of the classroom organizational structures. Enjoy! 

5: Be Clear, Concise, and Consistent

Having clear, concise, and consistent expectations will make your literacy block run smoothly. Spend several weeks setting up routines in the beginning of the year. Remember, this may take up to six weeks for students to master. Give it time to work and stick to it! If you are changing routines in the middle of the year, allow adequate time for students to adapt. And yes, you will most likely spend the first week back from any long break reviewing routines and procedures. 

Even though our district is moving away from using the Daily Five for reading instruction, I still believe they have the best way for introducing routines at the beginning of the year. I used these methods as a fourth grade teacher. They conditioned my students to understand what my expectations were. It took endless repetition and reminders, but finally my students became accustomed to our classroom procedures.

Most importantly, remember that it's all about the kids. No one procedure will work for every class or individual student. You will have to adapt to meet the needs of your class.

Have any questions, comments, or suggestions? Comment below!


Additional Resources You May Enjoy: