Slice of Life: Connecting

I already blew posting on Day 1 of joining…so I am determined to get this one up, regardless of how messy it might be. Slice of Life has had me thinking about connections as storytelling is the oldest form of connecting. Over the course of decades and centuries, people have been passing both oral and written stories down, as cultural connections, forms of entertainment, and recordings for posterity.

As a literacy coach, these past few days I have found myself connecting with fellow teachers in order to collaborate. We have used Google Hangouts and Docs, text (both individual and on chains), phone calls, and FaceTime. I have been talking to authors through Instagram DMs and What’s App.

This is the very positive side of technology. It allows us myriad ways to connect with one another so that we don’t feel so alone. It allows us to work with students from afar. It allows us to see and hear loved ones who live far away.

Last night, I called my neighbor, who is 85 and lives alone, to see how she is doing. Today,  as I sat down to write this post, I received an envelope in my mailbox with a handwritten note thanking me for the call and a copy of “the only positive email” she has gotten about all of this. It made me think once again about connection, and how important it can be when we least expect it.

My neighbor is amazing. She is independent and knows just what she needs in this difficult time. She would have been fine if I hadn’t called. In fact, the thoughtfulness of her letter might even mean more to me than my call to her.

It will be these kinds of connections that keep me going through the next weeks and months.

This Slice of Life challenge couldn’t have come at a better time.

Dear Ms. Lahiri

I love when a book creates an opportunity that would have been impossible had it not been written. Perhaps every book has this potential, but the pages do not always open for me in this way.

Fortunately, Jhumpa Lahiri’s memoir documenting her journey learning Italian, In Other Words or In Altre Parole, fell into my hands at the perfect time. After reading it with my book club a few years ago, I happened to pop into the library and see a few piles of neatly stamped copies sitting on the desk. Stunned, I asked who was going to be reading this somewhat unknown work of Lahiri’s.

The Italian 4 Honors class.

I knew I had to get in on this teaching, even if only to hear what the students were saying.

Full disclosure: My own book club did not love the book. A group of Lahiri fans, this was such a departure from her lyrical storytelling that many of us struggled with it. Personally, I did not love the writing as much as I did when reading The Lowlands, but I could relate to and appreciate her dedication to learning Italian. I recognized many of the emotions that cycled through me when living in Sevilla, Spain, learning Spanish almost two decades earlier.

The main reason why I wanted to engage in reading this book with students is that I love Enia Noonan, our Italian teacher. She is a gift to the department. She not only has a true passion for the language, but even more, she deeply cares that her students understand the beauty and relevance of learning Italian. There are no textbooks in her room; rather, she is the kind of teacher who uses real china to set up cafes at tall tables where students engage in conversations in Italian. I knew she would be excited to work on this text with me.

The memoir is structured so that the English is on the right page and the Italian translation is on the left. The first year, the students read the book, slowly, digesting both the English and Italian sides. I did not speak with them until the final discussion where we talked about their experience reading a book constructed in this way.

The first thoughts that struck me were that the vast majority of the students commented on how much more they enjoyed reading the Italian than the English. They said Lahiri’s Italian was so much more beautiful, fluid, and descriptive than the English translation. I began to wonder if this was the problem my book club had while reading; none of us spoke Italian. After sharing this possible revelation with the students, we continued to have a 45-minute conversation about the book, their own experiences learning Italian, and how reading in two languages affected them.

When the bell rang, I was buzzing. The students were so engaged, thoughtful, and reflective. Many of them skipped parts of the book, or did not understand some of the ideas. But is didn’t matter in the least. All of them engaged in what Louise Rosenblatt would call an aesthetic reading of the text. They were not reading to find information, they were reading to connect to the lyrical nature of the Italian and the transactional connections they made to their own study of the language.

Enia and I sat down to plan how we wanted to use the text this year, and we knew we needed to expand upon this first experience.

One of the most interesting aspects of Lahiri’s book is that she chose to have someone else translate it for her. She writes that she did not want to break from writing in Italian, and so she decided to have someone else translate her words into English. When thinking about what we wanted our students to gain from reading the text, we knew we needed to add reflective writing and translation to their experience.

We kicked off reading the memoir with a pre-reading process that included writing, discussion, and translation. During the class, the students were able to reflect on their thoughts about learning a new language in either English or Italian, share with the class, and then translate into the other language. We were beginning with a similar process to Lahiri’s so that the students could enter the book with a mindset that mirrored much of what Lahiri would be describing.

When students began reading the book, we wanted to give them the option of which sections they would choose to read. While many chose to read the entire text, we did not feel that this was essential to the experience, so rather than some students not reading due to length, we wanted them all to feel that it was a manageable amount for them. We also wanted students to construct their own ideas from the reading, so we asked them to respond to the following questions and be prepared to discuss their thinking in class:

  • What are you thinking while you read?
  • What are you curious about?
  • How can you relate?
  • Did it remind you of anything?
  • How does it feel as a reader to read in two languages?
  • Did you find any memorable images in this writing?

Finally, students were asked to write a letter in Italian to Lahiri, reflecting upon what they learned from her words and connecting to their own process learning Italian. What they did not know was that someone else in the class would be translating it for them into English.

Here is where we gained even more insight into the students’ learning. Many students commented that the translation exposed mistakes that they had made in Italian. It allowed students to see when they used the wrong verb tense, or word choice, and gave them an opportunity to revise their Italian. For the translators, they had to stay as close to the Italian as possible, so they really needed to understand the linguistic components of the letter.

In her letter to Lahiri, one student reflected that, “Seeing the direct translation takes away a curtain that was hiding our shortcomings and allowing us to naively consider ourselves masters of Italian.”

Ultimately, students used this text to engage in thoughtful conversations about both Lahiri’s experiences and their own in learning a new language. For some students, this reading also evoked times when they lived in a new country, even coming to the United States. As one student wrote to Lahiri:

“This year concludes my third year of studying Italian at school, but before I studied this language in the United States I studied it in Italy. In fact, I lived there for about four years, having an elementary education in the Italian school system…I read your relationship with the Italian language and I felt somewhat nostalgic- I had a very similar experience with both English and Italian when I had just moved to respective countries.”

This was one of the unexpected joys of talking with students about In Other Words; it gave them a means for expressing ideas about culture and identity that otherwise might have continued to be hidden within them.

In the middle of this unit, the students took to national Italian exam. I happened to be walking past the room when Enia came running out and grabbed me. She was beyond excited because many of the students had chosen to write about their experience with In Altre Parole for one of the questions on the written section of the exam. As a reader and a teacher, nothing could fulfill me more than when students see a reason to think about a book beyond the walls of their classroom.

I could write pages and pages about what an incredible experience this was for us as teachers and, I think, for the students as learners. But, I will let some excerpts from the students’ letters to Jhumpa Lahiri speak instead, for they are much more powerful than mine.

“…I have a connection to what you wrote in the book. Italian is where I find happiness and tranquility. I decided to take the class at school after my grandma died. She was Italian and loved everything of Italy (the language, the food, the culture, the fashion, and more). Therefore, this language has a lot of significance in my heart.”

“I am always struck by language and culture. Your book gave me a different aspect on learning a language. I learned that it is okay to take risks. This is something that I will always keep in mind when I learn something.”

And finally…

“ This book helped me see two things: One, that I, ME, a person who values learning but often times finds it difficult, can do this. And two, that this book was not meant to teach, it was meant to empathize. Empathize with those of us who are struggling and just getting by with the language, or any language for that matter. Empathize with those of us who have been displaced and don’t quite feel at home where we are in the world. It is meant to empathize with everyone, and if this book has taught me anything, it is the knowledge that we are not alone.”

So, Ms. Lahiri, if you are reading this blog post, please be on the lookout for the package of letters that we sent you. We would be honored if you responded to our shared linguistic journey.


What is the purpose?

As teachers are preparing for midterms and my schedule as a literacy coach is emptier than normal, I decided to use the time to engage in some personal professional development and read Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them. I have obviously been negligent in delving into this professional text for way too long, but as I poured over her words, what I uncovered was very different from what I was expecting.

As usual, Penny did not disappoint. I nodded through the parts about the importance of student choice, teacher-as-writer, and drooled over the length of her blocks of uninterrupted reading and writing time. I turned pages, highlighting, commenting, and tagging those to come back to. Her words filled me with and reinforced familiar ideas that are foundations of my own teaching, often times making me think more deeply or forcing me to look at an idea from a different angle.

But, what stuck with me most, in fact, the idea that kept emerging, was one of purpose and intention.

Penny shared the letter that she sends home to families at the beginning of every semester. Her expectations are clear. Her words are incredibly honest. Below, she outlines her expectations for reading:


Quote from Kittle’s Write Beside Them, 2008

Aside from the fact that inherent in this honesty is a message that reading matters, she includes the Nancy Atwell quote to clearly demonstrate WHY it is important to read. Penny Kittle reinforces this with the fact that reading has purpose and is an activity, not an assignment, that she expects her students make time for. No excuses.

This is the first place where I started to think about how the purpose for Penny’s teaching is not so that her students will be strong readers and writers for school but that she shows them the value of reading and writing in their lives. Her purpose is intentional, and her students know this. It is not something that bounces around in her brain or lies stagnant in the lines of her plan book or even appears as one sentence on the whiteboard at the beginning of a class period. Penny’s purpose is clear to her students every day. It is with them in her classroom and remains with them when they unpack their bags at night and settle in with their chosen books.

The idea of setting purpose seems so obvious, but, for me, the timing for thinking more deeply about this concept is ripe.

Lately, Lauren, my co-blogger and social studies coordinator, and I have been talking about purpose in teaching. So many teachers get bogged down with the survival of every day lesson planning, that they don’t stop to think about the purpose for why they are teaching what they are. Why do these skills/content/ideas matter to them and, therefore, why should they matter to their students?

I see myself in these teachers. When I was concerned about my own classroom, making sure all of my papers were graded in a timely manner, that I knew exactly the content that I needed to deliver the next day, even days, and that my lessons were structured and materials prepared, I often neglected the bigger picture. It didn’t seem as relevant to the day-to-day functioning of my classroom.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

How could I have known how to best teach my students the skills and strategies they needed if I didn’t have an end point? A purpose for how these skills and strategies would become the road map to deeper understanding beyond my classroom? And, I was not the only one who needed to understand my purpose, my students needed to be clear not just where they were headed, but why.

Today I sat with a teacher who wanted to discuss lessons for both his upcoming observation and midterm exam. He is passionate about the reading his students are doing as they are having conversations about difficult topics such as race and income inequality. As we began to play with what he wanted to do in his observation to lead into his midterm exam, I asked him if his midterm was written.

His answer was not yet.

At this moment, the purpose for our meeting became crystal clear. How could we continue planning lessons to lead up to something that was not yet determined? We needed to decide the purpose for what students would be doing, based upon the skills and strategies they had been learning all semester, in order to prepare them for the final display of their learning.

If I had been thinking about this more in September, I would have advocated for the midterm to be determined then, so that the students had an endpoint that they were working toward the whole semester. Both students and teacher should know why they are learning and using these skills and strategies. What is the purpose? What is the ultimate goal?

And, I mean far beyond the midterm.

I left the meeting today believing that this teacher had experienced a light-bulb moment. I am hopeful that this conversation will be at the forefront of his next planning session, and he will begin thinking about his purpose for everything he teaches. This starts with looking at the end.

Understanding by Design, a method developed by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, has,at its very core, the idea of setting a purpose for learning before planning. As I have been talking to Lauren, working with teachers, and reading Penny’s book, I keep coming back to this fundamental concept that has (on my best days) helped to guide my teaching: Think about where we want students to go, WHY we want them to get there, and then create a means for them to do so.

In Write Beside Them, and in her book about building readers, Book Love, Penny Kittle mentions the emails she sent college professors to determine what they want students to be able to do in their writing when they arrive at college. These responses became the purpose and intention when she thinks about teaching writing. This is the ultimate backwards planning.

As teachers, we should always be thinking about where our students are heading next and then setting a purpose and intention for helping them to get there. We should also have students be a part of creating and understanding this purpose, for isn’t our ultimate goal to develop students who will decide what their purpose will be and know how to plan to get there?

Inspired by Book Love

In looking at the last post we wrote, way back when the weather still called for shorts and tank tops, sunscreen and lemonade, I realize that we have been rather negligent in our own writing. My only excuse (and it is a poor one) is that we have been very busy READING.

Even though I had seen Penny Kittle’s Book Love pop up in my Twitter feed and heard multiple conference presenters mention it as a must read, it wasn’t until this summer that I dug in…and devoured the book in four hours. It gave me the practical tools that I needed to begin helping teachers to address the apathetic behavior that I have been seeing in my high school students over the past few years.

For example, at the beginning of this year, a teacher of junior English administered a reading survey to her students to gauge their feelings about reading. Some of the results were not surprising, but others led me to think more deeply about what exactly is causing our students to feel the way they do about reading. Here are just a few of the statistics reported:

Students who choose to read in their free time: 6.4% 

Students who don’t choose to read in their free time: 48%

Students who enjoy reading most of the time: 71%

Students who were currently reading a book: 29%

Students who felt that reading is difficult for them: 12.9%

Students who do not read regularly: 54.9%

The most books a student read last year was 20 and the least was 2.

I find this data perplexing. We have students who don’t choose to read, but most say they enjoy reading. We have students who are confident in their skills as readers, but do not read regularly. Most students are not currently reading a book, and nobody read more than 20 books last year! What is causing this contrast in feelings versus actions? 

I believe that the biggest issue is choice. In high school, we kill the love of reading by forcing students to read the books we believe they need to read in order to be educated people. This is not an original idea, I know. Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Nancy Atwell, Richard Allington, and many others have stated this as a truth educators need to embrace if we want students to like, and hopefully love, reading.

Therefore, this year my literacy coaching is focusing on ways that we can bring choice into our classrooms and diverse, high interest books into our students’ hands. Here are some of the ideas that we are currently implementing:

1. We are building out the “Literacy Lounge,” a space that has flexible seating and a large classroom library.


Books arriving and being sorted into categories for shelving.


Different types of seating, from traditional stationary chairs, to exercise balls on tripods, to seats that smoothly roll across the room. This is another form of student choice.


A corner of the room waiting to be filled with books for a diverse classroom library and hopefully a rug!

2. One of the teachers has created an Instagram #staplesreads so that students and teachers can post the books they are reading and share favorites with one another. Instagram is an easy way to judge a book by its cover and hopefully begin compiling a what-to-read-next list.


A post about Elder Beth Regan from the Mohegan tribe visiting students to discuss the power of oral storytelling.


A post about a recently finished book.


A post from a teacher on a Monday holiday.

3. We are using Twitter to share the reading love as well. The goal is to have the community become more engaged and informed about what students are reading and learning in our high school. We are using the #stapleslearns to compile learning around the school, including reading.

We are very much in the infancy of these projects and welcome any and all ideas as to how to engage students in finding great books and then reading them. Please leave comments for us and we promise to post more frequently and update our progress, both the wins and the losses.




Institute 13: Using Informational Text to Enhance Literacy and Collaboration Across Disciplines

On Friday July 8, we were so fortunate to help run Institute 13: Using Informational Text to Enhance Literacy and Collaboration Across Disciplines with Susan Chenelle and Audrey Fisch. We thank all of the attendees for their thoughtful comments, participation, collaboration, insight, and shared passion for education. It was certainly a day of learning for all of us!

Soon we will write a much more thorough reflection on what we learned at ILA 16 as a whole and how we are thinking about using our new knowledge and understandings in the classroom. But, we wanted to share our slides and resources ASAP.

Paths of Inquiry Slides

Stretching Beyond the Textbook – our book with all of the graphic organizers

Making Thinking Visible – the book with the structures for See, Think Wonder and Think, Puzzle, Explore among other amazing tools for all classrooms

Make Just One Change – the book that has the research behind the QFT protocol that we ran with you

We hope you find all of these resources helpful. Please keep in touch and share all of your incredible work!