Make Book Oases, Not Book Deserts

As a child, books seemed to be everywhere. I remember going to the supermarket with my mother, and as she headed down the aisles, I headed to the checkout counter, grabbed an Archie digest and read to my heart’s content. By the time my mother was ready to check out, I had read one whole comic and had another unread one in my hand for her to purchase. 

At home, I stashed books in secret places—under folded towels in the linen closet, behind the cleaning supplies under the sink, and in a boot in the coat closet—as if fearing a book apocalypse. I wanted to make sure that I could always find a book nearby.  To this day I still stash emergency reading material in my bag and on all my electronic devices. I live delightedly tangled in text.

That’s why the latest research about “book deserts” hit me so hard. Researchers went out to six different communities to analyze how accessible books were in the area. The results are stark. In high-income communities, books are common. Available in chain bookstores, boutiques and toy stores, researchers found 13 titles for every child. However, in high-poverty communities, there was about one book for every 300 children. Hence, the term “book desert”—a vast area where books are rare.

Often schools play a major role in providing access to books—especially for children from low-income homes. The Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report found that 61% percent of children ages 6–17 from the lowest-income homes say they read for fun mostly in school. Only 32% of kids from the highest-income homes say the same. But what happens when schools are closed? Where do children go to bump into a potential best friend book that can be read over and over while spurring a child to read other books?

Books need to be in those spaces and places frequented by children and families: at the doctor’s office, at the park and yes, in the grocery store, so that children can develop the love of reading.  Working with communities to help all children have access to books—all year round—is everyone’s responsibility. More and more, organizations are stepping up to give children access to texts. Enter, Barbershop Books, run by Alvin Irby.

Barbershop Books works to turn local barbershops in reading retreats for children. While children wait, they can check out a great book from the bookcase and, when they are done, they can talk to the barbers about the book—having a true community reading experience. With a staple of beloved Scholastic books, Barbershop Books helps children to become “Well groomed. Well read.” Learn more here:

Books breathe life into communities and we need to be creative in how we support increasing access. For myself as a child, books were alongside the necessities of life at the grocery store. Where are they in your community?

Five Super Reader Commitments to Make the School Year Unforgettable

Earlier this month, Larry Ferlazzo of Education Week's Classroom Q&A asked: what are the best ways to start a new school year? 

Education experts weighed in, including Pam Allyn, Executive Director and Founder of Litworld, and author of Every Child a Super Reader: 7 Strengths to Open a World of Possible. Below is her take on five ways to not only start the school year right, but to make the entire year unforgettable. 

The time is now to make a commitment to turn every child into a "super reader," to give them a sure way to become truly ready for the 21st century world and to experience the joy, pleasure and exaltation of an empowered reading life.

We can do this, first, by depathologizing the reading experience. We have "medicalized" reading instruction so that we are in a constant state of diagnosing children: leveling them, intervening with them, "pushing in" or "pulling out." The language we use to describe how we teach reading can be negative for children, and our methods for instruction can feel more like treating a disease than raising readers. At LitWord, I work with children across the United States and the world, and see children yearning for a positive reading experience, longing to join the literacy "club," and striving to become better at something they know will change their lives. The negative language of low expectations and intervention is inhibitive. It has prevented them from seeing themselves as super readers, from becoming aspirational in their reading goals, and from being bold and fearless in taking risks as readers. It has denied them a place at the reading table.

I'm recommending five commitments we can all make, as teachers, families and administrators to create a Super Reader Community Zone—a  place where all children have the opportunity of a lifetime: to see reading as a fundamental, joyful part of their everyday lives.

1. Use a strength-based approach to reading instruction.

My most recent work, which culminated in Every Child a Super Reader, a book I co-authored with Dr. Ernest Morrell, focuses on creating a positive foundation to build capacity in every reader through what we call the 7 Strengths. From belonging to courage, from confidence to hope, the 7 Strengths provide an escalating framework that helps bolster a child's authentic learning muscles. The strengths are designed to build resilience in our readers, for them to flourish in a community where their natural strengths are valued, and where they can practice taking risks as readers in a safe way. Use the 7 Strengths to build a supportive reading culture, to help children become "Reading Friends," and to foster a community of goal-setting, where children get in the habit of saying, "I am the kind of reader who..." or, "I am becoming the kind of reader who..." Starting off the year, the 7 Strengths can build capacity in your students for the "soft" skills that will make them stronger readers each week.

2. Affirm small steps of progress.

Don't wait until later in the year to reward and affirm reading progress. Take time each day to honor those small steps. "Today I loved how Pedro read for nine minutes; yesterday he read for seven!" Or, "I appreciate how Sarah took time today to help Janelle select a new book in the library." Help your children discover strength-based language too, so that they can also praise each other's small steps as readers. Post on- and off-line the strength steps your students take each day as readers, from how they build stamina to how they stretch to try new genres.

3. Every day, hold 20 minutes of Structured Independent Reading.

I can't stress this one enough! Twenty minutes a day of Structured Independent Reading will change your kids' lives. While we know from the Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report that one-third of children ages 6-17 (33%) say their class has a designated time during the school day to read a book of choice independently, only 17% do this every or almost every school day. Giving students opportunity to make choices about what they read and to provide them with book boxes (or a personalized file online) for their curated reading experiences helps them to see themselves as dynamic and ever-growing readers. No one should feel stuck in any one level at any time, though plenty of our students do. While I think leveling has a place for instruction, it is not a natural way to read. Every day I read above, below and at my level; and even as an adult, I am always learning how to be a stronger reader.  Structured Independent Reading time helps our kids explore options across a wide variety of texts and build engagement and motivation.

4. Read aloud every day.

There are several important studies showing the many benefits of reading aloud to your students, including the development of vocabulary skills, grammatical understanding, and genuine connection to texts. It is hard to believe how rich its benefits actually are sometimes because reading aloud is so much fun. Kids should be read a wide variety of topics and genres based on their interests and passions. There are enormous benefits to reading both simpler and complex texts aloud to children. The benefits of the simpler texts include how we value the act of rereading books we love, being able to talk about the text in higher-level ways, and modeling the pure joy of reading. The benefits of reading complex texts are the immersion in advanced vocabulary and grammar, and complex ideas, and introducing children to the idea that no text should be one to fear.

5. Forge new literacy connections with families.

This is a new era for relationships as a whole. No longer should we be using Back to School Night as the main way to connect with families. Technology gives us many ways to be in touch with our kids' families, to honor them as full partners along this journey of raising super readers. We can create weekly messages for our families, complimenting student growth as readers. We can set up class blogs and sharing sites to showcase students' work as readers. We can invite parents to virtually experience a reading celebration, or to join a read aloud using Skype or Facebook Live. We can invite parents and caregivers to share their family stories in the same kinds of ways.

Let's make the 5 Super Reader Commitments to make this year one we will never forget. Our children deserve it. And the time is now.

To read the full post, visit Classroom Q&A with Larry Ferlazzo.

Independent Reading: A Reading Achievement Game-Changer

Independent reading—inviting students to self-select books they want to and can read—is a reading achievement game changer. When students read a wide range of books they choose at school and at home, they enlarge their background knowledge and vocabulary, and develop personal literary tastes as they dip into diverse genres. The Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report found that 91% of kids say their favorite books are the ones they have picked out themselves!

In addition, researchers like Richard Allington, Donalyn Miller, and Steven Krashen point out that the more books students read independently, the more progress they make. Unfortunately, the reality for teachers is that a large number of the students in our classes avoid reading beyond school requirements. This avoidance negatively affects their vocabulary development, background knowledge, understanding, and reading stamina (the ability to focus on texts for at least thirty minutes). If we can help these students want to read—to choose to read at school and at home—then we can boost their reading achievement.

Jenna’s story illustrates how book talks by peers can change attitudes toward reading.

Jenna’s Story

A week before winter holiday, Jenna arrived in my eighth-grade class. During a new student interview, she became angry when I asked her to tell me about her reading life. “I hate reading, and you’ll never get me to read!”

Not wanting to fuel her anger and frustration toward reading, all I said was, “You definitely have strong feelings about reading.” 

Jenna’s comments ignited my teacher’s instinct to help her develop a love of reading. In my heart, though, I knew that at this moment in Jenna’s reading life, I needed to look to her peers for help—the twenty-five students in my class who were avid readers. Luckily, that week, students were presenting book talks on a self-selected book they had read during December. Jenna looked bored and disinterested until Estela discussed a story from Chicken Soup for the Preteen Soul 2.   

“I need to look at that book,” Jenna blurted after Estela finished. “Show me where the story was you talked about.”  I nodded my approval and Estela handed the book to Jenna. Later that morning, during independent reading, Jenna read “Tears in the Bathroom Stall” by John Powel. She checked out the book from our school library, plus Chicken Soup for the Soul:I Can’t Believe My Dog Did That!.  “I want to read them over winter break,” she explained.

Reading these books turned out to be a transformative experience for Jenna. Ideal for a reader who lacked stamina, the stories were short, and linked to issues young adolescents face. During the rest of the school year, Jenna read more Chicken Soup books, and then read several books in the Black Stallion series. She was on her way to developing a personal reading life and continually looked to peers for book recommendations.

At the end of the school year, I do an exit interview with each student and ask them, “What was one great experience this year?” Without hesitating, Jenna said, “I stopped hating reading.”

Research is clear about the benefits of independent reading of self-selected books in elementary, middle, and high school.  So, it seems logical that independent reading would be part of the English Language Arts curriculum in every school in our country. However, too often it is not, and roadblocks persist. Below, I will address some of these roadblocks and discuss solutions.

Roadblock 1: Finding the Time for Independent Reading

“But I don’t have time to let students read self-selected books at school,” and “How can I be sure they’re reading at school and home?” are two concerns I repeatedly hear from teachers. Time and student accountability are two big issues for teachers. The suggestions that follow can help you deal with both.

Try: Scheduling

Scheduling independent reading is frustrating for teachers who have 45 minutes a day to teach reading or reading and writing. If you have 45 minutes for reading, I recommend that you plan in two-week blocks and have independent reading on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and instructional reading the other three days. Over two weeks, students receive six full periods of instructional reading and four for independent reading.

If you have 45 minutes for reading and writing, during the first week schedule instructional reading on three days, writing on one day, and independent reading on one day. Flip the focus for the second week and schedule writing on three days, instructional reading on one day, and independent reading on one day. Play with and adjust this suggested schedule so that it works for you and your students.

Having students consistently read self-selected books at school builds stamina, the ability to concentrate, and can hook them onto reading for pleasure and exploring topics they love.

In addition, invite students to read at home for thirty minutes a night. Avoid asking them to write summaries of their reading or requiring an adult to verify that they did read. Trust your students, and know that some will avoid reading at first. However, like Jenna, they might find a book that brings them to reading via a student book talk, or by hearing a peer talk about a beloved book. I urge you to look at the glass half-full because no one can force a student to read. The desire has to come from a place deep in their hearts—a place that compels them to read.

Roadblock 2: Student Accountability

The need to have students complete a project for each book they’ve read seems to be widespread.  A project for every book read punishes your best readers and saps the desire to read, read, read! Again, independent reading is a matter of trust between adults and students.

Try: Book Talks

To address accountability and harness the power of peer influence, I like to have students present a book talk on their independent reading near the end of each month, and spread these over two to three classes, depending on the number of students. Just imagine the power in monthly book talks: if you have 25 students in a class, then in ten months, everyone will hear about 250 books! This is an ideal way to feature peer-to-peer recommendations.

Introduce Book Talking

Use a completed read aloud text to show students how you plan and deliver a two-to-three minute book talk. Model how you follow the book talk guidelines to take notes on a 3-by-5-inch index card [see sample notes below]. Point out that retelling is not an option, and that you will stop a student who retells the book and help him or her address the guidelines for the book talk.

Notes for Book Talk  

  • Coretta Scott King: I Kept on Marching by Kathleen Krull, Bloomsbuy, 2016
  • Biography
  • Played a key role in civil rights movement besides supporting her husband, Martin Luther King, Jr. A powerful singer, she gave concerts to raise money for the civil rights cause; she marched, she demonstrated. When her husband died, she carried on his work
  • Her husband, Martin Luther King, Jr. influenced her life: inspired her to fight for civil rights—called him her “cosmic companion.” They believed their cause was much greater then themselves.

Have students plan their first book talk during class so you can provide support. Then, invite them to practice presenting the book talk to a partner so they feel comfortable referring to and elaborating on their notes.

Two Book Talk Formats

Below you’ll find two book talk guidelines—one for fiction and one for nonfiction. Notice that the guidelines ask students to select specific information as well as think at high levels.

Book Talk 1: Realistic Fiction

✦   State the title, author and genre.

✦   Identify three narrative elements—such as setting, problems, and conflicts—and explain how each one is realistic.

✦   Choose an event or character that you connected with and explain the connection.

Book Talk 2: Biography, Autobiography, or Memoir

✦   State the title, author, and identify the person the book is about.

✦   Explain what this person did that changed the world, the environment, saved lives, or in some way helped people.

✦   Choose a person or event from your book that shaped this person’s life and explain how.

Grading Book Talks

You can use students’ notes on index cards and their presentation to give a grade. However, I suggest that you don’t grade the first two book talks. Instead use these as trial runs for students. Offer feedback that enables them to improve. After all, the goal is for students to experience success.

Closing Thoughts

Independent reading of self-selected books can ramp up students’ reading achievement and develop their ability to concentrate on reading for more than thirty minutes. When students reading independently at school on a regular basis, they are more likely to read outside of school (Donalyn Miller, 2011). Developing students’ personal reading lives is a lifetime gift that enables them to explore other cultures, learn information, and visit palaces in the past, present, and future that they could never go to in one lifetime.

Reading Roundup: A Few Great Articles on Books & Reading

There have been some terrific articles on books, reading and literacy recently. Among the topics covered are the benefits of reading aloud, how to motivate kids to read, and what happens when kids don't have any books to read at all. Check out the links below!

Reading aloud gives 'big kids' several benefits by Melissa Perry


Melissa Perry of the Family Reading Partnership lays out arguments in favor of reading aloud with children, noting that the Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report found that the number of kids who are read aloud to drops dramatically once kids reach age 9. (Only 1 in 6 kids ages 9-11 are read aloud to).

The Merits of Reading Real Books to Your Children by Perri Klass, M.D.

(Well blog on The New York Times)

Perri Klass, national medical director for Reach Out and Read argues in favor of reading "real" (paper, bound) books with kids. Dr. Klass is not out to build a case against ebooks, but rather to argue in favor of the additional benefits of "book-books," especially when reading aloud to young children whose literacy and language skills are just beginning to develop. 

The Right Way to Bribe Your Kids to Read by KJ Dell’Antonia

(The New York Times)

Should we bribe our kids to read, and if so, is there a "right way" to do it? This article considers whether the act of reading is ultimately more important than the moral quandaries some parents feel around bribing their kids to do what is best for them. 

On Getting the Children to Read (reader responses)

(The Opinion Pages; The New York Times)

The article above prompted reader responses, including from Pam Allyn, executive director of LitWorld, and author of the Scholastic book Every Child a Super Reader: 7 Strengths to Open a World of Possible.

First Person: Black boys in ‘book deserts’ don’t get inspiring literary experiences. Let’s do better. by Tiffany Flowers 

(Chalkbeat; first appeared on Literacy & NCTE, the blog of the National Council of Teachers of English)

Tiffany Flowers of Georgia State University incisively breaks down the concept of "book deserts," and how this lack of access negatively and deeply impacts the "literacy experiences" of young black males.

‘Book Deserts’ Leave Low-Income Kids With Nothing to Read by Cari Romm 

(The Science of Us, on

This article offers further insight into the impact of book deserts, and one antidote: book vending machines, which dispensed 27,000 books last summer in Washington, D.C.




New Year, New School: Building a Culture of Literacy

Growing up as a reader, I knew early in my career that I wanted to share my love of literacy with others. As a first grade teacher, I propped up my favorite picks on my chalkboard ledge, with a list of students waiting to read them posted right above.

Some of my fondest memories during that time include my read-aloud time and class meetings where the students shared with one another what they were reading. I might not have been as well-versed in the practice of teaching reading as a very young teacher as I would be now, but my classroom was a place where students loved books.

After a few years teaching, I knew I wanted to help struggling students learn to read, and was given the opportunity to receive Reading Recovery training. Through that training, I was able to pass along my “literacy love,” but in a very different way.

Books scared those struggling readers. I had to provide intense instruction to them so that their eyes were opened to the excitement of books and literacy. The perseverance and dedication of those struggling students motivated them to read, frustrated them when it was challenging, and made them prouder when their name could be added to those chalkboard ledge lists. 

A decade later, I am still challenged to leave a literacy legacy. For the last six years, I have had the privilege of serving as principal of Gaithersburg Elementary School in Gaithersburg, MD. During my tenure, I created a space where students had more access to books and were more motivated to talk about the books they were reading.

That space also included teachers that had skills to build stamina, select books for students, and be literacy role models through conferring and sharing their favorite picks. 

Did I leave a literacy legacy? Upon reflection, I've developed my own literacy legacy “look-fors.” I plan to take these literacy “look-fors” with me to my new school where I will be the principal this coming school year.  

Not only will I use these literacy “look-fors” to identify a starting point, but also to prioritize the pieces that must be considered when transferring as principal of one school to the next .  

Access & Engagement

The classroom libraries that once had few books and lacked organization now have books exploding out of very well-organized baskets and labeled shelves. Students that rarely talked about books six years ago are engaged with one another about literacy. They write their own book talks and compile book recommendations as classmates complete their summer reading commitments.  I made this happen by making classroom libraries and book talks a priority in our school.  I had teachers compile lists of titles they needed for their classroom libraries and scheduled a book talk professional development opportunity for my staff.  Before I knew it, book talks had trickled down to our students and were happening on multiple occasions throughout the building each day.  

Love of Books, Front & Center

The hallways that used to display only student work now boast book bulletin boards with posted book recommendations, and classroom doors decorated with the teachers’ favorite books. Students race down those very same hallways to select their birthday book in the main office, and often stop by the Media Center on their way back to their classroom. The Media Center—where out-of-date titles used to take up space—is now saturated with award-winning titles, as well as culturally relevant titles and books that reflect the lives and experiences of all students. 

The Bookmobile for Summer Reading

The community still has twice weekly access to the Bookmobile, something I started out of my own personal car during my first summer. Although my tenure ended at Gaithersburg Elementary School on July 1, the staff and community there still work hard to get books into the hands of our students. The incredible staff left behind will continue that afternoon biweekly literacy routine for their students, ensuring access to books over the summer. 

A New Chapter

I, however, will begin a new literacy legacy, which started last week with a book talk on The Last Stop on Market Street (Matt de la Peña) with my Leadership Team. Many of those team members had already met with me in my office, overflowing with many of the same favorite book picks I had propped up on my chalkboard ledge almost twenty years ago. And a new literacy legacy begins, with that same dedication and drive I had six years ago when I entered the doors of Gaithersburg Elementary School. 


How the First Family of Rhode Island Promotes Literacy

As an avid reader, I know how great it feels to explore new places or different challenges through my books. As a kid, I ripped through every Hardy Boys mystery book as fast as I could check it out of the library; even today, I look forward to diving into the book on my nightstand at night.  

As a parent of two young kids, Ceci & Tommy, I want them to develop their own zest for reading. I also know how important it is to start building kids’ reading skills when they’re young. Like any other muscle, your brain needs regular exercise—especially in the summer when school is out—to grow and develop.

That’s why I was so excited to visit five elementary schools across Rhode Island again this summer to deliver books generously donated by Scholastic and encourage kids to keep reading every day over the summer. It’s all part of an effort led by my wife, Governor Gina M. Raimondo, to ensure that all Rhode Island students achieve grade-level reading by the end of third grade.


At every grade level, Rhode Island students can’t reach their goals without their wonderful teachers. Rhode Island recently announced our 2017 Teacher of the Year, Nikos Giannopoulos, a special education teacher at Beacon Charter High School for the Arts. Mr. G has dedicated himself to his students, and teaches every day with a sense of kindness and compassion. I’m so proud of Rhode Island’s great teachers like Mr. G and so many others.

Especially when kids are out of the classroom for the summer, it’s important for parents like us to promote a love of reading in their kids. Every morning, Gina and I read with Ceci and Tommy.  It’s a great way for our family to come together and helps our kids keep their reading skills sharp. We also try to lead by example—if our kids see us reading, we hope they’ll want to pick up a book themselves. 


Creating a School Culture that Values Independent Reading

Changing your staff’s attitudes toward educational practices takes time, but it’s something that you can accomplish through continual communication. Staying in touch with staff means attending all meetings; sending them short articles that build their educational knowledge base; providing positive feedback after walkthroughs; and meeting with staff one-on-one or in small groups to have meaningful conversations about best practices in literacy instruction and the power of independent reading. 

The tips that follow can be used to develop a school culture in which independent reading is a central part of your school curriculum.

  • Share the research

Before asking teachers to weave independent reading into their teaching schedule, invite them to read and discuss articles on the power of independent reading from self-selected books. Without the practice that independent reading provides, students’ progress in reading and their ability to comprehend complex texts will be limited. Moreover, when students regularly read self-selected books at school, they develop a love of reading that lasts a lifetime!

Here are four texts you can share with your faculty:

  1. "The Six Ts of Effective Elementary Literacy Instruction" (Richard Allington)
  2. "The Class Library and Effective Independent Reading by Challenging Students" (Jeani Fullard, Lisa Neveitt, and Jennifer Schaffer)
  3. "10 Questions About Independent Reading" (Dana Truby interview with Jennifer Serravallo)
  4. "Every Child, Every Day" (Richard Allington and Rachael E. Gabriel)
  • Speak at faculty meetings and to individual teachers

Extol the benefits of independent reading—students enlarge their vocabulary, build background knowledge, practice applying strategies teachers model, and find pleasure in reading about people and places from the past, present, and future.

To expand teachers’ knowledge of the benefits of independent reading, purchase The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller (Jossey-Bass, 2009), and invite teachers to read and discuss the book with colleagues.

  • Set aside funds for books

Each year, offer teachers funds for building their classroom libraries. Access to books can bring students into the reading life. Encourage the PTA to do one or two annual fundraisers for classroom libraries.

  • Encourage students to self-select books

Explain to teachers that permitting students to choose their independent reading books means students invest in their reading. (The Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report found that 91% of kids ages 6–17 say “my favorite books are the ones that I have picked out myself.”)

  • Read aloud to students

Make appointments to read aloud each week to a different class.

  • Become a role model 

Discuss a book you love at assembly or during a school-wide broadcast.

  • Have students share books on the school’s morning broadcast

Invite teachers to choose students to share a great read with the entire school. Peer-to-peer advertising of terrific books is a top-notch way to interest other students in reading.

  • Drop in to classes during independent reading

Catch students reading and loving it! Praise students and show them a book you’re reading. If you have time, join the class and read for 10 to 15 minutes.

  • Designate a weekly independent reading time for the entire school

This shows students and teachers how serious you are about reading self-selected books.

  • Encourage teachers to read while students read

When teachers model that they have and enjoy a personal reading life, they inspire their students to emulate them.

  • Invite teachers to share success stories of student independent reading

They can do this during full faculty meetings and at department or team meetings.

  • Track reading scores

Do this over two to three years to show that when students have a rich, independent reading life, their scores in vocabulary and comprehension improve. Share data with teachers so they see how the changes and adjustments they’ve made are supporting students’ progress.

  • Feature a student’s recommendation for independent reading in the school newsletter

This lets parents know how much you, teachers, and students value independent reading.

  • Commend teachers and students in writing

Don’t overdo written notes, but when you see independent reading flourishing in a class, write a note to the teacher and his or her students. Noticing positive reading practices inspires teachers and students to read even more.

  • Keep parents informed

On back-to-school night, let parents know the benefits of independent reading so they can foster it at home. 

As a principal, you can shape teachers' theories of education by being an instructional leader who brings best practices to your school. The journey can be slow with setbacks, but when teachers help students develop personal reading lives, they prepare their students for life, college, and career. There's nothing better than being part of that outcome!


Teacher Training Programs: How Can We Really Be Prepared?

The first year of teaching is very challenging. (Actually, the first year of any job is challenging!) Like any career, it is essential to be ready for the first day. Teachers need thorough training in order for this to happen.

It is essential that teacher training programs include a variety of high quality courses (in all content areas), knowledgeable professors, and a balance between theory and practice.  They should also include courses about planning for and teaching all types of children, such as those in General Education, English language learners, and exceptional students (i.e. special education and gifted education).  When I look back at all of my training, the following was most helpful to me:

Ample Opportunities for Practice

Practice makes perfect!  Practice can take many different forms: student teaching in a classroom, teaching a mock lesson to your peers, “teaching” a friend or family member, or even practicing in front of the mirror! Bottom line, new teachers need to practice again and again.

Student teaching is an excellent example of practice. Teaching programs should set the expectations high for the amount of time required teaching as well as the variety of subjects taught. This ensures that teachers not only have several chances to teach content, but also equal oppoirtunities to manage a class. While some programs require only a semester of student teaching, others may require a full year—the longer the better!

Most teaching programs incorporate tutoring, which is another opportunity to practice.  I received a Master’s in Literacy at Hunter College, and as part of one of my remediation courses, I worked with a struggling reader for an entire semester on reading intervention. I was able to practice planning and implementing the remediation strategies I was learning about in the course. 

Immediate Feedback and Actionable Next Steps

Usually, student teaching comes hand-in-hand with a supervisor observation.  These observations are incredibly important! It is the teacher’s opportunity to learn his/her strengths and weaknesses, and then make necessary adjustments. 

For one of my summer jobs, I worked as a Teacher Development Coach for New York City Teaching Fellows (NYCTF) and observed new teachers in summer school classrooms. During my training, we learned to prioritize our feedback and constantly think about the following: which one change that we suggest will have the greatest impact on teacher success and student achievement? It is likely that new teachers have several areas in which to grow (which is expected!), but hopefully an adjustment in one area can impact others.  

We also learned that we should provide the feedback immediately following the lesson, which provides these teachers with "next steps" to implement in the classroom right away. This observation/feedback cycle is beneficial in that it helps future teachers build on their strengths and address vulnerabilities early on during their student teaching placement.  It helps them to hone in on one area and improve their teaching practices.  

Applicable Content 

My favorite courses were always the ones where I found myself saying, “I’m going to try that tomorrow.” Prospective teachers need to learn new information that they can apply into their student teaching classrooms the very next day. This can range from a cool science lesson to a classroom management strategy. If they aren’t student teaching or tutoring yet, they should use these courses to build their “teaching toolboxes” for when they begin. 

I remember the day I learned about using “table points” for positive reinforcement in the classroom. I immediately knew that I would be implementing that strategy into my future classroom; it helps with classroom management, building community, and promoting group work. Any teacher reading this is probably thinking, Everyone knows about table points! Well, we all know about table points because we were taught it at some point! One of my professors at Fordham swore up and down about table points—and she was right. I am a huge fan of table points, and so are most other teachers.

These types of “a-ha” moments should be happening constantly during teacher training. Teachers should leave their programs with a toolbox of strategies that work and activities to try on the first day of school.

Time for Reflection

Prospective teachers should constantly reflect on their strengths and vulnerabilities. Although there is generally observation from supervisors or grades from professors, self-reflection is important as well.  Reflection is a huge part of our day-to-day jobs as teachers because we constantly think about what went well and what needs improvement. This needs to begin during training.    

Seminars are a great time to reflect. Prospective teachers need time to meet and talk with other prospective teachers! They need to discuss highs and lows, share ideas, and reflect together. No one quite understands what you're going through unless they're going through it, too.  

A Note on Alternate Route Programs 

I'm a huge fan of alternate route programs, such as New York City Teaching Fellows (NYCTF). This is how I became a teacher! Alternate route programs are great because you are learning and doing simultaneously. You are constantly engaged in practicing, being part of an observation/feedback cycle, learning applicable content, and reflecting, while at the same time working as a full-time teacher. What better way to learn?!

Nothing can truly prepare you for that first year of teaching, but training programs with these qualities set a pretty solid foundation. Does learning just stop at the end of the teacher training program? Of course not! It is ongoing throughout your entire career. Ultimately, a good teaching program should pave the way and provide you with the tools for being a successful teacher and lifelong learner.

Follow Allison Tallman on Twitter at @teacheralynyc.


Learning Supports: Is it Really New?

Dr. Holladay is Superintendent of Athens City Schools in Athens, AL.

Spring and summer in Alabama—when the landscape bursts with color—are beautiful times of the year. I personally enjoy these seasons most because they allow me to indulge my love of yard work. Yes, I am one of those “nuts” that likes to do this type of work. I don’t necessarily love the work itself, but it is one of the few times that I can find solitude. No phone, email, television, computer or questions. No one wants to help me or tell me how they can do it better. It is the perfect time for me to do reflective thinking.

In leadership, space for reflective thinking is imperative for the growth of your organization. Reflective thinking lets me assess, and reassess; to examine what we're doing, discern what is working, and what we need to change. It gives me the chance to consider my own values and beliefs about education and the students we serve.

In one of my recent opportunities for reflection, I thought about how education has changed and how the work we do as educators has changed. Learning Supports is one of those areas that we discuss as a new concept, resulting from how the educational landscape has changed; but I beg to differ! Growing up the son of educators in the 1960s and ‘70s in rural Alabama, I can personally attest that “learning supports” have definitely been a part of the educational system for the last fifty years.

As society and culture have changed, what was once considered to be the norm—staying late to help a student, lunch ladies allowing second helpings, or ensuring students had clothes and supplies—has now become the exception, considered irregular, or have been regulated out of existence. 

So during a recent opportunity for outdoors reflection, I started to consider the common thread between the old “learning supports” and the new Learning Supports. Why are veteran educators having to build frameworks that show novice teachers there is more to education than content knowledge and teaching strategies? I don’t mean to understate the importance of academics, but if you think a child who’s hungry or hasn’t had but four hours of sleep the night before is worried about math and English, we have a lot to work on.

The common thread among older methods of supporting students and new, systemic models is simply the love of students! The bottom line is that if you love teaching, then you love kids, and you want them to succeed. And we know that we must support the whole child as we set goals for our students’ academic success.

The Learning Supports framework gives our system the ability to address the shifting changes in society and culture. Addressing chronic absenteeism, lack of basic living essentials, language barriers, disabilities, and family needs are not something that can be done by school counselors or the administration alone. It is the work of the entire school, and must be ubiquitous in the school culture and embraced by the entire community.

A learning supports framework gives us the very best opportunity to ensure all our students are prepared to receive the education they need to be successful. We love our students; we have just learned to spell love in a new way: L-E-A-R-N-I-N-G S-U-P-P-O-R-T-S.

The Athens City Schools System Framework 

As a district, we are working diligently to create the infrastructure needed to proactively address barriers to student learning by developing a comprehensive system of supports. 

Organizing: Our first step was to reorganize our central office into the three-component model: Instruction, Management and Learning Supports. This was important because it helped our school community understand that a systemic shift in culture was occurring; this was not just another initiative. 

Mapping: Next, we formed a system-wide team (with central office and school representatives) and mapped our school and community resources for addressing learning, behavioral, emotional and physical problems. We realized that we already had many supports in place, but their effectiveness was compromised by fragmentation. Each school was reacting to student needs, but lacked a comprehensive approach.

The mapping process enabled us to take a close look at what was working and could be expanded, and what was not working and needed to be changed or removed. We too often do things because “we've always done them that way." Now we are being very thoughtful about why we do what we're doing, and we're not afraid to change policies, procedures, interventions, strategies, etc.

Using Data to Clarify, Then Respond to Students’ Needs: In our first year, we targeted attendance issues, and this has remained a focus for us. When looking at our overall attendance rate, the problem was not obvious in the numbers, but we had too many students at risk of failure. As we drilled into the data, we realized we needed some alternatives to our "traditional" school program. We needed a framework that would allow us to be proactive.

Now we are more flexible and offer multiple blended learning and virtual opportunities to meet various needs, and ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to succeed in school. There is a constant focus at both the school and district level on addressing absences quickly and keeping students engaged.

Through our mapping process and while analyzing student data, we realized we had a number of students who needed counseling services but had been unable to travel to receive those services. In response, we have partnered with United Way and the Mental Health Center to provide at-risk counseling services within our schools. And for prevention, we are now developing curriculum for a redefined student advisory program to put comprehensive supports in place.

Although we had advisory and mentoring programs in place, the review and audit process helped us realize we needed more. One of the most important components in our redefined program is to ensure that every student has a personal relationship with an adult who will strive to connect students with school and community services they need before they become at-risk.

As I said earlier, reflection is imperative to ensuring quality programs that are flexible and responsive enough to support all our students. Each year, we analyze our progress and needs to determine gaps and priorities. We will continue to expand systemic supports to eliminate barriers to student learning and promote whole child development and a positive school climate that keeps students engaged in their learning. We are committed to the continuous enhancement of our “new” system of learning supports.


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