An Interview with Educator and Author Chris Lehman

Recently, I caught up with my friend and colleague Chris Lehman. For a little end-of-the-year inspiration, please enjoy our interview:

Beth: Your books make it clear that you have a passion for reading and writing. Have you always loved to read and write?

Chris: Well, that’s complicated. Ha. I have always loved writing. I had great mentors for this in my life. My mother showed me that words are foremost used to heal hearts, to bring people closer together, to share gratitude. From cards to newsletters and more, she always took time to write to and for others, especially when they needed it most. I think that’s why I love writing so much, I see it as an opportunity to connect, to heal, to share love.

Now reading, that’s another story. I loved reading in elementary school but became so disengaged from it in middle and high school. I really lost my reading life then. I could read, I just chose not to. The assigned books in secondary didn’t matter to me, so I avoided them. I just listened to class discussions and more or less passed tests through osmosis.

I still find it hard, as an adult, to have a habit of reading. It is something I really have to work at, really schedule time for. I admire people who seem to live reading lives so effortlessly, just like how I admire people who seem to make exercise a seamless part of their lives. I think that’s why I find groups like the Nerdy Book Club so compelling. When I hear them speak or read their ideas about supporting and engaging life long readers I feel like they are talking to my teenage self. I missed something important in my schooling and now I work hard to help educators not lose those experiences for their students.

Beth: A lot of your books deal with getting kids to fall in love with reading and writing, especially kids who seem to be disengaged. What advice do you have for teachers who feel that their students just don’t like to write?

Chris: Ultimately, as Don Graves reminds us, “children want to write.” We just need to create the conditions to help them do so. In A Quick Guide to Reviving Disengaged Writers, I write about how it all begins with researching our students, then taking what is a struggle (for us) and turning it into a strength (for them).

Such as: responding to students who are overly chatty by providing more structured time, and even spots in our classrooms, to use that talk to improve their writing. It is redirecting what could be a work-avoidance technique into really useful writing feedback.

I think another big piece of this is to ask yourself how often you write, both in front of students and behind the scenes. I really believe you are not a teacher of writing unless you write in front of your students. That may sound harsh, but I believe it is true.

When you write, really write, you appreciate more of the writers’ blocks, confusions, and walls that arise for students. By writing yourself, you can show students points where you feel stuck as well as ways you worked through challenges. You can also, authentically, show them how writing has helped you reflect, or plan, or learn.

Often times students disengage because they do not see or believe in the purpose of what we are asking them to do, the more we can show how writing is affecting our own lives, the more they can see it play a role in theirs.

Everything we have learned to do well has come through mimicking the work of someone else that we admire. We must write to help them write.

Beth: You’ve also written quite a bit about the Common Core State Standards. If you had to pick one or two (or three) most important things for teachers to know about the Common Core State Standards for writing, what would you say?

Chris: One of the most important points is to think of the standards as habits, not as checkboxes. I often say, at the end of the year students take with them not what we’ve taught, but what they’ve learned. We do many things during the school year, but only some become internalized.

We cannot simply plan a scope and sequence saying, “Great, we did narrative this month, did informational writing this one, and did argument writing that month.” Instead, we need to look at this set of expectations and ask ourselves, “What conditions do we need to put in place to help students develop this set of habits?”

It helps to think of your own life and the habits you are trying to start (or stop). What makes saying ‘no’ to another slice of cake easier for you? Or keeping up with your blog? All of the conditions that help us improve our lives very much apply to building habits in our writers as well:

  • you have to see and believe in the purpose of what you are learning to do,
  • the challenge has to be appropriately geared to you and increased as you are ready,
  • you need direct instruction and live examples,
  • you need time to practice (and mess up, and try again)
  • and most of all you need positive feedback: “Hey are you losing weight?” someone says to you. “Why, yes I am,” you say back and then immediately schedule your next gym visit.

Habits do not happen by accident, they come from repeated, deliberate practice and kind, frequent support. You are doing a disservice (and frankly cutting achievement short) if you are planning for “The Standards” instead of for your kids.

Beth: I love this way of thinking about the standards–as habits rather than a checklist to be “done.”

Your latest book, with Kate Roberts, is Falling in Love With Close Reading. Along with teaching close reading, the book also helps us teach kids to take what they’ve learned from reading, and transfer it to other parts of life.

Lots of teachers have been finding ways to transfer what kids are learning from close reading of a text to their independent writing. Do you have any advice on this topic? What does close reading have to do with writing, if anything?

Chris: I think the connections are so clear and Kate and I have loved hearing what people are doing in their classrooms! It’s funny you ask because my shorthand for the “Craft and Structure” strand of the CCSS Reading Standards (R.4-6) is calling them the “Reading Like a Writer standards.” Those standards seem to scream out for an additional line: “…then take what you’ve learned and write.” As Katie Wood Ray has taught us, students’ own voice and craft jump leaps and bounds when they look closely at how authors write.

In Falling in Love With Close Reading, Kate and I aim to support students in seeing the author behind the words, and learning to do this on their own in the books they read, the television they watch, really carrying those skills out into their full reading lives. I think what teachers have been saying is helpful in our work is the focus on, well, focus. Teaching students to make purposeful choices, like, “now I’m going to look for particular kinds of words, next I’m going to study those words I collected.”

This same idea can be applied to helping students transfer what they see in an author’s writing to their own writing. A child thinking, “I need to add more details to my story,” is not as focused as, “I want to add more creepy words to my story like Lemony Snicket does.” In Energize Research Reading and Writing, for example, I suggest helping your students read nonfiction to see how authors teach-through-writing so students can teach-through-writing to their own readers. Having that lens has been powerful in transforming the way students writing informational texts.

Additionally, have books open while you write! In so many classrooms reading time ends, writing time begins, and in between kids close their books and put them away. I am constantly looking at texts while writing! In fact, I was writing a foreword just recently and at one point I must have had fifteen or twenty books open to their forewords around me. We can help our students bring close reading to careful writing often by simply by keeping those books open.

Beth: Are there any favorite professional books or resources (or people!) that inspire your own love of writing?

Chris: I hope this isn’t cliché, because it’s not for me: I am most driven to write by readers. As I mentioned earlier, I see writing as an act of connecting, of love, of community building, and my love of writing is very much a love of reaching out and giving high fives or needed hug to others. Imagining who will be on the other side of the page is my biggest inspiration.

I am also fueled by the tradition of writing teaching, learning, and scholarship I am now lucky to be a part of. Visionaries like Don Graves—the timeless wisdom in his essays gives you chills—and Lucy Calkins, Nancie Atwell, and so many others have paved a heroic path for us in the literacy community and I feel inspired and compelled to keep laying bricks to stretch those roads farther into the future.

Then, honestly, reading-jealously inspires me. Ha. Junot Diaz makes me mad at how effortlessly brilliant his writing is. I wish I could be Mo Willems or Mélanie Watt. Donalyn Miller writes professionally as if she is writing your new favorite memoir. I mentioned Lucy Calkins, she is the master at balancing the practical with the inspirational. And I have a mile long list of poets I want to be when I grow up. I am often compelled to write when I’m struck by reading.

Beth: Chris, your books are such a great resources for teachers who want to inspire a love of reading and writing in their students. What can we expect to see in the future?

Chris: Don Murray wrote about how as writers our waking lives are spent writing in our heads, sometimes creating full drafts in our minds before any actual word ever hits the page. I definitely am cursed with that affliction. I am constantly working on something in my mind. My daydreaming is nearly always about a new project or direction or challenge to take on, not all of these see the light of day, but some manage to.

I have been really taken by the ways technology helps us connect and collaborate. My most recent experiment has been the “TeacherPoets” community and series of online streaming workshops. I’ve loved connecting with other educators (including Betsy from Two Writing Teachers!), reading poetry together, writing, and in general rejuvenating our spirits. We’re just finishing that series up and it is all archived online for anyone who wants to join. The response has been tremendous and the collaboration and risks people are taking are soul filling. I know I want to do more things like this in the future.

I do have several books at work in my mind and at least one at work in real life. For the real life one, I’ve been working with early childhood educators and studying what close reading can look like at those age levels. I think there is so much bad out there, so many versions of what is called “Close Reading” that completely ignores the actual needs of students learning to read. So we are in the process of, hopefully, steering that ship back to the real needs and passions of young children. I have to say it has been such a blast, kids are truly amazing and brilliant beyond belief.

There are plenty of other plans bouncing around in my mind, too. I think that’s one great gift a love of writing has given me: I have a sense that anything is possible in life, you can always revise your draft a few times until your story is just so.


Christopher Lehman has been a middle-school teacher; a high-school teacher; a literacy coach; a staff developer with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University; and now leads his own education consulting practice.

Chris is the author/co-author of several popular books: Falling In Love With Close Reading with Kate Roberts; Energize Research Reading and Writing; Pathways to the Common Core with Lucy Calkins and Mary Ehrenworth;and A Quick Guide to Reviving Disengaged Writers.His articles and interviews have appeared in many publications and popular blogs including Voices in the Middle, SmartBrief, EdWeek, Choice Literacy and Talks with Teachers.   You can find Chris on his blog ChristopherLehman.com and on twitter, @iChrisLehman.