Author: Evan Robb

Leadership: Start a Movement

Principal positions are complex. The position of principal can test your faith in what you believe is right. Your beliefs, commitment to students and staff all reflect on you as a person and your leadership.  Through several blogs I am going to share my thoughts on leadership. Lessons learned and mistakes; I have made many.  

Relationships, commitment to group goals, communication, professional knowledge, innovation, expectations, trust, and putting students first are just part of the many factors needed to feel effective as a principal. As you think about your position or becoming an administrator, you must reflect and understand what you believe and how you lead.

I believe great leaders communicate a sense of purpose, an articulated and understood sense of why they do what they do. If students, staff, and a community are united around a strong sense of purpose, magic can happen.

Part of leadership can be the challenge of creating a sense of purpose by starting a movement.  Uniting students, staff, and a community behind a sense of purpose that generates passion and helps people find their personal greatness. Sometimes when we lead we start out alone with a a good or great idea that others are apprehensive about. Sometimes we need to take people to a place they have not thought of or may fear.

In this blog I am sharing a favorite video on creating a movement.  Notice how the short video initially shows a man going it alone, in the case of the video looking foolish.  But what happens when one follows and ultimately when many follow?

The position of principal can be lonely if you want to take staff to a place they might not be ready to embrace.  Staff must trust you. You can have great ideas but if trust is not a foundation nothing will work.  Pushing staff requires finesse and at times a desire to drive change if it is truly what is best for students.  I have never found it effective to push hard all the time nor have I found the opposite any good either.

Those who lead by never challenging the status quo will never find their personal greatness.   Sometimes it’s lonely at first, be true to your personal “why” and find your greatness!  

Start a movement.

Principals Leadership Sourcebook, By Evan Robb

Reading in Middle School Classrooms

Popcorn reading, bump, and round robin reading do not make for great middle school classroom! Often I am asked what types of reading should occur in a middle school English classroom? Three types or reading should be part of every middle school Language Arts classrooms  

Instructional Interactive Read Aloud

Reading can and should be taught. An interactive read aloud allows the teacher to model in a think aloud how they apply a reading strategy. This modeling during a read aloud builds and/or enlarges students’ mental model of how a strategy works. For this aspect of instruction, I suggest that the teacher models with a short text that matches the genre and/or theme that ties a reading unit together.  Short texts can include a picture book, an excerpt from a longer text, a folk or fairy tale, myth or legend, a short, short story, or an article from a magazine or newsletter.

Here are some skills and strategies that you can model in interactive read aloud lessons:

  • Making inferences
  • Identifying big ideas and themes
  • Identifying central ideas and themes
  • Locating important details
  • Skimming to find details
  • Author’s purposes
  • Purposes of informational texts (nonfiction) and literature (fiction)
  • Literary Elements and how each supports comprehension: setting, protagonist, antagonists, plot, conflicts, other characters, climax, denouement
  • Informational text structures and how these support comprehension: description, compare/contrast, cause/effect, problem/solutions, sequence, question/answer
  • Word choice as a guide to pinpointing mood or tone
  • Vocabulary building with an emphasis on general academic vocabulary, figurative language, and comprehension, using roots, prefixes, suffices, discussing concepts, diverse word meanings, and different forms of a word.


Instructional Reading

Instructional reading should happen during class. Students need to read materials at their instructional reading level—about 95% reading accuracy and about 85 % comprehension. Organizing instructional reading around a genre and theme—for example biography with a theme of obstacles—permits students to read different texts and discuss their reading around the genre and theme.

As an example, the class opens with an interactive read aloud lesson that lasts about ten minutes and occurs daily. Next, a transition to instructional reading. Find books for students in your school library, your community public library, and in your class library and school’s book room (if you have one).  Instructional reading books stay in the classroom, as students from different sections may be using the same materials each day.

A teacher can have students chunk instructional texts by putting a sticky note at the end of every two to three chapters. When students reach a sticky note, they stop to discuss their books with a partner and then a group of four. During this stop-to-think time, students can write about their books, connect the theme to the book, and apply strategies and skills the teacher has modeled during interactive read-aloud lessons.

Partners should be no more than one year apart in reading levels so they have something to contribute to each other. Students reading far below grade level learn with the teacher.

Independent Reading

Students should always have a book they are reading independently. By encouraging them to read accessible books on topics they love and want to know more about, you develop their motivation to read!

Have students keep a Book Log of the titles they’ve read and reread. Do not ask students to do a project for each completed book, for that will turn them away from reading. A book talk a month and a written book review twice a year on independent reading is enough. Reflecting on independent reading is important; getting hung up on how you will hold students accountable is not very valuable.  Remember, enthusiastic readers of any age do not summarize every chapter they read in a journal.

Students should complete thirty minutes of independent reading a night, and that should be their main homework assignment. Try to set aside two days a week for students to complete independent reading at school. Reading in a classroom is valuable!

Including the three layers of reading into a middle school curriculum brings balance, engagement, and motivation to the curriculum and holds the potential of improving reading for all students. When the teacher models how she/he applies a skill or strategy to a specific text, the teacher provides opportunities for all students to observe how a skill or strategy works. Instructional reading asks students to apply specific skills and strategies to texts that can improve students’ comprehension, vocabulary, and skill because these texts stretch students’ thinking with the teacher, the expert, as a supportive guide. Equally important is independent reading: easy, enjoyable texts that students self-select on topics, genres, or by authors that interest them—texts about two years below students’ instructional level.

Give this framework a try.  The goal is to increase reading and help students learn how to become strategic readers.

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 Evan Interviews Laura Robb

Differentiating reading instruction is frequently communicated amongst educators but often does not occur in many classrooms.  With wide ability ranges and large classrooms, differentiating can be a daunting challenge even for the best teacher.  What are some ways to allow every child to get the extra they may need to propel their learning? Laura is an expert on differentiating and helping teachers learn how to do it in a way that makes sense.  I call it Monday morning strategies.

Evan: Where does a teacher start with DI Reading Instruction? Which structures and concepts are fundamental?

LAURA: Start by building your background knowledge of DI, which includes understanding tiering, assessment, the role of conferring and self-evaluation, writing to improve reading, creating plans for units, and the research that supports DI. Consider forming a study group with colleagues to read and discuss my book as well as the work of Carol Ann Tomlinson, Judith Dodge, and Rick Wormeli. Fortified with theory and examples of practice, you’ll be ready to plan and implement one unit of study. You can plan a unit of study for two to three weeks using picture books. This way you start small and experience the instructional read-aloud, instructional reading at school, teacher-student conferences, to name only a few. The more you self-evaluate and invite student feedback during and after a unit, the smoother the units will run.

Evan: Do very bright students-such as those who’ve been designated as gifted-suffer from low expectations in a class where DI is the norm?

LAURA: Actually, bright students bloom because you are offering them challenging materials that relate to the genre, issue, and theme you’re studying. With one-size-fits-all, these students receive little to no instruction because the work is easy for them and they can complete it independently. They are usually reading materials at their independent reading levels and not moving forward with analyzing, connecting, and synthesizing.

Because a student struggles with reading does not necessarily mean that student is not bright or gifted. The key to differentiation is to match students to instructional texts so they can improve their reading skill. But all students, no matter what their instructional reading levels are, need to think and apply reading and analytical strategies appropriate for their grade level. So, a sixth grader reading at a third grade instructional level uses that material to think and write about texts at the sixth grade level.

Evan: How does writing support DI and improve comprehension?

LAURA: Writing about reading improves students’ comprehension by helping them to compare and contrast within a text or between texts; to clarify hunches and thinking; to make connections, analyze, form hypotheses and prove them; and synthesize ideas across texts. I see writing about reading as an extension of reading and thinking. In my classes, journals are always on students’ desks, poised to receive a reaction, thought, questions, and other feedback.

Evan: Does DI have a role in classes other than reading or language arts?

LAURA: Absolutely! Let me start with a true story. A group of ninth graders reading three to five years below grade level were placed in a special reading class that met five mornings a week. Students read books at their instructional levels and used their texts to do the high level thinking expected of ninth graders. They experienced much success and made one to two years’ progress. However, back in science, English, and social studies, these students had to read grade level or above texts. Animal Farm was one of the English texts. Students became angry and frustrated because they failed or received D’s in other subjects. Though administrators developed this kind of remediation with the best intentions, these students needed to read at their instructional level in all subjects in order to improve. This is one reason why we continue to leave so many students behind.

Multiple texts-texts related to a topic in any subject at diverse reading levels-need to be a part of all instruction. Publishing needs to change to meet the realities of teaching. No more huge textbooks that students can’t read. In their place we need small texts that relate to different aspects of a topic, written at diverse instructional levels. All subjects-not just language arts-need reading resource rooms with books on a wide range of reading levels.

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Add the 4 C’s to Faculty Meetings!

To succeed in school, compete in the job market, and become a contributing citizen in our democracy and the global economy, our students need to learn in classrooms that develop 21st century skills, called the 4 Cs: Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Creativity.

You can motivate and engage teachers to consider what kinds of instruction develop these skills by having them learn during faculty meetings in ways that you want their students to learn. When teachers experience great 21st-century classrooms, innovative types of learning become a part of teachers’ DNA and open conversations about how the 4 Cs will impact learning in their subjects.

Teachers Experience the 4Cs During Faculty Meetings

I recommend that you set aside three faculty meetings for teachers to experience the 4 Cs and connect what they’ve learned to classroom practices. It makes no sense for principals to expect students to collaborate and problem solve and then lead faculty meetings where teachers passively sit and receive information. Instead, start by dividing teachers into groups of four to six and have them choose articles to read about the 4 Cs and 21st century classrooms. In the box below, I’ve listed the URLS of five sources.

First Faculty Meeting

  • Organize faculty into groups of four to six, introduce the 4Cs of 21st century learning, and invite teachers to discuss why these are important for the challenges our country and the world face today.
  • Have each group choose a spokesperson and share with everyone what their group discussed. Record teachers’ ideas on a whiteboard. Have teachers choose two articles to read.
  • Close the meeting by asking them to discuss ways they can integrate Collaboration and Communication into their classes. Groups share and you record their ideas on a whiteboard.

Second Faculty Meeting

  • Recap what was discussed at the first meeting by posting the teachers’ ideas you recorded on the whiteboard.
  • Have groups read a different article, discuss it focusing on Creativity and Critical Thinking, and how they can integrate these into their lessons. Groups choose a different spokesperson and share their ideas. Record these on a whiteboard.

Third Faculty Meeting

  • Recap what teachers discussed at the second meeting by posting the ideas you recorded on the whiteboard.
  • Ask teachers to reflect on their experiences, discussions, and reading materials and create a list of learning experiences they can integrate into their lessons.
  • Have groups share and record their thinking on a whiteboard.
  • Give each group one of the 4Cs and ask members to offer specific ways to build their 21st century skill into lessons. Groups share and discuss.

Accept Where Teachers Are in the Process

You’ll find that even with reading and discussing articles, teachers will absorb some information but not all of the key points. Like their students, their background knowledge and personal experiences will determine the types of suggestions they offer.

Below you’ll find 10 ways that teachers at your school can foster and build 21st century skills into students’ learning experiences. It’s helpful for teachers to discuss these 10 suggestions always through the lens of how each one fits into their subject.

  1. Have students sit in groups of four to six. Encourage teachers to abandon rows of desks that only separate and isolate students. For collaboration to take place and for students to have opportunities to choose and discuss materials, they need to sit in groups and work together or separate into partners who report back to the group.
  2. Allow students to choose reading materials. Invite your school librarian to meet with English and reading teachers to explain how he or she can help teachers select books that meet the diverse instructional needs of students in their classes. When teachers organize units of study by a genre, such as biography and historical fiction, they can differentiate instruction by having students read books in those genres in a range of reading levels. The school librarian can select high-quality books in the genre and separate them into stacks by reading level. Then, groups of students can browse stacks at their levels and choose books that appeal to them.
  3. Initiate student-led literary discussions. Have teachers build on the turn-and-talk strategy that asks students to turn to a classmate and discuss questions about a read-aloud text or an aspect of a lesson. The next step might be having students discuss a text for 5 to 20 minutes with a partner, using questions the students themselves composed.  Then, students can make the transition to small-group discussions.
  4. Use inquiry learning. Put the questioning process into students’ hands by asking them to compose interpretive, open-ended questions. (A question is open-ended if it has two or more answers that text evidence supports.) This is a powerful technique because students need to collaborate and communicate to write open-ended questions; they also need a deep knowledge about, and an understanding of, the reading material. Teachers can also show students how to compose guiding questions, which works well when groups read different books in a particular genre or on a specific theme. A guiding question is broad and can’t be answered in one or two sentences. For example, eighth-grade students reading science fiction wrote this guiding question: What warnings does the story give, and what in our society caused these warnings? 

  5. Invite students to debrief their discussions by asking: What worked and why? What could have been improved and how? This kind of problem solving requires students to use their creativity and communication skills to determine what went well and how to improve what didn’t.

  6. Have students set goals. Groups can set goals after they debrief a student-led discussion along with ideas for reaching those goals. Ask groups to review and discuss their suggestions for improving literary conversations immediately before the next literary conversation occurs.

  7. Integrate technology by asking all faculty members or specific departments to read an article on their computers (I use Google Docs). Then, let the communication begin! Teachers write their responses to an article and pose questions so everyone who received the article can read all the responses and questions. The next step might be to use software such as Google Docs with students. For example, teachers can post a short reading selection on Google Docs for students and have them respond to questions in writing. Students can use the articles and all responses for a whole-class discussion. In addition, students can collaborate and write a blog, informational piece, play, and so on and post their work on Google Docs for peers to read and respond to. Google also offers tools for groups to do digital storytelling and for turning data into visuals such as graphs.

  8. Have students write about reading. Consider the research by Steve Graham, Karen Harris, and Tanya Santangelo, who make it clear that when students write about books they read their comprehension improves by 24 percentile points. Writing is informal—a way to express on-the-spot reactions, connections, evaluations of information, characters’ decisions, conflicts, themes, and short summaries.

  9. Use the jigsaw strategy. If you have several questions you want students to discuss, divide the work among groups. Give each group a question and have them discuss it. Once groups discuss, they choose a spokesperson who explains the ideas discussed to the class. Not only does jigsaw advance all the 4Cs, but it also moves lessons forward.

  10. Try chat centers, a spin-off of jigsaw that gets students out of their seats and moving around the room. You can put questions about literary elements, vocabulary, or a text all students have read or listened to on five to seven sheets and post them around the room. Assign each group a chat center, have members discuss the questions, and then present their findings to the class. To communicate clearly and effectively, students have to adjust and clarify their ideas so that their classmates understand their thinking.

Closing Thoughts

Whenever a strategy is new to teachers, step back and provide them with the background knowledge and hands-on experiences that develop the depth of understanding they need to implement that strategy to full advantage for students.

The 10 ways to integrate the 4Cs into daily learning ask students to practice and refine their use of collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity. Encourage teachers to work closely with a colleague, choose a strategy they’d like to implement, share ideas, observe one another’s classes, debrief, and when they’re both comfortable, try another one. I always invite teachers to start small and add new strategies slowly to ensure success and maintain the desire to develop the 4Cs in all students.

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