Learning Supports: Is it Really New?

Dr. Holladay is Superintendent of Athens City Schools in Athens, AL.

Spring and summer in Alabama—when the landscape bursts with color—are beautiful times of the year. I personally enjoy these seasons most because they allow me to indulge my love of yard work. Yes, I am one of those “nuts” that likes to do this type of work. I don’t necessarily love the work itself, but it is one of the few times that I can find solitude. No phone, email, television, computer or questions. No one wants to help me or tell me how they can do it better. It is the perfect time for me to do reflective thinking.

In leadership, space for reflective thinking is imperative for the growth of your organization. Reflective thinking lets me assess, and reassess; to examine what we're doing, discern what is working, and what we need to change. It gives me the chance to consider my own values and beliefs about education and the students we serve.

In one of my recent opportunities for reflection, I thought about how education has changed and how the work we do as educators has changed. Learning Supports is one of those areas that we discuss as a new concept, resulting from how the educational landscape has changed; but I beg to differ! Growing up the son of educators in the 1960s and ‘70s in rural Alabama, I can personally attest that “learning supports” have definitely been a part of the educational system for the last fifty years.

As society and culture have changed, what was once considered to be the norm—staying late to help a student, lunch ladies allowing second helpings, or ensuring students had clothes and supplies—has now become the exception, considered irregular, or have been regulated out of existence. 

So during a recent opportunity for outdoors reflection, I started to consider the common thread between the old “learning supports” and the new Learning Supports. Why are veteran educators having to build frameworks that show novice teachers there is more to education than content knowledge and teaching strategies? I don’t mean to understate the importance of academics, but if you think a child who’s hungry or hasn’t had but four hours of sleep the night before is worried about math and English, we have a lot to work on.

The common thread among older methods of supporting students and new, systemic models is simply the love of students! The bottom line is that if you love teaching, then you love kids, and you want them to succeed. And we know that we must support the whole child as we set goals for our students’ academic success.

The Learning Supports framework gives our system the ability to address the shifting changes in society and culture. Addressing chronic absenteeism, lack of basic living essentials, language barriers, disabilities, and family needs are not something that can be done by school counselors or the administration alone. It is the work of the entire school, and must be ubiquitous in the school culture and embraced by the entire community.

A learning supports framework gives us the very best opportunity to ensure all our students are prepared to receive the education they need to be successful. We love our students; we have just learned to spell love in a new way: L-E-A-R-N-I-N-G S-U-P-P-O-R-T-S.

The Athens City Schools System Framework 

As a district, we are working diligently to create the infrastructure needed to proactively address barriers to student learning by developing a comprehensive system of supports. 

Organizing: Our first step was to reorganize our central office into the three-component model: Instruction, Management and Learning Supports. This was important because it helped our school community understand that a systemic shift in culture was occurring; this was not just another initiative. 

Mapping: Next, we formed a system-wide team (with central office and school representatives) and mapped our school and community resources for addressing learning, behavioral, emotional and physical problems. We realized that we already had many supports in place, but their effectiveness was compromised by fragmentation. Each school was reacting to student needs, but lacked a comprehensive approach.

The mapping process enabled us to take a close look at what was working and could be expanded, and what was not working and needed to be changed or removed. We too often do things because “we've always done them that way." Now we are being very thoughtful about why we do what we're doing, and we're not afraid to change policies, procedures, interventions, strategies, etc.

Using Data to Clarify, Then Respond to Students’ Needs: In our first year, we targeted attendance issues, and this has remained a focus for us. When looking at our overall attendance rate, the problem was not obvious in the numbers, but we had too many students at risk of failure. As we drilled into the data, we realized we needed some alternatives to our "traditional" school program. We needed a framework that would allow us to be proactive.

Now we are more flexible and offer multiple blended learning and virtual opportunities to meet various needs, and ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to succeed in school. There is a constant focus at both the school and district level on addressing absences quickly and keeping students engaged.

Through our mapping process and while analyzing student data, we realized we had a number of students who needed counseling services but had been unable to travel to receive those services. In response, we have partnered with United Way and the Mental Health Center to provide at-risk counseling services within our schools. And for prevention, we are now developing curriculum for a redefined student advisory program to put comprehensive supports in place.

Although we had advisory and mentoring programs in place, the review and audit process helped us realize we needed more. One of the most important components in our redefined program is to ensure that every student has a personal relationship with an adult who will strive to connect students with school and community services they need before they become at-risk.

As I said earlier, reflection is imperative to ensuring quality programs that are flexible and responsive enough to support all our students. Each year, we analyze our progress and needs to determine gaps and priorities. We will continue to expand systemic supports to eliminate barriers to student learning and promote whole child development and a positive school climate that keeps students engaged in their learning. We are committed to the continuous enhancement of our “new” system of learning supports.

School's Out! Time to Reflect, Plan, and Enjoy the Summer

School’s out for the summer! Are you relishing that thought? Excited to sleep in, have your evenings to yourself, and have some “me” time? Of course! But for some teachers, it can also be a challenge to find just the right balance between letting go of routines and responsibilities, and being able to truly embrace the lack of structure.

Maybe you are simply grateful for downtime. No bells, email chains, attendance logs, requests for pencils, or too-brief prep times. If you have your own children at home, you may be thrilled to be able to spend daytime with them. Sleeping in on mornings may feel luxurious.  Catching up on Netflix series may be tempting you. And instead of professional development reading, you can enjoy magazines, beach reads, selections from the bestseller lists, or whatever you want.

But of course, you are an educator, and so you may find yourself needing to do some analysis and planning before you can truly relax and embrace your downtime. That’s part of who you are. So here are some thoughts on ways to get your “homework” done and help you relax and enjoy the summer you deserve.

Looking Back

Summer is a good time to reflect on the academic year you’ve just finished. Yes, it’s over, but you may want to clear up any lingering or unresolved issues that prevent you from truly relaxing. 

Just the way you encourage your students to journal and reflect, take some time to consider the past year—the good, the bad, and the ugly. As you reflect, jot down some notes.

  • What went really, really well this year? What made it so good? 

  • Who were your biggest supporters this year?

  • What are you most proud of? How did you make it happen? 

  • What resources were most helpful to you in doing your job? Other teachers? Supervisors? Colleagues? Parents? Professional books? Online resources? 

  • What were your challenges? Where did they come from? The administration? A particular student or family? New performance expectations? 

Now, think about how you addressed the challenges you faced. 

  • What did you do? What steps did you take?

  • What worked well? Not so well?

Looking Ahead

  • What do you want to repeat next year based on the success you’ve had?

  • What do you want to do differently next year? How will you implement this new plan?

Think about what you already know about the coming year.

  • What do you anticipate to be your greatest challenge ahead? Is there a new curriculum? A change in administration? Are you teaching a different grade or subject? 

  • What excites you about the challenge? What worries you?

Think and write about how you might meet that challenge. Sometimes seeing thoughts in writing can help you sort out your ideas, and can enable you to let go of your concerns and move on.

Write yourself some encouraging notes. Include reminders of how you’ve succeeded in the past.

Looking at Right Now

OK. You’ve done your homework. Time to face the present.

First, consider the category of endeavors related to your career.

Some teachers seek out classes or professional development opportunities. Local colleges, universities, and community colleges may offer courses that would be interesting and helpful. Check online and with colleagues for recommendations. 

Are you looking for ways to increase your income? Some teachers find that tutoring during the summer is a good way to capitalize on their experience. Of course, there are tutoring centers that might welcome your help. You may want to strike out on your own and tutor privately. It can offer flexible schedule options and be extremely lucrative. Word of mouth, local bulletin boards, and public libraries are places to spread the word about your availability and expertise.

If you feel you would like to do some preparation for the coming year, fleshing out your classroom library can be an enjoyable mission. Stopping at yard and library sales is a way to inexpensively add some titles to your collection. Read up on the focus areas targeted for next year. Chat with colleagues to share ideas.

Now, put aside those career concerns. It is time to consider your own enjoyment and enrichment.

Use the time to catch up on all that reading you’ve neglected. When was the last time you read Charlotte’s Web,The Phantom Tollbooth, Lord of the Flies or Jane Eyre

Have you shied away from the complex text of James Joyce or William Faulkner? Always meant to read War and Peace (unabridged)? Rise to the challenge! Or maybe just curl up with an enticing mystery or spy story, or an undemanding beach-read that makes you cry.

In fact, you never know how certain experiences may impact you as a teacher. 

Struggling to get into that headstand yoga pose may give you insights into the struggle some of your students might have to comprehend a tough concept. As you work to master the pose, building it little by little during each practice, you will gain insights that may help you inspire students to progress in their learning, building each step upon the one before.

As you train for a half marathon and develop strategies to push yourself another yard, and then another and another, you will better understand the type of self-talk and encouragement that could motivate a student who needs to build stamina in reading

As you endeavor to study conversational Italian, the challenges of learning a new language may help you be especially sensitive to the needs of the English Language Learners you teach.

Finally, take time this summer to let go. Give yourself time to relax, and enjoy some time doing what makes youfeel nurtured. You deserve it.

 

 

What I Learned in My First Year as Superintendent

While you may have heard of Amarillo, Texas because of Cadillac Ranch or the Big Texan's 72 oz. steak dinner legend, I know it as my Home Sweet Home. I've just completed my first year as superintendent of Amarillo Independent School District, comprising 33,600 students in fifty-five schools. (I’m the first woman superintendent in 126 years!)

Amarillo ISD celebrates a diverse student population. Over 450 refugees are resettled in Amarillo every year from various countries, including Somalia, DR Congo, Iran, Iraq, and Myanmar. Despite what some might see as challenges (sixty-seven percent of our students live in poverty), our district is rated by the Texas Education Agency as Met Standard, and Amarillo has strong business and employment opportunities. Yes, Amarillo is my Home Sweet Home.

I’m the first to admit I didn’t know what to expect from my first year as superintendent, but I have put together some reflections and lessons-learned from the last year. Much of my thinking relates to collaboration: when, how, and to what extent—and when do I set out on my own? (And though I'll try to explain it all with colloquialisms, my year was anything but trite!)

The Road Not Taken

Analysis paralysis is super easy to develop on this job, because a superintendent works for his/her community, and everything is public: open meetings, open records. Transparency is a good thing, but I never want to let anyone down, and so a good part of my year was spent trying to find my balance. I quickly discovered that as soon as I found myself standing where roads diverge, suddenly everyone had an opinion about which path I should take. I realized I needed to learn to choose the right road, even if I was being navigated by differing viewpoints. 

Sometimes I take the road less-traveled. Though the job of superintendent can be political, and is most definitely high-profile, I decided to solidify my goals and priorities for Amarillo schools, and stopped worrying about the "what if" stories in my head. While I'll always listen to community voices, a superintendent's leadership must include articulating a vision so others will join her on that road, not endlessly wavering where roads diverge. I reminded myself that I am here because I care about our scholars, educators and our community. I just needed to continue stepping forward (in great shoes, of course!) and give myself the same grace and mercy I know we are all worthy of having. 

The Buck Stops Here (or not!)

While "the buck stops here" sounds appealingly decisive, I found out that the buck doesn't always stop in my office—and that’s a good thing. I do make decisions for which I take ultimate responsibility, but most decisions happen collaboratively with our leadership teams, community groups and/or our Team of Eight (School Board). I think Harry S. Truman would be proud to know that in our community we do our best to not pass the buck. 

For example, this year a team of community leaders worked together to define Amarillo’s “profile of a graduate.” We decided we want our scholars to graduate as thinkers, communicators, collaborators and contributors. When we are talking about the success of our schools, the buck stops with the adults in our community who believe in our mission to graduate every student prepared for success beyond high school.

Together, Everyone Achieves More

Okay, this cliché is true. Every week I make it a point to visit several schools. I've met teachers, students, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians, and many other wonderful folks who are important to our AISD team and who live and breathe our core values of student performance, customer service, cost effectiveness, and quality staff. My spirit is renewed each time I get to chat with the folks who are on the frontline, serving our scholars.

While I wrote above that everyone has advice and opinions on what I should or should not do, I also understand that the superintendent's job is not simply about running one of the largest businesses in town. This "business" is a well-respected organization, and it is responsible for the city's most precious resource: our children. 

As someone who has spent twenty-five years on six different campuses, I was worried that my new role would make me miss interacting with students. And so at the end of my first semester, I started a "Superintendent Ambassador" program, mostly for my selfish reasons. I did indeed miss knowing and talking with the kids who inspired me to get into education in the first place! I also thought about the fact that "together everyone achieves more," and that while adults are experts on our core values, we can all learn more about performance, service, effectiveness and quality by listening to our students. Our Ambassadors showcase our best in our community, while allowing me the opportunity to learn more about their experiences through their eyes.

This year I've also learned that laughter really is the best medicine, actions do speak louder than words, and a woman's work is never done. And, of course, home is where the heart is, and I'm honored to call Amarillo my home.

Ten Tips from Laura Robb: Classroom Libraries & Access to Books

Access to books can make a difference in children’s desire to read and in their ability to comprehend a wide range of genres. David, an eighth grade student, put it this way: “I love our class library ‘cause I have books at my fingertips. When I finish one, I can check out another.”  

In “The Importance of Independent Reading,” (What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction, IRA, 2012) Linda Gambrell and her colleagues write:

“Students’ development of reading skill is less about ability than it is about the opportunity to read. Only with the practice and the expertise that comes from sufficient opportunities to engage in independent silent reading will students reach their full literacy potential.” (p.155)

What this implies is that English language learners, special education students, learning disabled students, reluctant readers, and grade-level and above-level readers all benefit from reading the finest children’s and young adult literature. These can be print or ebooks. A rich and diverse classroom library offers students the choices needed to self-select books they can and want to read.

Ten Tips for Building the Best Classroom Libraries

You can create a top-notch classroom library for students in elementary, middle and high school by reflecting on and trying the ten tips below.   

  1. Set a goal for the number of books in your library: Give yourself three to four years to acquire 1,500 books on a range of reading levels so all learners have access to books. Though you might initially feel that this goal is too difficult, keep reaching for it. If you fall short of that number, it’s okay; by striving, you will have increased the number of books available to students. Know, too, that you will have about a five percent annual book loss. Expect it. Enlist the support of your administrators and parents and ask them to help you replace books that students love to read.  

  2. Organize books: Students find selecting books easier when you organize them by genre. Tape an index card under the book shelves and on each one, label the genre, such as: realistic fiction, historical fiction, science fiction, picture books, biography, autobiography and memoir, suspense, mystery, fantasy, short stories, folk and fairy tales, and informational texts.

  3. Display books: On each shelf, display one or two books, showcasing the covers. Illustrations and photographs on covers motivate students to browse through a book to see if it they want to read it. 

  4. Book-talk new additions: Before shelving new books, display them on your desk or in a line under the board. Book-talking each one doesn’t mean you have to read the book. You can read the back cover, the text on the inside of the book’s jacket, or start the first chapter. If you’ve read the book, select an engaging passage and use that for your book talk.

  5. Use technology to record checked-out books: Students in third grade and up can type books they’ve checked out of your class library onto spreadsheets they can easily access on a class computer; students also note the day they returned the book.  Or you can have a “checkout notebook” that asks students to write their name, the book’s title, and date checked out and returned. Students in Pre-K to grade 2 will need your assistance in keeping records of books they have completed.

  6. Gather students' input: After the first six weeks of school, invite students to suggest print books, ebooks, and magazines they’d like to see in the class library. You can use the money your school gives you for purchasing books students want to read for your library.  Another route is to give the list to your principal and ask him or her to give it to the chair of your PTA; then invite the PTA to organize a fundraiser. 

  7. Feature a genre or author each month: Introduce students to different authors and genres by displaying a new set of books each month. These can be on a windowsill, a special table, or on an extra student desk. 

  8. Make working the class library a student job: After the first semester have students work in pairs and identify the genres of new additions, create monthly displays of a favorite author or genre, and shelve returned books.

  9. Create positive buzz about books: Organize students into groups of five or six and ask them to choose a book from their book log to share with the group. Students can choose a book by a beloved author, a book they couldn’t put down, a book that taught them new information, etc. Give each student about two minutes to share. Rotate group membership so students hear from different peers each time they meet.

  10. Present book testimonials: Tell students to make an appointment with you when they finish a book that they totally loved, so you can schedule a book testimonial. Students present their testimonial to classmates. These are one-minute talks that include the title, author, and a sentence or two that explains what made this book such a great read. 

Finding Funds for Your Classroom Library

In addition to funds your school supplies to purchase books for class libraries, you can try some of the suggestions that follow.  Once you’ve met that goal of 1,500 books, reach higher and try to add 100 books a year.

Here are a few suggestions for adding more and more books to your classroom library:

  • Use book club offerings and earn bonus points when your students place monthly orders.
  • Encourage your school librarian to organize a book fair. Book fairs earn points toward free books, and teachers can share this bounty. It’s also a great venue for teachers to present wish lists to parents who often purchase books at the fair for class libraries.
  • Invite your PTA to sponsor a fundraiser specifically for classroom libraries.
  • Collect magazines and comics from friends and family.
  • Bring in copies of the local newspaper.
  • Comb local yard and public library sales.
  • Ask parents to bring in books their children no longer read.
  • Investigate Scholastic’s Classroom Libraries for grades K-9.  Each library includes 100 books and a teaching booklet.

Closing Thoughts

Your classroom library provides students with access to the finest books every day of the school year.  Rich and varied class libraries bring equal opportunity to all socio-economic levels and provide students with opportunities to learn about past, present, and future worlds. 

Develop a classroom library that’s filled with motivating books and draw students into the reading life. And remember that reading, like any sport, requires practice to gain skill and expertise. 

Want more Laura? You can find ten additional tips for supporting literacy and engagement in the classroom on YouTube  

Books for Babies: Creating a Culture of Community & Early Literacy

Last May found me desperately looking for a project for my third graders as our year wound down to a close. We were a couple of weeks away from the last day of school, state testing was finished, and my kids were feeling the restlessness that typically comes with spring. I knew I wanted to do something that would be fun for them, use the reading, writing, and research skills we’d learned during the year, and involve our community. If I could find a way to talk about the importance of creating a culture of literacy, a particular passion of mine, I knew I would have the perfect project.  

In this roundabout way, my class’s favorite activity of the year—Books for Babies—was born. Now we spend the last weeks of the year working to get books into the hands of new parents before they leave the hospital with their babies. Together, we learn about and support early literacy, and reinforce the grade-level skills my students have been working on all year. Best of all, Books for Babies is a project that can be easily replicated in any classroom.

We begin by researching the importance of reading to babies. I typically print out articles from reputable sources such as the American Academy of Pediatrics or Parents magazine about the topic (also see this article from NPR, and this from Scholastic) but another option is to supervise kids as they conduct their own research online. Then, as a class, we closely read the articles, making careful note of the arguments and evidence that are presented to support reading to infants. As with any close reading, I pose an essential question—in this case, it’s Why is it important to read to babies?—and we read with pencils in hand, discussing and underlining evidence that will help us answer the question. We also annotate in the margins, noting when our reading leads us to make connections or synthesize across texts.

With research in hand, we begin writing letters to new parents (who are selected by the hospital and unknown to us), persuading them to read daily to their babies as soon as they arrive home from the hospital. Since opinion writing is a key mode in our state, and it’s one we work on extensively, this move to persuasive writing later in the year is natural for students. In the letters, the students introduce themselves, explain why they’re writing, and then construct their reasoning for early literacy. They also end the letter with a Twitter hashtag so that, if parents choose, they can tweet out pictures of the finished projects; my kids love to check the Twitter feed to see their work in the real world.

When we begin the writing process, we also sit down with a Scholastic book club flyer, and each student selects a book that he or she would like to gift to the new families. This is one of the most fun parts of the process, and I love to watch the students bend over the order forms, talking in their groups about which book they’ll pick and why. The choice is never easy. Once their selections are made, I place the order, and the books arrive just as we’re finishing the final drafts of our letters.

At this point, we’re ready to assemble the projects. Each student signs his or her name inside the front cover of the book, usually adding a sweet “Welcome to our world!” message. They then decorate plain white craft bags (we’re careful to keep the décor gender neutral), and tuck their letters and books inside. I reach out to local hospital administration early in the process and arrange a convenient day and time to meet, so all that’s left is for me to do is deliver our book bags to the hospital. We’ve heard, through social media and hospital staff, that the book bags are a huge hit with the new parents.

In the end, we created a project that hit all of my requirements:we research and closely read, use our argumentative writing skills, give back to our community, share our love of reading, and have fun along the way. Because of that, it’s one of those activities that I know I’ll turn to time and time again.  What better way to end the school year?

The Compelling Why: Using Short Texts to Support Close Reading

Using short informational texts can be a powerful instructional tool, but it’s not always clear exactly why we should use them…or how! 

I want to start with a note about the value of using authentic texts with young readers: there are so many different types of informational materials in the world—from brochures to directions and recipes, to blurbs and biographies—and students need to be exposed early on to real-world informational text in the classroom.  In the small group setting, teachers can guide students during close reading and supported re-reading of short texts, and differentiate instruction based on students’ individual needs.  

Using these types of short informational texts gives teachers three powerful instructional strategies:

  • Focus and target instruction 
  • Provide opportunities to practice reading informational and authentic text 
  • Prepare students for the types of texts they will find on the new assessments

Focus and Target Instruction

Why can using short texts help teachers to focus and target instruction?  Current expectations for elementary students include the ability to read, then compare and contrast multiple texts on the same topic. Kids also need to be able to read several texts on the same topic, synthesize what they’ve learned, and then be able to knowledgeably share that information orally or through written projects.

This kind of comparative reading can be done efficiently in small groups if teachers use short content area texts. These texts don’t have to be long in order to provide information on various aspects of a topic—a short, focused text can offer a young reader plenty to absorb.  And, this practice of using multiple short segments of content material is common when doing research all the way through the college level.

Plenty of Practice with Informational and Authentic Text

Why can using shorter informational text prepare students to read on the Internet and other digital media?  Most websites (like news sites, or this blog) organize their content in brief segments.  To read Internet content is to absorb key concepts in short bursts. Similarly, content-focused chapter books in the elementary grades often provide two- to four-page chapters on various aspects of a subject.  (A book about an animal might have one chapter about what the animal eats, another about where it lives, and so on.) And yet each of these chapters is actually a short, focused reading. Teaching with short texts helps prepare students for the kinds of reading they will encounter on the Internet or in chapter books.

Assessment Preparation

Why do short texts help prepare students for assessments? Because students will be expected to read, re-read, and demonstrate comprehension of short texts that:

  • are complex and at grade-level
  • present a variety of text features
  • use academic vocabulary (that students must learn in context)
  • are sourced from a range of media and text types

Because the informational texts are filled with content intended to build knowledge, they are organized in short segments; these may be reading a subheading and the section on a topic, or a single chapter in a longer book. That is how a reader naturally reads, studies, and learns content material. These texts can be very complex and provide opportunities for teachers to work with students in small groups with authentic texts. The informational texts can provide reasons to read closely, to be read and re-read.  

The old adage, “good things come in small packages,” truly applies to using short, informational texts as a part of  powerful small group instruction.

 

Editor's Note:

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Fostering Independence: The Key to Small Group Instruction

Educators know that the whole-class lesson is just one small part of instruction, and that differentiating instruction is critical; it’s how we ensure that we meet the unique academic needs of each and every child. We need to take the time to build on strengths and address vulnerabilities.

In order for all of this exciting work to happen, the first step is to have a well-managed class. We need to have systems in place at the beginning of the school year that allow students to work independently (and keep on working independently!) on something meaningful for extended periods of time. In other words, when it comes to small group instruction, you need successful systems out of your groups (quite literally) for things to work in your groups.  

As a first grade teacher, I notice the following tendencies among my students: they finish their work very quickly (sometimes too quickly!), they often need me for questions and comments, and they are working toward building stamina while working independently.  I wouldn’t exactly call these “problematic” behaviors—my students are 6 and 7 years old!  While this is expected behavior of a first grader, it can be difficult to work with a small group and expect minimal interruptions.  I offer you a simple solution: foster independence.

During small group instruction, these questions are always at the fore: 

  • How do we keep our other students engaged?
  • What is the rest of the class doing?
  • How do we ensure that our entire class is on task?

Read below to find out how I address these questions by fostering independence in my first grade classroom.  

Hand Signals

How many times have you been working with a child or a small group and another child comes over to you and asks to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water?  The next thing you know, you're having a conversation with that child about interrupting, and your small group has become distracted.  Better yet, have you ever noticed a child waving his or her hand in the air and impatiently waiting for you for the same reasons? Verbal or not, these small interruptions may lead to big problems for your guided reading group. I have therefore implemented the following lesson on the first day of school:

On the first day of school, when we begin to learn classroom routines and procedures, I always introduce and practice hand signals for water and bathroom breaks.  If kids raise their hands and ask to use the bathroom or get water, I have them “ask me again” using the correct hand signal.  If they come over to me while I'm working with a child or group, I send them right back to their seats and ask them to use their hand signals. I either respond with thumbs up (yes) or I point to my watch (wait).  These hand signals help to minimize interruptions during small group instruction (and throughout the rest of the school day!). 

Working "Long and Strong"

One thing your students may be doing during small group instruction is working independently.  From day 1, we want to encourage our students to read, write, solve math problems, etc., “long and strong” (i.e., working for long periods of time, without stopping, while staying focused on their work). Promoting perseverance beginning on the first day of school requires a lot of celebrating and positive reinforcement. One motivation tool is to set a timer every day:  if you time them reading for 10 minutes one day, aim for 11 minutes the next day. Become a cheerleader! You can also graph their results and hang it up to show how proud you are and to encourage them to do even more.  The “longer and stronger” they work independently, the more time you have for your small groups.

Give Students Individual Tools

There is a wealth of individual tools that teachers can use to help promote independence, such as individual word walls, steps to solving math word problems, writing checklists, and so forth.  Usually these tools are small and can fit into a child’s folder or desk.  

Here are some of my favorites:

Reading Mat: This is the ultimate tool for building reading stamina.  In the beginning of the school year, I give my students a folder, red paper, and green paper. I allow them to cut out any shape they want, and to glue green on the left side, and red on the right side. Then they decorate it and I laminate it.  I love to have the students make the mats themselves—they get excited and feel a sense of ownership and accomplishment.  Each day during independent reading, they pile all of their books onto the green side (green means go!).  Whenever they finish a book, they put it on the red side (red means stop!).  Once all of their books are in the red pile, guess what?  They push it back to the green pile and reread. 

Reading Response Menu: “I don’t know what to write about…” is another phrase I hear quite frequently in my 1st grade class. My students keep the attached “Reading Response Menu” in their desks and they use it almost daily during reading time.  (They also have a take-home “Reading Response Menu.”)

Talking Tools: Students outside of your small group may not always be working independently—they may be working in partnerships or on a group activity with their peers. When my first graders engage in collaborative learning, it is essential that they stay on task and that their conversations are academic-based.  If they are engaged and focused on their work, I can focus my attention on whichever group I’m working with.  I have created laminated sheets, such as this, to help support the conversations my students have with peers.  Like any classroom tool, it needs to be taught and practiced. 

"When I'm done, I can..."

How often do you hear “I’m done!” throughout the entire school day? Students work at all different paces and finish at different speeds.  We need to provide students with options: what can they do when they’re done? This may be something as simple as an “early finishers” basket with extra work, or asking your kids to read quietly on the rug.  Whatever you choose, teach it at the beginning of the school year and keep reminding your students, so that you can work in small groups with few interruptions. 

Below is a sample anchor chart to use during writing when kids say “I’m done”—I usually just point to the chart. 

Technology

I love integrating technology into all subject areas in my classroom. When students are working independently or in small groups I encourage them to work with technology. They read ebooks daily on the classroom computers, and use educational apps on iPads, Kindles, or other tablets. Most students are able to maintain focus for long periods of time when using a device. 

Bottom line: Teachers must engage in small group instruction—it’s nonnegotiable!

The rest of the class needs to be engaged in something meaningful that they can work on independently. During those precious first few weeks of school, it is essential that teachers provide students with the necessary tools to become independent thinkers. Fostering independence immediately, from day one, is the key to small group instruction. Working independently is also an important life skill that students will need to carry with them throughout their lives.

 

Tigers Read: Making Summer Learning a Team Effort

During the last few days of the school year, children across the South Carolina Upstate received a collection of books to read over the summer.  The children, rising second graders, all participated in Reading Recovery®. Reading Recovery is a short-term, early intervention for students who are having difficulty learning to read and write. During the intervention, students work with a specially trained reading teacher who individually designs and delivers literacy instruction based on the child’s unique strengths and needs. While the students make accelerated progress during the school year, summer is always looming.  This year, given the research on summer reading slide that suggests many students lose reading skills during the summer, the Clemson University Reading Recovery and Early Literacy Training Center for South Carolina (CUTC) wanted to do everything possible to make sure the gains children made during the school year held during the months of June, July, and August. 

Enter the Tigers Read! initiative. Tigers Read! partners the nationally recognized Clemson University Football team’s head coach Dabo Swinney and his All in Team Foundation,  Scholastic, and the CUTC in an effort to help ameliorate summer reading slide. The Tigers Read! Initiative provides 10 high-interest, high-quality books for each child to read during the summer months.  Instead of having a “summer slide” we hope these 10 books will result in a “summer reading rise” for the children who participate in the program. When the initiative was first discussed, the connections between football and summer reading were overwhelming clear.

Practice

Athletes spend a great deal of time practicing. Football players lift weights, study game videos, and walk through the same play over and over as they prepare for the big game. This is the same kind of commitment needed from children during the summer – in order to maintain and progress in reading skill development they must practice, practice, practice. The old adage, “practice makes perfect” couldn’t be more fitting and certainly holds true for both sports and reading.

Motivation

Players must be highly motivated. Football players are motivated by their teammates and coaches and have an internal drive that keeps pushing them to succeed. They are always working to win the next game or the next championship. Readers must have a similar motivation, a motivation that keeps them up at night begging to read “just one more page.” One key to being a motivated reader is developing the habit of reading.  To develop the habit it important that students spend time each day reading for pleasure. 

Coaches and Teachers

A good football coach cares about winning, but—more importantly—cares the players. Coach Swinney recently has received many coaching awards and understandably so. He always refers to his players as student-athletes and touts his player graduation rate, as much if not more than his record on the field. A good coach cares deeply about the person, and the same is true of a good teacher. A coach or teacher who supports a growth mindset instills in the athlete or student the importance of dedication and hard work. Coaches and teachers can make all the difference in the life of a child, their influence reaching well into the future.

Tools

Athletes and students certainly need the right tools to be successful. Football players need footballs, cleats, pads, and helmets in order to play. And kids need books in order to read—without them summer reading slide is inevitable.  Research evidence indicates that book ownership is related to reading growth.  Children participating in the Tigers Read! Initiative are given 10 books to read over the summer and these books are for their home library.

Initiatives like Tigers Read! make sure children have the needed tools to be successful by ensuring free access to high-quality books.  Further, the Tigers Read! partnership that pairs a foundations, a business, and schools make quite a winning combination. So let’s all cheer, “Go Team!”

Interested in learning more about Tigers Read? Check out these articles from Anderson Independent-Mail and The Greenville News

Creating Transformational Educational Leaders

The superintendent position of any school district is an important role that all employees and students of the school system rely on, as well as the community as a whole. The superintendency can become a lonely position, as there are no other similar positions in a district. Mr. Jack Hoke, the Executive Director of the North Carolina School Superintendents’ Association (NCSSA), is looking to change that with the Next Generation Superintendent Development Program.

Jack Hoke has had a long and celebrated career in education. After spending 32 of his 36 years in multiple levels of administration, including the role of superintendent, he decided that he wasn’t finished advancing the educational systems in North Carolina. His motivation to continue working in education is the 1.5 million students in the North Carolina public school system and thinking about the individual needs of those students.

In a conversation with Mr. Hoke about this innovative approach to creating transformational educational leaders, three main ideas on how to make this change emerged:

  • Networking
  • Building a support system
  • Staying current with state and national educational perspectives

Networking

Many school systems provide times for “job alike” meetings. Job alike times are typically a chance for people in the district with the same job to come together to creatively problem solve, and to develop new curricular guidelines or operational procedures. Mr. Hoke points out that “the superintendent is a unique position because it has no equal in the district.”

This means that superintendents need to network across the state and across the country. Networking with colleagues and corporate sponsors are big parts of the Next Generation Superintendent Development Program. By committing to eight days of face-to-face meetings, these networks provide support, and time for collaboration and positive influence.

Building Support Systems

Jack pointed out that of the 115 districts in North Carolina, 85 of them have a superintendent that have been in the position for fewer than 5 years.  Mr. Hoke stated that “building a strong system of support for these educational leaders is one of the ways that the Next Generation Superintendent Development Program hopes to build a knowledgeable base of superintendents with over five years of experience. One innovative way that the North Carolina School Superintendent Association (NCSSA) is helping create this system of support is by building 'thought partners' into the program."

Pairing up one of the 25 program participants with a program graduate is a key component for creating this coaching model. Over the course of the eight face-to-face meeting days, they will spend six hours with their thought partner exploring issues such as educational innovation, how to adapt to the ever changing field of education, and the need and means to transform learning in their school districts. These thought partners are also available electronically between meetings. Being current superintendents themselves, the thought partners offer both current information and up-to-date research in their coaching role. They have found the most success in grouping thought partners geographically. 

Staying Current

The third main idea is helping the superintendents stay current with state and national educational perspectives. As many school systems face an increase in student numbers and a decrease in school funds, every position in a school system is asked to do more with less. This includes superintendents. The school system is the largest employer in many districts and every decision made by the school district has immediate impact on the community. 

Staying on target with current perspectives is a key component to the Next Generation Executive Leadership Program. By focusing on creating personal leadership goals that also align with district, state and national goals, it ensures that the participants stay knowledgeable about the changes in education at all levels.  Attending national and state level events with national speakers and legislative updates also helps facilitate each superintendent reaching this goal. 

One example is this year’s NCSSA Superintendent's Summer Leadership Conference that will feature national speakers Dave Weber, President of Weber Associates and Dr. Bill Daggett, Chairman and CEO of the International Center for Leadership in Education.  All of these opportunities ensure that superintendents stay focused on the gap between the students’ needs and what the school system is providing. 

In today’s educational climate, it is imperative that we have innovators like Jack Hoke who continue to push our current educational leaders to continue to be supportive learners who are building networks while also staying abreast of innovative ideas that help close our students’ academic gaps. By shifting the focus of the superintendent role from a lonely perch atop the district ladder of success, to a necessary cog in the wheel of an educational innovative network, Mr. Hoke is changing the lives of 1.5 million North Carolina students, one leader at a time.

 

 

Hamilton 101

UPDATE: Listen to Wayne D'Orio talk about Hamitlon 101 on EWA Radio (click here)! This article originally appeared on Scholastic Administr@tor

Six years before the play Hamilton opened Off-Broadway, creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda had a thought: Whenever I finish this play, it will be useful for teachers. That’s because before Hamilton won 11 Tonys, before its cast album was streamed 365 million times, before the top ticket prices soared to a record $849, Miranda debuted the show’s first song, “Alexander Hamilton,” at the White House Poetry Jam in 2009.

When video of the four-and-a-half minute performance hit YouTube, the number-one comment was, “My teacher showed us this in APUSH,” Miranda told Newsweek, using the acronym for AP U.S. History.

Six years later, when the play opened at Manhattan's Public Theater, one very interested observer made smart use of his second ticket by inviting Lesley S. Herrmann of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. As soon as the play finished, Herrmann turned to the man who invited her, historian and award-winning author Ron Chernow, and said, “We have to get this in the hands of kids.” Chernow's 2004 biography of Hamilton inspired Miranda to write his play.  

Fast forward another year to May 2016. Thirteen teams of 11th graders from around New York City are waiting anxiously in the wings to perform their own two-minute pieces on events or people from the birth of our country. “Welcome to the best day of the year for us here at the Richard Rodgers: EduHam,” says an enthusiastic Miranda as he looks out on a theater packed entirely with high school students. After the student performances, the high schoolers will see Hamilton, culminating their immersion in the life and times of the “10-dollar founding father without a father.”

So how did the hottest show on Broadway not only team up with two nonprofits to bring 20,000 11th graders, one of every four in the city, through the doors of the Richard Rodgers Theatre but then entice each of them to interpret original documents from the founding of our country and create their own artistic interpretation of a historical moment?

Laying the Groundwork

In some ways, this partnership between Hamilton, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the Rockefeller Foundation was a whirlwind project, going from idea to fully realized program in less than a year. But in other ways, the seeds of the project were sown much earlier.

Miranda knew firsthand how powerful creating your own artistic project could be to young people; indeed that’s how he got his start in musical theater. He wrote three original songs when he was in eighth grade to help teach classmates the content of The Chosen, a coming-of-age story that takes place in Brooklyn in the 1940s. “My first musical I ever wrote was a class assignment,” he revealed to Arrive magazine.

Hamilton producer Jeffrey Seller himself has a history of bringing Broadway to high school students. He created an educational program for the musical Rent, his first theatrical success.

And Gilder Lehrman has a long track record of creating history programs that benefit schools. Two-thirds of the students who take AP U.S. History visit the institute’s website, and its total traffic is expected to increase to 10 million visitors this year, up from fewer than 2 million visitors two years ago. 

Miranda’s father, Luis Miranda Jr., expressed interest in creating a program for schools, and he and Seller subsequently met last summer with Gilder Lehrman’s director of education, Tim Bailey. Bailey showed them a recent program he had written called Vietnam in Verse. The lesson plan used poetry and music from the era to discuss the issues of that period. Seller was impressed: “You’re in,” he told Bailey.

He and Luis Miranda found the money needed for the project, getting the Rockefeller Foundation to put up $1.5 million. The funds helped pay for the curriculum’s creation and subsidize the tickets needed for the 20,000 students. The play offers each seat for $70, basically its cost to run a performance of the play without making a profit. Rockefeller pays $60 while students pony up $10, both a nod to Hamilton and a way to make sure they’re invested in the project.

“Works like this don’t come around very often, and when they do we must make every effort to maximize their reach,” said Judith Rodin, president of the foundation.

Here’s a story that talks about American history and the ideals of American democracy . . . in a vernacular that speaks to young people, written by a product of New York public education,” Rodin told The New York Times. “Could there possibly be a better combination in terms of speaking to students?”

Creating a Student Study Guide

Bailey started working on the framework of the project in September. He knew he wanted to have students deal directly with primary sources. Gilder Lehrman is the owner of 60,000 documents from American history, and Bailey knew that having students read and respond to these sources, while challenging, was key.

Summarizing key documents and events reduces moments to one story, Bailey says, robbing students of the ability to interpret, and disagree, about both people and history. But Bailey knows that asking students to read documents written more than 200 years ago can lead to lots of eye rolling. “There’s a fine line you have to watch as a teacher, between good instruction and frustration, and that line is different for every student,” says the former history teacher. “It’s a really complex skill for an educator, but it’s really what you have to aim for.”

Bailey’s study guide has students do a close reading of two documents, loyalist Samuel Seabury’s Free Thoughts on the Proceedings of the Continental Congress and Hamilton’s A Full Vindication of the Measures of the Congress. The guide instructs students to pick key words from the excerpts, then summarize the readings in the author’s words. For the last part of the lesson, students then restate each excerpt in their own words.

“We have to teach students the skills to unlock those sources,” he adds. “We provide enough structure so that students won’t freak out.”

He also has students mine the two excerpts from Seabury and Hamilton to discern exactly where each line in the song Farmer Refuted originated, demonstrating how Miranda went from fact to verse.

While Bailey worked on the classroom materials, others at Gilder Lehrman set up a private website where students can log in and not only see parts of five songs that are performed during the show, but also view nine video interviews created exclusively for them. In the videos, Miranda explains how Hamilton is different from other founding fathers, Chernow discusses the artistic license used in historical non-fiction, and actors read from actual documents of the period.

Miranda, handling the actual love letter Hamilton wrote to his not-yet wife Eliza, reads: “You not only employ my mind all day; but you intrude upon my sleep. I meet you in every dream and when I wake, I cannot close my eyes again for ruminating on your sweetness.” He looks up and tells students, “This puts whatever R&B song you’re listening to right now to shame.”

“We have amazing access to the show,” Bailey says. “It’s unprecedented.”

The website also features information on 30 different historical figures, ranging from Martha Washington to Hercules Mulligan, the tailor who used his access to British troops to spy for the Patriots. The site highlights 14 key events from the era, as well as 20-plus documents from The Federalist Papers to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.

Projects and Performances

If the program sounds like a lot of work, it’s actually not, Bailey explains, adding that the whole project is expected to take only two or three classes. Most of the student work, including a suggested three hours of rehearsal, takes place outside the classroom. The program includes an 11-page teacher guide that discusses objectives, procedures, and alignment with four Common Core State Standards. The lesson includes a rubric that guides teachers in how to assess student work.

Students are given wide latitude in what, and how, they perform. They can present a rap, a song, a poem, a monologue, or a scene. And while their performance has to represent the era, they decide which key people, events, or documents to include.

“There are performances that had nothing to do with the shows,” says Bailey. One girl recited poetry about Phyllis Wheatley, a former slave and the first published African-American poet, who’s not in the play, and another student reworked the rapper Drake’s “5AM in Toronto” to tell the story of the Boston Massacre. (To see all the student performances from the May show, visit ABC’s Good Morning America.)

In May, students performed as Miranda and Christopher Jackson, who plays George Washington in the play, introduced each act and led the cheers. When a student named Reynaldo performed a dramatic rap as Hamilton that ended with his being shot by Aaron Burr, Miranda and Jackson were floored. “Whoa,” Jackson exclaimed. When Miranda recovered, he said, “I look forward to catching that single on iTunes.”

Right now, the educational program is only slated to run in New York for one year. (There have been two all-student matinees so far. The remainder will take place in the fall.) Bailey is confident the program will be approved for another year, and hopes that it can be expanded to other cities where the show is expected to open; Chicago will get a production starting in September, while two touring productions are expected to start in San Francisco in March 2017 and in Seattle in 2018. A London production is expected as well, and running an educational program overseas is certain to elicit different student viewpoints.

The program has reaped praise from high schools all the way to the White House, where the whole project first got started. When the cast came to perform at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in March, President Barack Obama said the soundtrack has become a favorite in his household, and he praised the educational component. “I'm thrilled they are working with New York public schools. There’s now a curriculum to give students context and a deeper meaning—or deeper understanding of our nation’s founding.” he said. “I hope this helps every teacher who spent hours trying to make The Federalist Papers teenager-friendly. The remarkable life of Alexander Hamilton will show our young people the possibilities within themselves and how much they can achieve within the span of a lifetime.”

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