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The Big Fresh October 6, 2018 Get Under the Ball

Brenda Power

Concentration comes out of a combination of confidence and hunger.

                                                                                                     Arnold Palmer

This weekend we went to watch our youngest daughter’s team play in a volleyball tournament, hosted in our downtown convention center.  There must have been at least 80 teams in this giant facility, with the sound of whistles and coaches vying for attention. To get to her team’s match, we had to weave through a river of parents in chairs to reach the far back corner where they were playing.  

It was enjoyable to watch her coach her team, calling timeouts, making play changes, and giving advice as they volleyed the ball across the net. After winning the first game in the set, the second game wasn’t going as well. The team was unable to find its rhythm. The servers the team could usually count on had difficulty getting the ball over the net; when receiving, getting the ball to the setter seemed impossible. Before her team knew it, the score was 9-22.

It wasn’t looking good. Despite two time-outs and a few adjustments, the team just couldn’t change the momentum of the game. It would’ve been easy to panic. It would’ve been easy to just give up. The players I had just witnessed win a game with confidence, now looked unsure of everything. The team set up to receive the ball, my daughter looked at her back row and calmly reminded them, “Just get under the ball.”

The players, sensing her belief in them and understanding this foundational direction, settled into their places and prepared to receive the ball. The referee blew the whistle and the server sent the ball over the net. The players did just what she had suggested: they just got under the ball. The receiver popped it into the air, passing it to the setter, who set the ball for a hitter. The team settled down and found some rhythm despite the deficit in their score. Time after time, they just got under the ball. Although they didn’t win that game, they did get the score to 17-25, and did end up winning the match.

Marissa was a third grader struggling in reading.  Having come to our school just over a year ago, she wasn’t making the gains needed to catch up to her peers.  We sat around the table discussing her support. She was seeing three different people: her classroom teacher, the reading support teacher, and the literacy coach. As we talked, it became obvious that everyone was telling her something different. She could read a variety of texts, but making sense of them was difficult. She seemed to be so busy trying to please everyone that she was losing sight of making meaning.  It was decided she needed to notice when meaning was off-track. We created a plan to keep her focused on meaning, planned the same language for prompting, and reduced the number of adults she was seeing each day. She just needed to bring her focus to one idea: stopping to think when she noticed meaning breaking down.

In our classrooms sit readers like Marissa who need to make great gains.  In today’s high-stakes world, it’s easy to panic. Before we know it, we have a laundry list of goals for the reader.  Our students who need the greatest consistency often sit beside different teachers across their day. We feel the pressure to accelerate progress and find ourselves trying to remediate deficits with an abundance of skills, strategies, and prompts.  If we aren’t careful, our readers can lose time to read and practice new learning. We forget to lift the strengths, to celebrate the little steps, and to stay focused on the one foundational step that might help a reader to move forward. What if we could peel away the layers to choose the one thing that mattered most?  What if we just “got under the ball?”

This week we look at one strategy for "getting under the ball" in conferences. Focusing on one thing with a struggling learner can wipe away a lot of distractions, and leaves students of any age with a sense of their strengths and what's next. Plus we'll tackle more as always -- enjoy!

Cathy Mere
Contributor, Choice Literacy

Cathy Mere is a literacy specialist in Hilliard (Ohio) City Schools. She is the author of More Than Guided Reading. A trained literacy coach and former Reading Recovery teacher, Cathy leads professional development workshops and presents at state and national conferences. She blogs at Refine and Reflect.


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Stephanie Affinito explains how to use student checklists in literacy intervention:


Franki Sibberson explores the varied needs of struggling young readers and writers beyond explicit instruction:


Pernille Ripp has advice for building a rapport with students who loudly proclaim, "I don't read!":


Check out our new online courses for teachers and literacy coaches! In the next month we're featuring 12-day self-paced classes from Katherine Sokolowski on student research projects in grades 3-7, Christy Rush-Levine on quick and meaningful reading conferences in middle school, and Jennifer Schwanke on better outreach to families. Courses include three-month trial memberships to Choice Literacy and Lead Literacy, screencasts, videos, articles, and personal responses from the instructor to your questions. Explore detailed descriptions at this link:



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Kate Mills and Tara Barnett share strategies for building bridges between intervention and classroom instruction:


Bitsy Parks works with a first grader stuck on writing about Pokemon characters. She uses other writing from Clover to nudge her to try something new:


Gretchen Schroeder reflects on why some of her students have developed a fear of reading by the time they reach high school:


Mark Levine explains why high standards can be helpful even for students who are struggling in his middle school classroom:


In an encore video, Beth Lawson confers with Michael, a fourth-grade writer who struggles with focus and basic conventions:


That's all for this week!

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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.