Monday, November 4, 2013

Reflections & Understandings about Independent Work in the Common Core Literacy Block: Part 2

*This is the second post in a three part series about the literacy block, independent work, the teacher's role and place in the room, and how what students need to be able to do is multi-faceted and beyond a checklist of yes they can or no they can't...* To catch up, read Part 1 first so this post makes sense....

So, here's what I said and did.

First, I told the students, "No, keeping you busy is not it, at all! Yes, to learn stuff [but vague and too general] and yes, ABSOLUTELY to practice the reading stuff I teach you.  You see, when a teacher teaches you "something," there is a lesson, and the teacher talks about it and explains what it is you are to do to show you learned it. When the teacher gives the lesson, it's the teacher's turn.  And then, the teacher gives you time to PRACTICE doing the "something" and you get a chance to learn it, talk about it, read it, write it, apply it.   And that's your turn.  Literacy centers are your opportunity to try, practice, and "give it a go"....(working towards independence...this is key).

*(Long) Side note: Building wide we have noticed, well more than noticed actually, we have collected instructional practices data, that students at our school are getting solid core instruction in The Big 5 Areas of Reading (more about this in a minute), but in about 80% of classrooms, students who are not participating in a guided reading session are "just reading." Not that this is bad, kids should be doing the lower grades, kids should building up their reading stamina to read for up to 30 uninterrupted minutes and up to 45 in the upper grades...this is the whole "Read to Self" piece of The Daily 5.  The reason I say "just reading" is because that's about all else they are doing. I will admit, even for my own students, I barely have time to go back and read their Reading Response Journals because my time is consumed with guided reading, that individual reading conferences rarely take place.  In addition to reading to oneself, students should also be PRACTICING AND REINFORCING THE SKILLS & STRATEGIES LEARNED IN EACH DAY'S CORE INSTRUCTIONAL LESSON, besides the comprehension lesson, and we were beginning to notice that students weren't generally getting an opportunity to do that...from about 1st grade up.  You see, when we opened the school brand new five years ago, we opened it on the literacy structure of a blended Reading Workshop/Guided Reading model (instead of doing individual reading conferences, we did guided reading with small groups of students reading on similar reading levels, and for the most part, we still do that for students whose instructional level is below their stretch level, with some occasional strategy groups mixed in, thanks to Jan Burkin's book, Preventing Misguided Reading).  I also think we felt that if students were going to do something else besides "just read" that we needed to make sure it was meaningful and the students knew why they were doing it.  So, at the risk of wondering if "reading around the room" and "playing with magnetic letters" was meaningful and MAKING THEM BETTER READERS, most classrooms at our school, didn't and don't do "reading around the room" and "magnetic letters."  I also personally feel those two examples (and they just happen to be the two I named) can have a "busy" feel if students are not held accountable to the product they are supposed to render and explain how those centers helped them become a better reader, after "doing" the center...can students really explain what they got out of it and how it helped them become a better reader.  Pointers and magnetic letters are just tools...if students don't know what to do with them or what the purpose of  the center is, then I do believe the center is just "keeping them busy."  

So, can we reach a mutual understanding that literacy centers (or whatever structure *you* call it) is the time in the day when students are given the opportunity to practice and reinforce the skills and strategies taught in the lesson?  So for example, if the sound/spelling pattern /ew/ and /ue/ were the focus of the phonics letters that day or week, then your phonics center is reinforcing the /ew/ and /ue/ pattern in it, whether it's through a sort, a pocket chart activity, a game, whatever, does that make sense? And do your students KNOW this?...that literacy centers (or whatever structure *you* call it) is the time in the day when they are given an opportunity to practice and reinforce the skills and strategies taught in the day's core lesson?

Here's the second A-HA I had as I was telling my students why teachers have them do literacy centers. I began to wonder if they knew what they were focusing on at each center, what big area of literacy were they practicing and reinforcing.

And then it hit me, again.

So, in my attempt to be ubber transparent with students (mind you, these are 3rd graders and they are all looking at me and probably thinking I'm crazy) I begin to tell them the story of No Child Left Behind, sort of.  I told them that there used to be five big areas of reading, The Big 5. {Right? We all know them and could rattle them off...Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary and Comprehension} BUT now there are seven. (*The note about this above is that our principal wanted our RTI coach to collect anecdotal instructional data from each team to find out how they were ensuring core instruction in each of the Big 5 Areas of Reading. I told him last month, we need to stop saying The Big 5, because Writing & Speaking and Listening are now just as important, and so now we say The Big 7.)   The Big 7, what I quickly called and explained to the students as, The 7 Big Rocks of Literacy.

And in about 10 minutes, I proceeded to tell them in the most kid-friendly language, what the big rocks of literacy were, and WHY they were important.  (I have since made The 7 Big Rocks of Literacy posters if you would like to use them too, when explaining it to your students).  I then went back to explaining each literacy center that they would be doing, and asking them to tell me, which big rock they would be practicing at that center.  And it was amazing.  Here's how it went.

First, I created the sheet below for each of them as a "menu" so they knew WHAT they were to do, on which day and HOW they were expected to conduct themselves when they were there...these expectations are classroom staples of mine, so I did not need to spend time teaching them the Code of Cooperative Learning, the Guidelines for Critical Thinking, the Rules for Discussion, the Leadership Habits, or the Bloom's Thinking Levels, because I had already taught them these prior to the new literacy centers. However, if you have not taught your students these procedural and academic behavioral expectations, named in the last sentence, I recommend you teach them as  mini-lessons prior to teaching them the independent centers.)

Download editable.doc HERE, download .pdf  HERE

I want to draw your attention to the numbers 1-7 under each center where it says:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7

(From 2nd grade one, phonemic awareness is not a standard, so I broke out Reading into Rock 1 as Reading Fiction and Rock 2 as Reading Nonfiction (Informational Text).

After I briefly explained and we had mini conversations about each of the 7 rocks of literacy, what each meant, and why it was important to them as a reader, we began to analyze each center and identify which big rock they were practicing while at that center, picking the tasks within it, apart.  And I said, "So, when you're doing Picture of the Day with your group, what big rocks are you working on?"   And they began to say:

"Well, we're reading pictures, which is informational text, by describing what we see and making inferences about what we think is happening (RIT.1 & RIT.7) so we're doing Rock 2, and we're writing about our opinions and justifying them with evidence from the picture (W.1) so we're doing rock 5, and we're talking about it with our groupmates and following the Rules of Discussion and agreeing and disagreeing with each other with reasons and picture evidence (SL.1) so w'ere doing Rock 6, and we are learning new vocabulary words from the pictures (L.6) so we're doing Rock 7."  

And so they circled numbers 2, 5, 6 and 7 under the words Picture of the Day. And then the light bulbs begin to go off one at a time..."Mrs. Jones, we're doing a lot of literacy at this center!"...Me: "Yes, my dear Watson, you are!"   And we continued to do this for each of the centers listed on the menu last week. And students began to see that for each center, they were actually "practicing and reinforcing" a whole host of skills and strategies at one time, which is EXACTLY what the Common Core calls for...students orchestrating multiple standards, using multiple skills, with multiple techniques and multiple strategies, in a variety of ways and formats...all at the same time.   

I will explain the rest of my centers in tomorrow's post and tell you why "Guided Reading" wasn't in last week's line-up.  

In the meantime, I challenge you to ask your students the question I asked mine, "Why do you think teachers have you do work "out here" while we are doing guided reading "over there?" And see what they say.

And, if you want, ask them this.  What does "independent" mean?  

I will share the answers that my students answered me, in tomorrow's post...all about "independent work" and how to make it more multi-core, and a possible solution to vertical consistency when it comes to the term "independent work", and where the teacher is, physically, in all of this.  

Oh, and one more thing, where it says "Higher Level Thinking" on the sheet, students self-assess and graph their highest level of thinking they did that do, in whatever center or centers they were in, they shade up to the highest, 5 is the goal, that's why it's circled below. 

Grab the freebie here

Until tomorrow, stay tuned...and thanks for staying with me!   P.S. The first people that leave a comment below, will get a free copy of my Rocks of Literacy posters. 


  1. WOW! Come to my school! :) wendy

  2. What a great post! As I am finishing up my plans for PD today I want to somehow incorporate this post. As a lit. coach, I totally get it but I even think my teachers need this accountability sheet for themselves!

    1. Exactly! My principal agrees too. Students need it but teachers need it first. He wants me to share it with the staff as well, somehow.

  3. Hi Jen,

    Thanks so much for posting this! I'm a Literacy Interventionist in CT and we're doing a lot of work at our school around critical thinking. We found that our students were good at looking "busy" but couldn't articulate how/why their task was helping them as readers. I'm going to start making things more transparent for the struggling readers that I see so they can starting making those connections to their reading life. :)

    Thanks again...happy Monday!

    Alaina Kakos

  4. These are such great tools to help me be accountable as a teacher so that the independent work is not becoming busy work. I teach 6th grade, but the students really need to understand why they're doing what they're doing so they can be more "in charge" of their learning. Thanks so much!

  5. This is a great post! Thank you so much! I read part one last night and had to check back in during my conference for part two! Thank you so much for all your hard work and your willingness to share with those of us "working it" day to day. After 8 years, I need this fresh insight! I am a fairly new follower of your blog, and will continue to be for ... ever! :)
    Brandy (

  6. We are working on this in our K PLC this week. So excited to have confirmation and a resource in your post.

  7. Great post! Can't wait until part 3!

  8. I always enjoy reading your blog posts and learn something new almost every time I do. I wish you could come to our school and give our teachers some training on what you guys are doing in North Carolina!!!
    Tammy Andrews

  9. I think back and really regret that I wasn't so specific about purpose with my students. I am so enjoying these posts and have directed several of my friends to them. Can't wait to read more.

  10. Jen, I want to come teach with you!!! Thanks so much for how transparent you are with US about your thinking and reflecting. You put into words all of the questions and concerns that float around in my brain. Can't wait to read tomorrow's post!

    Diana (

  11. Wow!! Great post!! Thank you!!

  12. Wow! I learn sooo much each time I read one of your posts, Jen. Thanks for sharing your teaching with us. I;m really looking forward to reading Part 3. I have your Bloom's Posters hanging up and we refer to them a lot. I'd love a copy of the Higher Level Thinking Graph as the link to it doesn't seem to be working. Thanks!

  13. Thank you so much for sharing! You have asked and answered some questions that I have been working through also. I want to read the next part right now!!! Thank you for all that you do and share!

  14. What an awesome idea! As a new reading specialist/literacy coach, I can't wait to share these ideas with the classroom teachers!

  15. I look forward to reading your post and I think you bring up some good points!

  16. Thanks for a great post. Having the kids understand the "why" is so important! I also love how you made the big 7 more concrete with the rock analogy.

  17. I LOVE your visual for the different parts of literacy. I can't wait to read tomorrow's post!

  18. Wow! What perfect timing to come across this post. My professional growth this year has really focused on having a balanced literacy classroom and am beginning Guided Reading Groups very soon. I've tried in the past and have felt miserable for these very reasons. I didn't feel as if the work I was doing in my small groups was beneficial enough to outweigh the less meaningful work that was happening while I was conducting these groups.

    Your post is inspiring and makes me excited to teach GRG again.

    Thank you for this. : ) I can't wait to see the next post!


  19. We have monthly reading PD and these posts make more sense to me than the PD sessions! I will need to share this! Thanks!

  20. Fantastic post, Jen! Thank you for being transparent and sharing your wisdom! I look forward to the next post!

  21. Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences! It's so wonderful to hear what you are doing in your classroom! It sure helps me out a lot. :)

  22. Wow, what incredibly inspiring posts. I just found your blog today. Thanks for sharing.
    Elizabeth Granade

  23. Oh goodness sakes! How I love the way you synthesized the big picture. I could not agree with you more, and it almost gives me goosebumps thinking about your students explaining to you all of the standards they were exercising as they completed their independent work. Gone are days of isolated skills. There should be so much going on when they are working on their practice activities. The way that you are breaking it down for us, and for your students makes SO MUCH SENSE! Can't wait for Post 3. Keep it coming! Inspiring : ) A (tired) Teacher in AZ

  24. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. This mirrors many of the same thoughts and concerns I have been having in my own classroom. I love how you break it down to make sense for both teachers and students. I can't wait to see the next post!


  25. This reminds me of a seminar on not sweating the small stuff... by first using the "big rocks" to show what's important. I look forward to the third part of your posting!

  26. Thank you Jen for being transparent in your thinking with us! As a literacy coach I see a lot of busy centers with no real accountability going on in classrooms in my building. I've tried to explain the need for purposeful practice rather than keeping them busy, Many still don't understand the difference and I'm excited to pass your posts on to these (and other) teachers. THANK YOU!

  27. I love everything you have written on this. It certainly creates reflection. Thank you very much!

  28. You have given me a lot to think about Jen. I love reading your blog and what is going on in your school. It seems like you have it all figured out!


  29. Thank you, Jen! Reading the series of blog post has been a great way to spend this early chilly, dark fall morning. I'm energized for the work ahead today.

  30. I have been using the "Put the Big Rocks In FIrst" metaphor for many years! This is truly an inspired approach to help students develop responsibility for learning. Thanks!

  31. I have been looking for and doing so much research for my literacy block... I feel like I've been struggling to find a good fit for such a "heavy handed" RTI classroom. I have really enjoyed reading your posts and will be keeping up with everything you are doing and innovating! Thanks so much!


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