“Doing” Justice: More than just forms

Donalyn Miller recently tweeted about a recording sheet she uses for the 40 Book Challenge she not only “invented” but practices with her students in her classroom.  As I’ve recently added her book “The Book Whisperer” to the book study portion of a course I’ve developed, Donalyn’s tweet caught my attention:

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My curiosity over why Donalyn Miller would feel compelled to tweet an endorsement of  Debbie Ohi’s collection of forms led me to read this post from August 2014:  The 40 book Challenge Revisited.

Her point this:

… the original thinking behind an instructional idea becomes lost when it’s passed along like a game of Telephone. You heard about it from a 60-minute conference session. Your teammate attended a book study and she gave you the highlight reel. The teacher down the hall is doing something innovative. You should try it. We’ve all seen the quick adoption of shiny, new ideas without a full picture of how these concepts fit into best practices (or don’t).

I’ve frequently heard fellow educators reference that they are “doing” the Daily Five or the Daily CAFE. However, digging in a little deeper, misinformed yet well-intentioned educator’s idea of the “doing” is more likely to be incorporating some of the “centers” (sorry Gail and Joan, I know that’s not what you intended) or using some printable for students downloaded from one of the educator enterprise sites.

The Daily Five practice is based on developing a trusting relationship between learners and teacher. The development of this trusting relationship is every bit as important as the student activities.  A gradual release of responsibility leads to developing students independence and accountability.  Joan and Gail’s commitment to research and development of their own practice is the powerful glue that, in my opinion, holds the Daily Five and CAFE together. This becomes the basis for educator changes that lead to best practice.

Shiny new ideas are terrific, of course. That is the basis of being “green and growing”, as one of my former administrators used to say.  However, without fully understanding a method for management of teacher, the practice become so simplified that it often becomes just another tedious fill-in-the-blank task to keep students occupied.


And that, is not a best practice of any kind.


Editing & Revising with Peers

IMG_0200As a writer and, as a teacher, I value collaboration with peers. I know that my writing is made more clear, more interesting, and more precise when I rely on a trusted “critical friend” to offer constructive feedback. And so, when the Commonwealth’s writing standards included peer revising as well as adult conferring, the inclusion of critical friends in the Writing Process made sense. Beginning in Grade 2, Writing Standard 5 includes this important progression of peer revision and peer editing. [Refer to the Writing Standards (“Code W”) by grade level beginning on page 26 of the 2011 Frameworks.]

From my experience, elementary students must be taught explicitly how to do this. They need good models of what peer conferring looks like. As a proponent of the Daily Five, I found the 10 Steps to Independence model to be an ideal teaching method for introducing peer editing and revising to my students.

Students at the elementary level need some structure for learning how to be a helpful peer editor or revisor; and to this end, I was fortunate to get an offer for some coaching from our former Literacy Coach, Patricia Sweeney.  Pat provided a structure for the students: 2 compliments and a suggestion. Here were the guidelines:

  • The author reads the piece from beginning to end without interruption
  • The revisor/editor offers 2 compliments. Personal references (“I like...”) were excluded; more constructive/objective language included (“When you wrote…, your writing was… (very clear, powerful, descriptive, etc.”).
  • No “buts” – one of my 3rd and 4th graders favorites, because what 9-year old can resist telling another to get their “but” out of writing. (When you wrote …., your description was very clear, BUT…)
  • The revisor/editor can offer 1 suggestion (so not to overwhelm the author all at once), jotting on a stick-on note. (You might want to …. or Your writing might be more powerful if …). The author can agree or disagree with the suggestion, but listens and takes it “under advisement”.

This structure provided the students with two things: a language framework for offering constructive feedback and an opportunity to apply grade-level writing skills as the “student” become the “teacher”.

These peer-led conferences always took place prior to conferring with an adult and prior to producing a final version of the writing.  Peers did not assess another student’s writing, but offered constructive criticism for the purpose of helping the author improve upon the writing.

Exactly what my adult peer editor and revisor does for me.



What IS Important to Elementary Kids

The Daily Five Tip of the Week had a wonderful cover story this week. In it, Lori Sabo writes about the lasting impact Joan Moser had on a former first grader, recent high school graduate. In the end, the former student describes her current self through the books she loves.

IMG_0190Beyond the well-deserved thanks that Joan received I think is a far more important message to all who work with elementary students. What matters to elementary kids, what they will take away, is a love of learning.

Clearly, Joan’s former student learned to love to read, not from the rigor of the Common Core (which was not part of our educational landscape 12 year ago), but through the nurturing environment created within the walls of the classroom. That environment included coaching this student through some reading challenges, instilling a sense of confidence and independence, and creating a safe and relaxing physical space to learn.

Planning for the upcoming year will inevitably include achievement data and plans for improvement. And there will be pressure to meet incredibly (ridiculously) rigorous curricula. But, hopefully, it will also include some serious thought given to what’s important – really important – to elementary students. A place and a space in which to learn to love learning.

Reading About Reading

Although widely thought of as a math geek, at least as far as elementary math pedagogy is concerned, I am spending some time this summer researching literacy.

The first book on my “must read” list happens to be Richard Allington’s What Really Matters for Struggling Readers. It will come as no surprise that many of my readers struggle, and so far I’ve found Allington’s work very informative and affirming.  Maybe that has a lot to do with the Daily Five and its structures; many of these are based on Allington’s work.

When I think about fluency, I know rereading an appropriate level text is important.  Allington advocates for a couple of strategies that have enormous potential with my readers: Tape, Check, Chart and Tape, Time, Chart (Allington, R. What Really Matters for Struggling Readers. (2012). Boston: Pearson Education. p 110-111).

When I take a running record of a child’s reading, I always share what the checkmarks and codes mean. In Tape, Check, Chart, students read a short text into a tape recorder, mark it up using child-friendly markings, and over the course of multiple readings (Allington suggests 4 with a different color pen for each mark-up) increase fluency and accuracy.  Tape, Time, Chart provides similar practice with fluency.

As I think about Daily Five activities for the coming school year, I know that the addition of these two choices will be powerful, not only for the students but for me.

How Do You Model Expectations?

Responsive Classroom provided some review PD for our school this past week. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to like about the RC approach, and surely I picked up some great clarifications and refreshers. In fact much of the presentation affirmed what I know in my heart to be true about education and students and learning.

However, there are some practices in Responsive Classroom that my experienced-teacher-self question.  One thing is the process taken in modeling a routine for students.  I understand the gradual release models which I first learned from Regie Routman. Teacher models, teacher models with students, gradually releasing the process totally to students.

This year, as a result of my reading and training with the Daily Five’s 10 Steps to Independence, I’ve made sure to add on an “unmodel”, a chance for students to show what a routine,exercising students’ brain muscle memory as borne out by Michael Grinder’s work. An “unmodel” with an immediate opportunity to provide a correct example, is an essential step and even my more shy and reticent students love to provide the ultimate unmodeled behavior examples. I’ve discovered that this is a very powerful way to get kids to internalize  expectations for any procedure I’ve taught, Allowing my more behaviorally challenged kids an opportunity to be the “unmodel” and then reinforcing appropriate behaviors with the same student become a “model” has given us comic relief along with a dose of visual modeling.

I  also don’t buy in to the RC suggestion that the teacher wear a hat or some other article when he/she is unavailable to students. Doing so seems artificial to me. With the amount of conferencing and small strategy group instruction taking place during our Literacy time, I want to have taught the expectations and routines so well that students don’t feel the need to break their stamina, or mine, because they know what to do. I trust them to make good choices. That was a HUGE leap for me last Fall; but with very few exceptions, my students were self-managing their learning from about 6 weeks in until the end of the year.  No special costume needed.

As with any program or package, there are always parts that are agreeable and parts that are just not good fits. We all want the best for our students; and as long as we, the professionals, can be trusted to use our good judgement with the children in front of us, there is much that can be accomplished.

Raising Rigor in Readers’ Notebooks

I used to look with envy at those spiffy Readers’ Notebooks available through a nationally known publisher.  In fact I envied them so much, I figured out how to customize a similar notebook for my students to use.

And while they seemed to work pretty well, I’ve come to realize that maybe the beautifully GBC-bound notebooks and forms I’d created were not all that.

Asking my students to write a weekly response in the form of a letter to which I would write back produced writing about reading. But what I mostly got was a retelling (plot) or even worse, an “I like this book….” without a “because”.

I’m reading Aimee Buckner’s Notebook Connections and discovering something about what has passed for a reader’s response in my classroom. Because my students were so wrapped up in writing a letter to the teacher – and maybe even in getting it done over revealing something they were thinking – the thoughts about reading and literacy were pretty much on the surface.

I want my students to learn to do more than that! Upping the rigor of a response means that I will need to teach students to first notice their thinking and then record it.  And then dive deeper into what the author chooses to do when writing; it’s all interconnected.

So I’m no longer envying teachers who can purchase those fancy Readers’ Notebooks for kids. I want to raise the rigor on what students write in reading responses. I want them to think in depth about a text and wonder. I want them to notice an author’s craft and how it impacts a reader.

What I am thinking about for next year is a much more simple tool for holding ideas than the fill-in the form I’ve grown comfortable with over the last 2 years.  Students need a space to record a year’s growth in becoming literate, a place to keep track of genres and kinds of books (given the opportunity, some of my kids would only read Arthur books!), and a place to record and notice not only their own thoughts as they read but how an author crafts writing.

It’s a tall order with many opportunities for missteps on my part. By breaking down the Readers’ Notebook to what is essential, I hope for depth in thinking. A spiral notebook and some self-sticking tabs should do the trick.


Why The Math D5 Fits

Lots of teacher types seem interested in applying the Daily Five principles to mathematics. What does that mean? For me, it means that teachers are struggling to find ways to deliver comprehensive instruction to our students and to differentiate so that rigor is applied to all students no matter what their level of accomplishment.

The Math Daily Five as developed by Gail and Joan consists of four categories really – Math by Myself, Math Writing, Partner Work (Math with Someone), and Math with Technology.  I like the categories, really I do, but I also know I need to be accountable to expectations for teaching math that are required in my school district.

My current thinking – notice I am saying current because I expect this will morph as we figure out more of what the kids need in transitioning to Common Core – is that I need five, not four major categories. The categories I currently use in my classroom are: Math Exploration, Fact Practice, Problem Solving, Technology, and Math Games.  Here is why:

  • Our district has adopted a Launch-Explore-Summary model for delivery of instruction.  The “explore” activity on the Math D5 board is connected to the lesson that has been launched during math.
  • We also use Investigations in Number, Data and Space as our basal mathematics resource.  This structure supports the materials we have the most consistent access to.
  • Fact practice is necessary as students are often deficient in knowing their facts – I still have students who try to count on their fingers to add and subtract and they need to master those pronto. Common Core requires students in Grade 3 to master multiplication and division to the 10s family. The fact practice games and flash cards (we use the triangular ones) fit well in here.
  • Our Unified School Improvement Plan specifies that students get direct instruction in problem solving – not to mention the Massachusetts Common Core docs also call out problem solving structures. I give students at least one problem to solve each week in their Problem Solvers’ notebook to track their progress.
  • The games I choose for the Math Game choice function as review of prior skills and often as intervention practice for struggling students. Many of these activities are based on Number Sense and Operations/Algebra as that is where my students are weakest.

With all the nuts and bolts of why I use the Daily Five out there, one of the most beneficial aspects is actually more general.  The Sisters advocate for teaching students to be independent – accountable for their own learning actions and trusted to stay on task without constant teacher intervention.  For me, this is the ultimate reason for teaching students the Daily Five structure. I need to pinpoint which students are struggling and provide targeted help (an initiative also mandated by our District).  If I am constantly redirecting students I simply can not do that. I need to know that the students who are not directly interacting with me at any particular point in time are engaged in meaningful mathematics activity for the entire 90 minute mathematics period.

Another reason why I’ve embraced the Daily Five structure for mathematics is that it allows for segmenting the time frame.  Does anyone really have those long imaginary blocks of time with class interruptions at the end of the day? I don’t think so. My schedule is much more coherent this year than it has been for the last 3 years; however, I still need to interrupt my mathematics block for lunch and recess. So the general structure of the block goes like this:

10 – 15 minute Launch with whole group

20 – 30 minutes (students start with Explore and move to a choice)

10 minute mid-point check in (either we solve/discuss the daily activity or we check in with something I’ve notice as I observe students working).

15 minutes additional independent choice time (at this point I pull one or two students who are struggling with the daily concept for some clarification OR if everyone “gets it” (right), I work with a group of students to extend thinking.


20 minutes additional independent activity (intervene with students who struggle with number sense)

10 minute Summary of what we’ve done or learned for the day.

So far, this structure is working for me and my students. Perfect? I don’t think so, but the more I learn about what my students need and the more read and study about the thinking behind the Daily Five, the more I think I am on the right track for helping my students.