By: Jessica Michael Bowman

While I wasn’t able to attend #NCTE18, I have been fangirling from the sidelines. I’m not the tweetiest of Twitterers, but in the days following that prolific meeting of kindred hearts and minds, I refreshed, scanned, and refreshed Twitter repeatedly – the bleary, red-rimmed eyes of a crazed woman, face awash in blue light, reflected by the screen of my iPhone.

While there were many profound insights, questions, and charges that resonated with me, there was one in particular (from Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Staff Developer Hareem Atif Khan) that was actually tweeted prior to her session at NCTE ’18 that at first felt like a punch to the throat and then sounded like a resounding Hallelujah chorus:

Screen Shot 2018-11-27 at 9.18.55 AM

Ouch. And RETWEET.

That last line just hangs in the air doesn’t it? A charge, maybe even a bit of a subtle accusation, but within that – a question.

How much of our teaching tends to rely on these resources and “tools,” and what might happen if we dedicated the same amount of time we spend scouring Pinterest to setting up an inquiry of the rigor within the teaching and learning in our classrooms?

Now, I’m not here to knock Pinterest. I, too, have a “My Classroom” board pinned with photos of brightly decorated classrooms, engaging management techniques, and envy-inducing bulletin boards (it’s located right alongside the board I’ve dedicated to the modern farmhouse meets boho home I will probably never afford and the decadent Magnolia Table recipes I still have yet to make). Give me all of the intricately decorated bulletin boards, clever, pun-inspired student work displays, student-centered flexible seating arrangements, and activities for instilling kindness and empathy in our students! I’ve been there – hot gluing freshly fluffed tissue poms onto my reading nook tree and surviving the third degree burns to tell about it.

While creating a welcoming student-centered learning environment that promotes engagement, motivation, empathy, and autonomy is imperative, it can be easy to be drawn toward the glow of the chevron flame and allow our appreciation for cute to override the necessity for rigor. While there is an abundance of cute activities available that are created with intention of supporting our teaching points, standards, and units, I worry that we sometimes circumvent the potentially greatest source of creativity, ingenuity, and powerful teaching – our own minds.

This is NOT to say that everything on Pinterest is void of depth, creativity, and meaning. I love Pinterest! And while I’ve found great resources there over the years, I also value the culture of collaboration and sharing that it has fostered among teachers. I do, however, want us to acknowledge that WE are also the developers of great ideas! OUR brains are a place where creative, engaging lessons are born! And I encourage us to shift our focus from the the WHAT of our teaching, to the WHY and HOW of our teaching. When we are mindful of our delivery of instruction and how much we focus on students driving it, we tap into a channel of creativity and responsiveness that may otherwise have remained untapped.

This brings me back to the words of Hareem Atif Khan. What may have, at first, felt like an accusation, was really a friendly nudge to consider how we use what we consume. Whatever resources we utilize in our classrooms are only as good as their application and the ways in which we use them. We are still the deciding factor, the catalyst for learning – no matter where what we’re using originated. We talk to our students about adding tools to their reading and writing toolboxes, but how often are we adding to our own? By honing our craft, and focusing more on substance over surface, we can grow our own “toolkits,” so that we can rely on our own instinctive thinking and responsive teaching while engaging students in more authentic, meaningful learning.

As teachers, especially elementary teachers, I think we, and more importantly our students, can benefit from looking deeply at our teaching and studying the depth of rigor and level of learning within our classrooms. We can do cutesy, and we can also do deep. So, in the hope of adding a few more tools to your toolbox, I’m sharing a few easy-to-implement instructional practices that support rigorous teaching and lift the level of students’ learning – across multiple contexts and using a variety of resources.

If you’re looking to support metacognition and bring students’ awareness of their thinking to the forefront, try this:

  1. Thinking Aloud – Thinking aloud provides students with opportunities to see the “invisible work” of reading and writing that we, as readers and writers, do. When a teacher engages with a text and pauses to model his or her thinking, students are able to see all of the strategies, skills and concepts they’re learning put into use proficiently. More than this – this internal dialogue, now put on display, can help them begin to think aloud themselves – giving you access to their thinking so you can inform your instruction and encouraging them to study and revise their theories, questions, and responses.
  2. Responding to Reading – Responding to reading, whether by using readers notebooks, sticky notes, reading logs, etc. is an authentic, meaningful, and engaging way for students to keep track of their thinking, while also expanding upon and revising it. Opening a dialogue with their texts in an organic ways that honors student choice and supports the teaching and learning in your classroom can keep students engaged, motivated to read, and also provide a window into the invisible work they are doing.
  3. Turn and Talk – Kids love to talk, and they should have ample time to talk about and process their learning! Turning and talking provides EVERY students a chance to share their thinking and add to one another’s schema. It also does great things for you! Again, you can do a quick formative assessment of what your students need based on their conversations, and it keeps every student engaged – not just a few who have been selected to share.

Maybe you want students to have a chance to apply what you’re teaching! Transfer is key, and we can support it by:

  1. Modeling and Scaffolding – Aside from modeling your thinking aloud, you can also share the ways in which you, as a reader and writer, use specific strategies or skills successfully.  Invite your students to see the way YOU do it first, and then provide them a chance to try it with you their to coach them. Inferring about characters? Show them how you did this work with a text you’ve read aloud, and then encourage them to try it with their own independent treading texts. When your teaching points are specific, direct and replicable, they can be transferred into the work students are doing.
  2. Providing Opportunities for Students to Read and Write Independently – If we want out students to transfer what we’re teaching, it’s imperative that we give them loads of time to read and write independently. Sometimes this feels to too simple, too basic, and we look for other things to add to and “enhance” these crucial opportunities for transfer. That’s one of the best aspects of a student-centered approach to learning – you can put it in the hands of your students and it frees you up to confer, guide, and facilitate. When you’re alongside them, in the midst of the work that they’re doing, you can see how they’re applying what you’ve taught and offer some coaching that’s responsive to what each student needs. Students will be engaged but also accountable when they know you’re going to be checking in with them and coaching them toward reaching their goals.
  3. Access to Books and Volume – If students are going to be engaging with various, high-interest texts at their independent reading levels, they’re going to need books – and lots of them. Ensuring students have access to texts where they can transfer your teaching into their learning is essential (I have some ideas for how to keep your classroom library and read aloud texts diverse here). As students read, volume is key, so we can encourage them to read voraciously and with tenacity. Are they finishing books quickly? Awesome! Instead of searching for another activity for them to do, we can encourage them to reread intentionally, or read on and continue to expand and deepen their thinking.

So, Pin on, Pinners! Send me a few pins from your recipe boards (if I never get around to making them, at least I can stare at them). Share YOUR worthy and inspirational instructional ideas. Search for the perfect mentor texts to add to your narrative writing unit. Download that cute font because you, and that field trip permission form, deserve it. And also – join that PL book study! Check out that webinar, and engage in that Twitter Chat.  I encourage you to add to your teaching “toolkit” as often as you add to your Pinterest board. And above all, I encourage you to consider the why and the how of your teaching, in addition to the what.

WVCTE is wondering… How do you increase the rigor in your teaching and students’ learning? 

Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!


Jessica Michael Bowman is a literacy coach for Berkeley County Schools, unabashed bibliophile, and advocate of lifelong literacy. When she’s not coaching teachers, teaching students, or blogging for WVCTE, she’s probably crying over a book. Aside from literacy, her other loves of life are traveling with her family and adding to her music collection. You can connect with her on Twitter @JMichaelBowman5.


Categories: BlogLiteracy

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: