Five Inspiring School Leaders I Met This Year

As editor of Scholastic Administr@tor magazine, one of the best parts of my job is meeting inspiring educators and learning about what they are doing and how it is working for children. Over the past 12 months, I’ve had the pleasure of touring numerous schools including High Tech High in San Diego, Innovations Early College High School in Salt Lake City, Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina, Cesar E. Chavez Multicultural Academic Center in Chicago, and Williamsfield High School in Illinois.

Getting inside schools, seeing children work, talking with teachers and students, makes it clear how important—and hard—the work of education is. Here are five of the most interesting leaders we had the pleasure of spending time with in 2016.

Tim Farquer (Superintendent, Williamsfield Community Unit School District #210, Illinois) – It’s not everyday that a district of 300 students gets to host the U.S. Secretary of Education, but when Arne Duncan’s back-to-school bus tour pulled up to this one-building K-12 district, Williamsfield was ready. Nestled within acres of cornfields, Farquer has transformed his district by eschewing textbooks and embracing open educational resources. The superintendent figured that by spending the district’s money on computers, he could push his schools to one-to-one. Finding the right materials and getting teachers to enthusiastically buy-in has helped his students feel a part of the larger world. “This is remarkable to see a town of 600 literally leading the country where [it needs] to go,” Duncan said. “This is a really big deal.”

Kenneth Grover (Principal, Innovations Early College High School, Salt Lake City) – As the director of secondary schools in Salt Lake City, Grover kept seeing firsthand how some students just didn’t fit into the district’s range of high schools. He knew that a different model would help these students, something that was more molded to their individual needs. Grover went in search of a model, but couldn’t find what he wanted, so he set out to create what he knew was needed from scratch. A few years later, Innovations was born. Today, students in the public high school are firmly in charge of their learning, controlling the time, path, and pace of their education. “We wanted to take personalized education to its fullest,” Grover said.

Mark Benigni (Superintendent, Meriden (CT) Public Schools) – It would be easy for Mark Benigni to complain about what he doesn’t have in his school district. In the five years he has led Meriden, the small urban district hasn’t gotten a single budget increase, while its percentage of free and reduced-lunch students and English-language learners has continued to increase. Still, Benigni knew he needed a new program to shake up the district and reinvigorate teachers and students alike. Working closely with his teachers union, the superintendent was able to create an extended learning program at two of his elementary schools. This program brings children into school early for fun (and educational) tasks, while allowing his staff ample leeway in creating the content that stretches each day an additional 90 minutes. Absences are down, student engagement is up, and Benigni is hoping to continue to expand the program to more schools.   

Brad Rumble (Principal, Esperanza Elementary School, Los Angeles) -- When most people look out at this stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, they look right past the section that grabbed principal Brad Rumble’s attention. That’s understandable, for on the road that stretches 15 miles from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles, the portion that jumped out at Rumble is just a 100-foot-long space filled with debris and barbed wire. But it wasn’t the clutter that grabbed Rumble’s attention, it was the possibility. The principal of Esperanza Elementary School, who’s also a Los Angeles Audubon Society board member, eyed the spot as a perfect place to restore a little nature in the middle of L.A.’s urban jungle. “We are embarking on the re-wilding of Wilshire Boulevard,” Rumble said, harkening back to the 1890s when Henry Wilshire first created a path on his barley field. Rumble is creating an outdoor classroom where students will be able to study native plants, and pretty soon, birding. “Birding works for students on so many levels,” Rumble added. Birding strengthens students’ power of observation and the social skills it takes them to interact with each other is a perfect complement for today’s more rigorous standards, he said.

Mike Oliver (Principal, Zaharis Elementary School, Mesa, Arizona) – Just one step into Mike Oliver’s office at Zaharis and you get the sense that something different is happening. Oliver’s office could be confused for an adjunct library as he’s used rain gutters to hold books from the ceiling to the floor. “We’ve decided to flood our school and our classrooms with real books,” the principal said. Classrooms are well stocked with a variety of books and comfortable reading spaces, ranging from couches to a refashioned bathtub. While students are encouraged to read and share their discoveries, so are Zaharis’s teachers. Staff frequently share what they are reading with children, all in the hope of creating lifelong readers who are also critical thinkers.

How to Take a Mid-Year Checkup of Student Mastery in Your School Or District

The mid-point in the school year is a great opportunity for school and district leaders to step back and do an evaluation of standards that may not have been mastered by students from the first half of the year. It is not enough to raise reading levels of students or to get them to their reading level if they were previously behind, educators have to also make sure students understand and have mastered the standards that will be covered on the state tests. More and more teachers are tracking the standards taught and recording if the student mastered it or recording what level of understanding the student has for the standard.

If you find that a few students have not mastered the same standard, you can place them in a small group for the re-teaching of that standard. If the majority of the class did not master a standard or multiple standards, then that standard should be retaught to the class with the understanding that they (teacher and class) did not previously master it. Look at creating a document at least school-wide, but preferably district-wide, that records the students who are present, the teacher, the standard or grade level expectation, re-teaching strategies/work done (One to one, small group, guided reading, engaging activity…), a record of original score(s) from the assessment of the standard, and new assessment score(s). Leave room to write notes about individual students as evidence of what you did to support the student or need to do to give more support. We don’t want teachers teaching the standard the same way it wasn’t received successfully the first time.

This data could be used year-to-year to identify strategies that worked best for teaching standards that students traditionally struggle with or may not have mastered at high levels. Students can and should understand what mastering a standard means and when it is appropriate to re-teach or move forward.

One great idea I saw in a class was this: Students made a folder with one side a list of the standards they mastered with at least 80 percent proficiency and the other side had standards not mastered by at least 80 percent proficiency. The students voted if they thought the teacher should do a whole class re-teaching of the standard or students should form small groups. The students were proud to have ownership of their learning and understanding of what was expected of them. Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about.

Five Big Stories in Education in 2015

We've had plenty to talk about in 2015 -- from testing to read alouds to ESSA, our new federal education law.

Here are five big education stories that kept my attention this year.

What's on your list?

ESSA is the law of the land

After years of starts, stalls and stops, the era of No Child Left Behind is finally on its way out. On December 10th, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law. Only time will tell how the law plays out in practice, but shifts are clear: more flexibility on spending and assessments for states and districts, more restrictions on the power of the Secretary of Education, new systems for accountability, and perhaps an easing of focus on standardized tests.

  1. Associated Press: Obama signs education law rewrite shifting power to states
  2. Morning Consult: How Old-School Legislating Brought an Education Bill to the Finish Line
  3. Vox: How schools will be different without No Child Left Behind

The soon-to-end era of Arne Duncan

One of the longest-serving members of President Obama’s cabinet, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced earlier this year that he would leave the post. His signature initiatives, including Race to the Top and federal School Improvement Grants, drove much of the conversation in education since 2009. Some see the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act as a culminating moment for him – while others see it as a defeat of many of his priorities. Whatever your thoughts are about the administration’s education agenda, there’s no denying that Duncan’s impact was huge.

  1. Washington Post: U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to step down at end of year
  2. The Hechinger Report: Arne Duncan’s legacy – the top-down approach to education
  3. Education Week: ESSA Cements the K-12 Obama-Duncan Legacy

The growing interest in family engagement initiatives

Recognizing the impact that out-of-school circumstances and barriers can have on a student’s readiness to learn in the classroom, schools and districts are increasingly investing in efforts to improve outreach to families and caregivers to give them supports and tools to boost learning at home. In New York City, an ambitious effort to improve family engagement initiatives in struggling schools kicked off this year. We expect more growth in this area in 2016.

  1. Education Week: Parent Engagement on Rise as Priority for Schools, Districts
  2. The New York Times: A Door-to-Door Push to Get Parents Involved at Struggling Schools

The role of testing and test scores are hotly debated

The debate over the role standardized tests should play in public schools appeared to reach a crescendo in 2015, capped off by the rewrite of NCLB and new calls from President Obama to limit the time students spend taking high stakes tests. Still, test results made big news: For the first time in years, results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed a drop in reading and math scores.

  1. The Hechinger Report: Will a decline on the Nation’s Report Card hurt Common Core?
  2. Slate: Can the Obama Administration Really Pare Back Standardized Testing?
  3. Education Week: Students Take Too Many Redundant Tests, Study Finds

A spotlight shines on read alouds

As more cities and states invest in early learning initiatives and as research continues to show how crucial the early years are for brain and language development, the read aloud seems to be having a well-deserved moment in the sun. Parents are getting the message that reading to children from birth is important, and communities are investing in providing books to families to read at home. Yes, read alouds make for special moments of bonding and comfort between parent and child; they also introduce students to early vocabulary, life lessons and, hopefully, a lifelong love of books.

  1. The New York Times: Long Line at the Library? It’s Story Time Again
  2. The New York Times: Study Finds Reading to Children of All Ages Grooms Them to Read More on Their Own
  3. NY1: City’s First Lady Promotes ‘Talk to Your Baby’

Four Things Educators Should Know About ESSA, the New Federal Education Law

Today President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA); the reauthorization of President Johnson’s 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This landmark education legislation was part of the “War on Poverty” and the quest to bring equity in education to disadvantaged children.

The passage of this legislation is being celebrated far and wide. At the most basic level, people are simply celebrating that Congress acted in a bi-partisan manner and re-authorized a law that was nine years overdue.  Beyond rejoicing for sheer movement, many people are delighting in the legislation’s flexibility and the return of local control.

Let’s discuss briefly what that means from a somewhat practical – this is policy not implementation after all – standpoint.

  • Assessments – Tests are still required but there is flexibility and funding to develop alternative approaches to assessments. 
  • Accountability –Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) is gone and replaced with statewide accountability giving states more discretion in setting goals and figuring out how to intervene in low-performing schools. As states design their systems for measuring schools’ progress they will now need to use a student’s opportunity to learn, such as school climate or student engagement, as an indicator of progress.
  • Supporting teachers – The law ends the federal mandate tying high-stakes testing to teacher evaluation. With less teaching to the test, perhaps teachers can find even more joy in teaching and thinking through creative ways to meet individual student’s needs. Coupled with the flexibility states now have in turning around low performing schools, many hope this will be the right combination to helpsolve teacher recruitment and retention problems in some of the hardest to staff schools.
  • Fiscal Flexibility – This legislation consolidates more than 80 federal education programs down to 50 and in doing so creates a new $1.7 billion dollar Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant. Guiding parameters of this grant include funds being directed towards ensuring a well-rounded educational program and safety and health programs for students.  

As the vast majority of education audiences to varying degrees celebrate the passage of ESSA and the increased flexibility it affords, many of us are left wondering what implementation will look like in two or three years.

Will states and districts reflect on the lessons learned from years of prescriptive mandates and federal approaches to intervention? Will they partner to determine the most effective practices that integrate services and truly address the whole-child so our most disadvantaged students come to the classroom on a level-playing field ready to learn and benefit from the well-rounded education ESSA strives to achieve?

I remain optimistic from conversations I’ve had with State Chiefs, district leaders, and policy makers that if we keep our focus on the students, our determination on achieving equity, and use the momentum and excitement leaders feel at this moment with the passage of ESSA that we can at least get closer.

To learn more about the ESSA law, you can join a special Q & A with The White House and the U.S. Department of Education on the Scholastic Teachers Facebook page scheduled to begin today at 5:45 p.m. EST.

Deck the Halls with Boughs of Literacy

Whatever holiday you celebrate this winter season, you can have fun involving your children in the preparations and build their literacy skills at the same time! Consider these possibilities:

Make a list, check it twice. There are lots of reasons to make lists during holiday time: lists of things to do, lists of places to go, lists of foods to buy, lists of gifts to buy, and more. Have your children help you write those lists, and then have them read through the lists periodically to check off items that you and they have accomplished. If you have a child in early stages of reading and writing, concentrate on helping him or her figure out the first sound and letter in each word. If your child is more advanced, concentrate on stretching or breaking up big words as needed so he or she can represent all of the sounds.

Cook up some learning. Recipes are a form of how-to, or procedural, text—a type of text commonly found in school. Think instructions for doing a science investigation or directions for using a new computer program. Involve your children in reading recipes. Show them what you do and invite them to help: gather all of the ingredients at the beginning and pause after each step to make sure you’ve done each one correctly. Pay special attention to measurements, as they provide an opportunity to develop math skills.

Trim the table. Your children can make place cards or table tents for each guest, write poems or stories on homemade placemats, even label one or more of the dishes that will be served with information about what they contain and maybe even where they originated. When responding to your children’s writing, be sure to focus mainly on the content and what the writing communicates—not spelling or punctuation. We want to use this occasion to help build positive attitudes toward writing.

Plan a family activity. Family gatherings can be more memorable when there’s an after-dinner activity. Consider planning a sing-a-long. Your children can write the lyrics and music to a song—or read and reread lyrics found online. These activities are great for building reading and writing fluency. Or consider playing a board game that involves reading. If the game doesn’t contain print, add it, such as color words in Candy Land or “Up” and “Down” in Chutes and Ladders.

Give the gift of reading. Giving and receiving books sends a strong message about how much we value reading. Whether gift-giving is a part of your winter season, consider involving your children in donating books to children in need. The process of selecting books to donate is likely to fuel your children’s own reading and give you good ideas about books that interest them. If funds don’t permit book buying, think of lower-cost ways to give, such as volunteering to read to children at a local daycare center or send magazines to troops overseas. 

Take advantage of TV. After a long day of preparations, you and your children may need some time to unwind. Although my best advice is to curl up with a good book, TV can also support literacy development. Choose programs with a strong, rich storyline or lots of information about nature, history, or current events. Aim for programs that include words your children don’t know. Watch the programs with your child, explaining words. Also, discuss the storylines or information during (muted) commercial breaks. And turn those captions on—that alone can support literacy development.

The winter season brings lots of demands on your time and energy, but also lots of opportunities for love—and learning.

Moving Students from Basic Recall to Analytical Comprehension

“Comprehension” is a word that teachers use all the time: Jake’s comprehension is weak; Talia can’t comprehend nonfiction; David comprehends everything he reads. In this blog, I’ll look at recall, the basic step in comprehending a text—a step that provides readers with information that enables them to determine important details, infer, identify themes, and analyze a text’s meanings. And I’ll provide ideas for helping students move from recall to those more sophisticated reading strategies.

Recall Is Basic Comprehension

A common sense belief I always share with teachers is that it’s pointless to ask students to read and reread a text they can’t learn from—a text at their frustration level. Recall implies that the learner is able to decode the text, and understand and remember the information. That can only happen when the student has enough background knowledge and the text is close to his or her instructional reading level.

Classroom Snapshot: Tasha

Recently, I administered an Informal Reading Inventory (IRI) to Tasha, an eighth-grader. Before plunging into the assessment, we spent time chatting about her interests, and she volunteered this statement: “I hate reading. I suck at it.” Her reasons were logical and on point. Reading three years below grade level, and required to read and reread grade level texts, she said: “If I have to read again and again and can’t understand it, what’s the point?” She shrugged and added, “I get nothing from it.”

After completing and analyzing Tasha’s IRI, I suggested two actions that could improve her reading:

  1. Have her read and learn from material at her instructional reading level—preferably books she chose. Not only would she recall information, but she would also be able to practice inferring, determining importance, identifying themes, and at the same time enlarge her vocabulary and background knowledge.
  2. Accelerate her reading stamina and achievement by having her self-select books for independent reading. Researchers Richard Allington and Steve Krashen agree that 40 books a year can enlarge a student’s vocabulary and background knowledge, build fluency, and most important, develop a love of reading that will sustain Tasha.

Scaffolding Suggestions for Recalling Details

  • Have the student reread if the book if it is at his instructional level.
  • Place the student in a book in which he or she has enough background knowledge to recall its details.
  • Find another book that’s more accessible.
  • Have the student reread a few paragraphs, and then stop to think and check his or her amount of recall. If recall is solid, have the student read on. If it’s not, have the student reread or close read.

Moving Students From Basic Recall to Analytical Comprehension

You can move students beyond basic recall to analyzing texts by using the three strategies that follow: determine importance, make logical inferences, and identify themes. In addition, when you use these reading strategies, you’ll move students beyond recall to high level thinking:

  • Use your read aloud text to explicitly model how you apply the strategy.
  • Set aside time for guided practice as you circulate to offer students’ support, answer questions, and acknowledge what’s working. 

However, it’s also important to note that with skilled readers, reading strategies work in teams. For example, I can infer and determine important details at the same time. Or I can compare the protagonist to antagonists and settings. To help students understand, apply, and absorb reading comprehension strategies, teach them one at a time initially—and gradually move toward showing students how to integrate them.

Determine Importance

This strategy applies to fiction and informational texts. With fiction, good readers decide the events, conflicts, and decisions that are significant and can explain why. Determining importance also helps them understand literary elements, such as protagonist, and genre, such as science fiction.

With informational texts, good readers separate nonessential from essential information. They set a purpose for reading because it helps them focus their efforts on specific, essential information.  As they read and reread, they also figure out the information and vocabulary that are important to helping them infer and understand themes. 

Classroom Snapshot: Mikel

Paul Green gives a group of fourth graders a short article on the Amazon Rainforest and asks them to set purposes for reading by studying the two photographs and captions and by reading section headings. Here are two purposes students offered: Read to find out why deforestation is bad. Read to see why the Amazon Rainforest is needed for fresh water. Paul explains that having different reading purposes will make their discussion richer.

However, while Paul circulates among students as they read, he notices that Mikel does not have a purpose written in his notebook. Mikel says, “I never set a purpose. I read it.” Later that morning, during independent reading, Paul meets with Mikel and has him read a different article without setting a purpose and then reread it after setting a purpose. Then he asks Mikel, “Which reading helped you figure out key details?” Mikel grudgingly agrees that setting a purpose helped.

Scaffolding Suggestions for Determining Importance

  • Help students set a purpose for reading for informational texts.
  • Help students set a purpose for reading fiction. For example, a purpose for reading Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins could be to monitor the problems Gilly, the protagonist, faces in the first three chapters. . 
  • Ensure that students understand the diverse subgenres of fiction. For example, a purpose for reading The Giver by Lois Lowery might be to explore what makes the book a dystopian novel.
  • Model how you set purposes by reading aloud. First, set a purpose: To determine the structure of folk tales.  Then, as you read, think aloud and pinpoint the essential details that help you meet your purpose.

Make Logical Inferences

To infer from text, students first have to understand what an inference is: an unstated or implied meaning. Making inferences that are logical means students have to use details in texts they are reading as support.

Inferring is a strategy that you should model many times during the year because it is difficult for most students to grasp, absorb, and apply to their instructional and independent reading. From my experience, with practice, inferring becomes automatic for most students between eighth and tenth grade.

Classroom Snapshot: Sam

Sam, a fifth grade student is reading Ruby Bridge’s Through My Eyes and experiencing difficulty inferring from the text. His teacher switches gears and invites Sam to use details in the book’s photographs to infer. Once Sam shows that he can infer from photos, his teacher moves him to text and says: “Words and phrases in the text give you details similar to what you saw in photographs.” She supported Sam by selecting words and phrases and inviting him to infer. Then she provided an inference and asked Sam to find supporting details. The teacher gradually released responsibility for inferring to Sam until he could apply the strategy on his own

Scaffolding Suggestion for Making Logical inferences

  • Invite students to make inferences based on events in their daily lives. For example, they can infer the temperament of a dog from its behavior or the mood of a friend or sibling from his or her words and actions.
  • Think aloud and share your inferring process using a read aloud text.
  • Have students make inferences based on photographs and illustrations in books.
  • Help students transfer inferring from events in daily life, photographs, and illustrations to inferring from text details by first providing them with target words and phrases and asking them to infer. Have students practice with you and/or a peer until they can work independently.

Identifying Themes

Themes are tough for readers to identify because, like inferences, they are unstated.  But by using informational text details and literary elements students can identify themes that not only apply to the text they’re reading but also to other texts. Here are three steps that can help students pinpoint themes in fiction and nonfiction:

  • Identify the big idea or general topics in the text and talk and/or write about them.
  • In fiction, explore what characters do and say that relate to that big idea or general topic. In nonfiction, explore information and details that relate to that big idea or general topic.
  • Create a theme statement that expresses the author’s message about the big idea or general topic. Encourage students to avoid using character’s names or the names of places mentioned in a text. An effective theme statement applies to people, characters, and ideas across texts, not just the text in hand.

Classroom Snapshot: Ricardo

Ricardo, a sixth grader, can name specific characters and places in the book he’s reading, but he can’t use the information to state themes. His teacher, Ms. Krieger, meets with Ricardo on three separate occasions for five minutes as the rest of the class reads independently. Her plans include modeling how she uses what characters say and do to arrive at a theme and discussing her process. Then, she’ll provide Ricardo with a theme and have him find the details in the text that support it.

Scaffolding Suggestions for Identifying Themes

  • Have students watch a video and identify its theme. Then ask them to talk about how the same strategy can be applied to a text.
  • Give students the details from a text that they need to identify a theme and have them compose a theme statement.
  • Show students how you pinpoint a general topic in fiction and link it to what characters do and say. Then model how you use the information to compose a theme statement. For example, the general topic is the pain and anger that a child experiences when he realizes his parent commits evil acts. In The Giver, Jonas feels shock, intense anger, and deep pain when he watches, on video a feed, his gentle and nurturing father kill a “newchild” who doesn’t meet the growth standards of the community. To transform the father’s unspeakable action into a theme, the reader has to think beyond Jonas to all young adolescents: Disillusionment occurs when an adolescent sees that a beloved parent is capable of evil.
  • Pair up students who have read the same text and have them work together and identify one to two themes.
  • Work backwards: Give students a theme statement and ask them provide the text details that support the theme statement.

Document Teacher-Student Conferences

A five-minute, one-on-one conference can support a student’s needs; one meeting might be enough, but more likely, you’ll need two or more meetings.  It depends on the extent of the student’s needs and the level of the instruction you’re providing.

You can schedule a series of conferences over several days while the rest of the class reads or writes independently. Keeping conferences short and focused allows students to practice a strategy over several days and provides the time students need to absorb how the strategy works and how well it’s working for them.

Hold these five-minute conferences in a quiet place in the classroom. Use a small table or use an extra student desk and meet away from other students to ensure privacy.  I recommend documenting these conferences using a form at the end of this blog. The filled-out form provides a record of what you planned and what you and the student discussed, practiced, and accomplished. It can also inform the focus of future conferences and teaching decisions.

[begin reproducible]

Five-Minute Intervention Conference Form


Directions:  Complete this conference form and use the information it contains to inform your practice. Store in the student’s assessment folder to consult later as necessary.


Focus the conference topic:

Points to discuss with the student:

The kind of scaffolding I’ll try:



Note important comments the student made:

My observations of the student:

Negotiated goal for the next conference.

Date of the next conference:

[end reproducible]

Learn more about scaffolding by exploring Laura Robb’s book, Unlocking Complex Texts.

How I Researched and Evaluated One of My Everyday Teaching Practices

In today’s education world, teachers are completely surrounded by data, but in many ways, we are left wondering how to apply it to our teaching practices. Because testing data only provides a snapshot of what teachers and students do for a whole school year, it is important that we as educators find ways of systematically evaluating the programs and practices we use in the classroom on a daily basis. My goal as a reading teacher isn’t just to raise test scores, but to teach my students to be stronger readers. If we want to really help our students become better readers, it is imperative to continually evaluate the programs and practices that we use when teaching.

A little over a year ago, I began the process of learning how to systematically evaluate a program that I used in my classroom. While in a M.Ed. program at Berry College, I entered an action research class with the hopes of analyzing the effects of the Independent Reading Assessment (IRA) by Jennifer Serravallo, a whole book comprehension assessment published by Scholastic and adopted by my school. I wanted to evaluate the lessons in the IRA and their impact on students’ whole book comprehension. Little did I know how valuable this information would be to me, my school, my system, and especially my students.

Here’s the process I went through: To begin, I became very familiar with the assess-evaluate-teach framework in the IRA resource. I found it helpful to include my colleagues in this process and to seek advice from them. During grade level meetings, I would explore the IRA framework with the literacy coach at our school. We watched videos of Jennifer Serravallo modeling how to use the IRA and conduct goal setting conferences. We poured over the teacher’s manual studying how to use the assessment and work the lessons into our everyday instruction. We also spent time norming students’ responses, so we could get a better idea of the expectations in grading the assessment. Because of this collaboration and training, I felt very confident in using the IRA.

After administering the assessment, I organized the results and formed small groups of students based on their reading needs. I then taught specific reading lessons to these small groups over a period of time. When I felt that they were ready to be assessed again, I sent them off to show me what they learned. At this point, I had two sets of data to analyze. In order to compare the first assessment to the second assessment, I had to calculate a standardized score for each. Using statistical software, I found the mean score of each assessment and calculated the difference. My students showed a statistically significant increase from the first assessment to the second assessment.

So what does this mean for my classroom? It means that the instruction based on the IRA teaching strategies were effective for my students. It means that my future students will probably benefit from similar instruction, and it means that my colleagues and I now have data to stand behind our instructional practices and resources that we use on a daily basis.

In the future, my students and I can analyze our classroom data with the purpose of continuing to use the practices that work and modifying or eliminating the practices that are not effective. This process will make me a more effective teacher and lead my students to become stronger readers, which of course is my overall goal!

List Poetry and the Art of Classroom Storytelling

This article, co-written by Kwame Alexander with Chris Colderley, first appeared in California English, the quarterly journal of the California Association of Teachers of English and is reprinted here with their permission.

Humanity's legacy of stories and storytelling is the most precious we have. All wisdom is in our stories and songs. A story is how we construct our experiences. At the very simplest, it can be: 'He/she was born, lived, died.' Probably that is the template of our stories—a beginning, middle, and end.

                                    —Doris Lessing

Did you know that you’re a storyteller? All teachers are—every time we explain our instructional plans for the day, help our students understand photosynthesis, or give a Book Talk about that book that just rips our heart out, we’re telling a story. Rather than using storytelling incidentally, why not harness your natural prowess as a classroom griot and make storytelling a potent instructional strategy across the curriculum?

Speaking and listening is as natural as breathing. It’s as ancient as the flow of blood in human veins. From the moment of birth, we hear stories about family members, neighbors, and the world beyond. Whether we’re recounting that time we ran out of gas and had to push the car a mile to the nearest station (don’t judge me!) or just shooting the breeze, we tend to think, dream, and imagine in beginnings, middles, and ends.

The Beginning

My 15-year-old came home from school and announced that she was ready to date. She’d met a boy and claimed she was “in love.” This confession came out of nowhere it seemed. She was my only child. My princess. The daughter I played dress-up with. The one I chased around the playground, the one I swung around and around until we both got dizzy. Date? That was not supposed to be something she did until age 30. How did we get here? My wife tried to console me, tried to help me understand by bringing up my own romantic teen years. That didn’t help because romance eluded me in high school. I was less than cool, callow even, and I didn’t have a real girlfriend ‘til I was 19, almost a junior in college. Still, my wife insisted, “Kwame you’ve got to meet the boy’s parents” — which I did.

Storytelling in the Classroom

In every language arts classroom, one of the most common expressions spoken by students is, “I don’t know what to write about.” Even the most meticulous planning, instruction, and conferencing does not free some students from the intimidating grip of the blank page. I’ve always believed that bringing a piece of oneself to the writing makes it more authentic, more meaningful. And, what better way to make powerful connections for student writers than through the power of story—by sharing their own experiences.

Matthew James Friday (2014), an International School Teacher and Professional Storyteller, explains why storytelling makes a difference in every classroom. As he notes, a good story sparks student engagement—mouths close, eyes focus, bodies lean forward, and kids begin to track your every word, gesture, and movement. Storytelling in the classroom inspires purposeful discussion, and, as Friday points out:

  • Fosters enthusiasm for reading and rereading texts to find stories to share
  • Encourages writing because children want to write and tell their own stories 
  • Builds classroom community
  • Improves listening skills
  • Captivates active students who enjoy acting out the stories
  • Encourages emerging bilinguals to speak and write English.

Some of the oldest forms of storytelling are in the form of lists. For example, Homer’s Iliad contains many lists interspersed with poems of the Trojan War. Many famous poets relied on the list format to write very powerful stories-in-verse such as “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman,“ “If I Were in Charge of the World” by Judith Viorst, and “Sick” by Shel Silverstein. So here’s an idea: Why not use list poetry (see description ahead!) to encourage, inspire, and instruct your students in the art of telling stories.

The Middle

After meeting with the boy’s father, I informed my daughter that I felt comfortable with her going to the movies with her “love.” She smiled, and gave me a hug, the likes of which I hadn’t received from her since elementary school. It set my soul on fire. Made me hate what was coming next. “My dear,” I explained, “for the first date, I’ll need to sit a few rows behind you in the movie theater.” The compassion was no more. Her smile turned to a scowl. If she was a princess, I was the beast. I think we both cried that night.

List Poems

List poems are not just a list of random things. It is a kind of writing that grows from the precise selection of different, but related, subjects and topics. In a list poem, each line typically begins the same (which creates a certain comfort, especially for the beginning or reluctant writer), rhythm and repetition are common, and the final line is always a meaningful clincher. Lists are everywhere. Our lives are framed by best-dressed lists, bucket lists, most-wanted lists, and top ten lists. In our classrooms, we encounter homework lists, reading lists, to-do lists, and lists of rules that govern classroom behavior. Because they are such a common form of communication, even the youngest students understand the idea and purpose of a list.

List poetry lets young writers communicate their ideas in an original fashion by freeing them from restrictions like syllabification, meter, and rhyme. At the same time, list poetry requires students to draw on poetic tools, such as alliteration, metaphor, onomatopoeia, personification, repetition, and simile to produce a quality piece of writing. Using list poetry for writing provides many opportunities for output while applying the tools used by poets and writers. Like other types of poetry writing, list poetry gives students the opportunity to articulate feelings, observations, and thoughts in a fulfilling fashion—all necessary fuel for good storytelling.

A Penny’s Travels

You were a penny in someone’s pocket.

You were a skydiver without a parachute.

You were a wheel rolling down the street.

You were a person getting kicked by a monster.

You were an airplane flying in the sky.

You were a heli crashing into a sewer.

You were a swimmer swimming in the ocean and popping for breath.

You were a fish washed up on an island.

You were a bowling pin getting hit by a bowling ball.

You were someone’s grave laying underground and people there singing for you.

You were a penny and always will be.

by Ranbir B. (Grade 4)


The Benefits of List Poems

List poems are versatile and easily adapted for different grades and levels of students. The youngest are capable of identifying themes and putting together a collection of related items. Reluctant writers can select topics that they are comfortable writing about, as well as develop ideas based on their own experience and knowledge. Students can find inspiration for writing in a junk drawer or in the baseball equipment bag. This feature of list poems encourages children to share their stories in a compact and consistent manner.

List poems can be organized in a repetitive fashion, which provides a scaffold for students to build their story. With the list poem format, children are able to independently develop their ideas, use figurative language such as metaphor and simile, and make important judgments about what to leave in and what to take out during the revision process.

Finally, list poems develop a student’s ability to organize and sequence ideas. Writers who practice developing beginnings, middles, and ends are able to transfer this knowledge to the material they read, and process texts in a more engaged manner.

Writing a Shared List Poem

List poems begin with a topic and a collection of connected articles or concepts. The first step is to brainstorm a list of topics. Ask students to think about the lists you can make like Things That Fell Out of My Junk Drawer, Things I Didn’t Do On My Summer Vacation, or Things I Ate at Thanksgiving. Record the ideas on the board so students can explore many different possibilities for their writing.

Once a topic is selected, ask students to offer words and phrases about the subject. Throughout the process, encourage students to think of things that are surprising or unusual to make the poem more interesting. For example, if the topic is Things That Grow, you might offer suggestions such as puddles, snow banks, and shadows. The more ideas that students produce at this point in the writing process, the more material they have to work with when they are drafting their story. As the number of ideas grows, students are forced to employ divergent thinking, and this leads to more interesting and unique stories.

Once you have assembled a collection of 20 to 30 items, you are ready to begin drafting a poem. Select the most interesting words and phrases to create an original list poem. Remind students that list poetry is meant to make unusual connections, encourage readers to hear your story, and inevitably see the topic in a new way.

In the final step, arrange the ideas to tell a story. Invite students to consider what they would like readers to learn from the poem. Many list poems end with an important message for the reader—accomplished, for example, by offering a piece of advice, ending with the most unusual concept, closing with something funny, or repeating the first line.

Nothing focuses the mind and creates anticipation and wonder like a good story. And, list poems are a powerful tool for lubricating storytelling engines.

The End

Ten Reasons Why Fathers Cry at Night

1. Because fifteen-year-olds don’t like park swings or long walks anymore unless you’re in the mall

2. Because holding her hand is forbidden and kisses are lethal

3. Because school was “fine,” her day was “fine,” and yes, she’s “fine.” (So why is she weeping?)

4. Because you want to help, but you can’t read minds

5. Because she is in love and that’s cute, until you find his note asking her to prove it

6. Because she didn’t prove it

7. Because next week she is in love again and this time it’s real, she says her heart is heavy

8. Because she yearns to take long walks in the park with him

9. Because you remember the myriad woes and wonders of spring desire

10. Because with trepidation and thrill you watch your daughter who suddenly wants to swing all by herself



B.R. (2011). Hatching Hope. Book-in-a-Day, 2014.

Friday, M.J. (2014). Why Storytelling in the Classroom Matters. Edutopia. Retrieved from:                        

How One Rural Community Is Addressing the Challenges of Resource Scarcity and Geographic Isolation

Educational challenges are abundant wherever resources are scarce. When policy makers and education leaders attempt to address those barriers, they tend to focus on children living in urban poverty. However children growing up in rural poverty confront the same challenges of scarcity multiplied by the fierce grip of geographic isolation. For 6.5 million of our country’s rural families – including 1.5 million children – poverty has been entrenched for generations, with a devastating impact on health, education, and prosperity.  For the past four years, Scholastic has been piloting a program called Discover Together, designed to bridge that isolation and build resilience in Grundy County, TN.

Developed in collaboration with the Yale Child Study Center, Sewanee: The University of the South, and local partners, Discover Together offers resources to increase social connectedness, to build pride in community, and to use the power of story across generations.  Through a multi-faceted approach, Discover Together has had a powerful impact on one of the poorest counties in rural Appalachia. Last week, that impact was recognized by Center for the Study of Social Policy in a report titled Strengthening Supports for Young Parents and their Children: A Focus on Low-Income Rural and Suburban Families. The report spotlights Discover Together among six promising programs throughout the country that are innovative in addressing the needs of rural and suburban families living in poverty. 

Discover Together started with a small-scale attempt to build resilience through a summer camp that paired community field trips with books.  Although the program was enthusiastically received, it quickly became clear that the community was clamoring for more. Guided by continuous feedback from the community, Discover Together expanded in scope and reach to answer evolving needs. Soon the Discover Together Family Co-Op arose for caregivers and their young children with a place-based curriculum that addressed the development of the whole family. “Discover Together gave us somewhere to go, to have something to do, and spend quality time with our children and other parents – especially during those long winter months,” one parent explained. Participants discovered each other as a key source of support, and began to explore their community as a place of pride. 

Today, Discover Together features an integrated system comprised of a family co-op; a camp; and an after-school learning lab. All components share a methodology based on a multi-generational approach that targets caregivers and children simultaneously.  Centered around a literacy- and place-based curriculum, the programs are designed to enhance social connectedness as a mechanism for building resilience. "What was most helpful for me is that my daughter, an only child, got a chance to be around other kids her age,” one mother began. “In her sharing, and her learning to cooperate with other kids, it really helped her character at home. At the same time, the parents learned from each other.”

Discover Together has grown far beyond the partners’ initial vision, evolving according to the community’s strengths and needs. One grandparent talked about the changes she’s seen as Discover Together has grown. “The families get together outside of the co-op now. And now I know people I can turn to for support. I’ve started to look at Tracy City differently,” she added.

Approaches like Discover Together offer hope for its participants and a model for further innovation. Recently, Discover Together received a grant from the W.K.Kellogg Foundation to conduct a needs assessment and resource mapping to enable Discover Together to reach the hardest-to-reach families. That grant, along with this recognition from the Center for the Study of Social Policy, will deepen the program’s impact.  Emily Partin, Director of Discover Together and lifelong resident of Grundy County, appreciates this extra layer of support for local families.  “Tracy City has suffered so much over the years, leaving burnt out and boarded up buildings riddling the streets.  Programs like Discover Together are breathing new life into the town simply by bringing the families back out into the community,” Partin explained. “It is a beautiful rejuvenation process!”

A New Early Learning and PreK Online Resource

In recent years, community leaders around the country have placed a growing emphasis on early childhood education, recognizing that a solid foundation of language and social and emotional skills serves children well throughout their lives. Scholastic has created an Early Learning & PreK website, with resources for preschool teachers and administrators.

On the site, you’ll find free, easy-to-do activities for young learners, as well as a sampling of our classroom books and products. In the weeks ahead, we’ll be adding an overview of state and federal funding streams, the latest research about early education and brain development, and links to state Early Education departments.

Here is a sampling of the classroom activities you’ll find:

  • Classroom Colony -- Students can decorate and connect hexagons to create a bee colony.
  • The Mitten Story -- An ancient Ukranian story inspires this mitten-making craft.

What else would you like to see on the site?


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