Surviving the End of the School Year: Tips for Teachers AND Parents

Teaching in May and June is no joke, people.

When teachers can actually be spotted in their habitats, they look somewhat manic and crazy-eyed. Sightings are rare, as without exception teachers are buried under mounds and mounds of paper: report cards, awards, field trip forms, records, grading, next-year’s class lists. The endlessness of a teacher’s to-do list in at the end of a school year is matched by only one other contender, and it’s a fierce one: the boundlessness of student energy that grows exponentially with each passing day until June.

Now picture that mass of energy, and then remove common sense, well-established classroom habits, and any generally any form of motivation to learn. Then throw in some hormones, a considerable measure of girl drama, and selective hearing, mix them up in a hot and clammy classroom…and voila! Absolute freakin’ madness.

Let me repeat: teaching in May and June is no joke, people.

And let’s be honest–parenting isn’t either. The family schedule jumps into warp speed, and it’s not like kids go home and dial it down to be calm and studious. Nope. Parents have a tough go of it, too—they have to rally their limited energy and patience to get their kids to every event, pack for every trip, and find non-grass-stained pants for every concert. Then they have to at least make a passable effort to enjoy the innumerable year-end concerts and picnics and field trips, and video such events accordingly. And let’s not forget the Herculean chore of trying to get the kiddoes through their end-of-the year book reports, standardized tests, or research essays…and when you’re faced with the aforementioned hormone-drama-selective hearing cocktail, some serious parenting mojo is required.

Both teachers and parents deserve a medal for making it through the last few weeks of school. A big, adult-beverage-shaped medal.

Teachers, my words won’t help much—I realize that. A few suggestions about making it through year-end is like acknowledging that you have the chicken pox and trying to make it better by handing you a lollipop. But, here you go anyways. The work won’t lessen, and the kids won’t miraculously calm down. But here’s what I have discovered has helped slightly.

  • Have a “4-walls” mentality. When you are in your classroom, think only about what is going on inside it, and don’t think about all of the other things going on “out there.” Contain your focus. Be completely in the moment while you’re teaching. The students—who are seeking pretty much any way to get attention at this point—will realize your “presence.” If they are getting your attention, they may be less tempted to seek it out in more ridiculous forms. Plus, your stress level will abate if you keep the “outside the 4 walls” pressures out of your mind until after the bell rings. Give those worries their own time and place.

 

  • If you get encouragement from students and parents in the form of notes and pictures, post them. When you are at the end of your rope, or about to put your head down on your desk to indulge in a little exhausted cry, look up and read their words. Remind yourself that there is a reason you do one of the most important job on earth—you impact children.

 

  • Don’t come home and vent to your spouse about all of the stress and naughtiness and work and drama. Share some positives too. If your spouse internalizes that and ends up having a negative impression of your workplace, that’s hard to erase. Come home, put your feet up, and enjoy some pleasant conversation…about nothing. It’s much more fun.

 

  • I’ve said this in other posts on this blog, so this may not be new advice, but this is a biggie: when interacting with kids, especially at the end of the year, come alongside them to talk about their behavior, rather than come at them. There is a big difference. If we’re talking literally, here, think about a come-alongside posture—a calm conversation where you are both sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at a desk or on a couch. Then really talk—and listen! In my experience, the “squaring off” posture, when a teacher and student are facing each other in power-struggle posture, won’t get you the result you want, especially in May/June.  Metaphorically, the “come alongside” is just as potent. Have open discussions with students about behavior using unemotional, conversational language that indicates to them that you are teammates who need to figure out the next steps for that student. Don’t absolve them from naughty behavior—you’re not their friend– but calmly deal with disrespect or defiance (which is inevitable in May/June) as a co-planner about how the rest of the day will go. You’ll get farther than you will in a face-off. At this point in the year, relationships with students govern—not rules.

 

  • Be extra sweet to custodial staff and front office staff. They are working their tails off with all of the extra stuff going on around the school, too.

 

  • If a colleague or administrator is dancing on your last nerve, don’t have a confrontation during the last few weeks of school. It’s too emotional, and it has the potential to ruin your peaceful summer. Quietly document your woes, and if you can’t use the summer to forgive and forget, and least use the summer to simmer down and plan for a rational conversation in September…if you still find it necessary then.

 

  • Do random acts of encouragement. Your colleagues are as stressed as you are.

 

  • Have oodles of grace for people. Apologize often. Summon up all of the tact you possess and use it…even it it’s hard. Like we ask our students to put on their “thinking caps” before a tough lesson, come to school and remind yourself to put on your “self-control body suit.”

 

  • In those moments where you feel done with your students, don’t blow your stack–take a break. Go outside, or let them have a few minutes of “sanctioned” talking. I know you have learning to do…but not losing your cool will be better in the long run for that learning.

 

  • Go out of your way to say hello and goodbye to your teammates. Unity is good.

 

  • Before you leave your classroom each day, list 10 things that you are grateful for. Then go home. The power of this act can change your whole day.

 

Parents, you are hanging on by a thread, too. And if we think back to the chicken-pox-lollipop metaphor, the same holds true for you; a few little bullet point platitudes aren’t going to help much when it comes to the tough days of scheduling/chauffeuring/forcing children to bathe/concert attending/sports practices/projects/finding ways to pay for trips/dealing with school drama/making snacks for the school parties. But I’ll still give you the lollipop anyway.

  • If you aren’t happy with your child’s final grade, or test score that’s based on the year’s learning…that’s okay. That’s normal. But it is really hard to fix that problem during the last two weeks of school. Remember that your child’s teacher has been tremendously committed to helping your child grow, and has given many, many hours to your child’s learning all year long, and would have been open to meeting with you at any point up until now. But June is a bit late to start course-correction. If you’d like to meet with the teacher—great! But creating an action plan for the next year is a more feasible plan than fixing the final grade.

 

  • Like I said before, have oodles and oodles of grace for people. Stress is so thick in a school environment in May/June that you almost have to wade through it. Be mindful of that when you enter the doors.

 

  • The “come alongside” metaphor applies to parenting too.

 

  • Notice and comment on the things your child is doing right. If he or she realizes that you notice almost everything, not just the bad, then often the desire to engage in attention-seeking behavior will abate. The truth that relationships with kids govern—not rules holds true in parenting too—maybe even moreso.

 

  • Give your child time to play and be silly. They need it.

 

  • If you are frustrated with your child’s teacher, please don’t let your child hear about it.

 

  • Schedule well, communicate the schedule well, and hang on for dear life.

 

Trust me, this isn’t coming from expertise…I am a fellow educator/parent trying to keep my head above water here. I treading with you. Good luck to all of you as you attempt to survive these next few weeks.

In the famous words of Dory: “just keep swimming, just keep swimming…”

 

Why I’ve Banished the Red Pen

Over the course of my teaching career, I’ve put in more hours grading papers than I could ever count. I’ve graded late into the night, countless weekends, on plane trips and car rides, while watching soccer practices, on my lunch breaks. If you’re a teacher, you’ve been there. You relate.

I’ve always been a meticulous grader, too. Especially during my first few years of teaching, I would try to catch every misspelling and every comma splice. I’d underline titles and join together sentence fragments. It was important for me to show my students that I was really checking their work carefully. I didn’t want them thinking that it was okay for them to be sloppy or rushed, so I sure wasn’t going to be. No way. I was going to model effort and attention to detail.

After a few years, though, I found myself on the brink of burnout and frustration. Especially being an ELA teacher, where I was primarily grading student writing, I found myself frustrated—at myself, for not being more “present” with my family because of my grade-a-holism, but more dangerously, at my students for not taking note of the immense amount of work I had put into grading their papers.

Why, I wondered, did they make the same mistakes over and over? I was correcting the same errors for the same students. I was repeating the same written feedback on my carefully-constructed rubrics. I had been going the extra mile to point out the errors in my students’ writing. It was costing me hours (and my sanity) to do it. And they were not getting it!

 It wasn’t until a few years into my career that it finally dawned on me that zealous red pen usage wasn’t the answer to helping students grow. I was scrupulous, sure, but rarely did my comments make a lick of difference to my students’ next assignment.

My come-to-Jesus moment as a teacher was the realization that every moment sitting next to a student to discuss his or her progress was worth more than a hundred strokes of the correcting pen. Having a private, thoughtful, concise discussion with a student was a far better use of my time. Conferencing with students was an art—and once I learned it, my teaching changed profoundly. I felt freer, more effective, and less enslaved to my desk.

I also don’t think it was a coincidence that my students’ growth as readers and writers started to skyrocket too.

My discovery–that every moment sitting at my desk was one less minute sitting next to a student—was the tipping point of my teaching career. For many of you, this sounds so basic, I’m sure. But no one had told me this.

In my opinion, the one-on-one conference with a student is where the best and most powerful pedagogy takes place. It may not look particularly dignified or professional—we might be under a table or sitting on a pile of cushions under the coat cubbies—but having a great conversation with a student about his or her next steps as a learner is the most valuable way a teacher could spend the day.

Here are a few of thoughts about giving students effective feedback—feedback that actually helps our young learners grow in skill and in confidence.

  •  The conversations are personal. We might talk about the book or the writing, but more notably, we talk about the student as a reader or a writer. First and foremost, the discussion is about the learner.

 

  •  We always talk about the next steps for that student. Having a page of corrections is all fine and dandy, but it doesn’t always point a learner in the right direction for what he or she needs to do for next time. The “next steps” part of the conversation is the crux of the conference.

 

  • Like Atwell, my hero (if you’ve read this blog you’ll know this), I believe in going TO the student to conference rather than calling students up to my desk or table. I have never used a conferencing table, actually; I like to circulate. When I sit down next to a student, I think it communicates to them, I am joining you as your partner in learning. I want to come alongside and help you. Posture, in my opinion, is actually a big deal.

 

  •  We talk about the standard that we are working toward. I make sure the student understands the learning target. Then we very intentionally discuss what needs to happen to get the student to that standard (or beyond it!)

 

  •  One-on-one conferences are also great opportunities for re-teaching. Taking a minute to explain things “another way” can yield huge results. I’ll occasionally pull some other students over to where we are, and start a spontaneous small group re-teaching time. Flexible, needs-based re-teaching is worth every minute, and if it happens regularly, the learners see growth. (It is also my experience that a little spontaneity is a great way to inject life into workshop.)

 

  •  The underlying theme of every conference is encouragement. If I communicate to students with my words and actions that I care about their success, then they will almost always decide that their effort is worth it.

 

  • I track what I conference with students about, and keep fairly good records about each student. BUT, I have found that being “in the moment” is more important than taking notes. Students will stop talking when they see me writing, or they will fixate on my page. I jot my notes afterwards so I can be fully invested in my conversations.

 

  •  I try to get students to tell me about their work, rather than just read the work. I learn more about their thinking that way.

 

  • Before I leave the conference, I ask the student if he or she agrees with me. I want to make it clear that we are teammates in learning.

 

  •  I consider the child when I decide how much feedback to give. Some students can only take a little at a time, and that’s okay. I never want a conference to be overwhelming; I want it to be an experience that the students looks forward to having again.

 

  • Although I am deliberate about not sounding or acting rushed, and I stay student-centered and “in the moment,” I have learned to be brief when I conference. Where is the student going? Where is he now? How will we close the gap?

 

  • There are exceptions to the brevity. Sometimes the conversations get quite personal, and that’s okay. For many students, one-on-one time with a teacher is a gift—they have been waiting for it. For many kids, their teacher might be the only adult that has given them one-on-one attention in a long time. So, if the conversation meanders and I sense that the student is guiding the conversation in such a way that it is evident he or she wants to tell me something, I let the conversation go there. And sometimes that is the best possible thing that could happen. I’ve cried with kids about their parents splitting up, or about the CPS worker who visited their house. I’ve listened as their vented their frustrations about their inability to read the textbook in another class, or about their young heartbreaks and social dramas. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t make every class about playing Dr. Phil. But on the rare occasions that a student needs that time to have an adult hear him or her, I take it. Powerful relationships can be built with consistent conferencing. I haven’t found that to be true with the red pen so much.

Maybe you’re wondering about summative assessment; for you non-teacher folks who are reading this, that’s an assignment that is given as a check to see if a student has mastered an objective–a test, for example, or a completed writing piece. Surely that’s the place for the red pen, right? I mean, this is something that might be posted on a bulletin board, or maybe put up at home on the fridge. There needs to be some red pen action on those pages, right?

Probably so. But can I offer some suggestions about how that can be meaningful and growth-oriented?

  •  First, don’t use red. Maybe it’s just a personal peccadillo, but I find red to be a garish, in-your-face way of saying, this stinks. Maybe it’s just the connotation I get from it. I use a variety of other bright colors.

 

  •  I don’t cover the work in corrections. I pick one or two things that the student can work on for next time. I think that’s the most a student can really take away from it anyway.

 

  •  I always find something positive to say. Always.

 

  •  I hand back the work, and THEN follow it with a one-on-one conference. (In my workshop, “hand-back” time is right before we spread around the room to work and conference.) I have found that my explanation of a grade, with a brief and gentle discussion of that student’s growth areas, is far more potent than just my written comments. Plus, it gives the student the opportunity to ask questions about their grade—most students don’t bother to ask unless they are given the time and space to do so. (What a shame!)  It’s true that I can’t do this with every student every time. There are lots of   writing  pieces and tests and book reports that have been handed back and not discussed. That happens—like most teachers, I have big classes and limited time. But I do my absolute best to check in with each student about the big assignments—the growth that ensues from those conversations is worth the effort of packing as many conferences as possible into a school day. The way I see it, I can’t afford to sit at my desk.

 

  •  I make sure my written comments are meaningful. My colleagues have all heard me rant about my feelings about “good job” as feedback. I hate hearing that phrase, and I won’t say it. Why bother? If I am going to spend my time writing comments on student work, you bet those comments are going to be specific about what I liked, and helpful about what needs to happen next. “Good job” doesn’t even get past my eardrums; it’s like white noise to me.

 

  •  This is an idea that gets debated among my teacher friends—we don’t all agree on this one. But I let students try again. Why not? Learning doesn’t always have to be on my schedule. After a good conference about an assessment, if a student expresses the desire to try it one more time, I let him. The desire to master a skill should always be rewarded, in my book.

So, for those of us whose instincts are to cover a student’s paper with our wise and plentiful suggestions, let’s reform. I still fight the instinct to be a paper-slaughterer. As you might have noticed, I have a lot to say.

But, let’s pick our moments, shall we? The power of the conference is incomparable. I know the pen is mightier than the sword…but maybe can we agree that an intentional, personal conversation is mightier than the pen?

“Canned Curriculum” Caterwauling

( I’ve just been dying to use the word caterwauling.)

Basal reading programs have been on my mind a lot lately. Some of my teacher friends are being forced to switch to a “set” reading program at their various schools, and are worried (or even incensed, in some cases) about the adoption process. It’s also been on my mind recently as I’ve been asked to do some content editing for a publisher, and I’ve had to ask myself the question: am I reaching every child here? I’ve also had some coaching conversations recently with teachers who, frankly, just like the safety of a cover-to-cover approach.

Now before you read on, hear this: If you’re a teacher who uses a basal reading program, I’m not mad at you. Honestly. You are part of the majority–75% of US elementary schools still use a core reading program to teach reading skills. You are part of a big group, and I just can’t be mad at y’all. That’s just too exhausting…and I’m not into teacher-hate. I realize, after all, that you may HAVE to use a basal reading program because your district is making you—especially if you are in an urban or “underperforming” school. Maybe you are a brand new teacher who just CAN’T spend time digging for fresh material because you already put in a gazillion hours per week just keeping your head above water (I remember well.) Maybe you have a math or science background, and teaching reading is a stretch for you, even using a basal reader. I get it. And I’m not finger-waggin’. Teaching is tough, and you don’t need more critics.

I’m hoping this article can be helpful in your thinking.

 

The Basal Reader

I’ll pause here to give the basal reader a little credit. There is a reason that they are created and used, and I’ll take a second to give the basal its due. (Not a long second, mind you, but it’s Easter and I’m trying to be generous.)

For very young readers, basal readers can be an excellent—and even essential—resource. Students are learning to decode, and they need to have reading material with carefully controlled vocabulary so they aren’t overwhelmed. With a basal reader, young readers can hit that nice balance of 90% “previously learned” words or words which contain familiar phonics rules, and be exposed to a measured number of new words.

Basal readers for emerging and skilled readers have some advantages, too: they are typically sequenced logically, with a spiraling format that has the students coming back to review previous concepts. The texts typically ascend in rigor through the book. Basals are designed to cover all of the reading skills in a particular curriculum (right now, anything that says “Common Core” on it is flying off the shelves). Core curriculum materials are typically user-friendly for teachers as they have ready-made activities provided, including vocabulary, writing prompts, graphics, skills, strategies, and sometimes even technology or extension ideas.

I understand theoretically why districts with underperforming schools are making the switch to basal reading programs; with high teacher turnover, teachers fresh out of college, and very little money for classroom libraries, core reading materials give schools a little consistency and a little direction in the scope-and-sequence department. I completely understand.

But I’ll say it as plainly as I can: basal reading programs are not the best way to lead our children into literate lives.

 

Why We Should Can the “Canned”

The limitations of basals are many: great literature is often edited, dumbed-down, or censored. Teachers often are provided a script to follow, and stick to it, regardless of the needs of their learners. Rarely is there meaningful context provided for a passage of text. The texts themselves can be mind-numbingly tedious. Basals readers are typically presented whole-class, which means that the instruction often defaults to “one-size-fits-all.” Illustrations tend to be antiquated (or not culturally diverse) and can therefore be unrelatable for students. The assessments are often terrible, and get at only surface-level understanding.

These are weaknesses to core reading programs, certainly. BUT—they aren’t the basis of my claim that we should “can the canned.”

I think there are two huge fundamental understandings that we all need to embrace as teachers. These values are the reason why I won’t adopt a cover-to-cover approach in my classroom. I may have to, at some point, so bear with me—I’m getting to the “how we can build a bridge to the basal” stage in a minute. But before I get there, let’s acknowledge these truths.

The first: WE TEACH THE CHILD.We don’t teach “the program.” We don’t even teach “the standards.” The children are our curriculum. We assess their needs, and decide what the next steps are for our young readers. We first ask THE ESSENTIAL QUESTION: what is best for the child? Then we carefully think about how to scaffold the student to the standard. Then we select the tool. It might be a text selection from a basal, or it might not be. The tool is secondary to the student.

The second: A BASAL READER CAN KILL A STUDENT’S LOVE OF READING, AND THAT, FRANKLY, IS A TRAGEDY.  If a student’s framework for the question “what is reading?” is built around the idea that he has pages to get through to please his teacher, and that reading is something that is assigned and then assessed, then he does not get to experience the wonderful pleasure that is, as Stephen King puts it, “a uniquely portable magic.” Our students deserve to experience that magic, plain and simple.

We want to build our young learners’ imaginations, enlarge their realm of experiences, and show them what the world holds for them. We want to empower them by giving them choices about what they read. We can build their confidence and pique their interest as learners by letting them re-read books they find thrilling or comforting or hilarious. Why not let them abandon books that are boring and try something else? (Maybe not perpetually, but occasionally). Why not let them savor the climax of a book by reading it alone, or at home, or over and over again because it was great? Why not let them grab a book about bugs, or volcanoes, or dinosaurs, or a crime-solving mouse, if that’s what gets them to read on? The more opportunities we give our young scholars to make decisions about their own learning—guided by our advice and support, of course–the more footholds we give them into a lifetime of literacy. THAT is the goal.

Most teachers have books in their rooms, and supplement their core reading programs with their classroom libraries. I’m glad for this. But we need to be very mindful of what connotations we create for our students about the word reading. Do they see it as fun? As freeing? As something to talk about? As imagination-food? I think when we rely on basals in a classroom, the connotation of the word reading shifts away from the positive and exciting, and more in the dangerous, potentially unalterable direction of the dry, obligatory, and irrelevant. Having students turned off reading, or having negative associations with it, is too big a price to pay.

I just won’t pay that price.

Wow, Carmel, you’re thinking, you are fired up. Yes, yes, I am. Very un-Canadian of me.

And, wow, Carmel, you are in for a nasty shock if you ever are in the unfortunate position of having to adopt a core reading program. Yes, yes, I am. Thanks for your concern.

And, wow, Carmel, you might be shooting yourself in the foot when it comes to testing time. Nope. That hasn’t been my experience, nor does research support it. Empowering students does not have to come at the expense of their testing results.  It is not a zero-sum game.

 

Living with the Basal

For those of you who have to use basals, the following material is for you. And this is for me, as well, when that day comes when I am told I have to adopt a core reading program. I think it’s possible to stay true to the best practices of teaching, and obey your district. I think there are ways to satisfy the requirements of “adopting” a set curriculum, still honoring the child, and preserving the magic of reading. The following are my ideas for blending the “have-to” and the “my way”:

  • Use basal readers as a tool only. Use your best instructional strategies, and then pick the texts that suit those. If you use close reading, close read—and when a passage from the basal fits the needs of the students, use it. If you do literature circles, use a passage from the basal if it is differentiated appropriately for the learners in that group. If you do reading workshop—actually, forget it….never use a basal in reading workshop.

 

  • Determine the theme you wish to share with your learners, and pull texts from the basal (and from other sources) that surround that theme. You and your students determine what is interesting and relevant for your class, not some Table of Contents in a teacher guide.

 

  • If you are reading from a basal, take time to connect the passage to the students’ own experiences, other texts you’ve shared, and other reading skills you’ve learned. Often passages in a basal reader will seem completely foreign and bizarre without context. Give some background to students, about the author, genre, backstory, or other noteworthy features. Without a framework for understanding, basal readers typically won’t have relevance or any spark of personal connection. To borrow Horace Mann’s phrase, you’ll be “hammering on a cold iron.”

 

  • To extend the previous idea, let older students do internet searches for context for basal passages. Who was Langston Hughes? What was Poe’s life like? Emily Dickenson doesn’t look like much of a rebel…was she really? Let students discover some context and see if relevance and interest follows.

 

  • Assess students based on what you’ve scaffolded and practiced in class. The assessments provided in the teacher’s guide are rarely aligned to how you have tackled your objective…or rather, how you have designed a student-centered experience.

 

  • Stay out of the workbooks that go with the readers if you possibly can. Use your creativity—or Pinterest or Google or the ideas of your peers—to design meaningful practice opportunities for students. I have yet to find one engaging worksheet. ..even the ones I make myself!

 

  • Let students design some of the text activities. Are they crazy about small group discussion? Do they like to storyboard? Act out scenes? Write responses on the computer? Create questions for each other and exchange them? Give book talks? Popcorn read? Embrace the particular personality of your class.

 

  • In all grades, basal reading passages can make for great choral reading opportunities…once in a while.

 

  • Ask students to point out to you particular texts from the basal that they’d like to use as tools in their learning. Take their suggestions.

 

  • Use a basal passage to teach a grammar lesson. (If you’ve been on my blog before, or in my classroom, you know I believe grammar is taught best in context.) Put a short passage of text and ask the students to identify how the author used a particular convention—a semi-colon, for example. Ask the students to identify how and why the author used that convention. Then, put up another passage of text and see if the same idea holds true. After a few passages, come together to articulate how that grammar convention applies. The students have created the meaning for themselves, so it will be more likely to stick.

 

  • If you’re reading a basal passage as a whole class, pause often to discuss meaning and structure. Reading pages at a time can be daunting, and student interest will wane even more.

 

  • If you are reading aloud to the class, model reading skills that you have been teaching. Pause to re-read for clarity. Figure out an unknown word based on its context. Stop to discuss cause and effect, or to make a quick comparison to another text you’ve read. Keep the thinking constant and fresh.

 

  • Photocopy the pages from the basal, and have the students annotate them. Let them completely cover them with notes, questions, connections, ideas, and discussion points. Or, give them post-its to annotate in the actual book. (It is a universal truth that all students love post-its.)

 

  • Keep the basal out of workshop. I said that before, didn’t I? Hmm.

 

  • Use the basal to compare and contrast the structure of genres. This will take some hopping around the pages, probably, but remember—student, then standard, then tool. Hopping around is not a bad thing.

 

  • Select snippets from the basal reader to find close reading passages that COULD suit your learners—keeping in mind, of course, that you may need to find something more rigorous than grade level with the scaffolding that you’re doing in a good close reading session (see previous posts). You’d also need to keep in mind that most basal reading passages are way too long to be useful for effective close reading. Gauge the interest factor, too—basal passages are not known for being thrilling.

 

  • Most importantly, remind your learners constantly that the skills that they “learn” in a basal need to be applied to all the other reading (and writing!) that they do. Remind them that the basal is a starting place only. The powerful instruments in play, here, are their minds. Students can take the skills from the basal, but what really counts is how they use those skills other parts of their literacy ecosystem—school-wide, at home, and in life in general.

 

You may have caught there that I used the word ecosystem again, and if you’re a follower of this blog, you’ll know that this word crops up in most of my posts. That’s deliberate. It’s my favorite way to describe the best and most powerful way to use the language arts in a classroom. To me, the evidence of great ELA instruction is a humming, student-centered environment in which literacy abounds. The teacher has designed the instructional strategies in such a way that reading, writing, grammar, and speaking all come together in a creative, connected, purposeful “swirl.”

As for the basal reader? It can be a part of that ecosystem. It can. With careful thought about how to keep the ecosystem in balance, the text passages contained within the covers of a basal can be used to enhance student learning. If teachers are willing to remember the indispensable truth: students come first, and we are responsible to their needs first, then we can make the basal work as tool to serve our young learners.

I’d love to hear your thinking on this topic. What have your experiences with core reading programs been like? Please comment below.

 

Sources:

Weakland, M. (2014). Learning to live with the basal. http://www.reading.org/reading-today/classroom/post/engage/2014/01/23/learning-to-live-with-the-basal#.Uzdqvq69LCR

Dudley-Marling, C. and Paugh, P. (2004). If you have to use a basal. A classroom teacher’s guide to struggling readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 78-90.

Bruner, J. (2007). Using basals: determining how to use basals effectively. http://www.infed.org/thinkers/bruner.htm

 

The F-Word

“Can I give you a little feedback?”…the phrase that makes the pit in our stomach start doing the Harlem Shake. In the education world, feedback comes flying at us, whether we have been warned or not. No matter what our role in the education realm—teacher, principal, aide, coach–the f-word is something we deal with daily, ready or not.

Now that I’m an Instructional Coach, I’ve done a little studying-up on giving feedback. It’s part of my job, and I want to do it well.  It’s harder than I thought—supporting people as they improve at their craft. I’ve learned some good lessons this year about working with teachers; there’s an art to giving feedback. I’m learning.

This has also been a season of getting feedback for me. Now, I’m no babe in the woods when it comes to getting feedback.  I am a pastor’s wife of fifteen years; I’ve handled my fair share of critique about my husband and my family from a variety of sources, both credible and ridiculous.  I consider myself somewhat of a salty ole’ survivor when it comes to having a family in the spotlight. On top of that, I’ve been teaching for nine years now, so I’m no neophyte at getting feedback from parents, students, and administrators, either. I’d say I’m pretty used to people making comments about me, in all kinds of ways. (Not to mention, I’m used to both Canadian-style feedback and American-style feedback.  But that’s another post).

That said, I’m not sure I have ever had a time period in my educational career where I have had as much feedback given to me in one concentrated period of time. The “here-is-my-opinion-of-you-Carmel-McDonald” has been smacking me squarely in the face lately. To be honest, I’m a little ouchy.

So, the question for me the last couple of months has been: what do I do with this feedback? How do I process it all? Where do I go from here? 

I will share my ruminations with you, with the admission that this is not coming from a place of incredible proficiency. I’m self-aware…but I don’t always know how to shape that awareness into productivity and passion. But, I’m thinking it through. My thoughts are churning along these lines.

        1. Consider the expertise of the source.

That one seems basic, doesn’t it? But it’s harder than it sounds to credit the source of our feedback with his or her due credentials. Think about it–when we get feedback that’s negative, especially if it’s not delivered nicely, don’t most of us default to, “well, what do they know?”

It is hard to consider fairly what that person might actually know.  If our feedback-giver has credibility, because of experience, ability, authority, or access to information we don’t have, then it might be appropriate to stop and listen…even if that’s hard.  Maybe we have received feedback on an instructional technique, or a communication style we’ve adopted, or a situation we’ve handled. When it’s something even more personal, that’s when things get brutally difficult—we have to set our ego aside and do some really honest self-reflection. That’s challenging when we are feeling tired, stressed, or unappreciated…and let’s be honest, we’re teachers.  So that’s a lot of the time.

Personal anecdote here: this year I poured by heart and soul into a manuscript about close reading (you’ll know from other blog posts that I am pretty passionate about this topic). I sent eight copies out to publishers.  I have heard back from four.  Is that ever a vulnerable experience: with each upload, I’m thinking, here is my baby, a piece of writing I spent a whole summer creating, and within its pages I expose my beliefs and values as an educator—please deem it worthy! Of the four publishers I heard back from, I got one “yes” (another post on that later…absolute elation!), one “we already have several books on this but will keep this on file,” and two “no’s.”  The “no’s” each came with an entire page of critique about the weaknesses of my manuscript.

My first reaction was ouch! The comments were direct, undiplomatic, and tough to read.

But after my first little bout of pouting and writer-EMO, I read the feedback again. I wanted to ignore it, if I’m honest. But the critiques were from two of the biggest educational publishers in the country, the publishers I really wanted to accept my book. I read their comments again and again, and finally realized that I would be a fool NOT to accept these opinions.  They know more than I do by a long shot.  And, both of them told me, in a comment I had chosen to ignore during my initial petulant snit, that if I made the suggested changes I could re-submit.

What got me through that? Recognizing the expertise of the source.  Checking my ego at the door and acknowledging that I did not know more.

The other thing that got me through? Time. I came back to the pages of critique after a few days when my snit-fest was done. I am actually going to adopt their suggestions, both in my manuscript and in my role as coach at my school.

On a less high-falutin’ note, I recently got some hard-to-hear feedback from two very close friends and colleagues. We all know it hurts to have people close to us say hard things. But again, after the initial bruising, I took the feedback, and it has given me new perspective on a few aspects of my job. The reason I could take the feedback?  Their expertise wasn’t rooted in their expertise as educators (although they are both very good); it was rooted in their expertise about me. They knew me well, and knew what I needed to hear.  That counts as expertise too.

You may be asking, what if the feedback comes from someone with less experience than me? Less expertise? Well, it doesn’t make the feedback invalid. Let’s take a look at some other variables.

  1. Consider the motive of the source.

As educators, we will all rub up against other educators who have more experience, less experience; who are older, or younger; more ambitious or more laissez-faire; more rigid or less rigid. We get feedback from parents all the time. It’s just bound to happen that we will get feedback from people who we perceive to be less-than-worthy to give it, or people who we know don’t “see the whole picture.”  It will just happen.  That’s teaching.

So, in these cases we need to ask ourselves: why is this feedback being given? And why NOW?

I think any time we are given critique from school administration, even if that person’s picture of what we do is incomplete, then it deserves at least some careful, discerning consideration. Administrators HAVE to give feedback—that’s their job. And no matter what we feel as if they’ve seen (or haven’t seen), we need to at least consider that they have walked into our rooms and have, at the very least, a snapshot of what our classroom is like. So, we take the feedback, knowing that their mandate is to make us better educators.  And, without exception, administrators want their schools to be better.  So, carefully considering their feedback is worth doing…even if the process hurts, and even if their comments don’t reflect a holistic view of what we do day-to-day.  And our job is to grow, and to educate children well. If the feedback spurs us on to growth, even if it’s hard to hear, we take it.

Let’s admit it, though—not all feedback we get in a school environment is given in a calm manner, with healthy growth in mind. We’ve all faced unwelcome commentary that is misguided, misinformed, or shared with the intent to wound, intimidate, or “cut down.” A big tip-off that feedback is being given with less-than-upright motives is in the delivery. Feedback given in “angry rant” form is rarely purely accurate.  Neither is feedback given on-the-fly in tense situations, or feedback where the other person needs to urgently pull you into an empty classroom or office to tell you “what they really think.” Real feedback can wait. Legitimate feedback is still true once anger and frustration have died down.

Another tip-off that feedback isn’t coming from a healthy, growth-seeking place is when generalizations are made, like “we all think that…” or “a bunch of us feel as if…”   In those situations, I think it’s perfectly fair to step away, and ask, does this person want to help me? Or does this person want me to know how much influence he has?  I think in many cases, the latter is true.  Here, we can step back from the situation and ask ourselves, “what is true in these statements, and what isn’t?”

In either of these scenarios, there might be a kernel of truth in the commentary—after all, we have clearly made someone angry or frustrated, or someone is feeling a great need to cut us down to size in order to be validated. These moments are why God gave us discernment. This is when we sit down to do the hard work of sorting the truth about ourselves from the angry ranty stuff. We decide whether or not to accept the commentary that might just be word vomit, borne from a place of anger or insecurity, or whether it’s truth we need to accept. Over time, learning how to sort the two grows us into stronger, more self-aware people.

  1. Ask someone you trust for a check of your “blind spots.”

In seasons like this when I am overwhelmed by feedback, I find someone I trust and ask him or her to speak truthfully to me about my “blind spots,” the areas in my job (or life in general) I might not be seeing clearly. At work, I have a colleague that does a great job of this.  Without giving specific details about the feedback I’ve been getting from other sources (I don’t want to start gossip), I ask him about areas in which I need to grow.  Has this person seen anything I am not seeing?

It’s a risky and hard thing to ask for, so my suggestion is, don’t ask if you’re not ready to grow. But ultimately, the most powerful adjustments I’ve made to my teaching and coaching is because I have asked people I trust for gentle, encouraging corrections to my thinking.  Ultimately, I’ve found it motivating and empowering.

  1. Forgive quickly.

We’ve all had feedback that was awful. We’ve all been given feedback that we didn’t agree with at all.  At evaluation time, we’ve all been given a number that was just plain old insulting (when is being reduced to a number NOT insulting?)

But one thing I’ve learned is, if I don’t get over it quickly and I let the resentment fester, it will end up burning me. The hurt will come out in some way that I can’t predict or regulate well. Whatever tactics we need to take to forgive our critics—praying for their good, having a reconciling conversation, or just working out our frustration at the gym, we have to get over it.

Unforgiveness grows over time, and ends up leaking out, whether we want it to or not. And at the end of the day, it affects the children we teach. And they deserve better than that.

5.  Remember that we are ALL highly flawed.  Feedback just points out your brand of flaw.

I think it’s natural for us to get negative critique, and then default to, “oh yeah? Well, I know you are but what am I?”  (Use a childish sing-songy voice there.)  Oops: I may have just revealed my immaturity.

It’s easy to look back at our feedback-giver and analyze his every word and action for something to invalidate his critique of us. We do that, don’t we?  We look for “outs.” Well, he only thinks that because he never taught middle school.  Or, her class is unruly all the time; why would I listen to her?

The bottom line is, though, we are all imperfect. None of us has it together enough to give feedback that comes from a place of perfect knowledge and practice.

It has been freeing for me to repeat to myself that everyone is flawed; the people who are giving me feedback are just pointing out to me my particular brand of flaw. That’s it. That’s the most liberating thing I have learned. There’s no educator on the planet who does not warrant some kind of critique. So, I’ll take my turn. I need to choose to relax about that.  I’m not perfect.

        6.  Model the kind of feedback we want from others.

 We all know the Gandhi slogan, be the change you wish to see in the world. Well, not get all Gandhi-ish in your face, but there is truth to the idea that we can set a precedent in our communication patterns with others. The way we communicate with others over time can becomes a pattern that sticks. Think about it—on every school staff, gripers find each other and gripe.  Skeptics find each other and nit-pick.  Communication habits develop and stay with certain pairs of people, sometimes shaping conversation patterns for years at a time.

So, if we want to get healthy feedback from others, it stands to reason that we should give it liberally to others.  Write colleagues encouraging notes in their mailboxes—mention specific things you admire about their teaching.  Find positive things to say to your colleagues, and say them consistently and earnestly.

Over time, when the relational capacity is healthy and the pattern for mutually respectful, honest discourse is laid, most relationships can handle the tough stuff when it comes. When a person has corrective feedback to give you, the pattern that you have set all along may be the guiderails of the conversation. Hopefully, your established pattern of encouragement, optimism, and tact may keep the conversation on track.

        7. Feed your soul.

I will admit: my skin is thin right now because I haven’t been doing this with diligence in the last little while. Have you noticed that in your own life, too?  The correlation between being crumpled by feedback and the time you take to feed your soul what it needs to thrive?

David Brinkley, the famous American newscaster, once said: A successful person is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks that others throw at him or her.  That’s tough to do.  Teaching is a tough, tough job. We’re exhausted by the enormity of our calling—we pour it out for our students, because we love them.  Because we want the best for them. Because they need us. As much as feedback hurts, and as much as it wears us down sometimes, we just don’t have the luxury of getting buried in bricks.

Whatever “feeding your soul” looks like for you, take time to do it. Run, paint, or journal.  Pray. Work out. See a counselor. Dance with your kids. Walk your dog.  Make the time to keep your resilience up, because teaching is hard, and the bricks will come flying.

For the sake of our kids, and our own sake, we need to come into our schools ready for the enormous and important task of educating and loving on children.

 

As I said before, I don’t have this all figured out. But I do have a clear picture of what I want:  to be one of the lead learners at my school.  Learning means embracing growth. And that means I need to swallow the feedback when I get it.

Please comment below. What are your tips for handling feedback?  What have you learned about getting and giving feedback?  I’d love for you to share your wisdom.

 

Developing Stamina In Our Readers

It’s “reading month” at my school.  We have special assemblies and activities to motivate kids to read, and celebrate the power of reading in our lives.  We add some additional “drop-everything-and-read” time into the schedule. We stress the importance of reading at home.  It’s a great month; any time literacy is celebrated and promoted, I’m a happy teacher.

However, two questions rattle around in my mind each year during reading month, and I can’t get them out.  The first is, how do we further build a culture of literacy at our school so that every month feels like reading month?  I am going to save that question for another series of blog posts; I have a lot brewing up in my little ole’ noggin on that topic. Brace yourself.

The second question that burns my brain is: why is it like pulling teeth trying to get kids to sit still for a few minutes and enjoy a book? And how do I help them with that?

For some kids, reading stamina isn’t an issue at all.  We all have a handful of kids that can just plop down somewhere and read for an hour, no problem. Maybe their parents are voracious readers and they grew up with reading as part of the ethos of their home.  Maybe they are turned on to a series they find compelling. Maybe they simply have learned to enjoy the escape. Maybe great teachers have modeled what engaged reading looks and feels like.

But let’s be honest:  many of us see our students, or at least a portion of them, struggle through independent reading time at school.  When it’s time for readers’ workshop or read-to-self time, our kiddoes roll around on the floor under the coat cubbies, fold their pages into origami shapes, make faces at their nemeses,  count the ceiling tiles…any sort of “fake reading”  pastimes that develop them quite nicely as little actors but really not so much as little readers.

As teachers, we see the problem with this.  We want our students to read, and be hungry to read.  We know and espouse the truths about literacy being the backbone of all subjects, and reading developing the whole person.  We believe it! We share the values and want to help our kids.  Now how do we get them to stop lollygagging and flopping about on the floor?

I want to share with you an analogy that I’ve been thinking through a lot recently: reading stamina is much like running stamina.  Stay with me here.

I have always been a runner.  As a kid I used to throw my book bag onto the school bus and then try to beat the bus home—I ran a 5-mile stretch of busy road that made me infamous in my neighborhood as “crazy running girl.”  I ran track all through high school.  I eventually played basketball on a full scholarship in college, and ran almost every day to maintain my fitness, even beyond practice time.  Stamina had never been much of an issue for me as a young person.

Then I took about five years off to have babies.  I spend those years trapped under dirty diapers and crustless peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.  I didn’t run at all, and fell woefully out of shape.

My first run back after the hiatus was the hardest and most embarrassing thing I had done in a long time. The ugly, jiggly trip to the stop sign at the end of my street was painful.  But I also knew that I wanted running back in my life and had to build some stamina in order to have the outcome I wanted—fitness. Health. A few minutes of peace.

There’s a strong parallel there to building reading stamina—a student’s ability to sit and focus on a book for more than a few minutes. I think many of our kids are simply “out-of-shape” readers. And the more I reflect on it, the more I believe the lessons I took away from my journey back into running apply to my students as far as getting them to stick with a book for a while.

Here is what I learned:

  • Knowing the end goal—the “why”—is invaluable. 

For me as a runner, it meant losing weight and getting my love for running back.  For a young reader, the why of sustained reading isn’t always clear.  As teachers, we need to stress the why all the time. Stickers might not be motivating for kids, or prizes for the number of minutes read—at least, not in the long term.  But if we can consistently “preach” the reasons why reading is worthwhile—it develops our mental strength, it gives us new perspectives and ideas, it makes us stronger writers, it develops our empathy as people, it prepares us for our future…I could go on and on—then over time the ethic of reading might slowly seep in and take hold.

  •  Our kids want to be strong readers; some of them just don’t know how. 

As a runner, I wanted to be capable and strong. I watched YouTube videos on form, read some articles, and asked for pointers from experienced friends.  

As teachers looking to develop stamina in our learners, this is where we step in and teach the kids the skills. The tenth  common core standard for reading says that our learners should be “reading independently and proficiently.”  So, we need to teach and practice the first nine skills over and over to get them to the tenth.  Every day.  Without fail. We need to use every instructional strategy available to us to reach the kids however we need to; they must know what good, engaged reading looks like. So, close read with them.  Hold reading conferences with consistency.  Talk about books all the time. Ask rigorous questions.  Do whatever it takes to give kids the reading skills they need so they can tackle a book on their own.

There is a lot of research floating around right now about the link between a student’s test scores and his or her reading stamina.  The claim is that regardless of skill level, if a student can’t sustain focus for the duration of a standardized test, then the score will not reflect the student’s ability.  It makes perfect sense.  Now hear me—I don’t want students to build stamina simply to get better test scores.  If you know me at all, you know that I believe teaching is about inviting students into abundantly literate lives, and that’s the main thing. But the test-score/stamina correlation is certainly something to reflect on.  Standardized testing certainly isn’t going away in the next little while. I will halt my comments there.

  •  Readers, like runners, need the right equipment

Once I got a properly-fitting pair of running shoes, a funky armband for my ipod, and some earbuds that didn’t fall out, I enjoyed running a lot more. For readers, the same holds true.  Our classrooms need good libraries (I beg, borrow and steal to get great books on my shelves each year.)  Kids need consistent trips to the library—and that library time must be revered as  sacred and important, not just a time-filler.  They need comfortable places to flop in the classroom.  But most of all, they need books that interest themTeacher-determined or mandated books don’t count, in my opinion. When I was a young reader, to me that felt like “somebody else’s equipment.”

  •  Both runners and readers need safe and distraction-free environments

I am excited about my students using Kindles and Nooks.  How cool that they can download interesting texts and within minutes be reading something their friend has shared as “dude..this is epic!”  What a boon to the reading culture in our schools!  You will never hear me say anything other than “more technology, please” when it comes to our classrooms.

 However—I think as teachers we need to be mindful of how our students are using their e-readers, and the idea that we are all fighting the “oh look—click!” mentality when it comes to readingI do that; don’t you?  I’m reading…and then I feel the compulsive need to check my Facebook feed. Or text my friend about the amount of work I have to do.  Or chase down the news alert that has popped up about the situation in the Ukraine.  I am 38 years old and can hardly stay focused on an electronic device for more than 5 minutes without making a click.  We need to share expectations with our students about what sustained reading looks like, and talk about ways to counter distraction—body positioning, closing all tabs but one, turning off volume, setting goals—whatever works.  Opting-out of a reading session to chase down a tempting whim counters our efforts to build stamina.

  •  Stamina is built slowly over time. 

For some foolish reason, after five years off I assumed that I would get out there on the road and manage to be the impressively fast, confident runner I had been in college.  That was plain stupid.  We live in an immediate culture, and I wanted results now!  (It has taken me a long time—hours and hours of time spent on the road– to build up to my current level of middle-aged sort-of-fast running.) As teachers, I think we need to fight the same discouragement; our students are not going to become strong, engaged readers in a month or two, even with our mad skills as reading teachers. But we should make a start, and celebrate each iota of growth along the way.

I like the way the 2 Sisters, developers of the Daily 5/Café model of reading workshop, explain stamina-building:  start small, with the students reading for a few minutes.  But those minutes must be PERFECT:  silent, engaged, undistracted. The readers should participate in a short, perfect prototype of reading independently and proficiently.  The teacher stops the class if there is off-task behavior. The teacher regroups, reminds, and resets.  Then the readers try again—perfectly—aiming for a minute or two more than the last time.  Yes, the process can take months.  However, diving right in to long stretches of silent reading (done poorly) certainly bears bad fruit over time. Sustained, unexamined mediocrity is where bad habits breed.

  •  Readers, like runners, need a fan base.  We need support

As a runner, it feels great to have my family and friends cheer me on in a race.  I do adventure races with my husband a few times a year, and we love the shared experience. (Nothing like the power of mud to fortify the marriage bond.) 

If we want our students to achieve excellence as readers, meaning that they are skilled, fluent, invested, open-minded, and passionate, then we need to cheer them on.  They may have parents at home who pass along to them the value of reading. But then again, they might not.  So we have to become our students’ fan base.  We are the ones who have to walk them through their strategy.  We have to be hooting and hollering when they are closing in on the end of a book.  We are the ones who have to be finding new challenges and prodding them to try.  We are the ones who have to give the high-fives, and “well dones!” and “I’m so proud of you’s!”  Teachers, that’s part of our job. It is probably the most important part.

 If we want readers who are, as the common core says, “independent and proficient,” then we need to be the coach, trainer, equipment manager, team physician, and entire cheerleading squad for our learners.  They need us.

In a culture of out-of-shape readers, where distractions prevail and there are a thousand other ways to entertain the mind, our job is to keep students reading using any means necessary. 

Please participate in this discussion! I encourage you to leave a comment below if you have an effective idea for strategy-building, or a thought that would contribute to my thinking on this.  (Running tips are also welcome!)

 

 

Resuscitating the Homework Experience

I always loved teaching my middle school students about connotation and denotation.  For those of you who haven’t been a “tween” suffering through an English lesson for a while, here’s a reminder:  the denotation of a word is its literal meaning—an impartial definition, basically.  The connotation of a word is the idea or feeling we get when we read or hear it.

My lesson connotation/denotation was fun.  I would throw out a word, and get the kids to respond by shouting out about whether the connotation of that word was negative or positive and why.  We usually laughed a lot and entered into a good-natured debate about the connotation of words like lofty or extravagant. I geek out on conversations like this, so I was in my glory and the kids relished the opportunity to participate in some teacher-sanctioned shouting.

My first example was always the word homework.  As far as connotation goes, that word was a nice high lob right across home plate.  Just about every living, breathing North American kid associates that word negatively.  I dare say, if I repeated the lesson with parents, most of them would give the word homework a thumbs-down  for connotation as well.  Maybe even some teachers, too.

Homework is a hot topic in education.  Some schools hold it as a value, and set a pattern of nightly homework assignments starting in the young grades. These schools hold the belief that setting a habit of nightly homework helps students develop study habits that perpetuate into high school and college. The intent is also that students have continued reinforcement of objectives taught during the school day.

There are also educators who are anti-homework.  They cite research that negates the idea that homework contributes to student learning. (To be fair, there is also research that validates the idea of homework. Just a caveat.)  Anti-homework advocates often communicate the need for children to have added play time and family time. Without homework, according to homework dissenters, children have more time for exercise, hobbies, and extra-curricular activities. Some argue that homework sets up an adversarial family dynamic; others point out the inequity of some students getting consistent parent support while other children are not in the position to receive the help.

I see all sides of the issue—I am concurrently a teacher, parent, and student—and I’ve worked at schools with varying stances. I am going to sheepishly (or wisely?) skirt around my personal stance here and do my best to give you some observations I’ve made over the years.  Stay with me–the point of this post is to spark creativity, not debate.

The one bold assertion I’ll make here is this:  a lot of homework assignments that teachers send home are pretty darn meaningless. I think we can all agree on that.

I’ll admit it: I’ve participated in the stupidity, especially when I was a young teacher who didn’t have a great handle on year-long planning.  I’ve also been guilty of heaping some pretty vapid work onto students in the name of “rigor.”

My thoughts about homework have evolved over the years.  After years in the classroom and now a few months as a coach, I’ve come to identify some gross misuses for homework assignments, but also some great ideas for supplementation to learning that can be valuable (and dare I say it?) …fun.

In my opinion, homework should NEVER be the following:

  • Busywork.  If it isn’t necessary that students complete the assignment in order to master the learning objective, if is a waste of time.  I contend that busywork dishonors the families of our students, and steals the precious time they need for all sorts of other things.
  • The initial teaching of an objective.  If a teacher hasn’t exposed the students to a concept yet, and scaffolded them to a point where they are gaining confidence in that skill, homework should not do the job of teaching. Teaching new concepts to kids is often frustrating for parents and trying to learn from a worksheet can be completely deflating for students.  Teachers have over 170 school days to teach concepts; anything done at home should be reinforcement only.
  • Anything assigned to struggling students that has been given with the (usually misguided) hope that students will “get it” at home.  Teachers should teach. Teachers should be wary of sending home work that has the potential for students to practice the wrong way. In the long run, that strategy will bear bad fruit.
  • Anything sent home with the purpose of looking “rigorous” to parents or administrators. (You’re not fleecing anyone, anyway.)
  • A pattern of work that has the potential to kill a student’s love for reading, love for problem-solving, or natural curiosity.  Now hear me on this—not all homework assignments are fun, and no teacher can possible plan exciting, awe-inspiring activities for students to complete nightly.  That’s crazy.  We’ve all had some pretty awful assignments to complete and lived to tell about it, right? But it CAN happen that a student, forced to complete dry, uninteresting worksheets every night in a pattern that spans years of grade-school, can end up associating learning with the terrible (but easy to find and grade) worksheets that are sent home week after week in packet form.  Students should be able to keep the twinkle in their eye that they begin with as a new learner in kindergarten.  Learning should have a positive connotation, and homework shouldn’t kill it.

Now that we’re all riled up and questioning all those hours we put at our desks when we would have rather been outside riding bikes with our friends, let’s follow this up with some great ideas for learning reinforcement. Homework doesn’t have to be wasted time.  Let’s take a minute to acknowledge that learning is the most important task a child has—and what happens at home is an integral part of that.

So, here are some ideas for homework that doesn’t make kids want to tear their hair out.  Some of these are ideas I’ve used in my classroom over the years.  Some I have stolen from colleagues.  A few I have found on twitter or on teacher blogs.

Meaningful homework ideas:

  • My go-to favorite homework assignment is to get the student to teach a particular concept to a grown up at home.  Research shows that when a person teaches a concept, he or she gains far deeper understanding of that concept him- or herself.  Getting kids to explain concepts to their parents is not only great learning reinforcement, but if the parent plays it right, it can be a great confidence-builder for the child as well.
  • Asking students to interview people about their opinion on a topic.  This could mean calling grandma, asking the mailman, or posting a question on Facebook.  The student has to be ready to bring his or her findings to class the next day.  (Forming questions is a wonderful way to provoke both analytical and evaluative thinking!)
  • I assigned this one a lot:  getting students to write or sing a silly song about a concept.  I have had many ridiculous song parodies (sung by students confident enough to share…I would never a force a vocal performance on a kid) about subject/predicate, done opera-style, rap-style, country-style, or even Gregorian-chant style.  Kicking the day off with a silly song always makes for a great lesson buy-in!
  • Have students play games.  The internet is a treasure-trove of ideas for this; assign students to play a game that evening. It could be an online game or app; if the student doesn’t have computer access, it could be a card game, dice game, or even a game involving Cheerios or toothpicks. Better yet, supply the materials that are needed to play. Students love free stuff, don’t they?
  • Give the students something to think about.  Tell them that they will have to share their thinking with a partner, or possibly the class, the next day.  Thinking can be done in bed, at karate class, or at the top of a tree.
  • Give the students the task of having a reflective experience about their current unit of study.  Let them choose the medium—scribbles on a napkin, web drawn on a paper plate, email sent to a friend, poem written in a notebook. Choice is empowering.
  • Give students assignments in which they will create rather than consume.  Give students the chance to make things that solve problems, show learning, or provoke thought.  Consuming ideas include doing things a set number of times, using up a certain number of pages, filling in a set number of blanks.  (True—math might be exempt from this ideal; it does take practice and repetition to master.  But it doesn’t always have to be repetitive, does it?)  Creating is the highest form of thinking, according to Bloom’s Taxonomy.
  • Give assignments that reflect real-life:  cooking, counting money, writing thank-you cards, folding towels into shapes, etc.
  • Assign silly things sometimes.  My son’s teacher last year gave him the task of looking for change under the couch cushions.  We loved it!  There is a reason she is his favorite teacher of all time.
  • Once in a while I gave my students the assignment of helping a parent with a chore.  My students would occasionally groan, but I would follow up with a little mini-lecture on the importance of filling a need where you see one—the essence of both compassion and ambition.  The parents of my students also LOVED it.
  • Ask students if they want more opportunities for learning at home.  Many students do, if it is in a form they enjoy. If they take you up on your offer to provide learning extensions,  meet with each student briefly one-on-one to come up with a meaningful project or writing assignment together—something that is motivating and relevant, and the learner is excited to try.
  • Lastly, and most importantly, GET KIDS READING.  This is no surprise to anyone: research has found a relation between the amount of time that children read for fun on their own and reading achievement. Kids should get choice about what to read; nothing collapses a student’s desire to read than a teacher-assigned book.  Students should read.  Period.  It raises test scores—in math as well as language arts—but more importantly, promotes vocabulary growth, invokes higher-order thinking skills, exposes kids to new concepts and cultures, heightens communication skills, and generally raises the quality of life of a child.  As teachers, let’s give kids the gift of time to read.

As educators, I think it’s okay to land on either side of the fence about homework.  Both halves of the pasture, so to speak, have excellent teachers with the best of intentions. We all agree that kids’ learning is important.  Can each one of us please sit down and think, what is best for these children before grabbing the marker and writing up the assignment on the board?  Our schools, and our families, will be better for it.

Working Workshop?

I spend a fair amount of time looking at teacher blogs and popular education websites (too much, actually—I have burned a dinner or ten by getting sucked in.  Fortunately my family is gracious…and they have strong stomachs.)

I have noticed lately a pairing of terms that, in my mind, don’t fit together at all:  workshop and stations.  Go to Pinterest and see how much comes up, lumping the two instructional strategies together as if they are the same thing.  The same is true for all kinds of other sites. Many of us teachers use the terms synonymously.

But it’s not a semantics issue, really. The issue is that of intention and outcome. Most classrooms these days have a “workshop” time built into the daily schedule; it is considered best practice to have differentiated, independent practice time for students to interact with math, reading and writing concepts.  Most teachers, either by choice or by mandate, have time set aside for workshop.  And they should.   

But there is a world of difference, in my mind, between stations and workshop.

First, however, let’s address the similarities.  There is a reason that the terms have been paired: at first glance, a classroom doing stations and a classroom that’s workshopping look very much the same.  The students aren’t at their desks—they are moving around the room, possibly in pairs or groups, or maybe on their own.  Students are all doing something slightly different; some might be curled up reading, some might be practicing spelling words on the whiteboard, some might be writing in a journal.  In most classrooms, the students have been placed in groups by the teacher, often guided by recent testing data that indicates there are similarities in the skill set of the learners.  The teacher works with a few students at a time, and the remainder of the class is working independently.

Well, you say, that doesn’t sound bad at all!

It isn’t!  A classroom with this kind of structure is a wonderful place to start.

But we have to remember that the way a class is moving, and the way a class is grouped, and the fact that the students are completing activities independently does NOT necessarily mean they are making forward progress toward mastery.  A classroom that looks like this could just be passing the time between whole-class lessons. Even a classroom where the student movement functions like a well-oiled machine—the kids are quiet, they go from station to station with a minimum of fuss, they complete their tasks, and they don’t waste time—doesn’t mean that there is powerful, effective math and literacy growth taking place.  It just means the classroom is managed well.

Now hear me on this—that kind of thoughtful, intentional structure is necessary for learning to happen, so let’s celebrate it and commend the teachers who have this essential down pat. A well-managed room is essential for workshop.

But there is more to it.

If we are a teacher who is confused about the station-or-workshop distinction, we have a shift to make in our practices.   If we are frustrated with the idea of workshop because it is too messy, too free, too “airy fairy,” then we have a shift to make.  If we hate workshop because it is mandated by our school administrators and we find it more efficient to use whole-class instruction, then we have a shift to make. And here it is:  learning doesn’t just take place in the mini-lesson.  The workshop IS the learning time.

How, you ask?  Well, first of all, the entire premise of workshop is that it is differentiated.  If the activities you are giving the students don’t help them grow from their own level to the next, then it’s not workshop.  Workshop is about taking each student’s current skill set and stretching it.  Growth is the central principle of the whole idea.

Secondly, it is intentional time.  The teacher has to have designed each activity, each task, each page, with growth in mind.  The teacher has shared the purpose of the workshop so carefully and repeatedly that the students KNOW exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it.  It may involve struggle.  They may need scaffolding from the teacher.  The learners realize the importance of what they are doing. Ideally, they are fully focused on the task; they know it has been given to them with the goal of launching them to the next level as a reader, thinker, and problem-solver.

Lastly, workshop is teaching time.  The teacher simply can’t check out of workshop, or it’s doomed. Workshop is re-teaching time and helping time.  If a teacher isn’t circulating, helping, adjusting, correcting and providing feedback, workshop time completely loses its potency.  It is one evolutionary step away from busywork.  A thriving workshop has the teacher as the center of the activity, redirecting, checking, fluidly grouping, assessing, brainstorming, and prompting.  Some of the BEST learning takes place during workshop.  Personal, custom-made instruction from the teacher is a valuable gift to a student!

Yes, workshop takes a lot of planning up front to get up and going.  And yes, it is an intense time.  And yes, not all students will act perfectly when they are given independent work time.  BUT—workshop is worth it anyway.  The opportunity for students to demonstrate their skills and getting feedback in the process, is powerful education. Engagement ensues.  Empowerment ensues. And most of all, growth ensues.  

Stations are just an exercise in geography.