Meet the Kids Press Corps

“I’m very nitpicky,” I tell Titus Smith III in the latest Scholastic Reads podcast episode.

Titus is a Scholastic News Kid Reporter, and I am his editor. Editors are nitpicky. So, one hopes, are surgeons. No detail is too small, Kid Reporters learn early. What is the full name of the person you interviewed? What exactly did he or she say? Why does it matter? 

This year, 39 students from around the world have served as members of the Scholastic News Kids Press Corps. They have filed stories about athletes, authors, musicians, and scientists

One young reporter told his peers about Lunar New Year celebrations in Guangzhou, China. Another explained what it’s like to live on a floating hospital off the coast of Africa

Our reporters have spoken with President Donald Trump, former First Lady Michelle Obama, and State Senator Cathy Breen of Maine. They’ve even gone to the circus!

Along the way, these young journalists have honed their writing skills, become more confident, and, in some cases, gotten lessons in punctuation. They have begun to read more voraciously, listen to others more intently, and assess information more critically. They know the difference between fact and opinion.

Kid Reporters also recognize the power of their own words. They are telling the stories of their generation—whether it’s how kids their age are raising awareness about environmental issues or giving back to the community. They are learning that everyone can make a difference!

See Our Reporters in Action

What is it like to be a Kid Reporter? Watch our reporters in action. If you know a 10- to 14-year-old who would like to apply to the program, here’s a link to our application form.

 

What I Learned: My School's Eye-Opening Family Engagement Assessment

My superintendent’s favorite quote is “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” His next favorite? “Relationships, relationships, relationships. Everything’s about relationships.” And he is right: I have spent the last three years working alongside our staff to build a school culture of joyful learning, whether that learner is a teacher or a student.

The work has paid off in many ways. Our teacher turnover has decreased significantly. Staff members feel appreciated and heard, and our sense of purpose and joy has been renewed, at least on most days!

So when our relationship-driven superintendent called to ask if I would be interested in participating in an assessment to gauge our family and community engagement practices, I was all in! Most of our measures of family and community engagement had revolved around yearly surveys required by our state, and tracking the attendance at various events. While those provided interesting information, I would not say that information moved us forward in any meaningful way.

Although things were going well inside the building, I knew it was time to work on the perception outside the building. Our school is a large Title I elementary school. In fact, 93% of our 830 students receive free and reduced-price lunch, and 52% of our students are from native Spanish-speaking homes. We consider our diversity our strength, but that strength is not without its challenges.

An eye-opening beginning

At the onset of our assessment, our staff and parents were given surveys to complete, but before the results were even in, Jenni Brasington, Scholastic Director of Consultative Services, arrived for the site visit. I had told no one she was coming, but I confess, I did put some mints on the front counter with a sign that said “Thanks for your commitMINT to your child’s education!” To be honest, I was not sure what the building had to do with family engagement. I figured the mints would earn us a few points! Right? Umm…not really. I do not think she was fooled. As we met each other for the first time, Jenni began to walk back through the front doors. “This assessment begins in the parking lot.” she said. “Think about a new parent driving up, parking, and walking up to the front doors. Do you have that image in your mind? Now…turn around.” 

Immediately, my heart sank. I saw it. And it was not good. In fact, it was bad. Really bad. Every single sign on the door was negative. NO Smoking! NO student may enter the building until 8:05. NO loitering. No, No, No. I groaned. Seriously? Why had I never noticed these signs before today? Truly, it was embarrassing! I sure hoped she noticed my mints, because this was not going well. 

I would love to say things got better on the front hall. They did not. As I proudly showed off our displays of parent information brochures, Jenni asked how parents would know the brochures were for them. While the door had a plethora of signs, our brochure display had none. And the brochures were dusty, because no one knew they were free. (No wonder I never needed to replace them.) While these oversights were cosmetic and fairly easy things to fix, the significance of such oversights was not lost on me. We spent the next hour walking our building and talking about how the environment could assist in our efforts to engage parents in student learning.

So, what does family engagement mean in our school?

With surveys and the school visit behind us, Jenni’s final interaction was a professional development day designed to meet the needs of our school. One of the most powerful aspects of the day was an exercise that revealed our beliefs around family engagement. In a high-poverty school, blaming low academic achievement on a child’s home environment is all too easy and can lead to lowered expectations and excuses from staff. I have fought that mindset and felt confident we were winning.

As a result of the training, I realized that our deep belief in our students did not necessarily extend to our families. The survey revealed that we did not give our families enough credit. Including me.

Our beliefs were limiting our results. And our beliefs were a very slippery slope. If we did not believe our parents had the ability to help their children academically, how quickly could we accept that, by extension, our students do not have the ability to achieve? As I asked that question aloud to our staff, I think we all internally acknowledged our conflicting emotions. What better place to start the change process than acknowledging our biases? Jenni gently challenged those biases and beliefs while guiding us to see new possibilities. “Isn’t the very act of getting a child to school every day a form of engagement?” Jenni asked. Well…yes.

As we began to see engagement in a different light, one not focused solely on family attendance at events, but engagement in their child’s learning, we were ready explore and define family engagement in our school.

While we did not end the day with a completely nailed-down definition, we did have some solid takeaways. We circled common words that emerged from each group’s conversation, clarified that family meant any significant adult in our students’ lives, and decided that our definition would be a declaration which started with the words “At Selma Elementary, we believe…" We are in the process of getting parent, family, and community input to ensure that our mission statement is a collective one that represents the beliefs of our entire community.   

Selma Elementary today

Walking into our school today, visitors comment on our multilingual “welcome” word cloud at the entrance that once shouted NO! and the parent brochure display has signs in English and Spanish. Perhaps the quickest change were the bulletin boards that now showcase student work with standards and objectives displayed. While these may seem like simple cosmetic changes, the intent behind each change has been purposeful. We want our community to feel welcome, we want parents to feel supported and valued, and we want our walls to share our greatest priority: student learning.

We have increased the number of pictures and videos that highlight student learning on our Facebook page and Twitter account, and we ask questions in our posts to open up the dialogue between home and school. We are planning student-led conferences—both in real-time and virtually—for parents who cannot attend in person, because as one teacher said recently, “a lack of presence on campus does not equate to lack of engagement.”

And just this past weekend, over 1,100 people attended our first ever Community Day, hosted by the seven schools in our area. Families visited booths about coding, fire safety, plant growth, and a host of other things. The three local town councils and the chamber of commerce partnered with us to make the event a success. New connections were made and commitments for support were offered as we made visible the wonderful things happening in our schools.

With the help of Scholastic, the landscape of family and community engagement within Selma Elementary and our community is shifting.

Click to learn more about the role of welcoming, information and communication in family engagement. 

3 Takeaways for Educators from the Teacher & Principal School Report: Focus on Literacy

Supporting our students in their pathways to literacy is an ongoing effort that that requires us as educators to continuously evaluate our plans, instructional approaches, text selections, and more. To have the most effective and comprehensive literacy plan, it is imperative that we are continuously learning from our peers and incorporating the most current research. Today, I’m pleased to share with you newly released research from Scholastic based on the responses of more than 4,700 educators in the Teacher & Principal School Report: Focus on Literacy. The report explores the views of teachers and principals on the importance of reading, the state of independent reading in school, the home-to-school connection, and summer reading. Based on the findings, here are three main ideas I believe that every educator can consider and use to refine his or her literacy plans.  

1. Find flexibility to include independent reading time during the school day

Ninety-four percent of teachers and principals agree that students should have time during the school day to read a book of their choice independently. Yet, the research also shows us that even with a majority of teachers setting time aside for reading, only 36% do so every day. They also tell us that the number one barrier to this time is the demands of the curriculum don’t allow enough time. Educators who do make the time shared that they see increased student achievement and higher engagement of reading.

The benefits of independent reading are so numerous, that even with these demands, educators must work together to incorporate the time into their days. Allowing for small group instruction during your literacy blocks is an excellent approach. By grouping students together and rotating them through stations as we recommend in our Guided Reading programs, teachers are able to provide independent reading time, one-on-one instruction, and even time for writing. Cross-curricular plans are also important to consider. It is a misconception that independent reading must only be in ELA courses. Science and social studies classes also offer opportunities for this time and with rich, relevant texts such as news articles.

2. Focus on access to books for your students both inside and outside of school

Access to books cannot be stressed enough in order to have an effective literacy plan to support your students. This is an issue that needs to be addressed as nearly half of educators say that access to books at home is NOT adequate for their students—69% in high-poverty schools. The overwhelming majority also told us in the report that they agree schools play an important role in expanding this access. I completely agree. 

To tackle the issue, start in your classroom and school libraries and then expand your thinking to include community partners. Nearly half of teachers can only update their classroom libraries once a year or less and a quarter of principals and school librarians say the same about school libraries. This helps explain why educators also told us they are in need of culturally relevant titles, recently published titles, multiple copies of popular titles, books in other languages, and more. To truly engage students in reading, they need to be able to find the right book for themselves to ignite that emotional spark that makes lifelong readers. We are not enabling that without a proper selection of titles within the schools that students can borrow as they please. 

Outside of our school walls, community organizations can be vital partners in expanding access to books at home, yet only 13% of principals report that they are engaging with the community in this way. This brings me to summer reading, which is the perfect time of year to engage with the community to make the home-to-school connection. 

3. Make literacy year-round with summer reading efforts

Tackling the lack of access to books at home is never more critical than it is during the summer months, when students are most at risk of suffering a loss of academic skills. Sixty-four percent of educators shared with us that they personally encourage summer reading as a way to promote literacy overall—77% in elementary schools. Knowing that the summer slide is responsible for as much as 85% of the reading achievement gap between higher- and lower-income students, there is definitely room for more of us to be sending this message to our students and families. 

The research shows us that educators rely heavily on the local public library as a way for students to get books over the summer. Far fewer teachers and principals report they are able to personally, or as a school/district, provide books for students to take home. This brings us back to the issue of access and I urge us all to think creatively. About one in 10 educators told us they are implementing great strategies to provide books such as hosting literacy events, keeping the school library open and connecting with community partners. With these ideas in mind and knowledge around the use of Title I funds to support summer initiatives including take-home book pack distributions, it is possible to create a robust plan to support your students year-round. And if you think some motivation may do the trick, consider the free Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge where students can log their summer reading minutes online and earn rewards. 

The Teacher & Principal School Report: Focus on Literacy has a wealth of information on the current views of educators regarding the importance of reading. I encourage you to learn more about the data that inspired my three key takeaways and explore the entire report for inspiration of your own. You can download the full report and infographics at scholastic.com/teacherprincipalreport. There, you can also find the additional report, Teacher & Principal School Report: Equity in Education to learn about findings around barriers to learning, educators' funding priorities, family and community engagement, professional development, and more.  

Follow and join the conversation on social media at #TeacherPrincipalReport

Reading Helps Kids Make Summer Count in Greenville, SC

Update, October 26, 2017: Make Summer Count has won the Dick and Tunky Riley WhatWorksSC Award for Excellence for Demonstrating Successful Strategies to Help Prevent Summer Learning Loss. Click here to learn more.

Summer reading is a critical issue for students across the country to help avoid the summer slide, the loss of academic skills that can occur while school is out—responsible for as much as 85% of the reading achievement gap between lower- and higher-income students.

To dive deeper into how summer reading activities directly contribute to reducing or stemming this summer reading loss, the Scholastic Research & Validation team teamed up with the nonprofit Public Education Partners (PEP) last year to conduct a new research study exploring the effects of Make Summer Count—a reading initiative in Greenville County Schools in South Carolina supporting summer learning for over 18,000 students in grades K–5 across 29 higher-needs elementary schools. Our findings revealed that by providing increased access to books and family engagement through Make Summer Count 2016, a majority of students maintained or increased their reading levels over the summer of 2016 and that the program had an overall positive impact on students’ reading habits and attitudes

To learn more about the Make Summer Count 2016 research study, download: 

Through this reading initiative, PEP and Scholastic provided participating students with the opportunity to select 11 books of their choice to take home for summer reading. Twenty-three Family Reading Night events were hosted throughout the summer to engage families to support their children’s learning. To evaluate the impact of Make Summer Count, over 9,000 surveys were distributed in spring 2016 and then again in fall 2016 to students in grades 3–5. In addition, 1,897 surveys were distributed to families in the late spring and late summer and 18,300 book logs were distributed to students in grades 1–5 to track their summer reading. 

Here’s what we found:

The majority of students who participated in Make Summer Count did not experience summer loss in literacy skills that is typically associated with students in higher-needs schools.

  • Seventy-eight percent of students in grades 3–5 maintained or increased their reading levels from spring to fall 2016

Students read more books over the summer than the national average.

Students reported a substantial increase in reading stamina and confidence.

  • The percentage of students who read for one hour or more without stopping grew from 13% to 26%.

  • Eighty-two percent of students agreed that they were better readers after the summer.

Families overwhelmingly found the Make Summer Count program to be valuable.

  • Ninety-eight percent agreed that their children were better readers because of summer reading. 

  • Ninety-nine percent of families agreed that the program contributed to their children reading more books over the summer. 

  • One hundred percent found Family Reading Nights valuable for learning about how to support their children’s reading.

As educators across the country look ahead to summer, these preliminary findings demonstrate the powerful relationship between increased access to books and family engagement to prevent the summer reading loss, and highlight the need for not only sustainable summer programs, but also a year-round focus on literacy. 

 

 

 

Tackling Social Inequality through Literacy

As an educator, I’ve seen firsthand that literacy training both helps narrow the achievement gap and is the best tool in addressing social justice issues. As an author, among my most critical goals are showing every child that they have greatness on the inside, and helping them understand how to tap into that greatness.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where educational inequality is still a pervasive problem, and is too often the roadblock in a child reaching his or her full potential. As a society, we’ve made strides towards a more universal understanding—and desire for implementation—of social justice. Now, it’s necessary that we not only make sure our students have equal access to resources, we work on instilling qualities in them that make a priority of promoting and sustaining equality.   

Social Emotional Learning is the first step in understanding social justice. 

Integration of SEL in schools has been focused on teaching skills for personal development, which studies show bolster academic success. Beyond that, social emotional learning is critical in empowering students and teaching empathy, both of which are essential for understanding social justice and being proactive in implementing it. While social awareness and relationship skills are important aspects of SEL, many children are inclined to think about these topics from a limited perspective—their own. We often ask children to consider how bad behavior or social conflict makes them feel, and then apply that to another person or group of people. For children to truly develop empathy, parents and educators have to guide them in understanding the world from different perspectives. One of the best ways to do this is through reading and open discussion, ideally with a diverse group.

Create a shared experience and classroom community through books. 

I believe this is a necessity in any classroom, but let’s be honest—access to books is a huge factor in the disparity of educational opportunity. The ideal classroom library has a wide variety of books, and plenty of them. According to Fountas and Pinnell (1996), a classroom library should contain 300-600 books, depending on number of copies of each book and grade level. Statistically, low-income children have fewer books in their homes and classrooms, and more restricted access to public libraries. We know from the Teacher & Principal School Report: Equity in Education that regardless of school poverty level, 31% of teachers have fewer than 50 books in their classroom libraries. So, how do we make sure all children can explore a shared experience and build a community through reading? By becoming advocates—for our own community as well as the broader educational community. It’s up to all of us to demand that children have equal access to resources.

The first steps in creating a classroom reading community is access to an array of high-quality books, and teachers who are dedicated to implementing a true love of reading in their students. Creating a shared experience relies on teachers providing a forum where opinions, experiences, and questions can be discussed openly and honestly. A child who learns to speak their mind in a constructive way is one step closer to becoming an empowered student—and a social justice advocate.  

Talk about different perspectives, and why each one matters. 

Ideally, children would have ample opportunity to interact with peers of a variety of ethnic and economic backgrounds. In reality, many classrooms are more homogenous. In every classroom, it’s important to have a truly diverse array of books, not just titles that reflect the majority of students in the classroom. And yet we learned from the Teacher & Principal School Report that teachers need more culturally relevant titles (54%), books with diverse characters (43%), and books in other languages (41%) for their classroom libraries. It’s essential that every child is encouraged to openly and respectfully share their own experiences and perspectives on what they read. This may mean discussing sensitive topics, tackling stereotypes, or fielding awkward questions.

Dealing with reading material that’s outside of students’ understanding is the perfect opportunity to work on both critical thinking skills and true empathy. Explain to students that by thinking through and discussing facts and implications in the book, and doing our best to leave behind our own assumptions and prejudices, we can better understand a character’s perspective.

We live in an ever-changing world, so it’s our job as educators to prepare children to tackle not only current problems, but anticipate the dynamic landscape of our students’ futures. Together, with a diverse collection of books that support social-emotional learning and social justice, we can work to create even more empathetic and empowered educational advocates in the next generation.

 

Conventions and Craft: Recasting Conventions as Craft Elements

As educators, we care about the conventions of written language, such as grammar, sentence structure, word knowledge, capitalization, punctuation and spelling. And we are not alone. The parents of the children we serve, the community, and the nation expect children to show growing expertise in those conventions.

Unfortunately, conventions have traditionally been taught through worksheets, drills, and “red-lining” that leave children believing that conventions are about “correcting” and “being right.” This is a dangerous stance because it can lead children to perceive that writing in general is about correcting and being right. When they’re overly focused on correctness, writers may emphasize spelling over ideas. They may use simplistic sentence structures to be certain everything is “right.” This approach limits a child to what he or she can already do, rather than letting language flourish through his or her evolving sense of meaning and imagination. However, if we recast conventions as craft elements—tools that allow writers to add clarity and interest to their work—children can make writing sizzle, and they soon begin to “craft” their work, rather than just “correct” it.

How to Help Student Writing Sizzle

Using research that supports the power of short, highly interactive windows of instruction, I began working with elementary-age students to see the impact on their writing when they experienced daily “micro-workshops” focused on conventions as craft elements.  I selected one convention each week, which I focused on over five days—across a variety of contexts and applications. The weekly plan went as follows:

Monday: Study a Mentor Text

I have learned to trust in the power of wonderful mentor texts—nonfiction trade books, magazine articles, and student pieces—to expose students to literary language, form, and craft. A mentor text is one of our most potent tools for helping children notice and celebrate the interesting ways writers use sentence structure, grammar, punctuation, and capitalization. By reading aloud from a well-crafted, high-interest mentor text, I demonstrate conventions in a rich and meaningful context. I also project a few passages from the text so writers have up-close visual access to the way the author used particular conventions.

Tuesday: Model the Target Understanding

It has been proven that students benefit from observing as an adult composes a piece of writing in front of them, so a great deal of modeling is critical. I think aloud, so my reasoning is transparent as I use the target convention in my own piece. As is true of a read-aloud selection, modeled writing should set high expectations for complex and well-crafted student work. 

Wednesday: Analyze Student Work

This micro-workshop provides partners with a chance to analyze a student writing sample for the week’s target convention. First, writers praise something about the piece and then decide if the convention is present. From there, partners analyze the piece more closely for possible revisions, adding the target convention if possible. The sample could be from a student in class or from the Conventions and Craft website.

Thursday: Invite Application

On the fourth day, students survey their writing folders, science logs, writers’ notebooks, and other sources of their own writing, to see if they have used the target convention. If they have, they mark it with a sticky note or highlighter. If they haven’t, they consider options for adding it. Finally, writers partner up and share their reflections on their writing.

Friday: Power Burst Review

The Power Burst Review that concludes each lesson cycle is designed to provide an interactive experience in which students review the target understanding of the current cycle or a previous one, depending on students’ needs. Writers love doing Secret Sentences, Scavenger Hunts, Expanding Fragments, Sentence Combining, and other Power Burst experiences. Day 5 is a celebration of what they know and can apply in many contexts. 

What I’ve Learned

Devoting ten minutes a day on the write moves with conventions brings high energy and excitement from students. Ten minutes is long enough for writers to focus on a target understanding, but not so long they get overwhelmed or bored! And with rich conversations about how to “craft” writing rather than just “correct” it, both writing and conventions flourish!

This learning sequence—weekly lesson cycles made up of five 10-minute micro-workshops—forms the backbone of Conventions and Craft, a full year of instruction in grammar, sentence structure, word study, and other conventions. In addition to weekly lesson cycles, it contains mentor texts to share, student writing samples to analyze, and a wide array of energy-building Power Burst Reviews—as well as video lesson demonstrations for professional learning. We hope you will join us is helping writers to recast conventions as craft elements!

Autism Awareness, School Libraries, and Summer Reading

The month of April offers us the opportunity to share a lot of rich content for educators, as it's Autism Awareness Month and School Library Month. It's also time for educators, libraries and community partners to pre-register for the Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge, our free online/mobile reading program dedicated to stopping the “Summer Slide” by encouraging kids to read throughout the summer months when school is out. 

Autism Awareness Month

Barbara Boroson, author of Autism Spectrum Disorder in the Inclusive Classroom, How to Reach and Teach Students with ASD, published an article with ASCD's Educational Leadership. In "Inclusive Education: Lessons From History" Boroson explores the "meaningful inclusion of individuals who are different from the majority." She begins by taking a look at the history of inclusion (and exclusion) in the US educational system, and moves on to consider in particular the treatment of students on the autism spectrum.

Boroson encourages an approach that meets students where they are. She writes:

"Offer and accept a variety of ways for students to express their knowledge. Many students assimilate far more knowledge than they are able to demonstrate through conventional means. Whenever possible, let students choose to speak, write, act, sing, dance, pantomime, illustrate, videotape, collage, montage, podcast—or whatever vehicle drives them."

To read the full article, go to ASCD (and go here to read Boroson's EDU post 10 Things Educators Can Do Before Day One to Support Students on the Autism Spectrum.)

School Library Month

We learned from the Kids & Family Reading Report that 95% of parents agree "every child deserves to have a school library" and 95% of parents also agree "every community needs to have a public library." We also know that "across ages, children turn to teachers or school librarians (51%) to get the best ideas about books to read for fun." School librarians play a critical role in establishing a culture of literacy in schools, and supporting students' literacy achievement.  

One way to recognize the powerful work of school librarians is to submit nominations to the School Library Journal 2017 School Librarian of the Year award. A panel comprised of SLJ editors, Scholastic Library Publishing staff, the 2016 School Librarian of the Year , and a school administrator will judge nominations based on creativity in programming and use of content, demonstrated student engagement, exemplary use of technology tools, and more. Learn more here.

Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge Pre-Registration

We know that reading during the summer helps stop the "summer slide." Summer is coming, and it's time for schools to sign up for the Summer Reading Challenge, a fun (and free) way to help motivate kids to read during the summer months. This year, we libraries and community partners can register for the Challenge! They can create "classrooms," register kids, monitor reading progress, and access free summer reading resources and booklists in both English and Spanish. Go to Scholastic.com/summer to learn more and pre-register!

 

For Family Engagement, Not All Information Is Created Equal

Over the last two months, Ron Mirr and I have written about the pathway to effective family-school partnerships. I kicked the series off by sharing how schools can welcome families to campus to become learning partners, and Ron shared how best to communicate with families. What is next on the pathway to engaging families in meaningful ways?

If the focus of communication looks at how we communicate—the systems that are in place for effective home-school communication—information is what we communicate: the information families need to know to support learning.

It may come as a bit of a shock to some, especially as the national dialogue around education shifts and evolves, that children spend significantly less time at school than they do at home. That’s why it is so important to focus on the information families receive that supports their role as an effective and engaged partner in their child's learning. It is about providing the right information, not necessarily about asking them to do more. (Frankly, who has extra time to do more?)

What do families need to support learning at home? This is what they need to know:

  • What their child should know and be able to do by the end of the school year

  • How well their child is doing, and

  • How to support their child’s learning at home.

If you are an educator, ask yourself whether you regularly share this information with families. While the question is rather simple, I would guess that we have room to increase the number of families that consistently receive this information and can answer these questions. 

These three questions should become the yardstick by which we measure what we display around the school, send home to families, or post on the school website and on social media.

Let me share a couple of easy ways to ensure families receive the information they need to stay current on their child’s performance and actively engaged in learning at home:

Use a consistent color to help families know what information is most valuable or directly related to their child's learning

A school I recently worked with used bright green paper to print all publications aligned to student learning. Anytime a family member saw a green document, they knew it contained valuable information connected to student learning. Families could quickly scan their child’s folder and know which materials needed more attention or a more thorough review. 

Share a quarterly curriculum outline with families

Many schools provide a curriculum overview at Back-to-School Night. However, for many families (including this parent!), come January, we’ve either lost or forgotten the information we received back in September. It might be more beneficial to encourage staff to share a quarterly curriculum outline with families. It is easier to keep track of something for nine weeks rather than 36! As we learned in Ron’s blog post last month, we need to make sure to place the curriculum outline in newsletters/class bulletins or on teacher web pages. Include a section on the outline for strategies and tips for families to support learning at home.

Utilize wall space to showcase and spotlight progress and achievements towards schools and student learning goals

The interior of a school should always resemble a house of learning! Know the difference between displaying student work and evidence of learning. The picture on the left displays student work (which is good), while the picture on the right showcases evidence of learning (which is great). Can you see the difference?

Family resources

Enhance your school website to include a family resource section with updated links to grade-level tips and tools that connect family engagement strategies to what is happening in the classroom. 

Information is powerful. What you communicate to families makes all the difference in establishing effective home-school partnerships. Make sure what you provide to families focuses on the right things to impact student outcomes. 

 

My Favorite Question for Students and Teachers

As a teacher, my day is filled with asking questions. Some are benign, like asking a student, “How is your day going?” While I never seem to lack questions to ask, I must admit that improving my skills in this area has been a goal since I started my teaching career. The really great, meaty questions will not only lead you to a better understanding of a student’s ability, they will inspire critical thinking and creativity. Best of all, these types of questions will lead to even deeper questions and discussions.

There is one question that has become my all-time favorite: “If you could do this again, what would you do differently?”

First, it helps my students become better musicians. Recently, I asked my second graders this question after they accompanied a song with xylophones. I got a wide range of responses back. Some students focused on the technical aspects of holding mallets while others honed in on maintaining a steady beat while performing. At the same time, I had students emphasize aspects of their singing. After our discussion, we performed the piece again and it was evident that the students had applied their recommendations.

Second, asking my students what they would do differently encourages them to be more creative. My third-grade students had taken part in a small group composition project for boomwhackers (a pitched instrument made out of plastic tubes). They had done a great job of writing and performing their pieces. When I asked them to identify what they would do differently, many suggested adding movements to their piece.

In addition to improving musicianship and encouraging creativity, I love this question because I can use it many different situations. When speaking to students about behavior concerns, it helps them think through their actions/reactions and find better ways to respond in the future. It also makes my reading interventions fun. I’m currently working with six kindergarten students that need help with identifying letters and sounds. The flash cards can be incredibly monotonous. By asking the question, the students have kept it interesting by using high/low voices, loud/soft voices, and singing.

This strategy is not limited to the lower grades; I believe it can be helpful to any teacher in any grade level. A high school science teacher could pose the challenge to students following a science experiment. Math teachers can ask students to find another way of solving a problem. ELA teachers could ask students to read a story again utilizing a different strategy.

And while this is a useful question to guide students, it is also important for teachers to ask themselves. Following each lesson, I ask myself, “If I could teach this lesson again, what would I do differently?” It helps me reflect on and improve my own teaching. In the end, it has made me a better teacher.

 

We Read Big: Reading as a Way of Life

Early one Monday morning at the beginning of January, a sixth-grade student approached me as I entered a classroom to chat with one of my English teachers. “Hey, Mister. Hey, Mister. I want to show you something,” he said in a secretive and hushed tone. This young man called me to the side of the room, and motioned to his zipped jacket. As I approached him with curiosity, he unzipped and began to open his jacket as if we were in a gritty 80s TV show, and he was trying to sell me a watch on a street corner. Yet, inside his coat was, of course, not a knock-off watch, but a book from our district’s new literacy initiative. He couldn’t wait to tell me what he discovered on the shelves, and to express excitement about his new treasure. 

Our district

Reading diverse, high-leverage (high-interest and culturally relevant) texts will transform our schools by igniting our students’ imaginations and interests. This belief is the guiding principle behind our literacy initiative, We Read Big. My district, Southbridge, MA. (located in Southern Worcester County), is in the first year of state turnaround work. We are a rural district with urban challenges, and at the moment, we are one of the lowest-performing school districts in the state. Yet, this is not where our schools or our students will remain.

Our students need to read more, and more often

Research suggests that increasing reading frequency results in students’ ability to better interpret text. Therefore, an increase in the amount of time our students spend reading—and talking about reading—should yield big changes in our schools and in our students’ futures. 

These changes include an increase in state test scores (necessary for high school graduation) and communication skills that will provide our students with more competitive positions in the global job market. But it’s not just about quantifiable results. Beyond raising test scores and giving students a competitive edge, we believe that when students read big, they gain the tools to dream big—which, frankly, can sometimes be a challenge in Southbridge. We believe that by visiting new worlds on the page, our students learn to imagine a world for themselves that is richer because of reading. All students deserve this opportunity.

We Read Big: reading as a way of life

In December, we launched We Read Big in Southbridge Middle School. The purpose of this campaign is to begin a discussion around literacy and to inculcate a love of literature. We used the first person common plural—we—because it suggests that literacy is not only for students. It is something that teachers, staff, and students can actively enjoy, and together we can create a culture of literacy. It is something that we all do. Reading doesn’t stop at the conclusion of the school or work day, but continues as a way of life.

Getting the whole school on board

To get this message across, we polled our staff about their favorite books in order to design doorway posters showcasing their favorite texts. Next, we made a video in which our teachers, support personnel, and students talked about their favorite books and why they resonated with them. The purpose of these posters and short video was to illustrate to our entire student body that so many of us have been shaped powerfully by books. When we talk about literature we begin to build a culture that celebrates the words, which opens up a world of possibility. 

More books

We then purchased over 1200 lbs. of diverse, high-interest texts to outfit our 6th, 7th and 8th grade English classrooms. This means that each classroom has roughly 500 new books. These books include classics, some gross (yet scientific!) books about the natural world, “wicked” histories of notorious world leaders, and best-selling young adult novels. We gave our students a wide variety of reading material—diverse in subject, level and genre—so that every child could find something that will excite them. We purchased beautiful shelves and display cases to create the ideal book nook for each ELA room.

Sharing the written word

Before December break, we had a kick-off event in the Middle School. Speakers shared their experiences with reading, their struggles, and their eventual triumph with the written word. However, the highlight was our brave student poets. Young authors took to the stage to share the words they crafted about their life experiences and adversities that they have conquered. The link between author and text was so powerful that many people in the auditorium were moved to tears by these expressions.

Moving forward

With diverse books and fantastic displays in place, the groundwork has been laid for success. Now we ask students to read 20 minutes every night. Teachers are beginning to conference with students around their reading choices to provide accountability and to help students practice a healthy discourse around books. In addition, we will provide professional development for our staff around this practice for the remainder of this year and next.

Reflecting back on that 6th grader’s experience, that child found a book—a book that matched his interests and excited him. He became an evangelist of this literature, telling the first person he saw about his discovery and why it was so cool. His interests have been ignited, it is up to us as educators to continue to put rich content in front of him to keep the flame of learning aglow. We want this student and others like him to dream big through the opportunity of reading big.

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