The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

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Book Review: What Every Superintendent and Principal Needs to Know

My mother has served on the school board in the grade school district I attended as a child for many years. Far more years than anyone else on the board, actually. (She wasn’t on the board when I was a child, though. I think she first ran for, and was elected to, the board in 2000 or 2001.) In her many years on the school board, she has had the chance to attend the Joint Annual Conference of the Illinois Association of School Boards, the Illinois Association of School Administrators, and the Illinois Association of School Business Officials. (I have had the opportunity to attend with her as a guest for several years now and have blogged about my experiences.) This conference, often called either the Joint Annual Conference or the Triple-I Conference, is an amazing experience, with speakers and presenters and vendors who inspire and invigorate school leaders.

One of the years that my mom went to this conference without me. she got a copy of a book called What Every Superintendent and Principal Needs to Know by Jim Rosborg, Max McGee, and Jim Burgett. She didn’t read the book, but she gave it to me because she knew that school leadership was on my radar as a possible future option for me. (More on this at a later date.) I honestly don’t remember if she told me anything about the authors or not, but I think that Dr. Burgett was a keynote speaker at the conference and she was impressed by his message.

Jump ahead to a few months ago. I was listening to a podcast series on educational leadership and heard a two-part interview with Dr. Burgett, who mentioned writing this book. I found him to be a captivating speaker and was excited to read a book to which he was a major contributor. I could tell that he had had plenty of experience and developed a considerable amount of expertise in school leadership. I also vaguely remembered that I owned this book, so I dug it out and threw it onto my To Be Read pile at home.

This book isn’t bad; it just wasn’t great. I wasn’t excited to turn the page to see what other wit and wisdom and research and expertise the authors had to share. Much of it seemed commonplace; other points are outdated; others I vehemently disagree with (especially their take on standards needing to be entirely local). The advice was sound; I just don’t know if it was groundbreaking. Maybe it was when these gentlemen wrote this book. From the podcast interview, I got the impression that school leaders weren’t trained very well in the day-to-day operations of schools. So maybe I felt like this was commonplace because I have been blessed with great school leaders who model these practices.

There were some points in this book that struck a chord with me. One of them was a suggestion on how schools can be more active as community centers. As I read a chapter by Dr. Burgett, I had this idea: What if school districts partnered with local businesses to hold an annual job fair open to the public? The key would be that businesses would not have to pay to use space or tables; if they are interested, they are given space in the gym and potential applicants can meet with managers or HR personnel, fill out applications, even have on-site interviews. And, of course, there would be information booths about the district (including any adult education opportunities), transportation, housing, parks, service organisations, etc. I could see this as a way of promoting employment, connecting business and school leaders, and generally improving the quality of the community. And it would be all free of charge.

Another point that struck me was how Dr. Rosborg described the role of the school administrator:

“Your job success will be evaluated by such subjects as physical facilities and equipment; the effectiveness of teachers; the school’s curriculum; test scores; public relations; your effectiveness with the media, stakeholders, and politicians; collective bargaining; diversity; changing demographics; school safety; the perception of school discipline; and the monies available to fund programs. Add to this your need to have specific knowledge about transportation, special education, technology, buildings and grounds, food services, diversity issues, union organisations, health issues, and personnel…

“The good administrator helps teachers incorporate a significant range of strategies and a vast array of resources to help each individual child. The administrator helps develop a team spirit among the teachers. The goal is to create an attitude where the entire school exudes a zealous commitment to reach each and every child.”

I have struggled to come up with a good explanation of what it is I think my job as a school leader will be and why it is so important. Dr. Rosborg put it perfectly, though. Being a principal or a superintendent isn’t easy and it isn’t for the faint of heart, but that zealous commitment to reaching each and every child is what makes it all worth while!

Even though I wasn’t super impressed by this book, I am willing to give all three of these authors another chance, but I think I’ll seek out books written individually instead of collaboratively. I think all three authors have a great deal more to share that can influence others, including me, for good and I hope to tackle some of their other works in the future.

For now, though, I think it is time I take a break from the school leadership books and read something delightfully absurd. I’ll be back with another professional book soon enough, though!


Book Review: Punished by Rewards

I love when people recommend books to me. I really do. I especially love when books are recommended that may challenge my current thinking on a topic. I firmly believe that life is all about learning and growing and that also means changing our thinking from time to time. I also love when people keep recommending books, even if their first recommendations fell completely flat (which happens on occasion.)

Several years ago, I read a book by Rafe Esquith that was suggested by a teacher friend. I hated it. Like, I really, really hated it. So much so that I did not write a review or mention the author on my blog until now. My friend acknowledged my dislike and then suggested another book: Teaching with Love and Logic. While not a favourite, I didn’t hate this one and wrote a review about it (linked).

Jump ahead a couple of years, and this wonderful friend, now in a different school, contacted me about a book she had recently read. We were at a mutual friend’s house playing games and she said, “Oh, by the way, I’ve got a book I need you to read!” She dropped it off a few days later and I put it in my To Be Read pile.

The title alone captured my attention. The use of rewards in school, work, home, and pretty much every setting imaginable is as ubiquitous as fidget spinners and bottle flipping were in my classroom last quarter. Mr. Kohn was suggesting that this practice was problematic; that it is, in fact, on the same level as punishment.

Before I go on, a few important clarifications about certain terms that get thrown around in education:

  • Expectations: these are, as the word says, what we expect of students and teachers in our schools; they are not the same thing as rules. However, there are many who have taken their rules and reworded them to sound like expectations. This infuriates me.
  • Discipline: this is the practice of teaching and practicing self-control; it is not the same thing as punishing undesired behaviour; but, much like “expectations,” the word “discipline” has somehow become synonymous with “punishing.”
  • Consequences: these are the natural result of choices we make. If you choose to wear shorts and flips-flops on a day when the mercury refuses to budge even a millimeter from the bottom of the thermometer, the consequence is going to be that you will be cold and, quite likely miserable. On the other hand, if you choose to wear thick socks, boots, warm pants, a sweatshirt, a coat, gloves, and a hat on this same day, the consequence is that you will be able to enjoy your day despite the cold. However, once again, we seem to have gotten into the habit of using “consequences” as code for “punishment.” (How often do teachers tell a student, “If you choose to study for this test, the natural consequence will be that you do well” compared to “If you choose to ignore your homework, the natural consequence will be that you will fail”?)

I was really hoping that Alfie Kohn would take some time to parse these definitions in his book and call teachers and parents to task for misusing them. Mr. Kohn is widely widely published, widely read, and widely respected. He could have used his platform to say, “Hey, you guys! You keep using these words all wrong and it is sending the wrong message to our children! Let’s fix this!”

Alas, it was not to be.

So, what did Mr. Kohn have to say in his book to support his claim that rewards are just as ineffective and harmful as punishment? He laid out a huge amount of research to support his claim and in quite a convincing manner. Rewards are far too often used as a means of manipulating or controlling another’s behaviour. Instead of explaining the rationale for a desired outcome, we simply try to bribe others into doing it.

This. Does. Not. Work.

However, Alfie Kohn doesn’t seem to think that using rewards to reinforce learning that has been explained works either, which left me confused. He used Pizza Hut’s Book-It program as an example many times. His view is that students will actually come to loathe reading as a result of receiving free pizza for reading a specified number of books. I, on the other hand, maintain that if we are trying to teach children to love reading, we reward them after the fact as a way of saying thank you or congratulations. Mr. Kohn, of course, considers that manipulative and therefore bad. You shouldn’t say thank you or congratulations. You should just say, “You did it!” I disagree.

There was one point that Alfie Kohn makes that resonated deeply with me, though. It was this:

“… students don’t learn very efficiently when adults hold out the promise of rewards, compare one child’s performance to another’s (leading them to think in terms of winning and losing rather than learning), or rely on any other practices that draw their attention to how well they are doing.”

I could not agree more wholeheartedly! The entire notion of comparing students to each other is, in my estimation, one of the greatest disservices we have ever done to our children. I remember a conversation I had with my employees when I ran a small custodial business. I told them that they had two ways they could try to impress me as their boss: first, they could try to make everyone else look bad, making themselves appear superior by default; second, they could do the best work they could and leave it at that. Only one of these ways was actually successful. My wife and I didn’t pay our employees based on who was better than the others; we did promote individuals who repeatedly demonstrated the character and dedication expected.

By the time I finished reading this book, I had the following mixed emotions:

I appreciated the research that went into this book and the passion with which Alfie Kohn approaches his subject. I found value in his argument that rewards as behaviour modifiers on their own do not modify behaviour very well.

I was frustrated by the false dichotomies and straw man arguments that seemed to be throughout the book. He very frequently invoked attitudes that I have never seen anyone display or set up conflicting approaches without admitting that there could be a third way.) I don’t think we have to look at the issue as rewards vs reason. I think we can establish reason and use rewards as a way to help develop habits based on reasons, especially with children. I was also frustrated by his authoritarian vs permissive parenting dichotomy, which seemed to ignore the research on parenting styles that has been around since the 1950s.

I am curious to know why Mr. Kohn does not have a PhD yet. Maybe that is academic snobbery on my part, but I would expect someone presented as the expert on a very specific issue to have carried out enough research to earn a PhD in that field, especially since this book reads like an extended dissertation on the topic, with literature reviews and critical analysis throughout.

Finally, I recognise that this book was written in 1993 and education has evolved considerably over the past 25 years or so. I’d like to see a second edition published that responds to current practices.

So, for my dear friend who recommended I read Punished by Rewards, thank you! I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it, either. I have definite ideas I want to implement next year in regards to how I approach expectations, discipline, and consequences in my classroom and hope that I can use Alfie Kohn’s ideas to move away from a “carrot or stick” approach to one that more fully acknowledges the humanity of my students and their families.


Book Review: The Next Step Forward in Guided Reading

[NOTE: The following is a review I wrote for MiddleWeb, an online organisation all about teaching and learning in the middle grades, which they define as grades 4-8. I have written five reviews for them previously, all of which can be found here. This review will likely be on their website in the next two or three weeks. In the meantime, you can read it now.]

Dr. Jan Richardson’s Assess-Decide-Guide framework presented in The Next Step Forward in Guided Reading is one of the most important things I have read when it comes to literacy instruction. I wish this book had been available when I did my undergraduate work over a decade ago! Far too often, the professional texts that teachers are given about guided reading focus on the why and what but provide very little on the how. The video series that I have watched over the years show teachers with multiple adults in the room with a handful of students and a film crew. The videos are always shot after the students have been able to fully master the skills and routines, making me feel like a failure when I can’t get my 28 fourth graders to sit down and read in one place for 5 minutes, let alone 20! While the videos that Dr. Richardson links in her book still make me feel that way, I feel like the strategies that she suggests in her book will better help me reach that point.

The Next Step Forward in Guided Reading can be broken down into four sections, each described below. Unlike many professional texts I have read, this is a resource book that does not require you to read the previous sections to understand what is being discussed. In fact, this is very much set up so that you can go to the relevant pages, read what you need to know, and put the recommendations into practice right away!

The first part is an introduction to guided reading and is comprised of the Introduction and Chapter 1. In these first 25 pages, Dr. Richardson tells you everything you (probably) already know about guided reading: the what and the why of this very widely-accepted practice. If you aren’t familiar with it, though, this is a great overview and will help you get started.

The next section, which is by far the largest, comprising Chapters 2 through 6, presents strategies for teaching students at the different levels of reading ability (Pre-A, Early, Emergent, Transitional, Fluent). Each chapter provides a profile of typical reading and writing abilities of students at these different stages, but it is important to keep in mind that these are generalised descriptors are are not meant to be all inclusive and comprehensive! Jan Richards then gives suggests for useful formative assessments related to reading and writing so that you can best decide what to teach in your guided reading lessons.

These chapters are where you get down to the nuts and bolts of guided reading lessons, with sample lesson plans, explanations of each component, resource materials, and ways to differentiate for different student needs. At the end of the chapter is a brief FAQ with suggestions on how to tackle common problems and help students appropriately move from one phase to the next.

For a teacher, all you need to do is find the chapter relevant to your students and read that part closely, taking lots of notes and jotting down ideas for how to incorporate. Just remember that, even if most of your students are transitional readers, you will have students at different stages; this book will give you the strategies and structure you need to make sure you are meeting the instructional needs of all students. You should definitely use this information when collaborating with reading interventionists, special education teachers, and other specialists.

For a principal or other school leader, skimming through these chapters will give useful teaching strategies and points to look for when observing guided reading. These chapters will also help both teachers and administrators have meaningful, productive conversations about best practices in guided reading and what supports are needed to help students continue to progress.

While the lessons in Chapters 2 through 6 are purposefully designed to be just outlines, the next section of this book presents 29 detailed lesson modules that can be used to teach 12 core comprehension strategies. I could see using these as whole-class mini-lessons during the first half of the year, introducing one strategy each week to my intermediate students. I worry, however, that they may be too much for readers who are struggling with comprehension and would have to make sure that I use guided reading lessons to help them hone in on a few key strategies, even as I continue to introduce new strategies to students as a whole.

In all honesty, as an experienced teacher who has been in a building where guided reading has been the focus of professional development for over six years, the last section of this book, the Appendices, is the most useful part of this entire book, along with the teacher’s companion and the digital versions of all of the forms. The book itself is an explanation of how to do guided reading; the appendices give you the resources to do it well.

I am looking forward to digging deeper into this book as I discuss it with colleagues and make plans for implementing Dr. Richardson’s framework into our guided reading instruction so that all of our students can become successful readers, writers, and consumers of information.


Parting Thoughts for the End of the Year

[NOTE: What follows is a modification of the letter that I sent home to parents and students on Thursday, May 25, which was our last day of school. The inspiration for my letter came from this blog post by Andy McCall.]

A classic British story begins with the line “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I feel like that is the best summary of this year that I will ever be able to give you. We’ve spent almost 180 days together. It seems like only yesterday, I was introducing myself and trying to figure out which one spelled their name Jayden and the other Jaidyn. I sometimes call you by the wrong name, usually because I am constantly darting my eyes across the room, trying to keep track of everything that is going on.

During the course of this year, we have had some amazing successes. Every single one of you has improved as a reader, as a writer, as a mathematician, and as a researcher. You have found ways to show kindness to others when it wasn’t necessary.

We have also had some pretty serious challenges: fights (both verbal and physical), lost tempers, impulsive actions, property damage, theft, and disrespect. We had the uncertainty of having a student teacher take over full instruction in the classroom for a large chunk of the year.

But I would like to say, on this very last day as I look back over the 2016-2017 year, that our successes have been better than our challenges and that we have all grown, teacher students, since that first day of school way back in August. As we part ways for the summer, I just wanted to give you a few words of wisdom to consider:

  1. If you see me this summer it’s okay to wave from a distance and walk up to say hello. Don’t come running at me like a raging bull or scream my name from across the store; that’s just embarrassing for both of us.
  2. Read something for at least 15 minutes every day. I don’t care what it is: a book, a magazine, a billboard, a restaurant menu, an instruction manual, a guidebook. Just read; don’t lose everything we worked for. (If you find a great book, please tell me about it!)
  3. There is this game called “GO OUTSIDE AND PLAY.” It has always been one of my favourites. Ask your parents where to find it and how to play. I promise, you will love it even more than Prodigy.

Remember that I am proud of each and every single one of you. I might show some of you that with high fives, and others with that “What in the world were you thinking” look on my face that also says, “I care about you and want you to do what’s right and kind.” I’m proud of your work. I gave you the best that I had every day, and I hope one day you’ll appreciate that. You are special, unique, and have a lot to offer the world. Never lose that. (Instead, lose the fidget spinners.) You will always be my students and I will never forget that, for whatever reason that may be. Always remember the Golden Rule and make a point to be kinder than is necessary.


Competitions in the Classroom

I love watching movies, and I really love watching movies about inspiring teachers. Lean On Me, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Music of the Heart, Freedom Writers, Stand and DeliverSister Act 2, Akeelah and the Bee… the list goes on! I think what I love most about them is that they are movies that remind me that I am not the only teacher who has struggles in the classroom, but also that it can and does get better. These movies are also reminders to me that student engagement is such a huge component in contributing to a safe, positive learning environment. In fact, of the movies I listed above, each of them has a turning point in which the teacher finds a way to connect with their students’ interests and discover the joy of teaching students where they are at.

The reality of day-to-day teaching, however, is that I am not the final voice of what I do in my classroom. I have building, district, and state rules, policies, procedures, curricula, and standards that guide my instruction and inform what I teach. That being said, I am fortunate to be in a district that has leaders who encourage teachers to do what works best with their students.

So, even though I have spent this entire year teaching math with a curriculum that is much more rigid than I am used to, I have found ways to change things up to meet their needs, most often by utilising small groups and taking advantage of the abundance of student teachers and tutors and volunteers I had at my disposal throughout the year.

With just six school days remaining to the year, we are definitely in wind-down mode in many ways. My students are also working on culminating projects for writing, they are finishing books, and they are reviewing all of the concepts and skills they have learned during mathing workshop.

Yesterday and today I took a new approach to reviewing math skills. I have had a set of math and English/language arts “task cards” that I picked up from a school supply shop years ago but hadn’t really used much this year. In fact, they have mostly sat on a shelf collecting dust. I decided to brush off the dust, take out the cards, and set up a challenge:

Students self-selected teams of three or four and spread out in the room. Each team was given a random task card (face-down) that connected to a specific Common Core State Standard for Mathematics. I set a time for 30 minutes and set up a tally sheet on my Promethean Board. As soon as the timer started, students flipped the cards over and began solving the problems or completing the tasks given to them. As soon as a card was correctly completed, the team would earn one point and then receive a new card. The process repeated until the timer ran out.

Over the course of the two days that we did this, my students completed about 45 different math tasks. They were engaged, working together, encouraging their group members, checking work, explaining answers, and shouting with excitement when they completed a card and earned a point.

I don’t think I have ever seen a group so focused or engaged in mathematics as I did this afternoon. For the first time, my students were actually excited to do math. Was it because it was a competition? Because the winning team members got to select prizes from my prize box? Because they were able to work together? Most likely, it was a combination of all of the reasons and others that I haven’t even though about yet.

The entire process made me wonder: why haven’t I been doing this more often? Why have I been so reluctant to break out of the rut I found myself in, to give my students a lot more freedom than I had been giving them, the kind of freedom they have during reading, writing, and inquiry workshop times? I think a big part was that I was using a new math curriculum this year (along with everyone else in the district) and no matter how confident I was in the content and my delivery, I needed to see how the curriculum works “as written” before I start changing it up, in much the same way that I do when baking. I always follow the recipe exactly the first time to know what to expect, then I start tinkering with the ingredients to see what I can do to make it better or just different.

So I imagine that my mathematics instruction next year will be much more flexible and group-oriented than it was this year. I’m not saying that my math instruction this year was lacking, mind you. I am just saying that next year it will be better.

And it will certainly include more competitions.


Dioramas

My students recently completed a unit on Westward Expansion as part of our social studies curriculum. This unit is one of my favourite topics to teach each year because the students always amaze me with their creativity and effort as they prepare final reports.

I have changed the format of the project that accompanies this unit each year. Students have written reports, they have been given absolute freedom to do anything they wanted to share what they had learned, they have worked on their own or in groups. This year I allowed students to pick groups of three or four, select an important route related to Westward Expansion (the Oregon Trail, California Trail, Santa Fe Trail, Mormon Trail, Pony Express, or Transcontinental Railroad), and then assigned each group to make a diorama reflecting a scene from the history of their trail.

What made this an extra challenge is that the only materials I gave the students were boxes from our Chromebooks. The students repurposed materials in the boxes, found construction paper, and creatively used glue and tape to create their dioramas. They also had to answer several questions about their trail, explaining how, when, and why the trail was used and its impact on Westward Expansion.

It was a great unit and a wonderful way to wrap up our major social studies topics. Now we have just a handful of days to finish up science, math, and keep on reading and writing until they very last minute of the very last day!


Observe and Write

As the end of the year swiftly approaches, it can be tempting to cut out “extras” from the day to make room for the “essentials.” But, for me, the “extras” are essential. This is definitely true for the ongoing professional collaboration I do with Miss C, one of our kindergarten teachers–our Learning Buddies project. Next week will be our last time bringing our two classes together for the year, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve stopped doing amazing projects and activities with them!

The project we started last week and completed today was all about observing and writing. The students got to go to the outdoor learning space we have behind the building and observe something they saw in nature, whether it was a plant, an insect, a bird, or even a rock. As they observed, they drew detailed pictures of what they saw and then they wrote a paragraph based on their observations.

The role of the fourth graders was to be support and encouragement. The role of the kindergarteners was to draw and write as much as they could on their own. Both groups were responsible for talking to each other, helping each other, and staying focused on the task at hand.

Not only did my students get to be mentors and teachers for a brief part of the day, but they also got to see the fruit of their labours. They well remember that many of their buddies did not even know all of the letters of the alphabet at the start of the year and needed help writing their own names. Now these same children were writing entire paragraphs!

Next week we will have a celebration to wrap up this project, but today? Today was just learning as usual: collaboratively and cooperatively.