School Report Cards and Poverty

Every public school in Wisconsin recently received a state report card. These results were also published in local newspapers. The ratings aggregate a multitude of measures, including but not limited to student growth, student achievement and attendance rate.

All of our area schools’ scores were then sorted by what level of performance they achieved (significantly exceeds expectations, exceeds expectations, meets expectations, meets few expectations). What I did was average each schools’ free and reduced rate for each level of performance. Free and reduced rates tell us what percentage of our families live in poverty. Here are the results:

Schools that Significantly Exceeded Expectations: 26.7% free/reduced
Schools that Exceeded Expectations: 39.7% free/reduced
Schools that Met Expectations: 48% free/reduced
Schools that Met Few Expectations: 70% free/reduced

I was sadly not surprised by these results.

So what do these report cards tell us: Levels of achievement or levels of poverty?

Using Rubrics to Evaluate Educators

I live and work in Wisconsin. That means that, through a waiver for No Child Left Behind, I along with every other public educator will soon be assessed using a twenty-three point rubric. It will be on a scale of one to four, with one being “ineffective” and a four qualifying as “highly effective”.

Here is a sample of what the rubric looks like (draft only; it can also be found at Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s website).


What’s Good About It

Clear Expectations
No longer can a teacher or administrator’s livelihood depend solely on a supervisor’s judgment. In fact, this rubric is but one piece of a more comprehensive evaluation system. With multiple measures, one would assume that the rating a teacher or administrator receives should be more valid.

Time to Try and Offer Feedback
My district is part of a pilot for the Educator Effectiveness Plan. I am one of three principals using this new system on a trial basis only. Our team was given three days of intensive training to help us use this tool with greater reliability. In addition, the state team that developed this is asking us, the practitioners, to provide feedback about how effective this tool is for evaluations.

What Needs to Improve

The Four Point Rubric
When I taught 5th and 6th grade, I often used the web tool Rubistar to develop differentiated levels of achievement for various activities. The students and I would develop these together with a computer connected to the television screen (this is pre-SMART board era). What I remember finding most frustrating is trying to wordsmith the descriptors. For example, what is the difference between “differentiates” and “develops” when describing staff development offerings? I don’t know either, but both of these qualifiers are used in this new rubric within the same element.

The Levels of Effectiveness
This might be the area that needs the most attention. Why do we need four levels of effectiveness? Maybe I am a little too black and white on this issue, but I feel like I am either doing my job or I am not. For example, if I am holding others accountable in the area of professionalism, then I am meeting expectations. If I have failed to do this, then I am not meeting expectations. Anywhere in between should be handled with a candid conversation between the supervisor and the employee. I fear that breaking down every aspect of what a teacher or administrator does takes the thinking and doing out of our positions and attempts to simplify our jobs to a series of steps or processes. This profession is just not that simple.

Next Steps
I plan to continue to keep an open mind about this new system and hope I do not come across negatively. Many smart and caring professionals put a lot of time into this plan. As well, they are giving us the opportunity to share our thoughts on how to make it even better. I just hope they listen.

The Global Read Aloud

I recently had the opportunity to take part in the Global Read Aloud this fall. It is facilitated annually by Pernille Ripp, a teacher in Madison, WI. Leading a group of 4th graders, we joined many other classrooms online who were also reading The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. It is the fictional story of a gorilla named Ivan in captivity for almost 30 years, told from the perspective of Ivan. It is loosely based on a true story (the real Ivan recently passed away).

What was unique about this experience was technology was used to support and enhance the story as I read it to the students.


Every classroom involved received a code to join The One and Only Ivan group on Edmodo, a safe social networking site for students and teachers. As you can see, it has a similar look to Facebook, which helped us make sense of how it worked regarding posts, links, tags and other terminology.


We visited this site every time we read. However, we spent a lot more time actually reading than posting and responding. My purpose was to show students that social media can be a great tool for learning, as long as it is used responsibly.

Google Docs

While we linked with other classrooms on Edmodo, we also created a KWL on Google Docs. In it, students identified what they thought they already knew about gorillas, what they wanted to know, and what they had learned. I showed students how to bookmark this document in the browser so we could quickly go to it when needed.


Yes, feces was something they wanted me to write down.

Students developed an understanding through the use of a Google Doc that learning is not static, that it is ongoing for lifelong learners. For example, we would revise information once we learned that it was not entirely accurate. In addition, we were able to post our doc on Edmodo as a link to allow other classrooms to view it and even make comments if they wanted.


One technology tool we discovered from another classroom through Edmodo was Wallwisher. This is a virtual paperboard, where people can post responses to a question or suggested topic. The question we posed to ourselves was, “Is it better for an animal who has lived in captivity to go back into the wild?” Here are their responses.


I was impressed with how thoughtful and thorough their answers were to this question. What facilitated this impressive display: the technology, the question, or the book itself? It could be a combination of all of these that created a more authentic learning experience.


Some people have a lawyer in the family. Others know a plumber. I have a primatologist.

My cousin (pictured in the screenshot below) spent a substantial amount of time studying primates in the jungles of Africa. Now an environmental scientist at the Field Museum of Chicago, she wholeheartedly agreed to visit our classroom and answer questions about silverbacks through Skype.


Prior to Skyping, I shared our questions with her by emailing our Google Doc link. She provided some excellent information for us, knowledge that we just could not have easily accessed without the aid of technology. The students also had an opportunity to ask her off-the-cuff questions, such as “Are you drinking coffee?” and “How did you get that Howe shirt?”.

In Conclusion

The Global Read Aloud was an excellent learning opportunity. It enhanced our read aloud experience and modeled for students how to draw upon a variety of resources and experiences in order to become more knowledgable and responsible citizens. The technology tools were great, but they only facilitated what was more important: The connections we made with other people from around the world. Thanks go to Mrs. Ripp for making this happen.

The What, the How, and the Why

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” – Simon Sinek

I recently stumbled upon this Ted Talk. Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why, states that he has identified why some organizations and individuals have been successful while others with similar talents and resources failed to live up to expectations. He cites Apple, The Wright Brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. as examples of the former. Simply put, great leaders inspire action by first identifying why they do what they do. They start with their purpose. The how and the what come after that.

Here is the video.

This seems very applicable to schools and their leaders. Why do we do what we do? What motivates us to get up in the morning and go to work? These are important questions in my school, as we start to relook at our vision and mission during the initial implementation of professional learning communities. This process has had its ups and downs, but I don’t think we would be truly moving forward if we weren’t experiencing a bit of a bumpy ride.

Where is your school at in the process of developing a vision and mission? How are you selling the “why” to your customers, namely your students, families and community? Please share in the comments.

Most Memorable Blog Posts of the Year – 2012

With it being Thanksgiving weekend, I thought it appropriate to share my appreciation for some of the posts I remember most from the past year. About a year ago, I began my own blog. My first post was a simple copy and paste of an email exchange I had with an author. Since then, I have posted 81 times. In all of my efforts, I aspire to write something as thought-provoking, reflective and meaningful as these bloggers have in the following posts.

They aren’t listed in any kind of order. I feel uncomfortable saying one post is better than another, as they all brought a unique perspective to my current thinking. Nor am I saying that these are necessarily the best posts of the year, although you could make a case for any one of them. There are too many bloggers out there that I have yet to discover. As well, not all of these posts were written this year (my post, my rules). What they all have in common is a) I still remember what they wrote, and b) I liked them so much that I bookmarked each one for future reference and shared them with other educators.

Eight Things Skilled Teachers Think, Say, and Do by Larry Ferlazzo

When I shared this article (not technically a blog post but again, my rules) with my staff via Pinterest, they responded very positively. A couple of colleagues even asked, “Does he write more about this?” Larry is a prodigious blogger and author who still manages to teach in the classroom. I probably bookmark his posts more than any other educator.

Reflecting on My iPad Grant Thus Far…A Story of Celebrating Failure by Jenny Magiera

I like this phrase, “celebrating failure”. Jenny, a teacher and Apple Distinguished Educator in Chicago, deeply and honestly reflects on her initial implementation steps when she receives a $20,000 iPad grant for her classroom.

Reducing Instruction, Increasing Engagement by Peter Johnston

Alright, if I had to pick one post and say, “You must read this”, I would have to go with Peter Johnston’s entry on Stenhouse’s Blogstitute this past summer. He manages to address best instructional practices, student engagement, technology, Common Core standards and at-risk behaviors all in one post. And he uses evidence from his own study to back up his assertions. You could take this post along with Richard Allington’s ASCD article “Every Child, Every Day” and facilitate an entire year of professional conversations in your school based on what they have written.

The Power of the Principal by Peter DeWitt

Peter is an elementary principal and a regular blogger for Education Week. He is a great representative for all administrators, touching on many different topics that relate to our challenging and often-challenged profession. In this post, Peter deftly responds to the question “Do Schools Need Principals?”.

Educators: Keep Using Your Brain, Don’t Eat It by Curt Rees

Curt is a principal in Wisconsin like myself. His writing is always thought-provoking and many times humorous. In this post, he compares the unfortunate life cycle of the sea squirt to how some educators lose their drive to stay current in effective pedagogy. I appreciate his candor and his ability to make connections between the new and the known.

The Importance of Read Aloud (at home and school) by Jessica Johnson

Jessica is another Wisconsin principal and truly a learner. Her blog clearly showcases an educator willing to consider new practices and replace outdated ones. As a principal, she also walks the walk. Jessica promotes No Office Days and gets into her school’s classrooms regularly to try out and model new instructional strategies. In this post, she summarizes our discussion about reading aloud to kids when they already know how to read.

The Role of Principals as Reader Leaders by Alyson Beecher, Donalyn Miller

I would be hard pressed to come up with two other educators as good as Alyson and Donalyn in promoting best reading practices. I regularly rely on their posts for suggestions in my own school. This entry provides great ideas for principals and other instructional leaders to promote a love for reading in their schools.

A Plea to Teachers with iPads: Make Your Teaching Visible by Justin Reich

What Justin did here is give permission to teachers to bypass the normal research and publication process about the effects of an educational tool and just share what they have found to be best practices. Mobile technology is still pretty new to schools. Justin recognizes that we don’t have time to wait around for quantitative evidence of their effectiveness. Is it working? Great! Now share.

Scrapbook is Not a Verb by Miss Night

Miss Night, kindergarten teacher and co-moderator of #kinderchat, provides an excellent “unhow-to” guide for using Evernote to develop digital portfolios for students. My guess is she writes like she speaks, which makes her posts so easy to read. I appreciate Miss Night’s sense of humor in addition to her sound teaching practices.

Why Blog? by Christopher Smeaton

I recently co-presented at an administrator conference about leveraging Web 2.0 tools for better home-school communications. I chose Chris’ post here to share with principals considering starting their own blog. It provides a great rationale for why all educators should be writing for an audience, namely their colleagues and their community.

When We Admit Our Faults or When Math Blows Up In Your Face by Pernille Ripp

It takes a little courage to blog about your general experiences as an educator for all the world to see. But to write about when a lesson doesn’t go well? Strong stuff. I could have picked many of Pernille’s posts to highlight here, but I chose this one because of its honesty. Mrs. Ripp could teach in my school any day.

work/life dilemma by Phil Griffins

Phil has joined me in a blogathon (#blogathon) this month, where we attempt to post once a day in November. To say it has been a challenge is an understatement. On the flip side I think we have both grown as writers. In his most recent post, Phil reflects on his decision to either go to an annual parade with his kids or attend edcampNJ. He makes the right choice.

Making Fruit Tarts by Regie Routman

Regie compares her twenty years mastering this baking skill to the growth model teachers should follow to become master educators. She is a prolific writer who doesn’t get too caught up in the current initiatives. Regie stays grounded in best practices because they never go out of style. My only wish is she would post more, but I will take what I can get.

What’s the Big Deal About Blogging? by Tom Whitby

All of the Edublog nominations on the right side of his page are not surprising as I read his posts. He is an expert in the field who is also willing to share his ideas with honesty and humility; in other words, a life long learner. This post very much typifies what it means to be a reflective practitioner.

Examples of Practice: Using iPads to Document Student Work

I just finished reading aloud The One and Only Ivan to 4th graders. We participated in the Global Read Aloud, where schools from all over the country and world heard the same story. Classrooms connected through Edmodo. It was a very innovative way to communicate with other learners about topics related to the story, such as gorillas, the author, and special projects classrooms were doing.

One project that caught my classroom teacher’s eye was a writing project posted by another teacher on Edmodo.


She took this unique idea and made it her own with her students. Students picked an object that Ruby might have wondered about, and then answered her hypothetical question with an answer as if they were Ivan responding.



All of their responses were posted on a bulletin board in the hallway.

So where does an iPad come in? I took photos of some of their writing. After cropping them with Snapseed, I pulled some of these photos into another app called Frame Magic. You can choose several different frames to create a collage of all of the students’ work in a matter of minutes.


What’s great about Frame Magic is I can share this collage through a variety of online tools, such as Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. As well, I can embed the photo onto a blog post like I did here. Parents and educators in other schools and districts can now see what excellent writers our students are!

Reading Aloud at the Secondary Level

About a month ago I had the honor of writing a guest post for the Nerdy Book Club blog. The title was Top Ten Tips for Reading Aloud. It was just one of many topics that are posted on this excellent literacy site. In the comments I had a great question from another educator: What recommendations do you have for secondary administrators? Below is his question and my response.

How would you add to this conversation? Please share in the comments.

David E. October 6, 2012 at 6:54 am

It’s encouraging to hear that an administrator GETS it and can be seen as a literacy leader–not just a disciplinarian– in his building. Great ideas in this post. Do you have any recommendations foe middle school principals?

renwickme October 6, 2012 at 9:05 am

David, I have given some thought in the past about that, being a former middle school AP.
  • One idea is to share a relevant and engaging news article about a two-sided issue with a classroom. Then, after reading the article, open up a debate by doing a value line up and have the students pick a position and verbally support it (Checking for Understanding, Fisher and Frey). As we know, adolescents love to argue, and this formative assessment technique gives them the perfect forum to do that in a constructive way.
  • Another suggestion would be to pick an excellent piece of student writing and read it aloud to a classroom. It can be anonymous, or you could get permission from the author. After reading it aloud on a document camera, instead for giving your initial opinion and praise, have the students assess it on their own using a writing rubric. Then have each student get together with another student and share their results with each other to try to reach consensus. If the discussion is strong, have pairs pair up and follow the same process. At the end, groups share with the class how they assessed it and why. This is the “Think-Pair-Share” formative assessment, also from Checking for Understanding.
  • One final thought is just get into a classroom and read aloud a great novel. There is a misconception out there that just because older kids can now read means they don’t like or benefit from listening to a story read aloud. If you need a recommendation, I suggest Avi’s Wolf Rider. It’s a murder mystery/thriller, and it starts with the perpetrator calling the main character to tell him he killed someone. You will have the kids’ attention immediately and they will be asking when you are coming back next.

Did I just write a whole new post? Just as well, as your question is a very good one. Take care, -Matt

David E. October 7, 2012 at 11:37 am

Thank you for taking the time to write a “whole new post.” I am constantly reading aloud to my 6th grade students. (Every teacher knows that the best praise he can get is, “The book was boring when the sub read it yesterday. You do it so much better!”) I know my principal has TONS on his plate and that making time to push in to a classroom is a challenge. Still, I feel that it is worthwhile and would help establish him as a literacy leader in the building, give a chance for the students to connect with him and vice-versa, and influence the culture of the school.

I guess me offering an invitation would be a good start.