Is the learning of reading a magical thing?


A Contemplative Baboon moment, ‘I learnt to read better during secondary school. However, I wonder if I would have been a better reader, if someone had actually taught me?’

Is the learning of reading a magical thing in secondary school? Does it happen when we are not looking? I recently did a study ( – abstract available here) – a discourse analysis of 100 lessons – 5000 minutes of the lives of some students. Modes of discourse (reading, writing, speaking, listening & acting) were identified. I would like to make you guess what percentage of all of that classroom discourse was reading based.

…waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting,waiting, waiting…

OK, that’s enough time. It was just 4% of all discourse – at least in my sample.  There were many things in the results that didn’t surprise me, but this did. To make matters more distressing, a high percentage of this discourse was teacher-centered. I don’t even want to add another thorn, yet I must. No explicit teaching of reading was identified. This is 100 50-minute classes. That is quite a lot. At least I thought so when I had to analyze it.

This brings me back to my question – is the learning of reading a magical thing? Students get better at reading, yet we don’t explicitly teach it.  I have kept my eyes open for the elusive explicit-teaching of reading in the secondary, but it continues to confound me. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that students learning to read better is miraculous. Perhaps it is just some type of inexplicable magic. It just doesn’t seem to happen when we are looking.


The fourth choice – Portfolio lessons


One road – many directions. (My ride to school. )

A mathematical solution to the puzzle of choice in portfolio presentations may be closer than we think. Following on from an earlier post ‘Assign tasks not tools’, and related to a post from Amy Burvall examining the importance of options, I have come across something that may well have solved our problems.

When you want to work out what choices to offer students, providing different entry points, allowing familiar structures to guide , promoting challenge and creativity, all at the same time, try this. Take one very familiar format (a). Take one less familiar to most (a-1f). (f) represents familiarity. Take another quite unfamiliar to many (a-5f). Add another mystery one that the student can choose (x). Combine these elements to find ℗, which equals creative portfolio.   Here we have it:

℗ = a + (a-1f) + (a-5f) + x

The important mathematical theoretical framework can be deduced by substituting a + (a-1f) + (a-5f) with absolutely nothing.

℗ = x

In simple terms, as long as you have the fourth choice (the mystery one that the student can choose), you will be on the road to a creative portfolio. Who can argue with that logic, even from a meaningless equation made up by an English teacher?

With student portfolios, we travel one road, yet may need to head in many directions. Provide structure, but support student choice.


Just keep paddling

After some time in the water yesterday morning, I thought I’d share a few reflections on life using seven images that I had the opportunity to capture. A small white-tip gave me the idea. Many thanks to our marine friend. I didn’t number the photos, as I couldn’t decide which ones were more important to me. Let me know if you have a good ranking for yourself.


Sometimes, life can be a bit of a mess, but it passes. You can see a friend of mine in the very centre of the photo – the other side of any mess we get ourselves into.


Life is good. Don’t let anyone make you feel otherwise. Pursue your passions.


Share our spaces. We joined this small white-tip, who was prepared to share her space with us. A brief, welcoming swim-by, before we entered the water. A little more reflection on reasonable intentions may make this world a happier place. Assume the best, but exercise caution! (Stay on land if it’s a 15ft tiger shark.)


Have fun, never forget that. Make time for yourself, because you deserve it, we all do, despite what those around us may demand. Leave the guilt on shore.


In surfing, as in life, you do get a bit beat up along the way.  Just make sure, it’s worth it. If I had hung my board on the wall and stayed home, it would still be pristine – beautiful, but in a sad way. Each scar is a memory, the most precious of our possessions.


We all find ourselves in the whitewater at some time. The only way to avoid this is to keep your feet dry, but is this living? Welcome the tough times that come with your pursuits. Just keep paddling.


Enjoy moments. For all the waves that will never ever break again, just relax and revel in the passing experience. Trying to notice the moments is the difficult part, as our fast paced lives race by. It’s a thinking skill that we are not taught in schools.


Pasta & Portfolios: Assign tasks, not tools

The purpose of making pasta.

The purpose of making pasta. Photo by @amyburvall

A recent sojourn into the wonderful world of portfolio process design has convinced me that we need to increasingly, in our schools, assign tasks – not tools. Underneath the structures of portfolios (the ‘document’) and student led conferences (the ‘conversation’), we want deep reflection on both learning and self-as-learner, the real purpose.

Any extraneous restriction/imposition, not serving the purpose that supports that reflection forms a superfluous distraction, generating an artificial focus, potentially (but not necessarily) diminishing focus on what really matters the most.

When I make pasta for friends or family, the purpose is to create  an experience – not a dinner set or a specifically shaped piece of flour & egg. If I spent too much time worrying about what bowls someone told me to use or how thick someone told me to make each strand, it could potentially (but not necessarily) detract from the ‘dining experience’ – the real purpose.

It seems that when students are creating that ‘reflective experience’, allowing them to choose their own paths, as much as possible, would allow them to retain a focus on this real purpose.  Choose the bowl yourself – one that suits your purpose. There are lots of bowls out there.


Bursting Bubbles, Trashing Trolls

Love the visuals Amy. Thank you for the ode – a rarity, and for all your inspiration.


When is the last time you realized you had your own personal rain cloud pouring questions?

plathondoubt 2

This is what I call an impromptu post, and it’s happening because within hours of each other two of my favourite friends – creative and successful gentlemen I admire profoundly – were brave enough to publicly disclose something…

They are scared.

Or maybe they were scared, but somehow soldiered on.

Thankfully for the rest of us they pushed through their internal naysaying and continued with their respective creative processes…but I think it’s worth taking a few minutes to connect some dots.


First, Brad Ovenell-Carter, renown for his sketchnoting with the Paper app by Fifty-Three among other things (like edtech leadership, pedagogical innovation, and whimsical lifeblogging), wrote this post, in which he reveals just how far he has come with his technique, encouraging others to take the risk to share while…

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The only one who truely doesn’t believe in you.



My first novel, the product of walking the dog with my daughters.

An interesting exercise when you are starting an endeavor is to make a list of all the people who really believe you can do it and all of the people who really believe that you can’t – as well as all the people who fall in between. For argument sake, I will use a six point scale to describe my list when I started my first novel and most of the way through the writing process:

  1. Really believe that you can do it:  My two daughters & my dog.
  2. Think that you probably can do it:  My wife and a few friends. Me sometimes.
  3. Wonder if you can do it or not: Me sometimes. A few more friends.
  4. Think that you probably can’t do it: Me often.
  5. Really believe that you can’t do it: Me sometimes.
  6. Completely indifferent: 7.163 Billion minus 8 people and a brown dog. (i.e.The rest of the world.)

I wonder if this is the same for other people. From my experience with teachers and students in schools, I am guessing it is so. I was in my late 30s when I wrote the novel, having already successfully passed a few milestones in my life, yet I oscillated between points 2 to 5 regularly. How must it be for a child? The interesting thing about the exercise is that I guarantee there is only ever one person on No. 5 and that is you/me. I thought about this a lot during the writing process, and the knowledge helped me combat that self-doubt protective reflex that is the bane of our creative spirits.  Remember that you are alone, but only within the restrictive bubble of your own self-doubt.

You really should read Oystermouth Whispers, by the way. A novel by my favorite author.


Life is too short, to not take the stage.


I attended a middle school poetry slam a couple of weeks ago. A large percentage of the MS students participated, which is miraculous, in and of itself, writing their own poems and standing on a stage to recite, deliver, perform, amaze.  I’m an English teacher, so I like to think that I know my way around a poem, but while sitting in the audience, I tried to calculate how long it had been since I had actually written and recited one. 30 years, in fact – when I was forced to do this at school. This event was a completely different world to the one in which we all stood up, in turn, and read our words to a disinterested class all those years ago.

This poetry slam was so much fun and so much courage was found by so many students, you could not help being moved. The photo above was taken while I was riding to school one day across Kawainui Marsh and it seems to capture how it felt, sitting listening to the MS students recite their poetry. There is a specific beauty within that type of courage. Their inspiration allows me to now say, ‘My name is Damian Rentoule and it has been two weeks since I wrote & recited a poem’.  Here it is, with references to the poems of the night – The ‘Wang’ is the name of the auditorium,  the ‘brick wall’ is a paper backdrop which fell during the performances etc. You can just try to guess the rest. Hope you enjoy it.

Dragons & Bottles: The Eggcellent JLA Poets

Enter the Wang,

but beware the brick wall.

Looming behind me,

tempting to fall.

Listeners cheered,

poets all spoke.

Words from the heart,

and of course, the odd joke.

To hear my friends shouting,

as my name is read.

There’s nothing quite like it,

these words in my head.

Beautiful brownies,

all stuck on the floor.

Don’t worry about it,

just go back for more.

Alone on the stage,

yet not really just one.

My friends are all cheering,

they’re making this fun.

Some words are bright,

others just bold.

Desperate or angry,

all truth is told.

These thoughts are so private,

too private to share.

But here on the stage,

my soul is laid bare.

Yet, not nearly as scary,

as I thought it would be.

For this feeling is special,

all eyes are on me.

Their waiting to hear,

the meaning I’ve spun.

Ms Huber, Ms Baxter,

I feel like I’ve won.

Life is too short,

to not take the stage.

To wear a black beret,

recite from my page.

Parents are proud,

you are growing so fast.

We love you dear child,

From now, to the last.

Dragons and Bottles,

That’s who I am.

Bullies and Eggs,

The Poetry Slam.

By Damian Rentoule – an impressed audience member.