The Great Lie that Tells the Truth

This May long weekend was rainy and cool. I didn’t mind… Much of the weekend was spent reading. The over-700 page book is due at the library on Wednesday with a waiting list of 137 people. I’m close! (On page 534 as I write this.) It’s one of those books I can’t put down and yet I don’t really want to finish.

The Covenant of Water is a sweeping story of a family across generations: tragic and beautiful, cursed and blessed, a story of struggle and hope. How is it that I read about characters in India in the early 20th century and I think so much of my own family–those around me still and those already passed?

The power of story is profound. One of the characters within this book says, “Fiction is the great lie that tells the truth about how the world lives!” Agreed. A well-writtten story may change us if we’re open. Deep within the pages of a book, we learn about others and ourselves. Deep within those pages–through distance and perspective–we discover truth.

Is there a book that has changed you? What truths have you discovered through someone else’s words? How might your students change through the books you read in class?

Not the Place for Wallpaper

During my Words Matter session on Friday, we discussed the importance of building a word wall with students throughout the year. To avoid the word wall becoming wallpaper–a constant, unchanging, ignored feature in the room–we can add words in related groups of three or four each week. Before the week’s words go up, we ask students what they notice about the similarities or patterns in the words. With these intentional additions to the word wall each week, and the built-in opportunity to teach spelling conventions, students are much more likely to remember which words are on the word wall and use it as a reference. If we orthographically map one of the words being added to the word wall, students are even more likely to lock the word into memory. And, if we map a word that is directly connected to others, the impact is even higher.

A teacher in my session asked, “What about those words students are supposed to know coming into our grade level–can those words be up on the word wall at the beginning of the year?” Great question. My answer in the moment was that it is still preferable to put them up with students and discuss spelling patterns and conventions as we do. For this review, we might potentially post words in groups larger than three or four but it is still more effective with students. In fact, this could be a fantastic way to begin building the word wall during the first few weeks of school. The review of words from the previous year will be necessary for some but effective for all.

Something else to consider which I didn’t mention during the session: Why not give the list of words (from the previous year) to each student? Perhaps split the list into two or three smaller, more manageable lists over a few days or weeks. Ask students to highlight the words on each list that they feel confident spelling. (Remind them that being able to read a word, doesn’t automatically mean being able to spell that word correctly. For adults too.) Engagement with these lists would be an interesting way to have students reflect on their own spelling strengths and challenges. Will they be entirely accurate with their self-assessments? Likely not. But the words they do not feel confident spelling become our first word wall words.

So yes, build word walls with students: our classrooms are not the place for wallpaper!

“If you have the words…”

There was a note on the bathroom mirror in the building where I presented on Friday:

When I saw this little sign–fourteen simple words, yet a profound message–I went to get my phone to take this picture. I wonder, how many people have read this sign? How many left the room feeling better than when they walked in? What inspired its author to write and post these words?

Whatever the answers, yet again, I was reminded of the power of words. Seamus Heaney once said, “If you have the words, there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way.” Whether Nobel Prize winning poetry, a memoir, a novel, a hand-written note of encouragement to a friend, or a message on a bathroom mirror, words matter.

A Need to Clarify…

Why the need to clarify? Recently, I was speaking to a principal who shared that some of her teachers removed books from their primary classroom libraries, believing that their students should only be reading decodables at these grade levels.

Yes, decodable texts are an important part of our grade one and two classrooms giving students the opportunity to practice their phonics knowledge in context. They are wonderful for shared reading during an explicit phonics lesson and then also for independent practice. Decodable texts are also important for older students who are continuing to work on their foundational skills.

As important as they are, decodable books should not be the only texts in our primary classrooms and certainly not the only books students are reading.

Let’s not forget, we want students to have the opportunity to read any book on the shelf: picture books, levelled texts, traditional nonfiction, cookbooks… whatever they choose! Will they be able to read every word on the page? Perhaps not. But if students are interested in these books, it’s worth the time they’re spending.

As Maya Angelou once said, “Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.” 

Possibilities and Potential

This past Thursday, I had the pleasure of presenting to a diverse group of educational leaders. I couldn’t help but think about the talent and influence in the room. As leaders–superintendents, administrators, literacy leads, curriculum consultants–we have an incredible opportunity to ensure students receive quality literacy instruction.

Adam Grant reminds us: “An education system isn’t truly successful until all children–regardless of background and resources–have the opportunity to reach their potential.” The nature of that potential will vary from student to student. We cannot know what will become of the students in our schools: the paths they will choose, their place in the world, or the impact they will have on others.

Last night, for example, we saw the play The Mountaintop at the Citadel Theatre. It was a powerful, fictionalized take on what might have occurred the night before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. This piece of art was both thought-provoking and compelling. I was riveted as two actors commanded the stage–their potential realized in these roles. My mind wandered to the writer and the other creative minds that brought this play to life through lighting, sound, costumes, and set design–the potential of these artists also realized in the work they do. Inevitably, I thought about Martin Luther King Jr. himself. His leadership in the civil rights movement: his passion and devotion, his unforgettable words, his lasting legacy.

Educators teach students the skills needed to function in society and interact with the world. The eventual application of skills will be nuanced but the foundations remain the same.

The possibilities and potential of the students in our classrooms is truly staggering. How do we ensure that “all children–regardless of background and resources–have the opportunity to reach their potential”? As educational leaders, we can leverage our knowledge of literacy learning, lead in ways that inspire others, build capacity with staff, become a catalyst for change, instill hope, and help uncover the potential of all.

“We have more possibilities available in each moment than we realize.” Thich Nhat Hanh


During a recent writing residency, I had an interesting interaction with a grade one writer. It began when he asked, “How do you spell gonna?”

When I explained that gonna wasn’t actually a word, the look of incredulity on his face divulged the truth: he didn’t believe me. Not one bit.

There is so much to be gained when we take a conversation like this and engage in an exploration of words. And yet, word study should not be an aside in our classrooms–only discussed in timely moments–it should be embedded into our instruction in all areas of study. And since the strands of language are interconnected, word study ultimately supports students with decoding, vocabulary, comprehension, and spelling.

Word study is certainly gonna make a difference in our students’ overall abilities. Words matter!

A Literacy Army

Last week a consultant I know referenced her desire to recruit people for a Literacy Army with one goal in mind: empowering students with literacy skills! Now that’s an army I’m ready to join.

Job description?

  • Discuss the functions of language in our daily lives.
  • Embed frequent talk time into lessons as a means of thinking and learning.
  • Encourage writing as a form of expression, thinking, and coping. Assess less.
  • Read aloud to students of all ages!
  • Provide quality, diverse text: everything from picture books to poetry, novels to nonfiction, cookbooks to car manuals.
  • “Wear your reading love proudly in front of your students every day.” Donalyn Miller

Will you join our brigade?

Hidden Potential

I recently borrowed Adam Grant’s Hidden Potential from the library. Fewer than thirty pages in, I decided this was a book I needed to purchase–a book to read with a pencil in hand, to underline and annotate.

What’s more, as I was reading, I was thinking about myself as a learner and myself as a teacher, about possibilities and passion, about perceived limits, about leadership… about the hidden potential that lies within each of us. There are many memorable and shareable excerpts. A sampling:

“When we’re encouraged to make mistakes, we end up making fewer of them. Early mistakes help us remember the correct answer–and motivate us to keep learning.” (Page 39)

“Making progress isn’t always about moving forward. Sometimes it’s about bouncing back. Progress is not only reflected in the peaks you reach–it’s also visible in the valleys you cross. Resilience is a form of growth.” (Page 147)

“Weak leaders silence voice and shoot the messenger. Strong leaders welcome voice and thank the messenger. Great leaders build systems to amplify voice and elevate the messenger.” (Page 196)

“Success is more than reaching our goals–it’s living our values.” (page 233)

If you’re looking to unleash your hidden potential–or that of others–this is your next read!

Minor Catastrophes

I recently ordered a new phone case. A few days later, I received an email apologizing for the delay: “We’ve been experiencing some minor catastrophes in our facility.” I couldn’t help but smile. A catastrophe by its very definition is not minor. I hadn’t heard this particular oxymoron before. And yet, on the day I received the email, I was having a few minor catastrophes of my own. Somehow it was an apt description of my day too.

Oxymorons can be fun to discuss and explore with students: deafening silence, virtual reality, jumbo shrimp, seriously funny, pretty ugly, bittersweet… invite students to create their own awfully good oxymorons. If they do, please share!

…in the middle of the story…

Last week, I heard these words by Phil Callaway: “We live in the middle of the story.”

For whatever reason, these words struck a cord with me. We are where we are right now. The past has influenced us, yes. Yet we don’t know what lies ahead. We can plan and we can prepare, but life has a tendency to throw unexpected curve balls.

As the sun shines through the window, the sky a bright winter blue, I am reminded of my dad who appreciated each moment and truly lived in the present. Somehow, when I was a kid, he made our weekly shopping trips enjoyable and something to look forward to. Somehow, when he was losing his physical abilities, he found ways to appreciate what he was still able to do. Somehow, as a quadriplegic, he found joy and pleasure in what we, his family, were doing.

So today, I choose to live in the middle of the story. I choose to enjoy each moment as best I can… to enjoy the work I do and the people I meet… to enjoy the company of loved ones. I choose to enjoy the day. Tomorrow will come but today is already here.

“We live in the middle of the story.”

This seemingly simple eight-word sentence led me to this writing and these thoughts. What words might you share to prompt your students’ writing?