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:

Live Streaming Announced for National Family Engagement Symposium Starting Oct. 4

The Scholastic FACE Symposium, an annual gathering of family and community engagement leaders from across the country, kicks off October 4th in Miami. This year, we're excited to be able to open up the full list of keynotes to a wider audience on the web.

Keynote speakers will be broadcast live on the web here. And you'll find the schedule below.

The schedule includes talks by Dr. Karen Mapp of Harvard Graduate School of Education, Dr. Nell K. Duke of the University of Michigan, renowned literacy consultant and speaker Phyllis C. Hunter, and others.

We hope you'll tune in to hear from these thought leaders, and share your ideas using the #ScholasticFACE hashtag!

Arne Duncan's Bus Tour Uncovers a Rural Gem

This post first appeared on Scholastic Administr@tor magazine's website on September 21, 2015.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been doing back-to-school bus tours for six years, taking him from one end of the country to another. But it’s unlikely he ever got the question he faced when his bus pulled into Williamsfield, Illinois, last week.

“Did your bus clear the bridge?” Superintendent Tim Farquer asked him. Duncan’s trip to rural Williamsfield, population 600, might have involved the smallest town he’s ever visited. “This is a town I would normally not get to spend time in,” he admitted.

What brought Duncan and his Ready for Success bus to this rural corner of Illinois was nothing less than the future of education. Williamsfield, which boasts a one-story school that houses all 300 of the town’s students, from PreK to grade 12, has eschewed textbooks in favor of open educational resources.

The district started to make the switch two years ago when leaders considered buying a new math textbook. Instead, they decided to invest in Chromebooks and search for online resources. Initially, teachers struggled with bandwidth issues and finding reliable material. Illinois’s OER website helped by not only rating content but also by showing how it relates to state standards, and bandwidth issues have been resolved.

“This is remarkable to see a town of 600 literally leading the country where they need to go,” Duncan said. “This is a really big deal.”

At other stops on the trip, Duncan learned how Cedar Rapids, Iowa, teachers are taking on various leadership roles and creating an innovative teacher-coaching program. And in Des Moines, Duncan’s boss, President Obama, joined the secretary for a town hall meeting on college affordability. Taking questions for more than an hour at North High School, Obama said, “Higher education has never been more important, but it’s never been more expensive. No young person should be priced out of college.” He detailed the government’s new website, Collegescorecard.ed.gov, which allows students and parents to compare the country’s 7,000 higher education institutions on factors such as cost, graduation rates, and average graduate salaries.

How I’m Rethinking Aspects of My Professional Practice This School Year

Without fail, my most invigorating professional experiences have been those that offered opportunities to work closely with colleagues. These were colleagues who were willing to stand at the edge of what they thought they knew about teaching and learning, questioning their assumptions—colleagues who continuously envisioned greater possibilities for their students, theorized, and pushed themselves out of their own comfort zone. In keeping with the spirit of these colleagues, I begin each school year rethinking aspects of my own practice through the lens of my current context, looking for opportunity to deepen and revise my understanding.

As I begin this school year, I’m immersed in a collaborative project focused on the design and implementation of STEAM teaching and learning at the elementary level. My teammates, Rob Corona, Jeralyn Johnson, and Sarah Trueblood, bring a range of disciplinary knowledge and process expertise to conversations that have us questioning what it means to be a STEAM school. We wrestle daily with the design of inquiry-based interdisciplinary STEAM units, the development of a STEAM mindset, and the pedagogies that support student success.

We’ve challenged ourselves to abandon past formats for curriculum design, and are instead using design thinking to structure the flow of our instructional units. Aligning the unit launch with the “ask” phase of design thinking—together with text sets to propel the thinking and talking—is especially invigorating. In Expanding Comprehension with Multigenre Texts (Scholastic, 2009), we explored a thoughtful progression of compelling texts to open lines of inquiry, realized the critical value of alternative perspectives to broaden and deepen thinking, and discussed the importance of varied media forms to help students think critically about digital messaging. Now, we’re incorporating the arts into the process of becoming STEAM, and supporting the shift from traditional science teaching to true inquiry. I marvel as artistic expressions, artifacts, science inquiry, and text sets work together to inspire wonder. Our efforts have led to a series of critical questions aimed at expanding our thinking about text sets, including:

  • How do we design and situate science inquiry experiences in concert with a text set to spark questions and deepen engagement with big ideas?
  • How do we support students in thinking and talking deeply about big ideas represented by artistic expressions and artifacts, and then among these “texts” and other texts in a text set? 
  • Will this process help students to recognize art as a means of communicating big ideas?  Will this understanding change the way students engage in opportunities to create art? 

And most exciting, we experience the power of real talk – talk that allows students to construct understandings over time as they draw from a range of perspectives – and investigate real, relevant issues through STEAM unit design. 

10 Sample Lesson Plans to Try This September (or Anytime)

At the start of a new school year, where do you look for lesson plans and engaging conversation-starters that will interest your students? Many teachers tell us that they go online for inspiration. Our website offers lesson plans, nonfiction book recommendations, videos, and more. If you'd like to get advice from our team of educators, you can do so here.

To help you in your mission to cultivate critical thinking and close-reading skills, while keeping the joy in learning, here are 10 lesson plans for students in grades K-12 that might be useful at the beginning of the school year—or anytime. You'll find topics that range from see-through frogs to the joys of candy.

Have a great year!


The ABC's of Apples

Introduce your students to the wonders of apples and apple trees through song and rhyme.


Mmm, Mmm, Apples!

This colorful lesson on apples features a popular song, flowchart, and pictograph. Students can practice looking for the main idea and details, while acquiring science and academic vocabulary.


Who Am I?

In this lesson, students learn about each other as they conduct interviews and create portraits and biographical posters. Includes a list of popular biographies.


No More Bullying!

An article about a girl who stood up to bullies is accompanied by a video and an interactive online game. Available in print and audio in both English and Spanish.


A See-Through Frog

How do scientists find new types of animals? In this sample lesson plan, students can learn about an exciting rainforest discovery and hone their close-reading skills.


How Candy Conquered America

Paired texts available in two Lexile versions examine when, how, and why candy became popular in the U.S. A bonus text features an interview with historian Samira Kawash, the author of Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure.


Poems That Pop

This lesson shows how pop music can help add snap and crackle to student writing.


Understanding September 11

A collection of more than 30 lesson plans, activities, news stories, videos, and book lists for students of all ages offer context for the tragic events of September 11, 2001.


Desperation at Sea

An article available in two Lexile versions explains the plight of thousands of people fleeing Europe to escape violence, poverty, or persecution in the Middle East and Africa. Photos, maps, and a video help tell the story.


10 Things You Need to Know About China, Part 1 of 2

A New York Times Upfront article about the rise of China, available in two Lexile versions, gives an overview of a country that is playing an increasingly pivotal role on the global stage. Includes a video, debate, and text-based questions.

My Back to School Promise: Books, Glorious Books!

If I had a plane, I would skywrite “Books, Glorious Books—and Time to Read Them!” for all to see. Knowing that voluminous reading is key to literacy development, this year I promise to intensify my district’s efforts to provide every student with daily access to vast amounts and varieties of appealing reading material and time to read. Specifically…

I promise to empower teachers and librarians to build stellar collections of irresistible books.

To boost “shelf-esteem,” administrators must provide time for teachers and librarians to explore books together—to pore over reviews, browse stacks, read, book-talk, compare notes, and develop orders for more books. In Mamaroneck, N.Y., where I serve as Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, some of our favorite, reliable online resources include:

  • The Cooperative Children’s Book Center: CCBC librarians post and archive Books of the Week which inevitably include gems not reviewed elsewhere. The center’s compilation of awards and Best-of-the-Year lists is all-inclusive. CCBC’s Bibliographies and Booklists on myriad themes and topics not only help teachers choose specific titles, they also remind us of the breadth necessary to reach all readers.
  • The American Library Association: Our “mother ship” bestows a slew of book, print, and media awards each year. Ordering the top ten in as many categories as one’s budget permits is an efficient way to jumpstart a collection. In Mamaroneck, for example, we seek the Alex Award winners because ALA has vetted them as adult books widely read and enjoyed by teens.
  • The National Council for Social Studies: This organization releases Notable Trade Books for Young People each year in thematic strands. 2014 selections in Biography include Miss Moore Thought Otherwise, Jan Pinborough and Debby Atwell’s account of how Anne Carroll Moore first ensured that children were welcomed in libraries!
  • The National Science Teachers Association: The NSTA also selects Outstanding Trade Books each year. 2015 picks include Katherine Applegate’s Ivan: The True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla, the author’s nonfiction follow-up to The One and Only Ivan which includes a tribute from the gorilla’s zookeeper and one of Ivan’s paintings signed with a thumbprint.
  • Indefatigable bloggers at the Nerdy Book Club: These writers, led by Donalyn Miller, Colby Sharp, Katherine Sokolowski, and Cindy Minnich, post a steady stream of lively and timely reviews--and they welcome contributions!
  • Houston, we have a solution: Texas librarian Teri Lesesne, aka the Goddess of YA, prolifically posts “pearls” and book recommendations on her blog and on Twitter @professornana.

This year, I will suggest that we energize the hunt for great books by timing faculty, department, and grade level meetings around the release dates for prestigious awards such as the National Book Award (November), the New York Times Notable Children’s Books (December), and the Caldecott and Newbery Medals (February).

I promise to keep the stream of great books flowing across the year.

It’s vital to understand local budgeting procedures and timelines so that adequate money is allocated for books and every dollar is spent! Rather than giving teachers a lump sum, I will suggest that administrators divide book allocations across the year so that teachers may place orders as outstanding new titles are released. This will require good communication with the district business office to confirm that the earmarked money will be available across the year, and to guide independent booksellers onto our state’s approved vendor list so that we can do business with these local treasures who know our children.

This year I pledge to develop a more nimble means of acquiring hot new books. When social energy bubbles around a series and the latest one is released, how do we quickly borrow and/or purchase multiple copies to feed the viral interest? Finally, I will continue to encourage teachers and librarians to keep extensive “wish lists” so that if and when monies become available, they are poised to pounce.

I promise to support teachers and librarians in curating their collections.

It’s not enough to flood our classrooms and libraries with books; administrators need to provide time for teachers and librarians to weed and update. Just as produce managers remove bruised peaches and limp lettuce from the aisles, we need to review our collections regularly, replacing worn-out favorites and removing books that don’t circulate to make way for newly-published gems. Administrators need to bless the weeding process because most teachers hate to discard books! 

I promise to provide children with uninterrupted time to read during the school day.

Given the indisputable link between volume and reading development, a large, daily block of independent reading should be the centerpiece of our reading curriculum. In Mamaroneck, elementary students read extensively during reading workshop, and middle and high school students have sacred time at the outset of each English period. Time to read in school provides kids with a leg up, making them more likely to continue reading at home. In-class reading time also provides us with invaluable opportunities to confer with kids and to make sure that they are well-matched with their books.

Finally, I promise to trumpet the importance of independent reading to families, community members, and the Board of Education.

At parent coffees, community forums, and Board of Education meetings, I will assert the importance of voluminous reading. I will encourage teachers to showcase their classroom libraries at Back-to-School night, book talk, and share the research that supports high volume of independent reading. I will provide opportunities for teachers to share the upbeat letters they send home at the beginning of the year which explain that students will read in school every day and enlist parents’ support in prioritizing reading at home.

Once we’ve moved mountains to put captivating books into children’s hands—and we’ve made sure that they are engaged and really reading—then we need to step aside and let kids read! Great books have powerful work to do in the hearts and minds of readers.

Have a great school year!


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