Category Archives: Literacy

Dr. King & the Labor of Public Education

MLK1 In March 1968, DR. Martin Luther King spoke to Local 1199 and spoke his famous words, “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” This quote is widely used, and if pulled out of context there is an optimism and openness that brings hope.   This speech also outlined, however, the “two Americas” and the similarities to what all working people want and need. He spoke of  “conditions in which families that can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community.” Today is not just a day to post a meme or a quote about Dr. King’s life and legacy, although I have enjoyed the mighty words coming through my social media feed. For me, this day is about examining the labor I am doing and how it can be uplifting or oppressive to others. As a public school teacher, I am fortunate to feel at this point in my career supported by colleagues and administration, able to creatively engage my students in a variety of ways, and to pursue my passion of teaching history and language arts with the needs of all students in mind. I can work to make sure this is the case in all schools across our state and in our nation, and I have committed to honoring Dr. King’s legacy by :

  • Supporting emphasis on civics, economics, history and geography in all public schools across the nation. Children need to be prepared for civic life, understand economic advantages and disadvantages, and understand the world and their place in it.  The danger of marginalizing the social sciences is not just missing out on dates and facts. In Connecticut, I was fortunate to work with a group of educators who have responded to this with a policy statement on social studies instruction and a frameworks document that allows for local control but encourages a more multi-faceted look of the history of the country and our world.
  • Listening to the stories of people. I am trying to seek out opportunities for myself and my children to extend their view of the world and what “is”. We move beyond our neighborhood sometimes, taste different flavors. I am working hard to “try on” another opinion for a few hours and decide why someone might think that way. I am learning to honor others’ truths & encouraging my children and students to do the same.
  • Learning more about my own racial and cultural identity and how it shapes my world view. This is in the hope that I can identify when others might have a different viewpoint. Students are in the most difficult position in this scenario, but being open to understanding where my students are coming from is imperative. I have found the work of Dr. Bill Howe on Multicultural Education to be particularly helpful with this work. Understanding culturally responsive teaching is a great place to begin.
  • Not just “being a voice” for students living in poverty and students of color but teaching with high expectations for all and fostering a safe classroom environment and a responsive school culture that will ensure when they leave my classroom and our district they will be able to speak for themselves.

I am not sure if I am going about this the right way. I do know that I want the work that I do to help rather than hinder. I want to excite a child, light a spark, and be part of a solution rather than the problem. How do you honor the legacy of Dr. King in your classroom?


Tech Tools for Inquiry in the Social Studies Classroom

I am so excited to present today at the Connecticut Educators Computer Association Conference! If you are joining me for the hands on workshop, please use this link to access the google presentation which we will use throughout our session.

Today I will mainly focus on creating materials for classroom use with Google Apps, with some other implications and ideas from PBWorks, Survey Monkey & TodaysMeet, based on your interests and needs as developed by this survey. Stay tuned as I will update this post with some additional information based on what we are not able to cover during the session. Feel free to comment here with follow up questions!

Interactive Notebooks

Many years ago I heard a fact about retention of information that really stuck with me. Basically, the argument was when you HEAR it, you retain the least. When you HEAR & SEE you retain more, and when you HEAR, SEE & READ you learn even more but the best way to improve learning would be to HEAR, SEE, READ & DO. While I think there is a time and place for teachers to present information orally, learning about how little is retained from simply standing up and talking really changed my teaching. Now, I make sure I have an anchor chart or presentation file with words and pictures to go along with every lesson, and I always write directions on the board as well. The tricky part, however, was learning to apply the principle of participation. How can we get students to become more engaged in their learning?

Learning Recall Related to Type of Presentation

Presentation Ability to Recall
after 3 hours after 3 days
Spoken lecture 25% 10-20%
Written (reading) 72% 10%
Visual and verbal (illustrated lecture) 80% 65%
Participatory (role plays, case studies, practice) 90% 70%

Adapted from: Dale 1969.


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Inspired by my fifth grade teammate Mrs. K, I went looking for some more information about interactive notebooks. This teacher was using interactive notebooks in science and social studies with great success, and I wanted to see what all of the fuss was about. I found this blog post with a clear outline of the possibilities for interactive notebooks, and I was impressed by the way it set up a simple routine for a class period. If we were doing a fifth grade social studies for example, a teacher could activate prior knowledge through the “in” activity and then use the right side for students to record notes and information throughout the lesson. I use a “mini-lecture” approach, where I take the meat and potatoes of the content for the day and present them so that students will have just enough background to engage in the inquiry activity. I have been working on third grade lessons related to economics, and so I thought one way of using this would be:

1. “IN” activity – I try to develop a success starter where students find something to relate today’s learning to their lives. For a lesson on imports and exports, students could examine the tags on their shirts to see where they were made in the world. We could have a brief discussion about how kids think their clothing got to them, activating prior knowledge.

2. Mini-lecture- now that I have found out a little about what they know, I might fill in the gaps with some information about today’s vocabulary. Defining words, usually with a TIP chart (both this and the success starter idea comes from Suzy Pepper Rollins’ book Learning in the Fast Lane.)

3. “Out” activity- this is where students apply their learning and think about the concepts. I might have students write a short paragraph outlining how a product gets to a buyer and asking students to use vocabulary words like import and export. This is also a way for me to continually assess.

4. Bridges to tomorrow- the final and most important part of the Interactive notebook is that students should be coached to examine their notes daily. I encourage kids to use a different color pen or highlighter to go back through and record insights and questions. Getting VERY excited the first time a student says, “I was looking at my notebook last night and wanted to know…” will make this much easier.

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*A note on assessment: Interactive notebooks DO require immediate feedback, but much of this can be done through in class partnerships, or table check ins with groups. To assure student quality and take a look at growth over time, I do often collect & reflect. Rather than taking all of the notebooks home at once, I try to take 5 or so books home at night to check over the last few nights, seeing everyone once per week.

How do you use interactive notebooks? What other ways have you found to keep students engaged and accountable for their learning?


Best Back-to-School Interactive Read Aloud Books

Finding the perfect book when you haven’t gotten to know your class can be daunting, so I have compiled a list of my favorite read alouds that can help teachers start the school year by getting kids “hooked” on reading.  Some of the things I look for in great start-of-the-year read alouds include:

  • Realistic Fiction, which can illustrate what students are thinking and feeling as we start the year
  • A mix of compelling characters to whom all kids can relate
  • Teacher role models that set the tone for the year
  • Humor, Humor, Humor!

Check out my list and use the comments section to add more about your favorite read aloud!

Sahara Special by Esme Raji Codell (F/P level S, DRA 40, Lexile 660)

This story is told in the first person by Sahara, a young girl who is held back and getting ready to repeat fifth grade. I love this book because the author integrates powerful stories in the dialogue between teachers and students, demonstrates some of the difficulty in navigating the social scene in elementary school, and integrates characters’ journal entries into the story. The characters are so compelling and full of sass and humor which helps to win over the class quickly. I have started my year with this book frequently and refer to the lessons embedded throughout the year. We feel like we are really in Miss Poitier’s class (Miss Pointy for short) when she explains her routines and says things like “I’m the meanest teacher this side of the Missisipppi!” The first few chapters segue perfectly into explaining routines you may use or will want to borrow from Miss Pointy, like journaling and the “trouble box”. We overhear as the class discusses stories like Aesop’s Fables, which will in turn spark interest in new reading, and most importantly provides so much fodder for discussion in your own class. I cannot recommend this book enough!

Joey Pigza Loses Control by Jack Gantos (F/P Level T, DRA 50, Lexile 800)

We meet Joey in the summer and find out a little bit about how this charming young man gets into so much trouble. The author candidly voices Joey’s frustration with his attention, medication, and high levels of energy. Humor is infused throughout and a teacher can have a lot of fun reading Joey’s phrenetic narration. As a teacher, I benefit from this inside-the-mind glimpse of a boy who wants so desperately to be “good” and struggles with self-perception, changes in family, and his own uniqueness. With so many opportunities for inferring and for students to make deep connections to the stories of this loveable character, your students will want more and thankfully can meet Joey again in subsequent titles.

Shredderman #1: Secret Identity by Wendelin Van Draanin (F/P Level S, DRA 40, Lexile 520)

Nolan is the quintessential “good kid” who makes it clear he wants nothing but to get good scores on his math quizzes and stay out of trouble. However, he harnesses the power of technology to get back at class bully Bubba Bixby after getting a brainstorm from a class project assigned by the guitar playing teacher, Mr. Green. Includes themes of justice, breaking the rules for the sake of helping others, and root causes of bullying and the best ways to stop it.

The Stories Julian Tells by Ann Cameron (F/P level N, Lexile 520, DRA 30)

This book is a series of vignettes about a young man named Julian with a vivid imagination and a wild series of adventures. This is a classic loved by many and can be used in sections or chapters based on student need and class timing. I recommend this for younger elementary students, especially if getting to a larger chapter book seems like a challenge for your kids. The short stories can stand alone if you go a few days in between read aloud days or if your kids are working on following a longer story arc.

Junie B. First Grader: Boss of Lunch by Barbara Park (F/P level M, DRA 24, Lexile 330)

Who doesn’t love Junie B.? A funny and realistic character who is highly affected by the perceived injustices in her world. This is one of my favorites to start the year because lunchtime is such a desired time of day for my students! Respect for teachers, wanting what others have, and sharing priviledges are all themes for discussion. I also use it to spark a discussion on what it means  to be “in trouble” vs. what it means to receive feedback from others and how to take both in stride.


Authentic Writers, Real Writing

I was fortunate to present professional development to a group of teachers a few weeks ago and have been reflecting on their work and the process since. During our session, we spoke about the implications of the Common Core and how our teaching has shifted to meet the new standards.
Wordle: Authentic Writers, Real Writing
One of the main goals of my presentation was to share with teachers how our own writing experiences can shape the way we teach, and putting ourselves in our students’ shoes can assist with creating an environment that encourages creativity and supports all students.  Here are some ideas I shared to assist with “hooking” ourselves and our students on the writing process:

  • Taking some time as teachers to write for pleasure, or write for the same purpose as your students. Want them to learn persuasive? Show them the Op Ed you sent to the local paper. Starting a new poetry unit? Share your own.
  • Let them write WHATEVER at first. I make sure to include “free write” time as much as possible in the classroom. I tell the kids on the first day of school that the only rule is that your pencil needs to be moving. They can write lyrics to their favorite song, a poem, story or play, or just write “I don’t know what to write”. Muscle memory is a powerful thing, and by the end of the year they are working on a variety of pieces and asking more more time to “free write”.
  • Make writing real. Writing literature reviews? Publish them on  Send letters to the board of education. Working on narrative techniques? Have them write out Fan Fiction based on a favorite game or show. Examine poorly written tweets that get bad press to prove the importance of coherent thought. It is a wonderful time to be an educator.
  • Meet kids where they are. Find out how to integrate their interests & passions. Get kids writing compare and contrast paragraphs by comparing the Wii U and the Xbox Kinect. I once tried to prove the point that you can “flash draft” with little or no research by challenging my students to think of a topic that I would know NOTHING about and betting them that I could write a full paragraph. So? I did write… about World Wrestling Entertainment. They were rolling on the floor laughing as I mentioned The Rock (I guess he has been Dwayne Johnson for a while now?). It might have been the worst paragraph I’ve ever written, but it proved my point.
  • Read. Encourage your students to read. Read in front of your students. Read the stuff your students are reading. If that means Pokemon graphic novels or dystopian YA, so be it. Just READ. Steven King does a great job explaining the critical link for writers as readers below:

Teaching writing is causing a spark to ignite. How do you help ignite a passion for writing with your students?