Nothing In Common: Boutiques and Big Boxes

I just spent four days working in a school district out in Plainfield, Illinois and after getting sideswiped by the blizzard Nemo on my way there and delayed on the way home by President Obama’s departure from Chicago at  the same time as mine, it was a successful trip.  Of course my travel woes are another blog and story all together!!  And yet, are they?

As I was driving from Chicago to the Joliet, Plainfield area in search of my first school to visit I realized as I looked out the car window that although I was in Illinois I really could have been just about anywhere in America.  On my left, I see a Target, and on my right a Home Depot.  Lines and lines of chains from Dunkin Donuts to Burger King stood proudly next to their big box neighbors.  And it got me thinking about the goal of so many schools and districts; heck the ENTIRE nation right now is fixated and obsessed with having everything in “common”.  Common language, common expectations, common outcomes, a Common Core and the list goes on. And so I ask myself, what is so great about everything being the same?


When I travel I seek out what is different.   Where can I find some little restaurant, café or shop that I have never been to before?  Where is there something new I can try in terms of experience, food, or even atmosphere that will provide me with some insight as to what makes this town or city or place tick?  How do people make their livings?  What kinds of homes do they live in?  Where are the tracks and what is on each side of those tracks?  I enter these new places in the same way that I enter each classroom that I visit.  What is different here?  What do these students have to offer and what will I learn about them and how they work in the small amount of time I have to work with them?

My contacts and colleagues in Plainfield are two young dynamic women who brought me back to their district after a one -day workshop on writing in October to do some follow-up demonstration lessons in classrooms k-8.  Before I arrived they asked me to send them some lesson plans for each day.  And so I sat with the list of classrooms and the schedule before me and realized that I probably had not actually written a “real” lesson plan since I was an intern over 25 years ago.  There was a bit of me that actually panicked and began making things up, but I knew in my heart that even if I took the time to write these plans that they would change.  They would change based on the “read” of the students, where they were, what they knew and where we could go.  And so I had to figure out how to send them something open and flexible but concrete as well.


And so I determined a list of my favorite mentor texts that I would be using and then a bullet list of possible teaching points for each text.  I explained that I walked into classrooms with these possibilities in my head, but that I never really knew what I would be teaching before I actually started teaching.  I realize how uncomfortable this makes so many people, but for me there really is no other way.   Don’t get me wrong, there is a plan in my head, but before I begin to implement that plan I am responding to those students I am working with.  My plan is a back up because ultimately I am there to teach the students, not the material.  In fact when I focus solely on content I am removed from those I am teaching: lost in what it is I think I am “supposed” to be teaching…when in reality I am ALWAYS teaching the students.   And so “what” I will be teaching  depends on those I am teaching.  In this way I almost teach in a “choose your own adventure” kind of method.  If this, then that, but again I never know until I am there.


And so I enter with a bag full of books that I know and love, stapled paper (books), markers and an open mind.  That is it?  Yes.  That is it.  I quickly try to connect with the students, perhaps telling them something personal about me and then hear bits and pieces about them.  As I am listening to them I get a sense of where they are and which book might work with them.  Then I reach into my bag and the decision is made.

When I am in this mode of listening I realize that the possibilities are endless and so my role is to focus in on one or two or maybe even three different noticings that the students are making and ask them to talk about what they noticed and why they think the author has made such a move.  If they do not notice then I begin by noticing something and ask that they then look for this same thing as I read on.  I love these kinds of encounters with students.  I am looking and listening intently for what is different in their thinking and what they notice.

After reading the book, A Stranger in the Woods by Sams and Stoick, one student notices that the animals are talking.  Together we name this craft,  personification as well as a couple of other crafts used by this author. I set the students free with a “book” made out of 4 sheets of paper stapled together and markers and to begin writing this book on anything of their choosing.  I ask that before they leave the carpet that they first tell me what it is they plan on writing about and one kind of craft that they were planning on trying.  As students revealed their plans, new plans formed in the minds of others.  Taking this time allows for each student to leave the group with purpose and to get right to work.


One student in a second grade classroom decided to write a book about snakes and  he was going to attempt to use strong verbs.  As I approached his table I could see his book filled with colorful illustrations and great details as he worked with purpose.  When I kneeled beside him I asked if he would talk about and read what he had written.  He read with great inflection and voice and then came this incredible verb, “lurking”.  I asked him how he came up with that word and he began to tell me that he loved snakes, that he was in fact, obsessed with snakes and that because he read so much about snakes he knows that lurking is what snakes do!  He then ran off to his book box to find many different books on snakes.  He poured through them showing me his favorite parts.  This was unique and different than what anyone else was doing in the class and celebrating this writer’s moves is what I am all about.  I asked that he read it to the class after telling everyone where he got his ideas and what kind of book he was writing about snakes.  He talked about how he used the word lurking because another author had used it.  I confirmed his smart writerly move talking about how all writers borrow from other authors.   I focused on what he was doing and what he thought was important.  This is teaching in my highest self.  This is where I find energy.  This is where I long to always be.  In the moment with a child as he or she identifies what it is they are working on and just what he or she is doing as a learner and how it is or is not working.  I am always moving towards, “Getting kids to “reveal” what they know in order to discover where they might go.”  Johnston, Choice Words.

And dare I even say that in these moments I feel a sense of synergy that I also find in my yoga practices.  It is that moment of being in the “zone” where I can see things clearly and instinctively know where to go with each child that I work with.  This does not happen all of the time, but when it does it is beautiful.  It feels incredibly whole and complete and it has absolutely nothing in common with any other interactions I have with any other student.  It is DIFFERENT.  It is not the same and so I have to wonder in our quest for sameness, in our desire for consistency are we not losing the individual processes, identities and the creative thinking of each individual?


In my debriefs with the teachers after the demonstration lessons I am always surprised by what it is they ask and comment about.  And after a recent rereading of Peter Johnston’s, Choice Words, I realize that so much of my teaching is defined in this book.  The language we use and the responsive teaching is what I am always aiming for.  And if you have not read this book then I encourage you to add it to your list of must-reads.  It is essential for teaching our kids how to be independent agents in their own learning.

And so I left the same way I came in passing Best Buy and Lowe’s, asking myself, are we forgetting what makes life interesting?  Are we aware that in our efforts to be the next Wal-mart that we are losing our downtowns and our small businesses?  I am fortunate to live in a town that still has a downtown and I love walking through the shops and knowing and talking with those working in the shops.  There is something wonderful about knowing people and seeing what is new and different that you would not find in a Target.  And yet, it is a fight to keep our downtowns open because the big box stores are more affordable.  But in the end, can we afford to lose what has yet to be discovered in each child in the name of what is simply common, consistent and so very much the same?  Or am I just a boutique kind of teacher trying to survive in a big box world?


16 thoughts on “Nothing In Common: Boutiques and Big Boxes

  1. Not enough time right now to comment fully on this, but I love this and you!! You are me (well sort of, because I am not in your league), but I never could have a true lesson plan, too confining by half! YES!!! is all I can say. Have you read Opening Minds, Johnston’s latest book? I love it and my friend who works with student teachers at U of Georgia said she thinks it is the best education book ever written. In the US Preamble it says we need to provide for the “common” defense, we have the “common man/woman”, commoners vs. nobility…..then rising to the top is the cream……IF the common core of the CCSS wants to address inequity and give all kids the best in education, fine, but to limit the creativity of the boutique thinkers and teachers is lunacy and will not achieve their goals, as I see them. Tying the testing and the teacher evaluations together and forcing this on schools too quickly is not going to work and may cause much more harm than good. We need the Boutique thinkers and teachers. There is a very interesting article in our local paper about wholesale forced changes in schools in a poorly performing city district. Administrators and teachers by federal and state mandates must be moved to ensure a change in the school’s culture. Where is the research to support this? What will they say when the scores do not improve? I could go on. Keep writing and sharing please!!! I bet the teachers learned a lot from your visit.

    • Janet,
      Thank you for reading and responding so thoughtfully. May I be so bold as to look ahead and suggest that failure is a necessary component of the Common Core Assessments because then there is the need for “big box” companies to come in and “cure” all of our nation’s school’s failures. It is all part and parcel of the master plan.

      • Yes. Frightening. Have heard about this. Just saw a Diane Ravitch column and another from a while back on Huffington Post about the test maker.

  2. Intuitive teaching at its best, Tomasen! You and I should write a book about it because the world needs to see how natural, important, and engaging for students that it is. We could make it clear that commonalities for curriculum needs can still be found in this style of teaching, a style that does not come out of a scripted plan. There ARE and endless amount of possibilites that can come out of a lesson and it’s important to be open to them as much as possible to keep the kids drawn in and aware that their thinking is relevant.

    I believe that Common Core has some strong ideas but it will fail if schools focus too much on the “what” and not on the “how”.

    • Jaclyn,
      And it is in the “how” and the “why” that we need to dwell to think about what is best for our students. I agree that as a document it has its’ strengths and it’s weaknesses. But as I have written about before, all that will change when the assessments come out and schools begin failing those assessments. The Common Core will become a national curriculum and will become more and more confined as publishing companies create scripted programs to solve those problems.
      I am already seeing it right here in NH and the assessments are not due to arrive until 2014.
      Great to see you the other day! So happy for all that is in store for you!

  3. What a powerful piece! I recently read an article about a family that is trying to visit all 50 states before their sons graduate high school. Their goal is to have a unique experience in each state. What can they eat, and what can the do or see that will make their visit hold unique memories for their family?
    I have been an avid reader of your blogs. Thank you for the recommended reading.

    • Dear Jill,
      Thanks for reading and responding! I would have loved to have done something like that with my kids! What a great idea! I have to wonder how hard it was to find unique experiences!! I hope you will keep reading! And as always feel free to pass on to others! My goal is to increase readership in any way that I can!!
      Thanks again!

  4. Tomasen, every time I read one of your posts, my heart just about leaps out of my chest singing “Yes!Yes! Yes!!! This is who I can be when I stop listening to the voices telling me what I should be doing!” It’s sad that I have to be somewhat subversive about it, rather than being respected for what I actually know about kids and reading. I love the idea of my classroom as a boutique – The Book Boutique rather than Barnes & Noble!

    • Joanne,
      HA ha ha! Love the Barnes and Noble reference! I love the word, “subversive” that you use here and it has me thinking! I wonder how many of us/you are out there doing what they know is good for their students subversively! What does that say and how can we tap into those that have the courage to do so?
      I have to believe that at some point we will get back to respecting the knowledge teachers have about their students and trust that they know how to teach!!
      In the meantime..wanna go shopping in some local boutiques?

  5. I’d bookmarked this one when I first read it and I fear it’s only now that I’m able to respond. But, in a word, I adore this! I’ve been trying to crack open the word ‘plan’ with some of the teachers I work with in order to see planning not as stage directions for a play you’re going to put on, but rather as the overall ideas you hope to explore depending on what the kids have to say, which requires both really knowing your content and being able to improvise. Some take to it like ducks to water and others find it hard. But I think, too, that when I’m fully there in the moment with kids, listening and letting them see where their thoughts can take them, I’m connected to my highest self. And that’s why it seems so utterly demoralizing that just this week the New York City Department of Ed announced that they’re ‘recommending’ that every school use a packaged programs and textbook next year—most of them published by Pearson. We must, we must, make our voices heard and not let the most common denominator rule.

    • Disregarding the distressing news about the NYC packaged programs mandate….I think we should create a booklist of the best books all pre-service teachers should read, then a similar list for new teachers. We should promote teacher bookclubs where mentor teachers talk about the books with younger teachers and interested others. There is SO much gold out there. If we could come up with even a “menu” so 3 from column A and 2 from column B etc. and you would have a broad base to get started. I am thinking of your book, Vicki, What Readers Really Do, Cambourne’s work, Johnston’s Opening MInds among many other fabulous books like Hidden Gems by Catherine Bomer and Nancie Atwell’s books. Lucy Calkins and Shelley Harwayne and so many others. BUT the kinds of books that give teachers not only a solid base of “why” to approach the classroom a certain way, but “how” to do it. Big picture and then operationalize. I like what the two sisters have done with their structure that allows teachers to be able to work with small and indiviual groups with everyone else productively engaged. And so many more I can’t write here. What is sad is if we were to survey a large number of teachers, what number of the books we think essential to know and have read, would we find? I think that teachers who don’t know about these ideas and approaches feel threatened because they don’t have the conviction to put other ideas into place in their classroom. And then, of course, the not knowing about the tests….I would suggest the March 4 Burkins and Yaris blog that shows the simple use of the word “like” in a question caused a group of students to misinterpret the point. I wrote a comment about that and children’s language development stages which I think the test-makers better have taken into account….but wonder if they have. I could go on. Suffice to say we have to find a way to help teachers survive in this new “normal” by giving them tools to use in classrooms. Ways to take the goals and then use their own input. And their should be good “practice” materials that can match the tests which can be done over time to “just check in” on that. Would you take your driving test and never get in a car before the road test????? However, I am wondering about flipped classrooms and how that concept might in some way help our kids. Not sure how that might work for elementary kids, but there might be possibilities to consider. My goal is to help teachers feel safe to envision and use great teaching while still meeting the CCSS while they have to do this. Really judge output, not input. If we had a list of X number of topics to be covered in a grade level nationally and not a huge list. Let teachers figure out how best to do this and integrate how they choose and use great literature to get at ideas. Also I do like the idea of more balance, but edging to simply college and career ready 80% by gr. 12 may in fact not make our kids life-ready. And if we turn them off with work that is too hard without the support they need, or work that is not engaging or meaningful to them…..then what. Putting the best spin on it, I hope that the CCSS succeeds, I really do. I want our children to have the best possible education. But I am not sure this is really the way to do it. And I also fear the tests and their validity and reliabilty and the lost time spent on testing that takes away from learning. Plus this one: do you realize that teachers can not give the tests to their own classes? You have to switch with another teacher. I don’t know if this is only in certain states, but the poor elementary students. Stressed out by the testing and then…an unfamiliar teacher. One had better hope that the colleague who comes to your class has your back!!!! In a perfect world we all would, but this is another situation rife for problems. How “they” think this is good for kids, I do not know. I will end for now. Maybe we need a conference or institute devoted to those boutique teachers who just want to talk and share and plan. Did not proofread this, so sorry for any typos.

  6. These words of yours sing to me: “I focused on what he was doing and what he thought was important. This is teaching in my highest self. This is where I find energy. This is where I long to always be.”
    Very glad to discover your blog–thanks for visiting mine.

  7. Like many specialists, I’ve recommended brain-stimulating activities to individuals who suffer from dementia.
    If you have video game rules for your family, get them on paper and hang them
    up for all to see. If you want the face number revealed, then you should make the gray blocks
    have two adjacent explosions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s