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.

Dial 811: It’s a Poetry Emergency!

Have you noticed that the call number for poetry books is 811? And that it is similar to the more familiar number 911? Neither did I, until I became principal at Howe Elementary School this year.

One of the many cool things that occur in my school is the concept of a “Poetry Emergency”. Developed by Liz Ottery, reading resource specialist, and other Howe staff five years ago, the school spends April recognizing National Poetry Month. Before the month begins, Liz asks staff members not teaching in the regular classroom to “adopt” a grade or class. I snapped up 5th grade, which happens to be the former grade level I taught before I entered the principalship.

During this month, we were expected to spontaneously pop into our classrooms and read aloud poetry. Liz gives us a sign in red; on one side it has the numbers “811”, and the other side reads “Poetry Emergency”. Before reading aloud, we hold up the sign and announce “Dial 811: It’s a Poetry Emergency!”. We then share our favorite poems with the students. In my case, I chose to read aloud Judith Viorst’s If I Were in Charge of the World and Other Worries to my 5th graders. These poems speak well to this audience, hitting on topics such as peer pressure and making friends.

During this time of the year, the classroom teachers also teach a variety of poems to their students. They can range from diamant√© in 2nd grade to free verse in 4th. What I enjoy as I walk in the hallways is reading all of the students’ poems hanging on the walls. Taking time to celebrate our students’ efforts is so critical in building the idea that everyone can be a writer.

At the end of the month, Liz sets up Poetry Cafe in the cafeteria. This is an opportunity for students to read aloud their favorite poems to their classmates, teachers and families. As you can see, Liz creates a great environment for this parent involvement activity.


Once classrooms are signed up to present, family members are invited to school to listen to their children read aloud poems they either discovered or wrote themselves. In this photo, a second grade teacher kicks off the cafe.


This idea for promoting poetry writing in school is just too good not to share.

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.


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.

Some of the students’ favorites adorn these shelves.

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

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.