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

Posts tagged “Reading

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.


Tweaking the Approach to Guided Reading

Right before Winter Break, my fourth grade partner and I spent a day looking at student literacy data and talking about ways we could better meet the needs of our four dozen or so students. One thing we realised was that we could more effectively and efficiently serve them by changing the way we grouped students for guided reading. Instead of each forming groups from our own classes, we put all of the data for all of our students together and made groups based on that new information. What happened was that about half of my students would be in groups with her and about half of her students would be in groups with me.

We looked at our schedules, bumped some things around, and found a way to both have our main literacy block at the same time. We started this shortly after the second semester resumed and have been meeting at least twice a week to discuss progress, strengths, weaknesses, and any changes we need to make.

Initially, I was meeting with all five of my new groups every day. Then I tried meeting with four groups each day by alternating days with two of the groups. Last week, as we looked at data further, I decided to tweak the schedule a little bit more so that I only meet with three groups on any given day. This has had the benefit of letting me a) give more time to students when I meet with them in their small groups and b) give them more time to work on independent tasks. With this newly tweaked schedule, my students now go to three of four possible twenty-minute stations: Teacher Time (only three of my five groups each day), Read to Self (every group), Writing (every group), and Front Row (two of the three groups, namely, the two not meeting with me for Teacher Time).

Yes, all of my groups are named after somewhat random and/or obscure trees.

At the same time, we decided to use an article series on the newly released Front Row Social Studies page as the foundation of our guided reading texts. Each article is published at multiple grade levels so we can differentiate as needed for our diverse groups of learners. For each article, students read it online, complete a brief comprehension quiz, and have a written response. I would like to say that the students are blowing me away with both their excellent understanding of the texts and with their detailed analyses of what they have read, but that would not be true.

What I am learning, instead, is that many of them are struggling with connecting what they have read and what they know with the questions being given to them. I am also learning that they are not writing very detailed responses. In fact, several students are only writing one or two sentences, while others have copied the entire article and pasted it into their response.

Fortunately, I am able to take this information and use it in my instruction! My student teacher is starting to take over more and more of the teaching responsibilities in the classroom, which means that I can work with more students on specific, targeted skills. I am hopeful that this will result in improved output from students, not because of a test or any arbitrary, artificial metric, but because being able to communicate clearly and effectively with others is an important life skill that I want all of my students to develop!


Switching It Up

My class schedule has been fairly consistent through the year. Students knew what we were going to do throughout the day each day because I made a point to make sure we kept it that way. But as we approached the end of the semester, I knew it was time to switch it up a bit.

At the same time, my fourth grade partner and I wanted to try a new approach to guided reading / reading workshop. We put all of our students’ literacy data into a spreadsheet, organised them by different criteria and created new groups that combined students from both classrooms. We ended up wth nine groups. She takes four of them and I take the remaining five. We decided to place our literacy block in the morning after our specials (fine arts, library, and/or physical education), moving mathematics to the afternoon.

Today was the second day with this new schedule. Not only did I switch my mathing and reading workshops, I also switched students. The transition has been remarkably smooth so far! The students have readily accepted this new format and are excited to be with some of their friends from the other classroom for part of the day each day. We will be periodically reviewing the data we are collecting to see what changes should be made to groups and changing groups to allow us both to work with all of the students throughout the semester.

Having mathing workshop in the afternoon has also been an interesting change. I feel like we are not quite as pressed for time, even though we are using the same amount of time as we have before. The students seem to appreciate having a different pacing for the day. We will still be doing our inquiry workshop in the morning, too, of course, but mathing in the afternoon allows more flexibility and it means the entire afternoon is not just literacy.

All in all, I am liking how we have switched things up. Of course, this was just day two, but I am nothing if not eternally optimistic about the future!