Carl Anderson – A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Conferences (K-8): Classroom Essentials

by, Jenn Hayhurst

Carl Anderson, joined #G2Great this week and true to form the conversation was positively brilliant! From the first time I started to make the pilgrimage to Teacher’s College, Carl Anderson, was always one of my “have to see” presenters. He has this amazing way of speaking that makes me want to lean in and listen closely with both ears. He blends his extensive knowledge for conferring, personal reflection, and story until his words come out like honey. Golden and sweet and it just makes my teacher soul feel… at home. As I listen to Carl, because in my mind we are good friends, I know that my work with students, the work that matters the most, stems from is just knowing how to listen and to be responsive.

To me, a writing conference suggests all that is good in school. Here we are, two writers, having a really good conversation. A writing conference is our way to help each other learn and experience all that writing brings with it. The thrill and power of a well-chosen word, the ability to capture a moment in time, or the opportunity to share and understand something new. Our one goal is to grow. Together, teacher and student sitting side-by-side the child is speaking and I am listening. So, when I think of conferring, the word that comes to mind is essential.

Listening is undervalued in a world that celebrates the extrovert and speedy responses. Whoever is the loudest and whoever gets there first is the one to be heard. That’s a huge problem when it comes to being a learner. The more I learn to honor what students share with me the more I realize there is not a “right” or “wrong” way to write. There is just the writing process and my students’ approximation of that process. Carl suggests that our work with students is shared but it begins with an open invitation…

I think it’s natural to feel the pressure of filling time and space with words when things get quiet during a conference. I am learning that wait time is a powerful way to leverage engagement. My students are learning how to process their thinking knowing that I am fully invested in them, one child at a time. Time is a precious commodity and who better to spend it on than my students.? How do I know if I am being responsive? I can make the brave choice to video tape my own teaching and watch myself. I can learn alongside an expert and push my professional learning to new levels by watching Carl. These are the practices that #G2Great are founded on…

Young writers approximate their learning. Every time we invite them to expand upon their thinking they begin to refine their process. Talk is the way to cut a path to really knowing the writing process. Writing gives a platform for genuine self-expression. to think deeply, and build up meaningful experiences with spoken and written language.

Conferring can be daunting!  After I’ve given wait time, and explored students’ thinking within the writing process – I have to know what to do next. Knowing how to be responsive means understanding typical patterns, then knowing how to decide on what to do next. A good way to show children what to do is to rely on the experts. There are all kinds of mentors that help students (and teachers) grow…

A conference asks us to lift our presuppositions. A conference is a formative assessment. A conference is an opportunity to teach with gusto, and most of all with heart. It may not always be perfect but it will always be an attempt at grace.  A conference is a live property, it is something unique every time because it is an extension of each student. It is in the moment teaching that tells students that they are trusted  because they are actively informing its process.  They inform the process with their words, their writing, and their values.

 

Learning with Carl, and all the educators who came out to be part of this chat has filled me up with this great sense of wellbeing.  His words of wisdom to this new  teacher is good advice for us all…

Yes, conferring is the work of a professional lifetime. I know I will be striving to continue to grow as a teacher who can listen with with an open mind for the rest of my career. One who seeks to understand my students, and the writing process better one conference, one conversation, at a time.

Links to Learn More With Carl Anderson –

Maximizing Our Potential (part 5): Assessment that Informs

by Mary Howard

This week, #G2Great concluded a 5-part series, Maximizing Our Potential: Focusing on the Literacy Work that Matters as we enthusiastically turned our attention to Assessment that Informs. I have loved each topic including Allocating Instructional Time, Classroom Design, Student-Centered Learning and Independent Application, but our final chat in the series became the thread that interweaves each topic together in such a powerful way.

This is not the first time that we have put a broader perspective of assessment under the #G2Great microscope and I can assure you it won’t be the last. Like each of you, we are concerned about the lingering impact of the data-driven culture that has permeated our schools and clouded our view of the amazing learners beneath that data. We’ve made many missteps along the meandering pathway that wavers between assessment that informs and assessment that labels. Until we address this mismatch, we are destined to lose our way somewhere between these two contrasting viewpoints.

I looked up “label” and found the tagline “tests labeled him” with synonyms like classify, brand, pigeonhole and typecast:

Then I looked up “inform” and found a very different stance that reflects the heart and soul of our #G2Great dialogue:

I cannot imagine that any knowledgeable educator would opt for categorizing children over using information that would enlighten our understanding and thus elevate instruction. Numerical data is our reality as grades, scores, levels and color-coded spreadsheets have become the norm. To be clear, the danger does not reside in numbers but in the source of numbers and how we choose to use or misuse them through interpretation and decision-making that can naturally rise from the use, purpose and intent of numbers for better or for worse. To clarify this, let’s look at reading levels.

If the source of levels are Accelerated Reader tests used to narrow student text choices, determine who attends AR celebrations, or post AR scores publicly in conflict with privacy laws then we abuse the use, purpose and intent of levels. By contrast, if the source of levels is running records analyzed by knowledgeable educators used as a flexible text selection tool for forming temporary small groups that change over time, then the use, purpose and intent of levels keeps kids at the center. In other words, the quality of our assessment is WHAT we do, WHY we do it and HOW we use this in the most professionally responsible and responsive ways.

With this critical shift in thinking reflective of assessment that informs, I set out to take a closer look at tweets from our amazing #G2great family to find key points of discussion. During my joyful twitter perusal, Ten Assessment Heart Guides began to emerge that support our quest for assessment that maximizes rather than restricts our potential. To highlight the heart guides, I’ll share a few of the tweets that inspired my thinking at the end of this post.

TEN ASSESSMENT HEART GUIDES

Heart Guide #1: Stand up to assessment nonsense

I put this point first because you may as well stop reading unless you take this one to “heart.” The reality is that you all be forced to use data that goes against the grain of research. Acknowledge this reality but refuse to allow it to taint the formative assessment that happens in the confines of your “heart home.” Stop complaining and draw a line in the proverbial assessment sand knowing that no one can rob you of assessment that matters unless you give them permission. So don’t!

Heart Guide #2: Don’t lose sight of your assessment WHY

Now that you’ve broken through the data ties that bind, honor your real assessment purpose: WHY: K-I-D-S. Irrespective of school-based data goals, the ultimate goal of assessment is to understand our learners so that we can design the instructional opportunities they deserve. When we shift our WHY we can shine a spotlight on the whole child and all that entails. When we can do this, the assessment process then highlights the teaching-learning process. This will broaden our WHY which in turn broadens the understandings that we can glean from those assessments.

Heart Guide #3: Let your beliefs guide your assessment actions

Before we can possibly design the assessment that will help us bring our WHY to life, we must be able to verbalize what we value. Ask, “What do I believe?” and then assess that. Heart data is not about gathering numbers to display on a spreadsheet. It’s about assessing the learning experiences that you value so that you can redesign experiences in more effective ways. If we value student engagement in reading, then we put worksheets and grade books away and amp up kidwatching as we observe our values in action.

Heart Guide #4: Create a two-way assessment pathway

Assessment that informs has two distinctive but equally powerful purposes. Obviously the first purpose is to understand each of our learners. But more than that, it is also to understand ourselves. As you assess, don’t just think about what you see and hear as you assess students but also what this says about your professional choices. Quick fix answers are not welcome so dig deeper as you look into the reflective mirror. What responsibility do you have in what students were or were not able to do?  Own it and take it to heart by your actions.

Heart Guide #5: Sharpen your success-based assessment lens

Formative assessment is not a deficit model that reflects a ‘gotcha’ mentality. Rather it is a success-based model where we seek to find out what our children already know, do or understand or are on the cusp of knowing, doing or understanding. When we start there, we create a stepping stone to where we might go from here. And don’t keep this success knowledge a secret. Shout it from the highest rooftops so your colleagues, parents and children will be able to celebrate alongside you. A heart-based view is much more beautiful when we all get to join in the festivities.

Heart Guide #6: Stretch your assessment mindset

By nature, assessment is confined to one moment in time. While these moments are powerful informants, they are too narrow to give us the kind of information that will have the greatest impact on our practices. But when we stretch our perspective over time, we would begin to notice the patterns that could strengthen our understandings. If we gathered assessments across our learning days in varied contexts, settings and experiences over time, we will have references that confirm, refute and deepen what we know.

Heart Guide #7: Infuse transformative life into assessment

Assessment is not a process of gathering but one of intentional decision-making. Knowing what children know is only the starting point since we must then consider the next step actions that will gently nudge them from where they are to where they need to be in a timely fashion. The clock is always ticking but for some children it ticks even louder. Honor the discoveries you have made in the assessment process but turn those NOW discoveries into NEXT STEP possibilities and then hit the ground running to put them into place.

Heart Guide #8: Embrace the gift of in-the-moment assessment

Some of the best assessment opportunities occur when we don’t even plan for them. Few assessment shifts are more powerful than taking it on the road armed with nothing more than a clipboard, a pencil, and your curiosities about children. Engage your children in on-the-spot conversations by rotating as you transform from teacher to fly on the wall observer. Acknowledge the impact of closing your mouth so they can open theirs since the more they are doing the talking, the more you aren’t. These talk moments where we listen in on student conversations are an assessment goldmine.

Heart Guide #9: Create your own ‘behind the lens’ assessment

No matter how skilled you are at the observational process of assessment, it is simply not possible to notice everything. When we assess, we attempt to pay attention to all that children say and do but in the process you will inevitably miss some of the most informative knowings of all. Video tape a lesson and use this to capture the noticings that may reside just beneath the surface. To make this process even more powerful, invite a colleague to help you capture important details you are sure to have missed.

Heart Guide #10: Make assessment personal by turning the tables

I would be remiss if I didn’t return full circle to heart guide #1 and the most questionable district mandated assessment of all – those dastardly data discussions. I wonder if we would be proud of our dialogue if we imagined that our children were sitting in that room with us. What would they hear? What would they think? How would they feel? Although we can’t invite them to data meetings, we can display their photograph in full view to give those numbers a face. We must never forget that regardless of designated data, we are talking about living, breathing children and the decisions that we make will have a lingering impact on their success or failure.

Last week, my friend and co-moderator, Fran McVeigh, eloquently opened her blog post on independent application by reviewing the first three topics of our series. So in celebration of the completion of our wonderful series, I’d like to return to the idea I posed at the beginning of this post describing assessment that informs as the thread that interweaves each topic together.

The image above visually reflects this interweaving of topics. Notice that our thread, assessment that informs, is intentionally placed at the center of those four topics. This reflects that we use assessment to inform our professional decisions by considering the best instructional options based on the learning needs of our children:

We allocate instructional time based on assessment that informs

We create a classroom design based on assessment that informs

We identify student-centered learning based on assessment that informs

We build in independent application based on assessment that informs

In other words, assessment that informs is always in the service of each instructional topic

The red outer arrows reflect this ongoing cyclical process where instruction and assessment are inseparably connected. This is not based on scripted instruction using scripted assessments out of obligatory compliance to a scripted program. Rather, it is based on knowledgeable teachers who use assessment informants to design research-based literacy practices that interweave assessment and instruction based on the unique learning needs of students. These informants can change our thinking and thus our instruction as new informants support or refute new thinking. Publisher-driven directives could never accomplish this dynamic process.

As I pause for a moment to soak in these heart guides inspired by our #G2Great family, I want to express “heartfelt” appreciation for each of you who are willing to call your own teaching to task. We may live in a politically fueled data driven culture, but we do not need to park our hats there my friends. My ten assessment heart guides are critical and each of them are all feasible when you let your heart lead the way. Never lose sight of the role you play and what can happen when you take ownership of all that you do.

From the bottom of our collective hearts, we are forever grateful to you for bringing your heart to #G2great each week!

Some #G2great tweets that inspired this post

Revisit the chats in this series using the links below

Date Chat Title Wake Blog

10/11/18

Maximizing Our Potential part 5: Assessment That Informs Wake Blog
10/4/18

Maximizing Our Potential part 4: Independent Application

Wake Blog
9/27/18

Maximizing Our Potential part 3: Student-Centered Learning

Wake Blog
9/20/18

Maximizing Our Potential part 2: Classroom Design

Wake Blog
9/13/18 Maximizing Our Potential part 1: Allocating Instructional Time Wake

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Maximizing Our Potential Focusing on the Literacy Work That Matters Student Centered Learning

By, Jenn Hayhurst

On Thursday, September 27, 2018, the #G2Great PLN had a brilliant conversation regarding the importance of student-centered learning. After all, students (and their needs) are what teaching is all about. That sounds simplistic, doesn’t it? It would be a perfect world if that were easily done; although, the reality is that teachers are pulled in many directions throughout the school day. There are pacing guides with curriculum goals. There are standards and grade level expectations. There are report cards, progress reports, and parent meetings. There are so many meetings: RTI, faculty, and data meetings just to name the top three. All of which have a purpose and are designed to keep students and their needs at the forefront. However, it is the day-to-day work that is the grease for that machine. It is the softer formative assessments in the hands of a highly skilled teacher that help children to learn and grow.

When I think of learning and growth the word steady comes to mind.  Yet, we are living in a world marked by change: technology, politics, or global demographics are all shifting beneath our feet. For these reasons,  now more than ever, we need to have the conversation as to HOW we can become more student-centered because learning and relevance are two sides to the same coin. 

Defining Purpose: A Passionate Pursuit

I think the reason Twitter is so important to teachers is that it gives us a platform to clarify what we value within a plurality.  It connects us to other professionals who push us to think more deeply and to reflect daily. I know that is what it does for me. As I read these tweets I feel a fire in my heart and I want to call out to anyone who will listen, “Learning and passion are inextricably linked!” Student-centered learning means that children are wide awake and are learning because they are connected to the process:

Authentic Learning: A Serious Shift

Teachers who dare to create authentic learning experiences for children have to believe in themselves. In a world so full of doubt and criticism it can be daunting to be an agent of change. It can be hard to take that first step away from a scripted lesson plan. After all, we are just teachers. No. It is because we are teachers that we must take an informed look at the lesson plan, curriculum goals, and grade level expectations.  Then we can consider who are students are and how we can build momentum. When it comes to learning, experiencing success is essential!  When we see ourselves as the “facilitator”,  when we understand how to use “formative assessment, when we focus on ways for students to “engage in the work,” we are shifting the focus to student-centered learning:

Deconstructing NormsA Shared Structure

The days of reading from a scripted program really need to be over. Our students are coming into our classrooms with a wide range of life experiences, access to languages, and world knowledge.  We cannot assume that what they bring will be familiar to us.  In many ways, this new normal is a gift. We have so much to learn from one another. Educators who practice student centered teaching share the responsiblity for learning with their students. These teachers are keenly aware which studens are ready be more independent. Teachers who embrace student centered learning are open to their own learning process knowing that there is always room to grow.

We are teachers, who value our students and all that they bring into our classrooms. A student-centered classroom is marked by a community voice. It is not about me and what I have to teach you. It is about us and what we have to learn.  Thank you, for learning with me.

Taking a Fresh Look at Our Practices: Shining a Spotlight on Reading Levels

by Mary Howard

On June 14, 2018, #G2Great launched a four-part series titled Taking a Fresh Look at Our Practices. After pondering the implications of reading logs in our first chat in the series, we turned our attention to Shining a Spotlight on Reading Levels on June 21, 2018. We anticipated a spirited discussion for this important topic – and we were certainly not disappointed. In fact Brent Gilson eagerly shared his reflections in a Pre-Chat post called Leveling Up.

Your #G2Great co-moderators, Fran, Jenn, Amy and I, carefully chose these four topics as we believe that deeper discussion regarding their purpose is necessary to re-examine how they are being addressed in practice. Quite honestly, I have seen each of these topics morph into a shallow act of thoughtless DOING, thus slowly transitioning away from the intentional research-based decision-making process that keeps children at the center of all we do. Our commitment to renew this culture of instructional responsiveness is based on our deep belief that the best interests of students is the perpetual driving force of our choices.

Regie Routman illustrated the critical role of instructional responsiveness almost a week before our chat when she responded to my question, “How do you feel about reading levels?” Regie implored us to set our sights squarely on helping students “become comprehending, self-directed, joyful readers.” Her reminder is essential considering that the way that reading levels have been misconstrued in recent years is in direct conflict with this lofty goal. Whether we are willing to view reading levels in more professionally responsible ways or we opt instead to blatantly misrepresent the intent of these tools can make or break our ability to achieve Regie’s words of wisdom.

The disconcerting misrepresentation of reading levels I have observed has not gone unnoticed by literacy experts Fountas and Pinnell here, here, here and Kylene Beers “A Kid is Not an H.” Believing that we have a responsibility to this profession to lift up our voices, I’d like to use my post as a forum to add my voice to this conversation. Our #G2Great family drew the reading level line in the proverbial professional sand, so I’ll add selected tweets after my reflection. Judging by our chat dialogue, there is widespread agreement that we can and should re-envision reading levels in order to approach them in more responsible student-centered ways.

Perhaps the best place to begin is to look back on my own entry point to the view of reading levels I still hold dear. In 1990 I began a life-altering phase of my professional training when I became a Reading Recovery teacher. One component of the powerful thirty-minute lesson design is taking a running record on the book the child read the previous day. The resulting information supported our thoughtful selection of next step texts across a gradually increasing gradient of difficulty. This flexible process allowed us to linger on the edge of each child’s growing understandings of the reading process at that moment in time to both strengthen and stretch those understandings.

It is important to emphasize that the reading levels we gleaned from running records in Reading Recovery were not used to label children and were never reported to parents or students. Rather, we used them as one instructional tool of many that helped us to understand and support learners. We knew we could only make the best decisions if we merged all we knew about the child in a combined body of knowledge. We recognized the potential and limitations of reading levels, aware that it is an imperfect science and that the analysis of the reading process in action was more relevant than numerical values. In other words, reading levels guided our text selection, but it was our deeper knowledge coupled with our unwavering commitment to the needs and interests of children that informed these decisions and drove our choices. We understood that levels simply do not work in isolation of these bigger picture ponderings.

Fast forward to 2018 and the thoughtful flexibility and broader intent of reading levels that I learned in Reading Recovery is in stark contrast to the way they are viewed in many schools. We have lost our collective minds of reason when we assign reading levels like a badge of honor or dishonor that tethers children to a leveled bin and relegates them to intervention groups with little hope of escape from either. Worse, classroom leveling charts are not uncommon as children are visibly reduced to numbers in a dreadful public display that decries professional ethics and has serious legal implications.

It seems apparent that the way reading levels are viewed in Reading Recovery and how this role is playing out in too many schools reflects our professional disarray on this topic. Having spent years of my life studying the work of Marie Clay, I can say with absolute certainty that she would be horrified by this lockstep approach that feels more akin to a level-assigning frenzy than flexibly using an instructional tool to support rather than dictate the decisions we make thoughtfully in the name of children. Sadly, reading levels are only the tip of the defective assessment iceberg since Accelerated Reader scores and varied data points continue to mount into a level of numerical insanity at a record high.

So, what is the tipping point between the way reading levels are approached in Reading Recovery and the flip side of that view that is harming children? There is no question in my mind that the tipping point is professional wisdom that feeds our inner voice of reason. As a Reading Recovery teacher, we were not mandated to take running records so that we could compliantly record reading levels. We knew why we were doing what we were doing and we understood exactly how this information did and did not inform our instructional efforts. Carrying our knowledge in our back pockets each step of the way allowed us to use reading levels in professionally responsible ways and always with the success of our learners in sight like a dangling visual carrot.

Therein lies the problem my friends. When we do not understand why we do what we do, it is impossible to do it in ways that are meaningful, purposeful and yes responsible! Too often, teachers blindly gather reading levels without the benefit of the thinking that would maximize their use and support our understanding of children. Professional wisdom is the fuel that allows us to bring our best selves to the learning table day after day. Too many teachers are struggling to address reading levels in instructionally responsive ways because we have unwittingly created a reading level culture of DOERS and in the process thwarted our efforts to use those reading levels within a culture of THINKERS. Reading levels are the WHAT but we are doomed to fail without WHY and HOW.

While I would hope my stance on reading levels is apparent at this point in my post, let me clarify my view in case I have not been clear enough. I began with Regie Routman’s words, so it makes sense to draw from her wisdom yet again using her phenomenal new book, Literacy Essentials:

Relying on leveled texts is insufficient and inaccurate for fully determining students’ reading ability and comprehension. (121)

Reading levels offer a flexible tool for instructional text selection but they are grossly inadequate when used in a vacuum. If their purpose and potential to inform is misunderstood, we will inevitably justify labels that assign children to leveled bins and unnecessary or ineffective interventions or subject them to impersonal charts that visibly create haves and have nots. We merely mindlessly reach for a text attached to a level until we first reach deep within to embrace our own knowledge of literacy and the reader in front of us. Regie reminds us that there is a difference between instructional levels and instructional needs. (220) Without a laser-like focus on instructional needs then instructional levels become less flexible and more definitive in nature. As a result, reading levels will be as meaningless as numerical spreadsheets thoughtlessly peppered with empty level references that have lost the immense beauty of the incredible child beneath it all.

So where do we go from here? Seth’s words of wisdom point the way:

The hard part isn’t coming up with a new idea. It’s falling out of love with the old idea. Seth Godin

It’s time to end our love affair with a shallow view of reading levels devoid of meaning and shift our focus to reading levels as envisioned in Kylene Beers’ tweet. Because if we fail to do so, this image will become the face of reality…

And that would be the most tragic reading level outcome of all!

Please Join us for rest of our #G2Great Series

Our #G2Great family reminds us why knowledge is key