Teacher to Learner


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My son and I take Tae Kwon Do together now. He joined before I did. This was purposeful. I wanted him to be one level above me as we progressed together through the ranks. He will be green belt while I am at yellow belt. When he attains blue belt, I will be at green, and so forth. I felt it was important that he see himself as more knowledgable and expert than me in something. He now has the opportunity to also be the teacher, and me to be the learner. For example, as we warmed up last night, I asked him to watch my form that I would be tested on. This is a test that he had already passed. As I went through the motions, he carefully watched my every move. When I was done, he gave me a thumbs up as feedback. By seeing a grown up follow the same pathway of instruction that he took, I hope that he sees himself as an agent of his own learning narrative and in charge of his future.

Relating this example to our school learning environments…

How can we set our own students up to be the experts and teachers in our classrooms?

What would it take for us as educators to be seen as learners in the eyes of our students?

Why is this important?

These are honest and genuine questions I pose, because I know there are many avenues to essential outcomes. Any thoughts you have on this would be appreciated.

Why My PLN is Like a Haystack


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In the novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book Store by Robin Sloan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), the main character, Clay Jannon has discovered an ancient organization that may hold the secret to eternal life. During this process, Clay ends up at a small art exhibit currently hosting a 1st grade classroom on a field trip. In his desperation for any lead, he asks one of the students, “How would you find a needle in a haystack?” She thinks, then replies, “I would ask the hays to find it.”

Brilliant! This is one of my favorite quotes from the book, described in a review on Goodreads as “a love letter for books, bibliophiles, but also for technology.” So why do I like this line? Because it so aptly and succinctly describes my feeling about my personal learning network (PLN). If I have questions, or need support in an area, I know where to turn. No longer do I have to float around online, hoping to strike it lucky with a web-based resource I need. Each person in my PLN is like a piece of hay, and one of them is bound to know where to locate the needle that I seek.

Or, as Clay Jannon reflects on that 1st grader’s wise words:

It’s easy to find a needle in a haystack! Ask the hays to find it!

The Most Critical Skill for Being an Effective Educator


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Right now I am knee deep in learning about the Teachscape classroom observation system. By the end of my training to evaluate teaching staff under the Wisconsin Educator Effectiveness System, I will have watched over 100 videos of classroom instruction. Without actually having applied this observational tool in the classroom, I have found lots of positive aspects about it. There is a common understanding of what good instruction looks like. All instructional leaders will be in their school’s classrooms on a more regular basis. Authentic pieces of evidence of progress toward professional learning outcomes will be expected in this process. Charlotte Danielson’s framework for instruction is well represented within Teachscape, such as I can see so far.

After reflecting on this training, along with my fourteen years as a teacher and administrator, I believe empathy is the most critical skill for educators to be highly effective in teaching children.

Some educators refer to the skill of “perspective-taking”. Ellen Gillinsky, author of Minds in the Making, defines perspective-taking as “figuring out what others think and feel” (http://mindinthemaking.org/article/category/perspective_taking/). Peter Johnston, in his book Opening Minds (Stenhouse, 2012), uses the term “social imagination” to describe how a person can “mind read” by closely observing a learner’s language and actions (76). I like both explanations, and the core of each of these concepts is empathy.

I define empathy from an educator’s point of view as the ability to inhabit a student’s situation, thoughts, and feelings. This skill, to mentally place ourselves within a student’s circumstance, can bear many opportunities for responsive instruction. Empathy gives a teacher pause when a student is not working as they should (“Is he sick? Hungry? Upset?”). Empathy allows us to prepare our lessons based not on what we want to cover, but on what each individual needs. Empathy clues us in to what our students’ parents are really saying and feeling, and not necessarily on what we hear and see. Empathy allows educators to teach with confidence, because they know their words and actions will have a profound impact on students’ lives. I believe empathy is the foundation for all that is possible within instruction.

Matt Renwick’s Top Ten Takeaways from The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease (Penguin, 2013)

This is a post I wrote for the Nerdy Book Club last week. It highlights important information from The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. My parent group and some staff will be hosting a book club around this resource.

I have been asked a number of times how our parent-teacher book club will go. To start, we received a local grant to purchase several copies of the Read Aloud Handbook along with many of the titles Jim Trelease recommends. Every first Tuesday of the month, we will facilitate a conversation about this resource. Our group will gather during our monthly PTO meeting. I plan to moderate the conversation with questions from the two chapters we read before the meeting. I will also post the questions on Twitter using the #ptchat hashtag so anyone can join us from home. Parents who attend will get to take home different titles to read aloud to their kids. At the next book club meeting, they can bring back those titles and exchange them with other parents for new ones. We hope this dialogue about books and the benefits of reading aloud will extend beyond our monthly gatherings.

Once our book club has ended, we will put these titles into Little Free Libraries in the area (also grant-funded). They will be installed in our surrounding school community. Families will have more access to books regardless of their current living situation or available resources.

Please join us every first Tuesday of the month at 5:30 CST on Twitter at #ptchat to engage in some great conversations! (Special note: School was cancelled tomorrow, so there will not be a chat on January 7. Stay tuned for when the January chat will be rescheduled.)

Nerdy Book Club

Starting in January, parents and staff at Howe Elementary School will join me in reading The Read Aloud Handbook, 7th edition by Jim Trelease (Penguin, 2013). Our goal is to create more awareness of the importance of reading aloud both at home and at school. At each meeting, we will also be taking home some of Jim’s suggested titles to try out.  In preparation for our monthly conversations, I have listed my top ten takeaways from this resource. These conversations will take place every first Tuesday of the month at 5:30 P.M., both in person and on Twitter at #ptchat (thanks to Joe Mazza for encouraging us to use this hashtag). We hope you can join us!

  1. Being a proficient reader is the best indicator of success in school and in life. This seems to be a no-brainer. But Jim Trelease is not just referring to K-12. He cites findings…

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Nonfiction in the Cafeteria

Nonfiction in the Cafeteria

I am starting to realize that one of my ultimate goals as an elementary school principal is to have books available within 200 feet of any student. Case in point: We just resupplied the shelves in the cafeteria with nonfiction titles from the National Geographic for Kids series. They are strategically placed; the K-2 students eat breakfast and lunch on this end of the room. Reading can commence while they wait for dismissal. I believe this sends a strong message: Readers read when there is time, and it is always a good time to read a good book.

Reading Year in Review – 2013

Inspired by Regie Routman’s most recent post about what she’s reading, I thought I would do the same on my blog. Below are the books I read in 2013. I am sure I read a few more than what was listed here, but I was too busy reading to post them on Goodreads! Some of these titles are rereads, noted with an *. These books deserved another read because they had more to offer than one round would provide.

The Sandwich Swap
The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (Portfolio Edition)
The End of the Beginning
Tiny Titans Vol. 8: Aw Yeah Titans!
Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking
Underwater Dogs
Coaching Conversations: Transforming Your School One Conversation at a Time
Teaching Students to Read Like Detectives: Comprehending, Analyzing, and Discussing Text
Motion Leadership in Action: More Skinny on Becoming Change Savvy
The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Projecting Possibilities for Writers: The How, What, and Why of Designing Units of Study, K-5
The Fault in Our Stars
Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning
Shift Omnibus Edition (Silo, #2) (Wool, #6-8)
Everything Bad is Good for You
Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives
Wherever You Go, There You Are (ROUGH CUT)
Big Red Lollipop
Doctor Sleep (The Shining, #2)
Assessment in Perspective:  Focusing on the Reader Behind the Numbers
Marty McGuire
Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer's Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits
No More Independent Reading Without Support (Not This But That)
Learning Targets: Helping Students Aim for Understanding in Today's Lesson
Galaxy Zack: Hello, Nebulon
To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others
An Orange for Frankie
Hamlet's BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age
The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way
Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Harry Potter, #1)
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
John, Paul, George & Ben
Abe Lincoln's Dream
So What Do They Really Know?: Assessment That Informs Teaching and Learning
The Read-Aloud Handbook: Seventh Edition
Embedded Formative Assessment
Each Kindness
The 5th Wave (The 5th Wave, #1)
World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students

Books of Note

Favorite Fiction: The Wool trilogy by Hugh Howey

Humanity is sequestered to a silo underground, due to some event that made the surface of Earth uninhabitable. How the remaining members of civilization live and interact in this alternative world makes for a fascinating read. I have read the first two installments and plan to read the final book soon. If you investigate the back story on this series, you will discover the author self-published his writing online as a short story, in order to sustain ownership and to get feedback on how the story should proceed. Using his fans’ input, he crafted the rest of the Wool series, which then lead to a larger book deal. Is this the future of writing? If excellent science fiction like Wool is the result, I wouldn’t mind.

Suggested Nonfiction/Informative: The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease

This resource should be in the home of every young family. Some hospitals hand this book to new mothers and fathers after delivery. Whenever a parent asks me about what they can do to help their child become a reader, my response is usually, “Read aloud to them, every day.” My school received a grant to promote reading aloud with our families. We will be hosting a book study on The Read Aloud Handbook with parents starting in January, along with putting up Little Free Libraries in our community. Look for a post on the Nerdy Book Club blog on January 4th to learn more about this essential title.

Recommended Paired Reading: The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley and World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students by Dr. Yong Zhao

Although I did not read both titles at the same time, I believe they would work well together if someone were studying education in the age of technology and globalization. In The Smartest Kids, Amanda Ripley follows three U.S. students as they participate in foreign exchange programs in South Korea, Finland, and Poland. That all three score higher than the U.S. on the PISA, an internationally-based standardized test, is no accident. This piece of investigative journalism gives the audience an anecdotal perspective of the difference between the U.S. educational system and these three countries. Although I felt the author gave too much credence to one assessment, she does make a compelling case that the U.S. does need to ramp up our expectations for students’ learning, especially in mathematics. Ripley also showcases the greater amount of respect other countries have for the teaching profession.

Where The Smartest Kids gives the reader an up close and personal report about education, World Class Learners provides a more aerial, 20,000 feet in the air point of view on learning. Dr. Zhao also looked at the PISA scores, and placed them side-by-side with an assessment on students’ engagement and entrepreneurship potential. The result: A strong correlation between high test scores and low creativity. The author, a professor in the University of Oregon’s College of Education, surmises that when schools focus on one right answer due to tests, students’ imagination and innovation skills are not as developed. When you combine this evidence with the fact that standardized test results cannot be used to teach more responsively, one wonders what we are really measuring and why. As Dr. Zhao astutely points out in his most recent post on his blog, “Global benchmarking can only give you the best of the past.”

Where their two philosophies converge is the belief that U.S. schools can do better. Whether it is through better teacher preparation programs, or through professional development focused on student interests and project-based learning, both authors believe life long learning and high expectations are the key to our country’s future success.

What’s On Deck? Books I Want to Read in 2014

Sophia's War: A Tale of the Revolution
The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
The City of Mirrors (The Passage, #3)
Life Itself: A Memoir
Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance
Dust (Silo, #3)
Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age
High-Impact Instruction: A Framework for Great Teaching
Unmistakable Impact: A Partnership Approach for Dramatically Improving Instruction
Let the Great World Spin
The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z.
Children Want to Write: Donald Graves and the Revolution in Children's Writing
Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man's Fundamentals for Delicious Living
Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation
The Long Earth
The Abominable
Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time

Any thoughts on the titles and perspectives I share? What books did you thoroughly enjoy this year? What’s on your to-read pile for 2014? Please share in the comments.