Friday, December 13, 2013

Goals and Timelines

A goal without a timeline is simply a dream.
Kevin O'Leary

When Kevin O'Leary said this on an episode of Shark Tank, it stuck in my mind and has been percolating around in there ever since.

Goal setting is a big part of a CAFE classroom.  Students declare goals based on assessments and employ strategies in an effort to reach them.

How might the simple addition of a time frame affect their growth?

For instance,

Me: Andrew, how long do you think it will take you to finish this Magic Tree House book?
Andrew: I don't know.
Me: How many pages are you reading each day?
Andrew: Um.  Let's see.
After thumbing through the book, Andrew discovers that he is reading about 12 pages a day.
Me: So Andrew, there are 80 pages and you are on page 56.  If you read 12 pages today and 12 pages tomorrow, you'll be able to finish this whole book by tomorrow afternoon.  I am going to make an appointment with you on my calendar for the day after that so we can chat about how it went.  This is so exciting!


Me: Emma, I notice you are spelling they like it sounds, t-h-a-y.  The actual spelling is t-h-e-y.  If you practiced this word during Word Work, how long do you think it would take you to memorize it?
Emma: Hmm.  One day, probably.
Me: One day?  And then you would know it forever?
She smiles.
Me: Okay!  I am going to trust you to choose Word Work between now and Friday and really work hard to learn that word.  I'll meet with you a week from Friday and we'll peek in your writing notebook to have a scavenger hunt for the word they to see how it is going.

The timeline adds a little more accountability and is, perhaps, just the boost students need to accelerate their progress.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Remember Me?

"Hi Mrs. Sabo. Do you remember me?"

My eyes scanned the face of the fifth grader before me as my mind tried to link him with the first-grade version I must have known.

"Of course," I cheerily lied, "but help me out with your first name."

"De'oujmun, but everyone calls me De."

It turns out he had been in my classroom as a first grader, but only for a week. He attended five schools after that, and had just returned to ours again. "Wow," I said. "You have a lot of experience being the new kid. Tell me, what are some things that teachers and students did to make you feel welcome?"

He thought for a second and shared that at some schools, the teachers were friendly and made sure he had everything he needed. Students in those schools were welcoming, showed him around, and included him at recess. Others schools didn't feel as good. He said he felt disrespected by both teachers and students. I assured him that we were delighted he was back in our halls.

It can be disconcerting when we get that call from the office announcing that a new student is coming the next morning or is already on their way down the hall. My heart rate quickens at the thought. But I'm reminded how important it is to take a deep breath, put on a genuinely happy face, and model a spirit of welcome and belonging that students can emulate. The impression we leave on a student's first day will likely be indelible, whether they are with us for five days, 180 days, or anywhere in between. Let's make their first day a great one.

Friday, October 11, 2013

It's My Fault

Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense. 
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

After a few days of successfully building behaviors of independence and stamina for Read to Self in a first-grade classroom, all progress seemed to come to a screeching halt. I channeled my inner Gail Boushey and Joan Moser, forcing myself to
  • stay out of the way; 
  • speak with kind words and in a kind tone; 
  • facilitate problem-solving conversations once we'd regathered; 
  • and make sure I didn't skip any of the 10 Steps to Independence. 
None of it worked, and although it was a full moon, I couldn't blame our lack of success on the fact that the earth, sun, and moon were in approximate alignment.

Instead, after watching the start of the fourth bumpy round in a row, I walked over to the classroom teacher and said, "It's my fault." And indeed it was. Her students were simply not ready to choose their own Read to Self spots. Despite the fact that we had taught, practiced, modeled, and written about how to choose a successful spot, they couldn't do it because they weren't ready. So, I gathered them together and said this to them:
Boys and girls, aren't you thankful that we are allowed to make mistakes? Well, I made a mistake. I let you choose your own spots too early. It is my fault. You just weren't ready. I could tell you weren't ready because your behaviors of independence and stamina came to a crashing halt when you started to pick your own places. So tomorrow, and for the next few days, your teacher is going to have you try different spots around the room. As soon as we think you are ready, we will revisit the lesson on choosing a successful spot and try again.
There wasn't a fuss or whine in the group. In fact, I think they were a little relieved. Bumpy doesn't feel good to anyone.

Sometimes, as much as we'd like to blame the kids, it might be our fault. The best thing we can do is own it and move on. In this case the blunders and absurdities were indeed mine. I intend to begin again with serenity and the highest hopes.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Muscle Memory

I am of the typewriter generation. I have vivid memories of the typing teacher's monotone voice calling out individual letters and punctuation marks, of mentally commanding my fingers to find the keys while keeping my eyes focused firmly ahead, remaining true to the philosophy of touch-typing.   

In the late 1970s, I typed paper after college paper on my Smith Corona, which had interchangeable ribbon cartridges that eliminated the need for little bottles of correction fluid; I put in the white cartridge, typed directly over my mistake, put the black ribbon back in, and continued on.  It was so slick.

Someone recently told me that the practice of putting two spaces after a period is no longer considered correct; that it's an old-fashioned typewriter thing to do and completely unnecessary in our electronic, word-processing age.  The truth is, it depends on the format we are being asked to write in.  The problem is, two spaces after a period is so deeply ingrained in my muscle memory, I fear it is a habit that may be impossible for me to break.  For now, if I am writing in MLA style, I just take the time when I am finished writing to go back and eliminate each superfluous space. 

The point?  As we are working in our classrooms to build stamina and behaviors of independence, we must keep the standards high and be careful not to let students practice wrong.  We must support, guide, model, and build stamina in the increments that allow students to be successful.  If we are unwavering in our commitment, our students will build strong muscle memory for reading to self that will be with them for life.  And that is a skill that will never be out of date. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Overcoming Obstacles

In a post on July 12,  I shared the Seattle Foam Fest race I was looking forward to running.  I am happy to report that I made it!  The 3.1-mile course was peppered with 15 obstacles.  A different strategy was required to overcome each obstacle. Before the race, I previewed the photographs of the obstacles and gave thought to the strategies I might need to navigate them fluently, but it wasn't until I was right upon them that they interrupted my personal running life.  I navigated most of them independently, but there were a few where I relied on the tips of a coach positioned at the obstacle to offer guidance and support. 

Our students come upon hurdles that interfere with their accuracy, fluency, and comprehension on a daily basis.  They need to access strategies that will enable them to quickly maneuver these hurdles.  We can teach strategies that will help keep obstacles from interfering with their reading success, and many times, students will be able to access and try a strategy when an obstacle blocks their reading path. 

During the race, I was reminded of the power of in-the-moment coaching.  It reconfirmed for me the importance of building independence in my students so I can sit with them one-on-one, providing just-in-time guidance over the hurdles that get in their way. 

Our coaching sessions are even more focused and powerful when we make consistent use of a conferring notebook.  As a new school year approaches, let's renew our commitment to mastering this powerful tool, which enables us to differentiate our teaching, monitor progress, and equip our students to overcome their obstacles and get back in the race.  

Saturday, August 10, 2013

August 10 for 10 Picture Book Event 2013

Though it was nearly impossible to limit the list to ten, I have managed to do so. Here they are in ABC order. 

Boot & Shoe is written and illustrated by Marla Frazee
It is charming, funny, and I loved the message about differences and friendship. It would be a wonderful read aloud.    

Chick ‘n’ Pug is written and delightfully illustrated by Jennifer Gordon Sattler
It is just plain fun!  

Each Kindness is written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by E. B. Lewis
If you are a fan of The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, you'll love this book which is similar, but updated and in picture book form.    

Goldilocks and the 3 Dinosaurs is retold and illustrated by Mo Willems 
This is one of the most enjoyable retells around.  Mo Willems is a genius. Funny words. Funny illustrations. Rife with opportunities to predict and infer.  

How to Catch a Star is written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers Will 
Simple, imaginative, and perfect to use for inference.  

Is That You, Monster?: Check Inside the Secret Pockets If You Dare! by Steve Cox
This falls under the category of deliciously scary. The right kiddo will love it. I might not put it in my classroom, but I would read it again and again with my grandson. It is a great lap book.  

Looking for a Moose is written by Phyllis Root and illustrated by Randy Cecil
The text is sing-songy and fun to read. The illustrations are darling. It would be a fun read aloud, but an even better lap book with one or two children so you can pour over the pictures together looking for a moose. 

Oh, No! is written by Candace Fleming and illustrated by Eric Rohmann
Simple, rhythmic text. Rain forest creatures. Great pictures. Loved it. 

Old bear and His Cub is written and illustrated by Olivier Dunrea
It is a very sweet story. I choked up a little because I am getting to the age where I am beginning to care for my parents.

 Plant a Kiss is written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds
I am a huge fan of author and illustrator. They are perfect together. I couldn't help but love it.  

Friday, July 12, 2013

Building Stamina

I will be running my first ever 5K (3.1 miles) in three weeks. I am not a runner. In fact, I dislike running rather intensely. But a crazy race called a Foam Fest looked fun enough to tempt me into strapping on jogging shoes. To prepare, I've been using an app called Couch to 5K.

The app is designed to ensure success by building strength and stamina slowly. Day one required a brisk five-minute warm-up walk followed by alternating 60 seconds of jogging with 90 seconds of walking for a total of 20 minutes. In week two, the five-minute warm-up walk was followed by alternating 90 seconds of jogging with two minutes of walking for 20 minutes. Yesterday was the first day of week seven which required that I run for 2.5 miles (or 25 minutes) after the initial warm-up and I DID IT! Seven weeks ago, I could not have run 25 minutes if my life depended on it.

I think there are two lessons to draw from this experience that relate directly to our classrooms.
First, at the beginning of the school year, we need to entice our reluctant and struggling readers into the literacy world by adding an element of fun. Laugh-out-loud-funny read-alouds are one of my favorite ways to hook children into my world of books. As we get to know our new group of students, we can draw them in further by sharing books that tie directly to their personal interests.

Second, we need to be patient when it comes to building stamina. The goal is to read a little longer and a little stronger each day, but to build in increments with which students can be successful. This success becomes self-perpetuating and our rooms will soon be filled with highly engaged readers who groan when the chimes ring, even if they've been reading for 30 minutes. The trick is to be patient as we build to that point, and not to rush it. This is something I have to remind myself of every single year. Take it slow.

Want to see what the Foam Fest is all about? Check out this video. It's not too late to run with me.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Words of Affirmation

This is Keely. She recently invited family and friends to her violin recital and treated us to more than thirty minutes of wonderful music.

At the end of the recital, Keely thanked her guests for coming and then asked her teacher to come up front. Their mutual affection was evident as they talked about anticipating Keely's moving on to another teacher and a higher level of performance. Then Keely's mother, Kim, shared a few words of appreciation, explaining the attributes that make the teacher such a special person to them. I started taking notes as soon as she started sharing about this wonderful instructor:

  • She has dual vision, able to simultaneously see a student's current state and their potential.
  • She is quick to affirm what a child is already doing, even if the child can't articulate it, helping to identify the skill and move it to a place of cognitive awareness.
  • She tailors instruction to meet each child at their level, building in small increments so each step can be mastered.
  • She teaches skills and concepts in context instead of using seemingly meaningless exercises.
  • Once students have learned a skill, it isn't discarded, but instead new skills and concepts are layered on, increasing the student's sophistication.
  • She focuses not only on technical skills, but on a positive attitude, individual goal setting, perseverance to achieve those goals, and the intrinsic sense of worth that comes from growth and success.
  • She makes you feel like it is truly an honor to be your teacher.
I'm telling you, I almost signed up for violin lessons right then and there. But doesn't it sound a little like a Daily 5/CAFE classroom?

As your school year comes to an end, I'm sure there are many parents and students who feel the same way about you. Just in case they didn't express it verbally, I will. I want to say thank you for the way you have poured yourselves into your students this year. The work we do is hard, but it is of infinite value.

Blessings as you recharge during the summer.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Words With Friends Lessons

My dad and I enjoy playing Words with Friends. If you are unfamiliar with the game, it's like Scrabble, but we play it on our cell phones and receive a notification each time it is our turn. Though an octogenarian, he beats me soundly about 95 percent of the time. There are a couple reasons for this:  

1.     He does the daily crossword puzzle in his newspaper.  
2.    He is a voracious reader.  

Those contribute to his amazing vocabulary, but there is a deeper reason behind why I am typically trounced. Dad looks for the best move. I just look for a move.  

I am always so happy I can make a word that I just throw it on the game board. Dad looks at all the letters available to him, carefully examines the words in play, and then determines which option will be of greatest benefit.   

This realization led to an educational aha moment. I've had the opportunity to observe many teachers in my 16 years of experience.  Student progress and success has been the goal of everyone I have worked with, yet some teachers have gotten big results, whereas others haven't.  

Some teachers work their way through a curriculum, content just to have a lesson to teach. Other teachers, often the ones getting big results, work at teaching the way my dad plays Words with Friends. They carefully study the students in their classrooms, evaluate their resources, and then make decisions that will have the most impact.  

I want to be like them and like those of you who play the teaching game with such excellence.  If you want to join me, here's what I've learned we can do that will help us win:

  • Resolve to pay attention to what assessments are really telling us
  • Deepen our commitment to listen with our entire being when conferring 
  • Get to know the standards and how our classroom resources fit curricular goals and student needs
  • Endeavor to make intentional decisions that will help our students reach their full potential

And if you play Words with Friends,  keep Qi (pronounced ChÄ“)  in mind.  Not only does it refer to circulating life energy, but it's worth a lot of points, especially if you put it on a triple word score.  

Friday, May 17, 2013

Drawing Inferences

Sometimes we have to think fast.

In one of our fourth-grade classrooms, the teacher and I have been working on Common Core State Standard RL. 4.1: Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.  

Using picture books for our focus lessons, modeling our own thought processes, and giving partners plenty of time to turn and talk had already led to some great thinking and sharing about inferences. Students were encouraged to continue inferring how characters were feeling or what else authors might be saying as they were sent off to read independently.

I moved to have a one-on-one conference with a reluctant reader who is new to our school.  When I asked her to tell me a bit about the book she was reading, she gave me a preteen pout and complained, "Why do I have to infer anyway?  I'm just going to go to beauty school."

My brain went into hyper-drive, and I responded, "Let's imagine you just did my hair, handed me the mirror, and turned me around so I could see the entire haircut.  Then when you asked how I liked it, I said [with a frown on my face and an unhappy tone], 'It's fine.'"

"Well, you don't really like it," she said.
"But I said I like it," I answered.
"I could tell you didn't."
"That's right.  You combined my words with what you already know about body language and tone of voice and came up with a truer meaning.  That is a life skill that will serve you well.  That is also what we are asking you to do when you read.  Bring yourself into the text and pay attention to what the author isn't saying, and your understanding of the book will deepen.  That's all inference is."

I would love to tell you that she smiled brilliantly and dug into her chapter book with new zeal, but this isn't a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie.  To truly capture the literary hearts of our most reluctant readers, we will have to impart relevance and real-world connections over and over.  Sometimes our work leads to giant strides and sometimes it leads to baby steps.  As long as we are making progress, I'm happy.  

Friday, April 26, 2013

They Deserve Us

I recently had a chance to reconnect and visit with an old acquaintance at a conference. After a few years of serving as a literacy coach, she moved to an intervention specialist position. She mentioned the intense pressure teachers in her district are under because of the heavy emphasis being placed on test scores. Like many of us she is working with students who are new to English, have learning disabilities, or for one reason or another came to her significantly below standard.

At first, she talked with pride about the enormous gains her students have made. Then she said she had become extremely discouraged because it wasn't perceived as good enough by higher administration. This master, veteran teacher said she had wrestled with thoughts of quitting, thinking "I'm not sure I can do this anymore." But then she followed up with, "No. I can't do that. These kids deserve me."

She said it with such passion that I got goose bumps. And she is right. She is an outstanding teacher. The students she is working with do deserve her. They have demonstrated tremendous growth and have developed a love of reading under her guidance this year.

How are you feeling? Here in the Seattle area we have something called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD for short). We live in a beautiful, lush, green part of the country, but the many days of rain and gray can dampen the spirits of even the most resilient cheerful souls. Likewise, the current educational climate can easily lead to discouragement. However, if we keep in mind the reasons we became teachers in the first place and if we teach with excellence, passion, and love, we can buoy ourselves up. We can renew our resolve and get back in there, because frankly, these kids do deserve us.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Now I Get It

Meet Roy, a charming young man from Costa Rica. When Roy was younger, his mom said, "Why don't you study the violin?" He tried it, but he didn't like it. He said it was boring.
About four years ago, Roy's mom dragged him to a concert featuring Midori. If you've ever heard beautiful music and felt a stirring in your soul, you'll understand what happened to Roy when he heard the extraordinary performer play. As they left, Roy said, "Now I get it. Mom, I want to study the violin."

Are there reluctant readers in your school, classroom, or home who don't yet understand how wonderful reading is? Maybe they, like Roy, would say, "I don't want to. It's boring."
We have the power to be like Midori for them. Our read-alouds can be the concerts that change how they feel about our instrument: books. When we choose delightful, powerful, suspenseful, hysterically funny, or heartbreakingly moving books, we increase the chances that those reluctant readers will finally say, "Oh, now I get it! I want to be a reader."

It doesn't matter if we teach first graders or twelfth, reading aloud can pull them in and capture them for life.

Back to Roy: He taught himself to play the violin using YouTube videos and won a scholarship to a violin camp in Alabama. While there he went to an orchestra concert and when it was over, he begged the musicians to teach him. They were so impressed with his passion and drive that one of the members, a violin teacher, invited him to live with her family. He is working to get into a performing arts school and hopes to audition for a symphony.

Like Roy, if we can capture a reader, they won't mind the work and drive it takes to become one. In fact, they won't let anything stop them.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Three Tips for Raising Writers

I hunkered next to five-year-old Eric to learn about his writing and immediately noticed the illustration of a woman with a large stomach.  I was joking around when I said, "Wow. I hope that's not my tummy."  Without missing a beat he replied, "Oh, it is, but don't worry.  I gave you a big shirt so it won't show."

This led to my most recent diet motto, "I can have any treat if I can see my feet," but that's getting off the subject.

How do we go about raising writers?

Common Core standards for Eric and other kindergartners say that they should use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose an opinion piece, an informational piece, and a narrative piece.  This is ambitious, but for years the kindergarten teachers at my very diverse school have managed to develop writers who are able to do just that.  How do they do it?  By doing three things well.

First, they operate under the belief that their students, though young, are indeed writers and have something worth saying.  It's because of this conviction that their students buy into the idea.  I've never heard one of their students lament, "I don't know how to write."

Second, they provide focused, intentional lessons that raise the level of writing in the room.  Each lesson is drawn from looking at what the children are doing now and leads them to their next steps.  Picture books and poems frequently become mentor texts.  As attention is paid to author's craft, they discover things they might like to try in their own pieces.

Finally, they provide daily practice time and confer while students are writing.  It is during the individual conferences that differentiated instruction takes place, raising the writing level of struggling writers, prolific authors, and everyone in between.

No matter what the age of our students, if we believe, teach, and confer, we can do our part to raise writers, too.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Fun Theory

Volkswagen has an initiative called The Fun Theory.  It's dedicated to the idea that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people's behavior for the better.  Innovative participants have shared their best thinking and inventions to help prove the theory, submitting ideas like the world's deepest trash bin, a soda machine that functions like a slot machine for recycling old cans, a piano staircase (my personal favorite) and more.

The fun theory is one of the cornerstones of Daily 5 as well.  No matter which Daily 5 we are launching, we build urgency and purpose by letting students know that their choices will not only make them better readers and writers, but will be fun for them.

It isn't just snake oil.  When students have perfectly fitting books and settle down in a comfortable spot to read for an extended period of time, it is fun.  Getting to write about things that really matter to them in forms that fit the topic and audience is equally enjoyable.

If the momentum in our rooms is beginning to sag, it's a perfect time to revisit and reestablish the fun factor.  Have focused sharing around who had fun today with a book, their writing, or their Word Work efforts.  It will be infectious, and could be just the booster shot everyone needs to delve back in with a new sense of urgency.

Friday, February 1, 2013


"There is a tremendous need for trust in a really great collaboration." 

Keyboardist Jeff Johnson was speaking about his partnership with Phil Keaggy, perhaps the most astounding guitarist in the world. They'd worked together to create a musical response to the magnificent beauty of the Frio River in Texas.

Jeff went on to say that he and Phil enjoyed each other, trusted each other, and were willing to try things. Their collaboration was marked by a willingness to respond to each other's ideas and vision.

I can't help but think about how this applies to educators. Some of us work on teams that collaborate well together, each member making the others stronger. Some of us are fortunate to have coaches and/or principals in our buildings who lead, instruct, inspire, and encourage.
If we aren't fortunate to have a climate like that, we may have to find our kindred spirits elsewhere. I'll never forget visiting Gail Boushey's classroom many years ago to learn about the different way she and Joan Moser had organized their literacy block to ensure students had time to read and receive exquisite personalized instruction. I felt like I'd found my literacy soul mates. Debbie Miller, Ralph Fletcher, Peter Johnston, Franki Sibberson, and Lucy Calkins have inspired and mentored me through their books. In recent years, I've made the acquaintance of amazing educators like Donalyn Miller, George Couros, Laura Komos, and Jessica Johnson on Twitter. They share, question, push my thinking, and inspire me to take risks and try new things.

If we are going to be the best we can be, we need powerful collaborations. We need a clear vision that is in sharpest focus and then we need to make sure every action and activity in our classrooms matches that vision.

I'm reminded of the quote "Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world." (It's been attributed to both Joel Barker and Nelson Mandela. I'm not sure who said it first, but it's a great quote.) If we commit to great collaborations with people who share our vision, we can absolutely change the world one student, one classroom, and one school at a time.