Word Work vs. Spelling Packets

(I was asked by another building administrator my opinion regarding using word work in classrooms rather than tedious spelling packets. Not having an extensive reading background, other than I taught reading at the elementary level for seven years, I try to tread lightly when giving my opinion in this area.)

Tedious spelling packets are just that, tedious. In Chapter 4 of Teaching Essentials (Focus on Meaning First), Regie Routman stresses making curriculum and standards relevant and authentic. I cannot think of anything more irrelevant or inauthentic than a packet of worksheets. Word work such as word sorts are the opposite. They are visible everywhere, in the Jumble puzzle in the daily paper to board games such as Scrabble. Today, they are fun apps to play on mobile devices such as Moxie and Words with Friends, all using the framework of sorting letters to make words. People pay money and spend hours doing word work (including me). Would anyone buy an app or a board game that asked them to complete worksheets?

The thinking required to complete worksheets is pretty low level. Read the question, find the correct word on the list, write the word in the appropriate space, repeat. Word work, on the other hand, encourages students to compare/contrast, categorize and make new connections with word patterns, all on the upper level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Word work may not be limited to the 10-20 words given to the student in a spelling packet, none of which are chosen by the student. As well, word work promotes independent learners, another focus of Regie’s, because they depend on the student to create the words, not the worksheet. Students working on spelling packets are compliant but probably aren’t as engaged.

I could go on, but it would be me just venting because I used spelling packets almost exclusively for seven years as a teacher. I think I knew better at some level, but I never took the time to reflect on my own practices and ask, “Why I am doing this?”.

The caveat is, if the district expects teachers to use spelling packets because it is part of the board-approved language arts program, then spelling packets should be used in classrooms. They are not terrible, and probably do help students at least remember and maybe apply the word pattern of focus. That said, could they be taken home for parents to do with their child? Done together on the document camera? A workaround like this could allow the teacher to use better practices such as The Daily Five during the literacy block.

Speaking of which, there a number of good resources out there to help teachers develop more effective practices when teaching students spelling and vocabulary. Besides The Sisters’ resource The Daily Five, I recommend having a copy of Teaching Kids to Spell by Gentry and Gillet on your shelf. Although it is almost twenty years old, it contains some creative ideas for differentiated spelling activities to use with students. Janet Allen talks about work banks for older students in her book Yellow Brick Roads. Debbie Diller’s resource Literacy Work Stations has an appendix thicker than some novels filled with reproducibles for word work stations. What is a favorite word work resource of yours? Please share.

Getting Started with Student-Centered Coaching

Diane Sweeney (@SweeneyDiane), author of Student-Centered Coaching, is working with reading staff and administrators in my district on how to coach teachers to improve instructional practices. It is not that anyone is necessarily deficient in an area; my understanding is this process is a different way to improve our own practices. Although we were asked to take things slow because we had only been trained for one day, we decided to try an activity out.

First, she recommends that whenever you work with staff members with the purpose of improving instruction, you look at current practices. The grade level that the reading staff and I regularly collaborate with had previously constructed a nice rubric to assess their students’ writing. We took that rubric and cross checked it with the Common Core State Standards to see if they aligned. They did! It was a good way to start the discussion, to show everyone that their current practices are effective. Between this meeting and the next, teachers are expected to take this rubric and pre-assess each student in a common genre of writing. In February, the classroom teachers will bring back these writing samples to prompt discussion about current reality with their students’ writing skills.

Next, we brought up the idea from our coaching training of breaking down a writing standard into bite-sized tasks. For example, within the narrative standard students are expected to have a beginning, use details when describing a scene, and close out the story. These tasks or skills are should be put into kid language and listed on a checklist. Teachers can then teach each skill through the use of mentor texts, shared writing and writer’s workshop. Using the checklist of tasks/skills, teachers can note whenever a student has shown proficiency in a skill area during writing conferences. Once the teacher feels her class is ready based on the formative assessments noted in her checklist, she can give the post-assessment for the same genre of writing. They would use the same rubric to assess their students’ writing and compare the pre and post assessments to check for growth.

After today’s initial collaboration with staff, I realized this coaching process is going to take some time. As I headed back to my office, I thought about how we would break down the narrative standard and who would be involved. By luck, my ESL teacher stopped in at the same time and volunteered to start this process with help from a classroom teacher. Later on, one of my Reading Recovery teachers emailed me, requesting to work on another genre of writing and develop a skills checklist. These actions tell me that our first experience in student-centered coaching was a good one.

Just looking at the list of standards for 1st grade in writing is daunting. I can see why Diane cautioned us to to take things slowly and focus on one thing at a time. Speaking with staff, their first impressions were generally positive with regard to this method of collaborating with colleagues to talk about students and instruction. I am looking forward to seeing how our next gatherings will go, especially after working with Diane again. Even more, it is exciting to know where our students are heading because now we have an end in mind. Seeing learning made evident is one of the most rewarding parts of my job.


Christmas Cards for Teachers’ Parents

My first reaction to hearing Todd Whitaker (@toddwhitaker) propose that principals should send photos of staff working with kids to the staff members’ parents was, “Who has time for that?” After actually sending out these photos and reflecting on the feedback I received, I now think, “That time was well spent.”

After attending the administrator conference where I heard this idea, I started using Twitter to collaborate with colleagues (thanks go to @PrincipalJ and @WiscPrincipal for presenting about this useful tool). I asked other principals online if they had done this, or what they thought about the idea. Many had not tried it, but most thought it was worthy of my time.

With help taking candid pictures of staff members in action, uploading them to an online printer and collecting staff members’ parents’ addresses, this project did not take as much time as I feared. In fact, my biggest concern was how the teachers and aides plus their family members would react to the principal sending out Christmas cards with photos to them. I did not know who they were, nor did they know me.

The feedback could not have been more positive. During break, I received four emails from staff and one email from a parent of a teacher, all thanking me for taking the time to recognize their efforts. I even had a grandparent of one of my teachers stop me after church, thanking me for sending the photo of their granddaughter to their son.

When I got back to school after the New Year’s, several staff members stopped me in the hallway to thank me personally for the card and photo. One of my teachers has a sister who teaches in the Fox Valley (Wisconsin). She said her sister gave the card and photo to her principal, requesting that he do the same thing next year. I also had two parents of teachers write me a personal thank you card. One parent’s message was especially touching; this teacher’s mother stated she was feeling lonely during the holiday season, until my card showed up in the mail. Seeing her daughter working with students made her day.

I’m glad I stepped out of my comfort zone a little in order to share my appreciation for my staff with the people who care about them the most. My only concern now is: Do I do this every year? Will it become trite or expected? Any comments or questions you may have would be appreciated.

Free iPad Apps for Online Educators

I just received an iCapsule Keyboard and Case for my iPad 1 from my brother. It’s pretty cool. Of course, I want to do something with it, so what better way than to write a blog post!

Recently, a friend of ours received an iPad 2. She teaches medical terminology to undergraduates looking into a career in healthcare. The university bought it for her because she teaches online, and she asked me what are the best free apps out there for this purpose (of course, they didn’t provide her with a budget for apps). Loving everything techie, I was only too happy to oblige.

Below is a list in no order for what free apps I would recommend to online teachers. I myself have not taught a course online yet, but plan to with my teaching staff next semester, all via iPad. If you have an opinion or suggestion about this list, please share it as this may be the blind leading the blind.

Teacher Tools (Free)
Edmodo – Host a class, like Facebook only for teachers and students
Mail – Assign your email to this app to instantly view messages & sync Calendar
Evernote – Take notes and record voice, with ability to share info many ways
Twitter – Connect with other like professionals, host chats and share information
Google + – Hold video conferencing with students
Google Docs – Work on a document with others at the same time or asynchronously
iBooks – Read textbooks as eBooks, highlight and share text, easily search for specific information
Safari – Use the “Reading List” feature to save articles online for later reading and sharing
WordPress – Write and share blog posts, plus track data about how often people read your writing. Can also add comments to people’s posts, nice way to provide feedback for assessment.
Pinterest – Create boards for different areas of professional interest, and allow others to pin like interests to your boards
Dropbox – Sync documents, pictures between iPad and personal computer
neu.Annotate – free PDF reader that allows you to write comments on it and save it as is in Dropbox, or send out to others via email
Flipboard – Subscribe to several news outlets, media and blogs and read information in a magazine-style format
iTunes – Download or subscribe to free podcasts about many things education and learning related
Shutterfly – Take pictures, then post them for others to see on the Share Site
Prezi Viewer – Make a Prezi on a computer then present it on this app
YouTube – Take video, then post it online for others to watch


iPads as Tools for Engaging Students

(This is a summary I shared with a community foundation that funded two iPads in my building, about my observations when using iPads with reluctant readers.)


Howe Elementary School requested and received two iPad 2s. The purpose of these tools for learning is to engage young learners, especially those who struggle in school and need support, or for those who require more enrichment in their education.

Start Date and End Date
I started using the mobile devices as an intervention tool for two upper elementary students in early October. We ended the intervention in late December. The two students and I met for approximately one and a half hours per week (two 45 minute intervention sessions). Both students were put in more intense interventions for reading after the winter break, and I will be picking up two more students who have made strong gains in a more intense intervention. See the attached lesson plan to see one example of an intervention session, which corresponds to the photo submitted.

A diversion from the intent of these devices was to use the iPads for Able Learners, students who were labeled Gifted and Talented in the past. One 1st grade teacher has been allowing her four able learners to use some critical thinking apps such as Casey’s Contraptions and Rocket Math as a way to challenge them. I’ve asked this teacher to reflect on how it was working for her students. We are also now looking at using iPads because the Able Learner program has been cut to only one position for the district. These devices might provide the classroom support needed at a minimal cost.

Parent and Community Partnership
Using these devices to support diverse students’ learning needs has spawned some innovative ideas at Howe Elementary School. Based on the success observed with the two devices you have allowed us to purchase, the following initiatives are planned for the second part of the year:

Three special education teachers will be using district funds to purchase an iPad in order to accommodate students with learning, emotional and language disabilities.

Fourteen teachers will be implementing an iPad in their classroom to a) discover ways to use the device to increase their teaching capacity, and b) provide another tool for differentiating instruction and facilitating interventions in their classroom.

The Parent Partnership Team at Howe will be hosting a series of Technology Nights in the spring once teachers become proficient at using the iPads. Parents and community members will be invited to explore the devices with teachers and students. The objective will be to share how the school is using them to a) support student learning and b) communicate with families more regularly.

Four iPads will be replacing four desktops in a kindergarten room. This pilot will assess whether these mobile devices are better suited for primary students when compared with personal computers.

Book Apps vs. Apps Based on Books

A recent post on Twitter made me aware of Imagination Soup’s Best iPad Book App for Kids: http://imaginationsoup.net/2011/12/best-ipad-book-apps-for-kids-of-2011/

What I appreciated about this post was the criteria for how they came to their decisions:

“A good book app needs to have:

– an interesting story
– compelling, kid-friendly illustrations
– appropriate text to picture ratio
– easy navigation: pages which are easy to turn, way to return home, way to skip pages
– choices of read to self and read to me
– clickable elements that relate to the story and aren’t just for fluff”

Being a father of a five year old and three year old plus an iPad book app connoisseur myself, I found their choices informative. Taking off my dad hat and putting on my principal hat, are these the same book apps I would want in place in my school’s classrooms? We as a school have rallied hard to persuade parents to turn off the screen and spend more quality time with their children. With the amount of animations, bells and whistles that some of these book apps have, I have legitimate concerns about how much reading is really happening when students interact with them.

If I were to develop criteria for what makes an app truly a book app, it would actually boil down to just one criterion: Does the app benefit the student as a reader? That is, does the book app actually enhance the reading experience when compared to a regular print book? For students who do not struggle in reading, quite frankly there isn’t an app out there that can even closely compare to the reading experience one has when they are totally immersed in the author’s world on the printed page.

However, for struggling readers, I believe book apps can have a purpose in helping them be engaged in the process of reading. Going back to my criterion, here are the apps on my short list.

Top Book Apps

OceanHouse Media books
These applications are the best, bar none. The narration is good, and it works nicely with the background effects. There are very few animations or distractions as the books progress. This helps readers stay focused on the text (the whole point of reading, right?). My favorite aspect about OM books is the highlighting that occurs as the narrator reads the words. Readers may not clamor for these book apps over “Dora” books or “Hildegard Sings”, but the animations in the books just mentioned distract the reader from the text. (BTW – You know your parents are educators when they track your eye movement when reading). I can go on and on about the quality of OM products, such as the “Little Critter” series and books by Dr. Seuss, or how they have nonfiction book apps on high-interest subjects such as dinosaurs. The best part: OM products are some of the most inexpensive book apps in the app store.

Nook Kids Read to Me books
Technically, they are not apps. The Nook Kids app is an eReader. You can purchase these eBooks for kids through Barnes and Noble and read them on a Nook Color or an iPad. What makes this a top choice for struggling readers is that there are zero animations, they provide high quality narration and the books available for purchase are quality text for emergent readers. My favorite is Ray Charles’ rendition of “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom”. The price of these books are a little more expensive than what the App Store offers, but they still have the potential to enhance the reading experience of a struggling reader. iBooks also offers Enhanced Books. I have not tried them but they sound similar to what Barnes and Noble offers.

Specifically, check out the Audiobooks collection for children’s literature. I own over twenty of these recordings myself, ranging from Fancy Nancy to Blueberries for Sal. Jim Trelease, author of The Read Aloud Handbook, would concur with me that hearing the printed word read aloud is a powerful way to get students hooked on reading.

Honorable Mention

– Loud Crow book apps
The animations are more frequent, but the layout and production of these apps, such as “Peter Rabbit” and “The Going-to-Bed Book”, make them difficult to resist.

– Disney Puzzle Books/Toy Story Series
Disney is hard to avoid, especially with little kids. Thankfully, they have produced some book apps that focus more on the written word then on everything else. Their use of highlighting text in the Toy Story books is appreciated.

Apps That are Based on Books
I am not saying these are poor apps by any means. I just feel they are mislabeled; they are more of an app than a book. I know my kids still enjoy them, but I would not necessarily place them on a device in one of my classrooms for the purpose of building stronger readers.

– “Winkin”
– “Finn’s Hat”
– “Hildegard Sings”
– “Morris Lessmore” *(Even though it didn’t make the cut, this app is just too good not to experience; you decide.)
– Angelina Ballerina: New Teacher”
– “Rapunzel”
– “The Monster at the End of this Book” *(Another app based on a book that you just may want to own).
– “Hugless Douglas”

If you have more suggestions for any one of these categories, let me know. Happy reading!

Teachers Required to Submit Lesson Plans? Here’s a Win-Win!

In my district, teachers who are not tenured are expected to submit lesson plans to their principal for review. To be quite honest, my likeliness for reviewing their plans has about the same chance as Prince Fielder staying in Milwaukee as a Brewer. I just don’t have the time to delve into the weekly plans of my probationary teachers, plans that are submitted the Friday before the lessons start and won’t reflect how their instruction has changed due to a one day lesson that lasted two days.

The solution? After observing my probationary staff for the first of two times this fall, I am requiring each of these teachers to submit five lesson plans to me between now and spring, when I will observe them for a second time. They get to pick the lessons, with the caveat that one of their lessons showcase an excellent example of instruction, and another lesson reflect a lesson that they know needs improvement. The other three lessons can be anything they want. For all five lessons, they have to reflect on how it went, what was successful and what they would do differently if they could reteach it.

I haven’t tried this yet. I don’t even have the template selected for the teachers to use. So why do I think it will be successful? Thinking as a teacher, I would find it more beneficial to take a lesson I actually employed, reflect upon it and evaluate the effectiveness of my instruction. This type of thinking requires much higher level thinking compared to the alternative. As a principal, I can see through their lessons how the teachers are growing as professionals, especially in their reflections. This information should be very useful to me when I observe them again in the spring.

What are your thoughts? Have you tried something similar? I’d appreciate your thoughts.


UPDATE: As my brain was still going while trying to get some sleep last night, I remembered a conversation I had with one of my reading teachers that day. We are in the process of planning the implementation of iPads with teachers, in an effort to provide tools for reading and math intervention in the classroom. She is the ying to my yang; I want to get devices in the hands of kids right away, while she cites studies about the danger of too much technology. These are good discussions. One thing she mentioned that stuck with me is the F pattern people use when reading text on the web. In a study by Jakob Nielsen in 2006, he found that people will read the top two lines of a website, then go down the left hand side of the screen to try and read the rest. This reading pattern is roughly in the shape of an F. The thinking is there is just too much information online for anyone to follow it all. Plus many web advertisements are located on the right side. Web readers are scanning information for what’s important and avoiding the ads on the right.

So how is this related to reflective lesson plans for probationary staff? Mainly, these teachers are all in their twenties and are digital natives (I am an immigrant, digitally speaking). They have grown up reading on screens. Also, they may use the F patterns when reading not only websites but other text as well. Because I want them to type these lesson plans up on a computer so they can be dropped in a digital file, my theory is they will be more comfortable adding their most important thinking (their reflections) on the left hand side. When they go back to reread their reflections before the second observation in the spring, the template will reflect what their eyes prefer. As a bonus, the reflection box runs along all the steps of the lesson plan, so they can reflect even as they teach the lesson, or at least make notes in the part of the lesson they reflected upon.

Maybe I am way overthinking this, but I think it was worth trying out. Take a look at the template I made at https://docs.google.com/open?id=0B9IW4q_SnPUwZjZlOTZjM2EtYTE2OS00MTM3LTkxMmQtMGVkYjFjZTMwZmU0 and let me know your thoughts. The probationary teachers I shared this with really liked it, but I’d probably say that to my boss too! Also, here is the link to the research about the F pattern when reading online: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/reading_pattern.html