The Responsive Writing Teacher: A Hands-On Guide to Child-Centered, Equitable Instruction

by Valinda Kimmel

When you approach writing instruction with a deep understanding of children in your classroom, everything else―assessment, planning, differentiated instruction, mentor and shared texts―begins to fall into place. And you can teach writing with inclusion, equity, and agency at the forefront.  –Melanie Meehan and Kelsey Sorum

March 25th, #g2great had the opportunity to join with Melanie Meehan and Kelsey Sorum to explore the resources they share in their new book, The Responsive Writing Teacher. If you missed the chat, you can access the entire chat here.

Responsive teaching allows teachers to give close attention to students’ clear assets and needs, reflect on actionable ways to support, create authentic ways for students to give evidence of learning and share effective feedback for kids.

Meehan and Sorum go further in their commitment to responsive teaching. They inspire teachers to spend time genuinely getting to know kids and what they need. The focus is on targeted, individual support and student-focused inspiration.

 The single most significant decision you can make in regard to being a responsive teacher is building strong relationships with every student. These types of relationships build community that allow students to take risks, makes it easier for you, the teacher, to differentiate for specific needs, and works proactively to prevent power struggles that inevitably occur.

What I love about this book is that one might assume it’s a skills handbook of sorts, but it’s much more than that. This book by Meehan and Sorum is a treatise on how to start with, maintain and solidify acts of humanity. Every day deliberate, intentional acts of humanity. When teachers defer to student needs, their individual cultural and ethnic lives, celebrating students’ fund of knowledge and their singular hopes and dreams, everyone benefits. Imagine a classroom where everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner. Meehan and Sorum make it clear through their book that it can happen.

What’s Our Response? Creating Systems and Structures to Support ALL Learners

by Mary Howard

Revisit our chat with Julie Wright using this #G2Great Wakelet LINK

On March 18, 2021, we were delighted to welcome our #G2great guest, Julie Wright back to the host seat for the second time. Here is her first chat collaboration with co-author, Barry HoonanWhat Are you Grouping: How to Guide Small Groups Based on Readers – Not the Books Grades 3-8 (Corwin 2018). This week Julie joined us to explore her hot off the presses book, What’s Our Responses? Creating Systems and Structures to Support All Learners (2021, First Educational Resources).

When I first heard about Julie’s book, I was enthralled since my long-time love affair with the intervention process began in 1972 before I even knew the term “intervention.” My professional dedication elevated with Marie Clay’s Learning to Be Learning Disabled in 1987 (often credited as the first to use “intervention”). When IDEA 2004 became what is known as RTI or Response to Intervention, it was attributed to Marie Clay by many including Frank Vellutino in “Learning to be Learning Disabled:” Marie Clay’s Seminal Contribution to the Response to Intervention Approach to Identifying Specific Reading Disability” This inspired me to learn more about RTI.

Sadly, it didn’t take long to realize that Marie Clay’s work was in stark contrast to the RTI reality I saw play out in schools. My initial enthusiasm dissipated from view as concern for those flaws led me to write RTI from All Sides: What Every Teacher Needs to Know (2009, Heinemann) with an accompanying podcast Principles for Success with RTI (2009, Heinemann). The rich intervention understandings I’d grown to love before and through Marie Clay as well as training as a Reading Recovery Teacher in 1990 were so far removed from the RTI that made children sacrificial lambs of yet one more intervention model gone awry (followed by MTSS). In education, what may seem like a good idea in theory is often at odds with a good idea in practice

When Julie told me that her soon to be published book was about the intervention process and asked me to preview it, I was delighted. I knew in the first pages that it would be an honor to write her foreword. Julie showed us in page after page how to bring theory and practice together by illuminating the WHY, WHAT and HOW of a thoughtful intervention design with children in mind. She offers a flexible pathway to the responsive process our children deserve as both teachers and the students in their care become fortunate benefactors of her wisdom. In just under 200 pages, Julie awakens the “beating heart” that has been missing in the traditional RTI Model. 

It seems only appropriate for Julie to explain in her own words why this book is sorely needed as she eloquently responds to the first of three questions:

What motivated you to write this book?  What impact did you hope that it would have in the professional world?

Teachers face a lot of noise today.  That noise isn’t all bad, but it can be overwhelming at times.  With the growing list of initiatives, the plethora of instructional resources, increased meetings, new tech tools, and more, it can be tricky to determine what counts.  Not to mention that there’s never enough time to get it all done.  This book is about clearing the noise by taking on 5 challenges that face schools specific to our current RtI models, and ways to solve them.  My goal is to ensure that teachers are in the instructional driver’s seat, creating asset-based responses to support ALL students.

I wrote Julie’s first guest post around Small Group Redesigns I believed could address the flawed efforts that had become all-too prevalent. Considering the flawed design missteps I have seen along the way in our intervention efforts, it seems fitting to use that spirit again with Intervention Redesigns. Until we are willing to step back and contemplate an intervention design in honor of our children rather than in honor of whatever acronym we happen to be using at the time, we will forever fail to keep children at the center. Misplaced blind faith in the design of others can never be a substitute for the thoughtful design we craft with children in mind.

And so I offer Twelve Intervention Redesigns, each accompanied by two of Julie’s carefully chosen tweets from our #G2great chat. It is my hope that these suggestions will inspire you to engage in collegial dialogue as you contemplate a renewed schoolwide intervention perspective.

Intervention Redesign #1: Begin by verbalizing and understanding your beliefs

While choosing the sequence of these important points inspired by Julie’s wise tweets, I made a conscious decision to use beliefs as our opening. If we don’t know what we stand for, then we stand for nothing so our beliefs must be the starting point of all that follows. This requires us not only to verbalize our beliefs from a collective stance but also to consider how we will know what that looks like when (and if) we bring those beliefs to life in practice. This offers the directional signposts that will help us to maintain a sense of purpose as we move along that trajectory. 

Intervention Redesign #2: Use beliefs as a reflective mirror leading to change

Once we have identified and analyzed what we stand for and what that looks like, then we must begin to do the hard work. This means we have the courage to closely examine our choices and whether they are translating our beliefs into actionable artifacts that matter. Our success directly impacts the success of our children, so we take an honest look at our beliefs in action through a lens to determine what is worth keeping, what warrants adjusting and what is best alleviated entirely. In some schools, this may lead to a major design overhaul. If it isn’t working for children, we owe it to them to start over no matter how comfortable it might seem to maintain status quo.

Intervention Redesign #3: Build a culture of professionals as decision makers 

Once we verbalize our beliefs and analyze the actions that awaken them in the name of students, we need to acknowledge that our professional superpower has always and will always reside in professionals who are able to assume their rightful role as dedicated decision-makers, not the scripted programs that lure them into compliant disseminators. This means that schools must be willing to invest in ongoing professional learning including highly qualified coaching support in the context of instructional practices. The good news? If we have the wisdom to let go of the ties that bind, we’d have ample financial resources to make this a schoolwide professional imperative. 

Intervention Redesign #4: Broaden your view of our intervention “WHO

Any intervention design that does not place classroom teachers at the center of those efforts is destined to fail. General education must always be viewed as the first line of intervention defense regardless of other instructional supports students may need beyond that setting. It is both an ethical and legal obligation that any interventions. regardless of where they take place, will provide “in addition to” vs “instead of” support. Until we understand that each classroom teacher will be responsible for every child who walks through their door no matter where they fall in that grade level spectrum, our intervention choices will always fall short. 

Intervention Redesign #5: Broaden your view of intervention “WHERE

Pull-out has become an unfortunate first choice instructional knee jerk reaction, often based on flawed data that gives the illusion its warranted in the first place. Pull out must be seen as the last alternative after all other options have been carefully considered. Responsive decision-making maintains classroom teachers as our first line of defense by ensuring that flexibility of purpose is is our guide so that we can honor every unique learner based on their needs at that time. We use the 80% Proficiency Rule (Dorn & Schubert) as our marker, knowing that if more that 20% of students in a classroom need outside support we need to assess the design of that classroom.

Intervention Redesign #6: Value the gift of instructional time (aka Tick Tock!)

Time is our most precious commodity so we have an obligation to spend it wisely. If schools treat instruction as a TO DO list to be conquered rather than a responsibility we have to children, then we need to make dramatic curricular changes. Professional respect for time drives us to make room for instructional depth over breadth. Unless we contemplate how we choose or refuse to expend time, we cannot find the time to invite deeper conversations and collaborations that will beckon students to engaged learning. If time becomes our enemy due to curriculum or publisher obligations, we must carefully consider how to shift our responsibility back to students. 

Intervention Redesign #7: Acknowledge the role of early intervention 

Any effective instructional design begins with valuing the role of early intervention. This does not mean that we initiate a kindergarten global pull-out frenzy but that we recognize early signs of instructional need through ongoing assessment and professional awareness. Of course, it also means assessing important experiences and opportunities that children have not previously been afforded so that we may bathe them in those experiences and opportunities. This begins by prioritizing book centered reading and writing experiences with conversations that support and enhance that learning. Regardless what children bring into our doors, opportunity begins with us.

Intervention Redesign #8: Keep your sights on intensity for accelerated growth

Once we determine that intervention support beyond what can be offered in the classroom alone is warranted, we must then acknowledge the intensive support that would lead to acceleration. Given that we cannot make up in thirty minutes for what happens the rest of the day, it is critical for schools to embrace a collective all-hands-on-deck commitment so that accelerated growth is viewed not just what happens during an “intervention lesson” but what is possible across the entire learning day. Intensity takes into consideration size, time and frequency across structures so increasing intensive acceleration is a cumulative consideration for all stakeholders. (Now go back and read the other redesigns and… Repeat! Repeat! Repeat!).

Intervention Redesign #9: Celebrate your day-to-day assessment informants

Successful schools know that instruction and assessment are inseparably intertwined and that failure to address both inevitably leads to failure to give kids what they need when they need it. Responsive instructional decision-making rises from responsive assessment decision-making. If numerical values are our focal point, we will easily lose sight of the child beneath those values that then become meaningless irrelevant distractions that point us in the wrong direction and blur our view of what matters most. To truly know children, we embrace this interrelationship by prioritizing ongoing assessments that inform instructional direction and likely lead to additional assessment and instruction in a never-ending cycle of day-to-day decision-making. 

Intervention Redesign #10: Use an asset-based lens to honor all learners

Of course, having research based ongoing assessment does not automatically assume that we empower teachers to notice glimmers of brilliance children bring to the instructional-assessment experience. If our observational powers are seduced into seeing what children can’t do, there is a real danger that we will miss what they can do. An asset lens is professionally honed over time and allows us to readily see those glimmers use them as a springboard to the next step learning that will strengthen and extend them. An asset-based mindset impacts our instructional decisions as well as the professional conversations we have about children across all settings.

Intervention Redesign #11: Empower learners by putting them in the driver’s seat

Although this is an extension of the instructional-assessment merger, it deserves a redesign point of its own. Too often assessment is viewed in terms of ‘proving’ that what we have done in one instructional context is working rather than contemplating how it impacts learning across an instructional pathway that increases the likelihood for transfer of learning.  Assessing student learning during literacy can provide instructional knowledge that can also applied during science, social studies and math. This repeated exposure and practice across varied contexts offers the cognitive fuel that transfer of learning requires. 

Intervention Redesign #12: Embrace the impact of collaborative coordination

Just as I consciously chose beliefs to open my intervention redesigns, I also very consciously chose to end with this redesign point (one by the way this will be significantly elevated when we engage in instruction that rises from shared professional beliefs). We must always remember that our children do not become someone else by virtue of real estate and thus have different needs when they move from this teacher to that teacher. An all-hands-on-deck mindset embraces our professional obligation to collaborate so that we may also coordinate our efforts based on shared understandings about literacy and children that will multiply our efforts. 

That brings us to the second question we asked Julie along with her response:

What are your BIG takeaways from your book that you hope teachers will embrace in their teaching practices?

  • Empower teachers to break out of the RtI box, creating new, asset-based support that maximizes learning opportunities for ALL students.
  • Honor and increase teacher autonomy and agency.
  • Child study teams focused on students’ assets.
  •  Increase students’ thinking and doing time.
  • Good instruction that serves as the best interventions.
  • Close the knowing-naming-doing gap for teachers and students
  • A call to action, asking What’s Our Response?  How will we create systems and structures to support ALL students?

MARY’S CLOSING WORDS

Since I wrote the foreword, I obviously think very highly of Julie’s intervention masterpiece. We should all intentionally ask her title question that can drive us: What is Our Response? As I’ve traveled around the country over the years, I have seen the best and the worst response to the intervention models we draw from. Without exception, the most effective schools are those that embrace Julie’s title by taking the professional reins for asking and responding to that question based on their combined knowledge of literacy and kids. By contrast, the most ineffective schools mindlessly accept the mandated meanderings of those who prefer telling over asking and do so without knowledge of children and oftentimes knowledge of actual literacy research. In What is Our Response? Julie Wright asks us to reclaim our role as professional decision-maker, knowing that we can’t buy our way to excellence but must actively do the collective work that leads to professional excellence – for children who need intervention support as well as those who don’t.

This post was clearly inspired by a combination of the trifecta of awesome:

• A cover to cover read of Julie’s book, What’s Our Response?

• A careful perusal of Julie’s thoughtful twitter fueled tweets

• And of course, the passionate ponderings of our #G2great family

And so as I come to the end of this post, I can’t think of a better way to close than with Julie’s eloquent response to our third and final question:

What is a message from the heart that you would like for every teacher to keep in mind?

Kids show up each day to do their best.  As teachers, we do the same.  Let’s put our best together, creating culturally responsive, equitable, asset-based systems and structures for ALL students.

That pretty much says it all doesn’t it? With heartfelt appreciation, we thank Julie for helping us to break free of the RTI box and breathe new life into a perspective that will honor both teachers and children. Thank you for reminding us to join our children and colleagues so that we may all show up for a shared quest that will lead us to our best selves! 

LINKS:

Julie Wright’s blog post on What’s Our Response? 

To purchase What’s Our Response? from First Educational Resources

The Civically Engaged Classroom: Reading, Writing, and Speaking for Change

By Fran McVeigh

The Wakelet artifact is available for your perusal here.

The #G2Great chat world was alive, well, and ROCKING on Thursday, March 11, 2021. The podcasts (link) of their work was a hint of the depth of the work proposed but, WOW! What an amazing, well-orchestrated text and chat.

On one hand, when a book comes from authors like Mary Ehrenworth, Pablo Wolfe, and Marc Todd, it might be easy to say “Oh, great, another book about what kids can do in classrooms with supportive teachers, supportive administrators and supportive communities.” However, the wisdom, wit, and enthusiasm generated in the #G2Great chat merely emphasized that everyone in school communities needs to be thinking about civic engagement. Not just one class period a day. Not just the ELA teacher. Not just teachers. But the entire community. (And more about that later.)

On the other hand, naysayers may have a different view. “Really? More political speak about what teachers should or should not be doing in their classrooms? More brainwashing? Is that really the purview of our school systems?

Like any great performance from an orchestra, the resulting concert is only as good as the score. In this case, the score (written music) begins this post with the wisdom of the authors and their responses to the three questions that we ask and then moves to some specific high notes from the chat and then enthusiasm as a rousing finale for this work.

1) What motivated you to write this book? What impact did you hope that it would have in the professional world?

The Civically Engaged Classroom was born out of the idea that as a society we need to think deeply about the purpose of school, especially in times as fraught and divisive as those we are living in. We want teachers to look at their classrooms and see future citizens in front of them, citizens that need to be well-prepared for the hard work of leading and strengthening our democracy.

In our own teaching and staff development, we have met many colleagues who have inspired us with the way they teach with a civic mindset. We have also met countless others who aspire to do this work, but are in communities where they feel unsupported. This book is meant to both highlight the brilliant work we’ve seen, as well as to encourage, inspire and sustain those who feel like they’re teaching into a headwind.

We were also motivated to write this book because it helps to address one of the persistent questions in education: how do we get kids motivated and engaged by school? We think one of the most profound, and overlooked, ways to engage kids is to make sure that the work of school is aimed toward civic ends. When the walls of the classroom come down, kids see that their work has real purpose and impact.

Ultimately, as with everything in education, this is for the kids. We hope that some of what we put in the book helps them seize their power and shape the world they will inherit.

2) What are your BIG takeaways from your book that you hope teachers will embrace in their teaching practices?

We hope that our readers see…

●  …that identity exploration is essential to all curriculum and pedagogy, especially if we are to prepare our children to engage responsibly in our multicultural society.

●  …that schoolwork must be worldwork. That it should include political and historical content that is relevant and contemporary.

●  …that we need to move beyond the single text, everytime, in every situation.

●  …that we can model being active, engaged citizens in front of our students without being partisan.

●  …that when students consume nonfiction, they must teach each other and their parents about what they are learning and why it matters. 

●  …students need frequent opportunities to practice service to a community.

●  …that teachers aren’t alone in this work! There is a thriving, and growing, number of us who are re-envisioning school as a preparation space for citizenship.

3) What is a message from the heart you would like for every teacher to keep in mind?

This book is a call to work. Throughout The Civically Engaged Classroom we’ve included a feature called Practice What You Teach, a regular reminder that the work in these pages is for all of us to take on, not just our kids. We can all do more to be better citizens;  we can all do more to re-envision our democracy. This is not about indoctrinating children, but it is about our duty as educators to help them realize that they have a lot of responsibility in this society and that if they don’t take it, or aren’t adequately prepared for it, they’ll continue to perpetuate grievous harms to themselves and to others.

The work in our classrooms is part of the world. The more we bring the real world in with its injustices as well as its beauty and hope, the better we serve our students, and the better we serve our society.

Ultimate Roles For Teachers and Students

What is needed? Teachers who address identity with honesty and courage, … co-creating with students on a level playing field … to determine a course of action with students … valuing listening and … arguing to listen. Check out the following four tweets that include Mary, Pablo and Marc’s own words.

What is the end goal? Dr. Mary Howard gives us the “411”straight from the book:

While it may seem “easy” to defer to the authors to use their own words, this post could become quite lengthy if a commentary was included for all their wisdom. So sticking with a personal motto of “less is more” here are three high notes of focus from the chat. These refrains will help you get started on a civically engaged classroom.

Where and How Does a Civically Engaged Classroom Fit?

Where do you position a civically engaged classroom? Do you view it as a solo? As an entire section of the performers? Or embedded in the entire musical performance? Your view impacts your planning. Consider these gems of wisdom.

Where might you begin? What do you value? What are your priorities? And then consider Pablo’s wisdom and his verb choices . . . “cut” . . . “replace” . . . “OR infuse” with the end goals of “application of skills, real-life experience, and communal celebration.”

Students: Identity, Stories, Experiences and Interests

The work of so many “artists/performers/authors” is the foundation for all work with students. Sara Ahmed’s identity work in Being the Change (blog post) has led the way for teachers and students to explore their identity and bring about social change. So too have Jody Carrington in Kids These Days and more recently Matt Kay in Not Light, But Fire as well as many other authors. When we embrace Dr. Rudine Sim Bishop’s, “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors,” we will have a fun-filled concert program as we follow the lead of so many educators when we consider how to engage students by following their interests.

Where can you find the information to get started? What do you already know about your students? Their interests? Their passions? What are the artifacts that they already have about their own thinking beyond what they are reading and writing? How are we inviting students to be a part of this co-construction?

Explicit Instruction: Norms, “Inclusion,” Note-Taking, and Examining Biases

But what do we teach? What’s important? Of course instruction will vary depending on the needs and interests of the students in front of you! Here are a few ideas for you to consider as you wonder about the WHAT that needs to be taught and practiced before the concert is scheduled.

Instruction is all about routines and processes. Routines and processes for civil discourse. Routines and processes for research. Routines and processes for affirming information. Routines and processed for determining biases and collecting additional information. Which ones might be a priority for you and your students?

FINALE

In conclusion, the time for action is NOW. No waiting. Do not pass go. Do NOT collect $200. Move from the audience to the stage, backstage, behind the side curtains, or center stage under the lights.

It’s time to practice. Take action. Consider student identities. Have a discussion. Focus on student choices. To learn more, check out the Wakelet archive and the Additional Resources. Watch the stellar three part video series. Check out the Coalition of Civically Engaged Educators below. Explore the padlet. Find a friend to travel this journey together and have a conversation partner. Make a plan. Get started!

Additional Resources:

Heinemann Video Series for the Civically Engaged Classroom

The Coalition of Civically Engaged Educators

The Civically Engaged Classroom PADLET

Nurturing Truth-Seeking Communities in School (article by Pablo, Mary and Marc)

The Literacy Workshop Where Reading and Writing Converge

To access an archive of the chat please click here

by Jenn Hayhurst

Think about all the amazing teachers you know. The colleagues who make teaching look… effortless. How? Anyone who has been in a classroom surely knows this is not the case. There is A LOT of effort that goes into that level of seamless teaching. So the question is worth revisiting. How does a teacher light up a classroom and make it look like it’s hardly any work at all? They plan ahead to find ways to make learning more meaningful and connected.

Maria Walther and Karen Biggs-Tucker have written a beautiful book, The Literacy Workshop: Where Reading and Writing Converge. In it, teachers learn how to integrate reading and writing using an inquiry stance. The result is a more natural and authentic literacy experience for students.

The Literacy Workshop was written to help all of us plan ahead, and get to that sweet spot where literacy learning is truly authentic. We asked Maria and Karen, what motivated them to write this book? What impact did they hope that it would have in the professional world? This is what they shared:

The idea for this book bubbled up as we noticed and discussed the similarities between our instruction and learners’ actions during our separate reading and writing workshops. We believe in the adage that reading and writing go hand-in-hand, but realized that, in our classrooms, the language arts were framed as separate entities rather than combined in a manner that capitalizes on their synergy. So, we set out to reframe our literacy instruction. We hope our book inspires teachers to do the same by dabbling with an integrated literacy workshop. Once they do this, we think they’ll find it streamlines their instruction and makes sense to students. 

Maria Walther and Karen Biggs-Tucke

Celebrating “complementary colors” of reading and writing

This reciprocal merger of reading and writing workshop is the heart and soul of The Literacy Workshop as reflected by their subtitle, Where Reading and Writing Converge. Maria and Karen explain these complementary colors of this converging on page 10: 

“We believe that when we weave together those reciprocal concepts to create integrated literacy workshop demonstrations, it helps strengthen our practice as well as deepen our learners’ understanding of literacy concepts.” 

 Maria Walther and Karen Biggs-Tucker (page 10)

Adopting an Inquiry Stance for Integrated Literacy Workshop

Throughout our #G2great chat, the conversation focused on how powerful it is when we celebrate those complementary colors and build that into the choices we make as professionals. Maria and Karen have inspired a vibrant discussion about the benefits of an integrated literacy workshop perspective and offer support across their book and at key points to help us to adopt a professional inquiry stance to support this converging on page 16: 

“At the end of each chapter, we’ll share a few of the thoughts and questions that have shaped our exploration along the way with hopes that they’ll help guide your conversations as you move forward in your thinking about literacy workshop.” 

It is these conversations that we have as professionals individually and collectively that will help us to bring our own inquiry stance to our students. The more we make our teaching student-centered, the more meaningful this integration will become. When we create a professional environment where collaborative thinking thrives and leads to thoughtful and imaginative work, we are better able to do the same for students. All of these wonderful outcomes result in a learning culture where both teachers and students know who they are and what they need.

Big Takeaways

Are you curious to learn more about implementing a Literacy Workshop? We asked Maria and Karen what were the BIG takeaways from their book that they hoped teachers would embrace in their teaching practices. This is what they said:

  • Approach literacy workshop with an inquiry stance. Study your students and then support them as they engage in authentic literacy experiences and learner-driven inquiries.
  • Launch the literacy workshop by focusing on the habits and behaviors of literacy learners like persistence, choice, and challenge (See Chapter 5). As students learn about themselves and their problem-solving abilities, they will be more willing to take risks and work toward the goals they’ve set on their path toward literate citizenship. 
  • When you’re planning, look for the natural connections that occur between reading and writing. Use these opportunities to integrate standards or learning targets. Simplify your instruction to make more time for students to engage in authentic literacy experiences.

Imagining a Better Way

As I close this blog post tonight, I can’t help but feel refreshed and hopeful about what could be. A connected literacy workshop that is built on inquiry. We asked Maria and Karen, what is the message from the heart you would like for every teacher to keep in mind? This is what they said:

Imagine the possibilities that a literacy workshop approach can bring to your unique teaching context. Sketch out ideas on your canvas, mix in your deep knowledge of students, and then paint a one-of-a-kind portrait of a literacy workshop classroom. We’re here to support you on your literacy workshop journey. Please reach out with questions and celebrate your successes.

Maria Walther and Karen Biggs-Tucker

Links to learn more:

Maria’s Website

Karen’s Website

Literacy Workshop Free Guide for All Settings

Literacy Workshop Blog Post

Literacy Workshop Podcast

Layers of Learning: Using Read-Alouds to Connect Literacy and Caring Conversations

by Valinda Kimmel

JoEllen McCarthy joined our #g2great chat last week to share a “heart-start” for participants from her new book, Layers of Learning: Using Read-Alouds to Connect Literacy and Caring Conversations.

Sixty minute Twitter chats are never long enough to explore an author’s published work, but JoEllen McCarthy shared a number of memorable tweets during that hour that allow us, as educators, insight into her commitment to book choices that resonate with students. You can view the entire chat here.

I hope you’ll do yourself a favor and read personal thoughts from JoEllen on writing Layers of Learning; what she hopes teachers will take to heart as they read, and how she believes that kids and book/heart connections can go far beyond the classroom.

1) What motivated you to write this book? What impact did you hope that it would have in the professional world?

Over the years I have spent many hours and many dollars searching for books that help lift the level of our conversations with kids. It is always exciting to explore the craft lessons in books, but more importantly, I believe sharing powerful stories can connect us to one another, help strengthen our relationships, acknowledge our differences, and encourage us to be caring members of our learning communities. This is why I wrote Layers of Learning to explore the ways we can layer reading, writing, and life lessons.

What a powerful thought–that books can be co-teachers that facilitate discussions leading to empathy, compassion, and commitment to celebrating diversity for students and teachers. JoEllen’s passion for using thoughtfully selected books that knit hearts together is beyond inspiring. This labor of love, Layers of Learning, is exactly what’s needed as teachers learn from JoEllen how to artfully “layer” texts with authentic life lessons.

2) What are your BIG takeaways from your book that you hope teachers will embrace in their teaching practices? ****

It is my hope that the texts and connections will invite teachers to extend the possibilities that balance academic and social-emotional growth in order to reach the whole child and the whole community. Part one shares a framework for thinking about the ways we can use read alouds to spark student-led conversations and discussion possibilities for Life Layers.  The connections (additional texts, Ted Talks, professional resources and more) paired with literacy snapshots illustrate messages of authentic, student centered work, at the same time, expand the possibilities to extend the conversation beyond the books.

One big take away: We need to think beyond book lists.  More important than the texts we choose is the line of thinking around our choice.

JoEllen shares in her book additional tools to promote deep thinking and reflection about texts and their indelible connection to our lives. Additional texts, media, multiple modalities that partner with books to allow deeper, more complex thinking are included in Layers of Learning. Kids need opportunities in their learning day to safely practice issues of life through discussion, reflection, writing. A stage, if you will, where they can comfortably act out concerns, relationships and everyday matters of life.

3) What is a message from the heart you would like for every teacher to keep in mind?

Books just BEGIN the conversations…  through stories, we can honor our students’ identity, community, culture, traditions, and values and—through those stories—encourage habits of acceptance, appreciation, and respect as we learn more about ourselves, others, and our world. 

JoEllen’s book could not have come at a better time. With the upheaval of every day life in this pandemic, the fight for disenfranchised people to be allowed a voice, a desire by many to unite the people in our country, JoEllen’s “heartwork” is sorely needed in today’s classrooms.

Now, thanks to JoEllen, we can do this. We can take inspiration and practical moves from Layers of Learning to facilitate discussions around great books as the impetus for thoughtful, intentional change.