The Right Tool for the Job by Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts

“It’s time,” the nurse said as she poked her head into our hospital room. “Great!” we both said in unison, masking the understandable nerves felt by all new parents as they gear up to bring their newborn home for the first time.


We went through the list aloud again: car seat? Check. Baby blanket? Check. Keys to the house? Check. We took a deep breath, stepped into the elevator as a new unit of three.


As we drove down the FDR drive and our son slept soundly, our worries melted away into the East River. “We’ve got this,” Kate said confidently. “Totally,” Maggie murmured peacefully.


Fast forward a few hours. It’s 5 o’clock pm. The baby is crying. And we’ve tried everything we know to soothe him. Gone is the bliss and confidence felt in the car ride home. We are completely out of our league. We have no idea what we are doing! Sure, we had babysat before, but we were on hour five going on forever, and we felt a little over our heads, to say the least.


We made a panicked SOS call to good friends (and veteran parents) down the street. Within the hour, we have discovered a few tools that many parents of babies can’t live without. The swaddle. The pacifier. The sound machine. A little of each tool helped bring comfort to our baby (and ourselves) so that we could get our bearings and prepare for the journey. The tools didn’t parent our son – we did – but they helped us to do things that we could not do ourselves.


When we started teaching reading, it was a bit like our journey into parenthood. Just like the difference between being a babysitter and a parent, teaching reading wasn’t a day-long school visit, where we would duck in, read a story, hi-five some kids, and leave. Teaching reading was the new path to parenthood-level teaching – day in and day out, working with the same kids, hoping to ignite a love for and strength in the written word.


We had no idea what we were doing.


And sure, we survived, we got through it, we probably even made a difference or two. We used a mix of ingenuity, charm, luck and a deep love of kids and learning to find our way. But looking back, we didn’t have the tools we needed for the beautifully complex job of teaching reading.


Over the years, we’ve learned more about teaching reading. We gathered and practiced strategies that help kids make meaning of texts. We found moves and methods to help motivate and support young readers. We became better at teaching reading, at writing lessons and modeling the passion and engagement of getting lost in a book.


And yet, often we still feel really overwhelmed.


We are willing to bet you might feel overwhelmed, too.


Part of this is just the job, of course. Teaching is hard. It has always been hard. But it seems like lately this refrain is growing louder. There is more pressure, more standards, more kids in our classrooms. We sometimes find ourselves at the end of the day wondering if we did enough, while simultaneously wondering how we will find the energy to get up the next day and teach the next class, the next unit, the next kid.


And of course, it’s worth it. Whether it is the moment your kids are lost in their books and the bell rings but many don’t hear it, or the time a student wrote to tell you how much of a difference you made – these moments make the work worth it. We return year after year, day after day, because there may not be another job quite as fun and fulfilling as this one.


We want to make sure we can stay on this profession we love. We want those blissful moments to outnumber the overwhelming ones. And while there will always be overwhelming moments, they can signal to us to reflect, to see if there is a way to make things easier on ourselves.


DIY Literacy


Our new book, DIY Literacy: Teaching Tools for Differentiation, Rigor and Independence, out now through Heinemann Publishing, explores the ways various teaching tools help make the hard work of teaching and learning a bit easier, more effective, and more efficient for us and for the kids. Along the way, we encourage the Do-It-Yourself spirit by diving in and trying to make these tools yourself – even if they are imperfect. We believe that a tool made by you, in your beautifully imperfect handwriting, will have more power, more engagement and more investment from your kids.  


Teaching tools can help us and our kids in many ways. First, they can remind kids of past teaching. For instance, having a repertoire chart posted that rallies students to remind themselves of all they different things they can think and annotate for as they read:


An example of a repertoire chart used in a reading workshop.

An example of a repertoire chart used in a reading workshop.


Teaching tools can also help reach a variety of needs, creating multiple paths that guide towards a common goal. Demonstration notebooks contain popular reading lessons you find yourself teaching over and over again – how to develop an interpretation, or how to figure out a main idea of a text. Each demonstration page holds different ways or strategies to access that popular lesson, like this:


Demo Ntbk Example 1

An example of a demonstration notebook page used in a reading workshop.

An example of a demonstration notebook page used in a reading workshop.


Teaching tools can also serve to foster independence and empower students with a sense of agency. For instance, we can have our kids create bookmarks to remind themselves of some tailored, self-selected strategies they are trying as they read:


An example of a bookmark that rallies and reminds students of the work they’re trying as they read and work independently.

An example of a bookmark that rallies and reminds students of the work they’re trying as they read and work independently.


And in this spirit of independence, kids can develop their own voice to self-assess and set goals for future work by studying and using a micro-progression.


An example of a micro-progression that helps students elevate the level of the retellings of their book.

An example of a micro-progression that helps students elevate the level of the retellings of their book.


Teaching tools make our work feel like it is getting more traction, and help us navigate those moments of feeling overwhelmed. They help students see growth more vividly and empower them to work at their right pace. Teaching tools feel like the swaddle, the pacifier, the sound machine – you can teach without them, but teaching becomes smoother when we use the right tool for the job.


We invite you to join us in the discussion about teaching tools and how they can help our teaching and love of reading!


We are currently releasing an 8-part video series that features in-the-moment tool making in response to problems sent in from teachers all around the country. You can check that out on our blog, Teachers are also contributing their own DIY teaching tools on social media in response to the video series and book – you can find those tools by searching the hashtag, #DIYLiteracy. You can find our book and the teaching tools featured in the book ready to download here ( and at


Growing up, Kate Roberts swore to never become a writer or a teacher. She became both and is very grateful that fate did not listen. Kate is coauthor (with Maggie Beattie Roberts) of DIY Literacy and of Falling in Love with Close Reading (with Christopher Lehman) . Each is informed by her experiences as a middle school language arts teacher in Brooklyn, as a literacy coach, and, currently, as a staff developer with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. Her work with students across the country has led her to believe that all kids can be insightful, academic thinkers when the work is demystified, broken down, and made engaging. To this end, she has worked nationally and internationally to help teachers, schools, and districts develop and implement strong teaching practices and curriculum. Kate is the author of two produced plays, one undiscovered young adult novel, and coauthor of the blog “indent” ( She lives in the same Brooklyn neighborhood she taught in so that she can keep tabs on her old students. 


Maggie Beattie Roberts is coauthor (with Kate Roberts) of DIY Literacy. As a staff developer with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, Maggie  is committed to helping teachers tap into the power of their own deep engagement in reading and writing. Maggie has led research and development to help teachers use digital literacy and technology, including popular media, as an alternate way to help young people grasp fundamental concepts; she has also pioneered new work in content-area literacy. Maggie began her career in the heart of Chicago, and pursued graduate studies in the Literacy Specialist program at Columbia University’s Teachers College. She is a frequent speaker at national conferences, and leads school- and city-wide staff development around the country.