Literacy with Dan Feigelson

I am not a literacy teacher. So I have really enjoyed the opportunities I have had to learn from various consultants (Barb Golub, Ralph Fletcher, Dan Feigelson,…) who have visited AES over the years in order to deepen my knowledge and understanding in an area where I don’t have a strong background. Last week, we have had the good fortune to learn from Dan Feigelson, a visiting literacy consultant who has been focusing largely on reading conferences to deepen student comprehension.

In meeting with Dan, his session was called Reading Projects Reimagined: Teaching kids to come up with their own ideas about books. Dan talked about the importance of freedom of thought, how to help students recognize, name and extend their own lines of thinking and ideas, and how to teach independent thinking which is free of teacher prompts. As teachers, we often spend so much time in school telling and guiding students about what to think, and this approach is nurturing student thinking and metacognition.

Dan supports that reading time in the classroom should be spent READING or talking to a classmate about reading, and that we should save our literary analysis and other writing about literature for our writing instruction. So we spent our time with Dan digging into reading conferences, and the concept of listening well to what students are noticing and thinking. The idea is to teach the reader, not the book.

The reading conference focuses on the power of naming. First, name the thinking that the student is demonstrating. Then, express how that thinking and reading strategy can be generalized for other types of reading. The goal is to build a repertoire of reading strategies that are transferrable. These will generally fall under the 7 comprehension strategies (which are research-based) for what children need to know and be able to do in order to understand and think deeply about a text:

Some of the things that we might do as readers:

  • connect personal experiences to text
  • think about characters
  • recognize bigger issues in the text
  • argue with the text
  • think about what they already know
  • make predictions
  • thinks about the role of the minor characters
  • thinks about the theme or lesson in the text
  • empathizes with character feelings

The flow of the reading conference went like this;

  1. Start open – “What are you thinking about what you are reading?”
  2. Start making connections to possible strategies – generalizable strategy that is transferrable
  3. Make a decision on a strategy and zoom in….”tell me more” (say this at least 3 times)
  4. Create a plan – consider the ZPD – What is the student most ready for? Listen to the most sophisticated thinking and push it forward. (We don’t always want to teach to the deficit….)
  5. Broaden the strategy back out (to what good readers do with all books)
  6. Negotiate an assignment with the students – make sure there is student ownership of the work
  7. Explain to the student why this work is important to the student and transferrable to other reading

“Noticing and naming is….crucial to becoming capable in particular activities…Once we start noticing certain things, it is difficult not to notice them again.” -Peter Johnston, 2004

So, as Dan said – perhaps the most critical role a teacher can play when discussing a book with student readers is to help name what they are thinking about.


When we joined Dan for a lab site to watch him confer with students, he started by explaining the jobs in a conference.

Much of Dan’s work was stressing the importance of meta-cognition; helping students to think about their thinking. He noted the importance of how teachers can model this, especially in the phase when students are first getting used to this new way of thinking about our thinking and how readers make sense of a text.

Overall, I felt like I learned a lot (both about reading conferences, as well as listening and question-asking strategies that would be transferrable to conferences I have with teachers as well!). I know our teachers were super engaged and energized. I can’t wait to see the continued learning that happens over the next several weeks to make sense of what we learned.


Maker Mindset

“When we encourage children to tinker, to tweak and to improve things, we offer them an opportunity to develop self-advocacy, the feeling of being a creator, a producer and not merely a consumer.” -John Rinker

On Monday during our Professional Learning Day, the faculty at AES spent an hour and a half in the morning participating in a thought-provoking session about developing a maker mindset in ourselves and our students. Here is Monday morning’s presentation.

In January, the middle school opened our brand new maker space. The space was new, but the maker mindset was not. We have had many electives and core classes engaging in design thinking, tinkering, exploring passions, creating, and more. We believe that the Maker Mindset empowers learners to explore, create, discover and define their learning journey. By nurturing a maker mindset, we believe that we encourage makers to be: curious, reflective, empathetic, have a growth mindset, agents of change and believe that they can do anything.

Here are some pics of our new space:screen-shot-2017-02-22-at-9-23-00-amscreen-shot-2017-02-22-at-9-22-36-am

Here is a sewing club – one of our after school activities:


Here is another after school activity – Claymation / Legomation Club:screen-shot-2017-02-22-at-9-22-08-am

Here are students working on independent projects in Create Your Own Elective class, where they identify something they are passionate about and curious to learn more about:screen-shot-2017-02-22-at-9-21-20-am

And we also have an elective called Media Street Team that uses the space to create a middle school form of a ‘newspaper’. Check out their blog and their Instagram.

Gary, our Director of Technology, shared some resources with faculty that I am hoping to further dig into this spring, and I wanted to document them here. To learn more about making and creating a maker centered classroom, he shared Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez’s book Invent to Learn, which is a staple of maker centered education. Here are links to pdfs of Chapter 2 (Learning) and Chapter 3 (Thinking about Thinking). These two chapters make a compelling case for providing opportunities for students to make.

Gary and the Tech Team also suggest that the Parts, Purposes and Complexities thinking routine from Harvard’s Project Zero can support thinking in a maker centered classroom.

Here is an article and a few videos to further support and deepen understanding about the Maker Mindset.

From NPR: On the Lesson Plan Today: Make Stuff. Fail. Learn While You’re At It.



“We don’t need to change everything now, but we do need to start forgetting the assumptions that we have made. The future is more uncertain than ever, but we need to make our kids as balanced, agile and as self-reliant as ever in order to thrive in it.” -John Rinker

Equitable Group Work

Today we were fortunate to have Teachers Teaching Teachers for our Faculty Inservice Day. I was able to attend 2 great sessions with colleagues from the elementary and high school. The first session was led by Sunshine Campbell, a high school math teacher, and was called Equitable Group Work. The focus of the presentation was in raising awareness regarding status hierarchies in the classroom. Here is a PDF of the presentation: equitable-groupwork-presentation.

Sunshine pointed out that when we place students in groups, they will always wonder why they were placed in a particular situation, and that it is human nature for us to size each other up against others in our group to determine our relative status. Sunshine shared a strategy of randomly and publicly assigning seating so that there is no question about possible hidden teacher bias.

Some of the beliefs that drive the reasoning to publicly and randomly assign students to groups is because:

  • how students perceive what the teacher thinks “smart” looks like in the content area matters
  • how students perceive themselves and others as “smart” in a content area matters

Generally, when we create mixed ability groups, where there is 1 “high” student, 2 “middle-ability” students and 1 “weaker” student, the weak student will immediately understand his or her role in that group. However, if we want students to all take risks, give answers, and make effort to learn our content, we want to avoid communicating this unintentional message to students about the teacher-perceived ability of group members. This is relative academic status.

In addition to academic status, students also measure themselves according to societal status (gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc) and peer status (their popularity and social standing).

Two common things to watch for with group dynamics and status are body language and who has the tools (pencil, materials, manipulatives). Additionally, it is important for the teacher to let students know that there are lots of ways for students to demonstrate ‘smartness’ in this content area. And then it will be important for the teacher to assign competence, or publicly acknowledge and recognize when students of lower status display ‘smartness’. One way to help convey and communicate about what ‘smartness’ looks like in the classroom is to have students complete a survey like the example below:


Some strategies that Sunshine suggests to ‘treat’ status:

  • randomly and publicly seat students in groups
  • assign group work roles (see below)
  • create group work norms
  • assign competence

Group Work Roles:

img_9979 img_9980 img_9981 img_9982

“Who owns the learning?”

Alan November (see his bio here) visited our school this past week. I had already read his book Who Owns the Learning last year and was very interested in the ideas that he challenges. I was lucky to attend our all-school presentation for an hour and a half, plus another hour plus with the Admin Team. I have previously embraced his ideas of students making tutorials for other students ala November’s work looks at the intersection of engagement and purpose in education, and while he is an education technology consultant, he stresses that by far the most important aspect of a classroom is a highly effective and engaging teacher.

His presentation was unlike others I have seen before. He had no formal powerpoint or prezi prepared. He had his laptop and the internet and he started off, nad he has a constructivist approach to his talk. His presentation was very interactive, and based on the feedback, comments and questions from my colleagues he adjusted his presentation to match. Here are some of the ideas that he threw out during the hour and a half presentation:

  • What if your don’t need a transcript or grades to show what you know and what you can do? He shared the story about the boy from Mongolia who was one of 340 students out of 150,000 to earn a perfect score in Circuits and Electronics, a sophomore-level class at M.I.T. and the first Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC.

  • It’s all about expectations. Whatever we think kids can do, they can do.

  • Kids want immediate gratification. Video games. ADHD.

  • Leader boards and seven design elements that are used in video games…what if we applied these to schools?

  • Challenge to schools that implement 1-to-1 technology programs that become the $1000 pencil plan: students using a school issued laptop to solve the same problems that they did before.

  • Alan shared a couple of videos:

Eric mazur shows interactive teaching.

The AP50 experience

  • The role of a teacher is not to transfer knowledge, but “to make kids sweat” more.

  • Idea: Give same exam twice, once alone and once collaboratively, then you can see an explosion of learning in the second collaborative attempt. Round three, group reflects on exam and comes up with a problem to apply the knowledge.

  • Curse of knowledge, a teacher’s knowledge getting in the way of a student’s learning.

  • The hardest thing to teach a teacher is how to let go of control and trust students.

  • John Hattie, What Works in Education

  • Why do some people learn better than others? Skill of an expert is that they question their own knowledge and understanding.

  • How do we teach kids to be web literate?
  • Patterns of behavior: Kids look at the top strain of results. Three tries and then give up. Only use one search engine.

  • Every teacher should watch their students use google. Ask students “what’s missing?”Important to help all students and teachers understand all 16 google operators in order to be web literate.Google search operators – helps with precision in searches. Power Search Google – a course to help better searches

  • Eli Pariser – Ted talk on the filter bubble
  • Problem: assignments were designed before the internet – so no new capacity to help students get the best information from the internet.

To be a good teacher, you have to be a great learner. In interview process:

  • Give teacher a problem that they don’t know the answer to and watch them learn.

  • Also ask teacher about their global network, their PLN.

Top qualities according to Alan November:

  • Manage your own learning – great research skills.

  • Amazing network all around the world.

  • You want people who can adapt well. There is a lot of change ahead of us.

If you were to take 5 days at the beginning of the year to teach your students to learn how to learn, what would you teach? For example:

As a school, how do we honor when a student ‘owns their learning’ but it doesn’t fit into our curriculum (for example, tinkering in a car engine)?

  • Well, how are we using our online portfolio to allow the child to put their own learnings and passions from outside of school into a portfolio situation that all teachers and their peers have access to?

Alan November’s website.

Cultures of Thinking

This past week we were so fortunate to have Mark Church, of Harvard’s Project Zero, visit our school to talk about Making Thinking Visible. This was Mark’s fourth visit to our school over the last few years. I started working with him a year ago, as a math teacher, and attended his workshops in September 2012 and January 2013. Following the initial workshop, a few focus groups were created, and we gathered together every 2 weeks to share student work, puzzle over dilemmas, think together about our inquiry questions, and reflect on our practice. Being a part of this focus group was one of the best professional development endeavors for me, as it allowed me to have a formal structure for wondering, puzzling, questioning, brainstorming, sharing and learning from my colleagues.

Mark’s time at our school over the last few years was originally largely in the Elementary School, however the invitation was always open to the Middle School and High School as well. On this visit, we had Mark speak at an MS Faculty Meeting in order to gain some momentum organically and in a grassroots manner (without being an inititave or pushing), and there were also a few scheduled sessions that were open for any teacher to attend during a free period. I also asked Mark to conduct a session with our Instructional Assistants – a group who has often previously been overlooked for this important work. (The feedback from our IAs was great, and they were left wanting more sessions like this!) At the session with our Middle School Faculty, Mark presented with the title – An invitation to dream: A new story of learning.

Mark started the conversation by asking: What three or four attitudes, dispositions, and habits you wish students came to your classroom with that would serve their learning well? My answers were: persistence through mistakes (grit), risk taking, creativity, open-minded and ability to make connections. Here are some other teachers’ ideas:

  • growth mindset
  • multiple perspectives
  • curiosity
  • valuing failures
  • resilience
  • compassionate & joyful & connected to others
  • creativity over completion
  • intrinsic motivation, desire to learn
  • perseverance

Mark then classified these characteristics into the following three categories of dispositions:

Social Dispositions: attitudes and habits that relate to how how groups and people function – cooperativeness, sense of humor, empathy

Work Dispositions: attitudes and habits related to work and school performance – persistence, concern for quality, willingness to do one’s best, putting forth effort

Thinking Dispositions: attitudes and habits that facilitate and promote effective thinking – open-mindedness, curiosity, skepticism, looking at both sides of the issue

Faculty was then introduced to The Cultural Forces:

  • routines and structures (to facilitate this thinking)
  • time (making time for this conversation)
  • opportunities (providing opportunities for thinking)
  • modeling (children learn what they live with)
  • interactions and relationships
  • environment (how kids were grouped, the walls and thinking that was shown, if someone visited our classroom without us there would they get a sense of what matters to us in this room???)
  • Language
  • Expectations

Mark challenged us to think about – Fostering a Thought-Full Classroom: What is the story of learning in this place? How does our environment communicate what really matters? About just getting stuff done?

Mark’s parting question to faculty was to re-pharse the question from the beginning of the meeting: What are the 3-4 habits, attitudes and dispostions that you want students to leave your classroom with that would serve their learning well — long after they’ve left you?

One of the big questions that has been lingering for me prior to Mark’s visit, and even more so since his time with us, is how do we create time and space to puzzle and think together collaborative about questions meaningful to our practice?


Telling Our Stories of Learning

Visible Thinking website


(Tech) Tools for Student Learning

Our middle school went 1:1 with iPads last year. I generally consider myself relatively tech-savvy. Not super-sneaky-amazing tech-savvy, but I manage to get by pretty well. However, at the start of last year, I was very reluctant to jump right in with using the iPad regularly in my classroom. (I am brand new to being an administrator; last year I was teaching sixth grade math.) There were several other aspects of my instruction that I was working on developing at the time:

  • I was in a Making Thinking Visible focus group following work with Mark Church of Harvard’s Project Zero,
  • I was continuing to develop UbD units and implement the new Common Core standards,
  • and I was also further developing the reflection and reassessment aspect of our Standards Based Grading pilot in the math department.

I didn’t want to balance too many initiatives at one time, and I also didn’t want to use tech just for the sake of using tech. I think of the iPad as one possible tool that I can use when planning my instructional approach with students. So when it came to using the iPad with my students, I waited. I waited almost four months actually. But when I was finally ready to consider new approaches and tools to add into my toolbox, I jumped in with two feet. Sometime mid-November I started integrating the iPad into my lessons in a meaningful way. Students had the choice to use the iPad or not. Many used it as a way of ‘documenting’ their group work or work with math manipulatives by snapping photos with the iPad camera and them organizing their work into a digital binder. Others used the iPad to share their work through the app Remarks (and linked through Dropbox). In any event, the way my students collaborated, worked with manipulatives, communicated about their thinking, and developed and supported their math thinking didn’t change. The technology just started to support the culture of learning I had already developed in my classroom.

Fast-forward to today, where I am now a new assistant principal and we are in our second year of 1:1 iPad implementation. My colleague Beth (the MS principal) and I were talking about our vision for the year with regards to technology and what kind of message we want to send to our teachers about the use of technology in their classes. We are aware and sensitive to the fact that we have many initiatives happening at our school. We also want to make sure that teachers are focusing on the most important aspect of their job: student learning.

This conversation was largely triggered due to an observation during a session of our New Teacher Orientation today. While we were starting to talk through some basic information about our middle school, a couple of teachers asked about Smart Boards. They were not previously in schools with Smart Boards, and while young and otherwise technically savvy, you could sense the stress in the room rise a little as these teachers were wondering when/if there would be a Smart Board training for new teachers. So Beth and I quickly tried to reassure the teachers that our tech department does a phenomenal job training our faculty and supporting teachers. Beth and I later talked about balance and the importance of teachers considering each tech device as a tool that is meant to assist them instruct. And then she shared this wonderful article from Edutopia: The Best 1:1 Device is a Good Teacher. I love this! The focus is on the pedagogy and learning, and thinking about the device as just one of the tools in our toolbox! It’s all about balance, and it’s all about staying centered on student learning!