March Slice of Life Challenge #sol17

This coming Wednesday, the calendar turns from February to March.  I find March to be exciting for many reasons.  It is the month in which I was born, so that’s exciting.  It also feels like the month when spring begins to poke its timid head above the winter snow and say, “It’s time, right?”  March marks the month of Spring Break for most schools (although not my own)- also exciting for many. And March, whether it comes in like a lion or a lamb, always feels like a spirit of renewal.  Spring cleaning begins, things begin to grow again, and the warmth of the sun — maybe not consistently– appears, seeming to whisper, “Hey, remember me?”

For me, this particular March is exciting for a new reason.  Recently, I have become a co-author of the excellent blog entitled, “Two Writing Teachers.”  No, I am not one of the “two” writing teachers; but I am one of the eight writing teachers who now blogs about the teaching of writing.  And this is actually really exciting for me!  Each March, the Two Writing Teachers blog hosts what is called the “Slice of Life Challenge.”  To participate in this challenge, one must (1) own a blog and (2) commit to writing everyday for 31 days in March. One must also commit to joining a community of writers who provide each other feedback along the way (i.e., commenting on others’ blog posts throughout the month).  Writing  during this time is intended to be about “slices” of everyday life.  “Small moment stories” they are sometimes called.  Poems are also okay, though not my strong suit.  So, as a co-author of Two Writing Teachers I will be participating this year.

For the first time.

And I am nervous.

However, I am one who believes everything is hard before it is easy.  Therefore, I plan to forge ahead with this challenge and use this opportunity for the following purposes:

(1) Continue to write posts meant to be within the spirit of this blog: that is, writing for those of you working to support middle school readers and writers at home.

(2)  Write more. Writing begets writing, and we learn to write by…well, writing.  Writing is a bit like riding a bike– the more we do it, the stronger we become (although writing is harder, I know that!). So I’m hoping to become stronger.

(3)  Join a community of writers all struggling together to accomplish something hard.

The late and great William Zinsser once said, “All writing is a journey.”  The March Slice of Life Challenge will be a journey.  I look forward to some of you tuning in to see what happens…I hope you do.  Stay tuned…

The Power of One Little Word

fullsizerender-78     Reading posts on Two Writing Teachers these past few weeks has left me moved, touched, and inspired.  Although Two Writing Teachers is a website written mainly for teachers of writing and literacy coaches (like myself), all of us may be interested in one topic the authors of this blog re-visit each year: The Power of One Little Word.   The idea of “One Little Word” (OLW) has always gently intrigued me, and so this year I have decided to really check it out (thank you to Fran McVeigh for posting Ali Edwards’s video link).  And so, I have begun thinking…what will be my one little word?
     I am new to this concept, so forgive me if I sound a bit like a beginner here.  As I understand it, one little word is a word that both resonates temporally and powerfully, and acts as a guide in your everyday life.  And it’s different than a resolution, something that has always felt hard…well, okay, impossible to fulfill on.  If I have got this right, one little word really serves to precipitate more frequent noticing in our lives.
     Let me explain.
     I have selected the word LIGHT as my one little word.  And since I have done so, I have begun to notice more.  I have noticed when I’m not being LIGHT in my life, but instead being heavy or significant.  I have noticed when I’m not being LIGHT with my children.  With my wife.  With my colleagues.  With my students.
     And that has changed everything.
     When you notice something, you place yourself in a position to do something about it.  You have a choice.  You could, of course NOT do something about it.  But the noticing when I’m not being LIGHT has afforded me the opportunity to become LIGHT.  And I love how LIGHT is a noun, a verb, and an adjective—all in one!  Just that fact alone has helped me jump on board with this whole OLW movement.  It’s nice to have options.
Being LIGHT, I can:
  • ·         Stimulate visibility for others.
  • ·         Understand a problem.
  • ·         Illuminate something.
  • ·         Remove darkness.
  •       Act and react in ways becoming of LIGHTness.


     So LIGHT is working.  But for me, it really is more about the noticing than anything else.  The word LIGHT has led to more freedom, more joy, more relatedness, and a more abundant presence of affinity.
As you begin a new year, you might consider one little word that might make a difference for you and the young reader(s) and writer(s) in your life.  I would love to hear your word in the comments section of this blog!  What word will you choose?  Why that word?


     It’s only January, so there’s a long year ahead.  But knowing there is LIGHT not just at the end of the tunnel, but across the entire tunnel, makes this a pretty exciting year.

On Supporting an Academic Mindset

Growing up, my parents were really big into organization.  Especially when it came to school.  When late August arrived, and the sadness that only the end of summer can bring arrived, my mother always made sure I had folders for each of my subjects.  We called these folders “pee chees” TM in my day, which were essentially pocket folders with pictures of athletes striving for excellence on the front.  You may recall using a “Trapper Keeper”TM or another type of binder in school.  In any case, I quickly learned over the years why my parents stayed on me to be organized, as I watched some of my friends’ and classmates’ backpacks begin to resemble portable trash and recycling receptacles.  And I suppose it might have been a clear understanding of WHY I needed to stay organized that helped me to actually do it.
As we all hurl ourselves toward a new year, many of us are probably thinking about what we want to be different next year.  And some of our students may be doing the same.  Around now (late December/early January), some of our students are beginning to think about goals, aspirations, dreams, changes, and resolutions they hope will make a difference for them in the year to come.  And for many of them, these resolutions may involve scholastic improvement in some way.  However, for many of them, scholastic improvement is far from their minds when it comes to thinking about the new year.
For many of us (adults), though, we would love nothing more than to find effective ways we might support our students in becoming more successful in their academic pursuits.  Allow me to suggest that we consider the importance of one word:  why.
In his excellent TED Talk entitled, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”, author and speaker Simon Sinek persuasively argues that it is the limbic brain, the part of the brain which houses our feelings, that drives our behavior.  The ‘why’ that Sinek is speaking about refers specifically to a “purpose, cause, or belief.”  He argues, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”  In other words, the ‘why’ center of the brain (which not coincidentally is responsible for feelings like trust and loyalty) controls our behavior.
Sinek is talking about behavior within a market setting.  But how might we– mentors, parents, teachers– influence the literacy behaviors of our students?  How might we help them to believe reading/writing/school is truly worth doing?  How do we get them to engage with the important work of behaviors like risk-taking and persevering, both essential to literacy learning?  Harvard Professor David Dockterman, Ed.D. has devoted much of his academic energy to  addressing this question.  Part of his scholarship centers around developing a growth mindset (which I’ve written about before) in our students.  Dr. Dockterman maintains that a key belief associated with school success and an academic mindset can be phrased in the following way:

In other words, students must be present to a tangible ‘why’ they are doing something, or they won’t believe it is worth doing.  Some students (and perhaps parents) may argue that the reason students work hard to become stronger readers and writers in school is to, well, earn a good grade.  That’s why they work hard in school, right?   But Sinek would argue that a good grade is an example of a result, not a purpose, cause, or belief.  It’s really not a ‘why.’
Many of our students may likely fall into a category Dr. Philip Schlechty would call “strategically compliant.”  That is, these students do not act because they see inherent value or personal meaning in the work with which they are engaged; they act instead to earn “extrinsic satisfaction” or what we might call a substituted goal.  And this substituted goal replaces personal meaning (e.g., grades).  But don’t we want our readers and writers to be truly engaged learners?  According to Schlechty, truly engaged learners “learn at high levels and have a profound grasp on what they learn.” Isn’t that what we all really want for our young readers and writers?
Allow me to share and adapt some of Dr. Dockterman’s work around helping our young readers and writers believe literacy work is truly worth doing:

(1)     Connect to the future by showing the end—Most of us have heard, “You need to know/do this because you’ll need this in [substitute such words as high school, life, the workforce, etc.].”  While this statement may be true, it often lacks an inspiring element that leads to direct action.  Instead, we might think about how we can, “show the end,” as Dockterman puts it.  Showing the end can give purpose and a vision for learning.  What does “the end” look like for a successful reader or writer?  We can show them examples of places where this really lives in our real lives.  Dockterman says, “Don’t teach baseball just by playing catch.  Show them a real baseball game!”
(2) Make it interesting– Human beings possess an innate curiosity to know what happens next.  Think about wildly successful shows such as “Survivor”, “The Voice”, “American Idol”—all of these shows contain an element that makes people want to watch because…why?  Because they want to find out what happens next!  I am a great admirer of University of New Hampshire Professor, Dr. Thomas Newkirk.  Newkirk teaches us that it is the narrative elements—that is, elements that make a great story—that hook our interest in a way that supports learning.  To engage our students meaningfully in reading and writing and school, we must try to find ways to harness this power.  How can we help reading and writing be more interesting so that our kids want to “find out what happens?”  This might mean encouraging kids to try out a new YA series, or it might mean encouraging them to write a letter to the editor.  It might mean starting a Kid Blog about something they are super-knowledgeable about and fascinated by.  These few ideas all contain a common element– an element of uncertainty.  What will happen to the main character?  Will my letter get published?  Who will comment on my blog and what will they say?  Uncertainty, according to Dockterman, is more motivating than certainty.  People try more when they don’t know what they will get! Dr. Sidney D’Mello from the University of Notre Dame writes about how a bit of confusion is not always a bad thing for a learner.  In fact, it can act as a helpful factor.  D’Mello argues that confusion can actually help motivate learners to focus more because of the innate need to resolve the confusion.  In other words, a little confusion can make things more interesting.

(3)  Choice matters– Yes, I’ve written about this before, too.  When it comes to connecting the dots between personal meaning and literacy, the power of choice cannot be understated.  Kids must be provided opportunities to make meaningful choices about what they read and write.  When we promote choices in literacy work, we fuel agency.  And according to Dockterman, agency fuels value.

At the website WebMD, the authors write that it is normal for children to begin asking, “Why?” around the ages of 3 or 4.  Although this is young, might we consider the importance of such a question even throughout the rest of life?  Considering ‘why”, especially when it comes to supporting our readers and writers, can make a tremendous difference.

*Thank you to Dr. David Dockterman for his inspiration in writing this post.

Seeing Our Kids as Writers

     When I was six years old, my parents signed me up for soccer.  After receiving an envelope in the mail one day, my mother told me, “You’re going to be on the Sharks this year.”  The Sharks!  Wow, how excited I remember feeling!  Being on a soccer team was something new for me, and that energy alone propelled me right past potentially daunting feelings of trepidation straight to my first practice.  Now, it should be noted that I was not from a “soccer family.”  I had not been steeped in the game the way kids from other countries from around the world had been.  No, soccer in the 1970s was a fairly new sport to our nation.  So, needless to say when I stepped onto the field in 1974, I definitely did NOT see myself as a soccer player – yet.  That took time.  But eventually it happened.  Over several days, weeks, and years, I began to learn some techniques, some ways to practice and get better, the rules of the game, etc.  And with coaching, encouragement, support, and lots of practice, I began to build my skills and see myself as a soccer player.  A good one, in fact!
     As we embark upon a new school year, I have been thinking back to not only my early beginnings as a soccer player, but also my early growth and development as a writer.  As a literacy specialist, I like to emphasize the importance of nurturing our students’ Writing Identities.  Before kids can become good writers, they must be able to see themselves as writers.  It is essential.  But, how can we help them do that?  Here are just a few ideas:

1.  Their lives are worth writing about– One of my greatest mentors, Dr. Mary Ehrenworth teaches us that we must send this message to our young writers. And although not providing kids with the topic they must write about might be a shift from the way some of us learned, it is a necessary ingredient to building a confident, engaged writer.  If we as adults find ways to acknowledge and embrace the critical issues that shape our students’ lives by validating their experiences, this will go a long way in fostering a lasting writing identity.  Encourage them to write about their lives, what they know.  As Ira Glass once said, “Great stories happen to those who can tell them.”
     Ehrenworth also points out that knowledge problems can quickly begin to look like writing problems.  What if I tried to write about the finer points of handicapping horseracing?  Well, since I know nothing about it, I can imagine the page would either (a) look completely blank or (b) it would be full of terrible writing!  We must be wary of asking our kids to write well about topics for which they are unfamiliar.  Rather, I would suggest we think about how we can channel students’ own experiences and expertise to help them grow as writers.  When kids write about what they care about, engagement is generally higher!

2.  Most of us aren’t born writersNatalie Goldberg in her seminal book, Writing Down the Bones (Shambhala, 2005), says about writing, “Like running, the more you do it, the better you get at it” (p. 11). And it’s true– writing (like reading) is a skill learned in use.  As my colleague Chris Lehman always says, “We get better at what we do.”
     Right now, my seven year-old daughter is taking piano lessons from me.  And just like writers, I teach her that playing the piano is something she will get better at it through practice.  Dr. Brian Cambourne (1986), in his research on the conditions for learning, calls this “employment” (to download a document on Cambourne’s conditions applications to literacy learning, click here).  And what’s encouraging is the fact that most humans are not “born writers”!  Author and speaker Ralph Fletcher writes (1999), “Here’s the good news: most of us are not born writers.  We were not born with a pencil in our tiny fingers.  And very rarely do the words flow clear and sparkling the first time we write them down.  Most of us have to work at our writing.”  But as best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell points out, it is the opportunity to work hard at something that stands out as a key ingredient to success.  So let’s teach our writers that, like anything we are trying to get better at, writing takes practice.

3.  The risk — yes, there’s risk in writing! – is worth it – Writing could be thought of as a naked expression of who we are.  And so yes, there is always inherent risk in putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboards) and exposing ourselves to others through writing.  But what I find magical about writing is the generative nature of the process.  When I sit down to write, I don’t exactly know what’s going to come out…and how exciting is that?!  Right now, as I write this blog post, I find myself exhilarated by the way these ideas are forming on my computer screen.  But that exhilaration is never going to be discovered or experienced by our young writers if they are constantly concerned with “getting it right”.  Ehrenworth once said that the Number One way to get kids to stop taking risks is to tell them they’re wrong.  Conversely, we want to always be acknowledging and validating what kids are doing well FIRST– this might be called a “lens of strengths”.  Because if kids have written something, they have taken a risk.  And taking risks is part of the writing process.
     One strategy I love to demonstrate for students is how we can place trust in our pens that ideas will surface.  We might write, “One day…” or “I think…” or “My idea is…” and trust that ideas will come.  This is part of the magic of writing.

Let’s think about some of the things we would love for our students to be able to do:

  • Generate ideas for writing
  • Incorporate craft ideas and techniques
  • See writing as a process
  • Achieve independence
  • Have confidence
  • Be able to begin a piece of writing
  • Demonstrate clarity of expression
  • Convey messages cogently
  • Lose their fear around writing
  • Write to think
  • Be creative
This list could likely go on and on.  But the point here is that ALL of these things become more possible once kids begin to see themselves as writers.

     Fall always makes me think of chilly weather and soccer, and as I reflect back on the days of playing on the Sharks, I am struck by the fact that there was a day that I did not view myself as a “soccer player.” Just like there were days when I did not see myself as “piano player”, “teacher”, “father”, “blogger”, “writer”…you get the picture.  But through the support of mentors, a willingness to risk, lots of encouragement, and significant amounts of practice, I now consider these all to be different identities within which I feel confident.
     I wish you all a terrific start to the new school year.  Here’s to the magic and power of WRITING!

Summer Reading: The Big Prize

Ah, summer is upon us.  Who’s excited?!  For many of us (okay, it’s probably the majority) who exist inside the world of education, summer is an extraordinarily wonderful- and necessary- time of the year.  It is a time to decompress, recharge, and gear up for the next school year.  Sunny vacations, fascinating camp experiences, trips to see the relatives– there is so much to love about summer.

Oh, and then there’s that reading we are supposed to be doing, too.  Yeah, that.

Research has show time and time again that students that read during the summer do themselves an enormous favor.  Many students do themselves the favor of participating in summer reading programs, such as the Connecticut Governor’s Reading Challenge or programs sponsored by local public libraries.  But I sometimes wonder, do we truly understand what is at stake when it comes to summer reading?  Since this blog is dedicated to supporting middle school readers and writers, allow me to share some somewhat shocking information:

1.  Summer slide is real.  When students do not read over the summer, they experience what some term, “Summer Slide.”  This is real and has been documented several times in several places– like here and here and here (if you prefer more academic writing, check this or this out).  The gist of the problem is simple: kids who do not read adequately, that is to say at least 4-6 books over the summer break, lose ground academically.  This contributes to a growing achievement gap.  For students living in economically disadvantaged circumstances, the effect is significant.  According to researchers Allington and McGill-Franzen (2013), the summer break (and lack of reading and/or access to books) widens the achievement gap between economically advantaged and disadvantaged by around three months.  Three months?!

2.  Literacy saves lives.  A few years ago, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop led by Dr. Noah Borrero, an associate professor of Urban Education and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco.  At that workshop, Dr. Borrero shared some shocking statistics.  Here are just a few:

  • 43% of adults at Level 1 literacy skills (the lowest) live in poverty compared to only 4% of those at Level 5 (the highest).
  • 3 out of 4 food stamp recipients’ literacy skills are Level 2 or below; 90% of welfare recipients are high school dropouts.
  • Teenage girls living at the poverty level with “below average” literacy skills are six times more likely to have out-of-wedlock children than female teenage counterparts (also at the poverty level) who read “at or above basic proficiency”.
So yes, reading achievement matters.  It really, really does.
3.  Be careful! Reading incentive programs can have detrimental effects.  According to researcher and writer Alfie Kohn, studies conducted on the effects of incentive programs on long-term reading affinity have revealed startlingly negative results.  In this excerpt entitled, “A Closer Look at Reading Incentive Programs”, Kohn discusses how reading incentive programs, when used as a replacement for grades as just a way to get kids to read, produce less than positive effects.  It is therefore vital that summer reading expectations set at home are coupled with authentic modeling of real reading behaviors (I wrote about this here).  We do not want kids reading just to earn a prize.  Rather, we want to foster and nurture a genuine lifelong love of reading! The authors at Nerdy Book Club make some great suggestions; here are a few: 
(1) Share your summer reading plans.  Readers need to know that planning helps– show them a stack of books you intend to read this summer. Be inspirational by showing your excitement about reading! 
(2)  Show kids how to plan.  Using a calendar that illustrates when they will be home, not at home, with relatives, etc. can work to set up a supportive structure for realistic reading plans.
(3)  Plan Summer Book Clubs.  Book clubs can even be virtual!  Consider using/trying Google hangouts or virtual chats.
4.  Summer Reading offers a way out of summer slide.  Award-winning author Kate DiCamillo was recently featured as a “Summer Reading Champion” by the publication, American Libraries.  Kate feels strongly that connecting students with the joy of reading is truly a way to counteract the detrimental effects of summer reading loss. According to Ms. DiCamillo, “There’s nothing that you have to read.  It’s what you want to read.  If we could get that freedom of choice cemented into a kid’s head and connect it with the library and books, I think the world just opens up.”  Incidentally, I have written about this incredibly important choice factor before.

So besides the public library, where might we find some high-quality resources that might help connect kids with great books?  Allow me to suggest just a few (note: suggested lists are my own ideas):

  • Nutmeg Award Winners Sponsored by the Connecticut Library Association, the Nutmeg Award encourages children to read high quality literature.  The list is here.
  • Nerdy Book Club Our friends at the aforementioned Nerdy Book Club have a robust list for all levels of readers.  Check it out here!
  • Lee & Low Personally, I am a great believer in the ability of books to be both mirrors and windows into the human condition.  Books can be windows into the condition of those different than ourselves, and they can be mirrors that show us who we are as humans.  Lee & Low is a high quality site dedicated to sharing the rich diversity of our world through literature.  Check out their recommendations here.
  • Reading is Fundamental Here are some great resources for younger children.
So here’s to summer!  I wish everyone a terrific blast of relaxation, reconnection, and fun.  While we know how important our educational endeavors are, let’s face it– it wears us down.  So go enjoy the pool, the beach, your family…and don’t forget the books.  A lot depends on it!