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

Posts tagged “Summer

Corneal Abrasion

Back in August, about two weeks before school started, I managed to get a corneal abrasion on my left eye when I smacked my face into the top of my car door and my sunglasses slipped and hit my eye. To make matters worse, it was over 24 hours before I was able to see an eye specialist who immediately identified the problem and had me begin a round of treatments that involved a corneal bandage (essentially a giant non-prescription contact lens), antibiotic eye drops, and moisturizing eye drops.

The next day, I went back in and was given a new bandage and a stronger antibiotic. The following day, a Saturday, I went in again, got yet another bandage for my cornea, and set an appointment for the coming Monday. That Sunday, I realised that the corneal bandage had fallen off over the night (a frighteningly easy thing to do when I have no vision in my left eye and it occasionally opens while I am asleep and darts around while in REM sleep), and I called the eye doctor’s personal number. He, being an outstanding individual, met me at the office about fifteen minutes after I called him and took care of me, even though I had interrupted dinner with his brother!

Eventually my eye healed and I thought all would be well.

And for about seven weeks, it was.

Until this morning.

I woke up to the sensation of sandpaper being scraped across my left eye. Not much fun, I can assure you! I applied some moisturising eye drops and continued preparing for my day. As I got to work, I realised that my eye was red, swollen, and burning: all signs of a corneal abrasion. I talked to my principal and we tried to arrange for a substitute for me, but no one was available.

So, what did I do?

I did what any teacher does: I made do. My students still needed to go to P.E. and Art. They still needed to read, write, and work on vocabulary. They still needed to learn about a social studies inquiry unit we are starting. They still needed to go to lunch. They still needed to review place value and how to represent numbers in base 10. They still needed an afternoon recess. They still needed to work on personal narratives. They still needed to listen to more of the book Wonder.

In short, they still needed to learn.

Which meant I still needed to teach.

Even though my eye was burning, my eyes were watering, and my head was in pain, I still taught. I pushed through the pain, relying almost entirely on adrenaline to keep me from collapsing.

And it worked. I taught, and my students learned.

Of course, as soon as school was over, I called my eye doctor, scheduled an immediate appointment, and he confirmed that my cornea was indeed scratched again. His sense is that my cornea never quite fully healed from August, so I may have to see a corneal specialist who will remove the entire cornea and work medical magic to make me all better.

At least the abrasion was on my blind left eye!

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.

Parting Thoughts for the End of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning with Zearn

I spent several weeks over the summer learning all about Eureka Math and preparing myself as much as possible to implement it in my classroom this year. My goal was to hit the ground running and take my students with me on the wild ride of learning math in a way that is not only aligned to our standards and our curriculum but is also more rigourous and focused that what students have seen before.

One of the supplemental resources I learned about was a free website (as an instructional technology specialist, two of my favourite words!) called Zearn. I played around with Zearn a bit over the summer and set up a student account for myself to see what it would look like. I was excited to be able to partner my students with this, especially since this site was designed to mirror what students are working on in Eureka Math. (I will not be dropping any of my other online learning sites, though; I love being able to give my students wide access to multiple ways to engage with and think about math!)


We did a test drive of Zearn as a class today. We had to use the computer lab due to our student network still being down (something our tech team has been working on for over a week now), but this did not seem to be a hindrance. The students were able to easily access their accounts and quickly figured out how to navigate the site. The best part was that the work they were doing online really supported exactly what we have been doing in class for the past several weeks!

One of the features I was most impressed by was the “Math Chat.” This features a video recording of a teacher explaining the concepts. Students then work through problems and, depending on how they do, are directly to subsequent videos that help further explain concepts. I firmly support the idea that students learn best from hearing similar messages from different voices.

I am really excited about this new resource and hope that students and families will add it to their math learning toolkits. Zearn will be a great way to supplement what I am teaching and giving students an opportunity to learn at their own rate while I am working with small groups.

[NOTE: The creators of Zearn were not contacted previous to the writing of this post, nor was I asked by them to write it. The content of this post is entirely of my own opinion and should not be considered to represent the official views or positions of my building or school district.]

CGTI 2016 – General Sessions

This is the first in a series of blog posts that will be showing up over the next several days related to my recent experiences at the Cebrin Goodman Teen Institute held at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois on July 17-21. (In the past, I have written about the Teen Institute on my personal blog. This year I have decided to share my reflections on this blog instead.) For those who are not aware, CGTI is a week-long leadership camp for middle and high school students that focuses on developing leadership skills, taking healthy risks, learning about the dangers of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs (ATODs), and working in action teams to bring about positive change in the community. Instead of breaking down the posts day by day, I have decided to reflect topically. Today I want to reflect on the general sessions held each day. (more…)

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.


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).


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.


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.

One-To-One Time

I don’t think there is a soul alive who thinks that children don’t benefit from one-to-one time with the adults they know and trust. Whether it is the child who looks forward to a weekly outing with mum or dad, a student who knows her mentor is coming to visit during lunch every Thursday, or the teenager who is working on a project and knows that a leader is going to help with every step of the project, that personal time is so important in establishing relationships of trust and respect.

And yet, even knowing this, teachers are rarely given the opportunity to develop such relationships. During the regular school day, I am in the classroom with my two dozen or more students and, even with small groups, don’t have time to get to know each of them on the personal level that comes from one-on-one time. Yes, I try to find ways, through conferencing, through conversations during recesses or when I am supervising students before school, but really, I don’t get as much time as I would really like.

I really found myself thinking about this last week when my wife and I were babysitting for some friends. Their daughter happens to go to my school and, even though she won’t be in fourth grade any time soon, I consider her one of “my” students because I believe that every student in my building is a student that I have some responsibility for. During the eight hours or so that my wife and I spent with this student, I got to learn a lot more about her than I would have known through random snippets of conversation here and there during the school day. We played several tabletop games, we went for a long walk, she met some children of neighbours and they played in the creek and got dirty and laughed and had fun, we went to the library, and we even ran to the store. All of these activities were things that she wanted to do with us and many were ones she suggested.


This got me wondering: when it comes to some of my more challenging students, how many of them are just trying to get my attention? How many of them crave that personal time with an adult who will listen, who will be there, who will be a constant in a world that is often far too uncertain? How many would open up if I took a few minutes after a long day of work to join them on the basketball court, even though I have no depth perception and, let’s be honest, no game. How many would feel they could trust me if I let them take the lead in an activity? How many of them would be excited to invite me to their homes, to see their Lego collections, their Xbox games, their books, their American Girl dolls? And how many are heartbroken when another soccer game, another basketball game, another volleyball game, another piano recital, another violin recital, another dance production passes and their teacher, who they know would like to be there, isn’t?

I don’t have the answers. I’m not sure if I can manufacture the time needed to build those personal relationships with my students. But I do know this: I am going to take time to pause from my rush from one thing to another to put down my bag and pick up the basketball. Because even if I miss every single shot I take, making a basket isn’t the target.


One of my all-time favourite movies is The Princess Bride, an adaptation by William Goldman of his book of the same title. This is one of those movies that I know by heart but delight in watching again and again. Fans of the film will know that one of the characters, the Sicilian known as Vizzini, frequently describes things he finds shocking as “inconceivable!” Eventually, one of his fellow kidnappers, Inigo Montoya, makes this astute observation:

This, of course, does not stop Vizzini from saying it. These scenes and this quote have been weighing on my mind over the past week as I have been contemplating a couple of buzzwords educators tend to use when describing their students. I will openly admit that I have been guilty of using them, but I am making a commitment to weed them out of my vocabulary, at least, when it comes to using them to describe students.

The two words are “struggling” and “bright.” And the problem is that, as Inigo Montoya says, they don’t mean what we think they mean, at least not to others.

If I were to poll my colleagues, I imagine they were define these terms as such:
bright adjective – of unusual intelligence; able to quickly understand topics
strug·gling’ adjective – having difficulties, especially in learning

However, if I were to poll others, I imagine they would define these terms in much simpler ways:
bright adjective –  smart
strug·gling’ adjective – dumb

And that is the crux of the problem right there.

Students all learn at different rates and in different ways. Some students have identified learning disabilities and require specialized supports to help them, as we are prone to say in the Urbana School District, achieve personal greatness. Other students are quick to understand concepts in class, either because of a natural predilection toward the topic or because they have had parents or older siblings who already taught them or, quite often, a combination of the two. The former group is often described as being the struggling students while the latter are the bright students.

But my students who take longer to grasp a concept are not dumb. They aren’t stupid. They aren’t feeble. And my students who learn a concept quickly are not necessarily smarter than everyone else. They have just learned in different ways and in different rates. We do a great disservice to all of our students when we label them, box them up, and set expectations based on our preconceived notions about them. Here’s a clip from another favourite movie, Stand and Deliver:

Do we believe it? Do we really? Are we holding all of our students to a high level of expectations? Do we have the ganas, the strength or will power, to hold ourselves to a high level of expectations? Are we willing to take the extra time to help that student who is giving his all as he perseveres in understanding how to masterfully use the standard vertical algorithm for multi-digit multiplication, or are we giving him a pass because he is a “struggling” student and we are happy that he can add basic facts when counting on his fingers? Are we we willing to take the extra time to find truly challenging work for that student who already knew the standard algorithm for dividing a multi-digit number by a single digit divisor, or are we giving her a pass because she is one of the “bright” students who will teach herself anyway? Are we telling parents about the wonderful successes of their children and encouraging them to encourage their children to push themselves, to stretch themselves, to challenge themselves, not to the point of a nervous breakdown but enough that their students are constantly seeking to learn more and do more than they did the day before?

Here’s my commitment: my students who get it quickly, they are going to be challenged. My students who need more time, they are going to be challenged. I am not going to use adjectives like “bright” and “struggling” to describe them. If someone asks about my “bright math kids” or my “struggling reader,” I will ask if they mean my students. No adjectives, no labels. Because when it gets down to it, my job is to teach all of my students, all day, every day. Nobody gets a free pass, least of all me.

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


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.


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.


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.]


Way back in the summer of 2013, I learned about a wonderful source for high-interest nonfiction articles that I could share with my class called Wonderopolis. I have been using it quite regularly with my students for over two years now but have somehow never gotten around to writing a blog post about it. (Unless, of course, you include this post in which I made brief mention of it.)

There are many ways to use Wonderopolis in the classroom. I have been using it this year to support our health standards. I have found articles about the skeletal system, the digestive system, the circulatory system, communicable diseases, and pollution, among many others, that my students have read as a class. Then we take the short quizzes at the end and check our knowledge of key vocabulary terms. I put the articles up on my Promethean Board but many students will load them on their Chromebooks so that they can read along with us.

A comprehension tool I recently started using after seeing it mentioned on Twitter is the 3-2-1 protocol (I think they called it 3-2-1 Wonderopolis). The idea is simple: the students share 3 things they learned, 2 things they found interesting, and 1 thing they still wonder about the topic. We have been doing this as a class and have expanded it to other areas, such as student presentations. I will be using this strategy in coming weeks to have students focus their research questions when we start our next inquiry unit after  Winter Break.

I am happy I learned about Wonderopolis and I am even happier that my students love using it! I think we are going to start submitting our own questions to the Wonder Bank. I am also going to have them use the 3-2-1 strategy to pick a topic and share what they learned. I know many teachers do a Wonder Wednesday. Maybe we will start joining in the fun.

Illinois Animal Expo!

I have done an inquiry unit for science for four years now. The first year I did it, the students all picked their own animal and worked in small groups to learn about the habitats, life cycle, food web, appearance, and adaptations of animals, which tied to our fourth grade Illinois learning standards for science. The second year was after I participated in the Lake Guardian workshop on Lake Ontario and I chose to focus on fish from the Great Lakes region because I had made a commitment with the workshop to integrate Great Lakes literacy into my curriculum. As Illinois has shifted to the Next Generation Science Standards, I have wrapped the inquiry unit around the standard that students would be able to “construct an argument that plants and animals have internal and external structures that function to support survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction.” The other fourth grade teacher did an expo in her room last year on animals from Illinois, so we decided to merge our inquiry units and do a shared Illinois Animal Expo this year. (more…)

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 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.]

Book Review: The Slow Regard of Silent Things

Several years ago I encountered a book by Patrick Rothfuss that was highly recommended by a webcomic artist I had been following online. I don’t remember all of the details of Greg Dean’s reasons for suggesting the books, but I decided to give them a shot. All I knew from the start was that the stories were set in a fantasy world involving magic, mystery, and murder. The first book was the first in a series, the Kingkiller Chronicle, entitled The Name of the Wind. I loved it and immediately tracked down the second book, The Wise Man’s Fear. The third book in the series, The Doors of Stone, has not yet been completed or published. (This has caused a great deal of angst among some of Pat’s more ardent fans, many of whom seem incapable of waiting patiently for good things to come to pass.)

While working on this series, Mr. Rothfuss has also taken on some other literary projects, including writing two picture books that are not for children. And he was invited to contribute to an anthology of rogue tales. This last project was the reason why Volume 2.5 of the Kingkiller Chronicle was written.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things is not your “typical” book. There is a beginning, middle, and end, there is a character, a setting, and a plot, and there is conflict. But there is only one character (unless you consider the unnamed “him” who never appears in the story), and the conflict is between the only character and herself and her environment. Even the author recognised that this was not the kind of book that most people would want to read. In both his foreword and his endnote, he explains how he didn’t actually plan on publishing it. This was a story that he started to write with one end in mind, it turned into something completely different, and so he thought he would set it aside as a “trunk manuscript.”

What is a trunk manuscript? It is a story that you write and discard because it isn’t worth the time to publish, it isn’t going to have a wide enough audience, it isn’t finished but you don’t know what to do with it, or any number of other reasons. (I like this blog post from YA author Jennifer R. Hubbard as an explanation of trunk manuscripts and what to do with them.) This is a concept that I will be sharing with my students next year when we do our writers workshops.

A couple of important notes about this book: If you haven’t read the first two installments of the Kingkiller Chronicle, you probably won’t like this story, even though it isn’t a part of that narrative at all. If you are looking for an action-packed adventure story, you definitely won’t like this. As Pat himself points out, the biggest action scene in the book is the main character making soap. If you are looking for witty dialogue, or any dialogue at all, you’ll be disappointed. There is not a single line of dialogue in the whole story.

On the other hand, if you have read The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear and you want to know more about this enigmatic character Auri, this is a great book to read. It is all about her and what she does with her time. It is odd, it is quirky, it is “none of the things a book is supposed to be” and yet I loved it anyway. I felt a connection to the character and her constant desire to set everything aright. Auri is a little broken, not quite all there, and yet she manages to find a niche in her world that lets her survive and even thrive. There is something beautiful in that idea. So even though a lot of people out there in the Internet are hating on this book and hating on this author, I am not one of them. I really enjoyed this book and I am really glad that Patrick Rothfuss took The Slow Regard of Silent Things out of the trunk and put it into the hands of his publisher.

Another Year Gone

And we are done.

I have to say, this has been a draining year, physically, mentally, and emotionally. There have been a lot of challenges. I’d like to say we overcame all of them, but I don’t know if that is quite true. We overcame a lot of them, though. From the first day to the the end, we have grown.

Sure, our progress has been “two steps forward, one step back” but it has still been progress. My students and I learned together. We explored together. We experimented with changes to classroom routines, classroom procedures, and classroom policies. We used technology in ways we had never used it before. We learned what worked and we learned what didn’t. We set lofty goals and we made progress toward them.

Was it a home run? No, not really. Was it the best year I’ve ever had? No. Was it the worst? Well, no, it wasn’t that, either. It had its high points and its low points and its mid points and through it all, we persevered.

Maybe that is the best thing to have come out of this year. I and my 21 students learned that we could keep on plugging away, keep on moving, and keep on learning, no matter how long and hard the road.

And speaking of goals, the students at Wiley this year were challenged to do 1,000,000 math problems in the second semester. Just like two years ago, I offered to sacrifice my curly locks of hair if they did it.

Well, we didn’t quite reach the goal. In fact, we were just over the half-way mark. 502,413, to be specific.

So, what did we do yesterday afternoon?

We rewarded the students for reaching half of their goal.

Photo on 5-28-15 at 4.14 PM

The rest of the hair is going away this afternoon.

Have a wonderful, safe, fun summer! I’ll be posting from time to time, so feel free to check back, or just follow me on Twitter to catch when I post.


Collaborative Discussions

Today is Tuesday. My district has asked that I submit student progress reports by 11:59 pm tonight. My students are still expected to be at school tomorrow and on Thursday, both full days. At this point of the year, there are some teachers who would surely be ready to throw in the towel and fill the day with fun, non-essential activities; things that I would tend to refer to as “fluff” or, to use a word that sits in my categories/tags list and is rarely used, floccinaucinihilipilification.

I am not one of those teachers.

I realise that any formative or summative assessments I do at this point will not count toward students’ final progress reports, but that doesn’t mean I am not going to be assessing. Assessing is something that I do all day, every day. If I don’t know what my students know, if I don’t know what they are capable of doing, if I don’t know what they have learned, if I don’t know how well I have taught then, quite frankly, I have failed to do my job. Knowing these things is what assessment is all about. Assessment isn’t just giving a paper-and-pencil test or a computer-based test. Assessment is “the evaluation or estimation of the nature, quality, or ability of someone or something.” And that happens in a lot of ways every day.

So even though today was the last Tuesday of my students’ fourth grade career, even though it was the last Tuesday of this academic year, and even though we are now 13 hours and 30 minutes of school time (actually just 12 hours of instructional time) away from the end of the year, I am still teaching and I am still assessing.

Today I decided to teach my students about participating in “grand conversations.” A grand conversation is a collaborative discussion among all the members of the classroom in which students ask each other questions, respond to each other’s questions, and listen closely to one another so that they can respond to what others have said. Some of the phrases I want my students to be used to using are among the following:

  • I think . . . because . . .
  • I (also) agree with . . . because . . .
  • I (also) disagree with . . . because . . .
  • . . . ‘s comment reminds me of  . . .
  • . . . , can you explain what you meant when you said . . . ?

These are simple statements, but they are so helpful in guiding these conversations. To practice participating in a grand conversation, I read Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen to the class, displaying it on my Promethean ActivPanel as I did so. This allowed the students to see the text and the pictures and refer to them as we discussed the question of whether or not lions should be permitted to be in the library.

One student started the conversation by sharing her opinion. Another student began to say that he agreed with her, but instead of explaining why, he went off on a tangent that indicated that he was more interested in sharing his own thinking than in responding to her initial comment. I had to stop him and explain how the sentence starters are used. Then I called on another student. (Yes, we are still early enough in the process that I still need to facilitate the conversation.) I later came back to the second student who stated that the first student’s comment made him think about something else.

The entire conversation went fairly well, with many students participating. We ran out of time, however, so not all had a chance to give input. What shocked me, however, was how many students were upset that they didn’t get to share, including students who normally refrain from participating!

We will do a couple more grand conversations tomorrow and Thursday before students head home for the summer. It is my hope that many will remember doing this so when they start fifth grade they will be able to access the memory and jump into the process.

Like I said, we are still working and still learning. We have have just two days of school left, but they are going to be busy ones, with lots of learning and applying!

(Oh, and in case you were wondering, my class reached a consensus on the question and decided that tame lions should be allowed in libraries as long as they don’t hurt anybody or ruin the books or furniture.)

Book Review: Chains

While browsing my favourite section of Barnes & Noble last year (the only bookstore in our area), I kept finding myself drawn to a collection of books written by Laurie Halse Anderson. They were all listed as historical fiction, and one of them, Fever 1793, was one I had seen regularly in the classroom collection section of my school library. But the books that kept catching my eye were two sitting side by side: Chains and Forge.

I think the thing that caught my attention most was actually the cover of Forge. Even though I knew nothing about any of these books, I could tell that this particular book took place during the Revolutionary War. The pose of the silhouetted figure was a familiar image from the terrible winter at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78.

Even though these books caught my attention, it was actually several months before I finally caved to the internal pressure and purchased all three books.  I asked teacher friends online about the books and received mixed reviews, so I set them aside as possible reading over the summer. (As a matter of fact, I purchased them on 12 October 2013 but didn’t read until June of the following year!) As soon as I finished reading the first book I picked up the second, trying to decide which would be better suited as a read aloud for my class. Once I finished Forge, eight days after I finished Chains, I knew I was going to read the first book in this series to my class this year. I also knew I was going to plan it to coincide with our unit on the Revolutionary War.

There were several reasons I chose to use Chains. First, it is the first book in the series, so that just made sense. Second, it presents the story from the point of view of a slave girl, which is considerably different from the typical period story about soldiers, politicians, and/or members of the Sons of Liberty or people who associated with them (such as Johnny Tremain.) A third reason I selected this story is because it took place in New York instead of Massachusetts. Finally, I admit to choosing it because it had received several awards, my wife had strongly endorsed the author, and it was a modern selection.

For those who have read this far and are really wanting to just know what the story is about, here is the summary from Ms. Anderson’s website:

If an entire nation could seek its freedom, why not a girl?

As the Revolutionary War begins, thirteen-year-old Isabel wages her own fight… for freedom.  Promised freedom upon the death of their owner, she and her sister, Ruth, in a cruel twist of fate, become the property of a malicious New York City couple, the Locktons, who have no sympathy for the American Revolution and even less for Ruth and Isabel.  When Isabel meets Curzon, a slave with ties to the Patriots, he encourages her to spy on her owners, who know details of British plans for invasion.  She is reluctant at first, but when the unthinkable happens to Ruth, Isabel realizes her loyalty is available to the bidder who can provide her with freedom.

Laurie Halse Anderson wrote a beautiful, captivating, engaging story of a girl whose greatest wish is to gain freedom. In the process, she meets allies and friends, enemies and the indifferent, learns of broken promises and false hopes, but also maintains an intense desire to be her own self.

As I finished reading the book to my class today, my principal happened to walk in for a moment. She got to see how my students responded to a description of Isabel rowing a boat long into the night, the oars creating blisters on her hands, the blisters popping, then forming and popping again. And yet Isabel is strong. Years of hauling firewood and toting water across town, coupled with her intense desire to be free, gave her strength to push on.

Now that we have finished this story, I find myself wishing I could let my class write letters to Ms. Anderson to share their thoughts and ask her their questions. However, I know how busy she is, especially with writing Ashes, which is the last book in the series. So I guess I’ll need to content myself with sharing this blog post with her and hoping she knows how much fourth graders loved her book!


This past summer, I got to participate in the Moveable Feast technology conference in Bloomington. For one week I traveled back and forth and networked with amazing educators who are passionate about infusing technology in the classroom in a way that goes far beyond substitution and augmentation and taking it to modification and redefinition. I learned about so many different resources and have been trying them out this year, exploring options and receiving input from my students about which resources are a good fit and which are not.

One of the tools I discovered was Kahoot! This is a wonderful resource for creating online quizzes, surveys, and discussions that allow anyone with access to a web-enabled device to participate. As soon as I knew I was going to get Chromebooks in my classroom, I knew I would be using Kahoot! in my room. It has taken me this long to finally do it, because I wanted a large display screen in the room.

The first thing I did with my class using Kahoot! was to get input from them on the groups they would like to be in when we go to the Krannert Art Museum next week. All I had to do was given the the URL ( and the PIN (displayed on the Promethean board). Students logged in, entered a nickname (my only requirement was that it include their first name), and used their Chromebooks to indicate preferences. I was able to download the results of the survey to use when organising groups.

Then I had them take a quiz to review the American Revolutionary War. Students were able to get instant feedback on their responses,  see what they got right, what they got wrong, and also see how many of their classmates were in the same place as them. At the end, I asked them to evaluate whether or not they liked the quiz, whether or not they felt I should use it again, whether or not they felt it helped them learn, and how they felt at the end.

Just for fun, I let them do a brand logo quiz I found over the summer while exploring Kahoot! further. There are forty questions total, but we only did ten of them. The quiz shows a part of a company logo and asks them to select from four choices which one is correct. They really enjoyed it and wanted to keep going, but I told them we would only do a few. I have it set up to randomise the questions, though, so we can do it again and have completely different logos! I will build up a library of quizzes for them to use, some related to content we are studying and some that are going to be just for fun brain breaks.

I’m glad I discovered Kahoot! and I am even gladder that my students enjoyed it! I am planning on using it nearly every day for quick reviews, exit slips, breaks, and checks for understanding. It is simple to use, engaging for learners, and free! That’s a triple-crown win for me!