When we talk about independent reading, often times the topic of trust comes up.
In their new book, Trusting Readers: Powerful Practices for Independent Reading, co-authors Jennifer Scoggin, Hannah Schneewind provide us with an accessible guide with tools teachers can use to grow enthusiastic and independent readers.
Jen and Hannah help us craft reading experiences centered around students’ engagement, instructional needs, and identities as readers. Their goal is to provide spaces for students to develop a sense of agency as readers and for teachers to make decisions that reflect the needs of the students in front of them. They write that “when teachers trust themselves and trust their students to create reading experiences that matter, they positively impact student growth.”
In this special podcast conversation, Jen and Hannah are interviewed by Heinemann author Carl Anderson. Carl is an internationally recognized expert in writing instruction for Grades K-8, working as a consultant in schools and districts around the world. Carl is the author of numerous books on teaching writing, including the bestselling How’s It Going? A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers and A Teacher's Guide to Writing Conferences.
Below is a transcript of this episode.
Carl: Hi everybody. This is Carl Anderson. I'm a Heinemann author and literacy consultant, and it is my great privilege today to be talking with Jennifer Scoggin and Hannah Schneewind. They're the duo known as Trusting Readers. And we're going to be talking about their book today, their marvelous new Heinemann book, Trusting Readers, Powerful Practices for Independent Reading. So let's start with introductions. Jen, tell us about yourself.
Jen: Hi, thank you, Carl, for doing this. We're excited to be here this morning. I'm Jen. I started teaching first and second grade in Harlem, New York, where I was privileged enough to work with some amazing colleagues who really taught me what it meant to trust others and to be trusted in this work. During that time, I spent a ton of time running up and down Morningside Park and that hill going to get my doctorate at Teachers College. And I think it was those two experiences being in the classroom and alongside all of my colleagues, and then at the same time being steeped in all the research, that made me feel like I wanted to put something into the world that was practical and actionable, but based in research. Then I left the classroom to start doing consulting and that's where I got to meet Hannah.
Carl: So Hannah, could you introduce yourself?
Hannah: Sure. So Carl, first of all, I do want to say thank you so much for doing this. I am happy to say that I have known Carl both as a friend and as a colleague for over 20 years. So it's really lovely to have you doing this for us. So thank you. So I'm Hannah, and I was fortunate because I started teaching at PS 321 in Brooklyn, New York. PS 321 was one of those amazing places with a really trusting and collaborative atmosphere, so I could go to the first grade teacher next door and I could say, "Hi, how are you doing this?" I could watch her do it and then I could run back to my classroom and try it myself. So I have to say that PS 321 is really where I came to be who I am now as a teacher.
After being there for about 10 years, I went and I worked at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project for 10 years. That really expanded my understanding, as I worked in schools all over New York City. Then I really, really missed the classroom, so I went back to teaching first grade and I love that, and it also really helped me be grounded, and this is really hard. Yeah, you have to write report cards and do running records and do this. So that was a really enjoyable but also important experience. And then I decided to go back to consulting and that's when I met Jen.
Carl: Well, that is a perfect segue because I would like you both to talk about how you came together as the coauthors of Trusting Readers.
Jen: Hannah and I have always shared our experiences with each other and kind of pitched ideas back and forth when we were consulting. And we noticed that there wasn't a lot of conferring happening in classrooms or teachers would repeatedly tell us that they wanted to confer more with their readers, but there were all these obstacles in the way. So originally we were on a train ride to New York City together and we set out to make it easier. We sketched out the original ideas for our cycle of conferring on a piece of scrap paper and started thinking through that and then just got into the classroom and started with conferring with as many kids as we could.
What we found out was that we couldn't necessarily make conferring easier because reading is so complicated and unique to each individual student. But what we did discover was a lot about every student's reading identity and how important it was to really listen to students and discover how they positioned themselves as readers and what kind of work they felt was important to them. And then it felt like we were onto something, and we were off and running with kids all over.
Carl: Great. I've been following the progress of your book for a couple years now, as I've talked to particularly Hannah about... I'd be calling her and she'd be working on a chapter on a Saturday morning. So it is so great that the two of you came together and thought together and wrote this book together, and now we get to talk about it. So I have a bunch of questions that I want to ask you that I hope will just open up a lot of the things that you talk about in the book. And I'm going to start with that with this question. So the word trust is central to your book. It's the first word of your title. You talked about a crisis of trust around the teaching of reading early in the book and the word is also in the title of both sections of your book, trust in independent reading and trust conferring. Could you talk about the importance of the word trust in your thinking about reading instruction?
Hannah: Sure. So Jen and I listened to a lot of teachers, both in schools and at conferences, and then we wanted to really figure out what was getting in the way of independent reading. What was getting in the way of conferring? Being teachers, of course we took copious notes and then what we ended up doing was we took each idea and we put it on a sticky note. And then we started categorizing those sticky notes to figure out, again, what were the obstacles to conferring in independent reading. And when we looked across all of our notes, we realized that each one of them was in some way related to trust. So we realized that in many places, the current climate of education leaves teachers feeling as if they can't trust their knowledge, they can't trust their instincts. They feel pressure to maintain fidelity to a particular program or a particular curriculum.
This has led many of them to feel as if they can't trust their students as readers because they themselves are under so much pressure to raise test scores or reading levels. So they stopped feeling as if they could trust that kids really reading and working at independent reading time. In thinking about reading instruction we want teachers to trust that they can use their knowledge of the reading process and their knowledge of their students to decide on what really makes sense as next steps for each student in their classroom. We know that students come into the classroom already living their reading lives. They already have intentions for themselves as readers. We can really trust those intentions.
Carl: I think one thing that stands out to me, having read your book now several times, is how much you trust teachers in the way that you write about reading instruction, the way you write about teaching. I think the tone of your book is so marvelous. It felt so comfortable, and I felt so trusted as a professional reading your book. So here's another question. In part one of your book, which you call Trust Independent Reading, you put independent reading at the center of the teaching of reading. You write that, "Independent reading is proven to be an indispensable and indisputable foundation for solid reading instruction." Could you talk about this?
Hannah: Jen and I love research. We love research to the extent that our wonderful editor Zoe had to keep reminding us very politely that we were not writing a dissertation and that no one really wanted to read a lengthy research review. So that one sentence actually is a summary of lots and lots and lots of research. So this is how we define independent reading. We define it as being based on four principles, the principle of time, choice, talk, and teacher support. And each one of those principles has mountains of research behind it. So for example, time, time means that students need long uninterrupted stretches of time to immerse themselves in books. Richard Allington's research supports that. He writes that, "Extensive reading is critical to the development of reading proficiency."
Reading is critical to the development of reading proficiency. So choice means that students are free to choose what they want to read without being limited by levels. We know that students need to read books that they can read with accuracy, fluency and comprehension. We also know that there's extensive research also by Richard Ellington, that finds students are more motivated to read when they can choose text themselves. So there's a balance between books that they can read with accuracy and books that they are engaged and talk. So we know that the more students can talk about the books, the more they'll make meaning of them. In the wonderful book on book clubs, Dr Sonja Cherry Paul says that discussion is where we are able to see the transference and application of reading strategies and students take ownership of their reading lives.
So in independent reading, students have the choice to talk informally with the person next to them because that's what's natural to do, especially if you're six years old. There might be a formal partner time, they might be chatting with each other with a group of kids and of course, there's lots of time to talk with their teacher. Then the last part of independent reading is teacher support. We want to be really clear about that, independent reading is not simply giving kids time to read, it is giving kids time to read with teacher support. So we know for example from John Hattie, that feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning.
Jen: I just wanted to add on a little bit here to what Hannah is saying, because we also want to acknowledge the role of engagement in independent reading, as Hannah said, we're research nerds and Ellin Oliver Keene's work on engagement really influenced our thinking. So we played around with the idea of including engagement in each as its own principle of independent reading, but ultimately the more time we spend in classrooms observing children and thinking about engagement in independent reading, it occurred to us that that's really as this overarching idea that interacts with time and choice and talk and teacher support. So it's not a fixed entity, it's something that teachers can gauge and look at and record and then think about how can they create new and different invitations for kids to engage with their independent reading lives more fully at school.
Carl: Thank you and just as somewhat of an expert on being someone who's an expert on your book right now, I think one of the things that really stands out to me in your discussion of independent reading is just how much it's the sun in the center of the solar system. I just think you're writing about how just about everything that happens around reading is ultimately angled towards independent reading. Of course you talk about conferring a lot in the book, but partnerships, read aloud, everything is ultimately about how do we support independent reading and build kids' independent reading lives. I learned so much reading all about that, that your many thoughts about all of that in the book.
All right. So I have so many questions I want to ask you. So you also write in the book about independent reading, you say that independent reading should not be a luxury for any child, educational equity demands that we do what we know works best for all students, rather than some students. Independent reading is every student's right. It's such a powerful statement and I'd love for you to talk about this further.
Hannah: We could talk about this for a really long time, so I'll just highlight a few things that are behind that statement. So first of all, according to the recent Scholastic kids and families report, only 34% of teachers say that they set aside time for independent reading. When asked about what gets in the way of independent reading teachers cite curriculum demands as the biggest obstacle. We also know that in schools where independent reading does happen daily, there are often particular groups of students who are not getting to participate in that time, that might be for a myriad of reasons. They're getting pulled out of the classroom for other services, they might be getting put on a computer program instead, so we really need to ask ourselves who are the students who are not getting independent reading and why not?
In many places intervention is actually the issue. We have a tremendous number of students receiving various interventions, too many of these services are offered as pullout services, again that tends to happen during independent reading. So we feel very strongly that the decision to not allow some students time to read independently is really rooted in a deficit mindset. So it comes from the thought that there are certain students who can't or won't or don't want to read independently. We know that all students can and want to read independently.
Carl: I'm going to piggyback on what you just said about the deficit mindset and talk about one of the, I think really important threads in your book. You talked about the role that implicit bias plays in all aspects of teaching and you write in the book that as educators positioned within historically bias system, we have a responsibility to acknowledge our own biases and how they impact as we listen to children talk about their identities as readers. I would love for you to talk about how you help teachers with this vitally important work of confronting their implicit biases, which all of us have.
Jen: We all have implicit bias and I think it's so critical as teachers that we acknowledge those biases and kind of keep them in our minds as we're listening to students to really be careful about our language, our decision-making expectations we put upon students because as Hannah said, we do believe that the reason some students aren't getting the independent reading time they deserve is because there are belief that they can't, or they won't or they don't, which I think all maps back to bias. So I think in our book, we think about the big and the small ways, with a bias might impact how a teacher responds to a child who is having a moment where they're obsessed with graphic novels, and they just want to read every title and a series that's a graphic novel series that's very silly.
Even the judgment of, could you read another book or another graphic novel? Some of those, they may seem like a joke or it may seem very tame, but we're sowing seeds of self-doubt in the child, that the choices that they're making are somehow less valid than the choices we want them to make and it takes away some of that ownership. Of course, bias can be huge when you're saying things like, well that child doesn't want to or he can't or she doesn't and that's very dangerous. So I hope that we help teachers by really playing up the idea of listening to versus listening for.
That's an important distinction for us that when we're listening to our students, as they construct their identities, as readers, as we listen to them and think about what they're telling us as feedback that we can use in our instructional decision-making and our interactions with them. That's very different than listening for the student to make a mistake or listening for a student to say something that might confirm a bias that you have and you're really almost like a hammer looking for nails in that situation. So listening is important to us, the idea of listening to everything children say as feedback with an idea of nonjudgmental relentlessness. We're always approaching our students from a nonjudgmental standpoint, with the belief that they want to do this work, that they can do this work, and it's our responsibility to create those invitations for them to engage.
Carl: This is a follow-up to that. One of the things that you take on in your discussion of implicit bias, is some of the language that sometimes used to describe children, like "the low children" or the high-flying children. I'm just curious how you take that on in your work.
Jen: I think we really want teachers to think critically about the ways that we speak about children, and taking on the asset mindset around how we talk about and describe students. Because even though it may sound like a quick shorthand to say The struggling readers, it really cement some ideas of what our expectations ultimately can be for that child. It leads to something. We're playing around with this term of label-led decision-making. That when our decision-making is led by these labels, and they're rooted in deficit, it limits the possibilities we see for them instructionally, and really colors are in our feedback with them. So, by starting with strength, which is something we hope comes through very clearly in the book, is this idea of naming strength for students and using it as our jumping off point, we're hoping to undo some of those language habits that happens sometimes in schools.
Carl: I'm going shift our conversation now towards the second part of your book, in which you discuss conferring with readers. You say very simply, "The benefits of conferring are well-established." I'd love for you to talk about this.
Jen: Like Hannah said, we're research nerds. We're not kidding when we say that all of our definitions are built on a tremendous amount of ... We need to stop reading. Research does suggest heavily that one-on-one conferring is the best way to not only uncover a reader's attitude towards reading, but to explore how they interact with texts and to form theories about the reader that we can use to guide our future feedback with them in the conference. Plus conferring really offers teachers and students that time to build and maintain a trusting relationship. You need that one-on-one time combined with the collective experience as a class to build and maintain, and sometimes repair, trust throughout the year. Similar to our definition of independent reading, we came to the exact same definition of conferring. Time plus choice plus talk plus teacher support is what creates impactful conferring. Just because we believe teachers need the time, students deserve the time to construct their identities, reconstruct their identities, pursue their own intentions as readers, to create those relevant pathways for instruction.
We want them to have that choice of where their reading life is to go and what they want to explore as readers. We want students and teachers to have time to talk together about that, for teachers to model and think about next steps feedback while children give us feedback about where they are in their thinking and their reading growth. Then, finally, that teacher support piece, which is critical to conferring, is that we're then doing that listening to our students to determine, "Am I going to name a strength today? Am I going to give the student next steps feedback about what might come next? How can I offer an opportunity to say, 'Do you want to do this on your own while I'm here? Do you want to do this together? How is this going to go for you?'" Is really what leads to the most impactful conferring for us.
Carl: Yeah, I have to say that I love how you describe yourselves as research nerds. Trusting readers/research nerds, I think it's great. Another way of talking about yourselves. Just following up on the conferring question. I think one of the, as someone who's written extensively about conferring and writing, and I know how hard it is to really describe what is a very complex practice, sitting with the child. I love in the second part of the book, how you talk about the conferring cycle. You talk about three kinds of conferences. The discovery conference, the intention conference, and the impact conference. I think that is really, really helpful to help people think about just what are some of the different things we're trying to do in conferences. I don't know if you wanted to add something too, on top of that.
Hannah: Sure. First of all, I do have to note that, Carl, you are the person who actually taught me how to confer in writing. I hope that you feel as if we are able to do justice to all of the wonderful things that you taught me. We had started out, as Jen said, we had started out to make teachers feel as if conferring was easier. There is no way to make conferring easier. Carl, as you just said, it's a very complex act. Well, you can, however, make teachers feel a lot more confident in what they're doing. The first thing we did was we listened to what teachers' worries about conferring were. They said things like, "We don't know what to teach," or, "We're worried we're going to teach 20 different things," or, "We're worried we're going to teach something and it's the wrong thing and then the child doesn't do anything with that."
We developed this three-part framework to address a lot of those teacher concerns. In the discovery conference, you are devoting your time to really getting to know students as readers. You're devoting time to getting to know their reading identity. We really feel as if that is currently a missing part of some of the curriculum.
Then, in the second conference, the intention conference, it's devoted to collaborating with the student to name the student's intentions for weeding. This is the part where your skill set as a teacher really comes into play. You have to look at all of your big data, all of your formal data, whether it's running records or anecdotal notes, you have to put that side by side with what the child is saying, and then together you develop an appropriate intention.
Then the impact conference is a conference where you provide next steps feedback for the student. That's the conference that most people are used to. Carl, it's what I originally learned from you, which was research, decide, teach. Once you're at the impact conference, that actually is the easiest part, because now you know what it is you're going to be teaching.
So, when you do follow this framework, you know what to teach, you know your teaching will stick because it's really relevant to the student, and it balances being prepared to teach with being responsive.
Carl: Yeah. I love your thinking, both of your thinking, about conferring, and I do think you push the conversation forward beautifully about conferring with kids in general, and certainly conferring and reading, obviously. I have a couple more questions. One of the questions is this. You place a lot of emphasis on getting to know each student's identity as a reader. You see this as the starting point for reading instruction, particularly in reading conferences. Why?
Jen: I think the first reason is it's just more joyful. It really shifts the conference from feeling like this, "Oh god, what am I going to say? Oh no, what am I going to do?" panicked moment, to when you really just allow yourself to listen. It's just fun. I don't know. This year was tough because it was hard to be in schools alongside of children. But when I got to Zoom and confer with readers, and, I don't know, it was the best part of my day, just to sit and listen to children talk about who they are and how they see reading impacting their lives. I think that's a really big thing. It feels good for the teacher and it feels good for the student and we can't have enough joy. I think, in the classroom right now. The second is reading conferring is this unique opportunity to name a student's strengths. We wanted to expand the gaze of what those strengths might entail beyond skills and strategies, which are, of course, very important, into other aspects of a reading life that might transcend beyond the classroom, like how you're choosing books, when you choose to read, the purposes you set for yourself as a reader. So it really expands how we talk about and give feedback to students, and then it opens up possibilities about what the next steps might be to really support that reader in a way that they're feeling confident but also still growing at the same time.
And then the last bit, I think, is when you're looking across the classroom and you're getting to know, let's say, 20, 25 individual little readers. In my mind, they're always young. I don't know. When you're getting to know these readers, patterns start to develop. And as you're listening to children talk about who they see themselves or what their interests are, what they want to do, and you start hearing those patterns emerge, it is a powerful way to impact all your other instruction.
To me, starting in that place and listening to these identities and saying, "Oh, these kids are moving in a similar trajectory. These two students have very similar interests." Then all of the decisions about your read-aloud or what questions are you going to ask in a mini-lesson, or how are you going to frame partnerships, it just falls into place in a much more natural, less forced way by starting with what the children are saying about themselves.
I have a big question to ask you right now, and it comes right out of a quote that I just love in your book. Let me read the quote, and then I'll ask my question. You wrote, "If there's to be any silver lining to this moment in history, let it be that teachers had a hand in putting education back together in fresh, powerful, and more equitable ways that inspire generations of radical dreamers." I'm really curious to hear you talk about this question, how does Trusting Readers help meet the challenges of this moment in history?
Hannah: So, as Jen said, we are research nerds. We have spent a lot of time doing a lot of reading. We've been heavily influenced by the work of Dr. Gholdy Muhammad and Dr. Bettina Love. One of the things that Dr. Bettina Love says is this, "Education can't save us. We have to save education." When we think about going back to school in the fall, we as teachers have a vital role to play in not going back to normal because normal did not serve a great number of children. We have to go back to better.
After reading our book, we hope teachers will seize the moment to set up independent reading in a way that centers students. We hope that schools will no longer feel so attached to these schedules that are defined by a specific number of minutes. This is our opportunity to really act on our teacher agency and change things for the better for students. It's really funny, in the mail yesterday, I got my latest copy of The Reading Teacher, and the front cover of it just says the word hope. So we really hope that our book allows teachers to trust themselves, to trust their students, and we really hope that our book helps teachers to see themselves as agents of change.
Carl: As we're coming to the end of our conversation now, is there anything else that you want to add to all these topics that we've been cycling through?
Jen: Yeah, I think Hannah and I are always thinking about these topics. I think as we read more and we listen more, our thinking continues to grow. And we really would like it to grow alongside other teachers. We do have a number of resources up on the Heinemann website. We have blog posts up there, and we plan to write more. So if people feel willing and gracious enough to interact with those, and we'd love to hear how this is going in teacher's classrooms and really to think alongside of teachers as this work continues to evolve.
Carl: You have been publishing blogs on the Heinemann website. How do people get in touch with you so that they can dialogue with you or be able to be able to talk to you and have you talk to them?
Jen: Sure. Well, we are on all the social media. We are on Twitter at Trusting Readers. We are new and bravely in the new brave world of Instagram, also at Trusting Readers. We have a Facebook page called Trusting Readers. And our email address is also firstname.lastname@example.org. We've made it as easy as possible to find us, I hope.
Hannah: And I will say that when people email us, we email back. We really do. I recently had a high school teacher who was at a presentation we did, and this high school teacher said, "This is the missing part of my teaching." Like, "Oh my gosh, this is incredible. This is what has been missing," so she emailed us. So next year, I'm going to go hang out in her classroom a little bit and see how this works for high school students. We believe in being responsive just so we want teachers to be responsive. So if you email us, we will write back.
Carl: So Jen and Hannah, thank you so much for this conversation today. And thank you so much for the incredibly hard research and thinking and writing that you've been doing over a career that culminates in this unbelievably incredible and just beautiful and such a helpful book, Trusting Readers.
Jen: Well, thank you. This has been a great morning, a great conversation. We're so grateful to you for doing this alongside of us.
Hannah: Yeah. Thank you, Carl.
Dr. Jennifer Scoggin has been a teacher, author, speaker, curriculum writer, and literacy consultant. Jennifer’s interest in the evolving identities of both students and teachers and her growing obsession with children’s literature led her to and informs her work.
Jen began her career teaching first and second grades in Harlem, New York. In her current role as a literacy consultant, Jennifer collaborates with teachers to create engaging literacy opportunities for children. She holds a doctorate in curriculum and instruction from Teachers College, Columbia University and has previously published two books about literacy instruction and life in the classroom.
With Hannah Schneewind, Jen is the co-creator of Trusting Readers, a group dedicated to collaborating with teachers to design literacy opportunities that invite all students to be engaged and to thrive as readers and writers.
Hannah Schneewind has been a teacher, staff developer, curriculum writer, keynote speaker and national literacy consultant. She brings with her over 25 years of experience to the education world. Hannah’s interest in student and teacher agency and her belief in the power of books informs her work with schools.
Hannah began her career as a first grade teacher at P.S. 321 in Brooklyn, New York, and her classroom was used as a model classroom for teachers around the city and country. The trust the administrators placed in her along with the culture of collaboration in the school formed her beliefs in the power and possibilities of schools.
With Jennifer Scoggin, Hannah is the co-creator of Trusting Readers, a group dedicated to collaborating with teachers to design literacy opportunities that invite all students to be engaged and to thrive as readers and writers.
You can connect with them on Twitter at @TrustingReaders