Practice makes learning

Podcast Episode 7

Practice means “to try things that we can’t already do-to take chances, to make mistakes, and in short, to learn”

 -Gravity Goldberg in Teach Like Yourself quoting Trish Huston.

December already?

So I am sitting in my classroom working with The Chilling Tales of Sabrina playing in the background. Snow is starting to fall outside and I just finished going through reading notebooks. 

Notebooks or Journals… Just a name 

My students are required to use their Notebooks to practice the skills we use in class to help them become better readers and writers. I understand that there are some that would claim this work contributes to Readicide and I would have to disagree. I started using Notebooks (I call them journals) a few years ago. I saw some on social media and I loved that it collected the students work and also illustrated their year of growth. I have spent the last few years grappling with the idea of how best to apply this practice without making it TOO MUCH.

Choice…Assigned…A mix?

I have tried to be a free spirit and give 100% of the choice of “how” to my kids. TO let them tell me if they need to practice or not. That did not work as they rarely wanted to record any thoughts on paper. I went the opposite direction and required it for all reading both class and independent and well…that was TOO MUCH. So we restructured again. Now I feel like I have found a balance that works. We practice in the notebooks with shared texts and discuss our thinking, our writing in discussions in small groups, maybe adding to the TQE process and at times we work individually putting our reflections in to support later work. 

Independent work without fear

My fear was not about going up high but of falling.

-Gravity Goldberg “Teach Like Yourself”

The practice time is perfect for not getting things quite right, for sharing our ideas and making strategies fit our needs instead of making us fit the strategies. It is already December, we have finished our first round of practice looking at the wonderful story Restart by Gordon Korman and short stories like Fish Cheeks by Amy Tan, Poems like Mama by Jacqueline Woodson and the North Star by Peter Reynolds. We practice, practice, practice because in these moments we grow, we climb higher and then when we approach a text alone we are less afraid of the potential fall. Because, well, we know we can get up to climb again. 

Here are some examples for this last month in room 157. 7th Grade Journals with general reflections, different summary strategies, visualization strategies and BHH at work. 

Increase Access in 2 simple steps.

The start of a thought

As I continue to reflect on the amazing experience that was NCTE and all the fun that was had learning and meeting my friends, mentors and idols in the literacy world a common theme stuck out to me in the sessions I attended. That being the need for students to be able to access text.

Now I am not talking just about the idea that they need to be able to connect to text be it as a mirror or window or door as is often mention I am talking about the limiting factor that some text can be for our striving or as Nancy Akhavan referred as extending readers. 

In one of my favourite session of the week, Kylene Beers talked about the soft bigotry of low expectations. The fact that when our thinking of a student is limited to what they can’t do we give up on teaching them skills beyond the basics, thinking, “If they can’t do this they surely can’t do that” This limiting of access to critical thinking strategies not only stunts the future potential of our students it also dishonours them. My dear friend and mentor in the joy of literacy Mary Howard discussed once on Twitter the fact that it is indeed our student’s birthright to receive the education and support they are in need of saying, 


So as I listened to such amazing voices as Kylene Beers, Mary Howard, Bob Probst, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Kate Roberts and so many more I started to ponder on what simple things we can do as teachers to close the gap, to help our students extend past where they are. To grant them access to the conversations that so often, sadly, are left open only for those already at the top.

Think Aloud

I feel like the answer, at least to start, comes in 2 simple steps. I have started looking at the work of Dr. Molly Ness regarding Think Alouds. I used them a lot in elementary school to guide students and model thinking as we approached a text. As I moved up in school I started to abandon the process mostly because I felt silly (a great reason to end good practice). When we look at the think aloud we need to remember that students that do not yet have the tools to internally do the thinking need the model, they need the steps but that little assist can yield huge gains. Yesterday I was reading The North Star by Peter Reynolds to my grade 7 class. As we read through the story I paused to discuss my thinking. We practice Notice and Note Signposts as a way to discuss our stories in class. This is a skill that at times is difficult for our extending learners, so we do it as a class. We point out the reoccurring elements the “Again and Again” and wonder about what they mean. We ponder on the words of the wiser, out loud, together. They start to notice without me, I step back and let them lead. It isn’t about levels when we think together and discuss our thoughts. It is about all being a part of the conversation, about my students witnessing that I too struggle with thinking it through at times.

Read Aloud

  I love to read aloud, mostly because I love to see the Aha moments my students have when they realize something important has occurred, the whispered lean to their shoulder partners or table groups as they predict, the writing of beautiful lines that stick out. Reading aloud to my students opens up a text in a different way. Students get a chance to focus on skills while I get the joy of focusing on words, on emphasizing just the right parts and leaving them hanging as a close the book at the “best part”. My favourite part though of a read aloud is the chance to do strategy work together, to move from the text into the talk. The moments before during and after where the class is discussing a shared experience and the different perspectives. Striving and Extending students often times gain access to an otherwise inaccessible experience when the reading is removed and the thinking can be amplified. I sat reading The North Star on Thursday and at moments I would just ask a simple question and wait for the discussions to roll in. I was not wondering about the sequence of events or the first animal the child encounters. It was not about right answers it was about many answers, many thoughts and many discussions. Read Aloud gives the teacher a chance to invite so many more to the table, to see what our students really can do not just what an assessment says they can. It is also just plain fun. 


Two simple steps. They require work but they are not complicated. They are not something that removes the teacher from the equation, they put us smack dab in the middle surrounded by curious, inquisitive learners developing the skills for themselves. You are not going to find some great read aloud or think aloud on Teachers Pay Teachers. You are not going to notice its star rating. Hopefully, you won’t be attaching some assignment that does the opposite of the beautiful intent of a read aloud. Your students will never fondly look back on the workbooks or quiz of the week but they will remember reading Scar Island or Restart or The Outsiders or Refugee or Freak the Mighty or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas or any other title you share with them. If you need an assessment just look around the room at the kids eager to think with you, eager to discover with you and eager to hear what is coming next.

Just Read, Just Think it is that simple. These simple things open up the door for all learners. Why would we limit students to the basics when the world requires so much more? Read Aloud and Think Aloud provide the opportunities for all students to succeed and grow. 

#curiositycrew “NO BOOKS FOR YOU” pt3

Welcome back for the final piece in our little team thought experiment. We started with a simple question of what to do when told, “Independent reading is not appropriate for students with special needs who should be using their time for skills instruction” and morphed into advocacy and tips for next practices that can help students with those needs get the best of both worlds.  I feel like balance is key when looking at helping our most struggling readers. Today Kitty and I are going to finish things up.

Kitty Donohoe a thirty-year veteran classroom teacher of primary grades in a public school located in Santa Monica, CA.

 I love being a teacher now more than ever and one of my main goals as a teacher is to get children to see themselves as readers and to love books. I am thinking a quote that Roald Dahl wrote on reading may fit this conversation well,

Roald Dahl Quote

My point is that without the time to foster this love in class under the guidance of a teacher, this love of reading won’t just magically develop in all homes as not all homes are set up to support this. I know from life experience that reading has saved me, at some of my most painful times in life, like at the hospital bed of a loved one soon to die, I had a book in my hand to help me deal with the pain I was facing.

Brent Junior High Language Arts Teacher and The Mr.G in Things Mr.G Says.

When I first read the message from a fellow teacher that they were told (ordered) to stop making time for students with specialized education plans to independently read I was brought back to a time when I was told by an administrator that Independent Reading was not really literacy because I was not “teaching” anything.

This brought back a flood of memories for me. The importance of independent choice reading first being brought to my attention by my idol Kylene Beers. She directed me to The Book Whisperer Donalyn Miller, who lead me to Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher and my further journey to better my practice brought me to the inspiring Pernille Ripp. Then there are so many more teachers who inspire me, they have not written books, but they know the importance of children reading them.  I am troubled by the notion that not all those who call themselves teachers see that value of books in hands. The value of all students having a voice in what they get to read. I say all students because the ones under attack right now from some voices in the world of literacy are the ones that struggle to be a part of the group much of their school lives. The students that need that little extra help, that assistance to achieve with their peers. The ones that are limited in their choices in other areas of education because they might not be quite ready to move on to new topics. Those students, the vulnerable learners. Those are the ones that some say we should marginalize more, seclude more, limit more by taking away their right to read independently.

Now before we get all crazy (like the proponents against IR) like Mary says, no one is arguing for some kind of sit and read without any prior or ongoing instruction or conferencing. I am arguing for giving students tools and giving them the space to use them. All students. Last year I had students show tremendous growth as they discovered a love of reading. How did that happen? Independent reading and conferencing. Pull out had never worked. The student was in grade 6 at a grade 4 level. The last I taught them they had been in grade 3 at a grade 2 level. Behind but not insurmountable. Then they fell into the land of Soulless intervention. Photocopied readers, rooms of isolation and time away from peers. Growth of any degree halted and a resentment of reading began. In grade 6 I started the year with a question I learned in PD, “Describe yourself as a reader” the answer sticks with me. “I am not a reader, I am behind and have to read those little books.” We talked about what he was interested in and what books might be interesting. We started with articles and worked towards novels. He read alone, checked in with me, we made our own running records and analyzed mistakes then read INDEPENDENTLY some more. He grew as a reader and I grew as a learner. We can’t get better at something without practice. A coach does not limit their players potential by making them do a drill in isolation separate from their team and we should not limit our students potential by telling them they can’t read independently in class until they are better readers. They will become better readers by getting that time. They will build their confidence in both reading and themselves. The best part? They become part of a community that they have been missing from. A community of readers that are proud to share their books. Yes books, not photocopied readers about penguin migration.

We can’t allow the voices that oppose independent reading to control the conversation through their bullying and calls to “get out more” we need to display the power in choice, the power in community. The power in reading free and independent with the tools we have been taught to use.

Think for a moment, you are running behind by no fault of your own. Meeting friends for dinner you are stuck in traffic. You arrive late and your friends have already ordered and have these delicious meals in front of them. You go to order but the waiter says, “Sorry the kitchen is closed, but here are some breadsticks” And you just have to be happy with the breadsticks while your friends are eating steak. NO ONE JUST WANTS BREADSTICKS!

Don’t be the teacher that makes kids eats breadsticks while their friends are eating steak. For heaven’s sake open the kitchen. Books are there for reading, not segregation, kids have enough problems getting access to books outside of school if it is just time, parental influence or poverty. Limiting them access in school, where they should be safe to learn, isn’t just bad practice it is cruel. Independent reading is that time students get to discover themselves as readers, find the books they love, the characters they can’t get enough of. It is the time they need to practice the skills they are developing. It is that practice that we can include all our students in for even 10 minutes a day where everyone feels a part of the community. That is what school should be about. No some stupid program that they have to do that isolates them and puts them on display as “less than” all at the same time.

I appreciate those who joined us this week and my dear friends in the Curiosity Crew for their additions. I hope we can do it again.

Open the kitchen