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Lisa Birno: Reflecting On The First Heinemann Fellowship

Last month we announced the incoming class of Heinemann Fellows and said good-bye to the inaugural group. The second cohort is preparing to meet in late June and it will be some time before they are ready to share their action research projects on this blog. So let's look back on the great work the first cohort did and continues to do as part of their projects!

Lisa Birno is a teacher at Forest Hills Elementary School in the Eden Prairie Public School System of Minnesota. Her action research question as a Heinemann Fellow is, "What instructional strategies are most effective in promoting equitable and engaged talk in a Midwestern, suburban sixth grade self-contained classroom?"

In her first post, Lisa discussed the purposeful use of talk:

As a district we began exploring how better to meet the needs of our diverse community, but it was a wise mentor who pointed me toward the purposeful use of talk. She helped me see that talk is the foundation of literacy. I began to read about accountable talk: Peter Johnston, Maria Nichols, Ellin Keene, all helped me see clearly what James Britton described: “Reading and writing float on a sea of talk.” As I continued working with struggling readers, my beliefs shifted. I saw that these readers are often still struggling simply because we haven’t figured out the best way to teach them. It was humbling to say the least.

I realized that the purposeful use of talk unlocked many of the barriers my students faced. I saw that talk didn’t just level the playing field for my struggling students. When we used talk effectively, even the highest-achieving students benefited.

The Heinemann Fellows: Lisa Birno on Purposeful Use of Talk

In a follow-up post later in the year, she told a story of how a student helped her to create a safe, supportive learning community:

Najma wanted to be a reader. She chose books that were popular with her peers. She told me she’d learned to love books in fifth grade and wanted to read a lot this year. Her letter left me with much to ponder. I struggled with wanting to name all that was missing. I stopped myself. She wanted to be a reader and she wanted to read with her peers. That was what I needed to focus on.

Najma revealed her story in bits and pieces. First, she mentioned that many of her relatives were dead. When the other students asked why, she told them she’d rather not talk about it.

The Heinemann Fellows: Lisa Birno On What A Student Taught Her

At the midpoint of the Fellowship, each Fellow sat down and answered some questions for a video blog series. When asked, "What is the one word that describes you as an educator?" Lisa had this to say:



Towards the end of the Fellowship, Lisa, and the rest of the Fellows, wrote reflective blog posts, and made promises to continue the action-research projects:

As I pursued my action research question about the instructional strategies that would increase equity and engagement through the use of purposeful talk, my students’ strengths blossomed. Students with limiting labels contributed to our learning through powerful conversation. They showed me that rigorous and insightful thinking occurs without the ability to read at grade level. They reminded me that “struggling” readers don't struggle in all areas of learning. They demonstrated that deep comprehension doesn’t wait for reading skills to develop. They reminded me of Grant.

The gift of my work as a Heinemann Fellow is the push to dig deep. The thing about pursuing rich work—it spills over into everything. That means looking at how I live by my beliefs. I believe every child is capable of high intellectual engagement. But I hadn’t considered if I express that. How would I have wanted Grant described when I wasn’t there?

The Heinemann Fellows: Lisa Birno On Changing Deficit Language


Lisa Birno is a sixth grade teacher at Forest Hill Elementary School in the Eden Prairie Public School system of Minnesota. Her action research question as a Heinemann Fellow is, "What instructional strategies are most effective in promoting equitable and engaged talk in a Midwestern, suburban sixth grade self-contained classroom?"

Follow Lisa's progress on Twitter @LisaBirno

Please visit the Heinemann Fellows page to learn more.

*The views expressed above are Lisa Birno's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eden Prairie Schools.

Topics: Video, Heinemann, Heinemann Fellows, Action Research, Lisa Birno

Date Published: 06/16/16

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