Month: February 2016


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


Book Review: Mindset and Moves


I finally got to read this book by Gravity Goldberg that has been sitting on my book pile. You may know her as one of the authors of Conferring with Readers. I absolutely loved this book. It brought a lot of confirmation to things I already do. It also challenged me to push student independence and ownership of learning even farther. It made me just uncomfortable enough to push my learning while making it easy to understand with real world examples of application.

Gravity starts out by looking at what true independence in the classroom looks like by looking at the role of the teacher, parts of student ownership, and some of the pitfalls we face as teachers. She says, “Until students have that sense of autonomy, they can’t be fully engaged. To do otherwise is to put the cart before the horse.” What an excellent way of putting it. That fits right in with one of Jennifer Serravallo’s first goals in The Reading Strategy Book. Engagement. She also emphasizes that students need to be able to transfer their work to show deep learning. Engagement is needed for this, not just compliance.  Often times we look at these to ideas as synonymous.  They aren’t. Compliance is doing what you are told. Engagement involves ownership, and ownership involves choice.

To help our students take ownership and really push themselves, we have to shift our roles as the teacher. Typically we, as teachers, manage, assign and monitor students. We are the ones in control. When we shift our roles, the students take on this work. Our roles shift to being “a miner, a mirror, a model, and mentor.” As a miner, we discover what our students are reading and how they are reading those texts. As a mirror we give positive feedback. We model new strategies, and mentor readers as they approximate those strategies, moving them farther along as readers. It’s a different way of looking at and talking about conferring and small group work while keeping growth mindset as lens.

Gravity explores each one of the four roles throughout her book giving real world examples and specific strategies to help you with individual readers, small groups, and whole group formats. As a miner, we need to set a purpose, observe our readers, ask questions about processes, listen, and collect data. As a mirror we need to be specific, name what the student is doing, focus on their process, and make sure the process can transfer. As a model, we give students the why the strategy is important, demonstrate, and review by naming what was done. Finally, as a mentor, we name each step, tell students what to do, focus on what to do instead of the what not to do, keep our guidance clear, and gradually release our students.

Mindsets & Moves ends with lessons to help students become admirers, and suggestions for how to get started. It has them learn to talk about their reading process, set goals, focus on mindset and learn to give feedback. The one thing I absolutely love about this book is the integration of growth mindset into the workshop process. Many times, our students come in with a fixed mindset about what they can or cannot do as a reader. The growth mindset, researched by Carol Dweck, boils down to students can develop better reading abilities through hard work and perseverance. Making this mindset shift with students can be hard, depending on their background and previous experiences with reading instruction. The strategies given in Mindsets & Moves are a great way to start students on this process to be all that they can be. It is definitely a book to put on your professional bookshelf.


Bringing Complexity to Any Level Text in Read Alouds

We have our educational superstars, just like the music and film industries.  Well, maybe not just like them – our superstars don’t arrive by limo, walk a red carpet, or make millions of dollars.  They do however, have big fan clubs and their own nerdy paparazzi taking pictures with them.  We were fortunate to welcome one of these superstars, Kathy Collins, to our district in January to stretch our thinking about working with our primary students in literacy.  Kathy Collins is the author of Reading for Real and Growing Readers as well as a co-author of I Am Reading.  As Instructional Coaches we knew we were in for a fabulous day of learning and laughing with Kathy.

After our day with her, I couldn’t wait to find a group of kindergartners to try out what we learned about Read Aloud with Accountable Talk (RAwAT) using lower level (Fountas and Pinnell levels A -D) texts.  I was impressed with the level of discourse Kathy was able to engage the kinders in during her demonstration using a level B text and was ready to try it out myself.  I choose a level B text – The Big Fish (Author – Phyllis Root, Illustrator James Croft, Brand New Readers by Candlewick Press, part of a set: Mouse Goes Out). If I had not seen Kathy demonstrate this with kids, I would have been skeptical.  This text has only 8 pages and 38 words (most of which are kindergarten sight words) – how much complex thinking could we do with such a small amount of text?  We had been striving for using high quality literature in our read alouds.  We had been told we needed texts with more substantial storylines to bring out the accountable talk.  We also needed to tightly plan for these read alouds.  Kathy upended us by having us choose only from levels A-D and telling us to NOT go in with a plan.  Kathy taught us to let the students lead where the conversation went.  The reader brings the meaning to the text. She shared the work of Vicki Vinton which is that we should not chase complex text but that complex thinking can happen with any text. I must admit I was a little uneasy going in without post-its on the pages to do a read aloud.  What if the kids had nothing to say?  What if I wasn’t sure where to lead the conversation?  (And of course not only would the teacher be watching, but she had a student teacher watching too – yikes!)

Image result for the big fish  by phyllis root book cover

The only pre-planning I did before entering the classroom was in choosing the book and creating an “origin story”.  An origin story is how the book came to “be in your lap” to share with students.  These stories model reading habits of readers for student. You might talk of how a cover or favorite character drew you to the book.  It might have been that you read other books by the author or the topic was one you were searching for.  The origin story I shared for this book had to do with one of my favorite things to do when I was their age – fishing with my dad.  I told this group of 4 students that the fishing mouse is what caught my attention since I had such good memories of fishing with my dad.  I told them that as soon as I read the story I couldn’t wait to share it with someone to see if they had the same reaction to the ending that I did.  Then we talked about the title, cover, and made predictions.  I tried to hold back to really listen to what the students had to say and not to overly lead them to predictions I wanted them to make.  This group felt that the mouse would catch the fish and eat it.  They also told me without prompting that this must be a fiction book because mice really don’t go fishing.  They were chopping at the bit to hear the story after our discussion.

As the story begins the mouse catches a boot and throws it back in the water on the second page.  The students giggled at the mouse catching a boot.  I pointed out the look on mouse’s face and asked what the mouse was feeling.  The group was upset on the second page that the mouse threw the boot back in the water instead of in the trash.  That was not what I would have led the discussion about, but I let the conversation go where they wanted.  These students felt strongly about taking care of our earth!  They all predicted that the mouse would try again and continued to think that mouse would catch a big fish and eat it.

After catching a stick and throwing it back (yes, they were upset once again that he threw the stick in the water), they continued to stick with their prediction of catching a big fish to eat.  The third thing the mouse catches is a small fish. (See picture below)  We examined the other fish in the water and discussed who they might be to the caught fish and what they might be thinking or saying.  This is where I realized it was really working.  We were having a deep discussion about a level b text.  I was impressed with the inferences and conclusions they were sharing.  We made the same faces as the characters and talked about how they were feeling and why.  We talked about all the choices that the mouse had and which choice they thought he would make and why.  The majority stayed with their original prediction that he would keep the fish and eat it. In reflecting back on the conversation I probably took too much of a lead in this part of the conversation and will continue to work at allowing them to lead more of the conversation.

photo 1 (004)

The students were able to use the established pattern to predict he would throw the fish back.  We again talked about the feelings of all the characters on the page and how the feelings changed from the previous page.  They were quite engaged with the story and were delighted when Mouse caught a big fish.  Once again we discussed feelings, possible dialogue the characters would say, and made predictions.  They were still sticking with Mouse eating the big fish (one student was quick to suggest he would have to put the fish in an oven first before eating it).

When students saw the last page they were laughing before I finished reading the 4 (003)

They absolutely loved the twist ending.  Most of the students felt Mouse would not fish again after this experience!

As we learned from Kathy, before discussing the book any further we did a retelling.  She taught us that before you can go deeper with meaning you must be sure they have a basic understanding of the story.  We also talked about how they could do similar thinking in their own books and in talking with their partners.  This is one of the primary reasons for mixing in these read alouds with the more traditional read alouds of literature.  It shows the students what they can and SHOULD be doing in their independent reading.

My next steps are to work more at letting students really lead the discussion without me derailing where they take the conversation.  I need to let them create the meaning with the text.  I also want to practice with nonfiction text at these levels to see how that is similar and different in creating deeper thinking.  I would love to hear how this goes for you if you try it out in your teaching.

Living the workshop with you,


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