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Pick Your Head Up: Remembering Kathleen Tolan

A week ago, Kathleen Tolan, Senior Deputy Director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, died peacefully in her sleep. Kathleen was the one who hired me, first as her own and Lucy Calkins’s intern in 2003, then as a staff developer in 2004. Over the next decade she was my boss, my mentor, coach, teacher, leader, writing partner, and friend, all rolled up into one. To say that she had a huge impact on my life would be an understatement, and her passing has left me reeling.

There’s a video of Kathleen, perhaps many of you have seen it, where she is reading the book Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles to a group of fourth or fifth graders. She reads a page or two, then invites the kids to talk. “What are you thinking?” she prompts the kids. After a moment of talking in small groups, she continues on, reading several more pages before pausing again. At each opportunity to talk, Kathleen never tells the students what she is thinking, never puts words in their mouths, and yet guides their conversation ever so subtly toward deep interpretation. One student is intrigued by the nickel in the story – is it a symbol of freedom? Another brings up racism. Another student chimes in that there are all types of racism, even today. In the end, the students decide that freedom is like a staircase, and the characters in the story are somewhere in the middle – not at the top, but not at the bottom either. Most teachers, including myself, would have been so blown away by the level of conversation at that point we would have just left it at that. But Kathleen pushed further, “Think about where you are on that staircase right now. How will you live your life differently because of this book,” she asks the kids, then gives them a few minutes to respond in their reading notebooks.

Kathleen had a gift for seeing the big picture. She taught me again, and again, and again to keep my head up. It’s so easy, day to day, to get lost in the minutiae of the architecture of a minilesson, the parts of a conference, or the type of paper kids are writing on (or not). Kathleen could walk into a classroom and cut right through all that to the heart of the matter.

Early on, she taught me to stand back for a minute or two after every minilesson, and just watch the class. Keep my head up and be aware. Are kids actually writing? Or are they just quiet? This became a routine for me, a ritual, and it is one that I try to pass on to every teacher I work with. Stand back, observe. Notice.

Kathleen used to visit me regularly in my schools when I was a staff developer at TCRWP. She would shadow me for a few hours or a full day when she could, giving me feedback and suggestions along the way. I remember once, she observed me teaching a labsite to a gigantic group of teachers in one classroom in Elmhurst, Queens. I was proud of my work in this school. There were over a dozen teachers on each grade level, and they would all pack into a classroom to participate in a labsite. I had my work in this school down to a science: a buddy system for the teachers, voice-overs and mid–workshop interruptions for both the teachers and the kids, and a handout packet that would knock your socks off. Kathleen observed a labsite, and named a list of things that had gone well. I was practically glowing with pride, and then she asked, “But Beth, did you notice that there aren’t any anchor charts in the room? Like, not even one? Also, I haven’t seen any current anchor charts–in the entire building.” I was dumbfounded. I had been so wrapped up in my own plans I had missed these essential pieces, things that were so public, so easy to spot.

Often the skills we hone in the classroom are skills we need in life. Kathleen taught me these things: Being able to read and talk about a book so that it changes how you live your life. Being able to pick your head up to see what is really going on. Being able to see past your own plans, to see things  for what they really are.


Kathleen Tolan was a Senior Deputy Director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. She was a coauthor of many books in the Units of Study for teaching reading and writing series. She was a mentor and teacher to countless educators.


BethMooreSchool View All

Literacy Coach, Consultant, Author, Graduate Course Instructor, and Mom. Passionate about fostering a love of reading and writing in learners of all ages.

13 thoughts on “Pick Your Head Up: Remembering Kathleen Tolan Leave a comment

  1. I had the opportunity of being in one of Kathleen’s summer institute sections. Everything I learned there is a part of me now. Your post has a similar effect. Thank you for sharing this.


  2. I loved reading this. I could just hear Kathleen’s voice. I felt lucky to have her for a workshop leader during summer institutes. Thanks so much for sharing this. Thinking of all of you who worked so closely with her.


  3. Elizabeth– I, too, had the great privilege of working with Kathleen at the Project as a staff developer. You post is beautiful and I think captures the essence of her unique ability to notice and coach into next steps in an incredibly accessible way. I love what Deb said here, that her work continues today. So true.


  4. Thanks for sharing your memories. I loved that Kathleen’s sessions at week long institutes would always make me stretch and grow. She had faith that I could do it, which kept me going but also made me work in order to LEARN. . .. ❤


  5. The impact of Kathleen’s loss must be terrible for so many at the Project. As I read this however, I thought of the week I spent in one of your sessions at a Summer Institute. I learned so much from you and left forever changed as a teacher. And so I believe that her passion lives on in each staff developer and therefore, in all whom you come into contact with. Comfort to all of you as you grieve her.


  6. Thanks for this, Beth. I have been struggling to write about Kathleen all week. This is a beautiful illustration of the gift that she is and was and will continue to be.


  7. Although I didn’t know Kathleen personally, I attended many of her Saturday Reunion sessions over the years. She filled those hours with her knowledge and insight, but also with humor and compassion. She will be sorely missed. Thank you for sharing these memories, Beth. Hugs to you.


  8. Isn’t it great that Kathleen’s work continues today and everyday through the gifts she left behind in each and every one of us! And it will continue to spread as we strive to be the best we can be for our students and our colleagues. The world is a better place because of Kathleen.


  9. I love that idea of stand back, observe. Notice. We can get so caught up in getting to our small group, beginning our conferences, attending to behaviors, that we fail to take that step back. I love how she also nudged you to also notice in your coaching work. Helpful to all. So sorry for your loss.


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