Friday Five: Back to School

Three kids walking towards school wearing neon backpacks.

AHHH!!! Back to School Time! This is the time of year that I have the hardest time keeping a work/life balance. I want to start the year with my best foot forward, but this year, I’m focusing on myself throughout the back to school whirlwind. Here are five tips for keeping your cool during back to school! (😂Kills me! I just think that little rhyme is hilarious!) 

One

Set Working Hours

In the last few years, I set working hours for myself, and I made myself stick to them. If I thought of something that needed to be done outside of my working hours, I jotted a note, and I took care of it during my working hours. This allowed me to take time for my friends and family. I wasn’t turning down dinner invitations because I was working on classroom stuff. I worked hard during my working hours, and then I did other things with the rest of my day. I highly recommend setting some working hours for yourself. I chose not to set any working hours over the weekend, but maybe someone would want to spend a few hours working. Everyone will have different working hours during back to school. It all depends on where you’re at as a teacher. Did you just switch schools? Did you change grade levels? Are you returning to the same classroom? These situations might require different working hours than those of us returning to the same school and the same grade level. 

Two

Prioritize Your To Do List

I make incredibly detailed to-do lists during back to school. I make one list that is for things that need to be copied. One list of things that need to be created. One for tasks to accomplish in the classroom. One for tasks that can be accomplished at home.  Make a list that works for you. Personally, I like to write them out on different post-its. Find what works for you. HERE are a few different templates for you to try out, including one where you can label the lists! 

Three

Plan Out the First Two Weeks

I like to map out my first few weeks of school and ensure that I have enough planned. There’s nothing worse than not having enough planned during those first few weeks. Create a detailed plan for the first day of school. Plan out how you’re going to build your classroom community. How are you going to get to know each other? How are you going to learn procedures? When are you going to start teaching your content? What do students in your classroom need to know to be successful? What parent communication are you going to send home in the first few weeks? There’s a lot to plan out, and there’s no such thing as being overprepared in the first weeks. 

FOur

Enlist help if Needed

One year I switched schools and walked into my new classroom to find boxes and boxes of copies. It turned out that our team ordered all of our copies for the entire year! I was so overwhelmed. All of the file cabinets were filled.  I asked the other teachers, and they explained that they keep the boxes and get stuff out as needed. I don’t do clutter in my classroom, and there was no way I was going to be able just to keep the boxes. I called my mom, and she spent hours labeling file folders, organizing the copies by subject, and filing away all the sheets. I managed to fit all of the copies in my file cabinets and felt so relieved. If you need help, grab friends, family, whoever to help you! 

Five

Take Time For Yourself

Make sure to take time for yourself at the beginning of the year. Honor those working hours you set up and take time for yourself. I make sure to plan time to hang out with my friends during back to school time this way, I invest in myself as well as my teacher life. Do something fun. Plan out relaxing or energizing activities for your weekend, but don’t forget to take time for yourself. You don’t want to begin the school year burned out. 

How do you ensure to make time for yourself during back to school time? 

What are your back to school non-negotiables? 

Leave a comment below! 

Weekly Wisdom

Weekly Wisdom

Early Intervention

The most effective intervention is implemented early in a child’s career- before the cycle of failure is established.

-Irene Fountas & Gay Su Pinnell

I’ve seen early interventions work wonders. I am trained in Reading Recovery and a huge believer in early intervention. As a third grade teacher, I can tell you that the difference between students who received early intervention and those who were allowed to struggle a little longer is huge. HUGE! The sooner we boost up our students the less they fall behind their peers. 

 

What are your thoughts on early interventions? 

Weekly Wisdom

Weekly Wisdom

Teachers Are A Treasure

Teachers are a treasure, and we need to make sure we’re taking care of them.

-Bobby Burke

Did you watch Queer Eye? I cried so hard in the episode with Jonathan’s teacher! Bobby Burke came out with this little gem. I had to hit pause straight away and jot it down. Teachers are a treasure. Do you feel like you’re being taken care of? What do you wish people understood about teachers? 

Weekly Wisdom

Weekly Wisdom

Initiate the Learning Process

The teacher’s task is to initiate the learning process and then get out of the way.

-John Warren

Well, yeah sometimes as teachers we do accidentally stand in the way of learning. Maybe it is putting up a scaffold that isn’t needed or waiting a bit too long before allowing independent practice. Sometimes it is keeping kids in a small group when they’re ready to move on. It happens! 

Once when our TCRWP staff developer visited our school in the US we had to go off and coach a partnership. I went and taught a little lesson and then they did it. I lingered because I felt like I should do something next. She came up and said, “now you walk away. You taught them something they weren’t doing earlier. Now they’re doing it. Walk away and check back later.” We hesitate sometimes to walk away but teaching doesn’t always mean sitting next to a child each step of the way. It also means letting them take steps on their own too. 

Am I Wrong? Balanced Literacy and the Science of Reading

Am I Wrong? Balanced Literacy and the Science of Reading

Teachers Need Reflection Too

In international teaching, I’ve noticed the conversation of phonics comes up much more with parents than it does in the US. Especially considering the British system (that I admittedly don’t know much about) places a lot of weight on phonics. So, when I saw this debate light up again on Facebook and Instagram this fall, I wanted to learn more. My background with dyslexia, phonics, and guided reading is really skewed, and I’ve never really known what to think about the whole debate. I never really believe that something is 100% the right way and something else is 100% the wrong way. I think things are more on a continuum. I’m going to share my background story with dyslexia and balanced literacy with you so that you know where I am coming from- a very confusing place. I’m not the most credible and knowledgeable voice in this debate. 

My Background

During the beginning of my teaching career, a new reading specialist came into our building. She was studying dyslexia and would share the information she learned from time to time. I found it interesting because I didn’t know a lot about dyslexia and I LOVE to learn!

She would come into my classroom and tell me that in my class of eighteen, at least five students had dyslexia. Or she would come in to share a quick thing she learned about in an article. It felt normal, and our second-grade team liked our morning chats with her until suddenly things weren’t so normal anymore.

The App Diagnosis

One day she found a fantastic app ever that could diagnose dyslexia in children. I was skeptical of this app at best. I don’t believe that it is our job to diagnose children, and I don’t believe a new app is how to do it. She came in unannounced to test it out on my class during reader’s workshop. Not only was she extremely disruptive to the flow of our classroom during this time, but she also ended up diagnosing my entire class with dyslexia. I brushed this off and continued teaching, surely my whole class didn’t have dyslexia, right?

She then started printing off worksheet after worksheet and dropping off stacks in my classroom to help with my 100% dyslexic class. I was overwhelmed by this. This interventionist was known to blow up at teachers, so I always accepted the worksheets, and they found their way to the recycling. I didn’t want conflict (type 9 enneagram here!), but I did not want all of these resources. My kids were showing growth using balanced literacy, and if they were showing growth, I didn’t see a need to change.

Working Together

Later on that year, we decided one of my students who was reading at a level K in mid-March would benefit from some time with a reading interventionist. They needed to work on decoding longer words and deeper level comprehension. They weren’t too far behind grade level, so the team figured a short term intervention would give them the boost they needed. We also knew they would thrive in a 1:1 setting, and short-term interventions like this had helped them in the past.

The interventionist that worked with our grade level was all booked up, so this student went to the dyslexia researcher. After one session, she came into my classroom screaming (when my whole class was enjoying snack) that the kid couldn’t read at all. She was yelling and blaming me for being a lousy teacher by teaching balanced literacy in front of all of my students!

No teacher wants to hear they’re not doing a good job- especially in front of their whole class. We’re all doing the best with what we have. I was following our district curriculum, and there wasn’t anything else I could have done. What she was ranting about was super confusing to me, too, because they were reading Frog and Toad and loving them. They could decode at a level K and comprehend for the most part. Something happened when they tried an L, and they needed a bit more help. This student was reading Nate the Great and solving mystery after mystery how were they unable to read? What does that even mean? They were reading every single day with me.

What Was the Reading Intervention?

When she started working with them, she focused on teaching them phonics instead of doing the intervention that we had discussed as a team. During our class phonics lessons, they did reasonably well. I’m not sure what work they were doing with her because whenever I asked, she talked in circles and threw out names of programs. She would argue all the time that she was Orton Gillingham trained. I didn’t care about her training. I knew Orton Gillingham and had seen it work wonders with kids. I wanted to know what their intervention consisted of so that I could support that work in our classroom. I would try to ask more specific questions, but she would not break down the 30-minute lesson and explain what she was doing. It was beyond frustrating. 

How Can I Support This Child?

Soon, they had slipped back to a level J and then to a level I. One day I handed them our story during guided reading, and they declared that they couldn’t read books and gave the book back; they asked for a list of words. I didn’t understand what was going on. How could this kid who loved books suddenly refuse to read books? I had my literacy coach come in and observe because let’s be real- I was panicking. I needed to figure out what to do next. My literacy coach was also confused. She was their reading interventionist the year before and said she was shocked by some of the things she saw them doing. 

As I worked with my literacy coach to try to figure out what I could do to support this little diamond, she was also stumped. She asked what they were working on in intervention. I filled her in on all the strange conversations I had and that I didn’t know what was happening. She said that she’s sure dyslexia is underdiagnosed but is also confident that my whole class probably doesn’t have it. And even if this diamond does have dyslexia, this intervention isn’t working.

It Kept Getting Weirder

Even stranger things happened after this. The interventionist went into one of my colleague’s classrooms and took all the Mo Willems books declaring that students should read dumb stuff. She started trying to start rumors about our literacy coach, even coming and asking me if I was being treated ok by her. She went low and said that the lit coach’s daughter had dyslexia, and that’s why she was anti-dyslexia. Our lit coach wasn’t anti-dyslexia but got accused of a whole bunch because she was leading us in balanced literacy. She went into another room and told the teacher classroom libraries were dumb and unnecessary. She launched attack after attack on our literacy coach via Facebook posts. I unfriended her because I don’t want to be associated with teachers who attack each other on Facebook. More things happened, but you get the gist.

To be honest, I never understood why dyslexia and balanced literacy were at war. Why was she so anti our balanced literacy framework? The way I understood it was dyslexic students needed something different than what was provided in a balanced literacy framework. There are, of course, kids who need different teaching than the teaching happening in the classroom. Shouldn’t we accommodate them? 

More Than A Little Confused

As you can imagine, that experience left me more than a little bit confused about dyslexia. All I knew was a kid who was doing well in reading got an unofficial dyslexia diagnosis by a teacher who wasn’t the most stable, and then he got worse and worse as a reader. His reading level at the end of the year was lower than at the start of the year. 

Logically I knew that this was an odd case, and she wasn’t the greatest, but it was tough to get past all of her irrational and abrasive behavior. After this incident, I didn’t think about dyslexia for a long time. 

Phonics P.D.

Then, a few years ago my school (a different one than the school above) had professional development with the principal from a school that specializes in dyslexia. She talked a lot about the importance of phonics. We reviewed phonics rules and I met with her one on one to discuss the teaching of phonics. We had just switched to Fountas and Pinnell Phonics and it was the first time our school had a phonics/ word study program. We talked for a long time about what rules to teach kids and what rules not to teach, how to build in phonics support into the reading and writing workshop. If I could work for this principal I would. She was so knowledgable and I left her session with millions of ideas to pull into the classroom. It didn’t seem as though there was a huge disconnect from what I was doing in my classroom using balanced literacy and the phonics PD that I attended. They seemed to work in harmony which was the opposite of what I had always been told. 

Phonics is a Part of Balanced Literacy

I feel there is a misconception that phonics is not taught in a balanced literacy framework. That isn’t true (if things are happening correctly- I know sometimes they aren’t). Phonics is taught in part of the program, often referred to as word study. The way phonics is taught depends on what program or philosophy a school is following. I’ve used Fountas and Pinnell Phonics, which follows the workshop approach and teaches in on one specific phonics piece each lesson. I’ve also used Words Their Way and Word Journeys to teach phonics through sorting and making connections between other words. I would say the whole goal of word study in balanced literacy is for skills to transfer back into reading and writing. We might not teach all of the cute phonics rhymes we learned as kids. This is usually because the cute rhymes tie in with the exceptions, not the rules. Perhaps people behind the Science of Reading would like a more rigorous phonics component to balanced literacy. I’m not opposed to that, and I don’t think many are. We want to teach transferrable phonics skills to our kids as phonics knowledge is needed for decoding. 

M,S,V and the Science of Reading

Last year I led our school in learning Fountas and Pinnell’s Benchmark Assessment System, and part of that system is MSV. If you don’t know, MSV stands for Meaning, Structure, and Visual. These are considered the three cueing system readers use as they read. When readers encounter an unknown word and attempt to decode it, they ask: Does this make sense? Does this sound right? Does this look right? Often in a balanced literacy approach, more weight is placed on meaning than on phonics for the in the moment decoding while reading. 

While preparing for that training, I came across research that MSV wasn’t valid, and I read it. I knew that there were teachers extremely frustrated by B.A.S., and they would find this research. I also think it is good practice to read things that you disagree with. It furthers your reflection and your own ideas. What I found was fascinating. Researchers show that the English language is much more decodable than we’ve been led to believe. It is a topic that I would like to learn about more. I do notice that children who come into our schools from the British system are much, much better decoders but have limited comprehension skills.

I recently joined a Facebook group for teachers who support the Science of Reading. Currently, I’m disappointed I haven’t learned more from the group as it is right now focused on bashing balanced literacy programs and leaders and less focused on sharing information on the science of reading. Hopefully, I can begin to learn more from them as a teacher.

So, Am I Wrong?

It isn’t a good feeling to think that you’re wrong about your core beliefs on a topic, but it is a good time for reflection. Am I wrong? Should I stop using a balanced literacy approach and focus more on phonics? The Science of Reading people say yes. I don’t know, but I don’t think so at this moment. I want to learn more and strengthen my phonics instruction, and I don’t believe that kids in younger grades should just read decodable texts, BUT I do think decodables are beneficial for some readers. 

Could we include more decodable reading within the phonics portion of balanced literacy? What compromises could be made to support both? I don’t know but I am sure there are some.

This whole debate reminded me of a conversation we had with a literacy consultant at the start of the year. We were providing a scaffolded support tool that the majority of students actually didn’t need. We removed that support from the kids who didn’t need it and kept it for the kids who did need it. I feel like giving all kids decodables instead of the books they currently have would be similar. We would be putting up supports for all kids that they might not need. Dyslexia is underdiagnosed, and teachers need a lot more support and education in this area. I am sure that what works for dyslexic students will work for all students, but is it what’s best for them? I don’t know. I’m going to continue to research and listen to both sides of the argument. We’ll see what I discover. 

Additional Resources

The Science of Reading

Please know that if you’re using a balanced literacy approach some of these may be hard to read because of the teacher-bashing in them. I’m not about that. Couldn’t we have this debate without bashing teachers and name-calling? 

What is the Science of Reading?

Beyond the Reading Wars: How the Science of Reading Can Improve Literacy

The Science of Teaching Reading

The Science of Reading- A PowerPoint Presentation

Timothy Shanahan Blog

 

Balanced Literacy

I’m only including the responses from Lucy Calkins and Irene and Gay Su Pinnell because they’re the only responses I know of right now. If you know of additional responses please share them in the comments.

No One Gets To Own the Term “Science of Reading” -Lucy Calkins

A Word on Phonics with Fountas and Pinnell

Thoughts?

Let’s build a productive conversation around this topic in the comments below. 

What are your thoughts? What does your education and experience lead you to? 

Just a forewarning, any teacher-bashing comments will be deleted. That isn’t productive for either side. Try to figure out a way to phrase your comment in a way that doesn’t bash the teacher but teaches.