Choice Words, Opening Minds- Peter Johnston Spoke to Me

The Two Writing Teachers March Slice of Life Challenge ended a few days ago, I am reserving my reflection on that amazing learning experience until I complete this series that I started to reflect on several days of professional learning.

This post is part of the series I planned and explained here in a prior post:

  1. Professional Development with Maggie Beattie Roberts from Teachers College Reading and Writing Project 
  2. Comsewogue School District Google Leadership Symposium
  3. Peter Johnston Conference
  4. Long Island Connected Educators’ Summit #CELI

Peter Johnston Conference

This was the second time I saw Peter Johnston present, the venues were very different.  When he presented at TCRWP it was in a larger, auditorium style room and this time at ES-Boces the room was small, the setting was more personal.  Even better I was with my two closest school friends and favorite reading specialists, Danielle Jacobs and Barbara Marsicano. They were with me when Peter Johnston spoke to me.

His talk related mostly to his more recent book, Opening Minds.  I already read this book but you should know this book, just like his book Choice Words it begs to be read and reread and reread.

Choice Words is a book that changed my life.  This book connects to my life not only as an educator, but also to my life as a mother and wife.  This book gave me time to pause and think about the words I choose when I talk.  I suppose that is just a little obvious from the title Peter Johnston chose for his book, Choice Words.  Funny thing about this though is that it requires constant practice to change my words and make purposeful choices in my words. It requires constant reflection and then thoughtful practice until the words become natural.  I am still working on this each and everyday, especially as a literacy coach—I think about what I will say before a meeting, and I reflect on what I said after the interaction.  Sometimes it works well and other times—I am still learning.

Peter Johnston began his discussion talking about four fundamental needs for humans.  I love how he looks at this as needs for humans, not just mentioning students.  I often think this way in learning, it is not just about how kids learn, it is about how humans learn.  This makes sense to me and although there may be slight differences in adult learners and children learners, essentially we are all human and it turns out our brains work mostly the same—so the generalization works.

Four Fundamental Needs for Humans

  1. A sense of autonomy
  2. A sense of belonging
  3. A sense of competence
  4. A sense of meaningfulness

Of course children and adults need these four fundamental things, it is a great place to begin when thinking about how we establish our reading and writing workshops in our classrooms and how we structure our professional development.

Meeting the Four Needs in Reading and Writing Workshop

1. Students have choice, voice and time in reading and writing workshop.  Students are in control of their own learning and we encourage agency and independence (autonomy).

2. In a reading and writing workshop we establish a community (belonging) where students feel safe to take risks

3. Teachers believe that students are readers and writers (competence).

4.  Students read and write for meaning (meaningfulness), there is a sense of purpose and significance to the way students engage in both reading and writing workshop.


During the day Johnston referred to several quotes from Lev Vygotsky, and when I think about these quotes it makes me realize how critical it is that we are not just good educators, we are called to something greater, we have to be great.  These two quotes are the quotes that I have always carried with me, but seem to weigh heavier on me now, as I heard them spoke by Peter Johnston and as I read them on his slides.  He held these quotes from Vygotsky up and through his words I know it is not enough to just be good, that is not enough when you truly consider the gravity of these quotes.  I know I will always have to do more, more to reflect and move from good to great.

As I plan upcoming professional development in my building, in classrooms, in our professional learning community and with our staff developer I will hold these four fundamental needs for humans close in my mind.  I will have to move from just good in this area to something more.  Peter Johnston has spoke to me on this day.  The call is greater and I need to be greater.  If children grow into the intellectual life around them, as Vygotsky claims, then children are at the heart of it all and it is for them I must answer this call to be better.  I believe we all must answer this call to be better.

labsite with 106 Vygotsky quote

I am grateful to have others around me who can help me become myself, only better.  I am grateful for the work with my friend and staff developer Maggie Beattie Roberts, my friend and colleague Jeanne-Marie Mazzaferro and my friend and colleague Jenn Hayhurst and so many others who are part of my PLN.  It is through all these other people that I can become myself, only better.  Mostly in moving from good to great, I lean on Dr. Mary Howard, she is a leader in this domain.  Check out her book, Good to Great Teaching, you will see her passion,reflection and her support for teachers and students.

If you want to join me on this quest to move from good to great, answering Peter Johnston’s call and following Dr. Mary Howard’s lead there is a place for you. Jenn Hayhurst and I gather on Twitter to move from Good to Great with amazing educators who week after week show us how to move from good to great. Dr. Mary Howard joins in the chat and has been an amazing resource for all of us, always guiding us on this path.

Check out the #G2Great chat on Thursday nights where I co-moderate with @Hayhurst3 and @Dr.MaryHoward at 8:30 EST.


March 21, 2015 Day 21 Slice of Life Challenge

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hToday as I write for day 21 of the Slice of Life March challenge, I find myself struggling with coming up with an idea that I am ready to write.  I went through my drafts, then got distracted on another project that is very pressing, then sidetracked on Twitter and finally sidetracked on Voxer.

“I don’t know what to blog about today, and today is almost over.” I whined to my husband who just got home from work and is catching up on sports on the DVR.

“Write about paintball today, why can’t you do that?” he said.

“No, what would I write about? Oh wait, yeah I can do that!”

For Christmas this year, I was getting tired of just giving my nephews money or gift cards.  Last year I even dressed their money up in silly crafty gift ideas I found on Pinterest out of desperation for something more thoughtful or creative than money.  I was trying to think of something, when it occurred to me that we don’t make enough time to do things together anymore.  Schedules are busy for the group of 6 cousins, and while my brother and his family live close to me, my sister and her family live a little further away.  I decided I was going to give them a memory.

Rather than money for Christmas gifts the gift would be to go to Cousins Paintball, with one condition that we would all do this together.  The only part that was not great was that the youngest of the cousins was not old enough. He got a season pass to the close by water park Splish Splash.

Our original plan was all the cousins and the parents would go and we would make a day of it.  Well, turns out due schedules and work, only my brother and I ended up doing this with all the cousins.

When we all got there, my brother had a trunk full of cold weather gear that he used for work.  We were prepared with our snow pants, snow boots (yes it snowed on the first day of spring in NY) but of course we forgot a couple of things.  My brother kept pulling things out of his trunk, my daughter called compared his trunk to Mary Poppin’s bag and that was pretty accurate.  I am pretty sure he had enough of everything that if we all showed up in shorts and t-shirts he could have had all 8 of us dressed for paintball in the snow!

Luckily my brother was there, because I am not sure I would have even known what to do and even as they gave directions it still was not within my comfort zone and much of the vocabulary the instructors used was not in my background knowledge. Brothers really are the best, they always seem to save your day!

As I look back over the day I think it accomplished what I had hoped it would.  A day for all the cousins to get together and do something out of the ordinary and make a memory.

As an aside the day provided another example to me of how sometimes if we move outside of our comfort zones and take risks great things can happen. While the experience was a bit intimidating for me I realized that unless you step out from behind what is protecting you, you will not enjoy the game!  Yes, there is some risk, but in order to grow sometimes you just have to run out to get better aim at your target.


March 20, 2015 Day 20 Slice of Life Challenge


Genuine is defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as sincerely and honestly felt or experienced. 

Just as Justin Timberlake proclaimed to bring sexy back I am on a mission to bring the word genuine back.  I am not even sure it went anywhere, but the point is the word genuine does not get enough play these days, especially in education.


Here is an excerpt from the #G2Great where this first occurred to me.  Dr. Mary Howard, who always has a way of inspiring me with just the most eloquent words used the word genuine in our discussion around Engaging All Stakeholders in Deeper and More Meaningful Ways.

Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 10.15.16 PMThen as things that seem to be calling for attention often do, I came across this word again today.  I was reading Talk Like TED: The 9 Public Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds by Carmine Gallo when the word popped out to me again.  This word genuine, which really does not get enough play indeed needs to be brought back, was in Gallo’s first chapter.  How serendipitous that I came across this today, just after the word called itself to me from Dr. Howard’s tweet.

Gallo shares the research of Melissa Cardon who has spent ten years at Pace University studying passion.  Carson completed a study called “The Nature and Experience of Entrepreneurial Passion,”  This type of passion has been defined by Cardon as “A positive, intense feeling that you experience for something that is profoundly meaningful for you as an individual.”

If I was to consider this passion for me along with what Gallo suggests to answer the question “What makes your heart sing?” I would have to say that learning is what makes my heart sing. This can take many forms; it could be me learning, it could be me learning about how people learn, it could be me learning with someone else or just watching as others learn.  Of course now I have to realize then that I am currently in a great field to explore my passion.  As a literacy coach everyday I learn, I learn more about learning and I witness learning as students and teachers learn alongside me.

How does genuine relate to this?  It turns out that according to Cardon, people who are genuinely passionate about their topic are better speakers and audiences can recognize if someone is not genuine in their passion.  If a speaker is faking their passion they will fail to make a meaningful connection to their presentation and their audience.  People see genuine. People understand genuine.  People believe and become passionate when others speak passionately and genuinely about a topic.

So join in with me and bring genuine back!  Even if it did not really go anywhere let’s be genuine and let’s use that word.  Let’s make sure we bring genuine back to all our interactions with our students first and foremost but all stakeholders in education.  Especially in these times when education is at the center of much debate, let’s bring genuine back!


March 15, 2015 Day 15 Slice of Life Challenge

11454297503_e27946e4ff_h Practice in Literacy, in Teaching and in Life 

Yesterday in my blog I wrote about my daughter and her puppy Ezra, and how we attempted to make him a shirt. Yesterday we ended up with a scarf. Today my daughter, independently with just a bit of lean coaching in from me completed a shirt for Ezra. In fact I only coached in at the beginning and at the end just nudging her along with a tip and answering a question or two. The bulk of her practice was independent while I was out shopping and taking my son out to practice driving.

Ezra with Shirt


According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary the word practice means to do something again and again in order to become better at it.  As a literacy coach I often talk about how students need to practice repeatedly in order to improve.  For instance, in the mini lesson of reading or writing workshop we ensure students have guided practice in the gradual release of responsibility model that we follow.  Here students have an opportunity to practice with a partner, with the teacher close by, listening in to assess for the next steps.  Once students go back to independent workshop time students will need to practice the skills or strategies that they are working on.  This works well for habits, skills or content that most of the class will need to practice.

If we meet with students, set individual goals related to either habits, skills or content students will then need to practice that skill for sometime. They will need to repeat it many times until they become better at it.  I believe this is where the most important practice happens.  It is especially important to carry these goals for a long enough time that they do improve and maintain the habit, skill or content understanding.

This also made me think a bit deeper about practice in all learning experiences, as adult learners do we allow enough time for our own practice? It seems to me that teachers and other adults in the education community forget that teaching is a practice, and as such when we are learning something new would then need to engage in practice along with approximations along the way.  I usually refer to the process of learning as a messy process and we often say embrace the mess when you enter my office which is also our professional learning community room.  I wonder though, if teachers really are allowed enough time to practice new instructional practices and are they allowed approximations in that practice.  I wonder if we as teachers allow ourselves that time to learn.  So many times I see teachers who are hard on themselves, often not allowing for practice time or any sort of approximations.  Sometimes this turns into resistance to any sort of change, because it is really fear of failure.  If we believe that as research shows we have learned more about the brain in the last 10 years than any other time period in our history it seems imperative that we embrace teaching as a practice and that we seek to continually improve our practice.  To do this we have to allow time for practice, space for mistakes, trials or approximations.  We need time to practice, to do something again and again in order to become better at it.

March 12, 2015 SOL Day 12 Challenge

“Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on…”11454297503_e27946e4ff_h

As I watched a TEDTalk from Bryan Stevenson it occurred to me that something his grandmother told him was perhaps the most important key to achieving a large goal.  He grandmother told him, “Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.”  This is truly an important idea to always keep in our minds. Working towards a larger goal can be difficult, often we get distracted, tired, frustrated and we lose sight of the prize.  The journey is long, sometimes too long for a big goal, it requires many little goals.  These little goals can trick us up, if we let just them.  If one small goal can stop us, that larger goal does not have a chance!  At the same time if we only see the bigger goal and we do not celebrate the smaller accomplishments we will never be motivated to forge ahead through the distractions, exhaustion, and frustration.

As I think of students who have very large goals, I have to remember that I need to show them that they have to keep their eyes on the prize.  They will have to set small goals, recognize the accomplishments of these small goals and keep their eyes on the prize.  Struggling readers are the victim to the causal factors that lead to a weakness in reading comprehension.  These readers need precision in their diagnosis and goal setting.  They need us to find the one thing that will make the greatest impact first. Then they need to see that success and move forward to the next small goal on the way to the greater goal, making sense of reading or reading comprehension.  Being able to keep their eye on the prize will carry them through the distraction, exhaustion and frustration that comes with learning when it is hard.  And make no mistake, true learning is hard.

Professionally, I too have to keep my eye on the prize.  This is a long journey I am on, and at time I face distractions.  At times I am exhausted.  At times I am frustrated.  I know if I keep my eyes on the prize and hold on I will reach my greater goal.


March 11, 2015 Day 11 Slice of Life Challenge



Yesterday I met with a student for a reading assessment, a quick running record and a comprehension check to see if she was moving along in her reading. Before we started the assessment I started the typical conversation I have with a student about reading.  This conversation is full of open ended questions related to reading and writing.  Typical questions include:

  • What book are you reading right now? How long have you been reading it? How long will it take you to finish it?
  • What books do you want to read?
  • What are you working on in reading, what goals do you have for yourself?
  • How are you working toward that goal?
  • How long do you read (or how many pages) at school//home?
  • What do you like about reading?
  • What is hard about reading?
  • What do you want to improve in reading?

During this conversation it became clear that this otherwise outspoken, silly firecracker of a girl had an entirely different identity when it came to her reading.  Her answers were quiet and lacking any of the energy she has in her interactions with her peers.  Right now reading is not an area of confidence for her.  This was clear.  She answered the questions and had a conversation with me about how her reading level probably went down, she does not like to read and how she does not really read. Overall it was a downer of a conversation, sort of apathetic to the whole reading thing.  She was acting as if she did not care, but she reminded me of someone who was lacking a bit of confidence at that moment.  She was a bit like Violet from the Incredibles.  She was a bit like me at times. She just needed a little push.  Regardless of the reason, I was about to assess her and I wanted her affect to be positive toward the reading so I would see her strengths and the areas where we could create her next goals.

I told her about the power pose or super hero pose that I was practicing.  I shared with her the research from Amy Cuddy and explained that just by taking 5 minutes in this pose it would improve her performance.  Of course this brought her into a silly laugh, but there was the smile.  We stood up together and both took on a super hero pose for 5 minutes.  I am sure she thinks that I am a crazy loon but that is ok, she smiled, laughed and then we got down to business.

I am sure you could predict the end, she did improve in reading since the last assessment, and while I know it was not just the power pose, I know that gave her the confidence to do her best at that moment.  I hope that when she feels a bit under-confident again that she will remember our 5 minutes in the super hero pose and that will be enough to push her in the right direction.


March 10, 2015 Day 10 Slice of Life Challenge


One morning before school started I had plans to work on a bulletin board. I searched the building for the ladder, the one with the tall side bars and the wheels and side legs that often got  stuck.

ps rolling ladders_0 As I was pushing the ladder, there were times going down the hall that I had to push the ladder and other times I had to pull the ladder.  It was a bit frustrating to say the least.  I am also pretty sure there are people in my building with more expertise with this ladder, but no one was around to help, so I tried to figure it out myself. How I wished there was an expert around at that moment to give me advice.  I was moving pretty quickly down the hall, pulling the ladder behind me with one hand.  Feeling satisfied until the ladder stopped with a sudden halt.  At that moment I could not pull the ladder any more, the only way to move it now was to push the ladder.  And again, I found a rhythm this time pushing the ladder.  I could see the bulletin board ahead, I was almost there.  I was grateful for this sight ahead since I spent more time looking for the ladder and pushing or pulling it to the bulletin board than it might take me to decorate the bulletin board.  Lost in this thought as I am pushing the ladder, I smack into the ladder when it stopped once more.

At that moment I could have become frustrated with this situation, but it occurred to me that instead I could appreciate this moment as a moment of understanding and growth.  There was a metaphor here that I could learn from.  Sometimes in life we can be pulled along, while other times we have to be pushed ahead. bulletin board

As educators it is easy to put the brakes on and stop when we are being pushed or pulled in a certain direction.  Currently in education we are at a time that some find frustrating and trying, and others find to be exciting. There is so much information that is readily available to us and we can connect with experts from all over the world through the internet and various forms of social media. There are so many ways to think about a situation, just because it was always done this way, or it works for “me” does not mean this is right for students — the learners we proudly serve.  What we may need at that time is either a gentle pull or a gentle push to bring us along.

This is something I will try to remember as I continue to work with adult and student learners.  It seems that sometimes in order to grow we all need a gentle pull or push to bring us along.