Saturday, January 19, 2013

An interview with Debbie Miller -

It's hard to believe that it's been 10 years since Debbie Miller first wrote Reading with Meaning.  If you're like me, it quickly became your "go to" resource for thinking strategy instruction and developing understanding with your students.  If you're like me, your copy became dog-earred, sticky-noted, and well-loved.  If you're like me, you often sat with your tattered copy of Debbie's book on your lap as you taught, on your desk as you planned, or in your hands as you talked with fellow teachers.

And now, our profession is once again blessed because Debbie has written the second edition of Reading With Meaning.  In the second edition, she shares some of her recent thinking about comprehension instruction.  She shares new insights into the gradual release of responsibility and how to plan to develop student independence.  For Debbie, it's always been about intentionality and understanding.  Once again, we're taken into Debbie's teaching life... into the classroom experiences that made us all better teachers in the first place.

I've known Debbie for many years.  She's my colleague, and more importantly, my friend.  I couldn't wait to read the second edition and I was excited to spend a bit of time asking her about her latest endeavor... and to share it with others:

Patrick:  What prompted you to revisit and revise Reading with Meaning?

Debbie:  It was an email from Philippa, my editor at Stenhouse, that got me thinkingshe asked if I would consider writing a second edition, and in the end, I said, "Yes!"

Patrick:  Writing a book is no easy task, "revisioning" a book is daunting.  What are you most proud of as a writer?

Debbie:  I'm most proud that I stuck with it, and did it!  I'd never considered myself as a writer and the first time around it took me quite a while to find my voice.  I kept trying to sound like what I thought I should sound like and it was getting me nowhere.  Finally, Philippa said to me, "Why don't you try writing the way you talk?

"Funny you should say that," I told her, "that's what I'm always saying to kids!"  And reallythat one piece of advice made all the difference.  Once I learned that being me was enough, I got myself going and kept at it.  And sometimes I still can't believe it did...

Patrick:  Thousands of teachers read the first edition of Reading With Meaning and their teaching lives were forever changed.  What are some of the ways you hope this second edition will challenge a teacher's thinking?

Debbie:  I hope it will challenge teachersas it did meto think about what we've learned over the past ten years.  What makes sense still?  What have I learned about children, teaching, and learning over time?  I'm always asking the children I work with, "So what did you learn about yourself as a reader today?  What do you understand now that you didn't understand before?  How did you make yourself smarter today?"  

What if we as teachers asked the same kinds of questions"What am I learning about myself as a teacher?  What do I understand now that I didn't understand before?  How am I making myself smarter?"

So what's new for me?  Instead of comprehension strategies being the organizing features of the curriculum, I see them as the essential tools children need to actively engage with content, construct meaning, and grow their understanding of big ideas in the world.  Comprehension strategies are the howthe specific processes learners flexibly use—to get smarter about big, important topics that are relevant to them and help them become powerful and thoughtful human beings. 

I've also been rethinking gradual release and its connection to agencycould too much modeling lead to conformity and compliance, taking away student energy, engagement, and motivation?

And the the planning documents I've included reflect new thinkingHow can I plan so that each child receives a years worth of growth?  How can I do my best to ensure that no child falls through the cracks? 

Patrick:  When you visit classrooms to work with young readers, what brings you the greatest joy?

Debbie:  Walking into a classroom and getting to work with kids brings me so much joy (even when twenty or so teachers are watching)!  I love it when children understand that smart isn’t something they have, but something they get—that they have the power to make themselves smarter by putting forth effort and working hard.  It just doesn’t get better than that.

Patrick:  There's a lot of angst today because of the changes made by the Common Core State Standards, yet in this edition you talk openly and honestly about the positive changes they are bringing to classrooms.  What would you like teachers to recognize as positives about the CCSS?

Debbie:  Remember No Child Left Behind, where comprehension, phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency and vocabulary received equal importance?  The common core state standards changes all that—now higher-level comprehension work is emphasized for all children, even our youngest readers.  Reading, in the common core, is all about making meaning!  And thankfully, it focuses on results, rather than means, leaving room for teachers to determine how these goals should be reached and what additional strategies might be addressed.

If teachers haven't read The Key Considerations section of the common coredo it!  They'll feel better.  I promise. 

Patrick:  In Conferring: The Keystone of Writer's Workshop, I write about two questions that our friend, Randi Allison, once asked me... What are your guiding principles?  What are you willing to fight for?  As you were working on your second edition, what were you most looking forward to reiterating?  What message carries over most strongly from the first edition?

D:  I love children.  I believe in teachers.  And these are my most important words to all of my dear colleagues...

There are many effective ways to teach children and live our lives. No one has the patent on the truth.  Find yours.  Read.  Reflect.  Think about what you already know about good teaching and how it fits with new learning.  Read some more.  Think about the implications for your classroom.  Collaborate with colleagues.  Try new things and spend time defining your beliefs and aligning your practices.  Once you’ve found what’s true for you, stand up for what you know is right.  Live it every day and be confident and clear about why you believe as you do.  People will listen!

Patrick:  The new edition includes a focus on learning targets and assessments for learning.  How to you nudge the teachers with whom you work to look closely at the ways they are "assessing" thinking?

Debbie:  Assessing thinking is hard. But if we don’t, how will we know where children are and what they need?  How will they know?  Having clear learning targets, or goals, and matching assessments, are the best way I know for children and teachers to understand where they are going, where they are now, and what they need to do to close the gap.  Assessments for learning help ensure that no child falls through the cracks—we have tangible evidence (in addition to conferring, listening in, and observation) of where each child is and what they need to move forward.  It’s enormously helpful.

Patrick:  What else would you like someone reading this to know about you?

Debbie:  I’d like them to know that I’m every teacher—that I have the same wishes, hopes, and dreams for children as they do.  That some days I feel like I am amazing and other days I leave the classroom thinking I’ve lost my touch.  But this is teaching.  It’s not about perfect lessons.  Teaching and learning—real teaching and learning—is messy.  My new mantra?  What’s the worst that could happen?

We’ll never get smarter if we don’t try new things or imagine new possibilities for the children we work with.  I want to be smarter at the end of the day than I was at the beginning.  And I’m thinking the kids I work with will be smarter, too...

• • • 

By the way, I used BOTH editions last week to talk to my 4th graders about Determining What's Important... and how our thinking changes over time.  We looked at both copies of Debbie's book (mainly the back covers) and had an amazing conversation about how Debbie's thinking has changed.  Though inferring, my students were so clear about how important it is to revise your thinking and how "what's most important" can change, depending on your purpose.  Amazing!


  1. I've read this twice already and I am still holding onto every word Debbie says. Thank you for sharing her new book -- I was aware of the new edition, but I wasn't so sure it would be "all that new." You and Debbie have changed my mind! Thanks to you for asking great questions and sharing your conversation!!! I LOVE her thinking. My initial "ah-ha" was the teacher questioning, which I think I naturally do, but need to be more intentional. I love her important words to teachers. I'm going to print it out and post it in my classroom. I can't wait to share with my colleagues. Thank you again!

  2. Debbie never stops amazing me! And, of course she's right, reading the Key Considerations for the CCSS did shed a new perspective for me! I have already shared the post with my colleagues and now I heading to amazon to place my order! I have been through 2 copies of the first edition and it was the first book I placed in the hands of my resident educator!
    Thank you for sharing!