Literacy Lenses

Focusing on The Literacy Work that Matters

Do We Underestimate the Students We Teach? Vicki Vinton & Aeriale Johnson

By Fran McVeigh

Thursday, August 27th, #G2Great welcomed back familiar guest hosts Vicki Vinton and Aeriale Johnson. It was a night eagerly anticipated by the #G2Great team as we celebrated a blog post written by Vicki on February 23, 2020, that included learning examples from Aeriale’s second grade classroom. That post, “Do We Underestimate the Students We Teach?” can be found here.

But more importantly, I was personally eagerly anticipating this conversation with Vicki and Aeriale as a toast to the end of summer 2020, this neverending summer that desperately needed a finale. Vicki Vinton has been a part of my summers in New York City as a group of us typically connect and catch up on life dating back to our first #WRRD chat. I also met Aeriale in NYC at a #TCRWP summer institute while she was a teacher in Alaska and her stories fascinated me. I have also been one of Aeriale’s admirers asking about her “book” as she has so much to say about student learning.

And yet this blog writing task seemed like a mountain to scale after the chat. For the first round of quotes, I pulled 11 pages of tweets from the full Wakelet (here) that I felt would illustrate the brilliance of the chat. If you missed the chat, you really will want to read through the Wakelet as it was impossible to capture all the brilliance of our one hour chat in one mere blog post and 10 tweets.

So let me begin at the beginning.

Do you know Vicki Vinton and Aeriale Johnson?

It’s sincerely my pleasure to introduce my friends, Vicki and Aeriale. (See if you learn something new about either of them.) Vicki is a writer. She is co-author of What Readers Really Do: Teaching the Process of Meaning Making, (blog post on Literacy Lenses here); author of Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading: Shifting to a Problem-Based Approach, (blog post on Literacy Lenses here); The Power of Grammar: Unconventional Approaches to the Conventions of Language, (with Mary Ehrenworth); and a novel, The Jungle Law as well as a blogger at “To Make a Prairie.” Aeriale is an avid learner. This quote about Ellin Keene’s Engaging Children personifies my view of Aeriale: “I finished the book on a Tuesday; I integrated the four pillars of engagement she illustrates into my instruction on Wednesday.” Aeriale is a third grade teacher in San Jose, CA. in San Jose, CA, a 2016-18 Heinemann Fellow who blogs at with posts such as “To Tiana, With Love,” as well as, the site of “Kinderbender: Drinking daily from the glass of tiny human giggles, hugs, innocence, brilliance, awe, and passion for life.” Both Vicki and Aeriale write extensively about all the brilliant learning that occurs when teachers are knowledgeable, build community and have high expectations.

Where do we begin?

“We must start their stories and identities with their excellence.” – Dr. Gholdy Muhammad

This quote came from Cultivating Genius and our June 18, 2020 chat (Literacy Lenses blog post here) just a little over two months ago. This book was also the #BookLove professional development book for elementary and secondary teachers this summer with two weeks spent on studying, reflecting, and listening to Dr. Muhammad twice.

How does this connect to the topic of “Underestimating Our Students?

Education is complicated. How we measure its effects is quite controversial and often very limiting. For the purpose of this blog, I am going to focus on values, beliefs, expectations, intellectualism, instruction, assessment and listening. I had to have some criteria in mind as I narrowed down tweets to use in this blog. The tweets that I immediately moved to the MUST use page were those that included statements about those topics and also matched my own beliefs and values.

Hmmm. Confirmation bias at work.

How do we focus on students without underestimating them and yet include their stories, their identities and their excellence?

Expectations … “the act or state of looking forward or anticipating” (

John Hattie has teacher expectations at the top of his list of factors that impact student achievement with an effect size of 1.62. Other researchers have long documented the fact that a growth mindset allows teachers to focus on student assets instead of deficiencies. Research has shown that teachers may have lower expectations for students from low income families and/or for persons of color. It is a tragedy to set low bars of expectation for any students! As Vicki and Aeriale explain in the following tweets, “expectations” in the classroom need to be linked with learning opportunities.

To Think About: What are your expections? How do you communicate your expectations to students, caregivers, families, and the community?

Intellectualism … “the exercise of the intellect” (

This emphasis on intellectualism builds an even higher target for students and their excellence. This is the call to thinking, to making thinking visible, and to applying learning as evidence of those higher pursuits by students. Students who are going to meet their potential are going to be challenged to grow every day. Low level tasks, worksheets, and activities will simply not exist in classrooms where intellectualism is the standard. Teachers in these classrooms will always be amazed by the challenging work that students do.

To Think About: How do you define intellectualism in your classroom and then communicate that value to students, caregivers, families, and the community? (Or are your children stuck being “students”?)

Instruction … “the act of assessing; appraisal; evaluation” (

Instruction that values student stories, identities and excellence is rooted in a culture of belief that students can construct knowledge as they read and write. Right answers are not the norm. Inquiry is a focus and questioning is a routine expectation for students and not an inquisition by the teacher. Students need time and space to be curious and to build the relevance that matches their lives and leads to deeper curiosity and wonder.

To Think About: How do our basic beliefs about instruction emphasize curiosity and inquiry as well as nurturing genius?

Assessment … “the act of assessing; appraisal; evaluation” (

Assessment, a word derived from the Latin word assidere, means to sit beside.  If we truly value meaningful assessments then we will consider the ones that allow us to sit beside students. We can share assessment results that are qualitative and rich in descriptions of all that students “can do” instead of lists of skills that may not YET be under the reader’s/writer’s control.

To Think About: How do you communicate what you value about assessments to students, caregivers, families, and the community?

Listening … “paying attention; heeding, obeying” (

One of the most powerful tools in a teacher’s toolbox is the power of listening which is often underestimated. Wait time is seldom mentioned in new educational research but it still is a free attached, accessible resource. Time and how we allocate it is critical. It’s also an observable way of checking for alignment of values, beliefs and resources when matched with the priorities in the daily lesson plan/schedule.

To Think About: How do we ensure that students have enough time to make sure their invisible thinking is deeply understood?

In conclusion . . .

We all have different but yet equally challenging roles in education. Whether we are beginning to plan for school or we have already planned and executed the first week(s) of school, how will we continue to reflect on our expectations for our students? How will we be responsive to the students in front of us? What will show up in our time allocations? Our reflective blog posts? Our Twitter conversations? How will we use what we know to make this the best learning year possible for our students? Your values and beliefs will show in many visible ways as the year progresses. Prioritize based on intellectualism, instruction, assessment, and listening to your students and your families.

What are your expectations for your students? How will we know?

Jennifer Serravallo: Understanding Texts & Readers

By Fran McVeigh

Back in March the #G2Great community hosted a chat featuring Jennifer Serravallo and her book, Understanding Texts & Readers:  Responsive Comprehension with Leveled Texts.  Here is that Wakelet.  Previous bestsellers are Reading Strategies (2015) and Writing Strategies (2017).  (Writing Strategies Chat)

Last week I had the honor to be at Hamline University in Minneapolis for Jennifer’s three hour keynote over this book with #G2Great friend, Kathryn Hoffmann-Thompson.  Three hours for this topic…not nearly enough to cover everything in the book but so much better than a shared presentation or just an hour for surface coverage.

A Memorable Opening

Jen opened by sharing her “Identity Web” and then gave us about five minutes to begin ours.  Identity webs are a favorite activity from Sara Ahmed, author of Being the Change. This was a practical and purposeful introduction.

I didn’t capture a picture of Jennifer’s Identity Web but I do remember the dancing, ballet and at home.  It captured a part of my mind that made a new connection and added to my picture of her.

As I tried to think of ideas and symbols for my web, I thought about a) this activity with Sara at NCTE and b) the fact that many of my friends comment on the conversations I have with strangers on the streets of New York City because of the college colors I wear.  That college identity is even more poignant because of this story of Sara’s. Sara in a city separated by 90 miles from me on this memorable date.  The possibilities for my web were easy to generate!

Classroom Connection

Create an Identity Web before school begins. Consider the aspects of your life that have shaped you. Share your web with your class.  Provide time for your students to create an Identity Web.

ACTION:  Use the identity webs of your students to audit your classroom libraries and ensure all students are represented.

And then the WHY.


Name Dropping

Fast and Furious



Fountas and Pinnell

Where do we start with Goals?

  1. It is all about comprehension.
  2. A five minute assessment conference

We watched a video of an assessment conference that involved a lot of listening.  It looked and sounded easy.  The hard part was listening and thinking about what the student “could do”.  As a first grader this student was working on the goals at the top. Any of them could have been choices – depending on the conversation. A student well matched to a text. Retelling.  Listening to what the student is paying attention to. Setting a goal for three weeks, working the goal, and meeting again with the student to figure out next steps.

ACTION:  Five Minute Assessment Conferences


A student.

Well matched to a text.


Listening to what the student knows.

What can the student do?  What might be  a next step?  Plan, execute the plan, and revisit in three weeks.

What is the beauty of this work?

Simple goal  (Not a SMART goal)

Focus on “Can Do” (Not deficits)

Short Term (Not a lifetime sentence)

Responsive (Not searching for a program)

How are you using Understanding Texts & Readers: Responsive Comprehension with Leveled Texts

How are you setting goals?

Game Changer! Book Access For All Kids

By Fran McVeigh

On Thursday, February 21, 2019, Donalynn Miller and Colby Sharp, creators of the #NerdyBookClub and successful authors, were first time guest hosts on the #G2Great chat about their book, Game Changer: Book Access for All Kids.

Interest and excitement was off the charts due to our rock star authors and because of the topic: Books and Access for ALL Kids! Many themes surfaced during the chat, but this post is going to focus on three. Three big themes that apply to ALL students at ALL ages and in ALL communities: Access, Choice, and Equity as well as focus reflection questions to guide future actions.

Book Access in ALL Classrooms
In order to be readers, students need access to books in their classrooms. Access in all classrooms – not just English Language Arts classrooms. How many books? Some authors suggest up to 2,000 books. Take inventory. Consider which books students are actually reading. Then gather books from the school media center, public library or inter-library loan systems during particular curricular studies to supplement your library as a bonus for all students.

Reflection Questions: a) What if every classroom in our school had a class library, whether it was ELA, math, science, art, music or PE, provided and provisioned by the school?

b) What if students had access to a reading class at every grade level in school?

Book Access in the Media Center and to a Librarian
Classroom libraries provide immediate access for books for students, but even the best classroom libraries can be supported with rich media centers and full-time librarians. How extensive is the media center collection? How are new books chosen? Displayed? How does the media center support the curricular needs of all content areas? What policies and routines are in place to maximize student access to books? Are students restricted in the number of books they can have checked out at one time? Are students allowed to go to the media center one day per week or cycle?

Reflection Question:  What policies, procedures and practices increase student access to our media center and which ones do we need to STOP because they are counterproductive?

Book Access at the Public Library
School book access can be supplemented with access to book collections at the approximately 9,000 public libraries across the U.S. Variations exist from community to community in the basic requirements for library cards. This may include forms of identification, proof of residency, or references before a card will be issued. The ability to use public transportation to physically access the library may also be a hinderance. Other access issues may include the hours that the library is open – are those outside the school/work day? Is there a limit on the number of books that can be checked out? Another consideration with public libraries may be the school staff’s normalization of the use of the public library. Do school staff routinely use the public library to extend their collections? Do teachers routinely share their use with students? Is public use of the library seamless and easy to access for all patrons?

Reflection Question:  Have we had whole staff conversations about the complementary services of our public library?

Book Access at Home
Access to books cannot be limited to the six or seven hours per day that students are at school. Reading is a habit – for life – not just for school.

“Research suggests that children whose parents have lots of books are nearly 20 percent more likely to finish college. Indeed, as a predictor of college graduation, books in the home trump the education of the parents. Even a child who hails from a home with 25 books will, on average, complete two more years of school than would a child from a home without any books at all. (Evans, M. D., Kelley, J., Sikora, J., & Treiman, D. J. (2010). Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 28(2), 171-197.)

Access to books in the summer through books from school or public libraries can help prevent “summer slide” and continue to develop life-time reading habits. Year-round book access is critical.

Reflection Question:  Who is coordinating conversations with families so our message is coherent across all grade levels and buildings and also HELPFUL for families?

Book Access in the Community
Students need access to books everywhere and anytime in the community. Access to rich texts that they want to read, that compel them to read, and that result in conversation with peers and adults is vital. Books need to be visible everywhere in the community as well as available year-round in order to fill in summer, school breaks, and holiday access gaps from schools.

Reflection Question:  How have we initiated conversations with our community stakeholders to increase access?

Students deserve to choose what they are reading.  Force-feeding specific texts day after day, year after year equates reading as a chore. Not fun. Not pleasurable. Not enjoyable. And then, of course, not likely to be sustained outside the school day. Nice collections of engaging, relevant books on shelves may look good, but just admiring books is not enough! Books need to be read in order to be savored and thoughtfully digested. And the best books are the books that students choose to read themselves. You have already read about access, but another feature of choice is time . . . Time to read. Not just reading “when your work is done.” But instead, time that is regularly scheduled when students are reading a book of their own choice.

Reflection Question: How do we ensure that students have choice in their book selection as well as time to read?

Equity means several things. One meaning would be ensuring that all the access issues above are “equitable”.  Not equal. Equitable. A second meaning is beyond students “getting what they need” but that students deserve to see themselves in the books that they have available as reading choices. Teachers and librarians need to know the authors and books that represent their students and families in their community. How does one collect the diverse books that are needed?  #diversebooks is one source.

Reflection Question: What do we as a staff know and believe about equity, what sources do all staff use, and then how are those sources communicated?

Another reliable source is

What was the purpose behind Game Changer?

Meaningful and consistent access to books.

Reading . . .
What is it good for?
Absolutely everything!

You may remember this video from Ocoee Middle School in 2009 that has had 883,395 views: Gotta Keep Reading.
How do we keep that passion for reading?
How do we encourage a love of reading?
It truly takes ALL of us working together as a literacy community!

Why was this extra special for #G2Great?
This chat was extra special because you can find both Dr. Mary Howard and our newest team member, Valinda Kimmel, in Game Changer! This book needs to be physically present and discussed in every school building across the country.

Where will you begin?
How will you change the system?

Resources to Explore
Many, many ideas from the chat are available in the Wakelet:

From Scholastic a recap of some highlights from the chat on EDU, Scholastic’s blog about books and the joy of reading:

Video Interview with Rudine Sims Bishop:

Parents:  Why is Reading Important?

Daniel Pennac:  10 Rights of a Reader

ILA:  Children’s Rights to Read

NCTE: A Book is a Precious Thing

Tanny McGregor sketchnote:  “The Secret Power of Children’s Picture Books

Fifty Top Literacy Statistics

The Art of Comprehension: Exploring Visual Texts to Foster Comprehension, Conversation, and Confidence

by Mary Howard

Excitement was definitely in the #G2Great air on 1/31/19, when your co-moderators (MaryFranJenn, and Amy) welcomed our guest host and friend, Trevor Bryan, to the chat table. We have collectively cheered Trevor on from the moment we learned about his incredible thinking brainchild up to the celebration of the birth of his book this month, Art of Comprehension: Exploring Visual Texts to Foster Comprehension, Conversation, and Confidence (Stenhouse, 2019)

I was one of the lucky recipients of Trevor’s immense wisdom several years ago when he graciously immersed us in the Art of Comprehension (AoC) process in a step-by-step Voxer gathering of friends. From these early learning experiences, I could envision AoC coming to life in the pages of a book someday. Imagine my joy when ‘someday’ became a reality and Trevor asked me to write his foreword. The icing on the book cake was holding his beautiful book in my hands graced by a Peter H. Reynolds cover illustration.

With his book beside me, I turned to Trevor-inspired chat tweets, moving back and forth between the book and chat. It didn’t take long before the gifts Trevor wrapped neatly into a thoughtful comprehension design began to come into view. Writing a #G2Great chat reflection feels like an exploratory venture toward a sense of writerly direction and Trevor’s Five AoC Gifts felt like the perfect path for this post to travel.

AoC Gift #1: Redefining Our “Text” Lens 

Narrowly defined views of what constitutes “text” limit our perspective as well as the possibilities for meaningfully using those texts to engage readers of all ages and stages of reading. Trevor shows us that “text” can and should embrace images including photographs, drawings, paintings, artwork, and video. Each of these can inform thinking and thus support our efforts to promote understanding. Visual literacy is certainly a central feature of the AoC process, but Trevor includes words in print within this process including thoughtful connections between images and words. Trevor asks us not to think of The Art of Comprehension as a book about visual literacy but rather as “a book about literacy with an expanded view of what constitutes text” (p 4). This broader perspective widens the repertoire of text experiences we offer children using images and print, both individually or in unison.

AoC Gift #2: Supportive Visual Stepping Stones 

A key feature of the AoC process is the Access Lenses shown below and beautifully illustrated by Peter Reynolds (download The Access Lenses here). The Access Lenses, or what Trevor refers to as the Framework and Mood Structures, offer children a concrete visual reference designed to gently nudge thinking as students engage with images and begin learning how careful paying attention to mood can support understanding in ways that offer a visual stepping stone to meaning. This concrete tool is a reminder of the different ways that illustrators, artists and photographers help us notice and then name what we see as this noticing/naming process becomes a pathway to increasing understanding. The Access Lenses provide a temporary scaffold to think about the varied features that inform our thinking and then become talking points that deepen that thinking.

AoC Gift #3: Collective Comprehension Invitation 

The AoC process swings a comprehension door wide open so that we can invite our children to enter a supportive thinking space where all ideas are welcome. The open-ended, flexible design makes room for every child to engage in the experience with support, regardless of where they are in the reading process. Using visual texts as a springboard gives each child a seat at the thinking table where engaging, supportive dialogue beckons them as thought partners. In Trevor’s words, AoC “enables all learners, striving readers and nonreaders included, to join classroom conversations– building their confidence as well as community.” (p. 3) The comprehension framework Trevor has created readily supports high level thinking through visuals so that even children who cannot yet read the words yet can become active participants in meaningful, purposeful and yes, rigorous literacy experiences.

AoC Gift #4: Text Inspired Celebratory Conversations 

A powerful aspect of the AoC process is the ability to use the text to ignite and support conversations but then gradually fade that support as children collaborate with peers. Teacher-supported conversations set the stage for these collaborative conversations as we step aside and allow shared dialogue to take on a life of its own. This stepping back affords time and space for teachers to listen in on conversations in order to reinforce thinking while watching for signs where stepping back in may be needed. This step in–step out support dance is designed to encourage students to share their ideas as we keep our sights on opportunities to grow independence. This is not remotely akin to the one-size-fits all question interrogations that are commonplace when basal programs lead the way. Rather it leaves room for surprises that arise from student engaged thinking with time to celebrate that thinking in the company of others in a respectful environment.

AoC Gift #5: Joining of Educators in a Common Quest 

Toward the end of the chat, Trevor posted the tweet below. It struck me as something so pertinent to the AoC process, and yet a point that I had never really considered before. Trevor is an art teacher who saw the arts as a way to promote and support comprehension. Having been on the receiving end of this rich process through his supportive eye, it was easy for me to see how the art world and the literacy world can collide in joyful harmony. What I love about the thinking in this tweet is that Trevor takes this one step further by reminding us that the image-print merger not only helps us to comprehend texts in ways that heighten the meaning-making process but also heighten our awareness that those texts help us to comprehend our lives for ourselves and students. I love this joining of worlds that are not as different as I had once supposed. Yet Trevor saw these connections all along. Very wise man indeed.

With these gifts in mind, I asked Trevor to share his thinking about the AoC process by responding to three questions. His responses give us insight into how this book came to be.

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

I had a rich, arts life growing up. They were a big part of my childhood experience and continued to have an impact all through my college years. Twenty years ago, I decided to enter into education with the belief that the arts were being underutilized and that they could and should be playing a more prominent role in the academic lives of students. However, upon starting my career as an art educator, I quickly realized that the tools I was taught to talk about art effectively, have almost zero impact on people who did not have a rich, arts background or at least a serious interest. After ten years of searching, I realized that entering artworks using reading comprehension skills produced more effective conversations around art and also created a simple, direct way for the arts to directly impact academic development that was more easily understood by my fellow educators who did not have a rich, arts background. More Importantly, through this work, I started to realize that my approach, explained in my book, was helping all learners to explore and share their unique voices. This work created an inclusive culture where every child was able to not only participate in classroom learning but they were able to meaningfully contribute. I hope that my book helps launch joyful exploration of and meaningful conversation around the works of art, books, plays, movies and other texts that students engage with regularly. The arts help us to comprehend and share our human experience, I hope my book helps to make this clearer.

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

I hope that educators become more aware of the various forms of texts that demand the use of comprehension skills in order to make meaning of them. I hope they see that all of the arts truly are related and that there is a tremendous amount of overlap between them. I hope they see how all of the arts help us to explore and comprehend our own lives and whether we are writing, acting, singing, painting we can practice and utilize similar communication skills. And I also hope that teachers come to see the Access Lenses, the Framework and the Mood Structures as a simple foundation on which students can construct meaning regardless of the type of text they are exploring.

What is one message from the heart that you would like for every teacher to keep in mind based on your book?

My message from the heart would be that the arts foster joy and connection, even when and especially when times or topics are tough. Meaningful exploration of any form of art helps us to joyfully connect to our peers, our colleagues, our families and even to ourselves. The arts helps us to comprehend our human experience and share our human experience. Seems to me that both of these should be an integral part of a meaningful education.


We are so grateful to Trevor, for sharing his wisdom with our #G2great family. His commitment to the comprehension process through the AoC design shifts his focus beyond the lens of art teacher so that we could all envision a powerful instructional experience where every teacher can place a high priority on meaning making for every children. As I close this post, it seems appropriate to use Trevor’s opening words in his book as they are a reflection of this collective joining of the minds:

“If great books ae great works of art, then reading is a form of art appreciation and writing is a form of art creating. From this stance, literacy teachers are really art teachers without the smocks or carts or dirty, stained hands.”

Thank you for sharpening our view Trevor. And now, it’s time for teachers everywhere to get our hands dirty for kids!


The Art of Comprehension on Stenhouse

Trevor Bryan website: The Art of Comprehension