Interview for Education News: Helping Teachers Through In-Services and Workshops

This interview was conducted by Michael F. Shaughnessy for Education News.  The original article can be found at http://ow.ly/cts8i

1) Jill, first of all, tell us a bit about your workshops and in-services and what you try to accomplish.

We help struggling districts, schools and teachers improve their reading scores and skills of their students. Our goal is to go into a school and get our hands dirty and look at the data, look at the practices and connect with the teachers – we do this by modeling, demonstrating and coaching in real-life classrooms – we call it “getting in the trenches” with what’s REALLY happening in schools! The words that we live by are: it all comes down to the quality of the teaching. So, we work throughout a school to improve the overall quality of the teaching because we know that the student scores will follow.

2) Now, I can think of no time in the last, well 40 years, when teachers have been under such stress. What are your current impressions?

I think teachers are very stressed – but I think they’re stressed about the wrong things! On Twitter and Facebook and social media, I have lots of folks reach out and lash out about how standardized tests aren’t fair and how dare we look at students performance as a measure of the teacher and how learning is more than a test.

The way I see it, all of the time we spend fighting ‘the system’ is less time we’re spending stressing (or really putting our heads down and working really hard) about the preparation and care that it takes to design and deliver lessons that take students from Point A to Point B – and, most importantly, to long term reading skill mastery. I think that we’re doing a lot of fussing and fighting on the backs of the kids and I just can’t accept that.

3) Some teachers seem to just go about their business teaching kids, and don’t worry much about IEP’s AYP, NCLB and 504′s. Am I off on this?

You’re absolutely right…and that’s good and bad at the same time. Here’s the deal: in my experience, successful teachers are looking at their student data as a way to measure their success. These folks are putting in the real work on what matters in the end – quality teaching and all that goes into it. They aren’t worrying too much about the proverbial pendulum swinging or the latest crazy education scandal on CNN, they’re worrying about and fussing over and crunching the numbers and measuring success in THEIR classroom – because that’s their reality!

Successful teachers know that the IEPs, AYP, NCLB and 504s are a part of the work, and if they are providing daily successful teaching to kids in a highly managed classroom with lots of positive, academic based feedback the IEPs will show growth and their classroom will contribute to the school making AYP and such. I haven’t seen a highly skilled teacher who absolutely brings his best and most on-fire teaching to the classroom each day, NOT get results.

And, trust me, they are working against some pretty serious odds in the schools that we support!

The flip side of that are those educators who say that “the test isn’t valid” or that their students are successful but “the tests don’t show it”. In this case, they’re ignoring the measurements like AYP, IEPs and such in favor of gut checks and potentially random style-driven criteria in their head – obviously I think this is a dangerous practice.

4) The teachers I talk to pretty much say the same thing- they need more administrative support, do you address these issues?

Absolutely. Our goal is to not just have our clients show classroom success, but have that classroom success show across the school – and that requires serious commitment, protection of time and every day presence from the leadership. I can tell how successful a school is based upon the principal’s calendar. Really!

It’s like the more time I spend in the gym, the healthier I’ll be? Well, the same is true of principals: the more time they spend in the classrooms, the healthier the teaching system in that school is. It NEVER fails.

Whenever we visit schools or districts, we start the leadership system – we look at scheduling, non-negotiables, setting up the leadership team’s functions to look at reading practices in the school and guide the support and professional development.

One of the most powerful things we do (that initially many of our leaders are resistant to!) is practicing observations and debriefings with teachers. We work with leadership on what kind of data to gather when they’re watching teaching and then how to turn their notes into a very direct and very simple, but action-based, debriefing – the goal is to talk to teachers one-on-one and have them either stop a practice, continue a practice or adjust a practice. All designed to getting bigger impact in the classroom.

5) I have to tell you, that I observe teens and tweens and they seem to be gobbling up Harry Potter and have been hungry for these Hungry Games books. BUT, how do we get them reading other fiction, non fiction, biographies etc ?

Well – if I could fully answer that, I would retire on my private island in the Bahamas! What I see that ultimately captures kids’ attention EVEN WHEN THEY DON’T LIKE SOMETHING is the teacher’s enthusiasm. I think it’s highly underrated and undervalued!

I wrote an article recently about a Civics teacher I had in high school – I wasn’t what you would call a scholar – far from it! And I certainly wasn’t into Civics like I should have been. BUT the teacher was so enthusiastic about teaching Civics and used some fun (and embarrassing!) techniques along the way that helped my peers and me – GASP! – actually like Civics!

I find that some educators have the idea that the kids should come to class already motivated – I see that as the teacher’s job. It’s funny – I can follow a student around school all day and see her engaged in Period 1, totally disengaged in Period 2, kind of engaged in Period 3 and totally on-fire engaged in Period 4. The only thing that changes? The teacher! I have seen tons of examples where teachers have taken “boring” content and made it interesting and others have taken exciting content and made it sleep-inducing.

Also, we have to give students the skills to tackle that kind of text – oftentimes they gravitate to novels because they have the most practice in successfully reading and gaining meaning from them! We help our clients create continuity in doing this – making sure that the skills that we use to tackle expository text in science are similar to the skills we apply to the P.E. manual. I don’t ever underestimate continuity of practice across classrooms! It’s such a powerful teaching tool!

6) What is the most requested topic you get asked to talk about?

Using reading program successfully. I often say our most powerful work comes after the publisher leaves and the boxes are opened and everyone looks around and goes, “NOW what?!?!?!?” We get lots of calls from superintendents and curriculum directors who say, “You know, we were told that if we bought these materials that our kids would learn to read and learn to read better. It’s not happening and we’re in program improvement…help!”

We help folks get super focused and super organized. We help them build confidence…one purposeful step at a time. In fact much of our time is spent telling them, “No. Not now,” because they’re trying to do too many things and they’re driving themselves absolutely crazy.

7) Tell us about a few of your most successful workshops- and feedback from teachers.

We just finished up Year I with a large school K-12 school district outside of Salt Lake City and the data is looking really good – we can actually measure the success of the staff by the increase in the student scores…that’s heaven for us! We get giddy when we can see the effect of the teacher work in the student outcomes – that’s what we’re always looking for.

Two of our clients just received National Title I Awards – and a bunch have made AYP for the first time ever! We have schools who have made serious, exponential growth in reading on their state tests with sub-populations that have historically been very low performing…so we are very proud and excited for the folks we partner with – – they are walking the walk.

As far as feedback? We get lots of feedback every week complimenting us on getting in the trenches with the teachers and not just being “talking heads” – we are real. We also get lots of feedback that starts with “At first I didn’t like that you were telling me to….but I appreciate you sticking in there with me.” That’s very rewarding.

8) Are there ways for folks to connect with you online?

Yes! We just launches our “Free Resources” tab on our website (www.jackson-consulting.com) – there you’ll find tons of free video, audio and downloadables that we’d like everyone to take and use. We even have a 7-day free video series that you can sign up for there…no strings attached! There you’ll also find the links to Twitter and Facebook where I’m interacting daily with educators about the good, the bad and the ugly in education – it’s really fun to be about to connect that way and it’s bringing about some very interesting conversations and big a-has for all of us.

Most of all, while we are tough cookies when we come and work with folks, I want those who work with us online and in-person to know that we value teachers who are serious about doing the work of teaching. We don’t always have to agree, but if the bottom line for all of us bringing the highest quality of instruction that has the biggest impact on the students every day into the classroom, then we’re going to be alright!



Question…what do YOU think?  Leave a comment below…am I off track? 

On the right track?  Lost my mind????

Differentiated Instruction Doesn’t Have To Be So Difficult!

It is very common in my work that teachers know exactly which kids might need extra support through differentiated instruction, but what frustrates them most is this: how do I know exactly what they need and then what the heck do I do about it?

One of the things I LOVE most about helping educators is taking something that’s really difficult or complicated and simplifying it – it’s very satisfying to see excellent teachers carry out important instructional work with the kids in a way that they haven’t before.

For starters, let’s define ‘differentiated instruction’ – for our purposes let’s say this: differentiating instruction provides more and different instructional time and materials for specific students in order to close the skill gap between these students and their grade level performing peers.

Simply put?  Kids have skill gaps and we need to fill them so that they can perform at grade level.

Here are the 4 Ds for Differentiating Instruction successfully:


Use a simple but to-the-point reading skill diagnostic assessment that is given one-on-one.  I recommend CORE’s Phonic Survey or Houghton Mifflin’s Phonics Decoding Screening Test. 

When you give this diagnostic you’ll easily find out the kids’ weak spots/skill gaps because they will ‘fail’ this portion of the test.  You’ll find the spots on the assessment that the students master (because they ‘pass’ it), then you know where they start.  


Figure out which kids have the same skill needs (they typically group together naturally, which makes grouping simpler!) and they become your targeted small group. 

Lots of questions arise about ideal group size – I say no more than 7-8, but more importantly I’m concerned with getting kids in a group with like skill needs.  If we have the wrong kids in the groups, then we’re wasting everyone’s time.


Start with 1-2 target skills at their lowest point of performance.  I call this “sweeping under the rug” – making sure that we get to the lowest skill need so that we don’t have to go back and re-sweep in the future. 

Map out the missing skills over 2 week chunks.  So, if I found out that my kids in a small group needed 3 concepts taught to them, I’d map out 6 weeks of small group instruction.

Each lesson should have DIRECT INSTRUCTION as part of the teaching.  The lesson should be explicit (teach, model, practice, feedback, feedback, feedback, apply, feedback, feedback, feedback…you get the point!) in nature and should not leave ANY room for interpretation or lack of clarity. 

Remember, these are kids who are frustrated, confused and struggling already – we want to clear the water, not overwhelm with implicit language or lessons!


The delivery of the lesson is critical to the students’ mastery of the missing skills!

Lessons should be highly structured (for behaviors and instruction), there should be lots of academically oriented feedback (“Wow Justin!  Awesome answer…I can tell that you worked hard to decode that word using the long /o/ sound!”), multiple repetitions on the same concepts until students are mastered on that skill (this ensures long-term storage), much review built into each lesson (some say 80% review/20% new) and lavish amounts of encouragement from the teacher.

Each week, at least, should end with a check-out – an informal quick test for each student designed by the small group teacher.  This quick-test will show the teacher whether the concept for that week’s small group instruction has been mastered or if the kids need more time. 

Here’s the really good news…you don’t have to be perfect to deliver a slam dunk lesson!  Whew!  If you work to be consistent and well-planned than you have a better shot at closing the skill gaps while differentiating instruction.

So, where do you start?  Start by getting your hands on a really good diagnostic and assess at least 1 child and see what you find.

I LOVE talking about how to differentiate instruction! (Yes, I’m a true reading geek)…so….leave your questions below or come on over to my Facebook page (www.facebook.com/jacksonconsulting) and let’s talk about this!


Just Implementing Something Doesn’t Mean Your Scores Will Change!

I have many long-time clients who have been implementing their reading programs for over 6 years…and they’re still working on depth.

Deep program implementation comes from a complete mastery over several important areas:


  •     Classroom organization
  •     Preparation and planning
  •     Instructional delivery
  •     Collaboration with the leadership, coach and colleagues

I believe that one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves during long-term program implementation is this: What is the evidence that we are an XYZ school? 

In other words – do we look like any other school with any other program, or do we have obvious maturity and depth in the above four areas?  Trust me, it is possible to be implementing something new and have literally little to no evidence that you are implementing it – that’s not a good thing and surely doesn’t lead to results!

I was working with a client this year and they had been implementing a new language arts program and when we went to view the classrooms, overall there was little evidence that they had adopted their program!

The instruction, the management and the engagement looks pretty much as it had prior to the implementation. So, in this case, we had to admit that there was little to no evidence that they were implementing the program – the implementation indicators were not there, unfortunately.

The problem with that?  The scores won’t change if the instruction doesn’t look different.  They need to be using the new materials differently in order to get better results with the kids – just changing the materials won’t work!

Depth looks like what Joyce and Showers call “Exerting Executive Control” – we know what is going on, have engineered every step of the students’ day and what they will and should be able to produce because of the lesson and contingency plans if things don’t go as planned.

What areas of your reading/literacy work lack depth?  Talk to me by leaving a comment below…we can help!

Differentiating Instruction for ALL Kids in the Core

A really common question I get is, “What is the easiest way to differentiate in reading?”

My typical answer is, “Well, we’re not going for ‘easy’ as much as ‘simple and effective'” – somehow the wording makes me feel better!  (Probably because if “easy” is what we’re going for, we can oftentimes compromise powerful instructional moves)

So, when I saw this cool pic of the red jelly bean in a sea of yellow ones I got to thinking… (BTW, I’m much more partial to a red jelly bean, whether it be cherry or cinnamon…I mean, yellow?  Ugh!)

Who are the kids in your classroom that are screaming out for help…because they’re different?

Different in that they are struggling with the grade level content. 

Different because the content is just right and they need more “just rightness” of the grade level content. 

Different in that they are bored stiff because they need a bigger challenge.  Not more work. Bigger challenge, I said!

My starting point with our clients is typically START WITH WHAT YOU HAVE AND COMMIT TO USING IT LIKE YOU HAVE NEVER BEFORE.  I’m not a big fan of buying a bunch of stuff that will “solve” the problem – just like when I cook from what I have in my fridge, I just might have everything I need right before me!

So here’s what you do, look at your core reading program or intervention and try some of these techniques to enhance your differentiation techniques WITHIN the core so that you can be more focused OUTSIDE of the core!

For your Advanced/Always Benchmark Kids who are always on benchmark

  • Look at standards from grade level above and incorporate the language and skills into current grade level work
  • Focus on extended responses both verbally and in written form
  • Choose alternative text
  • Move swiftly through the lesson
  • Pre-teach vocabulary and pair students with struggling students during lesson
  • Use “Above Level” links during instruction and in targeted small group teaching
  • Build in more independence during block

For your mostly Benchmark Kids who sometimes slip below benchmark on vocabulary and comprehension tasks

  • Pre-teach the important comp-related parts of the lesson the day prior
  • Pre-read text for next week rehearse vocabulary
  • Follow “On Level” links
  • Scaffold text when teaching strategies
  • Increase written responses
  • Encourage re-reading of text

For your Strategic/Intensive Kids who struggling with grade-level tasks

  • Pre-read text for next week
  • Practice passages with high comprehension points
  • Re-release key strategy-related comprehension questions to students and rehearse thinking and responding
  • Pull to small group during core to manage text
  • Use anthology passages for fluency
  • Preview high-impact vocabulary words

So your job?  Look at your instruction right now and see where you can incorporate TWO of these strategies into your planning…and report back on how they worked!  www.facebook.com/jacksonconsulting

Do our kids have to take the WHOLE ENTIRE test…it’s 43 pages long?!?!?!!????

Formative, summative, internal, external, diagnostic, high-stakes….ugh!  Ugh!  Ugh!

Tired of that testing talk?  I am!

Your trusty literacy consultant…tired of assessment talk?  I mean it’s like J.Lo being tired of lip gloss and young boyfriends!  (Ok, I debated putting that in because it’s SO corny…but I did…and I probably lost 1000 readers right there.  Moving on…!)

I was asked a question by no less than 5 teaching teams in the past 3 weeks: Do our kids have to take the WHOLE ENTIRE unit/theme test…it’s 43 pages long?!?!?!!????

That’s a really good question, but I think my answer might take us in a different direction than you might think.

When I asked the follow-up question: is your problem with the test one of students getting fatigued or teachers getting fatigued?  Several stopped…and laughed.  Kind of like the “you caught me” kind of laugh.  So, which is it?

I’ve developed a few questions and some ideas around what you need to be asking yourself as you plan your testing schedule for next year:

What portions of the test relate directly to the standards I am responsible for teaching? In other words, are there portions of the test that are truly inconsequential or are highly unrelated to the core content that week?  Then, you might want to consider taking that sub-test out.  For that week.  Let’s avoid broad or blanket deletion of sub-tests!

What sub-tests assess skills my students are a bit shaky on?  These are EXACTLY the tests that you want to give students!  You want to know what they don’t know, not just what they do know, especially if you’re going to actually USE the data to help your instruction the next day or week.

What sub-tests assess foundational literacy skills that are critical to maintain?  I find that students often know a skill…for a time.  Then they forget it.  Why?  We sometimes forget to continue monitoring it, because we assume “they had it and they always will”.  Um, SO not true! (Even for your most accomplished learners!)

So, I encourage you and your team to look at the sub-tests that assess the must-know and must-have-mastered skills and administer those sub-tests to keep a good handle on those skills that need to remain maintained.

Am I freaking out over the length of the test or the skill expectations of the test?  Sometimes the test seems so daunting…to the teacher.  I hear folks say, “Oh my gosh, Jason just cried during the test, it was so long!”  First of all, Jason cried during the test.  The whole class didn’t cry during the test.  And, are we sure that Jason doesn’t have other things going on in life that may be overwhelming him and the long test was just the tip of the iceberg? 

If the test IS too long, then CHUNK IT UP.  Give pieces of it casually at the end of the reading block for 3-4 days!  I find that teachers are sometimes resistant to doing that and I can’t figure out why! 

If you have a big unit/theme test that kids have been working toward for 4-6 weeks worth of instruction, then chunking the test shouldn’t get in the way of further teaching.  I mean, is that last bit of instruction going to make ALL the difference in the world after you’ve been teaching it for 4-6 weeks already?  Let’s get real – they should know it and if they do, they do.  And if they don’t, then your assessment will show that.

How can I facilitate the taking of the test so that it doesn’t interrupt my teaching unnecessarily?  Like I said, if the test is long, chunk it.  If the test is hard, give the kids a pep-talk and remind them “you know this”.  If the test is a challenge, GOOD!  (A tough test assures that those who ace it really know the material – and isn’t that what we really want to know anyway?)

What I want you to avoid?  Blaming the test for results that you’re not thrilled with. 

Here’s the deal: teachers with kids who perform well aren’t complaining or fretting about the length of the test.  Why?  They’re too busy teaching.





When you know a skill, you know a skill.  Period.

And with that, I’m stepping off of my high horse.  Come “follow” me for some chat (and an occasional high horsing around) on Twitter:  www.twitter.com/TheJillJackson