When Teachers Learn

On April 4, high school teacher Jennifer Drury did what teachers do so well. She thought carefully and reflectively about some of her teaching practices regarding the teaching of literature she now doubted and as a result of her reflection, decided to make a change.
I know this because she wrote about her thinking and shared it via a letter she wrote to me and and posted on my Facebook page. It’s a beautiful letter and it reminded me, again, why I think teachers are indeed our best hope for a better tomorrow: you think; you reflect; you question what you know and what you are doing; you learn; you grow.
Jennifer’s basic concern was that she had let teaching to the test become too important – even though this was never her goal. This reminded me immediately of a line in the preface from Dov Seidman’s brilliant book titled How: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything. In that preface, he explains that there “is a difference between doing something so as to succeed and doing something and achieving success” (p. xxxvi). Jennifer found herself doing something “so as to” succeed and she decided no more. NO MORE. 
I applaud Jennifer and know that our teaching profession is filled with teachers just like her – you pause, rethink, reflect, consider, and when you decide it’s time, you change. I also think we sometimes need a way to begin that process. So, if you and some teacher friends are ready for a conversation, I’d offer the following process you might follow (with a glass of wine, of course!):
2. Read an article I wrote that was published in Journal of Adolescent and Adult Reading in 2013 titled “What Matters Most.”  I’ve attached a PDF of it below
3. Talk with colleagues about both.
4. Create, with your colleagues, your own what matters most document.
5. Put your thoughts into action.
Teachers change tomorrow each and every day. Thank you for all you do each and every day.

Texas Workshops Fall 2015

I’m always happy to spend more time in my home state of Texas and that’s happening this fall as I run three workshops in Texas. These workshops will all focus on the close, attentive reading of nonfiction. They are most appropriate for teachers 4 -12, though primary teachers often attend my workshops and they tell me they easily adapt strategies to work for their students.

Here’s a list of when and where. Sure hope to see online friends at one of them!

Saturday, September 12. Keynote workshop speaker for the West Houston Area Council Teachers of English. Though sponsored by an ELA organization, all teachers are welcome. Location: Sugar Land, Texas. Registration info: http://whacte.org. (Workshop is from 8:00 – 11:00 a.m.)

Wednesday, September 30. Keynote workshop speaker for Region 13 in Austin, TX. This is part of the STAAR Distinguished Speaker Series. Registration is at Region 13’s website. (Workshop is from 8:00 – 3:00.)

Monday, October 19. Keynote workshop speaker at the Texas Association for Improvement of Reading fall conference at Baylor University, Waco, Texas. Registration is found at the TAIR/Baylor site. (Workshop is from 8:00 – 3:30.)

All of these workshops will share the information my coauthor (Bob Probst) and I present in the forthcoming Reading Nonfiction: Stances, Strategies, and Signposts (Heinemann, 2015). All content area, resource, and ESL teachers are encouraged to attend as well as literacy coaches, supervisors, and administrators. Math teachers – please know that while I include some information that will be helpful in math class, this is most appropriate for ELA, reading, social studies, and science content.

Hook-em Horns!

Reading Nonfiction correct title jpeg

Standing In the Middle, Shoulder to Shoulder

By Kylene Beers

Recently, one of my professional heroes won a huge award: The Global Teacher Prize. It was won by the extremely deserving Nancie Atwell. She then, in perfect Nancie style, announced that the full $1 million award would go to her school. I say, “perfect Nancie style” because she has always been the person to put kids first, to put fellow-teachers first, to put teaching and learning first.

Perhaps that’s why her comment during a live interview with CNN stunned many. When asked what advice she’d give to young people thinking about entering the profession, she said she couldn’t encourage young people to become public school teachers. She explained that in this climate, the restrictions on public school teachers are just too much and so she couldn’t honestly encourage folks to go there.

Her comment stunned me, too. At first. And then when I thought about it, I realized that, once again, Nancie was doing what we’ve always looked to her to do: speak the truth. This is an incredibly difficult time to be a teacher—and that’s for the seasoned teacher who has years of experience. That’s for the teacher who knows research that can be used to try to counteract bad practices if not in her district, then at least in her school. That’s for the teacher who understands that many educational policies will change if you can just wait it out. That’s for the teacher who has found his or her voice and knows how to respectfully, but assuredly, stand up for kids and best practices.

I wonder if once again Nancie didn’t do what she does best:

Say what’s hardest to hear

But for the novice teacher—that person still figuring out how to take roll while listening to three students explain why homework wasn’t done, while answering another student’s request to run back to the locker, while signing something that a runner from the office just thrust into his or her hands, while wondering how to get the class started when too many kids are still turned around talking to buddies—that teacher can feel overwhelmed when district- or building-adopted policies seem to stand in complete opposition to all that he or she has learned is a best practice.

And when I think of that teacher, that novice teacher, I wonder if once again Nancie didn’t do what she does best: say what’s hardest to hear.

Nancie started me on a journey of rethinking practices when I first read In the Middle. At first, I stood on the edges of being in the middle—I bought bean-bag chairs and lamps and a lot of books and plants (which I promptly forgot to water) and said to the kids, “Now you read and then write me letters and I’ll write back.” Let’s just say that didn’t work out so well. It seems that Nancie was saying a lot more about reading and writing workshop than what I first grasped. Workshop is first and most importantly about, well, work! Little by little, over years, I’ve come closer to understanding many of the guiding principles Nancie offered us all in that groundbreaking book. Never once did Nancie budge from her principles: kids need choice in what they read; kids need opportunity to write about what they’ve read; kids need time to read widely and read deeply; kids need teachers who are readers and writers; curriculum built to a test has no place in a school; schools focused on test-prep have placed the value of the test above the value of a child. And when our system is so focused on standards and tests and racing to the top that we fail to see the child before us, perhaps we can no longer in good faith encourage people to head into this profession.

And, yet, of course we must. Of course we want our brightest and our smartest, our most empathetic and our most energetic entering this profession. We want them to enter demanding to know why teaching to a test would ever be more important than teaching to a child. We want them right in the middle of all that needs to change. We want them becoming the next generation of people who will lead all the changes we’ll continue to need in this wonderful thing call education. I have no doubt that this year Nancie will be one of those leaders who calls us all to action; who says what must be said; who stands there with us, in the middle, showing us the work that must be done.

Always the teacher, Nancie remains one of my heroes.


Ten Tips for a Successful PD Convention

School dollars are precious and getting administrators to release some of them to support travel to state and national conventions can be difficult.  It’s not that administrators don’t want teachers to go forth and learn.  It’s that travel is expensive and, let’s face it, sometimes when we return we head right back into the classroom and keep teaching.  Sharing what we’ve learned while away gets pushed to the back burner.

So, how do we make the best of our travel to conferences?  How do we prove to administrators that those dollars spent on just you will benefit many?  Below you’ll find my list of ways to turn any conference that one teacher attends into a positive learning experience for those who didn’t get to travel with you.  The best list, though, is the one you’ll make with your colleagues.  Talk with each other about how you can best share what you will learn while away.

So whether you’re packing up for the IRA convention in New Orleans that begins in just a few days or simply need to keep this list to pull out the next time you ask your principal for travel funds, I hope it offers you some tips for turning any convention into a collaborative experience.

My IRA questions1) Know thyself.  Before you get to the conference, make your own list of questions you hope will be answered.  As you choose sessions, keep this list in mind and that will help you choose where to go.  Here’s my list that will go with me to IRA.

2)   Be open to new ideas.  And though you have that pre-made list, be willing to explore new ideas.

3)   Carry the questions of your colleagues with you.  Before you leave, ask your colleagues who aren’t attending what information they most want you to bring back. When you return, follow-up with “Sam, you really wanted information on helping kids summarize.  Here’s a link to a website on summarizing that I think you’ll find helpful.”

4)   Keep folks in the loop.  Provide daily updates to your school colleagues via your homepage, email, Twitter, or Facebook so you share your learning.  Explain what you’ve learned, mention a link you’ve discovered, discuss a title you hope all will read.  (Maybe don’t mention the fab meal you and friends had in the Quarters.) Start your own hashtag so teachers in your district can follow you at the conference: #KBeersIRA14 for instance!



5) Remember that a picture is worth a thousand words.  Take photos, lots of photos.  Take pictures of handouts, of a PowerPoint screen, of you with a presenter, of the cover of a new book you hope all will read.  Upload often.  Here I’ve grabbed two of my favorite writers–Alfred Tatum and Jackie Woodson–and asked them for photos with me.








6)   Do two-minute interviews.  Use the video camera on your smart phone and ask your favorite literacy leader to share two minutes of his or her time to answer one specific question.  Remember two minutes means that you can’t ask “What do we do with kids who struggle to read” but you can ask “What’s one tip that helps struggling readers tackle hard vocabulary?”  I find most folks will happily share two minutes.  It’s the 10-minute answer that gets hard when everyone is trying to make it to the next session.

7)   Send your principal a daily update.  That’s right—daily.  That doesn’t mean a summary of sessions you attended.  It does mean, “Today I learned three new strategies that we can all use to help students with close reading.  Please think of a time I can share this information with the language arts and social studies teachers before school begins next year.”  In other words, you’re showing the principal that his investment in your PD is really an investment for many teachers. Along with this is tip #7.5:  When you get back, write thank-you letters to your principal, superintendent, and perhaps school board.  Thank them for supporting your professional development and share a little of what you’ve learned and a lot of how this will change your teaching and students’ learning. Make sure they know how you will share with others what you have learned.

8)   Get to sessions early.  Plan your days and know where you’re going.  Session fill up early so get to rooms as early as possible.  Did I mention that early is important?


9)   Go to the general sessions.  These sessions are almost always great, so don’t miss them—even if they are first thing in the morning!




10) Be inclusiveLook for the teacher who is sitting alone and sit by that person.


Conferences are in part about meeting new folks.  But they can be lonely places if you’ve traveled there on your own.  So extend that hand of friendship we hope our students extend to one another.  A shared conversation while waiting for a session to begin or asking someone to join you and others for lunch makes the day better for all.   This is a photo of teachers taken during the Boothbay Literacy Conference Bob Probst and I run each June.  These teachers traveled to this conference each knowing no one. By the end of the week, they were fast friends.


Reading Nonfiction

My colleague Bob Probst and I have been thinking a lot about nonfiction as we work on our next book which for now is titled Notice and Note for Expository Texts, the companion to our book that focused on literary texts:  Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading.  Part of the research for this new nonfiction book meant each of us ramped up our own volume of nonfiction reading.  As a result, in the past year or so, I’ve learned a great deal about many topics including Sumerians, planets, plagues, early Civil Rights advocates, the dust bowl, volcanoes, the cotton industry, the dung beetle, World War II, photosynthesis, and wine (well, that one was for a different research project…).

For a year, at the end of each week, Bob and I would ask ourselves what we noticed about our reading of nonfiction.  We wanted to focus on what we did while reading nonfiction that we didn’t do while reading fiction.  What struck us both, no matter the topic, was the number of times we said to ourselves, “Really?” or “I didn’t know that.”  For instance, I didn’t know that the Russians landed a probe on Mars years before the USA did.  When I read that, I remember stopping and thinking, “Really?” and then doing more–going to other sites, calling my son and asking if he knew this (“Yes, Mom.  It was the early 70s. Once it landed, though, it didn’t transmit images as they had hoped it would.” I hung up and looked for someone else who, too, was amazed.  Luckily a neighbor’s daughter is only six years old.)

We want students aware of what they are discovering as they read.  We want them to enjoy that feeling of surprise, amazement, and even skepticism.   We want them to say, “Really?”  So, we worked with a group of teachers in Florida and Ohio (thank you Orlando and Akron folks!) and eventually settled on this simple note-taking template that you’ll see below.  You can download this blank template here.

Really template blank jpg from bud







And here’s an example of one completed by an 8th grader:

Really worksheet completed by student


When we talked with this student, she reported, “Sometimes I read and just turn the pages to get finished.  When I used this to keep notes, it was like I was really thinking about how what I was reading was telling me stuff I didn’t know.  I really was like, “Really?” and it helped me keep thinking while I was reading.  Now I find myself doing this even without the worksheet.”



That’s the goal of any good scaffold–to offer support until the support isn’t needed.  If your students have decided that the goal of reading is to finish, then perhaps this  template will help them slow down to focus on what they are learning, on what they’ve discovered that’s new to them.


It’s Rigor, Not Rigor Mortis

It’s Rigor, Not Rigor Mortis by Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst

[It seems that the way to solve problems in education, make everyone college and career ready, and probably stop the melting of the polar ice caps is to make sure we have enough rigor in our classrooms. But far too often the synonym for rigor is hard. Below, I share a few thoughts about rigor from our forthcoming book  (co-author Bob Probst), Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading (Heinemann, in press).]

“The essential element in rigor is engagement. The rigor has to be achieved by engaging the readers in a process that is sufficiently interesting or rewarding that they’ll invest energy in the work. If they are to read rigorously, students must to be committed to understanding some intriguing character, to solving some problem, to figuring out what a writer believes or values and how those thoughts compare with their own or to understanding how other readers have made sense of a text.

Granted, students should learn over time to cope with more and more difficult texts. We know of no teachers who do not want students to be able to read increasingly complex texts as the year progresses. But students are more likely to do that if they are invited to read texts with which they can become engaged and are lured into the sort of thinking that might be both challenging and enjoyable.

Rigor, in other words, lies in the transaction between the reader and the text, and then among readers. The essence of rigor is engagement and commitment. A classroom that respects what the students bring to it, what they are capable of and interested in, and that welcomes them into an active intellectual community is more likely to achieve that rigor.”

–From Notice and Note, by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst

An Ah-Ha Moment

I recently posted a note on my Facebook page regarding a conversation Bob Probst (author of Response and Analysis: Teaching Literature in the Secondary School) and I had in September with teachers, grades 4-12, in a school district close to Detroit.  As a back story, it was that posting on Facebook and the many resulting comments that led me to ask Karl Fisch how I might share such an important conversation with others.  He said, “It’s time you start to blog” and before I could list all the reasons I could not do this, he had enlisted Bud Hunt and the two of them were promising they would help me into this world of blogging.  They have, and I so appreciate their mentoring.

Back to the posting on Facebook.   It was obvious that the conversation I shared struck a chord—harmonious for some, dissonant for others.  I continue to receive emails about the conversation and that is what compels me to share this story a second time, though this time, with more space, I’ve added thoughts.

Bob and I began the day by asking the teachers to work in small groups to define comprehension. Once groups began to share, we didn’t hear the same definition from each group, but we certainly heard a shared theme. These teachers defined comprehension as …

  • evaluating a text (oral or print) to determine its accuracy and truth;
  • figuring out what your own biases are as you respond to the text;
  • recognizing the universal truths in the text;
  • collaborating with the text and with others to defend or deny its accusations;
  • knowing when you stand alongside or in opposition to the ideas in the text;
  • questioning the text and the text’s motives
  • making connections between the text and your own life
  • knowing how to find information in the text to support inferences you make from it.

Next, we asked them to discuss how their students would define comprehension. The answers came quickly: being able to answer the questions at the end of the chapter; knowing the right answer; finishing the homework; knowing what the teacher wants for an answer; finishing a worksheet; getting a good grade on a test.

Quietly the teachers considered the two sets of definitions. Then, I asked them what it was that was happening in classrooms that led students toward those definitions and away from what teachers understood comprehension to be. One teacher spoke up: “It’s what I ask them to do. Answer questions at the end of the chapter; take multiple choice tests; maybe have a discussion, but the discussion is to get to the answer I want from them; maybe write a paragraph about what they think something meant, but too many times I’ve already shared with them what the theme is I think they should know. I want them to get good grades, so I’ve taught them, in some way, that comprehending is about just getting a good grade. They think that’s what comprehension is because in my class that’s what I let it be.”

And there it was, the ah-ha moment. If our actions, the things we ask students to do, are about completing worksheets, teaching students to turn to the end of the chapter first so they will know the questions before they begin to read instead of reading to formulate their own questions, if we give fill-in-the-blank worksheets to accompany great works of literature and think we should reduce discussion of theme to a multiple choice question, then why would we be surprised when students develop a diminished understanding of comprehension?   As another teacher said, “If we build it, they will come.  And what I have built in my classroom is a definition of comprehension I don’t really believe and sure enough, my students have come to that definition.”  Most in the room nodded their heads.

We talked at length about this practice of having students look at the questions at the end of a chapter before reading so that they would have the “right” questions in mind as they read.  Almost all teachers said this was a strategy they taught students.   I would suggest that while this might be an important test-taking strategy, one about using time efficiently, it might not be a powerful reading strategy.  Independent readers are those readers who, along with other things, can formulate their own questions as they read a text.  As Bob points out, articles in USA Today or Atlantic Monthly or for that matter People magazine don’t come with questions at the end of the articles.  As independent readers, we are expected to formulate our own questions as we read.  A steady diet of reminding students to see what someone else has decided is the important question about a text before reading can eventually say to students that those questions—the ones from someone else—are the ones that matter.  I saw that first hand when working with a ninth grader not too long ago.  When I asked him what his questions were after reading the first few chapters of a Chris Crutcher book, he said, “About what?”  I told him I was wondering what questions he might have formulated at this point about the characters or the plot or perhaps even about what the author might be trying to say about people and our relationships with one another.  He was quiet for a moment and finally said, not too kindly, “You didn’t show me any questions before we got started.  What questions?”

I wish I had asked that student to define comprehension.  I fear I already know his answer.