Recommended Read Alouds During the Winter Months

I shared this content with my staff in my weekly Friday Focus today. Thought it might work on the ol’ blog too.  -Matt

When it’s this cold outside, I find reading aloud a good book to my kids to be even more inviting than usual. Here are some favorites from home and the classroom. Several were suggested by Mary Lou Manske from Book Look in Stevens Point. Maybe you will deem them worthy of sharing with your own children and/or your students.

The Adventures of a South Pole Pig by Chris Kurtz

If you liked Charlotte’s Web and Babe, you will enjoy this story. A pig named Flora is looking for an adventure. When the opportunity presents itself to join a team of sled dogs for a trip across Antarctica, she takes advantage of it. Little does she know that her purpose on this adventure is not what she initially had in mind. Finn and Violet keep wanting me to read the next chapter.

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos

An essential read aloud for classrooms grades 5 and up. The story is told through the perspective of Joey Pigza, a student who suffers from ADHD. Many discussions around the topics of school discipline, the human brain, and empathy can be facilitated through this story.

Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny by John Himmelman

From Goodreads: “Introducing Isabel, aka Bunjitsu Bunny! She is the BEST bunjitsu artist in her school, and she can throw farther, kick higher, and hit harder than anyone else! But she never hurts another creature . . . unless she has to.” It would be a great read aloud for those short moments during school. Each tale has a life lesson to offer. Very funny and full of wisdom.

Jackaby by William Ritter

This young adult work of fiction, the first in a series, is a lot of fun. The pacing of the narrative, along with references to classic mysteries that came before plus the supernatural aspect, made this a challenge to put down. Jackaby is a Sherlock Holmes-type character with the ability to sense people’s auras and “see” creatures in human disguise. It will keep you guessing.

Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm

In 1976, Sunny visits her grandfather in Florida. But why? The authors go back and forth in time to tell an important story about family dynamics and our vulnerabilities. An accessible text for a wide range of readers. The Holms also include lots of humor related to this era and demographic. My favorite scene is when two of “grampa’s girls” tell Sunny to take home that extra roll from the restaurant. “In case you get hungry later.” Spot on!

Roller Coaster by Marla Frazee

A sparse text describing a memorable time in a young girl’s life, this everybody book works well as a mentor text for teaching small moment writing. The illustrations serve as a companion to the language, providing clues about the main character’s feelings about the roller coaster. With some modeling by the teacher first, students can take their personal experiences to create small moment writing.

Zero Tolerance by Claudia Mills

This middle level novel offers a compelling situation – a successful student who accidentally brings a paring knife in her lunch is considered for expulsion because of a zero tolerance policy about weapons. I could see this book sparking some good conversations in class about discipline and the decisions we make in school. The suggested age range is 8-12, but I would recommend it for students 5th grade and up due to the content and language.

The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade by Justin Roberts

From Goodreads:

“Hardly anyone noticed young Sally McCabe.

She was the smallest girl in the smallest grade.

But Sally notices everything—from the twenty-seven keys on the janitor’s ring to the bullying happening on the playground. One day, Sally has had enough and decides to make herself heard. And when she takes a chance and stands up to the bullies, she finds that one small girl can make a big difference.” 

Three Technologies Every School Leader Needs

This is not hyperbole. As an elementary school principal, each one of these technologies has improved my life, both personally and professionally. Total cost is around $400.

TrackR bravo (Set of five for around $100)

Starting your day without knowing where your wallet or keys are can be frustrating. My family knows this all too well. This is why my wife purchased these coin-sized devices for me. You attached them to your keys via a ring or your wallet with an adhesive pad. Then, connect them individually via Bluetooth with the TrackR app on your smartphone.

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Source: Flickr

The peace of mind in knowing that your valuables are now findable through a TrackR bravo is worth the cost, even if you never have to use it. The company also suggests using their technology with television remotes, a purse, and even pets. In addition, you can “crowdsource” your valuables by making your TrackR bravo’s frequency public. If someone else with the same technology on their smartphone is in close proximity of your lost item, you will be notified via GPS.

Livescribe 3 smartpen ($200, which includes a notebook, sticky notes, ink cartridge refills, and extra stylus tips)

I’ve given up on using an expensive stylus with my iPad to take notes during instructional walks and other observations during school. The battery dies early. The stylus loses it’s connection to the tablet. My writing is not accurately translated onto the screen.

I think I have found the solution in the Livescribe 3 smartpen. What I write on specially designed paper is translated onto the Livescribe+ app on my mobile device. I can also record audio while writing, which is combined with my handwritten notes to create a “pencast”. This multimedia file can be saved in Evernote, emailed, or saved in the app itself.

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I have used this technology many times this school year. For example, when I do a ten minute instructional walk in a classroom, I can put technology to the side and focus more on the teaching and learning happening with only a pen and paper. I feel more present now that I am not trying to make a stylus work or typing on my laptop’s keyboard.

Also, the Livescribe technology has allowed me to conduct interviews for my action research project around literacy engagement. I can have a conversation with students and staff without feeling like I have to write every word they say down. Instead, I will write key words which connects to the audio recorded at the time.

WordPress ($99 for a premium subscription)

You didn’t lose anything important and you documented some excellent learning experiences during your classroom visits. So how do you celebrate? I recommend writing about it.

WordPress is the best blogging platform out there. I don’t know of any educators who started using this tool and then decided to try Blogger or Tumblr for writing and reflecting online. WordPress’s advantages include an easy setup process and writing experience, many design themes to choose from, and lots of options to personalize your site.

While you can use WordPress for free, I do suggest the premium option. First, you can create your own domain, such as “readingbyexample.com” instead of “howeprincipal.wordpress.com” (my first URL). Second, multimedia is a lot easier to embed within your posts through tools such as Video Press. See the following video of me shamelessly plugging my new book as an example.

No more embedding HTML codes from YouTube. Just record a video, upload it to WordPress, and you’re good. Communication is more than just words to be read.

What technologies do you find essential in your role as a school leader? Please share them in the comments.

 

 

 

School Leaders as Readers: Select the Winter 2016 Book

Are you a school leader (principal, coach, superintendent, consultant)? Do you like to read (you should)? Then join us for our Winter 2016 book club!

From my blog page of the same name:

I’m convinced that it is not what we say but what we do as school leaders that makes the biggest impact on students and teachers in our respective buildings. To say, “I enjoy reading” is different than carrying a book or magazine with you while visiting classrooms during regular walkthroughs. To be observed in the act of reading is invaluable.

Below are the three ASCD books we are considering to read next:

To vote, post your choice in the comments. The book we will read will be announced on Monday, January 18. In the meantime, check out my own ASCD book Five Myths About Technology: How do we integrate digital tools to truly enhance learning?

What I’m Writing: December 2015

Matt Renwick

photo-1429051781835-9f2c0a9df6e4Maximize Learning, Not Technology (ASCD EDge, October 2015)

In this promotional post for my new book, I highlight specific examples of how the necessary vs. nice dichotomy applies to classroom technology choices. For example, having one device for every learner in a classroom would be nice, but the lack of academic benefits identified with this type of initiative leads us to keep the ratio down in our own school. By identifying the purpose for the learning, schools are able to take a reasonable approach to the inclusion of digital tools in classrooms.

Online Learning Communities: Real Conversations, or Mere Connections? (Chalkup, December 1, 2015)

The concept of “community” has been redefined in the digital age. Whereas a 20th century understanding would have included some aspect of face-to-face interaction, today’s world does not. Google Hangouts, Voxer, and Facebook groups all seem to provide a sense of community, especially when focused around a…

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Most Memorable Blog Posts of the Year – 2015

Around this time of year, I highlight selected posts written by bloggers within the past twelve months. What these posts all have in common is they were worth saving for my own learning and reading enjoyment. You might also find them helpful. This annual post is also my way to show gratitude for other educators out there who are taking the time to share their thinking online in an honest and thoughtful manner.

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Judgement – It’s all a matter of perspective by Jay Posick (Jay’s Journal, May 7, 2015)

This Wisconsin principal reflects on his experience as a spelling bee contestant during his elementary school days. He was wronged in his dismissal from the competition (there are two acceptable spellings of “judgment/judgement”). He applies this lesson to how educators approach learning with their own students, positively or negatively.

Four Lessons from Motherhood by Ariel Sacks (Center for Teaching Quality, May 3, 2015)

This English teacher and author reveals how her life has changed as an educator since the birth of her daughter. Sacks lists four lessons she has learned since her family’s new addition: “Learning by Doing”, “The Value of a Network”, “Respect for the Caregiver of our Students”, and “Anything But Standard!”. Many parent-educators can relate.

On differentiation: a reply to a rant and a posing of questions by Grant Wiggins (Granted, and…, January 15, 2015)

The late Grant Wiggins, co-developer of the Understanding by Design curriculum framework with Jay McTighe, takes on an Education Week commentary. James DeLisle questions the effectiveness of differentiation. Dr. Wiggins picks apart his argument piece by piece, showing the reader how DeLisle’s quotes are taken out of context and highlighting several resources that do support differentiation. Grant is and will be missed.

Planning for Student Centered IEP Meetings by Samantha Mosher (Samantha Mosher, June 2, 2015)

A new idea, evidence of student and teacher learning, and a combination of humor and humbleness – these elements make this post an informative and enjoyable one to read. Mosher, a special education teacher, highlights the four steps she is taking to help her students become more actively involved in the goal setting process of individual education plans.

Planning for the Planning by Beth Moore (Two Writing Teachers, May 11, 2015)

Some of our faculty and I actually used this process for a two day curriculum writing workshop this past June. Moore’s process worked well for us. The best advice I found from her post is setting dates for publishing student work. This has kept all of us accountable for completing our writing genre units of study. Of note: This site won the 2015 Edublogs Group Blog Award.

Knowing Yourself as a Reader by Franki Sibberson (Scholastic’s On Our Minds blog, June 25, 2015)

Sibberson, teacher and author, offers a classroom activity to help students reflect on their reading lives: Write 100 things about themselves as readers. She admits that no one ever gets to 100, but encourages her students to add to the list during the school year. Franki posts her own reflections as a reader (31 and counting).

Nurturing Responsible Learners by Mary Anne Buckley (Stenhouse Blog, June 22, 2015)

“Writing ‘I can’ statements or the ‘Standard for the Day’ on the board felt forced and unnatural. I wanted it to be more about the awareness of learning and being responsible for using that learning.” Identifying a felt difficulty, Buckley instituted “Learning Reflections and Frames”.

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Source: Stenhouse Blog. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Instead of listing expectations, this teacher and author now sets collective goals with her students. They also reflect on how well they met their goals at the end of the week. A simple yet powerful change in practice.

When to Say When with Homework by Starr Sackstein (Starr Sackstein, August 25, 2015)

There are a litany of posts about homework that get published every year. Starr’s rises above the rest. She reflects on her son’s own school experience with his homework load, worrying that this work he finds too easy is “a waste of time at home”. In response, Starr differentiates between what homework “can be” and “shouldn’t be”.

Your choice of words by Matt Wachel (PLC Ponderings, August 23, 2015)

Matt, an elementary school principal, received a very positive wake up call from the hotel staff where he was staying. This experience served as a good reminder for him in his own interactions with the students, staff, and families at his school. Matt also puts it on the reader to reflect on our language as professionals and the impact it has on others.

A Writing Life Requires Bravery by Elisabeth Ellington (the dirigible plum, September 5, 2015)

Elisabeth, an English professor in Nebraska, uses the everybody book The Story of Fish & Snail by Deborah Freedman as a springboard for her students to write about bravery in their future classrooms. She shares several of their responses in her post. Dr. Ellington also provides commentary about the nature of writing instruction in classrooms, especially the importance of taking risks as a teacher who models this craft for learners.

Writing that feels safe is often writing that’s just going through the motions. When I’m uncomfortable in a piece of writing, that’s when I know I’m getting somewhere.

Thoughts on Makerspaces by Nicholas Provenzano (The Nerdy Teacher, November 3, 2015)

This high school teacher from Michigan collaborates with his school librarian to create a learning space “to give students access to tools on their own to see what they will create”. Nicholas provides examples of student-driven projects, including a prototype for a knee brace that would keep a kneecap in place and a prosthetic hoof for horses. This post makes it clear that #makingmatters.

Understanding Teach Like a Champion by Peggy Roberston (Peg with Pen, September 13, 2015)

Robertson, a literacy interventionist from Colorado, provides a critical review of Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion 2.0. Some points she makes:

  • Lemov is an education reformer, with most of his experience in the corporate charter school movement.
  • His book is focused on improving test scores through uniformity in teaching.
  • The accompanying videos show lots of desks in rows, with teacher standing and delivering instruction to the masses.

I have not read Lemov’s books, but this blogger’s commentary makes me wary of his work.

Response to Joyful Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland by Timothy Shanahan (Shanahan on Literacy, October 11, 2015)

Dr. Shanahan, Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, takes to task an article from The Atlantic that admonishes the teaching of reading in kindergarten in the U.S. (in comparison to Finland’s more relaxed approach). For starters, the U.S. has a more diverse population with many different cultures represented. He also points to the higher level of parent education in Finland. Reading instruction is beneficial for early learners, Shanahan notes, provided that these experiences are authentic and research-based.

The 80/20 Rule: Maximize Your Potential in Less Time by Brian Sztabnik (Teaching Channel’s Tchrs’ Voice Blog, October 1, 2015)

Teachers are always on the lookout for ways to be more effective with limited instruction time. Sztabnik, a high school English teacher from New York, enlists the 80/20 rule (“Find out what is vital, ignore what is trivial”) to prioritize practices. For example, he recommends asking better questions while teaching to promote student thinking and deepen their conversations. More time is spent being an active part of learning.

What blog post(s) that you read this year were most memorable? Please share the link in the comments along with why they are worthy of recognition! You can access previous year’s most memorable blog posts by clicking here.

 

 

 

Going Schoolwide with Reading Engagement: How We Got to Now

This is a follow up to a previous post about our school’s collective efforts to increase student engagement in reading, especially in their dispositions around talking about and sharing their reading lives.

“Hey, I have a quote for you.” A second grader had stopped me in the hallway to let me know about his discovery. He comes from the same class in which another student gave me a new metallic marker for our schoolwide reading graffiti board. I asked him to share it with me. We weren’t sure of the source (he discovered it at home among his mother’s collection of clipped quotes), so we searched for it online.

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Oscar Wilde!

As I mentioned in my previous post, it was the students’ turn to have the proverbial pencil in hand. I encouraged him to use second grade handwriting, but his spelling had to be perfect. He didn’t disappoint. Later during morning announcements, I recognized this student for his contribution and encouraged others to participate in this project.

Some Background

I’ve read that the best place to start a story is in the middle. However, our school’s narrative has some background worth sharing. Doesn’t every school?

For the past five years, our K-5 elementary school has focused on the relationship between reading and writing. The first three years we delved into the professional development program Regie Routman in Residence: Reading-Writing Connection. Faculty received learning binders. We watched videos of Regie in action, modeling for students during one of her residencies the process of writing and how what we read influences this craft. Our students’ work, collaboratively assessed through grade level and vertical teams, has shown great gains.

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After finishing the Reading-Writing Connection, faculty wanted to try a different approach to writing. Specifically, they felt that students needed more structure. One teacher had experience with The Write Tools. For two years, we received training in how to teach a variety of text features as readers and writers, such as topic sentences, supporting details, and transitions. The Common Core State Standards were a primary focus.

Structure and Style

Our students’ work followed suit. Kids as young as six years old can now write a fully formed paragraph. Other elementary buildings that visit us (we are a lab school through the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction) comment frequently on the quantity of words per page students produce. Staff members who have spouses teaching in other schools sometimes mention that the student writing produced is comparable with secondary level work. We’ve seen many benefits to this more direct approach to literacy.

But with this structure, we’ve lost some of the style. Kids could clearly write a paragraph, but was the paragraph worth reading? Voice was down while conventions increased. This became clear during our mid-year formative writing assessment check last year, especially during our debriefing about the strengths and weaknesses of our students’ work.

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Even our narrative writing, which should be a strength with our younger students’ vivid imaginations and humor, was suffering from staleness and a lack of personal engagement. One of our teachers summed it up well: “I miss the kids’ stories.”

Multiple Measures

Our debriefing was a powerful wake up call. It wasn’t anything against The Write Tools. Our trainer did a wonderful job. I think it had more to do with our (see: my) approach to benchmarking our students’ writing against the Common Core State Standards. We had standardized our expectations and, subsequently, our instruction. Maybe this works for other disciplines. Reading and writing are not other disciplines. Literacy is as much an affective endeavor as a cognitive one. As Regie Routman has stated in her presentations and writings, “We have to engage our students’ hearts and minds.”

Our collaborative self-assessment led me to investigate other data points. What was discovered corroborated with what we suspected:

  • Engagement in the classroom was scored lower than other areas of instruction within the Danielson Framework for Teaching, our professional evaluation tool. This was found in both teachers’ self-ratings and in my own observations.
  • According to a reading profile survey administered this fall, students had less positive attitudes about talking and sharing about their reading lives in class, compared to the value they place on reading and how they view themselves as readers.
  • In my regular instructional walks, group discussion and higher order questioning (which leads to authentic student conversations) was not observed as frequently as other tenets of literacy engagement, such as choice, authenticity, and feedback.

Triangulating this data with staff, it was apparent that we needed a different approach to professional development for the 2015-2016 school year. This is why we have come back to the Regie Routman in Residence program, this time focused on Writing for Audience and Purpose. We will continue to examine and own those beliefs where we find common ground.

Starting Where We Began

I often hear education described as a pendulum. We go from this end of the initiative spectrum to that one.

This metaphor isn’t working for me. My biggest concern is the connotation that schools are helpless in the face of outside factors. We blame the Common Core, the government, or accountability to the public. But schools can have more control over their destiny than maybe realized.

My preferred metaphor to describe our school’s professional learning community is a journey. We’ve embarked on a path toward a love for learning that is guided by our shared beliefs about literacy. True learning is circuitous and hard to predict where it will lead. Teams’ professional learning journeys were honored this fall, as they illustrated their own pathways toward excellence.

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Our Interventionists’ Journey Toward Excellence

Our organization may venture this way and that, but as long as we keep our focus on our North Star –  authentic and meaningful literacy experiences – our students will become successful readers and writers.

Going Schoolwide with Reading Engagement

Two years ago we sent our 4th and 5th grade teachers to CESA 5 to hear Donalyn Miller speak. Familiar with both of her excellent books, one of the hallmarks of her work is allowing the students to guide their own reading lives. This happens when the teacher provides opportunities for structured choice and exposure to quality, high interest literature in school.

One of the ideas gained from Donalyn that has entered our school is the reading graffiti board. A teacher created one in her classroom. The kids took off and took it over. They added quotes from their current books they were reading independently. The students also pulled memorable lines from the read alouds the teacher started facilitating on a regular basis.

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Students proved themselves to be very adept at selecting quotes from the texts they were reading. That is why we tried it out on a schoolwide bulletin board. It is one way we are modeling literacy engagement, our building’s goal. Specifically, we are attempting to increase questioning and student discussion in order to realize increased engagement, in both our students and teachers.

Using the companion book to Wonder by R.J. Palacio, 365 Days of Wonder provides one quote a day, as curated by Mr. Brown, a teacher from the story. He refers to these quotes as “precepts”. We call them “Word We Live By” in our school. Many of the quotes come from well-know figures of past and present. Others are from fictional students in his class.

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I would select one quote and read it over the announcements. Then I used a metallic marker to write on the board. The board is located next to where students line up for lunch.

As we have filled up the board, there have been signs that others want to participate in this activity. For example, one of our reading interventionists shared an anthology of quotes “collected” by Pete the Cat. See image. Whenever possible, I’ve included an illustration. Students and staff have shared that they like hearing me on the P.A. system daily.

Good Intentions

As our quotes filled up our board from left to right, I noticed that the marker was wearing out. The silver just wasn’t as bright. In normal teacher mode, I would have gone out and purchased a new marker. But recognizing that reading and writing are participatory activities, I decided to retire my marker.

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My hope was that a student or teacher would “carry the torch” and start offering thoughtful quotes of their own. I even offered a rubric for what I believe makes for a quote worth sharing.

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No such luck! I guess this is a good lesson in teaching: No matter how much we model, we have to include the learners in our demonstrations at some point. This concept comes back to the gradual release of responsibility, reframed as the Optimal Learning Model by Regie Routman.

Scaling Down, Not Up

With that, I have “inducted” a few 5th grade students to find important phrases within authentic literature. I was previously meeting with a small group to discuss questionable behaviors in our school and how to solve them together. Ever the teacher, I had donned my instructor’s hat and requested that they journal about how school and life in general was going for them. Lots of giggles and little depth in their responses told me that this wasn’t working for anyone.

How many times does it take for someone to understand that when we tell learners to learn, it is often met with indifference and resistance? For me, I’m still counting. I’ve put the notebooks away for now. In it’s place was a preview stack of high interest fiction for a different composition of two interested 5th graders to choose from and read together. We came to consensus on The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau (Yearling, 2004). I think I had them at “underground city” during my brief book talk.

It was their suggestion to bring in a third student for our Monday book club during our lunch. We agreed that a more visual example of The City of Ember might help with comprehension when reading the book later. I found the graphic novel adaptation of DuPrau’s book in our school library and on iBooks. The three students could pick which text format in which they wanted to read the graphic novel in the classroom.

The next week, all three students came ready to discuss The City of Ember. I let them do most of the talking and asked a lot of questions, some of which I didn’t know the answer. These inquiries were mostly about their opinions about the text, and how the graphic novel might be different than the original we would be reading next. Our conversation lasted five minutes about the book before it evolved to their plans for the week outside of school.

First Signs

At our most recent meeting, one of the students commented, “Time goes by so fast during our book club at lunch.” Promising. Around this same time, a 2nd grader brought a new metallic marker from home and gave it to me as a holiday gift. She had noticed the dried out one taped to the reading graffiti board while waiting in the lunch line.

I know what to do with the new marker: When ready, hand it over to the students.