Monday, January 18, 2016

Don't strive for perfection. Strive for the logical next step.

Last week during a reading workshop lab day at one of my school sites, I was reminded of an important (perhaps the most important) idea in education that we often forget due to the consistent pressure to meet standards and lack of time allotted during the school day to sit back and reflect...

On a rainy Monday morning, four third grade teachers, the school principal, and I huddled around a
Character Studies was our guiding
book in planning our mini lesson
 and small group instruction.
large table in the school office to plan out our day of learning around reading workshop. We spent about 15 minutes discussing the needs of the learners in our designated lab class and then another 15 minutes planning the mini lesson to be delivered (developing larger theories about a character from the third grade Units of Study in Reading) and two small groups I was to deliver for the teachers to observe. The idea was that the teachers would observe the mini lesson and small groups, and then they'd collaborate to plan the next steps to deliver to those same small groups later that day.  Our goal was to use formative assessment to develop teaching next steps.

Once we gathered in the lab classroom with our twenty-four readers, the nine minute mini lesson was delivered, the third grade readers went off to their reading spots, and workshop time started.  All appeared to be going well. A couple minutes after the third graders settled into their books, I called one of the small groups over to the kidney bean shaped reading table.  As the readers sat down for the small group, the four teachers and principals hovered behind them to carefully watch and formatively assess the reading strategies and behaviors exhibited.  I began the small group by observing the students read and jot, and then asking a few open ended questions.  After a couple minutes "researching" the reading skills and strategies of the students at the table, it became apparent that we teachers missed the big idea.

After the small groups were complete, our reflective debrief brought something huge to light.  One of the third grade teachers suggested that we skipped or overlooked an important step. We all noticed that some of our readers in the small groups were having a difficult time discussing character traits and locating evidence of main characters' dialogue, actions, and reactions in the text.  The same third grade teacher suggested than when we pull the small groups later that day that we take a few steps back.  Rather than trying to teach the concept of using text evidence to identify a character trait again, these particular readers needed a small group lesson on identifying what a main character is in a fictional story and how to identify that character in their books.  Our initial small groups were run assuming students had already internalized this concept, when in fact, they needed to go a few steps back to be able to move forward.  

This is how we started under the assumption that students already knew how to determine the main character in a fictional story:

After our observation and reflection of the first round small groups, this is what we planned for the second round of small groups with the same students later that day:

After determining the small group lesson that the students actually needed, the four third grade teachers paired up, planned the second round of small groups, and then delivered the small groups based on the above diagram later that same day.

I had the pleasure of bouncing between the two small groups being taught by the pairs of teachers. The teachers masterfully took the steps backward that we needed to initially take to meet the actual needs of the students in the groups. At the end of the groups, during our final reflection of the lab time, we concluded that of the seven students in the two groups, six were then ready move on to determining character traits while one still needed more instruction and practice with identifying the main character in a fictional story.  The teacher of that classroom expressed how he's looking forward to revisiting these small groups now knowing exactly what his readers need.

The key idea that came to light here was that often times, with good intentions, we skip crucial building blocks or steps that students need in order to develop as readers (or writers, or scientists, or mathematicians, etc).  Asking and taking time in researching what students know and can do well before we plan lessons is the key to determining what our students actually need.  This idea can be applied to any lesson at anytime in any classroom (see the diagram below).


I applied this same idea a few days later during a conversation with a principal at a different school I also serve as the K-5 literacy coach. We were discussing how she might lead her teaching staff in an upcoming professional development session focusing on reading.  When discussing the staff needs as a whole, we determined that a focus on intentional small group strategy instruction would be a helpful use of the time. 

I suggested she may want to use examples for teachers from the Informational or Narrative Reading Progression for 2nd through 6th grade that's included in the Reading Pathways book from The Units of Study for Teaching Reading.

Our conversation went on to discuss when thinking about a reading skill, the first step is to always ask, "Where is this reader right now?  What is the reader doing well?"

Once what the student is doing well is determined, teachers can then determine which strategy might be the logical next step for the student to try.  That next step may not necessarily be classified within that student's grade-level, but that's ok as long as it is the next step the student actually needs to continue to develop as a reader.  Skipping a step, or two, or three, may omit critical reading processes that the student will need to reach his or her goals.  

The diagram below illustrates our conversation. 
How we applied this idea to a small snapshot of the Grades 2-6 Informational Reading
Progression from The Units of Study for Teaching Reading, Reading Pathways Book.

Remember friends, we're not seeking perfection, rather we're seeking a little better than yesterday- everyday.  To achieve better than yesterday, we first need to determine what our next logical instructional step should be. 

Our students can achieve everything we ask of them.  They are more capable than we often realize!  However, to be able to achieve everything they are capable of, they need to be given the right instruction at the right time. Finding and then taking some time to reflect is one of the best ways for teachers to do this.  I say finding and then taking some time because teachers are completely overworked and constantly operating in an environment where time is scarce and the pressure to meet standards is bubbling over. 

Once that time to reflect is found (even if just five precious minutes), remember to not just reflect, but to reflect and ask, "Where are my students and what do they actually need?"  The next logical steps may actually be a few steps backwards.

Happy teaching, friends!


  1. This:
    Remember friends, we're not seeking perfection, rather we're seeking a little better than yesterday- everyday. To achieve better than yesterday, we first need to determine what our next logical instructional step should be.
    So wise...and yet we teachers seem to have such a hard time with going back, even for a little bit. Thanks for this great post, Christina!

    1. Thank you, Tara! Going back is so tough. It truly is difficult as it feels progress is not being made. However, sometimes, it's the only way it can be made. Thanks again.

  2. So true!
    ESPECIALLY when the ideas are new and big. Starting with what the students NEED is so critical. We miss the forest for the trees if we overfocus on the end goal and forget that we MUST work with what the students know NOW!

    Perfect post for me as I'm planning demo lessons. I'm going to build some "If/Then" flexibility! THANKS so much for this timely reminder to pay attention and follow the lead of the students!

    1. Yes, Fran! "we MUST work with what the students know NOW!" This is #1. The If/Then mentality helps so much with this type of mindset...

      If this is happening, it's ok. Then, do this. If it doesn't work, it's ok! Then, try this.


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