Words Come Alive: Reading Comprehension Through Joyful Engagement By Stacy Raphael

porters_point_dan_shepherd“If we study earthworms, we will do well to feel ourselves slither and push, tentatively explore a direction looking for softer passages through the soil, contracting and expanding our rippling muscles in the direction of scents, moisture, grubs. That is, as we learn about the anatomy of an earthworm we have to feel our own way into that anatomy, to feel how the world would feel and taste and smell with that anatomy… It sounds romantic; it is romantic. But without the sense of romance that vivid images can convey, the content remains dull, dry, and meaningless.” – Kieren Egan, Imagination in Teaching and Learning (1992)


In 2001, the principal at J.J. Flynn School in Burlington’s New North End approached the Flynn Center to propose that we find a meaningful way to partner together. After all, she said smiling, both the school and the arts organization shared the same namesake. Until this meeting, the Flynn Center had predominantly been focusing its school programs on providing in-school student workshops to connect to our matinee series to exend and enrich the students’ experience with the professional performances that came to our venue. We jumped at the opportunity to form a collaboration and asked what need was most pressing for the school to address. The answer was reading comprehension.

The National Reading Panel (2000) had just released their landmark report, “Teaching Children to Read,” which identified five essential components of reading instruction: Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary, and Comprehension. The Flynn took the findings and recommendations of the report and aligned specific performing arts strategies that addressed vocabulary and reading comprehension in particular and Words Come Alive was born.

The marriage was a natural one between performing arts and reading comprehension. After all, reading is active. Reading is thinking guided by print to construct—not just derive—meaning. In his article, “College Readiness: Reading Critically” Ben Johnson writes, “Reading has to be synonymous to thinking. How can you have the one without the other? Reading is an active learning method, as opposed to listening, which is passive. In order to read, students must be physically engaged—eye movement tracking words, turning the page (clicking the mouse, or flicking the page)—mental decoding of symbols to sounds to meaning, carrying a storyline or topic flow in short term memory, and arriving at understanding through assimilation of mental images produce by reading the words.”

But many students struggle making the leap from decoding to comprehension, as they have a purely technical interaction with the text through a process of decoding the symbols without the metacognitive functions that help to connect vivid imagery to the words they read. In Marilyn Jager Adams’ Model of Skilled Reading, we see the beginning reader faced with the task of connecting the phonological processor with the orthographic processor so that the connection between spoken and printed words is made explicit. It is only then that students can access semantic information or meaning derived from text. When the orthographic, phonological and context processors all work together with the semantic processor and their individual connections to one another are strong, comprehension is finally within students’ reach. Embodied and active engagement with a story or concept from a classroom reading through theater or dance is exactly the type of activity that can fire all processors to work together, often unlocking a door to a text that the student had previously been unable to enter.

Laura Botte, a teacher in the Words Come Alive program describes it this way, “Once you have been the transfer of momentum, you understand the transfer of momentum. I mean, they’ve been the bowling ball, they’ve knocked the cues over—I think for physics especially Words Come Alive has been very helpful. And sometimes in the ecology unit, the words get dense, the vocabulary gets dense—there’s a lot of it. But I have a feeling that you could ask any kid in that class right now what any of that vocaculary meant and they could give you a very thorough understanding of it as opposed to just memorizing it from the book for a test. They know it, they don’t just… know it.”

This model of “learning by doing” is experienced in each phase of the Words Come Alive process, as teacher professional development takes on a hands-on approach and teaching artists and teachers co-create and explore units of curriculum through an interdisciplinary lens, with teachers testing out new ideas in their classes with the feedback and support of their artist partner. Debby King, Director of Curriculum in Milton Town School District, notes that teachers in this program are given the opportunity to develop and refine their own creative impulses, which in turn get brought into their classrooms.

Furthermore, there is a high level of flexibility in the model. Teachers may bring any content or curricular unit to the partnership to undergo a thorough review and examination of ways in which aesthetic elements from either theater or dance could be integrated into the subject matter at hand. Fifteen years and thousands of classroom workshops have likewise yielded a long list of possible topics that have been successfully explored in schools to introduce teachers to the elements of theater and dance and lead them to experience how movement and drama techniques can strengthen comprehension and deepen engagement.

The teacher workshops are a critical component of the work in changing the way a teacher approaches teaching in the classroom, but the in-class component reinforces and supports this learning. After planning sessions take place between the Flynn teaching artist and the teacher, the unit(s) planned are implemented in a co-teaching environment.

Early on in the partnership, the teaching artist models the arts integrated elements of the content for the teacher and her students. Built into this is time for the two to reflect on what worked and what didn’t work after each lesson is completed. As the partnership develops and the teacher gains more confidence, the responsibility for implementing the integrated curriculum shifts subtly, scaffolding the teacher’s role toward complete ownership. This is a model of praxis with an intentional focus on connecting learning with action, reflection, and transformation.

What is wonderful to see is that the transformation occurs concurrently with both the teacher and her students. In placing the teacher in the role of learner, the classroom becomes a dynamic center for experimentation, risk and—above all—play. By actively engaging students, they become ecosystems, they embody poems, and they take empathetic stances toward characters that they portray in stories that they encounter in their literacy instruction.

Always, the Flynn’s focus is on supporting and encouraging teachers to provide their students with opportunities to experience the content they are teaching in personal, embodied ways. John Dewey’s vision of art as experience is the primary frame for this model and focuses on helping teachers and students alike internalize artistic processes as a way to access understanding and create meaning relevant to the unique perspective of each individual.

References and Resources/Links

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000).  Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.



Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about PrintCambridge, MAThe MIT Press.


Dewey, J. (1934). Art as Experience. New York: Penguin Books.


Ben Johnson Blog: http://www.edutopia.org/blog/college-readiness-critical-reading-ben-johnson


Words Come Alive Site: http://www.flynncenter.org/education/flynn-at-your-school/words-come-alive.html

Stacy Raphael is the Associate Director for School Programs at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts





A Retrospective: VCR’s May 2015 Conference with Lucy Calkins and Katherine Paterson by Kathryn Maitland

On a beautiful spring day, almost 500 educators from all parts of Vermont and from surrounding states gathered in Burlington to learn more about reading and writing with the Common Core State Standards from Lucy Calkins and Katherine Paterson. Lucy Calkins is the Richard Robinson Professor of Children’s Literature at the Teachers College at Columbia University, the Director of the Literacy Specialist Program, and the Founding Director of the Reading and Writing Project. Katherine Paterson is a renowned Vermont author who has written award-winning books such as Bridge to Terabithia and The Great Gilly Hopkins. The agenda for the day included a keynote address and workshop session from Lucy Calkins in the morning and a keynote address from Katherine Paterson in the afternoon. Before the afternoon keynote address, two Vermont educators were recognized for their accomplishments. Nancy Woods received the Lyman C. Hunt Award for promoting a better understanding of reading instruction for other educators. Angela Yakovleff received the John Poeton Award for the classroom teacher who enthusiastically promotes reading and writing. John Poeton was at the conference to present the award.

Calkins’ keynote address, “High Leverage Methods for Lifting the Level of Students’ Reading: Reaching Toward Common Core State Standards,” was delivered with energy, liveliness, and humor. She focused on how educators can accelerate students’ reading by collaborating. Calkins emphasized that teachers need to reflect together at the end of the year and then change their practices where necessary. In order to do this, educators need to create a supportive community. She suggested one way to build this community is to read children’s literature together. Calkins emphasized that teachers should be reading children’s books in the same way that is expected of their students, according to the standards in the Common Core. Students need to be able to dissect texts and read as writers. Calkins gave educators multiple ways to improve reading instruction for the higher-level reading concepts in the Common Core.

Calkins’ workshop session, “Lifting the Level of Student Writing,” focused on writing instruction and the Common Core. She emphasized the importance of having a specific writing time during the day when writing skills are taught. Calkins explained that students need to learn how to write different genres and how to identify which type of writing they should use. She suggested that teachers work together as a team and each become an expert on one type of writing. Then teachers can share their knowledge about writing with each other, instead of feeling overwhelmed with teaching multiple types of writing. To illustrate different types of writing that are expected in the Common Core, Calkins showed and read examples of students’ work. These examples helped show the result of great writing instruction.

Paterson’s keynote address, “The Child Left Behind”, was delivered with warmth and emotion as she modestly spoke about her books and being an author. The title of her speech was fitting because she explained that most of her books were about the child left behind. To illuminate this point, Paterson shared stories with the audience about where her ideas for some of her books came from. She also spoke about what it was like being an author. Paterson explained that she never talked about a book while she wrote it. When she was finally ready to share a draft with someone 1 to 3 years after she started writing the book, Paterson explained that it was hard for her because she wanted to know what the reader thought of the book right away! Paterson ended her address by reading a touching part of Bridge to Terabithia, which had many educators in the room tearing up. All conference attendees left deep in thought with ideas to lift the level of reading instruction with their colleagues, ways to better teach writing, and great appreciation for amazing authors.





Personal Learning Plans: Goal Setting to Promote Growth and Reflection by Maura Kelly

This post was originally published on the PLP Pathways blog and is used here with the permission of the author. 



The Growth and Reflection stage is perhaps the longest and most intense phase of the Personal Learning Framework. Once students have established their identity, they will move into Growth and Reflection. Here they will set goals, develop action steps, collect evidence of their learning, and reflect on the strengths and challenges that characterize their learning experience.

Setting Goals

As adults we are constantly setting goals, small little goals that arrive in the form of a daily checklist, to larger goals in all aspects of our life. We clearly understand the value of setting goals both in our personal life and in our professional life.  Take trying to save money for example, as an adult we understand that saving money every month does not just happen on a whim (but how we wish that it did). We know from our experience that we need to set a goal of the amount we would like to save over the course of the year that is reasonable with our income, we need to create a budget that clearly lays out where our money is going to go every month, we need to track our purchases and adjust our budget over time to meet our goal and over time we will see our savings stack up.

Setting Intrinsically Motivating Goals
Through our life experiences we have come to see the value and the true purpose of goal setting where our students coming into our classroom for the most part are new to this goal setting process and it is our job as the teacher to help guide our students to learned to develop meaningful intrinsically motivating goals. However the question remains, how do we create the drive in our students to create these meaningful goals that are going to help to intrinsically motivate them?  I recently read A Mindset for Learning by Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz which helped me to tease apart this challenge of helping our students to create meaningful goals.

They cite Daniel Pink’s research from his book Drive that in order to develop drive and motivation, goal development should allow students autonomy, or an element of control over what the student does, purpose, that what the student is working on is a part of something bigger than themselves and mastery.

It is so important in the goal setting stages of the PLP that the student is the real driver of this process with careful cueing and guiding on the part of the teacher and parents. I am going to admit that it can be VERY difficult helping students set meaningful goals while giving them the autonomy and control for them to set strong goals. Realistically we want our students to be setting meaningful goals where they can get in a rhythm of working towards those goals and are motivated by the feedback that they are receiving and evidence they are collecting as they watch themselves move towards the mastery.

Goals Setting Conference
It is important to help guide your students to set goals that are based on their current passions and areas that they have personally identified that they would like to work on. Having a goals setting conference with students is a crucial step in the process where the teacher can really get a holistic look at the child to see the “why” behind the goals and it is here that the teacher can help the child to articulate their goal in a way that will help the student to reach mastery. Look for areas where students are already working hard, this is a great place to start the conversation with the student. For example, if the student is a boy scout and is working hard towards a merit badge, that may be a good connection for the goal setting. The key is that you want your students to be developing goals, even if it is not the goal that you would select for them or one that you feel may be out of reach because through the student gathering evidence and reflecting on their goals they will get the feedback needed to adjust their goal or go back and select a new goal.

When students have created their goals they will need support to break the goal down into attainable action steps with benchmarks. Once the student has reached this phase, it is time to engage the family and through a dialogue the student can receive feedback from their families while also collaborating with their parents on their goals.

Resources for Setting Goals:




Goal Setting


Students will use a SMART goal setting template to identify goals that are important to the student, specific and measurable. These goals will help the students craft a plan to help them meet their goals.  Questions for students to consider:

  • What do I want to accomplish?
  • Am I willing and able to work toward this goal?
  • How will I know when it is accomplished?
  • What is my timeframe for accomplishing this goal?


Example Goal Setting Template



Team Summit Goal Setting

Students bridge from Identity to Growth and Reflection through the setting of goals. On Team Summit, that includes 2 academic goals, a Green Team goal, one extracurricular goal, and a goal of choice. Students will discuss, develop, and plan short and long-term goals for the trimester and year.  Creating A Goals Page


Video Reflection: Goals


Setting Goals: 2015


Trimester 1 Reflection


Swift House Goal Setting

Students utilize goal statements from the Vital Results and Transferable Skills to help identify and set goals for the quarter, semester and year. Swift House Transferable Skills  and Personal Goals

Shelburne Community School

Students are using 1) a mored traditional goal setting framework and 2)  a goal setting framework designed specifically for the personalized learning.  

SCS Goal Setting Framework


SCS Personalized Learning Goal Setting


Swift House

Life Skills Learning scales for setting goals and reflection. Life Skills Learning Scales


Evidence and Reflection
Once your students have set their goals that contain the elements of autonomy, purpose and mastery; evidence and reflection will keep the students and their goals on track. This evidence and reflection cycle will help the students get into the “flow” of goals growth and allow for them to recognize small successes and celebrations that will serve as the reward to their intrinsically motivating goal.

Just as the saying goes “if you don’t use it, you lose it,” if a student is not in a regular evidence and reflection cycle around their goals, the child will lose sight of their goal and it will lose meaning for the student. Regular routines in the classroom for students to find concrete evidence of growth on their goals will help them track their progress. On our team we have students place all of their evidence, which can be in the form of photographs, videos, pieces of academic work, as well as reflections, which can include written responses, teacher feedback and  on a blog that is linked to their site.

These evidence and reflection blog posts serve as talking points for goals check in conferences with students. It is key to help students re-align goals if they are either too thin, I am going to do my homework, or too think, I am going to become a chef, or if they are goals that are not working for the student at that time. Just as in the goal setting it is important to give the students autonomy in the goals check in conferences to have some control over the alignment of their goals.



Reflective Writing Prompts


Once students have created goals and have started to work towards mastery of their goals they should be regularly reflecting on their growth. Goals Growth Reflection Prompts

Students Gathering Evidence of Growth Towards Goals



Real Reflection


Check out this post from the Tarrant Institute’s Life Legeros on the use of the REAL Framework.  

The REAL Framework


Growth Mindset

Parent Communication and Conferences
One major part of Act 77 is the engagement of parents through the goal setting, planning and reflection stages of the PLP. It is important to come up with a strategy to use to engage parents in the PLP process. One way to invite parents to participate in this process is through a student led conference. This is a shift away from the traditional conference where the teacher is facilitator, to one where the child is the center of the conversation. There should be a minimum of two student led conferences a year.

The first conference will be a goal setting and planning conference which should take part at the beginning of the school year.  This would be a time for the student to present their goals and plan for the school year. Parents will give feedback to the child and as a team with the student, parent and teacher, as well as anyone else who is involved in the goals such as a student advisor or a particular core teacher. Each member will communicate their role in the implementation PLP and identify how they will help support the student’s growth over the year.

The second student led conference should take place toward the end of the school year and act as a celebration of learning and growth. This roundtable conference will be a time for the student to show evidence of growth on their PLP. The student will share the successes and challenges faced throughout the journey of meeting their goals. The members of the team will help to reflect and evaluate the components of the PLP.




Student Goals Meeting Protocol


Several times a school year the student and a team including the teacher, parents and other members of the plan should gather for a student led conference. It is important for each member of the team to know what their role is during the student led conference. Student Led Conference Protocol

The Magic of Red Clover Books by Gretchen Garvey

red-clover-imageI lugged the bulging sack to my car and daydreamed about sliding the contents out onto my couch and settling in for my yearly indulgence.  I had this year’s ten Red Clover books!  I felt like a seven-year old on her birthday, about to pull the wrapping paper off of my long-awaited gift!

The Vermont Children’s Choice Picture Book Award for students in grades K-4 is in its 19th year, and I urge you to take advantage of its magic.  Even if your students are too old to vote, these books are must-reads.  Reading the ten nominated books which were all published the previous year and planning activities to deepen understandings, make connections, ignite curiosity, and further inspire a love of books is a yearly favorite of mine!

This year’s nominees include a graphic romp through the forest, a record snowstorm, a century old coat, the power of stories, two poetry collections, a brilliant mouse and the curiosity of an astronomer, a most miraculous elephant seal, and a dog’s definition of friendship.

Although we can’t cast votes for our own favorite Red Clover books (and I’ve been secretly jealous), it would be close to impossible to choose.  Let’s leave it to the 5-10 year olds.  Please plan to access these gems, and share them with others in VT.

Gretchen Garvey

Shelburne Community School


Video introduction to this year’s books –


Ten Nominated Red Clover Books and Educator Resources