My Students Blew My Unit Up, and It’s a Good Thing!


This summer, I was really excited. I was told when I was hired at my new school that this group of students was amazing. They were hard workers, and did really well in reading. I thought I was getting to put into place the Reading Units of Study (RUOS) in my classroom. These are amazing lessons to get kids where they need to be and to do the thinking work that is required of them. I had roughly sketched out my first two units. I was excited, happy, and totally prepared. Well, good plans were just that, plans.

Silly me, I hopefully assumed, that we were speaking that same language. Unfortunately we were not. Where I am now looks heavily on reading rate, as a basis to how well students read. So I have two very full classes of speedy word callers without hardly a clue as to what they have read.

The RUOS make an assumption that most of your students are somewhat close to reading on level with comprehension. After all, the mini lesson is used for teaching what most of your kids need to learn next. So what happens when most of your students (about 70%) are about two years below grade level?

If I continued with what I had planned, how responsive would my teaching be to my students’ needs? It probably wouldn’t stick as they are not ready for it. I could continue teaching and hope for the best, but may notice behaviors increasing as the learning is not relevant to what most of my students need. I would be spinning my wheels and not really getting anywhere quickly. I could choose to do continue with my plan…OR…I could choose to abandon my unit.

Abandon a unit plan that I knew was incredibly awesome? It’s not an easy decision.  That’s for sure. It was hours of hard collaborative work I put in. Hours. I think of lesson and unit plans similarly to just right books.  We don’t want them too easy, or we won’t grow, and we don’t want them too hard, or we’ll get frustrated and won’t grow.  We want to do most of our work just ahead of where most of our students are, so we can get the most impact and learning. The plan I had wouldn’t allow that.

As hard as it was to let that work go, I thanked what was right in the situation. I have an amazing unit to use at some point with my students, or students in future years. The work will pay off at some point. I was glad I had all my running records done and I knew my students well enough to know that this plan was not going to work. I had to abandon it for the sake of their learning. After all, it’s not what’s best for me. It’s what is best for my readers.

Abandoning a unit is hard. I’m not talking about abandoning the genre of the unit. For example, I’m not talking about taking a unit on fiction, and changing it to a unit on expository text.  I still need to teach fiction. I am just going to teach where my students are. The many pieces data from my running records and comprehension conversations  support this move.

My students have trouble following the plot, let alone doing character work. So I began where they were, plot. I used my resources to help me as I hate recreating the wheel when someone else has already done that work.  I used the Continuum of Literacy Learning (the new edition is amazing) and The Reading Strategies Book. I had to look at what comprehension behaviors my students were able to do independently (thank you running records!) and find what were the next steps. It was like planning for conferences and small group work, but on a whole group scale. So where did this new plan get my classes?

We just stepped out of some plot work and are moving into basic character work. Almost 75% of my students in fourth grade are beginning to work out character feelings. We aren’t even touching traits at this point. And guess what? My students are thriving. They are able to tell me about what is going on in their stories. They are starting to be able to connect to characters. They are being successful and are starting to find the magic in reading. And the ones that were already doing this work are getting pushed and taught in small group to meet their needs as readers.

This first hand lesson in responsive teaching reminded me of something I have said and thought many times. We teach children. That means our teaching has to be responsive to where our children are. We don’t teach awesome units and lessons that won’t really help our children. We don’t teach programs. We teach children. Abandoning my planned unit allowed me to do this. My students are better for it.




Is THIS on Your To Do List?

IS  This on your to do list image

Some of us have been back to school for two or three weeks, and some of you will start this week.  Whenever you began, I am sure you had an extensive to-do list (possibly like the one above).  I am guessing that most of the items centered on your classroom, your students, and school compliance tasks.  No doubt, these are essential tasks that need to be completed, however, most of us left off something important.  We left our own growth and support off the list.

I am not talking about required goal setting for evaluations, meeting your assigned mentor, or meeting with your PLC (Professional Learning Community) that has become another to do list item.  I am talking about building genuine support systems for yourself.  Relationships don’t just happen – they need to be nurtured.  Now is the time to start feeding those relationships that are sprouting so that you can harvest from them during the trying times ahead and be a harvest to others who need support.

Isn’t is enough to be cordial with colleagues and participate in team planning?:  Isn’t it enough to share some resources?  Isn’t it enough to smile and say, “Good morning”?  All those are nice gestures, but if we really want to accomplish great things, we need a strong community in which to work.  Lucy Calkins addressed this during her opening keynote at the June Reading Institute this summer at Teacher’s College.  She shared that one way we can truly change our happiness level is by being part of a community around a cause you believe in.  What stronger cause is there than educating our students with the type of instruction they deserve?  We know there will be hard parts in our school year and as Lucy said, “We don’t want to be alone during the hard parts of life.  We need to be with each other in the hard parts.”  She went on to share this scary statistic – “80% of Americans feel disengaged from their jobs.”  Can you imagine what the ramifications are if teachers are disengaged from their jobs, from their students?  As Lucy went on to say, “We need a new educational story.  Communities who come together.”  How can you help write a new educational story this school year?

If you haven’t had to write professional goals for yourself yet, you probably will soon.  Most of us will be required to use testing data to write at least one of our goals.  Our evaluation systems will make us write goals that fit certain criteria.  What are your real goals?  Not the ones you are willing to share with your appraiser – the real goal.  As Dr. Eric Jensen says, “The gutsy goal.”  The kind of goal that is so ambitious that Lucy says we should only be able to reach 60% of.  Goals that “exceed our grasp”, but by striving for them we would grow our students in ways we think are only dreams.  In order to grow into goals like this and do hard work we need a safe community or as Lucy says, “a nest.” This kind of a community is one where you can make your gutsy goal public.  Communities where you can explore important questions like, “How will this school be a different place because I was here?”

How do you build a community like this?  It starts by listening and observing.  Who is saying not necessarily the most in staff meetings, but saying things that make you nod in agreement.  Who is treating their students like each has the potential to solve a major world problem?  Who is carrying a professional book with post-its sticking out like cactus thorns?  Plant seeds by starting a conversation with these people.  Ask them questions and show interest in the answers.  Praise them and ask for help from them. Ask them if you could come and observe their classroom.  When you observe them be sure to take notes and leave a thank you note indicating how you will use what you learned in the classroom. Bring them a small treat like a cookie or a cute notepad with a note. Offer to buy them a cup of coffee at a local shop so you can discuss your goals. Ask them to observe you and offer feedback on a goal area. Ask them to be an accountability partner with you.  Each of you holding each other accountable for your gutsy goals. Natalie Louis of Teacher’s College said in her closing keynote, “It takes a lot of slow to grow.”  Take these small steps and the relationship will grow. Hopefully, a network of similar minded colleagues will develop from these small steps.

So add one item to your to-d0 list:

Find like minded colleagues and begin to grow relationships

Living the Workshop With You,






Celebrate What’s Right


This summer, I made a move. I moved from Katy, Texas to Las Vegas, Nevada. I moved from a school district of about 60,000 students to the fifth largest district in the country of about 380,000 students. To say there have been changes is a major understatement. I went from a district in which balanced literacy and workshop were vital to student success to a district in which (shudder) round robin reading is talked about although it is deemed not good intervention.  I have not heard balanced literacy nor workshop talked about yet. Big. Drastic. Changes.

It’s not been all bad or scary. I have a great principal and AP. They are letting me do my thing, even though I’m not sure they completely know what all of my thing is.  They hear my knowledge and research, and they can feel my passion for teaching. I may open a lot of people’s eyes, and may even scare a few.  That’s okay because what I do and how I teach allows for all my students to grow as much as they possibly can.

At the beginning of this year, our entire staff had to watch the following video. Because of the changes I have made, it really hit me. It hit me as a workshop teacher, and it touched me as a person.

Celebrate what is right with the world. It fits in with workshop as we always need to celebrate and complement what students are doing well. It builds their confidence and allows them to blossom into their potential. I think I’m great at doing this. I love to watch students sit up straighter and start to glow with pride. What I’m not good at though is using this in my own circumstances. In fact, sometimes I have had a pity party, especially if it is a huge shift I’m dealing with…like now. I need to celebrate what is right with MY world.

I can mope about not having many resources or I can celebrate that I have a classroom library started that I can continue to grow. I can freak out about trying to fit 35 fourth grade students in a room designed for second grade or I can work on an interior design award to make it happen and still have a meeting area. I can lament about that hardly anyone understands what I am doing, or celebrate that the instructional coach is TCRWP trained and my teaching partner has the same philosophy as me, even though she doesn’t call it workshop. I can complain that I have to adjust to the way things are done at a new school/district or I can celebrate learning and growing with other professionals. I get to make the choice. I’m choosing to celebrate. Even the little things.

As you are starting out this school year, some people with more changes than others, I challenge you to celebrate. It’s contagious. It spreads. It encourages people around you. I’ve watched it. Does it mean you can’t have a bad day?  Of course not! However, I challenge you to find something to celebrate on those days to make them not so bad.

With all the changes in my life, here is what I am celebrating.

  • My spouse got a dream job.
  • I’m back in the classroom working with students. I’ve missed it.
  • I get to share research and best practice with a brand new group of people. It’s already started. We are learning from each other. Awesome!
  • Even though it’s hot, there’s no humidity (that’s HUGE y’all!).
  • I got to watch my students’ faces as they walked into a classroom library they’ve never seen before and found out they have choice in what they read.
  • I am surrounded by mountains. Every day I drive, I get to look at them and find joy.
  • I have a great team partner. This is the first time my school has tried departmentalizing. We are so similar that it’s kind of scary.
  • I have friends and former colleagues back in the Houston area that I can call upon to help me continue to grow as a literacy teacher.
  • Our 13 year old dog made the long drive to Vegas and is doing well. He enjoys sunning.
  • Our kids hardly asked, “Are we there yet?” on our drive to Vegas as some great friends packed them a surprise bag to open every few hours of good behavior.
  • Vegas is a great place to get to with cheaper flights. We’ve already had some visitors and are looking forward to more.
  • We have a house that has a guest bedroom to house our visitors.

Now, I know our blog is still on the small side, even with many people reading around the world. With that said, I’d like to open a challenge using #CelebrateWhatsRight. When you are having a great day, celebrate what’s right on social media using this hashtag. When you are having a rough day, find something to celebrate using the hashtag.  When you need a pick-me-up, search this hashtag. Let’s lift up ourselves and lift up each other. Celebrate!


A Sneak Peek at TCRWP Reading Institute Days 1 & 2


All of the accolades are true – mecca, Mothership, inspiration- yes, Teacher’s College is really that for so many teachers of ELA. No matter how many times I have been there is something so special about being here.  Learning among dedicated colleagues, interacting closely with so many of our educational mentors, inspiring keynotes, and the added bonus of being in NYC. This year has been no different, from Lucy’s emotional opening keynote through Newbery Award winner, Matt De LaPena’s keynote yesterday afternoon, I am awash in new ideas that I can’t wait to share and try.

Lucy’s Keynote

There is no doubt that Lucy has a way with words. She uses them to rally us to action, to feel intense emotions, and to drive us to be better for our students. Her message was pushing the idea of community, safe places, and being better people. We and our students are doing hard and important work, and we need a community of supports to do this work. We need to be provided a safe place, a nest, to be at our best – and our students do too.  The studies and statistics she shared around these ideas were sobering:  the number of people who say they have NO close friends has doubled, suicide rates are the highest in 30 years, and 80% of Americans feel disengaged from their jobs.  She reminded us that learning to read involves more risk and fear than most of us realize.  She encouraged us to rely on great books to help establish these safe places of community in our classrooms.  She wrapped up her keynote with the idea of becoming better people and helping our students with this too.  Each of us has two conflicting sides: a resume Adam longing for success and ambition and an obituary Adam longing for a life well lived.  Lucy posed the question of which Adam do we teach to? We were left with the final thought that “our work is bigger than the standards.”

Supporting Struggling Readers: Upper Grade Teachers Need the Secrets That Lower Grade Teachers Know

My morning advanced session is with Natalie Louis.  She is pushing our thinking about how to think about reading and how to intervene.  So far we have been introduced to the first 3 secrets: 1.  Reading is a process 2. Writing teaches reading 3. Oral language is the basis of all literacy learning.  I won’t elaborate on the secrets yet. They are still unfolding and I want to have the complete picture before sharing.  There are more secrets to come and more to learn about what she has introduced.  A tidbit to entice you to secret 1 – Natalie enlightened me to rethink the wheel of strategic actions from Fountas and Pinnell.  I have looked at it so many times, but now see that I have not used it to the deep levels I should have. I will be writing more detailed posts about this topic very soon.

Falling in Love with Close Reading of Nonfiction (and learning transferable skills

For my second daily advanced session I chose Kate Roberts’ session on close reading of nonfiction.  This has been an area of need  on our campus and in our district.  Kate taught us two methods of close reading: reading rounds and annotation.  We tried both using adult texts and discussed the benefits and concerns with both of them.  Again, I will write more detailed blogs about each one soon.  We tried them with NF text that we brought with our students in mind to identify predictable problems.  She showed us several of the tools from her DIY Literacy book and provided an opportunity for us to make a tool. Of course, the sharing after was a favorite for most participants. Some important messages I will carry back to my teachers are:

The act of close reading is the work of strong emotion.

We want kids to close read the world.

We should launch this work with the idea that children already know how to do it.

It is something that students should be doing independently.

Most packaged reading programs punish the struggles.

We also spent time looking at tough text and what Kate calls “bananas text” (so hard we struggle with something in every sentence or even every clause).  We explored what makes a text tough and some ways to help students make some meaning of it.  She is not advocating the reading of tough texts, but rather was giving us strategies to help students deal with text that may be required reading.

Choice Workshops and Matt De LaPena Keynote

Each day we are able to select a choice workshop.  On day one I attended a session on helping reluctant readers to actually start reading.  Choice was certainly a key idea.  We brainstormed solutions to common problems.  One of my favorite ideas was having kids leave post-it’s to future readers inside books.  Another is to create clubs around common interests.

On day 2 I attended a session with Mary Ehrenworth about taking our strong readers to extraordinary levels. She cited research from Richard Allington about what all readers need, including our good readers:

  1.  Access to books they find fascinating.
  2. Protected time to read (note from Mary – move from thinking about 30 minutes of reading to as much as humanly possible.)
  3. Expert instruction

When working with our strongest reader there are four ideas to keep in mind:

1. Choose books more purposefully – encourage reading a whole series (teachers need to do this as well to be more effective at conferring with students reading this way), encourage investigating an author,or becoming an expert on a subject.

2. Series, series, series – Think about characters and themes across the entire series.  Make connections across many pages and develop the stamina for longer novels.

3. Strong partnerships and clubs – Utilize bands of text complexity. For each band ask What is challenging and fascinating?  What new work will you do?  Introduce next band to kids (and parents).

4. Form informal clubs -These can be cross grade levels, might be child and adult together, and can be same book, series or genre.

Mary infuses so many thought-provoking tidbits in her sessions.  Here area few from yesterday:

The research of Alfred Tatum on high poverty/high performing schools and high poverty/low performing schools showed one of the biggest differences is teacher expectations.

Don’t think only about your current strong readers but also the potentially strong readers.

Teachers need to live the life of a reader you want your kids to have.

Reading levels should change so rapidly they are not part of their reading identity.

Any book that gets a kid to read is a good book.

Matt De LaPena is the author of the Newbery Award winning book, Last Stop on Market Street and several young adult titles. Big threads of his keynote addressed the need for diverse texts, that we need to help young people acquire more possibilities for their futures, and that everyone just wants others to know that they exist.  His speech was inspiring and I am moving his book, We Were Here to the top of my pile.

I will be writing more when I return home (it is much easier to post using my laptop that is home.)  Keep watching for more posts soon.

Living the workshop with you,





Start Now to Avoid the Summer Slide

Summer Slide

Some days it seems like the school year is never going to end, but summer will be here before we know it.  Maybe you are already planning to take your family on vacation or have been investigating summer camps for your kids.  Our students on our Title I campus rarely have such opportunities and instead spend the summer loosing much of the learning from the previous year.  Over the last two years we have taken several steps to help our students avoid the summer slide.  This short two minute video is a great illustration of why it is vital that we work to keep our students learning over the summer.

Importance of ensuring summer learning continues.

Based on census data we realized that our students in our community live in an official “book desert” meaning that they have little access to books in their homes.  We know from research by Kim in 2004 that if students in upper elementary/middle school read just a few books (4-5) books over the summer that scores on reading tests from spring to fall will not show declines.  We knew it was important to provide as much access to books as we could.  That is the major focus of our summer project.

Library Access:  We knew we wanted to allow students access to our school library over the summer.  Our library is open one day a week for a couple of hours all summer.  Students with wi-fi also have access to our e-book collection all summer.

Steps to Take Now:  We are working now to secure staff volunteers who are willing to man the library and to train them on check-out systems.  In our district we must also request air conditioning on the days we will be open.  We advertise this to our families in school communications.  Last summer our librarian arranged to have some outside programs for students on some days.  These were volunteer service programs like scouts working on advanced badges.

Bookmobile:     Once a month for June, July, and August we turned our principal’s van into a bookmobile.  We loaded up boxes and boxes of books to deliver to students.  Each student who visited was able to select 5 books to keep.  We advertised our dates, times, and stops in advance.  We selected popular spots such as the neighborhood pools and the entrances to large apartment complexes.  We were able to talk with students and help them select their books.  We reminded parents of the importance of having their children read 20 minutes every day.

Steps to Take Now:  This was by far the project that took the most preparation time.  We began collecting books much earlier this year.  In our school district we have a sister schools program.  The Student Council of our Sister School held a book drive to donate to our school.  They are doing this again this year.  We used our Title I funds to purchase books.  This year we have two other groups that selected our school to be the recipient of their service projects which were also book drives (one is a group of retired teachers and the other is an educational sorority).  The educational sorority has written a grant to help us get more books and to run more parent trainings in conjunction with the bookmobile.

Read Tac Toe:    We wanted to do something to encourage our students to read once they had books.  Although we are not subscribers to incentives for reading in the forms of prizes, we did think that a little game might help keep some interest.  We used a tic tac toe board to encourage reading in different places or novel activities.  In the fall students who earned a tic tac toe received a brag tag and students who earned a black out had a lunch with me.  They brought their own lunches to our hallway tables.  We had photo props for them to do a photo booth and they each selected a new book.  We talked about reading and our favorite reading activities.

Steps to Take Now:  Take time now to customize your board, determine any incentives, and put in for printing.  We also have to have our document translated into Spanish before printing.
Family Education:   This is an area we know we need to grow in.  Last year we did use the video from above to show parents the importance of summer reading.  We promoted all of our summer reading activities on social media and school communications.  We also prepared folders for all of students that had all related information.  In the folder was a newsletter loaded with information, the tic tac toe board, computer log-in information for web based programs the students have summer access to.  There was information on free web based programs such as Camp Wonderopolis and the free Star Walk Kids pop-up library.  Information on our local library was included as well as library card applications.

Steps to Take Now:  Create newsletter, gather information, order folders, and begin printing information. Contact local library for information on summer reading programs and to see if they can visit the campus to promote library use over the summer. Order folders if you are using them. (Please email me at, if you would like a copy of the newsletter we sent.)

Preparing the Students:  The most important aspect of summer reading is preparing the students.  When should you begin preparing them?  Beginning on the first day of school.  The book No More Summer Reading Loss by Carrie Cahill, reminds us of this in a way that may make you say, “Ouch,” but is an area we as educators need to reflect on:

“The lack of student reading during the summer is actually a reflection of how we have taught them to be independent readers during the school year.” (page 4)

Teachers need to plan time to set summer reading goals with student and to teach them to make reading plans over the summer.  One of our teachers last year had students bring beach towels and decorated her class like a beach for the last two days to have a beach reading party to get students ready for summer reading.  If students see themselves as readers, they will want to continue reading over the summer.

Steps to Take Now:  Consider reading No More Summer Reading Loss by Carrie Cahill, think about minilessons you can deliver near the end of the year to encourage summer reading and reflect on how your students are becoming independent readers.


Start preparing now to help your students avoid the summer slide this year.  I am very interested in hearing about your great ideas to help keep students reading in the summer.

Living the Workshop with You,


Follow me on Twitter @melissajonesic









I can’t believe that spring break is a few short weeks away. In Texas, spring break is code for PANIC, testing is right around the corner. At the end of March, 5th grade readers and 4th grade writers across our state will take the STAAR test to assess their abilities…or their teacher’s abilities. I see it every year, around the 1st of February, teachers begin going into panic mode. Many teachers seem to, about this time of year, begin abandoning the workshop model in their classrooms and leaning instead to “passages” with testing type questions attached. I think the logic is that students need to see the “format”. I have also heard teachers say that it gives supposed data that is “real” for the test. I guess that might be somewhat true, but I wonder HOW IS IT WORKING for you? Are you showing growth when you pull out those worksheet passages OR did you show more growth when you let readers be readers and writers be writers? Does drilling the testing format daily really help? It did not help in my classroom – that I assure you. However, there were several other things that did help.
One of the most effective testing prep strategies that worked for me was really beefing up my reading and conferring time. We all agree that being a reader helps our writing and writers are more aware of their reading – right? Well, there were times in my classroom when I might focus or extend time on one or the other. I never abandoned either, but certainly focused at times more on one. As you approach “the test” try to focus a little more time on that subject. For example if you are a 5th grade reading teacher, you might want to look at your schedule for the upcoming weeks. How could you extended your reading time in class? You might want to try and add 5 additional minutes each week to your IDR (independent reading time) so that you have extra time for conferring and/or strategy groups. Yes, this might involve shortening a regular routine. Think of it this way, as you build in one area (reading), you are still strengthening in the other content (writing).
With strategy groups and conferencing in mind, take a hard look at your previous conferring notes with an analytical mind. You can also take a look at any other data you have. Ask others to confirm or challenge your thoughts about the guidance your students need. Plan a meeting with your coach, your AP or your principal to do the same. I have even gone as far as discussing ideas with my non teacher friends (names need to be anonymous for this) to get a very outside of the box opinion. I guess my point is, challenge what you are doing in your classroom by collaborating with those around you. Ask your campus coach if you can spend a day at planning just doing this – looking and planning for interventions BEFORE they take the test. After you have all of this information, you can look at your groups, what additional mini lessons you need, and especially what results you think you might have ahead of you. Our 3rd grade team has been looking long and hard at their data and realized that their focus needs to be summarizing, synthesizing and vocabulary. Those are big bites to chew. We can’t expect for all students to be ready to work on these three areas, but at least we have some goals that we know we can work towards. If a students is working towards summarizing, let’s start by just writing about each chapter by reflecting and pausing. If we are working on synthesizing, you can pull in more read alouds and push comparisons of their IDR books.
In our district we have a period of time that varies from campus to campus called EXTENDED LEARNING. This 30-60 minute time period (on our campus it is 60 minutes) is a time for extension of learning and interventions. As test prep closes in, take a step back from your ELT and analyze what you are doing during this time period. It is giving you the most bang for your buck? Are you servicing all of your students during this time? If not meet with your partners and work out this issue. For 4th grade writing teachers, your ELT period should be conferring, strategy groups, and other writing focused activities based on the needs of your writers. The same is true for 5th grade reading teachers. Don’t let your ELT become a “I need a break” period or “I need to grade papers” period. Utilize it to the fullest.
The last suggestion is to talk with your students.  Students’ mindset is a key factor that helps make our students successful. Have you ever just sat down and talked to them about what happens when they are taking a test? What are their thoughts or frustrations about testing? Help your students realize that it is just a test, but it is part of life. Give them real world strategies to deal with the anxiety or tension. I found showing progress on the district level assessments helped a great deal. If you can set goals with your students that are reachable, that stimulates drive and desire to try. Find something to celebrate a victory with each one your students so they see a need to move forward. At the beginning of the year I had a little boy testing with me in a small group. He flew through the test in about 15 minutes, only circling and bubbling and never reading any of the stories. When I spoke with him afterwards I asked why he did that? His response was, “I am going to fail anyway so why should I even try?”. Wow! That broke my heart. Since then he is starting to see improvement, and the last time he took a district test he actually read the passages. He still failed, but he is making progress because he has started to see a reason to try.

If what you are currently doing works and your students are ALL showing progress and growth, then I agree 100% you should not make any changes to what you are doing. However, I have yet to meet a teacher who can state that they don’t need any help with their students and standardized testing. I hope you take a step back this year, open your mind and try pushing forward with workshop as testing approaches. I hope you step outside your comfort zone and try something that will definitely bring comfort.

Tracy Kotlar