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!


Tech with Purpose: Padlet

I really love technology. I am always on the hunt for tools that will enhance my students’ learning experiences and my ability to be creative, organized, and innovative. Over the past few years, I have become dependent upon Evernote as an organizational device, and pictochart to help students create infographics as a means of displaying information, and all of the Google apps that help me develop and share information with my students and vice versa. There are a myriad of other technological tools, like my new document camera!, that I also love, but a list of my favorite tech things is not the purpose of this blog post.

This is why I was so excited when I learned about the very user-friendly and adaptable tool, padlet. Some colleagues of mine began using padlet as a way to create discussion boards in their classroom last year, but I didn’t really start to dig into its possibilities until I was in a workshop in Santa Fe this past January where I was re-introduced to it by Kristin Ziemke, who uses padlet to compile a wealth of incredible tech resources, among other things.

Kristin’s presentation about digital literacy and the thoughtful use of technology in the classroom included this slide:


Kristin emphasizes the following six standards, based on  when thinking about the PURPOSEFUL use of technology in the classroom. She says that students must:

  • be self-directed learners
  • use resources effectively
  • comprehend and evaluate text across disciplines
  • respond to reading and research
  • adapt communication to audience
  • employ flexible collaboration and communication

Even though she works with elementary students and my day is spent with 9th-12th graders, these exact same standards apply. And these exact same skills are REALLY hard for many of our high school students.

Here are three ways that we are using padlet to address these six standards.

Padlet as a Tool for Independence:

In working with a tenth grade class of struggling readers and writers, we wanted to help them with “quote bombs” in a research paper. We wanted to  model for students how to:

  • find just the best part of a quote to use as evidence
  • use ellipses to show that a piece of the quote was taken out
  • explain WHY they chose these elements of the quote as their evidence

In addition, we wanted students to be able to see the different ways that a writer can choose to use a quote, that there is not a “right” way to choose evidence. Through padlet, we were able to give students the opportunity to both collaborate, communicate, and be self-directed learners.

After a mini-lesson in which we showed how to cut a quote so that only the ideas most relevant to the topic sentence were left, we wanted students to try this on their own, but with the same quote so that we (and they) could compare their thinking. We chose a topic sentence from one of their research papers and a supporting quote bomb (keeping the identity of the author anonymous). :

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 10.03.58 PM

Students were asked to cut the quote (a) to use only the evidence that best supported the topic sentence (1). Then they had to explain why they chose this specific evidence and how it helps to support the topic sentence. All students posted their responses on the same padlet wall so that they could see the variety of ways that their classmates were responding to this activity.

Here are two different responses for this activity. The first is simpler while the second is more comprehensive, but both employ the skills that we were looking for in the lesson.

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We definitely saw students becoming more self-directed and collaborative through this process. The use of padlet served two purposes.

1. Students were able to be more self-directed because if a student said they didn’t know how to do it, we directed them to look at what their classmates were posting and seek help from their peers before coming to a teacher. Oftentimes, simply collaborating by reading a model from a classmate helped them to understand what they needed to do.

2. Students were able to see that there is not simply one “right” way to approach using a quote. It depends upon the author’s purpose and what they want to convey to the audience, so students could see a variety of ways to respond to this activity.

Padlet as a Means for Reading Resources

The research process is still a challenge for many of our high school students. They have learned how to use data bases, but still prefer to just try and Google the answer. We want them to find reading materials that expose them to multiple perspectives on an issue, but this is difficult because students don’t know what the perspectives are of various publications.

In this padlet, we posted a myriad of different websites for a Contemporary World Issues class to use. We wanted students to do the research for inquiry projects, but we also wanted them to be using a variety of sources.

Screen Shot 2016-04-30 at 2.36.35 PM

Students used this padlet as an access point to do further research into their topics. The websites we chose represent multi-national perspectives as well as those of liberal and conservative publications. The students were not told what the viewpoint is of each site, as this is something they need to learn to uncover themselves through reading about the authors of the articles as well as the publication itself. We have taught lessons on how to evaluate the reliability and credibility of sources, as well as the perspective. We reminded students that these factors are still important to determine, even with the sites they were given.

The compilation of sources from multiple perspectives helps students to both read and research across disciplines as they have to critically think and evaluate the articles they are finding based upon their determination of a source.

Padlet as a Collaborative Tool

Our high school is a large one with close to 450 students per grade level. We have multiple sections of one class and are always looking for ways that students can share ideas across classes. Padlet allows them to do this.

Currently, our 9th grade global students are embarking on their first big inquiry project. They have self-selected countries to study (India, South Africa, and China) to learn more about imperialism. In groups they have read primary source documents, from both the imperialized country and the imperialists, about the history of imperialism in these countries. The students are now ready to find secondary sources as well as any current events that might still be an outcome of this history.

There are two groups for each country in a class, and each teacher has four sections of global studies. We wanted students to have a wealth of resources to choose from, so we created padlet boards that are shared across classes.








Students are responsible for posting their research findings on the shared padlet, which allows each group to have access to many more resources than if they were working on their own. They also have to follow this format for posting:

Screen Shot 2016-04-30 at 3.14.53 PM

This will help both the researcher who found the source be able to evaluate the source for reliability, credibility, and perspective, as well as give the collaborators an idea of how they should or could use the source based on this information. The 1-2 sentence summary also helps other students determine if this source is worth reading for their research purpose.

Finally, when students recognize that their work is going to help their peers, they are more willing to put in time and effort to evaluate the sources. We always say that if students want to be able to rely upon the ideas of their classmates, they have to do their part as well.

Padlet as a Formative Assessment Tool

Since these boards are all shared with the teacher, we can get a really good idea as to how are students are doing overall with their work. Sometimes we have them put their names on their posts if we want to look at individuals, but usually, we use padlet as a snapshot for how the class is doing. It is so helpful to scan a screen and see if students are clearly evaluating sources for perspective, writing succinct summaries, writing summaries that show they understood the reading, and demonstrating that they are looking at sources through multiple lenses.

From all angles, we have found padlet to be a successful technological tool that serves to enhance our students’ ability to access our curriculum in rich and meaningful ways.