5 Questions with… Lisa Eickholdt

At #4OCF, we are constantly on the lookout for new voices in education. I was recently introduced to the work of Lisa Eickholdt. With more than twenty years experience, Lisa brings a unique view and insight while helping students to become better readers and writers. Lisa is scheduled to release her first book Learning from Classmates: Using Students’ Writing as Mentor Texts from Heinemann in April.

We are proud to have Lisa Eickholdt join us this week to share her insight.

5 Questions with… Lisa Eickholdt

  1. What do you most want your students to take with them from your classroom, school or district?

I have long held the belief that real reading and writing are the keys to creating students who are lifelong learners. When we allot time in our schedules each day for students to engage with text in meaningful ways and for extended periods of time, we create readers and writers. This is why I am a proponent of the workshop approach to teaching. At the heart of this approach is the idea that students should spend the bulk of their time engaged in the work. In a typical workshop, teachers spend the first few minutes of the workshop instructing (the goal being to keep the minilesson to 10 minutes or less), and then release students to read or write for the rest of time (30-40 minutes).

Though the importance of allowing students to spend time engaged with texts is supported by a plethora of research, I wonder why it needs to be. It seems like common sense; if we want students to become better at something they must actually spend time doing it. If I want to get better at golf, I have to spend time on a golf course playing. Well! I’m familiar with the idea that golf enthusiasts now have a plethora of options where they can shoot around. Rather than going out on the field, people can now buy a home putting green golf course available for every budget. But even then, you’d have to practice it, right? Doing worksheets on how to swing a club won’t help me. I have to actually go out and swing a club and hit a ball. In her wonderful blog post about the power of independent reading, Donalyn Miller recently posed the following questions, “Does anyone go to the basketball coach and ask her to provide research to support why players are running plays and practicing shots? Does anyone go to the band director and ask him why musicians are playing their instruments during band class? Why must English teachers constantly defend the need for students to practice reading and writing in a class dedicated to reading and writing?” (http://bookwhisperer.com/2015/02/08/ive-got-research-yes-i-do-ive-got-research-how-about-you/). The idea of allowing students to read and write for extended periods of time each day is one of the key things I hope all the teachers I work with take away from me.

  1. What are the most rewarding and/or the most frustrating aspects of education?

I think the most frustrating thing about education right now is this high stakes testing cycle we are currently entrenched in. One of the problems with all this testing is that it is killing the exact kind of education our kids are going to need to get a job in the future. Research shows that the children we are raising are going to need to know how to be creative thinkers and problem solvers. This kind of thinking is something a standardized test can and never will be able to measure.

Another problem with this type of one size fits all measurement, is that it makes students feel as if their self-worth is based on a test score. Many students don’t test well due to test anxiety. Does this mean they’re not smart? The standardized test developers would have them believe so. I have spent my career working with students who struggle and who often don’t score well on high stakes tests. I have seen firsthand this kind of thinking. No matter how much I tried to downplay the importance of these tests, no matter how many times I tried to reassure my kids that they didn’t tell me anything about the kind of person they were, the unspoken message to them was that a high test score means you’re smart. They believed that no matter how talented they were as an artist, poet, or musician, if they didn’t score well on the tests, it didn’t matter.

Einstein wrote, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” I believe this is what we are currently doing in education. We are measuring every child in the same way, and by doing so, we are creating a group of kids who don’t believe they are smart or have anything to offer the world. Is this really what we want? Do we really want to raise a group of kids who believe their self-worth is based on a test score? Don’t we want to raise students who are creative, caring, and curious people? I think so. I once heard Lester Laminack say, “You didn’t get into to teaching to raise a test score, you got into teaching to raise a child.” I hope soon teachers will be allowed to get back to the business of raising children.

  1. What advice would you give to young teachers?

I actually work with young teachers every day now. After 20+ years as an elementary teacher and literacy coach, I recently accepted a position as a professor of literacy education at a college near my home. In this position I try not to just give advice, but to model the kind of teaching I want my young teachers to engage in with their students. One way I do this is by using Pearson and Gallagher’s (1983) gradual release of responsibility model in my instruction. For example, when I am teaching students to take and analyze running records (something I teach in my assessment and instruction course), I begin by modeling it first, then we try it together, and finally students try it on their own. As the students work, I go around the class and assess and assist. When I was a literacy coach, I found that when my teachers embraced this model of teaching, it dramatically changed their students’ ability to learn. If a lesson fails, very often the failure can be traced back to a missing step in this model (surprisingly that step is usually the modeling piece). My advice to young teachers is to learn this model and use it every time you teach. If you do, your students will be more likely understand what you’re trying to teach them.

Another thing I try to show my students is the importance of building relationships with other educators. Teaching is such a hard occupation, no one should try do it alone. Therefore, it’s important for teachers to seek out others at their school to share ideas and offer support. In addition to building these face-to-face relationships, teachers need to network globally. Through Twitter teachers can seek out and find groups of professionals who share their passions for any particular subject (there are hashtags for every content area). My professional learning network has allowed me to engage with some of the most passionate and informed educators in the world. People I would never have had the opportunity to meet face-to-face. To this end, I create a class hashtag for my college courses and encourage my young teachers to start building their PLN now. I believe Twitter is the most important professional development opportunity available to teachers right now. My advice to all educators is to seize this opportunity.

  1. What has influenced your career the most?

I have been fortunate to have many amazing experiences as a teacher. I have been trained as a Reading Recovery teacher. I have a Master’s and Ph.D. in Literacy Education from Georgia State University. I have also attended writing institutes at The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. These experiences have all dramatically changed the way I teach. However, as impactful as these experiences were, it is the people I have worked with along the way which have influenced my career the most. Like many of us, I am the sum of my mentors. When you start out in your career you may come up against some roadblocks which may make you wish you took another path, so your mentors can be a great support in that respect and help you keep on track. Graduating and applying for those career jobs is a long stretch too but if you use resources such as https://www.arcresumes.com/local/georgia/ you can follow that pathway to where you want to end up. There is help everywhere, you just need to look for it.

As a new teacher, I worked with the amazing Yvonne Stone. Yvonne was an intervention teacher at a small Title One school in Wisconsin. She had taught for over 20 years when she was assigned to be my mentor. Though she had taught for a long time, her enthusiasm for teaching and learning was extremely high. She taught me so much about how to teach young students to read and write. In addition, she taught me what it means to love your students. I remember watching her cry as the bus pulled away on the last day of school. I have always strived to be the kind of teacher she was; the kind that loves her kids so much she doesn’t want to be away from them for the summer.

Later in my career, I met the great Dr. Joyce Many. Joyce was my professor at Georgia State University. At the time, I had no intention of pursuing a Ph.D. It was Joyce who encouraged me to apply to the program and offered me a position as a graduate research assistant to help me pay for it. Joyce taught me so much about what it means to be a good teacher, researcher, and mentor. The students called her the “goddess” because she was incredible at everything she did. Being around Joyce for all those years taught me so much.

Recently, I wrote a book for Heinemann (ironically the book is about the power of mentoring). Without mentors this book would never have happened. Stephanie Harvey read my initial proposal and encouraged me to submit it to an editor. I cannot tell you how helpful it was to have someone like Steph, someone who I admire and respect so much, offer me her support. Without her encouragement I would never have pursued this idea. In addition to Steph’s help, I was fortunate that my proposal landed on the desk of my editor, Holly Kim Price. Holly mentored me throughout this process. She looked at my initial rough draft and saw something worthy (thank goodness!). She then worked with me to develop my idea into a manuscript and finally a book. Without her constant support I would not have achieved one of my lifelong goals.

In the end, I believe it is our mentors that matter most in life. My goal now is to pay it forward and mentor others the way I have been mentored throughout my career.

  1. As an educator, what are you currently focused on?

In addition to trying to be the best professor I can be, I am currently focused on the release of my new book Learning from Classmates: Using Students’ Writing as Mentor Texts which will be released by Heinemann next month. The book’s focus on using students’ writing as mentor texts is something I am very passionate about. I have spent my career working with students who struggle with writing, and I have found this simple idea makes a huge difference. I call it the little idea with big impact. Once we use a kid’s writing as a model for other students in the minilesson their self-esteem soars! I have watched reluctant and unenthusiastic students become more engaged and enthusiastic writers time and time again.

Not only does using student mentor text encourage the student writer, it also lifts the level of engagement with writing for everyone else in the classroom. I believe this is because when we share great students’ writing, we are sharing text that is more developmentally appropriate than some of the adult models we use. Because the work is developmentally appropriate, it seems attainable to more students. This attainability builds enthusiasm. I was recently in a third grade classroom where the teacher used a great piece of writing from one of her students in her minilesson. We then copied it and gave it all the kids to examine as they wrote. The teacher was amazed at the response. Students who avoided writing were furiously working, and kids who often struggled were producing great pieces. This happens every time I use a piece of student mentor text, yet the power it has still surprises me.

In addition to building students’ self-esteem and enthusiasm for writing, student mentor text is beautiful! Each day I am in the classroom, I am amazed by students’ writing. I believe it is time to elevate our kids’ writing to a new level in our classrooms. When we do, amazing things start to happen for every child.

Lisa Eickholdt (@LisaEickholdt) has more than twenty years’ experience in classrooms as a primary-grades teacher, a Title I teacher, a Reading Recovery teacher, an interventionist, and a literacy coach. She has seen that any child can find success with the help of good teaching. Today, Lisa is an Assistant Professor of Literacy Education at Georgia Gwinnett College, and she also works as a literacy consultant in classrooms nationwide. Her first book Learning from Classmates: Using Students’ Writing as Mentor Texts is scheduled to be released from Heinemann in April. Go to http://www.heinemann.com/products/E05091.aspx?catalog=140207&target=top for more information.

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