7 Teacher Supports During Stressful Times

By Ronald Williamson and Barbara Blackburn

Working in education often feels like a rollercoaster – it has ups and downs and even some startling dips and turns. But the past two years have had more turbulence than most of us can remember and it’s had a major impact on educators.

Across the country the pandemic upheaval and the politicization of education is taking a toll on teacher morale. Teacher turnover has risen dramatically with increased retirements and a growing number of younger teachers considering leaving the profession (Zamarro, Camp, Fuchsman & McGee, 2021).

Adding to the turmoil is a shortage of substitute teachers, bus drivers and other personnel as well as an inconsistent policy response to the pandemic at every level of decision-making, raising health and safety concerns for students and educators.

In some districts classes are cancelled or moved to remote learning on short notice because of an inability to staff schools. In other schools waves of quarantine events create an unstable teaching environment and shatter instructional continuity.

All of this has increased anxiety among educators about the state of their personal as well as professional lives. “Overwhelmed” and “burned out” are words we are all hearing teachers say.

Three stress-related statistics illustrate the depth of the issue.

  • 83% of employees experience early signs of burnout;
  • 25% of employees experience the most severe signs of burnout, which include poorer performance, cynicism toward colleagues, and apathy for the workplace; and
  • 71% of employees say workplace stress affects their mental health.

Source: McGovern (2021). 6 ways to help employees deal with stress.



It’s important to recognize the challenges of these uncertain times, during which teachers and staff can experience social isolation – disconnected from one another and from their principal. They are often on the frontline when dealing with parents and, in many cases, are openly challenged about their decisions and their work with students in person and in social media.

These challenges are real, and school leaders must take them seriously and support their faculties and staff.

How can we best support our people?

Here are seven actions we recommend to give teachers and staff our full support right now. These are actions that define effective educational leadership all the time, but we feel it’s important to restate and reflect on them amid all the current stressors and uncertainty.

1. Don’t Minimize the Problem

The most important response it to take the issue seriously. Don’t minimize the impact of the pandemic, and related issues, on teachers and other employees. Talk openly with individuals, and with your staff, about the stress they face and the emotions they are experiencing.

Recognize that individuals respond differently to stress and that your response will need to vary with the individual. Encourage staff to maintain an appropriate work-life balance. Model that balance in your own life, and make sure you don’t increase expectations that will intrude on employees’ personal and family time.

2. Set Boundaries for Parents/Families

Be clear with your parents and other stakeholders about appropriate boundaries. Share appropriate ways to contact teachers and make sure you are explicit – with both teachers and parents – that you do not expect teachers to work 24/7 or provide a response to queries outside of the work day.

3. Establish Varied Ways to Connect

Be clear about how you will connect with your team. One school used videoconferencing for check-in’s and other meetings but agreed to use texting when something was urgent. Also be clear about expectations for sharing information among your teachers. Identify a time during the day when employees can reach you.



4. Provide Key Information in Predictable Ways

Faculty can be overwhelmed by information and often feel as though they are missing key information because it’s lost in the details. Provide regular updates in a predictable format even if you have little to update.

Communication is one way to maintain connections not only with but among employees. Make elements of your communication routine, like a weekly Covid Update or What’s Up bulletin. Remember that surprise actions add to stress and anxiety.

Parts of what you share may be repetitious, with reminders of important safety protocols and such, but use each update to provide information on how decisions will be made to modify the instructional mode, deal with staff shortages, and other urgent questions. And, of course, share good news from across the campus.

5. Use Multiple Communication Tools

Mass emails to the entire faculty can distribute information quickly, but they are often insufficient and the key messaging gets lost. Become familiar with, and use, a variety of communication strategies. One study found that people will be more engaged, and interactive, when talking face-to-face or video conferencing. These and other tools (podcasts, livestream, etc.) provide visual and voice cues and reduce the sense of isolation. They are far more personal than email or other written communication.

6. Monitor Non-Verbal Behavior

During in-person meetings we are able to pay attention to non-verbal feedback; in online meetings tone and voice serve as proxies for some people. The infletion or pitch of the voice or even the frequency of comments can indicate the employee is experiencing some anxiety.

People have different levels of engagement in individual or team meetings. Be looking for changes in behavior. Is an employee less engaged than normal? Pay attention to non-verbals and adjust your expectations based on what you observe. Talk with others on your team to make sure you are interpreting things accurately.

7. Offer Encouragement and Emotional Support

The research on emotional intelligence and emotional contagion says that employees look for cues about how to react to changes, whether that is COVID, criticisms from the community about curriculum, or staffing concerns. If you communicate stress, that will “trickle-down” to your employees (Goleman, 2005).

It is important to acknowledge the stress and anxiety that can come from these issues. Listen to your employees and empathize with their concerns. Always listen carefully and let the employee’s concerns be the focus of the conversation rather than your own. Also provide affirmation and express confidence in your team.

Be visible and proactive

How do we move forward in addressing these issues?  Start by modeling your own stress-relieving and work-life balance strategies. Show that you have empathy and understand what others are experiencing.

Next, share good news whenever possible (but avoid “toxic positivity”) to help balance the negative feelings that can occur during crises and times of transition. Help your teachers and staff access appropriate mental health resources in a non-threatening manner.

Finally, remove any barriers to their success. If a teacher is frustrated that she doesn’t have time to make copies or put up a bulletin board, find a parent or community volunteer who is willing to help. If a new teacher is overwhelmed, pair him with an experienced teacher to help with planning, and with a newer teacher to provide “closer to home” encouragement.

As you interact with your faculty and staff, always look for ways to support their work and reduce their stress and anxiety. Pay attention. Let them see your commitment to them as well as to your students and community.

References

Goleman, D. (2005). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. Bantam Books.

McGovern, M. (2021). 6 ways to help employees deal with stress.

Zamarro, G, Camp, A., Fuchsman, D, McGee, J. (2021). Pandemic prompts more teachers to consider retirement or new career. The Conversation


Dr. Ronald Williamson is Professor Emeritus of Educational Leadership at Eastern Michigan University. He is a former principal, central office administrator and executive director of the National Middle School Association (now AMLE). The author of numerous books on leadership, he is the co-author with Barbara R. Blackburn of Leadership for Remote Learning (2021) and 7 Strategies for Improving Your School (2020), both from Routledge/Eye On Education.

Dr. Barbara R. Blackburn, a “Top 30 Global Guru in Education,” is a bestselling author of over 25 books and a sought-after consultant. She was an award-winning professor at Winthrop University and has taught students of all ages. In addition to speaking at conferences worldwide, she regularly presents virtual and on-site workshops for teachers and administrators. Barbara is the author of Rigor in the Remote Learning Classroom: Instructional Tips and Strategies from Routledge/Eye On Education.

The What, Why and How of Collective Efficacy

Collective Student Efficacy: Developing Independent and Inter-Dependent Learners
By John HattieDouglas FisherNancy Frey and Shirley Clarke
(Corwin Press, 2021 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Helene Alalouf

My ten year old grandson Hudson was in a graham cracker challenge with three campmates. He told me the first half hour was spent arguing about the design.

Ryan and David wanted to build a house; he and Lawrence wanted something “unordinary” like a spaceship; and there was no way to attach the crackers and candies to build the height needed for either structure.

As they looked around at their competitors, the counselor announced “24 minutes left.” They were in awe of a nearby zip-line sculpture and realized they needed to construct something “small and fast.”

“What do the crackers look like?” Hudson asked.

“Sand!”

So, using their blue poster board as the ocean, they built a beach, replete with Swedish fish, twisted licorice, and Sour Patch candies as “kids” on the shore. And they won a prize for their sandy beach sculpture – coupons for individual ice cream sundaes!

One lesson we’ve learned during the pandemic is the significance of student mindset and well-being. How do we foster disposition and confidence in our students as actionable agents of learning? How do we nurture collaborative learning, on-site and remotely? How do we assess group work and also foster independence?

And as a literacy coach, how do I nurture a productive community in Professional Learning Circles and Instructional Leadership Teams when I personally struggle with trusting others to meet quality and deadline expectations?

In search of such truths, and upon the recommendation of an esteemed colleague, I opted to read Collective Student Efficacy: Developing Independent and Inter-dependent Learners, and I am so glad I did. All my questions were answered and I feel sure yours will be too, helping you build your ability to support your learners’ independence and collaboration.

The education thought leaders who wrote this text – John Hattie, Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and Shirley Clarke – have collectively harnessed decades of research and experience to inform decisions about building both independent and collective efficacy by refining tasks and processes.

I read the concluding chapter first to understand the goal and core attributes of collective efficacy in order to be more open-minded in accepting the methods.

[Note as you read further: effect size refers to the impact of a factor or strategy on student learning. Anything greater than .45 represents more than one year’s growth in a school year (Hattie).]

What and How?

“Our simplified working definition of Collective Student Efficacy means… students’ beliefs that by working together with other people, they will learn more” (p.10). This efficacy comes about not via a set of activities but through deliberately designed structures and processes.

Educators can shape these beliefs utilizing the common sense advice and guidelines, and the scaffolded structures and resources presented.

If Teacher Collective Efficacy has an effect size of 1.27. why is Collaborative Student Learning only .42? The authors claim that much more could be done to improve student collaboration, and this book shows us how!

How?

The authors explain the learning conditions and application tips to optimize high leverage strategies – such as my two favorite ones that apply across grades and content.

►Reciprocal Teaching in student-centered discourse with comprehension strategies (Hattie .74 effect size). With how-to and illustrative classroom examples, the authors guide teachers in modeling and developing the set of specific “I” and “We” skills so students can contribute confidently, effectively, and reflectively in interdependent work to support individual mastery (Chapters 3, 4 and 7).

Research suggests “starting collective learning by creating learning pairs. Later, once routines have been established so that pairs of students work productively, it is easier to start creating groups of four or snowballing pairs to work with another pair, sharing ideas” (p.118).

I learned the hard way about the need to nurture collaborative skills first. After a three-day seminar on Cooperative Learning, I assigned my seventh graders a consensus problem-solving task that resulted in two boys arguing over who was right. I foolishly stepped between them. The result was I had a bloody lip from Leviticus’ blind rage. He apologized, and I learned that social skills and norms for learning partners have to be modeled and established first.

As a result of reading about “snowballing,” I realize how we may boost collaboration by building “think-pair-square” from groups of 2 to 4 to 8 to prepare for rich whole class discussion.

►Problem-based Learning. The authors inform us that “The effect size of PBL increases from .15 to .50 when … students have sufficient background knowledge” (p.35). By moving students along the continuum from surface to deep acquisition to consolidation of knowledge with research-evident strategies for both individual and group learning (pp. 93-96), classwork and presentation projects can be elevated.

The authors’ sixth grade example of the investigation of the human body shows how students select and research individual topics, then share and extend, in reiterative rounds of Big Paper and discourse – with teacher feedback on their outline before they write their papers and do presentations.

These kinds of supportive structures and processes are well-detailed throughout the book, with actual classroom examples included to ensure success.

Book Features

Rules and tools, roles and responsibilities, and sentence frames for accountable talk and reflection establish conditions for independent and collective work and growth.

“Learning from a Distance” sideboxes show ways to implement learning conditions or techniques in remote environments.

Instructional charts can be displayed on walls and used as mini-anchor charts in students’ notebooks, so students self-direct rather than depend on teachers’ mediation.

Internal page references to “see more” within the book support teachers’ planning and delivery and promote the constructive alignment of learning intentions, tasks, success criteria, and assessments.

Final Reflection

I found the answers! We foster disposition and confidence in our students as actionable agents of learning and future employable citizens by developing both their cognitive and social skills.

We can nurture collaborative learning, on-site and remotely, by intentionally structuring and modeling tasks and roles, and then getting out of the way. We can foster and assess group work through the use of feedback and by moderating grades for individual and group contributions and outcomes.

On a personal level, I will use the metacognitive prompts to develop my own “We” skills and grow more confidence and trust in the experiences and knowledge of others. When I can better find the strengths in others, I’ll be better able to guide their engagement and collective efficacy for sustainable improvement, even beyond my coaching days.

Read another review of Collective Student Efficacy by Sarah Cooper.

Since attaining her Masters from Teachers College, Columbia University, and later National Board Certification, education consultant Helene Alalouf relishes opportunities to share her passion and informed fluency of research-evident principles to ensure a productive learning environment, cognitively and affectively, to support educators and families in realizing their vision. At leisure, she enjoys walking and cooking with family and friends, reading, and knitting.

Actions We Can Take to Reduce Student Trauma

Trauma is widespread among students in our schools today. School psychologist Katelyn Oellerich explores several actions educators can take to help alleviate its ill effects.

By Katelyn Oellerich, Ed.S.

Many students are coming to school today with heavy hearts and minds, and educators are investing a lot of thought and consideration into how we can support our youth who have had or continue to experience trauma.

Although we may not always be aware of trauma, students may signal its effects in several ways in our classrooms, including:

  • Behavior – students may show more defiance, withdrawal, perfectionism, reactive tendencies
  • Learning – students may struggle to regulate emotions, show control of executive functioning, or organize material
  • School performance – students experiencing trauma are more likely to be expelled, fail classes, or be considered for special education placement. (American Academy of Pediatrics)

If you wonder whether someone has experienced trauma, you do not necessarily go and ask them – even if you believe they are displaying some of these signs. Although we may feel eager and ready to help a student, it’s important that we follow their lead and not push them to divulge or share something they may not be ready to share or want to share.

As a school psychologist, I’ve often tried to make this point by sharing with co-workers that they likely have some past experience they don’t want others to be aware of and would like to keep private. Our students have this same right to privacy.

Although we may want to know about their sources of trauma – and knowing might help us to better understand them – we need to accept that we may never know. Fortunately, we also shouldn’t need to know in order to best support them.   

What is trauma?

Much of the research on trauma has focused on “ACEs” which stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences. These experiences can include abuse, neglect, divorce, mental illness, guardian incarceration, and domestic violence in childhood. Research has found connections between the number of ACEs a child experiences and later onset of chronic disease, mental illness, and violence (2021). It’s also been noted that individuals who are more likely to experience the impact of racism, poverty or homophobia are more at risk of experiencing trauma (2018).

What can we do?

There are a number of actions educators can take to help alleviate the ill effects of trauma. Let’s take a look at two: Relationship building by teachers and staff; and more systemically, data-gathering, reflection and planning that leads to system-wide responsiveness.

Relationship Building

The creation and promotion of Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) has been proposed as a way to protect children from some of the impact of trauma. (See this infographic-style summary of an important 2015 Wisconsin study.)

Educators can support students in this way by helping to promote a sense of belonging for students at school and taking interest in making adult connections with children. Data has shown that creating these positive experiences for children can actually reverse the impacts of trauma.

Source (PDF) – click to enlarge

While working with students to build a relationship, I’ve learned the importance of being authentic and reliable. Adolescents who have experienced trauma require someone they can depend on consistently and who will respond in a calm way even when the adolescent may be in a heightened state themselves.

It’s important, also, that the relationship show unconditional positive regard, and show grace and care for the student regardless of their choices. There may be moments where adolescents almost seem to test your relationship – at these points it is even more important that you continue to show up in support of the student as a person.

Here are a few additional thoughts that can help us support all students, especially those that have experienced trauma:

  • Continue to provide structure and routine
    • Even when a student arrives late, smile and greet them and help them to get started. Structure is helpful if there is less stability elsewhere in their lives.
  • Consider the aesthetics of the room
    • If lights are dim or especially bright in the room, offer alternatives whenever possible. “Would you like the lights to be dimmer or brighter?”
    • Notice if the student prefers a certain space within the room.
  • Take care about touching
    • Be cautious to not ever touch a student without permission.
    • Also note that some students may feel they need to say it’s okay because a staff member is considered a person of power to them. Notice their body language and if you sense they are not okay, do not attempt any sort of touch again.
  • Responses to situations
    • Notice a student’s reactions to situations and people. If you’re made aware that a student seems jumpy if you speak to them from behind, or in the presence of certain people, you might have someone with a close relationship mention this to them and ask what would make them most comfortable.
  • Common questions and language
    • Work to avoid questions that may presume positivity about something, like “Are you looking forward to the weekend/break/etc.?” If you instead ask, “How do you feel about the upcoming weekend/break/etc.?” you’re more likely to get a real answer and not make them feel bad if they aren’t looking forward to whatever is coming up.


System Level Change
  • Relationship Mapping – Work to see which students have connections with staff at school and where connections may be missing and work to build these connections. (See this Harvard mapping resource for middle and high school.)
  • Short Think Activity – Have staff do a short-think activity where they consider 3-5 students with whom they have a good relationship.
    • After they write the names down privately, ask that they then write down three things they know these students enjoy, then three things they don’t enjoy, and finally what motivates these students.
    • This activity is interesting because it can cause pause and reflection in those of us who may think we have really close relationships with students, and may help us to think deeper about truly listening and building rapport.
  • Stop, Start, Continue, Change
    • Review current structures, practices, and rewards.
    • Use this worksheet to reflect on current practices and need for change.
    • If this is done it’s important that teams review structures together and discuss what has worked and what should change. It’s most beneficial if there is a wide range of staff represented on the team.
    • Some ideas I’ve seen offered through brainstorming sessions include: changing to whole school breakfast in the morning and no recess, removing rewards tied to standardized tests, and re-evaluating the aesthetics of the building.
  • Social-Emotional Learning
    • Ideally social-emotional learning is taught within the classroom setting to all students on a regular basis and reinforced throughout each day. CASEL offers a list of SEL resources for weekly lesson plans. These lessons can then be further incorporated through advisories or age-appropriate morning meetings.
    • Structured breaks can also support in teaching relaxation and coping skills. The YouTube series Yoga with Adriene is one such way this can be done with middle school students. Another is through the use of a sensory path. This Edutopia article describes ways schools are doing this across the US.

Trauma is both common and unique

If you are aware that a student has experienced trauma, their responses are going to be unique to them. It is important to be cautious and aware of the signs of trauma but to not make assumptions about the wishes of students and instead follow their lead.

The need for educators to support students continues to go beyond academics. Students are coming to the classroom with basic needs that must be met before they can reach their full learning potential.

And finally: Teachers are carrying a heavy load. It’s also important that as they support our students and that they have the time and opportunity for self-support. Let’s make sure all our educators are able to turn to each other to reflect and offer support, and also to rest and renew when renewal is needed. This work is not easy.


Katelyn Oellerich, Ed.S. is a school psychologist in Mineral Point, WI in her 8th year and has had experience in both urban and rural settings. Also see her MiddleWeb article Bringing More Empathy into Your Classroom.

Katelyn has presented research focused on Mindfulness and Planning and Organization Skills and has additional training in social-emotional learning, art therapy, trauma sensitive schools, Families and Schools Together, and gender inclusive practices. Katelyn enjoys supporting student engagement by empowering relationships at school.

2 Key Math Strategies for Students with Disabilities

By Bradley Witzel, Ph.D. and Barbara R. Blackburn, Ph.D.

Much effort is made in schools to help students with disabilities gain employment skills, improve behavior, and build reading skills to assure ongoing learning and social independence.

While these emphases are important, mathematics is often a forgotten part of special education. However, mathematics is one of the most important predictors of student performance and adult successes.

Specifically, proficiency with Algebra 2 is a strong predictor of technical school completion, which grants licensure in such highly needed areas as air conditioning repair, auto mechanics, welding, etc.

Late elementary and middle level math performance in computation of whole and rational numbers is a predictor of algebra performance. Early numeracy is a predictor of not only late elementary math performance but reading performance as well.

Thus, math instruction for students with disabilities should include research-supported approaches to maximize student proficiency (understanding and procedural knowledge) and intervention should be aimed at helping students recover any lapse in understanding.

Several research-supported approaches have proven effective for students with special needs and mathematics difficulties. Among those are two we recommend: the concrete-visual-abstract sequence of instruction (CVA) and schema-based problem-solving instruction (SBI).

CVA Is a Three Step Model

The concrete-to-visual-to-abstract sequence of instruction (CVA) is a research-supported, three-step model that uses a series of learning modalities to help students build abstract understanding of mathematics. CVA is also known as CRA (Concrete-Representational-Abstract) and CSA (Concrete-Semiconcrete-Abstract) and has been shown effective for learning such mathematics concepts as number sense, whole and rational number computation, simplifying algebra expressions, solving algebra equations, and solving geometric principles.

CVA starts first by solving a math problem using concrete objects followed by solving similar problems using visuals and then abstract notation alone (Witzel & Little, 2016). Because movements between phases of learning are fluid, it is helpful to show abstract notation while teaching using concrete and visual representations. This explicit connection aids in the transition from concrete to visual to abstract phases of learning because the abstract notation is present at each stage.

While CVA seems fairly straight-forward, it requires precision of instruction and thoughtful planning. We recommend the following steps when developing and delivering CVA:
To understand the importance of the link between the different phases of learning, using the same construct as presented earlier, the student solves multi-digit subtraction, 83 – 45, using the integer rule.

At the concrete phase, the student decomposes the minuend and subtrahend. Next, the student computes the tens by comparing the minuend and subtrahend to reach +40. Then the student computes a similar comparison with the ones place to find -2.

Finally, the student calculates the difference between the tens and ones differences to equal 38. This process and the number of steps matches across phases to show a parallel approach.
CVA is a powerful way to help students solve computational problems, and it is adaptable to many different types of problems.

SBI targets math word problems

While CVA is effective for building computational proficiency, schema-based instruction or SBI is effective for solving word problems. With the increased use of word problems on mathematics standardized exams, schools, districts, and states have increased their emphasis on effectively teaching students how to solve them.

Solving word problems often requires students to decode complex vocabulary, comprehend a paragraph of text, access background knowledge of authentic events, plan multiple steps and accurately compute problems. Despite its popularity, using “keyword” as the lone strategy has shown little to no effect on word problem performance.

One of the most effective word problem solving approaches is schema-based instruction (Witzel et al, 2021). SBI has a four-step approach: problem identification, problem representation, and problem set-up, followed by solve and check.

When enacting the problem solving steps for SBI, using a consistent attack strategy helps guide students through the problem solving approach. One such attack strategy that matches SBI is DOPS.

D =  Determine the problem type
O = Organize the information using the schematic diagram
P =  Plan to solve the problem
S =  Solve the problem arithmetically

Using cognitive approaches like DOPS helps with students who struggle with executive functioning and planning by building in self-regulation (Witzel, 2020).

How to implement the SBI strategy

To show how to implement SBI using a cognitive approach like DOPS, we highlight multiplication and division problem solving. The two most general types of multiplication and division problems are equal groups and comparison.

Equal groups problems will present up to two components in word problems – number of groups and number of items per group – leading to a total number or amount. Equal groups representations look like this:
Example: Emily unloads 8 boxes of books at school. There are 12 books in each box. How many books does she unload?

Determine problem type – This is an equal groups problem because there are equally sized boxes of books.

Organize a representation, such as the one below.
Plan to solve, 8×12

Solve and check = 96 books makes sense considering the number of boxes.

Comparison problems will also present up to two components in word problems – two items that are being compared and how many times one is greater or less than the other. Comparison representations look like this:
Example: Kelly read 9 books over summer break. Todd read 3 books. How many times more books did Kelly read than Todd?

Determine problem type – This is a comparison problem because we are talking about how many books Kelly read compared to Todd.

Organize a representation, such as the one below (T=Todd).
Plan to solve – Since this is not a straightforward computation, the student would have to analyze the problem to determine to divide 9 by 3.

Solve and check = 3 times as many books makes sense considering Kelly read 9 and Todd read 3.

Implementing SBI is not always easy since textbooks are rarely designed to systematically teach word-problem solving. Therefore, it is important to first present problems that fit with the SBI more easily before scaffolding to more complex problems.

If students are taught SBI early, they are more likely to have success with word problems early and transition that success to later mathematics (Jitendra et al., 2013).

Conclusion

Mathematics can be a challenging topic to learn and to teach. Implementing instruction that is grounded in empirical research is highly important to maximizing success for all learners, especially those with special needs.

It’s equally essential that we formatively assess every math student through the year to learn where they are succeeding in their approach and where they are not. Using the information we gather, we can target instruction using effective instructional strategies, such as CVA and SBI, and not only  help them succeed in our math classes but help them grow academically for years to come.

References

Blackburn, B., & Witzel, B. S. (2022). Rigor for students with special needs. (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Jitendra, A. K., Dupuis, D. N., Rodriguez, M. C., Zaslofsky, A. F., Slater, S., Cozine Corroy, K., & Church, C. (2013). A randomized controlled trial of the impact of schema-based instruction on mathematical outcomes for third-grade students with mathematics difficulties. The Elementary School Journal, 114(2), 252–276.

Witzel, B. S. (2020). Executive functioning disorder and mathematics: Three strategies to implement. Attention, 27(5). 19-21.

Witzel, B. S., & Little, M. E. (2016). Teaching elementary mathematics to struggling learners. New York: Guilford Press.

Witzel, B., Myers, J. A., & Xin, Y. P. (2021). Intensifying word problem solving for students with math difficulties. Intervention in School and Clinic. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/10534512211047580

Witzel, B. S., Riccomini, P. J., & Schneider, E. (2008). Implementing CRA with secondary students with learning disabilities in mathematics. Intervention in School and Clinic, 43(5), 270-276.


Barbara R. Blackburn, a “Top 30 Global Guru in Education,” is a bestselling author of over 25 books and a sought-after consultant. She was an award-winning professor at Winthrop University and has taught students of all ages. In addition to speaking at conferences worldwide, she regularly presents virtual and on-site workshops for teachers and administrators. from Routledge/Eye On Education.

Bradley Witzel is the Adelaide Worth Daniels Distinguished Professor of Education at Western Carolina University and has worked as a classroom teacher and before that as a paraeducator with high-achieving students with disabilities. He has written nine books and over 50 other professional publications, developed over 20 multimedia resources, and delivered over 500 presentations and workshops.

Barbara and Brad are the authors of Rigor for Students with Special Needs, 2nd edition from Routledge/Eye On Education.

Create a Wellness Fair to Counter Kids’ Stress

By Kasey Short

This is the third school year that’s been impacted by Covid. Our current 8th grade students have not had “normal” school since 5th grade.

Students have missed out on countless opportunities to socialize, collaborate, participate in extracurricular activities, and manage their time in a traditional school environment.

Our middle school Director of Counseling, Janani Buford, realized early in the school year that students were experiencing a significant amount of stress and anxiety, and many did not have the tools they needed to manage it.

Janani decided that she wanted to be proactive in helping students learn and practice coping skills. This led her to brainstorm a Middle School Wellness Fair to highlight that stress is normal, showcase that mental health is a priority, and provide students with opportunities to learn and practice a variety of coping skills.

Although the planning process was time consuming; the outcome for our students was well worth the time spent. We hope that the information below is helpful to anyone who is interested in providing a similar opportunity to students at their school at some point this year or in the future.

Planning the Fair Activities

Begin by making a list of possible sessions that would benefit students by teaching them coping skills and/or promoting wellness and mental health awareness. Then start reaching out to people within the community who specialize in these forms of wellness and ask if they would be interested in participating in the wellness fair.

We were fortunate to receive an overwhelming response from people willing to volunteer to teach sessions for our students. If you find there are not enough community members able to facilitate all the sessions you need, you might ask teachers to share strategies they use for their own wellness. Hearing how some adults in their lives cope would also be beneficial.


Suggestions for Community Businesses to Contact:

    • Yoga Studies
    • Fitness Centers
    • Art Studies
    • Dieticians
    • Motivational Speakers
    • Therapists with various specialties such as mindfulness, art therapy, journaling, etc.

Then develop the schedule for the day and think through logistics that will be needed to serve your number of students within your facilities. Be sure to build momentum by asking for help from others within the school. Janani met with our middle school scheduler to design student and teacher schedules and assign room locations for the day.

To offset cost and show appreciation for the volunteers, Janani asked our Parents Association if they would be willing to provide gift bags, coffee, and water bottles to thank the volunteers. A Parents Association may also have suggestions for community volunteers who have businesses or hobbies related to stress relief and would be willing to participate.

How We Structured Our Fair

Students spent an entire school day participating in Wellness Fair activities.

The day began with a keynote speaker (a therapist) who explained to students the definition of stress and anxiety, gave an overview of coping skills, and encouraged students to find strategies that worked for them.

Students then rotated through four unique sessions, with a snack break in the middle. The students traveled with their English classmates, and a teacher was assigned to each group to escort the students and help the volunteers as needed.

Each session leader was asked to begin the sessions by explaining why the strategy/skill they were sharing helps with stress and anxiety and promotes wellness. They were then to model the skill and provide students an opportunity to practice the strategy.

Sample Sessions:

  • Mindfulness
  • Meditation
  • Journaling
  • Yoga
  • Self-Care
  • Fueling the Body
  • Art
  • Fitness
  • Developing Self-Leadership Skills

After students participated in four sessions, their afternoon looked slightly different depending on their grade level, but all students had lunch and went to their physical education class during their regularly scheduled time.

All students (by grade level) also had the opportunity to visit the traveling petting zoo that was invited to our school for the afternoon. The local petting zoo (we’re based in Charlotte NC) brought a bunny, baby pigs, a goat, a llama, an alpaca, and a miniature cow. Teachers helped facilitate the students seeing the animals, but the company took care of the animals and directed students on how to interact with them.

This petting zoo was a true highlight of everyone’s day. This part of the Wellness Fair brought joy to students and faculty members and provided an opportunity for kids to practice living in the moment and have fun outside.

Students then spent the remainder of afternoon watching the Disney movie Inside Out through a school subscription service (Swank) which provides licensing for viewing movies. This movie allowed students to have some time to relax and provided a safe environment for discussing the feelings and emotions of a fictional character.

At the end of the day, students filled out an anonymous Google Form to provide feedback about the experience. Students overwhelmingly loved the petting zoo, rock painting, yoga, and mindfulness.

Our Covid Protocols

To maintain Covid safety protocols throughout the day, all visitors on campus were masked and had proof of either a Covid vaccine or a negative Covid test. All regular Covid protocols such as distancing and masking were in place.

Goals Accomplished; Fun Ensued!

This event was a lot of fun for students and accomplished many mental health goals. It really normalized mental health as a priority for students and faculty, acknowledged that stress is a normal and expected part of life, showcased that everyone needs strategies to deal with stress, and gave students time practicing various coping skills.

Parents were provided with information about the Wellness Fair and a list of the volunteers who facilitated sessions. This allowed families to discuss the strategies with their children, encourage their children to continue to use strategies that work for them at home, and to reach out to any of the volunteers for more information as needed.

Since the teachers traveled with students and participated in the activities, they will be able to incorporate the strategies in their classrooms and remind students to use these strategies throughout the year.

What Our Students Had to Say

“I really thought that wellness day would be boring but instead I learned a lot about my body and my mind and how to cope with my stress.” – Stefan

“It was helpful that the school got trained professionals to lead the sessions. Also, being around baby animals is an instant stress relief.” – Sarah

“I loved the art and hanging out with my friends. My favorite part was the rock painting, it was so relaxing and fun.” – Tyler

“The Wellness Fair was a great experience to step away from the everyday stress of school and learn ways to cope with stress and anxiety while having fun.” – Lily


Kasey Short (@shortisweet3) loves to share ideas from her classroom and writes frequently for MiddleWeb. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and earned a bachelor of arts in middle school education with a concentration in English and history. She went on to earn a master’s in curriculum and instruction from Winthrop University. She is currently the Director of Studies at Charlotte (NC) Country Day School and an eighth grade English Teacher.

Teaching Faith-Based Holidays

rr holiday bigstock-CandleRevised November 2021

In March 2017 Concord Community Schools in Elkhart, Indiana, learned that a federal judge had ruled “that the live Nativity scene presented for 45 years at Concord High School with deeply religious imagery and content created an impermissible message of religious endorsement.” (16 WNDU)

Then in March 2018 a federal appeals court ruled that using mannequins rather than human beings for the Nativity scene kept the school’s Christmas Spectacular from being unconstitutional. (Details) In 2019 the event was on the high school’s calendar.

This has followed litigation, begun in 2015, that included a student and his parents, working with the ACLU and Freedom From Religion Foundation, who sued because the young man objected to the directly religious content being included in the public school performance.

What happens in public schools as the winter holidays approach can also be the focus of community and legal concerns. For an in-depth look at civic and constitutional issues, you can download for $4.99 ASCD’s Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum by Warren A. Nord and Charles C. Haynes at ASCD. Haynes has recently updated an article on public schools and articles here.

In 2011, Edutopia blogger and Deputy Director of the Learning First Alliance Anne O’Brien posted The December Dilemma: Acknowledging Religious Holidays in the Classroom. She points out the major conclusions of Dr. Haynes and the National Education Association’s Tim Walker: Educate, don’t celebrate. They recommend that districts develop clear policies: just because courts have ruled Santa and Christmas trees are secular does not mean members of the community will always find them appropriate for the classroom. Also: Incorporate a range of holidays throughout the year into the curriculum, to broaden children’s understanding of cultures beyond their own.

Learning for Justice from the Southern Poverty Law Center offers tools to bring balance to holiday study here. Teaching Tolerance also offers a 2013 webinar, Addressing the December Dilemma in Schools, which is helpful to teachers who want to encourage students to be tolerant of the variety of faiths present in their classrooms. Additional resources – particularly Unit Four and the Resource Listing – can be used with the webinar or on their own.

Curriculum Collections

rr holiday berries large

Music teacher Peter Siegel offers ways to “avoid controversial topics and still honor a diversity of holiday stories, characters, and rituals as symbols of positive values” in this Edutopia article. Included: seeing light as a motif present in multiple holidays and noting a variety of holidays throughout the year.

Scholastic provides a page full of teachers’ ideas to involve 6-8 graders in holiday learning. From create-a-holiday to an open house hosted by English Language Learners, this collection intertwines curriculum with a range of holidays in December.

EDSITEment from the National Endowment for the Humanities hosts “The Gift of Holiday Traditions: Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and Christmas” here as well as “Poinsettias, Posadas, Piñatas, Pathways of Light! Holiday Traditions from Mexico” here. Some links are no longer functioning. At History.com find videos and descriptions of Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and Christmas. Some History.com content may not be appropriate for middle graders.

rr holiday tinsel stars

A Multi-faceted Season

America’s cultures from North America and around the world have enriched December with many commemorations that may be shared by some of your students. A starting place for students to learn about the variations in Christmas followed by peoples who have immigrated to America is a series of posts, Christmas Traditions Around the World, by Sarah Toast. Toast’s 2017 series was updated in 2020.

At Larry Ferlazzo’s popular Websites of the Day blog, his collection of Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa resources is epic in size and includes lots of eye-catching infographics.

You may have Hindu students who celebrate the festival of Pancha Ganapati. In 1985, feeling a need for an alternative to Christmas that emphasized the values of Hindus, Satguru Sivaya Subramuniya swami, an American who helped lead a world-wide Hindu renaissance, created the late-December family festival honoring Ganesha, the elephant-headed god as an adjunct to an ancient month-long celebration. This year New York City schools are considering adding Diwali, the festival of lights celebrated in October or November by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and some Buddhists, to the school holiday calendar.

The Longest Night

rr holiday tall candlesCultures around the world have celebrated the two annual solstices. The winter solstice falls in the period December 21-22 each year. Indian Country Today Media Network provides a brief history of human beings’ understanding of the solstice. After reviewing British traditions, the post explains the solstice-detecting structures built by indigenous peoples in the Americas. Native Americans continue their age-old celebrations of the winter solstice.

For example, near the beginning of December the Zuni of New Mexico hold the sacred ceremony of Shalako with its long hours of dancing by men in 8-9 foot costumes representing the Kachina, nature spirits. Following tests of physical endurance, the community continues the religious dancing for several days and ends with the Teshkwi, a ten day fast. Since 1990 the Shalako Dance has been closed to non-Indians. Students can learn more about Zuni culture at the Zuni Fact Sheet from the website Native Languages of the Americas, which collects information on hundreds of Amerindian languages and on Native Americans. The site is a non-profit project of Laura Redish and Orrin Lewis.

New Year’s Celebrations around the World

Before the winter holiday break, students can learn about New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.  Scholastic offers a listing of celebrations of the new year from around the world. With cultures celebrating at various times throughout the year, children can see beyond January 1 to others’ views of the calendar, often but not always linked to religion.

The Joy and the Sorrow of “Watch Night”

rr holiday pineIn the United States, observing December 31 as Watch Night began as an idea imported by Methodist leader John Wesley and grew into a Protestant and particularly an African American tradition. The gathering at churches for prayer, singing, and community is often linked to the December 31, 1862 wait for midnight when the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in Confederate States was to take effect.

But Watch Night has even deeper roots in the African American experience. Slaves waited through the last night of the year to learn the next day how their families would be affected by plantation owners’ book-balancing – deciding which, if any, slaves to sell to settle debts in the New Year. Slaves contracted by owners to work at other locations often left their plantations on January 1, as well. According to a San Francisco Chronicle writer, New Year’s Day was known as Heartbreak Day among the slaves.

Fictional TV Celebrations

Students may be curious about recent December holidays created by TV writers and other purveyors of mass culture. In brief, Chrismukkah originated in a 2003 episode of the Fox series, The O.C., to bring together a Protestant/Jewish family.

Festivus, ‘the holiday for the rest of us,’ was a December 23 alternative to Christmas which a Seinfeld writer brought from his own family to the TV screen in 1997. An unadorned aluminum pole replaced the Christmas tree. For details visit this Christian Science Monitor story (which may require an extra click).

Finally, students can reach beyond the solar system to compare Earth-bound holidays to the Wookiees’ Life Day, celebrated first in a 1978 Star Wars holiday special (see here). Have a Merry Life!

Sentences to Get Kids Reading and Writing

Sentence. A Period-to-Period Guide to Building Better Readers and Writers
By Geraldine Woods
(W. W. Norton, 2021 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Rebecca Crockett

I picked up Sentence. A Period-to-Period Guide to Building Better Readers and Writers thinking it would build on the ideas of using mentor sentences for grammar – something I was familiar with from reading Jeff Anderson’s work.

What I found upon reading wasn’t really a grammar book at all, although it has elements of grammar included, but instead a book on using selected sentences to teach the acts of reading and writing themselves.

Part I: Instructional strategies

Author Geraldine Woods breaks her book into two sections. Part I, titled “Instructional Strategies,” gives the methods Woods uses to teach – with the process of each lesson briefly described. She includes the difference between using sentences to teach close reading versus using them to teaching writing. This difference was really key to my understanding as I’d used mentor sentences and texts for writing and grammar for years, but it never occurred to me to use such brief pieces of text to teach reading skills.

Written in a first-person conversational style (a quality I prefer in my professional development books) Sentence feels like getting advice from a respected colleague.

All of Woods’ ideas start with examining the sentences, proceed to students becoming detectives in discovering why the author in question made the choices they did, and end with optional writing and research options for student practice.

As I strive for a more student-centered classroom, I respect her focus on student observations and conversations around these guiding sentences as a jumping-off point to analyzing and ultimately creating sentences themselves.

Part II: A “buffet rather than a five-course meal”

I will admit that I didn’t read Part II “Sentence Elements to Teach” in its entirety (though it is heavily highlighted and flagged where I plan to implement lessons with my students).

This part is described by the author herself as a “buffet rather than a five-course meal” where “you can select just what your class needs and your schedule permits” (xvi).

With sub-sections devoted to structure, diction, sound, connections, and comparisons, Woods has grouped her sentence types in a format that is easy to navigate so teachers can utilize those types that their standards require or students show a need for.

In a few cases, she has coined her own terminology for sentence constructions students should notice and be able to imitate for their own uses, such as pocket structure to describe a sentence “containing two expressions of the same idea” (64).

It is evident that Woods is a master of her craft given the depth and sequencing she is able to provide. Each element described, whether parallel structure or synesthesia, contains optional introduction activities and a lesson plan based upon focus sentences (that includes both brief and extended context for sentences depending upon the teacher’s purpose), as well as specific questions to ask to deepen student understanding.

That would be enough to make this an oft-referenced book in the classroom, but Woods doesn’t stop there, instead continuing with supplemental material based upon different focus sentences, but which includes how to incorporate the teaching of specific grammatical elements and rhetoric! She ends by offering writing options and sometimes research pieces as well.

I appreciated that the appendices allow for searching by theme, genre, and alphabetically by author/text, but as a middle and high school teacher, I especially loved that she asterisks the texts she successfully used with younger students.

As I outlined my teaching year, I made space for Sentence. A Period-to-Period Guide to Building Better Readers and Writers. Knowing that I can have a stockpile of quality sentences that students can easily gain access to while working on increasingly deeper reading, writing, and yes, grammar skills, is reassuring.

I value the work Geraldine Woods has done in creating Sentence and the expertise she provides to teachers less experienced with this method of teaching.

Rebecca Crockett is currently an English teacher for grades seven and nine in north central Idaho. A fourteen-year teaching veteran, she has taught at both the elementary and secondary levels. She is an avid reader, curriculum planner, and sometimes writer for her own enjoyment and to practice what she preaches. Summers find her devouring professional development books to improve her craft; thus she has written many reviews for MiddleWeb.

Prepping New Teachers to Fully Serve ELLs

A MiddleWeb Blog

I have four sons. Three of them are pretty laid-back. The fourth, however, is an “over-planner.” I love him, but he kind of drives me a little crazy.

In the car, while the rest of us are looking out the window or jamming out to tunes, he’s studying the road atlas, mapping our route, and calculating our arrival time. Each night he can be found at the kitchen table reviewing and updating his planner with upcoming assignments, sports practices, projects, and personal goals.

A few weeks ago, he asked me what my New Year’s resolutions were going to be. I frowned and grumbled something about it not even being December yet. He paused, looked at me, and replied with too much wisdom and seriousness for a teenager:

“Dad…setting goals is the first step to accomplishing them.”



Dad’s resolution: Better prepare new teachers to support ELLs

I currently work with a large number of college students who will formally enter the teaching profession within the next year. Some of them spend a few hours in local classrooms assisting students who need a bit of extra help; others are in full-time internships with veteran mentor teachers.

Whether these soon-to-be teachers are spending an hour or all day with students, the question I hear the most from each of them is: “How can I better support my students who are English language learners?”

It’s an appropriate (and urgent) concern, particularly if we consider the following:

  • Currently, English language Learners (ELL’s) constitute 10 percent of the total student population.
  • ELLs are the fastest-growing student population in the nation, and it’s estimated that by 2025 one out of four students in classrooms across the country will be an English learner.
  • It can take as much as 5-7 years for language learners to develop the language and skills needed for full engagement in academic study in the new language.
  • Many teachers feel uncertain, ill-prepared and under-supported as they try to help ELLs succeed in school.
  • Educators must cultivate specific knowledge, skills, and pedagogical practices unique to meeting the needs of students whose first language is not English.

In many cases, the skills that teachers are in need of the most are the ones they know least about.  That’s why – for the upcoming calendar year – my goal will be to help my new educators be better equipped to meet the needs of their English language learners.


It’s important to acknowledge the emerging trend in the Language Specialist community to refer to these students as “multilingual learners” or MLs to emphasize the equal value of other/home languages. Also, while my focus here is preparing new general education teachers, I want to call attention to the MiddleWeb blog The Unstoppable ML Teacher where you can browse more than 70 insightful how-to articles on inclusion and support for language learners, written with both language specialists and general ed teachers in mind.


Where do I (we) start?

Over the past several weeks I’ve been trying to consolidate suggestions and strategies for supporting students whose first language is not English from (a) veteran teachers with decades of experience working with ELLs and (b) an ever-evolving body of research related to language acquisition and instructional support of language.  The result is a work-in-progress resource collection that…

  • helps teachers consider crucial instructional components underscored by research;
  • provides a menu/examples of specific strategies/approaches used by teachers in schools.

It is crucial, however, that teachers don’t lump all of their language learners into one group and provide the same generic supports to all, for every task. Instead, the goal should be to examine each student’s individual strengths and anticipated struggles based on the demands of individual tasks.

So far the areas I am trying to address include the following:

►Activating and Building Students’ Background Knowledge

According to Keppler (2016), in order to help students maximize the content, skills, and language of a lesson, teachers must help their students draw on prior knowledge and provide them sufficient front-end experience with a foundational concept from which to build further knowledge and skills.

Strategies for – and examples of – activating/building background knowledge include pre-teaching vocabulary, Realia, anticipation guides, and a number of other approaches that can be found here.

►Comprehensible Input

For students to experience success while acquiring  a language, they must be able to understand what they hear or read (Krashen, 2017). To help English Language learners be successful, educators must implement techniques that are designed to improve comprehensibility.

Adjusting teacher talk, learning games, tailoring instruction, and a variety of other strategies that help make content more comprehensible can be found here.

►Helping ELLs Develop Learning Strategies

Despite the language barrier, ELLs can and will learn and excel, given appropriate instruction, support, and assistance. Educators must recognize that as their students are learning English, they must also develop strategies to critically analyze and effectively learn, as all students must do. (Vogt & Eschevarria, 2008).

Strategies and examples of learning strategies such as metacognitive checks, directed reading, sketchnotes, and a variety of other approaches can be found here.



ELLs are our students, too

Though each of my four sons stems from the same genetic pool, they are far from identical in their interests, abilities or struggles. Every single one, however, brings something unique to the table. And each is in our family’s sphere of responsibility.

The same can – and must – be said of our English language learners. Each one has intellectual gifts and acquired skills and possesses a unique experience and perspective. As general education teachers, it’s our task to make each lesson fully accessible and equally challenging academically, and to seek the support we need to help each student build on existing knowledge and develop strategies that allow them to fully engage as learners.

With the new year approaching and our populations of English learners growing, what more important resolution could we make?

(Watch for Part 2 of Curtis Chandler’s post on this topic, in early January.)

References

Help Readers Learn ‘Strategic Processing’

A MiddleWeb Blog

John Hattie’s research puts student willingness to “own” learning near the top of success indicators. But how do we get them there? GRR is a key strategy. In a year-long series, two literacy coaches explore ways to make Gradual Release of Responsibility part of everyday practice.

By Sunday Cummins and Julie Webb

Which response would you rather hear when you lean in to confer with a student reading a recent NEWSELA article?

YOU: “Tell me a little bit about what you are learning…”

STUDENT:

1. “Animals in the ocean move in the same ways.”

2. “Scientists from all over the world have combined their data on how animals in the ocean move and have been surprised to find out that some animals that seem very different actually move in similar ways. For example…”

The latter, right? But for many of our students, the former response might be more likely. If this is the case, you might follow with a prompt like, “Tell me more about that” or “What have you learned that’s important about this?” or “What are you doing to make sense of this part of the article that you just read?” Continue listening and assessing.

If you affirm that the student is not noticing and recalling key details in the informational text – or thinking about why particular details are important – you may need to shift into the “I DO” or focused instruction phase of the gradual release of responsibility.

This may occur in the moment, during that reading conference with that individual student, or it might occur as part of a mini-lesson for a small or large group that has similar needs.

Why model strategic processing for the student?

There are a variety of reasons why a student may not be engaged in the strategic processing necessary to make sense of a source. Truthfully, we can never fully know what that student is thinking. We can only surmise from what they have shared with us (orally or in writing) and identify teaching points they may need.

Chances are, if a student is not engaged in a type of strategic processing (during reading, writing, math, etc.), it is because they don’t know what they don’t know. They’ve never experienced that type of processing; they’ve never thought about making sense of a source or a problem in that way.

When you model strategic processing for a student, you are creating an experience that can serve as an anchor for that student’s thinking, an experience they can draw on when they strategically process text on their own.

This implies, though, that the student needs to be a fully engaged partner when you model. While you are modeling, they need to be observing closely, connecting to what they already know about making sense of a text, and adding to what they can do to problem solve.

What should the teacher’s “modeling/connecting” include?

There are three important parts of the modeling/connecting phase:

► A teacher-led explanation of the strategic processing that includes the WHAT and WHY as well as the HOW and WHEN.

► A teacher “think aloud” that makes your strategic processing visible to the student.

► Opportunities for the students to engage, bringing some of what they already know to the conversation.

Before we share an example of what this looks like, take a moment to read this excerpt from the NEWSELA article “From turtles to whales, marine animals have the same moves”:

An international team of researchers published a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The scientists used tracking-device data to better understand the [animals’] motion in the ocean. They compared the daily movement patterns of thousands of animals across 50 different species. They found that even though some sea creatures are much bigger than others, many of them share the same basic choreography.

What follows is an example of how a teacher might model “determining what’s important while reading” during a conference with a student. (This could easily be adapted to a whole group mini-lesson.) Notice how in the beginning the teacher offers an invitation to engage in a partnership.

Then the teacher moves into the What, the Why, and the How before thinking aloud using “I” statements. The When concludes the teacher’s modeling. Importantly, along the way the teacher draws the student(s) into connecting and adding. The close includes an invitation to move into the next stage of the gradual release of responsibility, from “I DO” to “WE DO.”

A Sample Modeling-Connecting Partnership

Teacher: It sounds like you have a general sense of what this article is about – how some ocean animals move in similar ways. Would it be okay if we looked together at the paragraph you just read and thought about what we are learning?

Student: [Nods.]

Teacher: [Explains WHAT.] Frequently, in articles like this, there is a LOT of information the author wants to share. It might feel overwhelming. Have you ever read a source and thought, “Oh this has a LOT of information?”

Student: Yes! That article we read about weather last week had a lot of information. I couldn’t remember it all!

Teacher: [Explains HOW.] Exactly. When I’m reading an article with a lot of information like this one, I try to remember what my purpose is. I think in this case, our purpose is to learn new information about research on ocean animals, to learn information we didn’t know before. Does that make sense? This helps me think about which details I need to think about more carefully. So while I’m reading, I’m going to be asking myself, “What is new information that seems kind of important to think about?”

Student: [Jots question “What is new information?” on a sticky note.]

Teacher: [Explains WHY.] If I notice and think about the details that are new to me, I can compare the details to what I already know. This will help me understand and remember what I read. This may also help me think about what’s important in the source.

I’m going to keep my purpose in mind – What is information that I didn’t know already? – and as I read, I’m going to notice and think through this new information.

Watch me do this. [Reads aloud the first sentence.] An international team of researchers published a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [Pauses to think aloud.] There’s a lot of information in this sentence that feels new to me. Just the first part, “international team of researchers,” is a mouthful, huh? I’m going to think about the meaning of this phrase. I notice the word “international” so I’m thinking that these people are from all over the world; the word “team” makes me think they are working together or collaborating. That’s pretty cool that a group of researchers from all over the world are working together, huh?

When I look at the next phrase, published a new paper, I think about what I know about getting writing published. It’s a lot of work to get published and you have to think that what you are sharing is very important for others to know about, maybe even new brilliant information that can change the world. Why else would you go to the trouble?

Looking at the last part – in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. I realize I have no idea what this is; I’ve never heard of this. Have you? What do you think this is?

Student: Maybe some kind of group. Maybe they do something with science because it has the word science in it?

Teacher: I was thinking that, too. We may not know for sure but we can draw a conclusion that this is some type of organization that publishes scientists’ work.

[Sums up learning.] So what have we learned from this one sentence? I’m thinking that this group of researchers has gotten together to share some very important information in a publication that reaches a large group of people who are interested in science.

This makes me want to read the rest of the article to find out what they learned and why it’s so important. What about you? What are you thinking right now? [Alternatively, the teacher could start with “What did we just learn from this sentence?” supporting the student’s response by adding what the teacher learned as well.]

Student: I’m just wondering where the researchers are from and which animals they researched.

Teacher: Right? So thinking carefully about what we are learning from this sentence led us to ask more questions. That definitely makes me want to read on, and I can use those questions as a purpose for reading, too.

[Sums up strategic processing, reviewing WHY.] So what did we just do as readers right here? We knew our purpose – to read for new information; we read a sentence and then reread that sentence thinking about the parts and what those parts mean.

We also summarized our learning. I think tonight I’ll be able to go home and tell someone about what this group of researchers has done, and if I keep reading like this, I’ll have a lot to say about that!

[Alternatively, the teacher could start this part by asking, “In your own words, can you summarize what we just did to make sense of this complex sentence? And why is this important?” and support the student’s response as needed.]

[Explains WHEN.] When you are reading, make sure you keep your purpose for reading in mind. Think of that purpose as a question like, “What am I learning that is new information?” And when you feel like you come across information that helps you respond to that question, slow down and think through that information – maybe a chunk at a time like we did, asking yourself “What am I learning that I can remember and use to understand the source better?” You may not understand everything you read, but you’ll have a better understanding than before.

Want to try doing this together for the next few sentences?

Remember the ‘release’ in Gradual Release of Responsibility

In our reading conference example the teacher chose to use focused instruction, acting as a model who invites the student into a teaching-learning partnership.

The teacher tapped into what she knows about her students and strategic processing with few assumptions, beginning by asking the student to share their best thinking. This serves as an entry point for focused instruction, with the teacher nurturing the partnership along the way with clear explanations of the What, Why, How, and When of this type of strategic processing.

Many teachers employ focused instruction with a strong sense of the What and How of a strategy, but sometimes neglect to explain Why the strategy matters and When learners can make best use of it to help them grow. These are critical steps in the teaching-learning partnership because they help us move toward the goal of fostering independent learners.

The last statement in the student-teacher discussion, “Want to try doing this together for the next few sentences?” is an invitation to continue the partnership, releasing some control of leading the learning to the student. We ultimately want our students to continue to learn on their own – without our guidance and support – and to recognize opportunities to try this type of strategic processing on their own, applying it flexibly at points of need.

Learning partnerships can be challenging

Work like this is never really over and we recognize that it’s certainly easier said than done. Teaching-learning partnerships can be challenging because we as teachers can’t always anticipate what students will say, do, or need in a learning opportunity.

The best we can do is to balance being prepared for different scenarios while staying responsive and teaching in the moment. This becomes easier with intentional study and deliberate practice, but it’s almost certainly guaranteed to be a little messy and we’re okay with that.


Sunday Cummins, Ph.D, is a literacy consultant and author and has been a teacher and literacy coach in public schools. Her work focuses on supporting teachers, schools and districts as they plan and implement assessment driven instruction with complex informational sources including traditional texts, video and infographics. She is the author of several professional books, including Close Reading of Informational Sources  (Guilford, 2019). Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @SundayCummins. See her previous MiddleWeb articles here.

Julie Webb, Ed.D., is a former classroom teacher and reading specialist in Title I schools who now consults with districts offering training and coaching in literacy instruction and assessment practices. Julie hosts LitCentric Radio, a literacy podcast that features powerful reading comprehension and writing lessons using children’s literature. She holds a doctorate in Educational Leadership from University of the Pacific and is a National Board Certified Teacher (Literacy). Visit her website and subscribe to her podcast. Follow her on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

School Libraries Build Lifelong Reading Skills

By Katie Durkin

I distinctly remember the day one of my students asked which bin they were allowed to use to check out books from my classroom library.

As all of my titles have always been organized by genre with various shelves and displays – I was surprised to hear this question. I didn’t have any books in bins in my classroom.

This student explained he was only allowed to read certain books from certain bins in previous grades and proceeded to tell me his ‘label,’ signifying which books were deemed appropriate for him to read.

Conversations like this one have occurred year after year with my students who aren’t sure how to navigate my classroom library, and in turn, our school library. They don’t know about “browsing” because they’ve been relegated to choosing reading material from a particular bin with a particular label.

Learning reading skills in the school library

Because of these conversations, I have made it a priority to teach students how to browse for books in a library – especially our school library. My 7th grade students this year haven’t been able to fully use a classroom or school library for a long time. With the mitigation strategies in place for COVID-19, books were placed on hold from the school library and directly delivered to classrooms. Many classroom libraries were not used at all.

This year my students will be visiting our Library Learning Commons, or LLC, once a month to browse for books. There are three goals I have for students: (1) listen to book recommendations from our school library media specialists; (2) browse the stacks to preview books of interest to take home, and (3) build the skills they need to independently find books of choice in the future.

Monthly school library visits

Coordinating with my amazing library media specialists, I plan to visit the school library at least once a month this year. These visits usually correspond with the end of a unit, where students are reflecting on previous reading goals and setting new ones.

I arrange each visit weeks ahead of time to make sure it fits within my schedule for curricular requirements and to make sure the library staff will be available for book talks and to answer questions from students.

For each visit, we follow a similar routine. To start, our school librarians usually pull books from the stacks related to each unit. We spend the first 15 minutes with our librarians, where they “book talk” high-interest texts. It is important for students to listen to recommendations from our specialists because they know these books and understand students’ interests.

These model book talks pique students’ interests, and in many cases students know exactly what book they want to check out before the book talks are over. Often multiple copies of a title are available, so more than one student can read the book at the same time.

Reading suggestions provided by librarians

My school librarians also coordinate with me ahead of time to see if there are specific topics or titles that may be of interest to students in each class. For example, in our nonfiction unit, students were asked to find a title about a topic of interest to them. In one class, I have a number of students who are interested in sports.

For this class, the school librarians “book talked” Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School by Steve Sheinkin, as well as Rising Above: How 11 Athletes Overcame Challenges in Their Youth to Become Stars by Gregory Zuckerman.

By the end of that particular class, all the copies of these books were checked out. My students enjoy listening to adults discuss their own reading life while they also provide a plethora of recommendations.

A whole library to explore!

Book talks from the school librarians are an essential part of our visits, but I also want students to practice skills needed to browse for books independently. This means leaving time for them to browse different options for the unit as well as books of choice.

One skill I want my students to practice during this time is previewing a book. This is a skill that can be practiced throughout their school library visit to determine whether or not they want to check the book out. While students can practice previewing a text with myself, a library media specialist or a peer, my goal this year is to have each student be able to preview and choose books independently before school ends.

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I teach students that previewing a book can be a very individual practice, based on personal preferences. I share the three things I look at when previewing a book:

(1) the cover,
(2) the blurb on the inside cover or back, and
(3) the first line of the story.

Many students are shocked when I admit that the cover is one of the things I look for in a good book to read for fun, but I believe covers are designed with purpose. While we may not be judging a book by its cover, we are looking for book cover clues that might pique our interest enough to want to read the text.

Previewing a text is a ‘mobile’ skill – one that helps students build the habits of lifelong readers. I want them to be able to transfer this skill to other places, such as public libraries and bookstores.

Students can adapt previewing to match their preferences

Before students are sent off to preview texts on their own, I remind students of the different ways they could preview a text, and we co-construct diverse previewing reminders. Some of my students will only read a blurb of a book if they like the title. Other students will look at the length of the book. One year a student told me they read the last chapter of the book first so they would have an idea of what happened at the end.

I don’t believe it matters what students look for when they preview the text. I want to make sure they have the skills to determine why they want to read a book and have the opportunity to practice this skill, especially in a larger setting like the school library.

I know that helping students learn how to independently navigate the classroom and school libraries will take time, but I also believe with continued practice and consistent visits to the school library this year, my students will be able to make good reading choices in the future – a develop some passion for book hunting.

By going to the school library, they also get the opportunity to explore various topics they may be learning in other classes. For example, in the Science class this year, a major unit for the students is ecology. They are learning about food chains and biospheres. The school library has many more options for learning about this topic than my classroom library.

The school library: An essential resource

I believe taking my students to the school library at least once a month is an important routine in my class, even though I have a robust classroom library. Both of these spaces enrich students’ reading lives, especially since they are able to offer students a myriad of options for their choices in reading.

In essence, the school library serves a similar function as classroom libraries in terms of leveraging students’ interests. But the school library has the space and broad subject-area expertise that I cannot always offer my students.

I want my middle schoolers to have the skills they need to be lifelong readers, and ready access to books is not always going to be part of their daily experience. Utilizing the school library now, and visiting it frequently, lets students learn from our librarians’ experiences with reading, while providing time to practice important skills they will need to grow as readers who understand the intrinsic value of books throughout a lifetime.


Katie Durkin (@kmerz610) has been teaching English Language Arts to middle school students for a decade and currently teaches 7th grade Reading Workshop at public Middlebrook School in Wilton, Connecticut.

Katie is a zealous reader of middle grades and young adult books and enjoys sharing her love and passion for reading with her students. She is a doctoral student at Northeastern University studying the impact of classroom libraries on middle school students’ reading engagement. She is also the 2020 recipient of the Edwyna Wheadon Postgraduate Training Scholarship from the National Council of Teachers of English.