The Non-Negotiables

Filed Under (education, Uncategorized) by on September 11, 2010 and tagged , , , ,
Students improve fluency when they read to someone during the Daily 5.

Students improve fluency when they read to someone during the Daily 5.

Does reading instruction change frequently in your school or school district?  This is my 24th year of teaching.  When I started, we were using a basal reader.  Since that time I’ve been through the whole language phase, reading and writing workshops, literature circles and the use of trade books for all small group instruction.   Before  I have had time to refine or perfect the last  instructional approach,  I feel like we are changing to something new.

One of the things I have always loved about teaching in the elementary classroom is the autonomy and creative freedom that I have enjoyed.  Even though we were working with identical materials, when my grade level partner, Mr. P, and I piloted HM Reading, we interpreted and approached the materials very differently.  Because we have been permitted to be individuals, we have always been able to share new ideas when we collaborate. 

In recent years, however, I have seen those opportunities for independence seriously eroded.  We have received increasing pressure to be in the exact same place at the same time in both reading and math instruction, even though we don’t have the same kids.  That was never more true than this year.

This year, my school district has issued a list of “non-negotiables” for literacy.  After twenty-four years of changes, I probably shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. My principal and our literacy leader told me about these changes in July, when I stopped by the building.  My principal often tells me about changes ahead of time, partly because she knows I can be difficult to deal with, in that I say what I think.   I also feel that she respects me.  She told me once early on, that she realized that I might be vocal, but I would also be the first one to try something new. She also knows that she can rely on me for a straight answer.

When I first heard about this list of non-negotiables, I thought–no problem.  I can do that.  As more details have emerged, however, I have become more concerned about the requirements. 

The Non-negotiables 

Use of Houghton Mifflin as the core reading program.

My school district currently uses Houghton Mifflin Reading as our core reading program.  Three years ago Mr. P and I piloted this program, and for the most part, I like the quality of the stories and the way it is organized.  I have been doing this, so it is not a problem.  I can use the HM as my core reading program. 



The HM Leveled Readers.

The HM Leveled Readers.


Exclusive use of HM leveled readers in small group instruction.

Each story in the anthology has leveled readers to be used for small group instruction.  The quality of writing is good.  While each book is a different story, all readers for that anthology story have a common instructional strategy, i.e. summarizing or making predictions.  There is often a common theme, so you can compare and contrast the story with the whole group story from the anthology.  I have heard that some teachers in the district have never unboxed them, but I have always used them.  Since I piloted this series, I have 9 copies of each reader.  Almost everyone else in the district has only 6, however, and that presents a problem for most teachers.  But “I can use the HM leveled readers in small group instruction”

. . . . . Hey, wait a minute.  What do they mean by EXCLUSIVE use?  Does that mean I can no longer use all the marvelous literature that is available for kids in this age group?  Over the years (mostly at my own expense) I have collected two cabinets full of trade books for my reading groups.  I can use the HM leveled readers for instruction, but I don’t know about exclusively.


K-2: Every child reads aloud with the teacher in small group every day.

 3-6: Every below level student reads aloud with the teacher in small group every day.

Now that I am using the Daily 5 with my class, every student will have an opportunity to read aloud, each and every day.  With 28 students, and 4 to 5 reading groups, I’m not sure how I will manage tto have them read aloud with the teacher, without resorting to round robin reading.  On Friday, we did some choral reading.  Last year, I attended a Tim Rasinski professional development, and I am very enthused about his ideas for building fluency.  Up until now, I have used those ideas whole group, but as I was writing this it occurred to me that I could use them with small group. . . . but that wouldn’t be exclusive use of the HM materials, would it?  Ideas, anyone?

Weekly assessments grades 3-6.

We are to use the weekly HM tests, and comprehension is to be the primary focus.  I didn’t see this as a problem, except now we are being told not to give it as an assessment.  We are to put it on the overhead and just go over it together.  I am concerned about putting this story on the overhead, where students really cannot see it well.  Reading a story on the overhead is even more difficult for those who have reading issues to begin with. I am also concerned about keeping those students who need it the most, engaged.  I don’t believe that a passive activity will be that beneficial.  I can do a weekly assessment, but I may have to bend the rules here.

Schedules reflect 4 components with adequate time

A comprehensive reading program should include word knowledge, fluency, comprehension, and writing.  It is expected that approximately 25% of time be spent in each component.  I agree that all of these components are important, but I don’t agree that they are equal.  With 4th graders, I devote more time to comprehension and writing.  But overall this is not a problem.  I’ve been doing this for a long time. 


Our Class Objectives

Our Class Objectives


Comprehension focus posted and taught.

The learning goal should be clear and visible to teachers and students.  Whether it’s Madeline Hunter, from the days when I started teaching, or explicit instruction as it is called now, I have always made our objectives clear to my students.  In the past two years, however, we have been told to include “focus statements” in our lesson plans, scripting out exactly what we will say.  I personally, find this assumption that I can’t think on my feet, insulting.  Scripting out what I will say in my lesson plans is time consuming.  It must make lesson plans very difficult for subs to follow, since they usually have very little prep time before they must begin instruction.

Somehow in the past year, those focus statements have become “I can” statements.  This is supposed to be kid friendly language, but I don’t talk down to kids. I can and do post objectives, but I will treat my children with the respect that 9 and 10 year olds deserve. 

My vocabulary chart with the Santa Bonita picture cards.

My vocabulary chart with the Santa Bonita picture cards.

 Rich vocabulary instruction using posted picture cards from Santa Bonita website.

Santa Bonita is a school district in California, and someone there devoted a great deal of time to creating these vocabulary picture cards.  I’ve been using them for several years now.  I wonder if they know that a school district in the midwest is counting on them for these materials.  We’ll be in big trouble if they ever move from Houghton Mifflin Reading to something else.  I can deliver rich vocabulary instruction with the Santa Bonita picture cards posted in my room.

Our 3 dogs on a porch bulletin board will have vocabulary words displayed on dog bones.

Our 3 dogs on a porch bulletin board will have vocabulary words displayed on dog bones.


Tier 2 vocabulary from HM posted cumulatively in all classrooms

Tier 2 vocabulary are the words that are not story specific.  These are the words that students will see in many contexts.  This was called “3 dogs on the porch” vocabulary at the PD I went to this summer.  So I created a bulletin board that is a porch, and I put three dogs on it. Tier 2 vocabulary words will be posted on dog bones.  This is just a little example of my sense of humor.  I can post tier 2 words cumultatively in my classroom.

Writing in every classroom, every day

We write all day, every day in my classroom.  During the past year, we have moved from just pencil and paper to blogging, and digital story telling.  My school district is planning to present professional development on writing throughout the 2010-2011 school year. 

HM reading includes a writing component, however my school district has decided to rearrange that.  The HM theme 1 writing skill is writing a personal narrative.  The theme 2 skill is journaling.  My district has decided that we must switch them.  There are other changes with the other 4 themes.  I’m not really sure why these changes are necessary.    I can do writing in my classroom every day.

Many of these requirements are things that I already do, but I am concerned about the rigidity here.  Do we want children to love reading and writing, or do we want them to consider it a chore?  There is no argument that building a foundation of basic skills is important, but let’s not destroy the magic of reading that can be found inside a great book.

What’s going on in your school district?  Are you seeing changes like this?  How do you feel about the changes taking place in your school?  Is it making reading instruction better?  I am looking forward to your comments.

4 Responses to “The Non-Negotiables”

  1.   June Morgan (chorkie) Says:

    Although I am a retired educator, I feel for you and all other teachers who work so hard to try to get children to learn to read and write well. Like you, I went through all the changes i the name of better education. As we know, education is cyclical a

  2.   June Morgan (chorkie) Says:

    oops hit the wrong button..

    and here we go back again to the 50/60s. When are we ever going to learn. My career was in South Carolina. We used to laugh that we got what Florida threw out because it was true. Tonight, I was looking on the SC educational website at the new CORE standards. I just cringed. Here is the link to the 6th grade SC so you are not alone.

  3.   Julie Lauridsen Says:

    I love your blog! Do you by chance teach for DMPS? That is exactly what is going on in Des Moines, IA. It is ugly, and the funny thing is that we were busy copying anything we could from CA, and now they aren’t even using HM. I came across your blog while looking for things for me to use with my sped kids for the HM sight words. I have always used Dolch words, but they are not HM words! DMPS changed their mind also about what we use for weekly assessments, and when we get back this week we will be giving the 3 Theme test. I was busy in the beginning of the year making vocab/ splg cards for my sped 2nd and 5th graders, found more info tonight and printed it at home. You would think DMPS could copy this stuff and provide it to us free of charge! That would make sense- tell someone they have to use a certain curriculum but don’t have the materials available! At the end of September we were told that after conferences in October, we would begin another new curriculum- Being a Writer. It has been a very stressful year so far. The amount of assessments this year has been insane also. Enough said, I need to get to bed so I can even try to get up 3 hours earlier than the past 10 days of vacation!

  4.   Barbara Day Says:

    Julie, Thanks for reading my blog. Yes, I am in DMPS. I teach at Phillips Traditional school. Now on top of all the 6 week benchmarks, we are getting ready to do our writing assessments, which we have already spent one early release day and a collaboration period learning how to correct with a rubric, as if we have never used rubrics before. I am liking the “Being a Writer” curriculum okay, but I am not happy with the Writing to Learn on top of that. I am afraid we are going to make kids hate reading and writing.


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