When Less is More

I am sharing this with my staff tonight on our blog, possibly the last one for a while…

I failed last week to get a Friday Focus out. I see the world is still spinning. To be honest, now that there is a Friday Focus and a Monday Musings, I am struggling to find the time and the content to do both well. My initial purpose for starting this staff blog was two fold: To share more information, and to model how you might use a 21st century tool with your students.

I hope I have accomplished both. However, the last couple of weeks I have noticed on the statistics that there are less people viewing the blog. That could be because I was embedding the posts in the emails. But I am also seeing a pattern: The only times when people view the blog are on the days they are published. Blogs are meant to be come back to, kind of a home base for information. Maybe it is redundant with our Howe Google Site.

With that, I would like you to check out the poll to the right. Please answer it honestly. I will continue the Friday Focus regardless. There is something about having a piece of paper in your hands that makes our ideas in writing permanent and real. For instance, although I have stopped printing my emails out quite a while ago, I still find myself preferring to read the news on actual paper.

If you would like to take a crack at posting your own thoughts online in a safe environment, maybe our Google Site is where this could take place. The audience is limited to us. For example, you could post a video tutorial you and/or your students created, explaining an academic concept or showing how to use a tool on the iPad. I will ask PTC if they would support your extra efforts with the iTunes cards again. I appreciate your willingness to continue innovating with me on behalf of student learning.

My Students’ Favorite Read Alouds

In a previous post The Principal as a Writer, I described how I used Moleskine journals and a document camera to write book reviews with students. These reviews are based on a book I just read aloud to them. Here were their favorites from 2011-2012:

Best of the Year (five out of five stars)

Love That Dog by Sharon Creech

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Review (4th Grade): “I love that dog?? I love this book! It’s great because there were a lot of good poems to feel happy when feeling bad.”

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Meet the Dogs of Bedlam Farms by Jon Katz

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Review (2nd Grade): “This is one of the best books we have read because the different dogs had different jobs. For example, one dog makes people feel better and another dog herds the sheep.”

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Owl Moon by Jane Yolen

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Review (1st Grade): “Owl Moon is a five star book because the pictures are colored in really nicely. Also, lots of details helped us know what they mean. It was awesome!”

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Pete the Cat by Eric Litwin

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Review (Kindergarten): “We thought this was the best book ever because it was funny. Pete kept stepping in colored things like fruit.”

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A Stranger Came Ashore by Mollie Hunter

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Review (5th grade): “Really interesting, hard to put down. Edge of your seat and intriguing story. Amazing.”

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Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing by Judy Blume

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Review (3rd grade): “This book was excellent because it was funny, like when Fudge ate Peter’s turtle. These funny events remind us of silly things kids do that we know.”

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Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

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Review (4th grade): “The good, rhyming words and his voice made you want to read more.”

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Honorable Mentions (four out of five stars)

Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart by Vera B. Williams

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Review (3rd grade): “We thought it was very good because in the end, the girls’ father came back. The author gave different personalities to each person.”

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The Chocolate Touch by Patrick Skeene Catling

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Review (3rd grade): “I like how the book teaches you a lesson, of eating too much chocolate being a bad thing.”

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The 500 Hundred Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins by Dr. Seuss

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Review (3rd grade): “We thought it was really good because it had math in it. For example, it was interesting when the squire was keeping track of the hats as they fell off.”

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Hate That Cat by Sharon Creech

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Review (4th grade): “It only had Jack’s voice; wish we could have heard from someone else. We liked how he changed from hating to loving cats.”

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The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown

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Our Poem (Kindergarten): “The most important thing about a fire truck is it has a ladder. It is on wheels. It is red. But the most important thing about a fire truck is it has a ladder.”

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Lawn Boy by Gary Paulsen

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Review (5th grade): “We really liked this book because it was humorous. For instance, we laughed whenever the grandma spoke nonsense.”

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Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

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Review (4th grade): “We really like this book. The models of the buildings, the way the pictures described the story, and the way Ben’s and Rose’s story relate made this a unique and intriguing book.”

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Book Reviews as Book Marks

I was recently strolling through my local super department store when I came across these notecards.

They are book mark cards.

 

 

As you can see, they have a flap on top. It allows you to slide the card onto a book jacket or a page.

 

They come in five colors, fifteen cards in each color.

 

 

 

I think these book mark cards would be great for writing book reviews. Students could get blank cards from their school librarian or from their teacher.

Before they had a card in their hands, it would be wise to model how to write a book review. For me, I like to keep reviews short and reveal just enough to tempt the potential reader. Brevity is a virtue.

My present format for a quick book review:

  • I (liked, really liked, loved) the book (the title) because (give reason to support opinion).
  • For instance, (use evidence from the book to support your opinion).

To differentiate for students who struggle with writing, the bolded words could be provided on the cards as prompts.

Here is an example of what a book review could look like on one of these cards, using the excellent Wonder by R.J. Palacio:

 

Books with attached student reviews coud be displayed on the top of the book cases. Featured books could also have their own shelf in the library or classroom. It would be similar to how book stores designate an area for staff to attach reviews for their favorite reads.

How do you a) encourage students to recommend what they read, and b) celebrate your students' writing? Your comments are appreciated!

 

I Read (and Wrote) to the Principal

When I moved into my new office last August, I found approximately 800 green pencils with “I Read to the Principal” printed on them, left for me by my predecessor.

Save that thought.

In my last blog post The Principal as a Writer, I wrote about how I modeled writing for my students and staff using Moleskine notebooks and a document camera. The modeling component of instruction is essential, but so is giving students the opportunity to practice their skills. As I have learned, student work should be authentic and relevant to their own lives.

I hoped that the students would be as motivated as I was to write about books I enjoyed. With that, I purchased one Moleskine journal for each classroom in which I regularly read aloud. Once they had seen me write a review, I handed off their classroom journal, with the following expectations:

1. They only put books in the journal that they truly enjoyed (four out of five stars or better).
2. They had to write to an audience, namely their classmates, their teacher and me.
3. They had to include their name as the reviewer. The idea behind this is classmates would presumably read the book review journal looking for their next great read. When they found a book that interested them, they could talk to the reviewer to get more information.
4. When students completed a review, they were encouraged to read their review to me in my office. Their purpose was to convince me to read the book they liked, as I had limited time to sort through all the literature out there.

Moleskine journals were now available in an opportune place in the classroom. Student book reviews commenced! Some classrooms used them more often than others. When I had not recently received a visit from a room, I again modeled a book review for that class in my own Moleskine journal, then encouraged the students to do the same.

Here is a third grader reading aloud his book review to me back in April.

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This is the book that he was trying to convince me to read through his review.

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He had me at “gruesome”.

After sharing, I gave each student one of the “I Read to the Principal ” pencils. What was nice was that they read to me their own writing. This practice corresponds with a number of my building’s beliefs we unanimously agreed upon as a staff, including:

Young children do not need to know all their letters and sounds before they can write stories and read back their own writing.

Shared writing text involving common experiences are often the easiest text to read.

A Couple of Reflections

– Writing for an authentic purpose is so critical. I couldn’t imagine writing this very post if I didn’t think I had an audience to read it or an opportunity for some constructive feedback. I imagine students feel the same way.
– Book reviews are a form of persuasive writing, an essential skill for students and for informed citizens.
– The reading-writing connection is a concept stressed by Regie Routman and other literacy experts. Reading makes better writers, and writing makes better readers.
– As a principal, this is another opportunity for me to visit with students in a positive context.

“Making meaning is good. Doing meaningful things is better.”- Peter Johnston, Opening Minds

The Principal as a Writer

As much as I love technology, nothing replaces putting pen to paper. I may be revealing myself as a digital immigrant. Regardless, whenever I am in a book store I find myself walking over to the journal section. In the bigger book stores, Moleskine journals have their own shelf.

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The draw for me is each one of these notebooks are a blank slate, new territory in which to be filled up with fresh ideas. With Moleskine, they tailor some of their journals for specific areas of interest, such as recipes, travel, wellness and music.

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Here is the link to the Moleskine website: http://www.moleskineus.com/

As you can see, the sky is the limit for different purposes for writing. For me, I regularly use three Moleskine notebooks to help me document my thinking for later review and to reflect on actions I have made.

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Red Moleskine: Read Alouds

I spend about 10% of my day reading aloud in classrooms. I find it to be a great way to connect with kids, to be more present in the classroom and to share great literature. To help me recall how each read aloud went, I write out a brief lesson plan for the book. I follow the basic format a teacher would use for guided reading: Before Reading Aloud; During the Read Aloud; After Reading Aloud. On the back of each page, I mark which classrooms I read a book to and when, so I don’t repeat (although rereads aren’t a bad thing, especially when the book is good).

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To better aid my organization, I keep my K-2 read alouds in the first half of the notebook and my grade 3-5 read alouds in the second half. I also “tag” the read alouds with special themes on the upper left hand corner, along with an approximate duration to read each book.

Black Moleskine: Book Reviews

Some of the classrooms in my building regularly post student book reviews on their bulletin boards. Great practice! To connect with classroom instruction, after I read aloud a title I write a review of said book in my review journal for the students. I model this type of persuasive writing using the document camera.

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This is not the best example, as this was our first entry and we didn’t actually write a review. Still, these 4th graders had lots of memorable quotes that they wanted to share and get documented in the book journal page we completed together via the document camera. To wrap things up, we voted on how good the book was based on our evidence and thinking. I was not surprised that Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein got five out of five stars.

Moleskine Knock-Off: Memorable Quotes

I got this calendar journal at a local book store around the time I signed up with Twitter last fall. Once I saw the amount and the quality of educational information that this social media helped send my way, I realized I needed a way to curate it before I lost it. It is not a Moleskine, but my wife was kind enough to spruce it up with a Moleskine pen.

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Anything and everything goes into this journal. The only criteria is that it is interesting and important enough to remember. Many of my PLN’s tweets have taken up space in this journal. As with all my journals, I regularly refer back to what I wrote to help current and future writing and decision-making.

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Digital Journals

Moleskine does have a journal app for the iPad and iPod Touch, but it is as bad as their paper
journals are good. I do journal using a variety of digital tools, all with slightly different purposes.

Evernote – Not so much a journal as a tool to store and organize information, such as conference notes with audio. This application has lots of potential for student portfolios.
Notability – Somewhat similar to Evernote, but information is stored via Dropbox. Doesn’t have the same accessibility as Evernote, but you can draw and handwrite within each note.
One Day – A very simple yet effective eJournal app for the iPad. I keep more confidential information here because it is password protected. If anything I write had to be considered a diary, this would be it.
WordPress – No description needed

What’s My Point?

I hope I have not wrote a post without much purpose.

As I reflect on my position as an elementary principal, I can think of a variety of reasons why I write and why all educators should be doing the same.

– Writing is a reflective act. It helps me coalesce seemingly disconnected ideas into one focus.
– All educators need to be modeling writing if they expect students to write. Kelly Gallagher, author of Write Like This, aptly stated that the teacher is the best writer in the classroom. To model this skill, we need to keep our own skills honed.
– Writing is thinking made evident. Concrete thoughts such as goals and opinions are much harder to ignore than thinking alone.
– With the Common Core State Standards, writing is expected to be taught across the curriculum. It’s about time.
– The medium for writing is not as important as the act itself. Some students are more motivated by pen to paper, while others prefer blogging. Ideas are ideas and should be shared regardless of the format. If technology can enhance this experience, I say go for it.
– Writing needs to be regarded with the same level of reverence as reading and math. As an example, many schools (including mine) annually spend thousands of dollars on books but expect students to bring a $1 notebook for writing.
– It is okay that different forms of writing demand different formats and mediums.
– Writing is meant to be shared.

What reflections do you have regarding writing in education? Please share in the comments as I am always looking for new ideas.

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.

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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.

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

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.