Contests!, Reviews, Teaching Reading

Novel Madness 2018 FINALS

Yes, it’s two of the sixth graders’ all time favorites: The House of Hades and Hunger Games. Both novels have loyal followers. The contest will be decided this Wednesday, March 28, 2018. Stay tuned!

Teaching Reading, Teaching Writing, Tech stuff

What is a 21st Century Learner?

imagesWhat is a 21st century learner? Equally important, what does a 21st century classroom look like? It’s important that students learn the same content they always have. They will need reading and writing, math, science, and social studies. They will also need interpersonal skills like teamwork and collaboration, as well as skills learned on the playground like sharing, being polite, and dealing with bullies. So far, not much change from the 20th century classrooms that taught me.

So what is different today? Teachers must prepare students for a very different future than my teachers prepared me for. I learned from my teacher in the classroom. The teacher talked to us, and we listened. Then we completed worksheets and were graded on points correct out of points possible. A lot of that is still valid.

The world, however, is changing at a much faster pace now, and every bit of it is broadcast to devices in our students’ backpacks. Students must be taught to navigate social media, create digital content, and locate effective information. Learning has exploded from teacher-directed, in-the-classroom, fact-based answers, becoming much more student-directed. Students learn any time of day, by actively researching, blogging, or discussing online. They collaborate in teams to create authentic products that have value outside the classroom.

So back to the question in paragraph one. What does a 21st century classroom look like? Step into my sixth grade classroom. The walls are lined with books, and team-created student posters illustrate the latest math concepts. Each student has a Chromebook on their desk. They begin a typical day by editing sentences, interacting with a Smartboard and writing in their binders. Reading is still done with real books, although after a lesson the students open their lids and log on to Google Classroom. All their assigned work is there, as well as grades for what they submitted yesterday. Students may choose to use Google Docs to write a Reading analysis letter or essay, or take an online quiz in Social Studies. They may access a fact practice website for Math, Reading, or Writing. They may work on their eportfolio, especially in Science.

After recess, they log on to their online Math books and use virtual Base Ten Blocks to work in their teams, changing between fractions, decimals, and percents. During Science, they complete a Lab on the Food Chain, or discuss the solar ovens they built at home. Phones are pulled out to take pictures and video that is then uploaded to their portfolio. On Friday, they have Genius Hour, where they work on a project of their choice and blog about it.

After lunch, they work on their Social Studies packets, choosing between activities to learn about Mesopotamia. They research online and visit websites with virtual tours of ancient sites, or activities like writing their name in cuneiform.

Assignments are not given to be completed by the next day (except for Math). Students have several days, a week, or even a month to work with each other and the teacher to create work, in class and at home, that truly reflects what they are learning. They love the Chromebooks, and when they are publishing work to the world they are very careful to put forth their very best work. They are completely engaged in learning content by using technology skills to discover and share it.

In my 21st century classroom, students learn the same content they always have: reading and writing, math, science, and social studies. They collaborate in teams and learn to be good citizens in person and online. They have many more opportunities to learn than I did, and it’s exciting to be a part of it.


Teaching Reading, Teaching Writing, Tech stuff

Behavior Management


Managing the classroom behavior is something every teacher struggles with. Some classes are harder to deal with than others, but they all require some system of reward and consequence to keep the peace and allow lessons to occur without disruption. In the twenty years I’ve taught, behavior management has included some combination of earning Behavior Bucks for a monthly auction, changing seat assignments, being benched for recess or referred to the principal, and emails sent home to parents. I’ve never had a serious problem with behavior until this year.

Without going into the specifics of the behaviors (that would be too long a post!), I wanted to share my solution. At the CUE conference in Palm Springs this year, I learned about CLASSCRAFT.COM and could hardly wait to get home to try it.

Classcraft is a free web-based behavior management video game designed for sixth grade through high school. The interface is colorful and fanciful–it truly looks like a video game. Students log on and choose an avatar. They are put in teams where they classcraft_bg1choose the team name and logo. They also must designate team members as warrior, mage, or healer.  Students earn XP (experience points) for behaving well in class. They lose HP (health points) for breaking a rule. AP (action points) are spent healing each other–this is important because if a teammate falls in battle the rest of the team loses 10 HP and may fall, too.

One of the coolest features is the parent piece. Parents set up an account that links with their child’s. They can see what their child receives each day for rewards or consequences. They can award their child GP (gold points) for doing chores, having a positive attitude, and finishing homework. GP doesn’t affect my part of the game because those points can only be used to buy accessories for the avatar like armor and pets.

The game comes with a set of rules, rewards, and punishments (like becoming ogrefied and having to sit alone at lunch for a day) but is completely customizable by the teacher, from rules to rewards to Random Events of the Day and punishments for those fallen in battle (who lose all their XP). Every morning I log on to the game and dole out rewards and punishments for the day before and conduct a Random Event. The entire thing takes ten to fifteen minutes.

Most importantly, it works. My class has been rather notorious around campus this year. I added a big reward for receiving a compliment from an adult on campus. Within the first week, the principal, a teacher, and a yard duty all gave them unsolicited compliments. I was very impressed. The students were very proud of themselves. They follow the game without reminders. One day a noon duty told me she asked one of my students why they were sitting alone. “I’ve been ogrefied,” the student said in a perfectly normal tone. I laughed, but the noon duty was very puzzled.

We’ve been playing the game now for two months. They are just as excited now as the day we started. Their behavior hasn’t been perfect, but what fun is the game if someone doesn’t occasionally fall in battle and become ogrefied?



Teaching Reading, Teaching Writing

Improving Public Education

pencil2You can blame large class sizes, teacher experience or salary, or parent involvement in the home, to name a few, but there is no simple answer to the problems of public education. The responsibility must be shared.

In Finland, recently touted as a model for public education, students are given no homework. The younger students have school only three hours a day. Teachers there finish teaching, finish planning, and go home before my school day is done. Kids are encouraged to play and explore. The culture of the country truly supports work/home balance instead of giving it lip service like America does. The children are happier, and they are learning. While I’m sure even in Finland they have problem behaviors or students who don’t learn well, it’s a positive environment influences the children.

In the United States, students attend school for six hours a day. They are pressured to do well so they can get into a good college. In some families, grades are the most important thing about their child’s education. Parents work long hours, and their children come home to grandparents or day care. How can parents who see their children scant hours a day influence them to play and explore? If this country instituted an educational system that gave students more time to explore, the majority of kids would play video games, attend a Saturday school in language or culture, and participate on a regionally competitive sports team.

My students participate in Genius Hour once a week. They come up with an inquiry question about something they wonder about, research it, and  build it. The problem is that they don’t wonder about anything. If they have a question, they Google it. Getting them to design inquiries has taken all year. They all want to do Powerpoint presentations for their projects–to show what they’ve researched. Genius Hour is more than that, though. They need to have hands-on exploration. In the past, students have built a life-sized unicorn, made a scale model of a condor out of recycled parts, sewed a skirt, and designed their own website using html. Today’s students

In order for them to thrive in a model like Finland’s, American students need more than a redesigned program at school and a teacher’s lead. They need affordable after school programs that encourage critical thinking, parent time that is more than meals or homework battles, and time away from the screens in their lives.

While much creative energy can be stimulated on a computer, students need to explore the world around them. I teach in an area with a lot of undeveloped land close by. Mountain lions, deer, turkeys, rabbits, foxes, and elk can be seen often. A deep creek runs under the road, and none of my students have stood on the bridge and marveled at the foliage-covered twenty-foot drop. None of them have heard the ground squirrels bark a warning as they walk past a field dotted with oak trees. Non-screen experiences like these are the sort of thing that sparks curiosity. Finnish students are being given the opportunity to be curious. American students are not.


Teaching Reading, Teaching Writing

Influencing Youth


influenceAs a teacher, I know I influence students every day. I strive to be a good role model and show them passion for learning, excitement about reading and reading, pride in their math skills. Young people are greatly shaped by their environment. If they are around positive energy, they may absorb it. I find students leave my class excited about reading and writing because that’s what I am excited about.

If they are exposed to the negative, however, they internalize that even faster.

The best students, with straight A’s and good behavior, are quiet in class. Those that constantly draw the teacher’s attention are the students who are breaking rules, slacking off, or disturbing classmates. Even if it’s negative, they are getting attention from the teacher, being held up as an example in front of others. Young people crave attention, even negative attention, so the middle kids, neither straight A’s nor problems, more often follow the negative leaders than the positive. Society has taught them that. Books, television, and celebrities all show that the naughty ones get all the attention. Therefore, a young person struts with pleasure to be called a badass and lashes out with ugly words or physical violence when called a nerd.

I can influence the young people who come into my classroom, but only if their poorly behaved classmates allow me. That is the sad truth. I can stand in front of the class every day and talk about being kind to one another, about not bullying, about being a good example. They all see themselves as victims–quick to recognize bullying in others, but not in themselves. When I tell them the most powerful tool they have in middle school is the ability to turn their back and walk away, they look at me like I have three heads.

I hope that someday my current sixth graders will realize the reward of achieving something positive, be it grades, getting into a good college, or doing something kind for another. I hope that something I’ve said this year will stick down deep and be remembered in a few years when life is harder. And I hope that at least one of them returns to tell me I made a difference, that my effort was noticed if not immediately appreciated.


Teaching Reading, Teaching Writing

Missing Work

Wani-dog (1)hen I first became a student teacher in 1996, I was shocked by the number of students who didn’t turn in homework. I always did my homework in school. In fact, it never even occurred to me not to do it. Nineteen years later, I am not so much shocked as I am disappointed.

In a sixth grade class of thirty or so students, I usually have three or four with serious homework completion issues. There are also three or four who never have any missing work at all, and a few whose problem is just a missing name. Over the years I have printed and emailed missing work reports. I have asked the student for the work. Repeatedly. I have yelled, begged, and discussed. I have referred students to Homework Club. Never have I succeeded in making a habitual missing-work student turn in any work. I have, however, heard some creative excuses.

“I didn’t know it was due.”     Assignments are posted on the board in the classroom and on the class web page. Students all have planners, and as a self-contained class I can make sure they write down homework at the end of every day.

“I forgot my book.”     Most of the textbooks are online now. Students still lug a backpack full of books home, out of habit I think. It won’t be long before online textbooks, with their homework help features, are the only ones used.

“I didn’t understand.”     Not all students master a lesson the first time around. In my classroom, students have time to start all assignments in class so they have an opportunity to ask the teacher. They can also email me or message me on Google Classroom any time. Most of my assignments are not due immediately but in a few days, next week, or even the end of the month. There is time to ask a question.

“I didn’t have time.”     And this is the most telling excuse of all. What it really says is that the student prioritizes homework lower than TV, video games, playing with friends–anything else that can be done between 2:30 p.m. and 8:00 a.m. the next day. What it really says is that the student doesn’t care enough to get it done. This is so frustrating for the teacher who plans, prepares, and teaches the lesson. Now the class moves on and the student with no homework done is quickly lost. Before long, as lessons build on one another, the student who chose not to do the work is no longer able to do  it.

What’s the solution? That’s not for me to decide, and it’s not for parents. In sixth grade, a student is old enough to be responsible for homework. Students need to keep track of assignments and monitor their grades closely. If the student sees missing homework, the student needs to deal with how to get it done. Parents who fail to insist on homework completion, and teachers who let it slide, do no favors for their students. My sixth graders will enter middle school next year. They will have six different teachers and no one to tell them to write down homework. Now is the time for them to learn responsibility.

About Reading, Teaching Reading

Food for Thought

animated_book02At the end of the last school year, I had my fifth and sixth grade students write a letter to me telling about their experience with Reader’s Workshop in my class during the year. Here are some of their comments.

“Reading used to be a chore for me. Now reading is like a game, a mystery, and a fun way to make the impossible possible.”

“Reading is now a hobby I do. When there’s extra time I like to sit back, relax, and start reading a good book.”

“Reading Workshop is an awesome experience and every class should do it.”

My reading knowledge has changed since our first reading lesson. Letters helped me think deeper into reading, which is synthesizing. Now I create pictures and movies in my head while reading.”

“This has made me a better reader because now I know what to think about while I read amazing books.”

“Before I had Reading Workshop lessons, reading was torture to me. I didn’t like it. I hated it. But after a year of Reading Workshop, reading is on my ‘to do’ list.”

“I’m not good at writing or reading out loud, but reading inside my head and understanding what I’m reading is something that I’m proud of.”

Isn’t that a teacher’s dream, to inspire students like that? The school year has just begun, and there haven’t been any real challenges yet for my new students, but later when it gets hard I can read those quotes and smile.

About Reading, Teaching Reading

Reader’s Workshop for the First Time

book turning pages_animatedI’ve taught Reader’s Workshop for two years. I am no expert, but I know it’s the right way for me to teach reading to my students. This year I have a combination class of fifth and sixth grade students. None of them are struggling readers, but not all of them like it.

On the first day of school, I collected the Practice Books that go with the Reading textbook and put them away on a shelf. I told them they would choose their own books to read. They could choose the stories in the Reading textbook if they wanted, but there would be no worksheets and no tests. They didn’t know me yet, so they just stared.

On the second day, I held up a picture book and asked if any of them had read it. We’re upper graders, their smirks told me. We haven’t read picture books in years. What a shame. I read them Mrs. Brooks Loves Books (and I Don’t) by Barbara Bottner. Their smirks turned to rapt attention and smiles. I asked them to respond in their Reading Notebooks. They could summarize the book, but I really wanted them to tell me what emotion it evoked, to connect somehow to it. They wrote in total silence for three minutes–their responses had more words than the book itself!

On the third day, I read another picture book. We talked about how to choose books, and I told them we would not be stressing out about Accelerated Reader levels or points. I just wanted them to enjoy reading. They chose books and read in total silence for forty minutes. They didn’t want to put the books away, but it was time for lunch. One student begged with me to be able to take the book she was reading to lunch. I smiled inside and told her that was just fine. (It was even more special that the book she had chosen was an anthology of student novels from a past class.)

As they walked out of the classroom on their way to lunch, I overheard two students discussing reading in animated voices. “This is going to be great!” one said. “Reading is more fun than ever,” the other one responded.

I, too, had a smile on my face when I walked to lunch. This is going to be a terrific year.

Teaching Reading, Teaching Writing

Homework: Devil or Divine (part two)

anpencil3Yesterday I started a discussion about homework. If you missed it, you might want to start there. Teachers, parents, and researchers all have plenty to say on the subject. Today I present the arguments against homework, most of which can be categorized so: Homework disrupts families, overburdens children, and actually limits learning.

NO homework!

DISRUPTS FAMILIES: No family can have a smooth relationship with frustrated, grumpy children and nagging mothers. In many families, homework creates just such a situation. It divides the family rather than strengthen it. Homework allows no time for families to be together during the week and just enjoy each other. Parents are stressed from working all day, then they have to go home and fight the homework battle. Students are stressed from school, and they don’t get a break. To a student, having homework is like an adult working a double shift.

I hate homework. I hate it more now than I did when I was the one lugging textbooks and binders back and forth from school. The hour my children are seated at the kitchen table, their books spread out before them, the crumbs of their after-school snack littering the table, is without a doubt the worst hour of my day.
~Ayelet Waldman

OVERBURDENS CHILDREN: Homework takes away the time for a student to just be a child. Fresh air, play time, and downtime are essential for a healthy person of any age. Some parents allow children a hour after school to play outside or watch TV before they do their homework (I know I have suggested this very thing), but continuing to play actually benefits development of the whole brain. Home environment plays a big part, too, in homework completion. Some students go to an afterschool tutoring program where they can ask to have the concept explained again. Others have siblings or parents who help them (or do the work for them). Others go home to empty houses or caregivers who don’t speak English well enough to assist them. All of these students, however different their method of finishing the work, are expected to have perfect papers. This creates a great deal of stress.

Whenever homework crowds out social experience, outdoor recreation, and creative activities, and whenever it usurps time that should be devoted to sleep, it is not meeting the basic needs of children and adolescents. ~Wildman, 1968, p. 204

LIMITS LEARNING: In order to be an advocate for traditional homework, you need to believe that intellectual activity is more valuable than nonintellectual activity. I have always believed that students need to develop all their talents, and music, art, and sports are just as important as computers or math. Homework focuses on short term learning at a time when adults should be fostering a lifelong love of learning, curiosity, and passion–be it for intellectual or nonintellectual activities. With passion and curiosity, students will spend hours learning–outside of school as well as inside.

I just couldn’t stand school. If I went, I’d skip after the first class. I didn’t like to be told I had to study and had to do homework. There’s a fact that you have to want to learn.
~Randy Travis


The fact remains that teachers have an awful lot of curriculum to cover in 180 days. For seventeen years I have assigned homework without even thinking about it. After all, that’s the traditional way, right? I’m not sure I can cover everything I need to without assigning homework, but I have made a start toward doing exactly that. This year, my goal is to make the homework I need to assign something other than rote worksheets. After all, if I accomplish nothing more than teaching my students to think, haven’t I prepared them well?

Teaching Reading, Teaching Writing

Homework: Devil or Divine?

anpencil4With another school term set to begin in a few short weeks, teachers’ thoughts return to planning. A huge part of those plans is homework; how much to assign, when to assign it, how to correct, collect, and grade it, and what to do if it’s missing. Did you know that no educational research definitively supports the value of homework? On the other hand, no educational research says homework is all bad, either. With that sort of controversy among educational leaders, no wonder homework policies differ between teachers, schools, and districts.

As early as 1900, the editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal began publishing a series of articles against homework. Since then, American schools have gone back and forth about the need for large quantities of homework. Let’s explore some of the main issues.

YES homework!

Most teachers say that homework is good practice, it enhances lessons learned in school, and it develops responsibility. I have heard those very words come out of my own mouth. Here’s what researchers have to say.

PRACTICE: Some parents feel that a lot of homework means that their child attends a good school. Actually, understanding cannot be achieved by doing more, especially if it’s math problem the student is doing wrong. If the student leaves school not understanding the concept, staring at a page of forty similar problems is not going to make it better. And if the student did understand it, those forty problems are boring. The sign of a good school should be in the quality of the homework, not the quantity. The difficulty in that, of course, is that every student has a different level of what is challenging. Teachers cannot manage thirty different levels of math homework per subject.

Teens think listening to music helps them concentrate. It doesn’t. It relieves them of the boredom that concentration on homework induces.
~Marilyn vos Savant

ENHANCEMENT: Some teachers seem to feel that it is their responsibility to extend learning beyond the classroom. Parents don’t help. They often ask me for more homework for their ‘advanced’ child. Teachers and parents need to feel comfortable about the teacher handling the learning inside the classroom and the parent handling it after school. There’s a lot of learning to be had in music, sports, theater, walking the dog, or even video games. More on that below.

I like a teacher who gives you something to take home to think about besides homework.
~Lily Tomlin

RESPONSIBILITY: In a hundred years of research, absolutely none of it supports the idea that homework teaches responsibility. In actuality, homework teaches blind obedience: Do what I say when I say. If a teacher really wants students to be responsible, they can teach them to honestly assess their own work and to participate in decisions about what to learn and how to learn it. Students can be given classroom jobs that are meaningful, and they can be offered a choice about how to present what they are learning.

The same people who never did their homework in high school are still doing that to this very day out in the real world.
~Jules Shear


Come back tomorrow for the rest of this article…NO HOMEWORK.