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.

School's Out! Time to Reflect, Plan, and Enjoy the Summer

School’s out for the summer! Are you relishing that thought? Excited to sleep in, have your evenings to yourself, and have some “me” time? Of course! But for some teachers, it can also be a challenge to find just the right balance between letting go of routines and responsibilities, and being able to truly embrace the lack of structure.

Maybe you are simply grateful for downtime. No bells, email chains, attendance logs, requests for pencils, or too-brief prep times. If you have your own children at home, you may be thrilled to be able to spend daytime with them. Sleeping in on mornings may feel luxurious.  Catching up on Netflix series may be tempting you. And instead of professional development reading, you can enjoy magazines, beach reads, selections from the bestseller lists, or whatever you want.

But of course, you are an educator, and so you may find yourself needing to do some analysis and planning before you can truly relax and embrace your downtime. That’s part of who you are. So here are some thoughts on ways to get your “homework” done and help you relax and enjoy the summer you deserve.

Looking Back

Summer is a good time to reflect on the academic year you’ve just finished. Yes, it’s over, but you may want to clear up any lingering or unresolved issues that prevent you from truly relaxing. 

Just the way you encourage your students to journal and reflect, take some time to consider the past year—the good, the bad, and the ugly. As you reflect, jot down some notes.

  • What went really, really well this year? What made it so good? 

  • Who were your biggest supporters this year?

  • What are you most proud of? How did you make it happen? 

  • What resources were most helpful to you in doing your job? Other teachers? Supervisors? Colleagues? Parents? Professional books? Online resources? 

  • What were your challenges? Where did they come from? The administration? A particular student or family? New performance expectations? 

Now, think about how you addressed the challenges you faced. 

  • What did you do? What steps did you take?

  • What worked well? Not so well?

Looking Ahead

  • What do you want to repeat next year based on the success you’ve had?

  • What do you want to do differently next year? How will you implement this new plan?

Think about what you already know about the coming year.

  • What do you anticipate to be your greatest challenge ahead? Is there a new curriculum? A change in administration? Are you teaching a different grade or subject? 

  • What excites you about the challenge? What worries you?

Think and write about how you might meet that challenge. Sometimes seeing thoughts in writing can help you sort out your ideas, and can enable you to let go of your concerns and move on.

Write yourself some encouraging notes. Include reminders of how you’ve succeeded in the past.

Looking at Right Now

OK. You’ve done your homework. Time to face the present.

First, consider the category of endeavors related to your career.

Some teachers seek out classes or professional development opportunities. Local colleges, universities, and community colleges may offer courses that would be interesting and helpful. Check online and with colleagues for recommendations. 

Are you looking for ways to increase your income? Some teachers find that tutoring during the summer is a good way to capitalize on their experience. Of course, there are tutoring centers that might welcome your help. You may want to strike out on your own and tutor privately. It can offer flexible schedule options and be extremely lucrative. Word of mouth, local bulletin boards, and public libraries are places to spread the word about your availability and expertise.

If you feel you would like to do some preparation for the coming year, fleshing out your classroom library can be an enjoyable mission. Stopping at yard and library sales is a way to inexpensively add some titles to your collection. Read up on the focus areas targeted for next year. Chat with colleagues to share ideas.

Now, put aside those career concerns. It is time to consider your own enjoyment and enrichment.

Use the time to catch up on all that reading you’ve neglected. When was the last time you read Charlotte’s Web,The Phantom Tollbooth, Lord of the Flies or Jane Eyre

Have you shied away from the complex text of James Joyce or William Faulkner? Always meant to read War and Peace (unabridged)? Rise to the challenge! Or maybe just curl up with an enticing mystery or spy story, or an undemanding beach-read that makes you cry.

In fact, you never know how certain experiences may impact you as a teacher. 

Struggling to get into that headstand yoga pose may give you insights into the struggle some of your students might have to comprehend a tough concept. As you work to master the pose, building it little by little during each practice, you will gain insights that may help you inspire students to progress in their learning, building each step upon the one before.

As you train for a half marathon and develop strategies to push yourself another yard, and then another and another, you will better understand the type of self-talk and encouragement that could motivate a student who needs to build stamina in reading

As you endeavor to study conversational Italian, the challenges of learning a new language may help you be especially sensitive to the needs of the English Language Learners you teach.

Finally, take time this summer to let go. Give yourself time to relax, and enjoy some time doing what makes youfeel nurtured. You deserve it.



What I Learned in My First Year as Superintendent

While you may have heard of Amarillo, Texas because of Cadillac Ranch or the Big Texan's 72 oz. steak dinner legend, I know it as my Home Sweet Home. I've just completed my first year as superintendent of Amarillo Independent School District, comprising 33,600 students in fifty-five schools. (I’m the first woman superintendent in 126 years!)

Amarillo ISD celebrates a diverse student population. Over 450 refugees are resettled in Amarillo every year from various countries, including Somalia, DR Congo, Iran, Iraq, and Myanmar. Despite what some might see as challenges (sixty-seven percent of our students live in poverty), our district is rated by the Texas Education Agency as Met Standard, and Amarillo has strong business and employment opportunities. Yes, Amarillo is my Home Sweet Home.

I’m the first to admit I didn’t know what to expect from my first year as superintendent, but I have put together some reflections and lessons-learned from the last year. Much of my thinking relates to collaboration: when, how, and to what extent—and when do I set out on my own? (And though I'll try to explain it all with colloquialisms, my year was anything but trite!)

The Road Not Taken

Analysis paralysis is super easy to develop on this job, because a superintendent works for his/her community, and everything is public: open meetings, open records. Transparency is a good thing, but I never want to let anyone down, and so a good part of my year was spent trying to find my balance. I quickly discovered that as soon as I found myself standing where roads diverge, suddenly everyone had an opinion about which path I should take. I realized I needed to learn to choose the right road, even if I was being navigated by differing viewpoints. 

Sometimes I take the road less-traveled. Though the job of superintendent can be political, and is most definitely high-profile, I decided to solidify my goals and priorities for Amarillo schools, and stopped worrying about the "what if" stories in my head. While I'll always listen to community voices, a superintendent's leadership must include articulating a vision so others will join her on that road, not endlessly wavering where roads diverge. I reminded myself that I am here because I care about our scholars, educators and our community. I just needed to continue stepping forward (in great shoes, of course!) and give myself the same grace and mercy I know we are all worthy of having. 

The Buck Stops Here (or not!)

While "the buck stops here" sounds appealingly decisive, I found out that the buck doesn't always stop in my office—and that’s a good thing. I do make decisions for which I take ultimate responsibility, but most decisions happen collaboratively with our leadership teams, community groups and/or our Team of Eight (School Board). I think Harry S. Truman would be proud to know that in our community we do our best to not pass the buck. 

For example, this year a team of community leaders worked together to define Amarillo’s “profile of a graduate.” We decided we want our scholars to graduate as thinkers, communicators, collaborators and contributors. When we are talking about the success of our schools, the buck stops with the adults in our community who believe in our mission to graduate every student prepared for success beyond high school.

Together, Everyone Achieves More

Okay, this cliché is true. Every week I make it a point to visit several schools. I've met teachers, students, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians, and many other wonderful folks who are important to our AISD team and who live and breathe our core values of student performance, customer service, cost effectiveness, and quality staff. My spirit is renewed each time I get to chat with the folks who are on the frontline, serving our scholars.

While I wrote above that everyone has advice and opinions on what I should or should not do, I also understand that the superintendent's job is not simply about running one of the largest businesses in town. This "business" is a well-respected organization, and it is responsible for the city's most precious resource: our children. 

As someone who has spent twenty-five years on six different campuses, I was worried that my new role would make me miss interacting with students. And so at the end of my first semester, I started a "Superintendent Ambassador" program, mostly for my selfish reasons. I did indeed miss knowing and talking with the kids who inspired me to get into education in the first place! I also thought about the fact that "together everyone achieves more," and that while adults are experts on our core values, we can all learn more about performance, service, effectiveness and quality by listening to our students. Our Ambassadors showcase our best in our community, while allowing me the opportunity to learn more about their experiences through their eyes.

This year I've also learned that laughter really is the best medicine, actions do speak louder than words, and a woman's work is never done. And, of course, home is where the heart is, and I'm honored to call Amarillo my home.

Ten Tips from Laura Robb: Classroom Libraries & Access to Books

Access to books can make a difference in children’s desire to read and in their ability to comprehend a wide range of genres. David, an eighth grade student, put it this way: “I love our class library ‘cause I have books at my fingertips. When I finish one, I can check out another.”  

In “The Importance of Independent Reading,” (What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction, IRA, 2012) Linda Gambrell and her colleagues write:

“Students’ development of reading skill is less about ability than it is about the opportunity to read. Only with the practice and the expertise that comes from sufficient opportunities to engage in independent silent reading will students reach their full literacy potential.” (p.155)

What this implies is that English language learners, special education students, learning disabled students, reluctant readers, and grade-level and above-level readers all benefit from reading the finest children’s and young adult literature. These can be print or ebooks. A rich and diverse classroom library offers students the choices needed to self-select books they can and want to read.

Ten Tips for Building the Best Classroom Libraries

You can create a top-notch classroom library for students in elementary, middle and high school by reflecting on and trying the ten tips below.   

  1. Set a goal for the number of books in your library: Give yourself three to four years to acquire 1,500 books on a range of reading levels so all learners have access to books. Though you might initially feel that this goal is too difficult, keep reaching for it. If you fall short of that number, it’s okay; by striving, you will have increased the number of books available to students. Know, too, that you will have about a five percent annual book loss. Expect it. Enlist the support of your administrators and parents and ask them to help you replace books that students love to read.  

  2. Organize books: Students find selecting books easier when you organize them by genre. Tape an index card under the book shelves and on each one, label the genre, such as: realistic fiction, historical fiction, science fiction, picture books, biography, autobiography and memoir, suspense, mystery, fantasy, short stories, folk and fairy tales, and informational texts.

  3. Display books: On each shelf, display one or two books, showcasing the covers. Illustrations and photographs on covers motivate students to browse through a book to see if it they want to read it. 

  4. Book-talk new additions: Before shelving new books, display them on your desk or in a line under the board. Book-talking each one doesn’t mean you have to read the book. You can read the back cover, the text on the inside of the book’s jacket, or start the first chapter. If you’ve read the book, select an engaging passage and use that for your book talk.

  5. Use technology to record checked-out books: Students in third grade and up can type books they’ve checked out of your class library onto spreadsheets they can easily access on a class computer; students also note the day they returned the book.  Or you can have a “checkout notebook” that asks students to write their name, the book’s title, and date checked out and returned. Students in Pre-K to grade 2 will need your assistance in keeping records of books they have completed.

  6. Gather students' input: After the first six weeks of school, invite students to suggest print books, ebooks, and magazines they’d like to see in the class library. You can use the money your school gives you for purchasing books students want to read for your library.  Another route is to give the list to your principal and ask him or her to give it to the chair of your PTA; then invite the PTA to organize a fundraiser. 

  7. Feature a genre or author each month: Introduce students to different authors and genres by displaying a new set of books each month. These can be on a windowsill, a special table, or on an extra student desk. 

  8. Make working the class library a student job: After the first semester have students work in pairs and identify the genres of new additions, create monthly displays of a favorite author or genre, and shelve returned books.

  9. Create positive buzz about books: Organize students into groups of five or six and ask them to choose a book from their book log to share with the group. Students can choose a book by a beloved author, a book they couldn’t put down, a book that taught them new information, etc. Give each student about two minutes to share. Rotate group membership so students hear from different peers each time they meet.

  10. Present book testimonials: Tell students to make an appointment with you when they finish a book that they totally loved, so you can schedule a book testimonial. Students present their testimonial to classmates. These are one-minute talks that include the title, author, and a sentence or two that explains what made this book such a great read. 

Finding Funds for Your Classroom Library

In addition to funds your school supplies to purchase books for class libraries, you can try some of the suggestions that follow.  Once you’ve met that goal of 1,500 books, reach higher and try to add 100 books a year.

Here are a few suggestions for adding more and more books to your classroom library:

  • Use book club offerings and earn bonus points when your students place monthly orders.
  • Encourage your school librarian to organize a book fair. Book fairs earn points toward free books, and teachers can share this bounty. It’s also a great venue for teachers to present wish lists to parents who often purchase books at the fair for class libraries.
  • Invite your PTA to sponsor a fundraiser specifically for classroom libraries.
  • Collect magazines and comics from friends and family.
  • Bring in copies of the local newspaper.
  • Comb local yard and public library sales.
  • Ask parents to bring in books their children no longer read.
  • Investigate Scholastic’s Classroom Libraries for grades K-9.  Each library includes 100 books and a teaching booklet.

Closing Thoughts

Your classroom library provides students with access to the finest books every day of the school year.  Rich and varied class libraries bring equal opportunity to all socio-economic levels and provide students with opportunities to learn about past, present, and future worlds. 

Develop a classroom library that’s filled with motivating books and draw students into the reading life. And remember that reading, like any sport, requires practice to gain skill and expertise. 

Want more Laura? You can find ten additional tips for supporting literacy and engagement in the classroom on YouTube  

Books for Babies: Creating a Culture of Community & Early Literacy

Last May found me desperately looking for a project for my third graders as our year wound down to a close. We were a couple of weeks away from the last day of school, state testing was finished, and my kids were feeling the restlessness that typically comes with spring. I knew I wanted to do something that would be fun for them, use the reading, writing, and research skills we’d learned during the year, and involve our community. If I could find a way to talk about the importance of creating a culture of literacy, a particular passion of mine, I knew I would have the perfect project.  

In this roundabout way, my class’s favorite activity of the year—Books for Babies—was born. Now we spend the last weeks of the year working to get books into the hands of new parents before they leave the hospital with their babies. Together, we learn about and support early literacy, and reinforce the grade-level skills my students have been working on all year. Best of all, Books for Babies is a project that can be easily replicated in any classroom.

We begin by researching the importance of reading to babies. I typically print out articles from reputable sources such as the American Academy of Pediatrics or Parents magazine about the topic (also see this article from NPR, and this from Scholastic) but another option is to supervise kids as they conduct their own research online. Then, as a class, we closely read the articles, making careful note of the arguments and evidence that are presented to support reading to infants. As with any close reading, I pose an essential question—in this case, it’s Why is it important to read to babies?—and we read with pencils in hand, discussing and underlining evidence that will help us answer the question. We also annotate in the margins, noting when our reading leads us to make connections or synthesize across texts.

With research in hand, we begin writing letters to new parents (who are selected by the hospital and unknown to us), persuading them to read daily to their babies as soon as they arrive home from the hospital. Since opinion writing is a key mode in our state, and it’s one we work on extensively, this move to persuasive writing later in the year is natural for students. In the letters, the students introduce themselves, explain why they’re writing, and then construct their reasoning for early literacy. They also end the letter with a Twitter hashtag so that, if parents choose, they can tweet out pictures of the finished projects; my kids love to check the Twitter feed to see their work in the real world.

When we begin the writing process, we also sit down with a Scholastic book club flyer, and each student selects a book that he or she would like to gift to the new families. This is one of the most fun parts of the process, and I love to watch the students bend over the order forms, talking in their groups about which book they’ll pick and why. The choice is never easy. Once their selections are made, I place the order, and the books arrive just as we’re finishing the final drafts of our letters.

At this point, we’re ready to assemble the projects. Each student signs his or her name inside the front cover of the book, usually adding a sweet “Welcome to our world!” message. They then decorate plain white craft bags (we’re careful to keep the décor gender neutral), and tuck their letters and books inside. I reach out to local hospital administration early in the process and arrange a convenient day and time to meet, so all that’s left is for me to do is deliver our book bags to the hospital. We’ve heard, through social media and hospital staff, that the book bags are a huge hit with the new parents.

In the end, we created a project that hit all of my requirements:we research and closely read, use our argumentative writing skills, give back to our community, share our love of reading, and have fun along the way. Because of that, it’s one of those activities that I know I’ll turn to time and time again.  What better way to end the school year?

The Compelling Why: Using Short Texts to Support Close Reading

Using short informational texts can be a powerful instructional tool, but it’s not always clear exactly why we should use them…or how! 

I want to start with a note about the value of using authentic texts with young readers: there are so many different types of informational materials in the world—from brochures to directions and recipes, to blurbs and biographies—and students need to be exposed early on to real-world informational text in the classroom.  In the small group setting, teachers can guide students during close reading and supported re-reading of short texts, and differentiate instruction based on students’ individual needs.  

Using these types of short informational texts gives teachers three powerful instructional strategies:

  • Focus and target instruction 
  • Provide opportunities to practice reading informational and authentic text 
  • Prepare students for the types of texts they will find on the new assessments

Focus and Target Instruction

Why can using short texts help teachers to focus and target instruction?  Current expectations for elementary students include the ability to read, then compare and contrast multiple texts on the same topic. Kids also need to be able to read several texts on the same topic, synthesize what they’ve learned, and then be able to knowledgeably share that information orally or through written projects.

This kind of comparative reading can be done efficiently in small groups if teachers use short content area texts. These texts don’t have to be long in order to provide information on various aspects of a topic—a short, focused text can offer a young reader plenty to absorb.  And, this practice of using multiple short segments of content material is common when doing research all the way through the college level.

Plenty of Practice with Informational and Authentic Text

Why can using shorter informational text prepare students to read on the Internet and other digital media?  Most websites (like news sites, or this blog) organize their content in brief segments.  To read Internet content is to absorb key concepts in short bursts. Similarly, content-focused chapter books in the elementary grades often provide two- to four-page chapters on various aspects of a subject.  (A book about an animal might have one chapter about what the animal eats, another about where it lives, and so on.) And yet each of these chapters is actually a short, focused reading. Teaching with short texts helps prepare students for the kinds of reading they will encounter on the Internet or in chapter books.

Assessment Preparation

Why do short texts help prepare students for assessments? Because students will be expected to read, re-read, and demonstrate comprehension of short texts that:

  • are complex and at grade-level
  • present a variety of text features
  • use academic vocabulary (that students must learn in context)
  • are sourced from a range of media and text types

Because the informational texts are filled with content intended to build knowledge, they are organized in short segments; these may be reading a subheading and the section on a topic, or a single chapter in a longer book. That is how a reader naturally reads, studies, and learns content material. These texts can be very complex and provide opportunities for teachers to work with students in small groups with authentic texts. The informational texts can provide reasons to read closely, to be read and re-read.  

The old adage, “good things come in small packages,” truly applies to using short, informational texts as a part of  powerful small group instruction.


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