5 Action Steps for Parent-Teacher Partnerships: A Response to the Teacher & Principal School Report

Bibb Hubbard is the president & founder of Learning Heroes, whose mission is to equip parents and guardians with information, resources, and actions they can take to help their children reach their goals. She joins edu@scholastic to offer educator strategies to increase family engagement. 

In reading Scholastic’s new Teacher and Principal School Report, I was struck by both its timeliness and the depth of its insights. In particular, the way in which educators defined equity is powerful: "equity in education is not the same as equality … equity means that each student has the individual supports needed to reach his or her greatest potential."  To achieve equity, we must look beyond the classroom at the role families play in helping every child find academic success.  

As shown in the report, despite educators’ overwhelming agreement (99%) that family engagement is important to student success, three-quarters of educators (74%) said they need help engaging their students’ families. We also saw wide gaps between what educators know to be important family engagement activities and the extent to which those activities are taking place in their communities. These gaps emphasize both the barriers to and opportunities available in engaging parents and families. 

While the path to effective family engagement will look a bit different for every school, below are five action steps that schools can employ to engage families and support students. 

1. Personalize Communication

Fifty-two percent of educators say providing guidance on how to have meaningful conversations with children about what they are learning at school is among the most important actions that schools can take to help families engage with their children’s learning. Twenty-four percent of educators say it is happening to the degree it should.

As we know, the start of school is an important time to welcome families and forge the foundation of a mutually respectful and meaningful parent-teacher relationship that can be built on throughout the year. 

As a teacher, share your professional background and personal history with parents to make sure they understand your expertise and experience. Similarly, ask parents about their child’s interests, habits, academic and personal goals for the year, as well as strengths and struggle areas for extra support. Parents are the "expert" on their child, and can reveal a lot of helpful information that can enhance the learning experience.

2. Share Clear Expectations

We know from Parents 2016, Learning Heroes’ research, that 66% of K-8 parents say they would benefit from a detailed explanation of what their child should be learning each year. One resource to consider is the Readiness Roadmap (bealaerninghero.org), which offers a range of resources by several trusted sources such as Scholastic, National PTA, and the Council of Great City Schools. The Roadmap includes grade-by-grade expectations, short videos of what mastery looks like at every stage, and how parents can help support learning at home. 

3. Provide Context 

Seventy-four percent of educators believe it’s important to clearly communicate to families what learning goals are for the school year. Fifty-two percent report it’s happening to the degree it should. 

Parents can get frustrated when they’re not clear on what their child is learning and why. To provide parents with the rationale behind what what’s happening in the classroom, ask them to bring their child’s previous year’s state assessment results to their first parent-teacher conference. While these results are just one part of a broader picture of academic wellness, they can help ground parents in their child’s goals, expectations, and how skills mastered one year are essential for the following year’s success. They can also help you, as an educator, know where the child might need additional support or challenge. 

4. Go Beyond Academics

Forty-five percent of teachers and 60% of principals say reaching out to community partners to offer services to families is among the most important things educators can do to help families be engaged with children’s learning. Thirty-five percent of teachers and 38% of principals say these partnerships are happening to the degree they should.

Parents don’t just think about academics. From Parents 2016, parents’ top worries include peer pressure, emotional health and happiness, and using technology safely and responsibly.

It helps when teachers talk to parents about their child’s overall well-being, as we know this can affect academic wellness. Asking questions about how well the child is sleeping, eating, and engaging with friends outside of school, as well as areas where they are struggling, or sports and hobbies that bring them great satisfaction contribute to getting the whole picture of the child. This is a great way to help parents connect the dots between student success and overall learning goals, as well as build meaningful relationships with families. Here are some Learning Tools that can help parents support their child’s social, emotional, and academic development. 

5. Promote the Love of Learning: Anywhere, Anytime

Fifty-five percent of educators say providing guidance on the role families should play regarding homework is important. Thirty-one percent say this is happening to the degree it should. 

To supplement teachers’ ideas, suggest local after-school resources as well as online tools that parents can use to help support learning at home. Additionally, it’s important to share how parents can help make learning come to life as part everyday routines and activities with their children—whether this means measuring and practicing fractions while cooking, or pointing out and reading words together while running errands.  Also, giving parents a friendly reminder to make sure their child has completed and turned in homework reinforces that they play an essential in keeping their child on track with their classwork.

As teachers, principals, and parents overwhelmingly agree, for children to succeed, parents and families need teachers and teachers need parents and families. As we strive to ensure equity in our schools and communities where every child’s individual needs are met and their potential realized, we must acknowledge that building and sustaining these critical relationships can be tricky and time-consuming.  

I hope that some of the ideas above can help make this important task a bit more manageable.  If you have other actions that have worked for you and your colleagues, I hope you’ll share this post along with your ideas using the hashtags #bealearninghero and #teacherprincipalreport.  There is nothing more important than the work of educators and families in raising healthy and happy children, prepared to reach their dreams.

(Read our previous post on this topic: Family Engagement Lessons from the Teacher & Principal School Report.)

Equity: What It Is (and What It Is Not)

Rita Muratalla is the director of principal support and training for Kentucky Association of School Administrators (KASA). 

Equality and equity are not the same. Most educators will agree that this is true. (As one teacher remarked in Scholastic’s Teacher & Principal Report: Equity in Education, “Equity doesn’t mean the same for everyone; it means everyone gets what they need.”) Equity means access to a high-quality education—including access to individualized resources and supports—for each student. 

My story

As I think about why equity is important to me as an educator and as a leader, I think back to my high school years when very few people knew what was going on in my life, nor did they care. My mother’s expectations for me were to pass every class; post-secondary education was good, but only necessary for learning a trade. It was important to earn a high school diploma. 

During my junior year in high school, I had an exit interview with a counselor and my mother, at which time I realized that I would not go to college, and so finding a job to pay the bills would be extremely important. The counselor told my mother that I would probably never make anything of myself. This counselor did not know me; nothing about my life, where I had been, nor what my life involved. She also did not know that I would prove her wrong.

Unfortunately, this meeting was my first encounter with the barriers to equity in education. The school environment was the barrier.  

Equity in action

Many years later, I became an educator committed to providing an equitable education to every child. It started with listening, planning, and actions.

One way I provided equity as a teacher was through learning about a challenging student from his previous teachers, as well as from his mother on the first day of school.  I listened to her that morning and then made up my mind that I would do everything I could to help him become successful in my class.  

I asked him to explain some of his behavior, and he told me he often had bad mornings at home, and when he came to school he knew it was going to be rough; it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I asked him what would help; he shrugged his shoulders. So we made a plan together. If he had a rough morning, he would go to a quiet place (our reading center) in the classroom, set the timer, and sit down quietly while we began our day. When the timer went off he came to his seat and was ready to learn.  

I explained to him that I had rough mornings, too. He offered me the same plan, and we shared this with the class, and gave them the same option. We used this plan quite a few times during the first nine weeks of school, but less often after that. This student learned more than content that year and was able to sustain this coping plan throughout his elementary years.  

Why is this about equity?

This child received the resources and actions he needed to be successful. Other children were given the same opportunity, but did not need it like he did. Knowing students and building a relationship with them is and educator’s number one priority. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” and I think about that every day. It is very true.  


When I became principal, I never forgot the impact I had made on this student and many others. It became my mission.  Each student would know that I cared and believed in them. I used listening, planning and actions over and over again. My experiences had helped me to understand that this should be a practice for the teachers and administrators at every school (especially the high school I attended).

This simple triad would change a culture in any environment.  As leaders of a school or district it is essential to providing an equitable education for all children. 


Family Engagement Lessons from the Teacher & Principal School Report

Ron Mirr, Senior Vice President of Learning Supports and Family and Community Engagement (FACE), joins edu@scholastic to discuss research findings around family & community engagement in the Teacher & Principal School Report: Equity in Education.

The Teacher & Principal School Report: Equity in Education provides insight into the resources educators need to help all students succeed. One of these critical resources is the ability to effectively engage families and community partners to support student learning. This engagement can be grouped into 4 key areas: welcoming, communication, information, and participation.

We heard from educators that strong partnerships with families and community partners are essential to student success. As one elementary school teacher shared, “In order for a teacher to be the best, the whole community must be working on the same plan for each child. Everyone in the child’s world is part of the team.” Teachers and principals across the country (99%) agree it is important to student success for families to be involved in their children’s learning. Ninety-seven percent of educators say that families and school staff should be equal partners in supporting student learning.


Strong welcoming relationships with families and community agencies are not just nice, they are necessary. Make “welcoming” intentional in your school—post welcoming signs and messages in your school and on your website, take turns welcoming families in the morning when they drop off their children, ask families what would make them feel welcome and included at the school and then work with families to implement those ideas. 


The survey results indicate that ongoing, two-way communication between schools and families is the cornerstone of effective family engagement. Respondents overwhelmingly agree that schools must use multiple formats to communicate with families. However, many teachers and principals also told us they encounter multiple barriers to effective communication. They need help knowing how to address these barriers, especially in high-poverty schools. In fact, 30% of teachers in high-poverty schools say they are unable to reach half (or more) of their students’ families at least once a year. Remember, not everyone likes to communicate in the same way. Ask your families about the best way to communicate with them and make sure you use multiple methods of communication—phone, email, Twitter, Facebook, school/teacher websites, face-to-face conversations.


The Teacher & Principal School Report also shows that teachers understand the importance of sharing information about student learning. Educators know they must communicate what students’ learning goals are for the school year, and guide families on their role regarding homework. 

Respondents highlighted the importance of helping families know how to have meaningful, ongoing conversations with their children about what they are learning in school. A high school teacher from Montana said, “The school needs to build a positive culture surrounding parent engagement. We need to move beyond just having traditional parent-teacher conferences twice a year; this shouldn’t be the only time for parent-teacher communication." (Read more: Family-Teacher Conferences: What You Need to Know.)


Teachers and principals know that what families do at home can have a positive impact on student success in school. A middle school teacher from Illinois shared, “I understand that many just don’t know how to help. I wish we had more resources to connect and build the relationship between home and school.” The survey respondents shared many ideas for how they could increase family participation in student learning. Seventy percent of teachers believe they should host and encourage participation at family activities and events that involve their children, while 69% of teachers think they should encourage families to read aloud with their children and support independent reading at home.

In addition to reading with their children, families can support student success by talking with children about the importance of education and sharing their aspirations for their child. Families can play a critical role in helping students be confident learning and believe they can be successful in school. Families can also help their children manage their own learning by monitoring homework and other assignments and guiding them on how to seek help from their peers and their teachers when needed.

So why, if so many educators understand how to engage families in learning, aren’t effective family engagement initiatives in place in all schools across the country? The answer is simple—we don’t provide enough training and information through pre-service and in-service experiences to help educators know what do. Seventy-four percent of teachers and principals tell us they need help engaging the families of their students in support of their children’s learning. Many educators (47%) say that professional development on ways to work effectively with families from all cultures is among the most important things educators should do to increase family engagement. Unfortunately, only 27% of educators say this is happening to the degree it should. 


As we start a new year, I’m hoping we use what we learned from educators to make three resolutions for engaging families in student learning. 

First, let’s find a way to help build the expertise of schools to welcome families as partners. Next, let’s build the capacity of educators to employ multiple methods for communication with families—methods that share information about what students are learning. Finally, let’s help educators provide experiences that empower all families to increase their participation in support of their child’s learning.

The School Library as a Safe Space

Anita Cellucci of Westborough High School in Westborough, MA was named a School Library Journal School Librarian of the Year Award finalist in August 2016. Be sure to also read The Super Social Library from Finalist Laura Gardner.

Creating a library that is a safe space for students has always been important to me. Over the years I have observed that many students have needed the solace and protection of the library throughout the day. Allowing the library to be many things to many students is challenging but ultimately offers social and emotional support. Although there are many ways that my library has become a safe space, it is thanks to daily interactions with students that I continuously shift my understanding of how the library can remain dynamic and relevant, and offer what they truly need from it.

The role of the library in school

Our school libraries support students in many ways. The library space itself is often a refuge for students, a safe space where students are comfortable and free to be themselves. The American Association of School Librarians (AASL) defines an effective school library program for the purpose of the federal legislation Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA): “An effective school library program has a certified school librarian at the helm, provides personalized learning environments, and offers equitable access to resources to ensure a well-rounded education for every student.”

At the heart of an effective school library program is the importance of individual understanding of each child. In recent years, the rates of students dealing with mental health issues have risen, boundaries between real and virtual lives have blurred, and technology has begun to be introduced in student lives much earlier. This alone offers reason enough to think about how our libraries are meeting the need for a comfortable, welcoming, personalized learning environment that takes the whole child into consideration. 

The library as a safe space

I feel strongly about making the school library an available space to students during lunch—a time when vulnerable students especially need a refuge. I have often found creative ways to include these students in mentoring younger students through book selection, read alouds and other library activities, as well as to offer social interaction at the high school level. I believe that a way to help to create a safe space for students is to make them part of the process so that they not only have ownership and autonomy, but also feel part of a community. 

Last year, I began hosting “Listening Lunches” which are one component of a Library Learning Commons. Simply stated, a Library Learning Commons is a redesigned library space that is meant to enhance social interaction and learning outside of the classroom. It is the center for learning, collaboration, and creating—for students, staff, and the school community as a whole.

These events allow students to showcase their talents (such as song, music, and poetry slam) in a less formal way, while their peers, classmates, teachers, and community share lunch in the library. It is truly amazing to watch this philosophy begin to gather momentum in the library and in our school. Teachers come to see their students perform and the performing students have been helping to get the word out to the rest of the school community.

The library as a model

This is one small way of how I am providing the path for students to constructively deal with the issues of isolation that often arise from the environment of a school lunchroom. It is also a way to use the space as an example of positive community interaction. Creating a space of positive community interaction leads to a safe space for all. Allowing students to contribute to the definition of the library as safe space makes the library relevant to the school community. I continue to work hard to see, hear and value my students and to create ways for the library to be a judgment free, accepting space for the entire community every day. 

Predictions: Five Big Education Stories in 2017

Michael Haggen, Chief Academic Officer, Scholastic Education, shares his predictions for the top education stories in 2017.

(Be sure to see our roundup of the top stories of 2016!)

Equity in Education

The Teacher & Principal School Report: Equity in Education shares what teachers and principals from across the country are saying about barriers to equity in education, and conversations are starting to happen around solutions. To support equity, we have to begin with the whole child and the whole family. From California to Maine, schools are looking to reduce barriers to education for students and their families. Data can play a key role in creating strategies. Before turnaround schools implement a plan to support teachers, principals, students and families, they conduct a needs analysis. This data identifies what each school community needs in order to support equity for its students.

School Choice & Charter Schools

At the heart of any conversation around equity in education is the question of student access to resources. In 2017, access will focus largely on school choice and charter schools. While publicly-funded charter schools are currently an option for many low-income children, in 2017 watch for expanded programs that provide vouchers for students to attend private and parochial schools, as well other educational funding options.

Highly Effective Teaching

Teachers require not only professional learning for product implementation, but deeper training around effective teaching practices. Teachers and principals want ongoing, embedded professional learning that has modeling and measures for effectiveness.

Comprehensive Literacy

More and more districts are selecting a balanced literacy approach to English Language Arts. Teachers want to expose their students to more authentic text and nonfiction books. As districts set literacy goals, they also recognize that effective implementation depends on meaningful family and community engagement, as well as professional development for educators. Families and community partners must have a seat at the table for the creation of a literacy plan designed to support all students.

Critical Thinkers

We are preparing students to be college- and career-ready, and we must also prepare them for college completion. Teaching our students to be critical thinkers and having teachers facilitate more than stand-and-deliver style of instruction allows for students to learn from each other and challenge their own thinking. Once students have critical-thinking skills, they are able to take on any academic challenge and succeed.

Roundup: Five Big Education Stories in 2016

2016 has been a whirlwind year with a lot of big education news, from the implications of the presidential election to issues around equity in education. Below are our picks for the five most salient education stories of the past year.

Equity in Education

Equity in education has been a major conversation here at Scholastic all year. In May, we held our 2016 National Advisory Council meeting, in which we met with some of the top educational thought leaders to discuss challenges and possible solutions around providing equity in education. In November, we released the Teacher & Principal School Report: Equity in Education, a survey of more than 4,700 educators who told us about what they have, and what they need more of, to support their students.

The New York Times article "Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City" by Nikole Hannah-Jones is an in-depth exploration of many of the equity issues that parents and school-age children face, from access to resources to the impact of housing and zoning. (Also see the two-part series "The Problem We All Live With," on This American Life, in which Hannah-Jones considers the relationship between integration and the achievement gap.)

Early Childhood Education

Equity also permeated much of 2016's conversations around access for all children to quality, afforable early childhood education. But new research from the Yale Child Center added nuance to the conversation by raising questions about whether implicit bias prevents some children (especially African-American boys) from receiving quality early childhood education. "Bias Isn't Just a Police Problem, It's a Preschool Problem" (Cory Turner; NPR) explores the research and its implications.

Summer Learning

Access to books and summer learning programs is also an important part of the dialogue around equity and closing the achievement gap. Emma Brown (The Washington Post) reported on this issue in "New evidence that summer programs can make a difference for poor children."

Media Literacy & The Presidential Election

The 2016 election raised two important issues that educators have grappled with this year. Valerie Strauss's "Answer Sheet" column in The Washington Post ("Yes, this campaign is nasty. Here’s how to teach civics and not get lost in the circus.") explored--by way of Scholastic Classroom Magazines editors' expertise--how teachers could address the election in class without getting caught up in some of its contentious language.   

After the election, many parents and educators have raised questions around teaching critical thinking skills and media literacy to students. Moriah Balingit explores this timely issue in "After Comet Ping Pong and Pizzagate, teachers tackle fake news."

Supporting the Whole Child

Schools increasingly provide not only instruction and academic resources, but support for "the whole child," making sure that every child receives what he or she needs both in and out of school, especially in low-income communities. "Where Nearly Half of Pupils Are Homeless, School Aims to Be a Teacher" details how one New York City school "strives to be social worker, advocate, therapist and even Santa Claus." (Elizabeth A. Harris; New York Times)



Help Your Teachers Create 21st Century Classrooms

Last month we shared Laura Robb's ideas on how teachers can cultivate the 4 Cs in their classrooms. This week Evan Robb offers his his ideas from a principal's perspective.

To succeed in school, compete in the job market, and become a contributing citizen in our democracy and the global economy, our students need to learn in classrooms that develop the four 21st century skills, called the 4 Cs: Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Creativity.

You can motivate and engage teachers to consider what kinds of instruction develop these skills by having them learn during faculty meetings in ways that you want their students to learn. When teachers experience great 21st-century classrooms, innovative types of learning become a part of teachers’ DNA and open conversations about how the 4 Cs will impact learning in their subjects.

Teachers Experience the 4Cs During Faculty Meetings

I recommend that you set aside three faculty meetings for teachers to experience the 4 Cs and connect what they’ve learned to classroom practices. It makes no sense for principals to expect students to collaborate and problem solve and then lead faculty meetings where teachers passively sit and receive information. Instead, start by dividing teachers into groups of four to six and have them choose articles to read about the 4 Cs and 21st century classrooms. In the box below, I’ve listed the URLS of five sources.

Reading Resources Teachers Can Use

First Faculty Meeting

  • Organize faculty into groups of four to six, introduce the 4Cs of 21st century learning, and invite teachers to discuss why these are important for the challenges our country and the world face today.

  • Have each group choose a spokesperson and share with everyone what their group discussed. Record teachers’ ideas on a whiteboard. Have teachers choose two articles to read.

  • Close the meeting by asking them to discuss ways they can integrate Collaboration and Communication into their classes. Groups share and you record their ideas on a whiteboard.

Second Faculty Meeting

  • Recap what was discussed at the first meeting by posting the teachers’ ideas you recorded on the whiteboard.

  • Have groups read a different article, discuss it focusing on Creativity and Critical Thinking, and how they can integrate these into their lessons. Groups choose a different spokesperson and share their ideas. Record these on a whiteboard.

Third Faculty Meeting

  • Recap what teachers discussed at the second meeting by posting the ideas you recorded on the whiteboard.

  • Ask teachers to reflect on their experiences, discussions, and reading materials and create a list of learning experiences they can integrate into their lessons.

  • Have groups share and record their thinking on a whiteboard.

  • Give each group one of the 4Cs and ask members to offer specific ways to build their 21st century skill into lessons. Groups share and discuss.

Accept Where Teachers Are in the Process

You’ll find that even with reading and discussing articles, teachers will absorb some information but not all of the key points. Like their students, their background knowledge and personal experiences will determine the types of suggestions they offer.

Below you’ll find 10 ways that teachers at your school can foster and build 21st century skills into students’ learning experiences. It’s helpful for teachers to discuss these 10 suggestions always through the lens of how each one fits into their subject. 

  1. Have students sit in groups of four to six. Encourage teachers to abandon rows of desks that only separate and isolate students. For collaboration to take place and for students to have opportunities to choose and discuss materials, they need to sit in groups and work together or separate into partners who report back to the group.

  2. Allow students to choose reading materials. Invite your school librarian to meet with English and reading teachers to explain how he or she can help teachers select books that meet the diverse instructional needs of students in their classes. When teachers organize units of study by a genre, such as biography and historical fiction, they can differentiate instruction by having students read books in those genres in a range of reading levels. The school librarian can select high-quality books in the genre and separate them into stacks by reading level. Then, groups of students can browse stacks at their levels and choose books that appeal to them.

  3. Initiate student-led literary discussions. Have teachers build on the turn-and-talk strategy that asks students to turn to a classmate and discuss questions about a read-aloud text or an aspect of a lesson. The next step might be having students discuss a text for 5 to 20 minutes with a partner, using questions the students themselves composed.  Then, students can make the transition to small-group discussions. 

  4. Use inquiry learning. Put the questioning process into students’ hands by asking them to compose interpretive, open-ended questions. (A question is open-ended if it has two or more answers that text evidence supports.) This is a powerful technique because students need to collaborate and communicate to write open-ended questions; they also need a deep knowledge about, and an understanding of, the reading material. Teachers can also show students how to compose guiding questions, which works well when groups read different books in a particular genre or on a specific theme. A guiding question is broad and can’t be answered in one or two sentences. For example, eighth-grade students reading science fiction wrote this guiding question: What warnings does the story give, and what in our society caused these warnings? 

  5. Invite students to debrief their discussions by asking: What worked and why? What could have been improved and how? This kind of problem solving requires students to use their creativity and communication skills to determine what went well and how to improve what didn’t.

  6. Have students set goals. Groups can set goals after they debrief a student-led discussion along with ideas for reaching those goals. Ask groups to review and discuss their suggestions for improving literary conversations immediately before the next literary conversation occurs.

  7. Integrate technology by asking all faculty members or specific departments to read an article on their computers (I use Google Docs). Then, let the communication begin! Teachers write their responses to an article and pose questions so everyone who received the article can read all the responses and questions. The next step might be to use software such as Google Docs with students. For example, teachers can post a short reading selection on Google Docs for students and have them respond to questions in writing. Students can use the articles and all responses for a whole-class discussion. In addition, students can collaborate and write a blog, informational piece, play, and so on and post their work on Google Docs for peers to read and respond to. Google also offers tools for groups to do digital storytelling and for turning data into visuals such as graphs.

  8. Have students write about reading. Consider the research by Steve Graham, Karen Harris, and Tanya Santangelo, who make it clear that when students write about books they read their comprehension improves by 24 percentile points. Writing is informal—a way to express on-the-spot reactions, connections, evaluations of information, characters’ decisions, conflicts, themes, and short summaries. 

  9. Use the jigsaw strategy. If you have several questions you want students to discuss, divide the work among groups. Give each group a question and have them discuss it. Once groups discuss, they choose a spokesperson who explains the ideas discussed to the class. Not only does jigsaw advance all the 4Cs, but it also moves lessons forward.

  10. Try chat centers, a spin-off of jigsaw that gets students out of their seats and moving around the room. You can put questions about literary elements, vocabulary, or a text all students have read or listened to on five to seven sheets and post them around the room. Assign each group a chat center, have members discuss the questions, and then present their findings to the class. To communicate clearly and effectively, students have to adjust and clarify their ideas so that their classmates understand their thinking. 

Closing Thoughts

Whenever a strategy is new to teachers, step back and provide them with the background knowledge and hands-on experiences that develop the depth of understanding they need to implement that strategy to full advantage for students.

The 10 ways to integrate the 4Cs into daily learning ask students to practice and refine their use of collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity. Encourage teachers to work closely with a colleague, choose a strategy they’d like to implement, share ideas, observe one another’s classes, debrief, and when they’re both comfortable, try another one. I always invite teachers to start small and add new strategies slowly to ensure success and maintain the desire to develop the 4Cs in all students.


I Asked My Students What They Carry in Their “Invisible Backpacks”

I had an eye-opening moment one morning while driving into the City of Newburgh for a meeting with my superintendent. I was born on one of the many streets that comprise the City of Newburgh. It has changed a great deal since then. The streets and homes are in disrepair and the city sometimes looks tired. However, there were bright spots on the corners this particular morning: the children about to board their buses, standing alongside an adult or older sibling.  

As I was waiting at a stoplight, I happened to glance in the direction of one intersection. A mother was opening a backpack, placing in it items such as a notebook, a brown bag, and what looked to be a note. I asked myself before the light turned green, what hopes and dreams does that parent have for their child? And then I thought, a teacher will soon be on the receiving end of that child, with that backpack. 

Teachers do not usually see the care that someone takes in making sure that everything is just right before sending their child to school, or know the hopes and dreams that they may have for their child.

That backpack, a little too big, held what the child needed to start the day. But I asked myself, What else does it hold?

When I returned to school, I thought of my own students and imagined them waiting on the corner for their buses. The next morning, I paid closer attention to my students as they entered my classroom. I watched as they unceremoniously unpacked their items. However, it was with a little less care than the mother who was on the corner the previous morning. I observed what was coming out of their pack, and it made me wonder what it was that I may not be seeing. What is it that the children carry with them that is not visible, but all the same, impacts who they are and how they learn?

I realize that maybe it isn’t what you see that matters most, but what is "invisible." So I tried something different as we started the day. 

As we gathered at the rug that morning, I asked them to share what they brought with them to school that day. They mentioned things like snacks, lunch money, water, books, and notes.  

I then asked, "what is in your ‘invisible back pack’ today?"  That piqued their interest!  I explained that I watched them that morning as they unpacked their bags. I also explained that I wondered what I didn’t see. How were they feeling this morning, what kind of night did they have, were they ready to learn, was there a goal that they wanted to set for the day?

I asked them to think about it for a few moments and turn and talk to a partner before they would share out to the whole class. There was a level of excitement as the children shared their thoughts. I asked if there was anyone who wanted to share. One little girl stood up and said, "I didn’t sleep much last night, my baby brother cried a lot."

Another girl stood and shared that her stomach hurt because she is afraid of another child on the bus, then one little boy stood up and said that he was supposed to see his mother under a court order and she didn't show up. 

It was very apparent at that moment that in order to teach each child, we have to reach each child.  Their ‘invisible backpacks’ are very telling.  We, as teachers, need to create a safe environment that will allow our children to share their stories.  This sharing has also turned into goal setting for the day, and I am so honored to have an opportunity to really get to know my students. 

I have made it a point to pay closer attention to what I don’t see in the course of a day. The impact on learning is often hindered by many invisible barriers. My role is to unearth these barriers, help when I can and let them know that I am there for them.  

My journey as a teacher has taken me to a place where I now realize the importance of reaching each child beyond the curriculum and classroom walls. I want my students to realize that I am there for them, I truly care about what they are feeling and I want to help them reach their goals.  

When I am fortunate enough to be the one to share their ‘invisible backpack,’ it truly is an eye-opening experience to what shapes each child. It can help me meet them where they are and bring them along as they continue their educational journey. What I refer to as ‘invisible’ has actually made me see my students more now than ever before.


(With a nod to Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 essay “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”)

Tell Us: What Education Topics & Trends Are Most Important to You? (Including a giveaway!)

As we move into 2017, I have been thinking a lot about what education topics are most interesting to edu@scholastic readers. Of course, all of us here at Scholastic want this space to offer stories that are current, thought-provoking, useful and inspiring to educators.

So tell me: what do you want to read more about?

I invite you to take the edu@scholastic reader survey, which you can access by clicking here. It is just a few short questions, and will take less than five minutes of your time. 

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Happy New Year!



Making the Most of Real-Time Reading Data

I bet as a school leader you feel inundated with data. Education is data-rich, but as we all know it is not the data that makes the difference, it is the way that you use it. 

Well, I would like to add another piece that is important for driving literacy in your school: data must be real-time data. What I mean by real-time is collecting on the students’ reading achievement during one week, and using it to guide what will happen in the weeks following. 

To continue to help students grow as readers we must provide powerful, intentional small-group reading instruction. We know that the small group reading table is where readers grow and move to the next level. To support students, teachers must have real-time data that relates to fluency, decoding, and comprehension. It doesn’t matter what tool educators use to gather the information, as long as it is reliable.

Types of Data Points

At my school we have multiple data points, and they change depending on the grade level. 

  • For grades K-2, we use the PALs, DRA, ongoing running records, and anecdotal notes; 

  • In grade 3, we use (among others) PALs, DRA, and ongoing running records;

  • In grades 4 and 5, we use (among others) DRA, DSA, and ongoing running records and anecdotal notes.

Does this seem like too many data points? Well, it all goes back to purpose. Do each of these assessments tell us something different about our reader? Do these assessments provide and verify the next steps needed for the reader?

For example: 

  • In grades 4 and 5, the DSA gives us the word study work that each student should be doing, and what vocabulary to focus on. 

  • The DRA and running records provide us with fluency and decoding information. Both of them provide information on comprehension as well. 

  • Other assessments give us information on the text complexity that a student can handle based upon their ability to infer.

All of these are important factors for fluent readers, which is the goal for students in grades 4 and 5. For students who are still striving with their reading achievement, these assessments also give us information we need for all readers.

How we did it

Our first steps were ensuring that all teachers administered the assessments appropriately so that we had reliable and valid data. Data must provide an accurate picture of the student. We provided videotaped models, conducted face-to-face modeling, co-teaching, and coaching to ensure all teachers were able to administer the assessments. When teachers see it in action and then practice with each other, it gives them the authentic learning experience they can draw upon when they are administering the assessment with their students.

Expectations and Consistency

Second, we had to set expectations for the frequency of the data collection. This is where deep knowledge of your staff and students is especially important. I knew that my teachers needed a year to transition into this important work while not going so slow as to hinder the progress of students. So the first year, we completed running records on all students once a month and conducted weekly anecdotal notes. 

This year, the teachers are completing running records on students who are reading on grade level and above once a month, and bi-weekly for students who are below grade level. Some teachers do them more frequently, based upon the needs of the students. Also, teachers make anecdotal notes daily as they listen to students whisper-read and provide feedback at the small group reading table.

Time and Resource Allocation

Finally, we had to allocate time to daily planning and small-group, data-driven discussions.  

We hold weekly, 80-minute collaborative team meetings (also known as professional learning communities). 

At least one monthly, 80-minute collaborative meeting focuses on analyzing small-group reading data as a grade level. For example, all of our 4th-grade teachers come together Monday afternoon to look at the data and guide next steps for the students. Our literacy team created a binder that has information on each literacy stage, correlation charts for the different reading assessments, comprehension questions based upon DRA level, running record tabs to organize running records, and sheets for anecdotal notes.They always bring the binder to our language arts collaborative team meetings. 

Furthermore, during the meeting teachers use resources such as the Words their Way, Continuum of Literacy and Next Steps in Guided Reading to discuss the data and decide on next steps for the students. 

The role of school leaders

Data-driven decision-making is important to move student progress forward. It is vital to use data to steer small group reading instruction to help all students read on grade level. During the discussions, it is obvious which students are above, on, or below grade level. It helps with intervention and remediation and allocation of those resources. Also, we all know how important it is to celebrate success! When teachers are reviewing the data frequently and they are consistently seeing student growth as readers they celebrate. This celebration sustains the momentum for the work. 

Last but not least, be present at these meetings. Teachers will get the message that leaders are present for valued work. If you truly value and believe that all students can and will read on grade level, you must be present and participate in the discussion. Bring your binder, books, and other resources. You are the teachers’ mirror and their window, reflecting what you want them to be, and you showing them today and where the future can lead them.


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