About Samantha Bennett

Sam Bennett is an instructional coach, education consultant, author and editor. She lives in Denver, Colorado.

Throw the Love Card

Author’s Note: I originally wrote this essay as a love letter of sorts to a cohort of pre-service teachers I worked with in 2003-04. I recently reread it and was struck by how my “non-negotiables” still ring true. This was the first time in my life that I ever wrote anything I cared about — and the key for me was knowing my audience. I think the same can be true for our student writers which is why I’m crazed about helping teachers plan backwards and design assignments — projects and products — that have purpose and audience outside of the classroom walls. As you take time to breathe and re-boot this summer I hope you’ll take some time to think about the things your students can MAKE next year — pieces that have an authentic audience and fulfill a true need in the world. As Paolo Freire writes, we need more CREATORS on the planet, not just more CONSUMERS. Have a terrific June, and enjoy.




Debbie Miller says, “There are many effective ways to teach children and live our lives. No one has a patent on the truth. Find yours.”

When I was teaching middle schoolers, I had my truth. It was love. I loved, loved, loved my students. They made me laugh. They fascinated me. They frustrated me. They amazed me. Back then, if they loved me, I was sure they were learning. Now that I know more about how people learn, I’m not really sure the “pure knowledge” synapses in their brains developed any new connections, but I am sure that 14 years later, there are sparkles in their eyes when they think of 7th grade (and I do not consider a fond memory of middle school a small feat!)

About seven years into my teaching career, I had my own children, and all my love poured into three little monkeys while I took part-time gigs working with adults. I would have to describe my early work with adults as…hmmm…pretty close to complete failure. But, low and behold, after teaching adults for seven years now, I have come back, full-circle, to my truth: love, love, love.

The great thing about love, is that it can look a lot of different ways. My definition of love right this minute (although we all know that my thinking will change with the next chapter I read, the next conversation I have , or the next movie I see), I think I can explain in three parts:

  1. Pay careful attention
  1. Be interesting
  1. If Mama ain’t happy…

As with everything in life that is important, these things are completely interwoven but I will try to illuminate my thinking a bit, hopefully, to make you laugh, to remember the fun of our crazy ten months together, and to help you show your love when a student makes you cry next year.


In Tell Me More: Listening to Learners Explain (2001),Eleanor Duckworth says,

“I learned to talk with children in a way that kept them interested in the discussion and invited them to say what they thought about the topic. And I learned the importance and the challenge of listening well enough to understand what they were saying….My ways of trying to follow their thoughts turned out to be excellent ways to excite their learning.”

I kind of feel like pulling a Naomi here and saying, Yes! See?! End of section. But, as I would say to Naomi…tell me more….

Over and over again this year, my students have pushed me to listen more. And by listening closely, I have fallen in love, which has helped me ask good questions, make good instructional decisions, learn from my failures and helped my students make sense of the world of school.


We’ve talked a lot about “teaching skin” during our time together, and it was one of my goals this year that you not put on the “teacher mask” when you step into your classroom next fall. Teaching is hard enough without worrying if your mask is on straight, or cracking, or peeling (although, I hope you remember that having cool shoes is VERY important). Now, I am going to expand on that metaphor…

New Year’s Eve is an important night for me, but not to do anything out of the ordinary. It is basically an expanded tea time: invite some interesting people over and sit at the dining room table, eat great food and drink great wine until someone falls off of their chair (passing out is preferable to falling asleep). I balk if someone suggests we leave the table to sit in the living room to get more comfortable. Never leave fun to have fun. It never works. If someone is worried about their behind, the conversation isn’t interesting enough. Anyway, back to my metaphor….

You owe it to your colleagues to be a fascinating dinner guest. Be a hallway, teacher’s lounge, playground duty magnet. Talk about your students, their amazing work, and the things you are wondering about. Share the latest book you are reading. Put copies of cool articles in peoples’ boxes. Ask someone for help with a teaching dilemma. I want you to be your amazing, hilarious, interesting, fascinating selves, and remember, the school is your oyster! You are a big fish. Flaunt it, Baby.   Mix those metaphors to get your point across. Whatever works. Share yourself.


Of course to do that, you have to feed yourself. What gives you the energy to teach? Debbie Miller says, “Read. Reflect…Read some more. Collaborate with colleagues…Try new things.”

Beautifully put. Simply brilliant. But I would like to add, some things I’ve learned from my students this year:

Ski in knee-deep powder, wear really tight shirts (orange or pink, preferably), be a yes-yes, make a pie with too many pieces, watch Sex and the City, live Sex and the City, hula-hoop, eat whoopee pies, slide down a banister, sleep outside, gobble sushi, seduce bookstore employees, throw a Frisbee, swim with whales, leave goldfish in odd places, tell your best story, eat really good sausage, play with babies, drink espresso martinis, share a private journal, have a snowball fight at recess, swap gear, go ahead and read the book, dance on stage, cuss a lot (ok, maybe you learned that from me), & don’t forget to go for the stripper pole.

It is fun to articulate the “whys” behind the mantra…especially a year later. I knew it was important the first time I read it, but now I know why. It can be about whatever your truth is. For me it is all about loving: Love your students. Give them time. Love your colleagues. Give them time. Love yourself. Give yourself time.

Debbie said it in a paragraph; I needed a few pages, but please remember it. Especially when your students are eating you for lunch. And if all else fails… throw the love card.

May Energy

Cris and I wrapped up our final LitLab group this week at home in Commerce City, Colorado with our teachers from Adams City High and Middle schools. Lindsay and Cassie, two high school English teachers, visited Marianne’s middle school science classroom and wrote this letter, from the perspective of a student in her classroom. Check out how seamlessly they label best practice and tie it to the research. I’m in awe of their risk taking and growth this year and feel so thankful to work with such creative, inspiring professionals.

Dear Miss Marianne,

Okay, so I am not that passionate about the universe because I’d rather chat with my friends or listen to music and do weird hand gyrations. BUT I must admit, your enthusiasm about science always gets me going. How much we read and write in your class and how much you value my thinking often surprises me. I annotate more in this class than in my Language Arts class! Now that rocks my universe.

Your simple learning target about describing the universe is very accessible. The different levels of text and the amount of choice you gave us allowed us to pick what we really wanted to read and could actually read. Having the books in full color allowed us the opportunity to see what jazzes you up so much about the universe! Thanks so much! You really gave us the opportunity to see how you think before we have to start our own thinking, which Tovani says is definitely the way to go.

We also had a lot of freedom to work at our own pace and get out of the reading whatever we wanted to about space, which Daniel Pink pushes for. Then, we got the chance to talk to our peers about what we found really cool, which helped me to solidify my thinking about space. I know I am getting smarter through talking.

I can tell that you really care about me as a learner and as a person, which is a big deal in my teenage life. Bob Sullo would say that your relationships with us are one of the most important aspects of us being successful in school, so thank you very much! I know that you respect students and that you love your job. Things are already tough for us seeing as how we are going into high school next year, so it means a ton that you care so much and have such love for your job.

Thanks again for being awesome!

Music Loving Hand Gyration Guy 

AKA Cassie and Lindsay

Gratitude Visits and “Dear Me” Reflection

As a culminating event for Literacy Labs in different districts each year, we celebrate with Gratitude Visits where members of the cohort visit each other’s classrooms and write letters of gratitude as if they were students. Then, we ask participants to write a letter to themselves to celebrate the risks, challenges, and rewards of our work together throughout the year.

To add some joy to your day, read over the shoulder of Mindy Wheeler – a middle school social studies teacher in the North Kansas City Schools, as she reflects on her work with students and colleagues this year:

Mindy Wheeler April 9, 2014 at 10:07pm
Dear Me,
When I started out my career at Northgate and I told my principal “well, I don’t really teach very much.” I now look back at his face and what he was probably thinking about me and laugh. I now know this is what I should have said to get my meaning across, “I use the workshop model and let the kids do the reading, writing and thinking.” I also know that just because I’m letting them do independent learning, it doesn’t mean I’m not teaching.

With this teaching style here are my successes:
1) I have gotten to know one of the best groups of students independently. I can tell you about their families, friends, and what they want to be. I am sad I’ve missed this so much in the past and only known surface level information, but so happy that I know how to go deeper and find what makes them individuals.

2) I’ve learned that it’s okay to read and write in other classes, including social studies! History is interesting when it’s a story, current events are like a reality show when you know the drama of dictators, and geography…well I’m still trying to figure out how to make that fun besides coloring.

What I want to do better next year/the rest of this year:
1) I really want to incorporate grading on a growth and mastery system. I think this will help students go further in each skill, and help me know how to push them better.

2) I want to make the students write more. I am having them read a lot, but creative writing to work on the process in a different content then ELA is important. That’s something historians, political scientists, and government figures do. I need to open that door better for them.

3) I will keep work of students throughout the year so they can also reflect on their process. Self-reflection is so important and I want to do better at helping them with this.

4) I want to incorporate some sort of project based learning unit to help kids connect the content to their world and make a difference.

Since this was a day of gratitude I feel only appropriate to acknowledge how I accomplished these successes and what makes me want to be better. What I’m grateful for in my job:

1) I am so thankful that I have been able to be a part of this cohort. Struggling beside these teachers has allowed me to think differently and change my classroom for the best. Tovani and Bennett have made me look not only at the how to be a better teacher, but the why I should be a better teacher and that relevancy has given my philosophy backbone.

2) I am also so grateful to my teaching and learning coach. I tell her this often, but I wouldn’t be the teacher I am today without her. She keeps me accountable to my beliefs, tells me her opinions, and pushes me to push students.

3) I love my colleagues and admin. The support I watch them give students and each other is irreplaceable. I constantly lean for support, guidance, and friendship.

4) Finally, I’m thankful for my husband who is also an amazing teacher and rubs so much passion for kids and the ss content off on me everyday. In my first month teaching he saw me starring at the textbook every night, gave me the AVID book with his notes, and challenged me to be better than what I was taught. I haven’t looked back.

Good luck this year and just keep swimming!

Thank YOU, Mindy for your work with students this year and dedication to making sure school days are filled with meaning and opportunity and joy and learning and love — for grown ups and kids!
-Sam & Cris

Be a Better Grownup: Grit as a Goal, Not a Problem

DSC_4005Student grit isn’t a problem to be solved. Grit should be our response when faced with a complex problem like how to help children become better humans. 

By Samantha Bennett

I have three teenage boys who are absolutely positive they are enchanted gifts to the planet – mostly because I’ve told them that they are (nearly) every day for the past 17 years.

Here is the ultimate power of grit for me right now. Now that my boys are teenagers, telling me in words and actions how ridiculous and boring and stupid I am on a minute-by-minute basis, GRIT prevents me from jumping on an airplane to Paris, by myself, TODAY.   I know people do it – I’ve read the stories and always clucked my tongue.  “Oh, how selfish! She must have been in the middle of a serious breakdown. Poor woman.”   Now I get it. I really could do it. TODAY. Right now. Maybe. For sure, if I could take my dog.

Being the mother of three teenagers takes some grit.  I hear a constant choir of voices in my head, “It is too difficult. I’m too miserable. I’m too scared. My children are jerks and they are all my fault.”  Then I come back to my senses and tell myself, “Be a better grownup. Get some grit.”

What does it mean to be a gritty grown up? Where are all the gritty grown ups?

Here is a different version of the “Mom takes off to Paris” tale.  Just yesterday I heard the story of a Principal who received notice that his contract would not be renewed for the following school year. The teachers arrived at school the next morning and saw (unusually) that the Principal’s door was open. Then, they also noticed that it was cleaned out. Nothing on the walls, or the shelves, or the desk. He had packed up his office in the dead of night and just left. No goodbye to kids. No closure with the staff. He…just… left.  What? Who does that? A BAD GROWNUP. That’s who.

What is a BAD grownup? We all have our pet peeves, but to me, the worst kind of grownup is the hypocrite. How can we help kids be better humans every day when all around us grownups are acting like jerks? Running away when they make a mistake or are faced with a challenge that seems impossible?  Operating from fear instead of joy? Using excuses of “THEY told me to,” instead of being intentional with their time and energy? I’m really not asking for the moon – I just want to surround kids with people who ATTEMPT to be better grownups on a daily basis. I want schools to be filled with the kind of grownups that don’t give up – on kids, or on schools, or on their colleagues, or on themselves.  We need schools that are filled with grittier grownups.

Three Ways to Be a Grittier Grownup in the Classroom

As a teacher, no matter what else is swirling around, you CAN control how you show students that you are a gritty grownup in your classroom everyday. To model grit in the classroom, teachers should:

  1. Create assignments that stretch over time.  If a task is an isolated “one time” thing, how will it stick? If you can finish a task or an assignment in one class period, how gritty do you need to be?
  2. Create assignments that have an audience beyond the classroom. If an assignment is “just” for the eyes and brain of my teacher, how can it ever make a difference in the world?  How can I ever see my own impact on a variety of readers and thinkers? How can I trust myself to become a creator instead of just a consumer if I never get to make anything that really matters or that the world needs?
  3. Give careful attention to the things students make and the things students say.  Get more feedback FROM them to decide exactly what kind of feedback they might need from you to grow. Talk to them one-on-one – on paper and in person to help them articulate what they are figuring out and what they need next.

It just so happens that these same behaviors also help students develop habits of grit so they become the kind of people that tackle big challenges and don’t run away when things get tough or uncomfortable.

What kind of grownup are you? What kind of grownup do you aspire to be? If I look at the verbs in the three suggestions above I see create, create, and give. Those are verbs that can help me get grittier, and verbs that will help me take positive action when I feel like escaping to Paris. Instead of running from, I’ll dive into – create, create, and give.  Create, create and give. Ok, I’ll stay. I hope you will too. Kids need more gritty adults.

Comprehension x 3 in Madison, Wisconsin — August 5-7, 2014

ComprehensionX3 Conference

CX3 Aug 2014
Title: CX3 Aug 2014 (2561 clicks)
Filename: cx3-aug-2014.pdf
Size: 1 MB

Stephanie Harvey, Debbie Miller, and Cris Tovani invite you to spend three days learning about comprehension theory and practice K-12. Each presenter will share her current thinking about literacy teaching and learning and how to help students turn information into knowledge.  In this era of Common Core State Standards, kids need to think more deeply than ever before. The thinking strategies explored in this institute will help students not only meet but exceed the CCSS.

Steph, author of Strategies that Work, and The Comprehension Tool Kit, was a classroom and special education teacher and now does national literacy consulting.

Debbie, author of Reading with Meaning and Teaching with Intention, taught for 30 years in the Denver Public Schools and now works as a staff developer throughout the country.

Cris, author of I Read It But I Don’t Get It and So What do They Really Know is a former elementary teacher who currently teaches high school and works as a literacy coach and national staff developer.

Workshop Materials

CX3 Aug 2014
cx3-aug-2014.pdf (1 MB)

Check out our new offering: Adolescent Reading RX on Heinemann’s new Digital Campus. It’s just like spending 6 days of intensive professional development with us. Join in the fun.


Check Out Our New Digital Campus Offering from Heinemann: Adolescent Reading RX

Check Out Our New Digital Campus Offering from Heinemann: Adolescent Reading RX   

Looking to demolish disengagement, boost comprehension, and turn nonreaders into readers?

Who isn’t? Adolescent Reading RX, Samantha Bennett and Cris Tovani’s Course at the Heinemann Digital Campus shares proven ways to help struggling readers succeed.
If you’re like most teachers, you’re looking for powerful ways to reach reluctant readers. Let Sam and Cris lengthen and strengthen your reach. Adolescent Reading RX explores ways to demolish disengagement, boost comprehension of increasingly complex texts, leverage formative assessment to create instructional feedback, and develop meaningful summative assessments and grading practices.

Course objectives for Adolescent Reading RX

  • Find ways to create a web of authentic, compelling reasons for students to read
  • Evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of instruction on a daily, weekly, quarterly, or annual basis
  • Discover strategies for helping students comprehend more sophisticated texts over time
  • Learn techniques for checking whether readers are improving over time
  • Generate a 9-week unit plan that includes an anchor-text unit and a choice-based readers workshop unit

Check out our Video Introduction to Adolescent Reading RX now!


Hard Hurts; Rigor Invigorates

Lately, there’s been a lot of chatter about the concept of rigor.  Books are being written about it. Principals are touting it and teachers are trying to figure out what it looks like with a 150 students.

Several years ago, a colleague accused me of not wanting as much rigor for my department as he wanted for his.  To this day, the comment still makes my stomach churn.  There isn’t a teacher alive who doesn’t want to think of his instruction as rigorous.  In fact, the term rigor has sometimes been worn as a badge of honor when teachers describe their classrooms.  Some teachers have even been known to use the word rigor as a way to weed out the lightweights who can’t handle their one size fits all instruction.

In my last book, So What Do They Really Know (146-147), I compare the terms rigorous and hard.  As I examined my own beliefs about how the two concepts differ, I discover there is a fine line between having a rigorous classroom and a hard one in terms of student success.  Here’s what I learned:

Rigor invites engagement.  Hard repels it.  When learners are engaged in something rigorous, they lose track of time.  When the activity is hard, time seems to drag on endlessly.  Learners who experience rigor, feel encouraged, self-confident, and have a sense of accomplishment.  Hard is often trademarked by discouragement, avoidance, and a feeling that the effort spent doing the activity is a waste of time.

Our beliefs about rigor affect how we approach instruction.  For me rigor isn’t tied to quantity or rate.  It isn’t about the number of novels I blast through or the number of pages I assign for homework, or even how fast I cover content.

Rigor varies and depends on the learner’s skills and motivation to complete the task.  It changes as the learner gains expertise. When it comes to rigor in the classroom, the bad news for teachers is that instead of having one high bar that all students are expected to reach, there needs to be several, adjustable bars that move as learners progress.  Most importantly, rigor invites engagement because learners experience success.  For me, if students aren’t engaged, I’m a very lonely teacher.

Consider how you invite students into challenging, interesting curriculum as you plan for first semester.



How to Choose a Just Right Book

I was shopping in the delightful River Run bookstore in Portsmouth, NH and came across a book that the entire staff had read that I had never heard of. “You must read this book!” the hand written recommendation implored and lucky me, I hit the X on the treasure map:  The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken. It is about a 30-something librarian that falls for the (teenage) town giant – a boy who grows, and grows, and grows, and grows. What kind of premise is that? Who writes a book about that?  The human mind amazes me again and again, and because of passages like this I sighed audibly as I read:

I want to tell you about his body.

His thighs –

I want to say that they were like railroad ties, and they were, they were solid and blocky and no wider at the hip than at the knee, but I promised myself I wouldn’t turn his body into something it wasn’t. I wouldn’t compare it to other things. People always did that. They made him into a redwood tree, a building, the Eiffel Tower. I’d never thought about it before, but now suddenly, with so many strangers around, so many new people making guesses, assessing his girth, arm span. I couldn’t help doing it myself. I vowed to stop.

I don’t want to leave you with a man assembled out of house-hold goods, a scarecrow with hands as big as toasters and arms long as brooms and glasses the size of a child’s bicycle, I want to detail only facts….

Finding great books is one of the incredible joys of my life.  I read reviews voraciously and mostly, when I read a review, I just KNOW I’ll love a book. But, why? What is it? I think it is a crazy cocktail of surprising characters, quirk factor, and beautiful language.  It would be fun to analyze the reviews of the books I am drawn to. What are the key words that make me stop, drop everything, and shop for a book?

Besides the local recommendation, what else struck me? A blurb on the back by Salon.com stated, “This book is so lovely that, when you’re reading, you’ll want to sleep with it under your pillow.” That made perfect sense to me. I understand that kind of longing for a book, to have it near me all the time, even when I don’t have time to read it. I still throw it in my purse, just in case I find myself with a spare minute — waiting to pick up or drop off kids. An extra long traffic light.  You never know. This description also moved me to buy, “Two misfits whose lonely paths cross at the circulation desk, Peggy and James are odd candidates for friendship, but nevertheless they soon find their lives entwined in ways that neither one could have predicted….as he grows…so does her heart and their most singular romance.”  A librarian and a teenager? This should have creeped me out, but instead, I agreed, “I MUST read this book.”

I usually have a print book, an e-book, and an audio book going all at the same time. The i-pad has changed the weight of my bag, since I can have hundreds of books with me without breaking my shoulder. I never want to be caught with a minute of down time without a book or magazine. It is a sickness, I know.  I heard an interview with Maurice Sendak once where he recounted loving books so much that he would take bites out of pages. He wanted to eat the books he loved. I love books that much too.

So, what does this have to do with school? I’m not sure, other than sharing and spreading personal joy should be our goal every day.  Choosing a just right book is a complicated matter.  Sharing things with kids that delight us, make our eyes light up, and our brains crackle, and our hearts grow bigger should be the learning target every day. Don’t dumb it down…make it into the miraculous event it is, every time. Every single time you find a book that moves you, it is a tiny miracle.

Take some time to spread a little joy to the kids and grown ups you work with today – share a great book, and how you happened to come across such a treasure.


Thriving On A Block Schedule

Last week, I was working with a Middle School that is transitioning from a 7-Period Day to a Block Schedule.  Using longer blocks of time effectively and efficiently help both teachers and learners slow down, dig deep, take time to get to know each other and most importantly ….breathe. There are a few guiding principles that help teachers actively plan for longer chunks of time:

Teach how you learn.  If you learn best by doing, give students time to “do” as well.  If models help you see what you are supposed to do, provide models so students can see what you want.  If targeted and immediate feedback improves your learning, consider ways to do the same for students.

Teachers are experts not babysitters.  Instead of planning how you will occupy students during class, plan how you will have students apply, practice, and demonstrate what you have taught.  Ask yourself, “What will kids read, write, solve, discuss, or create today?”

Choice drives engagement.  Offer it whenever possible. Sometimes providing choice means providing two different articles to choose to read or two different math problems to choose to solve.  Sometimes choice comes in letting kids decide how they will demonstrate understanding.  Offering the option to annotate text or use an inner voice sheet may increase the number of students who turn in their work.

Practice make perfect.  According to John Hattie’s meta-analysis, practice with timely feedback closes the achievement gap faster than any other instructional strategy.  When designing lesson plans and how you will grade, consider how you can use student work time and the work you ask students to do to provide useful feedback.

Teaching is incredibly complex.  Teachers have one of the hardest jobs there are.  No one has completely mastered the calling.  So, collaborate with colleagues. Ask for help.  Share when you can.  Take care of each other.

Time is the enemy.  We have more to teach than time to teach it. When it comes to students knowing your curriculum, consider what will make them smarter, more successful adults down the road.  Ask yourself, “What about my content is worthy of my students knowing?”
When planning for student learning, remember to ask yourself, “What will the students DO tomorrow, and HOW will I share with them WHY they are doing it?”  Start there, and you will be amazed at how large blocks of time fly by as you and your students are immersed in the “flow” of thinking and getting smarter– you’ll never want to go back to the 48 minute period again.
Have a great weekend,