Back to Basics: Rewinding and Relearning

Since I’m home with my daughter this summer, I’ve decided to make it my mission to teach her how to read. We’ve always kept a text-rich environment in our home, and recently, she has been showing me signs that she’s ready. So for the past two days, we’ve been doing “school”–setting aside about 20 minutes to work on the basics.

Primary education is not my forte. I do NOT do well with other people’s small children, and I thrive more in an environment where I am just as intellectually challenged as my students. But lately, I’ve been considering the possibility of homeschooling my daughter, and I thought teaching her to read would be a nice little indicator if this is something she and I can do successfully together.

It’s funny. Working with a three year old, I realize in some ways, I do not have strength in some of the skills needed to be that rockstar teacher for her. On the other hand, I feel like teaching secondary last year is helping me in ways I wouldn’t have realized.

Teaching her to read is kind of like coming full circle–going back to the beginning, where my love of literature started, and hoping that passion transfers to her. And this whole process has made me look at teaching in a new light. It’s refreshing, and it reminds me of some of the things I think it’s easy to forget.

Individualizing Instruction Makes All the Difference

J. is three. This means she has a short attention span, boundless energy, and endless curiosity. I have to switch gears pretty quickly to keep her engaged, involve technology, and practice patience as she wriggles and moves during one of our lessons.

We all know that every kid doesn’t learn the same. And with a system created during the industrial revolution, we know that many of our students are not in an environment that is conducive to optimal learning. As class sizes grow and teachers fall under more strain, it’s difficult to keep up with everything we have to do. But there are few things that can compete with individualizing instruction for our students. Obviously, we cannot create a custom learning plan for every student that comes through our classroom. It’s just not possible. But we can incorporate strategies that focus on choice and self-directed learning, through which we can help guide our students so that they receive the best education we have to offer.

Adaptability is Key

I can try to plan a lesson. I can script what I’ll say, do hours of research, and create amazing activities. But all of that means squat if I can’t be adaptable. We all know that with toddlers, you must be able to shift gears quickly, but the same goes for the seniors I taught last year.

Yes, do the research, write your script, go crazy with adorable supplies you found at your local craft store, and create those truly incredible activities. All of these things are important, and I’m a firm believer in approaching teaching in a way that makes you feel energized and excited. BUT none of those things take into account the fact that our students are human. That they wriggle, fall asleep, have angry outbursts, will not (for the love of all that is holy) quit trying to sneak in time on their phones, and ask questions we could never in a million years anticipate.

It doesn’t matter how many hours you put in. At the end of it all, if you can’t roll with the punches and adapt to the needs of your students, you are not going to be able to reach them.

Students Know When You Care

Are you excited about your subject? Do you radiate enthusiasm in your classroom? Or have you lost sight of why you began teaching in the first place and dread going to work?

Students can tell. No matter what society may tell us, students are intuitive. They know when you’re there for them versus when you don’t even know why you’re there anymore. They know if you care about them and their learning. They know if you love (or hate) what you teach.

If they don’t like you, kids aren’t going to work for you. That’s the truth. And if they know you don’t care, then they’re definitely not going to. Your energy in the classroom is infectious, and students are going to give back what you put in.

Sometimes, we have to forget the standards, forget the obligations, forget the mountains of stress and just show up for our kids. At the end of the day, if my students have learned something from me, even if it doesn’t fall under a state mandated standard, I feel I have accomplished something. We spend more time with our students than anyone else. We have more influence than we realize. So when we show that we care about what they’re learning and if they’re learning it, we can make a difference.

The tips listed above may seem obvious to you. At first, I wondered if they were even worth writing down for you all. But I think in the midst of everything educators have to worry about, we sometimes forget even the most basic things. We fall down that dark hole of obligation, crushed by the expectations heaped on us by the state, by our communities, by our colleagues.

I’m hear to tell you that when you feel lost or overwhelmed, take it back to the basics. Remember why you stepped into the classroom. Remember your mission. Because in the end, we are there for our kids, and they are what’s important.


Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher Training–A Groupie’s Perspective

The teachers at my school and those I have trained from other schools often have a good chuckle when I say the names, “Penny Kittle” and “Kelly Gallagher.” Some have even started tallying how many times I reference them in my trainings and meetings. It’s ok, though. I am unashamed of my love for these two literacy giants (I mean this literally–sooooo tall!); they are my greatest paperback mentors. They made me a real English teacher.

After two years of wondering why teaching the way I was taught wasn’t working for my students, I was desperate for help. I found a book titled Readicide. As soon as I read the definition of readicide, “the systematic killing of the love of reading,” I knew that I had inadvertently done that to many of my students. In my quest to make them fall in love with Romeo and Juliet like I had, I had forgotten to get them to love reading first. So, I changed. Later, I found Penny Kittle’s book, Book Love, and my world shifted again. And for every additional book they’ve written (and I’ve devoured), I have changed and I have changed and I have changed again. Thank heavens–or better yet, thank Penny and Kelly–that I am not the same teacher who walked into her classroom on the first day of her teaching career! I still have the same desire to change the world one book at a time, but now I have the tools to do that.

Since those first two books, I have followed them everywhere, hungering for and soaking up everything they have to offer. I’ve seen them at NCTE and TCTELA, and yesterday, I got to spend all day at their feet. Literally at their feet, I sat in the center of the front row with my team, and we drank from their fountain of knowledge. And once again I am changed. We were reminded that we must stop asking how we can raise student achievement, and we have to start asking what we can do to challenge, stimulate, and engage our students! If authentic engagement happens, student achievement will take care of itself. If we are responsive to our students’ needs and interests, we can create empowered and independent readers, writers, and thinkers. I have always said that my greatest win as a teacher is not how many students pass their standardized tests, but how many students I run into at Barnes and Noble in five years.

Through their exploration of best practices in motivating readers and writers, they extolled the power of passion, book talks, choice, reading/writing conferences, and book clubs. They highlighted the most important ways for students to become better readers and writers: volume, choice, and modeling. But through all of that learning, the thought that kept pounding in my brain came from the very first slide in their presentation:

Our job is to create an ecosystem that serves to democratize opportunity.

Wow! If that doesn’t remind us of the importance of this work, I don’t know what will. What an amazing gift and responsibility we have as English teachers!!! No matter what standards exist, and no matter what standardized assessments exist, our first concern should always be whether students have equal access to quality texts and writing space. Literacy is for everyone! And, we have the great opportunity to share it with today’s youth. With the gift of reading and writing, barriers begin to crumble, doors begin to open. Literacy has the power to inspire and destroy and rebuild. Without it, our society is empty, devoid of humanity.

With literacy, there can be no walls.


My first encounter with Penny Kittle.
Penny Kittle, Kylene Beers, and Kelly Gallagher in one room!
Meeting of the minds! Literacy giants at work!