Literacy Lenses

Focusing on The Literacy Work that Matters

Zaharis Elementary with Principal Mike Oliver: Beyond Borders Journey to Becoming

by Mary Howard

This week, #G2great merged two days into a collision course of celebratory joy: 

MARCH 1, 2019: I took my first step into Zaharis Elementary and entered a magical world conceived by Mike Oliver and his staff as my professional dreams exploded into technicolor view. 

AUGUST 22, 2019: Mike Oliver and Zaharis Elementary in Mesa, AZ graced our #G2great chat as we took a collective Twitter peek into Beyond Borders where the Journey to Becoming is in full bloom.

Two dates. Perfect union. Life-altering.

When an experience literally changes your life, detailing that experience in a blog post can be a foray into writerly trepidation. The idea of putting the Zaharis story in writing from an outsider’s perspective felt monumental. But as I wrestled to find a sense of direction, beyond borders on a journey to becoming beckoned me back to safe ground. I lovingly recalled my first visit and suddenly understood what it was that took my breath away that day. I walked through the Zaharis doors with a two-fisted grip on beliefs I hold dear and those beliefs had a palpable heartbeat in every nook and cranny of Zaharis. That feeling of being HOME gave me a unique perspective.

The Zaharis spirit moved me to tears of joy for what is alive and well in Mesa, Arizona. Yet, it also made me cry for the children who may never experience what I saw that day. I spend a great deal of time in schools across the country, and I can tell you that Zaharis is not the norm. In recent years, our profession has been in a perpetual tug of war of epic proportions as we fight for the very values that are the heart and soul of Zaharis. They are winning on those battlegrounds but others are succumbing to the very antithesis of the beliefs we hold dear. I stared at my computer pondering how to write the words that would do Mike Oliver and his teachers justice… and then I thought about our dear friend, Heidi Mills:

And just like that, Heidi’s HOPE gave me an unwavering sense of direction. According to Merriam-Webster, a verb shows action, occurrence or state of being. The Zaharis spirit resides in these words since they are in a continual state of being along an action-oriented path to becoming. They show us Heidi’s HOPE in action and remind us what is possible if we are unfettered by ties that bind. When we allow hope to turn beliefs into actions, we would move mountains to bring our hope-fueled vision to life in the company of children. Heidi’s Hope lives in Zaharis and I’ve seen it in glorious action. 

Zaharis educators don’t limit their sight to what IS – they dream of what COULD BE

And so, in this post I’m going to share how I see Zaharis bringing Heidi’s HOPE into view – for their teachers, children, community and now for each of us. If we can put a name to actions where Heidi’s HOPE already lives, we could then see hope through the eyes of Mike Oliver and his teachers so that they can serve as a beacon of HOPE that could inspire every school to take their own transformational journey to becoming. For the sake of this post, I identified six ways that HOPE can LIVE, but I needed Mike Oliver’s words to show us what is possible in a space where HOPE already LIVES. Through is insight, his voice can lead the way for others to start the Zaharis journey:

HOPE lives when we verbalize the values that could propel us forward. 

Mike Oliver Words of Wisdom to Live By

Our mission at Zaharis is this: “Learning, caring, rejoicing, and working together to create a more just, compassionate, insightful world.” 

We never ever compromise it.   

Zaharis IS the school of my dreams.  We built on the foundation of learning through inquiry, where learning is co-constructed, agency is fostered, and learning is elevated to another dimension—life, complete with all its wondrous complexities!       

First Grade teacher Kathy Mason connects both emotionally and academically to children

HOPE lives when we see barriers as our lighthouse to change.

Mike Oliver Words of Wisdom to Live By

We recognize standardized test scores for what they are—one metric, one star, in a constellation of many!  Never has it been more imperative that we nurture the skills and dispositions needed in today’s ever-changing world, those skills often referred to as “soft skills.”  Creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, communicating in many ways, kindness, compassion… you know this list. These skills are anything but soft! 

In a recent district meeting, I suggested that we flip the script.  Soft skills are the ones that can be bubbled-in on a scantron. The ones that matter most in the 21stcentury world of today are the ones that can hardly be bubbled-in.  It’s quite simple. We can’t chop up the world into a sequence of standardized test questions and bubble-in truth with a #2 pencil. 

We must avoid falling into the trap so many others are imprisoned by—trying to do the same stale, boring, antiquated things better.  We need to do better things! Those “better things” are not always best measured by a standardized test question. In fact, they rarely are. 

Our approach to life in this era of high stakes testing and accountability is this: approach the test like a genre study… 

“Boys and girls, sometimes people want to know what you know about the world around you by looking at your score on a standardized test.  We’re going to do an inquiry into this test so when you take it, you have a few tools to be armed for success.”

Get in and get out.  Be intentional and deliberate.  Do not let this “genre study” spill out and contaminate the learning experience throughout the school year. 

Beautiful quotes from authors and books grace the halls as a reminder of what matters.

HOPE lives when we embrace the resources that will bring our values to life.

Mike Oliver Words of Wisdom to Live By

 Hire teachers who love books and take care of their own literacy!

Provide children with access to real and carefully selected books EVERYWHERE on campus.  Carve out time for deep, critical and authentic conversations where students and teachers can share their insights, interpretations and noticings in response to reading.  Foster and cultivate voice, choice, agency and identity as students engage with texts and develop as readers and writers.   

Framed photographs of the Zaharis staff holding their favorite books sends a message

HOPE lives when we can celebrate the powerful potential of collective agency.

Mike Oliver Words of Wisdom to Live By

Because of this united support, our school board and superintendency are undoubtedly part of this viewing audience!  Not only are they supportive of our model of inquiry where agency and excitement abound, but they are leading the charge for its expansion. 

Years ago, we decided to no longer be content with a school unlike most others.  Too many times I have looked into the eyes of a mother after leading a group tour where I could see a sense of wonderment.  It’s not uncommon to see tears well up when others enter into the heartbeat of Zaharis. High up on my list of least favorite things to do is to inform a parent who believes to have found an answered prayer that they are soon to be at the end of a very long waiting list.  This simply shouldn’t be.

The leadership in Mesa Public Schools is changing this.  We are all working together in Mesa to offer our 63,000 students and 81 schools a learning experience free from stale scripts and programs, where authentic learning experience is commonplace.  Readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists, and social scientists are beginning to engage in real world work and thrust it out into the world where it belongs. 

School board members and administrators also want what’s best for children.  We have to help each other learn to see with new eyes as we envision new possibilities and pathways to success. 

Teachers embrace inquiry as bathing children in authentic book experiences is the norm

HOPE lives when we build our foundation on professional knowledge.

Mike Oliver Words of Wisdom to Live By

A friend of mine once said, “Ya can’t lead where ya ain’t goin’.”  We have found it next to impossible to lead others on a journey we are not on.  One cannot inspire others to travel down a path that he or she is not travelling.  

Our mentor wall was created to declare to all who enter, “We are learners.  And we take our own learning every bit as serious as our students’ at Zaharis.”

The interviews for teaching candidates at Zaharis are no more scripted than our teaching.  But there is one question we ask without exception. It’s a three-part question: 

What are you reading for your own pleasure right now, what are you currently reading aloud to your students, and what have you most recently read professionally and how has that informed your practice?

You simply can’t fake being a reader.  We know in two seconds when someone tries.  There is a ceiling for those who are given the charge to develop readers who are not readers—who are not learners themselves.  And that ceiling is not very high. Unfortunately, we have discovered during interviews that not all teachers are taking care of their own literacy. 

Not only do we have a mentor wall, but we also have a wall dedicated to the declaration of our own literacy.  Each staff member, all teachers, cafeteria workers, custodians—everyone has a framed picture of themselves holding a book that has influenced them in some way.

We are a community of readers.  

The Mentor Wall includes framed professional book covers of the shoulders they stand on

HOPE lives when our entire school family is at the center all we do.

Mike Oliver Words of Wisdom to Live By

First and foremost, we must truly value them!  Roland Barth once coined a term that changed the way I look at Zaharis.  “Schoolpeople.” All one word, no hyphen. Schoolpeople are not simply the paid employees in the building.  Parents are Schoolpeople. Grandparents are Schoolpeople. Local business owners, operations workers, groundskeepers, the manager at the local coffee shop and state policy makers are all Schoolpeople. 

So many schools fall into the trap of looking at parents as a populace to be informed—“This is how we do things here, and this is what you need to know.” 

Communication is often a one-way transmission, not much unlike instruction is in far too many classrooms. 

Schools where community and a curriculum of caring abound, schools where a sense of family exists, tap and harness the enabling power and culture shaping influence of Schoolpeople. 

Not long ago, I was in a rush to get to a district meeting.  I was stopped abruptly on the way to my truck by a little first grader named Ashley who greeted me with a hug and a smile.  I patted her on the back and asked, “How is my little friend?” She replied, “We’re not friends, Mr. Oliver, we are family!” 

That hallmark moment is not one I will soon forget.  It serves as a testament for what we have developed at Zaharis.  Family is not a metaphor, but a way of being, a way of existing for us.  In a world where it is not deemed safe for educators to hug a child, it is not uncommon to hear a teacher tell one just how much he or she is loved and valued. 

Schoolpeople of all forms are culture creators.  

Mike Oliver welcomes all of their “Schoolpeople” to the Beyond Borders conference


Heidi’s HOPE is on the horizon my friends, and it is waiting for us to take what already lives in Zaharis and allow it to create a ripple of HOPE in every school. One Zaharis is simply not enough because no child should have to take the luck of the proverbial HOPE draw – yet that is happening across the country as I type these words. The HOPE that I witnessed as soon as I walked in the front door of Zaharis Elementary needs to spread like a wildfire into every school where all children can reap the benefits of HOPE because it will live and breathe everywhere.

There are no programs and packages anywhere in Zaharis Elementary so they show us that these things are not needed. Yes, they must also adhere to outside obligations, but they do not allow them to deter their singular focus on HOPE. They make HOPE their constant companion in a sacred space where passion-fueled professional endeavors grounded in a mindset of inquiry-based learning and teaching defines each day in every classroom. They believe in the impact of books and so they put that at the top of their priority list across the building. Above all, they believe that Heidi’s Hope as a verb means that our every action is a choice that we make in the name of children and they make that choice every day because they know that their children deserve no less than the very best we can give them.

Zaharis Elementary is the poster child of HEIDI’S HOPE and we can draw from their inspiration to create a collective ripple effect of what COULD BE!

Zaharis Visual Gallery of HOPE

Authors who visit the wall sign their name with a message
Mike Oliver’s office is a virtual playground that highlights their deep belief in book
Volume is high priority in all classrooms as independent choice reading is a daily feature
Student agency and inquiry drive their daily professional decision-making
Teachers acknowledge the essential ingredient of high engagement in literacy experiences
Classroom are invitational spaces where discovery and curiosity live across the building


Mike Oliver Comments above with#G2great questions in a Google Doc

Mary Howard Zaharis Facebook Posts with Images

March 1: My first visit to Zaharis

March 2: Zaharis Beyond Borders Conference

March 3: Be a Zaharis: Advertise Your Intent

March 9: Be a Zaharis: Let your WHY illuminate across a Building

March 10: Be a Zaharis: Write Your Own Story

News Article: Mesa School Getting National Attention With Different Approach to Teaching

Zaharis Elementary Website: Mission Statement

The Right Tools, Towanda Harris #G2Great

By, Jenn Hayhurst

Access to Wakelet by clicking here.

Disclaimer Alert: I Love Tools!

It’s true, I have a soft spot for tools. From my earliest memories, I have loved working with tools. My father would invite me into his garage and would marvel at the hooks and draws and bins full of useful devices that could help a person get any job done. My love for tools has remained constant, just the other day I inventoried my kitchen tools to assess which ones were most useful. I love tools because they help us to perform at higher levels, to be more independent, and to feel empowered to make a change. Tools make my teacher’s heart sing.

Needless to say, when Towanda Harris agreed to join our #G2Great community… I was VERY enthusiastic! On August 15, 2019, Towanda Harris initiated a discussion stemming from her beautiful new book, so aptly named, The Right Tools, that I believe, will be a book teachers will use and love.

Instructional tools offer a pathway towards active learning and aides for assessment for our students. They are mediators engender high levels of engagement and support. So, why aren’t we all using tools on a regular basis? Towanda, spoken like the true teacher puts it simply,

Today, we often find ourselves facing a dizzying array of materials and resources, whether they be a box of dusty skills cards handed down from a retiring teacher a professional book passed on by a colleague, a unit plan saved from a previous year, a teacher’s manual found in the back of a storage cabinet, a procedure recommended by a supervisor, a program required by a district, a book reviewed on a blog, a set of activi- ties discussed on Twitter, a chart found on Pinterest, a unit downloaded from a website, or a strategy highlighted in a brochure or an email. But how do we know which of these will help the children in our classrooms? How do we find helpful new resources without squandering funding or instructional time?

Towanda Harris, The Right Tools, xii Introduction

How do we begin? This post is dedicated to beginning the process.

I feel so privileged to share the voices of the #G2Great community. Thank you for sharing your expertise so that we may grow our understandings of this important topic.

Having well-defined criteria for what tools are brought into the classroom is an important first step. When developing a criterion, we begin as Towanda suggests, with clarity for the tool’s “purpose” so they may meet students where they are. While Travis reminds us to consider the appeal of tools, is they “kid-centric” if kids don’t like them they won’t use them. Mollie brings us back to basics as she reminds us to keep tools grounded in authentic opportunities for use. Sonja comes at tools from another perspective, when she tweeted that the best tools are flexible ones that “bend.” So true!

Tools offer teachers opportunities to be responsive to students needs. Faige, adds her voice to the conversation as she explains that criteria for tools cannot be set unless teachers have time to observe the students who are in the room, she invites us to consider students’ “interests, needs, and strengths”. Towanda echos this truth as she perks our attention to knowing “learning styles” so we may avoid that “one size fits all” mentality that becomes a roadblock for a successful transfer to independent use. As always, Mary brings the discussion back home, as she implores us to be “honest” in our estimation of tried and true tools we love as educators. We have to always be reflective to make sure we really do have the right tool for the job. Laura, says it best I think when it comes down to the underpinning for criteria for tools, “Students are criteria” Know your students first, then develop or offer the tools they need to be successful.

This post offers just a snapshot of the conversation we had about tools. I do encourage you to go to the archive if you missed the chat. It is a treasure trove of ideas that could spark a meaningful discourse for any Professional Learning Community, (PLC).

On behalf of my #G2Great team, I’d like to thank Dr. Towanda Harris for joining us for this meaningful discussion. Teachers everywhere are organizing and getting their resources together to kick off the school year. With books like, “The Right Tools” in hand they will get closer to “great practice”, and that is what teaching from a learning stance is really all about.

Breathing New Life Into Book Clubs

By Brent Gilson with Guest Blogger Travis Crowder

#g2great 8/8/19

This week we had the awesome pleasure of chatting with Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen about their new book Breathing New Life into Book Clubs The Wakelet of the chat can be found here.

Travis Crowder has written a great blog response to the book that we would like to share with you. Travis is a passionate advocate for literacy work and is the co-author of the fantastic book Sparks in the Dark which had its own chat and the Wakelet for that is available here and the Literacy Lens post here. The G2Great team is so grateful that Travis was willing to share his words with us.

Travis Crowder response to Breathing New Life into Book Clubs

A Friday afternoon. I watched them grab their books and notebooks and gather on the rug around the coffee table. Conversations from other groups created lively streams of energy around the classroom, but in this group, something was different. When they were settled and facing one another, they opened their notebooks, almost in unison, and began writing. Curiosity got the best of me. What were these students up to? I walked to the edge of their group, trying to catch a glimpse of what they were writing, careful not to disrupt the flow of whatever was happening. I didn’t know, but clearly, they did. And that was all that mattered. I squinted to catch a line in Keila’s notebook, and that’s when I realized the significance of their writing. In their book club book, the mother of a character had died, and they were capturing emotional reactions inside their notebooks. Without any prompting, they had decided that spilling their emotions on the page first would help them make sense of their thinking. Discussions migrated from groups across the room, pressing against the quietude of this group, yet their activity was unimpeded. After several minutes, when everyone had finished writing, Karina looked around the group and said, “Who wants to read theirs first?” The book club was now ready for discussion.

Book clubs possess the power to transform readers and to elevate students’ thinking, reading, and writing. The story above captures a beautiful moment in my classroom, one that we dream of as teachers, yet one that may not happen as often as we’d like. For several years, I was hesitant to include any book clubs in my classes for fear that students wouldn’t read, conversations would flatline, and several weeks of valuable time would be sacrificed because of poor management— mine and theirs. At first, the attempts were wobbly, and often, I felt lost in despair. With time and quite a few mistakes, though, I created routines with my students that helped us develop effective book clubs. Looking back, I wish there had been a comprehensive professional text to help me understand the nuts and bolts of managing book clubs, while providing strategies for holding students accountable for reading and discussions. Now, that text exists. And it is nothing short of brilliant.

Breathing New Life into Book Clubs: A Practical Guide for Teachers, by Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen, is a gift to our profession. It’s as though both Sonja and Dana are standing at the threshold of the book, asking readers to join them on a breathtaking journey of thought. They take us through systems and routines that make book clubs manageable and inviting, and ultimately, a way to help students fall in love with reading. Both writers denounce superficial assignments and activities that demean literacy and provide ideas that nudge kids to develop authentic reading habits. Philosophy is threaded into the tapestry of Chapter 1, letting us know that their thinking is grounded in creating a culture of reading and assuring us that this work is possible. But it goes beyond that.

I love the types of clubs— genre, identity, goal, theme, and series— that they delineate for us. Prior to reading this text, I hadn’t given much thought to the type of books students were reading, other than attempting to focus clubs around a big idea, such as war or relationships. This delineation breathed new life into my thinking. Identifying the type of club we feel is most beneficial for kids will determine their energy, engagement, and success, all of which nudge us to provide book clubs again and again for our students.

In addition to helping us understand the different types of book clubs, a curated list— of wide and varied titles— is available to help us select the books we want to offer our students. They give us ideas and mini-lessons to create book clubs beside students, coach them into effective conversations about texts, and lead them into a life of living with books. If you’re worried that clubs will lose their focus and energy, set your heart at rest— they have you covered. Writing, sketching, creating bookmarks, and recording videos are just a few of the strategies to help students lean in to deeper conversation. And what’s more? Sonja and Dana walk beside you through each mini-lesson, offering ideas that will lift your book clubs from where they are to an even higher plane. Kids aren’t reading with no direction. They’re reading to think, to learn, and to grow alongside their fellow club members and classmates. And fall in love with books.

I want you to listen to this gorgeous section from the first chapter:

Book clubs are where students fall in love with reading, but we value book clubs because it is in these spaces that we witness humanity at its best. Through the process of reading and responding to texts, students come to understand each other better. They reflect on who they are, where they hope to be, and the ties that bind them together. The attitudes, traditions, values, and goals established in book clubs often become the principles that guide the way students live their lives. As such, we can invite students to record the story of their book club in a journal or on a blog— the laughs, the struggles, the triumphs, and the lessons learned that will stay with them (pg. 8).

So often, joy and community seem to be a missing pieces of language arts classrooms.  Book clubs, which can be full of life, love, and joy, can help kids prepare for a lifetime of reading, especially when created with teachers who want to see them develop into readers who can sustain volume and independence. The emphasis on understanding each other is a beautiful ode to empathy, and something we need more of in our world. When I work with kids to establish books clubs this school year, I will look for those places where students are maturing into better human beings. Book clubs help create that story— for us and for our kids.

Sonja’s and Dana’s incredible humanity glimmers on each page. Children are at the heart of this work, and with their brilliant thinking, both writers show us how we can move kids to engage with books and their world. Democracy demands a literate populace. It’s teachers like you and me, ones who are committed to this critical literacy work, who will shape the minds of tomorrow. We live in a world of uncertainty and pain, and each day, hateful rhetoric pierces the heart of humanity, eroding the integrity and decency we try to uphold. Sonja and Dana have given us a book that does not waver in its devotion to students, teachers, and books. With them, we can go into our classrooms and create a literate atmosphere based on empathy and respect. Let us not forget that we are fierce educators. And we have the capacity to show kids the indomitable power of story. 

Thank you, Sonja and Dana, for an unwavering allegiance to our profession and for helping me better understand the qualities and virtues of effective book clubs. I salute you and am honored to work beside you in literacy education.

Q and A with Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen

1.  What motivated you to write this book? What impact did you hope that it would have in the professional world? As educators, we’ve yearned for a book that pulls together the research and best practices that could help us have the “best book clubs ever.” And although we found pieces of the puzzle, in various places, we couldn’t help but notice an important gap: There simply wasn’t a book that exclusively addressed the nuts and bolts of book clubs- how to create, maintain, and sustain them. We decided to create this resource for ourselves and other educators. 

2.  What are your BIG takeaways from your book that you hope teachers will embrace in their teaching practices? We must be unyielding in the goal of cultivating lifelong readers. This can be accomplished by staying true to three mantras: 1) Be Brave! Let Go! Pull Back! Students must have choice and ownership over their reading and their clubs. 2) Embrace Authentic Discussions! Students’ discussions will ebb and flow; trust that they will become stronger over time. 3) Joy! Joy! Joy! Build joyful reading communities by providing high-interest texts, helping clubs form strong identities, and encouraging students to read together. 

3.  What is a message from the heart you would like for every teacher to keep in mind? We have the power to provide pathways that nurture a love of reading in our students. We hope educators will take part in a reading revolution that makes joyful reading and book clubs central.

We at G2Great would like to thank Sonja and Dana for their beautiful book and for joining us to discuss it. We would also like to thank Travis Crowder for providing the blog post for this week. If you are looking for more discussion around the book please check out Clare Landrigan’s post and video on her blog which is linked here .

Additional Links

Facebook Group: Breathing New Life Into Book Clubs…

Instagram: LitLearnAct

Most Recent Blog Post:…

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Time As A Precious Commodity: Making Room For What We Value.

By: Brent Gilson

Full chat archive can be found here

Sitting down to write this post has been a great opportunity for reflection. According to my school calendar, I see my students for 179-184 instructional days which works out to approximately 1000 hours give or take. I thought it would be overwhelming to look at an hour breakdown but in reality, it just solidifies my resolve that we have so much to do and so little time that what we choose to do must honour our students. They do not have the choice to be in our rooms so it becomes our moral responsibility to make sure the things we do in that room are worthy of them.

In the last few days of school this year I overheard a student in Social Studies class talking about his Language Arts class (I didn’t teach him both) and the textbook they used. His table partner (who I do teach LA) asked him to repeat himself and on verification of the Language Arts skill and drill textbook instruction, he apologized to his friend and then began to explain how we did LA. I was really excited in the moment because it verified that the time we were putting in, the real books we were reading and stories we were sharing, the authentic writing and even the Ted Talks we were discussing were establishing with this student a sense of value and joyful literacy work. On the last day of school, he excitedly proclaimed he read 6 books over the year.

“That is 5 more than last year Mr.Gilson and I fake read that one.”

So what helped this student learn to appreciate reading? TIME. The choices in our classroom, the opportunity to “bond with books” will only come if we prioritize our time to reflect that important shift. As the #G2Great community came together this importance became clear.

As we move through the chat so many established their “non-negotiable” with the time they have. Time for students to explore books, explore words and writing, explore their ideas.

As I am currently finishing up “Why They Can’t Write” by John Warner I am constantly reminded about our duty to help students explore their curiosity. To write about what interests then. To use the precious time we have to serve our students in a way that establishes school as a place for joyful learning. This stops happening when we use our time for isolated skills practice over a balanced approach to exploring literacy. We must be purposeful about the choices we make.

1000 hours of instruction is my school year, I can’t afford even 1 minute wasted on disengaging work that contributes to my student’s apathy towards school. School doesn’t need to be a party but the work needs to be purposeful, engaging and worthy of our students time.

This is still a journey for me and many I know have yet to start this purposeful reflection on how they use their time. We have work to do.