About the Experts


Cameron Carter

Cameron Carter is a first-grade teacher at Evening Street Elementary in Worthington, Ohio, the current president of the Ohio Council of Teachers of English Language Arts (OCTELA), and an active member of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). He holds a Masters in Reading and Literacy from The Ohio State University.

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Episode Transcript

Announcer: This podcast is produced by Benchmark Education.

Kevin Carlson: In this episode: Putting the Sciences of Reading into action. I'm Kevin Carlson and this is Teachers Talk Shop.

Cameron Carter: The Science of Reading is not strictly just phonics. I mean, it has all components that are needed for literacy: Comprehension, fluency, background knowledge, vocabulary. And that's something that I really want to reach out to the literacy community and share.

Kevin Carlson: That is Cameron Carter. He is a first-grade teacher, the current president of the Ohio Council of Teachers of English Language Arts, and an active member of the National Council of Teachers of English. 

This season, our guests have included respected authors, acclaimed researchers and educational consultants who present at the national level. But in this episode, we're talking with an expert on putting all this theory to practice every day: A classroom teacher. Recently, author and educator Patty McGee spoke with Cam about his experiences over the past several years: Teaching through the pandemic, navigating the science of reading movement, and building student engagement through foundational skills. Here is Patty with Cameron Carter.

Patty McGee: So I'm excited to talk to you today about building ownership and engagement with foundational skills. We know that foundational skills are so important. But before we get started with that, I just would love to hear a little bit about what it's been like for the past couple of years as a classroom teacher. What it's been like to navigate both pandemic, post-pandemic, if we can even call it that, and the Science of Reading movement and all the things that have been going on.

Cameron Carter: Yeah, I mean, it has been quite a roller coaster ride over the past couple years. Just from the unknown and then heading back into the classroom and the technological difficulties that a lot of students, teachers, communities were facing around the world. But, you know, I kind of think of it as challenging yet invigorating, and why I kind of say that is, yes, we were all faced with many challenges personally and professionally, but we kind of are coming out of this in a way of having that invigorating spirit where there are things that we want to relook at and say, “Hmm, I wonder if we can make a change here—what could we revise, what can we review, what can we add or supplement to do things a little bit differently in the classroom?” I teach first grade, and one thing that we've really kind of honed in on is the whole technology aspect. I mean, that was something that—we used technology before, but not to the extent that we are using it now. And, at first we thought, “Oh, first graders, you know, they can't log in with a QR code and go on all these apps and different things like that.” But now they can and they can do it really well.

So I think, yes, it has been quite the challenge, pre-pandemic, post-pandemic, whatever you want to call it. But also I feel that it has been invigorating. And in terms of the Science of Reading, that is such a big conversation going on in the literacy community and even outside of the literacy community. And I think that was something off of our radar during the pandemic, because that is the last thing that we are thinking about. Most people are trying to get their basic needs met. But now that conversation is starting to come in a little bit more clear, and there's a lot that we have to kind of go through with that. It's not an easy conversation. But I think social media is kind of making it worse than it needs to be. So that's kind of where I'm coming in through that lens of all of this. We need to have these conversations and have them respectfully.

Patty McGee: We know that we want to come together as a community of educators, always for the well-being of students. So thanks for sharing that.

Cameron Carter: That’s what we teach our students is, we want them to be engaging with their conversations, but also be respectful. So as adults, we need to continue to model that even outside of the classroom.

Kevin Carlson: After the break: Building student engagement through foundational skills. Stay with us.

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Patty McGee: I’ve had the pleasure of being in your classroom, which was just pure joy for me. And I had the chance to really see how you're able to build engagement and ownership. Can you tell us a little bit about what you do to engage students with foundational skills when they first arrive?

Cameron Carter: I know you came in, I believe in maybe, April is kind of the time frame, or maybe May, I can't remember now. But a lot of those skills and transitions were explicitly taught through modeling throughout the year. So you came at a perfect time of the first-grade year. But again, those are things that had to be very intentional with building that throughout the first-grade year. 

So I thought for our conversation today that I'd kind of just walk us through a typical first day in first grade and kind of how we go through engaging the kids with a lot of these important literacy topics that you mentioned. 

One thing that I know you wanted to highlight and share a little bit about was their little soft start when they come in in the morning. And that's something that of course had to be built with routines and things like that. But one thing that I really enjoy about that is it's really a time for them to practice the skills that I've taught them during our literacy time. And one thing that they've really kind of honed into are making mini books, and these mini books are fantastic. They're just blank pages stapled together to make a book. And I've really taught them to think about their story. Again, sometimes I would give them a mini book and they’d just kind of look at it. I mean, we've all been there as writers, not knowing what to do. And one way that I kind of modeled them through that was, I gave them just a blank note card and I had them fold it into four quadrants and I had them think of some fun characters that they wanted to include, a problem, a setting, and a solution. Something very simple. They didn't even have to write words. They could have just did simple sketches or speech bubbles—which they love, speech bubbles. And so that was kind of our way to invite them into creating these mini books. And so once they got really good at that, now, at that point in the school year, they were able to take a mini book and just start writing and create their story. Whether it was a spin-off of a dog man or fly guy or whatever type of book that they wanted to create, that was that joy piece that was really engaging them as writers, because I heard their authentic voice coming through in their mini books. 

For example, one day I read a little mini book that a student wrote, and it said something about a skunk, and it's like, “Skunks really stink,” with all of these exclamation points. And again, that is what we want as writers—to build these writers is for it to be engaging, for it to be fun, but then also have their authors’ craft, their voice, come through in their writing. So that's something that really took off, and they loved doing that as a part of their morning choice.

Patty McGee: What do you mean by soft start?

Cameron Carter: So yes, some schools do this, some schools don't. A soft start is a very kind of relaxing way to start the day—kind of rhymes there. It's kind of our arrival process. So as the buses are coming, as the students are entering the building, they all come in sporadically. It's about a 20-minute time window. Kids just slowly entering the classroom, they have an opportunity to unpack, make their lunch choice, all of those simple things that they need to do. And then some kids get there right—they come in when the doors open and then others get there right as the soft start time is about to end. So you have to make sure that the kids that were there at the beginning are engaging with something while they're waiting for the rest of their classmates to arrive for the day. 

So that was, kind of our thinking was, how can we engage the students during this kind of soft start in the morning? And it also worked out that this soft start works really well for intervention, especially once the routines are built and the kids know what to do. During this time, I can pool small groups, individual students, to the table and figure out what skill that that student needs to work on. So this time, I feel, is a blessing in the morning because it's a very calm way to start the day, the kids are building those literacy skills, engaging in that work, but then also having that downtime to kind of get our day started.

Patty McGee: Yes. And then during that soft start, one of the choices—I know you have a bunch that happen throughout the week—but one of those choices is creating those books, those mini books, which is an instant opportunity to use foundational skills to synthesize those foundational skills for their own meaning making on the page.

Cameron Carter: And for sharing, which is important, because that's a piece that a lot of times is left out in the writing process. So whether they're sharing it with their buddies at their table, whether they're working on a book next to a buddy on the floor, all of those are opportunities for them to engage in the writing, but also engaging in the sharing piece too.

Patty McGee: Very nice. There's also some playful interactions that you create, specifically using foundational skills. Can you share some of those?

Cameron Carter: Kind of during that soft start time, as well. I was thinking about how to still have a structure, but also kind of keeping it engaging, right? Because we don't want them going all over the place, especially not a good way to start the day thinking about behaviors for the rest of the day. So I kind of came up with a schedule of opportunities and things that they could do on certain days of the week. So for example, on Monday they are able to go and work on phonics on the computer. On Tuesday they're able to work on writing. On Wednesday they're able to make a word work choice. On Thursday, they're able to read to self, and Friday they can make any type of free choice, anything that we've modeled and taught of those other choices. 

But in terms of phonics, one thing that I've done are those different buddy games, but also solo games for them to play. Now, these are available during the soft start part of our day, but also during our literacy workshop time. And so these buddy games tie in the standard that I'm teaching them, so they're constantly being changed, but also they're there too for review. So for example, whether we're learning glued sounds as one of our standards in phonics, while there might be a glued sound sort. And so that way they can engage by themselves and do the sort if they're kind of feeling, “Oh, you know, I could do this, I want to practice on my own.” But then there also might be a more challenging sort that I say, “Okay, well, this week it's going to be a buddy game, work with a buddy and do the sort.” And they've really kind of taken ownership of that. And I've noticed that they've been using these games and making up their own versions of the games, which is really cool. 

And that's what you want students to do. You want to give them the resources, but then you want them to take ownership of it. And that's what they've really done with some of these little phonics buddy games that align to the standard that I'm teaching, but also are there as a review for previous phonics standards that I've taught.

Patty McGee: Builds ownership and engagement.

Cameron Carter: Absolutely. That's our goal.

Kevin Carlson: After the break: Small groups and some final thoughts from Cam Carter. Stay with us.

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Patty McGee: You had also shared with me in our nerdy teacher conversations that we tend to have a little bit about how you pool some small groups while some buddy things are going on. Can you tell us tell us a little bit about that?

Cameron Carter: Yeah, sure. So that's kind of part of our literacy workshop. And so during that time I'm pooling small groups, working on a specific skill. Now, for example, in my school we use kind of a, all approach where we actually look at the reader and the reader profile that sits in front of us to figure out what that student needs. And I think that is the most important part, because there is no one program, no one curriculum that is going to figure out what an individual student needs. There might be resources, there might be support, but not the actual skill that that reader needs. And so during that time, there are kids that are reading to self. And, you know, I know there's a lot of controversy out there about that explicit read-to-self time, but it's how it's intentional and engaging. 

So for example, they might have one or two books that are books that they could read on their own where they know most of the words on the page. But then there are also choice books, because we want them to have that engagement of making meaning, creating their own stories in their brain, right? So that's one thing that they're doing. Another thing is they're working on those buddy games that I kind of explained earlier, based on the phonics skill. But really in that small group, I'm kind of tuning in to what that individual reader needs, or if there's a group of them that have a certain skill that they need to work on. And one thing that I've noticed is, especially thinking about the Science of Reading, is there's a lot of misinterpretation around that, that the Science of Reading is not strictly just phonics. I mean, it has all components that are needed for literacy: Comprehension, fluency, background knowledge, vocabulary. And that's something that I really want to reach out to the literacy community and share—that the Science of Reading is not just a phonics-based approach. It encompasses the umbrella of all of those literacy components. And so when I'm in that small group, yes, I'm trying to build their alphabetic principle, I'm trying to really build that phonics, but also you have to have all those other aspects of literacy. So we're talking about the book, you know, we're making connections to the book. We're writing about our reading. We’re building our fluency. Because again, I've noticed that I have great decoders, but their fluency is lacking. And so that's something that I've really been working on, is building from the word level to the phrase level to the sentence level, but then also doing that not only with the phonics-aligned sentences, but the students engaging with their own sentences that they create, because that's where that fluency piece is coming in, because they're attaching their own meaning, their own love, their own passion for that sentence or that word or phrase, whatever it might be. 

So that's kind of how that piece of our day looks when some students are working alone, some students are working in buddies. And then those are things that I'm working on with that small group or just individual students at the table.

Patty McGee: Nice. I just hear that reciprocity of reading and writing and how they are just mutually beneficial to one another.

Cameron Carter: And first graders can do book reviews. My first graders, no matter what type of book that they're reading, they can give a book a number of stars and they could say, “I like the book,” “I did not like the book,” and give a reason why. So there is no reason why anyone should say, “Oh, well, they're not ready to write about reading in first grade.” No way—they are ready. Especially when they're giving their opinion about the book, which again, that's that whole meaning and engagement piece. 

Patty McGee: Absolutely. So with your soft starts and your books, all that writing your kids are doing, the different experiences they have across the week, the games and the play and the fact that they come up with their own rules, so to speak, for the different games and the grouping that you're doing, the writing and the reading so clearly connected to one another, that really builds ownership and engagement.

Cameron Carter: And I know that they are really taking ownership of it. And how I know is, kind of during those transition times when they are doing brain breaks, I see them engaging in these tasks on their own. I mean, they don't have to go over and work on their mini book—they could be up, you know, dancing to the GoNoodle. But those are things that they choose to do because they've built that love and passion for learning and for doing whatever they were working on. And that's what we want. Again, it's all about building that engagement to take ownership, and that is what we want to see in the classroom.

Patty McGee: That's for sure. Fantastic final words. Thanks, Cameron.

Cameron Carter: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

Kevin Carlson: Thank you, Cameron Carter. Thank you, Patty McGee. And thank you for listening to Teachers Talk Shop. You heard Cam talk about how he uses small groups in his classroom. I want to tell you about a new product that supports small group phonics instruction: StartUp BuildUp SpiralUp Phonics. It features explicit phonics lessons with spiral review built on the Science of Reading research and tenets of Structured Literacy. It comes with one hundred grab-and-go skills bags across Grades K to 2-plus that support multiple school needs and deliver tailored, student-centered instruction. There are engaging and beautifully designed decodable readers created with phonics expert Wiley Blevins. Diagnostic and cumulative assessments allow teachers to pinpoint individual needs, and flexible pacing lets teachers accelerate instruction as students progress. All that to support small group phonics instruction. StartUp BuildUp SpiralUp Phonics. To learn more, visit Benchmarkeducation dot com.

Throughout this season, we talk with leading literacy experts to explore current understandings and nuances of teaching and learning literacy. Our aim is to present a 360-degree view of literacy that positions us to address the needs of all students in today's classrooms. 

Thanks for listening. For Benchmark Education, I'm Kevin Carlson.