Slice of Life Tuesday: #NCTE15 Lives On


Slice of Life Small LogoI’m listening to my Voxer app on the phone, and I hear my friends joyously celebrating their NCTE conference experiences. I finally met my Good-to-Great friends from Twitter’s #g2great chats of the last 6 months! A fabulous light turned on in my brain, and in my heart — meeting my virtual-to-real-life pals! Dr. Mary Howard, Amy Brennan, Jeanne-Marie Mazzaferro, Jenn Hayhurst, and Jill DeRosa presented “Making Powerful Connections Across the Twitterverse: Using Social Media to Become Agents of Change” on Friday morning. I had traveled 10 hours to hear this session, and support the people who lit my fire — the biggest professional change in my life to date.  They were fabulous! G2GreatPresentersNCTE15

The ladies began the session by introducing themselves and their roles as leaders in their school systems.  As tech-savvy people, they explained how they began using Twitter and Voxer, as well as other media, to work together across the country in the best interests of the students.  This “grassroots support system,” described in the NCTE program, is a never-ending journey of inspiration and motivation for the teachers who use it.  Kylene Beers spoke about Twitter over two years ago as wonderful (and free!) PD for teachers.  I joined Twitter then, and found that she was right. Last fall, I learned about Voxer from my daughter. Many teachers I follow on Twitter were using Voxer for their PLNs and team meetings. Later, the Good-to-Great team allowed me to join them in the learning and sharing of best literacy practices. My life has transformed! Truly, the reason I feel like I’m a “connected” educator now is that these “agents of change” changed me!

During the question-and-answer part of the session, I looked to my left and saw a young teacher using Twitter on his phone. He looked a little confused, so I went over to sit by him. He asked me, “How does this work, exactly? What do I do?” I was happy to show him how easy it was to find a #g2great chat (Thursday nights at 8:30 pm) and we traded Twitter handles. I told him of the last series of topics discussed during the chats, and his face started to light up (I KNEW that feeling!). I got such a warm-fuzzy feeling that I was the fan-turned-ambassador of the #g2great community.

Now I’m rereading the NCTE book, and I am so excited to be a part of the “ideas that flourish into tangible results.”

Join the chat! #g2great on Thursday evenings at 8:30 pm EST. I look forward to meeting you there!

PS: Thank you to Dr. Mary Howard, Amy Brennan, Jenn Hayhurst, Jill DeRosa, Jeanne-Marie Mazzaferro, Dani Burtsfield, Justin Dolcimascolo, Kari Yates, Erica Pecorale, Lisa Eickholdt, Kathryn Hoffmann-Thompson, Joan Moser, Julieanne Harmatz, and all the other “Good-to-Greaters,” for your friendship and support. I’m so glad we are REAL friends now!








Slice of Life Tuesday: If You Judge Me By My Reading Level…


Slice of Life Small LogoIf you judge me by my reading level, you will find that you don’t know me very well.

If my performance task is “build a premium bunk loft with attached desk” and you give me the pictorial instructions from the box of wood pieces, I will fail.

If my performance task is “decide which book to read next in your TBR pile of 50 books,” I could do it, but I would complete a few prerequisite tasks: organizing, skimming and scanning, and mock voting.

If my performance task is “bake 150 chocolate chip cookies for the school fundraiser” and you don’t offer me the ingredients, and the written steps in the order they should be included in the recipe, I will fail, and you will not receive, or sell, my cookies.

If my performance task is to “read at least 3 texts written by a chosen author, then present a compare/contrast presentation of the works according to found patterns, characterization, and plot moves,” with no other instructions, I will still receive the highest marks on your reading presentation rubric.

I need to teach my students so they learn. They all have strengths and weaknesses, just like me.  Some are wonderful artists. Some can figure math problems in their heads. Some can read well. Some can build intricate creations. If I judge a student by their assessed reading level, I put them in a box. That is the greatest disservice I could provide. We MUST think outside the box. Please do not judge a student by their quarterly (or semester!) reading level.


Curriculum Tip Tuesday: Don’t Stop Believing

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Dear Parents,

Thank you for the opportunity to share in your family’s life by being your child’s teacher. I appreciate it! Not only do you trust that I know what I am doing, you support me by speaking with me (and your child) on the phone, by attending choir and band concerts, and by stopping by to check in on us when you don’t feel comfortable with what your child says is going on in the classroom.

Here’s my tip of the day: Don’t stop believing! Education is truly an opportunity, and we all need to take full advantage each day.

People around the world are fighting for what we already have. People are speaking out, acting out — even facing violence — for the right to an education. There is nothing more important.

“Dream a little dream.” Dream that my classroom is a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Dream that reading and math (and all the other subjects, of course!) are enjoyable, and yet necessary, at the same time. Dream that your child, one day, will be highly educated and able to rule the world. I will dream with you.

Your education advocate,

Mrs. S

Curriculum Tip Tuesday: It’s Time to Have Fun

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Schools everywhere are winding down the school year in May. It’s spring, and better weather is here. The sun is shining, jackets are thrown on the playground black top, and students and teachers are searching for ways to fill the long school days. The standardized testing windows concluded, but there is still more time to learn. What can schools do to keep up the school spirit in May and June?

Have fun!

This is the perfect time to do class projects you wanted to do all year, but were too busy. Students would love to read the books they want to read, practicing the skills and strategies they have learned over the course of the school year. Wouldn’t it be great to research something you have always wanted to know, but never had time to ask and find out? Students can do “I-Search” projects, smaller versions of the research paper, based on what they really wonder and question. Art projects can be more intricate — there’s more time for creating during the spring.  Another idea is to write letters of introduction to the kids in the lower grade levels. “Advice columns” can help students publish their writing authentically, and the younger students can practice fluent reading (of the columns) while finding out what they need to know about “survival” in the next grade. Math and science teachers can create games of skill and strategy and hold competitions, such as “Minute to Win It-“type games. There are so many ways to learn and grow in the spring!

Students should feel a sense of accomplishment, excitement, and wonder during the last few days of the school year.  Low-stress, engaging, and FUN activities can leave a student looking forward to summer, and maybe even hoping for school to start again soon!



Curriculum Tip Tuesday! Calling All Parents, Students, Teachers …

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If you are a parent, a student, or a teacher, I would like to introduce you to a new site for reading and writing that I find worthwhile. Now, mind you, this site is owned by a friend of mine, Dr. T.P. Jagger, a former colleague and current children’s book author and professor, so I have a biased opinion. But…

Check this out!

I especially enjoy the original readers’ theater scripts and the “writing tips” video (more to come!) that Dr. Jagger created to help students read and write more fluently and creatively. Plus, his dynamic style is engaging and fun!

Parents: This site is easy to use at home! Just type the address, navigate, and enjoy helping your child to learn more; have a great time reading and writing.

Students: Check in with “Dr. J” personally, and he can help you to become a better reader and writer. He’s interesting to watch, too! Funny guy!

Teachers: I have used this site already in my classroom, as a center! While you are conferring, a few students can watch a video, practice a readers’ theater script together, or navigate the site for interesting (cool!) information. This may be a helpful “extra” lesson plan for you.

Thank you for your interest in education, and your continued support of all of our educational websites! Happy Teacher Appreciation Day! Have a great week.

Testing: Taking Its Toll

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I read more than enough news this week about standardized testing in the country and how the focus on these annual assessments is draining our faith in the American education system. Tonight I would like to share my thoughts on standardized testing, as I experience it from three perspectives: 1) teacher in a public school, 2) mom, and 3) former student who took these tests when I was young. Please be advised, these are my opinions and experiences, and they are not meant to persuade, coax, or otherwise insist that any person agrees with me. I’m only sharing because this is my blog, and this issue means a great deal to me at this time.

1) I am a public school teacher. I love teaching! I love my students, and I work to encourage them to be intelligent, thoughtful, active citizens of our country. In the last few years, I have noticed that the emphasis on testing/assessing started to hinder their performance in school, especially the creative thinking that I once saw. (Every 3 weeks we assess progress, according to the state standards; each quarter we monitor progress and predict; and we participate in state standardized testing in the spring.) Students, in general, are very concerned about their test scores. They want to do well. They know how to act. But sometimes, I look at their faces, and I think, “Oh, you poor things!” I just wanted you to read a book and talk with me about it, and we could recommend our “next-on-the-list” books for each other. We could write whatever we want, and revise and edit for publishing, like real writers do! Students have actually asked me, “Is this for a grade?” or “Is this going to be on the test?” I tell them the truth. “Everything we do is meant to help you to learn. You can pass the test if you are an active learner.”

Parents are under pressure now to help their kids pass the standardized tests, so the school can pass, so the state can pass. Parents want what is best for their children, so they do whatever it takes. The state governments have set up several ways for parents to take control of their students’ learning, including participating in school choice programs, accepting vouchers that lead away from public schools, and opting out of testing altogether. One problem is the parents are being forced to make decisions about education with no expertise in the actual ways that education works. Parents are acting on what they hear from the media. “The kids are not performing as they should, and you should do something about it.”  What should they do? Listen to those who are not educators? Apparently. From my experience, I see more test anxiety in students in the past 5 years, and less overall authentic student achievement, than I did in the first 5 years of my teaching career. I believe the media does have something to do with it.

Another problem with standardized tests is that they are given at an inopportune time during the school year. This year, our state has a round of testing before, and a round after, spring break. I wonder how that makes sense? Schools spend most of the school year focusing on scores students received last year, and instructing with a goal of increasing scores for this year. Of course, I DO want my students to improve and grow, but I want them to learn, improve, and grow all year, not just for spring testing season.

One last problem I have noticed is that state governments have also encouraged school districts to evaluate teachers — reward and punish them —  based on their students’ test scores on the standardized tests. This has caused much havoc, as children are not robots, and they will not perform each test day as the government would choose. It is insane that a teacher may or may not receive a raise, or may or may not be judged as a “satisfactory” teacher based on a few hours of testing in the spring of the school year. Now I DO agree that we teachers need to be held accountable! We should be instructing, and our students should be learning, based on the standards, over the course of a school year. My goal is student achievement. Of course! But I do not see how student achievement can be assessed by only a standardized test. There is so much more to it than that! I remember a slogan from years back: “A student is more than a test score.” It was a goofy campaign, but the message was clear. We want our students to succeed in life, and life is not one test.

2) I am a mom. I NEVER remember my daughters coming home from school, worried about taking “the test.” They did their homework. They did their projects (with little help from me, by the way). They learned to think, write, and research on their own when they wanted to know more about a subject. They knew that their teachers were not to blame for their failures. Yes, sometimes people fail. But we don’t let failing define us; we allow failing to teach us lessons, and we grow.”

3) I am a product of the public school system. I NEVER remember being worried about the standardized tests when I was a student. I do remember our teachers mentioning that they would be coming up soon, and those teachers taught us how to fill in bubbles on the answer sheets, make our best choices, and encouraged us to “try our best.” We knew the material. Our teachers had taught us what we needed to know. I passed the tests each time I took them. I was never a “star student,” but I did my best, and that was all anyone was asking for.

Let us help today’s students to become life-long learners again. As you read the news about testing students, consider what is best for kids, and not what is popular according to the government or the media. Make wise decisions, based on real research from education experts, teachers, and school leaders. Let’s find solutions that will help our students to meet goals greater than passing a test that takes just a few hours out of their lifetimes.




Curriculum Tip for August 13, 2013: Back to School Supplies are Expensive!

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I have learned to “write what I know.” As we prepare to enter another school year, one thing I know is that back-to-school supplies are expensive!  But as a parent and a teacher, I can tell you with confidence that shopping for school supplies doesn’t have to make parents, students, or teachers crazy if we all follow some simple guidelines.  Here’s my perspective:

1.  Shop the sales! I know, I cannot stand to think about school at the end of July, but that is when the sales start.  Stock up on paper, pencils, and folders. You know, no matter what grade or subject, you’ll need those.

2.  DO NOT buy what you DO NOT need!  Students, please don’t tell your parents you need those glitter pens, small staplers, colorful Post-it notes in all sizes, or fancy leather portfolios. Unless it’s on the school supply list from your school, you do not need any of these items! Parents: Don’t fall for it! Stick to the list from your child’s school.  Teachers: Don’t ask for what you won’t use in the classroom, either.  All those unneeded items just lead to clutter and chaos.

3.  If you don’t have a list, here’s a suggestion for standard supplies that WILL BE USED during the school year:

loose leaf paper (a LOT–you need it every day, maybe for every subject)

2 spiral notebooks (college or wide ruled, 70 sheets standard) for each subject

pencils (a LOT–students break them, lose them, give them to friends, and the school pencil sharpeners eat them up)

folders (2-pocket plain folders are standard)

reading and writing (and possibly science and math) notebooks (composition-type books work well for the most part)

small scissors, a pack of glue sticks, colored pencils (the 12-pack is plenty!)

2 large boxes of tissues (name brands not necessary)

2 rolls of paper towels (to help with cleaning the classroom, extras for washing hands before lunch, etc.)

This list of school supplies will get you started.  Seriously. If anything else is needed, parents, please help your student to buy the items, or ask your school for help. (Teachers don’t mind helping, when necessary and not perceived as wasteful or a way to take advantage  of them.)  Students, come to school ready with these basic items. Your teachers will love you, and you’ll be off to a great school year.  Teachers, remember our goal is to educate students. Think about the supplies you will really need, and create a thoughtful list for your families.

And of course, have a great school year!

Curriculum Tip: April 2, 2013

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Taking a Break

It’s spring break here, and I was just thinking about how great it is to have some time to read for fun. No homework, no lessons, no projects. Just reading. Research concludes that any time spent reading helps one to become a better reader. What are you reading?

Spring Break Book List — Feel free to share your list with us!

Life of Pi (Martel)

The Happiness Project (Rubin)

Liar & Spy (Stead)

The Last Lecture (Pausch)

My Beloved World (Sotomayor)

Curriculum Tip: March 19, 2013

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Thoughts on Oral Reading Fluency 

Recently, I was teaching an oral reading (fluency) lesson that led me to a teachable moment: never mistake “expression” in oral reading fluency with “volume.” As we practiced using modeling and choral reading, I noticed the students becoming increasingly louder with each line of a poem. After a few minutes of this shared practice, there was nothing but yelling — not at all fluent reading!

I stopped the class. I asked why. They told me. “You said to read with expression.

Ah, yes. But…Expression does NOT equal “loud.” Expression does NOT equal “high volume.” Expression does NOT mean “yell.”

Through a little conversation with the class, I found that most of the lessons about expression that I had used in the past were scripts or passages where a character was mad, or was yelling to save some other character from danger.  Although these characters’ words were excellent models to introduce fluent reading with expression, I never did include other expressive passages in the practice phase, such as whispering to quiet a baby, trying to talk while gasping for air after a track meet, or growling to express controlled, mounting anger.

So the tip of today comes straight from my classroom: In oral reading fluency, “expression” and “volume” are not the same.

HAVE A GREAT DAY! (But don’t yell.):)

Curriculum Tip: March 12, 2013

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Reading aloud is one of the best ways to engage your students in reading class! Reading aloud helps students:

* to listen to fluent reading and build comprehension

* to focus on strategies of reading without having to worry about decoding (best for struggling readers)

* to enjoy reading time and bond with a great reader (you!)

Consider reading aloud to your students at least 10 – 15 minutes a day. My favorite read aloud books are picture books that students sometimes overlook because they think they are “baby books.” But look closely — these books are full of figurative language, intriguing words, and wonderful lessons about life and learning. Ask a middle school student to sit on the floor and listen to a good book. They love it!

Best read aloud recommendations: More Than Anything Else (Marie Bradby), Pink and Say (Polacco), The Tiger Rising (novel by Kate DiCamillo), and my holiday favorite, A Season of Gifts (Richard Peck).