Classroom Caffeine

A Conversation with Jennifer Serravallo

June 07, 2022 Lindsay Persohn Season 3 Episode 2
Classroom Caffeine
A Conversation with Jennifer Serravallo
Show Notes Transcript

Jennifer Serravallo talks to us about individualizing learning through the strategies and structures in a teacher’s toolbox. Jen is known for her work in the areas of reading and writing strategies, individualized literacy support for students, and teacher professional development in literacy. Jen is a New York Times Bestselling author of teacher professional resources including The Reading Strategies Book. You can connect with Jen and her work at her website www.jenniferserravallo.com, at her publisher’s website at Hein.pub/serravallo, on Twitter @jserravallo, on Instagram @jenniferserravallo, or by joining The Reading and Writing Strategies Facebook Community.

To cite this episode:
Persohn, L. (Host). (2022, Jun 7). A conversation with Jennifer Serravallo. (Season 3, No. 2) [Audio podcast episode]. In Classroom Caffeine Podcast series. https://www.classroomcaffeine.com/guests. DOI: 10.5240/0391-02D9-5459-1BB9-E67D-0

Lindsay Persohn:

Education research has a problem. The work of brilliant education researchers often doesn't reach the practice of brilliant teachers. Classroom Caffeine is here to help. In each episode, I talk with a top education researcher or an expert educator about what they have learned from years of research and experiences. In this episode, Jennifer Serravallo talks to us about individualizing learning through the strategies and structures in a teacher's toolbox. Jen is known for her work in the areas of reading and writing strategies, individualized literacy support for students and teacher professional development and literacy. Jen is a New York Times best selling author of teacher professional resources, including The Reading Strategies Book, you can connect with Jen and her work at her website at www.JenniferSerravallo.com, at her publishers website at Hein.pub/Serravallo on Twitter @JSerravallo, on Instagram @JenniferSerravallo, or by joining the Reading and Writing Strategies Facebook Community. For more information about our guest, stay tuned to the end of this episode. So pour a cup of your favorite drink. And join me your host Lindsay Persohn for Classroom Caffeine research to energize your teaching practice. Jen, thank you for joining me. Welcome to the show.

Jennifer Serravallo:

Thank you so much for having me.

Lindsay Persohn:

So a few questions for you today. From your own experiences and education, will you share with us one or two moments that inform your thinking now?

Jennifer Serravallo:

Well, less a moment and more just an experience or a pattern of moments maybe. I think back a lot to the time I taught in New York City public schools. I had really large classes, usually the cap was around 34. But sometimes they squeeze an extra kid in here and there. An enormous range of what kids brought to the classroom, from their experiences, their language, culture, of course their literacy skills and their literacy practices. And that wide range and the number of kids that I worked with caused me to really wrestle with how much whole class instruction was really benefiting everyone. Of course, you know, there needs to be some whole class instruction, to give access to grade level texts, to share common experiences, to share common texts, build community, have common knowledge, but I learned that the more I saw them as unique individual learners, really listened to them, watch them at work, took the time to know them, and tailored teaching to their interests, needs and goals, that's really when they made the most progress. So that's really influenced how I organized classroom time, right. What do I make time for that? You know, you never have enough time. Nothing ever, not everything doesn't all fit perfectly. But what am I sure to prioritize. And it's always the small group instruction, and the conferring so that can really meet kids where they are. There's just so many single moments from my teaching experience that I think show the importance of this. Like one of like, one thing that comes to mind is one year I was teaching third grade, and I had this scrolling Evelyn in my class. And Evelyn was, you know, very, very skilled, strong reader, she was able to read texts far beyond the third grade level. And yet, every time I met with her, she was reading books like Poppleton. You know, the Poppleton series, right? She probably was reading those, she probably could read those like in late kindergarten, right? That's how advanced of a reader she was. And so one day I asked her why. I said, Evelyn, you know, do not like the chapter books I have in the libraries are something different I can offer to you? And she told me, the reason I choose Poppleton is because the pages are smooth. I don't like how the rough pages and the chapter books feel. That was literally why she wasn't challenging herself as a reader. And had I never noticed, had I never asked, had I just plowed ahead, right. I mean, that's a simple little story, but it shows how important it is to really pay attention and listen and respond to individual kids. Other you know, takeaway I have from that experience as a classroom teacher is that I learned from my kids that the more specific, explicit, and clear I can be, the more that they will learn. That sounds really obvious, but I saw again and again, how the clarity of my language mattered when I was teaching children how to do something. So now I talk about the importance of strategies and what I mean by strategies are broken down, step by step how tos, so for anything we want a kid to be able to do. Yes, of course, models are great, but we have to explain the steps to get there really clearly. Because a demonstration without a clear strategy, you know, kids don't always know what they're watching for. They don't know what they should be replicating. They don't know what to take away unnecessarily. I mean, some kids will, they'll see a demo, and they'll just go off and do it. But many kids, you know, it could look like we're performing magic, right? Oh, wow, look at how I got these deep ideas about a story. Oh, look at how I added these details that totally transformed my writing. Now you go off and do it, too. And then many kids are left back at their seats, wondering, well, how do I do it exactly? So the demonstration, of course, needs to include an example. But the importance of explicit, clearly articulated steps of how you get there is just so critical. And I think it's because I had, you know, experience teaching kids, like I said, wide range of experiences, who spoke a variety of different languages who, you know, the more explicit I was, the faster the learning happened, and we don't have time to waste. So, you know, I'm very focused on what's going to help us make the most progress in the shortest amount of time while of course, not sacrificing any joy.

Lindsay Persohn:

Jen, everything you've said so far really resonates with me as a former classroom teacher, and as someone who works with both pre service and in service teachers. I mentioned to you before we started talking that some of my classes, use one of your books, The Reading Strategies Book, and what you hit on, there really speaks to why I think my students get so much out of your your resources, because it is that how to, it's really demystifying what that teaching looks like, right? Because like you said, sometimes it does look a little bit like magic, like, look, I did this thing. And here I have this product, this finished product. But without that step by step, I think it goes for students in their path and learning but also pre service teachers and their path in learning. There are these things that teachers do that just seem kind of mystical. And until we really explain it, and I love that you highlight the use of clear teacher language, because that's also certainly in my mind, always a focus of something I'm trying to do on my own teaching and modeling for my own students, and also for, you know, encouraging them to do. So there's, there's so much power in that teacher language. And there's one other thing you said there that comes up again, and again, in conversations on the show, asking kids. You know, you would have never known that Evelyn loves smooth pages, if you hadn't just had a conversation with her. This is another one of those, I think, seemingly obvious, but really mystical things in teaching. It's like sometimes when you want to know, you just ask them. You don't have to perform some sort of, you know, sophisticated assessment instrument, sometimes you can just have a conversation, and you learn so much from that. So I really appreciate you highlighting those aspects of what I think makes a really successful students, successful teachers, and certainly successful learning environments.

Jennifer Serravallo:

Yeah, I think I think as a teacher, I just try to position myself as constantly in awe of what kids are doing, constantly curious, and I genuinely want to know why all the time. Why? Why, you know, what did you do there to figure out what that word was? Or why did you pick this book? Or, you know, what's, what's going right about your writing work today? And what what can I help you with? And yeah, I think the more that we, I mean, it's empowering for kids and it's also really instructive. And we talk a lot about the importance of feedback, teacher to student feedback, right? And the way that we give kids feedback and how that helps them learn. It's been well studied, well documented, and research. But then there's the feedback from kids to us. That's so important, too, right? Tell me how I'm doing. Tell me what's not making sense. Tell me why you're doing that. And the more we can listen, genuinely listen, with real curiosity and interest. I think it's just beneficial to everybody.

Lindsay Persohn:

I think that's really a it's a missing step. And a lot of a lot of feedback around schools is what are the kids say? What do our students have to tell us about what they're doing, what they're learning what they want to know about, how they're progressing? Or like you said, what they think of our teaching, you know, I think that that's all really important work that that I think you're right, we don't hear quite so much about students being the ones providing the feedback. So I love that. Jen, what do you want listeners to know about your work?

Jennifer Serravallo:

Well, you know, sometimes people look at my strategies, books, I've got The Reading Strategies Book you mentioned, The Writing Strategies Book. There's 300 in each of those books, I've got a complete comprehension kit with a number and other 100 strategies there because there's so many strategies Why do I need so many? And the answer is because kids are different, right? Kids are unique, and my work what I try to do was to support teachers, as decision makers, not to give them a script, you know, turn to the next page, follow the next thing the next day, but instead to have some language and tools and strategies and stuff to say and things to show based on what you're seeing, so that you can work in response to what students need. So like we said, before, you know, your look carefully at students as individual learners, and then you have this toolbox. You know, if you're looking at my strategies, books, you have toolbox of strategies of the how tos to help them to do everything from you know, read fluently to understand the characters to have good conversations. In writing to add details, organize their writing, you know, write with, with, you know, better grammar, whatever it is that you're trying to help them to do, and you have the language to do that. And then I also write a lot about structures. So conferences and small groups, again, with the intention that it's a toolbox, these different structures can match your purposes, these methods can match your purpose. So you can pull kids together, flexibly, you know, the groups may always be changing, but the methods that you're using within those groups are in support of what you're trying to help kids to do. So it's really a toolbox, right? The toolbox of structures, toolbox of strategies, to be able to teach responsively to student needs.

Lindsay Persohn:

Well, and that really makes so much sense to me, because I think that that is also where we locate some of that joy, right? We it's not a one size fits all model in order to speak to what kids need, what they want, what they want to learn, we do need a sizeable toolbox of strategies and structures in order to support that kind of thinking. We always want teachers to have the autonomy to make decisions. But we also know that teachers don't have really the capacity to start from scratch with everything. So being able to talk to kids, identify what they what they need, what they want to know, and then matching that up with the strategies and structures makes a lot of sense to me, you know, how do we get the most out of the energy that we're putting into our jobs? And how do we also, of course, maintain that joy and, and support student learning? And so yeah, you really do need a big toolbox for that.

Jennifer Serravallo:

Yeah, there's just not enough time, right? There's never enough time. And teachers work so hard, so many hours beyond the school day to make the learning for kids meaningful, that having to spend time looking at students work, and also inventing all the stuff to say to them, that's a lot of big lift. It's more, it's more than one, you know, full time job. So I think if you can spend your time really looking at students and I can make materials that help you flip and find, you know, the right lesson to respond to what you see, I hope I'm saving teachers time and making making their work a little bit more streamlined, without sacrificing the meaningfulness of what they do.

Lindsay Persohn:

Yeah, that's so very important. And I also the way at least I view your strategies is that while they are specific, and they are structured, they're also really accessible, and they're also easy to adapt, right? So if it's, if it's almost what you need, there's a lot of really great inspiration, I mean, to down to the words to say in order to adapt that to a specific student's needs or to the needs of your classroom. So I really appreciate the way that you present those ideas, they're easy to flip through and to find what you need and, and giving teachers the language I think is is kind of half the battle because you've worked you've worked it out right in and in detail, and you've worked out the precision of that language and even as let's say a mentor text right, if you are adapting it, you can use those words you can use the structures of the language and then much more readily incorporate any specifics that you might need for the students in front of you.

Jennifer Serravallo:

Yeah, I love that you said you know that you can adapt them make them your own. I love that because you actually say that in the beginning in the in the Getting Started chapter. I like in the book to a cookbook and you know, if you get somebody who will joke you know, you go on a New York Times Cooking or something like that, and you read the comments and they're like five stars, only I changed the chicken stock to vegetable stock. I substituted asparagus for broccoli. I mean, like that's part of the joy of cooking is that you're you're taking a tried and true classic, something that you know is worked for someone else it's written down for you and you're tweaking it right and that's what I encourage people to do with these strategies as well absolutely make them your own tweak them. There's this one blogger who's a high school teacher who was writing about how she was taking the strategies from chapter one which are intended for like pre kindergarten kids and adapting them for high school. Yeah, go at it, go for it, you know their inspiration, their starter dough, but make them your own and use you know, use what you see in front of you as much as what you see in the book. Absolutely.

Lindsay Persohn:

I love the analogy of starter dough. I think that that is what a generative way to think about this right that this is really the essence of what you need in order to get started. But of course, as as we said earlier, we always want teachers to have autonomy and the power to make their own decisions as they see, you know, what is best for their students. So thinking about your work as a kind of starter dough, I think that that really fuels my thinking also, so I appreciate that analogy. But, you know, it also reminds me that I think sometimes, particularly for newer teachers, or pre service teachers, there's a hesitancy right, because we haven't yet developed that. I think back to myself as a beginning teacher. We don't yet know if we can substitute asparagus for broccoli, right? Because we don't know how that plays out. So I think that your books also offer some real tools for anybody at any stage of their career and at any stage of their thinking. Because yes, you can follow the recipe to a tee, if that is sort of where your mind is or where you've you feel your skill set is. But as you said, then, you know, you can take it and adapt it to different grade levels, different interests, even different topics, of course, you can use a variety of texts with these strategies. And it's that kind of thinking, and that kind of adaptation. For me, that's actually what's really exciting about teaching, the ability to kind of reinvent yourself over and over again, and, and then having really solid tools to help you in that process. I think it's just it's such an important thing. And, and to be it's part of what keeps you interested and energized in in the work that we do.

Jennifer Serravallo:

Absolutely. Teaching is such a, it's such an opportunity to be creative, right, creativity comes into play. And I agree with you. That's what keeps it interesting. And in addition to just every year getting such different kids and being curious, right, and that that I think lends itself well to the creativity. Also, you have to problem solve and think about things in a new way or approach it slightly differently, or you've got kids with very different interests. So you tweak something to make sure that the work is still engaging. Absolutely, I totally agree with you.

Lindsay Persohn:

Well, and what you just said actually reminds me of the teacher I spoke with for the first episode of the season, Maggie Robertson, she teaches kindergarten and approaches her work with this sense of curiosity, with this sense of joy, and with a sense of of working to understand where kids are and what they need and how to support them. But it really makes me think about this kind of iterative process of learning and how we as teachers, have to model that lifelong interest in the world around us, the people around us, and how to maintain that curiosity so that we do continue to grow. And so we continue to learn and develop in our own, you know, in our own life course of learning. And I think that that's really exciting that your work can actually inspire teachers to continue on that lifelong learning mission. And as I said, demonstrate that model that for their students, I think that's just such an important quality of a teacher to be constantly curious and constantly asking questions.

Jennifer Serravallo:

Totally agree.

Lindsay Persohn:

So Jen, given the challenges of today's educational climate, what message do you want teachers to hear?

Jennifer Serravallo:

Oof, there's a lot of challenges. I think first, I want to say that I respect and admire teachers expertise. Sometimes they feel like there is so much noise on social media, at school board meetings, from politicians, from journalists, who have never stepped foot in a classroom, and yet think they know better than teachers showing up every day doing the work. And so I want to say first, very clearly, to teachers, I honor your expertise, it is needed. It is appreciated, it's seen, it's valued. Second, I would say that I admire your bravery, to make decisions that honor students' humanity, when there are forces trying to make you not. The choices about what texts to include, what stories to tell, what voices to lift up in the classroom, they matter deeply. And so I'm I'm very grateful for teachers bravery, and I'm sorry that you need to be brave. But it's so so important to kids whole lives, that we see them for who they are, that we honor their humanity, and that we're really careful about which stories get told in the classroom.

Lindsay Persohn:

I love that I really love that. It makes me think about the choices that teachers make every day, the many, many, many, many choices that that teachers make every day. And in my mind, that's part of why teaching is so tiring, because it is you know, their days full of decision making. And and as you mentioned, yeah, they're they're careful decisions. They're not decisions that are taken lightly because we never quite know how what we say or what we do is going to impact a student, how it might empower them to think differently about themselves or about the people or the world around them. And so yeah, there is so much gravity and a lot of those choices that teachers make on a day to day basis. And I'm with you, I think it's really, it's really sad the climate that teachers are working in right now. And the fact that teachers have to be this kind of brave, right? I think that there's always a bit of bravery that's been in teaching just because it is every day, right? It is every day you get up and you go at it again. And I think that that in itself takes some obviously perseverance, but also bravery. But the sort of political bravery that teachers are having to find right now, I think, is, it's a lot to ask. It's a whole lot to ask of teachers when we're already asking them for so much of their time and their energy and of themselves. So I really appreciate you acknowledging that and bringing that into the conversation as well. Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure talking with you.

Jennifer Serravallo:

Likewise.

Lindsay Persohn:

I appreciate your contributions to the world of education.

Jennifer Serravallo:

Thank you, Lindsay for this great conversation and again for inviting me on your show.

Lindsay Persohn:

Jennifer Serravallo is an expert in literacy teaching strategies. She's the author of The Reading Strategies Book, The Writing Strategies Book, Understanding Texts and Readers, a Teacher's Guide to Reading Conferences, and most recently, Teaching Writing in Small Groups, all published with Heinemann. Her resources are aimed at helping teachers make goal directed responsive strategy instruction, conferring, and small group work accessible in every classroom. Jen is a frequent invited speaker at national and regional conferences and travels throughout the US and Canada to provide full day workshops and work with teachers and students in classrooms. She's also an experienced online educator who regularly offers live webinars and online workshops. She's also authored two self paced asynchronous online courses, Strategies in Action Reading and Writing Methods and Content and Teaching Reading and Small Groups Matching Methods to Purposes which you can access through her website at WWW dot Jennifer Serravallo.com. That's w w w dot J E N N I F E R S E R R A V A L L O.com. Jen holds a BA from Vassar College and an MA from Teachers College, where she has also taught graduate and undergraduate classes. She began her career in education as a public school teacher in New York City and later became a staff developer through Teachers College, Columbia University. She has more than 15 years experience helping teachers across the country to create literacy classrooms where students are joyfully engaged and the instruction is meaningfully individualized to students goals. You can learn more about Jen and her work at Hein.pub/Saravallo. That's h e i n dot p u b, backslash s e r r a v a l l o, on Twitter at J Servolo. That's at J S E R R A V A L L O, on Instagram @ JenniferSerravallo. That's at J E N N I F E R S E R R A V A L L O, or by joining The Reading and Writing Strategies Facebook community. For the good of all students, ClassroomCaffeine aims to energize education research and practice. If this show provides you with things to think about, don't keep it a secret. Subscribe, like and review this podcast through your preferred podcast provider. I also invite you to connect with the show through our website at www.ClassroomCaffeine.com where you can learn more about each guest, find transcripts for many episodes, explore episode topics using our tagging feature, support podcast, research through our survey, request an episode topic or a potential guest or share your own questions that we might respond to through the show. We would love to hear from you. As always, I raise my mug to you teachers. Thanks for joining me.