Fostering a Personal Reading Life

Laura reminds us all of a simple concept if you want to get good at anything practice is essential!

Some days I feel discouraged about the state of reading in schools today. These feelings come from, the number of worksheets or novel packets students have to complete while reading a book. These feelings intensify when I see children reading far below grade level completing phonics and syllabication worksheets. Boring! Useless! No room for books in that data collection diet!

All children deserve a rich, personal reading life. And many teachers are working toward that goal. However, that’s not good enough. I want every teacher and every school to make that goal a priority.

Developing a Personal Reading Life

Children who have a personal reading life choose to read during choice time at school. Equally important, they read voraciously at home. Books call to them. Stories grip their hearts and minds. These children can’t wait to have time to read. I recall my grandson complaining that lights out on school nights were 8:00 pm. “I don’t want to stop reading,” he’d tell me. So, I purchased a small flashlight and encouraged him to become a “flashlight reader.” However, I told him that if he was caught, he had to tell his parents the truth: His grandmother gave him the flashlight so he could read under his quilt!

Practice Reading Like an Athlete

It’s weird that everyone accepts that athletes need practice to improve muscle memory and automaticity with moves and plays. No coach would let a team compete without practice. Like athletes, readers need daily practice at school. That’s how children become ‘flashlight’ readers who develop personal reading lives.


Choice in reading is key. Choice motivates and engages readers. Choice enables them to explore genres, authors, and topics they love. Choice enables them to develop literary tastes because they are discovering what they enjoy and what they don’t want to presently read. What follows are ways teachers can showcase independent reading to help students develop a personal reading life.

Access to books is key. Make enlarging your classroom library an important goal. Aim for 500 to 1500 books.

Classroom libraries. Organize books by genre. Feature books by placing them on a shelf with the cover facing outward. Change these displays every two weeks. Spotlight authors and genres by placing books on windowsills or lean them against the wall under the chalkboard. Leave a trail of books for students to notice and browse though.

Teacher Book Talks. Take a few minutes to book talk new arrivals. Read the back cover matter or the first two pages to raise students’ interest and awareness of new books.

Independent reading. If you value independent reading, then set aside fifteen to twenty-five minutes for students to read choice books at school at least two to three times a week.  

Comfortable places. Think about where you sit and read. Most likely, it’s not at a desk, but in a comfortable chair. Let students sit on a rug or on pillows and help them move into a different zone while reading.

Homework. The most important homework is 30 minutes of independent reading each night. Avoid having parents sign a paper that guarantees their child read—trust your students and look at the glass half-full. Avoid having students write a nightly summary of the reading. Do you summarize books you read? If the answer is “No,” then don’t ask students to do it. Keep reading a real world, authentic experience.

Closing Thoughts

When you set aside time for independent reading at school, you let students know reading is important!  Choosing books for independent reading is students’ pathway to developing a rich personal reading life. It’s also the best way to enlarge students’ vocabulary and ramp up their reading achievement!

Look for my next blog; I’ll be discussing assessing independent reading!

 For more in independent reading, check  Teaching Reading in Middle School 

Leadership: The Mirror

This is my second blog on summer reflection and your leadership.

Effective leaders look in the mirror and sometimes they do not like what they see. But great leaders can be honest with themselves and work to make a change.

How congruent are you with what you say and what you do?  In this blog, I will present several obstacles that have come my way over the years. I am sure these obstacles or similar version come to you, too.   

When you look in the mirror at night or in the morning you should feel good about the work you do and the decisions you make. Do you model what you speak about?  Or, is there a contradiction between what you say and your actions?  Do you put students first in all of your decisions? I can guarantee it is easier to look in the mirror when you do.

Here are five challenges that came my way during my career:

Retention:  There is no evidence in our field that retention works.  But often we encounter educated adults who cling to the one time they think it worked for a student.  Do you agree with them? Or do you tacitly agree by saying nothing when others speak about it? Have you challenged staff to find research to support retention?

Compromising: A general statement about what you are willing to agree to in order to not shake a relationship.  Relationships founded on falsehoods or compromises of what you believe are not true relationships.  Many times I have seen administrators try to build alliances by agreeing with others who were not in alignment with what they really believed. What changes might you make to not compromise your beliefs?

The Countdown:  Ah, the staff member who says on day one we have 179 days left. Do you agree or say nothing? What does your response say about you?  This has come my way many times over the years.  When it does I like to say, “ I don’t want to hear about the countdown, but I am interested in talking about how each day can be amazing for our students.”  This statement either helps a person change or it lets them know that you have no interest in hearing it.  Both can be positive.

The Bribe: I will stay in your school if you do this for me. This can range from a course assignment to certain pieces of technology.  How do you handle this?  My suggestion is to see this as an opportunity to have a discussion of your leadership with a staff member. Relationships need to be more than if you do this I still support you.  If they are not, you never had a strong relationship.

Ridiculous Assignments: What do you do when staff gives silly assignments such as writing sentences, word finds or crossword puzzles?  Do you tell them to stop? Do you agree with them? Or, say nothing.  As a leader, we need to advocate for students.  Some assignments that staff may cling too or we experienced are simply no good or harmful.  My challenge to you is not to beat yourself up for what was in the past but make a commitment to handling such situations differently. Tell staff to stop.  If they insist on continuing, I suggest that I’m willing to engage staff in a discussion if they can bring any research to the meeting that supports such practice. I have offered many invites over the years, never had a taker.

The summer is a great time to reflect on decisions you have made, how you have handled situations and the congruency of what you say and what you do.  Leadership is hard work.  Compromising is part of leadership but compromising what you believe ultimately undermines your leadership.  Take time this summer to reflect, refine what you believe and how you will develop alignment between your words and actions.

Check out my interview with Dr. Alise Cotez on her show Working on Purpose!  Evan Robb Interview

Also my book, The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook

Three Stages of Planning: Dr. Tony Sinanis

Enjoy this guest blog by Tony Sinanis!  Tony shares some expert ideas on planning, unit planning, backward design and how in combination they can positively impact teaching and learning!

Over the last couple of days, I have read a bunch of wonderfully written #OneWord posts. I often found myself nodding my head in agreement, especially in the case of this powerful post about empathy by my friend Bill. Although I couldn’t necessarily pick just one word, recently I have been thinking a lot about planning and how that impacts teaching and learning in our school each day. Much of my thinking has been anchored in the monthly literacy check-in conversations we have had at Cantiague where we have been discussing the integration of the new TC Units of Study and how these resources are impacting planning for literacy instruction and actual implementation.

Planning: A Personal Journey

This notion of “planning” is one I have struggled with my entire career as an educator… I could never quite plan far enough ahead yet I always over planned to make sure every minute was accounted for in my classroom. I have run the spectrum of planning… planning week to week using a plan book; planning an entire unit of study in advance using a template, and planning day to day on sheets of loose-leaf paper based on what I actually got accomplished on any given day with my students. The following graphic accurately captures what the “planning” experience looked like for me as a classroom teacher and even sometimes as a principal (be honest – how many of you can relate??)…

Fortunately, with almost 20 years experience as an educator I can confidently say that although I may have yet to master the whole planning situation, I have come to understand how important it really is to plan for learning and teaching within our classrooms. Regardless of what style or approach or format an educator uses, the bottom line is that we must plan in advance to have some sort of trajectory for the learning we hope to see unfold in our classrooms. Some of the questions I am constantly reflecting on include… What do we want our learners to master during a course of inquiry? What are the essential questions for this unit? What are the skills and strategies we want to expose our learners to during this lesson or unit? How are we going to ensure that the learning is student centered and student driven? Having reflected on questions like these (and dozens more), I have come to some personal understandings about planning. The way I see it, there are three stages of planning we could be engaging in that could have a positive impact on our students.
Stage 1: Unit Design
The first stage of planning and the one that I think is most effective and beneficial to maximizing the learning and teaching experience is unit planning. What do I mean by unit planning? I don’t mean picking up the new TC Units of Study (reading or writing) and necessarily following them verbatim (although that may work for many educators). No, I mean thinking about a unit of study that would be most beneficial to students… YOUR students. Think about what you want your students to have accomplished at the end of the unit of study. What are the essential (big & overarching) questions they should be able to answer? What knowledge and skills should students have acquired at the end of a unit? Could the TC Units of Study be the resource an educator uses as the anchor for a unit? Yes! But, the end goals should be established for the current group of students… TC Units of Study are a resource – they are not the curriculum.
After identifying the essential questions and specific knowledge and skills, now take a few steps back and think about what evidence could be “collected” during a unit to show what children have learned. This is the time to think about how the learning during a unit of study will be assessed because starting with the assessment in mind and planning backward from that point only increases the chances of academic success for learners. The final step in unit planning is thinking about the day to day learning experiences and the instruction that need to take place in order for the children to be able to answer the essential questions at the end of the unit.
A resource that is often used to facilitate this type of unit planning is the Understanding By Design model. The graphic below provides a great visual for the thinking that goes into this type of planning. What we know about systems thinking is that we plan ahead for our end goal – basically planning for our ideal situation – and working back from there.

Stage 2: Logistics, Schedules & Priorities

The second stage of planning considers all the logistics… scheduling, units of study across the different content areas and possibilities for interdisciplinary learning experiences. This is where the week to week planning gets refined and executed. If a teacher knows four students will be out of the classroom at reading at 9:30 am twice during the week, they will plan around that to ensure that the children don’t miss any new content. The second stage of planning will also consider what was accomplished the week before and what the goal is for the following week. This stage of planning drills deeper than what might be considered when planning the entire unit of study. This is where an educator considers the daily learning experiences and how they might unfold in the classroom using mini-lessons, direct instruction, guided practice, small group work and independent practice.

Stage 3: Day To Day

The third stage of planning is based on the data we collect from our students on a daily basis and this impacts the day to day instruction that unfolds in our classrooms. Yes, we may have planned a six-week unit of study in writing workshop that focuses on poetry but if we notice that the majority of our students are struggling with a strategy or skill on any given day, then that should impact, and even dictate, the next day’s mini-lesson. It might throw the unit of study slightly off course but ultimately, we must use data to guide and plan our daily instruction so that we are meeting the needs of our students and helping them work towards mastery of specific skills. The learning and teaching that unfolds in a classroom each day should not be solely based on a unit that was planned weeks in advance – it needs to be shaped and impacted by our students and their needs.

You Decide

Although there is not one size fits all approach to planning, I do believe these three stages of planning will ultimately have the most positive impact on the teaching and learning that unfolds in our classrooms each day. I hope that the readers of this post will join me in reflecting on their individual planning styles and how we can collaborate, as a PLN, to enhance our skills in this area!

Dr. Tony Sinanis is Assistant Superintendent for Learning & Instruction at Plainedge School District, NY
Follow Tony on Twitter @TonySinanis

Leadership: Reflection

All over the country schools are wrapping up another year, it is summer time.  The pace of the final weeks of a school year can be intense. But when the school year ends we all have an opportunity to reflect and refocus for the year ahead.  

In this blog, I am sharing some thoughts and reflection questions now that one year is over and a new year awaits.

School Story: Eric Sheninger reminds us often that if we do not tell our story someone else will.  Did you and your staff have a successful year of communicating your story?  I encourage you to explore how you can use social media to communicate to students, staff, parents, and your community. Also, evaluate your current communication methods and consider if they are working or have they been kept only because they are what has been done.

Building Student Success: Students always perform best when we lift them up and motivate them to reach new levels.  How is your school promoting student success?  Do you have effective support systems in place to help students who struggle academically and emotionally?  Would students report to your school if they didn’t have to?

Providing Quality P.D. for Staff:  Professional development focused on the needs of staff can have a powerful impact on learning.  The opposite is also true.  Professional development should be focused on the needs of staff and on-going throughout the year.  Take time over the summer to reflect and speak with staff to find one or two professional development focuses for the year ahead.  I encourage a tight focus on professional development VS a common method of using lots of trainings with little follow-up.

Empowering Staff:  As readers know I believe in building commitment to goals instead of mandating commitment.  Staff will be more committed if they feel valued and are empowered to be part of the journey.  How are you empowering staff?  Can you be more inclusive?  Would people describe you as a person committed to building commitment or as a demander of compliance?

Preserving Hope:  This seems so simple but it can be very hard to do day in and out.  Students, staff, and communities always do best when there is hope.  In the school, is your leadership promoting hope? Hope should be part of teaching, learning, and grading.  For this summer I encourage you to think about grading in your school; are grading practices giving students hope or are they taking away hope.  Students give up, check out, and often drop out when they have no hope.  

As a school leader, you can be a force of change but it may also force some hard questions related to the practice of others and yourself.  Answer my questions honestly and do something amazing for students, staff, families, and yourself.

Check out my book, The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook