Reading, Writing, and Math VS “Stuff” OR Time is Water in the Desert*: More Stories from Vogel-Wetmore’s High-Achieving, High-Poverty Classrooms

Remember this from seminars on efficient use of time? The speaker asks an audience member to fit dried beans and three hard-boiled eggs into a glass. Invariably the person starts with the dried beans and fails to fit it all; whereupon the presenter takes the three eggs, puts them in the glass first, and then pours the seeds. Presto! Everything fits.

Message: Do the most important things first; fit the rest in around them.

The teachers I’m watching would have known to do eggs first.

Their classrooms have a reading and writing and math vs stuff **ratio that’s way better than what’s typical in most classrooms where a 90- minute reading block may have only 10-15 minutes of actual reading.

It seems counterintuitive that students would do anything except read during reading, right? Well here’s a for instance as to how stuff takes over: if the teacher chooses to spend 30 to 45 minutes preparing for the reading and if the student spends 30 to 45 minutes on a set of worksheets that assess rather than build reading strength and skill, and if, well, we’ve run out of minutes.

How do you get to Fenway Park? Practice Practice Practice. Practice with real bats and real balls and real games. Not talk and worksheets about the game.

During the 90 minutes I spent in the back of Mr P’s classroom Everyone. Was. Reading. All. The. Time.

And Mr P was teaching:

For 3 to 5 minutes with the whole class he built background knowledge and modeled how to re-read. Then he specifically coached one small group. Next he did guide-on-the-side teaching on a one-to-one with the students at their desks. The lesson finished with Mr P reading aloud while the students tracked the print in their own books.

He also got more time-bang for the buck, as it were, by focusing on the same strategy (re-reading) in subject taught later in the day. And again, if it was math, they did math; if it was writing, they were writing, etc.

The ratio of Real vs. Stuff is magnificent.

One more time-increaser I notice going on here: Instruction starts as soon as the brief 9:10 intercom-broadcast (greeting, pledge, moment of silence) ends. The students have already entered the classroom, signed up for hot or cold lunch, handed in homework, put their chairs down, and taken out the materials for their first lessons. In contrast, in many other classrooms all that stuff happens after the 9:10 routine, and lessons don’t start until 9:30.

The high-performing classroom has 100 minutes more of instruction a week because they start at 9:10 rather than 9:30.

Let’s get those eggs in the glass, people! Those minutes matter.

Patty 8/31/12

*Doug Lemov in Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College
**Richard Allington’s The Six Ts of Effective Elementary Literacy Instruction

How Can What I Know About Writing Help Close the State of CT’s Achievement Gap?

Every day my writing buddies and I get a tiny bit better at writing. Or, we catch a glimpse of an idea or a tactic we can use to get ourselves to another edge. We get better at writing by writing. We find models to teach us. We’re closing the gap between where we once were and where we want to be.

So how come Connecticut can’t close this horrendous achievement gap?  (See Richard Wilson’s OpEd piece in the Hartford Courant:,0,6949022.story)

I’m retired now, but I taught for four decades, and my high poverty school has closed this gap. (See the fifth grade test scores from Vogel-Wetmore in Torrington for what it looks like when the entire school engages in gap-closing.) Here’s what this staff is doing:

They teach the Basics three times longer than is usual. Their reading, writing, and math versus All the Other Stuff ratio tilts way in favor of the former. (This takes TONS of all-staff agreement as to where North is, though. See the list down below of all OTHER STUFF that comes in the way of Just Teaching).

During reading they read. During writing, they write. During math, they do math. They don’t do reading-like, or writing-like, or math-like activities.  Kids learn to read and write and do their ciphering because they spend an extended amount of time reading, writing, and ciphering.

Teachers teach. They model, they guide, and they gradually release to the students the responsibility for using what the teacher has taught. The teachers don’t spend all their time managing, assigning, and assessing. THEY. TEACH.ALL.THE.TIME.

The classrooms are full of talk and the talk is conversational, not just interrogational. Many of our students come from homes where talk is minimal. We’ve got to replicate the kind of talk that happens around the kitchen table for our kids that may not have one.

I dug up this old list. It comes from notes I made as we teachers listed all the “Other Stuff” we had going besides the core curriculum. It was a real eye-opener; it propelled us to fix the ratio of What’s Important to What’s Not.

It helped us stop the tail wagging the dog.

(Richard Allington is the guru to re-read. He studied hundreds of high-achieving high- poverty schools and pulled out a few factors all had in common. See this site for one version of his findings:

I don’t think we need to re-invent the wheel here. I don’t think we need yet another commission. We don’t need another multi-pronged attack. We just need to attend to the time, the tasks, and the teachers.

Just like we women who write, right? We give the time, we’ve got real tasks, and we’ve found the teachers who know their stuff and can model it for us. And for those of us writers and kids who are already behind? We aren’t going to close the gap unless we do it all three times more than is usual. That’s the key.



Jigsaw Puzzle Champs and Schools That Work: Arne Duncan, Here’s Another Before the School Year Starts Story

Jigsaw Puzzle Champs and Schools That Work: Arne Duncan, Here’s Another Before the School Year Starts Story

Our family has a Jigsaw Puzzle Expert. Catherine.

She turns the pieces face up, puts together the edge pieces to make a frame, sometimes sorts the remaining pieces into piles, red here, blue there. Sometimes she does the pile puzzles first, or not. She’s a problem-solver.

During the few days that it takes to do a puzzle, different members of the family “help” her. We wander over to puzzle center, hunker down to chat and fuss with fitting pieces.

It’s a nice way to visit, sort of like quilting or husking corn.

But Catherine’s the champ. We revere her. She never just picks up a piece and places it in the exact correct position and then picks up the second piece and puts it in the correct position. She has a strategy (edge pieces, color piles, etc.) and then she does lots of creative fumbling. Foremost though? Biggest tactic? She looks at the picture on the jigsaw box cover. She knows what the puzzle will look like from the outset.

Remember the Solved Sample Problems in your high school math books? I used to sweat over them while I waited my turn for Extra Help on Tuesday with Mr. Cohen, my long-suffering Algebra teacher. He’d pull me away from the Solved Sample Problem page and make me fumble. Get yourself a strategy, Patricia, is what he’d say in his quiet-patient-I’m-not-quitting-on-this-girl voice. Try something and change it if it doesn’t work. He’d coach me through my fumbles.

Those Sample Problem segments are like completed jigsaw puzzles, but just like Catherine doesn’t place the exact pieces in the exact right places from the very first, nobody solves problems by just writing the correct equations, correctly reasoning it through and making correct connections the first time. (Well, Howie Z. did, but he was special) The Sample Problem is an end product; it doesn’t show the process involved.

The stories about my school are going to show what a high performing high poverty school looks like–jigsaw cover picture–AND how it all gets pieced together–watching Catherine figure out how the puzzle pieces fit. (I know Arne Duncan is going to want to see these teachers in action; I can’t wait.)

Patty 8/30/12