Guest Post: “We’ve Got the Greener Grass”

What’s the answer to America’s educational woes? Two Harvard PhDs suggest that American public schools are the answer to Japan’s economic woes, that American schools are the gold standard when it comes to graduating innovators and risk takers. I edited the dissertations of these two Japanese scholars ten years ago. Both argued that Japan couldn’t extricate itself from ten years of recession, then known as the Lost Decade, because its school system didn’t produce the creative class that America’s schools did. Since then, there’s been another ten consecutive years of recession. These scholars noted that America enters and exits recessions. They attributed the exits to America’s creativity and they credited America’s schools for engendering that creativity.

There was a recent article in the New Yorker where Chinese people wondered why China hasn’t been an innovator for thousands of years. They recognized that China is quite clever in copying Western inventions, but bemoaned the lack of homegrown innovation. I urge you to look at the list of things invented in America at Wikipedia. It’s a staggering list. The Egyptians beat us to paper because they were around four thousand years ago and we weren’t, but the vast majority of the things that constitute modern living were first made in America. If those two Harvard PhDs are right, then America’s push to standardized testing and standardized schools could eventually be our economic undoing.

I’ve had the privilege of interviewing hundreds of people who collectively oversee millions of American workers. One is an M.I.T. PhD graduate who works at I.B.M.

“Whom do you hire?” I asked.

“I’m not real concerned with GPAs,” she replied. “I look for people who can recover from failure since 95% of what we do at I.B.M. is fail.”

I’ve had other corporate executives tell me that they too don’t chase those with high GPAs, for they’ve learned that many of them are grade chasers, avoiding the tough courses and the possibility of failure for the luster of a number. These executives told me that they look for someone who took the tough courses. If a candidate earned something other than an A, but took another hard course, that person is that much more attractive.

Executives also tell me that they need people who can collaborate, that “the systems and challenges are so complex that no one is brilliant enough to work alone anymore.”

So, if we’re to prepare our students for the professional challenges that await them, rather than chase higher test scores, we should continue to nurture creativity and provide opportunities to collaborate and fail. “Fail” might seem harsh, but failure sets up the opportunity to rebound from failure.

Lastly, the PhD at IBM, a woman who oversees 800 employees and has hired scores of them, said that if she had to choose between hiring a software engineer with a full focus on software engineering and a software engineer with an art minor, all other factors being equal, she’d hire the engineer with the art minor. “That engineer is more likely to consider a problem from a different perspective.”

Looking across the Pacific, the grass of higher test scores seems greener to America’s politicians who determine pedagogical policy. However, the view from Asia is one of a lush and creative America, one that extricates itself from recession again and again through the verve of its creative graduates, and one that has leveraged diverse education into world class innovation.

Katie McKy might just be the most booked children’s book author for school visits in the upper Midwest. She visits about 100 schools a year and has taught and entertained more than 300,000 children in the last decade. She also writes for many business magazines and so has had the opportunity to have CEOs, VPs, and COOs go off the record and truly say what they like and don’t like about America’s graduates. Read about Katie at

Kindergarten Read Aloud: Comparing Caldecotts

In recognition of Read Across America, I am taking March to share some of my best experiences reading aloud to students in my school. As a principal, I believe it is imperative that I get into classrooms on a daily basis and model this lifelong skill.

I have been a regular visitor to my kindergarten classrooms. One strategy I have found to be effective with five and six year olds is making text-to-text connections by pairing different books. It can be the same author, a similar genre, or just pairing two books that have something in common. In this post, I describe how kindergarteners developed criteria for what makes a Caldecott winner so special.

Before Reading Aloud

I show students the cover of the book I am about to read them. I ask, “What do you notice?” This type of question, suggested by reading expert Mary Lou Manske, allows all students to participate without a lot of risk because almost anyone can notice something. Right away students point out the title, the author and the cover illustrations. Once a student spots the shiny gold circle, they ask, “What is that for?” I respond by telling them that it is a symbol for an award the book won, the Caldecott medal. It won the award because it was considered the best book published that year. We compare the award to something they were recognized for, such as in sports or being on the Wall of Effort at school.

During the Reading Aloud

The first book I read aloud is Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes. Before starting the book, I remind students that while we are listening to the book for enjoyment, we are also thinking about what makes this book special because it won the Caldecott. (I believe you can use a variety of award winners for this read aloud plan.)

As I read, we stop a few times to notice the illustrations and the writing. Students may already observe that the pictures are a) in pencil rather than color and b) not in the same format from page to page. For example, some illustrations have several panels; others have only one small picture. Also of importance is the repeated phrase, “Poor kitten!”. As students make these observations, I write them down on the whiteboard, seen here:


With the second book, I chose to read aloud A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Phillip Stead. There is a purpose to this pick; the book also uses pencil in its illustrations in addition to being a Caldecott winner. Before reading, we review as a class the criteria we developed for the first book.

Amos McGee normally visits the animals at the zoo, but cannot today because he is home sick. The animals take it upon themselves to visit Amos at his home (via bus), to take care of him in the same way he took care of them. While reading the story, students are more apt to notice the similarities between the two books. Having the criteria displayed on the whiteboard while I read aloud is a helpful visual.

After Reading Aloud

Once done, we go back through the second book to determine if A Sick Day for Amos Mcgee has some of the same qualities that we listed for Kitten’s First Full Moon. Not surprisingly, the books are very similar in many areas. For example, even though one book is black and white and the other is in color, both books are unique in that they use pencil for the illustrations. Plus, neither book has the blaring colors that so many other picture books contain. The illustrations with these two books are more subtle.

Subtle – too big a word? I don’t think so. If kids can remember the Latin names of several dinosaurs, the terms “subtle” and “criteria” should be a breeze. Even if they all don’t fully understand the concepts, they have had the terms used in context and will hear them again in the future. What’s even better, their classroom now has a list of criteria to help them select books for their next visit to the school library.

Surrounded by Nonfiction

In my first year as an elementary principal, one of the many nice things I inherited with my new school is a drive by staff to utilize every minute for instruction. This is evident as I observe classrooms during instructional rounds.

Taking this philosophy another step, what about student down time when kids aren’t in class? An opportunity arose from what at first seemed like a problem. When students arrive at school in the morning, they are directed to the cafeteria whether they are having breakfast or not. As you can imagine, this time has been mostly crowd control and not the best way for students to start their day. See Example A:


Being an educator, you may have noticed that the panels on the bottom of the wall are totally being underutilized (what 20% rule?). To fill this gap, metal magazine racks were ordered from Amazon at $13 a piece. They are what you might normally see hanging in a bathroom. Keith the custodian put them up in a jiffy.


Next step was to order the books. Knowing that time was limited to start a novel, nonfiction easy readers were purchased from Scholastic. What is nice about nonfiction is kids can pick them up and read them in short bursts, perfect for the morning wait time. Also important is that most reading students will do as they get older will be nonfiction.

*This side of the cafeteria is where all K-2 students sit. Books displayed are at their reading level.

*Grade 3-5 level books displayed by the older students’ side include biographies and history.

Before I even had time to announce the new materials to the school, students were asking me, “What are those metal things for?”. Having the books displayed at their height caught their attention right away, similar to how grocery stores shelve all the sugary cereal at the bottom. After explaining the concept of reading during down time, students forged ahead:


For around $500, we created a nonfiction library in our cafeteria. Next step: Little Free Libraries

The Do’s and Don’t’s of Using School iPads

Teachers in my building were recently given iPads. The devices were paid for through Title I funds; they have to be used for reading and math intervention. Not all teachers received an iPad. They had to sign up and agree to three months of training.

As they were distributed, a couple of teachers asked, “Can we use them for personal use?” This is a slippery question that doesn’t have a clean answer. My initial response was, “Yes; how else will you learn how to use them?”

As I reflect, I now believe there should be more clear guidelines for my staff when they receive school-owned mobile technology. If you are in a district that has a clear-cut policy AND it is sensible and realistic, the work has been done for you. For me, I have to start from scratch.

Here is what I believe are the do’s and don’t’s for staff using school purchased iPads:

Do use the iPads for personal use.
Don’t treat them as if you own them.

Teachers don’t have time to explore the devices at school. Therefore they should take them home and play with them in order to build proficiency. If part of their purpose is to get on Facebook or talk with friends via Skype, aren’t they still learning how to use the iPad at high levels of engagement and effectiveness? My job is to try and guide the teachers into connecting how they use them to what is possible in the classroom.

At the same time, it is clear that teachers cannot be running a side business using the devices or selling personal items on eBay. If they aren’t sure it is appropriate, it probably isn’t. My staff also understands that the iPads belong to the school and, ultimately, the district. If they leave our building, the devices stay at Howe and are repurposed in another classroom.

Do allow your families, especially your kids, to use the iPads.
Don’t use them as a babysitter.

My staff and I are sharing our learning on Edmodo. One teacher posted how her students used the Math Garden app together on the document camera to prepare for the basic math facts test. Another teacher chimed in with a reply, stating her husband can’t put the game down.

This is great to see, having teachers explore new ways for learning with their family. It is quick action research to find out new and different ways to use the iPads. As an example, two boys I am working with split the keyboard in Pages by accident. My first reaction was, “What did you do?” Once I realized they didn’t break it, we explored the different uses for each keyboard when typing.

At the same time, it is very easy to plop an iPad in front of your daughter and say, “Have fun!”, while my wife is at mass and you need to give your son a bath. (I did this today!) It is my personal device, however, and not something I do often. With school equipment, a teacher does not want to be responsible for a broken device or someone else downloading illicit content. This applies to the classroom too. If the iPad is being used with students, intent, structure and assessment should be a part of the activity.

Do put your own content on the iPad
Don’t spend a small fortune on Apple content

A few of my teachers have Apple devices already, like iPhones and iPod Touches. I showed the staff how to log out of the school’s iTunes account, log back in using their personal account, and download their already-purchased music, apps and other media. This allows the staff to utilize their own content when it would be beneficial in the classroom. For example, one teacher bought a handwriting app for her son. She realized this app would also be a good fit for her second graders.

As part of this project, teachers have $100 to spend on apps for their classroom. I didn’t want them having to spend their own money on iPad media for school purposes, knowing how much teachers already spend on their own classroom. If they make personal purchases but do not have their own device and they moved out of the building, the content they purchased would be essentially gone.

This is all I can determine at this time. The devices are so new to all of us. It is hard to predict future issues. As long as we continue to reflect about our current practices with iPads in the classroom and learn together through collaboration both in person and online, we should be on the right path.

Do you have a good district policy in place that addresses this new technology? Please share.

I’ve Got an iPad…Now What?

*This is the email I sent out tonight to the 19 Howe Elementary School teachers taking part in the iPad implementation class offered for professional development. Each teacher received an iPad 2. Their purpose is to discover ways to use this technology tool for reading and math intervention. You are welcome to join us as well. If you want the iPad PD guide as an iBook, DM me your email. -Matt

I am emailing you because I have you enrolled in the iPad class for Howe. You should have received an invitation to join; if you didn’t let me know. It is a wiki that everyone can contribute to, to add projects, ideas and ask questions of each other. You will need to create an account. Be sure to add your school email during the registration process. I have never used one, so I am hoping some of you will try it out and let me know how it works ;).

A requirement for this PD is join our Edmodo group. Edmodo is like Facebook only for teachers and students. This social network is how we will deliver assignments and award badges for completion of iPad proficiency levels.

1. Go to and sign up as a student.
2. Create your account using the code 35od0D.
3. Be sure to enter your school email so you can receive updates from the site.
4. Enter the group and explore this social network.

Once everyone is enrolled, I will send out a pre-assessment survey and your first assignment. Speaking of assignments…

Would anyone be upset if we did not do the Todd Whitaker book study? Besides the technical issues getting the book, I have some concerns about learning to use the iPad AND reading the eBook at the same time. What are your thoughts? I am good either way. In fact, once we have all on board on Edmodo, our first assignment could be to participate in a poll about this question. We will still read, share and respond to relevant articles about education and technology in place of the book, if that is the way we want to go.

I am learning as we go, just like you. If you have suggestions during this learning process, I would like to hear your ideas.

Have fun!


Our Favorite Read Alouds from the First Semester

*This is part of my newsletter for parents for the month of February. A push for our school has been to encourage families to read more with their children at home. Practice what you preach!

I have been in a lot of classrooms this year, reading aloud great literature to students. It has helped me get to know the students and their names, as well as share some of my favorite stories that I read to kids when I was a teacher. Here are just a few:

Primary Grades (Grades K-2)

The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown

Many students have heard Goodnight Moon by the same author. This book is written as a series of poems. Each page focuses on one thing, like snow or grass. The author starts and ends each poem the same way; what is most important to her for each thing. After we read the book, the students and I write a poem together about something new, following the same format as the author. Once written, each student receives their own copy of the poem to reread at school or at home.

A Day’s Work by Eve Bunting

This story details a boy and his grandfather trying to find work. Francisco speaks English, but his grandfather just came from Mexico and cannot speak the language. When Francisco finds work for his grandfather, he tells a lie about their skills as gardeners. The project goes wrong, but it is grandfather that teaches Francisco the importance of honesty and how it is an essential skill when working with others. This book prompted great discussions with kindergartners about always telling the truth, even when we make mistakes.

Tumtum and Nutmeg: Adventures Beyond Nutmouse Hall by Emily Bearn

To quote the website at “Tumtum and Nutmeg lead cozy and quiet lives, secretly looking after Arthur and Lucy, the disheveled human children of the cottage, never dreaming that so many exciting adventures will soon find them. But when evil Aunt Ivy, a squeamish schoolteacher named Miss Short, and pirating pond rats threaten the safety of those they hold dear, the courageous pair will stop at nothing to save the day.”

This book has been hard to put down! I am only reading the first story of three from this anthology. I’d encourage you to pick up a copy of this book and read aloud the next two stories to your kids at home.

Intermediate (Grades 3-5)

The Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco

In this sequel to Thank You, Mr. Falker, Trisha cannot escape her label of a student with special needs, even when she attends a new school. Her class consists of several students with different disabilities, but her teacher Mrs. Peterson does not let them get down on themselves. The students use the snide label given to them (“Junkyard Wonders”) and use it to their advantage. They visit a landfill and create amazing science projects with only spare parts and their imagination. It is a touching story, all the more powerful because it is based on the author’s own life as Trisha.

Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

This anthology of poems is a classic and can be shared with anyone, grades K-12. I chose to read it aloud to 4th graders because a reading standard at this age calls on kids to be able to read and comprehend poetry. These funny and thought-provoking poems are the perfect introduction to this genre. Once we are finished, I read aloud more literature that uses the format of poetry to tell stories, such as Love That Dog by Sharon Creech.

A Stranger Came Ashore by Mollie Hunter

One of my all-time favorite read alouds when I taught 5th and 6th grade. Set on the coast of Scotland, a small fishing community are visited by a foreigner names Finn Learson, someone who is not who he appears to be. Robbie, the main character, is suspicious of this visitor after hearing his grandfather’s stories of the Selkies, creatures who change from seals to humans. The incorporation of folklore creates a story of suspense that is almost impossible to put down. In fact, there were a few instances where the 5th graders almost didn’t let me out of their classroom last fall! Another page turner for older kids is My Daniel by Pam Conrad.

As parents, one of the best things we can do with our kids is share stories with them, and it is never too late to start. Not sure where to begin? Check out The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. Nearly every single recommendation in there is a sure winner.

Happy reading!

-Mr. Renwick

P.S. Any recommendations you have for reading aloud? Please share here: