On Beliefs, Books & Being True to Yourself

What Needs to Happen

From Read, Write, Lead by Reggie Routman

While preparing for a leadership workshop I led this summer for a district embarking on a new literacy initiative, I dipped into Regie Routman‘s great book Read, Write, Lead and discovered this nifty chart which captures what she thinks often happens when we try to implement change at a district, school, or even classroom level. According to Routman—and seen first-hand by me—districts, schools and sometimes teachers themselves often begin discussing change by exploring resources. And that Read, Write, Leadoften leads many to gravitate to programs that promise things, such as alignment with the Standards, increased student achievement, research-proven practices or ease of implementation. Every resource, in turn, comes with its own prescribed practices, whether it’s lists of text-dependent questions to ask (along with the answers to look for), scripts of mini-lessons to follow or protocols to use for instructional approaches like reciprocal or guided reading.

Rarely she notes, though, do we think about change by first defining for ourselves what we believe—about children, how they learn, what it means to be literate and the purpose of education itself. And this is critical because as Routman writes: “Practices are our beliefs in action.”

I share this story for two reasons. First, in an age where everyone seems to be clamoring for quick fixes or some magical way to reach unrealistic (and sometimes questionable) goals, it reaffirmed my own belief that for practices to be truly effective, they need to be The Teacher You Want to Berooted in some deeper understanding about children, learning and reading and writing. And secondly, it seemed like a nice way to announce that while my book on reading is still being fine-tuned, I’ll have an essay in another book coming out this fall from Heinemann called The Teacher You Want to Be: Essays about Children, Learning and Teaching.

The book grew out of the study tour I went on to Reggio Emily in 2012 (which you can read about here, here and here). Our ostensible aim was to see what we could learn about the teaching of literacy from their world-renown schools, but we came away with a much larger mission: to publicly share what we’d seen and learned in order to promote serious conversations about the state of education here at home.

To begin that work, we collaboratively created a Statement of Beliefs, a document that captures a baker’s dozen of tenets that reflect the group’s jointly held beliefs about how children best learn and how, therefore, teachers and schools need to approach teaching. And as you’ll see in the example below, for each of these thirteen beliefs we provided a more in-depth explanation as well as a description of practices we currently see in many schools that reflect a very different—and we think problematic—set of beliefs. Then with the help of Heinemann, we invited educators and thinkers from across the field to write essays that would in someway connect to one or more of these beliefs.

Reggio Belief #13

As will appear in a slightly different form in The Teacher You Want to Be, coming from Heinemann in Fall 2015

The book that resulted is edited by Matt Glover and Ellin Oliver Keene, and it’s graced with a forward by one of my personal educational heroes, Alfie Kohn. Some of the essays were written by study group members, such as me, Kathy Collins and Stephanie Jones; some are by those who couldn’t make the trip but were there with us in spirit, like Katherine Bomer and Heidi Mills; while others come from great educators and thinkers who saw their own beliefs reflected in ours, such as Sir Ken Robinson, Peter Johnston and Tom Newkirk. And while we’ll all have to wait till October 22nd to get our hands on the book, I’m sure you’ll agree that’s quite a line-up.

I also suspect that many of you will find your own beliefs reflected in this book. While for others it may be an opportunity to clarify and define what it is you believe or to consider how your beliefs (may or may not) align to your actions and practices. And for those of you who know what you believe but often find yourself teaching, as I write in my essay, “against the backdrop of a system I often feel at odds with,” I, along with Matt, Ellin and all the essay writers hope you find in this book the strength, support and inspiration to keep your teaching true to those beliefs—and to be aware of when your practices are out of step with what you believe.


30 thoughts on “On Beliefs, Books & Being True to Yourself

  1. Vicki, thank you for the preview of this spectacularly important and timely book! I cannot wait to read it, share it, and most importantly act upon it.

    • It’s exciting, right! And I know you’re just the kind of person who will act on it! Do let me know what you think of it when it’s finally out. And do give my best to Joanne, who seems to have caught this, too.

  2. Oh, SWOON! The Teacher You Want to Be sounds like a book I will hug. I’m still trying to become that teacher after all these years. (Maybe that’s why I’m still teaching after all these years…) This post also comes with perfect timing, as I struggle with what to say to parents on curriculum night this week, as the actual stuff of the curriculum becomes less and less important and my beliefs and the development of the student as a whole person become more and more important. I will “be true” and say just that. Off to polish my list of core beliefs…

    • I’m still struggling with that, too, Mary Lee – though I don’t have to worry about parents. As a parent, though, I always loved the teachers who truly ‘got’ my daughter. That was more important to me than any curricula – and my hunch is it’s important to other parents, too, but they might think school just has to do with things like grades, curriculum and homework. I’ve seen, though, the kind of thinking and writing your kids do, and I would have given my teeth to a teacher who helped my daughter feel the power of that.

  3. I’m looking forward to reading Glover and Keene’s book, as well as the upcoming one from you, Vicki! I say, I’ve recently made a move to chopped up schedules and more emphasis on grades and it’s been a difficult transition to make, ‘though one that countless teachers live-in every day, as you know! In some ways, our learning days exist not just against a backdrop, but against a current, like on a river that sweeps us one direction while we want to go the other. All that requires a certain amount of effort in the classroom, but also a good deal of soul-searching about the system in general. At least for me, it also requires an almost Kenny Rogers-esque need to “Know when to hold ’em/Know when to fold ’em/Know when to walk away…” as well as when to open the classroom door and fight for what learners need. I’m not always good at discerning which to do when! But lately, from my little canoe on the river, I find I must also occasionally search out the backwaters where the current flows slowly, to follow those beliefs in my own life, too, for I am also a learner!

    • So good to hear from you, Steve. And so nice to see you here along with Mary Lee & Julieanne! For better or worse, I can apply that those Kenny Roger lyrics to the book I still haven’t finished. And I’ve been wondering if part of my problem is not knowing when to walk away. As it is, I’ve given myself permission to find a better balance between blog and book, since one gives me so much energy and the other often taps me out. I have, though, caught the rengas and that great post on deepening thinking. So here’s to balance, remembering what we need, and those rich, slowly moving backwaters!

  4. Oh, my Vicki. Be still my heart. Reading your words; seeing Mary Lee and Steve here made my day. It is a struggle to be the teacher I want to be. The goal is a lofty one. One that keeps me up at night but at the same time gets me up in the morning. These upcoming books and words here on you blog help immeasurably.
    As always, thank you.


    • I had to still my heart, too, seeing you, Mary Lee, Steve and now Allison, all here together! As I’ve just written Steve I’m trying to strike a better balance between the book and the blog as my heart has felt too disconnected when my mind is solely focused on the book. So hopefully you’ll hear more of me – and I LOVE finally getting your blog in my inbox. These exchanges really eep me going when the struggle is rough.

      • Oh, thanks, Vicki! How kind of you to include me with this group! Touching base with all of you is just what I needed now. Best wishes as you finish your book.

  5. That chart from Regie Routman is so true! For many reasons, the “adopted” resources drive our instruction and practices and then sometimes define our beliefs. It really should be the other way around. Our beliefs need to drive everything else. But first we have to define those beliefs. More and more I think we teachers are so overwhelmed that we don’t stop to think about, yet alone articulate, what we truly believe about kids, teaching and learning. Until we do this, we are just going through the motions, and we all, teachers and students, suffer.

    The Teacher You Want to Be sounds like an amazing book, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it! “I also suspect that many of you will find your own beliefs reflected in this book.” I very much hope so!
    “While for others it may be an opportunity to clarify and define what it is you believe or to consider how your beliefs (may or may not) align to your actions and practices.” I suspect this will happen, and I’m looking forward to it.
    “And for those of you who know what you believe but often find yourself teaching, as I write in my essay, “against the backdrop of a system I often feel at odds with,” I, along with Matt, Ellin and all the essay writers hope you find in this book the strength, support and inspiration to keep your teaching true to those beliefs—and to be aware of when your practices are out of step with what you believe.” I need this, both the support you offer, and the awareness that my beliefs and my practices probably aren’t matching up.

    I’m also waiting with eager anticipation your own new book, Vicki. Loved this post, as always. It was good to “hear” from you again. 🙂

    • And so very good to hear from you, too, Allison! And I think you’re so right. With our obsession on outcomes, we don’t give teachers anywhere near the time they need to think and articulate for themselves what they actually believe. Though personally I believe that if we did that, teachers would be teaching with a deeper understanding of the purposes behind their practices and that would inevitably lead to those much wanted outcomes in a more longer lasting, if less expedient, way. But . . . maybe this book will help people see that the fast track isn’t always the best. Here’s hoping!

      • Yes, it’s always rush, rush, rush; check this off, check that off! Learning goals and scales? Check it off. School Improvement Plans? Get it done and check it off the list……; and on, and on, and on. There’s so much pressure even about what to “get done” the first few weeks of school that taking the time to slow down, establish routines, connect with students and establish relationships with them, seems to be frowned upon. But when we do slow down at the beginning of the year, we can speed things up later in the year and accomplish so much more. So if we know this to be true between teachers and students, why isn’t it also true for teachers? Give us that time we need! I’m all about slowing down, and that’s the belief I have to battle to stay true to. Thanks for your support, and for sharing your wise thinking with us.

      • Like you, I’m a big believer in what’s good for kids – e.g., choice, ownership, time to practice – is good for teachers too. And for better or worse, this made Simon & Garfunkle pop into my head: “Slow down/you’re moving too fast/you got to make the learning last.”

  6. Oh how I needed to read this post! This is what I have been thinking about this summer. What are my beliefs about what I really want for my readers? What can I do in the room to ensure this happens? I posted something related in August: http://thereisabookforthat.com/2015/08/09/sunday-reflections-goals-for-my-readers/ So looking forward to reading all of these titles! I now feel re-energized to develop my own rubric as a starting point based on my beliefs and what I see in my new students. Thank you, thank you!

    • So wonderful to know that there’s so many of us out there craving this kind of book. And having just read your post, I love some of the questions you pose, especially “What can we celebrate?” and “What’s really important?” Those two seem to go hand in hand to me. There’s so much power in considering our answers to those questions in un-jargon-y, authentic ways and then from there thinking about what we might need to do in our classrooms to make those things really happen.

  7. OH WOW. I really really really really can’t wait for that book to come out. I know it’s not good to wish time away, but I just can’t help it.
    Your words always ring true, and this particular message is so important to hear again and again. Our beliefs matter. They shape our classrooms and our careers and our lives. I watched a colleague try to set his beliefs aside this past year, in the name of trying to fit in with the crowd and go with the general flow. It did not work out. He is angry with himself for doing it. But I say to him- your beliefs are still there. Grab ’em. Thank you for the reminder!

    • I know! September’s such a lovely month, and I find myself wishing it away because I’m so ready to read this book too! And thank you for the reminder that it’s never too late to grab on to your beliefs – in fact, sometimes chucking them aside makes us more aware of what we do believe in ways that allow us to embrace them even more.

  8. Thank you for this post, Vicki. It’s only week four of middle school reading and writing workshop, and already I feel the weight of reports and curious parents and the burden of grading the complex and sacred work of teaching readers and writers . The call to hold fast to what we believe is best for our students and ourselves can dissipate quickly in those weighty moments. Just today, I was questioning the time I’m giving to shared reading work across my week when “the curriculum” calls. This was an encouraging reminder. SO looking forward to your essay and TTYWTB in its entirety as well.

    • Love this phrase, Emily: “the burden of grading the complex and sacred work of teaching readers and writers.” A colleague said to me recently that if we truly believed in the process of learning and instilling a love of learning as our most important goal, we wouldn’t grade at all but give the kind of feedback that encourages, supports and nudges learners. The book is certainly meant to raise these questions and prompt these discussion – and I can’t wait to read the other essays, too!

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  10. Vicki,
    I’ve been dipping back into Regie’s book this week with stolen moments because that graphic is so true and so critical to “staying the course” for our teachers. They’ve been “lost at sea” for so long in an “acountability climate” that causes huge friction between beliefs, practices, and resources with the guidance to “implement those resources with fidelity”.

    Unfortunately the kids are left out when they ARE and should be the focus in every classroom. Exciting preview of Glover and Keene’s book. Building a more solid foundation of beliefs continues to be my goal. A foundation that can outlast whatever weather or personal biases seem to be on the rise and even encourage risk and actions to keep learning (and fun) at the top of each day’s reflection!


    • Fran,
      You are so right about the influence of the “accountability climate” and the “implement resources with ‘fidelity'”…as if we are to be “faithful” to a set of resources, rather than to the children who are right there in front of us, learning. That fidelity phrase really does raise my hackles.

    • Hi Fran! I so share the importance of building a foundation that can withstand trends, fads, this program, that program – and that gets to something deeper and more lasting than this assessment or that one. Would be interesting to try to state the beliefs that inform many scripted programs. What do they belief about the ability of children? What do they believe about teachers? And what do they belief it means to read and the deepest most meaningful level?

  11. What a brilliant post, Vicky! Thanks for sharing the soon to be released title (The Teacher You Want To Be) and your thoughts on celebrating core teacher beliefs. I believe this topic is critical as we are in a time of great educational flux (aren’t we always!). Although it takes years of experience to develop strong beliefs, I would love to know if current university programs for future teachers spend time addressing Routman’s wise mantra. In a Pinterest/Teachers Pay Teachers world, how are we making “what we know is true” come first for children?

    • You reminded me, Lisa, that the New York Times recently wrote a piece on Teachers Pay Teachers, touting it as a great resource. Yet you and a group of teachers I worked with over the summer made a critical distinction between going online to grab an easy resource and really thinking about what we’re trying to teach and why. My fear is that while too many college do teach educational theory and philosophy, such a Vygotsky, Piaget and Bruner, they don’t prepare teachers to critically assess how various resources do or don’t support those theories – as in, I’m not sure they help them become critical consumers. Here’s hoping that’s yet another thing that can change!

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