Featured Wonder Teacher… Spotlight on Carol Cook!

Carol Cook Wonder Teacher Yesterday I announced my new recurring feature: Spotlight on a Featured Wonder Teacher! (Imagine confetti falling to the sound of trumpet fanfare.)

Our first featured “Wonder Teacher” is Carol Cook. I introduced Carol yesterday and shared 10 of her favorite children’s books. Be sure to check out her recommendations- there are some wonderful books in her list.

Today I am going to share my conversation with Carol. She generously gave me an hour of her time and shared her thoughts about great teaching. I did my best to transcribe our conversation and capture her wonderful insights. Without further ado… I present Carol Cook!

Background: Carol has been an early childhood teacher (mostly 1st and 2nd grades) and a Teacher Coach for many years. She is also Nationally Board Certified and is a former Teacher of the Year. (To be precise, she was a two-time TOY finalist in our very large district!) Currently, she serves as a teacher coach at a primary school (grades K-2) with over 1,000 students and 55 teachers.

Describe your current duties as a literacy coach:

I plan the professional development, which involves seeing what resources are needed and putting them in the hands of the people who need them most. I also lead professional development at faculty meetings and help plan curricular team meetings for our teachers. I collect data and, along with our leadership team, decide what to do with it. My favorite part of my job is the modeling I do in classrooms. I go into teachers’ rooms for a month or so at a time and I teach one unit of study. My instruction is mainly focused on writing (we call them writing labs) such as realistic fiction, non-fiction, poetry, etc. The teacher is there and participates but I do all the teaching and then confer with children and keep conference notes, respond to their needs as the teacher would and talk the teacher through my instructional decisions. We always end with a celebration. I’ve just started modeling reading units of study and that has been fun too.

What national or state educational changes/ trends excite you most?

I’m most excited about the changes I’m seeing in writing instruction. Kids are being given a voice. It’s good on so many levels- it helps them academically and supports their reading development. But it also makes the child feel valued as a person. Their writing is full of their personality and their own choices.

Part of the reason that the trend is moving in that direction is due to the Common Core Standards. It’s brought the emphasis back to teaching writing in the elementary years.  Teachers can no longer say, “I teach writing embedded in everything else.” Writing is its own subject and they have to really teach it.

The other good thing that comes with the CCS is deeper thinking. Kids are being taught how to think more deeply about what they read.  Just the other day my grown son commented on an apparent lack of thinking in a recent project he worked on at his job. He said, “Mom- make sure you’re teaching those kids to really think about what they read- not just read it.” I was so glad to hear him say that! It’s true- we need to teach kids to question the text and ask things like, “Is there a slant to this writing? Where is the author coming from- what does the author want me to do with this information? Why was it written?”

All of that is in the CCS and it’s positive. It’s pushing kids to be thinkers and not just regurgitate information.

Do you have any concerns about the new Common Core Standards?

There is danger in the text complexity issue. (Especially with our young children.) I don’t want to see teachers putting books into kids’ hands that they can’t read. We know that doesn’t work! You still have to match kids to books and give them scaffolds in order to support them with more complex texts.

I also don’t want to see “text complexity” be the excuse to give kids textbooks that they can’t read. I remember a Richard Allington study where he would go to a child’s desk and pull out all the books inside and do a percentage of what was there that the child could read. It was an incredibly small percentage. We can’t go back to that. (Click here to read an article on text readability by Richard Allington.)

What weak teaching practices do you wish we could eliminate from our schools forever?

I have several, but my big one right now is Round Robin Reading. I thought it was gone but I’ve realized lately that it’s still around.

There is so much information out there that tells us there are much better methods for listening to children read. When I share that, teachers often give me some arguments:

(Click “Read More” for the rest of the interview.) 

I need to hear them read: You hear the exact same amount of reading if everybody is reading softly at the same time and you listen in on this child, and then listen in on this child, and then the next child.

The kids like it. Well- it’s not good for them! First of all, it’s often “cold” reading. And that’s an issue for older children because they get embarrassed. The issue for young readers (who usually don’t get embarrassed) is that with round robin reading they’re not having to do the same good reading work as if they have to do the problem solving on their own. They’re not getting a chance to use the strategies we’ve taught!

Guided Reading is supposed to be teaching that falls on that line where they’re almost there and they need a nudge. They can’t use your nudges and strategy work if they don’t have to do the work themselves! They’re doing one-fourth or one-fifth of the reading work if they’re taking turns in a small group.

When they are all reading they are all doing the reading work through the whole book.

I don’t know how else to do it! My best recommendation for teachers to replace RRR is the “lean in.” Spread the kids out so they don’t read chorally- sometimes having them start reading at different times helps too. Regie Routman even suggests switching seats with children. Some teachers think it’s crazy but it works for me. You just trade seats with the next child, and then the next child and keep moving down. But often that’s not even necessary- if you have a small enough group you just spread them out and lean in to listen and coach.

I would also love to see the emphasis on “raising hands” go away. When teachers are leading a whole-class discussion and you get one kid at a time answering, it’s so passive.  You can’t completely eradicate it. Adults do it! And we should “raise hands” in certain situations. But when “raising hands” is our daily teaching practice, it creates a passive nature. Often the kid whose hand is not up is not thinking.

One of our teachers, Kristi Goodwin, came to me recently and said she has noticed a difference in her students since she started using “turn and talk” in the place of “raise your hand.” The kids now know that she’s going to ask them to “turn and talk” to a neighbor about the question she poses instead of raising their hand. They are much better listeners. Not only are they better at “turn and talk” (in terms of management, doing it effectively, staying on task, etc.) they really listen now because they anticipate answering. They know they have to stay “on” and think! When kids “turn and talk” you actually get more information because you can move around and eavesdrop on their conversations- you find out what several of your kids are thinking instead of just hearing one child’s response.

What was your most powerful teaching moment?

This is hard for me- there have been so many! But I have one that I think is probably the most powerful and it centers on writing.  When I first started teaching, writing was penmanship only. We did some writing on the board and the kids would copy it and make a picture to go with it. That was our writing instruction!

However, things were changing, and I was all over that change. I went to a workshop on book-making and we bound little books for the children. (I hate to admit this because it makes me sound so old!) That was the first opportunity we gave children to write their own words. It wasn’t really writing workshop but it was their words.

I had only been doing this maybe one year when a horribly tragic thing happened and one of my students was killed. The little boy’s name was Michael Owens. It was January and he rode his Big Wheel down a hill and was hit by a car at the bottom. It was a very tough time.

Of course, I went to the house and visited the family, but the powerful moment for me as a teacher was when his mom came up to the classroom to pick up his things a few days after he was killed. I realized that the only thing I had that belonged to Michael Owens that really had Michael’s “fingerprints” on it was his special book.  Think about it- everything else was workbooks and dittos! There really wasn’t a lot of artwork back at that time (I wish there was and I could have given her something else that was unique.) But that book was his and it was all I had to give his mother that was really from her son. His words.

That was a powerful moment in my career. It was terribly sad but it also crystallized for me the power of letting children write from their hearts. Their writing might be sad or funny or silly, but it’s theirs. Their personality shows through and it’s so precious.

What is your favorite idea/ strategy for teaching that engages a child’s natural sense of wonder?

I love for children to think and wonder.  Science is one of my favorite subjects to teach for that reason. Somewhere along the line in my science training I learned the phrase “a discrepant event.”  It’s something unique or unusual that you slip into a child’s day. It might be an artifact that you bring in and set out on the back table or something interesting you wear (like a necklace made of shark teeth.) Just something out of the ordinary that starts a buzz among the children in the room. (“Look! What’s that? What’s over there?”) You want the little buzz first. Then, once you hear the buzz, you ask the question that every teacher should have engraved on the wall: “What do you notice?

The children’s thinking and wondering and noticing leads you into your instruction. The motivation is built-in; they are excited to learn because now you’ve activated their natural curiosity and they want answers.

Tell us a little bit about your experience with Lucy Calkins/ The Reading and Writing Project Summer Institute. I know you’ve attended for the past several years. How has it impacted your thinking about teaching reading and writing?

It’s so inspiring and motivating! The Institute is structured in such a way that you attend keynotes that are for everyone, break-out sessions with grade level peers, and follow-up choice sessions. The keynotes really build you up and spark your passion for teaching and then the sessions give you the practical tips and strategies that will help you make it work in the classroom. I have a notebook for each summer I’ve attended full of my notes and they are priceless to me. I have them in my “Hurricane Box” of things that I will take with me if I ever have to evacuate my home. Photos of my children and my Summer Institute notebooks- that’s what I’m taking!

I’ve learned so much about addressing students as readers and writers. The TCRWP leaders demonstrate deep respect in the language used with children. It has such expectation in it! When you are careful with your teaching language, you can see them rise up to the expectation. Saying things like, “I know you all can’t wait to start writing today!” or “Boys and girls, I know you want to read! Just a few more minutes and then you can.” You build that positive expectation right into the culture of your classroom.

Some good books about teacher language are Choice Words by Peter Johnston and his new one, Opening Minds. He talks about teaching children to say, “I can’t do this yet” instead of “I can’t do this.”

I have also learned a lot about how to meet kids’ needs individually. Everything TCRWP teaches is very child-centered and you learn to always begin with what a child CAN do. It’s not, “You’re in second grade so you SHOULD be able to…” We are never going to get a “set” of students who fit nicely within a grade level box. We must see learning as a continuum and be able to find where a child is along the continuum and know how to move them to the next step.

It’s easy to see where a child is and know where you need them to be by the end of the year. The hard work of teaching comes with figuring out what the next small step is for that individual child to move them along. My summer experiences have really helped me in that regard.

(Complete this sentence.) If you were in charge of the teaching world…

If I were in charge of the teaching world every teacher would address their children as readers and writers in word and in expectation. Not that we just call them “readers” and “writers” but also think of them in those terms. Then you really believe in them and have an expectation that they can.

Your job now is mainly to be a teacher of teachers. What do you find works best in terms of developing the teachers you work with professionally?

Demonstration is the best way to reach teachers and help them change their practice. The optimum method is to model alongside them in their own classroom. That’s why the writing labs have been so helpful in our school. Of course not every teacher in America is going to be able to have someone come into their classrooms and demonstrate.

So, the next best thing is a video of another teacher demonstrating the teaching technique. Having teachers go and watch each other is helpful too.

Teaching can be an isolating profession. Therefore, people like teacher coaches and principals need to provide as many opportunities as possible for their teachers to “see” great teaching happening in a real-life setting. Many times if we don’t see it, we don’t understand it.

One other effective tactic is to share student work. This works especially well with subjects like writing. You show them, “Look at what these children (who are just like the children you teach) can do.” Then, when other teachers see it, they often realize that their own students are capable of more than they thought.

Student work doesn’t show them how to do it, but it might provide the motivation to get them more interested in the “how-to.”

I have been fortunate to work with a dynamic faculty that doesn’t need much convincing. They are always willing to examine their practices and make any changes necessary to support their students.

What are your favorite professional resources?

I don’t know what to say! I have so many favorites!

The Art of Teaching Reading and TheArt of Teaching Writing by Lucy Calkins – those are just classics. They address the whole being of a child and a teacher. I know a lot of people won’t read them because they are really fat! But they are awesome.

Regie Routman has really good resources- Teaching Essentials, Reading Essentials, Writing Essentials. She speaks right to being student-centered. Of course, Sharon Taberski is wonderful too. Those are probably my top three professional authors.

Currently I’m reading Good to Great Teaching by Mary Howard. I haven’t finished it yet but I love her woodpecker analogy. (It’s actually a reference to a Seth Godin quote.)

“Godin makes a profound point with his description of hardworking woodpeckers: ‘A woodpecker can tap twenty times on a thousand trees and get nowhere, but stay busy. Or he can tap twenty thousand times on one tree and get dinner.’ If we continue to put our effort into doing a multitude of different things that are not working, we will have little time and energy left to focus on the literacy work that matters.”

Carol is certainly a teacher who knows what matters. Thank you so much, Carol, for sharing your knowledge and insights here on Wonder Teacher! 

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Comments

  1. Melissa Mulligan says:

    I appreciate this interview! I took Carol’s reading class last year and enjoyed it very much! I hope I can learn more from her in the future as her philosophies are in line with my own. Carol is a master teacher and we are lucky to have her in our district! (I am a third grade teacher at Pinckney.)

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