Cultivating school-to-home communication

I love the energy of the back-to-school season. I love those early days of school when backpacks are still glistening and sneakers are bright white. I love to see the children crossing streets to school with their caregivers, their hands tightly clasped, their eyes shining with the hope that school promises. It is a time of year when children, caregivers and teachers are most receptive to new and innovative ideas. Let’s capitalize on this spirit to invigorate our home-school connection and to create systems for communication that feel easy for both families and teachers to manage.

Establishing a dialogue with families will enroll parents and caregivers as true school partners in solidifying the important practices that you teach during the school day by carrying them forward during out of school time.

I hope we can communicate from school to our families our value of the power of literature, and make sure children are given access to it, a wide variety of it, from classics to contemporary narratives to informational text; that together we value the teaching of writing and make sure children are given abundant opportunities to write across all subject areas; and that as an entire community we can help our children value critical thinking skills, teaching them to go deeper into texts and extrapolate big ideas from them. 

Families are eager to be involved in their child’s school life. They really want to know we all care about their children and that we are all working together to set them up for success. The best thing we can do as educators is to reach out in a way that is most comfortable and accessible for them. Let us give families many opportunities to learn from us and with us, not just when they come into the school building. For example, let us embrace Twitter as a mode of easy and quick communication with our families. Families can get access to Twitter on their phones, which makes communication much easier. Also, a text messaging system can also make communication much easier. Think mobile. Many families do not have access to computers at home, but most do have mobile devices. We can text or Twitter great new book titles, tips on how to read aloud and help with struggling writers. Consider the parent whose reading skills are low. A Twitter message or text is much easier to read and understand. Quick tips on how they can help their child read at home, tips on great read alouds or how to help with homework, can all be shared in this way.

Be generous with your time and willing to try new approaches of communication and how we can all work together for our children, especially when English is not the native language spoken in the home. Once the lines of communication have been established, each child will have the steady, open system of support that he or she needs to become a lifelong literacy learner.

Pam Allyn will be speaking at the 3rd Annual Scholastic FACE Symposium at 8:45 a.m. EST on Monday, September 30th. Her talk, "Getting to the Heart of It: Helping Families Understand the Common Core," will be livestreamed here. We invite you to listen in and join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #ScholasticFACE.

Toward a “Common Definition of English Learner”

Currently, states and local school districts determine their approach to identifying and classifying students as English learners (ELs). But with 45 states signing onto the Common Core State Standards, there is a need to move toward “a common definition of English Learner.” In August, the Council of Chief State School Officers released recommendations to move towards uniformity. Their guidance addresses four areas:

  1. Identification of potential ELs through Home Language Surveys
  2. Establishing initial EL classification (confirm or disconfirm a student as an EL)
  3. Defining the “English proficient” performance standard (performance level definitions such as Beginning, Expanding, Intermediate, and Advanced)
  4. Reclassifying ELs and determining exit criteria

The organizing framework will establish common ground amongst states and support this growing population of students.

Independent vs. accountable: What’s in a word?

Every school year spawns a new list of educational fads and jargon. This year I’ve heard a new term: accountable reading.  I’m accountable for delivering my income taxes every April 15. I’m accountable for coming to a complete stop at every stop sign.  And yet I had never thought of reading as having to be “accountable.” But as one school district official explained to me recently: “We don’t refer to independent reading. In our district, we’re all about accountable reading.”

To be fair, as independent reading reclaims its essential place in our classrooms, educators are concerned about how to monitor and document the independent reading their students are actually doing. How do we discern the difference between a kid who’s “lost in a book” and just plain lost? 

And, of course, teachers have a responsibility to monitor, assess, and document their students’ independent reading. Knowing our students as readers is essential to our job as reading teachers—so thank goodness for the reading resources that make it easy to do just that; see Jennifer Serravallo’s Independent Reading Assessment and Franki Sibberson and Karen Szymusiak’s Day-to-Day Assessment in the Reading Workshop.

But dropping the independent in independent reading in favor of accountable to me would seem to diminish the spirit of real reading. At its heart, isn’t reading about the freedom to discover and craft one’s own rich and remarkable reading life? All students, within a classroom community of readers, work to find the authors, genres, topics, and themes that quicken their pulse and light their own boundless passion for reading.  To paraphrase Mary Oliver, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one bright and precious reading life?”

Consider the intriguing term, ludic reading. Coined by Victor Nell, author of Lost in a Book: The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure, it’s meant to capture the blissful engagement avid readers experience as they consume books for pleasure. Nancie Atwell calls this pleasurable state The Reading Zone; Penny Kittle writes of Book Love; and Scholastic President Dick Robinson, of The Reading Bill of Rights.

And then there’s Donalyn Miller, who whispers of wondrous reading possibilities as she works to awaken the inner reader in every child. Drawing from Donalyn’s classroom library of more than 2,000 titles (with more stacked outside in the hallway), her students regularly read more than 40 books in a school year and leave her classroom as accomplished readers with a love of books and “reading accountability” that runs deep. 

Following Donalyn’s lead, don’t we want to lure our students into daily, voluminous, lost-in-a-book reading—and trust, with our help, that they’ll be swept away by the magnificence of a story? And moved to tears by the beauty of language? Or, as Victor Nell suggests “…acquire peace, become more powerful, feel braver and wiser in the ways of the world?” And by exercising their independent reading spirit, our students will pick up their next reading book—and their next and their next—the moment they finish their last.

This may well be a false dichotomy: passion and accountability are not mutually exclusive. By providing daily demonstrations of our own reading passion and inviting our students to share theirs we can do both—inspire passion and invite accountability. But by emphasizing accountability in our choice of words, might we not be sending a subtle message that, perhaps, reading isn’t so enjoyable after all?

Language is potent…every word counts. Just as we’re accountable for our students’ reading lives, we’re accountable for the language we choose to use… or as the literary critic and essayist Francine Prose recommends: “Put every word on trial for its life.” One word can change everything.

What do you think?

Attendance Awareness Month: A focus on outcomes in Gainesville, Ga.

How can students benefit from effective classroom teaching if they are chronically late and often not in the classroom at all?  Research continues to demonstrate the direct correlation between academic achievement and school attendance as well as how excessive absence in the elementary years leads to truancy and school dropout in middle and high school.

Marking September 2013 as the first-ever Attendance Awareness Month, The Grade Level Reading Campaign and other partners have put together some very useful resources and tools for leaders, educators and families.  They have also gathered some of the latest research that further highlights the need to address the wide-range of barriers that lead to chronic absence rather than treating it in isolation. These barriers, as we know too well, often have more to do with the complex issues related to poverty and community/school/home environments, then individual students simply not wanting to go to school.

While many schools have a variety of student supports in place to address issues like attendance, their implementation is often fragmented and marginalized. Scholastic is working with UCLA professors Howard S. Adelman, Ph.D., and Linda Taylor, Ph.D., whose 40 years of research demonstrates the need for unified and comprehensive systems of learning supports to address barriers to learning and teaching. Their framework delineates how to maximize use and effectiveness of resources by fully integrating them into—and giving them the same attention as—classroom instruction and school management.

As part of our work together, Scholastic and UCLA along with AASA started a Learning Supports Lead District Collaborative in 2007 to help learn from and share best practice. Gainesville City Schools in Georgia has been involved since the beginning and has seen some remarkable outcomes related to both school climate issues as well as student achievement including: 

  • Percent of students absent more than 10 days decreased from 21 percent to 5 percent
  • Tardies declined by 11 percent
  • Disciplinary tribunals decreased by 27 percent
  • Bus referrals reduced by 49%
  • Graduation rate increased from 73.3 to 87.2 percent.
  • At each school, more students than ever before scored in the "exceeding expectations" category in state testing.
  • Students scores improved on SAT, ACT and AP tests.
  • Teen pregnancies declined by 40 percent.
  • Parental satisfaction increased from 78 percent to 93 percent.

Regarding how this approach helped improve attendance, Dr. Dyer shares a bit of a before and after:

Prior to having a learning supports system in place, we addressed attendance by placing expectations in parent/student handbooks and reinforcing them through parental notification and referrals for chronic absentees and tardies. Now, we identify and address the root causes of 'why' students are missing school while at the same time are continuously working on our preventative strategies to reach all students. We are focused on important “transitions” such as having a welcoming and inviting start to the school day as well as improving the ways we engage students and families who are new to the district.  At the high school level, we’ve designed flexible schedules with blended learning for students who need to balance school and work. Most importantly, we have shifted from 'compliance mode' to a unified and integrated system of learning supports that addresses all barriers to learning. By doing so we’ve created a positive school climate where children and families not only feel safe and welcomed but are present and fully engaged as learners and partners."

Efforts like Attendance Month provide an important opportunity to share examples like Gainesville’s and others.  In the weeks to come I’ll be highlighting some of the other states and districts that are embracing this integrated approach.  And, I look forward to hearing from others…how are you comprehensively addressing inter-related issues such as attendance, bullying and family and community engagement

Encouraging young, creative teens in art and writing

More than 90 years ago, only three short years after founding Scholastic, M. R. Robinson created the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards to encourage our young creative minds and give them a fraction, if not more, of the encouragement for their minds as athletes receive for their bodily skills.  Still a relevant message today, the Awards program lives on and in last year's call for submissions received more than 230,000 submissions!!  Today, the nonprofit Alliance for Young Artists & Writers which know runs the initiative opens the 2013-14 Call for Submissions for all students grades 7-12.  I'm still encouraged by today's quote from 1928 and I hope that you are too - enough to spread the word and encourage a teen that you know to submit.  To find out more and to see how winners of the Scholastic Awards are recognized and given the opportunity for scholarships, publication and exhibition, visit

Four instructional moves to get kids talking in math class

With so much attention given to the Common Core State Standards for Mathematical Practice, what has risen to the surface for math instruction is the need for students to talk about their mathematical thinking and reasoning. Here are four instructional moves to get kids talking in math class:

1.      Provide rich tasks. There’s not much to talk about when students are filling in blanks or doing simple computation problems. The first step in getting kids to talk is choosing a nice open task like the one below from About Teaching Mathematics, by Marilyn Burns:

Number Sorting

You need:     30 cards or slips of paper, numbered 1 to 30 (these numbers can change depending on the grade level of students)

Sort the numbers in these ways:

-        Into two groups

-        Into three groups

-        Into four groups

Record your sort and trade your paper with another classmate. Each of you tries to figure the rule the other used for sorting.

For more on open tasks see my previous post called, “How to make doing math inviting.”

2.      Use a variety of student groupings. During a whole group discussion, only one person talks at a time, using strategies like Turn and Talk and Think-Pair-Share allows for more student participation. Before teaching a lesson, consider how you will group students for mathematical conversations – partner? small group? whole group?

3.      Set expectations for talk. Sharing with students that there will be time to discuss their mathematical ideas informs them that this will be a regular part of math class. Establishing with students what that will look like and sound like helps create norms and sends the message to students that sharing their ideas is valued.

4.      Utilize prompts/questions. A good prompt/question posted in the classroom will generate rich discussion. Here’s an example of some prompts to use before students begin Number Sorting:

  • Predict another number that belongs in each group and explain to your partner why you think each belongs there.
  • Convince your partner that your thinking makes sense with examples from your sort.
  • Without giving away the answer, provide mathematical hints to your partner if they get stuck.

Using these instructional moves in the classroom takes purposeful planning. The rewards are great for students because when they talk out loud about their thinking, students typically reach a new level of understanding. The teacher is rewarded by observing where students are in their mathematical thinking as they listen in on student discussions. What stumbling blocks have you encountered when trying to get students to talk in math class?


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