Category Archives: Ruminations

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.

100 Things About Me as a Reader

100 things about me as a reader?  This kind of list making is just the kind of thing I am drawn to- fun but useful.  After all, isn’t this the way we want our students to know themselves as readers?  Check out this post by Franki Sibberson

I can’t commit to 100 things, but I can start the list.  So, in no particular order, here goes:

1. I read first thing in the morning with a cup of tea and a piece of toast: news, opinion pages and columnists of the New York Times, headlines from Google News and usually a few articles that grab my interest from there, my e-mail, and facebook status updates.

2.  I can become obsessed with books- to the point that I read them when I am parked at a stop light.  Anyone who saw me through this last Hunger Games trillogy obesssion knows that once I get on a tear with a series, I can’t stop thinking about it until I have consumed it all.

3.  I read every night before I go to bed- even if it is for only 5 minutes.

4.  I usually have several reading projects going at once: professional books (one or two at a time), magazines, and fiction are always in the mix.

5.  While I can simultaneously read non fiction texts, I usually read only one fiction book at a time.

6.  I read Oprah magazine cover to cover every month and have for the last 10 years.

7.  In the summer, when I am in the US, I buy People Magazine and read it every week.

8.  I do not have an e-reader.  Yet.

9.  The internet has changed the way I read a lot.  Now when I finish a book, I like to see what other people have said about it or find out more about the author and their process with writing the book.

Nine seems like enough for now.  I’ll add more later.

Werner Herzog Reads Madeline

I am not exactly sure where this fits in (children’s literature?  book reviews?), but it makes me laugh.

Full disclosure: I had to google who Werner Herzog was, too.

Back At It

Renewal… it’s my favorite part of working in schools.  Each year we get to start over with a clean slate.  And each year we get to get better at what we love doing.

Here then, are a few links to browse through with great ideas for the start of the year.

From one of my favorite blogs “Two Writing Teachers”- a link to many of their favorite posts on Back to School ideas.

There’s no need to choose between ‘building community’ and launching your reading and writing workshops.  The workshop structure is a perfect place for students to get to know one another though partner work, author’s chair, and sharing time at the end.    Check out this post that describes one way to create community through writer’s workshop.

It's A Book! Trailer

Lane Smith has a great book trailer for his new release  It’s a Book!

I plan on reading a lot of books like the one described here this summer, on a lounge chair by the lake!

Conditions for Learning

DISCLAIMER:  This post is a tad off the usual topic, but the links here are worth looking at.  I promise.

No, I am not talking about Cambourne’s Conditions of  Learning.  Though, they are very important.

The conditions I am thinking about in this post are more basic:  kids need to have nutritious food and a good night of sleep.

Here are a few things I have come across recently that have me thinking a lot about both of these needs.

Snooze or Loose: Can a lack of sleep set back your child’s cognitive abilities? From the article:

Overstimulated, overscheduled kids are getting at least an hour’s less sleep than they need, a deficiency that, new research reveals, has the power to set their cognitive abilities back years.

Of course, the implications of sleep’s effect on learning  isn’t news to us as teachers.  However, the mother part of me- the one that fudges on bedtime 10 minutes here and 10 minutes there- was alarmed by this article.  We have recommitted to a bedtime deadline (8pm) in our house.  This article made it pretty clear:  sleep is key!

I know this is an ongoing issue with some of our students, and a cultural one too.  This article, or some parts of it, might be worth including in your communication with parents. (Thanks, Cathy, for sending it to me.)

As for the nutrition, I can’t stop reading about this new reality TV show:  Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.  From the article:

The premise is that Mr. Oliver, the well-known British chef and television personality, will help to reform the eating habits of Huntington — identified in news reports as America’s unhealthiest, most obese city — by working with the school kitchens and educating the community.

If the story of this TV show interests you at all, here are a few other links to take a look at:

  • At TED, Jamie makes the case for teaching children about food.  He won the  TED Prize for 2010.
  • This blog post also talks about how this show is uncovering another problem- the fact that the students in show can’t use a knife and fork!
  • And if you are really fired up, you can sign his petition to tackle obesity around the globe here.

And yes, I went to bed to late last night and ate those Kettle Chips for lunch (whoever decided we should have those in the snack bar is Satan!)