Creativity: What We Can Learn from a Snow Day & Toddler Life

My three-year-old son and I are “stuck” inside today with nothing but time on our hands.  A welcome opportunity.  I allowed him to take the lead in activities and this is what he chose:

A caboodle turned car wash for his Hot Wheel cars

A dive down the stairs by his Hot Wheels into the Caboodle pool

A puzzle made of his magnetic building set

A dinosaur adventure through our man-made tent/home

A hunt for treasure in the snow

It was simply a day of imagination and creativity.

This got me thinking.  What allowed this?

It was two things:

  1. He had time where he had nothing on his schedule (like mom’s errands, for example).
  2. He was given the freedom to think on his own and take the lead.

Then, this got me to thinking, am I creative in my work life? Well, let’s examine those two  factors that facilitated my son’s creativity.

  1. Do I allow time on my schedule for creativity or am I always “doing.”  That would be an easy question to answer as I fell prey to the “doing cycle” much of the last several months, leaving little time in my schedule to use my creative capacities.  Did I got a lot done?  Sure, I did.  I checked things off my to-do list daily.  But, is this really success?  Did I really make the most impact?  Could I have made a deeper impact if time was built into my schedule to facilitate creative ways for deeper relationships, more effectively coach and building capacity with others?  Are you a leader that can build that time into your team’s schedule?
  2. Am I given the freedom to think on my own and take the lead?  I am fortunate to be in a position where this is often the case.  My role is an instructional coach in two elementary buildings.  I’m the only one in these two buildings with this position.  This, in itself, allows for individual initiative and ideas.  However, without that time mentioned in #1 above, this freedom goes unutilized.

So, let’s stop “doing” so much.  Stop the go, go, go lifestyle.  Stop the to-do lists.  And, instead, unleash the power of creativity in our world.  We will all benefit.

Feedback: Lessons from the Ball Field

Some of the greatest lessons I learned were on a softball field as a young adult.  Oftentimes, I find myself making connections between that context of learning and the context of learning about instruction.  Let’s make a comparison between a coach on a softball field and a teacher in a classroom and tie it all into feedback, which is one of the most powerful strategies in improving student achievement.

1. During any given practice, a softball player does not receive a score on their performance, but rather specific feedback, such as “hit the middle of the ball” or “keep your head tucked in when swinging.”  This feedback is specific and directed towards one particular player.

What this means for feedback in the classroom: Do not mistake scores for feedback.  Scores are oftentimes an end result and sends the message that learning is done.  Instead, give feedback in relation to the learning target and success criteria in the form of a verbal conversation or written explanation, not a number.  In addition, focus feedback on individuals as opposed to whole-class feedback.

2. When a coach enthusiastically yells “Way to go!” to a player, there’s a sense of pride and accomplishment. It makes them feel good. This is important; however, it also does not give feedback on improvement.

What this means for feedback in the classroom: There is a place for praise in the classroom. But, research shows that praise affect’s a student’s ego, not their achievement.  And, when given in tandem with feedback, praise dissipates the power of the feedback.  The lesson: give praise in the classroom, just separate it from feedback.

3. A coach does not wait until the end of practice and definitely not until the end of the season to give instruction to their players. Feedback is constantly given in the act of learning.

What this means for feedback in the classroom:  The most powerful form of feedback is in the form of formative assessment, done daily and in the act of learning.  A teacher’s “aha’s” about student learning should come daily or weekly as opposed to that happening as a summative assessment is graded.

What other analogies can you think of connecting coaching and instruction through the lens of feedback?  I would love to hear your ideas!

So, How DO You Teach Fluency?

If you refer to a post I wrote in January ( The Power of Fluency Instruction ) you will see that we discussed the importance of fluency instruction. It is truly a bridge between phonics and comprehension.   With 10 years of experience in the classroom, I know all too well that what teachers need is not just theory and rationale, but also practicalities…resources they can actually take and use in their classrooms.  With that said, here are some fluency resources to supplement what you are already doing in your reading block.

Fluency K-2 Lesson This is a video on fluency instruction at the kindergarten through second grade level.  It was posted by the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project, led by Lucy Calkins.

Fluency lessons This is a document that has easy-to-implement fluency lessons for all levels of readers.

Fluency practice outline This is a lesson approach by Timothy Rassinski and Nancy Padak that includes modeled reading, assisted reading, repeated reading, performance reading, word study and home and school involvement. It was put out by the International Reading Association.

Fluency Station Resources Here are some books you can purchase through The Literacy Store.  They are books you could put in a fluency literacy station.

Student fluency rubric This is a student fluency rubric put out by

Timothy Raskinski on itunes I would highly suggest these podcasts by Timothy Rasinski put out by Teacher Created Materials.  They are concise and help to explain clearly why fluency instruction is crucial.

Step-Up Comprehension Instruction

For those of who teach reading, we know that the goal of reading is ultimately comprehension.  I would also venture to say that those of us who teach reading comprehension do so using the release of responsibility approach, where there is first ample modeling, followed by shared reading (where the students and the teacher think together), and then finally interactive or independent reading (where students have the opportunity to practice a reading strategy on their own).

The question for us today is to what level do we teach comprehension?  Do you expect children of all ages to read at a deep level (of course, a deep level that is determined by their cognitive abilities)?  This means there are different levels of comprehension even at the kindergarten level, and without a doubt at grade levels above kindergarten. Do you have an awareness or  a deep understanding of what different levels of comprehension look like at your grade level.  And if you do not, do not feel bad. Teaching reading effectively is tough work and there is always more to learn (and only so much time in the PD schedule districts have).

If you are needing more knowledge on the different levels of comprehension, consider using these rubrics:   (Thanks to the Reading Lady website for providing this to teachers).   These are strategy rubrics for grade levels K/1, 2/3, and 4/5.  I have used these rubrics as I model effective small-group and whole-group reading instruction.  It is also good practice to put this rubric in front of your students. Teach THEM what surface level and deep level comprehension is.

And remember, the method by which a teacher teaches comprehension (mechanically or strategically) is important in ensuring the effectiveness of comprehension instruction (Taylor, Pearson, Peterson, and Rodriguez, 2003). So, go forth and take your comprehension instruction to another level!

The Power of Fluency Instruction

As you look into most primary grade classrooms across the country, one would almost always see an abundance of phonics instruction.  If one would look into most upper elementary classrooms across the country, one would see an abundance of comprehension instruction.  Both of these scenarios are appropriate and supported by research.  In addition, it is likely to see phonemic awareness, particularly at the kindergarten and first grade level along with vocabulary at all grade levels. I would also venture to say that a multitude of reading programs hit these components hard.  But, the question is where does fluency fit in?  Is solid fluency instruction in our classrooms and in our reading programs?  According to Raskinski & Zutell (1996) programs and materials addressing reading instruction and teacher training seldom tackle reading fluency. Fluency is the bridge between phonics and comprehension, which necessitates the need  to examine its role, or lack there of, in our classrooms. In addition, oral reading fluency is one of the biggest predictors of reading achievement.

So, why does research say there is a lack of fluency focus in our programs and teacher training?  If you were to ask nearly every teacher if reading fluency is important, I have little doubt they would say absolutely.  However, if you were to ask if reading fluency is a major component of their reading instruction, the answer may not be the same.  The question is this: is this simply a matter of needing more professional development on the topic of fluency?  Perhaps this is not the only reason, but likely a big part of it.

So, here are some things to contemplate in relation to reading fluency in your classroom.

What is reading fluency?

Reading fluency includes the ability to decode words, automatic processing of material read (meaning the bulk of a student’s energies needs to be spent on comprehension, but that cannot be accomplished if they are not fluent), and the ability to read with prosody (expression, phrasing, smoothness and pace).

What does this mean for my classroom?

Do your students know how to decode (including at the upper elementary level)? Please note, the teaching of decoding strategies should not end after the primary grades.  Upper elementary students are exposed to much more complex words, some they have seen before and others they have not.  Definitely beginning in second grade, and to some extent in first grade, students should begin to learn and apply the types of syllables.  Fourth and fifth grade students need to be able to apply their knowledge of syllables and their patterns (such as the VCCV) to decode words.

Do you have students who have trouble in comprehension?  If so, do not always assume the problem lies in them not being able to apply reading strategies.  If they do not read fluently, they are only surface readers.  One cannot grasp the deeper meaning of text, if their energies are focused on reading fluently.

Do you teach expression, phrasing, smoothness and pace?  If not, do you need to seek out resources to help you with this?   Be sure to teach students that expression affects comprehension.  For example, pretend you are listening to a presenter and in your head, you are agreeing with everything the presenter is saying. In your head you are saying “right.”  Let’s say to your right though, there is someone who disagree with the presenter and they are also saying “right” in their head.  The way you say right is different than the way the person next to you is saying right. That affects meaning of the situation, just as it would in text.   So, teach your students expression and teach them how it affects meaning.  Do the same with phrasing, smoothness and pace.

Specific activities that teach fluency include the following: repeated readings, reader’s theater, modeling of fluent reading, read aloud performances, and  use of a prosody rubric, among a multitude of others.  See Timothy Rasinski’s work for more ideas.

In Conclusion

Take some time to consider your reading instruction and the reading program you use.  Does fluency instruction exist?  If so, is it sound and consistent instruction?  If not, what resources can you find to assist you?  Perhaps a book, a colleague, a reading specialist?  Whatever the case, continue to develop and build on your knowledge on fluency, the all-too-often forgotten component of reading.

Teaching Reading is Complex; Make a Commitment to Learn More

Teaching reading is one of the most complex cores to teach, one reason why us challenge-loving people take it on with such passion.  I’m not sure that an educator can (or should) ever reach the point where they know enough about reading to justify not continuing to learn about this area of study.

Reading is the foundational skill for success not only in work life, but also in personal life.  When teaching someone to read, you’re giving them a skill that may help them one day to pick up a book about marriage, because theirs is in shambles. Or, there may be someone who picks up  a book about autism, because they have suspicions that their child has characteristics of it.  In work life, I would venture to say that the majority of careers that exist have a component where someone either has to read as a part of the profession or may choose to read to continue their knowledge on a subject, and thus excel past those who do not read. (And yes, research shows that the most successful people in our society read).   The importance of reading is brought up because it is lacking in our society, even by some inside of education.  Knowing the importance is the first step. Then, the next step is knowing that reading instruction is a challenge to take on. It is by far more than “sound the word out” and “tell me about the story.”   It is a metacognitive process, which means we have to teach students to think about their thinking. (See Tanny McGregor’s Comprehension Connections book for more explanation).  Other challenges in teaching this subject include the following: elementary teachers are responsible for teaching more than just reading, making it harder to be an expert in the area of reading, having enough experience to fully grasp what reading is, having a deep understanding of the five components of reading, knowing how to pinpoint where a struggling reader is “caught up” at, and having adequate professional development in the core area of reading.

With all that said, let us not get caught up in the challenge, but rather some solutions.  How can we improve our knowledge of core reading instruction with limited time in our schedules?  Here are some options one may consider: devote 15 minutes of reading per day to continue your knowledge on the topic, commit to listening to one reading podcasts a day from itunes (such as Choice Literacy, Voice of Literacy or Teacher Created Materials), go observe a teacher you know is strong in reading instruction, use your district instructional/literacy coach, make a commitment to collaborate with your team on reading instruction for 10-15 minutes each week, and  listen to your students read as much as possible.

My Twitter profile says that I am a literacy advocate.  I absolutely believe in the power books have in changing lives.  But, I also know, teaching reading is complex and difficult to say the least.   The good news is we can always continue to improve as teachers, if only a small commitment is made. So go forth, make that commitment.  Your students deserve it!

Have You Contemplated Your Philosophy of Reading?

“What is your philosophy of reading?”  This question was recently posed to me. I felt comfortable in the fact that I knew the deeper meaning of why I believe in the power of reading instruction.  But, I also knew at that point, that I needed to interact with my philosophy a bit, to refine it, and to be sure from this day forward, I live that philosophy.

The answer for me, went something like this….reading is not truly reading until the point that it becomes interactive.  This interaction occurs between the reader and the text.  At a very basic level, it goes beyond decoding words and reading fluently, two of the surfaces components of reading.  We read to comprehend, the deeper component of reading.  However, real reading goes beyond that.  Real reading occurs when the reading becomes alive, when it becomes like a conversation and interaction between two entities, the person and the message that is being conveyed.

With that said, that still doesn’t quite touch my philosophy of reading.  So, why do we read? Why should it be an integral part of everyone’s life?  The answer is this: because it changes lives.   The answer is where the magic of reading takes place.  That is the point at which the message of a text (whether it be a fiction book read for entertainment, an online new article read for information, or carton strip with a deeper meaning) becomes a permanent part of who we are and how we live our lives.

So, why do I have a passion to build on my knowledge on reading standards, the five components of reading, reading assessment and reading research?  Because I’m just nerdy like that?  Well, that is true!  But, the bottom line is reading can be one of the most impactful activities one takes part in. It can help you through the hardest times in your life, it can give you a sense of relaxation when you are stressed, it can build relationships between parent and child, and it can answer the “secrets” to life that we all face.   What better gift to give our students than the ability read with such a purpose?

Now, it is time for me to live this (or continue to do so in a more proactive manner).   Reading is interactive. Real reading occurs when it becomes a permanent part of who you are.

What is your philosophy? I encourage every individual to consider this, and particularly teachers, principals, and parents.  Because reading can truly change lives.