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The Big Fresh May 18, 2013 When a Phone Is Not a Phone

Brenda Power

There was a time when nails were high-tech. There was a time when people had to be told how to use a telephone. Technology is just a tool. People use tools to improve their lives.

                                                     Tom Clancy

Last week I visited Katherine Sokolowski's amazing fifth-grade classroom in central Illinois. We were chatting just before students arrived. Katherine paused. "Wait a minute -- I need to turn off my phone." She pulled out her smartphone and jabbed at the screen for a moment.  But surprisingly, the phone stayed in her hand. As students wandered into the classroom, she greeted each one, using the device to take lunch count and attendance.

When it came time for the writing minilesson, she projected an image of a website from her phone to the white screen at the front of the room. During reading workshop, she listened intently to each child she conferred with, asked probing questions, gave advice, and pecked away at the Evernote app on the phone to record key assessment moments. When one boy shared his new reading choice, Redwall by Brian Jacques, they flipped the book over to preview it and discovered there was no text on the back cover. Katherine didn't miss a beat. "Let's look up Redwall on Amazon -- there will be a summary and reviews there." Within moments they were reading a detailed description of the plot at Amazon's website. When the last class iPad was signed out for partner work later in the morning, Katherine handed her phone over to a student so he and a classmate could use it for research.

I marveled later with Katherine after the students went to the library at how much the phone was used during the literacy block. She explained how Internet connections can be iffy at the school, but the phone connection almost always works. Because of its dependability, it's become a go-to tool for everything from lunch counts to research on the fly.

When a phone is not used as a phone in Katherine's classroom, she is modeling life as a learner and community member in three important ways. The device is a key resource for inquiry -- the whole web is in the palm of our hands. When there are moments worth recording for assessment, she can do so instantly and store them in the cloud for access later. And maybe most important, every time Katherine hands over the device to a student, she is saying "I trust you."

I remember years ago Jerome Harste in a talk deriding a dumbed-down curriculum, especially considering the expertise of teachers and brilliance of children, said, "It's like we're using a telescope as a doorstop in classrooms!" Watching Katherine, I thought again about the knee-jerk policy in many schools which forbids or severely limits the use of smartphones by students and teachers. There is a world of potential for these devices that makes concerns about texting seem downright trivial, and one classroom in rural Illinois gave me a glimpse of what is possible. 

This week we take a look at grouping for instruction. Plus more as always -- enjoy!

Brenda Power

Founder, Choice Literacy


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Here are three articles from the Choice Literacy archives with different perspectives on grouping.

Franki Sibberson considers alternatives to guided groups in the intermediate grades:


Making the Most of Small Groups with Jennifer Serravallo is a podcast featuring the author of Teaching Reading in Small Groups:


Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan provide guidance for Planning Small Groups to Teach Phonetic Skills:


Clare and Tammy's terrific book from Stenhouse Publishers, Assessment in Perspective, is now available. You can preview the entire text online at this link:


Katherine Sokolowski has posted a photo essay on her blog Read, Write, Reflect of the images I captured on my visit to her fifth-grade classroom last week. What's striking is how comfortable students are with technology throughout the morning:


See Choice Literacy contributors live this summer in Portland, Oregon; Wrentham, Massachusetts; and Columbus, Ohio. Presenters include Jennifer Allen, Aimee Buckner, Clare Landrigan, Tammy Mulligan, Heather Rader, and Franki Sibberson in workshops focused on literacy coaching, the Common Core, and nonfiction. Visit our Workshops link for more information:



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Shari Frost considers the "go-to" instructional strategy for struggling readers, word study, and explores how to make it work well in a case study of a third-grade group:


Because the best catalyst for thinking about groups may be to see them in action, we have a video-rich edition of the newsletter this week, with three new videos of groups from different grade levels.

Katie DiCesare brings together a group of her first-grade students who are reading nonfiction, helping them to expand the ways they share what they are learning with classmates:


Karen Terlecky meets with two fifth graders who both share the same need identified on a recent formative assessment, inferring character traits:


In kindergarten, table groups are a natural and informal way to help groups of students learn new skills through eavesdropping. In this short video from Mandy Robek's kindergarten class, Mandy targets the same skill of defining syllables during individual conferences at the table so that the learning is reinforced for all:


Finally, if you're interested in more resources for exploring grouping, the Guiding Groups section of the website includes a few dozen articles and videos:


That's all for this week!


Brenda Power

Brenda Power is the founder of Choice Literacy. She worked for many years as a professor at the University of Maine and an editor at Stenhouse Publishers. Her publications as an author include Living the Questions and The Art of Classroom Inquiry. She has worked as a book editor and video producer for many of the authors featured at this site.