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.