Sunday, March 12, 2017


We often teach students to concentrate on small moments in their writing.  We emphasize how important and deep little details can be, asking them to delve deeper into that snippet in time.  What we don’t always realize as teachers is that we also need to concentrate on those small moments in our classrooms.

Our educational landscape is currently filled with data ranging from standardized tests to running records to reading levels.  All of these measures give us some interesting and at times valid information about our students.  However, it is the daily, careful observation of children, in those small moments, that can have the biggest impact.  As Dr. Mary Howard says, “I saw students as informative guides I could trust to point me in the right direction.  They were my lesson plans waiting to be written as long as I could notice the signposts along the way and respond accordingly” (Howard, 2012, p. 49).

At the end of the week  Susie had the opportunity to visit Justin’s class where it is clear that students feel empowered.  Justin presented a short mini lesson about revision and trying to use more powerful words in writing.  When the students came back at the end of the lesson Justin asked the students to give examples of the word they originally used and the word they substituted.  After a few examples, Kyle, a striving reader and writer (thank you Kylene Beers for this term!), wanted to place his writing under the Elmo for all to see.  Kyle proceeded to have trouble reading his own writing.  In that small moment, Justin seized an opportunity, informed by Kyle.  He asked the rest of the class to turn and talk while he and Kyle practiced reading his writing.  After a few minutes, Kyle and Justin together read both Kyle’s original sentence and the revised sentence. “I still didn’t know where we were going to.” was changed to “I still didn’t know where we were rushing to.”

Justin helped him to shine as a learner and a thinker even though he has difficulty with the basics of reading and writing.  Justin turned that moment into a big opportunity.  He used this nugget to assess and then change the course of his lesson.  As Pernille Ripp says in her wonderful book, Passionate Learners, “Even the smallest changes can make monumental differences” (2016, p.xviii).

Another example of a quick observation that led to a subtle but powerful change comes from an intervention classroom in a public school in NYC.  Nick, a striving 3rd grade reader, burst into the room and declared, “Let’s make lists about what helps you become a better reader and what doesn’t!” The teacher had a choice.  Choosing to embrace the small moment, she set aside her lesson plans and let Nick lead the way. Nick started his list that will continue to grow as he grows as a reader.  He spent the next 20 minutes avidly reading his book.  The information that Nick wanted to know wouldn’t have come out in a running record or a standardized test.  It came from listening to the small moment.

While more formal types of formative assessments have a place in education, the small moments, if carefully observed by teachers, lead to a more personalized and powerful learning.  These nuggets help the teacher meet the needs of each and every student who shows up....

In each small moment.

Sunday, January 22, 2017


This time of year social media is exploding with the concept of OLW….
One Little Word.  It is a fabulous concept: one word to guide you during the next year, one word to filter all of your decisions through.  Truth be told, we are a little jealous of those who came up with the one.  But, the more we thought about it, the more we asked the question, “why does it have to be one?”   (Disclaimer: Justin and Susie don’t always follow the rules or stay inside the box.)   Sure, there is impact in focusing on one...just one.  But the more we thought about it, we decided that we needed to expand this concept to, are you sitting down, THREE!  TLW.  There, we said it.  Three Little Words.  
The funny thing about our three little words is that they work for both teachers and students.  Actually, we believe many concepts do.  We love the phrase human is human.  (Those are not our three little words!)  From graduate school students to kindergarten students to professors to siblings, we all need the same things.  So the examples and concepts we talk about below, we believe are applicable to both children and adults...all humans.
Drumroll please……here come our TLW:
Advocacy.  Yes, that’s number one.  We all need to advocate for what we need as learners, both as adults and as students...remember human is human.   We can have the most amazing curriculum in the classroom, but if students don’t know how to advocate for what they need as learners, chances are, they are not going to learn or reach their potential.  The same is true for adults, we need to advocate for ourselves too.  Some adults need to talk out concepts while others need to process them alone in their own head.  One size definitely does not fit all, and the more we advocate for what we need, the more we can shine.
Identity.  In order to advocate for what we, both children and adults,  need, we need to know ourselves as learners.  In the classroom, the first step is to understand our students deeply.  Understand that there is not just one story line about them, but that they are very complex and different.  Through careful observation and true inquiry into who they are as learners we can understand them more deeply.  Only then can we help them to understand themselves as learners.  We need to think of the end game: how do we want students to leave our classrooms?  It is all well and good that we understand them, but it’s even more critical that they understand themselves as learners.  That is where the real power is.
Vulnerability.  The world opens up for all of us when we adopt a growth-mindset.  It is through the risk taking, being ok with the trip ups, the mistakes, that the true growth comes.  If we and our students believe that mistakes must be avoided at all costs, where is the learning?  Take for example a Spanish you know the students who just go for it, speaking even when they are making a ton of mistakes?  Those are the students who advance more quickly.  Contrast that to the students who are in the back of the room and wait to speak until they are sure that they have every grammatical concept correct.  On a ski slope, if you don’t fall once every now and then, you know you are playing it too safe and you are not growing.  Plus, frankly, life is so much more pleasant when you are not afraid of making mistakes all the time.  Don’t we want that for our students and for ourselves?
So there we have it.  Advocacy, Identity and Vulnerability.  Bring it on 2017!!

Sunday, September 11, 2016


We often hear in the world of literacy, teach the writer not the writing. This makes so much sense. As teachers, we can help the student make one piece of writing better or we can help the student internalize the concept we are teaching so they can make their future writing better. We are helping students be in charge of their own learning.  

If we can agree that this simple shift from focusing on one piece of writing to focusing on the writer will have far greater an impact on the student beyond the four walls of our classroom, then we can agree that we are putting trust in our students as learners. Why then, do we continue to use external motivators in the classroom? Why do we give them prizes, or “money” when they answer a question, finish reading a book or complete their homework? Why wouldn’t we want to achieve a sense of internal learn for learning’s sake?

Our job as teachers is actually to make ourselves eventually not needed.  

What? heard us right.  

We want to help students be independent. Don’t we all want that?  

Training students that they will “get something” each time they complete an assignment or act in a way we deem prize worthy merely cements our place of being needed; it takes away our students’ potential for independence...and in the end, it is much easier to teach this way; to “pay” a student for compliance. We would argue that the more difficult road is help children self-regulate; to inspire themselves, to know themselves as learner.

This is the messy and more powerful way.

We, Justin and I, usually write in one voice. But at this point, I feel the need to write in my voice... because I want to celebrate Justin. He has been a valiant advocate for this messier and much more powerful way of teaching students. He is pushing the envelope not just in terms of his students, but also in terms of his colleagues. It is so much easier to go into our own rooms and close the doors the way we are told to teach. But it is the broader thinking teacher, like Justin, who spends the time to start conversations with colleagues about what is right for kids.  

Here is to Justin and all of the courageous teachers like Justin who are willing to start conversations, for believing that students CAN be in charge of their own learning, for pushing the envelope even when it isn’t comfortable and there is a lot of push back. Here is to you, Justin. So proud to call you my partner.

We can’t help students shine from within by paying them; we need to help them begin to understand themselves as independent learners. We need to help them shine, not for us, but for them, and ultimately for our greater society. This is how we make the most impact.

Here is a link to the amazing resources that Justin collected to help start the conversations about intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivations.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016


As a community,
We need to celebrate
Each other's shine
But, it is also clear
That we, as individuals,
Need to maintain
Our own shine

In the face of
Pessimism and cynicism
We need to "go high"
In doing so,
We hold fast to the very fabric that
Is the bedrock of 
our collective shine...

Thank you, @michelleobama for

Monday, July 25, 2016


A few months ago, Susie read Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story the fabulous new book by Nora Raleigh Baskin about the events surrounding 9/11/ Being profoundly touched, Susie exclaimed, "Justin you HAVE TO READ this new book!" Susie and Justin were then in communication with Nora on Twitter professing the brilliance of her book. (People, you really need to get your hands on this book if you don't already have it..

As many times happens, there were the proverbial, “Let’s get together” exchanges between Justin, Susie and Nora. Because Susie helps Justin be more brave and Justin helps Susie be more brave, the meeting actually came to fruition.  (Nora is brave all by herself!)

Scene:  Upper West Side of Manhattan, Susie and Justin giddy with excitement for meeting this amazing author.  “Where should we sit?”  “Will we recognize her?”  “How crazy are we for doing this???”

Enter: Nora.  

Hugs all around.

The first part of lunch was getting to know each other...Nora has the cilantro hating gene...who knew there was such a thing? (Read more here: Science Explains Why Cilantro Tastes Like Soap For Certain People )  We told her about our new project around how to help students shine (Let Me Shine ). Quickly, our conversation went from the surface, cilantro hating, to a deep revelation of feelings and experiences.  

Nora showed her vulnerability with grace and beauty. Her mother had committed suicide early in Nora’s life, her father had abandoned her and by the 6th grade, Nora was a self described “mess.” She skipped school, smoked and was frequently suspended.  But, she related how one teacher, Mr. Thomsen, saved her life. He valued her writing and ultimately helped her feel like she “existed.”  This story fell into the hearts of Justin and Susie. It had them thinking for days. This important story of Nora’s ultimately found its place in their presentation at the ILA conference.  

It was Nora’s humanness that hit home and so deeply affected Justin and Susie. A few days later, we voxed Nora and told her that THAT STORY and her relation to the character, Sergio, in her book Nine, Ten was what impacted us most deeply. Sure her research around this topic of 9/11 was impressive, but in the end, her humanness was what spoke to our core. We think that Nora felt heard in our conversation, not because of us, but just because of the power of listening and understanding the backstory.  

Nora now is onto a new adventure that we will let her tell you about, but we firmly believe that actually, all humans deserve the opportunity to shine, not just children.  Nora helped us see this.  Human is human, story is story and we need to bridge that gap so that more humans understand each other.  We are honored that Nora is in our life and she is helping create that bridge of understanding.  Her work is so deeply important.  

We asked Nora to write about this meeting without seeing our reflection.  Here is what she wrote:

My first meeting with Susie Rolander and Justin Dolcimascolo started out with me thinking, I’m going to force myself to do this. I’m going to say “yes.” I’m going to go into New York City and meet two people I don’t know.

That might not seem like a big deal to most, but for me it was. First I had to overcome my general anxiety about leaving my house, my dog, my cat, my computer; I had to figure out driving directions and grapple with the question of where I was going to find parking. Then I had to convince myself it might even be a good experience. Worse case scenario, I told myself, it’s uncomfortable, I muster up some fake enthusiasm, and I drive home. In reality, nothing could have been further from what actually happened.

To begin with, I found a parking spot right on Riverside Drive, minutes from the Mexican restaurant where we had planned to meet. Things were looking up already.

Next, I walked into the restaurant and immediately recognized Susie’s huge smile from her Twitter profile. There was no mistaking it. And Justin, equally as warm, was right beside her. The rest is a happy blur.

To backtrack, I first noticed Susie on Twitter and offered to send her an advanced reading copy of my newest book, Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story. Weeks later I saw her review of the book and I was floored by it.  Sure, she liked the book and that was nice. But it was beautifully written, and also deeply personal and honest. She then shared the book with her friend Justin and he, too, wrote to me on Twitter and told me how much he liked it.  I wrote to them both to thank them and Susie wrote back with the standard: “If you’re ever in NYC we should meet.”

“Oh, yes,” I wrote. “That would be great.”

At the time I thought that would be the end of it, right there.  But then Susie wrote back again: “Justin is coming into the city this week. We’d love to get together.“

It so not like me to agree to agree to something like that. I am a total homebody and I am nervous about meeting new people. I find no joy in small talk, and I don’t know how to make it. But I agreed. Nervously.

I knew I had made the right decision as soon as we started looking at the menus and I mentioned how much I hate cilantro.  “I’m even a member of the I Hate Cilantro Facebook page,” I told them.

Justin immediately pulled up the group on his phone and read one of their I-hate-Cilantro haikus out loud. But I knew I had found real friends when Susie said she felt terrible for having chosen a Mexican restaurant—I assured her I actually love Mexican food—and Justin asked if I would mind if he had cilantro with his lunch.  I have a radar for kind people, empathetic people, people who will look out for you.  I had just found two.

Over the next two hours, I learned about how they met. Never having before seen each other in person, Susie and one of her colleagues got on a plane and spent a week in Justin’s Kentucky home. (He is originally from central Jersey. The central part is important!) I learned about Susie’s three children, her supportive husband, and her mom, a teacher, too. And most importantly, I heard about the project they are working on together, Let Me Shine ( They could hardly contain their passion for their students, for teaching, for their love of literature and the importance they place on being one’s true self.

So now that I learned their stories, I had to tell them my story, right? I mean I had to. The story about my sixth grade English teacher, Mr. Thomsen, who saved my life. During a very difficult time in my life he gave me an identity other than “unlovable, unwanted, a burden.” He read my homework out loud, fictional story that I had written. And because of that simple act, he gave me a new name to call myself: Writer.

Outside on the sidewalk, before we said goodbye, I handed over my phone to Justin so he could download Voxer for me, and we’ve been Voxing a lot lately. They also impelled me to drag out a memoir that I had written four years ago (about my childhood and how I became a writer), and with their love and support I am considering trying to publish it. Right now, the draft is in their hands and I trust them completely.  

I just do.

What struck us about these two accounts were the similarities



- Cilantro...ok, that is not the deep part, but there was a sense of kindness that came through in that discussion.

- Knowing the “back story

- Finding people's strengths

Believing that people can shine.

As Elizabeth Gilbert says in Big Magic,

But who’s to say that we have to go on that search alone?  Justin and Susie believe that one of our most important jobs as teachers, and frankly as humans, is to help each other discover those "jewels" each other shine.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016


We'd like to introduce you to someone. Her name is Charlie!

Here are a few things you might want to know about Charlie…

  • She just finished fourth grade.
  • She is little for her age.
  • She is a very social child.
  • She was adopted from Taiwan at 5 months of age.
  • She has fabulous parents...oops, guess that’s not a fact.  

Now that you know some facts, let’s really get to know Charlie.  If we could go inside of Charlie’s head to find out what she thinks of herself, she might view herself through one of two lenses.

Lens 1:  She might view herself as the child who has always had a hard time saying long words.  She continued to say peahock for peacock well into her 8th year.  She said pliano for piano even while she had been taking lessons for over 3 years.  She might realize that she still opens a picture book and says, “That’s too many words.”  

Lens 2:  But perhaps she might view herself as the child who was always the best at putting puzzles together.  She might notice that when guests come over and her family has a 1,000 piece puzzle on the table, she  is always the person who finds the most pieces.  She might notice that she is one of the best chess players in her chess class.

Recently while Justin was visiting, Charlie decided that she wanted to make a gumball machine.  Not just any gumball machine...she wanted to make it out of Lego’s.  Think about how hard this is.  She wanted to put a coin in and have a gumball pop out.  Just sit with that idea.  How would you build that?  Would you even know where to start?  It was obvious that she had a clear picture of how it would work.  Coin in, gumball out.  But people, legos are rectangular!

Just as in The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires, Charlie struggled.  She got frustrated, pulled Lego pieces apart, left it and came back.  But with determination and eagerness she was able to direct the movie that played so clearly in her head.  Coin in…. gumball out.   Her gumball machine truly worked.  She exclaimed, “Mom, I am really proud of my candy machine!”

It is clear that Charlie viewed herself through the second lens here, through the strength lens.



What can we do?

Step back
Recognize strengths
Allow struggle
Understand that getting lost can lead to being found

Oh, we forgot to tell you one other thing.  Charlie is dyslexic.  Perhaps if you had known about that label at the beginning, you might have viewed her through only the first lens.  But then you may never have noticed the strengths that also make Charlie the remarkable human she is.  Doesn’t Charlie deserve better?  Don’t we have a responsibility to give her what she deserves?

So, the question is…

Are you supporting the gumball making industry? Are you helping the Charlies of the world see themselves as capable? Are you helping them shine?


        To see Charlie in action….

Wednesday, June 8, 2016


This weekend

Susie and Justin

were set to meet up

with amazing friends.

G2Great Voxer group.


Rooftop brunch,


Justin has been a part

of this group for over a year

and had personally met

All but one

Of those attending.

Susie has been a part

Of G2Great Voxer for six months

And had not met


Of those attending

For both Susie and Justin

this group has transformed

their lives beyond

the field of education.  

Needless to say Susie

Wanted to make

A good first impression

Helping pave the way

For strong and successful


What if prior to the meeting

Justin had told

Erica, Jenn,

Jill, Amy and Kim

That Susie

Was someone who:

Keeps 20 plus tabs

Open on her computer

Over schedules herself

And, at times

Is overly sensitive?

How would that

Have affected

The group’s

First impression

Of Susie?


What if Justin

Started with Susie’s


By telling the group

That she is one of

The most passionate, empathetic,

And positive people

He Knows?

As someone who

Values Susie

As a person

Wouldn’t it be more

Logical for Justin to

Focus on

Susie’s strengths?

This question seems

So straightforward

And easy to answer

With this scenario

This time of year,

Teachers meet

To discuss student

Placements for the following year.


Don’t students want

To make a good

First impression

With their next year’s


Wouldn’t talking about their


Be more likely to

Set them up for success?

What are you saying about

Your students?

Are you starting with their strengths?

What would you want?