BY CRISTINA ROMEO COMPTON
Conversations about race are not easy. They can bring about feelings of fear, anger, and frustration, and as a result, these conversations are often avoided. However, grappling with topics of race and diversity are truly important, especially with young children who are cultivating their understanding and their perceptions of the world. Experts argue that children are never too young to learn about kindness, fairness, and human rights. Research states that children “as young as three months old...may look differently at people who look like or don’t look like their primary caregivers.”
As a parent of a soon to be two-year-old and a professional development consultant who works closely with educators of young children, I am committed to seeking ways to engage in and facilitate my own conversations about race, especially in today’s world, as well as share strategies with educators that they can use in their own classrooms. What follows are a few strategies I’ve curated and adapted from my own musings and readings, as well as some concrete strategies inspired by one of our reimagining education initiatives: Literacy Unbound. These strategies can be particularly helpful when it comes to facilitating conversations about race with young students and cultivating skills, mindsets, and capacities that will serve us well today, and in the future.
The importance of asking questions
One of the most effective ways to grapple with topics of race and diversity is to ask questions. This is particularly effective with elementary students, as they commonly ask many questions of their own. By encouraging their curiosity and caring, and creating a safe space for them to be inquisitive, you can help pacify concerns, address confusions, and support an understanding and appreciation of differences. Additionally, you can raise your own questions focused on topics of race, diversity, and exploring differences to get students thinking and recognizing how they can be advocates of positive change. Here are some examples of questions that I turn to, curated and adapted from websites like PBS.com:
These questions can be a part of morning circle time, a weekly reflection or journal writing prompt, or even as a theme for a bulletin board, where students can share their responses using post-its or index cards (or, while online, students can add their thoughts online to Padlets and Jamboards).
Introducing & exposing students to diverse books
As Dr. Aisha White, Director of the P.R.I.D.E. Program at the University of Pittsburgh, explains, books — especially picture books — are a safe place to start when talking to children about race and racism. She suggests selecting picture books that offer multiple perspectives and explore various entry points for addressing complex topics. Some popular texts she suggests include:
These texts can be read as part of designated read aloud time, as part of a school-wide, character building initiative where the books are read in every classroom, or as a central text that guides and inspires a larger unit of study.
But as Dr. White explains, it’s not enough to just read the book. “If a parent (or educator) just reads the book and doesn’t have a conversation — doesn’t start to talk about racial disparities and racial discrimination and racism in America — then it won’t really affect a child’s attitudes toward race…it comes back to…having a background knowledge before speaking with their children, and being brave enough to have the tough conversations.”
What does it look like to support students in reading complex texts more closely, more carefully, more creatively, and more critically?
Sparking conversations around texts
Literacy Unbound, one of our signature initiatives, aims to unbind traditional approaches to the teaching of reading and writing using drama and play-based strategies to spark conversations that are inspired by questions raised in a specific, shared text. Teachers and students are brought together in this process as critical and creative thinkers, which helps foster a space for collective inquiry and exploration.
Using drama and play can be particularly effective with young students, especially when looking to support engagement and participation, while also providing a safe entry point for complex and challenging conversations.
Let’s look at a few strategies from Literacy Unbound to see how they can be effective and what they can look like when applied to one of my favorite texts, The Other Side, by Jacqueline Woodson. The Other Side follows the story of a little Black girl named Clover who sees a little white girl across a fence, but is told by her mom that she can’t cross to the other side of the fence because it isn’t safe.
Facilitating conversations about race with young students is no easy task. It takes courage, patience, and a lot of thoughtful planning and reflection on the part of educators, parents, and caretakers. Moreover, it takes a lot of persistence. Being open-minded and developing understanding, kindness, and an appreciation of others who are different from us is not something that happens after reading one text or engaging in one conversation.
As Glenn Singleton and Curtis Linton note in their book Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools, courageous conversations about race require that we stay engaged and anticipate feelings of discomfort, as well as expect and accept non-closure.
We encourage you to create space for these conversations with your students and reimagine the ways in which you can spark curiosity and critical thinking around race and equity in a safe and supportive classroom.
BY CRISTINA ROMEO COMPTON
Productive struggle, a term that has gained popularity over the last decade, is found in instruction that “stretches students’ thinking and performance just beyond the level they can do on their own — the zone of proximal development.”
Finding and teaching to each of our students’ sweet spots is no easy feat. As teachers, we are often guilty of over-scaffolding, or rescuing our students out of fear or our desire to avoid student discomfort. Alternatively, we sometimes push students too far by introducing a task that is well beyond their level, without also providing the necessary tools or assistance they need to meet the challenge. In order to support students in productive struggle, we need to be patient, persistent, and committed in gathering and using data in our instruction. This can include quantitative data such as reading levels and test scores, or perhaps more importantly, student actions and behaviors — what we know as qualitative data.
How can we gather qualitative data about our students in order to support them in finding a meaningful, productive level of struggle in their learning?
Identifying zones of struggle
Before we can locate promising practices for our instruction, we first need to identify look fors and listen fors that can help us determine if and when students are being pushed too far, or are not being pushed enough.
When students are not being challenged enough or instruction is below their level, we consider this a level of no struggle. At the other end of the spectrum is destructive struggle, in which tasks are too challenging for particular students, or are significantly above their level. A zone of productive struggle lies between the two.
Let’s identify the look fors and listen fors for each of these zones:
When students are in a no struggle zone, it might look like and sound like:
When it comes to the destructive struggle zone, we might observe students who:
In contrast, when students are in a zone of productive struggle, we are likely to see them:
Observing student behavior online
Given that so much instruction is happening remotely, and we may not be able to observe the same behaviors from our students in a remote setting, we can also identify look fors and listen fors when online teaching and learning is taking place.
In a no struggle zone, we might observe online students who are:
When students are in a place of destructive struggle online, they might:
In contrast, productive struggle might look and sound like:
Determining students’ current zones of struggle is a helpful starting point for potential shifts in your instruction. Different students at different times might exhibit these behaviors, and this can inform your responses and course of action. By leaning on these look fors and listen fors, we can more effectively and confidently determine if, when, and how many scaffolds need to be introduced so that students are advancing their skills.
In addition to locating student behaviors and communication that can surface as they’re working on tasks, we can also lean on preemptive planning, which will support us in predicting and creating opportunities for productive struggle in our classrooms. Preemptive planning encourages thoughtful consideration and analysis of each task we’re offering students — whether it’s a culminating task of a unit or a task for a particular lesson. This process involves asking questions such as:
These questions can inform your instructional design as you work to meet the individual needs of students. Your assessment of students’ areas of struggle can inform where and how you’ll need to scaffold your instruction, and the areas of strength can inform where and how you introduce extensions or opportunities for deeper learning.
Similar to identifying and responding to look fors and listen fors, preemptive planning is a meaningful form of data collection that can help you predict or anticipate student performance and ultimately use these predictions to inspire, inform, and cater your planning and instruction to your students.
There is no denying the challenges involved in meeting students where they are, especially when teaching large numbers of students — many of whom are on vastly different levels — or teaching at a distance. But by engaging in strategic planning based on data and evidence, we can create opportunities for our students to challenge themselves, recognize that they can do hard things, and make progress in their learning.
BY CRISTINA ROMEO COMPTON
Project-based learning is a widely used term in education. Although many educators have a general understanding of what it means, it’s often met with uncertainty and apprehension.
A simple Google Search of “project-based learning” results in 10 pages of articles or blogs, written by various organizations, institutions, and individuals. For instance, cultofpedagogy describes project-based learning as a combination of standards, best practices of UBD (understanding by design), and formative assessments. ASCD describes a project as meaningful if it fulfills two criteria: that students "feel the work is personally meaningful, as a task that matters" and that the project fulfills a “meaningful purpose.” Edutopia describes project-based learning as learning that tells a story.
Throughout my 15 years of teaching and coaching, I’ve seen varying interpretations and implementations of project-based learning myself, which have been further complicated by the move to remote and blended learning environments. For educators who are working with packaged curricula, it can be especially difficult to see the opportunities available for introducing PBL in classrooms. But focusing on the core components of this work can support us in establishing engaging, meaningful, and doable project-based learning experiences for our students.
Components of project-based learning
One of the most well-known and admired institutions when it comes to project-based learning is the Buck Institute. They offer what I think are very helpful criteria to inform what project-based learning can look like:
In line with much of the graphic, our K-12 coaching team believes that projects are a wonderful way to help students cultivate 21st century skills, focus on a pressing topic or issue, develop their identity as readers and writers, and engage in a writing process that involves extensive feedback, revision, and reflection on their learning. We believe the pedagogy of project-based learning is about:
Now that we’ve laid out some of the basics, we can investigate what project-based learning might look like in action. The questions above can help inspire task revision and allow you to incorporate project-based learning into pre-packaged curricula, without starting from scratch.
Creating relevant, meaningful tasks
Recently, I partnered with a school in Brooklyn to support them as they designed and reimagined assessments for online learning. As an elementary school, they had adopted a packaged curricula for English Language Arts instruction. My goal was to help them make existing tasks and assessments more engaging and relevant for students, and support them in redesigning the tasks as they were written in order to infuse elements of project-based learning — without compromising rigor.
We began with a first grade writing task that focused on persuasive reviews based on favorite places, foods, etc. To begin revising this task, we started by examining three important questions, informed and inspired by the Buck Institute:
We used these questions to guide our analysis and revision, referring back to the original task:
Turning the task into a project
Now that we have been able to identify the basic possibilities and challenges with this task, we can continue on to revision, and begin to shift our original task into a project. When it comes to developing authentic and meaningful projects, we like to turn to a promising practice called GRASPS. This stands for:
G: What is the goal of the project?
R : What is the role of the student?
A: Who is the audience?
S: What is the structure of the writing?
P: What is the purpose?
In conjunction with our earlier questions, the GRASPS framework is a helpful tool in redesigning tasks and ensures that our revisions are clear. In our example, the responses look something like this:
Equipped with these revisions, we can now more easily shift the original writing task to one that is project-based, and understand how we can introduce these ideas to students. This not only generates excitement for students, but teachers as well — our partners in Brooklyn were eager to plan and implement this project within their classrooms, and were excited about the additional possibilities for creativity.
What I hope is evident throughout this process is that project-based learning can have a variety of entry points — whether you’re teaching remotely or in-person, creating your own projects, or reimagining pre-packaged curricula. Regardless of your situation, recognizing how instruction can be meaningful, relevant, and doable — even with the current parameters of teaching and learning — is possible.
By CRISTINA ROMEO COMPTON
When you’re caring for children who are participating in remote learning, it can be challenging to identify and understand their progress and growth as readers. You’re likely wondering: Am I doing this right? Are we making progress? How will I know? When children are in the classroom and engaged in in-person learning, the responsibility for these questions largely lies with their teachers. However, the new normal for teaching and learning requires equal — if not more — participation from parents, in order to support and ensure the advancement of students’ reading skills.
Given how busy we are trying to balance our own work responsibilities along with the needs of our children, it can often feel easiest to default to tools like reading comprehension quizzes, multiple choice tests, or even worksheets to help recognize and assess reading progress at home. While these measures can be helpful, they certainly don’t tell the whole story. We could be missing out on identifying areas of growth and celebration, as well as a robust understanding of our children’s areas of struggle.
But there are promising — and practical — strategies that parents can utilize to help monitor and track the growth of their children's literacy skills. Don't feel as though you need to create your own assessments, rubrics, or projects to achieve this — that is, unless you have the time, capacity, and energy! Instead, consider some quick, informal strategies to monitor students’ growth. These strategies can tell you a lot about a child’s reading behaviors, habits, and progress.
Habits & behaviors of good readers
In her book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective Readers, Joanne Kaminski explains, “Kids who are highly effective readers and score high on their state exams seem to have similar habits.” She goes on to explain that she has seen these habits in her own children as well as children she’s taught and tutored. The seven habits she describes are:
This list can be helpful to parents as they look for evidence of their children's reading behaviors. When these behaviors are present, you can feel good that your young learners are on the right track!
As we level up our understanding of a child's reading progress, we can turn to Mosaic of Thought: The Power of Comprehension Strategies, in which the authors Ellin Oliver Keene and Susan Zimmermann outline a list of habits that are more reflective of the kind of work students are doing while reading, including:
For parents, a list like this can feel daunting. You may not know how to look for these specific skills, and are likely asking yourself questions, such as: How do I know they are inferring? How can I prompt them to determine what’s important? Identifying skills that children are exhibiting during reading is often left to teachers.
Knowing what to look for
There are ways to simplify the identification of reading habits and skills so that you can determine what children are doing before, during, and after their reading. We can break down more complex reading habits into observable actions, behaviors, or concrete examples that signify the deeper learning that is taking place. When it comes to reading, we can look for the following:
If your child is reading for long(er) periods of time, this is great! Interest and stamina are very important, especially as books increase in demands and complexity.
Have your child read to you! This can be a great way to monitor fluency, decoding, and self-correction strategies on the part of students.
Comprehension and thinking skills:
A simple set of questions can be very telling when it comes to a child’s predicting, inferring, and comprehension skills. You can use these same questions each time they read, and students can either answer for you, or as part of writing and drawing exercise. Here are some suggestions for what you can ask a child before, during, and after they read:
Thoughts about reading
Talk to your child about what they are reading. Ask them about the kinds of books they are reading, what they're enjoying (or not enjoying), and why. This can help you gain insight into your child’s general attitude toward reading, the kinds of books they gravitate toward, and the types of books that they find easiest to read.
When you've got young learners in your home, you deserve a lot of credit for balancing work, at-home learning, childcare, and household tasks. What you’ve been able to do during this unique time has been nothing short of remarkable. Remember that when it comes to supporting learning at home, we can monitor a child's reading progress with simple strategies that make the process feel useful and manageable for everyone involved. Start with a strategy that feels feasible and accessible, and build from there. Happy reading!
By CRISTINA ROMEO COMPTON, JEN DECERFF, and SHERRISH HOLLOMAN
When a student writes for publication, there is a shift in the dynamic between the student and their work. Picture yourself asking a student whether or not they spent a significant amount of time on their writing, only to have them respond, “Why would I spend time on it? It’s just for you.” In contrast, consider a student, who previously considered himself anonymous, telling his teacher, “Mr. Nick, I’m famous now!” after the book he co-authored with his classmates was published. Two very different reactions to a writing experience. How do we understand these two contrasting responses from young writers?
Founded in 2002, the Student Press Initiative (SPI) was designed to develop, foster, and promote writing across the curriculum through student publication, and revolutionize education by advancing teacher leadership in reading and writing instruction. Students transition from “writing for their teacher” to writing for an audience of their choice. To date, SPI has published over 850 books representing the original writing of over 12,000 students. SPI’s core values — project-based instruction, real-world authorship, community of learners, and celebrating student voice — resonate throughout these books. The grounding of these values raise the bar for what, how, and why students write.
We believe in using publishing for a real-world audience as a means to design and shape curriculum and expectations, as well as promote student engagement.
We employ a backwards-planning model, where a final product is used to form an infrastructure for classroom instruction and activities. Through inquiry of the specific requirements and expectations of each project, teachers and students can better articulate the behaviors, artifacts, and customs necessary for the successful completion of the project — and being that publishing a book is a shared experience, students work together to support and encourage one another in new and powerful ways.
Publication projects help to shape the culture, rituals, and routines that take place in the classroom. At the start of a project, a large calendar often overtakes the walls of a classroom, and teachers and students work together to identify the genre, audience, and purpose of their project, as well as establish details and deadlines. This helps establish a strong sense of community and collaboration. This is project-based learning at its best!
Real-world authorship shapes our approach to teaching and learning. Whether the audience is a class of incoming freshmen or first-year teachers in training, we work to connect young writers with actual readers. In the SPI model, classrooms become publishing houses in which teachers and students collectively shape an editorial vision. By exploring questions, issues, or concerns that exist in the world, their community, or within a specific content area, teachers and students collaborate to define a meaningful genre, theme, and audience. Writers then work to understand the expectations of their audience as they craft pieces with real readers in mind.
No matter the content, there is always a real-world model that can demonstrate student learning with panache and voice that will engage readers. Through participation in a publication project, students develop skills and processes similar to those of professional authors. Students are supported through pre-writing and a gathering of ideas, drafting while consistently revising and editing, and finally, publishing, where they format and polish their writing to prepare for publication. Students experience “real” expectations and deadlines for publishing their book. Through these experiences, a strong sense of excitement, energy and urgency emerges.
Community of learners
SPI challenges traditional notions of “experts” in the classroom. Inspired by the work of Lave and Wenger (1996) and what they call “communities of practice,” we aim to cultivate students’ sense of expertise as writers by engaging in processes such as thoughtful inquiry of mentor texts, peer review, and peer editing. Through such processes, teachers and students work to establish a community of writers, consisting of many experts and many resources for learning and growing as authors.
We encourage teachers and students to engage with a variety of texts as they begin to define qualities and attributes of powerful writing. As students learn the skills needed to write successfully, they also become experts in the project’s central theme as they read mentor texts, break genres down into smaller components, and ultimately, craft pieces that represent their learning and culminate in a final publication. A project designed around an in-depth genre study and inquiry invites students into a shared experience, and allows teachers to craft a thoughtful curriculum that addresses specific content and skills.
Celebrating student voice
Every student has a unique voice. Rather than celebrate the work of select students, we aim to celebrate the work of all students, using publication and celebration as a way to leverage and encourage participation.
We believe every project should culminate in celebration — whether teachers and students decide to host a large-scale public reading at a local bookstore, smaller readings at locations such as their own school auditorium or classroom, or virtually with classmates, families, and friends. Celebrations — no matter their size or format — are powerful and rewarding experiences, and allow students to proudly share their writing with their community.
Writing can serve as a tool for creating awareness, raising social consciousness, and providing students with essential life skills. Our core values change the perspective and perception of writing for students around the world. These values, deeply embedded in our publications, reflect best practices for teaching writing in the 21st century, and help prepare students to succeed in lifelong learning.
To learn how you can partner with the Student Press Initiative and bring your students' writing to life, please reach out to us here.
By CRISTINA ROMEO COMPTON
Distance learning can be challenging, especially for our young, emerging readers. In the classroom, young students are exposed to print-rich environments, and are supported and guided through a multitude of literacy activities such as phonics, guided reading, shared reading, and direct reading instruction. Now that learning is taking place in the home, there are growing concerns about the deficits young students will experience, particularly when it comes to reading. What can we do? How and when should we do it? And how can parents prioritize reading practices at home?
As a Master’s student, the focus of my thesis included understanding and improving the reading habits and attitudes of my third grade students. I launched my study by administering a survey, and provided them with a number of statements including, I like to read, I prefer reading to watching TV, and I read more than I watch TV. I had students read each statement, and then circle an emoji that best matched their feelings about the statement (ranging from positive to negative).
My students’ responses, along with my observations, were pretty discouraging. I noticed many of my students didn’t want to read, or would read for a few minutes before putting their book down and saying, “I’m done.” I was determined to do something. In the next phase of my work, I reached out to parents of those students with particularly negative responses to the survey, and asked if they would be willing to participate in my study. Their participation included signing a contract in which they agreed to engage in three specific literacy practices at home: reading aloud, shared reading, and independent reading.
It is these three literacy practices that I think parents should prioritize, as I believe they are simple, effective, and particularly helpful when it comes to supporting reading development outside of the classroom.
Reading aloud promotes fluency and exposure. Exposure plays a significant role in reading development and cultivating a positive attitude towards reading. The parents who participated in my study agreed to read to their children for 20 minutes a day, at least three times a week. I would encourage all parents to do the same. If you can do nothing else, read aloud to your child! Expose your children to as many books as possible, and regularly engage in read alouds. This can be incorporated into a lunch break, added to a bedtime routine, or even occur first thing in the morning — whatever works best for you. If this feels too difficult, there are many read aloud resources available online that can support you, such as Epic, which offers a massive digital library for children aged 12 and under, and YouTube, which offers free access to a variety of voices and titles to choose from.
If you’re ready, interested, and able to step up your read aloud game, you can engage your children further by asking simple questions: What do you notice? What does this make you think? What are you learning about ____? This kind of work promotes comprehension and inferencing skills.
The tried and true think-aloud protocol — in which you share what you’re thinking and what you’re predicting — can also be a powerful model for children. I even do this with my 8-month-old. As her mother I know she’s brilliant (of course!), but can accept she is clearly too young to do deep thinking work on her own, so I point to the pictures and the words in each book, narrating what they are, for as long as she lets me. It’s never too young to cultivate a love for books!
Fountas and Pinnell define shared reading as a reading experience in which children and their teacher engage in multiple read alouds of an “enlarged version of a text that provides opportunities for students to expand their reading competencies. The goals of the first reading are to ensure that students enjoy the text and think about the meaning. After the first reading, students take part in multiple, subsequent readings to notice more about the text.” From there, students discuss the text, and parents or educators determine next steps for support.
Ideally, parents would be able to put on their teacher hat while reading with their children, tracking and pointing to the words together, sounding words out along the way. Shared reading like this can help improve the rate at which children read, increase their fluency, and add to their enjoyment for reading.
Don’t be discouraged if this feels outside of your reach. Shared reading can also mean simply engaging in shared reading time, without any additional components. Each family member can select a text of their choosing, and read near each other. Whether this happens first thing in the morning, as you read the newspaper or your favorite magazine and enjoy a cup of coffee, or before bed, as you are winding down the day and in search of some quiet time. Being exposed to others who are reading can have a positive effect on a child’s attitudes and habits around reading, as it did for my young readers.
The final activity in my study involved an agreement from parents to provide quiet and uninterrupted time and space to engage in independent reading for at least 20 minutes a day. One of the biggest challenges to reading at home, according to my third graders, is the lack of space and opportunity to read alone. Children are often sharing rooms, household tasks and chores need to be done, and child care responsibilities need to be managed. This, I’m sure, has only been exacerbated during the COVID-19 crisis, as everyone is now living and working from home. Home can feel even more chaotic than before, and quiet time can be a challenge. However, if you can find a calm space where children can engage in independent reading even for even small periods of time each day, it can have a positive impact on reading abilities. This space might be the corner of a room, on a bed, or even in the bathroom. We have to get creative!
If you’re ready to level up your independent reading game, task your child with practicing one simple strategy while they read. This might include asking them to jot down questions as they read, notice and note (What do you notice? What does this make you think?), or it could involve a challenge to find words that start with certain letters or that contain certain blends, such as Bl or Cr. It doesn’t have to be complicated, just one strategy that will allow children to practice on their own, and then share with you.
The last tip I’ll leave you with is: if it feels like these strategies aren’t working for your readers, be prepared to throw all these strategies to the wind. Put the book down, and try again later. This is a challenging time — stress and emotions are running high — and we all know that the dynamic between parents and children, when it comes to learning, can be difficult and unpredictable. Some days our children want our help, and sometimes they don’t want anything to do with us! Give yourself some grace and flexibility. Trust that what you’re doing is enough, and remember that one day will not create lasting, negative implications for your child’s reading abilities. Be kind to yourself and to your children, and remember that tomorrow is another day.