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.

Pushing The Reset Button

A few years ago, it was pretty common to find me pecking at my iPhone playing the game Angry Birds. For some reason, this game had me hooked. As you probably know, Angry Birds is a mobile game where you launch a set of birds from a slingshot and destroy pigs and structures made of rocks. At the end of each level, you can earn up to three stars based on the number of points. Always wanting to improve my Angry Birds proficiency, if I knew that I wasn’t going to earn all three stars at the end of the level, I would quickly stop the level and try again. Essentially, I was pushing the reset button, all the while saving my progress and points I’ve earned so far.
counter-949233_640Each year, I find that winter break is the time when I start to get a bit restless. It’s the half-way point of the school year and a wonderful opportunity for our classroom communities to get together and reflect on all we’ve accomplished.  It’s also a time when we can push that reset button and strategize how we want to move forward.

This week, I asked my students to reflect on the school year and what we have accomplished together so far. I asked them to think of our school year as a video game with winter break being a sign that we’ve made it to a certain checkpoint. We can’t go back to the beginning of the game, but we can start a new level with new strategies and mindset. To start our conversation, I asked students to take a few moments to consider these three questions: What have been the most positive parts of our classroom community that are working well? What parts would you like to change? How do you want to change them?

One idea that has always stuck with me is “how we look back affects how we look forward.” The manner in which we reflect and give feedback will influence how we utilize that feedback and take our next steps. With this idea in mind, I introduced an evaluation tool called a Plus/Delta Chart to help facilitate our discussion.  It’s a simple tool that helps provide continuous improvement for a group or team. I explained that the pluses are working well and what we want to maintain and build upon.  The deltas are opportunities for improvement. These are the things that can be changed so that our classroom culture can become stronger and more effective. The third column is for our prescriptions. This column is where we collectively come up with action steps to change, or cure, our deltas.

After about 10 moments of quiet reflection, we gathered on the carpet to share our thinking. I was anxious to hear what feedback they would offer. I hoped that this would be productive and not a place to complain and criticize.  As the kids talked, I recorded their thoughts. You can see our pluses and deltas below. ** I intended to complete the chart in one day; however due to time constraints, I saved the prescription column for the next day. I feel the prescription column is a vital part of this process, and should not be cut short. I chose to postpone the discussion until the next day since we were running short on time.

When I zoom out and look at our pluses and deltas, there are a few things that caught my eye.  Many of the pluses come from parts of the day when students have choice–soft starts, writing workshop, book clubs and flexible seating options.  Also, I was intrigued to see that they liked when I stand at the classroom door in the morning. Further evidence that small gestures and simple acts of kindness can be crucial to a strong classroom culture.

When scanning the deltas, it seems like students are very interested in holding each other accountable particularly when it comes to their behavior. I’m thankful for those students who were brave enough to point out these concerns. My hope is that together, we can work through these concerns and strengthen our culture where everyone feels physically and emotionally safe. Without this feedback, this problem could have grown into a larger issue. I am excited to continue this discussion and collectively develop some prescriptions to help cure our deltas.

The first half of the school year can often feel like we are one of those Angry Birds being hurdled through the air at a breakneck pace. Using this winter break as an opportunity to regroup, reorganize and reset has been a healthy step in making sure everyone in our classroom community is heard. This “pushing reset” conversation, aided by the Plus/Delta chart, helped us learn from past mistakes, yet carry optimism into the future.

Acts of Grace and Confidence


On the first day of school, I met my student Hiba.  As she stood in our classroom doorway, her first contact with me was a warm, firm hug with the words:

I am Hiba.  Good morning.

Gazing at her, I observed a happy girl wearing a colorful sundress, a beautiful hair bow and the cutest of sandals.  Behind this student’s  big smile and sparkling eyes, was a story, one of grace and confidence. 

“Welcome to our classroom. We are so happy that you are here. ” I replied

I only knew bits and pieces of her story.  Hiba arrived at our school the year before as a  9 year old.  Chronologically, she was old enough for fourth grade, but due to circumstances beyond her control, she was assigned to third grade.  Her placement was not based on language; our school often enrolls children speaking limited or no English.  Hiba’s situation was different; her family fled their home country of Syria when Hiba was a very young child and had lived as refugees for years in Turkey.  Interrupted schooling was an understatement.  Hiba had never been to a formal school and spent her early years folding clothing in a garment factory next to her seamstress mother.   

Regardless of past challenges, Hiba now had a chance to write a new chapter in her story.  She spent her third grade year in our school community  thriving and growing with the support of a loving classroom and caring adults. Hiba was like a very young plant her first year in the United States.  Like a seed, she was absorbing important elements like the culture of school and life in the United States.  As a seedling, she was building the basic language skills that connected her to a new community.  She empowered herself with an understanding school culture.  She made friends, while building her knowledge of life in the United States.  During her third grade year, a team of teachers collaborated with time and care,  helping Hiba build her identity as a reader, writer, and speaker of English. Hiba may have arrived in 4th grade with the label of “pre-functional,” a language learner with a limited English vocabulary, but she came with the confidence and optimistic energy of a student who was ready to work and ready to grow.


My Mission?  Better Yet…Our Mission:

I quickly understood that I could not best serve this child on my own.  I do not speak, read, or write Arabic.  How could I provide experiences for this motivated child and make up for time lost to war, relocation and interrupted schooling?  The task felt daunting and I knew I needed to find a way to move from worry to ease.  Foundational questions helped me discover our collective strengths so both Hiba and I could begin our work together from a place of ease and confidence.  I launched our year together asking:

  • How can my language arts classroom help this child grow?
  • What skills and strengths does this child bring to the classroom?  
  • Who is available to help support this child?

Just like most schools, our ELL teachers and aides have schedules that are stretched in mind-boggling directions.  With great care, the team and I collaborated and  secured a schedule, developing an intentional plan to maximize the talents of our support staff.  Our ELL teacher would provide daily intensive reading support, focusing on reading strategies and vocabulary instruction based on Hiba’s identified strengths and needs. Our bilingual aide would support Hiba’s knowledge of sight words and English vocabulary during writing workshop 3 times a week. With their support steps in place, I planned my role.


My Role:

As Hiba’s classroom teacher, I knew I was responsible for her mainline instruction in language arts, so I prepared my own action plan.  Using Marie Clay’s Observation Survey to gather literacy information about Hiba, I came to know her as a reader and writer during the first weeks of school.  I determined the kinds of sight words, functional words, and cultural vocabulary that would support her literacy development.  

  • During our Reading Workshop, I scheduled a guided reading lesson four days a week with one day to assess her progress, listen to Hiba read a self-selected book, and help her continue to build her own book collection with titles.  
  • I planned daily guided writing lessons for Hiba and other striving writers during Writing Workshop.  I could work closely and support Hiba and a small group of writers showing Hiba that she was not the only one working to become a better writer.  My striving writers learned that they could be teachers and help one another grow in the smaller circle of our guided writing group.  
  • For Word Study, I wanted her to experience our Word Study lessons, but I knew she needed more.  I secured a Rosetta-Stone online account for Hiba to use as an independent study tool to support her English and to enrich her Word Study experiences.

During the first weeks of school, I got to know Hiba just like any other student through “kid-watching” and anecdotal notes.  I watched her handle books and noticed she eagerly asked others to read aloud to her.  I noticed she loved to write and draw elaborate pictures to support her work in her Writer’s Notebook.  She absolutely adored her circle of friends, sweet girls that rallied around Hiba and helped her in any way possible.  Just like a pride of mamma lionesses, each girl took turns making sure that Hiba was happy, included, and successful.  I watched them patiently take time to understand her attempts to be part of conversations at lunch, lessons and workshop experiences.

Hiba demonstrated from Day 1 that she was always observing her classmates, listening to the conversations, and following their actions so she could be an active part of the community. I needed students to authentically enrich Hiba’s learning in a respectful and efficient way by harnessing the social power of our community.

Environment:  I began building supports into the learning environment so that Hiba was guided toward independence.  

  • Seating:  A caring team of friends agreed to sit with Hiba at a table so they could provide support as needed.  I met with the girls and modeled ways to support rather than just “doing” for Hiba.  Their job was to let her be independent and only offer help as requested by Hiba, offering assistance in a kind and respectful manner.
  • Quick Communication Board:  Hiba had access to a clipboard with icons and survival phrases that were presented and explained to her by our Arabic-speaking bilingual aide.  The Quick Communication Board helped Hiba to have dignity and independence when asking for help.  As she felt comfortable with phrases like, “I need to sharpen my pencil”  or “I need to visit the restroom,” new phrases replaced mastered life skills.
  • A Visual Schedule:  Consistency and predictability help children gain control over their lives as they navigate a sea of new language and culture.  Knowing what was going to happen throughout her day helped Hiba to feel secure so her energy was focused on learning.  A buddy or the bilingual aide reviewed our schedule at the start of each day so she knew what was happening at all times.


Workshop Supports:

I looked for intentional ways to capitalize on dignified peer support to help Hiba move towards independence during our literacy workshops.  Thinking about our 3 literacy blocks, I targeted ways that students could enrich Hiba’s membership in our literacy community.

Reading Workshop:  

During Reading Workshop, the freedom to make choices are important to all children, including ELL students.  By adjusting workshop experiences to match Hiba’s growing confidence and skill-set, we launched the year with Book Buddies supporting Hiba in various ways during independent reading time.

  • A Book Buddy listened to Hiba read books from her leveled book tub.
  • Another Book Buddy read a picture book selected by Hiba. The reader not only practiced reading aloud for meaning and fluency, but Hiba grew her reading life and English knowledge with picture books.
  • Audio Books on sources like Epic gave Hiba other independent reading options.
  • Wordless Books were always available for Hiba to read by herself or with others during independent reading time.  The powerful illustrations of these books were later used for vocabulary development during Word Study or 1:1 sessions with an adult.  

Writing Workshop

Hiba met each day for a focused guided writing lesson with me. During Independent Writing Time, Writing Buddies helped Hiba capitalize on labeled visuals.

  • Labeled Pictures:  Hiba would select an image with vocabulary labels to support her writing.  As she crafted a sentence, a writing buddy could read or listen to Hiba and offer support as needed.
  • Visual Dictionary: Peers could target a page in a Visual Dictionary so that Hiba was comfortable using this writing tool to find the words she needed for writing. Students were encouraged to add synonyms to useful pictures.  For example:  on a page with art supplies, a peer added the word “markers” to a caption that read “felt tip markers.”
  • Tech Support:  As Hiba learned to use Google writing tools, spellcheck became an empowering way for her to move closer to conventional spelling.  Those “red squiggles” on misspelled words allowed her to control how she asked for help or corrected words by herself.

Word Study

  • A Word Buddy helped Hiba review vocabulary in her picture dictionary.
  • A Word Buddy listened to her complete Rosetta-Stone lessons so she had an audience for the speaking components.
  • A Word Buddy also served as a vocabulary tour guide around the classroom, checking her understanding of functional life vocabulary cards taped around the classroom.

Lessons Learned

It is natural for classroom teachers to scramble, searching for ways to support and enrich the learning lives of ELL students.  By nature, teachers are experts at designing and controlling experiences for students that lead to positive outcomes.  The lesson I learned from Hiba was one of grace and confidence.  I discovered it was not necessary for me to be the sole provider of her learning experiences.  Rather than looking at a pre-functional student as a daunting challenge for a classroom teacher working alone, support is available when a teacher looks to the strengths of a child and accepts the help of the community.  

With intentional planning, the people in Hiba’s learning community coordinate and maximize learning opportunities.  Teachers and students help Hiba navigate a new language and culture each day in our own way.  As teachers, we cannot control a child’s past experiences or a child’s present level of English language skills.  What we can control is how we respond to this learner.   When we respond with dignity, optimism and the strengths of our community, we find unlimited unlimited powers and opportunities.