Today on the podcast we have an excerpt from our new ForwardED slow conference series. Today’s conversation features Irene Fountas, Gay Su Pinnell, and Cornelius Minor.
Irene Fountas is the Marie M. Clay Endowed Chair for Early Literacy and Reading Recovery at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts and director of the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative in the Graduate School of Education. She has been a classroom teacher, language arts specialist, and consultant in school districts across the nation and abroad.
Gay Su Pinnell is Professor Emerita in the School of Teaching and Learning at The Ohio State University and a member of the Reading Hall of Fame. She has extensive experience in classroom teaching, field-based research, and in developing comprehensive literacy systems.
Cornelius Minor is a Brooklyn-based educator. He works with teachers, school leaders, and leaders of community-based organizations to support equitable literacy reform. He is the author of We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be
Together they discuss their vision and values around literacy instruction, providing encouragement to teachers and school leaders to always keep students at the center of their planning, teaching and decision-making.
This conversation is part of Heinemann’s new video series ForwardED: Forward, Together in Education. If you would like to watch the full videos of this and other conversations, you can find them on the Heinemann Publishing Facebook page or YouTube Channel.
Below is a transcript of this episode.
Cornelius: You know, one of the thing that I'm thinking about as I think about this moment too is, like you all have always been kind of the folks that I turn to when I'm thinking about how to make sense of a moment. Like what feels really important to you in terms of reading right now?
Irene: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Um, simplistic solutions to complex issues. Meaning, ha, you know, there is such a drive to, you know, come up with one answer, one solution, and lose the complexity of educational systems, particularly for black and brown children, for poor children, uh, children of poverty, uh, so that we have schools that often shift to blame the children, instead of look at the educational system and the results of what we're doing, ha. I mean, you know, I hope Gay and I can make more of a mark in- in that agenda. Uh, we're- we're really trying, and our most recent work and thinking is very much targeted at school leaders, uh, because we're learning that the school leader's response, even in the example that you gave today, um, is precisely where much of the challenge is because well intended school leaders, um, who are trying to implement with fidelity, that's another word I just think, um, is a challenging (laughs), uh, are losing the complexity of the fact that children learn as individuals and we are collectively responsible for the individuals who arrive at our door.
And, um, that means complex approaches to literacy learning, uh, and everything else, and looking at literacy in a broader lens. Literacy in science and social studies and how kids are using literacy in their lives. So this, you know, we're gonna give you a script. We're gonna give you a program. It's going to be the answer to everything, um, is a waste of money, resources, and in fact, insulting to teachers (laughs). So, we're- we're working, uh, we're- we're really targeting our work now to work more with administrators, coaches, um, people who take a leadership role in- in, um, supporting teacher development. Gay, do you want to say more about that? And then we've got questions for you, Cornelius (laughs).
Gay: Uh, well what I was, I was going to ask is, you have painted a- a picture of how you came in as an, into education as a teacher, as a very young beginning teacher, wet behind the ears. Uh, can, how did you begin to develop the- the values and- and the vision that you have today? Can you say anything about that- that journey?
Cornelius: Absolutely. I think, um, and- and this is a word that I use often, but in many ways, it was like love. Like I watched kids falling in love with books, and I watched how that happened organically and I watched how that happened in connection to their friends and in connection to their families and in connection to their experiences. And- and so, and- and every time I saw it happen, every time I saw a kid love a book, um, I just made the mental note, this is not how the curriculum told me that it would go, right. This is not how the script told me that it would go.
And so, after a while, I was like, I think I have enough steam, uh, as a teacher to cultivate the kind of love that I want to see in a reading classroom in ways that matter to kids. Like, and- and I remember the first time that I stepped away from a script that had been handed to me. There was a bodega across the street. Um, I'm in New York City. Um, so there was a bodega across the street with a very popular bodega owner. And if you're not in New York City, bodega's a small corner store, and everybody goes to the small corner store in- in the morning. So, you are on a first name basis with the person that runs the corner store. And the guy that ran the corner store knew all of the sports scores. I was a few blocks away from Yankee Stadium, and he would know all of the sports scores from memory. He would just like read the paper and he'd internalize the whole sports page. And so, you would walk in and he could quote the sports page.
And I would watch kids in awe of him. Kids would be like, "How did he do that?" And I'm like, "Well, he did that by reading this sports page, and he did that by looking at this magazine, or by checking this stat sheet." And kids would be like, "Well, I want to do that." And I'm like, "Wait. This desire to read and to understand and to synthesize data didn't come from some esoteric intellectual place. It came from somebody in the community that they love," right? And- and so, for me, like w- really in that moment, understanding that this man who runs the corner store is an educator. That he is the inspiration behind kids' drive to read informational text in my classroom. You know, and so once I put that together, I'm like, well what else in this community can be an educator? What else in the community can I use to inspire, you know, kids to move toward informational text, for kids to move toward fantasy?
Um, and so really it was that experimentation. And that's why I'm so glad to hear you all advocate for that, that, that I think so many times, especially in toxic school environments and in toxic school communities, people have this expectations that teachers are gonna be perfect, that this teacher's gonna go try this thing and then automatically this kid is gonna become a proficient reader. And one of the things that I learned early is that's not how it goes, that my first few years were a series of trial, error, data collection, trial, error, data collection, trial, error, data collection. And so that idea of action research has been everything for me. Like how do I try something, watch the kids, watch how they respond to it, watch how they grow, watch how they talk about it, refine what I'm doing, and then try that thing again, you know? That- that has been the most radical thing in my professional growth. That- that freedom to make intellectual decisions about the direction that my class is gonna move in. And that's been big for me.
Um, and, you know, and Irene, when you talk about, you know, what has happened recently in this last decade about this idea of equity, that's where it came from, that like my, so much of my work stands on your shoulders, like this idea that okay, I learn from these two that if something isn't working in reading, I can examine the kids. I can examine the thing. I can reconstruct the thing and try it again and see if it works better. And so that's how reading had worked for me. And so I was like, well what about the school community at large? What if there's something in the school community at large. What if there's something in the school community that's not working for girls? What if there's something in the school community that's not working for black and brown children or queer children or poor children? Just like I did with reading, I can examine the thing in the community that's not working for the kids. I can research the kids, I can reinvent the thing and see if it works better. And so that cycle of trial and data collection has served me in every aspect of the work from- from reading to- to equity, like it served me in every aspect of the work.
And so when I think about, you know, I- I think all the time about the incredible gift that the two of you have given this profession, and I ask myself often, like, "What is the gift that I want to give this profession?" And- and that's what it is. It's that ability to- to really make decisions that are best for children and that we make those decisions by researching children. And research doesn't have to be, you know, I go and do a book link study.
Research can be, let me sit next to this kid today and talk to them about the choices that they're making in their book. Let me sit next to this kid and talk to them about how they feel about this character. Let me sit next to this kid and talk to them about how they feel about this vowel blend, right? You know, all of those, that's research and- and that- that idea that I can observe and act and observe again and act has been an incredibly liberating one for me. And so that's where, you know, that's how kind of I went from, you know, that Cornelius to this one right now and I think I'm still growing in so many ways. Yeah.
Gay: You know, what- what's coming through to me from this is that you're really looking... that you really value children bring to the process. I- I hate this, just always looking for something wrong with the child and okay, now that now we know what it is. Um, it- it- it's your placing a true value on what the individual brings to the process, think, their thinking, their perspectives, what interests them, what they value and the strengths could even be what they know, currently know about letters and sounds and need to know next.
Um, but it's that teacher ability to do that kind of... um, I had a friend who used to call it scientific teaching. Um, and what she really meant was exactly what you said, is you're doing your own research and you're learning from your teaching. And take it to the leadership level, same thing you can learn from- from what you do so that every year, everybody ought to get a little bit better at what we do.
Cornelius: And it's exciting, you know? I think one of the- I think about longevity and what it means to turn a job into a career. And for me, it's that curiosity. It's like, okay, here's what I did last time, I did fantasy with kids. Let's see what I can add to it to make it a little bit different, a little bit more powerful. Or here's what I did last time, I blended vowels with kids, um, and here were the outcomes that last time.
And because I want better outcomes this next time, here's how I might do it differently. Like all of those, those are the questions that sustain me. Like, you know, when- when people ask, "Cornelius, why are you still here?" It's that curiosity (laughs). That's, you know, that like that, "Oh, well I think if I do it one more time, I can get this like new result if I try it this other way." Um, and so that's been really exciting for me. And then- and then the idea too of just allowing kids to bring all of their discoveries with them.
One of my favorite things to do is to talk to kids about like, you know, what they think letters can do or what they think, you know, sounds can do and then like trying on different... you know, like trying on different letters and sounds, and be like, "Oh gosh, you come with this great understanding of the letter Q and so here's all this really cool stuff that we get to do now that you've come with this like really beautiful understanding."
Or you have these really big questions about what that U is doing after the letter Q and so now we can explore all these words and like, and- and like have fun with these big questions. Um, that's again, where my joy comes from, is just like watching kids be like, "Okay, I have this idea about a book, about a character. I have this idea about myself as a reader." Like, "What do you think, Mr. Minor? Can we try this?" You know, those are the fun things, um, for me.
Irene: So Cornelius, um, I've been thinking as you were talking that you are, um, implied in what you're saying is that you, the teacher, and of course other teachers would need to have strong content knowledge about texts and genre and alphabetic system, uh, so that your decisions that honor where children are and keep them, uh- uh, with a sense of agency and drive about their learning, uh, is also, um, moving in a direction because you have a roadmap.
Cornelius: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Irene: Of where it is you want to take them. Because I think there is this tension between what students can do.
Cornelius: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Irene: And what they need to be able to- to know and be able to do to be competent in the world. (Laughs). And, you know, that's a reality that we face in schools. And, you know, I know you- you do a lot of work with the middle school kids and what you're seeing is in many ways, the results of the elementary system (laughs) meaning the children arrived in the middle school, um, and this is what they know and can do and the role of the middle school teachers is to take them from there.
Irene: And I think one of the things that has troubled me, uh, in elementary schools is this quick move to departmentalalized programs, uh, as early as they can to get them ready for middle school and I'm sitting here thinking that you have, I don't know, 25 students for, I don't know how long a period is in your middle school, but I'm guessing it's under an hour.
Cornelius: Yeah, [crosstalk 00:32:14]. Yeah.
Irene: (Laughs). And you have these 25 individual kids with all of this interest in intellectual curiosity and different needs and one teacher in the room who's going to get to know 25 kids and make decisions for each of them to bring them forward in a few hours a day (laughs), 180 is in a year and it's- it's this meet them where they are and take them as far as you can take them and you can't do any of it if you don't know them well. And when we look at middle school teachers who see maybe 150 different kids in a day, how well can you get to know 150 kids where the elementary teacher might need to get to know 25 or 30?
So this shift from our vision of what can happen in elementary schools. And the reality of what happens in the middle school, um, I think is a challenge for the educational system. I would be holding off departmentalization as long as I could, uh, in order to know the whole child and to be able to make those kinds of decisions that are-
Cornelius: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Irene: Um, supportive to the chil- to the whole child, not simply-
Cornelius: You know-
Irene: Go ahead.
Cornelius: And so... I mean, that's huge. Like so much of what I have learned, um, hasn't just been I pronoun, it's been we, you know? I am, you know, I make no secret about like, you know, the team at Sunset Park Prep which is, you know, my favorite middle school on the planet. Um, you know, I'm here in Brooklyn, so shout out to Brooklyn. But the team at Sunset Park Prep, um, I've been there for over a decade now. And that group of teachers has taught me more than anything I've learned in life, right? Because we- we think about the kids together, we plan for the kids together, s- sometimes we argue together, but like, but that idea that, yeah, we see kids for 50 minute chunks.
And so what the math teacher learns about a particular kid that's gonna see me later on in the day is important for me to know, right? Um, and so we share that data across like teams. Um, and one of the things that has been really powerful and I love how you talked about teacher content knowledge, we also have had to share our professional learning together, that if I learn a thing about how a kid can practice reading a text, then I take what I learn about practice and I might share it with the social studies teacher so that they can think about how they might repurpose and apply that to practice.
You know, if I learn a thing about, you know, decoding words, I might share that with the science teacher because kids are gonna run into the same decoding issues in science. And so I love your idea there of yeah, like teacher learning is really, really important. And I think we exist in an ecosystem right now where people wanna take shortcuts around teacher learning. And so there are school leaders who will say instead of like cultivating teacher learning and instead of building time for teacher learning, I'm just gonna give my teachers the script to follow.
Um, and I think again, having, you know, Jen, the principal at Sunset Park Prep create time for us to learn and to study together has made it where we can make decisions, you know, in the moment. We can make decisions the week before, we can make decisions after we have like had an experience with children that all benefit kids. And so we don't have to rely on Jen to hand us things because she's given us the time for us to study and learn together so that we can make decisions. And so I think that-that's a really important point when we think about the way forward for the profession.
The way forward cannot be scripted, the way forward cannot be teacher-proofed, rather the way forward must be like reflection, thinking, planning, execution, then reflection again, planning, thinking. You know, I think especially now as we recover from this pandemic, right? That we're all coming back in these different ways. Um, I haven't been in a physical classroom in months. Um, and- and- and so it's kind of interesting like my friends and I were talking the other night, I don't even know if I still got it, right?
You know, like I'm Zoom life now. And so like really... But- but then that too is a process of study so we're all studying together right now to really think about, "All right, we've been on Zoom for 18 months, now we're headed back this fall, let's about how that's gonna go. Um, let's think about that transition." And so again, all of that for me, I feel like I've gotten it from you all. You all have really, and your work has really just freed me to say, "I can try a thing. I can study the impact that that thing has on children and community, I can refine the thing and try it again." Right? That's just been so valuable for me.
Irene: But, you know, Cornelius, you're- you're describing a culture of collaboration and teacher growth.
Cornelius: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Irene: Uh, so what you're saying is that you are all both learning from each other, but all ta- also taking, um, collective ownership for the student outcomes. Uh, and that doesn't exist in a lot of schools, uh, and in... And I think teachers don't always- aren't always, um, looked to, uh, with that kind of... And I- I think the word is respect. I mean, my greatest respect is with the teachers who are working with the children in front of them every day and not second guessing, but rather asking the teacher why they made the decisions they made so I can un- get behind the teacher's thinking. And I think if we as school leaders or coaches, or, um, anyone who has a role in school improvement could get behind teachers thinking, getting behind school leaders thinking because it's getting back to the rationales that will lead us to good decisions for children and good decisions for schools.
Cornelius: And I think that's a good thing especially now in this impulsive moment, right? Everybody is response, response, response, response. Um, and I just love your call. Like we can actually take the time to think, um, you know-
Gay: Time is- time is the most valuable commodity (laughs).
Irene: I know.
Cornelius: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Gay: And it's very scarce in schools. Um, and the kind of collaboration you're talking about in itself takes time and it best if it's part... it's just seen as part of my job. Um, and we don't talk about, um, my children and your children and the first grade teachers' children, it- every kid who enters that school is our children. And, um, taking the time to communicate in that way both to colleagues and to kids is really important. So it's- it's culture, it's community.
Cornelius: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Irene: You know, we've talked a lot today about, um, child centered instruction and responding to individuals and their uniqueness and their strengths and building on strengths. Um, what do you think is the role of whole group and small group teaching in schools? And I know that might differ in middle school versus elementary, but I mean, I- I think this is a reality for one teacher in a classroom and I'd be really curious about your thoughts.
Cornelius: Yes. Absolutely. And so, like uh, I think first like, it's important to establish like, when I think whole group and small group um, I don't necessarily think about it in binary terms. So, I don't think either or. It's either whole group or it's small group. I don't think in that way. I don't think binaries serve anyone. Um, but I like to think of it as what we typically call whole group, I ask the question, what is the direction that I'm moving the class in? And what do I need to demonstrate for them in terms of literacy so they continue to move in that direction at a steady pace? So, that's how I determine my lesson.
Cornelius: So, what's the overall direction I need to move this class in? Um, and then what do I need to demonstrate for them in a work shop setting, right, so that they can move in that direction? So, that direction might be I need to model for kids how to think critically about character. That's the direction we're moving in and so, in order to move in that direction, today I'm gonna model for them how to pay specific attention to what a character says and make inferences about who that person is.
And so, that question, that's what I ask myself. Like again, what's the overall directions that we're moving in and then, what do I need to model for them today so that we can move into- in that direction? So, that kinda dictates kinda what I would call, I guess, my whole group. Right?
But, here's what happens when you model for kids. The kids have these like, ah has, or kids have these moments, right? And so, a kid might say, "Oh, you're talking about how characters talk to one another. My uncle speaks in this way. So now, I can make the inference that my uncle must be the kind of person who... " And so, then I take a quick mental note of that. So, when I go talk to this kid later on today individually, this kid's schema for understanding character analysis is gonna flow through their understanding of their uncle. And so, that's a quick mental not that I might make.
Cornelius: And, and, and I might go work with that kid 10 minutes from now during independent reading time. Or another kid might chime in and be like, "My uncle's the exact same way and so is my grand dad." And so, now I'm collecting the data. That's three kids who's schema for understanding character ro- runs through their family. And so, what that might communicate to me is like, oh my gosh, this isn't a single kid thing. This might be a small group thing where I can gather these three students who all understand character analysis through the lens of their families and I can help them to work on this. And so, that might tell me that that needs to be a small group.
Or what might happen is the classroom might completely erupt and now everybody's talking about their family. So now, I've lost control of the lesson and everybody's talking about their family. But it's interesting that verb, control. That verb control is a really colonial verb. I haven't lost control of the lesson. They have taken the learning for themselves.\
Irene: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Cornelius: And so now, I'm like, "Okay, so now this is a moment where I need to pivot away from talking about character explicitly and I need to pivot toward talking about how we understand family and then make the very specific connections to character analysis."
Um, and so, those are like, some and so, so, when I plan, I don't plan, here's gonna be my small group. Here's gonna be my like, one on one conference. Here's gonna be my whole group. I plan, what's the direction I'm gonna move kids in, what I need to model for them, what are kids bringing, how do- how might I respond.
So, my plans look like a series of if/then statements. It's almost like a commuter programmer. When you code um, it's like, if this happens, then here's a direction that I can move. If this other thing happens, here's a direction I could move. If this thing happens to one kid, then I'll move in that direction in a conference. If this thing happens to three kids, I'll move in that direction in a small group. If this thing is like, wall fire, I'll move in that direction whole class.
Um, and so, so, it's again, I- I- I'm really teaching myself right now and I'm, I'm growing into this every week, right? But I'm really teaching myself how to be less realistic in my approach, more impressionistic in my approach. So, when we think about art, right? We think impressionist use like, dots, right? Like colonialism, right? And so, I think about like, all right, here is you know, small group ish, right? (laughs) so like, so that kind of thing. Yeah.
Irene: And teaching is complex, isn't it?
Cornelius: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And, and one of the beautiful things... Again, I work with a team, right? And so, there are two other teachers in my hallway specifically who like, call me out all the time. They're like, "Well, Cornelius, you missed a moment to do this thing. When that kid said this, you could have pivoted in this direction to support them."
And so, my current like, course of study for myself is I'm just learning how to be more nimble in that way. Um, and so what that has meant for me personally and you two know me, I, I am a very type-A personality. I like to plan from point A to point B. I like to have everything organized. And so, I've had to let go of a little bit of that so that I can listen more so that I can respond um, more powerfully.
Um, but all of this gets back to what you said early. That I can pivot like this because there are people in my hallway who have ensured that I have the content knowledge. So three are people in my hallway who have ensured the I understand character analysis. There are people in my hallway who have ensured that I understand inference. There are people in my hallway who help me you, you know, because one of the things that we notice in middle school is that kids are still having some decoding issues, right?
And so, so, so there are people in my hallway who are like, "Cornelius, even though this is typically the realm of elementary school teachers, you need to learn some of this stuff because it's important for the work that you are doing." And so, there are people in my hallway who hold me accountable for building my own content knowledge. Um, and so, that's, that's also been an interesting thing to be able to talk publicly in the hallway about here's a thing that I don't know, but my kids need it so I gotta learn it.
Um, and, and, and being able to have the professional like, space to say that um, and the professional humility to say that has been a really radical act on behalf of our leader. That she's really made the professional space for us to be like, "Ya know what? There are some seventh graders who are still grappling with these like, you know, you know, outlines," And so, that's not typically our world, but we need to learn that and here's the space where we can learn that.
Irene C. Fountas is the Marie M. Clay Endowed Chair for Early Literacy and Reading Recovery at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts and director of the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative in the Graduate School of Education. She has been a classroom teacher, language arts specialist, and consultant in school districts across the nation and abroad. She is the recipient of the International Literacy Association’s Diane Lapp & James Flood Professional Collaborator Award, and the Greater Boston Council and the International Reading Association’s Celebrate Literacy Award. Currently, she works with administrators, coaches and teacher leaders in systemic school improvement.
Gay Su Pinnell is Professor Emerita in the School of Teaching and Learning at The Ohio State University and a member of the Reading Hall of Fame. She has extensive experience in classroom teaching, field-based research, and in developing comprehensive literacy systems. She is the recipient of the International Literacy Association’s Diane Lapp & James Flood Professional Collaborator Award, The Ohio State University Alumni Association’s Medalist Award, the International Reading Association’s Albert J. Harris Award for research in reading difficulties, the Ohio Governor’s Award, the Charles A. Dana Foundation Award, The Eastern New Mexico University Hall of Honor, and a 2018 recipient of an honorary doctorate Lesley University for her contributions to literacy education.
Cornelius Minor is a Brooklyn-based educator. He works with teachers, school leaders, and leaders of community-based organizations to support equitable literacy reform in cities (and sometimes villages) across the globe. His latest book, We Got This, explores how the work of creating more equitable school spaces is embedded in our everyday choices—specifically in the choice to really listen to kids. He has been featured in Education Week, Brooklyn Magazine, and Teaching Tolerance Magazine. He has partnered with The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, The New York City Department of Education, The International Literacy Association, and Lesley University’s Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative. Out of Print, a documentary featuring Cornelius made its way around the film festival circuit, and he has been a featured speaker at conferences all over the world. Most recently, along with his partner and wife, Kass Minor, he has established The Minor Collective, a community-based movement designed to foster sustainable change in schools. Whether working with educators and kids in Los Angeles, Seattle, or New York City, Cornelius uses his love for technology, hip-hop, and social media to bring communities together. As a teacher, Cornelius draws not only on his years teaching middle school in the Bronx and Brooklyn, but also on time spent skateboarding, shooting hoops, and working with young people.