Saturday, November 24, 2018

Wordsmiths Rule the World?: A Look at the "Word Gap"

So, I had heard about this 30 million word gap between impoverished students and the most privileged ones. I totally understand how life experiences yield a discrepancy in expressive language skills...I see it every day. But 30 million words? Who knows that many? Are there even that many words  in the English language? The claim seemed dubious. However, I thought about other research saying that even controlling for income, African American children lag behind white children in academic achievement and vocabulary.  This got my attention, and I haven’t forgotten it. But three instances showed me that this thing is truly much more culturally based and subtle than I’d really realized.


In scenario number one, I've signed my 4 year old for a study on the cognitive development of
toddlers. The job was to look at a computer screen and watch certain items, along wit categorizing
certain items.  This kid has both an amazing memory and quite a sophisticated vocabulary, so I
was amazed when he did not-so-well on a categories vocabulary task. Shown groups of pictures
and asked, for example, “Which one is fancy?”  he picked random answers.  Granted, he had said
several times that he seemed ready to move on from the whole activity, and his attention
span at that time caused me to wonder how much he was guessing.  Still, it was interesting to
think that there was a gap even in the vocabulary experiences of this very verbal household--
deliberately using particular adjectives to describe classes of items. Who knew you could get tested on that at 4?


Scenario 2 found me in the doctor’s office with my 2 pre-schoolers.  The office fish tank never ceases
to be fascinating for them, and they watched the fish swim around next to a little Caucasian boy who
was with his mommy, as well.  As the boy and his mother discussed the fish, he offered, “That’s an
anemone--right, Mommy?” It had not occurred to me to call them anything beyond fish--Not because I
wasn't familiar with the particular name, but because in general I don't see lots of specificity as
necessary for items in which they have not taken a detailed interest.  In other words, it was enough
for me that they’re aware that they’re fishies--let’s talk about the size, the color, what you see them
doing...but I'm not so concerned that you know what kind they are. Yet hearing this little kid, who
had to be all of 3 years old, boldly proclaim the fish’s name, made me wonder if I was cheating my
children by not telling them that that this is an “anemone.”


I was telling my school's custodian (an older African American man) about some things I was working
on with my son.  I shared with him that empathy was an area of focus. Among his other thoughts, Mr. D.
advised, “...And don’t be saying all them big words to him--empathy and all that--just tell him real simply what you want him to know.” I realized this as advice from the
black cultural canon--don’t get too complicated, too high-falutin', too much.   Hold off on the
“big words” right now, because your goal is understanding, not loftiness. My thought was that this
little mind could handle exactly that--a vocabulary word as part of the understanding.  
And as I thought on the private school that had accepted him for Pre-K, this is exactly what they
were doing--introducing young children to
these terms.   We’d come home with a rubber ducky emblazoned with this very word, in fact, from the
open house. So the age-old cultural wisdom from our community and the practices of the upper crust
kids we were exposing him to, were running counter to one another. Just one more subtle but
innocent expression of how the word gap could come into play.  It’s not about not having the words,
but about the cultural definitions of when these words are necessary to know and what purpose they

Really, this is fascinating stuff to tease out, because being aware of these subtleties and finding a place
to deliberately land will definitely affect the outcomes for my children and how they are perceived in the
world. It is about values and focus as much as about vocabulary.  Words, after all, are our expression of
how we live life.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Story Power

Talk is King

There is a slew of professional literature out there about the power of oral language in building students' ability to tell stories, to see themselves as conveyors of important messages, etc. I'm here for it! I think back to me as a young storyteller and how important it was to me that my verbal free flow poured into my writing of stories and little books.  I also just believe it makes sense.  If we can think it, we can say it, and if we can say it, we can write it...and then of course, if we can write it, we can read it!  The reciprocity among listening, speaking, reading and writing is amazing.  

What I didn't realize...

until recently is that there are toys out there that facilitate the development of these skills.  One day I happened upon this toy at my local Once Upon a Child, so I picked it up. 
The Thinkativity Little Storyteller

My son had been telling stories at nighttime with Daddy, complete with "Once upon a time...", transitional words and "the end." I was impressed that something as simple as introducing him to story structure would stick in his little mind.  I started to tell stories with him as well, and when I saw this toy, it just made sense to kind of ride the wave he was on.  (My daughter was taking it on, as well.) That was about 6 months ago, and they liked the toy.  Fast forward to yesterday, when I could see them begin to not just enjoy the toy, but understand it more. 

The way it works is...

each of those rollers has different story components on them that can be interchanged:  different beginnings, with characters and scenarios.  Whatever story is picked, the toy reads straight across a line, left to right, and picks up on the next line to continue.  The last line concludes the story. The story changes as the child turns the rollers to change elements. It even has a bit of drama in the reading, as well--sound effects of wind, music to dramatize a particular it sounds like a dramatic interpretation of a real story.  Yesterday I watched my kids play with this game in a new way, taking time to dramatize each piece themselves.  So, when the story read, "...exhausted, he settled down for a nap," they would act it out.  This level of participatory storytelling play has lots of benefits, as I see it...not only for their general communication skills, but their knowledge of story in particular. 

Do you see the potential for this kind of toy?  If we can get our pre-schoolers really comfortable with oral storytelling, ala writing workshop, augmented by play experiences like this, how powerfully ready to write would they be in kindergarten!?  There is great opportunity there.  This particular toy is not easy to find, even on the resale market, but it's out there.    

There are other toys that I think can foster some of this same creative story awareness.  I am listing some of them below. 

Thinkativity Soar & Explore Storyteller

This, too, appears to be largely unavailable, though I did find it on eBay.  It works like the toy above, but lets kids play with scenarios involving different cultures and languages.  Haven't experienced this one, but about to order one.

Animal Storytelling Finger Puppets

These look cool for keeping setting and overall story meaning in mind as kids take on roles of different characters.  Again, haven't tried these--just doing some research on more toys that serve as storytelling aids.

Storyteller Writing Box

This would be great for not only younger kids, but older ones, as well.  They could take part in storytelling together, or older ones could model for younger.  This can ignite the centuries-old but lost tradition of storytelling in families! (Before our iPads and TVs, intergenerational storytelling kept families connected, entertained and engaged, all while boosting children's vocabulary and knowledge of the world outside of home!)

Truly, the power of story can't be overestimated...

Whether 9 months or 99, if we are human, story has a pull that can power us forward.  Teaching our children to love and flow in storytelling has the potential to do at least 10 things I can think of:

  • overpower the influence of their tech tools--who can replace human interaction?
  • teach our children to see the "story" in everyday life
  • make writing a story down feel like the next natural progression
  • attune our kids to the decisions and strategies of authors whose stories they hear or read
  • prepare our students to be compelling in conversation--even as youngsters
  • set them up for success in other creative areas--songwriting and coding, to name a few
  • give them confidence in using transitional language that makes their communication clear
  • take away the fear factor speaking in front of people & attune them to the importance of audience
  • prepare them to answer comprehension questions in school about sequence, theme and main idea
  • give them a leg up for leadership influence in corporate, educational and other settings as adults (See book Tell to Win by Peter Guber.)
Let's give our children this amazing gift, early!
Yours in the telling,

Friday, March 30, 2018

A Tale of Two Camps

Two Sides, Same Story

So, here's another interesting conversation I see played out, but not talked about, in our schools. It's really more a life issue than a school issue:  the two camps.  There are the people who are content and settled in where they are (and don't plan on moving), and then there are those constantly needing change and newness.  The clashes between the two can sometimes be epic. I have experienced the critique of the former over my position in the latter.  I have also worked hard not to judge "them" for what I perceive as fear and lack of ambition.  So now that I've given my position away, let me say that I really can see both sides. The stakers and the scouters are the two names I have come to call them.  Here's what I see:

The STAKERS put their stake in the ground somewhere and call it home.  They establish longevity, loyalty, deep connection to an environment and long-term relationships.  They find what works for them and have no plans on leaving. If it ain't broke, after all, why fix it? Some of them are the "make a lesson plan and teach it 20 years" type, while others are more responsive to the students they see before them and enjoy reinvention. To an extent.  But don't try to push them too far out of what is comfortable, or you'd better believe the wrath is coming for you! I have observed stakers to be the ones with the most predictable responses to anything that is new or proposed.  You will hear from the stakers how many times in the past sometime similar has been tried or failed, and when they feel unsure, they use their proven longevity to check you. They genuinely believe that people who change things up every 5 years, or who take PD that is not required, could only be doing it to pad a résumé.  It does not occur to them that this change and adventure are in their wiring.  For them, change is not growth--it's just unnecessary movement.

The SCOUTERS are not satisfied with the status quo.  They are restless and unfulfilled if they can't continually find new things to learn, new people and ideas to experience, and/or new ways of doing what they've always done. They are the ones who are accused of breaking the bell curve in class, or making other people look bad as "overachievers." These people genuinely don't enjoy doing the same thing the same way for very long.  They start to feel dead inside if they can't innovate.   Any conversation with them will inevitably end with, "What if...?" Forget rehearsing  what has been done in the past.  They consider it a dead horse unless it's been proven tried and true.  These people will keep the peace in a room of stakers and silently abide commitments to tradition, but quietly they will go their way and do what makes sense to them as a way to do it better.  They genuinely believe the only way to respect oneself is to stay on the path of constant pursuit.  That path is a moving sidewalk.

Here's the rub: In my opinion, there will always be disagreements in the world as long as there are stakers and scouters.  But when scouters follow that gene in their DNA that longs for change and progress, stakers usually feel threatened and will strike.  That's what I've seen before, and I'm seeing it again as my administrator preps to make moves towards a new opportunity.  Some other colleagues are considering moves, as well, and the stakers definitely have something to say about it.  A little birdie's telling people that colleagues who leave are sabotaging the work of those who stay.  As a self-identified scouter, this baffles me.  I want to ask on those other folks' behalf, "How does me leaving or staying mean that I want you to fail? Is my life really about you?" But I stay silent, celebrate my admin's blessing and pray really hard we get someone good to replace her.  Far be it for me to try to hold her here forever to keep me comfortable...

If you think about it, this debate is as old as time.  Those of us seasoned in urban education or college access work see it with our students.  Generational poverty can grip a family and community, and a youngster can get a great opportunity outside of the neighborhood. Yet many of those young people are socially conditioned to see leaving as disloyalty.  Who do you think you are? they know they'll be asked. How dare they believe their lives can be more than what they've seen? And so, many settle into status quo to prove they're real.  But I'm willing to bet that at least half of those who do, die inside...why? They are scouters! Scouters without the freedom to be.  If I could say one thing to each camp, I'd tell them simply this: Scouters, be free to explore all that is possible.  You're fine just the way you are! Stakers, we need some people who hold to traditions.  But please, let no one tell you that change in others will ruin you.  There's room for us all!

Friends, I had not intended on so long a post. But I had to speak on this today, and it bears saying again:  everyone is not wired the same.  It's unfair to think we are, and we have to do better in education when it comes to giving each other room to thrive. That is all.  Until soon,

Saturday, March 24, 2018

We Sow and Don’t Know


I have always been intrigued by the things that agrarian life used to teach us, that we now have lost.  I’m fascinated by the natural intelligence that comes from life on a farm, and the kind of innate wisdom in naturalists.  One part of that world is the wisdom that emerges from living with the earth.  Planting principles teach us all about how life flows, and many of the proverbs that have guided people for thousands of years come from that world.

Such is the case with “sowing and reaping”—this idea that what we put into the ground is what grows up for us. It’s more than a cute idea.  It is a universal law, like gravity.  It applies not just to planting, though, but to every area of our lives.

I feel like as adults, and as teachers, we know this innately.  It’s why we talk to our kids about the law of kindness, and how powerful it is to be a good friend, to show empathy and to help when we can.  It’s why we tell them, in today’s parlance, to ignore their “haters,” because the hater’s day is coming.  But I think we don’t believe that the law of sowing and reaping applies to us in our own professional dealings as educators, and this seeming disconnect FASCINATES me.  Let me explain.


Have you ever been in a staff meeting or professional development gathering where information is being shared and someone is in front of the group talking---but a million sidebars are happening, too? People may be taking care to whisper, or may be so bold as to talk in loud tones above the speaker.  I have been in meetings like this for years, in utter disbelief at the brazenness of adults who know better.  How do I know they know better? These very same adults would have their students’ HIDES if they did the very same thing to them!   Usually the teachers with THE strongest “respect me” ethic are the worst offenders in this way! Why is that?   If you ask me, those teachers are literally setting the stage for their students to treat them in exactly the same way.  So even though I do address it in my own ways when I’m the presenter—and I discourage people from talking to ME over the speaker through subtle redirections if I’m in the audience--I’m thoroughly convinced that their day really is coming.  Not just a day of reaping this kind of behavior in their own domains, but a day of realization, where they wake up to their ways and change them.

Just yesterday, I observed another category of ironic boldness where sowing is happening unawares.  The office had announced that we would be having indoor recess.  We all heard it, as clear as anything.  Yet about 10 minutes later, I saw one grade level of teachers taking their students outside.  They’d decided for some reason to be exempt from the directive.  I stood amazed.  (This happens to also be a set of teachers who experienced a great deal of chaos in their rooms this year due to behavior and had challenges establishing community.) 


Of course, the curious social scientist in me is now trying to find a way to ask the teachers about this in a way that can give insight into their thinking.  I think I want to our talk to go like this:

What do you believe your most defiant students believe about following the rules and falling in line with classroom expectations—even when they don’t want to?

When their teacher does the opposite of what the administration has asked the whole school to do, what message do you think they’ll take away from that?
Does that message support or detract from the mindset you want those students to live out in your room and beyond?

It’s not that I see myself as the compliance police. Truly, I don’t.   It’s just that I think we have to hold ourselves to at least the same standard we give our kids.  Otherwise, we are clanging cymbals, empty noise in their search for trustworthy and admirable adults.  Someone would say I’m completely going overboard.  But it really is the little things that set the stage for what we get from people.  So, I just thought it was worth saying out loud:  sowing and reaping is still in full effect, whether we acknowledge it or not.  It is what it is.  Might as well plant some good seeds…

Yours in the struggle,

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Disrupting the Power Dynamic

Friends, this place I live in, the intersection between parent, teacher and visionary, is sometimes a wild ride.  Here, I work through conversations from each vantage point and then have to make peace among the three.  But it's an incredible space of introspection, and I want to share today what I've discovered there, this year.  But first, my main conclusion: We don't need more meetings where parents and teachers sit as strangers across tables from each other to discuss data.  We don't even need more meetings with food as bait, where staff members serve hungry parents food and wait for them to eat it.  What we really need are scheduled times for families and staffs to sit, break bread together and learn each other's stories--which translates into learning each other's humanity.


My school has stumbled on a game-changer that I never saw coming.  It is so deceptively simple that I can't believe it took THIS long.  Last summer, I had an impactful conversation with our school's parent consultant that shifted my thinking.  She'd said that the parents at our school did not see us, the staff members, as people.  We were representatives of the school, the establishment--not mothers, uncles and even sons and daughters ourselves.  No, we only lived to speak for the school and to stand in stead of all things wrong they'd experienced in schools.  I was shocked to hear this.  After all, we as educators are keenly aware of our own stories--how school encouraged or discouraged us from feeling smart, how this or that teacher inspired us to step into their shoes...but to realize that our parents could see none of this was a jolt for me.

There are lots of steps in between (which I can blog about another time), but after an interesting set of revelations this year, I landed at the realization  about our school.  Our super-low parent involvement in the testing process was a problem that we probably should tackle creatively instead of continuing to repeat the approaches from the past.  Testing in our state has changed several times and this most recent iteration, computerized and quite complicated, befuddles our families.  But my feeling is that most really don't feel empowered to connect to the process at all--unless forced to when their child is retained.  (We are a state with a Third Grade Reading Guarantee.) Yes, we may have scheduled informative sessions to school them on testing requirements in the past, but few have plugged in.  I decided that we should try to get their interest through a series of parent meetings this year.  Talk straight, inspire them, help them see who we are and why we care.  I talked to our parent consultant and assistant principal and convinced them to join the vision.  Together, we created a 6-session series of parent talks involving mindset shifts, practical helps and yes, food.  This week we completed session 5 of 6, and here are some of my realizations so far:

1. Parents want to feel seen and heard in school.
This is true any any space--but in urban environments, parents being seen and not heard is such a common expectation that we probably don't know that we hold it.  If the same families we lament being un-involved showed up in droves, we probably wouldn't know what to do with ourselves.

2. Staff members are probably secretly fearful of seeing family members as equals, even if we don't know it.
We closely identities as saviors and all-knowing rescuers, which we fear might be ruined if we found ways to connect with parents beyond our norm.

3. Any school that could get parents in the door--or even show up where they can be found--just to build relationships around their shared work--could probably change the world. Or at least theirs.
Getting many parents to plug into school is hard...but what if we could build a culture where families find help and partnership in their child's success and that support becomes (for lack of a better term) addictive?  Maybe we haven't truly made it worth their while yet.

In our sessions, we have seen staff and teachers sit and enjoy meals together and discuss everything from their children's assessment experiences to traumatic losses and their effect on their children, to sharing strategies for teaching their kids in and out of school.

4.  The simple shift of position changes everything.
In my building, we believe the age-old wisdom that to get our population of parents in school, we have to feed them.  While this seems largely true, I think our posture in the process could change.  Typically we assign ourselves to man the food service, doling out lasagna or building sandwiches.  Yet we remain in the giving position, with the families as recipients.  What an amazing thing has happened, however, when staff members have been sitting on a horizontal plane with families breaking bread!  We present relevant learning information at our meetings, but before it's all done, we eat with the families.  We all get to be human, together.  I dare anyone doubting the power of this to try it! It's building such a different kind of tone that we're looking into continuing the meetings throughout the year!  Love what's happening here...To be continued about where we go from here.  All I know is, we've gotten something started...

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Coolest Clock Ever

Friends, can I just tell you I have found THE world's coolest clock? I was in my colleague's classroom the other day and as the clock struck the hour, I heard a little bird song.  My eyes darted around the room looking for the source. What?!--A bird song clock??  Yes, she shared, this clock chimed every hour on the hour with the genuine song of a different bird.  I was awestruck! Made a mental note.

Later that night, I looked up "bird song clock" and to my surprise, a very popular retailer had them.  I ordered one online, and ours came today!! I am planning to write numbers on the outside of the dial, and as my very musical children and I learn about the different birds, we will be quietly reinforcing another skill:  familiarity with the positions of the clock numbers.  I predict that this clock will put my 3- and 5-year-old on a natural fast track to understanding analog time-telling.  What a brilliant concept, really, this idea of attaching information to the hour spots! I wish I'd had something like that to anchor my learning when learning to tell time!

I'll plan to check back in to report how my kids respond to the clock. But just wanted to case anyone is interested... :-)

Yours in the adventure,

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Mind of the Seeker

Today, I'm reflecting. Sitting here with my 3-year-old, who's home from school recuperating, and looking through through this seek and find book.  We'd purchased just three of them last week, in order to take my kids' love of that format in Highlights Hive Five and Puzzle Buzz to the next level. It's really interesting what I observe in my children when we engage with these books, and I wanted to post about it while the ideas are still fresh.  There are several ways I think these books can aid the work of parents and educators in producing hard-working thinkers and scholars.  Look and find books--or seek and find, or whatever they may be called--will just be called "seeker books" in this post, just for the sake of ease. Allow me to explain:
  • Seeker books give children who are not yet readers, authentic opportunities to confidently interact with books. If you think about it, turning pages is accessible to all. But confident, reader-led interaction? This is the domain usually reserved for "real" readers (who understand the printed code) OR for kids confident in inventing text based on pictures. 
  • There is an unspoken assumption about the job of a reader that emerges from studying these books.  Their whole purpose is to cause readers to find pictures that are purposely obscured or made challenging.  What is the reader to take from this?  "My job as a reader is to dig out hard things from the text in order to get the prize." Isn't that exactly the message we want our readers to have about their engagement with printed text? 
  • It's amazing the kind of focus that kids put into finding these images. Of course, you have to.  It wouldn't be Where's Waldo?, for example, if Waldo were jumping out at us.  But I am inspired by the kind of detailed searching I see my kids doing.  I have been intrigued by this idea for some time, so much that I decided to see how they could benefit my school.  Late last year, I asked my principal to let me initiate a school-wide time of fun reading prior to teacher pick-up in the mornings.  The goal was to bridge the space between home and the classroom with light reading such as poetry, magazines, graphic novels and seeker books.  Graciously, she said yes, and I was able to purchase a few thousands of dollars worth of fun reading for students.  My theory?  Training our eyes to pay close attention to detail in images translates into attention to detail in text, as in, looking past the first letter, looking at parts in words, and all of that other stuff we pull our hair out trying to get readers to do.  (No, I've never read research that there's a correlation between these two. It's just my theory.  But it makes sense to me! I'm sticking with it.  I like the work I see learners doing...)
  • I watch my children taken on initiative when using these books.  After the satisfaction of finding a picture, they'll declare, on their own, "I'm gonna look for THIS!" pointing to their next conquest and setting off to find it.  As a teacher and literacy coach, I can say that initiative in taking problem-solving action while reading is a real challenge, particularly for struggling readers.  But the success of one find fuels the desire for more success, and the child takes the lead!
  • I've noticed that in a really non-assuming way, seeker books give me an opportunity to teach strategy to my children.  Today, I showed my daughter my use of process of elimination.  We wanted to find a brown bunny image wearing a blue shirt.  She got to watch me take my eyes to (only) each brown figure, then move on if the second criterion of the blue shirt was missing. Valuable strategy lessons there, with few words exchanged!  I'm like my mother. I love lessons that just teach, without announcing themselves loudly.  Thanks, seeker books!
  • Looking into the future, I envision my children and those I teach being all the more solutions-minded, seeing themselves as problem-solvers who can figure tough things out.  I have not yet seen my kids cry or throw a fit because they can't find something (or at least I don't remember that happening), and I admire them for that. I think these seeker books help to build up mental toughness and stamina. 
  • The other thing I like about these books is that there is room to graduate up in complexity, without the task getting old.  For example, when my kids were at about 18 months, we did books like the one below to the left, then moved on to Highlights Hello, High Five and Puzzle Buzz. Now, my younger one is on to books like the Pooh book below, whereas my 5-year-old is intrigued by Waldo and I Spy.  Different levels for different ages.  And can I tell you that in my school, students at K-5 love the task?  They don't outgrow it! :-) 

  • Finally, I love that my little ones feel confident in taking Mommy on in a challenge:  We will be looking for a picture and either I will challenge to beat them, finding it first, or they will arise to take me on first.  Either way, this is the kind of competition I think is fun and not harmful, where we push each other to stretch our wits and skill with speed.  And even when we're trying to beat each other, we are in all ways still becoming a team.
So there you have it, friends! Lots of value, as I see it, in these little simple books.  Seek on, seekers! :-) 

Love & light,