Know Better, Do Better
There are a few reasons for my why–why I’m on a mission to help as many teachers as I can to refine their craft and feel more confident in doing so. Why I feel it’s important to help teachers now, when the Internet already inundated with educators sharing their thoughts, tips, products, and even outfits. Why, in spite of this, I still felt compelled to share my own tips and experiences. (Spoiler alert–it’s all in an effort to help YOU, to support and guide you in navigating this messy and very complicated world of literacy instruction).
Today, I’m going to share one of those “why” reasons with you. My hope is that in sharing this, you will better understand who I am as a person and as an educator, beyond the small bit on my “About Me” page. This post is much deeper than that.
So grab a cup of coffee, and allow me to further introduce myself.
Me, in a nutshell
Ever since beginning my formal path to teaching, now almost 30 years ago, I’ve done nothing but soak up learning. I’ve learned a lot about instruction (even math!), questioning, standards, feedback, technology, the power of words, assessment, and most especially, literacy. I have always felt an enormous and heavy responsibility to know as much as I can about reading and writing instruction so that I can deliver the best possible instruction to my students. I believe that literacy is the greatest gift–and the greatest right–that any person can have. If you can read and write, you can do anything.
Every year of teaching, I wished I could reach into my brain as it would be many years from then, so I could know then what I know now. Every year, I knew there was so much more I needed to learn.
Except that feeling never, ever goes away. I still constantly feel like there’s more to learn. If you follow the Enneagram, I have “5” tendencies, so this is a big part of my personality. And so, I continue to learn and grow every day, even 30 years later, and have no intention of stopping. As coaching guru Steve Barkley says, “there is no apex to teaching.” He means that there is always more. He means we must always keep moving forward, always continue to grow.
One reason my need for learning is ever-present; one reason for my why:
I’ve always loved school (well, maybe not the middle school years, but luckily they went by fast). I love, love, love learning new things. So I knew pretty early on that I’d go on to become a teacher. I’m also pretty type A, so if I decide to do something, I go into it full-tilt, and push myself to do whatever it is the best I can.
My first few years of teaching were not unsuccessful. As a beginning teacher, I got great feedback from parents, colleagues, and administrators. My college courses prepared me pretty well, luckily, and I actually had built a strong base of knowledge and understanding of pedagogy. I had excellent mentor teachers. Way back in college, I had also begun reading professional books quite prolifically. I knew, of course, that I had a very long way to go, but I was already on a path to constant learning. I felt pretty good.
Until year 4, when I met J. (Although she’s now about 25 years old, I will refrain from saying her real name–but I will never, ever forget it). J was in my kindergarten class, and this was my 5th year as a teacher. All my students were progressing well, and becoming strong little readers and writers. But not J. For all my effort, she just wasn’t progressing. She continued to struggle to learn her letters and sounds, and she never did become much of a reader.
I knew it wasn’t her, it was me. I always knew.
When she looked at me, lost, with those enormous brown eyes of hers, I knew what she was thinking: I was not equipped to teach her in the way that she needed. I know her mother thought it, too. This bothered me to no end. It wasn’t for lack of trying–I tried everything I knew how to do. I sought help from colleagues, from our literacy specialist, from training, and from professional books. But I still failed her, and it will forever haunt me. I just didn’t know then what I know now. To this day, I wish that I could go back in time, because now, I’m certain I would be able to help her.
Now, I would know where to begin. Back then, I didn’t. Not really.
So, from the moment I realized this was a me issue, not a J issue, I vowed to work even harder to become the strongest literacy teacher I could be. I vowed to never stop learning about literacy instruction.
And that’s just what I did.
I have attended countless literacy conferences and professional development sessions, out of my own pocket, for decades. I have observed other teachers not just in my own schools, but in other schools and in other districts. I participate in seminars, webinars, and book studies. I listen to educational podcasts on my daily hour-long commute to school. And oh, the books! I believe I might actually be single-handedly keeping Stenhouse, Corwin, Jossey-Bass, ASCD, and Heinemann in business. My husband also believes this to be true, since he works from home and gets all the Amazon deliveries.
I’m always open to trying something new, tweaking something already in place, or even trashing something altogether. I never jump on any bandwagons. Instead, when I learn something new, I synthesize it with previous learning, my own 20 years of teaching kids, and the experience of watching my own daughters become readers–one very easily, and one that struggled for a while.
My motto is, how do you know it’ll work unless you try it?
That’s how we add to our teacher toolbelt to become dynamic, knowledgeable, and well-equipped educators. The kind of teacher our students need us to be.
The problem, I know, is time. These days, most of us just don’t have the time to read all the professional books we would like to, go to conferences, or observe others.
So, as most of my learning comes from professional books, I want to share the ones that have been most influential to me, from the beginning of my career until right now. I have read, with no exaggeration, hundreds of professional books, so it’s very hard to distill my list down to the most influential.
I tried to keep the list to 10, but couldn’t quite do it. These books have led me down paths to much more reading and learning about each topic, and have also led me on different tangents that have all deepened my pedagogical understanding. I’m no affiliate marketer, so I get absolutely nothing from sharing these titles. They are just good, sound instructional mentors that I would like to share. As a literacy coach, I’m here to share what I’ve learned with you!
A short list of influential professional books across my career:
- Phonics They Use, by Pat Cunningham. This old, 1995 edition is still on my shelf. This was either a text used in one of my college courses for undergrad work, or one I learned about from that class. I had a lot of training in phonics both in my undergrad and graduate work, so it’s always been a normal and important part of my instruction, especially being a primary teacher for much of my career. I remember reading and referencing it often in my beginning years. Cunningham showed me how important it is to begin with students’ own names for meaningful letter, sound, and grapheme work. Her book was so good that right away I also bought (and STILL use) her Making Words books–all of them. I used these word-building routines both in whole and small groups all the time. Not many years later, I also dug into Words Their Way pretty deeply (and had a lot of professional development on it), which taught me so much more about the scope and sequence of phonics development. And this one on phonemic awareness, which I got at about that same time…probably 2006, helped me understand the development of these skills. I added the plethora of activities in this book all over the place across my instructional week. I remember using the quick assessment in this book A LOT, which gave me the direction I needed to go for my students. This, along with Words Their Way, really helped my students develop as readers and, especially, as writers.
- Interactive Writing, by Fountas and Pinnell, 1999. This was my first year of teaching, and I’m so glad I learned about this component of balanced literacy so early on. I was teaching kindergarten at the time, and I believe to this day that my students learned the most because of interactive writing and shared reading (#6). I did A LOT of interactive writing with my kids that first year. We made so many books, and used them often as shared texts to read. Kids often chose to read them during their own independent reading time, too. This was good, because that first year I had NO MATERIALS. It was an incredibly challenging start. But creating my own reading and writing materials led to powerful, powerful instruction–another lesson I have carried with me all these years.
- Harry Wong’s First Days of School, 2001. I read this one MANY times over the years, and is hands-down one of the best resources out there for getting a well-managed, chaos-free classroom up and running. It’s on its umpteenth edition now, and I cannot recommend it enough to any classroom teacher. If I end up returning to the classroom, I’ll absolutely read the latest edition–it was that good of a start.
- Reading with Meaning, by Debbie Miller. With a publication date of 2002, this was one I read very early on. I was also lucky enough to attend a conference of hers at about the same time. I SOAKED it all in. Even more than an understanding of how comprehension work and authentic texts can be embedded into the day, even more than an incredible sneak peek into an outstanding teacher’s first grade classroom (which was the grade I was teaching at the time), I learned how to create a joyful classroom, and how to really, truly listen and respond to kids. This book showed me how to follow children, to capitalize on their interests, and how to show them that they’re seen as instruction unfolds.
- About the Authors, by Katie Wood Ray. This was published in 2004, but it was probably about 2006 that I read it. By then, I was already several years into my Teachers College writing training (which was THE MOST influential and best training I’ve ever had), so it went hand in hand with all that I had already been learning. This book did for writing what Reading with Meaning did for me for reading. Katie Wood Ray showed me the way to design writing units that were responsive to kids’ ZPD and that illustrated to my students that I valued their thoughts, ideas, and work.
- Read it Again! Revisiting Shared Reading, By Brenda Parkes, published in 2000. Amazon tells me I purchased it in 2008. By that time, I had read other books on this topic, but Parkes showed me, step by step, how to design shared reading and writing lessons that integrated many literacy skills in response to student needs. She was the author that first showed me how easily and naturally these balanced literacy structures fit in across the day, and how easy it is to integrate content into them. This fit beautifully with what I was learning about interactive writing. I’m grateful I took on both of these teaching practices at the same time.
- The Art of Teaching Writing, by Lucy Calkins. This was published in 1994, before I had even graduated high school, but it was still very relevant to deepening my understanding of the writing workshop. I was already deep into my TCRWP writing workshop training, but this book helped me more thoroughly understand the underlying beliefs and benefits to the mini lesson, conferring, and workshop structure. It showed me how to live like a writer and to pass that on to my students, so that they, too, would see themselves as writers. I’ve now gone on to read all of her books, and I’m grateful for them–because of her books, and of course the high-level training, I’ve come to understand–and see for myself– why a workshop approach is so powerful. I even went full-tilt with Daily 5 years later, but went right back to this workshop structure–I found it much more powerful for kids.
- Good Choice! Supporting Independent Reading and Response, by Tony Stead, 2008. SOOOO good. There was so much in here, but what I remember most was learning about text bands and how to set up a classroom library with that in mind. This was the book that made me understand why labeling levels in the classroom library is not helpful, and I’ve never looked back. He’s also fun to listen to if you look him up–I could listen to someone with an Australian accent all day long–and he’s also brilliant and funny!
- Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning, by Peter Johnston. It was published in 2004, but it wasn’t until about 2010 that I read it. I read it three times, back to back, it was such gold. How we say things to kids matters, a lot. I urge everyone to read this tiny but powerful book! He’s also a wonderful, insightful speaker if you have the chance to see him in person.
- Pathways to the Common Core, by Calkins, Ehrenworth, and Lehman. At this time, about 2012, my district was learning all about the new standards that would soon be coming out. This book helped me really understand what was coming, what was expected, what the pitfalls would be, and how to make it all manageable. I felt very ready and very confident when we did finally implement the standards a year later. I ended up reading this at least twice. This was when I was just about ready to move up to 4th grade, so knowing the why behind the standards was unbelievably helpful.
- The Literacy Teacher’s Playbook, 3-6, by Jennifer Serravallo. This one was published in 2013, right around the time I was preparing myself to move from primary to intermediate. (I read the K-2 version a year later, when it came out, just to make sure I didn’t miss anything. They’re almost identical, so no need to read both). It talks all about how to gather multiple, meaningful assessments to get to know your students. This is where she first talked about a whole-book assessment, which would later become the assessment tool she developed not long after. It also laid the groundwork for her later, very excellent book, Understanding Texts and Readers.
- Who’s Doing the Work, by Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris. Published in 2016, this was so good that I led two teacher book studies on it after I read it. I’ve always believed in pushing kids toward independence, so this book, I felt, gave me the thumbs-up in doing that. One small example: I’ve always felt that giving a thorough book introduction during guided reading isn’t quite right. The goal of guided reading is to teach children how to become self-extending, independent readers–so I’ve always felt that rather than spending time introducing the book to kids, I should teach them how to introduce the book (and all books) to themselves. This book didn’t ever talk about book intros specifically, but it’s the pedagogy that the book talked about that made me realize I’m ok to think that way, even if my colleagues don’t agree.
- Disrupting Thinking, by Beers and Probst. This one was published in 2017. I love everything of theirs, and LOVE seeing them present, so I read this one as soon as it came out. I remember thinking “Yes! Finally, these kinds of “go against the norm” conversations are ok!” Beers and Probst make us think more deeply about why we do what we do…and challenge us to think about whether or not we should keep doing it. This is something that jives exactly with my own philosophy. Their BHH close reading strategy is also a major favorite of mine that I use OFTEN with kids!
- Shifting the Balance, again by Burkins and Yaris, 2022. I read this FOUR times: on my own, with a group of teachers, as part of the online class, and again with a group of coaches. No one has done a better job of explaining why we absolutely must listen to what the science of reading tells us–that whole know better, do better idea–but why we also must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. These authors are fellow educators who believe in balance. That yes, we may need to tweak things–even things we’ve held onto for a long time–but no approach is perfect. Kids need a variety of sound, instructional practices. It’s up to us to be the educated teacher to know what those practices are.
There you have it. A learning resume of sorts. I have a feeling that in another decade, or, God willing, three decades, this list will be pages and pages long. Because now, as a literacy coach, I feel an even greater responsibility to learn all that I can, to constantly keep up on the pulse of instruction. I hope to help other teachers learn and grow–and in turn, propel their students forward.
I’m a firm believer in “when we know better, we do better.” Because kids deserve it.
Do you have a literacy puzzle to solve? Contact me to set up a coaching call, so we can think it through together! The first conversation is always free! And, join my private FB group for immediate support from like-minded educators!
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Related posts: To Level or Not to Level?, Kids are Readers, Not Letters, Lesson Planning Tips That Help You Do More, Better [In Less Time] , Getting to Know Your Readers and Writers to Save Time Later, Mastering the Mini Lesson, Why You Need to Do Shared and Interactive Writing, What SOR Tells Us Good Readers Do That’s Completely Wrong, MSV Explained [And Why It’s So Misunderstood]