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

Posts tagged “Book Reviews

Book Review: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library

Several years ago, one of my students purchased a book for me to keep in my classroom library. It was a popular new release and I was happy to have it in my room. Many of my students read it that year but, for whatever reason, it never made it to my To Be Read pile.

Sometime in the past year, this book adapted to a made-for-TV movie featured on Nickelodeon. Around the same time, Time for Kids had a special supplement all about this book and movie. As a result, my students were very excited to realise it was sitting right there on one of my bookshelves in my classroom. That meant, of course, that I would finally read this book that had spent so much time waiting to be read by me.

The book was Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein.

As an avid bibliophile, tabletop gamer, and former library loiterer, this book seemed to have all of the pieces to make perfect story for me and, I hoped, for my class. We were not disappointed! Wacky adventures, clever clues, visual puzzles, book trivia, appealing characters, and great pacing made this a fantastic story to read aloud and share with one another!

I will admit that there were some plot elements that I wish had been developed a little bit deeper, such as all of the characters’ back stories, all in all, I found this book to be well worth the read and would absolutely recommend it to others! I’ve also since realised that this is the first in a series so now I am going to have to track down copies of those, too!

Of course, I also find myself wondering if the author would have time to do a Skype chat with my class. Hm… maybe I will look into that. I think my students would love talking to him about what he wrote, why he wrote it, and how he did it!

In the meantime, we are off to another reading adventure, going from present-day libraries in Alexandriaville, Ohio, to the midst of the Great Depression in Gary, Indiana.

What are you reading right now?

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Book Review: Words Kids Need to Hear

Several months ago, a coworker was weeding her library collection at home and emailed all of her coworkers asking if anyone would be interested in them. These books included many genres: special education, general education, classroom management, parenting, general fiction, general nonfiction, and others that I am not recalling. As an avowed bibliophile, I jumped at the chance to expand my personal library and requested a few of her selections. One of the books I claimed was called Words Kids Need to Hear. While published under the category of Religion/Christian Life, I quickly found that there was very little, with the exception of a Christian scriptural reference here or there, that was specifically religious. In fact, I would argue that this book is very much just about parenting in general and how parents (and other adults responsible for children, such as teachers) speak to the children in their care.

I grabbed this book off my shelf before heading out of town for a trip to visit family in Ohio. I had another book I was about to finish so I thought this book would be a something to read as time permitted as we traveled. As it turned out, I was able to finish my other book fairly early into the trip and then read all of Mr. Staal’s book in the time it took to travel from Indianapolis, Indiana, to Chagrin Falls, Ohio. So, while I have been left without a book to read (the horrors for an avid such as myself are real), I am glad I read this book as it gave me several important reminders about what I say to my students (and my nephews and nieces and Cub Scouts) and how I say it.

The seven specific phrases or words that Mr. Staal suggests kids need to hear are not a secret (they are listed on the back cover of the book) nor are they earth-shattering (they are words that we have hopefully all used from time to time). They are still very important, which is why we ought to be more diligent in saying them more often.  What are these words? They are as follows:

  • I believe in you
  • You can count on me
  • I treasure (or value/appreciate) you
  • I’m sorry, please forgive me
  • Because
  • No
  • I love you

Each phrase is deservedly given its own chapter, which is broken down into chunk of what the words are, why they matter, and what can happen if they are overused. This last part I found particularly useful as I know I am guilty of overzealously using words and phrases. (Even if my blogging, I have to remind myself to limit my use of the words “however,” “unfortunately,” and “fortunately.”) For the purposes of this review, I am going to touch briefly on each phrase.

“I believe in you.” How often do the children in our lives hear this from the adults they trust? Do we encourage them without doing it for them? Do we mean it when we say it? I hope that all of my students know that I believe in them and believe that they can achieve the goals they set. I hope that they will let me into the worlds enough to let me help them in their efforts. This connects directly to the next phrase: you can count on me. I value my integrity above any other character trait. If I say I am going to do something, I will make every effort to do it. I don’t want anyone to ever brush off a commitment I make.

I am reminded of an experience I had several years ago when I first took over the leadership of my Cub Scout pack. Each year, Boy Scout units have to recharter their unit (pack or troop). The recharter is usually due the 15th of January. When I took on the responsibilities of leading my pack, I was new to everything and, as a result, our recharter packet didn’t get turned in until March. When I went to the Scout Office to turn everything in and apologise for the tardiness, I was told, “Oh, that’s okay; we are used to your unit being late.” Ouch! I promised right there and then that we would never turn in our recharter packet late again. Four years later, and that promise has been kept. (We are working on our current recharter and are on track to having it turned in shortly after the start of the year.)

I am going to jump out of order because I think the fourth phrase fits better right after the second: I’m sorry, please forgive me. We are all imperfect; we all make mistakes. Sometimes, no matter how hard I try, I am unable to fulfill a commitment. It is easy to come up with excuses for why this happened. It is easy to justify failing to follow through. It is a lot harder to own up to the mistake and ask for forgiveness without any qualifiers or justifications. As Mr. Staal observes, “Oh, how strong the temptation feels to continue speaking after the word ‘me’ in ‘I’m sorry, please forgive me.’ But be warned: the potency of an apology diminishes with every syllable that follows.” If I want my students to be sincere in their apologies, they need to hear models of sincere apologies from their teachers just as much as they need to hear them from their peers.

I know many adults whose justifications for why they want children to do something is “I’m the adult; I said so.” As a child, this was terribly unsatisfying. Knowing why helped me accept things I didn’t want to do. “Clean your room!” “Why?” “Because a clean room allows you to be safe and healthy and it is easier to work or play in.” “Oh, that makes sense.” Or how about an example from a school setting? “We need to be quiet as we walk down the halls because there are 250 other students in this building who are also learning and we don’t want to distract them as we go past their classrooms.” “I need you to sit down at your desk because we are doing a restroom and drink break and I can’t tell who has come back already if you are not where you are supposed to be.” Yes, it takes longer to explain why. Yes, there are instances when we don’t have time to explain everything, but if we have the time, we ought to do it!

Explaining why often helps children understand why we say no, which is another word kids need to hear. Sometimes we are afraid that the children in our lives will stop liking or loving us if we tell them no. I don’t think we could be any further from the truth. We all need to hear the word “no” from time to time. Whether that is “No, you can’t drive through this intersection right now, there are people walking in it” or “No, you can’t go into the theatre yet, there are still people in there from the last show,” being told no is a part of life. If that “no” is coupled with an explanation, even better! When children know that they can count on you to do what is best and they are used to you giving them explanations, they will likely be more willing to accept a no.

The third and seventh phrases, to me, go hand-in-hand. Do the children in our lives know that they are loved and valued? Do they know that your love for them is not predicated on their obedience or compliance? How often do we tell them, not just in our deeds but also with our words, that they are loved and that they are treasured?

One thing I plan on doing before school resumes on January 3 is write a card for each of my students to express my appreciation for them. Each card will be individualised and will speak of specific things I have seen from them that help them know that they are valuable and beloved members of our classroom community. Will it make a difference? I don’t know; that isn’t the point. The point is only to tell them that there teacher loves and values them. Also, that I believe in them, that they can count on me, that I have a reason for the things I want them to do, that sometimes I am going to have to say no, and that when I make a mistake, I will ask for forgiveness.

These are definitely words my kids need to hear from me.


Book Review: Better Than Carrots or Sticks

Any regular reader of my blog should know that restorative justice practices have become a big focus for me in terms of my professional practices and goals as an educator. I have made a very concerted effort to use more restorative practices in my classroom this year, although I would say that the results have been somewhat mixed. That being said, I am constantly looking for ways to improve in my use of these non-exclusionary practices and so was excited to see if one of my professional journals a blurb about a new book called “Better Than Carrots or Sticks: Restorative Practices for Positive Classroom Management.”

I was even more excited when I realised that two of the authors, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, were the authors of Checking for Understanding: Formative Assessment Techniques for Your Classroom, a book we read as an entire staff a few years ago.

There is a lot of good in Better Than Carrots or Sticks, especially if you are new to the ideas of restorative practices. The authors share practical suggestions based on actual implementation in the schools they work in and with. They present a clear case for why such practices are more effectice than the traditional practices of rewarding desired behaviours and punishing undesired ones. They provide a lot of resources for how teachers and school leaders can examine their practices, especially when it comes to office referrals, and how to improve conversations with and about students to help them learn how to be more successful in their classrooms and in their lives.

And yet this book wasn’t grand slam for me. While it had a lot of great ideas, I felt like they were the basics of restorative practices. I was hoping for more depth. Maybe it is because I do a lot more professional reading than many teachers I know, but I am growing weary of the books that lay out the basics and then end. I’ve had enough of the basics; now I am ready for the next steps. (My wife keeps suggesting I ought to write my own book to do just that, but that seems to miss the point that I sometimes feel like I don’t have enough of the depth to be able to do that!) This is, incidentally, the same issue I have had with many professional workshops and conferences I have attended on this incredibly important topic: everyone seems to present with a belief that the audience knows nothing about the topic. I need the presenters who assume that the audience knows the basics and now wants more.

Over all, I was reminded of a lot of great ideas in Better Than Carrots or Sticks and discovered some new ones that I will be implementing in my classroom this coming semester. And I would certainly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about restorative practices and how they look across the K-12 spectrum. In fact, I may suggest it as a book study selection in my district as we continue to embark on this journey toward better practices that seek to restore and heal relationships among students and staff. In the meantime, though, I will work on using these ideas with my students and see if we can have more positive results by the end of the year.


Book Review: Most Likely to Succeed

Many years ago, when I attended my first Joint Annual Conference in Chicago, I heard a keynote address by Dr. Tony Wagner and was immediately captivated by his work. It took a while, but I acquired three of his books: The Global Achievement Gap, Creating Innovators, and Most Likely to Succeed. I read The Global Achievement Gap about a year and a half ago and wrote a review, which you can read here. While I haven’t read Creating Innovators yet, but I recently read Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era, which Dr. Wagner co-wrote with business expert Ted Dintersmith.

The Global Achievement Gap focused on seven “survival skills” students need to be taught to be successful in our 21st century society:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
  • Agility and adaptability
  • Initiative and entrepreneurship
  • Effective oral and written communication
  • Accessing and analyzing information
  • Curiosity and imagination

Creating Innovators focuses on the three aspects of education that will, well, create innovators:

  • Play
  • Passion
  • Purpose

I will be reading this book soon, but I have made a commitment to myself to put new books on the bottom of my To Be Read pile so that I don’t let books languish for months or even years before being read.

Most Likely to Succeed is, in many ways, a synthesis of these two books, with relevant anecdotes to show practical application. Dr. Wagner and Mr. Dintersmith put together a compelling thesis that what we have been doing in public education, especially in grades 9-12, need to be radically changed in order to meet the needs of today’s students and today’s society. More specifically, our education system was designed by a Committee of Ten in 1893 and hasn’t, at its core, changed much. Students still take classes on biology, chemistry, and physics not because these are the most fundamental or important scientific fields but because they were essentially the only scientific fields in the late 1800s. Students still take math courses that lead them toward calculus instead of statistics because, in 1893, statistics weren’t very important. And so on and so forth.

After decades of this structure, the United States came to a cross-roads in the 1950s when the Russians launched Sputnik 1 and our nation developed a national interest in “beating the Russians.” This came to a head in the 1980s when President Reagan commissioned the report on public education that we know as A Nation at Risk. This provided an opportunity for the nation to move from the assembly line model of education to a new framework. Instead, policymakers doubled down on a century-old model. The authors suggest this was one of the greatest disservices to students and society in generation.

So what is the solution? How do we change? It will take a massive effort of students, teachers, parents, policymakers, researchers, and school leaders. They need to take a good long look at what students are doing and what we want them to do and make the changes necessary to get us where we need to be.

That’s scary. Really, really scary. But I am ready to jump into the dark with my flashlight. Who’s going to join me?


Book Review: The Leader’s Guide to Coaching in Schools

[NOTE: This post has also been published on MiddleWeb, a site dedicated to teaching and learning in the middle grades. This is my fifth book review for them. I had requested to review this book as part of my new role as a new teacher mentor. From my previous post about mentoring, you may recall that new teacher mentors are encouraged to use a coaching approach.]

 

It was not many years ago that I was first introduced to the concept of instructional coaching. My school district had created several coaching positions at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, with initial funding connected to our participation in the Race to the Top competitive grant program run by the Obama administration. I had vague recollections of other districts that used coaches, but I wasn’t really sure what they did. Even when my district moved several amazing teachers into instructional coaching positions, this new role was somewhat still nebulous. (Ironically, coaching as an instructional practice actually pre-dates athletic coaching, with the term first being used at Oxford University in the early 1800s to describe tutors who helped a pupil move from a place of not-knowing to a place of knowing in much the same way a horse-drawn carriage, or coach, moved passengers from point A to point B. It wasn’t until about three decades later that the term began being used in an athletic sense and the instructional sense faded away until the late 1900s.)

I recently asked some of the instructional coaches I knew how they would define their jobs and most struggled to come up with a concrete answer. The most definite response was that “instructional coaching in classroom-embedded professional development for teachers.” Other teachers chimed in with comments on what instructional coaches had done for them, but being able to identify some of the things that these coaches do is different from having a clear definition of what makes one an instructional coach.

Around the same time as I was trying to understand the role of my district’s instructional coaches, I was asked to take on a new role as a formal mentor to new teachers in my district. During the new teacher mentor training I attended, we were encouraged to use a coaching approach when working with our protégés. This definitely got me thinking: what is an instructional coach and what is a coaching approach?

Fortunately, I am not the only person to ask that question. In fact, it is a hotly debated topic in many educational circles, and so John Campbell and Christian van Nieuwerburgh, two educators on opposite sides of the world who happened to meet and discovered a shared interest, set out to define coaching and describe how it can be used in school settings, both in a formal way through instructional coaching and through a more informal coaching approach.

One of the first things i realised while reading their book is that, even when trying to give a concise definition of coaching, there are still dozens of ways to define it depending on the context of the role. At its heart, the authors define coaching as “a one-to-one conversation that focuses on the enhancement of learning and development through increasing self-awareness and a sense of personal responsibility, where the coach facilitates the self-directed learning of the coachee through questioning, active listening, and appropriate challenge in a supportive and encouraging climate.”

With that definition in mind, Campbell and van Nieuwerburgh layout their view of coaching and how it can be used in different school settings. Starting with the Global Framework for Coaching in Education, they identify four broad areas of interest for coaching: student success and well-being, educational leadership, professional practice, and community engagement. They argue that all of these areas can benefit from coaching skills, the GROWTH model, and establishing a coaching way of being. The GROWTH model is an eight-step process that can be used to guide coaching sessions: after establish trusting relationships, the coach and coachee discuss Goals of the coaching process, Realities of the current situation, Options for change, what Will be done first, the Tactics for accomplishing tasks, and the sustainable Habits needed to ensure success, with a celebration of positive results at the end.

In addition to formal coaching, the authors acknowledge that a coaching approach can be used by school leaders to establish more meaningful discussions among teachers or other staff and for teachers to communicate with families in a way that establishes and reinforces a shared responsibility for student success. Finally, they demonstrate how a school leader can adapt a formal performance evaluation by using a coaching approach so that the employee can work on agreed-upon areas of growth without fear of judgment or negative consequences.

As I read this book, I realised that one common pitfall of school leadership is the urge to present solutions to others instead of guiding them to coming up with their own solutions. This is a key element of instructional coaching: the coach does not identify what needs to be done; that is the role of the coachee. The coach provides resources and guidance once the change has been identified. This is the heart and soul of the coaching approach and the coaching way of being and a mindset that will benefit teachers, students, families, and school leaders.

Throughout the book, the authors provide tips for coaches, QR codes that link to videos to see coaching in action, and questions for reflection. With just ten chapters and approximately 125 pages, this quick read is a great resource for new leaders, new coaches, teacher mentors, and those who have been in any of these roles but are looking for a fresh take on an old idea.

 


Options We Can Live With

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has read this blog more than once that I absolutely love reading. I read everything I can get my hands on, including shampoo and conditioner bottles and toothpaste packages. I even make sure any movies or television shows I watch have the captions on so I can read those! (They also help since I am hard-of-hearing.)

When it comes to reading books, there are very few that I have read and put down because I didn’t like them at all. I admit that it happens, but I am usually willing to give a book a full read before making any conclusions about it. Sometimes I read a book and, overall, don’t particularly care for it, but find a brief snippet of wisdom that sticks with me.

That was the case with Teaching with Love and Logic by David Funk and Jim Fay. There was a lot about this book I didn’t agree with, but I was reflecting today on one part that really hit home: giving students choices when faced with a problem. (It is quite possible that this was also suggested in Setting Limits in the Classroom by Robert J. Mackenzie. I’d need to read it again to see.)

There are some teachers who give very artificial choices. Here’s an example: “You can choose to do your assignment or you can choose to go to the principal’s office.” The better option is to give choices you can all live with. I sometimes fall short of this, but I’d like to think that, more times than not, I do a pretty decent job.

One memorable occasion was when I was babysitting for some friends. My friends wanted their kids to clean their room. The kids wanted to watch a movie. I presented two options: You can clean your room now and then watch a movie, or you can play for ten minutes, then clean your room and then watch a movie. Either way, your room needs to be cleaned before you watch a movie.” The options were perfect because the children could either play then clean, or clean first. I didn’t care which they did, because I knew that a movie wouldn’t happen until the room was cleaned. The children tried to negotiate, but I held firm to the options and then an interesting thing happened: the boy decided to clean first, the girl decided to play for ten more minutes. But they eventually both cleaned together and then they both got to watch a movie.

No yelling, no cajoling, no negotiating, no threatening. Simply presenting options that we could both live with.

Today I continued my quest to try something different with my class. I presented them with options as we transitioned to new tasks and let them decide how to go about doing it. The first was for our afternoon recess. It was really hot out today and so I said, “I noticed as you came in from lunch recess that you were hot and many of you were sweating. You have two options for our afternoon recess: we can stay here and have an inside recess, or you can go outside to play. I really don’t care either way. You decide.” The students all looked at each other like they couldn’t believe their ears. Was I really going to let them decide? When it was clear I was, they took a vote. Enough wanted to go outside that that was what we did. And the ones who would have preferred staying inside still went out because they felt it was a fair way to decide.

Another presentation of options was after our math lesson. Math yesterday was a catastrophe. What should have been a 30-minute lesson turned into a 2-hour slog and barely any students learned anything. (I should have just stopped and tried something else, but I got caught in my mindset that we were going to finish the lesson one way or the other.) Today I reviewed the expectations for math, explained what we were going to do and how we were going to do it, and we got through the lesson with plenty of time for students to have independent practice on Zearn, Front Row, and/or Prodigy. At the end, I observed the two options before the class: option one, students argue and talk and disrupt and math takes two hours, using up our afternoon recess and writing workshop time; option two, students listen and participate and work together and have time for using Chromebooks, having a recess, and working on writing. Here’s the thing: while I don’t really prefer option one, I can live with it and adapt if that’s what my students really want. But I had a hunch they would all prefer option two, and they did.

Will every day be smooth and problem-free moving forward? No, of course not. We will still make mistakes, we will still get in ruts, we will still lose our focus. But I think our days can be better and I think my students know they can, too. As I said yesterday, it will take lots of time and lots of patience, but I am confident that it will be all the better in the end.


Book Review: Lost at School

I have done a lot of reading over the past three months. In fact, I am currently reading what I believe is my 20th book for the summer. I haven’t written blog posts for every book I’ve read, some because I’ve written about them before, but mostly because I tend to save my reviews for professional books and I have tried to read for more pure pleasure this summer than I have in the past.

That being said, I really do enjoy reading books related to my profession, especially when those books give me not just inspiration, but reliable strategies, techniques, or ideas that I can incorporate in the future. One of the books I recently read did just this. The sad part is that it is a book that I first placed my hands on in 2012 and has been languishing on my shelf and in my TBR pile for nearly five years. (more…)