The Principal as a Writer

As much as I love technology, nothing replaces putting pen to paper. I may be revealing myself as a digital immigrant. Regardless, whenever I am in a book store I find myself walking over to the journal section. In the bigger book stores, Moleskine journals have their own shelf.


The draw for me is each one of these notebooks are a blank slate, new territory in which to be filled up with fresh ideas. With Moleskine, they tailor some of their journals for specific areas of interest, such as recipes, travel, wellness and music.


Here is the link to the Moleskine website:

As you can see, the sky is the limit for different purposes for writing. For me, I regularly use three Moleskine notebooks to help me document my thinking for later review and to reflect on actions I have made.


Red Moleskine: Read Alouds

I spend about 10% of my day reading aloud in classrooms. I find it to be a great way to connect with kids, to be more present in the classroom and to share great literature. To help me recall how each read aloud went, I write out a brief lesson plan for the book. I follow the basic format a teacher would use for guided reading: Before Reading Aloud; During the Read Aloud; After Reading Aloud. On the back of each page, I mark which classrooms I read a book to and when, so I don’t repeat (although rereads aren’t a bad thing, especially when the book is good).


To better aid my organization, I keep my K-2 read alouds in the first half of the notebook and my grade 3-5 read alouds in the second half. I also “tag” the read alouds with special themes on the upper left hand corner, along with an approximate duration to read each book.

Black Moleskine: Book Reviews

Some of the classrooms in my building regularly post student book reviews on their bulletin boards. Great practice! To connect with classroom instruction, after I read aloud a title I write a review of said book in my review journal for the students. I model this type of persuasive writing using the document camera.


This is not the best example, as this was our first entry and we didn’t actually write a review. Still, these 4th graders had lots of memorable quotes that they wanted to share and get documented in the book journal page we completed together via the document camera. To wrap things up, we voted on how good the book was based on our evidence and thinking. I was not surprised that Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein got five out of five stars.

Moleskine Knock-Off: Memorable Quotes

I got this calendar journal at a local book store around the time I signed up with Twitter last fall. Once I saw the amount and the quality of educational information that this social media helped send my way, I realized I needed a way to curate it before I lost it. It is not a Moleskine, but my wife was kind enough to spruce it up with a Moleskine pen.


Anything and everything goes into this journal. The only criteria is that it is interesting and important enough to remember. Many of my PLN’s tweets have taken up space in this journal. As with all my journals, I regularly refer back to what I wrote to help current and future writing and decision-making.


Digital Journals

Moleskine does have a journal app for the iPad and iPod Touch, but it is as bad as their paper
journals are good. I do journal using a variety of digital tools, all with slightly different purposes.

Evernote – Not so much a journal as a tool to store and organize information, such as conference notes with audio. This application has lots of potential for student portfolios.
Notability – Somewhat similar to Evernote, but information is stored via Dropbox. Doesn’t have the same accessibility as Evernote, but you can draw and handwrite within each note.
One Day – A very simple yet effective eJournal app for the iPad. I keep more confidential information here because it is password protected. If anything I write had to be considered a diary, this would be it.
WordPress – No description needed

What’s My Point?

I hope I have not wrote a post without much purpose.

As I reflect on my position as an elementary principal, I can think of a variety of reasons why I write and why all educators should be doing the same.

– Writing is a reflective act. It helps me coalesce seemingly disconnected ideas into one focus.
– All educators need to be modeling writing if they expect students to write. Kelly Gallagher, author of Write Like This, aptly stated that the teacher is the best writer in the classroom. To model this skill, we need to keep our own skills honed.
– Writing is thinking made evident. Concrete thoughts such as goals and opinions are much harder to ignore than thinking alone.
– With the Common Core State Standards, writing is expected to be taught across the curriculum. It’s about time.
– The medium for writing is not as important as the act itself. Some students are more motivated by pen to paper, while others prefer blogging. Ideas are ideas and should be shared regardless of the format. If technology can enhance this experience, I say go for it.
– Writing needs to be regarded with the same level of reverence as reading and math. As an example, many schools (including mine) annually spend thousands of dollars on books but expect students to bring a $1 notebook for writing.
– It is okay that different forms of writing demand different formats and mediums.
– Writing is meant to be shared.

What reflections do you have regarding writing in education? Please share in the comments as I am always looking for new ideas.

Using the Document Camera for Reading Aloud

(Thanks to Tia Henriksen, @henriksent, for better post title suggestion)

I left the classroom in 2007 after seven years as an elementary teacher to become a dean of students and athletic director at a junior high school. At that time, the overhead projector was the tool I used to display anything visual. SmartBoards were just starting to be installed. The only hands-on part about overheads was when a student had to run to the main office to get a replacement after the bulb burned out mid-lesson. In fact, that was one of my students’ classroom jobs. How technology has changed in such a short period of time is amazing.


With all of these choices, it can be daunting to decide which device best supports the instructional needs in a teacher’s classroom. Focusing on reading aloud, I find the best technology to be the document camera. Used in concert with a voice amplification system, the document camera has taken this essential part of a balanced literacy program to a whole new level. It is a key tool for teachers to model the learning process, an essential step in Regie Routman’s Optimal Learning Model and similar frameworks for instruction.


While I am still trying to figure out where this technology tool belongs on the SAMR ladder, I have found that the document camera can augment read aloud time in the classroom.


Reading Aloud Becomes Interactive and Shared at the Same Time
Rather than having different literature and separate times for reading aloud, for shared reading and for interactive reading alouds, a teacher could combine all of these practices into one activity. I often place the picture book or novel under the document camera so students can see the text as I read. Students can ask questions about text features as I read, even coming up to the book or SmartBoard to point out the specific item they wanted more information about. For example, a 2nd grader asked what the little symbols between paragraphs meant while reading aloud Tumtum and Nutmeg by Emily Bearn (to switch scenes during a chapter). These teachable moments can be documented by snapping a picture of the page to review later.

Previously “Unread-aloud-able” Books Can Now Be Read Aloud
I am referring to the books that you would love to share with students, but cannot because they do not work when just reading the text. A perfect example is Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick, a book I read aloud to 4th graders this school year. Prior to document cameras, I would have had to hold up this bulky book and display the pictures when the narrative transitioned from Ben’s story (told through text) to Rose’s story (told through illustrations). My arms hurt just thinking about having to do this. Instead, I was able to lay the book down and take my time as we perused the pictures. What’s even cooler is I can zoom in on certain parts of the illustration or text when we notice something important, which previously only a student reading alone could do.

My Thinking Becomes More Visible


I have always tried to use a lot of reflective language while reading aloud and identify the spot in the story that caused me to think. Now with a document camera, the potential is there to make the thinking in my head while reading more concrete. For instance, I use Post-it notes while reading aloud books at the primary level to document my thinking. Before reading, I state my purpose for reading a book, whether just for pleasure or to gather information. Sometimes it is the same book read twice, once for each purpose (see: Mentor Texts). Owl Moon by Jane Yolen worked great at 1st grade. After reading it aloud to enjoy the story, I came back a second day to highlight some of the great descriptive language to help me with my own writing. After modeling this with Post-it notes, students raised their hands to share their picks for great examples of descriptive language in Jane Yolen’s book. I acknowledged their input by writing down their suggestions on a Post-it next to mine, for later reflection at the end.

Reading Aloud Becomes Instantly Differentiated
As a colleague of mine was apt to state, you could through a rock out in the hallway and hit someone with attention deficit disorder. While recognizing this as hyperbole, I would agree that many students lack the stamina and practice of listening to the written word spoken aloud. What the document camera does is give that visual in addition to the auditory.

I don’t always use the document camera when reading aloud. In fact, most chapter books I read aloud at grades five and up are from a comfortable chair with zero technology. But when a book begs to be supplemented with a technology tool that enhances the read aloud experience and allows the student to better attend to its message, why not use it?

Not to sound redundant…the document camera is a great technology tool for all areas of instruction. I recommend the following resources for using the document camera in the classroom (you may notice a theme):

58 Ways Teachers Can Use the Document Camera

50 Ways to Use a Document Camera

25 Ways for Students to Use Document Cameras

The 3-2-1 Challenge

*Note: This post is written for my staff, but feel free to join us!

A Creative Life is a Healthy Life by Amanda Enayati for describes all the reasons for leading a creative life and to be innovators in our work, as well as ways to deal with the distractors.

*Found this quote posted in EPCOT during spring break


I was first introduced to the 3-2-1 formative assessment tool by Rick Wormeli at one of his conferences run through Staff Development for Educators (SDE). It is an assessment that asks the student to list three, two and one items related to a concept they just learned. An example he provided in mathematics looks like this:

3 – List three applications for slope, y-intercept knowledge in the professional world
2 – Identify two skills students must have in order to determine slop and y-intercept from a set of points on a plane
1 – If (x1, y1) are the coordinates of a point W in a plane, and (x2, y2) are the coordinates of a different point Y, then the slope of line WY is what?

Cross this idea with Barb Gilman’s tweet, “I love my principal! She challenged us to read at least 5 good books this summer. #BookChat #TitleTalk”, and you have the 3-2-1 challenge.

Using his format, I am challenging all of us (including me) with these suggestions during our time away from school.

3 – Read at least three good books this summer

To be literacy leaders in our classrooms, we have to be readers and writers in our personal lives too. Regie Routman said it best in Teaching Essentials: “One of the first questions I would ask any teacher seeking employment is, What are you reading? What is your last favorite book? How do you choose a book? What have you learned as a reader?“. She goes on to state that we need to have a balance in our knowledge base, and reading a wide variety of genres can provide this. For me, I plan to read Steve Jobs’ biography, the third installment in the Game of Thrones fantasy series and Opening Minds by Peter Johnston. I will also be reading new children’s literature in search of potential read alouds in classrooms for next year.

2 – Participate in two new experiences

Think about your new students coming in next fall. They will be feeling anxious about who their new teacher is, what is expected of them academically and how they will get along with their classmates. Our students take part in new experiences annually. It might be wise to put ourselves in their place to get a better perspective. I am not talking about climbing Mount Everest; maybe it is becoming more familiar with mobile technology, or taking an art class. If you cannot think of something new, maybe consider mastering something you have already tried. The article I reference in the beginning of this post has some good ideas.

1 – Think about one way you could use the Internet to communicate with families

I have sat in many meetings with parents who state, “I looked on the Internet for the answer to that problem.” We have a captive audience online. This challenge could be as simple as learning how to post your weekly classroom newsletters on the district web page instead of putting them in the shared folder. You could take this a step further and replace your classroom newsletter with a blog, where you could add photos, web links, video and audio alongside the text. Some classrooms in other schools use Twitter to share their reflections of what they learned during class. Whatever your preference, using communication tools on the Internet such as social media can be a powerful way to get the word out about the great things you do in school everyday. As always, I am available for questions and assistance, even during the summer. (As I reflect as I write, this challenge could serve as a new experience, too.)

None of these suggestions are required, or course, only challenges. I just want to encourage everyone to take time for yourself, as well as to reflect and think about how you will continue to grow and learn as a person and as a professional. Many of you do this already, so I may be preaching to the choir.

At any rate, have a wonderful summer and thank you for making my first year at Howe a good one!

4th Grade Read Aloud: Wonderstruck

“Maybe, Ben thought, we are all cabinets of wonder.”

Although this behemoth of a book looks daunting by page size alone, we found Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick to be a very good and accessible story. This unique and intriguing novel features Ben, a boy who recently lost his mother. In his search to find his father in New York City, the story transitions from text to illustrations as we learn about Rose, though only through pictures. Her story takes place fifty years earlier, in 1929. Both characters’ lives start to intersect in what seemed at first to be two totally different paths.

Without giving away too much, this book is one-of-a-kind. For example, even though both main characters struggle with hearing loss, they are able to communicate with others through construction of paper buildings, sign language and reading lips. How many stories do you know where the majority of the cast has a disability?

The connection to the author’s other work, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, goes only as far as the fact that each story transitions from text to illustrations and back. In Wonderstruck, the author carefully places clues for the reader to find and think about how Rose’s and Ben’s lives meet together. It makes this novel engaging and keeps you hanging from chapter to chapter. There was a true purpose to both means of communication with Wonderstruck. The ending was very rewarding.

Overall, this is a book highly recommended for grades four and up.

-Ms. Steffes’ 4th graders

My Teachers’ Favorite iPad Apps

Teachers in my building could sign up to receive an iPad 2 plus training during second semester. Using Kathy Schrock’s iPad app Evaluation Rubric, teachers culminated the first round of training by recommending a favorite reading or math app they used with students in their classroom.

ABC Magic
Recommended by: Lisa B
Grade Level(s): K-1
Content Area: Language Arts
Cost: Free


A phonics-based series of apps to reinforce sound and spelling patterns.

Futaba – Classroom Games for Kids
Recommended by: Krista
Grade Level(s): K-2
Content Area: Math or Reading
Cost: $3.99


This app has been popular with my kids because it is a game that more than one student can play at a time. They work together cooperatively and have fun while practicing math facts or sight words. I have used this during literacy time (it was a task that needed to be completed for the literacy menu). I like that you can customize this app to fit the needs of each student or group of students. I would like to see more game content added. There are a few glitches that might need to be worked out.

Counting Money
Recommended by: Monica
Grade Level(s): K-5+
Content Area: Math – Money
Cost: Free


I would recommend this title and it’s similar app titled Counting Money + ($1.99). I have used it whole class and it could easily be used with pairs or individuals. It doesn’t have the fancy graphics that some apps have but the sound and real pictures it offers of dollars and coins is great. The settings this app offers allow you to set it for beginners or advanced learners. Within this app are three different types of games: counting only coins, counting only dollars, and counting coins and dollars.

Motion Math: Wings
Recommended by: Janice
Grade Level(s): Ages 4+
Content Area: Math – Multiplication
Cost: Free (with option to purchase more levels)


This app is a great way to practice math fact skills. There are many levels available for young to older students. Motion Math also has Hungry Fish.

Wake the Rooster by Telling Time: Tiny Chicken
Recommended by: Bri
Grade Level(s): Primary
Content Area: Math – Time
Cost: Free


It’s a basic app, but offers repeated practice setting times. I like it because it includes all increments and varies in difficulty. I don’t like that it doesn’t show the correct time if you get one wrong.

Spelling Test
Recommended by: Kim
Grade Level(s): K-5
Content Area: Language Arts – Spelling
Cost: Free


This app allows teachers to input spelling words for the week, along with a voice recording of each word, so students can practice independently. The student simply taps on which list they would like to practice, the words are displayed, and when he or she is ready, the student taps on “take test”. A word from the list is read orally to the student (in the teacher’s voice), and the student types the word on the keypad. If the student needs to hear the word again, there is a button to hear it repeated. Immediate feedback is given to the student following each word. At the end of the test, all words are displayed alongside the correct spelling. There is also the option to have test scores reported by email (I have not used this option, yet). This is a great app to use with students who finish early or students who don’t practice at home.

Recommended by: April
Grade Level(s): 3-5
Content Area: Math – Multiplication
Cost: Free


I recommend this app for intermediate students who finish early. It’s fun for students to play with a partner; it challenges their multiplication skills. The automatic outs allow both teams to have a chance to play often. It would be better if it had an option to specify facts.

Rocket Math
Recommended by: Jean
Grade Level(s): 3
Content Area: Math
Cost: Free


Great for all levels – independent use. Kids construct own rocket with $300 to buy boosters, color and rocket. Then they choose a skill area to practice – money, time, multiplication, etc. They earn points based on skill and how high their rocket launches.

Math Garden
Recommended by: Jen
Grade Level(s): K-5
Content Area: Math
Cost: Free


I would recommend this app for students who need to practice their basic math facts. In Math Garden, you get to grow your own corn fields but you need to water them by answering math questions. You can choose the level of difficulty and the type of problems to practice addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

24. Math Game
Recommended by: Dawn
Grade Level(s): 3+
Content Area: Math
Cost: $1.99


I would recommend this application for developing basic math facts, order of operations, and flexibility in thinking. We use 24 as a warm up for every math class. Kids LOVE it! It is an excellent math thinking game. Each time a student gets 24 by four multiplication/division/subtraction, new cards are dealt. To provide choice, we write down the first set of cards so that if kids want to stick with those numbers to get 24 a different way, they can. I limit the game to five minutes and keep track of who gets 24.

Recommended by: Lori W
Grade Level(s): All
Content Area: Motivation
Cost: $1.99


This is a useful app. It allows you to determine a separate reward for each student and monitor their progress. The 3D puzzle is an effective way to see their progress toward their goal. It eliminates charts. Can be used for multiple students.

Recommended by: Sue
Grade Level(s): 2-5
Content Area: Language Arts
Cost: Free


Bluster! is a language arts app for grades 2-5. It may be used individually, as a team, or two students against one another. It works on adjectives, prefixes, suffixes, rhyming words, homophones, root words and synonyms. Students are working on skills presented in class. They are motivated by the iPad format to practice.

Recommended by: Molly
Grade Level(s): All
Content Area: Productivity
Cost: Free


Helps you remember everything across all devices. The app can voice record, capture photos, and make notes. It has a lot of potential for recording student work.

Recommended by: Molly
Grade Level(s): N/A
Content Area: News
Cost: Free


The app works like a cool magazine. It lets you search the Internet for articles in a specific area, then presents them in a magazine format.

Story Builder
Recommended by: Genesis
Grade Level(s): K-5
Content Area: Reading – Story Elements, Inferencing, Answering “WH-” Questions
Cost: $5.99


This app won Best Reading App of 2011 through the Huffington Post. It allows children to create stories by forming individual sentences using pictures and question prompts. Students record themselves sentence by sentence and play back an entire story they created. The instructor needs to provide the feedback for this app. There are scaffolding options so students can build stories with less prompting. In addition to story elements, this app can be used for inferences, “WH-” questions, fluency, grammar/sentence structure, sequencing and sound production. The pictures and audio feedback are engaging and promote expressive language.

Recommended by: Matt
Grade Level(s): K-5
Content Area: Reading – Story Elements, Fluency, Creativity
Cost: Free


Student can create a visual story, summarize a book and learn about the elements of a narrative. Teachers should first ask students to write a story board before using Toontastic. The app also asks students to provide narration for the story and practice fluency by recording their voice. When completed, students can celebrate their efforts by sharing their final product on the document camera or mirroring via Apple TV.

Math Drills
Recommended by: Colette
Grade Level(s): K-5
Content Area: Math
Cost: $1.99


Students have own personal settings for practicing math facts. Kids like the review part because it gives a good visual for skip counting. Boys like the race car reinforcement such as the car noises and the M.P.H. report on how fast you completed your facts. Also, the pit stop lets you go back and redo a problem you missed.

The Social Express
Recommended by: Jill
Grade Level(s): K-5
Content Area: School Counseling – Personal/Social and Health
Cost: $89.99


I recommend this app for any student who struggles socially to work with others, to make good decisions, and to express feelings appropriately. It would be especially beneficial for students with emotional/behavioral disorders, autism, and Aspergers.

Hoosiers and School Leadership

This morning I attended the annual thank you breakfast at Woodlands Church. They are a partner with Howe School, providing volunteers, school supplies and various resources to help our students learn.

While enjoying refreshments and chatting in their very nice community center, the pastor asked if I would say a few words about our partnership during service. Even though this is my fourth year in administration, I still get a pit in my stomach when talking in front of others, especially those I have not met. What do I say? What was the history of this partnership before I came along?

By luck (or divine intervention), I found an old coaching newsletter in a binder of school materials I was to give to a staff member that morning. I saved this newsletter (Basketball Sense, May 2001) from my basketball coaching days because of the excellent article on the cover, “The Coaching Philosophy of Norman Dale”. In it, high school basketball coach Larry Lindsey analyzes the coaching and program-building philosophy of Coach Dale, played by Gene Hackman, in the classic sports movie Hoosiers. Full disclosure: This movie is one of my favorites – I have owned it on VHS, DVD and now digitally.

Perfect! I evoked my inner Hackman and read some of Coach Dale’s quotes to the congregation (below, in italics), organized by Mr. Lindsay under different categories of program-building (bold). It was a nice way to connect the importance of being a team and the school’s partnership with the church. After the event, I also reflected on how these quotes relate to my position as a school leader. My reflections come after the quotes.


Let’s be clear about what we are after here.

– Do we have a mission focused on student learning and success? How are we communicating this within the school walls and beyond on a regular basis?

Support your players with the public

I would hope you support us for who we are, not for who we are not.

– Is the community supporting our efforts and focusing on what’s going well as well as what needs to be worked on?
– Is this support coming from our elected officials as well as from our parents and local organizations?

These six individuals made a choice…to represent you, this high school. That kind of commitment and effort deserves and demands your respect. This is your team.

– Are the teachers, staff, students and families in my school feeling respected? If not, what I am doing to advocate for this respect, maybe even demanding it?

How to build your team

Five players on the floor function as a single unit. No one person is more important than another.

– Am I expecting everyone to take on their fair share of the work load, including students, families and me?

Challenge your team

Remember what we worked on in practice. I want to see it on the court.

– Is what we are learning as a staff translating into improved student learning? How do we know?

Dealing with your team in a big game

Remember what got you here. Focus on the fundamentals. Don’t focus on winning and losing. Put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential.

– Is our professional development addressing best practices, rather than fluff, or outcomes only? Are we delivering our instruction with fidelity?
– Are the activities we are asking students to do standards-based, relevant and engaging?
– Are the students meeting their own expectations as well as ours? How do we celebrate our successes and not just test scores?

I agree with the author of this article that the process that occurred in Hoosiers typifies what a team or partnership should look like, to strive to better our abilities in order to achieve a goal.

5th Grade Read Aloud: Lawn Boy

This is a review of Lawn Boy by Gary Paulsen. We really liked this story about a boy (unnamed) who receives a lawn tractor from his grandmother. After mowing one lawn, he starts to receive more offers, more than he can handle. Soon he gets mixed up into a big business with a stockbroker named Arnold, a landscaper named Pasqual and his “family”, and a prizefighter who goes by the name Joey Pow. In this whole ordeal, he makes more than friends that summer, including more than minimum wage along with an enemy trying to take over his business by the name of Rock.

What we liked best about this story was Grandma. She is always saying off-the-wall things. For example, when she dropped off the lawn tractor, she also mentioned she has bridge club that night. As well, Grandma suggested puberty was the reason the narrator was acting so goofy. The humor of this fast-paced story makes this a very worthy read.

This review was written by Mrs. Peplinski’s 5th grade students.