Hey! Let’s Try This.

That’s the sentence where the insanity is usually born. Don’t we all start with a crazy idea? It’s what we do with it that counts. Do we keep it buried in our pocket? Or do we take the plunge and dive in?

I took the plunge.

When I began to think about how to spend our time for an upcoming afternoon of professional development, I knew I wanted to keep the focus on teachers. Based on recent observations and teacher feedback, I knew this to be true:

  • Our staff felt we were in a rut.
  • The health and well-being of teachers was being overlooked.
  • Professional development was almost always structured for curriculum purposes.

Most often this time is driven by “data” and does not offer teachers the opportunity to personalize their learning. How many times do we attend PD sessions that are one-size-fits-all? Teachers need choice too. I began to wonder what an afternoon of professional development could look like if teachers had the ability to learn from each other. We are our best resource collectively.

This time of year we are all feeling a bit “frayed” as Tony Keefer talked about in his most recent blog post. He somehow took the juxtaposition of unraveling and gratitude and morphed it into a love letter for teachers. 

On December 8th, just 12 days shy of our winter break, we had our first afternoon of professional learning chosen entirely by, and for, teachers. This day, and all the magic that happened, was a love letter to teaching….and to each other.

Too often in education we get in a rut. Sometimes you have to take an idea and run with it. Don’t be scared to fail. Community is what saves us when things get off track.

Reading Engagement in a non-AR School

This week Colby Sharp posted the most heartfelt message about Accelerated Reader and to say it went viral is an understatement. Colby’s passion and ire about a practice that we’ve long known is counterproductive bleed through in this video . If you haven’t watched it, you should. It’s as real as real gets.

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Colby is mad and rightfully so. This topic is not a new one. We know there is little research to confirm that AR increases reading achievement, or turns out readers beyond the books in the system, as Donalyn Miller wrote extensively about 7 years ago. We know the assessment that “places” these readers and provides a reading level range is flawed. Pernille Ripp digs into that assessment in this blog post which includes a response from Accelerated Reader’s parent company, Renaissance Learning.  

We know all this, and yet AR is still widely used as a reading achievement indicator and reading incentive. Colby’s message lit a fire in me and I went down the rabbit hole of reading the comments. The sheer number of those in defense of AR still baffles me but what I really took away from these comments was that human connection was never mentioned. I find it difficult to believe that a computerized program alone is the sole factor in a school’s increased reading engagement and achievement. I would strongly argue that a computer is not what gets kids excited about reading….people do.

The school I work at is the only elementary building in our district that does not participate in Accelerated Reader. At a district-wide meeting a couple years ago, this came up and a colleague was utterly shocked. She didn’t ask about our readers. She didn’t ask about our teaching. She didn’t ask how we focus on literacy in a very large, very diverse school. She only asked, in an incredulous voice, “How do your kids pick out books?” In my shock and disbelief, I didn’t reply. What I would say today is this, “We build relationships with kids, and each other, around books. We get to know the learner behind the numbers.”

So how do kids pick out books in a non-AR school?

  • You read. Whatever your role in teaching is, you should be reading and talking about it with kids. No excuses.
  • You know authors. If you don’t, get to know them. They love to connect! Visit their website. Go to an author event at your local library. Follow them and connect on social media. Skype with them. Many authors Skype for free. Kate Messner’s website provides a nice list here.
  • You connect. Connect with kids over books you’ve read in common. Connect with other teachers in your school, district and on social media. Connect with other educators on Goodreads. Connecting leads to relationship building. This is where the magic happens.
  • You book talk. Put yourself out there and be a role model. Kids will read what you recommend.
  • You let students book talk. Kids read what their peers recommend. Katherine Sokolowski has a great post about student book talks over at Nerdy Book Club.
  • You give them total choice in the library. To quote our beloved librarian and some teachers in our school, “This is a library. They can get what they want.”
  • You use technology to provide more access to books in a variety of formats. Have you heard of Epic? I strongly encourage you to look into this because it’s FREE for teachers. It includes thousands of high quality titles and students can access through the web or mobile app. If your school or district has a digital library, include audiobooks. This can be a game changer for many kids.  
  • You talk to kids about what they are reading. This is a great way to personalize connections with students. You can get a lot of mileage out of a few well-planned questions. The wonderful thing about talk is it can happen in a variety of ways. It can happen as you’re greeting them in the morning, lining them up for recess, waiting during restroom breaks, etc.
  • You listen. There is nothing quite as authentic as giving your complete attention to a child when they are talking about a book. It shows you care about what they have to say. If you are doing reading conferences with kids, take a step back and just listen. Don’t always make it about completing a form.
  • You display what you are reading. Staff members all over our building display book covers of their reading lives. Kids notice.


This list is by no means conclusive nor is it earth shattering or cutting edge. However, it does address the age old question of how your kids pick out books without a computerized system. It starts with you. People are what drive engagement and achievement not computers. 


Building Relationships in the “Edges”

I have a confession. I VOLUNTEER for recess duty every school year. Cue the bulging eyes and shaking heads, but I must admit it is one of my favorite parts of the day. In this fifteen minute window, I can be outside building rapport with kids and connecting with them in ways that have nothing to do (directly) with curriculum. Recently, while supervising the blacktop area of our playground, I started thinking of all the things I truly feel lucky to witness during this short span of time. Picture one kickball game, 2 basketball games and 3 tetherball courts and you’ll have a pretty good snapshot of fifth grade recess in all its glory. I get to watch how kids play, problem solve, use social skills, handle friendship nuances/social status and develop or hone talents not cultivated in the classroom. If I didn’t have this time in the “edges,” outside the confines of the classroom in those small moments, I wonder what opportunities I would miss?

A bevy of research exists on the importance of building trust and rapport with students and the vital role this plays in developing relationships that lead to increased engagement, creativity, thinking and academic performance. Author and former English teacher, Zaretta Hammond, talks extensively about these topics in her book Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain. She describes the trust-building process as one that cannot be expedited because “feeling connected grows slowly and requires time for people to get to know each other” (77). Hammond goes on to explain that developing rapport is this slow burn process that helps “dependent learners avoid the stress and anxiety that comes with feeling lost and unsupported in school” (81). Time spent in classrooms is one place to do this kind of work but it is not enough to build the foundation for lasting, meaningful relationships. Where can this extra time be found? The “edges.” Those small day-to-day interactions in the hallways, at recess, in the cafeteria, walking to the bus lanes after school, waiting with kids in the parent pick up line and the list goes on. Kids deserve a chance. A chance for teachers to see them through a different set of eyes than the single story of their classroom.   

Teachers are busy. I get it. But that’s not a free pass to quit students when they display behaviors that are less than desirable. How dare we give up when we are asking students to continue to show up day after day? Let’s face it. Every improper response from a student is one that you should be teaching. Where this teaching occurs is entirely up to you. Sometimes to find a way in…..you have to look out. Here are a few tips to build those relationships in the “edges.”

Do what you say you are going to do. For most kids, this is a deal breaker and a quick way to diminish trust and rapport. Keep your promises. Be true to your word. Follow through. Eat lunch with that student you promised you would eat lunch with even if you need a break. Go outside and shoot hoops with the kid you promised you would play basketball with even if it’s freezing. If you said you were going to do something…find a way to make it happen. Bottom line.    

Be vulnerable. Let your guard down a bit. Give yourself permission to be seen as human. Admit when you make mistakes. Share your fears. By now, most of the kids (and teachers) at my school know I have a paralyzing fear of dogs. True story. This tiny bit of truth has spawned more authentic conversations than I can count on both hands.

Commit to authentic listening. Sounds simple, but it isn’t always what happens in classrooms on the regular. Set aside time for attentive listening across all parts of your day. It shows you care and respect students and their contributions. Don’t just listen to respond. Listen to become better for your students.

Become a “kid watcher.” Allow yourself time to breathe. Step out of the role of constant monitor and into the role of watcher. This takes practice and ongoing commitment. If it seems daunting with a class of 26 students, start small. Choose 2-4 students and a system of taking notes that works for you. Use sticky notes, index cards or Google Keep. Keep it simple. It doesn’t need to be fancy; it just needs to happen.

Embed social and emotional skills. At every opportunity, make an effort to weave in meet and greet skills, turn taking, problem solving, empathetic listening, and communicating nonverbally. An easy and fun way to do this is to make time to play as a class. Get outside. Join your students during PE class. Play some board games. Never underestimate the power of a heated game of SORRY! as a catalyst in strengthening social-emotional skills.

Tell your story. For better or worse, everyone has a story. Find a way to work yours into interactions with kids. Share your interests. Talk about what you were like as a student. Discuss your favorite subjects. Confess your struggles. An impromptu conversation about writer’s notebooks with a group of fifth grade students as they were lining up for lunch had me sharing how I craft ideas. It gave me the opportunity to show them my writer’s notebook and the less-than-perfect way that I record my thoughts. This three minute chat generated an open invitation to their classroom during notebook sharing time.

Read aloud to a class other than your own. Make it strategic. Do you want to connect with or learn more about siblings? Read to their class. Do you want to meet kids that are moving up to your grade level next year? Read to their class. Do you want to develop a vertical relationship with another teacher? Yep, you guessed it. Read to their class. I could go for days extolling the virtues about the power of connecting through stories.

Be damn nice to kids. All of them. Every single day. This is important.

Find YOUR edge.

Building a Reading Community with Staff Meeting Book Talks

It is well documented that community is a critical component in raising student achievement. In an age where many educators have been seduced by test prep in all its shiny forms and thus teaching to standards, community is given little regard as valuable.

At its heart, my role is one of instructional leadership and with that comes a fair amount of responsibility to data and student achievement. Rest assured this is not a post about test scores. But I am going to talk about them a bit. You may even be wondering how this discussion has a place on a blog about classroom communities. Quite simply, if we have any hope of raising reading achievement, we have to get kids to actually like reading. And if we want kids to be engaged in reading, we need adults willing to do the same.

My story is simple and, sadly, not uncommon. I work in a large high-poverty, high-mobility elementary school. Only a few short years ago, we were in danger of losing state accreditation. We needed to make some changes and we needed to make them fast. We implemented new reading curriculum that had a heavy focus on independent daily reading, conferencing and facilitative talk. We also stocked classroom libraries and gave teachers complete ownership in title selection. Essentially we were asking kids to build relationships around the work. But were teachers doing the same? The answer was no. If we wanted to get kids engaged, the adults needed to be doing more talking. A great way to accomplish this was through book talks. The best access to a large group of teachers was a staff meeting.

In the fall of 2015 the inaugural Staff Meeting Book Talks were launched. Within a few months something powerful happened. Teachers were talking about books…everywhere! This provided a cocoon of trust that led to deeper discussions about such brave topics as reading levels, student choice, facilitative talk in conferences and books that were genre-bending. This was all a catalyst that grew a community that forever transformed our school.

It all sounds very romantic. But what about those test scores? In one year, we gained more than 40 percentage points of growth and were no longer in danger of losing state accreditation. We didn’t need fancy test prep. We just needed each other.  

Start your own Staff Meeting Book Talks in 4 easy steps:

  1. Take a chance. Ask your administrator(s) for 10 minutes at every staff meeting.
  2. Pave the way. Be the first brave soul to do a book talk.
  3. Recruit volunteers. But don’t get discouraged if you are the only one book talking for the first few months.
  4. Read aloud a picture book at every meeting. There’s something so magical about coming together over the shared experience of a read aloud.

We’ve shared some great books that focus on community, some books that have strengthened our community and some that were just plain fascinating. Below are some staff favorites:

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, Illustrated by Christian Robinson-This was the book that started it all. It had such a profound impact on our teachers and opened the door to great conversations about community, identity and bias. Our principal bought a copy for every teacher.


Ralph Tells a Story by Abby Hanlon-The child-like illustrations coupled with the very realistic problem Ralph faces with his writer’s block made this a crowd favorite and the book traveled around our school for months. So many writing conversations and coaching moments with students stemmed from this read aloud.


Whoosh! by Chris Barton, Illustrated by Don Tate-This little known story about Lonnie Johnson and the invention of the Super Soaker was so popular….it disappeared from my bookshelf after sharing at a staff meeting.


The Quickest Kid in Clarksville by Pat Zietlow Miller, Illustrated by Frank Morrison-This was the first book I loaned out after book talking that was returned with an artifact. A pink sticky note scrawled with a beloved quote about friendship. I taped it to the endpapers as a reminder of the connections we can make with one simple story.


Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm, Illustrated by Matthew Holm-A poignant, sensitive book talk given by our assistant principal put the graphic novel format into the limelight while simultaneously weaving in familial relationships and the effects of substance abuse. This talk launched some courageous discussion about graphic novels.


Who Would Win? series by Jerry Pallotta, Illustrated by Rob Bolster-Fascinating format! Epic battle scenes! Zany facts! This series can sell itself. Why even include in a favorites list? These are the first books our principal was brave enough to book talk and hold a special place in our hearts.


Explorers of the Wild by Cale Atkinson-If ever there was a book celebrating community and tackling new territory….this is it. Exquisite illustrations accompany this story with the heartfelt message that nothing is too big to conquer when you have someone by your side. I had the fortunate opportunity to talk with Cale Atkinson at an author dinner and had him personalize a copy of this book for our teachers. I dedicated it to them last year during a staff meeting and sent them this image.