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Positively Impacting the Lives of Children with Laura Robb (Ep 64)

/ Jason Sholl

Author, teacher, literacy coach, and teacher trainer, Laura Robb has more than 40 years classroom experience and presented at conferences and in school districts in the U.S. and Canada. Even after retiring from full-time teaching, Laura has continued teaching part-time in area schools. For the past four years, she’s worked with students and trained ELA teachers in an intermediate school where about 1/3 of students entering 5th grade read on K-2 instructional levels. Author of more than 35 books on literacy, Robb also writes blogs, creates podcasts on literacy with her son, Evan Robb, and has co-authored two books with him. She believes in a student-centered approach, differentiation, and culturally relevant teaching! Follow Laura on Twitter @lrobbteacher and visit her website at https://lrobb.com/.

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Nathan Lang-Raad: Welcome to the Deeper Learning with WeVideo Podcast. I'm your host, Nathan Lang-Raad. And on today's episode, we have Laura Robb. Author, teacher literacy coach and teacher trainer, Laura Robb has more than 40 years of classroom experience and has presented at conferences and in school districts in the United States and Canada. Even after retiring from full-time teaching, Laura has continued teaching part time in area schools. Author of more than 35 books on literacy, Robb also writes blogs, creates podcasts on literacy with her son, Evan, Robb, and has co-authored two books with him. She believes in student-centered approach, differentiation and culturally relevant teaching. I hope you enjoy the episode where Laura talks all about literacy.

Laura, it is such an honor and pleasure to have you on the show today. Thank you so much for being a part.

Laura Robb: Well, it's a pleasure to be here and when I received your invitation, I was so excited and happy.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Likewise, I have just looked up to you and your work. And whenever I think about a true literacy expert, I think about Laura Robb. And it was really fun because as you and I were talking before the podcast recording, you told me that you came into education in kind of a non-traditional route. So I'd love to hear more about how you came into education.

Laura Robb: Yes, well, I worked in New York in advertising and when I was at Queens College, I was a double major; French and English lit, and I never took an education class. So I thought I was going to go onto graduate school in English literature. But my husband, after he graduated Juilliard, decided he didn't want to stay in the city anymore. And he took a job in Winchester, Virginia. And I have to tell you, the ride down, the tears just flowed that I was leaving my beloved city.

And then, when we arrived in Winchester, there were no advertising agencies. It was a little town, a sleepy town of about 12,000 people. Now, it has 15,000 or 16,000 people. And I really needed something to do because I didn't know anybody. And he said, "Try teaching." And I kind of thought, "Well, that's ridiculous." And I looked around at a lot of other ideas and none of them panned out. And there was an opening in a country school about 10 minutes from where I lived. I went for an interview and it was the oddest school to start your career in.

I was the only outsider. The principal had all of his relatives; his sister, his nieces, his nephews, and his wife. And I was replacing his wife in sixth grade. And he had a very strange idea of New Yorkers. He would say to me every day, "I know you New Yorkers. I know what you do." I was afraid to ask him, "What do you think I do?" I just left that one alone. But I fell in love with teaching that year and I can still see those sixth graders in front of me. Several of them have kept in touch with me and I've always been a rebel and an advocate for children.

So there were about five in the class that I thought were super bright and I called their parents and had gotten in trouble for doing this, and recommended that they take the academic track in high school. And the principal was furious because he owned two peach factories and he wanted all the people from his area to graduate high school and come work in the peach factory or else do some farming for him.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Oh, my goodness.

Laura Robb: But it's a very interesting story. There was this one boy, Steven Feltner, he should have gone and gotten a master's and a PhD, that's how bright this young man was. And he never did. So fast-forward a couple of years after I left that school, I was in Powhatan, where I taught for quite a long time. And it was a K-8 school. And I hear a voice calling, "Mrs. Robb, is that you?" It was Steven Feltner. And he said to me... You what he was doing? This super bright, curious young man was selling coffee makers and servicing them. And he said, "I never got a chance to go to college." But he said, "I remember how you really made me understand that reading was so important, that reading to your children, getting books." And he said, "I've done that." And my two children are going to college.

And I thought, as sad as I was, and I get teary for Steven, I was so happy that he took that negative and turned it into something so affirming and positive in both his children. And it's those kinds of things that just take my breath away with teaching. So it's all about the children. And that class taught me so much. I had 26 students from special ed to super brilliant, and I had to figure out how could I teach all of them.

Nathan Lang-Raad: You truly are an inspiring teacher. And as an educator, there's nothing more fulfilling than hearing the stories of our students after they left our classroom and hearing that kind of feedback and hearing that you truly inspired him and that he was trying to carry that legacy on, of education to his children, I'm sure that made you feel so good and wonderful.

Laura Robb: It really did, Nathan. And the wonderful thing is he told me, he said, "I'm a reader, Mrs. Robb. I didn't go to college, but I read all the time." And he thought of himself, which is absolutely right, he thought of himself as educated. He didn't have the diploma or the paper that said you have graduated X university, but he was a lifelong learner. And that counts for so much.

And after that, I started teaching in an independent school, where I kind of was allowed to do whatever I wanted because the kids loved... I loved them, they loved me, the parents loved me. And they gave me a basal, which I said I will never, ever use. And I said, "Give me a budget for books." And so, right from the beginning, the children were reading books and having choices, which makes all the difference.

And I did interesting things, Nathan. We talked about student-centered teaching, for five years, I did what we call personalized learning now, where each child had a folder and it individualized a plan that I negotiated with them every week for the key subjects, for reading, for writing, for science, for history. And when they finished their work and most of them were taught to finish early, they could work on projects. I had two rooms, and so there was one room that was just a project room with all kinds of stuff. I guess, it was kind of like the beginning of the makerspace, where they could create things and build things and make presentations and do research. So it was nice to be in a place where I could be adventurous and take big risks and be trusted that if it wasn't working, I would pull back or try to find ways to make adjustments.

But the way I always made adjustments was through the children. Even when I write a book and I'm trying a strategy with them and I tell them, "I need to know if it's working or not. And if it's not working, I want us to talk about it. You need to tell me why." So when I say they were my teachers and are, they still are, because this book I'm working on now, I'm going to have to be in two schools to have the children try some of the things that I'm going to be asking teachers to use. Now, I feel that it's so important to have a range of children, from different backgrounds, different developmental levels, do the lessons and give me feedback, which is the best thing in the world.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. It's so interesting to hear that whenever you're in the classroom, before differentiation and student-centered learning was a thing, or before it was popularized, you had discovered the need for that. I'm curious, what did you see whenever you were teaching? What was it that kind of automatically directed your attention to, "I have to be a rebel or I have to do something different"? What were you seeing that kind of caused that shift? And then, what were some of the first things that you did to make that shift? Because even today, even the differentiation is becoming more popular and personalized learning is becoming more of a ubiquitous buzzword. It sounds daunting. And there's a misconception about what it looks like and what it is. So I'm just curious about, since you really helped kind of pioneer these concepts early on, what did that look like for you?

Laura Robb: Okay, well, again, it was the children. I was given a set of books that I had to teach and there were children in every class for the first three years who couldn't read those books. And I knew from my own reading life, that if you don't continue reading and you don't have a lot of volume, you lose your reading identity and you lose your desire to read it. And I had conversations with them and they would ask me, "Can't you find something that I can read?" And then I said, "Of course I can." Because budgets were tight, I would go to the public library. I have a great relationship with the children's' librarian in the library in Winchester, which is two blocks from my house. And I would check out books. And the only thing I had to do was keep them in class because I learned there was a lot of loss, which is fine, but not if I'm not paying the bill all the time. And they were happy to be reading in school and then they could check out books from the school library.

And the other thing I did that teachers don't often do, is I went to the library with them. Library period is always seen as, "Okay, I'm free. I can do whatever I want." When it has to do with children selecting books, really being surrounded by books sometimes, and not even knowing what to choose. It's very important for the teacher to be there, to affirm choices. And for a child who picks a book that is going to frustrate them, I never take a book away. I tell them, "That's a great book and I want you to take it out, but here are three others and I'll pick..." And I said, "Check these out too. And if you're home and you say, 'Ah, this book is just not speaking to me.' Try one of the ones that I gave you." And always giving choice, always respecting the need for the fact that they have a right to choose, which is what years ago I had that right to choose how I was going to respond to children as a teacher.

But that right has diminished over the years, which is very sad because we put our face more in programs than in people. And we spend a lot of money on programs instead of spending money to continually have professional learning for teachers, so they gain more and more skill. And that collaboration, those conversations, like we're talking now, having a conversation with someone just starts the brain thinking and your brain just buzzes with activity. And that's what you're looking for.

Nathan Lang-Raad: It makes me so happy, it brings a smile to my face, just to hear the conversations you have with students. And those conversations are so pivotal and so key and so crucial to early readers really finding a love of learning. And I can see one situation where an adult would say, "No, you shouldn't read that book." Or, "Try this book instead." That one conversation could have a lasting impact on a child. And it's amazing and wonderful that you recognize that. And you're able to provide some other books for them, because you obviously knew that this book may have been at a level that they weren't ready for it yet. And so, you knew that they were going to go through some challenges. And so, you found those books that were appropriate to where they were reading. And so, I think it's fantastic how you intervened at that very personal level.

Laura Robb: Yeah, I always did. And, Nathan, I always shared the research from third grade on. And most of my teaching is five through eight, but I've trained teachers and worked in third grades and fourth grades. So from third grade on I share the research of [inaudible 00:14:32], of passion. All the people who know that if you want to be a better reader, you have to read. And you have read books that you choose, that are relevant to your life, that speak to you, but you can't stop reading.

I remember a sixth grader, I worked in this class. I was called into the school because the teacher didn't believe in independent reading. And she consented to have me initiate an independent reading curriculum with her sixth grade students. And this one child, at the end they evaluated everything. It was all with choice. And the kids, they didn't want to stop. But he wrote the funniest thing and it just stays in my mind. He said, "When I'm into a book that I love, I don't hear my mom call me to dinner. I don't hear anything. All I feel and experience is the book. The only thing that can stop me from reading is if my pants are on fire." I thought that was so great. He captured it totally. That when you're so into a book, the world stops. You're in a different zone. You're in another place. And that's what I want for every child.

But a lot of the kids I work with now are students coming into fifth grade, reading at a kindergarten or first grade level, which is very scary. And before school starts, I always have one-on-one 30 minute conversations with the group I'm going to work with, or students that teachers on training will be working with. And several will say things like, "I hate reading and you can't make me read." And I said, "You're right." And they look at me like, "You take..." I said, "You're right. I can't make you read. I can't force you to read. You can look at the book, but I can't make you read those words. So let's take it from there." So what I'm doing is I'm honoring where they are and I'm not saying, "Oh, yes, I can." Or, "What kind of a dumb thing is that to say?" But I'm saying, "You're right." Because it's true, no one can make anybody read. It's an intrinsic internal desire.

Nathan Lang-Raad: You are so correct. And your approach is so brilliant because we know that instilling a lifelong love of reading and learning has to be intrinsic. And as educators, that really is our primary responsibility. Yes, we have to activate knowledge and facilitate learning, but we have to inspire learning. And every student's going to be different. And that's where you brought in the individualized and the differentiation. Yes, you gave lots of choice, but you also get to know your students at a certain depth so you could ask the right questions that were going to help them to think about what it was going to take for them to read or pick up a book.

Laura Robb: Absolutely. And lots of conferring, but short, two, three minute conferences over and over again, talking about their reading life, about how they feel about books, watching changes and pointing out the small changes in their language or their receptiveness to trying a book. And I have a lot of patience, so I've had children where everybody is reading. Everyday class starts with independent reading and there are kids, you can just see, they're just like, "Oh, shoot." And thumbing through book after book, and I say nothing, I wait.

And one story was amazing. So this girl, seventh grader, comes up to me and she says, "Well, I'm not reading. Why are you all reading? I said, "Why don't you ask some of them, they'll tell you." And she was shocked. If I had said... They were saying, "Oh, this is the greatest book. You should read it." She got lots of answers like that. If I said that, it would have fallen on deaf ears. But I know that in middle school and early high school, peers are everything and she needed to hear it. So I said, "Don't ask me, ask your classmates." But you have to feel comfortable in your skin to be able to work with children that way.

And I have to say that discipline problems and behavioral problems, most of the time, with rare exceptions, come from an inability to connect with what they're doing, and to feel that it's meaningful to them and their lives. So if kids are doing work that's meaningful, that they can do, that extends to collaboration and sharing with their classmates, eventually they're going to come on board. And you just have to be patient, which comes to grading too. So there are teachers that tell me, "But aren't you giving them zeros?" I said, "I never gave a zero in my life or an F." I said, "If I gave somebody a zero or an F in reading or writing, they'd never want to read or write again. If I observed you as a teacher and I gave you F, F, F each time I came in, how would you feel? Put yourself in the child's shoes and think about that."

Nathan Lang-Raad: So important and such wise words from such an amazing expert. So thank you, Laura, for sharing some fantastic strategies that we can automatically put into place, really around what's in the best interest of the student. And you've given lots of wonderful examples.

And we get to learn more about you now, as we move into our lightening round. So are you ready for it?

Laura Robb: I am.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Okay. Well, this is a great one to start off on. I'm asking a literacy expert about books. So here we go, for the first question, if you were stranded on a desert island, which three books would you have with you and why?

Laura Robb: Okay, well, the first would be the Odyssey, which I read every two or three years, because it's one of the greatest adventure stories. Every time I read it, I learn something new, I see something in it that I never saw. It also has a lot about father/son, relationships, trust between Odysseus and his wife and the man who he leads. And just the descriptions are so remarkable that it's a book I can read again and again. And for me, if I'm going to be alone on a desert island, I have to have something I want to go back to many times.

My second choice would be Pride and Prejudice. I love Jane Austen. And totally opposite from the Odyssey, but still human relationships, breaking the traditions of English society, especially with Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, because they're from two different worlds, and talking about being able to make your own choices. And all the minor characters are so wonderful, the family relationships. And to me, it's like a very lofty soap opera kind of thing.

And my third choice, because I love poetry, would be the complete works of Langston Hughes, and I have that book, which includes his poems and his short stories. So it's a double. I'm getting a double kind of benefit from it.

Nathan Lang-Raad: I love it. We need-

Laura Robb: So those are my three.

Nathan Lang-Raad: We need to have a Laura Robb's book study club.

Laura Robb: Well, that you say that, it's interesting, I have a book study club with my grandson, who felt he wasn't reading enough in high school and some of his friends. And then during COVID, it was just with the two of us and he would choose two books and we would read them and I would choose two. And he would choose science fiction and fantasy and I would do the Odyssey and the Oedipus trilogy by Sophocles. So they was so polar opposite, but it was really good. And we learned a lot from each other. So book clubs are great. I love book clubs.

Nathan Lang-Raad: I love it.

Laura Robb: I certainly do them in class too. The kids love having book clubs and suggesting books.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Fantastic. Okay, next question, how do you recharge?

Laura Robb: Okay, I think recharging is very important. So a couple of ways; I am a big walker. And so, I walk about three or four miles a day, but not all at once. And I do a lot of meditation and thinking, and sometimes I focus my walks, especially in the spring, on the Earth coming back and the flowers that bloom and the trees that are blooming; like dogwood and redbud and the iris. And I just find that all that greenery, when you talked about being surrounded by trees, I was very envious because trees are very healing and nature is very healing. So I do spend time doing that. Sometimes I will go to a national park. We have several in our area and hike there. The other thing I love to do is watch movies. And I find that relaxing and fun, and I pretty much watch anything except extreme horror, because I have nightmares, I can't sleep. But I'm game for anything. So those are the two ways I recharge.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Excellent. What's the biggest challenge in education?

Laura Robb: The biggest challenge today is really scaring me, Nathan. I thought that with COVID schools would immediately start talking about the positive changes that had to take place. That we were going to move away from worksheets and everybody doing the same thing, because it wasn't working online. And what I'm finding with a lot of schools that I'm in touch with is they're going backwards. They're ordering basal programs. And I find it very upsetting for several reasons.

A basal program is a one size fits all. It's geared to the grade level child, but I have never taught a class where everybody was a grade level reader. So the kids who were above than the kids who were below achieve it. The other thing is, what I really dislike about basals are they'll take a chapter of a book. I find that frustrating. Why would I want to read one chapter? I want to read the whole bloody book. I want kids to feel that way.

And I worry that the pendulum is now going to swing back until it moves forward. Lots of wider goals about personalized learning and station learning, so many ways that we can help the children who need that extra support, but still have a student-centered, differentiated class, where everybody makes progress. Starts where they are and moves forward. So I'm hoping it's just a little blip and not all the schools. I only have a window into like the five or six school systems in my area.

Nathan Lang-Raad: All right. What subject did you love in school?

Laura Robb: English was my favorite subject. And in high school I took lots of English and my second love was music because I played the piano. My husband was an opera singer, and music has been a part of my life. My father loved music and took us to the Philharmonic in New York. I just can't imagine a life without music.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah, very cool. Who was your favorite teacher and why?

Laura Robb: Favorite teacher was Dr. Tobin. He was my English teacher at Queens College in New York City. He taught four classes, I took all of them. What I loved about him was his sense of humor, his respect for each one of us. And even though there was a core curriculum, we had lots of choices; choices of extra books, related books, choices of projects. It was really where I learned through experience how important having those choices was.

Nathan Lang-Raad: What did you want to be when you were growing up?

Laura Robb: Oh, you're going to laugh. I wanted to be Sonja Henie, a figure ice skater. I used to ice skate a lot, but I was certainly not in a league of figure skating, but I dreamed of doing it. And I watch figure skating, I love it. I think it's a beautiful sport, but when you're little, your dreams are different from when you're older. And for me, fate, moving to a small town, changed the trajectory of my life and getting into a classroom.

Nathan Lang-Raad: That's so wonderful. Yeah. And one of my favorite things to watch on TV is figure skating. So I'm right there with you. I think I also wanted to be a figure skater too growing up.

Laura Robb: I thought it was the coolest thing, I really did. So you can have dancing and individual figure skating, but it didn't happen.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Who were the biggest impact on who you have become?

Laura Robb: The children. After the first week I worked with the children in school, I knew that they were going to teach me more than I was going to teach them. And I feel that way every time I work with children and I become a very careful listener and observer of body language, of gestures, of renascence versus willingness to participate. And accepting everything and just working those one-on-one short conferences to get into a child's heart and let them know that there are things we can do together that will help them move forward. And I have great respect for the children and I never took an education class until... I started teaching in 1963. And I never took an education class until 1988, when I got a master's in education.

So I think it was kind of like the old way, where years ago, if you wanted to be a lawyer, you could apprentice with a lawyer and then pass the bar. You can't do that anymore. But there were professions where you could be an apprentice and learn. And I felt that I was an apprentice and the children were my teachers.

Nathan Lang-Raad: That's so wonderful. What's the most positive change that you've noticed in education?

Laura Robb: I think Twitter and professional learning networks, people learning from each other, sharing articles, blogs, and answering questions, and the whole idea of a professional learning network, where you move beyond what you're doing at your school into a global network, the national global network and what could be better? It's very exciting.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah. Okay. What's the worst advice you've ever received?

Laura Robb: Okay. The worst advice I ever received was in that first year of teaching. The principal said, "Now you just walk in there and you give them lots of work. Just make them work and know who's in charge." And when I walked in and looked at those kids, there was no way that was going to happen at all. And so, they did some writing about, and drawing pictures that would help me know them better, but there was lots of conversations. And I let them ask me questions. They never knew anybody that came from a big city. They were country kids. And Winchester, that little town of 12,000 was the big city for them, when they went in and did things here. So I would share photographs of New York and talk about all the things you could do there. And it was great. It was a real give and take.

Nathan Lang-Raad: Okay. And last question is, what's the best advice you've ever received?

Laura Robb: The best advice I received was after I figured this out, was to respond to the children, that everyday you walk in and the children in front of you are the ones that are going to teach you, are the ones that you're going to respond to and figure out what they need, how to care for them. And every day is different. And as the day goes on, like when I taught fifth grade for a long time, I had the kids all day. I taught them all the subjects. So changes occurred all day and it was remarkable to see how much you could learn. And also, when they trust you, your conversations become more reflective and have more depth to them.

Nathan Lang-Raad: So true. Laura, your focus on the whole child is evident and inspiring. And just thank you so much for the work that you do in education. And thank you so much for joining me here on the podcast.

Laura Robb: Well, it's a pleasure. Thank you for having me and I'm honored and any chance I have to speak to that idea of the whole child, and every child is different and unique and our job, that's why teaching is never boring. We learn because every child has something to give us. And it's quite remarkable.

Nathan Lang-Raad: It really is. I feel like-

Laura Robb: So thank you. And I can feel from you, that you'd do the same, that you're on the same wavelength. It's an emotional connection that we establish with adults and with children, that create these bonds. And you create them with books. There's a bonding to a book that is similar to bonding to a person because you're bonding to the people in the bok. And I have those conversations with kids, that it's important for them to realize how much the book is a reflection of life.

Nathan Lang-Raad: You're exactly right. Laura, this has been fantastic. Thank you so much.

Laura Robb: Thank you. And listen, enjoy the cool Maine air and take a couple of breaths for me.

Nathan Lang-Raad: I want to invite you to our 2nd annual WeVideo Creator Community Summit, July 20th to the 22nd. We will have educators from around the globe presenting on topics like personalized learning, social-emotional learning and blended learning. The summit is free of charge and you'll receive a PD certificate for attending. For more information, visit www.wevideo.com/wccs21. I hope to see you there.