• Teaching Tips

Stretching into a New Year

by Jan Miller Burkins and Kim Yaris
January 22, 2013
With the New Year, as we are setting goals related to our health and well-being, we are both focusing on pilates. Kim’s interest has evolved through years of practicing pilates regularly. Jan’s interest is new, and arises with fresh concern (and discomfort) associated with sitting in front of a computer for hours each day and getting very little exercise at all.

Fortunately, goal setting, breaking and establishing habits, and taking risks have similarities, regardless of the context. Basically, we are both thinking of how to extend ourselves in our health practices.

Similarly, neither of us have much balance in our lives. We work far too much and take care of ourselves and our personal lives far too little. Rather than saying, however, “Balance is just impossible for us,” we’ve begun to push back on these feelings of overwhelmedness. Instead, we’re asking, “Given that we won’t be perfectly balanced by New Year’s Day 2014, what can we do to become more balanced this year?” Becoming more balanced feels doable.

Many educators are understandably overwhelmed by the Common Core State Standards. It seems that the field of education is changing at light speed, with little margin for reflection. If the CCSS feels bigger than you can take on or if you just don’t know where to start, try nudging your instruction in the direction of the Common Core with gentle stretches.

None of us will figure out a perfect Common Core implementation—there will always be new ways to shape and refine our work with students—but we can extend our work in the direction of the Common Core. These extensions of practice align with sound instruction, whether you are thinking about the Common Core or not, so you can adopt and adapt these ideas to fit your practice today.

Here are five ways you can start stretching:

Stretch 1: Plan lessons that address more than one standard.
For years now, school districts, books, and consultants have told us “one standard per lesson.” We’ve been ardently encouraged to FOCUS. The Common Core is different in that the anchor standards are interconnected, and you really can’t work on one without working on others. So in reality, our efforts to narrow our instruction to a single standard have been an exercise in impossibility. All lessons teach more than one thing. With the Common Core, we can begin to think about the ways these connections between standards can serve students.

Stretch 2: Select texts that give students a lot to think about.
We refer to anchor standard 10—“Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently”—as the “Read to Think” standard. Basically, rather than getting lost in lexile levels and grade-level bands, you can dip your toes into the Common Core by selecting texts that make students think more. Is there something substantive to consider in the book you are sharing with students? If there is, then they will practice looking closely at the text, whether it is the exactly right level (as if such a thing exists) or not.

photo: myyogaonline via photopin cc
Stretch 3: Make your modeling messier.
Typically, our instruction along the gradual release of responsibility begins with modeling that is very tidy. The context illustrates the meaning of the word we are trying to figure out. The paragraph we are summarizing has just enough sentences and makes a clear point. While contrived practice can be helpful, it is inauthentic and doesn’t mirror the work students will need to do as they read independently. When you are modeling in read aloud, shared reading, or guided reading, let yourself have some problems. Don’t plan everything you are going to say so perfectly, but put your planning time into finding a text that will engage students and give them something to think about. In sum, make the modeling you do look more like real reading.

Stretch 4: Watch and listen more. Talk less.
This fourth stretch is deceptively simple, but when we work with schools, we find that educators really struggle with this. Basically, we have to close our mouths more during lessons and open our eyes. Don’t spend every minute of independent reading conferencing with students. Take some time to walk around and watch them. Make notes. Administrators who are reading this are getting nervous! We aren’t implying that teachers sit back and relax. We are saying, instead, that all the frenetic activity of classrooms may not be accomplishing as much as everyone thinks. Slow down a bit. Watch and wait. Plan. Work smarter.

Stretch 5: Foster problem-solving rather than dependence.
This stretch is really the simplest and probably and perhaps the most powerful. By changing your language in subtle ways, you can encourage students to take risks and stick with difficult tasks. Instead of sending students off to work independently by saying, “Raise your hand if you need help and I will come help you,” try one of these:

  • Raise your hand if you solve a problem; I want you to show me how you figured it out.
  • Raise your hand when you have a page of writing; I want you to read it to me.
  • Raise your hand if you learn a new word from the book you are reading; I want you to teach it to me.
We look forward to facilitating a pre-convention institute, “The Common Core Literacy Block: What Will It Look Like In My Classroom?” at IRA’s 2013 Annual Convention. We are excited to have Barry Lane, Dorothy Barnhouse, Mary Lee Hahn, and Vicki Vinton join us as co-facilitators. The day promises to be filled with music, poetry, ideas, lessons, and laughs. We hope you can join us!

Jan Miller Burkins is the founder of Jan Miller Burkins Consulting and Literacyhead.com, and is an author of PREVENTING MISGUIDED READING: NEW STRATEGIES FOR GUIDED READING TEACHERS (IRA, 2010).

Kim Yaris has worked as both a classroom teacher and a literacy coach for 19 years. Currently, she serves as Executive Director of Literacy Builders and in this role she provides literacy staff development to school districts across Long Island, New York. She works daily alongside teachers in grades kindergarten through eight demonstrating lessons, coaching for more effective teaching, mapping curriculum, and providing thoughtful training seminars in reading and writing workshop. Kim regularly presents her work at local, regional, and national conferences, maintains literacy-builders.com, a website designed to serve as an online teaching resource center for educators, and blogs daily about the Common Core with Jan Miller Burkins at

© 2013 Jan Miller Burkins & Kim Yaris. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

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