Our Favorite Read Alouds from the First Semester

*This is part of my newsletter for parents for the month of February. A push for our school has been to encourage families to read more with their children at home. Practice what you preach!

I have been in a lot of classrooms this year, reading aloud great literature to students. It has helped me get to know the students and their names, as well as share some of my favorite stories that I read to kids when I was a teacher. Here are just a few:

Primary Grades (Grades K-2)

The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown

Many students have heard Goodnight Moon by the same author. This book is written as a series of poems. Each page focuses on one thing, like snow or grass. The author starts and ends each poem the same way; what is most important to her for each thing. After we read the book, the students and I write a poem together about something new, following the same format as the author. Once written, each student receives their own copy of the poem to reread at school or at home.

A Day’s Work by Eve Bunting

This story details a boy and his grandfather trying to find work. Francisco speaks English, but his grandfather just came from Mexico and cannot speak the language. When Francisco finds work for his grandfather, he tells a lie about their skills as gardeners. The project goes wrong, but it is grandfather that teaches Francisco the importance of honesty and how it is an essential skill when working with others. This book prompted great discussions with kindergartners about always telling the truth, even when we make mistakes.

Tumtum and Nutmeg: Adventures Beyond Nutmouse Hall by Emily Bearn

To quote the website at www.tumtumnutmeg.com: “Tumtum and Nutmeg lead cozy and quiet lives, secretly looking after Arthur and Lucy, the disheveled human children of the cottage, never dreaming that so many exciting adventures will soon find them. But when evil Aunt Ivy, a squeamish schoolteacher named Miss Short, and pirating pond rats threaten the safety of those they hold dear, the courageous pair will stop at nothing to save the day.”

This book has been hard to put down! I am only reading the first story of three from this anthology. I’d encourage you to pick up a copy of this book and read aloud the next two stories to your kids at home.

Intermediate (Grades 3-5)

The Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco

In this sequel to Thank You, Mr. Falker, Trisha cannot escape her label of a student with special needs, even when she attends a new school. Her class consists of several students with different disabilities, but her teacher Mrs. Peterson does not let them get down on themselves. The students use the snide label given to them (“Junkyard Wonders”) and use it to their advantage. They visit a landfill and create amazing science projects with only spare parts and their imagination. It is a touching story, all the more powerful because it is based on the author’s own life as Trisha.

Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

This anthology of poems is a classic and can be shared with anyone, grades K-12. I chose to read it aloud to 4th graders because a reading standard at this age calls on kids to be able to read and comprehend poetry. These funny and thought-provoking poems are the perfect introduction to this genre. Once we are finished, I read aloud more literature that uses the format of poetry to tell stories, such as Love That Dog by Sharon Creech.

A Stranger Came Ashore by Mollie Hunter

One of my all-time favorite read alouds when I taught 5th and 6th grade. Set on the coast of Scotland, a small fishing community are visited by a foreigner names Finn Learson, someone who is not who he appears to be. Robbie, the main character, is suspicious of this visitor after hearing his grandfather’s stories of the Selkies, creatures who change from seals to humans. The incorporation of folklore creates a story of suspense that is almost impossible to put down. In fact, there were a few instances where the 5th graders almost didn’t let me out of their classroom last fall! Another page turner for older kids is My Daniel by Pam Conrad.

As parents, one of the best things we can do with our kids is share stories with them, and it is never too late to start. Not sure where to begin? Check out The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. Nearly every single recommendation in there is a sure winner.

Happy reading!

-Mr. Renwick

P.S. Any recommendations you have for reading aloud? Please share here:

Howe Principal: Pet Rescuer

As I walked through the school hallway toward a board workshop (Topic: Teacher Handbook), two ladies waved at me through glass doors. Stepping outside, they directed my attention to the two stray Calico cats wandering around their legs. Being a cold winter’s night in Wisconsin, they stated, “We don’t want them freezing to death tonight, or getting hit by a car.” Agreeing with this statement, I instructed the two ladies to call the police. “We don’t have a phone or their number”, they replied. Fortunately, I have that number memorized from my previous stint as a junior high assistant principal, so I called dispatch on my cell. I got transferred to the humane society. The guy on call stated they were short staffed and couldn’t come out to pick the cats up, but would you be willing to contain them and bring them to the facility?

After some deliberating, I agreed to find a way to get the cats to the shelter. I had a plan. We herded the two strays toward the front door of the central office. While my two new friends kittensat by the front door outside, I confiscated an old paper box and filled it with shredded paper from the document shredder in the copy room. (There is still a mess of shreddings on the floor.) When I came out the front door and presented my makeshift kennel, one of the cats got inside the lobby of the district office. After repeated “Here Kitty”s, the three of us managed to get the cats in the box with the stuffing. One of the cats did not like it’s new shelter and continued to jump out of the box. I blame the ladies’ holding techniques for the repeated escapes – see picture:



After chasing down the second cat, we quickly stuffed the box of cats in the back of my Prius. I drew the grocery shade over the box and shut the trunk. As I got into my car, the ladies thanked me for all the help. I made a point to let them know I was a principal at the elementary school down the street – never a bad moment for positive PR! The cats didn’t make a peep as I drove to the humane society for drop off. When I arrived, the man I previously spoke with had me fill out a form for delivering the cats – I took a picture of this for documentation, in case my superintendent wonders why I was late for the board meeting ūüėČ


Driving around the building to “Cat Intake”, I popped open the back. Forgetting that one of the cats was an escape artist, I failed to catch it as it bolted out of the car and into the parking lot. I took the tamer of the two to the holding center, then persuaded the runaway to come inside where it was warm:


What is the point of this post? I am not sure, but I should add “Cat Whisperer” to my Twitter profile. I guess this event was helpful to put things in perspective, that no matter what happened in the board workshop, it probably wasn’t as important as helping two cats on a Wisconsin winter night.

Top Ten Practices for Principals to Promote Literacy in their Schools

This is also posted at http://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com/2012/01/21/top-ten-practices-for-principles-to-promote-literacy-in-school/.  Thanks to @colbysharp for allowing others to share on his blog!

Read, Read and Read

Principals should not only be reading current research and resources about best practices in education, they should be reading children’s books as well as reading for pleasure. ¬†With children’s literature, I read the latest releases plus recommended books. ¬†My latest favorites are A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper. ¬†Books are an excellent way to relate with students. ¬†For example, I meet with a student periodically to give him some positive interaction. ¬†Yesterday, we browsed through the library and determined which Ricky Ricotto book will be his next read. ¬†Did you know there is a method to flipping the pages in order to make the robot move correctly?

With reading for pleasure, it may be the best practice we do. ¬†Consider your students. ¬†Do they read for other people, or for school alone? ¬†No, they read because they enjoy it. ¬†We should too. ¬†Your enthusiasm for reading will only build and exude from you as you share great literature when you…

2.         Read aloud to students

I could write a top ten list on this topic alone (I’ll save that for another Nerdy Book Club post;). ¬†Without listing all the benefits, let me just say there are few things more important I do as a principal than sharing great literature with my students. ¬†I get to know students’ names and personalities, facilitate deep thinking through conversations, share my thinking as I read, host book talks after a novel is finished: ¬†All of my favorite parts of being in the classroom when I was a teacher! ¬†My goal is to present reading as an engaging and social experience that is too rewarding to not take part in.

3.         Write, Write and Write

I bring a Moleskine book journal with me to classrooms when I have finished a longer read aloud. ¬†We write a review on the document camera as a class for that book. ¬†Then I hand out a classroom book journal. ¬†Students can write their own reviews in the journal and then share them with me in my office. ¬†After they are done reading their book reviews, I give them a pencil that states, “I Read to the Principal”. ¬†I also keep a personal journal and I blog.

4.        Ask Teachers What They Are Reading

According to Todd Whitaker in Leading School Change, your first impression as a principal will set the tone for the rest of the year.  For me, I started my first staff meeting in August by having teachers write down all the books they recently read in a book log.  No magazines, newspapers or blogs.  Just books.  I then shared my list of books with them that I had read over the summer.  The objective was to make clear that if we expect our students to be regular readers, we better be too.

5.        Encourage Social Networking and Blogging with Staff

Social networks such as Twitter are excellent ways to network with other educators.  They are great motivators for people to write.  Brevity is a requirement when posting online, so the skill of summarizing is regularly practiced.  Those online also have a URL in their profile that connects followers to their reflections about their experiences.  This usually takes the form of a blog.  Blogging is one of the best ways for principals to reflect on their current practices and make improvements.  Writing truly has a purpose in this forum because there is an authentic audience.  By writing online, it is very easy for the principal to encourage teachers and even students to blog, because they are practicing what they preach.

6.        Display Books in Your Office

My read alouds are shelved in my office with front covers facing out.  Anyone coming into my office can see them and how I value reading.  When a student does come down to take a break from the classroom, I now have age-appropriate reading materials for them to peruse at the ready.  Students may be removed from class, but they will always be expected to read and learn.

7.        Spend Money on Books for Classrooms

Studies point out the positive correlation between the amount of text in a home and how students score on achievement tests. ¬†Classrooms should be no different. ¬†If the guided reading books that come with the district-prescribed literacy program aren’t engaging students, supplement them with high-quality and high-interest literature. ¬†Also a good investment are mentor texts, stories read aloud by teachers to students that are a good model for a specific reading or writing skill. ¬†These lessons lead into shared and guided writing lessons that are relevant and authentic. ¬†This year alone, we spent over $2000 on mentor texts.

8.        Use Data Only to Inform Instruction

As the saying goes, “You don’t fatten the cattle by weighing it”. ¬†The same holds true when analyzing student assessment data. ¬†This information should only be a springboard for collaborative discussions, namely about best practices for students’ needs. ¬†Taking a look at literacy standards gives teachers a common goal of what is expected of students. ¬†With knowing current reality and having an end in mind, teachers can get down to the business of planning instruction and assessment.

9.        Provide Quality Professional Development for Staff

Teachers, as with other professionals, need constant professional development to keep their skills and knowledge current. ¬†In my school, we bring in a reading consultant to work with our staff on certain areas of need. ¬†Our most recent session was on word work. ¬†It is helpful for me because I don’t have the ¬†background and expertise in this area. ¬†If I attempted to lead these PD sessions it just wouldn’t hold as much weight as when she presents.

10.      Read Aloud to Students

I know I mentioned this already. ¬†I am saying it again. ¬†It’s that important.

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.