Welcome back to our balanced literacy series! Today the focus is on our schedules. Have you ever seen that Tropicana orange juice commercial where all those oranges squeeze into the bottle? In the commercial all of the oranges squeeze in a very small space and magically the container still shuts. Sometimes scheduling the time you have available in your classroom can feel like that. Let’s talk about different options with balanced literacy and your schedule. Please leave any comments below with what works or doesn’t work for you. If you need more individual advice, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Don’t forget to stop by every Tuesday to gain a better insight into using a balanced literacy framework within your classroom!
The Ideal World
...that none of us live in
What time allotments are supposed to be allowed for balanced literacy? You might want to refresh yourself on the balanced literacy components before reading on. Now, while reading this section do not freak out! Please! I know exactly what you’ll be thinking, “WHAT? Who has time for all of this on a daily basis?” The answer is no one. Only the ideal dream school that we can all fall asleep thinking about. We’ll get to real life scheduling in a moment. I do think there is value in understanding how things should go before we change them to how they have to go.
Kindergarten - Grade 2
- Read Aloud with Accountable Talk: 20-30 minutes a day
- Word Study: 10-15 minutes a day
- Reader’s Workshop: 60 minutes a day
- Writer’s Workshop: 60 minutes a day
- Shared Reading: 10 minutes a day
- Shared Writing: 10 minutes a day
Total: 170-185 minutes a day
Grade 3 - Grade 5
- Read Aloud with Accountable Talk: 20 minutes a day
- Word Study: 10 minutes a day
- Reader’s Workshop: 60 minutes a day
- Writer’s Workshop: 60 minutes a day
- Shared Reading and Shared Writing: scaffolded into groups
Total: 150 minutes a day
Let's Get Real
I have never had this so called dream literacy schedule and I’m sure you don’t either. Let’s figure out how to apply this in the real world of teaching. Currently I have 80 minutes three days a week and 120 minutes two days a week for literacy. I can’t follow this schedule no matter how much I want to stick to it. I also need to make sure that my schedule isn’t shortchanging the kids.
Tbe first thing you need to do is determine your nonnegotiable items. These are my current nonnegotiable items within my classroom schedule. I currently teach grade 1.
- I must have read aloud with accountable talk every day.
- My students must have independent work time and as much of it as I can give them.
- My mini-lessons will stick to the 10 minute time frame because otherwise I am taking precious time away from independent work time.
- I will read a story each day during snack (that does not count for read aloud with accountable talk because… well, they’re focused on eating) to increase their exposure to stories.
- No students will be pulled out of my literacy time for any support. This time is sacred.
My Past Schedules
Total: 180 Minutes a day!
Ok, so… maybe I lied when I said I never had the dream literacy schedule. I completely forgot about my first school! My first school district was 100% invested in balanced literacy. That is actually where I was trained and where I learned so much of the knowledge I am sharing with you. We wrote our entire social studies curriculum in a way that supported our literacy goals. This was my schedule during my time there. We always had enough time to get everything done that we needed to get done. If science or social studies needed more time we would flex our literacy or math time to devote more time to those subjects. Teachers were given professional choice within our schedule to make small daily changes as needed. This was honestly the greatest schedule I ever had. You’ll notice that Shared Reading and Shared Writing aren’t listed as subjects. This is because those were pulled into any subject every day. Sometimes shared reading happened in math or shared writing happened in science. We were completely in control.
Snack happened while kids were independently reading. This is obviously not ideal because eating and reading at the same time is very tricky for the grade 2 reader. Very tricky. We had many lessons about how to eat safely, without damaging the books, eat our snacks.
Total: 120 minutes
This schedule worked pretty well for grade 3. At this school we were not so attached to balanced literacy and focused more on the workshop model. We received amazing PD around oral language and accountable talk here.
You will notice that we do not have a read aloud time written into our schedule. Even though we did professional development around read aloud for two years we never made actual time for it within our schedule. Usually I cut reader’s workshop short by 15 minutes and did read aloud then. Sometimes read aloud would be incorporated during Morning Meeting or Science or Social Studies. This was tricky but it was what we had to work with. Again, not ideal but I worked with what I had. Isn’t that what we all do as teachers?
At this school we had less flex time in our schedule. We were expected to be teaching what was on our schedule no matter what. If the principal walked in and it was supposed to be word study and you were still doing writer’s workshop it was “noted.” I don’t know where those notes went but someone knew when you didn’t follow your schedule with fidelity.
Total: 65 minutes 3 days a week 105 minutes 2 days a week… I think!
This is my current schedule and by far the least ideal of the three. Last year my schedule was much better than this one but I can’t find it and our schedules are too complex to remember. Usually I don’t even know my schedule until March! You’ll see that our students receive 200 minutes a week in their native language. This means that our Polish speaking students head to native Polish, our French students go to native French, our German students go to native German and all the kids who don’t fit into those categories go to foreign Polish. If we’re complaining about our schedule I have no idea how these native language teachers do it. They literally teach an entire years worth of curriculum (not just reading and writing but social studies and other important information too) in 200 minutes a week! I can’t even imagine!
This is the first time that I haven’t had time for both reader’s and writer’s workshop everyday. I want to do each subject justice but I know that I am not doing what I should be doing. At one summer institute Lucy Calkins said something along the lines of… if you can’t do 60 minutes of workshop (reading or writing) a day then don’t even bother. She said not to do this sort of schedule at all. I should just forget it. I can’t imagine what she would think if she saw my current schedule.
I do reader’s workshop on Monday and Tuesday and writer’s workshop on Thursday and Friday. I use Wednesday to flex between the two. Some weeks you need 3 days of reading. Some weeks you need 3 days of writing. Some days I am so discouraged by this schedule. I just have to work with what I’m given
Plus! 80 minutes of word study in two 40-minute blocks? Also not ideal for the first grader. This schedule is the most rigid of any. I cannot move anything around. I can sometimes swap science and social studies for each other but there is no way for me to get more literacy time in our day.
So What Do I Do?
- I plan like no other. Pulling all of these strings and orchestrating a successful schedule while trying to implement balanced literacy is HARD. My plans are on point in order to incorporate everything.
- I guarantee my students get a read aloud every single day. It usually is only 15 minutes a day. Sometimes I put my read aloud in math, science or social studies.
- Interactive writing has been totally incorporated into my science and social studies curriculum. My students usually get about 30 minutes a week.
- Shared reading is totally incorporated into word study, math, and social studies. We do some shared reading in science but not too much. We have about 20 minutes of shared reading a week.
- I teach my kids to hustle. We learn abut urgency and we know that everything we’re doing is the most important thing in the moment. I shave down my transition times to next to nothing in order to optimize minutes.
- I also relax and know that some days it just isn’t going to happen. Sometimes we need a go noodle break even though we clearly have no time for it. We do it anyways.
- My kid listen to a story (without accountable talk aka not interactive) every single day during snack time
- We have wonderful and very involved parents who provide support for literacy at home
KEEP YOUR FOCUS ON THE STUDENTS. WHAT IS BEST FOR THEM? DO IT. WHAT SCHEDULE IS BEST FOR THEM? MAKE MODIFICATIONS AS NEEDED. KIDS DESERVE IT!
Each Tuesday a new post will appear giving you more insight into the life of a balanced literacy teacher! Next week our post will focus on the teacher moves during independent reading or writing time.
Use the comments section to ask any lingering questions or leave any comments with things I can do to better help you on this journey to implementing a balanced literacy framework within your classroom.
What are the nonnegotiable items within your schedule? Do you have a scheduling issue at your school? I would love to hear from you!
The mini-lesson is the primary mode of whole class instruction in a balanced literacy classroom. It can feel overwhelming to begin and I completely understand. Taking on a new way of teaching can be confusing and frustrating without the right support and information. Join me on Tuesdays to discuss balanced literacy and the workshop model and learn a bit more each week. You might want to take a look back at my previous posts to learn a bit more. All posts regarding balanced literacy and the workshop model can be found at the end of this post.
Examples of Mini-Lessons
How do you know what lessons to teach?
Where do I find what to teach? This is a common question that teachers new to the framework will ask. Maybe you are lucky and your school has already provided some sort of curriculum. My school follows the TCRWP (Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project) units of study. Maybe you use Fountas and Pinnell Classroom. Maybe you don’t have a guide at all and just follow the students and their needs. Just know that adding in additional lessons based on student need is always appropriate while using the workshop/balanced literacy model.
We’re going to stay with workshop a while so we can really get into all of the pieces together. Hopefully you’re starting to feel like taking on workshop and balanced literacy won’t be such a large task. We’re going to break it down into manageable chunks. Start to shift around things in your classroom to prepare for workshop. Let me know all of your questions too so I can help you out.
Each Tuesday a new post will appear giving you more insight into the life of a balanced literacy teacher! Next week our post will center around scheduling. Maybe you’re realizing that you don’t have enough time in the day for this, neither do I. We’ll talk all about what to do about this next week.
Use the comments section to ask any lingering questions or leave any comments so I can better help you on this journey to implementing a balanced literacy framework within your classroom.
Additional Posts on Balanced Literacy
This post is one of reflection as an elementary team leader and as an elementary teacher. It is also a cautionary tale against leveling students. I suppose you could say it is also a cautionary tale warning the dangers of not providing enough professional development to staff when introducing new methods.
Even the Experts Disagree
Before we step too far into this hot topic. Let’s just reflect upon the experts and what they say. There are many more experts on this topic. I have just chosen Irene Fountas, Gay Su Pinnell, and Lucy Calkins for simplifying the arguments.
Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell are firmly against children knowing their reading level and reading levels being anything other than a teacher tool. Fountas and Pinnell hosted a webinar quite recently to express their thoughts on reading levels. If you follow Fountas and Pinnell on Twitter, you will frequently see this belief tweeted out. Reading levels are for teachers. Reading levels guide instruction but they are not the be all end all of reading instruction. Kids should not know their reading level. Reading levels should not be shared with parents. Classroom libraries should be organized by series, characters, topic, author, genre, or interest. I admit that I subscribe to the beliefs of F&P- especially after this year.
Lucy Calkins does not agree with Fountas and Pinnell. She believes that children should know their reading levels. It should also be clearly laid out for them what they will need to achieve as readers to move up to the next level. Calkins believes that 70% of the classroom library should be organized by level and the remaining 30% should be series, topic, author or genre.
I’ve taught in schools where kids and parents were not told levels. In fact, when they did start to release levels to parents, the parents had to attend a class to learn about levels before they could learn their child’s level. I have taught in schools where levels were known by kids and parents and where levels were used as a motivator to push kids along as readers. I’ve worked at schools with no distinct policies and the choice is left up to teachers. While each school may work differently I’ve noticed one method with better success.
What Our School Used to DO
At my current school teachers were given choice about reading levels. Some shared with kids and parents, some shared with parents, some shared with kids, some didn’t share at all. The reason reading levels were shared was to help quantify a child’s learning. If I tell a parent that this child started the year at a level B and is ending the year at a level H, the parent can see growth. Parents also liked it because they felt they could see how good a teacher was by how many levels a child moved up. I am aware that this is not how things go… but I’m just sharing what we did.
Teachers were not provided much professional development at all in regards to reading levels. In fact, I was never even trained in the D.R.A. I had given F&P B.A.S. before and my principal said good enough, they were the same thing. The teacher education around reading levels and even best teaching practice from the last 10 years was almost nonexistent. We also switched to the workshop model with a 15 minute presentation from a colleague and me. There was no parent education on our new reading and writing curriculum because not all teachers were following it. As you can see, this was a recipe for disaster.
This inconsistency created a huge problem. There wasn’t flow from grade 0 through grade 5. Parents were confused by different expectations at each grade level. Some teachers shared DRA levels which are numbers and some converted our DRA scores to letter levels. Some classroom libraries were organized by level. Some classroom libraries were organized by topic or genre. There was a large outcry that we needed more consistency. This year we’re working to educate our staff and provide more consistency 0-5.
The Crisis We Created
Sharing reading levels with students can seem harmless. It is one way a teacher can help a teacher find a just right book. If a child knows they are a K then they can find a book that is a K. The problem is that readers began to identify with their level more than they should. Readers were quickly able to tell who were the best readers in the class and who were the worst based on level. It reminds me of the reading groups the existed when I was a child. The groups were clearly labeled by ability. Some kids were the birds and some kids were the worms. A reader’s identity is built up of so many things. Their interests and life experiences play a huge role. Their race and gender orientation and religion and so many of the important things that make that child unique play a role in their reading identity. It appears as though when a level is introduced the level begins to take precedence.
The entire point of creating levels is to move up levels. Parents understand that decoding is essential to moving up. If you can read harder words then you can read harder books. When you and I were kids comprehension wasn’t stressed much. I had to do simple retells but the deep underlying comprehension was never part of my reading education. The comprehension you get to by inferring or reflecting on author’s craft was never required and many of our parents don’t even consider that when thinking about if a book is just right. Parents wanted their child to move through the levels and become better and better readers. Children wanted to move through the levels and become better and better readers. Teachers wanted the same thing and with little background or training on the levels began pushing kids through. Once a child could decode the story and do a retell, maybe a few other simple comprehension tasks they were moved on. The system seemed to work… until it didn’t.
This year we switched from D.R.A. to Fountas and Pinnell B.A.S. I trained our teachers this August and we set out to assess our kids. I knew that scores would drop slightly because of the types of comprehension questions that would be asked. I knew that we weren’t teaching for comprehension and rich understanding but I had no idea what was in store. I converted the scores from the DRA to BAS and was shocked. Some 4th graders were listed at an 8th grade level. Most grade 3 students were supposedly reading at a 5th or 6th grade level. While we do have very intelligent children at our school, we do not have whole classes years ahead of where they should be.
Teachers began to assess and the cracks started to show. As teachers worked to assess and assess the students were moved down and down. Even in my grade 1 class most students are currently reading at a beginning of grade 0 reading level. Where did we go wrong and how did we go so far off the tracks? The answer is simple. We didn’t train teachers in reading levels or our new reading curriculum. Without this knowledge teachers were doing their best to apply prior knowledge to an entirely new system. It clearly wasn’t work. Unfortunately the fix will not be an easy or simple one.
Where do We go Next?
In the midst of our testing crisis we had a CPT meeting (Curriculum Planning Team). This team includes all elementary teachers and teaching assistants. We meet once a week to discuss a wide variety of things. We started to discuss classroom libraries and how we should organize them. A strong case was made for organizing them by level. It was easiest. Kids got it and their parents got it too. A few teachers were arguing against this. The whole reason we were in this testing mess was partially due to levels. At the end of the meeting tempers were rising and the debate was getting heated. As the leader, I pressed pause and said we would have to return to the topic another time. I suggested we look into educational research to guide us further, the teachers seemed to support this decision and I hoped it would lead us in a positive direction.
That night I went home and searched and searched for research. I was stunned to learn that I couldn’t find much research supporting leveled libraries. I did however read some interesting research explaining that reading levels are a sham. I always love to hear from opinions opposite my own to have my beliefs challenged and put into perspective. The next week I challenged our staff to form an opinion and find research to support their opinion. We would then continue the conversation with advice from the experts.
The day of the meeting I was so nervous. It was a completely open decision. Our principal said that whatever was decided would be tested out for the year and we would reflect at the end of the year. I expected everyone to bring research that supported unleveled libraries but argue that we should still level ours. That didn’t happen at all. At the end of the meeting we decided that we did not want our libraries leveled. We instead wanted our libraries organized by genre and topic. We wanted kids to be able to quickly find stories they wanted to read based on interest, not level. Our classroom libraries are currently being unleveled. We are working to teach our students about choosing a book based on interest, not level. This has been a HUGE struggle for me. I will have to write another post just about this soon. We are hosting a parent education night to explain our program to our parents and we are slowly moving forward. This will be an uphill journey but we are beginning and that is what matters.
What I Hope You Can Learn From Us
When telling students and parents levels we hadn’t thought of the ramifications. I believe that if parents are to learn levels then there needs to be some sort of parent education tied to learning the levels. Levels are complex. So, so complex. This is the exact reason why Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell are so adamant about reading levels being used for anything other than a teacher’s tool. Kids need to build a reading identity and so often when they are given a level it becomes the only source of their reading identity. I can assure you that a large majority of the reading I do is far too easy for me. I like it though. I can tell you that I am the type of reader who loves nonfiction and young adult literature. I love reading blog posts and articles written in list format. I don’t know my reading level and even if I did I wouldn’t always follow it. Readers are complex and reducing them to a level takes away the complexity.
I know this post is a bit jumbled as I continue try to wrap my head around our current situation and determine next steps moving forward. What are your thoughts on sharing reading levels? How does your school do it? Do you have any advice for our school moving forward from this? I would love to hear what you have to say!