Teacher post-it from a recent PD

As teachers, we are often expected to show how we are differentiating for students and meeting their individualized needs. All too often, this amounts to ability-based groups, or heterogeneous groups that try to balance skills by making sure there is at least one “strong” student that the rest are expected to rely on. The benefit of this from the teacher’s perspective relates to management and evidence of doing the above.

But we know there are costs — many of us know that assessing kids and leveling them means they internalize that grade (my 7yo daughter knows she is an “O”, despite her teacher’s best intentions and Fountas & Pinnell’s changes with “reading bands” and such). We know kids quickly sort themselves into groups of smart kids vs not-as-smart or, worse, slow. We know this is a form of segregation that leads to internalizing a fixed mindset with rigid definitions of what a good reader is and does. We know this is particularly harmful for our students of color, our students who speak languages other than English.

But how do we change? What is both manageable for a teacher, good for students, and creates data administrators can use to measure student progress? It requires shifting mindsets, but it also requires a practical plan.

Our approach to reading groups is based on many different models out there — from Unison Reading, to dialogic literacy, choral reading, small strategy groups, etc.

The biggest challenge, however, is teacher mindset. I don’t say that to be down on teachers. I say that because since 2012, that has been both my own hurdle and my colleagues’ who have tried some version of this.

I needed to fully commit to wanting a different kind of classroom environment that was driven by student choice and perspectives, rather than actively de-emphasizing my voice or ownership of my expertise over their process for learning.

I needed to fully commit to giving up control over the kinds of things I used to micromanage and not only accept, but be able to defend what can look like chaos in sound theory and research.

So, you can’t escape reading research. I have many colleagues who feel like that kind of academic reading should be done now that they have their Masters degree. You can become a member of NCTE or ILA, and their journals are easy ways to get great articles and feel like an intellectual human without overextending yourself.

Lastly, this is less how-to and more self-care for the intellectual teacher trying to make a big change: engage with others: follow us and others who inspire you on twitter (twitter is worth learning if you haven’t yet), read blogs and books. Movingwriters.org, books some of their writers have published twowritingteachers.org, as well as authors/teachers like John Warner and have been a lifeline for us on our best and worst days when we doubt everything we are doing because the classes with rigid silence, easy-to-fill-in worksheets and activity packets feel safer and easier.

We are also launching a podcast soon that we hope will be a space that supports teachers in the kind of release & reflect we need.