Be Bold

Becoming better is the messiest work. It’s uncertain and humbling, even raw. But it’s also hopeful and affirming when we discover that the smallest moments accumulate into the most significant change. Here’s to wondering about the small moments throughout this mini-blog.
Four-Corners Reading Day

Four-Corners Reading Day

the STRUGGLE: It took me awhile to make sense of “reading days.” I know it sounds ridiculous, but I struggled to find the sweet spot between “teacher work day” (which I knew it wasn’t) and “stations” or “mini-lessons” (which I also knew it wasn’t). Ultimately, I didn’t have a good way to find out HOW students were reading, which meant I didn’t know how to teach on those days.

the TRY: My solution was a pretty simple one: ask them. And along the way, teach students more self-assessment skills. Now, on reading days, students self-select where they want to be in the room and thus, self-select the kind of instruction they’ll get.

  • The ones who need a quiet place to read get just that. These are often the readers who feel encumbered by too much “stop and go” and find their “reading flow” through the gift of time and trust.
  • The students who want to conference understand that at some point in the class period, I’ll ask them to pause and we can talk. Sometimes they have questions, sometimes they want to work out an idea. Other times, they want reassurance they’re paying attention to details that will help them formulate their own ideas later.
  • Some students are stuck. These students are often ones who have missed class recently or feel paralyzed by being so far behind. I always start here and try to quickly assess why they feel stuck. Once I understand, we can modify a reading schedule, create better background knowledge, move them to another part of the room or even modify the reading if necessary. I am very transparent about a “no judgment, just be honest” approach to these conversations.
  • Other students struggle with stamina and need help to keep reading. I usually put these students in smaller pairs or triads. I often ask them to get out the timer on their devices and set it for 5 minutes. The pair will agree to focus on the reading for 5 minutes, then pause to summarize to their partner. They set the timer again and keep reading ⇢checking in, reading ⇢checking in throughout the class period. I encourage them to lengthen the reading time, but would rather have them stay in the shorter increments than stop entirely.

the LEARN: More than anything, this approach to reading days has taught me the necessity of withholding judgment if we really want students to keep reading. A lot of these kids would either shut down or fake their way through the most essential skill of our classroom if I created any kind of punitive approach to these days. Reading days aren’t graded and I don’t associate points with them at all. It’s all goals, reflection and forward motion.



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Purpose Driven Discussions

Purpose Driven Discussions

the STRUGGLE: I’m constantly working towards creating more purposeful and authentic discussions in class. I’ve written about the way grading discussions don’t work for me and have offered other ways I’ve tackled this same question. I’ve wondered what a simplified approach would look like. Here’s what I’ve tried.

the TRY: Before discussion starts I ask everyone to take between 3-5 minutes to get back into their texts and find 3 talking points that can come from any combination of these entry points: 1) a question, 2) a passage from the text they are curious about, compelled by, just don’t get, etc or 3) an insight.

  • Then, at the top of the sticky note, I ask them to write one thing they’re curious about or would like to get out of this discussion.
  • After about 10-15 minutes, we pause and I ask them to write down what they’ve learned about their topic so far. I ask them to consider if their question turned into an insight or if their curiosity has turned into a more specific question about the text.
  • A little later, we pause again. I ask them to draw a conclusion about the text based on what they’ve been paying attention to in discussion.
  • At the end of discussion, I ask them to write down what they learned about the text and about an idea.

I collect the notes and often use them to formulate discussion or writing prompts for the beginning of class the next day.

the LEARN: I’ve learned that a learner-centered classroom means a purpose-driven classroom from the student perspective. This is a way I can stay honest to that belief and make sure discussion is about their discovery instead of my diagnosis.

Paint Chip Discussions

Paint Chip Discussions

the STRUGGLE: I often have trouble determining how engaged students are in discussion. There was a point (long ago) when I tried to use some kind of graded discussion as evidence of participation and engagement. Largely, all I ended up with was something that felt more like compliance and 30 kids trying to get points instead of listening, responding, thinking, caring about the conversation.

the TRY: So, I’ve been on a mission for a long time to find new ways to create engagement in discussion without undermining my own hopes for class discussion. Using these paint chips are one way! Here’s what happens.

    • Before discussion starts I ask everyone to take between 3-5 minutes to get back into their texts and find 3 talking points that can come from any combination of these entry points: 1) a question, 2) a passage from the text they are curious about, compelled by, just don’t get, etc or 3) an insight.
    • Then they turn one of those into their personal question for discussion (on the top of the paint chip). Then we discuss and dig based on their talking points.
    • About 10-15 minutes into the discussion we pause and I ask them to “deepen their thinking” on the next color of their paint chip by trying to answer their own question. I ask for any new insights. Then we continue discussing based on their talking points.
    • A little while later, we pause again. I ask them to deepen their responses by including a new idea, by incorporating language from the text into their thinking or analyzing the text more carefully.


  • With a few minutes left of class, I ask them to go to the last color (the darkest one) and ask them what the
    y learned from discussion. I want to learn about their thinking, their analysis, their new questions. Sometimes I even ask them to write thesis statement about their analysis before they leave.
    Then I read and use these to formatively plan for the next day!

the LEARN:

Ultimately, I learned how important it is to pause throughout discussion. We can’t just keep talking and talking without giving learners a chance to collect their thoughts. Some students process while they’re talking. Others can’t process that way and they need time to think about their thinking before they’re willing to participate. I get a lot of authentic participation from the pauses.

The Transition “Game”

The Transition “Game”

the ASK: I noticed that in our writing and in our conversations, we were struggling to call on transitions. I wondered how we could practice these in a way that didn’t feel like an isolated lesson.

the TRY: First thing on a Monday morning, I asked students to all stand up (complete with all kinds of groaning, especially from 1st hour, who was just proud to have showed up) and asked them all to share one thing they learned from their family over the weekend, using one of these transition phrases to build on what someone else shared. As soon as they built on someone else’s contribution, they got to sit down and we kept at it until everyone participated.

the LEARN: I learned I l-o-v-e this! I started using it regularly with progressively more academic and challenging prompts. Here’s why I love it.

  • It works for the beginning or the end of class (either to warm-up or formatively assess).
  • It requires students to really listen to each other in order to build on what someone else says.
  • It allows every student to exercise their voice…but they can still have time to plan and think.
  • We get to authentically practice transitions and they have to think about a purpose for a transition (e.g. to add, to compare, to emphasize) beyond their usual “first this happened, then that, and finally.”

After several weeks, all I had to do was put these pieces of chart paper in the front of the room and they knew to stand up and wait for the prompt!

In case you’re wondering about prompts, here are a few others to get you thinking:

  • What did you learn about __________ today?
  • What do you already know about _________ ?
  • What’s one thing you know for sure about what you read last night?
  • Here’s a thesis from one of your peers…how would you build on it?
Sentence Stems for Helpful Peer Feedback

Sentence Stems for Helpful Peer Feedback

the ASK: I’m constantly struggling with ways to help students give more authentic feedback to each other, whether it’s formal or informal. So, I thought about universal sentence stems that could help jumpstart their conversations.

the TRY: I actually first tried these when I was working with a class of students who weren’t my own. A teacher needed a last-minute substitute and all I knew about the lesson was that kids were supposed to give feedback to each other on homework. So, I quickly wrote these sentence stems on this sheet of paper, took all the kids out to the hallway, lined them up across from each other (think two parallel lines here) and asked them to offer feedback on the homework using these sentence stems to push thinking. Then one line would rotate, so kids could hear from several of their peers.

the LEARN: I learned we all need a place to start and even if kids might know what they want to say, the fear of saying the wrong thing can lead to really anesthetized feedback like, “That was good.” The most important part of all of this was what I asked kids to think about when they came back into the room. For a few minutes they reflected on the feedback for working on revisions. I asked:

  • What did you learn about your work?
  • What do you need to keep or build upon?
  • What do you need to revise?


Vocabulary Families

Vocabulary Families

the ASK: I never seem to have enough approaches to teaching vocabulary. Here, I wondered how I could get students to construct deeper understandings of words by seeing them as “families.”

the TRY: I gave students a series of words that all had something to do with the concept of hubris. They had to investigate the words and somehow arrange them in a way that visually demonstrated their relationships to each other. Then, they each took a picture and annotated the image with the rationales of their thinking.

the LEARN: I learned that the more students see the relationships words have to each other, the more likely they are to add them to their vocabularies, rather than just define them for a lesson or quiz. I was also reminded that it’s so much easier to think about words this way when you’re organizing teaching around concepts and ideas.

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