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?


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…)


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.


Book Review: Is It Working in Your Middle School?

[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 four reviews for them previously, all of which can be found here. This review can be found on their website here]

Quick! Grab a pen or pencil or open up a new document on your computer. Ready? Good. Now, write down the name of every initiative you school or district has adopted since you started working there.

Need more time? Go ahead, I’ll wait.

All finished? Okay. Now, circle all of the ones that you can prove are improving student learning and growth. How many initiatives did you list? Five? Ten? Twenty? More? How many did you circle? One? Two? Zero?

If there is anything that school leaders and policymakers are frustratingly good at doing, it is coming up with new initiatives for classrooms, schools, and districts. Whether the initiatives are focused on academics, behavior, instruction, culture, family engagement, teacher quality, or any number of possibilities, there is not a school in the nation that doesn’t have at least one new initiative put into place every year. But what do we do after we initiate the initiative? How do we know if it is actually making a difference? Are we even bothering to check? Or do we just start something new and keep doing it mechanically, thinking to ourselves that this, too, shall pass? Has the Shiny New Thing become so commonplace that we don’t even care if it works or not?

Dr. Nikki C. Woodson, an educational leader, and James W. Frakes, a business consultant who has spent much of his career working with the manufacturing industry, both believe that the problem with initiatives is not the initiatives themselves, but the lack of intentionality and monitoring. In their book, Is It Working in Your Middle School?, they provide a simple framework for identifying appropriate initiatives and monitoring them with consistency so that teachers, leaders, and other stakeholders can separate the wheat from the chaff and put into place programs, policies, and practices that will lead to meaningful, lasting changes in your school.

While focusing on middle schools, the authors are quick to note that their framework, based on proven quality assurance processes, can be used in any school setting and, indeed, in any organization that wants to know if what they are doing is actually making a difference. Their process will help anyone with an interest in improving their school to identify all of the current initiatives, or programs in place, eliminate the ones that have no discernible purpose, set S.M.A.R.T. goals, identifying quantifiable strategies, assess the efficacy of the strategies, monitor for success, and plan for next steps to the school improvement process truly continuous. To help the reader through the process, Woodson and Frakes provide templates for reflection, goal setting, planning, and monitoring which can be either copied from the book or downloaded for free through a website given. They also use a case study to model how their framework has been used to change a middle school’s approach to improvement plan goals.

Classrooms, schools, and districts are constantly adapting as they try to keep up with the latest research, best practices, and the ever-changing landscape of education in the 21st century. These adaptations are not, in and of themselves, a bad thing; they can push a school to grow and improvement. Growth and improvement will only happen, though, if teachers and leaders work together to monitor the changes and keep asking each other two simple questions: Is it working? How do we know? If you are concerned that the programs you are using in your classroom, school, and/or district are not making a difference in student achievement but are not sure how to prove it, or you are convinced that your programs are working but need evidence to justify continuing them, this is the book for you! You may not be able to stem the tide of Shiny New Things coming your way, but you will be able to show which ones are making a difference in the lives of your students and which ones are just passing fads.


One Step at a Time

For the past several months, I have been working my way through a fascinating book called Teaching with the Brain in Mind by Dr. Eric Jensen. The focus in the book is on understanding how neurobiology can and should inform our decisions as teachers. Instead of discussing cognitive psychology and theory, the author explains the actual biology of how the brain works (at least, to the best of our understanding) and how these physical aspects impact learning and should impact teaching.

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One of the more interesting points that I recently read was about the processes that affect memory. Specifically, the author shared that

[c]apacity limitations should also be an important consideration… For a 5- to 12-year-old, the limit is normally one or two bits of data. But as a practical matter, many students have poor short-term memory because of conditions such as attention deficit disorder, learning delays, and auditory-processing deficits, and it’s better to stick to one piece of information for all students. In a classroom, directions just one at a time…

I spent a lot of time considering this over the Thanksgiving Break. How often do I give my students several steps to follow and then get frustrated when they don’t follow all of them? One example is our end-of-day routines. I have spent most of the year instructing students to do the following:

  1. Quietly get mail
  2. Quietly put mail in COYOTE Binders
  3. Get backpacks without talking in the hallway
  4. Put binders in backpacks at desks
  5. Move to carpet and sit quietly

Some would think that this would be easy to do, but thinking about what Dr. Jensen wrote made me realise that one of the reasons we have had so much chaos at the end of the day has simply been that I have been giving too many pieces of information at a time. So today I resolved to try a new tactic. Instead of telling the students all of the steps. we did them one at a time.

This is what it looked like:

I told the class that we were going to go through the process one step at a time and explained the neurobiology of it. This made them more willing to try it out. First I had the students get their mail one row at a time without talking. (I direct them to do it without talking because it always takes much longer if students are talking to one another.) Once everyone had their mail, they took out their binders and put their mail in the correct folders. Then they got their backpacks and returned to the room, once again doing this one row at a time without talking. The final step was to move to the carpet and wait for further instructions.

The difference was amazing! It took more time than I would like, but it was controlled and focused and safe. The focus now will be to continue to doing this one step at a time but doing it faster. The goal is for the students to do all five steps in five minutes or less. I know they can do it; now my students need to believe it!


Author Visit

One of the many reasons I look forward to the Illinois Young Authors Contest, with its accompanying Young Authors Conference in Bloomington each year. is the opportunity to meet published authors from across the state of Illinois. I have written about several of these authors in the past and the Skype chats they have done with my class.

Last Friday, we had the chance to meet another one of these authors who was visiting as part of the Illinois Youth Literature Festival. Patricia Hruby Powell is the author of several books, include an awesome biographical picture book called Josephine. She visited with all of the fourth and fifth grade classes and then visited second and third grade.

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During her presentation, she talked about the writing process, shared two of her stories, and answered questions. I was impressed by the quality questions my students asked. I was particularly grateful to hear Ms. Powell talk about the amount of time she spends on editing and revising her work.

It was a great visit and a wonderful way to finish the week! I hope at least some of my students were able to go to the literature festival over the weekend so they could meet other authors and learn more about some of the great literature resources available in our own community.


Book Reviews: Matilda

[NOTE: This is an expansion of a review I recently wrote on Goodreads.]

Despite being a fourth grade teacher and a deeply devoted bibliophile, up until a few days ago, I had only read a grand total of two books by Roald Dahl: The Enormous Crocodile and The Vicar of Nibbleswicke. (The first is a story that has long been a favourite and I hope to eventually track down a copy for my home library. I honestly don’t even know how I ended up reading the second, but it has always stayed with me as a fascinating tale of someone doing something bizarre without even realising it is happening.) I personally own a very respectable collection of Roald Dahl stories, but I have not read any of them. In fact, I don’t actually own either of the two that I have actually read!

So, at the start of the school year, I decided it was time I read more Dahl and I realised I really only had one choice: Matilda.

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This is one of those stories that seemingly everyone knows, either because they’ve read the book, had it read to them, or they have seen the movie. (I myself have seen the movie at least a dozen times.) But reading it is most definitely a different experience. The relationships between Matilda and her parents and between Matilda and Miss Honey is much more important than the movie makes them.

This was a great read and a wonderful way to start the year with a magical story to engage my students (and myself!) in reading! It is always interesting to see how students respond when I read aloud exactly what is written. (Yes, Roald Dahl has a character refer to a child with a mild profanity and when I read it out loud, my class was shocked! But there were also smiles and looks of sharing a secret that we now had: their teacher was willing to read books that weren’t full of bland language that nobody in real life uses. I credit my blogging friend Katherine Sokolowski for teaching me this trick.)

There were plenty of “teachable moments” in Matilda, also, such as using rich descriptive language, different kinds of sentences, and focusing on small moments throughout writing. But there was also the opportunity to teach my students to do something that Mr. Dahl doesn’t do: use a variety of dialogue tags. In Matilda, nearly every character except Miss Trunchbull simply “says” things. She said this. She said that. He said that thing. He said something else. There are very few emotions in the dialogue. So I challenged my students to find better ways of describing how a character was speaking than just saying “said.”

But more than those, reading aloud is a way for us to enjoy a story together and strengthen our community. We work together, we play together, and we read together. I’ll be pulling out my Roald Dahl collection in my classroom so students can go deeper into his world of magic and mystery. And who knows? Maybe I’ll read some of them, too!


Book Review: The Journey Is Everything

About two months ago, I received a flyer in the mail from an education publishing company that came to me as a byproduct of my membership in the National Council of Teachers of English. The flyer was about a new book coming out in May called The Journey Is Everything: Teaching Essays That Students Want to Write for People Who Want to Read Them by Katherine Bomer.

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The title alone captured my interest. Having a father-in-law who is a college English professor who wants posted a satirical video of himself tearing up papers and crying out “Crap! Garbage! Terrible!” while grading student essays and having a brother who is also a college English professor who has engaged me in countless discussions of the horrors of the five-paragraph essay/theme, I wanted to know what Ms. Bomer had to say about this topic. Fortunately for me, the publisher provided a link to their website where I could read an excerpt from the introduction. A table of contents and five pages later, and I knew that this was a book I would want to read.

Around the same time, I bumped into my district’s director of professional development and started talking about book studies and PD offerings for the coming year. I told her about this book and suggested that, building on my district’s recent work on improving writing instruction (I happen to be on the writing committee), this might be a great addition. The tricky part, however, was that the book had just been published, and I was uneasy about suggesting a book study on a book nobody had read. (After all, what if the book turned out to be awful and the introduction was just a ploy to get unwitting teachers to buy another book with a pretty cover?) No problem, she told me. She would order a copy for me so I could read it over the summer.

Have I mentioned recently how much I love my school district and the willingness of district leaders to encourage teachers to take leadership in providing worthwhile professional development?

The book came in my mailbox a few weeks later and was put near the top of my To Be Read pile. When I was later emailed to submit a formal request to lead the PD session in the fall, I realised I needed to bump the book to the top of the pile. I started reading it about two or three weeks ago and finished today. I would have finished sooner but I found I needed to be able to highlight and annotate as I read, so I couldn’t read while eating and before going to sleep.

Oh, by the way: I hate highlighting books. And I hate writing in the margins. I have rejected copies of highly-desired books simply because they have a note in the margin here and there. My copy of this book? Highlighted and annotated on nearly every page.

There is no way I can give justice to this entire book in a single blog post. There is also no way that I can select one or two quotes to capture the essence of the argument Ms. Bomer makes. However, I will say this: The five-paragraph essay is arguably the worst formula ever conceived for teaching students how to write. (It is an artificial structure and the product isn’t even really an essay.) Essay writing should be a journey for the author who is writing to think and discovering meaning in text and in the world. If we are serious about wanting to teach students how to express their thoughts, we need to stop trying to force those thoughts to conform to a rigid introduction/thesis/support/conclusion structure. Think about this: when is the last time you read something in that format that moved you to think, to consider, to change, to act? I know my answer: never.

Instead of relying on this old-but-terrible formula, essay writing needs to be open to exposing the soul of the writer. To quote Ms. Bomer who was referencing another researcher, “essays feel like gritos to me: soulful, aching cries in the wilderness of surprise, joy, anger, grief, freedom, and celebration. I want children to be able to put their particularly cries, their gritos, into the world and for the world to read them and respond. Why would we deny our students the ability to be soulful and beautiful?”

Why, indeed.


Book Review: The Sixty-Eight Rooms

When I first started teaching at Wiley, I heard about an off-campus learning experience that our fifth graders got to do called KAM-WAM. This was an opportunity for the students to spend a week at the Krannert Art Museum, learning about art and history and literature and movement and light and so many other things. As part of this project, most of the students would be reading the book Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett, Some of the students would read a similar book by Marianne Malone called The Sixty-Eight Rooms. This latter book floated in the background of my mind for several years until last year when I met the author at the Illinois Young Authors Conference in Bloomington. Hearing her talk about the book and some of the processes involved in writing it piqued my interest and I purchased a copy (which I also got autographed, of course).

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As with so many other books, this went on my To Be Read pile by my bed but then stayed there for months as new books went on top and other obligations got in the way. I finally read it this summer and quite thoroughly enjoyed it. This is the first in a series of books that incorporate a theme of magic in modern days along with interesting art history.

What I found most intriguing in this story was the incorporation of the Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago. I have only been to the Art Institute once in my entire life but now I very much want to go again so I can visit the exhibit and share in the wonder of the miniature rooms that Mrs. James Ward Thorne created to represent, on a scale of one inch to one foot, everyday life from Europe and America.

The characters from this story are equally compelling and I found myself wanting to cheer when they solved a problem, hug them when challenges were overcome, and laugh when they shared secret jokes that, as a reader, I was in on.

If I ever have the opportunity to bring a class to the Art Institute of Chicago, I will make sure that they have read this book first and come to the exhibit prepared to question, to wonder, and to observe. And if I am unable to bring my students to the Art Institute, I would find a way to bring the Art Institute to them!


Book Review: The Global Achievement Gap

For the past several years, I have had the opportunity to accompany my mother to 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 (often called the Triple I conference or just the Joint Annual Conference because JACIASBIASAIASBO doesn’t really roll of the tongue as a word.) The first year I went, one of the keynote speakers with Dr. Tony Wagner, who was invited to share his research findings on what skills students need to be prepared for college or careers.

Now, college and career readiness are hot topics in education. In fact, the driving goal behind the Common Core State Standards was a realisation that the standards many states had for K-12 education were far below what students needed to succeed in life after school. (In addition to the huge inequity of learning gaps when a student moved from one state to another and had to change to a completely different curriculum designed around a very different set of learning standards.)

I was captivated by Dr. Wagner’s remarks because his focus wasn’t on content; it was on capacity. Rather than tell us what math skills students needed or what specific historical dates were universally necessary, he told the audience that what college admissions directors, college professors, human resources departments, military leaders, and entrepreneurs were really looking for were for adults who knew how to think and how to solve problems. Specifically, he identified seven skills that he referred to as the Seven Survival Skills:

  • 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

Dr. Wagner has written a number of books related to these Survival Skills. For many years now, these have been on my list of books To Be Read (although, actually, they were also on my list of Books To Acquire.) I finally got a couple of these books this past year for Christmas and my birthday and was excited to read them. However, with the pressure of finishing my master’s degree program and teaching and finding time to be with family and friends, these books languished in my pile for quite a long time.

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I made a goal to tackle this pile during the summer. Instead of reading, researching, and writing for graduate school, I am taking three hours every day to read for myself. Some of the books are work-related, some are purely for fun, all of them are for personal reasons. As I have read the professional books, I have posted quotes and reflections on my personal Facebook account, using the book titles as a hashtag so I can go back and search them. I wanted to share a few highlights here.

First, however, I think it is worth noticing the premise of his book’s title: students in the United States are often out-performed by students in other, similarly developed nations. There is a real and definable gap between American student achievement and student achievement across the globe. Dr. Wagner does not rely on traditional high-stakes standardised tests to draw these conclusions, though; in fact, he opposes such tests and advocates against them. At the same time, he advocates for assessments that, according to his research, are more meaningful. These assessments are performance based. Instead of a bunch of multiple choice questions that require rote memorisation and recall, performance-based assessments demand students explain their thinking, show their processes, and find multiple paths to a problem. (Incidentally, this is a the theoretical goal behind the new PARCC assessments we are using in Illinois; whether or not these tests will hit the target is still be determined.) So, knowing that the “global achievement gap” relates to the poor outcomes of our students students on such performance-based assessments, here are some suggestions to close the gap:

“The rigor that matters most for the twenty-first century is demonstrated mastery of the core competencies for work, citizenship, and life-long learning. Studying academic content is the means of developing competencies, instead of being the goal, as it has been traditionally. In today’s world, it’s no longer how much you know the matters; it’s what you can do with what you know.”

When I need to know something that isn’t readily accessed in my memory, I pull out my phone and I look it up. This requires three things: first, access to the technology to acquire the information; second, knowledge of how to ask the right question; and third, how to interpret the information that I find. If all I am doing is teaching my students how to recall information I have presented them, I am not teaching with the rigor necessary for them to be successful in life after fourth grade, life after public school, life after college, etc. This is a good reminder for me that academic content is the means, not the aim.

“We know that isolation is the enemy of improvement in education–and in all other professions– and that working more collaboratively to improve teaching and learning is really the only way educators are likely to get significantly better results. We also know that educators must be accountable for how they use their time and be able to show that students are learning more–including more of the content that really matters. What we don’t yet know is whether American taxpayers and our government care enough about the future to pay educators a more professional wage and to provide them with the working conditions they need to succeed: smaller classes, teachers organized into teams with shared responsibility for groups of students, more effective coaching for continuous improvement, better and more frequent local assessments of students’ progress, and more time to work and learn with colleagues.”

If I arrive at work at 7:30 am, close my door, and only open it when students are entering or leaving until it is time for me to go home at the end of the day, I am not doing what’s necessary to be a successful teacher. If the only time I speak to my colleagues is during lunch to talk about the latest political controversy of the day or staff meetings to talk about data that has given us, I am not going to grow as an educator. If I am not willing to be vulnerable when my principal comes to observe me, to seek out feedback to improve, then, surprise, surprise, I’m not going to improve. As my graduate advisor was so fond of telling us, gone are the days of the teacher-as-independent-contractor. We must work together, we must talk together, we must learn together. I am proud to work in a district that fosters this kind of collaboration. I love and respect my colleagues who are interested in learning together. Our lunch time conversations often turn to what we can do to help our students. Our staff meetings are opportunities to come together as a team to do what’s best for our students and their families. And as another education researcher has said, if we aren’t focusing on what’s best for students, then what are we doing in the classroom?

“… the future of our economy, the strength of our democracy, and perhaps even the health of the planet’s ecosystems depend on educating future generations in ways very different from how many of us were schooled.”

This last really struck a nerve with me. So much of the opposition I hear from others whenever we propose change in our schools is something along the lines of “If it was good enough for me, it should be good enough for the students.” This just isn’t true. The world has changed drastically over the past few decades. “Good enough” is never good enough. I often tell my students that my job isn’t to get them to the end of fourth grade; my job is to get them on the path of lifelong learning. Specifically, my job is to help them learn how they learn so that they can learn without anyone telling them what to learn. Education is the long game writ large. The problems of tomorrow will only be solved by the generation that knows how to look forward. As we make this our focus, we will see the global achievement gap close and find our economy, our democracy, and our planet improve.

It’s a lofty goal and it may take generations to achieve. But you know what? If we don’t start now, it is going to take even longer.


Book Review: The Ten-Minute Inservice

It is no secret that I am a huge fan of Dr. Todd Whitaker. I currently own five of his books:

  • What Great Teachers Do Differently: 17 Things That Matter Most
  • What Great Principals Do Differently: 18 Things That Matter Most
  • The Ball
  • Shifting the Monkey: The Art of Protecting Good People from Liars, Criers, and Other Slackers
  • The Ten-Minute Inservice: 40 Quick Training Sessions That Build Teacher Effectiveness

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I  still have several more of his books that I would like to acquire, all of which are on my Amazon wish list just so I can keep track of them. In addition to loving his books, I have come to greatly admire him as an agent of change, as a school leader, and as an individual. While we have yet to meet in person, I have been able to interact with him on several occasions via Twitter and he has even helped me find resources and ideas by tapping into his own wide network.

The crazy thing about this is that I didn’t even know who he was until my mother-in-law (I believe) got me one of his books for Christmas (the first on my list). Then we read the second one in the list in my graduate program and I was hooked. I got the third book for Christmas a year or so later and then I used some Amazon gift cards to purchase the last two. (I thought I wrote a review of “Shifting the Monkey” but I guess not. Oops. If you are my friend on Facebook, you can find a smattering of quotes by searching #shiftingthemonkey.) I didn’t really know what I would be getting into when I purchased “The Ten-Minute Inservice” but once I started reading, I had two thoughts:

  1. Holy cow, this would be so awesome to do in my building!
  2. Hey, I can use these right now with my student teachers!

Regarding the first, I mentioned it to my principal and she thought it was a good idea, but other things got in the way and we were never able to develop the idea further. Regarding the second, I loaned the book to the two other teachers I was working with to mentor our team of five student teachers, but they never got around to actually reading it and then the school year was over before we had a chance to revisit the thought. That being said, I will have two student teachers working with me during the first semester of next year and I am absolutely planning on using these inservice ideas with them!

Dr. Whitaker and his co-author, Annette Breaux, as a way for school leaders to make sure that every staff meeting has a purpose that will help every teacher in the room be more effective at their primary job: teaching. Keeping each training session to just ten minutes will allow the other business and busy-ness of faculty meetings to take place, as well. Each inservice idea is divided into three components:

  1. Purpose – why should administrators want to help teachers improve in this area?
  2. Inservice – how should the idea be presented to staff?
  3. Implementation – what should the principal do in order to monitor and check for implementation?

Additionally, the training sessions are divided into five basic categories: classroom management (eight sessions), teaching practices (eight sessions), improving school climate (nine sessions), learning from others (five sessions), and what makes a good teacher (ten sessions). As I read through the book, I was struck by how easy to implement and easy to monitor each idea was. I was even able to apply many of them in my own classroom as the year progressed! (However, because I did not have anyone actively monitoring me, I admit that I was not as faithful in my implementation as I should have been!)

From the newest principal to the most veteran administrator, The Ten-Minute Inservice will absolutely be effective in improving teaching and, therefore, learning in any school, whether it is one that is on an academic watchlist or one that is held up as a standard of excellence for all others. As the authors repeatedly point out throughout the book, every teacher in every school has room for improvement (although some certainly have more room than others). The purpose of the suggestions in this book is not to make every teacher a great teacher; it is to make every teacher a better one.


Book Review: Data, Data Everywhere

I have had the opportunity to receive and review books for MiddleWeb, an online database for educators. I read Data, Data Everywhere (Second Edition) by Victoria L. Bernhardt, Ph.D. way back in January and somehow completely managed to forget about submitting a review. (And for reasons beyond me, nobody ever followed up to remind me that I still owed them a review.) The book has been traveling in my bag and sitting by my computer for months. I would look at it and think, “Hm, did I write a review?” but then I would get busy and forget about it again. Which is why I find myself sitting on my couch now, avoiding the heat and humidity outside, listening to Bob Ross talk about happy trees named Clyde and happy little clouds, and finally writing up my review of this excellent book.

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Data, Data Everywhere is, at its heart, a guide to making sense of all of the information that schools collect on a daily basis and using them to determine specific actionable goals for school improvement. To put that another way, teachers and administrators collect a lot of data: test scores, attendance records, office referrals, benchmarking, formative, and summative assessment results, family involvement, professional development participation, and much more. It is far too easy to allow all of the data and (the collection thereof) to be just another cog in a machine without making any real difference in what the school is doing. Dr. Bernhardt, through her Education for the Future Initiative, developed the Continuous Improvement Framework to make sense of all the data and use them to guide school leaders in their day to day operations.

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After explaining the CSI Framework, each chapter of the book is broken down into four basic components: an overview of a specific element of the framework, an explanation of how to collect and analyse data, reflection questions, and application opportunities. Additionally, each chapter has a suggestion for the amount of time it should take to fully consider each component.

An important recommendation by Dr. Bernhardt is to involve as many voices as possible in the school improvement process. This is radically different than the traditional method of pulling together a team of teacher leaders and administrators with one or two parents to make the decisions for the school’s improvement plan. However, by involving every voice, it is more likely to have increased ownership, collaboration, and consensus within the building. As Dr. Bernhardt says,

“When school staff agree and commit to a shared vision, they are collaborating on what they know and believe will make a difference for student learning. They create common understandings about what to teach, how to teach, how to assess, and how each person will treat each other. They also have common understandings of what they are going to do when students know the information and what they are going to do when students do not know the information. These agreements make data use so much more effective.”

Perhaps more importantly than explaining the Continuous School Improvement Framework, Data, Data Everywhere is a guide for actually using data when implementing the plan.  Far too often, improvement plans, often required by state boards of education, are drafted, submitted, and promptly forgotten. However, it is possible, by regularly reviewing data and having open, honest discussions about them, to use the information to bring about positive change within the building. The building principal, as instructional leader, is responsible for making sure that such conversations are happening. He or she must also be sure to clearly communicate with stakeholders (teachers, parents, and community members) what the information means, Otherwise, as Dr. Bernhardt warns, “faced with an absence of reliable and transparent information, people will fill the void with disparate events and facts. This could lead to biased perceptions.”

Whether your school is using the Continuous School Improvement Framework or a different tool, the suggestions in Data, Data Everywhere, when implemented with fidelity, will help leaders organise information, guide discussions, and, ultimately, lead to an improvement in student learning. And, as another education researcher, Dr. Todd Whitaker, has asked, if we aren’t focusing on student learning, what are we doing?

[NOTE: My review on MiddleWeb was published on August 3, 2016, and can be found here.]


Skype Chat: Julia Durango

As one of the coordinators for the Young Authors writing contest in my district, I have had the opportunity to go to the Illinois Young Authors Conference in Bloomington for the past three years. My second year attending, I got to be an Author Escort, which means I spent the day going around with one of the guest authors, Ms. Julia Durango, assisting when she presented to student groups, eating a fancy lunch, and having a delightful time of chatting with her about reading, writing, and education. I also acquired several of her books at the conference and have acquired a couple more since then. In addition to all of that, we became “friends” on Facebook but have seen that online friendship become a real friendship as we chat and share and learn together.

I decided to read one of Ms. Durango’s books to my class this year because it gives a very different perspective of life in the Americas during the 18th century. Inspired by the true story of an Angolan slave who as a young child was identified as being gifted with languages, The Walls of Cartagena tells a fictional story of how this boy, Calepino, may have reacted to his experiences. It is a relatively short read but it captured my students’ attention and many of them were interested in reading the book for themselves.

At the same time I was finishing this book, I was finally able to get a webcam with built-in microphone to use with my HP Pavilion Mini that is connected to our Promethean ActivPanel Touch interactive board. I contacted my friend Julia and asked her if she would be willing to do a Skype chat with my class. I had never done a Skype chat with an author with my class before, although we did do a Google Hangouts chat with my sister two weeks ago to wish her a happy birthday.

Today was the day we picked to do the chat. I had my students prep by thinking of questions they could ask Ms. Durango and write them down. Then we got Skype running, she called us, and away we went! She shared some of her background, including that she went to school at the University of Illinois and used to live in Urbana and how she got into writing stories for her sons who are now teenagers. Then she did a back-and-forth question-and-answer session with my students. They asked her about her favourite books, favourite authors, inspiration for reading and writing, and hobbies (crocheting, hiking, eating, and watching old movies were all listed). She asked them about their favourite books and authors, what they thought the hardest part of writing was, and how many of them like to read and write now.

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It was just a thirty-minute chat but it was so wonderful seeing my students engaging with her and sharing thoughts and ideas and listening attentively! She also hinted that she might stop by our room if she is ever in Urbana. I assured her (and my students) that she is always welcome!

Having done one chat, I am so excited about some of the other chats I have lined up and others that I am going to be arranging soon! I am so grateful for authors who are willing to take a break from their very busy schedules to chat with a group of fourth grade students who are eager to learn more about the people who wrote the books that they love.

How do you try to connect with authors?


Book Review: 33 Minutes … Until Morgan Sturtz Kicks My Butt

I have been fortunate enough to be able to attend the Illinois Young Authors Conference in Bloomington, Illinois, each May for the past three years. In the process I have met awesome young people who write fantastic stories and also have been able to network with professional published authors from our state. Through this conference, I have been able to introduce my students to wonderful new books. I have also, from time to time, struck up professional friendships with these writers.

I decided this year to use several of the books I have received at the conference for read-alouds with my class. One of the first books I selected was a work of fiction by Todd Hasak-Lowy called 33 Minutes … Until Morgan Sturtz Kicks My Butt. One reason I picked this book, other than it being such a great story, was that it was inspired, in a way, by Mr. Hasak-Lowy’s own experiences in middle school. When I do my realistic fiction narrative writing unit with my class, one of the suggestions is for students to select personal experiences and use them as the “seed” for their stories. During the Young Authors Conference this past May, I mentioned this to Mr. Hasak-Lowy and he thought it would be a wonderful connection and offered to do a Skype chat or something similar with my class to share his writing process.

We started reading 33 Minutes during the second week of school. It has been an interesting experience, because the narrative style is very different from what my students are used to. Instead of being a fairly linear tale, it jumps back and forth between the present and the past. Instead of numbered chapters, each section is separated with a timestamp. All throughout, students get a picture of what other students may think about middle school: the challenges of finding where you fit in, dealing with teachers who are either excessively strict, excessively passive, or excessively passionate about geeky matters, and, of course, the end of lifelong friendships.

I wasn’t sure how well my class was accepting the story, but we finished it today and the majority of the class felt it was a great story! At least one student went to the local library and acquired a copy so he could reread the entire book. (He actually passed us and finished the book a day earlier than we did!)

Now that we are done, I will be contacting Mr. Hasak-Lowy to see if he is still willing and able to chat with my students via Skype. I understand how busy authors often are, though, but I know that my students would be thrilled to chat with a “real” author!


Learning Buddies v5.0

It started as a project between two new teachers who had been hired a very short time before school started. He brought his fourth graders to her second grade room. It continued as an effort to enhance literacy skills as he brought his fourth graders to her first graders. (Another first grade class was also involved.) Year three saw a continuation of fourth graders reading with first graders and then a happy mistake happened. A wonderful parent was updating a bulletin board and switched two of the root words on the caption, changing it from “Reading Buddies Help Us Learn!” to “Learning Buddies Help Us Read!” And so it was that year four saw his fourth graders visiting her first graders to do projects in social studies, science, math, and, yes, still literacy.

And then came year five. Both of them are now considered veteran teachers with four years of experience and tenure status. He is still teaching fourth graders, many of whom were in her class that second year. She is now teaching kindergarten. Many things will stay the same, but many things will need to change. The duration of projects, the length of visits, the expected level of independence for the students as they work together. But they will persevere, as will their students. They will cooperate, as will their students. They will show respect and compassion, as will their students. They will demonstrate integrity, as will their students. They will take their responsibility as teachers and learning partners seriously, just as their students will take their responsibility as students and learning buddies seriously.

And they will have a lot of fun, too.

Like today, when Miss C read Where the Wild Things Are and the students joined in with Max’s terrible roars as they showed their terrible claws.

Like today, when Mister V put on a Princess Sofia the First crown and wore it in the classroom and as they walked down the hall.

Yes, learning buddies is serious business, but it is also fun and exciting and so incredibly inspiring. I cannot wait for the day a fourth grader coaches a kindergartener through her first independent reading experience. When a kindergartener tells his mom all about his fourth grade buddy who helped him write a complete sentence. When our fifty students come together and learn about national holidays and celebrations and community.

Because that’s what learning buddies is all about really.

Community.

It is going to be a good year for our learning buddies and I have a hunch our entire community is going to be better because of it.


Book Review: Teaching with Love and Logic

Several months ago I read a professional text on the recommendation of our music teacher. She really liked the book and thought I would, too. But, just teachers sometimes recommend a book to a student and it fall flat, this happened with this book. I really, really, really didn’t like it, even though I really, really, really wanted to. (And because I try to focus on the positive side of things on my blog, I don’t think I ever even wrote a review of it.) So then a little while after, our music teacher and I were talking about classroom management practices and ideas we could try out with my class and she recommended another book to me. I was actually very glad she did; it can be tempting to give up on suggesting books when the first attempt fails.

The book she suggested was one that she read in college. It was Teaching with Love and Logic by Jim Fay and David Funk.

 

The first thing I noticed about this book was that it was 20 years old. I wasn’t going to discount it just because of that, of course, but it was something I felt worth noting as I read. The second thing I noticed was that the authors referred to their education consulting firm, the Love and Logic Institute and their trademarked strategy, Love and Logic a lot, to the point that it was rather irritating. That being said, I wasn’t going to set aside the book just because it was old and the authors talked about their company a lot. After all, if the music teacher felt that there were useful ideas in this book, I wanted to read to find out why!

The majority of Teaching with Love and Logic focuses on the focus of control in classroom management. Is the teacher in control, are the students in control, or is the control shared by both parties? The authors present the argument that many teachers, in an effort to maintain absolute control, actually turn control over to the students, primarily by taking the bait to engage in power struggles. This is something I have found myself observing many times: whenever an adult enters into a power struggle with a child, the adult has already lost. It is that simple. If you try to wrest control of the power, then you are letting the student focus all of your time and energy on them, telling them that they are the ones in control. However, if you stay calm, state simple, clear expectations, and then walk away, the student is unable to argue.

An important caveat: many of the of the strategies suggested in this book are for dealing with the 80%. The typical disruption in the classroom that can and should be quickly and easily handled within the classroom. They are not talking about the student who had a severe emotionally traumatic experience who throws desks across the room while screaming profanities when something triggers an emotional outburst. They aren’t talking about the students who have a diagnosed emotional/behavioural disorder that requires specific strategies to help them deescalate the situation. However, I would suggest that some of the Love and Logic strategies would help even these students, especially the need to stay calm, be clear and direct, and allow the student to make a decision based on limited, appropriate options.

Reading Teaching with Love and Logic didn’t actually give me any specific new ideas or strategies to try using in my own classroom. However, I appreciated the ideas in the book and I am grateful to our music teacher for suggesting it to me. Why? Because it was a good reminder of good practices in education. The biggest focus of Love and Logic is just that: making sure your students know that they are loved for the young people they are and using logic when setting outcomes. So often, when we talk about consequences we discuss them in terms of the negative outcome of poor choices. But the positive outcome of good choices us just as much a part of consequences.

A favourite classroom management book of mine is Setting Limits in the Classroom by Robert J. Mackenzie, Ed.D. Just like Jim Fay and David Funk, Dr. Mackenzie emphasises the need of teachers to set realistic limits in the classroom. Know what your own limits are and know what the limits for your students should be. Don’t pick fights over things that are inconsequential. Don’t make rules just for the sake of having rules. Include students in the decision-making process in a way that is age-appropriate. For example, my fourth graders have all been in school long enough to know that some of the basic expectations in a classroom setting include being safe, being responsible, and being respectful. So at the start of the year, I have them tell me what those things should look like, sound like, and feel like in our classroom. By letting them express the expectations, I know what they expect each other to do and what they expect me to expect of them. (And yes, I am of course a part of this conversation!) This practice is supported by the authors of both of these books.

One great take-away from Teaching with Love and Logic was this short vignette about rules:

There was a school that had a lot of rules for their students. In fact, the school handbook had 324 rules that students, teachers, and families were expected to know and follow. One day, a book in a teacher’s class threw a dead fish at a girl in his class. The teacher began to chastise him and he said, “But teacher, there’s no rule against it!” He was right: there was no rule that said, “Students may not throw fish at each other.”

The author suggested having just one simple rule for any classroom: “You can do anything you want in this class, provided it doesn’t cause a problem for anyone else.” I like this rule. It seems vague, but really, it encompasses everything we expect students and teachers to do when they are in a classroom. In fact, it is really just another way of saying the Gold Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

I am going to try it out with my class this coming year. We will still have our classroom expectations and we will still do all of the other things we have done in the past to ensure ours is a safe, positive learning environment, but I want to see what happens if we use this one rule as the foundation for our classroom culture, instead of having it be one of teacher-directed behaviour.


Book Review: Empowering Families

Way back in the early 1980s, social workers recognised the need for family engagement in the treatment process. By the 1990s, this focus on family engagement had expanded to the field of education. Teachers and administrators have worked tirelessly to find ways to cross cultural barriers and bring families into the schools and into the work of educating children. Of course, there have always been parents who have understood their role in teaching their children at home, but the idea of connecting home and schools in a partnership has been relatively recent in the grand scheme of things. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has been active in advocating for increased family engagement. And just a few days ago, Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education for the United States of America, announced an initiative to promote family engagement with the development of a Family and Community Engagement website that builds on last year’s Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships. At 1:30 pm ET today (July 1), Secretary Duncan will be hosting a Twitter chat about parent involvement using #PTChat. Clearly, involving families in student learning is becoming an increasingly important component of public education.

With this in mind, it should not be surprising that I was really excited to get a chance to read and review Empowering Families: Practical Ways to Involve Parents in Boosting Literacy, Grades Pre-K-5 by Judy Bradbury and Susan E. Busch. Written from the experiences of two veteran teachers, this book is the most useful guide in promoting student literacy at home that I have ever come across. It starts with an overview of why schools should be seeking to empower families, followed by a step-by-step guide to leading staff development sessions to help teachers learn how best to work with students’ families to establish a strong home-school connection. At the end of the staff development section, there is a checklist for home engagement activities for school leaders to consider when planning activities.

The bulk of this book, however, is the Parent/Caregiver Literacy Booster series. Many schools, especially those that receive federal Title I grant money, are expected to host a series of family nights each year. As a teacher who has served on family night planning committees for several years, I know firsthand how difficult it can be to coordinate these events and come up with ideas that will engage families in partnering with our school. The Literacy Booster series outlined by Bradbury and Busch have taken care of the lion’s share of this work. With sessions focused on the theme of “Why should I read to my child (and how, when, and where)?, the authors provide detailed plans for leading three 90-minute sessions for getting started, reading with older children, and having everyday literacy discussions (with a special focus on poetry).

For those who feel like they have the fundamentals of family engagement down, there are a series of additional ideas, including boosting executive functioning skills and avoiding the homework hassle, finding gifts that both entertain and support learning, celebrating cultural heritages, and, a personal favourite for me, ways to specifically break traditional gender stereotypes by involving male role models in the learning process.

Empowering Families ends with suggestions for end-of-the-year celebrations with ideas for reducing the “summer slide.” The entire book is full of reproducible handouts and resource packets that can be copied from the book or downloaded for free from the authors’ website. And, of course, there are pages and pages of age-appropriate book recommendations for all students! I am looking forward to implementing the suggestions in this book as my school engagement team plans family nights in the coming year and encourage parents and teachers alike to use this guide as they find ways to work together to improve students’ literacy skills.

[NOTE: This review was written for MiddleWeb.com. When my review goes live on their site, I will update with a link. Other reviews I have written for them can be found here and here.]