Over the Christmas break, I plan to watch A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the new release about Mr. Rogers. A few weeks ago I saw Tom Hanks on Ellen speaking about what it was like to play this iconic role.

While filming, he was often reminded: “slow down.” He was compelled to make his actions more deliberate, to speak considerably slower than his norm, and to spend more time listening.

During the interview, Hanks said this about Mr. Rogers: “He taught me that listening is a million times more important than talking.” He also explained that since playing this role, he now lives by a new acronym: W.A.I.T. which stands for Why am I talking?

Hmmm…. so what about us in our role as teachers?

Do we talk too much? Do we ensure our students have the opportunity to talk, to process, to articulate their thinking? Do we give ample wait time when we ask questions? Do we truly listen to what our students have to say? What about our colleagues?

Dean Jackson has said, “Listening is an art that requires attention over talent, spirit over ego, others over self.” Wise words.

When I am in the classroom, when I am working with teachers, when I am in a social situation, I will try to consider W.A.I.T.. What will I learn from becoming a better listener?

Beyond Comfort

This week I was forced to work outside of my comfort zone: presenting on a topic and to an audience beyond my typical area of expertise.

The experience challenged me, nudged me into thinking a little differently. It also caused some level of anxiety: wanting to maintain high standards for myself and yet somewhat unsure of how to do so. I spent more time planning than I normally do. More time reflecting, researching, experimenting, and reflecting some more before revising.

I took the necessary risks and put myself out there: I even came home unscathed at the end of the day! If I’m honest, perhaps I experienced a greater sense of accomplishment because the task was challenging. I didn’t ask for the challenge, but I am better for it.

When I returned to my comfort zone later in the week – my area of passion, an appropriate audience – confidence replaced anxiety.

I wonder how many of our students feel like they’re in their comfort zones in school. (Those students to whom academics comes easily.) I wonder how many of them move in and out of their comfort zones like I did this week. (Those students who have strengths in some areas of study and not others, for instance.) I wonder how many never quite feel like they’re in an area of comfort. (Those students for whom academics is a continual struggle.)

Imagine the emotion, the self-talk, and the challenges for these students. Imagine the fatigue.

Given this reality, what can we do in our classrooms to support all students? How do we inspire a sense of pride and accomplishment when students persevere? How can we ensure a level of security and encouragement so that students are willing to take risks, to challenge themselves, to make mistakes?

Push your students out of their comfort zones, but when you do, ensure the safety net is visible.

Masters of Craft

During the last seven days I’ve been utterly spoiled: surrounded by the creations of masters.

We were privileged to see three plays on Broadway (and one at the Citadel which is soon heading to Broadway): the combined craft of the writers, directors, actors, singers, dancers, costume designers, set designers, musicians, lighting and sound designers, created stunning results.

We attended a taping of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert where we watched a master comedian at work, using humour to make the news more palatable, contributing his voice to a collective conversation.

We also visited several galleries where we saw paintings, sculpture, glasswork, ceramics, and furniture all created by masters of their crafts: Degas, Van Gogh, Monet, Bouguereau, and Klimt being some of my favourites.

Surrounded by these masterful works of art, I was inspired.

What does this have to do with our classrooms?

Teaching, too, is a craft. Consider this: have you ever watched a master teacher at work? Have you marvelled at a teacher’s (seemingly effortless) ability to inform, engage, and provoke thought? Have you observed this teacher connecting with students, building trust, and ensuring that each student feels respected, valued, and loved? Have you ever watched a passionate teacher inspire creativity, diligence, and rigour?

These masters of their craft may not create a tangible product such as a painting or a play. And yet, these masters help to create confident, compassionate, and thoughtful citizens.

When we teach, reflect, continue to learn and adjust, we too, can improve our craft. When we are intentional, when we are present in the moment, when we are passionate, we can inspire students to become excited about learning and confident in themselves.

A craft worth honing to be sure.

On a scale of 1-10…

I heard a question recently: On a scale of 1 – 10, how meaningful is your career?

My own answer was immediate: 10. I’m fortunate, I know. I believe strongly in what we do as educators. I believe in our ability to empower our students through literacy. I believe that we influence students beyond the curriculum.

But sometimes amid the pressure, the paperwork, or the politics, we may lose sight of why we do what we do.

It is when I am surrounded by students that I know that my career is meaningful. Last week, a grade one student who I had only met about half an hour prior, came to me in tears, “Can you help me?” We worked together for the next few minutes. He trusted me enough to ask for help and I didn’t leave before I saw a smile. It was a small moment, yes. And yet, if he hadn’t reached out, it may have turned into a big moment for that six-year-old.

Our work matters.

On a scale of 1 – 10, how meaningful is your career?

A Confession

I have a confession to make: I cancelled three social engagements this week because I was swamped with work and trying to meet deadlines.

I know this is not good balance. I know I need to look after myself in order to give my best to others. I know, I know.

And yet… three times… I cancelled. I’ve also neglected exercise. No time, I’ve told myself. Is this week unique? Sadly, no.

I also know I’m not alone. I’m surrounded by many teachers who invest endless hours in the evenings and weekends to give the best to their students. Sometimes it feels like we give and give and give…

My Pembroke author colleague, Lisa Bush, wrote Teaching Well: How healthy, empowered teachers lead to thriving, successful classrooms. I’ve been thinking about her a lot this week. So today I returned to her book:

“If we are going to be in the teaching profession for years – or decades – wellness is not a luxury. It is a basic necessity.” “If we want to be the best possible versions of ourselves, we must put our wellness as teachers as a top priority.”

And so, this week, I’m going to strive for balance. I’m going to stop working at a decent hour each day. I’m going to carve out some time to exercise. I’m also going to reschedule at least one of the social engagements I bailed on last week. I might even fly to New York on Friday night. (Okay, that last one was planned…)

Almost Reading

This weekend, we were fortunate to have our grandchildren sleepover. Three and five years old. As I was reading to the five-year-old, I noticed a new behaviour: she was echoing my voice as I was reading.

If it was a familiar book, she was quietly saying the words she knew along with me. If it was an unfamiliar book, her voice still echoed mine but not necessarily with words: perhaps a sing-songy murmur best describes it. She paused when I paused and she mimicked my changes in expression and intonation.

She asked for multiple rereadings of all books. As she became more familiar with the stories, her sing-songy murmur became more recognizable. I even overheard her reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar to her brother shortly after we had read it numerous times.

Although not quite reading, she now recognizes that groups of letters form words. She can track simple sentences and she is also beginning to recognize a few written words. (The word red seems to be her favourite at the moment.)

As I’ve said many times before: kids have an intense desire to enter the world of the literate. Annabella is awfully close…

Always Learning

Last week I entered a grade four classroom to teach a lesson. Four other teachers followed me into the class and the students were surprised to see so many adults in the room. When the classroom teacher introduced me, she explained that I was there to teach both the students and the teachers.

As I sat at the computer to pull up my documents, a student close to me whispered, “Who teaches you?”

I love that she asked this question! My answer?

“Well, sometimes books are my teachers, sometimes other teachers are my teachers, and sometimes students are my teachers, too.”

The look on her face was priceless as she said, “Really?”


She smiled and said, “Hmmph.”

Whether I am reading, attending PD, planning and facilitating sessions, working one-on-one with teachers, or teaching students, I am always learning.

For the record, I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon… there is always more to learn!

Creating a Culture of Literacy (with LOVE)

At the end of last week, I was fortunate to attend the International Literacy Association Conference. I have been before and thought I knew what to expect: expertise on the teaching of reading, writing, assessment, and the importance of oral language. And then I heard this: love. I did not expect to hear this word time and again during a literacy conference. Literacy, yes. Love, no. And yet I did.

One of the keynote speakers – Hamish Brewer, a principal – challenged us to love ’em. Love all of them. Tell them we love ’em. Recognize that each one of our students deserves our love. See every child as an opportunity and not an obligation. Leave no one behind.

This love, these relationships, become the foundation for our literacy classrooms. When students know we love them, they are much more willing to work hard for us, to respect us. When students know we love them, they understand that we engage them in literacy pursuits because these pursuits can change their lives. When students know we love them, they feel our confidence in their abilities and learn to believe in themselves.

Author Renee Watson, another one of the keynote speakers, spoke of the role of story. Our choice of literature, the books in our classrooms, can say: “I see you. Your story matters. Where you’re from is important.” Again, love.

This week, consider the culture of literacy in your school. Consider the importance of relationships within this culture. Is a passion for literacy evident when you walk into the building or your classroom? Is this question the norm within your school: What are you reading? Do you value and empower your student voices? Do you show your students that you love them – daily? Do you ever tell them?

Hamish Brewer. I can’t convey his energy and passion through words. If you want to rekindle your passion for teaching and have twelve minutes, watch this video. If you don’t have twelve minutes, just watch the first few.

Set out to create a culture of literacy in your classroom. Do so with love.

A Writing Teacher

When freewriting, I encourage teachers to write with their students. The tone and atmosphere in the classroom changes when we do: both during writing and after.

Together we can explore the emotions when we write: apprehension, joy, frustration, delight. Together we can examine mentor texts and experiment with techniques within our writing. Together we can work to enhance the artistry and clarity of our work.

If I’ve ever been in your classroom, you’ll know that I refer to students as writers. They aren’t trying to become writers, they are writers. This is true for us as teachers, too.

Are we writers by profession? Most of us, no. But do we write? Yes! We write on most days, in fact, in one context or another. Writing is a skill we continue to use day after day. But if we as teachers don’t see ourselves as writers, how can we expect our students to see themselves in this way?

I don’t expect masterpieces from teacher or students. But I do expect regular writing practice and subsequent literary conversations. These conversations are most effective and more meaningful when we write with our students.

Are you a writing teacher?

The Courage of One

We recently watched 42: a movie about Jackie Robinson, the first African American player in the modern era of Major League Baseball.

The movie portrays his courage and strength in the face of hatred and discrimination: from other teams, from fans, from his own teammates, even. But I was moved to see how one person’s courage led others to stand up, to step up, and display courage as well.

In fact, it was the courage of the Brooklyn Dodger’s club president and general manager Branch Rickey that put Robinson on the roster to begin with: a move many thought was preposterous in 1945.

The courage of one creates a ripple – two or three others join the cause… a dozen more… hundreds… thousands – a tidal wave leading to eventual change.

A recent example immediately comes to mind: Greta Thunberg, the 16 year-old Swedish activist. Oh, what a difference a year makes as evident from this tweet.

“Stand up for what is right, even if you’re standing alone.” Perhaps you will create a ripple…