Tuesday, March 22, 2016

In Light Of The World Today

As an educator who values the power of the PLN and all that I have learned from colleagues and friends from around the world, I wanted to share the following email that I sent to our staff today. The contents of the email were in response to the terrorist attacks in Belgium. It may contain some information that other educational leaders, educators or families find useful when discussing the topic with their children...

Hello everyone,

As most of us are probably aware, there was another alleged terrorist attack in Belgium. Although details are still emerging it seems that the attacks were very similar to what occurred in Paris and California earlier this year – extremists who believe they are doing the “right” thing for a specific cause. Even though the facts and motives are not necessarily clear, our children are growing up in a world where terrorist attacks are more the norm than the exception. 

Additionally, as a result of these terrorist attacks the rhetoric against Muslims is also growing (the current presidential campaign isn’t helping matters) and for those reasons we must be attentive and supportive.

As educators in a world that is diversifying, I think it is important that we keep our ears open for things our students may be discussing related to these matters to ensure that all of our children feel safe regardless of their religion, ethnicity or skin color. We have labeled this the Year Of Happy at Cantiague and have talked a lot about empathy but more so than ever, I think it is imperative we encourage the following with our children: empathy, patience, understanding and avoiding the inclination to paint certain groups with broad strokes. 

I leave it to each of you to decide if anything needs to change in your classrooms as it relates to learning but in case the subject of terrorism does come up and you feel compelled to address it, I wanted to share some age appropriate resources that might be helpful…






Again, these are just some resources you may want to explore depending on the needs of your children or the things that come up during class discussions – no expectations just possibilities. Ultimately, I am firm believer that if we are going to change the world, it happens through education not reaction.


Please feel free to use any of the text above or contribute other relevant resources in the comment section below. Together we are better for all of our children!

Friday, March 18, 2016

Reading Levels Are For Books... Not Kids

The following is a guest post by Lisa Palmieri, who is a reading specialist at #Cantiague Elementary. Lisa's passion for reading instruction has permeated our school community and her knowledge makes her an incredible resource for our teachers. In this post she reflects on how leveling might be having a negative impact on our readers... 

Reading Levels Hit Home... 

My son Dean is a struggling reader. This is so hard for me, as you might imagine, as a reading specialist and a parent.  So, when Dean and his friend, Brenden, were sitting in the 3rd row of my minivan talking about books, I turned down the radio and listened carefully. It was a crushing conversation. Dean proudly announced, “I moved up to H and I! What are you Brenden?”  Brenden casually said, “Oh, I’m M and N.”  Dean processed this and seemed to move on with the conversation. When we got out of the minivan, the boys played for all of 5 minutes before Dean was practically beating-up Brenden.  Brenden went home. I apologized to his mom.  On the car ride home, Dean was upset.  After some time we spoke and of course, the root of the problem was the reading levels. Dean was upset that his friend was at a higher level. It’s that simple. And, I understood.

The conversation between Dean and Brenden is not uncommon. I wonder how his reading level was communicated to him, and it got me thinking about the message we are conveying to our students. His classroom teacher administered the F&P Benchmark Assessment. The only piece of the conversation Dean recalled about the testing session was his letter and that he went up.  In Dean’s classroom the library only has leveled book bins. Each book is clearly labeled with the letter on the cover, and Dean’s independent book baggie is see-through.  Everyone knows his level and he knows everybody else’s level. 

Are Reading Levels Good? Bad?

I have a love-hate relationship with student reading levels. I love that I get a snap-shot of a student’s reading abilities and can plan accordingly. This is the heart and soul of my job.  I love them and need them. The feelings of “hate” surface when students identify themselves by their letter. “I am ______.” (Fill in any letter of the alphabet.) I know this is a common feeling among many of us. I have spoken with educators and parents who feel the same way.

The A to Z guided reading level is a useful tool that teachers use to assess, instruct, and evaluate students. It provides important data for the teacher. It can be very useful when planning our teaching points and selecting books. But reading levels can easily be mishandled and misunderstood by our children, and even well-intentioned parents.  Our children may use them as a way to identify and compare themselves. It can create a divide between students or a pecking order, and that can play out on the field, the classroom, back of a minivan or anywhere.  It can be hurtful and damaging to their self-esteem.  

Our goal as teachers is to teach students to read and hopefully to love reading or as Pernille Ripp said, “To hate it a little less.” A reading level derived from reading assessments is meant to help the teacher plan lessons. The level, despite its value, does not help a child develop a love for reading. The levels never did and never will. This has been an age-old struggle. I still remember being in the Blue Jay reading group when I was in elementary school, and I certainly knew who was a Red Robin!  

Let's Focus On Books... Not Levels!

I wish I could talk to Dean’s teacher about his feelings, and the controversy and competition unintentionally created when schools identify students in this way. I would prefer if she talked to Dean about how to select a book that matches his abilities. What are the book characteristics that match him as a reader? How would he know if a book was too hard or too easy? So what if the book he selected did not have “his” letter labeled on it. If Dean knows the type of book that he can access yet focuses on his interest and purpose, doesn’t that trump the letter/level that it has been assigned?  In the words of JoEllen McCarthy, “Wantability trumps readability.” If a child wants to read a book then (s)he will figure out a way to access it! 

What Do We Do Now?

All of this has caused me to wonder: What are the conversations teachers are having with students? How are books organized and selected? Is privacy considered and protected? Can we modify our language and word choice to help foster a passion and purpose for reading rather than to foster competition and insecurity? All of this is just something for us to think about as educators and consider if in fact this practice is in the best interest of children.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Growth Mindset... Grit... Grrrr!

Grit and Growth Mindset: It's Personal... 

Over the last several years, many of my family and friends have commented on the fact that Paul (my amazing son) seems to possess an incredible amount of grit, positivity and perseverance. Some have even commented on the fact that a growth mindset seems to come so naturally to Paul because he rarely focuses on his problems or issues. You see Paul was born with a few medical issues and one of them is congenital scoliosis, which means he has surgery every six months to have the rods in his back expanded as he grows. Truth is, Paul rarely gets upset about the situation (except right before and after surgery) and he bounces back quickly and never allows his "issues" to impact his daily functioning. His doctor calls him the wonder child because of his ability to bounce back and his willingness to try almost anything regardless of his physical limitations. People are always in awe of Paul and his GRIT and often comment how they wish their children possessed some of that stuff!

Well, here is the thing, grit, and other current buzz words in education related to students' personal development, such as growth mindset and perseverance, are incredibly complex and I don't know that most educators realize and understand those complexities. You see, I do believe that Paul shows a tremendous amount of grit and perseverance but I don't necessarily think he was just born with it (he was born with some of it though); I think part of Paul's grit and strength are a result of the love, support, access and privilege he has experienced since birth. 

Yes, that's right - although some kids may be born with these qualities, I don't think life and environmental factors always give them an opportunity to grow and thrive within each child. Fortunately, many times children do develop the growth mindset and grit to overcome many of the obstacles they encounter... but that doesn't happen for every child. I believe these qualities are ones that are nurtured in children and although some children may be predisposed to accessing them more easily, I think we need to recognize that the conversation is a complex one.

Grit and Growth Mindset In Education...

Psychologist Carol Dweck, who developed the notion of growth mindset, defines it as...

“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” 

This idea of growth mindset is juxtaposed against a fixed mindset, which is basically the opposite because people who embrace a fixed mindset see things like their intelligence and talents as "fixed" things that cannot be developed further... either you have it, or you don't. Of course, based on these definitions, we want all children (and educators) to access a growth mindset over a fixed mindset - that is an awesome goal and one worth working towards.

Often times, the notion of growth mindset gets commingled with this idea of grit because that is another quality we want our children to possess. Psychologist Angela Duckworth defines grit as...

"Grit is a distinct combination of passion, resilience, determination, and focus that allows a person to maintain the discipline and optimism to persevere in their goals even in the face of discomfort, rejection, and a lack of visible progress for years, or even decades."

Yes - based on that definition, that is certainly something we want our children and students (and educators) to possess... a lot of growth mindset with some grit because then we can accomplish anything and achieve all of our goals. In fact, it seems that some educators might even argue that growth mindset and grit are the keys to education reform and the proverbial silver bullet that will fix all the problems that plague schools and society in general.  

For example, some would argue that kids who are impacted by poverty can overcome that challenge by showing some grit and embracing a growth mindset. Others would argue that children who come across entitled will be better served if they develop some grit or employ a growth mindset. "These" kids would do so much better with some grit; "those" kids would be better served if they developed a growth mindset; or any number of statements along these lines that suggest we have found the silver bullet.

But, in my opinion, it is not that simple. Just because we have decided, as the adults in education, that we want our students to possess these qualities and traits it doesn't mean it's going to happen and it doesn't mean we are going to reform education in one fell swoop. Don't get me wrong, I definitely thing we want to nurture these qualities in our students and ourselves but we need to understand the complexities that accompany them.  

Things To Remember...

If we are going to continue pushing kids to develop their grit and growth mindset, we need to remember certain things...

1) We can't expect kids to access those "skills" or qualities if we don't embrace them as the adults in the learning community! Educators and schools must begin embracing a growth mindset and accessing some grit. I believe the first step in making that happen is shifting the focus from teaching to learning - remembering that we are learners first and as learners we can continue to grow and enhance our skill set, even when it makes us uncomfortable.  

2) We should move away from grading kids on these qualities because they are more like a spectrum than just something that we can check off as met or not met. When we grade it, we are trying to qualify it in some way and that is a subjective and slippery slope to try and navigate. What makes one kids grit better than an others? Who is showing a stronger growth mindset? Not only that, but once it is graded and a child scores a "high" grade in these areas, the journey is over and they can check them off their list. You get the idea - these are not easy questions to answer but in the end, grading things like grit and perseverance don't seem to be in the best interest of children and in fact may be an example of embracing a fixed mindset ("this is just for a grade") over a growth mindset ("I can always get better at this")! 

3) These trends to embed notions of grit and growth mindset in our daily work with children are admirable and important but they are not the silver bullet that will fix all that ails education or society. We cannot help foster grit or growth mindset or perseverance if we don't first focus on building healthy and positive relationships with our kids and with each other as educators. 

4) Access and privilege do impact the development of qualities like growth mindset. I believe that children who have access, as a result of their family or community or SES, will not only have a better chance of developing these skills but will then be able to leverage them to advance themselves because of their access and privilege. Growth mindset, grit and perseverance are not going to fix all that ails society because they don't often get developed in a silo (of course, there are exceptions). 

5) If we think growth mindset, grit, etc. are critical to the success of our children and schools then we must stick with them and make them the new norms in our educational communities. We cannot abandon them when the next "sexy" trend, initiative or term hits our schools - we must show some grit and stick with it!

What do you think about growth mindset, grit and perseverance? How do you see them impacting our schools and students? Do you agree with my take? Disagree? Why? Please let me learn and grow!