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

Posts tagged “Teachers’ Secrets

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 will likely be on their website in the next two or three weeks. In the meantime, you can read it now.]

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. 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.

Ready to Learn with a Clip Chart

Way back when in my first year of teaching at Wiley, my fourth grade partner at the time was talking with me about classroom management strategies and we were pondering ways we could tackle some challenges of students who needed visual reminders of expectations but also wanted to avoid the pitfalls of assertive discipline. (As a PBIS school, we strive to approach discipline from the assumption that students will rise to the positive expectations they are presented with if they are taught and given the opportunity to do them.)

One of the ideas she discovered was the Clip Chart. We both researched it, read about it, and felt it would be a good tool for our class. However, our principal at the time was worried that it would too easily turn into an assertive approach and thus counseled us to try something different. Giving deference to our principal’s guidance, we did try something different and it worked.

Jump ahead five years. My new teaching partner and I were experience some challenges that were very similar to what I had my first year and she brought up the ideas of the Clip Chart. She put it into place in her classroom and, after just one week, reported a huge change in student behaviour. The chart doesn’t force them to do anything; all it does is lets them visually see what they are doing and how they are impacting others.

Every student starts the day Ready to Learn. Ideally, they rise to the expectations given and go from Good Day to Great Job to Outstanding. Sometimes, however, they slip up and may need to Think About It, receive a Teacher’s Choice consequence, a Parent Contact, or even an Office Referral. Throughout the day, clips move from one space to another. If a student is at Outstanding and makes a mistake, they move down to Great Job. There is no skipping stages up or down.

To help boost this strategy in my room, our latest classroom incentive is to earn 300 “Outstandings.” We count how many students are at Outstanding at the end of each day and fill in our chart. When we hit 300, we will have a student-selected classroom celebration. Some days are great, with over 20 students at Outstanding. Other days are rougher, with maybe only 2 or 3. But each day is an opportunity for students to start at Ready to Learn.

I am grateful that the Clip Chart is working in my classroom. I hope my students will continue to respond positively to it and use the reminders to prompt themselves to move upward and set goals for growth each day!

Back in the Saddle

Many years ago, my wife and I found ourselves without a car. During that time, I rode my bike everywhere I could as often as I could. After nearly passing out from heat exhaustion on a day when the heat index was over 90° F (32° C), I decided that was my upper limit for biking. As winter came, I also discovered that biking when the wind chill was below 20° F (-6° C) was equally a bad idea! On those days, I was fortunate to have coworkers who were kind enough to give me a ride to work. For the most part, though, as long as it wasn’t too hot, too cold, or raining, I was on my bike.

Even after we got a new (to us) car, I continued to bike as often as possible. Cycling was a great form of exercise, it saved a lot of money on automobile costs, it helped energise me in the morning, and it was fun. My students also recognised me when they saw me biking, so they knew that I was setting a good example for the physical activity that we are frequently telling students they all ought to be getting! Then I started graduate school. I still rode my bike a few times, but I quickly realised that biking home in the dark was not particularly safe, even with reflective gear and lights. So I started driving my car again.

I had wanted to get back into the (bicycle) saddle again this year, but it seemed like every day it was too hot, too cold, too wet, or too foggy, and so I was driving my car all the time. In fact, I think I rode my bike once all of the first semester and, until today, not once since then.

But I got back into the saddle again today. It wasn’t too cold, it wasn’t raining or foggy, and I knew I needed to stop making excuses. I woke up earlier than usual, got myself ready, and hopped on my bike, expecting to get to work in about 30 minutes, which is about what I used to average.

I forgot to take into account two important things: one, it has been months since I last rode my bike and two, it was a windy morning. It took me about 40 minutes to get to work, which may not seem like much, but it did mean that I didn’t give myself nearly as much time to get settled in at the start of the day.

All that being said, I am glad I am back on my bike. Graduate school was great for my mind but not so kind to my waistline. I am hoping that cycling 9-10 miles every day will bring back all of those positive outcomes that I saw back when I was biking more regularly. In the meantime, I think I ought to get up about 15 minutes earlier to give myself just a little bit more time in the morning!

An Abundance of Teachers

There is an author of young adult books, John Green, who has written several stories that have gained considerable attention in the literary world, such as The Fault in Our StarsLooking for AlaskaPaper Towns, and An Abundance of Katherines. Of these, I have only read the first, which, while a fantastic story, is not particularly well-suited to a grade school classroom. I have wanted to read Mr. Green’s other books and have them on my ever-present and ever-growing To Be Read list. Even without reading them, though, I have long been captivated by his titles.

In my classroom, my students are currently experiencing an abundance of teachers. In addition to Mr. G, who has been with us since January, we have had a team of student observers from the University of Illinois who have come once a week to observe in one of three classrooms. In order to better manage the space, we have had two in my room, two in the other fourth grade room, and one with our reading interventionist. Starting yesterday, they began a four-week placement during which they come to Wiley all day every day. The five rotate so that each of them has the opportunity to be in all of the classrooms with different combinations.

When taking into account myself, my full-time aide, tutors who come either in the morning or in the afternoon, and our special education teacher who pushes in a couple of times a day, there are times when we have at least six teachers in the room at any one time. This works out to about one teacher for every four students.

Like I said, an abundance of teachers.

Adjusting to this new arrangement has been interesting. for both the students and the teachers. However, it has also been fantastic to allow much more targeted instruction as we group and regroup throughout the day. The students are able to get support much more quickly than in the past, due to the fact that there are so adults ready to assist them in their work, answering questions, giving feedback, providing specific praise, redirecting and refocusing, and generally helping wherever and whenever needed.

It is my expectation that, with such an abundance of teachers, my students will all be able to make considerable gains as we push forward in the last quarter of the year. And, of course, we will be sad when all of our student teachers have to leave us to go on to different placements or different jobs.

But, for now, we are going to enjoy our abundance of teachers!


Recess is a regular, time-honoured tradition in schools, although I have read disturbing reports of schools and districts eliminating recesses across the nation. As a child, recess was a break from classroom activities, an opportunity to play with friends, to swing, to slide, to run, to jump. My friends and I came up with elaborate stories we acted out while playing, starting with Star Trek stories in which we were the captains on the ships and later our own science fiction story about the USS Aerostar traveling through time in the 4th dimension. (Or was it the 7th? I’m not quite sure…) In many ways, this was our own version of live-action role-playing, although without the costumes. We connected our play to other ventures, including artwork and writing.

As a teacher, I have a somewhat different view of recess. It is still a break from classroom activities. It is still an opportunity for students to engage in play. But it is also an opportunity for them to develop pro-social skills of taking turns. Additionally, recess is a time for physical activity, to move and expend a bunch of energy.

I realised recently that my students were not doing as much of this last part as I would prefer and, as a result, many were getting “squirrelly” or “antsy” toward the end of the day. (They have a 20-minute lunch recess and a 15-minute afternoon recess each day. Our schedule doesn’t allow for a morning recess, too.) I remembered something I did all last year in the mornings (when it was nice out): having students walk or run laps around the front lawn of the school. I decided to put this into place during our afternoon recesses. Before students have free choice for play, they have to do one, two, or three laps.

The early results have been fantastic! The students are getting my physical activity, they are doing sustained, moderate-to-vigorous aerobic exercise, and they are able to focus more during mathing workshop. (Keep in mind, we also do a lot of moving around in the classroom, but it isn’t the same as sustained aerobic exercise!) With the increased focus at the end of the day, we have been able to conclude our core instructional activities for the day, leaving time for my students to once again have free choice at the very end of of the day.

What do you do for recesses?

A Good Day for a Bad Hair Cut

Many friends, family, and regular readers of this blog (all fifteen or so of you) know that, about four and a half years ago, I challenged the Wiley students and community to read 1,000,000 minutes in a single school year. It was an ambitious goal but, with everyone working together, we not only achieved our goal, we exceeded it by 247,277 minutes! The incentive for this goal? I agreed to let my hair grow all year long and then let one of our teachers shave off all of my hair during a whole-school assembly. (more…)

Workshop Presentations – Part II

[NOTE: This is the second of two blog posts about workshop presentations I recently gave.]

Ever since I started working at Wiley Elementary School and participated in the New Teacher Mentoring and Induction program, I have received regular email updates from the Illinois New Teacher Collaborative. I attended the annual conference my first year at Wiley, then I attended a Beginning Teacher Conference the summer after that year. The following summer I attended the Beginning Teacher Conference again. I have found these conferences to be incredibly useful and believe I am a better teacher for having participated in them.


Earlier this year, I received an email seeking requests for workshop proposals for the the 11th Annual Induction and Mentoring Conference to be held in Champaign. One of the event organisers happens to also be one of the organisers for EdCamp CU, the “unconference” that I have helped organise for the past year. She asked me if I would be willing to put in a proposal for the conference based on two of the critical areas they were going to focus on: Teachers as Learners and Teachers as Influencers. I wrote a proposal for each and submitted them.

To my surprise, both proposals were accepted, and so it was that today I spent the day at the iHotel and Conference Center in Champaign, networking with teachers, administrators, and professional development coordinators. In addition to presenting two workshops, I got to attend the EdChats (mini general session presentations), and got to help two early career teachers from a nearby district make plans for how they can create an induction and mentoring program in their schools.

The first session I presented was on the cross-grade collaboration process I have done with Miss C for the past six years. It started as Reading Buddies but has morphed into Learning Buddies. I only had four participants, but they seemed excited about the ways that could increase collaboration in their schools and find teachers to partner with to create vertical learning opportunities for their students.

The second session I gave also only had four participants. This one was on using social media to influence the school environment for good. I shared my belief that it is more important for teachers to have a positive social media presence than to have no presence at all. (Many teachers, especially early career teachers, are told to hide their identities online and avoid any networking with students, parents, or colleagues. I take a different approach, although, in general, I avoid adding parents to my personal Facebook network until after their students have left my classroom for good.) I showed how I use Twitter to connect with educators and researchers and how I use hashtags to track important topics. The teachers present shared how they use social media and gave others resources for how to get started.

The INTC Conference was a long, busy day, but it was so worth it! I was able to connect with great teachers, share ways that my school district has helped me become a teacher leader, and even got to connect with a friend from the Cebrin Goodman Teen Institute who is now a teacher in the nearby district mentioned above.

Tomorrow I return to the classroom after a long absence. I hope I will be able to use what I learned on Friday and today to make a difference in my students’ lives.