#findyourgreatness (Pre chat blog)

If you have read my blog before you are aware of my love for Twitter and more importantly the Twitter chat. It has been a great source of professional development in the last year. I have met amazing educators, learned many lessons, discovered great books, blogs, and podcast. Tonight there is a chat that will be co-moderated by the amazing Dr. Mary Howard and Evan and Laura Robb. Amazing educators and cheerleaders for those of us trying to find our own greatness. The theme of the #NYEDCHAT is Finding our Greatness and just pondering the questions has me considering the question. What is my “greatness” What in the last year or 8 have I discovered about myself? More importantly what have I done to help foster this realization for my students?

If I would identify a greatness in myself it would be my passion for learning and teaching. I am by no means an “expert” teacher, if we are to follow the example of Dr. Mary (and I would suggest we do) no one should claim expert status as it indicates a finish line has been reached and that means growth slows done or stops. That said I do try very hard to be a good one, to help my students learn and be enthusiastic about it because they see how excited I am to talk about the things we are doing. I have not always had this positive growth mindset, in my past life I did not have people that cheered me on, supported my voice and built up my greatness so it was easier to recognize. I, of course, had my wife and parents but I think there is a degree in all of us that sees the support of close loved ones as “obligation” support, it sustains us but does not always push us to new levels. For me this year I have found this greatness by the helping hands of new colleagues, be it twitter, or my new school, I have found it with the kind words of my students and I have found it by allowing myself to see that I am doing my best to improve, to keep learning, growing and exploring new areas that in the past I would have just said, “I can’t do this” or even worse believing those who said I could not do it, that I was not good enough. To find my greatness I had to push the mute button on those voices and it was the help of others that gave me the courage to do that.

This reflection has helped me see the importance that we as teachers have in providing the support our students need to find their own greatness. It is not enough just to guide, we need to celebrate, we need to lift our students when they need it. Give them room to explore and discover their greatness then support them in whatever way we can. Just like us our students will fall, they might slip along the way. I look back at a time when I was in scouts (not my deal at all, but my parents made me do it) and I was climbing the side of a shale hill. Each step I took the rocks would give away slipping a little from under my feet, my friends at the top of the ridge were cheering me on but my progress was minimal at best. As I struggled to reach the top I looked up to a couple hands extended, that little extra that helped me get to my goal. Standing on top of that ridge overlooking “Two-Lakes” I still remember the sense of accomplishment. I didn’t do it alone but that is part of the lesson I learned.

Greatness is not always realized without the support and help of others. With the support of friends I achieve greatness, I want to be that support for my students. To be that little nudge when they need it through, words or deeds we should all be working together to find and develop our greatest us, whatever that may be.

Come join the chat tonight at #NYEDCHAT there will be inspiring people aplenty and all of our greatness will be amplified by the community of learners working together.



Are we adding or subtracting?

I am reading The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor at the moment and a line from the main character Mason really struck me. He reflected that someone was always adding something not subtracting. This simple concept caught my eye and as I look at the things we as teachers do I think we can look at everything with this simplistic view. Are we adding or subtracting?

I ran into a mom of a past student yesterday and I just casually asked how the student was doing with the junior high transition as I am no longer their teacher. The mom paused and then said “horrible actually” she went on to discuss her child’s anxiety, difficulty with tests, difficulty fitting in, difficulty with homework and frustration with teachers that do not seem to understand that their actions are taking away from the student. These teachers are not adding to her child’s school experience. Does this student feel their teachers care about them? Do they know if their teachers see them?  What is adding to this students school experience? What is subtracting from it? As teachers what do we need to do?

I sit an I watch the news and follow what is going on currently in Florida and the United States, I see my friends posting about if they truly are doing everything they can to get to know all their students, to understand their struggles, their hardships, their feelings. I don’t know if we ever can get to truly know all our students but I do think going back to this adding or subtracting mindset we can analyze how we interact with each student in our care. Hallway greetings and personal connections ADD to a students self-worth and sense of community in the school. The quiet student who sits alone in the minutes before the school is busy needs your time and acknowledgment just as much as the bubbly student that greats everyone with a smile. If we forget to take that time, to simply ask how the morning is going we are subtracting from that student’s experience.

Are we adding an understanding adult that shows our students that we will not give up on them even when the pushback is real or are we subtracting yet one more adult that can help them achieve because things are just too tough?

Students that need the most help seem to have had the most taken from their buckets, they are running on a deficit and this subtracting is leaving them with less attachment, less belonging and less reason to care.

I reflect on how I am with my students do I add to their day or subtract from it? Do I make sure EVERY student in my class knows they are valued and cared for? I don’t know if I do this as well as I should. I talk to every kid every day. I make a point to visit and ask how they are doing but is that enough? Is it enough to hear, “I am fine” or ” It is good” and say ok on to the next? I know it is not, I know that if I want all my students to feel like their school days are an addition to their lives I need to do better, it is not enough to just know they are “good” I need to know that they feel valued in my community, I need to get to know them all as more than just a student in my class that happens to play basketball or loves to draw, or shouts out or refuses their work. Our students are more than their actions but we will never know that if we do not take the time to invite them to add to our community.

How are you adding or subtracting? This is the question I am going to give my students when we return from the break and the question I will ponder this week as I am off work. How do I help my students add to our community, how do I make sure they know that they are an important piece, that subtracted from the puzzle would leave us incomplete?  I am not sure but I know the answer can do nothing but build my community.

We need to know each other, eliminate the mentality of outsider because as long as we feel we are not a part of something great we will not see a need for kindness or empathy. We all add something to the classroom and we need to make sure to celebrate those additions.

Why Notice and Note is a game changer

I have been a convert to Notice and Note since the moment I heard Kylene Beers first speak. I champion her New Book Disrupting Thinking on a level that is near zealotry. I know that the teachings in these books will help our students to become better thinkers and more attentive as they look at text.

I do not know that it works because some standardized test tells me their level has increased. Frankly, I do not care about the score they achieve on a standardized reading assessment. Do I want them to do well? Of course but only because the frustration that goes along with reading a too hard test is not the type of reading experience I want for my students. AND NEITHER SHOULD YOU!

I do not know that it works because my students do well on a STAR placement exam or can crush those all-important AR quizzes (we need accountability after all). Or because they have mastered some skill according to Lexia.

I know Notice and Note and BHH and other tools that I have taught and continue to teach my students to utilize work because I see them in action. I see them in their journals and hear them in their conversations. When a student asks his book club if they thought something was a Contrast and Contradiction and the discussion that develops shows not only engagement but active thought, I KNOW IT WORKS.  When a student writes about their connection to children that have suffered abuse with the BHH framework discussing not only the text but what it made them consider and how it made them feel, I KNOW IT WORKS. When a student that is watching Wonder and is excitedly telling his tablemates that they have missed a signpost, that one of those “WW things” just happened and is writing it down because he knows it is important to pay attention to what he is experiencing, I KNOW IT WORKS.

I am so incredibly gratefully that a moment in a day started a change in my teaching and how I view achievement in reading. The numbers are not the focus, the thoughts are, the conversations are. The students are.

Thank you Kylene Beers and Bob Probst for this gift that I will continue to help my students utilize in the classroom.

Now here are some of today’s mindmaps we started from WONDER. Different achievement points so far but I celebrate them all.

Are we doing anything fun today?

I think that question haunts many teachers. I am sure there are some that are not concerned with if their students are having fun but I try. So last night as I was thinking of ways to add some excitement to Evaluate and Judge writing. Today I went to my trusty friends. Picture Books. I grabbed a bunch of my favourites and we discussed different criteria. They were asked to rate each on a 5 point scale.

At first there was some eye rolls and one student loudly proclaiming they are too old for picture books but once they started to look at the different books the conversations were fun to listen to. One of the topics we were evaluating was diversity and it was interesting hearing the students discuss the diversity in Oliver Jeffers “Here We Are: Notes for living on Planet Earth” and the lack of it in Peter Reynolds “The North Star” We discussed the stories and how one did not leave a lot of room for adding diverse characters as the story only called for one human character. The North Star is my favourite picture book. It has been since the first time I read it and I do not really know why. The message is strong the illustrations rather simplistic but so beautiful. My students did not appreciate it as much as I do, some gravitated towards Drew Daywalt’s The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors, one of my EA’s proclaimed their love for The Word Collector ( another Peter Reynolds and a current favourite of mine as well). In the end we read 7 books. Tomorrow they will write a review for their favourite and then some have volunteered to spread the book love and take the first annual Mr.G Picture Book award winner on a reading tour of the elementary school that is just steps away.

Today we learned about the wonderful differences in picture books and the chances we have to see the world around us. The books I picked were just a few examples of the picture books we have used or will use in class. The Last Stop on Market Street or Those Shoes are both wonderful stories that teach lessons that are invaluable. Listening to multiple groups of students read Matt de la Pena’s “Love” was just great.

My favourite part about today other than the reading of wonderful picture books? There was no “Are we doing anything fun today?” Because despite that fact that they are in Junior High and many are too cool for reading picture books they all were reading to each other and debating each books effectiveness to grab the reader and teach them a lesson.

Today was fun.


Books are Joy if even just for a moment

I find myself laughing to my self often when I am reading a good book, I just get so lost at times. This week I laughed plenty of times as we read Scar Island and I tried to mimic the voice of Colin and his speech impediment as it is written in the story. My students laugh too. He is our favorite character. My students forget to be the cool kids that can’t be seen giggling about school stuff because the book has completely pulled them in. Their eyes wide as lightning strikes and predictions being made left and right as we hit the first of many cliffhangers. In these moments books become immeasurable joy.

A student who has started her second reading of a wonderful book now that her friends have finished reading it. The corners are worn but it is perfect. Connections to characters and stories that draw a reader to return should be celebrated. I will probably need to replace the book before the year is up and that brings me joy.

Students discussing if something is or is not a signpost unsolicited by me, those moments when I look up from my desk to just listen to conversations unfolding around a text, knowing that what I am working on, what I am trying to help my students find is starting to form. That understanding that books are more than just words. They are adventures, they are escapes, they are a chance to learn something new or to see ourselves or others in a different way. The moments I see that understanding forming within my students, that is joy.

The busy student that never has time to read but greets me at the start of class with the news that they have read 2 different books in as many days (and they are not small books) and that they are smiling about it. That brings me crazy amounts of joy.

The chance I had to bring my niece and nephews to the bookstore today (two kept calling it the library). To take their mind off a loss they have just had to experience and talk about different books. To look at covers and help a 5-year-old find a picture book when there were none he wanted because he only wanted Basketball or Cowboys. We settled on one about a horse named Steve. I put my favorite book of the year (Refugee by Alan Gratz) in the hands of my 11-year-old nephew and he was reading it in the car as we left, eager to meet Josef, Mahmoud, and Isabel. Then my niece and her Sad Animal facts book that according to her was too many dollars but I bought it anyway and we all laughed and laughed as she read out the most bizarre facts and my nephew helped her when the words got too hard (note to readers: Herring communicate by farting and Some ferret breeds vomit on their soon to be mating partner to entice them. We edited “mating” to “dating).

These little moments are all brought to us by the joy of books. The chance to not just escape into another land but a chance to forget the crappy stuff we are going through even just for a moment. The chance to find your voice as a reader and forget that you need to be so “cool” that you can’t laugh at something funny. People ask me why I love reading and really in the simplest form it is because I find joy.

Books are Joy

Are we all reading teachers…

I have either read or heard this phrase, “We are all reading teachers” spoken many times, often in response to the problem of students seemingly reading less and less.

I disagree with this statement.

We are not all reading teachers and we shouldn’t be. The math teacher who loves complex computations and the science teacher that loves experiments should be allowed to just explore and teach their subjects, adding the responsibility of “reading teacher” to their plate is not going to increase our students reading ability. I have countless hours of PD, training and books read all about improving my literacy instruction. I have lessons on strategies that I have chosen for a reason, to address a gap in my classroom or with a specific reader. I feel very strongly that applying the label “every teacher is a reading teacher” really erodes the idea that reading is something that deserves passionate instruction, reading instruction deserves teachers that understand the importance of choice, independent reading. Reading instruction deserves a teacher that sees the value of book talks, exploring the subtle things an author does to create understanding. Reading instruction deserves a teacher that utilizes all forms of text to show students that reading is not just a textbook and that information comes in all forms. Not everyone is a reading teacher, and that is ok.

What we all can be is promotors of reading. Every teacher can do small things to show students that being a lifelong reader has great benefits not just in education but in life. As a reading promotor, there are a few things that can benefit our students starting tomorrow.

  1. Discuss your reading life (if you don’t have one, come talk to me). Students that see the adults in their lives as readers will be more inclined to read themselves. I talk about the books, the articles or even just the quotes I read daily. A math teacher can talk about some fun novel they are reading or a sports article they read. Reading does not need to be course specific and in my opinion, modeling that is authentic (real world) is a much more believable model than say, ” I was reading this great math article on the principles of …” Your math passionate learners might be there but others might not take that example as one to emulate.
  2. Course Specific Reading as more than just information. So much of reading outside of the language arts classroom is about the testing that ends a unit or a course. The all-important “WHY?” is too often to achieve higher results on a test, I read this in the text and it is the answer to this question. The purpose to read is filled when the exam is finished. This model of reading does not build a lifelong reader or importantly a student that reads with thought and not just searching for test answers. As a course specific teacher, to promote reading, promote thinking. Provide text to build background knowledge, promote curiosity, exploration, and question asking around text that ties to your curriculum. Show students the vastness of text out there beyond a preorganized text book. There is not going to be a textbook for them in adulthood to find answers they are looking for, model that reading lifestyle for them now.

I am not a math or science teacher, I would not be expected to do that and would laugh out loud if the statement was made, “We are all Math Teachers” (no one wants me in that role). As a teacher of reading, I can promote those other subjects in the work I do, information gathering and research skills will help across the board. Those teachers can help promote my area of instruction as well without thinking they are having to do more things and be a “reading teacher”

Our students need models of living a reading life, I will handle the teaching, I am trained for that. For all the other amazing educators that are passionate in other areas all I ask is that you show them you read too.

Knowledge is Power


The importance of stretching

This morning I was in one of many Twitter chats (I might have a problem) and a question came up about what sorts of things keep us from progression. My first thought was resistance. When we are met with something we are unsure of or unfamiliar with we might resist at first. It doesn’t mean that we will always (that type of mindset is not helpful to anyone) but at first, the unknown, can be scary.

I think about the gym and working out. When I first get down to the gym in the morning I usually do a very light exercise to stretch out my muscles that have been sleeping for a few hours. Maybe a nice prolonged stretch on the muscles I will be targetting, loosen them up. Avoid a stress that could become damage that needs repairing.

Take that thinking into the classroom. New learning (exercises) that we do not help our students prepare for (stretch) can be met with resistance and if we push too hard it will damage the student’s willingness to try again.  I am coming up against this with Voice and Choice at times. Too much responsibility too soon. Not enough time stretching, that gradual release of responsibility model is so important and a step I have not always had the patience to wait for. Just like the gym getting a chance to warm up to something will help students attain greater success.

The same can be said for our coworkers. When I first came out of University I was all stretched and ready to lift heavy things, see I was going to put the whole weight of all the success of all my students on my shoulders and just go, go, go. I was going to win awards, my coworkers would write odes about my brilliance and I would be asked to share that brilliance with the world. I am sure it goes without saying there was resistance to this plan, a lot of it. What I thought was eager and energetic others took as egotistical, what I thought was helpful others saw as hardheaded. I did not give time or opportunities for people to stretch to meet my first-year excitement and maybe even more importantly I saw their resistance to do things the way I learned, the current, the “best practice” way, as just some old teaching dinosaurs lazy way out. Boy was I wrong. The problem was not them, at least not totally, the biggest problem was I wanted people to change too fast. I wanted them to abandon their comfort zone before they were ready, I needed to give them time to stretch. Learning that I also benefitted from the wisdom they shared that I was not at first open to.

“We need to walk before we can run” is a phrase I hear often, this too has taken on a different meaning and power for me lately. Version 1.0 of teacher Brent thought that was an excuse, I mean I ran everywhere (figuratively, of course, I am more likely to eat a donut than get on a treadmill) so others should just get moving too. Version 2.0 has made room for the fact that change is necessary but also scary. It is going to take time for some to jump on the change train.

A colleague the other day was discussing that at a tech PD he attended they expressed that more businesses would be concerned with students that could code than if they were high school graduates. This causes me some concern but the world is changing. We should not resist this change to the point of causing harm but I understand now the need to stretch. The need to prepare. Small steps are not only ok but they might help us avoid educational injury. Progress is better than setbacks. Even if for some an inch at a time is what they need, that is better than pushing them beyond their capabilities, inadvertently helping them build walls around their teaching that make the discussions around NEXT practices so difficult.

Let’s look forward and move forward at the pace that is comfortable for us. Stretch a bit along the way, adjust to the change. Who knows we might just find we have abilities that we never would have explored if we didn’t try. Just move forward, otherwise, our students might be leaving us behind.




You have reached your character limit

Today was report card day. A day for some that’s filled with joy, for other dread and yet others shame. The bizarre thing is that one little thing determines that for kids, a percentage (I know some of you have moved to outcome-based, any high school examples out there email me a template). Even more bizarre is that percentage is not the indicator of the feelings alone. A students perception of that percentage is really the issue. 2 students in a hallway comparing marks, both score a 75, one is overjoyed the other defeated and I am just frustrated. Frustrated because we operate within a system that takes a person and all their work and reduces it to a percentage point. We emphasize the product and not the process. I stood in the halls after school today just observing,  there were proud kids proclaiming their brilliance and showing everyone their hard earned 90’s, but what about the hard-earned 60’s, what about the student that grew throughout the term? As I was typing report card comments I noticed a character counter ticking down in the comments section. Like celebrating my students should be reduced to a tweet. So many times this year I have watched as students sighed when they saw a score even as the feedback sat waiting to be applied, even when they were assured that they could revise and I would revisit. The grade becomes an insurmountable mountain to some, why do we keep doing it?

What if a student came to me and said they had a 97% in LA last year and wanted to know how they could do that in my LA class and I said they probably won’t. They ask why and I said what does a 97% look like? They can’t tell me. What about if instead I just talked about the awesome things they did? The creative use of language or the deep personal response to reading? What about if instead of saying you get 97% of the things right and 3% (because that is all they see) wrong I tell them that some of their sentences seemed to be disorganized, that their punctuation causes a breakdown in understanding. What if…

I can give my students feedback on their writing and I do, during and after but what it seems like to me is, in the end, all that matters is that grade. Seriously do you know what a 97% in LA looks like? What their understanding of Theme is or Character attributes? What about a 68%? Is that student 29% less capable? Doesn’t that just seem bizarre?

Is our goal to turn people into percents? Mine is not. Mine is to build my students up through conversations and feedback. Fewer numbers and more words, more to work with, more to build from. I can work with words and teach my students to do the same.

Just to put an exclamation mark on this here is a scenario I saw today.

A student that as they looked over their report card got to the bottom and the comment section and the printer had malfunctioned, not all the comments were there. The student went looking for someone to  reprint her comments because, while the number was not high the comments were positive, they focused on the growth and as the student said, “I just got to the good part, I need to know how it finished”

“I need to know how it finished”





What Do Fish Have to Do with anything: Revisited.


A year or so ago I was looking for short stories to use in my class and came upon the wonderful “What Do Fish Have To Do With Anything?” A story about a boy and his attempts to find the cure to unhappiness. The story is full of beautiful moments and Words of the Wiser to reference my most wonderful Notice and Note. Two instances stick out to me so much and as my students were reading and thinking about their reading today they noticed them as well. I have related this story to a life lesson in the past and now as I think I feel impressed to extend the beautiful words of Avi to my teaching practice.

Words of the Wiser 1: Fish Who Live in Caves Have No Eyes

Ok by itself this might not seem like wise words, more of a riddle really. But let me explain. In the story, a boy named William was taught a lesson about fish that live in caves surrounded by darkness,  his teacher explains that due to this constant darkness they adapt and no longer require eyes. In the story it is in reference to those who are unhappy, dwelling on unhappiness become unable to see good, to see the light around us. In a teaching lens, I can’t help but connect this to so many things.

How many students know they have a reputation as trouble, they live with it daily. Teachers look for them first when trouble comes, this frustrates the kids and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We place these students in a cave, we do not help them find their way out, they get lost in the darkness and can no longer see.

The students who struggle academically, who know themselves as levels, not learners because despite the cutesy clip art they know the code. They know the polar bears are the top of the class and the baby seal is the bottom. These students take our lead, they don’t put themselves in the cave we do it with our levels and our labels. Teachers need to be the light that kids come to, that path to success, not the barrier.

What about the student who never hears celebrations, only hears critiques? I have heard it said that leaders are there to point out the areas others need to work on. No good leaders have said that but all the same, it has been said.  That somehow pointing out faults instead of celebrating strength can in some way build a stronger foundation… Constructive feedback leads us all to light, a chance to see the beauty in learning, “constructive” criticism is still criticism and is a one-way ticket to a dark cave for our learners. It is about how we lead and guide our students that really shows who we are as a leader, both in and outside our classrooms.

Words of the Wiser 2: What a person needs is always more than they say.

Now in the story, this is referring to cake and suggested serving amounts but it got me thinking about how our students rarely ask for what they really need.  They get by asking for as little help as possible. This I predict is due to the stigma attached to be the one “needing” help, again back to labels (please try to tell me they are needed). Academically, Socially, Emotionally our students often need more than they ask for and thus more than we give. I am working more and more as of late trying to break down the barriers that keep my students from asking for what they need from me, teaching them how to ask for what they need is difficult.


We have work to do. Stories are a great way to learn lessons but what we do with what we have learned is the real difference maker. Today I was reminded of the fact that I need to make sure my students do not spend too much time in the dark, the behavioral dark, academic dark or even social dark. I can’t let them lose sight of the goal. Not some academic focused lifelong learner goal but just the goal of happiness. Balanced and Joyful Learning. I need to help my students see that for every one of them this goal is possible when we work together. I need to build this message more into my practice. It is easy to say things like “lose the labels”, readers know I have said it a lot lately, it is a completely different thing to be purposeful in our practice to reverse the damage these labels do.

Something to Ponder.



Just a celebration

“Mr.Gilson, you are one of those participation award people aren’t you?” I was asked this the other day while we were talking about assessment in class and the craziness that 13-year-olds are already sweating not getting on the HIGH honors roll. I was a child of the letter grade word. I shot for a B, I was always informed by my teachers I was not a B student that I should be achieving so much more. But the fact of the matter was I was a B student, I made the B team in sports and I was a very dedicated to being “average” student. I did not love working hard because that cut into reading comic books and playing video games. So I do have a hard time understanding the drive so many students seem to have just to have a high grade. It seems less about enjoying the journey and more about just that percent at the end of every few months. I laughed at the idea that I am a “participation” award guy but I do love celebrating the achievements of everyone rather than just those on the “high honors” list.

So without further delay here are some celebrations.

  1. Soft Start Writing– After the Christmas Break I decided to start looking at a different “soft start” because we were doing book clubs and that reading time would be replacing individual book silent reading for a bit. I decided that my students needed an easy way to start reflecting on “beautiful words”, beginning with quotes from Together is Better we started this reflective journey. It has been interesting trying to help the students gain greater comfort with sharing their ideas and thoughts. Today I tried some advice from Laura Robb (another great educator introduced to me through my friend Mary Howard) students sharing together in smaller groups before sharing with the class made some of the more reluctant students comfortable to share their ideas regarding today’s quote. This is a work in progress but I celebrate this new addition to my classroom because it gives my students a chance to show their brilliance in a different way.
  2. The Return of Journals– I celebrate reading journals because I love them. I have talked about them before and how students really did not like them this year. My heartbreak over it and my decision to let them go. Now cut to our book clubs and the idea of having to discuss their reading each week, to reflect and share in small groups. A logistical problem arose for many, “how do I keep track of a weeks ideas?” A simple suggestion of revisiting the journals, not for marks, not for judgment just as the tool to help that I always intended brought me these. IMG_0951-COLLAGE

We rarely celebrate as much as we should. We are busy, we have things to accomplish, timetables to meet, arguments about AR to have with those who refuse to listen and so much more. All worth it and all important but we should never forget that celebrating is important too. It isn’t about a participation award or ribbon, it is about taking a moment to acknowledge personal achievement. We need to make time for that.