Districts Addressing Attendance Issues by Integrating Learning Supports

I read with interest a recent New York Times article by Rikha Sharma Rani entitled “Stopping Absenteeism at the Age of 5.” In it she highlighted the remarkable work of the Consolidated School District of New Britain to address the issue student attendance – and in the cited case, kindergarten attendance in the district. Hats off to the forward thinking district, school, and community partners for addressing the barrier in a proactive, early intervention manner.

Absenteeism is often addressed in a deficit manner; once a student has missed 5-7+ days, letters are sent, truancy officers are called in, and the wheels of compliance are rolling. As New Britain recognized, this “barrier to learning” has to be addressed in a more systemic manner and with a clear, consistent plan of early intervention using data to track and address the NEXT group of students who will end up on the truancy list. Moreover, this plan must include engaging parents as soon as their children enter school doors – to be our partners in providing our children every opportunity to succeed. There is no more basic opportunity than attending school every day.

As a former teacher, counselor, principal, and assistant superintendent, I have witnessed first-hand the impact of absenteeism on student learning. More times than I wish to recall, I have witnessed teachers stressed over re-teaching students who are chronically absent and students stressed (who often act out, or are inhibited) because they fall behind their classmates upon return to school. And often students become even more disengaged since because they cannot keep up with classmates.  It’s a vicious cycle that all too often leads to referrals for special services and identification for an issue that – at its core – was attendance.

But all is not lost!  There are many examples of school leaders who have taken the issue of absenteeism to a systemic level and have implemented approaches that focus on earlier identification of a group of students who have similar issues (such as attendance) and this issue is brought to the school improvement leadership team as part of continuous improvement efforts. Instead of the “crisis clinic” mode (where we address the issue after the fact), an integrated approach that is both proactive and sustainable should become standard operating practice.

There are districts across the country where this “Integrated Learning Supports” framework is used, uniting instruction, learning supports and management of schools into one leadership team.  These teams – both district and school level – address data driven issues such as attendance and discipline as a barrier to learning. One district doing this work well is Sumter, SC.

In an unprecedented effort, the Alabama State Department of Education has adopted the Learning Supports framework as a statewide initiative. Data has shown phenomenal improvement in districts and schools where the framework is used to address issues such as attendance. In the first year of implementation working in ten districts and 78 schools, the average savings in days of absences was 25 percent fewer days lost. The initiative is now in year three with 50 districts implementing the framework.

To learn more about the Integrated Learning Supports Framework, based on the research of Howard Adelman and Linda Taylor from UCLA's School Mental Health Project and its National Center for Mental Health in Schools, check out Rebuilding for Learning, published by Scholastic.

Turning Everyday Moments into Powerful Literacy Lessons

I see reading lessons everywhere I look: at the grocery store, driving around town, hiking a coastal trail, waiting for the bus, and of course, on a cozy couch.

Taking advantage of these everyday-reading opportunities, teachers and parents can find engaging teachable moments that foster language-rich environments and help children become more confident, avid and independent readers. Wrapping fun word activities into the daily routine, carving out time for shared reading, and understanding how social and emotional development impacts reading, teachers and parents can help foster a love of reading, even for a student who isn’t self-motivated to read for pleasure.

Your 2-year-old doesn’t jump on your lap because of the book. She’s jumping on your lap to be close to you and she knows you’re going to give her your attention and time. You’re not going to go do the dishes and you’re not going to go on the computer. Over time, she associates that wonderful feeling of being with you with this tool called reading.

In my latest book, Book Smart: How to Develop and Support Successful, Motivated Readers (Oxford University Press 2014), which I co-wrote with Jamie Zibulsky, we focus on the early years as critical for building reading and language acquisition that leads to long-term reading success.

There are powerful things that teachers and parents can do. The idea is that when you’re always bathing your students with language, always asking questions, always sharing information, then those are the children who have the high linguistic background. It’s that background, along with vocabulary acquisition, comprehension and general knowledge that sets them up for success in upper grades where critical thinking and reasoning skills become more important.

I encourage teachers and parents, even those with older students, to read aloud to and with children – every day. Parents and even teachers look at me quizzically, ”you’re telling me to read to my junior high school student?“ Yes!

Everybody needs to be read to two years ahead of their grade level because it is such a potent way to expose students to rare and unique words, phrases, and concepts that will then be familiar to them and in their oral lexicon. So when a reader comes upon that text on their own without any scaffolding or support, it won’t be a nonsense word or completely novel idea or term.

And there is a common struggle with older children who know how to read but choose not to read for pleasure. Yet there are numerous ways to engage students that are not always implemented – finding books that speak to their interests, playing an audio book to build language and background knowledge while the child is drawing, baking, or building with Legos is highly effective.

Whichever activities teachers and parents choose, do them early and often. It will pay dividends later on in the upper grades when the language requirements for reading and writing explode.

I call it the sleeper effect. In the early grades, the text tends to be simpler. The words and the length of sentences are smaller. But around third grade, the text quickly becomes more sophisticated. Multisyllabic words are the norm along with dependent clauses and coordinating conjunctions such as and, but, nor, and however. At an early age, it’s ”Once upon a time …“ At 4th grade it’s ”This proposition is…”

Therefore, the more language the 4th or 8th grader has built up that is automatized in their mind, then the easier it is when they come across it in the text. And all the language work you did through reading aloud to your students and encouraging them to read independently over the years really pays off.

To learn more from Prof. Anne E. Cunningham, sign up for a free webinar brought to you by Scholastic and ASCD and hosted by literacy expert Donalyn Miller. In this webinar, Cunningham will share the rationale for and the cognitive consequences of fostering rich language experiences and reading everyday with and to students.

School Librarians Open a World of Possible for Students

Sally Smollar of Plumosa School of the Arts, Delray Beach, FL was named a School Library Journal School Librarian of the Year Award finalist in August 2015. Be sure to also read the recent post by School Librarian of the Year finalist Lakisha Brinson.

One day when my son was in the third grade at my elementary school, he came into my library and made a casual remark: "Mom, you are the luckiest person in the whole school."

"Hmmm, why is that?” I asked.

"Because you are the only one who gets to know all of the kids. The other teachers just see their class for a year and then they move on."

Out of the mouths of babes!

It is true that we get to watch little five-year-olds grow into pre-teens, almost before our eyes. Then in a whirlwind of year-end activities, the summer vacation begins and we never see most of them again. We are in a unique setting unlike any other adult in their lives. At home there are chores and homework and busy schedules. In the classroom there is the ever-expanding demands from curriculum, assessments and overloaded teachers. But in the library the students see someone in front of them who has the time to learn about what interests them, and is willing to lead their exploration through the seemingly endless treasure trove of information and imagination that lies between those stacks. 

Often, we encounter a student who makes a first-time connection to reading under our guidance, which leaves us with a glowing feeling of satisfaction. But we often touch their lives way beyond elementary school, sometimes in ways we are not aware of. 

One such student was Jessica, a third grader who in 2001 took a family trip to “ground zero,” to view the devastation following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Upon returning to school, Jessica’s mother Susan asked me to help her daughter create a video documentary of the World Trade Center memorial site. She said that Jessica’s idol was Katie Couric, and she wanted to grow up to be a news anchor. I didn’t think that third graders even knew journalists by name! We spent many afternoons perfecting the project using iMovie on an Apple iMac computer that I purchased for our in-house TV studio. Jessica was well-prepared with photos, video footage of herself with commentary, and a suggestion for the background audio. She even re-recorded a voice-over when the original had too much background noise. It was an amazing project!

I recently ran into Jessica’s mom Susan for the first time in almost 14 years. I asked how her daughter was doing, and she told me that she was working behind the scenes for ABC News in New York City. I said, “That is fantastic! I am so happy that she achieved her dream job.” Susan replied, “It is because of you!”

Another student that comes to mind is Addie, who spent almost all of her free time in my library. I loved to recommend my favorite books, and we eventually agreed on our favorite book of all time, The One and Only Ivan. One day I asked her if she had any plans for spring break and she said that her mom was going to take her on a road trip to Zoo Atlanta to see Ivan, the gorilla from the book. I had to hold back tears when I broke the news that Ivan had passed away three years prior.  

One of my favorite days each school year falls around Halloween, when we combine dress-up day with career day. Students come dressed as “what they want to be when they grow up.”  I absolutely love watching them parade off of the bus in the morning, their little faces beaming with the pride of their career choices—chefs wearing white hats, police officers, doctors wearing stethoscopes, lawyers in suits with briefcases, etc. A third grade girl named Olivia passed me by with a cute sweater-dress but had no distinguishable accessories. I said, “What are you dressed as?” She turned around and lifted up her reading glasses, which were draped around her neck with the exact same green beaded chain as mine, and said, “I’m going to be YOU!”

Once again, I was reminded of the power of connecting people to stories, information, and opportunities, and the idea that you don’t always know which connections will be the most enduring. Every time the library door opens, school librarians have a unique opportunity to touch the life of a student and make a positive impact.

A Story of a Boy and a Book

This post first appeared on the Scholastic Book Fairs Reader Leader blog.

He came to me with anger seeping out of every pore, a cloud of dismay surrounding him. Looking at us with eyes that told the world that he was not afraid, that he knew that we could not make him do whatever it was we intended to ask. That he would fight us with every cell in his body just to stay in control. Yet, for all of his anger, for all of his glances directed my way, he wasn’t one of mine. I didn’t have the pleasure of teaching him. He was in a separate English class, trying to be taught all of those things he had missed because of his anger and outbursts.

He wasn’t afraid of me, nor very angry. I posed no threat since I was not one of the ones asking him to please do, please sit, please stop. So every day I greeted him, smiled when our paths crossed, and told him that all of those books I had in my classroom could be his if only he wanted to read one. That even if he wasn’t mine, those books were still meant for him. Every day, he smiled and went on his way, seeing little need for any of the books I might have to share. As the weeks passed, he grew. He pushed his boundaries as children can do so well, always inching along that very fine line of control and struggle. I watched from afar; after all, he was not mine, so all I could do was smile and nod and remind him of the books that awaited.

One day, he didn’t just smile, but instead asked in all earnestness, “When can I be your student? When can I come to your class?" It wasn’t because he didn’t like the class he was in, or the teacher who taught him, but the books were calling, as they often do to so many kids that feel lost. I smiled and shrugged, repeated that the books were there for him whether he was mine or not. For weeks this played out until one day, he entered our classroom and I held my breath; after all, now he was mine, now I was one of the ones that would ask him to stop, to sit, to do. And I was scared of what would happen.

He sat quietly that first day in class. Bent his head and wrote ever so slowly, picking out his words with care, wanting so much to fit in and not just be known as that kid with anger issues. As the other students cleared out, he lifted his head, looked at the clock and asked, “Is it now? Can I pick my book now?” And he walked to the shelf of the book he had eyed and grabbed it, holding on to it as if I would ask him to put it down. “What do I do now?” he asked. “You read it,” I said, “And then you bring it back.” “That’s it?” “That’s it.”

So he left that morning, clutching Amulet: Book 1 to his chest as if it were a safety blanket. And I figured that the minute he left our classroom, that book would be forgotten; his day would develop, and soon our conversation would be a distant memory as his ingrained behaviors clouded his judgment once again. So I wasn’t surprised when at lunch he walked up to me and handed me back the book. “Did you not like it?” I asked, already running a possibility of other titles in my head that I could offer him. “I am done,” he said. “Done? But I thought you were so excited to read it?” I asked, my voice laced with confusion. “I did...I loved it...Can I have the next one please? I promise to bring it back.” He had read it already. He had fallen in love with a book. He was ready for the next one. For one moment in that day, he was just a kid who loved a book, just a kid like all the other kids, asking for the next book in a series that had spoken to him. So we walked into our classroom, found the next book and he left, clutching it to his chest once more, ready to wrestle anyone who would try to take it away.

We fall in love with books when they speak to us. When within their pages, we find a piece of ourselves we didn’t know we were missing. We clutch these books to our chests long after we have stopped reading them as a way to shield us from a world that we sometimes do not understand. Books become absorbed into our identity and allow us to risk, to love, to care about something even when we feel the most vulnerable. Even when we feel the world is not for us, we can find safety within the pages of a book. That is why my classroom is filled with books--so that every child has a chance to find a piece of armor, so that every child has a chance to find a vessel that will hold his dreams and protect them when they need to be.  My students may not understand each other’s pasts, each other’s behaviors, but they understand books, and so when a child falls in love with a book and it becomes part of him, it builds a bridge for others to understand that child better. For others to be let in.

Books provide us with the magic that we dream of as teachers. Books, whether fiction or non, chapter or picture, give us the building blocks that we need to connect with our hardest students. To connect with those that we sometimes feel at a loss to reach.  That boy didn’t stop being angry. He didn’t stop feeling that the world was out to get him, but he did start believing that somewhere in the world was a place for him to fit in. That he too could be a reader, that he too could belong. That his anger would not be the only thing that defined him, even when it spoke the loudest. That boy knew he had a home with us whenever he needed it. He still does, even though he is no longer around. My door is always open, the books always calling out for anyone who needs to belong, if even for a moment. I will never forget that boy and his book.

Embracing Change: Creating a Need-Based School Library is Not One-Size-Fits-All

Lakisha Brinson of Amqui Elementary School in Nashville, TN was named a School Library Journal School Librarian of the Year Award finalist in August 2015. Stay tuned for blog posts from School Librarian of the Year finalist Sally Smollar and finalist Kristina Holzweiss!

“Just when I think I have learned the way to live, life changes.”—Hugh Prathe

I echo this sentiment as I enter my sixth year as a teacher-librarian. At the beginning of the year I am confronted with the realization that changes have to be made. Change is often associated with apprehension, which is often followed by dread. I wish that I could say that I haven’t experienced these emotions as I’ve moved from school to school, but I have. Yet these emotions are quickly replaced by excitement, anticipation, and exhilaration. It is in these very moments that I remember that my students, teachers, and school community are depending on me to create a learning hub that inspires, and motivates our students to become readers and users of information.  Seems daunting, I know! Read on to learn more about my journey implementing three different approaches within three different schools throughout my career as a teacher-librarian.

Approach One: Leading from Within

My first years as a librarian were spent in a school where I had already spent four years as a classroom teacher. Though my ability to teach and plan lessons granted me credibility among the staff, it also resulted in blurred lines at first. 

Because I had worked with and formed relationships with select teachers throughout the years, I found it easy to collaborate, and I often invited them in for special activities. I prided myself on the number of collaborative lessons I initiated. Then it happened: my administration pulled me aside and said, “You have to realize that you have moved into a leadership position, and your vision has to shift to include what is best for all students.” I was being told in no uncertain terms that there were over 500 students in my building and I was only meeting the needs of 60–80 of them. Ouch! Can you say wake-up call? From that moment on, I made the decision to become more inclusive. I accomplished this by:

  • attending meetings and offering my services to all team members
  • providing weekly newsletters with resources for upcoming events/holidays
  • going into the classroom to teach a lesson


This transformation took the rest of the year and continued well into the next. However, by the end of my third year, I had worked with each class at least two times during the year.  Let’s face it, being told that you are not meeting the needs of your school makes you take a real hard look at yourself. I learned that leadership requires change, and change requires a look within, no matter how difficult. 

Approach Two: Trainings, Teachings, and Teaming

After my first three years as a librarian, I wandered back into the world of teaching. Fast-forward three years, and I returned to the library.  At this time, our library program was under new leadership and an incredible shift was taking place: Libraries were moving from operational to student-centered. This shift required us as teacher-librarians to be knowledgeable about district initiatives, standards, and teaching practices. Though this was a much-needed change, it was still change. What worked three years prior would no longer meet the needs of my users. So what happened? You guessed it! I adapted.

Remember when I said I had returned to teaching? Well, during that season I also worked as a STEM Instructional Designer at an elementary school. This role provided me with intensive training on inquiry-based learning strategies along with Project Based Learning best practices. Upon reflection, I noticed that the teachers at this school were overloaded by the need to understand and implement one of our district’s mandates: project based learning. Project based learning (PBL) is a hands on approach to teaching and learning that facilitates student learning through engagement in a real world problem. I felt like Charlie in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, and this was my golden ticket.

I used this opportunity to build relationships with the teachers and gain their trust, which led to a new experience: On our back-to-school retreat, I led a training that introduced teachers to PBL to ignite their interest and to show that it was manageable. A couple of months later, I proposed to the administration that we complete our first school-wide PBL. During an afterschool professional development session, each grade level team created a skeletal unit using the theme People, Places, and Products, which addressed social studies standards. The next week, the Instructional Coaches and I went to team meetings and walked through a PBL protocol with each team. The following week, the PBL unit was implemented. On the post-evaluation, teachers said that it was the most engaged they had seen students in a while, and that they had succeeded in learning the concept. The students’ excitement and knowledge was the fuel I needed. Following that experience, I was often asked to review and help plan PBL units. From this experience I learned that I need to become what my students and teachers need, and this may differ from school to school.

Approach Three: Back to the Basics

As I write this, I am finishing my first two months at a new elementary library. This school is the most diverse school I have ever worked in, with over 600 students, a fairly high EL population, and no library clerk. This provides the biggest opportunity for me to embrace change and create a student-centered space. With 28 classroom teachers and no assistant, I had to think fast when I arrived. My first goal here was to create a functional library program. I asked the teachers for the first 40 days of the year to allow me to shift, refine, and re-do current practices to create a space that would work for our school. The first three weeks were devoted to library procedures such as order in the library, how to check-in books, and selecting a “read and relax” spot after checkout. The following two weeks were devoted to choosing the right books and check-out procedures.

Let me stop right here and say that this has been a work-in-progress, and we have not perfected it yet. But it has brought about a welcome change that has been noted by both teachers and students. Another goal of mine was to create an inviting atmosphere for both students and teachers. So, I asked teachers for their opinions. Teachers were very vocal about the fact that they just wanted access, so this quickly became my priority. I implemented open check-out times, and I am now allowing anyone with a library card to check-out any time of day (by far the biggest change I have made). I have relinquished control over being the keeper-of-books; I shifted responsibility to the students. I trust that students who come in while I am teaching will be able to check in and out without assistance. Most importantly, I trust that this change is cultivating a student-centered environment where the students feel empowered. Though we have not fully arrived, I stand in awe of all that has been accomplished. I am excited for more change to come in upcoming months, remembering that librarianship is not one-size-fits-all.

Change requires reflection, and though it might be complex, it also requires courage. I ask that you join me as we each take a look at our schools and their needs. Then make a conscious decision to change what needs to be changed.

Three Ways to Create a Culture of Kindness at School and Help Prevent Bullying

Yes, it’s National Bullying Prevention Month and no, I won’t be sharing a heart-wrenching chronicle about a child (or a community) who has been devastated by cruelty. Don’t get me wrong, I feel deeply honored to be permitted to bear witness to the incredible stories that people who have suffered through bullying have bravely shared. In my position as editor at Choices magazine, (a publication that focuses on social and emotional learning, health, and well-being for middle and high school students) I have published (with tears) many of them. It’s so vital that we all understand the painful consequences of bullying. But in this post I want to focus on the positive ways that we can inoculate a culture of kindness in our schools, communities, and homes.

Last year, I wrote this post about the research-based reasons that instilling empathy and cultivating compassion is such a crucial approach to our bullying problem. This October, I want to share a fun, project-based learning activity that we created for our magazine’s middle and high school readers—but one that is easily adaptable to classrooms of every age. My thinking behind it was simple: One of the hardest things about directly addressing this subject is that often, the very kids who need it most are themselves struggling with emotional maturity issues, or even mental health challenges. For every child who is bullied, there is a bully who is also a child who perhaps we have failed to reach. Focusing on tools that create a language for desirable behavior and empathy is important, especially for those students who may themselves be suffering—and are expressing their pain by hurting others.

That’s why valuing even the smallest acts of kindness can help create big changes in your school’s climate—it will be simple for some and essential scaffolding for others. Here are three great resources for creating a culture of kindness, inclusion, and empathy at any grade level.

1. Mission Positive (grade 4-12)

Have your students take our challenge to see how many random acts of kindness they can complete. We’ve got all the tools they need—including a fun scorecard to keep track of the awesome things they do. (Tip: If you teach upper elementary through high school cue up this soundtrack before launching to get everyone’s attention!)

2.Common Core Kindness (preK-8)

I love Kriscia Cabral’s extensive lesson plan—especially using The Giving Tree as a part of a paired text lesson.

3. Scholastic’s We Have Diverse Books Pinterest board (preK-8)

Empathy is the understanding of the unique experiences and feelings of another human being, and reading is, in and of itself, one of the best ways to build empathy. This round-up of richly diverse books can help you transform the way your students see the world.

***I hope you'll join us on Tuesday, October 20th at 9 p.m. EST for a special #KindClassroom Twitter chat in recognition of Bullying Prevention Month. Follow @ScholasticTeach and @Choices_Mag on Twitter for updates!

How to Awaken a Dormant Reader

This post first appeared on the Scholastic Book Fairs Reader Leader blog.

On the first day I set the incline on our treadmill at 0.0. After twenty years as a retired runner I decided to train for a local half-marathon with my daughter. We have two months. She was reluctant to start. I asked my husband to create a gradual workout plan that could get us to the finish line. Rest days included.

I set the speed at 5.0. The first minute didn’t bother me at all. Then the unglamorous loping, sweating, and internal whining began. I can’t do this kept time in my head along with Taylor’s beat in my earbuds. The finish line was too far ahead to see. But rather than keep you here beside me on the treadmill, I want to use my experience returning from dormancy as a runner to think about readers. It’s challenging to return to anything difficult, even when we have dim memories of pleasure. I remember my race bibs, crossing finish lines, early morning runs that felt light, almost effortless. The getting there is harder than I remember, though.

It is worth considering as we look at a nation where reading enjoyment declines sharply after age 8, according to the Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Report, fifth edition. Choice is a predictor of engagement, yet only 17% of kids aged 6-17 read a book of their choice independently every day or almost every day in school. I am sure I will meet dormant readers this year, and even though my running metaphor may not be a perfect match, it has reminded me of a few important things.

Tools and equipment matter. I need a playlist because I set my pace to the beat. Bruce Springsteen’s “No Surrender” made the list. I am not giving up, I tell myself. No retreat, baby, no surrender. I run early in the morning when energy is high. The right conditions keep me going. Our students need time in class to read every day and a teacher to encourage, to nudge, and to help navigate the tricky parts.

I went to purchase running shoes and was overwhelmed by choices. The store clerks couldn’t help me. When students stand before my towering bookshelves, they need help choosing. I need to know them, their goals, and my stock well enough to guide them.

Goals matter. That first day back I hit 2.0 miles. I texted it to my daughter in Boston and she replied, ‘Ran 3.12…so basically a 5k… on my way maybe.’ Game on, sister. But this nudge from her only works because it is a little bit farther ahead of where I am.

I sit beside high school readers in my classroom and nudge, “You read for ten minutes last night? Give me a high five! Can you sit tonight for 15?” But if I’m impatient with growth: “You were supposed to read for 30 minutes!” the gap from where they are to where I want them to be can feel too far. The ego is fragile. Fear—a prediction of failure—zaps my will to try. I train myself to go just a little farther than last time and call it a victory. That’s how big struggles are always overcome: one day at a time, one mile, one paragraph of writing. I set 2.5 miles as the goal and start again the next day.

Obstacles can defeat us; we need encouragement to overcome them. On day four of our training plan I ran into the heater in the laundry room and broke my toe. My husband told me to take a rest day. And another. He said, “Don’t give up. Change your plan. You’ve got plenty of time.” He suggested I use the elliptical to keep racking up miles while keeping weight off my bruised and swollen foot.

Some students start books that are complicated and confusing. They lose focus. They lose will. They abandon the book and start another. Getting past the hard part—the start of a book where characters, setting, and the voice of the narrator are unfamiliar—is a challenge for an unsure reader. This might take a student many tries to overcome. We can’t set arbitrary cut offs like ‘read the first 100 pages before you give up’ because engagement is everything in reading. Reach for irresistible stories, ones that keep students turning pages late into the night. If a book becomes confusing teach the student strategies to understand, but also allow them to start over. We can and must build confidence to overcome obstacles.

Goals are private. I’m afraid to tell anyone what I’m doing. I’m still expecting to fail. I’m even afraid to practice in public; I’ve run only in our basement so far.

My students set reading goals in September, but only in their notebooks. No one is competing against each other—no star charts or God forbid, posted class Lexile scores. We can’t standardize reading growth. My husband could run five miles tonight—and much faster than me—and likely be at 10 miles in a few weeks. If you force me to measure my progress against his, it will never feel good to me. Why bother? I can’t keep up. He’s a runner; I’m not. Haven’t we all heard this? They’re readers—not me.

And here’s where my metaphor stops working: I can choose not to run. I can substitute Pilates and maintain a reasonable fitness level. But we can’t let kids not read. It’s oxygen for their future. We had better play this carefully—this coaxing of non-readers back to reading. If the books we give them are uninteresting and unrelenting in difficulty they will return to dormancy and lose another year of growth. We talk about summer reading loss, but somehow continue practices that lose kids year after year of relentless struggle and no joy. Would you keep going?

We may not all run marathons, but to participate in our democracy we must all be readers. Be patient. Let students set the pace for their independent reading and share your passion for books. It’s contagious. Regular practice will help them navigate a hard, tangled text. In creating readers there is no retreat, no surrender; there is only a focus on the finish line—a reading life that lasts.

What Can We Learn from Hogwarts About Effective Learning Environments?

This post first appeared on October 8th, 2015 on Pam Allyn's Huffington Post blog and is excerpted here with her permission.

Young Muggles around the world hold their breath before opening their mailboxes, waiting for the day a snow-flecked owl will deliver their acceptance to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

The Hogwarts School of J.K. Rowling's classic Harry Potter series is filled with magic - the students attend Potions and Dark Arts classes, the school is defended by spells and charms - but it's the culture within the walls that is truly magical. And while we may not be able to promise our children mastery of charms (wingardium leviosa!), we should be able to ensure that school is a place where friendships are forged, adventures experienced, and memories made through the power of learning.

So, what can we as educators and parents learn from the Hogwarts magic to build the ideal learning environment? Let's take a look.

1. The Magic of a Multi-Age Community

After a successful sprint onto platform 9 ¾, children arrive in the hallowed halls of Hogwarts to be sorted into their houses. From the moment the sorting hat screams out their destiny, kids are welcomed by older students into an incredible community that will mentor, guide, support, and champion them as fellow housemates. The students live together, eat together, triumph and face challenges in collaboration.

The benefits of multi-age learning environments are real. Research finds that interacting with mixed ages improves students' sense of self, social awareness and responsibility, and cultivates a more positive attitude towards school. Creating structures for younger and older children to support each other is particularly helpful for English learners who receive special assistance from their multi-age classmates. We can encourage interactions between ages by embracing reading buddy structures, a kind of "LitCorps" where older children get matched to younger children as readers. We can create cross-school or neighborhood blogs so that older and younger children can share favorite book titles and chat about what they are reading. We can create whole school or neighborhood celebrations where children of all ages come together to give a book talk, or to share what they are most excited about in their math, science, or reading classes.

2. The Magic of Choice and Voice

Hogwarts has mastered the art of celebrating each child for being exactly who they are. The very first magical experiences each child has are designed to make her feel known. She is crowned with the sorting hat to champion the strength she brings with her to Hogwarts and the strength that connects her to a learning community. Then there is the business of shopping for a wand. In essence this is like muggles shopping for pencils, binders and notebooks. The wand is a basic essential for learning, yet the process feels sacred and highly personalized. Amid thousands of options in Ollivanders' shop, there is only one carefully crafted, uniquely weighted and designed wand to match each young wizard's special blend of magic.

Students are given freedom to develop and explore the branch of magic that lights them up. Hermione (though, let's be honest, there isn't much she can't do) is a whiz at charms, Luna Lovegood finds kinship with Professor Trelawney and the art of divination, and it is through herbology that we see Neville Longbottom come into his own as a bold and confident wizard. Each young wizard succeeds because he or she is different.

Let's empower our children to explore the very unusual and exceptional strengths that they bring with them wherever they go. Let us create the kind of community where children's voices are heard and their choices are valued, from the topics they choose to write about to the books they choose to read. Let us invite open-ended questions to get to know every child as a learner: What would your perfect day look like? What inspires you? What do you wish you could learn about at school? We can then help match our children to books that make their hearts sing. We can hold writing celebrations where they get to select their own writing topics, math inquiry where they solve for problems they really want to know about, science fairs where they study a question that has been on their minds since they were little. Choice and voice are crucial components of a magical learning environment.

3. The Magic of Real Life Learning

At Hogwarts there is no separation between children's lives in and out of school. There is always awareness that students will use the exact potions, spells and broomstick skills they are practicing each day. The learning is deeply connected and authentic to students' lives. Their learning is applied. Harry Potter uses the simple wand-disarming charm, expelliarmus, in most of his duels against Voldemort. Harry's professors taught him the importance of this basic charm, and more than once it saved his life.

We need to be sure our teaching and parenting truly helps children to use authentic skills for genuine purpose. Let's help our children create authentic kinds of literary products that connect to their lives and interests: video book trailers for stories they love; op-eds about topics that matter to them; and inventions that solve a problem in their community. We can expand our view of what constitutes "language" by including learning about coding as a valued way to communicate. We can make sure our young artists, photographers, musicians and dancers have time each day for movement and expression. The students in Harry Potter felt angered when they could no longer perform magic at school under Professor Umbridge's administration in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Our children, too, feel disinterested and apathetic about learning when they have no chance for creative self-expression and real world discovery.

To read the full post, head on over to Pam Allyn's Huffington Post blog.

Rosie Perez on Bringing the Arts to Underserved Children

Rosie Perez made her acting debut in Do the Right Thing in 1989. Since then, she has tried to live up to the title of Spike Lee’s film. She is a fierce advocate for children, especially those growing up in poverty.

A Brooklyn native, Perez serves on the Artistic Board of Urban Arts Partnership (UAP), a leading arts education program in New York City. I recently met with her and Philip Courtney, UAP’s Executive Director, about their program and the role that arts education can play for kids in underserved communities. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

What is UAP’s mission?

Philip Courtney: We’re a nonprofit organization that uses art to engage young people in their learning. We partner with about 100 public schools in New York City and 10 in Los Angeles. We have 150 teaching artists. They are working artists in their communities, but also highly trained educators who go into thousands of classrooms across the country.

Our teaching artists partner with the classroom teacher—whether it be English, social studies, science or math—integrating arts into the curriculum. That can mean teaching social studies through filmmaking, or teaching history through hip-hop music. It can also mean helping students who are recent immigrants become more fluent in the English language through storytelling. Our goal is to inspire classroom instruction through the arts in a way that is culturally responsive, especially for underserved young people of color.

How has your curriculum shifted with the Common Core Standards?

PC: For us, the Common Core has offered a real benefit. I say that as a parent who has young children in public school, one of whom is extremely shy. In a Common Core classroom, we ask young people not just to create work, but also to defend it and be ready to be critiqued about it. These are elements that have always been part of any UAP. Teachers are now being challenged to make learning more holistic and multi-dimensional.

All of our lessons are CCSS-aligned. They incorporate critical thinking, reflection, presenting work both orally and visually, and even using technology.

What do you tell policymakers about arts education?

Rosie Perez: Arts education gives a child opportunity, plain and simple. A lot of children have no access to the opportunities that should be there for them. Arts-integrated curricula work. We are proof of that. We want parents to go to their local politicians and say, “These things are necessary. We need to move away from an antiquated learning system.” We also need money, whether it’s corporate sponsorships, more grants, or private donations.

PC: When you’re a bright young person, you need to come into a school system where you see yourself reflected. You need to be able to see a future version of yourself. What an arts-integrated classroom creates is a classroom where questions are asked, and you, the student, are not just being told what is important to know. If you’re in a class that integrates poetry or film, you’re being asked: “What do you think about this? What can you bring to this subject matter?” We need to find a way for young people to meet the curriculum halfway.

What makes an art class so engaging to kids?

PC: You can’t come in, sit in the back, and put your head down. You have to “show up” every day.

RP: If we see a kid sitting in the back and not participating, our staff, fellow students, and even alumni will reach out. Kids who are poverty-stricken—and I was one—are often ignored. We’re judged. We’re pitied. Pitying a child is one of the worst things you can do, outside of physical abuse. If you pity a child, you’re saying, in effect, “I don’t expect much from you.” That’s insulting. That means you’ve already concluded that my intelligence quota is miniscule. That my capacity for learning is miniscule. That my ability to be successful is miniscule.

With our arts education program, we’re asking everything, but without a forced hand. Class is exciting. It’s fun because it uses all different parts of your brain. When you’re a poor kid, and you’re coming to school with an amount of stress that is unbelievable—that no child should have to endure, but many, many, many do—what would you want to do? Would you want to hear a teacher barking orders at you? Or would you want to look out the window instead, or put your head on the desk, or play around? You need some relief, which can come in a number of ways, most of which are self-destructive. An arts-integrated program provides that relief and the proper environment for kids to become engaged. Kids feel important when they’re part of the process. We see that all the time. That validation is key.

PC: Something wonderful happens in the classroom, too. Suddenly, a child sees his teacher and our artist learning from each other. Everyone becomes a learner. The dynamic changes, and things become more open and improvisational.

Is there a success story you could share?

PC: There are many. One of the children in our program who came from a homeless shelter developed her literary and filmmaking skills with us. She earned an academic scholarship at Long Island University, as well as one of the scholarships that we give out every year. The $10,000 that we provide will enable her to get out of the shelter, live in a dormitory, and start a new phase of her life. That’s what we’re about.

A 124-Year-Old Magazine for Teachers Gets a New Name

In 2012, a few weeks after I first became editor-in-chief of Instructor magazine, I met a woman named Marilyn Schutz, the publisher of The Big Deal Book. Marilyn put her hands on my shoulders and said, “You’ve been entrusted with an incredible legacy. Honor it.”

About a week later, a package arrived at my office. In it were two copies of Instructor—one from 1925 and the other from 1932—along with a note of congratulations from Marilyn. In that moment, the weight of my responsibility to the publication sank in.

A bit of history:

In October 1891 a schoolmaster named Frederick A. Owen published The Normal Instructor in South Dansville, NY. Owen intended the publication to replicate the training programs found in teachers’ colleges (then called normal schools) in rural areas without access to them. It quickly grew into a vibrant idea exchange through which teachers shared their most effective lessons.

The magazine changed editors, owners, and even names several times until Scholastic published its first issue in January 1990. That’s when it became simply Instructor, a name that has remained for 25 years.

My first task as editor of Instructor was to examine the content—to make sure that every article, lesson idea, printable resource, and craft we publish is useful, inspiring, and delightful for our teachers, who are busy professionals without a lot of extra free time. I challenged my editorial team to make sure everything in the magazine is worth a teacher’s while, that she will get something she can use in her classroom right away out of it.

In the three years I’ve been editor, I’m proud of the work we’ve done to make the magazine engaging, relevant, and useful but one thing has always nagged at me. I have never met a teacher who refers to herself as an instructor (and I meet a LOT of teachers). For all the work we’d done to modernize the inside of the magazine, the name on the outside felt like a vestige of a bygone era.

I felt we needed a new, more contemporary name and Scholastic Teacher seemed the perfect fit. However, in the back of my mind I heard Marilyn’s voice urging me to honor the legacy with which I had been entrusted. I didn’t feel I could make such a dramatic change on my own. So, I turned to the people I rely on most in my work: teachers.

I called on our teacher advisory panel and sent a survey to more than 1400 subscribers. Overwhelmingly, 80% preferred the name Scholastic Teacher.

It was after receiving this feedback that I realized, a legacy is a gift from the past, but the responsibility is to carry the gift forward to the future.

Marilyn’s framed copies of Instructor hang on my office wall. I look forward to soon hanging the first issue of Scholastic Teacher beside them.

In the meantime, here's a brief history of our 124-year-old magazine:


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