What About the Other Kids?


I recently read a post-it parking lot graphic from The New Teacher Center in Chicago. On the post-it squares teachers were requesting strategies that would provide equal access to instruction for students with autism and students who are now joining their age-mates in the general education classroom. There is much rethinking about instructional grouping and re-calibration of teacher practice in classrooms from coast to coast.

The Every Student Achieves Act 2015 (ESAA) – reaffirms the goal that every child (including students with diverse learning needs) will achieve a higher level of success in school. Being able to read more complex text, being capable of returning to text to provide evidence for a point of view or position, and building background content knowledge about the world by reading, writing, speaking, and thinking about linear and non-linear text requires students to develop high level thinking skills.

Not to be overlooked is the parallel goal of building a community of learners who help each other in learning teams, make good decisions, and respect the points of view of others within the group. Teachers are going to continue to be very busy building a classroom community that is responsive to all students.

Unfortunately, not all students are hard-wired with the thinking skills they need to achieve academically and socially in a classroom setting when they enter school. Students bring their academic strengths and weaknesses (data) with them. Students told to “think about” their classwork probably already are, to the best of their ability. Students want to please their teachers by bringing their best selves into your classroom and want to experience the joy of achievement within their community.

But, thinking is not a concrete concept for many students. Can an abstract concept like thinking be made more concrete for young learners? What does “thinking” look like when you are doing it? How can teachers make the processes that go on inside a student’s brain visible to the student who needs to understand and control brainwork?

The executive brain functions that are essential and contribute mightily to a student’s achievement include prioritizing (figuring out what’s more important), organizing (moving and sorting information), using working memory (juggling information in the brain), shifting (looking again, in a brand-new way), and self-monitoring of progress (recognizing and fixing the most common kinds of mistakes). (Meltzer, 2010)

SMARTS is a program developed by Lynn Meltzer, PhD, Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Institute for Learning, and Development (ILD) and ResearchILD in Lexington, Massachusetts. Dr. Meltzer ‘s extensive publications and professional presentations include articles, chapters, and books relating to the assessment and treatment of learning difficulties, with an emphasis on metacognition, strategy use, cognitive flexibility, self-concept and resilience. The SMARTS program comprises two curricula that provide teachers with lesson plans and worksheets for teaching EF strategies that build academic success while promoting supportive peer mentoring and peer coaching relationships. You can download a free SMARTS unit now from their website, www.researchild.org.

Coming next…

Metacognition: Thinking about “thinking” as you are doing it


Meltzer, L. (2010). Promoting executive function in the classroom. New York: Guilford Press.

Fear and Trepidation Relief: Un-packing the PARCC Assessment

A Parent/Teacher Guide to understanding 3 essential instructional shifts in teaching and learning

     Very good information, if poorly distributed, can have confusing and damaging consequences. In such cases one must deconstruct a previously held set of beliefs and reconstruct a new way of thinking about them. This is what we are currently engaged in as public education is shifting students toward increased competence in engagement with “thinking; students learn to build a meta-cognitive file cabinet, filled with file folders of things to think about.

     Love it or hate it, some iteration of student assessment will continue. I personally like the elevation of student performance expectations and think they are long overdue. Sending students off to the world of college or careers requires that they possess a developed system of thinking and communicating.

Teachers have long followed a traditional instructional pedagogy that supported teaching students at their instructional level; material that is not too hard, but which contain some comprehension challenges. When students read at their instructional level they read with 90% fluency and can understand the language, syntax, and meaning of that particular piece of text.

The instructional level text is a comfortable place for teachers and students to dwell. Frustrational level texts, on the other hand, are like the new kids that moved onto your well established block growing up. We don’t immediately like them, but we don’t quite know why. We wonder if they are here to stay. We wonder if we should get to know them. kids-moving-house-bill4-640x2901

The PARRC assessment is not unlike those new kids. The assessment measures students’ progress toward meeting grade level Common Core performance standards. Frustrational level texts have moved into the classroom as the dominant instructional content to prepare students, through reading, to learn to think like scientists, world geographers and culture specialists, mathematicians, technologists, and engineers. These texts have replaced the literary story-based reading passages that predominated in earlier testing formats.

With the Common Core standards, texts with unfamiliar vocabulary embedded within a reading framework that does not contain characters, setting, conflict, and conflict resolution have moved into the literacy block and for good reason.

One of the factors that holds many students back from participating fully in collaborative conversations with classmates and providing a framework for their thinking is a lack of background knowledge on a subject. Providing text that increases students’ knowledge of the world with the language used to talk and write about the text requires a different kind of teacher preparedness.

Discomfort that accompanies transition from the known to the unknown is universal, and that includes getting used to a new assessment to measure student progress. There is s murmur of angst from “sea to shining sea” about the PARRC. Many are discomforted. But do we know why?

As a parent, a teacher, teacher-trainer, and an interested observer of the “big picture” of educational reform, our fear and trepidation over Common Core and the PARCC is over-rated.

To be continued…

The High Quality Literacy Instruction Handbook

In the coming weeks I want to have an open discussion with my readers about the Chicago Public School’s High Quality Literacy Instruction Handbook, the development of which I had direct involvement. Before I dive deeper in, I would like to offer the handbook to you all to read and digest. Think of this as your homework assignment. More to come soon.

High Quality Literacy Instruction Handbook

Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)

Learning and Doing Science With a Lot of Help from Literacy 

I knew that I had to build immediate credibility with my audience to prepare for my role as a professional developer of lead high school science teachers and science department chairpersons in Chicago who were learning to integrate literacy strategies with science content. My own science content knowledge was mostly acquired through my experiences as an adult learner, not through formal school exposure to much more than biology. Monthly meetings with a dedicated cross-section of high school science teachers required that I provide expertise in my field (literacy) and practice with blending our collective worlds of science and literacy.



I decided to take the same science logic and reasoning test, the Prairie State Achievement Examination (PSAE), as Chicago high school 11th graders were required to take in the spring. I wanted to determine the thinking strategies I would need in place of neither deep nor broad science background knowledge to meet the challenges of the assessment. The good news was that I passed the test. I was able to access science content by using research-supported reading strategies before, during, and after reading the questions posed. What I needed to think about while taking the Prairie State Exam was what good readers do to learn from text and graphics. Good readers have a toolkit of strategies they are able to apply to multi-genre texts. Students should be taught to apply effective literacy strategies, which are essential instructional tools for independently accessing and understanding rigorous text.

I shared my thinking strategies for learning from science texts in those monthly meetings with key teachers in Chicago high school science departments. Much of that work is embodied in The High Quality Literacy Instruction Handbook that I co-authored for Chicago Public Schools (Google). The New Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for grades 6-12 clearly provide evidence that the hedges that separated literacy and science in instructional settings have been trimmed. We continue to be good neighbors. Continue to visit http://www.project-collage.com/ to learn about the literacy practices that will enable students to read, write, communicate and think as a scientist would.



Spare the Rod– Period

It is tough teacher work to deconstruct negative behaviors and construct positive behaviors in classrooms, but it has to be done.

Patience, tolerance, consistency, and fairness are essential teacher traits when building a Positive Behavior and Interventions System (PBIS).

Please take a few minutes to read the article below and join the conversation: How can we further work to disconnect the dangerous thinking of school as a form of prison?

Handcuffs, Leg Shackles and Tasers: The New Face of Punishment in the Public Schools


In Case You Missed It

Early last month I had a chance to present two seminars at the Illinois Reading Council’s Fall Seminar and the response was overwhelmingly positive. The educators I spoke with were eager to learn about how we reached this point in education and where we can go from here. This is a dialogue I want to continue through the blog and in order to do so I would like to share both PowerPoint presentation decks with you, my reader. Please feel free to download and absorb the information, then post your thoughts here so we can keep these important discussions going:

Are We There Yet? A Summary of the 25th Annual Learning Differences Conference, Harvard Graduate School of Education: Overview of 25 Years of Research and Practice

Building a Community of Learners: One Promise at a Time

The Harvard PD you might have missed. You’re in luck, I was there.

After leaving Chicago Public Schools and a collective teaching career than spanned several decades, I decided to do two things: The first was to re-engage with my growing family and a significant friend base. The second was to enjoy a closer reading of the professional development that most influenced my professional career, and provided the fuel for the most important work that we teachers do – maximizing opportunities for all students to build participate fully in a literate learning community.

While preparing for a workshop I am writing, I came to find myself discovering, as often happens in close reading, the authors’ purpose loudly and clearly the second time I read through the Harvard Institute material. Although I am aware that it is somewhat cliché to say “A-ha!” at a moment of unanticipated discovery, I shouted to the thinking partner in my brain that I had unearthed two big reasons why we need Common Core Standards in my research.

It was back in 2006 when I was a delegate to the Critical Issues in Urban Special Education: Improving Outcomes for Students With Disabilities at Harvard University that presenters and participants sought to share the findings of extensive research related to serving the needs of all children – from birth to graduation through daily lectures and small group discussions. Two robust themes emerged and were interwoven throughout the research presented – relationships and access. Both are critical factors in ensuring that all students benefit from their schooling experiences.

Want to learn more?

Plan to attend my session at “Harvesting the Fruits of Literacy“, the 2014 Illinois Reading Council’s Conference
Are We There Yet? A Summary of the 25th Annual Learning 
Differences Conference, Harvard Graduate School of Education: 
Overview of 25 Years of Research and Practice

Friday, October 3rd, 2014 from 3-4 PM

More info can be found here

A Relevant Retrospective on Critical Issues in Urban Special Education

In 2006 I was among the delegation of administrative and curricular leaders from Chicago Public Schools selected to attend the Critical Issues in Urban Special Education: Improving Outcomes for Students With Disabilities Institute at Harvard University collaborative workshop. Following the multi-day institute I wrote a summary report of the Institute from my literacy point of view and shared with the Chicago Public Schools’ participants and the Institute presenters and facilitators.

It is now 2014, nine years since the Critical Issues Institute, and four years into the shift to Common Core thinking and practice. I am like-minded with those who think that improved learning outcomes and high levels of literacy teaching and learning for our students are not present in enough urban classrooms.

Too many students in urban classrooms continue to experience deeply rooted instructional practices that inhibit rather than promote strategic, constructive, and effective thinking.

As a partner advocate for improved teaching and learning, I have an important question for you:

Does your school structure and classroom support system “minimize the impact of disability and maximize opportunities for children with disabilities to participate in general education in their natural community?” Not sure?

The big ideas and recommendations from the following panel of expert presenters from Critical Issues in Urban Special Education: Improving Outcomes for Students With Disabilities Institute 2006 (Harvard Graduate School of Education: Programs in Professional Education) should be of interest to you as you think about your response:

 The comments on this blog are gleaned from my written notes, companion support literature and power-point hand-outs from Critical Issues in Urban Special Education: Improving Outcomes for Students With Disabilities Institute 2006 (Harvard Graduate School of Education: Programs in Professional Education).

Beginning a Conversation on Literacy

My contribution to the literacy focus in Chicago Public Schools began in 2002 as a writer of professional development for high school reading specialists. I was, as Founding Director of the Center for Literacy Tim Shanahan then said, “one of the crew members tasked with flying the literacy plane while still building it.” Since that time, I have remained actively engaged in the literacy movement in Chicago Public Schools as a researcher and creator of professional development for literacy leaders, classroom teachers, and parents.

 After achieving National Board Certification in English Language Arts in 2010, I chose to stay in the classroom to construct a learning community within a Chicago neighborhood public school. I switched from a teacher trainer’s role into the more challenging role of a primary grade teacher during the transition between old state standards and Common Core State Standards.

 Armed with assessment instruments and data reports, I set out to create a community of readers, writers, and thinkers. I brought with me the institutional knowledge and history of literacy work in CPS in response to No Child Left Behind legislation. I chose strategies and activities among the science-supported and sustainable literacy practices that were seminal elements of Chicago Public Schools’ literacy foci (2001- 2010) and integrated them into a sustained instructional literacy flow. Through this effort, I discovered learning practices that “really worked” to support citizenship, partnership and optimal learning in my urban public school classroom.

 Since I also believe there is still some juice to be squeezed from the “literacy aviation” metaphor and, since the evolution of flight is not unlike the evolution of increased national performance standards in literacy, I am busy refining and redesigning our “craft” for the benefit of school administrators and literacy practitioners. (with CCSS we are all literacy teachers). But mostly, this work is dedicated to students who deserve top-flight instructional support from well-prepared instructional leaders.

 By using this blog as a platform to continuously push the conversation forward, I intend to share my formidable collection of original literacy workshops, graphic organizers, vignettes, lesson plans (rough, real, and refined) and relevant research (with occasional commentary) from national conferences I have attended. Check back at www.project-collage.com/blog for new entries.