Stop “Going To” Professional Development and Start “Doing It”!

So I just got off the phone with a potential client who said this to me in the middle of the call, “What I’d really like you to do is lead a discussion on a chapter of a book that we’re reading.  And then if you could tie it back to the Title I workshop that we attended a few weeks back, that’d be great.”

I have to say, I was a bit perplexed by this because the reason this person called me in the first place was because they were in Year 3 of school improvement and it just didn’t seem like the most important thing to do was to read a chapter and discuss it.  Or even to tie the discussion to a workshop.

Here’s why:

First off, lots of our clients are in school improvement or heading there – that’s why they call us.  So that fact wasn’t as striking.  The most striking part of that request was this: they were going to TALK about doing stuff, but they weren’t interested in DOING stuff. 

Now, I happen to know that this person who contacted me is a very good administrator with lots of great feedback from other colleagues (that’s how we got in touch with each other).  I know that he is very motivated and interested in doing the right thing – and, most importantly, is interested in doing right by the kids.  They just haven’t quite figured out what, of the work they should be doing, is going to have the biggest impact on kids.

Essentially, they are stuck in the “we’ve got to get some more professional development before we can do it” mode.  It’s almost like schools in this position need a “blessing” from a trainer, presenter or author to do exactly what they already know they need to do.  I felt like during the conversation, though, he knew exactly what his school needed to be doing.  I can kinda relate to needing an “expert” to confirm what I already know.

Let me explain…

Awhile ago, we decided to create a new website – one that would be way more interactive, user friendly and one that could be updated multiple times a day without a web designer.  So, we went looking for “the best” in the field.

And we found her.


We started the long, arduous (but also fun!) process of getting our website together – content, graphics, themes, colors, etc.  About two weeks in, things started to seem kind of “off” – the communication was breaking down, some of our tried-and-true ideas were getting shot down even though our guts told us it was the right thing to do.  Ultimately, we had to bid farewell to this web designer and pinch hit with another to finish the job.  It wasn’t going to work.

It was a mess, but here was the deal: Just because we weren’t web designing experts, didn’t mean we didn’t know what we needed and what was going to be right for our readers and clients.  In fact, we DID know, we just needed input and ideas from the experts to COMPLEMENT what we already knew to be true and necessary.  We needed help (along with solid input) putting our plan into action.

The big idea is this: books, trainers and experts are useful IF YOU KNOW YOURSELF AND WHAT YOU NEED.

AND you don’t have to wait for experts or authors to “bless” your school improvement ideas before you get started…sometimes the experts are there to birth an idea for you or get you unstuck along the way to your final goal.  Most of us can get stuck in the realm of GETTING STARTED.  And sometimes we need a push into action.

So as I meandered through the call with the potential client I basically said this, “Do you REALLY want me to come and lead a book study that you could lead on your own?  Or do you need help translating all of your PD and all of your readings into ACTION?” 

Well, let’s just say, I’m on a plane in a few months to help them get started and put it into action…

Text Dependent Questions – It’s More Than “Citing Your Answer”!


Text dependent questions are everything!

I remember the days when a consultant came to my school and she told us to have kids “cite their answers to everything.”  In true education professional development (ha!) we overdid it…and basically lost the kids in the process!  One of the more embarrassing things I’ll humble myself to mention (!) is that we had the kids cite where they found their answers in their unit and end-of-week assessments – and sometimes the process of taking the test would take 4+ hours…even for the benchmark kids!  I know, I should be banned from the profession!  Seriously!

I know that what we were trying to do is get kids to read what’s on the doggone page!  I remember saying (and I KNOW you can relate to this!), “The answer is RIGHT THERE!  All you have to do is read the text!”  It WAS true, all they had to do was read the text.  But I hadn’t quite taught them to read the text properly.  And even if I had taught them to read the text properly, I wouldn’t have been even asking the right questions!

The deal was, I was just trying to follow directions and get kids to higher levels of comprehension.  I can’t imagine that the consultant that came to help us meant for us to spend 4+ hours having kids cite the text but, hey, we were rule followers!

Needless to say, I know better now! 

(AND, all of that work didn’t lead to higher levels of comprehension.  I know – big SHOCK!)

What we know now is that by asking the right questions, we will require kids to closely read the text.  And closely reading the text leads to comprehension independence! 

So you might be wondering how on earth you determine that a question is text dependent or not?  Well, here’s a simple checklist for you…Hint: I use this as my “checklist” for text-dependency…to make sure that my questions measure up.

  • Are questions that can only be answered correctly by close reading of the text and demand careful attention to the text
  • Require an understanding that extends beyond recalling facts
  • Often require students to infer
  • Do not depend on information from outside sources
  • Provide access to increasing levels of complex text
  • Call for careful and thoughtful teacher preparation
  • Require time for students to process

I want to encourage you to try something – it’s a little something that will have huge impact on your alignment from current instruction into the Common Core.  Take 10 questions that you might ask during text reading this week and analyze them for their “text dependent quality.”

In fact, here are a few Text Dependent stems…and then examples of actual questions for you to use.

Look at _______ in the photographs on pages _____.  Now look at _______ in the photographs on page ____. Write one way ______ on these pages are alike and one way they are different.  Explain how the author lets you know this. Look at the animals in the photographs on pages 27 – 32.  Now look at the animals in the photographs on page 47. Write one way the animals on these pages are alike and one way they are different.  Explain how the author lets you know this.
Based on the photographs and text on page ____, in your own words define the word __________. Based on the photographs and text on page 89, in your own words define the word teacher.
Reread the heading and text on page _____.  ____________________?  Explain your answer. Reread the heading and text on page 197.  How did slavery end?  Explain your answer.
On page _____, the author writes, “__________.”  What does the author mean by the phrase, “_______”?  Use evidence from the text to support your answer. On page 33, the author writes, “The little boy was working as busy as a bee.”  What does the author mean by the phrase, “busy as a bee”?  Use evidence from the text to support your answer.
Look at the illustrations on page 422. Describe how the illustrations help the reader better understand the text.  
Why does the author tell us ___________________? (Pg. ____) Why does the author tell us time is a thief? (Pg. 70)
Reread page __.  What is the important information on this page?  
Use the information on page ____ to define ______.  Why is ______ important? Use the information on page ____ to define pollen.  Why is pollen important?

Here’s my big take-away with text-dependent questioning…if I expect my students to speak, write and read at a high level, then I have to make sure that my questions are at a high level!  It’s only taken me 18 years in the field to figure this out.  😉

What is Student Achievement Anyway? Five Power-Packed Statements of Fact.


What is student achievement anyway?  When you’re looking at the umpteenth school improvement report, crunching your student data or figuring out who goes into the latest round of intervention, do you ever find yourself asking that question?

I do.  And lots of folks we work with are asking the same question.

I think it’s time for some collaboration around what achievement REALLY is, looks like, smells like, tastes like, feels like.  As I’ve been mulling this over, I’ve had five statements rolling around my head about student achievement – I wonder if some thinking around these statements will help us decide upon a common definition about student achievement.

Take a peek…

Student Achievement Fact #1: It’s not about the test, but it’s about the test.

Big idea: Our tendency is to think of “the test” as some looming ogre or a kind of thing that is there to judge, hire/fire, skip grades/hold kids back, scare the heck out of my students and me kind of deal.  Well, I have seen teachers who have used the test as a MOTIVATOR for their kids and even themselves!  In the end, our teaching has to align with some common measure in order to determine how useful and helpful our instruction has been.  Without a common measuring tool, there is no way to measure whether students are on target for long-term success.  Just like the height/weight chart at the doctor’s office gives a pretty accurate prediction about important measurements, so should “the test”.

I often say, if we don’t stand for a high standard, then we’re automatically defaulting to the low standard.  Eek!

Student Achievement Fact #2: Kids who are working at the appropriate achievement level should be able to AT LEAST past the test.

Big Idea: Kids who are solid on skills pass the test.  Period.  Kids who are not solid on the skills, drive the teachers to do crazy things like cram before the test, think that testing at a certain time of the day is going to be the difference between a “pass” and “fail” performance.  The bottom line is this: Get your kids solid on the skills and you don’t have a thing to worry about on “the test”.  I’ve seen this in practice a whole slew of times.

Student Achievement Fact #3: It’s about a pattern, not an event.

Big Idea: Kids who are solid on skills perform at a high level regularly – they have a history of past and more recent success on skill-based tests.  So when it comes time to take “the test”, we know who is going to do well and who is not – – the writing is on the wall LONG before we even take “the test”.  I don’t know about you, just because I did a 5k over Thanksgiving, doesn’t make me a “runner”.  It was an event, believe me…not a pattern.

Student Achievement Fact #4: It’s not about the standards, but it’s about what the standards produce in the end.

Big Idea: Lots of folks are fussing and fighting about “what” to teach – and I think it’s a huge waste of time and a huge morale killer amongst education professionals.  Here’s the deal: the standards that we are held to, IF TAUGHT THOROUGHLY AND SKILLFULLY, will produce students who are confidently mastered on important skills.  We must keep our eyes on the prize and base all of the skill-related work that we do firmly rooted in the idea that “I am teaching you to do xyz so that you can do abc” – random skill practice doesn’t lead to standard mastery.  By linking everything we do to the bigger, end result-kind of success for kids, we’re going to see a pay-out.

Student Achievement Fact #5: It’s not about the past, it’s about the future.

Big Idea: Get over what didn’t work in the past or what should’ve happened in the past and get to teaching.  What you do tomorrow in class has a bigger impact on the future than what happened yesterday or last year.  We should always operate in this mindset: What I’m doing right now with my students is the most powerful thing I could be doing with my time.

In the end – teaching really counts!!!!

Are there other “facts” that support different schools of thought than what you’ve just read? 

Certainly!  But, where I see so much of our “achievement calibration” work to be done is in the idea of mindset.  In fact, I just emailed back and forth with a teacher that we support and her final words were:  These kids WILL make benchmark…if it kills me!  Now that’s one strong mindset!  (She was also reaching out for very specific support, which tells you something about her commitment to her practices)

So, as you mull over the Facts above, I encourage you to not think of every way that I’m off base, obsess over every time-crunched moment of your instructional day, or every reason why this or that won’t work with your students. 

But instead I’d like you to repeat this a few times: I wonder what would happen if…

And finish that sentence with something like this:

I wonder what would happen if…I used the test as a tool to help me figure out what I need to emphasize next week?

I wonder what would happen if…I taught everyday like all of my students were poised to pass the test?

I wonder what would happen if…I established a pattern of success from the very first test at the beginning of year with every student?

I wonder what would happen if…I corrected my students’ assessments and imagined them as 22 year olds, ten years from now?

I wonder what would happen if…I let go of the past results about my students and focused on what they can do today.

What do you think would happen?

But is it FAST enough? Phonemic Awareness and Phonics and the Fluency Link


The reading wars are over (thank goodness for sound research!), but we still are at risk as we teach, model, practice and apply the skills necessary to develop phonemic awareness and phonics in our kids.

And here’s why:  We are focusing on “Do they have the skill?” rather than “How automatically do they have that skill?”.  And the success of our students, particularly in phonemic awareness and phonics, depends on our response to the second question.  Automatically pulling up the skills to support “bigger”, more complex skills like comprehension and using context to determine meaning of unknown words is what is going to make or break the success of your kids.

Now, some of you might be thinking: OF COURSE we teach phonemic awareness and phonics!  In fact, we do it EVERY DAY for at least 30 minutes a day!

While that is likely true in nearly all (hopefully ALL!) of the K-2 classrooms and intervention classrooms, our work isn’t done when the kids just “get” the skill.  They need to master the skill and then become automatic…and maintain it across time.

One of the things that has risen to the top of my “be concerned about” list is that when schools are using DIBELS and AIMSweb to benchmark and progress monitor kids, the phoneme segmentation fluency, letter naming fluency, nonsense word fluency and other phonemic awareness/phonics-based tasks just fall off.  Whether kids have benchmarked or not!

For example, just last week I ran into a group of second grade strategic oral reading fluency students as we did our data review.  When I asked if the students had “passed” the nonsense word reading fluency assessment in 1st grade, what we found is that they hadn’t – but because the text was no longer expected to be given in 2nd grade, we never flagged those kids as needing additional phonics support well into 2nd grade.

So, what were they getting?  Hours of fluency practice each week. 

Hmmm…strike you as a little off base?  It sure did to me!

So we fixed the problem right away by getting kids into daily, timed review of letter sounds and sound spellings and then practice in blending words the “whole word blending” way – without having to sound out each sound and then recode the word.  In other words – we trained them (in a plan that is lasting 6 weeks!) to look for the spelling patterns in words and quickly read those words.

The interesting conversation came after we did some progress monitoring on the nonsense word reading fluency: the teachers said, “But they’re reading those decodable books at 70-80%+ accuracy, so no wonder I didn’t think they needed additional phonics instruction!”

The point is – without fluency of skill, then the skill mastery may not be sufficient.  AND that lack of fluency may not show up until later grades…so we have to be proactive.  Actually, I would change our definition of “mastery” to include the element of fluency.  Without it, we’re fooling ourselves.

So, here’s where I encourage you to start in analyzing how your students are doing on ANY skill.  Ask yourself these questions:

  • Are they slow but accurate on the skill?
  • Are they fast but inaccurate on the skill?
  • Are they slow and inaccurate on the skill?
  • Are they meeting the fluency rate on the skill?

Kids will fall into one of those four categories!  And once we have sorted kids by skill into those categories, we now have information on how to provide additional support during small group instruction.  If you have a slow but accurate student, then timed practice is key.  If you have a fast but inaccurate student on a skill then you know your practice will be slowing them down in order to later speed them up.  If they’re both slow and inaccurate, then some direct teaching on the skill (even though it’s been previously taught) is the right fit.

I guess my desire for all of us is that we remain vigilant in our pursuit of skill mastery for all of our kids.  Fluency of skill IS going to make or break their reading independence now and in the future…especially when they encounter tougher text with lots of unknown words.

I encourage you to start by going back to your strategic and intensive kids and see if they “passed” those critical-to-pass assessments before the particular tests were no longer required in that grade level.  Once you sort your kids according to the four types above, then you can more accurately point your interventions to what is really going to make a difference in their skill independence!

Some Thoughts on Comprehension: Adjusting my Perspective a Bit

I’m prepping for an upcoming presentation on teaching comprehension and what’s new in the research and I am realizing that I have to change my perspective a bit to provide my clients and their students with the “best case scenario” comprehension instruction.

Yes me, changing my perspective – it’s a strange thing!

Here’s how:

I realize that we have to focus equally on strategy work and fix-up work. Struggling readers have little to no control over what they’re reading and rarely understand that they are struggling when they are! Good comprehension instruction will help students figure out “Wow! I am having trouble understanding this.” or “I really need to go back and do some work with the text because I’m not getting this.”

Identifying that I’m in trouble in the first step in fixing it. I am struck by the idea that much of comprehension instruction is “here’s what it looks like when it’s done right” and not nearly enough, “here’s how you know you’re in trouble and here are a few things to do about it:”. We have to teach student that metacognitive awareness as much as the metacognitive control.

Also, teaching students to use strategies is ONE APPROACH in teaching students to comprehend – we have to go much deeper than the rote memorization of strategies and spend more and more time in discussion and modeling of what good readers do when they are comprehending and when they aren’t.

I have to work with teachers to become loose and fluid during comprehension instruction: have a goal for the instruction in mind, but use the myriad opportunities that authentically arise during the course of reading expository or narrative text to teach how to identify comprehension problems and how to fix them up.

Now for those who know me and know my near-obsession with explicit instruction, I’m not backing off of the teach/model/practice/apply foundation of teaching, I’m just coming to realize that grappling authentically with text IS PART OF the guided practice and application portion of the explicit teaching plan – some of it cannot be planned, but excellent teachers are prepared to respond to what comes up over the course of instruction.

It’s messy, straggly and much life real-life reading – it doesn’t always happen seamlessly the first time through, even for the best readers.

What do YOU think? Leave a comment below about what your experience is as you teach comprehension, what works for you, what doesn’t and what it all looks like in the classroom.