A Reading Principal’s Office

The principal that hired me as a teacher back in 2000 made it a point to read aloud in my 5th and 6th grade classroom. I got to see him as more than just the principal. I observed how he managed a classroom, facilitated discussions and integrated different subject areas as he shared quality literature with students. These are some of the essential components of a read aloud.

When I became an elementary principal twelve years later, I made a point to follow his example as a reading principal. For instance, I have heavily invested in books, shelves and other materials in my office. As a principal, I don’t have time to stroll by the library and pick up a book to read aloud in a classroom. I have to have materials ready and a schedule to follow to be intentional about sharing great books with classrooms.

Before the school year started, I took a purchase order with me to a local children’s book store, The Book Look in Plover, WI. I sat and took notes while the owner, Mary Lou Manske, rattled off one book after another that she felt were read aloud-worthy. Below is the spreadsheet that I developed to organize my read alouds by grade level and subject area.

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The four categories on top are based on Regie Routman’s resource Teaching Essentials. She agrees that read alouds are teachable moments that require planning and intent. Working in a school with a lot of diversity, it is vital that I represent multiple cultures when I share important literature with students. To note: This spreadsheet is a living document. As I find better read alouds I switch out books. However, I am getting to the point where a new list will be needed.

Having these books at the ready is necessary. With the help of my custodian, I have my read alouds on display in my office.

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Some of the students’ favorites adorn these shelves.

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The books I am currently reading aloud in classrooms sit in mounted magazine racks for easy access.

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Novels and more picture books have a home on this shelf.

Anyone who enters my office can look around and immediately know how much I value literacy. Much of my dispositions go back to the early mentoring I received from my first principal. I hope that same attitude is made evident by me with the faculty in my own school.

How Do You Eat an Elephant? Reflections from Grant Writing

I feel like I have been neglecting my blog lately (because I have;). Besides all the normal spring duties of a principal, it is also grant writing season. I don’t profess to have all the answers in this area. In fact, I won’t know until later this spring if any of our grants will be awarded (our school has three applications out there and one more to write). What I do know has been discovered through trial and error plus listening to others more knowledgable than myself.

Consider the Building’s Needs

I don’t ask for funding or resources just because it is available. Throwing money at something does not necessarily improve student learning, which should be the focus of any school improvement initiative. For me, I am a new staff member in my school this year. I needed to watch, listen and talk with everyone for a good six months before I really had a strong understanding of our needs. For Howe, we could use support in math intervention, technology, parent literacy education and collaboration.

Apply for the Grants You Think You Can Win

If your inbox is anything like mine, you are bombarded with emails from consultants announcing new grants available. While I appreciate this service, the types of grants can range across the educational spectrum. Knowing the needs of my building, I can now filter through the sea of opportunities and select the grants that best meet the needs of my school.

I also apply for grants closer to home. Half of our applications are for opportunities in my own county. The other two are through my state’s department of instruction. We can put a name with a face with the organizations offering resources. At the very least, I can make a phone call to the funding coordinator with questions about the grant. When they receive our application, the hope is we will stand out because of the personal contact we made.

Ask for Permission Rather than Forgiveness

The resources we are requesting will affect everyone involved with my school. Not being in the know can make others upset, even if the request is for something as benign as more books. I recently made the mistake of not informing my staff about pursuing a large grant before I put myself on a school board agenda to receive approval. To fix this, I now announce any intentions to my staff prior to pursuing a grant. If there are any reservations, communicating with other grant recipients about the pros and cons has helped.

During the grant writing process, I give unfinished drafts of the grant to those interested in reading and revising it. For larger grants, I do this once a week. Their suggestions are invaluable because it provides multiple perspectives. Once completed, I throw a copy of the application in the staff lounge for faculty to peruse. We also share our pursuits at PTO meetings with parents. The buy-in is better because there has been a process for everyone to provide input.

Pace Yourself

The grant opportunities that have been popping up lately have a shorter window for writing them. What has helped me “eat the elephant” is to complete the application one bite at a time. For example, if there are 30 days to complete a 30 page form, simple math says how much to complete per day. When does this get done? I either block some time during the school day or bring the laptop home. I also try to get these applications done ahead of time. For one grant, I set a deadline one week before the actual due date. This allowed for time to add district codes and get appropriate signatures.

Read the Fine Print

I am only guessing, but I would bet a number of applications that get denied are because the writers didn’t follow directions. For example, one grant asked for four copies of the application when submitting it. To help, most grants have a companion guiding document. I refer to it often. Some guides even provide the rubric the grant approval team will use when deciding which schools receive funding. I read each section of the guiding document before completing the corresponding section of the grant application. Very similar to showing our students a rubric before starting their writing in class!

Use Key Words and Phrases

Reading and discussing the latest topics in education, thanks to Twitter and other forms of social media, has helped me stay current with best practices. Many of the grant reviewers are also looking for these same practices in initiatives to be funded. Here are examples along with the key word or phrase translation:

Collaborating with Families = Parent Partnership
Increasing Math Understanding = Numeracy
Integrating Science and Technology = Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)
Making Learning Relevant = Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Budget for a Coordinator
Most grants have lots of paperwork required. I don’t plan to clone myself, so I budget for a coordinator to handle the administrative tasks associated with the grant. This person should be organized, a self-starter and someone not working in my school. Having a teacher or office staff member handle this load along with their regular duties may lead to burn out. In one school we have been communicating with, they hired a capable parent as their coordinator. They state this allows the faculty to focus on the learning activities that is supported by the grant.

These ideas are not original or necessarily my own. Again, it takes a team to crank these out and considerable buy-in from staff for a possible grant award to lead to success in school. I’ll revisit this post at some point in the future, revising my thinking as I continue to learn on the job.

3rd Grade Read Aloud: The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins

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.

The time I spent teaching third grade led me to believe that it is a pinnacle year for both student and teacher. As a student, the expectations in academics, especially in math, are raised. For teachers, third grade opens up a whole new world of literature to share with kids. This combination is a great opportunity to read aloud more complex literature that ties in the other content areas.

Before Reading Aloud

Ask students what they know about Dr. Seuss’ writing style. They may suggest he likes to rhyme, his illustrations are very colorful, he uses zany and made up words, and his writing is geared toward younger kids. It might be wise to write down their responses to refer back to later. Explain that The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins is a departure from Dr. Seuss’ other books. Ask students to look for these differences as you read.

During the Read Aloud

As Bartholomew starts racking up the number of hats he has taken off at the King’s request, use the running totals to pose some mental math problems. For example, “When Bartholomew arrived, Sir Alaric counted 45 hats in the Throne Room. The King and Bartholomew mentioned that there are an additional 90 hats in town. How many total hats are there?”. Give students time to process this problem before asking for responses.

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Let students talk to each other about their answers before sharing with the whole group. Ask for several responses before providing the correct answer. For those that got it right, ask them the process they used. Share your own, such as counting up to easy numbers. Continue to pose problems when the story presents them.

After Reading Aloud

Go back to the list students made about what many of Dr. Seuss’ books have in common. Contrast that list to this book and have students identify the differences. Ask students if they could relate to this story a little more than other books by the author. They might surprise you with a response of how the King reminds them of an adult they know who doesn’t listen to them (not you, of course).

Special note: When I shared this with 3rd graders last week, a student asked me how I read those weird words. I didn’t understand his question at first. Then I realized he was inquiring about the process I used to decode, understand and then speak the words aloud. I explained that when readers get better at reading through lots of practice, they can read the words ahead of time before they actually get to the word to be read aloud. This question reminded me to be more explicit about the process I use as a reader. Demystifying this skill and attributing it to doing lots of reading is what emerging readers need to hear.

An Open Letter to Judy Blume

*This letter was written by one of my fourth grade classrooms as a shared writing activity. As a school, we have focused on modeling writing for kids regularly. In this case, the class is responding to a book by Judy Blume. I told them I would share their writing with Judy Blume via Twitter. If you could, please comment on this post as the students would love feedback, even if your name is not Judy Blume!

Dear Judy Blume,

​We are fourth graders from Mrs. Sonnenberg’s class at Howe Elementary School in Wisconsin Rapids. Our class really liked your book Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Earlier this year we also read Freckle Juice and The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo. Your books are funny and entertaining.

​In Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing we thought Fudge was very hilarious. Especially when he ate flowers, played with socks, ate Dribble, and didn’t eat his food. He seemed like a normal two year old boy at times though. Like when he was banging on pots and pans. We did enjoy the ‘Eat it or wear it!’ part very much.

​Peter tried to act all mature. There were many times Peter wished Fudge was never born. Boy, we had a lot of connections with that. One time Peter was really annoyed when Fudge was lost in the movies.

​The book was totally awesome. We have a few questions for you.

Why did you decide to have Fudge eat Dribble?
How did you come up with all those good ideas?
Do you think you could make a 6th Fudge book?
​Can you write back to us?
Why did you make these books into a series?
When did you want to become a published author?
How many books have you published?

We thought your book was the best. We wish you could come over to visit us.

​​​​​Sincerely,

​​​​​Mrs. Sonnenberg’s Class

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 http://www.katiemcky.com.

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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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

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*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:

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