Wednesday, May 28, 2014


Erin Explains It All to You. 

You know us pretty well at this point, dear reader.  And one of the first things you probably came to realize about the CRL was either:

1 - we love a good show
2 - we'll do just about anything to get a child to read

Bearing that in mind, Mary and I thought you'd enjoy these two little stories about our recent experiences with the word "can't."

The Good Stuff
Last week, I had the privilege of meeting the new recruits.  Our two feeder elementary schools came to HMMS for the afternoon with the purpose of uniting the present 5th graders as an incoming class, and talking a little bit about what happens in middle school.

Days earlier, the CRL had talked about how best to introduce the new cherubs to the All In! experience.  Certainly, there would be teasing involved.  It's all about The Tease.  Gotta start early to get 'em good and hungry. We weren't sure what our schtick should be this time around.  Last year, I whipped out a sealed envelope during my presentation and told the kids that it held the title of the next book.

The kids LOVED it; the Principal - caught off guard and thinking we had decided on a book without telling him  - was none too pleased.  (He got over it.)

We went back and forth a bit, trying to figure out what to do with an audience full of incoming 6th graders.  We went our separate ways with an agreement to ponder.  Whilst I pondered, a student inquired, "Are the 5th graders coming on Friday?"

"Yes they are!"

"Wait, do you know the title of the book?"

I swear I uttered nothing, but apparently my eyes gave something away, because he stopped in his tracks and said,

"Oh my gosh you know don't you!  The envelope!  Oh you're gonna show them the envelope! That drove me nuts last year!"

And there it was.  We had to do it again.

So on Friday, decked out in my blingy CRL shirt, I spoke about my pet dragon and the Gollum Slalom, of factions and field trips, of toilet paper and exploding muffins, of 689 readers and three unforgettable books. 

And then I showed them what they could not have.  

Sometimes we wish there was a camera following us around, so when we tell you two-hundred kids leaned forward in their seats and all of a sudden wanted something so badly they could think of nothing else - one child literally started pulling his hair out - you could see it for yourself.  It was just magical.  We have them primed.

The first step has been taken for All In! 2015.

We know how to use the word "no."  By telling the kids they can't have something, it makes that "something" so ridiculously tempting, they will focus on little else.  It reminds us very much of last year.  Perhaps the long, drawn-out tease fed into our record-smashing number of participants?  

For now, the envelope sits in protective CRL custody.  We won't tell you what's written on the slip of paper that is tucked inside...but we will have to start locking our doors.

The Terrible-Awful
After that very same presentation, I was approached by one of the 5th grade teachers who pointed to the pile of All In! books in my arms.

"Do the kids read these books independently?"
Nobody tells these girls they "can't."

"Yep, it's all voluntary!"

I heard her exhale. 
Then she said, "But, what about the kids that can't?"

I channeled Mary, laughed a little bit, and said, "Oh, we've never had that problem!"

Unsatisfied, she kept going, "Well, they can't."

Now I knew what this was about.  We've heard it before.  A surprising number of parents and teachers are eager to tell us that their child can't read the book; but for some reason, her comment caught me off-guard.

Things I could have said but didn't:
  • We have numbers. Lots of numbers, and a large number of students on IEPs participate in the school-wide read.  
  • All In! gets kids reading.
  • Positive peer pressure is extremely powerful.
  • I'm not in the business of telling a child "You can't."
  • Extrinsic motivation begets intrinsic motivation. We call it The CRL Effect.
  • Have you READ our blog?
  • Um,'s the most popular club for Special Education students.  
  • I could fill the next three hours with stories about students' experiences with All In! that would make you weep.
  • This works.
  • Just go to our website.
  • Yeah. We got this.

Instead, I think I said, "Oh, I'm sure they can.  We have discussion groups, and calendars; some kids use audio, or read with their families..."

She wasn't done.

"Well, they don't understand it then."

"Yes; actually they all pass a test. That's one of the key elements of our program. It's really important that they get to have that success."

At this point, I'm sure she looked at my shirt and thought I really was crazy.  Not only do I think kids will read a book for fun, but they are also lining up to take a test?  She turned to leave.

"Well, good luck."
Parked outside the IRA14 convention center

I was absolutely boiling, and I couldn't wait to tell Mary.  See, she's usually the one tasked with talking me down when I get fired up about something.  Only that didn't work out so well this time.  See, Mary and I spend an awful lot of time together.  We're totally in sync.  She's a fiery one, that Cotillo, and if her "How DARE she?" and "Why exactly is that woman a teacher?" diatribe made me feel better about my own emotional reaction, it didn't really help shed light on the bigger question: Why did this bother me so much?

What, you don't post your notes on Instagram?
We've been reading To Kill a Mockingbird in 8th grade this past month, and these experiences got me thinking about Mrs. Dubose and her advice to Jem about killing camellias.  "'Next time you'll know how to do it right, won't you?  You'll pull it up by the roots, won't you?'"  Mary teaches her students that the camellia represents the growth of racism.  The older generations are the heads of the flower, and the children are the roots.  If you want to rid the world of racism, targeting old folks who have one foot in the grave will do you no good.  You have to go after the kids.  

If this experience doesn't dove tail perfectly, I don't know what does.  The KIDS are perfectly willing to buy in; it's the adults who have prejudices that are hard to over come.

By telling us that we didn't know what we were doing - and already doubting the abilities of our darlings AND our program - this teacher was simply showing her prejudices.  And we took it as one mighty insult.  "How DARE she?"

Now, let me channel my inner Atticus Finch and say maybe she was having a bad day.  Maybe she's come off of a very difficult year and struggling to keep her head above water.  Maybe she has a hard time with social cues; perhaps her question was sincere and she would be horrified to know that we are insulted.  Whatever the case, I don't think she was expecting a response, not one that she was prepared to agree with anyway.  By wishing us well, sincerely or not, she did have the last word.  And that's okay.  While the petals fade and fall, we'll be nurturing the roots. 

Now we'd better run.  We have another school-wide read to plan, and a few hundred middles to get ready for their biggest challenge and greatest victory.

Just watch.

Monday, May 12, 2014

IRA14 All In! Presentation

For those of you who attended our session at IRA 2014, THANK YOU.  You were kind, supportive, and understanding.  You all gave us just the positive energy we needed to overcome our technical woes.  Below you will find the content from the slide show we'd planned.  Please enjoy, pass it along to your friends, and let us know how we can help you lead your school on your very own literary adventure.  Go All In!

All In!

Uniting One School with One Book

 Mary Cotillo and Erin O'Leary
Horace Mann Middle School, Franklin MA

Abnegation Erin and Amity Mary

 Meet The Crazy Reading Ladies

Mary Cotillo is an 8th grade ELA teacher at HMMS.  She's been teaching middle school for 12 years. 

Erin O'Leary is the Reading Specialist at HMMS.  She has been teaching for 9 years. 

Wait...what do y'all do again?

The Crazy Reading Ladies:
  • help adolescents become book lovers
  • empower teachers to be leaders in their school
  • break social barriers
  • promote community engagement
We have the kids follow a simple formula:
  1. Read the Book
  2. Show What You Know
  3. See the Movie 
  4. Join the Adventure

 Why We Rock (no really...we do)

2012 - The Hunger Games
221 kids, 42% of the school
(We were expecting 30 kids...we didn't think to keep data on subgroups!)

2013 - The Hobbit
188 kids, 38% of the school
41% of students with IEPs and 100% of ReAch* 

2014 - Divergent
280 kids, 59% of the school
31% of students with IEPs and 75% of ReAch

*ReAch is our emotional and behavioral sub-separate program

Choose Wisely 
No pressure, but don't blow it.
  • Likeability
    • If the kids don't like it, they won't read it
  • Visibility
    • Don't underestimate the value of Hollywood merchandising
  •  Potential
    • Field Trip!
    • Teachability (yeah, totally not a real word)
    • Appropriateness for your demographic

 When in doubt...

Text complexity and daunting page counts are not roadblocks; they are accomplishments waiting to be celebrated. 

Build Excitement
Just Say No

How do you get kids to care about a book?

It's about drama, pure and simple; create a buzz among the students and a frenetic desire to know the title.

If you do it right...
(No, you can't have him.)
  • Videos
  • Teachers
  • Contests
  • Costumes
  • Propoganda
  • Mystery

"But...reading is its own reward!"

Let the kids lead.

Good thing we didn't read any research first!

Anecdotal (and Adorable Evidence)
Florida goes All In!

How Stinkin' Cute Is He?

The CRL Effect: 
Extrinsic begets Intrinsic

Although the movie gets them to pick up the book, it's the story that keeps them reading and the sense of accomplishment that gets them to read the sequel.  

Support and Encourage
"But extra time is on my IEP!"
  • Structure - calendars, deadlines
  • Audio books
  • Physical books
  • Discussion groups
  • Reading groups
  • Public Library
  • Encourage parent read-alouds

Hey, look!
Portfolio evidence for parent engagement!

Public library events promote community and belonging.
"When she reads, it works its way through the family."

I always thought the lyrics were "Celebrate good times! Go Home!"

Assessments as celebrations? You must be crazy!

Give then an opportunity to show what they know and celebrate their accomplishment. 

Right Where We Belong
  • Literary Soul Mates
  • Seredipity
  • Just do it!

Visit our Official Website:


All In! is a product of Overwhelming Success, Inc., an Educational Non-Profit




Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Agony (and Ecstasy) of Defeat

Get ready NOLA, here we come!
Are you going to #IRA14 this year?  
Please come see us at session 1923 on Sunday.  
We'd love to meet you!

If you have a kid enrolled in an extracurricular activity, have attended an awards ceremony for anyone under the age of 16, or have simply driven by a soccer field, you are probably familiar with the EGAT philosophy: Everybody Gets a Trophy.

Somewhere along the way, building a child's self esteem became more important than building resilience.  We learned that kids feel better about themselves when they are successful, and that somehow turned into "We must create successes for our students."

Although research has clarified the difference between the sense of satisfaction created for being awarded a trophy for showing up and one earned via true effort, that distinction hasn't really permeated the world of education.  Not yet.  Teachers still scramble to make sure kids feel success.  

Please don't think we're judging.  We do it in our classrooms, too.  It's hard to implement strategies that reflect a philosophy that kids learn more from failure than they do from success.  Maybe it's because failure has to be done in the "right" way - in a safe environment where students have multiple opportunities to show what they know and there isn't the pressure of a low grade ending up on a report card - something difficult to do in this world of high-stakes testing and an ever-increasing list of curricular demands.  But we digress.  

"I hope I win!"
This post is all about failure.  At a recent after school DIVERGENT activity, students were allowed to spend an hour playing whatever carnival game their heart desired (and an express order from Oriental Trader could provide).   Kids played for tickets to earn points for their faction.  You'd think they'll all go for the easy games, right?  Or gravitate toward the games they were good at.  Well, you'll likely be as surprised as we were.

Maybe WE are getting comfy in our blingy CRL shirts, seeing the light at the end of our Third Year tunnel (we may be tossing around book titles...) but thankfully, our students still have surprises left to reveal.

And we have a lot to learn from them.

Since Mary has the honor of having an All In! initiate under her roof, she had the inside scoop on how the kids enjoyed themselves at the carnival.

"Omigosh mom, that food can thing? That was my favorite. My friend and I were so horrible. We had to keep going until we knocked at least one down!"
Waiting in line to lose

At first, it was nothing more than a cute conversation the CRL shared the next morning. "What a cool kid - she liked the challenge!"

We thought that was it; thankfully, there's always more to the story.

After our Faction Initiation carnival, a student stopped Mary in the hall, telling us how much fun he had. Out of curiosity Mary asked, "What was your favorite part?" to which the Candor 6th grader replied, "Oh, the egg balancing thing! That was awesome!"

After this encounter, a puzzled Mary approached Erin's classroom and said, "You know the Candor boy you were with on Friday? The one you said couldn't balance an egg on his head to save his life? Apparently, that was his favorite activity."

Really? How could that be?  He was horrible at balancing that darn thing on his head.  He lost. A lot.
Lessons learned from our initiates

Sure enough, when we talked to Katie (who had manned Dauntless' Exploding Muffins) she told us about one Dauntless girl who never left the line. "She kept waiting her turn to go again. She really wanted to explode all three muffins.  She was awful; but man she was determined."

Now, we know 3 kids out of 100+ isn't much of a sample size, but still.  If three kids spent their time trying to master something they found challenging, we're willing to bet that others did, too.  It intrigued us so much that Mary posed a few questions to her 8th grade ELA classes the next day.  

Why are kids willing to battle frustration for an hour while trying to balance something on their head but they give up a the first sign of confusion with a homework assignment?  Why are kids willing to take risks on the sports fields but choose the easiest option when presented with school projects?  

The overwhelming response: fear.  

They fear failure.  They fear disappointing their teachers and parents.  They fear the low grade they could receive if they choose the harder option.  They fear the feeling in their stomach when they see the F on the paper.  They fear messing up when it counts.

All lined up and ready to fail
 for the fun of it!

Mary's brain was swimming with trying to figure out the implications of all that her students were saying, so she didn't press for more detail.  Instead, her addled brain managed to find one more question. 

What makes a challenge fun?  

Again, the response was clear.  Challenges are fun when they don't count.  Students will try anything as long as they know they won't lose credit or points or face.  If they aren't worried about being made fun of or criticized or getting an "F," they're willing and able to give it a shot.  

We're sure this isn't a groundbreaking observation; there are likely fifteen books written on the subject.  But somehow, when the issue comes off the page and becomes the flesh and blood kid standing in front of you with a grin on his bespectacled face, laughing at how he couldn't keep a wooden egg on his curly head, it becomes a whole lot more real.  

Here's our take.  When presented with a challenge, kids ask themselves "What if...?"  This is good.  We want them to consider potential outcomes for their actions!  The problem is their brains have negative answers at the ready, and what positive answers they can generate they do not trust.   So when they ask, "What if I get something wrong?", their brain replies with "Then you lose points" rather than "Then you'll get a chance to figure out what went wrong and try again."  When they ask, "What if I don't do well?"  They answer themselves with "Then you fail" instead of trusting that they'll have a chance to try again.  

Vinko Bogataj, aka: The Agony of Defeat Guy

Why did our DIVERGENT initiates spend all their time at one station, trying again and again and again?  There are a multitude of factors at work.  One reason would be because of the teachers at each station saying, "That's okay!  You're getting better!  Try again!"  No one said they'd used up all their tries.  No one told them they had to move on to another unit.  Another reason would be because it didn't count.  Sure they were playing for tickets, but there was no report card grade attached to their success or failure at using a beanbag to knock over a pile of cans.  They were playing for something greater than tickets; they were playing for pride and the sense of accomplishment that comes with improvement.  

We share this story more to share inspiration than anything else.  Our takeaway:  under the right circumstances, students don't mind struggle.  In fact, they enjoy it. Your classroom can be fun *and* challenging, the two are not mutually exclusive.  What are those perfect circumstances? Well, we wish we could wrap up this post with a cure-all suggestion for making your classroom a place where students try, try, try until they can pump their fist and say, "Yes!" when they experience success.  The truth is, though, that while we have more insight than we once did, we're still lacking in the strategies department. 

This is where you come in.  If you have strategies for creating an environment where students embrace challenge rather than avoid it, please share them in the comments section.  Thanks!