The Proximity Principle: How to Curate Resources In Order to Stoke Student Interest

Written by Julie Wright & Barry Hoonan

The art of curation is matching texts that will inspire and fuel students’ curiosities with the science of also finding texts that can be used as tools for the content we need to teach. Texts with dual purposes - student interests and content - have big take-aways! When we inch closer to students and pay attention to what they are reading and what they are interested in, we can better collect texts that matter to them and make a bigger difference in their learning.  

Let’s call our first move - Curating to Stoke Students’ Interests.

Having the benefit of listening in on our students, we move forward in search of stoking their interests by compiling dynamic texts together.  Then we promote ‘their texts’ by displaying them beautifully and giving credit to the students who lifted the topic or inspired the text set. Or, we provide time and space during whole or small group for students to share hot reads or book stacks with peers.

Teaching reading is also grounded in curriculum – skills, strategies, habits and the growing of new ideas. When we curate with curriculum in mind, we like to believe we are standing close to a radiant ideal … that when we spend time learning, that information, knowledge or new idea matters.

So let’s call our second move - Curating Mentor Texts to Teach Something Powerful.

Whether you are a teacher looking for a text to meet a curricular need or selecting one for a read aloud, at heart you are always doing one thing: you are making a choice that will help you teach your kids something powerful.  The natural step for finding these texts is to look for favorite and reliable authors. The authors and their works will mentor readers. Readers will feel the power of mentorship.  So we lean on these texts as mentors. And we curate with ‘our mentors’ in mind.

In the end, we want our students to “sit around the table” with the likes of Jacqueline Woodson, R.J. Palacio, Angie Thomas, John Green, Matt de le Pena, Jandy Nelson, and Rainbow Rowell -- being wiser and more insightful and more curious than before.

Here’s an example:

Barry’s class has just finished hearing Helen Frost’s powerful prose Hidden read aloud. The sixth graders have discovered from the author’s notes that there is a mystery ‘hidden’ in the last word of each sentence in the second section of the book.  It reveals one of the character’s perspectives. They sleuth their way through and read the cryptic message out loud. The class is a buzz.

There are so many possible next steps to capitalize on the students’ enthusiasm for word play.  We could curate a text set around books written in prose style, like Witness by Karen Hesse.  We could pull together Helen Frost books or even stage a small group to read Hidden again.  

Students’ amusement with twisting story plots and fabulous verse opened the chance to stoke their interest in Shakespeare.  Using Tales from Shakespeare by Tina Packer made the perfect blend of colorful pictures, great storytelling and some insightful placement of Shakespeare’s own words.  And, to capitalize on students’ interests and knowledge of Shakespeare (or lack thereof) Barry asked his kiddos to write on graffiti boards (white paper with color markers) the stories they knew and all the things that came to mind when they thought of Shakespeare and his writing.  The colorful boards and conversation danced with questions and ideas such as:

  • A small group discussed the idea that Shakespeare was a long time ago and people talked really funny then.

  • Titles like Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Twelfth Night surfaced as other things to read or compare.

  • A student commented, “Oh no.  My brother hated reading Shakespeare in middle school.”

There was a mesmerizing amount of experiences and opinions around the texts being discussed, but very little love toward Shakespeare’s play.  Betting on the inertia of word play and misconceptions, Barry began reading ‘Tales’ out loud. Kids were asked to echo lines from the book and together the class engaged and enjoyed  Shakespeare’s timeless and relatable stories.

Here’s the interesting part:  Choosing the next read aloud is curation at its finest.  We want to play to our audience of readers and we want to lift their understanding of humanity, history and themselves.  Our end goal is to leave them knowledgeable, inspired, and curious.

For more on teachers and students as curators, see Chapter 7 in our new book!

The Proximity Principle: How to Assess Readers’ Work In Order to Break the Cycle of Teaching to the Middle

Written by Julie Wright & Barry Hoonan

If you want to know what students know and can do, along with what they need next, using proximity to get up close to students’ work is essential.  We like to think of assessing student work in these ways:

Student conversations:  The stuff kids talk about -- dialogue between and among students and teachers.  Talk is an authentic source of data for understanding what kids know and what they need next.  This might be student talk during minilessons or shared experiences. It could also be the talk that happens as kids share out during mid process or at the end of workshop.   This is particularly insightful is students share how they process understandings during whole group, small group, and 1:1 interactions.

Student work samples:  The stuff kids make, create, write, or design.  Student work can be short (annotations, jots, blurbs, reflections) or longer in nature (paragraphs, projects, models).  The in process, along the way, work helps us create a focus for instruction and know what to do next in the moment. The end of learning work helps us assess culminating learning where we can look back in order to plan forward.

John Hattie explains that, “visible learning is teachers seeing learning through the eyes of their students, and students seeing themselves as their own teachers.”  Think of student work as anything students create, talk about, or do that makes their thinking and understandings visible. Below are some examples of student evidence.  As you read, there are lots of ideas that could be added.  Think about what you would add to this list.

Teaching and learning is hard, rewarding work -- both for the student and the teacher.  As a teacher and coach, we’re often asked to “boil things down for teachers and show them what to do.”  Since reading is a complicated process, it makes “boiling it down” tricky. Yes, reading and meaning making are dependent on students’ ability to decode and comprehend the text.  That part is complicated in and of itself. Add to that the idea that reading is dependent on the individual reader’s interactions about and within the text in order to for knowledge, skills, and understandings to come into full bloom.  Student work is our lens into knowing what kids know and and what they can do. It’s also our lens into what they need next to grow their reading and thinking muscles.

Here’s an example:  

It’s late January and sixth grade students are enjoying a mini-unit focused on interesting people in the world.  Through whole group learning, we created a shared agreement that we would begin by reading short texts and that short texts meant anything that can be read in one to two independent reading times.  Students also agreed that short texts could include pictures. This definition was important because it took into account students’ needs and interests. For example, students explained that one to two independent reading times was important because not everyone reads at the same pace.  In addition, many students wanted the opportunity to investigate higher level picture books, or sets of picture books with a common author or theme, and they wanted to make sure that picture books were accounted for in their definition.

If we fast forward about a week, kids are reading, re-reading, trading, talking about, and enjoying all types of short texts.  

Organizational Tip:  Give each student a two-pocket folder because it gives them a place to store reading materials.  Along with this folder, using a reader’s notebook or a binder with paper is key so that there is a designated place for students to hold their thinking.  

During the work time portion of reading workshop (after the minilesson and before the debrief/share out) is where students are given time to read, write, think, and talk about what they are reading.  Across the mini-unit students have multiple opportunities to read independently and in small groups to construct and co-construct meaning. This becomes a data center for teachers to figure out what students know and what they need next to lift their learning.  During a small group conversation with a group of students who were investigating short, one page stories in Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky, students read, took a few notes about big take-aways and then they shared their thinking with a shoulder partner.  If you lean in, listen and take note, you can size up student thinking and understandings (and possibly misunderstandings) in less than twenty minutes in order to determine what students know and are able to do and what they need next to grow their reading muscles.

Here’s the interesting part:  By leaning in, listening, and taking note, we can assess and respond to readers’ work and we break the cycle of teaching to the middle.  

For more, check out our new book!

The Proximity Principle: How Pivoting into Flexible Groups Shows Who Kids Are and What They Need

Written by Julie Wright & Barry Hoonan

Do you find there are days you are left wondering … am I seeing the forest for the trees? You know, those times when you find yourself so singular in your student outlook or even in your student grouping that you might not be realizing there is the possibility of seeing separate “tress” or kids and how they might grow together to make a forest of new ideas?

In this case, proximity promotes standing back and noticing things with fresh new eyes.  This new perspective can be enriched or elevated when we look across our classroom with different lenses.  Educators are busy. That is why sometimes teachers, ourselves included, have seen a group of kids as singular.  Intentions are good, but the busyness of schools and classrooms keep us from doing what we know to be right all of the time.  Let’s take a look at some reasons why, and perhaps some entry points, into how to go about pivoting into flexible groups in order to see kids for who they are and what they need.  

  1. Curriculum-Centered Reasons - Your unit of study or curricular plan is your playbook for where you intend to go. You plan, you glance, you go.  You watch over your readers and when you see the plans need adjusting, you react by pulling students together in fluid, flexible groups for ‘just in time’ feedback.

  2. Social-Emotional  Reasons - Kids show up often wearing their emotions on their sleeves.  We read our students and we pivot, making decisions we believe will support them in the moment - both short term and long term.  Sometimes it is finding the right ‘thought partner’, the right text, or connecting a student with a study group.

  3. Individual Reader Reasons - Small groups place readers together for purposeful reasons - skill and strategy work, building on and sharing interests and topics, developing keen inquiries together, enhancing a reading diet, and so many more.  These engaging small groups give students opportunities to voice their opinions and insights, and ask questions.

Here’s an example:

It’s Monday morning.  Some students trod through the classroom door, others skip, some even drag.  Shoulders say a lot about how each student is beginning their day. Slumped? Upright?   I watch and greet each student. I watch as each student pulls out their books and begins reading.  I watch as Elijah kicks Omari under his desk. I watch as his eyes fly side to side looking for something his book can’t deliver. I watch as he puts down Jason Reynolds’ Ghost and yawns.

I slide over to Omari first.  He retells his latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid reading.  I ask how his weekend was and he smiles, “Played video games with my brother.” “Awesome,” I say.

Elijah stares out into space.  I move alongside him and he says,”Oh man am I tired. Dad had me up late.  Watched the Lakers game with him. They’re sooo bad.” “Not as bad as the Knicks,” I respond.  He lights up. “Always better than the Knicks,” he quips. He picks up Ghost and before moving over to Madison I tease, “I imagine you’re as fast as Ghost, but not Patina.” “Faster and better,” he says.

Sometimes the right move is the subtle move to connect, not correct.  Sometimes it is holding your breath as a teacher until your students show their cards.  Sometimes our best reading instruction is reading the texts in front of us - our kids...their attitudes, behaviors, and habits.  Our connections and observations are as powerful as the actual text, or reading materials, in their hands.   

Perhaps the next step is to use our observations and then gather a group around Jason Reynold’s great books like Ghost.  Perhaps our next step is to have a small group around what our weekends in the city are like and what weekends in the books we read are like.  Or maybe it’s time to read about the upcoming NBA playoffs and fill the small group with discussion about favorites and predictions.  

Here’s the interesting part: Recognizing what’s happening in the here and now in kids’ work gives insight into possible learning invitations for the future.  The power of proximity and the ability to step back to take stock of what’s in front of you can make a big difference in how you teach, how you group, and how you meet your students’ needs.


Kidwatching: A Practice Exercise

Building a kidwatching routine or habit is important if we want to put this type of data at the forefront of our planning.  Whether you are just getting started or have been using kidwatching as a regular tool for knowing students' wants and needs, this template may lift your own kidwatching know-how.  Take a look and have fun capturing what you know about your students and ways that knowledge can impact a focus for instruction!


The Proximity Principle: How Kidwatching is More Precise Than Other Data

Written by:  Julie Wright & Barry Hoonan

Proximity matters.  That’s because being close creates connectedness.  And, this, in turn, creates oneness. Let’s take, for example, when a teacher reads aloud a beautiful picture book or short story to a group of students.  Pulling students up close during the experience, rather than spanned out across the room, creates a different feel. Gathering everyone to come close to the center, near the book / text and near the reader, creates a community and a shared purpose.  This ups the chances for engagement because we know it’s harder to drift off if you are part of the process. This also ups the chances for participation and learning because the experience can (and should) include dynamic interactions.

While kids are up close and interacting, that’s when we kidwatch in powerful ways.  What we see and hear can lead us to making inferences about our students. It can also spearhead wonderings...creating inquiries around students’ insights, ideas, and questions.  If we aren’t up close, we might miss it. That’s the principle of proximity in action - having eyes and ears on the ground…in the work…to kidwatch. That gives us the teacher know-how of what to do next for each of our students.  

In our new book, What Are You Grouping For?  How to Guide Small Groups Based on Readers -- Not the Book, we describe a teacher move called Kidwatching 2.0 which gives us opportunities to use proximity to learn about our students’ curiosities, passions, interests and needs.  Our protocol guides teachers to orient, notice, take stock and inquire in order to plan literacy experiences that meet students, collectively and individually. Specifically, this is a new way of thinking about small group learning experiences because being up close to students is what drives discovery.  Here’s how it goes.

1.  Orient ~ Orient yourself and take a pulse to what’s going on across the classroom.

2.  Notice~ What do you see/hear - academically and socially?

3.  Take Stock ~ What evidence shows that students are knee deep in the opportunities for learning?

4.  Inquire ~ What inquiries do you have about your students?

If you don’t use the power of proximity – being close to students’ conversations, interactions, and work – you risk faulty or misguided kid “intel”. You might risk having outdated information versus “in the moment” data filled with important knowledge to create instruction and learning opportunities for students.

Here’s an example:
A few weeks into a nonfiction reading unit, fourth grade students are working toward these goals:

  • reviewing and using text structures and features to make meaning of nonfiction texts

  • answering guiding research questions about a chosen topic

  • sharing at an upcoming family literacy night

As students collect interesting information to support their inquiry, shared reading serves two purposes:

  1. Making meaning of nonfiction texts about topics that we may or may not know much about

  2. Exploring mentor texts that excite and energize readers - one readers may end up using as a mentor text for students’ nonfiction writing projects

During shared reading, we explored and read excerpts from

  • London City Trails by Moria Butterfield

  • Usborne Book of Inventors by Anthony Marks

  • Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space by Walliman and Newman

  • The Biography of Rice by John Zronik

At the conclusion of our shared reading experience for this particular Tuesday, students are reminded that next to our community meeting area are a few tubs with some interesting nonfiction titles they might enjoy individually or with a small group.  Before long, there are a few small groups cooking, so I decide to spend a five or so minutes kidwatching in order to keep my finger on the pulse of how these readers are doing in terms of our shared goals as well as their personal reading goals. So I jot in my notebook:

Orient: almost everyone joined in a small group of 2, 3 or 4; some groups had multiple books while two groups chose only one book to read together

Notice: there’s a low hum of student voices across the room; group members are gathered around texts; some group members are standing, some propped up on knees, some on the floor, some at the cafe table, some at the low coffee table;

Take stock:  one group used post it notes to mark the layout of the two-page spread that they liked; one group grabbed a big piece of paper and made a list of new knowledge they gained by reading about sharks; one group decided they liked Jenkins book, How to Swallow a Pig and are considering they might borrow from its structure; one group continues to love the dependable structure in the Eyewitness series and they want to design their two-page spread in the same way.

Inquire:  should the shark group share out with the whole class during our debrief?; does Josiah (who worked alone, but typically joins a group) want to work alone or need a way in to a small group?; Is the Jenkins book the best model or is it the use of space and bold words that could lift the group members’ own writing? Should i meet with them to noodle ideas?; how will we create shared agreements about a timeline for this project so that there is enough time to investigate, plus time to read, research / answer inquiry questions, draft, edit, publish the two-page spreads, plan out family reading night agenda.

Here’s the interesting part:  Developmental reading data on each of the kids was available.  And, yes, that’s important information to know. But, on this particular Tuesday (and the days that followed) levels didn’t guide the reading work at the small group table or the students’ inquiry.  If a student is a level O and grabbed a book about Kyrie Irving to feed his inquiry, checking the reading level of the book wasn’t the most important move. When kids are interested, have a real purpose for reading about topics they choose, and have access to a variety of books and resources -- their motivation fuels more reading and ultimately their reading success.   


Five Teacher Moves to Lift Small Group Reading!

It's not easy being a teacher today.  With all of the demands on time, increased district initiatives, added pressures of state tests (which often includes the yearlong undercurrent of test prep), and the oodles of's a day-to-day juggling act.

The flip-side:  When you see a kiddo's face light up because she makes a connection or figures something out that was tricky, when a group of kids share hot reads or book recommendations for their book stacks, or when a kiddo comes bursting through the door to tell you he made the soccer team or his painting made it into the art show, it fills you with pure JOY!  

What is it that makes the "flip-side" mentioned above happen?  Proximity.  Proximity makes knowing and experiencing all of that, and more, possible.  Across the next few posts, Barry (my colleague) and I will be talking about the proximity principle.  We believe it's the key because our proximity -- or nearness in space, time, or relationship -- makes a difference.  That's because the closer we get to students and their work, the more we can learn about their wants and needs as readers, writers, thinkers, creators, and doers.   Once we are "in the know", we can design learning opportunities that meet those wants and needs.

Stick with us as we try to tackle all the demands placed on schools today through five teacher moves that harness the power of proximity and lift small group reading opportunities.  

Pre-order now available!

Screen Shot 2018-07-07 at 7.37.02 AM.png

What Are You Grouping For?

Grouping kids for small group instruction can be daunting!  Where do you find the time?  How do you keep up with all of the groups and everything they are reading?  How do you know that kids are getting what they need to grow their reading muscles?  Our new book, What Are You Grouping For?  How to Guide Small Groups Based on Readers -- Not the Book, tackles those questions, and more!  Pre-order now available.

Stay tuned for blog posts about five teacher moves to jump start and sustain small group learning opportunities!


What matters is what counts. What counts is what matters.

Mottos are sayings to stick by.  They help define and shape us.  They help us put stakes in the ground about what we believe, in hopes to live out those beliefs in our practice.  I live by the motto:  what matters is what counts & what counts is what matters.  I live by that saying because we know, whether personal or professional, when we decide something matters, we tend to make it count for something.  Conversely, when we say something counts, we typically are saying it matters. 

In education today, I think we can get a little lost in matching what matters and what counts. Here’s what I mean:

  • Some say they believe in teachers and they are the most important driver in a child’s educational journey, but then they buy scripted programs to serve their needs instead of relying on the teacher’s intuition and knowledge.
  • Some say they believe in balanced literacy, but then they purchase a program that creates an imbalance in the balanced literacy approach.
  • Some say they don’t heavily rely on state testing and test prep, but then they buy big books and use up valuable instructional time for kids to practice test-like problems.
  • Some say (and back it up with research) that kids need access and time for independent, choice reading during the school day, but then never really create a school schedule/time study to know that they haven’t given anything up to make that actually happen.

If I continued the list I’d risk sounding like a pessimistic person.  In my work, it's my job to support organizations and individuals as they match beliefs with action-oriented practices.  When we do so, we put stakes in the ground about what matters for our students.  And if we put those beliefs into practice, we gain clarity about what really counts.  As a result, statements start to sound like this:

  • Teachers are the most important driver in a child's educational journey; therefore, we will rely on teachers' knowledge of content and students to plan engaging and compelling curricula that meets the interests, passions and needs of their students.  
  • Balanced literacy is a top priority; therefore, we won't purchase a program that steals time away from or competes with the components of balanced literacy.
  • State tests are only one measure; therefore, we will not waste instructional time or resources to purchase test prep materials.  
  • Kids need time for independent, choice reading during the school day; therefore, we will study the time we have and build a schedule that prioritizes independent reading where students choose what and how they read for the sake of reading.  

Want to learn more, contact me and set up a time to discuss opportunities.  Together, we can figure out what matters and what counts!

Love Letters: 6 Essential Actions That Support Growth

Dear Teacher,

Sometimes I wonder—how long will I be able to last? How long will I be able to say education is my life’s calling when it feels as if education is suffocating me, giving me no space in which to breathe? But then I say to myself: They need me—my colleagues and the kids—they need me. And I need them!

Nevertheless: How do we wade through all the noise? How do we persevere? 

This post was originally featured on the Digital Campus's Reference Library. Unlimited access to more articles like this, as well as video clips and full-length books, are available on the Heinemann Digital Campus. Subscribe today.

In the mid-1990s, Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Ryan (A Simpler Way, 1996) suggested that to break out of the traditional thinking around organizational structures and behavior, we need to structure our work around the themes of play, organization, self, emergence, and coherence. They suggested that including play in all we do, through creating and experimenting, provides opportunities for discovery. When we play, when we create, when we try things on for size, we give ourselves permission to discover new possibilities. There is a natural tendency for the world to organize, to take shape, to find order. When we think of organizing as a process, we begin to look for patterns in our work that make a difference. These patterns invite us to focus on our sense of self, or identity, and doing so fuels our curiosities, ignites our visionary self, and helps us create in ways that make us thrive. 

We live in a relational world with connectivity at its center. Wheatley and Kellner-Ryan remind us that “relationships change us, reveal us, evoke more from us.” Their ideas hold true in our work together as educators because being open to relationships gives us the security we need. We know that being clear about our center and curious about our future feeds our interest in continually creating something new. Our work in education is a dance. We have to find our balance and find our flow. Our dance brings with it dynamic pieces and parts that are always in motion. It’s why our work is so interesting. We are always in search of making meaning and ultimately finding wholeness. What happens along the way—creating a clear vision, embracing newness, seeking coherence—is what matters. 

When we identify and hold on to the most authentic, transferrable practices, we make the complicated less complicated. I call these actions that support growth because they ground us as we search for new ways of seeing, doing, and being. In schools, the partnership between and among teachers and students makes our work come to life. This is especially true when both groups see themselves as an integral part of growth and success. Working together to build community creates a foundation for everything else we’d like to accomplish. Being curious invites us to inquire, make meaning, and design something in a new way. We realize we can create deeper work when we find mentors to guide our way. This helps us gain a mental picture of what we are striving toward. Our work becomes real when we put it out into the world for others to see, interact with, and learn from. 

This journey is bookended by our willingness to reflect. What worked? What didn’t? What will I do now based on my new understanding? It’s the piece of the puzzle that starts the process all over again. The authenticity that this growth cycle requires allows us to “say what we mean and mean what we say” and gives us the energy to live within a practice that inspires students to do the same. The actions I mention—the ones we want or, better yet, need to be transferable—are parallel for teachers and students. These actions need to be part of who we are in our classrooms. When we live them in our practice, we push them (or model them or represent them) in our everyday ways of being, model them in natural ways with our students. 

Action 1: Create Community

Building community is the foundation for all other actions we hope to accomplish. Creating a strong community—in our classrooms, grade levels, school, professional learning groups—gives us opportunities to work together. Building community, knowing and appreciating one another, is a cornerstone to a strong system. Community gives a sense of belonging, a safe space to wrestle with ideas, a place where being vulnerable is okay. Relationships matter, and if we work within a community where we believe we are stronger when we think together and smarter when we build ideas off one another, we can grow together. Our community should give us a sense of family—when someone is missing, the circle isn’t complete. Another component of knowing we are living, breathing, working within a community is sharing a set of common beliefs. We can come to our work with different experiences and different ideas, but we need a foundation of shared beliefs. When we do, we have a better chance of centering our work and moving in a cohesive direction toward shared takeaways and end goals. We know we have done a good job when we our work is noted by outsiders (when visitors sense our community, know what we stand for, what we are working to create, and naturally become a part of it) and transferred beyond our school walls (when our community expands because we search for ways to widen our circles). Our community should feed us in ways that allow us to inquire, design, find mentors, share, and reflect. 


  • Spend time with and get to know our colleagues
    "Get to know you" opportunities within and outside the school day
  • Build, create, plan, and solve problems together
    School/classroom routines, lessons, units of study
  • Commit to learn with and from one another
    Observation protocols
  • Go beyond our own classroom walls to inspire and support others 


  • Actively engage in experiences that help them live their beliefs about the importance of community in ways that create a sense of family in their classrooms, grade level, school, and beyond
    "Get to know you" games and activities
    Morning message
    Community circle / Town meeting
    Service learning experiences
  • Celebrate learning of both self and others
    Student led conferences
    Student led open houses / family nights

Action 2: Inquire

What is education about if we aren’t curious? Inquiry is such a great source of energy because it inspires us to keep thinking, keep questioning, keep digging in. When we inquire, we give ourselves permission not to have all the answers. When we inquire, we invite vulnerability and varied paths to solutions to complex questions and tasks. Curious about the world around us, beyond our school walls or school projects or school requirements, we continual ask questions and feed our thinking by undertaking new inquiries. This practice is so important because inquiry propels us to study, and when we study we design, find mentors, share our ideas, and reflect on our process. 


  • Take advantage of daily opportunities to get smarter about something new.
    Study students' accountable talk, interactions, approaches to learning, work products
    Live each day through an ongoing lens of inquiry: What is working? What needs tweaking? What is making the biggest difference in helping kids grow?
  • Participate in professional learning opportunities
    Professional book studies
    Learning Lab experiences
    Workshops, conferences, coursework


  • Engage in a unit of study or independent study project
    Ask questions
    Observe, research, find answers
  • Wrestle with questions that do not have one right answer
    Focus on why
    Ask questions that have applications
    Ask questions that require making a judgment and/or taking a position
  • Feed their own curiosities by paying attention to the ideas that come out of the everyday (both within and outside the classroom) and taking advantage of opportunities to explore through reading, writing, thinking, talking, and creating 

Action 3: Design

Being curious about something drives us to take a closer look. Curiosity often leads us to find clarity and urgency in ways that compel us to create. Many times, feeding our inquiry gives us the motivation and purpose for designing something. When we design something, we imagine what could be, which can lead us to create something new for the world. Design gives us this sense of never being done. It requires being okay with the notion that we may need to make several attempts before it begins to take shape or make sense. Making something, especially collaboratively, creates buy-in; we take ownership. This is true for all learners, young and old. Making something is contagious—once we’ve been given the license to do so, the natural tendency is to want to keep doing it. That makes designing naturally transferrable. 


  • Develop programs and curriculum
    Units of study
    Monthly, weekly, and daily lesson plans
  • Create and re-create formative and summative assessments and tools to better understand what our students know and are able to do
    Anecdotal records
    Knowledge checks
    End demonstrations of learning
  • Co-construct staff or department meeting agendas and professional learning opportunities 


  • Create meaningful work through end demonstrations of learning that shows the world what they know and are able to do
    How-to guides
    Social action projects

Action 4: Find Mentors

When we design something, we know it will not be perfect. This acknowledgment of imperfection makes the act of designing risky, but we won’t get smarter/better if we don’t hold ourselves accountable. Once we design something, we’re posing a question to ourselves and to those we share it with. Is this as good as it can be? Could it be better? Mentors find us and we find them. They inspire us and look at our work in a new and different way. Mentors can also hold us to a higher standard of quality. Mentors reinforce the actions of community, inquiry, and design. These are recursive cycles that feed one another. Because we are part of community, because we inquire, because we design, we avail ourselves of mentors. 


  • Find "friends" on our bookshelves that help support and feed us when we need to figure out our next steps
    Professional texts
    Texts in the world around us
  • Visit other classrooms and schools whose routines inspire thinking for our own classrooms 
  • Take advantage of professional learning communities 


  • Make meaning of text 
  • Figure out what a model looks, sounds, and feels like in the real world 
  • Search for a good example that shows rather than tells 
  • Deconstruct a text/media and analyze the moves an author made when creating it so they can do the same 

Action 5: Share

When we design something, it is natural to want to—need to—share it with the world around us. Finding the right audience with whom to share helps us define our purpose. We might share with others in our classroom/school or move beyond the walls of our local community and have a wider influence. Sharing isn’t always easy and it isn’t always a natural part of our work. It supports the idea that we give and receive in education and the cycle should be recursive. Pushing our ideas, our agendas, our new ways of looking at the world is what progress is. If we share in our inner circle and then move outward, we gain the confidence needed to widen our audiences with each step. 


  • Showcase student learning through collegial or student gallery walks 
  • Share what we know with others 
  • Facilitate workshops and professional learning sessions 
  • Contribute to the conversation by presenting at conferences and contributing to journals 


  • Demonstrate their learning to authentic audiences
    Classroom, grade-level, or schoolwide presentations
    Public/community performances
    Student led open houses and conferences
    Work products contributed to a museum, organization, or library
    A service provided to a partner organization
  • Create new ways of pushing their knowledge into the world
    Web sites, blogs, vlogs

Action 6: Reflect

The truest form of knowing what we know and the impact knowing has on us is through reflection. Reflection, both internal and external, is an anchor from which to evaluate where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we are headed. Reflection helps us determine our next steps. The cycle begins again, because new inquiries are often tucked inside our reflections. Reflection helps us figure out if what we have learned could or should be transferred to our next endeavor. If it worked, if it served its purpose, whether our intended takeaways came to life, then we know it was a success. If not, we may need to rethink, recalibrate, inquire, and design again. 


  • Create a process for looking critically at student work 
  • Determine if the what and the why worked—did our moves create our desired consequences?
    Written reflection
    Coaching conversations
    Feedback cycles/protocols


  • Live a culture of critique and revision—look and listen carefully in order to make improvements and adjustments 
  • Pause to figure out what their work means to themselves and to others 
  • Label their own discoveries and understanding as well as confusion 

Our friends and mentors Wheatley and Kellner-Ryan remind us that our daily work invites us into this dance. All we have to do is accept the invitation. Will you work to build community? Will you ignite your curiosities and challenge yourself to design? Will you call on your mentors to help guide the way? Will you help the world get stronger and smarter by sharing what you’ve learned? Will you reflect in order to figure out your next moves? If you are willing to join this dance, it will be easy for you to create the same dance for your students. They need you to dance so they know they can dance too! 


People: Works of Art

Until recently, I didn’t realize how much I missed college towns. There’s something about campuses ~ the nostalgia you feel as you watch students mingling between dorms, local cantinas, bookstores and pharmacies. And, of course, your local tattoo parlor, coffee shop and occasional diner give off an optimistic, freeing feeling.

Several years ago we lived in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, just 2 miles west of The Ohio State University. When the wind was blowing just right on a fall Saturday morning, we could open our back door and hear the OSU marching band warming up before a home football game (TBDBITL for those Buckeye fans out there!) It was exhilarating living in the midst of college campus happenings which is why when we dropped our kids off in Pennsylvania for summer camp, my husband and I decided to make a stop in State College on our trek back to New York. Although it was the quieter months of summer, we wanted to sense that college atmosphere again.

A fun night watching the “23 women who rocked the world” in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup at a local brewery coupled with a leisurely cup of coffee the next morning brought about some great relaxation and reading. As my eyes danced across the pages of both local and national news, I found myself stuck in Voices of Pennsylvania ~ Thoughtful. Fearless. Free. A local paper that’s mission is to be thoughtful, fearless and free? I loved the premise so I began reading.

This particular issue was packed with the top 10 reasons to visit an art museum, a first-hand account of the Baltimore protests, and an article that focused on summer reading and rethinking the beach book. While the paper was interesting and educational cover to cover, the specific article that I held on to was “People are a Work of Art.” Marilyn Jones’ article draws a parallel between art forms and people. She suggests that the following generalizations may hold true:


This article spoke to me. It held a certain truth for me that I knew I wanted to explore further. The sounds of people as artists, people as works of art kept repeating in my mind. Why does all of this matter to the work we do in education each day? How, I wondered, does this apply to the work I’m currently tackling? It’s simple, I guess. It matters a lot.

These ideas make me think about adult learners ~ the many ways of being and approaches of working together.   As an instructional coach, I care about the adult learners I support, their background experiences, their goals, their beliefs, their passions, their personal and professional inquiries, and what ignites them to take on each new day with their students. I work to see them for who they are and what they bring to each experience. As I launch our work together, I have to remember that I have artists in my presence whose center may be based on a different art form than mine. For example:

The Pointillist – while fragmented at times, they give you just enough to go on that you can then draw your own conclusion. They are co-constructivists where the sum is so much greater than each part. These are my big idea people. I have to listen closely to the ideas along the way and seek to put it all together by the end. My job is to recognize when I can’t connect the dots, to ask for clarification or redirection.

The Minimalist – they come to the “party” with the explicit, bare-bone facts. They search for the proof they need to move forward. These are my researchers and I have to harness their skill set by tasking them with finding the information out in the world that will move us forward. On the flip side, I have to push them to stretch themselves, not always coming to the table with one way or idea.

The Realist – don’t ask a realist a question you don’t really want their answer to because tact is not their middle name.   These are my pragmatists. When we need a barometer check, these are my peeps. My job is to use the voice of the realist to help set goals around the work that flows naturally and is doable.

The Impressionist – when you need a pick me up, hang with the impressionist. The glass isn’t half full, but ninety percent full…almost all of the time. Although it can be too “sunny” some days for others to be around an impressionist, these are my cheerleaders. Work in schools is exhausting and can wear you out. It is my job to give time and space for celebration.

The Surrealist – keeping life interesting is what you get when a surrealist is in your presence. Since they are often happy and beat to their own drum, these are my out of the box thinkers. Although sometimes difficult to follow, the surrealist requires us to be divergent thinkers. My role is to harness the spirit of seeing our work from a different lens.

Districts, schools, and classrooms alike are canvases. They are waiting to be filled with color – or reimagined with different colors. They are blank until we connect and impact one another – until our ideas collide with color. Because we are different, the work is interesting and important. In my case, the school year is in full swing. I’ve learned about the amazing adult learners with whom I am working. I’ve worked to figure out their art forms so that I know what they can give and what they need to get from our work together.  To do this, I ask them to fill in a two column chart describing what it is that they could teach, model or show others (that’s the give part) and then list or describe what it is that they need to grow as a learner and facilitator of learning (that’s the get part.)

In turn, my goal is to nudge educators to do the same for the learners in their care. I want them to see their students for who they are, for what they need, and for what they bring to the table. What can they give and what do they need to get from others? As I think alongside teachers, we often unpack students and their work as a piece of art, asking important questions:

  • What assets does each student bring to the table each day?
  • What is their center? Passions? Ways of being that make them get out of bed each day and hit the ground running toward our classroom?
  • What goals do we have for them and what goals have they set for themselves?
  • How do we develop/bring out the artist in each of them? What will they create so that they are not only consumers of content, but also producers?

It’s December. It’s winter break and I had the opportunity to stay over in State College, PA again. This time, the campus was quiet…taking a rest and re-charging. That’s what we, as educators, do over breaks, right? We rest, catch up, and refuel so that we can go back at it again at the turn of a new year.

I love my work and as a result, I will continue to spend my coaching days putting into action what Edgar Degas once said:

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”