Summer Book Club Twitter Chat!

Mark your calendars and set your automatic reminders to July 10, 2013 at 8:00pm ET.

Join @donalynbooks, me (@iChrislehman), and we’re excited to be joined by friend and collections’ co-editor @pennykittle! Use and follow the hashtag #DonGraves.

At IRA’s convention in San Antonio I attended Penny Kittle and Tom Newkirk‘s session on writing instruction pioneer Don Graves. In the session they shared excerpts from their newly edited collection of his writings and archival videos, Children Want to Write: Donald Graves and the Revolution in Children’s Writing.

Sitting in the audience with friends Jen Serravallo and Kate Roberts, we couldn’t help but be moved by the clip of Don sitting at a large rectangular table with a group of children as he facilitated their conversation about their own ideas, their own writing.

It was hard to believe that there was ever a time when this was atypical. That there was a time when few believed children could do much more than brief prompted writing and sentence diagraming. That there was a time when the larger world of education believed that children weren’t mature enough to have their own ideas worth writing about.

Jen, Kate, and I got to talking about the pacing, the wait time, the careful listening. The session felt like a reminder of what matters most in education: valuing student voices.

Summer Book Twitter Chat

It felt natural, then, that during a #titletalk chat on summer reading plans, Donalyn Miller and I struck up the idea of organizing a chat about this new book. It felt like an opportunity to not just look back on the legacy of a pioneer, but a point of inspiration as we look ahead to the future of our field.

At a time when forces outside of our classrooms seems to be saying that students should write less and less from their hearts and more and more to assigned prompts, we can chat together about the vision we want for our writing instruction.

We will chat about the entire book and DVD, our classrooms, and our instruction.

Hope you can join us!


Summer Reading, Writing is a Habit (and No One Likes Habits)

by puuikibeach used under Creative Commons Lic

The end of the school year is fast approaching and as educators our minds turn to the obvious celebration of this glorious time of year, the end of a year of hard work, students growth, and this amazing sunny season: assigning summer homework.


Assigned book lists for the in-coming grade. Essay prompts to write. Sometimes even packets to complete. A lot of which many of us secretly reveal we barely read or do anything with in September.

It’s all well meaning. We know that students over summer can drop reading levels if they don’t read. We know that September can feels like the September of the year before, not the continuation since June if students are not actively thinking. We want our students to carry with them the work of a year so we can hit the ground running. We do this out of love.

What we are really asking students to do is to take on new habits, to make the work of the year part of their daily lives.

Here is the problem. Most of us hate new habits.

New Habits are Horrible

by kevin dooley used under Creative Commons lic

My self-directed summer assignments include: eat better, exercise more. Could you think of anything more terrible? This will, as it always is, be hard to maintain and tough to make time for. Enjoyable and amazing when it goes well and frustrating when I skip the gym for two weeks and just eat everything.

New habits are not made from book lists handed out on the last day of school. New habits do not come from assignments.

New habits come from self-drive and from a community of others. Think how you will use these last weeks of school to continue to build both.

Habits Helpers: Drive and Community

  • Summer reading club or reading partner lists, instead of simply book lists: Have students begin to organize now who they will be reading alongside, who they will talk with about their reading. As simple as phone numbers or email address, as complex as setting up book club meet-up dates.
  • Begin writing for self now, instead of just relying on a prompt: Have students begin exploding with writing, any genre, any purpose, any technology. Then just as with reading clubs, help them think about who they will share writing with. When will they check in?  Or even who could they be writing with? A google docs epic sci-fi adventure written by three classmates could fill an entire summer with writing.
  • Find a writer or reader you want to be: When we want a habit of better health we often look to people we admire: celebrities, family, friends. We learn about their routines and try to emulate them. Have your students write about the readers and writers they plan to admire over the summer. It could be you, classmates, professional writers (You could even draw connections beyond literacy, like in my guest post What the Kardashians Taught Me About Reading Instruction (No, For Real).

Think beyond summer assignments to engaging students in the real, tricky, exciting work of developing new habits.

Happy summer! Happy growing!



Christopher Lehman blog sticker-01Follow Chris on Twitter and his Blog. Learn how to have him work with your school or organization.

Stop lying: Writing is so hard.

I was writing with my friend and current co-author Kate Roberts at her home on Sunday.  At one point late into the day, at an official “wait, when did it become 6:30?” moment, we started talking about how hard writing is.  How it’s fun, exciting, but also exhausting. We are well into revising mode yet the little line-by-line work and the big nope-that-lesson-didn’t-go-well work both take so much time and energy.

As we were talking… yes mostly to avoid writing for moment… we quickly switched our conversation to thinking about how students write in school and wondered out loud if we as teachers of writing are bringing lessons from our adult writing lives into our rooms.

Revision is horrible until it’s beautiful until it’s exhausting.

I told Kate about a conversation I had about a month ago, I can’t remember exactly where, but a few teachers brought up the point that students seem to hate to revise.  I began with my usual stump speech and practical tips and then stopped for a minute.

I had a flash of myself, in front of my laptop, at 1:38AM, on a work night/day, revising and quietly cursing in my head, “why aren’t the thinks I’m thinking getting thunk on the page any faster?!?”  I then flashed to a heated debate with Kate over a section (of a now very old draft version we have long since improved upon) that at the time neither one of us was totally emotionally prepared to give in to the other on. I then flashed to a moment of turning on the television and refusing, absolutely refusing, to even turn my computer on because I was just so drained from a day of work I couldn’t even face the screen.

I remember looking up at those teachers and saying, “You know what, if I really think about it, of course your students hate to revise.  Writing is a terrible, emotional, time consuming–sure, at times wonderful–thing.”

i am writing

Revision is as revision does.

Kate and I started reflecting on what it means to commit to revising in our adult lives and how it does or does not look in classrooms.

  • Revision involves thinking of audience and a clear purpose. Carl Anderson has written about this, I have even done some of his lessons on this with students.  Heck, the standards even say we should care about this. But I don’t bring this up enough with students.  Yet, every single word I write and all of the hundreds upon hundreds of nit-picky rewrites I do are all with some reader in mind. “Will this make sense? Are they going to understand my point? A list of three questions stylistically reads more fluidly than just two right?”
  • Revision involves heart-ache and letting go. I am convinced you haven’t really revised anything until you’ve taken something you absolutely love that you wrote and deleted it.  I do so much teaching of what students should add to their drafts that I do not think I do enough teaching into what they should look for to cut.
  • Revision requires other eyes. Hallelujah that I am lucky enough to have great editors in my life.  I have learned so much working with each of them. My friend and editor Tobey is always terrific at seeing just what isn’t working as well as it could and suggesting cuts, changes, and needed explanations. What makes her a special talent is that she doesn’t write the book with us, she never says, “in this part I would write this.”  Instead she is much more of a writing teacher than editor, she gives big ideas, raises larger issues and then lets go.  I always aim to support teachers in leaving students with big strategies — I wonder, though, if I work enough on having honest (not harsh just honest) feedback about issues in writing that need addressing.
  • Revision takes time. In our conversation Kate pointed out something that has stuck with me, that I can’t figure out a solution for just yet, but that has really stuck.  The simple fact that it can sometimes take hours just to revise one small section of one page.  Yet, in classrooms, even in ones that give students time to revise every day for a week, the sum total of in-school revision work is perhaps two and half hours, maybe pushing three. I see the need to keep types of writing going and lots of opportunities to publish.  I think there is value in that.  I also know that when revision feels painful to students any day spent on it can feel like an eternity.  But I still wonder, are we – can we – provide the time needed for students to even feel the power of revision.  To get through their own stages of grief to acceptance?

My thoughts are racing with reflections.  “Duh”s and “Hmm”s and “What if”s.  I guess the biggest idea I will be carrying with me is if I am humanizing writing instruction enough for students. Do I expect them to do miracles that most adults find hard to do? Do I share my own struggles enough?   I’d love to hear some of your own lessons from your writing life and what they mean for your teaching of writing.

Happy anxious feelings of dread… er… writing.



Christopher Lehman blog sticker-01Follow Chris on Twitter and his Blog. Learn how to have him work with your school or organization.

Listen!: My Education Talk Radio Interview

I just finished my appearance on Education Talk Radio with Larry Jacobs which aired live today at 11AM EST on Blog Talk Radio.

I will admit at about 10:48 I was reeeeally nervous. Way more nervous than I am used to. I present frequently and honestly love to talk (as those who know me know all too well). But 12 minutes before the show my stomach was in knots. The first great help was tweets and messages of love and support coming from so many of you. THANK YOU. The other great support was that Larry was a terrific host – funny and thoughtful.

Here is the link to the archived interview:

We talk about my book Energize Research Reading and Writing, why I love Library/Media Specialists, the Chris Lehmann/Chris Lehman confusion (with a shout out to Kate Roberts), seeing the CCSS as habits not check-boxes, with a backdrop of laughter throughout the show.

If you don’t follow Education Talk Radio’s blog, you really should. No really. Larry has AWESOME guests. Wait, that wasn’t big enough…


Here are just a few podcasted shows with people you love:

Thanks for listening! Happy researching!

Education’s Own 47%

Election season always becomes an inflated game of blame.  After all David is more David with a Goliath.

By now Mitt Romney’s despicable moment in the sun in mid-September is old news.  Not easy or even excusable news (it took him almost 3 weeks–as polls continued to slip–to say he was “completely wrong“) but it has been through the media spin and thrown back out again.  That one moment’s passing does not erase the fact that poor and middle class people have become this ticket’s foe – no need for Medicare, Welfare, Unions, Healthcare. No soup kitchen photo can hide this clearly stated platform: the 47% (or 30%) are the reason for our wavering economy, their future mooching will drag us all down.

Every faith, from Mormon to Catholic, Muslim to Buddhist, Religious to Secular, all contend that we must look out for the poor and in need.  Why not fight to support them?  No, no, they are to be feared. Unregulated, risky, predatory housing lending be damned.

Education Has It’s Own “47%” Scapegoat

Education has been having it’s own dramatic “47%”ing for sometime now.  You see, as the story goes, the reason why education is “failing” is because educators just “don’t care enough.” A small percentage of amazing teachers believe in kids, the tale continues, but most, especially those who work in high poverty schools, do not believe in the children they serve, their expectations are too low, and they in fact do not know how to teach. Goliath. Bad bad Goliath.  And here’s the thing, it’s not 47% this story aims at, instead the majority of education is in the cross hairs.

Some Examples of the 47%-ing
  • Kevin P. Chavous, “attorney, author, and education reform leader,” posts “Kids In Poverty Can Still Learn” and claims that  “far too many people blatantly say to [one school leader] things like “It’s impossible to educate poor black kids,” and “You need to change your school’s demographic to have any real success.”  While the post makes ridiculous and largely unfounded claims, the comments below it are full of honesty and worth a read.  Here’s one:

  • Dr. Steve Perry travels the country professing a reform agenda, and along with it blaming teachers – as he did on Melissa Harris-Perry’s Show, saying “teachers only work 8 months” and are overpaid: what “a 21 year old” makes starting out in education is “a pretty good deal.”  Pretty good compared to what other life-critical-profession? To starting doctors? Here is one clip (sorry it’s brief on this site), and here is the next when Melissa Harris-Perry is shocked by his comments.  The entire segment is worth a look. Which led reporter Joy Reid to tweet:
  • The Gates Foundation has had a series of back-and-forth posts with Anthony Cody, an educator, regarding issues in education.  In one of Gates’ responses titled “Poverty Does Matter–But It Is Not Destiny” the author states: “We also believe there are so many problems with our current [education] system that erecting barriers to educational success, that setting up false choices -i.e., dealing with poverty or helping teachers be most effective is an either/or choice – will only slow down progress for students. We need to address all elements of the problem.”  This response echoes the false argument of many “reformers,” that educators who talk about poverty are somehow making excuses.  It seems to me comments like these are actually the ones creating this false dichotomy.
  • NYS’s “reform agenda” – just one state of many using Race To The Top funding to push initiatives – involves teacher effectiveness rubrics, oodles of assessments, and test scores tied to performance evaluations. The message to many educators is that they have no expertise, and that non-educators like Dave Coleman know exactly what they should do with their time – despite not appearing in any classroom piloting these new “solutions.”

The Issue Is Not The Issue

There are some major problems here in this “trickle down” math problem:

That our economy is failing because our education system is failing because our teachers are failing.

Education is not failing, or at least not in the way everyone is saying

To watch the Chevron commercial, or hear any candidate speak, or watch the news, one would think all of US education is doomed.  Our science scores are worst in the world!  Oh no! Students literacy is failing! Foreshame! But turns out that is not exactly the correct picture.

Take the most recent data review from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) administration in 2009.  A test comparing 15-year olds around the world in math, science, and reading literacy.  An often sited source by reformers for the woes of US education.

(Note: All below images are from Highlights from PISA 2009, a data mining of that international testing data. Available for free at the link.)

First, US averages are nearly identical to the averages of other countries in science literacy. Now average does mean some students performed above and some below, but there is not an alarming difference.

Also, the science literacy scores showed improvement from the previous test administration, now on par with other countries.

Most eye opening is the literacy scale, which at first makes the US appear to be one of the lowest scorers of developed countries.

Finland! Grr, there you are with a combined reading literacy scale score of 536! Look at us down there, tied for 12th place. Korea, Japan, even Canada beat us! Say it ain’t so.

But now look at this.

If America’s high income schools (ones with less than 10 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch) were their own country… scale score 551… they would perform well above top-of-the-list Republic of Korea…scale score of 539.

Add in more students with lower income households and the scale scores drop and drop and drop.

In fact if highest poverty schools (ones with 75 percent or more low income households) were their own country…scale score 446… they would just barely beat Mexico… scale score 425.

Poverty is a real thing

Know what else we barely beat Mexico in?  Our Child Poverty Rate.

Actually that data is a little outdated, it was from 2005.  Here is 2012.

No better, actually worse. US remains near base bottom of all countries for our abysmally low rate of keeping children out of poverty.  And hey, there’s our friend Finland again!  Hi you, way up near the top ! Our child poverty rate is 4 times as high as Finland’s.  …weren’t we all supposed to learn from them?

Star “reformers” have not left improving-poverty-success in their wake

For all of the reformers talk about educators being responsible for poverty, and the same reformers certainty that we just need to keep kicking and pushing and rating and pay-for-performancing educators into working harder; they have little to show for their absolute certainty.  Some of the movement’s largest stars: Rhee (formerly DC), Klein(formerly NYC), and our own US Education Secretary Duncan (formerly Chicago) all claim to have the solution for educational inequity – fix those darn teachers.  But note this: during each of these leaders tenures test scores rose–a point they all champion (well sort of).  However, individual poverty rates also continued to climb.

Poverty rates got worse, right along with everyone else. Why are we following these people again?

The Issue Is The Issue

If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.  And this duck is that the United States has an extreme problem of poverty.  There is a highly good chance that your own school, or the school of your children, or the school of the children two towns over, is largely homogenized by income and sadly, probably by race. New York Times’ did a series of brilliant infographics on segregated New York City Schools (yes, Joel Klein’s 8 years as Chancellor district) and a stunning look through the eyes of children in a piece called “Why Don’t We Have Any White Kids?– if you follow no other link from my post, this is the one to read.  New York is not alone, nearly anywhere in the country we divide our children.

Children.  Let that sit with you a moment.

There is also a very good chance that the probably quite homogenized school a child goes to has quite homogenized test scores.  A quick, very non-scientific, review of NYC’s school testing data from two schools shows test scores across time from a low poverty and a high poverty school.  The low poverty school continues to perform at or above 80% students passing year to year.  The high poverty consistently below 40%, more recently below 30% year to year.

These were two schools in one city, this pattern plays out across the country. Anecdotally, when I step into a high poverty school often one of the topics that first comes up is “our students are performing at 30% passing, what can we do?” and when I step into a high income school I often hear, “our scores are really good, we want to figure out how to push our highest kids, but scores are not really an issue here.”  I hear this over and over and over and over and over.

How is it okay in American today that one could walk into a school on the border of Long Island and see high scores, high income families, and mostly white and asian students?  Then the next day drive 25 mins south to the far edge of Queens and walk into a low performing school, with extremely high poverty and see mostly black and latino students?  I have done that.  I have made that trip in NY and NC and WI and CA and WA and DC and each time have asked: how is this okay?

On statistics alone we can assume that it’s not that the absolute-ace-teachers are all in high income schools and the education-school-drop-outs are in the high poverty. I can tell you from being in hundreds and hundreds of classrooms across the country that that is not true. I have seen the small few – literally very few – who I would not want teaching my children in both types of schools. More often I’ve seen amazingly dedicated, responsive, reflective, hard working teachers in both places as well.  And those teachers are more and more stressed and burned out and demoralized than I have ever seen them before.

Poverty Is Not Destiny, If We Stop “47%-ing” Teachers and Students

Education reporter Dana Goldstein for The Nation, in a commentary on the movie “Won’t Back Down,” states this misunderstanding quite elegantly:

As an education reporter, I’ve visited many urban schools that are beacons of hope in troubled neighborhoods, but no school can find decent jobs for under- or unemployed parents who can’t put nutritious food on the table; nor can a school make up for the chronic instability of a young life spent in foster care or moving from apartment to apartment in a futile quest for safe, affordable housing. Volumes of research show such experiences affect cognitive development and children’s ability to focus in school; dedicated educators and counselors work wonders with such children each day, but they don’t rescue neighborhoods from poverty.

Is it okay that this is an election cycle where in one breath politicians talk about fixing schools and in the next are suggesting we cut all social services to support those most in need?

It is easier to create a Goliath. To blame the 47% for dragging our economy down.  To blame educators for not solving one of our most embarrassing societal issues single handedly.

We do not know all the answers.

I have worked with schools that have gone from terrible results to meeting AYP.  I have worked with schools that went from chaotic hallways to a dramatic shift in tone–right along the same time students became engaged in reading and writing and felt supported and listened to.  I have worked with schools where teachers used to shut their doors and now share — even have friendly competitions — with resources and approaches and classroom environments.

But, I have not been in schools that have solved poverty.  I have not seen a direct link between improved scores and a boost for all children – not just those scoring well.  For instance, high test scores have not resulted in crumbling ceiling tiles being replaced.  High teacher effectiveness rubric scores have not resulted in well paying professions for parents in the community.  Properly implementing RtI has not allowed a child to do homework at night instead of babysitting siblings nearly their age.

We do not have all the answers, but we will not have them if we ignore the full problem.

If we Race to The Top, then we compete. We do not collaborate.

If we work only on teacher practice, and not children’s full lives, then we – at best – only improve a small percentage of a child’s day.

If we blame educators, then we demoralize the very people we claim to want to help.

If we blame educators, we drive people away from the critical profession.

Mitt Romney Apologized, When America Said Something

I began this post pointing out that Mr. Romney did eventually say his 47% comments were “completely wrong.”  It took him nearly 3 weeks to do so, after first largely standing up for them (remember, they were not “elegantly stated“), but he did come back.  Why? Because Americans said enough is enough. Polls were dropping.  He had no choice.

WE, the public, must speak up loudly again. Not just for our profession, not for ourselves, but because if we reamin silent we sweep the plight of children under the cover of “bad teaching.” I hope for a conversation in which reformers aim to reform the entire system, let’s talk improving teaching and learning and living.  It’s a harder question, but the most essential one to have.

Enough is enough for education’s “47%-ing.” Now is the time to speak up.

Research Instruction: Who Decided It Should Be A Tremendous Bore?

Please transport me back to the exact moment and exact person who thought, “I know, let’s make teaching research skills the most awful experience possible.” I’d like to give that person a piece of my mind.

What are we doing? Research is incredible. Look around yourself right now: every single thing you own, are wearing, are eating, are talking on or tapping on, came from someone or some group of someones researching, studying, communicating new findings with one another, and developing all of it. All. Of. It.

Research is tremendously empowering. Don’t like the price of that used car the salesperson is offering you? Research. Wondering if there are other ways of dealing with a disease? Research! Baby on the way? Research. iPhone-this or Galaxy-that? Research. Where to eat, where to go, how do I unclog this drain, what song is on this commercial, what do mosquitoes do anyway, what good book should I read next, flipped classrooms are what exactly, how do I help my readers,… Research!

So why, then, is the first image that pops into many people’s minds (and I have asked a lot of people): students, or themselves as students, recopying book information onto little cards (e.g. photocopying) and then recopying the information from those little cards onto paper and doing so in the approximate shape of paragraphs (e.g. photocopying), ending in a horrific inferno of last minute final draft making, that–when all is said and done–results in the answer, “I dunno,” to the question, “so what have you learned about this topic?”

We are better than this, people. Rise up teachers. Rise up.

I undertook this mission, to rescue research, and began in an obvious (and Dr. Suess-ian) way: by researching research to rescue research by teaching kids researching in the way we all research. This resulted in my new book: Energize Research Reading and Writing. In researching for, and during the process of, writing the book I came to some new understandings of what we are mostly doing now in the name of research and what changes we can make (or some are making) that can dramatically transform both how we teach and students’ relationship to these skills. I would like to share three essential moves in this post:

1. Stop Handing Out So Much Stuff

The Common Core has devoted an entire strand of the Writing standards to research (7, 8, 9):

© Copyright 2010. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers. All rights reserved.

and the tests that are chugging on down the track toward us aim to make research skills a big portion of how students are assessed (PARCC-one of the three performance tasks and SMARTER Balanced-see page 17-18). Meaning, students will be expected to be independent with these skills, not co-dependent. Not expecting us to dole out each bit.

So one place to start is actually to stop. To stop assigning specific topics or ways those topics should specifically unfold (“on page three describe the state bird and draw a picture of it, on page four write three facts about the state’s agriculture…”). Also, stop handing out the sources students should use. Instead teach them the very habits you use when you think, “We’re having a baby… now what??”:

  • You start broad, let your possible topic guide you to possible sources.
  • Then let those sources guide you to a more specific focus.
  • Repeat as necessary.

The start of research is like dating: you really only know what you are looking for after you have been looking for awhile.

Chapter 2 of my book describes this in way more detail and is a free read here.

2. Take Notes On Your Mind, Not Your Book

We need to cure the I am pretending to take notes but actually I am just copying everything disease or its related strain I am mostly just writing down numbers I come across but I don’t know why virus.

A way to do this is to shift students’ perceptions away from taking notes on books to taking notes on our minds. More specifically:

  • First, read and focus on what you are learning
  • Then, stop and look away from the text
  • Next, take notes on your learning, ideally without looking at the book at all
  • Finally, perhaps, look briefly back to see if there is something really essential you missed such as “domain specific language” you could use in place of other words – a la Common Core.

It takes a bit of practice, even sometimes an overly exaggerated policing-coaching, “nope, nooooo notes now, just read.” or “now before you write any notes, teach me about your topic, tell me what you just learned….. …great! now right that down in the same way.” I call this strategy Read, Cover and Jot, Reread. It’s cousin is Read, Cover and Sketch, Reread for students that just won’t stop copying: if they are reading text, take notes in sketches and labels; if looking at a diagram, take notes in words.

3. Add a New Process Step: Teach-Through-Writing

Lastly, to counteract dry, dull or I didn’t really learn anything even though I wrote 8 pages research writing, I argue that we need to add a new step in the research writing process.

  • What Happens now: students tend to jot notes [from books], then write a draft.
  • Instead: we need to jot notes [from our mind], then experiment with a variety ways of teaching those ideas and facts through writing, ONLY THEN draft–drawing on the best experiments.

One example is you have a fact or few – say “cuttlefish subdue their prey by making their skin flash” – you can experiment with how you will teach that fact:

  • try making surprising comparisons: “If you have ever been around a strobe light, perhaps in a haunted house or at a school dance, you know how they can both mesmerize and disorient you. Cuttlefish use a similar technique to make their prey freeze long enough to be caught. They actually make their skin pulsate a lot like those lights.”
  • try teaching instead by creating a story: “A cuttlefish swims slowly through the ocean, a small crustacean crawls into view. Lunch! The cuttlefish approaches slowly, but cannot let the fast moving crustacean escape. So, he extends two large tentacles and starts flashing. The small prey looks up and is instantly so confused it freezes in place. Just long enough for the cuttlefish to SNAP! Catch it.”

These are just two examples of this type of teaching-through-writing. In working with students, I was amazed at how this shift in the process not only lead to students doing better and more interesting writing, it also helps them continue to learn about their topic because they continue to manipulate it in a variety of ways–all with their readers in mind.

Let’s Talk More About Rescuing Research

On Monday, Oct 1st at 7PM EST I guest moderated #Engchat (YAY!) with the topic “Teach Students to Research, Not Regurgitate.” The archive (and a funny story) is at my post: “I Broke Twitter. And It Was Worth It.”

My book on this topic, Energize Research Reading and Writing, is available at book sellers like Heinemann, Amazon, and Barnes&Noble.

As always, leave comments or tweet me, I’d love to hear ways you are helping students have the excitement and deep learning that real research provides.

Welcome to the Eleventh Month of School: September

My friend Kristi Mraz has a great way of talking about the start of the year, she says “we have to think of September not as the start of this year, but as the eleventh month of the school year before.”   In other words: our kids know stuff when they come to us.  Yet, there is a way we can fall into a simple trap, one born of deep love for our students and our routines, where we “break things down” into über-clear points to make sure they absolutely get it:

“This! This is a reading log. I will now show you precisely how to fill it out.”

“This! This is writing an essay.  It is a waaaaay different kind of writing.  Here is how informational writing is different.”

“Good group work sounds liiiiiiiiike….  it looks liiiiiike…”

Of course these are obtuse generalizations, but not so far from reality. Frankly, this happens with us as adults as well.  How many PD sessions or meetings do you walk into (or have you lead) where you feel the person presenting – though with earnestness and care for you – is talking beneath what you already know?  I sheepishly raise my hand because I know I’ve been that presenter sometimes.  Look, a common language is important to establish and I want to make sure we are all really clear with one another… but I do know that not starting from what you know — or at least acknowledging what you know and keeping the rehash short — can lift or crush enthusiasm. More over, it’s starting from the womb, not starting from the know.

Help Students Do Last Year’s Best Work Now

Everything that happens in our classrooms starts with us. Or using the words my wife sometimes has to remind me of when it’s 7:30 and the kids should have already been in bed but one is screaming and the other has gone about throwing their toys all over the floor and I haven’t even eaten yet and… …you are the adult.  You can only control you and your actions. 

Here are some tips for actions you can take to support students in remembering they already have a lot of “best work” inside of them.  I and other readers would also love to hear more of your tips, please post in the comments.

What Are They Already Doing–What Did They Forgot They Can Do?  

(This would make for a great PLC meeting I think:)

    1. Make a list, just a quick jotting, of all the major stuff your students learned last year related to your particular content area – the things you know they learned or can assume they learned (or do this cross grades and then you can actually ask last year’s teacher).
    2. Gather a few students’ notebooks or jottings or other artifacts from this year. Compare the list of “last year stuff” to the current student work (yes, even if this is only Day 5 for them, today).
    3. Grab that list and proudly check off everything you see some evidence of. Circle everything you don’t.
    4. Start with the CHECKS, NOT the circles! Build upon the strengths you see first – even if they don’t appear to fit in this unit, even if you much rather do the circles.  Strength builds strength.

Open up portfolios with students.

I don’t know about you, but I usually let handed-up-from-the-grade-before-me portfolios just sit and collect dust. For shame, I know. But several schools I work with do this very easy, and very smart, trick.  Now that you are a bit into the school year, hand back last year’s notebook (or final pieces or science lab reports or whatever) RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE of students working:

“Could everyone pause just a minute? I don’t know about you, but I am very hard on myself sometimes.  Like, if I feel really overwhelmed, like there is too much to do and I’m losing track of things, I can feel really badly, like I’m just letting myself and others down.  But do you know what gets me out of that, what picks me up?  I remind myself of all the great things I have done. I stop to admire myself for a minute. It sounds funny, but it helps a lot.  

So, I’d like to surprise you, I want to hand back your [insert whatever that thing is here] from last year and I’d like you to compare what you are doing right now to what you did then.  Remind yourself of any terrific stuff you may have forgotten you are able to do. We’re going to pause in our work to do this a bit, then you will tell a partner all the great stuff you did last year, and then we’ll get back to work and I want to walk around and find out what you are adding into your work today.”

Invite other eyes to help you see.  

When I am in role as a Staff Developer with the Reading and Writing Project, I am in schools and classrooms nearly every single day – teaching in front of, alongside, or coaching teams of teachers. I had the pleasure of visiting a school I absolutely love and have worked many years in with two of my colleagues this week, Janet Steinberg and Audra Robb.   It was, and always is, so eye opening to share a place you know so well with others.  Laura Kotch, a former NYC superintendent often says, “When company is coming, you see things differently in your house.”  Big ah-has hit me through our conversations–things I think I knew, somewhere in my head, but were so crystalized for me as we spoke together:

    • I know: We have to teach the kids, not the curriculum. What I realized: this means our room environment should echo that.  Yes, charting – for example (shout out to chartchums) – can and should reflect current studies. But I realized that often I am making charts mostly just FOR THE CURRICULUM, but not always making additional charts FOR THE STUDENTS.  For instance, you are leading a unit on “reading fantasy with energy and insight;” then super, include charts about that genre and strategies to help students analyze the text carefully.  However, your room may not only need fantasy charts up.  What if you have a bunch of students who are also trying to not just “cite” evidence, but use evidence to have new interpretations?  Boom. New Chart. Some students working on fluency (which, as Tim Rasinski points out over and over, every grade needs fluency support)? Then, have some charts with tips about phrases, inflection, and rereading.

Remind YOURSELF of Your Gifts, Too.

The other big ah-ha was exactly what this post is about – that we need to continually invite students to use what they know… we need to invite, support, praise, insist, and value those things.  Janet, for example, had beautiful questions she would ask kids she was talking with.  And the key was her tone, it wasn’t the “I’m doing a walkthrough – TELL ME WHAT YOU ARE LEARNING!” tone, it was the fellow-learner, talking together about things we all find challenging and things we are proud of.  I’ve riffed on her questions in this little graphic, which I think sums up my new goal for my work.

Try this with me, thinking about your professional or even personal life:

I’m thinking about how I think I’m a good cook and preparing dinner makes me happy… I am just now remember that I can bake a mean fish and need to do that again soon.  I am thinking about how when teaching reading, I’ve learned and studied a lot about leading great interactive read alouds… I am realizing that I do pretty well supporting kids conversations during book clubs, but need to bring more of that into read aloud conversations.

I would love to hear more tips about how you are helping students (and you) draw on more of “last year,” even early in the school year. That now – whenever now is for you – is the next link in the chain of a child’s entire life, we help them see that chain.

So You Think You Want to Tweet Chat: From Lurker to Chatter 101

This post is intended to help anyone who has been a twitter lurker (some of my favorite people are still lurkers) into being a twitter chatter.

An older edweek post circulated on Twitter today: Why Educators Should Join Twitter.  In it Peter describes that in his early-to-Twitter, are-you-really-sure-this-is-for-me uncertainty, he suddenly became converted after joining a twitter chat (in his case the terrific #elemchat).  As you probably know, I’ve become a bit of a twitter evangelist myself, professing it’s power everywhere I go and for me, just as with Peter, joining in chats has been not only powerful professional development but also emotionally uplifting in those times that I find myself in a deep funk.  Like this recent #edchat archive, where I left the hour feeling amazing.

I’d like to share how I set myself up for an education chat on twitter to help you do the same.

Go from Twitter Lurker to Twitter Chatter

And just so you know, I personally think this post would be a million times better if it were actually a 1950s educational video on a grainy black and white film reel, but we’ll do the best we can.

(I’m very proud of that graphic, everyone.)

Step One: Find a Chat

Chats are typically one hour discussions, usually on a regular schedule (like every Wednesday at 9pmCST). Think of them as a party of smart people that you are mingling within, not as a typical workshop.  There are many people meeting to talk about a topic (depending on the facilitation they could be conversations led with questions or just very open) but it is nearly impossible to pay attention to all comments.  So your first step is just finding a topic you want to mingle about and the time the party takes place.  Here are some helpful ways:

  • Cybraryman (he calls himself a twitter librarian) has a very thorough twitter chat page:
  • Here’s a non-education-specific list from ReadWriteWeb that is a touch outdated but many of the chats are still active.
  • Or I often find chats when suddenly everyone in my twitter stream is using the same hashtag…

Step Two: Set Up

I like to have both my computer and phone, though you could do this with one or the other.  I find it helpful to have three websites open on my laptop:

  • I  have my phone next to me, using the Twitter App.  This seems to help me notice when someone has sent me a direct reply (more on this later in the post).
  • What’s nice about tweetchat (and there may be other clients, please feel free to suggest in the comments) is that it automatically follows that hashtag for you , meaning it only shows tweets that include that hashtag in it’s text.  It also automatically puts the hashtag in for you when you type, saving the correct number of characters automatically.  Like so (note – if your mobile browser is not displaying the images below, be sure to view on “Full Site”):

Log-in. Type in the # to follow (in this example #edchat). You can even adjust the refresh rate.

Type what you want to say into the box – you must stop at or before “0” characters left.

Et voilà, tweetchat plugs in the hashtag for you when you hit “update”.

As an alternative, you can do a similar move inside of the Twitter App by clicking “Discover”. Just be sure to click “All” in order to see everyone’s tweets, not just from those you follow. And note: while in “discover” the app will put in the hashtag for you, outside of that you need to remember to type it in yourself.

Step Three: Chat!

Depending on the size of the chat, it can sometimes feel really overwhelming.  My advice: start by replying to individual people.  In a very large chats it’s often easier to have small conversations than to try and follow the whole room — as I said earlier, think of it like mingling at a dinner party, not attending a workshop with a main speaker.

Advanced Tweet Chatting Tips

Here are a few more tips that help me (I’d love for you to add any others in the comments).

  • Mind your Qs and As. Some chat hosts list questions in an order: Q1, Q2, Q3…  And then participants can indicate which question they are responding to with A1 (for Q1) , A2 (for Q2), and so on.  If you come late to a chat watch a bit to see if there is a numbering system (not all have them), so you can be on the lookout for the next question.
  • Adding links for others. In the Twitter App you just need to type in the link and Twitter automatically shortens it (HootSuite does the same, as do a few other apps). Tweetchat for some reason does not, so that’s why it helps to have that 3rd page open – or or whatever other url shortener.  You just plop your mamoth url address in and it makes it use less characters. for example turned this

Into this

Same link (56 characters) , shortened (now only 13 characters)

  • Keeping track of links people post. I often find it hard to both follow a chat and open links, so many people use the “favorite” feature (the little star in the Twitter App and on Tweetchat) to hold something you want to read for later.
  • Keeping track of the fast moving conversation. Two bits of advice:
    • One, as I mentioned earlier in the post: in tweetchat, adjust the “refresh” speed.
    • Two, have your phone next to you using the Twitter App, it helps so much. For example, I have my iPhone set up to buzz me and preview a twitter reply to me (called “mentions”).  So in a busy chat if my phone buzzes, it’s an audible notice that someone said something directly to me in the room. I’ll look for it on the Tweetchat screen or if the chat is really busy, I’ll just pick up my phone and chat with that person through my Twitter App (note: in that case you have to remember to write in the hashtag yourself or it won’t show up in the main “room” for everyone).

You Can Always Read the Archive Later

If you feel like you missed a lot in a chat – which is very likely.  Look for (or ask the person hosting for) a link to the archive of the chat.  To be honest, I find them impossible to read in any logical way because it is often just a literal print out of every tweet, in order.  But you can still find a lot of really helpful advice and links. Just go into an archive thinking you’ll get a general sense of the chat and you will look for some helpful threads of conversation.

You Learn by Doing – and messing up is okay

Like anything, it just becomes easier the more you do it.

I hope to see you in twitter chats soon, not just lurking but sharing. Feel free to tweet me if you have questions or need some advice on chatting – or to any one for that matter already in a chat.  I find every education conversation I join in to be warm, welcoming, and supportive. All of us actively chatting in the education community on twitter really, really, really would like you to join us.  So don’t fear messing up–we’ve all done it before.

Happy chatting!


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Chartchums Guest Post: Charting a Course to Deeper Learning

Visit my friends over at Chartchums, and while you’re at it check out my guest post from July 2012: