4 Ideas to Leverage Learning and Level Up Literacy For All

Educators have been thrust into a world of infinite access to programs, tools, and information telling them what, how, and when to teach kids how to read, write, speak, listen, and think. I often find myself as a recipient of the question, “Lauren, you have been in education for a while… What program do you like? Do you believe in a balanced literacy approach to instruction? How can we embed the Science of Reading approaches into instruction successfully? Can we blend both approaches together? What philosophy has impacted learners the most? Here’s how I feel. I am fortunate to have worked in many places that have had different populations of students, employed different systems, and embraced different perspectives to teaching and learning. I have implemented a variety of programs, have analyzed a plethora of assessments, developed curriculum and approaches to instruction to create intentional, personalized learning experiences for learners. Here’s the thing, initiatives and programs will come and go, but it is the people who implement them who remain the constant. In the educational landscape we live in, it’s inevitable. How many of you have walked into classrooms and have found stacks of literacy and content materials that have accumulated over the course of time? Each book, resource, or learning tool you pick up in that stack is most likely a strong reminder of the leadership team of that time period, their vision, priorities, and perhaps even their mission to make their mark. Do you find that each time the pendulum swings in education, you are desperately holding on to the practices that have worked and were happy to let go of others? That is because there is not one program that works for all. Not one. If there was one way, one program, one approach that worked for all learners, we would all be using it. Great educators will take the best from different approaches to learn about students and then teach them.

Sit in the Driver’s Seat

That said, when educators step into the field of education, they will be introduced and “trained” in various approaches to instruction by their school districts. But we simply cannot rely on our school districts to solely build capacity within the educators they serve. Since there are different kids sitting in front of us every year, they are coming to us with different skills and needs. Therefore, it is an educator’s professional obligation to sit in the driver’s seat of their learning. In the book Innovate Inside the Box, George Couros and Katie Novak share, “If we do not see ourselves in the word “learners” within the realm of education, we will never be able to bring out the best in ourselves or others who are involved in this profession. Learning, at all levels, is paramount to the work we do in education.”

Every Learner Should Get What They Need and Deserve

I am not writing this blog post to get into a debate about which instructional approaches are better than the other. There is enough debate in the universe about that. I am writing because over the course of time, I have come to understand that students may not remember a single lesson their teachers have taught them, but they will remember the teachers who had found a way to leverage learning through an asset based lens in order to level up literacy experiences for all. The great educators I am talking about continuously keep kids at the heart of decision-making. They know that every learner who walks through the doors of a school building should get what they need and deserve. They know that every learner has different backgrounds, learning styles, strengths, and opportunities for growth. They look at the whole learner and will notice and name what they need to create a purposeful plan. When they recognize the plan is not working, they pivot in real-time as students work towards mastery. However, what is important to bring to light, is that educators simply cannot look at the whole learner without recognizing who they are as human beings first. In Katie Martin’s book Evolving Education: Shifting to a Learner-Centered Paradigm, she highlights this idea, “People are more confident, passionate, and motivated to do better work, when you focus on what’s right with them, instead of what’s wrong with them. Creating a learning community that empowers learners to develop the skills and talents to manage themselves and build on their assets, rather than dwell on their deficits, maximizes their motivation, contribution, and impact.”

Level Up Learning For All

As I continue to lead, teach, and embrace a comprehensive approach to learning, here are some ideas that focus on leveraging the human aspect of learning and level up literacy experiences for all:

4 Ideas to Leverage Learning and  Level Up Literacy For All

Click HERE to access the infographic for discussion.

1. Lean into Learners: How will you invest time in getting to know and intentionally connect with your learners? 

Idea 1: Learning Surveys and Community Questions – Learn about who your students are by asking them meaningful questions over the course of the year and utilize their interests/background to embed into instructional planning. HERE are George Couros’ 5 Questions. These open-ended questions have elevated learning experiences across all content areas and have ensured that my instructional approaches are rooted in students’ interests. I have had students, families, and colleagues answer these questions through Google Forms, Flip Video, and in print/digital writing spaces (i.e. notebook or Google Docs). Also, during a recent middle school department meeting I facilitated, I asked the teachers, “What book turned you into a reader?” in a Wakelet collaboration space. Answers were curated in text and picture format. The answers to this question ignited rich discussion about reading identities. HERE is an example. Students can easily participate in this activity. Not only will they continue to develop their reading identities, but they will start recommending books to each other. What better way to cultivate excitement around reading in a more personalized way?

2. Layer Stories into Learning: How can you intentionally create spaces for learners to share how they view the world through stories?

Idea 2: Storytelling – Weaving personal stories and capitalizing on the experiences of students makes learning more meaningful and exciting. HERE is a blog post titled Layering Stories into Learning and a simple and authentic formula to consider following when thinking about how a classroom community can intentionally embed stories into their learning lives: 

  1. Personalize – The teacher links a personal story to learning by saying.
    • I was thinking about…
    • I remember when…
    • Let me tell you a story…
  2. Connect- Learners connect their own stories to a learning experience.
    • This is making me think…
    • I’m realizing that…
  3. Share: Learners share connections with peers to form new ideas.
    • Your story is making me think…
    • Your story is making me wonder…

3. Launch and Leverage Choice How can you empower students to develop agency and take ownership of their learning?

Idea 3: Utilize Choice Boards and Menus – In the Edutopia article, The Importance of Student Choice Across All Grade Levels, Stephan Merrill and Sarah Gonser share, “…by centering choice, educators signal openness to negotiating the middle ground and offer students scaffolded opportunities to practice decision-making, explore their academic identity, and connect their learning to interests and passions.” Providing choice can show students you value how they want to learn, develops agency, and empowers them to explore the learning process through multiple pathways. I have used Literacy Choice Boards and Menus for students to access previously taught skills in order to strengthen their understanding of them. They completed the activities independently, in partnerships, and/or small groups.

Here are some examples of Choice Boards and Menus: Choice Board 1, Choice Board 2, Primary Reading Fiction/Nonfiction Choice Menu 1, Elementary Reading Fiction Choice Menu 2

4. Lift Writing and Link IdeasWhat practice can help you connect with learners and elevate writing across content areas?

Idea 4: Dialogue Journals: Dialogue Journals are low stakes written conversations between two or more people. It is an authentic way to get every learner ‘talking’ regardless of their introverted or extroverted personality types. This experience holds all learners accountable to connect with peers and teachers, promote thinking and discussion about various content and topics. Additionally, learners build writing fluency and stamina by informally writing in note form more often about many topics with a partner or group. This practice supports the development of relationships and builds stronger connections between teachers and peers. Teachers can utilize literature, informational text, video, podcasts, illustrations, photographs, science phenomena and/or free writing prompts to get learners to actively participate in this process. Learners will start with a question, comment, and/or thought about the topic by including content knowledge and content-specific vocabulary. They will respond to one another and should keep the dialogue going. Learn more about dialogue journals in more detail clicking on a previous blog post HERE.

Investing in the Emotional and Instructional Deposit Box

The pendulum in education will continue to swing and as long as we are living in that world, we will continue to watch and feel it. If we want to be mindful about keeping students at the epicenter of the important work we do, we can better identify what students need to grow as human beings and learners. In Julie Schmidt Hasson’s book Safe, Seen, and Stretched, she says, “The seemingly ordinary actions and interactions that occur in classrooms have extraordinary implications.” The ideas shared above can offer opportunities to enhance connections, interactions, and literacy experiences across the disciplines. Educators will always be inundated with programs, district initiatives, and trends. But, if we want to make the most impact on student learning outcomes, creating learning experiences designed to understand the learner is an investment in the emotional and instructional deposit box and time well spent!

Harnessing the Minutes

Minutes are Meaningful

The first few months of school are suddenly behind us, but the collection of details from our loaded days are left in mind memory boxes that are waiting to be courageously unwrapped. Sometimes we wonder how time can just pass us by along with the magical moments that transpire in every minute of our days. I have seen educators approach those minutes in the day with courage, conviction, passion, perseverance, pride, and joy for what they were always destined to do. And now that we’ve settled in, the compilation of memories from our first few months is waiting for us to view them through questions of reflection when the timing is right. Sometimes, when we experience the moments in a day in real-time, it is difficult to see the depth of our impact. Sometimes we are not sure if what we are saying and doing matters. As educators, our jobs are to help people see the strength of their influence, the power of their presence, and the significance of the imprints they leave in the hearts and minds of the lives they touch. 

Pause to Reflect

Educators do so much on a daily basis to meet the needs of all of their learners, that it could be challenging to absorb the meaningful moments that manifest over the course of a day. It would be easy to let them just pass you by. Pausing to reflect on the big and small wins can motivate us to share stories and build momentum in others. In the book Innovate Inside the Box by George Couros and Katie Novak, Couros discusses the importance of looking back on your educational journey, “You’ll look back and see how you’ve changed and how your practice has improved. In a profession where learning is the focus of our job, growth is essential and the target is always moving.” How can we create space and time for educators to pause and reflect on their daily interactions with the multitude of people, tasks, and experiences they encounter across the minutes of a day? It doesn’t have to be a formal interaction. Perhaps it’s a hallway conversation, a simple email exchange of ideas, a text, a lunch conversation…  Could those reflections spark new and better ideas for the colleagues, students, and communities we serve?

Some questions I’ve been thinking about:

  1. What are some ways we can leverage relationships to create meaningful opportunities to discuss the moments that matter?
  2. How can we better trust our instincts to “feel” that we are on the right path?
  3. When can we utilize and maximize the expertise of our colleagues to build capacity within?
  4. Can we recognize our cognitive blindspots by inviting people with different perspectives into our conversations?
  5. How can we work to feel more comfortable with acknowledging what we don’t know to personally and professionally grow?

Harnessing the Minutes

George is right, the target IS always moving and we have to be intentional about the way we approach our reflections and practice as educators. My friend Meghan Lawson says that “small moves can have big impact.” I have been sharing this sentiment with colleagues because when we talk about teaching and learning, we don’t always have to make big shifts to see growth.   Our students are the key drivers of our decision-making. They will tell us where we need to go and it’s usually the small moves that catapult them to success. Time moves fast, don’t wait too long to harness the idea of reflection and embrace the meaningful minutes in your days as an investment in yourselves, your colleagues, and the greatest gifts, your learners. What you do matters.

4 Fun Ways to Fire Up Learners

Memorable Moments

When you think back to your fondest memories of school, what experiences do you remember most? I am talking about memorable moments that have wrapped around your heart and hugged your soul. These memories are so vivid that when your thoughts wander back in time, you are the starring role in vibrant mind movies that leave you feeling incredible pride, joy, and gratitude for those opportunities. These memory moments have become part of the fabric of the person you’ve become and will continue to be on your course of life. 

Snapshots in Time

For me, these snapshots in time are what made learning fun, creative, and applicable to real world interactions and experiences I’ve encountered. I can assure you that when my own children, students, and colleagues ask me about my favorite parts of my schooling timeline, it is not about the standards, assessments, skills, strategies, and/or particular lessons that were taught. It was the times I performed in the school musicals and dramas, participated in Battle of the Classes, and worked on passion projects I actually cared about. It was the educators who unlocked those moments that sparked my interests and ignited my passions. Those educators created personalized experiences that kept learners at the core of the work and viewed them as human beings first. The social interactions I had with peers illuminated the most relevant parts of learning. Together we laughed and navigated our way through successes and failures, sought solutions to conflicts, explored new ideas, and pushed our limits of learning, discovery, and growth. 

Great Educators CAN Make a Difference

In order to make a difference in the lives of our learners, great educators must create experiences that tap into learners’ hearts so their minds are open to critically consuming information to create new and better things that are relevant to them and the real world. Meaningful learning sticks when great educators focus on the right things first! In Innovate Inside the Box, George Couros says, “We have to acknowledge that our students come to us with a unique mix of experiences, strengths, weaknesses, and passions…Our calling or task is to expose students to numerous pathways and provide them with the skills to be self-directed and goal-oriented so they can choose or create a path that allows their brilliance to shine” (p.32).  I’ll admit, at the beginning of my career, I was so focused on delivering the curriculum that I rarely leveraged the moments where I could have listened more and developed deeper connections with my students to make learning matter. I always cared about them, but I thought that the primary way of showing it was by “covering the content” instead of making investments in their emotional deposit boxes and continuously giving them the choice and voice they deserved. In the book Personal and Authentic, Thomas Murray says, “Expecting children to walk through our doors and desire a “standard” model of education completely ignores the vast differences in interests, passions, and strengths of our learners. Providing opportunities, both small and large for these learners to explore areas that are meaningful to them recognizes who they are and reaffirms to them that they matter” (p. 107).

4 Fun Ways to Fire Up Learners

How can great educators create conditions that bring out the best attributes of every learner who enters the school buildings and classrooms they live in? I’ll tell you what has worked for me… fire them up and make them a part of the learning process! Empower them to listen, think, discuss, and choose the way they want to learn. Create opportunities where learners freely share their ideas, listen to others’ perspectives, and talk about what’s on their hearts and minds. Use those moments to influence their learning and plan instruction that’s tailored to their needs; give them the starring role in vibrant future mind movies that they can recall and later share with pride, joy, and gratitude! With that being said, I want to share what my students think are 4 fun ways to empower them and fire up the learning that transpires in classrooms! These are learning experiences that they request we revisit regularly:

Picture of the Day

I discovered Picture of the Day from Hello Literacy consultant Jen Jones many years ago. I have found that using pictures is a low stakes, meaningful, purposeful way to observe, think, promote critical discussion, and honor other perspectives about anything you choose! In author Ralph Fletcher’s recent keynote at the Spring Virtual Long Island Language Arts Council Conference on March 25, 2020, he discusses how the world of our learners is increasingly visual. Photos are a universal language that reveal emotions and tell stories about people’s lives. Photos can magically stop time and become a tool for inquiry. They also serve as mentor texts that can inspire learners to take their own photographs and document their own journey. When I introduce the picture of the day, I begin by selecting pictures that are of high interest, relevant to the unit of study I am teaching, and/or mirror the interests of the learners in my class. For example, if I am teaching story elements, I may showcase pictures with a variety of settings, people, conflicts, and resolutions; if I have learners who have a passion for sports, traveling, cooking, etc… I will share those photographs. The students are invited to make observations (list things that can see in the picture) and then make reasonable inferences (using the details from the picture and what they already know) to develop ideas and perspectives about the photo. My students are also encouraged to select their own photographs in the choice boards I will discuss below! Learners can think and respond about photographs in a multitude of ways (i.e. in a writer’s notebook, Google Doc/Slides, Jamboard). I have found that Picture of the Day has supported my learners in previewing and comprehending more complex informational text.

Choice Boards

Choice boards are not only a great way to empower learners by giving them choice and voice in what and how they are going to learn, but it also provides meaningful balance between online and offline learning. I have found that providing learners with choice boards encourages intrinsic motivation and a more meaningful desire to learn,  personalized instruction, and allows students to respond by using various print and digital competencies. This type of freedom guides learners towards independence. The choice boards I designed below were inspired by Catlin Tucker’s blog and self-paced course on blended learning. Each choice board includes skills/strategies that I have introduced in my own classroom. I revise the learning activities as I introduce new skills/strategies. Revising the options keeps learning fun and engaging! In the book Innovate Inside the Box, Couros states, “When students are empowered to choose how they can best demonstrate their knowledge and skills, they are able to see the relevance in learning the basics and how reading, writing, and math apply to their lives and are less likely to check out mentally” (pp. 62-63).

Link to Literacy Offline Choice Board #1

Link to Notice and Note Offline Choice Board #2

Dialogue Journals

This is an authentic way to get students to informally write about any topic with a partner or group while supporting the development of relationships and building stronger connections with teachers and peers. Teachers can utilize literature, informational text, video, podcasts, and/or free writing prompts to get learners to participate in this process. Learners will start with a question, comment, or thought about the topic by including content knowledge and content-specific vocabulary. Learners respond to one another and should keep the dialogue going. I call this fast and furious writing! Learners should not worry about grammar or spelling. They should be able to get all of their ideas out freely.  Dialogue journals are a low pressure way to tap into students’ interests and passions, to learn more about each other, develop writing fluency, stamina, and build confidence. Teachers can participate by sharing their own experiences through writing, by giving feedback to the learners and/or participate in the writing process.

Dialogue Journal information from: The Best-Kept Teaching Secret: How Written Conversations Engage Kids, Activate Learning, Grow Fluent Writers…K-12 by Harvey “Smokey” Daniels  and Elaine Daniels

Here is an example of student dialogue journals:

Inspiration Collages


There have been several opportunities for my learners to create inspiration boards that exemplify and illustrate who they are as people. Allowing them to utilize a digital space such as Google Slides, enabled them to express their creativity and illuminate their passions and interests by using quotes, words, phrases, colors, and images. These activities have helped me to initiate meaningful conversations with my students and have supported the development of future lessons that are relevant to their lives and the world. In Innovate Inside the Box, Couros says, “If we don’t understand the learners we serve, even the best ideas for teaching and learning will not be as effective if we don’t learn about our students and connect with them first” (pp.77-78). In the example below, shows how learners responded to the book Love by Matt De La Pena by creating a board about what Love means to them! See the slides for more information about P.S. I Love You Day (the impetus for this learning experience).

Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model Series 1: Inviting Change

A Special Note: Many months ago, I was encouraged by George Couros to create a digital portfolio in order to highlight and archive my learning. These conversations started before the COVID-19 global pandemic emerged as one of the most challenging and life-changing events in history. During the quarantine, I connected with Kristen Nan and Jacie Maslyk, co-authors of All In: Taking a Gamble on Education in a book study Voxer group. This is when Kristen invited me to co-blog on her website. This was a great opportunity to test drive blogging. The experience was incredible and gave me the confidence to take George’s advice and create my own platform. One of the first blogs I wrote during this time was Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model. The purpose of this blog was to keep the workshop model alive during emergency remote learning. I wanted to share my experiences with other educators and show them that what may seem impossible is in fact, possible.

With that being said, as I learn more about implementing the workshop model in physical and virtual learning spaces simultaneously, I want to share my process with other educators. So, I welcome you to the beginning of a series of blogs titled: Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model. I will break up my learning process and the workshop model framework into various components so that they are easier to digest. Please understand that my learning is constantly evolving and all of these ideas may be revised over the course of time!

This blog series is dedicated to George Couros, Jacie Maslyk, Thomas C. MurrayKristen Nan, my PLN: #Read2Lead, #EdCampLI, #LBLeads, and my Long Beach colleagues who have inspired, motivated, supported, and encouraged me to write and share my learning and voice with the rest of the world. I am forever grateful.

What Happened to the Magic?

There is a certain kind of magic that lives within an educational universe. If you orbit around an organization and open the doors, you will find sparks of light. These sparks of light shine brightly because they are ignited by communities of educators who pour their souls into maximizing and elevating learning experiences for kids. It’s that spark that ignites into flames when curiosity and wonder spread like wildfire. It’s that spark that rallies a community of learners together to support one another through the learning process. It’s that spark that embraces the idea of agency, voice, choice, and productive struggle. It’s that spark that empowers and guides learners towards independence. And just as the flames happily dance and spread around our magical learning hubs, the intensity of the flames can just as easily be disrupted, startled, dimmed, faded. What happened to the magic? I’ll tell you in one word: CHANGE. When change invites itself through our doors, it can be paralyzing. It can be suffocating. It can be stressful. It can be shocking. It can also be eye-opening.

Change is the Epicenter of the Journey

I have been in education for 15 years and I can assure you that change has been the epicenter of my journey. Most of the time, change has been a gradual occurrence that happens over a steady course of time. It’s so slow, that at times, it cannot be recognized until it’s looking you straight in the eyes. However, recently change has looked quite different in the world of education. Across the globe, educators have been pushed to rethink education. Educators have been challenged to question their core values. Educators have been pushed to revisit their philosophical beliefs. Educators have been remixing existing teaching and learning practices that have lived in the nucleus of their daily lives and in the book Innovate Inside the Box, George Couros brilliantly states, “I’ve long believed that change isn’t to be feared; it is an opportunity to do something amazing…Change will come our way. We can “go” through it or “grow” through it. We grow when we seek out solutions rather than letting those obstacles hinder us.” This quote resonates even more deeply since the Covid-19 global pandemic has jolted the more traditional educational landscape we have always lived and known. I’ll admit when shifting to emergency remote learning and now teaching in physical and virtual spaces simultaneously, I have paused multiple times and questioned the what and the how. I have questioned whether or not the philosophy of the workshop model can live on in virtual environments. I have questioned if I can make the workshop model come alive for learners the same way I did in physical learning environments. Katie Martin, author of Learner-Centered Innovation confirms how vital developing solutions are to the barriers of change with this astute notion, “If the world is changing, the evidence and research become irrelevant if you don’t consider a new context.” And if we want to reach learners effectively, we MUST consider the new educational contexts that have been thrust upon us. We cannot look back, we must keep moving forward! And then, I came across a tweet from Thomas C. Murray, author of Personal & Authentic that spoke to my core, solidified these ideas, and reminded me of my why. And when I revisited my WHY, I knew it is to continuously cultivate lifelong learners who feel empowered to reach their social, emotional, and academic potential. And then, I realized that through the workshop model, I can continue to rally together a community of learners and build community by prioritizing the social-emotional needs of students and keeping “who” we teach at the heart of the learning journey.

Choosing What is Right

I have encountered many people who have embraced different educational philosophies. I have listened to theories and have read multiple books and articles by countless leaders and experts in the field of education. I have indulged in and have digested several perspectives about various topics with the intention of catapulting learners to academic success through multiple kinds of curricula and teaching and learning practices. And every time I have read an article, a book, or listened to a podcast, I used to think, wow, this must be the magic prescription for success. In my earlier years of teaching, when I was handed a curriculum, I followed it to a T. I thought that the curriculum itself was the key driver of developing a learner’s social, emotional, and academic potential. I thought that the people who were responsible for making decisions about the curriculum knew best and I looked to them as the experts. Now I know better. Now I know that the learners are the curriculum. They tell you what they need. I learned that there is not one single curriculum that works best for all learners. I know that every curriculum must be viewed as flexible and should be modified to meet learners’ needs. Knowing this made me realize that I can adapt the Workshop Model in both physical and virtual spaces. Knowing this helped me understand that I can revise the implementation and the process at any time. Knowing this made me feel more comfortable with taking risks, sometimes meet those risks with failure, share and reflect on those experiences with colleagues, and recognize that it’s an opportunity for growth.

Thomas C. Murray invites Kristen Nan to share how important it is to take risks and step out of your comfort zone in this #LeadershipMinute!

The Workshop Model Will Live On

Suddenly, a spark was ignited within me…I knew that by inviting this change, I was still going to continue to honor my belief system and keep the magic of the workshop model alive. I felt committed to implementing what I have known to be best practices in the new context we are living in. It is because I believe that this is the framework that empowers learners to become confident readers and writers. This is the framework that guides them towards independence. On October 17, 2020, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project held their first virtual Saturday Reunion. When I logged in to watch and listen from the comfort of my own home, Lucy Calkins was delivering her opening remarks. She said “We need to be as connected as we can be…Teaching is about holding onto the faith that the work we do matters. This is hard to hold onto right now. Even if it feels that nothing is going well, we need to show up.” These are powerful words that made me ask myself again…How can I rally learners together and build community when we are teaching in both physical and virtual learning spaces simultaneously? What can I do to cultivate meaningful connections and develop relationships with face-to-face and virtual learners? What new and existing tools can I utilize to support the execution of the gradual release of responsibility? I know that while navigating this learning journey, I must continue to be patient, I must continue to give myself grace, I must continue to be open to feedback from my colleagues, my PLN, and my students who are living this with me, and I must show up. And as Calkins suggests, I will show up for my students, their families, my community, and my country. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. The fact of the matter is that change has already invited itself through our doors. As George Couros says, “You can fight change, adapt to change, embrace change, create change, or lead change. No matter your choice, change is not going away.” And do you know what else I will not let go away? The Magic of the Workshop Model.

Lucy Calkins passionately delivered her introduction at the October 17, 2020 TCRWP
Saturday Virtual Reunion.

Stay tuned for the next blog in this series: Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model Series 2: Rallying Learners and Building Community