The New Common: Looking at the “Old” Through a Fresh Lens


A telescope is only as good as its lens. Looking at teaching and learning with the right lens will reveal fluid learning connections across the content and among varied literacy modes.

Accepting new arrows into our quiver can be both exciting and overwhelming. However, working smarter, not harder will suggest utilizing tools already present in our toolboxes to their utmost usefulness and ultimate potential across our teaching day and throughout the school year. Employing common practice in this way affords students the opportunity to focus on new information while anchoring firm to rooted schema for sure application of the building, layering, ordering, and categorizing of skills for present and future use.

A perfect example of this exists in the varied modes of writing instruction. Identifying the characteristics of the three modes of writing becomes ambiguous when students and teachers continue to grow their knowledge of multiple genres through deep immersion in varied units of study. If writers and teachers of writing are truly committed to living writerly lives, inevitably, the lines of assigning characteristics to just one genre become blurred. With increased knowledge of genre, we ascertain…it can’t be done. Characteristics once thought to only be associated with one of the three modes: Narrative, Information, or Argument, begin to be recognized in all genres when we naturally and automatically “read like writers” and work to emulate mentor craft over time. In this way, we nurture and promote the transfer of skills to flow freely between modes.

Considering modes of writing, when we introduce a new genre, we begin with immersion into that particular genre. Together with our students we learn all we can from our mentor authors, noting characteristics that are present in like texts. But the phenomenon occurs through the evolution of consciousness as readers of writing. Through repetition of process and familiar pathways towards progress, we find ourselves recognizing common patterns, structures, and craft moves previously thought only to be present in specific pieces. This eye-opening transformation of reciprocity marries the reader and writer that lives inside the holistically literate student and teacher. Growing our thinking in this way affords students the understanding of the transference of core threaded skills from one genre to another that is woven in and out of all components associated with literacy. Separating the two only results in unnecessary struggle and confusion: it’s unnatural to do so and actually more challenging to “teach” and be “taught to” in isolation. The product of teaching literacy concepts in isolation is non-transference. Doing so is counterproductive to the very reason we do what we do…to make skills transferable: from one authentic learning experience to another. We teach for life…not for school.

Recently, I was teaching a lesson in an Information unit of study to several groups of 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade writers. These writers had just finished up a Narrative unit of study and their published pieces were hot off the press. As with every “new” mode focus, I began to solicit and anchor their thinking on the characteristics of our new mode: information. What I found validated what was just described in regards to the need to see “old” in new ways. Student writers generated very concrete and common characteristics associated with information writing. Characteristics such as: headings/subheadings, information, topic, bold-faced words, table-of-contents, pictures, captions, introduction of new vocabulary, facts, etc. were produced.

It was evident that they knew the surface characteristics associated with Information writing, but they failed to recognize the transferrable qualities of craft recently applied during their Narrative study to the new mode of Information writing. Was this gap their fault or the result of negligent reciprocal instruction?

Instantly, I lead them through a deliberate close read of an information piece on hurricanes. During that read, I purposed their lens to identify characteristics of Information writing that they noticed that we could add to our co-constructed Information anchor chart. Through inquiry, writers were able to identify qualities that minutes ago were thought to only be associated with Narrative, not Information texts. Qualities both genres shared such as: figurative language, story structure, and detailed descriptions of events, coupled with interesting ways to utilize punctuation to enhance meaning and the total reading experience.

As teachers we are burdened with purpose. We exist to make a difference: to grow our students. But all too often, we become locked in ineffective and inefficient ways of teaching…hanging on to the familiar security of past practice. Because of these strangely comforting insecurities we continue to allow them to take precedence in our investment of time and teaching. This is due in part to our ripened and matured perspective that we’ve developed about teaching and learning. However, in order to fulfill our innate purpose of truly making a difference, we must begin to see “old things” in brand new ways. Recognizing that the definition of “old” is not “been there, done that,” but rather in need of extrapolation and interpretation with a fresh lens. It is the conscious search for windows of opportunity to explore and sustain transference and fluidity of standards, skills, and concepts that surround the cross genre and cross curricular teaching and learning that occurs throughout the school day and year. Our purpose should include being consciously competent in the area of helping our students make these meaningful and authentic connections of content throughout their school day, school career, and life of learning.

-Val Piccini

Root Cause Analysis: You can’t tell what it is… and you can’t tell what is isn’t


Something happens when you get transparent with yourself…you change. Face the wrestling match within yourself – between your old self and your new self.


Many of us go back to school each fall with healthy ambition. We’ve kept up on our pedagogical profile over the summer months by reading widely, attending professional development and gathering and investigating fresh ideas to strengthen our instructional expertise in the upcoming school year. We begin ambitious, inspired, and inflated. Upon returning, what we now know and own as best practice begins to yield evidence of improvement, student engagement, and progress when we slowly test out our new strategies and modified (previously relied upon) methods of instruction. This slow transformation is transparent not only in our daily anecdotal observations of student collaborative dialogue, but also on paper in the varied ways we assess our students to check and proudly verify that learning is indeed occurring.

We’re excited. We’re renewed. We want to share. We decide to step out into the unchartered waters of reciprocal peer leadership with our colleagues.

What we find is that building community not compliance is not as easy as we romanticized. Despite data surveyed, results inventoried, action taken, and progress made, co-workers are reluctant, passive, and shockingly annoyed by the examination and synthesis of current instructional practice among the team. It becomes almost intrusive…invasive…and painful. Feeling like we’ve stepped on the toes of solid, set in stone, tried and true instructional choices that make up the varied curricular decisions of the unique members of our professional team is a consequence of the initiation and invitation to change.

As a result we begin to question our own motives in this quest for learning transformation. The instructional investigation and integration of best practice in terms of change is not going to occur through seamless metamorphosis as we had imagined or at the very least hoped for. On the contrary, it feels like it may not occur at all. At this point we pause, step back…and make an important decision. We decide not to use our environment as an excuse to why we can’t grow or change. We take on the empowered prospective of “people can’t limit us.” We tighten up our bootstraps, and as Colleen Cruz advises in the Unstoppable Writing Teacher, “We march onto the battlefield.”

Root Cause Analysis

It’s not where we’re planted that determines how high we’ll grow. It’s our persistence. Making excuses in relation to our environment is what inherently occurs. Educational resources in terms of materials, textbooks, “stuff,” can and often do become the reason…the excuse for why true change can’t occur within the four walls of our classrooms. However, the problem with assigning blame in this way is that there is always someone else in some other classroom, district, or third world country…that has less resources available to them than we do, and yet they still successfully find a way to produce outstanding results of student learning and growth.

If not the lack of educational resources at our fingertips to place blame, then we look to people in our environment to assign the blame: hierarchical leaders and outside stakeholders, parents, etc. This cycle of blaming continues to artificially affirm our right to keep doing things the way we’ve always done them, whole-heartedly believing it is all we can do considering the environment we are provided. We believe that we are instructional experts and continue to assume our right to plug along as we always have despite the glaring signs of disengaged students in our rooms, flat-lined or poor test scores, and the continual and constant overall feeling of overwhelming resistance to change festering inside us.

Coming face to face with the devil of decision has not manifested itself into our rationale of “why” yet.



Environment is not an excuse. We cannot justify our growth and as a direct result, the growth of our students, by blaming our environment: people or resources. It is a decision that is executed, a choice we accept, and an excuse that is made.

Root Cause Reflection

We can’t pick what we didn’t plant…harvest what we didn’t sow. Look for test scores that yield prosperity in a field where opportunity for prosperity wasn’t the seed sown. We can’t go looking for something that was not put in ground. Expecting to pick an apple, when we deliberately planted oranges. We must come to the realization that we reap what we sow.

Possessing the kind of defiance in our professional spirit to do more than we’ve done up to this point is where real change will begin to manifest. In contrast, continuing to believe that if we leave something alone it will get better, is not the answer. Nothing grows if you leave it alone.


We must dig around the problem…the “it” and get to the roots.

Acknowledging that where the problem appears is not where the problem started is the first step. It shows at one level, but it is a result of the root that we cannot see. We must be willing to get down and dirty. We must resist the urge to keep trying to fix things at a level that can been seen and start digging beneath the surface.

The root of disappointment in progress made is a result of our own dysfunction. Digging out around “it” and getting to the root is the only way to establish real change. Identifying the “it” is the hard part, but it is also where honest transformation can begin to occur.

What is your “it?”

Many of us are hard wired to want the prosperity, but not the work that precedes it…the digging. We see the fruit of other colleagues, but we fail to see the root work that went into it.

Our problem has been planted for a long time, we can’t get frustrated and give up. We need to keep digging.

Continuing to think and to believe that we are disappointed in our job isn’t the answer because the root of the truth is – we’re probably not. The truth is we are probably disappointed in ourselves. Real change will occur when we stop blaming people and situations and make a decision to stop making excuses.  We need to stop focusing on what is on the surface and start owning our own dysfunction at the root.

In Summary

Stop being mad about the seed that didn’t grow. Start comparing what you see in the harvest to what you planted in the ground. Learn from a season of failure and harness and utilize that failure as fertilizer.

Food for Thought

Our schools are looking for real change through real leaders. Are you up for the challenge?


Reciprocity Blog

Thoughts on Approximation.

Reflecting on the first few weeks of the school year, I find myself grappling with the work that constitutes our Curriculum Framework which is summoned by PA Core. In appreciation of the depth and rigor that the PA Core standards bring to our teaching and learning environments; artfully designing engaging, thought provoking, spiraling, and rigorous lessons that are all-encompassing when it comes to teaching reading and writing across the content, has me advocating for differentiation in a new light: approximation.

This week, we start KidWriting with our Kindergartners, who for those of you in the upper elementary, middle school, and high school classrooms may not remember…these are 5 year olds-writing. 5 year olds who often come to school not knowing how to properly button their pants after pottying, tie their shoes, open their milk cartons at lunch, or successfully be away from their loved ones for an extended period of time without having a mini-meltdown of tears. These mini-meltdowns often require a follow up trip to the guidance counselor, a conference or pep talk from the teacher, a drink from the water fountain and a cool, damp paper towel to freshen their face, or a motivational high-five or handshake from the principal to get them through the day. With all of this being said, these are also the same children who will begin to write…yes write, in their very own writing journals this week.

To put this into even better perspective for you, most of these students are just learning how to master an ergonomic pencil grip that will last them a lifetime, identify all upper and lowercase letters (in and out of order, and on paper, not just in the song they know by heart), mimic the formation of letters when printing, and utilize all the concepts of print including: left-to-write progression, good spacing between words, beginning each sentence with a capital letter, using punctuation of any kind to end a sentence, and most importantly…stretching words to hear the varied sounds that each unique word possesses, otherwise known as phonological awareness. Having these 5 year olds begin to write and write well across all three modes of writing at this young age is a phenomenon that cannot quite be put into any other words than: it’s remarkable…they are remarkable.

Now we all long for things that do not yet exist, or at least that is the case for me. I bring these Kindergarteners to you in this context as a prime example of something that does not yet exist for them, but they are immersed in immediately as they begin their career as a student: Writers Workshop. However, the potential, the dream, and most importantly the ability to approximate on both the students’ and teachers’ part is there. The youngest of writers can actually out-write themselves as readers for a very long time mainly because they know so many words orally that they don’t yet recognize on paper. By fostering approximations of spellings for these words, 5 year old Kindergarten students can write much richer texts than they are able to read independently.

So as we work to interpret and design lessons that will afford our students the opportunities to meet the rigorous standards set forth by PA Core, let us remember to support approximations of our students’ work as they progress to meet the standards. In other words, resist the urge to give students at any grade less well-written texts simply because they are easier for them to read independently. By exposing our readers and writers to rich, well-written, complex mentor texts, in a supportive environment where Close Reading is unfolded in a dialogic community of learners, we are promoting student growth as readers…as writers. These texts are critical to their reading and writing development. Continuing to teeter between the notion of “these standards are too hard for my students,” and “my students are just not there yet…,” will only result in falling short of what they can really accomplish through a supportive approach and a whole-hearted philosophy to promote, nurture, and celebrate approximations.

So go for it! Give them the rich diet of texts that they long for and reap what you sow in terms of the writing that they will produce and the vision that will carry them through any immersive unit of study.

Approximation: the most authentic way to practice differentiation while affording all students the rigor they deserve.

How have you designed instruction that promotes differentiated approximations of learning targets and standards students engage in each day?