Connecting language to reading

Connecting language to reading

In last week’s post, I was talking about the way the human brain processes language (you can see that post here). Those processes include the phonological processing system, the meaning processing system, and the context processing system. These systems help the human brain listen to what others say, respond with words and sounds, and understand what those words mean within the context of what’s being said. As homo sapiens, this brain has adapted over the past 200,000 years to process language that is spoken and heard.

As I shared last week, for most of human history, words only existed in verbal form, so the brain was ready to process that information. With the development of a written language, a new process had to be developed within the brain.

Now, I’ve got to pause here for just a moment to share just how fascinating the human brain is! It constantly is redeveloping itself, adapting one portion of the brain for new uses, and learning from past experiences. From some past learning, I know that a portion of what now makes up the orthographic processing system in our brain used to be used by the same part of the brain that helps us to recognize faces. When someone looks familiar to you, your brain is using similar areas of the brain as when you look at the letters on the device you are reading from right now. Think about how the human brain has had to adapt in the last 20ish years of the digital age. But the difference is that skills like reading must be learned by the brain. On the other hand, the language processing system is online for each human even before birth.

So here is how the brain had to change. With the development of written language, a new processing system had to be developed in the brain. We call this the orthographic processing system. This system is able to learn to recognize letters, and then eventually letter strings. In time, those recognitions come to feel almost immediate. To a proficient reader, most words seem to become sight words.

So what does this mean for us instructionally? It means that once our students have a strong foundation of language comprehension, the next step is to support them in phonemic awareness. This means that students need support in first noticing, articulating, and manipulating the smallest sounds in words. Eventually, after they have strong phonemic awareness, then we move into phonics where we begin connecting the sounds we hear in spoken language to the letters that make up those sounds.

In Shifting the Balance, there are a few shifts in instructional practices that Burkins and Yates suggest. Here are just a few things you might consider:

  • High-leverage instructional routines – We might start with skills like noticing how sounds are made, then progress into putting sounds together to make words, then take words apart, then listen for similar sounds, then taking sounds off a word, and finally changing one sound to make a new word. These phonological awareness skills help build the sound knowledge that students need prior to bringing the orthographic processing system online.
  • Word lists – There are several different resources that I have seen that could be used at various grade levels to assess students understanding of the various skills. In the district where I work, we could utilize the differentiated spelling lists that go with HMH/Into Reading, or we have access to the digital teacher’s version of Words Their Way. If you’re looking for another source, there are some excellent decodable word lists sorted by skill that were put together by Burkins and Yates as part of their work on Shifting the Balance. You can find those lists on their website here.
  • Multisensory scaffolds – Utilizing tools such as Elkonin boxes with chips or counters, then progressing into letter tiles or magnets. Burkins and Yate point out that these multisensory tools might be especially important when a task is new or students are struggling.
  • Assessment plan – As with any other skill that we want our students to know, formative assessment should serve as our guide along the way. Are there phonemic awareness skills that some or most students still need to develop? Do we need to create or utilize a more formal assessment to check your student’s phonemic awareness? This information will help us to know when it’s time to make the jump from focusing on the sounds in phonemic awareness to the point where we add in the work of connecting letters to sounds in phonics.

Just as with most other forms of learning, there is a progression that most students follow, first learning the skills of recognizing words in a sentence, then breaking words into syllables, then noticing beginning or ending sounds, and eventually identifying all the sounds of the word. When students miss steps along this progression, they might struggle further down the line. What I’m recognizing now is that many of the students who came to my classroom as a 5th or 6th grader who struggled with reading skills were probably missing some of those early phonemic awareness or phonics skills. Backing up and supporting some of the early language fluency skills might have helped them develop the skills they needed to be more successful readers. Hopefully for those of you who are teaching students who have reached the stage that we expect them to be “reading to learn,” there are some steps here that you might be able to integrate into instruction for your students.

What are your takeaways from this? What will you commit to trying based on this new learning? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

Thinking about reading

Thinking about reading

Not that long ago, I wrote a post called Science or craft (you can see that post here). One of the things I talked about in that post was the fact that I felt as an educator, being involved in a series of “Reading Wars” was not beneficial to the concept of learning and growth. In my view, one of our goals as an educator should be to learn as broadly as we can on the topics that matter to us. As an educator who has an impact on some of the earliest learners, literacy must be a big part of my focus, and therefore it must be an area I am seeking continual growth. That has in turn led me to ongoing learning about the Science of Reading.

In the post referenced above, I shared that it felt as though there are some who view the teaching of reading as having two sides, and neither one saw value in the other. It made me a bit uncomfortable because I had taught in a Balanced Literacy Classroom for years of my career as an educator, and while that format had worked for me as a learner, and felt comfortable to me as a teacher, I could also see that there were kids who were not learning to read at the level they needed to. You see, I spent all my teaching career as a fifth or sixth-grade teacher. Once students reach that level, for the most part, they are no longer learning to read, rather they are reading to learn. As a content area teacher – teaching both science and social studies over the years as an intermediate school teacher, I expected students to come with me ready to use their reading skills to learn about our topics and standards. I did not feel equipped at that level to intervene and support their reading skills.

Over the years of working with some talented colleagues, I eventually better understood how to support my students who came to the classroom without strong reading skills – finding lower-level texts on the same topics, providing students with read-aloud recordings of the text, and more.

But in my current role, I now feel the challenge of how I help ensure that the students who leave my school are prepared to read to learn in their intermediate school classroom. I began to look for ideas that supported my beliefs about a learning environment, while also fulfilling the needs of students as learners. Luckily, I have a wonderful coach who I work with that recommended the book Shifting the Balance: 6 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into the Balanced Literacy Classroom by Jan Burkins and Kari Yates. I’ve been digging into that book for a little while and found myself texting our coach on the evening I started the book telling her that I had lots of things to talk to her about.

Based on my reactions to the short time I’ve been reading this book, I’m guessing that this will not be the last time you see me referencing it here, but I want to share with you one of my biggest aha moments so far. And it has to do with how the human brain has developed.

Going back to the earliest humans, the only way to share information was through the passing of stories verbally. What this means is that our brain got good at listening to what others said (this happens in the phonological processing system) and being able to respond with our own words and sounds. Hearing someone else speak would then cause our brain to retrieve the meaning of the words we hear (this happens in the meaning processing system). Then our brain uses our background knowledge to help us understand what meaning fits the context of what’s being shared (this happens in the context processing system). I imagine these different parts of the brain as something of a triangle, with information passing back and forth through each of these processing systems.

These three processing systems are genetically wired into the human brain and are a part of the system of thinking that we are all born with. It’s why a young child can often understand words before being able to say them. It’s why, even though I haven’t taken a Spanish class in over 20 years, when I hear someone speaking it, I am able to make meaning of pieces of that conversation.

This combination of processing systems has developed in the homo sapien brain over the last 150,000 to 200,000 years. So what that means is that our brain has adapted over that time to make comprehension of spoken language to be a natural skill that our brains can do. But written language has been around a lot less time than that. You see, most scholars generally agree that humans began utilizing written language about 5,500 years ago. Let’s think about what that means – for a little more than 97% of the history of modern humans, words only existed in their verbal form. After being spoken, they would disappear into thin air. Then, somewhere around 3,400 BCE, in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), some of the earliest written language was developed. Now, the things that one person said could be recorded, exactly as they had said them, in the form of symbols, and be shared over and over again.

The huge aha moment for me comes from this point – written language is spoken language saved for later retrieval. Once retrieved, written words are put back into spoken language. I’m assuming that when you read, you can hear your own reading in your head. The speaking part of your brain is saying the words, and the listening part of your brain is hearing the words. What this means is that if our students cannot understand words and language when they are spoken, they will not be able to comprehend those same words and sentences when they read them.

As Burkins and Yates point out:

What Burkins and Yates go on to point out is that opportunities to grow oral language actually help develop the comprehension mechanisms of reading. Now, let me be clear, just because a student has strong verbal comprehension does not automatically mean that they will be strong in reading comprehension, but it is definitely a stepping stone along the way. So, what does that mean for us in practice in the classroom? The following bullet points are ideas shared by Burkins and Yates, along with some of my thoughts relating to them:

  • Have a way to support language comprehension in your classroom – This would include utilizing read-alouds with rich language, things that will stretch your students’ thinking. Next, think about gathering text sets on a topic or theme representing multiple levels. Finally, have instructional routines to build and extend language (this includes conversations started by the teacher in a one-on-one or small group setting, questions to get students to explain their thinking, wait time for students to think and process, and repeating back to students what you heard them say so that they might be able to expand on it).
  • Use interesting words – One of my favorite things used to be encouraging students to notice and share interesting words they came across in their reading. We would use these words to create a list of interesting words that we kept in our writing notebook. Depending on your level, you could do something similar, or you could help students notice interesting words in your read-alouds to create your own list.
  • Engage in dialogic conversations – In their book, Burkins and Yates share a graphic on dialogic conversations. Check out the graphic below for a little more about what this might look like.

Ultimately, as teachers, one of the best ways we can help improve the three processing systems above is to create time and space for language within your classroom. This might be during a gentle entry time where students can play and talk, it might be in a daily community circle where students speak to one another and respond to interesting topics, or it could be through one-on-one or small group conversations happening during learning time either with the teacher’s support or with peers (think a turn-and-talk or small group discussion). The more work we do to support students in language comprehension, the more we help those processing systems be better prepared for reading skills.

Next week I hope to take a look at the next step – what happens in the brain when we start to feed written language into it, and how that has changed the processing systems that developed in the brain.

What strategies do you use to bring language into your classroom? Share with us in the comments below.



Recently, I’ve been reading a couple of different books about school design. You see, our district is working towards an expansion and renovation of our school. It’s been exciting to think about what a remodeled version of Fishers Elementary School might look like. When I learned of this process, I started a document on my desktop called “The Wishlist.” Currently, it’s broken up into 3 categories: Spaces, Environment, and Office. Much of my thought process has been about the design of the school. But this week, I finished reading a book called What’s in Your Space? 5 Steps for Better School and Classroom Design by Dwight Carter, Gary Sebach, and Mark White. One of my key takeaways was that no matter what kind of innovative thought processes are used when we design a school, if we don’t also spend some time thinking about what it means to teach Generation Z children, the school will ultimately continue to operate in traditional ways.

But why do we need to think in innovative ways at school? Today, schools are almost the only places left where students write by hand; when they are away from school, they text, type, and FaceTime. And when they are writing by hand away from school, you can probably bet that their writing is something to take back to school. We all know this, but as a reminder, our students of almost all ages constantly want to interact with technology. And related to that, their future will be filled with technology that is unimaginable today. Now, I’m guessing that writing by hand will never go completely away, but if I pause to think about it, almost the only time I write by hand outside of the school setting is when I’m leaving a note for my family or sending a greeting card to someone. That’s about it. I don’t even handwrite my grocery list anymore – I tell my Google Assistant at home what to add to my shopping list, then I pull the list up on my phone while I’m out shopping.

Why do we need to think about this? In the book What’s in Your Space the authors shared the results of an IBM Big Data study from 2012. That study shared that as society moved from an analog to a digital age, the time it took the knowledge to double dropped significantly. The graphic below represents the Knowledge Doubling Curve, first introduced by Buckminster Fuller, and later expanded on by research from IBM.

What this curve shows us is that the expansion of knowledge is an exponential curve. Around 2020, this meant that for each one of us, the knowledge that is available in our world more than doubles in the time that we are awake each day. That thought blows my mind! But at the same time, in our digital world, I don’t think any of us could keep up with all the posts on social media, YouTube, and other websites that matter to us, let alone the things that are not even in our sphere of interest.

So, the question that really hit me as I neared the end of What’s in Your Space was this:

One of the things that we need to think about as we serve Generation Z is that they will not be successful based on what they know. Instead, they will be successful with what they can do with what they know.

There are some sacred cows in education – things that we feel like we must teach every year. In fact, some of our standards, especially in content areas like science and social studies, force us into teaching and learning that is based on rote memorization. One of my long-term pet peeves has been States and Capitals, maybe that’s because I struggled with rote memorization as a child and did poorly on those tests and quizzes, but I have never had a high-stakes situation where my success relied on my ability to identify the capital of Idaho, although I can tell you it’s Boise. Here’s the thing, if our assessments and our questions are asking kids things that Siri can answer for them, then maybe we aren’t pushing them to where they need to be as a member of Generation Z. And our students know that.

Everyone has access to Google these days, in fact, the number of times I pull out my phone to hop on the Google app or ask my Google assistant a question might be shocking to some of you. But I also have skills that allow me to do my job in a way that Google would never be able to do. We need to help our students be prepared to do the jobs that will exist 20 or 30 years from now, not the jobs that exist today. And the reality is that many of those jobs are things we can’t even imagine.

So here’s the challenge for us as educators – the rest of the world does not exist in these 9-month-long bubbles of a school year. In the non-education world, everything is evolving constantly, but in education, we often just look at what’s happening for this school year. We all have to be ready for continuous evolution in technology for the rest of our careers. We have to be aware of the needs of our students and their future. Every day we are surrounded by the experts of the future, our students. A willingness to ask our students “Is there a better way for you to show me what you know about this topic?” might open our eyes to ideas that never would have occurred to us.

To meet the needs of Generation Z, our pedagogy must shift. The design of a school is just one part of the process of being able to meet the needs of future generations. We must lose the fear that exists in turning our students loose on technology that we might not fully understand. Our standards, objectives, and expectations don’t have to change, but often the best learning opportunities come out of the unscripted moments in learning. Our new role is to be the guide, not the leader, and as the guide sometimes that means getting out of the way.

What are your thoughts? How has pedagogy shifted in your time as an educator? What shifts do you think still need to happen? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Thoughtful in what we do

Far too often in education, we spend time thinking about a question. It’s a question that will sometimes cause stress. It will sometimes lead us to look for new programs or resources. And at times, it creates overwhelm because we then feel like there is too much to do. The question I’m thinking of is “What more should we be doing?”

Depending on your perspective, that question may not feel like that big of a deal. But here’s the issue, if we always ask about what we should be doing more of, we end up with so much to do that we aren’t able to do any of it well. We can’t sustain the practice. Adam Welcome loves to talk about how schools in general are really good at collecting programs and things, but they are really bad at getting rid of those programs or things that are obsolete. This is something that I have definitely noticed (I have seen your pile of textbooks from 3 adoptions ago that you just can’t bring yourself to get rid of!).

The other issue I see with asking about what more we can do is that it leads us to a deficit mindset. That’s the thinking that leads us to only focus on the things that aren’t going well or the things that we can’t do enough of. Deficit thinking leads to a sense of hopelessness before we have even started anything.

One of the pain points that I have noticed in my time as a leader is that every spring and summer, I spend time with our leadership team. We look at the data we have, the growth we’ve made, and the areas to target for continued growth. Based on that information, we develop a school improvement plan that is focused entirely on the data that we can connect to the learners that we know in our building. Then, invariably, we come together at a beginning of the year administrative meeting, and there seems to be some new initiative or some new curricular resource that must be added to our plans. When that happens, the intentional design of the school improvement plan that was developed as part of our thoughtful work must be either revamped or potentially scrapped for a period of time.

I do have one quick caveat since I know that some of the people who read this blog are colleagues of mine, or maybe even are among the group that sometimes brings those initiatives to us… Oftentimes those initiatives involve us in doing good work that is for the benefit of our students, but it sometimes feels for the leaders in the buildings that we have now been given one more new thing to cram into the already busy schedule of the school year PD plan.

So, imagine if you could, hearing the following statement at your back-to-school meeting:

Much like Chris Lehmann, I believe that “Schools are better when they create spaces and expectations for reflection.” A formalized process for reflection is a necessity. This reflection can certainly occur as an individual, but I think the power of the reflection comes from when you are able to chat with others about what happened in your classroom, how the students responded to the learning opportunity, and what your data shows you about student learning and growth.

This is why I see such value in the PLC process. It’s the perfect place for the reflective process to take place. The four key questions of the PLC guide us toward reflection on a question that is much better than the one I mentioned at the beginning. Instead of asking ourselves “What more can we be doing?” we should be asking “How can we do what we’re already doing, better?”

Think about the power of that mindset shift with your team. Instead of coming into a PLC meeting with a deficit mindset that might imply that we don’t yet have the tools to be successful, we come in with the belief that within our team, we have the answers to help ourselves improve. That’s collective teacher efficacy at work.

And here’s the reality of this process. Sometimes we will start with reflective practices, we will begin by trying to problem-solve within our team, and we may find that the tools we have available to us are not working. This is where things get exciting for me. Now, your PLC team can begin some work in action research. Do some professional reading, ask for help from an administrator, work with your curriculum coach, or collaborate with another team that might not be having the same problem as you. Whatever you do, find a way to keep trying until you find something that does work for your students. Again, this is not about finding something new, it’s about refining something that we were already doing, but wasn’t working as well as we’d like it to be.

Another thing to keep in mind: as you begin to refine your processes, be sure to identify the pieces that you feel are already going well. Having an idea of the things that are working will help us feel more comfortable as we make shifts in the areas that aren’t working as well. Also, keep in mind that if you try to solve too many problems at one time, you probably aren’t going to solve any of them. Pick one area of growth to focus on and stay focused on that. Remember what your team’s limitations are for time and energy!

So, the next time you are together with your team and able to reflect on what’s been happening, be sure to focus on the question “How can we do what we’re already doing, better?”

How do you think that might shift the conversations in your work? As you reflect on what you can do better, how might you use that to set your own short- or long-term goals for your own learning and growth? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Habits and teaching

I recently finished reading the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. If you’re into understanding human psychology, it’s a really solid read. The gist of the book from my perspective is about laying out the framework for how habits are formed. It gives insightful strategies for forming new habits we want to have, and methods for breaking bad habits that we want to lose. While I think that there are many parts of the book that I already knew in some way, I’d never seen anyone lay it out in such an actionable way.

As educators, many of us have developed our own set of habits around the ways we do things. How we plan, what our day looks like, and what our learning environment looks like. These are just some of our own form of habits. Recently, the staff in our school has been devoted to a professional learning cycle that really digs into some of the pieces of the PLC. This work is happening with the hope of helping each of our PLC teams build some new habits around the PLC.

You see, in my mind, the PLC is all about the work of ensuring learning in our school. This learning is not just for our students, but also for the adults in our building.

This quote from Rick DuFour helps to lay out the values of the PLC. As a learning organization, we have to first, believe in the values in the PLC, and second, behave as though we believe them.

And let me be clear, I don’t think that anyone in our school is doing something “wrong” in the way we are utilizing the PLC process, but based on some recent conversations at our PD, and in the follow-up conversations I’ve had with some after our PD, it has become clear that there were some pieces of the PLC process that we can strengthen.

In an ideal world, this is kind of an outline of the process of the PLC:

  1. Map our curriculum
  2. Identify Power / Priority Standards
  3. Unpack the standards
  4. Build common assessments – both formative and summative
  5. Bring assessment data back to the PLC meetings during a learning cycle or unit
  6. Adjust our teaching during the unit based on the data
  7. Celebrate the learning and growth that has taken place during a unit
  8. Restart the cycle for our next unit

If you can say that all these pieces are in place with your PLC consistently, then that’s great! You’re a model for what we want to be doing, because if we follow this process, we as teachers have learned about our students and about our teaching practices, and we can ensure that our students have shown learning in our assessment data.

This semester, we have chosen to devote large chunks of our professional learning time to helping each team strengthen the PLC process. My hope is that through this work, we can all have data to share that supports the assertion that our school has helped each student to learn during the school year. None of the topics of our Professional Learning are intended to be stand-alone topics or something that you do once and forget. This cycle of learning is about making sure we have built a process for each PLC team to be able to work through the four big questions of the PLC (What do we want students to know? How will we know that they know it? What will we do if they don’t know it? What will we do if they do know it?)

When we talk about identifying priority standards, we don’t just want to pick one standard in one subject to focus on forever – the PLC is meant to be an ongoing process in multiple subjects. When we come together as a team, everyone should be bringing data – assessment data, student samples, etc., to help guide our conversations around the four questions. It means taking feedback strategies back to your classroom to provide students with steps for how they can grow from where they are to their next step in learning progressions. Then it’s about building a new formative assessment to check how that feedback strategy has worked.

For many of us, this may feel different than the way you might have utilized PLCs in the past. But going back to the Dufour quote above, it is our job to constantly be assessing our own practices in the light of student learning. If something is not successful, then there might be a strategy or practice that needs to shift. And going back to the concept of Collective Teacher Efficacy, I believe that the answers to our questions lie within our staff. We have lots of smart people with lots of great ideas. The PLC model allows us to talk about our own practices, and trust that the people around us will help all of us learn and grow.

What has been your experience with the PLC? Where have you seen the greatest strengths? What are your current pain points where you still need to grow as a PLC? This reflection can help you work with your team, your coaches, your administrators to build a stronger team concept and ensure learning in your school.

The power of the rerun

I try not to spend too much time sharing about the #educelebrities that I follow, or have had the privilege to meet, but for this week’s post, I’m back again with some more thoughts based on the day I spent recently with Cornelius Minor. One of the things he talked about was something he phrased as “The Power of the Rerun.” As a child of the 80s (I try not to date myself too much, but it’s my reality), reruns were a regular occurrence. Saturdays would often mean getting up, grabbing a bowl of cereal, and turning on cartoons. Unlike you millennials who might be reading or the Gen Z / post-millennials that we’re teaching, when you turned the TV on, you watched what was available. There were no streaming options. We couldn’t find what we wanted to watch on YouTube. Sometimes that meant watching an episode of GI Joe that you’d seen what felt like hundreds of times.

I have to be honest; I’ve always enjoyed reruns of shows. There are episodes of Friends that I have literally seen more than a hundred times, and yet I still laugh (pivot). I don’t know if I want to admit how many times I have watched the entire Breaking Bad series (probably still my favorite series of all time!), but I will share that it’s a lot!

What I love about rewatching a show is that often, I notice things I didn’t notice the first time. Maybe there’s a character that didn’t seem that important on the first watch that I now know is important later in the show. Or I might notice something that I missed in the background of a shot because I was so focused on the main action the first time. The rewatch allows me to dig a little deeper.

Now, I’m sure there are some that are wondering what in the world reruns of TV shows have to do with an education blog. This is where Cornelius comes in. While talking to us about ways we might model specific skills, he talked about the benefit of doing a reread of a text that was previously shared in class. The first pass of a story is a great time to introduce a concept or idea. If you are doing a lesson on character analysis, you might read a text where you want your students to notice what characters do over and over, so you read that text and ask students to pay attention to the actions of a specific character and ask them to think about what this teaches them about this character. That may meet a standard for you, but you recognize that your class seems to show clear understanding, or maybe even mastery right away. That might mean a reread of the book is a great time to do some deeper thinking about the text.

You see, once you’ve read a text one time, you have done most of the heavy lifting. The understanding of the story is already there. Vocabulary words have been defined and used in context. All your students have an initial understanding of what will happen in the story, so now we can go deeper.

Recently in our building, we’ve been spending a lot of our time in Professional Development focused on the power of the PLC. We’re really digging into each of the 4 key questions of the PLC. If you aren’t sure what those questions are, these are them:

  1. What do you want your students to know? (This one’s about knowing our standards, having a map, and identifying priorities)
  2. How will we know they know it? (This is all about how we formatively assess our students along the way, or how we summatively assess at the end of a unit so that we are ensured of student learning)
  3. What will we do if they don’t know it? (This is about what strategies might we try during a reteach to reach a student who didn’t understand the first time)
  4. What will we do if they do know it? (This is about how will we enrich the learning of students who seem to have already mastered the standard or skill)

So, when we think about the rerun of a text, it’s a great opportunity to approach skills that will enrich our students. What is the next level of the standard you are trying to teach? You might check the vertical alignment of your standard so that you know what your students will be expected to know or be able to do next year. During a rerun, you can push your students to a higher depth of knowledge because there is already an initial understanding.

I’d love to hear about other ideas related to the concept of a “rerun” in reading. Have you ever used this strategy? How did it go? What worked well? What would you think about differently? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Building resilience

Last Friday, I was out of my building for a professional development opportunity. Cornelius Minor, one of my #eduheroes was in town and working with teachers and administrators from across our district. Anytime he’s around, I make it a point to spend time learning with him. I’ve had the privilege to meet him on 4 different occasions, and his message always feels fresh to me. I’ve written about his visits before, and I’m guessing that this most recent visit may result in a couple of different topics to share with you. If you really want to see a bit of my in-the-moment thinking, you can check out the thread of tweets I shared while Cornelius was presenting here:

For those of you who don’t know much about Cornelius, he is a Brooklyn-based educator who still spends most days in a middle school classroom, but his skills as an educator can translate to any level or subject area. Every time I’m in a room with Cornelius, I feel like I’m with a close friend who is helping me become the best educator I can be to support the students I work with!

On Friday morning, Cornelius started the day with a guiding question for our thinking: “How can we create conditions where all kids succeed?” While he did not come back to the question multiple times, the work we were doing helped to answer that question, at least for me.

One of the standout portions of the day for me was a conversation he shared about building resilience in his students. There were three things he said that he feels all students need to know or be able to do to be resilient in the classroom. He said that all kids need to know:

  1. What learning looks like
  2. When to pause
  3. How to talk to parents about what you’re working on at home

Let me expand on each of those thoughts just a bit – some of what I share here will be based on the thinking Cornelius shared, but some will be my own thinking as I have been reflecting on the day.

What learning looks like – Think for a moment from the perspective of a student in your classroom (if you are a teacher). What must that day feel like? Depending on your age, you go from one learning activity to another, sometimes with a clear understanding of the purpose of what you’re doing, sometimes without that understanding. For our elementary students, most of these learning activities take place in the same room. For our middle-grade students and up, they may be transitioning to a different classroom every 45-ish minutes with a 5-minute break to get from one class to another. Our students might start working on reading, then shift to word work, then to writing, then to math, and hardly have a moment to pause and reflect between these transitions. In that whirlwind of a day, can you identify what the purpose of the activity is? How do you feel when your day is jam-packed with things to do? Can you remember what you accomplished during your day? I know for me, I cannot! As educators, we can help build resilience in our kids by defining what we are working on. Tonight, I asked my son what he was doing for math homework. He shared that he was learning how to figure out percentages, like adding a tip to the bill at a restaurant. I was excited about this answer because often the answer I get is “stuff” or “I don’t remember what we did today.” I must have caught him at the right moment. We can support this understanding of what learning looks like by sharing things like success criteria, or “I can” statements so that kids know what the target is for their learning and building in moments to pause and reflect in our lessons. If we think about the learning cycle, learning does not happen if there is no time for reflection. And if our students can’t share what they are learning, then did they really learn it?

When to pause – Life for a child can be a challenge, and for some of our students, these challenges can lead to a student acting out in a physical or verbal way, shutting down, or possibly even just leaving the classroom. When students notice that they are becoming dysregulated, they need tools to be able to react appropriately. If they don’t yet have the tools, we must teach them. Most of the time, there are three reasons students need to take a pause from what they are working on in class – they feel overwhelmed, they need a moment to think or process, or they need to help someone else. Often, students have not been taught yet how to pause what they are doing, so that pause may turn into putting a head down and not engaging in work, or it may result in goofing around, or worse! What students need is to know what a pause should look like. When students in Cornelius’s class need a pause, there is a three-step process: 1) Put your pencil down and find the clock on the wall and focus on the second hand. 2) Watch the second hand until it goes all the way around and is pointing at the same number as when you started looking at the clock. 3) Take a deep breath, pick up your pencil, and get back to work. And he also teaches students how to help someone who has taken a break – when they notice that their tablemate has taken a break, they can put their pencil down, watch the clock, and when their neighbor has taken a breath and picked up their pencil, they can turn and say, “How may I support you?” Sometimes kids may not be able to answer that question, but they know they have support, which helps them get regulated.

What I think we all know is that when we are feeling overwhelmed, or need a moment, we need to try to help our brain slow down. By focusing on the clock, we give our brain something to think about other than whatever is overwhelming us. During that time, we are breathing. When we stop whatever we’re doing just to breathe, the mind-body connection helps alleviate stress. Blood pressure will come down, and stress hormones are able to filter out of the brain. The pause allows us to come back closer to our baseline. After that minute, students should be better prepared to engage in their work.

How to talk to parents about what you’re working on at home – This one probably applies more to students who are in our older grades or have moved on to middle school or high school. As teachers, when we have our students take work home, we know that there is a risk that parents may help their child. Or that a parent may say “I think you should do all the problems on this page for practice” even though you have only assigned a few. If parents do the work, we don’t really know where our kids are (one of my issues with homework, but that’s a different post). When parents ask their kids to do extra work, they are taking away a child’s time to be a child (parents do this with the best of intentions, but as a teacher, I know just as well if my students understand their math work after 4 problems as I would if they did 20). Cornelius has taught his students 2 sentences that they can use if a parent is trying to help too much:

“Even though I can’t do/understand it, I know the right questions to ask.”

“No thank you, I’ve got it from here.”

Parents just want to help, but part of what we need students to learn is how to advocate for themselves. By being able to say these things to their adults at home, they are advocating for their own skills.

These are just a few ideas that came from our day with Cornelius to support resilience in our students. What other ideas might you have? Do you have ways you help build resilience in your students? Share your thoughts with us all in the comments below.


As an educator, I have long believed in the value of relationships. When I was still in the classroom, I worked hard to get to know all my students. I was a big fan of utilizing free moments in the day to talk with kids. I’d ask them about their family, pets, outside interests, or whatever they wanted to talk about. I felt that the more I knew about my students, the easier it was to connect with them during class time because they knew that I cared about them as a person first. As a classroom teacher, I probably had a good relationship with some of the families of my students, but I don’t think I realized the value of investing in meaningful relationships with my students’ families.

When I moved into an administrative role, I knew that it probably wouldn’t be possible to know all our students as well as I had when I was a classroom teacher. But in the administrative role, I soon came to realize that I needed to know more than just my students. It quickly became apparent that in this role, I needed to know the families of my students. Early in my administrative career, I participated in a book study around The Speed of Trust by Stephen M. R. Covey. It is a book that comes to mind regularly in my current role as an elementary school principal. The key takeaway from the book is that when trust is high, the speed of our relationships is that much faster. To me, the key to a high-trust environment is meaningful relationships.

Here are just a few of the reasons that I take the time to build strong relationships with the families of our students:

  1. Improved student outcomes – According to, when parents are actively involved in their child’s education, students tend to perform better academically and have better attendance. I have learned that sometimes the families of our students have had negative interactions with schools in the past. Sometimes those situations go back to their own childhood.
  2. More effective collaboration – When we have strong relationships between the school and our families, we can develop plans to meet the needs of our students both at home and at school. In a high-trust relationship with a family, having conversations about home life and strategies parents might try with their child at home is more welcome. Parents will see that we are trying to help provide the support that students need to learn and grow into their greatest potential.
  3. Better school culture – When relationships are strong between school and our families, parents are more likely to be involved in school events. This involvement helps to support a positive and supportive school culture.

There are several ways that I work to build relationships, and by extension, trust, with our families. When we have events at school that parents will attend, I make a point to connect with as many of the families as possible. These small interactions show that I care about their child, and by extension, them. The welcoming and warm environment we strive to create helps our families feel comfortable to be here. I often encourage parents to volunteer in classrooms, sign up to be a substitute teacher, or help with events being led by our PTO. I also see the role of the principal as being the head communicator of a building. I strive to tell our story in multiple ways. Each week, in our school newsletter, I do a video update called “The Tiger Update.” Using video, I find that families can hear my voice and see my face – it seems more well-received than a weekly note from the principal in our newsletter. I also strive to share our school’s story on social media. As a school, we have a Facebook and Twitter feed. When parents know what’s happening at school, the connection is stronger, which helps build that relationship.

Overall, building a strong relationship with the families of our students helps create a high-trust environment that will better support our goals of having an impact on the learning and growth of every student who walks into our school.

ChatGPT for teachers

ChatGPT for teachers

Last week, I shared a post to give some background on artificial intelligence in general, and the work of OpenAI and their chatbot ChatGPT. You can see that post here. Today’s post is my effort to think about how we might utilize AI within the educational realm.

If you’ve followed my writing for long, you know that I have often talked about teaching as something of a craft. It’s something that educators are bound to refine over time. If you compare the early writing of your favorite authors or earliest works of art by a favorite artist with things they created later in their career, you are going to notice differences. Whether we are talking about being an educator, artist, or anything else, we see that skills change over time. By no means am I suggesting that we remove the craft of teaching, or the creativity that comes from designing lessons that are responsive to the learners in your classroom, but as I start playing with AI like ChatGPT more, I’m finding that there are probably ways that we can use it to carry out some of the tasks that exist in our role as educators.

I’m not completely sure where I heard it, or even what the exact quote is, but it goes something like this:

Between the rise of digital technologies, search engines, and artificial intelligence, content knowledge is cheap. The creativity to take knowledge and skills and combine them in new and creative ways is what future employers will be looking for. We must remember that we aren’t trying to help our students be prepared for the jobs that exist in our world today, but rather we hope to have our students prepared for the jobs that will exist in the future – some of which may not even exist yet! The sooner we as educators can embrace new technologies, the more quickly we help our students find ways to use that technology in new and creative ways.

So, with today’s post, I wanted to think a bit about how technologies like AI might help make the life of a teacher a bit easier. Here’s a quick list of a few things that ChatGPT might be able to help educators accomplish:

1: ChatGPT could assist with creating and generating lesson plans and ideas – While visiting a first-grade class today, I noticed they were learning about text features in nonfiction writing, so I asked ChatGPT to create a lesson plan for me. Here’s what it created (click on the first image, and then you can swipe through the gallery):

Now, depending on the needs and interests of my class, my own personal knowledge of standards, and other information that I as a teacher might have, I would probably make a few changes, but this is something that could certainly serve as a starting point. And the cool thing about ChatGPT is we can ask follow-up questions. I asked the chat to adjust the lesson for a small group that was reading more than a year above the expected level, and it made several changes. Next, I asked for a lesson that was more student-directed. It adjusted by adding in more small group exploration into text features, and less teacher-directed time. With each follow-up, the adjustments made the lesson better in my eyes. The craft of teaching now comes from taking these initial ideas and focusing on how I can make sure that the lesson meets the individual needs of my students.

2: ChatGPT can assist in creating a quiz – I think we all would agree that we’re not going to be giving quizzes to our first graders, but just to test an idea, I next asked the AI to create a quiz that would assess student knowledge from the above lesson. It created a 10-question, multiple-choice quiz with three choices given as potential solutions. At the end of the quiz, it created an answer key. Again, the craft of this can come from adjusting what the AI creates to meet the needs of our students, but think of the amount of time I just saved!

3: ChatGPT can help create accessible materials for students learning English as a new language – Next, I asked ChatGPT to translate the quiz into Spanish. By no means am I fluent in Spanish, but I took enough in high school to recognize some of the questions and answers. I probably would want to check with someone that I knew was fluent (or at least more fluent than me), but at first glance, it seems pretty good. Next, I wondered what other languages might work. I tried Arabic, then Russian – now, I have no idea how accurate it is, but it must be at least as good as Google Translate!

4: ChatGPT can assist in answering questions in real time – As a former science teacher, one of the things that I loved (and at times hated because we could get so off track) were the curious “What if…” questions students would ask. These invariably ramped up during our unit on outer space. Just for the fun of it, I asked what would happen if astronauts could take a rocket at the speed of light from Earth to Mars. Questions like this were bound to happen when we started talking about the distances in space. It shared that it would take just a few minutes to get there but went on to discuss Einstein’s theory of special relativity, the concept of time dilation (where time appears to slow down for the rocket’s occupants), and the fact that the astronauts wouldn’t be able to see anything outside the ship because light would not reach them since they were traveling at the same speed as the light. How often have you had students ask you questions that you didn’t know the answer to? Or that you weren’t sure about the answer? ChatGPT could be a quick way to find an answer to whatever the question was.

Now, as I write this post, I know that I cannot use my school laptop to access ChatGPT – I get an alert that it’s been blocked. As I shared in my post last week, several schools across the country have chosen to block ChatGPT. Is that the right decision? I’m not exactly sure what the answer is. There have always been concerns as we introduced technology into schools. But when we think about school as a system, we also need to recognize that these technologies exist outside of the school setting. Our students will be able to access them when not on the school wifi (and keep in mind, if you work with an age group that has cell phones, they can probably just use their phone on their cell network while they are at school to access AI). If they have access to the technology, we need to start having conversations about how to use it in responsible ways.

I’m a big fan of teaching our students how to use all the various technologies that exist around them to support their learning. The only way we can do that is to also understand the capabilities of the technology and how it can support us in what we do. This is yet another opportunity for us as educators to refine our craft. My belief is that while the blocking of artificial intelligence is commonplace right now, at some point AI will be a mainstream tool that is used daily. Now, I know based on the various opinions that I have seen out on social media around artificial intelligence that this may make some of us uncomfortable.

So, as you think about integrating artificial intelligence into your practice, what thoughts do you have? Do you see benefits? What about drawbacks? Finally, what do you think about schools that are choosing to block AI within their technology ecosystem? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

ChatGPT in schools

Artificial Intelligence – when I hear that, one of the first things I think of is the movie The Terminator. I’m guessing most of us can hear Arnold Schwarzenegger saying, “I’ll be back.” If you don’t know the movie, or you’re too young, Schwarzenegger plays a cyborg that is sent back in time. That cyborg is created by Skynet, which is basically a giant artificial intelligence network from the future trying to take over the world and gather a slave labor force of humans.

What’s fascinating to me is that some of the technology that drives the plot of this 1984 movie seems to be coming to life – artificial life – today. Hopefully without the efforts to take over the world and turn humans into slaves.

At the end of November, a company called OpenAI released ChatGTP to the world. If you aren’t super techy, let me tell you a bit about what that means. Let’s start with OpenAI.

OpenAI is an artificial intelligence research lab. The organization’s mission is to ensure that artificial general intelligence (AGI) benefits all of humanity. They conduct research on machine learning and AI and provide access to its technologies to the public through various products and services. Artificial Intelligence is built on the concept that computers can learn on their own through scouring the web, accessing resources, etc. The organization has been involved in the development of several popular AI-powered tools, such as GPT-3, a state-of-the-art language processing model. OpenAI is also involved in research on the ethical and societal implications of AI and works to promote responsible and safe AI development. Additionally, OpenAI has been active in the open-source community, releasing many of its research papers and tools to the public.

ChatGPT is one of the tools that has been developed by OpenIA. It is a type of artificial intelligence (AI) that is trained to understand and generate human language. Essentially, it’s a computer program that can understand and respond to the text input in a way that mimics human communication. For those of us who have been around technology for a while, you may remember the days when your search terms had to be very specific, and utilize Boolean search terms (AND, OR, NOT, or AND NOT) to combine or exclude ideas to drill down to what you were looking for. Normal human language would rarely find you what you want. Today, search engines like Google can be much more successful in finding what you are looking for when entering searches with natural language. The work of OpenAI and other forms of artificial intelligence have helped make technology easier to use. To expand on ChatGPT, it can be used for a variety of tasks such as text generation, text completion, and language translation. ChatGPT is also used for automated customer service, language education, and more. It’s a powerful tool that can be used to create engaging content, generate personalized responses, and assist in a wide range of language-related tasks.

In my Twitter feed recently, there have been a lot of conversations about the positives as well as potential issues of students having access to ChatGPT. When I was playing around with ChatGPT the first time, I asked it to write a 5-paragraph essay on a book that one of my kids was reading. It’s a book that I’ve read too, so I felt confident that I’d know if it was on the right track. Here’s the thing, the response, was pretty good. Probably not something that would be assessed as a perfect paper – there were some grammar issues and a couple of confusing groupings of words. But if handed in by an upper elementary or middle school student, I wouldn’t be any the wiser.

Technology like this has raised a fundamental question – should we block OpenAI and ChatGPT? Several school districts have already made that choice. But I’d like to remind you that there was a point when YouTube was blocked in many schools. These days it’s used in classrooms all over the world as a learning tool.

About a week ago, New York City Public Schools announced that they would be blocking OpenAI, and in particular ChatGPT on all of their networks and devices. They fear that it does not build critical thinking and problem-solving skills. I’m not sure I completely agree.

Here’s what I’ve found while playing around with ChatGPT. There are some things it does well. The other day I asked it to create a playlist for my workout based on a song I like. It was good, surprisingly good. Then I asked it to create a 45-minute HIIT workout that only used bodyweight exercises. It was decent – I would make some changes if I were following the workout, but it would definitely get me sweaty. Then I asked it to adjust the workout to use a kettlebell and adjustable dumbbells – both of which I have in my basement gym. Again, it was pretty good.

Just for fun, I asked ChatGPT to tell me the story of The Three Little Pigs as told by Michael Scott from the office. In my head, I could hear the correct voice, just the right amount of funny, and just in case you’re wondering, to Michael, the moral of the story is to just go ahead and build your house out of bricks so that you don’t have to worry about a big bad wolf.

On Twitter, I’ve seen other funny exchanges – create a poem in the style of a Shakespearean Sonnet about something in modern day pop culture. It will write computer code for you. And there’s so much more. ChatGPT also has some limitations that they openly share on the homepage. It occasionally generates incorrect information. There have been some issues of harmful instructions and biased content. And it has limited knowledge of any events after 2021.

But for our students, if they learned how to utilize ChatGPT to help with research, AI can help build a solid outline of thoughts. They have to feed the information in, and then think about what they get out. Does it work for their needs? Do they need to edit it in some way? These are critical thinking and problem-solving skills. I don’t think that blocking a resource is always the best solution. Students will have access to artificial intelligence outside of school. They may have access to them as part of work in the future. Part of our job as educators is to prepare our students for their future world, not our current world. It’s something I want to process a bit more.

Originally when I set out to write this post, I intended to get to how we might use ChatGPT in our classrooms, but this post is getting a little long. So, for now, I’ll leave this as an intro to what OpenAI and ChatGPT are and some initial thoughts on the impact of our world and classrooms. Next week, I’m going to delve into some ways that we as educators might be able to utilize this technology in the classroom to support learning. In the coming week, take a few minutes to try logging into ChatGPT (just a forewarning – sometimes you have to wait a bit for the servers to be available, and depending on where you are). See what you can find – ask it questions about topics that are meaningful to you. Can it create a lesson plan for you? Can it give you a new strategy to try with one of your students? Or can it help you create something at home – a recipe for a new type of food; a workout; or a suggestion of what book you should read next based on your current read. If you try it out, share with us in the comments below what you figured out.