Reflections and Transitions

I’ve spent the last week reviewing applications for next year’s Teacher of the Year.  It’s hard to believe that my time as TOY is almost over.  I feel like I’m just starting to get my footing, just beginning to get a sense of what this position means, just beginning to develop a real feel for my own voice.

I distinctly remember attending my first CCSSO conference in January, which convened state TOYs from all over the country.  I was nervous, hesitant, excited, and just a tad bit intimidated.  How would I fit in with amazing, award-winning educators from around the country?  It turns out, the fit was an easy one because everyone in the room had the same sense of uncertainty.  They called it “impostor syndrome”, a feeling we all had like we didn’t quite belong.  We spent that week developing a sense of ownership of our role, our power, and our mission.  We all began to understand that our purpose now centered around expanding our reach and our vision beyond the classroom, to embrace being a representative for teachers and students across our states and across the nation.

As I read these applications, I feel a sense of nostalgia and inspiration.  I am taken back to last March, when I sat in the darkness of my office, exhausted from teaching all day and coming home to my five-month old (who still woke every 3-4 hours) at night.  I remember trying to formulate and articulate my teaching philosophy, my plan for strengthening the teaching profession, my message to the nation.  I had been teaching for 17 years at that time and had rarely ever been asked to present these deeply held beliefs on paper.  It was a daunting and empowering task, but one that helped me define who I was and express that to an audience…the first of many opportunities I’ve had to do just that in presentations, speeches, and panel discussions.

My year is not nearly over (my calendar reminds me), and yet, I am mentally preparing to welcome the next Teacher of the Year into this role.  I have a deep desire to lead and guide this person into their new world of opportunity and advocacy. Reading these applications, reflecting on the experiences I’ve had this year, and missing, deeply, the connections I have with my students makes me eager to get back into my classroom. Yet, I can’t pretend that I will be the same teacher I was when I left and that is the most amazing part of all of this. I have so many thoughts, plans, dreams for myself, my students, my school, my district, and my profession. Some might think that being named to this role is a culmination of a career devoted to teaching and learning.  Instead, this role has been a starting point, a doorway, leading me into an entirely new phase of my career.  I can’t wait to open that doorway for another amazing RI educator.


The Making of the Rhode Island Literacy Cohort

When I became RI Teacher of the Year, it was a fabulous honor.  Lots of tears, clapping, pompoms (yes, our school art teacher made adorable green and gold pompoms for the surprise ceremony). After the initial awards ceremony, newspaper interviews, and congratulatory emails, I had a meeting at the Department of Education to discuss my role for the year.  I was asked “what do you want your big initiative to be this year?” I was momentarily speechless.  Of course, I knew I was going to be working on some state initiatives and I knew I had some presentations and keynote speeches to give (I did fill out the application and go through the process, after all).  However, until that moment, I really hadn’t defined what mark I wanted to make as the RI State Teacher of the Year.  Was it working with Early Childhood on developing literacy practices for our youngest learners?  Of course, that was within my field.  Did I want to partner with the Social and Emotional Learning team?  I have given many presentations about the importance and link between emotions and learning.  As I scanned the list of possibilities, it all felt related to me, but none of it really touched at the heart of what I want to do , what I have always wanted to do – to support and enable children to who struggle to learn to read to become joyful, independent, and successful readers.

I thought back to the most profound professional development I’ve ever had – when I was trained as a Reading Recovery teacher.  That single year was probably the most significant in my 18 year career as a teacher because it changed what I thought was possible; for both me as a teacher and for my students who struggled the most.  Part of what makes Reading Recovery teacher training so amazing is the ongoing professional development and support with like-minded colleagues.  Every month, I met with a group of Reading Recovery teachers and we examined student work, engaged in professional book discussions, and observed and discussed live lessons.  Every moment of it improved my teaching, mostly because I was able to problem-solve, share, and grow with a group of colleagues.  Being part of that group had a direct and significant impact on the students I taught every day.

I discovered that this is where I could make an impact and I set out to re-create some of that collegiality among the literacy professionals in the state of Rhode Island.  I wanted to form a cohort of RI literacy professionals that could offer the same support and professional development that I experience with my Reading Recovery cohort. I sent out invitations to as many Reading Specialists, literacy coaches, and literacy coordinators that I had contact information for, hoping that I would get maybe 20-30 people who might want to join this professional learning community.  I received over 120 responses.  The Rhode Island Literacy Cohort was born.

On January 7th, we held our first meeting and had over 60 people attend.  I gave a brief Powerpoint presentation and we heard from Elizabeth Burke-Bryant and Stephanie Gellar from RI KIDS COUNT about the RI Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.


I was so inspired by the enthusiasm of this group.  I got so much positive feedback about the development of the group and it became clear to me that the literacy professionals in this state have wanted this for a long time – the gift of time and space to collaborate and grow professionally together.  Our work with struggling readers is complicated and sometimes difficult.  It takes expertise, stamina, and grit.  It is both emotionally trying and emotionally rewarding. Ultimately, we, as a group, want support from one another.  Gathering together is going to strengthen our voice and advocacy. It’s going to support positive change within ourselves and within our teaching.  It’s going to make a hugely positive impact on the students we work with every day.

If you are a literacy professional working in Rhode Island and you would like to join the newly formed RI Literacy Cohort, please contact me at or contact me via Twitter @TracyLafreniere.  We are better together.


Save the date for our DTOY Twitter Chat!

We have invited the Commissioner to our second DTOY Cohort meeting on January 14th to continue the discussion on some of his top initiatives. In anticipation of that conversation, we will have our first Twitter chat on Monday, December 14 at 8:00pm #2016RIDTOY.  Please save the date and join us to help focus our thoughts and questions for the Commissioner!

Educator Highlight: Kayla Emery, Cumberland

Our DTOY Cohort expressed an interest in collaborating with and learning from teachers from other districts.  We are planning to honor that interest in a variety of ways, one being to add teacher voice to the Commissioner’s Field Memo.  DTOY Cohort members were asked to submit entries for the Commissioner’s Field Memo, focusing on the question “What are you doing this year in the classroom that is new and exciting?”

This week, I am highlighting Kayla Emery, Cumberland’s District Teacher of the Year.

Name: Kayla Emery

Kayla Emery

Current Position/Grade(s) Taught: Grade 8 Math / Algebra 1

District/School: Cumberland / North Cumberland Middle School

Years in Education: 7

What are you doing this year in the classroom that is new and exciting?

“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the things you can think up if only you try!”  As Dr. Seuss sums up in his famous quote, thinking is something we, as educators, strive to help our students with each and every day! My goal for this year was to help my students learn new ways to “think”, which they can use to help them through any problem in or outside of the classroom. The driving force behind this goal was our district’s implementation of Thinking Maps this year.  We are working towards 50 hours of PD focusing on Thinking Maps, with our trainer, Heidi Henderson (, since research shows that is the amount of PD that is required to change our practice!

Since many of you are likely unfamiliar with Thinking Maps, I will give you a brief overview of what they are before explaining the impact they have had on teaching and learning in my classroom this year.  Thinking Maps are used to help students organize and express their thoughts. They are a visual language for thinking.  There are eight visual maps, linked with specific cognitive vocabulary, that are intended to correspond with eight different fundamental thinking processes. Thinking Maps teach students to become independent thinkers rather than being told what/how to think. Ultimately, we are working towards students being able to identify multiple maps that they would use to answer a complex question that requires several types of thinking, since this is what Common Core is asking us to do!

So how does this impact a middle school math classroom? Since I started using Thinking Maps in my classroom, I see a dramatic change in how students organize and share their thinking. They are able to compare and contrast math concepts with ease and can explain math processes in detail.  Students are gaining a deeper understanding of math concepts by thinking more independently and are starting to answer multi-part questions successfully!  I have attached a photo of one of the maps so you can see the higher-level thinking that has been happening in my classroom recently.  In this example, students are being asked to complete the equivalent relationships between square roots, cube roots, and whole numbers.  They would use the given information to find patterns that would help them solve for the unknown numbers to fill in the blank spaces.

Kaylas pic


We are barely at the end of trimester 1 right now, but I can’t wait to see what kind of thinking my students are going to be able to do by the end of the year! If you are interested in learning more about Thinking Maps, click here!

Get inspired! Visit

As RITOY, I have already had so many amazing opportunities.  The latest one included being interviewed for a Podcast by Sung Lee, founder of

Sung Lee

Sung Lee. Connect with him on Twitter @iesunglee 

Sung, a former educator, hosts bi-weekly podcasts dedicated to sharing stories of inspiring educators from all walks of life.  He started this project to provide a voice to the many dedicated educators around the country.   He believes many of these educators receive little recognition, but their labor of love is ultimately manifested in the success and happiness of their students. He uses his website, Podcasts, and Twitter account to highlight and share the work of what he describes as education’s “unsung heroes”.

The work Sung does is work I fully support and believe in. I love listening to his podcasts because I always find inspiration from fellow educators and believe that there is great power in learning from one another.  I also love how he shines a light on the positive work educators do.  He is a cheerleader for teachers and their students. He offers a voice for education that is supportive and uplifting.  We definitely need more of that in education.

Click here to hear my Podcast with Sung Lee.

Visit the InspiringEducators website to hear more podcasts and be inspired by educators around the country.

Want a way to share your weekly teaching successes? Each Friday, Sung invites educators to share a highlight from the week- either an exciting moment in teaching, a success with parents or the community, a long awaited breakthrough – on Twitter.  Post your best weekly moment on Twitter with the hashtag #FlyHighFri to finish the week on a high note.

4th Annual Rhode Island Education Summit

On Tuesday, October 27, 2015 I was invited to the 4th Annual Rhode Island Education Summit hosted by Senator Juan M. Pichardo and Senator Harold M. Metts.  The focus and purpose of the summit was to discuss the equitable delivery of a 21st century education and how to close the achievement gap.  Speakers on the first panel included the Commissioner of Education, Dr. Ken Wagner, the Chair of the Rhode Island Board of Education, Barbara Cottam, and Dr. Jim Purcell, the Commissioner of Post Secondary Education for Rhode Island.  On the second panel, four superintendents from Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls and Woonsocket spoke about strategies for closing achievement gaps in their districts. I spoke on a panel that included various administrators and program directors from charter schools and community based organizations.

Attending this summit was amazing for many reasons. It allowed me to gain insight into efforts being made for students on a more universal scale – from state policy and initiatives to community based support. It also renewed my sense of urgency and purpose for closing the “opportunity gaps” that exist for students.  Here are some of my biggest “take aways” from the day:

  • We need to address absenteeism and seek alternative methods of discipline besides suspension. Chris Maher, Superintendent of Providence made a compelling case against out of school suspension.  We cannot send the message that school is important and then banish kids from attending.  Even the White House is addressing the issue.
  • Summer programs are key to closing the achievement gap. Adam Greenman from the United Way stated that 2/3 of the achievement gap is attributed to summer learning loss.  If that’s true, then we all need to be thinking about developing summer programs to prevent that loss.
  • Dual language programs offer enrichment to students. Dr. Julie Nora, Director if the International Charter School, discussed the benefits of teaching English language Learners in a dual language program. Benefits include creating students as global citizens, offering cognitive and social benefits, and giving kids access to the best model for English language learners.
  • Incorporating project based learning keeps kids engaged and motivated. Victoria Gailliard-Garrick, the Director of Davies Career & Technical High School reported that her school has a drop out rate of less than 5% and absenteeism was less than 10%.  Why?  Kids are excited to come to school because most of the learning is active and hands-on.  There is definitely a lesson to be learned there.

To view the entire archived video of the first panel discussion, click here.

To view the entire archived video of the third panel discussion, click here.

To view the agenda, handouts, and PowerPoint presentations from the summit, click here.

To read the Providence Journal article about the summit, click here.


Senator Juan Pichardo offers opening remarks.


I watched the first panel from the Senate Chamber Room because the Senate Lounge was full.

When I spoke, I wanted to deliver the message that closing the equity and achievement gap for any student is essential and the earlier we address the problem, the better.  We need to develop and maintain a sense of urgency when attempting to close learning gaps and in my focus, specifically when it comes to developing proficient readers.  As I prepared for my speech, I realized that I could focus my targets for literacy instruction on the three Es: Expert, Efficient, Enough.

  • Expert: Every child deserves a teacher who is an expert teacher of reading, particularly in early elementary school.  Every teacher who teaches emerging readers needs to have an extensive knowledge of the reading process and how to instruct readers to not only develop a self-extending system so they are able to read but also to develop a love of reading so they will read.  And every student who struggles, despite that first defense of expert classroom instruction, deserves expert intervention.
  • Efficient: When we ensure that teachers are expert teachers of reading, we empower them to make decisions that accelerate student learning. Teachers who are unsure of their expertise follow programs.  Teachers who feel confident in their ability to teach reading follow students.  Research based programs are tools that inform our instruction, but teachers need to be responsive to the needs of the students in front of them and have the power and the knowledge to alter their teaching to meet student needs. Programs are products and too often, adhering strictly to programs limits our options for individualizing instruction. Students who are behind need to make accelerated growth to close achievement gaps and expert teachers are precise, efficient, and aware of time. We don’t have the luxury of time when creating proficient readers.
  • Enough: When thinking about reading instruction and closing achievement gaps, we need to consider what is enough. Are our students reading enough?  Are they building stamina? Is our instruction focused on reading authentic texts or are we filling our time with other “literacy based” activities? If students need intervention, how much intervention? Do we have enough teachers and time available to address the needs of struggling readers?

As I spoke, I also added another E to our list: Early.

  • Early: We know from recent research that the volume and quality of language a child is exposed to before age 3 sets the stage for all future learning; IQ, language processing speed, spacial reasoning, self-regulation. Are we communicating the importance of this information to all future parents? Are we doing everything in our power to ensure that the foundation is learning is strong before a child enters school. We are making strides with increasing the availability to early childhood education, but in terms of equity gaps, waiting until children are school aged may almost be too late.  What can we do to ensure we are educating parents and caregivers early enough to make a real difference in the foundation for learning?

As I looked at the list of panelists, I noticed that I was the only teacher who was speaking that day. My hope is that next year, we can invite more teachers to attend and possibly participate in this summit. Not only is it a form of professional development, but we also need to add teacher voice to this very important conversation.

Welcome to the RITOY blog!

On June 4, 2015, I got one of the greatest surprises of my life when, in a surprise ceremony at North Smithfield Elementary School, I was honored as Rhode Island’s Teacher of the Year for 2016. To say that I was honored and humbled would be an understatement, mostly because I know so very many amazing educators and to be the person chosen to represent them is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Providence Journal article

I know this year will be a whirlwind (it already has been!) and I fully intend to take advantage of everything this honor has to offer. As I think about my role and what I want to accomplish, it always comes back to making and establishing strong connections. One of my greatest assets as a teacher has been establishing personal connections with my students, their families, and with my wonderful colleagues.

The purpose of this blog is to begin to expand my connections with more amazing educators and share, share, share.  No one stands alone in education. I plan to share my biggest take aways from this year with you and my best hope is that you share your expertise with me.

collaboration pic