Thursday, July 30, 2015

Embracing Learning Differences

Last fall, I took an introductory course on Universal Design for Learning.  Universal Design for learning is a set of principles for teaching in order to provide support to all learners, regardless of learning differences, so they can access the curriculum (Meyer, Rose, & Gordon, 2013).  If you are not familiar with it, this short video gives a brief overview. During the online course, I participated in some insightful and valuable conversations through the discussion board.  Lots of the discussion centered around the fact that there is great diversity in how students learn and why the term “learner variability” should replace “learner disability.”  Students differ in many ways, including the way they comprehend information, the way they express themselves, and in the ways they are best motivated and engaged.  A teacher’s role is to provide flexibility in instruction and assessment in order to address these differences and enable all students to progress toward curriculum goals.

While taking the course I spent a lot of time reflecting on the students I teach.  As a literacy specialist, I work with struggling readers.  Some of my students have great difficulty decoding the text, while others can decode, but aren’t showing an understanding of what they have read.  I thought a lot about one student in particular, a second grader.  Even with reading intervention he was struggling with decoding and encoding.  But, when discussing a text he was often very insightful and could explain a theme or a character’s traits better than the other students in the group.  When we were reading nonfiction texts he always had information of his own to extend our discussion of the topic.  This was a student with lots of background knowledge he had collected from various sources: television, the internet, field trips, visits to a museum. This was a student who was learning a lot through visual and hands-on experiences.  This student also demonstrated his learning better through speaking than writing.  Reading and writing were a chore for him since it was such a challenge, but in contexts where these tasks were removed he had the ability to excel. 

Reading and writing are at the core of learning in the elementary grades.  When readers struggle we provide them with intervention and supports so they can become proficient readers and writers.  Some students continue to need these intervention and supports as they move through the grade levels.  Many of these students are aware of their challenges and difficulties with reading.  Teachers can help make students aware that there is variability in how they learn and everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses.  There are two books that I will share with students to help send this message.  One is a chapter book and the other is a picture book.  Both feature main characters who realize that they are different from their classmates and are trying to navigate the school setting even though they don’t excel in the typical academic areas.  They both gain a sense of empowerment when they realize their strengths.  These books can help students accept their own learning differences and discover their strengths. 

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Ally finds school very challenging because of her difficulties with reading and writing.  Her attempts to hide her difficulties often get her in trouble and she’s gained a reputation as a student with a behavior problem.  With the help of her teacher, she learns she has dyslexia and begins to learn to read.  She realizes that her difficulties with reading don’t make her “dumb.” This book would be a great read-aloud and could spark conversations not just about differences, but also kindness, acceptance, and friendship.

I Will Never Get a Star on Mrs. Benson’s Blackboard by Jennifer Mann

Rose thinks she will never get a star on her teacher’s blackboard because she answers math questions incorrectly, she doesn’t read loud enough, and her desk is a mess.  After the class has a visit from an artist, Rose creates a thank-you card that Mrs. Benson admires.  In the end, Rose’s artistic strength earns her a star on the blackboard.  Although a simple text, many students will be able to relate to Rose.


Meyer, A., Rose, D.H., & Gordon, D. (2013).  Universal design for learning: Theory and practice.  Wakefield, MA: Cast Professional Publishing.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Slice of Life: Writing is Hard

Writing is hard.  Really hard.  I mostly write when I have to write – school or course-related writing or writing in front of my students.  I just recently finished writing my dissertation, and, boy, was it hard.  The agony of sitting in front of my computer trying to craft a sentence that gets my point across or organize my thoughts into a paragraph that flows smoothly made me want to give up on a daily basis.  I am baffled by those who find joy in writing.  Writing is just so hard.  I know how many of my students feel. I can relate to how it feels to look at a blank page and not to have any idea about what to write or know how to start and then when I do start not know how to keep going.  As I write this paragraph, and get distracted with checking my email and Twitter (which I just did before I started writing), I understand why some students always have to make a trip to the bathroom or get up multiple times to sharpen their pencil during writer’s workshop. I know how it feels.  Writing is just so very hard. 

And, yet, here I am starting my own blog and writing my first Slice of Life.  I know that writing is hard, but I also know the power of writing.  Writing can help us reflect and learn.  Through writing we can understand one another.  Writing can create change.  So, I am stepping out of my comfort zone.  By writing more about my teaching I am doing something I am not familiar or comfortable with – writing for the joy.  Blogging and writing is a challenge, but I’m hoping from that challenge I will grow as a writer and a teacher.  Maybe, someday writing won’t be quite so hard. 

The goal for our students is that they grow and learn.  They, too, need to step out of their comfort zones.  If students take risks, try new things, and challenge themselves, not only can their writing benefit, but learning, in general.  As teachers, we can encourage students to step out of their comfort zones.  We can share stories of others who have done this.  There are many children’s books, picture books and biographies, that tell the stories of individuals who took a risk to accomplish something.  These stories can open up conversations about risk-taking, failure, persistance, and success.  In addition, teachers can model their own attempts to step out of their comfort zone.  My decision to blog and write more, even though it’s something I’m not entirely comfortable with, is something I can share with students.  Sharing our own struggles with writing and learning is powerful.  In the classroom, failure, or more accurately, mistakes should be embraced.  Our mistakes help us learn and grow, but students don’t always understand this.  We can foster an environment in which students learn from their own and others’ mistakes and persist in achieving success. 

Writing is hard.  Learning is hard.  Taking on a challenge is hard.  But, remaining in one’s comfort zone is too easy and we risk finding the joy and creating opportunities to grow and learn.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

From Books to Blogs

I have shelves and shelves of professional books.  If you can think of a book about literacy
instruction, there’s a good chance it’s on one of my shelves.  Or because the shelves are overflowing, you might find it in one of the stacks that have begun to accumulate on the floor.  Since I became an educator, over a decade ago, my knowledge related to literacy and teaching has increased ten fold because of the authors of these books.  I have learned countless effective teaching practices from reading and writing giants such as Ellin Oliver Keene, Stephanie Harvey, Katie Wood Ray, Georgia Heard, and many others.  This is just one piece of evidence that I am a lifelong learner, dedicated to refining my practice as a literacy educator. I’ve engaged in a myriad of other professional development experiences: graduate courses, professional conferences, webinars, study groups.  I’ve been seeking knowledge, but also collaboration with like-minded, passionate literacy educators.

I recently read Digital Leadership by Eric Sheninger.  The book has been invaluable in helping me understand how technology can enhance learning, teaching, and leading in the twenty-first century.  One chapter, focused on professional development, has led me to think about how I learn and connect with other educators.  Sheninger describes the traditional teacher network as consisting of curriculum resources, colleagues, popular media, print and digital resources, and family and local community.  He suggests that professional development can be enhanced through a digital teacher network.  A digital network consists of all of the traditional tools, but includes the addition of digital tools such as blogs, wikis, social network sites, and online communities (p. 120).  Although I consider myself to be technologically literate, my professional development has revolved around more of the traditional tools rather than the digital. 

I do engage in the use of technology for learning and growing as a professional, but it has been limited.  I occasionally view webinars, which have provided me knowledge on a variety of topics related to literacy instruction.  Many times I am unable to participate in the live event, but instead view the recorded version, which does not allow for connection with others through opportunities to chat in real-time.  I have a Facebook account through which I link to the pages of educational organizations, such as the International Literacy Association, National Council of Teachers of English, and Choice Literacy.  The updates from these, and other organizations, provide me with information about the happenings in literacy and links to useful articles and resources.  I also regularly read blogs written by other educators.  Through the use of an RSS reader, Feedly, I subscribe to my favorite blogs, organize them by topic, and skim through new posts so I can read those of interest.  A few of my favorite blogs include Burkins and Yaris: Think Tank for 21stCentury Literacy, Two Writing Teachers, and A Year of Reading.  I greatly enjoy reading many of the posts in my favorite blogs, but I have been more of a spectator than a participant.  I have not made a habit of commenting on posts in order to connect with the authors or readers of the blog.

After reading Digital Leadership, I was inspired to move towards become a more digitally networked educator.  Scheninger makes the case that leaders and educators who use digital tools, including social media, have unlimited possibilities in where, when, and who they learn from.  Information and knowledge are at one’s fingertips and connections with other educators can be made across the globe through online tools and social media sites.  I would like to expand my personal learning network through two technology tools that are new to me.  

My Own Blogging Journey

Yes, blogging can seem a bit scary.  The fact that by blogging I am putting my ideas and my writing out there for the world to read can put some unsettling thoughts into my head. What if no one cares about what I have to say?  What if my writing is terrible?  What if I run out of ideas to blog about?  Oh, I could probably go on and on.  But, rather than let these fears of failure dominate I’ve decided to focus on the reasons I should blog.  I share my teaching practices with teachers all the time, informally with my colleagues and more formally when I present at workshops and conferences.  And I love doing it.  Blogging is another way to share my practices with others.  Blogging is also a way to reflect on my teaching.  Through blogging I will be writing to learn – organizing my thoughts and thinking through my ideas.  In addition, I hope blogging will give me the opportunity to communicate with teachers beyond the walls of my school in order to expand my personal learning network.  I think these reasons outweigh the fears so my blogging journey has begun.  I am looking forward to sharing what’s on my mind related to literacy.

PD Through Twitter

I recently signed into Twitter and realized I have had an account since 2010. Up until a few days ago I had never tweeted a thing.  Now that I’ve started using Twitter as a professional learning tool I am wondering why it took me so long.  I have found many literacy education experts and teachers from around the globe with similar interests to follow.  The sharing of ideas and teaching practices is amazing.  The tweets of other educators, although 140 or characters or less, have provided me with ideas to support students’ literacy learning:

Many tweets also contain links to articles and blog posts providing more resources for professional learning.  In the future, I am looking forward to engaging in Twitter chats in order to interact with other educators.   

There are many other possibilities for using technology for professional development.  I may choose to explore other options in the future.  Creating a professional learning community through an online discussion forum or using wikis to collaborate with others on a literacy topic intrigue me.  The new ways that I have found to use technology have already helped to energize my learning and spark a new enthusiasm for professional collaboration.