Category Archives: Professional Development

Peek Inside…

Independence, choice, and strategic thinking are at the heart of our reading and writing workshops.  In my last post, I wrote about how meeting areas, materials, charts and bulletin boards can be strategically arranged to represent these values.

Over the last few weeks, I went on a treasure hunt around our school to gather snapshots of these values on display.

Please to view this slideshow of some of the incredible work of the teachers here at TAS!


The Third Teacher

When you walk into someone’s home for the first time, you can tell a lot about what they value.  Statues and paintings from around the world indicate a love of travel.  Photos of friends and family show a strong commitment to family.  Furniture choice and placement, lighting, and the books on the shelves speak loudly about the people living there.

The same is true when you walk into any classroom.  From what’s on the walls, to the way the furniture is arranged, the classroom communicates what is being taught, what is being celebrated and the shared values of the community.  At our school, our rooms are arranged intentionally to support high standards, differentiated instruction, shared responsibility, independence, and to celebrate learning.

Kristi Mraz and Chris Lehman, two staff developers from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University, came to the lower school at the end of January.  In addition to providing professional development in reading content and methods, they provided insight into how we can further use the classroom environment as a way of making our instruction even more effective.

The Reggio Emilia approach to education dubs the environment as “the third teacher”.  Parents are the first teacher and teachers are the second.  The classroom environment then, is the third teacher.  We take this idea to heart, so after Kristi and Chris’ visit, we spent some time as a faculty thinking about classroom design and what the implications are in three areas:  the meeting area, the organization of materials, and the bulletin boards and charts.

Meeting Area

Gone are the days where students sat in neat rows and worked alone for the day.  Our classrooms are intentionally set-up to allow for differentiated groupings:  whole class, small group and individual work.  Each homeroom classroom in the lower school is arranged with an empty space in the front of the room.  This is the class meeting area- an important teaching space in the workshop model.  The meeting area is where students come together for whole class instruction.  Teachers demonstrate reading, writing, math, science and history strategies and concepts for all students and have them practice briefly before moving back to tables where students work individually or in small groups.

A grade 5 class debriefs at the end of writer's workshop.

Classroom Materials

The work of the class requires different tools and materials:  from pencils to scissors, glue, tape, computers, books and papers; lower school classrooms typically have a lot of ‘stuff’.  But how these items are arranged and accessed communicates the shared values of the room. In rooms where the materials are labeled and organized in a way that students can access them as needed without having to ask the teacher permission, it’s clear that students share the responsibility for their own learning with the teacher.

The clearest example of this idea is the classroom library which is at the heart of each room.  In every classroom, hundreds of books are carefully and purposefully organized to scaffold students into becoming independent and enthusiastic readers.  Students learn how to choose books at their level from this collection as they build important reading comprehension skills.  What they read is not dictated to them; rather, students are taught how to make appropriate choices with guidance from their teacher. The classroom library includes a variety of reading levels and genres and thus supports the needs of a range of readers in each room.

This Grade 3 library is organized so students can access the books easily.


Charts and Bulletin Boards

When you look at what is on the classroom walls, the charts and displays tell the story of the learning happening in the room.

Charts are more than just wall hangings; they are crafted by the teacher to help students work with independence.  Students use the charts to remind them what they are supposed to do, to see exemplary work to use as a model, or to remind them of the repertoire of strategies they can use to tackle a task.  Charts are created during lessons with students so they are familiar with the content and can use them as needed.

This chart tells writers how they can make their writing feel more realistic.

This chart can be used to remind partners how to make the most of their time together.

This chart lists ways readers can think about their characters and gives examples of what writing about that thinking would look like.

Bulletin boards in classrooms and hallways are created as a way to celebrate student work.   But more than that, they highlight of the work of the unit as well.  Teachers carefully teach editing and grammar skills appropriate to the developmental level of the child, and give the child every opportunity to make their work the best it can be before it goes on display.  However, the work on display is the product of work children authentically completed on their own, and so it won’t always be perfect.

Here are examples of bulletin boards that not only celebrate the work of the student, but teach the viewer what the main goals of the unit were:

Grade 2 Realistic Fiction stories.

Each child chose a specific writing strategy they tried in the story and reflected on it.

This board teaches the viewer what the important elements of a scene are (at the corners) and highlights student selected samples of their best scenes.

Marjorie Martinelli and Kristi Mraz highlighted the lower school over at Chartchums here and here.  Their blog is a treasure trove of great charts and thought provoking explanations of the sound pedagogy they represent.

As a school, we continue to become more purposeful and intentional in all the ways we use our time with our students.  We want the walls and spaces to teach them, and all the people in our community what we value.


What a great word! Not only is it fun to say, but it describes perfectly how I feel after having two weeks of back to back TCRWP events. I went to my fourth coaching institute one week, and the following week we had two staff developers, Kristi Mraz and Chris Lehman, work at TAS for the week.

Two weeks of TC in a row=a whole lot of new learning. At the coaching institute, I finally felt like I wasn’t drinking from a fire hose. Still, there was so much new to learn, but for the first time, I felt like I had a mental box to put my new learning. This was a small comfort as I furiously took notes on giving critical feedback, methods for using read alouds intentionally, what the common core is all about, how to use the units of study with teams more effectively, and what all the new thinking is on teaching non fiction (and there’s a LOT of new thinking).

The next week we had Chris and Kristi at our school. I cannot exaggerate how effective having them on campus was. I feel like our faculty came away with so much; much more than we can fully take in all at once. We had three days of lab sites in a row and I was once again reminded how powerful a staff development tool lab sites are. One day was reserved for individual coaching, where Kristi and Chris sprinted from room to room individually coaching homeroom teachers all day long. The last day of the week was a marathon session ranging across topics that were of particular importance to our staff including: understanding the big ideas represented in the cool little ideas (the doodads, as we now call them), unpacking bands of text difficulty from A-Z, revising a current reading unit, the whys and hows of charting, vocabulary development across the day, and writing about reading. And they did it all without Powerpoint (amen!). These two were an absolutely amazing duo, and we can’t wait to host them again next year.

And after I learn new things, I feel a little jumbled up. My thinking is challenged. Practices I had never considered before now stare me in the face at every turn (What DOES this bulletin board say about what we value? How do I really feel about writing homework? Do second graders really need to keep reading logs?).

I don’t mind feeling jumbled for a while, because I know in the end I’ll be a better teacher and coach when the dust settles. And, the dust always settles. And then it will be time to go back to TC again.

Visiting Author: Ralph Fletcher

At the end of last month, we had Ralph Fletcher visit for a week. It was the first time we have had a visiting author whose books were all over my shelves: novels, poetry, and professional development books- he writes them all!

He had a session with each classroom and held the attention of students from grades KA-5 with ease. Ralph shared with students some of his original writing in his notebook and talked about the process of moving ideas from the notebook into publication. He helped students see the connection between the events in his own life and how those events show up in his writing.

He also captivated an audience of over 100 parents and children on Family Night.

He shared tips for supporting young writers, including letting children write about what they feel is important, responding first to the idea and intention of the writing, and not correcting every last error we see.

One idea he offered that resonated is that as teachers and parents, we want to help children develop a sense of identity. We want them to say “I’m good at soccer” or “I love to draw”, not because someday they will be famous soccer players or artists. We want them to develop skills and confidence in these areas, and they are more likely to do so if they see themselves in that role.

For this reason, we want students to think of themselves as writers for as long as possible. The longer they hold on to the idea that they are an author, the more confident they will be at expressing themselves in writing, and the more willing they will be to develop their skills.

Cultivating this idea in children is one of the reasons I love to use the writer’s workshop model to teach writing. At its core, the workshop is promoting the idea that all children are writers. Ralph’s visit really reinforced this idea for children, parents and teachers throughout the week.

Above all that, Ralph was a delight to hang out with for the week. He was warm and funny, very approachable, and a lot of fun.

Ralph at the Shilin Night Market


Years ago, we bought a bread maker and it sat collecting dust. We never made bread in it. Ever. We live by this amazing bakery where we buy fresh, delicious bread every few days. Nothing I was going to make in that bread maker was going to take the place of that great bread! I didn’t see the purpose in having the bread maker. Then, one day my husband and I decided that we wanted to make pizza. But where to get the dough? Suddenly the bread maker became a purposeful tool in our lives. It turns out beautiful dough for us almost every Sunday afternoon.

How is this like teaching? Generally, people don’t want to use something they don’t see the purpose in or have a purpose for. Let’s take book boxes for example. Until you make it a priority to be able to easily research your readers, to scaffold them in choosing books that they can read with accuracy and fluency, to monitor the length of time they spend reading, to match them to books of various genres, book boxes might just be something cluttering up your room.

Reading logs are another example. Are they just a form of busy work you feel like you are making kids keep up? If so, it’s probably time to examine the purpose behind them. Reading logs are a way to help students understand themselves better as readers. They should not turn reading into drudgery. Nor should they be an onerous writing exercise. The reading log should be crafted so it gives you and the student information about their reading habits. The reading log will not be useful to a student unless they are taught how to use it, how to analyze the data, how to use what they find to make adjustments in their reading lives and to set goals for themselves.

When our school started thinking deeply about our Writing Workshops, I began by focusing our professional development efforts around the structure of the workshop. One year ago, I opened our first In House Institute with a talk called “A Little Structure Goes a Long Way”. You can imagine how it went: minilessons should have a connection, teaching point, active engagement, and send off. There should be independent work time. There should be a share.

People that already used this structure probably viewed this whole talk as both validating and boring. And for those people who had yet to embrace this structure, I can’t imagine I swayed their thinking because I didn’t make clear the purpose of each piece of the structure, especially the pieces of the mini lesson.

So when we organized our In House Institute this time, I really wanted the focus to be purpose, purpose, purpose. Each of the essential agreements we have outlined as a Language Arts committee serves a purpose. Everything from the structure of the minilesson to the kind of paper we give students to write on, to the way we organize our classroom libraries and the way we organize the charts on our wall-each thing serves a specific purpose that contributes to the big goals of workshop teaching: critical thinking and independence in readers and writers. I want all our conversations to be focused on student learning and the purposeful teaching strategies we use to help students become passionate readers and writers.

TCRWP Coaching Institute #1

When I go to any Institutes at TCRWP, one of the hardest things to do is to synthesize my learning.  Every conversation I have there is stimulating.  It’s great to be surrounded by so many hard-core teacher geeks.  So, in an attempt to collect my thoughts, I will write a few postings from various parts of the week.

The first session was delivered by Lucy Calkins.  Below I summarize her comments.  But do know that I am rephrasing what she said.  It’s going to read as less seamless than when it was delivered.  Where I have directly quoted here, I added quotation marks.  She has some nice gems, of course.  This is not meant to be a term paper, so it won’t have footnotes with research to support her points.  Also, for you international teachers reading, know that the whole talk was draped in the context of what is happening in education in the US right now- and it’s not a pretty scene.

Staying Alive

Lucy is often asked what books she is reading to shape her thinking.  She started talking about two books, Visible Learning by John Hattie and Research Based Teaching (I am not sure of the exact title.  If I find out I will correct this later). The work of these books is shaping the way the project is taking their work.  One reason their ideas are being influenced by these books is because they are reading them with an open stance.  There is a way that we can read things and be open to letting their ideas shape us, and there is a way that we can read things with our minds already closed.  So with this open stance, they are trying to incorporate some big ideas into their work.

When people study what works in classrooms, they study what has a large effect size.  One of the books they read included a review of research about what variables influence student achievement.  Surprisingly, class size does have an effect, but not as large an effect as some of the other variables they studied. What does have a large effect size is the kind and amount of feedback students get from teachers.  What kind and amount are we giving?  Something to consider.

We need to give kids the feeling that there is a progression in their work.  Do they understand that one day is supposed to be better than the last?  Each day building on what has come before?  Their ability to choose a topic, reread and revise, have a partner conversation, jot on post its, use their reading log, and give themselves writing homework- it all needs to be getting better and better across a year, and across years.

Kids need big, ambitions goals.  And so do teachers and schools.  The whole idea is tha tyou have a goal that you are working towards, and a vision to attach the goals to.

Certain trends in education are not going away:  Differentiation, accountability, data based teaching, and the common core.  These things are here to stay, for now.  “You can’t really win by fiercely saying no.”

“We need to face the brutal facts with undying optimism.” (this quote is from Jim Collins, author of the book From Good to Great).

On data:  Using data is like looking in a mirror.  If we find that kids can’t do something, let that teach us that it’s what we need to give them more opportunities to do.

People are going to be looking at data.  If we don’t give them the data we want them looking at, they will look at something else.  So we need to be in control of what they look at.  Let’s give people data they can trust and what reflects our priorities.

On differentiation:  The very best of education is individual.  When you love someone different than you, you become bigger.

On the Common Core:  We need to become spokespersons for the Common Core.  If we don’t interpret this document, others will do it for us, and it could be done in a horrible way.

We spend a lot of time teaching children story structure, and that in a story the character struggles and struggles towards something they really want.  Story structure is life.  It’s not just a thing we teach.  We encounter trouble.  That’s when the rising action happens.  When we encounter trouble, we draw on resources we didn’t know we had.  “When you encounter bumps, that’s when the insides spill out.”  Bring the trouble out and let the community rally around it.

The winds blowing across education are troubling right now.  But we can use those winds to lift our sails and take our practice to new levels.

TCRWP Coming to TAS!

Yes, you read correctly.  What this means is that we are trying to get staff developers from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project to come and work with us at TAS next year.  Click the link for a full explanation of what this could entail.

Ideally, we will get one K-2 person and one 3-5 senior staff developer to come for a week in the fall and a week in the spring next year.  On the first visit, they will work with us on improving the quality of our Reading Workshops and on the second visit they will work with us on our Writing Workshops.  If we can’t get them here for 2 weeks next year, we will try for one week in 2011-12 and for one week in 2012-13.

This is a golden opportunity for all of our faculty members to have PD of the quality that those who have gone to the summer institutes have received.  So far we are in the pre-planning stages- trying to get dates to align between our school and the TCRWP people- but the important thing is that we have the support for this initiative all the way up the admin chain here at TAS.

As the saying goes, where there’s a will, there’s a way.  And there is a will.

Incidentally, the TCRWP website has recently undergone a complete renovation.  Check it out!